Not many, except those of the older generation – older even than mine – would know the names that cloths of various kinds used to bear once: teri meri marzi; dil ki pyas; aankh ka nasha, and the like. Or the ‘brand’ names: chhabbee di malmal; do ghora marka boskey, and so on. I wouldn’t recognize the cloths even if I were, somehow, to be able to see them: I only heard in my younger days the names from my mother. But, being involved in the arts – of various kinds – I have been taking notice of late of the shiny, colourful labels that used to be pasted on cloth-bolts which textile mills in Bombay, Ahmedabad and Madras were beginning to turn out in burgeoning numbers, early in the last century.
Simply printed, like calendar-type oleographs, many of them carried, besides the manufacturing company’s name, somewhat coarsely drawn figures and designs: gods and goddesses of Hindu mythology, images of locally known heroes, professionals plying their trade, animals seen in their natural habitat, and so on. Despite their coarseness, there is, admittedly, a certain naïve charm that belongs to them. Not surprisingly, therefore, these labels have now become items for collectors, and there are people who have amassed them in large numbers. Sociologists might study them for the significance they carried for different classes of people, and semiologists could well be inclined to turn them to their own use, decoding the subliminal messages they bear. For the most part, however, they would be sheer fun to see for people: reminders of times gone by, relics of distant mind-sets.
Browsing through a pile of these labels that I saw recently with a knick-knack dealer in Delhi, my eyes lingered a little long on one. It carried an image of King George V, with his queen, seated in all their imperial majesty – ermine and velvet, crown and sceptre – at the very top of a globe. Beneath them, prominently,
was the map of India, with four of her principal cities clearly marked: Karachi, Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta. Around the globe ran, as if on some heavenly body spinning in its orbit, a truly broad rim on which a cavalcade of mounted horsemen was delineated: banks of proud, turbaned soldiers, carrying pennants in their hands, part of a ceremonial parade, as it were. There was no date on this label, nor, interestingly, even the name of a company. But there could be little doubt that the label came from a cloth bolt – the scale, the format, and the general appearance, are all too familiar – and might have been designed specially to commemorate the coronation of this Qaiser of India. In any case, the message, the purport, was clear: it was an image of power, majesty, dominion. India belonged to the British Empire, and that Empire, upon which ‘the sun never set’, was at the very apex of the world.
I thought about the image for a while. Was it the work of some English visualiser, or did it emanate from an Indian mind, one of those ever eager to prove their devotion to the colonial masters, I wondered? There was, sadly, no dearth of the latter kind in India, ‘loyal subjects’, people more royalist than the king, and hopeful, because of that, of feeding upon the crumbs of recognition and material gain that the masters threw in their direction from time to time. This is harshly put, I know, and ignores perhaps the stark reality of the bind in which we found ourselves as a subject people. But there is little doubt that the British knew how to exploit this situation, and to tie, in the process, whole sections of people to themselves. There was a propaganda machinery at work, building an image, feeding it with a mixture of fact and fiction, planting thoughts of gratitude in people’s minds, ceaselessly suggesting that the Indians must consider themselves fortunate to be ruled by such benign masters.
Purely coincidentally, with the same dealer who had this pile of labels that I have been speaking of, was a little lithographed tract in Urdu, written in 1903, on the occasion of the Coronation Durbar held in Delhi. Edward VII had taken over as King in England, and Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, had thought of organizing the grandest of all spectacles in Delhi to celebrate the coronation. The King Emperor was not to be present, but his brother, the Duke of Connaught, was; so was the Prince of Wales. But it was Curzon’s show: full of pomp and circumstance, showcasing the range and the might of the Empire, drawing upon all the ‘savage splendour’ of the East. One knows that much was recorded, and published, on that occasion in English. But this Urdu tract, titled the Tarikh-i doorbin-i ‘alam, ya’ni aaina-i darbar-i Shahanshahi Dilli, and running into eighty-odd pages, seemed to me to have been written on sarkari commission. The writer, Lala Lachhman Prashad, carrying the pen-name, ‘Sadr Lakhnavi’, was obviously a well-informed man, and a keen observer. The booklet is full of the most fascinating bits of information. But so servile is its tone, so adulatory and syrupy the detail it contains – sample: ‘never since the days of Yudhishthira’, the Lala says in the final qit’a, ‘had Delhi seen such a spectacle of magnificence and outbursts of loyalty’ – that it made it difficult, at least for me, to take all of it in at one go.
In the midst of such details as the preparations for the Durbar, the strict Regulations issued by the Government prior to its being held, the virtual city of camps set up by the countless rulers of ‘native Indian states’ who came to attend, the opening parades, the addresses of the King Emperor and the Viceroy, the endless partying, Lala Lachhman Prasad brings in, in this tract of his, an evocative account of the processions of the Indian rulers. Everything about the processions, from those of the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Maharaja of Kashmir to the Gaekwar of Baroda and the Thakur Sahib of Bhavnagar. is recorded in precise detail. But the one procession which I was especially interested in was that of the Maharaja of Patiala. At the head of it, the Lala records, was a group of Sikh soldiers, dressed in tall blue turbans trimmed with gold, and a number of horsemen, their mounts adorned with ‘Jahangiri’ anklets on their
legs. Silver palkies, and other carriages, men with matchlocks, mashalchis, musicians, mace-bearers, fully armed soldiers – each carefully enumerated – formed part of the procession. There were two elephants with nishan and naubat, and another one, on the back of which was carried the Holy Granth Sahib, resting on a gold-worked cushion …. Reading this, the painting of Maharaja Narinder Singh of Patiala in procession, which I have spoken of in this column before, sprang suddenly to life in my mind.