Saturday, July 7, 2001
S L I C E   O F  H I S T O R Y

Tales of nautch entertainment
Pran Nevile

The Egg-Dance
The Egg-Dance

LOUIS Rousselet was an extraordinary French traveller who visited India in the second half of the 19th century. He has left behind one of the most detailed accounts of his six years’ (1864-70) study of India, its historic monuments, religious beliefs, old civilisation and customs and manners of its diverse people. Not connected in any way with the British imperial authorities, he brought a fresh mind and independent ideas to bear upon his account, free from any pre-conceived bias or prejudice. He recorded his impressions solely based on his personal experience. No wonder, he was full of enthusiastic admiration of what he saw. Not much interested in the India of railways, hotels and telegraphs, his main objective was to visit the princely states and see for himself the traditional modes of life, the social and cultural milieu and the glamour and grandeur of the courts of native rulers.

The title of his prolific travelogue, India And Its Native Princes indicates the chief object of the author. A voluminous book of over 500 pages, it contains 300 excellent illustrations which embellish the descriptive text. Rousselet visited the kingdoms of Central India and Rajasthan, which included Baroda, Gwalior, Udaipur, Alwar, Bhopal and some other smaller states. He has given vivid descriptions of the life styles of the rulers, their heroic traditions and the romantic history and achievements of their ancestors.


Rousselet was a witness to a variety of entertainment at the princely courts as he enjoyed the lavish hospitality of the magnanimous rulers and nobles. He was particularly captivated by graceful Indian dances and gives graphic description of the performances, the glittering costumes of the dancing girls, their slow and graceful movements combined with the sounds of a variety of musical instruments. In Baroda, when received by the Guicowar (sic) in his palace, Rousselet was struck by the sight of several young and pretty dancing girls, "covered with trinkets and attired in their chemises" who had perfect liberty to go everywhere in the palace. They were even allowed access to the king’s apartments where they would seat themselves on the floor and converse boldly with persons of the very highest rank. He gives a vivid account of the evening scene when the palace was illuminated and these charming nautchinis, with their songs and dances, created a festive and joyful atmosphere while the king and his ministers held their court and discussed state affairs.

Bayadere, or dancing-girl, Baroda
Bayadere, or dancing-girl, Baroda

At Oudeypore (sic), Rousselet was a witness to the celebrations of the Holi festival, which marks the arrival of spring. He was amazed to see how the king and the nobles threw off all restraint and gave themselves up to mirth and revelry. The dancing girls enjoyed unbounded liberty and performed special dances for the occasion, when all propriety was forgotten, and the couplets which they recited during the dance were most unseemly and always alluded to the people present. He saw another dance performance at the royal banquet held at ‘Khoosh Mahal’ (Palace of Pleasure) by the Rana as no entertainment was complete without the dancing girls. Here, the jovial atmosphere with liberal flow of wine encouraged them to boldly take part in the conversation with their superiors and interspersed their dances with pleasantry which was much relished by the guests. There is also a mention of a bevy of young and pretty nautch girls of the court being sent by the Rana to the camp of Rousselet and his party in order to amuse them, with their songs and dancing and lull them to sleep.

The court of Gwalior did not offer the same attractions as Baroda and Oudeypore (sic) as there was little pomp and display. The only novelty which struck him was their custom of having nautch girls at one end of the audience chamber who sang incessantly during the Durbar. He noted, however that the presence of these charming girls with their fine and brilliant costumes did enliven the monotonous ceremonies.

Rousselet had an amusing experience as a royal guest at Ulwur (sic) when for the first time he was chosen as a patron instead of a customary noble of the court for the religious dances of the Nawratri (nine nights). The troupes of musicians and nautch girls set up their camp in the palace garden. "The dances of the Nauratri", he wrote, "were held on the upper terrace of the palace, where an immense carpet covered the ground, and torches dipped in resin blazed on all sides, vying with the stars in brilliancy. The huge platform was occupied by a compact circle of women, sparkling with precious stones and spangles, in the centre of which a nautch girl danced with a languishing air to the ancient music of the Indian religion. The scene was really quite romantic. The crowd of women only partially visible by the uncertain light of the torches above us; the star-bespangled vault of heaven; below us the waving tops of the palm-trees and nims diffusing their intoxicating fragrance; the fresh mountain breeze, which came charged with the scents of the forests, all combined to give a peculiar charm to these evening", Rousselet was dazzled by another spectacle of a nautch by torchlight hosted by the Rajah of Punnah when he wrote that "it was truly a scenery befitting these dances with their antique rhythms, and their bronzed dancers glittering with gems".

Rousselet’s visit to Bhopal was full of surprises. There, he met a Christian princess bearing the name of Bourbon who traced her lineage to a Frenchman who had won Emperor Akbar’s favour and his descendants prospered during the Mughal rule. Then, he was stunned by the majestic bearing of the Begum Secunder, the only woman ruler of a native state. Also, he witnessed two novel types of dances there. The first one was by cathacks, the male dancers who were fine tall young men attired in a very rich costume and performed the very same dances as the nautch girls with great agility and much grace. He concluded that it was natural for the Begum to have a masculine nautch as other Rajahs to have a feminine nautch. Another dance, which he found infinitely more graceful and interesting was the egg-dance. The dancing girl carried on her head a wicker wheel round which threads were attached, provided at their extremities with a slip knot, keep open by means of a glass bead. The dancer began whirling round to the rhythm of music and at each turn placed an egg in a loop until the eggs formed a horizontal halo. She repeated the process and without breaking them withdrew each one of them as she continued dancing.