May 17, 2010

Bhopal - Saris And A Scabbard

In the 19th century, the long-drawn-out process of being photographed in the growing number of studios provided plenty of time to decide on how a sari should be draped and a hand be positioned. Though tiring, the photographic ‘encounter’ had to be endured as for many clients, the new visual economy helped affirm a certain stage, a position within the life cycle. While it was usually men who visited photo studios, by the last decades of the century, family photographs and those of the conjugal couple became increasingly popular in growing urban spaces. A few women also had individual access to photographers, the earliest among them being the Nawab Begum of Bhopal, the redoubtable Sikander Begum, her family and Bibi Doolan, the wife of one of her ministers. In 1861, for her loyalty to the British during 1857, Sikander Begum was awarded the Star of India. In the same year, she enthusiastically welcomed James Waterhouse of the Bengal Artillery, a talented photographer, part of the team of officers and other professionals seconded by Governor General Canning to photograph the major groups and communities of India.

At that time, the 42-year-old Sikander Begum was the well-established second-in-line of female rulers of Bhopal. Relations with her husband were not cordial and the main difference apparently was over the Begum’s less than conventional use of purdah. Sikander Begum had interesting views, and, according to Shaharyar M. Khan, the biographer of the begums (The Begums of Bhopal: A Dynasty of Women Rulers in Raj India), ruled with the proverbial iron hand, went tiger-hunting, inspected troops, toured villages on horseback as well as commissioned a regular army and police force. As she had had the benefit of early education, the Begum was committed to the establishment of schools for girls. It is hardly surprising that this loyal subject set up a school for girls and called it Victoria School though, as Gouri Srivastava’s analysis of administrative reports (The Role of the Begums of Bhopal in Girls’ education) shows, school enrolments fluctuated. Clearly, as was true of many other parts of India, in these early years, it was not easy to get girls’ education on the private agenda of the average family. Undaunted, the Begum established Urdu and Hindi-medium schools in each pargana of the state, with the express instruction to officers to send their children to these schools. As for her daughter, Shah Jehan, English lessons as well as tuition in arithmetic were regularly scheduled. It is not surprising, then, that this self-confident and powerful woman would have no hesitation in allowing the camera into her palace.

When Waterhouse arrived in Bhopal, the state was celebrating its ruler’s recent award. Although she accepted the coveted Star of India, it was not before she had consulted her qazi on whether she could wear an ornament bearing the portrait of Victoria; the qazi decreed that this might indeed prove to be a distraction at prayer time. Duly cautioned, the Begum nevertheless wore the prized decoration on special occasions and was photographed wearing it with full ceremonial regalia. In The Waterhouse Albums — Central Indian Provinces, based on the extensive holdings of the Alkazi Collection of Photography in New Delhi, London and New York and edited by John Falconer of the British Library, we are introduced to the wide range of Waterhouse’s oeuvre. On his photographic encounter with the royal ladies, Waterhouse writes:

“Her Highness the Begum [Sikander Begum] showed a most intelligent and friendly interest in the proceedings and knowing the difficulty there was for a European photographer to obtain photographs of native ladies, she dressed herself, her daughter and some of her ladies in different costumes so that I could photograph them. In order, however, not to offend the Mahomedan prejudices, all these photographs were taken in purdah, i.e. from behind a screen, so that I never actually saw my lady sitters but only photographed them, the lens of the camera projecting through the screen.”

And what amazing photographs he took without ever ‘seeing’ his subjects! It is interesting that though the actual photograph was taken without the man behind the camera having a direct view, the Begum obviously had no objection to the photographs being used, either in The People of India volumes or otherwise. In fact, aware that in a purdah society it would not be easy for the Englishman to gain access to too many women, she, together with her daughter, Shah Jehan , and Bibi Doolan posed for him in several different attires from their extensive wardrobes. Apart from his role of photographer, Waterhouse was a bit of a chronicler of women’s dress as all his photographs have detailed captions on what the ladies were wearing: in the Star of India portrait , for instance, she was wearing the “richly embroidered cap, insignia and collar of the Most Exalted Star of India, rich kincab jacket with soft feathers of fur round the collar and sleeves... under this she wears a rich flowered kincab angarkha (coat)” and very “loose Turkish trowsers [sic] with embroidered slippers [photograph].”

The portrait became the Frontispiece to the Begum’s candid account of her 1864 trip to Mecca, A Pilgrimage to Mecca by the Nawab Sikander Begum of Bhopal. This English translation by a Mrs Willoughby-Osborne was made available to the world in 1870 and provides an insight into the mind of the lady of strong opinions. Accompanied by her elderly mother, Begum Qudsia, who in her day had been the first Muslim woman ruler in the region, Sikander Begum in turn was the first Muslim ruler to perform Hajj. Sikander Begum found Jeddah “a desolate-looking city, very dirty and pervaded by unsavoury odours” and though in treeless Mecca the “moonlight is magnificent”, she noted disapprovingly the preponderance of beggars. She commented that it would appear as though “almost all the bad characters that have been driven out of India may be found in Mecca”. As for the ‘native’, her comments are no less acerbic — “In character the majority of the people are miserly, violent-tempered, hard-hearted and covetous, and they are both awkward and stupid.” Little wonder then that the local authorities were annoyed by the royal pilgrim’s observation that if she were in charge, she would bring about “a complete restoration” in civic amenities.

Apart from this photograph, the Begum allowed the use of several more taken by Waterhouse in her recollections of Mecca; that she was greatly appreciative of the camera as well as of the older and more established tradition of portrait-painting is evident in her response to the arrival of the artist, Louis Rousselet, at the court. Though she greeted him with a ritual breast-beating — her daughter, Shah Jehan, had been recently widowed — she ushered him into the young woman’s presence. Not only was Shah Jehan not in purdah and widow’s weeds, but rather she was resplendently dressed, and at her side hung “an elegant poniard with jeweled hilt”. Shaking hands with the visitors, she set up a date to pose for them a month hence when “she added, she would no longer be compelled to hide herself like a poor slave behind a straw curtain”. Apparently sensitive to Rousselet’s discomfiture, Sikander Begum conceded that she mourned her son-in-law as one would “a faithful friend and counselor” (details). But why would her daughter mourn — “Does the prisoner regret his gaoler?”

Hardly surprising then that Shah Jehan continued her mother’s strong rule, only to be succeeded by her daughter, Sultan Jehan, who wrote her memoirs in three volumes and became the first woman chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University. Both these rulers continued Sikander Begum’s commitment to visual representation, reaffirming the need to be ‘seen’ by a public far beyond their subject people. From the point of view of the expanding photographic world of those days, such portraits not only emboldened the portfolios of professionals but also provided an enduring visual dimension to remarkable women who ventured into the world beyond.

May 14, 2010

Naya Daur, Purani Baten

Film goers at Mumbai's Maratha Mandir on Aug. 5, 1960, came out quite confused. It wasn't clear why various characters in the newly released movie kept calling out for pillows at the end of profound conversations in medieval Urdu. Only later did they realize that it was not "Takiya!" but "Takhliya!" that the king and the prince in Mughal-e-Azam were in the habit of bellowing to order the servants to leave the scene.

The misgivings reached the ears of Karimuddin Asif, the film's director, who had spent 16 years planning and executing the grandest movie of his career. His associates feared the audience might not be able to relate to the movie. It had been a jinxed project from the start and the last thing they wanted was for the audience to have to ask which language it was in.

Asif was undeterred. On so many occasions, the movie had looked like a lost cause and he had come under pressure to drop it. Many had advised him that his effort to make what was at the time the most expensive movie ever made in India was foolhardy. Now the movie was released at last and there was no place for doubt. Asif told his assistants to chill and went back to his celebration of the film's release.

He was right. The audience fell hook, line and sinker for Madhubala's mesmeric screen presence, Prithviraj Kapoor's royal sketch of Akbar, Naushad's soulful music, Shakeel Badayuni's unforgettable lyrics and the grand imagery that Asif had produced with the sets and costumes. For three years people kept coming back to the theatres to watch it just once more. Mughal-e-Azam went down in history as one of the greatest Hindi movies ever and it took a decade and a half for Sholay to come and break its box-office record.

"Asif was a perfectionist. He wanted to get everything just right. The level of detailing was incredible," says Deepa Gahlot, film critic and author. A few examples: The Krishna idol in one scene was made of real gold, the jewelry that Rani Jodhabhai wore designed in the authentic Rajasthani style of that era and soldiers from the Indian army used in war scenes.

But the movie's mystique came from the way it reflected real life. To be precise, the unfulfilled love between Dilip Kumar, who played Salim, and Madhubala, who played Anarkali.

An 18-year-old Madhubala had taken a fancy to Dilip Kumar on the set of Tarana. But it was on the set of Mughal-e-Azam that their love really caught fire. The two decided to get married in short order.

Again, just like the movie, it was an outraged father who separated the young lovers. Ataullah Khan, Madhubala's father, didn't approve of their union. When B.R. Chopra planned Naya Daur (1957) with the two in the starring roles and proposed an outdoor shooting session in Bhopal, Khan asked his daughter not to go. He feared such proximity between her and Dilip Kumar away from his eyes could lead to a marriage.

The father's plan to separate the two succeeded but it also ruined Madhubala. Chopra sued her for not showing up for the shooting and to her shock, Dilip Kumar testified against her in court. She lost the case. Their love ended bitterly.

The rest of the shooting of Mughal-e-Azam was done in a tense atmosphere. But both Dilip Kumar and Madhubala were professionals who put aside their differences to help Asif complete the shooting.

When Madhubala died in 1969, aged 36, due to heart disease, Dilip Kumar was not in Mumbai. When he heard the news he cried like a baby, not wanting to hide his love for the Anarkali in his life even though he was already married (to Saira Banu).

Parda Nahi Jab Koyi Khuda Se,
Bandon Se Parda Karna Kya?

This article appears in the Apr. 30 issue of Forbes India, a Forbes Media licensee.

Photographs of Dilip Kumar when he visited Bhopal at the time of screening of Ganga Jamuna in early sixties.  This party was organized at Straw Products Lawn by Mizbah Sahib, the then manager of Bharat talkies.
Pic 1 : Javed Chisti Sahab attacking the table and Mr. Iqbal standing behind. He was in class 8th at that time.
Pic 2 : With Mizbah sahib.
Pic 5 : Mr. Iqbal and Haneef Bhai (Kale Khan & Mohammed Haneef) bidi wale.
Pic 6 : Extreme left front row Dr Mehboob Ahmed and 
Javed Chisti Sahab next to him. Some  other beautiful ladies of Bhopal who must be Dadi and Nani now.
Received with thanks from Mr. Javed Chishti

May 11, 2010

Bhopal Ka Babu

Bureaucrats in Madhya Pradesh have come clean on their immovable properties, well almost, but the exercise seems to have been moved more by the concern to hide than reveal much.

After a landmark verdict by the state’s Information Commission on February 15, the state government had asked bureaucrats, as also every government employee — barring Class IV — to post details of their immovable properties on the websites of their respective departments by April 30.

If the properties were sold for the rates listed in the column “present value” by some officers, it would surely have sparked off a crisis in the real estate market in MP. But most officers have either kept the column blank or maintained “present value not known” or not given details of the location of the property.

A flat in Bhopal or a plot in Indore is not saying much. A few have not revealed much by saying “according to market value” while some others have not bothered to share anything.

IAS couple, Arvind Joshi and Tinoo Joshi, who were suspended after I-T raids, however, are sure about their facts and valuations: Their 8.25 acre agriculture land near Bhopal has cost them Rs 1.25 crore and a 1400 sq-ft ‘super HIG’ flat in Delhi’s Dwarka locality Rs 50 lakh. At Rs 1.75 crore, the total value of the Joshis’ properties is much less than the Rs 3 crore in cash recovered from their government bungalow in the state capital in early February. The 1979 batch couple has not shared details of movable properties because it was not required.

Anju Singh Baghel, who was suspended for allowing exchange of prime government land with private land when she was posted in Katni as Collector, owns 30-acre land in Satna district, which is valued at Rs 20 lakh. She owns three more residential properties valued in all at Rs 21 lakh.

Dr Rajesh Rajora, who was suspended for alleged irregularities in the Health Department he headed in 2007 as Commissioner, does not know the present value of a four-acre property he owns near Bhopal.

Vishwapati Trivedi, who is on deputation to the Centre, owns a 2000 sq-ft plot in Vasant Kunj in New Delhi and a 350 sq-mt plot in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh, valued at Rs 6 lakh and Rs 3.69 lakh, respectively. Neither is up for sale.

The IAS officer owns 450 sq yd plot in Noida, valued at Rs 1,800 per sq m, and a 408 metre plot in Gurgaon, Haryana, valued at Rs 19.82 lakh. But then his present value column has a qualifier in bracket “acquisition value”. He had purchased the properties in the 1990s, but has not calculated the present value.

Many promoted officers have revealed more income than the direct recruits. In fact, the richest IAS officer, according to the details on the website, is Santosh Mishra with properties worth Rs 5.40 crore.

Congress leader Choudhary Rakesh Singh whose application under the RTI led to the verdict is not impressed with the details and alleges that the under-valuation is deliberate.

Elected representatives like him have a reason to complain because the affidavits they submit to the Election Commission before polls is much more revealing with details of vehicles and other investments, something the bureaucrats don’t have to do.

Following the ‘disclosure’ by bureaucrats, some legislators, including those belonging to the ruling BJP, have said the real purpose will be served only if the babus are asked to part with details of properties they acquired after joining the service.

State’s Chief Information Commissioner P P Tiwari, however, said the purpose of his verdict was served.

May 10, 2010

At MANIT Bhopal

In a big clean-up act, HRD minister Kapil Sibal has approved cancellation of appointment of more than 60 teachers of the prestigious Maulana Azad National Institute of Technology (MNIT), Bhopal, who were recruited illegally in 2005. 

Sources in MNIT said 15 assistant professors and 47 lecturers besides training and placement officer and librarians would lose their jobs. Sources said many teachers did not even meet the criterion of basic academic qualification while some paid bribes to get the job. 

Sibal has asked officials to simultaneously rescind these appointments and begin fresh recruitment. However, officials at MNIT said they were still to et any communication from the HRD ministry. 

These teachers in the rank of lecturers and assistant professors (system of designation has since changed) have been working for the last five years. NITs, directly under the HRD ministry, are being modelled on the lines of IITs. 

"Reversal of appointments in such a large number will definitely harm the reputation of NITs,” an NIT director said. 

"What is shocking is that no action was taken despite a report by a fact-finding committee in 2008 against their appointment," he added. 

The issue of illegal appointments resurfaced when CBI sought HRD ministry’s approval to investigate the role of Rajneesh Shrivastava, currently director NIIT, Jamshedpur, in recruitment of an assistant professor when he was at MNIT, Bhopal. It came to notice that as per the directions of the ministry, MNIT had set up a fact-finding committee in 2007 that looked into irregularities in appointments including the one for which Shrivastava was being held responsible. 

The ministry then decided that since Shrivastava was not alone in taking the decision, it would be proper to deal with lacunae in appointments pointed out by the fact-finding committee. The committee had even suggested a separate inquiry to investigate allegations of bribery in appointment. Therefore, it was decided to cancel all the appointments.

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