Thursday, November 6, 2008

Fable of Kashmiri (un) Beauty as told by Victor Jacquemont

Perhaps the nastiest comments ever made on Kashmiri women were those by a French botanist named Victor Jacquemont (Born in Paris on August 8, 1801 and died in Bombay on December 7, 1832). Jacquemont came to India in the late 1820s and visited Kashmir in around 1831.

On the topic of Kashmiri beauty, in a letter written to his father, he writes:
"Know that I have never seen any where such hideous witches as in Cashmere. The female race is remarkably ugly. I speak of women of the common ranks, — those one sees in the streets and fields; — since those of a more elevated station pass all their lives shut up, and are never seen. It is true that all little girls who promise to turn out pretty, are sold at eight years of age, and carried off into the Punjab and India. Their parents sell them at from twenty to three hundred francs — most commonly fifty or sixty."
Bernier had sung hosannas about Kashmir; and Jacquemont, disappointed by what he saw, not only called Kashmiri women “hideous witches”, but on not finding trees on route to Kashmir, even called poet Thomas Moore “a perfumer, and a liar to the boot”.

It is words of one Frenchman against the words of other Frenchman!

Whose opinion could one venerate?

Jacquemont’s letters, originally written in French, were later translated and published after his death as Letter from India: Describing a Journey in the British Dominion of India (1834). This publication, collecting Jacquemont's letters written for various friends and relatives, provides a very confusing account of his travels.

After his first meeting in Lahore with the ruler of Punjab and of Kashmir, Ranjit Singh, at night a welcome concert was organized in the royal court. About this night, in a letter to his father he writes:
“The concert was execrable, Oriental music being one of the most disagreeable noises I know; but the slow-cadenced and voluptuous dance of Delhi and Cashmere is one of the most agreeable that can be executed. I will also admit that my Cashmerian danseuses had an inch of colour on their faces, vermillion on their lips, red and white on their cheeks, and black round their eyes. But this daubery was very pretty: it gives an extraordinary luster to the already beautiful and extraordinarily large eyes of the Easter women.”
Earlier in some other letter to his brother, one can read him write that although the dance is “monotonous” but the singing is “not without art”. And in the same letter he goes on to write that “their dancing is already to me the most graceful and seducing in the world”.

In another letter, to a friend he writes about his opulent Arabian Nights’ adventure:
“ At Lahore, I lived in a little palace of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments; a battalion of infantry was on duty near me; the drums beat in the field when I put my head out of doors; and when I walked in the cool of the evening, in the alleys of my garden, fountains played around me by thousands! A most splendid fěte was given to me, with an accompaniment of Cashmerian girls, as a matter of course; and, although they had their eyes daubed round with black and white, my taste is depraved enough to have thought them only the more beautiful for it.”
Shalimar Bagh Srinagar Kashmir Photograph of Shalimar Garden taken by me in June 2008

In Kashmir, he pays a visit to the famous Gardens at Shalimar Bagh and about the Kashmiri Nautch girls there, he writes to his father:
“The Cashmerian beauties had nothing in their eyes to compensate for the monotony of their dancing and sing. They were browner, that is to say blacker, than the choruses and corps de ballet of Lahore, Umbritsir, Loodheeana, and delhi. I remained as long as I was pleased with looking at the fantastic architecture of the place […]”
The only argument in his favor and the only conclusion that one can draw: at least he thought daubed Kashmiri eyes to be beautiful. Perhaps, in his mind, he was thinking, rather ironically, some lines from Moore's Lalla Rookh. Maybe he was thinking:

"Those love-lighted eyes that hang over their wave"
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This is page 3 of the series Fables of Kashmiri Beauty
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Dancing girls of Kashmir

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