Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sher-Gil’s Indian women

Today is the centenary of the birth of Amrita Sher-Gil, one of the Indian’s most important 20th century painters with an international reputation - indeed she has been dubbed India’s Frida Kahlo. Sher-Gil lived a rich and talented life but died rather mysteriously aged only 28. She has been the subject of several biographical works, several of which draw on a diary she kept as a child.

Sher-Gil was born in Budapest on 30 January 1913. Her father was a Sikh aristocrat and scholar and her mother a Jewish opera singer. She spent much of her early childhood in Budapest, and was influenced by her uncle, Ervin Baktay, a painter and noted expert on India. In 1921, the family moved to Summer Hill, Shimla in India, where Amrita and her sister would give concerts and act in plays. When not yet a teenager, she was taken to Florence for a short while where she studied in an art school.

By the age of 17, Sher-Gil was living in Paris, and studying at École des Beaux-Arts under Lucien Simon and being influenced by the works of Cézanne and Gauguin. In 1932, her painting Young Girls (see below) led to her being elected as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris, making her the youngest ever and, indeed, the only Asian to have received this recognition. In 1934, she returned to India, and launched herself into the traditions of Indian art, later letting herself be influenced by Mughal and Pahari painting and by the cave paintings at Ajanta Caves.

Sher-Gil married her Hungarian first cousin, Dr Victor Egan, in 1938, and lived with him at her father’s family’s home in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, before moving in 1941 to Lahore, still then part of India. She is said to have had many affairs, with men and women, and, before her marriage, to have pursued a young Malcolm Muggeridge.

Days before the opening of her first show in Lahore, Sher-Gil became seriously ill and died, aged but 28, though the cause of the illness, amid many rumours, has never been established. Subsequently, the Government of India declared Sher-Gil’s works as National Art Treasures and houses them in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. Today, she is considered one of the most important Indian women artists of the 20th century, and is sometimes referred to as India’s Frida Kahlo. Further biographical information is available at the Sikh Heritage website, the Tate, and Wikipedia.

Although there are no extracts of any diary kept by Sher-Gil readily-available on the internet, she does seem to have kept a diary as a child - this is referred to in various biographical works. For example, a review of Yashodhara Dalmia’s Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life published by Viking (India) in 2006 (see Amazon for some pages), and recently republished by Penguin India, says this: ‘Although her work was very varied, Sher-Gil’s women are of special interest. Dalmia quotes an entry from Sher-Gil’s diary when she was just twelve, about a child bride, noting the pathos of the little girl sitting silently in a corner, a “helpless toy” in the hands of those responsible for her well-being.’

More recently, in 2010, Tulika Books has published, in two volumes, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-Portrait in Letters and Writings edited by Vivan Sundaram. A film by Sundaram’s sister, Navina, called Amrita Sher-Gil, A Family Album also uses texts from Sher-Gil’s diary.

Finally, in 2009, Tulika Books published a children’s book, My Name is Amrita . . . Born to be an artist by Anjali Raghbeer, which ‘reads like a diary, and in fact includes actual lines from Amrita Sher-Gil’s childhood diaries’. This book can be previewed at Googlebooks.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Imagine my feelings!

The legendary Gordon of Khartoum was born 180 years ago today. Though popular with the British public for his exploits in China and Sudan, he died as a result of his own stubbornness in defending Khartoum against Muslim rebels - the British government had wanted him to retreat. In his diary, first published the year of his death, Gordon provides much detail about the year-long siege of Khartoum, but also, and perhaps unusually for a soldier, comments on his own emotions, as in ‘I am on tenterhooks’, ‘what a six hours of anxiety’, and ‘imagine my feelings!’.

Gordon was born on 28 January 1833 in Woolwich, the son of a Royal Artillery officer, and entered the Royal Military Academy as a gentleman cadet when only 15. He had intended to follow his father into the artillery, but eventually graduated in 1852 as a second lieutenant in the Corp of Royal Engineers. After working on Pembroke Dock in Wales he sought, and achieved, a posting to Crimea. There he built huts for the troops in winter, and helped map the Russian trenches. He was present at the siege of Sevastopol, and was decorated for bravery by the French.

In 1860, Gordon volunteered for the Arrow war against the Chinese, and, in 1862, his corps of engineers was assigned to strengthen the European trading centre of Shanghai, which was threatened by the insurgents of the Taiping Rebellion. For the best part of two years, he also commanded a large peasant force which helped defend the city. In 1865, he returned to England a hero, and was nicknamed Chinese Gordon. In 1873 he was appointed governor of the province of Equatoria in Sudan, and subsequently governor-general.

During his time in Africa, Gordon mapped the upper Nile and established a line of stations along the river as far south as present day Uganda; and he also crushed rebellions and helped suppress the slave trade. Ill health forced him back to England in 1880, but he returned to Sudan in 1884 to evacuate Egyptian forces from Khartoum, threatened by Sudanese rebels. The besieged city was eventually over-run, and, in January 1885, Gordon was captured and beheaded. In Britain, where his death had caused a public outcry, he was re-nicknamed Gordon of Khartoum. Although there was strong criticism of the way Prime Minister Gladstone had handled the Sudan situation, historians now believe Gordon was at fault for defying orders by not evacuating Khartoum when it was still possible. Further information is available from Wikipedia, the BBC, or The Victorian Web.

Only months after his death, publishers, keen to take advantage of Gordon’s popularity, brought out books of diaries he had kept during his life, notably one about his exploits in China and another about the last of his ventures, at Khartoum: General Gordon’s Private Diary of his Exploits in China; amplified by Samuel Mossman, published in 1855 by Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington; and From Korti to Khartum - A journal of the desert march from Korti to Gubat, and of the ascent of the Nile in General Gordon’s steamers by Sir Charles W. Wilson published by William Blackwood. Both these titles are freely available at Internet Archive.

Here are some extracts from the final month of the siege of Khartoum, including Gordon’s last diary extract to survive (an oke is a unit of weight, slightly more than a kilogram).

11 November 1884
‘This morning, 6 a.m., 200 Arabs came to north of Omdurman Fort, and fired vollies towards the village of Tuti and the Fort; the Fort answered, and the footmen of the Arabs retreated; then the Arab horsemen made the footmen go back again, and so on, four or five times; at last they retired. We had three soldiers and one woman wounded; only one wound was at all serious. Arabs must have fired five thousand rounds; evidently they do not wish much to fight. Nineteen Arabs came along the right bank of the White Nile from Halfeyeh to Goba, and captured a donkey; this even the Shaggyeh could not stand, and so I suppose one hundred sallied out and some fifteen horsemen; then came a running fight across the plain, but it was evident the horsemen would not head the Arabs; however, from the roof, it was evident four or five Arabs were killed, and the pursuit is still going on. You may imagine the Arabs have a good deal of confidence, for their nineteen men were distant at least ten miles of desert from their camp and were at a. They were going along b b when they were discovered with the captured donkey. Five at least of these Arabs got away. The Arabs are sure to come down to avenge this.

Arabs coming down from their camp, Ismailia getting steam up. North Fort reports (?) “Captures, 3 Remingtons! 3 spears! 3 swords! and the killing of 20? 5 got away?” The Arabs are halted on the sand hills. Five soldiers and one woman came in from yjr Arabs at Omdurman, report, “Arab rocket-tube broken; carriage of gun broken; the Arabs deserting; rumoured advance of the Expedition; quarrels going on; Slatin in chains.” The Shaggyeh say they killed twenty Arabs, but they only say they captured nine arms so eleven must have been unarmed!!!

It appears 93,000 okes + 166,000 okes = 259,000 okes of biscuit have been stolen in the last year, only found out now; however, we have now quarter of a million okes, which will see us only for a month or so. It appears that more than thirty of the principal merchants are engaged in the above robbery of biscuit. The process is not finished. One of the greatest problems will be what to do with those Shaggyeh, those Cairo Bashi Bazouks and fellaheen soldiers, whose courage is about equal, perhaps the palm is due to the Shaggyeh. The twenty cows I mentioned as captured by the men of Omdurman Fort (making up forty-one captured cows) were driven in by five soldiers escaping from the Arabs and were not captured. They do not stick at a lie (and, in this, resemble some people in high places I know). 259,000 okes of biscuit was a good haul, nearly two and half million pounds: worth £26,000 now, or £9,000 in ordinary times.’

12 November 1884
‘Last night three slaves came into Omdurman. At 11 p.m. they reported Arabs meant to attack to-day at dawn. It was reported to me, but the telegraph clerk did not choose to tell me till 7 a.m. to-day. We had been called up at 5.30 a.m. by a violent fusillade at Omdurman. The Arabs came out in considerable force, and, as I had not been warned, the steamers had not steam up. From 5.30 a.m. to 8.30 Arabs came on and went back continually. All the cavalry were out; the expenditure of ammunition was immense. The Arabs had a gun or guns on the bank. Details further on, as the firing is still going on.

10:20 a.m.
For half-an-hour firing lulled, but then recommenced, and is still going on. The Ismailia was struck with a shell, but I hear is not seriously damaged. The Husseinyeh is aground (I feel much the want of my other steamers at Metemma).

11:15 a.m.
Firing has lulled; it was very heavy for the last three-quarters of an hour from Ismailia and Arabs; it is now desultory, and is dying away. Husseinyeh is still aground. The Ismailia is at anchor. What a six hours of anxiety for me, when I saw the shells strike the water near the steamers from the Arabs; imagine my feelings! We have £831 in specie and £42,800 in paper; and there is £14,600 in paper out in the town! I call this state of finance not bad, after more than eight months’ blockade. The troops are owed half a mouth’s pay, and even that can be scarcely called owed them, for I have given them stores, and beyond the regulations.

The firing has ceased, I am glad to say. I have lived years in these last hours. Had I lost the Ismailia, I should have lost the Husseinyeh (aground), and then Omdurman, and the North Fort! And then the Town!

1 p.m.
The Arabs are firing on the steamers with their two guns. The Husseinyeh still aground; that is the reason of it. Firing, 1.30 p.m., now has ceased. The Ismailia, struck by three shells, had one man killed, fifteen wounded on board of her; she did really well. I boxed the telegraph clerk’s ears for not giviing me the telegram last night (after repeated orders that no consideration was to prevent his coming to me); and then, as my conscience pricked me, I gave him $5. He said he did not mind if I killed him - I was his father (a chocolate-coloured youth of twenty). I know all this is brutal - abrutissant, as Hansall calls it — but what is one to do? If you cut their pay, you hurt their families. I am an advocate for summary and quick punishment, which hurts only the defaulter. Had this clerk warned me, of course at daybreak, the steamers would have had their steam up, and been ready.’

14 December 1884
‘Arabs fired two shells at the Palace this morning; 546 ardebs dhoora! in store; also 83,525 okes of biscuit!

10:30 a.m.
The steamers are down at Omdurman, engaging the Arabs, consequently I am on tenterhooks

11:30 a.m.
Steamers returned; the Bordeen was struck by a shell in her battery; we had only one man wounded. We are going to send down the Bordeen tomorrow with this Journal. If I was in command of the two hundred men of the Expeditionary Force, which are all that are necessary for the movement, I should stop just below Halfeyeh, and attack the Arabs at that place before I came on here to Kartoum. I should then communicate with the North Fort, and act according to circumstances. Now MARK THIS, if the Expeditionary Force, and I ask for no more than two hundred men, does not come in ten days, the town may fall; and I have done my best for the honour of our country. Good bye.’

Friday, January 18, 2013

What Nasser has done tonight

Hugh Gaitskell, sometimes dubbed the best Prime Minister the UK never had, died 50 years ago today. For about a decade, and long before it was fashionable, he kept a political diary. Many of his diary entries are long and very detailed, but there are often long gaps between them. In one entry, from July 1956, he describes how Anthony Eden, one of the country’s least successful prime ministers, first informed him of Nasser’s unilateral decision to nationalise the Suez Canal Company.

Gaitskell was born in London in 1906, and educated at the Dragon School, Winchester College and New College, Oxford. He became a socialist during the 1926 General Strike. During the 1930s, he worked as a teacher at University College, London, where he rose to head the Department of Political Economy. He stood for election as MP for Chatham in 1935 but was defeated by the Conservative candidate.

During the war, Gaitskell served in the Ministry of Economic Welfare, and then, in 1945, he was elected Labour MP for Leeds. By 1950, with support from Hugh Dalton, he had risen through ministerial posts to become Chancellor of the Exchequer. He lost the post when Labour was defeated in 1951. Following the resignation of Clement Attlee in 1955, Gaitskell defeated Herbert Morrison and Aneurin Bevan to become party leader. However, his leadership failed to bring Labour victory in the 1959 general election.

The lack of success in the election led the party to a period of internal squabbling and to lurch to the left with a decision to support unilateral disarmament. A year later, Gaitskell managed to secure a reversal of that policy, but not to heal divisions over the issue. In 1960 and 1961, he was challenged for the leadership but successfully held on to his position. In 1962, some of his supporters were alienated by his decision to oppose British membership of the European Economic Community. His sudden death - on 18 January 1963 - led to Harold Wilson becoming party leader. History has been kind to Gaitskell in that, because he never reached the highest office, he has been dubbed by UK pundits as ‘the best prime minister we never had’. Further information is available, from Wikipedia, The Independent, the BBC, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Gaitskell began keeping a diary as soon as he was elected to the House of Commons in 1945, and continued through until October 1956, after which no further texts, recorded or dictated, have been found. His purpose, Gaitskell wrote in 1954, was to record ‘what might be called “inside events” . . . of interest to future historians, or even the public generally. It is not a personal diary about my thoughts and feelings to any great extent, but a political diary, and therefore I quite ruthlessly try and restrict it to what people regard as important events.’ His diary writing, however, was only intermittent, weekly or monthly for example, and thus his entries often recollect events over the period since his last entry. Also, there are long gaps when he wrote no diary entries at all.

The Diary of Hugh Gaitskell, 1945-1956 was edited by Philip M. Williams and published by Jonathan Cape in 1983. Williams, who some years earlier had authored Hugh Gaitskell: a Political Biography, explains, in his introduction to the diary, how it reveals a ‘good deal about the daily lives of senior politicians’, and how this was long before it was fashionable to keep political diaries. He also goes into detail as to why he thinks Gaitskell was such an irregular diary-keeper.

Here is part of one entry in which Gaitskell records how he first heard about the forthcoming Suez crisis. (The three Iraqis mentioned at the beginning, including the King, were to be murdered during the military coup in Baghdad two years later.)

26 July 1956
‘During the past fortnight or so the King of Iraq has been here and there have been various functions: one at Buckingham Palace, another at the Iraq Embassy and a third this evening at No. 10 Downing Street. The King, who is a boy of 21, brought with him the Crown Prince, his uncle, and also Nuri es-Said, the old statesman, now aged 67, who has been Prime Minister of Iraq on and off for the last 30 years. [. . .]

But the most dramatic moment was tonight at the dinner at No. 10. At about 10:45, I was sitting next to the King talking to him in one of the apartments, with the Lord Chancellor sitting near. We had been talking for some time about this and that, when Eden came up and said, “I want you to know - and I think the Opposition should know as well - what Nasser has done tonight. He has made a speech announcing that he is going ahead with the Aswan Dam, that they cannot get any foreign money, but that, nevertheless, they are going ahead, and, in order to finance it, they are taking over the Suez Canal Company, and will collect dues which the Company receives from ships using the Canal”. I asked if he had taken action in support of this. Eden said that he understood that the Egyptian police had taken over the offices and the building of the Company already. A little later, Eden corrected what he had said and added that Nasser apparently also indicated that he was going to increase the dues very substantially in order to raise the money for the Dam. I asked him what he was going to do. He said he was getting hold of the American Ambassador immediately. He thought perhaps they ought to take it to the Security Council, and we then had a few moments conversation about the consequences, Selwyn Lloyd the Foreign Secretary standing near.

I said “Supposing Nasser doesn’t take any notice?” whereupon Selwyn Lloyd said, “Well, I suppose in that case the old-fashioned ultimatum will be necessary”. I said that I thought they ought to act quickly, whatever they did, and that as far as Great Britain was concerned, public opinion would almost certainly be behind them. But I also added that they must get America into line. This should not be difficult, since, after all, the Americans had themselves precipitated this by their decision to withdraw all financial assistance for the Aswan Dam. There was some discussion about what the Russians might do. Evidently, said Eden, they had not provided the money, but, he said, they may, of course, back them up on this. I said that I was not so sure especially if they have to pay the higher dues themselves on their own ships. Moreover, they wanted to be with the big boys now, and it might not suit their policy to support Egypt. In a half-joking way, I said, since the King and Crown Prince were both standing there, “What do you think about it?” The Crown Prince rather wittily replied, after a bit, “We had better send for our Prime Minister too - that’s the constitutional position”. Whereupon there was general laughter.’

Saturday, January 12, 2013

This universal religion

Swami Vivekananda, an Indian monk credited with raising the profile of Hinduism on the world stage and introducing yoga to the West, was born 150 years ago today. There is no readily-available evidence that he kept a diary, but his collected works - first published a century ago and widely available on the internet - contain several sections described as being sourced ‘from the diary of a disciple’.

Narendranath Datta was born on 12 January 1863 in Calcutta (now Kolkata) into an upper middle class family. He received a privileged education, that included Western philosophy and history, at the General Assembly’s Institution (now the Scottish Church College). Although initially rejecting the teachings of the famous Indian mystic, Ramakrishna, he was eventually drawn, after the death of his father, to become Ramakrishna’s pupil, and then his chief disciple. After Ramakrishna’s death, he and several other disciples founded the first building of the Ramakrishna Math - the monastery of the first monastic order of Ramakrishna. In 1887, he took formal monastic vows with the name Swami Bibidishananda, though later he was given the name Vivekananda.

In 1888, Vivekananda left the monastery to take up the Hindu religious life of a wandering monk. He travelled extensively in India for five years, mostly living on alms, visiting centres of learning, meeting people from all strata of Indian life and all religions, and taking on disciples. Through these travels he became familiar with India’s diverse religious traditions and social patterns. In 1893, he made his way to the US, via Japan and China, where he took part in the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. He was an instant success. Wikipedia’s biography of Vivekananda says this about his presence at the Parliament.

‘Dr. Barrows, the president of the Parliament said, “India, the Mother of religions was represented by Swami Vivekananda, the Orange-monk who exercised the most wonderful influence over his auditors.” He attracted widespread attention in the press, which dubbed him as the “Cyclonic monk from India”. The New York Critique wrote, “He is an orator by divine right, and his strong, intelligent face in its picturesque setting of yellow and orange was hardly less interesting than those earnest words, and the rich, rhythmical utterance he gave them.” The New York Herald wrote, “Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation.” The American newspapers reported Vivekananda as “the greatest figure in the parliament of religions” and “the most popular and influential man in the parliament”.

The start of Western interest in Indian religions and aspects of them, like yoga, are credited to Vivekananda, and, specifically to his presence at the Chicago Parliament of World Religions. Thereafter, Vivekananda toured the US, lecturing for the best part of two years; he also founded the Vedanta Society of New York in 1894. He stopped touring the following year but gave free classes on Vedanta and yoga. He visited England twice, travelling from the US, before returning to India in 1897. In Calcutta once again, he established the Ramakrishna Mission. It is now based, on the outskirts of Kolkata, at the Belur Math, in a large temple notable for architecture that fuses Hindu, Christian and Islamic motifs.

Despite declining health, Vivekananda left India, in 1899, for England, then the US, and then Europe, where he attended the Congress of Religions in Paris in 1900. He returned to Calcutta in 1902, settling at the Belur Math, where he received many visitors, not least royals and politicians. He died in July 1902, aged but 39. There is much information about Vivekananda on the internet, at Wikipedia, and the Belur Math website.

Vivekananda’s collected writings were first published in English in eight volumes starting in 1915, but have been republished many times since. The volumes contain the few works he published in his lifetime (Karma Yoga, Raja Yoga, Vedanta Philosophy), and many of the lectures he gave. Amazon is offering a 1947 edition, totalling 4444 pages. However, these collected works are also widely available to read freely on the internet at, for example, Advaita Ashram, Holy Books, and Wikisource.

Although there is no evidence of any diary Vivekananda might have written, several of the volumes contain substantial texts described as ‘from the diary of a disciple’ (the disciple being Sharatchandra Chakravarty). These are not dated like conventional diary entries, and largely consist of verbatim reports of Vivekananda’s conversations with disciples. Here is one example (translated from the original language, Bengali) taken from the Belur Math website.

‘It is three or four days since Swamiji has set his foot in Calcutta (On February 20, 1897) after his first return from the West. The joy of the devotees of Shri Ramakrishna knows no bounds at enjoying his holy presence after a long time. And the well-to-do among them are considering themselves blessed to cordially invite Swamiji to their own houses. This afternoon Swamiji had an invitation to the house of Srijut Priyanath Mukhopadhyaya, a devotee of Shri Ramakrishna, at Rajballabhpara in Baghbazar. Receiving this news, many devotees assembled today in his house. [. . .]

While various topics were going on, a man came in and announced that Mr. Narendranath Sen, the Editor of the Mirror, had come for an interview with Swamiji. Swamiji asked the bearer of this news to show him into that small room. Narendra Babu came and taking a seat there introduced various topics about England and America. In answer to his questions Swamiji said, “Nowhere in the world is to be found another nation like the Americans, so generous, broad-minded, hospitable, and so sincerely eager to accept new ideas.” “Wherever work”, he went on, “has been done in America has not been done through my power. The people of America have accepted the ideas of Vedanta, because they are so good-hearted.”

Referring to England he said, “There is no nation in the world so conservative as the English. They do not like so easily to accept any new idea, but if through perseverance they can be once made to understand any idea, they will never give it up by any means. Such firm determination you will find in no other nation. This is why they occupy the foremost position in the world in power and civilization.” Then declaring that if qualified preachers could be had, there was greater likelihood of the Vedanta work being permanently established in England than in America, he continued, “I have only laid the foundation of the work. If future preachers follow my path, a good deal of work may be done in time.”

Narendra Babu asked, “What future prospect is there for us in preaching religion in this way?”

Swamiji said: “In our country there is only this religion of Vedanta. Compared with the Western civilisation, it may be said, we have hardly got anything else. But by the preaching of this universal religion of Vedanta, a religion which gives equal rights to acquire spirituality to men of all creeds and all paths of religious practice, the civilised West would come to know what a wonderful degree of spirituality once developed in India and how that is still existing. By the study of this religion, the Western nations will have increasing regard and sympathy for us. Already these have grown to some extent. In this way, if we have their real sympathy and regard, we would learn from them the sciences bearing on our material life, thereby qualifying ourselves better for the struggle for existence. On the other hand, by learning this Vedanta from us, they will be enabled to secure their own spiritual welfare.”

Narendra Babu asked, “Is there any hope of our political progress in this kind of interchange?”

Swamiji said, “They (the Westerners) are the children of the great hero Virochana! Their power makes the five elements play like puppets in their hands. If you people believe that we shall in case of conflict with them gain freedom by applying those material forces, you are profoundly mistaken. Just as a little piece of stone figures before the Himalayas, so we differ from them in point of skill in the use of those forces. Do you know what my idea is? By preaching the profound secrets of the Vedanta religion in the Western world, we shall attract the sympathy and regard of these mighty nations, maintaining for ever the position of their teacher in spiritual matters, and they will remain our teachers in all material concerns. The day when, surrendering the spiritual into their hands, our countrymen would sit at the feet of the West to learn religion, that day indeed the nationality of this fallen nation will be dead and gone for good. Nothing will come of crying day and night before them, ‘Give me this or give me that.’ Then there will grow a link of sympathy and regard between both nations by this give-and-take intercourse, there will be then no need for these noisy cries. They will do everything of their own accord. I believe that by this cultivation of religion and the wider diffusion of Vedanta, both this country and the West will gain enormously. To me the pursuit of politics is a secondary means in comparison with this. I will lay down my life to carry out this belief practically. If you believe in any other way of accomplishing the good of India, well, you may go on working your own way.”

Narendra Babu shortly left, expressing his unqualified agreement with Swamiji’s ideas. The disciple, hearing the above words from Swamiji, astonishingly contemplated his luminous features with steadfast gaze.’