A Tour of Holland

ہالنڈ کی سیر Translated by: Asiya Alam . Original language: Urdu
The Netherlands

Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah


In the last weeks, my husband had to visit Holland for government related work. I also accompanied him. Holland is a small country in Northern Europe, and for the last two centuries it hasn’t played a prominent role in European politics. Even though the struggle for freedom against Spain in the sixteenth century had great significance then, by the end of the eighteenth century Napoleon’s conquering army had reached the frontier of every European country. Holland was also conquered and after conquest, Napoleon appointed his brother Louis Bonaparte as its ruler. But after the defeat Waterloo, Holland achieved freedom again and from that time, it has kept itself free from the conflicts of Europe occupying itself instead on its economic and social reform.

Because the history of Holland is devoid of dramatic and spectacular events, it hasn’t produced an unusual personality who deserves attention due to their extraordinary ability or bad fate. The most famous hero of Holland’s community was William the Silent who freed Holland from the clutches of Spain. But his personality isn’t such that it can be called ‘dramatic’ or ‘tragic.’

Even though Holland did not achieve much importance due to its historical significance, nor does it have beautiful and pleasant cities like Paris, Vienna or Monte Carlo, there are still specialties here on whose basis one can call this country very interesting and very much worth seeing.

Holland has achieved huge feats in painting. Several painters- Rembrandt, Frans Hal, Potter, etc are counted amongst the greatest of the world especially Rembrandt is considered to be as good as Michelangelo and . Dutch (people of Holland are called Dutch) painters not only made great paintings based on older norms but they are also the proud inventors of new norms. Dutch painters only first made natural realistic paintings, and everyday tasks such as buying and selling, dinners and hospitality, wedding gatherings to the extent that even kitchen and table were worthy of being painted.3 Otherwise, Italian and French painters considered only the events of Greek or Roman history worthy of putting on canvas, or depicting an allegory that is a didactic subject via painting. But Dutch painters put their efforts on depicting every aspect of life and a new norm was added to painting in this way and ‘Dutch School of Painting’ came into being. This school of painting isn’t just different from French, Italian or Spanish schools in terms of subject but also technically, that is, it is also different in the style of painting. The feat that Dutch painters have achieved in the execution of their subjects is visible amongst the common people.  The desire to see their painters attracts lakhs of people to Holland every year and it is this desire that also brought us to Holland.

Dutch artists really are incredible. With brushes and colors, they copied the ‘real’ in such a way on canvas that it is hard to believe that it is an image. Frans Hal and Medeg made paintings of women in which the pearl bracelet on their hands has bee painted with such finesse that it is hard to accept that this isn’t a real pearl string but a picture. The lace on their dress has been painted in such a way that it creates an illusion of the real. Embroidery has also been copied in such a way that one suspects that it is real embroidery and not a painting. The same excellence has been shown to paint armor in the pictures of men. The shine that is produced when the rays of sun fall on iron, the same effect has been produced through these colors. Carpets have been painted and their softness and production is apparent with such excellence that one wants to feel it with hands. I saw one picture in which Mary stands leaning on a rock. The painter has really demonstrated excellence in depicting this rock. The lines that are present within the layers of rock and the smoothness that is present on the surface of the rock was such that looked like a real piece of rock. The dewdrops on flowers were painted in such a way that the heart desperately wanted to touch it. The wrinkles on the hands and forehead of old people also had the same reality. Potter was a Dutch artist who had exceptional ability to paint animals. I saw one picture of his in which the hair on the cow’s head was such that it had an effect of being blown by the wind.  I saw a picture of a woman in which the eyes were painted in such a way that they seemed movable.

The famous painting of Holland’s greatest painter Rembrandt is Night Watch. This is a huge painting, almost of fifteen feet. This painting shows the return of a hunting party. Whatever faces that exist in the painting aren’t imaginary but of real people. Sleep and exhaustion is clearly visible from the faces.   The captain is talking while walking in such a way that it seems that he will come out of the frame towards you. He is hinting something to a nearby person; the shadow of his raised hand falls on gold uniform of that person. It is said that no community has enough money in the world to buy this painting. This painting is in Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam. The room where this painting is kept has been especially made fireproof, that is, walls and doors are made of iron so that they cannot catch fire. The painting is hanging in such a way that under conditions of bombardment or fire or any other disaster, it goes underground into a basement if you press a button. This painting is the greatest investment of the Dutch people; the number of people who come to Holland to view this painting is more than anything else.

Besides paintings, there are a few other things that are the cause of interest in Holland. One is that their biggest city Amsterdam and several other cities are made on bridges because there are many canals and streams in Holland. The reason for this is that Holland is lower than the sea level. In fact, a large section of Holland has been submerged under the sea some time ago. They have made the ground capable of habitation by changing the direction of water through the construction of canals. This country which was not suitable for habitation and bad for health was not only made suitable for living through the effort and hard work of people here but made it one of best countries in Europe according to economic and social standards. The struggle to acquire land from the sea is still going on and the dam being constructed on the coast of Zuiderzee, which if successful would increase the status of Holland even more.

These canals are a specific feature of Holland’s cities. There are canals on both sides of almost every path and houses are constructed on the side. There are many canals in Amsterdam. Its population is high and is more densely populated than all of Holland’s cities even though there are many parts of it that are very spacious and broad in which one can see several pleasant and clean houses. But Hague where their Queen lives and Haarlem, which is their third largest city, are cleaner and more beautiful than Amsterdam. Hague in comparison to Amsterdam is a newer city and it is a residential city. Not just business like Delhi compared to Calcutta. The roads of Hague are broad and spacious, the houses are clean and pleasant looking, and the shops are very fashionable and good. There aren’t many canals here. The Queen’s home is here which is small and pleasant-looking. They have their Parliament here. The town hall of this city is famous because of the paintings of David. The unusual feature of his paintings is that they give the impression of sculpture. Hague also has International Court of Justice.  This court was started in 1907 and was completed in 1913. This is a great building and the responsibility for its construction expense was a millionaire. But every community took some part in its construction. Its grand staircase was given by Holland, window glass by Britain, the statue of freedom, which is fixed in the hall was a gift from America and the pleasant golden chandelier is from Australia. Turkey presented the carpet in the big room of the court and walls of that entire room are decorated with curtains from Japan.  Four big vases given by China are also in the same room. And gold covered horns of elephant gifted by Siam are also in this room. The last czar of Russia gave a high quality vase. There are door fittings from Germany and Italy gifted some sculpture. Thus every community has taken some part in its design and decoration.  This court has fifteen judges, who are elected from different communities. This court has been established for the purpose that international conflicts get settled through it but wrong passions of communities along with mutual conflicts and hostilities has prevented this court from playing a role in important international conflicts, for whose purpose it was founded even after its formation. Only matters of small significance are presented in front of it. But this court through its state of affairs is translating the thoughts of those people who hope that a day will come when the world will agree that sorting conflicts is not through war and bloodbath but through justice and law.

Very close to Hague is Delft, which is Holland’s oldest city. Here is the palace and grave of their hero William the Silent. From the point of view of architecture, his palace has little importance but it has this historical significance that William lived here. important and was coming down its stairs when a spy of King Philip of Spain shot him, which killed him. The walls of stairs still show the marks of those two bullets. And the stairs on which he fell when wounded had flowers on it. The hall of the palace has different things of him. For example, his drinking glass, his chair, the box in which he kept his chain armor etc. Close to the palace is the church where William the Silent is buried. According to these people, his grave is very good in craftsmanship. But for me even the best European buildings and tombs are ordinary compared to our buildings. Therefore I did not find anything special in this tomb. Their buildings don’t have the kind of finesse our buildings have although they are very good according to standards of sculpture.

Haarlem is just like Hague. Broad, spacious roads, pleasant houses and there are many big stores here. The big cities of European are not very different from each other. The same hotels, the same houses and the same shops selling the same things are found in very city. Besides these three-four cities, we also visited two villages of Holland.  It is in villages only that one finds the true civilization of every country. And in Holland, they still have their own dress, Dutch things, hats made of cloths, which resembles an Indian style two-folded cap, and wooden shoes that are called Sabat. Even city people wear these shoes even though the dress in the city is the same as everywhere else in Europe. In villages, girls and women leave their hair open. Young girls wearing different and pleasant colors with their golden hair blowing in the wind look very beautiful. The children also look very healthy. The village homes are small and clean like doll houses. One house is blue, the other is red and another one is green. We also went to a few houses. Their entire home is made up of one room only. In that one room, there are walled rooms for sleeping like the wall closets in Hindustan.  There will be as many walled beds in the house as the number of people. These beds are built with spaces in the wall, which become separate from the room of covered by the curtain. For children, there is another space built on top or sometimes below this special bed. This bed is a specialty of old style Dutch homes. Similar bed was also there in the home of Brabant. But there is no culture of such beds in the cities of Holland. The clothes and homes in these villages are still old style but the light of electricity and radio is also present there.

There is a lot of cultivation of flowers in Holland. It is sad that we went to Holland in the winter. If we had gone in spring, we would have seen the delightful view of fields of colorful flowers, which we have heard, can never be forgotten. Anyhow, we didn’t see that but we will never forget the art of the painters of Holland.

Further Reading

Source: ‘Holland ki sair’ 62:5 (May 1939): 345-48.