Thursday, December 23, 2010

Jewel Box of Agra

These were not painted on paper or cloth….these intricate patterns were not designed in computer – all these were crafted in stone some 400 years back. Welcome to the stunning jewel box of Agra, welcome to Itimad-ud-daula, which you ignored last time you went to the erstwhile Mughal capital. Completed approximately three decades before the greatest monument of love, the tomb of Itimad-ud-daula is a breath- taking tribute to the first family of Mughal servants. And it was erected by the most famous lady in the history of Mughal dynasty – Nur Jahan. It stands as a testimony to the family’s standing and also as a turning point in the evolution of Mughal architecture, which culminates at Taj, hardly a few miles away on the other bank of the river Yamuna. Hidden behind these incredibly beautiful designs are unseen forces of this subcontinent’s history and an unparallel story of love and intrigue.
The story starts with an Iranian nobleman Khwaja Ghiyas Beg, who came to India on a fortune hunt. Ghiyas Beg’s father was a prime minister at Khorasan but cruel turn of fate forced him to abandon his homeland and flee towards the Mughal court in search of employment. His daughter Mehrunissa was born at a particularly difficult period during the arduous journey near Kandahar (1577). Her parents – under dire clutches of circumstance – were forced to abandon the baby. A caravan of merchants coming behind them picked up the girl child and handed over to the distraught couple a few days later. It was the leader of that caravan, who took Ghiyas Beg under his care and introduced him at the court of Akbar. By dint of his sheer hard work and talent Khwaja Ghiyas Beg and then his son Asaf Khan rose very fast through the rank of Imperial hierarchy. In 1605, Ghiyas beg was given the title of Itimad-ud-daula (Pillar of the State) and promoted to the post of diwan by Jahangir. Meanwhile, at the age of 17, Mehrunissa was married to a middling Iranian noble Ali Quli Istajlu, Sher Afghan (reportedly the match was arranged by Akbar himself). Everyone at the darbar was much impressed with the sophistication and taste of this highly educated Iranian family but the real turn in family’s fortune came through this daughter.

In 1611, Emperor Jahangir fell in love with     Meherunissa – then a widow of around 35 – and immediately married her (Meherunissa became Jahangir’s 20th wife). Soon her father (who was recently caught in a bribery scam and also arrested for alleged links with Khusru) was made the Diwan and brother Asaf Khan was made Mir Bakshi (Imperial Pay master); Nur Jahan’s extended family also held the governorship in 7 out of 12 provinces– this concentration of power in the hands of a single family was not only unprecedented but also would not be replicated till the dying days of the Empire. Meherunissa accompanied Emperor Jahangir everywhere and was equally adept in horse riding and big game hunting apart from her highly sophisticated taste in culture. Jahangir (whose formal name was Nur-uddin) renamed her Nur Mahal (Light of the Palace) and then Nur Jahan (Light of the Universe) – the name in which she was to become famous for posterity.

Nur Jahan’s daughter from her first marriage Ladli Begum was married to Jahangir’s son (from a concubine) Shahryar. Asaf Khan’s daughter Arjumand Bano Begum (future Mumtaj Mahal) was married to the most powerful of Jahangir’s sons, Prince Khurram. It has been alleged that this Nur Jahan Junta (Itimad-ud-daula, Asaf Khan, Khurram along with Nur Jahan) actually used to run the empire even as Jahangir went on increasing his daily intake of opium. Symbolically, the apogee came when Nur Jahan was portrayed alongside Jahangir in imperial gold coin (only instance during the entire Mughal history), implying that she was no longer a mere consort but a co-ruler.
Nur Jahan started building the tomb of her father in 1622 at the height of her power and it was completed in 1628, shortly after Jahangir’s death and Nur Jahan’s fall from power. It represents a great transition in Mughal architecture from its first to second phase. From pre-Akbar days, Mughal buildings - both public and military buildings (like mosque or fort) and funerary buildings (more personal) were built in red sandstone. From the days of Humayun’s tomb (built by Humayun’s sister Gulbadan Begum), Mughal artisans specialized in marble inlay within sandstone panel. But it was at itimad-ud-daula, we see for the first time a complete mausoleum made of marble. Itimad-ud-daula is also significant for two more architectural trends, seen for the first time in Mughal buildings – pietra dura or large scale stone inlay using precious and semi-precious stones and chiaroscuro or the use of light and shadow technique.

           The tomb, which actually houses not only the mortal remains of Itimad-ud-daula but also his wife Asmat Begum and some of the other members of Nur Jahan’s family, including her daughter Ladli begum (also named Meherunissa). Situated on a rectangular plot right on the banks of the river, the complex has four huge gates, built of red sand stone but decorated with marble inlays much like Humayun’s tomb or Sikandra. Inside, the rectangular marble mausoleum is set amidst lush green Mughal cheher bagh. It is a single story structure with four minarets. But the base of the monument is still in sand stone. Perhaps it was kept lower deliberately – they were Royal servants but not the Imperial family. Someone like Nur Jahan would have been acutely aware of this difference in status.

Even though at times it is called the baby Taj but what it lacks most is the symmetry of Taj. Over the structure’s flat roof rises a beautiful cupola, topped with foliated lotus like design. Inside the main hall lie the sarcophaguses of Nur Jahan’s parents in asymmetrical fashion. In rooms around the main hall other mazars are scattered (Nur Jahan herself is buried in a simple mausoleum at Shahdara Bagh in Lahore, next to Jahangir’s final resting place). The entire structure sits like a jewel box. Every side of the structure has three arched doorways with the middle one being the actual door. But the most impressive and elegant craftsmanship is to be seen on the panels and floors of the mausoleum.
Pietra dura – which originated in the Roman Empire and flourished in Italian cities like Florence in the 16th century, has sometimes been described as pittura per l’eternita or painting for eternity. It surely describes the panels and floors of Itimad-ud-daula best.  But the central Asian or Iranian stone inlay work was somewhat different from the European tradition as could be seen from the stunning Lotfallah mosque or other buildings at Nasq-e-Jahan square  at new Safavid capital Isfahan(built in late 16th century). Surely the craftsmen for Itimad-ud-daula came from outside India. The family’s Persian connection was perhaps directly responsible for that. Mughals began like titans and finished like jewelers – this is an oft-quoted statement, but the finish would not have come without the infusion of this Persian sophistication.

The other design trait or using extensive stone jali (screen) also started with this tomb. Inside the mausoleum, as the sunlight seeps in intricate pattern through this beautifully carved screens and falls on tiles of geometric design, it creates a serenely different world altogether. Both the craft heritage of pietra dura and chiaroscuro would be carried much further in Taj and royal buildings inside Lal Quilla and Agra Fort during Shah Jahan (Prince Khurram)’s time. His master builders had more confidence in using marble for the entire building, even at the base. But the sheer elegance of this first experiment provides the most beautiful interlude in the annals of Mughal architecture.
Eventually Khurram and Nur Jahan fell over and Khurram rebelled against his own father. Even though the rebellion was controlled, Jahangir died in 1627 and Khurram – with the help of his father-in-law and Nur Jahan’s brother Asaf Khan – easily triumphed over Nur Jahan’s choice Shahryar (her son-in-law). But the former partners reached an agreement. Nur Jahan withdrew from public life, dedicated herself to building the mausoleum at Lahore and to the art of perfumery, which she learned from her mother (according to Indian tradition, it was her mother, who invented rose ittar). Even amidst the clutter and congestion of today’s Agra once you are inside Itimad-ud-daula complex, the fragrance of her taste wafts through the morning mist set over the dying river.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Freddie n' Rohit

1st December is World’s AIDS day and a release by UNAIDS on this occasion strangely brought to my mind images of two odd-ball icons of our teenage years. New cases of HIV infections have come down by 50% in India between in last one decade (2000-2009) – this is very much in line with other HIV/AIDS hotspots around the world, like most parts of Africa. This is mainly due to increased awareness about this deadly disease. First documented death from HIV/AIDS was that of Robert R – an Afro-American teenager, whose death in 1969 baffled doctors as AIDS was not ‘discovered’ until 1981. But the first time American public came to know about the disease is actually when Rock Hudson became the first celebrity to openly acknowledge it shortly before his death in 1985. Death or infection of a few more celebrities made Americans more conscious about various methods, through which this disease can spread. For instance it was the shocking announcement that their famous basketball star Magic Johnson has been diagnosed with HIV made a whole lot of people aware that HIV may be contracted due to multiple heterosexual partners also (up until then it was thought to be spread only through homosexuals). At the same time Magic Johnson’s heroic battle against HIV/AIDS helped spread the message that HIV could be successfully combated.
In India of early 1990s, AIDS was still a taboo subject to be mentioned in general newspapers or magazines let alone in family dinner table. Infections and subsequent death of two very odd-ball Indian celebrities from AIDS forced the mainstream media to at least mention it. I keep on saying odd-ball because we do not have much right to claim Freddie Mercury (1946-1991) - as an Indian celebrity and I doubt, how many Indians have actually heard of the other celebrity victim - Rohit Khosla (1958-1994). First time I learned that AIDS is a deadly disease and there is no cure for it is when I read that Freddie Mercury’s death (he acknowledged it only a day before his death that he had AIDS). I am never a regular music buff and my knowledge of all genres of music is very limited. But as a Bengali in Calcutta one is bound to be surrounded by all types of music aficionados and it is this passive listening which made me aware of Freddie Mercury’s existence as one of the leading rock stars of that time (he continues to be rated as one of the greatest singers ever even 20 years after his death).
Freddie Mercury was born Farokh Balsara in Zanzibar in a Parsi family from Balsar(Valsad), Gujarat. He spent his early years in Panchgani, where he studied in a boarding school and Bombay. When his family shifted to England, young Farokh at the age of 17, also joined them. For the rest of his life he remained a British citizen. A singer and musician since his school days, Farokh – who liked to be known as Freddie – became famous when he formed the band Queen with Brian May and Roger Taylor in 1970. It was then he changed his name from Freddie Balsara to Freddie Mercury. As the song writer and lead vocalist for Queen, Freddie became world famous. I did not know about his flamboyant stage performance then but what we all knew were his super hit songs like Bohemian Rhapsody, Little Thing Called Love and We Are The Champions. Later on I learned that Freddie Mercury was bisexual – don’t remember that being mentioned in newspapers and magazines I used to read. I also learned that not only for me or my friends, in the global history of AIDS awareness Freddie Mercury’s death was an important event as he was the first rock star to have died of AIDS.
               Today’s generation will laugh at us but as teenagers we were greatly excited when a second channel of Doordarshan – DD2 or DD Metro was launched in late 1980s. There used to be a programme on fashion once a week around 7.30 PM in DD Metro– unfortunately I have forgotten the name of the programme - which much like Pop Time (Sunday evening) opened our window to high fashion. A number of fond memories are associated with this programme, not the least of which was seeing Aishwarya Rai as a ramp model in her initial days. It was in this programme I came across Rohit Khosla for the first time.
Rohit Khosla was India’s first fashion designer in the modern sense. He launched India’s first modern fashion store Ensemble (1987) along with Tarun Tahiliani and a few others and they were the first to launch their own names as a brand. Before them there were costume designers or anonymous shop-owner-tailor designers but haute couture had to wait till Rohit Khosla came back to India from the UK in mid-1980s. I hardly know anything about Rohit Khosla’s personal life apart from the fact that he studied at Doon School and went abroad for further study and a possible career there. As he told an interviewer in that programme, when he launched his fashion label the most frequent reaction from people used to be, ‘see this guy, he went to Doon School and abroad only to become a tailor!!’ Today as I search internet there is hardly any information on the life on India’s first fashion designer – there is a book by his sister, ‘Rohit Khosla, Vanguard’ – but the book is apparently not very easy to find. Not only he was a pioneer in terms of launching his own label, he also nurtured at least two generations of Indian fashion designers – Ensemble launched Tarun and Sal Tahiliani, Amaya, Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla. First batch of NIFT graduates also trained under him and the list includes, among others J J Valaya, Ranna Gill, Sonam Dobal, Aparna Chandra. As I said I don’t know anything about his personal life but I was stunned to know that he was dying of AIDS. There was hardly any detail or discussion about it. Rohit Khosla passed away in 1994.
     Today a lot more people know about the disease and that has brought down the rate of infection – surely it is healthy sign and a tribute to NACO. But I cannot help thinking that had our media and society been open enough discussing these unfortunate deaths then Indians would have come to know the reality faster – much like what happened to Americans following the demise of legendary stars like Hudson or Arthur Ash or detection of Magic Johnson.
In 2007, India Fashion Week paid a tribute to Rohit Khosla. One of Rohit’s favourite models, Nafisa Ali – who famously modeled for his posthumous collection with a shaven head – today runs a home for HIV/AIDS affected people and she, according to her own admission, was moved by the memory of Rohit. Remaining members of Queen founded a trust in Freddie Mercury’s memory – Mercury Phoenix Trust - which has raised millions of dollars for AIDS charity.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Memories Metaphor and Modern India

Nearly three decades (Published 1983) after its first publications, Sumit Sarkar’s Modern India remains the best summary of the most tumultuous period of Indian History (1885-1947).  Formal students of History have spent countless hours guided by this masterful survey of Indian nation and nationalism; non-History students preparing for Civil Service or other exams, on the other hand, grumbled about this “difficult” book. But both the parties did not have any other option. Well, there are options – and one of the most recent of them, Sekhar Bandopadhyay is quite good – but then, if you want to understand the complexities of Modern India (today it seems more like Emergence of Modern India) Sumit Sarkar is irreplaceable.
Sumit Sarkar was born in an illustrious Brahmo family of Calcutta in 1939. His father Susobhan Sarkar was a legendary Professor of History at Presidency College. Prof Sarkar was also one of the leading lights of Santiniketan under Rabindranath and played an important part in spread of communist thoughts. Sumit’s maternal uncle was P C Mahalanobis. Sumit Sarkar’s sister Sipra has been a renowned Professor of History at Jadavpur University.  He studied at St Xavier School, Presidency College and Calcutta University. His doctoral thesis on Swadeshi Bengal was his first major research work. He taught at Calcutta and Burdwan University before moving to Delhi University in 1976. His wife Tanika (daughter of another famous Presidency Professor Amal Bhattacharya of English Department and Sanskrit scholar Sukumari Bhattacharya) is also a well known historian – in fact Modern India is dedicated to Tanika. Marxist thoughts had a deep impact on Sumit Sarkar and he was one of the founders of subaltern studies, who later mourned the decline of subaltern in subaltern studies. He has written extensively on politics, society and historiography of modern India. But his most famous work has been Modern India.
I have spent many a lazy afternoon and warm midnight with Modern India. I am – like million others – sort of addicted to it. Once in a while, I like to open the book and read about a particular movement or a particular incident – almost every time I realize the value of a particular information or analysis all over again. I do not think it is an easy book for any student. He writes very long sentences with hyphen, comma and semicolon holding multiple pieces of information together. His analysis presupposes a certain degree of familiarity with historiography of modern India and at times with British or World History. Yet the more you read more you get drawn into it. Long after your examinations are over and you try to teach or talk or write about any particular phase, you realize you are unknowingly following Sumit Sarkar’s scheme of presentation. I suppose that is what happens with most of the college and university teachers across the country.
From the point of view of a professional historian there may be a number of problems with the book. Today, in certain aspects, it has become dated as well. Perhaps the most important of all, the inelastic boundary of Modern India – 1885-1947 – today appears unacceptable. I have always wondered why Sumit Sarkar never thought of writing a second volume of his Magnum Opus. But today my growing unease about “Modern India” is not so much on account of its time period but for its near complete focus on the Political part of Modern India. Agreed, that Sumit Sarkar made a significant departure from personality-centred history of high politics, yet, the main focus is on how political consciousness spread to different geographies and social layers, ultimately culminating in partition and independence.
Once upon a time, economic history of India was a craze among the brightest of research scholars. Unfortunately not only it has lost its glamour for researchers, graduation student is also still stuck at old notions of one dimensional Drain of Wealth or how commercialization of agriculture impoverished Indian peasantry. Recent researches (of last three decades at least) into regional variation of agrarian economy, small-scale industry and entrepreneurship have gone totally unnoticed. As a result, the obvious linkages between economic development and political movement – particularly at regional level – are not visible. A good point to start here could be Tirthankar Roy’s Economic History of India.
In last two decades or so, Social and Cultural history has, on the other hand, generated a tremendous interest among scholars, journalists and performers. Some of the greatest themes of Indian history during this time period – emancipation of women, emergence of middle class, caste mobility, mass entertainment - definitely fall into the realm of socio-cultural history. I have seen interesting books/ write-ups on various aspects of socio-cultural history but cannot think of a single volume survey or general introduction. The volume edited by Prof Dilip Menon may be taken as an interesting introduction to socio-cultural stirrings of this period but it is not comprehensive in its scope.
How long is it going to take for a new Modern India to be written with equal emphasis on political, economic and socio-cultural developments? That cannot totally replace Sumit Sarkar but will definitely produce a more comprehensive picture of how modern India took shape and will be far more interesting to general students. Again teachers in India stubbornly refuse to make History teaching a more multidimensional experience. Why can’t we prescribe a few novels and autobiographies as part of our modern India syllabus? Movies and digital photo archives can provide another wonderful medium to connect History with today’s generation.
I like to read whatever I can lay my hands on - novels, autobiographies or watch movies or exhibitions – but finally it is Modern India, which helps me to link my new piece of information with the grand narrative. These days often I feel social mobility or cultural movements are inadequately covered but still the voice of gentle Professor remains my best guide. It never occurred to me that I have not been his direct student.