Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Abode of Nana Phadnavis

- Aishwarya Pramod

Nana Wada is the residence of Nana Phadnavis, who was Prime Minister to the Peshwas in the second half of the 1700's. This was a period of political instability as one Peshwa was rapidly succeeded by another, and there were many controversial transfers of power. Nana Phadnavis played a pivotal role in holding the Maratha Confederacy together in the midst of internal dissension and the growing power of the British East India Company.
Entrance to Nana Wada
At the turn of the twentieth century, the Deccan Education Society began operating the New English School in this Wada. A new building was built for this school. The addition of this new structure with its colonial influences is another interesting layer over the Maratha architecture from Nana Phadnavis' time.
Nana Wada

Monday, October 20, 2014

"My name is Gauhar Jaan" - the beginnings of the recorded music industry in India

Gramophone recording came to India towards the end of the 1900s. The Indian elite had been importing them as a luxury item already. But there were no local recordings. In fact, many leading male artistes of Indian musical traditions rejected the gramophone. Perhaps they feared that this new-fangled device would make their music too easily accessible, and thus compromise their ability to command high prices for live performances. Or perhaps they balked at the idea of condensing a long classical music performance to meet the restrictions of this new format.

However, several female courtesans came forward to record their voices; I am really not sure why. Maybe it was a chance to become more widely known; maybe they were already very wealthy and didn't have to worry about financials. Or maybe they were attracted by the potential of this new device. Whatever the reason, it was these "nautch-women" who became pioneers of the music industry in India.

India's first commercial 78rpm disc was recorded in 1902 by Fredrerick William Gaisberg of The Gramophone Company. The singer was Gauhar Jaan, Kolkata's most famous courtesan. The recording was done in a makeshift studio in two large rooms of a hotel in Kolkata. 

Traditionally Hindustani music performances were long affairs, but Gauhar Jaan devised a unique template for presenting it in just 3 minutes, which was all that a single disc could record at the time. 

At the end of each recording, she would announce in English "My name is Gauhar Jaan". In those days, there were no facilities in India to cut the the master disk (acetate). So the master tape of the recording was sent to The Gramophone Company's pressing plan in Hanover (Germany). The announcement of the name at the end of the song helped the technician identify the singer. 

By 1903, Gauhar Jaan's records started appearing in Indian markets and were in great demand. She recorded over 600 records in 10 languages. She became very famous; so much so that when King George visited India for the Delhi Durbar, Gauhar Jaan was invited to Delhi to sing for him. She sang a special song congratulating the emperor on his coronation She was accompanied by Allahabad's famous courtesan, Janaki Bai (pictured here).

In 1908, a record pressing plant was set up at Sealdah, Calcutta (availability of plenty of lac/shellac was one of the reasons). With this plant, there was no need to send the wax masters to Germany, and as a result, the name announcements at the end of the song also disappeared. The workers at this plant called it "Baaja-Khana", the Music House. The harmonium or baaja was the most commonly used musical instrument accompanying vocalists.

P. S. Technically speaking, Gauhar Jaan was not the first recording that the Gramophone Company did. Three days before recording Gauhar Jaan, Fredrerick William Gaisberg recorded two other girls, Shoshimukhi and Fani Bala. He was not impressed with their voices. It was Gauhar Jaan who went on to achieve stardom, while the two singers before her remained unknown.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The gorgeous Noor of Ranthambhore - sighting in October 2014

I got these photos of Noor aka Mala (T-39) from Robert and Katie Cowan. They were in Ranthambhore last week. Isn't Noor just gorgeous?
Here's another photo: you can clearly see the "beads" on her back. This characteristic pattern is what gives her the name "Mala", which means garland. Noor and her two cubs have been among the star attractions of Ranthambhore this season.
Noor is the daughter of the Sultanpur tigress T-13 (Chhoti), and the granddaughter of the legendary Machhli (T-16). Noor's first cub is a male called Sultan (T-72); born a couple of years ago when she mated with Ustad (T-24).  This year she has had two more cubs with Ustad. 

The grass has started to dry up in Ranthambhore in many places, although many places are also still very green.  In this photo below, you can see that Noor looks well-fed and healthy; and there are reports that she has been having good hunting success.
In my previous trip to Ranthambhore, I had excellent sightings of Noor; but that was just a few days after Sultan was born, and she was super skinny and hungry at that time. Take a look at my previous encounter with Noor here.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Rickshawallahs in Varanasi

I could not resist posting this photo of two cycle-rickshawallahs in Chowk, Varanasi. See the difference between them; one is old and experienced, the other is young and seems to be just starting out with a newish rickshaw.
As per the records of licensing department of Varanasi Municipal Corporation (VMC), there are around 10000 registered rickshaws in the city. There are far more rickshaw pullers than there are rickshaws. Some rickshawallahs own their own rickshaws, but most rent them from others. Rental is around Rs 35 per day. Typical earnings in a day are around Rs 250, and after accounting for living expenses, the rickshaw puller may save around Rs 5000 a month. 

But there are many problems. Harassment by the traffic police is one of the biggest ones; and the rickshawallahs pay bribes routinely. Sometimes rickshaws are confiscated, resulting in loss of income. If the rickshawallah falls ill, he has no earning on that day. Often during festivals, weddings, deaths and other family occassions, they go back to the villages surrounding Varanasi; and they have no earnings at that time either. During harvest season also, they go home to provide labour for their family farm, and there is no earning from the rickshaw at that time. 

With this kind of low income, the rickshawallah has no money to spare for any event in the family - a medical emergency, the birth of a child, or a death. For meeting these needs, the rickshawallah has to take a loan. With no access to formal credit, loans are obtained at crazily high rates from local moneylenders. The interest piles up and often older rickshawallahs are struggling under a heavy debt burden.

All these thoughts ran through my head as I saw these two men, one old, one young. I wondered what life had been like for the older one. I wondered what was in store in the future for the young one.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Triumph of Labour, Marina Beach, Chennai

This is the earliest statue put up on Marina Beach for beautifying the promenade.
It is called the Triumph of Labour, and represents four men working hard, trying to move a rock. In 1923, the first ever May Day rally for workers' rights was held in nearby Triplicane. The Triumph of Labour commemorates that rally. It was erected in 1959.

The sculptor is Debi Prasad Ray Choudhury, who was born in what is now Bangladesh; he moved to Madras as the Superintendent of the Madras School of Art.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Why the British were wary of Sadhus

Saffron-clad itinerant sadhus are a standard feature of Indian pilgrimage towns today. However, the British were uncomfortable with these sadhus (and with with nomadic people in general).

As early as the 1830's, William Henry Sleeman (who created the Department of Thugee and Dacoity), argued that "Three-fourths of these religious mendicants, whether Hindoos or Muhammadans, rob and steal, and a very great portion of them murder their victims before they rob them...There is hardly any species of crime that is not throughout India perpetrated by men in the disguise of these religious mendicants".

In medieval India, Sadhu akharas (sects) were not just loose bands of itinerant ascetics. They were an important component of the military labor market. Sadhus carried tradeable items on behalf of merchants and developed fighting skills to protect their cargo. Some sadhus, such as the well known Anup Giri became military adventurers and warlords. The kumbh melas became staging grounds for the mobilization, recruitment, and mercenary employment of the armed akharas. These martial characteristics of the sadhus made them dangerous from the British point of view.

Sadhus could move freely through the countryside, and had easy access to villages. They were usually constantly on the move, staying in temporary camps. This made it impossible for the British to police them. They had no permanent home, no land, no family, and no material possessions using which any pressure could be brought upon them. The were part of esoteric sects, and loyal only to their sect leaders. Many myths and super-natural powers were often attributed to sadhus in popular imagination; because of which they enjoyed the support of the local populace. 

During the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the British record of events in Kanpur speaks of significant numbers of gosains, or Saiva soldier ascetics, taking part in the insurgency. The leader of the Kanpur gosains was named Lalpuri Gosain, and the records say that he appeared during the hostilities on elephant-back with a military banner on display.

In the first half of the 1900's, with the World Wars, and the increasing anti-colonial movement in India, the British were worried that sadhus were preaching sedition. In fact, British fears in this regard were not unfounded. In 1920, Naga sadhus came in considerable numbers to the Nagpur Indian National Congress conference, to see and listen to Gandhi, as he launched the Non-Cooperation Movement. British intelligence reports say that Gandhi spoke to the sadhus, advising them to visit military cantonments, to spread the message of non-cooperation.

During the first half of the 1900's  there were also several stories of freedom fighters dressing up as sadhus in order to be able to move freely. For example, the noted freedom fighter Chandrashekhar Azad (1906 - 1931) is said to have disguised himself as a sadhu and a temple priest, to evade capture.

There are several interesting books and articles on the sadhus and their role in history. However, nothing about sadhus is taught in Indian history books. Children grow up knowing nothing about them. We see sadhus today only as strange relics of a past era, or as practitioners of arcane rituals, or as godmen with eerie powers.