Home Culture A Life in Watercolors

A Life in Watercolors

by Khaled Ahmed

Rawalpindi and the Murree Hills, Feb. 21, 1860. Courtesy F.S. Aijazuddin

F.S. Aijazuddin travels to India’s past through the art and prose of Lady Charlotte Canning

In his 19th book, Sketches from a Howdah: Charlotte, Lady Canning’s Tours: 1858-1861, Fakir Syed Aijazuddin returns to shedding fresh context to the words (and in this case images) of historical figures from Pakistan and India’s shared past. An old hat at the format by now, he wryly notes: “One should never write a book, preferably not a biographical study. It merely extends someone else’s life, and shortens one’s own.”

Fortunately, Sketches is a well-produced coffee-table venture generously spread throughout with color illustrations. Readers who appreciate Aijazuddin’s witticisms in his columns for daily Dawn will enjoy the unfailing excellence of his writing style herein as he brings to life the gifted and, in some ways, obscured personality of Charlotte Canning, wife of Lord Charles John Canning, who ruled India from 1856-1862, including during the infamous Rebellion of 1857, which marked his turn from Governor-General to Viceroy.

Aijazuddin—currently Honorary British Consul for the U.K. at Lahore, in recognition of which he was awarded the OBE in 1997—after a distinguished career as chartered accountant, has settled into his overgrown ferreting instinct, digging up facts lying buried in collective amnesia. Even during his accountancy days, this innate skill was visible in his cataloging of miniature paintings from the Punjab Hills. Today, he is a recognized art historian, a distinction that supplements his various political books, like the one on Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China in July 1971, and another on U.S. President Richard Nixon’s policy toward Pakistan (1969-1974). With Sketches, he has set his sights on the self-effacing and, in some ways, touching career of Lord Canning’s wife as she traveled across post-1857 India.

Journey to ladyship

Charlotte Stuart (1817-1861) was married at 18 to Charles Canning, whose father George Canning had served as Prime Minister of Britain for just 119 days (the shortest tenure of any British prime minister). She was Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria, while Charles served as postmaster-general before being sent to India as governor-general in 1855. It was while serving as the postmaster general in Lord Palmerston’s cabinet that Canning found that his name had been proposed as Governor-General of India to succeed Lord Dalhousie.

Two years into his tenure, the rebellion began on May 10, 1857 with the mutiny of “sepoys” in the garrison town of Meerut, 40 miles northeast of Delhi. It soon spread to the upper Gangetic plain and central India, though incidents of revolt also occurred farther north and east. The rebellion posed a considerable threat to British power in the region, and was contained only with the rebels’ defeat in Gwalior on June 20, 1858. Despite experiencing the yearlong uprising firsthand, Canning was not given to revenge. (“To his great credit he refused to go along with the bloodthirsty and vengeful atmosphere that prevailed back in Britain in the aftermath.”) Although not immune from criticism, Canning, as he appears in Charlotte’s letters to the Queen and to her family back home, creates a good impression, presiding over a smooth transfer and reorganization after the East India Company’s rule was passed onto the British Crown.

Charles, “cold to the point of arrogance,” could never form a warm relationship with his wife, which resulted in her total absorption with painting as she traveled in the post-Mutiny caravans “in her howdah” atop an elephant. Coming to Punjab from Calcutta was a major undertaking in the wake of the disturbances. Canning traveled with a train of 20,000, native as well as European, backed by a battery of artillery “mostly for firing salutes.” The marches were often rigorous—73 miles in one day, from 6 a.m. to 12 midnight, Lady Canning noted. “It was very tedious and the road decidedly not pucka.” Breakfast would be had mid-morning at the camp set up by the advance party, much like the Mughals marching to Kashmir with fanfare. Only some of the stuff the king carried was typical of their times: “Then came 200 camels, loaded with silver rupees, and each camel carrying 480 pounds’ weight of silver; 100 camels loaded with gold coins, each carrying the same weight; 150 camels loaded with nets used in hunting tigers.”

The Shalimar Gardens. Courtesy F.S. Aijazuddin

Tame tenements

The February 1860 arrival in Lahore produced Charlotte’s best work. “Saturday Feb. 11: This public entry into Lahore has been the thoughts & plans of all the authorities here for weeks past. Charles left all to their disposal and amiably acquiesced in their arrangements. They were cruel as to length. We were taken on an enormous round along a new road barely smoothed out of the ploughed fields. The concourse of sardars was to be so great that I have thought it best to keep out of the way, and to trot in first in the open carriage with Lady Campbell & Captain Baring. Think they made Charles [Canning] ride 8 miles at foot’s pace!”

Punjab, run by Lieutenant-Governor Sir Robert Montgomery, had been tame during the mutiny of 1857 despite a fraught past between the ruling Sikhs and the Company Raj. The soldiers and aristocrats, who could have posed a threat to the stability of the British state in Punjab, after change of policy from Calcutta, had become saviors of the colonial state. Recognizing this pivotal role of Punjab during the war of 1857, Lord Canning remarked that Punjab, “from being a weakness, had become a source of strength for the British empire.”

Lady Canning’s first impressions of Lahore are glowing: “The town is far beyond my expectations. The old walls are like Delhi and the buildings within more raised and various; and I passed some very beautiful trees which are so scarce here. Then we came to Anarkullee [sic], the civil station & after losing ourselves among good roads & bad, meandering for an hour, and being sent wrong deliberately and clearing the camp travelers who saw me after my wrong example, at last we hit upon the rear of our camp street and got in!” (Only F.S. Aijazuddin could have deciphered her hieroglyphic handwriting, of which he gives a sample of in the book.)

Running into Ranjit Singh

Lady Canning’s visit—on an elephant—to the tomb of Ranjit Singh produced this rare comment: “Runjeet [sic] Singh’s tomb and the little knobs round it representing the 11 wives burnt with him was all lighted up and made an excuse for our dismounting. From there we drove safely home. A poor colonel, swept off his runaway elephant by a branch, was still in bed 2 days after. The good old Sir Robert Montgomery was made very unhappy and no wonder. It was all very sad.” She felt better visiting a church in the Mianmir cantonment five miles away: “I never saw a better finished church. Everyone has elephant adventures to tell. Sardars have come from every part of the Punjaub [sic] and they must all be received at once.”

This detail must have resonated with author Aijazuddin, as his ancestor Fakir Nuruddin was governor of Lahore under the great Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh (who reigned from 1792-1839). Nuruddin was the youngest of three brothers associated with the Sikh darbar as senior courtiers, proud to proclaim themselves “fakir” out of pious humility, as noted in Aijazuddin’s The Resourceful Fakirs.

On Shalimar Gardens, Canning writes: “Sir Montgomery was anxious to show me the famous Shalimar Gardens himself. It is a dusty drive by the straight road but not more than 2 miles. The gardens date from Shah Jahan’s time and the same family have been gardeners in charge of it for eight generations. They brought us the usual gifts of fruit—all the fountains were playing. It is a grove of mango and orange trees with flowers here and there and long canals full of jets of water. A large square tank surrounded by a terrace and 4 or 5 summer houses. It must be much enjoyable in hot weather. All the fine carved marbles went to the Amritsar temple and Tank.” (The last comment refers to Ranjit Singh’s policy of embellishing the great Sikh temple of Amritsar with rare items from Lahore.)

About Anarkali: “The civil station called Anarkullee lies at about halfway and we encamped beyond. These long dull drives are very tiresome. The country is flat except where there are brick kiln mounds, and no good trees except near the walls. Gardens are good where the ground is well watered, but generally all the only green is young wheat—otherwise dry plains, ravines and the road bordered with young shabby trees. I had to hurry over my difficult sketch to return for an early dinner and at dark we went off to the illuminated gardens—nearly as far as our last encampment. This time no elephants were wanted. All the people walked about or sat in open garden houses. The men are a curious sight not altogether delightful. The city reminded me of Egypt for there are some date palms of great beauty with the contrast of vivid green and the parched soil. I went into the Anarkullee tomb of some old Mussulman and turned to common use by the Sikhs.”

Palace of the Sikh Gooroo at Kartarpur. Courtesy F.S. Aijazuddin

Pindi prevails

On Feb. 19, 1860, Lord Canning decided to march in the direction of Peshawar, which meant visiting Rawalpindi on the way: “We had 274 miles to go. The first day was 73 miles and we were from 6 in the morning to 12 at night getting through it. It was very tedious and the road decidedly not pucka. We have taken leave of most of our escort—only the 7th Hussars (attacking horse regiment) go on with the camp. The 93 Highlanders were marching away to their intended destination Rawalpindee which they take 17 days to reach and we take 3 days with our camels.”

At Jehlum she noted the mound representing the tomb of Alexander’s famous horse Bucephalus—today divided into two towns Buke and Phalia as the river passed through the old city, bisecting it: “We crossed the Jhelum at Jhelum and saw the raised mound said to be the tomb of Bucephalus (the Jhelum is the Hydaspes of Alexander)—after crossing the Jhelum the country changes—the view of the snowy range lad been more and more grand every mile. The great mountains of Cashmere and the passes into the valley of Cashmere can be plainly seen but here new ranges appear. The Salt Range from whence the rock salt is brought is in that westerly direction… one of the camels of the carriage suddenly broke its leg without even falling. The poor beast had to be left and they settled it was more merciful to shoot it.”

Rawalpindi immediately stole her heart in contrast to Lahore—“a very high plain with beautiful mountains only a mile off it is one of the most healthy places in India.” There she saw the Pathans and was clearly impressed: “I am quite convinced the Pathans or Afghans are the lost tribes. They are the handsomest people I have ever seen—more handsome than Sikhs—exactly like Raphael’s Jews, very dark but with model faces and very fine figures. All along the road we have seen them, for these people in the upper half of the Punjaub are Mohametan.”

She noted that they called themselves “children of Israel, dividing lands by lot, managing brothers’ wives, taking Jewish names,” etc. But she notes the opposing theory too: “Against this theory there is only the absence of all trace of the Hebrew language—the Pushtoo which they talk is peculiar to themselves and not known elsewhere. Colonel Lumsden who was raised here and knows more about the Afghans than anyone can tell me all I like to ask.”

Jolt and kindness

The Cannings wandered into Jalandhar too, where a cantonment was to be established later, but Lady Canning thought it the “the most hopelessly dull place I have seen.” This established her inclination to feel better as she traveled westward, most probably as the ethnic map changed in that direction. She was soon to be pulled out of the low impression of Jalandhar as the caravan hit Kartarpur near Sialkot:

“We marched 13 miles to Khurtarpore [Kartarpur]. In the last mile we saw about 6 or 8 very gaily dressed natives riding by in a carriage headed by a very old man on a white horse with the most enormous mane I ever saw. He cantered along quite at his ease dressed in a flowing white and silver robe. He dismounted with his followers & was brought up and presented by the district officer when we arrived. He proved to be the Sikh ‘Gooroo’—the head of the Seik religious sect.

“All Seik priests are called Gooroos. This man is representative of the family of the founder of the Seik religion rather than a priest himself. Do not think he has any religious office but he has one of the original copies of the Holy book, The GRUNT!! [the Granth sahib] in his house. He met all the Governors General who had been to see his house & he hoped the present GG would also honor him. So we settled to go there.”

High in the howdah

The cover illustration of the book is a painting depicting Lady Canning sitting atop an elephant sketching her latest landscape. The 274 miles she traveled from Lahore to Peshawar was spent atop the big elephant at her disposal; or the camel when she had to be in a carriage. For some reason the horse was not a part of the civilian caravan on the road. The camels were used to pull a “buggee” in which she was seated through terrain that was less uneven.

On the way, tributes were received as the local grandees called to assert their loyalty. Lady Canning wrote to the Queen: “When the Maharaja of Cashmere met us at Sealkote, he presented Your Majesty’s tribute shawl at his durbar. They are now on their way to England. They are of extraordinary fineness, quite unlike anything made for anyone else. I think the two long white shawls with a quite narrow and irregular borders made in the old fashioned style will please Your Majesty from their extreme lightness and fine texture.”

Living in Calcutta the capital was not easy given the climate of Bengal. She kept thinking of going to Darjeeling in the northern hills. After she finally managed to dump the hot city she told Queen Victoria: “I am about to make another little tour to the hills and to see Darjeeling which ought to be the Sanatorium of Calcutta as it is but 350 miles off—but it is still a tedious journey after crossing the Ganges and above 200 miles of railway there is still at least 3 nights traveling in the most disagreeable of conveyances—a palanquin!”

View of the Badshahi Mosque and the white samadhi of Maharaja Ranjit Singh as sketched by Lady Canning from the roof of the Lahore Fort’s Sheesh Mahal apartments. Courtesy F.S. Aijazuddin

Last post of loneliness

Darjeeling was to be the last region she visited but there was an intimation of finality in the way she felt as she left Calcutta in November 1861. The official who accompanied her on the way recalled: “She talked constantly of England, of a house which the Queen had kindly placed at her disposal, and of interesting things she had collected to take home, and she invited us to visit her and see them. On reaching the plains, ignorant of the risk she ran, as the ground was not yet thoroughly dry, she ordered the palanquin to be set down in the fog, while she took one last sketch of the distant mountains.”

It is likely that Lady Charlotte Canning was aware of her deteriorating health upon her return to Calcutta. A doctor checked her out and declared her stable, but she suddenly took a turn for the worse, prompting her husband to rush to her bedside, “aware that she was slipping away.” She died on Nov. 22, 1861. Lord Canning described her burial at Barrackpore within hours of death, admitting that in Calcutta, “there is no burial place for the Governor-General or his Family, and the Cemeteries at Calcutta are odious in many ways.” Barrackpore was 15 miles from Calcutta “a beautiful spot looking upon that reach of the grand river which she was so fond of drawing—shaded from the glare of the sun by high trees—and amongst the bright shrubs and flowers in which she had so much pleasure.”

On his departure from India after being replaced by Lord Elgin, Lord Canning looked like a defeated man to Sir Richard Temple: “Canning looked pale, wan, toil-worn and grief-stricken; the brow and forehead had, indeed, their inseparable dignity; but the complexion had become sallow, losing those hues which so often lighted up his aspect on occasions of state ceremony.” If Charlotte was looking down on the man she had failed to relate with, she must have been generous:

“The legacy left by Lord Canning is well-known: his temperate handling of the 1857 crisis, his abolition of the dreaded doctrine of lapse by which rulers forfeited their states if they died childless, his palliative Durbars across the country, his defense of income tax and tobacco tax, the encouragement of tea plantations in the hills, his selection of competent subordinates, and above all his imprint as the first Viceroy of a substantially expanded British India.”

The “temperate handling” bit should however be tempered with the observation that British officers lost in the Mutiny numbered 2,392, while 10 million Indians were killed over 10 years beginning in 1857.

Her verdict on her paintings belied the confidence she lacked in her own abilities: “I think my drawings are ugly, but I daresay you will think they give an idea of this strange and grand country, and I shall be glad to possess them. I somehow never did exactly what others admire most; one always sees something at an inconvenient moment, and hopes the halting-place will do as well. The rough places in the beds of rivers, amongst rocks and trees, with enormous mountains and precipices, would make the best pictures; but a ten-minute’s sketch of such things, which all artists would give a fortnight to do, is useless. And then one may see fifty such scenes in a day’s march, and there is no particular reason for stopping at one more than another, so they do not get done.”

From our Jan. 12 – 19, 2019 issue

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Dr Murtaza Jafri January 18, 2019 - 9:41 am

Very informative a rare research.
Great contribution of a great scholar Dr F.S. Aijazudin

Tryna Lyons January 18, 2019 - 10:12 pm

This is a wonderful contribution, detailing the art and perceptions of the colonial period.

Suleman Yasin January 24, 2019 - 10:25 am

That’s Wonderful. Thanks for such a great information.


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