MP: Jacob brings 19th-century Central India to life in her letters

  • Padma Shastri, Indore
  • Updated: Dec 04, 2015 19:49 IST
Violet Jacob’s painting of a Hindu temple at Ranibagh near Rau. (Shankar Mourya/HT photo)

Exactly 119 years ago, the road from Residency area to Rajwada dazzled with lights in preparation for guests whom the Nawab of Jaora accompanied in a carriage to Lalbag Palace for a dance party hosted by Indore Maharaja Shivaji Rao Holkar.

“There were three miles of lights. We drove through the blazing road (that was) so bright that surrounding objects were as distinctly visible as in daytime. To the right and left, around the height of a man’s head were two rows of lights on parallel wires. In some places, paper lanterns were hung from trees” - this is how one of the mesmerized guests recalls the carriage ride on that dazzling night.

Violet Jacob painted an elaborate picture of the region during her time in Mhow

In a series of letters to her mother in Scotland between 1895 and 1900, Violet Jacob, a Scottish poet and novelist who was also among the guests, painted an elaborate picture of Central India during her time in Mhow, where her husband was an officer in the army.

Hindustan Times has exclusive access to her letters that offer vivid descriptions of the erstwhile princes of Central India, the women in their courts and the common people of the time.

These letters, which were published in the UK, were made available to historian Dev Kumar Vasudevan by Australian travel writer Virginia Jealous during her visit to Indore in October this year. Jealous, who is conducting research on British poets Laurence Hope and Violet Jacob, also visited Mhow as part of her research.

Jacob had a knack for painting word pictures and in a letter dated December 8, 1896, she described the Rajwada square as “about the size of Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, with palaces on either side of the road - one (Shiv Vilas Palace) painted in raging blue.”

While places did grab her fancy, Jacob found their residents all the more intriguing. During a visit to Ujjain, she found herself fascinated by the Boharas: “They deal in every kind of second-hand (goods), from old tins upwards… their wives are beautifully dressed and covered with jewels, but they themselves are so frightful to look at.”

She also talked of the two-storied omnibuses drawn by camels that were being used as public transport at the time.

Two months later, she stumbled upon a meditating sadhu during the Mahashivratri fair at Devguradia temple, who was “so motionless that it was difficult to realise that he was not part of the temple decoration. His eyes, very long and half closed, seemed to focus on something invisible… His features were almost Greek and he had a faint, supercilious smile that never changed.”

In Indore, she got to attend the Ganesh Chaturthi feast at an Indian banker’s house, where one of the ladies was wearing a nose ring that was “loaded with (so many) pearls that it hid the lower half of her face.”

Scottish poet’s letters carry amusing details about mistresses of Malwa rulers

Jacob’s letters also carry amusing details about mistresses of Malwa rulers, their queens’ paan-stained teeth, their quaint English and their preference for Paris over London. In one of her letters, she describes an elderly, fat ‘nautch’ (dance) woman who during Holi celebrations organised by the 4th Bombay Rifles in Mhow sang in English as she danced - “Whar ees my darin’ whar eess she-e-eeee! Shee has gone away from mee-e-e-eeee.”

In contrast to the extravagant life of the princes, their parties and their women, she describes a Banjara woman in Sadalpur who “moved beautifully in a saree drawn in undulating lines from the top of her pointed headdress to the hem of her skirt.”

Her elaborate descriptions and anecdotes are also dotted with humour. In a jewellery shop in Bhopal, she recalls a small boy with a tablet and a bamboo pen in hand learning Persian from an elderly person, who throughout the lesson “held up a small box with a looking glass, into which he gazed as he trimmed his moustache and elaborately curled his grey beard with a pair of scissors.”

And Jacob’s abilities were not limited to painting word pictures alone, she also loved painting flowers. The Royal Botanical Gardens, Edinburgh, has preserved some of her paintings to study the flora of Central India. Also, possibly most fascinated by Hanuman out of all the Hindu deities, she drew numerous sketches of the monkey-god in various postures.

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