The Malta Independent 23 May 2018, Wednesday

A book about India but not only…

Simon Mercieca Monday, 14 May 2018, 07:54 Last update: about 9 days ago

Imperial India - A Pictorial Historyis the title of a book just published in England by Austin Macauley Publishers. Its author,Dr. A.S. Bhalla,is Indian.I specifically mention theauthor’s ethnicity,for while historians discussing and writing about Colonial Historyare on the increase, the writer heregoes a step further.

This is not just a book about India’s colonial past, and the word ‘imperial’in the title does not carry the colonial connotation which habitually isviewed disapprovingly.

Instead of writing from the point of view of a subjected people, Bhalla interprets his country’s history as a success story;one of opulence whichmanaged to outdo all themany conquerors she had to bear. To achieve this, the author relies on a very strong anthropological diction. Thoseonce considered natives by the British mastersare now seeing their respectiveterritories as having remained ‘imperial’despite foreign invaders.

Thus, the author is using the word ‘imperial’ not solely in connection with British rule. It is applied to all the different powers that ruled India.In brief, India can truly claim an imperial history that stretches fromancient timesup to the Modern Period.The message here is that India was not only imperial because of her connection with the British Empire. India was always an imperial sub-continent despite her many regions and ethnicities. Like Ancient Greece, Indiaended up conquering, throughher magnificenceand vaingloriousness, words that crop up repeatedly in the book, her conquerors.

In the first four chapters, Bhallabuilds on the historical premise that India was already lordlyduring the times of pre-Moghul and Moghul rule. This period was followed by the Delhi, Deccan Sultanates and the Maharajas. Bhalla refers to their beautiful palaces, forts, mausoleums, temples and mosques. Chapter 5 is dedicated to the Maharajas and their palaces. For the author, this was the time of atruly princely India. Chapters 6 to 13 are devoted entirely to the Raj.Bhalla produces in these chapters images of the many magnificientbuildings and projects, in particular that of the railway,built by the British in India.

Bhallaexposes this Imperial aura by using lithographs and old postcards, primarilyof important buildings,famous sites, landmarks, important personages and common people. These postcards and illustrations were all printed infirst decade of the 20th century. Therefore, the grandeur of Imperial India is seen through the lens of these old images.

It isonly natural to ask whether this book has any relevance to our local history. The Maltese connectionis there; the book was sponsored by Fondation de Malte. Secondly,Bhallahas dedicated the tome to theFondation’s former president and hislong-time friend,the late SalvinoBusuttil. Bhalla got to know Salvinoway back in the 1960s, when they were both working on their doctorates in Manchester. They were to remain in regular contact and met in various cities throughout their respective careers.Bhallastates,in the introduction, to have also visited Malta.

Relevance to Malta is also to be found in the text. There are two instances when the two countries shared a common past. The first,obviously,was when Malta and India were under British domain. Within this sphere,the two countries have a sharedcommon identity that goes from architecture, customs and even to references to both countries in the House of Commons’ debates.

Nonetheless,I donot think that we can really speak in terms of an imperial Malta for the British period. The geographical size makes all the difference here. Yet, in looking and examining these iconographies and photos,a common shared history of these two nations is exposed, including the similarityand interest in the themes chosen as subject matter.In Malta, the British sought to recreate in miniature the streets of London.  In India, the British sought to re-propose an improved version of London. Perhaps, an interesting analogy would again be with Ancient Greece. Ancient Greece created a greater Greece in Southern Italy so much so that the Greeks themselves aptly called it Magna Grecia.Thus espousingthat this new creation was even more magnificentand sumptuous than Greece itself. British colonialism seems to have done the same in India. India became the Magna Brittania, but unlike in Ancient Greece,this important historical fact is yet to be acknowledged.

There is another aspect of a common shared history between Malta and India. Both countries have come under the influence of Islam. Between the 9th and 13th century, our island shared a common Muslim past. India came under the influence of Islam much later. Even if there is a difference in the period, there is a strong similarity in history. I strongly believe that this time round, we can speak in terms of animperial Malta during Arab rule. Malta was not only a Muslim colony. She was part and parcel of the Aghlabid Empire.After the fall of the Aghlabids, Malta came under different rulers, all expressing an imperial’aura. For this reason, I find it extremely difficult to accept claims made by the Arab writer, Al Himyari, that our island was uninhabited for about 180 years. On the contrary, all the surviving references point out to a cosmopolitan Malta.

Unlike India, we have very few relics or ruins of Muslim culture and civilization. Muslim architecture is practically non-existent. Even our language is not necessarily or exclusively a Muslim inheritance. Arabic was not only spoken by Muslims at the time. Those non-Muslim communities speaking Arabic between the 9th and 13th century were much larger and stalwart than those of today. In North Africa for example, Christianity was still present up to the 15th century.

Then, there is the British Colonial interest in what Edward Said rightly calls Orientalism. In India, the British did not need to recreate it. Muslim architecture was still present. In Malta, the oriental aspect had, by the nineteenth century, disappeared completely, except for the women’s dress and language. Architecturally, the British needed to recreate it and they did so through important edifices such as the Ottoman Cemetery at Marsa andthe Alhambra house in Sliema. Like in India, these ‘oriental buildings’ended up being photographically reproduced on postcardsfor British consumption. 

This book is a confirmation that Indian scholars are coming to terms with their Imperial past. Even in Malta, I can proudly state that from an academic point of view, we are also undergoinga process of reviewing the way werelateto British imperialism and our colonial history in general. Words like empire, imperial and imperialism are once again in vogue. More books and articles are being published focusing on what the authors consider to be the splendour of the British Empire and how this was expressed through art and architecture.

Even in Malta, our colonial system did not begin with the arrival of the British. In our case, the problem is that we, as a nation, are still associating colonialism and imperialism with negativity with the result that we do not appreciate to the full the elements of thecolonial heritage that we have and we do nothing to protect it for posterity.Dr Bhalla’s is instrumental in helping us to better appreciate the varied aspects of colonialism.Let us try to safeguard the beautiful imperial architecturethat we inherited through the ages.


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