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177 – My father, the first antiquarian of Calcutta

My father Nirmal Chandra Kumar.  Calcutta (now Kolkata), West Bengal, India. Circa 1950

Image and text contributed by Professor. Aloke Kumar, University of Calcutta/ IIM/ ISRO

My father, Nirmal Chandra Kumar, born in Calcutta, Bengal in 1917, and was the eldest of seven children. After graduating from school at Mitra Institute, he went on to study at Bangabasi College. My grandfather was a trader and the family had a large Departmental Store at Shyambazar Crossing and a home at 52, Mohan Bagan Lane. My father grew up to be an avid reader, hungry for knowledge and to make a living, he worked several odd jobs and tried his hand at writing, which in his own words he said he failed miserably at.

In the early 1940s, after my father got his own place in Calcutta, he met an illiterate Muslim bookseller by the name of Yakub and began helping him read and organize his books. Yakub encouraged my father to trade in books; a venture that was not going to particularly help in making a living, yet in 1945, my inspired father opened a book-shop in his house, called Kumars and began collecting rare books and documents. He combined his pursuit with a broader interest to serve the society around him. In 1950, my grandparents also arranged for my father to be married to my mother Karuna, a school teacher from Adra, (Bengal and Bihar border) and my father continued working on his collection.

Kumars, my father’s book-shop, if it could be called so, spread over several rooms in his residence, around divans and reading chairs, and looked more like a personal library in a living room. In the 1940s, rare book collections were in a dismal, class-bound rut. The famous rare book-shop Cambray was already fading, Thacker & Spink, another well known bookshop was alive, but there were hardly any rare books. With a growing collection of rarities at my father’s book shop, it soon became was a hub for book lovers and a meeting point for people from all walks of life, ranging from iconoclastic artists to conservative writers.

With books on art, travel, ornithology, botany, history, literature, mountaineering, religion and Indology as its strengths, Kumars soon became the place to go. At the shop, my father could be found wearing a white collared half sleeved shirt, and a Lungi, (stitched or unstitched cloth worn around the waist) or a Dhoti and Kurta with pump shoes. We can’t even imagine somebody wearing an attire like that and smoking a pipe or a Davidus Cigar sitting in a library surrounded by books now.

My father had several agents buying books for him at auctions and establishments abroad such as Foyles, Bernard Quaritch and Sotheby’s. One of his many enthusiastic collections included the then unheralded works of British Painters, uncle and nephew, Thomas Daniell and William Daniell. He bought an elephantine Folio of 144 Views of their works from Sotheby’s, and had it sent to Calcutta. On the way it got damaged that resulted in a bitter battle with the shipping company, MacKinnon McKenzie records of which can be found in Calcutta High Court. Much of the folio is now entrusted in care of the museum The Victoria Memorial.

When Satyajit Ray, the filmmaker, began his research on the Indian Rebellion of 1857 for his film Shatranj ki Khilari (The Chess Player), he depended on my father for information on the subject. Kumar not only provided him with all the relevant books, but also went out of his way to bid for a rare scrap book on the 1857 Mutiny, at a London Auction that contained paper clippings and notes on the event, and later he also provided him with many antique props for his sets. Ray it seems did not forget this gesture and paid my father his biggest personal tribute. He based one of his characters in his well known Feluda series on Kumar – the character Sidhujata (Sidhu Uncle), a man with vast encyclopedic knowledge on several subjects.

Kumars became the haunt of an unlikely mixture of luminaries such as – Radha Prasad Gupta, the Anglophile & PR Head of Tata Steel, writer Mulk Raj AnandNirmalendu Chowdhury, the folk singer, Santi.P.Chowdhury, documentary film maker, Asok Mitra, the father of Indian Census, Subho Tagore, the founder of Cubism in India, Jean Riboud, the French billionaire industrialist and writer Peter Fleming. Ella Maillart, the traveller and photographer wrote, ‘to visit Kumar’s, was like pilgrimage. You spend the whole day browsing through books, chatting with Kumar on different subjects, meeting the Calcutta intelligentsia and enjoying the Bengali hospitality with the best of food and savories….all seamlessly interwoven.’

If rare works and books of painter William Hogarth, writers Colonel SleemanGeorge V HigginsJames Hamilton, the unknown Bishop Heber, Scottish writer O’Malley, African Missionary Traveler David Livingston and Sir Richard Burton were easily available in Calcutta to the literary landscape, it was in no small part due to my father, Kumar’s efforts. My father also convinced several people including Satyajit Ray to bid for rare works and if Lahari, the then Superintendent of Calcutta Zoo has been able to leave behind the rare collection of Himalayan Birds, books on Ornithology and Wild-life to the collection of The Zoological Gardens, it is again because of my father. Kumar introduced several artist works to Calcutta; mainly the Flemish artist, Francois Balthazar Solvyns, whose works constitutes the first ‘ethnographic survey’ of India or more precisely of Bengal.

As the 1960s moved into the 1970s, Kumars was a resource for international researchers, but my father was not able to cope as much of its collection had now begun to fade away. His health had deteriorated and much of it was due to a domestic crisis of two of his children becoming members of the Naxalbari Movement (Revolutionary Communist Party). With a pipe smoking habit, conversations in mono-syllables and interrogative questions, he began to resemble the eccentric film director Alfred Hitchcock. Soon he became a recluse and his once dazzling library dimmed.

For 30 years, he had presided over a vast rarest of rare collections in his own bookshop, Kumars, a pre-eminent institution. He was the first in the subcontinent to publish a catalogue of books in his collection. He even formalized the literary scene by initiating regular readings in the bookshop, an innovation at the time. By the end of the 1975, the rare book trade became thoroughly commercialized; books began to be torn for their prints and sold separately. My father did not want to be a part of this and lost out.

Nirmal Chandra Kumar died in 1976 of a cerebral stroke, aged 60 and this year, in 2017, is his centenary. He was a genuine antiquarian and possibly the greatest influence on a generation of artists, filmmaker, writers, musicians, activists, teachers and travellers – perhaps more than any art critic or editor of his time. With his death, the literary world lost an extremely generous and unselfish man who gave of his vast knowledge and delighted in the achievements of those he had influenced so profoundly.


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. 


172 – The pocket money photograph

My Father, Subhash Goyal. Vaishno Devi Temple premises. Jammu & Kashmir. 1979

Image & Narrative contributed by Sayali Goyal, New Delhi

My father Subhash Goyal was born in 1968. He grew up in Bathinda, Punjab with four of his siblings (two elder sisters and two younger brothers) and a large extended family of 19 cousins, innumerable aunts & uncles, all of whom lived on the same street. This photograph of him as a young teenager is special to me and when I asked him about it, he tells me that it was taken when he had gone for a trip with his parents to the much revered Vaishno Devi Temple after his Board exams. He spent half of his pocket money  (5-Paisa) to secretly get this photo done in a studio in front of an old camera in Kashmiri attire. The idea of a solo photograph was fascinating to him.

My great grand father, Roshan Lal Katia was a senior advocate in Punjab. He had 11 children who multiplied the family gene further with 24 more – my father being one of them. He recalls that my great grandfather had a taste for luxury and was a forward thinking man. He educated all his children, including the girls – all of whom became renowned doctors and lawyers. My father primary school was Summer Hill convent and then high school was St. Joseph’s Convent where all his cousins studied too. When he grew up, he chose to become a business man.

My father has always been immensely fond of travelling, and often reminisces about his family’s expeditions to several places including Agra and Rishikesh in Uttar Pradesh. He enjoyed travels on trains for simple pleasure of buying tea and snacks whenever the train would halt. He and his two younger brothers would buy small toys like marbles from vendors on the platform.

Returning from a holiday would also mean bringing back sweets for the neighbors and telling them stories of their visits. He remembers he used to get 10-paisa as pocket money that would be spent on snacks and sometimes to buy kites. The back lane of his home would clog rainwater during monsoons and all the children would make paper boats to sail in clogged waters.
He tells me, the children would get new clothes on special occasions, and like in many Indian families it would be made from the same roll of fabric, making them all look identical. On those special occasions Samosas were a delicacy.

Interestingly, he remembers his first birthday celebrations, where Samosas and Chola Bathura were served with ice cream made of milk fat. My grandfather, he says had a special fondness for him, for he was the only one who had a cycle and that too it was red. The day that cycle had to be delivered, he went to the cycle shop at 7 am in the morning and sat all day at the shop to make sure it was modified according to him. He would clean his cycle everyday after school and run errands on it.

In 1984, my father went of his first international trip to Nepal with school friends and later to Thailand in 1989. In 1987, his first trip to Bombay (now Mumbai) was a special one as he went to the famous Taj Hotel at Gateway of India,  for High tea and attended a Bollywood night. My dad’s uncles, and my grandmother still live in Bathinda and we migrated to New Delhi when I was born in 1991.

In a small effort to capture that curious spirit to explore, travel and small pleasures, I have documented my father’s journey through his childhood in Punjab 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.


170 – Mixed marriages of the Indian Subcontinent and Africa

My wife's aunt & uncle. Circa 1930s. Kenya [Composited with an colour background at a later date]

My wife’s aunt & uncle. Circa 1930s-1940s. Kenya [Composited with colour at a later date]

Image & Text contributed by Krishan Lal, Kenya (with help from his son Dileep Nagpal)

This image is of my wife’s relatives in Kenya as a reference to the narrative below.

In the late 19th century, an enterprising and adventurous Parsi Indian Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee left Karachi (now Pakistan) and sailed to Australia. As a house-to-house hawker, he managed to gain some knowledge of the English language and eventually migrated to East Africa in 1890. There, he established contact with British investors who were looking for some help to manage the planned Uganda Railways. After five years, Jeevanjee was awarded the contract to recruit Indian labourers from Punjab,  to build the Uganda Railways in Kenya  and the IBEAC (Imperial British East Africa Company) began building the railways construction from Kilindini Harbour, Mombasa.

Beginning 1891, thousands of the Indian ‘coolies‘  (today this word is considered a racial slur in many African countries), mainly Sikhs & Punjabis, were recruited for a three-year-contract to build Kenya Uganda Railways. Almost all of them came alone, leaving their wives in India.

One of the reasons why Indian labourers, instead of locals, were recruited was that the British faced severely hostility from the citizens of that country. The Indians on the other hand were there purely for economical reasons. They were also strong, tough and reliable hard workers and had previous experience with construction of building railways, roads, bridges and canals in India. In Kenya though, they had to face several hardships. Living in huddled groups in tents, they worked tirelessly to clear thick jungles, and break routes through hills and mountain stone with steel hammers and bare hands. Under harsh weathers, mosquitoes, snakebites, wild beast attacks, injuries and fevers were fervent. Hundred were dragged from their tents and eaten by Lions.

Amongst them was my maternal grandfather Makhan Ram Vadvae, a technically savvy man who came from Lahore, (now Pakistan) leaving his wife in India. He was appointed foreman and would check the rail tracks while seated on trolley pushed by fellow workers. His name in the labor force records is signed in Urdu as “Man eater of Tsavo”.

After the completion of railways in 1905, and the end of their contract – 51% of the workforce returned back to India, most in bad health, 8% of the work force died on job, 21% did not take their entitled return tickets and chose to stay in East Africa – setting up businesses along the railway lines, towns and cities. By year 1911, 12,000 Indians mainly Punjabis, Gujaratis, and Parsees (compared to 3,000 Europeans) were living in Kenya.  A good number of them married local African women, others married mixed blood women and settled in East Africa giving birth to four generations of people with Indian-Kenyan origin.  My maternal grandfather Makhan Ram too married a Kenyan woman, had children with her and settled in Kenya. He never went back to India.

While things have changed for the better over time, the colour and gene based racism was rampant at the time and with the exception of Parsees, within most other Indians. The mixed blooded children of Indian men who married local African were frowned upon. Rejected and segregated by Indians themselves, they had a terrible time trying to fit into their father’s communities, schools, neighborhoods, work places, temples and Gurudwaras. Some were treated so badly by the father’s families that it forced them to convert to Islam and Christianity – communities where they were received well and given equal place in society. Ironically, visually, majority of mixed blood children were of fair colour and beautiful features – skin-deep characteristics that many Indians preferred over any other.

My father Jagan Nath Nagpal too came to Kenya from Gujranwala, Punjab (now Partly Pakistan territory) around 1912 and began a tea stall at a railway station. Eventually he established a confectionery shop in the capital city, Nairobi. He married my mother, Maya Devi, Makhan Ram’s daughter. Two years after his marriage in 1914, he invited his elder brother from Punjab to Kenya, handed over the shop to him and decided to return to India.

Around 1938, when I was around five years old and my sister Krishna was 10, my father decided to return to Kenya. I remember the four of us sailed to Kenya in an over crowded dhow (carrying 300+ people) from Porbander, Gujarat to Mombasa. It was a perilous journey of three months, during which many people died at sea, sick with typhoid, diarrhea and malnutrition. When we landed ashore in Mombasa, most people due to being crammed on the dhow and sitting in postulate positions for weeks & months had forgotten how to walk – people were falling down, whilst others were walking backwards. Almost all children and some adults had lice in their hair.

Perhaps in India my father had gained more skills and in Kenya he became a skilled Halwai (sweets & dessert maker) who could make all kinds of delicious North Indian sweets. Later my parents had seven more children -Shakuntala, Baldev, Raji, Swarni, Subhash, Sukversha and Ashok.

Years later, my father took a huge loan with a heavy interest to pay his eldest daughter’s marriage dowry, which he was unable to pay. To supplement some family income, as soon as I finished Form 2 (half way into Secondary School), in 1947, I had to start working at the age of 14 as a Crane Driver with East African Railways & Harbours, Mombasa. Four years later at the age of 18, I married a 14-year-old beautiful young mixed blood lady Rampyari Kohli. Born in Kenya, she was the daughter of an African mother and a Kashmiri father.

After my father died in of a heart attack in 1951, I became the only support for the family. My wife and I had two boys and four girls. Then we adopted two more boys from my wife’s side of the family. All were born, bred and well educated in Kenya and overseas. Today most of them are living all over the world living in Australia, England, Germany and America. Some of them hold high positions as Bankers, Chartered Accountant, General Manager, University lecturers and directors.

My daughter and I are still live in Kenya, a country I call my home.


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.


165 – My mother’s journey from India to England

Departure_low

My mother Dr. Rehana Bashir (middle with sunglasses) at the Bombay Airport with her friends and family. Bombay, Maharashtra. March 31, 1957

Image and Text contributed by Sohail Akbar, New Delhi

This photograph, as the handwriting below tells us was taken on the 31st of March, 1957 at Bombay Airport, Santacruz. Among the many photographs that adorn a very beautiful album maintained by my mother, Dr. Rehana Bashir, I find this picture the most fascinating, perhaps because of my love for airplanes and airports but also because it is the first picture of a photo album that is primarily a pretext to my mother’s life in England as a student. This picture is clearly my mother’s favourite too as it the opening image of that album.

My mother Rehana was the only daughter born to Prof. Bashiruddin and his wife Shafiq Begum (standing left most in the picture) in 1930. Her father was a Professor at the Aligarh Muslim University and was a true modernist. He sent his daughter to St Mary’s Convent in Allahabad (UP), one of the best missionary schools in the state. She did well in studies and qualified to study Medicine at Lady Hardinge Medical College in Delhi. The year was 1949 and India had only recently achieved Independence, though the scars of partition were very visible.

The best story that she has about going to study in Delhi is the scare that her father’s friends had tried to instill in his mind – of sending a young Muslim girl to study alone in a city where a number of people of the community had lost their lives in the partition riots. But my maternal grandfather was brave and did not succumb to pressure. His daughter found an admission into the Medical College. Needless to say that she was the only Muslim girl in her class. She recalls the time during the admission process – her father had stayed in old Delhi with his friends – and there was night curfew and an electric fence was drawn and turned on around the locality at night.

Lady Hardinge Medical College exposed my mother to a cosmopolitan life and new friends. She remembers riding a bicycle around Connaught Circus, having ice cream at Wengers, (Delhi’s oldest bakery) and watching films at the Regal theatre (the first cinema theatre constructed in Delhi).) She completed her MBBS in 1953. The same album has a lovely photograph of hers in a black graduation gown holding her degree, posing at perhaps one of the famous Connaught Place photo studios.

Her first job brought her back to Allahabad, where a hospital had been opened in the premises of Anand Bhawan, the residence of the Nehrus. It was called the Kamla Nehru Memorial Hospital. This was a prestigious first job, where Prime Minister of India, Jawahar Lal Nehru would drop by whenever he was in town to see how things were. After working for four years and acquiring much needed experience my mother, Rehana, decided to go to England for higher studies. England was still the most favoured destination for education and she already had a couple of her friends in London.

On 31st of March 1957, Dr. Rehana Bashir took a flight, possibly the plane behind her (Flying Tiger Line), or maybe an Air India flight, from Bombay Airport to spend the next three years garnering a Diploma in Gynecology at a hospital in Brighton, England. A whole band of friends and family had come along dto see her off. In the photograph are my grandmother (left most), my two uncles and an aunt. My mother is in the center wearing dark glasses, holding a bouquet of flowers. Next to her is a close doctor friend Pushpmalti who had travelled from Allahabad just to say bye. The lady standing behind my grandmother in dark glasses is a friend from Medical College, Dr. Urmil Shah, their host in Bombay (now Mumbai); this picture is perhaps taken by Dr. Urmil’s husband, Gunvant Bhai and my mother recalls that the three gentlemen standing on the right are friends of Urmil and Gunvant. If we look closely, one of them holds the camera case.

I have often discussed those years in England with my mother and what is fascinating in today’s context is that she says that for three years she did not hear her parent’s voice. Phone services to Aligarh from London were not possible then. It is indeed incredible that we are living in the grand leap of technology.


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

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

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

Image and text contributed by Samant Sahu, Mumbai

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

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

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

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

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


161 – The Devadasi who became a Maharani

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

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

Image and text contributed by Cory Walia, Mumbai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mother Shashi too grew up to be a beautiful 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.


156 – The force behind my grandfather’s success

My grandparents, Bani and Radhika Karmakar . Bombay (now Mumbai). Maharashtra. 1972

My grandparents, Bani and Radhu Karmakar. Bombay. Maharashtra. December 1979

Image & Text contributed by Anuradha Karmakar, Mumbai

My Dida (grandmother in Bengali) Bani Karmakar (née Roy) was born on October 5, 1926 in Shologhor, Dacca District in erstwhile East Bengal. She had a rather impoverished childhood as the eldest child of a large family with three sisters, two brothers and a host of extended family members. She witnessed, at close quarters, the horrors of the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, where three million people perished.

Dida did not have much of a formal education as she was married off in 1944, at the age of 17 to Radhika Jiban Karmakar, a soft-spoken 28-year-old man from Gramwari, Dacca (now Dhaka). Radhika Jiban left home at the age of 16, worked in the Calcutta Film Industry as a lab technician and also learnt photography from Jatin Das, a well-known photographer in Calcutta (now Kolkata). He then migrated with Das to Bombay in 1940, leaving behind a young wife in East Bengal with his family, where their first daughter, Sudevi was born in October 1947. The horrors of the communal massacres during 1946-1947 were witnessed by Bani, as also during one harsh monsoon, the swollen river Padma, changed course and devoured houses and paddy fields, the only source of sustenance for many. These two unfortunate events forced the mass exodus of many Bengalis seeking refuge and the Karmakars were among the millions who were forced to leave everything behind in 1948, many of whom migrated to West Bengal.

After a short stay in West Bengal, Bani found herself joining her cinematographer husband in the hustle and bustle of Bombay, which was to be their new home in 1949. They stayed in modest houses in Andheri and Sion where their four younger children; Radha, Krishna Gopal, Meera and Brojo Gopal, were born. From a small village to living in Bombay, without much support and a growing family with a host of relatives, was a tough task for the young mother, which she handled to the best of her abilities.

Radhika Jiban (whose name was shortened to Radhu, on Mr. Raj Kapoor’s insistence) worked as a cameraman and subsequently as cinematographer with RK Studios (now R.K. Films). His work involved erratic work schedules and travel within and outside India and hence primarily Bani was responsible for bringing up five children. They lived a frugal life together as much of her husband’s meager salary was spent on their children and extended family. Her home was the first stop for a horde of relatives and others who would arrive to make it big in Bombay. There were times when there was no food left for her at the end of the day due to unexpected guests and she would have one roti with sugar to keep her going. The matriarch complained to no one.

She found the time to educate herself in English and pick up skills in handicrafts. She never attended the flashy movie premieres, filmy parties or social gatherings while her husband rubbed shoulders with the who’s who of Indian and International Cinema. She preferred staying at home and taking care of her family. Together, the couple witnessed many important milestones in life- graduations, heartbreaks, first jobs, marriages, promotions and the births of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

My grandfather, Radhu Karmakar came to be known as one of the ’10 best Cinematographers in the World’ and much of his professional achievements and laurels can be attributed to the sage and timely advice of his wife and my grandmother. He had won many awards during his lifetime which we proudly display in our family home, but what my grandmother was able to achieve was intangible; besides being a great cook, she managed a warm home, raised self-reliant and educated children, and was a role model for all those who came in contact with her. Radhu Karmakar  passed away on October 5, 1993 at the age of 77, in a car accident while returning from shooting the movie ‘Param Vir Chakra’. He was on his way back to Bombay (now Mumbai) to be with his wife on her birthday. Bani immersed herself in religion and spirituality, household work and doting on her grandchildren, to deal with the grief of her husband’s sudden demise.

My grandmother Bani Karmakar, passed away on May 14, 2015, at the age of 87, due to a prolonged illness. She had suffered a stroke, was battling Dementia and was just a shadow of her former energetic self. She loved being surrounded by us even when she could not recall our names. Sometimes she would revert to her childhood days in East Bengal, calling out names of friends and family who were long gone. Yet, that isn’t how I choose to remember my Dida. To me, she will always remain my strong-willed, stubborn, strict and very loving grandmother, a little rough around the edges, but a gem of a human being. During her last days, when asked what her last wishes were, Dida said that she would love to see me get married and then she could die in peace. She won’t witness my wedding ceremony, but the day I get married, I know she will be there to bless me, watching and smiling her cheeky smile.


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.


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.


147 – A decade after partition, they returned to claim their hidden treasure

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My grandparents, uncles and aunts on the day of my parent’s marriage. Jullandhar (now Jalandhar), Punjab. 1958

Image and Text contributed by Amita Bajaj, Mumbai

My grandfather Dr. Gurbaksh Singh Nayar, or as we called him ‘Papaji’ was a well known practising doctor. His brothers and he owned a lot of real estate property in the North Eastern Punjab Province Sialkot‘s “Nayar Bazar” (now Pakistan). The market comprised of 34 shops with residences above. Nayar Bazar was a major section of the famous Trunk Bazar of Sialkot. Till the late 1980s, a board bearing this name of the Bazar was still on display. My grandfather and grandmother, Purandei Nayar whom we called ‘bhabiji’, had three sons. The youngest of whom was my father.

In June of 1947, murmurs of communal troubles were in the air. My father was then a third year MBBS student of Balakram Medical College which was established by Sir Gangaram in Lahore. (It was re-established as Fatima Jinnah Medical College after it was abandoned during partition).
Hearing of riots around the area, the eldest of the two older brothers, who was also studying medicine in Amritsar, tried to convince my grandmother to sell her savings, which were in form of silver bricks and the basement of their haveli (mansion) was stacked with them. Partition was imminent, yet my devout Sikh grandmother rebuked her sons, saying that should they sell the silver: “Loki kahangey ke nayaraan da divalaya nikal paya“! (“People will say that we are bankrupt!”).

I was born in the 1960s, and had heard horror stories about Partition from my paternal grandmother, ‘bhabiji’. On August 14, 1947, the family was eating their brunch and actually saw the Sialkot police running away from the rioters and that is when the family then knew it was time to leave. After collecting their valuables, my grandfather first hid with his wife and three sons in the house of a dear friend Ghulam Qadir who owned a departmental store, then later in the Sialkot Jail where the Superintendent Arjun Dass was a patient of his. (Arjun Dass, later as the jail superintendent of Ambala Central Jail supervised the hanging of Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassinator).

A few days later, they had crossed over to Amritsar with two trunks – one filled with gold jewellery and the other with silver utensils. The trunks were carried by a two servants, Nanak, a young boy, and Munshi Ram. Whilst crossing the River Ravi, Nanak apparently slipped almost got crushed by the sea of people fleeing Pakistan and the trunk with silver utensils fell in the river.

My grandparents’ entire life savings, their palatial mansion and the silver bricks were all lost forever, except for the trunk with gold jewellery that reached India. The three daughters-in-law in the picture would often wear the rescued ‘Sialkoti’ jewellery. My mother too, the bride in the picture, is wearing a kundan set from the trunk, gifted to her for her ‘doli’ (welcome gift to the bride) by my grandmother.

By 1950, the family had settled down in Jullunder (now Jalandhar) where my grandfather was given the haveli (mansion) of a Muslim sessions judge who had left for Pakistan in 1947. The mansion at Patel Chowk, G.T Road in Jullunder City, was offered as “claim property” (in lieu of property left behind in Sialkot that was valued in crores). My grandfather, Papaji became the leading medical practitioner of Jullunder and was well known all over Punjab.

The haveli in Jullunder was evaluated at Rs 1.35 lakhs in 1947. It had six bedrooms. The zenana (women’s section) was demarcated by a central Loggia garden and with a fountain in the middle. It housed several kitchens, pantry, store-rooms (with indoor-plumbing), a large hall, dining room and three floors of terraces each with a suite of rooms and kitchen, presumably for each of his three sons. My parents marriage was held in this palatial mansion in 1958. My father at the time was an army doctor attached to the 4-5 Gurkha Rifles and posted in Poonch , Jammu & Kashmir.

Shortly after my parent’s marriage, one day when my grandmother and my mother were returning home in the afternoon from shopping, they saw a huge crowd outside their mansion with scores of policemen, jeeps, police trucks and cars with dark-green purdahs (curtains) on windows. Fearing the worst, they rushed in only to be apprised by my very stoic grandfather that the original owners of the haveli, two women from Pakistan with all requisite permissions and accompanied with police from both Nations, had come to claim some moveable assets they had left behind.

My grandmother was furious and confronted the ladies from Pakistan, yelling at them, that the house had nothing except bare walls and an unkempt central garden when they acquired it as evacuee property. The ladies then firmly asked for permission to be allowed to go into the store-room adjoining the kitchen. My grandmother still shaking with anger and disbelief led the way, followed by the two ladies and policemen. Coming near a walled up alcove, the ladies gave it a few hard knocks with their hands using all their strength, and the makeshift wall gave way to reveal an 18” high glass shade of a shamadaan (candelabra), which was crammed to the brim with gold & stone-studded jewellery and gold & silver coins.

All present in the hall just froze in awe and shock. The Pakistani ladies took possession of the treasure that they had come to claim, nearly a decade after the bloodiest Partition of two Nations in the history of mankind, where over one million people lost their lives.

I am told, Nanak used to see a rat going into the walled up alcove through a small hole, where the treasure was hidden, for months and had even requested my grandmother’s permission to bring down the make-shift wall so that he could access a presumed “khazana” (treasure) for her, and she could maybe reward him for it? My grandmother feared that bringing down that wall may cause more damage to this magnificent evacuee property or may be it was something unpleasant that was “best left unseen”.

My grandfather later became the Honorary Physician to Giani Zail Singh when he became President of India, a position he held until his death in 1986. My father received several awards in the Navy to which he was assigned by the Army Medical Corp (AMC). He was the 3rd and 6th head of the Physiology department of Armed Forces Medical College in Pune. He took charge from a Wing. Commander. Rao, father of Congress politician Renuka Chowdhury. My father, an octogenarian, now lives a very retired life in Delhi and my mother passed away in August last year.

I often wonder if there were others who migrated from and to India & Pakistan had similar experiences to share?

 


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

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

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

 

Image and Text contributed by Tony Juneja, Mumbai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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. 


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.


124 – The Airforce Wives of Gorakhpur

Mrs. Radha Krishna (my mother) with her friends, Mrs Puri and Mrs Roy. Gorakhpur. Uttar Pradesh. Circa 1965.

Mrs. Krishna (my mother) with her friends, Mrs Puri and Mrs Roy. Gorakhpur. Uttar Pradesh. Circa 1968.

Image and Text contributed by Kavita Krishna, USA.

My Amma’s (Mrs. Krishna) life has been what can easily be phrased as that of constant transformation, from a simple south Indian orthodox girl into a cosmopolitan fauji (military officer’s) wife. Her life saw so many moves and travels that it made her into an extremely adaptable and a flexible person. Everyone who knows her agrees that she is the epitome of, what was once a compliment, a secular Indian.

My mother was born in Bandar or Machilipatnam in the then Madras State in1946 (now in Andhra Pradesh) into an orthodox Telugu Brahmins household. Where orthodoxy meant continuing the family’s brahmin traditions but also possessing liberality of thought that helped her later in her fauji married life.

Adjustments began with her family moving to Vijayawada and then to Nallakunta, Hyderabad in 1955; right in the middle of the Telangana agitation of 1954-56. She was just a school kid at Narayanguda Girls High School but remembers being teased as ‘Gongura Gongura‘ by boys following in bicycles. Boys those days simply stalked you singing the latest songs but didn’t do anything, she tells me. (Gongura, a sour green leaf Sorrel, is the staple diet in an Andhra household and belongs to the same family as Marijuana)

For someone who dressed and spoke very conservatively in Hyderabad, Amma blossomed into a more cosmopolitan person enjoying the very popular shows on All India Radio like Vividh Bharati and Binaca Geetmala, she like millions of others also became into a huge fan of Ameen Sayani, AIR’s most famous talk show host ever. She would hog the radio and would not let even her younger sisters listen to it.

My maternal grandfather, taatayya, was a lawyer at the High Court and had indulged his own share of adjustments, to study law for instance, he had gone off to the very British Madras (Madras Presidency) and had cut off his ‘brahmin tuft (Sikha)’, a supposed unholy act, resulting in his mother ostracising him for a year or more. Amma says very proudly that she had seen taatayya refuse many a cases despite the stacks of bribe cash people would offer because he could not lie.  “He was in the wrong profession, he wanted to study language….” she adds ruefully. Of course my grandfather spent all his free time translating Sanskrit works into Telugu, playing chess, discussing philosophy and politics, editing Telugu magazines…So when my mother and her friends would go to watch movies, her affluent and generous Telangana Reddy friends paid for rather unaffordable film tickets, she says “We didn’t really bother about such things among friends those days. I did not have much money but nobody seemed to care who paid or who didn’t” she adds wistfully. A few Hyderabadi Muslim friends taught her Urdu/Hindi and she rather enjoyed speaking it.

On religion, my mother remembers that Muslims and Hindus of their economic and similar conservative class rarely visited each others’ houses, but when they did it was for festivals and they did not enter her mother’s kitchen. It was never stated explicitly but was understood. Amma says even she and her sisters were not allowed to enter or touch anything when her mother was doing her cooking or prayers and if she did accidentally touch something, her poor mother would have to go off and take a cold water bath. Sitting separately during the menstruation was the norm, hanging one’s ‘outside’ clothes outside and not bringing those inside the house, offering naivedyam (prayer) to the altar before eating and so on but that never came in the way of friendships. People knew of each other’s customs and respected them.

Soon my mother, began indulging in her love of art and writing. Once she won the first prize for short story writing, a competition conducted by the Telugu magazine Jyoti. She received many congratulatory letters of appreciation. But since she could not afford to buy postcards to reply to all of them she chose two among the 40-odd replies and sent them a Thank you postcard in return. Co-incidentally or one may call it fate; one of the recipients was her future husband.

Amma was not the marrying kind. She wanted to write, work,earn her own living, and was fiery and a feminist before her realisation. But when the proposal came from my father directly to the family – that he was from the same caste, that he was an Air Force Officer plus handsome to boot, was enough to have my grandmother literally bulldoze my mother into marrying my father.

Their first ‘posting’ together was to Gorakhpur in 1967. Amma absolutely loves that place, she says that India was a wonderful place to be young in those days. In their 20s, she and my father set up their first household in Mohaddipur, it was a three storied building called the ATC and it housed five other air force families. There Amma befriended the North Indian Puri aunty and the East Indian Roy aunty.

When the men were away on temporary duty, these three women would take a rickshaw to Gol Ghar and indulge in whatever shopping their meagre salaries allowed them. These three friends, one from each geographical corner of the country, also decided to seal their friendship with this photograph for eternity, for a handsome sum of Rs.15.

Those days my father, a bomb disposal expert, earned Rs 475 in hand after all the tax cuts, the pilots earned a little more. My parents had a lot of financial responsibilities – my father being the eldest in his family, sent support to them, and this did not leave much for shopping. Amma recollects that plastic goods, beaded jewellery and steel vessels that came from Nepal were most sought after by these newly wed wives. The women would quickly finish their rounds and hurry back to Mohaddipur before their husbands returned from work or before it was too late in the evening because that area was also infested with dacoits and political goons.

In Gorakhpur, even the five rupees for the rickshaw was something she had to struggle to save. Drinking and Smoking were the favourite indulgences among officers and everyone splurged on hosting parties, there was never any money left by the 15th of the month, she adds laughingly. Bachelors would ‘drop-in’ for Home made food bored of eating mess food daily and suddenly post dinner or lunch, plans would be made to drive on their motorbikes to Kusinagar or Benaras or to Ayodhya. She found all this very odd initially, this intermingling, this easy casual banter among genders, the adventurous spirit, eating anything by the roadside but she grew to love everything about the life that Air Force had brought to her.

Amma says she had never eaten Chhola Bhatura or Pani Puri before 1967. She didn’t know what they were. All of it was discovered in Gorakhpur. “It wasn’t like it is now, when you can eat anything anywhere anytime” she remarks reproachfully. “For the terrible dosas of Gol Ghar we saved money the whole month, and they tasted so bad, but we were somehow satisfied”, and now she she makes the best Chhole Bhature I have ever eaten.

She also speaks on the prejudices she faced, being short and dark, not having studied in a convent, not being able to speak ‘good English’, not being from a big city (Hyderabad was not considered a big city then) she constantly felt ridiculed and put-down. Considering that she did not belong to a rich or powerful family or have money, she had to really work hard at being taken seriously by others, especially the women, who were quite unkind to her. She learnt to wear make-up and perfume. She grew her nails and painted them, bought nylon saris and matching artificial jewellery, all this was was so unlike she had been brought up. Cutting her long hair off was another bold step. Having a ‘bob-cut‘ was deemed to be more modern, and thus she succumbed to it in the early 80s.

In the year 1982 my father was posted to Sulur, Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. We ran into the Puris who were also posted there and Amma met Puri aunty serendipitously after fifteen years. They were so happy to be together for the next two years, giggling like school girls, gossiping away whenever they got a chance. It was as though they had never married or had had two kids each.

I am amazed whenever I think of my mother’s journey. When we visited her old haunts of Machilipatnam and Vijayawada in 2002, I saw in a flash how tough each transition for Amma might have been, in attitude, in ideology, in social mores, yet she took it in her stride and managed to raise me and my sister with a very gentle message: that there is beauty in everyone, wherever they come from, whoever they are.

Today, Puri aunty is settled in Chandigarh, Roy aunty in Kolkata. Amma known as Chivukula Annapurna or Mrs Krishna or Radha lives with my father (who also fought two wars and took voluntary retirement) in Secunderabad. I am her older daughter Kavita, I teach language, culture, yoga & vedanta. My younger sister is Pujita and she teaches and performs Kuchipudi and Vilasini Natyam. We have both chosen professions where there is not much money, but a lot of spirit & passion.


119 – Singing along with All India Radio

Mrs-Kelkar_low

My mother and I with Mrs. Kelkar & her daughter Shalini. Byculla, Bombay. Circa 1950

Image and Text contributed by Joe Joseph Zachariah, Mumbai

This is a picture taken in the late 50s by my dad Mr. O S Joseph and each time I look at it, it evokes several fond memories of my childhood.

The four-storied building seen behind is Rustom Baug in Byculla, a Parsee colony in Bombay. Every year on first monsoon rains my dad would make me stand by the white pail. “having bath in the first rain cures you of all illnesses” he would say. In retrospect, I now see why that spot was good because all the water from the tiles converged at that spot.

I have no memory of this picture being photographed but I will also never forget the Kelkar family. Our next door neighbours. Here Mrs. Kelkar is with her daughter Shalini. I used to call her Aai (mother in Marathi) Aai was more conversant in Marathi than with Hindi and my Marathi wasn’t very good, but we used to get along well. She used to pamper me a lot.

I remember the Kelkars had a huge radio in their drawing room (living room) with high ceilings built by the British. But what fascinated me more was the extension speaker, which was in the kitchen. I used to sit on the small stool in the kitchen observing her as she went about happily doing her daily chores of cutting vegetables, cooking, heating the water for husband’s bath and all the while singing a very famous marathi song “Me dolkara, dolkara dolkara dariyacha raja, Vallhav re nakhwa ho vhallav re rama” along with the the radio on India’s only radio network at the time, All India Radio. I remember deciding then, that when I grow up and have my own house I will listen to the radio and have an extension speaker in every room.

The best time to be in the Kelkar’s house was during the “festival of lights” Diwali, or rather the month before Diwali because of the lovely aroma of the sweets being made in the kitchen. I had free access to all the sweet boxes and it was one of the reasons why my dad forbade me several time to go there during Diwali. Sharad, Aai’s eldest son was another influential figure during my childhood. The way he would construct the aakash kandil (paper lantern) was nothing short of perfection. He was very forthright & responsible and even though I could not understand much Marathi at the time, I could make out that he was someone who had some principles and was fair in all dealings.

Today, I don’t have an extension speaker but a radio sits in my bed-room and is almost always on for 24 hours. There is nothing better than listening to the good old songs.


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.


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

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

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

Image and Text contributed by Sir Mohinder Dhillon, Kenya

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

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

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

My father, Tek Singh-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our lives in Baburpur –

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

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

Leaving India –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A career in images –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halle Studio –

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

Ambi – 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


103 – “The only thing that impressed her was a good education”

My grandmother Kanwarani Danesh Kumari, Circa 1933

My grandmother Kanwarani Danesh Kumari, Patiala, Punjab. Circa 1933

Image & Text  contributed by Sawant Singh, Mumbai

This is an image of my grandmother Kanwarani Danesh Kumari photographed in Patiala, Punjab around 1933.

She would have been 20 or 21 years old at the time. It was photographed by R.R. Verma, a Photo artist from Cawnpore (Kanpur). Formally, she was addressed as ‘Rajkumari Bibiji Danesh Kumari Sahiba’. This is the only photograph I have of her in my possession, even though my memory of her is vastly different from it.

I remember her as a simply clad, dignified, exceptionally proud woman, who would spend her time gardening, shopping for groceries in the market, or chatting away with the gardener & her domestic staff or entertaining friends from out of town in Dehradun, (now in Uttarakhand); many of whom were people who belonged to royalty or influential circles. Her home “Sawant Villa”, named after my great grand father, was an open house with people constantly streaming in and out.

My grandmother was fondly called ‘Brownie’ by her family and friends. She was the wife of the late Maharaja Kumar Aman Singh of Bijawar (now in Madhya Pradesh) and the daughter of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala (Punjab) who was known as ‘the proud owner of the world famous “Patiala Necklace‘ manufactured by Cartier.

Brownie or as I called her, ‘Dadu‘, was brought up in the lap of great luxury but she understood and adapted to the simple life very well. A beautiful, strong, non-judgmental woman, she wouldn’t suffer fools and was known to never mince her words. The only thing that impressed her was a good education and believed that it was the only way one could change their lives for the better. She thus ensured that all her children and grandchildren would appreciate the value of literacy and education.

Dadu was a very social woman and loved going into the city to meet her friends. Everyone knew her in Dehradun. I remember her dragging me to meet her dear friend, Mrs. Vijaylaxmi Pandit and they would spend hours chatting away while she would keep tucking my hair away from my forehead and eyes. She was as comfortable in a Rolls Royce as she was in a local bus in Dehradun. The latter was how she travelled to visit me when I was studying at the Doon School. She insisted on teaching us how to walk barefoot on Bajri (pebbled) pathways and chew on a Datun (Neem twig commonly used to clean teeth), in retrospect I think it was to prepare us for the real world.

I also remember, a few of her interesting obsessions were collecting imported soaps and canvas shopping bags. Anyone who ever travelled abroad had to bring back bars of soaps, canvas bags and chocolates. I remember one soap in particular in her bathroom was shaped like a fish. It seems that her quirky fascination with soaps may have passed on to me.

After an accidental fall in the early 90s, her health began to fail and she passed away in her sleep, peacefully in 2005.

This photograph of my grandmother is framed and hung in my dining room. While I never saw her dressed like this, the dignity and pride I see in it, is alive and inspiring.