Of Maharajas and Palaces
It was my songs that taught me all the lessons I ever learnt.
Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali
Frederick Shipman harboured immense ambition for the Cahill-Brooke Concert Party. He conceived the longest musical concert tour of the Southeast Asia and India ever attempted by Europeans. Over a period of more than a year, at times together with the operatic soprano Rita Erle (formerly Rita Kirkpatrick) and lyric soprano Miss Josie Westaway (the beautiful young soloist of St Mary’s Cathedral choir Sydney), they would tour India, the Philippine Islands, Siam (Thailand), Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Kashmir and Burma (Myanmar). In late September 1919 after a lavish farewell party thrown by Miss Westaway at her parents’ home, they embarked on the SS Montoro, a comfortable passenger vessel that plied between Australia, India, Java and Singapore. The paper streamers connecting them to friends and relations stretched taut and snapped. A great adventure lay ahead.
Their first taste of the exotic East came unexpectedly in Darwin itself as they were marooned there for three dull weeks waiting for a passage. In 1919 Darwin was an unprepossessing town prone to periodic destruction by cyclones. Unemployed Chinese, Europeans and Japanese lolled in the stifling heat. Bullock carts and camel trains passed lethargically along the wide streets while the occasional bean seed planter in a white sola topi and tropical suit emerged onto a wooden balcony. The evening before they sailed, an excited Eddie and George gave a concert using an ancient piano in a dilapidated ‘concert hall’.
The voyage was smooth and uneventful, the gentle thrum of the engines reassuring, the movement of air on deck refreshing during velvet tropical nights. Their first appearance in ‘the East’ en route to India was at the imposing Victoria Theatre in Singapore for two nights on 22 October and 24 October. A few months before their arrival a statue of Sir Stamford Raffles had been erected before the tall signature clock tower to celebrate the centenary of the founding of Singapore.*
They then sailed on to Bangkok for a brief appearance while the ship took on stores and cargo. Reviews of these concerts appear not to have survived. They would give further performances on the return voyage to Australia after their extended tour of India. After reaching the Bay of Bengal some hundred miles from Calcutta (Kolkata) Port, a highly skilled and immaculately dressed pilot boarded the ship with his assistant. He guided the ship through the swift and treacherous currents of the Hooghly (Hugli) River past the ruins of a Portuguese Fort to the berth at Diamond Harbour. Kipling described it as ‘the most dangerous river on earth’ with channels swollen with ‘the fat silt of the fields’.† Eddie and George were taken by car from here to the Grand Hotel. They would perform their first recital of the tour at the dazzlingly white imperial Calcutta Club.
Calcutta (Kolkata), known as the ‘City of Palaces’ had been the colourful and exotic capital of the East India Company and British Raj for over a hundred years. The imposing Calcutta Club had been founded in 1907 by Lord Minto‡ successor to Lord Curzon as Viceroy of India§. Minto, a keen hunter (his shooting party bagged 4,919 inedible sand grouse in two days in 1906), once commented in a burst of imperial pride ‘The Raj will not disappear in India as long as the British race remains what it is …’. Wandering about in the enervating heat they admired Dalhousie Square (the present Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bagh), the classically columned administrative centre of the city and the former headquarters of the East India Company.
*Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781–1826) was a British statesman most famous for his founding of Singapore on 6 February 1819. His legacy lives on along with his name.
† ‘An Unqualified Pilot’ from Rudyard Kipling Land and Sea Tales (London 1923), p. 35.
‡ Gilbert John Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, 4th Earl of Minto (1845–1914) Viceroy of India 1905–10.
§ George Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston (1859–1925) was the pre-eminent Viceroy of India 1899–1905.
Like many young men of the day, the most Eddie and George knew of the city (and perhaps of the entire country) was that notorious myth of Empire, the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’.
Eddie was enraptured by the former capital and its extensive parks. They strolled through the hazy European Quarter along wide avenues of classical Palladian architecture. The Royal Botanic Gardens, perhaps the finest in the Empire, were situated on the opposite bank of the Hooghly River. They admired the Great Banyan, traveller palms, mangoes, feathery casuarinas and mahogany. At the entrance to Government House a monumental classical arch was crowned with a British lion, its paw possessively resting on a globe in a statement of invincibility.
They explored the poor areas and dusty markets, the air beguiling them with spices and the aroma of rich roasting coffee.
It was a particularly sensitive time for a concert party to be touring India. By the time of their visit cracks in the edifice of imperial domination had inexorably begun to widen. The storm clouds of Indian nationalism were gathering. The Cahill-Brooke Concert Party had arrived to entertain but the Anglo–Indian administrators were teetering on the brink of profound change.* Ghandi had transformed the Indian National Congress into a powerful force demanding home rule. Our entertainers had sailed into a fraught political atmosphere.
Both Eddie and George believed that audiences wished primarily to be amused, women being far more sympathetic to music than men. This would certainly have been the case in colonial India. British men were judged on their preference for ‘hard bodily exercise’, their ability to ride, hunt game, show skill at pig-sticking, shoot and talk about tigers. These jungle wallahs preferred ‘knocking about in stained brown raiment’ and waking up for breakfast in virgin undergrowth to listening to classical music. When the blunt Irish-born Viceroy Sir John Lawrence† learned that one benighted Civilian had brought a piano out to India he swore to ‘smash it’ for him.‡
*In the nineteenth and early twentieth century the term ‘Anglo–Indian’ was defined by the OED as ‘Of mixed British and Indian parentage, of Indian descent but born or living in Britain, or (chiefly historical) of British descent or birth but living or having lived long in India’.
† Sir John Lawrence (1811–79) was a British statesman who served as Viceroy of India 1864–69.
‡ Members of the Indian Civil Service were known as ‘Civilians’.
However, scattered among the prospective audience were the Collectors and Civilians of the Imperial bureaucracy.* They were the minority of cultured Oxford men, some even intellectuals, who read Plato, Horace and Homer whilst in India. Some studied and made significant contributions to knowledge of the languages and ethnography of the subcontinent. Most contributed significantly to advancing the infrastructure in India, ruling by a curious mixture of discipline, military might and moral force.
The Calcutta Club concerts were highly successful (discounting the wayward tuning of the piano) with many encores being enthusiastically demanded. As well as performing his usual Liszt rhapsodies, Chopin polonaises and nocturnes, Eddie realized it was close to Christmas. Many in the audience were separated by their colonial duties from the comforting drawing room fires and festive cheer of ‘Home’. To conclude the classical section of his concerts Eddie performed the novelty piece ‘Trinity Chimes’ by the American composer Walter Decker. In this astonishing piece ‘Silent Night’ alternates with ‘Come All Ye Faithful’ in the bell-like upper registers of the piano, the charm and amusement of which was augmented by George ringing hand bells. This reminder of an English Christmas was rapturously received.
*A ‘Collector’ was a principal position in the executive branch of the Indian Government (Indian Administrative Service).
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A long train journey hugging the coast of the Bay of Bengal took them through heat and dust to Madras (Chennai) on the Coramandel Coast, the landscape a mixture of palms, lagoons and white beaches. The climate of Madras was debilitating so the city was not a popular posting. The new, large capacity Wellington Cinema in the suburb of Tana welcomed them for a week-long season. Eddie received glowing reviews praising his musical temperament ‘which enables him to give interpretations of compositions which are full of expression, which seek to convey the meaning the composer intended to convey.’ He was forced to perform on an indifferent baby grand piano with sweating, slippery fingers. The Madras Times wrote: ‘The chief praise must undoubtedly be given to Mr Cahill. He played magnificently, and the memory of at least one item, Zanella’s Minuetto will remain with us for a very long time.’* Eddie also played the Moonlight Sonata, the famous Rachmaninoff Prelude in G minor and some minor salon works of his own composition.
*The Tempo di Minuetto No. 1 Op. 29.
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A week-long season in Bangalore (Bengaluru) left them exhausted.
The company were lodged in the fine West End Hotel. In the city Cubbon Park was named Rotten Row in a nostalgic reference to London’s fashionable ride in Hyde Park. Eddie was far more of a mannered aesthete than George and enjoyed what he called ‘the charm and extravagance of imperial life’. The heat and exotic atmosphere excited his libido as he picnicked with ladies in Meade’s Park and listened to imperial military bands. George found the English rulers pretentious and often refused to accept formal invitations to white tie dinner parties. The need to adapt to English colonial manners soon led to frayed tempers. In addition a platonic romance seemed to be blossoming between Eddie and ‘the particularly charming’ soprano Josie Westaway. George sang duets with her and discovered his own heart similarly engaged. This lead to the boys leading rather separate social lives.
The testimonials from Dame Nellie Melba gave them carte blanche to the highest cultural circles. Eddie was praised for possessing ‘the characteristic modesty of a true artist’. George was praised for the adventurous variety of his songs ranging from Schubert Lieder to Negro spirituals. In an interview he commented that as artists they wished to attract the casual lover of music, ‘the one who says he knows nothing about it but just likes it.’
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The pleasantly mild winter weather continued until the end of January 1920. The steam locomotive of the Guaranteed State Railway Company pulled into the largely deserted fortress-like railway station at Secunderabad carrying the concert party to their next engagement. This small town, founded as a British cantonment at the turn of the eighteenth century, is separated from its better known twin sister Hyderabad by beautiful Lake Hussain Sagar.*
*A cantonment was a permanent military station.
Eddie and George performed at the Secunderabad Club, one of the five oldest clubs in India and at that time reserved exclusively for British officers and their wives and families. Enthusiasm greeted what was clearly an ‘event to pass the weary hours’. After the concert the audience clamoured for a return of the touring company. The local paper wrote pointedly
‘As a rule touring parties that come to small stations like ours are attended only by people who can think of nothing else to do or dinner parties the hostesses of which do not feel able to entertain their guest after the meal. This was not the case on Monday.’
The travelling concert party were almost living on trains breathing in gritty smoke for hours. From Secunderabad they travelled on a narrow gauge railway into the thankfully cool nights of Poona (Pune). Pune is situated in Maharashtra at the confluence of the Mutha and Mula rivers, occupying a strategic position on the trade routes between the Deccan and the Arabian Sea. Poona was one of the best rest stations in India because of the climate, the gymkhana, the charming balls and ‘jolly regattas’ celebrated on the river.
The concert party performed at the weatherboard Gymkhana before a mixed audience of graceful ladies and stiff military officers. The ‘Poona Season’ began in June so they had arrived at an unfashionable time. Eddie worried about an initially ‘deep silence’ that reigned after each item. Society in Poona was rather straight-laced at any time but at the conclusion the audience erupted into ‘tumultuous applause’. The concerts were reviewed as ‘a musical treat of a very high order.’
Eddie was curious to explore the other side of town, the alternative world of their ‘official’ engagements. The Imperial Poona lifestyle was in shocking contrast to the indigenous area, still locked into the Peshwa era. He noticed no broad roads here, simply unsealed tracks, numerous Hindu temples, a labyrinth of suffocating alleys and lanes swirling with dust and dirt. Stinking latrines were placed at the entrance to houses for the convenience of the sewage collectors creating terrible discomfort to those entering or leaving the dwellings. At night a shattered collection of kerosene lamps gave fitful illumination to the human shadows that flitted past seeking the safety of home.
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From Poona to Bombay (Mumbai) was but a short distance. They experienced a certain ‘Grandeur of Arrival’ at The Victoria Terminus, an imposing Venetian Gothic Revival building enlivened by exuberant Indian decoration.
They were taken by horse-drawn carriage to the extraordinary Watson’s Esplanade Hotel, the grandest in the city. Poverty and wealth lay in close proximity; beautiful women and tall athletic men gave a theatrical atmosphere to street life.
Watson’s Hotel had been fabricated in wrought and cast iron by the Phoenix Foundry Company in Derby, shipped out and assembled on a wide Esplanade. One writer referred to the skeleton of the exceptional structure ‘like a huge birdcage had risen like an exhalation from the earth.’* The floors were of precious teak, mahogany and Minton tiles. There was a central atrium with a restaurant, drapers, tailoring shops, drawing rooms and billiard rooms located below the hotel accommodation.
*James Douglas, Bombay and Western India: A Series of Stray Papers, 2 vols, 1893, vol. 1, p. 218.
The hotel was the first pre-skyscraper, multi-storey habitable building in the world in which all loads, including those of the brick curtain walls, were carried on an iron frame. Eddie and George took small rooms in the upper story reserved for ‘bachelors and quasi-single gentlemen’.† The reception cannot have been so different for them than when Mark Twain stayed at the hotel at the turn of the twentieth century. He described his own arrival at Watson’s in his wonderfully prolix travelogue entitled Following the Equator:
‘The lobbies and halls were full of turbaned, and fez’d and embroidered, cap’d, and barefooted, and cotton-clad dark natives, some of them rushing about, others at rest squatting, or sitting on the ground; some of them chattering with energy, others still and dreamy; in the dining-room every man’s own private native servant standing behind his chair, and dressed for a part in the Arabian Nights …*
† The Times of India, 14 February 1870, p. 2.
*Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Round the World (Hartford, Connecticut 1897), p. 348.
Kipling fictionalized the hotel in two of his stories.
The first concerts Eddie and George gave were at the Bombay Gymkhana, originally a cricket pavilion that had grown into an exclusive club for British officers. After their evening and lunchtime concerts, which were extremely popular, they would relax, sip their Pimm’s or take a ‘peg’ of whiskey and watch a cricket match from the spacious veranda.† Fans revolved lethargically in the high wooden ceilings. Their customary mixed musical program was ‘ferociously applauded’.
The Bombay Advocate wrote that the customarily decorous audience were given to ‘enthusiastic cheers mingled with outbursts of applause when Mr Edward Cahill, the talented Australian pianist, finished his second number’. The response bordered on an actual ovation by the colonial ‘men of action’ normally bored to tears by piano playing. George was considered to have a ‘fine platform appearance’ and ‘a limpid quality of tone and fine phrasing’. Xaver Scharwenka’s spirited Polish Dances were tremendously popular, as was the Miserere scene from Il Travatore. As well as Chopin polonaises, Eddie repeated the novelty piece ‘Trinity Chimes’ with George once again enthusiastically setting to on hand bells. The nostalgia thus evoked almost brought down the house. They had also been secured for a long run of performances at the magnificent and relatively new Royal Opera House, the interior adorned with crystal chandeliers, precious marbles, cane seating and behind the stalls, rows of boxes with notorious couches.
The Bombay Chronicle perceptively noted that ‘Mr Cahill tries to arrange his programs that it may have a crescendo of interest, and by arousing the imagination to appeal to the casual theatre-goer as well as the trained musician.’ The hall was crowded to hear his ‘renowned singing tone’ in a selection of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words and to appreciate his lightness and elegance in the Andante and Rondo capriccioso. They leapt to their feet after the dramatic and popular Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No.12.‘His mastery of the piano suggests genius rather than talent. He is destined to become famous.’ Eddie commented on the intense musicality of the large number of Bombay Parsis who patronized their concerts, one family attending eighteen performances and following them to other points of call around the country.*
† A ‘peg’ was a miniature jug for a measure of alcoholic drink in colonial India. Also known as a chota-peg.
*The Parsis are an ancient minority Persian Zoroastrian racial group who fled religious persecution in Iran in the 10th century to settle in India, mainly in Bombay. They were particularly loyal to Britain during the period of Empire and their outstanding character qualities, moral stature and advanced culture were greatly respected by the imperial powers. The conductor Zubin Mehta is and the popular singer Freddie Mercury was a Parsi.
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The Viceroy at the time of their visit to Jaipur was the much decorated Frederic Thesiger, 1st Viscount Chelmsford†, ‘a lofty patrician with a Merovingian disdain for interference in any business at all and a man in the hands of his own officials.’‡ He had been a controversial Governor of Queensland from 1905–9 before being appointed Viceroy by George V in 1916. The soundness of his judgment was often called into question. Despite the grandeur and power of their position, the Viceroys were not always from the absolute top flight of administrative British talent. The enormous Rajputana Agency area was referred to disparagingly in personal letters as the ‘Great Sloth Belt’. The concert party had been invited to give a single concert of classical music before the Maharajah of Jaipur, HH Maharajadhiraja Sir Madho Singh II§. The Viceroy also communicated a wish to hear the Queensland pianist. This was the first occasion the music of Chopin had been performed before Maharajas.
† Frederic John Napier Thesiger, 1st Viscount Chelmsford (1868–1933), Viceroy of India 1916–1921.
‡ Nigel Collett, The Butcher of Amritsar: General Reginald Dyer (London 2005), p. 324.
§ HH Maharajadhiraja Sir Madho Singh II (1880–1922).
An adopted son of the Maharaja HH Ram Singh (1835–80), HH Madho Singh II was a just and progressive ruler. He extended the superb Rambagh Palace to lavishly accommodate guests. It had its own polo field attached to the pleasure gardens. Lord Curzon had a particular respect for this ruler who had made an historic visit to England in 1902 to attend the coronation of King Edward VII, now Emperor of India. Mounted Indian colonial troops had made the event into a superb pageant. To accommodate his orthodox Hindu lifestyle he chartered an entire P & O liner modified to include a temple to Krishna. Master silversmiths had cast two vast polished gangajalis (water containers) from some 14,000 silver coins filled with hundreds of gallons of sacred Ganges water for drinking and bathing while abroad.
For their first concert in overwhelmingly sumptuous surroundings, the Maharajah sent two Sunbeam motorcars to collect the concert party. For the second concert he dispatched a richly caparisoned elephant. When entering the palace by motorcar they had wondered at the imposing gate what appeared to be a doorbell mounted high above the ground. Seated in the opulent howdah perched on the back of the elephant its high placement became clear.
The Maharaja, as Eddie noted, festooned in ‘more precious jewels, pearls and priceless fabrics than I have ever seen in my entire life’ appreciated the performance.
George almost caused a serious incident of etiquette before they began to perform by investigating in a mood of vague curiosity what was behind the Purdah Curtain in the Durbar Hall. The private secretary to the Maharaja rushed across preventing the cultural calamity of George gazing upon the ruler’s wives concealed there to hear the concert. Eddie and George in wonderment finally rested in the palace as honoured guests, touring and admiring the beauty of this princely city with its pink sandstone palaces and beautiful gardens.
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