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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Dancing Girl

(The Nautch Girl)

Hasan Shah

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To purchase The Dancing Girl

Title: The Dancing Girl
Author: Hasan Shah
Genre: Novel
Written: 1790
Length: 121 pages
Original in: Persian
Availability: The Dancing Girl - US
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  • Originally written in Persian (1790), and titled Nashtar.
  • Translated into Urdu by Sajjad Hussain Kasmandavi in 1893.
  • Translated from the Urdu version by Qurratulain Hyder (1992).
  • Hyder claims to have been "strictly faithful to the text and not anywhere modernized either the narrative or the dialogue" in her translation. However, she acknowledges:
    • Cutting down the "ornate passages."
    • Omitting "most of the ghazals of Hafiz quoted in the narrative."
    • Shortening "the lengthy love letters exchanged between the hero and heroine."
  • With a Translator's Foreword, an Afterword, and Notes

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Our Assessment:

B : a small, sometimes clumsy romance, primarily of historical interest

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Hasan Shah's 1790 autobiographical novel tells the story of his ill-starred love for the dancing girl Khanum Jan. Obtaining a position as a munshi (clerk) to an Englishman, Ming Saheb, in Cawnpore (modern Kanpur), the young Hasan Shah also falls madly in love with one of the members of a touring group of dancers that has set up camp here. The adopted daughter of the leader of the group, Khanum Jan is also destined to become a courtesan -- the primary means the troupe earns money.
       The Englishman Ming takes a liking to her, but she refuses him. Fortunately Ming takes up another of the girls in the troupe, assuring their survival for a while -- and their continued presence.
       Sly Khanum Jan is also smitten by Hasan Shah, and eventually the two are married -- though completely in secret. Neither can risk revealing their relationship to family or employer. This goes well for a while, until the troupe finally must leave Cawnpore. Khanum Jan and Hasan Shah make plans to flee, but they are unable to do so before the troupe's departure. Duty calls -- Hasan Shah must balance his employer's books -- and it is days before he can follow his wife down the river.
       The ending is not a happy one, as Hasan Shah feverishly searches for his bride and Khanum Jan feverishly awaits him. Their love was, however, apparently, not meant to be.
       Hasan Shah's tale is a colourful one, from an unusual time when the English were not as hated in India as they would be only a few decades hence. The India described here is quite different from that found in later colonial (and then anti-colonial) literature.
       The dancing girl herself is also a remarkable character. She is educated, wilful, manipulative, -- and beautiful.
       Much of the novel is too simply drawn, even clumsily presented. Nevertheless, it is a fair little romance. Twice translated, in two different eras (it was written in Persian in 1790, translated into Urdu in 1893, and translated from the Urdu into English in 1992), the text has presumably been shaped by its metamorphoses. It is regrettable that English translator Hyder saw fit to cut some of the sections that may have enhanced the love-story, such as the letters between Hasan Shah and his wife.
       A few linguistic anachronisms stand out in the English version -- for example: "Why do you plead for her ? She hates your guts." (or "remuneration" misspelt as "renumeration".)
       Most of the narrative weaknesses are Hasan Shah's shortcomings, mainly when he fails to explains why something happened or why he was unable to do something. So, for example, when he finally finds out where his wife is, knowing that she is desperately ill:

     I was terribly upset and made up my mind to proceed to Lucknow. But first I must send a letter to find out how she was.
     I was planning to dispatch a man to Lucknow but somehow could not do anything about it.
       Among the more enjoyable aspects of the novel are a few asides neatly integrated into the text from notes made by the Urdu translator. These commentaries don't illuminate much of the text, but are a welcome reaction to it.
       The Translator's Foreword, the Afterword (also by Qurratulain Hyder), and Notes are all fairly informative, and useful and welcome additions to the text.
       The Dancing Girl is an interesting little romance, certainly more of historical than literary interest. It has its moments, and it is certainly worthwhile as a document about the India of those times.

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The Dancing Girl: : Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Syed Muhammad Hasan Shah was born ca. 1770. He apparently came from Kanpur, and eventually settled in Lucknow. His Nashtar (The Dancing Girl), written when he was about twenty, is considered the first modern Indian novel.

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