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An Evening in Calcutta by W. H. S.

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. It is usually crowded with carriages, 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 the occupants.

Long before the Course begins to thin it is almost dark, and then, if the poor lounger is "unattached," and 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 against the golden bars of the distant sky. But the band ceases to play, and every one goes home to dress.

If the traveler chooses, 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 swagger and high-caste dignity; effeminate Cingalese; Hindoo clerks, smirking, 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 with rings in their noses and rings on their toes; little Bengalee beauties; Parsees, Chinese, Greeks, Jews and Armenians, in every variety of 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.

We have had the good fortune, thanks to our interest in native manners and customs, to make the acquaintance of a Hindoo merchant, a millionaire and a bon vivant, on whom his religion sits somewhat lightly. We might, if we had not been otherwise engaged, have dined with him this evening. He would have been delighted to receive us, 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 pleasant drive, and by being a little late shall escape the not very delightful sound of various stringed instruments being tuned. Arrived, we leave our horse and buggy to the care of some most cutthroat-looking individuals, who crowd round with much noise and gesticulation, wondering who and what we are, while the noise brings out a sort of majordomo, who recognizes us as friends of the master, and soon clears a way for us across the courtyard, takes us up a flight of steps, and ushers us into a long and tolerably well-lighted room. Our host 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 talkative and jolly: it is evident he has dined. There is a great noise; every one is talking and laughing; and the talking is loud, for it has to overcome the sounds made by sundry musicians seated at the other end of the room, who are striking their tomtoms and singing a most doleful chant. The baboo bustles about, and makes vacant for us two sofas, the places of honor. 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; the ladies very handsomely dressed. Lower down are several young girls in light drapery, laughing, talking and smoking their hookahs. The fair sex look rather scared and shyly at the foreigners, but some of the men are evidently trying to reassure them. Order being at length restored, our cheroots lighted and our iced brandy-pawnee made ready, the performance recommences. The corps de ballet are not hired for the occasion, but form part of the establishment of our friend the baboo. One of the girls seated near the musician advances slowly, in time with the music, to within a few feet of one of our sofas, and she is followed by another, who places herself opposite the other sofa. Others in the same way prepare to dance before the 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, and allowing her body very slightly to partake of the same movement. Her feet 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 action of the arms and head. The movement in this figure, which 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 its 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 organization, the eyes, and to crisp the child-like feet with which she grasps the carpet, is for me impossible. A Gavarni 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: numberless shades of expression pass over her delicate features, but the prevailing one is a beseeching, supplicating look. We administer to her, as the custom is, some rupees in token of our admiration, and with an arch smile the no longer supplicating damsel passes on.

A vague notion prevails that a nautch is a very naughty and improper exhibition. My experience is limited, but I must say that in the few I have seen there was nothing that a sergent de mile at Mabille could have objected to. Certainly, no one who retains a seat during the performance of a ballet can 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; which is more than can be affirmed of a ballet of the French school, some of the attitudes of which are certainly not addressed only to the sense of beauty. But it was now late, and, although the festivities showed no signs of abatement, we bade our host adieu and returned home.