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

Shikar (Game Hunt)

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.


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.


77 – The Forest Ranger of Jeypore, Orissa

My father, Shankar Alva (right) with Game, a wild Bull. Jeypore, Koraput (now Orissa) 1928

Image and Text contributed by Jayakar Alva, Bangalore

My father Shankar Alva graduated in B.Sc from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1923. He then returned to India and took on the role of the Chief Forest Officer and Assistant to the Dewan of Koraput, from 1928-1941. He was based at the outskirts of Jeypore, a city south of Vishakhapatnam (now Vizag) in Orissa.

This image of my father hunting for Game, with his staff was probably taken in 1929. The Wild bull was shot by my father, as there was permissions at the time to hunt wild animals, albeit selectively, and especially if they were on a rampage. Animals would roam around freely and you can even see a wild elephant in the background of the image. I was a little boy then, and I lived in the forest with my father for only about 5 years.

After the death of one brother due to a cerebral malaria epidemic in the village in 1941, my father quit his job. He then returned and retired to his native place, Shiruvagim, a village he owned.

My mother Kamla Alva was a well known social worker and worked with many institutions, in Mangalore as well as Jeypore, with organisations focusing on women’s health care and rights. I worked in marketing & research industry for the defense sector for many years and then I became a teacher. I now live in a senior citizen’s home in Bangalore.

 


54 – The Anglo Indian men who transported millions of refugees to safety

(Left to Right) My grandfather Bundy Nixon, Joseph, the chauffeur, my Uncle, Norman Costanzio Nixon, Rob May (an Australian Gurkha officer), my father, Leslie Nixon, and a local game hunter (sitting) Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, 1946

Image and Text contributed by Deborah Nixon, Sydney

My family has a history of having lived in India for four, or possibly 5 generations- they were all Railways people. Both my grandmother and great grandmother were buried in Bhusawal.
My father Leslie Nixon, was born in Agra in 1925, schooled in Mussoorie, trained with the Gurkhas and joined KGV’s 1st OGR (King George V’s regiment). He worked during the Partition to transport refugees in and out of  the Gurkha head quarters in Dharmsala (then Punjab territory, now in the independent state of Himachal Pradesh) to and from Pathankot, Punjab, by train.

This photograph was taken at Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh in 1946 . Behind them was an empty elephant stable. I like this photograph because it is at variance with the way the British in India were depicted on Shikar (Game hunting). This was an ordinary Anglo Indian life away from the metropolis and now there is very little to be seen of it. My father, aged 22 then and his friend Rob May were very young and had to take on an enormous responsibility and an almost impossible task during partition in protecting refugees. He, like millions of others, was left deeply affected by it .

My father archived all of the family images in India and thanks to him I have been lucky to have a ‘bird’s eye view ‘ of partition. He kept a lot of old army documents and memorabilia from the few years he served with the Gurkhas. When he migrated to Australia he went to University and became a Geologist. He has been very interested in my own Phd thesis which focuses on the ‘experience of domiciled Europeans and Anglo Indians up to and during the Partition‘ and sometimes the memories have been painful for him. I am planning on visiting India again later this year to do more research I think your project is absolutely remarkable I read about it in ‘The  Australian‘ newspaper and thought I had to try and get a picture in although my family were not Indian they were a part of India!


51 – A Tiger hunter who changed himself to become a conservationist

My father, Captain Prabhakar Raj Bahuguna with a Taxidermically treated Tiger. Tehri Garhwal, Uttar Pradesh (Now Uttarakhand). 1953

Image and text contributed by Sangeeta Bahuguna, Mumbai

This image was photographed way in 1953 in-front of our residence in Tehri Garhwal. Here he stands posing with a tiger he had shot and was taxidermically treated to be mounted in our house.
My father, Captain Prabhakar Raj Bahuguna was enlisted in the Indian Army in the EME unit (Electrical & Mechanical engineering). His job was to repair weapons, vehicles and military equipment. He was born into a family of Raj Guru Pundits (Non Vegetarian Brahmins) from the Tehri district in Uttar Pradesh (now Uttranchal), which was ruled by a Nepali ruler, Lt.Col. HH Sir Maharaja NARENDRA SHAH Sahib Bahadur.

My father like many others from the district, was an avid hunter of tigers and other animals. Along with some staff, he would sometimes be accompanied by my mother and us three siblings. None of us were really interested in hunting and would sometimes wear inappropriate gear like white lace dresses, so that it would annoy and therefore dissuade him from taking us along. But it didn’t. My mother’s reluctance perhaps stemmed from following too many instructions and the discipline of not making any sounds like a cough or a sneeze, which was sure to send the game running.

My father in his lifetime shot 13 tigers in all. But in 1971, when hunting for Game in India was officially banned, ironically, many avid hunters with a conscience or because of governmental pressure, turned ecologists and preservationists. My father, like any other good hunter would keep track of numbers of animals available for game. But when he was told of the depleting numbers of the tiger, he was horrified and immediately went to meet the official working for the Indian Forest Services and who was heading the conservation campaign ‘Project Tiger‘, a Mr. A.J Singh. He then decided to change himself and voluntarily become a conservationist as well. My father since then also always felt guilty for the death of the 13 tigers, so much so that when he turned 60 and his eye sight started failing him and he would say that the “tigers have taken their revenge” and he believed every word of it.

1971 was also the same year when my father served in the Kargil war. But in retrospect, he always said that ‘War is not good, and its consequences are horrible and irrevocable’. One particular sighting he repeatedly brought up was of a Gorkha soldier he saw on a mountain top who had just chopped up an enemy soldier into several pieces and under shock was then trying to put the pieces together to fix the body again. I think it left a deep impact on him.

My memory of our father is of a very interesting one, on one hand he was this hard core, royal blue, disciplined man, but on his alter side, he was a gentle father who would braid our hair, passionately spend days fixing things around the house and most amazingly he was also an artist. At the time of the Kargil war, since all army personnel letters were censored, we recieved many letters from him half of which were predictably blacked out. So he devised a clever method of communicating with us. His engineering background had helped him in skills to draw beautifully. So, he would send letters to us, drawn as comic strips, telling us jokes, stories, tales and about stuff that was happening around him. All drawings had speech bubbles, labelled precisely, along with phonetic sound effects (the funniest ones were fart sounds) and it would rock our imagination.

After serving in the army, my father retired to Mussoorie, and converted part of his property into a hotel. When he passed away in 1996 aged 83, a few years later my mother took it over and I think she runs it even better than him.