Dancing Girls of Company’s Calcutta
Photo taken from: Wikimedia Commons.
In the beginning when the English arrived at the banks of Hooghly they were not particularly welcomed by the native inhabitants during festivals. For instance when some Englishmen under Job Charnock tried to enter the cutcherry premises by the Lal Dighi during Dol-utsav there was a great fracas and Charnock resorted to beating up Anthony, an employee of the local zemindar. However, as the British secured their footing in Bengal they started getting invitations to Durga Pujas held in native quarters by the local babus who looked at it as an opportunity to entertain and impress their foreign masters. And nautch parties and nautch girls became the medium of cultural interaction between natives and the early English settlers. ‛Nautch’ was the Anglicised word for ‛nach’ or dance.
On the occasion of Durga Puja – one of the few times in the year, the Europeans drove their broughams and landeaus along the Chitpore Road to the vast mansions of the mighty babus to enjoy the nautches and songs by great baijees like Nicky, Munoo, Ushoorun, Hingool, Nanni-jan, Supan-jan and others and drink champagne, clarets, brandies, port and sherry that the babus procured in endless quantities from “Europe shop”. Raja Nabakrisna Deb, though a great patron of local cultural activities such as kabi-gaan was said to be the one who started the practice of hosting nautch parties in Calcutta during Durga Pujas and the nautch girl captivated the heart of the gora sahib for the next two centuries, holding him spellbound by her soft, seductive beauty, graceful movements and mellifluous voice. In the meantime babus of Calcutta vied with each other to the extent of inviting the the best baijis from Lucknow, Delhi, Agra and Benaras to impress their colonial masters.
Numerous written accounts – journals, travelogues, memoirs and diaries of visiting missionaries, soldiers and officials – both civil and military described the nautch parties and the baijees. Painters like Mrs Belnos and Sir Charles D’ Oyly reproduced the “glittering dresses of dancing girls, their slow and graceful movements” and raucous crowd of European sahibs and memsahibs.
In his “Interesting Historical Events” JZ Holwell recorded the new trend by Calcutta babus of inviting the British officials to Durga Pujas. He wrote: “Doorgah Pujah is the grand general feast of the Gentoos, usually visited by all Europeans (by invitation) who are treated by the proprietor of the feast with the fruits and flowers in seasons and are entertained every evening whilst the feast lasts, with band of singers and dancers.”
Though it had begun with Raja Nabakrishna the practice caught on and Calcutta Chronicle in 1792 listed the other wealthy babus – Prankrishna Singha, Keshtochand Mitra, Narayan Mitra , Ramhari Tagore, Baranasi Ghosh and Darpanarayan Tagore who held Durga Pujas and similar parties to entertain the sahibs. Later on Ramkanta Chattopadhyay, Raja Sukhmoy Ray, Prasanna Coomar Tagore and Dwarakanath Tagore also followed suit.
Mrs SC Belnos described the scene at such Pujas. “Besides the entertainment given to the European, it is not uncommon to see in one part of the Hindoo Puojah going on, and at another, a long table laid out with ham and turkey, and all the luxuries of Europe and the East, spread out for the refreshment of their Christian guests; at which only the black Portuguese and musselmen servants attend: the best wines, liquors and even Champagne is served at pleasure at these fetes. Sometimes in another apartment a band of European musicians procured at a great expense strike up waltzes and quadrilles and not infrequently a quadrille party is formed and danced with great good humour and spirit till a late hour. The nautches continue three nights successively.”
In October, 1814 Calcutta Gazette reported the upcoming nautch parties on the occasion of Durga Puja at various houses of rich babus. It said, Nicky who was immensely popular would warble her lovely ditties at the hospitable mansion of Raja Kishun Chand Roy; the hall of Neel Mony Mullick will resound delightfully with the affecting strains of Ushoorun who for compass of voice and variety of note excelled all damsels of Hindustan while Misree known for her graceful gestures would will lead the fairy dance on the boards of Joy Kishun Roy’s happy dwelling.
The nautch girls were described as possessing decency and modesty in their demeanour which was more likely to allure than the “shameless effrontery of similar characters in other countries”. Usually, they were Muslims by sect, fairer in complexion and came from Delhi and Agra. They wore upper garments made of gauze and or fine muslins with gold and silver hued borders with satin trousers and jewellery of gold, pearls, diamonds and other precious gems.
Dance performances usually started at evening and continued till day break. The themes of the song were either amorous escapades in the lives of gods or conventional romantic tales, usually lovers’ yearning for their beloved and sung in either Persian (Some of the British officials till mid 19 Century were well conversant in Persian and took interest in Persian poetry) or Hindi and even in Kashmiri. Their repertoire became so popular that in 1808 Calcutta Gazette carried an English translation of a song by its contributor.
Over the years, nautch parties began to be held during other times of the year as well to entertain European guests. Fanny Parkes, a visitor to India described Raja Rammohun Roy’s party at his garden-house in Maniktala where Nicky was the star attraction. She was compared to contemporary European sopranos -Angelica Catelani and Elizabeth Billington and often called “Catelani of the East” by her patrons. Nicky remained the rage of Calcutta society for two decades as babus vied among each other to ensure her presence for a single night. It was reported that the price of Nicky’s attendance for three days was twelve hundred rupees and two pair of shawls of the same value. Nicky’s beauty was enchanting; ‛her black eyes, full and piercing, reflected the pleasurable sensations of her heart; her mouth, around which a smile was ever playing, enclosed teeth, regular, perfect and white as ivory; her voice was feeble; but inexpressibly sweet’. In 1819 when she was employed exclusively to serve on a regular monthly salary of Rs 1000 by a rich Bengali it definitely hogged newspaper headlines.
In the watercolour, “Raja Nob Kishen’s Nautch Party at Calcutta” painted in 1825, Charles D’Oyly depicted a scenario of the fashionable party of Europeans the Raja had hosted a decade before. Mrs Belnos painted a nautch girl singing at the feet of two European ladies and noted they often asked for buxees. Visitors were generally greeted to the nautch with attar of sandal and rose fragrances and a bouquet of flowers.
As the century progressed the higher-ups of the Company, the missionaries and the native gentry including social reformers – influenced by Western Education and ideals and Victorian morals – frowned upon such practices. As a result of repeated attacks in the media initially by English Press and later on by vernacular newspapers, nautch parties fell into disrepute and faded out gradually.