Some historical snippets – Part 20 – Chronicling Nautch-Devadasi in US Newspapers

Minai aka Kasuvandi, the geeky dance-blogger-detective, pointed me to an amazing source called Chronicling America hosted by the Library of Congress, that has digital copies of Newspapers from United States from 1836 to 1922. I have tried in this and subsequent posts about some of the interesting things US based newspapers had reported more than a century ago.

A reporter called Thomas Stevenes in Boston Herald  wrote an article titled “Nautch Dance Girls: A Perfomance at Once Artistic and Decorous“, which was reprinted in the Los Angeles Daily Herald in 1886. It recounts the writer’s personal journey to Delhi and witnessing a Nautch in Mehrauli, near Qutub Minar area of Delhi. He describes their costume in detail. [1]

Eight of the twelve were commonplace girls of from fourteen to eighteen, and the other four were quite handsome, as handsome goes among the Hindoos. Their arms were bare of anything save of bracelets, and the upper portion of the body was but scantily clothed, after the manner and custom of the Hindoo females; but an ample skirt of calico reached to the ankles. Rings were on every toe, and massive silver anklets, with tiny bells attached, made music when they walked or danced. They wore a profusion of bracelets, necklaces of rubies, bead ornaments, ear rings and pedants, and a massive gold or brass ring in the left nostril. The nostril was relieved of its burden by a string that descended from a head ornament and took up the weight.

Then he describes how they danced. Indeed, his writing does indeed create the vivid imagery of the dance.

The Nautch girls arronged (sic) themselves into a half circle, their scarlet costumes forming a bright crescent terminating at either end in a mass of spectators…

The chaperone tom-toms an appropriate Nautch aocompaniment on a drum with his fingers, and four pretty girls advance from the half-circle, and, favoring me with a quartet of killing smiles and a quartet of coquettish glances from their bright, dark eyes, they commence to dance….

The four dancers take the hem of their red garment between the thumb and finger of the right hand, spreading its ample folds into the figure of an open fan by bringing the outstretched arm almost a level to the shoulder. A mantle of transparent muslin, fringed with silver spangles, is worn about the head and shoulders in the same indescribably graceful manner as the mantilla of the Spanish senorita. Raising a portion of this aloft in the left hand, and keeping the “fan” intact with the right, the dancers twirl around and change positions with each other, their supple figures meanwhile assuming a variety of graceful motions and postures from time to time, Now they imitate the spiral movements of a serpent, climbing around and upward on an imaginary pole; again they assume a charming posture, their dusky countenances half hidden in seeming coquetry behind the muslin mantle, the large red fan waved gently to and fro, the feet unmoving,  but the undulating motions of tho body and the tremor of the limbs, sufficing to jingle the tiny ankle bells.

The dancer most likely danced like in these photographs.

The writer is very keen to point out that Nautch dance being artistic. He accuses the “British matron” of finding it ‘indecorous’.

Of course it can be made naughty, and, no doubt, often is, but then so can many another form of innocent amusement. The proper Nautch dance is a decorous and artistic performance when properly danced…Only the “British matron” would consider a Nautch dance in any degree indecorous.

I think this article, compared to the rest below, shows unbiased reporting of how Nautch was performed. An excerpt of this article makes it to The Daily Yellowstone Journal, October 26, 1887 titled “The proper nautch dance” [2]. Read the full article by clicking on the image below.

Nautch Dance Girls_Los Angeles daily herald_ December 23 1886After some years, the news of demands to abolish the Nautch system in India did reach foreign shores. In The Sun (August 08, 1893) and in The Morning Call (August 21, 1893) this news snippet was published.

Foreign Notes of Real Interest_The sun_August 08 1893_AntiNautch_movement

If you are having trouble reading the image the news says [3, 4]

Some of the truly good people of Madras-recently imported and unsophisticated apparently-are beseeching the Government to suppress the dancing Nautch girl, or at least to see that, in the name of morality, official countenance is never given to the alleged seductive Nautch dance. Those who are long familiar with India deride the movement and incidentally dispel one of the very prevalent illusions about the East and Eastern customs. The Bombay Timessays the Nautch dance is “deadly dull and not even graceful” and as to its alleged immorality, “marbles and shove-ha’penny are not less open to the charge.”  Whatever may or may not be the character of the girls in some cases, the Times vouches that the Nautch dance itself is perfectly decorous and decidedly dull. It is said to be a religious survival.

The view of The Bombay Times is interesting, since the same message is perceived by Thomas Stevenes’s article published in 1886.

In March 6th 1904, The Sun from New York (New York Sun) carried an article that implies to be a reprint from another newspaper called  ‘Englishman’. This same article has been carried out by Rochester Democrat and Chronicle March 31st, 1904. This one has detailed description about the music involved in Nautch dances. Like this one that meant “You are my life’s life and my catband! Let us go to honeymoon at Delhi!” [5] The words in brackets are with transliterated for clarity as I presume the writer wrote down what he heard, so it sounds like the word in use, but not spelled correctly.

Mera Janki plara [Mera Jaan ki pyaara]
Selan too hamara [Saiyan tu hamara]
Too hamara ollli [Tu hamara huyi]
Chalo ab Delhi [Chalo ab Dilli]

Another one on the sister-in-law [Nanand] goes as,

Hili mili pania
Jai rey anadia
Kooey ki medh pur
Pania bharatoo hein
Komor tin balakhal rey nanadia
Jai rey nanadia
Jai rey nanadia

The writer starts with some historically inaccurate sentences and then goes to the current nautch dancers.

To give the reader an idea of the evolution of the nautch girl we must go back to the Vedic period. The hymns of the Vedas were at first chanted by the Rishis or monks; but their vioces were so very rough that one hardly enjoy their song. So, to be more musical their daughters caught up the cry and began to peal forth the solemn verses. Thus was Muse born.

What? Really Mr. Englishman? 🙂

She must be a thorough mistress of her art, and old fiddles play the best tune. In appearance she has a big baby shaped face. She is extremely corpulent, fair complexioned and rough looking. She continually chews tobacco and ‘pan’, and dyes her teeth black in order to, as she thinks, hypnotize her audience.

At times, it almost looks like this piece satirizes the Nautch dancers and their lifestyle. Here are some examples of how someone with poor understanding of another’s culture would write.

Prior to tho performance something must be taken to tone tho pharynx so the nautch girl mixes together a quantity of ghee, milk, black pepper and sugar and quaffs it off luke-warm, keeping a reserve handy. She then grinds between her teeth half a dozen pans and forming them into a ball keeps it inside the cheek which very much resembles the first symptoms of gumboil….In the course of singing she occasionally places her hand on her ear, opens jaws like an alligator, raises her face skyward, and sends forth a long continuous reverberating “Ah-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-!”

Probably the saving grace comes at the end of the article. Two names are mentioned Malka of Calcutta (Most likely Malka Jaan of Calcutta, mother of Gauhar Jaan), and Miss Nurabala of Star Theatre in Calcutta. Interestingly, it also highlights the practice of pre-puberty boys dressed up as girls and dance in the presence of men. To think about this aloud, this practice is currently prevalent in Afghanistan, called as Bacha Bazi and the PBS Frontline documentary exposed how this practice has led to slavery and prostitution.

Read the full article by clicking on the image below.
Nautch Girls of India_The sun_March 06 1904

Within a few years more trouble brews when the famous singer Gauhar Jaan gets felicitated by a high social ranking citizen. The news titled “The Nautch Girl: Question of Her Position in Social System Troubling India” published in London Telegraph is reprinted in the Sunday Edition of The Evening Star (November 24, 1907) [6].

Gauhar Jan in Bombay

Gauhar Jan in Bombay

The Marwari family had paid Rs 15000. This is some money, since adjusting to today’s inflation 1000 pounds is equivalent to 101,918 pounds today and converting to Rupees comes to 1 crore! [7]. After that she sang for raising funds for an orphanage, where the famous lawyer and political activist Sir. Perozeshah Mehta “pinned a medal on her breast”.  We do not know what went in the mind of the lawyer-politician Mr. Justice Chandravarkar, but he was offended nevertheless, and cut ties with the managing committee. The only indication as to what exactly happened is this sentence “A hot newspaper discussion has followed”. I should trace that discussion. A fallout was that when Gauhar Jan sang for another fund raising the money was not accepted by the Nawab Mohsan-ul-Mulk.

The other big news that happened was when the Edward VIII as the Prince of Wales visited India and Indians and the princely states welcomed him with open hearts. Given the fact that traveled a lot, was a dapper looking prince and coupled with his unmarried status (That he abdicated the Throne to marry Wallis Simpson is another story) he gave numerous fodder to media [8].

So, this news published in The Ogden Standard Examiner (March 12, 1922) from Ogden, Utah, USA is not surprising about how ‘prince-centric’ writing it is. This article talks about the Prince of Wales’s unique opportunity of viewing “lovely, glamorous, hour(glass?)like ladies” because he has the privilege of being The Prince. The news article also lists the various places the Prince of Wales visited and how much he enjoyed the dances that are rarely seen by others. The article is funny as it goes more about how the the dancing girls’s dream of winning his smile came true.

A Devadasi dancer photo erroneously labeled as Manipuri dancing girl

A Devadasi dancer photo erroneously labeled as Manipuri dancing girl

Quoting it [9]

To win a smile from this youth is their aim, and perhaps they dance with greater wantonness and abandon and more primitive grace, because they know that he, like the modern raja, is a merciful judge and that a frown from him will be the only punishment for failure to win his approval…

His smile or his impassive face was reward or punishment for the lovely, full curved slave women who were the human pawns that day the young Prince bade them move over the great chess board marked out under a white dome in Agra….

what woman behind the veil in all India has not heard It whispered about that the “Great White Prince.” the charming, smiling, good looking, youthful Prince of Wales is seeing India. And what girl is there among them all who has not drawn a picture of him in her fancy, and who has not prayed to her gods that she may see the young Prince face to face?

I definitely had a good laugh reading about his merciful and benevolent smile!
Read the full article here, and more to come in subsequent posts. 

With the Prince of Wales and the Harem Beauties_Nautch_The Ogden Standard Examiner_March_1922_full


  1. Nautch Dance Girls: A Perfomance at Once Artistic and Decorous, Thomas Stevenes, Boston Herald in Los Angeles Herald, December 23, 1886.
  2. The proper nautch dance in Daily Yellowstone journal, October 26, 1887.
  3. Foreign Notes of Real Interest in The sun, August 08, 1893.
  4. The Nautch Dance in The morning call, August 21, 1893.
  5. Nautch Girls of India in The Sun, March 06, 1904.
  6. The Nautch Girl: Question of Her Position in Social System Troubling India” in the Sunday Edition of The Evening Star, November 24, 1907.
  9. With the Prince of Wales and the Harem Beauties in The Ogden Standard Examiner, March 12, 1922

4 responses to “Some historical snippets – Part 20 – Chronicling Nautch-Devadasi in US Newspapers

  1. Its very good information for research….very use ful for scholars. Thank you to author

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s