Of Maharajas and Palaces
By the end of March 1920 the weather was heating up to an uncomfortable degree and the company were pleased to learn that after an unnoticed concert they gave in New Delhi, their next point of call would be the cool, pleasure-loving hill station of Mussoorie.
Rudyard Kipling wrote of Mussoorie in Kim:
‘Who goes to the hills goes to his mother.’
Under the great ramp to Mussoorie he drew together as an old hunter faces a well-remembered bank, and where he should have sunk exhausted swung his long draperies about him, drew a deep double-lungful of diamond air, and walked as only a Hillman can. Kim, plains-bred and plains-fed, sweated and panted astonished.
As summer strengthened rendering the plains a sweltering crucible, the British, especially the women, fled the relentless heat like migrant birds. They settled in the clubs, hotels and rented houses of the hill stations of the Punjab from April to the end of June. Many single girls in optimistic and party mood were ‘fishing’ for a suitable aristocratic sun-burnished officer on leave when they made the two thousand metre ascent to beautiful Mussoorie, the ‘Queen of the Hills’. The husbands were abandoned to ‘do their lofty duty’ and baked on the plains while their wives adopted a young ‘bow-wow’ for the duration.* Mussoorie had a ‘rather naughty’ reputation for theatricals and loose moral behaviour. Here individualism was allowed a freer rein than the more famous and ‘proper’ Simla, the official summer capital ironically known as ‘The Abode of the Little Tin Gods’.
The variety of its scenery and spectacular views marked it out from other hill stations. Mussoorie had two breweries, a polo field, a small golf course and at the glamorous centre of social gatherings, the Himalaya Club and the Happy Valley Club. Anglo–Indian bungalows, decorated with hanging baskets of sweet peas and geraniums, were named with nostalgic Englishness Holly Mount or Rosemary Cottage. At Stiffles Restaurant the tables overflowed onto the summer pavements. The restaurant had once catered for the visit of the Princess of Wales, later to become Queen Mary. Balls, dinners, theatricals and tea parties attracted all manner of respectable and louche aristocracy. Lovers languished in the exoticism of the East longing for leave. Maharajas built summer residences in the guise of French chateaux.
The Cahill-Brooke Concert Party were in great demand as by the early 1920s the hill station had become the epitome of the ‘roaring twenties’ in India. Dance teachers of German origin conducted classes on the finer points of ballroom dancing. After travelling by train from Delhi to Dehra Dún, the concert party were taken up the serpentine road to the main town by tonga.† Fragile railings were the only barrier against terrifyingly precipitous drops. The first motorcar only managed to reach Mussoorie in 1920.
They stayed at the fashionable Savoy Hotel, a place with a certain ‘reputation’. The American writer Lowell Thomas, who spent several weeks with Lawrence of Arabia in the deserts of Palestine, visited Mussoorie in 1926 during his extensive travels in India. In his book The Land of the Black Pagoda he wrote of what became known as the ‘separation bell’ at the Savoy. He laconically observed:
‘There is a hotel in Mussoorie where they ring a bell just before dawn so that the pious may say their prayers and the impious get back to their own beds.’
*A ‘bow-wow’ was an admirer who with the greatest rectitude would do all those little tasks a colonial lady so often required – fetching, carrying, standing on attendance for wants and needs, dealing with Indian tradesmen, providing company and status at afternoon tea, balls, soirees and so on.
† A romantic horse-drawn carriage.
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The parents of many British children were not sufficiently well off to send them to public school in England. Mussoorie had an equable climate, crystalline air and was more easily accessible than many hill stations. As a result many fine boarding schools opened to satisfy this demand for education. The teachers were recruited in England and the first students were mainly the daughters of British officers.
The concert party had been invited to perform at Woodstock School, which at that time functioned as a finishing school for well- bred young ladies. Since its foundation in 1854, excellence in music had been a priority and the students and their guests were highly appreciative of Eddie’s mastery of the piano.* The programme was similar to others on the tour but Chopin’s so-called ‘Military’ Polonaise was a particular hit together with Liszt’s stirring Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Eddie was surprised at their depth of knowledge as they requested specific works by Schumann, Bach, Beethoven, Debussy and even Borodin. George sang Grieg and Schubert songs as well as those of a more religious nature such as ‘Angels Guard Thee’ and ‘Song of Thanksgiving’. Throughout his life Eddie preserved great enthusiasm for the talent of the rising generation. The musical education of the young was often at the forefront of his thoughts.
*Woodstock School continues to thrive. In 2021 it had around five hundred pupils from almost thirty different nationalities. It is considered one of the finest schools in India and its music department now has an almost legendary reputation for excellence.
He accompanied this recital with a short detailed talk on each composer and his inspiration in composing the piece. Vain certainly but never an egocentric performer, he cultivated a strong personal interaction with the audience.*
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While wandering Bombay between their concert engagements, the concert party had witnessed various street disturbances. They had been subject to mysterious personal taunts. They discovered these insults were the direct result of the turbulent atmosphere in the town of Amritsar, some three hundred kilometres distant. The reverberations of an atrocity that had recently occurred there destabilized the entire country and was the catalyst that began the disintegration of the British Empire in India.
The reflection of a golden temple trembled in the breeze on the surface of the lake known as Sarovar (Holy Pool of Immortal Nectar). Turbaned Sikhs in scarlet robes sat cross-legged on carpets in the shade of spreading trees in contemplation and prayer. Eddie was rendered speechless by the sight. More thoughtfully he found it difficult to believe that only a year before, this holy city, the spiritual and cultural heart of the Sikh religion, had witnessed an unparalleled act of savagery.
As Herbert Asquith, former Prime Minister, put it to the Hunter Committee in 1920:
‘There has never been such an incident in the whole annals of Anglo–Indian history, nor, I believe, in the history of our Empire, from its very inception down to the present day.’†
Mounting disorder in the Punjab had been fertilized by the passing of the notorious Rowlatt Act of March 1919 in response to perceived threats of revolutionary terrorism. Suspects could be imprisoned without trial or legal representation for up to two years. The spectre arose of a repeat of the vicious Indian Mutiny and Cawnpore Massacre of 1857, outrages that were deeply etched into the British imperial psyche.
*I am indebted to Ganesh Saili and his book Mussoorie Medley: Tales from Yesteryear (New Delhi 2010) for my descriptions of old Mussoorie. All the perfumes and spices of India erupted from the wrappers when I unpacked this book from the post in Warsaw.
† Hansard: Punjab Disturbances. Lord Hunter’s Committee, HC Deb 8 July 1920, vol. 131.
In the face of political activism in Amritsar, the officer in command of the area, the coercive and psychologically unbalanced Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, issued stringent proclamations against public meetings. Any assembly would be fired upon without warning, a proclamation ineffectively communicated to the populace at the time.
By April 1919 British civilians in Amritsar were being subjected to terrorist acts, looting and murders. On the evening of 13 April several thousand Indian men, women and children had assembled for a meeting in a walled open space of the town known as Jallianwalla Bagh. Dyer felt this group posed an unacceptable threat to law and order. He arrived in his Rolls-Royce armoured car (unable to pass through the narrow entrance) together with a small body of carefully selected Gurkha and Pathan troops whom he knew felt little affection for Punjabi civilians. He lined his men up and without prior warning ordered them to open fire on the unarmed crowd. The firing continued uninterrupted for ten to fifteen minutes with panic-stricken knots of people wildly fleeing bullets, unable to escape in any numbers from the enclosed walled field. He ceased firing only when the ammunition ran out, leaving hundreds dead and perhaps a thousand or more wounded.
He subsequently imposed a curfew which effectively prevented recovery of the dead, dying and wounded. ‘I thought I would be doing a jolly lot of good and they would realize that they were not to be wicked,’ he commented during the official investigation of the incident. The effects of doing ‘my horrible, dirty duty’ (as Dyer put it when he was relieved of his post) can hardly be overestimated. Huge support was given to Dyer by the British in India, at home and by the Army. This compliance with such savagery alienated Indians previously respectful of British moral prestige. The atrocity galvanized Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. He remarked after the long drawn out official inquiry ‘We do not want to punish General Dyer; we have no desire for revenge; we want to change the system that produces General Dyers.’
When Eddie and George arrived in Amritsar to give a concert barely a year later in April 1920, Dyer had just embarked for England in disgrace. A profound legacy of hatred remained and they were justifiably worried about appearing in such a light matter as a classical concert in these volatile surroundings. However exercising a degree of personal courage they ‘soldiered on’ and the evening performance passed off peacefully enough. Those British civilians and officers who attended said it was a welcome emotional release from the ‘trying times’ they were then experiencing.
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Another long train journey followed through Rawalpindi to ancient Peshawar and the Jamrud Fort on the North-West Frontier at the entrance to the Khyber Pass that connects Afghanistan and Pakistan. While changing trains they noted with alarm a rough placard nailed up at Peshawar station. Eddie copied it into his notebook:
‘Active resistance will crush the viper’s head. Burn their offices, mutilate their railways and telegraphs, induce the police and Army to work with you and slay these dogs of Britain every – where you find them.’
They continued the short journey to the fort in a ‘blue funk’ as Eddie put it. He had read of the perennially imminent Russian threats to British India at this place, the ‘Great Game’ as it was known, but tried rather to concentrate on the music he would play, drumming his fingers on the dusty seat back of the railway carriage.
The line passed through awe-inspiring mountains, tunnels and over bridges and deep culverts. Fierce local Afghan tribesmen perched on the cowcatcher. Eagles swooped and at night the jackals howled. It is scarcely credible that a concert of European classical music was being given in this fortress during the Waziristan campaign surrounded by colourful caravanserai plying the Silk Road. The battered piano in the fort had not been tuned for years and Eddie finally abandoned his solo numbers leaving the floor mainly to George who sang stirring tunes to a gentle accompaniment. The officers and troops were delighted. The soprano Rita Erle had by this time returned to Australia, exhausted by the debilitating heat. Eddie and George continuing the tour as a double act.
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The red tongue of the Hindu Goddess Kali sprang from her mouth in shame, the black female figure with flailing arms was surrounded by fire. Her powerful eyes skewered one’s heart as she stood on the indigo body of her husband, the Hindu deity Shiva. The image wore a necklace of skulls. The street down which Eddie was walking contained this forbidding mural, a dark and narrow alley littered with refuse and reeking of ordure, dissolution, death and decay yet the nearby bazaars teemed with life and colour. Bright stalls sold a riot of mortuary paraphernalia. Pilgrims wearing perfumed garlands of flowers prayed at tiny wayside shrines or passed in crowded knots seeming to flow like the tide towards the banks of the Ganges, like tributaries of the great river itself. Ascetic holy men (sadhus) were covered in ash with matted, dusty, hennaed locks, long beards and fierce expressions.
By early May 1920 the Cahill-Brooke Concert Party had reached Kashi (Benares or modern Varanasi) the spiritual capital of India, a city associated with death and its transcendence. They had travelled by train for days on the East Indian Railway from Bombay, some 1600 kilometres. This ancient site has produced great writers, thinkers, philosophers and a remarkable school of music, a city famous for its woven cloths and ornate silks. The British writer, photographer and painter Richard Lannoy describes it ‘a state of mind’ rather than a place. The Maharaja of Benares would be their host and they would play Western classical music for him.
Eddie Cahill was a concert pianist but also a man possessed of a passion for exploration and insatiably curious about unfamiliar cultures. He drifted through the pungent haze that lay over the city, clambering down myriad steps through dizzying levels of complexity, passing ornately carved pinnacles of blackened temples, terraces, the bastions of palaces, arcaded blocks, cracked platforms, crumbling walls of brick, pyramids, domes, patios and hanging gardens with withering plants, desiccated leaves fluttering onto filigreed cast-iron balconies. Large grey monkeys skipped about.
Suddenly the Ganges, the colour of old gold, lay before him. Beneath the terraces at the water’s edge a panoply of tattered woven leaf parasols sheltered bathers and Brahmins from the sun. On platforms over the water, men exercised in incredible postures or swung heavy batons. Temple bells mixed with chattering voices. The colours of draped cloth – yellow, mauve, saffron and green – radiated a festive atmosphere of a floral display while clouds of pigeons whirled in spirals. There was a solemnity, even nobility, in the draped figures of women carrying polished brass pots glittering in the sunlight.
Early one morning Eddie and George took a boat and glided down the Ganges at sunrise. The entire river bank was thronged with bathers and the river itself dotted with boatmen disposing of remains or ashes. An occasional corpse or dead dog floated past. The water was clearly polluted yet the pilgrims drank of it to purify themselves, believing it miraculous. The panorama reminded Eddie of Arcadian classical paintings by Poussin or Claude, Carthage in ruins. In the evening the shore was lit fitfully with oases of light. These were the Burning Ghats* of Kashi, the most exalted of them being the Ghat of Manikarnika.
In a mental state bordering on horror they saw wooden biers, shrouded bodies roped to them then immersed in the Ganges and allowed to dry. A pyre of selected woods was constructed, the body reverently placed upon it and lit with a flaming torch after incantations had been intoned. Waves of heat and smoke carrying the sound and smell of flames devouring flesh rose to the visitors’ viewing towers where they stood. Funeral priests moved through the haze like phantoms, striking the corpses with batons. Eddie was aghast to hear the cracking of the skull with a bamboo pole, to release the soul. They watched the compelling scene with fascination, their inexperienced natures stunned by the sight.
Eddie and George were to perform at the magnificent eighteenth-century Ramnagar Fort before HH Maharajadhiraja Sri Sir Prabhu Narayan Singh Sahib Bahadur and his guests†. He had been created Maharaja of Benares of the new Princely State by the British in 1911 and had been granted a personal salute of 15 guns. This imposing and exotic red sandstone confection of Hindu and Islamic architecture is situated some fourteen kilometers from Varanasi on the opposite bank of the river. Monumental walls and bastions reminiscent of crusader castles line the river front. Airy open formal courtyards, fountains and carved arcades adorn the interior spaces.
*A ghat is a defined length of river frontage between some 30–200 yards long. Most are in the form of terraces of steps leading down to the River Ganges. The ‘Burning Ghats’ are those where corpses are cremated.
†Lt. Colonel HH Maharajadhiraja Kashi Naresh Sir Prabhu Narayan Singh Sahib Bahadur (1855–1931).
The Maharaja lavished gifts of diamond-encrusted cigarette cases and diamond cuff links upon them and placed his magnificent Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost at their disposal. Early motoring in India was a dramatic activity as they discovered en route to their concert. As the car made its stately progress past bullock carts, their occupants tumbled out in fear onto the road, the animals plunging into nearby ditches at the manic blowing of its klaxon. The ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ wafted past sacred cows and elephants, supplicants before wayside altars, screaming children and colourfully turbaned pilgrims. Dogs fearlessly charged the car head on emerging unscathed from beneath barking wildly in the choking dust. One of the British guests, a Deputy Collector, told them of an elderly Indian woman walking in the middle of the road who was run over and killed by a speeding car carrying the Nizam Mahbub Ali Pasha of Hyderabad. His Highness being troubled by the event sent a generous gift to the family. Observers noticed that from then on whenever the Nizam went driving the road suddenly filled with the elderly poor placed there by impecunious and optimistic relatives.
The concert was a great success and an historic occasion. They performed in the opulent Durbar Hall within the Maharajah’s palace, a room lined with precious marbles, brocades of silver and gold, inlaid ivory furniture, a sandalwood throne, crystal chandeliers and tiger skins. For the first time in the history of the palace Eddie performed Chopin (the first time his music had been performed for a Maharaja), Liszt, Beethoven and Chaminade whilst George sang Schubert and Brahms Lieder, English art songs as well as Negro spirituals. A Hindustani late-night raga native to Benares was movingly performed on the sarod, mridangam and tabla at the conclusion of their concert