Sunday, June 14, 2020

D C Kala's Jim Corbett of Kumaon: a review

Everybody knows Jim Corbett as a hunter, wildlife expert and as an established writer. But I was more interested to discover the life that he lived at Mokama Ghat, a small village on the bank of Ganga in Bihar. He had spent about 20 years of his life there with the Railways. I wanted to understand his character as a professional and as a human being.

And I was not disappointed. I got one full chapter on that in the book. I did have some knowledge about that though. Corbett himself has described it in the last chapter of his My India. But this book has brought to light several other aspects of his character.

If you want to be a successful human resource manager, you need to take good care of human resource under your command. This book reveals how Corbett used to take care of the needs of the people working under him. He made them work hard, 16 hours a day, and get tons and tons of goods loaded on the ships/rail at Mokama Ghat.

Corbett used to be very compassionate and concerned about the daily needs such as food, income and education of his workers. He was instrumental in opening the first high school in that area with the help of a local person named Ram Sharan who had been closely associated with Corbett.

D C Kala has been able to reveal several of these attributes of Jim Corbett in the book. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Dalrymple's The Anarchy: a review

‘History is boring' is a common refrain from students in schools. And one obvious reason is the history books have generally been written by the historians who are skilled in historiography but they are unable to connect with the common reader. Very few historians have the ability to build engaging narratives in their books. And William Dalrymple is one of them.

Dalrymple is known today as a leading expert of Indian colonialism in the world. As a historian he knows his job well and he does it too; diligently, effectively. Before taking up the task of writing Dalrymple carries out extensive research analysing diverse sources. Then he weaves the stories of history in such a way that you find his books unputdownable. With every new book that he writes, his canvas widens and the skill of writing matures.

Dalrymple’s The Anarchy is the latest in a series of three books that he has written on the history of the transition of the Mughal rule to the British in India. His other two are The White Mughal and The Last Mughal

In The While Mughal Dalrymple focuses on the influence of the Mughal culture on the British officers in the initial period of the British Raj. He has presented the case of an officer posted at Hyderabad to reveal this. The Last Mughal is the story of the 1857 revolt in India with Bahadur Shah Zaffar as a key character. These two books seek to portray the political, cultural and societal aspects of colonial India.  

The Anarchy, however, is the most prophetic of all. It relates the story of how a trading company, that is East India Company, started ruling over India in 18th century. How it first captured a rich state like Bengal and then consolidated and spread its rule through the whole of the country. 

The book reveals the manner in which EIC used all the means at its command to carry out 'loot' in India. The company had been authorised by the British government to have a private army and to wage a war if it was required to fulfil its aim. 'Its lawyers and MP shareholders slowly and subtly worked to influence and subvert the legislation of Parliament' through what is known today as corporate lobbying. 

In the Epilogue Dalrymple makes an interesting comparison between the nature of EIC with that of giant companies in the world today. He also uses this comparison to reveal the sinister policies of these companies -- साम, दाम, दंड, भेद -- which they employ to maintain their monopoly in the markets.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Ustad Abdul Karim Khan

Ustad Abdul Karim Khan has been one of the legendary singers of Hindustani classical music in India. Apart from his immense contribution to music, he also represents the cultural unity and diversity of what we know today as India. He was the founder of the famous Kirana Gharana in the traditions of Hindustani classical music.

He was from Kiryana in UP from where he moved to Baroda in Gujarat. He spent some time as a court singer in the court of Maharaja Sayaji Rao where he fell in love with Tarabai Mane, a member of the royal family of Baroda. After marriage they moved from Baroda to Bombay where the couple lived with their two sons and three daughters. Abdul Karim Khan, however, moved further south to Maharashtra and Karnataka after their separation in 1923. 

The life of Abdul Karim khan is like an open book. He kept on moving from UP to Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and other places, performing as well as enriching his style with anything worth that came his way. It is no surprise then that a maestro of Hindustani classical music like him did not hesitate in adopting the features of Carnatic music in his gayaki. He was very open as a teacher too. He also prepared a good number of disciples.

One may not be aware that some of the great singers of Kirana Gharana like Sureshbabu Mane, Hirabai Badodekar and Sarashwati Mane were his children from his wife Tarabai. Before the couple got separated, Sureshbabu Mane was named as Abdul Rahman, Hirabai was Champakali and Sarashwati was Sakina. After the separation Tarabai changed those names by what they are known today. Sureshbabu was the guru of another legendary singer, Dr Prabha Atre.

When Bharat Ratna Bhimsen Joshi ran away from home to learn classical music, his source of inspiration was Ustad Abdul Karim Khan. Bhimsen Joshi  learned under the wings of a legendary disciple of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan. His name was Pandit Sawai Gandharv.

Fortunately Abdul Karim khan was born in a period when the recording of music had just started in India, in 1902. More than 30 of his songs were recorded, many of which are still available for the listeners. I enjoy listening to some of his songs that I have. One of them, Jamuna ke teer, is a treat, especially when you listen the same song from his disciple, Sawai Gandharwa as well as from his grand disciple, Bharat Ratna Bhimsen Joshi. The basic structure of the song remains the same but you can also observe the individual differences.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

From the Diary of a Snake

Yesterday was a very painful day for me. I had come out in the open for an evening crawl. The hot day of the rainy season had been followed by a light breeze in the evening, which was a perfect occasion for my crawl. I wanted to breathe the fresh air after living in the dark fissures of my underground home for long. I wanted to enjoy every moment of my crawl.

Suddenly I saw a giant looking creature staring at me from a distance. He looked very similar to the kind of species named human beings, about whom my parents had warned me in my childhood. He had covered his body with strange looking materials from neck to the bottom. He could stand like a tree, but unlike us he moved vertically. My parents had conveyed that these humans consider us as their sworn enemies. Whenever or wherever they catch sight of us, they attack and kill us.

So, I immediately crawled for safety and hid myself under a big iron box kept nearby. From there I could see that the human was still standing. It seemed it was speaking to someone with the help of a device in his one hand. Just then I saw that two other humans arrived on a fast moving machine. They were armed will long sticks, the sight of which sent a chill down my whole body.

My grandfather had once told me that though the human beings consider themselves the most powerful creatures on the earth, most of them worship a superpower named God in various forms. They always pray to God whenever in danger. I wished we also had had such a God to whom I could send my prayers.

Anyway these two well built fellows started searching every nook and corner around. Soon they discovered my hiding place. They overturned the box and surrounded me from two sides. I crouched and left myself to the fate. By that time a few more humans had assembled to watch this whole spectacle. They started talking to one another. Probably they were discussing my fate: whether to kill me or to drive me away. I used this as an opportunity to escape from there and run towards the road.

Thus started the game of hide and seek between me and those lathi clad guys. They were trying to lift me on the stick but I would always escape either to the roads or the bushes. I saw that one of the onlookers was using the same small device that I had seen with the first human, to take an aim at me. Probably they were taking my images which they would show and circulate later as a sign of their victory.

I could not continue dribbling and dodging in this life threatening game for long. I was tired and injured. So I gave up. They held me on a stick and threw me away from 'their territory' in the wild of the rice fields across the boundary wall. I fell on an unknown and unfamiliar hard surface with a thud, hurt and humiliated.

I was unable to understand why I had been thrown away from the place where I had lived since my birth. Why do the human beings consider us as their enemies? Why should they kill us or even evict us from the territories which are equally ours? We never offend them or any other species unless provoked. Is it not possible for all the creatures including us and humans to live together in peace and harmony on this Earth? 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Pottery on the fringe

Most students living in the school campus go home during the Diwali holidays. But it has become customary for the small group that stays back to visit the house of Nazeeb Khan, a potter in village Gilpatti near Bathinda, Punjab. The purpose is not just to buy earthen diyas, but also to behold the process of making the age-old source of light. 

So a group of twelve students and three teachers set out on a short expedition on foot on 11th November 2014, the day of Diwali. Early morning they walked for two kilometers to meet Nazeeb, who received them warmly outside the village and escorted them to his house. In the past it was inconceivable that a potter would be free from work on a Diwali day. Nazeeb and his family members would start making diyas several weeks before in those days. Still they could not fulfill the demand of the customers. 

Things are different now. Very few people are interested in earthen diyas these days. 
                           Nazeeb Khan giving shape to a diya. Photo credit: arun jee

There was excitement among the students. They had come to observe Nazeeb making diyas and also to try their hand at pottery. It may appear to be simple, but a small diya has to go through various complex processes-- selecting the appropriate clay for kneading, giving shape on the running chak to baking-- before it reaches the hands of its user. Nazeeb is adept at these skills. He did not go to a school to acquire this art. It has come to him naturally by watching his elders. The students enjoyed watching Nazeeb's fingers negotiating with clay dough on the moving chak. They were awed by the way he was able to mould the clay into the shape and size of his choice with a certain fluidity in his movements. Some of them even tried their hand at this creative process, but in vain. Little did they realise that what they were trying to do in one attempt has taken years for Nazeeb to master.

Nazeeb's ancestors were potters who had come to Gilpatti some 300 hundred years back in search of livelihood. Since then the coming generations have been engaged in this profession. The difference between then and now is that pottery was the only source of income for his ancestors, but for Nazeeb and his generation it is just a part time job.

Fifty years ago when the majority of people still used earthen pots and utensils for their daily use, the potters were in great demand. They had to work constantly to meet the requirements of the community in the village. The times have changed now. The earthenware have now been replaced by the metal ones in every household, those of steel the most common. These pots (earthen) have just remained the works of art which may fetch higher prices in some high end markets, if recognized by the connoisseurs. But it is no longer a regular source of income for them. Nazeeb and his community wait anxiously for the season of Deepawali when he and his family would make use of their skill to earn as much as possible.

In the remaining part of the year Nazeeb earns his livelihood as a barber. His elder brother, Anwar, works as a conductor in a bus. His uncle drives a horse cart.

The descendants of Nazeeb's great great grandfather have expanded and have branched out. Most of these families live in close proximity with one another in a kind of ghetto but pottery isn't a full time profession for any. Just as they live on the northern end of the village, their art and profession of pottery is also on the fringe.     

A Voyage to Sea of Poppies

My week-long voyage to Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh was full of excitement, adventure, learning and joy. Set in the historical backdrop of mid-nineteenth century the novel's canvas is as wide as an ocean, carrying in its womb multitudes of stories, characters, themes, locations, languages...... yet remaining placid, cool and calm.

I became interested in the book after reading a reference to the opium factories in Gazipur and Patna in one of book's reviews. I already knew that the main building of Patna College, much before the college was started in 1863, had been used as an opium factory earlier. 

This led me to embark on the journey of Sea of Poppies with the expectation to sail through the history, language and culture of the places, I thought, were known to me. Flipping through the pages of the book was an exhilarating experience. I got an opportunity to observe the places like Patna, Bakhtiarpur, Monghyr, Teghra, Barauni or objects like Barh ka Lai etc through the prism of a master story teller like Amitav Ghosh. 

However these are only a few of the many items available on the plate of the novel. Just as the white Ganga merges with the Hoogly and finally disappears in the Black Water of the Ocean at Gangasagar, the story  continues through the regions of Bhojpur, Bengal, India, China, England, Europe(the list is long); creating in its wake the conflicts of culture, language, politics and economics, evoking in the reader sympathy, love, hate, humour and nostalgia for a bygone era. 

Reading the novel is like having a smooth sail in a dinghy over the surface of a deep sea. 

By the way what happened to Jodu, Kalua, Serang Ali, Neel and Ah Fatt after they escaped in the lifeboat and what was in store for the rest of the characters on the ship named Ibis? I must find out in the next novel of Amitav Ghosh, River of Smoke. My next voyage has already begun.