Friday 30 April 2021

Lahore and Amritsar: Two cities joined at birth are dying together

 A border drawn across the map severed centuries of bonds forged between the two cities. But memories of the past linger in the air.

Amritsar was born in Lahore. It was born inside the walled city, in a small house in its narrow and winding streets. It was the month of Assu, corresponding to the months of September and October in the Gregorian calendar. It was a month when the monsoon rains, having unleashed their fury, had finally taken mercy and receded. The demons of the summer had been defeated, while the tyrant winter was still imprisoned. It was that time of the year when there was perfect harmony, when nights were balanced by day, heat by cold. It was the time of the year so uncharacteristic of the extremities of Punjab that it seemed out of sync, an anomaly, to its vagaries.

Amritsar was born in the family of Sodhi Khatri, a family of ancient kings, a family that was destined to rule not just the kingdom of this world, but also the higher realm, miri and piri, as articulated by the sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind. These kings were not destined to be ordinary rulers, but true rulers, Sacha Padshah, whose reign would overshadow the reign of the mighty Mughal Empire. This new kingdom that was their destiny was born, along with Amritsar, in Lahore in the year 1534.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh's darbar in Lahore. | Hasan al Din/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Amritsar lived in Lahore till it was seven years old, till the time its parents, Hari Das and Mata Daya, were alive. They died in the same year, leaving their child orphaned. The child, initially named Jetha, was raised by his grandmother in a small village, where the child first interacted with Guru Amar Das, the third Sikh Guru, and became his lifelong devotee. Bhai Jetha eventually became a part of the Guru’s family, marrying his daughter Bibi Bhani. Such was his devotion to the Guru that he was chosen as his successor. Bhai Jetha became Guru Ram Das, the founder of Ramdaspur, the name by which Amritsar was once known.

Inside the walled city of Lahore, in an area known as Chuna Mandi, close to Kashmiri Gate, there is a gurdwara that marks the spot where Guru Ram Das was born. It was lying in a shambles till a few years ago, much like several other gurdwaras across the country, before it was renovated, along with a number of gurdwaras, by the Pakistani state and opened for Sikh pilgrims.

Lahore was born in Amristar. Actually, about 11 kilometres west of the city. It was one of a pair of twins, its fate permanently sealed with the city of Kasur that was born with it. It is not possible to pinpoint the exact day, the season or even the year of Lahore’s birth. It first came to existence at a time when time did not exist. There was no history or chronology, only the circular trajectory of mythology. This wasn’t the time of people, but rather of characters, caricatures and archetypes. This was the time of the perfect man, the just king, his perfectly devoted wife, and his perfectly loyal brother. This was the time of the greatest villain, a character so powerful that it was as strong as the power of ten. This was a time when gods and demons lived as men and women, a time when there was either good or evil, nothing in the middle.

Gurdwara Janamasthan Guru Ram Das in Lahore. Courtesy: Haroon Khalid.

It was at that time, when history was yet to be conceived, that Lahore was born in the ashram of Bhagwan Valmiki. The greatest sage of his time, for that was a time when nothing existed in ordinariness, Bhagwan Valmiki was composing the greatest book ever, when the cries of Lahore and Kasur first resonated in the ashram. It was the story of their father, of Lord Ram, that Bhagwan Valmiki, the Adi Kavi, the first poet, was composing when he heard these cries. Sita, their mother, had found refuge in this ashram after she had been banished from Ayodhya, following her return from Ravana’s Lanka. It was her story, of her marriage with Ram, of her exile from Ayodhya, of her capture by Ravana, of her rescue by Ram and her trial in Ayodhya that the Adi Kavi had decided to write about. In the process, he composed the first verses of poetry humans had ever realised. Lahore was born with Ramayana.

Her twin sons were named Lava and Kusha. Lava founded the city of Lavapur, which came to be known as Lahore, while Kusha founded Kasur. Today, about 11-odd kilometres from Amritsar, Bhagwan Valmiki Tirath Sthal marks the spot where the ashram was located and Lava and Kusha were born. The three cities at their birth were tied together in a triangle, a relation that is now testified by their cartography. In contemporary Lahore, at that highest point of the city, next to the river, where the first signs of civilisation developed, where lie the earliest traces of Lavapur, there is a small temple dedicated to the founder of the city. Inside the Lahore Fort, next to the Alamgiri Gate, are the remains of the temple of Lava.

A Lost Past

How is one to imagine the cities of Lahore and Amritsar, whose origins are so deeply intertwined, separated today by boundaries that doesn’t just divide geographies and people, but also mythologies, legends, religions, cultures, heroes and villains? It is a border that lies in the middle of these two cities, fabling stories about itself, about its previous incarnations in different forms, telling tales about its inevitability, its naturalness. Chanting mysterious mantras, the border blows in the direction of these cities, transforming their appearances through its prayers.

Lahore today is the ultimate symbol of Pakistani nationalism – a Muslim majority city, the site of Lahore Resolution, where the Muslim League first demanded a separate homeland for Muslims, home to Minar-e-Pakistan and host to proud Mughal architecture, the Lahore Fort, Badshahi Masjid, a tradition that marks the zenith of Muslim civilisation in an undivided subcontinent. Besides a few, inconvenient remnants of traditions scattered around the city, all those traces of a pre-Pakistan Lahore have been suffocated and left to die. It is easy, in fact encouraged, to forget about that lost city, that lost geography which connected Lahore with Amritsar and Delhi, a Lahore that emerged as an important economic, political and cultural hub because of its strategic location on that ancient route that flowed from Bengal to Kabul, a river dammed up by the border.

Gurdwara Dera Chahal on Bedian Road. Courtesy: Haroon Khalid.

Lahore today is still an important city, perhaps more important than it has ever been, but it is not the Lahore of the past. Its contemporary geography and location are an awkward testimony to its changed status. A city that once looked in both directions, has today its back towards the east, and looks desperately towards the west, towards Islamabad, Kabul and beyond in search of a new identity, in search of a new incarnation.

The story of Amritsar is not much different. It was wedded to Lahore at its birth, tied a knot with the city that spanned over several centuries. It was a marriage that was sanctified by Valmiki, as Ramayana his witness, by the shabd of the Gurus and the blessings of Sufi saints like Mian Mir. It was a marriage of interdependence, of convenience and even complimentary traits. It was a marriage in which Lahore took on certain roles and Amritsar others. Thus, in 1799, when a young Ranjit Singh took over Lahore, he effectively became the ruler of Punjab, with Lahore the political symbol in his control. But, without the blessings of Amritsar, the spiritual symbol, he could not yet call himself Maharaja. The capture of one was incomplete without control over the other. Lahore held the past, while Amritsar was the future. Lahore was regal, while Amritsar sacred. If Lahore was miri, then Amritsar was piri. The two were not distinct entities, but one. They were an extension of each other, incomplete without the other. Like an archetypical marriage, they were two bodies and one soul.

The divorce was sudden, ending the gradual dependence that had developed over (almost) 400 years of marriage. It was an immediate severing of relationship, a violent rupture of all connections. Memories of Lahore, however, continue to haunt Amritsar. It is a relationship the city today searches for, sometimes with Delhi and at other times with Chandigarh. It is that primary relationship that impacts its subsequent relationships. The memory of the divorce lurks within its subconscious, hampering it from fully realising itself, from fully expressing itself.

Road To Nowhere

The road leads nowhere, meandering non-committally. It’s not meant to be travelled on, to be explored. It is not meant to connect one part with another. It is meant to provide a semblance of connectivity, meant to fill up empty tracts of land. It is aimless, pointless, stranded like a branch of a family tree that has no progeny, that has no purpose.

One after another villages and hamlets emerge on both sides of the road. They are the children of distantly related family members with no children of their own. They are no longer part of the immediate family, no longer invited to its events. They are confined within their circles, isolated from the economic structures of the core. Their names represent their marginalized positions – Dera Chahal, Jhaman, Hair and Bedian, terms that have no resonance in contemporary Lahore, the Lahore of Islampura, Rehman Park, Model Town and Defence, a Lahore of postcolonial sensibilities, tinged with the flavour of Islamic nationalism.

I am travelling on Bedian Road, a road named after the village Bedian, which in turn was named after the Bedi descendants of Guru Nanak, who were allotted land in this village. It’s only the name that survives, a name that once resonated with significance, a name that today represents nothing but outskirts of Lahore, of vast agricultural fields, downtrodden villages, a dilapidated road and a few luxury farmhouses. Beyond these is the border, casting its spell, chanting its mantra. The road collides with the wizard and dies unceremoniously. It is a battle that it is destined to lose.

Smadh of Prithi Chand on Bedian Road. Courtesy: Haroon Khalid.

The road once connected Lahore with Amritsar, one of the many that linked them. Here the peripheries of the two centres interacted, creating villages and hamlets through this intercourse, these villages and hamlets bearing children of that relationship. Standing on a vacant ground, facing the historical village of Hair, now reduced to poverty and insignificance, is the remains of this unwanted child, the remains of a shrine that was constructed here by Prithi Chand, the eldest son of Guru Ram Das, a shrine that was intended to rival Harminder Sahib at Ramdaspur. It is a worn-down structure, stripped of all its ornaments, the paint, the frescoes. Its sacred pool, created as an alternative to the pool of Amritsar, is now lost, completely covered, its broken bricks scattered all over this ground.

The condition of the structure, however, is misleading. For a brief period, the shrine, named Dukh Nivaran, was important. For a brief period, it attracted Sikh pilgrims who believed Prithi Chand’s lies that he was the rightful spiritual successor of his father, that he was the fifth Sikh Guru and not his younger brother. In this endeavour, he was supported by many – Mughal officials and corrupt Masand, Sikh deputies appointed by Guru Ram Das as his representatives in different parts of Punjab. The strategic location of Hair made it easier for Prithi Chand and his followers to intercept Sikh devotees on their way to meet the Guru and to expand their network. With the Sikh pilgrims came their offerings. Prithi Chand’s coffers swelled, while that of Guru Arjan, who was in Ramdaspur at that time, dwindled. For that brief moment, it was Hair and this shrine that began to overshadow Harminder Sahib.

After Prithi Chand’s death, his smadh was constructed at Hair, while his movement was continued by his son, Meherban. This movement in Sikh history is referred to as Minas, the scoundrels. It was one of the most potent challenge to all the Gurus after Guru Arjan. After the formation of the Khalsa, they were referred to as Panj Mel – one of the five dissenting groups with whom the Khalsa were forbidden to engage. The Minas finally lost the battle for legitimacy, the struggle for spiritual inheritance of the Gurus in the 19th century, when they split into several parts and got incorporated into the formal Sikh community. With the disintegration of the community, the village of Hair too lost its political importance, as the memory of Prithi Chand, of the Minas and Dukh Nivaran began to disintegrate and crumble.

Symbiotic Relations

Before there was Partition, before there were riots and mass exodus. Before there was religious nationalism, the division of Punjabis into multiple airtight traditions. Before there were contemporary incarnations of Mughal armies and the Guru’s forces, fighting a perennial battle, correcting historical injustices. Before Lahore became a Muslim city, the city of Sufi saints, and Amritsar, the city of Gurus, there was Mian Mir and Guru Arjan.

Their friendship began at the house in Chuna Mandi where Guru Ram Das was born. It was here that a young Mian Mir, years away from becoming a Sufi saint, would attend the religio-philosophical discourse of Guru Ram Das, when the Guru came to Lahore from Ramdaspur. This was a time before the communalisation of identities, the partitioning of religious traditions, a time when it was the norm, and not an exception, to have Hindu, Sikh and Muslim devotees of the Guru. It was at these gatherings that a young Mian Mir met the young future Guru. They formed a connection that was to become a representative of the symbiotic relationship between Sikhism and Islam.

Upon becoming the Guru, despite the opposition of his elder brother, Guru Arjan continued the construction work at Ramdaspur, whose foundation had been laid by his father. He began the construction of Harmandir Sahib, the future Golden Temple, which was in time to become the most important Sikh gurdwara in the world. Before construction began for Harmandir Sahib, however, a message and a delegation were sent by Guru Arjan from Ramdaspur to Lahore (according to oral narratives of the descendants of Mian Mir residing in Lahore) to bring his friend Mian Mir to the city, to lay the first brick of the foundation of what was to become the identity of the city. Mian Mir travelled in a palanquin sent by the Guru and laid the foundation of Harmandir Sahib, tying together the cities of Lahore and Amritsar in a lifelong relation.

Years later, when on the orders of Emperor Jahangir, Guru Arjan was being tortured in Lahore before his execution, Mian Mir reached out to him and asked for his permission to destroy the city of Lahore to stop this torture. He was willing to sacrifice his home, to sacrifice the entire city, for his love of the Guru, but the Guru refrained him from doing so. After Guru Arjan’s execution, Mian Mir maintained a cordial relationship with his son, the sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind. It is a relationship that continues to be remembered and celebrated by certain groups and communities.

Abandoned Traditions

I met Bhai Ghulam Muhammad at his home in Lahore in February 2014. He passed away in April. His home was close to Data Darbar, the shrine of the patron saint of the city. The shrine is a thousand years old, as old as the known history of Lahore. Its existence and continued significance represent a continuation of a cultural and spiritual life of the city.

Residents of Lahore take pride in the city’s historicity, its recent and ancient past. But is Lahore, in its contemporary incarnation, the same city that it was, that it has been for a thousand years? Lahore was never Bhai Ghulam Hussain’s city. His home was Amritsar. But the city changed in 1947. Just like Ghulam Muhammad’s family, the city too migrated to Lahore, leaving in its shadow a distant memory of what the city once had been. The city where Ghulam Muhammad was travelling to was also not Lahore anymore, the glorious pride of Punjab, the multicultural jewel of the crown, of undivided British India. This was a new Lahore, a new city which only shared its name with that glorious past.

Bhai Ghulam Muhammad came from the family of Bhai Sadha and Madha, the Muslim rubabis appointed by Guru Tegh Bahadur to perform kirtan at the Harmandir Sahib. The performance of kirtan at Sikh gurdwaras by Muslim rubabis was a tradition that started with Bhai Mardana and Guru Nanak. It was maintained by subsequent Sikh Gurus. His was one of the most respected families of the city of Amritsar, the family that formed a connection between the Guru’s shabd and thousands of their devotees. His family was one example out of several that highlighted the complex relationship between different religious communities and hybrid identities. “We knew the Granth by heart…nothing about being Muslim,” he told me.

Once guardians of the Gurus’ words, they were reduced to odd jobs in Lahore. Only recently, with a growing interest in Sikh heritage in Pakistan, the family began performing kirtan again. However, this rediscovery of the profession is a far cry from what the situation had been prior to Partition. The odd jobs continued. In 2008, Bhai Ghulam Muhammad was barred from performing kirtan at Harmandir Sahib, for he was not an Amritdhari Sikh. His family had performed kirtan for generations at the Harmandir Sahib, without ever being Amritdhari, but that was a different city, a different Amritsar.

In the story of Ghulam Muhammad is the story of Lahore and Amritsar. It is the story of what the cities were, the story of their relationship, the story of their intermarriage. It is the story of what the cities are, of their antagonism towards fluid identities, of their newly discovered loyalties. The death of Ghulam Muhammad is the death of these two cities, of what they had been, of what they could have been.

Haroon Khalid is the author of several books, including Imagining Lahore and Walking with Nanak.

(Source: Scroll)

Thursday 29 April 2021

Rediscovering India’s forgotten masterpieces

 Pigeonholing great works of art as the property of the East India Company has meant they’ve been ignored for centuries. But a new exhibition is giving due recognition to artists who deserve to be as well-known as Michelangelo, writes Rahul Verma.

They were simply labelled ‘Company Painting’ and ‘Company School’; but some artworks assigned to a niche bureaucratic category are now being recognised as masterpieces. Paintings commissioned by patrons of the East India Company during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries are currently on show in an exhibition at the Wallace Collection in London.

Forgotten Masters – Indian Painting for the East India Company focuses on artists who were previously neglected. According to its curator, historian William Dalrymple, they should be celebrated as “major artists of the greatest capabilities”.

The exhibition presents a dizzying range of exquisite paintings reflecting colonialism’s insatiable thirst to catalogue, document and chronicle. They feature Indian wildlife (animals, flora, fauna), people and buildings, for European botanists, zoologists, anthropologists and architects to study; today, the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew and Edinburgh are home to thousands of paintings and illustrations from this era.

Six Recruits (c 1815) by Ghulam Ali Khan – the court painter for Mughal emperors Akbar II and Bahadur Shah II

Botanical beauty

Despite being more than 200 years old, many of the wildlife works are wonderfully vivid and leap from the high-grade European paper imported by enthusiasts such as French Company man, Claude Martin, who shipped 17,000 pages of watercolour paper for natural history pictures. Shaikh Zain ud-Din’s Indian Roller on Sandalwood Branch (1779) is stunning, with the shading of the bird’s inky blue and turquoise plumage, and the delicate ripples of its nape and auricular, embodying both European natural history styles and Mughal painting traditions.

It seems remarkable that work of such brilliance has been neglected – but their labelling means they’ve been caught in limbo, as Dalrymple tells BBC Culture. “They’re toxic to both India and Britain – to India they’re not Indian enough, they reek of colonialism, and for Britain there’s an embarrassment around Empire. After the collapse of Empire, the British put this thing in a trunk in the attic and forgot about it.

Indian Roller on Sandalwood Branch (1779) by Shaikh Zain ud-Din, who combined the style of English botanical illustration with the Mughal artistic tradition

It’s a tragedy that Ghulam Ali Khan, Shaikh Zain ud-Din and Yellapah of Vellore are names people simply don’t know – William Dalrymple

“You don’t think of the Sistine Chapel as a work of papal art, it’s by Michelangelo and Raphael [among others], but somehow because the artists are Indian and their names have never been known, the work has been pigeonholed as ‘Company School’ art. The key thing has been to remove the Company from the centre of the story and foreground the genius of the Indian artists, it’s a tragedy that Ghulam Ali Khan, Shaikh Zain ud-Din and Yellapah of Vellore are names people simply don’t know,” he continues.

Dr Yuthika Sharma, who teaches and researches Indian and South Asian Art at the University of Edinburgh and has written a chapter (The Late Mughal Master Artists of Delhi and Agra) in the exhibition catalogue, agrees Indian painters have been disregarded because of the reductive ‘Company Painting’ label, although that’s now changing.

“[The term] ‘Company Painting’ has been used for decades to refer to works painted for colonial (mostly East India Company) patrons, implicating a top-down relationship between the patron and the painter, where the latter served the imagination of colonial masters,” she tells BBC Culture. “This view is now being actively revised in the scholarship, arguing for the recognition of painters as agents of resistance and change: the decolonisation of painting and of the art historical discourse in Indian art is a real and present challenge.”

Malabar Giant Squirrel, Calcutta (1778) by Zain Ud-Din, commissioned by a Company official to catalogue a private menagerie at their home in Calcutta (Credit: Private collection)

South Indian artist Yellapah of Vellore seems like a person who would not be impressed by the erasure of his work – his quietly mesmerising self-portrait, Yellapah of Vellore (1832-1835), in oyster shell paint, sees the artist confidently holding the gaze of the viewer, and is full of beautifully rendered details, whether the shading of his hands or the fine hair of his moustache. More than anything, the selfie oozes dignity and assurance in his craft, as well as personality, agency, and perhaps defiance towards his paymasters – in 1806, the Vellore Rebellion saw Indian sepoys mutiny against British commanders.

Indeed, the paintings of people in particular reveal plenty – not only about intimate, interpersonal relations, but how they evolve and adapt as the balance of power is skewed towards a marauding colonial enterprise backed by military might, plundering and ransacking in plain sight. Early in the exhibition we see John Wombwell, a Yorkshire accountant, embracing local customs and style, sitting on a rug, enjoying a hookah dressed in Mughal finery – Portrait of John Wombwell Smoking A Hookah (1790) – in the north Indian city of Lucknow, a cultural and artistic hub.

As Dalrymple explains, in the early part of the Company Painting era (1770 to 1840) there was a more equal footing and sense of cultural exchange between India’s Mughal rulers and East India Company officers. “At this stage, the British aren’t in control, they’re on the rise, the Company is becoming more powerful but we’re not in the Raj, there’s a Mughal Emperor in Delhi. It’s a very interesting half-lit world that’s not colonial but not entirely Mughal, it’s a transition between the two and cultural transfer is an important part of the story – the wills of Company officials from this time show that more than one third of British men in India left all their possessions to Indian wives or Anglo-Indian children.”

Self-portrait by Yellapah of Vellore (1832-1835) – his patrons, British officers, are largely absent from his work (Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Shaikh Zain ud-Din’s natural history works – Dalrymple says they make English painter George Stubbs “look like a child daubing with watercolours” – commissioned by Sir Elijah Impey, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Calcutta, and Lady Impey, have seen the Patna-born artist rightly lauded. Yet it’s his painting, The Impey Children in their Nursery (1780), depicting an everyday scene of the Impey’s three children being tended to, with an ayah (nanny) breastfeeding an Impey baby, that stands out.

Scenes of intimacy

“It’s something so incredibly intimate and it’s amazing that it’s been portrayed. In a way that’s the strangeness of the Company period, although it’s deeply exploitative and all about looting and asset stripping, it’s collaborative – the Company is being paid for by Indian finances, its battles are being fought by Indian sepoys paid by the Company, and Indian wet nurses are suckling the children,” says Dalrymple.

John Wombwell, a Company accountant, was shown smoking a hookah in this 1790 portrait (Credit: Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris)

“The Company succeeded because India was so divided and it allowed the Company – which was never more than 2000 white men in India – to conquer this vast, rich and incredibly sophisticated culture, using Indian finance and soldiers. You’re quite right to zero in on that suckling as a symbol, in a sense of India giving the milk, that provided the sustenance to the company,” he continues.

Early in the exhibition we see a Yorkshireman in Mughal clothing, and towards the end there’s a rough-and-ready Indian man, Kala, also playing dress up and sporting European military attire – Kala in the Uniform of Skinner’s Horse (1815-1816). Kala, who became close friends with his employer, Company officer William Fraser, looks resplendent in a Napoleon-style jacket, Jodhpur boots and a sash sporting the crest of the Fraser family, yet he retains a strong sense of self, with a moon – signifying the Hindu deity Shiva – adorning his headwear.

Trooper of Skinner’s Horse Holding a Spear (c 1815-1816) by Ali Khan, whose work is seen as a valuable document of the Mughal Empire towards its end (Credit: Private collection)

This painting and Kala’s story is an example of why revisiting and re-evaluating so-called ‘Company Painting’ can prove so valuable, as Sharma explains. “Kala is the subaltern that speaks volumes through his portrait. Someone like him is regularly effaced in the archive but here he is given his own space and agency as an individual and a soldier. Men like Kala were part of the larger body of irregular recruits that supported Company officers, without whom Company expeditions and day-to-day work of ‘settling’ the countryside would have been impossible to implement.”

A triptych of paintings of nautch girls (dancing girls) in early 19th-Century Delhi offer a rare and brief glimpse of Indian women. “Women hardly appear in the painted archive except as idealised portraits as noblewomen,” says Sharma. 

“From that perspective, the frank and candid portraits of the nautch girls painted by émigré Patna-based artists Hulas Lal and Lalji are a real asset – portraits of the women capture their confident personas and a sense of resilience especially in the way the women appear to be returning the gaze to the onlooker.”

Left: Kala after Killing a Tiger; Right: Kala in the Uniform of Skinner’s Horse (1815-1816), by an artist in the circle of Ali Khan (Credit: David Collection, Copenhagen)

According to Sharma, “The nautch girls in Delhi were musicians and performers who were an integral part of courtly culture. They were highly skilled and erudite women who were held in esteem within royal circles and were often part of the royal household. Sadly, they also suffered from the fallout of the Company’s takeover of courtly affairs and, with their livelihoods threatened, had to resort to a sort of traveling troupe lifestyle.”

Forgotten Masters is also the familiar story of painters and artists struggling to earn a living – as Mughal rulers were choked off by the ruthless Company, they turned to wealthy British patrons and enthusiasts attached to the Company and became attuned to their European tastes. By the last section of the exhibition, Indian painters are largely painting in a European style – for example, Sita Ram’s The Great Gun of Agra Beneath the Shah Burj (1815) is reminiscent of John Constable’s bucolic rural English watercolours.

Sita Ram’s The Great Gun of Agra Beneath the Shah Burj (1815); in the background, across the river, the Taj Mahal can be seen (Credit: British Library)

For Dalrymple, much of the work on display in the exhibition is the final stand of Indian painting, the last hurrah of a 2000-year-old tradition – before the ruptures of Imperial colonialism with The Raj, and photography, arrived. This is his “private passion”; Yellapah of Vellore’s Sepoys of Madras (1830) is the cover of Dalrymple’s latest book, The Anarchy: the Relentless Rise of the East Indian Company, and the enthusiasm and pride with which he talks about celebrating the artists and their work in a major exhibition is palpable.

“The reality is that it’s spectacular art by great artists,” he says. “One of the pleasures of this exhibition has been giving agency and honour, or ‘bhav’ as we say in Hindi, to major artists who should be as well-known as Goya and Turner.”

(Source: BBC)

Wednesday 28 April 2021

Linguist Peggy Mohan's new book tells the story of India through its languages

 "Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through its Languages", published by Penguin Random House India (PRHI), is written by noted linguist Peggy Mohan.

A new book delving into the early history of South Asia reveals how migration -- both external and internal -- has shaped both, Indians and Indian languages from ancient times.

"Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through its Languages", published by Penguin Random House India (PRHI), is written by noted linguist Peggy Mohan. The book, through an incisive study of languages, such as the story of early Sanskrit, the rise of Urdu, language formation in the North-east, presents the argument that "all Indians are of mixed origins".

".. Hindi, Marathi, all the northern languages we call 'Indo-Aryan': they have words that were taken from the Prakrits and Sanskrit, but the way these words string together is strikingly different. There is another parent in this family that we have been ignoring!," said Mohan, who has also the author of "Jahajin" and "Walk in C-Minor".

"There are so many ways to look at history! Now the languages we speak have much to add to the story told by archeology, the historical record and modern genetics," she added.

Path-breaking in its revelation of the hidden story of Sanskrit, it also explores the surprising rise of English after Independence and how it may be endangering India's native languages.

"Urdu, too, has a story, starting with men who spoke Uzbek coming to Delhi and finding early Hindi, but preferring to speak Persian, the way so many of us opt for English. The north-east has a separate story too, starting near Banaras, where there is a different history and a totally different ‘maternal’ substratum—no gender, for example.. And English, which took to the Indian landscape like a hardy and determined weed," said the Trinidad-born author.

The book also got high praises from eminent historian Romila Thapar and award-winning journalist-author Tony Joseph.

While Thapar commended the book for revealing new dimensions in aspects of Indian history so "ably and accessibly" in this book, Joseph, who is the author of best-selling "Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors", called the book a "necessary read".

"Peggy Mohan takes the reader on a fascinating journey into the world of Indian languages. Weaving linguistics and history tightly together, she explores how waves of migration over millennia have left their mark on what we speak and how we speak. Wanderers, Kings, Merchants is an accessible account [and] a necessary read," said Joseph about the book. The 360-page "Wanderers, Kings, Merchants", priced at ₹599, is presently available for sale on online and offline stores.

Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through its Languages(Penguin)

(Source: HT)

Tuesday 27 April 2021

Meet M. Nagloo, India’s first Dalit hotelier who was famous among British, US travellers

 M. Nagloo rose from obscurity to become a prominent figure in late 19th century. His biography, written by his son, is perhaps the first Dalit biography written in English.

During my doctoral research, I was advised by my research supervisor Peter Robb to read catalogues. I used to diligently pick up catalogues in the India Office section of the British Library. Once, I landed on a biography of M. Nagloo, the first written-about Dalit hotelier. I was astonished to see a Dalit biography written as early as 1908 and that too in English. The biography, Maidara Nagayya, written by Nagloo’s son M.N. Venkataswami, opened all-new vistas about the unusual rise of a Dalit and the historical account of the early colonial encounters and British rule’s stabilisation in the Central Provinces.

A file photo of M. Nagloo | Source: Maidara Nagayya, the biography of M. Nagloo written by his son M.N. Venkataswami

Another significant aspect of this biography is that it was written twice in two different versions. Venkataswami first wrote and published a hundred copies of the biography in 1908. He had sent 57 copies to his father’s well-wishers and friends in England and the United States. Unfortunately, the remainder of 43 copies were swept away in the floods of 1908 in Hyderabad. Venkataswami rewrote the biography and published it in 1929 with extensive corrections and additions. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, both the versions of the biography ended up in the British Library.

This biography is not only rare, but is perhaps the first Dalit biography written in English. It challenges conventional historical understanding in Dalit studies, which presumes that before Ambedkar, there were no significant scholarly articulations and writings by Dalits. In contrast, the author of this biography, M.N. Venkataswami, was a prolific writer in English. He was a Royal Asiatic Society member and a well-established folklorist of his time. He consistently published in international journals like Folklore and Indian Antiquity. He translated Valmiki’s Ramayana in English with Ralph T.H. Griffith. He wrote The Story of Bobbili: As Handed Down Through Minstrels with Jadhunath Sarkar in 1912, and with Narayan G. Chandavarkar wrote Folk Stories of the Land of Ind in 1927.  He worked as a librarian at the State Central Library in Hyderabad.

Most importantly, Venkataswami’s acquaintance with the larger academic world is too impressive and difficult to ignore. In her recent book The Audacious Raconteur (Cornell University Press, 2020), Leela Prasad has a chapter devoted to Venkatswami titled ‘Sovereignty and Storytelling Colonial India’, which describes his folkloric contributions. Meanwhile, I am trying to trace the family both in Nagpur and Hyderabad, and so far have made multiple trips in vain. I will edit and publish the biography soon. 

Nagloo’s royal ancestry

Venkatswami writes that Nagloo’s ancestors were from the Rayalaseema region of Madras presidency. He claims royal lineage to his family and narrates their downfall in the caste ladder because of one forefather’s debasing act. According to him, during the 1783 famine, Nagloo’s grandfather Maidara Govindoo saw a group of Malavandlu (Malas) sitting around and voraciously eating a cow’s much-desecrated flesh. Pinched by hunger, Govindoo took a piece of the flesh, and ate it. The king came to know about it and ostracised him to the status of untouchables.

Govindoo supplied bullock carts to British native infantries during the battle of Seringapatam in 1799 and amassed a lot of wealth. He died when his son Polaya (Nagloo’s father) was still young. Polaya lived on the wealth amassed by his father and became a sorcerer and witchcraft man. Nagloo too lost his father in childhood. After marrying off two of his sisters, Nagloo’s mother brought him to Hyderabad to live with her brother. Within a few months, Nagloo’s mother died.

Nagloo joined country carts carrying goods to Jalna, a British military station. British Army officers picked up low-level servants and assistants in the early days of colonial occupation, predominantly untouchables from Machilipatnam (Bandaroo). It was a trading centre and port city that acted as an entry point for the Europeans in Coromandel Coast. Nagloo was employed as a domestic servant in the house of Lieutenant Colonel of Royal Horse Artillery. From Jalna, he moved to Kamptee near Nagpur and worked for different British army officers as domestic servant-cum-butler till 1857.

A file photo of the hotel M. Nagloo built in 1864 | Source: Maidara Nagayya, the biography of M. Nagloo written by his son M.N. Venkataswami

Nagloo’s rise as a hotel entrepreneur

After 1857, Nagloo started a bullock cart carriage business from Nagpur to Bombay and simultaneously worked for Captain R.H. Bolton of Bombay Infantry and Robert Brereton, Chief Engineer, Great Indian Peninsular Railway. Both these officers entrusted Nagloo with the purchase of durable timber logs for the Railway’s sleepers. The profits from rail logs contracts and transport business enabled him to establish a Nagpur hotel on 20 March 1864.

The gradual consolidation of power and constitution of Central Province along the expansion of railway lines increased the volume of trade between different areas. Moreover, it also increased access to interior regions for British officials and traders who used Nagpur as a base. This brought in lots of English clientele to Nagloo’s hotel; sometimes, his former bosses were his clients. However, the first chief commissioner of Central Provinces, Richard Temple, helped Nagloo expand his business by providing free lands, clientele, and the much-needed encouragement.

In 1866, an industrial exhibition was organised in Nagpur by Richard Temple to expose the Central Provinces to business and commercial opportunities. Nagloo was entrusted with transport, food, and accommodation arrangements. This official patronage helped Nagloo increase his business in terms of financial options and his standing in the public eye, especially in the caste-ridden society. The successful arrangements and British officials’ patronage helped Nagloo overcome the caste disadvantage (untouchable status) and got him clients from caste Hindus who were native rulers while Muslim ruling elite was also patronised for special occasions arranging food and wine.

Nagloo’s hotel became globally known with travellers from the UK and the US mentioning him in their travelogues. Punch, a British satirical magazine, published advertisements about the hotel. The Tatas wanted to buy the hotel for Rs 1 lakh at the height of its glory, but Nagloo refused to sell. As his success reached the pinnacle, he also made enemies among caste Hindus who had been facing court cases. He had to surrender his property to the British, who paid him a meagre Rs 10,000 as compensation and converted the hotel into Bengal-Nagpur Railway Headquarters. That downfall led to paralysis and the eventual death of Nagloo. His son Venkatswami was determined to tell his father’s story from obscurity to a prominent figure in early colonial India whose name was known worldwide.

(Source: The Print)

Monday 26 April 2021

Once upon a time: a brief history of children’s literature

 April 2 is International Children’s Book Day and the anniversary of the birth of one of the most famous contributors to this genre, Hans Christian Andersen. But when Andersen wrote his works, the genre of children’s literature was not an established field as we recognise today.

Adults have been writing for children (a broad definition of what we might call children’s literature) in many forms for centuries. Little of it looks much fun to us now. Works aimed at children were primarily concerned with their moral and spiritual progress. Medieval children were taught to read on parchment-covered wooden tablets containing the alphabet and a basic prayer, usually the Pater Noster. Later versions are known as “hornbooks”, because they were covered by a protective sheet of transparent horn.

A 1630 horn book. Folger Digital Image 3304., CC BY-SA

Spiritually-improving books aimed specifically at children were published in the 17th century. The Puritan minister John Cotton wrote a catechism for children, titled Milk for Babes in 1646 (republished in New England as Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes in 1656). It contained 64 questions and answers relating to religious doctrine, beliefs, morals and manners. James Janeway (also a Puritan minister) collected stories of the virtuous lives and deaths of pious children in A Token for Children (1671), and told parents, nurses and teachers to let their charges read the work “over a hundred times.”

These stories of children on their deathbeds may not hold much appeal for modern readers, but they were important tales about how to achieve salvation and put children in the leading role. Medieval legends about young Christian martyrs, like St Catherine and St Pelagius, did the same.

Other works were about manners and laid out how children should behave. Desiderius Erasmus famously produced a book of etiquette in Latin, On Civility in Children (1530), which gave much useful advice, including “don’t wipe your nose on your sleeve” and “To fidget around in your seat, and to settle first on one buttock and then the next, gives the impression that you are repeatedly farting, or trying to fart. So make sure your body remains upright and evenly balanced.” This advice shows how physical comportment was seen to reflect moral virtue.

Erasmus’s work was translated into English (by Robert Whittington in 1532) as A lytyll booke of good manners for children, where it joined a body of conduct literature aimed at wealthy adolescents.

In a society where reading aloud was common practice, children were also likely to have been among the audiences who listened to romances and secular poetry. Some medieval manuscripts, such as Bodleian Library Ashmole 61, included courtesy poems explicitly directed at “children yong”, alongside popular Middle English romances, saints’ lives and legends, and short moral and comic tales.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Children’s Games, 1560. Wikimedia Commons

Do children have a history?

A lot of scholarly ink has been spilled in the debate over whether children in the past were understood to have distinct needs. Medievalist Philippe Ariès suggested in Centuries of Childhood that children were regarded as miniature adults because they were dressed to look like little adults and because their routines and learning were geared towards training them for their future roles.

But there is plenty of evidence that children’s social and emotional (as well as spiritual) development were the subject of adult attention in times past. The regulations of late medieval and early modern schools, for example, certainly indicate that children were understood to need time for play and imagination.

Archaeologists working on the sites of schools in The Netherlands have uncovered evidence of children’s games that they played without input from adults and without trying to emulate adult behaviour. Some writers on education suggested that learning needed to appeal to children. This “progressive” view of children’s development is often attributed to John Locke but it has a longer history if we look at theories about education from the 16th century and earlier.

Some of the most imaginative genres that we now associate with children did not start off that way. In Paris in the 1690s, the salon of Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy, brought together intellectuals and members of the nobility.

There, d’Aulnoy told “fairy tales”, which were satires about the royal court of France with a fair bit of commentary on the way society worked (or didn’t) for women at the time. These short stories blended folklore, current events, popular plays, contemporary novels and time-honoured tales of romance.

These were a way to present subversive ideas, but the claim that they were fiction protected their authors. A series of 19th-century novels that we now associate with children were also pointed commentaries about contemporary political and intellectual issues. One of the better known examples is Reverend Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby (1863), a satire against child labour and a critique of contemporary science.

18th century Battledore printed by Newbery which adds pictures and a verse on the rewards of industry to the elements of the hornbook.

The moral of the story

By the 18th century, children’s literature had become a commercially-viable aspect of London printing. The market was fuelled especially by London publisher John Newbery, the “father” of children’s literature. As literacy rates improved, there was continued demand for instructional works. It also became easier to print pictures that would attract young readers.

More and more texts for children were printed in the 19th century, and moralistic elements remained a strong focus. Katy’s development in patience and neatness in the “School of Pain” is key, for example, in Susan Coolidge’s enormously popular What Katy Did (1872), and feisty, outspoken Judy (spoiler alert!) is killed off in Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894). Some authors managed to bridge the comic with important life lessons. Heinrich Hoffman’s memorable 1845 classic Struwwelpeter reads now like a kids’ version of dumb ways to die.

Struwwelpeter (‘Shock-headed Peter’) in a 1917 edition. Wikimedia commons

By the turn of the 20th century, we see the emergence of a “kids’ first” literature, where children take on serious matters with (or often without) the help of adults and often within a fantasy context. The works of Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Francis Hodgson Burnett, Edith Nesbit, JM Barrie, Frank L Baum, Astrid Lindgren, Enid Blyton, CS Lewis, Roald Dahl and JK Rowling operate in this vein.

Children’s books still contain moral lessons – they continue to acculturate the next generation to society’s beliefs and values. That’s not to say that we want our children to be wizards, but we do want them to be brave, to stand up for each other and to develop a particular set of values.

We tend to see children’s literature as providing imaginative spaces for children, but are often short-sighted about the long and didactic history of the genre. And as historians, we continue to seek out more about the autonomy and agency of pre-modern children in order to understand how they might also have found spaces in which to exercise their imagination beyond books that taught them how to pray.

(Source: The Conversation)

Sunday 25 April 2021

Harp's relationship with Gautama Buddha

 In my two previous blogs on the Burmese harp, I gave examples of how the Burmese harp or Saung was incorporated into Jātaka stories (stories of the previous lives of the Buddha). In this final instalment I will discuss how the Saung was intimately connected with the life of the Gautama Buddha.

The Buddha was originally born as a prince into a lavish lifestyle, and is described as having been accompanied by forty thousand dancing women and an all-female orchestra. In this depiction of the court (Or 14197) one can see alongside the dancer a full female orchestra with a fiddle, a xylophone, a harp (back row, next to the fiddle), a flute and a drum. Two of the women are clapping their hands in rhythm.

Prince Siddhartha Gautama enjoying the entertainment of his private orchestra and a dancer. British Library, Or 14197, f. 1r

The orchestra played an important part in the Buddha’s disillusionment and decision to leave his princely life. One day, when he returned to his palace the orchestra started enthusiastically entertaining him. However, his mind was already detached from such pleasures and he fell asleep. Without its main audience, the orchestra also dozed off while still hugging their instruments. When the prince woke up and saw them lying around in a disorderly fashion, leg showing here, breast showing there, some sleeping with their mouths open, some grinding their teeth, he became even more disillusioned. He decided to bid goodbye to his sleeping wife and child and leave the palace for good in the Great Departure (Or 4762, Or 14197).

Siddhartha Gautama, standing next to a mislaid harp, peers over the orchestra, strewn about in a disorderly fashion. British Library, Or 4762, f. 1

Although the Buddha left his earthly orchestra behind, the Saung still followed him throughout his journey in heavenly form. In this rare illustrated Kammavācā manuscript (Or 13896), which is currently on display at the Treasures Gallery at the British Library, the deva Sakka plays the harp in order to lead the Buddha, who now has become a monk, to the Middle Path.

Sakka plays the Saung to the Buddha in order to lead him to the Middle Path. British Library, Or 13896, f. 16r 

The Saung was an integral part of the life in the heavenly realms, and is shown in cosmology manuscripts in all four heavenly realms of sensual pleasure - Paranimmita-vasavatti, Nimmānaratī, Tusita, and Yāma. In the depiction below, which describes the heavenly musicians of the Paranimmita-vasavatti realm the Saung is accompanied by a bell and a dancer (Or 14004).

The ruler of the Paranimmita-vasavatti realm accompanied by his heavenly musicians and a dancer. British Library, Or 14004, f. 15r 

The most impressive orchestra of all, however, could be found in the Tāvatiṃsa realm, or the realm of the thirty-three devas, located on top of the Sumeru world mountain. In the depiction below we can see two joined orchestras with a dancer in the middle. There are two harps and a bell in the left side orchestra, and a xylophone and a harp in the right side orchestra (Or 14004).

The ruler and the heavenly orchestras of the Tāvatiṃsa heaven. British Library, Or 14004, f. 21r 

Until the 19th century the Saung was played exclusively within the royal court, and was considered the most valued of instruments. The most notable harpists were given posts at court, where they composed many famous pieces. 

Myawaddy Mingyi U Sa (1766-1853) was one of these great musicians, and added six more harp strings to the existing seven, thus producing a fuller range (of two and a half octaves). A fourteenth string was added by the famous and last court harpist U Maung Maung Gyi (1855-1933), who was appointed to King Mindon’s court in Mandalay, where he was given the title "Deiwa-Einda" (Heavenly Musician) already at the age of thirteen. The Saung gradually came out of the palace during the 19th century via small outlying courts and travelling troupes of actors and musicians. Since then it has found its way to the general public and can now be enjoyed by all.

The Buddha meditating under the Bodhi tree, with the devas Sakka, Brahma and Mahākāla next to him singing songs of praise. British Library, Or 14297, f. 18r

The Saung returned at the pivotal moments of the Buddha’s life. The scene above depicts the beginning of the process of meditation that in the end led to Enlightenment. The Buddha is here shown meditating under the Bodhi tree, with the three devas Sakka, Brahma and Mahākāla from the three realms next to him singing songs of praise. Sakka blows the conch, while Mahākāla plays the harp and sings with over a hundred verses (Or 14297).

The Buddha’s Enlightenment, celebrated with harp music. British Library, Or 14297, f. 20r 

The devas ran away when Māra’s frightening troops arrived, and a difficult mental battle ensued which the Buddha eventually conquered. He had now attained Enlightenment, and the event was celebrated and rejoiced with much music. The Saung (with Mahākāla) is depicted here again right at his side (Or 14297).

The Buddha descends from Tāvatiṃsa heaven with a heavenly retinue beside him. British Library, Or 5757, f. 17r

After his Enlightenment the Buddha travelled around and taught the Dhamma to others. In the above illustration the Buddha is descending from the Tāvatiṃsa heaven, where he spent three months preaching the Dhamma to his mother, who was there. The Saung accompanies his descent to Earth (Or 5757). It has been said that the Saung was indeed the Buddha’s preferred instrument or even a symbol of him, and in temple murals he has been portrayed as a harpist in many of his previous incarnations.


Muriel C. Williamson, The Burmese Harp: its classical music, tunings, and modes. Dekalb, Ill.: Southeast Asia Publications, 2000.

N.A. Jayawickrama (trans.), The Story of Gotama Buddha. Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 2002.

A documentary about the harp in Southeast Asia, by Patrick Kersalé, Sounds of 

(Source: Asian and African studies blog)