As we get close to the the end of the 2010s, it’s difficult to think about the state of the world. The rich continue to increase their obscene share of the world’s wealth and consolidate their power over the poor and the vulnerable. Authoritarian demagogues grab more power by stirring up hatred and division. Religious bigots happily do their bidding, inflicting violence upon those who don’t share their professed beliefs. And there are also enough hypocrites who claim to be so much against all those bad things but who really only do what they think they need to do in order to serve their own immediate self-interest.
Maybe some out there don’t see it that way, but it seems obvious to me.
Things have been bad enough here in the U.S., but it truly hurts to see what I have seen and read coming from India.
As I have briefly said a few times before, one of the things I like so much about the Indian films of the 1940s and ’50s is that so many took a social position exactly opposed to those kinds of ills. (And as I’ve also said, if some of these directors or actors worked in Hollywood at the time when they were making their films in Bombay, they surely would have been blacklisted!) From what I know, the Bollywood films of today aren’t being produced with the same prevailing social conscience. Some are even driven by people said to be major jingoists and bigots, themselves! But maybe that will change. Where there is resistance, there is hope (in all areas).
I will end this year on my blog with four songs from the Golden Age, on the state of the world… About different times, of course (with one even being about ancient times – supposedly), but also – needless to say – very relevant to our own. And by the way, for a change, all of the singers that I am featuring here are male – though there are only two males, since the first three songs are sung by Rafi (who could do this sort of song like no one else) while the last one is by Kavi Pradeep (who was pretty moving, himself, and who gets double credit for writing the lyrics – as I believe he usually did).
[Unfortunately, I could not find an English-subtitled clip of “Ajab Tori Duniya,” but Tom Daniel did add subtitles within his upload of the entire film. If you want to pick this song out over there, fast-forward to 54:36.]
[Since I have added notes below all the other songs, I should add one to this one for symmetry. But no such notes are needed here. The clip contains pretty good English subtitles, and I wholeheartedly endorse the messages of both the song and the film!]
[I wish I could have found an English-subtitled version of “Yeh Duniya Yeh Duniya.” It was subtitled on the DVD that I watched some time ago. If anyone has a subtitled version, please let me know.]
[I included this clip specifically for the message of the song. I am not so sure about the message of the film (especially at the end), because I am basically a nastik, myself. But let’s save that discussion for another time.]
It’s hard to believe it’s more than five years since I wrote my (last) review in this blog of the 1953 film Jhansi Ki Rani. When I watched the film again half a decade later, it felt as though I had seen it almost yesterday. But this time around, I was also finding quite a few other works about Lakshmibai for comparison. (By the way, if there is anyone who does not already know whom I am talking about, this was Queen Lakshmibai of Jhansi – originally named Manikarnika – who famously led a battle against the British in the Indian rebellion of 1857. There is a nice description of the legendary queen over at Wikipedia,.)
As far as I know, after the 1953 film, there was not another movie made about Lakshmibai for a long, long time. But now that situation has completely changed. By the end of the present year, 2019, we will have had two highly visible and much-anticipated films about the Queen of Jhansi released on the international market. On top of that, I found out about two substantial novels on the subject that came out within the past dozen years, and I have also noticed that on YouTube we can find a Lakshmibai serial and Lakshmibai cartoons and all kinds of documentary works. It’s Lakshmibai Mania!
I’m not even going to list every work revolving around Lakshmibai that I have noticed (especially considering all the titles I saw on YouTube), but I have decided to give a brief survey of the ones that I now feel somewhat acquainted with. A few are works that I have read or watched already – for which I am providing somewhat informal reviews – and a few are things that I hope to read or watch very soon (for which I can provide a little bit of advance information that I have found). I do intend to review the items I haven’t seen or read yet a little later, which means that this post will no doubt continue into a Part II. But in the meantime, it’s high time that I got a new post up on this blog, so here’s what I have so far.
Jhansi Ki Rani (aka The Tiger and the Flame) (1953): This film remains my favorite work on the subject. Since I still agree with everything I said before, I’ll just add a few points here. In addition to Mehtab’s fine performance and a few other things I mentioned in my last post, I would like to stress – especially in light of another movie that I watched (which I will get to in a minute) – that this film stands out because of its solid, sympathetic characters on both sides. We certainly are encouraged to root for the Queen of Jhansi, but at the same time, the British enemies are not all depicted as cardboard-cutout villains. The dialogue seems a little stiff in the English-language version, but that may be because it is the English-language version; it might seem more natural in the Hindi one. (By the way, the English-language version was a special American release, but sometimes the actors sounded awfully British to me!) But the characters can be very moving nonetheless. The scenes of tragedy in the film – such as the death of Lakshmibai’s child or the death of the queen, herself – are actually quite heart-wrenching. The ending is marvelously moving, too. In addition, the cinematography is very impressive and some of the scenes are quite spectacular to watch. In the English-language version that I saw, there are a couple of excellent dances (one of which tells a story that is the origin of the English title of the film: “The Tiger and the Flame”). I have noted before that there was a curious lack of songs in that version too. But, as Tom Daniel pointed out, this was because the English-language version/American release was very truncated. (And he does know a bit about that, because he’s the one who posted this version on YouTube!) There are longer versions available on YouTube also, but they are corrupted black-and-white copies that are almost unwatchable. I would recommend this color version no matter what it might be missing, and I would like to repeat the feeling that I expressed years ago, that it is a shame this film was not more successful at the box office.
Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (2019) : This is the latest Hindi-film version of the tale. And it is a film that helped me to appreciate the 1953 version even more for a few reasons, including (as I mentioned) the older film’s depth or nuance in its character portrayals, especially with regard to the enemy forces. The British enemies in Manikarnika are cardboard-cutout villains and the film is plagued by one-dimensional or exaggerated characters in general. The queen, herself, is just too much of a superhero, and some of the action scenes – which are obviously aided by computer animation – are utterly absurd. (I could really have done without some of those slow-mo jumps.) This is a shame because the star, Kangana Ranaut, actually is a pretty good actress, and it was nice to see her perform her role so well, even given that she didn’t always have the best material to work with. On the other hand, since she is one of the film’s three directors, Kangana should also be held accountable for the film’s more silly qualities, no mater how good an actress she is.
But I don’t want to totally pan this film; overall, it’s not really that bad to watch. The pace is decent, the cinematography is very nice (it seems that we get nice cinematography in all the Lakshmibai films), and the action sometimes is colorful and exciting, outside of the more ridiculous scenes. The music is also very pleasant, though none of it stuck out in my mind. (Of course, most music in contemporary Hindi films doesn’t stick out in my mind like the music in the old films – not by a long stretch.)
There is also another actress who did a very nice job in this film – Ankita Lokhande, who played Jhalkaribai. Actually, I was very pleased to see the sections of this film devoted to Jhalkaribai. Jhalkaribai was a Dalit member of Queen Lakshimbai’s female guard who bore a strong resemblance to the queen and who legendarily acted as a decoy to allow the queen to escape (for a while) during the climactic Siege of Jhansi. This part of the tale of Laskhmibai is very memorable, and apparently (as I found while doing a small bit of research), some people feel that Jhalkaribai was the true greatest hero of Jhansi. It is unfortunate that in the 1953 film – at least in the version I saw – there was no attention given to the tale of Jhalkaribai. In fact, in that film, there was no attention given to any of the famous women in Queen Laskhmibai’s female army (though women guards were clearly shown in some scenes). But in more recent times, the queen’s all-female guard seems to be a strong area of focus in every major version of this tale that comes out. I suppose that’s one reason to be grateful for 21st century feminism!
Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran (published in 2014): Speaking of the queen’s all-female guard, they certainly get enough attention in this novel! That’s because the main character and narrator of the novel is not Queen Lakshmibai, but a member of her guard named Sita. And in the novel, at least, Sita is also best friends with Jhalkaribai. I suspect that some people might have been disappointed in this book because they expected it to be from Lakshmibai’s perspective, but we don’t even get any glimpse of Laskhmibai’s thoughts and feelings except from the perspective of Sita. Personally, though, I think it was refreshing to see the tale of Lakshmibai told from the perspective of one of her female soldiers. It was very clever, maybe even ingenious, for Michelle Moran to write it this way.
In many ways, this novel is a treat. There certainly are solid characters here – though there are also a couple of traitorous villains within the ranks of the Indians whose evil qualities might have been a bit overdone. There also are some twists at the end regarding the “real” (but fictional) cause of certain deaths that are a bit hard to imagine as real, possible history. And one more quibble I have regarding Rebel Queen is that Ms. Moran is sometimes a bit superficial in her depiction of certain aspects of historic Indian culture (at least compared to the depictions in some other things that I have read). For instance, I was a bit annoyed by her easy generalization about the devadasis. There is a point early in the novel when Sita faces the threat of being sold to the temple to become a devadasi because her evil grandmother (who is actually an evil step grandmother, as we learn at one point) does not feel that the family can be responsible for her anymore. (Sita’s mother had died and her father is sometimes left oblivious to things that are going on because he was deafened by a war injury.) Then Sita relates in her narration that everybody knew how terrible this was, because devadasis were just prostitutes – and when Sita’s father finally catches on to the plan, he arranges for Sita to seek a much better fate by training for a famous all-female army. Of course, that generalization about devadasis is a bit of an oversimplification, and I don’t think that devadasis began to acquire such a degraded reputation until the moralistic anti-nautch movement that occurred half a century after this part of the novel takes place. And, of course, in this novel, there is no mention at all of the devadasis’ great dance tradition. (Maybe I found this more troubling than others might because I am a big fan of classical Indian dance and have eagerly read some of the dancers’ history.)
Michelle Moran actually is not a specialist in Indian culture, though she married an Indian man and she was inspired to write this book while living in India around the time of her wedding. (She was originally from California, which is also her regular residence now.) In her various novels, she delves into different historical cultures, and her most popular novels take place in ancient Egypt. But I don’t get the impression that her specialty in historical fiction is revealing intricate historical facts. Rather, it is making people within the historical novels seem like characters we could easily sympathize with. While I was reading the scenes in Rebel Queen that took place within the residences of the women’s guard, it sometimes felt as though I was reading conversations between college girls in a contemporary dormitory. I think it’s because the characters’ humanness seemed very real, in a way that transcended time periods and historical circumstances. I also wondered if young women and teenagers might be the novel’s biggest intended target audience – which would be interesting, because that was no doubt the demographic of the main characters, too.
The way the novel is written, it should be broadly appealing. It’s certainly smoothly done. For instance, though there are a lot of plot elements to relate, the novel never becomes wordy or plodding. And while a lot of horrible and tragic things happen toward the end (after all, this is the 1857 rebellion), the more hopeful changes in the plot at the very end actually help to make this novel uplifting.
And here are a couple of items that I hope to check out in the near future – maybe to be discussed further in this post’s Part II. (By the way, I can’t guarantee that Part II will be my very next post, but the more I think about it, the more I feel that I am going to want to write it soon!)
The Warrior Queen of Jhansi (2019): This mostly English-language film and mostly UK production is scheduled for release in the U.S. on November 15. I hope to see it when it comes out or not long afterwards. It’s directed by Swati Bhise, who was originally known as a Bharatanatyam dancer but who also obviously has delved into many other artistic endeavors. She comes from Mumbai but, apparently, she currently teaches in various arts programs in New York City. The star of the film is her daughter, Devika Bhise, who has had some acting experience of her own, in addition to being trained in martial arts. (So, obviously, she has some qualifications for playing the Warrior Queen in this movie, in addition to being the director’s daughter. Actually, as I just found out, she also ended up directing part of the film during a time when her mother landed in the ICU with a respiratory ailment.) The film received some praise at a few film festivals and private screenings earlier this year, when it had a slightly different title, Swords and Sceptres: The Rani of Jhansi. Maybe the new title was chosen to give it a more popular kind of appeal, especially in the U.S. I hope that it will get a wide distribution, and that I’ll be able to find it easily in November so I can review it soon, in Part II of this post!
Rani by Jaishree Misra (published in 2007): There might be some people who’ve been reading this blog regularly who will recall that I mentioned this book Rani at the end of my post from five months ago, Freedom Fighting Courtesans and Warrior Queens of 1857. That post centered on a novel about another warrior queen (slightly less known than the Lakshmibai), Begum Hazrat Mahal. That novel was In The City of Gold and Silver, by Kenize Mourad. At the end of the post, I did bring the Queen of Jhansi up a little, not only because she obviously should be included under the subject of that post, but also because she is mentioned in Mourad’s novel. But I also brought up the fact that Mourad’s novel is compared to Jaishree Misra’s novel in a review written for The Hindu by Suneetha Balakrishnan. In that review, Ms. Balakrishnan said that Jaishree Misra’s novel was more engaging, and I have wanted to read Misra’s novel ever since. Now I know that Suneetha Balakrishnan also reviewed Misra’s novel directly for her blog Suneetha Speaks. After reading that review, I am even more interested in reading this book!
One thing I know from her review of Rani – which I am pretty sure I also saw mentioned in a book review elsewhere – is that Queen Lakshmibai is depicted as having a romance with a British man, which is an idea that some people might consider heretical. There was an old British childhood friend of Lakshmibai who appeared as a character in the 1953 film, and though he is married at the time when they unite as adults, he and Lakshmibai obviously do admire each other. The British friend, unfortunately, is also stuck with the job of pursuing Laskhmibai during battle (and, of course, it is he who is killed). I am pretty sure that this British friend is based on a real person, and I suspect that he might be the same man who becomes Lakshmibai’s romantic interest in Misra’s novel.
I do intend to read Rani soon, though I might have to sit in a research room to do it, because I haven’t been able to find the book anywhere in New York City except at the New York Public Library’s research center in Midtown. Or I may do something that I rarely do (for various reasons) which is to find a way to get the book online. In any event, I think there is a good chance that this novel will be reviewed for real in this post’s Part II. As I was saying, I am not sure if Part II is going to be the very next post, but if you want to read even more about this Lakshmibai Mania, stay tuned!
I did NOT forget Madam Noor Jehan’s birthday, which was September 21 (when she would have turned 93). Unfortunately, though, time did not permit me to write a solid post for it this year and, besides, I think the series of full Noor Jehan birthday posts in this blog may have run its course. But I think those who have been following the Noor Jehan birthday posts for the past decade would agree that I have probably posted enough stuff! (Unless you think there can never be enough stuff when it comes to posting about Noor Jehan – an opinion that I would fully respect.)
For those who do not know about the series – or those who know but would like to look at it again – please go to last year’s post, which includes links that will take you to prior Noor Jehan posts (including the post from 2015 that includes links to all the others going back to 2009).
Meanwhile, my mind has been going in other directions, and I hope to have something interesting and comprehensive up fairly soon – on a subject related to other things that I have been writing about in recent months. (That is the plan, at any rate.)
But rest assured that I will never forget the birth anniversary of Noor Jehan, the all-time greatest singing star!
One thing I love about exploring the classical Indian singers from the first few decades of the 20th century is that this can also lead to the discovery of some interesting early talkies in which they acted, too. It seems that the crossover between classical singing and acting in the old films was far from uncommon. Begum Akhtar comes to my mind as the most notable such crossover, but there apparently were quite a few others.
One other such singer who also did some film acting was Azambai of Kolhapur. I wish I could say that I knew about Azambai for a long time, but to be honest, I didn’t know about her at all until I looked through my YouTube subscriptions in the first week of August and stumbled upon this captivating khayal (in Raag Bihagra):
The YouTube poster, who (or which) is named ساقی حسن (I do not know how to translate that into English), also wrote a bunch of information about Azambai under the video, but I found some of it a bit difficult to follow, and it mostly consisted of details regarding who trained her and who might have, which pretty much went over my head due to my still-very-limited knowledge of the history of Indian classical music. One thing that did catch my eye, though, was this line:
Owing To Her Immense Fame During Early Days Of Hindi cinema, Over Musical Landscape Of British India, She Gave Voice To & Also Acted For A Few Of The Initial Hindi Flicks . . .
Because, of course, immediately after I read that, I wanted to know what those flicks were! I still don’t know the full answer if there were multiple flicks, but I started to learn about one such movie in the material written by YouTube poster cactus1762 under the next audio clip that I listened to, which was this very pleasing tarana in Raag Gaud Sarang:
I found the information below this clip to be a bit easier to follow than below the prior clip, so I’ll reproduce the whole description here. And, by the way, this information can also be found in a post at the blog Notes and Beats. (It could be that the blogger and the YouTube poster are one and the same person – or else the blogger simply lifted the information from the YouTube post. Unfortunately, that is another mystery that I have yet to solve.)
Azam Bai of Kolhapur (1906-1986) was also known as Azambai Pisal. Very little is known about her but the recordings she left behind testifies that she was a classical vocalist of truly exceptional quality. It is known that she was trained in the Jaipur-Atrauli style of Ustad Alladiya Khan, by one of his sons – either Manjhi Khan or Bhurji Khan during the 1930s. She also starred in a film named Naagaanand (1935) for which Vamanrao Sadolikar composed the music. Azambai of Kolhapur cut at least 15 78 RPM records released by the Odeon Company in 1936-37 – most of which are now only available in the collectors’ archives.
So now I really wanted to find out more about this film labeled here as “Naagaanand” (though I suspected – correctly – that the title did not need to be transliterated with quite so many “a”s). But before I did that, I wanted hear more from her! So I treated myself to another positively splendid piece of music posted by cactus1762 – another khayal, this time in Raag Nand:
And then right after I enjoyed that clip (which had the same exact information below it as the prior one), I went on my search for more information about this film . . . And it did not take me long to discover that this 1935 film called Naganand (which apparently also was spelled sometimes as Nagananda) actually featured a soon-to-be more prominent musical personality as a star – someone, in fact, who would become one of the very best music directors of the Golden Age. I found all this out – and more – via a post about a special screening of the film in Pune that was given on September 9, 2017 by the National Film Archive of India.
At the very top of the NFAI”s description of the film, we are told:
To commemorate the centenary year of renowned music composer C. Ramchandra (1918-1982), a special screening of the Marathi talkie “Naganand” (1935) has been organized on Saturday, 9th September 2017, 6pm at NFAI, Pune. C Ramchandra was the lead actor in this film. “Naganand” was the first talkie he worked on, at age 17.
And in the next paragraph, we get a good idea that the film was not very good – via quotes from an interview with Chitalkar, himself:
C. Ramchandra writes in his autobiography “Majhya Jeevanachi Sargam” (The Tune of My Life), “I have never seen a film featuring myself on the screen. When I called up the theatre where the film premiered, I was told that it has flopped, and that the 10 odd people in the audience had also walked out in the intermission. The theatre cancelled the showing of the second half. It was probably the biggest flop in history!” He said in an interview that since the failure of “Naganand,” he decided to stop pursuing acting and focus on music.
Though, of course, this does not mean that I wouldn’t want to see this film, because, as the NFAI points out (somewhat stating the obvious):
Despite its failure back then, a film such as this nevertheless remains an important part of our film history, and that is good enough reason to not miss this rare opportunity offered by NFAI.
But since I did miss that showing two years ago – and there was no way I could have traveled to Pune, India at that time anyway (nor can I go there now) – I definitely would love to find a copy of the film. That is especially true, given the notice that I saw at the end of this description:
The film will be screened with English subtitles.
Can anyone tell me how I could get a copy of Naganand (1935), starring Chitalkar (aka C. Ramchandra) and Azambai of Kolhapur, with English subtitles? Or is there a chance that anybody has it and can post it on YouTube? If your answer to either of those questions is “Yes,” please let me know right away!
In the meantime, I am going to explore some more of these early-20th-century Indian classical singers, because now I know that there is a lot of potential in such searches for very surprising discoveries in both music and films.
A few years ago, thanks to the efforts of two Facebook and blogging friends, I had the pleasure of receiving a free copy of the book My Name Is GauharJaan! by Vikram Sampath. I received this book from Karen Joan Kohoutek (of the blog October), who sent me an extra copy of it after asking for a suggestion of whom to send it to in a conversation with Suzy AKA Sitaji (who should be familiar to many longtime readers here.) It was great, indeed, to have this thick biography about India’s first recording star. But I must have been very busy or distracted at the time, because I really only skimmed it and probably not cover-to-cover, either. But this past month, I decided to read it again, a few days after learning (on June 26) that people were observing Gauhar Jaan’s birthday. And as I started to read it, I realized that it connected in a lot of ways to a few books – and general subjects – that I had just recently read and blogged about.
For instance, after writing a bit about Wajid Ali Shah (as well as reading and writing about his famous wife), it was very interesting to read that Gauhar Jaan had started on her path to becoming a famous singer by singing (along with her mother) in Wajid Ali Shah’s court in Calcutta. Sampath also took the time to write a very informative chapter about the thumri, the musical form that specifically is connected to both Wajid Ali Shah (whose artistic reign was known for the growth of thumri and, especially, Kathak) and Gauhar Jaan (because it is a form of music that she became very well known for, too).
My Name Is Gauhar Jaan! also contains a good amount of information about the fate of the tawaifs in this era. Sampath writes a lot about the anti-Nautch campaigns that eventually contributed to Gauhar Jaan’s demise, but he also describes how Gauhar Jaan became the first among many tawaifs who transcended the limitations of the tawaif culture (which was due to decline in any event) when she became the first star of India to transfer her talents onto records. (By the way, contrary to what many people say, she was not the first Indian singer to have performances recorded – a fact that becomes evident in the book and which is also very well documented in an article by Surjit Singh. But she was, indeed, India’s first recording star.)
Apparently, in a great way, Gauhar Jaan was a true pioneer. But there was another, far less positive way in which she was also a sort of prototype.
The bad/sad side of Gauhar Jaan’s story looked very familiar to me as I read about it, because it had a lot in common with some other stories that I had read about (and wrote about in other blog posts). That is because, in addition to being a bit of a rag-to-riches story at the beginning of her career, she was even more a riches-to-rags story at the end.
The story of Gauhar Jaan’s decline, impoverishment, and sad demise reminded me a bit of the story of Zarina Begum, a protégé of Begum Akhtar (who actually had, herself, been known to be well influenced by Gauhar Jaan). Since I have written about Zarina twice before in this blog (and also turned those blog posts into an article that was published in the journal The World of Apu), it was natural that Zarina’s story was one of the first that came to my mind. But there was an aspect of Gauhar Jaan’s decline that was more reminiscent of at least one of the artists whom I mentioned in my post Here’s to the Birth or Death Anniversaries of Three Classic Hindi Film Artists Who Certainly Should Not Have Died In Poverty. If you read the comments below that post, you’ll see an astute one by AK (blogger at Songs of Yore) pointing out that at least some fallen Indian film artists contributed to their own demise with their “excesses in lifestyle” (that is, the reckless and ostentatious lifestyles that they indulged in), with “total lack of concern for savings for future” (probably because they never considered that the good days might end). And at that point, I pointed out that the fallen artist in my post who most fit that description was the great pioneering film cabaret dancer, our beloved Cuckoo Moray.
Unfortunately, due to limitations of time, space, etc., I have decided that I cannot get (back) into the specific tales of those later fallen artists here (unless you would like me to take another six weeks to put up a post). But with a little investigation, I’m sure that most readers will be able to find a few such stories. Since I mentioned Cuckoo, I would like to recommend the sad story to be found at Cineplot, and also to look at Wikipedia and other sources. You will, indeed, find some uncommon parallels. Meanwhile, let’s get back to our poor departed Gauhar . . .
While at her peak, Gauhar Jaan became notorious for the lavish way she traveled (very fancy stagecoaches, etc.), her elaborate, mostly paid entourage, and her heaps of highly authentic jewelry, she was overwhelmed with debt by the end of her life, when she died in a “desolate corner” (as Sampath describes it) of a hospital in Mysore after suffering from a fever resulting from an unspecified ailment. Though once surrounded by hordes of admirers, there was no one around to keep her company on her deathbed, and apparently, no one is sure exactly where she was buried, and she might have just been left in an unmarked grave. (Had there been resources set aside for the purpose, her body might have received an appropriate burial in Calcutta.)
And in future years, Sampath tells us, Gauhar Jaan’s legacy was nearly forgotten, as other musical stars – on records and then in films – claimed all the attention of audiences throughout the rest of the 20th century. But as with some of those other fallen stars of the 20th century, there seems to have been some revival of her legacy in the past couple of decades. That’s why Google issued a Gauhar Jaan “Doodle” for her birthday. (Unfortunately, I live in the U.S., where so many of these Google Doodles related to Indian music and films are never posted. Nonetheless, it usually is still pretty easy for me to find out about them and see them.) There have been re-releases of Gauhar Jaan’s work in recent times, and we can even find 114-year-old recordings of her in audio clips on YouTube (such as the great one that I have included below). Obviously, this revival has been somewhat facilitated by new technologies that brought global access to Gauhar Jaan’s recordings so that people like yours truly could hear her voice with the click of a button while sitting in an apartment in 21st Century New York City, USA.
At the end of his biography, Sampath speculates that Gauhar Jaan’s ruined emotional state – due to the decline of her career and her finances – might have been a major contributor to her death. As with some others among that not-small number of stars who sadly followed in Gauhar Jaan’s footsteps via their own decline and descent into obscurity, at the sad end to her tale, we are left thinking, if only she could have known that her reputation would be at least somewhat revived many years later. But there are many things that Gauhar Jaan could never have predicted, including the fact that her voice would be heard via technology that far surpassed the once seemingly miraculous sound recordings in which she had played the part of India’s greatest singing pioneer.
Although I am a little late in commenting here about the tragic loss of Queen Harish, I actually found out about his death several hours before it was mentioned in a number of newspapers and magazines. This is because I receive news on Facebook from the dancer Colleena Shakti, and she sent out a post (which I received in New York City shortly after 2 am on the morning of June 2) saying, “My beautiful dancing sister, incredible one of a kind artist and dear kind hearted friend… has just passed away.” As Colleena Shakti reported and a number of news sites also started to report several hours later, Queen Harish died in a car (SUV) accident that also killed three other musicians. (Actually, Colleeena had said five, but the news reports that I saw later said three other “folk artists” were killed and five other people were injured.)
I have known about Queen Harish for a long time, since before I knew about most of the classic Indian film, music, and dance artists whom I’ve talked about on this blog for the past dozen years. I first saw Queen Harish perform in New York City’s Central Park in 1997, accompanying the Rajasthani folk music Group Musafir. I became a big fan of Musafir and had already a been a fan of a global-techno sort of group that Musafir ended up recording a single with, Transglobal Underground. I did not have the same access to performances by Queen Harish, but the memory of his fabulous dance performance at that Musafir show would pop into my mind now and then for the next decade… And then, finally, I got to see more Queen Harish dances when I started tuning in to YouTube.
Of course, I started tuning in to YouTube at about the same time that I started this blog. And in December of 2007 – when this blog was still in its infancy (and was not yet devoted to Indian films, etc.) – I wrote a post about Gypsies of Rajasthan, in which I started off by talking about my experience of seeing Musafir (whose first album was called “Gypsies of Rajasthan,” too). I posted one clip of Queen Harish, and then I moved on to a group called Banjara who also called themselves “Gypsies of Rajasthan” and I wondered if they might have been a new incarnation of Musafir. But Musafir had actually become a different group, called Maharaja. I found this out in my comments section from none other than Queen Harish. And this positively startled me!
This blog was, indeed, very new, I didn’t expect it to reach many people at all, and I wasn’t sure – and wouldn’t be for months – where the blog was going… Yet, I got a comment from the world-renowned Queen Harish! I have to say it was a moment of pride for me… And then, half a year later, Queen Harish popped up again, in comments to my post On Tour in the U.S.: Queen Harish! Here, he entered into a conversation that I was having with Sitaji of Bollywood Food Club, in which Sitaji wondered whether Queen Harish had appeared in a scene from the 2002 film Shakhti. (Sitaji also knew all about Queen Harish; she had mentioned him in a post the month before.) And sure enough, who do you think popped into the blog to answer the question himself?
Queen Harish confirmed his presence in the film and signed “from LA with love”! Looking back at that comments section, I don’t know why I did not respond, as this was the last comment in the thread. Maybe I missed it that time? In any event, I wondered after that if Queen Harish might be visiting again now and then.
But,enough of my glorying in my encounter with the Queen. Here are a few posts of his fine dances:
Queen Harish going to his roots, performing a Kalbelia dance on the Queen Harish Show:
Queen Harish doing his famous dance to “Dil Cheez Kya Hai”:
Queen Harish dancing with fire!
And here is Queen Harish dancing with Colleena Shakti:
I have seen a number of moving and informative articles about Queen Harish during the past week, the best of them being – in my opinion – the one that appeared in The Hindu. One thing this article told me that I did not know – which you might say connects this post to a number of other recent ones on this blog – is that William Dalrymple is a Queen Harish fan too. The article even shows a picture of William Dalrymple standing with Queen Harish, below these two paragraphs:
“He was an enhancer of life; investing his heart and soul into every move,” says writer and historian William Dalrymple, who loved watching Queen Harish perform. “My wife, my daughter, we all loved him,” he adds.
Dalrymple first saw Queen Harish at the Jaipur Virasat Festival in 2004. “A few months ago, he was in Delhi to perform at a wedding, which I happened to attend. He completely owned the stage and showcased the Rajasthani folk arts in a unique way.”
And I would have to agree with the line about Queen Harish being unique. There isn’t going to be another dancer like him! We’re going to miss you, Queen Harish.
[Looking at a novel, a few articles and a video, and linking back to a favorite old film review.]
Unexpectedly, in the past month, I ended up treating myself to a crash course in the role of courtesans (aka tawaifs) in the Indian rebellion of 1857.
If you saw my last post and you know a little about Wajid Ali Shah, it probably would not be difficult to figure out how I happened upon this subject. Begum Hazrat Mahal was a wife of Wajid Ali Shah, and she got to that position by being a courtesan. Earlier in her life, when she was just a little orphaned girl named Muhammadi Khanum, an aunt who was supposed to take care of her sold her to some sort of courtesan agent instead. Muhammadi was eventually sent to audition at the court of Wajid Ali Shah, and at some point, at about the age of 14, she overwhelmed everyone with her talents in writing and reciting poetry. And then, soon enough, she was Begum Hazrat Mahal, the second wife of the King of Awadh.
Unfortunately, in 1856, the British chose to annex Awadh, exiling Wajid Ali Shah to Kolkata (or Calcutta, as it was then known), probably in the neighborhood of Metiabruz. (Of course, there was some mention of that that in my last post as well.) There, he apparently was able to build up a mini-Lucknow and continue his pursuit of arts, Kathak, and all such good things. He had at first protested his exile and had sent his mother and some other family members to England to try to persuade Queen Victoria to change these circumstances (which never happened because Victoria never even spoke to them). After that, though, it seemed that he had settled into his circumstances fairly peacefully. He had some unpleasant stays in prison at some point – at least partly because of what his wife Hazrat Mahal was doing at home – but he never became involved in any active battles with the British, and it was probably just as well as far as he was concerned.
Hazrat Mahal did not go with him in his exile, and her fate and inclinations turned out to be very different. Her son, Birjis Qadr, was the apparent heir to the throne at home, but he was only eleven years old, so she was chosen to watch over him for now, officially as the Queen Mother. What she actually became was the Queen, and a warrior queen at that. She led a fierce fight against the British for over a year, overcoming many setbacks (until the last, that is) and defending against many onslaughts.
Begum Hazrat Mahal was not remembered as well as she should have been, but there are a number of good documents about her floating around on the Internet, etc. The first thing that I read about her, though, was a historic novel, In the City of Gold and Silver, which I found three weeks ago on the shelves of the New York Public Library.
The novel that I picked up is actually an English translation of a French novel written by a French war correspondent-turned-novelist named Kenize Mourad. (Reading a little further about her, I see that this author is someone of both Turkish and Indian ancestry whose journalism was focused on the Middle East. She also had some hidden royal heritage of her own, which she wrote about in an autobiographical novel, Regards from the Dead Princess. Maybe that will be another a story worth exploring, at another time.)
While reading In the City of Gold and Silver, I started to think a little about the nature of historic novels in general. Close to a year ago, I reviewed William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal (along with his book White Mughals, which I actually liked a bit more). After I posted that review, I got into an interesting conversation with someone off-blog that included some discussion about whether Dalrymple might have fabricated some of his history. But to me, the events in his book seemed so meticulously documented, that if he invented anything, it had to have been far outweighed by all the facts that he related that were backed up with notes, etc. Of course, if this were a historical novel, that question might not have even arisen as a concern. If somebody appears in the novel whom no one has ever heard of, or if a relationship is described that no one knew existed, it doesn’t matter whether we ever find facts to back these things up, because this is a work of fiction anyway. (Right?)
As I understand it, there is no historical evidence for one of the main elements in Ms. Mourad’s novel, the romance between Hazrat Mahal and a certain “Hindu raja” referred to as Jai Lal. The parts of this novel that deal with the romance are also the most highly dramatic, and they sometimes made me feel as though I was reading…well, a romance novel. At a lot of other times, though, I felt as though I was reading something very similar to Dalrymple’s book; that is, a long chronicle of a war, replete with a long list of atrocities committed by the both the British and the Sepoys (and other rebels too). Dalrymple goes into the atrocities for longer and in more detail, but Mourad is pretty good at this stuff also, which is not surprising – after all, she was once a war correspondent.
It is a bit difficult to label In the City of Gold and Silver. Even we accept that it is fiction and not just slightly embellished history, what kind of fiction is this really? I think a review that I found in The Hindu sums it up clearly with the statement, “Mourad straddles multiple genres.” The author of this article, Suneetha Balakrishnan, makes a few other good points about the novel, too. One is that it’s strange for Mourad to have written the novel in the perspective that she did – which was third-person and present tense. As Balakrishnan points out, this is a style of writing that, at least sometimes, “limits engagement.” And it’s probably because of this lack of engagement in the narrative that I did find myself drifting sometimes, wondering if I would ever finish this book. But at the end of the 400 pages, I realized that it had been pretty moving overall. Of course, there’s a lot of tragedy near the end, and most of the people are killed. What else would we expect from a novel about the rebellion of 1857? Hazrat Mahal was not killed but was allowed to spend some time in exile in Nepal. Unfortunately, she did end up leading a very confined and heartbreaking sort of existence and died at a much younger age than the exiled kings. Strangely, though, the novel gets that age wrong, saying she died at the age of 48. I saw several other documents that said that she was born in 1820 and died in 1879, so she was 58 or 59. How could the author and her publishers have let such a big error through? It’s a bit distracting. Nonetheless, this and other minor faults notwithstanding, I do think this was a worthwhile read overall, and I’m glad that I pushed myself to finish it.
Of course, sometimes you can be up for getting information from a complicated 400-page novel and sometimes you’d prefer something shorter and more direct. It’s with that in mind that I’d also like to recommend a nice video that I found on YouTube, from a source called CIC DU (which apparently stands for the Cluster Innovation Center at the University of Delhi). It’s one of five videos that they made about 1857 (and maybe I will get to the others sometime). It’s just 9:57 long, yet it sums up the basic points about Begum Hazrat Mahal in a good way (via a pretty good narrator) and is moving in its own way as well as informative.
One curious thing that I found after learning all about Begum Hazrat Mahal is that she was far from the only former courtesan who ended up being an 1857 freedom fighter. Via a nice coincidence in timing, I found an article about this subject just as I was finishing In the City of Gold and Silver. The article, posted at Scroll.in, is: Tawaifs: The unsung heroes of India’s freedom struggle. The 1857 rebellion is far from the article’s only focus, since it discusses the role of courtesans right up to 1947. (For instance, it delves into an interesting exchange in the early 20th century between Gandhi and the great singer Gauhar Jaan.) But there is a part near the beginning of the article where we are introduced to a couple of tawaif rebels from 1857 in addition to Hazrat Mahal.
One of the two relatively lesser-known rebel courtesans that the article mentions is Azeezunbai, a resident of Kanpur (then known as Cawnpore, in the state of Uttar Pradesh). She was frequently spotted dressed in men’s clothes, packing pistols, and riding with the Sepoys. The other is Hussaini, who was speculated to have participated in an infamous massacre of captive British women and children (the Bibighar Massacre), which also took place in Kanpur. Curiously, Hussaini did not even have political status; she was speculated to be “a courtesan lower in the hierarchy of tawaifs.”
Ms. Singh does provide some interesting facts and speculation regarding Azzezunbai (or Azizun, as she writes her name here). For instance, she points out that this tawaif had left the far more central town of Lucknow in order to live in Kanpur. Speculating about the reason for that, she cites the famous novel Umrao Jaan Ada, by Mirza Hadi Ruswa (which many of us know first as a famous Bollywood film), in which the title character talks about being able to earn more money and be more independent in Kanpur. Singh guesses that Azizun may have been driven to move to Kanpur out of the same “passion for independence” that inspired her involvement in the 1857 rebellion. This seems like a lot of speculation, but it does make some sense.
The most interesting part of this article, though, is the part that alludes to all the courtesan freedom fighters that it hasn’t named. I was taken aback when I read the claim that “There are bound to be hundreds of stories about the role of women like Azizun in the Rebellion, but most of these seem to have gone unrecorded.”
Wow, hundreds?! This looks like a subject worth returning to sometime. For now, though, I’ll just savor my newly found knowledge about the three above.
P.S. Before this past month, the only female freedom fighter from 1857 whom I knew about was Laskhmibai aka the Rani of Jhansi or Jhansi Ki Rani. I greatly enjoyed the Sohrab Modi film Jhansi Ki Rani (1953), starring the director’s wife, Mehtab. I wrote a review of that film in June of 2014, and it remains one of my favorite posts. More recently (at the beginning of the present year), a new film about the same subject came out, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi. I was curious about this one at first, but I saw soon enough, from quite a few writeups, that nobody who saw it thought it was very good. So, I did not feel compelled to see it right away, though maybe someday I will.
The Rani of Jhansi was not a courtesan, but like Hazrat Mahal, she was a warrior queen of 1857, and the far better-known one as well. So naturally, as I have seen so far, when people write about Hazrat Mahal, they mention the Rani of Jhansi. The Rani of Jhansi does get mentioned in Kenize Mourad’s novel. She does not exactly make an appearance, but at one point, we learn that Hazrat Mahal is very disturbed by the Rani’s death because they had been corresponding and Hazrat Mahal had identified with her a lot. We also are provided the contents of a letter that the Rani of Jhansi wrote to Hazrat Mahal shortly before her death, encouraging Hazrat Mahal to keep fighting and never give up. (By the way, I don’t know if we can know for certain whether such a letter was ever really written, but that’s all right because this is a work of fiction. Right?)
In her review for The Hindu, Suneetha Balakrishnan compares In the City of Gold and Silver to a relatively recent novel about the Rani of Jhansi, Rani by Jaishree Misra. Balakarishnan claims that Misra’s Rani contains the kind of “engagement” for the reader that she found lacking in Mourad’s novel. After reading her recommendation, I am going to have to find this book as well and maybe post about it here someday too.
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