The Chair and The Pose

I had seen a similar old photo of my now 100-year-old grandmother back in India. Apart from seeing my grandma as a young teenager what had baffled me was positioning of the chair. “Why is the chair turned the other way,” I had asked her. She laughed and said it was the style at the time, back in 1910s. 

The picture was shot for arranged marriage purpose and there was another photo of her younger sister with the same chair and in the same pose. Later, I saw plenty of such photos in an old trunk at my house. I noted another thing – no one smiled in old photos. 

Recently, I came across another such photo and I thought of doing a little research on the chair as props in old photos. This is what I unearthed.

1) The use of the chair was a means to facilitate, relax and prevent the sitter from moving.

2)  It was used at the very beginning of photography  when long exposures were necessary for a successful result. 

3) Perhaps the long exposure and staying still was the reason why people would get tired of smiling. So people rarely smiled from old photos.

4) Posing with a chair was widely used and imitated. It got ingrained in psyche of the people of the time and everyone preferred it because of convenience as well as dramatic effect.

To learn more read this great blog – here. And do share if you know more. As of now, my curiosity got satiated regarding the weird positioning of chairs during portrait photography back in the good old days. Here are some more old pictures of royalty, with of course, the chair!



Images courtesy Google

The Exotic Nautch Girl


I first saw a nautch girl (dancer) when I was a little girl. We were at our mother’s village to attend a wedding and the nautch girl was standing in front of the community guest house.

She was ordinary looking but had a pleasant form. What made her special was the buzz surrounding her! Ladies were throwing scrutinizing glances at her while gents were checking her out through the corner of their eyes. Old ladies were chatting about beautiful baijis (another name for nautch girl) of their time. The arrival of the nautch girl had made the calm village a little noisy. She was considered a public woman, a fallen woman and everyone wanted to have a good look at her. But for me, she was exotic!


One of my relatives chided me for peeping at her. “She is not a good lady. Stay away from her. She is a nachaniya (another name for nautch girl). She dances and entertains the male crowd. Nice girls never go near her.” Her words made me all the more curious. And throughout the day, I kept a watch over the dancer through the window.

In the evening, I saw her washing her face and getting ready for the dance. We heard that groom and the baraat (group) had been received and were resting in the tents. I couldn’t wait to see her dance.

Well, at the auspicious time, the groom arrived with pomp and splendour. The nautch girl began to perform a welcome dance in front of the group. She had whiten her face, stained her teeth with betel and put on a lot of make up. Under bright lights, she looked younger than she actually was. The ladies watched the welcoming of the groom from the terrace while gents stood around her in a circle. Some young baraatis threw money at her which she pocketed fliratatiously.


I watched from above while she danced on and on…on that magical night. I forgot all about the wedding but her forbidden persona stayed with me.

It was later in life that I learnt more about the likes of her. I had almost forgotten about my exotic nautch girl when I came across this quote by James Forbes (Oriental Memoirs 1813)-

“Nautch girls 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.”

I learnt that possibly my nautch girl was a crude and jaded version of the former nautch girls, who were superior in art and bearing. With time, during family functions, nautch girls got replaced by choreographed dancers.  And now we have DJs playing songs at every wedding.

Earlier, they were a prominent part of Indian life and culture during the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. They were mostly teenage girls, who typically performed in Mughal courts, the palaces of nawabs, the mahals of rajas, the bungalows of officers of the British Raj, the houses of zamindars as well as at ordinary homes wherever they were invited. Sometimes they arrived with their troupe without any invitation to a celebration and patrons were expected to pay them. They would break into an impromptu dance whenever situation demanded.

It should be kept in mind that they were not into flesh trade and their husbands accompanied them as one of the musicians. Their dance forms were an amalgam of prevalent dance forms of India at that time.


As royalty faded, the tradition of nautch lost its lustre. Some of them joined films and theatre. They have been widely portrayed in films too. The prominent ones among them were Shashimukhi from Chitpur and Phanibala. Shashimukhi was the first recorded artist of India. She went on to become the tragedy queen of Bengal theatre. 

Further on, nautch girls lost their dignity and came to be seen primarily as sex workers. That is why my concerned relative had admonished me – “Nice girls never go near them”.

I do not know whether the nautch forms are still alive in some corner of India or not but I cannot help remembering that particular  nautch girl, who had looked so divine to me! I had followed her almost like a fan adores a film star. I had enjoyed her playfulness and dance moves. I did not know then that I was witnessing a fading tradition…

Images courtesy Google

The Bride of Thirteen – 2

image

Bent but not broken, she stood looking at the garden from the verandah of her bungalow. Her dimming vision did not allow her to see the untended garden, so she just saw flowers in bloom.

She thanked Him for the flowers!

She would be 100 in a couple of years. She took out one melt in the mouth candy and savoured its taste. Mmmm…! She missed ‘paan’ (betel) but the candies were not bad either. One of her granddaughters had got it from Oman. As she turned to go, the scent of red roses filled her being and took her back to the time when she was a bride of thirteen.

That seemed more like a lifetime ago, in the pre-independence era of India. She was getting married to a prince from a faraway state. The purdah system (married women covered their faces) was a dominant practice at that time but otherwise the women from royal families lead a lavish life. She was fortunate to be the daughter of a Ruling Chief and her marriage was a grand affair.

The royals of different states vied with each other in a show of extravagance at her wedding. Veiled women laden with Banarasi Silk, Velvet and Chiffons and resplendent in gold and diamonds fluttered around. The men had moustaches and long beards and they wore intricately embroidered Sherwanis that made them look noble, chivalrous as well as intimidating.

She had a crimson embroidered veil on her face and she was held by maids in waiting. She didn’t know what was happening as she couldn’t see from under the heavy veil. All she could smell was roses everywhere…on her hair…under her feet…in the garland in her hands. They were perhaps leading her towards the dais where marital rituals were to be performed. She heard that they were filming the wedding – a rarity in those pre-television days. She wanted to peep out of the veil but that would have been improper and scandalous!

She heard people talking that a train full of guests had arrived with the prince. Her father left no stone unturned to give them a spectacular welcome. Folk dances were performed, sword fights were staged, fascinating nautch girls (dancers) from Benares danced Kathak in the ‘janwasa’ and the guests merrily immersed themselves in revelry.

The maids made her sit on a mat and one of them whispered in her ear, “You are lucky princess. The prince is very handsome and perhaps he will take good care of you.” She heard them laughing. The bride was dark, skinny and average looking…little more than a child! She was enjoying the excitement until now. She was ecstatic to be the centre of attention and being fussed over. She had spent the last few months admiring her clothes and jewels but the maids’ words made her anxious.

The full reality of being married dawned upon her. She will have to leave her house, her parents, playmates and embrace a new life. She knew her in laws place was different from hers culturally and socially and the prince was a complete stranger. One day, out of the blue, her parents announced of her impending marriage to an unknown prince from a strange land. Arranged marriages were supposed to be unquestionably accepted in those days.

Moreover, she had thought of it to be some fun event but now it seemed cruel. She was venturing into the unknown and she didn’t know how she would survive in a different place without her loved ones.

The rituals lasted through the night and she slept fitfully between mantras. Whenever her covered head drooped to one side, she would be poked and nudged to wake up. She felt that getting married was a terrible job! She was not liking it anymore.

The following day,the world started treating her differently. The bridegroom and the guests left for the boarding house to change and get ready for farewell. Her status had suddenly elevated, she was a married lady now! She was asked to walk slowly, talk in whispers and wear a veil covering her face. Her mother instructed her for the umpteenth time to behave properly in front of the in laws and not bring shame to the family. She had to be docile, sweet and humble under all circumstances. This forced transformation from a girl to a lady was nerve wrecking.

She had so many questions to ask…but no one was listening to her. She wanted to talk to her siblings but everybody was busy preparing for the ‘vidaai’ (farewell) ceremony. For her, everything was about to change and they expected too much from her! The bride of thirteen felt like crying at the top of her voice. However, there was one thought that made her feel better.

“Well, not everything is going to change,” she muttered. There was ‘one person’ who would not leave her on her own even if the world did. ‘He’ would make sure that everything would be alright. ‘He’ would ensure that her husband, the handsome prince, like and befriend her.

She walked towards the prayer room and picked up the idol of Baby Krishna. He had been her favourite playmate, confidante and sweetheart all this while…she knew that He would make sure everyone else loves her in her new home!

She gently put the smiling Krishna in her gold potli (purse) and smiled broadly. There was nothing to worry, she would not be sad, lonely and miserable anymore. He was with her!

Her daughter-in-law’s voice broke her reverie. She had brought tea for her. It was also time for her favourite TV show. She gave one last look to the roses, smiled fondly and turned to go.

To be continued….


(Loosely based on the life of my grandmother, who will be 100 in a couple of years)

Image courtesy  Google