Musicians from 100 years ago

A treasure trove of early photographs of Indian classical musicians reveals untold stories and provides a window into an opulent, bygone world


Group of Nautch Girls, 19th century, artist unknown.
Group of Nautch Girls, 19th century, artist unknown.

Images and photographs often tell a thousand hidden stories—about featured subjects, their relationships and hierarchical associations with other individuals in the photographs, and a lot more. Photographs of Indian musicians too tell their own stories, making them a fascinating subject for study and analysis. The online Tasveer Journal offers the delectable Beauties Of Lucknow by Darogah Abbas Ali for those who wish to undertake such a study. The 24 portraits of professional women performers from the late 19th century included in the book provide special insights into the opulent courts of Awadh, known for its staging of elaborate dramatical productions like the Indar Sabha during the reign of Wajid Ali Shah.

Some of the beauties photographed for this publication are believed to have been wearing costumes for a version of the Indar Sabha. But in fact, it is the photograph of Ubbasee Domnee that first catches the eye. A group composition featuring three women performers seated on the floor, it captures a central artiste, possibly Ubbasee Domnee, flanked by a female sarangi accompanist on one side and a female tabla player on the other. Ubbasee herself seems more richly attired and bejewelled than the two others, hinting at her relatively superior status in the performance hierarchy. Although the photograph is obviously a posed one, none of the three artistes is smiling, and the only performer looking into the camera is the sarangi player. Unsmiling but unafraid, she looks almost challengingly into the camera, while the tabla player’s gaze is downcast.

Perhaps the artistes did not wish to be photographed but were not in a position to say so. The existence of this photograph, however, establishes the fact that both tabla and sarangi were played by professional female performers in the 19th century, if not earlier. Later claims by women tabla artistes declaring themselves the first in this regard are also proved incorrect by this photograph.

Several photographs taken in the early 1900s show accompanying musicians such as tabla and sarangi players in a standing position, their instruments strapped to their waists as they follow the dancers they were accompanying. Websites like www.oldindianphotos.in (see “Various Vintage Photographs of Indian Nautch [Dancing] Girls”) showcase ample evidence of this tradition, which is in stark contrast to the current-day practice of musicians performing seated on the floor.

A photograph from James Waterhouse’s The Waterhouse Albums: Central Indian Provinces(now in the Alkazi Collection) shows the begum of Bhopal with musicians. Seated at the begum’s feet, the two musicians, one an elderly gentleman playing the tanpura and the other possibly a surbahar player, show complete and absolute subservience to their royal patron and her companions. The feudal hierarchies and positions could not be more clearly defined in the photograph.

The trend of using instruments as props has also been popular, in the past as well as the present. While there are several instances of ladies posing with musical instruments like a sitar, musical instruments are still used as props by artistes. Scores of musicians use tanpuras, tablas, santoors and sarods to prop an elbow on, rest a cheek or chin on, or swing the instrument casually over a shoulder, inspired perhaps by a guitar. But perhaps the most shocking use of instruments, which by all accounts are considered hallowed in India, could be found till some years ago in the corporate office of a leading music label in Mumbai. A pair of tablas formed the legs of a glass-top table on which visitors regularly placed tea-cups and glasses. Sadly, I do not have any photograph of this blasphemous use of instruments. Else, it would have been a telling image that conveyed the scant respect the company had for music.

Also Read: Shubha’s previous Lounge columns

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