Epitome of romanticism
Amarinder Sandhu

Nautch Girls of the Raj
By Pran Neville.
Penguin Books.
Pages 136. Rs 250.

KNOWN by many names like the celestial apsara, ganika, tawaif, the dancing girl has always attracted everyone’s attention. She has intrigued many with her beauty and finer accomplishments. Poets have celebrated her classic looks and bards have sung her praises. Her attire has kept some enraptured while others have drunk wine from the gazelle-like eyes. The bygone era of the nautch girls has been brought alive by Pran Neville in this book.

The writer traces the divine origin of dance through the Natya Shastra, a treatise on the art of dancing. Indian epics and mythology are filled with tales of "tender maidens", the apsaras who enticed many warriors and sages with their virginal beauty and charm. Temple sculptures depict Gandharvas, the celestial singers and apsaras in scenes of dance and music. Dance as an art form was imparted by the heavenly nymph Urvashi to a devadasi who further passed it on to other temple dancers.

The book describes the rise and major downfall of dance as an aesthetic pursuit. Ancient foreign travellers to India like Huien Tsang and Alberuni mention the presence of temple dancers in their accounts. The secular nartakis known for their beauty and graceful dancing enjoyed a lot of royal patronage. They were entertainers par excellence and were the epitome of romanticism.

The coming of Muslim rule to India saw the fusion of Indian and Persian elements and Kathak emerged as a new dance form. Dadra, thumri and the ghazal also emerged on the cultural scene. As Mughal Delhi lost its glory, the Oudh courts beckoned the dancers. Here the dancing girls acquired the name of tawaifs. The Oudh gentry sent their sons to these ladies to master good manners, style and the ways of the world. The early European pioneers due to lack of memsahibs found solace in the arms of slender, well-rounded Indian women. Their sexual energies found an outlet and liaisons with local women were common. Most sahibs had an Indian bibi who would be transferred to a white brother when one was posted out.

The nautch (anglicised form of nach) was enjoyed by the nababs and sahibs. Neville uses the writings of many officers to highlight the entertainment provided by the nautch girls. He has beautifully brought out the details of the rich costumes and intricate jewellery worn by the dancing girls. The book also delves into the reactions of the memsahibs towards the nautch. Ladies with a puritan or missionary outlook condemned the nautch while the culturally inclined enjoyed it. The get-up of the dancing girls has been discussed in detail and though the dress has been highly praised, a huge nose ring did not appeal to a section of the British audience.

The nautch thus became an institution and the gentry played host to many nautch parties. Many a missionary was appalled to see his flock attending immoral nautches and was relieved when he found the dancers "wore ample garments right down to their feet". A dancer kept in rhythm with the music and used facial expressions and gestures to indicate emotions and moods. The tawaifs and their counterparts cast a spell on many men of rank and kept the infatuated lover entrapped with their flirtation. However, anti-nautch girl campaigns dealt a death blow to the art of dancing.

Nautch Girls of the Raj is an in-depth study of the customs and rituals of the dancing girls. It offers a peep into their status, lifestyle and initiation into a profession of active musical and sexual life. This book has brought the "professional entertainer" alive and the rich illustrations make it all the more interesting.