Sunday, March 29, 2009

Zoffany's Cock Match & Other Conversation Pieces : A Croaking Chorus or the Frogs of Aristophanes?

What is a Conversation Piece? In the original sense in which the term was used, it referred to a drawing or painting of a group of people, such as a family group,engaged in conversation or in some activity like dining ("soul food"?) or sport. These days, the term is used to refer to any drawing of a group that interests the viewers and leads to conversation about the subject, or subjects, of the drawing. I understand Conversation Pieces as a genre began first to be painted in England in the early 18th Century and portrayed prominent people or high society.

There are a number of framed pictures, mostly engravings plus the odd watercolour or pen & ink, hung in my house. And my wife is beginning to get annoyed with me. In truth, she is already extremely annoyed with me not only about the hang, or overhang, some of it hanging askew at times but also about the boxes of unframed prints and, especially, the books pulled out from their shelves and strewn about in the bedroom and in my study (which she dismissively calls the book room). On such occasions, I very reasonably observe to her that as she is not having to carry the load on her head, why should the litter trouble her at all. And that is when the argument starts.

But that is not what I wanted to say as it is easy enough to keep one jump ahead of trouble at home. All I have to do is put the books back in their shelves before she tidies up on me, so that is simple and easy enough. My difficulty is altogether different and I will try to explain below.

I have already said that the house has lots of framed pics hung in most of the rooms.But none of my visitors or friends give them a second look. That I can understand, everyone need not be taken up with these images, you need to be interested in that sort of thing. But when I show them one of my Conversation Pieces, that too one of the most celebrated of that ilk, and it leaves them cold, that can I not understand. For all the blank reaction it provokes, my visitor could be looking into the mirror and thinking "hey,very ordinary, nothing worthy of note here", as if seeing his or her own image. Here is that Conversation Piece I am referring to (pic taken through the glass and slightly out of focus in trying to avoid the flashback, but there is good clarity if you click and enlarge):

This is an engraving by Richard Earlom of the celebrated drawing, Col Mordaunt's Cock Match, by Johann Zoffany, drawn in 1784. It is a goodly sized engraving, image area 18 x 26 inches (height preceding width), published as a mezzotint in 1792. The version with me has added hand colouring, which I suspect is period but aftermarket. Here is the original uncoloured mezzotint :

Col Mordaunt's (Zoffany's) Cock Match

You can see that it is a busy scene and a crowded picture. It needs a key and I did manage, years ago, to scrounge a xerox of the original key from a dealer, Sotheran of Sackville Street. Unfortunately, I can not trace the key from out of all the bumf with me or the key has been tidied up on me, not sure which. I did manage to get a key from a Bombay dealer but it is a reduced version and doesn't reproduce well(but do click and enlarge, you can then see the numerals and text clearly enough) :

Johann Zoffany (1735 - 1810)

With a picture like this I had better begin with the artist, Zoffany. He was born in Frankfurt - on - Main, the son of a Bohemian Jew who was court architect to the Prince of Thurn und Taxis. His drawing skills were noticed even at school and as he did not distinguish himself at studies, Zoffany was apprenticed to a painter at a young age. After about a year of this, he "borrowed" some gold from his father's money chest and betook himself to Rome where he spent the next ten or twelve years as an itinerant artist, copying pictures from the galleries and so on. By this time Zoffany heard of his father's death and, judging it safe to return home, he took up residence at Coblenz in Germany. He married a local girl, it was not a happy marriage for the lady at any rate, Zoffany is said to have been unkind to her.

Unable to establish himself as an artist in Germany, Zoffany moved again, this time to England in about 1760. His initial struggles included time spent as a painter of clock dials, these clocks now being collector's items, and apprenticeship to an artist called Benjamin Wilson. Zoffany was not very happy in Wilson's employment but, being a lover of theatre, made the acquaintance of the many theatre and acting types who frequented Wilson's London studio. And that was how he came to the notice of David Garrick, the theatrical personality and impresario. Followed membership of the Society of Artists, many commissions for Conversation Pieces and portraits, including "theatrical" portrayals, then election to the Royal Academy as one of the original members (see below his portrait of the academicians, the artist having put himself at left extreme) and Zoffany soon came to attention of King George III. This was to lead to a visit to Italy and to the production of the Tribuna of the Uffizi, a Conversation Piece by Royal Commission. Of that more anon, let us go first go with Zoffany to Lucknow.

John Maddison : Zoffany 1783

Academicians of the Royal Academy : Zoffany 1771 -- 72
(to see the image in all its glory go to the Royal Collection)

The bottom having dropped out of the home market for Conversation Pieces by about 1780, due to overkill no doubt, Zoffany decided to go to India to make his fortune. He put up the necessary sureties to the East India Company and got permission to make the journey to India. One of the sureties was John Maddison, stockbroker and a member of the Goldsmith's Company, whose portrait Zoffany drew. Maddison also took care of Zoffany's affairs during the latter's absence in India. Zoffany was not permitted by the Company to travel on board an East Indiaman for some reason but managed to circumvent this restriction by signing up as a Midshipman aboard a company vessel.
In Calcutta

Zoffany arrived in Calcutta in September 1783 after an eight month voyage, including a month en route in Madras, and soon found his way to Lucknow. He knew the artist William Hodges who was touring India at the time. It is likely that Hodges had written to him about the fabled wealth of Lucknow in Oudh and the rich pickings to be had there. It is also known that Zoffany met Hodges when he arrived in Calcutta, so it is probable that the latter gave him introductions to people in Lucknow . The month in Madras had been useful in gaining an intro from the Governor, George Macartney, to the Governor General, Warren Hastings. That, in any case, is the documented story but we must not forget that, by 1784, Zoffany was nearly 50, a Royal Academician, no less and painter to George III, so I would think the Macartney introduction was just by the way. Anyhow his acquaintance with the Governor General resulted in a number of commissions in Calcutta including some from Hastings himself.

18th Century Lucknow

Hastings paid a farewell visit to Lucknow in the spring of 1784 and Zoffany joined him in June of that year. The Kingdom of Oudh (in reality a Nawabi or Viceroyship for the Moghul Emperor), with Lucknow as the capital, had been founded in about 1725. The Nawabs paid only nominal allegiance to the Emperor but their independence was curtailed in 1764 when the ruling Nawab, Shuja ud Dowla, tried conclusions with the British in the Battle of Buxar. The British retained Shuja ud Dowlah as Nawab but extracted annual tribute from him and also posted a Resident at Lucknow. The Nawab retained his powers within Oudh but had to defer to the British in matters of defence and also had to pay for an army they maintained in Lucknow for his "protection". The ruling Nawab in 1784 was Asoph ud Dowla who had succeeded Shuja in 1775.

Asoph ud Dowla, dissolute and indulgent, was given to the pleasures of the table and of the bedstead, with a reported harem 1500 strong. In spite of which he did not father an offspring and the successor to the throne was Vizier Ali (whom we have already met, see post below on Benares), an adopted son. Asoph's 22 year reign was one of extravagance and downright decadence but it was also a period in which he encouraged the arts and the famous pehle aap (after you) culture of Lucknow may be said to date from his time. He aslo had a court of hangers-on, unusually, many of them British and European with the most notable being Claude Martin.

A description of the character of the Nawab by Louis Ferdinand Smith from the Asiatic Register 1804 : " He is mild in manners, generous to extravagance, affably polite and engaging in his conduct; but he has not great mental powers, though his heart is good. He is fond of lavishng his treasures on gardens, palaces, horses, elephants and, above all, on fine European gems, lustres, mirrors, and all sorts of European manufactures, more especially English, from a 2 d deal board painting of ducks and drakes to elegant paintings of a Lorraine or a Zoffany, and from a dirty little paper lantern to mirrors and lustres which cost up to Pounds 3000 each".

Asoph ud Dowla (Watercolour said to be after Zoffany)

Claude Martin (1735 - 1800)

When it comes to judging Claude Martin I am reminded of the story of the cabaret master (or presenter) who quoted Shakespeare : "Ladies and Gentleman, what you are going to see is neither good nor bad; only thinking makes it so". He was born near Lyon, enlisted as a soldier with the French East India Company in 1751 and arrived in Pondicherry shortly thereafter. There is a family anecdote about how, when news of his enlisting reached home, his stepmother ran to the depot to bring him back but Martin refused, saying he wanted to go and make his fortune in a foreign country. At which, she boxed his ears, saying in tears : "Go, you obstinate one, but don't ever come back except in a carriage", and gave him a purse of 24 coins.

Claude Martin by Francesco Renaldi

Well, seek his fortune Martin did but only after changing sides from the French to the British in about 1760. By this time the French were on their last legs in India and our soldier of fortune, by a side-ways shuffling of the feet as it were, switched his allegiance. He did serve his new masters well and earned their confidence, seeing action in a number of skirmishes with local rulers both in South India and in Bengal, including Buxar in 1764. After a period spent on the Indian Survey under James Rennell, Martin went back to soldiering, this time to quell some trouble from the Bhutanese on the border. That he was guilty of looting the treasury in Bhutan is a charge often levelled at Martin but that is not the only way he enriched himself. By the early 1770's Martin was permanently established in Lucknow, first as Surveyor under Rennell and later as Superintendent of the Arsenal. And when Asoph ud Dowla acceded to the throne in 1775, Martin also managed to worm his way into the Nawab's inner circle of Europeans.

The Nawab's Inner Circle

Probably the foremost among the inner circle of Asoph ud Dowla was Martin. As the Nawab was fond of things European, chandeliers, sculpture, china, objets de art Martin saw to it that he became purveyor in chief to Asoph. This was perhaps the principal means of his personal enrichment. But there were other facets to Martin as well, such as his endowment of three schools in his name, the La Martiniere in Lucknow, Calcutta and Lyon. The two in India are certainly among the best boarding schools in the country to this day. The one in Lucknow is housed in Constantia, the palatial home Martin had built for himself.

La Martiniere in Lucknow

But there were other notable Europeans as well in the circle of Asoph ud Dowla. Firstly, Col John Mordaunt, Chief of the Nawab's Bodyguard and the illegitimate son of the 4th Earl of Peterborough. Schooling had not done much for his three R's as is clear from a letter he wrote to his friend : "You may kip the hos as long as you lik". Unfitted as he was for a learned or respectable profession, a cadetship in the East India Company was secured for him. A t some point in time in India, Mordaunt became an ADC to Hastings and thus had the opportunity to be presented once to Asoph ud Dowla. It is believed that that is how he entered the Nawab's service. More than a head of the household bodyguard, he seems to have been a social secretary and master of ceremonies (and revelries) to Asoph ud Dowla. The Nawab regarded Mordaunt as a friend, not surprising if the accounts of the low tastes of the two men are to be believed.

There were two other intimates of the Nawab, Col Antoine Polier and John Wombwell, both servants of the East India Company in Lucknow. Polier was French but born in Switzerland in 1741. He had been Chief Engineer in Calcutta at one time but by about 1780 had become resident architect in Lucknow. And Wombwell was a man from Yorkshire, employed as the Company's Accountant n Lucknow. Here is a picture by Zoffany of the friends at ease, one among the fine Rogues' Galleries the artist excelled in painting :

At Ease : Polier, Martin & Wombwell (Zoffany in the Background) : Zoffany 1786 - 87

Col Antoine Polir & Friends : Zoffany 1786 - 87

I love this picture, almost as much as I do the Cock Match and some of Zoffany's other masterpieces (like the Tribuna and the Academicians). Firstly, it is big, some 55 x 72 inches. Next, it shows a group of friends at their ease, lounging around. The scene is said to be Polier's house. Claud Martin is the focus of the picture and he is seen explaining to Wombwell, to his left, a set of plans believed to be those of the house he constructed for himself (now the La Martiniere school in Lucknow). Don't fail to note the Indian servant holding up the plans for inspection. To the left is Col Antoine Polier inspecting some fruits or other produce, presumably from his gardens, being proffered by his servants. And don't fail to note that the servant at extreme left has elephantiasis of the leg!

This oil is in the Victoria Memorial collection in Calcutta, purchased and presented to it, if I remember right, by Lord Curzon.

Zoffany has put himself,as was his wont, into the picture. He is sketching in the background but facing us and it looks as though he has three of his other paintings on the wall. Then the monkey next to him, holding aloft a banana. Truly, a depiction of friends at ease and very topical too.

The author Rosie Llewellyn Jones, rightly celebrated for her triad of wonderful books on Nawabi Lucknow, suggests in an article that Zoffany has put the monkey in the picture to illustrate the European plundering the riches of Oudh or of the East. Maybe, on the other hand, maybe not. Why couldn't the monkey have been simply a pet monkey kept by Polier? Zoffany was not above making a point or two or above putting a little joke into his paintings but I wonder if, given his times and his friendships with the subjects of the pic, this "allegory" came to his mind.

Back to the Cock Match & the Dramatis Personae

The context to the picture out of the way, it is time to look at the content. Firstly, this is another shot of the engraving I own but both this pic and the earlier one have been tricked up on Picasa, each according to my whim of the moment (the real difference is that the former was shot by me in artificial light and this one here by Shivakumar in the open in afternoon light, the former is good for enlarging and seeing the detail, the one immediately above for an idea of the engraving as it actually looks).

Alright, what have we here, what is going on in the picture? First, it is a busy scene, a crowded scene. And it is a big engraving (the original oil at the Tate is even larger). Asoph ud Dowla loved cock fights, elephant fights and perhaps all forms of sport in which he did not have to do any of the work. And the Europeans were not averse to a bit of "good, clean, innocent" fun in this way, being used to cock fights in their own countries.

The occasion is a cock match between the birds of Mordaunt and those belonging to the Nawab. Hastings was witness to such a match on his arrival in Lucknow in April 1784 and is believed to have asked Zoffany to record another such occasion for him. The picture that Zoffany drew is sheer drama and comic theatre.

In this disorderly and somewhat unruly scene, we can make out the Nawab and Col Mordaunt quite clearly. The rotund, roly poly figure of Asoph ud Dowla is moving, arms outstretched in greeting, towards Mordaunt who is portrayed sauntering into the arena in his shirtsleeves, striking a nonchalant, casual posture. I can almost hear the two of them uttering endearing but foul imprecations and lewd entreaties to each other, such banter being known to be a feature of their relationship.

The European contingent is seated, or standing, mostly under a small awning to the right of the drawing, a sort of dress circle for the privileged. Many of them affect languid airs, seemingly unconcerned with the proceedings and intent on conversation among themselves. To the extreme right of the picture, there is a group of three Europeans in animated discussion about the birds that two of them are holding. The fat Englishman in the group, sitting down, is Lt Golding. Next to him, bird in hand, is Robert Gregory, an assistant at the Lucknow Residency who had already been warned by his father that if he continued to gamble on cock fights he would be cut off from the inheritance. As luck would have it, years later, when Gregory Senior was walking past a shopfront in the Strand he chanced to see the Earlom engraving of the Cock Match in the shop window, recognised his son and promptly cut him off from his will with the entire estate going to a younger son. Candid canvas!!

The usual suspects are all there. Claud Martin, prominent in the red coat, is sitting on a Diwan talking to Trevor (later Sir Trevor) Wheeler, an assistant at the Residency. Antoine Polier (clean shaven in this pic), in a brown coat, is seen standing at the left of the Dress Circle. Sitting in front of him, holding a Hooka, is John Wombwell. Zoffany, as he often had a habit of doing, has put himself in the picture, he has his right arm over the back of his chair, has turned round to face us, sketching pencil poised at the ready in his right hand. Standing with hand on Zoffany's shoulder is Ozias Humphrey, another artist who was in Lucknow at the time.

Is that all ? Don't fail to note the courtiers, the servants and the Nautch girls or dancers in the left background all perfectly delineated. And middle of the picture, just below the awning for the Europeans, is a Hindu pederast fondling a Muslim boy in skull cap, much to the indignation of a lunging courtier who is being restrained by another man. And lots of other detail and caricaturing of interest, just click and enlarge to see for yourself.

I recently came across a book on the Indian influence in British art of the 18th and 19th centuries. The two authors of the book say that the vacant place on the Diwan next to the one that the Nawab has just vacated (to greet Mordaunt) could have been intended by Zoffany to suggest the presence of Hastings who, given the inquisition against him in England at the time, could not be actually shown to be taking part in such friviolous proceedings. A conclusion too easily, and temptingly, reached it seems to me. What about a seat then for Col Mordaunt, it is more likely the vacant place was meant for him. I am not quibbling for the sake of it but I wonder how right it is to impute notions and constructs when writing history or art history. I, however, agree with the authors when they say "the drawing is sheer comic drama, a kind of mock battle between Europe and Asia fought by chickens representing the two worlds .... so curiously conjoined in Oudh".

Zoffany's Cock Match : The Daylesford & Ashwick Versions

Now, the picture or the engraving of the Cock Match that you see on this post or, for that matter, will see anywhere else is what is known as the Daylesford version, after the place where Warren Hastings lived on his return from India. We already saw that Hastings had commissioned Zoffany to do an oil of the cockfight at Lucknow and the artist did draw one and ship it to Hastings. The ship was wrecked en route to England, or so the story goes, and the painting did not reach Hastings. When, on his return to England, Zoffany came to know of the loss he shrugged it off, saying that the lost picture would do for Neptune's gallery : "that ancient collector but sorry connoisseur", and proceeded to do another one for Hastings. Luckily he had his original sketch with him and was able to work up a full fledged drawing. So, that is the Daylesford or Hastings version and the actual oil now hangs in the Tate Gallery.

Now, there are records of two other versions of the Cock Match which Zoffany had done for the Nawab. The Nawab had perhaps seen the sketch and wanted a drawing for himself or equally, because artists like Zoffany would want to milk the maximum out of any sketch, the artist put the idea into his head. Why two copies were ordered is very much a question to be asked but it seems there were two at Lucknow. One of them, which came to be known as the Ashwick version, was gifted by Asoph ud Dowla's successor, Ghauzi-ud-din Hyder, to Richard Strachey, Resident at Lucknow in 1815 - 17. This was brought to England and became the Ashwick version after the place in Somerset where Strachey lived. Here, below, is the Ashwick version :

Cock Match : Ashwick Version

Almost identical to the Daylesford one but with a lightly sketched in or reduced cast of Extras. But, in essence, it is the same Cock Match, the Firanghis are all there, as is our friend the pederast and the indignant courtier. So, there were two versions with the Nawab in Lucknow of which one, the Ashwick above, was given to Strachey (a grand uncle of Lytton Strachey)in 1817. The other version remained in Lucknow until the Mutiny of 1857 when it was presumed destroyed. But there is enough evidence in print, including by Fanny Parkes, of the existence Ashwick and Lucknow versions. The Ashwick version, as far as I know, last came to notice at a 1915 auction in Sotheby's when it was bought by an unknown buyer. I have no idea if it changed hands since then or, even, if it still exists.

One puzzling thing is, of course, why would the Nawab want two copies of the same painting bu that is not so problematic as the next question (after all the Nawab may have liked the picture sufficiently to want two copies or replicas). And that next puzzle is why the historians and the art historians have gone totally silent about this version. Out of sight is out of mind perhaps as, to the extent I know, no one has sighted the Ashwick for many years but its authenticity is very much in doubt now (at least to me, the figures don't look like Zoffanys, in fact the drawing seems to be a copy by someone else).

Zoffany left India after six years, after spending over half of his time there in Lucknow and the richer by about Pounds 50 thousand (probably about 3 to 5 Million Pounds in today's money).

The Tribuna of the Uffizi

We need to jump farther back in time to discuss the Tribuna of the Uffizi. This, in one way of looking at the subject, could have been a separate post. But, I wanted to out with it all in one post, so that we have something to compare with the Cock Match and to see a little more of Zoffany's output. Also, the subject of Zoffany and the Tribuna is topical as I will explain at the end.

Mind you, while I know a little bit about the Cock Match I know even less about the Tribuna but I was lucky to find a book which is available on the Internet Archive : Johann Zoffany R.A by G.C.Williamson, published in about 1900. This plus what I knew, supplemented by an excellent key I found on a site on the Net : The Gentlemanly Hang is what I write below.

First, the arresting, spellbinding picture drawn by Zoffany :

The Tribuna of the Uffizi : Zoffany 1771 - 72

Very briefly, Zoffany decided in about early 1771 to visit Italy. This was because an assignment to accompany Captain Cook on his voyage to the South Seas fell through due to no fault of the artist. When Zoffany let his intention to visit Italy be known, came a Royal request that he make a sketch of the gallery in Florence, should he visit that city. It was the wish of Quenn Charlotte and George III seems to have endorsed the idea. Zoffany was to be paid the expenses of the journey and Pounds 300 a year for the length of his visit. This sort of sponsorship and Royal commission was exactly what the artist was looking for and he made good use of the latter, as we shall see.

Zoffany duly reached Florence and, given the Royal commission in his pocket, was presented at court and offered all assistance and facility by the Grand Duke of Tuscany to produce the picture. Ever the thrusting upstart emigre from Europe, Zoffany hardly needed such encouragement because, styling himself the Queen's painter, he threw his weight about at the gallery or the Tribuna as it is called, commandeering the place, restricting public access at times and ordering not only the hang to be changed but insisting that pictures and sculpture housed elsewhere be brought in and displayed in the gallery for the purpose of his composition.

It was good that he did so, because he seems to have given his all to the composition and making of the drawing and the result is a riveting, stunning view, a piece for endless conversation. Here is the key I found on the Net and, rather than belabour this post with my second hand accounts of the English grandees in the picture, I will let you work the details out with this key :

The Key to the Tribuna of the Uffizi

Still, there are a few notable things to say. Firstly, that Zoffany is again in the picture (No : 4 in the Key), he is in the left background, head peeping out from behind a picture he is holding out for inspection by the small group that surrounds him. Zoffany is, of course, trying to interest the group in the picture which is a Raphael, perhaps more correctly Raffael, of the Madonna and Child. Zoffany apparently bought this Raphael for a nominal price and is trying to sell it. And No : 1 in the key, the man in the brown coat who is facing Zoffany is George Nassau Clavering-Cowper, the 3rd Earl Cowper who bought this picture.

George, the 3rd Earl Cowper (1738 - 89) was a man who arrived in Italy on the customary Grand Tour and never left it. Even aftr he succeeded to the Earldom and its large estate, he continued to live, and finally to die, in Italy. Zoffany also painted a portrait of the Earl and I put a replica or copy of it below, in this picture he is a jaunty, dashing, florid faced grandee doffing his cocked hat to someone :

Jaunty Grandee : George, 3rd Earl Cowper ( drawing after Zoffany)

Now, the Earl is said to have paid a high price for this Raphael and also endowed an annuity of a Hundred Pounds a year on Zoffany for life, which the artist drew for nearly 40 years. It is said to be a genuine Raphael but public opinion wasn't so unanimous apparently. I scarcely associated the following number in the Pirates of Penzance with the Zoffany picture until I read the Williamson book linked above :

I can tell a genuine Raphael from Gerard Dow's or Zoffany's
I know the Croaking Chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes

Gilbert & Sullivan

The scoundrel in Zoffany also made a tidy packet out of the desire of the prominent Englishmen visitin or residing in Florence to appear in the picture. He would paint them in on request, only to rub them out of the picture as soon as they had left Florence. And if any of the visitors should give him offence, he had his revenge by scrubbing the offender out of the picture!

All this was to no avail, for when Zoffany got back to England after an extended trip to Vienna the King and Queen were not exactly pleased with the picture. For one thing, the artist got back to England only in 1778, after a long interval of 7 years plus. Secondly, the Royals thought the picture too crowded and with some perssons included in it who were not exactly very popular at court. Finally the Queen is said to have bought the painting after some years, paying 600 Guineas for it, far less than the 3000 that Zoffany had hoped for. It was never hung in the Queen's chambers but is now getting a revival.

The Conversation Piece : An Exhibition in the UK Based on Zoffany's Drawings

And that is what makes Zoffany topical, as I discovered to my surprise and pleasure when Googling around for stuff on the Tribuna. The Royal Collection is holding an exhibition on the theme of the Conversation Piece, centred around the drawings of Johann Zoffany. The exhibition is, first, at Holyrood House, Edinburgh from the 27th March to the 30th September and, next, from 30th Oct to Fbe 2010 in London at the Buckingham Palace. I will certainly make it a point to catch the Tribuna at the Exhibition (the Cock Match won't be there I am afraid, unless they decide to include borrowed exhibits from the Tate), perhaps in London. One picture I would specially like to see is the Zoffany below, of Charles Towneley and Friends, painted in 1783 just before the artist left for India. I like Zoffany's use of the light in this picture, the way he lets it fall on the subjects of the drawing :

Charles Towneley & Friends : Zoffany

Why a post on Zoffany, artist and upstart scoundrel rolled into one. He is the master of the conversation piece, a master of detail and of irreverence, not above putting in a subtle or not so subtle joke when composing his masterpieces. Consider the vignette in the Tribuna of Zoffany selling a pic (pup?) to the Earl, remember that his drawings are dotted about with the odd pederast or a black monkey or a morally outraged courtier or a group of poker faced Royal Academicians staring critically at nude models. Above all, see the delineation of features, maybe of character too, in his paintings and the stunning detail in the Tribuna where you can even see the fluting and whorls on the picture frames.

To really appreciate the Tribuna, go to this page of the Royal Collection to see the zoomable image. That is, if you don't plan to see the exhibition or, perhaps, even if you do.

To, see a similar zoomable image of the Academicians at the Royal Academy, in all its depth and dimension, go to this page of the Royal Collection (if you do, you will end up seeing the exhibition, no matter what you think now).

To learn what was going on in 18th Century Nawabi Lucknow there are many period books as well as historical accounts, but get yourself the three absorbing books on the theme written by Rosie Llewellyn Jones which are of the historical account variety :

1. A Fatal Friendship
2. An Ingenious Man (the Life of Claud Martin)
2. Engaging Scoundrels

To really dive into Zoffany's life and work, also to understand the genre of Conversation Pieces get yourself the Exhibition Catalogue. I have already ordered my copy.

Zoffany : Self Portrait

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Unreal City : Dhrupad Nights in Benares

" 'How Do You Like London ? .... London, Londres, London ?' Mr Podsnap asked the Frenchman, putting - we notice - capital letters into his accent. 'And Do You Find, Sir,' he went on, 'Many Evidences that Strike You?'.

Nothing else but Evidence strikes us. The place is all Evidence, like the sight of a heavy sea from a rowing boat in the middle of the Atlantic where you are surrounded by Everything and see nothing. But Evidence of what? There is no possible answer".

Thus begins V.S.Pritchett's "London Perceived" but the words are even more appropriate as a description of Benares.

Benares : Luminous City, Surreal City, Unreal City! For more than 10 years Vasumathi (Mrs Blogger) and I had been wanting to visit the place. Firstly there were the fabled ghats, then the boat rides on the Ganges not to forget the throngs of pilgrims or the famous Banarasi vegetarian food, the sights and sounds, the colours, and the Firanghis, some of them in their matted and combined locks manifesting all the zeal and earnestness of newly converted acolytes. And of course, Benares is etched on all Indian, Hindu psyches, being the holiest of holy cities, so there were also a couple of temples that we planned to worship in.

But there were other compelling reasons too to visit Benares. Our friend Shivakumar and I had been wanting, for a number of years, to attend the annual Dhrupad music fest in Benares. Shivakumar one day informed us that this year's Dhrupad fest was scheduled for the 21st to 23rd February. That became the proximate or immediate reason for the visit but, as I said, there were other good reasons too. As a print junkie, I wanted to find out a little more about the Benares where, in the 18th and 19th Centuries, had lived two remarkable men who were also great artists : Samuel Davis and James Prinsep, both servants of the East India Company. Also, there was the architecture of Benares or what remains of it, both Indian and British. All this also added up, at least for Shivakumar and me who always have an eye to the main chance, to a good excuse to goof off from work for a few days.

Orderly Queues : Shiv Ratri A.M

We were going to be in Benares spank in the middle of Shiv Ratri which brings some two hundred thousand pilgrims to the city. But Shivakumar has friends in high places and we were able to get good accommodation in the Old Circuit House, as also VIP ushering in the temples. And, in line with our policy never to catch a cold whether at base or abroad, we also made sure to have a car and driver available to us for the duration of the visit.

Old Circuit House Benares

Framed in Corinthian : Circuit House Interior

The Benares Dhrupad Mela

The All India Kashi Raj Trust, an NGO established by the Maharajah of Benares began sponsoring an annual Dhrupad Mela (festival) in the city some 30 years back. The setting for the concerts couldn't be better, the Mela being held on the banks of the Ganges at Assi Ghat, the first of the bathing ghats on the Ganges in her northerly course past the city.

Mishrajee, A Dhrupad Musician of Benares : He Daubed Attar of Roses on Us

Dhrupad has its origins in the hymnal music of Hindu temples as sung for over a thousand years, the emphasis being on the tonal purity of individual notes or swaras, so the gamak or glide or glissando is usually eschewed in Dhrupad music. Dhrupad's counterpoint is the Khyal, a musical form that took shape in the mid 18th Century. Khyal is influenced by Mughlai or Persian music and by Sufi singing and is eclectic and improvisational in its presentation whilst remaining true to classical restraint and form. I have actually grown up on a diet of Khyal, it is very much the music I prefer to listen to but Dhrupad, ever classical and pure, is also a great attraction.

And the fest provided all that I had expected of it, the good , the bad and the indifferent. The last two are to be expected in a programme that lasts from 8 P.M to 4 A.M three days in a row and is unticketed. But we had some outstanding performers, Ustad Sayeeduddin Dagar, Pandit Abhay Narain Mullick, Pushpraj Koshti and so on. Also some very good up and coming women singers such as Kaveri Kar and Madhubhatt Tailang, dhrupad previously not being known for its lady performers.

Readying for the Programme : the Ganges to the Left

To my surprise two artists sang as the opening number Raag Desh , a haunting, tender and plaintive melody that is a favourite with me but one that is usually presented as a secondary or minor item in a Khyal performance. But the Dhrupadias were able to carry it off with aplomb in their grand and classical rendering and it was a great pleasure to hear Desh thus given pride of place. I actually removed to the steps of the bathing ghat where it was agreeably cool and dark and the impact of the melody on the banks of the river was something special. Of course, I could also smoke a surreptitious cigarette or two on the ghats which added to the enjoyment.

The Rajah of Benares (Middle) at the Dhrupad Fest

Kaveri Kar Who Sang Exceptionally Well

Here are some pics, the opening of the concert by the Maharajah, some performers and the audience, some of whom, especially the foreigners, seemed to be very knowledgeable about Dhrupad. Well, enough said about music by someone who can not sing for crying out loud. Also, something needs to be said about Benares itself before we move on to the two aforementioned very interesting and remarkable men, both Fellows of the Royal Society, who lived in the city.

Benares or Kashi

This was my first visit to Benares, although I intend to go again and see the place at leisure. So, all I can say is that it is well known that the city is thought to be 8ooo years old and ranks with Alexandria and Peking as one of the three oldest city civilisations in the world. We Hindus think it is even older, of course. When one sees the vibrancy and the bustle that animate the place, it is easy to understand what has sustained this urban chaos for so long. Bewildering it may be but the chaos, the throngs of pilgrims, the faith and good cheer they bring to the pilgrimage and the squalor cheek by jowl with great beauty contribute as much to the making of this great city as its location on the Ganges and its unique Vedic and musical culture nurtured over millenniums.

Withered Beldame : Palace of the Maharajah of Vizianagaram

Hindu pilgrims visit this city but do they go there only to acquire a reserve of merit in preparation for death, as is sometimes said? I don't think so at all. It seems to me that though they visit Benares as an act of pilgrimage, of recharging their spiritual reserves the question of death or its premonition has nothing to do with it. It may be that they undertake the visit calling to mind the great spiritual quest stated in one of the Upanishads :

असतोमा सद्गमय। तमसोमा ज्योतिर् गमया।
मृत्योर्मामृतं गमय॥

Asato mā sad gamaya
Tamaso mā jyotir gamaya
Mrutyormā amṛutham gamaya

Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (1.3.28)

From ignorance, lead me to awareness;
From darkness, lead me to light;
From death, lead me to immortality

One other thing that impressed me about Benares is that the Ganges is Uttara Vauhini here, that is to say she reverses her south easterly progression and courses north past the city, doing a complete dogleg in fact. That is supposed to be rather special in the Hindu conception but it is nothing to compare with the sheer pleasure of an early morning boat ride on the river, past the spectacular show afforded by a succession of Ghats, there are 64 of them over a 5 K.M stretch.

Jai Bajrang Bali !! Pahelwan (Indian Wrestler) Beefcake on Panch Ganga Ghat

We learnt a great deal about Benares by boaning up on two definitive, contemporary books about the city. One of them is "Benares, City of Light" by Diana Eck and the second is " Benares, World Within A World" by Richard Lannoy. Both books succeed in giving a sense of the ideas and the cultural continuum that animate and revitalise the city and of its primacy as a centre of religious and Brahminical scholarship. For a sense of what it is like to take up residence in Benares, read the Alice Boner Diaries 1933- 67.

Battering Ram in His Pomp : He is Chief of Security at Dashashwamedh Ghat

Samuel Davis & the Views of Bhutan

I got interested in Samuel Davis on reading "Views of Medieval Bhutan" by the late Michael Aris and after seeing some of Davis's picturesque views of the country. I was looking high and low for the book and, when in London in 1995, I contacted the publisher, Serindia, only to be told the 1982 book was out of print. But I don't give up so easily and asked if there was some place where I might be able to get hold of a copy. Pat came tha answer, "Katmandu". What, Katmandu? "Yes", he continued, "there's a Pilgrim Book House in Katmandu and the owner, Mr Ram Tiwary, specialises in books to do with Tibet and the Himalayas, he's conceivably the only one who might be able to give you a copy".

It was a moment's work to get the telephone number from the Nepal Embassy and I was immediately on the phone to Mr Tiwary who said, "Yes, how many copies do you want". That was that and the book arrived in about a week. I called the publisher to thank him and asked his name. "Aris". Aris? "Yes, I am the author's younger brother, Anthony". Small world, eh? But there is a Pilgrim Book House in Benares as well, the original store I believe, and it is worth a visit for the stack of books, new, old and rare, on Tibetan and Himalayan studies, History and much more. Michael Aris who, sad to say, died of cancer in 1999, was the husband of Aung Saan Su Kyi. Small world again, though I don't know either of them.

But we are forgetting Samuel Davis. He was born in 1760 in the West Indies where his father was stationed with the army commissariat and, on the death of his father, Samuel Davis returned to England a few years later. A friend of his late father secured for him a cadetship with the East India Army (but with the option of leaving the army for the civil service) and that is how the 19 year old Davis arrived in Madras in 1780. It is not clear how Davis attracted the notice of Warren Hastings, the Governor General, but he did and he was soon posted in the Bengal Presidency. Davis was confirmed in the Bengal Civil Service about 10 years later but, before then, he had undertaken the journey to Bhutan in 1783 as part of Samuel Turner's embassy to Tibet.

The Samuel Turner Embassy to Tibet was a follow up measure to the first such Embassy led by George Bogle in 1774. The objective in both cases was to explore possibilities for trade with this remote and little known country. Samuel Davis as appointed Draughtsman & Surveyor to the mission, a recognition of his drawing skills besides the surveying he had learnt as an engineer in the army.The Mission itself was judged a success, some form of trade with Tibet opened up further but Davis himself was never allowed into Tibet and had to return to India from Bhutan. The Tibetans were a very withdrawn, inward looking society and suspicious of foreigners and there is some speculation that they were wary of Davis's evident abilities.

It is not clear how Davis aquired his drawing skills and there's some speculation that, in his boyhood, he came into contact with Thomas Daniell the celebrated artist. Even if such were the case, it is not likely that Davis, aged only about 10 when the contact is said to have taken place, imbibed any special skills from Daniell. But that he was an outstanding artist is easily judged by his superlative views of Bhutan, even today a beautiful country of exquisite mountainscapes and tasteful architecture. Here are a few examples, of which the first only is mine (apologies for the poor scan), it is the palace of Punaka Dzong engraved by the famous engraver James Basire and published in 1800 (as part of Turner's account of his Embassy to Tibet).

Punakha Dzong

Davis, trained in survey and engineering in the army, was also fascinated by the elegantly designed, indigenous cantilever and suspension bridges in Bhutan and drew many sketches of them :

Suspension Bridge at Chuka

Cantilever Bridge at Thimphu

After his return from Bhutan Davis resumed his Bengal Civil Service career and, when posted in Bhagalpur, did renew or make contact with the Daniells, both Thomas and his nephew William. The Daniells were in the midst of their extended 7 year tour of India and spent nearly a year staying with Davis in Bhagalpur. That was how they became aquainted with his Bhutan drawings, six of which William published in 1813 as aquatints. Both these and the Basire engravings are almost impossible to get and the aquatints below are ones I filched from the net :

The Palace of Punakha Dzong Aquatint

Nandeshwar Kothi : The Night (Morning, rather) of the Long Knives

Davis served as Magistrate in Benares from 1795 - 1800 and though his time in this posting was marked by high adventure and heroics, the association with the city was also to be the making of Davis as a scholar. First the events at Nandeshwar Kothi, a large, rambling building in which he lived during his posting in the city. The building belongs to the Maharajah of Benares and is set in extensive grounds, although much changed from its original appearance what with shopfronts and hoardings cluttering up the view.

View from Murichom, Bhutan (Detail)

Benares had only in 1775 been ceded to the British by the Nawab of Oudh, Asoph ud Dowla, and in 1797 the Nawab was succeeded by his son Wazir Ali (Vizier Ali). But there were questions about his legitimacy as rightful heir. What really got Wazir Ali into trouble, however, was his wilful conduct after accession to the Musnud or the throne and the British intervened to depose and exile him to Benares in about 1798. The 19 year old Wazir Ali naturally felt hard done by, as there had been intrigue against him by his uncle, the brother of Asoph ud Dowla, in which the British had willingly connived. It was now Wazir Ali's turn to engage in intrigue and he bided his time.

Meanwhile, in early 1799, the British decided to relocate Wazir Ali to Calcutta, as it was finally realised that Benares, on the border of Oudh, was no place to base a deposed ruler in. Ali didn't take very kindly to this order, for order it was, and decided to strike. He agreed under duress to leave for Calcutta on the 15th January but began recruiting a numbe of armed men instead of making preparations for the journey.

Davis, as Magistrate, was one of the two senior Britons in Benares, the other being George Frederick Cherry, Agent to the Governor General, and an accomplished artist, and thus the man responsible for minding Wazir Ali. On the morning of the 14th January, Ali paid a visit to Cherry at his house, taking along with him 200 armed mercenaries. The visit actually turned out to be an ambush and Cherry and his English assistants were murdered in no time.

The mob now made for Nandeshwar Kothi but Davis was swift to act. The house has a narrow, winding staircase, wide enough for just one person, which gives access to the terrace. Davis moved his wife, children and servants upto the terace and with a spear in his hands stood guard at the top of the stairs, an entirely defensible position given the narrow, winding access up the stairs.

The rest is histoy. The action lasted an hour and a half but having, in the first few minutes, found that they did not fancy the idea of jousting (or fencing for they were armed with swords) up a narrow stairway with the entrenched Davis the assailants tried in vain to pick him off with muskets from outside the house. Some help arrived on the terace after about an hour, in the form of Davis's servants and the armed local constabulary, as Wazir Ali's men were all now on the outside of the house. They were figuring a way to ascend up the wall. But with the reinforecements available, Davis decided the terrace was perfectly defensible and so it proved until Ali and his men retired. With the arrival of further reinforcements, the action was over by eleven A.M, an hour and a half after it started.

And this from the book of travels by Lord Valentia, Viscount Annesley who was in Benares not long after the event : "I examined the staircase that leads to the top of the house, and which Mr Davis defended with a spear for upwards of an hour and a half, till the troops came to his relief. It is of a singular construction, in the corner of a room and built entirely of wood on a base of about four feet. The ascent is consequently so winding and rapid that with difficulty one person can get up at a time. Fortunately, the last turn by which you reach the terrace faces the wall. It was impossible, therefore, to aim at him while he defended the ascent with a spear; they, however, fired several times, and the marks of the balls are visible in the ceiling. A man had at one time hold of his spear, but by a violent exertion he dragged it through his hand and wounded him severely. This gallant defence saved the settlement as it gave time for the cavalry, ..... about ten miles from Benares, to reach (the house) and oblige Vizier Ali to retire .... ".

Here is an engraving of the 'Attack on Mr Samuel Davis's House' by Maj Henry Samuel Davis :

Wazir Ali's Siege of Nandeshwar Kothi

The three of us went up the winding stairway of Nandeshwar Kothi as I was curious to verify the facts of the story published in 1844 by Sir John Henry Davis, son of Sam Davis, titled "Vizier Ali Khan or the Massacre of Benares", available in the Internet Archive. Shivakumar and I re-enacted the episode jousting or fencing at each other with twigs, just to see if Davis could really have seen off such a mob. The stirway was narrow and winding and it did seem Davis would have had the better of the exchanges. V, unfortunately , refused to oblige by shooting a pic of the two of us, declaring "this is too juvenile for words". So, sorry, no pic of us re-eenacting history.

Astronomical Studies

Life in Benares for Davis was much, much more than self defence. Benares, in point of fact, was to be the making of him as a reputed academic and astronomer. The young Davis, in his Bhagalpur days, had got to know the renowned orientalist and founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Sir William Jones (1746 - 94). With the encouragement of Jones and the assistance of the Hindu Pundit astronomers of Bhagalpur and Benares, Davis was to emerge as one of the foremost authorities of his time on Indian astronomy. He, in fact, was one of the earliest, if not the first, to present to the West an account of Indian astronomy in all its thorough and elegant ramifications of time divisions, eclipse computation and trigonometrical functions.

Man Mandir Observatory from the River

All this led to election to the Royal Society by 1792, when he was hardly 32 years old. And Davis's study of Indian astronomy got an added fillip upon his posting to Benares where there was a Hindu Observatory, the Man Mandir, built in 1710 by Raja Sawai Jai Singh of Jaipur . Davis went on to become the Accountant General of Bengal, retired to England in 1804 and later became a Director and then Chairman of the East India Company. I found an interesting tidbit in the autobiography of his grandson Rivett-Carnac (another family with India connections extending over five or six generations)that the Hon Mountstuart Elphinstone, Davis's assistant in Benares and later to become Governor of Bombay, used to visit Davis's house in London annually to do Pooja to the spear!

James Prinsep : A Man of Genius in Benares

Davis and his escapade have taken up more than his allotted space. Still, the real hero of Benares is another man, a true genius who left his mark on the city as indeed he did on every place he lived in and every subject he turned his formidable energy and intellect to. This was James Prinsep (1799 - 1840), also a Fellow of the Royal Society and, in fact, the youngest to be elected a Fellow of that body. And a blog post is hardly the medium to present the genius of this man, Assayer, Architect, Engineer, Linguist, Epigraphist, Artist, Demographer, Cartographer, Urban Planner and many other things rolled into one. A book running to a few volumes and meticulous research will be what it takes, so I will confine myself to a mere catalogue of his achievements.

James Prinsep fell in love with the city where he arrived in 1820 and where he was to spend the next 10 years of his short life. He was born on the 20th August 1799 in Chelsea, London and his father, an Alderman of the City of London, was reduced by business losses to straitened circumstances and had to remove to Clifton for the education of his sons (it was a large family, nine sons and two daughters). It is said that the three youngest boys, James included, had but one pair of trousers among them and had to go out by turn.

James Prinsep showed early aptitude for maths and for building and designing mechanical toys. So, an architectural carer was intended for him and he was apprenticed to the great Augustus Pugin for a time before quitting due to illness. As James had no inclination to go into the army, another opening in India suggested itself. This turned out to be a career in Assaying and Minting and Prinsep prepared himself for this by taking lessons in Chemistry. He was also apprenticed to the Assay Master of the Royal Mint and obtained a certificate of proficiency after a year.

Prinsep's Work in Benares

That was how, in September of 1819, the 20 year old Prinsep arrived in Calcutta, together with his younger brother who had got a commission in the East India Company's Bengal Army. He immediately commenced service in the Calcutta Mint as assistant to the Assay Master, Horace Hayman Wilson an eminent Sanskrit scholar and also Secretary of the Asiatic Society. Prinsep's job was in the Subordinate Service which, unlike the Covenanted Civil Service, carried few perks or privileges and also paid much less. But the opportunity to associate with a scholar like Wilson no doubt made up for all that. In less than a year Prinsep was posted to Benares as Assay Master.

James Prinsep(Medallion)

Apart from taking charge of the construction of the Mint building, James busied himself with producing a detailed map of the city which was ready in the end of 1821. He later had the map (29 x 19 inches) lithographed in 1825 at his own expense. After all these years it remains an outstandingly accurate map of the city, based on a survey carried out personally with the thoroughness and passion that Prinsep became known for. Here is a detail of the Cantonment or British Quarter from the map of 1821 :

Benares Map (Detail)

The survey done for the map also resulted in a Directory of Benares with details of the various Ghats, Temples, open spaces, important buildings and their ownership as well as family histories. The Directory also includes a comprehensive list of the Punditry and the subjects they specialised in. It was in fact a gazetteer of the city with details of commercial establishments and merchant houses. Unpublished, the Directory is in the archives of the Asiatic Society.

The map and the Directory led in due course to a Census of the city in 1826. A previous census, carried out in 1803, had produced wildly exaggerated figures for the population, so Prinsep was careful to avoid falling into the same error. Of course, the work on the map and the Directory had given him the necessary preparation and intimate knowledge of the city's labyrynthine quarters. Moreover the citizenry knew him and trusted him. That was important because the populace of those days had a not unjustified suspicion that a headcount was a prelude to higher taxes.

There was a unique difficulty attendant to a census of a pilgrim city with a large floating population : how does on reckon the floating population to determine the headcount of permanent residents? But Prinsep was equal to the task. With characteristic thoroughness and confidence, he also chose a period of high pilgrim influx, the Lunar Eclipse, to assess the pilgrim numbers in the city. Enumerators were stationed at the five principal approaches to the city and at all the landing stages of the ferries with bags of pebbles by their sides( a pebble being thrown into a basket, to be counted later, as each arrival passed through).

Prinsep's Architecture in Benares

Prinsep went on to design and build a bridge, the Karam Nasha bridge, over a waterway across the city. Besides helping overcome the superstition of pilgrims that contact with the waterway annulled the religious merits of their pilgrimage, the bridge also resulted in improved throughput of traffic within the city :

Karam Nasha Bridge

There were other buildings too though Nandeshwar Kothi seems to be wrongly attributed to Prinsep. Besides the Mint, he had a hand in the design of St Mary's Church in Benares. The church itself was consecrated in about 1824 but, when it was enlarged in 1827, Prinsep was the one who undertook the work, adding a handsome steeple. It is interesting that, though he trained under Pugin, all of Prinsep's designs are Georgian or Baroque.

Then there was the restoration of the Gyaan Vaapi mosque or Aurangzeb's mosque, built originally in about 1675. Prinsep dismissed the mosque itself as architecture unworthy of notice but thought the soaring minarets. 147 feet high, were an exquisite work of design. But the minarets were beginning to list by Prinsep's time in Benares. With great engineering and structural skill, Prinsep carried out maramut or restoration on the minarets and they are, even today, very much in the perpendicular.

Gyaan Vaapi (Aurangzeb) Mosque

Then followed the drainage system for Benares, a pilgrim city sorely in need of such an amenity. Prinsep's proposals for the system were accepted by the civic authorities in 1825 and the work, involving plane level surveys, sub strata analysis and a clear trace of the entire network, which commenced under Prinsep's supervision on the 1st of Jan 1826, was fully ready in 19 months with no accidents whatsoever. Prinsep's drainage system is considered to be a marvel of engineering even now. The same system, with a few extensions and new outfalls, serves the city to this day.

All this was accomplished in a 10 year period, before the man turned 30 and he still found time and energy for discourses with the Pundits, for Sanskrit and also for Astronomy, and for the establishment of the Benares Literary Society. The Man Mandir observatory, already mentioned, became a regular stamping ground of Prinsep and he fixed and periodically updated the longitudinal position of Benares beteen 1825 - 32. A meteorological profile of the city was also carefully compiled with instruments acquired with his personal funds. He also set up a printing press in Benares in 1822. I suspect it could have been a litho press but I do not know for sure. If it was a litho press it must have been the among the first such in India.

As a Family Memoir put together by Prinsep's brother says : "to extend the catalogue to a detail of the roads, bridges, drains and other works of every variety of description, .... would fatigue the reader".

Benares Illsutrated

Speaking for myself, I find Prinsep's drawings of Benares to be at leeast as important as his other contributions. Benares Illustrated was first published in 1831 with 35 plates lithographed by Louis Haghe of London. A further two volumes of 13 and 10 plates respectively were issued in 1832 and 33. I have reproduced a few of the plates rather than gush gush about the high quality of these drawings.

Bruhma Ghat

Dushashwamedh Ghat

View Westward from Ghoosla Ghat

View of Gyan Vapee Well

The Kharoshti & Brahmi Scripts

Election to the Royal Society had come through by 1828, making Prinsep the youngest person to be elected a Fellow of that institution. By 1830, he was transferred to Calcutta and, among other things, took up Secretaryship of the Asiatic Society. All those years hobnobbbing with the Pundits of Benares and soakig up the Sanskrit language and Indian history had not been in vain for then followed two major discoveries : the deciphering of the Kharoshti and the Brahmi scripts. These were landmark discoveries in Indian epigraphy and archaeology and were to make the name of Emperor Ashoka widely known in the world. Maj Markham Kittoe, himself a major figure in Indian archaeology (and of whose architectural work in Benares thre is a sampling below) had just then discovered Ashoka rock edicts in eastern India.

Enter Prinsep, to make a seminal contribution, for the edicts had to be deciphered. Following up on a hunch that the same letters occurred at the end of each edict, he cracked the entire Brahmi script. In the course of the work, he was regularly reporting progress to his friend Alexander Cunningham, one of the last lettrs ending : "chalo bhai, jaldee pahonchogae" ('come on my friend, we're getting there', a common cry of Palanquin bearers to help lighten their burden)!

Compared to the Brahmi, Prinsep's cracking of the Kharoshti was simplicity itself. He found that the old coinage of the Kushan period (BCE) was inscribed in both Greek and Kharoshit, so the deciphering was a piece of cake. To say that is hindsight really, for there were a number of other numismatists but the thought had occurred to none except to the enquiring mind of James Prinsep.

Sadly, Prinsep died of overwork in 1840, hardly 41 years old and it is said he was subject to insanity in his last days. Insanity? I wonder! It could have been delirium.

But I was surprised to find that he had been active in England as well, perhaps during home leave, as I found on this website, The Mausolea & Monuments Trust . Here is the relevant excerpt from a write-up by Lucinda Lambton, a really fine writer on a very inetresting topic, and I am going to follow her output henceforth: "Back though, to Bristol’s Arnos Vale, where there is singularly splendid Hindu temple; which, to my delight I discovered to have been be built by a James Prinsep, who studied under Pugin and who then was to spend an alarmingly fruitful life in India – working in the Calcutta mint for which he devised scales that could weigh a three thousandth part of a grain ! He redesigned the Benares Mint and became the authority on Indian currency. A prolific architect, he also devised the Ganges drainage plan of Benares. He devoted his later years to Indian antiquities ; deciphering inscriptions on temples which had even baffled the author of the first Sanscit-English dictionary. This Hindu Temple in Bristol is therefore a work of serious scholarship„.not to be confused with the fancy dress Eastern garb that was to clothe such British buildings as Brighton Pavilion. It was designed to honour the remains of Raja Rommahun Roy…..known as the father of modern India, and the first Indian to be buried in Britain, in 1833.
It is a beautiful little building, sadly all too rare an achievement today with monumental masony . For now I fear there is a quite lamentable quantity of ill designed modern monuments, sadly illustrating the descent of our funeray art. Gaze about you at memorial monuments of the c.18th and c.19th and your every artistic sensibility is satisfied,. Seek out that of the 20th and 21st centuries and every one is smashed".

Well, I don't know if Prinsep was in England at the time or if he sent the design from India but the picture below (from Wikipedia) of the tomb has a touch of the listing tower in the Manikarnika Ghat, doesn't it? I also came across this interesting site on Ram Mohun Roy, the stormy petrel of Indian social reform.

Raja Ram Mohun Roy Memorial, Bristol

Back to Benares

I am sorry that Davis and Prinsep hogged such a deal of blogspace. The fact is, they kept intruding into the post and refused to go away until I had said something about them. But they did have a lot to do with Benares, didn't they? I personally think it is the other way round, that Benares was the making of these two remarkable men, an instance of how the city continues to inspire men to this day.

At 4.30 A.M on Shiv Ratri day (the23rd Feb) we were ushered into the Vishwanath temple and had an easy time of it, an almost exclusive (but for the official escorting us and the priest) face to face with Vishwanath Iyer and his consort Annapoorna. It was only when we came out in about a half hour that we realised the waiting queue exceeded a hundred thousand pilgrims.

Vasumathi with Pilgrims from Andhra (Dashashwamedh Ghat)

We felt the usual pang of guilt but, to my great surprise, I realised that the crowd was very orderly, good natured, cheerful and patient, extraordinarily and commendably patient. There was no restiveness, we only saw good behavior all round. It then hit me that these folks had probably made long journeys from every corner of India by train, bus or ferry, that they were almost exclusively from the low income group and that the journey, a pilgrimage really, and the cost of boarding in Benares involved significant financial expense for most of them (unlike us who had flown in, us who have resolved never to catch a cold and who were housed in comfort in the city). And then the long wait of 10 or 12 hours or more to have the merest glimpse, if that, of Vishwanath. I am not being maudlin but seeing this orderly and cheerful, faithful queue was an extraordinary experience. This is the real India and you can see it round the year in Benares. No need to go anywhere else.

Shiv Ratri Queue 150 K Strong (End of Line @ Dashashwamedh Ghat)

There were a couple of other temples which impressed us, one of them being very small shrine for the monkey god Hanuman, actually a Bala Hanuman or Hanuman as child, at Assi Ghat, right where the Dhrupad fest was staged. It is said Tulsi Das who wrote the Ramayana in Hindi used to sit under a peepul tree next to the shrine and that, as he wrote the Ramayan, the Hanuman used to sit by his side and read it! It is a picturesque, idyllic spot with the Ganges below, sylvan and peaceful and the peepul tree still stands (is it the same after 400 years?) :

Assi Ghat : Tulsi Das Platform & Hanuman Shrine

The other temple was the Bindhu Madhav shrine at Panch Ganga or Madhoray Ghat, also a smallish shrine located in an old house by the side of the Aurangzeb Mosque. It used to be the largest temple complex in Benares, Akbar the Great having generously provided for its expansion in the 16th century. But in 1672, great grandson Aurangzeb, in a fit of iconoclastic zeal, had it razed to the ground and the eponymous mosque came up in its place. As is usual on such occasions, the beautiful idol of Bindhu Madhav (the youthful Vishnu) had been spirited away and, much later, it was installed in the old house where worship still continues. The idol is made of a huge block of Shaligram or ammonite (about 3 1/2 x 2 foot, extremely rare in that size), a fossil stone found in the Gandaki river in Nepal. The idol must be a thousand years old if not more and is a superb carving in the gleaming black Shaligram and very tastefully decorated :

The Shaligram Idol of Bindhu Madhav

We found in the shrine an old portrait of a dignitary and the articulate and friendly priest, Murlidhar Ganesh Patwardhan an ex bank official, told us that it is of Balasaheb Pant Pratinidhi, an erstwhile ruler of Aundh state, a small 800 square mile principality near Poona. It is, unusually, a Brahmin kingdom and the family have been managing the temple for several generations now. The last, distinguished scion of the family was the former ruler, Apa Pant, a diplomat who was High Commissioner for India in London, whose autobiography, "A Moment in Time", is well known. He was Oxford educated but, when at home, used to be dressed in a dhoti and remained bare chested (as customary in those days) and, in the 1930's, this was resented by the English. According to their notions or prejudices, an Oxonian ought to have known better!

Balasaheb Pant Pratinidhi (late Ruler of Aundh)

The Ghats from the River

Manikarnika Ghat

Haveli (Indian Mansion) near Manikarnika

We took an hour long boat ride at 6 A.M, very bracing and invigorating in the cool of the morning; the early spring of India was still a couple of weeks away and the slow glide on the river was a therapeutic experience. The speed of the boat is at the most 2 1/2 miles an hour, a very relaxing if not stately progression with the panorama of the ghats on one side and the sunrise to the right.

A Close View : Manikarnika

Manikarnika : Another View

It is no use my trying to convey any further a sense of the sheer pleasure of an early morning boat ride on the Ganges, it is something one must experience oneself.

Dashashwamedh Ghat

Dashashwamedh : A Close-up

Tamaso Ma Jyotir Gamaya : Lead Me from Darkness to Light

Ganges Sunrise : Another View

Bhonsla Ghat in 18th Century Splendour

And Lo! The Hunter of the East
has captured the Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light
(with apologies to Omar Khayyam)

Bhonsla : Taken A Few Moments Before the One Above

Some Architecture

The Queen's College in Benares was built in 1847 - 52 by Maj Markham Kittoe,as much as enthusiast for architecture as for archaeology. It now houses the Sanskrit University and is a building in the "correct" Gothic style, Puginesque in its ovrall form and also in the detailing. It has been accused of making no concessions whatever to, nor having any empathy with, its Indian setting but Shivakumar and I found it one of the best examples of British architecture in India. It is certainly worth a visit and some gazing, here are a few pics :

Queen's College : Gothic Splendour or Kittoe's Folly ?

Queen's College (Sanskrit Univ) : Another View


A pair of splendid gatehouses designed by Kittoe caught my attention, they are worthy of note of and by themselves. Here's one :

Gate House Sanskrit Univ (Queen's College)

And there is a handsome, low slung outbuilding, the College Library, also designed by Kittoe :

Queen's College Library : Maj Markham Kittoe

And more architecture of note, both Indian and British :

An Old Haveli : the House in Which Laxmibai, Rani of Jhansi was Bron

The District Court

Anglo Bengal College (Built in 1905) : Typically Indian Kitsch in Foreground is A Latterday Addition

Another Haveli

And, one of the best, the Lal Khan Mausoleum at Raj Ghat built in 1773 (not much is known about Lal Khan except he was a General, probably serving the Nawab of Oudh):

Apparell'd in Celestial Light : the Lal Khan Mausoleum

A Minaret : Lal Khan Mausoleum

The Banaras Hindu University's Museum is one of the best kept in Indai and ought to be visited. Lots of sculpture, Kushan, sarnath, maurya artifacts, an impressive numismatic collection (so Shivakumar tells me) and losts else. There is a room specially for Alice Boner, the Swiss sculptor and artist, who lived in Benares and a room full of the paintings of Nicholas Roerich. Here is a grim looking Vasumathi, standing beneath a figure of Govardhan Giridhari (Krishna holdin aloft the mountain of Govardhana):

B.H.U Museum : Govardhan Giridhari (Kushan Period)

Prinsep on Benares

I will let the Master himself, James Prinsep, sum up Benares : "There are few objects more lively and exhilarating than the scene from the edge of the opposite sands, on a fine afternoon, under the clear sky of January. The music and bells of a hundred temples strike the ear with magic melody from the distance, amidst the buzz of human voices; and every now and then the flapping of the pigeons' wings is heard as they rise from their crates on the housetops, or whirl in close phalanx round the minarets, or alight with prisoners from a neighbour's flock. At the same time the eye rests on the vivid colours of the different groups of maale and female bathers, with their sparkling brass water-vessels, or follows the bulls as they wander in the crowds in proud exercise of the rights of citizenship, munching the chaplets of flowers liberally presented to them. Then, as the night steals on, the scene changes, and the twinkling of lamps along the water's edge, and the funeral fires, and white curling smoke, and the stone buildings lit up by the moon, present features of variety and blended images of animation, which it is out of the artist's power to embody. He may give in detail the field upon which these scenes of life are enacted, but the spectator's imagination must supply the rest."
(Intro to Benares Illustrated).

I am going back in the wintr, may be in January, to people gaze and to amble around in the ghats in exercise of my own rights of citizenship.

Lalita Ghat

Negotiating A Safe Return

As our return flight was about to land in Madras, Vasumathi, to my left and Shivakumar (from across the aisle) started inquisition proceedings.

V : Now that you've been to Benares you are expected to give up something, may be an item of food or a habit or something. What will it be?

Self : Give up something? No, I don't think I will give up anything, thanks.

Shivakumar : But as a good Hindu, you are expected to.

Self : Good Hindu ? I suppose I am. Well at least an OK one but I ain't giving up nothing. The idea!

V : What about your smoking habit ? (this somewhat hopefully.)

Self : No, certainly not. Besides, not smoking is also habit forming.

V & S (In one voice) : Then what will it be?

As I replied, "I will give up the notion,as if I ever had it, that I should give up something", the plane touched down in Madras. A feathertouch landing.