Journals of William Clifford
by Anjana Basu
July 5 1877: The mosquitoes and the heat never fail to astound me. The natives assure me it will rain, but the days pass without a single cloud. Ten days have elapsed since I first set foot in the Bura Bari, as they term this vast mansion. It is sited a good three days’ hard riding from Calcutta, off the Grand Trunk Road. I am greatly astonished to encounter such splendour in such a quaint place. I would have expected it of the Baboos and the Hindu princes who abound in the metropolis, but in such a man as the zamindar Boobaneshwar Chowdoori, it is truly astounding.
He is of all men the most whimsical. Ungraceful by nature, he surrounds himself with gilt and velvet trappings in vast profusion. It amuses me to toy with the thought that after I have executed his commission I will pick up a stick of charcoal – not the brush and oils, for those dictate a certain formality on the user – and depict him in his true monstrousness, a man without any vestige of culture or decorum, prone to bouts of noisome afflatus after a particularly spicy meal and loud eructation. That would be a caricature worthy of Punch indeed! Boobaneswar speaks little or no English, unlike most of his peers. Our social interactions, therefore, are mercifully brief.
He receives me daily in his vast drawing room surrounded by the portraits of his forefathers, much in the manner of one of our beefy lords back home, and, while he holds court with his cringing ministers, lolling on an overstuffed divan, he expects me to delineate his likeness. This, I must confess, I am bound to do, not for love of his regal countenance, but for the golden guineas he has promised me – more than I have hitherto been offered by any patron. He even has a space reserved for the painting on his stucco wall – the last square that remains vacant. His descendants, I fear, will have to look elsewhere in the mansion, should they wish to immortalise themselves.
I have heard that he has two Begums whom he keeps hidden in the depths of his antarmahal*, or zenana. Once, early in the morning, it was my good fortune to spy a fair white hand with ivory and gold at the wrists, creeping out from behind the bamboo screens to scatter grain for the pigeons in the air. I can only guess at the fair face that matches that delicate hand.
The most important personage in the menage is none of these but an incre- dibly haughty being called Neelkanto who has condescended to me on occasion with a delicate mew. He resides in the temple in the courtyard and is accorded as much respect and affection as if he were the zamindar’s own son. And in this current state of affairs, he is no danger of being dethroned.
* Antarmahal: The inner, women’s quarters of a landowner’s house, equivalent to the harem or zenana. There the women of the family were kept secluded from the eyes of strange men behind the protection of screens and blinds. The custom was not originally a Hindu one, but evolved from Muslim practices during Moghul rule in Bengal.
July 6: The Day of the Chariot. Today I ventured out into the grounds and observed some of the native children dragging toy chariots made of brass, in imitation of their elders. Most of the servants have taken themselves to the fair where, I am told, songbirds, toys and plants are sold in great profusion. The image of Jagannath*, or the Lord of Heaven, is an amorphous one, black with stunted arms, which seems to bear some similarity to those of the lepers that abound in Oorissa, where’s the god’s main temple is sited.
Appetising odours from the nether regions informed me that the day had occasioned great activity in the kitchens as well, but those areas of the house, along with the zenana quarters,* are banned to me as a mlechch, or outsider from across the black waters.
As today is auspicious, today is also the day on which work commences on the armature of the goddess for the autumn festival.
I am no stranger to Doorgah Pooja -- indeed, no resident of Calcutta can be, as the festival is celebrated with great splendour throughout the city and some of our favoured lords are invited to witness the rites. The custom began with Lord Clive. After his defeat of Sooraj Ood Dowlah in 1757, on the advice of his wily munshi, Navakrishan Dev, he chose to give thanks for his victory at the feet of the goddess – something which I can only term a triumph of diplomacy over Christian faith. The baboos of Calcutta strive to outdo themselves in hospitality where their overlords are concerned. I have heard of Muslim nautch girls performing and beef and ham ordered from the first hotels of the city for the delectation of the sahibs.
However, it will be interesting to witness firsthand the preparation of the goddess’s image and the rituals surrounding it. The legend prevalent is that the goddess, daughter to the King of the Himalayas and his Queen, returns home after a domestic contretemps between herself and her husband. As any daughter returning home, the goddess is greeted with love, affection and pampering. The whole is, in fact, a mirror held up to life in the houses of the zamindars, where marriage is an alliance and daughters are sent far away to return on rare visits. The house throws itself with fervour into these rituals which are not restricted to Brahmins and priests, but draw in the whole community, including the potter, the confectioner and the flower seller.
*From this, I surmise, the word ‘juggernaut’ entered the English language, to signify a grave and ponderous fate; the word being taken from the devotion of Lord Jaganath’s devotees who sacrifice themselves blindly under the wheels of the God’s chariot.
* op cit. Antarmahal.
July 15: Truly, only my host and patron could have conceived so devious a means of winning the royal favour! Boobaneswar Chowdhoory has conceived a wild notion by which this year the goddess will be given the face of Her Majesty the Queen, Victoria Regina, most recent Empress of India. This is not out of any great devotion to her Majesty but rather an attachment to the favours that it is in her power to bestow. Boobaneswar covets the title of Rae Bahadoor, a meaningless frippery, approximating to our knighthoods, with no responsibility attached to it.
The estate manager, Tarachurn *, who has some English, has persuaded him that the Viceroy and Governor will be impressed by this evidence of the zamindar’s loyalty to the British Empire and will inform the Queen that the man should be rewarded. Whether he succeeds or fails, the notion is certainly an original one and worthy of some kind of reward. I fancy, how- ever, that the credit for invention belongs entirely to Tarachurn, a better man than his master.
For this reason, the shaping of the goddess’s armature has been delayed this year. They await the arrival of some special artisan who can undertake this curious commission.
*The names of these people never fail to fascinate me. Like the ancient Greeks whom they resemble in their intellect – though not, may I add, in their moral fibre - they take their names from the heroes and heroines of the ancient myths and from those of gods and goddesses.
Mahamaya, the Elder Begum, has the honour of bearing the name of the Mother Goddess, Doorgah incarnate.
Jasomati, the Second Begum, is named after the mother of the god Krishna.
Boobaneswar: Lord of the Universe, a pompous name indeed for a windbag of a man!
Tarachurn – an odd deviation, he is named after the feet of the goddess Kaalee.
The greatest of their heroes is the god King Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu. History attributes to him the origin of the great autumn festival – he sat down to summon the goddess in a great Yagya and beg her help in defeating the demon Ravana. His exploits are set down in the Ramayana and in a lyrical effusion called the Raghu Vansha, written by the medieval poet, Kalidasa, in Sanskrit lyrical verse. The history celebrates the noble deeds of godlike kings and heroes.
August 11: A young native from the northern part of the Bengal Presidency has taken up residence in the temple. He is, I am told, a sculptor rather than a mere artisan and is, like me, here on commission. His task, I fear, is more onerous than mine own, for he has been charged to give our Queen the form of the goddess. He sits in the courtyard with his eyes fixed on a likeness of her Majesty, while his hands knead clay into a fitting consistency.
The air is rife with speculation – will the goddess Doorga be garbed in a velvet gown like her Majesty, in which case will it be necessary for the durzee to stitch a gown with ten sleeves? Will she wear a sash with the Order of the Garter rather than be adorned with the traditional jewellery? For that matter will she be mounted on some strange beast that would constitute a marriage between the lion and the unicorn? Fantasy runs riot with my pen and my imagination.
The native’s name is Bridge Booshun and we manage to converse tolerably in kitchen Hindoostani. What fascinates me more than the prevailing chatter about attire is the dedication of the man. I came at first to study his work, but then found myself transfixed by the spectacle in front of me, a scene that I can only describe as that of some elemental communion between a vigorous male form and an inanimate female body. I can only compare it to something that I have experienced during my wanderings through the temples in Khajuraho, an interplay of form and emotion. I fear that many of our safe Sunday school teachers would misunderstand my involvement.
While being a native from the north, he hales from Krishnanagore in Calcutta where, he says, he is apprenticed to a master potter, Sreeram Paul. The clay art is about 250 years old in Krishnanagore, whether they have made it a village trade, fashioning likenesses of the Hindoo castes with remarkable facility. I am familiar with Mr Charles Archer’s* attempts to popularise the art of the clever modellers of Nuddea, which is very unlike the general run of art in this country, being faithful to the original lineaments and proportions of life.
* In 1851, Mr Archer, a civil servant, held an exhibition of the art of Krishnanagore in Hyde Park, to the great edification of Londoners. These clever models have provided apt souvenirs for those wishing to take their memories of India home.
August 31: There is a strange contretemps – the zamindar’s feline companion is nowhere to be found. He has been missing from his temple haunts of late and his bowl of milk has lain untouched – in this heat it will quite possibly curdle. One of the maids finally removed the bowl without setting out another. I found the occurrence so curious that I actually ventured to ask the odious Manager where Neelkanto might be. He shrugged it off as if it were a matter of no consequence and bustled around seeing that everything was as it should be in the courtyard.
Bridge Bhooshan’s task is almost over. The goddess’s form rises proudly in the temple, her hands raised in the air. He has commenced on the task of applying the paint, earth pigments which he has ground himself. First the base coat, in stark chalky white, then the colours themselves. Her bejewelled hands remind me forcefully of those delicate ones that I have seen on so many occasions emerging from behind the zenana screens. Like the owners of those hands, the face of the image is veiled from me. I am told that the priest will remove the veil on the sixth day of the Pooja, when the goddess is consecrated for worship.
Today the last brushstroke was applied to the canvas. I finally allowed my patron to view the work that I had withheld from him for so long. The zam- indar expressed himself delighted with his likeness, but there was about his approbation a certain reserve, as if his mind were preoccupied with other concerns.
Bridge Booshan’s work too is completed, and it is fortunate for him. The young man accosted me with a telegram the other day, in the course of our normal tete a tete. He asked me to read it to him. It was from his father, informing him that his wife is shortly to be brought to bed with Bridge Booshan’s first child – I hope for his sake that it is the son he so earnestly anticipates. Bridge Booshan was confident that he would be able to arrive in his village in time; however, he will have to delay his departure till after the unveiling of Her Majesty’s divine image.
I spent the morning in my room gathering my belongings before going down to the courtyard to bid Bridge Booshan farewell. He was loath to see me depart, however and ardently requested me to prolong my stay by two more days, when I could see his work revealed. It was his desire that I should see and judge the perfection of his creation. After due contemplation, I agreed. He and I have, as fellow artists, become intimate, despite our differences in language and medium. It will be interesting to see the unveiling, and I must confess to a certain curiosity as to whether I will be able to see the zamindar’s wives unveiled too on this occasion.
That year, I am told, they worshipped an urn instead of the Goddess. After the immersion of the Goddess, the Second Begum was burnt on a sandal- wood pyre with great pomp. It was said that she died of an incurable malady.
No one knew what became of the young sculptor.
(Anjana Basu's novel Curses in Ivory was published by HarperCollins India in January 2003. A second novel, The Black Tongue is under contract to Rupa. Ms Basu is also the author of The Agency Raga, a collection of short stories [Orient Longman], and her poems have been featured in an anthology published by Penguin India. Her work has appeared in Wolfhead Quarterly, Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)