Prime Edition

Sumana Roy
Free Verse

Is Taj Mahal the celebrity or the President of the US?

ne of the most significant misses of Barack Obama's most recent visit to India must be the photo op in front of the Taj Mahal. Perhaps because of the overdose of media speculation and gossip about the Michelle-Barack marriage, I was immediately reminded of Amit Chaudhuri's poem, Histories of Stone — the poem catalogues unhappy married couples posing in front of the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal is not so much an elegy to the queen

as to love.

Think of poor Diana, one long leg

crossed over the other, while in the background

Shah Jahan's minarets and marble poem

yawned to eternity.

The next day, it was all over the papers.

The morning Vladimir and Mrs Putin

posed for the cameras, they had an argument

at breakfast. They were furious with each other.

The smiles were well-rehearsed — like the bonhomie

at foreign ministers' meetings.

In 1970, I sat between my parents,

on the same bench; they'd had a fight

over my father's secretary, my mother's entirely

imaginary bête noir: but something

overcame her that morning, and there

they are, unsmiling, frowning as if

the sun's in their eyes — it's winter: behind us

Shah Jahan's minarets stand in symmetry,

Mumtaz Mahal's dome hovers above our heads

my father in a suit, my mother in the English

overcoat she gave away a few years later:

another Taj moment: another wasted morning.

Of course there must be a genre of the "Taj Mahal" photograph, as Chaudhuri's poem subtly tells us. I see it on my Facebook newsfeed all the time — couples standing or sitting before the monument; some making a heart-shaped sign by joining the thumbs and index fingers of both hands so that the dome is framed by the fingers; some creating the photographic illusion of touching the top of the minaret, and so on.

I am quite certain that middle school history textbooks, with all the facts about the long history of construction of the Taj Mahal, along with the dramatic and false mythologies that surrounded it, about the hands of the construction workers being chopped off so as to disable them from being employed in the construction of a similar monument, was not the only reason that I never aspired to visit the Taj Mahal with a future lover. My father, without meaning to be subversive, took us to visit the Bibi Ka Maqbara in Aurangabad, the monument of love built by Aurangzeb's son for his mother. It was a poor imitation, my father annotated for my brother and me, two little children who did not know a fake from an original. In the war of superlatives, the grandfather had won — my parents have no photograph of themselves with the Bibi Ka Maqbara in the background. I still remember my mother's question to the tourist guide: "What was her name?" she asked, about Aurangzeb's wife. Not a single lover would, of course, ask that question in Agra, such is the preparedness of lovers about the Taj.

nanya Vajpeyi, in the eloquent chapter on Abanindranath Tagore in her book, Righteous Republic, gives Tagore's reaction to the Taj Mahal a name: "Samvega", the self's shock. Vajpeyi is writing about Abanindranath's paintings of course, but one cannot forget Rabindranath's poem: "O King, you are no more. ... the courier of your love, untarnished by time, unwearied, unmoved by the rise and fall of empires ... carries the ageless message of your love from age to age: 'Never shall I forget you, beloved, never' " (translated by Kshitish Roy). Shah Jahan looking at the Taj Mahal in Abanindranath's painting, looking at a lost career of love, is one thing, but apart from the photographic moment, what it is that lovers hope to be rewarded with at the Taj Mahal? Samvega too? The lover's "shock"?

The answer came to me once, from a sales assistant selling red velvet hearts: "This is for those who are not the Taj Mahal kind of lovers". It was of another kind of unostentatious love that Sahir Ludhianvi wrote in his poem, Taj Mahal:

For you, the Taj may be a monument of love;

you may adore this lovely spot

but, mere mehboob,

let's meet somewhere else!


In such royal places,

we— the poor?

Regal opulence seen every which way,

two poor lovers— here?

Really out-of-place!

... Could we meet somewhere else, mere mehboob?

My favourite You're-Shahjahan-I'm-Mumtaz photo is one of the Hindi film actress Madhuri Dixit and her family. There are three males in the photo: her husband and two sons. They are dressed casually, as one would expect of holidayers. It is Madhuri Dixit's look that is amusing: it isn't her mauve shirt that catches our attention. It's her face, or rather her non-face — it is hidden behind a printed monochrome scarf, so that she is unidentifiable except from the face of her husband who stands next to her in the photo. Apart from this unconscious subversion of the Taj Mahal genre of photos, where the faces of lovers must reveal a kind of love that links them to the great tradition of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz, the photograph of Madhuri Dixit asks a significant question: Who is the real celebrity, the Taj or the lovers in front of them? The Taj wouldn't be on the front pages of newspapers the next morning hadn't Diana sat "one long leg crossed over the other" in front of it after all.

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