(My column in Mint Lounge, July 14 2018)


In June 1954, Jawaharlal Nehru received an unusual petition signed by 13,000 housewives in Delhi warning him of a creeping public calamity. There was, the aggrieved ladies argued, a grave threat to the “moral health of the country”, one that had become a “major factor in incitement to crime and general unsettlement of society”. The children of India, they explained, were finding themselves susceptible to all kinds of absurd notions, not least of which was the kind of sexual awakening that still makes many an Indian mother restless. Something had to be done to curb such naked evil, and the prime minister was the only man who could assuage their fears. It was to him, then, that they looked to rein in the medium responsible for this imminent disaster, and he would, they hoped, be the voice of moral correctness in this age of immorality. As for the enemy medium—it was that odious, dangerous thing shrouded in an innocent name: cinema.

Cinema, like most new things in a society suspicious of all new things, had had a long, troubled existence in this land where piety often cloaks hypocrisy. It was in July 1896 that the Lumiere Brothers first brought this “miracle of the century” to Mumbai, introducing to Indian audiences the motion picture. Feature films arrived soon after, with Raja Harishchandra (1913) marking the birth of our film industry. By the time the 13,000 Delhi housewives knocked on Nehru’s door, India was already the second largest global producer of films, making two-thirds the number of movies as the US, twice as many as Japan and five times more than Italy—Britain had been left far behind as early as 1925. By then, India had over 2,000 screens, selling 250 million tickets annually, and while Mahatma Gandhi in his lifetime bothered to watch only one film, Nehru was a little more encouraging about cinema and its place in modern India.

This was not, however, a free pass for film-makers to do as they pleased. Like the bureaucracy, the English language, cricket and tea, independent India also inherited from the British a great fondness for censorship—the only difference being that the latter were more honest about why they imposed it. Before laws were passed in 1918 and 1920, establishing regional censor boards, films fell under the purview of a variety of rules. When electric lights were used for projection, for instance, the state insisted on the right to regulate the business under the Indian Electricity Act of 1910. But once the censor boards were constituted, the process of preserving imperial interests became a little more streamlined. Anything that came out of America, talking such subversion as democracy, was suspect; everything that came from the Soviet Union, talking communism, was banned; and the faintest whiff of nationalist sentiment provoked earthquakes of governmental horror.

Of course, this did not stop Indians from trying. The 1921 film Bhakta Vidurtried to pass itself off as an innocent story about a character from the Mahabharat. It did not take censors long to notice the resemblance to a certain South Africa-returned Indian: He wore the Gandhi cap, had a charkha, and told peasants they needn’t feel awkward about denying taxes to the state. Understandably, Bhakta Vidur was banned. Then there was another British preoccupation in preventing the screening of Western films in India which might, as the chairman of a 1927 committee noted, “lower the prestige of the Westerner in the East”. After all, how could the white man civilize the barbaric Asiatic, if the Asiatic saw on the movie screen that whites were also mere mortals?

With independence in 1947, however, Indians now ruled over Indians—and having acquired power, giving up its instruments was not a particularly appealing proposition. Speeches were delivered on free expression and assorted principles, but the appetite to censor grew. In the five years before 1948, censors in Mumbai had ordered cuts in a total of 705 films; now, in the first half of 1949 alone, they demanded changes in 242 cases. The Bengal authorities were proudly puritanical, rejecting films as “repulsive” or “distasteful”—a more moralistic tone compared to 1931, when the British banned a film calling it, more bluntly, “stupid”. The government of independent India also decided to create a central board of censors, and by 1960 there were more rules to guide Indian cinema away from touchy areas.

“No picture shall be certified for public exhibition,” the information and broadcasting ministry commanded that year, “which will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” Films that lowered “the sacredness of the institution of marriage” were disallowed, and characters with “indecorous or sensuous posture” could also invite a ban. In keeping with the sarkari love for detail, anything affecting “the confidence of a child in its parents” was also liable for censorship. Then there was a whole category of films whose fate was decided on the basis of agitation. The Loves Of Carmen (1948), for instance, was banned because its star, Rita Hayworth, had married the son of the Aga Khan—some self-consciously pious characters thundered that the daughter-in-law of a Muslim grandee could never be allowed to entertain hordes of strange people in the audience.

Squashed between bureaucratic pomposity and public melodrama, meanwhile, cinema itself suffered. As the film historian Theodore Bhaskaran writes, “hemmed in on all sides by sensitive areas of endless variety”, cinema often got stuck in a time warp. And since anything interesting brought down the wrath, either of the state or howling mobs or both, many film-makers fell back on a song-and-dance formula that upset nobody—a tradition still in vogue, depicting not so much reality as much as an “escape” from it, helping also its producers to minimize the snipping of the self-righteous censor.

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 07 2018)


In 1902, when the celebrated painter Raja Ravi Varma arrived in Hyderabad, he did not quite visualize himself queuing like a supplicant in a private house, hoping to win the attention of the reigning nizam. He had come at the invitation of another illustrious figure of his day, the photographer Raja Deen Dayal, expecting the standard of reception he had grown accustomed to—state carriages, palatial apartments, and a demonstrative overload of honour. The nizam, however, had other preoccupations, and not only did he ignore Varma, when the artist’s works were eventually shown, he refused to buy them; a portrait was sold on the market months later for a few hundred rupees, at a time when Varma commanded several thousand apiece. The episode proved an embarrassment to our glamorous gentleman-artist, and, even before he left Hyderabad, he had broken with Deen Dayal, who, he complained, had not made enough of an effort to help his cause. As his brother diarized, “Deen Dayal and his son…seem to be jealous of us. They feared they won’t get any more orders.”

Raja Deen Dayal—whose death anniversary fell on 5 July—was in some ways a rival to Ravi Varma. As Rupika Chawla writes, this Jain from Sardhana “brought to photography what Ravi Varma brought to paintings—the pomp and grandeur of kings… with the documentation of places and events.” Both had formidable, comparable reputations, even though they worked with different mediums. But while there might have been some competitiveness on account of a common clientele, it was unlikely Deen Dayal had any reason to sabotage Varma’s efforts in Hyderabad. He was secure in his position, had acquired much wealth and fame, and worked with fascinating new technology that had captured the imagination not only of India’s princely set but also the middle classes. More likely, then, as Chawla notes, it was Varma and his brother who felt somewhat insecure, added to which was bewilderment that their reputation had failed to make the slightest dent in India’s proudest royal court.

Interestingly, while the painter came from aristocratic privilege, Deen Dayal was of humbler origins. He was born in 1844, and became a student of engineering. At 22—when Ravi Varma already had a royal patron—Deen Dayal was a public works department employee in Indore. It was in 1874 that he ventured into photography “as an amateur”, supported by the local British resident. He travelled with him, “photographing views, native chiefs, etc, etc”, forming a bond that was maintained by subsequent colonial agents as well—in 1876, he was allowed to turn his lens on the Prince of Wales, and, in 1887, Deen Dayal was granted a royal warrant, becoming “Photographer to Her Majesty the Queen”. Like Ravi Varma, his ascent too was aided by friends in high places, talent, ambition, and perseverance justifying such support. “Having found that the public greatly appreciated my views (i.e. photographs),” he wrote, then, “…I took a furlough for two years in order to complete my series.” It helped, of course, that the ruler of Indore had granted him landed estates—with an assured income, Deen Dayal could focus on his craft.

The two years he spent travelling, photographing grand buildings and grand personages with equal vigour, convinced Deen Dayal that he could become a full-time lensman. It launched him on a career that saw the man and his studios produce an estimated 30,000 photographs, earning him such titles as “Bold Warrior of Photography” from the nizam (which also required him, formally, to keep a cavalry of 2000). It was, in fact, in 1885 that he first came to Hyderabad, a letter of introduction from the British viceroy in his hands. The nizam was enthusiastic, and, before long, Deen Dayal established himself in the cantonment in Secunderabad. It was risky business, for there were several European photographers active there already, but his ability to think outside the box and excel at what he did meant that soon Deen Dayal’s became a fashionable enterprise, employing nearly 50 men (and a woman), and offering visitors a fascinating guide on how to pose called Hints to Sitters.

So, for, instance we have this wisdom on toddlers and their unstately conduct before the camera: “Babies and children,” we learn, “are subjects that require patience, care and attention to obtain a photograph…. Although (they) often occasion much trouble…we make no extra charge.” This was, of course, not generosity born of a sense of commitment to the photography of babies—Deen Dayal’s business was flourishing, and the branch in Bombay was described in 1896 by The Times Of India as “the most splendidly equipped photographic salon in the East”. As Clark Worswick writes, “By the end of the nineteenth century Governors, princes, touring statesmen, all flocked to his Bombay studio to be ‘done’.”

It was much the same with Ravi Varma, whose portraits too were a necessary acquisition for the glamorous—but, like the artist, whose lithographs business quickly folded, by the end of his life Deen Dayal too faced trouble sustaining his empire of black and white pictures. Deen Dayal died in 1905, a year before the artist with whom he had fallen out. His son, Gyan Chand, tried to keep the flame burning, but rising competition and the erosion of royal warmth made matters difficult. When the latter died, thousands of glass-plate negatives were sold as “scrapped, used glass in the local market” in Hyderabad, and it seemed that doom had descended on the house of Deen Dayal & Sons. But despite the unhappy end to their tale, Deen Dayal had made his mark—today there are dozens of studios still thriving in Hyderabad, all of them claiming for themselves the legacy of the old man from Sardhana who first brought a “native” touch to photography in India.

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 30 2018)

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In the late 1970s, the erstwhile royal family of Cochin decided to formally carry out something its princely peers had been doing for years in secret: a sale of its jewels and prized possessions. It wasn’t greed as much as need that drove the proposed auction, for the family had hundreds of members, many of them reduced to a dignified but strained existence. Already by 1949 this dynasty had a total of 223 princes and 231 princesses, and the state was small, without enough funds for royal stipends. When V.P. Menon, who helped Sardar Patel integrate the states, went to Cochin, he was, in fact, alarmed by what he saw. “As I talked with (the family),” he wrote, “I was reminded of an aviary…which possessed a rare collection of birds.” After independence, the “birds” were liberated in the name of “ahimsa”, and “soon devoured by other birds and beasts of prey”. This, he feared, would be the fate of Cochin’s royal denizens, hitherto cocooned from the world, and, as a special consideration therefore, every member of the family then alive was granted a modest pension—one that is still regularly paid.

The sale of family heirlooms, however, was an act of desperation. Times were such that in 1964 even the official residence of the former rulers was shut because the family could not afford to maintain it. Landed estates were divided, and the story goes that even Indira Gandhi, who abolished privy purses in 1971, decided not to interfere with individual allowances after she met a delegation of impoverished royal descendants. But when it came to the sale of dynastic treasures, official attitudes were less generous. A 1975 public auction of furniture saw the authorities swoop in with claims. Where, for instance, a carved wooden elephant had a market price of ₹3 lakh, the state carted it off for ₹7,500. When the turn came to sell the family’s ancestral jewels, therefore, the elders worked with bureaucrats to obtain the necessary approvals. With the sole condition that nothing be carried abroad, permission was granted. And 584 items from the palace treasury, featuring all kinds of riches, were announced by Messrs Murray & Co. in Chennai as available to well-heeled buyers.

In what was indicative of their financial crisis, even the crown of the maharajas of Cochin was put up for sale. With 69 emeralds, 95 diamonds, and 244 rubies set in gold, its story is an encapsulation of the story of Cochin itself. The principality was subject to the Zamorins of Calicut—popular tradition has it that when the Portuguese sailed into the Arabian Sea at the dawn of the 16th century, the Zamorin would not allow Cochin’s rulers to even tile their palace: The princes sat under thatched roofs. But Cochin’s ruler was shrewd. After the Portuguese broke with the Zamorin, he invited them to his territory, and gave them permission to trade, in return for armed protection. The men from the West frequently let his heirs down, but, for the rest of its long existence, Cochin was essentially a European protectorate. After the Portuguese were expelled by the Dutch, it was the latter who assumed real power in Cochin, followed eventually by the English, who brought the state under the umbrella of the Raj, recognizing its good governance by giving it a respectable gun salute.

The crown itself, however, was a present from the Dutch. As such, the kings of Cochin did not wear crowns. Legend has it that after the Zamorin annexed their ancestral seat, the rulers vowed they would keep their heads bare till they reclaimed it; and since they never succeeded in doing that, there was no use for a crown. When the Dutch entered the picture, however, they decided to grant Cochin ritual sovereignty to compete with the Zamorin. An expensive crown was manufactured—with the Dutch East India Company’s emblem engraved, lest the maharajas forget who was really in control—and presented ceremoniously in 1663 to the then ruler. It was accepted with gratitude but still failed to make it to any royal head: Since the maharajas felt obliged to respect their ancestors’ vow, they would not wear it, though, out of deference to their patrons, this heirloom was carried in the lap on state occasions and during elaborate royal processions.

Now, at the end of the 1970s, on the eve of the auction, the government set its eyes on the crown and all else listed with it. In principle the action was justified—valuable antiques could hardly be sold like ordinary goods to the highest bidder. In actual fact, however, the authorities had granted permission till newspaper outrage forced them to sing a new song. When India Today interviewed the head of the family in 1981, he had resignation to offer. “We won’t forsake our basic honour. We would be lowering our dignity if we fought with (the government) over this issue.” It was already bad enough that they had been reduced to putting a price tag on their heritage, and their hope was to do so with a degree of dignity. So dignity is what they got—and a fraction of the actual value of the goods they now lost forever. In that very palace where their ancestors once ruled as kings, the state established a museum, assembling the crown and much else for general edification. And when at a public ceremony the famous crown was formally handed over to a minister, the latter lifted this magnificent object that had never known a princely wearer, and, amidst gasps of royal horror, placed it on his democratically elected head.

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 23 2018)


When, on this day 261 years ago, Robert Clive prevailed at the Battle of Plassey, he secured for himself a place as one of the great villains of Indian history. The wheels were set in motion for what would become British imperium in the East, and, for all its cruel rapacity, even years later Clive saw no reason to regret what he had unleashed. Defending his actions in 1773 in the British parliament, he uttered words which have since become notorious. “Am I not deserving of praise for the moderation which marked my proceedings?” he demanded. “Consider the situation in which victory at Plassey had placed me. A great prince was dependent on my pleasure; an opulent city lay at my mercy…I walked through vaults…piled…with gold and jewels!” exclaimed Clive. “Mr Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation!”

One might have sympathized with the man’s stream of thinking had his “moderation” not cost Bengal rivers of gold and silver already. An estimated 75-100 boats were deployed to carry the loot from Murshidabad to Calcutta, and Clive alone was granted not only a substantial cash reward by his freshly-planted puppet nawab, but also a jagir that yielded £27,000 (a hundred times that sum in today’s money) every year for the remainder of his lifetime. It was an extraordinary achievement for this Shropshire boy who began life as “Bob”, and whose career, in the words of a biographer, first saw him serve as a “glorified apprentice shopkeeper”. For here was a character who was a typical specimen of 18th century English middle-classdom, packed by boat to India in his teens, reduced to complaining about the weather, and plodding along on an annual £5 salary.

Clive was the son of an undistinguished lawyer, raised briefly by an aunt and her husband. When he was 6, his uncle recorded that the boy was “out of measure addicted to fighting”, with such “imperiousness” of temper that nobody seemed able to tame his rowdy behaviour. Insolence travelled with him to India, and he often got into petty quarrels with his superiors—on one occasion, he disagreed with a man of the church and decided to give him a colossal whack in the middle of the street. He chewed paan and smoked the hookah, though the only wine he could afford was the kind that was mixed with plenty of water. “I have not enjoyed one happy day since I left my native country,” he complained between days of clerical drudgery. His only consolation was writing, a practice, he reflected gloomily, “invented for the comfort of such solitary wretches as myself”.

Change came to his monotonous career during the Battle of Madras in 1746, when this British settlement fell to French forces. Clive, all of 21, managed to escape from under the noses of his captors, face darkened, and dressed in the clothes of his “native” servant. Moving from civilian service, he now elected to become a soldier, finding at last his calling. In a subsequent skirmish, he acquitted himself with courage so that his superiors wrote to London: “Mr Robert Clive, Writer in the Service, being of a Martial Disposition” was granted “an Ensign’s Commission”. Of course, he didn’t shed his trademark impetuosity, though this was perhaps less dangerous than the other thing he acquired in the course of his military adventures in India: gonorrhoea.

As the years passed, Clive achieved distinction. He was embroiled in the politics of the Carnatic, just as he was involved in the training of Indian troops for Western-style military practice. He cultivated spies, including an ill-fated prostitute, and began, at last, to earn an income that allowed him to indulge his love for an elaborate wardrobe. Marriage to a woman above his station followed, one who enjoyed being carried in palanquins and playing the harpsichord when she wasn’t pregnant. When he returned to India in 1756 after a brief stint at home, he was senior enough to enjoy a gun salute, victory at Plassey only confirming his importance in the order of precedence the Company established in India.

Laurels won here were not, however, the ones Clive wanted—India could be milked for cash, which he hoped, then, to employ in the pursuit of ambitions at home. By the time he went back in 1760, he had become enough of a personality to receive an audience with the king, and purchase more than one mansion for his use. But the hero of Plassey, despite his celebrity, was seen as a mere upstart. As Horace Walpole sniggered, “General Clive is arrived, all over estates and diamonds. If a beggar asks charity, he says, ‘Friend, I have no small brilliants about me.’” It didn’t help, of course, that Clive won few friends when he addressed, for instance, the chairman of the Company as “this mushroom of a man”, and, in any case, he soon disappeared for a third stint in India, his reputation slowly on the decline.

The 1773 trial of Clive—provoked by parliamentary horror at the Company’s depredations, of which Clive was the principal mascot—saw the man defend himself vigorously. He “was never guilty of any acts of violence or oppression…such an idea never entered into my mind”, he declared. And, as it happened, he was cleared soon enough. Peace and true respectability evaded Clive, however: In 1774, a year after these embarrassing proceedings in Parliament, he died suddenly, rumoured to have stuck a knife down his throat, though it may well have been an opium overdose. It was suicide, either way. In great secrecy, then, the man who inaugurated the Raj in India was laid to rest in an unmarked grave, his name associated forever since with greed, tragedy, and scandal.

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 16 2018)


In 1684, a 12-year-old Maratha boy was installed as ruler in Tamil Thanjavur, not long after the region’s older Nayaka dynasty came to an end. The event was emblematic of India in this bustling age, with Tamil Nadu alone attracting Afghan horsemen, Bundela Rajputs, Telugu warriors, and diverse other groups of adventurers. Our adolescent prince, Shahuji Bhonsle, however, came from a family that was of especial significance for the country. Ten years earlier, his half-uncle, the celebrated Shivaji, had crowned himself king of the Marathas, and theirs was a clan that would seek power over distant reaches of the subcontinent. Shahuji too was a king worth his elaborate titles, but even as he tackled matters of state, he cultivated a reputation as a patron of the arts. Going out of his way to attract as many as 46 men of letters to his court, he conferred on them an endowed agraharam (settlement), named (with typical princely modesty) after himself.

Interestingly, Shahuji, who reigned till 1712, was also a poet—his Panchabhasha Vilasa Natakam reflects the plurality of influences around him, featuring Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Sanskrit, and even Hindi verses. He was obsessed with Shiva of the Thiruvarur temple, and many were the plays and songs composed with his blessings eulogizing this deity. Some credit him as the composer of the Thyagesa Kuravanji dance drama, centred on the adoration of the lord by a woman. The theme and story is more or less conventional here and fits into the larger tradition of Bhakti literature. What is perhaps more remarkable—and has been described by scholars as “a work of extreme, deliberately outrageous provocation”—is another play from his time: the Sati Dana Suramu (Take My Wife). While some suggest it might have been composed by one of his poets, the text itself names Shahuji its creator, adding casually that he composed it “to outlast the sun, moon, and stars”.

The Sati Dana Suramu is a hugely entertaining parody of social conventions. The setting is the Vishnu temple in Mannargudi, where a Brahmin (“Morobhatlu the Magnificent”) arrives with his disciple for a festival. What upsets this pilgrimage—and, by extension, the correct order of things—is the Brahmin’s infatuation with a woman he unexpectedly encounters. Not only is his pupil scandalized (“My teacher has gone crazy”), but the woman comes from the other end of society—she is an untouchable. When the student warns his guru to protect his reputation, the teacher retorts that greater men had succumbed to lust and survived. When the disciple reminds him that the female is a demon, the older man responds, “She’s no demon, she’s a woman.” Frustrated, when the pupil appeals that he focus on the “Vedas and Puranas and Sastras” which promise eternal bliss, the Brahmin sniffs that he has “no use for insipid, eternal bliss”.

Soon, the Brahmin approaches the woman, declaring, “Your charm has reduced me to ashes.” The lady is polite but reminds him of the rules of caste and tradition. “We eat beef, we drink liquor…. Don’t talk to me.” Morobhatlu does not care. “We drink cow’s milk,” he replies, “but you eat the whole cow. You must be more pure,” he exclaims. Clearly startled, the lady decides to lecture him on the impermanence of desire, the permanence of dharma and other pious philosophical principles, hoping this would make him go away. She also warns Morobhatlu that she is married, and that it would be best for everyone involved if he stopped “this incoherent prattle”. But the man remains immovable. “We Brahmins have made up all the rules, and invented religion. There is no better dharma than satisfying a Brahmin’s need,” he giggles. Perhaps, he adds, she could look upon the act as simple charity. “Give me your loins,” he coyly suggests, “like offering (a Brahmin) land.”

In the end, the woman’s husband arrives, and, after an initial attempt to beat up his wife’s high-born stalker, he demands, “Haven’t you read the Sastras?” Irony, in fact, is writ across the entire composition, where the low-born out-Brahmin the Brahmin—and so is great comic effect. When the woman’s husband reminds Morobhatlu about the godly path, the Brahmin responds: “Final freedom is that state of no pain, no pleasure, no qualities, nothing—or so some idiot said. But when a ravishing young woman…is free from her clothes—that’s freedom for me.” At long last, then, the husband agrees to present his wife to the Brahmin, only for the latter to belatedly heed his pupil’s voice (“Have a little detachment; think of the subtle meaning of Vedic words”). In the course of events that follow, the husband is upset, the wife is bewildered, and finally Shiva arrives and liberates everybody from this hilarious, singular quandary.

The Sati Dana Suramu is, on the face of it, a simple parody. But viewed in its context, Shahuji, we find, was making a comment on society itself. As the scholar Sanjay Subrahmanyam notes, “the play was written…for public performance” at a major festival, which meant its irreverence was consumed by large numbers of pilgrims and locals. Not only does it combine on one stage Brahmins and untouchables, it also cleverly exalts Shiva (Shahuji’s preferred deity), who swoops in to save the day at a site associated with Vishnu. Questions are raised on ethics and morality, on lust and the role of women. But the larger point Shahuji wished to make—and make with much mirth and laughter—was that asking questions and turning some tables was not such a bad idea. As this Maratha prince in Tamil country asks us at the end of this Sanskrit-Telugu production: “You, who have seen this play, decide for yourselves and tell us: Who, among these four, is the best?”

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 9 2018)


In 1314, the mayor of London issued a proclamation banning a particularly rowdy sport that had captured the imagination of large numbers of the city’s residents. There was, he announced, “great noise” in town caused by this “hustling over large balls”, and so, “on pain of imprisonment”, the game was outlawed in the name of King Edward II—and of course God. The whole business concerned what we recognize today by the more innocent name of football, but at the time it was considered a monstrous affair, as men kicked about an inflated pig’s bladder from one village to another. No rules existed, and the upper classes sneered at this disorderly pastime of their inferiors, oblivious that centuries down the line, “ffooteball” fever would infect the entire world, birthing an industry so profitable that even God might be forgiven for reconsidering his position.

As with the English language, when the British transported football to India, they didn’t quite expect the “natives” to match them at it. Records suggest that it was in 1721, in Gujarat, that western traders first began to play cricket, while the earliest extant report of football appears over a century later in an 1854 newspaper. This second sport, however, was inaugurated on India’s eastern flank, in Bengal, when the (white) “Gentlemen of Barrackpore” played against the (white) “Calcutta Club of Civilians”. Football, by now, was acquiring a distinct shape and structure, with formal rules and codes. That these rules varied from place to place did not matter—the Victorians had realized that this was a “masculine” exercise for boys as they grew into men, besides serving as an outlet for dangerous hormonal energies. Controlled aggression in an authorized environment, besides, appeared to impart lessons in discipline, obedience, honourable victories, and dignified defeats. And so, slowly, football became respectable.

It was another matter, of course, that the British were not particularly dignified in the manner in which the sport was passed on to Indians. They had their exclusive clubs in various cities, besides the teams of army regiments. But even after the 1880s, when Indians formed their own clubs in Bengal—Shobhabazar, Aryans, and so on—the establishment thought little of locals and their sporting capabilities. “By his legs you shall know a Bengali,” declared one journalist in 1899, asserting that the typical Calcutta male’s legs were either hopelessly thin, or else “very fat and globular…with round thighs like a woman’s.” “The Bengali’s leg,” simply put, was “the leg of a slave”. And this at the end of a decade when Bengali clubs had already started to win small victories against British teams, and just before Mahatma Gandhi was inspired to establish in South Africa his “Passive Resisters Soccer Club”.

What really announced India’s arrival on the football scene, however, was the contest between the Mohun Bagan Athletic Club and the East Yorkshire regiment for the legendary Indian Football Association (IFA) Shield in 1911. The team was representative of emerging middle-class Indian aspirations—one member, writer Ronojoy Sen records, was a clerk, while another was an employee of the public works department. A third was a veterinary inspector, but all of them were products of the English education system, with a growing consciousness of their identity as Indians. They played barefoot, partly because a pair of boots in the early 1900s didn’t cost less than Rs7—an average schoolteacher’s monthly salary. It was no surprise, then, that when Mohun Bagan made it to the finals, against all odds, the football maidan attracted some 100,000 visitors, including from Bihar, Odisha and Assam.

As it happened, the Indians won both the trophy and much prestige. “May God bless the Immortal Eleven of Mohan Bagan for raising their nation in the estimation of the Western people,” rhapsodized the Amrita Bazar Patrika, noting that this victory demolished the old jibe about Bengalis being “lamentably deficient” in physical prowess. Besides reasserting the Indian male’s masculinity, the victory of a barefoot team against a privileged English set also rang resoundingly of nationalism—as historian Partha Chatterjee notes, the win in 1911 came at a time when Bengal was electrified by armed resistance against the Raj, not to speak of agitation challenging the partition of the province by Lord Curzon six years earlier. If sport had helped discipline Englishmen to conquer the world in the Victorian era, now football shattered imperial arrogance as Indians reclaimed their pride at the close of the Edwardian age.

Of course, hopes of football sparking a righteous nationalist fire did not pan out quite so romantically. As with cricket in Bombay, where Parsis played against Hindus who played against Muslims, in football too, difference reared its head. In 1911, the Mohammedan Sporting Club enthusiastically celebrated the victory of their “Hindu brethren” against the British, but by the 1930s the mood had chilled. There was this leading “Muslim club” and then there were “Hindu clubs”. Among the Hindus, there emerged an additional problem of regionalism—the East Bengal Club was formed mainly on account of a grievance that west Bengalis looked down on easterners. In other words, where two decades earlier nationalism had electrified the sports arena, football was afflicted now by the poison of communalism.

It might have spelt wholescale disaster, but, luckily, a change in political winds transformed the horizon. With World War II and the advent of independence, sport for the love of sport—and not as a vehicle of nationalism or communal pride—slowly began to become possible. And in 1947, with those very legs once written off as resembling slaves’, Indians turned around and gave the British a proverbial kick off the field they had for so long tried to dominate. New problems emerged—of poor infrastructure and state indifference. But by then Indians had already embraced football, doing their bit in transforming an old game that once featured a pig’s bladder into an enduring obsession of their own.

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 2 2018)


Sometime during the Emergency, soon after she threw democratic sobriety to the winds and assumed unprecedented powers, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi attended to the relatively minor matter of banning a book. It was a biography of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, authored by the British historian Michael Edwardes. But like much else about the Emergency, this too was an overreaction—the book, Nehru: A Political Biography (1971), had already been slammed by critics across the world, and the ban merely did it the favour of undeserved publicity. It was, one scholar noted, guilty of the “worst sort of reductionism”. Another found it full of “questionable statements”, while a third challenged the writer’s claim that it was based on 25 years of research. A more confident daughter, then, would have simply scoffed at Edwardes and his ill-received production, but something triggered Mrs Gandhi to go out of her way to demolish Nehru and, thereby, award it eternal life.

I picked up Edwardes’ book last Sunday—27 May, Nehru’s death anniversary—and found that while it deserved its terrible reviews, it was by no means a candidate for a ban. A peculiar union of dry wit and hot air, the message here is that India’s first prime minister was a man who rose on the shoulders of others, and, when there was nobody to help him, collapsed into a heap of contradictions. Nehru had no redeeming qualities—a line that has endeared Edwardes to a particularly shrill political lobby today—and his life was a swirling puddle of badly-thought-out emotional responses. Indeed, “emotional” is a word that appears a great deal in this biography. His flirtation with theosophy was emotional; his sense of identification with India’s peasants was emotional; his desire for the unity of the Congress party was emotional; his socialism was emotional; elections were “an emotional release after the drama of independence”; and even his five-year plans were emotional. In sum, Nehru was nothing but overrated emotion.

In theory, this is interesting—after all, we still have politicians prone to sentimental displays—but there is enough in the book to make many uncomfortable. On the one hand, there are casual, sweeping claims, such as the suggestion that the first post-1947 election “was essentially a travesty of democracy”, or that the massacre by General Dyer at Jallianwala Bagh was because he “panicked”. On the other, there are also elements which punch holes into the grand narrative we have built for the nation. It is quite true, for instance, that in our anxiety to deify leaders, we obscure their human limitations. So, for example, Subhas Chandra Bose—a charismatic, revolutionary figure—is left looking plain rude when we learn that he dismissed Mahatma Gandhi as “an old, useless piece of furniture”. Indeed, Gandhi himself is startlingly presented as an “unofficial ally” of the British—the colonial authorities apparently engineered arrests in a way that ensured he remained in charge of the Congress, because they preferred his verbose non-violence to the dangerous radicalism of others. In other words, the British deserve some credit for the Mahatma’s success.

The most interesting discussion, however, is where Edwardes approaches the internal dynamics of the Congress—the constant tussle between left, centre and right, every faction conscious about maintaining unity but determined to assert its policies. In this context, Nehru is presented in an intriguing fashion. He was, we are told, a man with grand rhetorical abilities but confused ideological commitments. Gandhi, the author claims, permitted Nehru to give many speeches while keeping him on a “leash” when it came to genuine political decisions. His “emotional” socialism also served as an instrument for Congress bosses to keep real socialists away from seats of influence. Meanwhile, Sardar Patel and the right wing cemented actual control of the organization. When Nehru did object on the rare occasion, “Gandhian blackmail” reined him in. In all, the dynamics are interesting, and Edwardes’ charges are many—the book would have benefited if only he had made the effort to also prove them.

But the book’s greatest flaw in painting Nehru as a witless shuttlecock between an “essentially communal” Gandhi and a Patel-led capitalist lobby is that Nehru’s own urbane, progressive vision is eclipsed deliberately. Edwardes admits that after independence, when the Congress had no shortage of parochial leaders, Nehru’s unmatched appeal meant they could never eject him and implement “obscurantist” ideas. While Patel is correctly lauded as the “true founder of the Indian state”, Edwardes forgets that Nehru was the founder of modern Indian democracy—India’s dawn depended on both. He plays down, for instance, Nehru’s 1931 Karachi resolution as a sop to his ideals—in fact, this document on “Fundamental Rights and Economic and Social Changes” asserted principles enshrined now in our Constitution. Nehru was not enough of a politician, Edwardes complains, perhaps oblivious that it was precisely this quality that made him special to millions of people.

To Edwardes, Nehru was an accident of history—the wrong man at the right place—rather than someone who earned his stripes. The author arrived at this conclusion and produced over 300 pages detailing it, without access to even one of Nehru’s vast collection of private and official papers. Nehru himself might merely have laughed at the provocation. After all, in 1937, he wrote an anonymous article criticizing himself to encourage his people to hold their leaders accountable. Questions, he knew, must be asked of all tall leaders, but perhaps out of personal affection, or on account of a thin skin, Nehru’s daughter does not seem to have agreed with this principle. So, she banned what was a poorly argued book, denying it its natural demise, and granting it a place of honour among those who resented Nehru then and fear his memory even today.

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 26 2018)


In November 1940, V.D. Savarkar—whose birth anniversary is on 28 May—presented a most fascinating proposition in a newspaper called the Khyber Mail. Authored under his usual pseudonym of “A Mahratta”, the architect of Hindutva went beyond his familiar arguments about “Hinduness” and nationalism here, highlighting instead a political framework in which these concepts could achieve fruition. Ostensibly, this was a rejoinder to a “spineless” statement by Mahatma Gandhi that the nizam of Hyderabad was a potential candidate for emperor of India. But Savarkar’s “virile antidote” to Gandhi’s “inferiority complex” is not any less puzzling. The thrust of his argument painted India’s rajas (“defenders of Hindu faith and honour…the reserve forces of Hindudom”) and not the nizam as the road to the future. And if, he argued, Hindus in British territory and the princes joined forces, they could offer a sparkling alternative vision for India, establishing a nation that was a veritable “racial dream”.

Like much of Savarkar’s writing, this too features a good deal of anti-Muslim polemics. The “academical” view offered was that if it came to civil war, Hindu military camps would spring up in the princely states, from Udaipur and Gwalior in the north to Mysore and Travancore in the south. “There will not be left a trace of Muslim rule from the Seas in the South to the Jamuna in the North,” while in the Punjab Sikhs would keep at bay the Muslim tribes of the west. Independent Nepal would emerge “as the Defender of the Hindu Faith and the commander of Hindu forces”, mobilizing “Hindu rifles” to “spit fire and vengeance in defence of Hindu Honour”. Indeed, Nepal might even make “a bid for the Imperial throne of Hindusthan”. Its march into India would be reinforced, of course, by Hindus, and at the end of the day they would all together consecrate a Hindu rashtra with its own suzerain, ready to inherit “the Sceptre of Indian Empire” as it fell from colonial hands.

The Hindutva family of organizations understandably perceived a community of interests with the princely states. The latter were, as the scholar Manu Bhagavan observes, viewed as “portals to a pure, ancient past”, “sites of India’s imagined past of purity”, and “the foundation on which the future nation” could be launched. In 1944, in a letter to the ruler of Jaipur, in fact, Savarkar openly declared the Hindu Mahasabha’s policy of “standing by the Hindu states and defending their prestige, stability and power against the Congressites, the Communists, (and) the Moslems”. “Hindu states,” he concluded, “are centres of Hindu power” and naturally, therefore, would become instrumental in the realization of Hindu nationhood. Meanwhile, if not spirited support, the princes certainly provided a degree of encouragement—several Mahasabha meets were hosted in the states, including in highly advanced Mysore and Baroda, and the organization found ample support among the orthodox in princely territory.

What, however, were the chances of the princes uniting around Savarkar’s vision? They certainly did possess networks of blood and kinship that could, in theory, link them. Travancore in Kerala “belonged” to Lord Padmanabhaswamy—a deity whose idol was made of salagram stones from Nepal. The Maratha dynasty in Baroda shared political roots not only with the rulers of Indore and Gwalior in the centre and north but also with the descendants of Shivaji who survived in Tanjore, deep in Tamil country. Mysore, meanwhile, was ruled by Kannadigas, who eagerly sought Rajput brides. To this combination could also be added senior Indian statesmen of the time who thought the Congress vision of India a disaster, and were equally willing, therefore, to consider an alternative plan. As late as July 1947, for instance, the redoubtable Sir C.P. Ramaswami Iyer (who considered Gandhi a “dangerous sex maniac” and Jawaharlal Nehru “unstable”) was convinced that if power went to the Congress, “civil war…within six months” was inevitable, culminating in the division of India between “half a dozen principalities”—and Sir C.P. was considered “one of the cleverest men in India”.

In reality though, most Indian rajas were more interested in sustaining their decadent lifestyles and reaffirming loyalty to the Raj than in plotting grand designs for India’s future. Many of them were known not for their virile nationalism but for their boudoir passions. They certainly owned 40% of Indian territory, but over 454 of the 565-odd states were made of less than 1,000 sq. miles; only a few dozen had revenue over Rs10 lakh, and even fewer owned armies that truly deserved the name. The greatest of the states, Hyderabad, was inconveniently Islamic, while Kashmir, held by Dogra Rajputs, was majority-Muslim. Add to this mass agitations within the states, encouraged by the Congress, and the heady picture of brave princes rising to inaugurate an Age of Hindutva looked hopelessly remote.

In the end, history didn’t quite play out in the way Savarkar and his confederates theorized. Nehru proved perfectly stable, the Hindutva cause was damaged after Gandhi’s murder, and Sardar Patel integrated most principalities with the carrot of money and status. Despite obituaries and shrill prophecies of danger, India became a secular democracy, and not a Hindu rashtra. And, in perhaps what might have caused the father of Hindutva to recoil in horror, it was not the Nepali dynasty of Savarkar’s “academical” premise that soared to power in New Delhi. Instead, another family emerged to play a formidable role in shaping India’s destiny: one bearing those very names—Nehru and Gandhi—that he viewed with such intense antipathy. What Savarkar envisioned in 1940, then, was a “Future Emperor of India”; what India got in a decade instead was a people’s Constitution, defended by men and women who brooked no kings and shunned all empires.

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 19 2018)


In the days of the British Raj, the “hot weather” season presented an annual excuse for India’s princely elite to seek a leave of absence from the privileged drudgery that was life in their capitals. Palaces were shut for the summer, and elaborate entourages would set out for one or another of the area’s chief British-controlled hill stations. Shimla was, of course, where the viceroy planted himself, while the governor of the Madras Presidency moved to Ooty in befitting state and ceremony. Nobody, however, could really let their hair down—the rule books determined which grandee could call on the governor when, and whether the individual was significant enough to deserve a return visit. Indeed, not everyone was permitted to own property in these places, and long negotiations preceded the grant of permission for a prince to enjoy the honour of owning hilly real estate next to the local representative of His Britannic Majesty.

Much to the consternation of the officers of the Raj, however, as time passed, India’s princes began to seek more glamorous vacations, far from the watchful eyes of their colonial overlords. More often than not, it was a maharaja’s “health” that demanded the urgent consumption of European air (preferably from multiple cities), though care had to be taken to mollify orthodox concerns about crossing the accursed kalapani. Some, like the maharaja of Jaipur in 1902, travelled with thousands of litres drawn from the Ganga so that they could be purified daily with the most sacred of river waters. Others, like the Pudukkottai raja, raised by the British to be a perfect blend of East and West, scandalized his creators by acquiring a new rani called Molly on an Australian holiday in 1915. Foreseeing only calamity in unregulated intercourse between Indian princes and the West, as early as 1901 Lord Curzon made attempts to limit foreign travel—if they were anxious to sail for reasons of health, the viceroy needed a doctor’s certificate. It was no surprise, then, that when the headmasterly Curzon left, his principal antagonist—and great traveller—the Gaekwar of Baroda, sent him a telegram that read: “Bon voyage, may India never see the like of you again.”

Some rajas used their holidays for education. A junior prince of Travancore went on an all-India tour in 1894, an account of which survives with vivid attempts at anthropological generalizations: Tirunelveli was home to “a peculiar class of people who are peaceable citizens by day and robbers by night”. In Bombay, sitting between two judges of the high court, he watched them decide a case of obscenity, while in Ahmedabad he met a “pretty Mahomedan beggar girl” from whom he bought flowers. A visit to Akbar’s tomb led to speculation on whether the theory that he was a Hindu in his last birth was true, while in Lucknow his tour guide was “a large cadaverous looking fellow” who wanted Rs2 per day for his services. The route to Darjeeling is straight out of an Orientalist novel, for the prince saw “trees festooned with creepers and vines, exhibiting through their wealth of leaves, flowers of the most gorgeous colours and forms, throwing a deep gloom over an undergrowth of rank jungle grass, in which (lay) hid wild beasts and venomous snakes”.

By the 1920s, Indian princes had become a familiar sight abroad during the holiday season. The maharani of Cooch Behar (pictured), for instance, loved Europe, even as the British frowned that “the disadvantages of a tour of foreign hotels and casinos for a boy of 13 (her son and heir)” should be obvious. In London, “her gambling, and her drinking propensities” brought down strict orders that she should stay in her principality for at least one year before her next excursion. Others, like the maharaja of Kapurthala, were given greater leeway. In 1929, he published My Tour Of The World, describing his latest round of travels. He expressed discontent that his New York hotel was full of dentists, while the relative simplicity of the president’s life in the White House (“no police or military guard…[only] a few black and white employees”) seemed surprising. In Japan, he called on the emperor (“resembles a Nepalese in physiognomy”) while in Hawaii he was surprised that “although dark”, its people were “strangely…considered to be a white race”.

India’s princes on holiday presented, to borrow from Rudyard Kipling, a spectacle to the world—the Cooch Behar maharani, when she gambled, fascinated her companions not only with her chiffon saris, but also because she kept a jewel-studded turtle with her for luck. The maharaja of Indore, in the late 1930s, fell in love with an ex-stewardess in California and constructed a massive retreat there, impressing local society with his love of art deco.

World War II, then, was what brought this fabulous universe of rajas and nawabs crashing down—foreign travel was restricted, and the most flamboyant of princes were compelled to stay in India, forced to deal with their subjects, whom they could otherwise cheerfully avoid. The British disapproval of extravagant vacationing, meanwhile, was inherited by Jawaharlal Nehru, who felt they ought to be more responsible. Indian princes, he argued, “spent months (abroad) without bringing any credit to our country” and he saw “no reason why we should give any foreign exchange to help in these frivolous pursuits”. He didn’t really go out of his way to burst their bubble, though—that was left to Indira Gandhi, who, in 1971, ended their privy purses and privileges, and finally drove the message home: Summer was over, and the sun had set.

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 12 2018)


In an interview earlier this month, the chief minister of Karnataka, Siddaramaiah, repeated a mantra he has for some time pointedly articulated. “I am not anti-Hindi,” he declared, “but I will push for the supremacy of Kannada.” Hindi is a welcome guest, of course, but “the Centre,” he stressed, “cannot impose Hindi.” This widely publicized stand is not altogether surprising coming from the south—with the uncompromising emphasis placed on one imperious brand of nationalism by the ruling powers in Delhi, it is only a matter of time before more resistance of this variety appears in a country as diverse as ours. Where national pride in one format, one language, and by one definition alone is hammered from above, from below must necessarily emerge stirrings of sub-nationalism that evoke local histories, linguistic identities, and an eclectic, heterogeneous heritage. Add to this imminent elections, and the potential dividends from the clash of a Kannadiga David against the Hindi Goliath should be patent at once.

The rise of Hindi as a self-proclaimed “national language” is well documented. In the late 19th century, stalwarts like Bharatendu Harishchandra and Raja Sivaprasad in Varanasi were among many who bombarded the colonial state with petitions and press propaganda to replace elite Urdu (which evidently privileged Muslims) with Hindi (the language of the larger mass of people) as the lingua franca of the courts and in government. Official patronage of a language determined which communities could claim influence, converting the whole debate into a sharp political contest between Urdu and its rival. The campaign for Hindi eventually triumphed, and the transformation of this family of north Indian dialects into an instrument of northern nationalism was soon complete. This being accomplished, Hindi turned south, opening a new (and now revived) conflict with languages of the peninsula. Indeed, even Mahatma Gandhi lent his weight to Hindi, advising that the “Dravidians being in a minority… they should learn the common language of the rest of India”—a patronizing remark that inspired C.N. Annadurai to quip that by this logic of numbers, the best candidate for national bird was not the minority peacock but the majority crow.

Interestingly, the very arguments that proponents of Hindi once directed against Urdu can today be deployed by defenders of the south against the seemingly all-consuming appetite of the north. Consider, for instance, linguist and writer Raja Sivaprasad’s famous 1868 memorandum, Court Characters In The Upper Provinces Of India, which opens up a veritable arsenal of arguments for reuse in our 21st century context. For instance, the raja states, while railing against Urdu, “To read (the Persian script of Urdu) is to become Persianized, all our ideas become corrupt…our nationality is lost. Cursed be the day which saw the Muhammadans cross the Indus.” By the same yardstick, then, to insist on Hindi and Devanagari in states where it is as alien as Swahili could legitimately lead to complaints of an “invasion” to undermine local culture and pride. “The Muhammadans did not force their countrymen…to pass in the Vernaculars; they forced the Hindus to learn their language,” complained Sivaprasad. By that very logic, why should the children of the south, it can be asked, be compelled to digest Hindi, when they have their own native languages to cherish and safeguard?

Besides, added the raja, if at all a commoner must endure “foreign” Urdu, he might as well invest in English—at least it guaranteed a remunerative job. Here again, Indians of non-Hindi cultures can borrow from Sivaprasad: Far from earning rewards from the over-ambitious vernacular of the north, the prospects of a brighter future lie in acquiring that language which opens doors to the world at large. By replacing Urdu’s script with Devanagari, Sivaprasad also said, “Court papers will no longer remain hieroglyphics and sealed books to the masses.” One only need recall here the case of that Odisha parliamentarian who, on receiving a letter in Hindi from a minister, returned it, asking his sender to use a language he could understand. Many, in other words, might harbour the most intense passion for Hindi, but masses of Indians feel as much connection to Devanagari as they might to the “hieroglyphics” that so exercised Sivaprasad’s furious mind.

The great irony, of course, is that in several parts where it has no past, Hindi had made quiet and steady progress through the 20th century, till a recent, overmastering desire to copyright nationalism led those in power to issue lectures on culture and sermons on Indianness. Old ghosts laid to rest were resurrected, and schisms that didn’t exist were suddenly invented. India is, after all, a mosaic of hues and cultures, and to turn it into a single shade and one tedious colour is not only misguided, it is tragic. In Sivaprasad’s day, he championed Hindi so the “whole of India north of the Krishna (could be)…united by one common bond of language.” Now, in 2018, the formula has been inverted, so that those Indians south of the Krishna find their own common cause, not in a love for Hindi but in a determination to celebrate that other special thing: the right of every citizen and people to retain their claim to glorious difference. This, then, has served as a political plank upon which a Siddaramaiah can pitch his flag, and this has become a rousing call to fight what, from the south, looks suspiciously like cultural arrogance too easily manifest among some in the north. Whether or not Karnataka becomes the scene of David’s triumph will, of course, become clear soon enough. But as everyone who knows the story can tell, sooner or later Goliath must fall.