‘Shiraz’ – the making of the Taj Mahal

Emperor Shah Jahan and Shiraz, the humble architect of the Taj Mahal

Film Review: Shiraz – silent film made by Franz Osten and Himansu Rai in 1928

 “Not hands but heart built this / Which stands like a dream”

When we were kids our dad would quote Rudyard Kipling in the shower (or was it a ballard influenced by Kipling). I didn’t know much about Rudyard Kipling then except that he was the author of the Jungle Books  – stories of boys rescued and raised by tigers in the heart of the jungle. I knew of the story of the Irish boy, Kim, who was plucked from poverty on the streets of Lahore to serve British interests in central asia as a spy. It was much much later that I was to discover that Kipling was ‘a jingo imperialist, morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.‘ (George Orwell).

All I can remember (it is a long time ago) were strange exotic words emanating from the shower. Words like the ‘golden headed lion at the bottom of the garden’ and ‘the green eyed yellow idol from the north of katmandu’. As if from a Goon Show skit. There were songs and poems as well, but these words held special fascination.

shiraz 3Anyway, dad used to tell we gullible kids that, on an excursion to India, he rented out the top floor of the Taj Mahal from an Indian prince for a couple of weeks.  Of course we asked many questions about the Taj and who lived there. No doubt Dad made up stories to fit our questions and his mood. His apartment in the Taj Mahal was a story that Mum would neither confirm nor deny.

So I consulted Dad’s  1935 Collins encyclopaedia in the hope it may shed some light on Dad’s holiday destination in India. All it said was that the Taj Mahal was a mausoleum at Agra, India and was built in 1632 by the Emperor Shah Jahan for the remains of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Hmm a 17th century mausoleum didn’t seem to be the place to spend a couple of weeks on holiday! But then we knew that, as a boy, Dad had been out hunting wild game in Africa with his father. We had seen the photographs, saw the trophies (heads and hides) and the guns.

So to reject this story out of hand may be harsh.

And, I at least, found the words coming through the fibro walls of the bathroom somehow evidence of a greater knowledge, a story beyond fabrication.

But then we knew our father’s predilection for the fantastic …

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Selima and her mother

I do not remember Joe Curr ever telling us that this white marble minaret was the result of a great romance and tale worthy of Rudyard Kipling.

Well, at the time the film was made, my father was returning from Kenya.

The silent film Shiraz (1928) depicted another fable, one of the love of young Shiraz for his family’s adopted daughter, Selima, captured and abducted by slave-traders, sold to the royal court, married to the prince and become Empress Mumtaz Mahal. On her death, the heartbroken Emperor orders the construction of the most wondrous monument ever in her memory. The craftsman who designs this masterpiece is the now aged and blind Shiraz; the monument is the Taj Mahal.

The film, like Kipling, was given birth during the British Raj, the era when the subcontinent of India was part of the British Empire. India had a thriving film industry from the early 1900s and film were censored by the British.  This film, cloaked in a nursery tale, was homage to India and the craft of its people. The historic footage of battle when Selima’s mother was killed and when the local potter, Hassan, took her in are grand indeed.

The film was shot with an enormous cast of people and animals.

An adder snake nearly strikes the young princess down after she is thrown from a camel. So graphic is the film it made me wonder what is the need for ‘talking pictures’. The captions filled in the story told artistically in black and white cinema. The music evoked a mood not felt since Dad’s recitations in the shower.  All the feeling returned with the music of duo Tunji Beier and Linsey Pollak seated at front of house beneath a large screen at GOMA. The splendour of the emperor’s palace lit the screen and the charge of horse, elephant, and camel captured by the music. The scene where Shiraz was chained up to have an elephant crush him to death brought the audience life. The elephant walks towards Shiraz laid out flat and tied to a board.

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Shiraz awaiting the elephant’s foot

The elephant lifts its leg and brings it down almost touching Shiraz’s nose. Prince Khurrum cries out to have Shiraz released. The elephant withdraws its mighty hoof. The audience calls out with relief. The elephant trainer must have been almost as worried as the actor – Bollywood at its best.

The mystery of who should be credited with the design of the Taj mahal remains. The film claims that it is the love forlorn Shiraz. My father’s encyclopaedia says that it was Ustad Isa, a Turk. Wikipedia claims that it was Persian architect, Ustad Ahmad Lahauri who was the most likely candidate as the chief architect of the Taj.

Only one thing is certain, Dad did not rent out the top rooms of the Taj. He had never been to Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India where the Taj stands. I don’t know what Dad knew of this story, but at least Dad propelled my imagination beyond the confines of our small isolated farmhouse to a wider world.

Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the creator’s glory.

— Emperor Shah Jahan

Tunji Beier and Linsey Pollak

My congratulations to Rosie Hayes, the film curator at GOMA, who made seeing this film possible and to the great live accompaniment by Tunji Beier and Linsey Pollak. At each clomp of the horses hooves, at each sounding of the trumpets of the emperor, there in the theatre, we could hear the live sound of the drum and the call of the woodwind instruments of these fine musicians to make the pictures real, the emotion raw and the action thrilling.

Ian Curr
11 Nov 2013

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