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The Skinner Waltz

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By GANESH SAILI

‘ A Skinner Waltz?’ asks Sylvia Skinner Mahendru, sister of the late Brig. MAR Skinner, who still lives in Sikander Hall, Barlowganj. ‘First time I’m hearing of it!’ Of course our Skinner connection goes back to 1916 when Alice Skinner bought the land of the Crown Brewery; she built Sikander Hall in four years as a summer resort for her lesser- fortunate cousins. Ever since then, it has been home to descendants of the grand patriarch Colonel James Skinner. Many winters’ ago, I dropped by to see the indomitable Lillian Skinner Singh. Over chai and pakoras, we chitchatted: ‘Granny willed the house to her brother’s children and nearby ruins to her husband. She always suspected that after she passed on, the old man would travel to Europe, find himself a white memsahib and bring her home. She had no intention of being remembered for funding their honeymoon!’ Coversheet Courtesy Nath Foundation Mullingar Hill courtesy Agnom Teenup Skinner Waltz. Courtesy Nath Foundation This story, if I may call it that, begins in Stockholm – I owe it to the kind courtesy of military historian, the Sweden based Ashok Nath’s sleuthing skills, whose seminal work on the infantry regiments of the Indian Army during the First War (1914- 1919) has been carefully crafted in Sowars and Sepoys. His Nath Foundation has in its collection an original of the Skinner Waltz. Its a single sheet of printed piano music dating to 1909, composed and dedicated to the famous soldier Colonel James Skinner by his grandson Stanley E Skinner, 1st Duke of Yorks Own Lancers in 1909. When various bands played it, trouble came knocking. The sheet seems to be incomplete. For those of you tuning in late, let me give you a brief recap: this son of a Rajput mother and a Scotsman, who lived like a Moghul, preferred to be addressed by his formal title: Nasir-ud-Dowlah Colonel James Skinner Bahadur Ghalib Jung. But his followers always called him ‘Sikander Sahib’. A Christian by upbringing, he managed to keep a harem of Hindu and Muslim wives, building for their persuasions, a church, a mosque and a temple. Riding at the head of his mercenaries, he fought for the Marathas and the Moghuls, before finally joining the East India Company. Founding Skinner’s Horse in 1803, he chose the yellow tunics or ‘the Clothes of the Dead’ for warriors who had sworn that if they couldn’t win; they’d rather do battle and die. In their scarlet turbans, silver-edged girdles, black shields, and bright yellow tunics, his gallant Risalas rode from one victory to the next. With their jingling spurs, flashing sabres, fluttering lance pennons, they struck terror in the hearts of the enemy with the blood curdling battle cry: Himmat-i- Mardan, Madad-i-Khuda. (God helps those who have courage!) In 1836, he built St. James Church at Kashmere Gate, in Old Delhi, at a cost of two lakh rupees. It stands as a tribute to his faith, where in a final act of atonement, he willed his remains to be interred in front of the altar so that ‘all men may step over my grave’. When he passed away in 1841; his men had never lost a battle. The last descendant to lead Skinners Horse in 1963 was the late Brigadier Michael Alexander Rober t Skinner, a direct descendant of James’ fourth son. Seeking help, I turn to the antiquarian Hugh Rayner, living in Bath, he tells me: ‘This is a difficult one! I’m not really plugged into the world of antiquarian sheet music. I shall give it a shot, but don’t hold your breath; this may take quite a while.’ Then there’s Kathy Sale, Lillian’s daughter, who teaches in Paris. She tells me: ‘If it says the score is incomplete, I guess that’s all that has survived. But do confirm that with the museum!’ But a ray of hope peeps through the clouds. It is the Templer Research Centre at National Army Museum in London, that the redoubtable David Loyd turns for help. Hold your breath, my friends – the jury is still out on this one. For this much I have learnt: star dust begins to fall only when you refuse to give up, even while every atom of your being tells that its all but over.