The forgotten dancer

April 10, 2019


The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

IT is unlikely that many people living in the subcontinent today are familiar with the name Sophia Plowden from the British colonial era. It is no surprise, of course, considering that there were after all many thousands of Britons who came and made their home in various times in various parts of the British Empire.

Sophia Plowden herself arrived in the late 1700s, closer to the beginning of the arrival of the British. The wife of an East India Company official, Plowden lived first in Lucknow under the rule of Nawab Assafudaula and then in Calcutta. One of her special interests during her stay in India which dated from 1775-1797 was Indian (as she said it “oriental”) singing and music.

Now, owing to the research by British scholar Katherine Schofield, what Plowden was actually up to at the time is coming to the fore. While Plowden was still young she spent some time in the Lucknow court, where performances of music and dance were regularly held. Practically obsessed with these performances, she soon began to record the music and the songs as best she could. In more than one instance, she held a nautch performance at her own house. For it, Plowden dressed in the Indian finery worn by the nautch girls. She gathered around herself a group of men who were to play the tabla and the harpsichord. She herself sang ghazals in Persian and Hindustani.

When Schofield recalls the incident, she apologises about the grossly appropriative and Orientalist nature of the nautch tableau that Plowden, the wannabe white nautch girl, tried to put up. In Plowden’s defence she mentions the fact that the greats of the time, the nawab and others, took positive notice of Plowden’s miming of Indian nautch performers as well as her interest in Urdu and Persian ghazals.

The art that was once an elevated multilingual rendition of ghazal and dance performance has wasted and withered away.

It was after all the beginning of the British Empire’s long sojourn in India and the humiliations of everything Indian being taken up as a ‘discovery’ by the British had not piled up as they would a century later. After all, it was argued, the woman was taking an interest in Indian music and dance performance, so why should she be criticised at all.

Ironically, if Plowden had lived today she would face even less criticism. For one, the art form that she was so obsessed with, practised by great courtesans such as the eminent Khanum Jaan, has died and sunk into disrepute. When Plowden met Khanum Jaan she was struck by the woman’s staggering talent and the way she rendered both Urdu and Persian ghazals.

Nautch girls like Khanum Jaan were part of their own family of similar performers at the time and were usually under the pay of a local nobleman or even an English officer.

According to the biographical account of Khanum Jaan’s life written in Persian by Hassan Shah, Khanum’s family of courtesans were retained in the employ of a British official from the East India Company who enjoyed the performances as well. Apparently, there was an ill-fated love affair between Hassan Shah who worked for the British official and Khanum Jaan, the youngest of the courtesans. When the official left, he asked for his accounts to be settled and the two could no longer meet. Before they could reunite, Khanum Jaan became ill and died.

There are no Khanum Jaans today. The art that was once an elevated multilingual rendition of ghazal and dance performance has wasted and withered away. To the extent that, if it exists, it has been encroached upon, to its detriment, by Bollywood versions of popular and usually vulgar tunes. The poets do not exist, nor do the songstresses and the dancers — even if they did, they might well be killed.

Where the old systems have died, new ones have never grown. The nawabs and the Mughals who cultivated these arts have not been replaced by institutions that would do the same. The people who study the stories and the music of women like Khanum Jaan, who were legends in their time, are ironically usually British. The record of what was sung at the time and who sang it sits over at the British Library in London where Schofield found most of her records.

If the point of independence, ultimately, was to preserve what was left of the Muslim culture of the subcontinent, the arts, the history, the dance, the music of the subcontinent, then that point particularly as it related to dance and ghazals sung by Khanum Jaan has been lost.

Some did not think this culture was worth saving, others did not think that it was a priority to rescue it, and still others did not care what happened to it; but the outcome in every case was the same. It would make sense to be appalled by an all-white band of musicians and a dolled-up English memsahib performing the ghazals of Khanum Jaan, but only if one claimed the scene as one’s own. Pakistan, the heir to the Muslim culture in the subcontinent has never done that.

Khanum Jaan is forgotten today. The ghazals that she sang, the music and the tunes to which she sang them, the man she fell in love with, the pathos of her tragic ending, is all forgotten today. She is one of many women who have been forgotten, left with no heirs, their carefully cultivated arts not considered worthy of preservation, Perhaps the work of Katherine Schofield, painstakingly putting to­­gether the story and the musical legacy of Khanum Jaan, can bring it to some momentary life.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2019