logo image Tracing the identity & history of the Indian Subcontinent via family archives

Glamour

157 – A photograph to send back home to India

Fehmeed Siddiqui with wife Nargis Jahan. Karachi, Pakistan, 1975.

My husband, Fehmeed Siddiqui and I, Nargis Jahan. Karachi, Pakistan, 1975.

Image and Text contributed by Nargis Jahan, Karachi.

My husband Fehmeed was born and brought up in Lucknow, and spent his early years darning cloth at his father’s shop in Hazratganj. He would often tell me about his struggles in Calcutta (now Kolkata), where he moved to in 1965, while in his mid-20s, to find better work. He also spoke about the gruesome violence he witnessed between Hindus and Muslims there, how it shook him, and prompted him to move to Karachi, where his paternal relatives lived at the time. After migrating to Karachi, he found work at a shop selling carpets and a few years after, when some mutual relatives arranged our match, we got married in 1974.

In this picture, Fehmeed and I were about eight months into our marriage, and still getting to know each other. He would take me out on dates a lot, and frequently to Karachi’s Clifton Beach.  This is a photograph from the time when Fehmeed took me out for our first photo shoot together to a studio on Tariq Road, a famous shopping district in Karachi (now Pakistan). He wanted it photographed so he could send it back to his home in Lucknow, India, to relatives who had not been able to attend our wedding.  “What kind of a picture is this?!” my father growled when he saw it and did not allow us to send this photograph. Eventually, we sent another one where I am mostly covered in a burqa.

Karachi was a completely different place then. Couples would be seen going out a lot more. There was a lot less violence. The street outside the photo studio where this was clicked was a popular tourist spot, and many foreigners would be seen sitting around at restaurants here. The pant-suit I am wearing, was stitched for me by a cousin who lived in Saudi Arabia. Such suits were in fashion in Saudi at the time, so he got about five or six of these for me. The goggles were a gift from another cousin in Lahore.


126 – Foxtrotting at the Blue Fox

My Grandparents, Shobhendra Nath and Gouri Tagore. Calcutta. West Bengal. Circa 1950

My Grandparents, Shobhendra Nath and Gouri Tagore. Calcutta. West Bengal. Circa 1950

Image and Text contributed by Somdev Thakur, Kolkata

My grandfather, Shobhendra Nath Tagore, had a very charismatic personality. He was a lawyer in the High Court, a theatrecian, an adventurer and a government employed hunter (to hunt animals that had turned rogue and attacked villages).

Shobhendra Nath was a descendant of the well known Tagore lineage. His great-grandfather Ramanath and Dwarakanath Tagore were twins, and Dwarkanath was Rabindranath Tagore‘s grandfather.
In the several albums that document my grandparent’s life I recently found a number of images titled “Dancing” that show an active nightlife my grandparents led. Mostly they danced the Foxtrot and the Cha Cha Cha, as my grandmother recalls at the Blue Fox, one of Calcutta’s first bar/restaurants that had famous and popular live bands, meant specifically to play music for people to dance. It is an entertaining record of Calcutta’s night life from the 50s and the 60s. The Blue Fox was situated at Calcutta’s famous road – Park Street, a kilometer long stretch that had several amazing eateries, throbbing with joy, laughter and lights, it hosted some of the best of Indian Parties one had ever seen. Some then even called Calcutta, the best place to party in the world. During the day the carefree young would rush to Park Street and by sun down, shiny expensive cars would swoop down the street, and out would come beautifully dressed men and women.
Calcutta was once upon a time, truly a city of joy.


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.


90 – She swung by the Taj Mahal after returning an abducted girl to her family

My mother, Meenakshi Surve posing by the Taj Mahal. Agra, Uttar Pradesh. 1978

Image and text contributed by Vaibhav Bhosle, Mumbai

At the time this photograph was taken, my mother was in her third year of her employment with the State Police of Maharashtra and was on an official trip to Agra. The purpose of this journey was to return an abducted girl, a native of Uttar Pradesh who was found and rescued by the police in Bombay (Mumbai).

After the girl was returned safely to her parents, my mother Meenakshi and a female colleague accompanied by a male senior staff had a few hours to spare before their train’s departure to Bombay. My mother wanted to visit the Agra Fort but her colleague wanted to see the Taj Mahal. Eventually she agreed to visit the Taj Mahal, where this picture was taken by a local photographer.

My mother is the second eldest amongst five siblings, and was born to Yashwant & Shalini Surve in Chiplun, a sleepy village at the time in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra.

When my grandfather Yashwant, a farmer, suffered huge losses in his grocery business, he had no choice but to relocate to Bombay in search for a better job. My grandmother along with all the children moved to her maternal home and took up odd farm jobs to add to the sustenance. After many years of struggling, my grandfather eventually did find a job in Dalda company and could afford a princely sum of Rs 500 to buy an apartment in the suburbs of Bombay, only then he had his family to move to Bombay.

New to a big city, and with five children, my grandparents’ means were limited, so the family set up a Milk delivery service, in which all their children pitched in. My mother too enrolled herself in a Tailoring Institute in hope of finding a job ; and she also applied for Government employment. A few days later, she received a call from the employment agency informing her on an unconsidered avenue, recruitment for the Police Force.

My grandfather accompanied her to the recruitment center. But skeptical of the type of candidates he saw there, he was discouraged and asked her not to give the exam, yet my mother went ahead and also got selected for the Force. At the training camp, she was the only one with her own blanket.

An employment with the State Government was an achievement for the entire family. The nature of the job and the independence it brought with it shaped my mother’s personality. She was the first in the family to travel out of state or to even own a pair of Sunglasses.

While growing up, we would be fascinated by all the stories that she would tell us about her work. On the rare occasions that we were taken to the Police station, seated on the bench for 2 hours my sister and I would gather enough visuals and sounds to boast to our friends, including the Dal and Pao (Lentils & Bread) that was served to the inmates because it looked most delicious. For every mischief that my sister and I got into, my mother had a story equivalent to where mischief makers were eventually put in jail.

No doubt, it was a tough job for my mother. It comprised of long hours, which got longer on festivals. The night shifts sometimes begun by a knock on the door at 3 am in the morning, or the out of town trips which were conveyed hours before they begun.

This is a special photograph to me because it is the most glamorous image of my mom that I can recollect and it is as special to her as well because she thinks the same.

 


80 – With props and accessories, she indulged her fantasies at a photo studio

My mother, Mohini Goklani. Pune, Maharashtra. Circa 1950

Image and Text contributed by Sunita Kripalani, Goa

In 1947, after partition, when my grandfather Nanikram Goklani and his wife Khemi migrated to India, along with their extended family from Karachi, Pakistan, they settled in Pune, Maharashtra with their 9 children. My mother Mohini, second of seven sisters, was just 16 at that time. Grandpa got a job in the Income Tax department and although times were tough, my grandfather made sure all the children received excellent education.

My mother and her older sister Sheela went to Nowrosjee Wadia College and my grandfather managed to procure admission for some of the younger children in reputed schools such as Sardar Dastur Hoshang Boys’ High School, and St. Helena’s School for Girls. The children studied well, they were voracious readers, and led a simple life.

During the 1950s, the sisters were well versed in household skills, especially the art of stitching and embroidery. They fashioned their own clothes, copying designs from magazines and the displays in the shop windows of Main Street. At home however, they maintained decorum and modesty, but ever so often, Duru, my mother’s younger sister, would coax her to go with her to a photo studio on Main Street called The Art Gallery to get their photographs taken. Duru would pack all kinds of stuff for both of them: ties and beads, scarves and skirts, hats and belts, not to forget some make-up, and the two of them would mount their bicycles and head for the studio where they indulged their fantasies, using studio props and their own accessories.

In the picture my mother is wearing “Awara pants”, a style made famous after the well known actor, Raj Kapoor’s movie by the same name. She is also very nonchalantly holding a cigarette, albeit unlit, between her fingers! The photograph is totally incongruous with her personality, for copying Nargis, the star actress of the time, was more my mom’s style whereas my aunt Duru was bolder and more tomboyish.

I don’t know if my grandfather knew what was going on, or if he approved, but he was not the kind of father who would scold any of his children. If he didn’t like something, he simply wrote a few words on a piece of paper and slipped the little note under that child’s pillow, which was enough to bring the rebellious offspring back on track… but that’s another story.

After college, my mother got a job at the Department of Cooperation, Government of Maharashtra. It was her first and last job. She retired in 1985 as Assistant Registrar of Cooperative Societies, Bombay.

 

 


63 – A beauty icon, she later became Governor to two states of India

My mother’s classmate, Sharda Pandit (later Mukherjee), Bombay, Maharashtra. 1935

Image and text contributed by  Mrudula Prabhuram Joshi, Bombay

The beautiful woman seen here is Sharda Pandit, a scion of a Maharashtrian aristocratic family in the earlier half of the 20th century. She was born in Rajkot, Gujarat. She was hailed as the ‘Beauty Queen’ of Elphinstone College of Bombay, in fact of all collegians of the city; because Bombay (now Mumbai) had only three colleges at that time – Elphinstone, Wilson and St. Xavier’s.  She possessed a kind of serene beauty, singular charm and grace. Her contemporaries from other colleges would drop by just to have a glimpse of this icon of beauty. Not only was she beautiful to look at, she possessed a beautiful heart, too.

At that time, there were only a handful of women students in the colleges, most of whom were from middle class families. Sharda would get along amicably with everyone despite her wealthy family background. She acted as the heroine of several plays during the college years, for the Annual College Day functions.

Sharda and my mother, Kamini Vijaykar were classmates and that is how I came to know about her.

Later on, Sharda married Subroto Mukherjee, the first Air Chief Marshal of the Indian Air Force in 1939. After his untimely death in 1960, she devoted herself to social service and political activism. For some time, she was also the Governor of Andhra Pradesh from 1977-1978 and then the Governor of Gujarat from 1978 to 1983. She kept herself busy with several constructive activities. She was beyond 90 years of age when she passed away, but preserved her inner and outer beauty till the very last.


60 – Winner of the 1970 Miss India crown

My aunt, Veena Sajnani, winner of the Miss India Crown, Bombay, Maharashtra. 1970

Image and Text contributed by Smita Sajnani/Veena Sajnani, Bengaluru

The following text is the story my Bua, (father’s siser) Veena Sajnani narrated to me while flipping through her photo albums.
“I was a fashion model in the year 1970 and toured with the Femina group all over India doing fashion shows for textile firms and others. Our salary was Rs. 150/- per show and after 20 shows we would go home with a princely sum of Rs. 3000/-. We were only 10 models and we knew each other well, we travelled together and had a lot of fun.

One such day that year, when rehearsals for fashion shows had begun, I was told I was no longer required for the show. Very upset and being a newbie with all the hotshot models of Bombay, I presumed it was because I had made a mistake and therefore had been kicked out.

But no. Apparently the call for Miss India 1970 had been announced and I was selected to participate in the Beauty Pageant. Funny part was, I hadn’t even applied for it! I then found out that Meher Mistry and Persis Khambatta (the original Super Models of India) who were close friends, had filled in the Miss India application form for me because they felt I had a chance to win.

Once I accepted the fact that I was in the pageant, I ran home and told my sister to come shopping with me. On a limited budget, we bought a sari, an Emerald green chiffon with gold work and it looked lovely under the stage lights. Bombay, being the cinema city, had tailors stitching sari blouses within hours so while my sister and I shopped around, my blouse was ready.

Before the day of the pageant, we were asked to come to the Times of India office terrace (parent company of Femina) with a swim-suit and be photographed in it, because in those days, judges looked at pictures instead of the actual girls in swim-suits; and we were saved the embarrassment of coming out on stage in swim-suits. Instead, during the interval, the judges came backstage to check us out and since it was dark they had flashlights and our photos in their hands! Yes, it was very funny indeed. We all giggled through the ordeal but in retrospect it was better than walking out half naked under full lights- a very scary prospect to say the least.

Persis and Meher on the other hand, were walking for the fashion show on the contest day and were most enthusiastic about my winning. So much so that Persis decided to do some sleuthing to find out how I was faring with the judges. She was perceptive and sharp, so each time she went out on the ramp she would peek into the judges’ notes! She must have had X-Ray vision because she said she could see the ratings and it was number 6, my number! We all pooh-poohed but sure enough when the winner was announced it was indeed number 6! Me. Veena Sajnani.

Needless to say my two partners in crime were thrilled to bits. After all I had beaten Zeenat Aman (who later became a very famous movie star), whom I think they did not like very much. Whatever the case maybe, I was happy for them and for myself for joining the elite band of Miss Indias. And I will always remember them fondly for this adventure.”

After her stay at Miami for the Miss Universe pageant, my Bua continued with her modelling, then worked at Madura Coats, post which she found her true love – Theatre.


22 – She was the epitome of style and sophistication

My mother (center) Maya Shivdasani, with her parents, Dr Manghanmal Kripalani, an eminent physician and Sarsati Kripalani, Hyderabad Sind, 1939

Image and text contributed by Usha Bhandarkar

My mother Maya Shivdasani is now 90 year old of age. She was born in Hyderabad Sind in 1919 and came to Bombay after her marriage in 1937. After her marriage in 1937 Maya moved to Bombay but would visit her parents in Hyderabad Sind (Now Pakistan) at least twice a year. This photograph was taken on one of her visits to Hyderabad where she was the epitome of style and sophistication: sleeveless sari blouse, short hair, long, painted fingernails.

She has lived in Cuffe Parade all these 73 years, read the Times of India every single day and visits the Cricket Club of India once a week. One of her favourite haunts is the Sea Lounge at the Taj Mahal Hotel. She was truly saddened to see it damaged in the Mumbai attacks of 2008. On the day the Sea Lounge reopened she was there sitting at a window table, sipping their wonderful Viennoise Coffee.