[Professor Shahid Amin, prominent historian and author most recently of Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan (Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2015), reviewed Amritlal Nagar’s Gathering the Ashes for Biblio India. CM is delighted to feature his longer review here. We hope to post more of Professor Amin’s public writings in the near future– sepoy.]
Amritlal Nagar, Gathering the Ashes, tr. By Mrinal Pande ( Harper Perennial, 2014), pp. 378, Price Rs. 399
On 13th July 2006 the Prime Minister of India found time in the middle of the then delicately poised negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency to chair a 68-member committee to commemorate 150 years of 1857. That was a lot of Indians. It would not be uncharitable to suggest that very few of this motley group would have been comfortable distinguishing a barkandaz from a tilanga sepoy,or be familiar with say the ballad of Kunwar Singh of Shahabad, the Alha of Rajputs lineages of Awadh or the Urdu of rebel communication and proclamations. One could even wager that some might even have faltered reciting little more than the refrain “Khub lari mardani… Jhansi wali rani…” of that stirring poem by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan. Yet a GOM (Group of Ministers) went ahead and cleared Rs.150 crores of public money for a major commemoration, beginning August. But though crucial for 1942 and again 1947, August was not a particularly good month for us Indians in 1857, specially in Delhi which fell to the vengeful firangis soon afterwards. It seems to have mattered little, for here was a nationalist gesture– the dream of annexing the untidy, to say the least, events of the Ghadar of 1857 to our freedom from Britain almost to the month.
‘San-sattavan’! (The Year ’57)
In northern India, this incomplete chronological slice sans the century, encapsulates in its pithiness the myriad things that went into the making of that Great Event. San-sattavan can only be 1857; it can not be 1957, or even 1757, though in some contemporary prophesies British rule was to end within hundred years of the battle of Plassey. Be that as it may, ‘san sattavan’ stands resplendent in perhaps the best known poem on the Ghadar (rebellion) by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan: ‘Chamak uthi san sattavan mein, woh talwar purani thi’. The sword unleashed to drive out the firangis had not been moulded in or wrested from colonial armouries, as indeed was the case; it was the very old sword of an ‘aged Bharat’ which, rejuvenated, had now stood up to claim this equally old land for itself (‘burhe Bharat mein aayi phir-se nai jawani thi’).
Let’s stay a bit longer with the stirring opening stanza of this epic poem. Recall that this great nationalist poem places the ‘value of lost independence’ and ‘the resolve to throw the firangi out’ in every Indian heart. And yet the Bharat of 1857 is already old, ninety years before the birth of the Indian nation-state. Lets now cut to a folksong about Jhansi-wali Rani popular in district Etawah and its environs in UP, collected by that inveterate ‘native ethnographer’ Ram Gharib Chaube for his colonial master-scholar William Crooke in 1912. “O, the Rani of Jhansi, well fought the brave one/ All the soldiers were fed sweets; she herself had treacle and rice/… Leaving morcha, she ran to the lashkar, she searched for but found no water, O! The Rani of Jhansi! Well fought the brave one.” Here in a local folksong, to be sung in the Dadra vein, we sure find the Rani’s sacrifice and valour (‘sagre sipahiyan -ke pera-jalebi, khud khae gur-dhani; morcha ko chor-ke lashkar ko bhagi, dhunde nahin milei nahin paani’), but no intimations of a reactivated and well-entrenched sense of Indian nationhood.
To pilfer the opening sentence of Anna Karenina: all nations are new, but each claims its antiquity in its own way. This was clearly in evidence in the spirit behind the official celebrations in August 2007 where an apparition of an ailing Bahadur Shah Zafar with his hookah–- a cut-out from an extant sepia photograph– was made to appear, sans irony, on the parapet of Lal Qilla, manipulated by the strings of a sutradhar. The same holds true for that famous poem on the Rani by Subhadra Chauhan. It is a feature of nationalist ideology, that the nation whose ‘making’ requires large doses of energy, action and sacrifice, that very entity is made available to us fully-formed– like a mannequin in a shopping window– merely awaiting a change of (nationalist) attire.
Continue reading “Shahid Amin Reviews I: San Sattavan”