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.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Run to Sumeru

Shoshee Chunder Dutt (1824-1885) was one of the most anthologized of Indians writing in English "back in the day". Apart from writing some mimic-poetry that is not altogether lacking in points of interest, as John Watson would say, he wrote The Reminiscences of a Kerani's Life. His prose essays, and his accounts of the 1857 war, offer insights into the times. Among Shoshee Chunder's best known poems is "A Vision of Sumeru", which narrates in classical form tales of the Hindu deities.

Recently I came across one of his more frivolous pieces, "A Run to Sumeru", where the author is whisked away by a Flibbertigibbet to Sumeru, where the Gods are acting in a most ungodly manner.
The Flibbertigibbet, or Imp of Satan, appears to be the personification (or impification) of the evils of Western culture. Not only does he quote Shakespeare, at the end of the story we find the author lying in a drain--the classic image of the Young Bengal wastrel--and looking for the mischievous influence.
The gods are consuming pork vindaloo, goose dumpoded, and Irish whiskey, in this drunken vision, as Saraswati flirts with Mahadeva. Bottles of Cordial Old Tom of the finest quality change hands, and Parvati ogles Vishnu.

The (clearly drunken) conversation about Shakespeare goes thus:
"Trust my wisdom once for all, and believe with old Will that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
"Well, really, this passes all bounds. You, Flib, have you the audacity to quote Will?"
"Audacity be hanged. I dined with him three hours ago in the groves of Chaitra-ratha; and were not we boon companions, both of us?"
"Now take care, Flib, or I shall break your head in earnest. You have been snarling over a bone with some dog, I suppose, named after the immortal bard of Avon."
"I have been drinking nectar (amrita) with the whole club of them, man; with Shakespeare, Milton, Homer, Vyasa, and Valmiki. Just trust your precious self with me for sixty minutes, and see if I don't get you into better company."
While this is suitably scandalous and impressive in its inappropriateness for its time, what struck me most is the opening passage.

The exact date for "A Run to Sumeru" is not given, but it was published in a volume titled Bengaliana: A Dish of Rice and Curry, and Other Indigestible Ingredients, in 1878. Do the first few paragraphs ring a bell?
After a hard day's work I was taking my siesta at the foot of my favourite citron-tree, having liberated my mind to divert itself for a while by a sentimental ramble over the vanities of existence. A slight rustling of leaves betrayed an intruder, and turning myself in that direction I saw, peering through the leaves, the mischievous face and leering eyes of that little rogue, Fliberrtigibbet, who tried to hide himself the moment he was seen.
"Come out from the copse, you little devil. What are you doing there now?"
"A cowrie for your thoughts, nuncle!" said he, grinning. "You are moping over the vanities of life, and would like to have a run to Sumeru."
"To Sumeru, you stupid? What for there?"
"Why, to see how the gods dispose of themselves to be sure."
Just for easy reference and cheeky speculation:
বেজায় গরম। গাছতলায় দিব্যি ছায়ার মধ্যে চুপচাপ শুয়ে আছি, তবু ঘেমে অস্থির। ঘাসের উপর রুমালটা ছিল, ঘাম মুছবার জন্য যেই সেটা তুলতে গিয়েছি অমনি রুমালটা বলল “ম্যাও!” কি আপদ! রুমালটা ম্যাও করে কেন?
চেয়ে দেখি রুমাল তো আর রুমাল নেই, দিব্যি মোটা-সোটা লাল টক্‌টকে একটা বেড়াল গোঁফ ফুলিয়ে প্যাট্ প্যাট্ করে আমার দিকে তাকিয়ে আছে!
আমি বললাম, “কি মুশকিল! ছিল রুমাল, হয়ে গেল একটা বেড়াল।”
অমনি বেড়ালটা বলে উঠল, “মুশকিল অবার কি? ছিল একটা ডিম, হয়ে গেল দিব্যি একটা প্যাঁক্‌পেঁকে হাঁস। এ তো হামেশাই হচ্ছে।”
আমি কিছুই বুঝতে পারলাম না, কিন্তু পাছে বেড়ালটা আবার সেইরকম বিশ্রী করে হেসে ওঠে, তাই সঙ্গে সঙ্গে হুঁ-হুঁ করে গেলাম। তার পর বেড়ালটা খানিকক্ষণ আকাশের দিকে তাকিয়ে হঠাৎ বলে উঠল, “গরম লাগে তো তিব্বত গেলেই পার।”
আমি বললাম, “বলা ভারি সহজ, কিন্তু বললেই তো আর যাওয়া যায় না?”
বেড়াল বলল, “কেন, সে আর মুশকিল কি?”
আমি বললাম, “কি করে যেতে হয় তুমি জানো?”