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Monday, December 26, 2011

Jana Gana Mana: 100 Years of Our National Anthem

Jana Gana Mana Adhinayaka jaya he……from your morning school prayer to moments of India’s Olympic glory, there could be nothing more inspirational for an Indian to sing these lines along with unfurling of the tricolor. Our beautiful national anthem completes hundred years of singing today. On 27th December 1911, on the second day of annual session of  Indian National Congress in Calcutta, this song was sung for the first time (first day at inauguration, as usual the song of choice was Vande Mataram).  Written in highly sanskritized (tatsam) Bengali, the complete song of five stanzas under the title of Bharat Vidhata was published for the first time in 1912 in the Brahmo magazine Tattvabodhini Patrika, which Rabindranath used to edit at that time.

Rabindranath wrote and set to tune more than 2000 songs – these songs together are known as Rabindra Sangeet and started a new genre of music in Bengali. He grouped these songs under a few thematic categories – Prem, Puja, Prakriti etc. This song was entered in Geetabitan (his collection of songs) under the category of Swadesh or patriotic songs. In 1919, while visiting Besant Theosophical College at Madanapalle (Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh), Rabindranath translated it in English. College Principal James Cousins’ wife Margaret, an expert in western music, wrote down the notation, which is followed till date. Framed original English translation in Rabindranath’s handwriting is still displayed at the institute. It was entitled The Morning Song of India.
Though the song was popular and sung at various Congress sessions, it was Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army, INA), which first adopted it as the national anthem or what they called Quami Tarana. In fact Azad Hind Fauj adopted a simplified Hindustani version of the song – Subh sukh chain ki barkha barse, bharat bhaag hai jaga….It was translated by Captain Abid Ali and under Netaji’s direction, set to a martial tune, close to the original, by Captain Ram Singh Thakur (who is perhaps better known for INA's immortal marching song - Kadam kadam badaye ja, khushi ke geet gaaye ja). On 15th August 1947, when Jawaharlal Nehru unfurled the national flag at Lal Qila, Captain Thakur was especially invited with his band to play the anthem.
Captain Ram Singh Thakur playing violin
During the freedom struggle, the real battle cry of freedom fighters was however Vande Mataram, written by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. First published as a part of his famous novel Anandamath in 1882 and first sung at the Benaras Congress session of 1896 it became a clarion call since the Swadeshi days in Bengal. The song was however not really acceptable to the Muslims due to the idea of a mother goddess behind it. It was also not very easy to sing it.
Bankim Chandra: First graduate of Calcutta University:
 first serious prose writer in Bengali, single-handedly defined Bengali language
In 1947, the Indian delegation to the United Nations was asked to play their national anthem. They played the only such recording they had with them – a band version of Jana gana and the tune, in Pandit Nehru’s language “..struck the listeners as distinctive and dignified”. Since then, military bands and Indian embassies were asked to play this tune. Nehru highlighted the difference between Vande Mataram and Jana gana mana beautifully, “…Vande Mataram is obviously and indisputably the premier national song of India with a great historical tradition; it was intimately connected with our struggle for freedom……It represents the passion and poignancy of that struggle, but not so much the culmination of it." Finally on 24th January 1950, the Constituent Assembly adopted Jana gana mana as India's national anthem. This was the last resolution to be adopted by the Assembly before the new constitution was signed and came into force on 26th January, 1950.

In modern times, an independent nation is expected to have a constitution of its own, a national flag and a national anthem to define its identity. The concept of national anthems originated in late medieval Europe as modern nation states were coming into being. Dutch national anthem, Wilhelmus – written between 1568 and 1572 is generally taken as the oldest national anthem. Though a number of national anthems are quite famous but their creators are relatively lesser known. It is not even known who composed the British national anthem - God Save the Queen. Only two national anthems are created by world famous composers – Haydn wrote the music of German national anthem and Austrian anthem is sometimes attributed to Mozart. Apart from Rabindranath, the only other Nobel laureate to create a national anthem was   Bjornstjerne Bjornson of Norway.

Ananda Samarakoon
Amar sonar Bangla ami tomai bhalobasi – another famous Rabindra Sangeet from the Swadesh series and written at the height of Swadeshi and Anti-Partition Movement in Bengal (1905-11) is today the national anthem of Bangladesh. This is a rare and perhaps the only case in the world where one poet was behind the creation of two national anthems. In fact it does not stop here – few people claim Rabindranath also composed the national anthem of Sri Lanka – Namo Namo Matha, Apa Sri Lanka (words were later changed to Sri Lanka Matha, Apa Sri Lanka). But what is more acceptable that the song, written by Ananda Samarakoon, a Sri Lankan student of VIswa Bharati, was deeply influenced by Rabindranath. Rabindranath visited Sri Lanka thrice and was a major inspiration behind Sri Lankan cultural renaissance. Samarakoon, influenced by Rabindra Sangeet, pioneered a new form of artistic Sinhala music.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Making of New Delhi: Imperial Vision to Real Capital

The dome above the nation: Illuminated Rashtrapati
Bhavan with Jaipur Column in front
Capital was shifted in 1912 but the arrangements were makeshift. What is today the Delhi Vidhan Sabha (near Delhi University) was the first Secretariat and University Vice-Chancellor’s office was the first Viceregal Lodge. As Lal Qila was the focal point of Shahjahanbad, Viceroy’s House was supposed to be the central pivot in the lay-out of new imperial capital. The site of the Viceroy’s House was finally fixed at a village called Raisina (two other choices were north of Civil Lines and Malcha village, Chanakyapuri). Under the supervision of Edward Lutyens and Herbert Baker the new capital took shape between 1911 and 1931. Lutyens designed the glorious Rashtrapati Bhavan and Baker imposing North and South Blocks – a splendid mix of classical style with Indo-Saracenic features. Among the major contractors was Khuswant Singh’s father Sobha Singh (Khushwant’s father-in-law Teja Singh Malik, who rose to become the first Indian Chief Engineer of CPWD was another key person). The new city in many ways presented a seamless vista with the existing landmarks. They drew a straight line from the Rashtrapati Bhavan to Purana Qila through the War Memorial (India Gate). This road, called Kingsway (today’s Rajpath) - was the main axis. Around this came up palaces of great Kings (of Hyderbad, Jaipur, Bikaner – most of these buildings are in government’s hands today and quite poorly maintained, except for Hyderabad House) and to the south of Rajpath the elegant bunglow zone. When the great city wall of Shahjahanabad was partially broken down, affected people were shifted to Karol Bagh. Lot of institutions also came up there. Lodhi Colony and areas around Gole Market housed government servants. One of the offshoots of the shifting was founding of the Delhi University.
South Block
There were scenes of unprecedented jubilation in Delhi on 15th August 1947. Prime Minister Nehru unfurled the trocolour at Lal Qila. Since then flag hoisting on 15th August at Lal Qila and Republic Parade down the majestic Rajpath are two major annual events in Delhi.
Republic Day Parade
Independence also brought trauma of Partition. It was here at Birla House on 30th January, 1948 Gandhiji was shot dead by a Hindu fanatic Nathuram Godse. More than 3 lakh Muslims left the city in 1947 – more than the number, it was the profile of the emigrants, which created a gap in terms of economy, culture and leadership of the community. On the other hand, nearly 5 lakh Hindu-Sikh refugees came to Delhi. Population of Delhi increased a staggering 90% between 1941 and 1951 as refugees continue to pour in. This completely changed the profile of the city. “Mughal twilight” in the Old City came to an end and New Delhi, beyond the political-bureaucratic Lutyens zone, became a Punjabi city.
Future Perfect? Refugees near Purana Qila 1947-48
The refugees first lived in massive tent cities in different parts of the capital with the Kingsway Camp (Coronation Park) ironically being the largest of them. Some of them were settled in houses left by Muslims evacuees. New colonies like Lajpat Nagar, Malviya Nagar, Patel Nagar (all named after Hindu leaders and also notice "Nagar") and markets like Sarojini Nagar and Kamla Market were built for them. After independence, first official expansion was Chanakyapuri – the diplomatic enclave, followed by more government colonies with RK Puram being the largest. Soon Delhi was expanding on all sides - private developers like DLF developed areas like Hauz Khas and DDA built apartments in different areas. 
Lotus Temple: Delhi does not have a skyline, only impressive individual monuments
Delhi has always been a political capital but over the years it has evolved into an economic power house and hub for education and culture. Refugees infused new life into business. Small factories started coming up in and around the city. Some of these businesses like Ranbaxy went on to become great success stories. During the initial years, cultural activities were limited around state-sponsored institutions in Lutyens Delhi but today thanks to its diversity, presence of government agencies and embassies, today no other Indian city can match Delhi in terms of sheer variety of cultural events. Similarly, over the years, Delhi has become an education hub with premier institutions like Delhi University, IIT, JNU etc. Yet what Delhi lacks is social culture. There is no cohesive social identity of the city. A city of perennial immigrants, Delhi has within itself mini-Bengal, mini-Tamil Nadu and localities with different flavours....but there is no cohesive identity of either the city or its society. This reflects in its attitude to women, apathy for downtrodden and a general lack of involvement. Very few cities in the world can claim to have such a rich legacy yet most Delhites remain completely ignorant of their heritage and see the city only as a provider of their livelihood.
 
Height of Delhi Punjabi cuisine: Butter Chicken at Moti Mahal
 Emergency was a difficult time for Delhi, especially for the poor as Sanjay Gandhi embarked on his twin schemes of bulldozing all shanties and sterilization of poor. Legacies of that period are resettlement colonies like Seelampur, Mongolpuri and in a way better communication between the city and its peripheries. 1982 Asian Games helped to upgrade city infrastructure and brought in first flyovers. In 1984, assassination of Indira Gandhi sparked off terrible riots against the Sikhs. This was an image of barbaric Delhi. Then there were waves of agitations –Bofors, Mandal and Ram Janambhoomi. Since then Delhi has also been routinely scarred by terror attacks – including several serial blasts and an attack on Parliament in 2001.
 
Metro Man E Sreedharan: Nothing has changed Delhi more than the metro
Post- economic reform Delhi became posh. New economic opportunities started attracting talent and labour. Now there are substantial populations from UP, Bihar, Bengal as well as from the South and North East. Presence of so many ethnic groups with their varied culture, language and cuisine has helped Delhi to emerge as a true capital of India. Recent introduction of metro and infrastructure development due to the Commonwealth Games have made at least parts of Delhi world class.
Gurgaon Skyline
Delhi of new millennium is to a large extent a story of superb suburbs. Gurgaon has emerged as a global back office destination. Faridabad, established as a small scale industry hub, has reinvented itself as a middle class paradise. Noida, once labelled as a retirement hub of babus, has got a swankier twin in Greater Noida and is staging F1 race now. Their collective story is that of Delhi’s new found economic might and global ambitions.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Birth of New Delhi: Coronation Darbar 1911

Mir Nihal headed towards Chandni Chowk early morning on 7th December, 1911. After a long wait, the five mile long royal procession slowly emerged out of Lal Qila. From a distance he could not even identify the firangi King (the new queen told the officials flatly that neither she was going to sit atop an elephant nor would allow the King). But the great pageantry with guns booming in the background reminded him only of India’s servitude. Sitting in front of Jama Masjid, Mir Nihal remembered how in 1857, the British forces after re-capturing the city thought of blasting away the great mosque. As Nihal – a member of the fading Mughal elite - sat there, images of Delhi’s past glory flashed before him. On his way back home, he met a lame beggar, said to be the youngest son of the last emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar – these haunting scenes from Ahmed Ali’s classic Twilight in Delhi are difficult to forget.

Coronation Park
Five days later, on 12th December, at the Coronation Park George V was anointed the Emperor of India. A new crown was designed for the occasion at a cost of 60 million pounds – a matching tiara (now called Delhi Darbar tiara) was presented to the Queen on behalf of the ladies of India. After the royal couple was anointed, all the reigning Kings of British India were trooped in to do their salaam – this included the lone lady, Begum of Bhopal, who was modestly attired in a traditional dress but wore a pair of tennis shoes! Maharaja of Gaikwad Sayyaji Rao II appeared without any jewellery and turned his back on the King after a simple bow – this enraged the officials as a sure sign of rebellion by the independent-minded Maharaja.

Jharokha Darshan of English King: Lal Qila 1911, minor Indian princes were used as Royal Ushers
Just as the official function got over with the national anthem God Save the King, George V surprised everyone – “We are pleased to announce that......we have decided upon the transfer of the seat of the Government of India from Calcutta to the ancient capital of Delhi.......”
This was the defining moment in the modern history of Delhi. In 1857, Delhi was the nerve centre of revolt and British reprisal was most severe here. After 1857 Delhi was in terminal decline – a large number of Hindus and Muslims left the city - both to escape from possible reprisal and in search of better opportunities. In 1911, Lahore was more important than Delhi and Lucknow to the east was the largest city in North India. But history was on Delhi’s side. At least since 1000 AD, mostly this had been the capital of North India. Situated at the end of Indus basin and Punjab and at the mouth of Ganga-Yamuna plains; equidistant from the Northern Hills and deserts of Rajputana, this had been the most preferred location to rule the sub-continent. Also, the annulment of Partition of Bengal was viewed as a step against the Muslims, the choice of Delhi – the traditional seat of Sultanate and Mughal power - was a means to assuage that feeling.
In 1911, Delhi was a decaying old town. There was none of the cosmopolitanism or huge urban sprawl of capital Calcutta or the biggest city, Bombay. Total population of the city was just around 4 lakhs – there was serious dearth of modern professionals like doctors or engineers. Economic opportunities were extremely limited. Outside the walled city, there were only villages and some clusters - at Qutab and around Nizamuddin’s dargah. Even in the 1930s, there was nothing but agricultural fields between Safdarjung’s tomb (southern boundary of Lutyens Delhi) and Qutab. In the walled city, old Muslim and Hindu elites dominated. Kayasthas and Bengalis dominated government service and socially there were some tensions between them. Sahibs lived at Civil Lines and Daryaganj. Railway station brought some business. Mir Nihal’s neighbours were excited as the Coronation and then the shifting of capital brought more business.


A huge tent city was erected at the Coronation Park to accommodate visiting dignitaries and officials. This in many ways was a precursor to the imperial New Delhi that was going to come up. Coronation Darbar brought telephone for the first time in Delhi, substantially augmented power supply through a new power plant, led to establishment of elaborate street lighting and sanitation systems.
As the King finished his announcement, there was pin-drop silence for a moment then there was a huge round of applause. Old Delhites like Mir Nihal were not much impressed but businessmen were happy. People from neighbouring areas, particularly Punjabi traders were excited about upcoming opportunities. People in Calcutta were absolutely dismayed – on the other hand, humbling of its great rival made Bombay quite happy. The wheel of fortune turned once again in Delhi’s favour.

PS: A film was made on the entire ceremony - this was one of the earliest films made on a public event in India. This movie recorded in Kinemacolour was the first colour recording of an imperial event outside Britain. It was a great hit in New York next year. In YouTube, you can also see what exactly Mir Nihal saw on that day plus what he was not privileged to see five days later at the Coronation Park - that bit available in black and white - has got the footage of Begum of Bhopal and Maharaja of Gaikwad too.
Rare photographs of the event are preserved in Ebrahim Alkazi collection in New Delhi http://www.acparchives.com

Friday, December 9, 2011

Seven Capitals of Delhi

Indraprastha – the capital of the Pandava brothers – was built by Moy danav. The palace left Duryadhona absolutely awe-struck – unable to make out the difference between glass and water, he finally ended up falling in water. The scene prompted Draupadi’s contemptuous laugh. Duryodhana decided to take revenge for this humiliation – thus proceeds the story of our greatest epic, Mahabharata. According to traditions, Indraprastha was located at the site of present Purana Qila (Indraprastha or Indrapat was at the centre of five pats, the other four – Sonepat, Panipat, Baghpat and Tilpat – are located around Delhi). Excavations at Purana Qila have revealed different layers of habitations stretching backwards up to the Maurya period, though not beyond that. Scattered findings of Painted Greyware have been interpreted by some scholars as characteristics of Mahabharata period (before 1000 BC).
Remnats of city wall: Qila Rai Pithora
 In the historic period, Rajput Tomar King Anangpal established the first capital city Lal Kot around present Mehrauli in 1020 AD. Signs of city life were however visible around present Surajkund area from 8th century onwards. Tomars and following them the Chauhans expanded this city and  surrounded it by a wall – remnants of this wall could still be seen near Saket. This came to be known as Qila Rai Pithora in memory of Chauhan King and hero of many a legend, Prithviraj Chauhan.

After Pritviraj was defeated by Mohammed Ghori in 1192 AD, Ghori and then Qutubuddin Aibak ruled from the same Mehrauli area. It was here that Aibak and then Iltutmish built some of the earliest Islamic monuments in India, including the Qutb Minar. Remnants of destroyed Hindu mandirs, which were used in this construction, could still be seen at the Qutab complex.
Siri Fort
 Alauddin Khilji founded the next capital at Siri – some two miles north of Lal Kot (present Siri Fort area). It is rumoured that this was the scene of a great massacre of Mongol prisoners – since their heads (sir) were strewn here thus the name Siri! Within this city was located his famous palace – Hazar Situn or the Hall of Thousand Pillars.  Alauddin not only defeated the Mongols but also the Rajputs and invaded South India. He also built the great tank at Hauz Khas, though his ambition of building a pillar bigger than the Qutab (in the same complex) remained unfulfilled.
Tughlakabad
 Facing the Mongol menace once more, Ghiyasuddin Tughlak built a fort capital with huge sloping wall and bastions at Tuglakabad. Built on a rocky outcrop and suffering from immense heat and lack of water, the city had to be abandoned in just 15 years. Legend has it that after a difference of opinion between Saint Nizamuddin Auliya and Ghiyasuddin, Saint told the King, who was returning from Bengal that jackals would roam in his new capital and “Dilli” will always remain “door ast” for him. Ghiyasuddin was soon murdered by Mohammad Bin Tughlak just before entering the city.
Bin Tughlak’s story of shifting capital is well known but when he finally settled down in Delhi, he encircled the entire area between Qutab and Siri in a new city called Jahanpanah (Refuge of the World). Iban Batuta saw this sprawling city with its huge mosque (Begumpuri mosque) and royal palace (known as Bijai Mandal today) and commented that this was the biggest city in the Islamic world.
Firoz Shah Kotla
 Firoz Tughlak, Mohammad’s successor, was happy to give up military ambitions but was a great builder and the first conservator in the history of Delhi. He founded a new city – a fortress palace in fact, called Firozabad – today’s Firoz Shah Kotla. He also built a number of great mosques and cut the Western Yamuna canal, brought to Delhi two Ashokan pillars and repaired famous mosques and palaces of earlier periods. Today his capital is better known for the cricket stadium next door. Next came the Saiyyids and the Lodhis – some of the Saiyyid Sultans are buried at the Lodhi Garden – and it was during the time of Sikandar Lodhi that the capital was shifted to Agra.
Qila-e-kunha mosque, Purana Qila
After the victory at Panipat in 1526 AD, Babar headed straight to Agra, the Lodhi capital but left Humayun behind. It was Humayun, who founded the next capital city called Deenpanah at the site of today’s Purana Qila. Sher Shah, who also ruled from here after expelling Humayun, expanded it further. Humayun managed to come back after Sher Shah’s death but soon fell to death from the stairs of library building here. Humayun’s tomb, built nearby is the first major Mughal monument. Akbar after spending the first few years in Delhi shifted the capital back to Agra.

Humayun's Tomb: First Great Mughal Monument
No other city in Indian history evoked so much passion as Shahjahanabad. It was in 1638, Shah Jahan decided to build a new capital in Delhi after merchants of Agra did not agree to his proposal of widening main roads there. The great walled city with Qila-i-Mubarak (Lal Qila) at the centre of it and Chandni Chowk as the central axis was built in 10 years time.
Qila-e-Mubarak
 From here the Mughals ruled the entire subcontinent, it was here seating on the Peacock throne, Shah Jahan felt, if there was any heaven on earth then it had to be here! Here assembled caravans from all over the world and it was the seat of great learning and culture, including North Indian classical music; Persian and then Urdu poetry; Mughal food, dress and tehjib.
Jama Masjid
With a series of weak emperors and great nobles fighting among themselves, political Delhi started declining in the 1720s. In 1726, fed up with darbar intrigues, Nizam-ul-Mulk, perhaps the most capable noble of his generation, finally left for Deccan – this was a symbolic end of Mughal political system, which sustained the great empire for two centuries. Nadir Shah’s plunder in 1739 robbed Delhi of its treasures and prestige. Since then successive armies of the Afghans, Marathas, Jats and Rohillas ransacked Delhi routinely. Marathas provided protection for some time and then in 1803, as Lord Lake marched on to the city, the British took Delhi under their protection. From 1803 to 1857, Delhi enjoyed a rare peace, sparking sort of a cultural renaissance, best represented by Mirza Ghalib. Not only that peace was shattered in 1857 but the repression that came after the hard-fought English victory in 1858 wiped out much of the old city and its tradition.  

Monday, November 14, 2011

Silk Road: Ancient Meets Future

Nubra Valley, Ladakh. 30 kilometres ahead is Siachen, world’s highest battle ground. But what catches your eye is the ethereal beauty of a cold desert – white sand at a height of more than 10000 feet. Between the dramatically positioned Diskit Monastery and Hunder, the erstwhile capital of Nubra Valley, you encounter double humped Bactrian camels. They are the living heritage of world’s greatest trade route, the Silk Road. For more than two millennia, this had been the most important highway in the world.

There was, however, no single road called the Silk Road – it was basically an almost 7000 kilometre long trade route linking all the ancient civilizations - China, India, Persia, Egypt and Europe. The route used to start from deep inside present day China and come in a few parallel tracks up to Kashgar (present Xinjiang province, China) and then bifurcate into a northern route and a southern route (Ladakh was on the southern route) and then again meet at Merv (present Turkmenistan). It used to continue up to the coast of Turkey and Jordan from where goods used to be taken to Europe through sea (or to Egypt and then by sea to Europe). Chinese silk reached Europe through this route, prompting the name. But silk was just one of the famous items on the route – equally famous were Indian ivory, spices and textiles; horses, precious stones and other high value items. No caravan used to travel the entire length of the road – at fixed points they used to sell their goods to the next group of traders.
By the 5th century BC, Persians already established a 3000 km long road from their capital Susa (present Iran) to Izmir (present Turkey). The route to Central Asia opened up with the invasion of Alexander in 329 BC. He established Greek power over Egypt, Persia, parts of Central Asia and North-Eastern India. For the next three centuries, Greek rulers controlled most of this region, providing a seamless connection to Europe. Gold, Silver and wine came from the West in exchange of ivory, silk and spices. In next 200 years, under the Han dynasty, the Chinese expanded into Central Asia and thus provided the connection towards the East. Roughly from the first century BC to around 1400 AD the Silk Road enjoyed unparallel prosperity. The last great empire of the Silk Road was the Mongol empire of Chengiz Khan. As this empire gradually disintegrated in the course of the 15th century, the unity of the Silk Road also broke down. With the opening of direct sea routes, Silk Road lost its relevance.
Gold Coin: Kanishka
Gold Coin: Alexander the Great
 India was at the centre of this exchange and it brought great prosperity to the subcontinent. Confluence of ideas from East and West led to the establishment of World’s first university at Taxila (3rd Century BC). Kushans, coming from their Central Asian homeland, established one of the greatest empires on the Silk Route, covering large parts of Central Asia and northern India. For India, perhaps the greatest legacy of the Silk Road is the dissemination of Buddhism. Under their greatest ruler Kanishka, who ruled from Purushpur (Peshawar) and Mathura, this empire helped in spreading Buddhism far and wide. Important cities on this route – Khotan, Kashgarh, Yarkhand became important centres of Buddhist learning as well. As borne out by recovery of important artefacts and texts in Khotan and other places, Buddhist Viharas along the route seem to have attained great prosperity both in terms of material wealth and religious texts and relics. Some of it are still preserved in monasteries of Ladakh.
Gandhara Art: Buddha Avalokiteshwar
Famous Chinese pilgrims Fa-Hsien and Xuanzang (Hieun Tsang in Indian history) came by this route. After the seventh century, Islam spread through this route. The curse of medieval Europe, Black Death (Bubonic Plague) reached China through this route. Also travelled through this route knowledge of medicine, astrology and scientific discoveries. Influence of the Gandhara art, which took shape under the Kushans from the twin influence of Indian and Greek traditions, also spread with the Buddhist philosophy. The famous Buddhist statue at Kamakura, Japan (9th Century AD) bears unmistakable signs of the Gandhara style.
Kamakura Buddha
Silk Road is currently the flavour of the season in international relations. USA unveiled its vision of regional economic integration through this “New Silk Road” initiative a few days back in the Istanbul Conference. This Conference on the future of Afghanistan, stressed on this vision, where Kabul should be at the crossroad of global commerce rather than global terrorism. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon would be addressing another similar international conference later this month in Kazakh capital Almaty. In an unrelated development, Governor of China’s Xinjiang province, Nur Bekri recently visited India.
Trade has a great power to transcend all barriers. After all, present political boundaries are there for just a century whereas this exchange had been there for millennia. If a traveller from Xinjiang is able to come just south of the boundary to Ladakh then he would be easily able to identify with the paintings at Ladakh monasteries. In one of his receptions, the visiting Governor of Xinjiang must have been offered a stuffed fried pastry, which came to India many centuries back from Xinjiang. We call it Samosa from the Central Asian original Samsa.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Agni Kanya: Preetilata Waddedar

Preetilata Waddedar
10.45 PM, September 24th 1932. Party was in full swing inside the Chittagong European Club. At the entrance of this club hung the infamous notice – Entry of Dogs and Indians Prohibited. Suddenly nightly quiet of the Chittagong Hills was shattered with the sound of gunfire and bombs. A small group of 7-8 Indian revolutionaries from Masterda Surya Sen’s Indian Republican Army (Chittagong Branch) attacked the Club with light fire arms and bombs. As some of the club members were also carrying arms, a gun battle ensued. When gunfire from inside stopped, revolutionaries felt their mission was accomplished and prepared to leave. All the revolutionaries were unhurt and they believed that a number of persons inside the Club were dead (though the official figure was one dead and seven injured). As they were leaving, their leader asked one of them to pour Potassium Cyanide in her mouth. Why did she commit suicide at the hour of victory is still not very clear – but thus ended the short life of Preetilata Waddedar, the only lady to have died fighting against the British since 1857. 
As Bengal gets busy in Shakti –aradhana this week, I thought it is time to pay tribute to a small group of Bengali girls, who did not hesitate to take up arms to free the motherland. Women played an important part in revolutionary movement right from the beginning – but that was more of a passive role, providing shelter, carrying pistol etc. A group of daredevil girls changed that picture in early 1930s – eight decades later they are all completely forgotten. Between 1857, when the valiant young Rani of Jhansi fought against the British and the early 1940s when young girl cadets of Rani Jhansi brigade of INA under Laxmi Swaminathan marched alongside their male colleagues through South-East Asia and Burma to India’s North-East, there were exactly three incidents of girls participating in armed operations against the British.
Suniti
On December 14, 1931, two school girls – Shanti Ghosh and Suniti Choudhuri, belonging to the famous Jugantar group shot dead District Magistrate of Kumilla (now in Bangladesh), Mr CGB Stevens. Both the girls were just 14. They were caught, beaten up badly but spared the gallows because of their age. They were released after seven years in prison.
Beena Das
On 6th February, 1932, Beena Das fired 5 bullets at Bengal Governor Sir Stanley Jackson (also a former captain of England cricket team) in the convocation ceremony of Calcutta University but failed to hit him. Beena was sentenced to nine years of rigorous imprisonment. Shanti and Beena joined Gandhiji in Noakhali. Suniti finished her studies and became a medical doctor. There were so many others, who did not participate in any action but played key roles in organization – Leela Roy(Nag) was one such remarkable lady, who built Deepali Sangha and later on became a close associate of Netaji. A number of them left valuable autobiographical accounts (mostly in Bengali) but hardly anyone remembers that today. I remember reading a collection of their life stories as a young boy – the collection was perhaps edited by Kamala Dasgupta, herself a noted freedom fighter, but struggled to find any material in English [except one article in Manushi – Women in the Bengal Revolutionary Movement(1902-35), Sandip Bandopadhyay]

Leela Roy (Nag), founder of Deepali Sangha
But the most famous of them were two Chattogram girls – Kalpana Dutta and her one year senior Preetilata Waddedar. Masterda, who led a veritable armed insurrection against the British in Chattogram in 1930, had decided that the attack on the Club would be led by a girl as a sort of symbolic gesture. But Kalpana, who was marked for this role was caught by the police just two days before the planned attack, thus providing Preeti with this golden opportunity.
Preetilata Waddedar was born in a lower middle class family of Chattogram town – her father was a clerk in the local municipality. She did well in Dr Khastagir High School and then joined Eden College, Dhaka for IA. She also joined Deepali Sangha of Leela Roy in Dhaka. She stood first among girls and overall fifth in the IA exam. Her results fetched a scholarship for her and enabled her to join Bethune College in Calcutta for BA. In Calcutta too she maintained her close links with the revolutionaries. She was entrusted with an unusual job during this time – she was asked to go with a forged identity and meet Ramakrishna Biswas at Alipore Jail. Biswas was waiting to be hanged for murder of a high-ranking Bengali official. In a few months leading up to his hanging, Preetilata met Biswas around 40 times and he left a deep impression on her. After her exams she came back to Chattogram. She wanted to leave her family behind but was forced to take up a job instead to support her parents. She joined local Nandankanan Girls High School (now Aparnacharan Girls High School) as the head mistress. Once when she was staying at a safe house along with Masterda and Nirmal Sen, another senior leader of the group, police suddenly encircled them and a gunfight broke out. Though Masterda and Preetilata managed to escape, Nirmal Sen died in the fight. Within days they launched their attack on the Club.

Kalpana Dutta
Why did she commit suicide? Someone said she wanted to make a point that girls were not afraid to lay down their lives for the country. But a number of others believed that Preeti fell in love with first Ramakrishna Biswas and then Nirmal Sen and of course saw both of them dying – the emotional impact was perhaps too much to handle for the 21-year old girl. Her best friend and fellow revolutionary Kalpana, who was incinerated for a long time following her arrest, fell in love with another comrade Ramakrishna Dastidar. Ramakrishna was hanged alongside Surya Sen in 1934. But since Ramakrishna’s body was not handed over to the family, she kept on waiting for a long time, hoping someday Ramakrishna would be back. Later on Kalpana, then a member of Communist Party of India, married its former general secretary P C Joshi. Her daughter-in-law and well known political journalist Manini Chatterjee wrote a book on Chattogram revolutionaries a few years back – Do and Die.  A recent Bollywood movie based on the book Khele Hum Jee Jaan Se, starred Deepika Padukone (as Kalpana Dutta). No one had the time to celebrate Preetilata’s birth centenary earlier this year.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Greek Tragedy

As the Greek economy totters on the brink of a sovereign default, I found out that it is no new experience for the Greeks. The very first sovereign default in the recorded human history occurred in Greece in 377 BC. In that year 10 out of 13 city clusters in Greece defaulted on loans they had taken from the famous temple of Delos, the mythical birthplace of Apollo. European banks are today unhappy that now the authorities are asking them to accept more losses than 21% they had previously agreed on Greek sovereign debt. But 2400 years ago, the temple – one of the richest in the Hellenic world – had to write off 90 per cent of the loan amount! Lessons are pretty clear from that first default – debt defaults often happen in groups (so, watch out for Spain and Italy and Portugal and Ireland....) and losses turn out to be more than what appears at the first glance (red signals for M/s Sarkozy and Merkel)
Temple of Delos
In modern times, Greece as a nation state has defaulted only 5 times – 1826, 1843, 1860, 1894 and 1932. Some of these defaults lasted quite long, for instance the 1932 default shut Greece out of international market till the early sixties. Roughly Greece has been under default for 90 years or 50% of the time since its independence in the modern era. Quite enviable record – we must concede.
As it seems, history sometimes does repeat itself – at least the Greek tragedies!!!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Rule of Law

This is an unprecedented time in Indian history when a large number of important national issues from reservation controversy to major corruption scandals, from environmental pollution to Ram Janambhoomi – are being increasingly settled in court rooms across the country. Recently when debating on the Lokpal issue in the Rajya Sabha, leader of the opposition Arun Jaitley sarcastically commented that too many lawyers were advising the Prime Minister, the irony of the situation was not lost on any one.  Not only Jaitley himself is an eminent lawyer, there was a preponderance of lawyers on all three sides – government (Chidambaram, Sibal, Salman Khurshid, Pawan Bansal), Opposition (Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Ravishankar Prasad) and the Jan Lokpal team (Shanti Bhushan, his son Prashant, Santosh Hedge).
Calcutta High Court: the building was modelled after the Town Hall in Ypres, Belgium
In many ways, founding of High Courts in 1861 along with the coming into effect of Macaulay’s famous codes (though drafted in the 1830s, the codes fully came into effect in the 1860s) heralded a new era of justice and fair play for ordinary Indians. With the passage of time higher judicial system has been extended and strengthened by various means, most importantly by the founding of the Supreme Court in 1935. As the High Courts of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras celebrate their 150th anniversary this year, it is perhaps time to look at the interplay of Courts, men of law and politics in early modern India.

Though there were British courts in all three presidencies from at least late 18th century, the present system of High Courts came with the 1861 Act. It was part of an overall effort by the British government to reorganize Indian administration as they took over from the East India Company as a consequence of 1857.Though announced in 1861, three High Courts actually started functioning from 1862. Since then ordinary citizens of this country have consistently shown an unshakable faith in our judicial system.


Justice Ranade

Modern, organizational politics in India emerged largely out of the corridors of law courts. Around 35% members of two main pre-Congress organizations in Calcutta – Indian Association and Indian League - were lawyers. Same was true for Bombay, where three prominent lawyers Pherozeshah Mehta, K T Telang and Badruddin Tyabji founded the Bombay Presidency Association. The other prominent figure was of course Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade, who founded the Puna Sarvajanik Sabha. Even as the Indian National Congress replaced these early organizations, the situation did not change much in terms of leadership profile. Not only was the first President of Congress a barrister – W C Bonnerjee, but more than 1/3 participants in Congress annual sessions in initial years were lawyers. In fact the situation reached such a stage that in many district towns there was hardly any difference between the bar association and the district congress committee!
Sir Phirozeshah Mehta
Founding fathers were to be followed by generations of legal luminaries, who dedicated themselves to the national cause. Both Motilal Nehru and Chittaranjan Das - two of India’s top lawyers quit their profession in 1921 following Gandhiji’s call for non-cooperation. Both the first President and Prime Minister of India were lawyers and so were Pakistan’s first Governor General (Md Ali Jinnah) and Prime Minister (Liaquat Ali Khan). A large number of distinguished members of the Constituent Assembly were lawyers, whose best legacy is perhaps our glorious Constitution. A special mention must be made of two non-Congressmen Nehru graciously invited to join the first cabinet – Ambedkar and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee – though from different ends of the political spectrum – both were lawyers. And of course the father of the nation – Mahatma Gandhi, who was trained as a barrister in Inner Temple and called to the bar on 1891. After two failed attempts to establish himself as a lawyer in Bombay and Rajkot, he left for South Africa in 1893 to work as a lawyer and the rest is history.
On the face of it Jaitley’s criticism is unfair - not only today but in the last 150 years, lawyers have always dominated Indian politics. But the real sense of his criticism is true – a political problem needs a political and not legal remedy. Unlike today, lawyer-politicians of pre-independence period did not believe in deciding public issues in a court of law.
The very first modern political movement originated from the debate surrounding power of Judges. In 1883, Law Member of Vice-regal Council C P Ilbert proposed that in districts Indian Judges may be given the power to try British citizens – this prompted an outcry from English newspapers and pressure groups. In reply Indians took to the street and organized public meetings in support of this Bill. Though the government ultimately was forced to compromise but the Ilbert Bill agitation was the first lesson in modern political mobilization for Indians.  
Location of High Courts could act as a magnate for attracting talent and give a boost to urban growth – best example of this were Patna and Allahabad in North India. Some of the greatest social reformers and educators of that period were also associated with the Judicial system – in North India, - again from two different ends of the spectrum - came Sir Saiyyid Ahmed and Pandit Malviya. Similarly in Maharastra the most remarkable reformer was Justice Ranade, who also founded Prarthana Samaj.
Sir Ashutosh known as Bengal Tiger. As the first Indian VC, he transformed Calcutta University into a research institution, recruited C V Raman and S Radhakrishnan among others. Also the first President of Indian Science Congress 
A number of judges and lawyers were associated with social reform and Brahmo Samaj in Calcutta, including the very first Indian High Court Judge, Sambhu Nath Pandit (appointed in 1863). Most of the early Judges were prolific founders of educational institutions but the lawyer most revered as an educator was the first Indian Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University, Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee(father of Shyama Prasad). 
Sir Muthuswamy Iyer
We have seen how early Courts have touched our lives in many spheres other than law. Let us conclude with an anecdote regarding High Court and growth of media – the appointment of Sir Muthuswamy Iyer as the first Indian Judge of Madras High Court in 1877 created a furore. In the face of vicious attack from the British-owned press Indian leaders realized they needed a voice of their own and thus the famous nationalist newspaper, The Hindu was born!

Monday, September 12, 2011

9/11: In Remembrance

When a moment of personal triumph or grief finds resonance in a public one then it acquires a different dimension. Ten years back, on 12th September morning I was travelling in Rajdhani Express from New Delhi to Calcutta. I was too engrossed in myself. I knew for sure that a chapter of my life had ended but did not know what lay ahead. Excited chatter of my co-passengers forced me to come out of my reverie and grab a newspaper. The headline read “Thousands killed in terror attack in New York” - it took a very long time to sink in. It took me another few hours to reach home and see the most dramatic moment ever recorded in the history of television in this planet. For reasons completely unconnected with 9/11, New York had already become a part of my daily existence.
Throughout history, residents of every city on the verge of capitulation must have felt a terrible agony. Yet some of these falls have been more earth-shattering events than the others. Fall of Rome to “barbaric” tribes in 476 AD was seen by contemporaries as a victory of darkness over civilization. Exactly the same sentiments were echoed in 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans – it was widely believed (not completely acceptable today) that this fall triggered an exodus of ancient wisdom from Byzantium to the cities of Western Europe, thus providing the much needed spark for the Renaissance. Similarly the sack of Baghdad by Mongol forces under Hulagu in 1258 was described as a moment of unacceptable destruction of ancient heritage – when the Tigris was turned into a river of black ink as all the famed libraries of Baghdad were emptied out there. There were many terror attacks in different parts of the world – before and after 9/11, yet 9/11 is the most spectacular terror attack ever recorded in human history.
Since 9/11, experience of air travel has changed completely. As a famous commentator wrote recently, makers of security apparatus are the main beneficiary of our growing sense of insecurity. In India there has been a tremendous boom in the business of security agencies (rest of the world buys more instruments and in India we deploy more security guards – human life is cheaper here than a body scanner). It has also spawned a growing cottage industry of security experts, Af-Pak specialists complete with mind-boggling advances for their latest tome on genuine inside stories of Jehadi organizations.
USA launched an assault on Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001 itself and today after 10 long years victory is nowhere in sight. President Bush launched a war on terror, famously warned all of us that either we are with him or with “them” and after Afghanistan invaded Iraq in search of elusive WMD (weapons of mass destruction). When we try to think about it a series of photographs come to our mind – Saddam Hussein captured like a rat with his mouth agape, of tortured Iraqis in Abu Ghraib and hooded prisoners of Guantanamo Bay, suicide bombing and helicopter shooting of journalists – in most conservative estimate at least 2 lakhs people have died in these two countries directly from this war on terror. Not to mention millions of refugees and broken lives and families. US troops have now exited Iraq but the country is far from peaceful. Earlier this year, in its biggest success so far, US forces managed to finally kill Al Qaeda Chief Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. But still the threat of terror looms large everywhere. As a direct result of these wars, today USA is the most hated country to the Muslims around the world – an image, despite President Obama’s repeated insistence that the US is not against Islam, is not likely to change in near future.
In 2001, ten years after the fall of the Soviet Union, USA was the lone super power and its domination of global politics and economy was absolute. The war on terror cost the US tax payers more than $3 trillion so far and it is going to go up further (Stieglitz et al). As Washington focused more on war, US economy began to slide. Ultra low interest rate regime and housing bubble masked the deep rot. More than 2001, New Yorkers today would perhaps more dreadfully remember a certain Monday in September 2008, when they saw iconic US financial institutions melting into nothingness. By 2021, China would surpass USA as the biggest economy in the world. For much of its existence, USA avoided military conflicts to focus on economy – even during the Cold War economic strength was never neglected – in the last 10 years, they have completely forgotten their age-old credo. If a future historian has to see 9/11 as the starting point of a trend, then that would inevitably be the beginning of the end of US economic hegemony.
2001 was a terrible year for India too– the litany of disaster started with the Bhuj earthquake on 26th January and ended with the attack on Indian Parliament on 13th December. We believe only in placing floral wreaths in remembrance and not in sincere actions. After 2001, USA created its department of Homeland Security and they have so far been able to ensure that no terror attack takes place in the US. If there is a single lesson for India in the events of 9/11, then it should be this example in prevention of disasters. But as long as we fail to put premium on the life of each and every Indian citizen, we will not be able to achieve that.
Standing in lower Manhattan, I got this feeling that I was at the capital of the world and I knew I was not alone in experiencing that. More languages are spoken in this city than anywhere else in the world, you would find food and culture of every part of the world thriving in some corner of this metropolis, everyday market movement and investment decisions made in NY make or break fortune of nations…..it is the dream city of every immigrant…..every idea and innovation finds home in this city. For a decade now, my work day starts with checking New York Times headlines and weather updates of NY-NJ and ends with checking Dow and Nasdaq late night. New York is the ultimate metropolis of dream, which could so easily have been my home too. People around the world share such sentiments and that is how an attack on the Big Apple was felt as an attack on our collective conscience. Even as we blame our soft state, ineffective security agencies, how many of us actually feel that an attack on Mumbai or Delhi is an attack on the idea of India itself?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Ice Ice Baby

There are some people like my wife, who live solely because there is a treat called ice cream in this world. Recently during our visit to Ahmedabad, which could easily be described as the ice cream capital of India, I was amazed to see the craze for ice-cream – of every shape, colour and flavour. It was even more amazing to think that ice creams – as we know it today – arrived here just a century back! Cold desserts in many avatars are known to mankind for a long time. Ancient Babylonians, Romans and Chinese used to pour fruit juices over crushed ice. The process of cooling a mixture using salt petre, to make something akin to ice-cream was discovered in China. The Arabs perfected the recipe of flavouring milk with dry fruits, cinnamon etc and then cooling it at freezing point using salt petre. By tenth century, such ice creams - actually more like Kulfis - were sold in all major cities in the Arab world. Western tradition says Marco Polo brought ice cream to Italy from China – like many other legends associated with Marco Polo – this one is also doubtful. The French learned the secret of flavoured ice - Sorbet - in the early 16th century when Catherine de Medici married Duke of Orleans and brought Italian chefs with her. By the end of the 16th century, flavoured ice was a much-preferred royal treat in Europe.
In the 18th century, we come across the recipe of modern ice-cream for the first time. Availability of ice in summers through import from Scandinavia and prosperity of Victorian Britain helped in experimentation. Still the difficulty of large scale production and refrigeration restricted the appeal of ice creams. In Britain Carlo Gatti opened a shop selling ice cream outside Charing Cross station in 1851. Several manufacturers started selling ice creams from their shops or carts making it available to general public for the first time. But the lady, who changed the complexion of the industry in Britain, was Agnes Marshall. Mrs Marshall, who wrote four famous recipe books dedicated to ice creams, came up with a portable hand-cranked machine to make ice-cream easily. She is also credited with the idea of serving ice-creams in edible cones. Apart from selling ice-creams, she also started selling machinery for ice-cream making. Mrs Marshall for the first time came up with the idea of using liquid nitrogen to make ice cream (the idea came to her after attending a lecture at Royal Society). When she died in 1905, rights of her recipes were bought by famous Mrs Beeton and thus, it became part of the most famous recipe book in British culinary history.


Of course, the Americans believe they invented true ice cream. Quakers introduced flavoured ice treats in the New World. Leaders like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin regularly used to enjoy ice creams. In 1843, Nancy Johnson of Philadelphia was issued a patent for a hand-cranked ice-cream maker. Throughout 19th and 20th century, a whole range of innovations in ice-cream right from sundae to banana split to dots took place in the states, not to mention top brands like Ben & Jerry or Haagen-Dazs. Improvement in refrigeration technology from 1870s is the single most important factor, which made ice-cream accessible to all.

In September 1833, an American ship named Tuscany arrived in Calcutta. The most unusual cargo carried by this ship ensured a rousing reception. Tuscany brought ice blocks from lakes near Boston. This is for the first time shipment of pure ice reached India. Since that first arrival, every time an ice ship landed in Calcutta for next 50 years, its arrival sparked off spontaneous celebration in Calcutta’s White town. The crew in 1833 was presented with a silver cup by Governor General William Bentinck and the owner was instantly granted a monopoly of ice trade in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. Ice was declared a duty-free good and Calcuttans pooled their own resources to build a modern ice house close to the river. Similar ice houses came up in Bombay and Madras too. Madras is the only place out of these three cities, where the original ice house still stands – Swami Vivekananda once stayed here and in his memory this building located right on the sea beach has now been converted into a museum.
The man behind this unusual venture was a Boston businessman, Frederic Tudor. He had earlier exported ice to some places in the USA and nearby tropical islands but the business failed miserably. He was persuaded to send ice to Calcutta by another businessman, who was eager to import tea and other stuff from Asia but had to send an empty ship every time. Ice trade was fairly common in Europe. It may be difficult to believe today but till around 1950s, Britain used to regularly import ice from the Scandinavian countries. In fact one can still see remnants of underground icehouses almost all over the continent, where large blocks of ice used to be stored for use in summer. But sending ice from Boston to Calcutta was an altogether different matter. Tudor came up with significant innovations to ensure that a large part of his cargo survives nearly 5 month long sea voyage. He decided to cut ice in rectangular blocks of equal size and then pack them so closely that air could not pass through them, he designed special insulation chambers and covered ice blocks with pine dust, which was a bad conductor of heat but fragrant. This way Tudor managed to keep a large part of his cargo intact throughout this long journey.
Till Tuscany arrived in Calcutta, the only thing close to ice was Hooghly slush – they used to store boiled water in earthenware on riverbank and the cooling effect used to produce thin films of ice. It is generally believed that the Mughals brought Kulfi to India. Kulfi was frozen by using salt petre. Was Kulfi a commonly available treat in those days? Unfortunately I could not find any reference to that. Abul Fazl has mentioned in the Ain-i-Akbari that everyday a boat laden with 10-12 blocks of ice used to arrive at Lahore from the hills for Akbar. Perhaps there was a similar system to bring ice to Agra or Delhi as well. Till well into the 19th century, rich households used to have special servants, known as aubdars - it was their responsibility to ensure that drinks are stored properly and served chillled. Their normal practice used to be cooling down water using sal petre and then wrap bottles with wet clothes.
For around fifty years from 1833 ice trade was a thriving business. Tudor, who was neck deep in debt in 1833, died a multi-millionaire. In 1879, Bengal Ice Company established the first plant in India to produce artificial ice – very quickly artificial ice business spread to other cities and towns, particularly to upper India. Soon, every town came to have a Barfkal of their own. Modern ice creams became available in Indian cities – particularly at hotels and clubs - at the turn of the century. In the 1930s, ice creams were no longer a novelty for upper class children in metro cities like Calcutta and Bombay. Today un-branded push carts of our childhood have yielded to ice-cream parlours and multinational brands launch Indian flavours, prominently displaying a green dot!