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History in the telling

india Updated: May 05, 2007 00:47 IST
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Monuments and memorabilia can be unusually dense — not in the sense of being obscure but in the sense of being filled with many histories and meanings. As the historical monuments that form part of the 1857 landscape will inevitably be the focus of attention this year, the challenge will be to integrate these in a way that they will finally begin to ‘tell’ their multiple histories.

Consider the much-visited Red Fort of Delhi. In its Diwan’i am, at least three lines converge to historically locate its most famous feature: the pietra dura panels that form the backdrop to the throne platform. One narrative line plots their construction history in 16th century Mughal India. There are panels of birds and foliage and one representation of a Greek God. Orpheus, the greatest Greek musician of poetry and myth, is shown fiddling under a tree, surrounded by listening animals. These are Italian objects of art, and their presence in a sedate hall of public audience, where Emperor Shah Jahan attended to State affairs, is quirky. Was this at the emperor’s behest? Did this combination — of Orpheus, birds, animals and flowers — symbolise the throne of Solomon, regarded as the epitome of a just Islamic kingship? What did the emperor’s officials and chief nobles think of them? We cannot know for certain, even as we recognise the uniqueness of their design and technique.

A second narrative line plots the fate of these panels in 1857. In the widespread loot that followed the reoccupation of Delhi by the victorious British, the whole city was treated as legitimate spoil. Following the example of medieval invaders who had marked their victory over the Mughals by carrying off treasure from their palace, soldiers of the British army plundered whatever they could find in the Red Fort — portable artefacts ranging from the jewels, weapons and clothes of the royal family to in situ marble slabs and inlay work. Among these were the Italian panels. These were pilfered and carried away to England as a trophy of conquest, by a Captain John Jones. These were sold by him to the British government for £ 500, and soon became part of the collection of Indian artefacts in what is now known as the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The third historical thread — the one which is absolutely necessary if we are to understand their presence in the Diwan’i am today — ties up the changing biography of the panels with a shift in government policy. This happened in the early 20th century, when the proactive Lord Curzon, Viceroy between 1899 and 1905, succeeded in partly ‘undoing’ the brutal aftermath of the 1857 revolt.

The occasion was an imperial assemblage — a Darbar to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII as the Emperor of India. Two notable gatherings connected with it were to be held in the Red Fort. At the Diwan’i am itself, an investiture ceremony was to be held, with the dais placed before the throne platform. This immediately drew attention to the large gaps which had been created by the looting of its pietra dura panels by Captain Jones in 1857. The Viceroy, therefore, urgently requested the return of the panels so that, as he put it, “the background to the throne should represent to assembled spectators, by a careful restoration to its original condition, not the vandalism of an earlier generation, but the generous enlightenment of a later and more cultured age”. Although the panels reached India before the Darbar, they could not be put in place in time for the investiture ceremony. Shortly afterwards, they were restored, and that is how they today form the backdrop to the throne platform of Shah Jahan.

Some other objects that were looted from the Red Fort in 1857 also eventually came back to reside there. Bahadur Shah Zafar’s ‘Holy Shirt’, which is displayed in the fort’s museum, is one of them. This shirt has verses of the Quran written on it and was apparently sent from Mecca. It was meant to provide a kind of immunity against trouble to the wearer. Not surprisingly, the king is said to have worn it continuously for the last few days, prior to his flight, but at the last moment left it behind. It was ‘found’ by the French nurse of the children of a Colonel Tytler near the gate by which the royal party had fled. The shirt, thus, passed into the possession of the Tytler family.

The Tytlers kept the shirt in a bank vault but, until this became known, they were the victims of several robberies and more than one serious attempt on their lives. Clearly, the value of the ‘Holy Shirt’ had everything to do with the properties it was supposed to be imbued with: on the one hand, its association with Mecca, on the other hand, its last wearer, the Mughal king, the symbol of Indian resistance against the British.

We next hear of the shirt during the Coronation Darbar in 1903, when the Nizam of Hyderabad made an offer of Rs 10,000 for it. A little after that offer was made, the imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid wanted Mrs Tytler to allow him to exhibit it in the ground in front of the mosque. He expected that thousands of pilgrims would flock to see it, and the proceeds from the entrance fee, he suggested, could be divided between the masjid and Mrs Tytler. The exhibition was on the verge of taking place but was vetoed at the last moment by the Commissioner of Delhi. As he put it, he “could not possibly run the risk of a riot”.

Eventually, the daughter of the late Tytlers sold it to the Archaeological Survey in 1909 for a sum of Rs 12,000. This is how it became part of the collection of historic objects displayed in the archaeological museum of the Red Fort, where it is still displayed. While the revolt resulted in the banishment of Zafar from Delhi, at least the shirt that he lost resides in the fort where he spent most of his life. Ironically, it was re-enshrined by the political successors of the very people who had looted his palace.

The British Raj, though, was not always as successful in undoing the 1857 desecration that it had wrought on India’s medieval monuments. Anyone who has visited the Agra Fort would unfailingly notice John Russell Colvin’s tomb in the open space in front of its Diwan’i am. Colvin was Lieutenant Governor of the North Western Provinces and, like the bulk of the European population of Agra, remained shut in the fort till Delhi was recaptured. He died days before the fall of Delhi and was buried there, although the tomb itself was built some decades later. The tomb appears completely inappropriate as must have the military buildings around the entire quadrangle. These the British had used as an arsenal and storage place for guns.

At the turn of the 20th century, again because of Curzon’s intervention, the court was restored as far as possible to the appearance that it presented in the days of the Mughals. So, several hideous additions that concealed the character of the building and its court were removed. The Colvin tomb too was sought to be moved out from where it lies. In spite of the Viceroy himself writing several times to the sons of Colvin, with photographs and diagrams to show how he wished to change its present position, which was so ill at harmony with the Mughal architecture, Curzon’s request was turned down. That is why what Colvin’s sons saw as a “sacred spot to surviving relatives” still continues to occupy its incongruous place in front of Shah Jahan’s hall of public audience.

As their guardians, can the Archaeological Survey of India embark on conjugating the multiple cultures and chronology of such monuments? After all, by integrating the totality of past events, a new terrain of insight would enhance our appreciation of these monuments, and their 1857 histories. It would also leave behind a more enduring legacy than the national tamashas being planned around the 150th year of the uprising.

Nayanjot Lahiri is Professor at the Department of History, University of Delhi.