Sunday, January 31, 2010

Queen Victoria and Abdul: The royal love for Urdu

Munshi Abdul Karim's name might not ring a bell today but his life and stay in England has now been documented in a book. Munshi Abdul Karim was sent as gift from India to the Queen in 1887. From being a waiter, Munshi Abdul Karim rose to become one of Queen Victoria's closest confidante and companions.

(Portrait of Munshi by Rudolf Swoboda commissioned by Queen Victoria)

He started teaching her Hindustani/Urdu and constantly enlightened her on India and her people. His proximity to the Queen caused consternation among the Royal staff members but the Queen's interest in India and Abdul Karim ensured no one could touch him.

Munshi Abdul Karim's life and his relationship with Queen Victoria is the subject of a book written by Shrabani Basu. Titled Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidante, the book explores the intimacy and trust the Queen shared with Munshi Abdul Karim. However, after Queen Victoria's death the Munshi was shipped back to India with his wife and relatives. If not for this book, Abdul Karim would have remained unknown and hidden in the records of the British Royalty.

His eminence can be gauged by a simple reference to the London Gazette. The 25 May, 1895 issue of the London Gazette mentions Munshi Hafiz Abdul Karim as the last name under the head 'To Be Companions'. The May 30, 1899 issue of the London Gazette says:

THE Queen has been pleased to make the
following appointment to the Royal Victorian
Order :—
To be Commander.
The Munshi Hafiz Abdul Karim, C.I.E., Indian

Thus, Munshi Hafiz Abdul Karim became The Munshi Hafiz Abdul Karim, C.I.E., Indian Secretary. Between this journey lies the extraordinary story of an ordinary Indian native from Agra, walking the corridors of the mighty British Empire in England. Before Munshi Abdul Karim there were several Indians who were in demand for their knowledge of Urdu and Persian. They were employed to make the Britishers learn the languages used by the masses and the native Maharajas and Nawabs.

Michael H Fisher, an expert on the British Raj, notes that a certain Monshee Mahomet Saeed advertised in London newspapers in 1777 offering to teach Persian and Arabic to Britishers. Sheth Ghulam Hyder, a Bihar native, came to London to work as Persian teacher. He applied to the Haileybury College in 1806 and was appointed on a salary of 200 pounds a year.

In 1799, Mirza Abu Talib Khan came to England to start a Persian department but returned back to India. Maulvi Mir Abdul Ali of Varanasi and Maulvi Mirza Khalil of Lucknow were later selected to go to England in 1807 and 1808 respectively, and were offered 600 pounds per year at Haileybury College. Fisher writes that Abdul Ali and Ghulam Hyder became Christians and died in debts due to their lifestyle.

In 1809, Mir Hasan Ali belonging to the ruling family of Awadh too came to England and was appointed as Persian and Hindustani teacher in Addiscombe College. He went back to India in 1817 after marrying an English woman. Mirza Khalil too went back to India on an annual pension of 360 pounds.

Their lives, as brought out by scholar Michael Fisher, stand in stark contrast to that of Munshi Abdul Karim. Unlike the munshi they had come to England on the strength of their knowledge and expertise in the Indian languages which they sought to share with the eager Britishers. Munshi Abdul Karim, however, started as just a waiter and rose to enjoy the confidence and affection of the mighty Queen Victoria.

And that is why Munshi Abdul Karim will continue to live for longer times in our collective memories than the others, as the pauper who almost became a 'prince'.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Is BBC Urdu listening?

A small item on says that the opening lines for the BBC Urdu programme says 'Yeh BBC Pakistan hai' instead of the usual 'Yeh BBC London hai'. It is sad, if that is the case. The last time I heard BBC radio news programmes (few years back) there used to be no mention of Pakistan (in the Urdu services) or India (in the Hindi services). BBC radio is one of the most popular and widely heard news services in India.

During my school vacations to my village in North India, dozens of people would be glued to the radio religiously listening to their favourite voices. As the brief on the (contributed by a regular BBC listener) rightly says 'What of BBC's Urdu speaking listeners in India'. That's the question people in India should be and are rightly asking. Are there no Urdu speakers, listeners left in India?

Comparatively, BBC Urdu listeners in Pakistan might be higher than in India, but the number of listeners in India won't be insignificant. I gave a byte on the marriage of Dawood Ibrahim's daughter to Javed Miandad's son to BBC radio and received calls from relatives and friends in North India. Interestingly, in 2007, BBC Urdu website was looking for 'citizen editors' in Indian universities (Lucknow, Bhopal, Aligarh and Hyderabad) with large Urdu-speaking population.

Is it a survey, study that gave BBC an idea of its Urdu service being heard only in Pakistan, which reportedly made it change its opening line? I remember the news items covered by the radio services and believe that the Urdu service was a great source of news on Pakistan for Indians and possibly also vice versa.

Among the more famous voices of BBC Urdu are Shakeel Akhtar and Altaf Hussain (based in New Delhi and Srinagar respectively). They also speak to prominent Urdu journalists from India for their programmes. Balraj Sahni, the celebrated actor was one of those who worked in the BBC Hindustani service (that preceded BBC Urdu) when it was launched in 1940.

How on earth can BBC Urdu be BBC Pakistan? The same way, BBC Hindi can't be BBC Hindustan (hopefully it is not so).

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Maharajas and Nawabs come alive in London - II

One gift item that literally got a king his kingdom back was a silver throne. As part of his efforts to get his state back, Charmaraja Wodeyar X presented a miniature silver throne of the famous gold throne of Mysore to Viceroy Lord Lytton. It worked, and he got Mysore back in 1881 after being with the British for a good 50 years. But it was not always the kingdom that kings got from the British. The British mostly used to give a copy of the Bible and English dictionaries in return to the expensive gifts they collected from the Indian kings.

Around 1865, the Maharaja Khanderao Gaekwad of Baroda commissioned a canopy estimated to have cost Rs 60 lakh. The Maharaja wanted to send the canopy to the tomb of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) in Mecca. According to the curators, the act was meant to show the ruler's respect to his Muslim subject. How and when it reached London could be another story!
There were huge portraits of two very handsome and smart princes who could give our present day models and actors a run for their money. Nawab Sadiq Mohammed Abbasi IV of Bahawalpur (never heard of him before) and Yashwant Rao Holkar II of Indore occupied a good place at the exhibition. I actually heard two women mention the 'Maharaja (Yashwant Rao Holkar II) looks so smart and confident'. The Nawab (pic above), with his handlebar moustache, long hair and piercing eyes was the cynosure of all eyes.

The high taste of our Maharajas can be a cause of heartburn to the current lot of page 3 socialites and fashionistas. Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda had got a leather tea case designed by none other than Louis Vuitton. Bhupinder Singh of Patiala had a dressing table set done by Cartier. A belt buckle said to have belonged to Shahjahan was given by Bhupinder Singh to Cartier in 1925 for a makeover. The beautiful piece was reset with diamonds by Cartier and the exclusive set was worn by Bhupinder Singh's son Yadavendra in 1938. Bhupinder Singh is also credited with giving Cartier their biggest ever commission from a single client. This was for a project that lasted three years and resulted in the beautiful Patiala Necklace (pic below).
India's rulers provided a huge market for exclusive high-end jewellery designers. Most of them had a personal rapport with them. The famous cricketer and Maharaja of Nawanagar, Ranjitsingh's friendship with Jacques Cartier is legendary. Cartier is reputed to have supplied some of the best diamonds to Ranjitsingh to satiate his appetite for good stones. Apart from an eye for the loose balls on the cricket field, he used to be always on the lookout for the best and rarest of the diamonds.

Also kept were saris worn by the leading ladies of the Nizam of Hyderabad. We all know about his wealth and how he was once famously described as the richest man in the world. So thankfully there was not much of him. A Raja Ravi Varma painting of Maharani Chimnabai, the second wife of Sayajirao III of Baroda attracted good number of onlookers. I guess more because of the painter than the subject.

There was a photograph of Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner, who I learned, was the first Indian to be made a general in the British Army. He was also a signatory to the historic Treaty of Versailles (yes you read it right). He is shown, with his hands folded, being weighed in valuables. Sadly, there wasn't much detail about what happened to the valuables.

There were some rare and interesting videos shown in the exhibition. Visitors relished the golden jubilee celebration of Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala and the marriage of Man Singh II on wide screen projectors. Also shown were clips of Mahatma Gandhi's visit to England and the making of Umaid Bhavan.
Close to the exit of the exhibition was kept a Phantom I Rolls Royce. It was ordered by Maharaj Kumar Bhupal Singh of Mewar. I wished I could step into it and go back to the world of Maharajas and Nawabs.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Maharajas and Nawabs come alive in London - I

Few days back I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum to have a look at their exhibition on Indian Maharajas. I spent more than four hours at the museum reading and looking at the paintings and objects used by or associated with the Maharajas. The extravagance and the splendour of the native rulers can be seen in abundant measure.

Visitors looked with amazement and marvelled as they went past the superb collections put on display. What made the exhibition interesting was that it went past the usual Mughal-Maratha kings and rulers. The exploits of the more recent princes (i.e early 1900 and before independence) and their opulence got many interested.

It was the first time that I heard of Nawab Aliverdi Khan of Murshidabad. The exhibition had a beautiful wine flask that 'once belonged to Robert Clive' and had come from the treasury of Murshidabad. The beautiful flask is said to have originated between 1600-1625 and has been loaned from the Musuem of Islamic Art, Doha. British officers were constantly gifted by the native kings and princes by expensive artefacts and objects. It was a smart way of being in their good books and keeping their kingdoms safe.

There were some beautiful paintings by Nanha and Ustad Murad. The paintings had the tiniest of details and give us an idea of how and what were worn by the kings. Our imagination about kings and princes is mostly made up from the mega serials shown on TV. It felt nice to see the paintings and forced me to think about what would have happened after the painting was done. I wish I could know about the conversation that would precede a sitting, or how elaborate the settings were for a painter.
Paintings were often commissioned after the death of a head of state perhaps to keep the memories alive. There was a striking and unusual painting of Chand Bibi of Bijapur shooting with her trusted lady companions. It was a posthumous image but said a lot about the courage of the feisty lady. Similarly, Durjan Sal of Kota is shown hunting a lion, in a posthumous image. Another interesting painting is that of Man Singh playing polo with his lady companions. The painting has no other male in the frame and hence the faces of the women are not covered.

The kings and nobles were no doubt obsessed with their women companions. For apart from their durbars, it seems they often got themselves painted with their ladies. Bhup Singh of Guler is shown with his 'Rani' under a quilt enjoying the serene surrounding. Just next to his painting is a one which has an intimate, erotic scene involving a man and a woman. Interestingly, the caption says that paintings using generic figures were commissioned at court to titillate and arouse. While still on the topic of eroticism, it would have taken some guts for Ram Singh II of Kota to have got himself painted 'pleasuring three women'.

One of the items that really caught my imagination was a pair of women's dumbbells. Said to be from Jodhpur (1850-1900), it is supposed to be a 'rare surviving example of exercise equipment from a royal court'. I can't really describe it, but one look at it would suffice to make anybody realise that they can only belong to a woman. Beauty with Brains.

Also on display was a tent originally belonging to Maratha warrior Raghuji Bhonsle which was taken by Nawab Aliverdi Khan of Murshidabad in 1744. A painting of Bhim Singh, the Maharana of Mewar, somewhere around 1826, shows his full durbar with East India company officials led by Sir Charles Metcalfe. In a possible show of strength or rather to reflect the upper hand of Indian kings, the Maharana is shown sitting on his spacious gaddi with the rest of his courtiers along with the East India officers squatting in much smaller area. The caption says '...Everyone else sits on the ground, including with some discomfort the British officers in their stiff uniforms.
The tiger claw used by Shivaji to struck Afzal Khan also finds a place in the exhibition. The historic claw was given to James Grant Duff, the East India company representative at Satara. Shivaji was a great Maratha warrior and the tiger claw must have been a priceless gift for the Englishman. Priceless enough to be still preserved and kept on display thousands of miles away in the Victoria and Albert Musuem in London. Also kept on display are a pair of artistically made flintlock pistols belonging to Tipu Sultan. I am sure they must have been effective enough when loaded. The pistols reflected Tipu's interest in the use of latest warfare. The pistols had his favourite tiger emblem with 'walnut, silver and steel, gold' used in their manufacture.

The recently discovered letter of the Rani of Jhansi written to the Britishers asking them to recognise the infant Damodar Rao as the heir to the throne is also on display. The letter is a long one in Persian, with some British officer scribbling 'Anand Rao son of Basder received the name of Damudar Rao Gangadhar' in the letter itself possibly to summarise the essence of the communication. The long letter was a precursor to the long struggle put up by the Rani of Jhansi. The letter was only found out in the British Library as recently as November 2009!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Building a new Taj Mahal!

The new year has arrived. It is time for all of us to make the most of the opportunities offered and make our presence felt in whatever field we may be. However, unfortunately a huge section of Muslims tend to look back and harp on the 'greatness' of their tradition, culture. They choose to ignore the present and the future and dwell at length on past accomplishments and seek solace from it.

While history has to be understood and remembered, and imbibed for laying the foundations for a better future, we should not build up an edifice drawn largely from whatever is considered as the 'golden age'. While this is not true for all Muslims, there is no denying that there is still a fairly large section that tends to indulge in this kind of romanticism. This takes them on a hot air balloon ride, fill with gas of nostalgia and emotion that takes them to a deep valley, where they are stranded. This is not a new phenomenon and I would like to share two examples.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan worked on a revised edition of the Ain-e-Akbari and gave it to Mirza Ghalib to write an introduction. Mirza Ghalib was much elder to Sir Syed Khan, who must have expected some kind, congratulatory message from the legendary poet. Instead, Ghalib asked him to focus on the future and the new era that had dawned and to come out from his fixation on the Mughal rule.

The same way we need to focus on the future and keep pace with the fast-changing world. Ghalib's words sound prophetic even now. Much of the blame lies with the community and religious leaders who gain the most for taking Muslims through this emotional trip of 'past greatness'. It helps add extra vigour to their campaign of 'fighting injustice against Muslims'. Talk about a community's 'glorious past and achievements' and then compare it with their current situation. This gives enough fodder to nail the system and people who run it.

Rambles and Recollections of an India official, a two-volume book written by W H Sleeman, an English officer gives an excellent insight of British India. In the second volume he writes about a conversation he had with some boatmen.

"I crossed over the river Jumna one morning to look at the tomb of Etmad od Doulah, the most remarkable mausoleum in the neighbourhood, after those of Akbar and the Taj. On my way back, I asked one of the boatmen, who was rowing me, who had built what appeared to me a new dome within the fort. "One of the emperors, of course," said he. "What makes you think so?" "Because such things are made only by emperors," replied the man quietly, without relaxing his pull at the oar.

"True, very true!" said an old Mussulman trooper, with large white whiskers and mustachios, who had dismounted to follow me across the river, with a melancholy shake of the head, "very true; who but Emperors could do such things as these?" Encouraged by the trooper, the boatman continued: "The Jats and the Mahrattas did nothing but pull down and destroy, while they held their accursed dominion here; and the European gentlemen, who now govern seem to have no pleasure in building anything but factories, courts of justice, and jails."

The very next paragraph Sleeman writes of his feelings: "Feeling as an Englishman, as we all must sometimes do, be where we will, I could hardly help wishing that the beautiful panels and pillars of the bathroom had fetched a better price, and that palace, Taj, and all at Agra, had gone to the hammer - so sadly do they exalt the past, at the expense of the present (made in bold here), in the imaginations of the people!"

The conversation with the boatmen forces Sleeman to go to the extent of wishing that had the Taj been demolished people (like the boatmen) would have remained grounded in the present. I had first come across this few years back when I was browsing the book at a bookstore in Mumbai. Sleeman's observations struck me and remained with me all these years.

Our culture, heritage and history (and this certainly includes Taj Mahal) can't be wished away, much less be demolished. What we have to ensure is tackle the blocks coming our way and think of building a new Taj Mahal rather just continue to marvel at the existing one! It's too old!!