A bit of brass........................A touch of class

<br>A bit of brass........................A touch of class

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Merle, Me & A Mansion in the Motherland - The Mystique Of Merle Oberon

On my first junior jaunt back to India, my garrulous, great-grand-mother regaled me with phantasmagorical tales of spooks & sirens & magical manors with maidens so fair. So 'FAIR' I pondered!... In India? Oh yes, the fairest of fair maidens, some of whom courageously crossed the Indian Ocean to seek fame, fortune & felicity.

Pampered, preserved & conserved on celluloid

I was told of the grand home of a great English screen actress who lived in Kolkata - a home I have searched for on countless occasions (Most likely reduced to dust by now, courtesy of a few mustachioed, man-servants with muscles) & a small curiosity I had been trying to unravel since the words 'Palaces' & 'Silver screen' were planted in my brain.

Not the Oberon Mansion but a crumbling neo-baroque 
building-facade in the nicer nooks of Kolkata #

Research indicates that actor Merle Oberon was born in Bombay to an Indian mother & British soldier during occupation (or as it was more commonly referred back then, the days of the British Raj) While this was not 'such' an unusual occurrence for the time, nor too scandalous a revelation for modern times... back then, the progeny of such couplings found themselves caught between cultures, & either elevated or ostracized, depending on the company.

Neon art-work by Nicholas Galanin, echoes offensive signages
found in many public places in India, right up until the 80s *

It is believed, however, being young, ambitious & leveraging her sought-after skin tone & 'masala-mix' beauty, Merle took to the high-seas in the hopes of striking 'Star-Gold' in her new world. Nothing particularly 'new' there, except for what marks this story as particularly tragic. It was not because (like other half castes of her generation) she dubiously concealed her Indian identity, (&, in Merle's case, going to extraordinary lengths to do so) but the fact that the woman she travelled with, & referred to as her 'Ayah' (servant/hired-help) was by way of the Bible, her very own Mother (unbeknownst to anyone else of course, excepting Miss Oberon)!

 Douglas Sirk's 'Imitation of Life' sees Sarah-Jane 
rejecting her mother's 'colour' & denying their relationship **

The actress, whose soft vulnerability & rarefied radiance shone wildly in 'Wuthering Heights', & who wistfully lured men-folk to her siren-call in nearly every movie she starred in, essentially rejected the exotic essence of her being & for all intents & purposes, was vehemently ashamed of her heritage... Heart-breaking.

'Wuthering Heights' 1939. 
Oberon plays the quintessential 'English' Rose

Yes, yes, I know it was but a safe refuge of the time, a legacy of old perceptions & an unwitting survival tactic - but I can't help feeling doleful about it all. Disheartened that such measures had to be taken to extricate oneself from the barbarous associations of a supposedly backward nation.

The Indian Mutiny of 1857
While some were fleeing inequality, others were fighting it ***

Writings proffer that Merle Oberon returned to the Motherland in later life, when the stage-lights dimmed & the need to hide was no longer required... especially as there was nothing left to seek & she was no longer sought.

Living & leaving on the 'low-down'

I wonder whether any peace was had or 'made' with the uncredited lady who 'took care' of the great actress. What sense of self-worth each had, how they reconciled their fine charade & if they felt the price they paid for fame was indeed worth the fortune.

Sizzling & statuesque in a studio still -
Follies Bergere 1935

As for me, I no longer search for the house of the great screen actress in Kolkata. That legend died for me long ago, probably around the time 'hired-help' & 'maid-servant' were planted in my brain... & yet I still adore Merle Oberon as the eponymous Cathy in 'Wuthering Heights'. I muse also at the irony of her many roles where she is cast as the 'exotic' temptress, painted-up, no less, to accentuate her obviously Eurasian features - features she’d have, no doubt, tried to subdue & placate over a lifetime.

Merle perfecting Persian Princess Pose
in 'Night in Paradise' 1946

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Indian Ocean a little boy & his school mates, waited in breathless anticipation for the hungry hang-glider to touch-down in Melbourne town. It was 1965, & the delicate contents of that giant, mechanical bird in the sky soon spilled out onto the tarmac in eminent style. Along with the crates, cachets & carriers, came the 'STAR' - small, slim, ivory-skinned & hugged tightly by a foxy-white mink stole...Merle Oberon, advanced in age, though ever charming, strode past with an air of vintage pedigree. The social-studies teacher reminded the now infatuated young boys, it took about 11 hours to fly from Kolkata to Melbourne.

KOLKATA... INDIA... JUNGLE-BOOK! - The mind was on a mission....

# The Maharajah mascot of mechanical elevation

The little boy ran home to his mother & his world atlas, both formidable, frequent fonts of knowledge. He pointed to the bendy Bay of Bengal & pronounced euphorically, 'One day I will visit there. I will ride on an elephant. Catch me a tiger. And find me a wife.'

That little boy was my future husband...
Funny how things work out! Xx


#All Writing & #Photos by Rani.Cee
#Other images taken from 'The Romantic life of Merle Oberon' - . Fanpix.Net & 'ACertainCinema.com'
*Nicholas Galanin Flickr.com
**Screen-Capture from 'Imitation of Life' - Douglas Sirk (Personal Copy)
***From the 'Punch' Victorian Era Cartoon Series 'The Indian Mutiny' (Personal Post-Cards)

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Sunday, 3 November 2013

A Taste For The Exotic

 It's like a jungle sometimes...

For as long as I’ve been able to swing a sari, I have been fossicking for the 'foreign'...that other, different, unusual, multi-flavoured something-something - so divergent & distant from the everyday experience as to make me feel suspended in mid-air.

Skywards, soaring

As a child, I couldn't articulate this 'something'...I also didn't realise, I WAS that something, until of course, it was pointed out to me! I came to Australia from India, with my family, at age three... & life before this was, & still is, all black & white & tainted around the edge in a family album.

All aboard the kangaroo express (Siblings in sepia)

Rickety remembrances

To my knowledge, by school age, I was just a slightly 'tanned' version of the little golden-haired girl sitting next to me. It was not until grade one, when my rice & lentil lunch-box was passed perniciously around the playground with accompanying snorts & chortles that the 'alien', freak within was born.

Hands off my nom-nom nourishments

That same, shamed-self that prayed nightly into adolescence, "Dear Jesus, let me grow up to be Ms Venezuela!" (while not Venezuelan or ever likely to grow beyond five foot), was set on a path of simultaneous longings for sullen sameness & defiant difference. 

Praying to my floating lotuses for a sash & a situation

The schizoid tendency to want to 'blend', whilst also 'shine', is in many ways, common to all children. Each self-conscious, struggling to find a cosy corner to either retreat or rebel. But growing up in a foreign country...that search for self & identity takes on new dimensions.

Lettered & longing

Fast forward six years, & voted least likely to get a boyfriend for the dual damming’s of slightly curved nose & preoccupation with perfect genuflections in church, solace for a future foreseen with unrequited love was found in drawing, reading & sewing. If not for the books, I'd have made a stellar Victorian spinster - adept in petit-point crochet & tea-sipping. But bully for me, a thirst for history & art within the academic arts, boosted my self-esteem & thwarted a life destined for the nunnery.

Buddha, the wandering ascetic

My unquestionable deliverance came in the form of a fabric - a three by four handloom from Hyderabad. As light & bright as air, cascading like a cloud, pliant & possibly producing its own atmosphere, I was taken, exhilarated & yearning for more. I was 16 &, yes, not yet kissed by cotton... but yielding.

Fabrics of all fantastical feel & facility

I had found my connection to the world. That indivisible thread that patterned its way across my heart (& eventually the globe). Therein, fabrics, textiles, ceramics, colour, paint, pottery, Princes & Pharaohs became my lovers. Where friends had boyfriends, I had Botticelli. Where they sported tattoos, I sported traceable transfers. When they got cars, I got on the Orient Express & fled for dear life into undocumented unknowingness.

An edifice of erudition

Travel has been my constant & my guide for three decades, taking me back to myself & my original playground, where foreign foods & flowers aren't ashamed to fill the space, push for preference or be passed around. 

The global market & mellifluent meeting place

The 'exotic', as it has come to be known BY me, has come to me like relatives - some familiar, some unrecognizable, strange, alluring, frightening, demented, charming & always 'relative' to wherever I am...& I am almost always most comfortable wherever I DON'T fit or blend.

 Multi-purpose sticks of scented celebration

I have found this 'other' right here in Australia too - the festive, furtive, freaky & familiar - & realize it's not so much the 'cultural' experience I've been seeking all these years but the 'human' experience, in all its multifarious forms, which, as anyone can attest, is largely similar wherever you go...just dressed in slightly different colours.

Oompa in Oz! (Belgian grand organ)

It would seem with a little research, imagination, creation & adaptation, my sensation of mid-air flight & otherworldliness can be had anywhere, anytime - at a priceless pinch & a beautiful blink.

Natal & good natured.
Beauty is what you take with you



#All Writing & Photography by Rani.Cee

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