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

Hand Painted

180 – A family’s most prized and proud possession

My great grandfather, Maganlal Mistry, Sidhpur District, Bombay Presidency (now Gujarat). Circa 1920

Image and Text contributed by Hemant Suthar and family, Mumbai / Ahmedabad

This picture of my great grandfather Maganlal Mistry was taken in the 1920s and it is is one of the family’s most prized possessions – our connection to our roots. The photograph was taken to be sent to his brothers working in Ethiopia, Africa, and was hand colored with photo inks in 1937. It is interesting how the colouring is limited to his turban, we reckon it is because colouring of photographs was quite an expensive and sought after artistic skill at the time.

My ancestors belonged to a village called Samoda in the region of Sidhpur (now in Gujarat) and they were exceptionally skilled wood carvers, in-layers and carpenters. The early 20th century was a time when many men (and women) from the Indian Subcontinent went to Africa to find work and make their fortunes. At first, my great grandfather Maganlal’s two brothers followed suit. They travelled by boat to the shores of the African continent and they found work as carpenters in the north east region of Africa, the Ethiopian Empire called Abyssinia at the time. The money was good, and they invited my great grandfather to join them there. However, Maganlal chose to stay on at home and began working as a government contractor building schools. Soon his work extended to several villages nearby. Maganlal, my great grandfather was not educated but he had learnt to write his name for signing building contracts. In his later years, he was made a member of P.W.D. (Public Works Department) Sidhpur office, and worked on large building contracts.

What we know of this photograph is that Maganlal was in constant touch with his brothers and they sent him pictures they had taken in Africa. Inspired by those photographs, he went to a local photo studio and asked for his picture to be taken so he could send it to his brothers. What we see in his hand is a wooden ‘folding scale’ – an important tool of his trade that he insisted be captured in the photograph.

Then a young man, Maganlal got married to a beautiful woman named Heera ben. She was a skilled cook and would teach other women to cook. Together they had two sons and a daughter. As he rose in influence and wealth around the district, he was made a member of the Caste Naat, or Panchayat of the village (a five member local government system). Anyone who went abroad was declared an outcast and upon their return, they would have to appease the village by offering a feast to the Panchayat and extended family, ask for their forgiveness to be re-included in the cast. All community problems were solved by calling upon the Panchayat at night, on a suitable day to resolve disputes such as matrimonial and monetary conflicts, quarrels between brothers and decisions of re-including and out-casting of people returning from foreign lands. All the while they were entertained with breakfast, lunch, dinner and other comforts funded by the parties involved in the dispute.

Maganlal’s brothers in Ethiopia also did well. One of them, in fact, rose in the ranks to became a secretary to the King of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie and worked on the Ivory inlaying and carving of the royal throne for the king. It seems that at onset of the Second Italo Ethiopian War in 1935, Maganlal’s brothers however decided to return home for good to Sidhpur. We are told that they hid their earnings (gold coins) in their tools and mattresses. My great grandfather helped them resettle and get re included in village. Soon the brothers too found themselves a good repute and became influential heads of the community.

Maganlal was a visionary man and invested his earnings in gold, real estate, shares of textile mills and a life insurance. We are told that he was very curious person. He would seek and share all kinds of knowledge with his children and make toys for his grand children. His lifestyle however remained simple and was usually found worshiping in the morning and rest of the time he worked.


178 – “My family were pioneers of photography in the Subcontinent”

My grand-uncle, Maharaja Birendra Kishore Manikya in his studio at Ujjayanta Palace, Agartala, Tripura. Circa 1910

Image and Text contributed by Vivek Dev Burman, Agartala & Kolkata

While clearing a godown in our house in 2015, I chanced upon a wooden box with a sliding cover. On close inspection, it contained ten 10”x12” B&W glass negatives photographed between c. 1897 to 1910, covered in cobwebs and fungus. It turned out to be part of my grandfather’s photographic portfolio. My grandfather, Maharajkumar Brajendra Kishore Dev Burman of Tripura was an avid photographer and a gadget freak.

Up until now only few prints of my grandfather’s early work existed and had never before been seen or mentioned outside of immediate family. But discovering these negatives revealed a whole different level of quality and scope than what we had seen before. Later I discovered 36 more glass negatives, dated c.1890-1925, in cupboards wrapped up in newsprint, albeit not in very good condition.

This is a photograph of my grand-uncle Maharaja Birendra Kishore taken by my grandfather, his brother, Brajendra Kishore, a year after my grand-uncle became the King of Tripura. They were both 24 years old. My grand-uncle was born in 1883, just 3 months before my grandfather (their mothers were sisters). He was a gifted painter, singer and songwriter. The painting you see on the left,‘The Hermit’, was his adaptation of Job (1880) by Léon Bonnat, an Italian painter. In those days it was quite usual to copy other artists works, and family stories tell us that the painting was sent to Paris, France and won a prize for the best copy. Several of his paintings now hang the palace and other residences of the royal family.

The rulers of Tripura were among the pioneers of Photography in the Indian Subcontinent. My great great grand father Maharaja Bir Chandra Manikya was the architect of modern Agartala (capital of Tripura), and an enthusiastic photographer. He acquired one of the first two cameras that came into Subcontinent (the other was purchased by Raja Deen Dayal, perhaps funded by the Indore state) and was photographing Dagguerotypes in the 1860s. He kept up with all the newer techniques of photography. Culture and arts flourished in the kingdom under his rule. He was the first person to recognize Rabindranath Tagore to be accomplished genius and awarded him when all of Bengal was critical of his early work. He even provided regular financial assistance to Santiniketan, a practice that continued with his son Radha Kishore & grandson Birendra Kishore (above).

In those days most subcontinental photographers followed the European style of making portraits – with backdrops, and props & clothes to mimick the pictures they saw as examples. I hear there was a studio setup constructed in the palace in which backdrops & props were changed whenever they got bored of it. Photography was also achieved in collaborative ways. Exposures of 10-20 seconds, plates and paper had to be sourced from Calcutta, and that was a rather tedious journey as well as a long wait. Soon the king constructed his own dark room, learnt the developing and coating process and began importing his own chemicals and accessories. His passion for photography, its dissemination and developing also got the family involved. His third wife Monmohini is said to have been an amatuer photographer, whom he tutored to develop and make prints. Perhaps the first selves-portrait in India (1880) was of them together in a fairly intimate photograph using a long wire shutter control. He established a club called the “The Camera Club of the Palace of Agartala” and what we must assume was a first, an annual photo exhibition in the subcontinent at the palace.

Bir Chandra‘s sons were also keen photographers. Samarendra (Bara Thakur) my great grand-uncle, was a prolific photographer and regularly sent his pictures to England for competitions. His work & writings on Photography are well documented and one of his most well known pictures of a tribal girl is held at the British Library. He even experimented with methods to preserve negatives in Indian hot and humid weather conditions. His own father was known to comment- “Samarendra’s paintings and photos were near flawless”. The other son Maharaja Radha Kishore Manikya, my great grand father was also a keen photographer and succeeded the throne in 1897. Unfortunately, no negatives of their works have been found so far.

My grand-uncle Birendra Kishore and my grandfather, Brajendra Kishore also took to the new medium. Of the two, my grandfather was more involved with photography, its technical aspects and was an expert at coating the plates and paper. I find this image so telling of their bond and as an ode to their exchange of ideas, because the photograph is of one brother – a keen painter, taken by the another – a keen photographer.

My grandfather, the photographer of this image, Brajendra Kishore had a passion for all the new things invented in the world and experimented with everything. He serviced and repaired all the royal cars and pocket watches. He loved to carve wood & ivory, and make furniture. Of course photography was a passion as it combined the aesthetic, mechanical and chemistry that he dabbled in anyway. He would coat the glass negatives and paper, and process and print for most of the family and taught others how to do it. He had a darkroom with a hole in the ceiling where the sun was the source of light for the enlarger. Not all of his images have survived the test of time, but this image is one from his collection of negatives that have.

Through my childhood I met my grandfather often, though only during school holidays. He taught me to shoot (with a gun) at the age of about seven and after a few years, to hand-color B&W photographs. Unfortunately I found photography to be my own keen pursuit only just before he passed in 1976, so I could not discuss any of my discoveries about photography or his pictures with him; else I am sure he would have told me about these plates, and asked that they be looked after. Nonetheless, I am proud that we are probably the only family in the subcontinent who have engaged with photography as pioneers and later as practitioners for five generations.


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.


96 – He always said that he lost his hair due to the heat in India

My father Sydney with his colleague at a club in India or Pakistan. Circa 1944

Image and Text contributed by Dave, Bristol, England

This is a picture of my father Sydney (Sid) and a colleague having a drink at a hotel or club somewhere in India or Pakistan during World War 2. He was was as an airplane mechanic with the RAF (Royal Air Force). He is the one with a cigarette and he would have been about 27 years old at the time.

He was also in the RAF football team and used to say that they sometimes flew 1000 miles just for a football game, this was during wartime and there must have been rationing, but it serves as an example perhaps of the british attitude at the time, towards sport.

My father Sydney was born in Liverpool, England around 1916 and had two older brothers and two older sisters. His father died when he was a child and he was brought up by his older brothers Joe and John.

He volunteered  for armed service when the war (WWII)  broke out in 1939 and was able to choose  which service  he wanted, which was the RAF. He failed his medical exam to be a pilot due to problems with his ears and became an aircraft mechanic dealing, I’d presume with air engines.

He was posted to Detling Airdrome in East Anglia, it was a coastal command airfield, but they were attacked in summer 1940 by the German airforce and about 67 RAF personel were killed. His squadron was then posted to India and I believe they went there by ship in either 1940 or 1941.

When in India, they were ‘posted’ or stationed in many different locations, he didn’t talk much about it  but I do know he was in Hyderabad at some stage, and it was before partition. He always said that he lost his hair (he went partially bald) due to the heat in India. The main enemy in India during WWII were the Japanese coming through Burma, but I don’t think my father was ever on the front line. He returned to England after the war, around 1945 and never went back. He met my mother at a dance after the war, in Liverpool. He passed away died in 1979.

 


4 – Later they heard, their home and assets were all burnt down

Hand painted in New York (in 2000), my maternal grandparents, Lahore, (Now Pakistan). 1923

Image and text contributed by Dinesh Khanna.

My grandparents, Balwant Goindi, a Sikh and Ram Pyari, a Hindu were married in 1923. She was re-named Mohinder Kaur after her marriage . They went on to have eight daughters and two sons, one of the daughters happens to be my mother.

Balwant Goindi owned a whiskey Shop in Lahore. He was a wealthy man and owned a Rolls Royce. During Indo-Pak Partition, he and his family migrated to Simla, without any of his precious belongings; assuming he would return after the situation had calmed down, however, that never happened. After moving around, and attempting to restart his business with other Indian trader friends, they finally settled down in Karol Bagh. The area was primarily residential with a large Muslim population until the exodus of many to Pakistan and an influx of refugees from West Punjab after partition in 1947, many of whom were traders. It must have been a very sad day when he heard that his home and his shops in Lahore were burnt down.