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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. 


167 – The man who compiled the first English to Hindi & Marathi dictionaries

My great grandfather, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari. Ajmer, Rajasthan. Circa 1955

My great grandfather, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari. Ajmer, Rajasthan. Circa 1955

Image & Text contributed by Myra Khanna / Rachana Yadav, Gurgaon

This is the probably the only photograph we have of my maternal great grandfather Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari or as we refer to him Nana Sahib. Born in 1891, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari was the eldest of four brothers. He was brought up in Bhanpura, a district in the Central Provinces of the subcontinent (now Madhya Pradesh, India). I never did get a chance to meet him, but stories my mother and grandmother tell me about him make me feel that would have been an honour to know him.

While there is some documentation that mentions our ancestor Rao Raghunath Singh Bhandari as the acting King of Jodhpur from 1713-1724, I am not sure how it all turned out because in our family’s current memory we had humble beginnings from a village called Jaitaran (Jodhpur District). The family then migrated to their maternal land Bhanpura where Nana Sahib was born. After his birth and as tradition was, his umbilical cord was cut and buried in the soil of our family home’s courtyard and a tree was planted. The house still stands in Bhanpura today, and in it’s courtyard so does a grand tree.

In 1904, at the age of 12, Nana Sahib was married off to 13-year-old, Roop Kavar, my great grandmother. Nana Sahib was not interested in the family business and ran away to Jodhpur to complete his education. He excelled at Marathi, Hindi and English languages and self-published his first works by translating Ralph Waldo Trine’s In tune with the Infinite in Hindi. He then went on to serve as editor to several newspapers & publications in Bombay (now Mumbai), Delhi, Patna, Ajmer and Indore. Through the course of his youth, he befriended and worked with several influential writers, poets, politicians, activists and royal families from all over the subcontinent. Deeply inspired and curious about world revolutions, cultures, literature & affairs he became a well-reputed writer and author. Two of his early books Bharat aur Angrez (India & the British) and Sansar ki krantiyan (World Revolutions) won him huge accolades and appreciation around the country.

Nanasahib was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and a fierce congressman. My mother remembers him always wearing khadi (hand-spun cloth). In the early 1910s as an assistant editor at Sadharm Pracharak, a weekly newspaper in Delhi, his articles featured Gandhi’s civil rights movement in South Africa and his words spread far and wide. Funds to support Gandhi’s cause flowed in and the newspaper was instrumental in raising Rs. 60,000 to be sent to Gandhi. In 1920, he helped establish the Congress party in Indore, Nagpur and Jaipur. Most evenings at home would come alive with debates, discussions and heated arguments between the greatest of minds of that time.

In the 1920s, he was invited to set up and co-edit an independent Hindi Marathi Weekly Malhari Martand by the Royal family of Holkars in Indore. While serving as an editor he wrote two books on the History of Indian States commissioned by Maharaja Tukaji Rao Holkar III that won him appreciation and monetary awards from several Royal Families around the country.

One of Nana Sahib’s several great accomplishments was that he was the first to have translated and compiled two 10 volume dictionaries – English to Hindi and English to Marathi; The dictionaries went on to be used as the blueprint for other regional language dictionaries that are used until today, and was used as a reference by authors such as Rabindra Nath Tagore. The dictionaries are considered to be one of the greatest achievements in Indian Literature. After the dictionaries he embarked on researching, writing and compiling the first Hindi books on around 30 academic subjects, with contributed material from international and national scholars. These books too won huge publicity and accolades around the subcontinent and were even used as reference by UNESCO in their reports.

Indore state is where Nana sahib earned countrywide respect, but also lost his fortune. My mother tells me that Nana Sahib was an extremely honest and liberal man and his views on religion, marriage, education and relationships were very modern for his time. But his honesty and high standards also made him gullible, resulting in huge losses of wealth. Amongst the many stories I’ve heard, the one I’d wish to ask him about is the time he seems to have contradicted his own belief system.

In 1925, the Bawla Murder Case (aka The Malabar Hill murder case) created a massive stir in the country. A love triangle comprising the Maharaja Tukojirao Holkar III of Indore, his most beloved courtesan Mumtaz Begum and a wealthy businessman Abdul Kadir Bawla, ended up in a royal conspiracy to kidnap the courtesan and murder the businessman by men from the Holkar house. Everyone knew that the king had given the orders and it was a great opportunity for the British to take control of Indore state. With pressures of possible dethronement, the King sought the help of Nana Sahib whose word was held in high regard politically & publicly. Knowing well that the king was indeed guilty, Nana Sahib nonetheless mediated the king’s appeal to political parties and the public. Eventually, his word paid off and the only consequence was a voluntary abdication of the throne to the King’s son Yashwant Rao Holkar II.

One would wonder why a man, so self-righteous and honest would help a man who conspired to kill. My mother and I conjecture that perhaps Nana Sahib was obligated to the Holkar family for its patronage, and returned the favour by protecting the King. As a reward, the Holkars opened up their treasury to Nana Sahib. Overnight, my great grandfather became wealthier than he had ever imagined. Ironically, he got carried away with wrong advice and bad investments, and again overnight he was back to his humble beginnings; only now with additional debts.

While Nana Sahib was still extremely popular and respected, losing money and the debt caused him some embarrassment and he decided to leave Indore and move to Ajmer with his family – his wife and five children – two sons and three daughters. Their home was open to anyone who wanted to learn and study and he would spend a lot of time educating children from the neighborhood. His youngest daughter, Mannu Bhandari (my maternal grandmother) went on to become one of the greatest Hindi authors of our times and his other daughter Sushila Bhandari established  India’s first preschool “Bal Nilaya” in the country, in Lake Gardens, Calcutta (now Kolkata).

My Nana Sahib, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari died of throat cancer at the age of 72 and spare a few copies scattered within the family, and in some libraries around the world, all of his literary works are either lost or were donated and bought by several publications. I am told he had a huge trunk in which he kept all of his works-in-progress and insisted on carrying it with him everywhere, including in his last days to the hospital. It seems that his last works-in-progress was translating the volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica into Hindi.


166 – The families that fled Tibet with the Dalai Lama

My grandfather Faizullah Baba with my uncles Abdullah and Majid. Darjeeling, India. Circa 1957

My grandfather Faizullah Baba with my uncles Abdullah and Majid. Darjeeling, India. Circa 1957

Image & Text contributed by Soheb Ahmed Baba, New Delhi

The man in the photograph above is my grandfather Faizullah Baba. Standing left is my grand father’s eldest son, my uncle, Abdullah, age 7, and on the right is Abdullah’s cousin Majid.

During the Tibetan Uprising in 1959, fearing for his life, the Dalai Lama and his advisers fled Tibet with the help of the CIA and were given asylum by the Indian Government. While the world press published stories of strain in Indo-China relationships, very few threw light on the families that followed the Dalai Lama and fled from Tibet to India in the subsequent months. My grandfather and his family were few of the many that also fled to India to seek a better and peaceful life after the uprising. Our family, however, weren’t Buddhists but Muslim minorities living in Tibet and were often referred to as “Ka- chee” which literally means Kashmiri or Kashmir. One of the reasons that my grandfather also decided to flee was because he sensed Islam being suppressed by the Chinese Government and felt India to be more secular and comforting.

Historically, our ancestors were from Kashmir. On one hand, they were traders who would travel between Kashmir and Lhasa to exchange goods, and on the other, they preached the teachings of Islam. Many community traders married local Tibetan women forming a fusion of cultures and resulting in the gradual growth of the Tibetan-Muslim community in Tibet.

It was important for our ancestors that the young were educated in the lessons & practices it boasted and there were a few madrasas in Lhasa but these institutes were limited to religious education. My grandfather instead wanted his kids to gain more knowledge and decided early on (before the uprising) to send the young boys all the way to Delhi, in India, to study in a school founded within Jamia Millia Islamia.

What fascinates me about this picture and the story, are the journeys young Abdullah and his cousin Majid, made each time they crossed over to the Indian border to study and to return during vacations. From Lhasa, they would hitch a ride with the traders, trekking through the rough terrains until the border, and then use public transport into India. Sometimes they would make a pit stop at Darjeeling, West Bengal and carry on till Delhi to attend school. They would embark on this journey back and forth each time they visited home in Lhasa.

Occasionally, my grandfather, Faizullah, would make the same journey to go and pick them up from Delhi. This photograph was taken during one of those journeys. The well ironed collared shirts and half trousers with a book in hand were perhaps important props to display at the time because quality education in Tibet was rare and only a few attained an English education.

The separations and the hard journeys must have taken a toll on both Abdullah & his parents but my dad says it was these characteristics of my grandfather that he greatly admired – His inner strength, his will power to let go of problems and his faith in the almighty. Maybe this is why my father, his siblings & cousins were encouraged to travel to far out places and pursue their dreams.

By 1962, the Indian government granted the Kachee community permission to settle in India and many of my relatives began a new life in Delhi, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Siliguri, Gangtok, Kashmir and Srinagar. My grandparents themselves earned a living by selling garments at one point. Abdullah, my uncle in the picture, took up teaching as a full-time profession in Kargil, Ladakh for most of his adult life. He passed away in Srinagar, Kashmir, at the age of 62.

Today, 57 years later after this photograph was taken, I, a grandson of this community is writing this testimony in Delhi, the capital of India. My sister, our cousins and I are the third generation born and brought up in this country and a city that we now proudly call home.


163 – Dapper young men in Bombay

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

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

Image & Text contributed by Chirodeep Chaudhuri, Mumbai

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

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

And then I found this picture that made me stop.

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

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

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

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

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

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


155 – Cavorting around trees in their village

My parents, Umedrai and Hansa. Village Parivarnagar. 1963

My parents, Umedrai and Hansa. Village Pravaranagar. Maharashtra. Circa 1963

Image and Text contributed by Bhavna Mehta, USA

This picture of my parents Umedrai & Hansa, was photographed around 1963 in the village of Pravaranagar (Maharashtra) where they lived for a few years. They were married only a few months. I’ve always wondered who took this picture, staged maybe after old Bollywood movie scenes of couples running around trees.

My father Umedrai was born as one of nine children to Harjivan Bhaichand Mehta and Kamala (originally Triveni) in the small town of Ahmednagar, Maharashtra India. My father’s family belonged to a tiny community of Gujarati merchants in Ahmednagar and my mother Hansa was born in Nakuru, Kenya to Nagardas and Vimla Bhuva.

Leaving Gujarat for Maharashtra as a young man, my paternal grandfather established ‘Harjivandas Bhaichand‘, a wholesale grocery store in Ahmednagar, that still provides for his great grand children more than a 100 years later. My maternal grandfather, on the other hand, had decided to make his way to Kenya as a young man and owned a textile & sewing shop called ‘Bhuva Store‘ in Nakuru with his brothers. The family travelled to and fro to India (Gujarat) often.

My parents had an arranged marriage. At the time of the arrangement, my father was working as a merchant ship’s electrical engineer in Bombay with the Great Eastern Shipping Company. Right before the wedding, he quit his job which used to otherwise keep him away for a month at a time. My mother completed her Bachelor of Arts from Dharmendrasinhji College in Rajkot, Gujarat. A cousin introduced the families and they met only once before each side said ‘Yes’!

I was born in neighbouring Shrirampur in the district of Ahmednagar. At that time, my father was an engineer at Pravaranagar Sugar Factory. Far away from her own family, my mother ran our home, made friends with the neighbours, walked to the temple, cooked, cleaned and embroidered. When my mother left on some visit, my father would cook his rice and dal in a pressure cooker before he left for work in the morning. Many trials awaited the couple in this picture in the future which they have decided to keep private. But here they seem carefree and happy and willing to be a bit silly.


148 – Picnic at Juhu Beach

Our family and friends at the Juhu Beach. Bombay. 1941

Our family and friends at the Juhu Beach. Bombay. 1941

Image & Text contributed by Rumi Taraporevala/ Sooni Taraporevala

This photograph of our family was taken by my youngest kaka (uncle) Shapoor at Juhu Beach. We had all gone out to Juhu beach for a picnic, outside the Palm Grove hotel (now Ramada Plaza Palm Grove). It was a regular haunt for picnics and we used to look forward to our day out for weeks. The beach was totally un-spoilt and had only a few small shacks around. Now I wouldn’t go even if someone paid me for it.

I remember, we would take the train from Grant Road to Santa Cruz and then take a bus to Juhu beach. At that time the Bombay trains were not called Western or Central railways. The Western line was called BB & CI – Bombay Baroda and Central India Railways and the Central line was called GIP – Great Indian Peninsula Railway. I don’t remember what we would do though, I think mainly chatter, run around, eat and some of us swam. Picnic lunches were fun, sometimes they were large tiffins full of Pork Vindaloo. It was very tasty.

In the middle wearing a white dress is Freny, now my beautiful wife, and on her left is me. Freny and I are also first cousins, our fathers were real brothers. Like some other communities in India, in Parsis too, marriage between cousins is allowed. Though we weren’t an arranged match, we just fell in love with each other. She was beautiful. I think even at this picnic I was eyeing her. Our parents must have noticed and declared that we must be made into a match. There was no ‘dating’ at the time, so the way I would get to meet her was – when she would be attending the girl guides meeting, I would go and fetch her back. We would walk through Azad Maidan and at Churchgate take the train to Grant road. At the time she used to live at Sleater Road. A lot of boys were after her, she was a beautiful girl you know, but I got her.

At that time there was not much entertainment for us in Bombay. In school, we were big on Hollywood movies. It was our only past time. On Thursdays and Sundays, we’d be standing in the queue at the Metro Cinema (now Metro Big Cinema) and buy tickets for Four Annas (one Anna was 1/16 of a Rupee).

In this picture, I would have been 11 years old and Freny was six months older to me. I studied at St. Xavier’s School and then St. Xavier’s college. My daddy was a foreign currency exchange broker, and would earn around Rs. 3000 a month, which was a lot of money and would take care of the entire family. After I left college, I joined the same business in 1951. At that time we didn’t question the expectations of our parents and teachers. My father was a tough disciplinarian but that was the general case with our parents anyway. My mom however, was full of mischief, and was a very jovial and fun person.

Daddy used to pay me Rs.100 and when Freny and I got married my salary was Rs. 400. It was a lot of money for us. We used to go to the movies, for the office dances, and then there was Ideal restaurant where Freny and I would eat Chicken salad for 12 Annas.

In the picture there were also my cousins from Canton, Hong Kong – Veera, Perin and Baji. My uncle and aunt were visiting India to show their children what India was like. But then Japan declared occupation in Hong Kong and they couldn’t go back. So they stayed here in Bombay for four years, until they could return. Veera was a beautiful girl. She was dark with one of the most beautiful faces one had seen. She was a great athlete, swimmer and diver -and all the boys used to run after her. My mom and she used to get along like a house on fire. They loved each other, and were in touch all the time. The ladies of my mum’s generation would correspond with each other in Gujarati and the men would write each other in English. Maybe it was because many of the orthodox families didn’t educate the girls for too long. When Freny’s elder sister was studying at Sophia’s college, one of the Parsi girls converted to Christianity. Right then my grandmother wrote to my uncle/father-in-law saying “immediately remove her from school”. Her fears were that maybe they will brainwash her into becoming a Christian.

On the top right are Jehangir Tarapore and his wife Khorshed. Jehangir was a very well known studio photographer in the Gujarati and Parsi community. His images are simply beautiful, very radical for the time. The superb quality of his prints still baffles me. Many of his photographs are now stored by a museum in London, with my daughter Sooni as the guardian.

Sorab Kaka is on the top left. He was a professor of French and he used to teach French at the Elphinstone college. Shapoor, my youngest uncle who took this picture, was very fond of photography. As children we started off with cameras such as the Brownie and Agfa. It had only six exposures. Then they increased it to eight and we were ultra excited about that. I remember we had an old gramophone too, and had to change the needle after each record revolution. Then they started making bronze needles, each lasted three records, then came the gold needle which lasted eight records. We had to change it else it would spoil the record. Can you imagine that?

This area where we live, the Gowalia tank was so beautiful at the time, it was an absolutely quiet locality. The trams used to end at the maidan (playground), and the only sound at night was the bell announcing the tram changing tracks. In 1942, the Quit India Movement Speech was issued by Gandhi right here at the maidan. I remember, I was at my boy scouts meeting and there was a rally going on. Then my father fetched me, because there was a lot of rioting and shooting going on and many people were killed.

After Indo/Pak partition Bombay changed. I remember that in December of 1942, Japan dropped a few bombs on Calcutta, and so all the Gujarati traders fearing that Bombay will be next, fled back to their native places. Several apartments were available with “To be let” signs. Or as my Gujarati colleague used to pronounce it- “Toblet”. By the late 1940s, a lot of people immigrated into Bombay from Karachi and different places – the prices started rising, houses became difficult to get, and what really changed for the worse that suddenly the builders had the bright idea of ‘ownership apartments’. Till then all Bombay flats were only on rent and we didn’t have any ownership. Of course, a lot of the Parsis were pro-brits. You will find many of them still keep pictures of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth and call them “Aapnee Rani” (Our queen). When Sooni did her photo book on the Parsis, I ensured that we get the book to the Queen in England. At first it got rejected, because of the letter bombs going around, then a British colleague helped me re-send the book to her.

I have had a wonderful life with a very warm close knit family of cousins & friends and now grandchildren. Together we have had a lot of fun. There was always some outdoor activity or the other – trekking to Nepal or scooter tours to the south of India- the sites of our subcontinent are amazing. But Bombay, I tell you, was the most beautiful and interesting city.


146 – My father’s inspired passive resistance

Woven portrait of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute. Bombay, Maharashtra. 1934

Woven portrait of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute. Bombay, Maharashtra. 1934

 

Image and Text contributed by Jayati Gupta, India

Indian textiles were a major part of the East India Company’s trade since the 17th century. Hundreds of thousands of people in India were involved in the textile trade, as spinners, weavers and dyers. 
By the early years of the 20th century too, textile and textile technology was controlled and promoted by the British and colonial masters. Indian textiles was a rapidly growing industry, especially since the demand for British cotton had slumped during the interwar period.

During the booming era of the East India Company, raw materials were sent back to Britain and the finished goods were re-exported and sold in the colonies at exorbitant prices. The production and consumptions of textiles was controlled with imbalanced equations between the producer and the consumer, the coloniser and the colonised.

 When Mahatma Gandhi’s activism to promote khadi (homespun thread and home-woven cloth) became a big part of resistance to imperial authority, cotton became an important symbol in Indian independence and the Swadeshi movement began to overrule all. The resistance took the form of boycotting foreign goods and textiles.

My father, Nirmal Chandra Ghosh (1911-1989), after his initial education in the Zilla School (district scool) in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand, (formerly part of Bihar), won a scholarship and decided to train as a textile technologist.

In 1930, he became a student of Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute (now Veermata Jeejabai Technical Institute/VJTI) in Matunga, Bombay (now Mumbai). He graduated in 1934 becoming that year’s recipient of the Dadabhai Nowrojee Gold Medal. His name appears on the Roll of Honour, a board that is maintained in the Institute.

 Those were heady days of the nationalist movement and my father was very far away from home living in a cosmopolitan city thriving with conversations on the movement. At the time, for such distances from Bombay to Jharkhand, a railway journey would take more than three days, letters reached after more than a week and telephone calls were unheard of.

My grand father Kshitish Chandra Ghosh, was employed as a Post Master in the Bihar Postal Service run by the State & British administrators. It was a transferable job and he had warned his children, a large family of four sons and five daughters, that any nationalist activity they indulged in could be interpreted as anti-government and lead to losing his job. He sternly indicated that any anti-government activity would have disastrous consequences for the family as he was then the sole earning member and hence they would have to be very cautious.

But my father, at the time a young man in Bombay, was inspired by the movement of resistance and found a way to express himself. In his final year (1933-34) one of the assignments that he had, was to design and weave a piece of cloth. Very ingeniously he wove several textile portraits of public and national figures, highly respected and feted by patriotic countrymen. He wove portraits of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the Father of the Bengal Renaissance, of Rabindranath Tagore, Poet & Nobel prize winner and of Mahatma Gandhi, already an icon of Indian nationalism. One of those portraits woven of Raja Ram Mohan Roy by my father, as shown in the photograph, was framed many years later and still hangs in my sister’s Kolkata home. As a child, I remember the woven portrait of Gandhi hanging in my grandmother’s room in Hazaribagh. The other portraits may have been gifted by him to others and seem to be lost.

Luckily, this gesture expressing solidarity with the national movement went unrecorded and unnoticed by his sahib instructors. My father spoke of the act as an inspired passive resistance, and that it was a source of immense thrill and excitement when he was planning and executing the design. In volatile colonial times, it must have needed immense personal courage and extreme conviction to think and act in this manner.

My father was also an excellent amateur photographer. The image above was photographed and pasted by him in his album. The album also holds photographs from early to late 1930s from the time of his education in Bombay to when he lived in South India on his first and only job with A &F Harvey Limited, established in 1883 by two Scottish entrepreneurs. A & F Harvey Ltd., a british company, was incorporated as a private limited company in 1945 to manage textile and other companies in South India. It acted as the Management Agents of Madura Mills Co., Ltd., until December 1969. My father retired from his job in 1970.

 


145 – “The most amusing thing about the movie was that we had no script”

Amitabh and I. On the sets of 'Mr. Natwarlal'. Bombay, Maharashtra. 1979

Amitabh and I. On the sets of ‘Insaniyat’. Bombay, Maharashtra. 1990

 

Image and Text contributed by Tony Juneja, Mumbai

My name is Ramanjit Singh Juneja, however family and friends affectionately call me Tony, and now everyone knows me as Tony Juneja. I was born in 1954 in Patiala, Punjab, and my father worked as a liquor supplier to the Army Canteen stores and Indian Army Troops.

Even as a child I was attracted to cinema. While studying at Bishop Cottons in Simla, Himachal Pradesh, I would passionately read every edition of the ‘Picture Post’, a now forgotten english magazine about hindi films – even during class.

Our family used to own bonded warehouses for liquor in Nagaland, so we would travel and live in the region often. Once we grew up, my elder brother Kushaljeet (known as Tito) took a leap and began producing Assamese Films in Dimapur and Guwahati.  I too, would visit Guwahati often during summer vacations and watch them shoot and so the interest only heightened. I remember in 1972, the film we were shooting was called Mukta (later it received the President’s Award). And I joined my brother as a Production Boy. That was my first job in films. My role was to wake up early in the morning and ensure that the unit travels to the shooting location and then post the shoot, bring them back. Tito, my brother, went on to establish himself as a distributor of Indian motion pictures for the West Bengal territory and I moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) with him.

After a year or so my brother decided to move to Bombay, where all the mainstream movies were being made and I decided to join him. In Bombay, we rented a bunglow in Juhu and would travel everyday to Roop Tara studios in Dadar west, to work.

We got into film production in a full-fledged manner only after working on our first Hindi film, Do Anjane directed by Dulal Guha. Starring Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha, Prem Chopra and Mithun Chakraborty it was made under our banner ‘Navjeevan Films’. At the time Amitabh, Rekha and Mithun were all relatively unknown, but promising actors. Dulal Guha on the other hand was an established star director. The film released in 1976 and it went on to become a major and critical success.

Over time, I got friendly with director Rakesh Kumar whom I had met through Amitabh. Rakesh was already an established director, and Amitabh had recommended that we should work together, so we did. I had co-produced many films before with my brother Tito, but my first film as an independent producer was Mr. Natwarlal in 1979, a movie inspired by the famous con man Mithilesh Kumar Srivastava, better known as Natwarlal. His life inspired several TV dramas and movies after. Starring Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha, Ajit and Amjad Khan the film was mainly shot in Kashmir.

The most amusing thing about making Mr. Natwarlal was that we had no script. We wanted to make a film purely for entertainment, and didn’t think it was wrong to begin shooting without a script in place. All we had were a few sequences that sounded fun and entertaining, and for us it was good enough to begin shooting with. Piece by piece, somehow we managed to knit and complete a script while shooting the film. In those days, emotional attachments and teamwork were far more important to people than scripts and contracts. Scripts were (and are) important, but we all trusted that the script would eventually be in place. And that trust usually paid off.

The film was written by – Kader Khan and Gyan Dev Agnihotri. Kader Bhai too had just begun his career in films. The music was composed by Rajesh Roshan and the lyrics were penned by Anand Bakshi. Everyday we would shoot from 7 am to 9 am R K studios in Chembur and Mohan studios in Andheri. Amitabh and Rekha would come daily to shoot for two hours, for a month and our film was finished in time.

The highlight of the film was the song ‘Mere paas aao mere doston ek kissa suno’, the first playback song ever sung by Amitabh Bachchan. It was Anand Bakshi who recommended we ask Amitabh to sing, as it would suit his character and the situation. Moreover, an actor singing his own song had not been done in a long while. It took a bit of persuasion, but once Amitabh understood why we need him to sing the song, he gracefully accepted. The recording took very little time because Amitabh came very well prepared and delivered a beautifully sung song. None of us had expected it to be that good. He indeed is a sincere professional and, a genuine artist.

The most challenging thing about the movie was transporting the large number of animals we needed for the shoot in Srinagar, Kashmir. The Tigers came from Madras (now Chennai), the Snakes from Delhi and the Horses from Bombay, and the funniest thing that happened during shoot was that a horse bit me! When I tell people that, no one believes me.

Prior to its release, when the distributors watched Mr. Natwarlal, they felt very disappointed and claimed that there was no story and that the film will not run. Reluctantly they went along and released the film, and were proven wrong, because the film as we all know, went on to become a box office success.

In the 1980s, I also began to assist director Vijay Anand, fondly called Goldie. I was the head of Production for Ram Balram, and later became the co-producer on the film. My job was to literally wake him up in the morning, take him to the shoot and then bring him back, and often even put him to sleep. I thought of him to be a very cool man. He was known for his excellent framing and song picturisation. He was an excellent technician.

When I directed Mr. Bachchan in Insaniyat, I must have been around 30 and I was the youngest director to have directed Mr Bachchan. The film began production in 1989 and was originally set for release in 1991. But when two of the film’s stars Vinod Mehra and Nutan passed away, the schedules went haywire, and the release was delayed until 1994. It was the last released film of Amitabh Bachchan who then temporarily retired from films in 1992 after a near-fatal accident. It was tough time for many of us in the industry.

Some of the films we made were Do Anjane, Mr. Natwarlal, Unnees Bees, Ram Balram, Ek Aur Sikander, Teri Kasam, Johny I Love You, Aasman, Babu, Abhimanyu, Ithihas, Ram Tera Desh, Insaniyat, Out of Control. And I cannot complain. I have had a really worthwhile and wonderful time as a film professional.

The best memories I have come from my children, my two sons Rohan and Gaurav, who are twins. The days and years I remember most fondly are when I would take them to Otters Club in Bandra and watch them play Squash. They were both excellent players, and have won many prestigious tournaments. My wife Meenu (real name Jasmine) is my life mate, soul mate and an excellent travel mate. We have travelled a lot together. I love my family as I love my God. When my grand children grow up, and if they were to ever want to watch any of my films, I would wish that they watch Mr. Natwarlal. Maybe even with me. It was truly a fun film and especially for children.


136 – The Motiwalas of Bombay

My aunts Zehra, Zainab and mother, Rubab Bombay. Circa 1946

My aunts Zehra, Zainab and mother, Rubab. Bombay. Circa 1946

Image and Text contributed by Fawzan Husain, Mumbai

This picture was taken at my grandfather’s home, on the occasion of my aunt Zainab’s pre wedding ceremony. She was about to be married to a fireworks merchant. Zehra, was my mother Rubab and Zenab’s half sister.

My maternal grandfather Abdul Husain Motiwala, a Pearl Merchant, belonged to the Bohra Shia Community in Saurashtra (now Gujarat State). At the time, during the early 20th century, Saurasthra’s coast line had been a rich hub for pearl hunting, and trade was in the community’s blood. The word Bohra itself comes from the Gujarati word vehru (“trade”). As most merchants and families began to adopt and attach last names after the products they traded in, my grandfather’s name Motiwala too, literally translates as “Pearl Man”.
As a teenager, he decided to go to Bombay with Rs. 5 in hand, and landed up at the shop that dealt with pearls, for a job. Soon he grew in stature and bought the same establishment that he worked for. He turned the business around, made it hugely profitable and became one of the top businessmen of the community.

My grandfather was a liberal man and was inclined towards reformism. After the death of his first wife at a rather young age, and a young son to care for, he decided to marry Fatema, a young widow and mother to a daughter Zehra, from her own previous marriage. The Bohra community was hugely upset and wondered aloud as to ‘why this very rich and eligible man needed to marry a widow with a child, when there were so many other eligible proposals from the community.’

My grandfather Abdul Husain and Fatema, my grandmother, had three children together. With three daughters and two sons, it became a family of seven. Zehra and Zainab for some reason never got educated, while my mother and her brother studied up to 10th grade college. All the sisters got along very well. Two of whom were so close, that later while my father could afford a bigger house in Bombay, my mother insisted instead that we live next to my aunt Zenab’s house in a chawl (inexpensive community housing) near Bombay Central.

My grandfather Abdul Husain Motiwala was the first man in our community to own an American Kaiser car. He was so well respected that he was given the title of “Patel”. A surname that was used primarily by Hindus whose ancestors were traditionally landlords and owners, I suppose it had come to mean “Respected man”. People would shout from the streets as his car passed by- “Patel Saheb’s car has come!

While Abdul Husain was one of the best businessmen around, he was keenly aware of his own hardworking background. He had great respect for the dignity of labour and had no sense of class discrimination. He, for instance did not go easy on his own son Kamruddin, and ensured that he worked very hard to earn his keep. Another instance was, when a proposal for Zehra came from a man in the community who had walked away from his own family business. With problems at home, he had decided to begin life on his own terms and became a taxi driver. My grandfather agreed to the proposal, perhaps because he knew his to be son-in-law to be a dignified & hardworking man. He helped him out with good advise and offered him loans to build a fleet of taxis in Bombay. The advise was taken but the money wasn’t, proving my grandfather right.

My mother Rubab or as she was fondly called Ruby, was the youngest and the most adored. So much so, that she like many of the youngest members in families enjoyed several liberties. Being exceptionally intrigued with photography, she would dress up in different attires & accessories and get herself photographed regularly by a photographer called Ahmed Zardi in the near-by photo studio called Dayzars.

My father Ahmed, a photographer, and my mother Ruby, the photographed, fell in love over pictures, and my grandfather accepted the relationship with great ease. My father became a regular visitor at my mother’s home and would take our family pictures ever so often, even before they got married. It was the first love marriage in our family.

Dayzars was a Photography studio in Bombay Central and was named after its two partners – Dayabhai from Rajasthan and my father Ahmed Zardi.  They worked together for 32 years. As far as I know, it was uncommon for a Hindu and a Muslim to have such a great and long partnership. But when Dayabhai’s eyes began to fail him, he decided to leave Bombay and return home. My father and Dayabhai’s son tried to work together but a generational gap of ideas led him to relieve himself of the business and Studio Dayzars was sold. I was an only child and would frequent my father’s studio. I learnt how to handle cameras, developed film and made prints. The magic of the dark room was an incredible experience. However, I was absolutely not interested in studio photography and so I studied journalism and became an editorial photographer.


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.


109 – The cockerel-fighter from Punjab who became one of Africa’s greatest cameramen

Sir Mohinder Dhillon, pictured on the deck of British Navy ship. Kenya. 1967

Sir Mohinder Dhillon, pictured on the deck of British Navy ship. Kenya. 1967

Image and Text contributed by Sir Mohinder Dhillon, Kenya

The following text is a summarised and edited version of excerpts from an unpublished Autobiography of the contributor.

Looking back over the 80 years, I wonder how, as a simple village boy from Punjab who never even finished school, did I end up in Africa, dodging bullets to make a living from shooting hundreds of kilometres of film in some of the world’s most dangerous regions.

I come from the proud martial family of the Sikhs. I do not know the exact date of my birth, although my passport says 25 October 1931, Baburpur, Punjab. At the time, births were not registered, and parents habitually exaggerated the ages of their children in order to get them into school early and so have their own hands free during the day. Baburpur, formerly called Retla (the place of sand), was renamed after Mughal Emperor Babur who had reportedly camped near our village for a few weeks.

My father, Tek Singh-

My father, Tek Singh, was the first person in our village to get an education. He was an adventurous man, and in 1918 at the age of 17, he responded with enthusiasm to the recruiting posters for workers on the Uganda Railway in British East Africa. Believing that there was safety in numbers, he was joined by friends and former classmates from nearby villages and the determined young men collectively took up the challenge of seeking a better life abroad.

This grandiose project of Uganda Railways would change the lives of the tens of thousands of Indians who left home for a new life in an unknown land, most of them never to return. The so-called Lunatic Line laid between 1896 and 1901 from Mombasa into the interior of then-British East Africa to Lake Victoria and subsequently extended into what is now Uganda, opened up the East African hinterland to the outside world. The founding of towns, and their later development into cities, would go on to transform the economies of the region.

When Tek Singh announced his decision to go to East Africa, it upset my grandparents immensely. Their only son was going to ‘darkest Africa’, the prevalent view of Africa at the time (still the perception of many people today). The money for my father’s first train ticket to Bombay, and for the dhow that would carry him from there to Mombasa, was borrowed from a moneylender in the village at a steep interest rate.

For the young Tek Singh leaving the village was more than just an adventure. A great deal rested on how he would fare in distant East Africa. Back at home in India, his family would be depending on him for remittances. He also had young wife to think of. His marriage had taken place six years earlier, when Tek was just 11, and his betrothed, Kartar Kaur, was nine years old.

The railway journey from Babarpur to Bombay took two days and one night. And then it took another two days to find the Uganda Railway’s recruiting agent. His shopping list for the journey – then the cheapest way of crossing the Indian Ocean – included a charcoal stove, two bags of charcoal, all the rations needed for the journey, a sleeping mat, blankets, washing powder, bath soap, tea leaves, and fresh water.

Tek Singh – or Bau Ji, as he was fondly called at home – arrived in Mombasa with almost no money in his pockets. He found refuge at a nearby Sikh temple (Gurudwara), where he slept on the veranda braving the ravenous mosquitoes, exactly like how the thousands freshly arrived on the coast spent their first few nights. After a week, Bau Ji was provided a bachelor accommodation by the Uganda Railways. Later, he and two other young Sikhs shared a small railway house that had the luxury of a tiny garden. The trio of bachelors remained life-long friends.

Bau Ji had promptly written home, informing his parents of his safe arrival. The mail though travelled first by sea, and then by rail and horse-drawn carriage and by foot, and took as long as 12 weeks to arrive. By then, his parents had feared the worst. His wife, Kartar Kaur, for her part, was obliged to don widow’s attire (the customary white dress), and was forbidden to use cosmetics. She complied for form’s sake but Kartar refused to believe that her husband was not alive. Amid the uncertainty of my father’s absence, my grandfather Natha Singh lived long enough to hear that his son had indeed reached East Africa safely, but the suspense evidently proved too much for his health. When Bau Ji’s letter finally arrived, the family was overjoyed and distributed sweets to everybody, but my grandfather died shortly after that.

Bau Ji found himself working for a soon-to-be expanded colonial rail (and shipping) network, one that would come to be known, first as Kenya & Uganda Railways and Harbours, and then eventually (in 1948) as the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation. Almost 30 years would elapse before he felt he was ready to bring the rest of his family over to Kenya. Through the 30 years, Bau Ji had to be content with getting to see his family during periods of extended overseas leave. He was entitled, once in every five years, a ‘six month home leave’ in India. All but one of the rest of us seven siblings were conceived during successive home-leave visits from our father. My youngest brother Balbir was born in Kenya. Bau Ji was able to save money for the education of all six of his sons, including me. Later, Bau Ji sent money to build a primary school in our home village.

Although the India Bau Ji had left behind was riven by class divisions, the world to which he now belonged bore even sharper lines of demarcation. The less educated Sikhs, those who were good with their hands, became mechanics, masons and carpenters. Only well-educated Sikhs could expect to land responsible office jobs. Most of the Railway accountants and clerks were Goans, who also ran the catering department. The people from Goa, who had lived under Portuguese rule for more than 500 years, did not mix much with other Indians. They classified themselves as Portuguese. And they already had their own sports club, known as the Railway Goan Institute. There were very few Gujarati-speaking Indians working on the Railway. Some Sikhs left the Railways to venture into business, but it was rare.

Bau Ji, for his part, had very little time for any kind of life beyond the Railway. He would walk the 10 kms to work from his Railway quarters. He and his two friends Kishen Mangat and Basant Bindra were encouraged by the British Administration to form a Sikh hockey team so a hockey field and a modest clubhouse were duly built. It went on to become the Railway Asian Institute Sports Club. After work, he would walk back home, have his tea, then change into his running-shorts and pick up his Indian-made hockey stick to hone his hockey playing skills.

Our lives in Baburpur –

I spent my early childhood in much the same way as my father. We never travelled outside our district in Punjab. There were no road or rail connections nearby. The Television was yet to be invented and I did not even know that radios existed. I first saw a camera when we all travelled to Ludhiana in 1947 to have our passport pictures taken. The camera was one of those contraptions with a black shroud underneath which the photographer’s head would momentarily disappear. There were no newspapers or magazines from which to learn about the world outside Babarpur. While in India, I had never heard of Mahatma Gandhi. Not until 1948, when I was in Kenya, would I hear about Gandhi for the first time – and that was only because he had just been assassinated.

Some of my friends are shocked when I tell them that my main hobby in the village was cock-fighting. I was the proud owner of a champion white cockerel named Raja, or ‘king’. Raja was fed on almonds and garlic, which made him a formidable fighter. We couldn’t afford the luxury of eating almonds. But for Raja, I would settle for nothing less. Before Raja went into battle, I would fit needle-sharp steel caps over his fighting-spurs – the talons on the inner side of a cock’s leg. In their natural state, a cock’s spurs are sharp enough. But kitted out in steel spikes, Raja could strike deep into an opponent’s belly, killing that poor bird almost instantly. Talking about this makes me wonder how I could have been so cruel. Back then, however, as a 12-year-old, I got a great kick out of all this. Raja slept next to my bed, I was so proud of him. My other passion was kite-flying. Together, brother Joginder and I won the championship for both of our last two years in the village.

Leaving India –

Things began to change for us in April 1947 the announcement of our impending departure had come in a letter from Bau Ji, received in September 1946. Leaving for Africa just weeks before India got its independence did at least spare us the carnage of Partition. When we left, India was still a peaceful place. Yet, within just a few months of our departure, some two million Indians were to lose their lives.

The first time I stepped on to a train was in 1947, at the age of 16, when we were leaving India. It was in the same year that I first travelled by bus. This was a time when, for the first time ever, Indian national election campaigns were canvassing the villages. The year 1947 was thus a significant one in my life. Until then, I had passed my entire childhood without ever having seen either a car or a motorcycle. I saw a flush toilet for the first time only after we travelled to a nearby town to be immunised against smallpox and to receive our yellow-fever vaccinations.

First, we travelled by ox-cart to Malaudh, the small town nearest to Babarpur where I had been going to school. With Partition looming, electioneering was under way in earnest, new buses were being used to mobilise political support among rural populations. From Malaudh, we took a bus to Ludhiana. This was only the second bus I had ever travelled in..From there, we boarded the train for Bombay.

In Bombay, we found a cheap hotel, where – in order to cut costs – the whole family shared one large room, with the males in one corner and the women in another. In the floor of the room there were holes through which, peeping down, we could see parts of the room beneath. Like all Indian travellers in those days, we carried all our own bedding in a sturdy canvas roll, complete with thick leather straps, a leather handle and a special pillow compartment. The bustle of Bombay – the first big city I had ever seen – was overwhelming. On reaching a street, I’d just stand there, transfixed, sometimes for at least three minutes, not daring to cross if there were a car approaching, even from afar. Bombay was simply awe-inspiring.

In India, there were – even then – bribe agents or ‘facilitators’ everywhere to smooth your passage through the formalities of customs and immigration and to find suitable accommodation for you. At the Bombay seaport, a bribe had to be paid for every service that was rendered. We even had to bribe someone in order to establish who else needed to be bribed. Our bribe agent then made sure that we bribed all the right officials.

The ship, named the Khandala, was dirty and worn. Originally a coal carrier, it had been converted to service as a passenger liner. The journey took 14 days. We docked briefly at two ports along the way, Porbunder in Gujarat and Mahe in the Seychelles. Then one day we saw the lighthouse of Mombasa. A tugboat came out to meet us and escorted our ship through a narrow bay into the port. The Africa I arrived in was green and lush. Palm trees swayed in the breeze against a clear blue sky. What a marked contrast this was to the flat and dusty Punjab we had left behind.

As we approached the shore, I knew I had come to a wondrous land. There were large engineering cranes at work in the harbour. The first human beings who caught my eye on the shore – two white men wearing shorts and a white woman in a loose skirt – were doing something curious. They were swinging sticks up and down. Later I found out it was golf. There were Africans, Arabs, Swahilis and even a few Indians and Europeans. We were astonished by how cheerful and laid-back everybody seemed to be. Most of the people we had seen on the streets of Bombay, by contrast, had looked tense and miserable, as they rushed about from place to place.

After Babarpur, our modest Railway house in Nairobi had the look of a palace. Gurdev, my elder brother soon found a job as a Railway fireman. For two years, he fed coal into the burners of the steam-engines and he would come home with soot all over his face and on his overalls. After a two-year apprenticeship, he became a locomotive driver.

In India, we had been punished for everything in school – for poor grades, for failing to complete our homework, for showing up a few minutes late, even for laughing aloud in class. For a village boy used to squatting on a coarse jute mat on a hard, uneven cement floor, this was a luxurious learning environment. Most of the teachers in Nairobi were surprisingly lenient, moreover, they did not punish for failure, or for lagging behind, but only for behaving badly in class.

Outside of school, life was filled with excitement. We drank sticky soda pop and we begged for turns to ride the bicycles of our friends. I played billiards, snooker and skittles at the Railway Club. At school, we played hockey and table-tennis. Indeed, we became such dab hands at table-tennis that my brother Manjeet and I went on, in 1954 and again in 1955, to contest the final of the Kenya National Table Tennis Championship. I won the first encounter, but Manjeet took the second.

Bau Ji was himself an avid sportsman. His love of hockey in particular was to infect my younger brother, Joginder (Jindi), who went on to be selected as part of the national hockey team that represented Kenya at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

Joginder was sent to the prestigious St Thomas’s Teaching Hospital in London, where he eventually qualified as a doctor. Having then just represented Kenya at the Olympics, Joginder had easily found a place at the teaching hospital. Inderjeet went back to India, to a boarding college in Ludhiana, as Bau Ji could not afford to send him to a school in England. Later, upon returning to Kenya, Inderjeet became a popular radio and TV personality with the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, and was for a while a heartthrob among the teenage set in Nairobi. Manjeet initially took up a job in Nairobi as a clerk in the Kenya Ministry of Works, before going into business. While at school, he received a shield from Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret. He was also awarded the Lord Mountbatten Boy Scouts’ Belt. All five of my brothers passed their ‘O’ level examinations. I was the sole exception, failing the exam.

A career in images –

One day Bau Ji gave me a basic, second-hand Box Brownie camera. Bought at a stock-clearance sale, it had cost him 25 shillings – the equivalent, then, of about US$ 3.50. This was the ‘poor man’s Rolleiflex’, with a fixed speed and fixed aperture. Neither he nor I knew it at the time, but this simple gift marked the beginning of a 60-year-long career in photography.
In the 1950s, in a prestigious international photographic magazine, I came across a photo essay by the Indian photographer, I.S Johar. His were pictures taken with a Box Brownie of landscapes featuring dramatic skies. Of course, all Johar’s images were in black-and-white, as colour film had yet to appear. His images, though, were a revelation to me. Taking my cue from Johar, I started using a yellow filter for all my outdoor pictures, and an orange one at times, for special effects.

My first photographs were of the Indian hockey team’s first to visit Kenya, early in 1948. In the team was the maestro Dhyan Chand, winner of three Olympic gold medals. Other great players I remember from that team were K S Babu, Manna Singh, the barefooted Peerumal and the South Indian Raju, as well as the two Anglo-Indians, R S Gentle and Claudius. For players with such an awesome reputation, all were astonishingly unassuming and gracious. None so much as batted an eyelid on being ambushed by me before a match with requests for their portraits. “Dhyan Chand,” I’d say, “Just stand there a minute, would you?” And the great man would duly oblige.

I could not afford to take my film off to a photographic studio for processing, so I learned to process film myself, in a small, makeshift dark room that I improvised in the windowless storeroom at our Railways house. I purchased developer powder and other chemicals from a studio in town. From that studio, I also borrowed a thin handbook, published I think by Britain’s Royal Photographic Society, entitled Photography Made Easy for Learners, which had detailed instructions on how to set up a home-processing lab.

I did not have an enlarger, so the photographs I produced were tiny, measuring just 2.25 by 3.25 inches. With no electric drum-dryer either, I would dry the wet pictures by slapping them on to the window panes in the kitchen, after washing down the glass with Lifebuoy soap. “Mohindri, that’s expensive soap,’ my mother or my sister would chide me. There was some friction, in that kitchen, between the cooks in the family and me, over my encroaching photographic activities. “A kitchen,” I was roundly informed, “is for cooking in – not for making pictures.”

My new-found joy at having discovered the wonders of photography did little to calm the guilt feelings that by now were haunting me. Here I was, a grown man of 20 without a job, still sponging off his parents at home. Having flunked my ‘O’ Level exams, I was beginning to feel anxious I might never find a meaningful job.

So one morning I plucked up enough courage to respond to one of the newspaper advertisements. The vacancy in question was for ‘a junior accounts clerk in an established pharmacy practice’. To my surprise, I received a notification that I was to come in for an interview. At the appointed time, I was shown into the office of the proprietor, an elderly Jewish woman called Edith Haller. I had heard of Ms. Haller, as she also owned one of the photographic studios in the town. Indeed, in those days most retail chemists operated a photographic service as well –where customers could hand in their exposed film and later collect the developed prints.

My formal interview with Ms Haller was mercifully brief. In short, my candidacy for the post of accounts clerk at the pharmacy was rejected almost at once. “What we need is a qualified bookkeeper,” Ms Haller explained. I was not unduly surprised but this time my frustration got the better of me and I nearly broke down in tears. In the doorway, as I was leaving Ms Haller’s office, I spun around suddenly. “Halle Studio,” I blurted out. “What about Halle Studio? Isn’t there something I can do there?” I told her about the little dark room I had established at home. I offered to bring in and to show her some of my photographs. I pleaded with Ms. Haller to be given a chance. She must have been utterly taken aback by my torrent of broken English, by my gangly appearance, by my ill-fitting, lop-sided turban. This was the first time I had ever addressed a white person at any length.

Ms Haller’s eyes lit up while I was talking. There and then, once I had said my piece, she told me she would put me on one month’s probation, starting immediately. From the moment I reported for duty, I was determined to show I was both capable and eager to learn. That job meant everything to me. My trainer Peter Howlett, although he did not say so, left me in no doubt that my brown skin might present a bit of a problem. Ms. Haller nevertheless confirmed me in my post at the end of the month-long probation period, for which I was paid 150 shillings (the equivalent, then, of about US$ 21). She also raised my monthly salary to 250 shillings (roughly US$ 35). I was mightily relieved and grateful; for now, at last, I had a proper job.

At the time, Kenya’s only daily newspaper, the East African Standard, did not have any staff photographers of its own. Instead, the paper relied on photographers hired from Halle Studio for its pictures of all events. Peter Howlett, the man who had been given the responsibility of training me – was Halle’s principal photographer and handled most of the commissions.
One line of work that kept Halle Studio very busy was photographing babies at their parents’ homes. Peter specialised in taking informal portraits of the babies using a single flash and it was my job to hold the flash unit. The unit was a very large, heavy box, separate from but wired up to the camera. I had to lug this box around, directing the flash at different angles so as to avoid casting an ugly shadow while Peter clicked away. Peter and I made a very successful team. We got many requests from proud young parents, while also going from door to door around some of the more affluent Nairobi suburbs, promoting our ‘Home Photography’. The response we received was generally enthusiastic, and before long we had an extensive customer base – and an impressive album of sample baby pictures.

We were also hired to take pictures of horse races, dog shows and other social events. As a colonial newspaper, the East African Standard – which commissioned most of these photographs – catered exclusively to the tastes of Kenya’s ruling British elite. One day, while Peter was away on holiday, the newspaper’s social editor, Lesley Clay, rang the Studio, requesting the services of a photographer. I took the call and offered to stand in for Peter. Ms Clay readily agreed to take a chance on me. “In a worst-case scenario,” she added, encouragingly, “we can probably do without a picture.” It turned out that Lesley wanted me to cover a horse show.

Ms. Clay was delighted with my photographs. Even I, when I processed and developed the pictures, was pleasantly surprised by how well they came out. This time the picture taken by Rolleiflex camera, and a 8×10 inch size was a magical thrill. This was the beginning of a long relationship with the Standard newspaper. Two dynamic white women – Ms. Haller and Ms. Clay – were thus responsible for both of the early breakthroughs in my career as a professional photographer.
With Lesley  I attended countless society functions at which she would introduce her paper’s turbaned Sikh photographer to individual party guests. All were white, of course, and many would simply turn away on being introduced to me, shunning my presence.

The newspaper work kept me busy for years, until eventually the Standard employed a staff photographer, John Parry from England. In those days, the paper paid us peanuts for our photographs. The going rate was just five ten shillings (the equivalent at the time of about $ 1.20 60 US cents) per column-inch.

When the British declared a State of Emergency in Kenya in 1952, the Mau Mau struggle became the big news story. We took photographs of the brutal ‘screening’ of Africans in the streets; of detainees in the Manyani Camp; of British troops and supplies arriving at the Eastleigh Airport. I was not mature enough then to take in fully what was going on around me, even though this period was one of the most politically charged in the country’s history. The awakening of my political consciousness would come later, when I took photographs of the Hola Camp Massacre in 1959. It was when the real horrors of this conflict start to hit me.

Halle Studio –

In 1954, Ms. Halle fell ill, and her brother Arthur Haller, who was then the Government Maize Controller, persuaded me to buy the business from her. He even went so far as to find me a partner, in the person of Oded Katzler, a wholesaler of cardboard packaging. Katzler raised all the capital – amounting to the then formidable sum of 20,000 shillings. At first, Oded remained a sleeping partner in the business, but after 10 months I was able to buy him out. Upon acquiring Halle Studio, I immediately relocated the company to a rented first-floor office suite in central Nairobi. This was in Nairobi House, the historic building then located on the corner of Delamere Avenue and Government Road (now Kenyatta Avenue and Moi Avenue). The work was exciting, and although it did not pay well I was happy enough at the time, as I had developed a taste for photo journalism and news reporting. As time went by, my professional photographic assignments started taking me further afield. Increasingly, I was called upon to cover safaris and expeditions in remote parts of the country.

Ambi – 

One evening in May 1958, my father – after coming home from work as usual – told me that he had some “wonderful news” for me. “Mohinder,” he said, “you are getting married.” Just like that.

Amarjeet Kaur Sandhu, known throughout her life as Ambi , was born in Kisumu, on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria, on September 20, 1940. She was educated at Kisumu Girls School, although, like me, she did not progress beyond ‘O’ Level. Bau Ji, for his part, was pleased to learn that Ambi had played tennis at school – at a time when Sikh girls were, for the first time, being allowed to play sports – was a strong point in her favour.

After our marriage, Ambi was not only conversant with all the studio’s day-to-day functions; she was also taking most of the passport, driver’s licence and ID photographs herself. This left me free to take on newspaper assignments at a moment’s notice. The result was that business at the studio picked up dramatically.

In those pre-Independence days, our bread-and-butter income came from a deal we had with the British Army to take ID photographs of its soldiers serving in Kenya, many of them then trying to suppress the Mau Mau uprising.  On at least six days every month, whole lorry-loads of British soldiers would be dropped off to have their pictures taken. Sometimes, the queue would extend down the stairs on to the ground floor of Nairobi House and out into the street. Ambi would sometimes take pictures of more than 300 British soldiers in a single day.

Ambi loved working at the studio. She loved the busy days especially, when streams of people would walk in to have their pictures taken or to collect their prints. She made friends with other tenants in the building, whom she spoilt with her home-made samosas, earning her the nickname ‘Samosa Lady’. The work set Ambi apart from former school friends of hers, some of whom were now also newly married and living in Nairobi, but who – as housewives, most of them – had only limited interaction with the wider Nairobi public. Ambi never criticised her married former school friends openly, but she did, in private, after meeting up with them at weekends, “I am far too busy,” she used to say, “for all this idle chatter” finding the closed world of their incessant society gossip exasperating.

With Ambi at the studio, I could devote myself almost exclusively to news photography, initially for the East African Standard, and then – increasingly – for UPI and other international press agencies as well. Come 1959, I was spending less and less of my time in the studio, as assignments would call on me to leave Nairobi to cover events elsewhere in Kenya and throughout East Africa. When, in 1960, I began covering events across the whole of Africa, I would be away for lengthy periods, leaving Ambi to ‘hold the fort’ at Halle Studio. Having acquired a passion for photo-journalism, I had become ambitious. So, in 1959, I wrote to Planet News Photos (subsequently taken over by United Press International, UPI) asking if this international agency might consider taking my pictures. The reply I received was surprisingly short and to the point: ‘Yes, Please’ – just the two words; no further explanation required; no demands; no doubts even over whether I could deliver photographs of the desired standard. This stunning breakthrough would prove the making of my company Africapix Media Limited.

Mohinder Dhillon (Founder and CEO of Africapix Media Ltd.) was the first photo and TV journalist to capture the plight of Iranian Kurds behind Khomeini’s lines. His first pictures shocked the world generating a lot for sympathy of Kurdish sufferance. He was knighted by the Order of Saint Mary of Zion during a ceremony at the Royal Artillery Headquarters in Woolwich, U.K. on November 12th 2005. “The honors were conferred upon those who had made significant contribution to the society. 

His films of Ethiopian famine finally moved the world into action resulting in one of the biggest famine relief operations in history. Relief planes from dozens of countries descended on little dirt air strips of Ethiopian countryside round the clock as if they were Heathrow or JFK airports. The very first pictures of the terrible Ethiopian famine was the combined effort of Mohinder Dhillon and Michael Buerk of BBC TV to gain entry into tightly controlled military ruled Ethiopia in 1984 opening the door for rest of the media and rest of the world.  


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.


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.

 

 


88 – Off the coast of mainland India, a rare Indian tribe became our friends

My sister Jyoti and I with children from the Ongee tribe. Union Territory of Andaman & Nicobar. Circa 1960

 

Image and Text contributed by Anand Halve, Mumbai

India is more varied and diverse than reflected in the languages on Indian currency notes or in the number of states and Union Territories on our map. This is a piece about a group of ‘Indians’ that will probably vanish before most Indians ever even hear of them. The Ongee or Onge tribe, are one of the indigenous Andamanese tribes. A negrito tribe of the Andaman Islands. Petite and superficially ‘African’ in appearance, dark skinned and peppercorn hair, they are still genetically different from most modern African people.

Until the late 1940s, the Ongees were the only permanent occupants of Little Andaman, the southernmost island in the Andaman group of 324 islands. The Non-Ongees began to settle on Little Andaman in large numbers in the early 1950s. Among the earliest visitors – in the early 1960s – was a seven year-old boy (me) and his six year-old sister Jyoti. My father, Bhaskar Halve was posted as the Deputy Commissioner of the administration of the Union Territory of Andaman & Nicobar. His job took him to study various islands in the Andaman & Nicobar group, and we were only too happy to tag along.

The Ongees are a traditonally nomadic hunting and gathering tribe. I recall stories told to us by the sailors who visited the islands where the Ongees lived. The Ongees were masters of the bow – I recall watching an Ongee spear a fish through the refracted sea-water with his arrow. I recall stories of a strange plant whose leaves they chewed, and after rubbing the chewed juice on their bodies, were able to climb trees and pluck chunks of honeycombs, untroubled by the bees. I recall stories about the cannibal Jarawas (a tribe related to the Ongees), but the sailors laughingly told us that the Ongees were friendly. Yet you can see a certain trepidation in our expressions as we posed with Ongee kids for a photograph. However, they were friendly enough and we got along without knowing each other’s language, as only children can. It still makes me smile.

As of recent information I believe there are fewer than 100 Ongees left, and with their low fertility rates, are on the verge of disappearing forever into a footnote of history. But I hope there are a couple of old anonymous Ongees out there who remember playing with a couple of kids from the mainland…as I remember them.


83 – The mythical Uncle Bunnu.

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

Image and Text contributed by Naresh Fernandes, Author, Bombay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An unedited version of this narrative can be found here.


81 – This was his last photograph

Above : My father's brother, Nagarathnam with his colleagues. Below : A Telegram announcing his death. Burma, 1938

Image and Text contributed by Meera Janakiraman, Bangalore

This image was photographed on October 26, 1938, in Burma. The person in the center is my father’s elder brother, Nagarathnam, with his colleagues from Burma.

My father T.J Raman and Nagarathnam’s parents (my grandparents) were originally from Thiruvallikeni, (now Triplicane) State of Madras. Their family business involved exporting Burmese Teak. Teak during war was “as important an ammunition of war as steel”, especially used in the construction of Warships. The family moved to Burma (formerly Myanmar) during World War I as it made better business sense.

Nagarathnam, fondly called Nagu, got married when he was 23 years old and had two sons. Leaving his family in with good care in Madras, he returned to Burma and first worked as a representative of the Prudential Life Insurance Company before he joined the Burma Railways as a clerk.

He was on his way to Mandalay, the royal capital of Burma, on a business visit by train when this photograph was taken. It is believed that during the travel he chocked on a piece of guava. Late at night, he was rushed to the Mayyo Hospital where he was declared dead due to heart failure. He died at the age of 30, the very next day after this photograph was taken. A telegram announcing his death was sent to his family in Madras via Calcutta.

 


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.


34 – The fourth President of India, before he became one

The Farewell party for V.V Giri, then the High Commissioner of India to Ceylon (Now Sri Lanka), Columbo. July 3, 1948.

Image and text contributed by Sunder Mirchandani

Since Colombo was a relatively small capital, much of the social life of expat Indians involved mingling with the diplomatic circle. When an officer was transferred there would be a round of farewell parties. This particular farewell was hosted by my parents Sita and Nari Mirchandani at the Galle Face Hotel for V V Giri, (Varahagiri Venkata Giri) then the High Commissioner for India in Colombo prior to his return to India. I sit next to him, as a child. The Hotel is still a landmark  in Colombo. V.V Giri went on to become the fourth President of India in 1964. He was in power until 1974.

 


25 – The plush bunglow with Viennese furniture that became an Ashram

These pictures of the Drawing Room, Dining Room and Lounge was home to my uncle and aunt, Nani & Mehra Moos. This is also my birthplace (1923) My parents and grandparents shared the house. It was constructed in Bandra, Bombay in 1923 and is now stands behind the Hotel Taj Lands End.

Image and Text Contributed by Feroza H Seervai

I was born in this house in 1923 and we lived there until 1941. My uncle was a barrister, then a Solicitor, (Partner in Payne and Co. Solicitors), and still later, High Court Receiver.

The most distinguished Barrister at the High Court in Bombay, Inverarity (cited with Moos), was my uncle’s friend, and often spent days in this house.  At one stage he is said to have suffered losses in investment and I heard that he made a bonfire in my uncle’s garden of his investment certificates. My sister was 13 years elder to me and she had interacted with Inverarity.  If I am not mistaken he died while I was an infant. Whether he died in Scotland or in India, I am not sure.

50 or 60  years ago, this bungalow, along with 8000 sq. yds. of land and a cottage on an elevated part was sold for Rs. 3 lakhs, without the furniture, which had been imported from Vienna. A lot of the furniture was then bought by Maharani Chimnabai Gaekwad of Baroda sometime in the early 1940s.

The old bungalow now houses the Father Agnel Ashram, since the Priests of the Order of Pilar purchased the property. There is a Church within it, and on the land are many educational institutions.


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

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

Image contributed by Chetan Roy

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

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

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