(My column in Mint Lounge, August 11 2018)


In 1885, when the Indian National Congress met for its inaugural session in Mumbai, the scene was striking for more reasons than one. Not only was this the first pan-Indian gathering of upwardly mobile men of political convictions, the picture their combined presence painted was captivating even in a visual sense. As the Bombay Gazette noted (throwing political correctness to the wind), there were delegates from the south “the blackness of whose complexion seemed to be made blacker by spotless white turbans”. By their side stood “bearded, bulky and large-limbed” Pathans, along with “Banyas from Gujarat” and “Sindhees from Kurrachee”. Then there were Bengalis dressed like Englishmen, just as there were others with feet uninhibited by shoes. Turbans competed for attention, the Maharashtrian pagdi against the Parsi’s ancestral headdress. In all, “these men assembled in the same hall”, concluded the Gazette, “presented such a variety of costumes and complexions, that a similar scene can scarcely be witnessed anywhere”. Except, perhaps, “at a fancy (dress) ball”.

The half-condescending gaze of the Gazette might be forgiven, for in 1885 these men did seem less like representatives of one nation and more like exhibits from bewilderingly different cultures. There was, however, one invigorating sentiment that united them all, closely wedded to which was a common skill set. The sentiment, of course, was the prototype of Indian nationalism, and the circular announcing the Congress consciously described it as a “Conference of the Indian National Union”. The skill set, however, was not something that sat comfortably with national pride, for it was entirely of foreign make, soaked in Western cultural influences. As that circular also announced, “The Conference will be composed of Delegates…from all parts of (India)”, but these attendees needed to be “well acquainted with the English language”. In other words, to create a new mood of Indianness, what was sought was not only a shared patriotism, but also one of the most potent instruments of imperial rule: the colonizer’s grammar book.

Only the historically blind would deny the role English inadvertently played in the story of India. It is true that nationalism in this phase was about securing a greater share of the pie of official employment and lobbying for influence in the corridors of power—nobody had designs to unseat the British in 1885. Nor, as The Bengalee put it a little later, was this about the masses. “Who,” it snorted, “has ever asked that the peasantry should participate in the government…? Not even the most dreamy of our politicians have ever sought…this outrage upon common sense.” But despite its narrow objectives, what emerged from our anglicized elite’s grievances kick-started something vastly bigger. They gave speeches, published op-eds, and submitted memorandums, and soon this heterogeneous top layer of colonial society was welded close together, their resentments and aspirations voiced in a single language. The arrival of Mahatma Gandhi opened doors and transformed nationalism into a mass affair, but without an English prologue, no subsequent chapter would have made much sense—not to linguistically diverse Indians, nor to the British against whom they now openly railed.

It was in the language of the king-emperor that the Gujarati Mahatma mentored an Allahabadi called Jawaharlal Nehru, quarrelled with a Bengali named Subhas Chandra Bose, and won the allegiance of a Tamilian called Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. Indeed, it was in English, to a great extent, that Gandhi communicated his own message, through letters and publications. It was in this alien tongue that he debated India’s economy with the Telugu technocrat Sir M. Visvesvaraya, and it was also this language that enabled him to negotiate social concessions with a maharani in Thiruvananthapuram. A firebrand like Bal Gangadhar Tilak earlier recognized this value of English—though his nationalism was inflected with Hindu pride, when he set up an institution in Pune in 1880, it was the New English School and not a Vedic gurukul. Indeed, even V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar published in English, without which large sections of their target audience would have been oblivious to their very existence.

Lord Macaulay, a notorious advocate of Western education in India, had hoped in 1835 to manufacture a class of English-speaking clerks to help sustain the Raj. What he had not quite anticipated, however, was that these agents would turn around and demand (in English) rights that Macaulay’s peers had little intention of bestowing. They included, to be clear, those who had concerns above government jobs and power—it was English schooling that first enabled Jyotirao Phule to smash the shackles of caste with such breathtaking effect. It was in English that he read Thomas Paine, whose work inspired his own writings like Gulamgiri, which he dedicated to the people of the US. In an earlier period, it was through English, among other Western languages, that the Maratha raja Serfoji imported modern science to Thanjavur—this he vernacularized for his subjects, but English served as a vehicle for new knowledge, through which he hoped to fashion an Indian modernity.

The irony that a foreign language helped “make” modern India was not lost on our leaders. “So far as English is concerned,” declared Nehru, “I am all in favour of (its) study…being continued…. But it seems to me rather humiliating for us to adopt a foreign language as the official all-Indian language.” The conundrum Nehru faced has not yet been resolved, and replacing a language uniformly alien to everybody (English) with a language that privileges some parts over others (Hindi) has little appeal. But whatever the future may hold, one thing must be acknowledged—English helped mould India as we know it. And mould us it did, not in the servile image Maucaulay or his heirs had envisioned, but in quite a different style, with flaws, strengths and endless other contradictions, cemented, however, by a boisterous, singular sense of resilience.

(My column in Mint Lounge, August 4 2018)


In 1966, months after she was installed as prime minister, Indira Gandhi found herself locking horns with frenzied devotees of the holy cow. While that extremist passion to dismember other human beings in the name of bovine honour had not reached today’s horrific heights, the first year of Mrs Gandhi’s reign went down as a particularly trying period, Parliament itself coming under siege from defenders of the four-legged mother. Where initially the prime minister assumed a firm position, telling a newspaper that she would never “cow down to cow savers”, the alarming scale of the protests that rocked Delhi on 7 November persuaded her soon enough to come to terms with the sentiment. After all, even Mahatma Gandhi, back in the day, had declared cow protection a worthy cause—“one of the most wonderful phenomena in all human evolution”—leaving little to interpretation when he added that “so long as there are Hindus to protect the cow”, the religion would endure.

While the Directive Principles of State Policy enshrine a commitment to cow protection, it was an open secret that Jawaharlal Nehru had stern feelings on the subject. Nehru was against any legislation to ban cow slaughter, even as the “big tent” that was the Congress party held an abundance of leaders with a confirmed allegiance to the cow. While he was able to keep things more or less under control for years, Nehru’s death in 1964 allowed the subject to re-emerge, and in 1965 plans were afoot for large-scale protests to press the government into embracing the gau mata. Three Sankaracharyas gave the movement their blessings, bringing together the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), and assorted groups to launch an agitation in the summer of 1966, featuring everything from protest marches to hunger strikes.

On 7 November 1966, a massive crowd assembled near Parliament in Delhi—The Hindu reported between 300,000 and 700,000 people, though the actual figure was in the vicinity of 100,000. The lower number was not particularly reassuring though, for as the scholar Ian Copland notes in a 2014 paper, “it was, to that point in time, the biggest political gathering Delhi had ever witnessed”. Indira Gandhi was understandably rattled, and her fears were proved right when, that afternoon, violence reared its head. One speaker ignited the match—Swami Rameshwaranand, a BJS parliamentarian who had been suspended from the Lok Sabha for indecorous conduct, turned to his audience of trident-wielding sadhus and saffron-clad gau rakshaks and demanded, as The Guardian reported: “What are you doing here? They have turned me out of the House. Go in and teach them a lesson.”

A large, furious mob dutifully made its way to Parliament but finding the compound sealed off by armed guards, decided to do the next best thing—they smashed glass, damaged public property, toppled 250 cars, and set the Congress patriarch K. Kamaraj’s house on fire. Curfew was imposed, and policemen appeared with tear gas and guns, till eight people were dead and under 50 seriously injured (one right-wing website has inflated this event into a “Hindu Massacre”, alleging a preposterous 5,000 dead, buried in unmarked graves). It also didn’t help that the prime minister suspected the fidelity of her own home minister, Gulzarilal Nanda, who was in charge of the police—he was a patron of the Bharat Sadhu Samaj, which was linked to the protests. The next day, Mrs Gandhi demanded and accepted the resignation of Nanda, once caretaker prime minister himself.

Even as hundreds were thrown into prison, the movement did not succumb. On 20 November, the Sankaracharya of Puri launched his hunger strike with due ceremony. “As the day dawned,” writes Copland, “a number of cows were brought out, fed…and decorated with vegetable-dye motifs of green and vermillion…Selected sadhus then worshipped the cows by walking around them seven times, halting periodically to sprinkle water on their hooves; after which (the Sankaracharya) rounded off proceedings with a prayer in Sanskrit that contained the moving appeal, ‘let cows be all around me’.” His fast—apparently even longer than the Mahatma’s longest—sustained energy for the movement and by early 1967, not less than 1,000-odd people had to be put behind bars.

These numbers convinced Mrs Gandhi, then, to urgently arrive at something resembling a compromise with the cow-protectors. She formally reminded state governments of the directive principles and banned cow slaughter in the Union territories. A committee was appointed to look into an all-India ban, on to which she successfully invited prominent leaders of the right such as M.S. Golwalkar, the Puri Sankaracharya (who had by now broken his fast), and various experts and officials. While on the face of it the committee was a peace offering, it was essentially designed to do nothing—within a year, a number of cow-worshipping members resigned in bitterness. And though the committee carried on listlessly for years, sources differ on whether even a report was submitted. If it was, however, it is clear that it was done quietly and “without much fanfare”.

The cow-protectors retreated for the time being but extracted dividends for their backers. The BJS, which as early as 1954 defined the cow as “our point of honour”, more than doubled its seats in Parliament, from 14 in 1962 to 35 in the 1967 election—an election it fought promising to “amend the Constitution and impose a legal ban on the slaughter of the cow”. Contrarian views also were asserted. The All India Vaishnava Mahasamiti, for example, announced a beef festival, at Kaladi, the birthplace of Adi Sankaracharya, no less—then, as today, Kerala revelled in its penchant for provocative comebacks. In the end, though, the issue was not settled, and political calculations (or timidity) allowed the problem of the cow to bubble dangerously, mutating into a handle for wanton bloodshed and the murder of innocents in our own day—52 years after Indira Gandhi first grappled with devastation unleashed in the name of the sacred cow.

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 28 2018)


A little after 6.30am on 8 July 1910, V.D. Savarkar made more than a ripple in history when he plunged from The Morea into the Mediterranean Sea. The ship, on the way east with this high-profile prisoner, had docked at Marseilles when Savarkar expressed a desire to use the toilet. Two “native constables” stood guard outside, but before they knew it, their charge shot the door-bolt, deciding to seek personal liberty via the porthole. Even as Constable “Amarsing” and his colleague took after him—choosing the land route for sensible reasons—Savarkar swam to the quay and climbed into Marseilles harbour. He was quickly apprehended, of course, and this sensational attempt at escape soon became part of the Savarkar legend. But what he inadvertently provoked in the process was also a diplomatic headache for Britain and France, Savarkar’s brief, wet moments on French territory opening up a can of legal worms.

Though The Morea and its precious cargo set sail from Marseilles the very next day, by 18 July the affair was being discussed at the highest levels of state. The French envoy in London set forth his government’s view that “As the prisoner had reached French soil…questions of international law were involved.” In other words, the moment Savarkar set foot, it was argued, on the sovereign territory of France, his British-Indian keepers no longer enjoyed legal rights over him—and certainly not the right to apprehend, seize, and cart him back to a foreign vessel. Since Savarkar was already out of hand, the request of the French government was simple: until the matter was settled as per law between the two nations, the prisoner should not be tried for the charges that had provoked his arrest in London in the first place.

The British authorities were puzzled by the French claim, and, by 29 July, the home office, India office, and foreign office were all involved in this bureaucratic nightmare. Among those in the loop, interestingly, was a certain Winston Churchill, then home secretary, whose note emphasized that “Great Britain should maintain an attitude of dignity and of dispassionate submission to the law of nations (i.e. international law). The petty annoyance,” he added, “of a criminal escaping may have to be borne.” Curious as it is to picture Churchill inadvertently promoting the cause of “Veer” Savarkar, he was stoutly resisted by the India office. Unlike their colleagues, the India hands insisted that while a pious commitment to international law was admirable, it was “of the utmost importance from a political point of view” that Savarkar should be tried.

A somewhat topsy-turvy solution suggested, then, was to have Savarkar tried as scheduled, to suspend the sentence when delivered, hand him over to the French thereafter, and finally have him extradited to India to serve that sentence—all this involving Savarkar being given a two-way ticket to sail overseas and back simply to satisfy legal requirements. But the charges against him being what they were—“Waging and abetting the waging of war against the King”, “Collecting arms with intent to wage war against the King”, “sedition”, “abetment to murder”, and more—it was decided to explore all possibilities to retain him in India while the matter was resolved. Churchill might have wanted to preserve British dignity in the face of French legal incandescence, but, for the colonial authorities in India, Savarkar was the “head of a widespread conspiracy, the threads of which it was essential to unravel” through trial.

As both the French and the British got into the matter, there appeared two versions of what had transpired in Marseilles. The French asserted that once Savarkar appeared on the docks, it was a gendarme who caught him—he claimed to have chased him “about 400 metres” before catching up. He then walked 10m with Savarkar in his physical custody before the Indian policemen showed up. Constable “Amarsing” and his colleague, however, said that while the gendarme’s action was crucial, he had appeared from the left while they were closing in on Savarkar, and that they arrived moments after the Frenchman had the prisoner by the arm. Savarkar himself may have been aware of a legal opportunity to obtain asylum, for he appealed to the officer to take him to a local magistrate. Instead, he was marched back to the ship.

Pressed immediately after by the French press, which raised issues of law and national pride, the authorities in Paris came to regret the actions of the otherwise efficient gendarme. In London, the claim that the French had any kind of right over Savarkar was, meanwhile, rejected. The French, it was accurately argued, were informed in advance of Savarkar’s presence on the ship, and the gendarme had been posted precisely to prevent his escape—that he succeeded in doing what he was meant to do merely confirmed Savarkar’s position as British prisoner and could not be construed as creating a right of asylum. “His Majesty’s Government,” it was communicated by September, “are therefore unable to admit that they are under any obligation to restore Savarkar to French territory.”

The matter did not end there, however. In October 1910, it was decided to take the dispute to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which in February the next year ruled in favour of Britain—while there was an “irregularity” in Savarkar’s arrest, London’s logic made sense. Perhaps, if the gendarme had handed over Savarkar to his superiors instead of taking him back to the ship, the story might have been different. But in the circumstances as they were, the British prevailed. And so—even as the press erupted in righteous protest—the matter finally came to an end, and the 50 years Savarkar was sentenced to serve began. Fifty years, that is, till he composed his infamous mercy petitions, which, of course, is another story.

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 20 2018)


On 17 July 1806, British authorities in colonial Madras rescinded a four-month-old order that had bathed the countryside in a monsoon of blood. A week earlier, soon after the moon rose on the night of 9 July, serving sepoys had mutinied in nearby Vellore. Over a hundred British officers were put to death—the commander, as he emerged in his bedclothes—and the few Westerners who survived did so either by playing dead or hiding in a gatehouse. Even as a lone officer raced to Arcot for reinforcements, the mutineers forgot their principal purpose and succumbed to the attractions of plunder: When the Arcot troops arrived at 8 o’clock, they discovered that the rebels of this so-called first war of independence had forgotten to even lock the gates of the fort they had only hours before triumphantly “taken”.

Retribution was swift—of the 1,500 Indian troops present, about 400 were killed immediately, some of them blown out of cannons, presumably to send the message far and wide. But the British themselves were terrified. Power in India was tenuously held to begin with, and if even their own troops could not be counted on, the Raj was on less than solid foundations. By the time news of the mutiny reached England, months had passed, and the horror of the Madras authorities was matched by dread in London at this “disastrous event”. A commission of enquiry had already been constituted. As one officer later said, “The natives of Hindostan are meek and submissive beyond any other example in national character.” What then caused these spineless men to stand up to the white master? The answer, the officer offered, lay in an old saying: “If you prick them, they will bleed; if you insult them, they will revenge.”

But the provocation was, on the face of it, bewildering—it was a simple matter of uniform. In March that year, the Madras authorities had issued new dress regulations for consistency. Beards were banned, and moustaches standardized. A new turban was designed, with a feather, a leather cockade, and a flat top. Superficially, these were simple innovations, but, as the British discovered, in India costume had much to do with custom, and dress was not merely an issue of dressing up. Appearance signified caste, and in a veritable whirlpool of identities, sartorial conventions were a matter of honour. As the enquiry concluded, “Nothing could appear more trivial to the public interests than the length of the hair on the upper lip of a sepoy.” But to the sepoy himself, “the shape and fashion of the whisker is a badge of his caste, and an article of his religion.”

This ought not to have been a surprise. As soon as the new turban (which was especially resented for resembling European hats) was introduced, soldiers had raised objections. For their pains, they were rewarded with 500-900 lashes. Some sensible commanding officers on the ground knew the risks—in Hyderabad, where rumour already presented Christians as requiring the heads of 100 natives to consecrate churches, the officer in charge refused to execute the dress regulations. In Vellore, however, the orders were firmly enforced. The result was a conspiracy so outlandish in its initial rumblings that even when alerted on multiple occasions, the British pooh-poohed it instead of allaying the concerns that led, at last, to tragedy.

As London put it, 1806 became, then, the first example of “the Native troops rising upon the European, barbarously attacking them when defenceless and asleep, and massacreing (sic) them in cold blood”. Of course, admitting that this bloodbath was due to a misunderstanding about moustaches and turbans felt a little awkward, so a number of other instigations were paraded—there were arrears of pay, so there must have been resentment. Though there were no Christian missions nearby, missionary polemics must surely have provoked the sepoys, it was added. But most important of all, the real conspirators—despite lack of real evidence—were the family of the dead, fearsome ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan (reign 1782-99), housed in Vellore fort.

This theory conveniently suited an old British prejudice that the “main instrument of mischief were Mahomedans”—a point that would be made even more forcefully decades down the line, after the sensational events of 1857. Behind the smokescreen of offensive uniform, the Muslim sepoys had wanted, the authorities claimed, to restore Tipu’s line to power. As in 1857, when the rebels would resurrect the emaciated Mughal emperor, in 1806, too, during the few hours Vellore was in their control, the soldiers had named Tipu’s son their leader. The wedding of Tipu’s daughter, Noor-al-Nissa, the previous day had allowed them to set the rebellion in motion behind the general noise and activity. An old flag of the Lion of Mysore (purchased, incidentally, from a Parsi merchant in the local market) was also unfurled that fateful night—all this was construed as “proof” that the Mysore royals were involved in the uprising.

As it happened, the Mysore party might have had a role to play in so far as stoking the fire in 1806 went—attendants in service with the princes had goaded already upset sepoys by calling them unmanly “topiwallas” who sacrificed their honour for firangi coins. The result was a combination of caste and religious pride, political vendetta, and accumulated resentment against British haughtiness, culminating in spectacular slaughter. Just deserts awaited: The Mysore family was packed into 12 ships and exported to Bengal. Punishments were handed out to those mutineers who had not already been chopped to pieces. But even as the facade of control returned, the monsoon of 1806 in Vellore sent the first major jolt to the founders of the Raj that they were not, ultimately, welcome in India—and that what would become the jewel in the empire’s crown came soaked in blood and ferocious anger.

(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.