Part 7 - Effects of the Anti-Nautch Movement on North Indian Music

by David Courtney working tools



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
Part 7 - Affects of the Anti-Nautch Movement on North Indian Music - This Page
Part 8 - Epilogue


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.  The persecutions started in the South and were initially directed at the temple girls, however they quickly spread to the North where the tawaifs became the targets.  During these persecutions, there were serious questions whether the art-forms that the tawaifs specialised in would survive.  As it turned out these arts were embraced by the Indian middle class as part of a cultural renaissance that was sweeping India in the early 20th century.

This section will examine the various musical genres, dance forms, as well as the instrumental accompanists that were associated with the tawaif.  We will see how they suffered.  We will also look at how the music changed as it was taken out of the 18th century tawaif culture and passed onto the 20th century middle class culture.  We will see how the process of changing the culture in which these arts existed had profound affects upon them.  In particular, we examine the decline in the Muslim tawaifs and their accompanist with the subsequent transfer of their arts to a largely Hindu middle class.


Cultural Recontextualisation

Music and dance are inextricably linked to the cultures in which they are placed.  When a musical form is transferred from one cultural context to another, this is an example of cultural recontextualisation.  To a certain degree this is a normal process.  Times change and the cultural environment changes with the time, therefore musical styles are constantly undergoing some slight degree of recontextualisation, otherwise they pass out of fashion.  But occasionally there are major examples of cultural recontextualisation.  These are rare, but when they do occur, there are profound changes in both the performance as well as the consumption of music.

One example of a major recontextualisation of music may be seen in jazz.  In the space of less than a hundred years it changed from being a southern Afro-American art-form, into an international, urbane art-form; one in which the majority of its practitioners are white.  In the process of being recontextualised, the music underwent drastic changes.  It is useful to keep this jazz analogy in mind as we look at the recontextualisation of the tawaif's arts.

The change in cultural context of the tawaifs art-forms may be examined very simply.  We look at the culture from which the arts came, and we look at the culture into which the arts have come to occupy today.

Let us first review the culture in which these arts developed.  With the exception of the area around Benares, Jaipur, and a few other small principalities, the tawaifs were largely Muslim.  Their accompanying musicians too, were largely Muslim, and came from various classes of hereditary musicians.  Although the tawaifs were generally known for their extremely high level of formal education, their circle of accompanists were often illiterate and occupied a lower strata of society.  They subsisted on royal patronage, so they were ever mindful of the political situations in their kingdom; they were not above being active participants in these political machinations.

But the cultural environment in which these arts came to reside was very different.  Kathak dancers, classical vocalists, and their accompanying musicians have largely become Hindu.  Today their socio-economic strata is very different; today it is largely a middle, to upper class affair.  The days of the illiterate musician are over; today's artists typically have a respectable level of formal education.  Involvement in the political arena is no longer necessary, so most musicians and dancers today tend to have no more interest in politics than the public at large.

We will see later, that these differences have come to be reflected in very profound ways.  In particular, there are fundamental differences between Hindu and Islamic world-views.  These differences, when couple with a seismic shift in the culture of India during the late 19th and 20th century, meant that these musical forms do not have the same significance.  Neither are they performed in the same way.


The Tawaif's Arts

There were a number of arts that had a strong association with the tawaifs.  Let us examine these and see how they have fared.

Dance - Dance was the focal point of the anti-nautch movement.  Very obviously the dancers themselves suffered the most, and the dance itself was under considerable pressure.  It is interesting to note that the extreme pressure placed upon kathak and its exponents caused this dance to bifurcate into two genres.  There is the kathak and there is the mujara.

A comparison between the kathak and the mujara is in order.  kathak is a very refined and formalised dance form.  It is a combination of narrative elements as well as highly abstract "pure" dance forms.  There is a great reliance on complex rhythmic forms.  In contrast, the mujara is considered to be a South Asian erotic dance.  It is considerably less formalised, and may be a hodgepodge of cabaret, belly-dance, and kathak.  Today it is often indistinguishable from the typical Bollywood dance.

Kathak dancer

Kathak dancer

Typical Bollywood Mujara

Typical Bollywood Mujara

It is interesting to note that the differences between the contemporary mujara and kathak are very great.  They are so great that even an uninitiated audience can readily discern the difference when the two are performed side by side.  Yet in spite of the clear stylistic differences, the average uninitiated audience tends to confuse mujara and kathak.  The reason for this confusion is actually quite simple and may be summed up in a single word: Bollywood.

Bollywood has invoked "kathak" dances for many decades.  But what it has been passing off on the public has generally not been the refined kathak, but the mujara variety.  Therefore, it should be no surprise that the average public is confused on this matter.

Historically, the mujara and the kathak were one and the same; the bifurcation is a late 19th/ early 20th century phenomenon.  It is useful for us to step back and look at the cultural circumstances that lead to this bifurcation.

Kathak in the 18th and early 19th century was a very highly refined and formalised art.  The patrons of the tawaifs were very refined too, and no strangers to the arcane conventions of the art.  As matter of fact, one of the greatest patrons of the tawaifs was the ruler of Avadh (Oudh), the Wazid Ali Shah, who himself was so versed in the arts, that he is credited with numerous kathak pieces.  In this rarified environment, it is no surprise that kathak was able to attain incredible levels of sophistication.

Unfortunately this rarified and sophisticated environment did not survive.  In the mid to later part of the 19th century, large numbers of independent principalities were annexed into the British Empire.  With the decimation of the independent principalities, the tawaifs were forced to seek their patronage with the nouveau riche, who typically did not understand the subtle conventions of the art-form.  In order for the tawaifs to survive, they were forced to concentrate on ever more vulgar aspects of their repertoire, thus initiating a downward spiral in artistic content.  The situation for the tawaifs became even worse in the early decades of the 20th century, when they had to endure a considerable amount of professional competition from the non-tawaifs who were entering the dance field.  These non-tawaifs appropriated the more dignified repertoire, and left the tawaifs with no recourse other than to continually emphasise the erotic material.

The rise of the film industry further complicated the situation.  The mujara dance was the original "item number", but these films started to mix various folk and Western elements into the dance.  This began to be reflected in the repertoire of the tawaifs.  The mujara continued its downward spiral.  It declined to the extent that through much of the first half of the 20th century, the mujara was only to be found in the "red light" districts of Indian cities.  Today one can still find mujara dancers, but their connection with the noble kathak of the past is essentially severed.

But the evolution of the refined Kathak proceeded down a completely different line.  In the later part of the 19th century, men were becoming the repositories of the kathak repertoire.  Only the men could perform without fear of being branded as prostitutes.  During the cultural renaissance, the narrative aspects of the dance started to be re-emphasised.  This was especially true of stories related to Krishna and other traditional Hindu themes.  This was a reflection both of the changing makeup of the artists, as well as the changing makeup of the audiences.

By the second quarter of the 20th century more non-tawaif women were entering the profession.  But in order to maintain their "izzat" (dignity) they tended to steer away from erotic elements that had once been a component in the repertoire.  For a long time the more classical kathak was nearly devoid of erotic content.

So we can simplify the picture by saying this.  The kathak repertoire of the old tawaifs became bifurcated in the process of the recontextualisation of the art.  As the tawaifs descended into prostitution, their emphasis on the erotic aspects of their arts intensified.  This became the mujara.  Conversely the new the middle class artists developed the non-erotic elements which have come to be viewed as the present kathak.

It has not been my goal to conjecture as to the future of the kathak, but in this case think I should.  We are now witnessing a reintroduction of erotic content into the repertoire of the kathak dancer.  This really has nothing to do with the old tawaifs, but is instead a reflection of several phenomena.  On one hand, we have the Bollywood film industry with its extremely powerful grip upon popular culture.  Bollywood has continually pushed the more erotic mujara as being kathak.  Furthermore, we have a society today which is much more tolerant of erotic content in art.  This coupled with the fact that many concert goers are blithely unaware that there is even a difference between kathak and mujara.  And we must not forget that audience expectations is an extremely powerful influence on the development of any art.

The result of these various influences is interesting.  We are seeing more fusion of the mujara and kathak.  In the next few decades it is possibly that they may converge.  This is an interesting thing to watch.  If it does happen, it will be based upon very different set of social and cultural pressures than that which we have been examining in this article.

Vocal forms - If we look a the the influence of the anti-nautch movement and the recontextualisation of the vocal forms, we get a slightly different picture.  By the time that the anti-nautch movement began, most of the vocal forms were shared by tawaifs and non-tawaifs alike.  This was a major contrast to the kathak / mujara dance forms that the tawaifs had a near monopoly on.

Since the vocal forms were shared by both tawaif and non-tawaif, the impact of the anti-nautch movement was not nearly so profound.  The only clear impact that the anti-nautch movement had was that, for a period, people tended to boycott the female artist in favour of the male vocalist.

But that is not to say that there were not changes.  There was still the changes which occurred as the music was taken up by the Hindu middle classes and taken from the largely Muslim hereditary musicians.  However since these changes were due to events that were only loosely connected to the anti-nautch movement, we will not discuss it further here.



The Tawaifs Accompanists

A movement on the order of the anti-nautch movement would be expected to cause a considerable amount of collateral damage.  Remember that the nautch was not merely an Indian dancing girl, but represented a large and more complex social, artistic, and economic entity.  If the tawaif suffered socially and economically, then her musical accompanists also suffered, the tailors that specialised in their refined expensive, yet very specialised clothing also suffered.  Furthermore, it is not just people who suffer, but entire musical and dance genres suffer.  Let us look at how some of these other entities were affected.

Sarangi vs. Harmonium - The rise of the harmonium and the decline in the sarangi are directly attributable to the anti-nautch movement.  The sarangi had become so closely identified with tawaif, that sarangi players found it extremely difficult to find work.  The stigma attached to the sarangi was so great and lasted so long, that it was only around the turn of the 21st century, that we have seen any major resurgence in interest in this instrument.

sarangi player

sarangi player

The stigmatisation of the sarangi and the sarangi players had a very obvious problem.  If a vocalist was wanting to "clean up their image" by avoiding the sarangi, then what was there to fill the void.  This is where the harmonium enters the picture.  When singers, usually male singers, wished to distance themselves as much as possible from the tawaif, the harmonium provided a convenient way to do it.  Since it was a European import, a male singer could present himself with a very different image than if he had chosen a sarangi.  This image made it much easier to get performances among the rising Indian bourgeoisie.

Harmonium player in old radio broadcast

Harmonium player in old radio broadcast

It should be noted that many ascribe musical reasons for the rise of the harmonium.  It is true that the fixed tuning of the harmonium makes it very convenient to maintain the same key throughout a performance.  But that is hardly an advantage when its tempered scale is fundamentally out of tune with Indian scales.  Furthermore, its inability to handle certain slides makes many rags almost impossible to perform.  I think that even a cursory look at the musical history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, makes it clear that it was social, and not musical pressures, that cased the sarangi to be replaced by the harmonium.

Tabla - Tabla is another instrument that, like the sarangi, became linked to the tawaif.  The result was that during the height of the anti-nautch movement and even for a long time afterwards, there was a tremendous stigma attached to both the tabla as well as tabla players.  The term "tabalchi" (i.e., one who plays the tabla), became synonymous with a drunk, a pimp, or a vulgar member of society.

Tabla player

Tabla player

One would naturally wonder why the tabla was not replaced with something else.  After-all, if the harmonium could be substituted for the sarangi, surly there must be some other instrument free of stigma that could replace the tabla.  Curiously the answer was no.  The dynamics of the north Indian performance was such that a non-Indian percussion just could not fit the bill.  Other Indian instruments such as pakhawaj or dholak might have been pressed into service, but their "Indian-ness" still made them somewhat suspect among many of the bourgeoisie.  Therefore, since there was no appropriate substitute, the tabla was retained as a necessary evil.

In this last section we examined many of the curious effects of the anti-nautch movement upon the dance, vocal forms, and various instruments.  It is not surprising that the greatest influence was exerted upon the kathak dance form, resulting in its bifurcation.  But we also saw that sarangi players and tabla players both suffered due to their close association with the tawaif.


The Hindu Appropriation of the Arts

We have mentioned earlier that north Indian music became recontextualised during the cultural renaissance in the early 20th century.  It is interesting to note that a major aspect of this recontextualisation was a result of religious differences, as artists, and audiences alike began to be Hindu.  This had a major impact both upon the arts, as well as the way that society viewed the arts.  In particular, the histories of the instruments and art-forms were completely re-examined.

Alterations of the Histories - One very significant change in the arts was that they acquired different histories.  When the Hindus in India absorbed the arts from their Islamic forebearers, it was deemed necessary to reinterpret them according to very different world views.  Furthermore, the histories were rewritten in ways that downplayed the contributions of the tawaifs.  Let us look at this historical revisionism as a function of differences between Hindu and Islamic world views.

The old hereditary musicians knew almost nothing about the history of their craft; it is common today to deride their ignorance in these matters.  This is often attributed to their lack of education, as well as a reflection of their position in the lower classes.  Although these are certainly valid points, it is often overlooked that there may be another subtle, yet more profound reason for this ignorance of history.

Today we tend to look at the situation from the stand point of the educated Hindu; this is only to be expected since this represents the majority culture.  However, we must not forget that there are fundamental differences in the way Hindus and Muslims view the passage of time, and by extension, history.

According to Hindu world views, the passage of time is inextricably linked to decay.  According to the Puranic scriptures, the world is created fresh and everything is perfect, but decay begins to set in.  This decay continues through several aeons (i.e., Yuga) until finally decay reaches such a level (i.e., Kaliyuga), that the world must be destroyed and created anew.  This view is is reflected in the definition of words, for instance the Sanskrit word "kaal", means "death", "black", and "time".  But this basic Hindu concept of time is fundamentally at odds with Islamic concepts.

Let us look more closely at the Islamic concept of time.  In Islam, the concept of time being only a destroyer, is derided; and is the definition of an atheist.  Hence the Arabic word for an atheist is "dahri" which is derived from the expression "ad dahr" which means "time".  The Arabic word for "atheism" is "ad dahriyyah".  So in the Islamic world view, the Hindu degenerative quality of time is considered to be fundamentally false, evil, and corrupting.  But this is not the only indication that Hindus and Muslims view time differently.  For example, the time before Islam is referred to as "jahiliyyah" which implies a "time of ignorance".

The fact that Muslims and Hindus have very different approaches to time and history had a profound impact on the recontextualisation of North Indian classical music.  In the Islamic world view, antiquity is fundamentally suspect.  This is especially true when it predates the arrival of Islam.  This is in sharp contrast to the Hindu belief that the older something is, the better it is, because it is closer to the time when the world was perfect.  These fundamental differences had profound repercussions.

Where the earlier Muslim artists felt no great need to concern themselves with the histories of their art, the Hindu inheritors felt that an antiquity to their art-forms was absolutely essential.  They immediately set about to do as much historical research as possible.  Historical research is certainly good, and we must thank the many scholars for their noble work.  But unfortunately, the benchmark for good historical research was very often who could push something back the furthest, and not how rigourous the research actually was.

The result was interesting.  Although the historical picture of many instruments and genre started to crystallise, in many cases this image was like a circus hall of mirrors.  Pre-Islamic or at least non-Islamic origins of things were greatly overstated (e.g. kathak) and in some cases fabricated (e.g., sarod, sarangi, sitar).  Conversely, Islamic origins were downgraded in importance, ignored, or in some cases replaced with a fabricated Hindu origins.

It is not really any use criticising the scholarship of many of the music historians of the early 20th century.  It is not our purpose to point fingers or accuse anyone of deception, but rather to understand the cultural, and psychological reasons behind such self deceptions.  Since the Hindu world view equated antiquity with validity, they were under tremendous cultural pressures to discover or fabricate such an antiquities.

There was another way in which the history of music was rewritten.  The tawaifs were expunged from the histories of the arts.  Artists who frequently had multiple teachers, would edit their "official" parampara in ways that excluded females, and only acknowledged the male members.  When themes were chosen for kheyals, the works of non-tawaifs was considered acceptable, but the literary works of tawaifs were not.

Hindu Themes - The thematic content of the artistic material was also subject to reinterpretation due to the recontextualisation of the tawaif's arts.  For instance the largely secular themes of the kathak dances began to be supplemented with more narratives from Hindu mythology; stories of Krishna were especially popular.  The more secular lyrics from the kheyals tended to be replaced with lyrics from Mira and other musician saints.  The examples of this are simply to numerous to chronicle.



Previous Page | Top of Page | Next Page

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
Part 7 - Affects of the Anti-Nautch Movement on North Indian Music
Part 8 - Epilogue - Next Page


© 1998 - 2017 David and Chandrakantha Courtney

For comments, corrections, and suggestions, kindly contact David Courtney at