The nautch girls of colonial Punjab

By Pran Nevile
FROM time immemorial, poets and bards have sung in praise of the dancing damsels who appear as Apsaras in mythology, and as ganikas, nartakis, devadasis, kanchanis, tawaifs and nautch girls at different periods of history. They belonged to a class of professional entertainers who were accomplished dancers and singers. Over the centuries, they nurtured and preserved the classical performing arts in the country.

The musicians and dancers in Punjab received generous patronage from the Mughals, who were fond of lively entertainment, dancing being one of their principal diversions. They brought to India Persian dancing girls, with their own distinctive styles of singing and dancing. The Mughal period saw the emergence of new musical forms and styles of singing such as Thumri, Dadra and Ghazal which opened a new vista of romantic themes for the dancing girls of Lahore, an imposing seat of the Mughal empire. The tradition continued during the Sikh rule. According to a contemporary account, Maharaja Ranjit Singh maintained a troupe of 150 dancing girls selected from among the best in Kashmir, Persia and Punjab. There is a fascinating account of their performance as witnessed by some British dignitaries visiting the Maharaja’s court.

The institution of professional dancing girls continued to flourish after the coming of British rule in Punjab. The word ‘nautch’ is an Anglicised form of Hindi/Urdu word nach meaning dance. The ‘nautch’ represented the cultural interaction between the native and the early English settlers in India. Its professional exponent, the dancing girl in her new incarnation emerged as the ‘nautch girl’. The sahibs used to attend nautch parties held by the Punjabi aristocracy. Earlier they had been themselves great patrons of the nautch entertainment in Calcutta and other presidency towns.

The opening of Suez Canal ushered in the ‘Age of memsahibs’, which brought a sea change in the British social life in India as also in the Punjab. By this time, the missionaries had extended their activities in Punjab to propagate the virtues of Christian civilisation. They denounced native religious practices, social customs and manners. The nautch entertainment, sought-after by the Punjabis on every joyous occasion, came under heavy attack when the missionaries took it up as a moral issue.

Some of them went to the extent of saying that ‘nautch’ aroused anti-Christian feelings. They failed to understand the origin and nature of Indian music and dance art and condemned it as repulsive and immoral. They were unable to make out the distinction between a talented and accomplished professional nautch girl and a common prostitute, dubbing both as fallen women. The British official elite were now urged by them to refrain from attending functions organised by the Punjabis where nautch entertainment was held.

A nautch girl from Lahore with three musicians (Courtesy: British Library, London)A group of western educated Indian social reformers, influenced by western ideas and victorian moral values, joined the missionaries and they started an anti-nautch movement at Madras, which spread to other parts of the country including Punjab. In their anti-nautch campaign, they were now joined by the Social Purity Associations, sponsored by the Purity movement in England for reform of the public and private morals. The Punjab Purity Association of Lahore launched a forceful drive against the ‘nautches’ and published a booklet in 1984 containing the opinions of the educated Punjabis on the ‘nautch question’. The booklet highlighted the denunciation of nautch by the eminent social reformer Keshub Chandra Sen who described the nautch girl as a “hideous woman with hell in her eyes. In her breast is a vast ocean of poison. Round her comely waist dwell the furies of hell… her blandishments are India’s ruin. Alas! her smile is India’s death”.

The circular letter dated 19th June, 1893, which elicited their ‘opinions’ on the nautch question is reproduced below. “The custom of celebrating festive occasions by nautches prevails in our country. The nautch girls are as a rule, public prostitutes. To encourage them in any way is considered immoral by some people. They hold that the nautches only give opportunities to the fallen women to beguile and tempt young men. There are some, again, who consider dancing girls to be the depositaries of our music and see nothing objectionable in attending nautches. This is a question of vital importance for the moral welfare of youngmen.

May I, therefore, respectfully solicit your valuable opinion on the subject. If you are of opinion that nautches are really dangerous to the moral well-being of our youth, I would also invite your suggestions as to how nautches may be done away with, or young men may be restrained, from attending them. All opinions collected will be published”.

The educated Punjabis who were addressed to give their opinions included the following: Lala Madan Gopal, MA, Bar-at-Law, Lahore, Lala Shiv Dayal,MA, Assistant Inspector of Schools, Muhammad Shafi, Bar-at-law, Hoshiarpur, Pandit Devi Chand, Pleader, Jullundhar, Lala Munshi Ram, Pleder, Jullundur, Lala Sunder Dass Suri, MA, Headmaster, M.B. School, Mooltan, H.C. Mukerji, Pleader, Rawalpindi, Lala Amolak Ram, tutor to H.H. Raja of Bilaspore, Moulvi Rahim Bux, MA, Mcleod Arabic Reader, Oriental College, Lahore, Rai Dass Ram, Mullick, Lahore, Sirdar Amar Singh, Simla, Lala Hans Raj Sahny, Pleader, Rawalpindi, Lala Dharam Dass Suri, Pleader, Shaharanpur, Lala Harkishan Lall, BA, (Cantab), Pandit Janaki Pershad, Kashmir Pandits National Association, Lahore, Lala Lal Chand, MA, Pleader, Lahore, Lala Lajpat Rai,Pleader,Lahore, Sirdar Sobha Singh, MA, District Inspector of School, Amritsar and Pandit Bulaki Ram Sastri, Bar-at-law, Lahore.

It is interesting to note from their replies, that practically all the above mentioned gentlemen denounced ‘nautch’ as a baneful custom affecting the welfare of society, and supported the proposal of abolishing this practice. But, many of them thought “that some good substitute would obviate the difficulty and soon put an end to the evil complained of.” It was, however, conceded by some that the art of music and dancing was confined to the women of this class and the best alternative was to introduce the study of music in schools and encourage the formation of theatrical companies. Easily, the most remarkable and constructive comments came from Lala Harkishan Lall, Bar-at-Law, the father of banking in the Punjab. He wrote: “According to our ancient beliefs and ideas, music and dancing are heavenly, while prostitution is hellish. With you the question ought to be how to divorce blessing from curse and separate one from the other. In this way you may increase purity of life in India and lessen the chances that the devil has to ensnare the youths of the country”. Another interesting observation was made by H.C. Mukerji, who said: Let us teach our wives and daughters to practice music at home, so that they may entertain their husbands and brothers. Musical clubs should be organised in all important places, not simply for the private entertainment of the members among themselves but for giving performances on festive occasions”.

Nautch girls of Lahore (An engraving from ‘The Court and Camp of Runjeet Singh’ by W.G. Osborne)The anti-nautch campaign, however, soon fizzled out in Punjab as the majority of Punjabis loved to enjoy life and so they continued to patronise the nautch girls. The number of western educated Punjabis around the turn of the century was too small to have any significant impact on society at large.

Thanks to the patronage of the emerging rich business class, the landed gentry and the princely states in Punjab, the profession of nautch girls continued to thrive, thus keeping alive the traditional performing arts. Their presence on the occasion of a wedding or some other joyful event was considered to be a status symbol and an auspicious sign. The princes and the chiefs took pride in patronising accomplished nautch girls and usually invited the ruling sahibs who graced such functions with their presence.

The art of music and dance had been confined to the families of professional nautch girls for generations. As the 20th century rolled on, new opportunities came up for them with establishment of theatrical companies. Broadcasting saw some of them take to singing as radio artists. But it was the advent of cinema that came as a real breakthrough for them to display their talents as actresses, singers and dancers. Later, many of them grew up to be leading stars such as Anwari, Sardar Akhtar, Khurshid, Mumtaz Shanti, Munawar Sultana, Zohra Bai etc. As time passed, the changing social and economic environment and with decline of patronage the nautch girl lost part of her traditional role and relevance. After independence, with the nationalisation of culture, the age-old institution of nautch girls virtually vanished from the entertainment scene.