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Single Parent

183 – The man who left home to become a renowned monk

My great grandfather (seated right) with an unidentified radio interviewer. Location Unknown. Circa 1960

Image and Text contributed by Nupur Nanal, Pune

My maternal great grandfather, Mr. Bhaskar Gangadhar Athalye owned a dairy farm in Borivali, Bombay (now Mumbai), and lived in a rented home in Shivaji Park with his wife and eight children. The dairy farm came to an abrupt halt when his entire cattle died due to a disease. (This information is unverified but he supposedly helped draft the plan for the now well known Aarey Milk Co-operative). Around 1940, with communal tensions abound, the family travelled to Baroda, Gujarat to attend a wedding and since Baroda was relatively safe from the communal turmoil and violence, he decided to extend the stay and keep his family there and look for some work. But a job interview in Delhi didn’t go as planned because of a conflict in political beliefs.

It seems that my great grandfather decided to go on travelling and visited various parts of the country. He even wrote letters to the family regularly, for a year. No one really knows what happened after because, in what was to be the ‘last letter’, in 1943, he suddenly announced a shocking decision to the family that he was no longer going to return and that he had decided to follow a spiritual path. Signed as his sanyasi (monk) name, Swami Bhaskarananda Paramhansa, there was no further correspondence with the family. I am told, in 1953, a family friend spotted him at the mass Hindu pilgrimage, Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, UP and called out to him by his family name Raja. He discovered that my great grandfather was by now a monk of great renown. The friend informed his son who then travelled to Allahabad to meet with him but the son returned alone. My mother says she did ask her grandmother (his wife) once, “Aren’t you upset with him?”, she replied, “This is my path, That is his.”

In my quest to research my great grandfather, I discovered several things incredible things about him, that I never known before. He travelled the country promoting a new spiritual movement of inter-religious co-operation known as ‘UNISM’. Unism is a philosophy which emphasizes unity among all things and human beings, a concept found in every religion. However, Unism is patently anti-religious (not anti-religion). A follower of Unism may follow tenets of religions, but the central tenet is that Unists have absolutely no emotional ties, exclusive adherence and preference to any specific religion.

For a while, it seems he even lived in Kashmir and that he wrote a small book that I found in the Jammu Archives & Library, ‘The Kashmir Cauldron’. The book, it turns out is beholden by many as ‘one the most revered works on Kashmir’. It offers a detailed analysis of the political situation in Kashmir at the time and also sheds light on the correspondence and ties my great grandfather shared with various politicians and scholars, including Jawaharlal Nehru. I found a scanned copy for myself from the University of Wisconsin, USA and the book, if I may say so, is quite well written, and unbiased towards any religion and an overall well rounded academic analysis.

How he supported himself monetarily, I am not sure. But he had come to be quite renowned and I assume that people must have helped him with his expenses. For instance, when people from all backgrounds and classes began visiting him, at his lone hilltop shelter in Kalkaji  (in Delhi) and many people including politicians volunteered to add little bits and pieces to the shelter that eventually and somehow became a Lord Shiva temple. The temple still exists and has a shrine in his honour, buried under dust and dry leaves.

For years, my mother would often mention some black & white photographs of her grandfather with monks and nuns from around the world that I hunted for but never found. I assumed that photographs were probably lost. However, I cannot explain the co-incidence of discovering them with an extended family member who found them right after I formally began researching my great grandfather. Several of the photographs are of his travels in South East Asia. But I know for a fact that he travelled to various parts of Europe, USA, and South America too. The Singapore Free Press newspaper of 1961 I have a clipping of, writes of his visit to their country, his faith and beliefs about Unism, and his upcoming plans to meet other spiritual leaders around the world including the Pope. The article also mentions that he founded a ‘World Fraternity of Monks’ and that he presided over a ‘USSR Cultural Festival’ in 1956. My great grandfather’s comment in the article above states, “ If I were to seek a career I would have been a soldier. In the real sense I wear a ‘Khaki uniform, I love discipline and I love service of mankind to the point of laying down life for a cause”. Known as Swami Bhaskarananda Paramhansa, my great grandfather passed away in 1975 due to old age.

This story of my great grandfather sounds all too extraordinary, but I have attempted to verify every aspect of it. For the last two years I have been researching him for a documentary film, and I hope that someone may recognise this radio interviewer at a radio station (it could be anywhere around the world) and if there is anyone who might know more about my great grandfather. I would be happy to learn about it all.


161 – The Devadasi who became a Maharani

My maternal grandparents, the Maharaja & Maharani of Devas, my mother, uncle and great grandmother. Bombay. Circa 1931

My maternal grandparents, the Maharaja & Maharani of Dewas, my mother, uncle and great grandmother. Bombay. Circa 1931

Image and text contributed by Cory Walia, Mumbai

This picture is of my mother, the little girl in the center, and her immediate family taken around 1931 or 1932 in a British photo studio in south Bombay [maybe Kalbadevi]. There is no stamp on the photograph so I can’t tell which studio it may have been. My grandfather in this picture brought his family to Bombay specifically for having a series of photographs taken in the studio. He was very fond of studio portraiture and would travel to Bombay often to get his pictures taken.

My grandfather, His Highness Malhar Rao Narayan Rao Puar was a King of a small kingdom in now Madhya Pradesh, near Indore called Dewas. Originally his family were Rajputs who like several of the other Rajput nobility embraced the Maratha/Peshwa fold and began adopting the Maratha language and customs in addition to their Rajput heritage. His family claimed to be descendants of Vikramaditya, the legendary emperor in ancient India. I hope it’s true.

Seated on the extreme right is my maternal great grandmother, a lady called Krishna Rao Salgaocar. She was a commoner and belonged to the erstwhile Devadasi tradition from the Devadasi house of Saligao in Goa. In this photograph, she wears black (or navy blue) because she considered herself to be a widow of the father of her children, who while alive was a leading businessman of that time but refused to accept his children as legitimate – as was usual at the time when it came to relationships or children with Devadasis. The social status of the Devadasis had gradually fallen from tradition of respectability and equality over the centuries.

On the extreme left is her daughter, my grandmother, the lady who partially raised me and inculcated in me the love for art, mythology and cooking. She was born a Devadasi and was named Indira Salgaocar. Devadasis couldn’t take the last name of the men they were with, so they took the name of the house that they belonged to. My great grandmother belonged to the Salgaocar house from Saligao – one of the two villages in Goa who produced some of the most beautiful and most famous of Devadasis. The other village was Mulgao.

My grandfather, the King was an early widower with no children, and so someone in court sent to him my grandmother, a young beautiful woman as a diversion and to keep him company. He found my grandmother to be a beautiful, sprightly, lively, ambitious and a highly intelligent woman. She was immensely attractive to him as a companion. Given that she was a Devadasi’s daughter she was skilled in all sorts of arts, crafts, and cooking – a woman of multiple talents. He fell in love with her head over heels and decided that protocol will be damned. He married her in 1915, and made her his queen, his Maharani. As long as he was alive, no one could question him or say anything, but given that my grandmother was a commoner, the British called it a Morganatic marriage – A marriage of unequal social rank that would prevent the passage of the husband’s titles and privileges to the wife and any children born of the marriage.

When Indira married my grandfather she became Her Highness Prabhavati Raje Puar – a new name that was chosen for her based on her horoscope as per Maratha customs. In front of my grandfather are their two children, my mother Princess Shashiprabha Raje Puar, age 10 and her brother, age 12, my uncle, Prince Martan Rao Malhar Rao Puar.

Two years after this photograph was taken, my grandfather, the king suddenly passed away and my grandmother and her kids were banished from the kingdom of Dewas. The marriage to the king no longer had a place in their society and the throne of the Kingdom of Dewas was succeeded by my grandfather’s step-brother.

My grandmother, the banished Maharani along with her two children and some personal assets moved to Bombay – They first lived in Walkeshwar, then in Gamdevi and lastly in Colaba until the 1980s. For a while, they lived off their personal assets of gold, silver, cars and jewels, but in time all the wealth was spent and the world too had changed. My uncle, the Prince in the photograph served with the British Army until his death at the age of 51. He was a really gentle and a very nice man.

My mother Shashi too grew up to be a beautiful and an amazing woman. She met my father Kanwaljeet Singh also known as Cammii, at a ball dance at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in the 1940s. They fell in love, eloped and got married in a temple in 1942. They had two daughters but soon realized that a temple marriage was not recognized by the court of Indian law and my father had to move the Supreme Court of India to get the law changed and make his marriage legally recognised.

After I was born and my parents got divorced, my mother worked in my school as a nursery teacher, then in a passenger liner as a children’s stewardess. Considering the reality checks in her life, my mother was pragmatic enough to handle her past as a royal princess and her humble life after, with utmost grace.

There have been people who have pointed out the scandalous past of my maternal family and I have shown them the door. I think the women in my family were strong, individualistic and beautiful women who made the best of their lives. Many people in India are embarrassed to talk about their Devadasi origins because society and history don’t look very kindly upon it, but it was their reality – and yes, it was highly exploitative state of affairs. Some of our early singers and actresses in Indian Films came from the Devadasi tradition because they couldn’t afford to be ashamed. They were forward and bold women who decided to earn their own keep. I don’t see the frowning upon as justified, but everyone is entitled to their own point of view. I have fashioned my own life upon not caring about society’s opinions, and it has worked out just fine.

Earlier, when I looked at this photograph I used to feel a sense of lost glory, but now I feel great pride in my ancestry. My grandfather was a good man, a spiritual man and he didn’t care that his wife came from the background of a Devadasi. He was proud and happy to have her as his wife and welcomed his mother-in-law, also a Devadasi, in his palace. Not many people would have the gumption to do that, even today.


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

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

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

Image & Text contributed by Rohit Kulkarni, Pune

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

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

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

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

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

 


99 – Uncannily bonded to a famous grandfather I never knew

(Left to Right) My grandfather Salil Chowdhury with my aunt Tulika, his sister Lily with my eldest aunt Aloka, and my grandmother Jyoti Chowdhury with my mother, Lipika. Bombay, Maharashta. Circa 1959

(Left to Right) My grandfather Salil Chowdhury with my aunt Tulika, his sister Lily with my eldest aunt Aloka, and my grandmother Jyoti Chowdhury with my mother, Lipika. Bombay, Maharashta. Circa 1959

Image and Text contributed by Aurina Chatterji, Bombay/Toronto

Even though he died when I was 12, I never really knew my grandfather, the famous music Director Salil Chowdhury.

Bapi Dadu, as we called him, was an infrequent visitor at 16, Hillcrest, Perry Cross Road, Bandra. It was my grandmother, his wife’s house, the site of almost daily family congregations. I never wondered why he didn’t live in this house. Maybe it was because Bapi still occupied 16, Hill Crest like a benevolent ghost. The walls were plastered with his photographs, posters, awards. His songs drifted lazily from my grandmother’s trusty companion, the radio transistor, the sound often muffled by pillows.

I remember watching Bapi on Doordarshan, on one occasion talking to Asha Bhosle, on another – in the valorous yet invariably mangled Hindi of Bengalis – talking about Kishore Kumar. I remember numerous videos of him conducting a choir. I remember the twinkle in his eye, his proudly bald head and the way his hair always curled at his nape, begging for a hair cut.

One day, in our Bapi-bedecked hall, my older cousin told me in conspiratorial tones that Bapi had another wife and he had other children and that is why he lived in Calcutta and that is why we rarely saw him. I don’t remember being particularly affected. I do remember the puzzle pieces rapidly fitting into their places, but the complete picture, to me, was just a piece of delicious gossip. Like the happily stupid child I was, I didn’t think of our mothers’ devastation, nor the stigma of my grandmother being a single mother in 1960s India. I continued to feel a sly pride when people introduced me as Salil Chowdhury’s grand-daughter and I continued to look forward to Bapi’s rare but always joyful visits.

As I grew up, my personal memories of Bapi grew so blurry as to feel like some elaborate dream. The less I remembered, the more curious I became. This is what I learned: He was an avowed communist, a big fan of the USSR. He once accompanied Charlie Chaplin on the piano and he thought very highly of the Beatles.

I discovered his early, pre-Indian Cinema work – raw, angry, shamelessly political songs that were anti-colonialism, anti-zamindari, anti-war. As a teenager being gently tugged to the left by her nascent political beliefs, these songs were a revelation. I didn’t understand a lot of the lyrics – I speak Bengali like Bapi spoke Hindi, with less valour and more mangled – but what I did understand, I related to it viscerally.

Bapi’s idealistic ideas for a newly independent India, his poetic cries for justice were framed in complicated, meandering melodies, supported by beautifully feisty harmonies. I found myself in the fairly unique position of becoming musically obsessed with my own grandfather, a state that was both cool and awkward, almost narcissistic.

But for all his generosity when it came to the outside world, like so many other luminaries before and after him, Bapi was less than exemplary in his personal life. He had abandoned a devoted wife, a wife he had fallen for while he tutored her in Philosophy, a wife he had secretly married much to the chagrin of her Brahmin father, a wife who selflessly clothed and fed and mothered many of the Film & Cinema aspirants who followed Bapi from small-town Bengal. He abandoned his three little ones, the musically named Aloka, Tulika, Lipika, who, to my shock and eternal admiration, harbour no resentment against their deeply loving but absent father.
He knew all of this. He probably didn’t know that he also unwittingly abandoned his grandchildren. He showered us generously with love and ghost stories, but he always disappeared, leaving behind only the fragrance of his tobacco pipe.

To me, he was barely a grandfather. He was simply the reason the Bangladeshi florists by our home never charged us, the reason strangers would fawn over my grandmother, the reason some of my teachers were partial to me. 

And yet, 18 years after his death, I find myself uncannily bonded to a man I never knew. I am fascinated by colonial history. I obsessively read about Russia. I sing in a choir.

I wish I could ask my grandfather the questions that pop into my mind with the certainty of sunrise when I think of him: What was it like to hide in toilet holes to escape the British? Did you really think Stalin was a good man? How about Brezhnev? Can you teach me how to create harmonies? What are your thoughts on Putin? What do you think of the CPI(M) now? Is this how you pictured independent India?

Our similarities, of course, are perfectly explainable but I prefer to believe that they are magical. I prefer to believe that the universe contrived to ensure, albeit posthumously, that I would feel the tenderness of being grandfathered. When I look at this picture – my young, beautiful grandparents with their young, beautiful daughters – I feel a forceful, almost unbearable love. And sometimes if I close my eyes, I can still smell the sweet, brown tobacco that unfailingly lingered on Bapi Dadu.