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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.


162 – The day all the states of India were reorganised

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State Reorganisation Act. Legislative Assembly. Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. November 1, 1956

Image and text contributed by Subhadra Murthy, Hyderabad / Telangana

This photograph is from my family album and was taken on November 1, 1956, on Andhra Formation Day, at the Legislative Assembly in Hyderabad. The then Nizam – Mir Osman Ali Khan, speaker Kashinath Rao Vaidya, the first elected Chief Minister Burgula Ramakrishna Rao, and Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy (the to-be 6th President of India) are seen in this image.

On this day, all states of India were re-organised by language including the state of Hyderabad. The nine Telugu and Urdu speaking parts of Hyderabad State were merged with the Telugu-speaking Andhra to create Andhra Pradesh, with Hyderabad as its capital. The rest of the state merged with two of its neighbours to form the modern states of Maharashtra and Karnataka.

My father M.K Shastri sits in the inner semi-circle in the white shirt on the right. He was fluent in Urdu, and became the Editor of Debates and the warden of M.L.A Quarters. Until this day of the formation of Andhra Pradesh, the independent state of Hyderabad was ruled by the Nizam and his family since the 18th century.

I remember it was a very exciting day in Hyderabad and everyone was dressed up well. My father wore a beautiful sherwani. I insisted that I be taken along to the assembly on this important day in Indian History. There were two galleries for people to watch the moment take place. The Speakers gallery and the Visitors gallery, and my father got us a pass to the Speakers gallery. Most people of Hyderabad state were happy that that this moment in history had taken place.

Everything had began to change when India became independent in 1947, Hyderabad was amongst the many princely states given the choice of either joining India or Pakistan. The Nizam wanted to do neither and insisted on remaining independent. Negotiations between the Nizam and the Indian government for integration of Hyderabad into the India Union were unsuccessful. He finally relented to a “standstill agreement” with India on November 29, 1947 to maintain status quo and not accede to Pakistan instead. But Hyderabad state began to experience communal unrest caused by the Razakar’s movement. The Razakar was a private militia organized by the Nizam’s aid, Qasim Razvi to support the rule of the Nizam and resist the integration of Hyderabad State into the Dominion of India. That is until Operation Polo, when the Nizam finally agreed to join the India. In January of 1950, M. K. Vellodi, a senior civil servant was made the Chief Minister of the state and the Nizam was given the position of Governor.

In 1956, I remember I was in class 10 and life was simple, though now and then there was a lot of communal friction. There used to be no traffic, we used to travel from one place to another in rickshaws for mere four annas. I also had a lot of friends, including the Chief minister’s daughter. In days of trouble we were not allowed to go anywhere but to go to school and return right back home.

The capital Hyderabad has changed a lot since. The good consequences of being a part of a state from India was that there was a lot more equality than earlier. All kinds of classes and kinds of people were interacting and working with each other. I too found a lot of great and simple friends in elite classes of Hyderabad. My family however, was quite orthodox, and while I really wanted to become a doctor, I couldn’t and instead got married. Subsequently there was change in our family’s ideas and all my sisters and brothers were highly educated. Having said that, people say that women find independence without marriage but for me, it was the reverse. I think I found my independence after marriage. I decided to become a teacher and over the years flourished at my work and in positions. I am now 78 years old, fiercely independent and am the Advisor to the Red Cross in Hyderabad. Since 2014, we are now shared capital of a newer state of Telangana.


142 – The morning walks at Princeton University

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Albert Einstein and my father, Professor Dukhharan Nath Gurtoo. Princeton. New Jersey, USA. 1955

Image and Text contributed by Sudhir Gurtoo, Pune

My father Prof. Dukhharan Nath Gurtoo was born in 1917 and came from a Kashmiri Pandit Family. They lived in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. His father was an Economist and always encouraged everyone in the family to study more. After completing his own education my father began to teach at the University of Lucknow in the late 1930s. He then studied at the London School of Economics  (LSE) in 1945 had a chance to witness the World War while studying in Europe. A few years later, in 1952, he was awarded the Fulbright Scholarship to study at the The University of Princeton, New Jersey as a Research scholar.

His certificate from LSE, in my possession, has no Seal on it because it was issued at the time when World War II had broken out and some formalities were left for later. The footnote on the Certificate reads “If this certificate is returned to the University after the War it will be replaced by a Certificate under the Seal of the University”. I wonder if I do try now, will they honor it?

At LSE, my father, whom we called Dad, completed his Bachelor of Science (Economics) at the London School and was advised by his mentors to try for PhD at the very prestigious Princeton University in USA. He got through and began to pursue his Phd in International Trade. Princeton was a very exciting place at the time, and several great scholars and scientists of the time like Albert Einstein, lived as scholars and researchers on campus.

My Dad from a very young age, was very particular about healthy habits and was very fond of walking. He believed that an early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day and the easiest way to ensure a healthy mind in an able body. Another person who believed that same was Albert Einstein. Einstein’s daily routine began with a leisurely walk from his house, at 115 Mercer Street, to his office at the institute and Dad would now-and-then bump into him early in the morning while walking the beautiful Princeton campus. He remembered that over short conversations they shared a robust sense of wit and humour.  This image was probably photographed by one of Dad’s colleagues who would also be on his walks. Dad used to say that this was perhaps one of the last photographs where Albert Einstein was seen smiling and healthy because he passed away in April of 1955, a few months after this photograph was taken.

My father had taken a tough call to go to USA for pursuing further Studies. He was married now and had to convince my mother Kiran on how keen he was to receive a Phd from The Princeton University and so my mother agreed to stay back with her in-laws in India. Dad would regularly write letters to her. Since communication at the time was mainly letters sent through US Mail, they would arrive only a few weeks later. My mother would reply back and await his next response. Besides the letter content, she says, she “would look forward to the beautiful stamps pasted on the cover”, and would lovingly collect all of them.

My father got the opportunity to interact and study under several well known scholars during his studies. In London his mentor was the well known economist Harold Laski and at Princeton it was Jacob Viner, one of the most inspiring economists of the time in USA. I still possess a letter written on 27 August 1952 by his Professor and mentor Jacob Viner. According to Dad he was considered to be a tough man and prospective students were terrified to be under him. In the letter, Prof. Viner had made an exception, as a special case, to let father join his courses a little later than scheduled, as the journey on the Ship meandering its way from India would take around 4-6 weeks to reach.

After completing his research and now a Phd Doctor, my father returned to India and joined the American embassy in New Delhi. But he didn’t take to work very well and decided to return to the noble profession of Teaching. He was offered a role in the formation of Birla Arts college (now BITS Pilani) and set up the Social Sciences and Studies wing.

Interestingly, while studying at XLRI, Jamshedpur in 1986, I chanced upon a book in the Library – India’s Balance of Payments, 1920-1960 and was pleasantly surprised to see the Authors name- “Professor D N Gurtoo”. I had no idea that my father had written a book that I learnt later, was considered an important reference for Economists, even today. The book, I found out still sells at a price of $17 at Amazon. I am not sure what happened to the Royalties of the book because I don’t think my father or I ever heard from its Publisher S. Chand on the matter.

 


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.

 


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.


97 – The pioneer whose contributions in Africa survived early colonial times through to modern day Tanzania

The Khambhaita family photograph. Tanga, Tanzania. Circa 1960

Images and Text contributed by the Khambhaita family, U.K. & Tanzania

Our grandfather, Jagjivan Samji Khambhaita (top row, middle) was born on March 10, 1912 in Kalavad (Gujarat), India and came to Tanzania in 1928 when he was a teenager. He married Jashvanti Ben who was born on August 6, 1915 in Talagana (Gujarat), India and went on to have seven sons and a daughter. The family photograph was taken in the early 1960s in Tanga, Tanzania shortly after an uncle’s marriage during which the family had gathered.

A central pillar to the family, he was also widely known and held in high regard across communities in Tanzania, East Africa, South Africa and India. I witnessed this in 2008 on a visit to Tanzania when I went about purchasing a bus ticket in Dar-es-Salaam’s main bus station and was required to fill in my details. The elderly station clerk instantly recognised my last name and embraced me enthusiastically saying he knew of my grandfather. I was left speechless. I knew I was truly dealing with an individual who left more than just a mere footprint.

Our grandfather had an incredible flair for architectural design and entrepreneurship from a young age. He partnered with his elder brother in Moshi, Tanzania from 1928, building and contracting on various projects. In 1938, with his younger brother he established his own building & civil engineering contractor business under the name of J.S. Khambhaita Limited in Moshi and in 1942 he expanded the company to form branches in Tanga and Arusha.

By the early 1960s, the company employed around 300 Africans and 10 Asians and undertook large projects such as the European quarters for the Public Works Department (PWD) in Tanga and part of a large primary school in Moshi. They were also sub-contractors for the Air Ministry at Tanga and went on to become responsible for more than 150 prominent buildings in Tanga, Moshi and Arusha.

He split his time between businesses, travelling, photographing and participating in religious/social work with a significant contribution to the Hindu community, particularly in Tanga and Moshi. Indeed, in the 1950s his company undertook the task, free of all cost, to construct a Hindu temple in Moshi, against the scenic backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro. He travelled widely throughout East Africa, India and exactly like Mahatma Gandhi was also told to disembark from a train in South Africa under the apartheid regime.

J.S. Khambhaita was also particularly interested in family matters and genealogy, reaching out to and photographing relatives overseas and later compiling an impressive family tree dating back well over 350 years. He remained an Indian citizen for most of his life until 1964 when he took up Tanzanian citizenship. He passed away on March 10, 1976 battling Leukaemia on the day of his Birthday in Moshi, Tanzania.

Fast forwarding the clock to nearly 75 years to today, the company he founded in 1938 remains a strong concern in Tanzania and is termed a ‘Class 1’ contractor. It is one of a handful of private firms to have survived through early colonial times into modern day Tanzania. More importantly though, his name and legacy will continue to live on in the hearts of his grandchildren, great grandchildren and all those he reached out to during his life.


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!


7 – The Professor who founded the Surat University

My maternal grandparents, Surat, Gujarat. 1925

“My Grandfather was a very progressive man. Though he married my grandmother very young, 17 or 18 I think, he decided not to have children until she was in her 20s. He understood that she was too young to have kids so early. He was a Chemistry professor in Surat. After being trained in Manchester,  he and 2 other professors joined hands and found the Surat University.

The watch that my grandmother proudly wears in this photograph, was a gift bought for her in Manchester.”