Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Old Dog Race Course in Behala

Approaching Taratala from the south, one might notice on the left-hand side of the road a curious white-on-blue sign-board, which reads "Old Dog Race Course Housing Estate." In Kushanava Choudhury's The Epic City, this is where Manoj grew up: "a compound with dozens of uniform low-rise apartment buildings that stretched for perhaps a quarter of a mile from the main road."

The name of P. Banerji of 24 Parganas Rural South is justifiably forgotten in Kolkata's urban history. But it was he who, as a member of the Legislative Council back in the mid-1930s, had attempted to legalize dog racing in the city.

Dog racing has a much longer history in Britaindating back to the late 18th-century at leastbut between the wars, they imported from their US counterparts, a game-changing (literally) piece of technology: the electric hare. The rest of England waited impatiently as Manchester became the first city in 1926 to witness the Greyhound Race 2.0. The hare and the electric traps grew popular across British cities. "By 1933," according to Higgins and Williams (2006), "there were over 220 [tracks], many running three days a week." By one estimate, this was thrice the total number of horse-racing tracks in London! The races in Manchester were hosted at the Belle Vue and White City stadiums. Their popularity in London is evidenced by the fact that Wembley, Stamford Bridge and West Ham Stadium introduced them soon after. Watch this film by Pathe, showing an electric hare:

It is possible that the aforementioned P. Banerji hailed from Behala, where the nominal vestige of the race course can be seen today. His non-official bill proposing to legalize dog-racing was heard by the Council but, no thanks to his rambling manner of arguing, it lost by 47 "Noes" to 8 "Ayes." Why did he think this a good idea?

According to the only speaker who appears to have supported Banerji's motion, the reason for proposing the legalization of dog-racing was, at the core, noble. Taxes had been increased by the government and this was affecting adversely poorer sections of the society. The proposed bill aimed to tax an upper-class pastime, comparable to horse-racing. Thus, Shanti Sekhareswar Ray argued that if the Government were to increase the tax on racing to 10% from the existing 2.5%, it could easily meet the budget deficit without increasing taxes generally. "This will be," he asserted, "an acid test for Government, and they will have to make their position clear whether they want money from those who can afford to pay or money from those poor people who perhaps would have to pay under compulsion."

In principle, this was acceptable to some members of the Council. But one S.M. Bose came up with with the following bizarre argument:

"I would support this Bill if in place of 'dog' he would agree to substitute the word 'donkey. Many of us, Sir, have seen a donkey race, but none of us has seen a dog race."

Banerji's case was presented rather haphazardly. He had started out with a general tirade against gambling, drawing the Council's attention to its rampant abuse in the city. For some inexplicable reason, he specifically implicated the Chinese community in Calcutta:

"I may just state for the information of the house," (completely uncalled for) "that in the Chinese quarters in Calcutta gambling is going on every day. To come to the incident to which I was referring on the 4th of this month, that is on the Chinese New Year's Day, the Commissioner of Police, Calcutta, allowed certain clubs, e.g., the Toong Tung Club..." Unsurprisingly, he was cut short.

More pertinently he cited an act that was passed in England in November 1934, legalizing dog races under section 3(b), whereby a license tax had been imposed on the races. The Hon'ble R.N. Reid, a member of the Executive Council, argued justifiably that the case of England and India were completely different, since in England dog-racing was prevalent. He felt no need to encourage something that had only just started by according it a legal status.

Shanti Sekhareswar Ray was quick to point out, that a dog race had recently been seen to take place in a "well-known institution in aid of perhaps some charity." This, ironically, turned out to be under the auspices of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Ray claimed that he had seen "a big advertisement on one of the buses belonging to that institution."

The clinching argument against Banerji's bill came once again from Reid. He pointed out the contradiction in Banerji's articulated moral position and accused him of being "quite prepared to debauch the populace by dog racing in order to raise money." But Banerji was adamant. He alleged, in turn, that the "members of the Government are members of the Royal Calcutta Turf Club," and it was their personal interest in removing a potential rival to their income, which motivated them to shoot down his proposal.

It is unclear to me as of now when this was legalized, but we are told that it was "subjected to heavy taxation by the Bengal Amusement Tax (Amendment) Bill, 1939" (Biswadeb Chatterjee, 1997), but was later abolished entirely.

The next time I pass by the spot, I'll try and take a closer look.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Scallan's Illustrations for The Adventures of Bairam Khan

I had written an article on Frank Clinger Scallan for Scroll. Scallan also did the illustrations for C.H. Donald's The Adventures of Bairam Khan, published by Rai Sahib M. Gulab Singh & Sons of Lahore in 1930. Here are low-res versions of these wonderful full-page engravings.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Death of Much Machee, the High Priest of Ghee Hung Chinese Church

H.E.A. Cotton
Going through one of H.E.A. Cotton's copies of Calcutta Old and New I came across several newspaper clippings the author had retained probably for future use. Among them is this report of unknown provenance on a Chinese funeral, which was mentioned in the Empire.
Let us all be buried in the ways that we severally prefer. Who is for the ceremonial recently observed at a funeral ceremony in Calcutta? It was the occasion when the remains of Much Machee, the High Priest of Ghee Hung Chinese Church, were interred in the Chinese burial-ground of that city. ''The body,'' says the ''Empire,'' ''was placed in a long box, and at the feet of the corpse was placed a table loaded with roasted sucking pigs and lambs and a variety of Chinese sweets. Two Phoophoo bands''--all Anglo-Indians will recognise with a shudder what that means--''were in attendance, and the music included pieces like 'The Raja of Bhong' and 'Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching.'''
"The Raja of Bhong" appears to be some sort of musical drama written by Adrian Ross (1859-1933). Ross was a renowned writer of musical comedies, popular in his day. In 1902 he had written in The Tattler a comic critique of Kipling's attempts at writing verse:

Give us the blending of East and West, of new and of old;
But don't go writing verses in the style of a common scold.
For it makes the metre rocky and it makes the rhyming weak,
And you never were a master of poetical technique.

Of "The Raja of Bhong" I have only so far found these stanzae that were added later:

There's a writer of rhymes that appear in The Times,
Who is down upon football and cricket,
And he pours out his soul on the oaf at the goal,
Or the flannelette fool at the wicket!
There was violence feared when his poem appeared,
But the poet was hardly a dreamer;
When the oafs in the mud came to look for his blood,
He was off to the Cape on a steamer!
Peace ! peace ! leave him in peace!
Though he pitches it rather too strong;
We'll forget how he sails if he'll tell us some tales
Of the beautiful valley of Bhong!

"Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" was a Civil War time song, composed by George F. Root in 1864. Here is a rendition -- trying to imagine what the funeral must have sounded like!

Monday, April 30, 2018

Gauhar Jaan as Hamlet

1898 onwards, Munshi Mehdi Hasan had written a number Urdu of adaptations from Shakespeare's plays. His Khun-e-nahaq (1898), Vikram Singh Thakur notes, "was transformed into a musical. The play opens in the court of Claudius 'celebrating the nuptials of Claudius and Gertrude with dance and music.'" Music became an integral part of these performances.

Thakur mentions that trained singers such as Amir Jan, Moti Jan, Gauhar Jaan, and Munnibai became associated with the Parsi stage.

In 1905, we are told, the Corinthian Theatre in Calcutta was hosting a Parsi theatre version of Hamlet in 1905, alongside "the tableaux dance of Kamr-al-Zaman-Badoora" on "bioscope worked by electricity." (Rosie Thomas, Bombay before Bollyood)

Gauhar Jaan, born Angelina Yeoward, was of Armenian descent. Her celebrity as a vocal performer reached foreign shores in the form of recordings and postcards and matchbox labels, as Vikram Sampath notes.

I am not aware of any reference to Gauhar Jaan playing Hamlet, or even posing as Hamlet for postcards, but here we are at the Corinthian Theatre, looking at this unlikely but amazing combination.

The postcard is currently part of my personal collection.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Canasta in Bombay

An attorney and an architect walked into the Jockey Club. In fact, it appears one of them lived half his life there for a while. Philip E. Orbanes writes that the Uruguayan  attorney, Segundo Santos, had become addicted to Bridge some time in 1939. He decided to switch to something lighter and with his friend, Alberto Serrato went on to invent a game called "Canasta" -- "a combination of the best elements of Bridge, Rummy, and a Rummy variant called 'cooncan.'" Canasta is the Spanish word for "basket", and the origin of the name is attributed by Orbanes to an act of whimsy.

The Illustrated Weekly of India reported on 18 March 1951, that the game had hit Bombay, and it like in many other great cities before it, had swept through the city's card-playing community.

As a non-card-player, I have often wondered at these phases that the communities of players seem to go through. Is it possible that the game-fatigue is perhaps not realized until something fresh suddenly appears on the horizon behind the hands they hold? I like thinking of how games travel -- of the figure of this magician, who cannot suggest something too unfamiliar to the players for then they may be taken for an outsider. Yet they know how to defamiliarize the familiar, how to make the shapes and numbers dance to a subtly different tune.

"Jayee," who wrote the Sportfolio column(bad puns are as old as language), reported that the "card game which began in an Uruguayan roadside cafe a couple of years ago, and soon swept the United States like a forest fire" has a "large portion of card-playing its thrall." It seems s/he had taken the trouble of learning that game, declaring it as a reasonably easy process. Among the game's most famous devotees, Jayee lists Dwight Eisenhower and Clifton Webb.

Is the game still played widely in Mumbai? Canasta seems to have reached Houston, via a few India exponents of the game.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Bridges of Calcutta #2: Alipore or Zeerut Bridge

Detail from map produced by the Society
for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge
In this post we look South West at a bridge that crosses Tolly's Nullah at Alipore. W.H. Carey describes it as connecting "Calcutta and Alipore", the latter evidently not being considered within the strict municipal limits.

The nullah or creek-bed was completed in 1777, and was meant to facilitate passage of ships from Hooghly to the delta region by making use of the Khidirpur creek. It was the work of Colonel William Tolly.

On 27 August 1795 the old Alipore bridge, "which had been in a ruinous condition gave way and fell into the nullah." Calcutta, it appears, is not new to the phenomenon of collapsing bridges. Thankfully it happened at night and there were no casualties.

It nearly took another forty years for a bridge to be put in place. Once again, Captain John Thomson was assigned the task, and at the expense of rupees 26,430, he built the shortest iron bridge in Calcutta at the time, with a single curve of 89 feet and a roadway that was 24 feet wide.

William Wood, Alipore Bridge (1833), British Library collection
Sir Charles D'Oyly, The Suspension Bridge at Alipore (1848), British Library collection
Frederick Fiebig, Alipore Bridge (1851), British Library collection

H.E. Busteed recalls two trees that stood opposite the bridge. They were called 'The Trees of Destruction', "notorious for duels fought under their shade." This is where the fateful duel between Warren Hastings and Philip Francis took place in 1780.

The suspension bridge built in 1833 appears to have served a short span of time, being reconstructed in 1854. It underwent some alteration around 1904, which "rendered it a bridge worthy of Calcutta", but it is unclear what these were. H.E.A. Cotton felt that the modifications were made with "complete disregard for the picturesque." A new bridge was put in place in 1929, which serves the city to this day. We'll come to that later.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Bridges of Calcutta #1: Chitpur Bridge

The Maratha Ditch was dug by the citizens of Calcutta in the mid-1700s to guard against a possible Maratha attack. The canal at Chitpur was revitalized in 1824, when the municipal authorities decided to use the waterway for transport.
From the British Library collection. Photograph by Frederick Fiebig (1851-52)
Map produced by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge
A bridge was built in 1843 by Captain John Thomson, Superintendent of Canals, and Agent for Iron Suspension Bridges. We learn from W.H. Carey's The Good Old Days of Honorable John Company (1882) that it was valued at Rs. 39,344. Spanning 99 feet, the roadway was 22 feet wide. It was popular referred to as the Baghbazar Bridge.

Carey further records that under the bridge was a lock for allowing boats to pass between the river Hooghly and the Circular Canal at all times of the tide. "This lock is 60 feet long and nearly 24 feet wide, with double gates; it was constructed by James Prinsep, Esq. in 1829-1833, at an expense of 61,000 sicca rupees."

A new bridge was built a little to the East of the original bridge in 1934. More on that later.