Edward Lear at ‘The Summer Isle of Eden’

1874 – Calicut

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.

Edward Lear as such does not need much introduction, for he is known as the king of limericks or what others term literary nonsense. Now if you wonder for a moment, for a person to think and dream in such wild and nonsensical terms in a strict and prudish Victorian society, there surely must have been some reason. The first being the fact that he was the 21st child of Ann and Jermiah Lear, now that was a productive couple, surely. Born last of the twenty-one children of a London stockbroker who fell defaulter in the financial crash, the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, Edward Lear, in the break-up of the family home, was looked after by his much-senior sister Ann. Ignored by his parents, victim of epileptic attacks which were to bedevil him all his life, asthmatic, the child withdrew into emotional isolation.

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.

After publishing three albums of Italian views in 1841 and 1846, he began to explore countries off the beaten track, the Ionian islands and the Greek mainland, Turkey, Albania, Malta, Egypt, the Sinai desert, Palestine and, in 1873 and 1874, India and Ceylon. It was during this journey, his last, that Lear painted the immense Himalayan Mountain, Kanchenjunga, from Darjeeling. India drove him "nearly mad from sheer beauty and wonder ". While he went to many places in India, this article will concentrate on his days in Malabar, especially Calicut and his series of sketches called ‘The Calicut series’.

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 Calicut. I mooned about those beautiful lanes and roads, the exquisite vegetation of which beats all chance of description. Returned at 3 or so, but after that there was no possibility whatever of drawing, as monsoon storm began. So I went to the reading room and read Punch. Later it poured deluges of rain, and continued to do so.

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.

Rain all night but fme early, and off in a good bullock bandy; slow movement, but all the better for seeing the scenery. Tanks with crimson lotus, others pink, also white, large and small. Lovely glimpses of mountains, pure broad colour; red bright soil; tallipats (large leafed plants), banyans, creepers, and pepper vines: pale blue ipornoeas and yellow altheas. Coco-trees and nuts; green bundles of betel leaf, carried by men. It took six hours and 40 minutes to reach the travellers' bungalow at Quilandi, not at all too long for such bad roads, and with a heavy load. It is sad enough to pass through lovely country and not be able to draw it, except by foolish scratches and snatches; but I am convinced that in the boat I should have seen far less, if that be any consolation. To my surprise, the bungalow is very decent, though of the empty and rustic class; and we get over breakfast of cold mutton, bread, claret and water quietly enough. The "Maty" (so they call butlers or khamsamahs hereabouts) seems capable of making some tin soup, and perhaps curry.

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.

Crows; lepers; tin-pot birds. Apparent universal leprosy. At 8.45 the fooly boy-driver would run at a great rate down a steep hill and, into a side ditch, happily not a deep one; two feet further on would have landed us against a tree trunk, and split the bandy. Always sandy hills to ascend and descend; the side-views are generally shut in by palm groves, now and then a bright green level of rice intervening, with, as it were, screens of cocos and blue tops of hills afar. Many women hereabouts delightfully pretty and well made.

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.

Lear then spent some days in Tellichery and Mahe and decided to go to Cochin by steam boat and from there to Ceylon. During this tour from down the coast to Cochin and Alleppey he strained his back and side severely as he was in great pain. Anyway he decided that he wanted to get back to Calicut and recuperate. So he reached back on Dec 16th.

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.

Went out and bought twelve tins of soup and meat at Hirjee's. Then to Mission Shop where I bought twelve more tins, and four bad flannel shirts, about which had a row with the people because mostly the shirts were moth-eaten and worthless, yet they wished to prevent my opening them before purchasing.

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
SARAMCO article

From www – thanks to respective posters.

At Home

It has been a while now, and the experience of living in our own home has hit some 100 days and glad to report that we are enjoying it immensely. Finally, many of the small trinkets and stuff that had been lying in cartons and going back & forth across continents the last few years have at long last seen light and been arranged. My book collection or whatever is remaining have all been arranged and stacked and I sometimes stand in front of them and enjoy the sight, marveling at the art of writing and the results which are the pains of labor of the writer, the messages he tries to convey subtle or direct, resulting in books that survive generations.

The mind is slowly relaxing now that things are in their rightful place, sometimes I wake up a little early and I come down to make coffee and holding the mug ( In the US it is never a cup but a mug – pretty huge at that) of strong stuff (but nowhere near the taste of our filter coffee from down south) and look at some of the items in the showcase, each connected with an event bringing on a flood of memories, fondly thinking of the events and places and people.
The bed is still not right, it does not face the right direction, but I have given up on that for realigning it would be a disaster to the aesthetics the room. My sleep pattern is still disturbed and a friend from Switzerland has given me some ideas which involve a kind of deep blowing out exercise before bedtime. Whether it is effective or not, I cannot say as yet, but so far so good. The music system that has accompanied us to so many countries has been set up again and the CD’s, cassettes, VHS tapes and LP’s (Yes, I still have a collection of 45’s and 78’s) all stacked up. It is nice to sit and listen to all that in peace in a corner of the house.

But the rains are not to be seen and it distresses me a lot. The front and rear lawn are a disaster, and the grass looks like it has been napalmed. It is all brown, dead as dead with no chance of revival and the possibility of a huge lawn repair bill looming in my eyes and dreams. I have built up a lot of knowledge on draught and fescue grass and Bermuda grass and all that stuff, as well as arcane stuff related to aeration, watering and fertilizing, the amount of nitrogen needed etc, but it is useless for when I go out and look at the immensity of work ahead, I chicken out. The missus tells me I should find a gardener, but well, oh! Gardener where art thee? I called a few and none have responded to my wails.

Every alternate day ( we are allowed to water lawns only on ‘every other day’ – the usage for alternate in US) I stand with a sheepish face and the hose and do manual watering, trying to coax the grass out of their sleepy abode, but seem to be waking up only the weeds for they come out with gusto. I even know their names now!! Crab grass, and many grass like and un-grass like weeds. As I stand there with that stupid hose pipe in hand, I look across and see my ‘across the road’ neighbor’s lush lawns. Sometimes they come out at that very moment (which I dread) and you see the semblance of a smirk in their faces (look at that moron and his stupid weed garden - kind of smirk) and I turn away.

We have interesting neighbors, some who are glum like a cloudy day and really serious and some who are cheery and jocular. The former types are the ones who have the worst dogs; these dogs growl and bark even after seeing me for so many days. I think they are told to do so, really, by their owners who perhaps hate life and this world. As I see them in tandem marching along the street, I see the remarkable similarity in their faces, the dog’s and owner’s that is. Then comes the baby owners, for there are many, with prams in front. I see many new contraptions, heavy duty, light duty, chic and practical machines to carry babies, at work. And when you look and them and the owner, you can come to the natural conclusion of how they match. The slim and trim mom would never push a big squeaky practical pram, whereas the big moma would. But then seriously, I have never seen such obedient children, none of them bawl and cry like our kids, they seem to be at peace with the world and their surroundings, i.e. till they become teenagers.

We have lots of the home staying breed here, pops working from home, pops who are retired and pops who are house husbands. The pops working from home seem prosperous and are seen on most days mowing the lawn and the such, looking very calm and contended but then vanish on a trip somewhere for some days and are soon back to profess much delight at being reunited with the family as they get back. The retired pops are mostly at their barbecue sets burning up all kinds of meat and pottering around being generally useless or useful – depends on what the wifey says.

The last lot is the interesting one, they can be seen pushing prams or hanging kids by their neck (they have an interesting contraption these days to suspend them around your neck and making the hanger, not the hangee look positively foolish) religiously every day at appointed times (and explaining the various steps and stages the kid has moved through in the last 24 hours to helpless passers by) and walking around and usually stopping for long durations near or at houses which have cute moms, to gossip.

We have some interesting desis in the neighborhood as well, and I must say I am happy with those families we have come across. One is a jolly guy and the other somewhat upset with the world, but then we all get along well so far.

The kitchen is up and running at full steam, the pantry is stocked and smelling like a desi grocer. The smoke alarms are far away from the stove, so we do not have to worry too much about having the police and the fire engine coming by to investigate like it happened when we were living in Florida. Ah! I have to tell you about that.

The first was when we were making dosas and the damm alarm just went off. It howled for a while and stopped and we continued with our dosas till the front door bell rang and a massive police woman appeared in the door frame asking what was up. I was aghast wondering what to say and mumbled that we were cooking. She walked around and smelt the kitchen and stated it was an interesting smell and warned us that if we had another nuisance alarm, we would be fined.

Well, the second time was a little bit more serious, we decided to make Chicken tikka in the oven and ended up with a huge amount of smoke. Now you must realize that we were living in an apartment then and not cooking outdoors like they do barbecues here. This time the idiotic alarm went on and on and triggered the building alarm system as well, resulting in the fire engines arrival with all sirens and bells and whistles. As soon as that happened, the kids vanished to their respective rooms and the better half to the bedroom. In a panic, I opened out all possible windows and doors by the meantime to clear the air, as the firemen came rushing out waiting for the pilot to make the first checks.

The entire building, except us that is, had evacuated the building and were standing studiously motionless outside the building (we did not even know we had to do that). We were inside our home knowing exactly the nuisance we had created, but wondering what to do. OK, we can go out, but the alarm system would anyway show exactly where the alarm originated and we knew there was nothing to worry!! So we stayed…and soon enough came the strident knock – no, actually it was a thump on the door. It was the same police woman (but I could detect a quizzical smile on her face this time – I thought so at least) accompanied by the fire station pilot.

What else could I do but cast a very sheepish (now why is it called sheepish? Do we look like sheep with that face?) and forlorn look at her? Well, anyway I explained that we were cooking chicken this time hoping she remembered my short lecture on rice pancakes the previous time. She was shaking her head in exasperation as she left and I knew the bill was soon to come.

But that was a long time ago. After that second event and a $50 fine, we learnt enough to disconnect the alarm dome when heavy cooking was going on.

Boy – I am drifting, that was a story dating back 8 or 9 years, here we have no problems with nervous smoke alarms so far and have a nice 600cfm air sucker vent system over the stove… I am sure the backyard neighbors have started understanding the smells of Indian cooking, by now. They would be saying – ah! The curry factory is at work!!.

We are slowly making great friends and the music sessions are going fine. Life is looking up. The economy is tanking as they say, public mood is downbeat but well, I am sure it will all swing back soon, for this is an industrious society and people want to do well. In the meantime, I am wrestling with things like mortgage payments, utility bills etc - trying to explain to the city office that my horrendous water bill is not the result of a water leak as they assumed, but my forlorn attempt at getting dead grass to be reborn.

And I wonder, why is it that there is rebirth in Hindu minds only for people and not for grass? They are not inanimate objects, at least Dr Bose was clear and so many scientists say that plants have a mind or something like that. We had two Cyprus trees planted in the backyard, they are dead too and I stand next to them and look, but dare not talk to them as Dr Bose once did , for the backyard neighbor is out there and flipping burgers. He is an ex cop and would walk by to investigate and maybe call 911 if he saw me talking to trees.

Oops – I forgot to tell you about the lawn mower, now we were used to electric machines as it was in UK, but here they have real gas ( i.e. petrol) driven machines with clutches and accelerators and so on. They even have mini tractor like mowers. I ended up with one of those self propelled ones, with a lot of HP to get it up hills with ease and pull you along, in case you nod off. The only problem is the racket this stuff creates. The pre-purchase survey was equally interesting; I had to look at Honda engine, local engine, fuel consumption, power, real wheel or front wheel drive, mulching, side discharge, rear discharge, bagging and so on. Phew, pretty complex for the uninitiated!!

Hey you reader, don’t worry about all the above – I am just rambling on, and just being flippant. Know what? Last night I saw a nice little rabbit sitting on our lawn and looking around, wondering perhaps what its own world had come to. And just the other day I almost ran into a deer which darted across the road. This is all in the middle of a bustling set of tri cities, mind you. The trees are starting to turn yellow and soon I am told it will be a splash of glorious colors as only Carolina can exhibit. But color or no color I need some rain, then I have to cast fertilizer ( my late uncle would be smiling wherever he is – for we were so disinterested in all that when we visited our paddy fields in Pallavur) and over seed the lawn. The other day I tried spraying some stupid chemicals to get rid of a pesky weed growth but all that has done is get them yellow and inviting perhaps more guffaws (behind his curtain) from the opposite neighbor with the lush lawn.

Sometimes some of them (neighbors) come by and talk about football and golf and stuff like that and I try to counter that with soccer and cricket and tennis and this effectively terminates the conversation. I have discussed with my son about him teaching me the salient aspects of American football so that I have the required conversational skill. Here you have to know all that you see (and I still don’t), or you are some stupid foreigner fellow and they raise eyebrows. Sometimes I counter it cleverly by bringing in mentions about football and medieval history and then the jaws of that cocky chap goes slack and the jowls come out and I say, yeah man! to myself.

I found a great library at UNC, they have such a huge collection of books on Indian history. When I go there, I just marvel at the massive collections, the floors and floors of books and the opportunities available to these kids to study all that.

It is a bit different after the sun sets and dinner is eaten, we go for a walk meeting the others who dare to do such things and stay off the couch, and then we settle down and I pick up a moldy old history book and immerse myself into it while the TV shows Indian idol or some such thing. After a few hours I start nodding off and this results in some gentle but persistent persuasion to head back upstarts to start up the ‘huuuum’ breathing out exercises before hitting the sack…. And so goes life............

And that friends, is a commentary on life these days at home. Sorry for being a boring rambler, but I thought I will write a little something different this time, not dreary history related articles.

NottuSwara – Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s European airs

Carnatic music is more Greek than Greek and Latin put together for some people, dense stuff so to say, but many a mathematician understood classical music better (and as you know in early days it was Brahmins in the South and who excelled in Math and Carnatic music). The trick to all this is listening a lot and deciphering the code to music and for that you have to learn to use what is known as the Melkartha table. Anyway I am not going to get into all that, but my own understanding is slowly getting better after about 6 months of weekly Carnatic lessons as a small time member of a fascinating group. More about all that another day after I am better initiated, but today I will write about the lighter side of Carnatic if I may term it that, and a very interesting side.

First listen to this composition (I am not the singer) loosely based around Sankarabharana, then read the rest of the article. And at the start a big thanks to Aparna for introducing us to this number and me to this genre.

Hopefully that felt good and easy on your ears and transported you to faraway Celtic lands

Now some of you must have heard that Baluswamy Diskshitar - Muthuswamy’s brother introduced the Violin to Carnatic music as I mentioned some months ago while writing about Ettayapuram in the article Cat (Kattabomman) Etappa and Dumby.

Well, the British rule in India has to be thanked again for without the violin, there is no way a Carnatic recital gets complete today. How Baluswamy learnt violin is also a matter of contention. Some opine that he learnt it in Manali thanks to the Mudaliar sponsorship; others say it was at the courts of Ettayapuram and a third faction states this happened at Tanjore with the help of Vadivelu.

Anyway it is difficult to figure out how that happened, but Baluswamy learnt Violin and bits of Celtic music. He practiced it at home in Manali and the master composer and elder brother Muthuswamy took note. Later Muthuswamy set Sanskrit shlokas to the tunes and we know it today as the Nottu Swara Sahitya. There are some 36-40 of these works set around the Raaga Sankarabharanam. The song you heard was one of Dikshitar’s compositions.

Why is it called Nottu swara? Well it stands for Notes Swara, i.e. ‘Western notes’ swara. They are also termed ‘European airs’ by the English who took note. But to really get to the bottom of all this, let us all go back in time to 1800, a bit North of Madras to Manali, where today we have all the refineries and all that, the very same place which was bombed by Emden.

Muthuswamy Dikshitar was born in 1775 (1775-1835) in Tiruvarur, near Trichy as a fruit of long prayers by his father Ramaswamy Dikshitar, a famous singer himself. Even before he was sixteen, he became proficient both in vocal music and in playing the veena. Tiruvavur incidentally was the very place which produced the rest of the Carnatic holy trinity namely Thyagaraja and Sama Sastry.

To get back to Nottuswara, let us first check out the popular version.

The British East India Company was slowly settling down in India. They had come to agreements with the Zamorin and Cochin king in Malabar and moved upwards to Madras which became the center of their operations in the South, a little before the transformation of Calcutta as the main base. Intellectuals were slowly finding their way from Victorian Britain to Madras, analyzing things like Hinduism, music, Dravidian languages, customs etc and writing book after book as well as collecting manuscripts for posterity and for their own private collections. The law and order was not as firm and formal and to the British liking and for that purpose came the troops to support, mainly from the Welsh regions, Scotland & Ireland. The army bands came to provide the troops direction, entertainment and accompaniment. As all of you know they practice seriously, with the captain showing great style and panache, throwing the baton and catching it as they marched along in glorious uniforms with color, pomp and splendor. Off working hours, they performed for state occasions at Fort 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 often 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. But listening to Baluswamy practice these basic tunes coupled with the band performances provided Muthuswamy the base to set his earliest compositions. Baluswamy’s experiments with the Violin on the other hand were even more pleasing and soon the violin became a permanent feature of Carnatic music concerts.

So as we saw, the Celtic tunes were to affect Dikshitar prodding him to create a new genre called Nottuswara – ‘Notes Swara’ (nottu being the Tamil slang for notes) based on these British tunes but set to Sanskrit devotional lyrics. You can call them Indi Celtic fusion in today’s terms. Many of these are based on the folk music tradition of the British Isles and are not from the Western classical music traditions. 39 or 40 of such compositions were considered to have been completed by Muthuswamy.

But as a popular version has it, CP Brown (termed as collector of Madras, which he was not) requested for these Kritis and Dikshitar created them on the request of Brown. But in my mind it just so happened and the musical sense of Dikshitar just penned the lyrics to those popular tunes of the time. Probably somebody asked him to do it, most probably not CP Brown considering Brown’s fondness for adding actual ‘Indian’ works to his collection.

In the second version Baluswamy first heard western music from the bands and wanted to learn the fiddle. Mudaliar then arranged a European tutor to train Baluswamy, who after mastering the playing of a fiddle moved to Tanjavur. The rajah of Ettayapuram was taken aback listening to young Baluswamy at the violin and invited him to his palace, as Asthana vidwan. Muthuswamy who was in Tanjavur at that time also came to Ettayapuram (this does not quite feel right though) and picked up the tunes from Balu at Ettayapuram.

In the 3rd version, the quartet of the vellala brothers was performing at Maharaj Serfoji’s court at Madurai. The youngest member Vadivelu was Muthuswamy’s disciple. Vadivelu had learnt the violin under Friedrich Schwartz and Vadivelu later taught the western tunes to Muthuswamy Dikshitar. But the quartet left Madurai after an argument with Serfoji and Vadivelu moved on to Swati Tirunal’s court in Trivandrum. So Muthuswamy picked up the tunes from Vadivelu and then penned the lyrics.

Finally another version alludes to Varaha payyar having learnt the violin and taught Vadivelu how to play it. It is also probable that a few Sanskrit and Tamil compositions had already been created using Western melodies which Muthuswamy listened to together with Vadivelu and Baluswamy, then tabulated them and compiled them for an Englishman who requested a compilation.

But how would one decide that they (the 39-40 we know today) are indeed works of Muthuswamy Dikshitar? According to stalwarts you have to identify the Mudra (I have no idea, I do not know how) can be identified as Dikshitar’s.These songs composed during the end years of the 18th century bear the "Mudra” or the composer’s signature "Guruguha”. Remember that these Nottu swaras were done several years before Dikshitar composed his first kriti, as Vak_geya Kara, (Srinathadi guruguho jayath...) on the hills of Tiruttani (around 1809). The “Nottuswara “songs were thus the forerunners of Dikshitar’s great classic compositions; and so Dikshitar had decided upon his signature, Mudra, quite early in his life, even before he left for Varanasi.

The tunes used were from the following original Western compositions such as Limmerick, Castilian Maid, Voulez Vouz Dansers, Lord Mc Donald’s reel & God Save the Queen. "Nottuswara sahithya" clearly brings out the structure of these compositions as the "English-Note" or "Nottuswara" tune with Sahitya or text. These are typically prescribed for beginners in place of Gitams.

Writers mention that three sources of documentation are available for the nottuswara sahityas. The first is supposedly a manuscript dating back to the year 1833, which records the writing of Sanskrit lyrics by Dikshitar for 12 of these melodies, in response to a request by CP Brown.

But is that right? Sambamurti states as follows in his book - "At the suggestion of an influential friend, Dikshitar composed Sanskrit sahityas to some of the western melodies. These were composed in 1832 and dedicated to Mr Brown, then the collector of Chittoor District. Mr. Brown is the renowned author of the first Telugu Dictionary." So it appears that in this version, these nottusvaras were composed only three years before Dikshitar passed away and not early in his life. The veracity of this version is not corroborated, however it is true that CP Brown was in Chittor in 1832-33 and famed as the acting ‘famine’ collector.

Others like Dr Durga state that a Telugu manuscript was presented to Charles Philip Brown in Madras in 1820 by Kuppayya and Seshayya under the caption "Jathiswaramulu". Though the primary source calls them as "Jathiswaramulu", the title "Nottuswara sahithya" is a more appropriate term for these compositions. A manuscript preserved in the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library, Chennai, labeled as Manuscript no. D. 2536 contains twenty of such songs of Dikshitar, written in Telugu script. Of these, twelve are composed in Sanskrit language and the other eight are composed in Telugu language.

The second is a notated version of 33 of the nottusvaras without reference to the original tunes, in a supplement to the colossal work Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini authored by Subbarama Dikshitar in 1905 and the third is a work by Manali Chinnasami Mudaliar in 1893 that notates some of these svarasahityas.

Technically, the compositions are not in Shankarabharana proper, being based on simple melodies and devoid of the ornamentation (gamaka) that is characteristic of Carnatic music.The end result of all this however was a genre of music shunned by purists but noticed today for the reason that many of the young learners live in western countries. These numbers can be listened to in the Vismaya CD if you chance across it or order it. If not a simple search on Google or Youtube will fetch you many of these tunes

1. Those desirous of reading a bio on CP Brown may click the link at the end of the note. He was a great Telugu writer (somewhat like Gundert in Malayalam) and made the first dictionary and so on. His role in this is still not very clear to me and is probably just incidental, but is mentioned as a source.

2. The one person who talks about this topic regularly and presents it worldwide, also the person who helped launch these CD’s is Kanniks Kannikeswaraan from Cincinnati Ohio. He launched the musical production Colonial interlude that I will watch some day if it comes to town. Kanniks is a visionary musician, composer and music educator with several creations and recordings to his credit.

Theorizing the local: music, practice, and experience in South Asia and beyond - Richard K. Wolf
Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The Postcolonial Politics of Music in South India - Amanda J. Weidman
Three part article by Vismaya
For those who want to check out a bit on the table and math in carnatic music, check out Harish’s blog
The Nottuswara CD’s
References to other Western Indian compositions
The Nottuswaras with notation
British band pic - Courtesy US DOD