Tipsy guests, nautch girls, camaraderie flowing as freely as drink… New Year’s Eve 1834 was one for the diary, writes R.V. SMITH
New Year’s Eve 1834 in Delhi was a grand occasion (if old gossip is to be believed) and the two men prominently associated with it were Colonel James Skinner and the British Resident, William Fraser. They were both great friends and liked to spend their evenings together when not out hunting or scouting for mistresses in the countryside. Skinner was a religious man but not Fraser, who was once reprimanded by Lady Nugent, wife of the British Commander-in-Chief, for his “shocking lifestyle”. According to Pran Nevile in his “Stories of the Raj and the Sahibs - India”, she also criticised him for “neglecting his religion”. Born a Christian in Scotland, after his Indian experience, according to the French botanist Victor Jaquemont, he had become half-Asiatic in his habits but in other respects remained a Scotch Highlander and an excellent man with great originality of thought, a metaphysician to boot and enjoying the best possible reputation of being a country bear.” Besides, he was a generous patron of the Delhi artistes, a scholar of Persian and Sanskrit who had become a vegetarian and lived with his seven wives. Earlier he had been assistant to General Ochterlony, who once surprised his guests with a performance at his Residency by 100 nautch girls.
Colonel Skinner also had seven wives, most of them Hindus or Muslims whose children were allowed to follow their own religion. This colourful man who built the St. James Church in Kashmere Gate also built a mosque and a temple, says Nevile. His senior Muslim wife lived in Meerut and enjoyed great authority as Bahu Begum.
What can one expect when two such men get together to enjoy New Year’s Eve in Delhi, then still ruled by Akbar Shah II, with Mirza Ghalib enjoying his popularity in the streets of Delhi and at the mushairas at Haveli Sadr Sadur in Matia Mahal. Fraser had helped the poet when he visited Calcutta regarding his pension, but after Ghalib’s return to Delhi and Fraser’s appointment here there doesn’t seem to have been much communication between the two, even though Fraser’s love for oriental poetry knew no bounds.
On the 1834 New Year’s Eve, besides drinking to each other’s health, Skinner and Fraser enjoyed the ambience of the former’s house, situated in what later became Nicholson Road. A white canopy was put up for the nautch performance by such reputed courtesans as Malagire, Kandarbaksh and Pyarijan. The last named was so beautiful and enchanting that she was once compared by a besotted Irishman to the great beauties of the world like Helen of Troy.
As the dancing proceeded, the guests got drunk, among them rajas and nawabs and some British officials, whose wives were back home in England and resenting their existence as grass widows.
Skinner, who is said to have fathered 80 children, was in his element, relating the incidents in his almost incredible career of a military man who had raised his own irregular troops known as the Yellow Boys and later Skinner’s Horse. Fraser was no less a soldier and romantic, having peopled Haryana villages with blue-eyed children through his many wives, among whom was his favourite Ambiban. As the midnight hour approached they became tipsy enough to leave the assembly and spend time with the dancers of their choice. One does not know if Hindu Rao, brother-in-law of Maharaja Scindia of Gwalior, was present then but he was no less a lover of the nautch. Nevile quotes Lt. Thomas Bacon’s description of the nautch held at “Maharajas Hindu Rao’s house” (before he bought Fraser’s mansion) where the tents were most glaringly lighted by mussaulchis or torch-bearers… “who held their torches first to the face and then lower down as if showing off the charms of the dancers to the best advantages”. The date given is 1831 but three years later at Skinner’s house the atmosphere was no less colourful. By the time the two friends reappeared after their encounter with the dancers of their choice, the other nautch girls were too bored to continue with their performance. It was part jealousy and part exhaustion that had affected them. Their plight was not lost on Skinner and Fraser, and soon the laundis (maids) were ordered to take them aside and serve them their long-delayed dinner and drinks (most of them incidentally were fond of the “jaam”). After that the guests dispersed, for New Year’s Day 1835 and already been ushered in and the previous one had passed into memory. Fraser, however, was not destined to attend another such function as he was murdered later that year. But Skinner’s get-togethers continued at his estate in Hansi, though he greatly missed his bosom companion.