THE TAWAIF, THE ANTI - NAUTCH MOVEMENT, AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF NORTH INDIAN CLASSICAL MUSIC:

Part 5 - The Anti-Nautch Movement

by David Courtney working tools

Tawaifs

 




Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - The Tawaifs
Part 3 - Evolution of the Will to End the Tawaifs
Part 4 - Evolution of the Means to End the Tawaifs
Part 5 - The Anti-Nautch Movement - This Page
Part 6 - The Passing of the Torch
Part 7 - Affects of the Anti-Nautch Movement on North Indian Music
Part 8 - Epilogue

SUMMARY OF TOPICS COVERED EARLIER

The tawaifs were an Indian equivalent of the Japanese geisha. At the end of the 19th century there was a British inspired persecution of dancing girls.  This persecution included the tawaif.  However for there to be an effective persecution, there had to be both a will as well as the means to carry it out.  The will was provided by a combination of Victorian moralistic and political considerations.  The means was provided by the British consolidation of their control over the Indian subcontinent.

We have shown at great lengths the mustering of both the will to execute an anti-nautch movement, as well as the events which gave Britain sufficient resources and control over the subcontinent to actually carry it out.  In this next section, we will see how various social forces and imperial machinery fell into place for the execution of the anti-autch movement.  We will get a glimpse as to how it was carried out.  We will also examine the dissolution of the tawaif tradition.

 

Conditions In India Leading to the Anti Nautch Movement

By the late 19th century, many things had changed in regards to British living in India.  Whereas a century earlier, social intercourse between Indians and British expatriates had been extensive, in the Victorian era, this tended to be frowned upon.  Earlier generations of British freely married Indian women and merged with the local population.  But in Victorian India, interactions were carefully proscribed by etiquette.  Any Britisher who went beyond the necessary interactions might be accused of "going native".  This was of course a great social sin and caused the offender to be subjected to extreme ostracism.  While earlier generations of British knew very well that they were economically and technologically no better than their Indian counterparts, later British were completely convinced that British culture was superior to Indian culture in every regard.  This mindset created a widespread disdain for the local culture and traditions.

Such disdain for the local culture was easily demonstrate in the deteriorating relations between the British and tawaifs.  In the early days of the East India company, it was very normal for British to hire nautch-girls (many of whom were tawaifs) to dance at their social functions.  However by the later part of the 19th century, social functions tended to be more of the ballroom dancing that one might find in England.  Indian dancing started to be frowned upon.

Official function with traditional nautch

Official function with traditional nautch




The rising unacceptability of Indian dance and its practitioners is illustrated by an incident that occurred in 1890.  Prince Albert visited India and was entertained to a traditional Indian dance.  Visiting dignitaries had been entertained to traditional Indian dance for as long as anyone was aware; however this time things were little different.  There were protests from many quarters, especially from a Christian missionary by the name of Reverend J. Murdoch.  He printed a number of publications strongly condemning these "nautch parties" and called for all British to refrain from attending them.

The persecutions of Indian dancers by reverend Murdoch was just a small indication of a social phenomenon that was emerging.  This was the spread of the Social Purity movement from Great Britain to India.  As it turned out, once the Social Purity Movement spread to India, it would assume a character that in some ways was different from its original British form.

The large number of missionary based publishing houses was one reason for the rise of the anti-nautch movement.  The Christian missionaries controlled a very significant portion of the publishing houses in the subcontinent.  Initially this publishing infrastructure was devoted to the publication of bibles in the various indigenous languages.  However as the capacity of these publishing houses increased, they very quickly branched off into other directions as motivated by issues of the day.  By the latter part of the 19th century, Indian dance was considered to be one such issue.  One of the early agitators against Indian dance was the "Madras Christian Literature Society"; they printed a fair amount of anti-nautch literature.

The views of many of these Christian missionaries were at times extreme.  Many Christian publications went so far as to say that simply looking at an Indian dance was sufficient to arouse unchristian feelings.  But it was not just British and Indian Christian converts that were behind the Anti-Nautch moment, the Indian bourgeoisie was also involved.

 

Anti-Nautch Movement in Full Force

It is difficult to ascribe the birth of a movement to a particular date, but for the purpose of this article we will consider 1892 to be the birth of the anti-nautch movement.  This was the year that an an appeal was put forth by the "Hindu Social Reforms Associations" simultaneously to the Governor General of India and the Governor of Madras.  The official replies from both the Viceroy and the Governor of Madras were polite, but clearly denied any connection between devdasis, dance girls, and prostitution.

However, religious zealots have never been ones to allow facts to interfere with their thinking.  They were resolute in their efforts.  Since they were unable to get any official action on this matter, they started to directly target individuals who hired dancers to entertain at their social functions.  They called for the British to boycott dance girls and functions where "nautch-walis" were hired.

The anti-nautch movement very quickly spread from the devdasis of the South, to the tawaifs in the North.  As social purity organisations were established in Northern India, the tawaif became the target there.  In the next few decades, organisations such as the "Punjab Purity Association" (Lahore), the "Social Service League" (Bombay), and a host of others were established.  One publication from the "Punjab Purity Association" quotes the social reformer Keshub Chandra Sen as saying that the nautch-girl was a "hideous woman...hell in her eyes.  In her breast is a vast ocean of poison.  Round her comely waist dwell the furies of hell.  Her hands are brandishing unseen daggers ever ready to strike unwary or wilful victims that fall in her way.  Her blandishments are India's ruin.  Alas! her smile is India's death."

Salvation Army in India

Salvation Army in India

Another example of the extreme zeal of many who pursued the anti-nautch moment may be seen in the case of miss Helen Tennant.  She truly believed that it was her assignment from God to abolish dance girls.  She came all the way from England to India for this purpose.

The efforts of the anti-nautch activists continued unabated for years.  It spread out of the circles of missionaries and social purity reformers, and into the mainstream.  It finally reached a point where in 1905, contrary to tradition, it was decided not to have an Indian dance at the reception for the Prince of Wales in Madras.

At this time, the situation of the tawaif was very bad.  The social expectations created by the anti-nautch movement had become a self fulfilling prophesy.  Decades of persecution and a boycott of their arts, created an environment of desperation for the tawaifs.  They were unable to pursue their arts due to social pressures; therefore there became little incentive to maintain artistic standards.  In such desperate circumstances, the tawaifs had no recourse for survival other than the common prostitution for which they had been accused.

In this environment, there were serious concerns whether their art-forms would survive.  The kathak dance, the thumree, the gazal,and dadra, were all under serious pressure.  But as we will see, there was a curious and complex chain of events which transpired which rescued the art-forms, even though the tawaif tradition itself was beyond being saved.

 

 

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Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - The Tawaifs
Part 3 - Evolution of the Will to End the Tawaifs
Part 4 - Evolution of the Means to End the Tawaifs
Part 5 - The Anti-Nautch Movement
Part 6 - The Passing of the Torch - Next Page
Part 7 - Affects of the Anti-Nautch Movement on North Indian Music
Part 8 - Epilogue

 

© 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 David and Chandrakantha Courtney

For comments, corrections, and suggestions, kindly contact David Courtney at david@chandrakantha.com