In the previous article, I wrote about Collector Connolly, who was tragically murdered in 1855 by Moplah fanatics at the start of the Moslem revolts in Malabar, and I mentioned that 20 years later another famous man came to Calicut, and that it was another perumazhakalam, another monsoon when the rain came down in huge torrents. This famous writer and artist lived for some days at the Malabar Club (today’s Beach hotel premises). He looked at the sea, he sipped gin tonics, he read the Punch, he observed the populace streaming by, he wandered around Mananchira and rode bullock carts and he sketched and he wrote about them and the crows – ‘Ye crows of Malabar, What a cussed bore you are’ was a famous utterance. This person who spent that sojourn in Calicut was none other than Edward Lear.
That itself is a daunting thought. A person who lived a troubled life with many maladies, he turned out into a great artist and later, a writer of wild thoughts that others termed nonsense. His illustrations are fascinating and from his travels, he created a menagerie of sketches that are very interesting to the uninitiated. His own self portrait in nonsense reads thus
He reads but he cannot speak Spanish,
He cannot abide ginger-beer;
Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,
How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!
Before he ventured into nonsense, Lear had decided to become a landscape painter. SARAMCO article explains why he chose to travel.
Lear, of course, was an artist of repute during his lifetime - he began to draw and paint professionally at age 16 in 1828 - and as an ornithological draftsman he had few peers. But, by 1836, he found his eyesight too poor to continue detailed animal sketching and set off on a nearly never-ending journey to become what he later called a "landskip" artist. Here, he found at least initial success: Queen Victoria liked his "Illustrated Excursions in Italy," published in 1846, so well that she commissioned him to teach her drawing.
All that and the miserable weather of England drove him out of the British Isles to start the next phase of his life as a wanderer. This was in 1837.
It was 1871 by now; Lear had settled in St Remo and had already published several works of nonsense. Two things drew him to India, one the lady named Evelyn Baring, who was the secretary of the Viceroy Northbrook (Baring herself was the cousin of the previous Viceroy Thomas Baring) and the other Northbrook’s invitation. Anyway Northbrook invited Lear at his expense to tour India and make sketches, but Lear was in a quandary, for he had just settled down in warm St Remo and was approaching 60 years of age. After some thought, he picked up a few painting commissions and set out in 1872 to India. On the way he got stuck in Cairo as berths to India were not easily available. He had to wait many months. Lear was in a rage fearing that his Indian dreams would fade away and went back to St Remo. But he made fresh plans amidst the gloomy news that the lady he loved namely Augusta Bethall had married another, and finally set out for India in Oct 1873.
Himachal, Simla, Poona, Allahabad, Madras, Bangalore, Ooty etc followed in rapid succession but the one thing he hated was the rains. The monsoon was to follow him in Malabar, making his servant Girogio exclaim ‘Please sir, how many monsoons are there in India?’ Lear hated the pomp and splendor of Calcutta, but loved the Dak bungalows which he frequented enroute, for he never wanted to be in the care of a formal host, always picking up bits of Hindi on the way which were to pepper his nonsense limericks.
He was surprised by India, for example the visit to a school in Calicut were the entire syllabus was British, wondering if the system was justified. Nevertheless, even though the trip was exhausting and gave him a back ache, a bad throat and a boil, he wanted to return to India in 1876, but Northbrook’s resignation put an end to those thoughts. Let us look at some entries in his diaries during hi sojourn in Malabar to get a fair idea of his thoughts, to see into the Calicut of the late 19th century and to feel the place in his own words.
My next step was to the Malabar Coast, which greatly delighted me, as till I saw that part of the world I had no clear idea of tropical vegetation. It was hot though! But I got some capital remembrances of the grand river scenery. Then by sea I went along the Coast to Colombo, and to Galle; but after that, and while at Kandy, poor George's dysentery made everything else a blank, and when he grew better, an event little to be expected at one time, I got him away on December 12, the very day but happily unknown to him, when his poor wife died at Corfu. As soon as George got quite well again, I set out for Travancore and Madura, intending to work my way up by degrees to Anagoonda and Beijapore ; but as I wrote before, I sprained my back, and had to return to Bombay on January 3rd. 1875, and so much for my Indian history.
I did not enjoy Ceylon: the climate is damp which I hate: it is always more or less wet, and though the vegetation is lovely, yet it is not more so than that of Malabar, where the general scenery is finer. Ceylon makes people who arrive there from England, scream (in delight- I suppose); but then I didn't come from England, and so was not astonished at all, nor did I find any interest in the place as compared with India.
And so he reached Calicut in 1874 just as the Monsoon had started. Regretful that the rain would not allow him to sketch, he relaxed at the Malabar club and marveled at the lovely roads and lanes. He wrote quite a bit about Calicut and polished it off with the limerick on the crows.
It is Oct the 16th and the old man Lear is on the way by train to Malabar. He is eager to see the bare breasted women on Malabar and is craning his neck out in search (These are Lear’s real thoughts as accounted in his diary, not my imagination). Lear says
Plain bare; good hill lines. Approach mountains; very varied and fine forms, but not clear enough to get any idea of in pencil. For the last ten miles, rice aboundeth,and palms both coco and palmyra, and there is a river with sandy banks, and low hills, and distant blue mountains, all beautiful. Train passes; 3rd class all open, plantain-leaf umbrellas in the train-boxes; in the fields they look like large mushrooms. My! behold for the first time the naked breasted females of Malabar! Beypore: the upper room of the railway hotel overlooks the sea, the sight of which is pleasant; calm, all but breakers about some bar or rocks. 1.55, off in boat; cross river, very beautiful; carried on shore by coolies. Wonderful beauty of villages and lanes, and very surprising undressed females! It was, I think, past 4 when, at the end of the grandest tree-bordered roads I ever saw, we reached Calicut station.
Roads of such redundant beauty one could hardly dream of! India, Indianissimo! Every foot was a picture, and the naked-breasted women wonderful (and in the case of the old ones by no means pleasant) to see! And men with such hats! Altogether, a new world, my masters! Drove to the travellers' bungalow, but found it very bad form, no butler, low as to position, dirty, damp; and the only decent-sized room tenanted by an old planter of by no means prepossessing appearance, who advised me to go to the club. So I drove thither. It is close by the seaside; boats and coconuts ad lib. Some little difficulty ensured on account of my not being a member, and I had to shew letters, etc.; when two or three goodnatured members allowed me to take two rooms.
Let us start with the Malabar Club in Calicut where Lear stayed.
Malabar British club - The French have a loge in Calicut The loge consists of six acres on the sea-shore about half a mile north of the Calicut light-house, and adjoins the old district jail site. The exact facts connected with the foundation of the French factory are involved in doubt. Beyond the fact that the landed property and houses are untaxed, there is nothing to distinguish the loge from the rest of Calicut. “It is doubtful what rights the French Government has in it.” Logan on one occasion, said. The Malabar British Club, on the Beach Road, in Calicut, was established in 1864, and it comprised about 200 members, inclusive of married men whose wives are eligible for membership. Today it is the premises of the beach hotel. Beach-facing rooms had bathtubs and secluded verandas; all the rooms are tastefully furnished and had plenty of character.
Lear was accompanied by his Man Friday and Suliot man servant Giorgio Kokali (CACALI) an Albanian by birth. He joined the Corfu household of Lear in 1856 and remained with Lear until 1885 and Lear sometime called him by his Greek name, "Yorky", sometimes by the English version, George, but finally settled on the Italian name in his diaries. He was invaluable companion in Lear’s travels and was of course a good cook. For thirty years his only constant companion was this Albanian servant, to whom Lear showed extraordinary kindness and loyalty.
It started to rain and both Lear and Giorgio were flustered by it, wondering how many monsoons India had. Lear remarked that Giorgio was a bit testy as he had not yet received his mail in Calicut upon arrival.
It rained throughout the night and the next day both of them had their hair cut. Now can you imagine the scene, the barber coming to the club and cutting their hair the old fashioned way? But the third day was clear and Lear sat at the beach, the very same beach we have all frequented and painted. After that he walked around town remarking thus - Inconceivable beauty of roads and lanes and general landscape here! Drew scraps as well as I could, and came round by the long bazaar street-not very interesting. The naked women are mostly old and horridly disgusting, and I am disappointed in seeing so few young ones.
Feroke was still called Ferukabad in those days and many rich Merchants still lived there. Lear met one Mr Andrew at Feroke and they drove around (in a pony chaise or horse carts but with a buffalo) and planned some boating. Lear was happy to be out but wanted to get back soon to
He completes the day thus - I imagine the climate of this South west coast is extraordinarily depressing and all say it is so. Well, I guess the British who are upset with the constant drizzle and grey weather in Britain think so, we in Malabar love the rains, except for the fact that clothes do not dry out quickly. What a wonderful queer life these out-post Indian Anglos lead! The damp, hot climate, and the dull, leaden sky worry me not a little; and at times I wish I were away most heartily; but in this India one is always being screwed and fixed up in a hole said Lear.
The days went by and from Lear's diary, we glean about daily life in Calicut – about things we do not see any longer, like the palmy roads, though the curiosity of the people and their desire to mill around any event continues to this day
Afterwards, I walked along the wonderful palmy roads, and drew as well as I could, but it is almost impossible to do anything owing to the curiosity of the people and their thronging about one; also from the constant movement of ox-carts, etc., and from the confusion of the eye and mind produced by the amazing vegetation on all sides. I wrote this at 9 p.m., sitting in drawers only, heat great.
The plentitude of palmery here is overwhelming! Those deep grey-green misty hollows full of endless vistas and series of palm leaves and stems! Came Mr. Barrow, Superintendent of Schools, who took me and Giorgio to see the Traveller's Friend-a wonderful sort of tree; a kind of plantain, but growing queerly enough in a single fan, or peacock's tail out of one stem only -26 leaves in all. An incision being made between the stalks of the leaves, out gushes a regular burst of water, from a tumbler of which, what I tasted was assuredly pure, and good in flavour, though, of course, I don't know what its qualities were. Altogether, the tree seemed alquanto miraculous. This tree incidentally is the water plantain a native of Madagascar & Malaysia..
It is all but impossible to give any idea of these beautiful Malabar lanes, since their chief beauty consists of what cannot be readily imitated; to wit, endless detail of infinitely varied vegetation, and constantly changing variety of moving figure panoramic effect. The colour, too, of these scenes; the deep and vivid green, the red soil roads, and the brilliant white and scarlet dresses of the people, make all Malabar drawing a painful riddle. I found it too difficult to draw standing up in the middle of hot road, with crowds of people around. These Malabar folk stick like burrs or flies; you can't get rid of them, and on the 'one fool makes many' principle, you find yourself in a multitude, What can one do against the eternal rain? At this moment it is raining as if it had never rained before-cats and dogs.
Another day - We drove to a spot of rocks and site of an old Tippoo-destroved temple, but not a drawable scene. Thence to Barracks hill where I was greatly surprised by the beautiful view, so unexpected! Lines and lines of majestic mountains sloping to graceful hills, and raging away into mist, this was the remote distance, Then, endless undulations of wood and down; and nearer, a wonderful flat all of coco-tree tops, apparently endless, their bright and dark spottiness giving a degree texture quite unknown to any other palm. I drew twice, but hurriedly; the fact of people, however good natured, waiting, destroys my soul. Anyhow, this Malabar River seems to me unique as a lovely landscape.
Went with Barrow to the school (I assume this was the provincial native school), which seemed to me mighty strange in some respects. Some 300 scholars in all; heard upper class read Henry V, and they were examined in Ivanhoe. Is there, or is there not time thrown away in this sort of learning? I am not able to perceive the value of this kind of education for Indians. But then later he was to hear English fluently spoken by a Brahmin in Tellicherry which amazed him.
He spent 10 days in Calicut and decided to move on to Tellichery. The question was whether to boat it from Beypore or use a Bullock cart. Lear chose the latter.
Went in a bullock-bandy to the Beypore backwater, the picturesqueness of all the scenery about which no pen can give the least idea. Here, after walks along the road, I inspected one of the usual passenger boats, a long caique or canoe, the whole affairs so queer and rollypolly that I decided not to go in that, but in a bullock cart, to Tellicherry. I never certainly could draw at all in that machine, nor should I like to risk eight hours (and some say it may be fourteen) in such a boat. Heat always great here, stuffy, puffy, muffy.
Lots of crow-pheasants all about, as makes a pheasantish noise. Went out with Giorgio, but to little purpose, except that we saw two Singalese men, beings never beheld by us hitherto. The roads everywhere are utterly picturesque, chiefly with banyan trees; very little of the distance eastward is visible, and that little clouded. The people about are wonderfully picturesque; some of the women wear no end of white bone ornaments and necklaces. We tried all four streets of the bazaars, but all were zitzo: pepper the principal object for sale. Then I sate quietly finishing a drawing, till it was time to wash in the deep and only basin this Malabar hospitium possesses. The "Maty" brought the tin soup, good in its way, but I don't like tin soups. After this, only curry and rice happened, tolerable and far better than I expected. Walk with a half-caste boy through Badagara village to the sea. First part of the walk picturesque, all the rest new, ugly, brick and thatch buildings, several being Moplah (Malabar-Mohammedan) churches.
Road-side housestop-policeman. I put on my hat, exhibits Tellicherry letters, and go on. Road now very hilly, and less picturesque, and continuously up and down, till near the sea were breaks of palms, and sand, and then-fish-O, fish ! burned or cured in sand and most horribly stinking! Next, long bazaars, quite surprising to me in these remote Malabar places, for their length and populous importance.
Now we are about to anchor opposite the ancient home of Calicut. Got off with Giorgio, and in less that three quarters of an hour reached the beach, and found the Club butler there. Before 11, was fixed in the same two rooms as of old.
How pretty and orderly all this part of Calicut looks! Palms, certainly not so fine as those in Ceylon, yet Malabar road and lane scenery is exquisite! Bought some envelopes, and looked at some Flannels, etc., for clothes. Gray tweed 6 Rs./I2 a yard-four yards for me; 4 Rs./8 making up; lining and buttons 2 Rs.: three days. Blue flannel, 2 Rs./I2, requires eight yards for me. Grey cashmere, I Rs/I4 a yard; five yards required. Plum-coloured flannel 3 Rs./8 per yard; requires five. Later, got my 1,000 Rs. order changed.
How beautiful are the plantains here. Surely no leaf is lovelier! Did not sleep well; snakily-cockroachiously-dream-dozily. Went with Giorgio to the Basle Mission; bought a book about Coorg, and ordered two suits of clothes. Giorgio bore the walk well, walking slowly. I wrote and read, and enjoyed the bright sun and broad shadows and lovely air. I remember I disliked many things in Malabar on my first visit here; but now, after Ceylon, Malabar seems elysium. The crows here are a bore 1walked with Giorgio along the shore; great fishing villages and no end of lovely nets, anti-sparrowy. Beautiful colour, calm sea and bright sunset, all more or less qualified by the odour of stinking fish. The tailor, Francis Pereira, brings two suits of clothes made up, the cost of both 45 Rs. Giorgio brought my folio: he is evidently much better today, yet I am not clear thought not to put aside all my own plans for the greater chance or certainty of benefiting his health by going away north. The Beypore road is undoubtedly one of the model wonders of beauty in this world; nothing can be lovelier than that river scene with the far hills.
As he leaves he says - My back is so bad I am hardly able to go downstairs. I am by no means well, and have caught colds; lumbago by the land wind last night, towards which my cabin window was open. Nevertheless, I must needs be thankful, and greatly so, that is ends as it does, and that I have had such a year of active, constant pleasure with so little suffering.I thought some of the river scenery about Calicut & Mahee more lovely than any I had before imagined, the sea watery blue.
Gone are those scenes, the lovely Beypore road, the palm line roads, the various lane sof Calicut. Gone is Hirjees and the mission post, Gone are the schools, but the BEM mission shop is still around, though they do not sell flannels by the yard but sells book instead. The tailor would charge a thousand to stitch a suit if indeed he knew how to, doubtful in the Calicut of today. I have never seen the sea watery blue myself, but times have changed.
There are so many interesting observations in the lines and between the lines, as you come across the Indian Portuguese tailor, the many beautiful flowers and plants that you do not see any longer, the long bazaars he writes about selling pepper, the hills have been demolished or flattened and hill views but a memory from these words.
The hats of Malabar are hardly seen, one has to go to NIT (National Institite of technology and perhaps IIM) to see them during monsoon. We students made it popular once again in the late 70’s. They are the palm leaf umbrellas, not hats as Lear puts it. The bare breasted females are not to be seen anymore, for by the early 20th century (actually the covering of the bosom started with Tipu’s rule late into the 18th century) it was outlawed, though the lowest of castes continued to be so. But I think it changed a bit for Lear to have seen so many (In our times, we had to go to Queens to see the cabaret dancer flouting her abundant wares to band music!). The crows are still around, helping keep the decibel level high and the area clean, and people hardly bother about them, remembering them though on the days their ancestors are commemorated during the ‘shardham -Bali’ and the crow is the most wanted object to eat the offerings. The rains continue with regularity as I mentioned before, for a Calicut without a monsoon would be another place. The many delightful lanes with laterite walls can still be seen if you go deep into Calicut, perhaps in the Chalappuram area, the coconut trees are still a plenty, but it won’t be long before the buildings and apartments cut them up for security of other reasons. There are no more Maty’s or soup tins, nor do people have Man Friday’s like Giorgio. Ferukabad is no longer the capital of Malabar as Tipu wanted it. It is no longer the summer isle of Eden as Lear put it, but is a great place, nonetheless.
Calicut was many things to many travelers, delightful, bustling, quiet, war torn, rainy, sleepy and so on and much written about. For a brief period it even had another country’s flag hoisted over the Zamorin’s palace in Kottapuram near Mananchira. That interesting tale will follow in the next article.
At the end of it all, Lear went back to his glum and dreary England and wrote more limericks and peppered them with the many Indian words that have since crept into English dictionary. But he did not forget Calicut.
The cummerbund poem – A sample of Lear’s nonsense
She sate upon her Dobie,
To watch the Evening Star,
And all the Punkahs as they passed,
Cried, 'My! how fair you are!'
Around her bower, with quivering leaves,
The tall Kamsamahs grew,
And Kitmutgars in wild festoons
Hung down from Tchokis blue.
Below her home the river rolled
With soft melodious sound,
Where golden-finned Chuprassies swam,
In myriads circling round.
Above, on talles trees remote
Green Ayahs perched alone,
And all night long the Mussak moan'd
Its melancholy tone.
And where the purple Nullahs threw
Their branches far and wide,--
And silvery Goreewallahs flew
In silence, side by side,--
The little Bheesties' twittering cry
Rose on the fragrant air,
And oft the angry Jampan howled
Deep in his hateful lair.
She sate upon her Dobie,--
She heard the Nimmak hum,--
When all at once a cry arose,--
'The Cummerbund is come!'
In vain she fled: -- with open jaws
The angry monster followed,
And so, (before assistance came,)
That Lady Fair was swallowed.
They sought in vain for even a bone
Respectfully to bury,--
They said, -- 'Hers was a dreadful fate!'
(And Echo answered 'Very.')
They nailed her Dobie to the wall,
Where last her form was seen,
And underneath they wrote these words,
In yellow, blue, and green:--
Beware, ye Fair! Ye Fair, beware!
Nor sit out late at night,--
Lest horrid Cummerbunds should come,
And swallow you outright.
Dobie - Washerman
Cummerbund – Waist belt
Punkah - Fan
Kumsamah - Butler
Kitmutgars – Waiter at table
Tchokis – Police station
Chaprasis – Office messenger
Mussak – Water skin
Nullahs - Stream
Goreewallas – Horse groom (Gorawallah)
Bheesties – Water carrier
Jampan – Sedan chair
Nimmak - Salt
Listen to it here
How did Lear get his Indian commissions – The Louisiana state University exhibitions explains
British landscape artists like Edward Lear, Sir Charles D'oyly, William and Thomas Daniell were attracted to India to create vivid images that introduced Europeans to the physical shape - both natural and cultural - of the great subcontinent. Indeed, India became ingrained in British consciousness - as an image, as a place where friends or family members lived, as a symbol of British power. Because they wanted souvenir images of the India they knew, Britons in India began to patronize Indian artists who could provide them. Thus there arose the "Company School" of miniature painting, so called because the pictures were originally produced for employees of the East India Company. Though they drew upon a long tradition of miniature painting in India, the painters adapted their style for European consumption. The subtleties of the earlier traditions were sacrificed to produce fairly simple illustrations of a limited range of Indian life which the British encountered.
Edward Lears Indian Journal – Ray Murphy
Later letters of Edward Lear to Chichester Fortescue By Edward Lear
From www – thanks to respective posters.