Sunday, September 30, 2007

Peter Sarstedt Revival

Just as the SNL offshoot, Waynes's World, brought out Freddie Mercury and Queen freshly remastered for Generation Next to make their own, so too does Hotel Chevalier, the thirteen minute outtake and/or prequel from from Wes Anderson's new movie, The Darjeeling Limited, bring us back to 1969 and Peter Sarstedt's London megahit of that year, Where Do You Go To My Lovely? with digitized and remastered immediacy

Peter Sarstedt was born in Delhi, and spent his infancy in Kurseong at the foot of the Himalayas, at a tea garden where his father worked, and was therefore a real Indian-Anglo-Indian, obviously more privileged than the folks depicted in Bow Barracks Forever-- since his parents chose to leave for England in 1954, a few years into Independence, like other Anglo-Indians who believed the end of the British Empire would bring them harm and left in numbers for Australia and Canada as well as England through the sixties-- but they really were of Indian blood nevertheless. Wes Anderson must have learned about this while making
The Darjeeling Limited, because it was a hidden factoid in 1969 that would have earned Sarstedt wild fans in India, but at the expense of his following in England. It only surfaces now, when India is on a roll and all that doesn't matter so much any more, but is still not seen on his own web site. It's easy to see in these less hairy days that he is Indian, and I wonder how acknowledging that will play out.

In 1969. of course, I had no idea Peter Sarstedt was Anglo-Indian, and would have counted him less hip and more Cliff Richard if I had. But I was struck then, no doubt like everyone else, by his crisp and easy delivery of the franglais back and forth lyrics, the clarity evident even through the fuzzy recordings of the day. I had no idea who Zizi Jeanmaire was, nor how to spell her name, nor even for that matter who her husband, the great choreographer Roland Petit was, but I had heard Sacha Distel's cover of
Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head, did know that Karīm al-Hussaynī, Aga Khan IV, was gorgeous as well as being the astonishingly wealthy leader of all Shia Muslims, that the Dowager Begum Aga Khan always wore saris, and last, but by no means least, that it was as cool to wear Balmain as to keep your Rolling Stones records at a swank address, nothing to do with the Beatles, much as one might love them.

Hotel Chevalier is famously available for free download at the iTunes Store, and so represents new and adventurous thinking in movie marketing as well as being a vehicle for reintroducing a worthy megahit of the 60's. As it happens, I went to the first ever, high-octane SAMMA conference this weekend, and
Nusrat Durrani, SVP at MTV Networks, was one of the stellar presenters at the dinner reception, along with Aasif Mandvi. After dinner and outstanding performances, during which Nusrat Durrani showed a pastiche of his clips from the New York Marathon set to Pink Floyd's Breathe, I couldn't resist asking him if he had added Pink Floyd because they had been signed by Bhaskar Menon. He said no, he just likes them. But it turned out he hadn't heard about Peter Sarstedt being Indian-- so I hope something will come of that, because in these times, it's well to celebrate another Desi, in disguise for too long.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Patrick Makuakāne Presents Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu

I missed the afternoon per-
formance at the National Museum of the American Indian,

but in the evening. I saw the most magnificent production of hula I have ever seen. The San Francisco dance company, Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu, delighted a huge audience at Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center. I'll mostly let Lin Cariffe's pictures of other performances of the same works speak for themselves.

Kumu Patrick Makuakāne is such a fabulous presenter as well as a mesmerizing choreographer that he brings the audience right into the show while the show itself plays sensuality, thought and feeling with equal command and force.
Lihau Hannahs and Kellen Paik provided highly evocative live music for the spectacular production, with thirty-two magnificently costumed dancers, who mixed presentations of traditional legends and tributes with two pieces of piercing satire and several touching, graceful modern pieces, including two set to Annie Lenox and Cyndi Lauper's most wistful songs, a brilliant capture of Peggy Lee's Fever, and a somehow heartrending interpretation of Tony Bennet's version of I Left My Heart in San Franscisco, with its illustrative gestures for "little cable cars" and "halfway to the stars"-- among other phrases -- casually revealing quite exactly what hula is about.

A man seated in the row behind me shouted out frantically that he couldn't see, and at least twenty people turned around to shush him, pleading with him not to spoil it for everyone, so swept up was the audience with the gentle but powerful grace and great wit of the show.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Clips from Antonioni's Blow-Up

Saturday, June 23, 2007

AVAAZ at Galapagos Art Space

Yesterday, after dropping off Bear at JFK --
and being totally unaware that the Virgin Atlantic plane she had boarded was slated to stall on the tarmac for four hours, waiting for that evening's series of short storms to pass, and then take off without most of the food on the menu for passengers on the flight to London--I drove around aimlessly for a while, like anyone deprived of their young might, and decided to check in at the proudly independent Art Space still known as

There, the twenty-and-now-early-thirty-somethings still milled and jostled, partying hard without ever lighting a cigarette, because, as Director Robert Elmes has correctly said, "We
have our whole lives to live and that is terribly important." The reflecting pool at the entrance is limpid and surprising as ever, but as Galapagos has prospered, it will be moving quite soon from Williamsburg to DUMBO. I considered Lillian Godchaux's Solstice VII, which was going on inside the storied Back Room, and had been described by Lillian herself as "A night of LSD and Native American freak-out driven folk and SF-based soary acid folk in hither, wildering, and bewonderment of this great Solstice VII of the New Water/Matter Era." But I was curious about AVAAZ, the act scheduled to appear on the Main Stage, so I missed Almaden, Zachary Cale and Feral Cat. Instead, I spent the same $7 and one extra $ on two under- priced drinks at the candle-lit bar, especially to watch some of the members of AVAAZ (not to be confused with setting up their fast-rising electroGLOBALdiscotek. Taking in their sleek looks, I wondered if they all had gone to MIT and now have day jobs at investment banks-- not that there's anything wrong with that.

The best version of Sea had just opened down the street
when I first saw Galapagos. I had gone to N Sixth Street back then entirely because Dave Eggers and McSweeney's held their first and earliest New York events in the now fabled Back Room, while they were reinventing fiction and food, hilarity and social awareness all at the same time. They turned writing into performance art as well -- right there at Galapagos, where I recall a gentleman in his nineties telling a tale of death and playground slides to the sound of helpless yet respectfully muffled laughter-- and now they need our help getting past their distributor Publisher's Group West's bankruptcy, by reason of which they are suddenly out $130K in one fell swoop. Say it isn't so...They are making a valiant effort with their online sales of all manner of items McSweeney and also with their "Heartbreaking eBay Auction of Staggering Audacity"...

I pondered this tale of swinging through the ages by a length of tooth floss, and drank two drinks one after another as images of something like starlight played on the blue velvet curtains. These were soon drawn back for the laser light show streamed through whirling stencils in many-colored beams by dimmSummer, and young Pat Miscellaneous, bare-chested in chinos and a full dress, full length Cheyenne
headpiece started rapping through the hai-chai remix that DJ Boo (aka Juggaknots) and I believe Bollygirl DK also had started up together. This was with and sometimes without a duet from--? Samera? Reena?. Then came DJ impala's entr'acte, and she played September, Billie Jean, Kiss, and just a few minutes of the long version of Marvin Gaye's Gotta Give it Up, but stopped while people had just started moving to this party-song-to-end-all-party-songs, to move on to Patti Labelle's original version of Lady Marmalade. How long ago it seems and yet not so far away at all. Meanwhile, silhouettes danced on the once again starlit velvet curtains, and cellphones flashed as taking pictures became general. Then came all-Desi recently schooled Bamboo Shoots, who are a really good, very special band that somehow brings the lead, rhythm and bass guitar plus drums format into the present moment. They were reviewed on Sepia Mutiny and played on Conan. Strangely, it was the Cold War era movie playing on the screen behind them that distracted, and because I'm not of the three screen generation, I spent at least fifteen minutes growing older trying to figure out who was who in black and white in Juliet of the Spirits. And then I had to go home while the band played on...and go to sleep, missing Butterthief and Suspicious Brown...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Evening, in which Mamie Gummer becomes Meryl Streep, Glen Close becomes their blood relative and Natasha Richardson plays Vanessa Redgrave's Daughter

The movie's called Evening, and if there's only one film that people who think too much and feel quite a lot and like to be slightly but deeply scared should see this summer, this is it. AL invited me to the Walter Reade Theater preview, where Susan Minot and Michael Cunningham showed up after the screening to discuss their experience in co-writing the screenplay adapted from the book with Kent Jones, the man with a light touch

from the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Throughout the screening, I wondered about the marvelous filter effects on the dream sequences-- how they came on so wonderfully strong and obvious, then tapered off so gradually through the course of the story. Were they in the lens or a part of the editing? Faces were so closely imaged at the start of the story, and with so much particularity, that their natural asymmetry led the eye beyond conven- tional
judgments about beauty, although every actor was stunning by any measure. One had to look afresh at already famous faces, that then grew familiar very quickly in these new forms. The casting is as superb as the cast. Of course, but of course, Glenn Close was Meryl Streep's mother in another life! Speaking of measurements, Vanessa Redgrave's acting must be measured by the frame, not by seconds. That's how close up the view becomes in this unsentimental yet touching study of two deaths in played out counterpoint. While Redgrave certainly carries it, all the others absolutely rise to the occasion. Having seen and heard my own grandmother apparently having good time at a fair number of parties on her near-deathbed, I found that this tale resonated with me, and the telling of it, its production, seemed to create a convincing experience of the swing between over-
whelming wooziness and diamond hard clarity in the course of that personal time travel and that
wandering out of body that heralds a slow death.

Drawing away, the big picture of the society that provides the setting for this surprising story is delivered au point as well. While the circumstances of the wealthy family seems casually depicted, there is an uncanny conveyance of how things are proportioned for the rich. The wedding is generously informal and correct, not ostentatious, and the bride's dress is not overly grand. This is how it has to be, in a summer setting among people who enjoy extreme cleanliness,
rely on slightly stodgy design, established standards of comfort, consuming both hand made and manu- factured goods of quality, and who take proper care of inherited objects as a matter of course. Yet there is also a clear sense of the perilous crowding and living cheek by jowl that imprisons the rich or aristocratic or patrician. Their circles must always be suffocatingly small, the more so the richer or better-established they are, and marriage and even preferred forms of adultery must occur within that small closed circle. The comedy of homosexuality in these narrow straits raises its suggestive head several times in the film. Sometimes it happens mistakenly, as when the mother of the bride
happens upon her daughter sharing her wedding morning jitters with her college friend and bridesmaid who has crept under the covers. Pshaw! Sometimes it arises unawares, but for real, as when that same bride's mother snatches away her son from his partner during a playful jitterbug for a masterfully bone-chilling rhumba, purposefully extinguishing any possibility of his attachment to another woman. Ouch! These people are not incorrectly depicted as being stifled or inhibited, though. There is nothing in recent film to compare with Glen Close's raw howl over Buddy's sudden young death.

There is faerie magic in the woods, but also there are different ways of seeing and treating a small cliff or those same woods, either as the border area between manicured grounds and Vast, Unknown, Dangerous Nature, or simply as perfectly familiar bits of the family's property. Playing off the difference in perspectives in a practical joke provides a bit of class-conflict that erupts into rage.

Alcohol always plays a leading role in Susan Minot's books. In making Buddy a far more central figure in the film than he is in the book, Michael Cunningham ties this story closer to the rest of Susan Minot's work. The two writers, live four blocks apart in NYC but quite naturally met at a wedding in Nairobi soon after SM had recovered the rights to her book after an earlier attempt to turn it into a movie. Despite their close collaboration (SM said the collaborative process with MC had been like a master class in screenwriting), they differed on several points. For instance, MC believes a book is always a work in progress, the print capturing only a moment in the process, whereas SM says a printed volume in your hand is a clear indication of completion and enables the writer to let it go. MC said that film cannot capture an inner life as well a a book, but SM pointed out that one's inner life occurs in images, not words.

But then, they spoke of shared delights in the making of the film, like watching Meryl Streep and Vanessa Redgrave on a monitor outside the house, and being amazed to see them step into character and switch it on,, discarding their natural selves in a flash. They talked about filming at a
Newport house of that genre known as a "cottage" that belongs to the Cushing family, rather than in Maine, as in the book, which would have proven overwhelmingly expensive to produce. They concurred on the problem of turning an entire book into a movie, where films are really short stories, and the more sympathetic form for adapting a novel into image format is a television series. MC spoke fondly of squabbling with cinematographer and director Lajos Koltai over lines about which he had second thoughts, but that Koltai wanted to keep. SM spoke about about Eileen Atkins having trouble with the cadence of the lines until SM explained that the nurse was Irish. They both spoke of Hugh Dancy's out of period long hair, and that Lajos Koltai had predicted that critics would be all about his hair. We shall see.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Scent of Lilies

I was walking down 82nd Street day before yesteday, late in the afternoon, and realized that I had missed this year's Kips Bay Show House, which was being dismantled. Volunteering there had been one of my favorite "rites" of Spring for longer than I care to admit, but it's been more than seven years since I turned my attention to another event that raises funds for the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club. The Show House I missed was hosted by the brilliant Janna Bullock and RIGroup. This was a very different undertaking from what it once was, when I was one of a band of perhaps twenty young women who took turns watching the rooms under the auspices of the original Show House Committee. The Committee never changed from year to year, but were always there from dawn till dusk, in Chanel suits and ropes of pearls, fresh as proverbial daisies, and well into their seventies-- or so it seemed to me. The air was always scented with Rigaud candles and flowers, which competed with paint and varnish that was not yet cured. There were fads for peonies one year, orchids the next, and air plants another. One had to know what the antiques and paint finishes were, to explain them to visitors, and and make sure nobody fainted from climbing the stairs, as all the terrible things that can happen on elevators weren't covered in the insurance contracts. Once, Mrs. Mazzola decided to climb to the top and work her way down, and had to sit down at the top floor landing, which called for procedures reserved for extreme emergencies, in terms of the arrangements of those days. Luckily, a Chinese garden stool came in handy until a proper chair could be brought.

Climbing the beautiful staircases two and three steps at a time was a special treat for me, and the main reason I always went back. I was new to New York, and missed staircases, especially those massive marble ones with low risers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century houses of my hometown, Calcutta, on which one could jump about and play games. Between chasing up and down these newer but equally generous staircases, I enjoyed the fact that the visitors were colorful, international, dressed up, and wore great shoes. My first happy moment of extra responsibility came one year in the first and grandest house, which was on 66th Street and belonged at the time to Imelda Marcos, who lent it every year for the Show House. In the main drawing room situated on the second floor, as in a piano nobile, Robert Metzger had set up an early multi-channel music system around the edges of the room which featured a lush, over-the-top eighties version of period decor, with plenty of silk damask and passementerie, the console being cleverly tucked away, iirc, in cabinet with Boulle marquetry or similar. I was required to stand by a massive flower arrangement on a round table in the center of the room under a magnificent Russian chandelier, smile at visitors and explain the rug, and I noticed that both speakers deployed to the west were playing the same channel, as were the ones to the east. To my enormous delight, RM allowed me to pull out the console after the House closed for the day, fiddle with the wiring and fix it. That would never be done today, as the firms who do the sound would, first of all, never make that kind of mistake, and the House would certainly never allow a volunteer to touch the wiring.

A few years later, at the first Show House at 603 Park, also the last chaired by the legendary Rella MacDougall, I got to be her right hand gal at the entrance, where she handled tickets herself every day, transforming that job into a subtle performance that required her great wit. That year, the pantry, with its green-shaded light, big silver safe and humongous ancient icebox, was just cleaned up, because the idea was still only to present a decorated house, and the pantry was a perfect relic. One day, during that run, Mrs. MacDougall was hurrying to the Show House when a bag lady. as we called them then, stopped her to ask for help. Rella, being as warm-hearted as she was elegant, asked what she could do for her. The bag lady said, "Could you hold up this mirror for me?"and while Rella did that, the bag lady rummaged about her shopping bag, drew out and carefully put on a set of big false lashes.

The house at 603 Park is one room deep but quite wide, with a long, long Park Avenue facade, and
commensurate taxes, so it stayed on the market for a long time, to become the default Show House for Kips Bay and other causes for some years. Thierry Dèspont created a memorable decor in the paneled room there, but I can't remember whether it was for Kips Bay or the American Hospital in Paris. Although pictures of rooms from recent years are available online now, rooms that came before live only in one's memories and in the old journals-- a stack of which were lost to me in a heist upstate, in which I lost about a thousand books as well. What remains in my head: Mark Hampton's cream, white and sisal drawing room on 66th Street, with the bureau plat placed like a sofa table, in which all the fine Georgian mahogany became beautifully abstracted; The grand yet hilarious dining room that Ruben de Saavedra created at 62nd Street, where the fabric hung walls were drawn aside at mirrored intervals, for busts of laughing moors to peek out; Richard Ridge's almost completely lavender bedroom, which a band of his friends left in a group, all crying out, "Nurse!"; the narrow room at 1 East 94th Street that J. Allen Murphy dressed in yellow and Benarasi gold brocade, including an unraveled paghri as a pelmet, hung with Mughal lanterns, which he dedicated to the Raj Mata of Jaipur. She came to look, and I was embarrassed to see her at Doubles while I was still wearing a dress from volunteering (so un-Indian and deeply frowned upon then, though pants were fine); Richard Ridge's dining room in which the Romney had been cleaned to within a micron of its life; the large bedroom that John Saladino turned into a frescoed bathroom with a brass punkhah, so insulted was he not to have gotten a drawing room, according to my friend who used to work for him. Recent memorable rooms include Odile de Schietere's Venetian drawing room with furniture from Ferrières, Michael Simon's dix-huitième in black, the cleanest stable in creation by Andrew Tedesco, Larry Laslo's black bedroom where the black Baccarat chandelier made its New York début,...

Diantha Nype was another reason I was there. Diantha had left Bryn Mawr to get married, which is like leaving Hogwarts to become a muggle, but then she out-Mawr-ed everybody by inventing the Show House-- it really was her idea to start with, although this will remain forever unsung, because it's totally not the credo to claim this kind of credit, considering how many other people have worked long and hard to make it happen. Nevertheless, start it she did, and so all show houses that exist, sprouting across the nation every spring and fall -- to Diantha we owe this most excellent concept. Of all the original Committee, it was she who was always second in command to Rella, she who addressed the robbery and she who created the public image of the Show House, as it is, was and ever shall be.

Anyway, having missed the new Show House, and missing the brio of the old days, it was a very happy touch of deja vue to see what Matthew Sudock of M Design has done at David Burke & Donatella, where I met C for lunch. The mix of Hicks in carpet and screens, with creamy walls, plain mirrors, backlit red dry arrangement, large and loopy chandeliers, cheery cherry leather seating and gigantic bouquets of red-and white striped trumpet lilies, all scaled for a nice tall New York brownstone, reminded me of the panache, the hint of improv and inventive flair of the old days. The food is great, and playful too, and the tuna and salmon tartare not to be missed

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Last Mughal and The First Empress

English-speaking people who are deaf to aspirates and aspirated consonants in Indian languages can't say ghee, and tend to produce incorrect spellings like Ghandi and Dehli. Because of this speech impediment, the word
sipahi, meaning soldier in Persian and Urdu, became sepoy for the British, who gave this misheard word currency by giving the Indian uprising of 1857 against themselves a misleading nickname --The Sepoy Mutiny. The Uprising involved not only huge numbers of mercenary Indian soldiers under British pay and command, but also Indian princes, their subjects of various classes, their armies and camp followers, the peasantry of those parts of the Gangetic plain then under direct British control, tribal peoples of the Himalayan foothills and Northern plains and motley others. By simplifying the facts, the spin machine of the British Empire was able to promote the idea nearly unimpeded for well over a hundred years that it was all a matter of animal grease (beef and pork tallow) needed to insert rounds into Enfield rifles. How this single matter was supposed to have offended both Hindus and Muslims so much as to give rise to the events of a whole year, in which Indian soldiers and civilians massacred British men, women and children, burned down their dwellings and destroyed key installations of the colonial administration is quite a mystery.

at that time in England, a popular supple- mentary explanation for the Uprising was that everybody in India was completely enraged at having to learn to behave themselves under the wonders of British rule-- much the way we are told today that 9/11 happened because an unspecified "they" were "jealous of our freedoms."(e.g., see how it seemed to the Metcalfe family)

William Dalrymple is the first British historian to use material in translation from numerous sources written in Persian and
Urdu , and among the first to use the palace and city records now stored in the National Archives, As a writer of popular histories, he has a tough row to hoe in terms of publicizing his perceptions and findings, novel and dangerous to some and not radically different enough for others. Still signing away on his book tour, I suppose, he is more inclined to discuss the hard causes of the Uprising during interviews than in this book. With respect to softer causes, like Evangelism, which he positions centrally, he doesn't indulge in overkill to make a point, but sometimes confuses anger with fear and takes at face value what he could examine a bit more critically. Animal grease and surging Evangelism were no doubt the last straw, but only because the orders to use them could not have been perceived as a simple misunderstanding after a century of many kinds of deliberate and outrageous British assaults on Indian culture, property, laws and human rights. About this, a variety of Indian and foreign-born people had already reached consensus many times, sometimes long before 1857. Those harsher provocations are not discussed in The Last Mughal, which focuses on events in Delhi, which was at that time still a grand and antique city in a state of preservation, home to an exquisite culture. One hopes WD is saving the tougher subject matter of how to assign responsibility for the background of the cataclysmic events of 1857 for another book. As it is, he has already told The Hindu that this book has made him more friends in India than in England.

The book is cause for celebration. The thinking is sensitive, the language is fluid and rich. It conveys the excitement of breaking new ground, and the pictures and line drawings at the start of each chapter are delightful. The two new maps parading as old ones, in which Metcalfe House seems to dwarf the Imperial Palace, Hindus seem to live east of the Ganges and
1857 looks like the 16th century, are very silly, but one can't let that get in the way. The British sources tend towards diaries and letters, and produce an up-close-and-personal effect, while the Persian and Urdu source material is more often drawn from professional writing of various kinds, so it generates a more public voice and panoramic view. Going back and forth between the two sides of the narrative, I felt as if I was walking up and down a seesaw, faster and faster, back and forth, until the final British-led bloodbath led onto the slow, grim comedy of the denouement.

As a child, I always wondered about the the strange reek inside the Mughal tombs of Delhi, something like ancient bird droppings, which was missing at the Taj Mahal. I'd been told that these crumbly, dark and elegant monuments belonged to

and never thought about that again. Now, this book has brought home to me how recent was their ruin, how active the scent of death and decay that hangs about them still, that many of them were family mausoleums, and that my great-grandfathers had already been born before a long, gruesome seige and a grisly genocide was carried out in those environs in broad daylight. I remember the vultures were still all over Delhi more than a century later.

WD's recent article in The Guardian explores similarities between British
thinking in 1857 and widespread present perceptions in the West about the Iraq War. From some perspectives, the similarities are obvious and striking; from others, the similarities are not fully admissible. It is certainly alarming to find that the mainstream press has reactivated the very same language
last used by the British in 1857 to describe the Uprising--- to describe THE IRAQ WAR TODAY.
It is disheartening to see that
in the post-colonial world, complications and spiraling violence can still be as easily provoked and fed upon by occupying forces playing on internecine rivalries. It is unpleasant to remember that the Bush Administration claimed to have received their intelligence about WMD from British sources. It is strange to see Queen Elizabeth, who last visited Washington to bestow an award on George Bush Sr. for planning and executing the first Gulf War, now returning to reinforce the military alliance. Meanwhile, Tony Blair, who should probably, given the current scheme of things, be tried by a kangaroo court and hung up to dry, is being sent off on an international farewell tour instead. One must wonder, are her private assets not yet suitably diversified?
I appreciate and enjoy
The Last Mughal for the depth and decency and richness of its narrative, and will read it many times, but I don't see the point of setting out a new and elaborate defense to counter the British allegations of 150 years ago. The British position, developed to justify deposing the monarch, was that Bahadur Shah Zafar was singularly responsible for fomenting a pan-Islamic rebellion against the British stretching from West Asia across India. Although Saddam Husein might not have been plotting anything like that either, to draw any similarities by implication and suggestion is to stretch facts to fit the polemic. The question that goes unanswered is, did the British deserve it then, and have we and anyone else done anything to deserve it now? There is no question that the movements of 1857 included Muslim jihadis, as did others that came before in the multitude of violent eruptions that represented efforts to rid the Subcontinent of the British occupation. Surely the more important point is that these populist, pan-Indian movements brought about consensus across religious and cultural lines about British wrongdoing, and eventually gave birth to cooperative, sustained resistance, rather than belonging to or advocating for any religion. Today's popular resistances in West Asia carry forward a different set of historical grievances and cultural motifs, although they may one day coalesce and draw a motley set of movements together so that even Sunni and Shia will come to terms.

WD either avoids or misses a key opportunity to emphasize the crossover nature of the Uprising: When the sipahis call Zafar "Prithviraj," WD
offers a literal translation, i.e., Ruler of the World. If this had been their intention, the sipahis might have called him Shah Jehan IV. Zafar was more Rajput than Timurid by blood, though he was
also considered a Sufi pir, so the the sepahis were more likely referring to the heroic and legendary 12th Century Rajput emperor, Prithviraj Chauhan III, the last Hindu monarch to be seated at Delhi. But of course, at 82 years of age, though he might be the rightful emperor, Zafar could be no Prithviraj. WD suggests that if Zafar had led the charge to defend Delhi while the defense was on an upswing, he might have reversed the course of history. But at that point in the book, WD has already established that the aged cultural and spiritual leader was far too physically feeble to do anything of the kind. Except the occasional nut job, most European monarchs were by then pretty far distanced from being military leaders, and even if Zafar hadn't been as ancient and scholarly as he really was, his assuming military command would probably have been about as useful as having the present-day water colorist and gardener, Prince Charles, lead a mounted cavalry charge-- or for that matter, as helpful as planting Prince Harry in a foxhole in Baghdad.

in 1885

In any event, the proposition that the Uprising was a religious war seems unnecessarily polite. In its bloodiness, both sides seem to have been, rather, engaged in an out and out race conflict, with everybody shouting ethnic slurs and racist epithets--one side yelling, "Kafir!" and "Mlechha!" and the other roaring back, "Pandy!" The ancient word, "mlechha," incorrectly translated in the text as "foreign barbarians," is not included in the glossary. The unsatisfactory wiki-definition wanders into archaeological matters in an obsolete and incorrect direction, but a site I found provides a definition closest to my understanding of the word. Consonant with its rude sound, and more likely in the context in which it's mentioned, "mlechha" denotes a person or a people belonging to a designated Fifth Estate, beyond the first four, that is, priests, warriors, merchants, and tillers of the earth. This archaic Fifth Estate comprised outsiders who disregarded rules of both ethics and hygiene. What could be more racist than that? There can be no doubt that the British reprisal was racist in nature, and not religious at all, even for the brief period when British-led Sikh troops occupied the Jama Masjid. A source of religious conflict like this present day anger against coerced conversion, and a concomitant effort to halt it-- livid as it may be, is a far cry from the blazing rage of the Uprising. Neither was it a martial contest for possession of a religious site. If religion itself were the underlying issue, Colonel Skinner's ST. JAMES CHURCH and any other churches within the walls of Shahjahanabad/Delhi would certainly have been demolished first, early in the game. But this was a contest for Shah Jehan's Red Fort and walled city, for the symbol of the Indian Empire of the Great Mughals, for which the British had, as it were, set their collective cap! My suspicion is that during the Uprising, religion served, more than anything else, as a clearly evident badge of loyalty. Preserving Indian religions and protecting the right to practice them was certainly a call to action that all classes could heed. Asserting those rights, however, could not have been more than an expedient means to putting an end to several aspects of social engineering the British had been engaging in on the way to seizing land and resources.

One especially aggravating piece of British social engineering that had been going on for nearly a decade at the time of the Uprising was a series of annexations of entire principalities and kingdoms under the Doctrine of Lapse, a policy devised by the Lord Dalhousie of the day, who was created a Marquess for his many pains. This unilateral initiative gave the East India Company leave to seize any principality or kingdom where the succession had to be arranged according to Indian law and customary adoption, or where the rulers were judged to be incompetent --by EIC officers. This doctrine enabled a sharp acceleration of, and in terms of scale,
a leap beyond the earlier established British practice of foreclosing on landed estates in a creative manner, by claiming for steeply escalated and therefore unpayable and unpaid taxes. This systematized robbery had been going on since the Mughal emperor Shah Alam had granted the East India Company the diwani (right to collect revenue) of all of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa as well as the upper Gangetic valley, in 1765 -- in return for an annual tribute of a mere 2.6 million rupees, which Warren Hastings stopped paying after 1772, probably to line his own pocket. This so-called firman was in any case actually wrested from Shah Alam after the Battle of Buxar and the Battle of Plassey (or actually, Polashi) had made a de facto British puppet of him. By then, the Mughal dynasty was already eleven reigns into its decline. The formality only confirmed what had already happened, officially elevating the EIC from the tax exempt coastal trading entity it had earlier become by virtue of the firman of 1717, bestowed on them by the inguinally challenged emperor Farukhsiyar. Permission to buy 38 villages had certainly a disproportionate gift, made in gratitude for deft surgical treatment by one William Hamilton in the EIC party. But in 1765, instead of being tax exempt, the EIC became a virtual nizam -- out and about, collecting taxes, seeing and being seen, and handling imperial revenues as if they were private and personal cash in hand.

Certainly, the granddaddy of all the unilateral initiatives launched on an unsuspecting world, which gave rise to so much of what Jan Morris has called "tchootzpah" would have to be the
Royal Charter that created the EIC in the first place. That strange firman conferred legal authority on the EIC in territories where the British Crown had no sovereign rights or authority to start with, making its officers answerable to nobody in the theater of operation, and only a wee bit responsible to that distant Crown-- so long as the spooky feeling lasted. As a direct descendant of that cheeky Royal Charter from that other Elizabeth, Dalhousie's Doctrine was as bald a pretext for seizing land and resources as any invented ever since-- as unilaterally imposed, heedlessly arrogant and provocative as the Bush Doctrine is today. I'm still wondering where he got it from.

How would the Doctrine of Lapse have applied, say, to George III's family? When the Prince Regent's only child died in childbirth in 1817, the King himself was cuckoo in his old age. According to Lytton Strachey, the Prince Regent was too fat to father another child. There had not been a single legitimate child born to the six royal dukes, one of whom was a murderer, another a transvestite, a third living in a menagerie. Of the King's five daughters who had survived into middle age, every single one was either barren or unmarried. It took nearly two years to arrange a marriage for the cosily unmarried Duke of Kent with yet another German cousin, and to produce Princess Victoria. Had this happened in India during Dalhousie's tenure, the kingdom would have been annexed in a flash!

Instead, in just the same manner as the sepahis sought out Zafar after their massacres of the British in and around their cantonments, the British, whose ideas of statehood and sovreignty were apparently still vested in their monarch, did exactly the same thing after carrying out their genocidal reprisal. One of the Delhi coterie, who enjoys a starring role in
The Last Mughal, wrote that her husband had taken or "bought" (from whom?) what they decided must be Bahadur Shah Zafar's crown, taken it to Queen Victoria right after the collapse of Delhi and sold it to her for five hundred pounds. The 38 year old Queen quibbled over two chairs that she said ought to come with the headdress. In 1858, Lord Canning completed the gesture by proclaiming Victoria's assumption of sovereignty over all the East India Company's possessions, although this could have been The John Company's way of avoiding multiple charges against its officers and other kinds of challenges. Twenty years would pass before things settled down enough for Queen Victoria to "graciously" assume the title of Empress of India. and pass it down for three more generations to women of decreasing grandeur.

About the sipahis' and jehadis' killing of "innocent women and children," I think even very spoiled children should be regarded as innocent, but in the unfolding system of apartheid, women could not have been considered innocent, if only because their presence as breeders and their assertions of superiority were absolutely necessary for its implementation, a circumstance they were aware of and happy to act upon. If some ignorant slut, as quoted in WD's book, was able to address the deposed emperor not only in proudly broken Hindustani, but as rudely as she righteously claimed to have done, she must have had quite a bit of practice elsewhere. This revelation sent me to to my bookshelf to take another look at a strange volume I bought years ago called The Golden Calm. It's still in print and a lot of it must be read with a magnifying glass because of the low contrast between the faithfully reproduced yellowed pages and faded ink. It centers on the same crowd in Delhi as The Last Mughal, and makes available Thomas Metcalfe's commissioned paintings of the city and his eldest daughter's diary, interspersed with a rambling commentary from the insufferable, late 20th century colonial memoirist, M.M. Kaye. Careful inspection reveals much about Emily Metcalfe's style and circumstances-- an unselfconscious charm, to be sure; the mild trials of being farmed out to relatives in England in order to stay English; the collaborative efforts of colonial families in support of the Empire; slightly simpering racism about mixed blood within colonial ranks; complete ignorance of Indian people and society other than servants; a tendency to conflate quotidian familiarity with England with an education; and a warped sense of scale. This last is only to be expected of a young woman whose uncle, Charles Metcalfe, was able to declare English the official language in a place where, to stretch this estimate to its outer limits, English-speaking people comprised something below four percent of the population. Emily returned to India twenty years after Thomas B. Macaulay had delivered his appalling Minute, which turned education across India into a travesty for the next hundred years and more, and just over thirty years since the Scotsman David Ochterlony (at center, left) was in the habit of processing through the streets of Delhi with his thirteen Indian wives mounted on as many elephants-- something he could never have gotten away with in his native Boston. Emily Metcalfe's unmarried uncle and widowed father had been accustomed to livin' large themselves, so all the careful work of many guardians during her years spent in England as a relatively ordinary little girl must have been quickly undone.

In The Last Mughal, WD says the second Thomas Metcalfe was poisoned, according to contemporary reports, by the ranking queen, Zinat Mahal, who was motivated to do this because Metcalfe, as British Resident at Delhi, was supervising an intrigue to ensure the succession of an heir to the throne other than her son. I would say Metcalfe had no business doing any such thing at any time, and even less by means of trading a promise to enthrone the less favored son on condition that he hand over the palace to the British and go live in the 'burbs. Of course, the British painted Zinat Mahal as a shrew, but it's quite possible she was not the one they were looking for anyway. For there were other actors to consider, most of them unintentionally made accessible by M.M. Kaye. The first Thomas Metcalfe had been a major in the Bengal Army of the EIC, and later made his fortune as a Director of the EIC, upon which he was created a baronet, and purchased a suitable property in Berkshire called Fernhill Park, to serve as the family estate. Emily's uncle, Charles, the first born son, was eventually created Lord Metcalfe for his services as Governor-General of India, Jamaica and Canada, but died without an heir (as his three half Sikh sons didn't seem to count) from skin cancer, no doubt as a result of going out too much in the midday sun, so Fernhill passed and the baronetcy reverted to Emily's father. Thomas Metcalfe was by then living more or less after the ducal manner in Delhi, though without any commensurate ties to the land. If the floor plans are accurate and drawn to scale, Metcalfe House, his personal property in Delhi, featured a Palladian villa spread out over 22,000 sq feet of marble-floored and vaulted interior space above ground, housing extensive collections of Napoleonic memorabilia and a great deal of statuary, a huge library and "costly" Georgian furniture and paintings. A colonnaded veranda thirty feet wide with marble pillars ran the perimeter of the entire house, and even more finished space below grade, furnished with skylights, provided cooled reception rooms for use during the heat of summer. It was set in a thousand acre park, with pools and orchard groves and avenues looked after by over a hundred and fifty servants, including a series of ten people to say farewell to the master at the porte-cochère of a morning. In addition, he had made himself an exurban retreat near the Qutb Minar, by converting the interior of a family tomb and mausoleum belonging to a Mughal clan for his own residential use. This family had owed money to the British-run Delhi Bank-- and it takes no great leap of the imagination to figure out that it was probably a debt accumulated METCALFE HOUSE AFTER SEIGE AND BEFORE RESTORATION
for back taxes imposed by the British revenue collectors somewhere down the line. M.M. Kaye has rude things to say about that family's history, which predate her ability to verify or garner first hand information about anything she has to say by several centuries, so it seems Metcalfe had been spreading slander to cover his tracks, as bullies everywhere tend to do. So, although he was only working a 25 hour week, and his main business, apart from studying the culture, was to run, conduct and oversee interference in the royal succession at Delhi, there was certainly at least one other Mughal family who might well have wanted to have him poisoned.

What, after all, is the point of patronizing the arts and living in a new place to grow rich while at the same time arranging to tear apart the very fabric of the society that produces those arts and the economy that yields that wealth? One cannot deliberately expose other people to disaster without bringing on some of that risk and danger down upon oneself.

It was this skewed sense of scale and entitlement through which much that was Indian came to be belittled. The Himalayas were referred to as "the hills," while areas of India the size of France came
to be known as "provinces." Indian languages were called dialects, and kings were demoted to stand guard as imperial nobles. Even the Koh-i-Noor diamond was cut way down to size, from 186.0625 carats to its present 105.602 carats, to increase its "brilliance," the better for philistines to admire it, and probably yielding many a major gem from the shavings, proudly worn on pinkie fingers across the land.

With royalty becoming nobility, and even being referred to as "Native Chiefs," the aristocracy and gentry became middle class (e.g., Mahatma Gandhi's forbears had served as prime ministers of a principality called
Porbander, with an important port and a long history, which was two thirds the size of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, but he was identified as middle class). Landless families and skilled craftsmen were reduced to subsistence farming and working as household servants for the new rich, as indigenous industries failed.

Meanwhile, the downpour of loot and wealth into Britain was torrential and the British in India started staging court rituals
in Mughal style at the grounds of the Red Fort, replete with so-called State Balls, given ostentatiously in the palace at the Hall of Private Audience--for their own monarchs, keenly wishing them to attend. These strange people took umbrage at any late breaches of 17th century etiquette, even from a ruler of highest rank, who had attended the fake durbars in
1877, 1903, and 1911, and on the third round, decided to go with modern clothes and modern manners. Victoria and her descendants, while seeming to want no part of it, eventually succumbed to the invitations and appeared for the first time the very year of that supposed outrage-- for apart from everything else, within the two generations it took them to accept the invitation, the nine children of Queen Victoria and her own first cousin Prince Albert, so advantageously positioned by their extraordinary national fortune, had all married so brilliantly that the heads of Europe's most prominent royal houses were all first cousins--and set to dominate the sub-caste of German princes and princelings who populate the royal lines of Europe for the long term.

Even today, it is only the hippest of the hip in the West who know to address a maharani correctly.

Forty years later,
John William Kaye and J.B. Malleson published the British version of events, a six volume work called "History of the Sepoy War." Fifty two years later, in 1909, Hindutva founder Vir Savarkar published "The Indian War of Independence" in praise of the Uprising as a Hindu initiative. British authorities banned the book immediately. One hundred years later, on May 11, 1957, observance of the centennial was fairly muted; a simple ceremony was held at Rashtrapati Bhavan, a number of scholarly studies written by Indian historians were published, and the special flag of the 1857 revolutionaries — a green flag with a golden sun — was unfurled beside the national tricolor. I can't find any record online of anything anyone from Britain had to say that year.

This year, 30,000 youths marched from Meerut to Delhi, to mark the 150th anniversary of the journey of the three hundred sipahis who left Meerut for Delhi on May 10, 1857, arriving at the fortified Mughal capital of Shajanabad at Delhi on May 11, 1857, to ask Bahadur Shah Jafar to assume leadership of their movement to overthrow the British. This year, despite quarrels about food, they arrived to find vigorous celebrations at The Red Fort, choreographed by Rajeev Sethi . The BBC covered the 2007 sesquicentennial celebration (see Prime Minister's Address), added a remark or two about Britain being portrayed as a ghoul and provided a link to an earlier online dialogue among Britons about the need to start giving courses in the History of the British Empire in British schools, to reassess what had been done well and what was done badly --as if they're planning to do it again...
Historical atlas of the rise and decline of the Mughal Empire

Historical atlas of the British Occupation of India

Sam Sloan's Big Combined Family Trees-- the Mughal Section




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