Music & dance of Kashmir: A Historical Perspective: Part IV | The Myth of Hafizas

There is not any mention of the word “Hafiza” for the Kashmiri female dancers & singers in the travelogues
The poor “nautch girls” of Kashmir were reduced to the status of “slave-girls” right from the Sikh period. The womenfolk of socio-economically upper-classes of Kashmirian community were not given to singing-dancing occupation at this time of history. [Representational Image]
The poor “nautch girls” of Kashmir were reduced to the status of “slave-girls” right from the Sikh period. The womenfolk of socio-economically upper-classes of Kashmirian community were not given to singing-dancing occupation at this time of history. [Representational Image] File/ GK

Now coming to the term “Hafizas”! There is no historical evidence that in Chak Period or in Afghan Period, female singers & dancers of Kashmir were called by any specific terminology like “Hafizas”.

Nor is there evidence that the Durrani Afghan government was exporting Kashmiri female singers & dances to Punjab or Kabul. [See Bazaz & Hassnain] Afghan Rulers of Kashmir had no affinity with contemporaneous Sikh Rulers of Punjab.

However, Kashmir was geographically so linked to Punjab that it was easy for these nautch-girls and their families to cross over to Punjab territory, which was more prosperous than Kashmir, for performing their “art” to earn a livelihood. The political atmosphere also suited it.

There is not any mention of the word “Hafiza” for the Kashmiri female dancers & singers in the travelogues of eyewitnesses during the Sikh period of Kashmir. On huge evidence, these girls invariably hailed from “weaker sections” of the Kashmirian society, & for earning a livelihood, they performed “dance” at people’s weddings & festivals in the city.

Their main source of income was, however, performance in government-parties. They were “seen at” Dogra “Darbars and festivals which the Maharajas held at Srinagar”.

The poor “nautch girls” of Kashmir were reduced to the status of “slave-girls” right from the Sikh period. The womenfolk of socio-economically upper-classes of Kashmirian community were not given to singing-dancing occupation at this time of history.

Seclusion of women of upper classes was the rule & the singing-dancing-art was considered unfit for girls of upper classes and it was practiced by women of socio-economically lower strata of the society.

It is supported by Godfrey Thomas Vigne’s record. In 1835, he observed that “in Kashmir, there is no purdah, or concealment of the features, excepting amongst the higher classes”.

As regards the terminology of “Hafizas”, Historians Peer Gh Hassan Shah Khuihami & Pandit Birbal Joo Kachru in their Persian manuscripts/chronicles have not used any specific terminology like “Hafizas” for singing-dancing-girls of Kashmir who performed before Afghan Subedar, Ameer Khan Jawansher, at Sona Lank.

The Persian chronicles do not contain any such term whatsoever to specify dancing-singing girls of Kashmir in Afghan Period. On a survey of the Persian manuscripts, “Majma ut-Tawarikh” [1835-1846 AD] of Pandit Birbal Kachru & “Dar Bayani Tarikhi Siyasi Kashmir” [1885 AD] of Peer Ghulam Hassan Shah Khuihami, lying with Department of Libraries & Research, Sri Pratap Singh Library, M A, Road, Srinagar, respectively, under MSS Nos: 14 & 2932, one does not find such a term having been mentioned by the Chroniclers for the singing-dancing-girls or “nautch-girls” of Kashmir during the Durani Period of Kashmir, in general, & in the reign of Ameer Khan Jawansher, in particular.

The Urdu translation of Tarikhi Hassan by Prof. Sharief Hussain Qasimi which is “word-for-word” Urdu translation does not either contain such terminology. No such term as “Hafiza” has been used by the Chroniclers for Kashmiri female singers-dancers during Sultanate, Chak, Mughal & Afghan Periods of Kashmir’s history.

Professor Shams ud Din Ahmad has done Kashmiri translation of Tarikhi Hassan which was published by J&K Academy of Arts, Culture & Languages, Srinagar, in 1999. It too does not mention of any such terminology.

Mirza Saif-ud-Din’ s Private Diaries in Persian, “Khulasat-ul-Tawareekh, Diwan Krippa Ram’s Gulabnama & Urdu translation of Tarikhi Hassan by Moulvi Ibrahim do not contain any such terminology for dancing girls of Kashmir. Unfortunately, some authors & academicians [Bamzai, Khan, Sofi , Hassnain, Raina] have uncritically used & copied “Hafiza” terminology for nautch girls, who were “courtesans” & in their fanciful imagery, like folklore writing, they have attributed it to Afghan or Muslim Period of Kashmir.

There is prima facie evidence about the term “Hafiza” was a later interpolation in Kashmir’s music & dance history. To recapitulate, besides male singers, there were female singers & dancers from ancient-medieval times down to the present times in Kashmir.

However, there is no historical evidence that Kashmiri female singers-dancers were ever called “Hafizas” in Mughal rule or Afghan rule.

Then, how & why this term was coined in Kashmir’s music & dance tradition. First mention of this term appeared in 1916 in Kashmiri Lexicon which recorded that a Hafiza as “a courtesan, prostitute, dancing girl, nautch-girl & that “Hafiza Nagma” as “a nautch, a dance by her accompanied by a chorus of singers & instrumental music”.

Till end of nineteenth century, the singing-dancing-girls of Kashmir like their North Indian counterparts were referred to by the same & single name of “nautch-girls” or “Nautch-wallis” or Natsun-wajini in Kashmiri.

It appears that in the first quarter of twentieth century, the nautch-girls of Kashmir had received specific name of Hafizas in spoken language which naturally led to its inclusion in the Lexicon.

Who gave this name to them is not known. Some later scholars have romanticised the very definition of the terms “Hafiza” & “Hafiz Nagma”. We appreciate the elegant, ornate style & fanciful imagery followed by them about Hafizas & their dancing & singing styles.

In 1962, Bamzai [d 2007] who was essential part of the then State & Central Information & Broadcasting Departments wrote a fanciful account, without citing any source, around Kashmir’s singing-dancing tradition that due to Turko-Persian influence on local music, Kashmiri “danseuses came to be known” as “Hafizas” in Mughal & Afghan Periods.

He identified “Hafizas” with “Sufiana Kalam” or “Sufi influence”, adding that they “recited songs in Persian instead of in Sanskrit.” His book saw reprints in 1994 & 2017.

Some later authors & scholars, [Khan, Sofi & local-Encyclopedia] have uncritically copied the fascinating passages from Prithvi Nath Koul Bamzai’s book without ascertaining whether name “Hafiza” for Kashmiri singing-dancing girls actually existed in music traditions during Muslim Rule of Kashmir? On historical evidence, no such terminology existed anywhere. According to Pandit Radhey Krishen Parmu, Bamzai’s book on history of Kashmir lacks historical probity & research; it does not sift historical from mythical or un-historical material.

The word “Hafiza” is feminine of “Hafiz”. “Hafiz” is derivative of “He’fiz”, to memorise. The word “Hafiz” is a common noun referred to the one who has completely memorised the whole Quran. “One who has the whole Quran by heart”. “Hafiza” is female memorizer of the Quran. All these inter-related terms have Arabic root.

The word “Hafiz” in Urdu, Persian & Kashmiri languages is a loanword or lexical term borrowed from Arabic. It also means “a guardian, keeper, one of the names of Allah” in Islam.

Though it also means to keep, to save, to preserve, to guard, to memorise, as yet, the word “Hafiz”, in the context of Muslim honourifics globally,, without distinction, is specifically conferred on the one who memorises the Holy Quran.

Even if one memorises & recites the whole Kalams/ Dewans of greatest mystics & poets by heart, in Islam, he/she is not conferred with the honorific of Hafiz or Hafiza, at all.

There is no historical evidence that Kashmiri singing-dancing girls or so-called Hafizas memorised Persian & Kashmiri mystic poetry & recited it through their songs & dances before the ruling grandees & their guests during Afghan, Sikh & Dogra Periods of Kashmir’s history. Instead, we find on recorded & documented evidence, their songs were completely romantic & “sensual”.

The nautch-girl, Gulabhie’s song of 1861 is a glaring example. Neither historical record nor contextual-setting supports such silly stories. Was invention & attribution of the term “Hafiza” to “nautch-girls”, rather “courtesans”, of past Kashmir part of a larger process of demonisation & demeaning others? As stated above, Kashmiri Lexicon in first quarter of 20th century defined the terms & later Bamzai & others who had long association with ruling elite used it in his books & articles for glamourising sad part of Kashmir’s musical tradition in their unique ornate style.

However, Bamzai emphasises on the note that “the dancers recited songs in Persian instead of in Sanskrit”. Were these poor nautch girls, who came from extremely low socio-economic & educational backgrounds of past Kashmir, fit enough to memorise Kalam of Persian & Kashmiri Sufis & give it expression through their gesticulations in the mehfils of ruling & non ruling elite of the land? Or, for that matter, in common people’s weddings and other gatherings? Or at houses of ill-fame of some localities of Srinagar in early twentieth century? Given the historical background of singing-dancing girls or nautch-girls above, it can be safely concluded that those poor wretches of God, total illiterate girls of old Kashmir, did not memorise or sing Kalam of Persian mystics or, for that matter Kashmiri mystics.

Such a claim is apparently absurd. Glamourising or romanticising with sad historical facts does not change historical reality of “nautch girls” to invented sophisticated terms of “Hafizas” & “Hafiza Nagma”, singing Persian mystic-Kalam.


Nautch girls’ singing-dancing was a small bad patch of a vast spectrum of multi-genre folklore culture of the valley.

The centuries’ old tradition of rich folklore culture of Kashmir flourished in the verdant valleys, Karkhanas, farmlands, villages, mohallas of Kashmir, weddings, festivals, & other celebrations, in multiple forms of : Wanwun, Ruv, Chakir, Geywun, Bhand e Pather, Bach e Nagma, Ladi-Shah & Suffiyana-mosiqi & so on.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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