Somebody said somewhere: ‘never plan ahead’
... I didn’t.
Oh! ... But, Life had other plans!
Life is not that easy to throw down your dice and walk away
dusting your bottom, you see.
July had been [still is] an overwhelmingly eventful month.
Let me stick to the joyful part to start with.
***
History fascinates me.
Even during my younger years, in an attempt is to recapitulate, though I loved to read Perry Mason, Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, P.D.James, Nevil Shute, Ian Fleming, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, John Le Carre etc., from my father’s bookshelf to fast paced James Hadley Chase, Ken Follet, Robert Ludlum, Colin Forbes, Trevanian and other thriller writers, I usually return home to historical novels. G.M.Fraser, Patrick O’Brian, William Golding, Margaret Mitchell, Alexandre Dumas and Sir Walter Scott were the favourites. Then I found Thomas Hardy, a wonderful story teller. But, Colleen McCullough with her ‘Masters of Rome Series’ swept me off by her meticulously researched works, particularly, Caesar’s Women (1996). By selecting this, I might differ with critics like Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D. {Clinical Professor of Surgery (Neurosurgery, ret.) and Adjunct Professor of Medical History (ret.)}. I will write in defence of Colleen McCullough on some other occasion. Coming back to ‘Caesar’s Women’, Cleopatra is more than an allegory of personality traits. She is not a Helen, the legendary 'face to launch a thousand ships and burn the topless towers of Ilium'. She is a full-dimensional complex human being. Most of us know the Shakespearean version of ‘Cleopatra’ or read ‘Cleopatra’ only through Shakespeare:
“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety;...”

51i-t6z5WVLBut, I found a totally different Cleopatra in Margaret George’s ‘The Memoirs of Cleopatra’. She had spent two and a half years writing ‘The Memoirs of Cleopatra’, travelling to Egypt four times to do the research. Referring to the many incorrect presentations of the legendary queen, Margaret George considers her novel to be ‘the most historically accurate version within the limits of the medium.’ She viewed Cleopatra fundamentally as a ‘political leader’ who suffered from centuries of Roman propaganda and Shakespearean plays, each of whom sought to depict her as ‘flighty’.
Margaret George said, “She was obviously very appealing but not this bimbo that the Romans would like you to think she was.” Anyway, she stands tall in history among all the Kings and Emperors put together. Equally intrigued I am when it comes to ‘Ranis’ & ‘Maharanis’ of India.

We have read a lot about Maharajas and their escapades, eccentricities, indulgences and debaucheries. ‘Freedom At Midnight’ mentions that the Maharaja of Mysore would only buy the cars in batches of sevens, with ‘doing a Mysore’ becoming a common parlance in the Rolls-Royce showroom for selling seven cars at the same time. King Jai Singh of Alwar, after being insulted by a salesman of Rolls Royce in London, used their cars to pick the garbage of the city. He kept doing so until the company apologized for their behaviour. Debauchery was once such privilege of them. For instance, the Nizam of Hyderabad had in addition to his legal quartet of wives, 42 other begums in the zanana and 44 khanazads or women attendants. And if they were inadequate, he would often marry a new woman on a Thursday and divorce her on Friday. Those were days when a maharaja could snap his fingers and order a dish, thus: “Take a whole camel, put a goat inside it, and inside the goat a peacock, inside which, put a chicken. Inside the chicken put a sand grouse, inside it put a quail, and finally, a sparrow. Then put the camel in a hole and steam it.”

sethulakshmiThe extravagance is clearly portrayed in the words of Ranjith Singh Gaekwad: “I feel privileged to have been born in the Royal house of the Gaekwads of Baroda. My childhood was filled with the most amazing sights and experiences. When I look back at those days, it almost feels like a fairy tale… Living in this beautiful palace surrounded by acres of greenery that included a riding track, a full- fledged cricket ground adjacent to which was the Princes’ private school… My father, Pratapsinh rao Gaekwad brought us a toy train with full steam engine, which was a made- to -scale model of the flying Scotsman. Chugging through the palace estate, this little train took us to school”
To put it in a nutshell, I quote Diwan Jarmani Das who wrote in his book, Maharaj“The perversions, indulgences and little whims of stunning cruelty have always appealed to popular imagination. The world still loves a royal!”

gayathri3But very little is known about their queens. Though exceptions are there like Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, who was instrumental in promoting girls’ education in India. In fact, she was one in the list of ‘most beautiful women’ by Vogue. On other hand, most of the queens never were mentioned even in the pages of history. When Tasveer, a photography studio, who declare themselves as ‘an organisation committed to the art of photography and photography as art”, announced that they are going to present an exhibition - ‘Maharanis: Women of Royal India’ for the first time in Chennai, I entered the exhibition hall promptly on the inaugural morning itself. Through the lenses, this exhibition presented ‘a peek at the enigmatic women of royal India from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries.’

Images of ‘Maharanis’ are exhibited for public display for the first time. That is why this exhibition presented by Tasveer becomes important and they have done a remarkable job at it. They have sourced these photographs from the archives of the Museum of Art and Photography, royal collections from across the subcontinent and other institutional and private collections both in India and abroad such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and the Amar Mahal Museum and Library in Jammu.

Maharaj Kumar Rani Sita Devi of KapurthalaBy this exhibition, roles of these fascinating women in history in the public and private spheres are brought out along with the glamour of a bygone era into the limelight. Thanks to Tasveer, I had a vintage tour of the fascinating faces of the ‘better-halves’ of the erstwhile kings of wealth and power and the book chronicles more of these legendary beauties and their extraordinary lives lived literally behind the curtains, spent in all female courts, their creative dining enclosures, political alliances to balance the power and much more. Tasveer’s heavily illustrated book, also titled ‘Maharanis: Women of Royal India’, includes over 100 photographs, some of them for the very first time. The book, as well as a collector’s portfolio, is available for sale at retail bookstores and online at the Tasveer Bookstore:

https://tasveerbookstore.com/products/maharanis-women-of-royal-india
***
With an apology to James Baldwin,
“We are trapped in history; History is trapped in us”.
Some of the literary stalwarts who created history are history now and will go down well in history.

mahaseta deviLet me start the condolences with the loss of Mahasweta Devi, an eminent Indian Bengali writer, who had been studying and writing incessantly about the life and struggles faced by the tribal communities in the states like Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Born into a middle class Bengali family at Dacca, which is located in present day Bangladesh, in the year 1926, she evolved to be a litterateur with the zeal of an activist. Of late, Mahasweta Devi is known to have been studying the life history of rural tribal communities in the Indian state of West Bengal and also women and dalits. She used creative expression as a tool to fight for the rights of the indigenous people and marginalised sections. Her creative works reflected the brutal oppression faced by the tribal people at the hands of the powerful upper caste persons comprising landlords, money lenders and government officials in this belt.

jnankuthanAnd then, Tamil Literary world has lost one of the pioneers of modern poetry, Jnanakoothan. Born as R.Ranganathan, having Kannada as his mother tongue, he leaves behind a number of volumes of poetry in Tamil, a real treasure. With his strong foundation in Tamil Classical Literature, and a deep study of Kalidasa in Sanskrit, he turned to free verse and used it as a tool to criticise the Dravidian Movement.
The authenticity of the Dravidian Movement’s ‘love’ for Tamil language was questioned, and its rhetoric was satirically criticised by him. His comment that they are responsible for Tamils losing respect for their language is indeed a fact to reckon with.
He responded contemptuously to some Dravidian leaders’ common catchphrase ‘Tamil engal moochu’ (‘Our breath is Tamil’) by writing:
“Enakkum Tamilthaan moochu;
aanaal aduthavar mel athai vidamatten”
(I breath Tamil too
but I will not blow it on others).
- (translated by Krishna Prasad)
His strong contention was that only free verse could reflect the current society better. It is still green in my memory that I and Riyaz Ahamed travelled with Jnanakoothan to Madurai, representing Kanaiyazhi magazine in the early nineties. A wonderful day was spent drenched in literary conversations with the likes of Devakottai Va Murthy, Sureshkumar Inderjith and Ravi Subramaniyam.
After that, I met him only in the year 2007 when I launched the Tamil literary journal Yugamayini. He did oblige by contributing his poems regularly. There is no denial that his absence has created a vacuum in Tamil literary field.
Here I present translated version of a couple of poems by him:

What sort?

With an expression of enquiring something
he walked towards me.

Shop?... Residence?... Auditorium?... Temple?

As I stood
pondering over the nature of his question

opening his mouth liberally
he walked off
sans enquiring anything.

What a world it is,
see!

Express

Withholding nothing
I am accustomed to speak out
Exactly contrary is a friend of mine

He never utters anything for anything
Silence is his means
‘Expressing yourself is always the best’
We all said.
To our astonishment
he did not
even after that .
Will he not say something when he dies?
He too died one day
While returning back
after seeing him burnt like a cigar
in the sunny street

a cock stiffened once to crow
as always, I said
‘even after the dawn, cocks do crow’
                                                    -( Poems translated by Krishna Prasad)

1044731_10154033112495799_6233905583990778269_nThough I have read Mahasweta Devi in translations and Jnanakoothan in Tamil, Bart Wolffe was closer to me on a one-to-one basis. Beside the conversations on theatre and acting, he willingly edited my earlier poems and as well taught me the approach to ‘editing’ poems. In that sense he is a teacher to me. He encouraged me a lot; gave me valuable suggestions when I launched the Wagon Magazine.
Last month, in the middle of the night, he spoke a lot over the phone. I could sense shivering in his otherwise booming voice. He could only share some excerpts from his old book of plays with an apology that he could not do anything more at that juncture due to his failing health. He died on the 5th of August.
I could only say that ‘I miss you Bart’ with an aching heart.

‘Bart Wolffe was a leading playwright in Zimbabwe and worked extensively throughout the sub-Sahara, running theatre workshops in countries such as Zambia and Namibia as well as in the UK. Since leaving Zimbabwe in 2003, Bart spent two years in Germany before settling in England.
During Refugee Week, the Victoria & Albert Museum hosted an event where he gave a reading of his poetry accompanied by a traditional ‘mbira’ player from Zimbabwe. A chapbook essay on exile and alienation was published under the title of FLOTSAM by Exiled Writers Ink. He has been interviewed on BBC Radio since being here as well as by German Radio and an Independent Zimbabwean radio station broadcasting from London to Africa. Most recently, he has been a guest on Croydon radio for Poets Anonymous. His published works may be found on Lulu.com and Amazon. He won a national poetry award in 2013 and has recorded many audio books. He was a resource provider in workshops with schools in Norfolk and London, ran a series of theatre workshops with refugee children in Croydon and has presented his work with a community-based organisation that goes by the name of Moot and whose underlying philosophy concerns staying human in the city. He was also a primary guest speaker for a British Psychological Society seminar. His published plays under the cover of AFRICA DREAM THEATRE incorporate a body of work that express themes such as loss of innocence, discrimination, intolerance and alienation.’ - From his biography in his website.

He had posted his very last poem in his webpage on 2nd of August. Here it is:
SHELTER FROM THE STORM

Rust grows its red beard aboard the ark.
A hedge-strimmer’s serrated blade leans
Up against the shack’s shelter
Among the planks with foot rot
And the plastic tarpaulin’s blue dimples
Filled with mosquito ponds.
From the crowded occupation of metal and wood,
Bags of cement or compost,
Unused rolls of chicken fence mesh breathing,
Obsolete workshop machinery in stasis,
Iron rakes and sharp nails protruding
From a slatted door that won’t stay shut,
Bins and broken boxes competing damply.
You have to squeeze in to find a place
Where you can stay dry and hold your cup steady
As you sip your smoke grey as the sky.
Green leaves drip down the bordering branches
And everything crowds in
As at a bus stop passengers press together
When the rain makes waterfalls on canopied edges
To curtain off the outside.
Here, webs multiply the tangled view
As angled drainpipes provide their anchor
And for five minutes or more
Respite allows a man his tea and cigarette
Before going back indoors to write this note.

Roger Turner - Poet

Roger Turner, poet and a friend of Bart has written a tribute:

                                             A Lion Silenced                  (for Bart Wolffe RIP)

Listen to the silence
It’s louder than before
A Lion now has left us
We no longer hear his roar

A poet of the people
His voice a summer storm
The lion now is silenced
Now silence is the norm

Read the words he’s written
Listen to the voice
The lion has entrapped you
You do not have a choice

We were in his story
He touched us to our core
Now, the lion...he is silenced
And Bart Wolffe will roar no more

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
I cap my post with a poem by Jnanakoothan:

                                                     Parting

Why does the December go
deserting the extolled Margazhi?
                                             -Margazhi - Winter month of the Hindu Calendar.