University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Centre of South Asian Studies Seminars > Mayalee Dancing Girl, the East India Company, and the Sambhar Salt Lake Affair 1835-42

Mayalee Dancing Girl, the East India Company, and the Sambhar Salt Lake Affair 1835-42

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In 1818, the East India Company signed a treaty with the autonomous Rajput states of Jaipur and Jodhpur, offering British political and military protection in exchange for heavy cash tribute. By the early 1830s, these states were swimming in debt and increasingly resisting the Company’s influence. So in 1835 the Company took direct control over the revenue of the salt lake at Sambhar, still one of India’s largest sources of that most precious of commodities, salt. Sambhar Lake was returned to Jaipur’s and Jodhpur’s control in 1842 when, having been brought to the brink of ruin by the Company’s protection racket, their arrears were written off by the Government in Calcutta. Short-lived and little-studied, the Sambhar Lake affair left behind a set of financial accounts in the East India Company records that are alive with details of musicians and dancers, the cycle of Sambhar’s festival year, and the economics of such cultural production. One musician in particular stands forth from Jaipur’s accounts as exceptional: Mayalee “dancing girl”. As well as being paid a monthly cash stipend, she received 25 maunds of salt annually, and was clearly one of Sambhar’s chief courtesans. Little exculpatory notes in the margins of successive Company accounts reveal that Mayalee successfully resisted the Company’s attempt to force her to give up her salt stipend in exchange for cash. Was she merely protecting a nice little sideline selling salt? Or did the more lofty ideal of “faithfulness to the salt” (namak-halālī) underpin her resistance? In this paper I consider why Indian musicians, and especially courtesans, appear at all in the official records of the East India Company, and what this tells us about relations between the British colonial state and the Indian peoples whose worlds the Company was increasingly encroaching upon during the 1830s and 40s.

This talk is part of the Centre of South Asian Studies Seminars series.

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