1854 – 1880 ‘Nautch girl’

Several museums hold photographs in their collection that combine elements that figured prominently in the British colonial imagination of India: Kashmir and dancing women.

Lalla Rookh

When Irish poet Thomas Moore published his ‘Oriental Romance’ Lalla Rookh in 1817, it became an instant bestseller. Moore’s main character was the fictional daughter of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707), her name translates as ‘tulip cheek’. She travels from the imperial court in Delhi to Kashmir, for her marriage to a young prince in the garden Shalimar (‘the abode of love’). Moore evoked an image of an idyllic Kashmir, with a scenery of otherworldly beauty.

The author never set foot in Kashmir. His ‘romance’ was based on an extensive library of travelogues, pictorial sources and scholarly treatises on India, Persia and Central-Asia. Nevertheless, Lalla Rookh moulded perceptions of later artists that visited India. In 1846 the East India Company (EIC) created the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir and sold the territory to ruler Gulab Singh. 1 As a princely state the area became accessible for travellers like the watercolourist William Carpenter (1818-1899). He travelled through India from 1850-1857 and made a series of paintings in Kashmir in the years 1854-1855. Using Lalla Rookh as a travel guide, he visited the landmarks in the city of Srinagar that Moore had extolled four decades earlier.2

William Carpenter, Two Natch girls, Kashmir (1854), Victoria and Albert Museum, item nr. S.157-1882

‘Two Natch girls’ of Carpenter contains elements that enabled the spectator to relate it to Kashmir. The two women are wearing white Kashmiri gowns, known as pheran. Usually, a lighter gown (poots), is worn underneath the pheran but Carpenter has omitted this, allowing to show more bare skin. One woman smokes a hookah, the other dreamily looks sideways. The flower in her hand could be a blooming tulip, as a reference to Lalla Rookh. Both women are framed within Mughal architecture: on one side the baluster column, on the other the stone window (jarokha), with a grand view of the mountainous landscape.


‘Natch’, which Carpenter used in the title, and ‘nautch’ were Anglicised forms of the Hindi word naach¸ a neutral word for dance. Today, nautch is considered a problematic term. Barlas showed that women with widely diverse occupations and skills were called ‘nautch girl’. This encompassed highly trained poets, singers, and dancers who were attached to courts and temples, as well as women who earned a living as entertainers or prostitutes. Thus nautch was a false or even illusory category. 3 Nonetheless, some photographs in different collections seem to contain traces of a distinct art form that was subsumed in the category of nautch.

Samuel Bourne (1834–1912) is considered one of the most important photographers of colonial India, working in the second half of the nineteenth century. The majority of his work consists of landscapes and architectural splendours, while his images of Indian people are less numerous. 4 In 1863 he established the firm Bourne & Shepherd, by 1866 the catalogue included 600 different photographs, about a third of Kashmir. 5

Samuel Bourne, Natch girls of Srinugger, Cashmere (1860s), British Library, item.nr. 39416.

Bourne commented on his portrait of a group of ‘natch girls’:
[…]They were very shy at making their appearance in daylight, as, like the owl, they are birds of the night. […]They squatted themselves down on the carpet which had been provided for them, and absolutely refused to move an inch for any purpose of posing; so after trying in vain to get them into something like order, I was obliged to take them as they were, the picture, of course, being far from a good one. […] 6

left: Bourne & Shepherd, Kashmeer – A Natch (1864), Victoria and Albert Museum, id. nr. IS.7:50-1998. Two dancers in a semi-circle, one in a pose with her skirt, surrounded by musicians and spectators.

right: John Burke, Kashmir Dancers, Ethnologisches Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz,id.nr. VIII C 600 b. One dancer holding her skirt, on the right a musician with a saaz-e-kashmir.

Although Bourne complained about the women’s unwillingness to pose, another photograph in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum shows a lively image. A group of men is sitting on a carpet, in their midst musicians; the rectangular santoor, the Kashmiri zither, is clearly discernable. Some spectators have turned their faces to the photographer, but the focus is on the two standing women in the middle of the semi-circle. The woman on the left holds the hem of her transparent skirt in her hand, creating movement while standing still. The group is surrounded by lush trees, it seems very likely Bourne made the photograph in a pavilion (baradari) of Shalimar Bagh in Srinagar, the garden of love where the fictional Lalla Rookh married.

Samuel Bourne, Natch House, Shalimar gardens, Srinugger (1860s) British Library, id. nr. 39419.

One of the competitors of Bourne’s firm was Baker & Burke. Like Bourne, founder John Burke took more than a hundred photographs in and around Srinagar. 7 In Burke’s group portrait five musicians are playing their instruments. On the left, a player of the santoor is sitting in front, next to him a man holds a sehtâr, a Kashmiri lute. On the right, behind the musician on the santoor, two men hold a saaz-e-kashmir, a local version of the viol.

Dancers and musicians, Baker and Burke, Ethnologisches Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, id. nr. VIII C 1822

The combinations of these instruments strongly suggest this is an ensemble of Sufiana Kalam, considered by Kashmiris as their classical music. 8 Sufiana Kalam was performed in religious as well as secular gatherings (mehfil), where musicians sang the mystical poems of Persian Sufis. The music ensemble accompanied Hafiza Nagma, professional dancers who sang in Persian and Kashmiri and conveyed the meaning of the words through bodily movements, facial expressions, and hand gestures.9

Portraits by Bourne and Burke show that they were not concerned with the intricacies of a performing art. Instead, the commercial success of their works depended on exoticizing the ‘nautch girls’. Barlas argues this was achieved by the physical depiction of the women.10 In the painting as well as the photographs the white pheran, emphasize femininity (as perceived at that time). Carpenter paid much attention to the elaborate hair jewellery (matha patti), 11 and their nathni (nose ring) seems to glisten.

left: Dancers and musicians from Kashmir, John Burke, Ethnologisches Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, id. nr. VIII C 1770. The musician in front plays the santur, behind him a man is holding a saaz-e-kashmir.

right: Francis Frith (Studio Frith´s Series, A Cashmerian Nautch girl, (ca. 1887), Rijksmuseum, id.nr. RP-F-F80347.

Another trope of exoticization is the woman who is performing in a public or private space. 12 To communicate the ‘nautch girl’ was actually dancing, photographers Bourne and Burke used the pose of a woman holding the hem of her skirt in her hand. Burke chose the pose of one hand at the back of the head. Photographers of the successful commercial company of Francis Frith repeated this same pose more than ten years later. 13

John Burke, Asisi, 22 years old, Kashmir Dancing girl, Ethnologisches Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Objects, probably available in the photo studio, enforced the meaning of women reclining or lounging. In Burke’s group portrait of the ensemble, two women are smoking a hookah and within reach are two samovars, a Kashmiri speciality to boil, brew and serve tea. In the photograph of Asisi the samovar stands on a tray with teacups, an echo of the painting of Carpenter. Asisi has freed her feet from her shoes (khussa), and leans against a bolster (gao takia).

In combination with the reclining pose, the photograph suggests spectators are offered a view in the private quarters of the women, in India known as zenana.  This suggestion is even stronger when several women are in the picture.

left: Francis Frith, Nautch Girl Cashmere (1850-1870), Ethnologisches Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, id.nr. VIII C 1776.

right: John Burke, Kashmir dancers, Ethnologisches Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, id.nr. VIII C 600 a

Bourne, as well as Firth, made a composition with a woman seemingly alone in a room. She is reclining in a half-lying position, one side of the body supported by the bolster. She evokes sensuality and pleasure while transgressing Victorian morality. This perception would determine the fate of the dancers, singers and artists in the whole of India after 1890. Performing Hafiz Nagma was prohibited by the Kashmiri ruler in the early 1920s, the tradition is now all but lost.

left: Samuel Bourne, Cashmere Nautch Girl (1860s) British Library, id. nr. 70

right: Francis Firth (1850-1870),A Cashmerian Nautch Girl, Rijksmuseum, id.nr. RP-F-F80348