Maddy's Ramblings

Nov 5, 2018

November 05, 2018

Diwali, Bali and Onam

Diwali, Bali and Onam

Their esoteric connections

Diwali is around the corner. But what is it really about? Which legend started the celebration? Why is it that Malayalis do not celebrate Diwali? What are the stories associated with this grand festival? How did the stories evolve? So many questions, I guess…but if you start at the very beginning, you can make some sense of it all. Let’s try.

Navarathri poojas had been underway in most parts of India, including Kerala. Out there in Pallavur, the seven day festival has just concluded, the furious drum beats have subsided to the sporadic taps during the sheeveli, Sridharan has perhaps settled into his well-earned vacation (nowadays he is a busy man, with a yearly sojourn to America conducting, teaching and performing with the Chenda in USA) and making sure his understudy’s were hard at work practicing on their own. The 10 day festivities after nine nights will culminate with Dussera and the next celebration to follow (some 21 days later) is the festival of lights or Deepavali (shortened or anglicized to Diwali) when chirags arrayed all around the house will be filled with oil, and the wicks lit by the children of the family. Sweets will be eaten, games will be played, bright dresses will be worn, songs will be sung, firecrackers will be burst and gods will be venerated. Very popular, Diwali is by now recognized as some kind of a national festival of India. Usually considered a joyous harvest festival, and a celebration of the triumph of good over evil, it is most commonly linked in the North of India with the return of the victorious Rama from Lanka, having defeated Ravana and rescued his beloved Sita.

But eons ago, it had nothing to do with Ramayana or Durga or such well accepted legends followed today. And to check it out one has to go way back, to the most original verses of Rig Veda which can variously be dated to as early as 2000BC or more commonly to 1500BC, well before the advent of Mahabharata, Ramayana and so on, which are relatively modern epics with many new gods and characters. Like everything else, as time elapsed, a number of new concepts merged with the practices of the ancient to create what we consider as Hinduism today. Brahmanism, Vaishnavism and Saivism made their impact and the advent of each resulted in insertion of bits and pieces to the epics and works we peruse today. This complex process took over 3,000 years and it is virtually difficult to trace out the details, a task left to such researchers specializing in theology. An orally passed on set of verses lost their sync (as the ancient version spoken Sanskrit used for these verses gave way to new languages, new script and new words and phrases) and was to some extent modified over time by changing conditions, was committed to text down sometime in the 3rd or 4th Century AD and since then repeatedly commented upon and analyzed.

A number of academics (during British rule) doing their studies on these puranas in India did mess things up a bit with their western concepts intruding into the analysis of something they found very difficult to comprehend, leaving behind inadequate translations which have lost some of the original meaning during what was otherwise painstaking work. Later researchers were either nationalistic or were guided primarily by current religious notions when reworking on these scriptures. But that is not what we started out to discuss, so let me not digress and let us get back to unraveling something of a mystery.

From various sources such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhavishya Purana we can gather that in the initial accounts where Indra was the main god, Bali was a great king, much revered. Indra is termed as Vasava in those pages. Bali is a wise sage of unwavering intellect and a teacher, a model man who had attained his goals according to Bhishma, was one who remained serene and not sad and was one who understood reality.

Brahma advises Vasava who was setting out in search of Bali - He remains unseen by us, like the sun that has set. He brightens all the directions. He faithfully sends the rains in due season. That Bali ... He is the Wind, He is the Ocean, He is the Sun, He is the Moon, He is the Fire giving warmth to all creatures. He is the Earth. That is Bali ...

Later on, a serious dialog takes place between the two and it is said that the gist of some of those gets replicated later in the Bhagavad Gita too. Indra states to Bali when they meet: You have understood the reality of existence. You are indeed a wise man, full of wisdom and penance. You see the meaning of the present moment as clearly as you would see a gooseberry in your hand. You have understood thoroughly the working of time. You have mastered all the sciences. You have full control over yourself and thus winning the admiration of all discerning people. By your intellect you have penetrated [the mystery of] this whole universe. Though you move about everywhere you remain free from everything, not getting attached to anything. The lower instincts rajas and tamas do not soil you as you have fully disciplined your senses. You find joy within yourself, free from all unbecoming attachment, free from all resentment. Finding in you a friend of all, free from enmity, possessing a serene mind, my mind is drawn towards you.

But it also becomes apparent that Bali is not quite prepared for negative events and deceit, for in an instruction, Prahlada his grandfather advises him that it is good to practice forbearance (khsama), but there is a limit to this since a king who is always good can be exploited even by his own servants (This may well be one explanation of how Bali lost his kingdom!).What we can also note is Bali’s association with the sun or Virochana, his father and the fact that during his reign there were no classes or castes. It was after his defeat that the Chaturvarna Vyavastha was instituted according to the Mahabharata.
Bali fighting Indra
A version (Taittriya Sanhita) explains a related event but sans Bali, as follows -This earth formerly belonged to the Asuras, while the gods only had as much as a man can see while sitting. When the gods asked for a share in the earth, the Asuras said, ' How much shall we give you?  The gods replied, ' As much as this she-jackal can go round in three steps.' So Indra, assuming the form of a she-jackal, stepped round the earth in three strides. Thus the gods obtained the earth.

We note from Fr Anand’s studies that while the original meeting between Indra and Bali resulted in an extensive dialogue, later texts point of a war which was won by Indra with support from Vishnu, his good friend. While Bali is mentioned in the Mahabharata and the Bhavishya Purana, and there are accounts of his wars with Indra and the next recounting refers to Bali’s encounters with Narayana. So we see that epics now start to drop Indra out totally and mention only his misdeeds against Brahmins, encounters between Vishnu directly with Bali and in later texts through his Vamana avatar with Bali.

In the present version of the extended story, Indra meets and defeats Bali, but Bali obtains additional powers from his teacher Shukracharya and attacks Indra. Defeating Indra, he rules over devaloka. Indira’s mother pleads to Vishnu and he agrees to take birth as her son, the dwarf Vamana. Vamana comes to Bali and requests a boon asking for the three steps as we all know. With the first step he possesses the earth, with the second he takes the heavens and with the third he pushes Bali down into the netherworld.

Thus, as time went Indra gets replaced by Vishnu, Vamana appears as an avatar and the Bali story takes the form which is popular today, depicting Bali as an Asura king. All texts end the story or event with Bali getting exiled to the netherworld but for some strange reason allows his visitation rights annually to visit his subjects. There are other sub plots and stories as well, with the entrance of Yama or Narakasura the lord of death and so on, but let us not get into too many complexities in this study.

In fact the discussions between Vasava and Bali are profound and experts even discern many similarities of text between these and the Bhagavad Gita which was written much later, so also the characters of Arjuna, Krishna and so on. While I can go on to provide a gist of these studies, I prefer not to because I do not understand them fully, not having read the original texts myself and since I do not trust any translation to be an honest one. So let us conclude that according to the scriptures or epics, there once lived a great and honest king, who fell afoul of the gods and was punished. He was kicked down into the dark corners of the universe, but his good deeds resulted in his being allowed to come and visit earth once a year. A great feast (maha-utsava) was also ordained to Bali by Vishņu who was pleased with the gift of the earth. Lord Vishnu makes a proclamation to his people - On the afternoon of the 15th of the Krishņa-paksha of Kārttika, Today is the Rule of Bali, enjoy yourselves. Later in the day we have the solemn worship of Bali and his wife, and alms given in memory of Bali.
Vamana with Bali and Shukracharya

This day of visitation was originally termed the dipa-utsava or Kaumudi and was instituted by Lord Vishnu in honor of the king Mahabali as a maha utsava (mega festival), to be celebrated over just one day, commemorating the great reign of this king. Bali per the accepted tradition was the king of the asuras, and thus the festival become an asura mahotsava. This feast is known as Kaumudi because on this day kumuda flowers are offered to Bali. Hence the first day of the bright half of Karttika is also known as Bali- pratipada.

How did this festival originally meant in commemoration of Bali’s rule get connected to the return of Rama? Perhaps Rama over time replaced Bali as a great king. Note here the similarity between Bali’s return from exile and Rama’s return after an exile. The western parts starting with Maharashtra and down to Kerala celebrate the return of Bali. This perhaps indicates that Bali (and consequently his wife Vindhyavati – Vindya southern mountain range) was a major king in the South West area. Other parts of today’s Bharat celebrate Rama’s return to Ayodhya. Or was it just that the celebration is meant to give the devotee a foretaste of good tidings around the corner (return of Bali) and to serve as an ideal for life here on earth? Bali could thus be the leader of the world to come.

Then again, what if Bali was not a king at all and was just a representation of the sun? His father was Virochana and so that is a pointer. The sun as you know rises and sets daily, and perhaps in the past was seen as going into or setting into a netherworld. What if the three steps were simply meant to signify sunrise, its visible period on an earth hemisphere and the sunset? The movement of the sun annually may also be observed in this connection, as it moves down to the southern hemisphere. The Diwali celebration comes after the autumn equinox. Days become smaller and the sun is seen lesser and lesser. Is that the significance of the departure of Bali into the netherworld, but for a longer duration? Is that why lamps are lit to bring in artificial light? Is the festival of lights thus an offering of lit lamps to the setting Sun-god in the month of Karttika? Is it a way of telling the Sun-god that we need his light, and that we look forward to his return to our hemisphere? Perhaps a practical way to look at it, I suppose.

Tragically nobody remembers the very core of Diwali or the Bali anymore, as prescribed in the many scriptures. The entire celebration has new concepts and stories attached to them. As we now see, the one day celebration ordained by Vishnu in the honor of Bali, an earthly king went on to become a 5 day affair. Today it is an event honoring a number of gods instead. It stretches between the 13th and 15th of the dark half of Kartika and the 1st and 2nd of the bright half (The three days incidentally, is accounted to a request by Bali for a compensatory three days against the three steps). The first set of 3 days is more connected with the world of the dead and the next two or 2½ days a celebration of life in the present world. The first day deals with prayers to please Yama and ward off untimely death, the second relating to worship of wealth (Dhanteras), birthday of Dhanvantari and later the third day is Naraka Chathurdasi, freeing man from the grip of Yama. Then comes the day of honoring ancestors and heralding the arrival of Bali, Lakshmi, much merrymaking and so on. With lamps lit through the Kaumudi festival, it took the practical name Deepavali. Other regional stories connect Diwali to the slaying of Yama Dwitya, slaying of Narakasura, Mahavira’s attainment of Samadhi, Durga or kali etc.
Now let us observe the accounts of the very same story as attached to Kerala. We have studied earlier that Onam follows the dark days of the monsoon, honoring the arrival of Bali. Malayalis are emphatic that Bali is their king, and it has been a time honored event since ancient times (That it was also observed in Madurai and some other Tamil areas is a point to be noted). People who have noticed these events and their connection to Bali in passing, have stopped and wondered about the time gap of approximately a couple of months between these two celebrations (Onam for those who do not know, comes a couple of months ahead of Diwali). Why do we have this gap? We will get to this by studying some regional calendars.

Vamana's 3rd step
The sacred month of Karthika (of the lunar calendar), the 7th or 8th month, typically falls somewhere between the end of October and the beginning of December corresponds to the Tulam month in the Kerala Kollam calendar or the Libra of Gregorain. The Onam festival lasting 3 days occurs in the first month of the Kerala New Year (Chingam) or Malayalam Kollavarsham, which is a solar calendar. In Kerala the official New Year (the Zodiac New Year by the way, is on the day of Vishu, the first day of spring) follows the dark monsoons and the harvest, per the Kollavarsham. Up in the Gujarat regions, looking at the Amanta Calendar (the one used in India for festivals), Kartika is considered to be the first month, the best month and the month of a New Year. It could be a bit mind boggling for the uninitiated, but that is how it is. So to put it all in a nut shell, the arrival of Bali heralds a new year, which for Malayalis is in Chingam and for others up North it is Karthika.

Now would that mean that Bali comes twice to his old kingdom? First in August-Sept to Kerala and later during Diwali? Take your pick, and if you believe in Bali, leave him to the people of Kerala and Maharashtra, since the others have forgotten him. You can also observe that Rama followers are not seen aplenty in Kerala and there is perhaps just one or two Rama temples in Kerala. Siva and Vishnu temples are quite common, but interestingly there is no Vamana temple anywhere! Anyway I guess we should let them celebrate Rama’s victorious return or any other event from the lot above. As you can conclude, we are quite flexible and democratic.

But one aspect is evident, Diwali is or never has been celebrated with gusto in Kerala and now I guess you know the reason. Others explain that Bali is a metaphor for a thanksgiving offering after a bounty of rice harvest during monsoon and the Onam season, while Vishnu is the metaphor of the Kerala sun and summer that precedes the Onam. Then again, you can choose a more practical explanation provided by some who term themselves pragmatic. The Malayalis spend a lot of effort, time and money on Onam and being a practical lot, they will not spend it again on Diwali. That is all it is, according to them. Whatever said and done, leaving aside the myths, lore and legends, most people celebrate Diwali these days. You can see and feel the warm golden glow of the festival season, and many a person gets together, like we all did during the last weekend.

There are some who are a bit curious and one such may ask “so where does Bali reside during the rest of the year”? Well, he was consigned to the netherworld or Patala and that will be the topic of an article presently in progress.

According to Narada who was a rare visitor to Patala - What," exclaimed the sage, "can be compared to Patala, where the Nagas are decorated with brilliant, and beautiful, and pleasure shedding jewels? Who will not delight in Patala, where the lovely daughters of the Daityas and Danavas wander about, fascinating even the most austere; where the rays of the sun diffuse light, and not heat, by day; and where the moon shines, by night, for illumination, not for cold; where the sons of Danu, happy in the enjoyment of delicious viands and strong wines, know not how time passes? There are beautiful groves, and streams, and lakes where the lotus blows; and the skies are resonant with the Kokila's song. Splendid ornaments, fragrant perfumes, rich unguents, the blended music of the lute, and pipe, and tabor; these and many other enjoyments are the common portion of the Danavas, Daityas, and snake-gods, who inhabit the regions of Patala.

That will be our next study destination.

Bali-Life bestowing Offering - Subhash Anand (Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Vol. 74, No. 1/4 (1993), pp.63-84)
Major Hindu festivals, A Christian appreciation (pp 103-132) – Subhash Anand

Pics – Vamana pics from Wikimedia, Indra Bali battle (courtesy Bonhams auction exhibit


Oct 20, 2018

Cannanore Days

Burnshire - Cannanore 1944-46

Burma had been taken by the Japanese, Singapore and Malaya had been lost earlier and the trepidation of invasion through the eastern frontier near Assam was paramount in quivering allied hearts. Indians were in two minds, one supporting the Azad Hind massing up in Burma with the Chalo Dilli rally, the other wondering if the British would save them from a potential attack by the Japanese. As towns and villages quaked in fear, the common man was more worried about subsistence and the British apathy at their plight. While Bengal was still in the grips of a terrible famine, Malabar was recovering from a terrible famine coupled with Cholera epidemics.

It was the summer of 1945 - The Vultee Vengeance A35 dive bomber, painted a dirty brown, a frontline aircraft made in Nashville TN USA and now being used grudgingly by the RAF, was getting ready for takeoff at the Cannanore Cantonment grounds airstrip, adjoining its parade ground. This Mark IV V-72, built to British specs, a low-wing, single-engine, triple prop monoplane, powered by an air-cooled radial Wright R-2600-13 Cyclone 14-cylinder engine rated at 1,700 hp, was now revving up. The pilot, a young man from Britain and previously trained on VV bombers in Florida, was by now used to flying this Yankee craft, which interestingly had a center of gravity that seemed a bit off. It was a great drive bomber nevertheless. If one were to look carefully, they would have seen sinister shaped tanks under the wings, and they were most certainly not bombs. The pilot had the canopy open during flight, something you rarely saw them doing with other planes.  

The black kite (Milvus migrans - chakki parunthu), actually muddy brown and not black, with a forked tail, common to the Malabar skies, was not concerned (Black kites are most often seen gliding and soaring on thermals as they search for food. The bird glides effortlessly, changing directions easily swooping down with their legs lowered to snatch small live prey, fish, household refuse and carrion, for which behavior they are known in British military slang as the shite-hawk). The kites were very good and nimble fliers, and it was rare for them to be involved in an aerial accident, as they were very quick for their size and dodged other flying objects easily. It had of late been seeing this new and noisy brown bird for some time now and considered it harmless. Like crows, kites often crossed the path of this new and thundering airplane, one which had a spinning head.

Today was not meant to be. The pilot was surging through for takeoff and just as its wheels left ground, the kite met its spinning propellers. The young pilot felt and heard the heavy thud followed by the sight of a cloud of feathers flying past his cowl gills and across the glass of the cockpit. Bits of it got between the cylinders, and the pilot who had just got airborne, came back to land and have his engine checked. The ground staff had to take all the engine panels off, they saw that the carcass was wedged between the cylinder rows. A grumpy hot and humid hour was spent by them, perched up on stepladders fishing out the blood, guts and feathers. The engine looked fine, and was restarted without any issues.

There was one less kite now in Malabar, but then nobody cared about such things, for it was a time of war. Another kite sitting on the flag pole watched lazily, waiting to peck on the scraps. For that was its life!

The pilot uttered a silent prayer, crossed his fingers for luck and reared for takeoff again, and this time there were no mishaps. The plane was quickly airborne and headed north, towards Kumbala situated a little further up the Arabian Sea coast. Some days he and his team flew to Kumbala, some days it was to Porkal.

What could this plane with the funny tanks be doing in Cannanore? And what was this new hush hush establishment titled CDRE, now teeming with foreign and Indian army scientists as well as civilians in white coats, be tasked with? What experiments were they conducting? What were a bunch of volunteers at a remote Kumbla field, wearing a poncho like overcoat, be waiting hesitantly for? Rain from the skies in the middle of a hot summer? The wait was not long, for soon enough the VV -A31 flight 1340 appeared, after having survived the bird strike.

Even today it is difficult to dredge out the answers, but I will give you some. And for that not only have you got to go to Japanese controlled Manchuria in China, but also a place called Porton Down in Wiltshire - England.

Before and during the Sino-Japanese war, Japanese Imperial Forces had produced various chemical Weapons. Among the CW agents produced were phosgene, mustard, lewisite, hydrogen cyanide, and so on. The Japanese Unit 731 had notoriously used them against the Chinese and the allies feared that faced with reverses at multiple fronts, the Japanese could now use them against the Allied forces lined up on the NE front.

As the 1925 Geneva Protocol permitted the use of chemical warfare in retaliation, the Chemical Defense Experimental Station (CDES) in Britain was authorized to develop offensive chemical warfare research as well as development and the production of chemical warfare agents. The scientists worked with chemicals, combined and separated molecules and compounds, all with one aim - to maim and kill if attacked, of course observing strict secrecy. But could that happen during the 2nd World war? The answer may have been in the affirmative. Then there was the defensive aspect if attacked by the Japanese. So the tests also covered the effect of these chemicals on humans in case of an attack and any potential antidotes.

Winston Churchill cruelly opined that Britain would be stupid if they did not test chemical agents on an illiterate and lesser human race, like India. As it turned out a large number of severe causalities were demonstrated in the tests in 1942-43 up North in India, on both British and Indian subjects. In fact the final decision taken was that if the tests could produce results such as severe blisters and incapacitation (and thereby deemed too dangerous for allied or British servicemen), they should only be conducted in India!

Britain had as we saw, previously tested chemical weapons in India and the first of the test sites was in Rawalpindi, then Devlalli or Deolali near Nasik. The 67th Chemical warfare company which was at first trained for such warfare and equipped with rocket fired gas canisters, was based in Deolali. As the high temperature was causing the MG shells to sweat, they were soon moved to the eastern front. At the same time the RAF were given the responsibility of supporting additional tests on the impact of the poison gas on English troops. Rawalpindi and Deolali were dry, Britain was cold, and the need was to find a tropical location much like the SE Asian jungles. Urgent counter measures and potential retaliation had to be planned.

Porton Down had concluded that a casualty producing dosage could be achieved with sprayed mustard gas. Male participants dressed in khakis were subjected to tests in Madras and it was soon concluded that the whites and black races showed different degrees of resistance, necessitating changes in uniform codes during combat. Thus it was in 1944, that the CDRE (I) headed by JS Anderson was set up in Cannanore where Porton scientists carried out a comprehensive program to test defensive and offensive chemical warfare technology. The war clouds were dark and rolling in, the prospect of a chemical attack was high and volunteers were lined up for tests. It was time now to test protective clothing and land areas with aerially sprayed chemical agents.

The British chemical weapons unit at the Sulur airbase in Coimbatore was deemed unsuitable for the next round of field tests. It was time to relocate the CDRE to another appropriate location and the choice finally rested on Cannanore. The two field ranges where CW tests were conducted were at Kumbala and Porkhal.

I should now divulge the first hand source for the information relating to this project and the so called flight 1340. They originate from the charming, lucid and humorous accounts provided by ‘Danny42c’ in a pilot’s forum. He was one of the pilots (the group leader) assigned to fly the VV 1340 test flights from Cannanore for a 12 month period (Danny is active and close to becoming a centenarian, I have been in correspondence with him for some days now). With due acknowledgment and gratitude to Danny, let me draw from vivid accounts of his stay in the Burnshire (Burnachery) cantonment at Cannanore, and retell his interesting account of that period.

The RAF sent out a batch of fliers to join what was called the flight 1340 (on special Duty) to Cannanore in March 1945 to duplicate a lot of tests with poison gas which had been conducted in England and western Canada. Danny who flew the VV and was involved in the bird hit states - Could this (CW agent) be produced in quantity (at reasonable cost) to spread or spray on open ground in order to deny access to troops as effectively as land mines? Our work at the C.D.R.E. in Cannanore in 1944-1946 was concerned with defenses against liquid Mustard Gas (Dichloro diethyl sulphide) used for the purpose. He continues - Curiously, at about that time (end of '45), my little unit (1340 Flight) was trying the same idea locally in Cannanore (S. India), using the underwing spray tanks that we'd previously used for spraying mustard gas for the Chemical Defense Research Establishment. We sprayed mustard on volunteer squaddies to see if their Gas Capes were any good.

The Cannanore Cantonment came into existence in the 19th century during the British Raj, providing residential facility to both military and civil population (in land which was part of the Arakkal Kingdom until 1909, from whom the British acquired it). That was where the CDRE was billeted. With the establishment of the CDRE(I), a bunch of personnel including a few Brits landed up in Cannanore. They were not the traditional colonial sort, who tarried around in estates or the ICS, they were soldiers and scientists fresh from the gloomy climes of Britain. How would they have found balmy Cannanore?

Danny goes on - Ours was a grimmer task, we were spraying mustard and phosgene gases (for the purpose of evaluating methods of defense, of course). Poison gases were used not just as vapors, but also in heavy liquid form. Droplets on the skin are highly caustic, sprayed on the ground they are persistent and can deny access to an area (for a time) almost as well as land mines. Against vapors, respirators of some sort are the only defense (in UK in the early days of the war everyone had to carry round their own "gas-mask" in its little square cardboard box) but for liquids, "Anti-Gas Capes" were Service issue kit. For those without them who might have been sprayed, RAF Stations had "Decontamination Centers", where you could strip to the buff, have a good shower to wash the stuff off ASAP.

We were allowed to continue our planned trials to completion for a few months after the war, and then we cleaned out the tanks and had a go at the anti-malaria spraying ourselves. We cleaned the tanks and sprayed DDT (think in kerosene solution) on some unsuspecting Indian villages to reduce incidence of malaria. Worked, too - until they found that DDT was toxic.

During the monsoon period, the Cannanore strip was waterlogged and the CDRE attempted to relocate the planes to Sulur, but it did not prove to be a good idea since the distances to Kumbala and Porkhal were just too much. Later, detailed tests were made by this unit on the application of aerial smoke-screens for use in the combined operations in the retaking of Malaya, codenamed Operation Zipper.

It will be unfair of me to paraphrase or reword what Danny wrote about the life in the Cannanore Cant.., simply because his story telling style is captivating, so whatever you read below are his own words. He recounts his days with charming honesty.

When I got there the place was a madhouse, the airfield was still under construction, half mud, half grass and the aircraft were going to be Vengeances. I was to be the CO of the unit, and so they promoted me to Flight Lieutenant and the first aircraft to come in were Mark IV’s, which differed considerably from those I had been flying up at the front. When I found out what my job was going to be, I discovered that it was going to involve a lot of low flying. In fact it had to be very accurate, flying for the most part at heights of only 30 ft. This is a far from enviable job in the Vengeance because of the high angle of attack, especially at low speeds. So as soon as I was able to fly off the airstrip, I started a program of low flying to be able to lay a screen that again was measurable from the ground in the size of the molecules that dropped. We practiced until we became quite proficient. They supplied me with three aircraft and aircrew who had never been on operations, but we succeeded in developing a pretty good unit.

Operational control was vested in the Royal Engineers, in the person of a fatherly old Colonel Philips as the C.O. He was a research scientist and the Cannanore Mess was full of them, Dr. this and Dr. that, as well as a number of medical and veterinary officers who looked after our human and animal guinea-pigs.

The Mess was the old Army Mess, properly built in the '20s on the assumption that the Empire would last forever. But there were very few officer's quarters (amply sufficient for those days, I suppose), and now the Chemical Defense Research Establishment had to accommodate not only their own Army medical, veterinary and administrative officers, but a whole gaggle of civilian experts ("Scientific Officers") as well. The RAF contingent was small, just about 5 or 6. They lived in tents.

Ours were rectangular mini-marquees with much more floor space than in a junior officer's room in an "Expansion Pattern" RAF Mess. The floor was covered with sand, with two or three Afghan rugs - this was comfort indeed. It was furnished on a lavish Indian Army scale: a "Camp Cot Newar" in place of the bedbug-infested charpoys which had served us for the last three years, a wardrobe, a chest of drawers with a mirror, a table and a chair. In any case we were only 100 yds or so from the cliff edge; the tent wall was rolled back in the middle of each (long) side to provide a doorway with a hanging rattan screen which allowed the gentle sea breeze to pass through while excluding most of the insects, inquisitive rats, goats and shite hawks. Permanent ablutions were over the road in the Army camp, but you would tell your "bearer" (when he brought you your morning tea) to bring you a bowl of hot water to shave.

There were communal showers over there too, which the service people always used (but the older, more diffident civilians preferred the privacy of a "camp kit" [folding canvas] bath in their tents). Sanitation was by "thunderbox" - there were no Deep Trench Latrines. No electricity or running water in the tent lines, of course but the permanent camp had both. Cannanore town did not offer much in the way of attractions, but there were the usual bazaars where there would be tailors, shoemakers, barbers and most necessities of life on sale - but not razor blades (or gramophone needles)!

What the town did have was a Portuguese Roman Catholic Church. I cannot remember its name (and now there seems to be a Holy Trinity Cathedral [for a Diocese of Kannur has been created], probably on the same spot). But in my time, there was just a Church with a Portuguese priest; he could speak only Portuguese and Malayalam (which was all that was needed for his flock). But we could attend Mass there on Sundays, for of course it was still the old (Latin) Tridentine Mass, then the absolute standard throughout the world, and as soon as he swung onto the altar, handed his biretta to the server and intoned the "Introibo ad altare Dei", we were off, and might as well have been in our family church back home.

Now, in British India, when two or three Englishmen were gathered together anywhere, the first thing they always did was to build a Club. Cannanore was no exception. At the top end of the (then) town, a wide laterite bluff overlooked a tiny, secluded beach to the north. If today, you look up "Cannanore (Kannur) beaches", you'll find a "Baby Beach". I am fairly certain that this was the Club Beach. Above it, on the top of the bluff, were two or three small hotels and the Cannanore Club. (European club - I think it is the Savoy these days). This was a spacious bungaloid construction with a large horseshoe shaped bar; there must have been a main lounge and several smaller rooms. Certainly there would have been a billiard room (for what Club worthy of the name would be without one), a Music Room and a Card room, though curiously I never remember these. The Club was too small to cater; and had no bedrooms, but that did not matter: both were available at the nearby "decent hotels".

The main attractions of the Club were outdoors. They had one (or two?) hard tennis courts on the landward side, and then there was always the Club Beach. Reached down a rather rough and dangerous flight of narrow steps cut into the rock, it gave us safe swimming (I don't remember any history of shark attacks - but then ignorance is bliss). The Club kept, in the changing rooms, a selection of surf boards for the free use of members. These were nothing like the boards you see in Hawaii or New quay today. They were thin, strong wooden planks only four or five feet long by about fifteen inches wide , but adequate for the surfing on offer. It was a good idea to be on a towel, for in their burrows in the sand there were thousands of minute crabs (from memory, about ¼” across) which would pop out and give you a tiny nip before popping down again.

Now who were the Club Members who were the beneficiaries of all this? I would say that there were very few Europeans permanently resident in Cannanore. A Police Officer, I suppose, maybe a Magistrate or two, a Forestry officer or a high-level railway official. All these would be ipso facto members of the Club. And in the "cool" season (say November - February), their numbers were increased by a strange reverse of the "Hill Station" summer exodus.

All this was changed by the wartime arrival of the CDRE; immediately the number of Service officers (and civilians of officer status) doubled or trebled: all would be eligible for temporary membership of the Club. Curiously, not many applied. I suppose the majority were married, older and staider men, who were quite content with a comfortable life in the Mess, enjoyed the warm sunshine, and a stroll along the Moplah beach in the cool of the evening. Surfing did not appeal.

There was another community of Britons who were, in a sense, "lesser breeds without the Law", the Anglo Indians, and so it was in Cannanore - and everywhere else in India. There is no use railing against the injustice of this; it was simply the way it was and always had been.

My people were housed in the permanent Sergeant's Mess and in the Army barrack blocks (not in tents, as the number of "other ranks" had not increased in proportion to the number of officers and civilians of officer status). They were luckier (?) in that they had slow-turning ceiling fans, which just about stirred up the hot air without producing much cooling. The food in the Army Messes was reasonable - which did not stop the eternal grumbles, but that has always been 'par for the course'.

But what amenities could I offer my people? Well, the Army had set up the "Clover Club" in what had originally been the Regimental Institute, but a piano, a billiard table and a couple of table tennis tables don't take you very far. The ORB records that we organized inter-service football and hockey matches on the airstrip. The CDRE Football team and Hockey team excelled in those days. Off the airstrip, the beach was too narrow and rocky, the only safe beaches were the Club beach (from which they were excluded) and the Moplah Bay beach (the other side of the Fort), where there were miles of sand.

Danny’s Cannanore as you read so far, was an attractive place, replete with golden sands, soft breezes, whispering palms down to the high-water mark - everything a Hollywood producer would want as a location for a 'Tropical Island' film and as the story went, Danny did have another story to tell, relating to a couple of attractive British lassies who arrived from Bangalore and a short and ill-fated romance.

Danny’s flight-1340 related reports can be located in the British archives and purchased for a substantial fee, by those interested. These tests and studies were instrumental in Allied CW plans and many M Gas bottles of British and American manufacture were prepared and stored in the NE sectors for a potential conflict with the Japanese. The British military had thus done its best, faced with the possibility of chemical warfare. The results from Cannanore and Porton helped develop special clothing and masks for the military as well as the public in Britain.

But well, there is a sad aspect to this story. While gas masks were designed and supplied in Britain to the population, and even to British subjects at far flung Singapore to ward off or protect against potential chemical attacks, none were available for the teeming masses in NE India. As one journalist wrote succinctly - “The great masters cowering in well protected bunkers preferred that the children of the Raj, the jewel of their crown, be exposed and perish, if it came to a chemical attack”. Fortunately, no chemical attacks took place and the war came to an end with a Japanese surrender closely following the dropping of atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (a subject I had covered elsewhere).

Danny returned to a dank Britain, did other things in life but still remembers and writes fondly of his warm days from Cannanore.

He replied me wistfully, when I mentioned that I was from Calicut – ‘Never visited Calicut, but flew past it every fortnight on my trips to Cochin (RAF Willingdon Island) from Cannanore (to draw cash to pay my troops). I used to follow the coastline at 1,000’ - 1,500’ so as to get a good look at all the towns on the way.  Always looked an "old-worldly" place to me, with the dhows with their lateen sails in port.  Of course, it had been (and I suppose still is) for hundreds of years the port for the spice traders of Kerala. Memories, memories! Of course, it'll have all been changed from the sleepy backwaters I knew 73 years ago.’

Never go back!

A load of thanks to the honest renderings of Danny42c who recorded his days at Cannanore  
Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments - By Ulf Schmidt
An imperial world at war – ed. Ashley Jackson (Protecting which spaces and bodies? -Susan R Grayzel)
Chemical Warfare - Edward M. Spiers

Photos -
Cannaore cant map Courtesy Kallivalli 
Dannys VV bomber

Special Note – This is a personal account of Danny 42c, in most parts. Not to be copied, rephrased, re-quoted or disseminated, without his written permission

Oct 13, 2018

The Violin in Carnatic music

From the Ravanhasta to the Indian violin

Some people get irritated when I conjure up a story connecting something from the present to its past origins in India. They equate it to the pater in “my fat Greek wedding’ who would connect everything great to Greek history. But I guess it has to be accepted, for the flow of ideas, business and goods from the East to the West has origins going back to times before the advent of the Gregorian calendar. Look at a recent discovery, they found prehistoric rock art (petroglyphs) in a Konkan village, going back tens of thousands of years depicting hunting, sea creatures like whales and sharks, and animals not local such as the Hippo and the Rhino. But well, I will not get into all that, this is an article on a musical instrument and its journey from India through China, Lanka, the west and finally back to India, the instrument being the Violin.

So many great names are associated with this stringed instrument played with a bow. Names of those who made the best violins such as Stradivarius, Amati and Stainer are frequently mentioned together with virtuosos who played it like Vivaldi, Yehudi Menuhin and those who composed violin pieces such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart. But not listed in this western ensemble is the person credited with the invention of the first stringed instrument played with a bow, the legendary king of Lanka named Ravana.

Well, one could of course question his existence and state that the tales of Ravana were just an orally retold epics. Nevertheless, let us take a look at that story and proceed on. Most historians and musicians agree that the Ravanhatta (Ravanostron, ravana hasta or Ravan hatha – Ravan’s hand) is one of the early stringed instruments played with a bow. F J Fetis, in his 1856 work " Notice d'Antoine Stradivari " explains this succinctly “If we would trace a bow-instrument to its source we must assume the most simple form in which it could appear, and as such required no assistance from an art brought to perfection, and such a form we shall find in the Ravanastron, made of a cylinder of sycamore wood hollowed out from one end to the other.

Let’s figure out the connections between Ravana and this instrument. Its birth is believed to have taken place under traumatic circumstances. According to a legend which goes thus, Ravana’s mother Kaikasi, an ardent devotee of Shiva, was eager to go and live in the god’s abode on Mount Kailash at the Himalayas. Ravana opposed the plan vehemently, but to please his mother he promised to bring Mount Kailash to Sri Lanka. As Ravana was lifting the mountain, an angry Shiva trapped his 10 heads and 20 arms. Writhing in pain, Ravana prayed for mercy. When Shiva let him off, Ravana wisely decided to sing his praise and instantly made an accompanying instrument using one of his heads, an arm and some of his hair. The soulful music emanating from Ravana’s instrument is said to have moved Shiva, who bestowed immortality on him.

Another account states that Ravana, the 10-headed king of demons was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva. He played the veena for Siva and pleased him with his beautiful recitals so much that Shiva started his ‘Anandatandav’ dance to the music. As the veena recital grew intense, so did the lord’s dance. Suddenly the ‘siras’ (head) of the veena broke. Without thinking twice, Ravan cut one of his heads and attached it to the veena and continued his performance. And when the veena’s ‘ambhana’ (sound board) broke, Ravana cut one of his 20 hands and replaced it. The folklore further goes like this. The strings broke next. Ravana plucked out some of his veins and attached it to the veena. Neither did the music stop nor did the Lord’s dance.

Herrod –Allen explains - The violin in its present form was not perfected until about 1500. One reads of no instruments played with a bow in Egypt, Assyria or Greece, but in India there is the legend of a king named Ravana who lived five thousand years ago and was such a good musician that the gods themselves listened to his songs. He invented an instrument called the Ravanastron, consisting simply of a little hollow cylinder of wood. The two strings stretched across were played with a bow. From the monochord, the violin acquired its bridge, supporting the strain of the strings, and its finger board, which helps to mark the places of the tones.

But that was all in Lanka. Hanuman is credited with bringing it to the mainland, where it is still played in Rajasthan and in Agra area, and locally known as the Ravanahatha. From India, the Ravanahatha travelled westwards to the Middle East and Europe, where in the 9th century, it came to be called the Ravanastron. But we should clarify the description above a little bit too - The instrument is made up of a bowl-shaped resonator fashioned from a cut coconut shell that is covered with goat hide. A long bamboo body, the Dandi, is attached to the bowl. The principal strings are made of steel and horsehair.

It would not be unwise to introduce a little diversion here, if one chose to disbelieve the legends detailed previously. The Ancient Pulluva caste of Malabar were players of the Pulluva Veena, a form of the Ravanstron described above. The Pulluvan Veena, also known as 'Veena kunju', is a typical single stringed musical instrument used by these iterant musicians of Kerala. This basic instrument, shaped somewhat like a violin, is made from arrali (teak), jackfruit and coconut shell. Its string is made from a plant known as naagachitaamradaa. The string is stretched across a dish-shaped kinnam (resonator), which has a wooden stem attached to it. There are some wooden bangles at the end of the bow, used to provide rhythms while playing. Was that how the instrument came into being eons ago? Food for thought, I guess!

If one were to disregard legends and look for more leads, you will still find them in India. Herron-Allen quotes Engels “However this may be, there is a great probability that the fiddle originated in Hindustan, for Sanskrit scholars inform us that there are names for the bow which cannot be less than 1500 to 2000 years old. These names are Kona, Garika, and Parivadas. Moreover, it is remarkable that the most simple form of Ravanastron - there are nowadays some varieties of this instrument—is almost identical with the Chinese fiddle called Ur-heen. This species has only two strings, and consists of a small block of wood hollowed out and covered with the skin of a serpent. The Ur-heen has not been mentioned among the most ancient instruments of the Chinese, since there is no evidence of its having been known in China before the introduction of the Buddhist religion into that country from India. From indications, which to point out would lead too far here, it would seem that several instruments found in China originated in Hindustan."

Another form of modern instrument almost identical with the Ravanastron is the Indian Omerti and, coming a step westwards, almost identical with the Omerti is the modern Turkish and Arabian Kemangeh a'gouz. In one of his earlier works M. Fetis derived the origin of bow instruments from the Goudok of the Russian peasantry, but in a later work he corrects this, and ascribes the Goudok to its proper source, viz., the Rebab, and thence through the Kemangeh and Omerti to the Ravanastron of ancient and modern India.

So perhaps it was prevalent in the Northern parts of India, played by the nath bavas, from where it traveled to China with iterant Buddhists, and came down with them to SE Asia (Burma) and simultaneously with the spice trade, spread westwards into Arabia. It went on to develop into the Rehab, then the Kermangeh, the goudock, and the Anglo Saxon Rote (Chrotta, Crwth). From the Rotta it developed into the 6 string Viol and later to the 4 stringed, hair bow played  instruments developed by Gasparo Salo or Amati Violin, which we know of today. And there it rested for many hundred years as musicians tuned and perfected it.

It is clear that the Portuguese, French and the Dutch colonials who made India their home between the 15th and 19th century brought Violins with them, but the instrument did not cross the musical borders between Western and Carnatic music.

One should note here that the Portuguese and the French musicians did use the violin and kapri music included use of the Portuguese rebequo / rabaeca / ravukinnai. Mentions can be found in communications - Georg Pock, the Nuremberg merchant, writing on January 1st, 1522, from Cochin to his countryman, Michael Behaim, draws an ugly picture of the Portuguese character. He writes of them plainly: "The Portuguese, who are born Portuguese, poison the air with their pride. Should one of them possess ten ducats, he must have a velvet coat, a silver dagger, polished boots, and a violin with which to steal about the streets at nights and serenade the ladies”. The observation of Bishop Joseph Sebastiani that “There is no town or village of Christians which does not have in its church an organ, harp and a viola and a good choir of musicians who sing for festivities and for holidays, vespers, masses and litanies and with much cooperation and devotion” shows the background of Luso-Indians concerning their love for music. Catholic children were taught to play violin and to sing hymns, Psalms and ladinhas.

Other violin like instruments were developed in India over time, but did not really form part of formal music vocal concerts as they came about. The usual accompaniments were the Veena, Nadaswaram, Mridangam, Ghatam and so on, until the king of the instruments - the fiddle or Violin appeared on the scene. But it is also possible that dance performances such as Dasiyattam had the violin as an accompaniment, before the advent of vocal concerts. A mural in Tipu’s Seringapatanam shows a violin player accompanying a dance performance, indicating a French link. All these are pre 19th century.

The crossover to Carnatic music had to wait until missionaries during the British period established a better rapport with a southern monarch Serfoji II. Let us now see how that happened.

Some months ago, we discussed the origins and development of Carnatic music. We noted that the golden age was the period when the Trinity of Thyagaraja, Dikshitar and Syama Sastri ruled at Tiruvavur in the late 18th century. During this period the Violin quietly entered the Carnatic scene. Unlike the harmonium, it found patrons and never got banned, though purists may have raised eyebrows. One could always ask  - why a western instrument? Experts opine that there was a desire to make Carnatic music modern, but I would assume that it was mainly due to the influence of leading musicians such as  the Dikishitar’s, the Tanjavur Quartet and Varahapayyar as well as their proximity and dealings with some friendly British patrons who demonstrated to them the superiority of the instrument and its suitability as a bridge instrument to the vocal. The Sarangi though closer to the human voice, lost out as it was considered socially unacceptable by Tamil Brahmins due to its associations with North Indian courtesans.

Three stories make their rounds with the violin’s or fiddle’s entry into Carnatic.

The first of course deals with Baluswamy Dikshitar and his connections to Ft St George. Muddukrishna Mudaliyar a Zamindar in Manali and a Dubash (translator and interpreter) was well connected with the East India Company. He was also a patron of art and once happened to visit Tiruvavur. Here he listened to Ramaswamy Dikshitar singing and was so captivated that he invited him to Manali. Ramaswamy Dikshitar agreed and shifted to Manali with his family. He was succeeded by his son Venkatakrishna Mudaliar, who continued the patronage to the Dikshitar family. Venkatakrishna Mudaliar (also referred to as Chinnaswami) was also a Dubash of the East India Company and was invited now and then to Fort St George. Chinnaswami would often take Muthuswami and his brother to Fort St. George, to listen to what is known as ‘airs’- Western Music played by Irish men in the British band.

The bands played simple Celtic marching tunes, lilting melodies, easy on the drums and bagpipes and flutes. One the sidelines or in the audience, two young men watched and listened and took it all in. They were not yet bound by the strictures of temple music, and were for that period, affected by melody, rhythm of these alien sounds. Since Muthuswamy had already taken to the Veena, it was decided that Baluswamy should learn playing on the violin. Chinnaswamy Mudaliar engaged a European tutor for this purpose. Three years of practice allowed Balu to play Carnatic ragas and tunes on the newfound instrument, effectively. It is said that he then moved to Thiruvavur, where his performances with the violin were appreciated by all. It also impressed the Rajah of nearby Ettayapuram, a well-known patron of Carnatic music. He appointed Balu as his principal court musician in 1824.

The second relates to the entry of the Tanjavur quartet into the musical scene and the court of Tanjavur king Serfoji II. Serfoji inherited a great musical tradition in his courts from his ancestors, great contributors to the schools of Sadir and Carnatic music (see my previous article). Serfoji was not only trained in local arts but was also schooled in the western fashion by CF Schwarz and even though the English rulers were in full control, they allowed him to continue as a titular monarch thus providing him the time to scholarly pursuits. The musical department of his court was headed by Varahappa Dikshitar of Varahapayyar. The four brothers who served in the court reported to Varahapayyar. The brothers or the quartet as they came to be known as, were Ponnaiah a composer and vocalist, Chinnaiah a choreographer, Sivanandam who excelled as a mridangist and nattuvanar, and lastly Vadivelu a composer and violinist. Vadivelu, an accomplished vocalist, composer and violinist was the youngest and is said to have accompanied himself on the violin, which by itself is a rare accomplishment at those high levels.

Vadivelu who initially studied the violin under his teacher Schwarz (some others say that Varahapayyar chose the violin over the piano and later taught Vadivelu). Vadivelu later became a disciple of Muthuswami Dikshitar when he spent four years in Tanjore. He mastered the instrument and became so proficient that Thaygaraja, it is said, would summon Vadivelu often to listen to the new instrument. Vadivelu eventually had a tiff with Serfoji and moved to neighboring Travancore. Vadivelu’s skills as a vocalist, dance expert and violinist had caught the fancy of Swathi Thirunal and the young genius, aged just 22 years of age, was appointed as Asthanavidwan of Travancore court. Vadivelu was a scholar in Tamil and Telugu and his violin mastery is said to have been unmatched.  Swathi was convinced of the importance of violin to Carnatic music and he ordered it be used in concerts after gifting a rare violin made of ivory to Vadivelu, in 1834. Examples of vadivelu’s input can I believe be seen in Swati Tirunals varnam (Shankarabharanam) where the pitch intervals match the western scale and the end tapers to a marching beat.

The third story is connected to Varahappayar, the head of the music department in Serfoji’s court. It appears that Varahapayyar who spoke English, would usually be sent to speak to the British governor in Madras. During one such visit, the British musicians impressed with Varahapayyars abilities taught him bits on the violin, and Varahapayyar demonstrated what he had learnt by playing a few Carnatic tunes to the governor. The pleased administrator presented him with a violin. Returning to Tanjavur, Varahapayyar played the instrument for Serfoji, and as it went on to help the entry of the violin into Carnatic music performances in Tanjore.

A fourth possibility is that Vedanayagam picked up Violin notes from Fr Schwartz and trained Vadivelu. There is also a mention that Schwartz was deputed for a while to Tirunelveli and he had trained Travancore’s king Dharma Raja, a mention which is however not yet substantiated.

When music then left the majestic court halls and moved to the concert halls, it is explained that the violin proved to be a perfect accompaniment to the vocalist. It could set itself above the noisy environment of a crowded Madras and proved to be a good match for the vocalist as it tracked him through the tune or in between in repetition. The instrument was flexible, it could be tuned to any pitch that the vocalist chooses while the bow lends continuity, a necessary ingredient for vocal music. The tonal quality and the volume that it produced enable it to blend with the human voice. Experts opine that it can play at any speed or tempo, to match the vocalist or other instruments as its range covers 3 octaves, the normal range for a decent vocalist. Not only that, it can reproduce most of the subtle nuances, gamakas, modulations, and match all the srutis which are dominant characteristics of Carnatic music.

The South Indian violinist typically sits cross-legged on the floor and balances the instrument between his chest and the ankle bone of his right foot, on which rests the scroll of the violin. This posture facilitates the free movement of the left hand along the fingerboard, particularly in producing the gamakas (graces) integral to the Carnatic mode. It also necessitated appropriate changes in bowing and fingering techniques. Comparing with western music, the significant difference is in the way Carnatic violinists play their instruments, rather than the instrument itself. Indian violinists place an emphasis on continuity, as opposed to western violinists who prefer to focus on the notes. Philip Peter explains - The Indian style of playing the violin closely imitates the human voice. Hence there is a lot of ornamentation. Indian violinists use varying heights of bridges in order to control the string tension. For example, the violin maybe tuned low in order to match a male vocalist. This would result in low string tension resulting in the use of a high bridge. Conversely, an instrument tuned high has a low bridge height.

During its development in South India, subtle changes occurred as the violin was being adapted to the vocalist. Experts tell us that in the Western system, the four strings are tuned in the order E A D G from right to left, each five tones apart. However, in the Carnatic system, the tuning is not absolute but relative. Initially the tuning was in the order of Sa Pa Sa Pa from right to left (higher octave to lower octave). Annaswami Sastri is said to have followed this mode. Subsequently the tuning was changed to Pa Sa Pa Sa - the first two strings from the right are aligned to the middle octave while the third and fourth to the lower octaves.

And thus the violin started to get used as a mimic to the human voice, following the vocalist, sometimes surpassing it, sometimes being subservient, but becoming an acceptable and dependable companion to the lead singer, in the hands of a trained violinist. 

After the introduction of the violin by Baluswami Dikshitar and others, the efforts of the next generation of violinists, like Tanjavur Sivaramakrishna Iyer, Annaswamy Sastri (grandson of Shyama Sastri), Fiddle Subbarayar etc. helped the role of the violin to grow. Gradually the violin took precedence over all others as the main melodic accompanying instrument to vocal music and has come to stay. Newer maestros like Kunnankudi Vaidyanathan, TN Krishnan, Lalgudi Jayaraman, L Shankar, L Subramaniam, U Srinivas and so on set the future standards. 200 years later, we can see that the violin is these days a standard part and parcel of South Indian classical music. The Bangalore style and specific hardware modifications were the handiwork of a great Kannada violinist Chowdiah, and the Chowdiah hall, shaped like an Indian 7 stringed violin is a famed concert hall in Bangalore. The violin developed further. As time went by, electric pickups were added, then the entire instrument got modified during the mid-20th century to a solid body, duly integrated with electronics and 5 strings.

Some might wonder why the Harmonium, ever a part of Hindustani and even film music in the south, never found popularity in Carnatic music. Why was it banned on the AIR and continues to be banned for solo performances? A future article will provide answers to those interested.

The Ravanahatta or Ravanastron is still played in India, played by the bards and minstrels of the Nayaka community in Rajasthan and Gujarat. These Bhopas play it in honor of Pabuji, their folk deity in a 36 hour recitation of The Epic of Pabuji. 

Getting back to the violin, we had a maestro in Kerala whom we all so adored and I had the opportunity and good fortune to watch one of his livewire performances, 11 years ago, in California. Alas! Balabhaskar, a virtuoso on the violin is no more, he passed away a few weeks ago. As they said - Wielding his electric violin, he was a favorite with the hip crowd, but he was also equally loved by the classical music buffs….

This is dedicated to his memory.

Music and music makers- Constance Morse
Violin making – As it was and is - Edward Heron-Allen
Listening to the Violin in South Indian Classical Music – Amanda Weidman (Theorizing the Local: Music, Practice, and Experience in South Asia and Beyond - Ed Richard K. Wolf)
Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The Postcolonial Politics of music in South India – Amanda Weidman
Ornamentation in South Indian Music and the Violin - Gordon N. Swift
The violin in Carnatic music: by Subhadra Vijaykumar (Showtime March 23, 2007)


One or two readers had queried me on the famed ivory violin gifted to Vadivelu by Swati Tirunal. The ivory violin with an engraved Travancore state emblem, the eagle, gifted by Swathi in 1934, apparently made by a local craftsman is these days, is kept at the Tanjavur quartet’s ancestral home (1818, West Main Street, Behind Brihadeswara Temple, Thanjavoor). 

This violin yellowed with age and a bow with worn out strings is can be seen in a glass case in the house. Though it is said that Vadivelu left Thanjavur and never returned, his descendants mention that he did come just once, to leave this violin back in his ancestral home. Some Stella Mary’s students who visited the home in 1954, played the violin and commented thus “The original bow is lost; the violin, now yellow with age, emits a strange tone, due perhaps to the fact that it is made of ivory.”

Sep 29, 2018

September 29, 2018

The Spencer Saga

The Spencer Saga

The Spencer’s of the Raj

This is yet another name that in theory belongs to previous generations.  There was a time when the name was synonymous to quality thus justifying the high prices quality sometimes commanded. It also signified association to a wealthier elite in the India between the late 19th century and the mid-20th. The company or its skeletons still exist, owned by others, operated with a new ethos, but the Spencer’s I will write about is the Spencer’s from the times of the Raj. It was different really, perhaps a period when luxury was defined differently, when everything was relaxed and more attention paid to detail. One thing always kept Spencer’s apart, its higher prices, so much so that people used the term ‘Spencer prices’ to describe a well-marked up figure.

The story starts with two assistants in a general merchandise shop called Oaks and Co in Madras. The year, 1857. The young fellas were named Charles Durrant and John William Spencer. Durrant left Oaks in 1863 and started a new company named Durrant & Co at Mount Road Madras. Soon to join him was his previous colleague John Spencer. By 1864, the company was renamed Durrant & Spencer and for a couple of years, they were auction agents for a variety of ‘fresh and new’ imported goods. Things looked up and around 1867, Durrant vanished from the scene, to leave behind a new company JW Spencer & Co. At this juncture, Spencer was joined by a hotshot salesman named Eugene Oakshott and their business morphed into a regular shop selling wares. Eugene Phillip Oakshott incidentally was born in Cork, Ireland in 1839 and later worked around Liverpool in the linen and woolen trades. By 1871 he had moved to India and joined Charles Durrant at Spencer & Co. as noted above.

As business expanded, the offices and shop moved to various locations and the most talked about was the original unit near the D’Angeli’s hotel on Mount road. Spencer however, and most people may not know this, decided to leave India for by 1882, he was soon back in Britain. It was Oakshott who carried on the company’s business as sole proprietor and it was he who decided out of great regard, never to change the Company name. Whatever we now know as Spencer’s achievements should therefore be attributed to the energetic Oakshott, his manager Alfred Oakes and his partner HG Conner. By 1884 it was Spencer’s and Co and traded in teas, many fine goods and they were agents for many English firms. They had opened a branch in Bangalore and in quick succession another in Ooty.

Within no time, it had become a retail department store with multiple sections, had started bottling whiskey and started a Dindigul Trichinopoly cigar unit under the name Shah and Hous. That unit would become famous some decades later, and we will soon get to it. By 1887, Spencers had hit sales close to Rs 10 lakhs and they now planned a new building befitting its stature in the market, and went on to build one which survived well past the 20th century. It was in 1891 that Oakshott purchased the land titled under 153 Mount road from one Ruthnavelu Mudaliar of Triplicane. With WN Pogson as architect he built an imposing building, though a bit scaled back from original plans, to house the ‘finest shop of the east’ which housed everything one could possibly want.

Oakshott moved back to Britain by 1892, while other partners and the company continued to thrive. He held the chairmanship until 1910. In 1897, the company went public having doubled the turnover again. JO Oakshott, his nephew who had first apprenticed in the Madras unit during 1886, returned with British experience to take over the reins of the new firm. Oaks and Co was another big name which did well, though competing with Spencer’s. Soon they ventured into hitherto new areas such as railway catering, cigar manufacturing, bottling of aerated waters and finally the prestigious hotel business. JO proved to be an adept manager soon rising up to the chairman position until he too left in 1913, to look after the affairs of the London Branch.

Quoting S Muthiah, ‘J O,’ as he was known, gradually not only took over the management of Spencer’s but, through a series of takeovers, made it an all-India retailing, hoteliering and catering empire, the biggest in Asia in the early 20th Century. ‘JO’, working his way up, step by step, became Director in 1905 and de facto in- charge of the Company when Eugene Oakshott died in 1911 – his successor Alfred Oakes happy to live a quiet life. In 1913, ‘J.O’ became Chairman, a seat he was to adorn till his death in 1932. Between 1923 and 1928, ‘J.O’ spearheaded the takeover of Oakes & Co., Madras (Spencer’s nearest rivals), H.S. Smith & Co in Bombay, Jamasjee & Sons in Rawalpindi, G.F. Kellner’s in Calcutta, and W.E. Smith’s in Madras besides several other smaller companies.

On a side note, JO was also involved with the press, presenting through his paper, a European mindset in Madras. The Madras Times was started by the Gantz brothers in the year 1858, was followed by the Hindu newspaper started by Subramania Aiyar and M. Veeraghavachariar, together with four law students. In 1905, the Indian patriot was started by C. Karunakara Menon, who had experience from his Hindu days.  The Madras Times  was acquired by JO Robinson in 1921 who merged with The Mail to bring out the first morning paper of Madras, The Daily Express (In fact he also brought up the Higginbotham’s paper and published it under the banner of Associated Publishers). The Indian Express came in later, started in 1932 by an Ayurvedic doctor Varadarajulu Naidu. All in all, JO was a well-regarded citizen of Madras, serving in many positions, including the war office, the Bank of Madras, Madras traders association, the Madras port trust, the Madras Corporation, the SPCA, The Pasteur institute at Coonoor and so on…

Between 1920 and 1932 when he died, John is shown to be living at Bramley Croft, Tower Road, Hindhead and that was when he built the house Grayshott in Madras. John O Robinson’s eldest daughter Esther married Stanley Wilson. Esther and husband Stanley moved into the property in 1930 when Stanley, a Chartered Accountant, became a director of Spencer & Co. Later, Stanley was to become Chairman of the company and see it through the period of changes in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s resulting from India’s independence.

During this period and later, Eugene Oakshott’s sons Roy & Percy also served for the company, but mainly from the London offices. Roy’s son Philip or PG served as an MD for a while, until 1936. Many years passed by and eventually another Oakshott, John sailed to India in 1952, but his involvement though appreciated was in an environment which was rapidly changing after India had become independent.

From the Oakshott archives - Stanley Edwards was a racing man and ‘Grayshott’ was the center of many extravagant parties and Sunday ‘open’ houses for the racing fraternity and personalities of the Madras society. The couple continued to live there until 1957 and later the property was taken over by Spencer & Co. However, the fortunes of the company were in decline throughout the 1970/80s and what was left of a once great empire was the subject of a takeover, although the name Spencer remained. ‘Grayshott’ was put up for sale in 1994 and was then ‘purchased’ by the Tax Department in 1995.

So much about the key British individuals. While there were a number of Indians in the hierarchy, the company was strictly British, with a decent amount of segregation within its environs, such as the bathrooms. The management was British, the sales and customer support were handled by Anglo Indians and the clerical and labor pool handled by Indians. It projected somewhat of an uppity behavior, with the stores handling customers purely based on their looks and perceived status. Branch managers were usually locals, for example we had C Narayana Menon at the Calicut beach Spencer’s. Personnel were mostly loyal to the company and considered part of the extended Spencer’s family. Honesty was paramount and any kind of theft meant dismissal. Pensions were paid to key staff and branches were taken to task enmasse if something wrong happened at any outpost.

Spencer’s association with the railways in providing railway refreshments was an affair which resulted in a virtual monopoly. There are so many stories mentioning the white uniformed railway waiter with his turban and the green and gold cummerbund and the legendary passing of trays on a running train without any running boards (this was before the vestibule came about). The picture below shows you roughly how it was done.

Catering started quite early, somewhere around 1898 or a little later under its own name to the M&SM (Madras & Southern Maratha Railway) co. and the S.I.R. (Southern Indian Railway), under the name Brandon & co, to the G.I.T.R. (Great Indian Peninsula Railways) headquartered in Bombay and under the name GF Kellner’s for the BNR (Bengal Nagpur Rail), the Nizam’s railway and finally also the N.W.F.R. (North West Frontier railway) running between Delhi, Amritsar & Lahore.

The stories are abundant, of the omelets and toast, bacon and eggs, imported cheese’s, the ever famous roast chicken, the oft remembered railway mutton, crisp and thin fried fish and what not. Cutlery, ceramic plates and so on were a norm for the upper class dining experience. They were the first to start the concept of taking an order at the previous stations for delivery down the line after telegraphing the orders.  M&SM refreshment rooms started as early as 1903 and it is believed that this fine five decade relationship with the railways was perhaps due to the personal friendship between Edward Waller Stoney, the SIR Chief Engineer (his daughter Ethel was the mother of Alan Turing, the person involved in making one of the earliest computers and the breaking of the enigma cipher) one of Spencer’s first shareholders and who became later, a director of Spencer’s.

The refreshment rooms by contract were to be staffed by men of good character, fit, well behaved, in good health, well dressed and skillful! While furniture and space was provided by SIR, the cutlery, and upkeep was Spencer’s responsibility. They also ran restaurant cars on important trains such as the Ceylon boat mail and the link ships at Dhanushkodi. Spencer’s provided a canteen facility for the Tamil labor transit camp at Mandapam. Interestingly they also served at wedding parties, POW camps (2nd world war) and army canteens!

As the WWII progressed the food business was severely affected and quality dropped due to lack of supplies and after India became independent, austerity rules and lack of foreign visitors affected the business drastically with occasional visitors finding their food terrible and unpalatable. In the late 50’s western style catering was out of place and the business eventually ground to a halt.

The area of business which rose its profile much higher was the hotel business. Connemara in Madras, the Savoy in Ooty, the Sylks in Coonoor, The Metropole in Mysore, The Blue Mountain in Kothagiri, the Malabar hotel in Cochin and The State hotel in Jaipur were all once managed or set up by Spencers. They then branched into aerated waters and as they say, Spencer’s Soda but naturally helped many an alcohol consumer drift to the clouds. Don’t be surprised, they also branched out into stocking premium wines and spirits.

But what I did not really know about at all was their connections with manufacture of cigars. Their brand was the Gold Mohur Havana shaped cigars made from the finest sun dried Dindigul tobacco. A number of versions were made with different tobaccos, imported and local, from plants at Trichy and Dindigul. And yes, cigars in those days were rolled on one’s thigh! The little Randolph proved to be very popular. The Dindigul factory chugged on until the late sixties.

We did have a Spencer’s at Calicut beach and I recollect many visits to this shop.  It is said that KB Menon a freedom fighter, used Spencer’s as his hideout for a while when he was sent to Calicut in 1942 to organize the Quit India movement. In 1942, Dr. K.B. Menon and a few other patriots had planned to destroy the Feroke Bridge, as a token protest against the British rule. However, the conspiracy was discovered and defused, and the "culprits" were punished in the so called Keezhariyur Bomb Conspiracy Case which CHF has written about,earlier.

S Muthiah explains - After independence came the gradual decline of the company, the first signs seen during the stewardship of Robinson's son-in-law, S.W. Edwards, who became Chairman in 1950. He was faced with a ban on imports, an exodus of the firm's best customers, most of whom had ensured occupancy in its hotels, the nationalization of the railways with the resultant loss of railway business, and a tight money situation in a strangled marketplace. He saw Indianisation - and a different outlook that might result - as the way out. And Cooverji Hormasji Bhabha, a wealthy Bombay businessman who'd been a minister in Nehru's first cabinet, got the nod over Anantha Ramakrishnan of Amalgamations, mainly because of Zal Rustom Irani who had joined the company in 1937 as its first senior Indian executive. Irani became a Director in 1943 - and his were thewords that mattered with Edwards.

During the late 50’s after the first Indian director Irani joined its ranks, the Spencer’s group tried to diversify into pharmaceuticals and consumer durables. This never worked out but the fortunes were stabilized with their decision to lease the Connemara, West End and Savoy to the Taj Group in the 1970s. But the scene slipped into a disaster when a major fire in 1981 destroyed the main showroom. 

Eventually the new owners sold the Company in 1989 to the R.P. Goenka Group of Calcutta who were involved with many other chains such as the Food World, Health & Glow and Music World. Spencer’s as an institution still remains - and so do a few stores. As Muthiah put it - In fact, the main store in Madras has a liquor counter no second to the one in Spencer's heyday. But no Spencer's store today, is what it was; the ambience has gone, together with the building. The Spencers Plaza mall has taken its place, housing over 700 shops.

At one time, the Spencer's Empire according to their website stretched from Peshawar to Cochin, from Karachi to Chittagong, spanning the length and breadth of undivided India. Today it has passed hands, changed in culture and outlook though still remaining in name. Anybody who wants to study the group in more detail has only to lay their hands on Muthiah’s wonderful retelling of that story.

The Spencer legend – S Muthiah
The many articles in ‘The Hindu’ by S Muthiah

Pics –
Waiter passing trays –Steve McCurry Pakistan 
Spencers – PB Mani
Others - google pics - owners acknowledged with thanks