1931-1932 Menaka & Nilkanta

This blog post is inspired by the Menaka Archive. Launched in November 2019, the archive presents the findings of four years of research into the European tour of the Indian ‘Menaka Ballet’ from 1936-1938. The Menaka Archive has a very rich database, including primary sources and a meticulous list of tour dates. Whilst the website is aimed at dancers and musicians in Germany and India, I attempt to make a small contribution by using Delpher – the Dutch database for digitized books, newspapers, and magazines. I will focus on Menaka’s first Dutch performances in 1931.

Marthe Gérardin , Nilkanta en Menaka, drawing, De Tijd ( 05-04-1931).

In the French database ‘Retronews’ the first European performance I could find was on November 7, 1930 in the Salle Pleyel, Paris. Menaka was accompanied by her dance partner Nilkanta and singer Bina Addy. 1 In March several Dutch newspaper reported that Menaka was ‘persuaded’ to perform in The Netherlands after successful shows in Paris and Berlin. 2

18 March 1931AmsterdamStadsschouwburg
23 March 1931Haarlem Stadsschouwburg
24 March 1931The HagueDiligentia
8 April 1931The HagueDiligentia
5 & 6 June 1932The HagueDutch Indies Exhibition
1931-1932 Menaka in The Netherlands, based on announcements in Delpher.
Menaka and Nilkanta arrive at Amsterdam Central Station, Nieuwe Apeldoornsche Courant (17-03-1931).

Reporters of two national newspapers, De Telegraaf 3 and De Tijd, 4 interviewed Menaka and Nilkanta. Both journalists quoted Menaka when she shared her views on the state of dance in her home county. Her remarks can be examined in the wider context of fundamental shifts in Indian dance, during the 1920s-1930s.

Menaka and Nilkanta, Haagsche Courant (25-03-1931).

‘Uncivilized demeanour’

Menaka: […] In India dance is at a very low level. The same dances are performed in the temple and general gatherings, but the performers are women of uncivilised demeanour. There is no difference between general dances and religious dances, the dances in the temple are not religious. […] 5

Menaka , the stage name of Leila Sokhey (née Roy) hailed from Calcutta, where she belonged to a Brahmin family. As a child, she saw many performances of professional dancers 6, in the above quote she referred to them as ‘uncivilized’.
Until the twentieth century, dancers in India belonged to specific, artistic communities. Women of these communities received extensive training in dance, literature, music, and singing from childhood onwards. In North India the professional artistes were attached to predominantly Muslim courts, with cities like Lucknow and Jaipur, among others, as reputable artistic centres.

Dancers in the palace quarters, (1790-1810). Collection Rijksmuseum, id.nr. RP-T-1993-246.
Rajasthan in North India was ruled by Hindu Rajputs, but they were influenced by the Indo-Persian culture of the Mughal imperial court.
In this drawing the dancer at a Rajasthani court has her feet turned out and knees bend, around her ankles she wears noopur or dancing bells.

The British Raj (1858-1949), or direct rule in India, disempowered local kingdoms. A significant number of dancers and musicians across North India left regional courts and migrated to the city Calcutta, the new administrative capital. Here the art of the hereditary dancers became reliant on the patronage of men from the wealthy, upper-classes. 7
Menaka’s negative appraisal of the dance artistes reflects the sentiment of the anti-nautch movement that spanned from the early 1890s to the 1930s. ‘Nautch’, is an Anglicized form of the Hindi word for dance, naach.
There is a large body of literature that is concerned with the anti-nautch movement and the subsequent transformation of dance.8 Amrit Srinivasan was one of the first to discuss this campaign against hereditary dancers in the context of social reform movements of the late nineteenth century.

Abbas Ali, Ameer Jan, dancing girl of Biba Wali, The Beauties of Lucknow Consisting of Twenty-Four Selected Photographed Portraits, Cabinet Size, of the most Celebrated and Popular Living Histrionic Singers, Dancing Girls, and Actresses of the Oudh Court and of Lucknow, (Calcutta 1874) Collection Victoria and Albert Museum, id.nr. IS.1050-1883.

Pressure groups, associations and lobbies of educated Hindus served in that period as a platform to respond to critiques brought forward by British missionaries and legislators. In doing so, Hindu reformers defined the hereditary dancers in Victorian terms. 9 Compared to other women, dancers possessed a degree of agency: they were very well versed in the arts, literate, and had non-marital relationships with men: their patrons from the upper strata of society. Due to these non-conjugal, sexual relationships hereditary dancers were criminalized as morally inferior ‘prostitutes’. 10

Menaka in the dance Bhakti Bhava, depicting a Hindu widow who seeks refuge in devotion, De Telegraaf (20-03-1931).


As a result of complex changes in the moral, political and judicial realm, the hereditary artistes were removed from the dance and replaced by women from the upper castes, deemed worthy to perform the art. 11

Menaka broached this subject in the interviews:
[…] When Pavlova 12 saw me dance in my family circle, where I often danced, she said to me: “why don’t you dance and do something with your life. You can be of value for your people.” This entailed grave difficulties before I could even begin, I had to convince my husband, then my family and eventually all people from my caste. In 1927 I gave my first dance recital in Bombay, to a shocked and indignant audience. However, the second time I received much approval and I received many letters from girls of my class who wished to receive formal dance training.[…] 13

While recognizing the manifold factors that contributed to the displacement of hereditary dancers from the art, Natarajan mentions the personal interest of Brahmin women like Menaka who took to dancing. In their struggle to overcome caste barriers, their priority was legitimizing their own public appearances. The plight of the hereditary dancers, or seeking avenues where they could pursue their profession, was hardly a concern. 14

Studio Boris Lipnitzki, Menaka und Nilkanta, Der Künstlerische Tanz unserer Zeit (Dresden 1933), nr 233, p.41.

‘Priestess of dance’

[…] Meanwhile she chatters about famous Indians like Tagore and Gandhi. She tells us how she as well is bothered by the fact that India isn’t purely Eastern anymore. Despite her European orientation […] she wants to devote herself with all her might to save the pure Indian dance. […] “Menaka was the priestess of the all-knowing deity Indra, I want to be the priestess of Hindu dance”. […] 15

Leila Sokhey was born into the so-called bhadralok¸ the upper and middle classes of Bengal who articulated a sense of nationalism., with members of the Tagore family as preeminent intellectuals. Their nationalist construction of the Indian identity revolved around a distinct Hindu spirituality, which was embedded in ancient traditions and scriptures. While hereditary dancers were considered degraded, the art itself was conceived of as a sacred heritage, an embodiment of devotion, untouched by Islamic or European culture. 16

Menaka, Algemeen Handelsblad (18-03-1931).

[…] What I mean with my movement for dance in India is a reconstruction of the ancient dance. For this I have found material with teachers who have taught dance from generation upon generation. However, they taught only in the technical sense; the spirit was completely lost. […] 17

In this quote Menaka makes it clear her teachers were the men from the hereditary artist communities. Although masters of music and movement, they did not embody the ‘pure’ dance:.
[…] I had to start from scratch. […] One sees in statues and reliefs that ancient Hindus must have had an extraordinary technique. […] I do think Balinese dance embodies Hindu dance in its purest form. […] 18

Vereenigde Fotobureaux, Menaka and Nilkanta perform during the Indische Tentoonstelling, Westbroekpark The Hague, 1932. Collection Haags Stadsarchief, id.nr. 1.03714.

The performance in The Hague in March was tremendously successful, Menaka and Nilkanta were invited again to the theatre for one evening in April 1931. In 1932 they performed two days during the ‘Indische Tentoonstelling’, a colonial exhibition in The Hague. According to newspaper Het Vaderland the dance couple was preparing their journey to India, since Nilkanta had to return because of family circumstances. Despite the fact that the Dutch Indies were the focal point of the exhibition, Het Vaderland mentioned Menaka and Nilkanta agreed to end their European performance here because of the ‘Indian atmosphere.’ 19 In 1936 Menaka would return to The Netherlands for a far more extensive tour.

Panghat NrityaDance on the shore of the river Jamuna
UshasDance of the goddess of dawn
Ranga LilaDance of spring
Yuddha VidayaThe wife of the warrior
Bhakti BhavaDance of devotion
Naga KanyaDance of the snake maiden
Lakshmi DarshanBirth of the goddess Lakshmi
Amaravati NrityaThe Buddhist sculptures of Amaravati
Gramya GoshthiThe well of the village
Tarana UsshaqMongolian serenade
Dances performed in 1931, Source: Het Vaderland (16-03-1931 and 19-03-31).

Further reading

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

1898 Hagenbeck’s Indien

Adolph Friedländer, Affiche Hagenbeck’s Indien & Hagenbeck’s Ceylon thee, 1895 (of 1898), Circuscollectie Allard Pierson Museum, inv.nr. TEY0010002845.

De tempeldanseres op bovenstaand affiche is te zien op meerdere aankondigingen die Adolph Friedländer voor de völkerschauen van Hagenbeck ontwierp. Het affiche werd gemaakt voor een völkerschau in Berlijn. Op de Kurfürstendamm, een grote stadsboulevard, verrezen rondom het ‘Maharaniplatz’ en ‘Trischinapoli Platz’ decors en ‘Indiase’ bouwwerken van meerdere etages. Door de grootschaligheid en het spektakel leek de ‘volkerenshow’ hier te zijn uitgegroeid tot een etnografisch attractiepark. 1

Uit het overzicht van Hilke Thode-Arora blijkt dat de völkerschau in Berlijn plaatsvond in 1898. 2 Dit jaartal stemt overeen met de visuele bronnen in de particuliere Collectie Radauer.

De organisatie van deze völkerschau was in handen van John en Gustav Hagenbeck, twee jongere halfbroers van Carl. John Hagenbeck bezat in Colombo, Sri Lanka, plantages voor thee, rubber en kokosnoten. Op het affiche is de reclame voor ‘Hagenbeck’s Ceylon thee’ minstens net zo prominent als de aankondiging van de völkerschau.3


In de völkerschauen van Hagenbeck traden zogehten bayadères of tempeldanseressen op. Op dit affiche is een danseres afgebeeld en zijn er verwijzingen naar de cultuur van Zuid-India:

Adolph Friedländer, Collectie Circusmuseum, inv.nr. TEY0010000054
  1. koyil, een hindoeïstische tempel in de Zuid-Indiase architectuur.
  2. gopuram, toren boven de toegangspoort van de tempel.
  3. devadasi, danseres. Devadasi betekent letterlijk: dienares van god. Zij voerden in tempels rituelen en dans uit. Daarnaast waren ook danseressen verbonden aan verschillende hoven in Zuid-India. Hun dansvorm stond bekend als sadir, dasi attam of cinna melam.
  4. mayura hasta, handgebaar uit de klassieke Zuid-Indiase dans
  5. bottu, stip aangebracht op het voorhoofd.
  6. matha patti, sieraden voor de middenscheiding en zijkanten van het voorhoofd.
  7. sari.
  8. haarornamenten in de vorm van de maan (links) en de zon (rechts).
  9. lungi, katoenen omslagdoek door mannen gedragen.

Via tussenpersonen rekruteerde Hagenbeck de tempeldanseressen in Tanjore. De stad gold als het culturele centrum van Zuid-India, daar de kunsten grote ondersteuning genoten van de lokale vorsten. Vanwege de emigratiewetten die in India golden, bracht Hagenbeck zijn groep eerst naar Colombo, hoofdstad van Sri Lanka, om vervolgens per boot naar Europa te reizen. 1