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The twin cultural ambassadors of India

My grandfather S. Gurdial Singh (standing right) and his fraternal twin brother, S. Harminder Singh ( second from left) with staff from the Consulat général de France (Embassy of France). Connaught Place, Delhi. 1949

Image and Narrative contributed by Nona Walia, New Delhi

This is photograph is of my grandfather S. Gurdial Singh (standing right) and his fraternal twin brother S Harminder Singh (standing second from left) with people from the Embassy of France in New Delhi in 1949.

The brothers Gurdial and Harminder were born on August 1, 1916 in Wazirabad (now in Pakistan). The family was from a small town in Punjab, Chamkaur Sahib, where Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh guru’s, sons were sacrificed. The twins’ architect father Bir Singh had helped build government and residential buildings in Lahore (now in Pakistan) and Chamkaur town.

Bir Singh, my great grandfather had two wives, and the first wife had a daughter. The societal pressure for property distribution (the patriarchal line) was immense by his brothers, so he married Balwant Kaur, who gave birth to the twins with the blessing and prediction of a local saint in Punjab, Randhir Singh. The twins it turned out were quite unlike each other. Gurdial Singh was a introvert, and liberal hearted with a tight circle of friends. Harminder Singh was an extrovert, dynamic, social, philosopher who loved meeting the whos who.

The twins were just eight years old when their 34 year old father Bir Singh passed away and they were brought up by their mother, Balwant Kaur. Their spirit made them known for their strength, as Harminder (known as Kirpal Singh then) would daringly go swimming in the Ropar canal (the beginning of Sirhind Canal) and loved playing the banjo. They studied at BASJS Khalsa Sr. Sec .School, Chamkaur Sahib, and then went to do their higher studies at Wazirabad.

Gurdial Singh then developed a serious interest in the French language and began learning the language in Pakistan, he then went to Pondicherry,  (former French colonial city in South India), for an year, in 1936, to refine his knowledge. It was in 1940, Gurdial Singh, who by now was an expert on the language, became a professor of French at S.D. College (Sanatana Dharma) in Lahore. Gurdial Singh married Harjit Kaur in Wazirabad and had two sons and a daughter; Harminder Singh married Kanwal Singh had two daughters and a son. Both marriages were arranged by Sant Randhir Singh, who had predicted their birth.

After partition in 1947, the brothers moved to Delhi, and rebuilt their lives from scratch. My grandfather Gurdial worked in Delhi’s Dyal Singh College and went on to become the Vice Principal. He wrote many Grammar books and poetry in French. The big milestone was when he translated the Japji Sahib, the Sikh morning prayer into French. The then prime minister Indira Gandhi unveiled his book. He also translated Bhai Vir Singh‘s poems and Guru Tegh Bahadur‘s hymns into French. Some of his original French poems were broadcast by AIR (All India Radio). One of his other big works written in French and English was the biography of Maharajah Duleep Singh (youngest son of Maharajah Ranjit Singh) who spent the last days of his life in France.

It was in 1966, Prof. Gurdial Singh also participated in a special programme on French Television network in connection with the 300th celebrations of Guru Gobind Singh. He was the founder member of Alliance Francaise, Delhi and member of the Board of Studies in French at the Panjab University, Chandigarh and at the Punjabi University, Patiala.

My grandfather Gurdial came to be known as the literary genius and his friends who would sit with him to hear him tell stories and narrate poems for hours. There were times, I would see him in his study, writing for days. Eventually he translated, for the first time, the entire Guru Granth Sahib into French. There were shabads (hymns) he would write and sing in French. The songs I grew up listening were mostly in my grandfather’s voice in French recorded on a tape recorder by his daughter, Gurdeep Kaur.

His twin my granduncle, Harmandir Singh was in the Indian Foreign Service and served in Cairo, Nairobi, Kinshasa, and finally moved to High Commission of London in 1969. He was given the third Shiromani Award in 1979 for promoting peace and harmony in a multi cultural society. He was part of more than 20 organisations, globally, that worked towards Sikh charity and community work. He was the executive member of World Congress of Faiths and attended the annual conference at Canterbury in July 1976.

The brothers indeed became the cultural ambassadors of their culture around the globe and their literary genius resulted in a creative life well-lived. Gurdial Singh passed away in 1990 and Harminder Singh passed away in 2010. After Partition, they had built a life from scratch with resilience despite losing their home, in what became Pakistan. They found global fame with their literary genius and their never-say-die Sikh spirit opened up their lives that were full of curiosity and zest to understanding, discovering and sharing new and beautiful views of the world.


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181 – The wonderful nuns of Ajmer, Rajasthan

My grandmother, Hansa Singh with her doctor, her son as a baby – my father, and the Nuns from St. Francis Nursing Home. Ajmer, Rajasthan. October 1956

Image and Text contributed by Priyamvada Singh, Ajmer, Rajasthan

The newly born baby in this picture is my father, Jitendra Singh, and the lady holding him is my grandmother, Hansa Kumari This picture was photographed at Saint Francis Nursing home, Ajmer (Rajasthan) in October 1956 – a few days after my father , was born.  The lady sitting on the left is Dr. Albuquerque, one of the most proficient gynecologists of that time. The nun sitting on the right is Sister Beatrice – a senior administrator at Saint Francis. The three nuns standing behind them also worked at the nursing home, and even though my grandmother doesn’t recall their names now, she can never forget their kindness and compassion as long as she lives.

My family used to live in a small village Meja, about 125 kms from Ajmer (now a large township in Rajasthan). Our district at the time did not have very reliable medical facilities and so it was decided that my heavily pregnant grandmother would be taken to Ajmer for delivery. As soon as her ninth month began, my grandmother went to Ajmer along with my great grandmother by train. My grandfather went to drop them but returned immediately because someone had to stay back in the village to look after my bedridden great grandfather.

The plan was to find a reasonably priced hotel or a rented apartment for the delivery period, but when the nuns learnt that my family were outstation patients and that only two ladies were going to stay back in the city, they figured it was going to be an  inconvenient, especially in case of a medical emergency. So they made a generous gesture and offered my family a room in the hospital itself, in return for a nominal donation.

The offer was indeed a blessing because 60 years ago, even well-educated women like my grandmother (who had completed her schooling from a convent – St. Patricks School, Jodhpur) weren’t very confident about living on their own and that too in an unknown town. The nursing home premises was a safe dwelling place and most importantly, my grandmother would have medical assistance 24X7. My grandmother and great grandmother lived at Saint Francis for nearly two months – the entire ninth month and a month after the delivery – and my grandmother has the most wonderful things to say about that time. She recalls how the nuns showered her with much love and affection, and made her feel so much at home that she never realized the absence of her family. They knitted woolens for her soon to be born baby, made chicken broth (my pure-vegetarian great grandmother was not comfortable touching meat), they accompanied her for evening walks and shared many warm moments.

Even after my father was born and things got more hectic, the nuns went way beyond their professional duties to lend a helping hand. Whether it was early morning or middle of the night, they were always there to offer their unconditional love and care. Soon the baby was about a month old and it was time to leave. But the bonds made over these two months lasted a lifetime, and every time that my family was passing Ajmer, they made it a point to meet the nuns. In fact, my family was so grateful for the kindness of these nuns that for several years after, during harvest season, my grandfather gifted sacks of grain to the nursing home kitchen as a token of appreciation. The nuns were reluctant to accept it at first, but when my grandfather insisted that it would help other outstation families like us, they accepted it graciously. With time, our association with Saint Francis got stronger – four of my father’s first cousins (my grandfather’s sisters’ kids) were born there, and years later, me and my brother as well.

When I had a baby, he was born in another city at a state-of-the-art private hospital. A four day fixed package was offered to me with highly professional staff & efficient service. I was home on the fifth day and I have no complaints, but sometimes I think about my grandmother’s delivery experience and feel that mine was so warmth less, and mechanical as compared to her experience. I wonder why didn’t I form such personal connections? My guess is that not all of us are fortunate enough to be blessed by the harbingers of humanity.


179 – The accomplished matriarchs of a family

My grandmother, Manorama Rao, Madras (now Chennai). 1939

Image and Text contributed by Rekha Rao, Hyderabad

This is a photograph of my paternal grandmother Manorama Rao when she graduated and topped English Honours with the Grigg Memorial gold medal at the University level. My grandmother was born into a Saraswat Konkani Brahmin family in Madras (now Chennai) in 1917. She was the eldest of three daughters in a progressive family that encouraged education and goals. Her mother (my great grandmother) Kamala Devi Tombat was a progressive lady with immense willpower.

My great grandfather, Kamala Devi’s  husband, Anand Rao Tombat had hired a British tutor to teach her English after their marriage and encouraged her to learn music. After her husband’s passing in 1944, Kamala went on to do a Visharad in Hindi (equivalent to a Bachelor’s degree), became a Hindi Pandit (Brahmin Scholar) and then a Professor of Hindi and Sanskrit at Queen Mary’s College, Madras, one of the first three colleges for women in the country. She wrote and composed devotional songs and even published a book with them, named Shri Gurugeet Bhajanmala priced at a mere Rs 1 in those days. She and her daughters regularly sang on All India Radio too.

Not only does my grandmother Manorama bear an uncanny physical resemblance to her mother, but the musical, literary talent and zest for life have been passed on as well. After schooling at CSI Ewart School and Presidency Training School, Madras, in 1937, my grandmother Manorama joined Queen Mary’s College where she topped the entire Madras Presidency in English and was awarded the Krupabai Satthianadhan Gold Medal for proficiency in the English language. She then joined the BA Honours (English Language) and Literature course at Presidency College, Madras while her sister Sushila opted for Botany. Both commuted each day by tram between home, and college, that had a beautiful and sprawling campus overlooking Marina Beach, and my grandmother tells me that she was very fond of looking out at the expansive waters of the Bay of Bengal from her classroom window. She also recounts that there were less than 10 students in English Honours, and that they had papers right from Old English (Beowulf) to Middle English (Chaucer), the Romantics to Shakespeare. She also narrates that many of her professors were educated at Oxford and Cambridge.

In 1939, VK Narasimhan from The Indian Express (later Editor-in-Chief) was looking for superior English language and writing skills. My grandmother fit the bill perfectly. Eager to put her education to use and supplement the home income, my grandmother joined the newspaper. She gathered news items, wrote literary reviews and edited articles. That same year, she was introduced to a young England-returned barrister by name Udiavar Narayana Rao. Perhaps he was drawn to her for her good looks, her outgoing and sociable nature and above all, her intellectual capabilities and following a few months of courtship, the two married on 23 May, 1940. The wedding took place as per Hindu rites at Munagala House which eventually gave way to Hotel Ashoka in 1974.

My grandfather, Udiavar Narayana Rao was born in 1910 into a well educated and accomplished Goud Saraswat Konkani Brahmin family. During his years at college, he was also a member of the University Training Corps, a precursor to the modern-day NCC (National Cadet Corps). Subsequently, he became a Bar-at-Law from London’s Middle Temple, and returned to India in 1936, where he joined as an advocate at the High Court of Madras. To this day, my grandmother talks of my grandfather with awe and deep respect for his character and achievements. He was a man of few words, and respected for his upright character in both personal and professional circles.

My grandfather died prematurely at age 54 in 1965, while still in service of the Karnataka Government. After my parents married in 1970, and my father got his first job in Hyderabad, the family moved to Hyderabad. In 1969, when my grandmother was around 52 years old, she traveled overseas for the first time to the US to see her daughter Geetha. But before landing on the shores of America, the adventurous middle-aged soul broke journey in Europe, where, for about 10 days, she visited places like Rome, Paris and London, taking in all the sights, sounds and scenes of life there. Coming from a country that is still dealing with the issue of educating the girl child, my grandmother was definitely way ahead of her time.

This month on October 8, 2017, my grandmother, Manorama became a centenarian, celebrating her 100th birthday amidst family, friends and her many admirers. She is still one of the most organized persons I know and has meticulously maintained family pictures and documents. She labels them at the back and keeps them safely in her cupboard. She also saw the potential in me to be a writer and encouraged me to be one. Today, we’re four generations living under one roof, and are happy and proud to have her as the matriarch of the family.

 


177 – My father, the first antiquarian of Calcutta

My father Nirmal Chandra Kumar.  Calcutta (now Kolkata), West Bengal, India. Circa 1950

Image and text contributed by Professor. Aloke Kumar, University of Calcutta/ IIM/ ISRO

My father, Nirmal Chandra Kumar, born in Calcutta, Bengal in 1917, and was the eldest of seven children. After graduating from school at Mitra Institute, he went on to study at Bangabasi College. My grandfather was a trader and the family had a large Departmental Store at Shyambazar Crossing and a home at 52, Mohan Bagan Lane. My father grew up to be an avid reader, hungry for knowledge and to make a living, he worked several odd jobs and tried his hand at writing, which in his own words he said he failed miserably at.

In the early 1940s, after my father got his own place in Calcutta, he met an illiterate Muslim bookseller by the name of Yakub and began helping him read and organize his books. Yakub encouraged my father to trade in books; a venture that was not going to particularly help in making a living, yet in 1945, my inspired father opened a book-shop in his house, called Kumars and began collecting rare books and documents. He combined his pursuit with a broader interest to serve the society around him. In 1950, my grandparents also arranged for my father to be married to my mother Karuna, a school teacher from Adra, (Bengal and Bihar border) and my father continued working on his collection.

Kumars, my father’s book-shop, if it could be called so, spread over several rooms in his residence, around divans and reading chairs, and looked more like a personal library in a living room. In the 1940s, rare book collections were in a dismal, class-bound rut. The famous rare book-shop Cambray was already fading, Thacker & Spink, another well known bookshop was alive, but there were hardly any rare books. With a growing collection of rarities at my father’s book shop, it soon became was a hub for book lovers and a meeting point for people from all walks of life, ranging from iconoclastic artists to conservative writers.

With books on art, travel, ornithology, botany, history, literature, mountaineering, religion and Indology as its strengths, Kumars soon became the place to go. At the shop, my father could be found wearing a white collared half sleeved shirt, and a Lungi, (stitched or unstitched cloth worn around the waist) or a Dhoti and Kurta with pump shoes. We can’t even imagine somebody wearing an attire like that and smoking a pipe or a Davidus Cigar sitting in a library surrounded by books now.

My father had several agents buying books for him at auctions and establishments abroad such as Foyles, Bernard Quaritch and Sotheby’s. One of his many enthusiastic collections included the then unheralded works of British Painters, uncle and nephew, Thomas Daniell and William Daniell. He bought an elephantine Folio of 144 Views of their works from Sotheby’s, and had it sent to Calcutta. On the way it got damaged that resulted in a bitter battle with the shipping company, MacKinnon McKenzie records of which can be found in Calcutta High Court. Much of the folio is now entrusted in care of the museum The Victoria Memorial.

When Satyajit Ray, the filmmaker, began his research on the Indian Rebellion of 1857 for his film Shatranj ki Khilari (The Chess Player), he depended on my father for information on the subject. Kumar not only provided him with all the relevant books, but also went out of his way to bid for a rare scrap book on the 1857 Mutiny, at a London Auction that contained paper clippings and notes on the event, and later he also provided him with many antique props for his sets. Ray it seems did not forget this gesture and paid my father his biggest personal tribute. He based one of his characters in his well known Feluda series on Kumar – the character Sidhujata (Sidhu Uncle), a man with vast encyclopedic knowledge on several subjects.

Kumars became the haunt of an unlikely mixture of luminaries such as – Radha Prasad Gupta, the Anglophile & PR Head of Tata Steel, writer Mulk Raj AnandNirmalendu Chowdhury, the folk singer, Santi.P.Chowdhury, documentary film maker, Asok Mitra, the father of Indian Census, Subho Tagore, the founder of Cubism in India, Jean Riboud, the French billionaire industrialist and writer Peter Fleming. Ella Maillart, the traveller and photographer wrote, ‘to visit Kumar’s, was like pilgrimage. You spend the whole day browsing through books, chatting with Kumar on different subjects, meeting the Calcutta intelligentsia and enjoying the Bengali hospitality with the best of food and savories….all seamlessly interwoven.’

If rare works and books of painter William Hogarth, writers Colonel SleemanGeorge V HigginsJames Hamilton, the unknown Bishop Heber, Scottish writer O’Malley, African Missionary Traveler David Livingston and Sir Richard Burton were easily available in Calcutta to the literary landscape, it was in no small part due to my father, Kumar’s efforts. My father also convinced several people including Satyajit Ray to bid for rare works and if Lahari, the then Superintendent of Calcutta Zoo has been able to leave behind the rare collection of Himalayan Birds, books on Ornithology and Wild-life to the collection of The Zoological Gardens, it is again because of my father. Kumar introduced several artist works to Calcutta; mainly the Flemish artist, Francois Balthazar Solvyns, whose works constitutes the first ‘ethnographic survey’ of India or more precisely of Bengal.

As the 1960s moved into the 1970s, Kumars was a resource for international researchers, but my father was not able to cope as much of its collection had now begun to fade away. His health had deteriorated and much of it was due to a domestic crisis of two of his children becoming members of the Naxalbari Movement (Revolutionary Communist Party). With a pipe smoking habit, conversations in mono-syllables and interrogative questions, he began to resemble the eccentric film director Alfred Hitchcock. Soon he became a recluse and his once dazzling library dimmed.

For 30 years, he had presided over a vast rarest of rare collections in his own bookshop, Kumars, a pre-eminent institution. He was the first in the subcontinent to publish a catalogue of books in his collection. He even formalized the literary scene by initiating regular readings in the bookshop, an innovation at the time. By the end of the 1975, the rare book trade became thoroughly commercialized; books began to be torn for their prints and sold separately. My father did not want to be a part of this and lost out.

Nirmal Chandra Kumar died in 1976 of a cerebral stroke, aged 60 and this year, in 2017, is his centenary. He was a genuine antiquarian and possibly the greatest influence on a generation of artists, filmmaker, writers, musicians, activists, teachers and travellers – perhaps more than any art critic or editor of his time. With his death, the literary world lost an extremely generous and unselfish man who gave of his vast knowledge and delighted in the achievements of those he had influenced so profoundly.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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