The Fading Taj
The Fading Taj
Taj Mahal’s lusture, no doubt, is
affected by pollution; but hasn’t
something else drawn a veil on
our eye for winder?
The Taj Mahal narrowly escaped annihilation when, in the wake of the great Mutiny of 1857, the East India Company planned to dismantle it and sell the marble slabs for partly making good the losses suffered by them during the rebellion. It was an intervention from England that Saved the monument then, but in an era when a well-meaning intervention can easily be offset by another sounding more sophisticated, can anything save it from its inevitable slow death, emitting a colossal quantity of pollution into the Taj’s environment every hour?
It is now nearly a decade 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 happiness of all the admirers of the monument,. Subsequently, however, it has been observed that even when 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. How then, over and above this worsening predicament of the Taj, a new threat to it is being considered at all?
There are certain monuments which are significant for the history or the legends behind them. Nobody visits chitoor for marveling at its architecture or sculpture; one does so to breathe the atmosphere steeped in the memories of Padmini, Panna and Meerabai. There are other monuments remarkable for both their legends and artistic splendor, Madurai or Konarak 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 talents. (of course Emperor Shah Jahan’s love for Mumtaz Begum may have an elevating effect on our perception.) it is this excellence which has given almost a new vision to so many and has looked like a fantasy or a synthesis between dream and reality to others. In 1919 Flora Annie Steel wrote:
“Perhaps the most bewildering thing about its beauty is the impossibility of saying wherein that beauty lies. Colour of stones, 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 dimension 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.)
Sir Richard Temple wrote earlier, “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 reason 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 somber green of the funeral cypresses contribute to the effect which everyone feels but none can fully explain.” (India in 1880).
Further back in time, William Howard Russell (the illustrious reporter of The Times who was in India to cover 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 eye 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 crust of this arid India. Four glittering pinnacles shooting up beside it, completed the notion of the rounded summit of Mont Blanc 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 that 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 Indians 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.” (My Diary in India.)
In all such descriptions what is common is the element of the unexpected and the indescribable in the Taj, something mysterious and elusive. The question is, can’t it survive the vicissitudes, the changed environment and atmosphere? The Taj, like many other marvels of yesterday, is perhaps not going to be the same again, for, while the monument is fading, our eye for wonder is fading faster. External factors contributing to the 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 derived at reaching a goal as the culmination of an arduous and adventurous journey is denied to us. These are unavoidable and perhaps the blessings they bring weigh heavier than the toll they take. The real loser is in our vision, in our capacity for appreciating the beautiful – a far greater damage caused than what the external pollution can do to the Taj. How can we who grin and bear with the disappearance of invaluable splendours of Nature, her forests and hills can dare to claim that we still had the natural aesthetic faculty contact? Isn’t our sense of beauty the result of a perennial interaction between our consciousness and Nature? Where is the human teacher great enough to teach a child that the flower is beautiful, unless that capacity for appreciation had naturally developed in it?
But naked is our ingratitude. I knew a sleepy little town with a few handsome hillocks standing like sentinels on its immediate western outskirts. One could sit on any of them and enjoy the twilight descend over its sylvan promenades and rows of humble homes. On a visit after an interval of two years I saw half of a hillock gone – bitten off by the local contractor. What was shocking, nobody seemed to mind this violence. Maybe, most of those who had any voice in the community’s life were directly or indirectly benefited by the quarry. The affluent among then had taken great care to see that their drawing rooms did not lack a sumptuous décor, but they did not miss the primeval splendour of their nativity which can never be replaced.
There is something highly dubious about the aesthetic sense of modern man despite his numerous architectural innovations. Like the king in the folktale who was moved by a rustic poet’s tributes to a certain damsel but found nothing special in her appearance when he saw her – from whatever angle he tried to discover her beauty – and who had to be told by the poet that he did not have the lover’s eye, we have to remind ourselves that we are losing the eye once we had. Day is not far when we will wonder (perhaps some are already wondering) how anybody can propose a shifting of the thermal power plant simply because the Taj will become dimmer by a shade or two.