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Sunday, March 07, 2021

Sunday Long Reads: India’s troubled history of vaccination, ‘Fire in the Mountains’, and more

Here's your Sunday reading list!

New Delhi |
February 21, 2021 10:06:25 am
Weeping mothers, angry fathers and parents absconding with their children before or after vaccinations are common tropes in many official accounts from 19th century India.

India’s troubled history of vaccination

On June 14, 1802, three-year-old Anna Dusthall became the first child in India to successfully receive the smallpox vaccine. Only the barest details are known about Dusthall— she was a healthy girl, possibly of mixed racial identity, “remarkably good tempered” — a trait crucial to the vaccination’s success — and, from the pus that formed on her skin upon vaccination, five more children were vaccinated in the city of Bombay. Thereon, enough vaccine material was collected using her lymph and sent to Poona, Surat, Hyderabad, Ceylon, Madras and more places along the coast and the Deccan.

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Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s last portrait and other stories

Emily Eden reached Calcutta on March 3, 1836, on her 39th birthday, after about a five-month-long sea voyage from England.

In a corner of the vast Rashtrapati Bhavan Museum hang two paintings which are easy to miss. Nine of 10 visitors indeed miss them entirely. These lithographic reproductions of expressionless solitary figures aren’t exactly captivating works of art. While Three Warriors depicts three Sikh warriors, A Young Hill Rana shows a young prince in a traditional attire. No context is given to indicate who they were or why they were painted. What is fascinating about these paintings lies in what you don’t see.

These were created almost two centuries ago, around 1838, by a young Englishwoman, Emily Eden. Emily was the unmarried sister of George Eden (Lord Auckland), the third governor-general of India, whom she accompanied to the country. She was not an artist, but she liked to sketch. And the early 1800s was a fascinating period to sketch. The East India Company (EIC) had managed to control the trade routes, but much of it was still ruled by independent kings. The few Englishmen in the country were cocooned by British customs and luxuries. Their primary preoccupation was to make a fortune and return to England to retire in comfort.

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‘Fire in the Mountains’ tells a remarkable story of grit and fortitude

Against all odds: A still from the film.

Something about Chandra’s face is immediately arresting. It’s a face which belongs to the mountains, the skin ruddy with exertion, the cheeks flushed with the bracing air. Her synthetic-sari-three-quarter-sleeved sweater combination is also typical of the women who toil all day, fetching grass for the cattle, ensuring there’s enough kindling for the open chulha (wood-fired stove), and so on. She is the sole breadwinner of her household, comprising a drunken husband, a widowed sister-in-law, and two children, a young boy who is a wheelchair-user, and a teenaged girl.

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Our sacred, human duty

Across all religions, believers use their faith as a smokescreen. (Suvir Saran)

Throughout history humans have brought about civil unrest, genocide, bigotry, hate, misogyny and intolerance. Every time fascist regimes have persecuted the Other, they have done so with the visible or silent approval of the masses. Indeed, history puts the burden of guilt on the silent observers even more heavily than on the autocratic madmen that they failed to hold to account.

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‘His vibrant colours represented India’: Atul Dodiya

Shapes, shades: Saurashtra (1983) by Raza (Courtesy: The Raza Foundation, New Delhi)

Just listening to Raza saab talk or to look at him paint was a learning experience. As a young artist, I really looked up to him. He was approachable, took keen interest in and guided young talent, and visit their studios during his India trips, sometimes even buy their work. It was extremely encouraging.

As a student at Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art, we thought of SH Raza as our own, as he too studied there. I remember an early work of his in the school’s main hall, the vibrant work — a small vertical painting, festive with red, orange and blue — stood out among the rest on display. We enjoyed the impasto treatment.

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‘Only he knew the magic of colour’: Krishen Khanna

The progressives: SH Raza at his Paris studio in the 1970s

SH Raza was one of my dearest friends. We all grew old together — MF Husain, Bal Chhabda, VS Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, Akbar Padamsee — and now everyone is gone. I’m the only one left, like the Ancient Mariner, here to tell their tales. Several of our letters to each other have been published but we shared so much more over long nights, as we smoked, drank and talked about what was happening in art in Paris, Bombay and London. All of us, in different parts of the world later, knew we were there for each other.

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Why birds head for plate-glass windows and, therefore, towards death

Bird’s-eye View: Juvenile kites have a predilection for crashing into windows (Photo credit: Ranjit Lal)

It happens unfailingly every summer: you are working quietly in your room when you are startled by a sudden, loud but soft-edged somewhat sickening whump! You look out of the plate-glass window with dread — there’ll be a bird that has flown straight into it and is lying on the floor, hopefully, just having knocked itself out and nothing worse. Just observe it for a while, don’t offer any succour. If it’s okay, it will awake, look around dazedly and whirr off as if nothing had happened. If not, you will have to step in.

Juvenile kites and female koels seem to have a special predilection for crashing into our windows. Others that I have found kayoed include a female sunbird and laughing dove (laughing no longer — but it recovered!). One gorgeous young kite, with gold stippled dark umber wings, was lying knocked out in the garden, we brought it in wondering if it were alive and fearing a cat might get it. It was just about conscious, but the moment I picked it up, it collapsed. I lay it on the grass and concealed myself behind the dining-room-window curtains to watch.

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