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NON-FICTION: THE MEMSAAB CHRONICLES

November 18, 2018

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Charlotte Canning’s painting of Lahore | Pictures from the book
Charlotte Canning’s painting of Lahore | Pictures from the book

Fakir Syed Aijazuddin is, without argument, Pakistan’s foremost teller of historical tales. Across 16 works, his pen — rather, his keyboard — spans several centuries past and easily glides into contemporary times. He has yet again outdone himself with Sketches from a Howdah: Charlotte, Lady Canning’s Tours, 1858-1861. Meticulously designed and printed on art paper in royal quarto size (10 by 12.5 inches), the volume is a collector’s item.

The title is apt, for it seems Charlotte Canning habitually sketched sitting atop an elephant in an elaborate howdah, complete with a dickey behind for her maid. The book’s front cover and frontispiece bear this colourful scene in oil, rendered by the well-known Raj artist George Landseer.

For those acquainted with the delightful and somewhat acerbic view of India in Emily Eden’s Up the Country: Letters Written to Her Sister from the Upper Provinces of India, this is a useful follow-up and comparison. While Eden was then governor-general Lord Auckland’s sister and travelled across India in the 1830s with her illustrious brother, Canning came out to India in 1855 as wife of then governor-general Charles Canning and ended up being India’s first vicereine.

Despite her colonial prejudices, Charlotte Canning, wife of the governor-general during the Great ‘Mutiny’ of 1857, brought the subcontinent alive through diligent documentation with her pen and brush

In her 20s, Canning, nee Stuart, had served as Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria. There she developed a close personal relationship with her monarch. When Canning moved to India with her husband, she made “a lateral shift from one height to an equivalent level of pre-eminence,” writes Aijazuddin.

Earlier, among other assignments, on her travels in Germany with the queen, Canning was “ordered” to continually be painting. Her work received royal favour for being “so like the places [depicted].” Unsurprisingly, Canning was also expected to coach the queen in her own artistic endeavours which, we learn, were hardly at par.

The Rohtas Fort at Jhelum
The Rohtas Fort at Jhelum

Between March 1858 and her death in November 1861, Canning undertook several journeys out of Calcutta where her husband was stationed. Her various travels took her to the Nilgiri hills in the south, along the beaten trail of the Grand Trunk Road up to Peshawar, into the hills of Himachal and Garhwal (Mussoorie failed to impress her!) before heading east to Bengal again. There was a subsequent trip along this same line, but only part of the way to central India. Her final journey, just weeks before she succumbed to “Purnea fever”, was up into the wooded glens of Darjeeling.

On all her journeys, Canning seems to have kept meticulous notes which, it is presumed, at the end of each day she enlarged and carefully transplanted into her journal. Her diaries have been quoted in excerpt by two earlier writers, but for the first time they appear in full with connecting commentary by Aijazuddin. Facsimiles of the widely spaced scrawl of the diary contained in the book show a sometimes illegible hand and it must have been no mean task deciphering page after page for the printed form. As well as the journals, Aijazuddin had access to Canning’s letters to Queen Victoria and members of her own family.

The author with Charlotte Canning’s albums
The author with Charlotte Canning’s albums

Canning’s eye missed little and, when she felt for some place especially, she let her brush fly. Like so many travellers before her, she was completely taken by the charm of Varanasi and Haridwar. At Sher Shah Suri’s fort of Rohtas near Jhelum, she was again in ecstasy, producing sketch after masterful sketch. Indeed, one who has explored the fort in detail can pinpoint exactly where Canning the artist would have stood with her sketch pad. At the same time, Attock, brooding over the mighty Indus, was the “beau ideal” for the painter.

A sensitive observer of Indian life and architecture, Canning was at once a naturalist too. In the Nilgiri hills she lamented the destruction of primal forest to make way for coffee plantations. Near Simla she found it “strange how little the forests are prized and how wantonly they are destroyed.” She goes on to inform her reader that when “wood is gone clouds are much less and little moisture collects and the hills grow more and more barren.” In the Garhwal hills, she was appalled by the wanton killing of full-grown trees by bark-stripping. This operation is sometimes employed in Pakistan even today to surreptitiously kill trees in protected areas so that they can be harvested as dead wood.

Benares [Varanasi]
Benares [Varanasi]

Her appreciation of natural wonder is nowhere more evident than when she becomes rapturous in the marble rocks outside Jabalpur. This remarkable rock formation was rendered by her brush from a boat as it meandered along the winding Narmada river, cutting through the white chasm.

Tiger hunts had a strange effect on Canning, however. She was drawn to them in almost childlike awe at the same time as the naturalist in her was revolted: “The subject of tiger stories is the constant topic of talk here and one at last a little agrees with the man in an Indian society at home who said: ‘Have you ever killed a tiger?’ The answer was ‘No’ — ‘Oh then, I’ll sit by you’.” But then, subsequent to a successful hunt, we find her admiring what was evidently the largest tiger she could imagine.

The painted houses of Peshawar, “with so much wood about them”, seemed so Turkish to the artist, while in Amritsar, turbaned Sikh nobility was like “a bed of ranunculus” with such intense colour and texture. She gives an almost breathless description of the magnificent robes and shawls of the men. Though she approved of their “very fine faces” and “black beards”, she scoffed at their legs for not quite fitting the rest of the body. That would indeed have taken a sharp eye to notice.

The durbars which she observed secretly from a chink in the “samiana” (shamiana [tents] incidentally of the same colour scheme of scarlet and green as we saw until about four decades ago) become quite a circus in her description of the cutthroat rivalry of precedence. As now, so too in those days, it was important for local nobility to have it known to all that officialdom considered them ‘higher’ than their peers. Canning tells us that error in misreading status was very quick to give umbrage.

At Phagwara, the Cannings met the “all but a Christian” Raja of Kapurthala who “has a missionary living with him — and married a Christian wife! The daughter of his half-caste tutor of the name of Hodges!” Canning accuses the raja of waiting for his mother to die before he has himself baptised, perhaps to save the old woman the pain of seeing her son give up the faith of his ancestors. She proceeds to disparagingly note that she has nothing against his wife, “but the fact of her choosing to marry a skin so many shades darker than her own.”

Skin tone and looks were apparently very important to Canning. In Peshawar, while feting soldiers’ children, she found those of the Europeans “so white and pretty — such a contrast to a number of little Bengal Artillery half castes sitting opposite them — some girls quite dark and I believe quite ‘native’ children of native Christians — nothing could be that colour.”

Reading Canning’s Victorian prejudices makes one laugh today. But over a century and a half ago, these were perhaps very real, especially for European peerage. Breakfasting with the Raja of Burdwan (now Bardhaman) she critically observes the man’s Englishness: his language, polished boots and strapped trousers and that he was not vegetarian (though he ate chicken and not beef). But in Peshawar she found “nice people and nice pretty faces.”

Though ordinary Indians are generally missing from the narrative — we see them in crowds welcoming the governor-general or bathing on the ghats of Haridwar and Varanasi — the land comes alive both in description and in Canning’s paintings. Despite her vain prejudices, the reader gradually comes to like, even love, her for her feeling and admiration of this great and wonderful land of the subcontinent. What she leaves behind in the sketches and words that make this book is a priceless treasure of history.

The dedication page bears an image of a dark-haired woman with a strong nose and chin. It is dated to 1849. Another shows her working on a drawing. This is dated to the last year of Canning’s life, that is, 1861. Though the nose and chin keep their character, the two are as if of different individuals, for in the latter the face is pinched. Much seems to have passed in the dozen years between. For one, Canning and her husband Charles do not seem to have been very close; her journal mentions him only as “C.” It is only in 1861 that she sometimes calls him by her pet name for him: Carlo. Then the underlying grief of not having children could also have told upon Canning’s beauty.

One thing is clear: his lordship was too caught up in the responsibility of managing India in the years immediately preceding and following the cataclysm of 1857 to have much time for his wife. He took her for granted. She was always there to oversee and be present at formal dinners and when he needed her to be with him in meetings with Indian nobility. Other than that, they had separate tents on their travels. But when Canning died suddenly in November 1861, Charles was hard put to come to grips with the transition and he very quickly became a “decrepit old man.” He wrote a very poignant letter to inform Queen Victoria of the passing of her friend. If truth be told, reading it mists the eye and one has to be grateful to Aijazuddin to have included it in the final chapter.

If Charles’s letter moves, Aijazuddin’s closing words do even more. His tribute to Canning is fitting: “Few others of her rank could have used their time so conscientiously or more productively. [The journals] testify to her relentless diligence in seeing India for herself, on behalf of Queen Victoria and for her family back home, and in a sense also for us. The product of her untiring brush and her fluent pen viewed together combine to recreate a spectacular period of India’s history, observed from the lofty height of a vicereine’s howdah.”

The reviewer is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and author of nine books on travel

Sketches from a Howdah: Charlotte, Lady
Canning’s Tours, 1858-1861
By F.S. Aijazuddin
F.S. Aijazuddin in collaboration with the
Harewood House Trust, UK
ISBN: 978-9697120086
340pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 18th, 2018

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