By Ameer Janmohamed
I have often marvelled at this thing called ‘happenstance’ whereby one thing leads to another, which in turn leads to another, and so on. A recent example was my essay on “51 Kensington Court” – 1953-1957: Ismailia Social and Residential Club and Jamatkhana at 51 Kensington Court, London W8. Whilst researching the subject I came across a deal of exciting information which, though not directly relevant to 51 Kensington Court, was clearly useful for a future history of Ismailis in the UK. This included various accounts of the Jubilee Balls which took place between 1948 and 1958 – a period more or less contemporaneous with 51 Kensington Court.
Dr Ali M. Rajput of Birmingham ‘happens’ to read the article on 51 Kensington Court which ‘trigger some extraordinary memories for Dr Rajput…..’ which prompts him to write about his own memories and specially the Ball at the Savoy which he was privileged to attend. As he puts it, “The evening at the Savoy was a memory to be cherished for an entire lifetime. It is firmly etched in my mind, and I am glad to be able to share it”.
Dr Rajput’s article – 51 Kensington Court, and a Memorable Function Hosted by His Highness the Aga Khan III at London’s Savoy – is price-less. This is a first-hand account from a venerable and erudite source. It is yet another piece falling into place in the jig-saw of our history in the UK which is beginning to take shape as more and more people relate their recollections.
One source suggests that the first Jubilee Ball in London was organised by H.H. Aga Khan Students Union on Saturday 19th June, 1948 at the Royal Empire Society. It was organised to celebrate Mawlana Sultan Mohamed Shah’s Diamond Jubilee which had been celebrated in other parts of the world in 1946. Mawla and Mata Salamat attended this function. Subsequent Jubilee Balls were always held at the Savoy Hotel in the Strand.
THE JUBILEE BALL – 1955
The 1955 Jubilee Ball was held in the Lancaster Room of the Savoy Hotel on the Strand on Tuesday 19th July. The occasion was attended by three hundred and fifty Ismailis and a hundred and fifty other dignitaries. It was a glittering occasion and the Lancaster Room of the Savoy that evening has been described as scintillating with gorgeous gowns and colourful Indian Saris. All men – whether Diplomats in bespoke Saville Row suits or budget-conscious students in their rented Moss Bros dinner jackets and black ties – all looked equally resplendent. Additional colour was provided by Indians from the sub-continent in their National outfits.
The occasion was graced by Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, Mata Salamat, Prince Aly Khan, Prince Karim and Prince Amyn Mohamed. The Guest of Honour was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister, Her Excellency the High Commissioner for India and ambassador to Ireland, Mrs Vijaya Laxmi Pandit.
Distinguished guests included Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs, the Rt. Hon. Alan Lennox-Boyd, High Commissioners for Pakistan and Central African Federation, ambassadors of many Muslim countries, members of the Diplomatic Corps, His Worship the Mayor of Kensington, Members of the Government and Parliament, and the Maharajas of Jaipur and Patiala accompanied by their Maharanis, and the Maharajas of Cutch and Cooch-Behar.
Other dignitaries attending were His Highness the Kabaka of Buganda, the Governor of Tanganyika Sir Edward with Lady Twining, and the Governor of Uganda Sir Andrew and Lady Cohen.
Given the calibre and variety of guests who attended, and the nature of the function, organisers had prudently consulted with the Protocol Office at Buckingham Palace to ensure that correct protocol was observed.
Upon arrival Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah was presented with an Address of Loyalty on behalf of the Ismaili Jamat of the United Kingdom by President Dr. Sadrudin Alibhai Janmohamed. Dinner was preceded by a Reception where guests were presented to the Imam, Mata Salamat, Prince Aly Khan and the two young Princes. Thereafter assembled guests sat down for dinner to the following menu:
After dessert President Janmohamed asked all present to be upstanding for the toast to Her Majesty the Queen.
Toast by H.H. the Rt. Honourable Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah the Aga Khan
Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah thereafter proposed The Toast to the Guests. He thanked all distinguished guests for accepting the invitation to attend the Ball. About the guest of honour, Mrs Pandit, His Highness said that she was a member of an illustrious family whose name would be recorded in golden letters in history for their sterling services to their countrymen and the cause of peace.
Referring to Mrs Pandit, His Highness recited a verse by poet Hafiz in his mother tongue Farsi. He explained that Mrs. Pandit too was well versed in the Farsi language. The translation of the verse, made by Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah in English reads:
“He will never die whose heart has been given to love. On the column of world history, it is written: Our Immortality”.
His Highness later wrote down the verse in Farsi, on a menu card and had it conveyed to Mrs Pandit.
Continuing with his speech Mawla said that “one of the busiest members of the British Government is the Colonial Secretary. It is his job to deal with any number of despatches arriving from British colonies spread all around the globe. We are grateful to Mr Lennox-Boyd for being present at the Ball despite his pressure of work.”
His Highness then thanked the Maharajas of Cutch, Jaipur, Patiala and Cooch-Behar for attending the Ball, acknowledging that the ancestors of many Ismailis present at the Ball were subjects of these Princes.
His Highness then paid tribute to the work done by Sir Hugh Dow, Chairman of the Royal Commission on East Africa who had been prevented from attending the function due to Lady Dow’s indisposition. Speaking about the report of the Royal Commission, His Highness said that it would go down in history as the beginning of a new era, which he believed, would develop throughout independent Commonwealth and colonial Africa, which would bring peace and happiness in that part of the world.
By Her Excellency the High Commissioner for India, Mrs Vijaya Laxmi Pandit.
Replying on behalf of all guests, Her Excellency Mrs Pandit said that the evening’s gathering was to pay tribute to a very great man whose contribution to the cause of humanity was enormous. Addressing our beloved 48th Imam, Her Excellency said:
“Sir, the world has been your stage. You have played many parts, all with great dignity and success”.
She went on to say that many of his political parts had been played behind the scenes and which had influenced the cause of peace and progress considerably.
THE CHARITY AUCTION
A charity auction had been programmed for the evening, during the course of which, according to Dr Ali Rajput, Mrs Pandit stood up from her seat and addressed the gathering as follows:
“I have noticed that you have paid in this auction a hundred-fold price for very ordinary items. It is of course due to the association of His Highness in this gathering. Now I want to put an extremely rare item for sale which is unique and priceless. It is a verse of Hafiz written by the hand of His Highness and is full of meanings. I open the bid with £100.”
It will be observed that on the right-hand column is the verse from Hafiz, handwritten in Farsi by Mawlana Sultan Mohamed Shah. On top of the card appears to be his initials. At the bottom of the card is what appears to be the signature of Mrs Vijaya Laxmi Pandit. In the left-hand column is the English translation of the verse from Hafiz.
Count Hassan Kassim-Lakha secured this unique menu with a successful bid of one thousand Guineas.
According to Dr Ali Rajput, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah had a deep fondness for the poetry of Hafiz. Almost twenty years before the function at the Savoy, he had delivered the inaugural address before the Iran Society in London in which He noted:
“……..Hafiz is by far the greatest singer of the soul in man. In him we can find all the strivings, all the sorrow, all the victories and joys, all the hopes and disappointments of each and every one of us. In him we find contact, direct and immediate, with the outer universe interpreted as an infinite reality of matter, as a mirror of an eternal spirit……..It is not for nothing that his “Divan” has become, throughout the East, the supreme fal nama (book of divination) of millions and millions far beyond the confines of Iran.”
The final Toast to the Health of Mawlana Sultan Mohamed Shah was proposed by President Janmohamed.
Dancing continued well past mid-night.
Date posted: Wednesday, April 10, 2012
Copyright: Ameer Janmohamed.
(i) Two days before the Savoy Ball, that is on 17th. July 1955, Mawlana Sultan Mohamed Shah and the Begum had graced 51 Kensington Court and had suggested that in view of increasing numbers in the Jamat the time had come to move to larger premises.
(ii). One report suggests that a Platinum Jubilee Ball took place at the Savoy on 16th. July 1954. The Chief Host was Prince Aly Khan who represented Mawlana Sultan Mohamed Shah ‘who was at the Evian Conference in France’. The guest of honour at the Ball was the High Commissioner for Ceylon Sir Claude Corea and Lady Corea. The dates do not agree since the Evian Conference took place in 1952 and not 1954 when this Ball is supposed to have taken place. I have not been able to establish the exact number of Jubilee Balls which took place altogether, and their dates..
(iii) I would like to thank various individuals, some unattributed research, and other sources, for enabling me to piece this report together. Special thanks to Amir Alibhai Kassim-Lakha and Dr Ali M. Rajput.
About the Writer: (Alijah) Ameer Kassam Janmohamed is the author of A Regal Romance and Other Memories and the three volume set of of AKJ Collection of Cynical Wisdom. His wonderfully written A Regal Romance, published in London in 2008 by Society Books, is a rich tapestry of vividly told personal and family vignettes from 19th century onwards as well as insights of life in Kenya before and after independence. Mr. Janmohamed has a vast record of services to his credit. He was initiated into the Rotary club in Mombasa when he was a youth, and subsequently got elected as President and later as District Governor of Rotary International, a position which covered nine African and Indian Ocean countries. He continued to be involved with the Rotary after he moved to London, UK, in 1973, and acted as the President of the Kensington Club in 1981/1982. Today, he is the oldest surviving member of this chapter.
Within the Ismaili community he has served as a past Governor of the Institute of Ismaili Studies and director of the Zamana Gallery, both in London. In Mombasa, he served in the capacity as Kamadia and Mukhi of the Chief Jamatkhana between 1962 to 1966, and later served as the President of the Mombasa Provincial Council from 1968-1971. He was also a director of the Diamond Trust. He is an alumnus of the Aga Khan High School, Mombasa.
Readers are invited to read the following fine pieces by Alijah Janmohamed on this website:
1953-1957: Ismailia Social and Residential Club and Jamatkhana at 51 Kensington Court, London W8
The Review Process and Presentation of Recommendations to Mawlana Hazar Imam for a New Ismaili Constitution in Africa
The Faith of My Forefathers contributed for Simerg’s special series I Wish I’d Been There.
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Ameerbha: I truly admire your dedication and devotion to the Ismaili Faith and to Humanity and to……Knowledge. Your articles are very profound and well researched. Well Done.
Here is another quote of Hafiz. “What Is the Root of all these Words? One thing: love. But a love so deep and sweet It needed to express itself With scents, sounds, colours That never before Existed.”
Many thanks for the wonderful account of the Jubilee Ball of 1955. I had the good fortune to be there and must complement you for capturing the ambiance so accurately. Yes there were over a dozen members of the Kassim-Lakha family there.
What was particularly exciting for me was that as Kamadia of London Jamat and therefore a member of the Ismaili Council, I was part of the planning process which experience helped me so much in later life at AKU and elsewhere when I had to plan important events.
As the Kamadia, I was given a seat on Mawlana Sultan Mohammad Shah’s table. The Council had decided that officers of the Ismaili Council and the Jamat would sit in ascending order, with the lowest ranking person sitting on the Imam’s table and the senior most that is the President of the Council sitting with Prince Amyn who was the junior most member of the Imam’s family. What remarkable good fortune for me!
I will never forget an important twist with respect to the auction for that menu card auctioned successfully to Count Hassan Kassim-Lakha for pounds 1000. In closing the bid, Vijya Lakshmi Pandit announced the final price as 1000 guineas and not 1000 pounds which caused much laughter among the guest as this clever ploy brought an additional 1000 shillings for charity.
With fondest regards.
Another gem of an article from Ameerbhai! Very interesting and “live”, these reminiscences are invaluable to understand those heady days of the 50’s when many of the younger generation must have been so fortunate to be so close to the Imam.
Keep it up, Ameerbhai. Let us have more of your recollections!
What a wonderful account of our UK history. Thank you for sharing it with us.
Thank you Ameer. Thanks for reviving old memories. Fond memories I should say. Yes I was there at the Savoy Ball. A 16 yr old student one of eight that travelled from our private school near Gloucestershire attired in our rented Tuxes from as you rightly point out Moss Bros! What a time we had, all starry eyed at the glitz and pomp of the Savoy. I distinctly remember Hon. Vijya Laxmi Pandit getting up to everyone’s surprise to auction off the Menu. I too had the souvenir Menu with the “Princes” and Prince Aly Khan’s autographs on it which unfortunately got lost during the Uganda exodus. Thank you once again. SB
I always marvel at Ameer Janmohamed’s writing – sophisticated, with lots of research thrown in. Here from diverse sources he’s pieced together the proceedings at the Jubilee Ball at Savoy Hotel, London, in 1955. Lucky were those who attended. Nasibdar, as our parents used to say, and it resounded so much more than mere “lucky.” I remember lots of people from Uganda who travelled to London for the occasion. Going to London and “continent” in the summer had become fairly common by then for the wealthy. They all duly returned with a photo taken with the Imam and Mata Salamat at Yakimour. Sometimes they gave a lecture to the jamat to tell us of the holy didar they had and how much they remembered all of us during it. Many were from the illustrious Kassim-Lakha family and I notice from the invite card how many of them were present at the ball in leadership positions. I notice the name of Mrs. S Esmail. I think that is Mrs Shirin (AK) Esmail who must have been a law student at one of the Inns, on a bursary arranged by Begum Om Habibah. She went on to become East Africa’s first Asian lady lawyer, something commendable in itself, but all the more remarkable since she had to leave her young children behind in Uganda to pursue studies abroad at the early death of her husband.
Luckily for me and my book I have a first-hand account of the ball from Hassan Pirani (now at Kampala) who was the Kamadia of the London jamat about then. He was from Kisumu and evidently had just taken off to go to “England” on a whim, having served as the (paid) secretary of the Kisumu council for a while. He’s there in my book in a section on Pioneering England. My book should be out by October. It must, as it’s the Golden Jubilee of Uganda’s independence and 40th of our expulsion. H.E. the President of Uganda has given me an endorsement message and one should soon be forthcoming from HH Kabaka.