Different Strokes|Aug 13, 2003 7:11 AM| by:

Tragedy of the Taj

The tragedy, luckily, was averted, but our attitude that pushes the monument to its verge again and again goes strong

Once again has Taj Mahal been rescued from its would-be tormentors – some enterprisers out to build up a massive commercial complex behind it, along the river Yamuna. The river too has been saved from infusion of yet another dose of killing filth. We still have some courageous souls capable of cutting the red tape tied around the files of the country’s contemporary destiny and in this case it is not a coincidence that the man concerned happens to be a poet; he is Minister Jagmohan.

The Taj Mahal narrowly escaped a total annihilation when, in the wake of the great Mutiny of 1857 the East India Company drew up a plan to dismantle it and auction away the marble slabs to partly make good its losses incurred in combating the Mutiny. It was a timely intervention from England that saved the monument then, but nothing could have saved it from a slow death had the thermal power plant proposed in the early nineties been allowed to come up in its vicinity, emitting colossal quantity of pollution into its environment.

It is now more than two decades since the Taj was added to the UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Way back in 1984 the success of anti-pollution measures in bringing down the sulphur dioxide concentration around it by 75 per cent was announced to the relief of its admirers. Before long, however, it was observed that even with the present level of pollution its subtle grandeur is decaying; its colour is fading and the skyline forming its backdrop is threatened with unimaginative designs. The good thing about the latest menace is that it was shot down. But the alarming thing about it is, that it had been sanctioned in the first place. It is still a mystery who sanctioned the massive project – how it could have gone on for months with hundreds of worker on the site – and – miracle of miracles – it had been done in a way so that every authority could now – when the situation demanded it – deny any knowledge of it. This aspect of the situation should not be allowed to be ignored. At this rate, in principle, some agency can tomorrow begin even dismantling the monument and none can be held responsible for it.

Why is the Taj Mahal so valuable? There are certain monuments that are significant for the history or legends behind them. Few would visit Chittore (Rajasthan) for marvelling at its architecture or sculpture. Most of us do so inspired by the memory of Rani Padmini, Dhatri Panna and the mystic Meerabai. There are other monuments remarkable for both legends and artistic splendour – Meenakshi temple at Madurai or Konarka for example. The Taj belongs to a third category – glorious for its pure conceptual and architectural excellence, be it due to Ustad I’sa and his team or some other native talent. To be honest I censor the element of Shah Jehan’s love for Mumtaz Begum out of my mind when I look at Taj Mahal. There were hundreds of lovers – their stories without any murder behind it – and they were affluent too, but their love could not be translated into material monuments. Behind the wonder that is the Taj there is that lofty vision of its maker or makers which corresponds to the potentiality of harmony that is there in the human creative consciousness. That does not manifest in proportion to the quantity and quality of an emperor’s love, but in proportion to the human capacity for dreaming of perfection and its maturity in conquering the obduracy of matter, and moulding it almost to personify that dream. An emperor’s desire or command can produce a Great Wall, even a Pyramid, but not a Taj Mahal or Ajanta-Ellora, any more that it can produce Raag Megh Malhar. It can only facilitate the creative inspiration behind them to take a shape.

In 1919 wrote Flora Annie Steel:

‘Perhaps the most bewildering thing about its beauty is the impossibility of saying wherein that beauty lies. Colour of stone, purity of outline, faultlessness of form, delicacy of decoration – all these are here; but they are also in many a building from which the eye turns – and turns to forget. But once seen the Taj – whether seen with approval or disapproval – is never forgotten. It remains ever a thing apart. Something which the world cannot touch with either praise or blame – something elusive, beyond criticism in three-dimensional terms…It is impossible to dislocate one stone of the Taj from another, to think of it in fragments, as anything than as a perfect whole.’ (India through the Ages)

Earlier wrote Sir Richard Temple, ‘Artists despair of representing it on canvas; and in truth no drawing that can be made, no account that can be given, will do justice to it. There is almost equal difficulty in analysing the reasons why it appears so exceedingly beautiful. The marble…seems in the sunlight to be pure as a snow-wreath, the liquid blue of the sky in the cloudless winter season, the sombre green of the funeral cypresses contribute to the effect which everyone feels but none can fully explain.’ (India in 1880)

I wonder if the Taj marbles are still that changeable in their hue, if the slow treatment of them by the poisoned air has not deprived them of that distinction.

Farther back in years William Howard Russell, the illustrious reporter of The Times of London who was in India to cover the events of the Mutiny, wrote:

‘The moon had just risen on the right, and I was about sinking back in my gharry, having ordered the driver to proceed to the Artillery Quarters, when suddenly my eyes rested on a dome of dazzling whiteness – so white, so clear, so sharp that for the instant, one might be pardoned for fancying that the crest of an Alps had thrust itself through the baked crust of this arid India. Four glittering pinnacles shooting up beside it, completed the notion of the rounded summit of the Mont Blank flanked by its own aiguilles. The whole vision disappeared in a moment, as the vehicle whisked round the corner, but I knew that I had seen the Pearl of architecture, the wonder of the world – the Taj of Agra…Here is a dream in marble, here is the Taj solid, palpable, permanent; but who can, with pen or pencil, convey to him who has not seen it, the exquisite delight with which the structure imbues the mind at its first glance – the proportions and the beauty of this strange loveliness which rises up in the Indian waste as some tall palm springs up by the fountain in a barren wilderness! It is wrong to call it a dream in marble; it is a thought – an idea – a conception of tenderness – a sigh, as it were, of eternal devotion and heroic love, caught and imbued with such immortality as the earth can give.’

The Taj, like many other marvels of yesterday, is not going to be the same for the new generation for, while the monument is fading, our eye for wonder is fading faster. External factors contributing to this condition are well known: we are already familiar with a monument through the visual media long before we see it; we travel easily so that the thrill received at reaching a goal as the culmination of an arduous and adventurous journey is denied to us. These are unavoidable and probably the blessings they bring us weigh heavier than the toll they take. The real loss is in our vision, in our diminishing capacity for appreciating the beautiful – damage much greater than what pollution can do to a monument. Can we, who grin and bear with the disappearance of invaluable splendours of Nature, her forests and hills, claim that we still have the natural aesthetic faculty intact? Isn’t our sense of beauty dependent on a perennial interaction between our consciousness and Nature? Where is to be found a human teacher great enough to teach a child that the flower is beautiful, unless that capacity for appreciation had naturally, instinctively, developed in the child?

I knew a sleepy little town with a few handsome hillocks standing like sentinels on its immediate western outskirts. One could sit on one of them and enjoy the meditative twilight descend over its sylvan promenades and rows of humble houses. Upon a visit after only two years I saw half of a hillock gone – eaten up by the local contractor. Nobody seemed to mind the violence. Maybe, the quarry directly or indirectly benefited most of those who commanded any voice in the community. They had taken care to see that their drawing rooms did not lack a sumptuous décor, but they did not miss the primeval splendour of their nativity that can never be replaced.

There is something dubious about the aesthetic sense of man today despite his numerous architectural innovations. Like the king of the folklore who was moved by a rustic poet’s tributes to a certain damsel but found nothing extraordinary in her appearance – from whatever angle he might try to espy her beauty, and had to be told by the poet that he did not have the lover’s eye, we should probably remind ourselves that we are fast losing the eye once man had. Day may come when we will wonder how come we can forgo a commercial complex simply because the Taj will lose its lustre by a shade or two!

Manoj Das

(Manoj Das is an internationally known creative writer. He is the recipient of India’s national recognition, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the nation’s most prestigious literary award, the Saraswati Samman. As a social commentator, his columns in India’s national dailies like The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and The Statesman, revealing the deeper truth and the untraced aspects behind current issues, have been highly appreciated.)