The Paean Poetry of High Imperialism: Jagattarini Dasi’s “Ode to King-Emperor George V and Queen-Empress Mary on the Occasion of Coronation”

Coronation Park, Delhi. Attribution: By Harshanh (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the joys of browsing the old Digital Library of India website before it disappeared was its highly eccentric and unpredictable search results. Bad cataloging practices coupled with the catalogers’ poor grammar and spelling meant that you could search for one thing and end up with a completely unrelated text. And so it was that when I entered the word “Durga” in the search box one of the results was this delightfully embarrassing and kitschy ode to George V by Jagattarini Dasi, titled Ode to King-Emperor George V and Queen-Empress Mary on the Occasion of Coronation.

Dasi thanks “two gentlemen” in her brief introduction for the English translation of her work (no doubt from the original Bengali). These gentlemen’s linguistic misadventures are immortalized in such verses as:

Accept my ballad, Oh gracious king!

Oh mighty monarch, how can I meet!

An [sic] universal glee passes o’er the land,

My heart leaps to see thy royal feet.

George V (1865–1936) acceded to the British throne when his father, Edward VII died in 1910. Leading a quiet naval officer’s life as a second-born son to the Prince of Wales, George became heir to the throne when his older brother Prince Albert died in 1892. He then married Princess Mary of Teck, his dead brother’s fiancée and proceeded to do his royal duty by producing an heir and four to spare as well as a daughter (just in case).

King George V and Queen Mary presided over a vast British empire stretching from Canada to India and Australia. The couple brought warmth and diligence to their royal duties but could never be mistaken as sparkling personalities. It was his sense of duty no doubt that brought George V to India in 1911 for the Delhi Durbar. And his trip triggered — a more appropriate word than “inspired” — Jagattarini Dasi’s verses in praise of the monarch.

Describing popular sentiment for the King-Emperor, Dasi (or rather her translators) breathlessly depicts kitchenmaids and ginnis [housewives] alike leaving their chores to get a glimpse of the visiting monarch:

The kitchen maid in kitchen house

Left the rice juice and curry,

Some while adjusting the precious hair

Left it unfinished and went on hurry

and:

Asked the husband for the betel

Wife gave him something else;

What the matter [sic], how is that?

He failed to make out real sense.

and:

The King is God, the Shastra says,

It is a virtue to worship him day and night,

If good luck has brought His Majesty here

Let not ill-luck deprive us of his sight.

This is the kind of Gunga Din-esque writing that made nationalist Indians squirm and imperial Britons gloat. George V would have been pleased at such emotional if badly-crafted expressions of loyalty. He might however have been startled to find himself compared to Lord Jagannath of Puri, the deity whose chariot devotees throng to watch and, if possible, touch. And perhaps he might have been embarrassed to be compared to the god Krishna whose departure to Mathura reduced the weeping women of Braja to desperation, to throwing themselves at Madhava’s chariot to stop him from leaving the realm.

In the Edwardian era, Jagattarini Dasi seems to have written several paeans to British high officials such as Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India (1899–1905), Edward VII, and appears to also have written a piece on Sita, the sacred figure of feminine suffering at the heart of the Ramayana. I do not find her books in the online catalogs of any library. She is mentioned, though, in the citations of Usha Chakraborty’s Condition of Bengali Women Around the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century and I see references to a Jagattarini Dasi in court battles over property and inheritance, the favorite litigation focus of the upper elite.

The cringeworthy quality notwithstanding, the ballad is shot through with interesting metaphors. The improvised versification at the heart of both Vaishnav lyrics and popular entertainment form the basis of Dasi’s panegyric. Through the dog’s breakfast that is the English translation I can see the original Bengali doggerel.

The seemingly-closed off world of Indian domesticity was opened to outside viewing through the writings of women like Jagattarini Dasi. The structures of family life are also revealed — Dasi lyricizes the Queen Mother who must both grieve her dead husband and celebrate her son’s accession to the throne; the Prince who took a broken umbrella from a shopkeeper and returned it with a sovereign; the naval officer who rolled up his sleeves and loaded a cargo of coal at Salonika, to the astonishment of the local Turkish notable. These were traits that met the behavioral standards of the Indian family as its internal economy shifted with the death of the patriarch: the royal widow like Dasi herself (who refers to herself as “poor lady” and “poor widow”) who must forever grieve, the son who was both strong and humble so that he might be a better king, the brother who now must be the karta, the head of the household, the mai-baap Sarkar literally personified in the King-Emperor:

No longer you are our brother dear

You are parent by becoming king;

The Indian subjects are ever loyal

Think them your sons, O mighty being.

The historian Tanika Sarkar writes: “The modern Bengali woman was strikingly bound by her class and caste confines.” (Words to Win: The Making of Amar Jiban: A Modern Autobiography). Jagattarini Dasi’s Ode to George V also shows that the modern Bengali woman was as tied up in the politics of loyalism as in the politics of resistance. In itself, the public disclosure of circulating family sentiment is noteworthy as is its feminine aspect.

Dasi’s books are probably available in the British Library in London and in the National Library in Kolkata. Ode to King-Emperor George V and Queen-Empress Mary can be found at the Internet Archive. I don’t have that much interest in her writing that I’d track all of her works down but thanks to the wondrous ways of the Digital Library of India, Jagattarini Dasi came to me. What George V had to do with my keyword entry “Durga” is still unclear to me but, hey, I did learn that the colorless old King-Emperor inspired some pretty overblown poetry. I’m sure there’s equally purple prose to be found as well. If only the Digital Library of India would return.

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S Roy Chowdhury

S Roy Chowdhury

Historian, researcher, aspiring gourmand. Sometimes a raconteuse.