1857: Books and folksongs about
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1857: Three Urdu books about the Rising
Dawn June 10, 2007
REVIEW: Fight to the finish
Reviewed by A.R. Siddiqui
These three books make an excellent trilogy offering a variety of versions of the so-called mutiny of 1857. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in his seminal work Asbab-i-Baghawat-i-Hind used the word ‘baghawat’ for Ghadar, which remains in the widest currency still in the popular parlance.
The term, First War of Independence, subsequently came into common usage after the formation of the Indian National Cngress and the political vocabulary coming progressively in its wake.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan named his book — the first and the only contemporaneous account of the mutiny Asbab-i-Baghawat-i-Hind or alternatively, Asbab-i-Surkashi-i- Hind, as used in certain editions of the work.
‘Baghawat’ and ‘Sarkashi’ are almost synonymous — meaning mutiny or revolt — the former being closer to a military uprising or ‘mutiny’ as translated by the English translators of the Asiatic Society, London.
Khawaja Hasan Nizami’s voluminous work is the most comprehensive multi-dimensional and prismatic by any single writer on the subject of any language, especially one only once-removed from the Holocaust, although not exactly an eye-witness to it.
Khawaja Hasan Nizami (December 25, 1878 - July 31, 1955) was born while the post-Ghadar pacification process was still underway. He grew to be a young man when, the city of Delhi together with the rest of the country, was still resounding with the after-cries of the hapless martyrs and the hapless survivors of the failed uprising.
The streets and alleys of the city were stained with the blood of the innocent and its deserted and ransacked havelis still haunted by the ghosts of the mutiny. A great many of their mentally traumatised, and physically shattered and impoverished inmates still stuck to their old homes reduced to little more than a pile of debris — leaking, torn ceilings, and the living space full of rodents, snakes and bandicoots.
Hasan Nizami’s work is set in 12 chapters, each carrying a different aspect of the event. The first chapter, spread over some 132 pages offers a reality-based account of the misfortunes of the inmates of the city after the British broke through the Kashmir gate bastion and stormed the city, thirsting for the blood of the people who had kept them at bay for some five long months. Hasan Nizami’s description of the city-wallas trapped in their own alleys and homes makes a most moving account of their plight — a heartfelt elegy wholly untouched by dramatics.
This is followed by the plight of the British women and children at the Delhi Ridge, exposed to a ruthless summer sun, swarms of stinging mosquitoes and buzzing flies and all the cholera, dysentery and malaria in the wake.
The book also contains texts of the various letters exchanged during the siege, salvaged and saved for posterity. There is the trial of the vanquished King, Bahadur Shah Zafar — spreading over 21 days — beginning January 5, 1858 and adjourned, indefinitely, on April 19, 1958. Then there are the royal orders (farmans) issued by Bahadur Shah during the siege followed by excerpts from Sadiqul Akhbar, Delhi and copies of the daily jottings and excerpts from Ghalib’s book Dastanbu (flower basket). ________________________________________ The streets and alleys of the city were stained with the blood of the innocent and its deserted and ransacked havelis still haunted by the ghosts of the mutiny ________________________________________
The book is quite a marvel of succinct brevity and is rich in detail. Nizami’s Urdu carries an undying freshness and inimitable simplicity touching the highest pinnacle of literary expression. It is free of rhetorical flourish or forced embellishment. Not everyone in pre-Partition Delhi or Lucknow can compare with Nizami and Farhatullah Beg (to name just at random) in the elegance of expression flowing from simplicity rather than laboured verbiage.
Literary doyen, Intizar Hussain in his foreword to the book Tarikh-i-Baghawat-i-Hind writes that Pandit Kannhya Lal’s work, is perhaps the only cogent and authentic account of the Indian mutiny. The book is, more or less, a flat narrative of the event based more on the re-interpretation and rehash of existing works than on diligent and original research, duly supported by such footnotes and references as might be absolutely essential for such a work.
Rich in details duly backed by the available historical evidence, his work is an honest account of the traumatic period. The writer avoids a critical approach lest it rubbed the British the wrong way. In the words of Intizar Hussain, Kannahya Lal saw safety only in a summary and brief account of the regaining by the British of their hegemony and domination. Nevertheless, the circumstances prevailing (after the fall of Delhi) have been narrated with as much (truth) and impartiality as possible. But the book has been pathetically edited.
Between them the three books cover prodigiously almost the entire sweep of the mutiny. 1857 — Khayyal Number, edited by Intizar Hussain and Nasir Kazmi, offers an excellent anthology of the original published in the ’50s. Intizar Hussain’s short story ‘Jal Garje …’ (water roars) is an excellent mix of nostalgia and vivid memories to weave an exquisite fabric of creative art.
Professor Firaq Gorakhpuri’s essay ‘Pahli jang-i-azadi’ is a masterly critical appraisal of the nature of the uprising and its eventual collapse. It might have been just as well, writes Firaq sahib, that Ghadar did not succeed. Although the Indians had fighting spirit, they lacked (woefully) the resolve to put up a united planned and purposeful resistance. Had the Ghadar succeeded, it would have still remained a Ghadar. It might have also been a sort of evil turned into a blessing. The British did not quite realise that the mutiny would turn into a real Jang-i-Azadi — a fight to the finish for India’s liberation. The British became a ‘tool in the hands of unintended history …’
Without the advent of the British, India would have remained without the benefit of science and technology that the Raj brought with it. However, there is nothing to mollify or temper the great tragedy that befell India in 1857. As the King, under siege in the Red Fort, was having a last word with the vanquished commander of his forces, General Bakht Khan, persuading him to flee the fort for dear life, Prime Minister Hakim Ahsanullah, Mirza Ilahi Baksh, father-in-law of his son Mirza Farrukh, the court eunuch Mehboob Ali Khan and the one-eyed court munshi, Rajjab Ali, all British agents, might have been congratulating themselves on a job well done — the fall of the Mughal dynasty. ________________________________________
1857: Majmua-i-Khwaja Hassan Nizami Compiled by Mohammad Ikram Chughtai ISBN 969-35-1936-1 880pp. Rs1,200
1857 “Khayal Number” Nasir Kazmi and Intizar Husain (Muratbeen) ISBN 969-35-1922-1 336pp. Rs600
Tareekh Baghwat-i-Hind Maarba Azeem (Massamba) By Pundit Kannhya Lal ISBN 969-35-1939-6 272pp. Rs400 Sang-e-Meel Publications, 25 Shahrah-i-Pakistan, Lahore Tel: 042-7220100 email@example.com
1857: Books about- I
Remembering the great rebellion of 1857
By Intizar Hussain
On the 150th anniversary [of the great rebellion of 1857] a few [Pakistani] academic bodies and individual publishers like the National Book Foundation brought out a volume with reference to this event. The new Director of Majlis-e-Taraqqi-e-Adab, Shahzad Ahmad tells me that the Majlis has a plan to bring out at least five volumes relevant to this occasion.
But so far the most impressive programme of publication has been announced by Sang-e-Meel Publications. A few volumes have already been brought out. The programme includes a number of works in English and in Urdu, published soon after the war during the later decades of the nineteenth century. The association of the distinguished scholar Mohammad Ikram Chughtai may be deemed as a guarantee to the authenticity of what is brought out.
Apart from three famous histories of this war written by John Kaye, Malleson, Charles Ball, the programme includes a number of volumes comprising letters, dispatches, diaries, and miscellaneous state papers preserved in the state departments of Pakistan and India.
I searched the name of Russell in this programme but did not find it. Russell, in the capacity of a war correspondent deputed by Times, London, had covered this event. His diary needs to be included in this programme. In the Urdu section Zaheer Dehlvi’s Dastan-e-Ghadar and the verse collection Fughan-e-Dehli too deserve to be accommodated here.
National Book Foundation’s publication Jung-e-Azadi, 1857 Ka Mujaahid Shair is a research work by Dr Tauseef Jabassum. His painstaking research about Munir Shikohabadi helps us to know about the active role this distinguished poet played in the War of Independence, which eventually led to his deportation to the Island of Andaman, popularly known as Kala Pani.
Muneer Shikohabadi was associated with Banda State, whose Nawab Ali Bahadur joined the War by staging a revolt against the English rulers. Muneer took an active part in this revolt. The defeat of the freedom fighters led to his arrest and consequent deportation to Andaman.
Dr Tauseef has discussed in detail Munir’s prison poetry, the verses written during his five year prison life along with what he wrote in continuation of the same painful feeling during his post-Andaman period. So here we are introduced to a poet who actively participated in the battle for freedom, underwent the painful experience of deportation to Kala Pani, and converted it into his poetic experience.
Sang-e-Meel has in its first instalment brought out the following three books:
1. Tarikh-i-Baghawat-i-Hind-1857 by Pt. Kanhayya Lal
2. Majmooa Khwaja Hasan Nizami-1857 compiled by Ikram Chughtai
3. 1857 – Khyal Number edited by Nasir Kazmi
Kanhayya Lal had presented his account of this battle after much research in Urdu under the title Muharba-i-Azeem. In this account we see the fire of revolt spreading far and wide in the subcontinent. Kanhayya Lal is at pains to provide information about each and every town which came under the sway of revolt. He has collected his material from official dispatches, personal letters and diaries of the officers and newspaper reports. Because of his official position he was able to have access to these sources of information. And he assures us that he has honestly recorded the events in accordance with what his research revealed to him.
The other volume spread over 880 pages consists of Khwaja Hasan Nizami’s writings dealing with events and situations of 1857. The volume opens with a section titled Bagmat kai Ansu. It may be deemed as a gallery of sad portraits, those of fallen princes and princesses undergoing untold sufferings after the fall of Delhi. In the emotionally packed depictions of Hasan Nizami these afflicted souls come alive to us. We see in them the downfall of the great Mughals personified.
But Hasan Nizami’s sense of justice demands that the Englishmen and women’s sufferings at the hands of the rebels should also be taken into account. And he does it extending his full sympathy to them. One section has been devoted to the proceedings of the English rulers’ case against the fallen King with an introductory comment of Hasan Nizami.
But I wonder at the inclusion of Allama Rashidulkhairi’s writings as the tail-enders. Rashidulkhairi’s writings with reference to 1857 are no less valuable. They deserve to be compiled in a separate volume.
The third is the re-print of a special number of a literary journal Khyal. It had come out in May, 1957. The number was devoted to the study of 1857 by the writers. An attempt to find as to how the writers of our times see the event, which seems forming a sharp line between the classical age and the modern period in our literary history.
In the end I feel tempted to refer to a new research work published in India. It is William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal. Here we find a graphic depiction of what happened in Delhi at the outbreak of revolt and more particularly after the fall of the city. The British officers maddened by their obsession of revenge went to the extent of making a plan to level the entire city along with Red Fort and Shahjehani Masjid. But thanks to the prudence of Sir John Lawrence, chief commissioner of Punjab, the great disaster was averted at the nick of time.
We have here also an account of the last years Bahadur Shah Zafar spent in Rangoon.
1857: Books about- II
Dawn March 2, 2008
REVIEW: Why 1857 is still relevant
Reviewed by I. A. Rehman
The small community of scholars and students of history in Pakistan was not a little unhappy that the 150th anniversary (2007) of the subcontinent’s war of independence in 1857 did not receive due attention in this country. The lack of interest in the subject displayed by the managers of national affairs did not surprise anyone; it was in keeping with their disdainful attitude towards history. What was more disturbing was the indifference of the students of history themselves to the possibilities of fresh research offered by the record of 1857 lying in poorly maintained archives in Lahore. In this situation a couple of seminars that were organised came as reminders of what could have been attempted on a higher plane and to greater profit.
We did, however, get a series of reprints of the chronicles of 1857, most of them by Englishmen, and one of them, 1857: The first war of independence of the Subcontinent, that came perhaps last of all, deserves specially to be noted. The volume is a collection of papers put together by the Left on the centenary of 1857 and offers a handsome sample of the quality of the intellectual effort that had made the progressive writers eminent and the disappearance of which caused their decline. We have here, in addition to a narration of what happened in 1857 and why, an extremely stimulating discussion on the role of writers in the 1857 events and their treatment in contemporary literature, as well as a useful account of the international response to those events. The papers included in the volume remain as valuable as they were when written 50 years ago.
________________________________________ An interesting piece in this section is P.C. Joshi’s recollection of the folk songs of 1857, which in a larger publication in Urdu was perhaps his most valuable contribution to the literature on 1857.
________________________________________ The first part of the book contains two longish studies of the 1857 revolt. Talmiz Khaldun deals with the myths created by the colonial chroniclers, analyses the East India Company’s exploitation of the subcontinent’s resources, explains the role of different classes in the uprising and tries to trace the impact of 1857 on the course of history. This is a ponderous theme and the author deserves credit for deftly trying to ‘rescue the story of the rebellion from the morass in which special pleading and interested accounts have pushed it.’ The second, and the longest paper in the collection, is a detailed survey of 1857 by P.C. Joshi, an Urdu version of which was made available to Pakistani readers in 2007 in the two-volume special issue of Quarterly Tarikh put together by Dr Mubarik Ali. Joshi puts 1857 in a broad prospective. K. M. Ashraf addresses the work of the 19th-century Muslim revivalists, especially the Wahabis, and makes a valuable addition to our knowledge about the scholarly and heroic figure of Allama Fazl-i-Haq Khairabadi. Binoy Ghose throws light on a little known aspect of the 1857 upheaval, that is ‘the apathetic attitude of the Bengali intelligentsia to the rebellion.’ It is a good introduction to the colonisation of a subject people’s mind.
P.C. Gupta’s short note ‘1857 and Hindi literature’ and Professor Ehtesham Hussain’s equally brief essay ‘Urdu Literature and the Revolt’ look like hurriedly executed commissions and leave the reader thirsting for more detailed accounts. K. M. Ashraf discusses Ghalib’s account of 1857, mainly as it appears in the poet’s Dastambu, and Gopal Haldar quickly runs through Bengali literature written before and after 1857, that is, between 1856 and 1885.
An interesting piece in this section is P.C. Joshi’s recollection of the folk songs of 1857, which in a larger publication in Urdu was perhaps his most valuable contribution to the literature on 1857.
Finally, we are offered some idea of how 1857 was treated by the British, French, Italian, Russian and Chinese journals. These pieces are sheer information. They also reflect on some key weaknesses of 19th-century Indian society, especially its failure to match the West in intellectual pursuits and the development of political theories. In a sense the reader gets a fair assessment of the cost paid in 1857 for wallowing in feudalism for an inordinately long time. It is a pity that the lesson remains unlearnt; which makes the book relevant to Pakistanis today and that is why one should be grateful to Ushba Publishing International for issuing this reprint. It should find a prominent place in any collection of history books on the subcontinent.
________________________________________ 1857: The first war of independence of the Subcontinent
Edited by P.C. Joshi
Ushba Publishing International, Karachi
355pp. Price not listed
1857: British books about
1857: Mangal Pandey Dawn June 24, 2007
REVIEWS: Remember Mangal Pandey?
Reviewed by A.M. Shah
On March 29, 1857, a sepoy of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry Regiment of the ‘Honourable’ East India Company’s Bengal Army, stationed at Barrackpur near Kolkata, injured his English officer, Lieutenant Baugh (the regimental adjutant) with a sword. In a tale often narrated over the last 150 years, this was how the story of sepoy Mangal Panday unfolds, his intention being to incite his comrades and other native regiments to rise against the British superior officers for attempting to violate the religious, cultural and social sanctity of the native soldiery. While he and many of his comrades ended up on the gallows within a month, Mangal Pandey had lit the fuse on a powder keg that blew up on May 10, 1857, when the 3rd Light (Native) Cavalry Regiment mutinied at Meerut. And with the other native regiments stationed there, they went on to slaughter the English officers and their families and then marched off to Delhi to proclaim the landless and powerless Bahadur Shah — last heir of Babur’s Mughal lineage — as Emperor of India once again. This was the opening scene of what is to the British, the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 and to the people of the subcontinent, the First War of Independence from British colonial rule.
On the 150th anniversary of this historic event, a number of old books on the subject, mostly by English authors, have been reprinted by local publishers, to perhaps rekindle some patriotic fervour, which otherwise is nonexistent under present circumstances prevalent in the country. Noteworthy is the fact that preparations are afoot in neighbouring India to commemorate this event with greater fervour and there has been considerable debate in the Indian Parliament on how to make the anniversary a memorable one given the fact that those regions engulfed by this great clash — parts of north and central India — remain on the Indian side of the divided subcontinent.
Charles Ball/ History of the Indian Mutiny
Among the steady torrent of books that cascaded down upon the British public at the closing stages of the upheaval around 1858, a majority were personal narratives and experiences of Englishmen (soldiers and civilians) and women who had survived the struggle. Around this time, English historian Charles Ball’s history — being reviewed here — was also published making it presumably the first of the official histories of the event.
The upheaval of 1857 officially ended around July 1858, although sporadic fighting continued well into 1859-60. The Marhata Nana Sahib, his general Tatya Tope and the Rohilla general, Bakht Khan, were still active and only left the scene around 1859. The Moghul Bahadur Shah was finally sentenced to exile in Rangoon in 1862. The publication of Ball’s two-volume history when the struggle had barely ended indicates the British government’s (under Lord Derby’s premiership) need for an exhaustive explanation to meet the clamouring demand of the public as to why Britannia had almost lost its most prized colonial possession. Moreover, the atrocities committed upon the native population of the affected regions of India by the British armies had caught the attention of and outraged many in the home country. The wholesale slaughter of native Indians at Delhi, Kanpur, Farrukhabad and elsewhere, irrespective of guilt or innocence, was no longer an acceptable act to a much-civilised English people at that point in time (although the internment of South African Boers in concentration camps was yet to come).
However, the descriptions in various personal narratives of the survivors of the massacres of English men, women and children at Kanpur and other embattled areas of India by the native ‘rebels’, effectively tempered the public outrage. Ball’s history, by its comprehensiveness and attempt at historical objectivity (some modern analyses tend to term this historical objectivity a pretence rather than an honest attempt) more or less was for the benefit of the decision-makers and pressure groups within the British body politic.
Ball has apparently relied entirely on official records including military-administrative reports, official letters, despatches and parliamentary papers for his description of the events leading up to the outbreak of hostilities as well as the battles fought and the attendant carnage during the war itself. This gives the book a singularly one-sided approach to the event given the absence of sources and perspectives other than what can be termed as ‘official’ or ‘European’.
As to the causes of the upheaval, Ball has skimmed the surface. Other than the immediate grievances like the attempts by some British officers (of evangelical persuasion) to convert the sepoys to Christianity; the forced use of rifle cartridges greased, supposedly, with pig and cow fat: the tightening of discipline among the Hindu Brahmin sepoys, who had earlier enjoyed a fair amount of ‘indulgence’ due to their high status in the Hindu caste system and their reluctance to serve overseas, Ball has not disturbed the much deeper waters of discontent. Much later these issues were echoed by another British historian and scholar, Henry Beveridge, who believed that the British were not and would never be popular in India.
Ball has made light of the deep-rooted grievances that were building up since even before Plassey when the Emperor Shah Alam surrendered what was left of his empire to the British. In a bid for balance, he has merely reproduced the indictment of the East India Company’s administration of India prior to 1857, by the Marquis of Clanricarde in the House of Lords, which identified various harsh and impractical policies that were causing discontent among the Indians. Perhaps impartial investigation was not a colonial-friendly practice. Over all, his treatment of the causes of the uprising is biased as he attributes the root cause of the Sepoy Mutiny phase of the war to the Hindu religion, primarily the caste system. To substantiate this claim, he refers to Sir Charles Napier’s view attributing several previous mutinies mainly to the Hindu Brahmin element in the Indian army.
That this book is primarily Anglo-centric is apparent in the ponderous introduction, which skimming through India’s past history, is more descriptive of the Hindu religion (as a build-up to his identification of the caste system as the prime instigator of the uprising) and the East India Company’s possessions till then with architecture, administration et al.
One has only to compare this book with the several volumes on the Official Indian Mutiny Records to conclude that Ball has faithfully represented the official version of this important historic event.
The general reader will derive nothing but boredom. For the student and researcher, however, it is a window into the colonial mind and a source for the official version of the war. To make this book interesting reading for the modern mind, the publisher should have had it edited by international scholars on the subject so as to bring in the later evidences to either substantiate, repudiate or correct the contentions made therein. This would have made the book an important historical source for future generations of students and scholars. Alas it was an English scholar, Colonel Raverty, who during his translation of the Tabaqat-i-Nasiri of Minhaj-i-Siraj Jurjani, showed the way. He cleared up many historical ambiguities and added copious notes to increase manifold the value of 13th-century works for modern scholarship. Assuredly, the publisher of Ball’s reprinted book is aware of this. ________________________________________
History of the Indian Mutiny (a two volume set)
By Charles Ball
Sang-e-Meel Publications, 25 Shahrah-i-Pakistan, Lahore
(Price includes both volumes)
1857: In British literature
Some fact & plenty of fiction
[HTTP://TIMESOFINDIA.INDIATIMES.COM/ARCHIVE.CMS THE TIMES OF INDIA]
Though the British officially declared the uprising as over in mid-1859, its impact on the British psyche lingered on for several years. In the aftermath of 1857, there was a veritable explosion of writing on the subject. Indeed, no other event under colonial rule can match the literary output on 1857. Much of it was memoirs, diaries and letters by East India Company officials and civilians who witnessed and survived the uprising. There were also several histories, including J W Kaye’s magisterial ‘History of the Sepoy War’, and London Times correspondent William Howard Russell’s reports. Some of the best known poets of the times such as Alfred Tennyson, too, penned stirring lines on the events of 1857.
However, it’s the 70-odd novels spawned by the uprising that are remarkable. First off the blocks was none other than Charles Dickens who co-authored a short novel, ‘Perils of Certain English Prisoners’, which appeared in the Christmas issue of Household Words in 1857. Though the story was set in Central America, it was clearly based on the rebellion in India. The first full-length novel on the uprising was Edward Money’s ‘The Wife and the Ward’ in 1859. It ended on a bleak note with the massacre of Kanpur and all the protagonists getting killed.
The high point of Mutiny novels was in the 1890s when 19 novels were published. These included the highly popular ‘On the Face of the Waters’ by Flora Annie Steel and G A Henty’s ‘In Times of Peril’. Henty — described as the James Hadley Chase of the time — churned out nearly a 100 novels with a boy-hero as a protagonist in different imperial settings. According to Gautam Chakravarty, who has authored ‘The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination’, it was no coincidence that Mutiny novels peaked during that period. ‘‘The period between 1890 and 1910 was symbolic of a high imperial culture. Unlike the earlier novels, the rebellion was turned into a site of high imperial adventure. It was seen as an event to inspire the working classes to become the shock troops of imperialism,” he says.
From the 20th century, there is a sharp drop in Mutiny novels. In the year of Indian independence, C L Reid’s ‘Masque of the Mutiny’ was published. In an interesting departure, Reid has a Gandhi-like Mahatma as the leader of the rebellion. Post-1947, novels based on the uprising are few and far between. The most prominent ones are ‘The Nightrunners of Bengal’ by John Masters and J G Farrell’s ‘The Siege of Krishnapur’. The latter — based on the siege of Lucknow — won the Booker. The most recent Mutiny novel was Andrew Ward’s ‘The Blood Seed’, taking off on the events in Kanpur.
For the 150th year of the uprising there is little by way of fiction from Britain. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, who has written extensively on Lucknow and whose book on 1857 will be published later this year, says, ‘‘There is really no interest at all in Britain about the events of 1857.’’ The reason is not hard to find. The triumphalist narratives of the Raj possibly have little resonance in a Britain which sees itself under threat from a resurgent India. — RS
A view from Humayun’s Tomb where Bahadur Shah Zafar sought refuge in 1857, after fleeing from the Red Fort. (Right) Lucknow’s Residency Complex was besieged by rebels for over six months (June 1857-March 1858) during the uprising
1857 in Indian cinema
Real to reel: Why Revolt didn’t make it
Avijit Ghosh | [HTTP://TIMESOFINDIA.INDIATIMES.COM/ARCHIVE.CMS THE TIMES OF INDIA]
Drama, passion, spectacle and larger-thanlife characters — historical upheavals are brimful of ingredients that attract movie audiences to the ticket counters. Strangely, though, the relationship between Hindi films and the great 1857 revolt has been both sporadic and uncomfortable.
The uprising that swept through the Indo-Gangetic plains created many heroes: Rani of Jhansi, Tantya Tope and Kunwar Singh to name a few. But Bollywood, usually a prolific and persistent recorder of historical drama, has looked the other way. Of the 10,000-odd movies produced since Hindi films got talking in 1931, there are hardly 10 movies on 1857.
Not that Bollywood is allergic to historicals. Who can forget ‘Mughal-e-Azam’? Movies abound on medieval Rajput and Muslim rulers, even though they are primarily costume dramas with little allegiance to authenticity. Forget Maharana Pratap, Shiva ji, Babar or Mumtaz Mahal. Even lesser known figures such as Siraj-ud-daula, Chhatrasal and Jahan Ara have been subjects for movies.
But Bollywood’s 1857 landscape is bleak and barren. The recent Aamir Khan starrer, ‘The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey’ (2005), neither satisfied critics nor the audience. Sohrab Modi’s ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’ (1953) was a much-talked about but little-seen movie of its time. Two notable exceptions are Satyajit Ray’s ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ (1977), not strictly an 1857 movie because it deals with the annexation of Awadh a year earlier, and Shyam Benegal’s ‘Junoon’ (1978), essentially a love story with the revolt as the backdrop.
Flops such as ‘1857’ (starring Suraiyya, 1946), ‘Lal Qila’ (Jairaj and Nirupa Roy, 1960), ‘Veerangana’ (Shobhana Samarth, 1947) and ‘Maharani Jhansi’ (1952) are some other forgettable films. Incidentally, ‘Mangal Pandey’ (Shatrughan Sinha, 1983) was not a historical but a dacoit-police film. Film historian Firoze Rangoonwala suggests that ‘‘the fear of getting caught in a historical controversy could have stopped Bollywood from looking into the subject’’. The hullabaloo that erupted after ‘The Rising’ reinforces this argument.
Filmmaker Shyam Benegal says there was a sense of disquiet among film financiers in the fifties and sixties over 1857. ‘‘The subject was considered jinxed,’’ he says. The perception could have gained currency since movies on the subject often failed at box-office. Modi’s ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’ is a case in point. The lavishly-mounted movie was lensed by Hollywood cinematographer Ernest Haller, with Union ministry of defence helping out in the battle scenes. ‘‘But the film collapsed. And it hurt Modi’s career,’’ says Benegal.
Ironically, Benegal’s own take on the uprising — based on Ruskin Bond’s novella, ‘A Flight of Pigeons’ — was a modest success. ‘‘Our attitude towards British rule had a degree of ambivalence. The story captured it very well,’’ says the ‘Junoon’ director.
A year earlier, Ray made his Hindi/Urdu debut with ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’, based on a Premchand short story where the chess-addict protagonists are indifferent to the British annexation of Awadh. The film received a hostile reception from critics then but is generally regarded as a classic now.
Gautam Kaul, author of ‘Cinema and the Indian Freedom Struggle’, points out that Russia and China have the largest collection of historicals. ‘‘These films were governmentfunded and part of an effort to forge national unity,’’ he says. Ironically, no film — documentary or feature — was made on the 1857 uprising when India celebrated 100 years of the revolt in 1957. Little has changed since then.
1857: Books and folksongs about
A still from The Rising