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The dancing girl: a novel

Hasan Shah and Qurratulain Hyder (tr)

Shah, Hasan; Qurratulain Hyder (tr);

The dancing girl: a novel [Persian: Fasana-e-Rangeen (1790); Urdu: Nishtar, (surgeon's knife), 1893a ]

New Directions Pub. Corp., 1993, 111 pages

ISBN 0811212564, 9780811212564

topics: |  fiction-historical | india | urdu | persian | british-india | 18th-c

This is Kanpur in the 1780s. The sahibs of the East India Company dominate the economic life of the city. With their primary interest in trade, they have gradually unseated the governments of a number of kingdoms across India, and have eased into the role of the previous nawabs, adopting many of their customs such as a harem and the fondness for nautch.

At the point of this story, the company troops are being maintained in Kanpur on a 2.6 lakh per month annuity paid by the nawab of oudh (treaty of faixabad, 1765).

But unlike in british narratives, we see the Britishers (Ming Saheb, Kallan Saheb) from the standpoint of the educated indian, the munshi, a scholar and a revered descendent of the prophet, Syed Hasan Shah.

The tale is given as being based on a real event, a love story that actually happened to the author. In case the names are not altered, Qurratulain suggests that the "Ming Saheb" in the story may be Manning, and "Kallan Saheb" was Collins. Ming Saheb is described as "a nephew of the celebrated General Coote." General Eyre Coote was commander-in-chief India for East India Company forces.

Historical Background

By the 1750s, Portuguese and British traders were already settled in the
Kanpur area, where there was a boat crossing on the road to Lucknow.  To
this day, the old cemetery in Kanpur (gorA kabristAn) is sometimes called
the Portuguese cemetery.  The area around Jajmau appears to have been
favoured by the local elites and also the traders.

In May 1765, Awadh lost a skirmish against the British near Jajmau.

In 1763, the Company forces, in the quest for greater revenue from the
provinces, as well as freedom from taxes in private trade, fell out with
their own puppet nawab, Mir Qasim.  Mir Qasim managed to obtain the support
of the significant forces of Awadh, as well as some forces from the Mughal
emperor.  On 22 October 1764, the Company forces managed to defeat this
army at Buxar, a battle that may have been more significant than Plassey in
terms of establishing the Company's reach all across North India.

Surprisingly, Shah Alam

In August 1765, Clive signed the Treaty of Allahabad with Shah Alam II,
in which the company was granted the Diwani (governorship) of Bengal, and
would be responsible for paying Rs. 2.6 million annually to the emperor.

Two districts of Awadh, Allahabad and Kora, were ceded to the Company and
Awadh had to pay the huge indemity of Rs. 5.3 million.

Subsequently, Awadh fell increasingly under the influence of the Company.

On 2 Feb 1771, Capt Robert Brooke led Company troops into Kanpur, chasing a
Maratha incursion, following a request from the Nawab.  He "left two
companies in the line and proceeded immediately against the first zemindar
who had rebelled." (source: Rudrangshu Mukherjee's
Spectre of violence p.9).

In 1773, Shuja-ud-Daula was forced to sign the treaty of Banaras by Warren
Hastings; the Company was given the right to station their armies in Awadh.
Shuja-ud-Daula had a long-term dispute with the kingdom of Rohilkhand, which
was ruled by Afghans, related to Sher Shah, and opposed to the Moghuls.  In
April 1774, the combined forces of Awadh and the Company routed the Rohilla
forces at Meeranpur, and their leader was killed.  Rohilkhand was annexed to
Awadh, though the son of the Rohilla chief, Faizulla Khan, was given the
state of Rampur.

In January 1775, Shuja-ud-Daula died, and the Company decided that the
earlier treaty had been personal, and a new treaty was forced on his heir
Asaf-ud-Daula.  Under the treaty of Faizabad, Varanasi was ceded to the
British.  A brigade was now to be stationed with Awadh, for which the Nawab
would pay Rs. 2.6 lakh per month (about 32 L p.a.).

In 1778, 12 villages were given to the Company for establishing a cantonment
at Kanpur.

The events in this story take place around this time.

The grandfather of Hassan Shah, is a respected hakim who was once the
resident physician for the Rohilla nawab.  At the time of the story, he
is working as a clerk for the british at kanpur.  It is he who recommends
Hasan Shah for this position with Ming Saheb.

Nautch troops

The tradition of dance in royal courts has a long history and is intimately
associated with the evolution of the kathak tradition.  It was fashionable for
mughal kings and also their feudatories to support troops of dancing girls.
invariably, they were described as being of kashmiri origin, as is the troop in
this novel.

After the East India company gained ascendancy, its officers would also
entertain nautch troops, whose dancers would also serve as concubines for the

nautch performance for , a swiss-french
trader in lucknow, c. 1780

we find a description of nautch from a contemporary british woman visitor,
Jemima Kindersley, who was in India in 1764. (quoted in Nandini Bhattacharya's
Reading the Splendid Body (1998):

	It is difficult to give you any proper idea of this entertainment;
	which is so very delightful, not only to black men, but to many
	Europeans.  A large room is lighted up; at one end sit the great people
	who are to be entertained; at the other are the dancers and their
	attendants; one of the girls who are to dance comes forward, for there
	is seldom more than one of them dance at a time; the performance
	consists chiefly in a continual removing the shawl, first over the
	head, then off again; extending first one hand, then the other ... But
	it is their languishing glances, wanton smiles, and attitudes not quite
	consistent with decency, which are so much admired; and whoever excels
	most in these is the finest dancer.

	The girl sings, while she is dancing, some Persian or Hindostan song;
	some of them are really pleasing to the ear, but are almost entirely
	drowned by the accompaniments: several black fellows stand behind, who
	likewise sing with all the strength of voice they are masters of,
	making, at the same time, the most ridiculous grimaces; some of them
	playing upon a sitar, which is something like a guitar, but greatly
	inferior even to that trifling instrument; others on a sort of drum, or
	tamborin... but all this, loud as it is, is drowned by those who play
	with two pieces of bell-metal, which they work between their fingers,
	and make the same noise as braziers at work upon a large copper.

		from Letters from the island of Teneriffe, Brazil, by Mrs
		Jemima Kindersley, 1777, pp. 231-2:

Regula Burckhardt Qureshi in The courtesan's arts:
cross-cultural perspectives, (ed. Martha Feldman and Bonnie Gordon), traces the
history of the Kashmiri involvement in the tawai'f culture.

History of this text

Originally written in Persian (1790), and titled Nashtar ("surgeon's
knife", signifying the lover's pain).

Translated into Urdu by Sajjad Hussain Kasmandavi in 1893.
Translated from the Urdu version by Qurratulain Hyder (1992).
Hyder claims to have been "strictly faithful to the text and not anywhere
   modernized either the narrative or the dialogue" in her translation. However,
   she acknowledges:

	I have only cut down the ornate passages and have also omitted most of
	the ghazals of Hafiz quoted in the narrative.  [Earlier, the Urdu
	translator had also] cut out five pages full of ghazals that described
	the emotions of the author when he first saw Khanum Jan).

	I have also shortened the lengthy love letters exchanged between the
	hero and heroine.

[Stylistically however, the only examples in front of Hasan Shah] were the
lengthy and florid cycles of medieval romances, epics, and allegories.  He
does revert from time to time, esp when beginning a new chapter, to
conventional forms, but after a few lines he comes back to his spontaneous
and naturalistic prose.

The abundance of poetry also indicates that the Indo-Moghul society was
basically poetry-oriented and that the English had readily succumbed to its
charms and elegance.  They could also appreciate the intellectual and
mystical content of Persian and Urdu poetry.

					- Q. Hyder, Preface, p. xiv


dedication page

After praising Allah and the Lord Prophet, I record here the story of my
early youth when I had found mental and emotional affinity with a person who
had simply enthralled and captivated me.  For she was an enchantress, an idol
who enticed men of piety, and I was intoxicated and stupefied by my frenzied
love for her.  As the Persian poet Naziri says:

		No fable is sweeter than mine.
		I have chronicled the entire history of Time
		Through the story of my own life.

[hopes that readers] would pray for this sinner, Syed Muhammad Hasan Shah
(may God forgive him).

ch 1

My illustrious ancestor Syed Abdullah was a direct descendant of the Lord
Prophet.  He had migrated first to Yemen, then to Turkestan.  [Timur bestowed
a jagir in Badakhshan on Amir Shah, his great-great-grandfather].

[His grandfather, Syed Mirak Shah] migrated to Lahore during the time of
Farrukh Siyar, and became a renowned Sufi saint. p.5

His uncle Sher Shah was with the Sircar of the Rohill Chief, Nawab Najib

After his father's early death, the family was under the care of their
maternal grandfather,

His father, Arab Shah, was married to the daughter of the respected Hakim Mir
Muhammad Nawaz, who had come from Balkh and joined the Moghul court at
Shahjehanabad.  At the time, he was physician to Nawab Enayatullah Khan, son
of the Rohilla Chief Hafiz Rehmat Khan (who had died fighting the British in

After the defeat and collapse of the Government of Hindustan, my
grandfather had to become a munshi (clerk) to Ming Saheb, Member Council,
Camp, Cawnpore.  Ming Saheb was a nephew of the celebrated General
Coote. p. 6

[Ming Saheb appoints Hasan Shah as his munshi on the advice of his
grandfather;  HS gains the confidence of Ming Saheb through a series of
events.  ]

--author bio
Syed Muhammad Hasan Shah was born ca. 1770. He apparently came from Kanpur,
and eventually settled in Lucknow. His Nashtar (The Dancing Girl), written
when he was about twenty, is considered the first modern Indian novel.

British officers in the story

[Bio of Coote:
   In 1760, Coote's forces defeated the French at Vandivasi, (Battle of
   Wandiwash).  He returned to Britain from 1762 to 1779, when he returned to
   India as Lt-General commander-in-chief of British East India Company's
   forces.  He was then engaged in a long battle against Hyder Ali of Mysore.
   Despite defeating Ali in 1781 at Porto Novo (Parangipettai), Coote died of
   illnesses (Madras 1783), and an inconclusive treaty was signed with
   Mysore; the kingdom would continue under Tipu until finally overthrown at
   Seringapatnam in 1799.

Ming Saheb may have been one Charles Manningham, who had served at Fort
William and may have been related to Coote on his mother's side.

The officers of the East India company around the turn of the 18th century
often viewed themselves as taking over the mantle of the mughal ruling
class.  Thus, they learned Persian, and indulged the nautch.  This trend
went down as more families arrived from England, and especially after the
opening of the Suez canal in 1869.

Among the officers of this period, one may take note of James Skinner
(d. 1841), who made a fortune as a mercenary and East India army
officer.  He is said to have had fourteen wives. Legend has it of him:

	As soon as the nautch girl finished her performance he seized her
	by force and carried her off to his hill estate of Hansi in
	Mussoorie. Troops from Delhi soon followed and surrounded him. But
	instead of surrendering the dance girl, Col. James Skinner of East
	India Company offered to purchase her for her weight in silver. A
	bargain was struck, the scales produced, the maiden weighed against
	rupees and he succeeded in retaining his precious possesion.
			- Pran Neville India Today

Skinner, who was known as Sikandar Sahib, wrote the Persian text
"Kitab-i-tasrih al-aqavm", on the caste marks among Hindus.

Knowledge of Persian and an affinity with nautch girls were widespread
among the early British officers.


streeshakti: biography of Khanum Jan

Khanum Jan (c. 1790)

Khanum Jan is the heroine of the autobiographical novel Nashtar by Hasan Shah
of Kanpur, written in 1790 when Shah was twenty. The original text, which was
in Indianised Farsi, is no longer extant, but the Urdu translation survives,
haivng been unearthed from Patna Library by Qurratulain Haidar(q.v). Haider
translated the book into English in 2003, and regards it as the first modern
Urdu novel. Khanum Jan is a tawaif, a singing courtesan. Hasan Shah, having
fallen in love with her, marries her in secret, but they cannot avow their
love and Khanum Jan, having failed to escape from the kothi, dies
heart-broken. Khanum Jan seems to have influenced the characterization of
Shaib Jan in the film Pakeezah.

It seems from the text that Khanum Jan was a real woman, a member of a troupe
of tawaifs including accomplished singers of Sufi songs from Kashmir. They
were ‘deredar’ tawaifs, tawifs of the camp or dera, travelling the land and
camping wherever a rich man might take a fancy to one of them, and
entertaining the nobles and notables of the area. They were patronised mostly
by the army, including the European mercenaries, and the new imperial armies,
or by rich merchants and traders of all communities. In the book, Khanum Jan
travels over what is today the Ganga valley of Uttar Pradesh. The girls spoke
Persian and Kashmiri, and were very well educated and highly trained actors,
dancers and singers.

My candle burns at both ends

by Raza Rumi
Southasian fiction has provided many insights into the persona and conflicts
of the exploited-empowered dancing girl.

Long before feminist discourse explored and located the intricacies of sex
workers’ lives and work, male novelists during the 18th and 19th centuries
were portraying the strong characters of women in the oldest
profession. Stereotypes of the hapless and suffering prostitute rarely find
mention in texts from that time, but one early novel, written in Urdu, is
Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa's Umrao Jan Ada. While the Lucknow-based poet
Ruswa is said to have persuaded Umrao to reveal her life history, many
critics have surmised that the narrative was authored by Umrao herself. The
tone and candour of the story suggests that Umrao played a significant role
in drafting this semi-documentary piece.

An archetypal courtesan steeped in Avadhi high culture and manners, Umrao Jan
Ada comes across as a voice far ahead of her times. In her frank
conversations with Ruswa, Umrao explains how a sex worker's only friend is
money. The realisation that a dancing girl would be a fool to jeopardise her
livelihood by giving her love to a man was a clear expression of her
empowerment. The plain rejection of wifehood in Umrao Jan's worldview was
directly rooted in the decision not to trade independence for an
institutionalised relationship, despite the respectability that such an
association might offer. The empowerment of Umrao is in many ways linked to
her profession. In an age where women were completely dependent on men for
financial and social sustenance, sex work emerged as a safety valve for her
existence. And Umrao remains contemptuous of courtesans who leave their
position of power and independence, and subject themselves to the whims of
respectable men who may or may not reciprocate by according them social

The novel also chronicles the disruptions caused by the deepening of colonial
rule, and Umrao is quick to recognise that her survival is linked to the
British. She witnesses the destruction of Lucknow, which was at the centre of
the 1857 Mutiny and the subsequent crackdown by the British, recording how
her kotha was destroyed. Resignation as well as proactive adjustment to
political and social changes is a theme that runs across the book. Towards
the end of the novel, Umrao is not only a thoughtful woman but also a
stronger one – neither fatalistic nor depressed about her life. For its
robust yet ambiguous portrayal of characters and vivid glimpses of
mid-19th-century Uttar Pradesh courtesan culture, Umrao Jan Ada remains a
great novel straddling the layers between the empowerment of a woman and her
exploitation. The female characters in particular come alive on the page –
Khanum Jan, the kotha madam; Bua Hussaini, a housekeeper in her old age; and
Umrao's contemporaries, Bismillah Jan and Khursheed.

Avadh novel Prior to Umrao Jan Ada, another Persian text, Fasana-e-Rangeen
(1790), translated into English as The Nautch Girl in 1992 by Qurratulain
Hyder (and translated into Urdu as Nishtar in 1893), is arguably the first
novel of the Subcontinent. This autobiographical novel by Hasan Shah narrates
the story of an East India Company munshi (clerk) and his doomed love for a
dancing girl, Khanum Jan. While in the service of the Englishman Ming Saheb,
in Cawnpore (Kanpur), the young Shah spots a beautiful dancing girl in a
visiting troupe under the patronage of the English saheb. Ming Saheb also
lusts after Khanum Jan, the femme fatale, who rejects his advances. Ming then
shifts his attention to another member of the troupe while the confident
Khanum Jan falls in love with the lowly clerk. The story is likely an
autobiographical one. Eventually, the starry-eyed lovers enter into a secret
marriage. Jan, however, leaves Cawnpore with her troupe when the English
officer is transferred and his patronage ends.

The hallmark of this novel is the portrayal of Khanum Jan, who appears as a
confident, educated and strong-willed character. Her ability to say no to a
gora saheb and her subsequent subversion of her place in the troupe by
secretly marrying Shah are remarkable for 18th-century India. Even though
Khanum vowed not to be a courtesan all her life, she does not leave the
troupe. Though not as empowered as her successor, Umrao, Khanum Jan is
cognisant of her social position and responsibility as an employee. While
this remains a simple story of love in times of change in India, the nuances
of human behaviour portrayed announce the arrival of the Indian novel. It is
noteworthy that the heroine of the ‘first Indian novel’, to use Hyder's
phrase, happens to be a dancing girl.

As Hyder puts it, Oudh was India's Camelot, where Khanum Jan becomes the
torchbearer of an emerging high culture; and Umrao Jan, like a burnt candle,
narrates its denouement. Umrao, in the twilight of Oudh culture, reflects the
realisation of empowerment within the patriarchal fold. It should be
remembered that Hazrat Mahal, the wife of the last ruler of Oudh, was also a
dancing girl, and issued a farman (edict) defying the British and declared
that the state had nothing to do with religion.

Berating the shuraafa

A legendary Urdu writer, Hyder remained fascinated by the various
permutations of the Indian nautch girl throughout her literary career. In her
later novel Gardish-e-Rang-e-Chaman, a semi-documentary work, she blurs the
boundaries between the respectable and the non-respectable. It is
historically recorded that Mughal princesses orphaned after the anti-Mughal
killings by the British caused a major upheaval in the comfortable zones of
Muslim rule in India. The central character of the novel, Nawab Begum, is one
such descendent, who later becomes a courtesan. After a long career, she
revels in her status as a powerful woman. In the true tradition of courtesan
lineage, Nawab Begum launches her daughter as a theatre performer in
early-20th-century Calcutta. The textual tenor moves between the context set
by Ruswa, between the pathos of exploitation and the energy of empowerment.

In this novel, published in 1987, Hyder's Begum is a fictionalised portrayal
of Gauhar Jan, also an early-20th-century singer from Calcutta. (An excellent
book on Jan, My Name is Gauhar Jan, by Vikram Sampath hit bookstands earlier
this year.) The mother-daughter duo became the best-known bais (singing
women) of Calcutta. Based on this formidable reputation, Frederick William
Gaisberg, the Gramophone company's first India agent, selected Gauhar in 1902
as the first Indian artiste he would record. Popular culture's interface with
modernity in India came about through these empowered, singing women. With
her cosmopolitan vision and command over several languages, Gauhar was a
trendsetter, a flamboyant star long before Bollywood adopted glitz as a

Another celebrated Urdu author to explore societal attitudes to sex workers
with a surgeon's precision is Saadat Hasan Manto. After the hypocrisies and
mayhem of 1947, Manto started viewing sex workers as finer human beings than
the religious shuraafa, the ‘honourable’ people usually from the upper middle
classes. One such memorable character is that of a Jewish sex worker in
Bombay called Mozail. Against the backdrop of the 1947 riots, Manto portrays
the innate humanity of Mozail as she parades naked, getting killed in the
process, to distract a rioting mob and rescue individuals.

Meanwhile, the new nation states formed following 1947 and 1971 have been
unable to define clear approaches towards those engaged in sex-related
professions. If anything, the Victorian colonial state inherited by the newly
independent nations has defined public morality and ‘righteous’
conduct. Inevitably, the voice of the sex worker is lost in the regulatory
framework imposed from above. In the morally charged post-colonial societies,
courtesans of yore have found other avenues. For instance, due to General Zia
ul-Haq's Islamisation and the attempt to ‘clean up’ brothels across
Southasia, sex workers have moved and integrated into the mainstream social
fabric. In Pakistan, Lollywood, the Lahore film industry, has absorbed a
large number. After the decline of the film industry in recent decades,
commercial theatre has become the new playground for the exploited-empowered
courtesan. One such theatre company in Pakistan's cultural centre, Lahore,
pays PKR 2 million per month to a theatre actor whose identity as a sex
worker is now blurred with other labels. The rise of massage parlours and
private services via the Internet and the advertisement chain has further
compounded the notion of sex work and stripped it of conventional labels.

Ghulam Abbas's Urdu short story Anandi (also made into a classic film Mandi
by the filmmaker Shyam Benegal) remains a parable for times to come. The
moralistic municipality of an imagined city expels sex workers and brothels
to improve public morality. The sex workers’ abode soon turns into a new city
– Anandi – and the land mafia, the trader-merchant class, dargahs and temples
spring up in a short span of time. The story ends with another irony:

	The meeting of Anandi's Municipal Council is at full boil, the hall
	is packed nearly to bursting, and contrary to normal not a single
	member is absent ... One eloquent scion of society is holding forth:
	‘It is simply not known what the policy might have been on the basis
	of which this polluting class of people was given permission to live
	in the precise center of this ancient and historical city of ours...’
	This time, the area selected for the women to live in was twelve kos
	from the city.

Anandi was written in 1939. In certain regards, precious little seems to have
changed since then.

~ Raza Rumi is a freelance contributor for the Friday Times, Lahore.

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This article last updated on : 2014 Jan 27