Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Great Brahminical Diaspora-1

Compared to Dalits or tribals, our social scientists today are less likely to pursue or discuss the 10th century phenomena of post Muslim invasion Brahminical diaspora in India . Is it because in post Mandal India, it is a politically incorrect subject to take up associated with the Manuvadi caste system created by the upper castes ? I dont know .
However, as I have studied it ( primarily to trace my own family roots), I find that in state after state, this diaspora has impacted not merely Brahmins' group and individual identities, but also all the branches of traditional learning systems in India.
A period of intense confusion hit north India when Muslim invasions began in 1018. It especially impacted temple towns from Delhi to Bihar which had been the strongholds of Brahmins and traditional learning for several centuries.
As things fell apart, temples were looted and priests forced to flee or were killed, Brahmins sought refuge in various smaller kingdoms that now arose : Maukharis in Kannauj, Pals in West Bengal, Mankhed in central India, Gahdwars and Kalchuries in the eastern, Tripuri region ( Kashi+ Kosala+ Champaran) etc.
This is where you begin to see a bifurcation of learning between Brahmins who studied Sanskrit language and literature, and those who specialized in various branches of the 4 Vedas.
The new kings many of whom had dubious credentials as intellectuals, sought to attrcat talented learned minds by offering the displaced Brahmin clans, judicious gifts of land in their area and appinting them to various cabinet committees and sub committees.
With this new identity tags begin to be applied. Once upon a time all Brahmins were identifiable by their Gotra ( the cowsheds they shared) and village names . Then (when Gotras became too diverse and large), by the well known Rishis in their Gotra ( Pravar). After their relocation they begin to be identified by the exact branch of Vedas pursued by their clan and the principality ( not a specific village) they had sought shelter in . Hence the new hash tags like Sam Vedadhyayee ( those specialising in the Saam Veda) Yajurvedadhyayee ( specializing in Yajurveda studies) to Brahmin clans residing in Kanykubja ( those living in Kannauj region), Sarayupari ( those that lived on the other (western ) side of the river Sarayu. Sarswat ( those who moved to the area near the Saraswati river ( what is now Punjab and Rajasthan) and so on.

Next: in which Kashi or Varanasi plays the smart card.

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Beatitude of Ganesh

Ganesh , literally means first among the Ganas ( Gananam Eesho) or devoted camp followers. In his case, of Lord Shiva . Like most Hindu gods, this elephant headed deity has a fascinatingly long and layered history during which he starts as a pre Aryan Yaksha deity worshipped in the plains of north eastern India . As Shiva's eminence grows, he joins Shiva as an important Gana . After a while he becomes his adopted son via Shiva's consort Parvati . As son Ganesha gets beheaded by mistake by Shiva and then brought back to life with an elephant head implant . He then rises to intellectual eminence as the celebrated scribe ordained by the poet Ved Vyas to help write down the long epic Mahabharata .
In the early years of the 20th century as a healthy wealthy and wise god Ganesha attracts the attention of the great political leader from Maharashtra, Bal Gangadhar Tilak . Tilak, like Gandhi was looking for icons that could be used as catalytic agents to bring together the disparate Indian society . He  urged fellow Maharashtrians to adopt Ganapati as their very own and organise an annual festival in his honour in the monsoon month of Bhadrpad on Ganesh Chaturthy . Thus begins the present day Ganesh festival that has by now acquired a pan Indian appeal and grows more and more lavish and cacophonous each year.
Ganesh entered the more popular Sanatan pantheon of Hindu gods via Varanasi, the timeless city lorded over by Shiva and capital of the area ( Janpad) of Kashi. Buddhist scriptures such as Mahamayuri, hint at Shiva also originally being a Yaksha deity known as Mahakal . Yakshas and Nagas predated Buddhism and were  worshipped in the anthropomorphic societies of Kashi, Kosala , Ang and Magadh Janpadas in eastern India. One of the main Yakshas worshipped in Varanasi was one Harikesh . An interesting story in Matsya Purana shows how Shiva worshippers may have gently nudged aside the Naga Yaksha and other anthropomorphic gods in a bloodless coup of sorts . After the eminence of Shiva grew the story runs, all Yakshas but the obsinate Harikesh,  receded peacefully. Shiva finally beat Harikesh back and banished him from the city he loved. At this Harikesh is said to have performed penance for centuries until he finally won from Shiva the boon to be rehabilitated as the Chief Guard (Kshetrpal) of the Kashi area.
Ganesh has, as one can see even after he joined the Shiva family , retained the qualities associated with Yakshas : a love for peace, good food ( he loves Laddoos in all forms becoming pot bellied over time) and a great eye for the arts and literature. He also retains the Yakshas' propensity for subtle mischief and is believed to cause all kinds of unforeseen  impediments (Vighna) if angry. After being suitably propitiated he becomes a remover of these as Vighna Harta. To keep him propitiated, all god fearing Hindus offer the first ablutions and blades of grass ( Doorva) to Ganesh on the eve of each major occasion (Mangal Kaaj) in their lives : a fire sacrifice, a child learning to write, a wedding, entering a new home , facing a major war or embarking on a risky journey .            

Saturday, 23 August 2014

For Here Comes the Bridezilla

Now that the retrograde celestial bodies are about to  reconfigure  according to the Hindu almanac, the times are once again  auspicious for formation of conjugal ties . And with that large hoardings announcing the latest fashion extravaganza for brides crop up all over the city telling us that the season for weddings is almost upon us . Mahurats may come and go , but no matter which the community and who the groom, each big fat Indian wedding is first and foremost about designer dresses for the bride and the groom, and at the heart of that sits the darling of fashion designers, a larger- than- life bride who will be calling the shots for all the festivities . 
In America where like so much else the phenomena had hit the coast decades ago , the Boston Globe had coined a term to describe it : Bridezilla . A Bridezilla was described as a woman who may have overlooked how she may have little control over her life , but would always be dreaming of a perfect wedding for herself .
For the Indian Bridezilla the time finally arrives when a Pandit has matched the horoscopes after the advertisement inserted for a ‘suitable’ groom yielded a bunch of those, and procured a suitable boy for her. The doting parents suddenly relax and feel expansive enough to dole out all the required resources for creating a suitable trussau . Helped also perhaps by an independent income , the Bridezilla begins building her own wedding empire by attending the "bridal shows" and hires the best professionals , fashion designers , wedding planners and make up artists that money can buy . Not for her those awkward dresses stitched by the neighbourhood Master ji ever mindful of not offending the family elders , or unending rituals led domineering aunts and grand aunts with their numerous progeny . Nor will she tolerate unprofessional bouts of singing and dancing that involve gangly cousins , balding uncles and fat aunts gyrating like mechanical toys at her wedding Sangit . She certainly wants all the traditional rituals that make an Indian wedding so photogenic and quaint , but she demands her wedding videos and u tube clips be perfect and that necessitates objective and meticulous planning of the kind even the most closely knit Indian family is incapable of . Our Desi bridezilla remains a matriarch who loves the colourful romance patriarchy had spun around mating over centuries . She is coy but assertive , socially ambitious to the point of being a snob , and well versed in her conjugal and property rights both as a daughter and  a wife.
Interesting questions arise : which is the living core for clever marketeers to spin expensive illusions for Bridezillas from Mumbai to Manhattan , Delhi to Dubai , Jaipur to Jo’berg ? Two : who first spotted the core and then began putting together the story and successfully coaxed hundreds of Bridezillas in the waiting arms of a multi million Rupee/Dollar/Euro/Pound wedding industry ? 
First to spot the promise were a few smart male fashion designers who now have their successful franchises running all over . Many of them actually loath the natural feminity of the heavy busted wide hipped Indian female and seek to curb , starve , restrict and drape it from head to toe in inconceivably tortuous ways to make her look like Plath's " ice lollies on silver sticks .” Then the pursuasive wedding planners are brought in, frequently recommended by the very same designers. All charge hefty fees and all are funded liberally by publicity hungry parents to whom their daughter’s wedding is yet another announcement to the world of their having arrived .

In the wedding industry the post Sushmita Sen explosion of high fashion in India has finally found an unending , ever thriving and lucrative circuit in India . Each year there are several fashion events mounted just before the wedding season around bridal themes . And afternoon TV shows reveal how they all set to work upon a young woman . They begin with her skin and then move on to her body and her teeth straightening out everything till she gleams and is transformed from an insecure giggly girl to an assertive Bridzilla . Ironically, autonomy in most matters (ranging from  the wedding venue , the décor , the menu , the dresses and jewellery and even the dances and music they are set to ) comes to be exercised , by one who is going to be belittled and mocked the most by the wedding rituals that follow . 

Mob Culture and the death of Individuality

‘ Iss ghar ko aag lag gai ghar ke chirag se”, (this house was set on fire by its own lamp) goes a popular Urdu couplet. This is what seems have happened to the publishing industry in India. Around the turn of the Century, Indian Publishers began creating ideological comfort food for corralling diverse readers made nervous by an increasingly ‘Net driven globalized world that spoke in many tongues. The publishers first created and then, with not inconsiderable help from the academe and the book sellers, began firmly guiding the indoctrinated towards clear theoretically labeled categories like Feminist, Bhasha, LGBT , Pre or Post colonial Writing, Teen lit, Chic lit and so on. They did not realize that they could one day be in danger of being hoise by their own petard .
A few young ambitious writers trained by Management schools and armed with excellent marketing skills who the publishers had created and lionised have suddenly taken things in hand and begun selling themselves through the Net. These young writers will write to please the young readers but certainly not displease or challenge traditional habits of thought. System created readers have created system writers who have in turn chosen to banish the middle men an women and firmly taken control of the consolidated mass readership . They are selling in millions .

Individualism R.I.P.
To students armed with 3 G mobiles, Rahgiri and flash mobs are their natural habitat . Hell is individualism with its angst . And the supreme hell, the veritable Raurav Narak is standing alone in an area with no connectivity. 
For these young , reading books does not mean walking alone along a lonely path to sit under a secluded tree . Nor browsing in book shops in the hope that he or she may chance upon little known books of individual brilliance . It means joining a crowd, entering a certain comfort zone that will rids one of the burden of individual choice.
The supreme irony of our age is that the rise of mass shared experience is not driving the young towards socialist ideals but against them. The Media Unions are already dead . And the divisions between north and south parts of Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata are getting more pronounced each day . Despite everyone coming together to hold candle light vigils for a death or tragedy to the other quarter , how much real understanding or tolerance for the lives of the two sisters killed in Badaun or the girl molested in Meerut  is there ? .     

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Conferencing Congress Ishtyle

By 1910 classical north Indian music was no longer confined to Ustads and courtesans and their Gharanas who had jealously guarded their familial treasures and made this music available only at a price to the rich nobility of north India. Thanks to the tireless efforts of two Marathi men : Pt Bhatkhande and Pt V D Paluskar, music was now being taught both in schools and homes.
In 1916 the first All India Music Conference was held in Baroda to convert music into a carrier of patriotic ideas and a subject worthy of national attention. Music thus presented, acquired the overtones of a modern project aimed at democratising Pan Indian art and culture.
Not unsurprisingly therefore, Pt Bhatkhande who led the project, did not invent a new format but used the format popularised by Indian National Congress that to the average Indian stood as a symbol of anti colonialism and Indian nationhood.
Between 1916 and 1928, both Pt Bhatkhande and Pt Paluskar convened five music conferences apiece , at large venues . These conferences, like the INC sessions, were not restricted to musicians , critics, artists and musicologists alone . but also doubled up as ticketed musical recitals by them after the day's discussions . The public  came to these in droves . Like the Maharaja of Baroda , who hosted the first National Music conference, other princes also offered to host subsequent ones and even lent their court musicians for gracing the musical events.
Interestingly, like the INC sessions, the medium for exchange of information and papers was neither Hindi nor any other Indian language but mostly English . Some reports though, had appendices in Urdu or Hindi.
Participants in Paluskar's conferences ( which had a more local focus), spoke in Marathi and prayers were a significant part of his musical events. Princes with their circle of musicians remained largely absent from these.  

Monday, 18 August 2014

A few facts about the controversial song Vande Mataram

A proposal for the Partition of Bengal was announced by the British Government on 1st September 1905 . It met with vigorous protests from Indians . October 1905 was declared as period of mourning , and the slogan Vande Mataram became a cry for all patriotic Indians to bond together against the British rule. The British authorities thereafter declared the song containing the slogan seditious and Anti British . The slogan was part of a longish poem (in Sanskrit and Bangla) that had appeared in a 19th Century Bangla novel, Anandmath by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee . It was first serialised in a magazine and later published as a book in 1882.
Vande Mataram was translated by Shri Aurobindo in English . Gandhi endorsed it later in Harijan ( July 1st 1939) as ,'a most powerful battle cry among the Hindus and Muslims of Bengal during the Partition days. "
The anti (Bengal) Partition movement generated a host of patriotic songs and plays and had a major impact on the nascent sound recording industry in India.  
History's whispering corridors have a strange pattern of crossing and recrossing . In 1907 the worsening Anglo German relations led to Germany's support for their enemy's enemy's  fight for independence . And the Beka records G.m.b.H ) Berlin Germany, released a two sided 10" sized 78 R.P.M. record containing a speech by Babu Surendra Nath Banerjee on 'Partition of Bengal' on the one side and a rendering of the entire  poem Vande Mataram in Surendra Babu's voice on the other. This and another record of another rendition of the Anti British poem released by The Gramaphone Co of London were deleted in 1909.
Interstingly Sir Abdul Halim Ghaznavi, a Muslim Swadeshi leader of the nationalist movement was also the agent of Beka records in Bengal. He is said to have played a great role in conceptualising the venture.
After 1909 very few records of this controversial poem were released and both the recording Industry as also the theatrical performances came under careful scrutiny by the British Government for any seditious content they may carry. Both the Dramatic Performance Control Act, 1876 and The Vernacular Press Act were used to seize and destroy such material. .
The sound recording industry had, in the meanwhile, sized up the lucrative potential of patriotic songs and plays . Vande Mataram had immediately become a best seller when Hemedra Mohan Bose of H Bose records recorded the controversial poem in the voice of the celebrated poet Tagore. Bose was also the first Indian to produce indigenous cylindrical blanks for recording sound. It was after this that backed by the Germans, Pathe in 1908 reproduced and released H Bose's famous Record number 250 of Vande Mataram in the voice of Rabindra Nath Tagore.
Soon Gandhi stepped into the Freedom Movement and the Indian National Congress came into being . This was also the time when Pt. Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, a great scholar and teacher of Hindusthani classical music was also touring the country, establishing music teaching institutes . To raise funds for his schools, he set many patriotic and religious songs to music and sang them at various public fund raisers to great applause. Among them were Vande Mataram and some of Gandhi ji's favorite Bhajans like Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram and the Narsi Mehta poem Vaishnav Jan to Tene Kahiye...
In 1921 at the annual session of the Indian National Congress  in Ahmedabad, a large crowd had gathered to prevent Gandhi ji from reaching the stage to address the audience. Pt Paluskar managed to make way for Gandhi by parting the crowd of protesters . He mesmerised everyone by his soulful rendition of Bapu's favorite Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram and led Bapu to the stage while continuing to sing. The session ended with his vigorous singing of Vande Mataram in which all joined.  

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Nainital O --Five

According to the Thornton report of 1850, there were around 121 Hindi and Sanskrit medium schools run by natives in Kumaon region. However, according to Mr Traille, the fabled Commissioner of Kumaon during the Company period, in 1823 Kumaon had no public institutions of the nature of schools. Children from upper caste families ( read only males) were given tuitions by Brahmin tutors who gave their pupils the basic reading, writing and accounting skills in the vernacular. More advanced students were sent to Banaras for studying Sanskrit .
The first school the British set up was in Srinagar in Garhwal in 1840.  But in the psot Ghadar period when Nainital became the summer headquarters of the North Western Provinces, that Nainital began to develop as a good centre for schooling. In the beginning of the Twentieth Century when the new Government House in Nainital was completed and the Lt Governor moved in, schools began to flourish.
Rethinking about constructions began after the disastrous landslide of 1880 and that included the house built for the Lt Governor on Sher Ka Danda in 1879. It had developed cracks that were deemed to be serious enough for the house to be vacated. In 1896 after much bureaucratic bickering over costs involved, the Government in Kolkata finally sanctioned the building of a new Government House. Mr FW Stevens the eminent architect from Bombay who had also built the Victoria Terminus was authorised to build it. His original blueprint was modified to bring it within the purview of  the permissible financial ceiling ( Rs 5 Lakhs). Electricity was installed later by Mssrs Balmer Lawrie of Calcutta and the furniture was made by Mssrs Lazarus and Co of Calcutta and Mssrs Maple and Co of London. The carpets were woven by craftsmen lodged in Agra, Lucknow and Fatehgarh jails.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Nainital O --Four

And ah, the manifold attractions of the Mallital bazaar .
In 1842 one Mr Barron writing under the name of ‘Pilgrim’ wrote in the Agra Akhbar, that a news item appearing in the Calcutta’s ‘Englishman’ paper, be followed as soon as possible . The said item had referred to a chance discovery of ‘an undulating lawn with a great deal of ground ,’ surrounded by thick forests and magnificent mountains with a pristine lake in the vicinity of Almora, by some Englishman . He was the first to spot the possibilities of building ‘a race course, a cricket ground etcetera in every direction for a large town.’ He visited Nainital (then spelt Nynee Tal) in 1842 ( arriving by boat from Bhimtal side). His two oared boat some 20 feet in length, was carried by 60 coolies to Nainital and was the first to be launched in the Naini Lake. He thus became the precursor of Nanital’s famous yacht club one of the first 3 such clubs in India. Mr Barron asked the Commissioner Mr Lushington’s office for a dozen contractors and even introduced the Company official Mr Batten to one local contractor, Lala Moti Ram Sah of Almora . Sah jue agreed to undertake the work of building the first twelve bungalows. Rules were drawn quickly by the Commissioner’s office to grant permission and necessary leases were created that kept the lessees firmly bound to following government rules at all times. A municipality created in 1850 and reconstructed in 1873 with 6 nominated honorary members , presided over by the Commissioner and the Dy Commissioner as the President and Vice President cum member secretary now took matters in hand. The bungalows were advertised as soon as they were ready and the Commissioner, who had already had  a sizeable bungalow built for himself, allotted more sites for the creation of necessary public buildings and a bazaar on the upper lakeside ( Mallital). The natives were relegated to building their abodes on the downside ( Tallital).
Up until 1845 a dense bamboo forest existed where the Mallital bazaar now stands. And tigers, Gurals and Sambhar deer roamed there freely. This is why the first church that came up in Ayarpatta in Mallital, was named St John in The Wilderness. It was built by public subscription at a total cost of Rs 15,000. The bazzar as also (Amitabh Bachchan’s Alma Mater) Sherwood School for boys began to be built in the same year 1846. The latter was built by Captain Arnaud on land known as Gaiwala Khet. By the time Mr Barron visited Nainital a third time, much of the wild life had been forced back into the forests on the hillside and the lake had about half a dozen boats carrying building material across the lake to Mallital. The original Sherwood college, called The Diocesan Boys’ School, opened in 1869 by Bishop Milman of Calcutta. It then stood at Stoneleigh where the Ramsay hospital now stands and was moved first to Khurpatal and relocated ( due to non salubrious climate at Khurpatal) to Sher Ka Danda in Ayarpatta where it still stands.
To fast forward into the early 60s, the Mallital bazaar began with Ram Lal’s famous shop on your right. It sold woolen textiles of high quality and also had excellent tailors available. A little further stood the fairy land of Rais Brothers’ shop that offered all sorts of items from haberdasherie to edibles. Opposite them was another book shop owned by the gentle Mr Kansal of the Kansal book depot. He sold books in Hindi both of the academic and non academic kind and was also an agent for inexpensive books on religion brought out by the Gita Press Gorakhpur in their familiar maroon Khadi bindings. The latter were in great demand among religiously inclined old men and women. Next to them was the Tandon Brothers’ utensil shop .The infamous and gifted ladies tailor Harichand had his little shop opposite these, next to Raees Brothers’. Here you could see all the well dressed wives of the town’s elite squabbling like fisherwomen with the Master who absorbed their shrill barbs about delaying their ordered clothes, with a saintly smile . ‘Kal aana’, (come tomorrow), he would tell every one , and ultimately the victims retraced their steps comparing notes with how late whose promised deliveries were . Harichand with his long and close association with all old families treated teenagers with disdain and would rule out our demands for deeper necks or tighter top garments rather rudely saying our parents would not approve of it. He stitched our school uniforms and then our trousseaus and sighed happily as he measured our widening girths thereafter .
A few shops away stood Mamu Halwai’s sweet shop that served the most scrumptious Indian sweets and Bedami Kachauris for which he employed special Karigars from Mathura during the ‘season’. He disapproved of his young female customers constantly asking for more chutneys and masalas in their chat and told us gruffly to run off and stop pestering him. Neither happened . Mamu also doubled up as Ravana in the annual Ramlila and sported a most fierce moustache . His eyes remained kind and merry though . When he was in a good mood we’d cajole him to ‘do’ the Ravana Laugh and he obliged with a booming Gabbar like laughter that rang in the marketplace and made everyone smile. Here the market street bifurcated and a branch climbed up to where the vegetable shops stood . The Ramlila pucca stage between the forks functioned as a wholesale market where the pennywise householders shopped constantly complaining about the quality of vegetables and fruits on display. The coolies lounged by with their cane baskets, hoping to catch someone’s eyes and carry his load up the hillside.
After a little turn almost at the end of the market, after the various small shops selling bangles and kohl and Parandis, stood Bakharua Halwai’s shop. He was the town eccentric and dressed in a filthy Baniyan and Dhoti the year round . No one knew how old he was but he had no teeth and drooled and one could barely make out what he said . He had a walrus moustache and a most dour countenance, but his large and thick Jalebis and pungent Samosas fried in Shudh Desi Ghee , the only two items he produced for a limited period each day, were to die for. To some of us favored old clients he also kept a hidden cache of a pungent Dalmoth the like of which I have never tasted since .

The last shop at a distance from Bakhrua’s where the long climb to our Ayarpatta house began, was the Desi liquor shop . It awake at around four in the afternoon and we were witnesses to frequent and semantically enriching verbal fights among the inebriated clients that we watched with amusement as we climbed up . The town stray dogs kept them company seemingly impervious to a few hefty kicks they delivered from time to time. We knew the regular town drunks that came to the Bhatti shop, by name and often met their worried young sons or wives descending the slopes . They’d pause and ask us if we had spotted their father or brother at the Bhatti and if we confirmed their fears they’s spit and burst into colourful expletives.        

Friday, 15 August 2014

Nainital O Nainital O--3

The stretch between Mallital and Tallital ( Mallital literally  meaning the upper end of the lake and Tallital the lower), covered most of our worldly needs , minus the schools ofcourse. The Modern Book Depot in Mallital  stood at one end of Mallital and was basically a stationary and book shop we shopped for all our school stuff in . It was large, painted inexplicably in a somber grey and stood next to the Flats. The store also doubled up as a grocery store and so the byline on its board read , ‘Cacks, Pastris and Chiss also sold hear”(sic). Next to it a thin and winding road led up to a boys’ school with the formidable name of ‘Chet Ram Sah Thulghariya School for Boys(CRST for short) . The Flattis’ Restaurant stood where this cluster of shops ended . Their ice creams and shakes were very popular and a trip to it ( with a cheery visiting uncle or a cousin with deep pockets ) were much looked forward to .  Nainital then had only two tourist 'seasons' . The first and the longer one began in May when the entire secretariat of the UP government moved to Nanital which was the summer capital of the state. Later as schools in the plains closed down for summers, families of tourists arrived and hired cottages for two months or longer . Others used the hotels like The Grand Hotel, or The India Hotel . The officers stayed at the Nainital Club or in the cottages that stood next to the Secretariat building . The second season began during the Pooja in October and the tourists who troped in were largely from Bengal . They wore monkey caps and yelled a lot, especially when riding horses along hairpin bends . All hotel, cinema halls and most restaurants in Nainital in those days closed down in October and remained closed till the tourist season began in April next year. At the blackboard near the Laxmi ( nee Roxy) Theatre that announced the week's film and its star cast, boys from CRST would scrawl in Hindi , Dekhiye Fillum Talamaar ( Watch the movie Lockdown).
The after Flattis restaurant the road rose and led to the Mallital Market . The Crosthwaite hospital stood to your right as you climbed . One of my mother’s numerous sisters was married to the Civil Surgeon when we were growing up, and had a conveniently located Civil Surgeon’s residential house within its premises. Here we could always seek shelter if it suddenly began raining or snowing . Occasionally when our mother was busy visiting relatives, we were instructed to go to the aunt’s house and wait for our parents to pick us up later. The nurses in the hospital knew us by name and smiled at us as they carried on with their work.

Our aunt was a tall, generous and handsome woman and her house was always overflowing with distant relatives come from the villages seeking treatment. They were a very interesting bunch and spoke Kumaoni with a rural twang . Some patients took long to recover and their families were expected to stay for weeks, even months. No one was ever asked to leave. Enormous meals were cooked by our aunt and her faithful cook in massive pressure cookers named Har da’ and Nar da’ ( da being short for Dajue or elder brother). The doctors’ three sons did their homework in the OT after 5pm and sometimes, when all beds in the house were occupied, would even sleep uncomplainingly on the operating tables. The mortuary lay close by and as we explored it with them, our uncle sagely explained to us the semantic difference between an autopsy and a post mortem. Assisted by the ward boys , my cousins and younger siblings often collected large sacks of pinecones from the forests close around . This saved on fuel and was the childrens’ small effort at strengthening our aunt’s unfathomable skills in running such a large kitchen on a limited salary . In collusion with the cheerful bunch of Christian nurses who adored the Good Doctor, they also kept a list of each month’s dead and newly born, and agreed with them that there were more deaths and births around a full moon. No, as childhoods go, this was not a bad one at all !

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Nainital O, Nainital O !-2

Under the British Crown, the Public Works Department or the PWD (known locally in the north Indian small towns I grew up in, as Pildabru) was created in India in 1859 . When Nainital was being rebuilt after the Great Landslide of 1880, its engineers did a remarkable job . The Victorian and Edwardian period also proved to be a period of great prosperity for the Indian subcontinent and its impact is visible in many of the heritage buildings created from Mumbai ( The Victoria Terminus) to Kumaon ( The Nainital Vice Regal Lodge now known as The Raj Bhawan ).
On the 15th of October, 1891, Nainital  and Almora were given the status of two separate districts. The officers in chief executive and magisterial charge of the new districts were designated as Deputy Commissioners . After this the building of Nainital as a tourist and leisure resort for the officials of the Crown began in earnest . A map of Nainital ( corrected upto 1887) shows that 235 estates and buildings had come up within the municipal limits of Nainital District. The INTACH has now identified 31 of those as valuable heritage buildings. Some of these were the Old London House building in Mallital bazaar, Hawksdale, MES Inspection bungalow, the Civil Courts and the Collector’s Offices, and Balrampur House and Guerny House (abode of Jim Corbett) in Ayarpata side.
I grew up with my siblings and cousins in a large, draughty and beautifully constructed but badly maintained house on the Ayarpata hillside. It had a very British sounding name : The Priory Lodge . A fire reduced it to a shell in the 1990s and now a multi storied building is coming up in its place, too ugly to stop by and stare at.
The name Ayarpata comes actually from a Kumaoni word Anyarpatt meaning totally dark. This hill stands opposite the sunny side of Nainital and then had thick forests of oak ( Baanj), Deodar and Surai ( Angrezi name?). The highest peak China Peak from whenth the disastrous landslide had emanated, stood to our left and each monsoon shook up the town with minor to not so minor landslides which make it look permanently scarred. The other peaks, Snow View and Tiffin top were to our right and in front stood the Ladiya Kaanta .During winter months, hungry she- bears or small Bagh ( called Kukurbagh as they killed the guard dogs and dragged them into forests) would sometimes be sighted in the vicinity of homes . Shadows descended during summer months on this side by 4 pm, and even earlier in winters . In winters the snow on Ayarpatta side took the longest time to melt. I recall being escorted to the school bus by our old Chowkidar who carried a spear ( Ballam) that he buried in the snow before hauling us ahead by hand.
Each day at nine o clock a siren sounded and school children going to the givernment schools began a long descent towards the Flats  and the Ghoda Padav, where our school buses arrived unerringly at 9.30. They waited for no one and if you missed it you must either hire a rikshaw ( which we could ill afford) or walk it . My siblings trekked it to the local Convent Schools that stood towards the other end of Ayarpatta. 
All through the year, barring the monsoon months,  the roofs of the town that lay beneath us, sported various kinds of preserves that housewives made for the long winters. These ranged from Badi and Mungauris made of legumes, to pickled fruit and last, but not the least, enormous balls made by mixing charcoal powder with cowdung that were lit in square Sigris and kept the interiors warm during the long winters . In monsoon months the same charcoal balls were used to dry thick school uniforms and sweaters . The steam, mixed with the furry smell of dogs and cats was an inescapable part of most homes we visited.
Each dialect reveals its innate inventive powers when describing a local phenomena (In eastern UP, for example, they have over two dozen names for various kinds of breezes and even more for clouds.) Kumaoni is rich in words describing various smells that emanate from houses that must be shut tight against cold. So we have Kidain ( smell of moths and roaches ), Bhupain ( a roasty toasty smell), churain( smell from blocked toilets) Syaudain ( the odor from damp fungal material) Hantarain ( smell of hair or skin burning) and so on..
To come back to Nainital . At Mallital as we stood facing the Tallital, the Smugglers’ rock was to our right. The ancient Pashan Devi temple there had rows upon rows of brass bells that tinkled constantly. In front of us was the (relocated) Naina Devi temple and the Mosque, Rikshaw stand and the Ghoda Padav ( open horse stables) stood to our left . The bazaar used a chain of coolies from Nepal who were even poorer than the locals and came cheaper. They delivered everything from impossibly heavy trunks to live chickens to homes and schools along the higher side . They sported metallic badges, were indescribably dirty and happy. They loved singing and in the evening after they had finished their day’s work and gone to sleep in the open ( possible only half the year) in the bazaar they sang sad songs happily, nudging and falling over each other. One song I still remember:
Kurta mailo Dhoti maili Dhvedinya koi chhai na,Pardesh maan mari joonlo ve dinya koi na..
(My top is dirty, my lower garments are dirtier but there is no one to wash them for me . One day I will die in this alien land and there will be no one to give me a proper cremation.)

This taught me one valuable lesson . One must not go by the obvious joy upon a singer’s face and think, ah what joy ! The joy mostly comes from the notes of music. The words will often tell a different tale.    

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Nainital O, Nainital O ! - 1

In my last post I mentioned the creative genius of Band Master Ram Singh of the famed Ranikhet Regiment, who managed to get many popular Kumaoni folk songs into the permanent repertoire of the Indian army . He paid his own tribute to the pretty little town of Nainital by writing a song in Kumaoni about its proximity to the railhead at Kathgodam and consequent appeal for its upwardly mobile rural youth . The lovely bouncy song as I recall it, went :
Nainital O Nainital O
Ghoomi aayo raila Re
Aankhui maan kaajal chhau
Bulbuli maan tela O Nainital O !
( Ah Nainital , Oh Nainital ! I have travelled by a train my friends ! I have kohl in my eyes and my puffed hair is well oiled !)
It may come as a surprise to many, that the town of Nainital was initially a holy spot named after a temple to the goddess Naina devi . It had stood by itself for years, next to a picturesque lake in the Kumaon hills . The area villagers feared the goddess's wrath if they ever thought of encroaching on what they felt was divine property . They would not even consider riding a boat or trying to catch fish from the Goddess's own pond. It remained for the British to start all that.
In 1802 four officials of the East India Company Mr Gatt, Mr Moorcroft, Colonel Gardner and Captain Hershy, made a secret visit to Kumaon. They were trying to assess the commercial potential of the flora and flauna of the Himalayan region . During their trip, they also visited Nainital and were dazzled by the tranquil beauty of the place and its large lake where large Maahsir fish, much sought after anglers, swam . This, they reported held a vast potential as a suitable recreation ground for their personnel, exhausted after months spent in the dusty plains of north India. Their confidential note to the Company after their visit was forwarded to the bosses in London.
Legend has it that in 1840 when Mr Lexington was the area Commissioner, one Company official, Mr Barron terrorised the village chief ( Thokdar Nar Singh) by forcing him to ride a boat and then hanging him upside down in the middle of the lake. In return for saving his life Barron Sahib had the hapless Thokdar sign a legal deed that made the area over to the British for almost nothing . Then they set about building a township for their officers around the lake .
Some of the buildings that came up were : A church, Saint John in The Wilderness (1846), The Ramsay Hospital(1892), The Crosthwaite Hospital ( 1896), The Albion Hotel (1872), and The Naintal Club (1872).
In 1880 Nainital was decimated when after torrential rains a massive landslide demolished most of the buildings . The British felt this could have been averted had the drainage system been more scientifically planned . The local villagers said it was a punishment by the goddess for having polluted her area . Whatever it was, the damage it caused was considerable. Among the buildings that disappeared under the rubble, was the well known Victoria Hotel where the famous Corbett family then lived . The senior Corbett , father of James Corbett the great hunter turned conservationist, was one of those who died during the landslide.
Bit by bit Nainital was rebuilt with better drainage and a sluice gate (known locally as Daant or the cog) to let out excessive water from the lake after a heavy downpour. These still serve the town .
( Next- The New Nainital )  

Band Baja Barat in Kumaon

Martial music creates a unique bridge where music and annihilation meet . Men's wars it seems, are not complete without music adding to the excitement.
Before the British came, our native kings and princes also went to war routinely accompanied by a posse of royal drummers and trumpet players . As empires became bigger and so also the wars and what they won for the winning side, dancing girls and singers were also added to the music producing groups. The British, as they raised native armies in India, frowned on the debatable inclusion of courtesans and hermaphrodites in the Queen's army . So a large number of musicians and dancing girls were sent packing .
Almora in Kumaon still has a village Naikyana where some of the Nayikas ( courtesans) are said to have settled after the Moghul and Rajput armies were defeated and fled to the countryside. The women in Niakyana as I was growing up looked different from the local women with their tall and lissome bodies, their acquiline noses . They drank and smoked and the young men in the surrounding areas were frequently seen loitering around Naikyana .
The British in post 1857 India built churches, started schools and introduced brass bands and bagpipers that played British martial tunes as they marched with the regiments on all ceremonial occasions, resplendent in red and gold briaded gear. Almost a hundred years ago (by 1918 to be precise), all units of the Indian Army, including the ones in Kumaon,  had acquired their own brass bands .
The British regime not only disbanded the musicians, but also the makers of arms patronised for centuries by the native rulers . Most of them were Muslims and sought refuge in the northern areas close to Delhi and the foothills of the Himalayan region where Rohilla Pathans had vast tracts of land. Then they set about reinventing themselves by using their considerable metallurgical skills to manufacture finished goods items for civilians . These ranged from scissors and padlocks to  brass band components. Slowly, as their militaristic displays became fewer and further between, the brass bands began to offer their services for a price, for joyous occasions like weddings, the birth of a son and last but not the least, funerals of centenarians who had enjoyed a full life.
On the eve of India's Independence, one Sagir Ahmed of Nagla village in Bijnaur in the Terai region happened to marry a girl from the Pithoragarh district in the Kumaon hills . He was a trained clarinet player and when he moved to Haldwani to enable his wife to visit her family more easily, he formed a brass band group and named it after their first born Altaf . Thus the famous Altaf band of Kumaon, without which no wedding procession was considered elitist enough.
Till Altaf band was born the well to do families in the hills were in the habit of hiring the local trumpet players , drummers and players of a version of bagpipes known as Mashaq Been .Marching with wedding processions in the hills was much more stressful than marching in the plains with an army . The usual rates for the bands ranged from Rs 2 to Rs 25 per person . But when invited to play with wedding processions in the hills, the rates were hiked considerably as processions moved on foot on unpaved roads and had to climb up steep hills to reach their destination . It was during one such event that Altaf Master is said to have collapsed with a massive heart attack .
After Altaf his younger brother Talib Husein created the Azad Band . The members of this group met in the orchards facing  the local Zenana hospital to practice new ditties, mostly from Hindi films that were becoming a rage. My brothers and I rolled on floors when we heard the band playing a rather unsuitable film song when accompanying a new bride going to her father in law's house with her groom : Hum aaj apni maut ka samaan le chaley ! ( Today we carry that which shall destroy us !).
By the late 70s, the police and army bands were much sought after by government officials to celebrate family weddings. I remember being awed by the sight of the tall band master from the police lines twirling his baton on 15th August in the Raj Bhawan premises . Master Ram Singh, from the Ranikhet Paltan and his pet ram that accompanied him to Nainital each summer to play before the tourists under a gazebo, became a household name. As the gifted Ram Singh got his team to play popular songs along with age old Kumaoni hits like 'Bedu Pako Baraomasa Kaafal pako Chaita meri Chhaila !' ( The Bedu fruits ripen all year long my love, but the delicate Kaafal berries can be picked only in spring time )  his ram danced and sent us in raptures . It ended always in dizzying rounds of applause.
It was Ram Singh who introduced the Kumaoni folk ditties in the permanent repertoire of India's army bands . During Beating the Retreat ceremonial each January, one is moved to tears to hear the band play Master Ram Singh's creations as the lights come up on the Presidential palace and the surrounding buildings and army bands retreat gently back to their barracks .    

Monday, 11 August 2014

Travelling in Kumaon of the 60s

My mother's generation travelled home to Almora by train up to the town of Bareilly and then continued the rest of the journey on horseback or palanquins ( Dandis) carried by hefty Nepali men who kept yelling "Ek Taraf!" ( move aside !) as they carried their precious cargo of women and children. By the time we grew up macademized ( Damar) roads had replaced the kuchcha trekking trails and we boarded the bus from the Kathgodam terminal .
The first thing that comes to mind, are the sick- making petrol fumes from the luridly painted KMOU (Kumaon Motor Owners' Union Ltd) buses that sneezed as they moved . We were told to look ahead at the back of other buses to ward off nausea. What was called the 'backside' of each bus, had duly signed pictures of leaping tigers, birds, lakes , trees and hills, along with slogans . These seem to have been painted mainly by a painter duo : Himmatuva painter and Babu painter. We were sick most of the time till we reached .  
The KMOU was born in 1939 after the first transport company simply called The Motor Transport Company collapsed for reasons unknown. The first CMD of KMOU was one EZ Fonseca, an Anglo Indian and owned vast tracts of land known as Fonseca Estates. We called him Mister Funsee ( Mr pimple) when the elders were not around. But obviously he was a good manager . After his retirement we heard adults say, the Company had gone to the dogs. This worried us temporarily, handicapped by a lack of knowledge of English as we were , till we learnt that buses were far from becoming the property of ferocious Bhutiya sheep dogs with a nasty breath and mean yellow eyes. 
Petrol pumps then were few in the area and none in the villages around . The buses, before they began climbing up to Nainital and beyond,  'took' petrol at a pump in Kathgodam . The petrol pump most in demand was owned jointly by Sardar Harbans Singh, Lala Balmukund and one Harvansh . All these worthies were referred to in the board hanging at the petrol station as Pro. ( short for proprietor) . There were 250 buses in all, owned by various people, my cousin Muku informed me sagely. He loved to make lists and put down all such facts in a little black diary he carried when travelling . The buses we also learnt from his notes, left the headquarters at Kathgodam after 'taking' petrol, for various towns and had unions which protected the workers . Since the hill folk in those days were not too mechanically inclined , Haldwani, Tanakpur, and Ram Nagar were the foothill towns from whence all the area drivers, cleaners and mechanics were recruited . 
Our great pleasure as we moved, was to read aloud the slogans painted on rocks on both sides of the road far into the interior . It was the work of an eccentric local Shiv Dutt Joshi, also known as Gandhi Baba. He was a follower of Gandhi's teachings and had taken it upon himself to try and eradicate various bad habits that afflicted the new generation , namely drinking tea, imbibing alcohol, smoking Bidi cheroots and cigarettes . Baba ji was said to have graduated from The Gurukul Kangri University in Rishikesh considered a stronghold of austere Arya Samajis . Baba ji then ran a tea shop in Nainital. He later set up an Ashram (long before Mahrshi Mahesh Yogi and others made it cool), near Jyolikot village. It was called Shiv Digesto Ashram. 
After 1962 Chinese incursions in which India was badly pushed about, Gandhi Baba added a few anti China slogans to his usual ones . These now said, "Chai Bidi Chhodo, Cheen ko Khadedo !" (Give up tea and smoking, also chase away the Chinese), Rashtriya Suraksha Kosh Mein Daan do ! ( Please donate to the national defence fund) . In the 70s, after Baba ji moved to live in Sakhavat gunj in Haldwani at the foothills, new ecological considerations became visible when Baba ji's slogans said ,Nainital Ka Mal, Haldwani ka Peyjal !  (Haldwani's drinking water carries Nainital's excreta ). Corruption began to be highlighted as well, Arrey Bhai kyon baithey ho udas ? Hara note dikhao jhat se Gadi pass ! ( O Brother, why look morose ? Show a green currency note and your vehicle will get the pass ). He is said to have received some 6000 letters of commendation from various celebrities, including India's first Prime Minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru .