Analysing broadly, what the British referred to as nautch was a dance form that was specifically prevalent only in the courts and zamindari estates of northern India.
The imperial grandeur of the Mughals, the regal opulence of the Rajahs and the Nawabs have all been, through the ages of history, associated with the tinkling of the anklets and tiny, metallic bells affixed to the ghungroos of the court accompanists and terpsichoreans.
‘Nautch’ is an Anglo-Indian term, supposedly derived due to an erroneous pronunciation, from the popular culture Bengali word ‘naach’ which relates itself to the Sanskritic ‘nritya’ or simply ‘dance’.
Although this term had, over the past few centuries (when India was under the hegemony of the British), narrowed itself down to considering court dance as the only viable form of ‘nautch’, ‘nritya’, another of its widely used synonyms, is a universal admixture of almost all the dance forms, types and traditions prevalent in the subcontinent.
Analysing broadly, what the British regarded to as ‘nautch’ was a dance form that was specifically prevalent only in the courts and zamindari estates of northern India. This had its origins in the medieval ages and, in the opinions of Talbot Mundy as detailed in ‘Yasmini in “King, of the Khyber Rifles”’, was aimed at enticing men to complete obedience.
On the other hand, the dance form practised to the south was not surprisingly one that was meant to entertain men. In other words, this dance had absolutely no sexual attributes or orientations affixed to it. Dancers of the Deccan, especially in the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka were meant to devote themselves to the service of the almighty. They had to rigorously learn and train themselves to mastery in classical dances such as the Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam, Kuchipudi and Odissi, following which they underwent a Pottukattu or a nearly marriage ceremony, where they took a vow of celibacy throughout life.
In those days, Deccan being a region where gender equality wasn’t as much an issue as it was in the North, these dancers were regarded to be aristocratic individuals in the eyes of the societal hierarchy since they took care of the temple, the regional deity and practiced a form of performing arts that was one of the most talked and researched about.
With the introduction of the British rule in the Indian subcontinent, changes in customs and century old traditions were effectuated, being legally brought out both in northern and southern India.
In the 1857 edition of ‘The Athenæum: A Journal of Literature, Science, the Fine Arts’, it is stated that Nautch girls had to frequently perform at durbars for the pleasure of the host and his guests, who in those days were usually the English. F. M. Coleman, in his 1897 work entitled, ‘Typical Pictures of Indian Natives: With Descriptive Letterpress’ further details that the quantity of the nautch girls and musicians (instrumentalists and often, singers) depended on the societal status and wealth of the host, who was usually an Indian zamindar allied to the English or a drunk, ineffectual nawab.
The nautch performed in three stages: the first, mor nach (en: peacock dance), the second, patang nach (en: kite dance), on which Julia Corner, in her book ‘India : pictorial, descriptive, and historical : from the earliest times to the present with nearly one hundred illustrations’ emphasises and quotes, “An exceedingly graceful dance of the Natch girls is called the “Kite dance.” The air is slow and expressive, and the dancers imitate in their gestures the movements of a person flying the kite”, and the third, qahar ka nach (en: the palki bearer’s nautch with a taste of eroticism added to it).
With regards to the English impressions about the nautch girls, the work ‘The English in India, and other sketches, by a traveller’ (1835) states that, “Very few English admire this exhibition on the first representation, but by repetition it ceases to disgust, and at length, in many cases, comes to form the chief enjoyment of life. It is a fact, however, that whenever this fatal taste is acquired, the moral being of the man becomes more and more enervated, until its healthier European characteristics that are lost in the voluptuous indolence that enthrals the generality of the western Asiatics.”
The sexual attributes attached to a nautch girl and the elements of eroticism that were performed through the dances were the very earliest features that disenchanted the British interest from this century old form of performing arts. Although in a 1820 painting, now preserved at the British Library (Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections), descriptions that say, “Watercolour of a European, probably Sir David Ochterlony (1758-1825), in Indian dress, smoking a hookah and watching a nautch in his house at Delhi, by an anonymous artist working in the Delhi style, c. 1820.
Although this painting is not inscribed, the central figure strikingly resembles other portraits of Ochterlony, a Major-General who was credited with ensuring British success in the Nepal War (1814-16) and who became infamous in Delhi, where he lived from 1803 to 1825. He had a house in Delhi as well as a garden-house on the road to Azalpur and he lived in Indian style. He was twice Resident at Delhi, 1803-06 and 1818-22. The lined face and white hair would suggest that this portrait was made in his later years and family portraits hang on the wall” might be suggestive of the opinion that some British officers were affirmative about the cultural glory and the traditional folk heritage attached to the dance forms, a certain incident in which several members of the British army died due to a fatal disorder called syphilis (one that is transmitted through sexual activity, especially in a brothel), broke all British faith in the female classical dancers.
In the Deccan, the Devdasis were forcefully registered as brothel prostitutes and in the north, some of the nautch girls, who had by then, lost their patronage to the English and the Indians educated in western standards, had to actually take up prostitution to prevent starvation, and by the early decades of the 20th century, anti-Nautch and anti-dedication movements swept throughout the country, thus giving birth to the stigmatised insinuation of ‘nautch’ being a derogatory walk of life.
The nonpareil glory and aberrant grandeur that the respectable art of a nautch brought to the regal durbars of the Mughals, the Nawabs, local Rajahs, and often the English, was no more!
Author is the Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London