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Bengali

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.


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

My grandfather with his brothers. Assam Burma Border. c

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

Image & Text contributed by Shravani Dang, New Delhi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


152 – The Nightingale of the Station

My mother, Papia Chakrabarti. Calcutta, West bengal. 1971

My mother, Papia Chakrabarti. Calcutta, West Bengal. 1971

Image and Text contributed by Subhrajyoti Chakrabarti, Bangalore

This is a picture of my mother Papia Chakrabarti. She was born to an eye surgeon in a wealthy family of Calcutta (now Kolkata). The family was conservative and girls were not allowed to interact with men outside of their family or even dress up stylishly, as it was considered to be a taboo. At the age of 20, with an arranged match, she got married to an air force officer, my father, Wing Commander M.K Chakrabarti. By then she was a BA in Psychology from Vidyasagar College under the Calcutta University and could speak three languages, Bengali, Hindi and English.

My mother told us that when she first went to my father’s Air Force station posting in Deolali (Maharashtra), she got a cultural shock. All social interactions in the Defense Forces (across genders) encouraged dressing up with style and interactions were more free and joyful. It was the complete opposite of what she had experienced in her formative years. Nonetheless, she adapted to the changes and embraced the Defense Forces culture. She dressed up in style, and hosted perfect parties.

My mother was also a great singer of classical and contemporary Hindi music, and that too without any formal training. She was invited by several people to perform at their events and parties across all my father’s postings. In Chandigarh, she was awarded the title ‘Nightingale of the Station’ at the High Ground Air Force station, for three consecutive years (1983-1985). Despite all the recognition, she was adept at all her responsibilities. She looked after her mother-in-law and brought us all up well. My wife is also

My wife who is also a classical music lover, led to she and my mom sharing a wonderful bond via music, and they would often sing together. A couple of years ago, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and by last July, the Cancer had spread to her lungs. She had the resilience to fight, but unfortunately we lost her. Even in her last days she taught us that one should fight till death and one should always have high thinking, but simple living.


141 – Portrait of a debutante

Monica-1925-Sepia_low

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.


135 – A wedding amidst Hindu Muslim riots

My parent’s wedding ceremony. Howrah, West Bengal. January 19, 1964.

My parent’s wedding ceremony. Howrah, West Bengal. January 19, 1964.

Image & Text contributed by Moushumi Chakrabarty, Canada

This is a wedding picture of my parents, Debdas and Kumkum Banerjee. He was 25 years old at the time and she was 19. My dad at the time was a draftsman and worked for Hindustan Motors, and my mom had just finished her schooling and was admitted to the Howrah Girls College (now Bijoy Krishna Girl’s college). They were both brought up in Howrah, West Bengal.

My parents’ marriage was an arranged match, by the patriarchs – my two grandfathers. Apparently my maternal grandfather, whom we fondly called Dadu, saw my father going to office one day, and thought him to be very handsome. He immediately began making some inquiries as to who that handsome man was. Dadu thought he would make a perfect match for his eldest daughter, Kumkum. After finding out who he was he approached my paternal grandfather and thereafter, till the wedding was finalised, always made a point of looking out for my father when he went to work. Almost every evening he would come home very pleased and tell my grandmother what a perfect match he had found for his daughter.

In the cold month of January 1964, at the time the wedding was to take place, riots between Hindu and Muslims broke out in about five places in West Bengal. The clashes erupted after the disappearance of a precious relic from a mosque in Srinagar, capital of a disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. Consequentially, anti-Hindu riots broke out in east Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) and 29 people were killed. In retaliation riots broke out against the Muslims in rural areas of West Bengal and it spread far.
The administration then declared a curfew. My parents can’t recall any specific incident but there was a vague sense of unease and an undercurrent of danger, nevertheless wedding preparations went on. Our locality was considered safe because of my paternal grandfather Dr G. Banerjee was a grassroots congress party worker, a social activist and a well respected doctor.

On the wedding day the guests arrived safely, the shehnai (oboe) played and the cooks served up a sumptuous wedding feast. The feast was a typical bengali wedding one, complete with fish, mutton, different types of vegetables, puris, and of course, ‘dorbesh‘, my grandfather’s favourite sweet.

My father remembers that a couple of his European colleagues, who attended the wedding, were served less spicy food complete with specially ordered spoons, forks and knives. At the end of the wedding, all guests returned to their homes safely, some of whom stayed in the ‘para‘ (neighbourhood locality). After their wedding, my parents  immediately launched into a normal couple’s life, with my mom now in the thick of a multi-layered and large traditional household, as the eldest ‘bou’ (wife), had several tasks to perform.

I visited India/Kolkata this year in January to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of my parents. Things in Howrah are more or less the same. In 50 years, the locality feels unchanged, though the old houses are slowly crumbling away brick by brick. No new roads have been built. The old library and market still stand. Some of the old sweet shops are churning out their fabulous concoctions even now. On roads, cows still chew the cud unhurriedly while scooters and cars zip by. A new mall has opened recently though sweatshops where people ply their traditional trades still exist, asserting their independence and everything is still covered in dust. But during my parent’s anniversary celebration, it was a again a cold night, there was again a sumptuous feast, there were flower-bedecked guests and there were soft and beautiful strains of the shehnai. It seemed nothing much had changed. But this time and thankfully there were no riots or a curfew.

 


132 – A Subhas Chandra Bose loyalist who refused the Indian freedom fighter’s pension

My father, P. Devrajan’s identity card, issued to him by the Japanese army in Singapore as a member of the Indian National Army [INA] (top). His identity and oath card issued to him by the Azad Hind Sangh (India Independence League). Singapore. Circa 1942

My father, P. Devrajan’s identity card, issued to him by the Japanese army in Singapore as a member of the Indian National Army [INA] (top). His oath and loyalty card issued to him by the Azad Hind Sangh (India Independence League). Singapore. Circa 1942

Images & Text contributed by Ranjit Devraj, New Delhi

My father, P. Devarajan was very young, maybe around 16 or 17 years old went he went to meet his uncle in Singapore from Kerala. Singapore was, at the time, a major British military base in South-East Asia and was nicknamed the “Gibraltar of the East”.

During British Reign, many Indians and especially from the south of India, had migrated to Singapore, and surrounding countries. If they were illiterate they worked in Rubber plantations and if literate they could do clerical jobs, or even find higher positions as doctors and engineers.

At the time he was planning to return to his state Kerala, the Japanese army attacked the british Base in Singapore in 1941 (Battle of Singapore) and he with all borders shut down, was stuck. However, in retrospect he made good use of his time. I am not sure how he decided to enrol himself into the INA, the Indian National Army, that was run under the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose, but he most likely met and was heavily influenced by freedom fighters and the strong belief in fighting for the Independence of India, a movement that catching fire in Singapore. While in the INA (as allies to the Japanese army), my father then fought alongside with the Japanese to defeat the British. The British lost the Battle of Singapore and surrendered to Japan. Though, ironically, when the war ended, Singapore reverted to British control because of the increasing grants of Self Controlled governance.

One could say that Imperial Japan was the first country that formally initiated a huge battle against the ‘white man’s’ supremacy, an event that encouraged and inspired millions of Indians and citizens from African countries trying to do the same. Japan was also one of nine countries that had forged a great relationship with Subhas Chandra Bose and supported the Azad Hind Sangh, the Indian provisional Government for a Free India.

My father was strongly inspired and encouraged by Bose’s philosophies and beliefs. He was also well acquainted with Captain Lakshmi Sehgal who as one of first strong female personalities in INA, played a very influential role in fighting for independence. The INA after all was at the forefront of women’s empowerment and equality.

The oath card (bottom) that you see was a card issued by the Azad Hind Sangh and as a first-of-a kind experiment offered Indian Citizenships to South Asian Indians living in other countries in exchange of this sign-up of loyalty, because to Bose, India’s people were more important than just re-claiming territory. Hundreds of thousands signed on and it was to become an important part of several efforts made by Bose to help him achieve legitimacy than just formal recognition of the Azad Hind Sangh. Ironically, the same cards were then used against INA in the Red fort trial as evidence of war and treason waged by Azad Hind.

[Translation of Oath card]

I, the member of the Azad Hind Sangh (India Independence League), do hereby solemnly promise, in the name of god and take this holy oath that I will be absolutely loyal and faithful to the provisional government of Azad Hind, and shall always be prepared of any sacrifice for the cause of freedom of our motherland, under the leadership of Subas Chandra Bose.

Though eligible, my father, earlier a British Singaporean citizen, refused to accept a UK citizenship, a job at the War office in London offered by the British, and then later even an Indian freedom fighter’s pension or benefits, stating diplomatically, that it was honour enough to have been able to strike a blow for Independence. For all his life, my father remained a staunch admirer of Bose. He was later conferred an Indian Citizenship, and died an Indian Citizen in 2009.

 


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.


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.


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.


75 – In love till their last day, they passed away within three months of each other

My maternal grandparents, Kali Pada & Sukriti Chakrabertti with their daughters, son and several nephews & nieces. Calcutta, West Bengal. 1970

Image and Text contributed by Anupam Mukerji

This picture was photographed on March 9, 1970 on the occasion of my maternal grandparents Kali Pada and Sukriti Chakrabertti’s 25th marriage anniversary (seated middle), at their home, 63, PG Hossain Shah Road, Jadavpur, Calcutta (now Kolkata). Here, they are with their daughters Sarbari, Bansari and Kajori, their son Sovan, and several nephews and nieces.

After graduating from school with a gold medal in East Bengal‘s Dhaka Bickrampore Bhagyakul district, the young teenager, Kali Pada Chakraberti moved to Calcutta. He began working while continuing his education in an evening college. The office he worked at was also his shelter for the night. Desperate for money to pay his college examination fees, he went to a pawn-shop in Calcutta’s Bow Bazaar to sell his gold medal.

The pawn broker at the shop however was a gentle and generous elderly man. He lent my grandfather the money without mortgaging the gold medal. Years later when my grandfather went back to the shop to return the money, he found that his benefactor had passed away and his son refused to accept the money stating he couldn’t, because his father had left no records of that loan. My grandfather then established  a Trust with that money to help underprivileged students with their education.

Bhai, as all his grandchildren fondly called him, graduated from college with distinction and built a successful career in the field of Insurance. He rose to a senior position in a public sector insurance company. He also bought a plot of land in Jadavpur and built the house of his dreams where this photograph was taken. Post partition of Bengal, many of his family members moved to Calcutta and everyone found food on the table and a roof over their heads at his house. Over time, many of them moved out and made their own homes, but 63 PGHS remained the place where everyone congregated for festivals and special occasions.

Sukriti Chakrabertti, my grandmother, was fondly known as Hashu Di. She was raised in Shanti Niketan and learnt Arts & Dance under the guidance of Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore and Nandlal Bose. She was part of the first batch of students of Shanti Niketan’s Kala Bhavan and went on to make a name for herself in various classical dance forms.

In love with each other till their last day, they passed away in 2000 and 2001, within three months of each other.


56 – They seem like wings at either ends and they both became pilots

My father's family. The Datta family. Delhi. Circa 1940

Image and Text contributed by Saugato Datta, London

This photograph of my father’s family was taken in the courtyard of my grandfather’s government house on Irwin Road (now Baba Kharak Singh Marg,Delhi).

Seated in the middle are my grandparents, Sailendraprasad Datta (1898-1956) and Bibhabati Datta (1906-1977). My grandfather was a civil servant and moved to New Delhi from Calcutta in the early 1920s. My grandmother was a housewife. She grew up in Muzaffarpur, Bihar.

To the left of my grandfather is their eldest child, my aunt Uma Datta Roy Choudhury (1926-2009). She was a statistician, joining the Indian Statistical Service when it was founded after Independence, which was also the year she got her MA from St. Stephen’s College. She later consulted for UNDP and lived for many years in the then Czechoslovakia (Now Czech Republic and Slovakia) and later in Zimbabwe. To the right of the my grandmother, is my oldest uncle, Kalyan Kumar Datta (1928-1998). He was a pilot for Indian Airlines and lived in Calcutta.

The little boy on the left is my father, Kamal Kumar Datta (born 1938). He studied Physics at Presidency College, Calcutta and Brandeis University in the US, and was a professor of Physics at Delhi University till he retired earlier this decade. The other kid on the right is his brother, Saroj Kumar Datta, (born 1936) who was also a Stephanian. He worked for many years in Air India, and has been with Jet Airways since it was founded. he currently works as Jet’s Executive Director. He’s still working, though he recently turned 75.

The two youngest kids are apparently beaming because they were given books to entice them to sit still for the photographer – or so I’ve heard. The others seem to have taken the whole “look serious for the camera” injunction very literally. People didn’t normally smile for photos back in the day, did they? I guess it was considered a formal affair, having a photographer over and all.


3 – The seven brothers in order of height

My paternal grandparents with their seven sons. Shyambajar, Calcutta, West Bengal. 1943

Image and text contributed by Shubhodeep Das.

“This photograph was taken by a hired photographer on the terrace of the house, which was probably 100 years old at that time. The arrangement of all the boys in a descending order of height has always amused me. They were a family of seven brothers.

Brothers -Left to Right – Late Sri Prithwish Kumar Das, studied engineering and design in Glasgow and settled in Calgary, Canada. Sri Pijush Kumar Das, studied and ventured into the banking sector. He is retired now and settled in Kolkata. Dr. Priyotosh Das studied medicines in Kolkata and later settled in UK. Till date he visits Kolkata every year. Dr. Prodosh Das worked for the West Bengal Government and is now retired and settled in Kolkata. Late Sri Pronobesh Kumar Das went on to become a painter, he never married and lived all his life in Kolkata. Prof. Prabir Kumar Das still teaches engineering as a part time lecturer in Kolkata. My father, Sri Pradip Kumar Das, served in the Indian Ariforce from 1961 till 89, retired and settled in Kolkata.
Till date, all the remaining brothers are in touch, they get together and do travel and have fun at least once a year.”


2 – Rabindranath Tagore composed the dance-drama ‘Mayar Khela’ at her request

My great-great grandparents, Sarala and Dr. PK Roy. Calcutta, West Bengal. Circa 1880

Image contributed by Chetan Roy

This photo was used by Kodak India for an Ad campaign in the early 1980s.

Sarala Roy was an educationist and is remembered as the founder of the Gokhale Memorial School at Calcutta (now Kolkata), West Bengal. She belonged to the famous Das family of Telirbagh, Dhaka, now in Bangladesh. She was also a member of Calcutta University’s senate and also one of the leaders of the All-India Women’s Conference. The conference was founded in 1927 under the leadership of Margaret Cousins but was soon completely run by Indian women. It was the most important women’s organisation of its time.

She devoted her life to the cause of women’s education and also established a Girl’s school & a Women’s organization in Dhaka, while living there with her husband. Rabindranath Tagore composed the dance-drama Mayar Khela at her request.
Prasanna Kumar Roy (1849-1932) was a well-known educationist and the first Indian to be principal of Presidency College, Calcutta.
He was attracted towards the Brahmo Samaj early in life he was turned out of his home. However, he won the Gilchrist Scholarship to go to England. He graduated from the University of London in 1873. He was awarded the D.Sc. degree in Psychology from the University of Edinburgh and the University of London in 1876. He and Ananda Mohan Bose got together to establish a Brahmo Samaji Indian Association and a library in the UK. He was posted to England for two years as Education Assistant to the Secretary for India.