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Invisible history

The government must find better ways to integrate 1857 into the public sphere, writes Nayanjot Lahiri.

india Updated: Apr 23, 2007 00:56 IST

'As silent as a statue’ we sometimes say; yet statues, too can speak

When Graeme Davison wrote these words, he meant that public monuments form a vital clue to what people choose to remember. His insight is worth reflecting upon, as a choreographed commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the 1857 revolt is fast approaching.

It is ironic that Delhi will witness a state remembrance of the rebellion. The post-Independence political class that inhabits it has actually suffered a ‘monumental’ amnesia in relation to this defining event. There is no separate memorial that honours the rebels in Delhi, no mention of those who lost their lives fighting the British, nor of those thousands who were hanged on charges of treason and sedition. The rich history of the revolt is somewhat invisible in our national capital.

Unless, appropriating British memorials by setting up inscriptions counts as a befitting remembrance. The Mutiny Memorial set up by the British to remember their dead was ‘converted’ into our memorial. An inscription informs us that the ‘enemy’ of the British epitaphs were “those who rose against colonial rule”. But who they were and how they died has not been thought to be worthy of remembrance. Not all those who have controlled Delhi have been as inattentive to their dead as the ruling class of post-Independence India. In the aftermath of the revolt, the British commemorated their victory quite deliberately, creating around the graves and the original scenes of action, a mutiny landscape of sacrifice and bravery ‘selflessly’ displayed for a larger cause.

Meanwhile, at Lal Qila, the symbol of Delhi’s resistance, the 1857 legacy remains more or less absent. The display highlights only the medieval history of monuments, to the exclusion of what they were used for since then. Few visitors realise that the Diwan-i-Khas was where Bahadur Shah was tried for treason. Nor are they made aware that the Naqar Khana quartered British soldiers while the Zafar Mahal was their bathing area. This fort will certainly see a major gathering in May that is also unlikely to have much to do with the summer of 1857. Unlike the small group of Meerut sepoys who moved overnight on May 10, this time 30,000 ‘volunteers’ will first be brought to Meerut, marching over four days to reach Delhi.

If integrating 1857 into the public sphere is the aim, more meaningful ways of doing this can be suggested. The Congress can earn enduring political mileage by making the aam aadmi of the revolt, who lies locked away in the archives, accessible. Such an exercise, though, would not attract the same coverage as a national tamasha. Nor would event managers be singing all the way to the bank.

Let us put aside the powerful in Delhi, and follow the revolt in a less visible arena. Jhansi is one such place. The June of 1857 in Jhansi eerily evoked the Delhi events — rebellious soldiers seizing the armoury, burning property, massacring unarmed firangis after reneging on promises of safe passage. And, as at Delhi, rebels seeking the help of a reluctant ruler who had been shorn of power by the British. The ways in which memories of the revolt have been preserved around the landscape of resistance, though, are strikingly different. Unlike Delhi’s ‘national’ culture, which has hardly given any space to this moment in its history, Jhansi’s charm stems from its unconventional yet inclusive modes of commemoration in this season of centrally orchestrated remembrance.

Eighteen fifty-seven in Bundelkhand is much remembered because of Rani Lakshmi Bai. Naturally, Jhansi resonates with her presence. She is aggressively depicted — a sword-wielding figure, riding a horse, with her adopted son, Damodar Rao, strapped to her back. Such statues have been erected all over Jhansi as also in nearby Gwalior, where the Rani was cremated. The Gwalior equestrian bronze, though, is somewhat diminished by the absence of Damodar Rao, who was stolen some years ago.

But Jhansi is not frozen in a one- dimensional remembrance of the Rani. The Jhansi fort is a marker of this. The artefacts and structures at this iconic site of resistance underscore its multi-layered history. Like Delhi’s Red Fort, it is a 17th century construction. Unlike the monochromatic characterisation in Delhi, the Jhansi fort confronts us as a stronghold of many occupants. The entrance signpost mentions the Bundella chief who built it, and its masters since then — Mughals, Marathas and British.

Simultaneously, this long-term history is juxtaposed with the 1857 resistance — through a plaque etched with Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s Jhansi ki Rani. It is unusual to see the invocation of a bard at a monument protected by the Archaeological Survey. But this emotionally charged poem happens to be one of the reasons why Jhansi’s fighting Rani is so vividly remembered. The poetess is herself memorialised in an equally dramatic way. ‘Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’ is now the name of an Indian coast guard ship that defends the Indian shore, commissioned in 2006 in the presence of her descendants.

Even more unusual are the modes of remembrance that surround Lakshmi Bai. The Rani is remembered as an armed defender of her principality, as someone who enjoyed gardens, and as a devout Hindu. From the Ganesha and Siva temples where she worshipped to the Amod garden where she frequented, we are encouraged to think of her as a human actor, not a frozen monument. Similarly, the ‘baradari’ is a monument to the multifaceted persona of Gangadhar Rao, the less famous ruler of Jhansi and husband of Lakshmi Bai. It is his love of performing arts, rather than his accomplishments as a ruler, that the performing arena evokes.

One of the performers — the only regular female performer on the stage of Gangadhar Rao — lies buried in the fort. She is, however, commemorated in her later avatar, as a gunner in Lakshmi Bai’s army as is the Bhawani Shankar cannon she operated. A ‘canonical’ remembrance has also been accorded to Ghulam Ghaus Khan in the form of the ‘kadak bijli’ cannon he operated. Ghaus Khan, like Moti Bai, was killed on June 4, 1858, and he too is buried along with her, as is another soldier, Khuda Baksh, who lost his life on the same day. They lie together in a collective monument of martyrs, adding to the multiple ways in which this monumental landscape is humanised.

It is not as if remembrance is faithfully authentic. The fibre glass form of Ghulam Ghaus Khan in the government museum cannot, in any way, be a representation of the original hero. This was once part of the Uttar Pradesh government’s Republic Day ‘jhanki’. It has since then been recycled as museum display. Similar is the status of the ‘jumping spot’ from where the Rani on horseback, with her son, is supposed to have escaped. Almost certainly, this has nothing to do with what actually happened. Lakshmi Bai did escape the British siege around Jhansi, but she left from the main gate accompanied by Afghan mercenaries and riders on April 4, 1858.

Commemoration in Jhansi is also not static. It continues to feed off the energies generated by recent social movements. A new element in the old history of the revolt is the Dalit woman hero, Jhalkari Bai. She is supposed to have resembled Lakshmi Bai, and it was her impersonation that allowed the Rani to escape. How much of her story can be located in orthodox historical sources is hardly relevant here. Just as faith in gods and goddesses has created an archaeology of Hinduism, similarly, a belief in the persona of Jhalkari Bai has been proactively translated into a veritable archaeology of remembrance around her. There are statues and paintings of her in a Lakshmi Bai like form as also a Jhalkari burj, where the cannon operated by her husband was located. Even the locality where she lived, Nayapura, is now recognised by the Nagar Palika as Jhalkaripuram.

Jhansi’s untidy entanglement of memory and materiality makes us see the landscape of 1857 in its multiple forms. Is it too naïve to hope for a ‘happy end’ in Delhi? Is it possible that the 1857 rebellion will be commemorated not through pointless display but in a way that makes the Delhi rebels, and their histories, visible?


Nayanjot Lahiri’s work on 1857 is supported by Delhi University where she teaches