Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

Introduction

Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013. Read more

20 June 2022

The provenance histories of Batak manuscripts in the British Library (2): The India Office collection

This is the second part of a series of blog posts about the provenances of all the Batak manuscripts now held in the British Library, which have just been digitised. The first part looked at  early acquisitions in the British Museum to 1900, while this second part considers manuscripts from the library of East India Company, later known as the India Office Library (IOL).

In 1972 the Library of the British Museum became the British Library.  Ten years later, in 1982, the India Office Library and Records joined the British Library, bringing a collection of ten Batak manuscripts, numbered MSS Batak 1-10.

The first six Batak manuscripts were inspected and described in 1848 by the pioneering Batak scholar Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk (1824-1894). Van der Tuuk was an exceptional linguist who had studied Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit and Malay, and had been selected by the Netherlands Bible Society to learn Batak in order to translate the Bible into Batak. His visit to London took place before he set sail for Java and Sumatra, and therefore his knowledge of Batak at the time was based on the few manuscripts then available in the Netherlands. Van der Tuuk’s three-page report ( Download BL MSS Eur B105-Van der Tuuk 1848) is of great importance for provenance research, firstly for confirming the presence in the IOL of MSS Batak 1-6 by 1848, and secondly for his records of various paper labels at the time attached to the manuscripts, which have since disappeared.

MSS Batak 1 is a piece of bamboo inscribed with Batak writing, which is accompanied by a small knife and four darts from a blowpipe.  The manuscript was written in 1823 by the Raja of Bunto Pane in Asahan for his visitor John Anderson (1795-1845), an East India Company official from Penang who was exploring trading possibilities along the east coast of Sumatra.  As described in an earlier blog post, the bamboo is engraved with the Batak words for the numbers one to ten, and a memorandum to Anderson to remind him to send the Raja two hunting dogs on his return to Penang. According to Van der Tuuk the bamboo had a small piece of paper attached saying ‘specimen of Batta writing, with a knife written and presented by J. Anderson Esqr.’; this label is no longer present. The manuscript was presumably presented to the East India Company by Anderson following his return to London in 1830.

A piece of bamboo inscribed by the Raja of Bunto Pane, 1823, together with four blowpipe darts and a small knife, which may have been used to write the manuscript
A piece of bamboo inscribed by the Raja of Bunto Pane, 1823, together with four blowpipe darts and a small knife, which may have been used to write the manuscript. British Library, MSS Batak 1  Noc

Three decades before Van der Tuuk's visit, Prof. C. J. C. Reuvens of Leiden University visited East India House in 1819, and noted that there were four Batak manuscripts, said to have been sent from Sumatra by a ‘Governor some 8 years earlier’.  These are the folded treebark pustaha now numbered MSS Batak 2-5 (Ricklefs and Voorhoeve 1977: 13). All four manuscripts were described by Van der Tuuk, and the identity of the donor was revealed on a crucial piece of paper (which is now lost) said to have been attached to MSS Batak 5: ‘Presented by R. Parry Esqr. 3d Jan. 1817’. Richard Parry (1776-1817) was Resident of Bengkulu from 1808 to 1810, and on returning to England presented to the East India Company on 26 June 1812 a collection of 202 drawings of ‘Plants and Animals from Sumatra’ (Archer 1962: 19). The Batak manuscripts may have been presented just before Parry's death in 1817, or – in view of Reuvens’ information – Van der Tuuk may possibly have misread ‘1812’ for ‘1817’ on the paper label, and the Batak manuscripts may have been donated around the same time as the drawings. In any case, the four manuscripts MSS Batak 2-5 can all be securely dated to before 1811, when Parry left Sumatra.

Vdt2
Van der Tuuk’s 1848 description of MSS Batak 5, recording the paper label reading ‘presented by R. Parry Esqr. 3d Jan. 1817’. British Library, MSS Eur B105, p. 2

Three of the four manuscripts given by Richard Parry bear inscriptions in English describing the contents. Van der Tuuk noted that MSS Batak 2 bore a note on the outside: 'Surgery', but this label too seems to have disappeared in the interim. However, on the first page of the manuscript, above the text Poda ni taoar sati, on medicine, is clearly inscribed ‘Antidotes against poison’ (although Van der Tuuk recorded this as ‘Prescriptions against poison’). The first page of the reverse side, which contains a a text on protective magic for a pregnant woman (Poda ni pagarta, pagar ni na di bortiyan), is inscribed 'Midwifry'.

Batak text, identified in English as 'Antidote against poison'. British Library, MSS Batak 2, f. 1r.
Batak text on medicine, described as 'Antidotes ag[ain]st Poison', before 1811. British Library, MSS Batak 2, f. 1r. Noc

Batak text on protective magic for a pregnant woman, labelled 'Midwifry'
Batak text on protective magic for a pregnant woman, labelled 'Midwifry', before 1811. British Library, MSS Batak 2, f. 41v  Noc

Voorhoeve noted that MSS Batak 4 was carelessly written with ink of inferior quality, and was probably made for a foreigner (probably Parry?), as the colophon explains the contents: "this is writing from Tapanuli, words of Batak lore from masters of olden times, O young student!". Van der Tuuk noted that the cover bore an English note, ‘lessons and invocations respecting a regular conduct so as to obtain the good will of the community’ (this note too is no longer found with the manuscript). A faint ink inscription can still be discerned on the bottom wooden cover, which has been greatly enhanced through ultraviolet lighting by BL photographer Elizabeth Hunter (see both images below).  Although parts of the inscription are still uncertain, it may be read: 'Old Stories of Battles / & Contests of former times[?] / between Datto Sangmay- / ma & Datto Dallooh of / Tohbah'.

Batak pustaha, with a faint English note on the back wooden cover
Batak pustaha, with a faint English note on the back wooden cover, before 1811. British Library, MSS Batak 4, back cover   Noc

Ultraviolet lighting image of the back wooden cover of the pustaha
Ultraviolet lighting has enhanced the legibility of the note on the back wooden cover of the pustaha, before 1811. British Library, MSS Batak 4, back cover Noc

MSS Batak 5 is a beautiful manuscript copiously illustrated in red and black ink, with unusual red borders to all pages on the first side. Above the first texts – poda ni taoar, on medicine, and poda ni na hona rasun, antidotes against poison – is an accurate description of the contents in English: ‘Medical Prescriptions against Poisons & other …’. On the other side of manuscript, containing protective magic, the explanation at the top reads: ‘Charms Used by the Battas against the Machinations of Evil Spirits’.

Start of medical texts in a Batak manuscript
Start of medical texts, described ‘Medical Prescrip/tions against Poi/sons & other ...’, before 1811. British Library, MSS Batak 5, f. 1r  Noc

The texts on protective magic are described as ‘Charms Used by the Battas against the Machinations of Evil Spirits’
The texts on protective magic are described as ‘Charms Used by the Battas against the Machinations of Evil Spirits’, before 1811. MSS Batak 5, f. 33v Noc

Thus the Batak manuscripts given by Richard Parry nearly all seem to bear evidence of a serious interest in their contents, with the English explanations fairly accurately describing the texts within; the selection perhaps even suggests an attempt to seek out manuscripts concerning medical matters. This would not be surprising in view of Parry’s known interest in natural history. Parry had arrived in India in 1793, and when he left Calcutta for Bengkulu in 1807, he commissioned the artist Manu Lal to accompany him.  In Sumatra, Manu Lal made the drawings of flowers, birds and animals which Parry later presented to East India House (Archer 1962: 19). (Artistry appears to have run on in the family: Richard's son Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-1888) was a noted fresco artist, while his grandson was the eminent composer Hubert Parry (1848-1918)).

A drawing of a Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker, ‘Dicaeum cruentatum’, by Manu Lal for Richard Parry in Sumatra, ca. 1807-1811
A drawing of a Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker, ‘Dicaeum cruentatum’, by Manu Lal for Richard Parry in Sumatra, ca. 1807-1811. The inscription in Urdu at the bottom reads: ‘The painter of this picture is Manu Lal, artist, an inhabitant of Azimabad (Patna City)’ (Archer 1962: 87). British Library, NHD 2/288. Noc

There is no information on the origins of the remaining Batak manuscripts from the India Office Library collection, MSS Batak 6-10, or even dates of acquisition. MSS Batak 6, which has an exceptionally fine carved wooden cover, was seen and described by Van der Tuuk in 1848, who thought it was ‘of considerable antiquity’, but this view was not repeated by Voorhoeve in his description of the manuscript (Ricklefs and Voorhoeve 1977: 14).

MSS Batak 7, 8, 9 and 10 are probably more recent acquisitions from the 20th century. MSS Batak 8 and 9 were evidently acquired from the same source as they have similar price labels stuck to their outer leaves, in a style of handwriting dating from around 1900. MSS Batak 10 was not listed in Ricklefs and Voorhoeve (1977), and was either acquired shortly after that date, or may have been found subsequently within the older collections.

Cover of MSS Batak 8   Cover of MSS Batak 9
MSS Batak 8 (left) and MSS Batak 9 (right), each bearing a price tag of £1.10.0, probably written around 1900, when the sum of one pound and ten shillings would be equivalent to £175 today. Noc

Further reading:
Mildred Archer, Natural history drawings in the India Office Library. London: HMSO, 1962.
M.C. Ricklefs, P. Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain. New edition with Addenda et corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014. [Includes a facsimile of the 1977 edition.]
Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk, 'A short account of the Batak manuscripts belonging to the Library of the East India Company', 1848. British Library, Download BL MSS Eur B105-VanderTuuk1848.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

13 June 2022

‘I wish to be made free and to remain in this country’: Testimony of liberated enslaved women, girls and boys

On 19 November 1847, Gregor Grant, Senior Magistrate of Police at Bombay (Mumbai), sent depositions of forty-seven women and girls and twelve boys to the Government of Bombay. These individuals had been on board five baghlahs (sailing vessels) captured in the Persian Gulf in September 1847 by the East India Company’s Indian Navy and brought into Bombay Harbour. The five baghlahs (and six other vessels which were also seized), belonged to subjects of the Sultan of Muscat and Oman and Zanzibar, Sayyid Sa‘īd bin Sulṭān Āl Bū Sa‘īd. The vessels were seized for carrying enslaved people, in contravention of the 1845 treaty between the United Kingdom and the Sultan, which prohibited the export of enslaved people from his East African dominions and the import of enslaved African people into his Omani territory (but still allowed the transport of enslaved people in the area between Lamu and Kilwa, including Zanzibar). The treaty was effective from 1 January 1847, and this was the first instance of the terms of the treaty being carried out by British authorities.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin scriptWhite paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin scriptWhite paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Copy of the treaty of 2 October 1845 between Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom and the Sultan of Muscat and Oman and Zanzibar, Sayyid Sa‘īd bin Sulṭān Āl Bū Sa‘īd, IOR/L/PS/5/452, ff 318-19. Copyright status unknown.

The correspondence concerning the five baghlahs and the people on board can be found in the India Office Records file IOR/L/PS/5/452, which has been digitised and can be accessed through the Qatar Digital Library.

The depositions generally consist of brief statements on the same subjects, indicating that the individuals concerned were each asked the same or similar questions orally, the responses to which were translated into English and recorded in writing, or paraphrased, since the same or similar phrases tend to be used in different depositions. However, although they are in a mediated form and should therefore be treated with some caution, the depositions do provide access to the voices of enslaved women, girls and boys. This post will focus on their testimony, and what happened to them subsequently in Bombay.

The women, girls and boys were declared liberated by the British authorities in Bombay, but were placed under Grant’s charge and initially detained in a police hulk. Three of the women stated that they were actually the wives of three of the nakhudas (captains or masters) of the baghlahs, to whom they wanted to return. Grant informed the Government of Bombay that one of these women, ‘Absheree’, was ‘perfectly inconsolable under the separation’ and he was satisfied from the testimony of ‘the whole of her companions’ and of the women themselves that they were indeed the nakhudas’ wives, so he sent them back to their husbands.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Deposition of ‘Absheree’, IOR/L/PS/5/452, f 380v. Crown copyright.

Grant reported that the remaining individuals appeared to be ‘Gallas or Abyssinians’ (Oromo or Habesha people), except three or four individuals who appeared to be natives of Zanzibar. The majority of the individuals stated in their depositions that they remembered where they were born or where their parents were from, with the most frequently named places including Gurage and Jimma in Ethiopia.

A map of Ethiopia with names in Latin script written in black ink in various directions; roads indicated with red or black lines; yellow colouring for coasts, and bluish colouring for water
‘Sketch delineative of the ROUTES OF SLAVE-CARAVANS through Abyssinia to the shores of ARABIA.’, c 1842, IOR/L/PS/5/413, f 517. Crown copyright.

Most of the individuals stated that they did not know how old they were, although one woman, ‘Boutie’, said she was ‘under twenty years of age’. Grant reported that their ages ‘appear to vary generally from 8 or 10, to 18 or 20 – but there are one or two girls beyond the former age and one or two women who appear considerably older than 20 years of age’. There is plenty of evidence that purchasers of enslaved people in the western Indian Ocean region (including East Africa and Madagascar, North-Eastern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, and the western coast of the Indian subcontinent) preferred children and young people, and it was rare for enslaved people over thirty years’ old to be sold. Children and young people were more easily captured and subdued than adults. Young people were also more able to assimilate with their owners through learning a new language and adopting unfamiliar manners and customs, and they were valued for their potential upon reaching physical maturity. The gender ratio of the enslaved people on board the baghlahs, most of them being female, supports the conventional view that the majority of enslaved people traded in the Indian Ocean World were female (although Hideaki Suzuki argues that a number of contemporary records from East Africa challenge this view). Gwyn Campbell states that girls and young women were valued particularly for sexual attractiveness and reproductive capability. Some female enslaved people in the Indian Ocean World were employed as water carriers and in agriculture, textile production, and mining, but most were absorbed into wealthy households, mainly to provide domestic and sexual services, as servants, secondary wives, concubines, wet nurses, or entertainers.

Nearly half of the individuals deposed that they had been taken captive when very young and sold into slavery, but others stated that they had been captured and enslaved as recently as a year ago. Whilst several individuals stated that they remembered their parents, nearly half stated that they could not remember them. Several of the women and girls said that they had been made captive during a war or by a ‘hostile tribe’.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Deposition of ‘Hulkakesh’, IOR/L/PS/5/452, f 377v. Crown copyright.

Some of the depositions refer to the individuals ‘passing through several hands’ after being sold into slavery. Many enslaved people in the western Indian Ocean region experienced short periods of possession and frequent resale by owners. The main reasons for this were that enslaved people were at risk of illness or death from the repeated serious epidemics of diseases the region experienced, and British naval attempts to suppress the trade in enslaved people meant that holding and trading in enslaved people was a dangerous activity. Thus there was less risk involved in short-term possession of enslaved people and owners were more likely to be able to sell them on for a profit.

Of the individuals who knew the name of or remembered the place where they were put on board the vessels captured by the Indian Navy, seventeen stated that this had been at Sur in Oman, five at Muscat, and three at Berbera. They deposed that the nakhudas were ordered to take them to Basra to be sold.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Deposition of ‘Futaleh’, IOR/L/PS/5/452, f 375. Crown copyright.

The depositions of the majority of the individuals state either that they wished to remain in Bombay or that they were willing to do so, with many stating that they had no desire to return to their country of birth. One woman, ‘Futaleh’, stated: ‘I wish to be made free and go to my own country – but if “Belilla” remain in this country I shall be very glad to stay also’. Several other women and girls stated that they wished to remain in Bombay if a particular woman or girl, or the other women they were with, also stayed there.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Deposition of ‘Uttegoollee’, IOR/L/PS/5/452, f 371v. Crown copyright.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Deposition of ‘Tomasha’, IOR/L/PS/5/413, f 372. Crown copyright.

Grant wrote to the Government of Bombay that the twelve boys ‘seem very fine intelligent lads’. He reported that two boys, ‘Amber’ and ‘Roba’: ‘positively deny that they are, or ever were slaves [enslaved people], and they are most anxious to be permitted to return to their master, who they state, is instructing them as seamen’ (although Roba’s deposition actually states that he was his master’s ‘household slave’). Therefore these two boys were allowed to return to their master, the nakhuda of one of the baghlahs. Grant subsequently reported that in accordance with the Government’s instructions, the remaining ten boys had been made over to the Superintendent of the Indian Navy, Commodore Sir Robert Oliver, for ‘care and naval education’.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Depositions of ‘Amber’ and ‘Roba’, IOR/L/PS/5/452, f 381. Crown copyright.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Deposition of ‘Songoee’, IOR/L/PS/5/452, f 373. Crown copyright.

Grant had also been instructed to invite applications from ‘respectable persons’ to take the women and girls on as servants, with preference to be given to Christian families. He informed the Government of Bombay on 30 December 1847 that there had been many applicants, mostly ‘Mahomedans’ [Muslims], and also ‘a few respectable Portuguese Gentlemen’. He met the applicants at the house where the women and girls were being accommodated and ‘did all in [his] power to induce some of them’ to accompany the Portuguese applicants to their homes. Grant had previously reported that the women and girls ‘have been taught nothing whatever of Religion beyond the fact that there is a God – and on this score consequently no difficulties present themselves as regards their disposal’. However, he now reported that:

‘on the very mention of their taking service with Christian families, they became most violent, declaring that they would rather lose their lives than enter the families of the “Frank” and the “Kafir” [non-believers]. – as they designated all who had not on the Mahomedan garb’.

Only one woman, ‘Zaide’, agreed to take service with one of the Portuguese applicants. Grant wrote that he ultimately persuaded ‘the greater number of the girls’ to accompany ‘some respectable Mahomedan Gentlemen’ to their houses, but they:

‘divided themselves into parties of four or five each, and absolutely refused to be separated. They were, therefore, made over according to their own selection to the most respectable of the applicants, who promised to take care of them in their families till they should have acquired such knowledge of the language and the people among whom they have been brought to live as to enable them to act for themselves. They were most capricious in fixing on the individuals to accompany; those whose dress approximated to that worn by Arabs seemed to be preferred; and there was no alternative but to let them have their choice’.

Grant went on to state that he would communicate the manner in which the remaining girls ‘may be disposed of’, but this is the last reference to them in this file.

The Government of Bombay instructed Oliver to direct the naval officers in the Persian Gulf to make the seizures of the baghlahs widely known, so that ‘all may see the firm purpose of Government to suppress slavery’. The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 had transformed Britain from a nation prolific in the trade in enslaved people (including involvement in the Indian Ocean trade between the 1620s and the late eighteenth century), to the world’s leading campaigner against the trade. The British naval campaign against the trade in enslaved people in the western Indian Ocean was active from the 1840s, following a series a legal agreements to suppress the trade with Sayyid Sa‘īd bin Sulṭān Āl Bū Sa‘īd and rulers on the Arabian coast of the Gulf. Naval suppression measures up to 1860 were insufficient though, and by the 1850s only a relatively small number of enslaved people had been liberated. In 1873, the Sultan of Zanzibar, Sayyid Barghash bin Sa‘īd Āl Bū Sa‘īd, signed a treaty banning the trade in enslaved people in his territory. This treaty did not actually end the trade in the western Indian Ocean, but it meant it was illegal and clandestine, and the treaty was followed by conventions between the United Kingdom and the Ottoman Empire in 1880 and Persia (Iran) in 1882 which aided suppression efforts in the Red Sea and the Gulf.

Susannah Gillard, Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
CCBY Image

Further reading

IOR/L/PS/5/452, ‘ENCLOSURES TO SECRET LETTERS FROM BOMBAY’, Vol 90

Richard B. Allen, ‘Satisfying the "Want for Labouring People": European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean, 1500-1850’ Journal of World History, 21 (2010), 45-73.

Gwyn Campbell (ed.), Abolition and its Aftermath in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia, London: Routledge, 2005. (YC.2007.a.1041)

Gwyn Campbell (ed.), The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia, London: Frank Cass, 2003. (YC.2005.a.4903)

Robert Harms, Bernard K. Freamon, and David W. Blight (eds.), Indian Ocean Slavery in the Age of Abolition, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. (YC.2014.a.11288)

Hideaki Suzuki, Slave Trade Profiteers in the Western Indian Ocean: Suppression and Resistance in the Nineteenth Century , Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. (DRT ELD.DS.342900)

06 June 2022

Satyajit Ray's visit to the India Office Library to conduct archival research for Shatranj ke Khilari or 'The Chess Players' in 1976

This guest blog post is by Sarbajit Mitra, a doctoral candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (London), who is working on his thesis: Cultures of Consumption: Popular Responses to Intoxicants in Colonial Bengal.

The celebrated Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray visited the India Office Library (now part of the British Library) in 1976 to consult original 19th century Murshidabad and Lucknow paintings that would influence the set and costume design of his first Hindi language film Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players), which was released the following year. Ray adapted his film from a short story by the noted Hindi writer Munshi Premchand (1880-1936). The story focused on two Awadhi noblemen addicted to the game of chess while totally oblivious to the political situation taking place that year of 1856, when the East India Company took over the administration of the province of Awadh by deposing the provincial King of Awadh, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (1822-1887). The novel though just had one line that gave a sense of the historical background of the period while the two men continued their game.  In the script, Ray added a parallel narrative which looked at the  transfer of power to the Company from the perspective of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and Sir James Outram (1803-1863), the then English resident at Lucknow . The film, thus, demanded painstaking research not just to be truthful to historical facts, but also for authentically recreating the period on screen. Ray, who was always known for his keen eye to details, devoted almost an entire year to research and in writing the script. Alongside referring to available primary accounts, Ray needed to find visual references from the period. The search for the appropriate visual references took Ray to different archives and repositories, including the India Office Library in London. This blog post will discuss the specific works of art that Ray consulted and ultimately influenced the set and costume design of Shatranj ke Khilari.

The Satyajit Ray Society in Kolkata, based in the filmmakers’ former residence, holds his extensive archives and shooting notebooks, the later is available on open access. Ray used handmade exercise books with distinct red cover, popularly referred to as Kheror Khata (traditionally used by the account-keepers in Bengal) for keeping his notes. Ray’s Kheror Khatas are invaluable resources providing step by step information on how he conceived and gave shape to his ideas before they were translated on the screen. The research notes, early drafts, even the shooting schedule for Shatranj ke Khilari can be found in the Kheror Khata for the film, spread across two volumes.

Kheror Khata-Cover
Kheror Khata- Title Page
Satyajit Ray's notebook for Shatranj ke Khilari , 1977. Cover and inside flyleaf. Image courtesy of Satyajit Ray Society in Kolkata and available through the National Digital Library of India

Andrew Robinson, Ray’s biographer, highlighted the formidable difficulties Ray faced while writing the script. Ray needed to comprehend the relationship between Britain and Awadh in the century leading up to the Annexation and hence produced a ten-minute prologue at the start of the film with still shots of contemporary documents, photographs and paintings.[1]  In order to achieve historical accuracy, Ray needed to consult contemporary visual material. Ray first consulted the European and British oil paintings in the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata to understand the portrayal of key political figures. Ray featured Tilly Kettle’s portrait of Nawab Shuja ud-Daula of Awadh with his four sons and General Barker and the artist Robert Home’s portrait of Gazi-ud din Haidar in his prologue.

However, for faithfully recreating Awadhi life in the sets, Ray chose to depend more on the artworks of anonymous Indian painters. Ray initially consulted the collections at the State Museum at Lucknow, but his notes on the Kheror Khata and his correspondences with Suresh Jindal (1942- ), the producer of film, reveal that he was keen to examine the paintings held in the India Office Library. In one of the letters to Jindal, Ray writes, 'All the Lucknow photos in Sharar are pre-mutiny and all come from the India House. I have written to Pam Cullen to send a complete list of what they’ve got on Lucknow.'[2] Pam Cullen (1924- ) who was the European director at India’s National Film Development Corporation’s office in London, was a close friend of Ray and her assistance from London turned out to be of great help.

Ray initially conducted his own research while based in Calcutta. He mostly relied on William Foster’s A descriptive catalogue of the paintings, statues and framed prints in the India Office. Ray referenced eight paintings along with their accession numbers in his notebook. In 1976, Ray managed to see the paintings in London and take photographs when he briefly toured Britain “in the fall of 1976” to meet Sir Richard Attenborough (1923-2014), who was to play Sir James Outram in the film.

Notes by Ray in his own hands on IOR Records
Satyajit Ray's notebook for Shatranj ke Khilari , 1977. Notes for visit to India Office Library. Image courtesy of Satyajit Ray Society in Kolkata and available through the National Digital Library of India

The first entry in Ray’s list though records a single painting ‘Asaf-ud-Daula listening to the Musicians’ with the reference number ‘Add Or 2595’. However, the reference number is allocated to a similar painting showing ‘Asaf ud-Daula celebrating the Muharram festival in Lucknow’. The later reference number in the India Office Library’s collection, Add Or 2600, instead pictures Nawab Asaf al-Daula in his palace ‘seated on a rug smoking a hookah and listening to a party of male musicians’. By looking at the portraits of Wajid Ali Shah’s ancestor Asaf ud-Daula, who ruled from 1775-97, Ray perhaps was looking for a contemporary visual reference that could be adapted to portraying the 19th century ruler Wajid Ali Shah enjoying a private musical concert in the film. Ray’s notebook also recorded the fact that these paintings were made in the Murshidabad style (of eastern Bengal) as opposed to the Lucknow or Awadhi style. It is also interesting to note that, Sir George Nugent (1757-1849), the Commander-in-Chief in India between 1811-15, acquired these two paintings whilst in India. Nugent’s wife, Maria (1771-1834) was known to be a keen collector of Company paintings, more likely to have acquired the paintings from the artist while she was in Calcutta around 1812.

Nawab Asaf al-Daula seated on a rug smoking a hookah and listening to a party of male musicians.
Nawab Asaf al-Daula seated on a rug smoking a hookah and listening to a party of male musicians. Murshidabad school, c. 1812. British Library, Add Or 2600

Ray listed another painting that featured Nawab Asaf ud-daula. The painting made by a Lucknow artist between 1830-35 shows the Nawab engaged in one of his favorite pastimes, the cockfight  (Add Or 3118). Asaf ud-daula is seen gesturing towards birds at his feet while being seated beside a European gentleman in a red coat. There are two other European gentleman present in the painting along with a number of Indian gentlemen. Rosie Llewellyn Jones speculates that one of the English gentlemen dressed in white trousers and blue jacket could be Colonel John Mordaunt, who appears in the more well-known painting by Johann Zoffany. This painting could be inspired from Zoffany’s work, it is difficult to overlook the similar hand gestures by Asaf ud-daula that one can find in either of the paintings. Ray was known to refer to an engraving of the Zoffany painting at the Victoria Memorial Hall. He perhaps realized the significance of using a cockfight sequence in the movie as a device for establishing contemporary Awadhi culture. However, the segment on cockfight in Shatranj ke Khilari involving commoners from the city, turned out to be very different than how the event was presented in the painting.

Asaf al-Daula (Nawab of Oudh) at a cock-fight with Europeans
Asaf al-Daula (Nawab of Oudh) at a cock-fight with Europeans. Lucknow, 1830-1835. British Library, Add Or 3118.

Interestingly, Ray’s notes suggest that he referred to just one painting featuring Nawab Wajid Ali Shah during his visit to the India Office Library. The painting depicting Nawab Wajid Ali Shah embracing the then Governor General of India, Lord Hardinge (1785-1856) was made by an anonymous Lucknow artist, when Hardinge was making a farewell tour of Kanpur and Lucknow before his retirement back to London, in 1848. (Add Or. 741) (Fig.6). The meeting between the two individuals took place on November 22, 1847, at the hall of the Chattar Manzil palace in Lucknow. This magnificent painting featuring multiple characters gave Ray a rough idea of how the interiors of the Awadhi palaces looked like in their heydays. The painting was also instructive on the details of costumes of the Indians as well as the Europeans. Ray perhaps picked up more from the painting than much needed details for his production team. There is a sequence almost at the end of film, where General Outram meets Wajid Ali Shah to formally inform him of the Company’s decision to take over his kingdom. At the beginning of the meeting, Wajid Ali Shah greets and embraces Outram. It is hard not to notice the striking similarity of this sequence with the painting.

Durbar scene showing Wajid 'Ali Shah (King of Oudh 1847-56) embracing the Governor-General, Lord Hardinge
Durbar scene showing Wajid 'Ali Shah (King of Oudh 1847-56) embracing the Governor-General, Lord Hardinge. Lucknow, c. 1847. British Library, Add Or 742.

Ray’s various correspondences in the pre-production phase of the film suggest that he was anxious about getting the particulars of costumes of different divisions of the East India Company’s army correct. His discussions with Jindal reveal that Ray’s efforts to find references for uniforms of the Company’s army at the Fort William in Calcutta or at the Barrackpore Cantonment were not too successful. Hence, he consulted the collections of the India Office Library and the Imperial War Museum during his brief visit to London. Ray’s entries in the notebook suggest he photographed three relevant paintings at the India Office Library. These paintings came from a single collection of ten paintings, made by a Cuttack artist around 1840.  The paintings portrayed Sepoys of the 30th (?) Madras regiment in full uniform (Add Or 3137), in light marching order (Add Or 3138) and heavy marching order (Add Or 3139). Ray also secured the assistance Andrew Mollo (1940- ), an expert on army uniforms, who had collaborated in films like Dr. Zhivago and Night of the Generals before. The costume design for the East India Company’s army in the film was eventually done on the basis of Mollo’s sketches.

Sepoy of the 30th (?) Regiment Madras Native Infantry in full dress
Sepoy of the 30th (?) Regiment Madras Native Infantry in full dress. By a Cuttack artist, c.1840 British Library, Add Or 3137.

Sepoy of the 30th (?) Regiment Madras Native Infantry in light marching order.
Sepoy of the 30th (?) Regiment Madras Native Infantry in light marching order. By a Cuttack artist, c.1840 British Library, Add Or 3138.

Sepoy of the 30th (?) Regiment Madras Native Infantry in heavy marching order
Sepoy of the 30th (?) Regiment Madras Native Infantry in heavy marching order. By a Cuttack artist, c.1840 British Library, Add Or 3139.

Shatranj ke Khilari despite generating some misgivings from certain quarters, remains one of the most faithful reconstructions of 19th Century India on the screen. Perhaps Satyajit Ray’s centenary marks an apt occasion to look back into the research that went into the film and also the film’s connection with the collections of the India Office Library.

 

[1] Andrew Robinson, Introduction in Suresh Jindal, My Adventures with Satyajit Ray: The Making of Shatranj ke Khilari, (New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2018)

[2] Ray was obviously referring to Abdul Haleem Sharar’s Guzastha Lucknow here. Originally published in Urdu in 1926, an English translation was published just at the moment Ray began working on Shatranj ke Khilari in 1975.

 

Further Reading:
Jindal, Suresh, My Adventures with Satyajit Ray: The Making of Shatranj ke Khilari, (New Delhi, 2017)

Jones, Rosie Llewellyn, The Last King in India: Wajid Ali Shah 1822-1887, (London: Hurst & Co, 2014)

Jones, Rosie Llewellyn, Portraits in Princely India 1700-1947, (Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2008)

 

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