The ‘Pro-Nautch’ Pictures and Writings of Lily Strickland: 1923-1925

By Donovan Roebert

Lily Strickland Anderson (1884-1958) was an American composer and early amateur ethnomusicologist, as well as a gifted watercolourist. In 1920, her husband, J.C. Anderson, was employed as a manager for an American company in Calcutta. Strickland joined him there and spent the next ten years in India, returning to the United States in 1930. She also travelled in Asia and Africa, writing reports on the music and dance that she encountered there. These were published in the Musical Courier and the Journal of the American Asiatic Association.

I will be dealing here with two of her articles on Indian dance which appeared in these publications in 1923 and 1925. The first of these, Nautch Dancing, appeared in the Musical Courier; the second, Nautch Girls and Old Rhythms of India, was published in the JAAC.

Strickland was in some respects a typical American orientalist of the 1920s, interested in Indian culture and art, and in defending Indian traditions against western, and especially Christian, criticisms and interventions. So far as the Indian dances are concerned, she was keen to show that they deserved attention and respect in their own right, quite apart from the moralizing aspersions that were then being made against them by the anti-nautch agitators in the years during which she was in India. Though she met Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn in Calcutta in 1926, and on the latter’s request composed the music for his orientalist ballet, ‘The Cosmic Dance of Shiva’, she remained convinced that indigenous Indian dance forms should be kept intact and unvitiated.

In keeping with the pictorial theme of my work, I will present and attempt to analyse the photographs that accompany those two of her writings with which I am dealing here. But I will do so only after a survey of the points of view expressed in her own articles, together with some passing consideration of various other writings that tended towards a ‘pro-nautch‘ view from the 1860s to her day. Taken collectively, these writings are interesting in that they make the kinds of arguments in favour of the retention of the dance traditions in India that were simply ignored by the anti-nautch lobby. These arguments included such facets of the question as the duty of foreigners not to interfere with Indian customs, the need for Indian dance to be appreciated on its own terms, the assertion that the dance itself is not an improper entertainment, the separation of the art from the domain of moral fashions, distinguishing the artist from the private person, asserting the dancers’ right to earn a living from their work, and so on. These ‘pro-nautch‘ voices certainly constituted a small minority, and there is no evidence that any of their arguments were even considered by the anti-nautch groups, yet their stance remains interesting as evidence of a contemporary body of thought and sentiment that must have extended much beyond the few who wrote openly in this vein.

The idea that imperial functionaries should not interfere in Indian customs – and especially religious traditions and practices, which by their nature included the devadasi praxis – was formally enunciated by Queen Victoria in unambiguous terms in 1858. Though it was a pronouncement that was no doubt motivated by imperial expediency, coming as it did immediately after the Indian Rebellion (or ‘Mutiny’), itself precipitated by British disregard for the religious sensibilities of the sepoys, her decree leaves little room for misinterpretation:

‘We disclaim alike the right and the desire to impose our convictions on any of our subjects. We declare it to be our royal will and pleasure that none be in anywise favoured, none molested or disquieted, by reason of their religious faith or observances, but that all shall alike enjoy the equal and impartial protection of the law; and we do strictly charge and enjoin all those who may be in authority under us that they abstain from all interference with the religious belief or worship of any of our subjects on pain of our highest displeasure.’

This royal injunction helps partially to explain the refusal of the Viceroy and the Governor of Madras to become embroiled in the anti-nautch activism that was launched in 1892-93. Yet partially, too, one cannot but discern in the wording of their replies to the Anti-Nautch Movement’s memorandum these gentlemen’s own personal dislike of the extremism of the anti-nautch agenda.

The Viceroy replied that ‘He has, on one or two occasions, when travelling in different parts of India, been present at entertainments at which the nautch formed a part, but the proceedings were, as far as His Excellency observed them, not characterized by any impropriety, and the performers were present in the exercise of their profession as dancers, in accordance with the custom of the country …’

The Governor of Madras echoes the Viceroy’s sentiments, but adds a politely contemptuous touch of his own:

‘H.E. has been present on several occasions on which nautches have been performed, at none of which he has seen anything which might, in the remotest degree, be considered improper; and it has never occurred to him to take into consideration the moral character of the performers at these entertainments, any more than when he has been present at performances which have been carried out by professional dancers or athletes either in Europe or India …’

These were responses to the Anti-Nautch Movement’s demand, disguised as a request, that their excellencies ‘discourage this pernicious practice by declining to attend any entertainment at which nautch-girls are invited to perform’, having characterized the dancers in their opening statements as being ‘invariably prostitutes’.

The idea of easy tolerance and even enjoyment of the ‘nautch’ had already been expressed, in an imperial society becoming rapidly more radically Christianized, by James Kerr, principal of the Presidency College in Calcutta, in 1865:

‘Certain it is that these entertainments have of late years become less popular among the European residents. The severe piety of the present day frowns upon them. It is sometimes said that to attend a nautch is to countenance idolatry. I cannot at all concur with this opinion …’

Regarding the equation of the dancers with prostitutes, Kerr reflects that ‘The nautch-girls are not generally considered persons of spotless virtue … In this respect they resemble our opera dancers, who may, in many instances, be very respectable, but who, as a class, are not regarded as models of severe virtue’, and concludes that ‘I cannot but think that the growing disinclination on the part of our countrymen to attend nautches at the houses of respectable natives is much to be regretted.’

As a member of the educated British establishment in Calcutta, Kerr would surely have been expressing an opinion that concurred with that of the normative moral code of European residents in the city. The idea of the ‘nautch-girl’ representing a danger to the virtue of Indian society as whole does not ever seem to have been a mainstay of British public opinion – at least not until the advent of radical evangelical feminism (much of it American), and the growing self-righteousness and zeal for social ‘purity’ that was taken up by local Indian reform movements.

Closer to Lily Strickland’s own day, there were two ‘pro-nautch’ advocates who wrote directly against the agenda of the anti-nautch movement in an unmistakable and uncompromising manner. These were the early and controversial ‘sexologist’, Havelock Ellis, and the British civil servant in India, Otto Rothfeld.

Rothfeld, who had been resident in India for twenty-five years, wrote that:

‘… dancing remains the most living and developed of existing Indian arts. In the Peninsular school above all, India has a possession of very real merit, on which no appreciation or encouragement can be thrown away. It is something of which the country can well be proud, almost the only thing left, perhaps, in the general death-like slumber of all imaginative work, which still has a true emotional response and value. It sends its call to a people’s soul; it is alive and forceful …’

‘All the more tragic is it, a very tragedy of irony, that the dance—the one really Indian art that remains—has been, by some curious perversion of reasoning, made the special object of attack by an advanced and reforming section of Indian publicists. They have chosen to do so on the score of morality—not that they allege the songs and dances to be immoral, if such these could be, but that they say the dancers are. Of the dances themselves no such allegation could, even by the wildest imagination, possibly be made. The songs are pure beside the ordinary verses of a comic opera, not to mention a music-hall in the capital of European civilization, Paris. The dancing is graceful and decorous, carefully draped and restrained. But the dancers, it is true, do not as a rule preserve that strict code of chastity which is exacted from the marrying woman. How the stringency or laxity of observance of this code by a performer can possibly affect the emotional and even national value of her art and performance has not been and cannot be explained. Art cannot be smirched by the sins of its followers; the flaws in the crystal goblet do not hurt the flavour of the wine …

‘Day by day the number of those women is growing less who alone preserve the memory of a fine Indian art. And, as they lose the independence earned by a profession, day by day more women are being thrust into the abysmal shame and destitution of degraded womanhood. An Indian proverb already sums up this peculiar item of the “reform programme” thus: “The dancing girl was formerly fed with good food in the temple; now she turns somersaults for a beggar’s rice.” ‘

Havelock Ellis, writing in 1910, had concurred:

‘Nowadays Indian “reformers” in the name of “civilization and science” seek to persuade the muralis (girls dedicated to the Gods) that they are “plunged in a career of degradation.” No doubt in time the would-be moralists will drive the muralis out of their temples and their homes, deprive them of all self-respect, and convert them into wretched outcastes, all in the cause of “civilization and science.” So it is that early reformers create for the reformers of a later day the task of humanizing prostitution afresh.’

I do not know whether Strickland was familiar with these writings, but the note she strikes is a similar one, though perhaps less forceful in its wording. The two of her articles with which I am dealing here are clearly two versions of a single original essay that reflect her thoughts on the pan-Indian dance scene as a whole.

Her starting point refers to a performance of proto-Kathak dance which she witnessed on her arrival in India at Bombay. About it and the dancer she writes: ‘That this was a special nautch party I knew at once; for the dancer chosen for our pleasure was quite, in an oriental way, the prettiest girl I had ever seen. The raja told us … that he had secured her services for the evening for two-hundred rupees, that she was sixteen, and that, chaperoned by her mother and father, she had come from Delhi … Her muscular control and coordination were admirable as she worked herself up to the climax of her dance and then drooped gracefully to the floor … In the course of our residence in India … I later saw many nautches, but never another Jamina, never such cameo-like features as hers, such large and slumberous eyes and so dainty a form …’

This passage leads on to criticism of a later dance presentation at the Maidan Theatre in Calcutta:

‘The artificiality of the stage was accentuated by its profuse decorations of abnormal palms, variegated marble pillars, and garish cushions … The well-meaning manager had evidently gathered in his dancers … from the four corners of Bengal. The nautch-girls (“girls” is euphemistic), lumbering about the stage like a stray herd of buffaloes, looked awkwardly self-conscious and bewildered … The crude stage-setting, the raucous music, the obese Bengali dancers … gave the effect of caricature … No nautch performance can be seen at its best in a setting so artificial as the Maidan Theatre …’

She uses this experience as the basis for her differentiation of the authentic dance from the orientalized version:

‘The Indian nautch-girl is dignified, deliberate, and serious. Though she knows nothing about “artistic restraint”, she nevertheless has the natural restraint of the primitive – an elemental graveness and placidity. She is, above all, leisurely and takes no account of time. Her dance begins with almost imperceptible movements, gradually gathering momentum with the crescendo of the music. Her slow, undulating postures are graceful, sedate and instinct with charm. When she achieves a climax, it is genuine, because she works up to it naturally and in accordance with the development of her dance. Then she gives and gives freely, with the spontaneity of a wild bird’s song … The whole body of the dancer, even to flexible fingers and feet, responds to the decrescendo or crescendo of the tempo. She moves sinuously, en rapport with the minor cadences of the music, which continues in waves of unbroken sound …’

Strickland then moves on to a consideration of orientalist western dance:

‘Occidental impressions of oriental dancing may delight the eye and enchant the mind, as do all art-forms fashioned by the imagination of idealistic exponents of beauty and rhythm combined. The stage-setting may be splendid, the music sensuous and the dancers themselves lovely, but the one thing is lacking, and that is reality. We are, after all, seeing “impressions” of eastern dancing, shaped and modified to meet the understanding of the western mind – a very different thing from the actual nautch in India … A symphony orchestra cannot possibly be so effective for a nautch as one or two drums in the hands of inspired players in a natural, simple setting in India. The real nautch-girl needs nothing more …’

Apart from making these distinctions, Strickland also discerns the relativism of morals as applied to the courtesan aspect of the dancers’ tradition:

‘The Abbe J.A. Dubois, an unimpeachable authority on Indian customs, was very harsh in his criticism of the morals and manners of the temple-dancers of South India. But in some sense, morals, like manners, are a matter of geography. To the Hindu masses it is not strange that the devadasis are courtesans … A few Indians devoted to social progress now feel this ethical contradiction so strongly that they are supporting a program for the reform of the dancing-girls’ caste. These men and women successfully used their influence to prevent the appearance of nautch-girls at the Empire Exhibition in London last year …’

As an aside it is interesting to note that the organizers of the exhibition were quite willing to have dancers performing in London, even while Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi’s anti-nautch campaign was growing strident in Madras. The allusion also serves to demonstrate – if it needed demonstrating at all – that the zeal of the anti-nautch movement was quite willing to see the art of dance perish in the process of doing away with the temple service. This indeed is roundly stated in R.V. Naidu’s anti-nautch essay of 1901, in which he sees dance in India becoming ‘obsolete’ and ‘a relic of the past’.

Strickland concludes her 1923 article with the disclaimer:

‘Not having gone to India as a missionary or an investigator with the purpose of spreading Indian propaganda in America, I make no attempts to gloss over unpleasant truths about India. My remarks on the characters of Indian nautch-girls must be taken as a mere statement of fact and not as an effort to injure the character of a class, or as indignant protestation. Art and so-called morality are, in my mind, in no way connected, and I am interested in Art …’

Though flawed by its own presuppositions and prejudices, Strickland’s writings on ‘nautch’, for all their brevity, do evince a balance of thought and sentiment that was sorely lacking to the activists who eventually succeeded in destroying rather than properly regulating the practices of the hereditary dancers in India in 1947.

Lest we be tempted to accuse her of compromise, though, consider this extract from her essay, In Praise of Heathenism, written in 1926 while she was still living in Calcutta:

‘Much has been spoken and written about the difficulties of Christianizing the so-called heathen. One who has lived for any considerable time in the East, comes to have serious doubts about the desirability of doing so, even it it were possible … it would be tragic, if not criminal, to substitute for their satisfying philosophy the perplexities fostered by abstruse conceptions of convictions of sin … A philosopher has wisely said that man makes God in his own image. If that be true, what use have the Eastern heathens for the white man’s god? … Fear, induced by hysteria, is the door through which (Christians) would have men seek their salvation. If their pictures of hell are graphic and revolting, their interpretations of heaven are, to some of us, equally revolting … the pantheon of the Hindu is filled with real and human personalities, brought near to the heart by their very weaknesses and sublimated vices … The great temples of India … all have many attendants, musicians, bards and dancing girls who perform at the calendar festivals … A happy life must consist in expression, not repression …’

Turning now to the pictorial aspect of the articles, I must note immediately that these illustrations follow the pattern of their time in not presenting photographic material provided at first-hand by the authors themselves. What we see used, rather, are typical photographs then in circulation in a number of publications, but also being distributed as postcards, cabinet cards and cartes-de-visite. These photographs occur in the 1923 and 1925 articles, whose details are given in the notes below.

Figure 1: ‘Native Dancing Class (Puri)’. Used in both the 1923 and 1925 articles. (Unknown photographer).

This picture is previously unknown to me, and might show an instance of Maharis demonstrating their dance in Puri – though I am by no means certain of this.

The second photograph is more well-known:

Figure 2: The ‘nautch-girl’ as captioned in the original article of 1925.

This image is that of a Bengali dancer and musicians performing the ‘peacock dance’. It was made or printed by Johnston & Hoffman in Calcutta, and went into the market as a postcard, of which there is also a chromolithographed version:

Figure 3: Chromolithograph copy of figure 2. (Johnston & Hoffman, Calcutta).

It was also used as an illustration in Women of all Nations: a record of their characteristics etc., published in 1915:

Figure 4: The same photograph as it appears in the 1915 publication, ‘Women of all Nations‘.

P.A. Johnston and T.J. Hoffman established their first studio in Calcutta in 1882. Franchise studios were subsequently opened in the 1890s in Darjeeling, Shimla and Rangoon. Johnston died in 1891, after which Hoffman took over sole control of the business. The company had a long lifespan, eventually shutting down in the 1950s.

The photograph itself should probably be dated to c. 1910, and was already five years in circulation when Strickland used it as an illustration. This sort of illustrative practice was common at the time, though it would certainly have been possible by the 1920s for the author to make original photographs that would better have illustrated her own personal experience of the ‘nautch’.

Johnston & Hoffman also made the following photograph of a Calcutta dancer used in the 1925 article:

Figure 5: ‘Nautch-girl of India’ in the 1925 article. (Johnston & Hoffman, Calcutta).

The caption concerns itself with details of costume and the ‘prescribed toilet’ of the dancer, from the hair down to the ‘finger-tips and toes tinted with henna’. Again, this is a set of photographs that I have not previously come across, and it is valuable as a further addition to the extant quantity of ‘nautch’ photographs available in the public domain.

The next photograph in the 1925 article shows South Indian dancers:

Figure 6: Captioned photograph from the 1925 article. (A.W.A. Plate Ltd., Colombo).

A.W.A and Clara Plate established their first small photographic studio in the Bristol Hotel in Colombo in 1890, later moving to larger premises in Colpetty. The business became a limited private company in 1900 and was flourishing by 1910. The fact that this photograph is attributed to the limited company dates this print to after 1900 though the original plate was made in the 1890s.

Here is a clearer version in the postcard format:

Figure 7: Postcard format of figure 6.

This postcard also made its appearance as a chromolithograph:

Figure 8: Chromolithograph version of figure 7.

And there is a more fanciful version, which includes a temple gopura:

Figure 9: The same dancers with gopura.

This version is dated to 1898, and was devised and printed in a studio in Dresden, probably by Wilhelm Hoffman, who may have been related to Theodore Hoffman in the Calcutta studio. Though the captions throughout claim that these are Ceylonese dancers, this is very unlikely. To judge from the costumes, poses and design of the composition, with its inclusion of multiple tanpuras, this is most probably a photograph of South Indian dancers in an advertisement for an ethnological exhibition in Germany. Dancers for these exhibitions were usually recruited at Tanjore and Madras, and, for reasons having to do with British colonial laws on migrant Indian workers, were ferried to Sri Lanka before setting sail for Europe. It is known that A.W.A. Plate used German studios for reproduction of postcards, and it is likely that original plates made in the Colombo studio, featuring South Indian dancers in transit, were sent on to Germany for mass-printing. This would have been unknown to Strickland herself, who might simply have bought one of these postcards in Calcutta.

The last three photographs are found in the 1923 article, the first being a picture of Gauhar Jaan:

Figure 10: A photograph of Gauhar Jaan in the 1923 article.

Most readers of this article will know well enough who Gauhar Jaan (1873-1930) was, and I will not attempt another brief biographical outline here. Suffice it to say that she was indeed the ‘star’ that Lily Strickland calls her. She would certainly have known about her flamboyant public life and her wild successes both in live performances and as one of the earliest tawa’if-Kathak vocalists that took to the gramophone recording studios. By the time of this article, though, Gauhar Jaan’s career was slipping into decline, and the tragic end of her famous and eccentric life was drawing near. Faced with costly court battles against a treacherous, money-grubbing ex-husband, and looking at a future bereft of all the promise and eccentricity of her earlier years of adulation and opulence, she died in 1930, in the employ of the Mysore princely court, some say of a broken heart.

The second illustration in the 1923 article is this one:

Figure 11: ‘Indian Nautch Girls’ from the 1923 article.

The picture shows Bengali dancers in typical postures found in other studio photographs of the period. The name of the photographer is not given in the article, but this picture may also have been the work of Johnston & Hoffman. It also exists in a colourized version:

Figure 12: A colourized version of figure 11.

Again we have no studio imprint, nor any means for accurate dating. The kind of pose and general picture quality tends to place it in the 1910s, about fifteen years before Strickland wrote her ‘nautch’ articles. These dancers appear again in the third and last illustration of the 1923 article, this time together with their accompanists:

Figure 13: ‘Two dancers with three instrumentalists’, from the 1923 article.

This photograph is another of those which seems to have no other copies in the public domain. If this is indeed the case, it has an inherent value in having been preserved by Strickland. It is quite possible, though the illustration may pre-date her article by a decade or so, that these were the kind of dancers that she was used to seeing in performances in Calcutta in the 1920s. Their dance would have been of the proto-Kathak type associated probably with the Lucknow style that was performed throughout the Bengal Presidency, as well as in Delhi.

Lily Strickland was also a prolific watercolourist whose paintings are archived in the special collections of the Anderson University in South Carolina. It may the case that she painted depictions of dancers during the decade she spent in India, though her pictures are not available for public viewing.

Here is a portrait of Ms Strickland herself:

Figure 14: Lily Strickland, c. 1905. (Anderson University).

Notes:

  1. Queen Victoria’s injunction of 1858 is cited in Arya R. Hackney, The Question of Agency and Conjugal Norms for the Devadasi, Phd. thesis, no institution given, undated.
  2. The full texts of the responses to the Anti-Nautch Movement by the Viceroy and Governor of Madras are quoted in Mrs Marcus B. Fuller, The Wrongs of Indian Womanhood, Young People’s Missionary Movement, 1900.
  3. Extracts from James Kerr are from The Domestic Life, Character and Customs of the Natives of India, Allen & Co., London, 1865.
  4. Passages from Otto Rothfeld are from Women of India, Taraporevala Sons & Co., Bombay, 1920.
  5. Passages from Havelock Ellis are from Sex in Relation to Society being vol. 6 of Studies in the Psychology of Sex, F.A. Davids Company, Philadelphia, 1910.
  6. Extracts from Lily Strickland are from Nautch Dancing, The Musical Courier, vol, 87, no. 15, 1923, and Nautch Girls and Old Rhythms of India, The Journal of the American Asiatic Association, vol.25, August, 1925, and In Praise of Heathenism, The Open Court Magazine, June, 1926.
  7. Reference to Strickland’s composition of the music for ‘The Cosmic Dance of Shiva’ is found in Ted Shawn, Gods Who Dance, 1929, cited in Matthew Harp Allen, Rewriting the Script for South Indian Dance, TDR, vol. 41, no. 3, 1997.
  8. The page shown in figure 4 is from Women of All Nations: a record of their characteristics, habits, manners, customs, and influence, ed. T. Athol Joyce and T. Northcote Whitridge, Funk & Wagnalls Company, NY, 1915.

End.

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