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Pin-up girls of yore make a comeback

Long, long before the Pirelli calendar girls had made their appearance, voluptuous baijis or tawaifs adorned matchboxes, of all things. Here is an entire 2013 calendar dedicated to these beauties.

These courtesans, who entertained their gentlemen clients by singing and dancing for them like the geishas of Japan, disappeared from the cities and towns with which they had been associated for ages like Lucknow, Benares, Allahabad, Kanpur, Patna, Agra, Baroda, Delhi and Calcutta before mid-20th century, as the British government imposed a ban on their performances.

Their excuse was that these strong and independent-minded women regarded today as keepers of Indian classical music traditions, were corrupting society. Even after Independence, they were looked down upon although their contribution to Indian classical music was undeniable. Some of the greatest vocalists of our times were earlier known as Bais. Later they opted for such honorifics as either Begum or Devi, depending on their religion, because of the stigma attached to their profession.

Thankfully, not only have some of their precious recording survived but so have their photographs and strangest of all, their pictures on matchbox labels. These highly-accomplished women were household names in those days, and the sons of noblemen were sent to them to learn the art of conducting themselves in polite society. Long before film sirens had made their appearance, they were the pin-up girls of yore. So the manufacturers of matchboxes did not lose the opportunity to print their pictures on labels.

These labels were not made in India as the cheaper safety matches came from Czechoslovakia, Japan, and Sweden, while the more expensive variety were imported from Germany, England and France. Well-known collector Parimal Roy, who possesses many of these labels, says the matchsticks were made in a single unit but they were sold under about 200 labels.

Pictures of Hindu deities, flora and birds and Ravi Varma paintings used on matchbox labels were popular, but so were the likenesses of baijis. When matches began to be manufactured locally, they carried messages exhorting Indians to rise up against foreign rule.

For the baiji labels, manufacturers would get these ladies of leisure photographed. European artists turned these into colourful lithographs for printing. Roy has about 60 of these labels, and in collaboration with Kazi Anirban a collector’s item has been created. Each label was photographed, blown-up, and colour corrected before Kazi Arindam, an artist, created the art work for the calendar. He has printed a set of 300 calendars to be circulated free among collectors and interested people.

The 12 pages are dedicated to the famous Gauhar Jan, whose recordings are still available, Bani Jan, Pokhraj Jan, Asmat Jan, Moti Jan, Gulnar Jan (with blonde ringlets), Sanichar Jan, Delavar Jan, Sunder Jan (carrying a boy on her shoulder), Lailla Baigum (in an off the shoulder dress), Chandbibi and Eden Jan. European influence on the costumes of some of these women is noticeable.

Kazi Anirban, who is the grandson of Kazi Nazrul, says these matchbox labels are available on eBay but one has to be on the guard as fakes are often palmed off as the real thing.