प्रेमचंद के फटे जूते/Premchand’s Torn Shoes


Source: Flickr.

Most folk would have seen the Google Doodle of 31 July 2016 in honour of Premchand’s birth anniversary.

My translation of Harishankar Parsai‘s essay Premchand ke Fate Joote (Premchand’s torn shoes) below. Original Hindi version from which I translated  here. Its fairly rough so excuse the translation but you can get the gist of it.


Before me is a picture of Premchand, a photograph taken with his wife.  On his head is a cap of some kind of thick cloth, he also wears a kurta and dhoti. His forehead is taut, his cheekbones protrude, but his luxuriant moustache fills out his face.

On his feet are canvas shoes, its laces are tied untidily. Due to the carelessness in tying, the metal tips of the laces seem to be falling off and it is difficult to insert the laces in the eyelets on the shoe. The laces are then tied any which way.

The right shoe is fine but the left shoe has a big hole and the digits stick out.

My attention is fixed on that shoe. I think – if this is the attire for taking a photograph, what is worn informally? No, this man does not possess different kinds of attire – he doesn’t possess the virtues of changing his attire according to the occasion. What he is is what you see in the posed photograph.

I then look at his face. Do you know, my literary predecessor that your shoe is torn and your toes show through it? Do you have no realisation of this? No shame, no sense of abashment or hesitance?  Do you not even know that if you pulled the dhoti down a little the toes could have been hidden? And yet on your face there is a great indifference, a great confidence! When the photographer said “Ready, Please”, then according to tradition you would have attempted to smile and just when you tried to slowly draw out the smile lying somewhere in the oil of a deep well of hurt the photographer would have clicked and said “Thank You”. Strange is this incomplete smile.  This is not a smile, there is derision, satire in it!

What kind of a man is this who takes a photograph of himself in torn shoes and is also laughing at someone!

If you have to take a photograph, you wear proper shoes or do not take one at all. You don’t lose anything by not taking one. Perhaps it was on your wife’s insistence and you thought all right and sat down to have your photograph taken. But this is such a great “tragedy” that a man did not have the shoes to take a photograph. Looking often at  your photograph I want to cry as I feel within myself your anguish but I am stopped by the sharp, sorrow filled satire of your eyes.

You do not understand the importance of a photograph. If you did, you would have borrowed shoes before getting photographed.  People borrow a coat to display prospective bridegrooms.  People take out a baraat in a borrowed car. To take a photograph, even a wife may be borrowed, and you could not even ask for a pair of shoes! You do not understand the importance of a photograph.People daub themselves with attar so their photograph is fragrant! Even the worst of men have perfumed photographs!

A cap can be bought for 8 annas and shoes even at that time would have cost no less than 5 rupees. A shoe is always more expensive than a cap. Now the price of shoes has increased even more and for one shoe you can sacrifice 25 caps. You too were affected by this proportional value of shoes and caps. This anomaly has never struck me with such sharpness before as today when I see your torn shoes. So many epithets –  a great writer, the king of novels, an era changing author and many more – and yet the torn shoes in a photograph!

My shoes are never very good either. Though they look good externally. My toes do not protrude, but beneath the big toe the base is torn. The sole rubs against the ground and sometimes it is abraded and bloodied by the rough ground. The whole base may fall, the whole sole may peel, yet the toe will not protrude. Your toes are seen but your feet are protected. My toes are covered but the sole is being worn away.  You do not understand the importance of a curtain and here I am sacrificing myself for the curtain!

You wear your torn shoes with such pride and style! I cannot wear them so. Never will I take such a photograph in my entire life, even for a biography.

This satirical smile of yours depresses my morale. What does it mean? What kind of a smile is it?

—Did Hori  gift a cow?

—On a winter night did the nilgai graze and destroy the entire field of Halku?

—Did the son of Sujan Bhagat die because the doctor did not want to leave the Club?

No, I think Madho drank away the money given for his wife’s coffin. It seems like that kind of smile.

I again look at your shoes. How did it tear, my people’s writer?

Did you keep wandering?

To escape your dues to the grocer did you take a 2 mile detour to get home?

Wandering your shoes do not tear, they are worn away. Kumbhandas’ shoes were worn away in his travels to Fatehpur Sikri. He regretted a good deal. He said – “Coming and going my soles are worn, I forgot the name of Hari”.

And to those who called to gift he said – “Looking on them causes pain, yet I have to salute them.”

When we walk our shoes wear away, they do not tear.

I think that you have been hitting something hard and immovable. Some thing that has hardened layer by layer over many years, perhaps you hit that repeatedly and your shoes tore. Some raised mound in the middle of the road, perhaps you tested your shoes on it.

You could have taken a diversion and walked around that raised mound. You can after all compromise with the obstacles in your way. All rivers do not break mountains, some simply change course and go another way.

You cannot compromise. Do you also have the same weakness that drowned Hori, the very same weakness of custom and “dharma”? That dharma was his chains. But the way you smile, perhaps this dharma is not your chains but your liberation!

Your toes seem to be signalling something to  me, that which you think is hateful, perhaps towards it you do not point a finger but your toes?

Are you now making a gesture to that thing against which you collided repeatedly thus tearing your shoes?

I understand. I understand the gesture of your pointing toes and your sardonic smile.

You must laugh at me and all of us, at those who walk covering their toes and wearing out their soles, at those who bypass obstacles and walk on. You say – encountering obstacles I have torn my shoes, my toes protrude but my feet were saved and I walked on. But you were so worried about covering your toes you destroyed your sole. How will you walk?

I understand.  I understand the matter of your torn shoes, I understand the gesture of your toes, I understand your satirical smile.


Even though Parsai in this piece suggests that the photograph might have been taken at the insistence of his wife (Shivarani Devi) it doesn’t appear that she has “dressed up” for the photograph either. The sari she wears is a kind that was quite simple and worn by many  women in the 30s-50s, she also retains the full sleeved older kind of blouse (if we assume this as taken in the 30s). As for her shoes, those are fairly straightforward khadaun/sandals with all her toes shown:)


An earlier post on Miss Malti in Godaan – styling by Pallavi Datta.

Posted in 1930s, 20th century, Authors, Early 20th Century, hindi literature, India, Indian Authors, Indian Dress, Indian Literature, Indian men, Literature, Photography, Vintage Men | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Ashadh ka ek din

आषाढस्य प्रथमदिवसे मेघमाश्लिष्टसानुं
वप्रक्रीडापरिणतगजप्रेक्षणीयं ददर्श॥१.२॥

Ashar has come, filling the southern sky with
A cloud, frolicksome as an elephant
About to charge, he seems to lower his tusks. (translation of lines from the Meghadoot from here).

The month of Ashadh is the first month of the rainy season and is followed by Shravan. This year it runs from 5 July to 2 August.

Ashadh ka ek din is a 1958 play by Mohan Rakesh. Given the title it is obvious the pivotal events of the play occur during the month.

Before we jump into the costume, my favourite bit of the movie with Kalidasa and Mallika sheltering a pursued deer. It feels like a sweet nod to Shakuntala. Plus I am a sucker for cute animals:)

I often refer to Roshen Alkazi‘s books on Indian costume.  These books were written in part as background research for theatre productions. While she didn’t costume the 1971 movie based on the play – Lalitha Kaul did – it does share some elements in common with Alkazi productions of the 1970s. That is there is historical basis for the costumes but they are also stylized for the theatre…and of course often more modest than historical art or literature suggests.

Ashadh ka ek din is set in the times of Kalidasa, so you are roughly looking at the time of the Gupta empire.  The film is also influenced by the Ajanta frescoes (indeed what work set in the era isn’t?).  And additional element is the hill setting of the film.

The principal character, Mallika (Rekha Sabnis), is a village girl. In the initial scenes (e.g. with the deer) she is a young girl, in the later scenes a young woman. Throughout the film has her in simple handlooms, either plain or striped. The sari is a simple wrap, unless I am missing something it is kind of devised for the film since it doesn’t exactly follow the antariya-uttariya pattern though there is an example of a wrap that starts from the underarm in the frescoes (see below).

There is very little jewellery save the thread necklace and an arm band, both of which probably have a silver pendant or amulet. The hair is tied in a single braid (ekaveni).

The second female character in the film is the princess Priyangumanjari.


Priyangumanjari’s costumes appear to be based on the Ajanta frescoes (see especially the fresco below of 3 women). The costume uses some of the elements from frescoes as well as literature – the diaphanous uttariya, pearls as hair ornaments, the coiffure with curls. Though wearing an upper garment wasn’t essential, the film uses a block print top – perhaps akin to the flowered muslins described as being worn in cities.

The unibrow struck me as a little unusual (it somehow seems like  a post Qajar influence in India) but it does appear to date to an earlier period in Persia. You can see a few examples at Ajanta.

For the antariya, there are a few simple wraps seen in the Ajanta frescoes and often these are striped. Priyangumanjari’s is a tad more voluminous but it is striped and held in place by a girdle.

For comparison two Ajanta paintings. The second is taken from here.

Kalidasa (Arun Khopkar) appears first as the village lad with great talent and later in the film he returns from Ujjain after hitting the big time but disillusioned. In the first half the costume for most of the village men, including Kalidasa, is a shawl and dhoti.

When Kalidas returns his attire is a little different, he wears a tunic and like with Priyangumajari the antariya is a  bit voluminous and striped. It isn’t entirely clear to me if this sartorial choice is due to Ujjain (since some of the other city characters wear different clothes) or a result of his returning after a period of wandering. On the other hand I might take it as Gupta Age hipster chic:)

Below costumes of characters from Ujjain, a hunter and the men who accompany Priyangumanjari. It has a few of the elements of costume adopted by the Mughals including a tunic, antariya and kayabandh. There is also a distinction between the finer cloth of the city and the coarser version of the village. The full costume of the hunter can be seen above (with a sword in his kayabandh) where he is shown with Kalidasa.

Among the other male characters in the village is Vilom (Om Shivpuri), Kalidasa’s antagonist and Nikshep. The former is older and his costume is almost threadbare. Nikshep is younger and though the costume is similar in including a shawl and dhoti it is worn more elegantly and is richer in its few details.

Ambika is Mallika’s mother and seen in a simple wrap sari, worn much like Mallika’s.


I am not sure which part is played by  which actor but the cast credits include Anuradha Kapur, Uma Sahay, Pinchoo Kapoor, Hemant Bose, Surendra Dheer, Sharma and Vishnu Mathur.



For a shorter version in the 80s see this episode of Bharat ek Khoj. The costume for Mallika is the ghaghra-choli of Western India and there are a  few changes for the characters from Ujjain too including Priyangumanjari. For the latter, the inspiration seems to be sculpture with the elaborate hairdos, breast band etc.

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The Monsoon Post

I could probably do an entire blog on the seasons in India and the associated poems but for this blog I stick to posting when we are in the midst of a season. More often than not I post on the flowers of the season, given that they feature a good deal in describing beauty as well as in beauty rituals.

Today’s flower is the kadamba.

New woodland grass
My soul and the kadamba blossom together.
Rain clouds wet my eyes with their blue coryllium. Kshanika, Rabindranath Tagore

The kadamba is so emblematic of the arrival of the monsoon in India that even the breeze is referred to as kadambanila in the season. It is not entirely common to spot a kadamba tree in India now and even less to find the blooms sold on urban streets. So its nice to see the blooms out and about in Bangladesh.

See also X, X, X.
Also part of Jharkhand cuisine.

So let your hair
Now full of budding flowers
Bloom as it desires. Ainkurunuru 496.

The Kadamba tree usually flowers around July. References to the wearing of its flowers largely come from Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara and Meghadutam, sometimes rather confusingly as adorning the hair parting. This is probably the only image I have seen though where it is used as a hair ornament.

Art by Manishi Dey.

Their hips are golden with girdles of kadamba flowers
their shoulders streaked from earrings of banana buds
and their bosoms white with necklaces of jasmine
delicate of nature is the costume
favored by the fair ones.

In the clumps of ketaki
as the tiny leaves unfold
the spikes appear
with tufts as white as lambs’ tails.

The other flowers of the monsoon: Jasmine/Juhi (Still from The Cloud Door), Ketaki (illustration from Ponniyun Selvan) and Banana flowers (Kathila earrings).

Monsoon poems from here.

And to end here is the last stanza of the canto on Varsha (Rainy Season) in Ritusamhara:


A source of fascination to amorous* women,
A constant friend to trees, shrubs and creepers,
the very life and breath of all living beings–
May this season of rains rich in these benedictions
fully grant all desires accordant with your wellbeing

Translation courtesy The Loom of Time (Chandra Rajan).

*why does kamini sound better than amorous?!


Posted in Ancient India, Culture, fashion, Flora, Flowers, Flowers in Literature, Hair, historical fashions, History, Indian Authors, Indian Women, Literature, Paintings, Poetry, Sanskrit Drama, Sanskrit Literature, Seasons, vintage art, vintage hair | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


Sumair [a relative] wanted to present me with a divine sari of pure gold that was her wedding present and she doesn’t want to wear for she claims to wear only French materials. Poor Indian women of queer tastes, they don’t realise how much more beautiful the Indian clothes are than the Western ones. But I couldn’t accept it because its value is Rs. 600/- and I can’t afford to give an adequate return, alas! Amrita Shergil, A Life, Yashodhara Dalmia.

Amrita Shergil’s portrait of her cousin, Sumair, was one of my more popular posts. It’s appeal is immediate and understandable. And Chang’s lines seem written for it’s fresh green, also picked up by the large drop earrings.  The sari was probably a French chiffon and is almost like a haute couture sari of the time, I am fairly sure the Maharani of Nabha wore something similar in 1932. In the movies you see similar sarees (Pics 3 and 4 on actresses Madhuri and Khurshid), either French material or knock-offs.

Subsequently, while in South India, ASG went a step further in her disdain for the aesthetics that new textiles introduced in India and that of authentic Indian textiles.


South Indian Villagers going to market, via wiki

Most of the south is curiously devoid of Europeans, which is aesthetically, and in many other ways too, a blessing. In the trail of their tawdry civilisation come the hideous printed materials, ugly shoes etc. etc., that replace the hand-woven cloth that is innately beautiful in texture and colour, and the sandals that the people,when they are unadulterated, make and wear. [X]

Dalmia’s book states that once the artist was in India and in search of a new Indian idiom for her paintings she switched to saris in rich, deep colours which were also inexpensive. Her scorn for French materials notwithstanding, ASG’s personal style as seen in photographs suggests an overlap between the Europeanised sari (for lack of a better term) and the handlooms she encountered down South.

Both positions in reality speak of Indian identity. Regardless of material, the wearing of a sari was a marker of Indianness. For others, especially those in the freedom movement, handlooms alone were the soul of India. As for South India itself, handlooms had a long tradition and were worn extensively in the 1930s. Nevertheless foreign materials were a marker of social status, even around the time ASG was painting in India.  For the maid who could only afford handlooms, a Japan sari was probably a little sexy, fun and modern.

In the 1970s and definitely by the 1980s the situation had reversed. There remain pockets in India where hand-woven cloth is worn by people in an “unadulterated” way but for the most part printed synthetics are the norm and handlooms are an urban style. In part this is due to the cost of hndloom saris.  This urban style itself has a long history, worn by elite women from the Swadeshi movement and then the freedom movement, followed by a 1980s revival that still persists.


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Shanta Hublikar


In the sequence above, we notice that, even in parody, Kesar and Moti manage to find a private mode for communicating desire for each other. Though the lyrics might deride silly love songs from Chandidas and Achhut Kanya, Moti’s wit and Kesar’s erotic playfulness in the course of this performance realize the subjective possibilities of the romantic duet. We must recall that prior to this scene, Moti has been afraid to venture into public space with Kesar – a fact that pains her greatly. But here for a moment, in full public view, these social interactions are suspended. The policeman and the prostitute sing together, exchange joyful looks, and perform little intimate gestures to give us a glimpse of a couple-form whose time has yet to come. [X]

Shanta Hublikar was an actress of the 1930s and 40s, one of a clutch of “educated girls” in the movies, who is best known for her performance in Manoos/Aadmi (1939).

The song referred to is Premi Premnagar Mein Jaayen (Lovers go to the city of Love) which parodies songs from Chandidas and Achhut Kanya. The sequence opens with a film picturisation of an anglicised couple singing before Kesar and Moti take over. Such song sequences were a staple in films from Bombay Talkies and New Theatres which to Shantaram were unrealistic and anglicised.

Apart from the song above, Kashala udyachi baat (Why Talk of Yesterday) from the movie brings together several regional Indian types, clearly differentiating each in the sequence.

Though differentiating itself from the other studios in being authentically Indian, Manoos/Aadmi provides a glamourised version, there are a few pretty saris in the film that suggest the imported saris of the period as well as fashionable blouse styles and finger waved hair.

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Dream Girls and Boys

The iconic Tamil writer Kalki once described her as ‘Kollum Vizhiyaal’ — one who could kill with her eyes! [X]

Thyagaraja also had a very good stage presence sporting long hair and earrings. [X]

Around the time that video cassettes became popular in India I spent a good amount of time with my grandparents.  They were teenagers in the 40s but given the times had not seen many famous films of the decade.  The video shop had not so good prints of many of these Tamil films which delighted them no end. So I ended up binge watching with them in the weekends. I love these films for a number of reasons but I wouldn’t exactly recommend them because they are very much of the time.

Many of these films starred TR Rajakumari, even with the bad prints you could see why she was a “Dream Girl” and captivated an entire generation of young men with her somewhat heavy-lidded gaze. In Haridas, where she is pretty glamorous in a negative role, her “flying kiss” was a bit of a sensation and many a college lad probably went to the movies just for that moment.

Many films also starred MK Thyagaraja Bhagvathar who was a favourite of my grandparents. Like KL Saigal in the North, he was a star known for his singing.  It wasn’t his singing alone that captivated audiences, according to my grandmother “even married women would buy postcards with his picture and kiss it all day long” (1940s Tamil fangirls!). My grandfather had once seen him and  proclaimed him “golden skinned and wearing brilliant diamond earrings”. Some of the hyperbole may be due to my grandfather being an impressionable boy at the time but along with the curly locks this was in accordance with male beauty standards of early 20th century Tamil Nadu. It may not be apparent to a modern audience but it was the kind of looks sought after for the mythologicals and historicals MKT often starred in.

The 30s and 40s are not very popular when it comes to Indian cinema but they set up a lot of the tropes we see in cinema in later decades. Which is why I love them. 40 songs per film and all:)

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Bombay Stars



We returned from abroad via Bombay. I admit to the ostentatious glamour of the film world there and the intoxication and heady glamour that accompanies it. I also admit to the dearth of deeper imagination or an ascetic dedication to work. But having admitted these, one cannot but admire the tireless effort of actors in Bombay to maintain their bodies. A beautiful body is an asset, to feed the heart while starving the eye is almost impossible…Of course such admiration of physical beauty might appear excessive, still, a beautiful woman or a handsome man will always attract the eye. Bombay’s stars are so captivating because they do not shy away from giving their utmost to keep their looks. Exercise, swimming, riding, dancing and yoga fall within the essential activities of their daily lives. I like this vitality very much. The artistes of Bengal should give more attention to this aspect. My Homage to All, Kanan Devi.

Excerpt from Kanan Devi’s autobiography. Kanan herself in her youth had a lot of physical activities as part of her schedule, perhaps here she is emphasising the glamour that has always been attached to the Bombay film industry due to its approach to appearance as opposed to Bengali cinema.

Her autobiography, My Homage to All, is fairly detailed and provides glimpses of her life as an actress and then as a producer. Parts of it are quite frank e.g. her recounting of sexual harassment on the sets or the attraction she felt towards her future husband.

There has been a recent biography of hers (by Mekhala Sengupta) which fills in the gaps in the autobio and is on my reading list.

Pic 1: Zubeida (X) Pic 2: Kanan Devi

PS: I get what Kanan is saying but my heart still belongs to Bengali aesthetics:)

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