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Psychological & Emotional Trauma

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.


105 – “A friend from my childhood I had never met”

My Letter to Jean Christophes. Bombay. August 10, 1972.

My Letter to Jean Christophes. Bombay. August 10, 1972.

Letter & Text contributed by Denzil Smith, Bombay

This letter carries with it an amazing story that always has me grin ear to ear with joy.

My family are Anglo Indians and until a few years ago lived in a family bungalow in Ville Parle in Bombay. My father Benjamin John Smith was a Customs officer in Bombay and perhaps one of the few honest black sheep amongst the white embroiled in dishonest deeds. To get relief from tough days at the office, my father would find release with music. He was adept at both reading and writing music, played several instruments and when opportunity called he even travelled with the famed Paranjoti Choir all over the world.

At one such opportunity he travelled to Tours in France with the choir in 1966. The members of the choir were usually put up by local classical music aficionados at their homes in each city; and a certain Dr. Boulard and his family were to be my father’s kind hosts in Tours.
The day my father reached the Doctor’s mansion, eagerly awaiting him at the gate was the Doctor’s son, a 6 year old French boy, Jean, who had waited for my father in anticipation of seeing an Indian for three whole days. 
At first sight and to his shock the boy ran inside and wept copiously to his father, complaining “Where are his feathers!?” Clearly my brown father in a suit and tie was not the “Indian” he was expecting.

Despite the initial disappointment, my father and Jean became very fond of each other and when he returned to India, dad told me that Jean reminded him of me, that I would really get along with him, and Jean would write to me and I should reply. Jean and I soon embarked on establishing a pen-pal relationship writing letters to each other. I was curious about France and he about India and our lives. He would write me in French and I in English. Finding a french translator in Bombay at the time not an easy task but I had one at home, my father. Later Jean began writing in English which he was learning while studying to become a Doctor.

Over the years we wrote several letters to each other. In some letters I would find that Jean had packed in half used pencils and I always wondered why he would send me those as presents. As time passed, somewhere through those years our letters became infrequent and we lost touch.

Many years later in early 2011, I was travelling with a theatrical production all over Europe and also to Tours. I remembered Jean and pestered my manager to trace his whereabouts. All I knew about him was that he had become a Doctor and his parent’s address that was well etched in my memory.

Before our performance in Tours, my manager took me aside to say he had a surprise. Back stage was not Jean as you would expect but his mother, Mrs. Boulard who spoke with me in French via a translator. I could tell she was cautious about me and wasn’t about to start believing my stories about some letters and my friendship with Jean until I mentioned a family fact that very few people knew about. Astounded, she suddenly broke into English, albeit still a little cautious. She wouldn’t reveal her son’s whereabouts; instead she insisted that I leave my number with her, for her son to return the call.

With no news from Jean, and ready to leave to perform the play in Le Mans, a city 200 Kms away from Paris, I finally received a phone call and was completely overjoyed to hear a voice that said it was Jean. For two whole hours we chatted away excitedly, catching up on our lives and he was going to drive down to Aulnay-Sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris where I was performing two days later, with his girlfriend to meet with me.

It was one the most emotional and joyful moments of my life, to meet a close friend from my childhood I had never met, in our conversations we also discussed our letters and I asked him the question I had wanted to for years. “Why the half used pencils?” His answer was that he was told that India was a very poor country and he sent me the pencils because he assumed I couldn’t afford them! We laughed a lot and recollected much of our childhood and news of our families. It was simply a great great day.

A few months ago, Jean sent me this letter that I had written to him when my father passed away. It immediately reminded me of the time that was indeed very vulnerable, and the person I knew whom I could express it with was Jean.
The personalised letter-head this letter and many others were written on, was an earned luxury. It was a marketing promotion of a very popular chewing gum brand called A1, whose exchange offer was – personalised stationary for filling up an album with their wrappers that had images of country flags, cars, ships and aircrafts. It was a huge rage at the time for children my age in Bombay.

It is incredible how life is dotted with amazing presents, be it with a great father, incredible music, theatre, half used pencils, personalised letter-heads, chewing gums, and most magnificently an unexpected reunion of a grand friendship with Dr. Jean Christophes Boulard; with whom I am in touch yet again, on email.


82 – The first time she saw a man die

My father, Anupam Kumar Shome and I. Srinagar, Kashmir. 1983

Image and Text contributed by Tillotama Shome, Actress, Bombay

In the early 80’s we lived in Rajbagh extension, near Zero Bridge in Srinagar, Kashmir.

I was four years old and on my way to school with my father Anupam Kumar Shome. He was an Airforce officer. En route to school we got stuck in traffic. Apparently, there was a ‘shoot out’ up ahead. As the police cleared the traffic and guided us, I saw through the arches of crowded human legs, a body of a dead man, drenched in blood. The contrast of the red blood against white of snow was inexplicable and I was witnessing the lifelessness of death for the first time.

My father shepherded me back home. His face was gaunt and I kept crying all the way back home. The same day he took me out for a ride in a boat and suddenly said, “You saw what happened today? It is all because of religion.”

I had no idea who religion was, the names of religion’s parents, where he or she lived, what he or she did for a living, why he or she killed that man or did not save him. I was only four. I just cried.

Because of what he may have seen and experienced, I think my father had come to a conclusion and a decision that religion brings grief, so Hindu spiritual ceremonies or references like Pujas, pundits, shradhs, kundli (astrology), and havans were never a welcome guest in our household. My religion or requirement of some faith, became the need to be aware of the consequences of my actions, my thoughts and even my memories. I think which is why, many decades later, before I became an actress,  I decided to go and work at a girls orphanage in Kupwara, Kashmir despite the extremely tense situations at the border, and against the advise of many others, including my father.

My memory of that dead man, my love for Kashmir, the beautiful memories held in photographs of our time in Srinagar became the mental armor that helped me. And that armor remained intact when we were questioned by militants at gunpoint. Fear of death at that moment was fogged out, as all I felt at that moment, was that the Militant holding a gun was just a few years older than I was when I saw a man die for the first time.

I felt sad for him and lucky that I had a privileged childhood. Our memories hold a key to our future in ways that can surprise us. Luckily, it sure did surprise me.

 


74 – A Partition story from Pakistan

 

My Father, Syed Ali Mehdi Naqvi, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. 1949

Image and Text contributed by Waqar Ul Mulk Naqvi, Punjab Province, Pakistan

This is the only image of my Late father Syed Ali Mehdi Naqvi I possess. He was born in 1930 in a small district called Beed then in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India. In 1960, when new states were created on the basis of linguistics, the Marathi dominant town of Beed became a part of Maharashtra.

My father graduated from Usmania University, Hyderabad (now Osmania) in Masters of Persian when he was only 18, in 1949.

My grandfather Hassan Naqvi was a lawyer with the High Court of the Nizam of Hyderabad at the time and also owned a lot of agricultural land in Pimpalwadi (District Beed, Now in Maharashtra). Agriculture was a big part of the family income.

When Partition of India and Pakistan was announced, my grandfather was still very optimistic that Hyderabad will be declared an independent state. The Nizam of Hyderabad was very adamant about that. But the Indian Government did not comply and the Nizam had to surrender in 1948.

With a lot of sorrow, and seeing no other option in a very precarious India, my grandparents along with their children were finally forced to join thousands of others and leave India in 1955. All of our assets, a house at Muhalla Qila as well as the cultivated agricultural land were left behind, abandoned.

They migrated to Karachi via Bombay on a ship. With our roots, and legacies all left behind, my family had to go through a lot of hurt, disillusionment and suffering. Consequences of which can be felt till today. In my family’s words “we were simply plucked and sent into a dark and dangerous journey to Pakistan with no home, no job or even land to call our own.” Many people along with them, never made it to the shores of Pakistan and many were killed right after they landed.

I feel great sorrow when I think about that. Now I work in a financial institution as a manager in a Punjab province of Pakistan with my mother and two siblings. In all these years, I have never stopped thinking about what could have been.


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

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

Image and text contributed by Sangeeta Bahuguna, Mumbai

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

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

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

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

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

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