“...what you think about the Taj Mahal depends on who you are, where you came from, when and why. A Mughal court poet, an English Romantic traveller, a colonial administrator, an architectural historian and a couple on their honeymoon (to give just a few examples) start with very different perspectives and purposes. The enduring solid marble construction presents an illusion of stability. The familiar view of the pristine monument from the entrance gateway is the very image of permanence. But the thoughts it has inspired have always been varied and changing. All these competing interpretations, overtly or not, represent claims to some sort of ownership of the building. Silent and compliant, the Taj will be what you want it to be.”
Giles Tillotson, writing in Taj Mahal (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008)
I have long been fascinated by the Taj Mahal, so much so that I watch any television programme about it, read about it, and I adore finding references to it, especially in films. Giles Tillotson’s book is a gem for someone like me. Tillotson, an art historian specialising in South Asia, packs his slim little volume with both mythology and fact, managing to unravel the mystery of the Taj without totally destroying its mystique.
This is what I use as a bookmark for it:
It’s a card for a local real estate agent that turned up in my postbox one day a while back. Now, I live in the middle of nowhere, and this real estate agent is most definitely not South Asian. But using the Taj Mahal in his ad is instantly evocative: the Taj Mahal as symbol of wealth, royalty, and luxury.
In addition to being used “to refer to tea, hotels and a host of other items ranging from packets of saffron to bars of soap” (Tilltoson, page 3), the Taj Mahal exists in the consciousness of Indians as a symbol of their country, but it also exists in the consciousness worldwide as an eternal symbol of love – an irony of sorts, since the Taj Mahal was built, for all intents and purposes, as a tomb.
It’s this mythology and irony that form part of my fascination for the Taj Mahal, I think. So far, it’s a place that I’ve only managed to visit through books and films. I actually set up a Tumblr to collect up images of the Taj Mahal from films I watch, and at some point I’ll start posting photos there. But I thought I would start by writing an occasional series on the image of the Taj Mahal in films, how its image is used, and how these films contribute to the vast Taj mythology.
I’ve decided to call it: “Taj. You tell Taj.” after this scene:
If you haven’t recognized it, that’s from Nikhil Advani’s 2007 film Salaam-e-Ishq. And in the next post, I’ll open the series with a look at the Taj Mahal in that very film.