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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.


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. 


168 – From Karachi to Bombay

My mother Indra's family. Karachi (now Pakistan). Circa 1930

My mother Indra’s parents, siblings, and cousins. Karachi (now Pakistan). Circa 1930

Image and Text contributed by Roma Mehta, Taipei

This is one of my favourite photographs of my mother Indra’s family. It was taken in front of her family’s home in Sindhi Colony in Karachi, almost a decade before the partition of India and Pakistan took place. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact date but I estimate it was the 1930s.

It is possible this photo was taken on the occasion of my uncle (mother’s brother) Moti’s wedding but I cannot confirm it. Sitting in the middle are my grandfather, Gaganmal Jhangiani whom we fondly called Baba and grandmother, Laxmi Bai whom we called Ammi. Around them sit his children, his brother’s children and a relative-in-law.

Baba was a tall and dark complexioned man, and Ami was petite and fair. To me, they seemed like ebony and ivory. Ami and Baba used to play together as children and when Ami turned 12, the families got them married. It seems that my grandmother had basic elementary education but like most women of the time, she became busy with domestic matter and household duties.

My grandfather was an architect by profession and had studied in England. I have been told that he was instrumental in designing and planning the Sindhi Colony in Karachi. Life was good for the family : they had a lovely home, a horse carriage, and a great love of music and culture. Each one of them knew how to play an Indian classical music instrument. The family would even sing together on many occasions.

My mother, Indra always told us stories from her youth with utmost glee, reliving her days of fun and freedom. Here she stands directly behind Ammi on our right. My mother was independent natured, fierce and talented. She played the Harmonium, Sitar, Tanpura, and the Tabla. She also loved to sing and longed to perform on radio, which of course, was out of the question – For it was improper for a girl to do such things in society. Nonetheless, my mother found a way around and would sneak away from home in the horse carriage when no one was watching.

My mother and her siblings were staunch supporters of Mahatma Gandhi and participated in the struggle for freedom and would often march along with pro-independence processions against British rule. Later, they even joined the Dandi march (Salt march) initiated by Mahatma Gandhi, and the women would carry red chili powder in their fists in case they needed to protect themselves. Upon an arrest of one such march, my uncles were put in jail, but my mother and other women were set free and that did not sit well with her. My mother said she felt cheated from the rush of spending a night in jail – fighting for a cause she believed in.

During partition, the family decided to leave Karachi and move to the Indian side of the border. They were amongst the few with an already established base in Bombay (a grand-uncle ran a sports equipment business). The family traveled light to Bombay (now Mumbai) in midst of rioting, with bare clothing to keep the children safe. Like million of others who could never return – Bombay became their home and they began a new life.

Many of our relatives were displaced or lost their family members during this migration, and for months after their move to Bombay, my grandmother would search the docks and train stations, for relatives and acquaintances who needed help. Baba passed away soon after the partition and I never got a chance to meet him, but I did inherit his reclining armchair, that he sat on every day to rest and read.

Years later, when my parents were on a flight to London from Calcutta (now Kolkata), they had an unscheduled stopover in Karachi due to technical difficulties. My parents used this opportunity to visit the places they grew up in. My mother was delighted and deeply saddened at the same time to see her childhood home and an engraved stone plate that still displayed the family name.

A little bit of the past still lives on in the only surviving family member seen in this photograph, my mother’s first cousin, Radhika, sitting left in the front row. She celebrated her 90th birthday in August 2016.


163 – Dapper young men in Bombay

My father Subir Chaudhuri with a cat. Bombay. Circa 1968

My father Subir Chaudhuri with a cat. Bombay. Circa 1968

Image & Text contributed by Chirodeep Chaudhuri, Mumbai

Most family albums are unremarkable, but, nostalgia as we know, can be a tricky customer. As a photographer, and more so as an editor-of-photography, the exercise of going through a family album can be testing, and fraught with danger – too many pictures there which “could have been better”.

When I was growing up, our home too had several photo albums – the ones with black pages and deckle-edged black and white photos affixed with photo corners. One afternoon, in Calcutta (now Kolkata), my mother and I began organising the albums sticking back some photos that had come loose. There we were pouring over pictures of what could best be called a rather haphazardly maintained record of the last two generations of my family’s middle-class existence.

And then I found this picture that made me stop.

It was a picture of my father, my baba, Subir Chaudhuri aged 26, or 27. Studying that picture carefully, the crumpled white kurta-pyjama told me that it was perhaps shot early in the morning. There is also an unmistakable hint of sleep still hanging over the young man as he sits cross-legged, looking down towards a cat which is lazily rubbing itself against the front leg of an easy-chair.

The print had yellowed and was damaged; a ball-point pen gash (most likely done by a very young me) sits agonisingly in the centre of the frame. Each time, I have looked at this picture, since making the discovery; I have always wished I was the photographer. I remember thinking, my father was not a bad looking chap. My father had begun working at Philips (formally known as Koninklijke Philips N.V. / Royal Philips)  in Calcutta in 1964 in the company’s Head Office and soon, in 1966, the Head Office shifted to Bombay and as part of that transition, he too moved to Bombay (now Mumbai). There is also a pamphlet my mother, Kanika, has kept safely, where you see him featured as a model for a Philips Double Beam Oscilloscope. Baba always gets embarrassed when I probe to ask him about that incident about how he came to model for that advertisement.

But he smiled when I showed him this picture with the cat. I expected memories to flood over him but there was no more than a trickle. He remembered that the picture was shot sometime around 1969-70 by his friend, Dipankar Basu or Dipankar Kaka as we kids called him. They were all bachelors then, young Bengali boys, who had found themselves together through coincidence far away from home, during the industrial boom, sharing a small 1-BHK flat in Navjivan Society in the eastern suburb of Chembur in Bombay. Initially, my father stayed in this flat alone as the lone tenant. Some months later Dipankar kaka was looking for accommodation and so moved in with my father. Dipankar was baba’s close friend, Soumitri Sen‘s friend. They were both textile people who had moved to the city as it was then the textile hub. Many of these men who lived with Baba, were not his friends ; they were people he came in contact with in Bombay.

Baba recalls “It was a Sunday morning. That cat used to sometimes come in from the balcony of our flat whenever the door was left open,” he told me. Though not much else of that ground floor house can be seen in this picture there are details of my life in that house – our home – outside the frame of the image which return to memory each time I see this picture. It’s the house I spent the first 18 years of my life. I remember that chair vaguely. Those floor tiles, strangely a particular chipped one I remember most vividly, maybe because so much time was spent on that living room floor drawing or else playing with friends during my summer vacations. As a photographer, I am bowled over by the beauty with which the languorous quality of a holiday morning has been recorded, quite inadvertently, by the photographer. “Dipankar had only an amateur’s interest in photography”, says Soumitri Sen or Shomu Kaka, who was also part of their group.

Picture making involves decision making…many small decisions made in quick succession. And so, I have often wondered what may have been going on in Dipankar Kaka’s head when he shot this picture. Firstly, I can’t understand what an amateur would be doing fiddling with a camera at home early in the morning. It’s such an unusual moment, a candid one in the middle of formal ones like birthdays, weddings and vacation-time group photos where everyone poses awkwardly. Was he just trying to take that last picture so he could develop his film? Or had he shot any others that morning? If he had, unfortunately, none are around. What were the aesthetic choices he might have been considering while framing the shot as he was peering over the ground-glass? Did he select this particular frame to be printed or was it the printer at the studio who chose it because it had the best exposure? There is another version of this picture – a square crop in which you see my father’s slippers placed neatly in front (my father has always been quite a dapper of a man who I can’t remember ever having seen bare feet) and so, I wondered what the full negative was like. I have tried to locate that negative from Dipankar Kaka’s daughter but we have been unsuccessful. I had never met Dipwanita, but this search brought us together, first on Facebook and then at a bookshop café in Pune.

There is much I am curious to know about the making of this picture but that is now impossible. Dipankar Kaka is no more.


162 – The day all the states of India were reorganised

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

Image and text contributed by Subhadra Murthy, Hyderabad / Telangana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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?

 


143 – Celebrating the end of war at the Great Eastern Hotel, Calcutta

My grandparents, mother and her boyfriend. The Great Eastern Hotel. Calcutta, West Bengal. 1946

My grandparents, mother, and her then boyfriend. The Great Eastern Hotel. Calcutta, West Bengal. 1946

Image and Text contributed by Jonathan Charles Cracknell, London, UK

Just as India was heading towards Independence in 1947, people were celebrating the End of the World War II and this picture was photographed at New years Eve in the real capital of British India, Calcutta (West Bengal). My maternal grandfather, Peter sits here with a fez on his head, and next to him is my grandmother Anna. She was of mixed heritage –  of Kashmiri and German Jewish descent. Sitting next to her is my mother and her then boyfriend, a British soldier, on leave from his posting in Malaya (now Malaysia). It was earlier in the same year that the British Military Administration in Malaya had been replaced by its own, the Malayan union.

The hotel, then known as the Great Eastern Hotel where this image was taken is now called the Lalit Great Eastern Hotel. An extremely popular place, the colonial era hotel was originally established as a confectionary shop and then grew into a grand and plush hotel in the early 1840s, a time when Calcutta was the top seat of the East India Company. The hotel had a 100 rooms, and claimed to be second oldest of the British Empire and India’s first luxury hotel. It was also well known for its extravagant and delicious french cuisine, and served snacks and a whisky peg or two, similar to a drive-by service, to horse drawn carriages. Referred to as “the Jewel of the East” and the “Savoy of the East” in its heyday, Great Eastern Hotel hosted several notable persons visiting the city including I am told, Queen Elizabeth II, the well-known author Mark Twain & musician Dave Brubeck. The hotel’s repute and value declined later during the Naxalite Era of West Bengal and was only recently reopened, now as a heritage property, by its new owners in 2013.

My mother’s father was worked with the Railways in Lahore (now in Pakistan) to which they would return to face the horrors of Indo/Pak Partition. But for the time being that seemed a long way off. This was the “New” India everyone was celebrating, not the Victorian dream of the memsahibs. A new comprehension and understanding of Indian culture and the world, was in the making, and this time, it was to be without the tired old prejudices of yesteryear. It was a time of great optimism and home and even back home in the UK people imagined a new world of equality, which would be reflected in the British election soon to come, when Winston Churchill was defeated by a Labour majority.

My father Aubrey Cracknell, too was brought up in Lahore. His father Charles Edwin Cracknell was a  soldier in the British Army. After the Boer War ended in the early 20th century, he was shipped out to the Indian subcontinent, to Rawalpindi (now Pakistan) on the North West Frontier. It was here that Charles, my grandfather, met and married my grandmother, several years younger to him,  and they had a son, Aubrey, my father, in the Cantonments.

When my father was only eight years old, Charles, my grandfather was wounded on a train from Peshawar, the city of the Frontier (Pak-Afghan Border) to Jalalabad (eastern Afghanistan). Hit by an Afghan sniper and wounded in the lung, he was hospitalised in Rawalpindi but died of pneumonia and other complications. He is now buried in the British cemetery in Rawalpindi which lies neglected and all the graves have fallen to ruin. My Grandmother left the cantonments and moved to Lahore where my father grew up.

 


141 – Portrait of a debutante

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My maternal grandmother, Monica Guha (née Roy Chowdhury). Calcutta, West Bengal. 1925

Image and Text contributed by Aparna Datta, Bangalore

This is a picture of my maternal grandmother, Monica Guha, (née Roy Chowdhury). The photograph was recently gifted to me by my aunt, my mother’s first-cousin. My aunt had found this classic studio portrait, complete with potted plants and painted canvas backdrop, amongst a collection of photographs belonging to her late father, Monica’s brother.

On the reverse of the photograph is a rubber stamp with a date ‘3.11.25’, with ink that hasn’t yet faded. The photograph had been taken at Dass Studio, P 21/A Russa Road North, Calcutta. The rubber stamp stated “Copy can be obtain at any time. Please quote the number.” Endearingly, there is also a name “Monu”, her family nick name, hand-written in Bengali.

While looking at the photograph I noticed she wore no bindi and no sindoor – symbols that a married woman would wear. Laden with jewellery, top to bottom, this simply had to be a rite-of-passage ‘portrait of a debutante’, a matrimonial image, intended to be shown to prospective grooms and their families. As a time-honoured ritual in arranged marriages, the significance of such a photograph, as a cultural artefact, was inescapable. 

I call this picture the ‘Barefoot Princess’.

The picture and the date-stamp had a rabbit-hole effect on me, drawing me in, coaxing me to contextualise the image. My mother had passed away, so I dredged the recesses of my mind, trying to recall bits of family history she had shared with me over the years. I spent weeks tracking down near and distant relatives all over India, picking up strands to weave into a narrative.

Monica was born in July of 1912, at Lucknow, United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh). Her father, Nirupam Roy Chowdhury, was the son of the Zamindar of Ghalghallia, Taki, located in the North 24 Parganas, a District of West Bengal. Taki is a town on the banks of the Ichhamati River, that borders Bangladesh. The Roy Chowdhurys were descendants of Raja Basanta Roy of Jessore, uncle of Raja Pratapaditya, one of the twelve ‘bhuiyans‘ or enlightened chieftains who ruled the Sultanate of Bengal (1336–1576 C.E.). Raja Pratapaditya had fought against the Mughal imperial army during its attempts to make inroads into Bengal in the early 16th century. By 1574 he had declared his independence from the Mughals and established an independent Hindu state in Bengal.

Nirupam Roy Chowdhury was a civil engineer and served with the Government of the then undivided Bengal. His postings took him all over the province.

 Monica’s mother was Kanak Lata, daughter of Rai Bahadur Dr. Mohendra Nath Ohdedar, the first Indian Civil Surgeon of the United Provinces.

During early 20th century (and for some, even until now), it was customary for women to go to their mamabari (mother’s home) to give birth, and so all Kanak Lata’s ten children – six sons and four daughters, were born in Lucknow, at the home of their maternal grandfather.

As the eldest girl, Monica was destined for an early marriage. Education would have certainly featured in her life, however I am not so sure if they formally attended school or were home schooled, and much of their young lives were spent travelling between their paternal and maternal grandparents’ homes.

Indeed, at the age of 13, in 1926, just months after this photograph sitting, Monica did find a suitable husband, a doctor, Dr. Ajit Kumar Guha. She along with her husband (my grandfather) moved to her husband’s and in-laws’ home at Motihari, Bihar. Soon after, my mother was born in 1929, the eldest of five children, four daughters and one son. Monica and Dr. Ajit and the whole family moved to Patna around 1935 and settled there.

Monica, my grandmother’s life was serene and was spent as an efficient home maker. She passed away peacefully in January 1993, in the same house where she ran her own world, her sansar and where she had lived for 58 years.  The grace and poise I see in the portrait characterised her all her life.


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.


125 – A trip to the Holy Land just before the historic Six-Day War

My grandmother, Kunjamma (standing fourth from right) with a travel group. Jerusalem. 1967

My grandmother, Kunjamma (standing fourth from right) with a travel group. Jerusalem. 1967

Image and Text contributed by Annie Philip, Mumbai

My grandfather, T.T. Zachariah, was working with petroleum company Aramco in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and my grandmother, Kunjamma, joined him from Kerala with her two youngest children in 1965. She had taken leave for a couple of years from the school where she used to teach.

The expatriate community at the company was close knit and had a fairly active social life that involved sports, picnics and festival celebrations. While living in Saudi Arabia, my grandfather picked up and excelled at tennis, while my grandmother held homeschooling classes for her children and couple of their neighbour’s children.

During the time, my grandfather heard about a three-four day trip to Jerusalem being organised by a Catholic group. This was in early January 1967, few months short of the historic Six-Day War that changed boundaries and destinies in the region.

The group planned to take a chartered flight from Dhahran to Jerusalem. Children were, however, not allowed on the trip. My grandparents came from a long line of Syrian Christians in Kerala and visiting the Holy Land was considered a once in a lifetime opportunity. My grandfather encouraged my grandmother to go, insisting that he would stay back and take care of the children. His reasoning was that he could go anytime later and she should not miss this chance. Kunjamma too was set to go back to Kerala by March 1967, to re-join the school in Kerala for the next academic year, and so she agreed.

The group of around sixty people were a mix of expatriates. It included Westerners, Indians and Pakistanis, Catholics and Protestants. Jerusalem was expected to be chilly at the time and so my grandmother borrowed a coat from her friend. As she made preparations for the trip, she was apprehensive more not about travelling with new people but having to use knives and forks at meal time.

And so she was relieved and happy to have the company of two Malayali nurses. The three women hung around together and my grandmother did not have to worry too much about dining etiquette. My grandmother remembers the name of their hotel as Gloria Hotel. In this picture you can see the Dome of the Rock and the town of Jerusalem. She also remembers that a Western couple solemnised their wedding at one of the churches during the trip.

The group covered most of the important pilgrimage points including Stations of the Cross, the Mount of Olives, Golgotha, Jericho and Bethlehem. At the suggestion of some Protestants in the group, my grandmother also visited the Garden Tomb, outside the walled Old City of Jerusalem, with them (Protestants believe this to be the burial site of Jesus Christ). They could, however, not visit Nazareth (which lay under Israeli control) as they had taken their visa from Saudi Arabia. (At the time, much of the walled Old City of Jerusalem commonly referred to as East Jerusalem lay under Jordanian control).

My grandmother brought back water from River Jordan and the Dead Sea in tiny bottles as memorabilia from the trip, apart from an olive wood cover- bound Bible and framed pictures. Months after she returned, the Six-Day War took place and my grandfather was unable to make the trip. He returned to Kerala in 1976 and passed away in 1986. She remembers the trip as one that was truly memorable and fondly recalls how it was my grandfather who encouraged her to go.


122 – “My family made the pen that wrote the Constitution of India”

My grandfather, Dwarkadas Jivanlal Sanghvi (Stands extreme right in a Black Coat) with his brother Vallabhdas Jivanlal Sanghvi and business partners, at a Pen Exhibition in Bombay. Circa1951

My grandfather, Dwarkadas Jivanlal Sanghvi (extreme right in a Black Coat) with his brother Vallabhdas Jivanlal Sanghvi and business partners. Bombay. Circa 1951

Image & Text contributed by Purvi Sanghvi, Mumbai

This picture is of my grandfather Dwarkadas Jivanlal Sanghvi and his brother Vallabhdas Jivanlal Sanghvi with their business partners at a Pen Exhibition in Bombay around 1951.

My paternal grandfather Dwarkadas Jivanlal Sanghvi was born in Rajula, in Gujarat on September 17, 1913 into an impoverished family. He was around the age of eight when his father died and because his mother Amrutben could not afford to bring him up, he was sent to a Balashram (Children’s home). He only managed to study up until 4th standard. At the age of 13 he went to Rangoon, Burma to join his elder brother, Vallabhdas Jivanlal Sanghvi who had moved there to work at a general store which sold cutlery and kitchen ware. As a young teenager, my grandfather would earn little money babysitting children in Rangoon.

Soon the enterprising brothers began buying fountain pens from traders and selling them on the pavements of Rangoon, making tiny profits. Meanwhile the entire family (their mother & sisters) also moved to Rangoon including the new wife my grandfather, at the age of 23 had travelled back to Gujarat to marry.

My father was born in 1939 in Rangoon, but then the World war II broke out, In 1941 the family chose to move to Calcutta (now Kolkata) where my grandfather Dwarkadas founded a whole sale trading company called Kiron & Co, named after my father whose name was Kiran (with an A), but when a Bengali sign painter instead spelt it as Kiron (with an O), with no time for corrections, the name stayed as painted. Both the company’s & my father’s.

The Brothers soon realized that good business beckoned them back to western India and they moved to Valsad, Gujarat and then to Bombay. In Bombay, Dwarkadas & his brother Vallabhdas invested in and installed a lathe machine in a small shed at Kasturchand Mill compound in Dadar west and began manufacturing most of the Pen parts by themselves. I think Dhiraj Manufacturing was my grand-uncle Vallabhdas’s venture but both companies traded in Wilson as well.

In the beginning, the Nibs were imported from USA, under the brand names of Sita & Sity. However, as an error the supplier sent them a box of Nibs called Wilson instead. The war was a huge obstacle to sending the consignment back so they had no choice but to start making the pens with the un-returnable nibs. With the entire pen rebranded as Wilson, the pen sold far better than they expected and yet again another mistaken name was retained.

By the mid 1940s the business grew and they had begun manufacturing all pens from scratch. The Manufacturing units moved to Andheri East and to Chakala. And they also introduced other brands such as the President. With almost a 1200 people as staff, there were people from almost all communities working together; A lot of women were hired for the first time. While the machines were worked by men, all the assembling of the pen was done entirely by women. Their daily salary at the time was around Rs. 3 to 4 per day. Meanwhile my grandfather taught himself to read, write and speak in English at the age of 42, because he understood that knowing English was important for modern businesses to grow.

Wilson Pens quickly rose to huge fame and became a preferred choice of pens across the country. All government offices, law court, used the Wilson pens. In School too, the teachers would ask us for Wilson Pens as gifts. Chippi chawl was the wholesale office that was visited by salesmen from all over the country who came to negotiate and buy pens and other Wilson stationery. Soon the pens were also being exported to several countries.

In 1961-62 a huge union strike set up the family businesses for hard times. The pressures were hard to handle and so the Brothers split their business by picking chits (draw of luck) of the businesses they would run. Vallabdas got President Pens and my grandfather got Wilson along with the Refill plant (an Italian collaboration) that came into my grandfather and his sons share.

For some time the businesses ran as smoothly as they could. Both the brothers’ children set up their own units and began manufacturing all kinds of pens. We made Refills, Ball pens, VV pens, Jotters, Jumbos. Several of the new designs were also imitated by new and upcoming businesses.

Another violent and strife-full union strike in the early 1980’s organized by the infamous trade union leader Dutta Samant (lasted for approx. ten months) closed down our businesses for a while (including several others’ in Bombay), but it was the last and the third strike in 1998 that broke our businesses completely apart and my grandfather & father had no choice but to shut everything down yet again. So hard was the last fall that my father and grandfather just could not find in themselves the courage to start all over again.

Towards the end of his life, Dwarkadas spent most of his time at home. He had since long harboured deep regrets about not being very educated and hence at his voluntary retirement he donated a lot of money for education. He founded and funded almost four to five educational institutions. DJ Sanghvi Engineering College, in Ville Parle (Mumbai), Amrutben Jivanlal College of Commerce (earlier a part of Mithibhai College) also in Mumbai, Jivanlal Anandji High school in Rajula, Gujarat and another school nearby in Amreli District.

In 2002, the Pioneer of Pens in India, my grandfather Dwarkadas passed away.

Of the several interesting family stories about Wilson, one in particular that makes me most proud is when I learnt that we the Wilson Pen Family, made the orange, thick-nibbed pen that wrote the most fundamental document that defines the state of India: The constitution of India written by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. It was later confirmed via several sources. I am very sure it made my grandfather very very happy and immensely proud too.

 


118 – The only non-white students of the batch

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My grandfather, Dr. Preetam Pal Singh (seated) with his college mates at the King Edward Medical College. Lahore (Now Pakistan) Circa 1933

Image & Text contributed by Sarah J. Kazi, London

This photograph of my grandfather with his college mates was taken in 1933/1934 at the King Edward Medical College in Lahore (now Pakistan). He was around 25 years old at the time and he and the others in this picture were the only non-white students of their batch.

My grandfather, Dr. Preetam Pal Singh was born in 1908 at Gujar Khan, Rawalpindi District (now in Pakistan) and served as a doctor in the British Army. He was posted at Manora Island Cantonment, near Karachi when partition of India took place in 1947.

My great grandmother, grandfather, his wife, and two aunts boarded the train to Firozpur (Indian Punjab) and later reached Faridkot, where he and the family stayed for three nights at the railway platform before the Maharaja of Faridkot employed my grandfather as his personal physician. My grandfather was allotted an official house, and my father was born in 1950. This huge house in red  (called the Laal Kothi) still exists and was recently visited by my father.

Later in 1957 my grandfather specialized in Radiology from the King George Medical College in Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh). In the 1960s, the whole family moved and settled down in Patiala, Punjab and I have fond memories of visiting the city to meet my grandparents. My grandfather passed away in 2003, at the ripe old age of 94.


112 – My foster father, my glorious friend, Rathindra Nath Tagore

My foster father Rathindra Nath Tagore, with his father Rabindra Nath Tagore. Calcutta. (West Bengal) Circa 1935.

My foster father Rathindra Nath Tagore, with his father Rabindra Nath Tagore. Calcutta. (West Bengal) Circa 1935.

Image & Text contributed by Jayabrato Chatterjee, Kolkata

My earliest memories were borne back in Dehradun (now in Uttarakhand), where I spent my childhood with my mother, Meera Chatterjee, my maternal grandmother, Kamala Bisi and my Jethu, Rathi Jethu (Bengali term for father’s elder brother), Rathindra Nath Tagore. Jethu was Rabindra Nath Tagore’s second child & eldest son.

Those were the first eleven and most impressionable years of my childhood. I still remember the rattle of the Dehradun Express that would carry us back to our home in the valley, away from the bustle and noise of Calcutta (now Kolkata).

Jethu had left his home in Calcutta to come and live in Dehradun with my family. It was Jethu, who had allotted me a garden patch in Mitali, our home at 189/A Rajpur Road, Dehradun and asked me to tend it with care. He even bought me gardening tools, a pair of sears and a watering can. And as I had held his finger tightly, he had led me through the nursery, pointing out names of flowers usually associated with an English garden – Phlox, Larkspurs, Hollyhocks, Ladies lace, Nasturtium, Sweet-peas, Crocuses, Azaleas and Narcissi.

Mitali our home was sheltered by the Himalayas, by the Shivalik ranges that were a riot of Mary Palmers, Crimson hibiscuses and sprawling lawns flanked by flower beds down five cobbled steps. I remember watching the shooting stars that raced across the sky at twilight. Mitali was Ochre in colour, with six large bedrooms, two kitchens, garages, servants’ quarters and a tin shed near the Mango and Lichi orchards where our cows Shyama and Julie – mooed and Koeli, the Tibetan terrier, barked her head off. Beyond the shed lay a wire-meshed chicken barn crowded with cackling Leghorns and a Black Minorca rooster who at the crack of dawn would awaken Ghanshyam, the mali (gardner) with a start. And pervading through the garden was, of course, Jethu’s voice, gently instructing the gardeners with a voice so civilised and kind that all were bound to pay attention to words spoken with equal measure to one and all.

Born on November 27, 1888, Jethu was sent by his father, Rabindranath Tagore, in 1906, to the University of Illinois to study Agriculture and where he was instrumental in starting the now famous Cosmopolitan Club. Jethu’s interests were varied and eclectic.

My strongest memories remain of him bent over a block of wood in the afternoons, by the light of a dull electric bulb, diligently inlaying it with intricate chips of ebony and ivory or shaping it into a beautiful jewellery box, a pen holder or a coffee table. He was usually assisted by a skilled and slightly cross-eyed Sikh carpenter named Bachan Singh – who would also let me chip away at a redundant wedge with a miniature saw and shape it into building blocks that I would later colour.

On my fifth birthday, Jethu presented me with a wonderful wooden steed he had made – a cross between a rocking horse and a miniature pony – complete with stirrups and a comfortable seat. He had placed him strategically on springs so that I could ride the foal to my heart’s content without falling off. For a while this charger became the love of my life and only if I was feeling generous would I share it with Bugga, the janitor’s son, who was my best friend. Bugga was snotty-nosed & mischief-laden who knew where the parrots would nest for the summer or where we could find caterpillars and tadpoles during the monsoons. He had also charmed members of Mitali by doing an impeccable act on Ravan, watched at the local Ramleela. I too would slip out at night, without my mother or Jethu finding out, with my ayah, Kanchi Ama, and walk at least two miles guided by the moon to the Ramleela grounds where the local servants metamorphosed into delectable actors. The Ramleela was certainly the high point of my Dusserah holidays when I came home from my boarding school and delighted in watching Langra Karesan, another servant, snivel through his performance as Sita in one of my mother’s old chiffon sarees.

I was hell-bent on becoming an actor too. So I’d sing my way through most of Balmiki Pratibha (an Opera penned by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, Jethu’s father) exclusively for Jethu’s pleasure. My reward was a set of wonderful wooden swords that he crafted for me and the next time we went to Calcutta, Bhola babu, who was the manager at Jorasanko, was instructed by Jethu to buy me a dacoit’s costume, complete with a pair of false mustachios, and take me to see the Great Russian Circus. On rain-filled evenings he would sit me on his lap, play his Esraj (Indian Harp) at Santiniketan, lovingly running the bow on the strings, and teach me to sing songs whose meanings I’m still discovering – Oi ashono toley; Roop shagorey doob diyechhi; Amaarey tumi oshesh korechho and Kholo kholo dwaar.

Winter holidays in Calcutta were never complete without a dinner with Ma and Jethu at Skyroom on Park Street and a special Sunday lunch at the Firpo’s on Chowringhee. My table manners – taught to me at Mitali – came in handy. It was Jethu who showed me the difference between a fish and a carving knife, between a salad and a quarter plate, a pastry and a regular fork; he showed me how to use the various items of the Mappin & Webb silver cutlery that had been arranged at table and insisted that I washed and wore clean clothes for dinner, ate my soup without slurping and consumed the rest of the meal with my mouth closed and a napkin spread over my lap. Lunch at home was typically Bengali, consisting of the usual rice, dal, shukto and a fish or meat curry. But dinner, sharp at 7.30 pm, was always European, served with flourish, item by item, by Jethu’s personal valet, Bahadur, at the formal dining room on Royal Doulton crockery. It was pleasure to see Jethu peel an apple at breakfast with great ceremony and elegance. Now when I look back, in fact every meal that I remember having with him was an art.

During my childhood it was very fashionable to host tea parties. Jethu had inducted Ma into sipping the most fragrant of Darjeeling teas – the delicately-scented Flowery Orange Pekoe. He was also a wonderful cook and often baked me a cake for my birthday. Some evenings, he would walk into the kitchen and stir up a mean Shepherd’s Pie and a fluffy mango soufflé. And when the orchards in Mitali had a surplus of Guavas, he would make the best Guava jelly that I have ever tasted.

A variety of celebrated invitees and house guests came to dinner – like Uncle Leonard (Leonard Elmhirst), Pankaj Mullick & Suchitra Mitra, legendary musicians, to scientist, Satyendra Nath Bose on his way to Mussoorie, Pandit Nehru (who often visited Dehra), Lady Ranu, Buri Mashi and Krishna Mesho (Nandita and Krishna Kripalani). I clearly remember the performance of a play, Pathan, by Prithviraj Kapoor and his troupe who had come to Dehra Dun. Jethu was invited to the show as Chief Guest and Ma and I had accompanied him. The next evening the players were invited to dinner at home. In the cast were Sati Mashi (whose daughter Ruma-di was then married to Kishore Kumar) and the very young and handsome Shammi and Shashi Kapoor who turned many feminine heads at the reception. But Prithviraj-ji, affectionately known as Papaji, insisted on sitting at Jethu’s feet throughout the evening, much to Jethu’s embarrassment. He just wouldn’t budge and kept saying, ‘How can I have the arrogance to sit next to Gurudev Rabindranath’s son?’ He dragged me by my hand and had me sit on his lap, ruffling my hair as he talked to other guests.

Jethu and Ma had formed a cultural organisation – Rabindra Samsad – and many plays and dance dramas by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore were performed by its members. Ma was a veteran actress, having played Rani Sudershana, (a name that Gurudev Tagore would address her by thereafter) in Rakta Karabi and Rani Lokeshwari in Natir Puja, all directed by Gurudev in Santiniketan. Ma was his favourite actress.

So watching Jethu too direct her in Bashikaran, Lokkhir Porikhha and Chirokumar Sabha was, for me, a treat. Ma as well, directed Natir Puja with my sister playing Ratnabali, Ritu Ranga & Bhanushingher Padavali and a children’s play, Tak-duma-dum, scripted by Jethu’s aunt, Jnanadanandini Debi, where I played the lead as the wily jackal! Rabindra Samsad  held regular musical soirees and showed Bengali films. My introduction to Satyajit Ray’s Debi (Devi) and Pather Panchali happened in the faraway Dehradun’s Prabhat cinema. Encouraged to participate in all the cultural events was for me, a huge education.

Jethu was also an ardent painter and spent long hours at his easel, working on beautiful water-coloured landscapes and delicate flower studies. Sometimes Ma painted along with him and also crafted many items via the complex art of Batik. My mother’s Batik parasols and slippers were greatly admired as were her exclusive batik stoles and sarees. I can still remember the smell of melting wax and feel my fingers stained again with several colours.

The relationship Ma shared with Jethu was not something that his father, Gurudev Tagore was aware of. Gurudev died in 1941 while their relationship must have begun somewhere around 1948. With accusing whispers Jethu was deserted both by his colleagues in Santiniketan and his family members. There was a 30-year age difference between Ma & Jethu but I would describe their relationship as being very respectful & tender. Having seen Ma and Jethu together and having grown up with them in Dehradun, I know what this relationship meant to them. Most of his life Jethu had felt lonely and misunderstood, but in Ma he had found a great companion.

One of Jethu’s other favourite hobbies was making perfumes that were later filled into the most delicate glass-blown bottles that I had ever seen. He’d gift Ma a different fragrance on her birthdays. Many a mornings would be spent combining the scents and concentrates of flowers like roses, juhi and mogra that came all the way from Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh. He’d leave no stones unturned till he got the aroma right, pulling away at his cigarette – either Three Castles or John Peel or Abdulla Imperial. His perfume bottles became coveted possessions for all those who were lucky enough to receive them. Usually, after the Rabindra Samsad shows, there would be lively cast parties at Mitali and the actors and singers waited with baited breaths till Jethu gave them a bottle of scent as a parting present.

Around my Jethu, light-footed and non-intrusive, virtually like the fragrance of the golden champaka blossoms that he loved so dearly, an innate sense of aesthetics kept vigil. His impeccable sense of coutour, interior decor, landscaping and gardening lent to his persona.

The last ten years of his life and the first ten years of mine were, for both of us, absolutely golden. But when he died at the age of 73 in June of 1961, Mitali or even I could never be the same again without its kind and gentle prince, my beloved foster father. Yet, as I write today, I drift back to the enchantment that was my childhood spent in Jethu’s benign shadow. And in the splendoured story of my Ma and Jethu, I re-live the most civilized, glorious and compassionate friendship that I will ever care to remember.


111 – One of the three earliest known Indians to have studied at the Royal College of Art, London

My great great grandfather, Vasu Deva Sharma. Berlin, Germany. Circa 1920

My great grandfather, Vasu Deva Sharma. Berlin, Germany. Circa 1925

Image & Text contributed by Nyay Bhushan, New Delhi

This is the only image of my great grand-father, Vasu Deva Sharma, in our family archives. It shows him working as an artist in a photo studio in Berlin. Dressed impeccably in a well-tailored suit, he poses in front of an easel with a brush in hand, with the canvas depicting a portrait of a possibly aristocratic European lady. Vasu Deva Sharma was one of the rare Indians of his time who studied at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London in the 1920s.

Vasu Deva Sharma was born on June 15, 1881 to Pandit Bhagwan Das in Pakpattan Sharif, District Montgomery, Punjab, (now in Pakistan). In 1910, he passed the Senior Vernacular Teachers Certificate Examination (Punjab Education Department) and in 1911 he joined Central Training College, Lahore as a Drawing Professor. The same year he married Saraswati Devi and on December 3, 1912, the couple had a son, Ved Prakash Sharma (my grandfather) and a daughter Ved Kumari in 1914. Tragically, in 1915 Saraswati Devi passed away and as joint families would, his brother Pandit Bhim Sen and sister-in-law Kaushalya Devi helped raise the two children.

In 1920, at the age of 39, Vasu Deva Sharma gave up his job at the Central Training College, Lahore after receiving a scholarship to study at Royal College of Art. He sailed from Bombay to London on the ship Kaisar-I-Hind on the P&O line, and arrived in London on September 25, 1920. (Source : The National Archives, UK – Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960; www.ancestry.com)

Upon his arrival in London he stayed in a furnished apartment at 12, Eardley Crescent, Earls Court, SW. His first term studies at RCA began with a basic course in Architecture and Lettering. His first term student file (which I sourced from the RCA archives in 1995), remarks: “Inexperienced in European design and draughtsmanship. Indefatigable in his studies. Has made rapid progress. Shows great promise.”
His second term began with Painting and it included studying Art teaching methods for provincial Art schools in Britain, The study also had him travelling to other parts of the country, away from London.

My father Kul Bhushan, (an active researcher on Vasu Deva Sharma’s legacy) recounts an interesting anecdote by a family relative that reveals information on his final RCA presentation. Apparently Vasu Deva Sharma wanted to paint an iconic scene from Indian history – Maharana Pratap‘s battle against the Mughuls and to obtain authentic proportions of Maharana Pratap’s horse and the Mughul Emperor’s elephant, he visited the London Zoo and obtained special permission to measure a horse and an elephant!

In 1923, his final year at RCA, he moved to another accommodation, the Sikh Boarding House at 79, Sinclair Road, W.14, alongwith some fellow students. As for his progress in his final year studies, the remarks in his student file state: “Plodding, ambitious of improvement, industrious, this Indian student has taken full advantage of the methods and initiative a European School of Art can offer.”
He graduated with an A.R.C.A. – Associateship in ‘Decorative Painting’, Royal College of Art. The graduation ceremony was held on July 20, 1923 and diplomas were presented by Sir Montague Barlow, Minister of Labour. Vasu Deva sent his graduation cap and gown to his then widowed sister-in-law Kaushalya, as his ‘earnings’.

In 2012, I managed to source the graduation photo of his class from RCA which included names of now renowned British art icons like sculptors Sir Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and even more interestingly, his fellow graduates included two other Indians – Uday Shankar Choudhry and the famous painter-engraver Mukul Dey from Calcutta (now Kolkata).

Following graduation, Vasu Deva embarked on an extensive tour of Europe to study original works of art in museums. Not much is known apart from the fact that the travels spanned Scandinavia, France, Germany, Italy and Greece. While his family’s support funded his travels, it is very possible that he also worked as a commissioned artist to earn an extra income. But to imagine a traveling Indian artist in Europe at such an important time in the continent’s history makes my great grandfather’s story a fascinating adventure.

This picture (circa 1925) was taken by a German photographer named Karl Alexander Berg with his studio address at Joachimstaler Strasse in Berlin, Germany. Looking at the stamp under the photograph one can conjecture that Berg was appointed to the German Royal Court.

In 1927, Vasu Dev returned to Lahore. By sea cargo, he sent around 30 suitcases and boxes full of art books, art reproductions, art materials, studio cameras, complete studio equipment and hundreds of other art objects, garments and personal effects. Interestingly, the photography equipment he brought was for his son (my grand-father, Ved Prakash Sharma) who later opened a photo studio in Lahore called Omega Photo Art Studio.

Vasu Deva Sharma joined Chief’s College in Lahore as an arts professor while practising as a professional artist for commissioned portraits. According to some family sources, he was also commissioned by Indian royal families, such as the Royals of Chamba, in North India.

In 1929, he began constructing a bungalow at 30A Empress Road, Bibian Pak Daman, near Shimla Hill, Lahore. For furnishing his bungalow, one of his students at Chief’s College – a Prince of Chamba – gifted him a railway wagon full of the best timber around. 
In addition to making furniture, Vasu Deva made seven easels to teach art to his students at home and he gifted away some. A cupboard made from this wood still stands in a family relative’s home in New Delhi. It is important to note the very significant connection between the then RCA president Sir William Rothenstein (from 1920-35) and Indian art. Rothenstein took a keen interest in Mughal paintings. He traveled extensively to British India to research Indian art and in 1910 established an India Society to educate the British public about Indian arts. According to my father’s recollections, Rothenstein traveled again to India in 1944. He visited my great-grand father at his mansion (that also housed his studio and artworks), in Lahore to see how his former RCA student was doing. As a six year old boy, my father recalls that this was a major event for which Vasu Deva also summoned his son Ved Prakash, my grandfather, to come from Pakpattan to Lahore and welcome Rothenstein.

A year before the partition of India and Pakistan following the end of British rule, Vasu Deva Sharma who suffered from Diabetes, slipped into a coma with paralysis and passed away on February 6, 1946, at the age of 65.

Soon after his death, his son Ved Prakash was appointed manager of Punjab National Bank in Ahmedabad and he and his family moved to Gujarat just before the nation wide violent partition riots of August 1947. The few belongings that the family members in Lahore could save were Vasu Deva’s original RCA diploma and this photograph from Berlin. It is understood that the mansion was ransacked and looted and they were unable to salvage the artworks and invaluable artefacts which were left behind in the mansion.

My father Kul Bhushan visited Lahore in 1977 and went to Empress Road to see the family home. By then, it had been turned into a housing estate with many apartments. But he noticed that the original marble name plate outside the house was still there, mentioning Vasu Deva Sharma’s name in English with his RCA degree mentioned below. Today the site is a commercial building with no hint of the past and no trace of the name plate either.

As a filmmaker and a photographer, one of my main projects these days is to search for any surviving artworks by Vasu Deva Sharma which could be in the UK, Europe, Pakistan and India. I would be very interested, if anyone may have any information on that. For more information that I have found on him you can visit here.


107 – She emerged from a rural home and became a lady endowed with knowledge & charm

My Parents, K. M. Devaki Amma & Lt. Cdr. P.P.K. Menon. Bombay. 1941

My Parents, K. M. Devaki Amma & Lt. Cdr. P.P.K. Menon. Bombay. Maharashtra. 1941

Image & Text contributed by Radha Nair, Pune

This photograph of my parents K. M. Devaki AmmaLt. Cdr. P.P.K. Menon was taken at a Photo Studio in Bombay in 1941, soon after they were married. My father was based in the city serving the Naval Force.

My mother, K. M. Devaki Amma belonged to Feroke, a part of Kozhikode in Kerala. Her initials K. M. stood for Kalpalli Mundangad and her family originally belonged to the Anakara Vadkath lineage. The large joint family of more than 25-30 people lived in a house called Puthiyaveedu which still exists in Feroke, however the members are now settled in far flung places and my grand aunts and uncles are no more.

My mother had to give up school very early in life. She came from a large family of 14 brothers and sisters and belonged to an era where a girl’s formal education wasn’t a priority. While they grew up under the tutelage of grand uncles and aunts, they learned to cook, clean, and learnt to make do with and share whatever little they had with their siblings without ever complaining. Congee (Rice Gruel) was what they mostly had for lunch and dinner, supplemented with a little coconut chutney, and may be a side dish of some green banana, but only if they were bestowed with a ripe bunch of plantains available from the kitchen garden.

My mother and her sisters’ daily life entailed preparing food for all members of their very large family. By the light of a wick lamp, sweating by the blaze of crackling coconut fronds they would wash dishes with ash from the kitchen hearth and rinse them with water drawn from the well. My mother in personality was very self-reliant and was happy with whatever little she had.

Arranged by my paternal grandmother, when Amma married my father, a man with an aristocratic lineage and a Naval officer, my father’s cousins would scoff at her and condescendingly regard her as a ‘village girl’. They had been educated in Queen Mary’s Women’s college, Madras (now Chennai) whereas my mother had studied only up to Class IV in a local village school in Karrinkallai.

Undeterred, my father, who knew his wife was a bright and intelligent woman took her under his wing and brought out the best in her. He taught her English and bought her abridged versions of books written by Charles Dickens, Walter Scott and many other great authors. He read out passages to her and patiently explained to her what they each meant.

Thus Devaki, my mother, slowly emerged from her rural background, and became a lady endowed with great poise and charm. Not only did she steal my father’s heart, but even of those who befriended her. She became a much sought after friend by wives of both British and Indian naval officers. She taught them to cook Malayali dishes and stitch & embroider; skills, which were executed by her exquisitely. She wrote and spoke English with such assurance that she could put a present day Post Graduate in English to shame. But despite all these changes, she remained loyal to her roots, proud of her humble origins, and very attached to her siblings.

Sometimes, deep into the night I would catch whispers of my parents’ conversation as they sat and planned the monthly budget, and spoke about their dreams of providing us with the best of every thing. It was my mother who insisted that my sister and I be given the best education they could afford. She firmly refused a State Board SSC education, and insisted on us being admitted into schools which followed a Senior Cambridge syllabus. She was efficient and fiercely independent. By comparison I was a pale shadow. In fact, many times I used to feel very unsure of my self in her presence, intimidated by her indomitable spirit and the complete control she had over any situation.

When my father was suffering Cancer, she stood by him; nourishing him with love and healthy food, while my sister and I watched our father’s condition worsen by the day, helpless and often giving in to tears. My mother always remained calm, but only when he breathed his last in 1977 did she break down completely. He was her life force, and she was his guiding light. Theirs was an extraordinary relationship, always supportive of each other at all times and completely committed to each other till the end.

After I graduated, it was her dream that I put my education to good use. However, a few years after marriage when I was forced to give up my teaching post, she never forgave me till she breathed her last. To make up for it, I began to write and put together a collection of short stories, but the book never got published.
What pained me most was that I was not able to place a copy of my book in my mother’s hands and make my peace with her before she passed away in 2008.

 


99 – Uncannily bonded to a famous grandfather I never knew

(Left to Right) My grandfather Salil Chowdhury with my aunt Tulika, his sister Lily with my eldest aunt Aloka, and my grandmother Jyoti Chowdhury with my mother, Lipika. Bombay, Maharashta. Circa 1959

(Left to Right) My grandfather Salil Chowdhury with my aunt Tulika, his sister Lily with my eldest aunt Aloka, and my grandmother Jyoti Chowdhury with my mother, Lipika. Bombay, Maharashta. Circa 1959

Image and Text contributed by Aurina Chatterji, Bombay/Toronto

Even though he died when I was 12, I never really knew my grandfather, the famous music Director Salil Chowdhury.

Bapi Dadu, as we called him, was an infrequent visitor at 16, Hillcrest, Perry Cross Road, Bandra. It was my grandmother, his wife’s house, the site of almost daily family congregations. I never wondered why he didn’t live in this house. Maybe it was because Bapi still occupied 16, Hill Crest like a benevolent ghost. The walls were plastered with his photographs, posters, awards. His songs drifted lazily from my grandmother’s trusty companion, the radio transistor, the sound often muffled by pillows.

I remember watching Bapi on Doordarshan, on one occasion talking to Asha Bhosle, on another – in the valorous yet invariably mangled Hindi of Bengalis – talking about Kishore Kumar. I remember numerous videos of him conducting a choir. I remember the twinkle in his eye, his proudly bald head and the way his hair always curled at his nape, begging for a hair cut.

One day, in our Bapi-bedecked hall, my older cousin told me in conspiratorial tones that Bapi had another wife and he had other children and that is why he lived in Calcutta and that is why we rarely saw him. I don’t remember being particularly affected. I do remember the puzzle pieces rapidly fitting into their places, but the complete picture, to me, was just a piece of delicious gossip. Like the happily stupid child I was, I didn’t think of our mothers’ devastation, nor the stigma of my grandmother being a single mother in 1960s India. I continued to feel a sly pride when people introduced me as Salil Chowdhury’s grand-daughter and I continued to look forward to Bapi’s rare but always joyful visits.

As I grew up, my personal memories of Bapi grew so blurry as to feel like some elaborate dream. The less I remembered, the more curious I became. This is what I learned: He was an avowed communist, a big fan of the USSR. He once accompanied Charlie Chaplin on the piano and he thought very highly of the Beatles.

I discovered his early, pre-Indian Cinema work – raw, angry, shamelessly political songs that were anti-colonialism, anti-zamindari, anti-war. As a teenager being gently tugged to the left by her nascent political beliefs, these songs were a revelation. I didn’t understand a lot of the lyrics – I speak Bengali like Bapi spoke Hindi, with less valour and more mangled – but what I did understand, I related to it viscerally.

Bapi’s idealistic ideas for a newly independent India, his poetic cries for justice were framed in complicated, meandering melodies, supported by beautifully feisty harmonies. I found myself in the fairly unique position of becoming musically obsessed with my own grandfather, a state that was both cool and awkward, almost narcissistic.

But for all his generosity when it came to the outside world, like so many other luminaries before and after him, Bapi was less than exemplary in his personal life. He had abandoned a devoted wife, a wife he had fallen for while he tutored her in Philosophy, a wife he had secretly married much to the chagrin of her Brahmin father, a wife who selflessly clothed and fed and mothered many of the Film & Cinema aspirants who followed Bapi from small-town Bengal. He abandoned his three little ones, the musically named Aloka, Tulika, Lipika, who, to my shock and eternal admiration, harbour no resentment against their deeply loving but absent father.
He knew all of this. He probably didn’t know that he also unwittingly abandoned his grandchildren. He showered us generously with love and ghost stories, but he always disappeared, leaving behind only the fragrance of his tobacco pipe.

To me, he was barely a grandfather. He was simply the reason the Bangladeshi florists by our home never charged us, the reason strangers would fawn over my grandmother, the reason some of my teachers were partial to me. 

And yet, 18 years after his death, I find myself uncannily bonded to a man I never knew. I am fascinated by colonial history. I obsessively read about Russia. I sing in a choir.

I wish I could ask my grandfather the questions that pop into my mind with the certainty of sunrise when I think of him: What was it like to hide in toilet holes to escape the British? Did you really think Stalin was a good man? How about Brezhnev? Can you teach me how to create harmonies? What are your thoughts on Putin? What do you think of the CPI(M) now? Is this how you pictured independent India?

Our similarities, of course, are perfectly explainable but I prefer to believe that they are magical. I prefer to believe that the universe contrived to ensure, albeit posthumously, that I would feel the tenderness of being grandfathered. When I look at this picture – my young, beautiful grandparents with their young, beautiful daughters – I feel a forceful, almost unbearable love. And sometimes if I close my eyes, I can still smell the sweet, brown tobacco that unfailingly lingered on Bapi Dadu.


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.

 


94 – The devout brahmin who went on to build a Silk textiles empire

My paternal grandparents, Jambakalakshmi & Srinivasaraghava Iyengar. Tirubuvanam (Tanjavur District) Tamil Nadu. 1951

Image and Text contributed by K.S Raghavan, Chennai

My great grandfather, Sri Krishnaswamy Iyengar hailed from a humble Brahmin family of Kausika Gothra (clan) belonging to SamaVeda Shakha (branch) at Manalur in Tanjavur district.

The family migrated to a near by village called Tirubuvanam on the banks of River Veera Cholan looking for greener pastures. The village was very famous for its Chola period architectural splendor.

My great grandfather served a very well known temple, Sri Kothanda Ramaswamy, as a cook, which was maintained by the local business community. He and his wife Vanjulavalli had three sons and two daughters. They were Srinivasaraghavan, Veeraraghavan, Ramaswamy, Kanakavalli and Pankajavalli. All these names inspired by Lord Rama indicated his devotion to the God.

The eldest son, my grand father Srinivasaraghavan (1891-1952) was intelligent and seemed to have a flair for business. During that period the entire village community was engaged in silk cloth weaving, for the district was famous for its silk sarees. So he joined a local business outfit that manufactured and sold silk sarees as an accounts clerk, even though Brahmin families were not known to enter the business arena.

My grandfather a very pious person and his devotion to Lord Rama earned him a lot of goodwill among the village folk. His towering personality with a prominent vaishnavite insignia on his forehead along with his ever- affable smile, added a saintly aurora to him, and he was compassionate to all and they looked up to him for wise counsel.

As days passed he grew in stature. His sharp business acumen prompted him to start a business of silk cloth weaving and marketing in partnership with another weaver who was also the village chieftan, Nattanmai Ramaswamy Iyer. Their business quickly grew leaps and bounds, and they became master weavers running more than one hundred looms. The duo became very good friends. However, later even when Nattanmai Ramaswamy Iyer decided he wanted to invest in a micro finance venture and my grandfather and he parted ways, they remained close friends.

My grandfather then started his own business of silk cloth weaving and marketing along with his two brothers. The business flourished and they opened two branches, one in Chettinad and the other in Valayapatti. All the brothers and sisters had gotten married and were well settled. But as the brothers’ families grew in size, the needed to chalk out their own path to progress. The brothers split the business into three units and continued their businesses.

My grandfather Srinivasaraghava Iyengar’s business establishment was popularly known as “Peria Iyengar Kadai” He came to known as a very successful businessman of his time. He explored new business avenues by supplying cloth for the parachutes used in the armed forces. He also created a brand for “Kooraipudavai” or the Nine yard saree that is used to this day during the marriage ceremonies of Hindu Brahmin families. His products and good reputation had already reached far off places through the country. The shop cum house, was a busy picture from the morning till night. Activities like bleaching & dyeing of silk yarn, unwinding of gold threads would go on in the hindquarter of the house. He used to sit on the mat made of reed, while weavers, workmen, customers and visitors would stream in and out and transact their business.

He was so industrious, that he introduced many new methodologies in dyeing silk. He would travel into the dense forests of Orissa to buy Areca nut that was used as a dyeing pigment. Once he even risked his life to tread the dreaded forests of Berhampur. He had to spend nearly six months in those inhospitable terrains to procure his raw materials, so much so that people back home almost gave up hope of seeing him alive.

Srinivasaraghava Iyengar’s devotion to Lord Rama remained strong. He organized ‘Srimad Ramayana’ discourses and arranged for renowned scholars like Villiambur Swamy, Gaddam Sri Vardachariyar swamy to translate the verses and expound them to local folks.

He was also a connoisseur of Karnatic music and would sing songs in praise of Lord Rama. Adults and children would both be captivated. During his last days, his failing health restrained him from much of movement, but even then he did not swerve from Ramayana recitation. His last day, we hear he was in a very happy mood and that day’s discourse had gone off with much fan fare. But around midnight he complained of discomfort and suddenly passed away. The whole village bid him adieu with tears in their eyes and singing “Ragupathi Raghava Rajaram” till his mortal remains were consigned to holy flames.

Even to this day the people fondly remember him and recall their happy days with him.

 

 


92 – A love story borne out of love for cinema

My father, Jagdish and mother, Usha at their wedding. Old Delhi. December 12, 1954.

Image and Text contributed by Renu Shukla, Jaipur

This picture is of mom Usha Sharma and my Dad Jagdishwar Nath Sharma right after their marriage ceremony on December 12, 1954. My mother at the time was only 15 years old & my father was 23.  He was the Assistant Commissioner with the Income Tax Department in Jaipur, Rajasthan and my mother was studying in 10th Standard. She completed her education after marriage.

My mother Usha was exceptionally fond of movies and so was my father. He was studying Law (LLB) in Agra at the time and on a serendipitous day decided to visit his hometown, Ajmer, Rajasthan, for holidays along with some of his friends. Young blooded, the friends and he spontaneously made a detour to Delhi for a fun day & also to watch a movie.

The latest movie at the time “Barsaat” had been running in Moti Mahal, a well known theatre at the time in Chandani Chowk, Old Delhi.

Describing that fated day, my mother would tell us, that she too, along with her cousins, had landed up to watch the same movie and she noticed ‘this strange boy in the front seat who would keep turning around to stare at her continuously!’ She was into the movie, yet was beginning to get more and more annoyed with this shameless fellow whose stares were distracting her. So much so, that ultimately and in a huff the girls left  the theatre half way through the movie, cursing the boy away. What she did not know, was that the boys too left and followed the girls discreetly to my mother’s residence, which was right behind Moti Mahal theatre in Chandani Chowk.

The enterprising boys then found out all her family details and a few days later, my father’s family sent in a marriage proposal to my mom. Fortunately, there was no hitch in the proposal because both families were Brahmins and economically secure. We, consequentially were blessed by having very loving Parents. They doted on each other for the rest of their lives.

Years later, and after their passing away, I still think of that particular day, when fate and the movie ‘Barsaat’  brought my parents together. I miss them terribly. They were simply the best and most fine parents a child could ask for.


89 – A Medical Doctor, a Free Mason and a Political Prisoner

(Left) My grandfather, Dr.B. Seshachalam with his mother, Thyaramma. Bangalore, Circa 1920. (Right) A certificate proof of him as a Political prisoner. Bangalore, 1957

Image and Text contributed by Nandith Jaisimha, Bangalore

This is a photograph of my paternal grandfather Dr.B. Seshachalam (L.M.P Reg Medical Practitioner no: 1280) with his mother, Thyaramma. He was born in Bangalore on January 13, 1913 and was the son of B.Venugopal Naidu.

My grandfather was a well educated man. He attended St.Josephs school as well as Pre-University College. He then went on to join Mysore Medical College which was initially established in Bangalore, and completed the 4 year LMP course. He was married to Kamala Yadav and had one son.

In his college days he was arrested as a Political Prisoner accused of protesting during the Freedom struggle in Bangalore in 1942, and had to pay a fine of Rs. Two during his detention in the Central Jail, though the certificate and receipt was only provided in 1957. The Jail no longer exists in its original form, it has now been made-over into Freedom Park.

During the course of finding more information, I stumbled upon some incredible untold stories. For instance, I discovered my grandfather was also a member of the Free Masons and that my grandmother Kamala too was actively involved in politics since the age of 10!

My grandfather served society until the end. Even after 35 years of his demise, people in Bangalore remember the Doctor. There was an article about him in The Deccan Herald on 22nd June 2009, titled “The GP is not extinct”. The people of Bangalore East always never fail to mention their eternally gratitude to him. It was his dream to serve the underprivileged, and lived by the motto “Faith is God”.

Transcript of the Certificate

Office of the Superintendent
Central Jail, Bangalore
Dated 28th November, 1957

CERTIFICATE

This is to certify that the detenue No. 511 Sri. B. Dr.B.Seshachalam, S/O B. Venugopal Naidu, a Medical Student, was admitted to this jail on 10-9-1942 as a political prisoner, as per orders of Deputy Commissioner, Bangalore District and was released on 2nd Oct, 1942 as per orders of Deputy Commissioner, Bangalore.

[Signature]

Superintendent,
Central Jail, Bangalore

 

 


86 – His advise helped manifest one of India’s most famous songs

My grand-aunt Shukla, R.D Burman and my grand-uncle Nirmal Kumar Dasgupta, on Burman’s home Terrace. Bombay, Maharashtra. March, 1975

Image and Text contributed by Anupam Mukerji, Bangalore

This picture was photographed on the terrace of R.D Burman‘s home in Bombay.
R.D Burman was one of India’s finest Music composers of the Indian Film Industry. With him are my grand-uncle Nirmal Kumar Dasgupta and his wife Shukla.
RD, whom he lovingly called Tublu, was the apple of my granduncle’s eye. RD loved him back equally calling him Moni Dadu. R.D Burman’s mother was my grand uncle’s sister, technically a niece, but since they were closer in age the relationship was like a close sibling.

In March of 1975, Moni Dadu and family were visiting R.D Burman. RD was busy recording the soundtrack for now India’s biggest box office hit film ever, Sholay. On this morning, sitting on his terrace, RD was playing back for Moni Dadu the scratch recording (rough recording) of his now exceptionally famous song Mehbooba Mehbooba. He had been recording the song through the night. RD had recorded the song in his own voice, even though the final song was to be recorded in Kishore Kumar‘s. Liking what he had just heard, Moni Dadu advised RD to keep the song in his voice.

As fate would have it, Moni Dadu’s wish was granted. Kishore Kumar was late for the recording of Mehbooba Mehbooba and RD decided to record the song himself. As we say the rest is history.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, R.D Burman composed scores for 331 movies. He served as a influence to the next generation of Indian music directors. He would have been 73 today, on June 27, 2012.


83 – The mythical Uncle Bunnu.

The Cordeiro Siblings. Alec (Bunnu), May and Beatrice. Karachi (now Pakistan). Circa 1910

Image and Text contributed by Naresh Fernandes, Author, Bombay

The picture, photographed sometime around 1910, is the childhood image of my grand-uncle Alec Cordeiro, fondly called Bunnu. Next to him is my Grand-aunt May and my Grandmother Beatrice.

It isn’t clear when and how exactly my ancestors got to Karachi, but it seems that they’d been there for four generations. Like most Goans, they left looking for work: the Portuguese didn’t establish any industry in Goa, so hundreds and thousands had to seek work in other places. There were sharp discussions in the family about whether our ancestor Santan Vaz had made his money running a liquor distributorship or a booze joint.

My paternal great-grandfather, Xavier Cordeiro, was a postmaster general in Karachi. His son-in-law, my grandfather, Alfred Fernandes, moved to Karachi from Burma during World War II. He’d been working for the Burma Railways and had to leave when the Japanese invaded in 1941. So he and his wife, my grandmother, Beatrice (standing right), decided to return to their family’s home in Karachi. In only a few years, the entire family pulled up their roots from the city in which they’d lived for four generations to take their chances in India, a few months before Partition in 1947.

Though my father was only nine when the family left Karachi, his elder siblings had more vivid memories : trips between Bombay and Karachi were made on ferries named the Saraswati and the Sabarmati (“they were like little tubs, we all got seasick”) ; relatives having leisurely evenings at the Karachi Goan Association (KGA), “gin and lime was the favourite drink”, and the enterprising nature of the Karachi Goan community -“they even owned a flour mill!” From my grandmother’s stories, it appeared that everyone in the family had spent a lot of time at the KGA. After all, it was right opposite their bungalow in Depot Lines. That bungalow, sold months before Partition, has long been replaced by a characterless block of apartments.

When we were children, my cousins and I could have been forgiven for thinking that our great-uncle’s first name was “Poor”. That, was how my grandmother and her sisters referred to their only brother each time he came up in conversation, “Ah, poor Bunnu,” they’d sigh whenever someone mentioned their Cambridge-educated sibling who’d chosen to stay put in Karachi at Partition. The somewhat embarrassed tone in which his three sisters talked about him left Bunnu obscured by a whiff of mystery—even scandal.

If there’s one thing I knew about Uncle Bunnu, it’s that he spent a great deal of time at the bar of KGA. Friends joked that the committee of Karachi Goan Association had once made a decision to sack the chowkidar (guard). He wasn’t really needed since Bunnu Cordeiro never seemed to leave the building.

When I finally made a visit to Karachi in November 2011, I met 92-year-old Rita de Souza. She’d been in school with all three of my grand-relatives. She displayed all the discretion you’d expect of a woman of her breeding, but under my badgering, was gradually lulled into talking about my great-uncle. “Ah, poor Bunnu,” she eventually sighed. “He was quite a talker.” She let slip an anecdote relating to the time Bunnu was at Cambridge in the 1920s. “He was disappointed in love,” Rita de Souza said. “He was quite keen on a woman when he was in England, but his mother heard of it and made him exit the situation post-haste.” That’s all she remembered about him.

Others too remembered Bunnu. “He’d tell us about the libraries in Cambridge, where you’d have to maintain pin-drop silence,” a third-cousin said. “‘What would happen if you had a cough?’ we’d ask. He’d reply, ‘If you had a cough, courtesy would require that you didn’t visit the library.’”

At one recent family get-together, the conversation turned to Bunnu. It would be difficult to send mail over the border after each India Pakistan war, so Bunnu’s letters were infrequent. But sometimes, perhaps to remind everyone of his real name, Alec, he’d sign himself as “Sikander”—the sub-continental name for Alexander the Great. “He called his three sisters ‘the gangsters’,” someone recalled. “When he was in England, they sent him a childhood photo of the four of them and he said, ‘I’m not coming home. If I do, I’ll have to take care of them.’”

My aunt Margaret corroborated the story I’d been told in Karachi. Evidently, Bunnu had refused to return to Karachi because he’d fallen in love with an Englishwoman. His mother, Mary, who wanted him to marry a Goan, was horrified. She “picked up her skirts and took the next boat to England”. The conclave was divided on what happened next. Either my great-grandmother “grabbed his ear and dragged him right back home” or “he sent her right home without even allowing her a day to see the sights, but promised to return soon”. At any rate, Bunnu was back in Karachi by the mid-1930s and would remain a KGA Bar fixture for the rest of his life.

Uncle Bunnu never married, held a job for long or seen his sisters after 1947. Later he moved into an old folks home in Karachi. No one in the extended family seemed to have a recent photograph of him. I’d always held the impression that Uncle Bunnu had drunk himself to death, but considering that he was 80 when he died, he didn’t do it very efficiently. By the time he passed away in 1984, Bunnu had become more like a hazy myth to his younger Indian relatives than a real person.

The old folks home in which Bunnu had spent his last years is located in one corner of Cincinnatus Town. Cincinnatus Town was unnervingly familiar. Many of the older homes had been built in the 1930s, exactly at the time the pocket of Bandra in which I live had been constructed and with the same coastal-city architectural features. Parts of Garden East (Cincinnatus Town) resembled the now-demolished landscapes of my childhood. They were filled with the kind of teakwood furniture you find in older Bombay homes and had identical Catholic iconography. My ancestors, yes, they’d been dead for decades, but as we discussed them in Bombay, six decades and 900 kms away, they were warm, breathing presences, as real and as resolute as Karachi.

An unedited version of this narrative can be found here.