Saturday, October 3, 2015

Downton Abbey at Simla

The latest PBS period-piece, costume drama, Indian Summers, made its American debut a week ago, with episode two now set to air  tomorrow. Set in British India in 1932, when the British Raj was still going strong but was already in fact doomed, it portrays the British governing class at work and at play at their summer retreat at Simla in Northern India, with all the usual complex interactions and intrigues, both within the group and in relation to the local Indian population.  It is a sort of Indian Downton Abbey, as stunningly beautiful in appearance and as intricate in its socially stratified relationships. Only here, the Upstairs, Downstairs dimension is not not the story of another aristocratic family's subtly complex relationships with its servants, but the story of the British governing class and the native Indian population. In Downton Abbey, it is the inexorable decline of the landed aristocracy couples with the social and political rise of the English working classes that defines the socio-historical background. In Indian Summers, it is the imminent end of that jewel in the British imperial crown coupled the rise of Indian nationalism.

In last week's opening episode, the Brits who have just returned to summer in Simla are variously busy governing an empire while barely able to govern themselves. The local club (off-limits to Indians) is a sort of playpen for the (to us) attractively enviable and privileged characters' predictable antics and flirtations, but it is also where dinner begins with the band playing God Save the King and a loyal toast to the King-Emperor. Like Upstairs, Downstairs, Downton Abbey and all other such dramas of a world we have lost, Indian Summers entertains us with such perennial appealing attractions as family dysfunction, sexual attraction, political and inter-personal intrigue, and actual encounters with violence and danger - all set within the context of a real historical period which was transformative for the both fictional characters and the real world they are meant to illustrate. 

(The photo above is of the Imperial Indian Crown, created for King-Emperior George V and worn by him at the December 1911 Delhi Durbar.)

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