Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Nautch Girl and Imperial Feminism at the Fin de Siècle (!)

The University of Alberta in Canada posts a PhD thesis by Charn Kamal Kaur Jagpal, “‘I Mean to Win’: The Nautch Girl and Imperial Feminism at the Fin de Siècle,” awarded by its Department of English and Film Studies this year. “This dissertation explores Englishwomen‘s fictions of the nautch girl (or Indian dancing girl) at the turn of the century,” mainly between 1880 and 1920. While the subject might not warrant a reference to Mme. Blavatsky, it does here.

As one of many examples, writing in the 1890s, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky positions nautch girls (specifically devadasis) as an exception to the rule about Indian womanhood. She asserts that, out of the women in India, “Only the nachnis, the dancing girls consecrated to the gods and serving in the temples (a hereditary position), can be said to be free and happy and live respected by others.”

The citation is from Blavatsky’s Indian travelogue, From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan, 1892 (1975 edition, p. 231), and, if as a clarification, the writer notes

Critical of Western ideologies and practices, and disappointed with Western religions, many Europeans and Americans at the turn of the century “were increasingly turning to Asian goods, philosophies, arts and cultures” to define themselves and their modernist sentiments. Under this motive, movements like Theosophy, Transcendentalism, and Occultism gained ground, and promoted the values of eastern spirituality over western materialism. Theosophy was among the most popular, spreading internationally in the late nineteenth century through the work of scholars such as Max Müller, and the leadership of Henry Steel Olcott, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Annie Besant. These theosophists elevated ancient civilizations to a utopian world, a counterpoint to the turmoil, change and scientific scepticism marking the urban landscape of Europe and America. Of particular interest were ancient Hindu beliefs, specifically those from the Vedic period and scriptures, that offered westerners hope of curing contemporary ills, of reinvigorating European culture through contact with the more benign faiths of Eastern cultures.

There is a brief mention at the end that “These theosophical beliefs led to the revival of the so-called classical dance of India, known as Bharatnatyam,” though no reference to the work of Rukmini Devi, a theosophist and sister of N. Sri Ram, President of the Theosophical Society, Adyar, who helped Indian dance gain its respectability as an art form, and whose school, Kalashetra, started in 1936 on the Adyar campus of the Theosophical Society, brought together performers, musicians, and designers. Rukmini Devi’s work is documented in two large volumes of photographs by C. Nachiappan (now Koviloor Swami) published by Kalashetra Publications, 2003, Rukmini Devi Bharata Natya and Rukmini Devi Dance Drama.

The entire thesis, “‘I Mean to Win’: The Nautch Girl and Imperial Feminism at the Fin de Siècle,” can be read here.

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