Community roots: snapshots of early Indian culture & music in Britain

Subcontinental travellers have been arriving to Britain since at least the early 17th century. In Pt. 1: Early Explorers we met the lascars – local sailors who boarded the return journeys of East India Company ships – and also ‘Mariam’, an Indo-Armenian courtesan from Emperor Akbar’s Agra palace who married an English sea captain and moved to London from 1614-16 (a full five decades before the Great Fire).

Naturally, British society has absorbed countless aspects of Subcontinental culture and custom. The interweavings manifest everywhere: tea came here via North India, and London restaurants have been serving curry and rice for over 250 years (although South Asian spices were old news even back then: in 1615, London and Amsterdam shared 2.5 million kg of imported Indian pepper between them).

Even polo, a pastime famously associated with old-crust English elites, was adapted from watching the maharajas of Imphal play sagol kangjei – a sport, according to Manipuri mythology, gifted to the human race by the god Ibudhou Marjing. (n.b. Polo’s history stretches back several millennia, likely to the nomadic horsemen of Central Asia: history even notes that the Byzantine Emperor Alexander’s 10th-century reign was cut short after a mere 13 months…when he died of exhaustion right after playing the local polo variant of tzykanion).

Our vocabulary contains hidden Indian imports too – e.g. ‘cash’ (from kācu: Tamil for ‘coin’), ‘jungle’ (from jāngala: Sanskrit for ‘rough terrain’), and ‘pundit’ (how about Pandit Jamie Carragher…of the Scouse gharana?). As Imperial settlers constructed cottages for themselves in North India, they brought the word ‘bungalow’ back with them (from banglā: Hindi for ‘of Bengal’) – and ‘shampoo’ (word + liquid) was seemingly introduced to the British public by Sake Deen Mahomed, who left his Patna homeland age 11 on an East India Company voyage and eventually settled in London via Ireland.

Quite the entrepreneur, Mahomed opened the ‘Hindoostane Coffee House’ on George Street in 1810, offering therapeutic scalp massages, “real chilam tobacco”, and “Indian dishes…unequalled to any curries ever made in England”. He even published grandiose-titled books such as 1820’s Cases Cured by Sake Deen Mahomed, Shampooing Surgeon, and 1822’s Inventor of the Indian Medicated Vapour and Sea-Water Bath and Shampooing, or Benefits Resulting from the Use of the Indian Medicated Vapour Bath (a dedication to King George IV, which proved popular enough for a reprint run 14 years later).

Different arts, different needs

Some modes of human communication require more than others to really take root in a new place. Books and written sources don’t need much in the way of technology to be translated and disseminated, and the narratives they contain are even more readily flexible and shareable (e.g. Alexander the Great, who died over 2,300 years ago, turns up as a side character in the Manganiar folk tales of Rajasthan.

However, sharing sound – particularly improvised, musical sound – has always proved much more challenging. While Gutenberg’s printing press was invented around 1450, we didn’t manage to capture noise in a playback-able form until a little over a century ago, with Edison’s crackly wax cylinders. Yes, sheet music exists, but India’s aural traditions make little use of it – and in any case: what is a Baroque-era organist going to do with a sheet of Sanskrit-symbol sargam instructions?

You don’t need to have much expertise in chilli peppers in order to buy some at the market and use them to spice up a meal (an accusation levelled at many British curry establishments by my Subcontinental friends)…but music doesn’t really work the same way. For most of human history, you’ve really needed living, breathing musicians to be around, along with their instruments and energies – and the spaces to use them fruitfully.

Inayat Khan & the London Sufis

Born in 1882 to a Baroda noble family, Inayat Rehmat Khan was always inclined towards the spiritual. This state of affairs was hardly surprising: his father came from a long line of Pashtun-Punjabi mystics, and his maternal grandfather was Ustad Maula Bakhsh ‘Chole’ Khan, a master vocalist and rudra veena (bass lute) player renowned for his deep knowledge of both Hindustani and Carnatic music, who opened one of India’s first formalised classical music colleges.

As a child, Khan immersed himself into music, poetry, and Sufi spiritual study. However, he soon became frustrated by the limits of these life routines, once telling his father, “I don’t think I will continue my prayers any longer, for they do not fit with my reason. I do not know how I can go on praying to a God I do not know”. His inner quest eventually led him to join the Chishti Sufi Order (although, given Sufism’s relaxed doctrines on exclusivity, he was also ordained into the Qādiriyah, Naqshbandi, and Suhrawardiyya sects), all while keeping up a vigorous schedule of vocal and veena training.

By young adulthood he had already garnered wide renown for his music, and was teaching at his grandfather’s academy before he turned 20. In 1910, aged 28, he set off to travel the world with his brothers, spreading their sonic doctrines in America, Russia, Europe, and beyond. After initially settling in France he spent World War I in London, and in 1914 established a Sufi Order there – the first organisation of its kind in the West.

Khan’s ‘Inayati Order’ quickly grew into an international movement, with local chapters springing up in Paris, Geneva, and elsewhere across the Continent. According to their modern-day website, “The concentration and unsparing intensity with which [Khan] developed his work in different fields seemed unlimited. It was not in the least exceptional for him to lecture on different subjects three times a day…[he] was devoted to receiving, advising, and helping Mureeds [spiritual students] individually…”.

After the master’s untimely death in 1927 (the result of an infection picked up on pilgrimage to the Aravali Mountains of Rajasthan), his followers continued on with his work around the world – and still do so today. And his daughter Noor Inayat Khan would become an unlikely WW2 hero – for role as the first undercover female wireless operator sent to aid the French Resistance by the British Special Operations Executive. Renowned for her manual dexterity (something she part-credited to early musical training), she transmitted vital information to the Allied cause over the course of several months towards the end of the War – before being betrayed, captured, tortured, and executed at Dachau (more on her another time…).

Inayat Khan’s legacy lives on via the printed page as well. Notably, his 1923 book The Mysticism of Sound and Music – which covers such things as the power of mantra-style repetition and the interconnected nature of the universe – has long been a cult hit with musico-spiritual searchers (myself included). Saxophone pioneer John Coltrane is widely believed to have studied the work in the early 1960s: there’s even a chapter on music’s consciousness-altering powers entitled Impressions

“Intellect is the knowledge obtained by experience of names and forms; wisdom is the knowledge which manifests only from the inner being; to acquire intellect one must delve into studies, but to obtain wisdom, nothing but the flow of divine mercy is needed; it is as natural as the instinct of swimming to the fish, or of flying to the bird. Intellect is the sight which enables one to see through the external world, but the light of wisdom enables one to see through the external into the internal…” (Hazrat Inayat Khan, 1882-1927)

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