logo image Tracing the identity & history of the Indian Subcontinent via family archives

Personal Collections

175 – The Maharanis of Travancore

The Maharanis of Travancore. Sethu Parvathi Bayi (left) and Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (right). Travancore (now central and Southern Kerala, India). c. 1905

Image contributed by Jay Varma, Text by Manu S. Pillai, New Delhi

(This narrative is an edited version to suit the format of this archive.)

It was in the fall of 1900, that the Maharajah of Travancore adopted the two girls in this photograph (taken in c. 1905), as his Maharanis — and as his ‘nieces’. For in Kerala, queens were never wives of monarchs, but their sisters. Under the matrilineal system of succession, ranks and titles passed in the female line; the Maharajah was a ruler not because his father was king before him, but because his mother was queen.

The Maharajahs of Travancore (now central and Southern Kerala, India) inherited the crown from their mother’s brothers, and thus power passed in a topsy turvy fashion from uncle to nephew, down the generations. Naturally, then, the sons of kings from their own wives were not seen as princes, but were only exalted nobles of the realm, fated for oblivion after the deaths of their royal fathers. Instead, princely dignities were granted to sons of royal sisters, and it was these boys who were considered heirs to the throne.

In 1900, however, the Maharajah had no heirs through his sister, and so the two girls seen here were adopted. They were cousins, and granddaughters of the famous artist Raja Ravi Varma. Sometime before the princesses were born, their mothers had journeyed to Rameswaram (Tamil Nadu) on a pilgrimage to pray for the birth of daughters to them. Legend has it that the deity appeared to them in a dream and promised the fulfilment of their desire. And thus when the girls were born, they were named Sethu Parvathi Bayi (left) and Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (seated right) respectively, with the prefix ‘Sethu’ denoting their divine origins from the lord of Sethu Samudram in Rameswaram.

The girls grew up in Trivandrum Fort as ‘Junior Maharani’ (Sethu Parvathi Bayi) and ‘Senior Maharani’ (Sethu Lakshmi Bayi) respectively. Indian as well as Anglo-Indian tutors were appointed for them and before long they were able to speak the King’s English, cultivating manners that marked Edwardian high society. They played tennis, golf, and croquet, all in their traditional costumes. In music they mastered the piano and the veena, and they read voraciously, becoming expert conversationalists, impressing everyone who met them.

When they turned 10, a set of boys from the aristocracy was presented to them to select one each as their consorts (the men were never officially called ‘husbands’). Though these consorts were wedded to the Maharanis, they were considered subjects: they lived in separate palaces and only visited their royal wives when summoned; they had to bow to them and refer to them as Highnesses. In public, they were prohibited from being seated in the presence of their highborn brides. The little Maharanis spent several years playing hopscotch with their husbands, and reading fairytales together in the palace library until in their teens the marriages were consummated on nights when the stars were in perfect alignment.

It was the Junior Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi who gave birth to a boy, Chithira Thirunal, in 1912. But until he came of age, for over seven years, the destinies of Travancore were entrusted to the Senior Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who had two daughters but no sons. Power corrupted relations between the two royal matriarchs and records speak of the Junior Maharani as ‘the villain’. She felt that as mother of the future Maharajah, she ought to have been allowed to rule Travancore on his behalf and not her sister. But law and tradition decreed that only the Senior Maharani could reign.

So it was Sethu Lakshmi Bayi who ruled Travancore in the 1920s. She initiated far-reaching reforms constructing highways, bringing electricity and telephone services to her people, spending nearly a fifth of her revenues on education, which augmented Kerala’s high rate of literacy, developing Cochin (now Kochi) into the modern trading port it is today, appointing the first female minister in India, employing hundreds of educated women in her government, and thousands as teachers and nurses, installing the first Dalit and Muslim judges in the state, selecting a Christian Prime Minister instead of a traditional Brahmin or Nair; and opening up public roads to all in Travancore, hitherto accessible only to high caste Hindus.

By the end of 1931, the Senior Maharani relinquished power and handed the mantle of state to her nephew Chithira Thirunal, the Junior Maharani’s son. By then relations between the sisters had deteriorated irreparably, with palace intrigue, black magic, and more vitiating the air at court. For the next many years, the Senior Maharani, despite her acclaimed services to the five million people of Travancore, lived under the vexing control of the Junior Maharani. British authorities noted that while the Senior Maharani was ‘popular and respected’ and ‘held in the greatest reverence and esteem throughout the state’, the Junior was ‘cordially hated’ by their subjects, and was a ‘jealous and masterful’ modern day Catherine de’ Medici. There was perhaps bias, for the Junior Maharani who showed great independence and held unorthodox views, but the man on the ground held her in fear, and not love.

In 1947, when India became independent, the Senior Maharani’s family sensed relief and freedom from control of the Junior Maharani. Her daughters moved to Bangalore and Madras (now Bengaluru and Chennai), leading new lives as ordinary citizens; they cooked their own food, drove their own cars, and brought up their children as regular citizens. In 1957, the Senior Maharani decided to leave her palace and renounce her royal past. From being ‘Her Highness Sri Padmanabha Sevini Vanchi Dharma Vardhini Raja Rajeshwari Maharani Pooradam Tirunal Sethu Lakshmi Bayi Maharajah, Companion of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India and Senior Maharani of Travancore,’ she retired to Bangalore simply as ‘Smt Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’. From a palace with 300 servants, she moved into an ordinary bungalow with a staff of seven and spent the remainder of her days as a quiet recluse. She gave up her palaces to the people of Kerala; her summer palace is now with the Agriculture College; her official residence is a medical research institute; her beach resort was given to the ITDC.

Some years before her death, bedridden, she remarked wistfully with a stoic smile, to a visitor: ‘Once I had a kingdom, but it is gone. Then I thought the palace was mine but that is gone too. Then I thought I had this house, but now I can only say I have this room.’

In 1983 the Junior Maharani died in her stately palace in Trivandrum where she and her family had continued to reside as royalty. She was granted a state funeral by the Government of Kerala, attended by celebrities and politicians alike. In 1985, the Senior Maharani died in a general hospital in Bangalore. She was cremated at the Wilson Gardens Electric Crematorium, like just anybody else, surrounded by family members. She wrote many years earlier, ‘I have emerged a wiser woman learning that often in this world one gets kicks for honest selfless work, while the canting self-seeker wins half pence.’

And thus ended the saga of the two Sethus, daughters of providence adopted and raised to princely ranks, with one dying as a nobody, faraway from the land she loved and served, and the other meeting her maker in the comforts of her palace, still a queen long after time dissolved her kingdom into the pages of history.


Winner of the 2017  Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, Manu S Pillai is the author of the award winning book ‘The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore’. The book can be purchased here. 


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.


169 – Hiding out in the forests of Assam-Burma-East Bengal border

My grandfather with his brothers. Assam Burma Border. c

My grandfather Suresh Chandra Mukherjee (extreme right) with his brothers. Assam-Burma-East Bengal Border. Circa 1943

Image & Text contributed by Shravani Dang, New Delhi

This photograph taken in 1943 or 44 is of my maternal grandfather, Dr. Suresh Chandra Mukherjee (extreme right) with his brothers. It was taken in a forest hideout at the Assam-Burma-East Bengal border.

My grandfather, Dr. Suresh Chandra Mukherjee whom we fondly called Dadu, was born in 1895. 
Our family originally came from a small town in undivided Bengal and India called Khulna (now in Bangladesh) but they worked across the states of Bengal and Assam. Dadu’s hobbies included fishing and photography. He married my grandmother, Bimala Bala in 1909 when she was only 9 years old, he was 23 and already a doctor.

Dadu was a renowned gynecologist & an obstetrician, and also specialized in tropical medicine. He worked with the George Williamson & Co., a Tea Company in Assam ( now Williamson Magor & Co.).  In this photograph, my grandfather wears a British army uniform as he had been recruited into British Army to serve during World War II, when the Japanese occupied Burma and parts of the North-East Frontier.

During the war, and due to fears of Japanese attacks and bombings, the entire family of six brothers, their wives and children moved to a relative’s place and hid in the forest. The second person on the left is his younger brother Dinesh Chandra Mukherjee who later worked in the Foreign Service. The other brothers’ names I don’t’ know but one was a school headmaster. Not in the photograph is the fifth brother, Dr. Debesh Chandra Mukherjee who was also a doctor and was one of the five physicians dispatched to China by Netaji Subas Chandra Bose to provide medical assistance during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938. Dr. Dwarkanath Kotnis was the other well-known Doctor in the group, on whom the film Dr. Kotnis ki Amar Kahani is based, and my granduncle is mentioned in it. My grandfather was the only one who served in war.

Life during the war was difficult. Most importantly, food was rationed. No cattle or milkmen were available as lived in far away towns and villages. Each time my grandfather visited the family, he would bring milk and a prized tin of English biscuits – Jacob’s Biscuits. Sometimes, but not often, he would manage to bring in eggs and Anchor Butter (from New Zealand). Without refrigeration, and in the dense tropical forest, the milk would get spoilt. In army rations, milk was only available in army rations in form of powder, that the family would then hoard. Sugar was in very short supply and often not available- so they had to manage with Gur (Jaggery) to satisfy the Bengali sweet tooth. And the most difficult thing, especially for Bengalis- was that rice was rationed, and if it was available, it was very poor quality and hardly edible. So the family learnt to eat fish curry with chapatis (flat Indian bread). 
The family had to maintain a very low profile and keep their oil lamps, candles, and fires to a bare minimum in the forest, lest they attracted the enemy.

My grandfather served on the Manipur-Burma border and they were successful in stemming the Japanese entry. He had a team of informants to keep the British army abreast of the activities of the Japanese. He helped and supervise the construction of roads and bridges in the region for the British army to travel to strategic places to quell the enemy. Eventually, in 1945 the Japanese were defeated and my grandfather was decorated and personally thanked by Field Marshal and Commander-in-Chief of India Sir Claude John Eyre Auchinleck otherwise known as “The Auk”, who also served as the British Army commander during World War II. The Auk also wrote my grandfather a personal note on his efforts, that still lies in our family archives.

Dadu continued to serve the tea company after the end of Japanese occupation. Later he moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) and established a private practice. He retired at the age of 75 and passed away of old age at 85, in 1980.


166 – The families that fled Tibet with the Dalai Lama

My grandfather Faizullah Baba with my uncles Abdullah and Majid. Darjeeling, India. Circa 1957

My grandfather Faizullah Baba with my uncles Abdullah and Majid. Darjeeling, India. Circa 1957

Image & Text contributed by Soheb Ahmed Baba, New Delhi

The man in the photograph above is my grandfather Faizullah Baba. Standing left is my grand father’s eldest son, my uncle, Abdullah, age 7, and on the right is Abdullah’s cousin Majid.

During the Tibetan Uprising in 1959, fearing for his life, the Dalai Lama and his advisers fled Tibet with the help of the CIA and were given asylum by the Indian Government. While the world press published stories of strain in Indo-China relationships, very few threw light on the families that followed the Dalai Lama and fled from Tibet to India in the subsequent months. My grandfather and his family were few of the many that also fled to India to seek a better and peaceful life after the uprising. Our family, however, weren’t Buddhists but Muslim minorities living in Tibet and were often referred to as “Ka- chee” which literally means Kashmiri or Kashmir. One of the reasons that my grandfather also decided to flee was because he sensed Islam being suppressed by the Chinese Government and felt India to be more secular and comforting.

Historically, our ancestors were from Kashmir. On one hand, they were traders who would travel between Kashmir and Lhasa to exchange goods, and on the other, they preached the teachings of Islam. Many community traders married local Tibetan women forming a fusion of cultures and resulting in the gradual growth of the Tibetan-Muslim community in Tibet.

It was important for our ancestors that the young were educated in the lessons & practices it boasted and there were a few madrasas in Lhasa but these institutes were limited to religious education. My grandfather instead wanted his kids to gain more knowledge and decided early on (before the uprising) to send the young boys all the way to Delhi, in India, to study in a school founded within Jamia Millia Islamia.

What fascinates me about this picture and the story, are the journeys young Abdullah and his cousin Majid, made each time they crossed over to the Indian border to study and to return during vacations. From Lhasa, they would hitch a ride with the traders, trekking through the rough terrains until the border, and then use public transport into India. Sometimes they would make a pit stop at Darjeeling, West Bengal and carry on till Delhi to attend school. They would embark on this journey back and forth each time they visited home in Lhasa.

Occasionally, my grandfather, Faizullah, would make the same journey to go and pick them up from Delhi. This photograph was taken during one of those journeys. The well ironed collared shirts and half trousers with a book in hand were perhaps important props to display at the time because quality education in Tibet was rare and only a few attained an English education.

The separations and the hard journeys must have taken a toll on both Abdullah & his parents but my dad says it was these characteristics of my grandfather that he greatly admired – His inner strength, his will power to let go of problems and his faith in the almighty. Maybe this is why my father, his siblings & cousins were encouraged to travel to far out places and pursue their dreams.

By 1962, the Indian government granted the Kachee community permission to settle in India and many of my relatives began a new life in Delhi, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Siliguri, Gangtok, Kashmir and Srinagar. My grandparents themselves earned a living by selling garments at one point. Abdullah, my uncle in the picture, took up teaching as a full-time profession in Kargil, Ladakh for most of his adult life. He passed away in Srinagar, Kashmir, at the age of 62.

Today, 57 years later after this photograph was taken, I, a grandson of this community is writing this testimony in Delhi, the capital of India. My sister, our cousins and I are the third generation born and brought up in this country and a city that we now proudly call home.


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 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.


158 – India’s expert on Coral & Coral reefs

My Father Dr. Reddiah Kosaraju. Andamans & Nicobar Islands. 1977

My father, Dr. Reddiah Kosaraju inspecting Coral reefs. Andamans & Nicobar Islands. 1977

Image and Text contributed by Raju Kosraju, India

My father Dr. Reddiah Kosaraju was a Scientist with a PhD degree in Marine Biology from University of Liverpool (1950s). He was a happy go lucky man, a wonderful person to know, and was generous to the core. Over the years, he helped quite a number of Indian students with no monetary support, by sponsoring their education. He was a good swimmer as well as an outstanding chess player and won the Open All England Chess Championship in 1958.

After a MSc degree from Agra University (standing second) in 1955 with ‘Fish and Fisheries’ as a special subject, he became a Research Assistant in SERI in Dehradun, and then worked as a lecturer in Zoology in Andhra Christian College, Guntur. Thereafter he went to study in Liverpool, England on his own, and completed a PhD degree in record time of only a year and half. He discovered new breeding grounds of edible bivalves (marine mollusks) in U.K and his works on ‘Parasitic copepods of Bivalves’ were featured in several reputed foreign journals. He then returned to India and joined as Pool Officer in Annamalai University.

In 1960, after a posting as a Zoologist in Shillong, he was transferred to Southern Regional Station, ZSI (Zoological Survery of India), Madras (now Chennai), as officer-in-charge. During this tenure, he added several specimens of birds and mammals, and laid the foundation for a scientific museum at the Station. In view of his expertise on corals and coral reefs of India, he also fulfilled a special task of locating corals of medicinal importance around the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, in 1977. In the Andamans, he spent considerable time with the local aboriginal tribes, the Onges.

The Onges were semi-nomadic and were dependent on hunting and gathering for food. Till 1998, the nomadic hunter-gatherers hardly had any contact with the outside world. My father first became friends with the Ongee tribal chief of Little Andaman Islands by exchanging his cigarettes and tin food, for coconut water. But there was also danger around.
A grounded freight ship from Hong Kong on the North Sentinel Island reef had reported small black naked men carrying spears and arrows, and building boats on the beach. They were suspected to be cannibals from Neatorama, the Forbidden Island. No one knows what language they spoke or what they called themselves – they had never allowed anyone to get close enough to find out. The outside world calls them the “Sentineli” or the “Sentinelese” after the island.
Apparently, once when a National Geographic film crew lingered too long in 1975, a Sentinelese warrior shot the director in the thigh with a bow and arrow, and then stood there on the beach laughing at his accomplishment. My father lived amidst dangerous situations but did not make excuses and never raised objections, he ended up doing a brilliant job

Time went on and so did several other postings and promotions, and soon it became clear that my father was overworked. He passed away suddenly on January 30, 1988. Even as an authority on corals and coral reef development, much of his expertise, discoveries and observations on Corals remained untapped and died along with him. At my age, my father had already lived in three countries, travelled the world, and had innumerable adventures – without a guidebook. My dream in life is to make my father proud of the man I become.


154 – She was sent to London to learn production for films

My maternal Grandmother, Jaya Phatak. London, United Kingdom 1972

My maternal Grandmother, Jaya Phatak. London, United Kingdom 1972

Image & Text contributed by Rohit Kulkarni, Pune

This is a photograph of my grandmother, Jaya Phatak. It was taken at a film studio in London in 1972.

My grandmother was born in the Phatak family in Pune, Maharashtra in 1926. Her father Duttatre Phatak worked with the British Indian Railways, and was also the manager of a record label ‘Orion‘ that no longer exists. I am told he was instrumental in the first ever recording of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, a well-known Hindustani Classical Singer and appointed musician to two royal courts in Baroda, and Mysore. Duttatre died when my grandmother was very young and over time her life turned out to be very different for many of the women of her era. She was very interested in sports and also represented the State at the Kabaddi Nationals in 1964.

She was very young in 1942, when she became involved in India’s Independence movement in Pune. She was jailed along with other 6-7 of her mates and sent to Yerwada Jail for disrupting and distributing Anti-British leaflets at a British military gathering at Nowrosjee Wadia College grounds. At the jail, she discovered many more imprisoned freedom fighters across castes and classes. They were detained and went through a one-month trial, and offered either Bail or an arrest for a month in jail. The family didn’t have much money so there was no bail forthcoming. Despite an arrest for only a month, my grandmother says that they were still not released and instead were kept for another 11 months, because British law stated that it did not need to justify or give reasons to detain anyone. She notes that in prison, despite the fact that everyone was fighting for the same cause, a section of the higher caste would not share their meals with other castes. There was unsaid  segregation along caste lines and at that time, castle lines were not questioned very much.

My grandmother was married twice. After divorcing her first husband which was unheard of at the time, she met and married my grandfather Vishwanath Modak, a journalist, who ran a daily political /social commentary column in the Marathi newspaper Prabhat and they fell in love. My grandfather used to call my grandmother “the man amongst the women”. She was fiery, opinionated and an atheist. My mother is the only child they had and jokes that her birth was an experiment that was never to repeated again.

My grandmother Jaya found a good job at the Department of Education and was sent to England in 1972, to study and receive a Diploma in Production for Films – for education specifically. This picture is from that time when she was studying there. She also established a charitable trust called Kishor Mitra (“friend of the young”) where she produced short films on simple science – for instance how a Thermos or bread is made and helped publish Marathi books for making learning fun. Inspired by Sesame Street, the well known American Television series for children, she developed and produced puppet shows that were made into educational films. It was her first and last job until retirement. My grandmother Jaya continues to be a trustee of Kishor Mitra and lives in Pune with her granddaughter.

 


153 – Across three continents with a sewing machine in tow

My mother, Satwant Kaur Virdee. Ludhiana, Punjab Circa 1967

My mother, Satwant Kaur Virdee. Ludhiana, Punjab Circa 1967

Image and Text contributed by Pritpal Virdee, UK

This is a picture of my mother, Satwant Kaur Virdee photographed in Ludhiana, Punjab around the late 1960s.
She was born in Nurpur, near Lahore (now Pakistan) in 1929 and later moved to Kot Badal Khan, Jalandhar district (now India). It was one of the many journeys and migrations my mother would make in her lifetime; initially with her mother and father, Daya Singh, and then with my father Prem Singh Virdee after marriage, circa 1945.

She spent time at Nangal when Bhakra Dam was being constructed (my father was a mechanical engineer) then Phillaur, Ludhiana, Nakuru, Nairobi and finally Coventry, UK. Moving across three continents with her daughters in tow – a sewing machine too was always essential. This picture represents so much of the migration history that epitomises modern life, the Punjabi diaspora and our own personal family history.

Migration from the Doaba area of Punjab has been prolific and in our family, it started initially with my maternal grandfather. Doaba is now called the ‘NRI Hub of Punjab’ as a consequence of a significant percentage migration of the Doabias. By the 1960s, my father also ventured into East Africa, taking advantage of family and colonial linkages. He spent time working in Nakuru, Kenya and my mother spent time in Ludhiana; father would often bring “foreign” gifts for his daughters when he returned home. He would buy bicycles, radios and other modern consumables, including a camera for his girls. My mother told me he was quite progressive in his thinking and despite us being girls, he wanted us to have the latest gadgets.

Scanning the old family photograph album after my mother passed away in 2012, I came across this picture of my mother sitting in the verandah of our house in Ludhiana. She’s sitting there with an old sewing machine, a need and passion that would remain with her for the rest of her life. Having no formal education, she was nonetheless, astute and nimble with her fingers. Creating many wonderful pieces of art, many of which I have carefully treasured. From this handwheel sewing machine she advanced to the computerised Bernina, taking to it like pro, and I still have that Bernina.

The photo is also unusual because it’s not taken in a studio, the norm at the time. Most likely, it was my sister who took this photograph. In its messiness, it shows everyday life, yet it also captures the grace my mother had until the end of her life.


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”.


148 – Picnic at Juhu Beach

Our family and friends at the Juhu Beach. Bombay. 1941

Our family and friends at the Juhu Beach. Bombay. 1941

Image & Text contributed by Rumi Taraporevala/ Sooni Taraporevala

This photograph of our family was taken by my youngest kaka (uncle) Shapoor at Juhu Beach. We had all gone out to Juhu beach for a picnic, outside the Palm Grove hotel (now Ramada Plaza Palm Grove). It was a regular haunt for picnics and we used to look forward to our day out for weeks. The beach was totally un-spoilt and had only a few small shacks around. Now I wouldn’t go even if someone paid me for it.

I remember, we would take the train from Grant Road to Santa Cruz and then take a bus to Juhu beach. At that time the Bombay trains were not called Western or Central railways. The Western line was called BB & CI – Bombay Baroda and Central India Railways and the Central line was called GIP – Great Indian Peninsula Railway. I don’t remember what we would do though, I think mainly chatter, run around, eat and some of us swam. Picnic lunches were fun, sometimes they were large tiffins full of Pork Vindaloo. It was very tasty.

In the middle wearing a white dress is Freny, now my beautiful wife, and on her left is me. Freny and I are also first cousins, our fathers were real brothers. Like some other communities in India, in Parsis too, marriage between cousins is allowed. Though we weren’t an arranged match, we just fell in love with each other. She was beautiful. I think even at this picnic I was eyeing her. Our parents must have noticed and declared that we must be made into a match. There was no ‘dating’ at the time, so the way I would get to meet her was – when she would be attending the girl guides meeting, I would go and fetch her back. We would walk through Azad Maidan and at Churchgate take the train to Grant road. At the time she used to live at Sleater Road. A lot of boys were after her, she was a beautiful girl you know, but I got her.

At that time there was not much entertainment for us in Bombay. In school, we were big on Hollywood movies. It was our only past time. On Thursdays and Sundays, we’d be standing in the queue at the Metro Cinema (now Metro Big Cinema) and buy tickets for Four Annas (one Anna was 1/16 of a Rupee).

In this picture, I would have been 11 years old and Freny was six months older to me. I studied at St. Xavier’s School and then St. Xavier’s college. My daddy was a foreign currency exchange broker, and would earn around Rs. 3000 a month, which was a lot of money and would take care of the entire family. After I left college, I joined the same business in 1951. At that time we didn’t question the expectations of our parents and teachers. My father was a tough disciplinarian but that was the general case with our parents anyway. My mom however, was full of mischief, and was a very jovial and fun person.

Daddy used to pay me Rs.100 and when Freny and I got married my salary was Rs. 400. It was a lot of money for us. We used to go to the movies, for the office dances, and then there was Ideal restaurant where Freny and I would eat Chicken salad for 12 Annas.

In the picture there were also my cousins from Canton, Hong Kong – Veera, Perin and Baji. My uncle and aunt were visiting India to show their children what India was like. But then Japan declared occupation in Hong Kong and they couldn’t go back. So they stayed here in Bombay for four years, until they could return. Veera was a beautiful girl. She was dark with one of the most beautiful faces one had seen. She was a great athlete, swimmer and diver -and all the boys used to run after her. My mom and she used to get along like a house on fire. They loved each other, and were in touch all the time. The ladies of my mum’s generation would correspond with each other in Gujarati and the men would write each other in English. Maybe it was because many of the orthodox families didn’t educate the girls for too long. When Freny’s elder sister was studying at Sophia’s college, one of the Parsi girls converted to Christianity. Right then my grandmother wrote to my uncle/father-in-law saying “immediately remove her from school”. Her fears were that maybe they will brainwash her into becoming a Christian.

On the top right are Jehangir Tarapore and his wife Khorshed. Jehangir was a very well known studio photographer in the Gujarati and Parsi community. His images are simply beautiful, very radical for the time. The superb quality of his prints still baffles me. Many of his photographs are now stored by a museum in London, with my daughter Sooni as the guardian.

Sorab Kaka is on the top left. He was a professor of French and he used to teach French at the Elphinstone college. Shapoor, my youngest uncle who took this picture, was very fond of photography. As children we started off with cameras such as the Brownie and Agfa. It had only six exposures. Then they increased it to eight and we were ultra excited about that. I remember we had an old gramophone too, and had to change the needle after each record revolution. Then they started making bronze needles, each lasted three records, then came the gold needle which lasted eight records. We had to change it else it would spoil the record. Can you imagine that?

This area where we live, the Gowalia tank was so beautiful at the time, it was an absolutely quiet locality. The trams used to end at the maidan (playground), and the only sound at night was the bell announcing the tram changing tracks. In 1942, the Quit India Movement Speech was issued by Gandhi right here at the maidan. I remember, I was at my boy scouts meeting and there was a rally going on. Then my father fetched me, because there was a lot of rioting and shooting going on and many people were killed.

After Indo/Pak partition Bombay changed. I remember that in December of 1942, Japan dropped a few bombs on Calcutta, and so all the Gujarati traders fearing that Bombay will be next, fled back to their native places. Several apartments were available with “To be let” signs. Or as my Gujarati colleague used to pronounce it- “Toblet”. By the late 1940s, a lot of people immigrated into Bombay from Karachi and different places – the prices started rising, houses became difficult to get, and what really changed for the worse that suddenly the builders had the bright idea of ‘ownership apartments’. Till then all Bombay flats were only on rent and we didn’t have any ownership. Of course, a lot of the Parsis were pro-brits. You will find many of them still keep pictures of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth and call them “Aapnee Rani” (Our queen). When Sooni did her photo book on the Parsis, I ensured that we get the book to the Queen in England. At first it got rejected, because of the letter bombs going around, then a British colleague helped me re-send the book to her.

I have had a wonderful life with a very warm close knit family of cousins & friends and now grandchildren. Together we have had a lot of fun. There was always some outdoor activity or the other – trekking to Nepal or scooter tours to the south of India- the sites of our subcontinent are amazing. But Bombay, I tell you, was the most beautiful and interesting city.


146 – My father’s inspired passive resistance

Woven portrait of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute. Bombay, Maharashtra. 1934

Woven portrait of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute. Bombay, Maharashtra. 1934

 

Image and Text contributed by Jayati Gupta, India

Indian textiles were a major part of the East India Company’s trade since the 17th century. Hundreds of thousands of people in India were involved in the textile trade, as spinners, weavers and dyers. 
By the early years of the 20th century too, textile and textile technology was controlled and promoted by the British and colonial masters. Indian textiles was a rapidly growing industry, especially since the demand for British cotton had slumped during the interwar period.

During the booming era of the East India Company, raw materials were sent back to Britain and the finished goods were re-exported and sold in the colonies at exorbitant prices. The production and consumptions of textiles was controlled with imbalanced equations between the producer and the consumer, the coloniser and the colonised.

 When Mahatma Gandhi’s activism to promote khadi (homespun thread and home-woven cloth) became a big part of resistance to imperial authority, cotton became an important symbol in Indian independence and the Swadeshi movement began to overrule all. The resistance took the form of boycotting foreign goods and textiles.

My father, Nirmal Chandra Ghosh (1911-1989), after his initial education in the Zilla School (district scool) in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand, (formerly part of Bihar), won a scholarship and decided to train as a textile technologist.

In 1930, he became a student of Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute (now Veermata Jeejabai Technical Institute/VJTI) in Matunga, Bombay (now Mumbai). He graduated in 1934 becoming that year’s recipient of the Dadabhai Nowrojee Gold Medal. His name appears on the Roll of Honour, a board that is maintained in the Institute.

 Those were heady days of the nationalist movement and my father was very far away from home living in a cosmopolitan city thriving with conversations on the movement. At the time, for such distances from Bombay to Jharkhand, a railway journey would take more than three days, letters reached after more than a week and telephone calls were unheard of.

My grand father Kshitish Chandra Ghosh, was employed as a Post Master in the Bihar Postal Service run by the State & British administrators. It was a transferable job and he had warned his children, a large family of four sons and five daughters, that any nationalist activity they indulged in could be interpreted as anti-government and lead to losing his job. He sternly indicated that any anti-government activity would have disastrous consequences for the family as he was then the sole earning member and hence they would have to be very cautious.

But my father, at the time a young man in Bombay, was inspired by the movement of resistance and found a way to express himself. In his final year (1933-34) one of the assignments that he had, was to design and weave a piece of cloth. Very ingeniously he wove several textile portraits of public and national figures, highly respected and feted by patriotic countrymen. He wove portraits of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the Father of the Bengal Renaissance, of Rabindranath Tagore, Poet & Nobel prize winner and of Mahatma Gandhi, already an icon of Indian nationalism. One of those portraits woven of Raja Ram Mohan Roy by my father, as shown in the photograph, was framed many years later and still hangs in my sister’s Kolkata home. As a child, I remember the woven portrait of Gandhi hanging in my grandmother’s room in Hazaribagh. The other portraits may have been gifted by him to others and seem to be lost.

Luckily, this gesture expressing solidarity with the national movement went unrecorded and unnoticed by his sahib instructors. My father spoke of the act as an inspired passive resistance, and that it was a source of immense thrill and excitement when he was planning and executing the design. In volatile colonial times, it must have needed immense personal courage and extreme conviction to think and act in this manner.

My father was also an excellent amateur photographer. The image above was photographed and pasted by him in his album. The album also holds photographs from early to late 1930s from the time of his education in Bombay to when he lived in South India on his first and only job with A &F Harvey Limited, established in 1883 by two Scottish entrepreneurs. A & F Harvey Ltd., a british company, was incorporated as a private limited company in 1945 to manage textile and other companies in South India. It acted as the Management Agents of Madura Mills Co., Ltd., until December 1969. My father retired from his job in 1970.

 


138 – The Bicycle Soldiers of World War I

My grandfather S.L Stonely (standing right most) Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh. Circa 1916

My grandfather S.L Stonely (sitting right-most) Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh. Circa 1916

Image and Text contributed by Peter Curbishley, United Kingdom

This is an image of British soldiers, their wives and friends from 1/1st Kent Cyclists Battalion taken sometime between 1915 and 1919. They were at posted in Bangalore, Dalhousi, Deolali, Bombay, and then later at Lahore and Rawalpindi (now Pakistan). The sergeant sitting on the right is my grandfather A/S S.L Stonely. The image may have been photographed in Dalhousie before their posting to or from Rawalpindi. Dalhousie was a quaint hill station established in 1854 by the British Empire in India as a summer retreat for its troops and bureaucrats. Unfortunately, I do not know much about this image and I found it in a bunch of negatives sitting in an old box for years. Only recently I decided to get them digitised. It seems that several of these images were photographed by my grandfather, because the records show that Kent Cyclists Battalion had a Camera Club.

All I know is that my grandfather was a member of one of the Kent Cyclists Battalions which was formed before World War I. Upon being removed from regimental strength, in 1908, the Queen’s Own Regiment of cyclist soldiers was re-named as the Kent Cyclist Battalion, and at that time became the Army Troops attached to the Home Counties Division (Territorial Force).  The military use of cycles had begun in the 1880’s when a number of the old volunteer  battalions had set up Cyclist Sections, whose brief was to defend Great Britain in the advent of an invasion, being something akin to a part time rapid response unit. In 1915, the first units of the Army Cyclist Corps went to serve overseas, including India and were serving primarily in reconnaissance roles – as Dispatch Riders, engaged on traffic  directing duties and also assisting in locating stragglers and wounded personnel on various battlefields.

The Battalion served very well, albeit for a very short while. The bicycle had not long ago been invented and originally was thought to be a good way to get soldiers to move around, but the cyclists often found themselves attempting to negotiate unfriendly terrain, and on numerous occasions were forced to abandon their heavy army issue bicycles. On rough terrains such as India’s they would get stuck in the mud and not much of use.  With little future value, eventually, all Cyclists Battalions were disbanded in 1920. However, of all the various English, Scottish, and Welsh battalions that served during the Great War years, the 1st/1st Kent Cyclist Battalion was the sole battalion to be awarded battle honours. They were converted to infantry and used instead for foreign services in India.


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.


133 – “My grandparents were staunch political rivals”

My grandparents' wedding. Gaya, Bihar. 1956

My grandparents at their wedding. Dehradun, Uttar Pradesh 1956

Image and Text contributed by Richa Srivastava, Mumbai

My grandmother, Sushila Sahay whom we called Nani, was born in Jila (District) Hoshangabad in 1926 in the Central Provision, now known as the state of Madhya Pradesh. A daughter of a Forest officer, she was brought up in Dehradun in Uttar Pradesh. When she was 13 years old, Nani heard that Mahatama Gandhi was visiting Mussoorie and she travelled to hear him speak. Heavily influenced by Gandhi’s words, she met with him and declared her wish to be involved his Ashram, the Sabarmati Ashram. However, Gandhi recommended that she finish her education first. She heard him out, but to feel associated with the movement, she began to wear only Khadi clothes, worked to uplift the Harijan groups, who were considered Untouchable in the conservative caste system of India. And when she finished her Bachelor’s degree, she did joined the Ashram. However, by then Gandhi has been assassinated.

My grandfather, Dayanand Sahay, whom we called Nana, was born in 1928, in a village called Bhadvar in Bihar to a conservative family. By the time he grew up he had already lost many siblings to the fight for freedom. He became a Sarvodaya Activist, that propagated Gandhi’s political philosophies. Later, he joined the Shakho Deora ashram in Gaya district, a branch of the Gandhi ashram established by Jayaprakash Narayan, popularly referred to as JP or Lok Nayak (people’s leader).

In the 1950s, my grandmother would travel to the ashram in Gaya with a few other women and that is where my grandparents met. At the Gandhi Ashram however, every member was considered a brother or a sister and in the beginning she also tied a Rakhi (symbol of brotherly love & protection) to my grandfather, considering him an elder brother. So for my maternal grandparents to gradually fall in love may have surprised or shocked many. Anyway, in 1956, they got married. They both only wore Khadi and as a token of dowry (as was the custom) he took only Rs. One. My grandfather’s father, I am told, was very unhappy with his son’s inter-caste marriage and declared to disown him. Nana was even coerced into attending a village panchayat meeting meant to dissuade him from marrying Nani, but he wouldn’t listen. Eventually the family came around and blessed the wedding.

Over time, JP and my grandparents  became close friends and associates. They became actively involved with politics. They worked with and supported JP when he led the opposition against the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, in the 1970’s, calling for her resignation, and a program of social transformation, which he termed Sampoorna kraanti (Total Revolution). Instead, Indira Gandhi proclaimed a National Emergency in 1975 and subsequently, JP, several leaders and his party members including my grandparents, were all thrown into jail.

When Janata Party was voted into power, and became the first non-Congress party to form a government at the Centre, Nani who had by now become its member, became the Home Minister of Bihar for one year from 1977 to May 1978. She resigned the same day as her first grandchild, my brother, was born, and so she also missed his birth.

What I consider the most interesting part of my grandparent’s lives is that they also became political rivals, with my grandmother joining the Janata Dal Party as an MLA and my grandfather who had very early on joined the Congress. In fact, in 1989, when VP Singh became Prime Minister, was also the year that Nani stood for elections representing Janata Dal Party while my Nana supported the opposition, Congress (that eventually won). It is amazing that their relationship stood the test of political and professional rivalry, and we sometimes wonder how they even managed to work around that. Having said that, my grandmother was an idealist and my grandfather a pragmatic man, they both encouraged and respected each other and there never seemed to be any ego problems.

My grandfather or Nana went on to serve three terms as member of the parliament. He emerged as a Kingmaker for several established Politicians who would go to him for money, encouragement or advice. Nana was the first person to make pre-stressed concrete sleepers, now used by the railways for reasons of safety, speed enhancement. Inclined with a socialist attitude, he also decided to share his sleepers formulae with other businessmen. He rose in position to become a member of the Rajya Sabha, however he passed away in a car accident in Gaya in 2002.  Nani, even at a very old age, continued to serve people in her own several ways,  and was deeply concerned about the country’s emotional and intellectual health. I remember, she would dictate to us letters of grievances to the president and the prime-minister. To my family and I, my grandparents were a truly a great team and a couple to reckon with.


130 – My Great-Grandmother, the incredible photographer.

My great-grandparents Haleema Hashim with her husband Hashim Usman. Cochin (now Kochi), Kerala. Circa 1955.

My great-grandparents, Haleema Hashim with her husband Hashim Usman. Cochin (now Kochi), Kerala. Circa 1955.

Image and Text contributed by Nihaal Faizal, Bangalore

My Great-grandmother Haleema Hashim was born in Burma in 1928. Her family had moved to Rangoon in search of financial prosperity, however, by the time she was four they returned to Kerala, India. Her family belonged to the Kutchi Memon community of Gujarat, Kutchi Memons are Sunni Muslims who migrated from Sindh (in Pakistan) to Kutch in Gujarat, a state of India, after their conversion to Islam. Several of them then migrated to various parts of the world. Haleema’s ancestors had migrated to Kerala. It is not clear what businesses or professions they were involved in.

At the age of 17 she married Hashim Usman, whose family, like many others in Kochi, were Sea food exporters, after which he established a hotel. Haleema and Hashim, my great-grandparents went on to have eight children. One of whom is my maternal grandfather.

Haleema Hashim whom we fondly call Ummijaan, was extremely fond of reading Urdu literature, we again don’t know who her favourite authors were because the books were given away. Later, I also found a few letters she had exchanged with people from other countries, who were clearly her pen pals. She was also an avid gardener and would tend to her garden with great love in Fort Kochi.

After her marriage, she began developing an interest in images and taught herself the art of photography through books and magazines. She had in possession two cameras, an Agfa Isolette 3, which was her first camera and then she moved on to a Yashica. I am not sure where she may have bought them, though I am told that her brother would take the photographed negatives to a studio to have them developed for her.

Her subjects were usually the domestic environment and family members of her large joint family. She photographed her relatives, sisters, husband’s family, as well as brides-to-be women from the Kutchi Memon community. Many of Ummijaan’s photographs also featured her children, more so the youngest two, her identical twin daughters Kiran and Suman, born in the late 1960s whom she photographed extensively; one could say that it made for an original body of work. She never practiced professionally, nor do I think she was in an environment where photography was encouraged or paid any attention to, but perhaps it was the very reason she could practice and experiment with no intervention even if within the domestic environment. To my mind, she built a sort of practice like an artist engaging actively with a medium. She would position her children in varying poses, and create sets and arrangements in and around the house and her garden, using furniture and home-ware decorative pieces as props.

Ummijaan continued photographing for around 25 years of her life, which has now comprised into an enormous body of incredible work. Standing not very encouraged, Ummijaan gradually gave up photography. Later assuming that the images had no value and no one would be interested, she burnt her negatives down. When I began taking photographs in my 10th grade, someone in the family mentioned Ummijaan’s images. Later I found some of her picture albums, (hundreds of photographs) and I was floored by the quality of her works. She indeed had a very natural, unique and perceptive eye for creating beautiful images. Acknowledging great value in these photographs, I began borrowing the albums from her and digitising them. Her memory lucid, unlike now, she would insist I return them intact. Which I did. She also insisted that I give away the images to family members, which too I dissuaded her from.

My great grandmother, Ummijaan, the incredible photographer, is now 86 years old though she doesn’t keep too well and her memory is almost lost. She lives in an apartment in Kochi. I now study at the Srishti School of Design in Bengaluru, Karnataka and continue to digitise her works. Noting my great interest and respect for my great grandmother’s photographs, it is incredibly heartening and amazing to see my own family too now extremely interested and appreciative of her works.


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.

 


127- Qutub Minar, the place where many loves met

My husband Rabinder Nath Khanna and I at the Qutub Minar. Delhi. 1954

My husband Rabinder Nath Khanna and I at the Qutub Minar. Delhi. 1954

Image and Text contributed by Deesh Khanna, Gurgaon

I remember when I would visit Delhi from Simla, the Qutub Minar was the place where my husband and I used to meet even before marriage, with family approval, of course. There were several couples and families who would come to the Qutub, meet, hang around, picnic, play and talk. It was and still is, indeed a beautiful monument of India.

I am not sure who took this picture though. It had been only a few months since my marriage in June, because we had begun wearing sweaters. I was wearing a Ferozi (Fuschia blue) Salwar Kurta with the latest cut, with a wonderful complicated hairstyle. Now my hair has thinned so much, but at that time, indulging our hair with beautiful complicated Hairstyles was a huge hobby and personal challenge every morning. I could style my hair in ways you can’t even imagine.

Every weekend, my ‘Rodu” as I fondly called him, and I would take the Tanga (horse carriage) from Daryaganj (old Delhi) and go and see places. Rodu was very fond of showing me new places, and if not places then it was the movies. We loved watching movies at Golcha Cinema. The matinee shows were old movies, and evenings were new ones. In Daryagunj, we lived in one of the several apartments in Madras House.

Both my husband’s family and mine, had come to live in Simla, Himachal Pradesh after Indo-Pak Partition. The families had originally lived in Lahore (now Pakistan). And we girls had studied in Kinnaird College in Lahore and then later at the Church College in Simla. The girls from Kinnaird College were very popular for being feisty, smart and opinionated. In Simla, I used to participate many drama and theatre Groups, all the time playing roles as a man, and the one time I got to play a woman, it was the role of a nurse.

My family were also huge supporters of the Congress, and we cousins and sisters enrolled ourselves to be Congress workers and worked very hard campaigning and collecting donations for Jawahar Lal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. One of those times, we were also asked by the Congress workers to wear Burqas, pretend to be Muslim women and vote on their behalf. We were almost caught when one of my cousins tripped over on a stone and in pain exclaimed “Hai Ram! (Oh Lord Rama – the Hindu God)”. We ran and gave the booth care-takers quite a chase. I laugh when I think about that, but you know, at that time no one thought what was right or wrong, we just did what we were told, and as far as we were concerned it was for a good cause. Anyhow, those requests never came again.

My husband was one of the most well known portrait photographers of Simla and then later Delhi. He had studied Chemistry in Bombay but then he went back to Lahore and worked as a darkroom assistant in a ‘S.Rollo’ Studio. After Partition he got a job with a Kinsey Photo Studio in Simla and worked under a German photographer there. He learnt a lot from him. Their job entailed developing other people’s work as well as photographing people and important delegates and leaders who visited Simla and then later Delhi.

Everyone in my friend’s circle except I knew that Rodu was interested in me and rumours were abound. So when I got wind of that, very upset I confronted him about it on Mall Road. His unexpected response was “Would it be so bad if we were to be together?” I was stunned and I confess I may have begun to like the idea right then.

Later Rodu moved to Delhi to work with the Kinsey Studio, (a branch of the one in Simla) a very popular Photo Studio in Connaught Place and when he sent a marriage proposal, my entire family was delighted, because all this while my mother had used my future husband as a sound board and advisor on my other prospects, and he would sheepishly give her feedback, all the while suppressing his own feelings for me. But nonetheless, when he finally let my family know of his intentions, everyone was happy and we got married six months later.

When we moved to Delhi he continued working with the Kinsey Studio, later he joined the USIS in Delhi (United States Information Services) as a photographer and photographed several of their events, delegates and leaders. At home we converted a small bathroom in the backyard into a darkroom and Rodu and I would develop the negatives that he had photographed. I also continued working as a volunteer for Congress and campaigned for Indira Gandhi.

In Delhi, I remember meeting Amrita Pritam, the acclaimed author and writer, often on the bus. Our families were acquaintances since Lahore. She remembered me from my theatre days and insisted that I did not give it up. But by now I had had three children, and big family responsibilities and so I decided not to do so. We were good and we were happy. In 1980, Rodu decided to work on a contract basis with USIS, and one of those assignments in 1983 he flew on a special plane with the then Secretary of State (USA) to Agra. Upon return, he gave up his seat for another delegate, and took the car instead. My beloved Rodu passed away that day in a car crash on the Agra-Delhi highway. Our lives went through a very dark time, but at the least I know that we really loved and respected each other and we were the best of friends one could ever ask for. We had made each other very happy.

Today my daughters Meenu and Amu, and grandchildren are happy and well. My son Dinesh, is now one of the best known photographers of India. A passion and profession for long he resisted, until one day, years after my husband’s death, he too could not resist the call of the Photograph. I wish Rodu could see his children now. He would be so proud.


126 – Foxtrotting at the Blue Fox

My Grandparents, Shobhendra Nath and Gouri Tagore. Calcutta. West Bengal. Circa 1950

My Grandparents, Shobhendra Nath and Gouri Tagore. Calcutta. West Bengal. Circa 1950

Image and Text contributed by Somdev Thakur, Kolkata

My grandfather, Shobhendra Nath Tagore, had a very charismatic personality. He was a lawyer in the High Court, a theatrecian, an adventurer and a government employed hunter (to hunt animals that had turned rogue and attacked villages).

Shobhendra Nath was a descendant of the well known Tagore lineage. His great-grandfather Ramanath and Dwarakanath Tagore were twins, and Dwarkanath was Rabindranath Tagore‘s grandfather.
In the several albums that document my grandparent’s life I recently found a number of images titled “Dancing” that show an active nightlife my grandparents led. Mostly they danced the Foxtrot and the Cha Cha Cha, as my grandmother recalls at the Blue Fox, one of Calcutta’s first bar/restaurants that had famous and popular live bands, meant specifically to play music for people to dance. It is an entertaining record of Calcutta’s night life from the 50s and the 60s. The Blue Fox was situated at Calcutta’s famous road – Park Street, a kilometer long stretch that had several amazing eateries, throbbing with joy, laughter and lights, it hosted some of the best of Indian Parties one had ever seen. Some then even called Calcutta, the best place to party in the world. During the day the carefree young would rush to Park Street and by sun down, shiny expensive cars would swoop down the street, and out would come beautifully dressed men and women.
Calcutta was once upon a time, truly a city of joy.


120 – Eight generations of Tantrics

My great-great grand father's younger brother, Govindan Achari with his grand nephews. Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.1930

My great-great grand father’s younger brother, Govindan Achari (seated) with his grand nephews. Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. 1930

Image & Text contributed by Sharat Sundar Rajeev, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

This photograph shows my great- great grand father’s younger brother Govindan Achari sitting with his grand nephews. Govindan Achari (c.1850s-1944) was better known as ‘Govindan Kanakkukaran’ and ‘Valiya Mandravadi’  which indicated his position as a veteran Tantric or an occultist.

Born and brought up in Kadakkavoor, a small village which was a part of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore, Govindan came from a family that had since the 15th century followed tradition of  training the youngest son of the family to become a Tantra and Black magic practitioner. All of my tantric ancestors (we have managed to count around six to eight) were patronised by the Royal Family of Travancore even before they came into power and they remained their royal physicians, astrologers, tantrics as well as black magicians for centuries to come.

Govindan too like the rest of his ancestors was given a traditional education of studying Ayurveda, Tantra and Black Magic. The latter understood to construe and use evil methods and powers, as Tantra itself is mistakenly identified as the practice of black magic & witchcraft.

He also studied under the well known Hindu sage at the time, Pettayil Raman Asan and was also influenced by Ayya Guru Swamikal‘s teachings. It was during his days in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Travancore State, did he come into contact with the Hindu Saint, Sree Narayana Guru (Narayana Guru was a contemporary of Govindan).

As a young man, Govindan travelled far and wide and mastered the traditional knowledge in Siddha and Ayurvedic medicine and the methods of treatment. However, in his later years, Govindan gained more name as a Black magician, witch doctor and an occultist. In his later years, Govindan who as per tradition of a tantric, led a celibate life and settled in Thiruvananthapuram with his nephew’s family. He spend his last days in composing Attakadhas (Gesture Stories) and teaching secret occult practices to one of his nephews, Narayanan, again as per tradition, the youngest in the family. Govindan attained Samadhi in 1944, while sitting on his cot.

Narayanan too went on to become a Tantric, however oral stories from the family say that he never practiced black magic. After his death in 1970, my family abandoned the tradition of Tantra, making Narayanan the last tantric of our family.


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.


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.