Summary and Keywords
A MISSIONARY has a right to state his opinion like the rest of us; but you may have noticed, Sir, that he usually has a cock-sure way of doing it, as if it was the only opinion possible to a decent human being. I make allowances for his feelings, seeing how my Show put his in the shade; and I confess that when he came with his catechists, his little books and his white umbrella to the edge of the crowd gathered to see my parade, I sent the Band round with orders to bray their hardest close to his pitch, and so made him clear off to a distance. I call that self-defence; for he had been to the Brahmins telling them my innocent Show was running away with their money, and then he came and slanged me for half an hour on the wickedness of an Englishman making a living out of the superstitions of the people—"eating meat offered to idols," said he, in his warm-hearted way.
That isn't the right way to speak of an enterprise which I do not hesitate to say is absolutely unique in India; and, as I believe, entirely unlike any other travelling entertainment ever seen. You are a fair man, I am sure, Sir; and if you don't mind I'll tell you, in as few words as possible, exactly what my Show is; and you may judge whether it is the wicked thing the Missionary called it, and fit only, as he remarked, for “consuming fires."
Why, only the other day a gentleman came round and looked at everything so carefully, and asked so many questions of my manager, Ram Narrayen, I entered into conversation with him myself, and he showed so much interest in the peculiar features of my booth that I asked him outright—"And who may you be, Sir?”
"I'm the Director of Public Instruction in this province," says he.
"Well, I'm a Director of Public Diversion," said I; whereupon this gentleman laughed pleasantly, and spent a full hour looking about him; recognizing the subjects of all my tableaux, which not one European in twenty ever does; and as he went away he said he wished he could think his work went as straight home to the people as mine did; and he did not grudge stating that, taking it all round, my Show was the most interesting and novel he had ever seen in India.
You only saw the flags flying in the distance, and the car parade in the city before we struck tents and packed up, I think, Sir. It is a pity you did not give us a call, 'specially as you admired the car.
I have seen the best that American circuses can do in the way of triumphal chariots; but for real completeness and finish, that car with Rama and Sita sitting under the canopy, old Jesrut in front and Hanuman at the side, is the most perfect thing I know of. Nowadays, all the native things of that kind are tawdry without being fine; and the details are always spoiled by some incongruous or shabby feature. Mine was studied from old drawings; and all the velvet, kinkob, and goldspangled gauze is of the best quality. The four bullock-housings alone are worth twenty pounds apiece; but then the large embroidered cloths were given to me by a big Delhi banker, who had all his folks down at Buddh Gaya for sraddha—at least, they were given in his name; but Ram Narrayen says it was the gentleman's womenfolk that insisted on it. He hired the Show for a day for his family—some seventy souls,—and I never saw folks in more glee and contentment.
What was my idea in starting a Show at all? Well, Sir, one of my ideas was this : Wherever there is a big crowd of people, there's a certain amount of money per individual to be spent on amusement. In this country the amount is less than elsewhere; but then the number of individuals is larger. At a big religious mela there are thousands of people who have been saving their pice for months, and are quite ready to spend it. Year by year the Brahmin gets less of this hard-earned cash, and that's a thing I cannot quite explain; but you may take it from me as a fact. Beggars, fakirs, jogis and the like get something, and hundreds of rupees are spent on native toys and cheap country ornaments ; besides hundreds more on small hardware notions, mostly German, that now find their way to all parts of India. But it would. take a long time to tell you where a native crowd's money goes. Here a pice and there an anna—it totals up when you count it by thousands.
But it was not easy to find out what sort of diversion they like. They are such a placid, patient, tranquil lot it’s hard to say what they are thinking about, and harder still to contrive something to wake them up.
To bring in new notions you must fall in with their own ideas as a sort of starting-point. And. in this respect Europe crowds are pretty much the same. It would take a wiser man than you or me to explain why; but what folks like to see and hear best is what they know already, dressed. up with a touch of freshness. Down in Bengal I tried, when I first began, a first-rate illuminated peep-show, with pictures of the capitals of Europe, Vesuvius in eruption, illuminated ballets in gilded halls, and so forth; but it was of no use. What did they know or care about the Place de l'Opera at Paris with the electric light and little carriages moving along?
But my toy railway—a beautiful little model—kept me afloat. A Swiss thing, Sir—one of the most perfect ever made, though it goes by clockwork, and not by steam, as the yokels think when they see the smoke. The fetching point in it is the line of railway and the stations, one at each end of the enclosure, with little figures of the Babu Station-Master, the English lady and gentleman, the Eurasian guard drinking out of a bottle, the Zamindar smoking a hooka, the pariah dogs, and an ekka full of people waiting at the gate. They cluster round this like flies round a sugar-cask ; every face expanded in a grin like a doorknocker. And when the little train comes in, and the bell rings, they always roar with glee like the children they are.
There's nothing commoner or better known than men or women; but when you make 'em in marble or wax all the world goes to see them at the British Museum or Madame Tussaud.'s, One is high; but the other, you say, is low, and. therefore bound to be popular. That was the way I reasoned, so that was the next thing I tried; and I can assure you, Sir, if there's a heartbreaking thing in this country it's wax—on account of the heat, you see. After many trials I was forced to give it up and take to moulded paper—a business that a modeller from Kishengurh picked up from me with surprising quickness. Also he grew to be very clever in modelling queer monkey-folk and monsters, Rakshases and Apsaras, and painted them to the proper pitch of frightfulness or beauty.
The first figure we finished to our satisfaction was a life-size Krishna leaning against a white cow, and playing on the flute; but most of the groups we made were only half life-size. Subjects were plentiful enough, but we stuck to those that are best known. There's scarcely a passage in the "Ramayana" or the "Mahabarat" that you can't find a country picture for. Most English people in India know something about these endless yarns; but very few have any idea of the way they are rooted in the people's minds. For my part, I soon get lost in those wildernesses, but my clients read all the tableaux off easier than if they were printed books. Ram Narrayen, my manager, wrote a little book in Marathi about our "Mirror of Two Worlds," and we had it translated into Bengali and Urdu and illustrated with lithographic pictures; and it brings in about twenty rupees a month steadily. And you may imagine that the twenty-three groups we fitted up with costly dresses and appropriate scenery cost me both time and money.
The great advantage of this kind of Show is that painted figures don't ask for wages; don't run away to get married or burn their mothers; and a score of 'em travel comfortably in a box without quarreling. You are forced to keep a lot of people in this country in any state of life. My head man Ram Narrayen I picked up, sorely down on his luck, at Trimbuk, selling charms for small-pox and toothache, telling fortunes, and generally dodging round the crowd on the look-out for what he could pick up. One naturally cocks one's ears when a half-naked Brahmin in the midst of a yelling crowd of worshippers accosts you with a quotation from Shakspeare. So we talked it over, sitting on a warm rock; and he has been with me ever since. He is a Senoy Brahmin by caste, educated at Dr. Wilson's school, where they must have had a Scotch master for his Marathi-English has a queer "lowland Doric" twang about it; a born rolling-stone, Sir, adventurous, easily pleased, pleasing other people easily, ready of tongue and handy with his fingers; but rather slack in what one might call his moral joints. But when we have little difficulties—about receipts mostly,—he has a candid sort of way of owning up with a smile on his round, plump face that always beats me. He nearly left me once to join them Theosophists, but I told him he couldn't keep it up long enough to make it pay, for he has a curious sort of fair-mindedness, a fancy that all creeds are pretty much alike in essentials; and though he is quick to pick up a new notion, he never shows the faintest sign of prejudice or preference with regard to the many he has taken up with from time to time. I suspect a good many of your educated natives are like him in this respect.
But I was telling you how the booth is arranged. It is a huge, oblong enclosure, roofed along the sides and centre. At the sides are our tableaux; and, what are nearly as attractive, my pictures and looking-glasses. Two of these are full-sized pier-glasses, and they cost me a pretty penny to carry about. A large proportion of my visitors have never seen themselves; and I don't know whether the men or women take more kindly to the mirrors. There's a sort of native "buck" that's vainer than any peacock; and it's as good as a play to watch one of these dandies before a big glass. Up and down the centre runs the railway I mentioned, with a station at each end. Alongside this are some mechanical clocks; a Swiss piping bullfinch that's moved by clockwork, and whistles beautifully; two big live cobras in cages fitted like miniature temples, and a mechanical sepoy that presents arms and rolls his eyes. Then I had a model of the Kaabah at Mecca, that caused me more surprise than anything else; for the little domes all round the square were gilded; a good deal of the building was in ivory, painted over with patterns; and the Kaabah itself was covered with black silk velvet, with gold edging, which is right enough. Yet Mussalmans that had made the Haj and had seen the dust, dirt and bare stone of the real thing used to look through the green curtains with tears in their eyes, and vow my bedizened model was teek and true in every detail.
At the further end are props for rope-dancing and poles for tumbling, for which I have a family of Punjab bazugars I picked up at Tarkesar. The old man of this lot is one of the best hands at "patter" I ever heard. If you were to translate him literally, his talk might be considered coarse, but the boniment of many a French showman is worse; and there's a good deal of excuse for broad language in this particular broad country. And here my hulwai's pitch, and we always have a Brahman and a Mussulman abdar, for there's nothing thirstier than a native crowd. The sweetmeat stall is very prettily got up; and there is a roulette-table where you can put in pice for sweets. I fitted the stall and keep it tidy, and the hulwai finds himself, helps to pack, and pays me ten rupees a month.
Last of all, there is a stage for theatrical performances; but we only give these regularly when pitched near big towns. You see, when night comes on at country melas there's always cooking to be done ; and the crowds settle fiat in little groups round bits of fires. Then you hear the throbbing of the tom-tom for an hour or so, then the chorus of the jackals, but by ten o'clock they are usually still —except in hot weather, when the drums go on unceasingly all night.
My plan is to keep up a steady stream of people all day long-in at the turnstile, and out at one large exit. This is guarded in turn by three chuprassees, two Purbias—brothers—and a big Cashmeeree; all three first-rate single-stick players and wrestlers. The Cashmeeree, though soft as a chicken in disposition, is the best man of the three; and once at Allahabad I backed him against an English soldier who was a Cornishman. Some people insinuated that I had squared the soldier, but I did nothing of the sort. He was not in regular training and the Cashmeeree wore him down and played with him for three quarters of an hour; and then threw him a clean four-square fall. You should have heard the roar the crowd made—and every soul of those thousands had paid his anna! But unless there's a local favourite, which often happens, or a neighbouring Raja with a taste for wrestling, I don't encourage it much; for a wrestling-bout is a longer business than a Scotch Church service or a Shakspeare [sic] tragedy.
In our line of business the outside is just as important as the inside, if you want to pull the people in; and my front would do credit to any fair in England. My bullock-carts are contrived to join up to make a parade-stand; and behind them we hoist painted cloths as big as the mainsail of a man-of-war. We always pitch facing the north, and arrange our canvas so as to keep a patch of shade in front. "The Mirror of Two Worlds" is painted up in English, Marathi, Guzerati, Urdu and Hindi wherever there's a vacant spot among the pictures, which are a sight of themselves. They are mostly mythological; the Avatars running along the top. But some of them represent ordinary life; and one of the inside of a kutcherry with the English hakim smoking a cigar and a prisoner with his hands joined, and a policeman on each side, is a great favourite. At the top of the gangway are two big figures of Hanuman given to me by a Bengali gentleman—one of those zamindar Rajas,—who fairly fell in love with the Show. He keeps a sort of fancy workshop where he makes all sorts of queer things, and he fitted me up with a whole orchestra of native music. Great, curling ransingha horns, big nagara drums and smaller dholkis, pipes, rasbins, bells and long trumpets. We get local talent to perform on these; and when the whole thing is in full blast, there is row enough to wake the dead. You can't made too loud a din for my clients.
European musical instruments, however, are growing in favour. I can't guess whore they all come from, but there is nowadays scarcely a town of any size that has not a Europe band—that is to say, a cornet, a trombone, a bassoon or two, and side-drums. We only keep three regularly-ordained musicians and singers, but they are considered among the most skilful ever heard. They do not play much before the general public on ordinary days, because, you see, native music is one of these things you must give your mind to; and it takes at least three hours to get through a performance that would satisfy our audiences. But in most places there are local performers who are immense favourites, and sometimes amateurs who are anxious to display their gifts. We arrange singing-matches between these people and my travelling stars, and these competitions are wonderfully popular; audiences coming in crowds from far and near. Sometimes a local magnate presides, and we make it a sort of evening party, allowing him to provide attar and pan but generally it is a popular crush. The worst of it is that a good native singer's throat is as delicate as Sims Reeves's, on account of the queer half notes and falsetto quaverings that are the refinements of their style. And you may take it from me that the vainest creature on this earth is a clever native singer, excepting, perhaps, a clever European one, I have often been asked to engage nautch parties, but they are a tiresome people to manage. My entertainments too are of a strictly moral character; and, except an occasional pas seul by two or three of the bazugar women after tumbling feats, I do not encourage dancing.
I have no "agent in advance," and my experience is that in this country such a person is not necessary. We find our visitors are the best agents, and they work a kind of underground post that carries news of such a tamasha as mine faster and farther than any newspapers or letters. And as for bills and posters, we distribute thousands of these small picture slips lithographed, as you see, on thin paper. Some are taviz or jantars, arrangements of figures in squares, you know; others are marked with elephants, interlaced fishes, peacocks, geese, tigers and other auspicious creatures, and others have the Swastika or Gunesh sign, while others have figures of Krishna and popular divinities, but all enjoin on the reader that his first duty is to go and see "The Mirror of Two Worlds." And they accept the invitation in thousands, people of all sorts and conditions; and what is strangest of all, large numbers of Mussulmans as well as Hindus. The fact is, Sir, among the lower orders they are rather more mixed in the matter of their religious notions, and more practically tolerant than you would suspect, from what you hear and read.
In the afternoons we have dress parades, when the whole staff turns out in such a wild and striking variety of costume as is seldom seen. Ram Narrayen, the old bazugar and his daughter sometimes do a little sort of play interspersed with a few nautch steps; but the burden of all the parade talk briefly is: "Step inside!"
As to admittance, Sir, we charge a sort of graduated scale. To big people we send regular muraslas—invitations in gilt letters on Kashmir paper,—and they pay according to their honour and position. This is an aristocratic country; and it will be many a day before you will get the people to take kindly to your uniform scale railway-ticket-sort-of-arrangements. And many of 'em not only pay at the door, but they leave offerings of flowers, rice, pice, cowries and the like inside. My staff seem to think more of these oddments, which are their perquisite, than of their regular wages.
Well, Sir, I have kept you a long time, and there's a great deal I have not told you after all; but you have perhaps heard enough to judge whether my Show deserves wholesale condemnation, For my part I cannot help thinking that the providing thousands of people with exactly the entertainment and amusement they like and can understand is not a business to be ashamed of.