Julia Charlotte (Barrett) Maitland, a young lady who had accompanied her husband to Madras, wrote a series of letters in the years 1836-9, which were later compiled and published in book form.
In one her letters in 1836, she writes about a dinner (and entertainment) she was invited to by two rich natives by the names of Armoogam and Sooboo. ( Source, pages 26-30)
The other day a very rich native, an old protege of A 's, came to say that he and his son wished to make a feast for me, if I would come to their house.
I was extremely glad, for I was longing to get into one of their native houses; so last night we all went to him by appointment—Mr. and Mrs. Staunton, A , and I.
It was a most curious entertainment; but I was surprised to find that the Stauntons, who have been so long in the country, had never seen anything of the kind before. It is wonderful how little interested most of the English ladies seem by all the strange habits and ways of the natives ; and it is not merely that they have grown used to it all, but that, by their own accounts, they never cared more about what goes on around them than they do now. I can only suppose they have forgotten their first impressions. But this makes me wish to try and see everything that I can while the bloom of my Orientalism is fresh upon me, and before this apathy and listlessness have laid hold on me, as no doubt they will.
I asked one lady what she had seen of the country and the natives since she had been in India. " Oh, nothing ! " said she : " thank goodness, I know nothing at all about them, nor I don't wish to : really I think the less one sees and knows of them the better!"
Armogum and Sooboo, our two entertainers, met us at their garden-gate, with numbers of lanterns, and rows of natives, some of them friends and some servants, all the way up to the house. The whole house was lighted up like a show, with chandeliers, lamps, and lustres in every possible corner, and hung from the ceiling and festooned to the walls besides: it looked very bright and pretty.
The house consisted of one very large verandah, in which stood the native company; that opened into a large drawing-room, with a smaller room at each end, and sleeping-rooms beyond; and on the other side of the drawing-room another verandah leading into another garden. The house was furnished very much like a French lodging-house, only with more comfortable ottomans and sofas; but the general effect was very French: quantities of French nicknacks set out upon different tables, and the walls quite covered with looking glasses.
We were led into the great drawing-room, and placed upon sofas, and servants stationed at our side to fan us: then Armagum and Sooboo brought us each a nosegay of roses, and poured rose-water over them and over our hands ; and they gave me a queer kind of sprig made of rice and beads, like a twelfth-cake ornament: then they gave us each a garland of scented flowers, so powerful that even now, at the end of the next day, I cannot get rid of the perfume on my hands and arms.
Then the entertainment began : they had procured the musicians, dancers, and cooks belonging to the Nabob, in order that I might see all the Mussulman amusements, as well as those of the Hindoos. First, then, came in an old man with a long white beard, to play and sing to the vina, an instrument like a large mandoline, very pretty and antique to look at, but not much to hear. His music was miserable, just a mixture of twang and whine, and quite monotonous, without even a pretence to a tune.
When we were quite tired of him, he was dismissed, and the Nabob's dancinggirls came in: most graceful creatures, walking, or rather sailing about, like queens, with long muslin robes from their throats to their feet. They were covered with gold and jewels, earrings, nose-rings, bracelets, armlets, anklets, bands round their heads, aevignes, and rings on all their fingers and all their toes. Their dancing- consisted of sailing about, waving their hands, turning slowly round and round, and bending from side to side: there were neither steps nor figure, as far as I could make out. The prettiest of their performances was their beautiful swan-like march. Then they sang, bawling like bad street-singers—a most fearful noise, and no tune.
Then we had a concert of orchestra music, with different-looking instruments, but in tone like every modification of bagpipes—every variety of drone and squeak: you can form no idea of such sounds under the name of music: the chimney-sweepers' clatter on May-day would be harmonious in comparison. Imagine a succession of unresolved discords, selected at random, and played on twenty or thirty loud instruments, all out of tune in themselves and with each other, and you will have a fair idea of Hindoo music and its effect on the nerves.
When my teeth had been set on edge till I could really bear it no longer, I was obliged to beg A to give the musicians a hint to stop. Then there came in a man to imitate the notes of various birds : this sounded promising, but unfortunately the Madras birds are screaming, and not singing, birds; and my ears were assailed by screech-owls, crows, parrots, peacocks, so well imitated that I was again obliged to beg relief from such torture.
Then we had a Hindoo dancing-girl, with the most magnificent jewellery I ever saw : her dancing was very much like that of the Mahometans, only a little more difficult. There was a good deal of running backwards and forwards upon her heels, and shaking her silver bangles or armlets, which jingled like bells: then glissading up to me, waving her pretty little hands, and making a number of graceful, unmeaning antics, with her eyes fixed on mine in a strange unnatural stare, like animal magnetism. I think those magnetic actings and starings must first have been imitated from some Indian dancing-girl, and in fact the effect is much the same; for I defy any one to have watched this girl's dull, unvarying dance long, without going to sleep. The natives I believe can sit quite contented for hours without any more enlivening amusement; but then they are always half asleep by nature, and like to be quite asleep by choice at any opportunity.
After her performance was ended we had a conjuror, some of whose tricks were quite marvellous. He had on a turban and cummerbund (or piece of muslin wrapped round him), but no jacket, so that one could not imagine a possibility of his concealing any of his apparatus about him ; but, among other tricks, he took a small twig of a tree, ran his fingers down it to strip the leaves off—small leaves, like those of a sensitive-plant —and showered down among us, with the leaves, five or six great live scorpions ; not little things like Italian scorpions, but formidable animals, almost as long as my hand : I did not admire their company, creeping about the room, so he crumpled them up in his hand, and they disappeared ; then he waved his bare arms in the air, and threw a live cobra into the midst of us. Most of his other tricks were juggling with cups and balls like any English conjuror; but the scorpions and cobra were quite beyond my comprehension.
Our gentlemen were surprised at seeing the string which is always worn by Brahmins round this man's neck, and said that twenty years ago no Brahmin could possibly have so degraded himself as to show off before us as a common juggler. After he was dismissed we had another gold and silver girl, to dance upon sharp swords, to music as sharp; then a fire-eater ; and last of all a great supper laid out in the back verandah. The first course consisted of all the nabob's favourite dishes of meat, and curries and pillaws set out in China plates; the second course, all Hindoo cookery, set out in cups and saucers. A whispered to me that I must eat as mHch as I could, to please poor old Artnagum ; so I did my best, till I was almost choked with cayenne-pepper. The Moorman pillaws were very good; but among the Hindoo messes I at last came to something so queer, slimy, and oily, that I was obliged to stop.
After supper Armagum made me a speech, to inform me that he was aware that the Hindoos did not know how to treat ladies : that he had therefore been that morning to consult an English friend of his, Mr. Tracey, concerning the proper mode of showing me the respect that was my due; and that Mr. Tracey had informed him that English ladies were accustomed to exactly the same respect as if they were gentlemen, and that he had better behave to me accordingly. He begged I would consider that, if there had been any deficiency, it was owing to ignorance, and not to want of affection ; for that he looked upon me as his mother ! Then he perfumed us all with attar of roses, and we came away after thanking him very cordially for his hospitality and all the amusement he had given us. I was very curious to see the ladies of the family, but they could not appear before English gentlemen. I peeped about in hopes of catching a glimpse of them, and I did descry some black eyes and white dresses through one of the half-open doors, but I could not see them distinctly.