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Artist

171 – The first Indian woman to perform on New York Broadway

Gopal Sharman & Jalabala Vaidya. Rome, Italy. 1967

Gopal Sharman & I, Jalabala Vaidya. Rome, Italy. 1967

Image courtesy Akshara Theatre Archive. Text by Jalabala Vaidya, New Delhi

I was born in London (UK) in 1936. My English-Italian mother, Marjorie Frank-Keyes was a concert singer and my father Suresh Vaidya was a successful young writer. He was also on the editorial board of Time Magazine in London. My father was arrested by the British authorities when he refused to join the British Army to fight in World War II. He declared he would gladly fight as a free man, but not as a colonial subject. He was imprisoned in Canterbury and fought and won a case in the British Court. His case was defended by well known lawyers like Sir Fenner Brockway and Lord Reginald Sorensen. In a landmark judgment, the court ruled that the British Army could not compel a person to fight because he was a colonial subject.

Of course I was one my feisty parents’ two daughters. I completed my schooling in London then in Bombay (now Mumbai). Later I graduated from Miranda House, standing third in Delhi University. I was also actively involved in theatre and was awarded the best actress for performing sections from Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Later, I began working with Link Magazine in Delhi as a journalist that also had a daily paper called The Patriot. Gopal Sharman was suggested to us as an independent writer who could write very well on the arts. Up until then I had been writing them.

In the 1950s, at the office, I was in charge of putting the month’s issue to bed and I had been told that Gopal would come by with the copy on the Arts columns. He came to the office early and sat several glass cubicles away, typing away, but by late morning the copy was still not done and I began to lose patience. I went bossily through the cubicles and asked him about the text. He looked up and said “Don’t go through the roof, this isn’t a spoof, I am writing it and here it is.” and that’s it, we fell in love. 
I have no idea how, why and what it was, but that’s how we met and were together since. We began to live together in a garage in Bengali Market. Later, we got married.

Gopal at the time was also writing two popular columns under a pseudonym – Nachiketas for the Indian Express and the Sunday Standard. One was about artists and the other was about the Upanishads, Vedanta, mythology, questions on philosophy, life and death. Unknown to us the time, the second President of India, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was a fan of Nachiketas’s (Gopal’s) columns.

In early January of 1966, Dr. Radhakrishnan underwent a cataract operation. Unable to read and restless, he asked a close friend Prof. K Swaminathan who had edited the Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi and was a former editor of Indian Express, to find out who was this ‘Nachiketas’ person writing these fascinating pieces, and to invite him to the Rashtrapati Bhawan (Presidential Residence) for a narrative session. Prof. Swaminathan found Gopal and was surprised to find out that it was a young man who went about on a bicycle, with a shock of unruly hair, and wore a polo neck shirt & trousers. He asked Gopal if he would come and read his works to the President. Gopal happily agreed.

When he returned home, Gopal told me about the President’s request and insisted that since I was much better at it, I should perform Gopal’s Full Circle for the President. Full Circle was a dramatic recitation of stories and poems with philosophical concepts narrated with voices of regular people. I would perform and recite the stories & poems, while Gopal, a classically trained singer, would sing songs ranging from Meera Bai’s bhajans (songs with spiritual themes) to songs written by the poet, philosopher and politician Muhammad Iqbal. After some reluctance, I agreed and we both decided to go. I always needed glasses to read, but since I didn’t want to read off a paper, I learnt all of it by heart.

When the day came, a big Rolls Royce came from the Rashtrapati Bhawan to pick us up, along with the formal invitation. To our shock it mentioned my name, but left Gopal’s out! We informed the officials about the confusion, but they did not accommodate the mistake and no change could be made. Nonetheless, now there was no turning back. Gopal came along with me up till the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s reception, wished me very well and went off to another meeting. I still remember watching him walk down the slope of that road.

When I was escorted upstairs, the door was opened by the President, with a bandaged eye. He exclaimed “Ah Welcome! But where is the poet?!” I explained what had happened, he insisted a car bring Gopal back, but with 20-30 people in the room including foreign dignitaries already seated, it seemed a bit awkward so we let the matter rest. I began to narrate the pieces, and I remember now and then the very impressed President would interrupt to explain the contexts to his guests and what was being said.

When I ended the performance, Dr.Radhakrishnan was extremely happy. He had loved every bit of it. He insisted that this work should be performed for a proper audience and that he will have ICCR (Indian Council for Culture Relations) arrange a performance at Azad Bhawan. And so it was arranged. When we went and met the director of ICCR, Inam Rahman, I think he was a bit put out at the order of accommodating young unknown people. Perhaps to be a bit difficult, he said the only date available was January 13, only a few days after, and will we take that? Gopal and I looked at each other and immediately said yes.

The ICCR invited many well-known people & important dignitaries from the Embassies, and they all loved Full Circle. After the performance we received invitations from the Embassies of Yugoslavia (now seven independent states) and Italy to perform in their countries. But there was a hitch, ICCR refused to pay for the tickets, and we had to find the tickets on our own. We wrote to Air India and asked if they’d like to sponsor us. They wrote back and said they could, for one person and one way only, but that too on the condition that we distribute their advertisements in Europe.
Something had to be done, so I decided to go to Bombay and request the TATAs if they could help. There was a special secretary to J.R.D Tata, I forget his name now but he agreed to arrange another ticket. This was the year of tourism so there was no problem getting a visa to foreign countries. Neither was there a problem with one-way tickets at the time. We managed to get two one-way tickets but only till Rome, Italy.

In Italy, we performed at the Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East (IsMEO). Through that performance we got invited to perform at the famous theatre, Teatro Goldoni and so we did. Then we went to Yugloslavia and performed in three cities and they were all wonderful performances. I remember as guests, we were even offered tickets, twice, to the well-known Opera La Boheme but unfortunately on both occasions we had such a time of partying and drinking the night before that we never made it to the opera.

Back in Rome, we did another round of performances, each with a theatre-full of audiences. In the audience we also noticed a lot of red cardinal gowns. Soon, we were invited by the Assistant Father General of Jesuits, an Indian at the time, to perform at their headquarters near the Vatican. We were hosted at a lovely convent and the nuns were so extraordinarily impressed with us because we were vegetarian. They thought it was such an austerity and it was so spiritual, and made lovely vegetarian things for us. Later, the Indian Assistant Father general also organized for us an audience with the Pope Paul IV and so we also got to meet the Pope.

One night, I heard that Joan Baez was going to perform at a theatre, and I was a particularly big fan of hers. It was disappointing to realise that I couldn’t because we too were performing the same night. Next morning when we went to see the papers, I was on the front page and Joan Baez was somewhere in small print. It was amazing and unbelievable. Nonetheless, we did get to met her later, but missed seeing her perform. And that’s how we began our theatre career.

In the next few months we were invited by ITV (Italian TV) to record our performance. After the recording they said that they were cash strapped and couldn’t pay too much. We were used to that, because in India no one really paid or paid well at all – In Delhi we got Rs.250. But the Italian TV pay turned out to be a lot more than we had ever imagined. Excited about our big pay, we spotted a second-hand car sales place across the TV station and Gopal and I immediately bought ourselves a Black Volkswagen Beetle, with a Number 1 plate. We excitedly discussed how we could drive back home to India, because in those days you could’ve driven back home to India.

In 1968, we drove to Munich, and the Southern German Radio & TV : Bayerischer Rundfunk, also recorded our performance. After the recording they enquired how much the Italians had paid us and simply upped our pay by a lot more. We were so happy and amused. I remember in Frankfurt, I also went and got myself my first pair of contact lenses.
We met and made so many amazing friends along the way, some famous and some not. While we performed and drove all over Europe, our beloved second hand car would often break down. I remember a lot of our friends like actress Vanessa Redgrave and even the Qatari ambassador to India were among the many people pushing that car.

In London we performed at various places, including the Mercury theatre, where T.S Elliot had performed his plays. Everywhere we went we received rave reviews. London is where we finally settled down for a while and continued to perform. Gopal began writing on the arts for The Times and The Sunday Times in London and wrote a book on Indian music, Filigree in Sound that was published in London. At the time the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) had an event called the World Theatre season. It was the most prestigious theatre festival and they approached us to bring a play to the event. Gopal said – “Yes, we’d like to, but the play I’d like to bring I haven’t written it yet.” He wanted to write a Ramayana relevant to our times, a modern, dramatic and humane interpretation of the Sanskrit epic. RSC happily agreed and signed a contract with us. When our event with RSC was announced, a TATA representative from London came forward to financially back the venture because we were getting India a good name. They awarded Gopal with a Homi Bhabha fellowship, the third person in the country to get it.

At the end of our two-year adventure, in 1970, we returned to India and began preparations on the Ramayana. We also needed to find a space to rehearse the play. We began with the process of auditioning actors and actresses in Bombay for our new play. I remember Amjad Khan came, and others from FTII (Film & Television Institute of India) and soon we had a good crew. While in Bombay, I heard that Morarji Desai, deputy to the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was also in-charge of allotting government housing to artists in Delhi, so I approached him about a place and he called me to his office at 7.30 in the morning. Gopal had written a preface on our Ramayana, and I showed it to him. Morarji Desai said he would read it and that I should return the next morning at exactly the same time. I thought he was a nasty man for calling me at 7.30 am in the morning. Nonetheless, I went and he had read it, had made some notes and said it was wonderful. I was shown six locations, and asked me to choose whichever house I’d like. I chose this one in Lutyen’s Delhi. Gopal hollowed out the bunglow, redesigned the space, and included a 50-seat indoor theatre. He did a lot of the work all by himself.

Soon after rehearsals began, the cast went on strike over some grouses. Now when I look back it was probably an attempt by some envious people whose incitements sabotaged our crew. It was dreadful and we were upset, but we went to the bank, paid them their dues and said our byes. On a trip to Simla to pick up my daughter from her boarding school, Gopal who had clearly been doing a lot of thinking, asked me to perform all the 22 roles in the Ramayana he had written, by myself. He was inspired by the narrations of Kathas (the traditional Indian storytelling format) at his home in Lucknow, UP. I was not so sure, but Gopal rewrote the script into the form of a Katha and it began to look very good – and we began working on it. But there was more disappointing news. When RSE heard that our Ramayana was going to be a one-woman show, their interest in the project turned cold. They had envisioned an epic story with a large crew. That was a big blow. Nonetheless, we didn’t stop the work and I performed it for the first time in 1970, for a small audience above the porch of Ashok Hotel and later at other venues, including our own theatre.

One day, a team from USA Educational Institute sent 15-20 people to see the Ramayana. It was their last night in India but they were quite impressed with the show and asked us to meet them for breakfast before they flew out. They said it was the first time they had seen something that displayed a contemporary spirit of India, moreover it was in English and hence understandable. They invited us to USA and to perform through their colleges. We went to America, and in the course of travelling, we were also asked to perform at the 1000-seater National theatre School of Canada in Ottawa. Along the way we met with a big New York based lawyer and an angel investor, Robert A. Hendrickson who was known to fund the arts, and was interested in our work. He came along with us to Canada to see how we did with a big audience. Of course, we did splendidly well, and soon he contacted us to do a season on Broadway and that’s how we got to New York Broadway. It was most fantastic. So far, we are the first and only Indian production to have performed on that platform.

In 1981, TN Kaul, the Indian ambassador to USA, suggested that we perform the Ramayana at the NCPA (National Centre of Performing Arts), Bombay, but NCPA’s response to sponsoring the show was at best luke-warm. Kaul then invited actors Sunil & Nargis Dutt to watch us at Akshara. After the show, the Dutts insisted on paying for the play to be staged at NCPA. We agreed and played for 10 days straight to a full house. I remember after one of our shows, JRD Tata invited us for tea and said that he hadn’t watched the play, but it wasn’t because he did not want to. He had sent his driver to buy tickets but even the cheapest tickets were being sold in ‘black’ outside.

Our Ramayana has since been staged more than 2,000 times over 45 years at the most prestigious of institutions around the world and everywhere we went the theatres were filled with audiences. We did a lot of more work after that. A play called Karma, which was funny and moderm. I produced, performed in and narrated most of Gopal’s acclaimed television films like India Alive, The Kashmir Story, The Sufi Way, Gitanjali and Gandhi’s Gita, a play about Mahatma Gandhi’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita into Gujarati and how he and his wife Kasturba went through the final revision in the Himalayan foothills.

Gopal passed away in June of 2016, and his last appearance on stage was on April 13, 2016, when he played the part of the British Presiding Magistrate in the play about my father in the English Prison: Suresh Vaidya vs The British Government.
I miss him a lot. But we both believed in our work, the wisdom of life, love and theatrical arts and that should never stop. These days I am writing a play on Gopal and my life. A life that we have so loved, enjoyed and shared. We built a wonderful world together.

But this story is about Akshara Theatre, Gopal Sharman, me, our family, friends and well-wishers. We have been theatre performers for so many years and we have been extremely fortunate. Built in phases over a decade by Gopal himself and his team, the Akshara theatre, a non-profit arts institution, is spread over an acre of land and has grown to a 96-seat indoor theatre, and a 300-seat amphitheatre at the back of the property.

Our life is about our work, and anyone who is a part of our family or the theater has to willy-nilly perform, including our dogs and cats.


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.


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.


112 – My foster father, my glorious friend, Rathindra Nath Tagore

My foster father Rathindra Nath Tagore, with his father Rabindra Nath Tagore. Calcutta. (West Bengal) Circa 1935.

My foster father Rathindra Nath Tagore, with his father Rabindra Nath Tagore. Calcutta. (West Bengal) Circa 1935.

Image & Text contributed by Jayabrato Chatterjee, Kolkata

My earliest memories were borne back in Dehradun (now in Uttarakhand), where I spent my childhood with my mother, Meera Chatterjee, my maternal grandmother, Kamala Bisi and my Jethu, Rathi Jethu (Bengali term for father’s elder brother), Rathindra Nath Tagore. Jethu was Rabindra Nath Tagore’s second child & eldest son.

Those were the first eleven and most impressionable years of my childhood. I still remember the rattle of the Dehradun Express that would carry us back to our home in the valley, away from the bustle and noise of Calcutta (now Kolkata).

Jethu had left his home in Calcutta to come and live in Dehradun with my family. It was Jethu, who had allotted me a garden patch in Mitali, our home at 189/A Rajpur Road, Dehradun and asked me to tend it with care. He even bought me gardening tools, a pair of sears and a watering can. And as I had held his finger tightly, he had led me through the nursery, pointing out names of flowers usually associated with an English garden – Phlox, Larkspurs, Hollyhocks, Ladies lace, Nasturtium, Sweet-peas, Crocuses, Azaleas and Narcissi.

Mitali our home was sheltered by the Himalayas, by the Shivalik ranges that were a riot of Mary Palmers, Crimson hibiscuses and sprawling lawns flanked by flower beds down five cobbled steps. I remember watching the shooting stars that raced across the sky at twilight. Mitali was Ochre in colour, with six large bedrooms, two kitchens, garages, servants’ quarters and a tin shed near the Mango and Lichi orchards where our cows Shyama and Julie – mooed and Koeli, the Tibetan terrier, barked her head off. Beyond the shed lay a wire-meshed chicken barn crowded with cackling Leghorns and a Black Minorca rooster who at the crack of dawn would awaken Ghanshyam, the mali (gardner) with a start. And pervading through the garden was, of course, Jethu’s voice, gently instructing the gardeners with a voice so civilised and kind that all were bound to pay attention to words spoken with equal measure to one and all.

Born on November 27, 1888, Jethu was sent by his father, Rabindranath Tagore, in 1906, to the University of Illinois to study Agriculture and where he was instrumental in starting the now famous Cosmopolitan Club. Jethu’s interests were varied and eclectic.

My strongest memories remain of him bent over a block of wood in the afternoons, by the light of a dull electric bulb, diligently inlaying it with intricate chips of ebony and ivory or shaping it into a beautiful jewellery box, a pen holder or a coffee table. He was usually assisted by a skilled and slightly cross-eyed Sikh carpenter named Bachan Singh – who would also let me chip away at a redundant wedge with a miniature saw and shape it into building blocks that I would later colour.

On my fifth birthday, Jethu presented me with a wonderful wooden steed he had made – a cross between a rocking horse and a miniature pony – complete with stirrups and a comfortable seat. He had placed him strategically on springs so that I could ride the foal to my heart’s content without falling off. For a while this charger became the love of my life and only if I was feeling generous would I share it with Bugga, the janitor’s son, who was my best friend. Bugga was snotty-nosed & mischief-laden who knew where the parrots would nest for the summer or where we could find caterpillars and tadpoles during the monsoons. He had also charmed members of Mitali by doing an impeccable act on Ravan, watched at the local Ramleela. I too would slip out at night, without my mother or Jethu finding out, with my ayah, Kanchi Ama, and walk at least two miles guided by the moon to the Ramleela grounds where the local servants metamorphosed into delectable actors. The Ramleela was certainly the high point of my Dusserah holidays when I came home from my boarding school and delighted in watching Langra Karesan, another servant, snivel through his performance as Sita in one of my mother’s old chiffon sarees.

I was hell-bent on becoming an actor too. So I’d sing my way through most of Balmiki Pratibha (an Opera penned by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, Jethu’s father) exclusively for Jethu’s pleasure. My reward was a set of wonderful wooden swords that he crafted for me and the next time we went to Calcutta, Bhola babu, who was the manager at Jorasanko, was instructed by Jethu to buy me a dacoit’s costume, complete with a pair of false mustachios, and take me to see the Great Russian Circus. On rain-filled evenings he would sit me on his lap, play his Esraj (Indian Harp) at Santiniketan, lovingly running the bow on the strings, and teach me to sing songs whose meanings I’m still discovering – Oi ashono toley; Roop shagorey doob diyechhi; Amaarey tumi oshesh korechho and Kholo kholo dwaar.

Winter holidays in Calcutta were never complete without a dinner with Ma and Jethu at Skyroom on Park Street and a special Sunday lunch at the Firpo’s on Chowringhee. My table manners – taught to me at Mitali – came in handy. It was Jethu who showed me the difference between a fish and a carving knife, between a salad and a quarter plate, a pastry and a regular fork; he showed me how to use the various items of the Mappin & Webb silver cutlery that had been arranged at table and insisted that I washed and wore clean clothes for dinner, ate my soup without slurping and consumed the rest of the meal with my mouth closed and a napkin spread over my lap. Lunch at home was typically Bengali, consisting of the usual rice, dal, shukto and a fish or meat curry. But dinner, sharp at 7.30 pm, was always European, served with flourish, item by item, by Jethu’s personal valet, Bahadur, at the formal dining room on Royal Doulton crockery. It was pleasure to see Jethu peel an apple at breakfast with great ceremony and elegance. Now when I look back, in fact every meal that I remember having with him was an art.

During my childhood it was very fashionable to host tea parties. Jethu had inducted Ma into sipping the most fragrant of Darjeeling teas – the delicately-scented Flowery Orange Pekoe. He was also a wonderful cook and often baked me a cake for my birthday. Some evenings, he would walk into the kitchen and stir up a mean Shepherd’s Pie and a fluffy mango soufflé. And when the orchards in Mitali had a surplus of Guavas, he would make the best Guava jelly that I have ever tasted.

A variety of celebrated invitees and house guests came to dinner – like Uncle Leonard (Leonard Elmhirst), Pankaj Mullick & Suchitra Mitra, legendary musicians, to scientist, Satyendra Nath Bose on his way to Mussoorie, Pandit Nehru (who often visited Dehra), Lady Ranu, Buri Mashi and Krishna Mesho (Nandita and Krishna Kripalani). I clearly remember the performance of a play, Pathan, by Prithviraj Kapoor and his troupe who had come to Dehra Dun. Jethu was invited to the show as Chief Guest and Ma and I had accompanied him. The next evening the players were invited to dinner at home. In the cast were Sati Mashi (whose daughter Ruma-di was then married to Kishore Kumar) and the very young and handsome Shammi and Shashi Kapoor who turned many feminine heads at the reception. But Prithviraj-ji, affectionately known as Papaji, insisted on sitting at Jethu’s feet throughout the evening, much to Jethu’s embarrassment. He just wouldn’t budge and kept saying, ‘How can I have the arrogance to sit next to Gurudev Rabindranath’s son?’ He dragged me by my hand and had me sit on his lap, ruffling my hair as he talked to other guests.

Jethu and Ma had formed a cultural organisation – Rabindra Samsad – and many plays and dance dramas by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore were performed by its members. Ma was a veteran actress, having played Rani Sudershana, (a name that Gurudev Tagore would address her by thereafter) in Rakta Karabi and Rani Lokeshwari in Natir Puja, all directed by Gurudev in Santiniketan. Ma was his favourite actress.

So watching Jethu too direct her in Bashikaran, Lokkhir Porikhha and Chirokumar Sabha was, for me, a treat. Ma as well, directed Natir Puja with my sister playing Ratnabali, Ritu Ranga & Bhanushingher Padavali and a children’s play, Tak-duma-dum, scripted by Jethu’s aunt, Jnanadanandini Debi, where I played the lead as the wily jackal! Rabindra Samsad  held regular musical soirees and showed Bengali films. My introduction to Satyajit Ray’s Debi (Devi) and Pather Panchali happened in the faraway Dehradun’s Prabhat cinema. Encouraged to participate in all the cultural events was for me, a huge education.

Jethu was also an ardent painter and spent long hours at his easel, working on beautiful water-coloured landscapes and delicate flower studies. Sometimes Ma painted along with him and also crafted many items via the complex art of Batik. My mother’s Batik parasols and slippers were greatly admired as were her exclusive batik stoles and sarees. I can still remember the smell of melting wax and feel my fingers stained again with several colours.

The relationship Ma shared with Jethu was not something that his father, Gurudev Tagore was aware of. Gurudev died in 1941 while their relationship must have begun somewhere around 1948. With accusing whispers Jethu was deserted both by his colleagues in Santiniketan and his family members. There was a 30-year age difference between Ma & Jethu but I would describe their relationship as being very respectful & tender. Having seen Ma and Jethu together and having grown up with them in Dehradun, I know what this relationship meant to them. Most of his life Jethu had felt lonely and misunderstood, but in Ma he had found a great companion.

One of Jethu’s other favourite hobbies was making perfumes that were later filled into the most delicate glass-blown bottles that I had ever seen. He’d gift Ma a different fragrance on her birthdays. Many a mornings would be spent combining the scents and concentrates of flowers like roses, juhi and mogra that came all the way from Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh. He’d leave no stones unturned till he got the aroma right, pulling away at his cigarette – either Three Castles or John Peel or Abdulla Imperial. His perfume bottles became coveted possessions for all those who were lucky enough to receive them. Usually, after the Rabindra Samsad shows, there would be lively cast parties at Mitali and the actors and singers waited with baited breaths till Jethu gave them a bottle of scent as a parting present.

Around my Jethu, light-footed and non-intrusive, virtually like the fragrance of the golden champaka blossoms that he loved so dearly, an innate sense of aesthetics kept vigil. His impeccable sense of coutour, interior decor, landscaping and gardening lent to his persona.

The last ten years of his life and the first ten years of mine were, for both of us, absolutely golden. But when he died at the age of 73 in June of 1961, Mitali or even I could never be the same again without its kind and gentle prince, my beloved foster father. Yet, as I write today, I drift back to the enchantment that was my childhood spent in Jethu’s benign shadow. And in the splendoured story of my Ma and Jethu, I re-live the most civilized, glorious and compassionate friendship that I will ever care to remember.


111 – One of the three earliest known Indians to have studied at the Royal College of Art, London

My great great grandfather, Vasu Deva Sharma. Berlin, Germany. Circa 1920

My great grandfather, Vasu Deva Sharma. Berlin, Germany. Circa 1925

Image & Text contributed by Nyay Bhushan, New Delhi

This is the only image of my great grand-father, Vasu Deva Sharma, in our family archives. It shows him working as an artist in a photo studio in Berlin. Dressed impeccably in a well-tailored suit, he poses in front of an easel with a brush in hand, with the canvas depicting a portrait of a possibly aristocratic European lady. Vasu Deva Sharma was one of the rare Indians of his time who studied at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London in the 1920s.

Vasu Deva Sharma was born on June 15, 1881 to Pandit Bhagwan Das in Pakpattan Sharif, District Montgomery, Punjab, (now in Pakistan). In 1910, he passed the Senior Vernacular Teachers Certificate Examination (Punjab Education Department) and in 1911 he joined Central Training College, Lahore as a Drawing Professor. The same year he married Saraswati Devi and on December 3, 1912, the couple had a son, Ved Prakash Sharma (my grandfather) and a daughter Ved Kumari in 1914. Tragically, in 1915 Saraswati Devi passed away and as joint families would, his brother Pandit Bhim Sen and sister-in-law Kaushalya Devi helped raise the two children.

In 1920, at the age of 39, Vasu Deva Sharma gave up his job at the Central Training College, Lahore after receiving a scholarship to study at Royal College of Art. He sailed from Bombay to London on the ship Kaisar-I-Hind on the P&O line, and arrived in London on September 25, 1920. (Source : The National Archives, UK – Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960; www.ancestry.com)

Upon his arrival in London he stayed in a furnished apartment at 12, Eardley Crescent, Earls Court, SW. His first term studies at RCA began with a basic course in Architecture and Lettering. His first term student file (which I sourced from the RCA archives in 1995), remarks: “Inexperienced in European design and draughtsmanship. Indefatigable in his studies. Has made rapid progress. Shows great promise.”
His second term began with Painting and it included studying Art teaching methods for provincial Art schools in Britain, The study also had him travelling to other parts of the country, away from London.

My father Kul Bhushan, (an active researcher on Vasu Deva Sharma’s legacy) recounts an interesting anecdote by a family relative that reveals information on his final RCA presentation. Apparently Vasu Deva Sharma wanted to paint an iconic scene from Indian history – Maharana Pratap‘s battle against the Mughuls and to obtain authentic proportions of Maharana Pratap’s horse and the Mughul Emperor’s elephant, he visited the London Zoo and obtained special permission to measure a horse and an elephant!

In 1923, his final year at RCA, he moved to another accommodation, the Sikh Boarding House at 79, Sinclair Road, W.14, alongwith some fellow students. As for his progress in his final year studies, the remarks in his student file state: “Plodding, ambitious of improvement, industrious, this Indian student has taken full advantage of the methods and initiative a European School of Art can offer.”
He graduated with an A.R.C.A. – Associateship in ‘Decorative Painting’, Royal College of Art. The graduation ceremony was held on July 20, 1923 and diplomas were presented by Sir Montague Barlow, Minister of Labour. Vasu Deva sent his graduation cap and gown to his then widowed sister-in-law Kaushalya, as his ‘earnings’.

In 2012, I managed to source the graduation photo of his class from RCA which included names of now renowned British art icons like sculptors Sir Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and even more interestingly, his fellow graduates included two other Indians – Uday Shankar Choudhry and the famous painter-engraver Mukul Dey from Calcutta (now Kolkata).

Following graduation, Vasu Deva embarked on an extensive tour of Europe to study original works of art in museums. Not much is known apart from the fact that the travels spanned Scandinavia, France, Germany, Italy and Greece. While his family’s support funded his travels, it is very possible that he also worked as a commissioned artist to earn an extra income. But to imagine a traveling Indian artist in Europe at such an important time in the continent’s history makes my great grandfather’s story a fascinating adventure.

This picture (circa 1925) was taken by a German photographer named Karl Alexander Berg with his studio address at Joachimstaler Strasse in Berlin, Germany. Looking at the stamp under the photograph one can conjecture that Berg was appointed to the German Royal Court.

In 1927, Vasu Dev returned to Lahore. By sea cargo, he sent around 30 suitcases and boxes full of art books, art reproductions, art materials, studio cameras, complete studio equipment and hundreds of other art objects, garments and personal effects. Interestingly, the photography equipment he brought was for his son (my grand-father, Ved Prakash Sharma) who later opened a photo studio in Lahore called Omega Photo Art Studio.

Vasu Deva Sharma joined Chief’s College in Lahore as an arts professor while practising as a professional artist for commissioned portraits. According to some family sources, he was also commissioned by Indian royal families, such as the Royals of Chamba, in North India.

In 1929, he began constructing a bungalow at 30A Empress Road, Bibian Pak Daman, near Shimla Hill, Lahore. For furnishing his bungalow, one of his students at Chief’s College – a Prince of Chamba – gifted him a railway wagon full of the best timber around. 
In addition to making furniture, Vasu Deva made seven easels to teach art to his students at home and he gifted away some. A cupboard made from this wood still stands in a family relative’s home in New Delhi. It is important to note the very significant connection between the then RCA president Sir William Rothenstein (from 1920-35) and Indian art. Rothenstein took a keen interest in Mughal paintings. He traveled extensively to British India to research Indian art and in 1910 established an India Society to educate the British public about Indian arts. According to my father’s recollections, Rothenstein traveled again to India in 1944. He visited my great-grand father at his mansion (that also housed his studio and artworks), in Lahore to see how his former RCA student was doing. As a six year old boy, my father recalls that this was a major event for which Vasu Deva also summoned his son Ved Prakash, my grandfather, to come from Pakpattan to Lahore and welcome Rothenstein.

A year before the partition of India and Pakistan following the end of British rule, Vasu Deva Sharma who suffered from Diabetes, slipped into a coma with paralysis and passed away on February 6, 1946, at the age of 65.

Soon after his death, his son Ved Prakash was appointed manager of Punjab National Bank in Ahmedabad and he and his family moved to Gujarat just before the nation wide violent partition riots of August 1947. The few belongings that the family members in Lahore could save were Vasu Deva’s original RCA diploma and this photograph from Berlin. It is understood that the mansion was ransacked and looted and they were unable to salvage the artworks and invaluable artefacts which were left behind in the mansion.

My father Kul Bhushan visited Lahore in 1977 and went to Empress Road to see the family home. By then, it had been turned into a housing estate with many apartments. But he noticed that the original marble name plate outside the house was still there, mentioning Vasu Deva Sharma’s name in English with his RCA degree mentioned below. Today the site is a commercial building with no hint of the past and no trace of the name plate either.

As a filmmaker and a photographer, one of my main projects these days is to search for any surviving artworks by Vasu Deva Sharma which could be in the UK, Europe, Pakistan and India. I would be very interested, if anyone may have any information on that. For more information that I have found on him you can visit here.


67 – The first Hindu girl student of St. Xaviers, who went on to become an Honorary Magistrate

My mother, Kamini Agaskar, grandmother Kamala Vijaykar, me, Mrudula Joshi and in my lap my daughter, Anupamaa Joshi, Bombay, Maharashtra. Circa 1970

Image and Text contributed by Mrudula Prabhuram Joshi, Mumbai

Kamala Vijayakar, my grandmother (sitting, center) was born in 1890 in a well-to-do Pathare Prabhu family in Bombay. Pathare Prabhus are the original residents of the Bombay Islands along with the Agaris, the Bhandaris and the Kolis since 700 years. They are known to be a small, close-knit, and a 100 % literate community. Kamala was a bright student of the Alexandra Girls’ School. She passed her Matriculation exam in 1910 and joined St. Xavier’s College for higher education the same year. She was ”the first Hindu girl student” of this esteemed college. She excelled in higher studies and was preparing for the First Year Arts examination when she got engaged to Mr. Narayan Vijaykar, who was an artist but non-matriculate. According to the prevalent norms, the wife could never be more educated than the husband, so she had to give up college education, start family life, raising children and fulfilling the duties of a good housewife.

Settled in Malad, a distant suburb in Bombay, she began taking a keen interest in the Local District Board activities and the emancipation of women around her. She was a fluent and forceful speaker in English, and was appointed as the Honorary Magistrate at Malad. A lady Magistrate was a major novelty in those days and people would throng the courts when she delivered her judgments. When she left her home to go to the courts, people would stand on both sides of the road just ”to see ” how a lady magistrate looked. She had long innings at the Malad District Court. Kamalabai Vijaykar was appointed ”Justice of Peace ” (Honorary Magistrate) by the government, and she later became popular as ”J. P. Kamalabai ” all over Bombay. She was also a staunch Congress-woman.

All her life, she held Education dear to her heart. Her own children, 7 in all, fulfilled her own dream of becoming Graduates and Double-graduates. She lived long enough to see even her grandchildren become double graduates. She breathed her last on 8th August, 1972, at the ripe old age of 82, content in the knowledge that she had done her bit to empower at least some women around her by providing for their education.