I too have spread several of these tales to visiting friends and relatives. The one about Shah Jahan ordering the gouging out of the eyes of all those who worked on the monument – "So you shall never espy another building as glorious as this" – was a particular favourite. And of course, it was important to emphasise that though the building was commissioned by an Asian despot, it was an European architect who conjured up the design. The number of times I’ve passed off the "black Taj" story as gospel truth is simply too high to count.
Alas, all of these stories are untrue. As are the claims that the Taj is sinking, and that an early English ruler had plans to destroy it in a display of Christian superiority. As for the historical "factoid" that the Taj is in fact a Hindu monument, various high courts have repeatedly rejected the claim, most recently ten years ago.
Still, the Taj Mahal will always fire up the imagination. Hundreds of poems and plays and films have been inspired by the tomb. This week, we listen to a few such musical moments.
Salam Taj Mahal
Umie Aida is one of Malaysia’s most popular actresses and is known for her epic performances. This is the title song of her 2006 film Salam Taj Mahal, filmed at least in part in Agra. The narrative appears to be a melodramatic love story, with not just Shah Jahan and Mumtaz references, but Romeo and Juliet (or Heer Ranjha?) undertones. Clearly, the greatest Valentine’s Day present humanity has ever known remains the ultimate symbol of love for Muslim audiences, not just on the subcontinent but across the oceans as well.
I’m Shah Jahan, you’re Taj Mahal
Do you remember that night at the Minah Bazaar
You were meant to be mine
You were meant to be mine
So sings Sam Roberts, one of Canada’s severely underrated songsters. Though the story is retold with facts that would drive historians to apoplexy (Taj Mahal instead of Mumtaz Mahal; surely he means Meena Bazar; and of course neither Bombay nor the Ganges run anywhere near the Taj), it is a beautiful love song nonetheless. Check out the studio version for its intricate Beatles-inspired arabesques, which are a thing of true loveliness. This has to be one of the great Taj Mahal songs of all time. Decorative, beguiling and monumental, just like its inspiration.
Mighty Mo Rodgers
They Bombed the Taj Mahal!
They went and bombed the Taj Mahal
The greatest shrine, a temple to love
From the live television broadcast of some catastrophic event that opens this song, to the faux nursery rhyme in the middle, this number hits on multiple cylinders from the get-go. A deep south Chicago blues groove drives the piece forward at a frenetic pace. Like an olden day prophet, Mighty Mo mixes righteous indignation with despair to make his point, which appears to be that as the world burns, the "juke joint is jumping" (the party rages on). What exactly the Taj Mahal has to do with any of this remains a mystery. After repeated listenings, however, I’m inclined to think it’s a reference to the bombing of Taj Mahal hotel and not the original monument in Agra. This has to be one of the more obscure (if groovy) paeans to Shah Jahan’s love temple ever recorded.
Taj Mahal, Pandit Vishwamohan Bhatt and N Ravikiran
Johnny Too Bad
Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, the eminent blues master of America, had a dream one night in which an angel told him to change his name to Taj Mahal. “I liked the sound of it,” he claimed. In an album entitled Mumtaz Mahal, Taj hooks up with Vishwamohan Bhatt and N Ravikiran to explore several blues and reggae classics, including this standout track. Taj was born into a middle class African American family, and with RyCooder (an early band mate), is regarded one of America’s great living, playing, singing musical encyclopedias. In addition to keeping the blues alive, he has ventured far from American shores to collaborate with African and Caribbean artists. Sadly, this brief album is the only one with Indian artists.
We end this week’s set with an early jazz number by the first jazz guitar superstar, Django Reinhardt. A Romani or gypsy from France, perhaps Django is channeling his ancient subcontinental roots in this gem of a piece. Joined by his partner in crime, Stephane Grappelli, whose violin provides a slightly oriental touch to the sound, Reinhardt as always plays naturally, calmly and elegantly.
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