For the purpose of entertainment, the role of dancing girls in the Mughal court was as important as any. Enthusiasts of the arts, they patronized and encouraged the dance form and held mehfils quite frequently. It’s easy to think of the dancing girls in narrow terms of sex slavery and eroticism but records tell us that art was at the heart of such performances. Most performers were accomplished poets and singers and many ended up marrying the rulers and princes. The dancing girls and their troupe were actively patronized by the royal household and were known by different names such as ‘Kanjni’ ‘Doomni’ ‘Hoorkani’ and ‘Looli’ and were part of the harem for the specific purpose of entertainment for the royals.
The dances they performed were not specific to any of the three classical styles of ‘Kathak’ ‘Natyam’ and folk. Kathak was an aesthetically pleasing dance which was elegant but not complex in movements. The focus with Kathak was on storytelling. The Natyam or ‘Dasi Uttam’ was spiritual/ religious in nature and was a complex dance form. The folk dance added a local flavor to the dance. Rather than sticking to one dance form they borrowed liberally from all three styles to innovate and come up with unique dancing styles depending on audience. In the Mughal courts, the dances,ovetime, had become more abstract and erotic rather than as a means of communication of religious ideals. The reason was simple; in the court ruled by Muslims, an outwardly expression of religious ideas was not desirable. Therefore, it was up to the dancing girl to incorporate all three forms of dances into their performances, depending on the viewers, which were ultimately judged by technique, skills and intelligence.
Consequently, the dancing girls innovated and had in their repertoire various items or performances which shed ample light on not only their talent but also the intelligence with which they devised a routine. It was also evident from their performances that rather than being one dimensional performer of repetitive dance routines, they had highly developed cultural, social and political sensibilities as well. Let’s take an example:
The ‘Patang ka naach’ (Dance of the kites) was popular dance which was suitable for both men and women for it was not considered to be an erotic dance. In the dance, the performer would play the role of both the kite and also the person flying the kite. To begin with, the dancer would gracefully imitate the slow ascent of the kite, rising slowly before it gains enough momentum and strength to masterfully stand perkily in the sky, followed by the ‘Paicha’ or the tussle that ensues with another kite and finally she would emulate the slow descent, through slow floating movements, of the kite towards the earth once the string (Dor) has been cut as a result of that tussle (Paicha). In some cases, two performers would perform the dances depicting the two kites with one of them emerging victorious while other slowly falling to the earth. In another, the dance would be performed by two dancers, one playing the role of the kite while the other of the kite flyer. This nach was performed to a slow tempo emphasizing graceful movements, elegant postures and utmost poise. From the description above, one can imagine how beautifully choreographed and artistically stimulating the performances must have been. Rather than a vulgar display of the eroticism; instead of trying to appeal to the carnal desires of their audience, the dances had been developed to charm the audience with their cultural sensibilities in mind while maintaining certain decorum.
‘They are extremely delicate in their person, soft and regular in their features, with a form of perfect symmetry, and although dedicated from infancy to this profession, they in general preserve a decency and modesty in their demeanor, which is more likely to allure than the shameless effrontery of similar characters in other countries’. (James Forbes)