A brief (alternate) history of India — finer things in life

Posted in fantasy by jrahman on February 21, 2011

Since last August, this series has explored an alternate universe where MK Gandhi’s swaraj movement devolved into chaos and violence in the 1920s, MA Jinnah negotiated freedom with the British and became the first president of the Commonwealth of India, and Jawaharlal Nehru became the country’s fourth president, promising a Noble Mansion of India where all her children could dwell in his first inauguration speech in 1949.

The focus of the series thus far has been on politics and economics.  With the subcontinent gripped by the World Cup fever, I thought this episode should cover some finer topics.

The towering mind of India in the pre-independence decades, Sir Rabindranath Tagore, was deeply disturbed by the state of the world around him.  At home was the revolutionary violence of the 1920s and its equally violent suppression.  From abroad came the impacts of the Great Depression and the rise of totalitarianism.  As a result, while the 19th century indian intellectuals wanted to emulate West, Tagore and his heirs in the 1930s were more sceptic. 

Instead, their intellectual millieu was what became known as the ‘free thinkers’ and the ‘eastern realism’. 

Marxist intellectuals of the 1970s rejected them as escapists, while the western counterculture of the same era adopted them as role models.  But at the time of independence, the university towns of Dacca and Darjeeling became centres of intellectual dynamism that produced, among others, novellists like Satyajit Ray or scientists like Satyen Bose.

Moving from the ‘high culture’ to popular stuff — every school kid of course knows that India has the largest film industry in the world, and despite every major state having a film industry of its own, Desi film means only one thing.  But Lahore wasn’t always the film capital of India (or indeed the world). 

Like most other industries in British India, the film industry begun in calcutta.  Until the 1930s, Calcutta was the only place in India where movies were made.  Two things, one micro and the other macro, changed this in the early 1940s. 

Macro first –– Calcutta was within the striking distance of Japanese bombers, and many industries moved out of the city.  The micro event is now the stuff of legends.  Someone stole 50,000 rupees from Prithvi Raj Kapoor, a major director-producer.  Disgusted with the corruption in the city, Kapoor swore never to make a film in Calcutta.  He returned to his native Lahore in 1939, and the rest as they say, is history. 

Others followed him.  And then with the onset of the war, the government stepped in, making patriotic propaganda films.  A young Pathan army jawan starred in most of these, often playing the idealistic youth defending the nation from the foreign invaders.  By the late 1940s, Yusuf Khan was out of the army, becoming Lahore’s first superstar. 

Calcutta films were usually made in Bangla and dubbed into other languages.  The government films in Lahore changed that.  As Urdu and English were the language of instruction in the army, propaganda films were made in Urdu, and dubbed into other language.  These days all Lahore films are made in Urdu, and many foreigners think of urdu as the Indian language.

There is of course no the Indian language.  Well, with the possible exception of English, or maybe Inglish.  All the founding fathers were all most comfortable in English, and English continued as the language of governance, commerce and higher education after independence.  Language has, of course, been a divisive factor at the state level, but India is an English-speaking country.  And the process was initiated in the 1930s and 1940s.

Another trend from the 1940s, however, didn’t continue.  These days no one outside the army plays cricket.  This wasn’t always the case.  There was a massive surge in cricket’s popularity in 1946, when India beat the ‘invincible’ Australians.  We can wonder about an alternate india where cricket, not hockey or football, was the national religion!  Football gained popularity in the 1950s — wait, we are getting ahead of ourselves.  And of course, hockey was the Indian sport from as early as the 1890s, when the English introduced the game.

And finally, I can’t finish the post without mentioning the scandal that kept the nation’s gossip magazines full in the 1940s — Gayatri Devi’s affair with Joe Nehru.


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