logo image Visual & Oral history of the Indian Subcontinent via family archives

First of a kind

171 – The first Indian woman to perform on New York Broadway

Gopal Sharman & Jalabala Vaidya. Rome, Italy. 1967

Gopal Sharman & I, Jalabala Vaidya. Rome, Italy. 1967

Image courtesy Akshara Theatre Archive. Text by Jalabala Vaidya, New Delhi

I was born in London (UK) in 1936. My English-Italian mother, Marjorie Frank-Keyes was a concert singer and my father Suresh Vaidya was a successful young writer. He was also on the editorial board of Time Magazine in London. My father was arrested by the British authorities when he refused to join the British Army to fight in World War II. He declared he would gladly fight as a free man, but not as a colonial subject. He was imprisoned in Canterbury and fought and won a case in the British Court. His case was defended by well known lawyers like Sir Fenner Brockway and Lord Reginald Sorensen. In a landmark judgment, the court ruled that the British Army could not compel a person to fight because he was a colonial subject.

Of course I was one my feisty parents’ two daughters. I completed my schooling in London then in Bombay (now Mumbai). Later I graduated from Miranda House, standing third in Delhi University. I was also actively involved in theatre and was awarded the best actress for performing sections from Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Later, I began working with Link Magazine in Delhi as a journalist that also had a daily paper called The Patriot. Gopal Sharman was suggested to us as an independent writer who could write very well on the arts. Up until then I had been writing them.

In the 1950s, at the office, I was in charge of putting the month’s issue to bed and I had been told that Gopal would come by with the copy on the Arts columns. He came to the office early and sat several glass cubicles away, typing away, but by late morning the copy was still not done and I began to lose patience. I went bossily through the cubicles and asked him about the text. He looked up and said “Don’t go through the roof, this isn’t a spoof, I am writing it and here it is.” and that’s it, we fell in love. 
I have no idea how, why and what it was, but that’s how we met and were together since. We began to live together in a garage in Bengali Market. Later, we got married.

Gopal at the time was also writing two popular columns under a pseudonym – Nachiketas for the Indian Express and the Sunday Standard. One was about artists and the other was about the Upanishads, Vedanta, mythology, questions on philosophy, life and death. Unknown to us the time, the second President of India, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was a fan of Nachiketas’s (Gopal’s) columns.

In early January of 1966, Dr. Radhakrishnan underwent a cataract operation. Unable to read and restless, he asked a close friend Prof. K Swaminathan who had edited the Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi and was a former editor of Indian Express, to find out who was this ‘Nachiketas’ person writing these fascinating pieces, and to invite him to the Rashtrapati Bhawan (Presidential Residence) for a narrative session. Prof. Swaminathan found Gopal and was surprised to find out that it was a young man who went about on a bicycle, with a shock of unruly hair, and wore a polo neck shirt & trousers. He asked Gopal if he would come and read his works to the President. Gopal happily agreed.

When he returned home, Gopal told me about the President’s request and insisted that since I was much better at it, I should perform Gopal’s Full Circle for the President. Full Circle was a dramatic recitation of stories and poems with philosophical concepts narrated with voices of regular people. I would perform and recite the stories & poems, while Gopal, a classically trained singer, would sing songs ranging from Meera Bai’s bhajans (songs with spiritual themes) to songs written by the poet, philosopher and politician Muhammad Iqbal. After some reluctance, I agreed and we both decided to go. I always needed glasses to read, but since I didn’t want to read off a paper, I learnt all of it by heart.

When the day came, a big Rolls Royce came from the Rashtrapati Bhawan to pick us up, along with the formal invitation. To our shock it mentioned my name, but left Gopal’s out! We informed the officials about the confusion, but they did not accommodate the mistake and no change could be made. Nonetheless, now there was no turning back. Gopal came along with me up till the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s reception, wished me very well and went off to another meeting. I still remember watching him walk down the slope of that road.

When I was escorted upstairs, the door was opened by the President, with a bandaged eye. He exclaimed “Ah Welcome! But where is the poet?!” I explained what had happened, he insisted a car bring Gopal back, but with 20-30 people in the room including foreign dignitaries already seated, it seemed a bit awkward so we let the matter rest. I began to narrate the pieces, and I remember now and then the very impressed President would interrupt to explain the contexts to his guests and what was being said.

When I ended the performance, Dr.Radhakrishnan was extremely happy. He had loved every bit of it. He insisted that this work should be performed for a proper audience and that he will have ICCR (Indian Council for Culture Relations) arrange a performance at Azad Bhawan. And so it was arranged. When we went and met the director of ICCR, Inam Rahman, I think he was a bit put out at the order of accommodating young unknown people. Perhaps to be a bit difficult, he said the only date available was January 13, only a few days after, and will we take that? Gopal and I looked at each other and immediately said yes.

The ICCR invited many well-known people & important dignitaries from the Embassies, and they all loved Full Circle. After the performance we received invitations from the Embassies of Yugoslavia (now seven independent states) and Italy to perform in their countries. But there was a hitch, ICCR refused to pay for the tickets, and we had to find the tickets on our own. We wrote to Air India and asked if they’d like to sponsor us. They wrote back and said they could, for one person and one way only, but that too on the condition that we distribute their advertisements in Europe.
Something had to be done, so I decided to go to Bombay and request the TATAs if they could help. There was a special secretary to J.R.D Tata, I forget his name now but he agreed to arrange another ticket. This was the year of tourism so there was no problem getting a visa to foreign countries. Neither was there a problem with one-way tickets at the time. We managed to get two one-way tickets but only till Rome, Italy.

In Italy, we performed at the Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East (IsMEO). Through that performance we got invited to perform at the famous theatre, Teatro Goldoni and so we did. Then we went to Yugloslavia and performed in three cities and they were all wonderful performances. I remember as guests, we were even offered tickets, twice, to the well-known Opera La Boheme but unfortunately on both occasions we had such a time of partying and drinking the night before that we never made it to the opera.

Back in Rome, we did another round of performances, each with a theatre-full of audiences. In the audience we also noticed a lot of red cardinal gowns. Soon, we were invited by the Assistant Father General of Jesuits, an Indian at the time, to perform at their headquarters near the Vatican. We were hosted at a lovely convent and the nuns were so extraordinarily impressed with us because we were vegetarian. They thought it was such an austerity and it was so spiritual, and made lovely vegetarian things for us. Later, the Indian Assistant Father general also organized for us an audience with the Pope Paul IV and so we also got to meet the Pope.

One night, I heard that Joan Baez was going to perform at a theatre, and I was a particularly big fan of hers. It was disappointing to realise that I couldn’t because we too were performing the same night. Next morning when we went to see the papers, I was on the front page and Joan Baez was somewhere in small print. It was amazing and unbelievable. Nonetheless, we did get to met her later, but missed seeing her perform. And that’s how we began our theatre career.

In the next few months we were invited by ITV (Italian TV) to record our performance. After the recording they said that they were cash strapped and couldn’t pay too much. We were used to that, because in India no one really paid or paid well at all – In Delhi we got Rs.250. But the Italian TV pay turned out to be a lot more than we had ever imagined. Excited about our big pay, we spotted a second-hand car sales place across the TV station and Gopal and I immediately bought ourselves a Black Volkswagen Beetle, with a Number 1 plate. We excitedly discussed how we could drive back home to India, because in those days you could’ve driven back home to India.

In 1968, we drove to Munich, and the Southern German Radio & TV : Bayerischer Rundfunk, also recorded our performance. After the recording they enquired how much the Italians had paid us and simply upped our pay by a lot more. We were so happy and amused. I remember in Frankfurt, I also went and got myself my first pair of contact lenses.
We met and made so many amazing friends along the way, some famous and some not. While we performed and drove all over Europe, our beloved second hand car would often break down. I remember a lot of our friends like actress Vanessa Redgrave and even the Qatari ambassador to India were among the many people pushing that car.

In London we performed at various places, including the Mercury theatre, where T.S Elliot had performed his plays. Everywhere we went we received rave reviews. London is where we finally settled down for a while and continued to perform. Gopal began writing on the arts for The Times and The Sunday Times in London and wrote a book on Indian music, Filigree in Sound that was published in London. At the time the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) had an event called the World Theatre season. It was the most prestigious theatre festival and they approached us to bring a play to the event. Gopal said – “Yes, we’d like to, but the play I’d like to bring I haven’t written it yet.” He wanted to write a Ramayana relevant to our times, a modern, dramatic and humane interpretation of the Sanskrit epic. RSC happily agreed and signed a contract with us. When our event with RSC was announced, a TATA representative from London came forward to financially back the venture because we were getting India a good name. They awarded Gopal with a Homi Bhabha fellowship, the third person in the country to get it.

At the end of our two-year adventure, in 1970, we returned to India and began preparations on the Ramayana. We also needed to find a space to rehearse the play. We began with the process of auditioning actors and actresses in Bombay for our new play. I remember Amjad Khan came, and others from FTII (Film & Television Institute of India) and soon we had a good crew. While in Bombay, I heard that Morarji Desai, deputy to the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was also in-charge of allotting government housing to artists in Delhi, so I approached him about a place and he called me to his office at 7.30 in the morning. Gopal had written a preface on our Ramayana, and I showed it to him. Morarji Desai said he would read it and that I should return the next morning at exactly the same time. I thought he was a nasty man for calling me at 7.30 am in the morning. Nonetheless, I went and he had read it, had made some notes and said it was wonderful. I was shown six locations, and asked me to choose whichever house I’d like. I chose this one in Lutyen’s Delhi. Gopal hollowed out the bunglow, redesigned the space, and included a 50-seat indoor theatre. He did a lot of the work all by himself.

Soon after rehearsals began, the cast went on strike over some grouses. Now when I look back it was probably an attempt by some envious people whose incitements sabotaged our crew. It was dreadful and we were upset, but we went to the bank, paid them their dues and said our byes. On a trip to Simla to pick up my daughter from her boarding school, Gopal who had clearly been doing a lot of thinking, asked me to perform all the 22 roles in the Ramayana he had written, by myself. He was inspired by the narrations of Kathas (the traditional Indian storytelling format) at his home in Lucknow, UP. I was not so sure, but Gopal rewrote the script into the form of a Katha and it began to look very good – and we began working on it. But there was more disappointing news. When RSE heard that our Ramayana was going to be a one-woman show, their interest in the project turned cold. They had envisioned an epic story with a large crew. That was a big blow. Nonetheless, we didn’t stop the work and I performed it for the first time in 1970, for a small audience above the porch of Ashok Hotel and later at other venues, including our own theatre.

One day, a team from USA Educational Institute sent 15-20 people to see the Ramayana. It was their last night in India but they were quite impressed with the show and asked us to meet them for breakfast before they flew out. They said it was the first time they had seen something that displayed a contemporary spirit of India, moreover it was in English and hence understandable. They invited us to USA and to perform through their colleges. We went to America, and in the course of travelling, we were also asked to perform at the 1000-seater National theatre School of Canada in Ottawa. Along the way we met with a big New York based lawyer and an angel investor, Robert A. Hendrickson who was known to fund the arts, and was interested in our work. He came along with us to Canada to see how we did with a big audience. Of course, we did splendidly well, and soon he contacted us to do a season on Broadway and that’s how we got to New York Broadway. It was most fantastic. So far, we are the first and only Indian production to have performed on that platform.

In 1981, TN Kaul, the Indian ambassador to USA, suggested that we perform the Ramayana at the NCPA (National Centre of Performing Arts), Bombay, but NCPA’s response to sponsoring the show was at best luke-warm. Kaul then invited actors Sunil & Nargis Dutt to watch us at Akshara. After the show, the Dutts insisted on paying for the play to be staged at NCPA. We agreed and played for 10 days straight to a full house. I remember after one of our shows, JRD Tata invited us for tea and said that he hadn’t watched the play, but it wasn’t because he did not want to. He had sent his driver to buy tickets but even the cheapest tickets were being sold in ‘black’ outside.

Our Ramayana has since been staged more than 2,000 times over 45 years at the most prestigious of institutions around the world and everywhere we went the theatres were filled with audiences. We did a lot of more work after that. A play called Karma, which was funny and moderm. I produced, performed in and narrated most of Gopal’s acclaimed television films like India Alive, The Kashmir Story, The Sufi Way, Gitanjali and Gandhi’s Gita, a play about Mahatma Gandhi’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita into Gujarati and how he and his wife Kasturba went through the final revision in the Himalayan foothills.

Gopal passed away in June of 2016, and his last appearance on stage was on April 13, 2016, when he played the part of the British Presiding Magistrate in the play about my father in the English Prison: Suresh Vaidya vs The British Government.
I miss him a lot. But we both believed in our work, the wisdom of life, love and theatrical arts and that should never stop. These days I am writing a play on Gopal and my life. A life that we have so loved, enjoyed and shared. We built a wonderful world together.

But this story is about Akshara Theatre, Gopal Sharman, me, our family, friends and well-wishers. We have been theatre performers for so many years and we have been extremely fortunate. Built in phases over a decade by Gopal himself and his team, the Akshara theatre, a non-profit arts institution, is spread over an acre of land and has grown to a 96-seat indoor theatre, and a 300-seat amphitheatre at the back of the property.

Our life is about our work, and anyone who is a part of our family or the theater has to willy-nilly perform, including our dogs and cats.


167 – The man who compiled the first English to Hindi & Marathi dictionaries

My great grandfather, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari. Ajmer, Rajasthan. Circa 1955

My great grandfather, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari. Ajmer, Rajasthan. Circa 1955

Image & Text contributed by Myra Khanna / Rachana Yadav, Gurgaon

This is the probably the only photograph we have of my maternal great grandfather Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari or as we refer to him Nana Sahib. Born in 1891, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari was the eldest of four brothers. He was brought up in Bhanpura, a district in the Central Provinces of the subcontinent (now Madhya Pradesh, India). I never did get a chance to meet him, but stories my mother and grandmother tell me about him make me feel that would have been an honour to know him.

While there is some documentation that mentions our ancestor Rao Raghunath Singh Bhandari as the acting King of Jodhpur from 1713-1724, I am not sure how it all turned out because in our family’s current memory we had humble beginnings from a village called Jaitaran (Jodhpur District). The family then migrated to their maternal land Bhanpura where Nana Sahib was born. After his birth and as tradition was, his umbilical cord was cut and buried in the soil of our family home’s courtyard and a tree was planted. The house still stands in Bhanpura today, and in it’s courtyard so does a grand tree.

In 1904, at the age of 12, Nana Sahib was married off to 13-year-old, Roop Kavar, my great grandmother. Nana Sahib was not interested in the family business and ran away to Jodhpur to complete his education. He excelled at Marathi, Hindi and English languages and self-published his first works by translating Ralph Waldo Trine’s In tune with the Infinite in Hindi. He then went on to serve as editor to several newspapers & publications in Bombay (now Mumbai), Delhi, Patna, Ajmer and Indore. Through the course of his youth, he befriended and worked with several influential writers, poets, politicians, activists and royal families from all over the subcontinent. Deeply inspired and curious about world revolutions, cultures, literature & affairs he became a well-reputed writer and author. Two of his early books Bharat aur Angrez (India & the British) and Sansar ki krantiyan (World Revolutions) won him huge accolades and appreciation around the country.

Nanasahib was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and a fierce congressman. My mother remembers him always wearing khadi (hand-spun cloth). In the early 1910s as an assistant editor at Sadharm Pracharak, a weekly newspaper in Delhi, his articles featured Gandhi’s civil rights movement in South Africa and his words spread far and wide. Funds to support Gandhi’s cause flowed in and the newspaper was instrumental in raising Rs. 60,000 to be sent to Gandhi. In 1920, he helped establish the Congress party in Indore, Nagpur and Jaipur. Most evenings at home would come alive with debates, discussions and heated arguments between the greatest of minds of that time.

In the 1920s, he was invited to set up and co-edit an independent Hindi Marathi Weekly Malhari Martand by the Royal family of Holkars in Indore. While serving as an editor he wrote two books on the History of Indian States commissioned by Maharaja Tukaji Rao Holkar III that won him appreciation and monetary awards from several Royal Families around the country.

One of Nana Sahib’s several great accomplishments was that he was the first to have translated and compiled two 10 volume dictionaries – English to Hindi and English to Marathi; The dictionaries went on to be used as the blueprint for other regional language dictionaries that are used until today, and was used as a reference by authors such as Rabindra Nath Tagore. The dictionaries are considered to be one of the greatest achievements in Indian Literature. After the dictionaries he embarked on researching, writing and compiling the first Hindi books on around 30 academic subjects, with contributed material from international and national scholars. These books too won huge publicity and accolades around the subcontinent and were even used as reference by UNESCO in their reports.

Indore state is where Nana sahib earned countrywide respect, but also lost his fortune. My mother tells me that Nana Sahib was an extremely honest and liberal man and his views on religion, marriage, education and relationships were very modern for his time. But his honesty and high standards also made him gullible, resulting in huge losses of wealth. Amongst the many stories I’ve heard, the one I’d wish to ask him about is the time he seems to have contradicted his own belief system.

In 1925, the Bawla Murder Case (aka The Malabar Hill murder case) created a massive stir in the country. A love triangle comprising the Maharaja Tukojirao Holkar III of Indore, his most beloved courtesan Mumtaz Begum and a wealthy businessman Abdul Kadir Bawla, ended up in a royal conspiracy to kidnap the courtesan and murder the businessman by men from the Holkar house. Everyone knew that the king had given the orders and it was a great opportunity for the British to take control of Indore state. With pressures of possible dethronement, the King sought the help of Nana Sahib whose word was held in high regard politically & publicly. Knowing well that the king was indeed guilty, Nana Sahib nonetheless mediated the king’s appeal to political parties and the public. Eventually, his word paid off and the only consequence was a voluntary abdication of the throne to the King’s son Yashwant Rao Holkar II.

One would wonder why a man, so self-righteous and honest would help a man who conspired to kill. My mother and I conjecture that perhaps Nana Sahib was obligated to the Holkar family for its patronage, and returned the favour by protecting the King. As a reward, the Holkars opened up their treasury to Nana Sahib. Overnight, my great grandfather became wealthier than he had ever imagined. Ironically, he got carried away with wrong advice and bad investments, and again overnight he was back to his humble beginnings; only now with additional debts.

While Nana Sahib was still extremely popular and respected, losing money and the debt caused him some embarrassment and he decided to leave Indore and move to Ajmer with his family – his wife and five children – two sons and three daughters. Their home was open to anyone who wanted to learn and study and he would spend a lot of time educating children from the neighborhood. His youngest daughter, Mannu Bhandari (my maternal grandmother) went on to become one of the greatest Hindi authors of our times and his other daughter Sushila Bhandari established  India’s first preschool “Bal Nilaya” in the country, in Lake Gardens, Calcutta (now Kolkata).

My Nana Sahib, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari died of throat cancer at the age of 72 and spare a few copies scattered within the family, and in some libraries around the world, all of his literary works are either lost or were donated and bought by several publications. I am told he had a huge trunk in which he kept all of his works-in-progress and insisted on carrying it with him everywhere, including in his last days to the hospital. It seems that his last works-in-progress was translating the volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica into Hindi.


164 – He donated his personal wealth to save a country in crisis

My grandparents Jagajiban & Kanaka Sahu with their youngest son, Shwetabahan. Bombay, Maharashtra. 1976

My grandparents Jagajiban & Kanaka Sahu with their youngest son, Shwetabahan. Kesinga, Orissa (now Odisha). 1976

Image and text contributed by Samant Sahu, Mumbai

This picture was taken at the Meena Bazaar Photo studio in Kesinga (Orissa) and it has my grandparents Jagajiban and Kanak Sahu with their fourth son Shwetabahan.

My grandfather Jagajiban was from Bagad Kesinga, Kalahandi district in Orissa (now Odisha) and was the eldest in the Sahu family followed by four younger sisters and a brother. Even as a 10th standard high school dropout he somehow managed to get a job as a government teacher and taught mathematics and science to primary school students. He got married at the age of 20 to my grandmother, Kanak. As a young boy, Jagajiban was interested in serving society and was a renowned name in his village Bagad for his contributions towards the development of his fellow villagers.

In 1967, he happened to meet with an Ayurveda physician in the near-by forest. The physician was looking for a herb to prepare a medicine and after few minutes of interaction, Jagajiban discovered that he had written Rasayana Kalpadruma, an ayurvedic book that proposed the ultimate solution for youthfulness. Jagajiban returned home impressed and influenced by the science of Ayurveda. So much so that in 1968 he convinced his wife that he must leave with the physician to Berhempur to learn the art and science of Ayurveda practices. Over time he garnered an in-depth knowledge about Ayurveda and herbs that could cure some of the most dangerous and infectious diseases. In 1971, he returned to his village and began practicing in his village, offering ayurvedic treatments for free. He was famous for treating people with snake & scorpion bites and was believed to cure people just by chanting mantras.

One of the foremost contributions to the country by Jagajiban was when India was in the midst of the Sino-Indian war  in 1962. The papers were abound with news that the government of India had spent much of its money on war and was in deep crisis. Jagajiban decided to do something about it and marched across Kalahandi district to create awareness among the villagers. He asked for their help to save the country resulting in contributions in gold and money from farmers and villagers. He also donated much of his own personal wealth. When the government chose to honour his contributions, he denied it – saying that it was only his duty.

The people of Bagad have now established a botanical garden named the Tengra Garden that is used for research in Ayurveda and is managed by Jagajiban’s son, my father. My grandfather Jagajiban Sahu passed away on February 4, 2016.


161 – The Devadasi who became a Maharani

My maternal grandparents, the Maharaja & Maharani of Devas, my mother, uncle and great grandmother. Bombay. Circa 1931

My maternal grandparents, the Maharaja & Maharani of Dewas, my mother, uncle and great grandmother. Bombay. Circa 1931

Image and text contributed by Cory Walia, Mumbai

This picture is of my mother, the little girl in the center, and her immediate family taken around 1931 or 1932 in a British photo studio in south Bombay [maybe Kalbadevi]. There is no stamp on the photograph so I can’t tell which studio it may have been. My grandfather in this picture brought his family to Bombay specifically for having a series of photographs taken in the studio. He was very fond of studio portraiture and would travel to Bombay often to get his pictures taken.

My grandfather, His Highness Malhar Rao Narayan Rao Puar was a King of a small kingdom in now Madhya Pradesh, near Indore called Dewas. Originally his family were Rajputs who like several of the other Rajput nobility embraced the Maratha/Peshwa fold and began adopting the Maratha language and customs in addition to their Rajput heritage. His family claimed to be descendants of Vikramaditya, the legendary emperor in ancient India. I hope it’s true.

Seated on the extreme right is my maternal great grandmother, a lady called Krishna Rao Salgaocar. She was a commoner and belonged to the erstwhile Devadasi tradition from the Devadasi house of Saligao in Goa. In this photograph, she wears black (or navy blue) because she considered herself to be a widow of the father of her children, who while alive was a leading businessman of that time but refused to accept his children as legitimate – as was usual at the time when it came to relationships or children with Devadasis. The social status of the Devadasis had gradually fallen from tradition of respectability and equality over the centuries.

On the extreme left is her daughter, my grandmother, the lady who partially raised me and inculcated in me the love for art, mythology and cooking. She was born a Devadasi and was named Indira Salgaocar. Devadasis couldn’t take the last name of the men they were with, so they took the name of the house that they belonged to. My great grandmother belonged to the Salgaocar house from Saligao – one of the two villages in Goa who produced some of the most beautiful and most famous of Devadasis. The other village was Mulgao.

My grandfather, the King was an early widower with no children, and so someone in court sent to him my grandmother, a young beautiful woman as a diversion and to keep him company. He found my grandmother to be a beautiful, sprightly, lively, ambitious and a highly intelligent woman. She was immensely attractive to him as a companion. Given that she was a Devadasi’s daughter she was skilled in all sorts of arts, crafts, and cooking – a woman of multiple talents. He fell in love with her head over heels and decided that protocol will be damned. He married her in 1915, and made her his queen, his Maharani. As long as he was alive, no one could question him or say anything, but given that my grandmother was a commoner, the British called it a Morganatic marriage – A marriage of unequal social rank that would prevent the passage of the husband’s titles and privileges to the wife and any children born of the marriage.

When Indira married my grandfather she became Her Highness Prabhavati Raje Puar – a new name that was chosen for her based on her horoscope as per Maratha customs. In front of my grandfather are their two children, my mother Princess Shashiprabha Raje Puar, age 10 and her brother, age 12, my uncle, Prince Martan Rao Malhar Rao Puar.

Two years after this photograph was taken, my grandfather, the king suddenly passed away and my grandmother and her kids were banished from the kingdom of Dewas. The marriage to the king no longer had a place in their society and the throne of the Kingdom of Dewas was succeeded by my grandfather’s step-brother.

My grandmother, the banished Maharani along with her two children and some personal assets moved to Bombay – They first lived in Walkeshwar, then in Gamdevi and lastly in Colaba until the 1980s. For a while, they lived off their personal assets of gold, silver, cars and jewels, but in time all the wealth was spent and the world too had changed. My uncle, the Prince in the photograph served with the British Army until his death at the age of 51. He was a really gentle and a very nice man.

My mother Shashi too grew up to be a beautiful amazing and an amazing woman. She met my father Kanwaljeet Singh also known as Cammii, at a ball dance at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in the 1940s. They fell in love, eloped and got married in a temple in 1942. They had two daughters but soon realized that a temple marriage was not recognized by the court of Indian law and my father had to move the Supreme Court of India to get the law changed and make his marriage legally recognised.

After I was born and my parents got divorced, my mother worked in my school as a nursery teacher, then in a passenger liner as a children’s stewardess. Considering the reality checks in her life, my mother was pragmatic enough to handle her past as a royal princess and her humble life after, with utmost grace.

There have been people who have pointed out the scandalous past of my maternal family and I have shown them the door. I think the women in my family were strong, individualistic and beautiful women who made the best of their lives. Many people in India are embarrassed to talk about their Devadasi origins because society and history don’t look very kindly upon it, but it was their reality – and yes, it was highly exploitative state of affairs. Some of our early singers and actresses in Indian Films came from the Devadasi tradition because they couldn’t afford to be ashamed. They were forward and bold women who decided to earn their own keep. I don’t see the frowning upon as justified, but everyone is entitled to their own point of view. I have fashioned my own life upon not caring about society’s opinions, and it has worked out just fine.

Earlier, when I looked at this photograph I used to feel a sense of lost glory, but now I feel great pride in my ancestry. My grandfather was a good man, a spiritual man and he didn’t care that his wife came from the background of a Devadasi. He was proud and happy to have her as his wife and welcomed his mother-in-law, also a Devadasi, in his palace. Not many people would have the gumption to do that, even today.


151 – “He was and still is, by all means, my hero”

My parents, Tarun Coomar & Indira Bhaduri. Bhopal, Central Province (now Madhya Pradesh). Circa 1940

My parents, Tarun Coomar & Indira Bhaduri. Bhopal, Central Province (now Madhya Pradesh). Circa 1940

Image and Text contributed by Jaya Bachchan, Mumbai

This photograph of my parents Taroon Coomar Bhaduri and Indira Bhaduri is by far one of my most favourite images of all, and while I have asked myself the reason so very many times, I am still not sure why. I had looked at and thought about it so often, that a few years ago my mother simply gave it to me as a gift.

I think this photograph was taken right after their marriage. My mother whom I call Ma was 14 and my father, Baba was 20. One of the most striking parts of this photograph is Ma’s black Georgette saree. I have wondered about that too. Georgette & Chiffons were expensive materials, meant only for the rich. We came from a middle-class income family, and affording Georgette would have been out of the question. But I think Baba had a role to play in that; he was very broad- minded and seemed to have kept in touch with the latest elegant fashions of the time. It must have made him very happy seeing a visionary image of himself and his family, even if the opportunities were far and few.

I also remember another story within the family- when he went to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to buy his sister’s wedding trousseau and insisted that his sister get married in a beautiful white saree. The family was aghast. Hindu women never got married in white, but red. The outcry against tradition was met with no avail, and it was to be his will or nothing. The family later complied and my aunt did get married in a beautiful white Banarsi Saree.

Baba’s family came from Krishnanagar, West Bengal and Ma’s from Danapur, Bihar. I always found it fascinating that he would spell his middle name ‘Kumar’ as ‘Coomar’; perhaps he was armed with the knowledge that he set himself apart with that spelling, which was unheard of and a rather individualistic attitude for the time. Baba’s jobs and associations had us move quite a few times within North India – to Jabalpur, Nagpur, and later Bhopal. In Nagpur, he became Chief Reporter of the Nagpur Times and remained in that position for several years. He eventually received a great offer from The Statesman and relocated as its correspondent to Bhopal in the mid-1960s.

The 60s were also the time when Dacoits (bandits) were a menace in Chambal (confluence of three states Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan) and one of the biggest urban legends of India. As a fiery and resourceful correspondent, Baba’s influence and mannerisms won the confidence of all dacoits in Chambal, with whom he lived for some time documenting their lives and deeds. In the late 60s, he authored a Bengali travelogue/semi-fictional novel based on his experiences titled “Abhishapath Chambal,” (also titled Abar Abhishapta Chambal) which was later translated into English as “Chambal: the Valley of Terror”. The Book and Baba were both an overnight success.

We are three sisters, Rita, Neeta and I, Jaya. I am the eldest. Baba was our best friend; our confidante, our mentor and he understood us very well. He was deeply interested in educating & empowering all his daughters and encouraged all three of us to make our lives more worthwhile, interesting and different from others. He wrote several books, he was a phenomenal journalist & writer and in time his intellect and visionary opinions won him great respect, many friends, and acquaintances in esteemed intellectual and political circles.

Baba’s quest to create great work, his individualistic and unique attitude most certainly had an impact on my own personality. When I was around 13, I remember my sisters and I returned home after watching a popular, run-of-the-mill formula based film and told him about it. He got extremely upset and snapped, “Why do you watch such trash?!”. That remark left an impression on me, and later perhaps even led me to make informed choices in the films I worked on as a female actor.

Around the same time as his remark, Satyajit Ray, the well-known filmmaker was looking for a supporting lead in his film Mahanagar, and offered the role to me. I was only a teenager and unsure whether acting was what I really wanted to do. The recent Sino-India war (Indo-China) of 1962 had changed the landscape of our country yet again and life felt a bit unsettled. Baba’s response to my reluctance was, “This opportunity might never come again.” After some consideration, I decided to try for the part and got it. Baba was very proud of me. When I was due for further education, he agreed to let me study at the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune and the rest as most know is history.

When Baba passed away in 1996, I lost my best friend, and a big part of myself. Needless to say, I am proud to be the daughter of an incredible man who left an impactful legacy to the field of journalism, penmanship and his family. He made me who I am. He was and still is, by all means, my hero.


150 – Wilhelmina and her cookbook from India

My ancestors Joseph and Wilhelmina. South Parade, Bangalore. Circa 1860

My great, great, great grandparents, Joseph and Wilhelmina. South Parade, Bangalore. Circa 1860


Image and Text contributed by Jenny Mallin, Berkshire, England.

“Rai, jeera, huldi..” she would whisper under her breath whilst counting the ingredients on her fingers. Cooking came naturally to my mother, but occasionally she would open the pantry door and out would come a huge ledger book (image link), whereupon she would leaf through the pages until she found the recipe she was looking for. With no title on the cover to distinguish it from the other cookbooks, the only distinctive thing I can recall is that each page was so delicate and fragile that it would snap like a popaddam (indian crisp made of gram flour) and therefore it was out of bounds for us children – this book was just too precious to lose.

When I did manage to get my hands on the book officially, this most unglamorous book with its ochre, faded pages bespattered with sauces and flavours revealed several recipes handwritten in copperplate script by my great, great, great grandmother Wilhelmina dating back to 1850. Turning the pages one could see the handwriting style change over time, and evidence of how over five generations, each one of my grandmothers passed the book on to their next generation, offering us a chance to have a glimpse into a fascinating time in history, “the days of the Raj”, when the Indian subcontinent was under British rule.

My family’s connection to India began six generations earlier in 1775, in Yorkshire, England. My great, great, great, great grandfather Benjamin Hardy, was born into a weaving family in Mirfield, a small but important industrial town with a population of 2000 people. The area was called the Heavy Woollen District of West Yorkshire.
In 1794, Britain declared war on France and a 19-year-old Benjamin Hardy enrolled as Private No. 77 with the newly formed 1st Battalion of the 84th Foot regiment of the British Army. One year later, Benjamin married Frances Sheard in Mirfield and he and his regiment dutifully sailed to the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa).

Sailing to the Indian coastline in 1798, Benjamin and his regiment would stay on in India for the next 25 years with postings in Madras, Bombay, Goa, Kathiawar, and Kutch. There were also detachments sent to the Island of Perim in the Red Sea, Aden and Mauritius where they participated in the capture of the island from the French.

Benjamin’s last posting was to be in Bangalore. His regiment had been stationed there for four years and it seems that he also decided to bring his wife Frances over from England, for in 1816 she bore him a son Joseph (my great, great, great grandfather in the image above). Three years later, Benjamin’s regiment was disbanded and asked to return home to England, but instead Benjamin chose to stay in India and was discharged from the British Army due to ill health. He was only 44 years old and suffering chronic rheumatism.

Benjamin, his wife Frances and young son Joseph, settled down to live the rest of their lives out in India. However, Benjamin passed away four years later, on December 23, 1823 and Frances and her son Joseph continued to live in Bangalore. Joseph became a schoolmaster by profession in Mysore, in 1833, when an English School was opened for the first time in Mysore. At the age of 28, Joseph married Wilhelmina Sausman, in St. Mark’s Church in Bangalore.

Wilhelmina was only sixteen when she got married. She was born in Vellore, Madras on September 12, 1829 and records suggest that she was Anglo-Portuguese because her mother’s name was Louisa Dias, a common Portuguese name used in the Portuguese colonies of Goa and the west coast of India.

This photograph of my great, great, great, grandparents, schoolmaster Joseph and his wife Wilhelmina was taken in the early 1860s (in their mid 30s/early 40s) by studio photographers Orr & Barton, who were based in South Parade, Bangalore. It is the oldest photograph in our family collection.

During their marriage, Wilhelmina gave birth to eight children, but as often was the case those days, only three survived. The others were lost as babies and infants to the widespread pandemic of cholera that had killed around 15 million people by the 1860s. Their three surviving daughters were named Ophelia, Florence and Topsy. Ophelia, their eldest child was born in 1855 and is my great, great grandmother.

Wilhelmina’s notes and my own research suggests that for any memsahib settling in India was an overwhelming, even exciting experience but also thwarted with difficulties. Aside from the unrelenting heat, the major problem was in the hiring of servants, and in finding a cook who would be willing to touch the different meats that wouldn’t conflict with their religious beliefs. A Muslim servant for instance, would not touch pork, nor serve wine, or remove dirty plates from the table or wash them. Hiring a Hindu was also not easy, as they would not handle beef, fish, poultry, eggs or alcohol and the very strict practitioners would also refrain from onions and garlic.

It’s quite possible that Wilhelmina, like hundreds of other European wives and brides followed Mrs. Isabella Beeton ‘s bestselling victorian guide, the Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, as well as another publication that gave detailed instructions to European women on effective household management in India. She must have felt it good sense to write all her recipes in one book which could then be given to the cook to follow and perhaps even improve upon. Her Christmas cake recipe shown here, is also annotated by my grandmothers and cooks after.

Generations after, this ‘more than 150 year old’ recipe book now lies with me, and I ponder over it ever so often with great personal as well as academic interest.

The contributor of this image and narrative is researching Anglo-Indian recipe names & cooking terms, and would appreciate any leads on the subject. She is also due to publish a book on Wilhelmina “A Grandmother’s Legacy – a memoir of five generations who lived through the days of the Raj”.


145 – “The most amusing thing about the movie was that we had no script”

Amitabh and I. On the sets of 'Mr. Natwarlal'. Bombay, Maharashtra. 1979

Amitabh and I. On the sets of ‘Insaniyat’. Bombay, Maharashtra. 1990

 

Image and Text contributed by Tony Juneja, Mumbai

My name is Ramanjit Singh Juneja, however family and friends affectionately call me Tony, and now everyone knows me as Tony Juneja. I was born in 1954 in Patiala, Punjab, and my father worked as a liquor supplier to the Army Canteen stores and Indian Army Troops.

Even as a child I was attracted to cinema. While studying at Bishop Cottons in Simla, Himachal Pradesh, I would passionately read every edition of the ‘Picture Post’, a now forgotten english magazine about hindi films – even during class.

Our family used to own bonded warehouses for liquor in Nagaland, so we would travel and live in the region often. Once we grew up, my elder brother Kushaljeet (known as Tito) took a leap and began producing Assamese Films in Dimapur and Guwahati.  I too, would visit Guwahati often during summer vacations and watch them shoot and so the interest only heightened. I remember in 1972, the film we were shooting was called Mukta (later it received the President’s Award). And I joined my brother as a Production Boy. That was my first job in films. My role was to wake up early in the morning and ensure that the unit travels to the shooting location and then post the shoot, bring them back. Tito, my brother, went on to establish himself as a distributor of Indian motion pictures for the West Bengal territory and I moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) with him.

After a year or so my brother decided to move to Bombay, where all the mainstream movies were being made and I decided to join him. In Bombay, we rented a bunglow in Juhu and would travel everyday to Roop Tara studios in Dadar west, to work.

We got into film production in a full-fledged manner only after working on our first Hindi film, Do Anjane directed by Dulal Guha. Starring Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha, Prem Chopra and Mithun Chakraborty it was made under our banner ‘Navjeevan Films’. At the time Amitabh, Rekha and Mithun were all relatively unknown, but promising actors. Dulal Guha on the other hand was an established star director. The film released in 1976 and it went on to become a major and critical success.

Over time, I got friendly with director Rakesh Kumar whom I had met through Amitabh. Rakesh was already an established director, and Amitabh had recommended that we should work together, so we did. I had co-produced many films before with my brother Tito, but my first film as an independent producer was Mr. Natwarlal in 1979, a movie inspired by the famous con man Mithilesh Kumar Srivastava, better known as Natwarlal. His life inspired several TV dramas and movies after. Starring Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha, Ajit and Amjad Khan the film was mainly shot in Kashmir.

The most amusing thing about making Mr. Natwarlal was that we had no script. We wanted to make a film purely for entertainment, and didn’t think it was wrong to begin shooting without a script in place. All we had were a few sequences that sounded fun and entertaining, and for us it was good enough to begin shooting with. Piece by piece, somehow we managed to knit and complete a script while shooting the film. In those days, emotional attachments and teamwork were far more important to people than scripts and contracts. Scripts were (and are) important, but we all trusted that the script would eventually be in place. And that trust usually paid off.

The film was written by – Kader Khan and Gyan Dev Agnihotri. Kader Bhai too had just begun his career in films. The music was composed by Rajesh Roshan and the lyrics were penned by Anand Bakshi. Everyday we would shoot from 7 am to 9 am R K studios in Chembur and Mohan studios in Andheri. Amitabh and Rekha would come daily to shoot for two hours, for a month and our film was finished in time.

The highlight of the film was the song ‘Mere paas aao mere doston ek kissa suno’, the first playback song ever sung by Amitabh Bachchan. It was Anand Bakshi who recommended we ask Amitabh to sing, as it would suit his character and the situation. Moreover, an actor singing his own song had not been done in a long while. It took a bit of persuasion, but once Amitabh understood why we need him to sing the song, he gracefully accepted. The recording took very little time because Amitabh came very well prepared and delivered a beautifully sung song. None of us had expected it to be that good. He indeed is a sincere professional and, a genuine artist.

The most challenging thing about the movie was transporting the large number of animals we needed for the shoot in Srinagar, Kashmir. The Tigers came from Madras (now Chennai), the Snakes from Delhi and the Horses from Bombay, and the funniest thing that happened during shoot was that a horse bit me! When I tell people that, no one believes me.

Prior to its release, when the distributors watched Mr. Natwarlal, they felt very disappointed and claimed that there was no story and that the film will not run. Reluctantly they went along and released the film, and were proven wrong, because the film as we all know, went on to become a box office success.

In the 1980s, I also began to assist director Vijay Anand, fondly called Goldie. I was the head of Production for Ram Balram, and later became the co-producer on the film. My job was to literally wake him up in the morning, take him to the shoot and then bring him back, and often even put him to sleep. I thought of him to be a very cool man. He was known for his excellent framing and song picturisation. He was an excellent technician.

When I directed Mr. Bachchan in Insaniyat, I must have been around 30 and I was the youngest director to have directed Mr Bachchan. The film began production in 1989 and was originally set for release in 1991. But when two of the film’s stars Vinod Mehra and Nutan passed away, the schedules went haywire, and the release was delayed until 1994. It was the last released film of Amitabh Bachchan who then temporarily retired from films in 1992 after a near-fatal accident. It was tough time for many of us in the industry.

Some of the films we made were Do Anjane, Mr. Natwarlal, Unnees Bees, Ram Balram, Ek Aur Sikander, Teri Kasam, Johny I Love You, Aasman, Babu, Abhimanyu, Ithihas, Ram Tera Desh, Insaniyat, Out of Control. And I cannot complain. I have had a really worthwhile and wonderful time as a film professional.

The best memories I have come from my children, my two sons Rohan and Gaurav, who are twins. The days and years I remember most fondly are when I would take them to Otters Club in Bandra and watch them play Squash. They were both excellent players, and have won many prestigious tournaments. My wife Meenu (real name Jasmine) is my life mate, soul mate and an excellent travel mate. We have travelled a lot together. I love my family as I love my God. When my grand children grow up, and if they were to ever want to watch any of my films, I would wish that they watch Mr. Natwarlal. Maybe even with me. It was truly a fun film and especially for children.


143 – Celebrating the end of war at the Great Eastern Hotel, Calcutta

My grandparents, mother and her boyfriend. The Great Eastern Hotel. Calcutta, West Bengal. 1946

My grandparents, mother, and her then boyfriend. The Great Eastern Hotel. Calcutta, West Bengal. 1946

Image and Text contributed by Jonathan Charles Cracknell, London, UK

Just as India was heading towards Independence in 1947, people were celebrating the End of the World War II and this picture was photographed at New years Eve in the real capital of British India, Calcutta (West Bengal). My maternal grandfather, Peter sits here with a fez on his head, and next to him is my grandmother Anna. She was of mixed heritage –  of Kashmiri and German Jewish descent. Sitting next to her is my mother and her then boyfriend, a British soldier, on leave from his posting in Malaya (now Malaysia). It was earlier in the same year that the British Military Administration in Malaya had been replaced by its own, the Malayan union.

The hotel, then known as the Great Eastern Hotel where this image was taken is now called the Lalit Great Eastern Hotel. An extremely popular place, the colonial era hotel was originally established as a confectionary shop and then grew into a grand and plush hotel in the early 1840s, a time when Calcutta was the top seat of the East India Company. The hotel had a 100 rooms, and claimed to be second oldest of the British Empire and India’s first luxury hotel. It was also well known for its extravagant and delicious french cuisine, and served snacks and a whisky peg or two, similar to a drive-by service, to horse drawn carriages. Referred to as “the Jewel of the East” and the “Savoy of the East” in its heyday, Great Eastern Hotel hosted several notable persons visiting the city including I am told, Queen Elizabeth II, the well-known author Mark Twain & musician Dave Brubeck. The hotel’s repute and value declined later during the Naxalite Era of West Bengal and was only recently reopened, now as a heritage property, by its new owners in 2013.

My mother’s father was worked with the Railways in Lahore (now in Pakistan) to which they would return to face the horrors of Indo/Pak Partition. But for the time being that seemed a long way off. This was the “New” India everyone was celebrating, not the Victorian dream of the memsahibs. A new comprehension and understanding of Indian culture and the world, was in the making, and this time, it was to be without the tired old prejudices of yesteryear. It was a time of great optimism and home and even back home in the UK people imagined a new world of equality, which would be reflected in the British election soon to come, when Winston Churchill was defeated by a Labour majority.

My father Aubrey Cracknell, too was brought up in Lahore. His father Charles Edwin Cracknell was a  soldier in the British Army. After the Boer War ended in the early 20th century, he was shipped out to the Indian subcontinent, to Rawalpindi (now Pakistan) on the North West Frontier. It was here that Charles, my grandfather, met and married my grandmother, several years younger to him,  and they had a son, Aubrey, my father, in the Cantonments.

When my father was only eight years old, Charles, my grandfather was wounded on a train from Peshawar, the city of the Frontier (Pak-Afghan Border) to Jalalabad (eastern Afghanistan). Hit by an Afghan sniper and wounded in the lung, he was hospitalised in Rawalpindi but died of pneumonia and other complications. He is now buried in the British cemetery in Rawalpindi which lies neglected and all the graves have fallen to ruin. My Grandmother left the cantonments and moved to Lahore where my father grew up.

 


141 – Portrait of a debutante

Monica-1925-Sepia_low

My maternal grandmother, Monica Guha (née Roy Chowdhury). Calcutta, West Bengal. 1925

Image and Text contributed by Aparna Datta, Bangalore

This is a picture of my maternal grandmother, Monica Guha, (née Roy Chowdhury). The photograph was recently gifted to me by my aunt, my mother’s first-cousin. My aunt had found this classic studio portrait, complete with potted plants and painted canvas backdrop, amongst a collection of photographs belonging to her late father, Monica’s brother.

On the reverse of the photograph is a rubber stamp with a date ‘3.11.25’, with ink that hasn’t yet faded. The photograph had been taken at Dass Studio, P 21/A Russa Road North, Calcutta. The rubber stamp stated “Copy can be obtain at any time. Please quote the number.” Endearingly, there is also a name “Monu”, her family nick name, hand-written in Bengali.

While looking at the photograph I noticed she wore no bindi and no sindoor – symbols that a married woman would wear. Laden with jewellery, top to bottom, this simply had to be a rite-of-passage ‘portrait of a debutante’, a matrimonial image, intended to be shown to prospective grooms and their families. As a time-honoured ritual in arranged marriages, the significance of such a photograph, as a cultural artefact, was inescapable. 

I call this picture the ‘Barefoot Princess’.

The picture and the date-stamp had a rabbit-hole effect on me, drawing me in, coaxing me to contextualise the image. My mother had passed away, so I dredged the recesses of my mind, trying to recall bits of family history she had shared with me over the years. I spent weeks tracking down near and distant relatives all over India, picking up strands to weave into a narrative.

Monica was born in July of 1912, at Lucknow, United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh). Her father, Nirupam Roy Chowdhury, was the son of the Zamindar of Ghalghallia, Taki, located in the North 24 Parganas, a District of West Bengal. Taki is a town on the banks of the Ichhamati River, that borders Bangladesh. The Roy Chowdhurys were descendants of Raja Basanta Roy of Jessore, uncle of Raja Pratapaditya, one of the twelve ‘bhuiyans‘ or enlightened chieftains who ruled the Sultanate of Bengal (1336–1576 C.E.). Raja Pratapaditya had fought against the Mughal imperial army during its attempts to make inroads into Bengal in the early 16th century. By 1574 he had declared his independence from the Mughals and established an independent Hindu state in Bengal.

Nirupam Roy Chowdhury was a civil engineer and served with the Government of the then undivided Bengal. His postings took him all over the province.

 Monica’s mother was Kanak Lata, daughter of Rai Bahadur Dr. Mohendra Nath Ohdedar, the first Indian Civil Surgeon of the United Provinces.

During early 20th century (and for some, even until now), it was customary for women to go to their mamabari (mother’s home) to give birth, and so all Kanak Lata’s ten children – six sons and four daughters, were born in Lucknow, at the home of their maternal grandfather.

As the eldest girl, Monica was destined for an early marriage. Education would have certainly featured in her life, however I am not so sure if they formally attended school or were home schooled, and much of their young lives were spent travelling between their paternal and maternal grandparents’ homes.

Indeed, at the age of 13, in 1926, just months after this photograph sitting, Monica did find a suitable husband, a doctor, Dr. Ajit Kumar Guha. She along with her husband (my grandfather) moved to her husband’s and in-laws’ home at Motihari, Bihar. Soon after, my mother was born in 1929, the eldest of five children, four daughters and one son. Monica and Dr. Ajit and the whole family moved to Patna around 1935 and settled there.

Monica, my grandmother’s life was serene and was spent as an efficient home maker. She passed away peacefully in January 1993, in the same house where she ran her own world, her sansar and where she had lived for 58 years.  The grace and poise I see in the portrait characterised her all her life.


137 – The only valuable he saved while fleeing to India in 1947

My father, Anand Prakash Bakshi as a child with his parents. Rawalpindi. (now Pakistan). Circa 1930

My father, Anand Prakash Bakshi as a child with his parents. Rawalpindi. (now Pakistan). Circa 1935

Image and Text contributed by Rakesh Anand Bakshi, Mumbai

On October 2, 1947, during partition, my father Anand Bakshi’s family was informed that within an hour or two their Mohalla- Qutabdeen in Chityian Hattian, Rawalpindi (now Pakistan) was going to be attacked by rioters and marauders belonging to another community. My father Anand, then 17 years old, his grandparents, father, step mother & step siblings, had only minutes to grab whatever money, clothes, personal effects, they could possibly carry with them. Hundreds of others and they fled from their homes, overnight. From Rawalpindi, the family travelled to Delhi via a small Dakota Air plane, (the plane was a bonus, because my great grandfather was at the time, the Superintendent of Police of Punjab Prisons in Rawalpindi.)

When the overnight displaced family reached Delhi in India, homeless and with only few valuables on them, my grandfather took stock of what everyone had managed to carry across the border. Upon seeing what my father had carried, in those moments of life threatening crisis, my grandfather was livid. Angrily he asked my father – ‘Why did you not carry valuables!? What useless things have you carried with you? How can we survive without our valuables? You should have carried some valuables!’  My father had carried what he had thought were valuables, a few family photographs; and particularly those of his mother.
He had lost his mother, Sumitra Bali, when he around 9 years old due to pregnancy related complications. On being yelled at, my father said to my grandfather – “Money we can earn when we find work, but if these photos of her were lost, no amount of money could ever bring them back for me. Pictures of her are all I have to live with, my entire life!”

The photograph above is one from the few my father had managed to save. This framed photograph found a place of immense pride on our home walls, in every house we shifted to and however big and fancy the houses got over the years with my father’s growing success.

At the time my father’s family fled, he had been serving the Royal Indian Navy for nearly three years, since the age of 14, as rank ‘Boy 1’ and he was registered as Anand Prakash. He served on board the ships H.M.I.S. Dilawar and H.M.I.S. Bahadur until 1946 and was dismissed from the Royal Indian Navy because of his participation in the revolt that took place at Karachi port against the British Empire. Post India and Pakistan partition, he joined the Indian army Corps of Signals, rank ‘Signal Man’, at Jubbulpore (now Jabalpur) and served for nearly six years.

On March 25, 1950 a poem of his was published in the Army publication ‘Sainik Samachar’. A published poem gave him the confidence to try his luck as a lyrics writer in Hindi films. After he qualified as a Switch Board Operator Class II, he resigned from the Army in April 1950, and traveled to Bombay in quest of his dreams. But with no breaks or opportunities forthcoming, he ran out of money. He returned to the army and enlisted with the E.M.E. – (The Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers), in February 1951, with the rank of “Ex-Boy”, and this time he registered as Anand Prakash Bakhshi. He qualified as “Electrician Class III” based at Jubbulpore and Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. In 1954, he got married to my mother, Kamla.

But yet again, after serving a total of seven years in the army, he took a voluntary discharge in 1956 and returned to Bombay, this time armed with 60 poems to find work. He also qualified himself as a motor vehicle driver as his ‘Plan B’ in case he didn’t succeed in finding a job as a song writer; he could always drive a taxi or work as a motor mechanic. History repeated itself, and within a few months in 1956, he ran out of money again and lost hope of ever making it as a song writer and despite the Plan B, he instead decided to return to his army job.

While sitting at the platform of Marine Lines station to take the train back home, a ticket inspector named Chitramal Swaroop caught my father without a valid ticket and asked him to pay a fine. My father had no money. Chitramal then asked him if he had eaten, bought him some food and asked him what he is doing in Bombay. My father told him of all that had happened and that he had lost all hope of becoming a lyrics writer and had decided to return to his army job, and his wife. A patient Chitramal then asked Anand to narrate a few of his poems. After hearing his works, an impressed Chitramal picked up my father’s tin suitcase and told him to follow him home. He led him to his Western Railway Quarters at Borivali, and allowed him to live there a few weeks until he found work. With only a few poems that he had heard, Chitramal had come to believe, and rightly so, that my father Anand was an exceptionally talented man.

Weeks became years and my father lived at Chitramal’s house at Borivali for nearly three years. Chitramal would even give him a pocket money of Rs. Two to eat and travel daily to meet producers and directors for work. I believe, my father Anand had two mothers, one who gave him birth, Sumitra Bali, and the other was Chitramal Swaroop; had he not stopped Anand Bakshi that day at Marine Lines station from returning to the army, the world of hindi cinema may never have discovered his poetry and lyrics.

By the end of 1956 he got his first break in a hindi film by Bhagwan Dada, a well known actor and film director. My father while sitting outside his office, overheard that a lyricist had not turned up, causing much stress to Dada. So my father walk into his office and told him he was a song writer, and he was immediately put on the job. But my father only got established by 1964, when the film Jab Jab Phool Khile became a huge hit. The songs were hugely popular across demographics and across the nation. After that, he found another big success with Milan in 1967; post that, he never lacked work until he lived. He wrote for the top most film producers and directors, several times for two generations of actors, producers and directors, until he passed away on March 30, 2002. He had by then written nearly 3300 Hindi song lyrics, for nearly 630 films. Some of his top songs, like the exceptionally famous “Dum Maro Dum” found cult status, and have been remixed and sampled by many other contemporary artists.

Looking at his work I am sure that the loss of and longing for his mother inspired him to write incredibly amazing and emotional lyrics. At least that is what he told us when he would get nostalgic and emotional, which was very often.  Sometimes I even wonder what made my father survive the loss of his mother, the loss of his land of birth, youth, and an impoverished life because of partition for nearly two decades. The secret may lie in what he always said – “There is something inside of me superior to my circumstances, stronger than every situation of life.”

The contributor is now writing a biography about his father. 


136 – The Motiwalas of Bombay

My aunts Zehra, Zainab and mother, Rubab Bombay. Circa 1946

My aunts Zehra, Zainab and mother, Rubab. Bombay. Circa 1946

Image and Text contributed by Fawzan Husain, Mumbai

This picture was taken at my grandfather’s home, on the occasion of my aunt Zainab’s pre wedding ceremony. She was about to be married to a fireworks merchant. Zehra, was my mother Rubab and Zenab’s half sister.

My maternal grandfather Abdul Husain Motiwala, a Pearl Merchant, belonged to the Bohra Shia Community in Saurashtra (now Gujarat State). At the time, during the early 20th century, Saurasthra’s coast line had been a rich hub for pearl hunting, and trade was in the community’s blood. The word Bohra itself comes from the Gujarati word vehru (“trade”). As most merchants and families began to adopt and attach last names after the products they traded in, my grandfather’s name Motiwala too, literally translates as “Pearl Man”.
As a teenager, he decided to go to Bombay with Rs. 5 in hand, and landed up at the shop that dealt with pearls, for a job. Soon he grew in stature and bought the same establishment that he worked for. He turned the business around, made it hugely profitable and became one of the top businessmen of the community.

My grandfather was a liberal man and was inclined towards reformism. After the death of his first wife at a rather young age, and a young son to care for, he decided to marry Fatema, a young widow and mother to a daughter Zehra, from her own previous marriage. The Bohra community was hugely upset and wondered aloud as to ‘why this very rich and eligible man needed to marry a widow with a child, when there were so many other eligible proposals from the community.’

My grandfather Abdul Husain and Fatema, my grandmother, had three children together. With three daughters and two sons, it became a family of seven. Zehra and Zainab for some reason never got educated, while my mother and her brother studied up to 10th grade college. All the sisters got along very well. Two of whom were so close, that later while my father could afford a bigger house in Bombay, my mother insisted instead that we live next to my aunt Zenab’s house in a chawl (inexpensive community housing) near Bombay Central.

My grandfather Abdul Husain Motiwala was the first man in our community to own an American Kaiser car. He was so well respected that he was given the title of “Patel”. A surname that was used primarily by Hindus whose ancestors were traditionally landlords and owners, I suppose it had come to mean “Respected man”. People would shout from the streets as his car passed by- “Patel Saheb’s car has come!

While Abdul Husain was one of the best businessmen around, he was keenly aware of his own hardworking background. He had great respect for the dignity of labour and had no sense of class discrimination. He, for instance did not go easy on his own son Kamruddin, and ensured that he worked very hard to earn his keep. Another instance was, when a proposal for Zehra came from a man in the community who had walked away from his own family business. With problems at home, he had decided to begin life on his own terms and became a taxi driver. My grandfather agreed to the proposal, perhaps because he knew his to be son-in-law to be a dignified & hardworking man. He helped him out with good advise and offered him loans to build a fleet of taxis in Bombay. The advise was taken but the money wasn’t, proving my grandfather right.

My mother Rubab or as she was fondly called Ruby, was the youngest and the most adored. So much so, that she like many of the youngest members in families enjoyed several liberties. Being exceptionally intrigued with photography, she would dress up in different attires & accessories and get herself photographed regularly by a photographer called Ahmed Zardi in the near-by photo studio called Dayzars.

My father Ahmed, a photographer, and my mother Ruby, the photographed, fell in love over pictures, and my grandfather accepted the relationship with great ease. My father became a regular visitor at my mother’s home and would take our family pictures ever so often, even before they got married. It was the first love marriage in our family.

Dayzars was a Photography studio in Bombay Central and was named after its two partners – Dayabhai from Rajasthan and my father Ahmed Zardi.  They worked together for 32 years. As far as I know, it was uncommon for a Hindu and a Muslim to have such a great and long partnership. But when Dayabhai’s eyes began to fail him, he decided to leave Bombay and return home. My father and Dayabhai’s son tried to work together but a generational gap of ideas led him to relieve himself of the business and Studio Dayzars was sold. I was an only child and would frequent my father’s studio. I learnt how to handle cameras, developed film and made prints. The magic of the dark room was an incredible experience. However, I was absolutely not interested in studio photography and so I studied journalism and became an editorial photographer.


132 – A Subhas Chandra Bose loyalist who refused the Indian freedom fighter’s pension

My father, P. Devrajan’s identity card, issued to him by the Japanese army in Singapore as a member of the Indian National Army [INA] (top). His identity and oath card issued to him by the Azad Hind Sangh (India Independence League). Singapore. Circa 1942

My father, P. Devrajan’s identity card, issued to him by the Japanese army in Singapore as a member of the Indian National Army [INA] (top). His oath and loyalty card issued to him by the Azad Hind Sangh (India Independence League). Singapore. Circa 1942

Images & Text contributed by Ranjit Devraj, New Delhi

My father, P. Devarajan was very young, maybe around 16 or 17 years old went he went to meet his uncle in Singapore from Kerala. Singapore was, at the time, a major British military base in South-East Asia and was nicknamed the “Gibraltar of the East”.

During British Reign, many Indians and especially from the south of India, had migrated to Singapore, and surrounding countries. If they were illiterate they worked in Rubber plantations and if literate they could do clerical jobs, or even find higher positions as doctors and engineers.

At the time he was planning to return to his state Kerala, the Japanese army attacked the british Base in Singapore in 1941 (Battle of Singapore) and he with all borders shut down, was stuck. However, in retrospect he made good use of his time. I am not sure how he decided to enrol himself into the INA, the Indian National Army, that was run under the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose, but he most likely met and was heavily influenced by freedom fighters and the strong belief in fighting for the Independence of India, a movement that catching fire in Singapore. While in the INA (as allies to the Japanese army), my father then fought alongside with the Japanese to defeat the British. The British lost the Battle of Singapore and surrendered to Japan. Though, ironically, when the war ended, Singapore reverted to British control because of the increasing grants of Self Controlled governance.

One could say that Imperial Japan was the first country that formally initiated a huge battle against the ‘white man’s’ supremacy, an event that encouraged and inspired millions of Indians and citizens from African countries trying to do the same. Japan was also one of nine countries that had forged a great relationship with Subhas Chandra Bose and supported the Azad Hind Sangh, the Indian provisional Government for a Free India.

My father was strongly inspired and encouraged by Bose’s philosophies and beliefs. He was also well acquainted with Captain Lakshmi Sehgal who as one of first strong female personalities in INA, played a very influential role in fighting for independence. The INA after all was at the forefront of women’s empowerment and equality.

The oath card (bottom) that you see was a card issued by the Azad Hind Sangh and as a first-of-a kind experiment offered Indian Citizenships to South Asian Indians living in other countries in exchange of this sign-up of loyalty, because to Bose, India’s people were more important than just re-claiming territory. Hundreds of thousands signed on and it was to become an important part of several efforts made by Bose to help him achieve legitimacy than just formal recognition of the Azad Hind Sangh. Ironically, the same cards were then used against INA in the Red fort trial as evidence of war and treason waged by Azad Hind.

[Translation of Oath card]

I, the member of the Azad Hind Sangh (India Independence League), do hereby solemnly promise, in the name of god and take this holy oath that I will be absolutely loyal and faithful to the provisional government of Azad Hind, and shall always be prepared of any sacrifice for the cause of freedom of our motherland, under the leadership of Subas Chandra Bose.

Though eligible, my father, earlier a British Singaporean citizen, refused to accept a UK citizenship, a job at the War office in London offered by the British, and then later even an Indian freedom fighter’s pension or benefits, stating diplomatically, that it was honour enough to have been able to strike a blow for Independence. For all his life, my father remained a staunch admirer of Bose. He was later conferred an Indian Citizenship, and died an Indian Citizen in 2009.

 


129 – The Opening of Gaffar Market, Delhi

Celebrating the opening of Gaffar Market. Delhi. 1962

Celebrating the opening of Gaffar Market. Delhi. 1962

Image and Text contributed by Satish Wadhwa, New Delhi

This photograph was taken by my father Jiwan Das, a photographer in Delhi, at the opening of the sparkling new Gaffar Market.

My father Jiwan Das was born in 1899 in Lyallpur (now New Faisalabad in Pakistan). I am not sure how he got into the photography business but by 1914 he had opened a photography and a watch repair shop. And so he was a photographer as well as a watch smith. At that time most Photo and Watch repair shops shops were combined businesses. His image based work comprised of photographing portraits of British officers, law makers and group photographs from Lahore College and Camp College. He was also an expert hand colourist of photographs.

By early 1948, with Ind0-Pakistan partition showing its terrifying face, my father Jiwan Das and his family (wife and children) migrated to Haridwar in India and I was born. When I was about two months old, my father decided to move to Delhi and he opened a Photography shop on 2878, Hardhyan Singh Road in Karol Bagh (Originally called Qarol Gardens). The shop was named Jiwan Das and Sons, Photographers and Dealers (see image). The photography business dealt with portraits, group and family photographs and with the dealership we represented photo papers of Kodak and Agfa. As we grew up, my two elder brothers and I helped with running the business – taking photographs and developing them in the dark room behind the counter. For years we continued the run the photo business along with our new ventures, but the shop saw its last days in year 2000. Nonetheless, for now, instead of selling it, we have decided to keep it.

In 1962, the opening of the Gaffar (Ghaffar) Market, (a market allotted to refugee traders and business men from Partitioned Pakistan) was celebrated with much fanfare. The procession had Horsemen, Drum rolls, dancing and music. My father must have run across the road from his shop, to a shop terrace, to take this photograph.

The market, named after a well known freedom combatant Ghaffar Khan, went on to become one of the most famous landmarks of Delhi. At one time it was a single storeyed market. It sold jewellery, crockery, garments and important wares for the home. People flocked to Gaffar to buy their goods. Today the market is also best known for selling the latest technology (imitated or as real brands) like mobile phones, electronics & PC computers at wholesale prices.

 


122 – “My family made the pen that wrote the Constitution of India”

My grandfather, Dwarkadas Jivanlal Sanghvi (Stands extreme right in a Black Coat) with his brother Vallabhdas Jivanlal Sanghvi and business partners, at a Pen Exhibition in Bombay. Circa1951

My grandfather, Dwarkadas Jivanlal Sanghvi (extreme right in a Black Coat) with his brother Vallabhdas Jivanlal Sanghvi and business partners. Bombay. Circa 1951

Image & Text contributed by Purvi Sanghvi, Mumbai

This picture is of my grandfather Dwarkadas Jivanlal Sanghvi and his brother Vallabhdas Jivanlal Sanghvi with their business partners at a Pen Exhibition in Bombay around 1951.

My paternal grandfather Dwarkadas Jivanlal Sanghvi was born in Rajula, in Gujarat on September 17, 1913 into an impoverished family. He was around the age of eight when his father died and because his mother Amrutben could not afford to bring him up, he was sent to a Balashram (Children’s home). He only managed to study up until 4th standard. At the age of 13 he went to Rangoon, Burma to join his elder brother, Vallabhdas Jivanlal Sanghvi who had moved there to work at a general store which sold cutlery and kitchen ware. As a young teenager, my grandfather would earn little money babysitting children in Rangoon.

Soon the enterprising brothers began buying fountain pens from traders and selling them on the pavements of Rangoon, making tiny profits. Meanwhile the entire family (their mother & sisters) also moved to Rangoon including the new wife my grandfather, at the age of 23 had travelled back to Gujarat to marry.

My father was born in 1939 in Rangoon, but then the World war II broke out, In 1941 the family chose to move to Calcutta (now Kolkata) where my grandfather Dwarkadas founded a whole sale trading company called Kiron & Co, named after my father whose name was Kiran (with an A), but when a Bengali sign painter instead spelt it as Kiron (with an O), with no time for corrections, the name stayed as painted. Both the company’s & my father’s.

The Brothers soon realized that good business beckoned them back to western India and they moved to Valsad, Gujarat and then to Bombay. In Bombay, Dwarkadas & his brother Vallabhdas invested in and installed a lathe machine in a small shed at Kasturchand Mill compound in Dadar west and began manufacturing most of the Pen parts by themselves. I think Dhiraj Manufacturing was my grand-uncle Vallabhdas’s venture but both companies traded in Wilson as well.

In the beginning, the Nibs were imported from USA, under the brand names of Sita & Sity. However, as an error the supplier sent them a box of Nibs called Wilson instead. The war was a huge obstacle to sending the consignment back so they had no choice but to start making the pens with the un-returnable nibs. With the entire pen rebranded as Wilson, the pen sold far better than they expected and yet again another mistaken name was retained.

By the mid 1940s the business grew and they had begun manufacturing all pens from scratch. The Manufacturing units moved to Andheri East and to Chakala. And they also introduced other brands such as the President. With almost a 1200 people as staff, there were people from almost all communities working together; A lot of women were hired for the first time. While the machines were worked by men, all the assembling of the pen was done entirely by women. Their daily salary at the time was around Rs. 3 to 4 per day. Meanwhile my grandfather taught himself to read, write and speak in English at the age of 42, because he understood that knowing English was important for modern businesses to grow.

Wilson Pens quickly rose to huge fame and became a preferred choice of pens across the country. All government offices, law court, used the Wilson pens. In School too, the teachers would ask us for Wilson Pens as gifts. Chippi chawl was the wholesale office that was visited by salesmen from all over the country who came to negotiate and buy pens and other Wilson stationery. Soon the pens were also being exported to several countries.

In 1961-62 a huge union strike set up the family businesses for hard times. The pressures were hard to handle and so the Brothers split their business by picking chits (draw of luck) of the businesses they would run. Vallabdas got President Pens and my grandfather got Wilson along with the Refill plant (an Italian collaboration) that came into my grandfather and his sons share.

For some time the businesses ran as smoothly as they could. Both the brothers’ children set up their own units and began manufacturing all kinds of pens. We made Refills, Ball pens, VV pens, Jotters, Jumbos. Several of the new designs were also imitated by new and upcoming businesses.

Another violent and strife-full union strike in the early 1980’s organized by the infamous trade union leader Dutta Samant (lasted for approx. ten months) closed down our businesses for a while (including several others’ in Bombay), but it was the last and the third strike in 1998 that broke our businesses completely apart and my grandfather & father had no choice but to shut everything down yet again. So hard was the last fall that my father and grandfather just could not find in themselves the courage to start all over again.

Towards the end of his life, Dwarkadas spent most of his time at home. He had since long harboured deep regrets about not being very educated and hence at his voluntary retirement he donated a lot of money for education. He founded and funded almost four to five educational institutions. DJ Sanghvi Engineering College, in Ville Parle (Mumbai), Amrutben Jivanlal College of Commerce (earlier a part of Mithibhai College) also in Mumbai, Jivanlal Anandji High school in Rajula, Gujarat and another school nearby in Amreli District.

In 2002, the Pioneer of Pens in India, my grandfather Dwarkadas passed away.

Of the several interesting family stories about Wilson, one in particular that makes me most proud is when I learnt that we the Wilson Pen Family, made the orange, thick-nibbed pen that wrote the most fundamental document that defines the state of India: The constitution of India written by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. It was later confirmed via several sources. I am very sure it made my grandfather very very happy and immensely proud too.

 


118 – The only non-white students of the batch

Grandfather_Low

My grandfather, Dr. Preetam Pal Singh (seated) with his college mates at the King Edward Medical College. Lahore (Now Pakistan) Circa 1933

Image & Text contributed by Sarah J. Kazi, London

This photograph of my grandfather with his college mates was taken in 1933/1934 at the King Edward Medical College in Lahore (now Pakistan). He was around 25 years old at the time and he and the others in this picture were the only non-white students of their batch.

My grandfather, Dr. Preetam Pal Singh was born in 1908 at Gujar Khan, Rawalpindi District (now in Pakistan) and served as a doctor in the British Army. He was posted at Manora Island Cantonment, near Karachi when partition of India took place in 1947.

My great grandmother, grandfather, his wife, and two aunts boarded the train to Firozpur (Indian Punjab) and later reached Faridkot, where he and the family stayed for three nights at the railway platform before the Maharaja of Faridkot employed my grandfather as his personal physician. My grandfather was allotted an official house, and my father was born in 1950. This huge house in red  (called the Laal Kothi) still exists and was recently visited by my father.

Later in 1957 my grandfather specialized in Radiology from the King George Medical College in Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh). In the 1960s, the whole family moved and settled down in Patiala, Punjab and I have fond memories of visiting the city to meet my grandparents. My grandfather passed away in 2003, at the ripe old age of 94.


117 – The man who nabbed two conspirators of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination

My Grandfather, 1975. Bombay, Maharashtra.

My Grandfather, Bhalchandra Ambadas Haldipur. 1975. Bombay, Maharashtra.

Image & Text contributed by Amrita G. Haldipur

His name was Bhalchandra Ambadas Haldipur. He was my grandfather and we fondly called him ‘Daddy’. In this photograph he was being awarded the President’s Police & Fire Service Medal, highest achievement award for a police officer in that year.

Bhalchandra Ambadas Haldipur or Daddy was the only person I have ever been scared of. And that fear came from the immense respect I had for him and for the school of discipline he belonged to. I was all of 10 years old when Daddy passed away in 1992. But he left behind a few things which were to influence me for the rest of my life. Deep-rooted values and beliefs, a memory of his charming personality and the aura he impressed everyone one with, be it family or friends, his tongue-in-cheek humour in the most difficult times, and his last words to me.

My grandfather, Bhalchandra Ambadas Haldipur joined the Bombay City Police in 1939 as Sub-inspector , Thoroughly “clean” and incorruptible, he was known for his tireless and thorough investigations, and fearless drive against crime during his hectic career spanning 36 years in the Police Force. Whether working in the Crime Branch or Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), he remained a courageous, fearless crime-fighter who led his men from the front.

My grandmother has always had interesting tales to tell us about the way he worked and one of my favourite anecdotes is the the story of him Capturing two conspirators of Mahatma Gandhi’s assasinationNarayan Apte and Vishnu Karkare in 1948. What set him apart in his investigation procedures was a set of sketches he drew during his chase and trial of the killers.

Sifting through the album with yellowing sheets of these sketches, my grandmother said –

Daddy was part of the special cell to trace Gandhiji’s assassins. A team set out to scour the country for the absconders soon after January 30, 1948. And he was asked to track Apte and Karkare, two co-conspirators of Nathuram Godse in the assassination. He was posted in the Red Fort, Delhi during the entire trial period. For his records, he drew portrait sketches of whomsoever he met – be it the then DSP of Delhi , a sub-inspector at Gwalior, a tailor from Pune or an IAF official. During the chase, for weeks he did not come home, and we never knew where he was. You are lucky to live in the age of mobile phones. I wish I had some such help to avoid sleepless nights wondering where and how he was. He survived on eating raw eggs and followed leads on the two assassins from Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh to Ahmednagar (their hometown), in Maharashtra. During daylight he would go hunting and chasing leads on both with guns and at nights, he sketched with pencil, portraits of those he had met or interrogated. The day Apte and Karkare checked into Pyrkes Apollo Hotel near Regal Cinema in South Bombay under assumed names, Daddy finally nabbed them after waiting there for them for seven hours.

Daddy became a key official in the Justice Kapur Commission set up by the Govt. Of India to investigate the various events that led to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. During the completion of 150 years of Mumbai Police Commissionerate, he was declared as one of the most important Police Officers from the Bombay Police division to have significantly contributed to the country in the immediate post-independence era. But he never discussed his work at home or spoke about his achievements and never let anyone promote him either. All he said was, “I am working for the public and not for publicity.”

Daddy was also so much more than a great police officer. He was a body builder and a Pole Vault Gold medalist at the National Olympics in 1940. A multi-linguist, he had passed three examinations in Urdu while in service. He also initiated the Annual Ganesh Chathurthi festival at Santacruz Police Station in Bombay. After he retired in 1975 as the Deputy Commissioner of the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) he was one of the founder members of the Senior Citizens’ Club of Bombay. He was a music and instrument buff, a loving husband, father and grandfather.

If I had a time machine, I would have had only one wish – more time with Daddy but I’m also glad that I have no such privilege because he would have only been disheartened to live and watch the country today, rotting with corruption and indiscipline.
I have been wanting to share my grandfather’s story for a long time now. He always makes my heart swell with pride and brings the widest smile. He is the hero, my Idol.

 


116 – Rukmini, a princess, a great artist & the great grand-daughter of Raja Ravi Varma

Rukmani Varma with Lord Mountbatten. India House, London, UK. 1976

Rukmini Varma with Lord Mountbatten. India House, London, UK. 1976

Image contributed by Rukmini Varma, Text by Manu Pillai

In a time when the Indian Subcontinent was still a land of splendid Maharajahs and fabulous courts, Rukmini Varma was born in 1940 into one of its most early royal houses, with an unbroken dynastic lineage of over 1200 years.
Titled Her Highness Bharani Tirunal Rukmini Bayi Tampuran, Fourth Princess of Travancore, her early life was an idyllic fairytale, with all the enchanting auras and ceremonies surrounding a royal princess. Her grandmother, the Maharani Setu Lakshmi Bayi (1895-1985) was the revered matriarch of the house, who had ruled the State of Travancore and its five million people with much distinction in the 1920s. The entire family lived in her hallowed shadows. Rukmini was her eldest and favourite grandchild, and in a dynasty that traced its bloodline through female gene, her birth was of significant importance for matters of succession to the  Gaddi (Throne) of Travancore.

Growing up in Satelmond Palace in Trivandrum, art came naturally to Rukmini. Her great grandfather, Raja Ravi Varma, was a master and celebrated painter, known as the Father of Modern Art in India. Some of his most fabulous works adorned the palace walls of Rukmini’s home. Her grandmother, the Maharani, was a patron of many local artists whose works ranging from portraits & landscapes to murals & dramatic scenes from the great epics, were a constant inspiration. But what impressed Rukmini’s attention the most were the hardbound, tastefully produced annual catalogues of all the major art galleries across Europe that her grandmother had collected. The works of great baroque masters like Rembrandt, Rubens, and Caravaggio fascinated her, and as a child she began to experiment with colour.

Observing her growing interest in art, Rukmini’s uncle gifted her with her first full set of brushes and paints on her sixth birthday, ordered specially from Bombay.  Her grandmother too, noticing her general inclination towards the arts, appointed dance and music instructors, and in the years to come Rukmini would master forms such as the Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam, Kathak, and more. With an appreciation of India’s cultural heritage as well as an interest in history, mythology, religion, architecture, she would reveal herself in her works in the years to come.

By the eve of India’s independence from the British Empire in 1947, things began to change in the royal household. Rukmini’s parents began to spend much of their time away from the palace, in the hill resorts of Kotagiri, Coonoor, and Kodaikanal. They also chose to enroll their children in public schools instead of having a train of tutors following them around. The slow lifestyle of the palace was replaced by an instilled regular routine focused on academic achievements instead of art. 
In 1949, the State of Travancore vanished from the map forever when it was merged with Independent India, and the royal family retired from active public life. The liveried servants, royal guards, and all the ritualistic ceremonies of palace life slowly faded away. Rukmini’s parents and her grandmother, the Maharani, moved to Bangalore. Satelmond Palace and the old world it represented became a mere memory.

For the next two decades painting took a backseat for Rukmini as school and college became more of a priority, followed by a marriage and children- all by the time she was 21 years old. But Rukmini kept her artistic interests alive, and recalls how she would try to recreate scenes from Greek mythology, painting Venus, Aphrodite, Paris, and other characters. Her classmates and friends were quick to ask for these pictures, encouraging her to paint more. Rukmini also excelled in science and despite her father insisting she focus on academics, her grandmother, the Maharani, advised her regularly, to aim towards perfection in her paintings. The encouragement helped- Rukmini chose art and not science.

By the 1960s Rukmini successfully dabbled in a variety of artistic spheres, a time she considers her ‘most creative phase.’ Around the same time Rukmini had also become an excellent dancer. Training under the renowned U.S. Krishna Rao, Chandrabhaga Devi and Uma Rama Rao, she gave several exclusive performances, including for charities. Film directors like Raj Kapoor began to approach her for acting roles, as did people with modelling offers, on account of her exceptional good looks. A then-prominent magazine, Mysindia, for instance, referred to her in 1968 as ‘an Ajanta painting come to life’. Magazine covers, including Femina and The Illustated Weekly of India, began to feature her regularly and she became the toast of Bangalore society.

In 1965 she started her own dance school in Bangalore in the halls of Travancore House, her family home on Richmond Road, which became an instant success. Still the orthodox social pressures and judgement on a ‘princess from a royal family dancing’, resulted in a premature termination of this phase of her career and to the greatest regret of her gurus. The Maharani, for whom Rukmini often performed in private, helped her move on by suggesting an alternative – Painting.

Rukmini returned to painting, an arena where it was felt society judgments were less pressing. Fortunately, soon enough she began to enjoy it actively and took it up with a renewed vigour. By 1970 she had completed her first series of oil paintings, which were exhibited in Bangalore to positive reviews. Her second exhibition in 1973 was opened by Governor Mohanlal Sukhadia of Karnataka State. 34 of the 39 paintings displayed were sold in a matter of days. Her third series in 1974 was inaugurated by the then President of India, V.V. Giri, at the Lalit Kala Academy in Delhi. Rukmini’s art began to bring her serious recognition in India’s art circles (including from Svetoslav Roerich, with whom Rukmini later sat on the Advisory Board of the Chitrakala Parishad in Karnataka).

In 1976, upon the invitation of BK Nehru and Natwar Singh, Rukmini embarked on her first major international exhibition at India House in London, which was opened by Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. Impressed by her skill and ability he asked her if she would paint a portrait of him in traditional Indian attire, wearing a turban and an achkan. They also became friends briefly, with Mountbatten inviting her to fox hunting and picnicking with him on his country estate. The commission of the portrait, however, could not be completed owing to Lord Mountbatten’s tragic assassination in 1979, just before he was due to visit India with Prince Charles and provide Rukmini with three promised sittings.

Subsequent exhibitions followed in Bonn, Cologne, and Neuenahr in Germany, along with invitations from Paris, Zurich, Madrid, and Rome. Queries for her work began to come in from collectors in Europe, America, Singapore, and the Middle East. In 1981 she had another highly successful exhibition in Bombay at the Jehangir Art Gallery and at The Taj Art Gallery winning her the appreciation of M.F. Hussain. The exhibition was a sensation and caused a ‘stampede’ because it included her ‘Flesh and Gems’ series, which had voluptuous female nudes in mythological settings, not meant to trigger ‘erotic fantasies’ but a celebration of the human, particularly female, form and experience.

Throughout her career Rukmini was always compared with her renowned ancestor, Raja Ravi Varma, but, while she followed his concepts of depicting scenes from the epics, there was a substantial difference: Ravi Varma’s women were always luxuriously draped. Rukmini, on the other hand, had no qualms about painting them nude. It was a courageous move for the times and drew in a lot of criticism too from people like Swami Chinmayananda, who commented that Rukmini ought not to have painted nudes based on the epics, which had some religious value and could give offence.

Despite objections, including from within family circles, through the 1980s, Rukmini experimented with nudes. Disillusioned by this prudish conservatism in art, years later she said: ‘I got fed up with all these restrictions. You couldn’t express yourself in the way you wanted. I am certain even Ravi Varma wanted to paint flesh as flesh is, without restrictions…’ Rukmini was going through a phase of rebellion. Interestingly, this corresponded with the time when her commercial success was at its peak, and artists and collectors alike would regularly show up to meet her at Travancore House. Her ‘Pratiksha’ series which included many nudes, was quietly sold into private collections in India and abroad, and was not exhibited anywhere so as not to provoke orthodoxy.

Tragedy struck in 1988 her youngest son, Ranjit, died in an accident at the age of 20. Rukmini, devastated by the event for the next several years did not pick up the brush. She moved out of her grand old house into a private flat to escape attention from the stream of visitors and the media. A separation from her husband too followed. In the mid-90s Rukmini picked up the brush to paint with a portrait of Ranjit (one of the few portraits she has done). Another one followed but she was unable to complete either of them. To the genuine satisfaction of her collectors and well-wishers, however, she slowly began to do other paintings as well. Her lifestyle remained reclusive, though, and she turned down all invitations to exhibit her latest works and did not receive visitors.

Over the last eighteen years until now, Rukmini has been painting in Bangalore, with a dedicated group of private collectors following the progress of her work. She continues to avoid visitors for most part along with requests from the press, even as her work, although much reduced in volume, remains singular in style and excellence. And even today, at the age of 73, she remains a singularly beautiful woman, with such a remarkable past, with so many stories and anecdotes from around the world, that perhaps one needs to dedicate an entire book to recording her life.


114 – The Last Great Silk Route trader of India

My great grandfather Munshi Aziz Bhat with his two sons, Munshi Habibullah and Munshi Abdul Rehman. Kargil, Ladakh. 1945.

My great grandfather Munshi Aziz Bhat with his two sons, Munshi Habibullah and Munshi Abdul Rehman. Kargil, Ladakh. 1945.

Image and Text contributed by Muzammil Hussain Munshi, Kargil, Ladakh

This photograph is of my great grandfather Munshi Aziz Bhat, in his proud head gear Pagdi (locally the Thott) with his two sons, Munshi Habibullah (my grandfather) and Munshi Abdul Rehman, sitting at the Sarai on a usual business day. It was taken by a Mr. Daniel Berger from Neuchatel, Switzerland in 1945, who was probably a Moravian Missionary travelling across Ladakh and Tibet. This photograph along with few others was telegraphed to my great grandfather in Kargil, Ladakh the following year.

Munshi Aziz Bhat was my paternal as well as maternal great grandfather. My mother (daughter of his son, Munshi Abdul Rehman, seated left) and father (son of his other son Munshi Habibullah, seated right) are first cousins. In older times, marriages between cousins was normal like many other cultures of the world. Marriages were fixed when the betrothed were still children and they hardly had any say in the decision.

My great grandfather, Munshi Aziz Bhat was last of the Great Silk route traders of India. Born in Leh in 1866, he was the son of Khoja Rasool Bhat. The last name Bhat came from his ethnicity of  Kashmiri Brahmins from Kishtwar, Kashmir. Due to influences of Islamic revolutionaries during the Mughal period, several Kashmiri Brahmins converted to Islam but the last name was retained. Khoja Rasool Bhat was a record keeper with the Maharaja Pratap Singh of Jammu & Kashmir State government. After he died suffering a sudden illness in 1868, Aziz Bhat’s mother brought up him with the pension she received from the Maharaja’s Government. He was a bright student and managed to pass the class V examination from Skardoo Primary School which was the only primary school in Baltistan (now in Pakistan).

Soon after his mother passed away, Aziz now alone, married four women (two Buddhists and two Muslims and had 15 children between three of them. His first wife Khatija Begum came from Gungani in Baltistan (now Pakistan) and had two sons, (in photograph) Munshi Habibullah (my grandfather) and Munshi Abdul Rehman. The second wife was originally a Buddhist from Zanskar called Kunzes Bee, but she later changed her name to Karima Banoo. His third wife was from Kargil and the fourth, a Buddhist lady came from a village Mulbek about 50 kms from Kargil. With a large family of 40 members, my grandmother tells me that the food cooked everyday was literally like a community feast.

The Silk Route(s) a forgotten road of history, is almost mythological in it’s essence. Eponymous with its most valued piece of trade, Silk from China, it in fact traded every possible item for daily as well as luxury use. Goods were despatched from Asia to many ports and towns in Africa, Europe and the Americas, receiving produce and manufactured items in return, as was the trade system of Barter. The overland and sea Silk Routes frequented during reign of Greek Emperor Alexander, and the Han Dynasty in China, expanded to become a multi-directional, transcontinental thoroughfare for traffic on horseback, donkey, mule, yak and foot. And Kargil, before the infamous wars, had a rich heritage as one of the key feeder routes of the Silk Route.

An important stop on the “Treaty Road” from Srinagar, to Leh and Central Asia, it was said  ‘all the roads lead to Kargil’ as it was equidistant from Kashmir, Baltistan (in Pakistan), Zanskar and Leh. Kargil literally means a place to stop from all directions. Its etymology has evolved from the word Garkill. Where “gar” means from all places and “khil” to stop. And true to its name, all historical accounts of British and European travellers reveal Kargil to be just that. Situated along the river Suru (a tributary of the Indus, which flows into Pakistan) it boasted of a fort build by the Ladakhi King in the 19th century. The old caravan bazaar ran along the river and a few mud houses by the slopes nestled in a green oasis of the Suru valley. The town had a population mix of (Shia) muslim and buddhists, both of whom were very indifferent to the prejudices of creed. Although the local language was Purgi, it is said that atleast two people in each village were also fluent in new Persian and Urdu, and the knowledge of English was very rare.

Munshi Aziz Bhat rose to prominence as a pioneer Silk Route Trader during 1880-1950 when all trading activity in Kargil, both retail and large scale was run and controlled by Punjabis & Hoshiarpuri Lalas. He began his career as a ‘Patwari'(village accountant) for the revenue department, but quit his job in 1915 to try his luck in business. He began as rival to his competitors but soon merged with them to established himself as a large scale trader in the region. He partnered with a Punjabi Sikh merchant Sardar Kanth Singh and started a retail-whole sale shop with a capital of 6000 silver coins (equal to Rs. 6 Lakhs today) and by the end of the year they had made an annual profit of Rs. 9000. In 1920 he established his own large scale trading business with the help of his two older sons and a cousin. The enterprise was named “Munshi Aziz Bhat & Sons”.

Imported from Europe, the shop sold soap, toiletries, stationery, cosmetics, medicines, spices, textiles and shoe polish which was considered a luxury item. The carpets were imported from Central Asia. It also sold unusual items such as horse and camel accessories, catering to the big demand to decorate horses and camels which were a status symbol like cars today. The items were bartered between the traders from all over the world but later with the influence of East India Company and Christian Moravian missionaries, goods began to be traded in money and silver coins. The shops was known far and beyond for its variety of goods and earned itself a local folklore that “one could even find Birds’ Milk at the Munshi Aziz Bhat Sarai”. It is notable that stocking such a range of goods in Kargil, almost 100 years ago, with no paved roads or motor vehicles, was a great feat.

The usual trade route began from Kashgar, Yarkand, Khotan in Central Asia, Xingjiang province of China and entered Indian borders at Nubra valley in Leh to Kargil then carried on till Srinagar on horse or camel backs. From Srinagar it travelled to Hoshiarpur or Amritsar via Rawalpindi by lorries. And from there it travelled to the ports of Bombay and Bengal via trains from where on these goods were shipped to Europe, Africa and Arab countries.

Munshi Aziz Bhat who by now was also appointed as the official petition writer of the Maharaja of the Jammu and Kashmir state for Baltistan Wazarat (region of reign), also built the first ever Inn in Kargil for central Asian traders, the Aziz Bhat Sarai. The Sarai, built as a three story square building in 1920 still stands by the banks of river Suru in old Caravan Bazaar. It was the main hub of activities, a depot for goods meant for all directions including Tibet, India and Baltistan routes. It also housed Bhat’s seven shops. The ground floor of the inn was used to keep horses and straw. The first floor to keep the goods of the traders and the third floor was used for boarding and lodging.

Munshi Aziz had become one of the  most influential people in the whole of Ladakh & Baltistan wazarat.  As a petition writer for the Maharaja he had managed to network with Princes, Kings and high ranking officials from all around the world, including the Moravian missionaries and East India company officials who frequented the town for business and strategic concerns. He was considered a man with integrity because he knew English, was literate and fair in his dealings. He was publicly appointed as the village decision maker, and people from all villages would come to him to settle disputes. For a very busy man he was was a very caring and a loving person. Everyday, he would return from the Sarai, bearing gifts for all of his children and a loaf of meat for his pet dog, a Tibetan Mastiff.  Once, during a famine in the region, he sheltered and fed 60 villagers in his house for almost 50 days.

The Silk Route trade saw its lasts days during the Partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and the uprising of communism in China the following year. All the major trade routes were shut down between India and Pakistan which had now become two separate countries. Hence, all the traders along the route were forced to shut down business activities. The Munshi Aziz Sarai also suffered a similar fate.

My great grandfather passed away of old age in 1948 just one year after the Independence of India and closure of the great silk route. My Grandfather, Munshi Habibullah then joined the state politics. Following him my father, Munshi Abdul Aziz (named after my great grandfather) got into government service in the Revenue department as a Tehsildar and my mother was a government school teacher. My family left the Silk Route trade post independence and most of the family members either joined politics or government service.

The Sarai remained under lock and key for almost half a century before the chance discovery of nothing less than treasure prompted efforts that culminated in the establishment of a museum. On the classic persuasion of a researcher, Jaqueline who immediately recognized the value of the contents, we eventually decided to safe-keep the memorabilia and intensified efforts to house them in a museum in a designated house-space. If it was not for not that intervention, the artifacts would have been forever lost to antiques shops. The Museum is curated from the mercantile items found at the Sarai, from family possessions and relics, and donations from local and other interested parties.

The Aziz Bhat Sarai is considered the only surviving inn of the Silk route in Ladakh and North-West India and the discovery of incredible mercantile items has been an unprecedented find in recorded history. Today, the  museum in our house, This family-operated, public museum the Kargil Museum lives with a vision to preserve ‘The Last Great Silk Route Trader’, Munshi Aziz Bhat’s legacy. It offers anyone who visits a rare glimpse into the Indian and Central Asian business culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries.


112 – My foster father, my glorious friend, Rathindra Nath Tagore

My foster father Rathindra Nath Tagore, with his father Rabindra Nath Tagore. Calcutta. (West Bengal) Circa 1935.

My foster father Rathindra Nath Tagore, with his father Rabindra Nath Tagore. Calcutta. (West Bengal) Circa 1935.

Image & Text contributed by Jayabrato Chatterjee, Kolkata

My earliest memories were borne back in Dehradun (now in Uttarakhand), where I spent my childhood with my mother, Meera Chatterjee, my maternal grandmother, Kamala Bisi and my Jethu, Rathi Jethu (Bengali term for father’s elder brother), Rathindra Nath Tagore. Jethu was Rabindra Nath Tagore’s second child & eldest son.

Those were the first eleven and most impressionable years of my childhood. I still remember the rattle of the Dehradun Express that would carry us back to our home in the valley, away from the bustle and noise of Calcutta (now Kolkata).

Jethu had left his home in Calcutta to come and live in Dehradun with my family. It was Jethu, who had allotted me a garden patch in Mitali, our home at 189/A Rajpur Road, Dehradun and asked me to tend it with care. He even bought me gardening tools, a pair of sears and a watering can. And as I had held his finger tightly, he had led me through the nursery, pointing out names of flowers usually associated with an English garden – Phlox, Larkspurs, Hollyhocks, Ladies lace, Nasturtium, Sweet-peas, Crocuses, Azaleas and Narcissi.

Mitali our home was sheltered by the Himalayas, by the Shivalik ranges that were a riot of Mary Palmers, Crimson hibiscuses and sprawling lawns flanked by flower beds down five cobbled steps. I remember watching the shooting stars that raced across the sky at twilight. Mitali was Ochre in colour, with six large bedrooms, two kitchens, garages, servants’ quarters and a tin shed near the Mango and Lichi orchards where our cows Shyama and Julie – mooed and Koeli, the Tibetan terrier, barked her head off. Beyond the shed lay a wire-meshed chicken barn crowded with cackling Leghorns and a Black Minorca rooster who at the crack of dawn would awaken Ghanshyam, the mali (gardner) with a start. And pervading through the garden was, of course, Jethu’s voice, gently instructing the gardeners with a voice so civilised and kind that all were bound to pay attention to words spoken with equal measure to one and all.

Born on November 27, 1888, Jethu was sent by his father, Rabindranath Tagore, in 1906, to the University of Illinois to study Agriculture and where he was instrumental in starting the now famous Cosmopolitan Club. Jethu’s interests were varied and eclectic.

My strongest memories remain of him bent over a block of wood in the afternoons, by the light of a dull electric bulb, diligently inlaying it with intricate chips of ebony and ivory or shaping it into a beautiful jewellery box, a pen holder or a coffee table. He was usually assisted by a skilled and slightly cross-eyed Sikh carpenter named Bachan Singh – who would also let me chip away at a redundant wedge with a miniature saw and shape it into building blocks that I would later colour.

On my fifth birthday, Jethu presented me with a wonderful wooden steed he had made – a cross between a rocking horse and a miniature pony – complete with stirrups and a comfortable seat. He had placed him strategically on springs so that I could ride the foal to my heart’s content without falling off. For a while this charger became the love of my life and only if I was feeling generous would I share it with Bugga, the janitor’s son, who was my best friend. Bugga was snotty-nosed & mischief-laden who knew where the parrots would nest for the summer or where we could find caterpillars and tadpoles during the monsoons. He had also charmed members of Mitali by doing an impeccable act on Ravan, watched at the local Ramleela. I too would slip out at night, without my mother or Jethu finding out, with my ayah, Kanchi Ama, and walk at least two miles guided by the moon to the Ramleela grounds where the local servants metamorphosed into delectable actors. The Ramleela was certainly the high point of my Dusserah holidays when I came home from my boarding school and delighted in watching Langra Karesan, another servant, snivel through his performance as Sita in one of my mother’s old chiffon sarees.

I was hell-bent on becoming an actor too. So I’d sing my way through most of Balmiki Pratibha (an Opera penned by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, Jethu’s father) exclusively for Jethu’s pleasure. My reward was a set of wonderful wooden swords that he crafted for me and the next time we went to Calcutta, Bhola babu, who was the manager at Jorasanko, was instructed by Jethu to buy me a dacoit’s costume, complete with a pair of false mustachios, and take me to see the Great Russian Circus. On rain-filled evenings he would sit me on his lap, play his Esraj (Indian Harp) at Santiniketan, lovingly running the bow on the strings, and teach me to sing songs whose meanings I’m still discovering – Oi ashono toley; Roop shagorey doob diyechhi; Amaarey tumi oshesh korechho and Kholo kholo dwaar.

Winter holidays in Calcutta were never complete without a dinner with Ma and Jethu at Skyroom on Park Street and a special Sunday lunch at the Firpo’s on Chowringhee. My table manners – taught to me at Mitali – came in handy. It was Jethu who showed me the difference between a fish and a carving knife, between a salad and a quarter plate, a pastry and a regular fork; he showed me how to use the various items of the Mappin & Webb silver cutlery that had been arranged at table and insisted that I washed and wore clean clothes for dinner, ate my soup without slurping and consumed the rest of the meal with my mouth closed and a napkin spread over my lap. Lunch at home was typically Bengali, consisting of the usual rice, dal, shukto and a fish or meat curry. But dinner, sharp at 7.30 pm, was always European, served with flourish, item by item, by Jethu’s personal valet, Bahadur, at the formal dining room on Royal Doulton crockery. It was pleasure to see Jethu peel an apple at breakfast with great ceremony and elegance. Now when I look back, in fact every meal that I remember having with him was an art.

During my childhood it was very fashionable to host tea parties. Jethu had inducted Ma into sipping the most fragrant of Darjeeling teas – the delicately-scented Flowery Orange Pekoe. He was also a wonderful cook and often baked me a cake for my birthday. Some evenings, he would walk into the kitchen and stir up a mean Shepherd’s Pie and a fluffy mango soufflé. And when the orchards in Mitali had a surplus of Guavas, he would make the best Guava jelly that I have ever tasted.

A variety of celebrated invitees and house guests came to dinner – like Uncle Leonard (Leonard Elmhirst), Pankaj Mullick & Suchitra Mitra, legendary musicians, to scientist, Satyendra Nath Bose on his way to Mussoorie, Pandit Nehru (who often visited Dehra), Lady Ranu, Buri Mashi and Krishna Mesho (Nandita and Krishna Kripalani). I clearly remember the performance of a play, Pathan, by Prithviraj Kapoor and his troupe who had come to Dehra Dun. Jethu was invited to the show as Chief Guest and Ma and I had accompanied him. The next evening the players were invited to dinner at home. In the cast were Sati Mashi (whose daughter Ruma-di was then married to Kishore Kumar) and the very young and handsome Shammi and Shashi Kapoor who turned many feminine heads at the reception. But Prithviraj-ji, affectionately known as Papaji, insisted on sitting at Jethu’s feet throughout the evening, much to Jethu’s embarrassment. He just wouldn’t budge and kept saying, ‘How can I have the arrogance to sit next to Gurudev Rabindranath’s son?’ He dragged me by my hand and had me sit on his lap, ruffling my hair as he talked to other guests.

Jethu and Ma had formed a cultural organisation – Rabindra Samsad – and many plays and dance dramas by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore were performed by its members. Ma was a veteran actress, having played Rani Sudershana, (a name that Gurudev Tagore would address her by thereafter) in Rakta Karabi and Rani Lokeshwari in Natir Puja, all directed by Gurudev in Santiniketan. Ma was his favourite actress.

So watching Jethu too direct her in Bashikaran, Lokkhir Porikhha and Chirokumar Sabha was, for me, a treat. Ma as well, directed Natir Puja with my sister playing Ratnabali, Ritu Ranga & Bhanushingher Padavali and a children’s play, Tak-duma-dum, scripted by Jethu’s aunt, Jnanadanandini Debi, where I played the lead as the wily jackal! Rabindra Samsad  held regular musical soirees and showed Bengali films. My introduction to Satyajit Ray’s Debi (Devi) and Pather Panchali happened in the faraway Dehradun’s Prabhat cinema. Encouraged to participate in all the cultural events was for me, a huge education.

Jethu was also an ardent painter and spent long hours at his easel, working on beautiful water-coloured landscapes and delicate flower studies. Sometimes Ma painted along with him and also crafted many items via the complex art of Batik. My mother’s Batik parasols and slippers were greatly admired as were her exclusive batik stoles and sarees. I can still remember the smell of melting wax and feel my fingers stained again with several colours.

The relationship Ma shared with Jethu was not something that his father, Gurudev Tagore was aware of. Gurudev died in 1941 while their relationship must have begun somewhere around 1948. With accusing whispers Jethu was deserted both by his colleagues in Santiniketan and his family members. There was a 30-year age difference between Ma & Jethu but I would describe their relationship as being very respectful & tender. Having seen Ma and Jethu together and having grown up with them in Dehradun, I know what this relationship meant to them. Most of his life Jethu had felt lonely and misunderstood, but in Ma he had found a great companion.

One of Jethu’s other favourite hobbies was making perfumes that were later filled into the most delicate glass-blown bottles that I had ever seen. He’d gift Ma a different fragrance on her birthdays. Many a mornings would be spent combining the scents and concentrates of flowers like roses, juhi and mogra that came all the way from Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh. He’d leave no stones unturned till he got the aroma right, pulling away at his cigarette – either Three Castles or John Peel or Abdulla Imperial. His perfume bottles became coveted possessions for all those who were lucky enough to receive them. Usually, after the Rabindra Samsad shows, there would be lively cast parties at Mitali and the actors and singers waited with baited breaths till Jethu gave them a bottle of scent as a parting present.

Around my Jethu, light-footed and non-intrusive, virtually like the fragrance of the golden champaka blossoms that he loved so dearly, an innate sense of aesthetics kept vigil. His impeccable sense of coutour, interior decor, landscaping and gardening lent to his persona.

The last ten years of his life and the first ten years of mine were, for both of us, absolutely golden. But when he died at the age of 73 in June of 1961, Mitali or even I could never be the same again without its kind and gentle prince, my beloved foster father. Yet, as I write today, I drift back to the enchantment that was my childhood spent in Jethu’s benign shadow. And in the splendoured story of my Ma and Jethu, I re-live the most civilized, glorious and compassionate friendship that I will ever care to remember.


111 – One of the three earliest known Indians to have studied at the Royal College of Art, London

My great great grandfather, Vasu Deva Sharma. Berlin, Germany. Circa 1920

My great grandfather, Vasu Deva Sharma. Berlin, Germany. Circa 1925

Image & Text contributed by Nyay Bhushan, New Delhi

This is the only image of my great grand-father, Vasu Deva Sharma, in our family archives. It shows him working as an artist in a photo studio in Berlin. Dressed impeccably in a well-tailored suit, he poses in front of an easel with a brush in hand, with the canvas depicting a portrait of a possibly aristocratic European lady. Vasu Deva Sharma was one of the rare Indians of his time who studied at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London in the 1920s.

Vasu Deva Sharma was born on June 15, 1881 to Pandit Bhagwan Das in Pakpattan Sharif, District Montgomery, Punjab, (now in Pakistan). In 1910, he passed the Senior Vernacular Teachers Certificate Examination (Punjab Education Department) and in 1911 he joined Central Training College, Lahore as a Drawing Professor. The same year he married Saraswati Devi and on December 3, 1912, the couple had a son, Ved Prakash Sharma (my grandfather) and a daughter Ved Kumari in 1914. Tragically, in 1915 Saraswati Devi passed away and as joint families would, his brother Pandit Bhim Sen and sister-in-law Kaushalya Devi helped raise the two children.

In 1920, at the age of 39, Vasu Deva Sharma gave up his job at the Central Training College, Lahore after receiving a scholarship to study at Royal College of Art. He sailed from Bombay to London on the ship Kaisar-I-Hind on the P&O line, and arrived in London on September 25, 1920. (Source : The National Archives, UK – Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960; www.ancestry.com)

Upon his arrival in London he stayed in a furnished apartment at 12, Eardley Crescent, Earls Court, SW. His first term studies at RCA began with a basic course in Architecture and Lettering. His first term student file (which I sourced from the RCA archives in 1995), remarks: “Inexperienced in European design and draughtsmanship. Indefatigable in his studies. Has made rapid progress. Shows great promise.”
His second term began with Painting and it included studying Art teaching methods for provincial Art schools in Britain, The study also had him travelling to other parts of the country, away from London.

My father Kul Bhushan, (an active researcher on Vasu Deva Sharma’s legacy) recounts an interesting anecdote by a family relative that reveals information on his final RCA presentation. Apparently Vasu Deva Sharma wanted to paint an iconic scene from Indian history – Maharana Pratap‘s battle against the Mughuls and to obtain authentic proportions of Maharana Pratap’s horse and the Mughul Emperor’s elephant, he visited the London Zoo and obtained special permission to measure a horse and an elephant!

In 1923, his final year at RCA, he moved to another accommodation, the Sikh Boarding House at 79, Sinclair Road, W.14, alongwith some fellow students. As for his progress in his final year studies, the remarks in his student file state: “Plodding, ambitious of improvement, industrious, this Indian student has taken full advantage of the methods and initiative a European School of Art can offer.”
He graduated with an A.R.C.A. – Associateship in ‘Decorative Painting’, Royal College of Art. The graduation ceremony was held on July 20, 1923 and diplomas were presented by Sir Montague Barlow, Minister of Labour. Vasu Deva sent his graduation cap and gown to his then widowed sister-in-law Kaushalya, as his ‘earnings’.

In 2012, I managed to source the graduation photo of his class from RCA which included names of now renowned British art icons like sculptors Sir Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and even more interestingly, his fellow graduates included two other Indians – Uday Shankar Choudhry and the famous painter-engraver Mukul Dey from Calcutta (now Kolkata).

Following graduation, Vasu Deva embarked on an extensive tour of Europe to study original works of art in museums. Not much is known apart from the fact that the travels spanned Scandinavia, France, Germany, Italy and Greece. While his family’s support funded his travels, it is very possible that he also worked as a commissioned artist to earn an extra income. But to imagine a traveling Indian artist in Europe at such an important time in the continent’s history makes my great grandfather’s story a fascinating adventure.

This picture (circa 1925) was taken by a German photographer named Karl Alexander Berg with his studio address at Joachimstaler Strasse in Berlin, Germany. Looking at the stamp under the photograph one can conjecture that Berg was appointed to the German Royal Court.

In 1927, Vasu Dev returned to Lahore. By sea cargo, he sent around 30 suitcases and boxes full of art books, art reproductions, art materials, studio cameras, complete studio equipment and hundreds of other art objects, garments and personal effects. Interestingly, the photography equipment he brought was for his son (my grand-father, Ved Prakash Sharma) who later opened a photo studio in Lahore called Omega Photo Art Studio.

Vasu Deva Sharma joined Chief’s College in Lahore as an arts professor while practising as a professional artist for commissioned portraits. According to some family sources, he was also commissioned by Indian royal families, such as the Royals of Chamba, in North India.

In 1929, he began constructing a bungalow at 30A Empress Road, Bibian Pak Daman, near Shimla Hill, Lahore. For furnishing his bungalow, one of his students at Chief’s College – a Prince of Chamba – gifted him a railway wagon full of the best timber around. 
In addition to making furniture, Vasu Deva made seven easels to teach art to his students at home and he gifted away some. A cupboard made from this wood still stands in a family relative’s home in New Delhi. It is important to note the very significant connection between the then RCA president Sir William Rothenstein (from 1920-35) and Indian art. Rothenstein took a keen interest in Mughal paintings. He traveled extensively to British India to research Indian art and in 1910 established an India Society to educate the British public about Indian arts. According to my father’s recollections, Rothenstein traveled again to India in 1944. He visited my great-grand father at his mansion (that also housed his studio and artworks), in Lahore to see how his former RCA student was doing. As a six year old boy, my father recalls that this was a major event for which Vasu Deva also summoned his son Ved Prakash, my grandfather, to come from Pakpattan to Lahore and welcome Rothenstein.

A year before the partition of India and Pakistan following the end of British rule, Vasu Deva Sharma who suffered from Diabetes, slipped into a coma with paralysis and passed away on February 6, 1946, at the age of 65.

Soon after his death, his son Ved Prakash was appointed manager of Punjab National Bank in Ahmedabad and he and his family moved to Gujarat just before the nation wide violent partition riots of August 1947. The few belongings that the family members in Lahore could save were Vasu Deva’s original RCA diploma and this photograph from Berlin. It is understood that the mansion was ransacked and looted and they were unable to salvage the artworks and invaluable artefacts which were left behind in the mansion.

My father Kul Bhushan visited Lahore in 1977 and went to Empress Road to see the family home. By then, it had been turned into a housing estate with many apartments. But he noticed that the original marble name plate outside the house was still there, mentioning Vasu Deva Sharma’s name in English with his RCA degree mentioned below. Today the site is a commercial building with no hint of the past and no trace of the name plate either.

As a filmmaker and a photographer, one of my main projects these days is to search for any surviving artworks by Vasu Deva Sharma which could be in the UK, Europe, Pakistan and India. I would be very interested, if anyone may have any information on that. For more information that I have found on him you can visit here.


109 – The cockerel-fighter from Punjab who became one of Africa’s greatest cameramen

Sir Mohinder Dhillon, pictured on the deck of British Navy ship. Kenya. 1967

Sir Mohinder Dhillon, pictured on the deck of British Navy ship. Kenya. 1967

Image and Text contributed by Sir Mohinder Dhillon, Kenya

The following text is a summarised and edited version of excerpts from an unpublished Autobiography of the contributor.

Looking back over the 80 years, I wonder how, as a simple village boy from Punjab who never even finished school, did I end up in Africa, dodging bullets to make a living from shooting hundreds of kilometres of film in some of the world’s most dangerous regions.

I come from the proud martial family of the Sikhs. I do not know the exact date of my birth, although my passport says 25 October 1931, Baburpur, Punjab. At the time, births were not registered, and parents habitually exaggerated the ages of their children in order to get them into school early and so have their own hands free during the day. Baburpur, formerly called Retla (the place of sand), was renamed after Mughal Emperor Babur who had reportedly camped near our village for a few weeks.

My father, Tek Singh-

My father, Tek Singh, was the first person in our village to get an education. He was an adventurous man, and in 1918 at the age of 17, he responded with enthusiasm to the recruiting posters for workers on the Uganda Railway in British East Africa. Believing that there was safety in numbers, he was joined by friends and former classmates from nearby villages and the determined young men collectively took up the challenge of seeking a better life abroad.

This grandiose project of Uganda Railways would change the lives of the tens of thousands of Indians who left home for a new life in an unknown land, most of them never to return. The so-called Lunatic Line laid between 1896 and 1901 from Mombasa into the interior of then-British East Africa to Lake Victoria and subsequently extended into what is now Uganda, opened up the East African hinterland to the outside world. The founding of towns, and their later development into cities, would go on to transform the economies of the region.

When Tek Singh announced his decision to go to East Africa, it upset my grandparents immensely. Their only son was going to ‘darkest Africa’, the prevalent view of Africa at the time (still the perception of many people today). The money for my father’s first train ticket to Bombay, and for the dhow that would carry him from there to Mombasa, was borrowed from a moneylender in the village at a steep interest rate.

For the young Tek Singh leaving the village was more than just an adventure. A great deal rested on how he would fare in distant East Africa. Back at home in India, his family would be depending on him for remittances. He also had young wife to think of. His marriage had taken place six years earlier, when Tek was just 11, and his betrothed, Kartar Kaur, was nine years old.

The railway journey from Babarpur to Bombay took two days and one night. And then it took another two days to find the Uganda Railway’s recruiting agent. His shopping list for the journey – then the cheapest way of crossing the Indian Ocean – included a charcoal stove, two bags of charcoal, all the rations needed for the journey, a sleeping mat, blankets, washing powder, bath soap, tea leaves, and fresh water.

Tek Singh – or Bau Ji, as he was fondly called at home – arrived in Mombasa with almost no money in his pockets. He found refuge at a nearby Sikh temple (Gurudwara), where he slept on the veranda braving the ravenous mosquitoes, exactly like how the thousands freshly arrived on the coast spent their first few nights. After a week, Bau Ji was provided a bachelor accommodation by the Uganda Railways. Later, he and two other young Sikhs shared a small railway house that had the luxury of a tiny garden. The trio of bachelors remained life-long friends.

Bau Ji had promptly written home, informing his parents of his safe arrival. The mail though travelled first by sea, and then by rail and horse-drawn carriage and by foot, and took as long as 12 weeks to arrive. By then, his parents had feared the worst. His wife, Kartar Kaur, for her part, was obliged to don widow’s attire (the customary white dress), and was forbidden to use cosmetics. She complied for form’s sake but Kartar refused to believe that her husband was not alive. Amid the uncertainty of my father’s absence, my grandfather Natha Singh lived long enough to hear that his son had indeed reached East Africa safely, but the suspense evidently proved too much for his health. When Bau Ji’s letter finally arrived, the family was overjoyed and distributed sweets to everybody, but my grandfather died shortly after that.

Bau Ji found himself working for a soon-to-be expanded colonial rail (and shipping) network, one that would come to be known, first as Kenya & Uganda Railways and Harbours, and then eventually (in 1948) as the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation. Almost 30 years would elapse before he felt he was ready to bring the rest of his family over to Kenya. Through the 30 years, Bau Ji had to be content with getting to see his family during periods of extended overseas leave. He was entitled, once in every five years, a ‘six month home leave’ in India. All but one of the rest of us seven siblings were conceived during successive home-leave visits from our father. My youngest brother Balbir was born in Kenya. Bau Ji was able to save money for the education of all six of his sons, including me. Later, Bau Ji sent money to build a primary school in our home village.

Although the India Bau Ji had left behind was riven by class divisions, the world to which he now belonged bore even sharper lines of demarcation. The less educated Sikhs, those who were good with their hands, became mechanics, masons and carpenters. Only well-educated Sikhs could expect to land responsible office jobs. Most of the Railway accountants and clerks were Goans, who also ran the catering department. The people from Goa, who had lived under Portuguese rule for more than 500 years, did not mix much with other Indians. They classified themselves as Portuguese. And they already had their own sports club, known as the Railway Goan Institute. There were very few Gujarati-speaking Indians working on the Railway. Some Sikhs left the Railways to venture into business, but it was rare.

Bau Ji, for his part, had very little time for any kind of life beyond the Railway. He would walk the 10 kms to work from his Railway quarters. He and his two friends Kishen Mangat and Basant Bindra were encouraged by the British Administration to form a Sikh hockey team so a hockey field and a modest clubhouse were duly built. It went on to become the Railway Asian Institute Sports Club. After work, he would walk back home, have his tea, then change into his running-shorts and pick up his Indian-made hockey stick to hone his hockey playing skills.

Our lives in Baburpur –

I spent my early childhood in much the same way as my father. We never travelled outside our district in Punjab. There were no road or rail connections nearby. The Television was yet to be invented and I did not even know that radios existed. I first saw a camera when we all travelled to Ludhiana in 1947 to have our passport pictures taken. The camera was one of those contraptions with a black shroud underneath which the photographer’s head would momentarily disappear. There were no newspapers or magazines from which to learn about the world outside Babarpur. While in India, I had never heard of Mahatma Gandhi. Not until 1948, when I was in Kenya, would I hear about Gandhi for the first time – and that was only because he had just been assassinated.

Some of my friends are shocked when I tell them that my main hobby in the village was cock-fighting. I was the proud owner of a champion white cockerel named Raja, or ‘king’. Raja was fed on almonds and garlic, which made him a formidable fighter. We couldn’t afford the luxury of eating almonds. But for Raja, I would settle for nothing less. Before Raja went into battle, I would fit needle-sharp steel caps over his fighting-spurs – the talons on the inner side of a cock’s leg. In their natural state, a cock’s spurs are sharp enough. But kitted out in steel spikes, Raja could strike deep into an opponent’s belly, killing that poor bird almost instantly. Talking about this makes me wonder how I could have been so cruel. Back then, however, as a 12-year-old, I got a great kick out of all this. Raja slept next to my bed, I was so proud of him. My other passion was kite-flying. Together, brother Joginder and I won the championship for both of our last two years in the village.

Leaving India –

Things began to change for us in April 1947 the announcement of our impending departure had come in a letter from Bau Ji, received in September 1946. Leaving for Africa just weeks before India got its independence did at least spare us the carnage of Partition. When we left, India was still a peaceful place. Yet, within just a few months of our departure, some two million Indians were to lose their lives.

The first time I stepped on to a train was in 1947, at the age of 16, when we were leaving India. It was in the same year that I first travelled by bus. This was a time when, for the first time ever, Indian national election campaigns were canvassing the villages. The year 1947 was thus a significant one in my life. Until then, I had passed my entire childhood without ever having seen either a car or a motorcycle. I saw a flush toilet for the first time only after we travelled to a nearby town to be immunised against smallpox and to receive our yellow-fever vaccinations.

First, we travelled by ox-cart to Malaudh, the small town nearest to Babarpur where I had been going to school. With Partition looming, electioneering was under way in earnest, new buses were being used to mobilise political support among rural populations. From Malaudh, we took a bus to Ludhiana. This was only the second bus I had ever travelled in..From there, we boarded the train for Bombay.

In Bombay, we found a cheap hotel, where – in order to cut costs – the whole family shared one large room, with the males in one corner and the women in another. In the floor of the room there were holes through which, peeping down, we could see parts of the room beneath. Like all Indian travellers in those days, we carried all our own bedding in a sturdy canvas roll, complete with thick leather straps, a leather handle and a special pillow compartment. The bustle of Bombay – the first big city I had ever seen – was overwhelming. On reaching a street, I’d just stand there, transfixed, sometimes for at least three minutes, not daring to cross if there were a car approaching, even from afar. Bombay was simply awe-inspiring.

In India, there were – even then – bribe agents or ‘facilitators’ everywhere to smooth your passage through the formalities of customs and immigration and to find suitable accommodation for you. At the Bombay seaport, a bribe had to be paid for every service that was rendered. We even had to bribe someone in order to establish who else needed to be bribed. Our bribe agent then made sure that we bribed all the right officials.

The ship, named the Khandala, was dirty and worn. Originally a coal carrier, it had been converted to service as a passenger liner. The journey took 14 days. We docked briefly at two ports along the way, Porbunder in Gujarat and Mahe in the Seychelles. Then one day we saw the lighthouse of Mombasa. A tugboat came out to meet us and escorted our ship through a narrow bay into the port. The Africa I arrived in was green and lush. Palm trees swayed in the breeze against a clear blue sky. What a marked contrast this was to the flat and dusty Punjab we had left behind.

As we approached the shore, I knew I had come to a wondrous land. There were large engineering cranes at work in the harbour. The first human beings who caught my eye on the shore – two white men wearing shorts and a white woman in a loose skirt – were doing something curious. They were swinging sticks up and down. Later I found out it was golf. There were Africans, Arabs, Swahilis and even a few Indians and Europeans. We were astonished by how cheerful and laid-back everybody seemed to be. Most of the people we had seen on the streets of Bombay, by contrast, had looked tense and miserable, as they rushed about from place to place.

After Babarpur, our modest Railway house in Nairobi had the look of a palace. Gurdev, my elder brother soon found a job as a Railway fireman. For two years, he fed coal into the burners of the steam-engines and he would come home with soot all over his face and on his overalls. After a two-year apprenticeship, he became a locomotive driver.

In India, we had been punished for everything in school – for poor grades, for failing to complete our homework, for showing up a few minutes late, even for laughing aloud in class. For a village boy used to squatting on a coarse jute mat on a hard, uneven cement floor, this was a luxurious learning environment. Most of the teachers in Nairobi were surprisingly lenient, moreover, they did not punish for failure, or for lagging behind, but only for behaving badly in class.

Outside of school, life was filled with excitement. We drank sticky soda pop and we begged for turns to ride the bicycles of our friends. I played billiards, snooker and skittles at the Railway Club. At school, we played hockey and table-tennis. Indeed, we became such dab hands at table-tennis that my brother Manjeet and I went on, in 1954 and again in 1955, to contest the final of the Kenya National Table Tennis Championship. I won the first encounter, but Manjeet took the second.

Bau Ji was himself an avid sportsman. His love of hockey in particular was to infect my younger brother, Joginder (Jindi), who went on to be selected as part of the national hockey team that represented Kenya at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

Joginder was sent to the prestigious St Thomas’s Teaching Hospital in London, where he eventually qualified as a doctor. Having then just represented Kenya at the Olympics, Joginder had easily found a place at the teaching hospital. Inderjeet went back to India, to a boarding college in Ludhiana, as Bau Ji could not afford to send him to a school in England. Later, upon returning to Kenya, Inderjeet became a popular radio and TV personality with the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, and was for a while a heartthrob among the teenage set in Nairobi. Manjeet initially took up a job in Nairobi as a clerk in the Kenya Ministry of Works, before going into business. While at school, he received a shield from Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret. He was also awarded the Lord Mountbatten Boy Scouts’ Belt. All five of my brothers passed their ‘O’ level examinations. I was the sole exception, failing the exam.

A career in images –

One day Bau Ji gave me a basic, second-hand Box Brownie camera. Bought at a stock-clearance sale, it had cost him 25 shillings – the equivalent, then, of about US$ 3.50. This was the ‘poor man’s Rolleiflex’, with a fixed speed and fixed aperture. Neither he nor I knew it at the time, but this simple gift marked the beginning of a 60-year-long career in photography.
In the 1950s, in a prestigious international photographic magazine, I came across a photo essay by the Indian photographer, I.S Johar. His were pictures taken with a Box Brownie of landscapes featuring dramatic skies. Of course, all Johar’s images were in black-and-white, as colour film had yet to appear. His images, though, were a revelation to me. Taking my cue from Johar, I started using a yellow filter for all my outdoor pictures, and an orange one at times, for special effects.

My first photographs were of the Indian hockey team’s first to visit Kenya, early in 1948. In the team was the maestro Dhyan Chand, winner of three Olympic gold medals. Other great players I remember from that team were K S Babu, Manna Singh, the barefooted Peerumal and the South Indian Raju, as well as the two Anglo-Indians, R S Gentle and Claudius. For players with such an awesome reputation, all were astonishingly unassuming and gracious. None so much as batted an eyelid on being ambushed by me before a match with requests for their portraits. “Dhyan Chand,” I’d say, “Just stand there a minute, would you?” And the great man would duly oblige.

I could not afford to take my film off to a photographic studio for processing, so I learned to process film myself, in a small, makeshift dark room that I improvised in the windowless storeroom at our Railways house. I purchased developer powder and other chemicals from a studio in town. From that studio, I also borrowed a thin handbook, published I think by Britain’s Royal Photographic Society, entitled Photography Made Easy for Learners, which had detailed instructions on how to set up a home-processing lab.

I did not have an enlarger, so the photographs I produced were tiny, measuring just 2.25 by 3.25 inches. With no electric drum-dryer either, I would dry the wet pictures by slapping them on to the window panes in the kitchen, after washing down the glass with Lifebuoy soap. “Mohindri, that’s expensive soap,’ my mother or my sister would chide me. There was some friction, in that kitchen, between the cooks in the family and me, over my encroaching photographic activities. “A kitchen,” I was roundly informed, “is for cooking in – not for making pictures.”

My new-found joy at having discovered the wonders of photography did little to calm the guilt feelings that by now were haunting me. Here I was, a grown man of 20 without a job, still sponging off his parents at home. Having flunked my ‘O’ Level exams, I was beginning to feel anxious I might never find a meaningful job.

So one morning I plucked up enough courage to respond to one of the newspaper advertisements. The vacancy in question was for ‘a junior accounts clerk in an established pharmacy practice’. To my surprise, I received a notification that I was to come in for an interview. At the appointed time, I was shown into the office of the proprietor, an elderly Jewish woman called Edith Haller. I had heard of Ms. Haller, as she also owned one of the photographic studios in the town. Indeed, in those days most retail chemists operated a photographic service as well –where customers could hand in their exposed film and later collect the developed prints.

My formal interview with Ms Haller was mercifully brief. In short, my candidacy for the post of accounts clerk at the pharmacy was rejected almost at once. “What we need is a qualified bookkeeper,” Ms Haller explained. I was not unduly surprised but this time my frustration got the better of me and I nearly broke down in tears. In the doorway, as I was leaving Ms Haller’s office, I spun around suddenly. “Halle Studio,” I blurted out. “What about Halle Studio? Isn’t there something I can do there?” I told her about the little dark room I had established at home. I offered to bring in and to show her some of my photographs. I pleaded with Ms. Haller to be given a chance. She must have been utterly taken aback by my torrent of broken English, by my gangly appearance, by my ill-fitting, lop-sided turban. This was the first time I had ever addressed a white person at any length.

Ms Haller’s eyes lit up while I was talking. There and then, once I had said my piece, she told me she would put me on one month’s probation, starting immediately. From the moment I reported for duty, I was determined to show I was both capable and eager to learn. That job meant everything to me. My trainer Peter Howlett, although he did not say so, left me in no doubt that my brown skin might present a bit of a problem. Ms. Haller nevertheless confirmed me in my post at the end of the month-long probation period, for which I was paid 150 shillings (the equivalent, then, of about US$ 21). She also raised my monthly salary to 250 shillings (roughly US$ 35). I was mightily relieved and grateful; for now, at last, I had a proper job.

At the time, Kenya’s only daily newspaper, the East African Standard, did not have any staff photographers of its own. Instead, the paper relied on photographers hired from Halle Studio for its pictures of all events. Peter Howlett, the man who had been given the responsibility of training me – was Halle’s principal photographer and handled most of the commissions.
One line of work that kept Halle Studio very busy was photographing babies at their parents’ homes. Peter specialised in taking informal portraits of the babies using a single flash and it was my job to hold the flash unit. The unit was a very large, heavy box, separate from but wired up to the camera. I had to lug this box around, directing the flash at different angles so as to avoid casting an ugly shadow while Peter clicked away. Peter and I made a very successful team. We got many requests from proud young parents, while also going from door to door around some of the more affluent Nairobi suburbs, promoting our ‘Home Photography’. The response we received was generally enthusiastic, and before long we had an extensive customer base – and an impressive album of sample baby pictures.

We were also hired to take pictures of horse races, dog shows and other social events. As a colonial newspaper, the East African Standard – which commissioned most of these photographs – catered exclusively to the tastes of Kenya’s ruling British elite. One day, while Peter was away on holiday, the newspaper’s social editor, Lesley Clay, rang the Studio, requesting the services of a photographer. I took the call and offered to stand in for Peter. Ms Clay readily agreed to take a chance on me. “In a worst-case scenario,” she added, encouragingly, “we can probably do without a picture.” It turned out that Lesley wanted me to cover a horse show.

Ms. Clay was delighted with my photographs. Even I, when I processed and developed the pictures, was pleasantly surprised by how well they came out. This time the picture taken by Rolleiflex camera, and a 8×10 inch size was a magical thrill. This was the beginning of a long relationship with the Standard newspaper. Two dynamic white women – Ms. Haller and Ms. Clay – were thus responsible for both of the early breakthroughs in my career as a professional photographer.
With Lesley  I attended countless society functions at which she would introduce her paper’s turbaned Sikh photographer to individual party guests. All were white, of course, and many would simply turn away on being introduced to me, shunning my presence.

The newspaper work kept me busy for years, until eventually the Standard employed a staff photographer, John Parry from England. In those days, the paper paid us peanuts for our photographs. The going rate was just five ten shillings (the equivalent at the time of about $ 1.20 60 US cents) per column-inch.

When the British declared a State of Emergency in Kenya in 1952, the Mau Mau struggle became the big news story. We took photographs of the brutal ‘screening’ of Africans in the streets; of detainees in the Manyani Camp; of British troops and supplies arriving at the Eastleigh Airport. I was not mature enough then to take in fully what was going on around me, even though this period was one of the most politically charged in the country’s history. The awakening of my political consciousness would come later, when I took photographs of the Hola Camp Massacre in 1959. It was when the real horrors of this conflict start to hit me.

Halle Studio –

In 1954, Ms. Halle fell ill, and her brother Arthur Haller, who was then the Government Maize Controller, persuaded me to buy the business from her. He even went so far as to find me a partner, in the person of Oded Katzler, a wholesaler of cardboard packaging. Katzler raised all the capital – amounting to the then formidable sum of 20,000 shillings. At first, Oded remained a sleeping partner in the business, but after 10 months I was able to buy him out. Upon acquiring Halle Studio, I immediately relocated the company to a rented first-floor office suite in central Nairobi. This was in Nairobi House, the historic building then located on the corner of Delamere Avenue and Government Road (now Kenyatta Avenue and Moi Avenue). The work was exciting, and although it did not pay well I was happy enough at the time, as I had developed a taste for photo journalism and news reporting. As time went by, my professional photographic assignments started taking me further afield. Increasingly, I was called upon to cover safaris and expeditions in remote parts of the country.

Ambi – 

One evening in May 1958, my father – after coming home from work as usual – told me that he had some “wonderful news” for me. “Mohinder,” he said, “you are getting married.” Just like that.

Amarjeet Kaur Sandhu, known throughout her life as Ambi , was born in Kisumu, on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria, on September 20, 1940. She was educated at Kisumu Girls School, although, like me, she did not progress beyond ‘O’ Level. Bau Ji, for his part, was pleased to learn that Ambi had played tennis at school – at a time when Sikh girls were, for the first time, being allowed to play sports – was a strong point in her favour.

After our marriage, Ambi was not only conversant with all the studio’s day-to-day functions; she was also taking most of the passport, driver’s licence and ID photographs herself. This left me free to take on newspaper assignments at a moment’s notice. The result was that business at the studio picked up dramatically.

In those pre-Independence days, our bread-and-butter income came from a deal we had with the British Army to take ID photographs of its soldiers serving in Kenya, many of them then trying to suppress the Mau Mau uprising.  On at least six days every month, whole lorry-loads of British soldiers would be dropped off to have their pictures taken. Sometimes, the queue would extend down the stairs on to the ground floor of Nairobi House and out into the street. Ambi would sometimes take pictures of more than 300 British soldiers in a single day.

Ambi loved working at the studio. She loved the busy days especially, when streams of people would walk in to have their pictures taken or to collect their prints. She made friends with other tenants in the building, whom she spoilt with her home-made samosas, earning her the nickname ‘Samosa Lady’. The work set Ambi apart from former school friends of hers, some of whom were now also newly married and living in Nairobi, but who – as housewives, most of them – had only limited interaction with the wider Nairobi public. Ambi never criticised her married former school friends openly, but she did, in private, after meeting up with them at weekends, “I am far too busy,” she used to say, “for all this idle chatter” finding the closed world of their incessant society gossip exasperating.

With Ambi at the studio, I could devote myself almost exclusively to news photography, initially for the East African Standard, and then – increasingly – for UPI and other international press agencies as well. Come 1959, I was spending less and less of my time in the studio, as assignments would call on me to leave Nairobi to cover events elsewhere in Kenya and throughout East Africa. When, in 1960, I began covering events across the whole of Africa, I would be away for lengthy periods, leaving Ambi to ‘hold the fort’ at Halle Studio. Having acquired a passion for photo-journalism, I had become ambitious. So, in 1959, I wrote to Planet News Photos (subsequently taken over by United Press International, UPI) asking if this international agency might consider taking my pictures. The reply I received was surprisingly short and to the point: ‘Yes, Please’ – just the two words; no further explanation required; no demands; no doubts even over whether I could deliver photographs of the desired standard. This stunning breakthrough would prove the making of my company Africapix Media Limited.

Mohinder Dhillon (Founder and CEO of Africapix Media Ltd.) was the first photo and TV journalist to capture the plight of Iranian Kurds behind Khomeini’s lines. His first pictures shocked the world generating a lot for sympathy of Kurdish sufferance. He was knighted by the Order of Saint Mary of Zion during a ceremony at the Royal Artillery Headquarters in Woolwich, U.K. on November 12th 2005. “The honors were conferred upon those who had made significant contribution to the society. 

His films of Ethiopian famine finally moved the world into action resulting in one of the biggest famine relief operations in history. Relief planes from dozens of countries descended on little dirt air strips of Ethiopian countryside round the clock as if they were Heathrow or JFK airports. The very first pictures of the terrible Ethiopian famine was the combined effort of Mohinder Dhillon and Michael Buerk of BBC TV to gain entry into tightly controlled military ruled Ethiopia in 1984 opening the door for rest of the media and rest of the world.  


99 – Uncannily bonded to a famous grandfather I never knew

(Left to Right) My grandfather Salil Chowdhury with my aunt Tulika, his sister Lily with my eldest aunt Aloka, and my grandmother Jyoti Chowdhury with my mother, Lipika. Bombay, Maharashta. Circa 1959

(Left to Right) My grandfather Salil Chowdhury with my aunt Tulika, his sister Lily with my eldest aunt Aloka, and my grandmother Jyoti Chowdhury with my mother, Lipika. Bombay, Maharashta. Circa 1959

Image and Text contributed by Aurina Chatterji, Bombay/Toronto

Even though he died when I was 12, I never really knew my grandfather, the famous music Director Salil Chowdhury.

Bapi Dadu, as we called him, was an infrequent visitor at 16, Hillcrest, Perry Cross Road, Bandra. It was my grandmother, his wife’s house, the site of almost daily family congregations. I never wondered why he didn’t live in this house. Maybe it was because Bapi still occupied 16, Hill Crest like a benevolent ghost. The walls were plastered with his photographs, posters, awards. His songs drifted lazily from my grandmother’s trusty companion, the radio transistor, the sound often muffled by pillows.

I remember watching Bapi on Doordarshan, on one occasion talking to Asha Bhosle, on another – in the valorous yet invariably mangled Hindi of Bengalis – talking about Kishore Kumar. I remember numerous videos of him conducting a choir. I remember the twinkle in his eye, his proudly bald head and the way his hair always curled at his nape, begging for a hair cut.

One day, in our Bapi-bedecked hall, my older cousin told me in conspiratorial tones that Bapi had another wife and he had other children and that is why he lived in Calcutta and that is why we rarely saw him. I don’t remember being particularly affected. I do remember the puzzle pieces rapidly fitting into their places, but the complete picture, to me, was just a piece of delicious gossip. Like the happily stupid child I was, I didn’t think of our mothers’ devastation, nor the stigma of my grandmother being a single mother in 1960s India. I continued to feel a sly pride when people introduced me as Salil Chowdhury’s grand-daughter and I continued to look forward to Bapi’s rare but always joyful visits.

As I grew up, my personal memories of Bapi grew so blurry as to feel like some elaborate dream. The less I remembered, the more curious I became. This is what I learned: He was an avowed communist, a big fan of the USSR. He once accompanied Charlie Chaplin on the piano and he thought very highly of the Beatles.

I discovered his early, pre-Indian Cinema work – raw, angry, shamelessly political songs that were anti-colonialism, anti-zamindari, anti-war. As a teenager being gently tugged to the left by her nascent political beliefs, these songs were a revelation. I didn’t understand a lot of the lyrics – I speak Bengali like Bapi spoke Hindi, with less valour and more mangled – but what I did understand, I related to it viscerally.

Bapi’s idealistic ideas for a newly independent India, his poetic cries for justice were framed in complicated, meandering melodies, supported by beautifully feisty harmonies. I found myself in the fairly unique position of becoming musically obsessed with my own grandfather, a state that was both cool and awkward, almost narcissistic.

But for all his generosity when it came to the outside world, like so many other luminaries before and after him, Bapi was less than exemplary in his personal life. He had abandoned a devoted wife, a wife he had fallen for while he tutored her in Philosophy, a wife he had secretly married much to the chagrin of her Brahmin father, a wife who selflessly clothed and fed and mothered many of the Film & Cinema aspirants who followed Bapi from small-town Bengal. He abandoned his three little ones, the musically named Aloka, Tulika, Lipika, who, to my shock and eternal admiration, harbour no resentment against their deeply loving but absent father.
He knew all of this. He probably didn’t know that he also unwittingly abandoned his grandchildren. He showered us generously with love and ghost stories, but he always disappeared, leaving behind only the fragrance of his tobacco pipe.

To me, he was barely a grandfather. He was simply the reason the Bangladeshi florists by our home never charged us, the reason strangers would fawn over my grandmother, the reason some of my teachers were partial to me. 

And yet, 18 years after his death, I find myself uncannily bonded to a man I never knew. I am fascinated by colonial history. I obsessively read about Russia. I sing in a choir.

I wish I could ask my grandfather the questions that pop into my mind with the certainty of sunrise when I think of him: What was it like to hide in toilet holes to escape the British? Did you really think Stalin was a good man? How about Brezhnev? Can you teach me how to create harmonies? What are your thoughts on Putin? What do you think of the CPI(M) now? Is this how you pictured independent India?

Our similarities, of course, are perfectly explainable but I prefer to believe that they are magical. I prefer to believe that the universe contrived to ensure, albeit posthumously, that I would feel the tenderness of being grandfathered. When I look at this picture – my young, beautiful grandparents with their young, beautiful daughters – I feel a forceful, almost unbearable love. And sometimes if I close my eyes, I can still smell the sweet, brown tobacco that unfailingly lingered on Bapi Dadu.


87 – The First Olympic swimmer of British India was an unacknowledged man

Nalin Malik with my father and me. Calcutta, West Bengal. December, 1950

Image and Text contributed by Abhijit Das Gupta, Kolkata

This image was photographed in Calcutta (Now Kolkata) in 1950. I was about four years old. My Father used to take me to the swimming club in Dhakuria lake (now Rabindra Sarovar). The pool in the club doesn’t exist any more.

Our trainer at the time was a man called Nalin Malik. What is not known well is that Nalin Malik represented the British India in the 1932 Olympics held in Los Angeles, USA . He never had any formal training, in fact he was so poor that he could not even afford full meals.

From what I know, my uncle, Pankaj Gupta, also a sports legend spotted Nalin Da swimming in the Ganges. Pankaj Gupta was a sports administrator and he too began his career with the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. He was a manager and coach to the Indian contingent and managed several sports events across Europe and the USA. Nalin Malik stood fourth in the 400 Meters Swimming Heat 4. He swam without even a proper swimming costume.

People used to say Nalin Malik did not swim – he mowed the water apart. The unfortunate part is that he remained an unacknowledged, secluded, and a very lonely man whom no one remembered or paid tribute to. I however, have fond memories of him. He was a very tough trainer. On this day in a cold December in 1950, he made me cross the lake. The return was on his back.

In the picture, Nalin Malik is on the left. Behind us swims my father.


53 – The man who led India’s first climb expedition on Mount Everest

Padmshree winner Brig. Gyan Singh (right) with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Tenzing Norgay (left). at HMI, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. With a model in full mountaineering gear for an Everest climb. Darjeeling, West Bengal. 1961

Image and Text contributed by Soni Dave, New Delhi

Born on April 12, 1918 in the Mainpuri Dist. of Uttar Pradesh, Brigadier Gyan Singh, whom I fondly call Gyan Uncle, was a man of many many accomplishments and huge influence. He was commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in June 1940. In 1947 he set up the Army Ski Training School in Gulmarg, Kashmir, which is now the High Altitude Warfare School. In 1959 he became the second principal of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling established in 1954. He took over from Major N.D. Jayal who was the principal from 1954 to 1958.

And the best part, in 1960, he led the first Indian attempt to the Mount Everest. Unfortunately, the expedition was short of the summit by 200 meters when they were forced to return due to very bad weather.

He was also awarded the Padma Shri in 1961. And then was the first principal of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering set up in 1965 to honour the great desire of Prime Minister Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, who was an ardent mountain lover. In 1979 he founded the National Adventure Foundation and set up a chain of adventure clubs throughout India. He was also awarded the IMF gold medal in 1993 for his outstanding contribution in the field of mountaineering. ‘Lure of Everest‘,Peak to Peak‘, are some of the books he wrote.

The above is information readily available on the Internet. But I have a few personal words on the man I knew as Gyan uncle. Gyan Uncle was my mother’s brother, one of 5 siblings. Three elder brothers followed by two younger sisters. Gyan uncle was the second eldest. I consider myself fortunate to have spent long periods with him in the late 70’s early 80’s. He was in Delhi very often those days in connection with setting up the National Adventure Foundation. When in Delhi he always stayed with us. For me, in my early 20’s, he was a ready role model of optimism, work ethics and good cheer. He described it very well when he said that he ‘had a very bad memory for unpleasant things’. And so that’s how he lived his life. Always in the present moment. He was a man of action. Always doing something and doing it well.

His own family life however was turbulent. He had 3 sons and a daughter. He lost his eldest son, Mahinder, to a fire accident. His third son, Ravi, lost his life to an overdose of drugs. Ravi’s drug addiction had been a matter of great concern to his father who tried his best to help his son overcome it. He also admitted him to a de-addiction center after-which when he took him home he encouraged him to write about it. It turned into a book called ‘I was a Drug Addict’. However before it could be published, Ravi, unable to deal with issues, returned to his world of fantasies, and we lost him to an overdose. The last chapter of the book was written by a heartbroken grieving father. The book was published posthumously in 1979. To watch him mourning and then recover from such great losses were valuable life lessons. In 1979 he focussed all his energies on starting the National Adventure Foundation.

When I talk about him, how can I not talk about his great sense of humour and comic timing. There was never a dull moment. Quick wit and repartee would fly! Being around him was uplifting. And he was charming charming charming ! He won hearts so effortlessly. He passed away in 1997 at the age of 79. We still talk about him. Tell the children stories about him.. Nearly all those stories are accompanied by loud laughter! What an accomplishment! What a life!