The Rachel Papers

Scotch Whimsy

Rachel Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London
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Of bagpipes and Indian popular culture

I WOULD HAVE HAD a perfect holiday on the west coast of Scotland had a friend not emailed me a link to The Road to the Isles, a song which has traditional roots but around World War I became a popular music hall number and military march. Even though my ancestors left the Isles over a century ago, I was misty-eyed, reaching for my tartan-shortbread-whisky, as we drove up the Road to the Isles, known more prosaically as the A830:

A far croonin’ is pullin’ me away
As take I wi’ my cromach to the road.
The far Cuillins are puttin’ love on me
As step I wi’ the sunlight for my load.

We used to spend our family holidays on the West Coast and the Isles in the 1960s and 1970s and it seems apart from better roads and more international tourists (including many Indians), little has changed. The numerous small beaches are mostly empty and pristine, and the views as spectacular as ever.

Food and lodgings have improved greatly. Our hotel in Arisaig had the feel of an Indian hill station with its conifer forest criss-crossed with springy paths strewn with pine needles, although the views were of the sea. The spacious and old-fashioned feel of the building and the open windows felt as much a change from the London heatwave as a journey to the hills from Delhi in hot weather. Coorg may be known as ‘The Scotland of India’, but this reversed the gaze.

Although Scotland today has a population of only five million, its global influence has been significant, not least through the British Empire; New Zealand and eastern Canada even today feel Scottish. Scots also played an important role in India, their influence growing after the 1707 Act of Union, when they had easier access to the East India Company. While the Scots were perhaps most visible in the army, they dominated much of the trade at the time as merchants, bankers and shippers. Most tea planters in Assam were Scottish, while the jute trade linked Calcutta with Dundee. Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Mandi in Mumbai is no longer named after Arthur Crawford, a Scot, but its Caithness stone floor remains. Mackinnon and Mackenzie were among the famous shipping agents, though I’m not sure my (Scottish) father, who worked for them, was joking when he said they were called ‘Mukherjee and Mukherjee’.

The Scots were keen scholars too, with Alexander Cunningham founding the Archaeological Survey of India, while ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment were taught in their educational establishments. The Scottish missionary Alexander Duff notes how popular Robert Burns was in the early days of Hindu College, Calcutta, in particular his poem A Man’s a Man for a’ That. Rabindranath Tagore’s Phule Phule, Dhole Dhole is derived from Burns’ Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonny Doon, as is his Purano Shei Diner Katha, which is Auld Lang Syne. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee read Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels with their patriotic nationalism, and his gangs of robbers and bandits are reminiscent of Scott’s Rob Roy. William Dalrymple and Olivia Fraser are today’s most famous Scots in India.

The British elites included many Scots, such as the Governor Generals Dalhousie and Minto and Viceroys Elgin and Linlithgow (Minto was also Viceroy), Sir Thomas Munro, Sir John Malcolm and Mountstuart Elphinstone. Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay’s name lives on, mostly in infamy, today in India.

I could swear I have heard many older Bengalis with slightly Scottish accents, but food has been a two-way exchange. Which came first, the Scotch egg or the Nargisi kofta? Porridge or dalia? Sometimes the exchange is more subtle; thus khichdi became kedgeree with smoked haddock, perhaps even an Arbroath smokie. Sometimes tastes are shared, so Indian guests enjoy haggis if you say it’s a Scottish sausage, and agree it’s not unlike haleem.

Scots in India regularly feature in the so-called ‘Empire’ films, so The Drum (directed and produced by the Kordas, Hungarian Jews recently settled in London in 1938) showed Highlanders in the Northeast, while Bhowani Junction (1956) has an Indian pipe band, the Frontier Force Rifles.

Saeed Jaffrey moved to international stardom as Billy Fish in the film of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), starring one of the most famous Scots, Sean Connery, set in ‘Kafiristan’. Daniel Dravot may not have been a Scot, but Sean Connery made no concessions to hide his strong accent. Carry On Up the Khyber (1968) concerned the 3rd Foot and Mouth Regiment (The Devils in Skirts), slyly playing on the legend of what a Scot wears, or rather doesn’t wear, under his kilt, as a key device and a hitherto unknown British military tactic.

I don’t recall any Bollywood films which show Scots, though in Satyajit Ray’s 1977 Shatranj Ke Khiladi (‘The Chess Players’), Richard Attenborough played General Outram, a typically dour Scot. Weston (Tom Alter) tries to explain that Wajid Ali Shah as a poet, playwright and dancer is an accomplished and good king, but Outram, who has spent more than 30 years in India, manifests British bafflement at these alleged regal talents, saying, “[He is] a bad king. A frivolous, effeminate, irresponsible, worthless king…. he’s not the first, but certainly deserves to be the last. We’ve put up with this nonsense long enough. Eunuchs, fiddlers, nautch-girls, and ‘muta’ wives and God knows what else. He can’t rule, he has no wish to rule, and therefore he has no business to rule.” However, Outram and others thought the British did have business ruling, so Avadh was annexed. His role in this episode and the 1857 Uprising was rewarded with a baronetcy, and his name adorns streets throughout the former empire, including Outram Ghat in Calcutta. His statue still stands in London’s Whitehall Gardens.

Several Bollywood films have been shot in Scotland and the Scottish Tourist Board’s ‘Visit Scotland’ continues to welcome them. Eilean Donan Castle features in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) and Aishwarya Rai danced there in the Tamil film, Kandukondain Kandukondain. Edinburgh featured in Dev Anand’s Main Solah Baras Ki, while Salman Khan danced there in Yeh Hai Jalwa which was also shot in other locations in Scotland. Soch (2002) was filmed in Glencoe, Stirling Castle and Inveraray.

Raj Kapoor’s Indian Air Force officer plays the bagpipes in Bol Radha Bol (Sangam, 1964), and bagpipes feature in several Indian songs. India has its own bagpipe tradition, including the Mashak and Garhwali bagpipes whose history is unclear, though Andrew Alter has written about the latter. Their pipers today play local music on bagpipes to give a sound somewhat evocative of the Indian reeded instrument, the shehnai.

The military association remains in the Indian army pipe bands, as the bagpipes became a symbol of the British marching army more widely. There is little to beat the swagger of the Highland piper in his (and now hers) kilt, his black feather hat with the tails swinging, and the white spats.

There are now military bagpipe bands in the Northeast, such as in schools in Kalimpong, while their magnificence has been adapted to religious associations. In 2015, the UK Shree Muktajeevan Swamibapa Pipe Band, dressed in full Scottish regalia, welcomed Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Wembley Stadium. They have four other pipe bands globally, as do Ismailis in Hunza and Hyderabad (Sindh), who play songs such as Tame Aavjo Aavjo, Pyara Karim Shah.

I recently attended a summer ‘Curry lunch’ at the Oriental Club in central London where we were piped in with Scotland the Brave and Marie’s Wedding to a remarkably good (and dare I say authentic) Indian lunch, supplemented with the traditional British appropriation of poppadums and sweet mango chutney.

Our hotel in Arisaig had a music room with instruments available to guests, but as my musical talents are limited, I didn’t dare try to play the bagpipes, although sorely tempted. I told a friend in India that I was keen to learn to play them in my retirement but thought it seemed an unfeasible project. It transpires they can be easily bought in India, though Sialkot remains the major production centre outside of Scotland. I have to confess to ordering a practice chanter as a preliminary stop, so perhaps one day I can entertain my Indian friends with The Road to the Isles and Bol Radha Bol. Alba gu bràth!