Mita Kapur takes a peek into The General Amar Singh Museum and Library at Castle Kanota, Rajasthan, and finds an extraordinary Rajput aristocrat.
The word Rajput resonates with valour, military action, ruling states, echoing history as all of us have read it. “A Rajput who reads will never ride a horse,” is brandished as a proverb in these parts of the country but General Amar Singh of Kanota, a Thikana near Jaipur, read and wrote prolifically and rode his horse. From 1898 to 1942, he kept a diary and wrote in it every single day save for one day when he’d fallen off his horse and was unconscious.
Eighty-nine volumes of Amar Singh’s diaries are housed at the Castle Kanota, a Thikana near Jaipur in the recently restored General Amar Singh Museum and Library. Amar Singh wrote a first-person narration of his life. As an observer he told stories about his daily life and also about the general, social, political, military and cultural milieu that existed in the times he lived. The diaries virtually acted as his alter ego. Strangely, escaping the stringency of being autobiographical, his diaries reflect an existent, thriving culture of his times not only as he lives in it but also as a constantly evolving phenomenon. He wrote for himself and not for a reader. A self-created intellectual who loved books and played with ideas in spite of being deeply entrenched, by default, in the dominant hierarchies that existed within the Rajput world.
According to scholars, Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph, who have researched and studied his diaries, “We hear an interior dialogue as he explains to himself, the intricacies and virtues of the sometimes contradictory modes of life he experiences. Although symbiotic, the two worlds in which Amar Singh lived were in tension with each other. His efforts to grasp and master the differences between them defined the cultural borderland that finds expression in his diary.”
He was a man of cultivated tastes, with a multifaceted personality that evolved from his unusual upbringing under the tutelage of Maharaja Sir Pratap Singh of Idar. He was further shaped by his remarkable military career that spanned both British India and the Jaipur State, placing him in challenging situations and service locations both at home and abroad, ranging from Mhow, to China, France and Afghanistan. With a personal collection of about 3,000 books, periodicals, manuscripts and other documents, it is perhaps one of the most impressive private period libraries in Rajasthan. We meet Amar Singh the avid bibliophile; but equally, Amar Singh the expert horseman and passionate polo player, Edwardian gentleman, career officer and experienced military man; a senior Minister and statesman of Jaipur State, concerned landowner and administrator, food connoisseur, photography enthusiast and family man.
Amar Singh wondered “…whether in the future someone would ever print my diary and whether anyone would care to read it.” His doubts are laid to rest and his wishes fulfilled with the creation of this museum. His spirit permeates these rooms: his treasured diaries and library above and below, a personal suite where he often spent the night in the company of his beloved books. The spaces he lived in, the objects he used and the prized books — all help us glimpse, however fleetingly, one of the most extraordinary Rajput aristocrats of his time. During the diary years as they are called, Amar Singh often complained that he couldn’t have a decent conversation with fellow Rajputs on books or ideas. Down the line, Amar Singh was exposed to the culture of charans who were quite literally bards, literary persons who through oral stories transmitted the Rajput culture. A lot of dohas are mentioned in the diary entries from March 24, 1898, to September 3, 1898.
In the early period of diary writing, Amar Singh was predominantly occupied with straddling multi-cultural boundaries, observing manners, food, music, the orthodox vis-a-vis the unorthodox, unwittingly documenting the strongly patriarchal joint family system. For him, writing was an amusement and pleasure that brought to him a contentment that others could not understand. He dreaded the boredom of being trapped in mindless conversations with his military peers or courtiers, but which he was silently made to tolerate by Sir Pratap under whom he learnt to live life practically. In July 1905, at Mount Abu he was asked to share space with his father, “The room where my father is put up is much too small...” so he retreated into a nearby bathroom where he devoted “hours and hours writing”. “The bathroom was quite a small one and the table was an awful thing. It was a small round rickety thing with hardly enough room to put my diary and inkpot on… The others never would get me a table though I begged of them…They were an idle lot indeed. They never realised how much I wanted this piece of furniture.” Eventually, the Maharaja of Alwar is known to have intervened, “He said we were cramped up and that I can come up in the house… I was very happy indeed. There was a fine table and I enjoyed writing to my heart’s content.” (Jaipore, Friday, 7 July 1905, “Notes About My Last Visit to Mount Abu”)
Amar Singh read voraciously, on subjects that ranged from literature and the social sciences, to philosophy, military tactics, current affairs, farming and agriculture, to even cookery. He always sought to be surrounded by his beloved books and the library at Kanota was his haven, a place where he could retire undisturbed to immerse himself and write “to his heart’s content” as he often phrased it. The rooms retain his presence, having been preserved largely as they were at the time of his death and have been recreated based on a photograph of the space. “These two habits of mine I am trying my best to carry on. They are the writing of my diary and never to read a book by half but always to go through it from one end to the other.” (Meerut, Tuesday, 5 January, 1904)
From 1900 Amar Singh’s diaries have China as a backdrop when he accompanied Sir Pratap, his patron and master. When he returned to India in 1901, he was bitter in spite of his even relationship with the English Officers, “The Indians are looked upon as inferiors in the scale of humanity… I would not like to be treated like a coolie.” He recorded his China experiences, the prevailing internal tensions, military strategy and alliances with a balanced dexterity.
The diaries reveal the householder in Amar Singh. There is a detailed account of how unconventional and minimalistic his wedding was in comparison to the pomp and fanfare of Rajput weddings. “The village people had also come out in dense crowds but none of them could make out the bridegroom… best of all was that there was no beating of tomtoms or unnecessary noise caused by the singing of dholis which is a thing I hate from the very bottom of my heart.” (diary note in 1901) There are detailed observations in the diaries when Amar Singh became a “soldier for the Raj” with the Imperial Cadet Corps instituted by Lord Curzon in 1901.
Food and hospitality occupied an integral part of his life. “Well-cooked English food is just as much to my taste as the Indian. I might say that if there is Indian food and one has to eat with knives and forks, then there is no fun. In the same way if there is English food and one has to eat it without knives and forks, then it loses the enjoyment.” (Mount Abu, Saturday, 27 May, 1905)
Amar Singh’s library is stocked with over 50 European cookbooks in addition to the family collection of 44 volumes of recipe diaries in Hindi, with contributions from several members of the family. His role as host was showcased at events such as Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II’s (b. 1912, r. 1922-1948) birthday week celebrations in 1932 when he was still in the service of Jaipur State, during which time he was asked to organise an official dinner. “I am much in favor of eating in the European fashion rather than the Indian. The former is much more neat and clean and has the advantage of the dishes coming one by one and at intervals. This helps conversation and one gets his food hot. As regards Indian custom, the food comes all at once and while you eat one thing, the other gets cold.” (Mount Abu, Saturday, 27 May, 1905)
The General Amar Singh Museum and Library at Castle Kanota is a reservoir of relentless history, world views, updates on life in those times. The diaries are probably the only longest, continuous record existing and preserved by Eka Archiving at the behest of Thakur Man Singh of Kanota.