Bibis of the Raj

Revisiting the British gaze on the begums, the nautch girls and the ayahs of India

By S. Kalidas

 When one writes about women, one must dip one’s pen in the colours of the rainbow and scatter the dust from butterfly wings on the page…

-Denis Diderot, Sur les Femmes


Well, Pran Nevile surely lives up to this prescription in this book-his fourth about “native” life in the times of the British Raj – on Indian women in the Raj. Even if the adjectives tend to be repetitive, the descriptions a trifle too gushing and the viewpoint a nightmare of post-modern feminists, the sheer panoramic sweep of this beautifully illustrated book (with period drawings, etchings and photographs) makes for a very interesting read. From the aristocratic princesses of the zenana to the nautch girls of the bazaars to the working class women in the fields-this book covers them all, albeit through the eyes of Britishers of the East India Company and, later, the imperial government.

With lots of first hand accounts and anecdotes Nevile recreates the sensuous languor of the native harem with all its redolence, rivalries and intrigues. There are several orientalist dispatches glorifying the exotic opulence of the “Hoories of the East”. There are also sobering observations like that of Fanny Parks in her Wanderings of a Pilgrim, In Search of the Picturesque (1850): “… in a whole zenana there may be two or three handsome women, all the rest remarkably ugly”. Parks found ladies in the zenana of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II to be “singularly plain”.

Not so the bibis or the native mistresses. Captain Thomas Williams encouraged Englishmen to make local liaisons as “keeping Indian mistresses was far more economical than maintaining European wives”. John Short, a surgeon in Madras, records that “several of these girls (Telugu devadasis) while they lived with European officers surprised me by their ladylike manner, modesty and gentleness”.

For aficionados of the Raj this book will prove a delightful addition to their library.