Elaborate disguises, pomp ceremony and architecture. Enter the king stage right and his flounces. Throw in a queen or a courtesan, with the jester doing the sutradhar number as it was in the time of masques and unmaskings. A slow, stately pavane filled with different forms of language, speeches, sonnets and, if necessary, rhymed couplets.
The masque as a form is honoured in these days of minimalism more in the breach than the observance. Ben Jonson used to stage them in the Jacobean era with the flourishes of Inigo Jones. In most cases, the masque was ceremonial, staged to bring history to life or celebrate a marriage. With those guidelines in mind, the 21st century reader should riffle through the pages of this slim volume.
Inspired by Fatehpur Sikri, where the women of Akbar’s harem performed masques in the king’s inner court, I. Alan Sealy has ventured into an exploration of the form and its rules and rites. Zelaldinus is the Jesuit rendering of Jalaludin, one of Akbar’s names and Akbar is the ruler who the masque celebrates—Montserrat the Jesuit who visited Fatehpur Sikri and who was hopeful of converting Akbar uses the name in one of his notes. Irv is the jester who wanders into Fatehpur Sikri, seeking a page of a history book or the curve of a dome, who knows which?
Different voices come and go—a sage, a Jesuit, Thomas Coryate reimagined as Golightly, an inveterate walker whose voice is Elizabethanese. Varied aspects of Fatehpur Sikri and even Akbar’s clothes, white on white, flit through the verses. Time passes in the aspect of seasons, as in Sealy’s previous books, though there in poetic prose instead of unmasked poetry. In between are snippets of information, such as until Attilio Petruccioli came along in the 1980s, no one had thought it worthwhile to do a proper survey of...