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Durable Link to this BlogMonday, December 10, 2007

Fanny Park's India

Fanny Park's India

During my Kolkata days in All India Radio (1977-80), I used to visit as many cultural centers as I could. Sir Asutosh Mukherji Memorial Library was one of them.

Sir Asutosh Mukherji (1864-1924 CE) was a great educationist, jurist and social reformer. He became judge at a very young age & was vice Chancellor of Calcutta University. He donated his personal collection of 75,000 books which is now a famous library that attracts book lovers of all subjects and rare topics.

With very little time at my disposal I wanted to have a hurried look at Fanny Park’s rare book of 19th century, Wanderings of a Pilgrim in search of the Picturesque. The treasured book in two volumes was well preserved in plastic bound covers, to be carefully handled. Xeroxing had not made its appearance and nobody thought of reprinting the book which is a wealth of information depicted by a British lady who developed genuine love for India and her crafts.

She lived for 24 years in India from 1830 CE onwards. Married to a young Officer, she spent most of her time traveling, taking down notes. She was good at drawing and painting and has left behind a good collection of illustrations in her book.

From the very day of arrival she fell in love with India. "Could I have gathered around me, the dear ones I left in England, my happiness would have been complete" she wrote.

She liked the greenery, colorful surroundings, trees, flowers, rivers and as she lived longer loved this country's culture, history, languages and peoples. "How much there is, to delight in this bright, this beautiful world!" She exclaimed. She was not afraid of wild beasts, dacoits or natural calamities. Sailing in country boats on Ganga and Yamuna rivers, she sketched and wrote about every day life. "Roaming about with a good tent and a good Arab (horse) one might be happy for ever in India" she writes.

Her curiosity knew no bounds. She tried to know and painted Hindu religious practices, mythology, musical instruments, butterflies, zoological specimens and learn Indian languages. She tried Hookah and even opium!

The Sati system was prevalent and she mentions an incident in her household when servants wanted few hours off to watch tamasha (fun), which was a procession of a woman who proceeded to commit Sati! "Hook-swinging vow" (called Sidi in Kannada) common throughout India even now, did not miss her. Watching this "Churuk-puja", when pious Hindus, attached hooks in to the flesh of their backs and were swung about on ropes hanging from great cranes fro the amusement of the crowds below. "I was much disgusted but greatly interested" she wrote. What she missed was, it was a vow-fulfillment ceremony of pious Hindus, not meant for amusement.

Slowly Indian milieu captured her. She spent more time traveling, visiting Indian friends and learning Indian ways, unlike her contemporary Mem Sahebs who spent days resting, and nights partying dancing and playing cards, getting bored all the time.

She liked Indian costumes and at times tried sari. Her comments of a celebration at Tajmahal are noteworthy. "Crowds of gaily dressed and most picturesque natives were seen in all directions passing through the avenue of fine trees, and by the side of the fountains to the tomb: they added great beauty to the scene. Whilst the eye of taste turned away painted and annoyed by the vile round hats and stiff attire of the European gentlemen, and the equally ugly bonnets and stiff graceless dresses of English ladies".

She traveled length and breadth of the country and on returning to England wrote the unique travel book of personal experiences of viewing everything which looked picturesque to her. She had no prejudices or Victorian prudery or the air of superiority of a ruling tribe.

It is heartening to learn that this book termed as "possibly the most enjoyable and exuberant travel book to come out of South Asia and of East India

Amma's Column by Jyotsna Kamat

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Jyotsna Kamat

Jyotsna Kamat Ph.D. lives in Bangalore.


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