Review of Laal Kaptaan

Recently I saw the movie Laal Kaptaan (लाल कप्तान, literal translation Red Captain). Though I had seen the trailer when it was released sometime back this year, I did not see the movie. The visuals in the trailer were quite good, so I decided to finally watch it. And I was not disappointed. This is one of the few movies in recent times that I have managed to see in one shot. Or rather the movie managed to make me do it.

 

The major part of the movie is set in the region of Bundelkhand (literally the dominion of the Bundelas). This region which falls South-East of Agra and Delhi has historical places like Jhansi, Gwalior, Panna, Chhatarpur, Banda and Orchha within its folds has been historically important. The province of Awadh (Oudh) lies to the east of Bundelkhand and Ganges marks the boundary to the East, while the Rajputana lies to the West. The Yamuna divides the region into two, with the majority of the part lying to the West of Yamuna. The region between the two mighty rivers is known as a doab (marked yellow in the map below). Many of these were erstwhile princely states, which also existed until 1947, when they were merged with the Indian republic.

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The era when the Mughal empire was disintegrating post the death of Aurangazeb in 1707, was especially tumultuous for this region. With the power vacuum created by the decaying Mughal empire being filled by the Marathas, by this time the Chatrapati was only a titular head and real power rested with the Peshwas and the various great houses of the Marathas (Shinde, Holkar, Bhosle, Gaikwad). The Marathas laid waste to large tracts and levied chauth ( collection of one-fourth of income ) on these regions mercilessly. But in general, they were hated in this region for their bullishness and general havoc they perpetrated on the public and places. For example, they looted the Red Fort in Delhi with impunity, scrapping off precious and semi-precious stones from the Diwan-e-Khaas to do a vasuli. (I might make a dedicated post for this later.)

If the Battle of Plassey (1757) was the founding stone of the British in India, then the battle of Buxar (1764) was the first real fortification of this foundation, and the British really established themselves in India as a potent force. Though the Marathas were the most powerful, the British did not engage with them directly until the end of the century. The third Battle of Panipat (1761), a few years before the battle of Buxar limited the Maratha presence in the North severely and was one of the major reasons that led to its full demise as a political and military power by the start of the next century. Though, this enabled the houses of Shinde, Holkar, Bhosle and Gaikwad to establish their own semi-independence over the Peshwas. Eventually, everyone became under the British. But the time in which the movie is set, the Marathas were still a force to reckon with and the EIC has just established itself as a millitary and political power in much of the region from Bengal to North India along the Gangetic plains.

The movie starts just after the Battle of Buxar (1764) when a large number of people are hanged outside the fortress of Shergarh (most probably a fictional place, as I could not find it anywhere in the sources). after the British win the battle. One of the persons who sides with the British named Rehmat Khan is especially despised upon, with him being called a gaddar (traitor) by the hanged. The accused are hanged on a huge banyan tree, with their bodies hanging like overgrown fruits along its branches. It is raining and in this scene, a young teenage boy promises Rehmat Khan that one day he will also hang on the same tree.

Fast forward 25 years (1789), we are taken to the den of a dacoit (डकैत /डाकू ) where the Bairagi called by another generic name Gossain (this term I had not heard before this film). He comes in and asks for fire for his chillam. Mayhem ensues and the hunter takes his prey. The entire scene starts with dark of the night and ends in the early morning.

The horde of warrior ascetics (of which were the Gossain/Naga) came to prominence in the resulting political instability and shifting sands post the fall of the Mughal empire.

…these orders became politically significant only after the collapse of the Mughal Empire, and more particularly after British activities created political and economic chaos in the second half of the eighteenth century.

 

Going forward, the hunter goes on to take his reward, where the local chieftain mocks him and doesn’t want to pay. He is made to pay by the Gossain. The film then follows the Gossain on his quest to locate and kill Rehmat Khan. Though there are hints that there is a link between the Gossain and the teenage boy who is hanged in the beginning, we are not sure how they are connected. I won’t go into the plot of the film, but will instead focus on some of the characters and background of the film.

Though some of the other reviews have portrayed the character of Rehmat Khan (played by Manav Vij) as just grunting. But I think he played the role very well, perhaps these reviewers are used to seeing villains as people who yell and show a lot of emosions on their faces. He subtly played the act of a cold-blooded, calculating and cruel character quite well and was never out of character. Rehmat Khan is a Rohilla. Now, the Rohillas were of an Afghan ethnicity, and they sided against the Marathas (led by Najib ad-Dawlah) with Ahemdshah Abdali during the third battle of Panipat. The Marathas were very enraged by this and Mahadji Shinde did collect his revenge on them a few years in 1772 after Panipat by destroying Rohilkhand and scattering bones of Najib ad-Dawlah. After this defeat, the First Rohilla war happened in which the British siding with the Nawab of Oudh defeated the Rohillas and the state of Rampur of established. The second Rohilla war, in 1794, between British and the Rohillas ended their supremacy in the region. Now, the time between the two wars, there was lot of guerilla activity carried out by the Rohillas, which led them to be set as Nawabs of Rampur. Given all this chaos and uncertainty,  there were no permanent alliances or allegiances. The main part of Laal Kaptaan (c. 1789) is set in this era for the Rohillas. So, Rehmat Khan, a prominent Rohilla, defecting over to British was noteworthy, but not out of the line.

Pindaris

Pindaris were not a tribe, but a military system of bandits of all races and religions. They fluctuated in numbers, being augumented from time to timeby military adventurer from every State, and frequently amounted to as many as 30,000 men.

Pindaris present an episode in history of India, which is quite extraordinary, though skimmed upon in the history texts. Here we are witnessing a rise of a band of people whose existence was based on terrorising and looting people in distant provinces.  The Pindaris were roughly active in the last three decades of eighteenth century to the first two decades of nineteenth. Earlier they were under tutelage of Maratha cheiftains who used them as militias to wreck havoc on supply lines of the enemies and disrupt civilian peace. So them accompanying the Maratha camp is completely normal. The depiction of the Pindari lust for the loot (tum log lo khazana, mai chala lene zanana) is well done in the film. In fact, the comedy of errors that the bunch sent to hunt down Rehmat Khan is something to relish. The frustration of the little Maratha knight in being unable to  control them is well worth seeing.

But as the Maratha power came to a decline, the Pindaris in the nineteenth century became a force of their own, without masters. They would raid far, and were viscious and cruel in their tactics to make people pay. There are reports that people even committed suicides when they came to know that a Pindari raid was imminent.

Another thing worth mentioning in the film is the settings in which the film is shot. The cinematography is par excellence, set amongst fantastic fort ruins. I cannot identify the actual locations used in the film, so any information on that would be welcome.

The other character in the film worth mentioning is the Dog Walker played by Deepak Dobriyal. He has a pair of very fine Mudhol hounds (also known as Caravan hounds) named Sukhiram and Dukhiram.

Screenshot 2019-12-14 at 7.33.46 PMThe character has no name in the film, but he finds people who are wanted for a price. That is how he makes his living. He refuses a horse mount saying it interferes with  His character has many layers and he shares a special relationship with the Gossain, they respect each other. It was a treat to watch Dobriyal play this character with English hat and his greeting of:

Howde do…

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The two female characters in the film, one played by Zoya and other by Heena are in their niche. Zoya as a courtesan who is neglected, while Heena playing the wife of a chieftain carries herself well. Their characters are in emotional turmoil with maternal love and the surrounding situation.

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The clothing, the artefacts are all era-appropriate and so are the languages used. A lot of work must have gone in background research and it shows in the quality of the film. Kudos to the production team for that. Just that the look of Saif has a semblance to Depp’s Jack Sparrow, that could have been avoided.

Overall a very watchable film, if you have not, do watch it.

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PS: A special ode to Saif Ali Khan.

In my personal opinion, Saif Ali Khan has really matured as an actor over the years and has earned my respect for it. You can’t really compare his role in Yeh Dillagi and lets say his depiction of Langda Tyagi in Omkara. It is as if you are watching two completely different actors. The variety of roles he has done in recent times, and with grace is just amazing. He has done roles which many of the mainstream actors would shy away from. Hope that we see his good form in the future also.

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References

Lorenzen, D. (1978). Warrior Ascetics in Indian History. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 98(1), 61-75.

 

Quatermass and The Pit

One of my favourite genres of literature is science fiction. Two of the classic science fiction authors at the start of the previous century were H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jules Verne. The golden era of science fiction began in late 1930s and 1940s and flourished in the post-war era, which saw the big three (Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein) along with many others bring out their finest.  Some of the other remarkable authors from that era include (my personal preference, and by no means a representative list) Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Stanisław Lem, Frank Herbert, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kurt Vonnegut. Though novels were there, the mass format was the pulp science fiction magazines which published short or serialised stories from various authors. Many of the famous novels were first published as short stories in these pulp magazines. A selection of them with fantastic full-colour covers and some with black and white illustrations on the inside. Some of the prominent titles that come up are Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, Worlds of IF, Galaxy Science fiction among others.

The post-war era was an era where people believed that we will have permanent bases on the Moon by end of the 20th century and space travel would be commonplace. But we now know, it will be perhaps a few decades if not centuries for space travel to become common. The optimism in the 50s and 60s perhaps was fuelled by the cold war space race, which saw both the West and Soviets invest huge sums to research and development in developing space technologies. This optimism gradually waned as the Soviet empire fell.

With television becoming the newest technology to reach out to the audience, it is not surprising that many of the programmes were tuned to science fiction. I happened to stumble upon one such programmes while scanning the treasures at The Internet Archive. This was a British production titled Quatermass and The Pit created by Nigel Kneale. This is third in a series of Quatermass episodes.

Warning: Spoilers ahead

The six-part television series from 1958 (each episode is 30-35 minutes) is set in post-war London at Hobbs lane where during an excavation for a building some fossil skulls are discovered.  Dr. Matthew Roney, a paleontologist from a nearby museum begins to investigate the discovery. The fossil skulls and subsequent bones are found to be a new previously unknown dwarf hominid species, perhaps the missing link and are dated to roughly 5 MYA. Roney’s head assistant Barbara Judd, creates a reconstruction of the species which is present to the press.

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Soon after, when they continue digging a strange smooth object is found in the pit. The object resembles an unexploded World War II-era bomb and police and subsequently, the military is contacted for its safe disposal.

 

The bomb disposal squad works slowly and does not care about the archaeological aspects of the pit. This makes Roney impatient, who then contacts his experimental physicist friend Prof. Bernard Quatermass to hasten the disposal of the bomb disposal squad.

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Quartermass is involved in rocket research, which he intends to use for peaceful purposes. And this creates a rift between him and the military personnel he is working with. This has some moral and ethical implications for the purpose of scientific research and whether the scientists are responsible for their research being used for military purposes. The military intends to develop bases on the Moon and Mars in order to achieve supremacy in space which is against the principles of Quatermass.

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Quatermass and Colonel Breen visit the site in order to look at the discovery. When the supposed bomb is excavated deeper more fossils are found and the true shape of the artefact is revealed. And it turns out that the artefact cannot be cut by gas cutter, even after raising the temperature to order of 3000 degrees.

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Further digging, provides a disk and an opening to the artefact. Soon, the shape of the complete artefact is revealed. Rest of the hollow space is emptied out, yet the hull of the artefact remains close shut. There is a pentacle on the smooth inner surface of the hull.

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From the outside, the artefact looks like a rocket, which leads Breen to speculate that it is indeed a German rocket which fell here during the war. Also, traces of artificial radioactivity are found in the soil, which indicates that the artefact might be propelled by a nuclear engine. But Quatermass taking into account the age of the fossils speculates that the artefact itself might be of ancient origin. One of the bomb-disposal unit member has a strange hallucinating experience inside the artefact. He sees a dwarf-like figure pass through the walls.

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To open the hull, they try to drill it with a borazon boron nitride drill which makes no impact. But the action of the drills sets out weird vibrations which make everyone frightened and uneasy.

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Everyone is in a state of panic after this. Quatermass, Roney, and Judd run a parallel investigation after hearing out an old local couple about the neigbouring house being haunted. They dig older records and find episodes of haunting dating back till 1300s through to the present. For Quatermass and Roney this is too much of a coincidence and they begin to speculate about the ancient origins of the artefact.

Just after the drilling, a hole automatically appears in the pentacled hull. Roney looks inside and sees what seems like an eye. They force open the hull and find three insects inside the hull who are decaying.

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Roney immediately tries to stop the decay and preserves the specimens and takes them to the museum. They are unlike any insects known and are tripods. Quatermass and Roney speculate the extra-terrestrial origin of these insects, most probably from Mars.

When the drill operator is taking out his equipment, he triggers more poltergeist activity from the artefact and sets a panic across the street. He finally lands in a church in a state of delirium. He describes to Roney and Quatermass hallucinating visions of the insects found in the artefact killing each other.

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Like good scientists, they further investigate the visions using a Roney’s optic-encephalogram, a device that records impressions from the optical centers of the brain. It turns out Judd is the most sensitive of the lot to these visions and they record them. The visions show large-scale culling of the mutations of insects. Seeing these recordings as a “proof” of their theory of extra-terrestrial origins of the artefact. This evidence along with his theory is presented to the military brass. The theory is ridiculed as a fantasy, and a common-sense approach that artefact and the insects being propaganda from Nazi Germany is preferred. They want to dispel the myth that the artefact is that old or it is indeed extra-terrestrial.

The theory as developed by Quatermass is as follows taking into account the evidence he has:

The Martian race of insects is selected to weed out any mutants. So there is a tendency to have large scale purges, which are seen in the hallucinations of people. The Martians came here 5 MYA, and tried to genetically re-programme our ancestors in their own image. During this reprogramming, the human ancestors were given telepathytelekinesis and other psychic powers. And they were set back to Earth. The artefact found was one such space-ship which crashed while bringing modified hominids back to the Earth. Now in the vicinity of the space-ship, some of these long-forgotten powers are awakened. The spaceship itself induces the visions and poltergeist phenomena seen when the ground near the ship was disturbed. Quatermass fears that a large scale activation of such powers might lead to mass killings of humans as seen in the hallucinations.

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A media event is organised in order to address this once and for all. Quatermass pleads that this event must be stopped but in vain. Just as the live event is about to start, the power cables in the vicinity of the artefact, activates it fully. This sets chaos about everywhere and people are trying to kill each other. Somehow Quatermass comes out and is saved by Roney. Entire London is seen to be under mass panic and people killing each other and destroying things.

I will stop here and won’t ruin the climax for you.

You can watch the entire series at The Internet Archive

Episode One “The Halfmen” 

Episode Two “The Ghosts”

Episode Three “Imps and Demons”

Episode Four “The Enchanted”

Episode Five “The Wild Hunt”

Episode Six “‘Hob'”

Some reflections (as seen by a reader from 21st century):

The easy flow of information and relatively free access to the press seem to be unrealistic. For example, one of the reporters gets in easily and takes photos at will of the pit, the artefact and insects. In fact, even after the mysterious nature of the artefact is made known, no attempt at hiding it from the public is done. This is perhaps due to the fact that the military brass firmly believes it to be WW II era find, yet even in this case the free access to press is questionable.

The other aspect is the depth of the characters, which are frankly speaking one dimensional. But perhaps this is keeping in mind the general state of science fiction from that era. Most of the stories, films were like this which did not involve multiple levels of the plot. For example, another fantastic TV series from the era The Twilight Zone (1959) has similar storylines. The acting also looks over the top at times (not at all subtle at any point really), but perhaps this is again a reflection of that era and influence of theatre on films.

Quatermass, like a good scientist, considers evidence from the pit itself (the artefact with seemingly advanced technology, the alien bodies, the 5 MYA fossils), and from people (the visions, and the hallucinations, the elder couple who tell about haunting in the area) and historical records. The evidence of the artefact being old, is right there from the beginning, yet it takes Quatermass and others a long time to consider extraterrestrial origin. Perhaps, we, as readers in the current age, are more agreeable to such a possibility, hence we may find it a bit naive. But then we are trying to judge a production from another era with standards of another.

Some of the themes could be considered on a deeper level. For example, how does evidence from evolutionary aspects corresponds to this explaining? We can perhaps develop another story which takes this forward…

 

Monsoon Cometh..

Now that Some parts of India are experiencing a heat-wave, people are looking forward to coming of the monsoons. Which mark an end to the annual saga of heat. This post has some descriptions by a British of how coming of the monsoon is experienced in Bombay.

This is from The Charm of Bombay, an anthology of writings in praise of the first city in India (1915) edited by Rustomji Pestonji Karkaria 1869-1919.

Monsoon cometh
BURST OF THE MONSOON.

Henry Moses

The day at length arrives when the windows of heaven are to be opened, and man’s anxious doubts and fears are to be dispelled by this gracious provision for his wants. Dark clouds towards noon, gather in the south-west, and gradually steal over the azure firmament, casting a gloomy shadow upon the earth, and obscuring the intensity of the sun’s rays as they flit over his surface in their onward progress. A current of cool, strange air now denotes some remarkable atmospheric change. The ocean is unusually agitated; the waves are lifted up hurried onwards as the breeze increases — the angry waters come foaming and roaring towards the shore, and are broken with violence upon the rock ; receding but to break again with redoubled force. Distant peals of thunder echo among the lofty Ghauts far down the coast, and vivid streams of forked lightning illumine their peaked summits. The dry leaves of the lofty palms rattle overhead, and the forests are agitated and shaken as the hurricane roars through their solemn vistas, and breaks in upon their profound stillness. The soaring kite flaps his outstretched wings, as he rises alarmed from his lone perch, and is hurried away upon the storm. The cattle on the plains congregate together, as if driven by some irresistible impulse to seek the shelter and protection of each other, and lie down with their heads close to the earth, as if conscious of approaching danger; and the poor Hindoo wraps his muslin kummerband tighter around him, as the cool air expands its many folds, and exposes his delicately formed limbs to the chilly blast. The skies become darkened, and sheets of blazing lightning, followed up by the roar of deafening thunder, succeed each other with fearful rapidity; and, though in broad day, the eye can scarcely bear to look upon the flaming heavens, so in- tense is their brightness.

The elements are indeed at war. Large drops of rain begin to fall ; and falling, raise up, in consequence of their weight, a cloud of dust ; and then, within a brief space, the mighty clouds descend upon the thirsty land. The tempest is terrific to behold, and man trembles beneath the storm. He seeks in haste the shelter of his mud- built cabin, and mutters a hurried prayer to the stone idol which he has set up. The high houses in the Fort of Bombay vibrate with every clap of thunder; doors and windows, and walls and floors are shaken by the loud artillery of heaven. Torrents of water pour down from every roof, and bound over, in broken streams, the sounding verandahs below them, sweeping the various streets as the flood rushes onward, laden with mud and rubbish, towards the sea.

To those persons who have but just arrived in the country, and who, having never experienced the setting in of this remarkable season, have formed from description but an imperfect idea of that change, the scene is pregnant with horror of every kind. The newly-arrived Englishwoman in particular suffers exceedingly at this period, being scarcely able to divest herself of the impression, that everything around her is about to be destroyed or washed away; yet it is very seldom that accidents occur or that property is seriously injured. Occasionally we hear of exposed houses being struck by lightning on the Island, of old palm trees blown down, and of leaf roofs being dispersed to the four winds of heaven ; for woe be unto him who lives in a bungalow with a bad roof, or in one whose spouts are out of order; but with these exceptions, Europeans on shore have but little to be alarmed about for their personal safety.
Myriads of mosquitoes, now driven in by the rains, fill your apartments; and your lamps at night, if not properly covered over with a glass shade, are liable to be suddenly extinguished by the large green beetles that have sought shelter from the storm without. Flying bugs almost poison you with their fetid effluvia, and contaminate every article of food upon which they may chance to alight. The musk weasels dart in under your China matting, and find their way into your wine-cellars, and every cork they touchy every bottle they spoil. That nimble and really useful reptile, the house lizard, climbs your walls in all directions, and comes out so regularly frorrt under your table after dinner, to feed upon the flies attracted thither, that you quite look for the active little creature as a matter of course, to amuse you during dessert time; and if he fail to appear, express regret, as I have heard an old gentleman do, at its non-arrival. The loathsome centipede gets into your cooking-houses, and  hideous spiders, with hairy bodies and long legs takeup their quarters in every available corner and door-way They are not content with staying; at home quietly like our own respectable, though small species, and of taking their chance of what may be sent them ; but they must make daily tours all over the establishment, as if it were expected that they should pay visits to one another, now that the season had brought them into town. In fact, all the. entomological tormentors of India appear to have a design upon your house and happiness. A continual buzzing is kept up a- round you day and night. Ants creep up your legs, while fleas irritate your body; and farewell to sleep, if your gauze curtains display any rents at bed-time. The punkahs or swinging fans suspended in your rooms, now have rest from their labours, for the atmosphere is sufficiently cool without any artificial currents of air. The sweet-scented cuscus mats, or tatties, hung outside between the pillars that support your verandah, and kept wet, in order to lower the temperature of the heated breeze before it enters your house, are now taken down and laid aside; and quite a change takes place in all your little plans within doors.

Sketches of India, 1850, pages 84-88.

On the Marathas…

Meanwhile the task of resisting Aurangzeb called less for a saint than for a man of action ; and such a man appeared in the person of Sivaji Bonsla, the son of a chief of no great property in the neighbourhood of the Western Ghauts to the east of Bombay. Born in 1627 – the year when George Villiers, Duke of Bucking- ham, led his abortive expedition to Rochelle – he was brought up at Puna, and early conceived the ambition of dispossessing the Mohammedans of the south, and setting up a Hindu kingdom in their stead. His men were hardy peasants from the mountains ; his horses, not less important than his men, were drawn from the valleys; and with these he sallied forth to capture hill-fortresses, and to use them as bases for raids upon the surrounding country. Being a great military genius he rapidly achieved success; and by 1664 had carried his incursions so far as to seize and sack the imperial city of Gujarat. This was a direct defiance to Aurangzeb, who sent an army to crush him, and succeeded in forcing him to surrender upon terms; but the wily chief soon contrived to escape, and returning to the Dekhan quickly reestablished and widened his ascendancy. He died in 1680, but he had already done his work in founding the power of the Marathas.

What the Marathas exactly were or are no one seems able accurately to define. They were not a caste, they were not a sect, they were not a nation; and, though some of them claim to be of Rajput origin, this pretension seems to be disposed of by anthropometric tests. Their name is taken from the territory of Maharashtra, and their language is called Marathi ; but they are not the only inhabitants of that territory nor the only speakers of that tongue. In 1901 they numbered only five millions; and yet in the seventeenth century they ruined the armies of Aurangzeb, shattered the might of the Moguls and bade fair to become the masters of India. It is difficult therefore to predicate anything certain of them except that they were and are emphatically a power, and that they rose to that eminence wholly by the sword. Yet, though they were valiant warriors, their military organisation was loose enough ; while their military tactics, if one may coin an expression, were of the offensive-elusive order. They swarmed out as great disorderly bodies of horse, devouring the country like locusts, carefully avoiding anything like a pitched battle, but hovering always about their enemy’s flanks and communications, swift to see and to make profit of the slightest advantage, equally swift to perceive and to avoid any danger. Thus they wore out the Mogul armies, and broke the hearts of their generals by remaining always near enough to inflict much mischief, but always remote enough to suffer no harm. If they were suddenly compelled to assume the defensive, they had a perfect genius for choosing and occupying a position where they could resist attack ; and woe to the army that retreated before them. Their leaders have always included some of the deepest and subtlest intellects in India ; and yet their genius, so long as their ascendancy lasted, revealed itself as mainly destructive, and their instincts as wholly predatory. They levied tribute remorselessly, under pain of pillage, upon vast districts, and on condition of payment suffered them to escape famine and desolation. They showed, indeed, remarkable administrative talent in the collection of that tribute; but there their constructive work came to an end. It is therefore hard to see how India could have improved – how indeed it could have failed to deteriorate – under their mastery. The history of the country, so far as we have traced it, has been a continuous record of wars, revolts and intestine divisions ; in the midst of which, at rare intervals of precarious repose, there had sprung up noble monuments of art and literature. There was nothing creative about the Marathas. Their reign, it is true, was short; but, even had it been prolonged, we can hardly conceive of the association of poetry or architecture with their name. For all their valiance and subtlety their rule was a blight rather than an influence. Once indeed, and in one particular, they imitated a foreign model in their own domain of war ; and we must now examine where they found this model, and how it was turned to their own ruin.

via text of “Narrative of the visit to India of their majesties, King George V. and Queen Mary, and of the coronation durbar held at Delhi, 12th December, 1911” by Fortescue, John, Sir, 1859-1933.