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175 – The Maharanis of Travancore

The Maharanis of Travancore. Sethu Parvathi Bayi (left) and Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (right). Travancore (now central and Southern Kerala, India). c. 1905

Image contributed by Jay Varma, Text by Manu S. Pillai, New Delhi

(This narrative is an edited version to suit the format of this archive.)

It was in the fall of 1900, that the Maharajah of Travancore adopted the two girls in this photograph (taken in c. 1905), as his Maharanis — and as his ‘nieces’. For in Kerala, queens were never wives of monarchs, but their sisters. Under the matrilineal system of succession, ranks and titles passed in the female line; the Maharajah was a ruler not because his father was king before him, but because his mother was queen.

The Maharajahs of Travancore (now central and Southern Kerala, India) inherited the crown from their mother’s brothers, and thus power passed in a topsy turvy fashion from uncle to nephew, down the generations. Naturally, then, the sons of kings from their own wives were not seen as princes, but were only exalted nobles of the realm, fated for oblivion after the deaths of their royal fathers. Instead, princely dignities were granted to sons of royal sisters, and it was these boys who were considered heirs to the throne.

In 1900, however, the Maharajah had no heirs through his sister, and so the two girls seen here were adopted. They were cousins, and granddaughters of the famous artist Raja Ravi Varma. Sometime before the princesses were born, their mothers had journeyed to Rameswaram (Tamil Nadu) on a pilgrimage to pray for the birth of daughters to them. Legend has it that the deity appeared to them in a dream and promised the fulfilment of their desire. And thus when the girls were born, they were named Sethu Parvathi Bayi (left) and Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (seated right) respectively, with the prefix ‘Sethu’ denoting their divine origins from the lord of Sethu Samudram in Rameswaram.

The girls grew up in Trivandrum Fort as ‘Junior Maharani’ (Sethu Parvathi Bayi) and ‘Senior Maharani’ (Sethu Lakshmi Bayi) respectively. Indian as well as Anglo-Indian tutors were appointed for them and before long they were able to speak the King’s English, cultivating manners that marked Edwardian high society. They played tennis, golf, and croquet, all in their traditional costumes. In music they mastered the piano and the veena, and they read voraciously, becoming expert conversationalists, impressing everyone who met them.

When they turned 10, a set of boys from the aristocracy was presented to them to select one each as their consorts (the men were never officially called ‘husbands’). Though these consorts were wedded to the Maharanis, they were considered subjects: they lived in separate palaces and only visited their royal wives when summoned; they had to bow to them and refer to them as Highnesses. In public, they were prohibited from being seated in the presence of their highborn brides. The little Maharanis spent several years playing hopscotch with their husbands, and reading fairytales together in the palace library until in their teens the marriages were consummated on nights when the stars were in perfect alignment.

It was the Junior Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi who gave birth to a boy, Chithira Thirunal, in 1912. But until he came of age, for over seven years, the destinies of Travancore were entrusted to the Senior Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who had two daughters but no sons. Power corrupted relations between the two royal matriarchs and records speak of the Junior Maharani as ‘the villain’. She felt that as mother of the future Maharajah, she ought to have been allowed to rule Travancore on his behalf and not her sister. But law and tradition decreed that only the Senior Maharani could reign.

So it was Sethu Lakshmi Bayi who ruled Travancore in the 1920s. She initiated far-reaching reforms constructing highways, bringing electricity and telephone services to her people, spending nearly a fifth of her revenues on education, which augmented Kerala’s high rate of literacy, developing Cochin (now Kochi) into the modern trading port it is today, appointing the first female minister in India, employing hundreds of educated women in her government, and thousands as teachers and nurses, installing the first Dalit and Muslim judges in the state, selecting a Christian Prime Minister instead of a traditional Brahmin or Nair; and opening up public roads to all in Travancore, hitherto accessible only to high caste Hindus.

By the end of 1931, the Senior Maharani relinquished power and handed the mantle of state to her nephew Chithira Thirunal, the Junior Maharani’s son. By then relations between the sisters had deteriorated irreparably, with palace intrigue, black magic, and more vitiating the air at court. For the next many years, the Senior Maharani, despite her acclaimed services to the five million people of Travancore, lived under the vexing control of the Junior Maharani. British authorities noted that while the Senior Maharani was ‘popular and respected’ and ‘held in the greatest reverence and esteem throughout the state’, the Junior was ‘cordially hated’ by their subjects, and was a ‘jealous and masterful’ modern day Catherine de’ Medici. There was perhaps bias, for the Junior Maharani who showed great independence and held unorthodox views, but the man on the ground held her in fear, and not love.

In 1947, when India became independent, the Senior Maharani’s family sensed relief and freedom from control of the Junior Maharani. Her daughters moved to Bangalore and Madras (now Bengaluru and Chennai), leading new lives as ordinary citizens; they cooked their own food, drove their own cars, and brought up their children as regular citizens. In 1957, the Senior Maharani decided to leave her palace and renounce her royal past. From being ‘Her Highness Sri Padmanabha Sevini Vanchi Dharma Vardhini Raja Rajeshwari Maharani Pooradam Tirunal Sethu Lakshmi Bayi Maharajah, Companion of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India and Senior Maharani of Travancore,’ she retired to Bangalore simply as ‘Smt Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’. From a palace with 300 servants, she moved into an ordinary bungalow with a staff of seven and spent the remainder of her days as a quiet recluse. She gave up her palaces to the people of Kerala; her summer palace is now with the Agriculture College; her official residence is a medical research institute; her beach resort was given to the ITDC.

Some years before her death, bedridden, she remarked wistfully with a stoic smile, to a visitor: ‘Once I had a kingdom, but it is gone. Then I thought the palace was mine but that is gone too. Then I thought I had this house, but now I can only say I have this room.’

In 1983 the Junior Maharani died in her stately palace in Trivandrum where she and her family had continued to reside as royalty. She was granted a state funeral by the Government of Kerala, attended by celebrities and politicians alike. In 1985, the Senior Maharani died in a general hospital in Bangalore. She was cremated at the Wilson Gardens Electric Crematorium, like just anybody else, surrounded by family members. She wrote many years earlier, ‘I have emerged a wiser woman learning that often in this world one gets kicks for honest selfless work, while the canting self-seeker wins half pence.’

And thus ended the saga of the two Sethus, daughters of providence adopted and raised to princely ranks, with one dying as a nobody, faraway from the land she loved and served, and the other meeting her maker in the comforts of her palace, still a queen long after time dissolved her kingdom into the pages of history.


Winner of the 2017  Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, Manu S Pillai is the author of the award winning book ‘The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore’. The book can be purchased here. 


168 – From Karachi to Bombay

My mother Indra's family. Karachi (now Pakistan). Circa 1930

My mother Indra’s parents, siblings, and cousins. Karachi (now Pakistan). Circa 1930

Image and Text contributed by Roma Mehta, Taipei

This is one of my favourite photographs of my mother Indra’s family. It was taken in front of her family’s home in Sindhi Colony in Karachi, almost a decade before the partition of India and Pakistan took place. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact date but I estimate it was the 1930s.

It is possible this photo was taken on the occasion of my uncle (mother’s brother) Moti’s wedding but I cannot confirm it. Sitting in the middle are my grandfather, Gaganmal Jhangiani whom we fondly called Baba and grandmother, Laxmi Bai whom we called Ammi. Around them sit his children, his brother’s children and a relative-in-law.

Baba was a tall and dark complexioned man, and Ami was petite and fair. To me, they seemed like ebony and ivory. Ami and Baba used to play together as children and when Ami turned 12, the families got them married. It seems that my grandmother had basic elementary education but like most women of the time, she became busy with domestic matter and household duties.

My grandfather was an architect by profession and had studied in England. I have been told that he was instrumental in designing and planning the Sindhi Colony in Karachi. Life was good for the family : they had a lovely home, a horse carriage, and a great love of music and culture. Each one of them knew how to play an Indian classical music instrument. The family would even sing together on many occasions.

My mother, Indra always told us stories from her youth with utmost glee, reliving her days of fun and freedom. Here she stands directly behind Ammi on our right. My mother was independent natured, fierce and talented. She played the Harmonium, Sitar, Tanpura, and the Tabla. She also loved to sing and longed to perform on radio, which of course, was out of the question – For it was improper for a girl to do such things in society. Nonetheless, my mother found a way around and would sneak away from home in the horse carriage when no one was watching.

My mother and her siblings were staunch supporters of Mahatma Gandhi and participated in the struggle for freedom and would often march along with pro-independence processions against British rule. Later, they even joined the Dandi march (Salt march) initiated by Mahatma Gandhi, and the women would carry red chili powder in their fists in case they needed to protect themselves. Upon an arrest of one such march, my uncles were put in jail, but my mother and other women were set free and that did not sit well with her. My mother said she felt cheated from the rush of spending a night in jail – fighting for a cause she believed in.

During partition, the family decided to leave Karachi and move to the Indian side of the border. They were amongst the few with an already established base in Bombay (a grand-uncle ran a sports equipment business). The family traveled light to Bombay (now Mumbai) in midst of rioting, with bare clothing to keep the children safe. Like million of others who could never return – Bombay became their home and they began a new life.

Many of our relatives were displaced or lost their family members during this migration, and for months after their move to Bombay, my grandmother would search the docks and train stations, for relatives and acquaintances who needed help. Baba passed away soon after the partition and I never got a chance to meet him, but I did inherit his reclining armchair, that he sat on every day to rest and read.

Years later, when my parents were on a flight to London from Calcutta (now Kolkata), they had an unscheduled stopover in Karachi due to technical difficulties. My parents used this opportunity to visit the places they grew up in. My mother was delighted and deeply saddened at the same time to see her childhood home and an engraved stone plate that still displayed the family name.

A little bit of the past still lives on in the only surviving family member seen in this photograph, my mother’s first cousin, Radhika, sitting left in the front row. She celebrated her 90th birthday in August 2016.


165 – My mother’s journey from India to England

Departure_low

My mother Dr. Rehana Bashir (middle with sunglasses) at the Bombay Airport with her friends and family. Bombay, Maharashtra. March 31, 1957

Image and Text contributed by Sohail Akbar, New Delhi

This photograph, as the handwriting below tells us was taken on the 31st of March, 1957 at Bombay Airport, Santacruz. Among the many photographs that adorn a very beautiful album maintained by my mother, Dr. Rehana Bashir, I find this picture the most fascinating, perhaps because of my love for airplanes and airports but also because it is the first picture of a photo album that is primarily a pretext to my mother’s life in England as a student. This picture is clearly my mother’s favourite too as it the opening image of that album.

My mother Rehana was the only daughter born to Prof. Bashiruddin and his wife Shafiq Begum (standing left most in the picture) in 1930. Her father was a Professor at the Aligarh Muslim University and was a true modernist. He sent his daughter to St Mary’s Convent in Allahabad (UP), one of the best missionary schools in the state. She did well in studies and qualified to study Medicine at Lady Hardinge Medical College in Delhi. The year was 1949 and India had only recently achieved Independence, though the scars of partition were very visible.

The best story that she has about going to study in Delhi is the scare that her father’s friends had tried to instill in his mind – of sending a young Muslim girl to study alone in a city where a number of people of the community had lost their lives in the partition riots. But my maternal grandfather was brave and did not succumb to pressure. His daughter found an admission into the Medical College. Needless to say that she was the only Muslim girl in her class. She recalls the time during the admission process – her father had stayed in old Delhi with his friends – and there was night curfew and an electric fence was drawn and turned on around the locality at night.

Lady Hardinge Medical College exposed my mother to a cosmopolitan life and new friends. She remembers riding a bicycle around Connaught Circus, having ice cream at Wengers, (Delhi’s oldest bakery) and watching films at the Regal theatre (the first cinema theatre constructed in Delhi).) She completed her MBBS in 1953. The same album has a lovely photograph of hers in a black graduation gown holding her degree, posing at perhaps one of the famous Connaught Place photo studios.

Her first job brought her back to Allahabad, where a hospital had been opened in the premises of Anand Bhawan, the residence of the Nehrus. It was called the Kamla Nehru Memorial Hospital. This was a prestigious first job, where Prime Minister of India, Jawahar Lal Nehru would drop by whenever he was in town to see how things were. After working for four years and acquiring much needed experience my mother, Rehana, decided to go to England for higher studies. England was still the most favoured destination for education and she already had a couple of her friends in London.

On 31st of March 1957, Dr. Rehana Bashir took a flight, possibly the plane behind her (Flying Tiger Line), or maybe an Air India flight, from Bombay Airport to spend the next three years garnering a Diploma in Gynecology at a hospital in Brighton, England. A whole band of friends and family had come along dto see her off. In the photograph are my grandmother (left most), my two uncles and an aunt. My mother is in the center wearing dark glasses, holding a bouquet of flowers. Next to her is a close doctor friend Pushpmalti who had travelled from Allahabad just to say bye. The lady standing behind my grandmother in dark glasses is a friend from Medical College, Dr. Urmil Shah, their host in Bombay (now Mumbai); this picture is perhaps taken by Dr. Urmil’s husband, Gunvant Bhai and my mother recalls that the three gentlemen standing on the right are friends of Urmil and Gunvant. If we look closely, one of them holds the camera case.

I have often discussed those years in England with my mother and what is fascinating in today’s context is that she says that for three years she did not hear her parent’s voice. Phone services to Aligarh from London were not possible then. It is indeed incredible that we are living in the grand leap of technology.


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.


156 – The force behind my grandfather’s success

My grandparents, Bani and Radhika Karmakar . Bombay (now Mumbai). Maharashtra. 1972

My grandparents, Bani and Radhu Karmakar. Bombay. Maharashtra. December 1979

Image & Text contributed by Anuradha Karmakar, Mumbai

My Dida (grandmother in Bengali) Bani Karmakar (née Roy) was born on October 5, 1926 in Shologhor, Dacca District in erstwhile East Bengal. She had a rather impoverished childhood as the eldest child of a large family with three sisters, two brothers and a host of extended family members. She witnessed, at close quarters, the horrors of the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, where three million people perished.

Dida did not have much of a formal education as she was married off in 1944, at the age of 17 to Radhika Jiban Karmakar, a soft-spoken 28-year-old man from Gramwari, Dacca (now Dhaka). Radhika Jiban left home at the age of 16, worked in the Calcutta Film Industry as a lab technician and also learnt photography from Jatin Das, a well-known photographer in Calcutta (now Kolkata). He then migrated with Das to Bombay in 1940, leaving behind a young wife in East Bengal with his family, where their first daughter, Sudevi was born in October 1947. The horrors of the communal massacres during 1946-1947 were witnessed by Bani, as also during one harsh monsoon, the swollen river Padma, changed course and devoured houses and paddy fields, the only source of sustenance for many. These two unfortunate events forced the mass exodus of many Bengalis seeking refuge and the Karmakars were among the millions who were forced to leave everything behind in 1948, many of whom migrated to West Bengal.

After a short stay in West Bengal, Bani found herself joining her cinematographer husband in the hustle and bustle of Bombay, which was to be their new home in 1949. They stayed in modest houses in Andheri and Sion where their four younger children; Radha, Krishna Gopal, Meera and Brojo Gopal, were born. From a small village to living in Bombay, without much support and a growing family with a host of relatives, was a tough task for the young mother, which she handled to the best of her abilities.

Radhika Jiban (whose name was shortened to Radhu, on Mr. Raj Kapoor’s insistence) worked as a cameraman and subsequently as cinematographer with RK Studios (now R.K. Films). His work involved erratic work schedules and travel within and outside India and hence primarily Bani was responsible for bringing up five children. They lived a frugal life together as much of her husband’s meager salary was spent on their children and extended family. Her home was the first stop for a horde of relatives and others who would arrive to make it big in Bombay. There were times when there was no food left for her at the end of the day due to unexpected guests and she would have one roti with sugar to keep her going. The matriarch complained to no one.

She found the time to educate herself in English and pick up skills in handicrafts. She never attended the flashy movie premieres, filmy parties or social gatherings while her husband rubbed shoulders with the who’s who of Indian and International Cinema. She preferred staying at home and taking care of her family. Together, the couple witnessed many important milestones in life- graduations, heartbreaks, first jobs, marriages, promotions and the births of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

My grandfather, Radhu Karmakar came to be known as one of the ’10 best Cinematographers in the World’ and much of his professional achievements and laurels can be attributed to the sage and timely advice of his wife and my grandmother. He had won many awards during his lifetime which we proudly display in our family home, but what my grandmother was able to achieve was intangible; besides being a great cook, she managed a warm home, raised self-reliant and educated children, and was a role model for all those who came in contact with her. Radhu Karmakar  passed away on October 5, 1993 at the age of 77, in a car accident while returning from shooting the movie ‘Param Vir Chakra’. He was on his way back to Bombay (now Mumbai) to be with his wife on her birthday. Bani immersed herself in religion and spirituality, household work and doting on her grandchildren, to deal with the grief of her husband’s sudden demise.

My grandmother Bani Karmakar, passed away on May 14, 2015, at the age of 87, due to a prolonged illness. She had suffered a stroke, was battling Dementia and was just a shadow of her former energetic self. She loved being surrounded by us even when she could not recall our names. Sometimes she would revert to her childhood days in East Bengal, calling out names of friends and family who were long gone. Yet, that isn’t how I choose to remember my Dida. To me, she will always remain my strong-willed, stubborn, strict and very loving grandmother, a little rough around the edges, but a gem of a human being. During her last days, when asked what her last wishes were, Dida said that she would love to see me get married and then she could die in peace. She won’t witness my wedding ceremony, but the day I get married, I know she will be there to bless me, watching and smiling her cheeky smile.


152 – The Nightingale of the Station

My mother, Papia Chakrabarti. Calcutta, West bengal. 1971

My mother, Papia Chakrabarti. Calcutta, West Bengal. 1971

Image and Text contributed by Subhrajyoti Chakrabarti, Bangalore

This is a picture of my mother Papia Chakrabarti. She was born to an eye surgeon in a wealthy family of Calcutta (now Kolkata). The family was conservative and girls were not allowed to interact with men outside of their family or even dress up stylishly, as it was considered to be a taboo. At the age of 20, with an arranged match, she got married to an air force officer, my father, Wing Commander M.K Chakrabarti. By then she was a BA in Psychology from Vidyasagar College under the Calcutta University and could speak three languages, Bengali, Hindi and English.

My mother told us that when she first went to my father’s Air Force station posting in Deolali (Maharashtra), she got a cultural shock. All social interactions in the Defense Forces (across genders) encouraged dressing up with style and interactions were more free and joyful. It was the complete opposite of what she had experienced in her formative years. Nonetheless, she adapted to the changes and embraced the Defense Forces culture. She dressed up in style, and hosted perfect parties.

My mother was also a great singer of classical and contemporary Hindi music, and that too without any formal training. She was invited by several people to perform at their events and parties across all my father’s postings. In Chandigarh, she was awarded the title ‘Nightingale of the Station’ at the High Ground Air Force station, for three consecutive years (1983-1985). Despite all the recognition, she was adept at all her responsibilities. She looked after her mother-in-law and brought us all up well. My wife is also

My wife who is also a classical music lover, led to she and my mom sharing a wonderful bond via music, and they would often sing together. A couple of years ago, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and by last July, the Cancer had spread to her lungs. She had the resilience to fight, but unfortunately we lost her. Even in her last days she taught us that one should fight till death and one should always have high thinking, but simple living.


150 – Wilhelmina and her cookbook from India

My ancestors Joseph and Wilhelmina. South Parade, Bangalore. Circa 1860

My great, great, great grandparents, Joseph and Wilhelmina. South Parade, Bangalore. Circa 1860


Image and Text contributed by Jenny Mallin, Berkshire, England.

“Rai, jeera, huldi..” she would whisper under her breath whilst counting the ingredients on her fingers. Cooking came naturally to my mother, but occasionally she would open the pantry door and out would come a huge ledger book (image link), whereupon she would leaf through the pages until she found the recipe she was looking for. With no title on the cover to distinguish it from the other cookbooks, the only distinctive thing I can recall is that each page was so delicate and fragile that it would snap like a popaddam (indian crisp made of gram flour) and therefore it was out of bounds for us children – this book was just too precious to lose.

When I did manage to get my hands on the book officially, this most unglamorous book with its ochre, faded pages bespattered with sauces and flavours revealed several recipes handwritten in copperplate script by my great, great, great grandmother Wilhelmina dating back to 1850. Turning the pages one could see the handwriting style change over time, and evidence of how over five generations, each one of my grandmothers passed the book on to their next generation, offering us a chance to have a glimpse into a fascinating time in history, “the days of the Raj”, when the Indian subcontinent was under British rule.

My family’s connection to India began six generations earlier in 1775, in Yorkshire, England. My great, great, great, great grandfather Benjamin Hardy, was born into a weaving family in Mirfield, a small but important industrial town with a population of 2000 people. The area was called the Heavy Woollen District of West Yorkshire.
In 1794, Britain declared war on France and a 19-year-old Benjamin Hardy enrolled as Private No. 77 with the newly formed 1st Battalion of the 84th Foot regiment of the British Army. One year later, Benjamin married Frances Sheard in Mirfield and he and his regiment dutifully sailed to the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa).

Sailing to the Indian coastline in 1798, Benjamin and his regiment would stay on in India for the next 25 years with postings in Madras, Bombay, Goa, Kathiawar, and Kutch. There were also detachments sent to the Island of Perim in the Red Sea, Aden and Mauritius where they participated in the capture of the island from the French.

Benjamin’s last posting was to be in Bangalore. His regiment had been stationed there for four years and it seems that he also decided to bring his wife Frances over from England, for in 1816 she bore him a son Joseph (my great, great, great grandfather in the image above). Three years later, Benjamin’s regiment was disbanded and asked to return home to England, but instead Benjamin chose to stay in India and was discharged from the British Army due to ill health. He was only 44 years old and suffering chronic rheumatism.

Benjamin, his wife Frances and young son Joseph, settled down to live the rest of their lives out in India. However, Benjamin passed away four years later, on December 23, 1823 and Frances and her son Joseph continued to live in Bangalore. Joseph became a schoolmaster by profession in Mysore, in 1833, when an English School was opened for the first time in Mysore. At the age of 28, Joseph married Wilhelmina Sausman, in St. Mark’s Church in Bangalore.

Wilhelmina was only sixteen when she got married. She was born in Vellore, Madras on September 12, 1829 and records suggest that she was Anglo-Portuguese because her mother’s name was Louisa Dias, a common Portuguese name used in the Portuguese colonies of Goa and the west coast of India.

This photograph of my great, great, great, grandparents, schoolmaster Joseph and his wife Wilhelmina was taken in the early 1860s (in their mid 30s/early 40s) by studio photographers Orr & Barton, who were based in South Parade, Bangalore. It is the oldest photograph in our family collection.

During their marriage, Wilhelmina gave birth to eight children, but as often was the case those days, only three survived. The others were lost as babies and infants to the widespread pandemic of cholera that had killed around 15 million people by the 1860s. Their three surviving daughters were named Ophelia, Florence and Topsy. Ophelia, their eldest child was born in 1855 and is my great, great grandmother.

Wilhelmina’s notes and my own research suggests that for any memsahib settling in India was an overwhelming, even exciting experience but also thwarted with difficulties. Aside from the unrelenting heat, the major problem was in the hiring of servants, and in finding a cook who would be willing to touch the different meats that wouldn’t conflict with their religious beliefs. A Muslim servant for instance, would not touch pork, nor serve wine, or remove dirty plates from the table or wash them. Hiring a Hindu was also not easy, as they would not handle beef, fish, poultry, eggs or alcohol and the very strict practitioners would also refrain from onions and garlic.

It’s quite possible that Wilhelmina, like hundreds of other European wives and brides followed Mrs. Isabella Beeton ‘s bestselling victorian guide, the Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, as well as another publication that gave detailed instructions to European women on effective household management in India. She must have felt it good sense to write all her recipes in one book which could then be given to the cook to follow and perhaps even improve upon. Her Christmas cake recipe shown here, is also annotated by my grandmothers and cooks after.

Generations after, this ‘more than 150 year old’ recipe book now lies with me, and I ponder over it ever so often with great personal as well as academic interest.

The contributor of this image and narrative is researching Anglo-Indian recipe names & cooking terms, and would appreciate any leads on the subject. She is also due to publish a book on Wilhelmina “A Grandmother’s Legacy – a memoir of five generations who lived through the days of the Raj”.


147 – A decade after partition, they returned to claim their hidden treasure

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My grandparents, uncles and aunts on the day of my parent’s marriage. Jullandhar (now Jalandhar), Punjab. 1958

Image and Text contributed by Amita Bajaj, Mumbai

My grandfather Dr. Gurbaksh Singh Nayar, or as we called him ‘Papaji’ was a well known practising doctor. His brothers and he owned a lot of real estate property in the North Eastern Punjab Province Sialkot‘s “Nayar Bazar” (now Pakistan). The market comprised of 34 shops with residences above. Nayar Bazar was a major section of the famous Trunk Bazar of Sialkot. Till the late 1980s, a board bearing this name of the Bazar was still on display. My grandfather and grandmother, Purandei Nayar whom we called ‘bhabiji’, had three sons. The youngest of whom was my father.

In June of 1947, murmurs of communal troubles were in the air. My father was then a third year MBBS student of Balakram Medical College which was established by Sir Gangaram in Lahore. (It was re-established as Fatima Jinnah Medical College after it was abandoned during partition).
Hearing of riots around the area, the eldest of the two older brothers, who was also studying medicine in Amritsar, tried to convince my grandmother to sell her savings, which were in form of silver bricks and the basement of their haveli (mansion) was stacked with them. Partition was imminent, yet my devout Sikh grandmother rebuked her sons, saying that should they sell the silver: “Loki kahangey ke nayaraan da divalaya nikal paya“! (“People will say that we are bankrupt!”).

I was born in the 1960s, and had heard horror stories about Partition from my paternal grandmother, ‘bhabiji’. On August 14, 1947, the family was eating their brunch and actually saw the Sialkot police running away from the rioters and that is when the family then knew it was time to leave. After collecting their valuables, my grandfather first hid with his wife and three sons in the house of a dear friend Ghulam Qadir who owned a departmental store, then later in the Sialkot Jail where the Superintendent Arjun Dass was a patient of his. (Arjun Dass, later as the jail superintendent of Ambala Central Jail supervised the hanging of Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassinator).

A few days later, they had crossed over to Amritsar with two trunks – one filled with gold jewellery and the other with silver utensils. The trunks were carried by a two servants, Nanak, a young boy, and Munshi Ram. Whilst crossing the River Ravi, Nanak apparently slipped almost got crushed by the sea of people fleeing Pakistan and the trunk with silver utensils fell in the river.

My grandparents’ entire life savings, their palatial mansion and the silver bricks were all lost forever, except for the trunk with gold jewellery that reached India. The three daughters-in-law in the picture would often wear the rescued ‘Sialkoti’ jewellery. My mother too, the bride in the picture, is wearing a kundan set from the trunk, gifted to her for her ‘doli’ (welcome gift to the bride) by my grandmother.

By 1950, the family had settled down in Jullunder (now Jalandhar) where my grandfather was given the haveli (mansion) of a Muslim sessions judge who had left for Pakistan in 1947. The mansion at Patel Chowk, G.T Road in Jullunder City, was offered as “claim property” (in lieu of property left behind in Sialkot that was valued in crores). My grandfather, Papaji became the leading medical practitioner of Jullunder and was well known all over Punjab.

The haveli in Jullunder was evaluated at Rs 1.35 lakhs in 1947. It had six bedrooms. The zenana (women’s section) was demarcated by a central Loggia garden and with a fountain in the middle. It housed several kitchens, pantry, store-rooms (with indoor-plumbing), a large hall, dining room and three floors of terraces each with a suite of rooms and kitchen, presumably for each of his three sons. My parents marriage was held in this palatial mansion in 1958. My father at the time was an army doctor attached to the 4-5 Gurkha Rifles and posted in Poonch , Jammu & Kashmir.

Shortly after my parent’s marriage, one day when my grandmother and my mother were returning home in the afternoon from shopping, they saw a huge crowd outside their mansion with scores of policemen, jeeps, police trucks and cars with dark-green purdahs (curtains) on windows. Fearing the worst, they rushed in only to be apprised by my very stoic grandfather that the original owners of the haveli, two women from Pakistan with all requisite permissions and accompanied with police from both Nations, had come to claim some moveable assets they had left behind.

My grandmother was furious and confronted the ladies from Pakistan, yelling at them, that the house had nothing except bare walls and an unkempt central garden when they acquired it as evacuee property. The ladies then firmly asked for permission to be allowed to go into the store-room adjoining the kitchen. My grandmother still shaking with anger and disbelief led the way, followed by the two ladies and policemen. Coming near a walled up alcove, the ladies gave it a few hard knocks with their hands using all their strength, and the makeshift wall gave way to reveal an 18” high glass shade of a shamadaan (candelabra), which was crammed to the brim with gold & stone-studded jewellery and gold & silver coins.

All present in the hall just froze in awe and shock. The Pakistani ladies took possession of the treasure that they had come to claim, nearly a decade after the bloodiest Partition of two Nations in the history of mankind, where over one million people lost their lives.

I am told, Nanak used to see a rat going into the walled up alcove through a small hole, where the treasure was hidden, for months and had even requested my grandmother’s permission to bring down the make-shift wall so that he could access a presumed “khazana” (treasure) for her, and she could maybe reward him for it? My grandmother feared that bringing down that wall may cause more damage to this magnificent evacuee property or may be it was something unpleasant that was “best left unseen”.

My grandfather later became the Honorary Physician to Giani Zail Singh when he became President of India, a position he held until his death in 1986. My father received several awards in the Navy to which he was assigned by the Army Medical Corp (AMC). He was the 3rd and 6th head of the Physiology department of Armed Forces Medical College in Pune. He took charge from a Wing. Commander. Rao, father of Congress politician Renuka Chowdhury. My father, an octogenarian, now lives a very retired life in Delhi and my mother passed away in August last year.

I often wonder if there were others who migrated from and to India & Pakistan had similar experiences to share?

 


141 – Portrait of a debutante

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My maternal grandmother, Monica Guha (née Roy Chowdhury). Calcutta, West Bengal. 1925

Image and Text contributed by Aparna Datta, Bangalore

This is a picture of my maternal grandmother, Monica Guha, (née Roy Chowdhury). The photograph was recently gifted to me by my aunt, my mother’s first-cousin. My aunt had found this classic studio portrait, complete with potted plants and painted canvas backdrop, amongst a collection of photographs belonging to her late father, Monica’s brother.

On the reverse of the photograph is a rubber stamp with a date ‘3.11.25’, with ink that hasn’t yet faded. The photograph had been taken at Dass Studio, P 21/A Russa Road North, Calcutta. The rubber stamp stated “Copy can be obtain at any time. Please quote the number.” Endearingly, there is also a name “Monu”, her family nick name, hand-written in Bengali.

While looking at the photograph I noticed she wore no bindi and no sindoor – symbols that a married woman would wear. Laden with jewellery, top to bottom, this simply had to be a rite-of-passage ‘portrait of a debutante’, a matrimonial image, intended to be shown to prospective grooms and their families. As a time-honoured ritual in arranged marriages, the significance of such a photograph, as a cultural artefact, was inescapable. 

I call this picture the ‘Barefoot Princess’.

The picture and the date-stamp had a rabbit-hole effect on me, drawing me in, coaxing me to contextualise the image. My mother had passed away, so I dredged the recesses of my mind, trying to recall bits of family history she had shared with me over the years. I spent weeks tracking down near and distant relatives all over India, picking up strands to weave into a narrative.

Monica was born in July of 1912, at Lucknow, United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh). Her father, Nirupam Roy Chowdhury, was the son of the Zamindar of Ghalghallia, Taki, located in the North 24 Parganas, a District of West Bengal. Taki is a town on the banks of the Ichhamati River, that borders Bangladesh. The Roy Chowdhurys were descendants of Raja Basanta Roy of Jessore, uncle of Raja Pratapaditya, one of the twelve ‘bhuiyans‘ or enlightened chieftains who ruled the Sultanate of Bengal (1336–1576 C.E.). Raja Pratapaditya had fought against the Mughal imperial army during its attempts to make inroads into Bengal in the early 16th century. By 1574 he had declared his independence from the Mughals and established an independent Hindu state in Bengal.

Nirupam Roy Chowdhury was a civil engineer and served with the Government of the then undivided Bengal. His postings took him all over the province.

 Monica’s mother was Kanak Lata, daughter of Rai Bahadur Dr. Mohendra Nath Ohdedar, the first Indian Civil Surgeon of the United Provinces.

During early 20th century (and for some, even until now), it was customary for women to go to their mamabari (mother’s home) to give birth, and so all Kanak Lata’s ten children – six sons and four daughters, were born in Lucknow, at the home of their maternal grandfather.

As the eldest girl, Monica was destined for an early marriage. Education would have certainly featured in her life, however I am not so sure if they formally attended school or were home schooled, and much of their young lives were spent travelling between their paternal and maternal grandparents’ homes.

Indeed, at the age of 13, in 1926, just months after this photograph sitting, Monica did find a suitable husband, a doctor, Dr. Ajit Kumar Guha. She along with her husband (my grandfather) moved to her husband’s and in-laws’ home at Motihari, Bihar. Soon after, my mother was born in 1929, the eldest of five children, four daughters and one son. Monica and Dr. Ajit and the whole family moved to Patna around 1935 and settled there.

Monica, my grandmother’s life was serene and was spent as an efficient home maker. She passed away peacefully in January 1993, in the same house where she ran her own world, her sansar and where she had lived for 58 years.  The grace and poise I see in the portrait characterised her all her life.


140 – “No one ever told me my own story.”

My Parents. Gurdial Singh and Rajkumari Berar.  p. Mainpuri, Lucknow, United Province. December 29, 1939.

My Parents. Gurdial Singh and Rajkumari Berar. p. Mainpuri, Lucknow, United Province. December 29, 1939.

Image and Text contributed by Soni Dave, Delhi

This picture was taken on December 26, 1939, the day my parents got married. I’m not sure of the location. It could be the Mainpuri District of Lucknow because I think my maternal grandfather was posted there at the time.

My father, Gurdial Singh Berar, an ace graduate of the College of Engineering Roorkee, stands here tough and tall with the talwaar (sword) in his hand, but he never even raised his voice in anger. And my mother Rajkumari may look meek and coy, whereas everyone knew her to be a very strong woman. I think they must have been in their early twenties. Together they made a perfect couple and it was one of the best marriages I have ever seen. I have been very lucky that I got to call them mummy and daddy, leading me to believe that it is not just some marriages that are made in heaven, but also parent and child relationships.

My father was a very attentive and loving father. He was well read, extremely self disciplined, a man of honor and respected punctuality of time. He was a self taught nutritionist and along with my mother, who would ensure it was cooked well, we always had nutritious food at the table. I remember he loved children and would take all the children of the family and me to the pool and teach us how to swim. Other kids at the pool would come to him too wanting to be taught. He was also a very hard working man, and I remember his last job before his health started failing was manufacturing furniture for the Asiad Games Village athlete homes.
My mother was one of the most efficient women I have ever known. In fact she was so efficient that she was nicknamed ‘intezaman‘ the organizer of the family. She excelled at embroidery, stitching, cooking, and was an excellent home-maker. I remember, she was also very quick tempered. My father used to joke with her that when angry she must count to ten before saying anything – to which she would say that counting until two was the most she could do.

They both loved me a lot. A lot.

My parents you see in this picture were not my biological parents. I was adopted by them as an infant, from my mother’s younger sister, my natural mother – whom I learnt to call auntie.
Auntie had come to her maternal home in Daryaganj, Delhi from their farm near Nainital (now in Uttarakhand)- where I was born on February 10, 1959. I had two older sisters. My biological father, Harpal Singh, whom I later called uncle, worked in the merchant navy and was sailing at the time.

My mother and father, twenty years into their marriage had had no children and so on the suggestion of my maternal grandmother, and a deep understanding between the two sisters, I exchanged hands. When auntie returned with my two older sisters, I stayed back with my new parents, my mother Rajkumari and my father Gurdial. I called them mummy & daddy.

I was loved like one can only imagine. But no one in the family ever mentioned my adoption. No one ever told me my own story and over the years I have had to piece it together all on my own.
I remember when I was about eight or nine years old, an old lady neighbour blurted it out. After some days I confided in my cousin (my real sister) who confirmed that it was indeed true. However, no grown up ever spoke to me about it and I had to try to make sense of it myself. It left me with deep insecurities and lack of confidence. Being the plainest of all the cousins in the family only worsened everything and chipped away further at my confidence.

I went to one of the best schools in Delhi – the Convent of Jesus and Mary, but I was never good at academics, and so when I turned 16 and didn’t make it through Senior Cambridge, I was required to take the exam again before the schools phased it out to be replaced by the new Plus 2 systems. One of the schools still with the Senior Cambridge system was was in Nainital and so my parents sent me there to prepare for and appear for my exams. My biological mother and I got to play mother and daughter for a whole year.

However, our biological relationship remained unaddressed, until one day, amidst tears we spoke of it. I remember thinking that I looked like her, I was like her in many ways. Our personalities were similar and I completely understood why she did what she did. I loved her with my heart and bore no grudges and I knew she loved me too. I was glad that we had talked but it didn’t necessarily resolve my insecurities.

Back at home in Delhi, we would visit my father’s (Gurdial) side of the family once a year, during my holidays. There too I was a stranger to my cousins who were very close to each other and met very often. But I never felt included and it led to more confusion and feelings of abandonment, which no matter how much my parents loved me, the sense of exclusions left me wanting.

As an adult, I found a great life partner, we had two beautiful children and have been very lucky to have wonderful life together. I also discovered that I may not be have been good at academics but I was good at the creative arts. In early 2014, with a desire to find some more resolve and belonging in my life, I decided to travel to the United States and meet old school mates as well as my fathers family. They were cousins who I would be meeting after almost 40 years. All older and grayer, but this time with no hesitations of acceptance, they opened their doors and hearts with nothing but warmth.

When I came back and was cleaning up some cupboards, this photograph appeared, sitting there in an old box of photographs. My mother and fathers wedding day – and I decided to engage with it and think about our lives – this time for longer. Then I picked up a paint brush and made a water-colour of this photograph (image), my first ever – tracing their presence and love again, because I know now that I belonged to them and they to me. They were the best match made for each other and me, in heaven.


127- Qutub Minar, the place where many loves met

My husband Rabinder Nath Khanna and I at the Qutub Minar. Delhi. 1954

My husband Rabinder Nath Khanna and I at the Qutub Minar. Delhi. 1954

Image and Text contributed by Deesh Khanna, Gurgaon

I remember when I would visit Delhi from Simla, the Qutub Minar was the place where my husband and I used to meet even before marriage, with family approval, of course. There were several couples and families who would come to the Qutub, meet, hang around, picnic, play and talk. It was and still is, indeed a beautiful monument of India.

I am not sure who took this picture though. It had been only a few months since my marriage in June, because we had begun wearing sweaters. I was wearing a Ferozi (Fuschia blue) Salwar Kurta with the latest cut, with a wonderful complicated hairstyle. Now my hair has thinned so much, but at that time, indulging our hair with beautiful complicated Hairstyles was a huge hobby and personal challenge every morning. I could style my hair in ways you can’t even imagine.

Every weekend, my ‘Rodu” as I fondly called him, and I would take the Tanga (horse carriage) from Daryaganj (old Delhi) and go and see places. Rodu was very fond of showing me new places, and if not places then it was the movies. We loved watching movies at Golcha Cinema. The matinee shows were old movies, and evenings were new ones. In Daryagunj, we lived in one of the several apartments in Madras House.

Both my husband’s family and mine, had come to live in Simla, Himachal Pradesh after Indo-Pak Partition. The families had originally lived in Lahore (now Pakistan). And we girls had studied in Kinnaird College in Lahore and then later at the Church College in Simla. The girls from Kinnaird College were very popular for being feisty, smart and opinionated. In Simla, I used to participate many drama and theatre Groups, all the time playing roles as a man, and the one time I got to play a woman, it was the role of a nurse.

My family were also huge supporters of the Congress, and we cousins and sisters enrolled ourselves to be Congress workers and worked very hard campaigning and collecting donations for Jawahar Lal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. One of those times, we were also asked by the Congress workers to wear Burqas, pretend to be Muslim women and vote on their behalf. We were almost caught when one of my cousins tripped over on a stone and in pain exclaimed “Hai Ram! (Oh Lord Rama – the Hindu God)”. We ran and gave the booth care-takers quite a chase. I laugh when I think about that, but you know, at that time no one thought what was right or wrong, we just did what we were told, and as far as we were concerned it was for a good cause. Anyhow, those requests never came again.

My husband was one of the most well known portrait photographers of Simla and then later Delhi. He had studied Chemistry in Bombay but then he went back to Lahore and worked as a darkroom assistant in a ‘S.Rollo’ Studio. After Partition he got a job with a Kinsey Photo Studio in Simla and worked under a German photographer there. He learnt a lot from him. Their job entailed developing other people’s work as well as photographing people and important delegates and leaders who visited Simla and then later Delhi.

Everyone in my friend’s circle except I knew that Rodu was interested in me and rumours were abound. So when I got wind of that, very upset I confronted him about it on Mall Road. His unexpected response was “Would it be so bad if we were to be together?” I was stunned and I confess I may have begun to like the idea right then.

Later Rodu moved to Delhi to work with the Kinsey Studio, (a branch of the one in Simla) a very popular Photo Studio in Connaught Place and when he sent a marriage proposal, my entire family was delighted, because all this while my mother had used my future husband as a sound board and advisor on my other prospects, and he would sheepishly give her feedback, all the while suppressing his own feelings for me. But nonetheless, when he finally let my family know of his intentions, everyone was happy and we got married six months later.

When we moved to Delhi he continued working with the Kinsey Studio, later he joined the USIS in Delhi (United States Information Services) as a photographer and photographed several of their events, delegates and leaders. At home we converted a small bathroom in the backyard into a darkroom and Rodu and I would develop the negatives that he had photographed. I also continued working as a volunteer for Congress and campaigned for Indira Gandhi.

In Delhi, I remember meeting Amrita Pritam, the acclaimed author and writer, often on the bus. Our families were acquaintances since Lahore. She remembered me from my theatre days and insisted that I did not give it up. But by now I had had three children, and big family responsibilities and so I decided not to do so. We were good and we were happy. In 1980, Rodu decided to work on a contract basis with USIS, and one of those assignments in 1983 he flew on a special plane with the then Secretary of State (USA) to Agra. Upon return, he gave up his seat for another delegate, and took the car instead. My beloved Rodu passed away that day in a car crash on the Agra-Delhi highway. Our lives went through a very dark time, but at the least I know that we really loved and respected each other and we were the best of friends one could ever ask for. We had made each other very happy.

Today my daughters Meenu and Amu, and grandchildren are happy and well. My son Dinesh, is now one of the best known photographers of India. A passion and profession for long he resisted, until one day, years after my husband’s death, he too could not resist the call of the Photograph. I wish Rodu could see his children now. He would be so proud.


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.


94 – The devout brahmin who went on to build a Silk textiles empire

My paternal grandparents, Jambakalakshmi & Srinivasaraghava Iyengar. Tirubuvanam (Tanjavur District) Tamil Nadu. 1951

Image and Text contributed by K.S Raghavan, Chennai

My great grandfather, Sri Krishnaswamy Iyengar hailed from a humble Brahmin family of Kausika Gothra (clan) belonging to SamaVeda Shakha (branch) at Manalur in Tanjavur district.

The family migrated to a near by village called Tirubuvanam on the banks of River Veera Cholan looking for greener pastures. The village was very famous for its Chola period architectural splendor.

My great grandfather served a very well known temple, Sri Kothanda Ramaswamy, as a cook, which was maintained by the local business community. He and his wife Vanjulavalli had three sons and two daughters. They were Srinivasaraghavan, Veeraraghavan, Ramaswamy, Kanakavalli and Pankajavalli. All these names inspired by Lord Rama indicated his devotion to the God.

The eldest son, my grand father Srinivasaraghavan (1891-1952) was intelligent and seemed to have a flair for business. During that period the entire village community was engaged in silk cloth weaving, for the district was famous for its silk sarees. So he joined a local business outfit that manufactured and sold silk sarees as an accounts clerk, even though Brahmin families were not known to enter the business arena.

My grandfather a very pious person and his devotion to Lord Rama earned him a lot of goodwill among the village folk. His towering personality with a prominent vaishnavite insignia on his forehead along with his ever- affable smile, added a saintly aurora to him, and he was compassionate to all and they looked up to him for wise counsel.

As days passed he grew in stature. His sharp business acumen prompted him to start a business of silk cloth weaving and marketing in partnership with another weaver who was also the village chieftan, Nattanmai Ramaswamy Iyer. Their business quickly grew leaps and bounds, and they became master weavers running more than one hundred looms. The duo became very good friends. However, later even when Nattanmai Ramaswamy Iyer decided he wanted to invest in a micro finance venture and my grandfather and he parted ways, they remained close friends.

My grandfather then started his own business of silk cloth weaving and marketing along with his two brothers. The business flourished and they opened two branches, one in Chettinad and the other in Valayapatti. All the brothers and sisters had gotten married and were well settled. But as the brothers’ families grew in size, the needed to chalk out their own path to progress. The brothers split the business into three units and continued their businesses.

My grandfather Srinivasaraghava Iyengar’s business establishment was popularly known as “Peria Iyengar Kadai” He came to known as a very successful businessman of his time. He explored new business avenues by supplying cloth for the parachutes used in the armed forces. He also created a brand for “Kooraipudavai” or the Nine yard saree that is used to this day during the marriage ceremonies of Hindu Brahmin families. His products and good reputation had already reached far off places through the country. The shop cum house, was a busy picture from the morning till night. Activities like bleaching & dyeing of silk yarn, unwinding of gold threads would go on in the hindquarter of the house. He used to sit on the mat made of reed, while weavers, workmen, customers and visitors would stream in and out and transact their business.

He was so industrious, that he introduced many new methodologies in dyeing silk. He would travel into the dense forests of Orissa to buy Areca nut that was used as a dyeing pigment. Once he even risked his life to tread the dreaded forests of Berhampur. He had to spend nearly six months in those inhospitable terrains to procure his raw materials, so much so that people back home almost gave up hope of seeing him alive.

Srinivasaraghava Iyengar’s devotion to Lord Rama remained strong. He organized ‘Srimad Ramayana’ discourses and arranged for renowned scholars like Villiambur Swamy, Gaddam Sri Vardachariyar swamy to translate the verses and expound them to local folks.

He was also a connoisseur of Karnatic music and would sing songs in praise of Lord Rama. Adults and children would both be captivated. During his last days, his failing health restrained him from much of movement, but even then he did not swerve from Ramayana recitation. His last day, we hear he was in a very happy mood and that day’s discourse had gone off with much fan fare. But around midnight he complained of discomfort and suddenly passed away. The whole village bid him adieu with tears in their eyes and singing “Ragupathi Raghava Rajaram” till his mortal remains were consigned to holy flames.

Even to this day the people fondly remember him and recall their happy days with him.