Nautch girls: Sahibs danced to their tune
A group of dancing girls perform beneath a white canopy. Painting by a Delhi artist, c. 1830
A group of dancing girls perform beneath a white canopy. Painting by a Delhi artist, c. 1830

The nautch girl held the white sahib spellbound for nearly two centuries. Pran Nevile describes the magnetic appeal, grace and romance of the nautch which was found superior to all operas of the world.

The word "nautch" is an Anglicised form of the Hindi/Urdu word nach derived from the Sanskrit nritya through the Prakrit nachcha, meaning dance. Nautch represented cultural interaction between the native and the early English settlers in India. Its professional exponent, the nautch girl, held the white sahib spellbound for nearly two centuries. "Delicate in person, soft in her features, perfect in form," she captivated the hearts of ordinary Englishmen by her grace and charm, enthralled the more sophisticated among them by her conversation and wit and enraptured the elite with her nautch which some of them found "superior to all the operas in the world."

A British cadet watching a nautch during the Puja festival, Calcutta. Painting by Sir Charles Díoyly, c. 1810
A British cadet watching a nautch during the Puja festival, Calcutta. Painting by Sir Charles Díoyly, c. 1810

Professional nautch girls and their performances have been described in numerous journals, travelogues, memoirs and diaries left by European visitors, missionaries, and civil and military officials. The fare provided by nautch girls fascinated most viewers and many a sahib was captivated by their seductive charm. The post-Plassey British nabobs who had made quick fortunes emulated the ostentatious lifestyle of native princes and omrahs. They even maintained their own troupes of nautch girls and musicians for the entertainment of their guests. A dinner in the community was usually followed by a nautch performance. So were other festive occasions, such as the celebration of a King Emperorís birthday and visits of dignitaries to civil and military stations. Nautch girls would also accompany the British army whenever it was on the move, entertaining the soldiers on the way. At times they were also engaged to welcome arriving guests on the highways. An army officer in his journal (1783) states "he was met by his friend Major MacNeal who was preceded by a troupe of nautch girls. The latter encircled his palanquin, dancing until he entered the Majorís house in Arcot."

So popular was this entertainment, especially with the soldiers, that nautch girls began to move en masse to British stations. Captain Williamson notes in his Costumes and Customs of Modern India (1813) that between the years 1778 and 1785, many outstanding dancing girls quit the cities, and retired to the cantonments, where they were received with open arms. Quite often, lonely men would send for nautch girls to entertain them in their own houses. Usually, groups of civilians or soldiers joined hands to hire nautch girls for an evening of amusement. They would often recite songs learnt from them and even translate them into popular ditties.

Nautch girls catered to a mixed society but it was men who got into the spirit of the nautch. Encouraged by the menís applause of wah, wah they would shed their stiff reserve and cool propriety, displaying their seductive charms. James Forbes in his Oriental Memoirs (1813) pays this compliment to nautch girls: "They are extremely delicate in their person, soft and regular in their features, with a form of perfect symmetry, and although dedicated from infancy to this profession, they in general preserve a decency and modesty in their demeanour, which is more likely to allure than the shameless effrontery of similar characters in other countries."

A nautch girl sings to entertain memsahibs. Painting by Mrs C. Belnos, c. 1820
A nautch girl sings to entertain memsahibs. Painting by Mrs C. Belnos, c. 1820

The quality of the nautch and the class of nautch girls varied from place to place as did the reactions of the British spectators. In an early 19th century account, Captain Mundy describes a splendid nautch party held in honour of the Commander-in-Chief by the companyís political agent, Captain Wade in Ludhiana where 46 nautch girls entertained the guests, only to be surpassed by the British Resident at Delhi who honoured the Commander-in-Chief with a performance by 100 nautch girls.

In another account, nautch girls are portrayed as "pretty gazelleyed damsels arrayed in robes of sky-blue, crimson and gold in stately guise whose languishing glances stare brightly through their antimonial borders."

The nautch became a common form of entertainment in the mansions of the English merchants turned rulers in Bengal and other parts of India. Mrs S.C. Bernos, a reputed artist who lived in Calcutta in the early 19th century, has invested nautch girls with a romantic aura. In her vivid description of a dance party held in Calcutta during the Puja festival, she observed:

"On entering the magnificent saloon, the eye is dazzled by a blaze of lights from splendid lustres, triple wall shades, chandle brass, etc., superb pier glasses, pictures, sofas, chairs, Turkey carpets, etc., adorn the splendid hall: these combined with the sounds of different kinds of music, both European and Indian, played at the same time in different apartments; the noise of native tom-toms from another part of the house; the hum of human voices, the glittering dresses of the dancing girls, their slow and graceful movement; the rich dresses of the Rajah and his equally opulent Indian guests; the gay circle of European ladies and gentlemen, and the delicious scent of attar of roses and sandal which perfumes the saloon, strikes the stranger with amazement; but he fancies himself transported to some enchanted region, and the whole scene before him is but a fairy vision."

These splendid parties of nautch entertainment were covered by the local press, especially when dignitaries graced these with their presence. Observing that Delhi was the place where native dancing was to be seen in its perfection, Lieutenant Thomas Bacon (1831) gives a graphic description of a nautch held there in a spacious tent laid out for this purpose by Maharaja Hindu Rao:

"The tent was most glaringly lighted, massaulchis or torch-bearers stood here and there ready to attend to any person who might require them...we had scarcely seated ourselves ere two of them made their appearance, floating into our presence, all tinsel coloured muslin and ornaments: they were followed by three musicians, and attended by a couple of mussaulchis who held their torches first to the face and then lower down as if showing off the charms of the dancers to the best advantage."

There is a fascinating description by Lieutenant Colonel Tarrens (1860) of a nautch by Kashmiri girls in the Shalimar Gardens at Srinagar. The author was enchanted by the beauty of Shalimar, the queen of gardens, which he felt should be visited at night by the pale of moonlight when it is properly bedecked with torches, and crowned with lamps. Then "the proper thing to do is to give orders for a nautch at Shalimar." Apart from the beauty of the place, Torrens was enchanted with the dancing and singing of the charming Kashmiri nautch girls whom he considered "vastly superior" to what he had seen elsewhere. Another witness to a similar performance in Shalimar Gardens was a reputed professional artist, William Simpson, who was so much enthralled by the sight of nautch girls dancing by torchlight that he describes it as "the sweet delusion of a never to be forgotten night."

The immense popularity of the nautch can be judged by the fact that at times a dance performance would begin in the evening and last until daybreak. Among the prominent and most colourful British residents of Delhi at that time were Colonel James Skinner, known as Secunder Sahib and Sir David Ochterlony, nicknamed Loony Akhtar, who lived in royal style and held lavish nautch parties to entertain the English community. Colonel Skinner, a great patron of Delhi artists, would give away miniature paintings of nautch girls to his guests, sometimes of the very same dancers who were entertaining them.

One finds that "One of the most popular numbers in the repertoire of the nautch-girl was the Kaharka nautch or Kuharwa, the bearerís dance, usually performed before a male audience.

While rendering it the nautch girl would tie a sash round her loins, through which she pulled up her gown and put another across her shoulders. Twisting a turban saucily round her head she would let her long black hair fall on her back and around bosom and then dart forward with animated gestures, something of the nature of a Highland fling."

Another popular number considered graceful was the kite dance performed to the rhythm of a slow and expressive melody. The dancers would imitate in their gestures the movements of a person flying a kite. Commenting on this dance, one army officer observed that "the attitudes incident to this performance are most favourable to Indian grace and suppleness and the heavenward direction of the eyes displays these features, as doubtless my fair country women know, to the very best advantage."

In South India, the dance tradition continued to be associated with the temple. While kathak flourished in North India, dassi attam, also referred to as sadir nautch, dominated the nautch scene in the South. It was far more than mere visible expression of a sung melody. It had a life of its own with a direct appeal to emotions. Often the dance was in itself the pantomime of a whole story. Dr John Shortt, in his account of Dancing Girls of S. India (1870), noted that their dance movements were marked by agility, ease and gracefulness, and the turning and twisting of their hands, eyes, face, features, and trunk were in complete harmony with their nimble steps whilst they beat time with their feet. Their dance was more feminine and suited to solo performances in temples and later in a court and at other public functions. There was greater emphasis on pure dance and abhinaya or expressions as they recited songs which were generally in praise of the gods but could also be interpreted in human terms for the benefit of their patrons.

The songs of nautch girls had as their themes either the amorous escapades in the lives of gods or conventional romantic tales, usually about the loverís yearning for the beloved. Until the end of the 19th century, songs in Persian were as popular as those in Hindi. The one Persian ghazal by Hafiz which dominated the nautch scene for over a hundred years and invariably evoked roaring applause both from the natives and from the Europeans was Tazah ba Tazah nu ba nu (Fresh and fresh, new and new). A mirthful melody in which the poet recommends applying the principles of fresh and new to all he does, whether in drinking, making friends, or making love. This finds mention in numerous foreign accounts of the nautch. There are even references comparing the singing style and the rendering of this ghazal by different reputed nautch girls of the day.

Until the middle of the 19th century, many Company officials were familiar with the Persian language and took interest in Persian poetry. There were even a few who would compose extempore couplets in Persian. These popular songs devoted to wine and woman aroused romantic feelings and amorous desires among the audience. The visual display of human emotions served to enhance the appeal of the melodies as the spectators saw in them a reflection of their own hopes and aspirations. When a nautch girl addressed a patron with whom she had a liaison, the song would convey a meaningful message to him.

As the 19th century wore on, the spread of English education brought in a new petit bourgeois class which, influenced by western ideas, got alienated from the art and cultural traditions of the country. This educated group was also swayed by the writings of some foreign observers who, without understanding the origin and nature of the Indian dance are and mistaking it for a representation of erotic temple sculptures, condemned it as "repulsive and immoral". They made no distinction between an accomplished professional nautch girl or a devadasi and a common prostitute, dubbing both as fallen women.

In their drive against nautch, the missionaries were also joined by a powerful group of educated Indian social reformers who, influenced by western ideas and Victorian moral values, had lost pride in their own cultural heritage.

Excerpted from Stories from the Raj: Sahibs, Memsahibs and Others by Pran Nevile, Indialog Publications