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Kannur

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.


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.

 


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


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.