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Brahmin

176 – The 100 year old photograph lost, found and lost again

My great great grandparents. Hyderabad State, (now Telangana, India) Circa 1910.

 

Image and Text contributed by Dr. Vishnu Sharma Kesaraju, Boston, USA

This photograph may have been taken in Warangal, Hyderabad State, (now Telangana, India) or Garla, Hyderabad State, (now Telangana India) more than hundred years ago, circa 1910.

The old man in the photograph is Mateti Ramanujana Rao and his wife Cheruku Ranganayakamma. And they were my great great grandparents. The origin and journey of this photograph tells a tale of middle class family in the southern region.

Matati Ramanujana Rao worked as a Jemadar, equivalent to today’s head constable, in Warangal Central Jail under the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Mahboob Ali Khan Siddiqi Bayafandi’s rule. In a Muslim dominated state, being a Brahmin/Hindu didn’t helped his upward mobility, but since he was a salaried person, he could afford a photograph. I don’t know much about his life, but that he was survived by two sons and four daughters. Both his sons were Patwaris (village administrators) and my paternal grandmother is the daughter of one of his sons.

When my father visited his native village Garla, (formerly Hyderabad State), he discovered the glass plate negative of this photograph in the trash. Grasping its heritage and family value, he tried, albeit in vain, to convince his relatives to take care of it. Later, he took it upon himself to develop it into a photographic print at a photo studio in Jammu (of Jammu & Kashmir), where he was stationed as an Airman in the Indian Air Force. He even distributed copies of the photo to all his relatives to increase the chance of its survival. After a decade or so, the glass negative broke, but the photo was safe in our family album. Interestingly, almost all other copies of this photograph were lost, either by negligence or the relatives decided to not hold on to it.

Around 20 years ago, my parents returned to Hyderabad, Telangana, and it seems that our last surviving photographic print of this image was misplaced, moreover it even got forgotten. I remember, a decade later, when I got married and was settled in Boston, my wife was displaying her childhood photos on the refrigerator, and wondered if I wanted to add some of my own. I called up my father to send me some of my childhood pictures, but during that conversation, I mentioned this obscure old photograph in our family album. My father turned his house upside down and found it. He photographed this image with a smart-phone, but yet again, somehow we lost the print and today it exists only as a digital photograph.

I never met this man or his wife. I only know them as my ancestors, my great great grandparents. However, my father and I have somehow felt strongly about holding onto this photograph, for as long as we can, and today we share it with the world. This photograph is a testament of our heritage, and our origins in remote and rural parts of the south, to the north of India and onto overseas shores.


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. 


159 – Announcing the bride’s educational qualifications

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(Left) My grandparents’ photograph taken shortly after their marriage. (Right) The Wedding invitation card. Poona, Maharashtra. 1941

Image and Text contributed by Aparna Pandey, Mumbai

This is a photograph of my grandparents Champa Tai and Vasant Rao taken shortly after they got married. On the right is an invitation to my grandmother’s wedding in 1941. It has been carefully preserved by the family and was handed over to me by my mother recently. I treasure it, not because of the sentimental reasons, but because it tells a story of far greater significance.

This wedding invite is unique because it proudly announces the bride’s educational qualifications, right next to her name. You have to keep in mind, that women’s education at that time in ancient India was almost non-existent.

My grandmother had decided quite early on that she will be educated first and then get married. As a child, she lost both her parents very early and was brought up by her two elder brothers who completely understood and encouraged her dream.

However, there was a problem – There was no school for a young brahmin Maharashtrian girl to study in. The brothers got her to Poona (now Pune) where the well-known social reformer, Maharshi Karve had started a school for girls, as well as an ashram where young widows could live and learn. This concept was alien and completely norm shattering for the brahmins of Poona leading to the resistance to opening such a school to be set up in the main city. Maharshi Karve had no choice but to set up the school on the outskirts of Poona. He braved all odds and went ahead with his mission of educating women. There wasn’t even a road to get there, so the teachers and students made a path through the fields to reach the school.

My grandmother Champa, was amongst the very first ‘Kumarikas’ (young unmarried girls) to actually live in this ashram from the tender age of nine. The family was progressive and agreed that it was indeed important for a girl to be educated. At the end of it, she earned the princely degree of GA that stood for ‘Gruhita Aagamaa‘ a Sanskrit title which could loosely translate to a BA degree today.

Luckily my grandmother got married into an educated family. My grandfather, the groom Vasant Rao was an MSC in Zoology himself and went on to do his Phd. He later taught at Elphinstone College in Bombay (now Mumbai) and his father was a doctor who had educated himself in London. They were very happy to welcome this qualified girl into their family.

Several years and two kids later, while managing a large joint family in Bombay, my grandmother did her Masters and then a one year course, equivalent of a B.Ed. She taught English and Marathi to the ‘metric’ students in Dyaneshwar Vidyalaya in Wadala, Bombay, for 15 years. She was highly revered by her students.

In the 16th year of her career she gave it all up. My grandmother had to visit her son in the USA, that year and considering she would be gone for three months, her integrity could not allow the students suffer because of her absence. She decided to take on extra teaching classes and made sure that she completed the important portion for her students, and then she simply quit. The principal was shocked. If she took leave, then they would have to look for a temporary teacher to take the classes, and temporary teachers were not easily available and neither did they put in their best because they were after all, temporary.
The principal told her that the pay scales were rising that year and that should she stay in the job and benefit from it. The pension would be higher too. But my grandmother would have none of it. She did not want her students to suffer on account of her. He pleaded but to no avail. They did not want to lose their best teacher. But she did not want to be unfair to her students. It needs to be said that my grandparents came from a middle-class Maharashtrian family and money was important. It must have needed a lot of gumption to be able to make this decision.

For years, my grandmother’s students came to share their joys and successes with her. She did not suffer fools and did not hesitate to give people a piece of her mind if she felt that there was reason to. She had the most open mind where no topic was taboo. My grandmother Champa Tai, was a woman ahead of her time. I am proud to have known her. On this woman’s day in 2016, I salute her, for following her dreams and always standing up for what she believed in.


154 – She was sent to London to learn production for films

My maternal Grandmother, Jaya Phatak. London, United Kingdom 1972

My maternal Grandmother, Jaya Phatak. London, United Kingdom 1972

Image & Text contributed by Rohit Kulkarni, Pune

This is a photograph of my grandmother, Jaya Phatak. It was taken at a film studio in London in 1972.

My grandmother was born in the Phatak family in Pune, Maharashtra in 1926. Her father Duttatre Phatak worked with the British Indian Railways, and was also the manager of a record label ‘Orion‘ that no longer exists. I am told he was instrumental in the first ever recording of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, a well-known Hindustani Classical Singer and appointed musician to two royal courts in Baroda, and Mysore. Duttatre died when my grandmother was very young and over time her life turned out to be very different for many of the women of her era. She was very interested in sports and also represented the State at the Kabaddi Nationals in 1964.

She was very young in 1942, when she became involved in India’s Independence movement in Pune. She was jailed along with other 6-7 of her mates and sent to Yerwada Jail for disrupting and distributing Anti-British leaflets at a British military gathering at Nowrosjee Wadia College grounds. At the jail, she discovered many more imprisoned freedom fighters across castes and classes. They were detained and went through a one-month trial, and offered either Bail or an arrest for a month in jail. The family didn’t have much money so there was no bail forthcoming. Despite an arrest for only a month, my grandmother says that they were still not released and instead were kept for another 11 months, because British law stated that it did not need to justify or give reasons to detain anyone. She notes that in prison, despite the fact that everyone was fighting for the same cause, a section of the higher caste would not share their meals with other castes. There was unsaid  segregation along caste lines and at that time, castle lines were not questioned very much.

My grandmother was married twice. After divorcing her first husband which was unheard of at the time, she met and married my grandfather Vishwanath Modak, a journalist, who ran a daily political /social commentary column in the Marathi newspaper Prabhat and they fell in love. My grandfather used to call my grandmother “the man amongst the women”. She was fiery, opinionated and an atheist. My mother is the only child they had and jokes that her birth was an experiment that was never to repeated again.

My grandmother Jaya found a good job at the Department of Education and was sent to England in 1972, to study and receive a Diploma in Production for Films – for education specifically. This picture is from that time when she was studying there. She also established a charitable trust called Kishor Mitra (“friend of the young”) where she produced short films on simple science – for instance how a Thermos or bread is made and helped publish Marathi books for making learning fun. Inspired by Sesame Street, the well known American Television series for children, she developed and produced puppet shows that were made into educational films. It was her first and last job until retirement. My grandmother Jaya continues to be a trustee of Kishor Mitra and lives in Pune with her granddaughter.

 


144 – The most infamous helicopter crash in our history

My grandparents Nalin and Sharda Nanawati. 1962. Bombay

My grandparents Nalin and Sharada Nanawati. New Delhi. 1962

Image & Text contributed by Diya Nanawati, Mumbai

My paternal grandfather Nalin Kumar Dhirajlal Nanavati was born in Rangoon, Burma in 1915, during the British Raj. He was the second of three children born to my great grandfather, an Indian civil servant (ICS) from Gujrat. The family belonged to a trading community called Surati Baniyas.

Nalinkumar Dhirajlal Nanavati, my grandfather, was a dashing soldier with the Allied Forces in the 1940’s. He was a soldier in the British Eighth Army and a Major with the 5th Royal Maratha Light Infantry. When the forces were ordered to go and fight the wars of WWII, he left behind a beautiful wife of Bengali and French parentage and a young daughter. But the family back home didn’t hear from him a long time and his beautiful wife assumed that he has passed away in war.

But he did return to India, a battle scarred survivor, victorious from saving peninsular Italy from the German Nazis. Later, he was awarded a military cross for his bravery in the Battle of Monte Cassino. However, he had won the war but lost his family, his wife and daughter, to another man. His daughter later married into a Parsi Baronetcy in Bombay. As time passed my grandfather became Lt. Colonel in the Indian Army, and he met Sharada Ramaiah, the woman who would become my grandmother.

My grandmother Sharada Ramaiah and my grandfather Nalin met over a game of tennis in New Delhi. He was charmed by her intellectual personality. Both my grandparents from my dad’s side of the family came from educated families and had english governesses. Grandma Sharada (born in 1925) was a Brahmin from Karnataka, and even though it was an inter-caste marriage, her mother did not object. My grandfather was so charming and friendly that it really did not matter whose ancestors were traders and whose were priests. As with many families in India, they came from the same class though not the same caste.  She took on the role of being the Army wife with utter grace, entertaining diplomats and politicians with great élan. My grandfather was by then the commandant of the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun and later the military attaché for India with the Indian embassy in Moscow. He enjoyed huge success and a meteoric rise to the rank of a Major General. In 1959, Sanjeev Nanavati, their only child, my dad, was born.

Tragically, the beautiful life my grandparents and father enjoyed was to be short lived. My grandfather Nalin was sent on a non-family posting in Kashmir where he was killed on the November 22, 1963 at the age of 45 in one of the most tragic helicopter crashes of all times. All six senior officers including my grandfather died. The other officers were –

  • Maj. Gen Nalin Kumar Dhirajlal Nanavati (Military Cross, General Officer Commanding 25 Infantry Division)
  • Lt. Gen Bikram Singh (General Officer Commanding, 15 Corps)
  • Air Vice Marshall Erlic Pinto (Air Officer Commanding, Western Command)
  • Lt.  Gen Daulet Singh (General Officer Commanding in Chief, Western Command)
  • Brigadier SR Oberoi, (Military Cross, Commander 93 Infantry Brigade)
  • Flt. Lt. SS Sodhi

Many conjectured that the helicopter was sabotaged because so many senior officers lost their lives at the same time, but the Indian Army ruled out sabotage and stated that it was an accident. Later as cautionary rule, the government banned senior officers of the army to ever travel together. The same rule now applies to several corporations too.

Grandma Sharada Nanavati was widowed at a young age of 34, and my dad Sanjeev, was just four years old. With only 12 rupees in her bank account, it took Sharada many years to get a succession certificate (issued by a civil court to the legal heirs of a deceased person). She never took a paisa from her wealthy relatives and instead chose to live her life with dignity and raise her son alone. Fortunately she was educated with a Masters in History, Politics and Economics and was a journalist too. With recommendations from Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw, she began working at the WHO and then later with the USIS in New Delhi. This was a great achievement for a woman in her times.

As a single and independent mother, my grandmother educated my dad, and with blood, sweat and tears built a modest home in the ‘War Widows colony’ in Delhi. Daddy and Grandma remain very grateful to the Indian Army. My granddad was a war hero but I believe my grandma who is 89 years old now, is a hero too.


142 – The morning walks at Princeton University

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Albert Einstein and my father, Professor Dukhharan Nath Gurtoo. Princeton. New Jersey, USA. 1955

Image and Text contributed by Sudhir Gurtoo, Pune

My father Prof. Dukhharan Nath Gurtoo was born in 1917 and came from a Kashmiri Pandit Family. They lived in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. His father was an Economist and always encouraged everyone in the family to study more. After completing his own education my father began to teach at the University of Lucknow in the late 1930s. He then studied at the London School of Economics  (LSE) in 1945 had a chance to witness the World War while studying in Europe. A few years later, in 1952, he was awarded the Fulbright Scholarship to study at the The University of Princeton, New Jersey as a Research scholar.

His certificate from LSE, in my possession, has no Seal on it because it was issued at the time when World War II had broken out and some formalities were left for later. The footnote on the Certificate reads “If this certificate is returned to the University after the War it will be replaced by a Certificate under the Seal of the University”. I wonder if I do try now, will they honor it?

At LSE, my father, whom we called Dad, completed his Bachelor of Science (Economics) at the London School and was advised by his mentors to try for PhD at the very prestigious Princeton University in USA. He got through and began to pursue his Phd in International Trade. Princeton was a very exciting place at the time, and several great scholars and scientists of the time like Albert Einstein, lived as scholars and researchers on campus.

My Dad from a very young age, was very particular about healthy habits and was very fond of walking. He believed that an early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day and the easiest way to ensure a healthy mind in an able body. Another person who believed that same was Albert Einstein. Einstein’s daily routine began with a leisurely walk from his house, at 115 Mercer Street, to his office at the institute and Dad would now-and-then bump into him early in the morning while walking the beautiful Princeton campus. He remembered that over short conversations they shared a robust sense of wit and humour.  This image was probably photographed by one of Dad’s colleagues who would also be on his walks. Dad used to say that this was perhaps one of the last photographs where Albert Einstein was seen smiling and healthy because he passed away in April of 1955, a few months after this photograph was taken.

My father had taken a tough call to go to USA for pursuing further Studies. He was married now and had to convince my mother Kiran on how keen he was to receive a Phd from The Princeton University and so my mother agreed to stay back with her in-laws in India. Dad would regularly write letters to her. Since communication at the time was mainly letters sent through US Mail, they would arrive only a few weeks later. My mother would reply back and await his next response. Besides the letter content, she says, she “would look forward to the beautiful stamps pasted on the cover”, and would lovingly collect all of them.

My father got the opportunity to interact and study under several well known scholars during his studies. In London his mentor was the well known economist Harold Laski and at Princeton it was Jacob Viner, one of the most inspiring economists of the time in USA. I still possess a letter written on 27 August 1952 by his Professor and mentor Jacob Viner. According to Dad he was considered to be a tough man and prospective students were terrified to be under him. In the letter, Prof. Viner had made an exception, as a special case, to let father join his courses a little later than scheduled, as the journey on the Ship meandering its way from India would take around 4-6 weeks to reach.

After completing his research and now a Phd Doctor, my father returned to India and joined the American embassy in New Delhi. But he didn’t take to work very well and decided to return to the noble profession of Teaching. He was offered a role in the formation of Birla Arts college (now BITS Pilani) and set up the Social Sciences and Studies wing.

Interestingly, while studying at XLRI, Jamshedpur in 1986, I chanced upon a book in the Library – India’s Balance of Payments, 1920-1960 and was pleasantly surprised to see the Authors name- “Professor D N Gurtoo”. I had no idea that my father had written a book that I learnt later, was considered an important reference for Economists, even today. The book, I found out still sells at a price of $17 at Amazon. I am not sure what happened to the Royalties of the book because I don’t think my father or I ever heard from its Publisher S. Chand on the matter.

 


131 – The mysterious death of my grand uncle, Laxman

My great-grandfather Venkatrao Kadle; his sons – Ramdas, Laxman, Shyam, Vasant, Anant, and daughters – Indu, Vimala, Manjula, Sushila. Poona (now Pune). Maharashtra. 1943

My great-grandfather Venkatrao Kadle with his sons – (L to R) Ramdas, Laxman, Shyam, Vasant, Anant, and daughters (L to R) – Indu, Vimala, Manjula, Sushila. Poona (now Pune). Maharashtra. 1943

Image and Text contributed by Udit Mavinkurve, Mumbai

In this photograph Purushottam Venkatrao Kadle, (standing rightmost) fondly called Vasant is my grandfather. He was 17 years old at the time. The photograph was taken, in honour of his elder brother, Lieut. Laxman Kandle, (sitting, in uniform) who was leaving for his duty as a medical officer in the military. He had been posted in Bengal for famine relief. The Bengal famine of 1943 had struck the Bengal province of pre-partition British India during World War II following the Japanese occupation of Burma.

A mystery surrounds my grand-uncle Laxman. He never returned from Bengal, they tell me. A telegram arrived, with its customary terseness, which said he had died; cause and place of death, unknown. His body was never found. And a few days later, they got a letter from him, written when he had been alive. A pre-teen under the heady influence of a great English teacher, I fantasized about a novel I would write about him when I would grow up. That was back in 2005.

Last month in December 2013, during our annual cleaning, my mother found the said letter and the telegram that my grandfather Vasant, Laxman’s youngest brother had kept for all these years. And the dust covered letters awoke those pre-teen fancies of writing about my uncle yet again. (The letters are presented in the links below) 

The first letter offers more than mere curiosity of any Indian seeking out people from his own community when in strange land. The Kadles, the Koppikars, the Manjeshwars and the Kulkarnys are families from the relatively small Konkani-speaking community of Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmins, rooted mainly in parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka. Laxman tells his father about the fellow Chitrapur Sarasawats he met in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bengal (now West Bengal). One notable thing was his concern for the women of his family – he asks after his ill mother, his dear sisters and even his young niece Jayashree, but doesn’t mention his brothers, or his nephews. Nevertheless, it was the second letter I found particularly moving.

In the second letter, he describes his memorable journey along the River Padma (now in Bangladesh), that was something he would never forget. He describes the painful plight of the victims of the 1943 Bengal famine. He seems genuinely moved. And yet, through it all, there pervades a sense of purpose ; His will to serve and to be of use. He wrote about the arrangements he had made regarding money for the family, words sounding almost ominously like words from a will & testament.

But the fact that the second letter reached the hands of his father after the telegram with news of Laxman’s death is what makes it almost like a Greek tragedy. I imagine my great-grandfather holding the letter, reading the words of his dead son whose body was never found describing his joys, worries and plans; and my 17 year old grandfather, Vasant, standing beside him, an awkward teenager. With a chronically ill mother and a shocked father, the death of an elder brother might not have seemed mysterious and romantic to him, as it does to me. And yet, it was he – of all the others – who kept these letters, safeguarded, for all these years. My grandfather couldn’t have been very different from me.

[For more information on this narrative, scroll down to comments]


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.


124 – The Airforce Wives of Gorakhpur

Mrs. Radha Krishna (my mother) with her friends, Mrs Puri and Mrs Roy. Gorakhpur. Uttar Pradesh. Circa 1965.

Mrs. Krishna (my mother) with her friends, Mrs Puri and Mrs Roy. Gorakhpur. Uttar Pradesh. Circa 1968.

Image and Text contributed by Kavita Krishna, USA.

My Amma’s (Mrs. Krishna) life has been what can easily be phrased as that of constant transformation, from a simple south Indian orthodox girl into a cosmopolitan fauji (military officer’s) wife. Her life saw so many moves and travels that it made her into an extremely adaptable and a flexible person. Everyone who knows her agrees that she is the epitome of, what was once a compliment, a secular Indian.

My mother was born in Bandar or Machilipatnam in the then Madras State in1946 (now in Andhra Pradesh) into an orthodox Telugu Brahmins household. Where orthodoxy meant continuing the family’s brahmin traditions but also possessing liberality of thought that helped her later in her fauji married life.

Adjustments began with her family moving to Vijayawada and then to Nallakunta, Hyderabad in 1955; right in the middle of the Telangana agitation of 1954-56. She was just a school kid at Narayanguda Girls High School but remembers being teased as ‘Gongura Gongura‘ by boys following in bicycles. Boys those days simply stalked you singing the latest songs but didn’t do anything, she tells me. (Gongura, a sour green leaf Sorrel, is the staple diet in an Andhra household and belongs to the same family as Marijuana)

For someone who dressed and spoke very conservatively in Hyderabad, Amma blossomed into a more cosmopolitan person enjoying the very popular shows on All India Radio like Vividh Bharati and Binaca Geetmala, she like millions of others also became into a huge fan of Ameen Sayani, AIR’s most famous talk show host ever. She would hog the radio and would not let even her younger sisters listen to it.

My maternal grandfather, taatayya, was a lawyer at the High Court and had indulged his own share of adjustments, to study law for instance, he had gone off to the very British Madras (Madras Presidency) and had cut off his ‘brahmin tuft (Sikha)’, a supposed unholy act, resulting in his mother ostracising him for a year or more. Amma says very proudly that she had seen taatayya refuse many a cases despite the stacks of bribe cash people would offer because he could not lie.  “He was in the wrong profession, he wanted to study language….” she adds ruefully. Of course my grandfather spent all his free time translating Sanskrit works into Telugu, playing chess, discussing philosophy and politics, editing Telugu magazines…So when my mother and her friends would go to watch movies, her affluent and generous Telangana Reddy friends paid for rather unaffordable film tickets, she says “We didn’t really bother about such things among friends those days. I did not have much money but nobody seemed to care who paid or who didn’t” she adds wistfully. A few Hyderabadi Muslim friends taught her Urdu/Hindi and she rather enjoyed speaking it.

On religion, my mother remembers that Muslims and Hindus of their economic and similar conservative class rarely visited each others’ houses, but when they did it was for festivals and they did not enter her mother’s kitchen. It was never stated explicitly but was understood. Amma says even she and her sisters were not allowed to enter or touch anything when her mother was doing her cooking or prayers and if she did accidentally touch something, her poor mother would have to go off and take a cold water bath. Sitting separately during the menstruation was the norm, hanging one’s ‘outside’ clothes outside and not bringing those inside the house, offering naivedyam (prayer) to the altar before eating and so on but that never came in the way of friendships. People knew of each other’s customs and respected them.

Soon my mother, began indulging in her love of art and writing. Once she won the first prize for short story writing, a competition conducted by the Telugu magazine Jyoti. She received many congratulatory letters of appreciation. But since she could not afford to buy postcards to reply to all of them she chose two among the 40-odd replies and sent them a Thank you postcard in return. Co-incidentally or one may call it fate; one of the recipients was her future husband.

Amma was not the marrying kind. She wanted to write, work,earn her own living, and was fiery and a feminist before her realisation. But when the proposal came from my father directly to the family – that he was from the same caste, that he was an Air Force Officer plus handsome to boot, was enough to have my grandmother literally bulldoze my mother into marrying my father.

Their first ‘posting’ together was to Gorakhpur in 1967. Amma absolutely loves that place, she says that India was a wonderful place to be young in those days. In their 20s, she and my father set up their first household in Mohaddipur, it was a three storied building called the ATC and it housed five other air force families. There Amma befriended the North Indian Puri aunty and the East Indian Roy aunty.

When the men were away on temporary duty, these three women would take a rickshaw to Gol Ghar and indulge in whatever shopping their meagre salaries allowed them. These three friends, one from each geographical corner of the country, also decided to seal their friendship with this photograph for eternity, for a handsome sum of Rs.15.

Those days my father, a bomb disposal expert, earned Rs 475 in hand after all the tax cuts, the pilots earned a little more. My parents had a lot of financial responsibilities – my father being the eldest in his family, sent support to them, and this did not leave much for shopping. Amma recollects that plastic goods, beaded jewellery and steel vessels that came from Nepal were most sought after by these newly wed wives. The women would quickly finish their rounds and hurry back to Mohaddipur before their husbands returned from work or before it was too late in the evening because that area was also infested with dacoits and political goons.

In Gorakhpur, even the five rupees for the rickshaw was something she had to struggle to save. Drinking and Smoking were the favourite indulgences among officers and everyone splurged on hosting parties, there was never any money left by the 15th of the month, she adds laughingly. Bachelors would ‘drop-in’ for Home made food bored of eating mess food daily and suddenly post dinner or lunch, plans would be made to drive on their motorbikes to Kusinagar or Benaras or to Ayodhya. She found all this very odd initially, this intermingling, this easy casual banter among genders, the adventurous spirit, eating anything by the roadside but she grew to love everything about the life that Air Force had brought to her.

Amma says she had never eaten Chhola Bhatura or Pani Puri before 1967. She didn’t know what they were. All of it was discovered in Gorakhpur. “It wasn’t like it is now, when you can eat anything anywhere anytime” she remarks reproachfully. “For the terrible dosas of Gol Ghar we saved money the whole month, and they tasted so bad, but we were somehow satisfied”, and now she she makes the best Chhole Bhature I have ever eaten.

She also speaks on the prejudices she faced, being short and dark, not having studied in a convent, not being able to speak ‘good English’, not being from a big city (Hyderabad was not considered a big city then) she constantly felt ridiculed and put-down. Considering that she did not belong to a rich or powerful family or have money, she had to really work hard at being taken seriously by others, especially the women, who were quite unkind to her. She learnt to wear make-up and perfume. She grew her nails and painted them, bought nylon saris and matching artificial jewellery, all this was was so unlike she had been brought up. Cutting her long hair off was another bold step. Having a ‘bob-cut‘ was deemed to be more modern, and thus she succumbed to it in the early 80s.

In the year 1982 my father was posted to Sulur, Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. We ran into the Puris who were also posted there and Amma met Puri aunty serendipitously after fifteen years. They were so happy to be together for the next two years, giggling like school girls, gossiping away whenever they got a chance. It was as though they had never married or had had two kids each.

I am amazed whenever I think of my mother’s journey. When we visited her old haunts of Machilipatnam and Vijayawada in 2002, I saw in a flash how tough each transition for Amma might have been, in attitude, in ideology, in social mores, yet she took it in her stride and managed to raise me and my sister with a very gentle message: that there is beauty in everyone, wherever they come from, whoever they are.

Today, Puri aunty is settled in Chandigarh, Roy aunty in Kolkata. Amma known as Chivukula Annapurna or Mrs Krishna or Radha lives with my father (who also fought two wars and took voluntary retirement) in Secunderabad. I am her older daughter Kavita, I teach language, culture, yoga & vedanta. My younger sister is Pujita and she teaches and performs Kuchipudi and Vilasini Natyam. We have both chosen professions where there is not much money, but a lot of spirit & passion.


114 – The Last Great Silk Route trader of India

My great grandfather Munshi Aziz Bhat with his two sons, Munshi Habibullah and Munshi Abdul Rehman. Kargil, Ladakh. 1945.

My great grandfather Munshi Aziz Bhat with his two sons, Munshi Habibullah and Munshi Abdul Rehman. Kargil, Ladakh. 1945.

Image and Text contributed by Muzammil Hussain Munshi, Kargil, Ladakh

This photograph is of my great grandfather Munshi Aziz Bhat, in his proud head gear Pagdi (locally the Thott) with his two sons, Munshi Habibullah (my grandfather) and Munshi Abdul Rehman, sitting at the Sarai on a usual business day. It was taken by a Mr. Daniel Berger from Neuchatel, Switzerland in 1945, who was probably a Moravian Missionary travelling across Ladakh and Tibet. This photograph along with few others was telegraphed to my great grandfather in Kargil, Ladakh the following year.

Munshi Aziz Bhat was my paternal as well as maternal great grandfather. My mother (daughter of his son, Munshi Abdul Rehman, seated left) and father (son of his other son Munshi Habibullah, seated right) are first cousins. In older times, marriages between cousins was normal like many other cultures of the world. Marriages were fixed when the betrothed were still children and they hardly had any say in the decision.

My great grandfather, Munshi Aziz Bhat was last of the Great Silk route traders of India. Born in Leh in 1866, he was the son of Khoja Rasool Bhat. The last name Bhat came from his ethnicity of  Kashmiri Brahmins from Kishtwar, Kashmir. Due to influences of Islamic revolutionaries during the Mughal period, several Kashmiri Brahmins converted to Islam but the last name was retained. Khoja Rasool Bhat was a record keeper with the Maharaja Pratap Singh of Jammu & Kashmir State government. After he died suffering a sudden illness in 1868, Aziz Bhat’s mother brought up him with the pension she received from the Maharaja’s Government. He was a bright student and managed to pass the class V examination from Skardoo Primary School which was the only primary school in Baltistan (now in Pakistan).

Soon after his mother passed away, Aziz now alone, married four women (two Buddhists and two Muslims and had 15 children between three of them. His first wife Khatija Begum came from Gungani in Baltistan (now Pakistan) and had two sons, (in photograph) Munshi Habibullah (my grandfather) and Munshi Abdul Rehman. The second wife was originally a Buddhist from Zanskar called Kunzes Bee, but she later changed her name to Karima Banoo. His third wife was from Kargil and the fourth, a Buddhist lady came from a village Mulbek about 50 kms from Kargil. With a large family of 40 members, my grandmother tells me that the food cooked everyday was literally like a community feast.

The Silk Route(s) a forgotten road of history, is almost mythological in it’s essence. Eponymous with its most valued piece of trade, Silk from China, it in fact traded every possible item for daily as well as luxury use. Goods were despatched from Asia to many ports and towns in Africa, Europe and the Americas, receiving produce and manufactured items in return, as was the trade system of Barter. The overland and sea Silk Routes frequented during reign of Greek Emperor Alexander, and the Han Dynasty in China, expanded to become a multi-directional, transcontinental thoroughfare for traffic on horseback, donkey, mule, yak and foot. And Kargil, before the infamous wars, had a rich heritage as one of the key feeder routes of the Silk Route.

An important stop on the “Treaty Road” from Srinagar, to Leh and Central Asia, it was said  ‘all the roads lead to Kargil’ as it was equidistant from Kashmir, Baltistan (in Pakistan), Zanskar and Leh. Kargil literally means a place to stop from all directions. Its etymology has evolved from the word Garkill. Where “gar” means from all places and “khil” to stop. And true to its name, all historical accounts of British and European travellers reveal Kargil to be just that. Situated along the river Suru (a tributary of the Indus, which flows into Pakistan) it boasted of a fort build by the Ladakhi King in the 19th century. The old caravan bazaar ran along the river and a few mud houses by the slopes nestled in a green oasis of the Suru valley. The town had a population mix of (Shia) muslim and buddhists, both of whom were very indifferent to the prejudices of creed. Although the local language was Purgi, it is said that atleast two people in each village were also fluent in new Persian and Urdu, and the knowledge of English was very rare.

Munshi Aziz Bhat rose to prominence as a pioneer Silk Route Trader during 1880-1950 when all trading activity in Kargil, both retail and large scale was run and controlled by Punjabis & Hoshiarpuri Lalas. He began his career as a ‘Patwari'(village accountant) for the revenue department, but quit his job in 1915 to try his luck in business. He began as rival to his competitors but soon merged with them to established himself as a large scale trader in the region. He partnered with a Punjabi Sikh merchant Sardar Kanth Singh and started a retail-whole sale shop with a capital of 6000 silver coins (equal to Rs. 6 Lakhs today) and by the end of the year they had made an annual profit of Rs. 9000. In 1920 he established his own large scale trading business with the help of his two older sons and a cousin. The enterprise was named “Munshi Aziz Bhat & Sons”.

Imported from Europe, the shop sold soap, toiletries, stationery, cosmetics, medicines, spices, textiles and shoe polish which was considered a luxury item. The carpets were imported from Central Asia. It also sold unusual items such as horse and camel accessories, catering to the big demand to decorate horses and camels which were a status symbol like cars today. The items were bartered between the traders from all over the world but later with the influence of East India Company and Christian Moravian missionaries, goods began to be traded in money and silver coins. The shops was known far and beyond for its variety of goods and earned itself a local folklore that “one could even find Birds’ Milk at the Munshi Aziz Bhat Sarai”. It is notable that stocking such a range of goods in Kargil, almost 100 years ago, with no paved roads or motor vehicles, was a great feat.

The usual trade route began from Kashgar, Yarkand, Khotan in Central Asia, Xingjiang province of China and entered Indian borders at Nubra valley in Leh to Kargil then carried on till Srinagar on horse or camel backs. From Srinagar it travelled to Hoshiarpur or Amritsar via Rawalpindi by lorries. And from there it travelled to the ports of Bombay and Bengal via trains from where on these goods were shipped to Europe, Africa and Arab countries.

Munshi Aziz Bhat who by now was also appointed as the official petition writer of the Maharaja of the Jammu and Kashmir state for Baltistan Wazarat (region of reign), also built the first ever Inn in Kargil for central Asian traders, the Aziz Bhat Sarai. The Sarai, built as a three story square building in 1920 still stands by the banks of river Suru in old Caravan Bazaar. It was the main hub of activities, a depot for goods meant for all directions including Tibet, India and Baltistan routes. It also housed Bhat’s seven shops. The ground floor of the inn was used to keep horses and straw. The first floor to keep the goods of the traders and the third floor was used for boarding and lodging.

Munshi Aziz had become one of the  most influential people in the whole of Ladakh & Baltistan wazarat.  As a petition writer for the Maharaja he had managed to network with Princes, Kings and high ranking officials from all around the world, including the Moravian missionaries and East India company officials who frequented the town for business and strategic concerns. He was considered a man with integrity because he knew English, was literate and fair in his dealings. He was publicly appointed as the village decision maker, and people from all villages would come to him to settle disputes. For a very busy man he was was a very caring and a loving person. Everyday, he would return from the Sarai, bearing gifts for all of his children and a loaf of meat for his pet dog, a Tibetan Mastiff.  Once, during a famine in the region, he sheltered and fed 60 villagers in his house for almost 50 days.

The Silk Route trade saw its lasts days during the Partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and the uprising of communism in China the following year. All the major trade routes were shut down between India and Pakistan which had now become two separate countries. Hence, all the traders along the route were forced to shut down business activities. The Munshi Aziz Sarai also suffered a similar fate.

My great grandfather passed away of old age in 1948 just one year after the Independence of India and closure of the great silk route. My Grandfather, Munshi Habibullah then joined the state politics. Following him my father, Munshi Abdul Aziz (named after my great grandfather) got into government service in the Revenue department as a Tehsildar and my mother was a government school teacher. My family left the Silk Route trade post independence and most of the family members either joined politics or government service.

The Sarai remained under lock and key for almost half a century before the chance discovery of nothing less than treasure prompted efforts that culminated in the establishment of a museum. On the classic persuasion of a researcher, Jaqueline who immediately recognized the value of the contents, we eventually decided to safe-keep the memorabilia and intensified efforts to house them in a museum in a designated house-space. If it was not for not that intervention, the artifacts would have been forever lost to antiques shops. The Museum is curated from the mercantile items found at the Sarai, from family possessions and relics, and donations from local and other interested parties.

The Aziz Bhat Sarai is considered the only surviving inn of the Silk route in Ladakh and North-West India and the discovery of incredible mercantile items has been an unprecedented find in recorded history. Today, the  museum in our house, This family-operated, public museum the Kargil Museum lives with a vision to preserve ‘The Last Great Silk Route Trader’, Munshi Aziz Bhat’s legacy. It offers anyone who visits a rare glimpse into the Indian and Central Asian business culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries.


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.


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.


84 – The untouchable Brahmin who saved Mahatma Gandhi’s life

My Great-grandfather, Krishnaswamy Iyer with Mahatma Gandhi. Palghat (now Palakkad), Kerala. June 1935

Image and text contributed by Govind Mohandas, Bangalore

This image of my great grandfather Krishnaswamy Iyer with Mahatma Gandhi, was photographed at the Sabari Ashram in Palakkad, Kerala.  Although an ignored statue with a broken nose stands in a park in Kerala and a book has chronicled him as the Untouchable Brahmin, my Great-grand father Krishnaswamy Iyer is a forgotten hero.

Born in 1890, he was brought up in a very orthodox Brahmin family and he soon found himself in the epicenter of the freedom struggle from British rule. He courageously started displaying his social responsibility by educating and initiating Dalits (untouchables) into Brahminhood much to the fury of the elders in the community. When he showed no signs of listening to their advice, Krishna was ostracized from his community. It was a huge deal, but Krishna was undeterred.

He continued his service for the untouchables through the Sabari Ashram that stands even today, which is committed to the cause of educating Dalits. Mahatma Gandhi knew and adored Krishna and always paid him a visit during each of his tours to southern India. There are anecdotes which mention an incident when Krishna saved Gandhiji from riots by stopping a train and taking Gandhiji to a safe place before the train reached the station.

He was the ‘untouchable Brahmin’ yet he garnered a lot of respect from few members of the Brahmin community, among them being my mother’s family. Once the alliance between my mother and father was recommended to my maternal great-grandfather, there was no doubt that she had to be married to Krishnaswamy Iyer’s grandson.

Krishnaswamy Iyer passed away in 1935, the same year this image was photographed. He continues to be one among countless unsung heroes who contributed all of their energy, money and status for the cause of freedom.

 


79 – A 100 years ago, she stepped into a world where no widow had dared tread

My great grand parents (right most) with the Chennagiri Family. Tumkur, Mysore State (now in Karnataka). Circa 1901

Image and Text contributed by Laxmi Murthy, Bangalore

This picture is thought to have been taken in Tumkur, State of Mysore, immediately after the marriage of my great grand parents Chennagiri Amba Bai, 12 years old (standing top right) with Sreenivasa Rao, then 18 (middle row, sitting right most), with Amba Bai’s paternal family, the Chennagiris. I must thank my aunt Prabhamani Rao for all the help in identifying the people of my ancestral family found in this image.

Born in 1889 into an orthodox Brahmin family in the erstwhile Mysore State (now in Karnataka), she was widowed at the age of 24 with three children. Sreenivasa Rao, Ambi’s husband was in the Police. He was also a wrestler and a champion swimmer. He died suddenly in 1913, caught in a whirlpool while swimming in Kempambudi Lake (now a sewerage collection tank) in Bangalore.

Amba Bai whom we fondly called Ambi, triumphed over her tragic destiny by empowering herself with education. She defied conservative society to educate herself through college, become economically independent, and went on to become the principal of Vani Vilas Girls School in Bangalore. Nothing short of a saga of grit and determination, Ambi’s story serves as an inspiration to women who face oppression till today. In her determination to break away from the shackles of social customs, which heaped on a widow the most inhuman treatment, she had the support of her enlightened father, C Krishna Rao, fondly called Rayaru, and his colleagues. With their encouragement she managed to step into a world where no widow had dared to tread.

Ambi’s father Rayaru (middle row, third from left) was the head of the Chennagiri family and a Director of Public Instruction. He was much respected and loved for his vision, intelligence and belief in women’s education. He fathered 14 children, the one on his lap being the 11th, C Padmanabha Rao.

Ambi died in 1971 at the grand old age of 82, leaving behind a legacy of love, courage and strong values, which are cherished to this day by three generations of women after her. The story of Amba Bai, Ambi, has been reconstructed by her granddaughter Vimala Murthy, my mother, with inputs from surviving members of her family.

Chronicling the extraordinary grit and courage of this woman of nearly 100 years ago, the book is not just a tribute from two generations of progeny but also a very valuable record of a vanished socio-cultural-familial scenarios. The book, self published in 2007, in addition to being an account of life in Karnataka in the early 20th century, also contains rare photographs more than a century old, reproductions of Amba Bai’s diaries, letters, accounts books and notations – a unique addition to any archive on women. For copies of the book you can write to me here.


66 – The Gaud Saraswat Brahmins who were converted to Catholicism

My parents and my brothers at my Christening. Sacred Heart Church, Santa Cruz, Bombay. 1971

Image and Text Contributed by Wanda Naomi Rau, Mumbai

This was an image taken at my christening at the Sacred Heart Church in Santa Cruz, Bombay. My father had invited 100 people to celebrate that I, a girl was born 9 years after 2 boys. My brothers even got the day off school.

It was tradition in Goa to have at least one son carry the family name and another follow priesthood. My father Jose Luis Alvaro Remedios, from Saligao, Goa was to become a priest, since his older brother Hubert had moved to Bombay to pursue his Masters at St Xavier’s College. Hubert, unfortunately died of Typhoid around the 1940’s and my father had to leave the Seminary. However, The Seminary takes you through a tough academic route which covers both main stream subjects and theological studies. Perhaps his significant learning was that of Latin, which I regret I did not learn from my Father. However I think my love for history, academia and music is inextricably linked to my Father’s genes.

My father moved to Bombay to look for a job. He began working with Reserve Bank of India, and held the job for 38 odd years until he retired as the Asst. Financial Controller. He met my mum, Maria Aida Bertila Silveira from St. Mathias, Goa, through a formal proposal. My Mum was 30 years old and he was 35 when they got married. They lived in Byculla for the early years and then moved to the Reserve Bank Quarters in Santa Cruz. My Mum was a home maker and raised 2 boys and a girl, me.

My father’s best kept secret was that he was keenly interested in our own family’s past and actively pursued to construct a family tree for almost 25 years. His research was so thorough that it would have certainly gained him an M.Phil in Historical & Contextual Studies, even though everything is documented in a narrative fashion. He traced the history of our family to 1500s and found that we belonged to a community called the Goud Saraswat Brahmins; and had the family name ‘Bhatt’. It is between the 1500s-1700s that from ‘Bhatt’ the family changed its last name to ‘Tavara’ and from ‘Tavara’ they converted to Catholicism with the Portuguese last name Remedios during Portuguese India reign. My parents too were born during the Portuguese rule. Their generation and the generation that follows; of my relatives, all live in Goa, apart from the few who moved to Lisbon, Portugal. They speak impeccable Portuguese, and can be more Portuguese than Goan at times, which is amusing.

During a short posting to Delhi, my father decided to change our surname from Remedios to Rau because he was exasperated that everyone there called us either Ramdas, Ramdeo or Ramlal. He also felt that having an Indian last name would stand us in good stead in a Hindutva nation. So while I was born Wanda Noemia Remedios, he changed it to Wanda Naomi Rau. Naomi is the English name for Noemia; which is Portuguese.

 


58 – Mary Jane shoes with a nine yards saree

My Paati and Thatha, Lokanayaki and RR Hariharan. My mother’s parents from Ravanasamudram, Thirunelveli District, Tamil Nadu. Circa 1920.

Image and text contributed by Vani Subramanian, New Delhi

He worked with the Indian Railways, and she raised her five children between Delhi and Shimla, learning Hindi and the ways of the ‘north’ as she went along. This photograph was probably taken fairly soon after they were married. Even my mum who is now 72 years old doesn’t remember them like this at all. So in a sense, they are both familiar and strangers as they appear in the picture. But I do remember the photograph framed and hanging on the wall in the house that they retired to in the village. A house they moved in to the day I was born: 22 Jan 1965.

My favourite part of the photograph is that Paati is wearing Mary Jane shoes and white socks with her nine yards saree. I never saw her in shoes in real life. As a matter of fact, I never saw my grandfather in a coat and tie, either. Though I am told that he wore a coat, tie, shoes and pants clipped with bicycle clips as he rode to work from Park Lane to the railway boards offices.


52 – The last photograph of a Kashmiri Pandit family together.

The only and last photograph of a Kashmiri Pandit Family together. Vicharnag, Kashmir. Circa 1915

Image and text contributed by Anil Dhar, Mumbai

This is probably the first, and as it turned out, the last ever photograph taken of my entire Kashmiri Pandit extended family. The Dhar Family. My grandmother, Tara Dhar, stands second from right in the top row, and my grandfather Raghunath Dhar, fourth from right in the same row. Between the men is my great grandmother, Sokhmal Dhar. The family was photographed in Vicharnag, a small village situated on the outskirts of Srinagar, Kashmir.

Vicharnag when translated, means “the spring of contemplation”. The village has a centuries-old temple complex which housed several Pandit families including mine for hundreds of years. The Dhar family belongs to the Kashmiri Pandit community – the only Brahmin Hindu community native to Kashmir. These were also good times, when ties between all communities, be it Hindu or Muslim, were strong and warm.

This picture holds so many cultural nuances. For instance, the headgear of the elder male members was different from the younger male members. Moreover, the women were not in purdah (veiled) displaying some liberal social and cultural aspects of the community at the time.

After belonging to a land for centuries, the families were forced to uproot themselves because of Indo-Pakistani border War of 1947, and then again in 1990 because of the eruption of radical militancy and ethnicity based massacres by subversives, on the Pandits. It is said that approximately 250,000 of the total Kashmiri Pandit population left the Kashmir valley during the 1990s. Soon every single member of the Dhar family too fled Vicharnag for good.

Their derelict temple complex and abandoned houses are now occupied by squatters and carry a hazy memory of the community who lived there so long. Most of the family’s descendants now live all over the globe, and today Vicharnag has no Kashmiri Pandits.


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

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

Image and text contributed by Sangeeta Bahuguna, Mumbai

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

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

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

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

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

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


47 – When all you had was a single airline called Air India

My grandfather, T.S Sreekantiya and grandmother, S. Kamlamma with family and staff at the Arrival lounge at the Airport, Bombay, Maharashtra. 1978

Image and text contributed by Prasad Ramamurthy, Mumbai

Both my grandparents’ families were Tamil Palghat Brahmins and migrated from Kerala over generations through Karnataka to finally settle in Bengaluru (Bangalore) . A few years after they got married my grandparents moved from Bengaluru to Bombay in 1932.

In the late 70’s when all you had was a single airline called Air India to fly you out the country to anywhere, you really needed to ‘know’ somebody to help you get Emergency Quota tickets air travel and that was a well and truly a big deal. So when you set off somewhere or returned it meant the entire family, extended family and the house staff turned up to say hello or bid you goodbye.

Like, when my grandparents who had gone to Iran to visit an uncle of mine (he worked for the Tata’s and was building power plants for the Iranian government then) returned. We; my parents, the three of us, my uncle, the house staff, my uncle’s office staff and two others I don’t even recognise turned up garlands in hand and with those curious things that every newly married couple was made to hold onto in those days while greeting guests at the marriage reception. I’m sure my uncle was thankful that when he set off a few years later, on what then to us was an epic trip to the US for three whole months, we didn’t do the garland-bouquet routine. But of course there always was a mandatory picture, family, extended family, staff included!