That Man Stuart

Sometimes you wonder, when you see or recall Mandakini under the waterfall in that seductive scene from Ram Teri Ganga Maili or the many other wet sari scenes in Bollywood and other Desi movies - how on earth the very idea came about. The girl in the waterfall or the girl coming out of the pond has been used for ages now as a scene to sell soaps and what not. Well, it must have been in the director’s mind or it may have just happened over the course of time since Forbes first wrote about the Malabar woman in the pond, but there was one person who wrote about the virtues of all this centuries ago. This is about that colorful Irishman who lived in Calcutta in the 18th century and decided that life is not all confined to what was taught at the Blighty.

Major-General Charles Stuart (circa 1758 - 1828) was an officer in the British Army in India and is well known for being one of the few British officers to embrace Hindu culture while stationed in India. In history books he has been titled a mild mannered, kind and benevolent colonel, with a delicate health, but from his obituary and Fisch’s study, it is clear he was promoted to Major General by 1814, commanding regiments of the native infantry. Stuart in the course of his stay adopted several Indian customs, including chewing pan and bathing in the Ganges at Calcutta every morning, as well as amassing a collection of deities and Indian clothes. He encouraged European ladies in India to adopt the sari and allowed Indian sepoys to wear tikha’s and full moustaches while on parade. But interestingly he lived in both worlds, living not only an Indian life (clothes, shoes, spittoons, hookahs) but also making sure that he did not lose the British tastes (sugar tongs, billiard cues, camping tables, map cases, shikar equipment and so on…, travelling in a buggy with his bibi and children’s carriages in tow according to Dalrymple, though Fisch believes he never had an Indian wife & children for he never left anything to such beneficiaries even though he left money for his Indian servants).

Charles must have been exercising not only his physique, but also his mind as he walked daily from his house in Woods street to the banks or bathing Ghats of the Ganges planning the words and sentences of his forthcoming book ‘Vindication of the Hindoos’. Hastings had started the trend, for he had a great respect for the ancient scripture of Hinduism and set the British position on governance as one of looking back to the earliest precedents possible. But Charles Stuart ‘went native’ as the British were to coin a phrase for such events. He was from then on known as Pundit Stuart or General Pundit, the odd fish with an itch, the funny one who earnestly believed that European women had no hope of competing with the beauty of Indian women, often comparing their pallid & sickly hue in comparison to the healthy copper tone on an Indian woman’s face.

Charles was then to suggest that memsahibs throw away their whalebone and iron busks in favor of the sari ‘that so liberally displayed those charms that these bounty of heaven hath bestowed’. He exhorted them to bathe in the sari and emerge from the waters with the drapery clinging to their bodies. He even stated after witnessing the ‘kuli scene’ often at the Ganges Ghats – ‘had I despotic power, our fair ones should soon follow the example being fully persuaded - it would eminently contribute to keep the bridal torch for ever in a blaze’. Interesting man indeed!

As can be imagined, he created a stir in the British circles; all dressed up like a local, once even being refused entry at dusk by a sentry who did not recognize him (CR Jan-Jun 1847). But the, let us get back to the busk.

Stuart and the Busk

First an introduction to the busk (very different from busking which is another act altogether). Well, western women strapped themselves into a busk in those days in order to hold their bellies in, project their breasts out and allow their dresses to balloon grandly up and over towards the floor (remember Scarlett O Hara in ‘Gone with the wind’?). A corset busk therefore consists of two long pieces of steel, one with steel knobs and the other one steel loops/eyes slipped down the front. Stuart hated it.

Stuart published many letters in 1800/1801extolling the virtues of "elegant, simple, sensible, and sensual" Indian saris and provided grand reasoning. Some of the reasons he cited for European women to give up iron busks are:

Firstly wearing iron busks makes women highly susceptible to lighting strikes (exhorting them with sentences such as "This is no laughing matter ladies for I am absolutely serious"). Secondly by discarding iron busks from their wardrobes, European women would immensely enhance the supply of iron in Bengal for farmers who desperately need new wagon wheels.

Well, I do not think the memsahibs listened to him then for these were relatively lame arguments, but then again remember that they were aimed at the average intellect of the memsahib population in Calcutta then.

He concluded aptly - "I shall, perhaps, be called an impudent fellow for recommending to their [the European ladies'] imitation of a dress they deem so indecent: but, indecency is a term whose bounds are merely relative; and, influenced by custom, its degrees insensibly give way, till it no longer assumes the name”.

Stuart & Hinduism

In his book Vindication of the Hindoos (1808), he criticized the work of European missionaries in India, claiming that: "Hinduism little needs the meliorating hand of Christianity to render its votaries a sufficiently correct and moral people for all the useful purposes of a civilized society". Wherever I look around me, in the vast ocean of Hindu mythology, I discover Piety....Morality...and as far as I can rely on my judgment, it appears the most complete and ample system of Moral Allegory that the world has ever produced." Stuart warns of the dangers of the "obnoxious" missionaries and of attempts to convert Indians to Christianity, a process he describes as "impolitic, inexpedient, dangerous, unwise and insane." He asks "If their religion is insulted what confidence can we repose in the fidelity of our Hindu soldiers?" presaging, it is said, some of the causes of the Mutiny of 1857.

"Hindoo" Stuart firmly believed he had become a Hindu (though it was technically impossible to convert to Hinduism at that time) and acted like one, to the astonishment of at least one memsahib recently arrived from England: "There was here an Englishman, born and educated in a Christian land," wrote Elizabeth Fenton in her journal, "who has become the wretched and degraded partaker of this heathen worship, a General S - who has for some years adopted the habits and religion, if religion it be named, of these people; and he is generally believed to be in a sane mind."

Till his death he was one of the bitterest opponents of the missionaries of his day. He was also aghast at the false reporting and missionary rhetoric of his times about uncommon rituals like sati and human sacrifices, wrong attribution of idols and their purpose (for example it was even reported then that the Shiva-linga was used by Brahmin women to deflower themselves) which was total falsehood and news blown out of proportion (Cox Pg 128).

His life
Stuart started off as a cadet in the Bengal army in 1777 and rose through to become a general by 1814 without any battle experience, but at the same time without any ‘connections’. He was certainly considered an eccentric, constructing a temple in Sagar Island, acquiring an Indian bibi (I am not certain of this) and being formally certified as ‘gone native’. In 1798 he wrote his first article about military clothing and professed the use of Indian clothing and articles in India, as they are convenient and appropriate and states by attacking European prejudices: "We are very ready to condemn the prejudices of this people [the Indians], and their blind attachment to ancient customs; but, I wish we would examine ourselves, and see whether our superior lights of reason leave us altogether inexcusable. . . . Perhaps, we have too long persisted in many inconvenient and unbecoming modes, because they are European not reflecting, how naturally manners change with climes, or that modes and customs, however arbitrary, should ever give way, when good sense submitteth better to the operation of our judgment". He also writes extensively about the treatment of an Indian soldier and the aspect of discipline, and here is where it becomes amply clear that this man had studied the Indian psyche in great detail, on matters of pride, position, custom and tradition.

But though he admitted to be anti-Christian, he stated that he had not converted to Hinduism, for he would have had to leave the army as well. He later built up a huge collection of idols and statues, some rare and old, and of high artistic merit. His method of collection was not altogether honorable; for some rumors of taking them away at night or by force have been mentioned. Later he turned his home at Chowringhee into a museum employing two local Brahmins to usher visitors and solicit donations. Upon his death, several of these were interred into the tomb. Most of his collection went to England after his death and were eventually auctioned off by Christies. Some went to the British museum and some to private hands for a pittance.

Quoting Dalrymple - Stuart was not just an admirer of the Indian religions, he was also an enthusiastic devotee of Indian fashions, and in the early years of the 19th century he wrote a series of improbable articles in the Calcutta Telegraph in which he tried to persuade the European women of Calcutta to adopt the sari on the grounds that it was so much more attractive than contemporary European fashions. Perhaps inevitably, the articles did not impress the Calcutta memsahibs, who wrote a series of angry letters to the editor denouncing Stuart as "an immoral libertine" with "enervated Oriental ideas". Later Stuart got into more serious trouble when he encouraged his seypoys to appear on parade with their brightly painted caste marks and full moustaches. The issue was taken up as high as the Commander in Chief who criticized Stuart for allowing his men to effect a "preposterous overgrowth of facial hair of Cheek Moustaches and immoderately large whiskers" which, he maintained, undermined discipline and multiplied the religious prejudices of the seypoys, "already numerous enough and sufficiently embarrassing to the Publick service." (For allowing natives to grow moustaches & wear tikha’s Stuart was suspended in 1813, but strangely promoted in 1814!!)

His house was filled with furniture, idols (over 180) and books (several thousand). The sale of all of them after death fetched his heirs less than the Rs30,000 insurance. Today my guess is that they would have fetched in excess of Rs30 crores!!

Stuart died on 31 March 1828, aged 70 and is buried at the South Park Street cemetery in Calcutta, a Christian cemetery, although the grave takes the form of a Hindu temple and Stuart is buried with a number of idols. Even his burial has an interesting story attached to it. The British would not allow a cremation as Stuart wanted since he was a Colonial officer in the British army, but allowed for the tomb to be constructed like a temple.

His collection of sculptures forms the basis of the British Museum's Oriental Collection.

A solitary vindicator of Hindus – Jorg Fisch
The Search for the Buddha: The Men Who Discovered India's Lost Religion-Charles Allen (Pgs 55, 56)
Lives of Indian Images - Richard H. Davis
White Mughals: love and betrayal in eighteenth-century India -William Dalrymple
The British missionary enterprise since 1700 - Jeffrey Cox
The history of medieval Vaishnavism in Orissa -Prabhat Mukherjee ( Pages 32,33)

Pics – Hindu Stuart’s tomb – Hceebee


Stuarts story is very interesting.I presume there were very many such people of British Origin who got afflicted with our culture. This has happened in the ancient past as well.
Maddy said…
thanks PNS - he was one of the first and the one who raised all the eyebrows saysingw hat he thought was right
Happy Kitten said…
And now the British can't do without our curries I read... interesting guy this Stuart and I am sure there were many more who had the same attitude once they got off their high horses..

as for the Sari, which other attire can make a woman more appealing? nd like the lungi which is most suitable for the climate back home, even the sari allows a lot of air circulation..

think the Corset was of the Victorian era? all prim and proper.... but what a nightmare for those who had to wear it...
Maddy said…
Thanks HK..

The sari is a great pice of attire, without doubt. I think the lungi came from Burma or possibly with the Malaysian tea estate workers who were coming home for vacation.

Yup the busk & the corset era sort of tapered off after the Victorian times
valerie said…
I am having some difficulties to find a copy of C. Stuart's book - the vindication of the Hindoos - have you seen it sold anywhere?
Maddy said…
hi Valerie
It was available in libraries, let me see if it is available on line, will revert
thanks for visiting
Kuldip D Gandhi said…
Interesting Story
Maddy said…
Thanks Kuldip
appreciate your comment
john r redmond said…
He is a cousin in our ma's family tree. His father Thomas Smyth, twice mayor and many years MP of Limericks City, Irland was brother of our ancestor.
We have just published a small book about his great niece Juliana Stuart King called "Letters from Leigh". She was very proud of her Stuart name and handed it down to her children. Interestingly she was married to a Rector and Canon who was brother of Bishop King of Lincoln. Both of these men were High Church proponents of the Oxford Movement or Anglo Catholicism in the Church of England. We have researched the Stuart family tree and they are a very interesting family.