Sunday, 8 December 2013

Merle, Me & A Mansion in the Motherland - The Mystique Of Merle Oberon




On my first junior jaunt back to India, my garrulous, great-grand-mother regaled me with phantasmagorical tales of spooks & sirens & magical manors with maidens so fair. So 'FAIR' I pondered!... In India? Oh yes, the fairest of fair maidens, some of whom courageously crossed the Indian Ocean to seek fame, fortune & felicity.


Pampered, preserved & conserved on celluloid


I was told of the grand home of a great English screen actress who lived in Kolkata - a home I have searched for on countless occasions (Most likely reduced to dust by now, courtesy of a few mustachioed, man-servants with muscles) & a small curiosity I had been trying to unravel since the words 'Palaces' & 'Silver screen' were planted in my brain.



Not the Oberon Mansion but a crumbling neo-baroque 
building-facade in the nicer nooks of Kolkata #


Research indicates that actor Merle Oberon was born in Bombay to an Indian mother & British soldier during occupation (or as it was more commonly referred back then, the days of the British Raj) While this was not 'such' an unusual occurrence for the time, nor too scandalous a revelation for modern times... back then, the progeny of such couplings found themselves caught between cultures, & either elevated or ostracized, depending on the company.



Neon art-work by Nicholas Galanin, echoes offensive signages
found in many public places in India, right up until the 80s *


It is believed, however, being young, ambitious & leveraging her sought-after skin tone & 'masala-mix' beauty, Merle took to the high-seas in the hopes of striking 'Star-Gold' in her new world. Nothing particularly 'new' there, except for what marks this story as particularly tragic. It was not because (like other half castes of her generation) she dubiously concealed her Indian identity, (&, in Merle's case, going to extraordinary lengths to do so) but the fact that the woman she travelled with, & referred to as her 'Ayah' (servant/hired-help) was by way of the Bible, her very own Mother (unbeknownst to anyone else of course, excepting Miss Oberon)!



 Douglas Sirk's 'Imitation of Life' sees Sarah-Jane 
rejecting her mother's 'colour' & denying their relationship **


The actress, whose soft vulnerability & rarefied radiance shone wildly in 'Wuthering Heights', & who wistfully lured men-folk to her siren-call in nearly every movie she starred in, essentially rejected the exotic essence of her being & for all intents & purposes, was vehemently ashamed of her heritage... Heart-breaking.



'Wuthering Heights' 1939. 
Oberon plays the quintessential 'English' Rose


Yes, yes, I know it was but a safe refuge of the time, a legacy of old perceptions & an unwitting survival tactic - but I can't help feeling doleful about it all. Disheartened that such measures had to be taken to extricate oneself from the barbarous associations of a supposedly backward nation.



The Indian Mutiny of 1857
While some were fleeing inequality, others were fighting it ***


Writings proffer that Merle Oberon returned to the Motherland in later life, when the stage-lights dimmed & the need to hide was no longer required... especially as there was nothing left to seek & she was no longer sought.



Living & leaving on the 'low-down'


I wonder whether any peace was had or 'made' with the uncredited lady who 'took care' of the great actress. What sense of self-worth each had, how they reconciled their fine charade & if they felt the price they paid for fame was indeed worth the fortune.



Sizzling & statuesque in a studio still -
Follies Bergere 1935


As for me, I no longer search for the house of the great screen actress in Kolkata. That legend died for me long ago, probably around the time 'hired-help' & 'maid-servant' were planted in my brain... & yet I still adore Merle Oberon as the eponymous Cathy in 'Wuthering Heights'. I muse also at the irony of her many roles where she is cast as the 'exotic' temptress, painted-up, no less, to accentuate her obviously Eurasian features - features she’d have, no doubt, tried to subdue & placate over a lifetime.


Merle perfecting Persian Princess Pose
in 'Night in Paradise' 1946

****EPILOGUE****
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Indian Ocean a little boy & his school mates, waited in breathless anticipation for the hungry hang-glider to touch-down in old Melbourne town. It was 1965, & the delicate contents of that giant, mechanical bird in the sky soon spilled out onto the tarmac in eminent style. Along with the crates, cachets & carriers, came the 'STAR' - small, slim, ivory-skinned & hugged tightly by a foxy-white mink stole...Merle Oberon, advanced in age, though ever charming, strode past with an air of vintage pedigree. The social-studies teacher reminded the now infatuated young boys, it took about 11 hours to fly from Kolkata to Melbourne.

KOLKATA... INDIA... JUNGLE-BOOK! - The mind was on a mission....


# The Maharajah mascot of mechanical elevation

The little boy ran home to his mother & his world atlas, both formidable, frequent fonts of knowledge. He pointed to the bendy Bay of Bengal & pronounced euphorically, 'One day I will visit there. I will ride on an elephant. Catch me a tiger. And find me a wife.'

That little boy was my future husband...
Funny how things work out! Xx


#

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#All Writing & #Photos by Rani.Cee
#Other images taken from 'The Romantic life of Merle Oberon' - . Fanpix.Net & 'ACertainCinema.com'
*Nicholas Galanin Flickr.com
**Screen-Capture from 'Imitation of Life' - Douglas Sirk (Personal Copy)
***From the 'Punch' Victorian Era Cartoon Series 'The Indian Mutiny' (Personal Post-Cards)
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Sunday, 23 June 2013

Hands Of An Artisan -
Master & Apprentice




Way back in the day, when individuality, originality & all-encompassing beauty were a prized & ‘Pulitzered’ commodity, certain measures were taken to ensure their incontrovertible uniqueness: some ridiculous, others barbaric, many justifiable. Among the most memorable examples of protecting beauty are the Hollywood starlets of old, who’s limbs of loveliness were insured by their studios for poster-girl posterity - notably, Betty Grable's legs, which were insured with Lloyds of London for a cool million in the 1940’s.



'Pin-up' princess in stone, Konark Temple


Further back in history, fierce competition, pride & privilege sent limbs flying, with legend recounting the outrageous orders of Emperor Shah Jahan (after the completion of the Taj Mahal) to have the right hands of his builders CUT CLEAR OFF!! Similar anecdotes concern Ivan the Terrible in Russia & Prague’s Astronomical Clock - where Hanu┼í, the clockmaker, was blinded, by order of the realm, to avoid his work ever being repeated.



Master 'pattachitra' painter at Puri,
Raghurajpur artist-village



Drawn directly with a brush 
using natural colours, no outline



Setting gold in a Jewellery die

Truth or tall-tale, such was the passion & reverence for artistry, creativity & ingenuity, that people could not bear the thought of duplication or imitation…nay, imitation was not flattering at all…it was downright disloyal & akin to the most serious crime. Born of this age-old need to protect intellectual & artistic property, of course, comes the present day trademark, label, patent & copyright.
 


Master 'Iron-Man'/blacksmith, custom-making 
a Rani-Designed frame



Back-breaking rug-making



Metal draw-pulls hand-made for the Palace!


But how do we patent the road-side floral-artist, the village seamstress or even the cobbler? No less artisans, who’ve often learned their skills from a Master, usually Master-Grandparent, & ply their trade, sometimes as lifelong apprentices, with the same finesse & aptitude found in the finest atelier. Where is their insurance policy? What drastic & dramatic measures do we take to preserve & value their incomparable work?
 

Indian gajra-making - a fine & delicate art



Marigold chains of devotion



Working since a boy, this cobbler is no shoe-in 


I don’t suppose in today’s world of monotone, mediocre, morphed & maddening sameness, where fakes flog themselves flagrantly & authentic is a 'flavour' not a virtue. Where work is ‘borrowed’, ‘inspired by’, ‘taken from’, ‘copied to’ & in many, many instances pinched for the purposes of ‘CURATION’ (the modern catchphrase for the oft uncredited)…True value can scarcely be gleaned. Skill comes from devotion & dedication, artistry from feeling, sensation & observation, & discipline from respect for detail & obeisance to our teachers, forefathers/mothers & the like. Value does not come from a lauded label, gormless gimmick or transitory trend, all of which, too often, mask misappropriation. When value is lent to the imposter at the expense of quality, artisanship suffers, true meaning is lost and all is undermined.



Silt from the river-bank



Spun into solid shape



Fired into earthenware


The functional & decorative artisan depends on you - dear patron & connoisseur of beauty, the person with pennies & power to purchase - to see, respect, admire & reward his or her talent & power to create, through the fair exchange of money, supply & demand for quality products in a competitive market, increasingly dominated by inferior look-a-likes...this ensures that, while the privilege is ever yours, POWER will always remain in the palm of their hands…the hands of the talented, knowledgeable, not always upwardly mobile, & often unnoticed, expert Artisan.


Traditional hand-cut Chinese sign-board

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Friday, 3 May 2013

The Trails & Trials of the Subcontinent


"Exploit a country long enough & watch as the people make slaves, barbarians of themselves & eachother"
 

Women are 'Suppressed'. Men are 'Repressed'. And many matriarchs (mother-in-laws especially) 'Oppress'! This is India, definitely Not ALL of it, but much too much of it. I can say this, categorically, being a native of the land, who has spoken, seen & heard, fresh & first-hand, from the curry-bowl.


#

The issue of sexual violence/dominance/penury (even prudishness) in India is vast, complex & deeply ingrained in the national psyche – a psyche, nonetheless, that NEEDS to be viewed against the backdrop of 1000 years or more of external interference, forceful invasions, brutal foreign control & despotic administrations, Persian/Central-Asian usurpation, Mongolian marauding, colonial subjugation, to name but a few, the last of which stratified (even further) the existing & most abhorrent class & caste-system. All this turbulent activity of 'ransoms, rape & pillage', divisions of power, domination, humiliation… to varying degrees, helped shape, compromise, some may even say, damage India's collective conscience. 



++

The fabric of a society, its sense of self, identity, liberation from subservience/conformity, its unifying pride, gender roles, sexual politics &, inadvertently, the sexual impulse itself are all deeply rooted (no Australian pun intended!) in the notion of FREEDOM. Where freedom & justice are perverted over several generations the personal & social ramifications have far, far reaching consequences, & nearly always found to be deeply disturbing & devastating for generations to come. (One must remember too, India only attained Independence 65 years ago, after centuries of foreign rule, followed by a sustained period of hectic, ungoverned lawlessness.)



++

“For some days, people thought that India was shaking. But there are always tremors when a great tree falls.”   
Rajiv Gandhi


I have pondered long & deep, ached even, over this land that I love with its litany of striking contradictions  & harsh cruelties that present so clearly to even the casual observer - too many to list, too shameful to utter - & like others, I remain ever skimming the surface. I never, however, divert my gaze, & feel it is incumbent upon us to try & understand 'WHY' people do the things they do & how they came to be (no matter how harrowing the detail)…with sufficient context & an adequate accounting of the struggles fought, valleys climbed & deepest oceans crossed. In asking the questions, I’m not in any way absolving the crime, but simply searching for a humane way in which to face the ‘monster’, the evil, the abominable soul of man…call it what you will.



#

While history can assist in explaining some things, other contributing factors give rise to present-day (real & perceived) problems in India: globalisation & the ‘sordid’ Internet; a meteorically rising middle class; a shift from relative religious tolerance to deeply nationalistic overtones of intolerance (with subsequent demonising  & loss of opportunities for minorities); the assertion of liberated, free-thinking, modern Indian women (agents of their own sexy desires & the most confronting & direct break with tradition); a nefarious veil of INTOLERANCE, spilling out into all areas & aspects of life; exploitation of power & position at the highest level; a largely corrupt police force; & a struggling, illiterate, rural population of  'the poorest of the poor'. This great divide, the growing resentments & simmering discontents they engender, could NOT be any greater at anytime, anywhere in the world (except, perhaps, America, which, I must say, India tries its darnedest to ‘LOOK’ like) & sadly, finds its greatest, most pitiful expression, in vile acts towards the vulnerable.



++

The balance required for an ancient land, with its multitude of complex beliefs & traditions, growing golden-wealth alongside persistent, pernicious poverty, sexual conflicts, confusion & frustrations, heavy political burdens, colonial legacies - emasculated men, highly susceptible women - & somewhat misguided aspirations, is without doubt…Herculean & all, significantly, symptomatic of a loss & reclaiming of CONTROL, however distorted.



***


That Indians (and India) were missionised, marginalised, demoralised, proselytised, polarised & essentially 'burglarised' for centuries has served to arrest & undermine her ‘development’ – socially, economically, psychologically, but interestingly enough, not spiritually. For what else does a nation do, who has herself been continuously raped & plundered, but worship & idolise benevolent gods in the hope of a better, more equitable life.



++

Of the horrors of today – where the oppressed have now become the oppressor, where freedom has become a ‘free for all’ without consequence, where women are in some ways even more commoditised (in the case of in-laws with growing material cupidity), where children are violated as a consequence of taboo & warped ideas surrounding sex – we condemn & denounce loudly, wildly & without hesitation.  We support & commend where liberation & justice are sought &, if connected in any way to this soil, we wait with patience, hope & understanding  for the ‘Mother’ to find her steady feet, reach her 'majority' (sexual maturity), defend her 'minorities' (the struggling disenfranchised), break the cycle of domination, censure & brutality & walk forward, unashamedly, with the rest of the world.


++
 "We end today a period of  ill fortune, and India discovers herself again. The achievement we celebrate is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?" - Independence Day, Jawaharlal Nehru
 
A quote as relevant today, as it was 65 years ago.  


**IMPORTANT CAVEATS**
1) While gender inequality in India existed before Imperialism, so too did it exist in much of the world up to relatively recent times. Some might say the fight still continues in even the most progressive cultures. But the conditions in India, discussed in this essay, further exacerbated & lengthened that struggle for many Indian women in a nation that is desperately trying to catch up.

2) While an extensive rail network & other modern infrastructures were brought about under occupation (seen as positives for India & justifications by the west), the lungs & resources of the nation were utterly destroyed & largely plundered for the purpose of FIRST industrializing the western world.

One need only see the wealth of the west versus the poor & filth of the east to figure this out. So in passing, next time you pull up your 'cotton' boxers or sprinkle 'pepper' over your eggs benedict, give a little ‘holla’ for the homeland that laboured to provide it!

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#All Writing by Rani.Cee
#Photos by Rani.Cee: Student Painting 'Gandhi & his people' - Sabarmati Ashram, Gujarat. 
#Stone relief, 'Slave Girl' - Kalna Temples, West Bengal. 
#'Mughal Wall-Mural' - Shantiniketan, Artist Village, West Bengal.
++Stock-Photos of Kolkata, 1942. Via Postcards from the Indian Museum (Personal Copies)
***Photo by Raghu Rai from, 'India - A Retrospective' Asahi Shimbun (Personal Copy)


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