Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sahibs, Sikhs, Pathans, Boers, Kipling...and Pyle?

Howard Pyle’s “Then appeared suddenly, a little beyond the light of the lamp, the spirit of Kurban Sahib” illustrated Rudyard Kipling’s short story, “A Sahib’s War,” in Collier’s Weekly for December 7, 1901.

The setting is South Africa during the Second Boer War (which was then in progress): “a tall young man deprived of understanding” is about to be hanged from a tree by two turbaned soldiers: Umr Singh, a Sikh, in the center, and Sikander Khan, a Pathan, on the right. But their efforts are thwarted by the ghost of a beloved British cavalry officer, Captain Corbyn (“Kurban Sahib”), recently killed in an ambush, who drifts toward them, saying, “No. It is a Sahib’s War.” A Boer woman is cowering on the ground with upraised “paroxysmal hands” (Singh and Khan sport them, too - common Pylean appendages).

The original for this has yet to turn up, so while I’m confident Pyle painted it in oil, I don’t know if it’s black and white, part color, or full color, or how large it is. The 9 x 10" halftone plate was retouched by an engraver, but it’s a pretty awful reproduction. Even so, its otherworldly weirdness and strength come through.

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