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116 – Rukmini, a princess, a great artist & the great grand-daughter of Raja Ravi Varma

Rukmani Varma with Lord Mountbatten. India House, London, UK. 1976

Rukmini Varma with Lord Mountbatten. India House, London, UK. 1976

Image contributed by Rukmini Varma, Text by Manu Pillai

In a time when the Indian Subcontinent was still a land of splendid Maharajahs and fabulous courts, Rukmini Varma was born in 1940 into one of its most early royal houses, with an unbroken dynastic lineage of over 1200 years.
Titled Her Highness Bharani Tirunal Rukmini Bayi Tampuran, Fourth Princess of Travancore, her early life was an idyllic fairytale, with all the enchanting auras and ceremonies surrounding a royal princess. Her grandmother, the Maharani Setu Lakshmi Bayi (1895-1985) was the revered matriarch of the house, who had ruled the State of Travancore and its five million people with much distinction in the 1920s. The entire family lived in her hallowed shadows. Rukmini was her eldest and favourite grandchild, and in a dynasty that traced its bloodline through female gene, her birth was of significant importance for matters of succession to the  Gaddi (Throne) of Travancore.

Growing up in Satelmond Palace in Trivandrum, art came naturally to Rukmini. Her great grandfather, Raja Ravi Varma, was a master and celebrated painter, known as the Father of Modern Art in India. Some of his most fabulous works adorned the palace walls of Rukmini’s home. Her grandmother, the Maharani, was a patron of many local artists whose works ranging from portraits & landscapes to murals & dramatic scenes from the great epics, were a constant inspiration. But what impressed Rukmini’s attention the most were the hardbound, tastefully produced annual catalogues of all the major art galleries across Europe that her grandmother had collected. The works of great baroque masters like Rembrandt, Rubens, and Caravaggio fascinated her, and as a child she began to experiment with colour.

Observing her growing interest in art, Rukmini’s uncle gifted her with her first full set of brushes and paints on her sixth birthday, ordered specially from Bombay.  Her grandmother too, noticing her general inclination towards the arts, appointed dance and music instructors, and in the years to come Rukmini would master forms such as the Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam, Kathak, and more. With an appreciation of India’s cultural heritage as well as an interest in history, mythology, religion, architecture, she would reveal herself in her works in the years to come.

By the eve of India’s independence from the British Empire in 1947, things began to change in the royal household. Rukmini’s parents began to spend much of their time away from the palace, in the hill resorts of Kotagiri, Coonoor, and Kodaikanal. They also chose to enroll their children in public schools instead of having a train of tutors following them around. The slow lifestyle of the palace was replaced by an instilled regular routine focused on academic achievements instead of art. 
In 1949, the State of Travancore vanished from the map forever when it was merged with Independent India, and the royal family retired from active public life. The liveried servants, royal guards, and all the ritualistic ceremonies of palace life slowly faded away. Rukmini’s parents and her grandmother, the Maharani, moved to Bangalore. Satelmond Palace and the old world it represented became a mere memory.

For the next two decades painting took a backseat for Rukmini as school and college became more of a priority, followed by a marriage and children- all by the time she was 21 years old. But Rukmini kept her artistic interests alive, and recalls how she would try to recreate scenes from Greek mythology, painting Venus, Aphrodite, Paris, and other characters. Her classmates and friends were quick to ask for these pictures, encouraging her to paint more. Rukmini also excelled in science and despite her father insisting she focus on academics, her grandmother, the Maharani, advised her regularly, to aim towards perfection in her paintings. The encouragement helped- Rukmini chose art and not science.

By the 1960s Rukmini successfully dabbled in a variety of artistic spheres, a time she considers her ‘most creative phase.’ Around the same time Rukmini had also become an excellent dancer. Training under the renowned U.S. Krishna Rao, Chandrabhaga Devi and Uma Rama Rao, she gave several exclusive performances, including for charities. Film directors like Raj Kapoor began to approach her for acting roles, as did people with modelling offers, on account of her exceptional good looks. A then-prominent magazine, Mysindia, for instance, referred to her in 1968 as ‘an Ajanta painting come to life’. Magazine covers, including Femina and The Illustated Weekly of India, began to feature her regularly and she became the toast of Bangalore society.

In 1965 she started her own dance school in Bangalore in the halls of Travancore House, her family home on Richmond Road, which became an instant success. Still the orthodox social pressures and judgement on a ‘princess from a royal family dancing’, resulted in a premature termination of this phase of her career and to the greatest regret of her gurus. The Maharani, for whom Rukmini often performed in private, helped her move on by suggesting an alternative – Painting.

Rukmini returned to painting, an arena where it was felt society judgments were less pressing. Fortunately, soon enough she began to enjoy it actively and took it up with a renewed vigour. By 1970 she had completed her first series of oil paintings, which were exhibited in Bangalore to positive reviews. Her second exhibition in 1973 was opened by Governor Mohanlal Sukhadia of Karnataka State. 34 of the 39 paintings displayed were sold in a matter of days. Her third series in 1974 was inaugurated by the then President of India, V.V. Giri, at the Lalit Kala Academy in Delhi. Rukmini’s art began to bring her serious recognition in India’s art circles (including from Svetoslav Roerich, with whom Rukmini later sat on the Advisory Board of the Chitrakala Parishad in Karnataka).

In 1976, upon the invitation of BK Nehru and Natwar Singh, Rukmini embarked on her first major international exhibition at India House in London, which was opened by Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. Impressed by her skill and ability he asked her if she would paint a portrait of him in traditional Indian attire, wearing a turban and an achkan. They also became friends briefly, with Mountbatten inviting her to fox hunting and picnicking with him on his country estate. The commission of the portrait, however, could not be completed owing to Lord Mountbatten’s tragic assassination in 1979, just before he was due to visit India with Prince Charles and provide Rukmini with three promised sittings.

Subsequent exhibitions followed in Bonn, Cologne, and Neuenahr in Germany, along with invitations from Paris, Zurich, Madrid, and Rome. Queries for her work began to come in from collectors in Europe, America, Singapore, and the Middle East. In 1981 she had another highly successful exhibition in Bombay at the Jehangir Art Gallery and at The Taj Art Gallery winning her the appreciation of M.F. Hussain. The exhibition was a sensation and caused a ‘stampede’ because it included her ‘Flesh and Gems’ series, which had voluptuous female nudes in mythological settings, not meant to trigger ‘erotic fantasies’ but a celebration of the human, particularly female, form and experience.

Throughout her career Rukmini was always compared with her renowned ancestor, Raja Ravi Varma, but, while she followed his concepts of depicting scenes from the epics, there was a substantial difference: Ravi Varma’s women were always luxuriously draped. Rukmini, on the other hand, had no qualms about painting them nude. It was a courageous move for the times and drew in a lot of criticism too from people like Swami Chinmayananda, who commented that Rukmini ought not to have painted nudes based on the epics, which had some religious value and could give offence.

Despite objections, including from within family circles, through the 1980s, Rukmini experimented with nudes. Disillusioned by this prudish conservatism in art, years later she said: ‘I got fed up with all these restrictions. You couldn’t express yourself in the way you wanted. I am certain even Ravi Varma wanted to paint flesh as flesh is, without restrictions…’ Rukmini was going through a phase of rebellion. Interestingly, this corresponded with the time when her commercial success was at its peak, and artists and collectors alike would regularly show up to meet her at Travancore House. Her ‘Pratiksha’ series which included many nudes, was quietly sold into private collections in India and abroad, and was not exhibited anywhere so as not to provoke orthodoxy.

Tragedy struck in 1988 her youngest son, Ranjit, died in an accident at the age of 20. Rukmini, devastated by the event for the next several years did not pick up the brush. She moved out of her grand old house into a private flat to escape attention from the stream of visitors and the media. A separation from her husband too followed. In the mid-90s Rukmini picked up the brush to paint with a portrait of Ranjit (one of the few portraits she has done). Another one followed but she was unable to complete either of them. To the genuine satisfaction of her collectors and well-wishers, however, she slowly began to do other paintings as well. Her lifestyle remained reclusive, though, and she turned down all invitations to exhibit her latest works and did not receive visitors.

Over the last eighteen years until now, Rukmini has been painting in Bangalore, with a dedicated group of private collectors following the progress of her work. She continues to avoid visitors for most part along with requests from the press, even as her work, although much reduced in volume, remains singular in style and excellence. And even today, at the age of 73, she remains a singularly beautiful woman, with such a remarkable past, with so many stories and anecdotes from around the world, that perhaps one needs to dedicate an entire book to recording her life.


97 – The pioneer whose contributions in Africa survived early colonial times through to modern day Tanzania

The Khambhaita family photograph. Tanga, Tanzania. Circa 1960

Images and Text contributed by the Khambhaita family, U.K. & Tanzania

Our grandfather, Jagjivan Samji Khambhaita (top row, middle) was born on March 10, 1912 in Kalavad (Gujarat), India and came to Tanzania in 1928 when he was a teenager. He married Jashvanti Ben who was born on August 6, 1915 in Talagana (Gujarat), India and went on to have seven sons and a daughter. The family photograph was taken in the early 1960s in Tanga, Tanzania shortly after an uncle’s marriage during which the family had gathered.

A central pillar to the family, he was also widely known and held in high regard across communities in Tanzania, East Africa, South Africa and India. I witnessed this in 2008 on a visit to Tanzania when I went about purchasing a bus ticket in Dar-es-Salaam’s main bus station and was required to fill in my details. The elderly station clerk instantly recognised my last name and embraced me enthusiastically saying he knew of my grandfather. I was left speechless. I knew I was truly dealing with an individual who left more than just a mere footprint.

Our grandfather had an incredible flair for architectural design and entrepreneurship from a young age. He partnered with his elder brother in Moshi, Tanzania from 1928, building and contracting on various projects. In 1938, with his younger brother he established his own building & civil engineering contractor business under the name of J.S. Khambhaita Limited in Moshi and in 1942 he expanded the company to form branches in Tanga and Arusha.

By the early 1960s, the company employed around 300 Africans and 10 Asians and undertook large projects such as the European quarters for the Public Works Department (PWD) in Tanga and part of a large primary school in Moshi. They were also sub-contractors for the Air Ministry at Tanga and went on to become responsible for more than 150 prominent buildings in Tanga, Moshi and Arusha.

He split his time between businesses, travelling, photographing and participating in religious/social work with a significant contribution to the Hindu community, particularly in Tanga and Moshi. Indeed, in the 1950s his company undertook the task, free of all cost, to construct a Hindu temple in Moshi, against the scenic backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro. He travelled widely throughout East Africa, India and exactly like Mahatma Gandhi was also told to disembark from a train in South Africa under the apartheid regime.

J.S. Khambhaita was also particularly interested in family matters and genealogy, reaching out to and photographing relatives overseas and later compiling an impressive family tree dating back well over 350 years. He remained an Indian citizen for most of his life until 1964 when he took up Tanzanian citizenship. He passed away on March 10, 1976 battling Leukaemia on the day of his Birthday in Moshi, Tanzania.

Fast forwarding the clock to nearly 75 years to today, the company he founded in 1938 remains a strong concern in Tanzania and is termed a ‘Class 1’ contractor. It is one of a handful of private firms to have survived through early colonial times into modern day Tanzania. More importantly though, his name and legacy will continue to live on in the hearts of his grandchildren, great grandchildren and all those he reached out to during his life.


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.


73 – He folded sarees for One paisa each, and went on to become the Director of a Bank.

My maternal grandfather, Manikchand Veerchand Shah (seated in white turban) and extended family, Solapur, Maharashtra. 1956

Image and Text contributed by Anshumalin Shah, Bangalore

This image of maternal grandfather, Shri Manikchand Veerchand Shah and our extended family was photographed in November 1956, by the famous ‘Malage Photographer – Oriental Photo Studio’ who charged a tidy sum of 30-0-0 (Rupee-Anna-Paise) for two Black & White 6” x 8”copies with embossed-border mounts. The occasion was my grandfather’s birthday, he had just turned 60.

The family was photographed in the front yard of the bungalow called ‘Ratnakuti’ opposite the Fort in Solapur (then Sholapoor), Maharashtra. Ratnakuti was one of twin bungalows built around 1932 as mirror images of each other, known as ‘Jod-Bangla’. Beautifully crafted in stone and plaster, with imposing pillars, balconies and rooms with ceramic-chip handcrafted flooring, exquisite teak, brass grills for windows, coloured glass panes on windows and doors, verandahs with neat terracotta tiles, a large court-yard in front, ‘Ratnakuti’ and its twin would never fail to draw the attention of passers-by and stands to this day as a well known landmark. Eventually, the two bungalows were sold and are now owned by the Goyal family.

My grandfather, Manikchand Veerchand Shah, born in 1896, came from a pioneering and visionary Gujarati Digambar Jain family. He was a self-educated, successful entrepreneurial man with modest beginnings. Before 1910, he along with his younger brother, Walchand Motichand Shah, worked in a Saree shop of their guardian where they got paid One Paisa for every saree they neatly folded, ready for dispatch or sale and delivered on a bicycle to the shop at Phaltan Galli.

As they grew up together, my grandfather and his brother established and operated several businesses together complementing each other’s strengths. The businesses included a handloom cloth dyeing unit, in Valsang, near Solapur, for which the dyes were imported from Japan. They also began importing General Motors cars, motorcycles and trucks around 1922. I am told my grandfather would drive and deliver the imported truck chassis himself from Bombay to Pune and Sholapur. Their firm ‘Sholapur Motor Stores’ continues on in Pune, albeit only as a Fuel Station. He also established the well-known ‘India Garage’ in the 1930s where the present showrooms of Renault and Volkswagen stand, still operated by the family.

Closely associated with the freedom movement in Solapur, opposing the Martial Law imposed in 1930, he was arrested by the British, sent to Bijapur Central Jail and later exiled. Not to be outdone by the British, he used his stay at Bijapur Jail to monitor the establishment of a ‘Sholapur Motor Stores’ branch in the city.

Also associated with the Hindu Mahasabha, he rubbed shoulders with very important personalities like V. D. Savarkar, Dr. K. B. Hedgewar, M. S. Golwalker Guruji and Gulabchand Hirachand Doshi. While he was also deeply involved with several causes for the people of Valsang, unfortunately, owing to his association with the Hindu Mahasabha, an irate mob of villagers from Valsang set his car on fire in a frenzied reaction to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948. Barely managing to escape with his life, he was deeply hurt and disillusioned by the senseless act by the people of Valsang. In consequence, he wound up his businesses and left Valsang, never to return.

After the death of his wife, my grandmother, when he was just 34, and as a sign of love for her, he changed his attire to only pristine white – a white turban, coat and a dhoti with white canvas pump shoes. While visiting us in Hyderabad, he would regularly buy the special black metal ‘Bidriware’ buttons for his white coats from a handicraft showroom at Abid Road.

My grandfather was a man of many parts. He was the Director on the Board of Bank of Maharashtra Ltd. As well as on the governing council for several religious and temple trusts. His contribution to the educational infrastructure development from his own funds at Solapur is widely acknowledged. He offered personal loans, scholarships and donor’s seats at the Walchand College of Engineering, Sangli for students pursuing higher studies in the 1950s and 60s. Several successful senior Engineers owe their careers to him.

Farming, Gardening, and Photography were his passions. I remember us youngsters gathering on his farms near Sholapur during summer holidays and enjoying the juiciest mangoes to our brim. Quite taken up with Photography as well, he had acquired a glass-negative Camera in the 1920s and his collection of glass negatives and pictures are our family’s priceless treasures.

My grandfather passed away in June 1968. Many members of the two older generations of the three appearing in the pictures have also passed on. The third generation now have their own children and grand-children. I feel very honoured to have shared some of the birthday celebrations along with my grandfather as we were both born only a few days apart.

Time moves on, but photographs manage to freeze fleeting moments here and there. If we could preserve these photographs, we succeed in reliving those moments over and over again and again.