Monday, August 3, 2020

"The Intrepid Kashmiri in the Flying Machine" by Rekha Wazir

Guest post by Rekha Wazir. She recalls how her Grandfather, Tara Chand Wazir came to be the first Kashmiri to fly in an aeroplane in 1921.

The Intrepid Kashmiri in the Flying Machine
by Rekha Wazir

According to Wazir family folklore, my grandfather, Tara Chand Wazir (1893-1979) was the first Kashmiri to fly in an aeroplane. I don’t know if this is factually correct, but this is what I will happily believe till somebody tells me otherwise! Of course, I am only talking about the residents of the Valley –even Kashmiris who migrated to India generations ago were not included in this record-making event. This is the story we were told:
Tara Chand Wazir in Plane, 1921
Tara Chand Wazir, 2nd from left, and Capt. Jackellis to his right, are the two passengers in the plane; in the foreground are members of his family or his fellow performers of the Brazilian Trio. Great Yarmouth Airport, August 1921, photographer unknown.
Photograph of the first ever plane that landed in Kashmir at Tattoo Ground - Chandmari, Batmaloo, Srinagar, 1922
Photograph of the first ever plane that landed in Kashmir at Tattoo Ground - Chandmari, Batmaloo, Srinagar, 1922; in all likelihood the same aircraft in which this historic flight was made. Showkat Rasheid Wani has kindly shared this photograph from his extensive archive of vintage Kashmir photographs and given me permission for its use.

A bi-plane came to Srinagar in 1922, to provide a demonstration for the people of Kashmir. Judging from their reactions, this must have been the first time many of them saw an aeroplane; most regarded it as a monster and were afraid to fly in it. The details would get a bit sketchy in the recounting of the story at this point, but it would appear that my grandfather, and his friend and colleague Sham Sundar Lal Dhar, were daring enough to volunteer for a ride.¹ (If I may insert an interesting aside here, Sham Sundar Lal Dhar was an older brother of my maternal grandfather, Tika Lal Zutshi. He had been adopted at birth in the Dhar family, hence the different surname.) There is a charming story around this flight that I loved to hear from my grandmother, the main teller of stories in my childhood.

My grandfather’s only sister Janaki Safaya was the eldest of seven siblings and doted on him. She lived in the interior of Srinagar city – an area now euphemistically called ‘downtown’. One day she heard a group of bhands singing outside her house. Bhand Pather are wandering minstrels who would traditionally go from home to home, singing about ancient pirs and saints, but they would also make up rhymes about contemporary affairs and goings-on in the city and function much like a news broadcasting agency or Twitter would in the present day! Bhand is the name collectively used for the group, while pather refers to the stories that they sing. It was customary for the audience to pay them something for their efforts. One day, Janaki thought she heard her brother’s name mentioned in the ditty they were singing on the street in front of her house; curious, she went outside to hear them better and sure enough, they were singing about her brother and his daring ride in an aeroplane! She was so pleased to hear his name appear in their song that she asked them to sing it over and over again, saying ‘yi ha chu myon buoy’ (this is my brother), paying them something each time, till she had completely emptied the pockets of her pheran of all the money that she was carrying! She then rushed in a state of excitement to where the Wazir joint-family lived to tell them about this most pleasing incident. This is what the bhands were singing:

Hawai jahaz aav mulke Kashmir
Yemi booz temi kor toba takseer
Godnichi lati khachi
Shyam Sundar Lal Dhar te Tarak Wazir

This translates roughly as follows:

An aeroplane came to the land of Kashmir
Those who heard about it were wonder struck and fearful
The first to get on were
Sham Sundar Lal Dhar and Tarak Wazir (Tarak, taking poetic licence, is short for Tara Chand)

There are slight variations in the words that my siblings and I remember, particularly the third line which appears to be incomplete. It was always my grandmother who recounted the story to me, and she used to skip the third line. This uncharacteristic lapse of memory on her part is not surprising considering she wasn’t married to my grandfather in 1922, when the event took place. My younger (by a decade) sister Jyoti Wazir, remembers hearing it from Balak Ram (Balku), who had worked with our family since the age of 8. It seems Balku would pretend to be a Bhand and would mime the nai or the wind instrument that they play and sing alongside. But Balku, the exact same age as my father, was not born at the time. I think we can excuse both him and my grandmother for their imperfect memories, as they had both been recounting what they had heard about this incident!

For some unfathomable reason, we were never told about this flight by my grandfather. Had he been the narrator, he might possibly have given us more details about how he heard of the flight and whether they were the only two who volunteered for a ride. And he would definitely have corrected the story and told us that this was not his first experience of flying, as I have gathered from a recent reading of his memoirs. That had happened almost a year before, late in the summer of 1921, in Great Yarmouth, UK, when he was at the tail end of his travels in France, Italy and England, where he had been sent as part of his job in the Sericulture Department to study the silk industry. It’s best left to him to narrate his own story:²

I was about to beat a retreat when a very exhilarating experience fell to my lot. I had a few hours to myself before the train which I had to take to London was due to leave. I asked some friends to advise how to utilize the time. They advised a visit to the seashore which had such an abundance of yellow sand on the beach and which sparkled in the brilliant sunshine and presented an enchanting site. People in large numbers, men, women and children, in their bathing costumes, were having a delightful time, when someone whispered into my ears that a visit to the nearby airport would be worthwhile. The Brazilian “King of Horns” who had lately sung to the King in Buckingham Palace would be treating the people of Great Yarmouth to music from the air. I went to the airport, it was hardly worth calling an airport, an airstrip might be more appropriate to describe it. It has to be remembered that aeronautical science had not yet made the advance as now. Besides, the news of the disaster which had overtaken R-34 in France so recently, in which the British minister for civil aviation, Thompson, had lost his life was still fresh in the minds of the people. People did not dare to go into the air, though a seat was available in the bi-plane which had been chartered for the Brazilian “King of Horns”. The seat was going almost a begging. I at once felt that here was a chance for me to take the risk and make history for me in Kashmir. So I offered a guinea and took my seat in the plane with the Brazilian singer who was carrying a sparkling horn in his hands on which he was going to sing during his flight over Great Yarmouth. We had half an hour’s flight in the air, partly over land and partly over sea and when we landed the Brazilian singer was practically mobbed by the appreciative crowds who evidently had enjoyed his music from the air. There was a usual click of photographs and soon I had a couple of cards bearing the photograph of the plane, the pilot, the Brazilian King of Horns, myself and the Brazilian gentleman’s family as a souvenir of my visit to the airport and my first flight in the air. The second flight took place in Srinagar soon after my return from Europe, when one or two small planes came to Kashmir to hold demonstration flights for the edification of the people.

I could find no record of a Minister of Aviation by the name of Thompson who had died prior to this flight in an aviation accident in France. The only prominent person to die in such a manner was Harry Hawker, the dashing aviation pioneer and test pilot, whose plane crashed soon after take-off from Hendon Aerodrome on 12 July 1921.

Capt. T. Jackellis, holding the two cornets that he played simultaneously.
Accessed online from Michael Brubaker’s
blog on 2 August, 2020.
But my online search for the name of the Brazilian “King of Horns”, and for a record of his performance before royalty in Buckingham Palace, revealed some fascinating information posted by Michael Brubaker on his music blog in the United States.³ A truly serendipitous find! The musician’s name was Ellis Thompson Jackson, but he used the stage name Capt. T. Jackellis to avoid confusion with another musician from Jamaica who had the same name. He was from the United States, not Brazil, and had moved to the UK to escape segregation and racism and make a life for himself. But he did belong to a group called the Brazilian Trio which had two other female performers. He was a rare and gifted musician who could play two cornets (a kind of horn) from each corner of his mouth simultaneously, hence the title “King of Cornets”, and not “King of Horns”.
Advertisement in Yarmouth Independent of 20 August 1921, page 8.

He did perform for the King and Queen, though not in Buckingham Palace; but rather, while standing on the High Street in Falkirk, Scotland, along with a crowd of people who were waiting for the arrival of the royal motorcar when he played “God Save the King” to them as they drove past. The few inaccuracies in my grandfather’s account are not entirely surprising as he wrote about the event nearly half a century after it had taken place. Besides, all he knew about the flight and the music from the air was what he picked up on the beach, presumably from someone who was trying to drum up a crowd for the show. I have found a newspaper entry in the Yarmouth Independent of 20 August 1921 advertising two free tickets for a flight for members of the audience and entertainment by the Brazilian Trio.⁴  And, of course, I have a prized photograph to prove that this flight really did take place! By the by, I am struck by the fact that both flights share intriguing connections with music and musicians in remarkably different contexts.

------
1. One plane, or maybe two, came to Srinagar at that time, so it is perfectly possible that there were others who volunteered for a ride as well. My search for who these people might have been, and the complete third line of the song continues.
2. T. C. Wazir, “My Life Story, the Lessons it has Taught me – 77 Years in Retrospect”, Unpublished, Vols 1 and II, 1970.
3. Michael Brubaker, “The King of Cornets”, [Link], accessed online on 2 August, 2020).
4. I am informed by Tim Hudson – an aviation enthusiast – that the plane is very probably an Avro 504K, a World War I fighter/bomber/training aircraft; many were later used for pleasure flying, demonstrations and related uses. Personal communication, 12 July 2020.

Some readers may have seen a shorter version of this piece on the Himalayan History Group [Link]. The story has developed since then and the version here includes additional materials.

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2 comments:

  1. Rekha Wazir, what a wonderful piece on your dear grandfather Pandit Tara Chand Wazir. So meticulously researched and so felicitously written! This is how history comes alive! You have transformed your grandfather’s labour of love Into a contemporary legacy! This is a truly amazing combination of patiently collated information with storytelling. My congratulations to you and to Vinayak Razdan who is providing such a comprehensive platform on Kashmir for a global audience! Siddharth Kak

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