French Tales

Le Roi de Lahore (1877) was the second opera written by Jules Massenet (1842-1912). The tale depicts the romance of the King Alim and the temple girl Sita against the backdrop of Mahmoud Ghazni’s invasion of Lahore.1

Théodore Pavie (1811-1896) the French traveller and writer of exotica for Revue des Deux Mondes studied Sanskrit in Paris, from 1835-39 and went to Calcutta in 1839. He spent two years in India and the stories and sketches of India were published in his 1853 collection Scènes et récits des pays d’outre-mer. One of his stories, “Les babouches du Brahmane”, became the inspiration for Leo Dalibés’s opera Lakmé (1883).2

Pavie also translated the story of Padmini, the fourteenth century queen of Rajputs, from James Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan in 1856, La Légende de Padmani, reine de Tchitor. From this Louis Laloy (1874-1944), the French literary critic, helped write a two-act opera for Albert Roussel (1869-1937), called Padmavati (composed, 1914-8).3


  1. Sita is at the temple in Lahore, where Timour, the head priest, jealously guards her while Scindia, her uncle and the minister, also desires her. Sita confesses her love for an un-named suitor, and Timour rabbles up a whole lot of people against her. At the last minute, Alim reveals himself as the lover. Alim is also the king of Lahore. Then, he has to go defend his city against the Muslim invaders. They lose the battle, the King dies. Scindia becomes the King and he takes Sita. Alim, now in Indra’s heaven, pleads his case. He is sent back to earth as a commoner but bound to Sita (and doomed to die). He shows up in time to see Sita’s wedding to Scindia. They run off together, and are chased into Indra’s temple. Where Sita stabs herself and Alim is also returned to heaven. []
  2. It tells the story of British officer Gerald who happens across the beautiful Lakmé and they fall in love. Her father Nilankantha is not so happy with this and he stabs Gerald. Lakmé hides Gerald in the forest and nurses him to health. Once better, he returns to his service. Lakmé chews some poisonous leaves and kills herself. []
  3. I trust you know that story? []

Simon Digby, Historian

Via Naim Sahib comes the sad news that Simon Digby, 79, passed away in Delhi. Anyone who has touched any scholarly/popular work on medieval to colonial India – esp. aspects of religion and art – has seen the fruits of his amazing intellect reflected in those works.

I will try and find a full biography but let me note the following from on-line sources:

SIMON DIGBY is a former fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford and a former assistant keeper in the Department of Eastern Art, the Ashmolean Museum. He continues to serve as honorary Librarian of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, a position he has held since 1971. The foremost British scholar of pre-Mughal India, he has written numerous foundational essays on Indo-Persian Sufism as well as contributing to The Cambridge Economic History of India, volume 1.

In 1919 the Royal Asiatic Society established a formal lecture in the name of Sir Richard Burton, the British traveller, scholar and translator. In 1923 it decided to bestow a medal upon the lecturer. The recipient of the medal is required to have been not just a dry-as-dust scholar but someone who has actually engaged, as Burton did, with Asian societies in the field. Among recipients of the medal have been St John Philby and Freya Stark, both renowned for their Arabian explorations, and more recently W.G. Archer, the Indian Civil Servant who collected Indian village songs and tribal art as well as introducing courtly traditions in the visual arts to the general public, and David Snellgrove, the scholar-traveller in the Hindu-Buddhist worlds of South and Southeast Asia. In 1999 Simon Digby, the scholar of Indian Sufism, was the Burton lecturer.

And his list of publications.

A great loss.

update: More details on his life and times appear in Indian Express: After a lifetime loving India, historian Digby breathes his last: in Delhi (pdf). He was truly the last great orientalist (it is high time to reclaim that word from Said).

update 2: My thanks to Prof. Shahid Amin for sending in the photograph/pdf from Indian Express.

update 3: Photograph from Indian Express, Jan 15th.

update 4: An obit in Telegraph India by Rudrangshu:
Mukherjee: “Simon was one of the last of the truly amateur scholars.”

A Message from Kathy Kelly

Speaking Truth to Power by Kathy Kelly
January 8, 2010

There’s a phrase originating with the peace activism of the American Quaker movement: “Speak Truth to Power.” One can hardly speak more directly to power than addressing the Presidential Administration of the United States. This past October, students at Islamabad’s Islamic International University had a message for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. One student summed up many of her colleagues’ frustration. “We don’t need America,” she said. “Things were better before they came here.”

The students were mourning loss of life at their University where, a week earlier, two suicide bombers walked onto the campus wearing explosive devices and left seven students dead and dozens of others seriously injured. Since the spring of 2009, under pressure from U.S. leaders to “do more” to dislodge militant Taliban groups, the Pakistani government has been waging military offensives throughout the northwest of the country. These bombing attacks have displaced millions and the Pakistani government has apparently given open permission for similar attacks by unmanned U.S. aerial drones. Every week, Pakistani militant groups have launched a new retaliatory atrocity in Pakistan, killing hundreds more civilians in markets, schools, government buildings, mosques and sports facilities. Who can blame the student who believed that her family and friends were better off before the U.S. began insisting that Pakistan cooperate with U.S. military goals in the region?
Continue reading “A Message from Kathy Kelly”

Obligatory Avatar Post

But the problem with my analysis is, you will say, that Cameron is not the Department of State or Labor nor is he the official mouthpiece of some quasi-empire. You would be right. Yet Avatar is consensus. It is the consensus of nearly $300 million dollars – pored over every lovingly rendered pixel flesh and woodenly crafted “I got this!”. It is more importantly, a global consensus of consumption – fast approaching the $1 billion dollar mark. As such, I think it provides a credible archive against which to read the past decade.

Sitting through Avatar reminded me of the edifices of empire – not the halls of power (palace and parliament) but those edifices constructed for both the citizen and the colonial subject – simultaneously convincing one of the righteousness of the imperium and the other of the sheer inevitability of imperial power.

Avatar mirrors the techno-capital apogee of this American empire as well the grave ambivalence at the heart of it. Avatar is our Crystal Palace and our Delhi Durbar of 1911 as well our Hastings/Burke moment.

There are more than enough readings out there on the inherent biases and contradictions in Avatar. Read Aaron’s take, for one. Or Bustillos, as well. There is both merit and substance to these readings but I am much more interested in parsing the broader milieu which has produced Avatar. Where previous Empires (without going into whether America is or isn’t one) created magnificent physical edifices of their power and glory, we build monuments of light and shadows (3D) that provoke much of the same reactions: awe, glory, camaraderie. We are united in our appreciation of the technological wonder that created this spectacle and united in our consumption of it. Note that the end-credits stretch across the North (digital houses from New Zealand to California to London). Note as well that from Cairo to Dubai to Bombay, Avatar is playing to packed houses.

Where the Mughals borrowed curlicues from Damascus to Vijaynagar or the British incorporated “Eastern” motifs into the Lahore train station, Avatar borrows the Iraq War. It serves a decorative purpose. Mind you, that doesn’t make it a “throwaway” or “inessential”. On the contrary, it constitutes the very ethos the project itself – which is, after all, a simulacra itself. “Shock and Awe”. It will forever be the curlicue glued to the outside of any edifice – either with a wink, or a nudge, or with a scowl. When Avatar employs it, the audience (in Berlin) smirks loudly. They got this. The parallels are now as explicit as a minaret. No one notes the irony that the company has too few troops for the job. It is only a matter of time before the “surge” happens. But, let that be. Let’s just go back to the Iraq War. Some have suggested that there is a “critique” of the Iraq War buried inside the movie. The war in Avatar is not between the haves and the have-nots (one with tech, the other without; one with mineral resources, the other without) but between different ideas of having and not-having. At some level, however appropriated, Avatar grants some equivalence to the notion that these two civilizations can indeed differ in their reading of what constitutes as essential for survival. But the debate over the Iraq War is not, and will not be for a while, about granting equivalence – either hypothetical or literal – to our civilizational mission (democracy and freedom) and their claim to self-rule and self-governance. In that frame, there may be a mild nod towards Iraq, but there is no critique of war in Avatar. It is pro-war all the way. Eco-tech vs. mech-tech.

I greatly enjoyed Avatar. I will probably see it again on DVD and I will certainly try and teach it in class. Here are some thoughts – out of order – but in the order that they occurred to me.

related: Aaron expands his comments