There is an Agra beyond the coffee table book and the tourist brochure waiting to be discovered. This anthology of Thomas Smith's writing attempts to set the reader off on that journey of discovery. Smith was a scholar, a historian and a journalist who wrote about the people and places of Agra after painstaking research and enquiry and with rare humour and sensitivity. For over five decades, between 1930 and 1995, he collected material including the stories and legends that surround the city. Much of what Thomas Smith wrote has been lost or destroyed but some of the best were carefully preserved by his son Neville.
This collection of Smith's writings, deftly organized and introduced by Shailaja Kathuria, provide a fresh perspective on the familiar and also help us experience an Agra that we did not know existed. A map of present-day Agra locates some of the more important landmarks mentioned in the book.
The book also contains a preface by Thomas Smith's equally talented son R.V. Smith author of The Delhi that No-one Knows.
Thomas Smith (1910-1995) was born in an Indo-Armenian family in Agra which was still to shed its Mughal hangover. There were many people around who had witnessed the events of the 'Mutiny' of 1857 even though they might not have actually joined the rebel sepoys.
The house where Thomas Smith was born was the only one that remained of the properties once owned by Col Salvador Smith, a prominent commander of Daulat Rao Scindia's army. Smith became aware of this historical legacy early in life and decided to seek its reflection in the monuments that dotted the city. What he wrote on them was featured in several newspapers and journals, three of which-The Globe, The Agra Times and The Agra Citizen-owed their inception to him. His rambles and recollections of old times, old people and old edifices of Agra give as much insight into the character of the heritage city as of the man who adored it.
Shailaja Kathuria is a historian with specialization on Agra.
'History was dear to Thomas Smith's heart and there is hardly any aspect of it concerning Agra that escaped his notice. With a camera slung on his shoulder, he cycled through the length and breadth of the city discovering forgotten monuments and shedding light on little-known ones or drawing attention to their despoliation by man and nature'. -R.V. Smith
These articles by Thomas Smith are a cross-section of what he wrote between 1930 and 1995, the year of his death. Many more pieces are still locked in rusty trunks and several have been lost or damaged during the course of the sixty-six years that he was active as a journalist.
Starting with The Statesman, he also represented The Englishman, which was later incorporated with the Calcutta paper. Besides, he reported for The Times of India, Reuters, Associated Press of India, PTI, Hindustan Times, The Pioneer, The New Capital, Time-Life and Today (later Aaj).
In the later 1930s, Thomas Smith and his friend Hassan Habib (who subsequently became special secretary in the Pakistan government) edited The Agra Citizen, which was followed by Smith's editorship of the Globe magazine until partition, and of The Agra Times, later managed by Sailen Datta. In 1993, the UP government honoured him with an award of Rs 20,000 for his services to the freedom struggle through journalism. He was also associated with the Bazm-e-Nazir and Surdas Memorial Committee, organizations honouring two great poets of the Agra region.
To quote Dr R.P. Tewari, former principal of RBS College, Agra, and head of the Department of English, Thomas Smith dealt with 'an incredibly long list of subjects on multifarious aspects of life and literature.' History was dear to his heart and there is hardly any aspect of it concerning Agra that escaped his notice. With a camera slung on his shoulder, he cycled through the length and breadth of the city discovering forgotten monuments and shedding light on little-known ones or drawing attention to their despoliation by man and nature. In later years he was accompanied by Bishan Kapoor of Hinduism Times and Blitz magazine and Naresh Mathur who had succeeded him as Agra correspondent of The Times of India, Many were the sensational stories that they unearthed and discussed at the Agra Historical Society, headed by the principal of Agra College, Dr Sinha.
Known as the 'Papa of Ink Street', Thomas Smith reported many scoops, including the flight of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem to India during the Second World War, an exclusive interview with Mohammed Ali Jinnah in Agra, and the story of the three burqa-clad women who mysteriously vanished from an ekka near the Taj, leaving behind three slips of paper predicting war, famine and pestilence. All three prophecies came true after the Second World War broke out. He also covered the Great Agra Air Show of the 1930s, when he flew in a plane with a woman pilot and interviewed her for The Statesman which had organized a ball-throwing competition from the aircraft. He also had a memorable interview with Dorothy Wittenberger, an American journalist who had cycled all the way from Bombay to Agra on her Hopper bicycle, which she sold to Smith to buy her train ticket back to Bombay.
His political reports spanned an era from the third decade of the twentieth century (when he first met Nehru) to the last years of the prime ministership of Narasimha Rao.
Those who initiated him into the profession were Nawab Mohammed Faiyaz Khan Sherwani, who took a degree in journalism from Harvard in 1921, and A.N. Takru, founder of the United Press Service, who had been trained by C.Y. Chintamani and Rama Rao. Through the guidance of the Nawab Sahib he was able to succeed Fred Ellis, OBE, as The Statesman representative. Ellis, who was born in 1867 and died in 1937, held a diploma from the London School of Journalism and edited The People's Herald ('A smart paper for smart people'-patronized by European and Anglo-Indian memsahibs). Thomas Smith's literary disposition prompted him to associate with such luminaries as Sir Jadunath Sarkar, Sir Malcolm Hailey, Sir Henry Gidney, Josh Malihabadi, Fani Badayuni, Seemab Akbarabadi, Babu Gulab Rai, Maikash Akbarabadi, Pandit Harishankar Sharma and Rajnath Kunzru (grandfather of author Hari Kunzru). He also corresponded with Rabindranath Tagore on modern art.
It is hoped that the articles in this book, which were ferreted out by my brother, Dr N.R. Smith, will whet the appetite of readers and create an awareness of the need to preserve old and neglected monuments in Agra and elsewhere. It will also help to preserve the memory of a pioneer journalist who, like the poet Nazir Akbarabadi, preferred to stay on in Agra-for where else do they have the Taj?
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