Colonial rule – His forte

Prabhjot Singh
Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, March 10

His knowledge of the cultural and social history of India under colonial rule is encyclopaedic. He lives in the pre-camera age and his books speak volumes for his in depth research into several areas of the British Empire.


He is none other than Pran Nevile, a diplomat-turned-historian, writer and art critic. Besides, he happens to be a one-man crusader in keeping alive K.L. Saigal the doyen of Indian music. Nevile is here to participate in a two-day workshop organised by the CRRID.

Born and brought up in Lahore, Pran Nevile did his first book on his home town, which in pre-partition days was a “great centre of art, culture and literature” and dominated mostly by “non-Muslims”.

The book — “Lahore, A Sentimental Journey” — was widely appreciated by the media, both at home and abroad. So much so that an Urdu version, though unauthorised, also sold well in Pakistan.

Pran Nevile’s strength lies in his ability to scan British Empire records, in England and elsewhere, to extract valuable inputs on paintings, drawings and sketches of India and its people during the 18th and 19th centuries both by Indian and European artists.

It was his book on Lahore that got him an invitation from Coventry University in England last year to make a special presentation on the great “City of Lahore — the Paris of the East”. Among the participants in the university conference were historians from India and Pakistan besides the Punjabi diaspora.

“I was back in Lahore, in 1997, exactly 50 years after Partition. By that time it had changed a lot. I again went there to participate in the Basant celebrations to urge my friends to continue celebrating some of the secular festivals. I learnt there that they no more celebrate even Baisakhi, though in our times it used to be a huge festival on the banks of the Ravi,” he says.

His next book — “Love Stories from the Raj” — is a compilation of 21 true stories based on intensive research on diaries and journals left by the British rulers who served in the East India Company. This was published by Penguin and had a wide circulation.

“In fact, it was my third book which had turned me into a writer. While doing my research on this book — “Nautch Girls of India” — the first two books came out as a pleasant side product. The third book, a coffee table book with 100 illustrations, and printed in Italy, was a pioneer work in this neglected area.

“This is now used as a reference book by most of the dancing schools in the country,” says Nevile, disclosing that because of his research on “Nautch girls”, he has been invited by several universities to deliver lectures on the cultural and social history of India under British rule.

In 1997, when the University of Texas organised a series of lectures and talks to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence, the inaugural lecture was delivered by him on “my experiences of Partition”.

His fourth book â” âœReal Glimpses of the Raj❠┠covered forgotten aspects of the British regime, including matrimony and the Sahib, Palki travellers and the dreaded snake.

âœBeyond the Veilâ, the Indian woman and the Raj, has been his fifth book, which again is the first book of its kind and carries 100 illustrations of 100 women of all classes, portrayed true to life by European artists. All pictures in the book are in print for the first time. The book was released by the Union Minister of State for External Affairs in India last year.

âœIt is not writing books which keeps me occupied,❠he says, disclosing that he was a consultant to the BBC when it made a film, âœRuling Passion”, in 1996. He again was a consultant to another BBC production, “Land of Kamasutra”.

“I had been a great fan of K.L. Saigal. I made HMV come out with two exclusive LP records ┠one of ghazals and one of bhajans ┠of K.L. Saigal. Every year on January 18, I organise a programme to commemorate this great Indian legendary singer,❠says Nevile.

At present, he is working on the cultural and social history of Punjab under colonial rule.