About six o’clock every evening the beau monde of Calcutta begins to take the air on the Course, a very pleasant drive which runs along the bank of the river. There are quite as many carriages as by the Serpentine in the most crowded part of the season; but it must be confessed that none of them would be likely to excite the envy of an owner of a “fashionable turn-out” at home — unless indeed it might be now and then for the sake of their occupants.
However incongruous a native driver may look on the box of an English carriage, and absurd a couple of turbaned grooms painfully crouching behind, or standing on one leg each on the “dickey ” steps, a sweet English face, surrounded by the edge of a lovely little bonnet, is always a pleasant sight. The riding habit, too, is graced by some of these pretty faces and figures — the most graceful of all being Lady Canning. It is delightful to see her canter along, the centre of a brilliant group, her intelligent and beautiful eyes animated in conversation, or with their not less charming expression of repose — fiire and gentle at the same time.
Long before the Course begins to thin, it is almost dark, and then — at least if the poor lounger is “unattached,” and, instead of being seated in one of the before-mentioned enviable voitures, or, perhaps happier still, walking his horse across the plain beside some well-trained Arab, he is sharing his buggy with a friend as unfortunate as himself — the general effect of the scene before him is the most interesting object for his gaze. The carriages continue to whirl past, but one sees hardly more of them than their lamps. The river glides, cold and shining, a long silvery light under the opposite bank, while trees and masts and rigging relieve themselves, as in a picture of Giorgione’s, against the golden bars of the distant sky. But the band ceases to play, and we all go home to dress.
If the traveller chooses — which, they say, is rare with Englishmen abroad—to leave the society of his compatriots, he may find many an amusing drive in the native parts of the town. Tall Sikhs, whose hair and beards have never known scissors or razor, and who stride along with a trooper-like swagger and high caste dignity; effeminate Cingalese; Hindoo clerks, smirking and conceited, and dandified, too, according to their own notions; almost naked palkee-bearers, who, nevertheless, if there is the slightest shower, put up an umbrella to protect their shaven crowns; “up-country” girls, like the lady of the nursery-song, with rings in their noses and rings on their toes; little Bengalee beauties in their graceful and cool garment of one piece of muslin, which, ingeniously twisted round them, serves as hood, shawl, and petticoat, but which has the inconvenience (as it would be thought in lands where crinoline prevails) of leaving their figures perfectly visible whenever they come between you and the light; Madras “boys;” Parsees, Chinese, Greeks, Jews, and Armenians.
Every variety of race and costume are to be seen bargaining on the quays, chaffering in the bazaars, loading and unloading the ships, trotting along under their water-skins, driving their bullock carts, smoking their hookahs, or squatting in the shade doing nothing at all.
To come in of an evening from driving about in some of these dark, dirty, narrow, noisy lanes, and half an hour afterwards find oneself in a pleasant English dining-room, is a very pretty contrast. Women nicely dressed, decorated generals and captains, and knights-at-arms and black-coated civilians, intermingled, down the sides of that long table, covered with glass and plate and flowers and little statues, recall to mind dear England; then, what reminds one England is far away, the punkahs swinging over-head between the chandeliers, and the grave, handsome Mohammedan servants.
How pleasant, too — doubly so after the stifling cabins of the P. and O. steamer — the great, lofty, marble-pillared room, opening through distant doors on verandahs, and the star-covered blue sky. Not less pleasant to the traveller weary of board ship is the drawing room with its new books and pictures and photographs, the sound of the billiard balls gently rolling in the adjoining salon, and the sight of the groups in the broad verandah enjoying the evening breeze.
Best of all, however, and greatest pleasure of all, is the consciousness of liberty; here one is not cooped up on a narrow quarterdeck — here we can change and vary the scene. We have enjoyed ourselves. What shall we do now? “Slope” off and smoke a cheroot at the hotel? Not yet, dear reader; neither will we go to the opera, where “Don Pasquale” is to be performed by a French company. We have heard Lablache at home, and the house here is very hot, and besides possesses no Lablache. But we will take you to a ballet very different to any that you have yet seen, and in our opinion superior in some points.
We have had the good fortune, thanks to our interest in native manners and customs, to make the acquaintance of a Hindoo merchant or contractor; he is a millionnaire and a bon vivant, on whom his religion —in private — sits somewhat lightly. We might, if we had not been otherwise engaged, have dined with him this evening. He would have been delighted to have received such good fellows as we are, and would have treated us with abundant hospitality and kindness.
The dinner would have been of a composite character, partly European, partly native. A sort of rissole of chicken would certainly have been one of the dishes, and with equal certainty would have met with your approval; the curry, too, would have satisfied you, even if you had just come from Madras or Singapore. There would have been knives and forks for us; our convives would not have made much use of the latter, and some of the dishes on which they would have exercised their fingers would hardly have tempted us. The champagne and claret are excellent; and our host, Hindoo as he is, is not sparing in his libations, and at the same time, he and his countrymen would have been vociferous in pressing us to eat and drink, filling our glasses the moment they were empty, and heaping our plates with the choicest morsels.
After all, however, perhaps we have had no great loss in missing the dinner. We shall enjoy the drive to my friend’s house, and by being a little late, shall escape the not very delightful sound of tuning various stringed instruments, that even in their perfect state will seem to us horribly inharmonious.
Arrived, we leave our horse and buggy to the care of some most cut-throat looking individuals, who crowd round with much noise and gesticulation, wondering who and what we are, while this clatter brings out a sort of major-domo, who recognises us as friends of his master, and soon clears a way for us across the court-yard, full of puddles and mud, takes us up a flight of steps, and ushers us into along and tolerably well lighted room.
Our host, who has evidently dined, comes forward with outstretched hands, and with great cordiality welcomes and presents us to his friends. We can’t understand all he says, for his English at the best is not always intelligible, and he is now particularly voluble and jolly.
There is a great noise, too, for every one is talking and laughing, and the talking is pretty loud, for it has to overcome the sounds made by sundry musicians seated on carpets at the other end of the room, who are striking their tom-toms, and singing a most doleful and monotonous chant. The Baboo, however, bustling about, soon makes vacant for us two sofas, the places of honour. Little marble tables are before them, on which are placed wine, brandy and soda-water.
The other guests resume their seats along the two sides of the room, on our right and left. There are eight or ten men, and two or three ladies; all — the ladies, I mean — very handsome and richly dressed. Lower down, are several young girls in light flowing drapery, busily talking, laughing, and smoking their hookahs. All the fair sex look rather scared and shyly at the foreigners, but some of the men are evidently trying to reassure them, and telling them what swells we are.
Order being at length restored, hookahs on our part being respectfully declined, for we have before this tried and found we can’t manage them; our cheroots being lit, and our iced brandy pawnee made ready, the performance recommences. The corps de ballet, I ought to say, are not performers hired for the occasion, but form part of the regular establishment of our friend the Baboo.
One of the girls seated, as I have said, near the musicians at the lower end of the hall, advances slowly, in time with the dreadful music, to within a few feet of one of our sofas, and she is followed by another, who similarly places herself opposite the other sofa. Others in the same way prepare to dance before other guests. They all stand for a moment in a languid and graceful attitude, the music strikes up a fresh air, and each nautch girl assumes the first position of her dance.
She stands with outstretched arm and hand, quivering them in exactly the same way that I have seen in mesmerists, and allowing her body very slightly to partake of the same movement. Her feet, too, mark the time of the music, not by being raised, but by merely pressing the floor with the toes. The action and movement thus seem to run like a wave through the body, greatest where it begins in the hand, and gradually diminishing as it dies away in the foot. With a change of time in the accompaniment, the girl drops her arm, advances a step or two nearer the person before whom she is dancing, and leans back, supporting her whole weight on one foot, with the other put forward, and pressing against the floor the border of her drapery.
In her hands she holds a little scarf, which serves to give a motive to the movements of the arms and head. The action in this figure — which, by the way, admits of great variety, no two performers being at all alike in it — is somewhat stronger than in the first. The undulation, too, instead of dying away gradually from its commencement, runs with equal force, like the line of an S, through the body. Without any pause in the music, the dancer sometimes glides imperceptibly into, sometimes begins with startling suddenness, the next movement. The general position remains what it was before; but to describe how the principle of life and motion seems concentrated below the dancer’s waist, and from thence flows in undulating streams to flash from or to dull — according to her organisation — the eyes; and to crisp the childlike feet with which she grasps the carpet. is for me quite impossible. A Rubens or Gavarai might draw what would recall this wonderful pantomime to the brain of one who had seen it, but nothing but his own imagination could suggest it to him who had not.
One of these girls is a perfect actress; she would bewitch us as Vivien did poor Merlin could she get us in a hollow tree, and entertain us with a little confidential chat:
A robe that more exprest
Than hid her, clung about her lissome limbs,
In colour like the satin shining palm
On sallows in the windy gleams of March.
Numberless shades of expression pass over her delicate features, but the prevailing one is a beseeching, supplicating look, that seems to say,
Dear feet, that I would follow through the world,
And I will pay you worship; tread me down,
And I will kiss you for it.’
But we don’t do anything of the sort. We only, as the custom is, administer to her some rupees (that we have borrowed from the major-domo) in token of our admiration, and with an arch smile the no longer supplicating damsel passes on.
There is, I believe, a vague notion prevailing, that a nautch is a very naughty and improper exhibition. My experience is very limited, but I must say, that in the one or two I saw, there was nothing that the most rigid sergent de ville at Mabille could have objected to Lord Haddo and his friends, who are shocked at painters drawing from the living model, or the Neapolitan government, that prescribes the studies of young doctors, might certainly with great consistency express their aversion to an Indian nautch; but no one who retains his stall at a European ballet could say a word on the subject. If the charge of indelicacy is to be brought against either, it would, I think, weigh most heavily against the latter. The Indian dance is voluptuous and graceful — as a dance should be; and this is more than can be affirmed of a ballet of the French school, some of the commonest attitudes of which are undoubtedly not addressed merely to the sense of beauty.
However, it is now late; and though our worthy friend and his fellow-countrymen seem to be enjoying themselves with “unabated vigour,” and the “festivities will probably be kept up till a late hour” — as they always say of country balls — we ourselves take leave and get away homewards.