Sir Thomas Metcalfe playing Holi may sound far-fetched but if late Mrs Everett’s tales be true, the British Resident at the Mughal court did not mind indulging in the festival of colours. However, his orders were that dabbling in colour took place outdoors in the garden so that his drawing room, adorned with busts of his hero Napoleon, were not spoilt. There is no mention of Metcalfe’s celebrations to welcome the month of Phagun, which coincides with spring but grandmother's tales do mention Holi-playing as part of Metcalfe’s policy of winning the allegiance of the Hindus of Delhi to balance his love for Mughal culture, which made him spend the hot weather months in a mausoleum-turned summer house in Mehrauli. But before he moved to Mohd Quli Khan’s tomb, he bade goodbye to winter at Metcalfe House (Mataka Kothi to the locals).
Rajas, nawabs, zamindars and seths came to his residence in North Delhi, many of them from Chandni Chowk with red gulal powder to sprinkle the Lat Sahib, dressed in kurta-payjama and minus his famous kid gloves. However, after the “Mutiny” of 1857, things changed at Metcalfe House which had been looted and badly damaged by the nomadic Gujars who thought that the house was built on their ancestral land and taken away from them at very cheap rates.
Sir Thomas Metcalfe was dead by then, allegedly poisoned by Zeenat Mahal, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s favourite wife, and his successor Sir Theophilus Metcalfe had suffered much humiliation during the Great Revolt, being chased half-naked through the streets of Delhi until a kind Thanedar (police superintendent) of Paharganj took pity on him and helped him escape to Rajputana on horseback.
After that Sir Theophilus became a sworn enemy of the residents of Delhi and to play Holi with them like his forebear was unthinkable for him. Incidentally, Sir Thomas Metcalfe’s soiled Holi clothes were not washed but given away to his Hindu servants, who willingly accepted them as a prized gift from the Lat Sahib and cleaned and wore them throughout the summer, at least this is what Mrs Everett, who stayed in the Civil Lines, used to say. Maybe her tales were exaggerated but not entirely untrue if the gossip of those days is to be relied upon. Now only the DRDO scientists and their families are among those who play Holi at Matka Kothi.
Like Metcalfe House, Hallingar Hall, was also a place where sahibs played Holi. It was built imitation of the Metcalfe Testimonial of Sir Thomas’ elder brother, Sir Charles Metcalfe at Agra and drew quite a lot of Firangis from Delhi for once-a-month cocktail and dance parties, besides Holi and Diwali get-togethers with local seths and money- lenders. The Testimonial was destroyed in a mysterious fire in the late 1890s but Hallingar Hall survives as a ruined relic of the past.
At Hallingar Hall lived its owner T.B.C. Martin (Munna Baba), father used to recall. It is now a Government office, behind the Civil Courts in Agra, on the other side is the Martyrs’ Cemetery dating back to Akbar’s times and next to it the lodge built by Lady Dr. Ulrick. On the same road is the old cattle pound and then the huge bungalow where once resided Ball the magistrate. It was later occupied by the lawyer Tavakaley. Ball’s son lived in a thatched bungalow atop a hill opposite the old Central Jail. But now the hill has been cut down to make way for a colony and the jail site marks the sprawling Sanjay Place complex.
Mrs Ulrick had her clinic in Pipalmandi and died of old age over 70 years ago. She used to tell an interesting story about how once she entertained a group of Tommies, posted on riot control duty during Holi to dinner, which consisted of thick besan rotis and kaddu (pumpkin) sabzi. She left them to their meal and on returning found the besan rotis lined up against the wall. The soldiers had eaten the vegetable dish but left the rotis behind, thinking that they were some kind of Indian plates. That was way back in the beginning of the last century but the tale survives.
Ball was quite an institution. The old man was around at the time of the “Mutiny” and his son followed him into the magistracy. Ball Jr.’s daughter was an excellent dancer and beauty to wit. The old butcher Babudin used to say that when she passed by in her carriage on the way to the Agra Club for the Holi dance people stood on both sides of the road to applaud the pretty miss-baba. Ball Jr. migrated to South Africa but continued to correspond with his assistant, Amir Uddin (Bhai Sahib). Tavakaley was a slim, bespectacled man who was appointed receiver for the John Mills in the 1940s. His wife was a plump lady who used to come shopping in a car at first and then in a rickshaw. The shopkeepers, particularly the butcher’s son, were overawed of her. But she used to buy a lot, especially at Holi and Diwali, and so they did not mind being bullied a bit. Tavakaley died young and now his bungalow is also a Government office.
(R.V. Smith is a historian of Delhi)
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine