Diamonds are Forever: the Legacy of the Koh-I-Noor

On November 12th, 2015, the Huron County Museum will be showing the 2014 Hindi action-adventure movie Bang Bang for its Bollywood Movie Night. A remake of Hollywood’s Knight and Day, the Bollywood film follows the adventures of an unassuming bank employee (played by Katrina Kaif) after she meets a mysterious secret agent (Hrithik Roshan). Education & Programming Assistant Sinead Cox discusses how the the film’s plot utilizes the history of the famous Koh-I-Noor diamond.

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Commemorative postcard: Queen Victoria’s 1897 diamond jubilee. Donated to the collected by Nancy Park. 2010.0027.001c

After the DVD finally arrived from Mumbai and I sat down to preview the hit Hindi action-adventure film Bang Bang, I fully expected the fun, brash Bollywood action romp suggested by title. What I wasn’t anticipating was a little bit of history to intrude on the action: the movie’s hero, Bollywood superstar Hrithik Roshan, makes his screen entrance triumphantly tossing the famous Koh-I-Noor diamond in the air after stealing it from the Tower of London.

The remarkably large Koh-I-Noor (“Mountain of Light”) was mined in India and belonged to a series of Indian rulers and conquerors, as well as nearby empires in Afghanistan and Persia, over several centuries. The British East India company seized the diamond with the rest of the Lahore treasury in 1849, after their annexation of Punjab; Governor-General Lord Dalhousie subsequently arranged for the gem’s owner, 10-year-old Sikh Maharaja Duleep Singh*, to ceremonially surrender the priceless diamond to Queen Victoria.

In 1851 the Koh-I-Noor was a much ballyhooed attraction at the Great Exhibition–its notoriety magnified by claims in the English press that the gem carried a curse. After its exhibition at the Crystal Palace, Prince Albert had the diamond recut to suit current European tastes, significantly reducing its size. The Koh-I-Noor, and its supposed curse were inspirations to author Wilkie Collins for his classic 1868 mystery novel The Moonstone, which–spoiler alert–ends with the titular moonstone recovered by agents and returned to its rightful place in an Indian temple. In real life, the Koh-I-Noor remains part of the British crown jewels, displayed for tourists at the Tower of London and worn by queens or queen consorts on ceremonial occasions.

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Elizabeth, consort to George VI and mother of Elizabeth II, wore the Koh-I-Noor in her crown during her husband’s coronation. The crown, including the Koh-I-Noor, rested on the Queen Mother’s coffin during her 2002 funeral. This picture of Elizabeth in her coronation robes was donated to the collection by Rev. Harrison (crown not pictured). A971.0016.014

After its theft from the tower in the film’s prologue, the Koh-I-Noor emerges as Bang Bang’s plot ‘MacGuffin’: an excuse for bad guys to chase the movie’s couple so action, international adventure and romance can ensue. But because our leading lady, Katrina Kaif, is unsure of Roshan’s allegiances and motives throughout the movie, the Koh-I-Noor also serves to make him a little more sympathetic than would the theft of any anonymous gem. In the film’s exposition cutaways to news coverage of the Koh-I-Noor’s theft, the Indian public expresses joy and a desire for the famous diamond’s return to its homeland.

Many artefacts in the institutions of former imperial powers–from the ‘Elgin marbles’ to totem poles–still hold sacred or cultural significance in their countries of origin. On a much smaller scale, the Huron County Museum has de-accessioned artefacts and repatriated them to neighbouring county museums if they were created in, or had a more meaningful value to those communities. In the context of international diplomacy though, repatriation can often be a fraught & controversial topic. There are actually multiple countries with a claim to the Koh-I-Noor, since Lahore is now located within the borders of modern Pakistan.

During a trade visit to India in 2013, English Prime Minister David Cameron refused to consider the Koh-I-Noor’s repatriation to Punjab, declaring that he didn’t believe in ‘returnism’: “if you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty.”  Cameron’s words succinctly capture why objects like the Koh-I-Noor remain potent symbols of deeper imperial legacies– of the exploitation of wealth and resources, and the collection of other cultures’ treasures for the edification of museum-goers.

I won’t spoil how the trajectory of the Koh-I-Noor’s theft ends in Bang Bang (you can see the finale for yourself in the museum theatre November 12th), but I ultimately found the twist resolution as strange and abrupt as was the diamond’s presence in this frivolous action film in the first place. The Koh-I-Noor’s starring role in the story speaks both to its continued notoriety, and the uneasy way it represents the colonial past and India’s present-day relationship with Britain. Of course, it’s also a pretty good excuse for shootouts and motorcycle chases.

*Duleep Singh, similarly to the diamond he owned, was exiled to England. The last Sikh Maharaja lived the life of an English gentleman with Queen Victoria’s favour, before unsuccessfully reviving his claims to his birthright later in life. Also like the Koh-I-Noor, there remains some contention  about his final resting place being England, rather than Punjab.

 

Further Reading

For  more about the Koh-I-Noor in the Great Exhibition see “Koh-i-Noor: Empire, Diamonds, and the Performance of British Material Culture,” by Danielle C. Kinsey, Journal of British Studies Vol. 48, No. 2, Special Issue on Material Culture (Apr., 2009), pp. 391-419 [available via Jstor].

The Huron County Museum’s first-ever Bollywood Movie Night happens Nov. 12th, 2015. Sweets, snacks and hot chai are available from 4 pm, with henna art offered by local artist David Godkine. The movie starts at 6:15 pm in the museum theatre. 

“Curiouser and Curiouser…”

On Saturday, August 22nd The Huron County Museum is transforming into Wonderland for a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. In honour of the 150th anniversary of Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, Summer Museum Assistant Becca Marshall shares some of her favourite facts about the nonsense-novel and its legacy.VicApt2

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Victorian Apartment, Huron County Museum

 

Have you ever visited the Victorian Apartment at the Huron County Museum? If so, you can probably picture the elaborate dining room set-up and recall the posted list of extensive etiquette required for Victorian tea time. It was social customs and rules such as these that inspired 19th century author Lewis Carroll to parody Victorian life in his fantastical novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Scenes such as The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party were influenced by Carrol’s loathing for the rigid traditions.

Carrol’s subtle digs at the Victorian culture are not the only secrets that this classic holds – so in celebration of Alice’s 150th publishing anniversary here are 14 things you might not know about Alice and the man who imagined her iconic world:

  1. Lewis Carroll was a pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge Dogson (born January 27, 1832 in the Cheshire village of Daresbury, England).
  1. The original title for the novel was Alice’s Adventures Underground. Dodgson then expressed his fears that this title might suggest a book containing ‘instruction about mines’ and then considered other titles such as “Alice among the elves/ goblins, or Alice’s hour/doings/adventures in elf-land/wonderland.” Preferring the final option Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was the final title.
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Portrait of Queen Victoria, Governor’s House, Huron Historic Gaol

3.  An apocryphal anecdote circulated that Queen Victoria was such a tremendous fan of the story, that she proposed that Carroll should dedicate his next book to her, An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, With Their Application to Simultaneous Linear Equations and Algebraic Equation—probably not what she would have had in mind. Dodgson denied this story.

4. Carrol’s novels were banned in China in 1931 on the grounds that “animals should not use human language.”

  1. Carroll is credited with inventing the words “chortle” and “galumph” in Through the Looking Glass.

6.  There is unconfirmed evidence that Carroll had a rare neurological disorder called “Todd’s Syndrome” (or suffered from similar migraine-induced symptoms). The disorder causes hallucinations that make visual objects appear to be changing sizes – often prompting the individual to feel as though their body is disproportionate. Psychiatrist John Todd discovered the disorder in 1955 and it was later named “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome” in reference to the theme of Alice and her surrounding objects shrinking and growing in odd ways throughout the book.

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Illustration from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

  1. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can be best classified by the genre “literary nonsense.”
  1. Carroll illustrated the original draft of his manuscript, but hired John Tenniel to do the published version.
  1. Mock Turtle Soup is a real dish that was popular during the Victorian period. The heads, hooves, and brains of calves were used as a cheaper replacement for green turtle soup.
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Mad Hatter’s Tea Party Display, Upper Mezzanine, Huron County Museum

  1. It was young Alice Liddell who inspired the famous novel. During a group boating trip with the Liddels Alice and her two sisters begged Carrol for a story. Happy to oblige Carrol cast Alice as the main character (her sisters Lorina and Edith were ‘Elise and Tillie’ in the Dormouse’s story) and began creating ridiculous adventures for her to go on. Alice enjoyed the story so much that she demanded that Carrol write it down – thus creating the first draft of the book.

11. Why does the Mad Hatter have a 10/16 sign on his hat? Carroll answered this in the abridged “Nursery” Alice for younger        readers, explaining that the Hatter would carry around his hats to sell, and the one he wore was no exception. The 10 and 6        are for “ten shillings and six pence.” This was a rather pricey sum in the Victorian age, alluding to superior quality and style.

12.To answer the Mad Hatter’s famous question “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” we have Carroll’s very own words, from a preface to later editions of the book…

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China Cabinet, Victorian Apartment, Huron County Museum

“Enquiries have been so often addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter’s Riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, viz: ‘Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however is merely an afterthought; the Riddle as originally invented, had no answer at all.”  (Note how Carroll spelt “never” instead as a backwards “raven.”)

That’s a wrap, did you know any of these facts? Come join the Huron County Museum August 22nd to learn more and celebrate the 150th publishing anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party from 11-4:30. Games, activities, refreshments and desserts await!

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Mad Hatter’s Tea Party Display, Curated by Becca Marshall