While wandering through Chandni Chowk,
there is an image that often comes into my head—it is a famous painting, an
image from a naach in progress at the haveli of Begam Samru, circa
early 19th century. In this picture, we see David Ochterlony, British Resident
in Delhi, watching the dancing girls while reclining on bolsters, dressed in a
Mughal court dress.
It’s a strange image to carry in your head when you push through the bustle of the electric goods market of Bhagirath Place to reach the almost hidden, crumbling ruins of the Begam’s neo-classical mansion, where anything as grandiose as a naach is now impossible.
The grand space is now partitioned into many claustrophobic warrens, and small cubicles leading off those warrens: the heart of Delhi’s wholesale trade in medicines and surgical goods. The place is filled with a lingering hospital smell, that of the gelatin that coats capsules. Porters pass with crates of scalpels on their heads.
The vast estate of Begam Samru, all around this mansion, once stretching almost from the Old Delhi Railway Station to Chandni Chowk, is today Bhagirath Place, the massively built up and massively busy centre of Delhi’s electric goods and film distribution trades. In the 1930s, it was known exclusively as the ‘Film Colony’, a still genteel place where those who distributed films ran theatres, printed tickets and posters, lived and worked.
Much more crowded now, the alleys between the buildings are all covered with peeling palimpsests of A-, B- and C-circuit films; poking out from behind Mithun’s grimacing face, a poster of Her Nights. I wonder what the Begam would have made of all this?
Begam Samru was a teenage courtesan from Chawri Bazaar when Reinhardt the Sombre, a European mercenary on the make, married her and she became Begam Samru, the ruler- after his death - of the principality of Sardhana. It was the former naachnewali herself who threw the most lavish naach events in Delhi.
Over a century later, in the 1920s and early ’30s, it would not have been uncommon for those now living on the Begam’s former estate to be heading to the kothas of Chawri Bazaar, for the refined decadence of kotha culture was essential to the upbringing of the raees of Dilli.
In fact, when cinema halls were initially trying to attract the public to this strangely silent and monochromatic new entertainment, they’d have naach on the stage before the show began, to pack the reluctant public in.
But then the anti-naach movement led by Swami Shraddhanand (whose statue you can see in front of Town Hall), quite swiftly made the naach a thing of disrepute. The naachnewalis were pushed out of Chawri Bazaar to the margins of the Old City, to GB Road. The respectable raees and their money would no longer come, and elegant refinement rather rapidly morphed into more nuts and bolts sex work.
The raees started throwing their money into that new glamourous thing, cinema. This is just an educated guess, but someone’s PhD is waiting to be done on how we can link the boom in the cinema business of the ’30s Delhi to the simultaneous bust of the kotha culture of Chawri Bazaar, and how patronage shifted from one to the other. And why Hindi cinema, for the longest time, was obsessed with the figure of the tawaif.
Methinks, the Begam would have been highly amused.
This article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, April 30, 2006