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|Publisher:||Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.|
|Series:||Critical Perspectives on Theory, Culture and Politics|
|Product dimensions:||6.04(w) x 8.68(h) x 0.62(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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Duleep Singh and the Politics of Nostalgia
Hauptbanhof station in the Stuttgart S-Bahn network is not a place where one would normally expect to find traces of south Asian diasporic nostalgia, so when I passed through it in June 2015, I was surprised to encounter a familiar face. I was in Germany to present a conference paper on postcolonial nostalgia and Bollywood representations of the south Asian diaspora, so nostalgia was, as it were, on my mind.
Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a face I recognized, staring impassively out at me as I went down the escalator. At first, I thought I must be mistaken. A few extra trips on the escalator, and some consequent strange looks from Stuttgart's commuters, however, proved that I had been right. Dressed in exotic, royal finery, leaning nonchalantly on a ceremonial sword, he seemed to me to be incongruously out of place – called upon merely to attest to the excellence of the Prince of India chain of restaurants to be found, as the poster promised me, in Frankfurt, Mannheim and Stuttgart. The figure used to advertise this restaurant had been so summoned to corroborate the owner's claim, also emblazoned on the poster, that their restaurant provided 'Original Indian Ambience'.
It is impossible to know how many of the commuters and tourists who went through Hauptbanhof that day recognized the image as they glided by on the escalators, but the 'girlishly beautiful face smudged with adolescent masculinity ... clad for the portrait in the splendour of an Eastern chieftain' has a long and complex history, involving a much more critical, ambiguous and deeply counter-normative use of nostalgia than the arguably more simplistic orientalist use in this particular advertisement.
The image is from a painting, dating from 1855, and is by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, the nineteenth-century court painter from Frankfurt. The subject is not an imaginary, archetypal Oriental monarch, but a youthful Maharajah Duleep Singh, son of the Lion of Punjab, Maharajah Ranjit Singh, and the last emperor of the Sikh nation. Born in 1838, Duleep succeeded to his father's throne in 1843, following the series of coups and assassinations that were triggered by his father's death. Aged just five, Duleep was declared ruler under the care of the regent, his mother, Maharani Jindan Kaur. The next five years would see the two Anglo-Sikh Wars, culminating in 1849, with the defeat of the Sikh armies, and the signing of the Treaty of Bhyrowal, which effectively became the instrument of annexation, as Punjab became part of the British Empire. Duleep lost his kingdom, was separated from his mother, persuaded to convert to Christianity and exiled to Britain. There he grew up to be an Anglicized British aristocrat, a favourite of Queen Victoria and well-known as the Black Prince of Perthshire, living for a time at Castle Menzies near Aberfeldy, and then in Elveden Hall, Suffolk. In the process, he would become the first British Sikh.
With his ancestral background, and his political significance to the Sikh nation, it is perhaps not surprising that he has become a figure who can be nostalgically appropriated to reinforce the notion of a great and glorious past. In this chapter, I will focus on the figure of Duleep Singh and his legacy, and examine, firstly, how he was able, in his own lifetime, to mobilize his own nostalgia towards anti-imperial ends and, secondly, how in the years since his death, the nostalgia surrounding his legacy has grown, leading to a number of complex and creative responses to the painful convoluted threads of shared Anglo-Sikh history.
MAHARAJAH DULEEP SINGH: A LIFE OF NOSTALGIA AND REBELLION
When Duleep Singh was first brought to England in 1854, he was too young to have any real sense of who he was, and the significance he had for Sikhs all over Punjab. Quite quickly, he became a favourite of Queen Victoria, whose reaction to Duleep was marked by a fascination with the exotic Orient characteristic of Victorian Britain. Writing in her diaries, Queen Victoria described meeting Duleep for the first time: '[he is] extremely handsome and speaks English perfectly, and has a pretty, graceful and dignified manner. He was beautifully dressed and covered in diamonds.' Duleep's presence in court would become increasingly common, as would his name in court circulars in the newspapers. Two years later, the Illustrated London News reported a visit he made to 'different points of interest in' Staffordshire:
Wearing an elegant silk headdress and massive earrings. ... His highness, who speaks English with fluency and correctness, expressed himself much satisfied with his visit.
This image of a man clad in oriental finery is what Winterhalter attempted to capture in his painting, and what the owners of the Prince of India restaurant in Stuttgart were attempting to use to indicate an authentic Indian ambience. Brian Keith Axel has analysed in great detail both the artistic significance and political legacy of the Winterhalter portrait. Axel has argued that 'the "ground" on which the image of the maharaja stands is no ground at all' – in the face of the contested nature of Punjab in the 1840s, Winterhalter was clearly not able to position this sovereign-without-a-kingdom in any kind of recognizable, 'real' place. What the viewer is left with is, in Axel's words, 'a male body that, now arrested ambiguously in the space of a colonial frontier, has arrived at the westernmost limit of nineteenth-century Punjab and found, not Afghanistan, but London'. Confined to Winterhalter's canvas, clad in finery that marks him as different, but gives him no agency – he is turbanned in order to mark his Indianness, but he is shorn of the famous Koh-i-Noor, the diamond that had already been taken from him and had become part of the Queen's personal property.
The first few years after his arrival in Britain continued this theme of othering combined with emasculating appropriation, as Duleep was prepared for the unremarkable life of an Anglicized country squire. He was privately educated, and Queen Victoria 'decided that his rank was to be the same as that of a European prince, and as chief of the native princes of India he came next in precedence after the royal family'. Over the next few years, he moved around, living first in various houses in Perthshire, Scotland, before moving to Mulgrave Castle in Yorkshire, and finally settling in Elveden House in Suffolk. As Peter Bance has put it, 'his dashing looks and Indian appearance made him an ideal party accessory'. As in the Winterhalter painting, then, Duleep remained a glorified pet – serving at once to remind the British establishment of their munificence in allowing such an alien creature to live and thrive among them, but also embodying what Axel as called 'an acute act of appropriation – reiterating, renegotiating, and revaluing the surrender of former foes'. In other words, the Winterhalter portrait was designed to serve as a visible marker of the annexation of Punjab.
Duleep Singh may well have passed his entire life thus alienated from his family heritage, except for the fact that in 1861, he was allowed by the British to visit India (though he would never again be allowed to return to Punjab) and reunite with his mother and bring her back to Britain. Maharani Jindan Kaur only survived for two years after moving to Britain, but in that time she took great care to reintroduce him to his family's true heritage. Gradually, Duleep would take greater and greater interest in his birth-right. The start of the 1880s would find him in the reading rooms of the British Museum, learning about his life, and the processes through which he was deposed from his throne, from the British administrative records covering the annexation of Punjab. Christy Campbell imaginatively re-creates the remarkable impression that Duleep must have made while researching his family tree in the otherwise rather staid surroundings of Bloomsbury:
Visitors to the British Museum in the spring months of the early 1880s would have seen an unusual figure striding purposefully each morning from his carriage to a particular desk in the great circular reading room. Scholars toiled in the library's daylit quadrants as an Indian gentleman turned obsessively to the so-called 'Punjab Papers' – the collection of correspondence and government documents which dealt with the two Anglo-Sikh wars and the final annexation of the Punjab in 1849. A turbanned servant scribbled furiously beside him, transcribing Prinsep's History of the Sikhs and Bosworth Smith's The Life of Sir Henry Lawrence. Maharajah Duleep Singh wanted his childhood back. What had happened to him?
It is, of course painfully ironic that in trying to trace the story of his own life, Duleep had to go to the records of the Imperial Government, safeguarded in that repository of colonial knowledge, the British Museum. After Edward Said, it has become almost commonsensical to argue that one of the ways in which colonialism asserts itself is through discursive and epistemological control over the colonized other:
Knowledge ... means surveying a civilisation from its origins to its prime to its decline – and of course, it means being able to do that. ... To have such knowledge of such a thing is to dominate it, to have authority over it. And authority here means for 'us' to deny autonomy to 'it' – the Oriental country – since we know it and it exists, in a sense, as we know it. [original emphasis]
There cannot be too many more people, however, whose lived experience so directly validates Said's theories of knowledge – the power dynamics of imperialism meant that when Duleep wanted to find out more about his life and its various significances, the only source of knowledge he could access was one that was controlled by Imperial Britain. As Duleep would later go on to realize, the decision to alienate him not just from his kingdom, but from the discursive body that allowed Britain to epistemologically as well as materially own Punjab, was perfectly deliberate. In 1882, he wrote to Queen Victoria thus:
Had I been aware, My Sovereign, of the true state of things, the knowledge of which was carefully kept from me by the late Sir John Login, a creature of Lord Dalhousie, a very different provision for the maintenance of myself and my children would have been made.
It is perfectly appropriate that Christy Campbell, in his popular account of Duleep's life and legacy, described the drive that moved him to try to learn more about his story as a desire to reclaim his childhood. Having reconnected with his mother and revisited India, Duleep, in the opening years of the 1880s, was getting more and more nostalgic – he was desperate for a sense of rootedness, a narrative that could explain who he was and how he came to be that way. This nostalgic desire for information took him to the British Museum, enabled him to discover how he had lost his kingdom, and gave him the knowledge he needed to campaign for the restitution of his rights. He would begin by campaigning through personal, private as well as open, letters, mostly in The Times – when this was unsuccessful, he would start a more active rebellion, reconvert to Sikhism, and attempt to form relationships with Britain's other enemies – the Irish and the Russians mainly, in order to recover his lost kingdom. Ultimately unsuccessful, he would die in Paris and be buried as a Christian, against his express wishes. He remains buried today in Elveden – his grave being one of a few Duleep-related sites that have come to be of great significance in the entangled Anglo Sikh history.
The second half of Duleep's life, then, demonstrates the importance of what might be described as the nostalgic drive – a need for a home, and the deploying of one's memories, one's material and imaginative energies into the reconstruction of a home that once existed but has since been destroyed. Duleep's deploying of his nostalgia also demonstrates how these affective forces can be mobilized to generate an anti-imperial rebellion. Fittingly, today Duleep remains a figure closely associated with nostalgia, and the ways in which he has been represented in culture reinforce the power that counter-colonial nostalgia might have – not just at the height of European Empire, but in the context of the long shadow it casts over today's world.
In 1882, he wrote the first of a series of remarkable letters to The Times, the eloquence of which remains potent more than a century after the fact:
If one righteous man was found in the two most wicked cities of the world, I pray God that at least one honourable, just, and noble Englishman may be forthcoming out of this Christian land of liberty and justice to advocate my cause in Parliament; otherwise, what chance have I of obtaining justice, considering that my despoiler, guardian, judge, advocate, and jury, is the British nation itself?
Generous and Christian Englishmen, accord me a just and liberal treatment, for the sake of the fair name of your nation, of which I have now the honour to be a naturalized member, for it is more blessed to give than to take.
The Times, in its editorial, responded the same day as this letter with a scorn calculated to minimize any sympathies Duleep's letter may have generated:
It is no doubt the duty of every man to live within his income, and yet if the Maharajah has failed to acquire a virtue rare indeed among Eastern Princes and not too common in the class to which he belongs by adoption, there is no Englishman but would feel ashamed if he or his descendants were thereby to come to want. At the same time it is impossible for the Indian Government, which has claims on its slender resources far more urgent than those of the magnificent squire of Elveden, to guarantee him indefinitely against the consequences of his own improvidence. At any rate, it is safe to warn him against encumbering his personal claims by political pleas which are wholly inadmissible. He is very little likely to excite sympathy for his pecuniary troubles by his bold, but scarcely successful, attempt to show that if he could only come by his own he is still the lawful Sovereign of the Punjab.
The deliberate, scornful undermining of Duleep's claim by The Times reflects the panicked response from the British establishment which was only too aware of the incendiary potential any rebellion led by Duleep might have. As I will argue again later, the fact that Duleep's nostalgia-driven rebellion was both very real and very significant is demonstrated by the need felt by Imperial Britain to attack and undermine it at every opportunity. It is also noticeable that The Times undermines him by racially othering his perceived shortcomings, in the process robbing him of a legitimate position from which he could claim what was his due. In characterizing his extravagance as an Indian trait, The Times is able to both ridicule him as a human being, and to challenge the basis of his claim to his lost kingdom.
Two years after this letter, Duleep would begin writing to Queen Victoria herself, making plain in a series of letters his deeply held grievances, and alerting her as to his plans to reconvert to Sikhism, and to return to India – both highly treasonable acts under the circumstances:
For Your Majesty's government having branded me disloyal when God knows I was most loyal and devoted to Your Majesty I had no other course open to me except either to turn traitor or continue to submit to the insults repeatedly offered to me by the Administration of India.
The Queen's responses demonstrate her increasing unease at Duleep's attempts to asset himself against her authority:
My dear Maharajah, as your friend and perhaps the truest you have, I would strongly warn you against those who would lead you into trouble. Do not use threats or abusive language, for it will not be the means of obtaining the impartial hearing of your claims that you desire. Above all I most earnestly warn you against going to India where you will find yourself far less independent and far less at your ease than here.
The Queen's view was at least partly influenced by the advice of her own Viceroy, Lord Ripon:
Many men, indeed, almost an entire generation, are still alive who remember [Ranjit Singh] who took a leading part in the events which followed his death and it is quite impossible to say what might be the effect of the appearance of the son of their great Maharajah, Christian though he be, in the country of the five rivers.
The British Government had once before in 1861 allowed Duleep to enter India, though they were careful not to allow him to go to Punjab. Now, having been educated about his birth-right by his mother, he posed a much greater threat and the British Government were not about to make the same mistake again. This refusal of permission for Duleep to go back to India suggests that they knew only too well the explosive anti-imperial potential that Duleep's nostalgia for Punjab and his lost kingdom had. Reunited with his people, safely back at home, Duleep may well have been in a position to seriously challenge British authority in the Punjab; alienated from his roots, he remained a powerless, pitiable figure who could be mocked and undermined.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Homemaking"
Copyright © 2018 Anindya Raychaudhuri.
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