Light & Delight In Belgaum

The Lamplighter 

My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky.
It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.

Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,
And my papa’s a banker and as rich as he can be;
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I’m to do,
O Leerie, I’ll go round at night and light the lamps with you!

For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And oh! before you hurry by with ladder and with light;
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him to-night!

In A Child’s Garden of Verses,  Robert Louis Stevenson  writes  of  Leerie the Lamplighter who  went around, lighting the gas lamps in the streets of Edinburgh. Stevenson was a sickly child  who spent a great deal of time indoors,   and ,  looking out of the window  waiting for the lamplighter to come by, must have been something he really looked forward to. In the poem, he wants to grow up to be a lamplighter, rather than a sailor,   a driver like his siblings, , or a banker like his father. 

A much-thumbed copy of the book remains an eternal favorite, but Leerie lumbered back into our lives from the distant past this week, much closer home!  For some time now, Father has been urging me to write about those days , the 1930s ,when  Belgaum had no electricity, and  there was Leerie to light up the streets of the town at sundown each evening, and what happened in  homes filled with children as they sat around  a warm lantern and wondered about the creatures lurking in the dark regions beyond the circle of light.

It struck me that, 75 years ago,  Father and his generation made a transition far more important than my own barely 25 years ago, when I witnessed the passage of the typewriter from the office room to the museum,  as computers replaced the now archaic contraption that 20-year-olds don’t even know about.  I’m quite certain there is no parent of  25-year-olds  who would care to explain white ink,  carbon paper, and  a gadget that had no delete button.  And kids no longer believe there were machines that didn’t run on electricity, or that there was no autocorrect or spellcheck. All we had was  a much ticked off teacher brandishing a foot-ruler that she threatened to lay on our knuckles!

Electricity.  It came to Belgaum in the 1930s. 1933, Father reckons.  Everyone welcomed it, and embraced the power it gave them. They could go to the cinema, and stay out even after sunset.  Standing around street corners,  they could linger longer at the vegetable vendor’s cart, driving a hard bargain. The scent of jasmine would  remind them to stop to buy a string for the lady at home.

But something was lost too.  No more did the municipal employee, aka Leerie the Lamplighter, stride down the road, wielding his stick, lighting  the street lamps that ran on coal gas. And no more would kids look out the window,  in the mornings, as he came to clean the lamps.  it would be pointless to fantasize about a career in lamplighting.

When we were in primary school, my fantasy was to be picked as the bell ringer  -who got to say “Excuse me , Miss, but it’s time to ring the bell for the next period.” I’d  set my watch 5 minutes faster in Hindi class, and  we’d any way lose enough time in the beginning of Ms Jayashree’s class, by choosing to  devoutly sing “Rise and shine and give God the glory glory…. .” for about 6 minutes.

As it happened,  Viji got picked for the job , and  Ms Jayashree had by then  caught on. She forbade us from singing that song, and  gave us just one minute to pray quietly, before start of the class- it wouldn’t do for word to reach the ear of the Headmistress, Sister Stanislaus, that she hadn’t allowed us to pray. Besides, when we actually made it to  high school,  no one really wanted to be bell-ringer,- the idea had palled,   and we had moved on to more sophisticated methods of  shrinking  Ms Jayashree’s class-  Mills & Boon hidden between the covers of the Hindi textbook, for one, and  getting a few girls to ask , once more, if the table was feminine or masculine.

There doesn’t seem to be much that you can google up about  lamplighters in India. However,  I think it’s safe to assume that it was pretty much similar to what England boasted at the time. And I did find this most interesting blog  by a passionate Victorianist–  lamplighterlives!  and   it’s quite plain that the job description of lamplighters in Belgaum was similar to that of the Londoners.

They lit the lamps each evening, by means of a wick on a long pole. And at dawn, they returned to put them out, using a small hook on the same pole. The earliest streetlights  were candles, and then the oils and  in the latter part of the 19th century,  of coal  changed lighting forever, in turn evicted by electricity.

Lights were lit each evening, generally by means of a wick on a long pole. At dawn, they would return to put them out using a small hook on the same pole. Early street lights were generally candles, oil, and similar consumable liquid or solid lighting sources with wicks.Lamplighters had other jobs as well.  They served as watchmen, as they went about the streets at night, which could have been regarded more as a sinecure , while they went about doing their day job!   They had to clean the lamps, do regular maintenance that included changing oil or gas mantles.

Hardly glamorous, but to a child looking out of a window, nothing could be more magical than the circle of golden light around a lonesome pole as the evening shadows lengthened, and no one more heroic than the man who made that magic happen.

Before electricity vanquished darkness, it’s black,  impenetrable presence hid a thousand fears, both real and imaginary.  The phalanx of imagined enemies, spirits of the “neitherworld”, bhoota, devva, mohinis, rakshasas lurked in its folds waiting in that realm, waiting for victims. They screeched , wailed, and laughed raucously, made things fall, and frightened unsuspecting people to death.  It was a time when no child needed to be told twice to  pray-No grandma had to repeat her at once peremptory and cajoling instruction to the grandchildren to get inside and pray to Hanuman, Garuda and Bhima to keep watch over them, and keep the scary dreams at bay!

Birds still do that. As the sun goes down, they  cease their wanderings and flitting about, and return to their nests. Every one is counted, and the treetops turn into a riotous orchestra of chirps and twitter. Only  now we don’t notice them much,  and if we do want any part of it, we’d have to go pretty far away from  our own nests in search of them .

At home,  today, we  take electricity for granted. Power failure doesn’t bother us. We breezed through the eighties with the reality a  of  television without a remote ( not that we needed one in the eighties,  when all we had was Doordarshan, and we watched everything from Krishidarshan and Samachar by Salma Sultan  with the rose behind her ear, and everything in-between and put the TV to bed at 9 , or was it 10 pm? )   Since the nineties, a thousand channels and a remote have enslaved  people who device many cunning ways to beat  power failure so the TV doesn’t stop playing.We have the new genie called uninterrupted power supply.

Electricity has shrunk the night,  and the monsters that scared and thrilled us  are exposed,  limp, lifeless, and not even comical. Imagination has abdicated to hypnosis of the idiot box. Breaking news has more TRP ratings than breaking dawn.

In Headmaster Ramabrahma’s Belgaum home 75 years ago,  the lengthening shadows beckoned the  boys playing outside home, and  the night fell on empty streets, barring a few stragglers who hurried home, and the lamplighter, whose “day” was only just beginning.

Inside,   it was time to light up the lamps. There were all kinds of lamps to choose from-  kerosene lamps, paraffin lamps. There were petromax lanterns and chimney lamp.  Duplex lamps had double wicks and chimneys that allowed the light to be dimmed or brightened with the turn of a screw. Not all rooms in the house were lit. The women finished up work in the kitchen as soon as they could in the daylight,  and  the family generally gathered in the living room, around a warm lamp.  Sometimes the servants lingered,  keeping a light in the study for the headmaster, who preferred to be among his books and papers, working and playing by the clock.

Even though he was Headmaster, Grandfather Ramambrahma had not come up with the idea of overburdening his students, including  his two sons, Pandu and Sheshagiri aka Father, with  too much homework. Evening hours, therefore, were a time for sitting around a comforting lamp,  and listening to stories. Grandmother Venkamma regaled the children – with stories of Kuppa-Kuppi ,   mythology,   some flavorful Tamil folktales, and  sometimes it was  their elder sisters, Kokila, Mangala and Sushila  who chased the monsters of the dark away for  Pandu, S and their baby sister , Vimala.  The servants brought their own brand of  stories, and games to the ring around the lamp. It was campfire night every night.

The oil lamps were  quite messy- don’t we remember a childhood punctuated by  these  regularly irregular power failure/powercuts, in the evenings when the puja lamp had been lit, and the mumbled prayers of Grandmother seemed to wander from room to room,  and children secretly thought their prayers had been answered,  giving them an excuse for not being at their books “despite their ardent desire to be studious”, and  the candles and oil lamps were brought out, coaxed and badgered to light up? The oil often splashed out of the reservoir where it was held, and the smell of  hot oil pervaded the house, dust and dirt clogged the little air holes around the wick, and this needed cleaning out every day. The glass chimney also needed washing after every use otherwise the dirt would deplete the effectiveness of the light.

In  more affluent homes,  back in the 1930s, expensive  lamps imported from Britain and Europe.  These homes, regal if not royal,  were sprawling residences of jagirdars, and  landlords , where grand chandeliers,  ornate lamps and crystalware using mostly candles and later paraffin and oil proclaimed the luxuries and wealth of their owners, not to mention their taste for the beautiful things.

It appears that the 19th century was a time of revival of styles in the history of lighting before the era of electricity. The French brought back roman lamps and turned them into chandeliers.  Post Industrial Revolution,  a burgeoning middle class demanded  greater choices, and drove the revival of older, more decorative styles .  Fashion trends were doing their cycles even in those times!

Rococo, Renaissance and Gothic design elements made a comeback,  and filled  French homes with lighting in those styles. Baccarat , which started making chandeliers in 1824, were the leaders in innovating new styles inspired by old  design traditions.  British chandelier companies, found, in India, a readymade market in the country colonized by them , and many of them opened branches in India to cater to the needs of rich Indians with taste, not to mention the British residents making their home here.

When gas lighting became more widely available in the late 19th century, gasoliers making use of this new form of illumination were often designed in Rococo styles. These gasoliers usually had candles available as backup just in case the gas didn’t work. Gas lights were also really bright, so glass shields became more common as a way to shield the glare. Gas-lit chandeliers do not appear to have been very popular in India, however.

Father mentioned  prism lamps , and I  can’t remember where I have seen them, probably on the desk of  some very scientific people I’ve  gone to meet in the study of dons at IISc,  looking important and necessary to whatever science they are doing!  I’m not sure  if  Grandfather had one on his desk, but here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the original purpose of  deck prisms–

For centuries, sailing ships used deck prisms to provide a safe source of natural sunlight to illuminate areas below decks. Before electricity, light below a vessel’s deck was provided by candles, oil and kerosene lamps – all dangerous aboard a wooden ship. The deck prism was a clever solution: laid flush into the deck, the glass prism refracted and dispersed natural light into the space below from a small deck opening without weakening the planks or becoming a fire hazard. In normal usage, the prism hangs below the ceiling and disperses the light sideways; the top is flat and installed flush with the deck, becoming part of the deck. A plain flat glass would just form a single bright spot below– not very useful general illumination– hence the prismatic shape. On colliers (coal ships), prisms were also used to keep check on the cargo hold; light from a fire would be collected by the prism and be made visible on the deck even in daylight.  

Though Father’s memories of the lamplighter have been  quite enlightening, I was amused to hear that they hadn’t  particularly  excited him in those days. Rather like my brief flirtation with the idea of being bell-ringer which job, too, I’ll be bound is extinct, with an electronic gong having replaced it! . What really moved  Father, it turns out, was the road-roller! That remarkable contraption used to metal the roads,  which luckily can still be sighted around the city,  pacing the road like a king lost in thought, tortured by thoughts of a coup against him.  Father and friends   made a jolly time of it, running behind the  road-roller,  of which there seems to be no  reference in  the Child’s Garden of Verses!

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