REREADING a book I had written over 40 years ago, in 1978, brought back memories of a quest that took me from the Lahore Fort to a hunting lodge near Baghbanpura, Queen Victoria’s summer home Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, a secretive mansion in Norfolk, and the Christian graveyard on Jail Road (Lahore).
It began with an interest in the Princess Bamba collection in the Sikh Gallery of the Lahore Fort. The gallery in which they were displayed had been specially adapted to protect a precious group of paintings and other relics associated with the last Sikh Maharaja Duleep Singh (Bamba’s father). He had been deposed in 1849, externed to Fatehgarh where he converted to Christianity, and taken to England in 1854 where he became a protégé of Queen Victoria.
He moved in royal circles and might have died satiated as a settled country squire, had he not been reunited in 1861 with his mother the redoubtable Rani Jind Kaur. She had instigated (and lost) the First Sikh war in 1846 that presaged the annexation of the Punjab in 1849. Her revenge was to make a Sikh out of Duleep Singh and then pit him against the British government that had snatched from him the Koh-i-Noor diamond, his father’s golden throne, and swallowed a kingdom larger than Queen Victoria’s United Kingdom.
At the Fort, I discovered a map prepared by my ancestor Fakir Qamaruddin that marked places of significant interest — where the toshakhana or treasury once stood, the maktabkhana or archive where his uncle Fakir Azizuddin stored state treaties, and the bloodied spots where murders had taken place. I traced the hunting lodge at Shah Bilawal (behind the University of Engineering & Technology) where Duleep Singh’s half-brother Sher Singh had been assassinated in September 1843, propelling the juvenile Duleep Singh to the throne.
The next stage of my quest took me to the UK, to Osborne House where Duleep had spent summers with Queen Victoria’s young children. Her initial contact with India through Duleep Singh and other rulers dispossessed by her government expanded into a geriatric fondness for India, manifest in her munshi Abdul Karim who taught her Urdu, and the addition of a Durbar Hall, to house her Indian collection of artefacts, gifts and commissioned paintings. The Hall was designed by J. Lockwood Kipling and Bhai Ram Singh, from Lahore’s Mayo School of Arts (now the NCA).
Obtaining access to Duleep Singh’s grand mansion — Elveden Hall, in Thetford (Norfolk) — proved almost impossible until a friend Giles Eyre who knew the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava who knew its present owner Lord Iveagh managed to get permission. On a misty autumn morning, my hosts, Shahnaz and I walked through the heavy doors of an English mansion into white caverns overblown with oriental decoration in an ornate, expensive pastiche of the Sheesh Mahal. I noticed a small marble lotus cornerstone dislodged from the fireguard in the drawing room. The temptation was irresistible.
Elveden Hall has its own private church. In its graveyard lie a repentant apostate Duleep Singh, his long-suffering wife Bamba, and young son Edward (named after his childhood friend the Prince of Wales).
The paintings Duleep Singh had acquired and displayed in Elveden Hall remained in the family, even after his insolvency. They passed from the older childless sons to the eldest daughter Princess Bamba. She brought this inheritance to Lahore, where she died in 1957, to be buried in the Christian cemetery. The Pakistan government with commendable swiftness acquired this precious cache of Punjabi history and displayed them, as they deserved, in a specially dedicated gallery.
The collection includes 11 paintings by the Hungarian August Schoefft who visited Punjab in 1841-42 when Duleep Singh was a three-year-old prince. They have been brilliantly restored by a team of five Hungarian specialists, through the generosity of a local financial institution. Maharaja Ranjit Singh never needed a bank; he was his own ATM. His son ex-Maharaja Duleep Singh lived beyond his means and died impoverished. Their pictorial legacy has been fittingly rescued from oblivion by the Bank of Punjab.
The centrepiece of the collection is a large panorama by Schoefft — ‘The Court of Lahore’. Included in it are over 60 identifiable figures, each of whom played a crucial role during the 40 years that Punjab functioned as an independent kingdom.
Forty years ago, I sent my book to publishers in London as no one here would handle it. (It was not Muslim enough.) In it, I provided biographical sketches of each figure and explained how Schoefft had cleverly revealed on one canvas their political affiliations, animosities and rivalries. The painting remains a lesson in Machiavellian politics. For its modern equivalent, one would need to commission a diorama of the present National Assembly in session.