Millennium Post

Reimagining TAJ, then and now

It’s not the first time that the iconic Taj Mahal has found itself at the centre of a dispute about its origins. Benjamin Zachariah takes you back to the 1920s, when colonial officials were made uneasy by a fictionalised account of the building of the monument in a film, Shiraz.

I have been reading the news recently, and the news tells us that the famous Taj Mahal is actually a ‘Hindu’ structure. As I recall, we were first told this by a former deputy of ‘Netaji’ Subhas Chandra Bose from the Indian National Army, in a book written in the 1960s that no one noticed until the 1980s. Then it was taken seriously by men in monkey suits, and the theory now has followers among bureaucrats, habitual wearers of khaki shorts, and government officials in the largest democracy in the world.

But this was not the first time that the Taj Mahal found itself at the centre of a dispute about its origins. Let me take you back to the 1920s, when colonial officials were made uneasy by a fictionalised account of the building of the Taj Mahal in a film.

Shiraz (1928), produced by and starring the Indian cinema entrepreneur and actor Himansu Rai and directed by the Bavarian, Franz Osten,also the director of The Light of Asia (1925), on the life of the Buddha, and later on director of the landmark Achhut Kanya (1936), ran into trouble because of its treatment of what was for its time a sensitive theme. This is a film I revisted recently, having seen it many years ago at a National Film Archives screening, where it was rightfully seen as a landmark of Indian cinema. And indeed, this was the film that had taken up considerable space in the discussions and report of the Indian Cinematograph Committee of 1928, in particular as a model example of the importance of Indian rather than foreign capital being used in the making of Indian cinema.

Shiraz depicts the eponymous hero as a potter who designs the famous building because he was secretly in love with the Empress, Mumtaz Mahal. How this happens is put together in an improbably constructed plot, in which the Princess is rescued as an infant as the sole survivor of a plundered caravan in the Persian desert, and grows up as the companion of the potter’s son Shiraz. The young boy falls in love, but the not-yet-princess does not reciprocate. And then, one day, she is kidnapped by slave raidrs and sold to the envoy of Prince Khurram, soon to be the Emperor Shah Jahan.

Shiraz, in following the princess and attempting to rescue him, gets caught in her room, but conveniently also enables the marriage of future emperor and princess. The Prince could not have married her had Shiraz not conveniently been carrying an amulet that had been in her possession as foundling, which of course proved that she was of noble birth.

Shiraz lives on in Agra for eighteen years to be near his love, and by the time she dies, he is blind. After the death of Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan commissions a competition to find the most glorious design possible to commemorate his great love. This is duly won by Shiraz, who is of course animated by his own love for the empress. This building must, of course, be unique; and when the Emperor Shah Jahan the Magnificent wishes to blind the potter-architect who must not be allowed to surpass his wondrous creation in his next building, it is discovered, to the astonishment of all, that Shiraz is already blind.

This story was met with several complaints from ‘Mahomedan’ opinion before the film had been shown or presented to the Bombay Board of Film Censors. One indignant letter demanded a ban on the film, and declared: ‘Shiraz the designer of the Taj Mahal and the alleged lover of Mumtaz Mahal only exists in the imagination of the author and one cannot trace any mention of him in history. That a lady of such dignity, purity, and piety, should be blackmailed by a modern writer to make the story attractive, is simply scandalous. … screening such a disgraceful lie would inflame the termpers of those who hold the Empress Mumtaz Mahal as their ideal of perfection.’ Various other letters of this tone were received; and in some cinemas, missiles were hurled at the screen when the film was shown. The Bombay Board of Film Censors reviewed the film, which had already been certified for viewing by the Bengal Board of Film Censors, and agreed that its continued exhibition would ‘besmirch the reputation of the empress Mumtaz’. The film had its certificate revoked in 1929.

One H. G. Rawlinson’s note in the file, agreeing with the ‘Mahomedans’, and based on plot synopses rather than a viewing of the film, deplored the fact that Himanshu Rai, the Indian producer of the film, had made an Indian film every bit as full of ‘depravity’ as ‘Western’ films. He was indignant that so large a deviation from ‘history’, even in a frankly fictional film, had been tolerated. He believed the film should have been banned by the censors in the first place, and was particularly horrified that a Muslim princess, of noble birth, and who by rights should not have been in the company of men at all, should be associated with a ‘low-caste potter’. ‘To pursue the parallel’, he wrote indignantly, ‘we might say that St Paul’s Cathedral was designed, not by Sir Christopher Wren, but by a chimney-sweep.’ The film was, therefore, an ‘uncertified film’ in the whole of the Bombay Presidency, the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, Assam, and several other Provinces besides. Its later history is of course by now history.
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