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Kerala

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. 


144 – The most infamous helicopter crash in our history

My grandparents Nalin and Sharda Nanawati. 1962. Bombay

My grandparents Nalin and Sharada Nanawati. New Delhi. 1962

Image & Text contributed by Diya Nanawati, Mumbai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Images & Text contributed by Ranjit Devraj, New Delhi

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Translation of Oath card]

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

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

 


130 – My Great-Grandmother, the incredible photographer.

My great-grandparents Haleema Hashim with her husband Hashim Usman. Cochin (now Kochi), Kerala. Circa 1955.

My great-grandparents, Haleema Hashim with her husband Hashim Usman. Cochin (now Kochi), Kerala. Circa 1955.

Image and Text contributed by Nihaal Faizal, Bangalore

My Great-grandmother Haleema Hashim was born in Burma in 1928. Her family had moved to Rangoon in search of financial prosperity, however, by the time she was four they returned to Kerala, India. Her family belonged to the Kutchi Memon community of Gujarat, Kutchi Memons are Sunni Muslims who migrated from Sindh (in Pakistan) to Kutch in Gujarat, a state of India, after their conversion to Islam. Several of them then migrated to various parts of the world. Haleema’s ancestors had migrated to Kerala. It is not clear what businesses or professions they were involved in.

At the age of 17 she married Hashim Usman, whose family, like many others in Kochi, were Sea food exporters, after which he established a hotel. Haleema and Hashim, my great-grandparents went on to have eight children. One of whom is my maternal grandfather.

Haleema Hashim whom we fondly call Ummijaan, was extremely fond of reading Urdu literature, we again don’t know who her favourite authors were because the books were given away. Later, I also found a few letters she had exchanged with people from other countries, who were clearly her pen pals. She was also an avid gardener and would tend to her garden with great love in Fort Kochi.

After her marriage, she began developing an interest in images and taught herself the art of photography through books and magazines. She had in possession two cameras, an Agfa Isolette 3, which was her first camera and then she moved on to a Yashica. I am not sure where she may have bought them, though I am told that her brother would take the photographed negatives to a studio to have them developed for her.

Her subjects were usually the domestic environment and family members of her large joint family. She photographed her relatives, sisters, husband’s family, as well as brides-to-be women from the Kutchi Memon community. Many of Ummijaan’s photographs also featured her children, more so the youngest two, her identical twin daughters Kiran and Suman, born in the late 1960s whom she photographed extensively; one could say that it made for an original body of work. She never practiced professionally, nor do I think she was in an environment where photography was encouraged or paid any attention to, but perhaps it was the very reason she could practice and experiment with no intervention even if within the domestic environment. To my mind, she built a sort of practice like an artist engaging actively with a medium. She would position her children in varying poses, and create sets and arrangements in and around the house and her garden, using furniture and home-ware decorative pieces as props.

Ummijaan continued photographing for around 25 years of her life, which has now comprised into an enormous body of incredible work. Standing not very encouraged, Ummijaan gradually gave up photography. Later assuming that the images had no value and no one would be interested, she burnt her negatives down. When I began taking photographs in my 10th grade, someone in the family mentioned Ummijaan’s images. Later I found some of her picture albums, (hundreds of photographs) and I was floored by the quality of her works. She indeed had a very natural, unique and perceptive eye for creating beautiful images. Acknowledging great value in these photographs, I began borrowing the albums from her and digitising them. Her memory lucid, unlike now, she would insist I return them intact. Which I did. She also insisted that I give away the images to family members, which too I dissuaded her from.

My great grandmother, Ummijaan, the incredible photographer, is now 86 years old though she doesn’t keep too well and her memory is almost lost. She lives in an apartment in Kochi. I now study at the Srishti School of Design in Bengaluru, Karnataka and continue to digitise her works. Noting my great interest and respect for my great grandmother’s photographs, it is incredibly heartening and amazing to see my own family too now extremely interested and appreciative of her works.


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

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

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

Image and Text contributed by Annie Philip, Mumbai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


120 – Eight generations of Tantrics

My great-great grand father's younger brother, Govindan Achari with his grand nephews. Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.1930

My great-great grand father’s younger brother, Govindan Achari (seated) with his grand nephews. Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. 1930

Image & Text contributed by Sharat Sundar Rajeev, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

This photograph shows my great- great grand father’s younger brother Govindan Achari sitting with his grand nephews. Govindan Achari (c.1850s-1944) was better known as ‘Govindan Kanakkukaran’ and ‘Valiya Mandravadi’  which indicated his position as a veteran Tantric or an occultist.

Born and brought up in Kadakkavoor, a small village which was a part of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore, Govindan came from a family that had since the 15th century followed tradition of  training the youngest son of the family to become a Tantra and Black magic practitioner. All of my tantric ancestors (we have managed to count around six to eight) were patronised by the Royal Family of Travancore even before they came into power and they remained their royal physicians, astrologers, tantrics as well as black magicians for centuries to come.

Govindan too like the rest of his ancestors was given a traditional education of studying Ayurveda, Tantra and Black Magic. The latter understood to construe and use evil methods and powers, as Tantra itself is mistakenly identified as the practice of black magic & witchcraft.

He also studied under the well known Hindu sage at the time, Pettayil Raman Asan and was also influenced by Ayya Guru Swamikal‘s teachings. It was during his days in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Travancore State, did he come into contact with the Hindu Saint, Sree Narayana Guru (Narayana Guru was a contemporary of Govindan).

As a young man, Govindan travelled far and wide and mastered the traditional knowledge in Siddha and Ayurvedic medicine and the methods of treatment. However, in his later years, Govindan gained more name as a Black magician, witch doctor and an occultist. In his later years, Govindan who as per tradition of a tantric, led a celibate life and settled in Thiruvananthapuram with his nephew’s family. He spend his last days in composing Attakadhas (Gesture Stories) and teaching secret occult practices to one of his nephews, Narayanan, again as per tradition, the youngest in the family. Govindan attained Samadhi in 1944, while sitting on his cot.

Narayanan too went on to become a Tantric, however oral stories from the family say that he never practiced black magic. After his death in 1970, my family abandoned the tradition of Tantra, making Narayanan the last tantric of our family.


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

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

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

Image contributed by Rukmini Varma, Text by Manu Pillai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Image & Text contributed by Radha Nair, Pune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


102 – My grandfather’s secrets

Margurite Mumford, and my Grandfather Albert Scott, Ooty & Bombay. 1930s

Margurite Mumford, and my Grandfather Bert Scott, Ooty & Bombay. 1930s

Image & Text contributed by Jason Scott Tilly, United Kingdom

I will never be sure if my grandfather Bert Scott, would have wanted me or anyone else to find these negatives;
They were his secrets for all of his adult life. He had after all kept them very safe, hidden from the moment he left India.

Bert Scott, (lower right) was my grandfather, and he was born in Bangalore in 1915. He was educated at Bishop Cottons school and he joined the Times of India in 1936 as a press photographer, where he worked until the outbreak of World War II.

With trouble brewing during Indo-Pak Partition, he and his family fled and he left his whole life behind; his country of birth, India, his friends and home. Travelling with minimum luggage would have been conditional so he chose to take only the necessary in just a few metal trunks.

Inside one of those trunks were several photo albums and pocket-sized blue negative holders that I came across many years later in my grandparent’s cupboard in 2006, a few years after Bert, my grandfather passed away. The little blue pocket-books held as many memories as it did negatives, about 100 precious moments of reflected light captured on film of our family and of some places where they had lived, but inside one particular folded grease proof sleeve were four negatives that were cut up into single frames and they were of one particular young lady; of a Margurite Mumford, a beautiful young Anglo Indian girl.

I remember one Sunday when he was alive, sitting with his photograph albums on my lap, my grandmother looked at me and stated, in a tone which sounded somewhat incongrously jealous for a woman in her late seventies, “those books are just full of photographs of his ex-girlfriends!”. My grandpa who was sitting across us, either didn’t hear the remark or chose to ignore it – the Snooker on television providing a timely distraction.

After he passed away, I found an extraordinary number of photographs of Margurite. The photographs of her are always infused with a certain playfulness during day trips to the beach or picnics by the river. There is something so obviously personal and intimate about the images. Margurite clearly loved to play to the camera or to be more precise she loved playing up for the photographer, flirting with both the camera and the man whose eye followed her through the lens. The books did have many photographs of other beautiful young women of the Raj too, but the intimacy I saw in Margurite’s images proved to me that only she was actually a girlfriend of my grandpa before he met my grandmother.

As time wore on, I became more intrigued as to whom Margurite really was. I wondered why their romance had ended. I spent hours scouring the internet in the faint hope that I might be able to find someone from her family with whom I could share her beautiful photographs. With not a clue in sight, eventually my hope began to wane but I never stopped wondering about her.

Only recently while pouring over the pages of the albums for the nth time, I noticed a faded scribble “Margurite ‘Lovedale’” by a photograph. Intrigued as to what the word ‘Lovedale’ meant I returned once again to the internet and within seconds I was on to something. Lovedale is the nickname of the Lawrence Memorial Military School in the town of ‘Ooty’ in the Niligiri Hills. My great-grandfather, Algernon Edwin Scott, had a summer-house in Ooty and my grandpa would spend weekends with him whilst he was studying at St Josephs College in Kannur. Ooty would have been the place where he must have met Margurite!

Perhaps, college sweethearts; They kept their relationship going from their first meeting in the south Indian Hills of the Deccan Plateau to the humid coastal city of Bombay where my grandpa had begun working for the Times of India. I know from the amount of photographs that I have found, that the couple took days out to Juhu beach and the Hanging Gardens on Malabar hill along with trips out to the Ghats outside of Bombay. What was most obvious is how much Margurite meant to my grandpa because he kept the negatives separate from all of the others that he had saved. The memories held on film, of Margurite seem different to the rest, they seem more personal, more intimate.

I immediately contacted the school in Ooty. They in turn put me in touch with ex-pupils who although now in their late eighties and nineties were still in touch with one another. My search led me to a woman in America, Moira who very kindly informed me that she was still in touch with one of Margurite’s sisters, Gladys, who also lived in America. I was soon sharing these images with Gladys and she remembered my grandpa very well. She let me know that Margurite was still alive and living in New Zealand, but she was now ninety-six years of age and living in an old people’s home. Her memory had dimmed, but she was physically quite well. I was then put in touch with Alecia, Margurite’s daughter and I began sending them pictures of the young Margurite – images I presume they had never even imagined existed.

In my eagerness and excitement at re-uniting people with a ‘more than half -a-century-ago’ memory, I also sent a photograph of my grandpa. I was told Margurite’s poignantly hopeful reaction was simply, “Is Bertie here?”. My grandpa was indeed the love of her life. But her family had to leave India during Partition, she had then married an Irishman and moved to New Zealand.

It had been obvious to me all along, by the very nature of the photographs, that they were in love, that they both meant an awful lot to each other. Proof, if it were needed, of the indelible nature of first love.

 


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

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

Image and text contributed by Govind Mohandas, Bangalore

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

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

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

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

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

 


55 – Six generations of a British Family in India, one of whom was a Photographer for Times of India.

(Left) My Great Great Grandparents Edwin Ebenezer Scott (1850-1931) & Emily Good Andre (1862-1946), Bangalore, 1915. (Right) My Great grandparents, Algernon Edwin Scott & Desiree Leferve with my Grandfather, Bert Scott as a two or three year old boy. Cannanore, Karnataka. 1919

Image and Text contributed by Jason Scott Tilley, Birmingham UK

These are two photographs from My Grandfather Bert Scott’s family photographic archive. The photograph on the left, of my Great Great Grandparents Edwin and Emily Scott was taken on Christmas day in 1925 at  3, Campbell road, Richmond Town, Bangalore, our family’s house which was one of the old British Bungalows and has sadly like many of the rest, been demolished. On the old ground now stands St Philomenas hospital, right in the very heart of Bangalore.

On the right, are my great grandparents Algernon Edwin Scott and Desiree Leferve with my Grandfather, Bert Scott as a two or three year old boy, the image was taken in 1919 in Cannanore, Karnataka. (now Kannur and in the state of Kerala)

My family came to India in 1798 when James Scott Savory joined the East India Company as a writer of the Records of state. He was the second assistant under the Collector of Krisnagearry (Krishnagiri). Edwin Ebenezer (left image) is his great great grandson. From the church death records at St. Marks Cathedral in Bangalore it states that Edwin Ebenezer was the Assistant commisioner of Salt in South India.

Bert Scott, (little boy on the right) was my Grandfather, and he was born in Bangalore in 1915. He went to Bishop Cottons school before he joined the Times of India in 1936 as a press photographer.

Son of Algernon Edwin Scott and Desiree Marie Louise Josephene Leferve, (she was the daughter of a French professor of English from Pondicherry). Algernon Scott (Bert’s father) worked for the ‘Salt and Abkeri’ before he joined the army and went to Mesopatamia region from 1916-1919. After Algernon Scott left Mesopotamia he then went to the North West Frontier province until 1921 when he was discharged as Lieutenant. In 1925 he joined Burmah Oil company until 1933 he worked at Caltex until the out break of War.

My Grandfather Bert Scott, whom I fondly call ‘Grandpa’, was mainly brought up by his Grandparents, this must have been because his parents were away much of the time. He was educated at the famous ‘Eaton of the East’, Bishop Cottons school in Bangalore and then at St. Joseph’s college in Cannanore on the way up to Ooty in the Nilgiri’s. In 1936 he took a job as a press photographer at the Times of India Newspaper in Bombay where he worked until the out break of World War II.  He initially joined up as a ‘Gunner’ but soon took the Job as Head photographer for the Indian Army during the second world war where he worked out of GHQ New Delhi (Now Parliament), His duties include photographing ceremonies and Japanese positions behind enemy lines in Burma.

My grandfather married his Bride, Doll Miles at the church of redemption in New Delhi and 1943 and my Mother Anne Scott was born later that year in Amritsar, Punjab, whilst he was away on active duty during the war. He was in position on 14th August 1947 to photograph the hand over of Power and watched as the Mountbattens left Vicregal lodge (now Rashtrapati Bhavan). During the troubles of partition, because my family were Anglo Indian, they fled from Delhi to Bombay, and then took a ship to the new country of Pakistan where in November of that  same year they left for a new life in the United Kingdom.

For more images via Jason please click here


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

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

Image and text contributed by Prasad Ramamurthy, Mumbai

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

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

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


44 – An All India Heavyweight Wrestling and Weightlifting champion

My paternal grandfather, Manjerikandy Ramchandran, Cannanore, Kerala. 1927

Image and text contributed by Sheetal Sudhir, Mumbai

This picture of my grandfather Manjerikandy Ramchandran was taken when he was 16, just before he set sail for Dar-es-salaam for the first time. He came back to India 5 years later and won the All India Heavyweight Wrestling and Weightlifting championship beating several champions including the Sri Lankan heavyweight wrestling champion in 1937.

His son Sudhir Ramchandran is my father who was born in British Tanganyika and retains his British Citizenship until this day. My grandfather was also responsible for building gymnasiums in Cannanore (Kannur) and in Tanzania. There are several tales of how he used to be called to handle African robbers, who existed in plenty those days. His happiest life was in Dar-es-salaam.

After he retired in 1968, he moved back to Cannanore, India to build a house but passed away the same year of cancer. My dad believes that I have adopted his no-nonsense approach to life and loyalty to friends.