Part Three | Music & dance of Kashmir: A Historical Perspective

The socio-economic elite, political leaders & clergy of the time had generally overlooked the evil in the society
But decline from “art” of dancing & singing to the service of “courtesans” at Amritsar, Ludhiana & Lahore by the nautch girls was very much evident during the Sikh period.  [Representational Image]
But decline from “art” of dancing & singing to the service of “courtesans” at Amritsar, Ludhiana & Lahore by the nautch girls was very much evident during the Sikh period. [Representational Image] File/ GK

Kashmiri dancing & singing girls were very much active throughout Punjab in Sikh reign. Not only the courtiers, the foreign travelers & guests too used to get entertained by performance of the nautch girls.

But decline from “art” of dancing & singing to the service of “courtesans” at Amritsar, Ludhiana & Lahore by the nautch girls was very much evident during the Sikh period.

This is recorded in the correspondence, letters & travelogues of the period. During Dogra Period, on festive occasions, the dancing girls performed for the rulers, their courtiers & foreign guests.

One Senior British Officer was on summer holiday in Kashmir in 1861. He witnessed a nautch on a platform that was raised on Dal lakeside for performance by about a dozen nautch-girls for royals & foreign dignitaries.

The dancing girls continued to be called “nautch girls” which is unambiguously evidenced by their photographs taken by reputed foreign photographers & travelers of the time who visited the valley from time to time during Dogra Rule. Samuel Broune [1834-1912], British photographer, was in Kashmir for several months in summer-1864. John Burke [1843-1900], Irish photographer, visited Kashmir in 1868.

Herford Tynes Cowlin [1890-1980], American photographer & cinematographer, was in Kashmir in 1926 during Hari Singh Rule. He took photograph of nautch girls at Jammu when coronation of Hari Singh was held on 29-03-1926.

Then, noted watercolour artist, William Carpenter, who visited Kashmir thrice in summers of 1853, 1854 & 1855 drew fine paintings of two Kashmiri dancing-singing girls under the same title of “nautch girls”.

Visiting through the galley of photographs taken by these photographers of Kashmiri singing dancing girls, it is vividly seen that these actresses were called “nautch girls” or “dancing girls” like rest of their counterparts of North India as mentioned under these photographs & paintings.

With musical instruments, band of male musicians behind the nautch girls is also seen in these photographs. Samovar, spittoon & hookah are also seen in these photos & paintings.

However, the original caption of “nautch girls” has been interpolated in this photographic record by some bloggers, tweeter handlers & media writers in their blogs, tweets & articles. In place of original words “Nautch girls”, the term “Hafizas” of Kashmir has been used by them? Why, the discussion below will clear the matter.

In 1879, the life of dancing girls throughout Punjab & in Srinagar was “not immaculate.” On record, it is revealed that there was complete moral decadence among nautch girls of Kashmir, not only outside the vale in Punjab, as noted above, but within the vale itself, “houses of ill-repute” where these girls “performed” & “served” their guests were well established in the first quarter of twentieth century in some localities of Srinagar city.

Probably, due to declining interest of royal elite in their nautch performances caused by widespread modern education & increasing social indignation, earning avenues of the nautch girls had considerably squeezed.

They were no more mere “courtesans” performing for Sikh & Dogra Darbars & their English grandees. They had assumed the shape of institutionalised “prostitutes” in Dogra Rule which was a taxable revenue for the Dogra Rulers. During Dogra Rule of first quarter of 20th century, some houses of ill-fame had appeared in some localities of Srinagar.

Previously, some boats along the banks of Jhelum had also served as flesh-trade centres, reported Lawrence in 1895. In an essay on “Hafiz Nagma” published by the J&K Academy of Art, Culture & Languages, it is stated that unfortunate women given to flesh-trade were called “Hafizas” who once sang, according to some “scholars”, pure ecstatic songs of mystic poets of Kashmir before the grandees, but in Sikh Period, they were exploited by Sikh sepoys who were stationed in some areas of the city. And, then in Dogra Period, “Hafiza” centres in those areas had turned to virtual ‘brothels’. It may be noted that Gan, Ge’in, are Kashmiri words that represent souteneur & his wife & its Hindustani equivalents are Kanjur & Kanjri.

Heroic fight of Mohammad Subhan Hajam:

In the aftermath of political awakening of 1931, it was then, a gallant young man, barber by profession, named, Mohammad Subhan Hajam [b 1910, d 1962] alias Subhan Naed, of Maisuma locality, who launched a tireless campaign against the immoral-trade.

The socio-economic elite, political leaders & clergy of the time had generally overlooked the evil in the society. However, sincere efforts of Mohammad Subhan Hajam persuaded other young men of the nearby localities to join hands with him for eradication of the practice from the society. He was implicated in false court-cases which ruined his meager sources of income.

“He went to some decent men he knew & asked for their help to fight this evil”. Tyndale Biscoe was one among them who lent support to Mohammad Subhan Hajam & Molvi Abdullah Vakil voiced the concern of the people against immoral-trade in State Praja Sabha which passed the Suppression of Immoral Trafficking Act, 1934, that closed the houses of ill-repute in Srinagar for the time being. Coincidentally, same year in 1934, Maharashtra was the first State in British India that passed the Bombay Devdasees Act.

On 8th November, 1937, on his visit to Kashmir, Tyndale Biscoe met Mohammad Subhan Hajam & recounted his unforgettable fight against evil of flesh-trade in Srinagar:

“This young man, like his neighbours, was continually disturbed at night by the ribald songs accompanied by musical instruments such as the harp and zither, and also by men wrangling. But what really upset him were the cries of anguish from the unfortunates recently forced into this cruel life, ……The cries of these poor creatures went to his heart and prompted him to action…. He wrote pamphlets to show up this cruel traffic, and distributed hundreds of them in the city”.

He was playing Dugdugi in his hand at Bud-Chowk Srinagar clamouring for attention of the people with pointed remark: “Gane Biol Gali, Gal e Navun Chum [seeds of prostitution will vanish, I have to eradicate pimps and prostitutes from Kashmir soil”.

He would stand up in streets & preach. At night he with some of his friends would stand outside the houses of ill-repute trying to prevent the people from entering them. He shaved seventy heads in the Maharaja’s band but he lost that job as he was charged with false allegations.

But, then, he found new source of income in Biscoe School where he cut the hair of students & teachers. He was supported by some officers of the administration who were Biscoe School alumni.

To be continued

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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