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

1960s

177 – My father, the first antiquarian of Calcutta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Gopal Sharman & Jalabala Vaidya. Rome, Italy. 1967

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


164 – He donated his personal wealth to save a country in crisis

My grandparents Jagajiban & Kanaka Sahu with their youngest son, Shwetabahan. Bombay, Maharashtra. 1976

My grandparents Jagajiban & Kanaka Sahu with their youngest son, Shwetabahan. Kesinga, Orissa (now Odisha). 1976

Image and text contributed by Samant Sahu, Mumbai

This picture was taken at the Meena Bazaar Photo studio in Kesinga (Orissa) and it has my grandparents Jagajiban and Kanak Sahu with their fourth son Shwetabahan.

My grandfather Jagajiban was from Bagad Kesinga, Kalahandi district in Orissa (now Odisha) and was the eldest in the Sahu family followed by four younger sisters and a brother. Even as a 10th standard high school dropout he somehow managed to get a job as a government teacher and taught mathematics and science to primary school students. He got married at the age of 20 to my grandmother, Kanak. As a young boy, Jagajiban was interested in serving society and was a renowned name in his village Bagad for his contributions towards the development of his fellow villagers.

In 1967, he happened to meet with an Ayurveda physician in the near-by forest. The physician was looking for a herb to prepare a medicine and after few minutes of interaction, Jagajiban discovered that he had written Rasayana Kalpadruma, an ayurvedic book that proposed the ultimate solution for youthfulness. Jagajiban returned home impressed and influenced by the science of Ayurveda. So much so that in 1968 he convinced his wife that he must leave with the physician to Berhempur to learn the art and science of Ayurveda practices. Over time he garnered an in-depth knowledge about Ayurveda and herbs that could cure some of the most dangerous and infectious diseases. In 1971, he returned to his village and began practicing in his village, offering ayurvedic treatments for free. He was famous for treating people with snake & scorpion bites and was believed to cure people just by chanting mantras.

One of the foremost contributions to the country by Jagajiban was when India was in the midst of the Sino-Indian war  in 1962. The papers were abound with news that the government of India had spent much of its money on war and was in deep crisis. Jagajiban decided to do something about it and marched across Kalahandi district to create awareness among the villagers. He asked for their help to save the country resulting in contributions in gold and money from farmers and villagers. He also donated much of his own personal wealth. When the government chose to honour his contributions, he denied it – saying that it was only his duty.

The people of Bagad have now established a botanical garden named the Tengra Garden that is used for research in Ayurveda and is managed by Jagajiban’s son, my father. My grandfather Jagajiban Sahu passed away on February 4, 2016.


163 – Dapper young men in Bombay

My father Subir Chaudhuri with a cat. Bombay. Circa 1968

My father Subir Chaudhuri with a cat. Bombay. Circa 1968

Image & Text contributed by Chirodeep Chaudhuri, Mumbai

Most family albums are unremarkable, but, nostalgia as we know, can be a tricky customer. As a photographer, and more so as an editor-of-photography, the exercise of going through a family album can be testing, and fraught with danger – too many pictures there which “could have been better”.

When I was growing up, our home too had several photo albums – the ones with black pages and deckle-edged black and white photos affixed with photo corners. One afternoon, in Calcutta (now Kolkata), my mother and I began organising the albums sticking back some photos that had come loose. There we were pouring over pictures of what could best be called a rather haphazardly maintained record of the last two generations of my family’s middle-class existence.

And then I found this picture that made me stop.

It was a picture of my father, my baba, Subir Chaudhuri aged 26, or 27. Studying that picture carefully, the crumpled white kurta-pyjama told me that it was perhaps shot early in the morning. There is also an unmistakable hint of sleep still hanging over the young man as he sits cross-legged, looking down towards a cat which is lazily rubbing itself against the front leg of an easy-chair.

The print had yellowed and was damaged; a ball-point pen gash (most likely done by a very young me) sits agonisingly in the centre of the frame. Each time, I have looked at this picture, since making the discovery; I have always wished I was the photographer. I remember thinking, my father was not a bad looking chap. My father had begun working at Philips (formally known as Koninklijke Philips N.V. / Royal Philips)  in Calcutta in 1964 in the company’s Head Office and soon, in 1966, the Head Office shifted to Bombay and as part of that transition, he too moved to Bombay (now Mumbai). There is also a pamphlet my mother, Kanika, has kept safely, where you see him featured as a model for a Philips Double Beam Oscilloscope. Baba always gets embarrassed when I probe to ask him about that incident about how he came to model for that advertisement.

But he smiled when I showed him this picture with the cat. I expected memories to flood over him but there was no more than a trickle. He remembered that the picture was shot sometime around 1969-70 by his friend, Dipankar Basu or Dipankar Kaka as we kids called him. They were all bachelors then, young Bengali boys, who had found themselves together through coincidence far away from home, during the industrial boom, sharing a small 1-BHK flat in Navjivan Society in the eastern suburb of Chembur in Bombay. Initially, my father stayed in this flat alone as the lone tenant. Some months later Dipankar kaka was looking for accommodation and so moved in with my father. Dipankar was baba’s close friend, Soumitri Sen‘s friend. They were both textile people who had moved to the city as it was then the textile hub. Many of these men who lived with Baba, were not his friends ; they were people he came in contact with in Bombay.

Baba recalls “It was a Sunday morning. That cat used to sometimes come in from the balcony of our flat whenever the door was left open,” he told me. Though not much else of that ground floor house can be seen in this picture there are details of my life in that house – our home – outside the frame of the image which return to memory each time I see this picture. It’s the house I spent the first 18 years of my life. I remember that chair vaguely. Those floor tiles, strangely a particular chipped one I remember most vividly, maybe because so much time was spent on that living room floor drawing or else playing with friends during my summer vacations. As a photographer, I am bowled over by the beauty with which the languorous quality of a holiday morning has been recorded, quite inadvertently, by the photographer. “Dipankar had only an amateur’s interest in photography”, says Soumitri Sen or Shomu Kaka, who was also part of their group.

Picture making involves decision making…many small decisions made in quick succession. And so, I have often wondered what may have been going on in Dipankar Kaka’s head when he shot this picture. Firstly, I can’t understand what an amateur would be doing fiddling with a camera at home early in the morning. It’s such an unusual moment, a candid one in the middle of formal ones like birthdays, weddings and vacation-time group photos where everyone poses awkwardly. Was he just trying to take that last picture so he could develop his film? Or had he shot any others that morning? If he had, unfortunately, none are around. What were the aesthetic choices he might have been considering while framing the shot as he was peering over the ground-glass? Did he select this particular frame to be printed or was it the printer at the studio who chose it because it had the best exposure? There is another version of this picture – a square crop in which you see my father’s slippers placed neatly in front (my father has always been quite a dapper of a man who I can’t remember ever having seen bare feet) and so, I wondered what the full negative was like. I have tried to locate that negative from Dipankar Kaka’s daughter but we have been unsuccessful. I had never met Dipwanita, but this search brought us together, first on Facebook and then at a bookshop café in Pune.

There is much I am curious to know about the making of this picture but that is now impossible. Dipankar Kaka is no more.


155 – Cavorting around trees in their village

My parents, Umedrai and Hansa. Village Parivarnagar. 1963

My parents, Umedrai and Hansa. Village Pravaranagar. Maharashtra. Circa 1963

Image and Text contributed by Bhavna Mehta, USA

This picture of my parents Umedrai & Hansa, was photographed around 1963 in the village of Pravaranagar (Maharashtra) where they lived for a few years. They were married only a few months. I’ve always wondered who took this picture, staged maybe after old Bollywood movie scenes of couples running around trees.

My father Umedrai was born as one of nine children to Harjivan Bhaichand Mehta and Kamala (originally Triveni) in the small town of Ahmednagar, Maharashtra India. My father’s family belonged to a tiny community of Gujarati merchants in Ahmednagar and my mother Hansa was born in Nakuru, Kenya to Nagardas and Vimla Bhuva.

Leaving Gujarat for Maharashtra as a young man, my paternal grandfather established ‘Harjivandas Bhaichand‘, a wholesale grocery store in Ahmednagar, that still provides for his great grand children more than a 100 years later. My maternal grandfather, on the other hand, had decided to make his way to Kenya as a young man and owned a textile & sewing shop called ‘Bhuva Store‘ in Nakuru with his brothers. The family travelled to and fro to India (Gujarat) often.

My parents had an arranged marriage. At the time of the arrangement, my father was working as a merchant ship’s electrical engineer in Bombay with the Great Eastern Shipping Company. Right before the wedding, he quit his job which used to otherwise keep him away for a month at a time. My mother completed her Bachelor of Arts from Dharmendrasinhji College in Rajkot, Gujarat. A cousin introduced the families and they met only once before each side said ‘Yes’!

I was born in neighbouring Shrirampur in the district of Ahmednagar. At that time, my father was an engineer at Pravaranagar Sugar Factory. Far away from her own family, my mother ran our home, made friends with the neighbours, walked to the temple, cooked, cleaned and embroidered. When my mother left on some visit, my father would cook his rice and dal in a pressure cooker before he left for work in the morning. Many trials awaited the couple in this picture in the future which they have decided to keep private. But here they seem carefree and happy and willing to be a bit silly.


153 – Across three continents with a sewing machine in tow

My mother, Satwant Kaur Virdee. Ludhiana, Punjab Circa 1967

My mother, Satwant Kaur Virdee. Ludhiana, Punjab Circa 1967

Image and Text contributed by Pritpal Virdee, UK

This is a picture of my mother, Satwant Kaur Virdee photographed in Ludhiana, Punjab around the late 1960s.
She was born in Nurpur, near Lahore (now Pakistan) in 1929 and later moved to Kot Badal Khan, Jalandhar district (now India). It was one of the many journeys and migrations my mother would make in her lifetime; initially with her mother and father, Daya Singh, and then with my father Prem Singh Virdee after marriage, circa 1945.

She spent time at Nangal when Bhakra Dam was being constructed (my father was a mechanical engineer) then Phillaur, Ludhiana, Nakuru, Nairobi and finally Coventry, UK. Moving across three continents with her daughters in tow – a sewing machine too was always essential. This picture represents so much of the migration history that epitomises modern life, the Punjabi diaspora and our own personal family history.

Migration from the Doaba area of Punjab has been prolific and in our family, it started initially with my maternal grandfather. Doaba is now called the ‘NRI Hub of Punjab’ as a consequence of a significant percentage migration of the Doabias. By the 1960s, my father also ventured into East Africa, taking advantage of family and colonial linkages. He spent time working in Nakuru, Kenya and my mother spent time in Ludhiana; father would often bring “foreign” gifts for his daughters when he returned home. He would buy bicycles, radios and other modern consumables, including a camera for his girls. My mother told me he was quite progressive in his thinking and despite us being girls, he wanted us to have the latest gadgets.

Scanning the old family photograph album after my mother passed away in 2012, I came across this picture of my mother sitting in the verandah of our house in Ludhiana. She’s sitting there with an old sewing machine, a need and passion that would remain with her for the rest of her life. Having no formal education, she was nonetheless, astute and nimble with her fingers. Creating many wonderful pieces of art, many of which I have carefully treasured. From this handwheel sewing machine she advanced to the computerised Bernina, taking to it like pro, and I still have that Bernina.

The photo is also unusual because it’s not taken in a studio, the norm at the time. Most likely, it was my sister who took this photograph. In its messiness, it shows everyday life, yet it also captures the grace my mother had until the end of her life.


151 – “He was and still is, by all means, my hero”

My parents, Tarun Coomar & Indira Bhaduri. Bhopal, Central Province (now Madhya Pradesh). Circa 1940

My parents, Tarun Coomar & Indira Bhaduri. Bhopal, Central Province (now Madhya Pradesh). Circa 1940

Image and Text contributed by Jaya Bachchan, Mumbai

This photograph of my parents Taroon Coomar Bhaduri and Indira Bhaduri is by far one of my most favourite images of all, and while I have asked myself the reason so very many times, I am still not sure why. I had looked at and thought about it so often, that a few years ago my mother simply gave it to me as a gift.

I think this photograph was taken right after their marriage. My mother whom I call Ma was 14 and my father, Baba was 20. One of the most striking parts of this photograph is Ma’s black Georgette saree. I have wondered about that too. Georgette & Chiffons were expensive materials, meant only for the rich. We came from a middle-class income family, and affording Georgette would have been out of the question. But I think Baba had a role to play in that; he was very broad- minded and seemed to have kept in touch with the latest elegant fashions of the time. It must have made him very happy seeing a visionary image of himself and his family, even if the opportunities were far and few.

I also remember another story within the family- when he went to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to buy his sister’s wedding trousseau and insisted that his sister get married in a beautiful white saree. The family was aghast. Hindu women never got married in white, but red. The outcry against tradition was met with no avail, and it was to be his will or nothing. The family later complied and my aunt did get married in a beautiful white Banarsi Saree.

Baba’s family came from Krishnanagar, West Bengal and Ma’s from Danapur, Bihar. I always found it fascinating that he would spell his middle name ‘Kumar’ as ‘Coomar’; perhaps he was armed with the knowledge that he set himself apart with that spelling, which was unheard of and a rather individualistic attitude for the time. Baba’s jobs and associations had us move quite a few times within North India – to Jabalpur, Nagpur, and later Bhopal. In Nagpur, he became Chief Reporter of the Nagpur Times and remained in that position for several years. He eventually received a great offer from The Statesman and relocated as its correspondent to Bhopal in the mid-1960s.

The 60s were also the time when Dacoits (bandits) were a menace in Chambal (confluence of three states Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan) and one of the biggest urban legends of India. As a fiery and resourceful correspondent, Baba’s influence and mannerisms won the confidence of all dacoits in Chambal, with whom he lived for some time documenting their lives and deeds. In the late 60s, he authored a Bengali travelogue/semi-fictional novel based on his experiences titled “Abhishapath Chambal,” (also titled Abar Abhishapta Chambal) which was later translated into English as “Chambal: the Valley of Terror”. The Book and Baba were both an overnight success.

We are three sisters, Rita, Neeta and I, Jaya. I am the eldest. Baba was our best friend; our confidante, our mentor and he understood us very well. He was deeply interested in educating & empowering all his daughters and encouraged all three of us to make our lives more worthwhile, interesting and different from others. He wrote several books, he was a phenomenal journalist & writer and in time his intellect and visionary opinions won him great respect, many friends, and acquaintances in esteemed intellectual and political circles.

Baba’s quest to create great work, his individualistic and unique attitude most certainly had an impact on my own personality. When I was around 13, I remember my sisters and I returned home after watching a popular, run-of-the-mill formula based film and told him about it. He got extremely upset and snapped, “Why do you watch such trash?!”. That remark left an impression on me, and later perhaps even led me to make informed choices in the films I worked on as a female actor.

Around the same time as his remark, Satyajit Ray, the well-known filmmaker was looking for a supporting lead in his film Mahanagar, and offered the role to me. I was only a teenager and unsure whether acting was what I really wanted to do. The recent Sino-India war (Indo-China) of 1962 had changed the landscape of our country yet again and life felt a bit unsettled. Baba’s response to my reluctance was, “This opportunity might never come again.” After some consideration, I decided to try for the part and got it. Baba was very proud of me. When I was due for further education, he agreed to let me study at the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune and the rest as most know is history.

When Baba passed away in 1996, I lost my best friend, and a big part of myself. Needless to say, I am proud to be the daughter of an incredible man who left an impactful legacy to the field of journalism, penmanship and his family. He made me who I am. He was and still is, by all means, my hero.


149 – The chosen NCC cadet of Punjab Contingent

Shavinder Kaur, New Delhi. 1967

Shavinder Kaur, NCC Cadet, Punjab Contingent. New Delhi. 1967

Image and Text contributed by Shavinder Kaur, Mumbai.

I was a 20 year old NCC Cadet (National Cadet Corps) of the Punjab Contingent and this picture in the ceremonial NCC Blazer was given to all the cadets who had been photographed for their participation in the Republic Day Parade and camp.

I remember that cold January 26 – Republic Day of 1967 clearly. It was very cold, and we were all up at 4.30 am to get into our crisp khakis and shiny marching boots. Everyone glowed with pride and excitement, and were set for a 10 kms march from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate via Rajpath. It was after all the Republic Day Parade and we were the chosen ones, representing our respective contingents. I was at that time a Senior Under Officer and led the Punjab, Haryana, Himachal and Chandigarh Contingent.
 It was a very coveted position to be at. Among the thousands of countrymen and women who had flocked to see the celebrations, my mother too had traveled all the way from Jullundur, Punjab to watch me march.

The NCC in those days was a very coveted organisation. Thousands of young people aspired to join the NCC, while in school and college. The Sino-Indian war of 1962  & Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 had brought about a renewed sense of national pride among the young. NCC also offered opportunities to engage in adventure activities, cultural and sporting events as well as traveling and seeing new places.

The preparations for the Republic Day Parade began more than a month in advance – Three weeks at our regional headquarters in Chandigarh and three weeks at New Delhi.  The camp at New Delhi was truly a melting pot of cultures from across the country. For the very first time I met and made friends with cadets from Assam, Maharashtra and Southern states. I also learnt an Assamese song from my friend Nirmaali from Sibsagar. Most of the girls were from small towns and this was their first trip to the capital.

The training at the camp was tough – we had to pitch our own tents, prepare for the cultural event as well as practice the march past throughout the cold days. Hot water to bathe was available only once in two days. But the sense of camaraderie and national pride was unparalleled. One of the highlights of the Republic Day camp was interacting with the Defence Minister Sardar Swarn Singh. And then there was High Tea with the President Dr. Sarvappali Radhakrishnan at the Rashtrapati Bhavan lawns which was truly a memorable experience.

I confess I harboured hopes of joining the Armed forces but women were not to be allowed in general & flying categories entry for another 25 years, until 1992.  My love for the uniform though continued when I married Group Captain Raghbir Singh (now retired), a Flying Officer in the IAF (Indian Air Force) at that time. The family tradition continued with my son joining the NCC Air wing and subsequently becoming an officer in the Air Force as well.

I am now 68 years old and live in Powaii, Mumbai with my husband.  During my 40 years of professional life as a teacher and Principal, I have encouraged my students to follow the tenets I learnt 50 years ago as a young cadet. Unity & Discipline, the motto of the NCC is all the more relevant today and I do hope more young men and women would commit themselves to the service of our wonderful country.


144 – The most infamous helicopter crash in our history

My grandparents Nalin and Sharda Nanawati. 1962. Bombay

My grandparents Nalin and Sharada Nanawati. New Delhi. 1962

Image & Text contributed by Diya Nanawati, Mumbai

My paternal grandfather Nalin Kumar Dhirajlal Nanavati was born in Rangoon, Burma in 1915, during the British Raj. He was the second of three children born to my great grandfather, an Indian civil servant (ICS) from Gujrat. The family belonged to a trading community called Surati Baniyas.

Nalinkumar Dhirajlal Nanavati, my grandfather, was a dashing soldier with the Allied Forces in the 1940’s. He was a soldier in the British Eighth Army and a Major with the 5th Royal Maratha Light Infantry. When the forces were ordered to go and fight the wars of WWII, he left behind a beautiful wife of Bengali and French parentage and a young daughter. But the family back home didn’t hear from him a long time and his beautiful wife assumed that he has passed away in war.

But he did return to India, a battle scarred survivor, victorious from saving peninsular Italy from the German Nazis. Later, he was awarded a military cross for his bravery in the Battle of Monte Cassino. However, he had won the war but lost his family, his wife and daughter, to another man. His daughter later married into a Parsi Baronetcy in Bombay. As time passed my grandfather became Lt. Colonel in the Indian Army, and he met Sharada Ramaiah, the woman who would become my grandmother.

My grandmother Sharada Ramaiah and my grandfather Nalin met over a game of tennis in New Delhi. He was charmed by her intellectual personality. Both my grandparents from my dad’s side of the family came from educated families and had english governesses. Grandma Sharada (born in 1925) was a Brahmin from Karnataka, and even though it was an inter-caste marriage, her mother did not object. My grandfather was so charming and friendly that it really did not matter whose ancestors were traders and whose were priests. As with many families in India, they came from the same class though not the same caste.  She took on the role of being the Army wife with utter grace, entertaining diplomats and politicians with great élan. My grandfather was by then the commandant of the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun and later the military attaché for India with the Indian embassy in Moscow. He enjoyed huge success and a meteoric rise to the rank of a Major General. In 1959, Sanjeev Nanavati, their only child, my dad, was born.

Tragically, the beautiful life my grandparents and father enjoyed was to be short lived. My grandfather Nalin was sent on a non-family posting in Kashmir where he was killed on the November 22, 1963 at the age of 45 in one of the most tragic helicopter crashes of all times. All six senior officers including my grandfather died. The other officers were –

  • Maj. Gen Nalin Kumar Dhirajlal Nanavati (Military Cross, General Officer Commanding 25 Infantry Division)
  • Lt. Gen Bikram Singh (General Officer Commanding, 15 Corps)
  • Air Vice Marshall Erlic Pinto (Air Officer Commanding, Western Command)
  • Lt.  Gen Daulet Singh (General Officer Commanding in Chief, Western Command)
  • Brigadier SR Oberoi, (Military Cross, Commander 93 Infantry Brigade)
  • Flt. Lt. SS Sodhi

Many conjectured that the helicopter was sabotaged because so many senior officers lost their lives at the same time, but the Indian Army ruled out sabotage and stated that it was an accident. Later as cautionary rule, the government banned senior officers of the army to ever travel together. The same rule now applies to several corporations too.

Grandma Sharada Nanavati was widowed at a young age of 34, and my dad Sanjeev, was just four years old. With only 12 rupees in her bank account, it took Sharada many years to get a succession certificate (issued by a civil court to the legal heirs of a deceased person). She never took a paisa from her wealthy relatives and instead chose to live her life with dignity and raise her son alone. Fortunately she was educated with a Masters in History, Politics and Economics and was a journalist too. With recommendations from Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw, she began working at the WHO and then later with the USIS in New Delhi. This was a great achievement for a woman in her times.

As a single and independent mother, my grandmother educated my dad, and with blood, sweat and tears built a modest home in the ‘War Widows colony’ in Delhi. Daddy and Grandma remain very grateful to the Indian Army. My granddad was a war hero but I believe my grandma who is 89 years old now, is a hero too.


135 – A wedding amidst Hindu Muslim riots

My parent’s wedding ceremony. Howrah, West Bengal. January 19, 1964.

My parent’s wedding ceremony. Howrah, West Bengal. January 19, 1964.

Image & Text contributed by Moushumi Chakrabarty, Canada

This is a wedding picture of my parents, Debdas and Kumkum Banerjee. He was 25 years old at the time and she was 19. My dad at the time was a draftsman and worked for Hindustan Motors, and my mom had just finished her schooling and was admitted to the Howrah Girls College (now Bijoy Krishna Girl’s college). They were both brought up in Howrah, West Bengal.

My parents’ marriage was an arranged match, by the patriarchs – my two grandfathers. Apparently my maternal grandfather, whom we fondly called Dadu, saw my father going to office one day, and thought him to be very handsome. He immediately began making some inquiries as to who that handsome man was. Dadu thought he would make a perfect match for his eldest daughter, Kumkum. After finding out who he was he approached my paternal grandfather and thereafter, till the wedding was finalised, always made a point of looking out for my father when he went to work. Almost every evening he would come home very pleased and tell my grandmother what a perfect match he had found for his daughter.

In the cold month of January 1964, at the time the wedding was to take place, riots between Hindu and Muslims broke out in about five places in West Bengal. The clashes erupted after the disappearance of a precious relic from a mosque in Srinagar, capital of a disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. Consequentially, anti-Hindu riots broke out in east Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) and 29 people were killed. In retaliation riots broke out against the Muslims in rural areas of West Bengal and it spread far.
The administration then declared a curfew. My parents can’t recall any specific incident but there was a vague sense of unease and an undercurrent of danger, nevertheless wedding preparations went on. Our locality was considered safe because of my paternal grandfather Dr G. Banerjee was a grassroots congress party worker, a social activist and a well respected doctor.

On the wedding day the guests arrived safely, the shehnai (oboe) played and the cooks served up a sumptuous wedding feast. The feast was a typical bengali wedding one, complete with fish, mutton, different types of vegetables, puris, and of course, ‘dorbesh‘, my grandfather’s favourite sweet.

My father remembers that a couple of his European colleagues, who attended the wedding, were served less spicy food complete with specially ordered spoons, forks and knives. At the end of the wedding, all guests returned to their homes safely, some of whom stayed in the ‘para‘ (neighbourhood locality). After their wedding, my parents  immediately launched into a normal couple’s life, with my mom now in the thick of a multi-layered and large traditional household, as the eldest ‘bou’ (wife), had several tasks to perform.

I visited India/Kolkata this year in January to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of my parents. Things in Howrah are more or less the same. In 50 years, the locality feels unchanged, though the old houses are slowly crumbling away brick by brick. No new roads have been built. The old library and market still stand. Some of the old sweet shops are churning out their fabulous concoctions even now. On roads, cows still chew the cud unhurriedly while scooters and cars zip by. A new mall has opened recently though sweatshops where people ply their traditional trades still exist, asserting their independence and everything is still covered in dust. But during my parent’s anniversary celebration, it was a again a cold night, there was again a sumptuous feast, there were flower-bedecked guests and there were soft and beautiful strains of the shehnai. It seemed nothing much had changed. But this time and thankfully there were no riots or a curfew.

 


133 – “My grandparents were staunch political rivals”

My grandparents' wedding. Gaya, Bihar. 1956

My grandparents at their wedding. Dehradun, Uttar Pradesh 1956

Image and Text contributed by Richa Srivastava, Mumbai

My grandmother, Sushila Sahay whom we called Nani, was born in Jila (District) Hoshangabad in 1926 in the Central Provision, now known as the state of Madhya Pradesh. A daughter of a Forest officer, she was brought up in Dehradun in Uttar Pradesh. When she was 13 years old, Nani heard that Mahatama Gandhi was visiting Mussoorie and she travelled to hear him speak. Heavily influenced by Gandhi’s words, she met with him and declared her wish to be involved his Ashram, the Sabarmati Ashram. However, Gandhi recommended that she finish her education first. She heard him out, but to feel associated with the movement, she began to wear only Khadi clothes, worked to uplift the Harijan groups, who were considered Untouchable in the conservative caste system of India. And when she finished her Bachelor’s degree, she did joined the Ashram. However, by then Gandhi has been assassinated.

My grandfather, Dayanand Sahay, whom we called Nana, was born in 1928, in a village called Bhadvar in Bihar to a conservative family. By the time he grew up he had already lost many siblings to the fight for freedom. He became a Sarvodaya Activist, that propagated Gandhi’s political philosophies. Later, he joined the Shakho Deora ashram in Gaya district, a branch of the Gandhi ashram established by Jayaprakash Narayan, popularly referred to as JP or Lok Nayak (people’s leader).

In the 1950s, my grandmother would travel to the ashram in Gaya with a few other women and that is where my grandparents met. At the Gandhi Ashram however, every member was considered a brother or a sister and in the beginning she also tied a Rakhi (symbol of brotherly love & protection) to my grandfather, considering him an elder brother. So for my maternal grandparents to gradually fall in love may have surprised or shocked many. Anyway, in 1956, they got married. They both only wore Khadi and as a token of dowry (as was the custom) he took only Rs. One. My grandfather’s father, I am told, was very unhappy with his son’s inter-caste marriage and declared to disown him. Nana was even coerced into attending a village panchayat meeting meant to dissuade him from marrying Nani, but he wouldn’t listen. Eventually the family came around and blessed the wedding.

Over time, JP and my grandparents  became close friends and associates. They became actively involved with politics. They worked with and supported JP when he led the opposition against the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, in the 1970’s, calling for her resignation, and a program of social transformation, which he termed Sampoorna kraanti (Total Revolution). Instead, Indira Gandhi proclaimed a National Emergency in 1975 and subsequently, JP, several leaders and his party members including my grandparents, were all thrown into jail.

When Janata Party was voted into power, and became the first non-Congress party to form a government at the Centre, Nani who had by now become its member, became the Home Minister of Bihar for one year from 1977 to May 1978. She resigned the same day as her first grandchild, my brother, was born, and so she also missed his birth.

What I consider the most interesting part of my grandparent’s lives is that they also became political rivals, with my grandmother joining the Janata Dal Party as an MLA and my grandfather who had very early on joined the Congress. In fact, in 1989, when VP Singh became Prime Minister, was also the year that Nani stood for elections representing Janata Dal Party while my Nana supported the opposition, Congress (that eventually won). It is amazing that their relationship stood the test of political and professional rivalry, and we sometimes wonder how they even managed to work around that. Having said that, my grandmother was an idealist and my grandfather a pragmatic man, they both encouraged and respected each other and there never seemed to be any ego problems.

My grandfather or Nana went on to serve three terms as member of the parliament. He emerged as a Kingmaker for several established Politicians who would go to him for money, encouragement or advice. Nana was the first person to make pre-stressed concrete sleepers, now used by the railways for reasons of safety, speed enhancement. Inclined with a socialist attitude, he also decided to share his sleepers formulae with other businessmen. He rose in position to become a member of the Rajya Sabha, however he passed away in a car accident in Gaya in 2002.  Nani, even at a very old age, continued to serve people in her own several ways,  and was deeply concerned about the country’s emotional and intellectual health. I remember, she would dictate to us letters of grievances to the president and the prime-minister. To my family and I, my grandparents were a truly a great team and a couple to reckon with.


129 – The Opening of Gaffar Market, Delhi

Celebrating the opening of Gaffar Market. Delhi. 1962

Celebrating the opening of Gaffar Market. Delhi. 1962

Image and Text contributed by Satish Wadhwa, New Delhi

This photograph was taken by my father Jiwan Das, a photographer in Delhi, at the opening of the sparkling new Gaffar Market.

My father Jiwan Das was born in 1899 in Lyallpur (now New Faisalabad in Pakistan). I am not sure how he got into the photography business but by 1914 he had opened a photography and a watch repair shop. And so he was a photographer as well as a watch smith. At that time most Photo and Watch repair shops shops were combined businesses. His image based work comprised of photographing portraits of British officers, law makers and group photographs from Lahore College and Camp College. He was also an expert hand colourist of photographs.

By early 1948, with Ind0-Pakistan partition showing its terrifying face, my father Jiwan Das and his family (wife and children) migrated to Haridwar in India and I was born. When I was about two months old, my father decided to move to Delhi and he opened a Photography shop on 2878, Hardhyan Singh Road in Karol Bagh (Originally called Qarol Gardens). The shop was named Jiwan Das and Sons, Photographers and Dealers (see image). The photography business dealt with portraits, group and family photographs and with the dealership we represented photo papers of Kodak and Agfa. As we grew up, my two elder brothers and I helped with running the business – taking photographs and developing them in the dark room behind the counter. For years we continued the run the photo business along with our new ventures, but the shop saw its last days in year 2000. Nonetheless, for now, instead of selling it, we have decided to keep it.

In 1962, the opening of the Gaffar (Ghaffar) Market, (a market allotted to refugee traders and business men from Partitioned Pakistan) was celebrated with much fanfare. The procession had Horsemen, Drum rolls, dancing and music. My father must have run across the road from his shop, to a shop terrace, to take this photograph.

The market, named after a well known freedom combatant Ghaffar Khan, went on to become one of the most famous landmarks of Delhi. At one time it was a single storeyed market. It sold jewellery, crockery, garments and important wares for the home. People flocked to Gaffar to buy their goods. Today the market is also best known for selling the latest technology (imitated or as real brands) like mobile phones, electronics & PC computers at wholesale prices.

 


128 – Christmas and New Year in Bokaro Steel City

Winter Season Celebrations. 1968. Bokaro Steel City (Now Jharkhand)

Winter Season Celebrations. 1968. Bokaro Steel City (Now Jharkhand)

Image and Text contributed by Madhavi Singh (nee Jain) , Mumbai

Christmas and New Year celebrations were being organised in Bokaro Steel City. At the time my father, an engineer, was stationed in Bokaro working for a Birla Concern – SIMCO designing the gates of the Tenughat Dam. As an entertainment and socialising hub, the Bokaro Club was the epicentre of our small town. For the 1968 celebrations, to include the children performances had been organised by and for us. We were to perform amongst family, friends, parents, colleagues and our own peers, a daunting thought, specially for my friends and I who were very young.

I was going to perform as a dancer. There were four dances that evening and I at the age of 3+ years was the only child who was chosen to dance in all four. I was daunted yes, but also very excited. There are two songs I danced to that I remember very distinctly. One was, “Pallo latke zara sa pallu latke” . In retrospect, it was one of the most famous songs in Northern India; originally a folk song it got hugely popular as a hindi Movie Naukar‘s soundtrack; people and children both would perform to at events – Be it a club like ours or a wedding, or a school event ; then there was also the famous Haryanvi folk song “ji ka janjaal mora bajra, udh udh jaye mora bajra” (folk song about Pearl Millet, staple grain diet of Northern India). Both songs as we now realise were taught to and performed by several children (now adults) across the country and had them dancing at most events. I was trained by my mother and I still remember a few steps.

The Club did not have a stage, thus there were chairs laid out in concentric circles, in the hall, and the performances were in the middle with people seated around. During one performance, my anklet came off and I remember stopping and asking my mother who was sitting conveniently in the front row, to hook it before I continued. That particular performance, there were just two of us little girls performing. I recall that being the anecdote, which has since been narrated many times over, in school, at home, as well at my mother’s kitty parties to much laughter.


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.


125 – A trip to the Holy Land just before the historic Six-Day War

My grandmother, Kunjamma (standing fourth from right) with a travel group. Jerusalem. 1967

My grandmother, Kunjamma (standing fourth from right) with a travel group. Jerusalem. 1967

Image and Text contributed by Annie Philip, Mumbai

My grandfather, T.T. Zachariah, was working with petroleum company Aramco in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and my grandmother, Kunjamma, joined him from Kerala with her two youngest children in 1965. She had taken leave for a couple of years from the school where she used to teach.

The expatriate community at the company was close knit and had a fairly active social life that involved sports, picnics and festival celebrations. While living in Saudi Arabia, my grandfather picked up and excelled at tennis, while my grandmother held homeschooling classes for her children and couple of their neighbour’s children.

During the time, my grandfather heard about a three-four day trip to Jerusalem being organised by a Catholic group. This was in early January 1967, few months short of the historic Six-Day War that changed boundaries and destinies in the region.

The group planned to take a chartered flight from Dhahran to Jerusalem. Children were, however, not allowed on the trip. My grandparents came from a long line of Syrian Christians in Kerala and visiting the Holy Land was considered a once in a lifetime opportunity. My grandfather encouraged my grandmother to go, insisting that he would stay back and take care of the children. His reasoning was that he could go anytime later and she should not miss this chance. Kunjamma too was set to go back to Kerala by March 1967, to re-join the school in Kerala for the next academic year, and so she agreed.

The group of around sixty people were a mix of expatriates. It included Westerners, Indians and Pakistanis, Catholics and Protestants. Jerusalem was expected to be chilly at the time and so my grandmother borrowed a coat from her friend. As she made preparations for the trip, she was apprehensive more not about travelling with new people but having to use knives and forks at meal time.

And so she was relieved and happy to have the company of two Malayali nurses. The three women hung around together and my grandmother did not have to worry too much about dining etiquette. My grandmother remembers the name of their hotel as Gloria Hotel. In this picture you can see the Dome of the Rock and the town of Jerusalem. She also remembers that a Western couple solemnised their wedding at one of the churches during the trip.

The group covered most of the important pilgrimage points including Stations of the Cross, the Mount of Olives, Golgotha, Jericho and Bethlehem. At the suggestion of some Protestants in the group, my grandmother also visited the Garden Tomb, outside the walled Old City of Jerusalem, with them (Protestants believe this to be the burial site of Jesus Christ). They could, however, not visit Nazareth (which lay under Israeli control) as they had taken their visa from Saudi Arabia. (At the time, much of the walled Old City of Jerusalem commonly referred to as East Jerusalem lay under Jordanian control).

My grandmother brought back water from River Jordan and the Dead Sea in tiny bottles as memorabilia from the trip, apart from an olive wood cover- bound Bible and framed pictures. Months after she returned, the Six-Day War took place and my grandfather was unable to make the trip. He returned to Kerala in 1976 and passed away in 1986. She remembers the trip as one that was truly memorable and fondly recalls how it was my grandfather who encouraged her to go.


124 – The Airforce Wives of Gorakhpur

Mrs. Radha Krishna (my mother) with her friends, Mrs Puri and Mrs Roy. Gorakhpur. Uttar Pradesh. Circa 1965.

Mrs. Krishna (my mother) with her friends, Mrs Puri and Mrs Roy. Gorakhpur. Uttar Pradesh. Circa 1968.

Image and Text contributed by Kavita Krishna, USA.

My Amma’s (Mrs. Krishna) life has been what can easily be phrased as that of constant transformation, from a simple south Indian orthodox girl into a cosmopolitan fauji (military officer’s) wife. Her life saw so many moves and travels that it made her into an extremely adaptable and a flexible person. Everyone who knows her agrees that she is the epitome of, what was once a compliment, a secular Indian.

My mother was born in Bandar or Machilipatnam in the then Madras State in1946 (now in Andhra Pradesh) into an orthodox Telugu Brahmins household. Where orthodoxy meant continuing the family’s brahmin traditions but also possessing liberality of thought that helped her later in her fauji married life.

Adjustments began with her family moving to Vijayawada and then to Nallakunta, Hyderabad in 1955; right in the middle of the Telangana agitation of 1954-56. She was just a school kid at Narayanguda Girls High School but remembers being teased as ‘Gongura Gongura‘ by boys following in bicycles. Boys those days simply stalked you singing the latest songs but didn’t do anything, she tells me. (Gongura, a sour green leaf Sorrel, is the staple diet in an Andhra household and belongs to the same family as Marijuana)

For someone who dressed and spoke very conservatively in Hyderabad, Amma blossomed into a more cosmopolitan person enjoying the very popular shows on All India Radio like Vividh Bharati and Binaca Geetmala, she like millions of others also became into a huge fan of Ameen Sayani, AIR’s most famous talk show host ever. She would hog the radio and would not let even her younger sisters listen to it.

My maternal grandfather, taatayya, was a lawyer at the High Court and had indulged his own share of adjustments, to study law for instance, he had gone off to the very British Madras (Madras Presidency) and had cut off his ‘brahmin tuft (Sikha)’, a supposed unholy act, resulting in his mother ostracising him for a year or more. Amma says very proudly that she had seen taatayya refuse many a cases despite the stacks of bribe cash people would offer because he could not lie.  “He was in the wrong profession, he wanted to study language….” she adds ruefully. Of course my grandfather spent all his free time translating Sanskrit works into Telugu, playing chess, discussing philosophy and politics, editing Telugu magazines…So when my mother and her friends would go to watch movies, her affluent and generous Telangana Reddy friends paid for rather unaffordable film tickets, she says “We didn’t really bother about such things among friends those days. I did not have much money but nobody seemed to care who paid or who didn’t” she adds wistfully. A few Hyderabadi Muslim friends taught her Urdu/Hindi and she rather enjoyed speaking it.

On religion, my mother remembers that Muslims and Hindus of their economic and similar conservative class rarely visited each others’ houses, but when they did it was for festivals and they did not enter her mother’s kitchen. It was never stated explicitly but was understood. Amma says even she and her sisters were not allowed to enter or touch anything when her mother was doing her cooking or prayers and if she did accidentally touch something, her poor mother would have to go off and take a cold water bath. Sitting separately during the menstruation was the norm, hanging one’s ‘outside’ clothes outside and not bringing those inside the house, offering naivedyam (prayer) to the altar before eating and so on but that never came in the way of friendships. People knew of each other’s customs and respected them.

Soon my mother, began indulging in her love of art and writing. Once she won the first prize for short story writing, a competition conducted by the Telugu magazine Jyoti. She received many congratulatory letters of appreciation. But since she could not afford to buy postcards to reply to all of them she chose two among the 40-odd replies and sent them a Thank you postcard in return. Co-incidentally or one may call it fate; one of the recipients was her future husband.

Amma was not the marrying kind. She wanted to write, work,earn her own living, and was fiery and a feminist before her realisation. But when the proposal came from my father directly to the family – that he was from the same caste, that he was an Air Force Officer plus handsome to boot, was enough to have my grandmother literally bulldoze my mother into marrying my father.

Their first ‘posting’ together was to Gorakhpur in 1967. Amma absolutely loves that place, she says that India was a wonderful place to be young in those days. In their 20s, she and my father set up their first household in Mohaddipur, it was a three storied building called the ATC and it housed five other air force families. There Amma befriended the North Indian Puri aunty and the East Indian Roy aunty.

When the men were away on temporary duty, these three women would take a rickshaw to Gol Ghar and indulge in whatever shopping their meagre salaries allowed them. These three friends, one from each geographical corner of the country, also decided to seal their friendship with this photograph for eternity, for a handsome sum of Rs.15.

Those days my father, a bomb disposal expert, earned Rs 475 in hand after all the tax cuts, the pilots earned a little more. My parents had a lot of financial responsibilities – my father being the eldest in his family, sent support to them, and this did not leave much for shopping. Amma recollects that plastic goods, beaded jewellery and steel vessels that came from Nepal were most sought after by these newly wed wives. The women would quickly finish their rounds and hurry back to Mohaddipur before their husbands returned from work or before it was too late in the evening because that area was also infested with dacoits and political goons.

In Gorakhpur, even the five rupees for the rickshaw was something she had to struggle to save. Drinking and Smoking were the favourite indulgences among officers and everyone splurged on hosting parties, there was never any money left by the 15th of the month, she adds laughingly. Bachelors would ‘drop-in’ for Home made food bored of eating mess food daily and suddenly post dinner or lunch, plans would be made to drive on their motorbikes to Kusinagar or Benaras or to Ayodhya. She found all this very odd initially, this intermingling, this easy casual banter among genders, the adventurous spirit, eating anything by the roadside but she grew to love everything about the life that Air Force had brought to her.

Amma says she had never eaten Chhola Bhatura or Pani Puri before 1967. She didn’t know what they were. All of it was discovered in Gorakhpur. “It wasn’t like it is now, when you can eat anything anywhere anytime” she remarks reproachfully. “For the terrible dosas of Gol Ghar we saved money the whole month, and they tasted so bad, but we were somehow satisfied”, and now she she makes the best Chhole Bhature I have ever eaten.

She also speaks on the prejudices she faced, being short and dark, not having studied in a convent, not being able to speak ‘good English’, not being from a big city (Hyderabad was not considered a big city then) she constantly felt ridiculed and put-down. Considering that she did not belong to a rich or powerful family or have money, she had to really work hard at being taken seriously by others, especially the women, who were quite unkind to her. She learnt to wear make-up and perfume. She grew her nails and painted them, bought nylon saris and matching artificial jewellery, all this was was so unlike she had been brought up. Cutting her long hair off was another bold step. Having a ‘bob-cut‘ was deemed to be more modern, and thus she succumbed to it in the early 80s.

In the year 1982 my father was posted to Sulur, Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. We ran into the Puris who were also posted there and Amma met Puri aunty serendipitously after fifteen years. They were so happy to be together for the next two years, giggling like school girls, gossiping away whenever they got a chance. It was as though they had never married or had had two kids each.

I am amazed whenever I think of my mother’s journey. When we visited her old haunts of Machilipatnam and Vijayawada in 2002, I saw in a flash how tough each transition for Amma might have been, in attitude, in ideology, in social mores, yet she took it in her stride and managed to raise me and my sister with a very gentle message: that there is beauty in everyone, wherever they come from, whoever they are.

Today, Puri aunty is settled in Chandigarh, Roy aunty in Kolkata. Amma known as Chivukula Annapurna or Mrs Krishna or Radha lives with my father (who also fought two wars and took voluntary retirement) in Secunderabad. I am her older daughter Kavita, I teach language, culture, yoga & vedanta. My younger sister is Pujita and she teaches and performs Kuchipudi and Vilasini Natyam. We have both chosen professions where there is not much money, but a lot of spirit & passion.


123 – “When a Nobel Laureate opened his doors to us”

American College Batch of 1964 with Dr. Riesz and Sir. C.V Raman. Bangalore. Karnataka. 1965

Madurai’s American College Batch of 1964 with Professor Dr. Richard P. Riesz and Sir. C.V Raman . Bangalore. Karnataka. 1965

Image & Text contributed by Chitra Chandrabalan, Bangalore

When I first walked into the Physics department of American College, Madurai  (Tamil Nadu) I was shocked to find myself – as not only the first girl in the first batch but also the only girl in the 1963-1965 M.Sc Physics batch at American College, Madurai.
But that apart, college was fun and we had amazing professors and teachers at college. Dr. Richard. P. Riesz was not only a great Physics Professor but also a very fine gentleman. I remember Mr. A.J. Harris, Mr. G. Srinivasan, Mr. P. Srinivasan, Mr. Mangaladhas and Mr. Pitchai, all of whom taught us and were a great help to us all.

The next academic year – 1964, found a Matilda Easterson (sitting right) joining the course. So I finally had female company. After I graduated in 1965 and joined Visalakshi CollegeUdumalpet (Coimbatore District) Dr. Riesz very kindly invited me to join their tour to Bangalore as our batch hadn’t gone on a tour anywhere. I knew that Dr. Riesz was going to ask Sir C.V Raman  to talk with us and the chances of meeting the Nobel Laureate were high, and so I just grabbed the opportunity.

I remember Sir. C.V Raman welcoming us with open arms and telling us that he normally doesn’t like people visiting but he did it for Dr. Riesz – who had requested  “if he’d be gracious to invite us”. Sir. Raman was so pleased with his manners that he invited us all. He was a thorough gentleman and he spoke very softly. Over the next few hours, he spoke about several things in simple language, like about colour-blindness – that even though women could be carriers, they are not colour-blind. I remember also seeing solid carbon-di-oxide (Dry Ice) for the first time. We were left in awe of the great man, we had so far only heard of. This photograph was taken on that trip and I sit on the left wearing an orange saree.

Later, Dr. Riesz entertained us in his house and Mrs. Riesz looked after us all well. Ms. Jesubai Moses was our warden in Flint House of our college was also present and who knew that she had a fine singing voice. I wondered in awe about these people and about the Riesz family and their ever present kindness. It was a very very memorable and pleasant tour. Dr. Riesz later moved to the United States but continued to oversee the management of the college trust as President.

After graduating I began to teach Physics at Visalakshi College itself and then across several colleges in the region. When I got married to my husband, he was working at Vrindavan Public school and later at Lawrence school, Lovedale. Through his lifetime he too changed his job several times, because for us designations and posts were not that important. We chose to work wherever we enjoyed it. In-fact I too began liking to teach a lot more in Nigeria and after syllabuses began to follow the ICSE format in India. Facilities in Nigeria were so bad that I would have to use my own kitchen vessels and cook for the children there. I remember how we taught them how to make ice-cream using the ice box.

I used to be a photography enthusiast and took a lot of photographs in this tour, but unfortunately lost most of them to termites when I’d left them in storage. Recently, tears welled by in my eyes when my son-in-law – Shino Moses – who was also a student of Dr. Riesz called me and said that when we visit them in the USA, that he will take me to see Dr. Riesz. I cannot wait to meet one of the best teachers of my life.

 


122 – “My family made the pen that wrote the Constitution of India”

My grandfather, Dwarkadas Jivanlal Sanghvi (Stands extreme right in a Black Coat) with his brother Vallabhdas Jivanlal Sanghvi and business partners, at a Pen Exhibition in Bombay. Circa1951

My grandfather, Dwarkadas Jivanlal Sanghvi (extreme right in a Black Coat) with his brother Vallabhdas Jivanlal Sanghvi and business partners. Bombay. Circa 1951

Image & Text contributed by Purvi Sanghvi, Mumbai

This picture is of my grandfather Dwarkadas Jivanlal Sanghvi and his brother Vallabhdas Jivanlal Sanghvi with their business partners at a Pen Exhibition in Bombay around 1951.

My paternal grandfather Dwarkadas Jivanlal Sanghvi was born in Rajula, in Gujarat on September 17, 1913 into an impoverished family. He was around the age of eight when his father died and because his mother Amrutben could not afford to bring him up, he was sent to a Balashram (Children’s home). He only managed to study up until 4th standard. At the age of 13 he went to Rangoon, Burma to join his elder brother, Vallabhdas Jivanlal Sanghvi who had moved there to work at a general store which sold cutlery and kitchen ware. As a young teenager, my grandfather would earn little money babysitting children in Rangoon.

Soon the enterprising brothers began buying fountain pens from traders and selling them on the pavements of Rangoon, making tiny profits. Meanwhile the entire family (their mother & sisters) also moved to Rangoon including the new wife my grandfather, at the age of 23 had travelled back to Gujarat to marry.

My father was born in 1939 in Rangoon, but then the World war II broke out, In 1941 the family chose to move to Calcutta (now Kolkata) where my grandfather Dwarkadas founded a whole sale trading company called Kiron & Co, named after my father whose name was Kiran (with an A), but when a Bengali sign painter instead spelt it as Kiron (with an O), with no time for corrections, the name stayed as painted. Both the company’s & my father’s.

The Brothers soon realized that good business beckoned them back to western India and they moved to Valsad, Gujarat and then to Bombay. In Bombay, Dwarkadas & his brother Vallabhdas invested in and installed a lathe machine in a small shed at Kasturchand Mill compound in Dadar west and began manufacturing most of the Pen parts by themselves. I think Dhiraj Manufacturing was my grand-uncle Vallabhdas’s venture but both companies traded in Wilson as well.

In the beginning, the Nibs were imported from USA, under the brand names of Sita & Sity. However, as an error the supplier sent them a box of Nibs called Wilson instead. The war was a huge obstacle to sending the consignment back so they had no choice but to start making the pens with the un-returnable nibs. With the entire pen rebranded as Wilson, the pen sold far better than they expected and yet again another mistaken name was retained.

By the mid 1940s the business grew and they had begun manufacturing all pens from scratch. The Manufacturing units moved to Andheri East and to Chakala. And they also introduced other brands such as the President. With almost a 1200 people as staff, there were people from almost all communities working together; A lot of women were hired for the first time. While the machines were worked by men, all the assembling of the pen was done entirely by women. Their daily salary at the time was around Rs. 3 to 4 per day. Meanwhile my grandfather taught himself to read, write and speak in English at the age of 42, because he understood that knowing English was important for modern businesses to grow.

Wilson Pens quickly rose to huge fame and became a preferred choice of pens across the country. All government offices, law court, used the Wilson pens. In School too, the teachers would ask us for Wilson Pens as gifts. Chippi chawl was the wholesale office that was visited by salesmen from all over the country who came to negotiate and buy pens and other Wilson stationery. Soon the pens were also being exported to several countries.

In 1961-62 a huge union strike set up the family businesses for hard times. The pressures were hard to handle and so the Brothers split their business by picking chits (draw of luck) of the businesses they would run. Vallabdas got President Pens and my grandfather got Wilson along with the Refill plant (an Italian collaboration) that came into my grandfather and his sons share.

For some time the businesses ran as smoothly as they could. Both the brothers’ children set up their own units and began manufacturing all kinds of pens. We made Refills, Ball pens, VV pens, Jotters, Jumbos. Several of the new designs were also imitated by new and upcoming businesses.

Another violent and strife-full union strike in the early 1980’s organized by the infamous trade union leader Dutta Samant (lasted for approx. ten months) closed down our businesses for a while (including several others’ in Bombay), but it was the last and the third strike in 1998 that broke our businesses completely apart and my grandfather & father had no choice but to shut everything down yet again. So hard was the last fall that my father and grandfather just could not find in themselves the courage to start all over again.

Towards the end of his life, Dwarkadas spent most of his time at home. He had since long harboured deep regrets about not being very educated and hence at his voluntary retirement he donated a lot of money for education. He founded and funded almost four to five educational institutions. DJ Sanghvi Engineering College, in Ville Parle (Mumbai), Amrutben Jivanlal College of Commerce (earlier a part of Mithibhai College) also in Mumbai, Jivanlal Anandji High school in Rajula, Gujarat and another school nearby in Amreli District.

In 2002, the Pioneer of Pens in India, my grandfather Dwarkadas passed away.

Of the several interesting family stories about Wilson, one in particular that makes me most proud is when I learnt that we the Wilson Pen Family, made the orange, thick-nibbed pen that wrote the most fundamental document that defines the state of India: The constitution of India written by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. It was later confirmed via several sources. I am very sure it made my grandfather very very happy and immensely proud too.

 


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.


109 – The cockerel-fighter from Punjab who became one of Africa’s greatest cameramen

Sir Mohinder Dhillon, pictured on the deck of British Navy ship. Kenya. 1967

Sir Mohinder Dhillon, pictured on the deck of British Navy ship. Kenya. 1967

Image and Text contributed by Sir Mohinder Dhillon, Kenya

The following text is a summarised and edited version of excerpts from an unpublished Autobiography of the contributor.

Looking back over the 80 years, I wonder how, as a simple village boy from Punjab who never even finished school, did I end up in Africa, dodging bullets to make a living from shooting hundreds of kilometres of film in some of the world’s most dangerous regions.

I come from the proud martial family of the Sikhs. I do not know the exact date of my birth, although my passport says 25 October 1931, Baburpur, Punjab. At the time, births were not registered, and parents habitually exaggerated the ages of their children in order to get them into school early and so have their own hands free during the day. Baburpur, formerly called Retla (the place of sand), was renamed after Mughal Emperor Babur who had reportedly camped near our village for a few weeks.

My father, Tek Singh-

My father, Tek Singh, was the first person in our village to get an education. He was an adventurous man, and in 1918 at the age of 17, he responded with enthusiasm to the recruiting posters for workers on the Uganda Railway in British East Africa. Believing that there was safety in numbers, he was joined by friends and former classmates from nearby villages and the determined young men collectively took up the challenge of seeking a better life abroad.

This grandiose project of Uganda Railways would change the lives of the tens of thousands of Indians who left home for a new life in an unknown land, most of them never to return. The so-called Lunatic Line laid between 1896 and 1901 from Mombasa into the interior of then-British East Africa to Lake Victoria and subsequently extended into what is now Uganda, opened up the East African hinterland to the outside world. The founding of towns, and their later development into cities, would go on to transform the economies of the region.

When Tek Singh announced his decision to go to East Africa, it upset my grandparents immensely. Their only son was going to ‘darkest Africa’, the prevalent view of Africa at the time (still the perception of many people today). The money for my father’s first train ticket to Bombay, and for the dhow that would carry him from there to Mombasa, was borrowed from a moneylender in the village at a steep interest rate.

For the young Tek Singh leaving the village was more than just an adventure. A great deal rested on how he would fare in distant East Africa. Back at home in India, his family would be depending on him for remittances. He also had young wife to think of. His marriage had taken place six years earlier, when Tek was just 11, and his betrothed, Kartar Kaur, was nine years old.

The railway journey from Babarpur to Bombay took two days and one night. And then it took another two days to find the Uganda Railway’s recruiting agent. His shopping list for the journey – then the cheapest way of crossing the Indian Ocean – included a charcoal stove, two bags of charcoal, all the rations needed for the journey, a sleeping mat, blankets, washing powder, bath soap, tea leaves, and fresh water.

Tek Singh – or Bau Ji, as he was fondly called at home – arrived in Mombasa with almost no money in his pockets. He found refuge at a nearby Sikh temple (Gurudwara), where he slept on the veranda braving the ravenous mosquitoes, exactly like how the thousands freshly arrived on the coast spent their first few nights. After a week, Bau Ji was provided a bachelor accommodation by the Uganda Railways. Later, he and two other young Sikhs shared a small railway house that had the luxury of a tiny garden. The trio of bachelors remained life-long friends.

Bau Ji had promptly written home, informing his parents of his safe arrival. The mail though travelled first by sea, and then by rail and horse-drawn carriage and by foot, and took as long as 12 weeks to arrive. By then, his parents had feared the worst. His wife, Kartar Kaur, for her part, was obliged to don widow’s attire (the customary white dress), and was forbidden to use cosmetics. She complied for form’s sake but Kartar refused to believe that her husband was not alive. Amid the uncertainty of my father’s absence, my grandfather Natha Singh lived long enough to hear that his son had indeed reached East Africa safely, but the suspense evidently proved too much for his health. When Bau Ji’s letter finally arrived, the family was overjoyed and distributed sweets to everybody, but my grandfather died shortly after that.

Bau Ji found himself working for a soon-to-be expanded colonial rail (and shipping) network, one that would come to be known, first as Kenya & Uganda Railways and Harbours, and then eventually (in 1948) as the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation. Almost 30 years would elapse before he felt he was ready to bring the rest of his family over to Kenya. Through the 30 years, Bau Ji had to be content with getting to see his family during periods of extended overseas leave. He was entitled, once in every five years, a ‘six month home leave’ in India. All but one of the rest of us seven siblings were conceived during successive home-leave visits from our father. My youngest brother Balbir was born in Kenya. Bau Ji was able to save money for the education of all six of his sons, including me. Later, Bau Ji sent money to build a primary school in our home village.

Although the India Bau Ji had left behind was riven by class divisions, the world to which he now belonged bore even sharper lines of demarcation. The less educated Sikhs, those who were good with their hands, became mechanics, masons and carpenters. Only well-educated Sikhs could expect to land responsible office jobs. Most of the Railway accountants and clerks were Goans, who also ran the catering department. The people from Goa, who had lived under Portuguese rule for more than 500 years, did not mix much with other Indians. They classified themselves as Portuguese. And they already had their own sports club, known as the Railway Goan Institute. There were very few Gujarati-speaking Indians working on the Railway. Some Sikhs left the Railways to venture into business, but it was rare.

Bau Ji, for his part, had very little time for any kind of life beyond the Railway. He would walk the 10 kms to work from his Railway quarters. He and his two friends Kishen Mangat and Basant Bindra were encouraged by the British Administration to form a Sikh hockey team so a hockey field and a modest clubhouse were duly built. It went on to become the Railway Asian Institute Sports Club. After work, he would walk back home, have his tea, then change into his running-shorts and pick up his Indian-made hockey stick to hone his hockey playing skills.

Our lives in Baburpur –

I spent my early childhood in much the same way as my father. We never travelled outside our district in Punjab. There were no road or rail connections nearby. The Television was yet to be invented and I did not even know that radios existed. I first saw a camera when we all travelled to Ludhiana in 1947 to have our passport pictures taken. The camera was one of those contraptions with a black shroud underneath which the photographer’s head would momentarily disappear. There were no newspapers or magazines from which to learn about the world outside Babarpur. While in India, I had never heard of Mahatma Gandhi. Not until 1948, when I was in Kenya, would I hear about Gandhi for the first time – and that was only because he had just been assassinated.

Some of my friends are shocked when I tell them that my main hobby in the village was cock-fighting. I was the proud owner of a champion white cockerel named Raja, or ‘king’. Raja was fed on almonds and garlic, which made him a formidable fighter. We couldn’t afford the luxury of eating almonds. But for Raja, I would settle for nothing less. Before Raja went into battle, I would fit needle-sharp steel caps over his fighting-spurs – the talons on the inner side of a cock’s leg. In their natural state, a cock’s spurs are sharp enough. But kitted out in steel spikes, Raja could strike deep into an opponent’s belly, killing that poor bird almost instantly. Talking about this makes me wonder how I could have been so cruel. Back then, however, as a 12-year-old, I got a great kick out of all this. Raja slept next to my bed, I was so proud of him. My other passion was kite-flying. Together, brother Joginder and I won the championship for both of our last two years in the village.

Leaving India –

Things began to change for us in April 1947 the announcement of our impending departure had come in a letter from Bau Ji, received in September 1946. Leaving for Africa just weeks before India got its independence did at least spare us the carnage of Partition. When we left, India was still a peaceful place. Yet, within just a few months of our departure, some two million Indians were to lose their lives.

The first time I stepped on to a train was in 1947, at the age of 16, when we were leaving India. It was in the same year that I first travelled by bus. This was a time when, for the first time ever, Indian national election campaigns were canvassing the villages. The year 1947 was thus a significant one in my life. Until then, I had passed my entire childhood without ever having seen either a car or a motorcycle. I saw a flush toilet for the first time only after we travelled to a nearby town to be immunised against smallpox and to receive our yellow-fever vaccinations.

First, we travelled by ox-cart to Malaudh, the small town nearest to Babarpur where I had been going to school. With Partition looming, electioneering was under way in earnest, new buses were being used to mobilise political support among rural populations. From Malaudh, we took a bus to Ludhiana. This was only the second bus I had ever travelled in..From there, we boarded the train for Bombay.

In Bombay, we found a cheap hotel, where – in order to cut costs – the whole family shared one large room, with the males in one corner and the women in another. In the floor of the room there were holes through which, peeping down, we could see parts of the room beneath. Like all Indian travellers in those days, we carried all our own bedding in a sturdy canvas roll, complete with thick leather straps, a leather handle and a special pillow compartment. The bustle of Bombay – the first big city I had ever seen – was overwhelming. On reaching a street, I’d just stand there, transfixed, sometimes for at least three minutes, not daring to cross if there were a car approaching, even from afar. Bombay was simply awe-inspiring.

In India, there were – even then – bribe agents or ‘facilitators’ everywhere to smooth your passage through the formalities of customs and immigration and to find suitable accommodation for you. At the Bombay seaport, a bribe had to be paid for every service that was rendered. We even had to bribe someone in order to establish who else needed to be bribed. Our bribe agent then made sure that we bribed all the right officials.

The ship, named the Khandala, was dirty and worn. Originally a coal carrier, it had been converted to service as a passenger liner. The journey took 14 days. We docked briefly at two ports along the way, Porbunder in Gujarat and Mahe in the Seychelles. Then one day we saw the lighthouse of Mombasa. A tugboat came out to meet us and escorted our ship through a narrow bay into the port. The Africa I arrived in was green and lush. Palm trees swayed in the breeze against a clear blue sky. What a marked contrast this was to the flat and dusty Punjab we had left behind.

As we approached the shore, I knew I had come to a wondrous land. There were large engineering cranes at work in the harbour. The first human beings who caught my eye on the shore – two white men wearing shorts and a white woman in a loose skirt – were doing something curious. They were swinging sticks up and down. Later I found out it was golf. There were Africans, Arabs, Swahilis and even a few Indians and Europeans. We were astonished by how cheerful and laid-back everybody seemed to be. Most of the people we had seen on the streets of Bombay, by contrast, had looked tense and miserable, as they rushed about from place to place.

After Babarpur, our modest Railway house in Nairobi had the look of a palace. Gurdev, my elder brother soon found a job as a Railway fireman. For two years, he fed coal into the burners of the steam-engines and he would come home with soot all over his face and on his overalls. After a two-year apprenticeship, he became a locomotive driver.

In India, we had been punished for everything in school – for poor grades, for failing to complete our homework, for showing up a few minutes late, even for laughing aloud in class. For a village boy used to squatting on a coarse jute mat on a hard, uneven cement floor, this was a luxurious learning environment. Most of the teachers in Nairobi were surprisingly lenient, moreover, they did not punish for failure, or for lagging behind, but only for behaving badly in class.

Outside of school, life was filled with excitement. We drank sticky soda pop and we begged for turns to ride the bicycles of our friends. I played billiards, snooker and skittles at the Railway Club. At school, we played hockey and table-tennis. Indeed, we became such dab hands at table-tennis that my brother Manjeet and I went on, in 1954 and again in 1955, to contest the final of the Kenya National Table Tennis Championship. I won the first encounter, but Manjeet took the second.

Bau Ji was himself an avid sportsman. His love of hockey in particular was to infect my younger brother, Joginder (Jindi), who went on to be selected as part of the national hockey team that represented Kenya at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

Joginder was sent to the prestigious St Thomas’s Teaching Hospital in London, where he eventually qualified as a doctor. Having then just represented Kenya at the Olympics, Joginder had easily found a place at the teaching hospital. Inderjeet went back to India, to a boarding college in Ludhiana, as Bau Ji could not afford to send him to a school in England. Later, upon returning to Kenya, Inderjeet became a popular radio and TV personality with the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, and was for a while a heartthrob among the teenage set in Nairobi. Manjeet initially took up a job in Nairobi as a clerk in the Kenya Ministry of Works, before going into business. While at school, he received a shield from Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret. He was also awarded the Lord Mountbatten Boy Scouts’ Belt. All five of my brothers passed their ‘O’ level examinations. I was the sole exception, failing the exam.

A career in images –

One day Bau Ji gave me a basic, second-hand Box Brownie camera. Bought at a stock-clearance sale, it had cost him 25 shillings – the equivalent, then, of about US$ 3.50. This was the ‘poor man’s Rolleiflex’, with a fixed speed and fixed aperture. Neither he nor I knew it at the time, but this simple gift marked the beginning of a 60-year-long career in photography.
In the 1950s, in a prestigious international photographic magazine, I came across a photo essay by the Indian photographer, I.S Johar. His were pictures taken with a Box Brownie of landscapes featuring dramatic skies. Of course, all Johar’s images were in black-and-white, as colour film had yet to appear. His images, though, were a revelation to me. Taking my cue from Johar, I started using a yellow filter for all my outdoor pictures, and an orange one at times, for special effects.

My first photographs were of the Indian hockey team’s first to visit Kenya, early in 1948. In the team was the maestro Dhyan Chand, winner of three Olympic gold medals. Other great players I remember from that team were K S Babu, Manna Singh, the barefooted Peerumal and the South Indian Raju, as well as the two Anglo-Indians, R S Gentle and Claudius. For players with such an awesome reputation, all were astonishingly unassuming and gracious. None so much as batted an eyelid on being ambushed by me before a match with requests for their portraits. “Dhyan Chand,” I’d say, “Just stand there a minute, would you?” And the great man would duly oblige.

I could not afford to take my film off to a photographic studio for processing, so I learned to process film myself, in a small, makeshift dark room that I improvised in the windowless storeroom at our Railways house. I purchased developer powder and other chemicals from a studio in town. From that studio, I also borrowed a thin handbook, published I think by Britain’s Royal Photographic Society, entitled Photography Made Easy for Learners, which had detailed instructions on how to set up a home-processing lab.

I did not have an enlarger, so the photographs I produced were tiny, measuring just 2.25 by 3.25 inches. With no electric drum-dryer either, I would dry the wet pictures by slapping them on to the window panes in the kitchen, after washing down the glass with Lifebuoy soap. “Mohindri, that’s expensive soap,’ my mother or my sister would chide me. There was some friction, in that kitchen, between the cooks in the family and me, over my encroaching photographic activities. “A kitchen,” I was roundly informed, “is for cooking in – not for making pictures.”

My new-found joy at having discovered the wonders of photography did little to calm the guilt feelings that by now were haunting me. Here I was, a grown man of 20 without a job, still sponging off his parents at home. Having flunked my ‘O’ Level exams, I was beginning to feel anxious I might never find a meaningful job.

So one morning I plucked up enough courage to respond to one of the newspaper advertisements. The vacancy in question was for ‘a junior accounts clerk in an established pharmacy practice’. To my surprise, I received a notification that I was to come in for an interview. At the appointed time, I was shown into the office of the proprietor, an elderly Jewish woman called Edith Haller. I had heard of Ms. Haller, as she also owned one of the photographic studios in the town. Indeed, in those days most retail chemists operated a photographic service as well –where customers could hand in their exposed film and later collect the developed prints.

My formal interview with Ms Haller was mercifully brief. In short, my candidacy for the post of accounts clerk at the pharmacy was rejected almost at once. “What we need is a qualified bookkeeper,” Ms Haller explained. I was not unduly surprised but this time my frustration got the better of me and I nearly broke down in tears. In the doorway, as I was leaving Ms Haller’s office, I spun around suddenly. “Halle Studio,” I blurted out. “What about Halle Studio? Isn’t there something I can do there?” I told her about the little dark room I had established at home. I offered to bring in and to show her some of my photographs. I pleaded with Ms. Haller to be given a chance. She must have been utterly taken aback by my torrent of broken English, by my gangly appearance, by my ill-fitting, lop-sided turban. This was the first time I had ever addressed a white person at any length.

Ms Haller’s eyes lit up while I was talking. There and then, once I had said my piece, she told me she would put me on one month’s probation, starting immediately. From the moment I reported for duty, I was determined to show I was both capable and eager to learn. That job meant everything to me. My trainer Peter Howlett, although he did not say so, left me in no doubt that my brown skin might present a bit of a problem. Ms. Haller nevertheless confirmed me in my post at the end of the month-long probation period, for which I was paid 150 shillings (the equivalent, then, of about US$ 21). She also raised my monthly salary to 250 shillings (roughly US$ 35). I was mightily relieved and grateful; for now, at last, I had a proper job.

At the time, Kenya’s only daily newspaper, the East African Standard, did not have any staff photographers of its own. Instead, the paper relied on photographers hired from Halle Studio for its pictures of all events. Peter Howlett, the man who had been given the responsibility of training me – was Halle’s principal photographer and handled most of the commissions.
One line of work that kept Halle Studio very busy was photographing babies at their parents’ homes. Peter specialised in taking informal portraits of the babies using a single flash and it was my job to hold the flash unit. The unit was a very large, heavy box, separate from but wired up to the camera. I had to lug this box around, directing the flash at different angles so as to avoid casting an ugly shadow while Peter clicked away. Peter and I made a very successful team. We got many requests from proud young parents, while also going from door to door around some of the more affluent Nairobi suburbs, promoting our ‘Home Photography’. The response we received was generally enthusiastic, and before long we had an extensive customer base – and an impressive album of sample baby pictures.

We were also hired to take pictures of horse races, dog shows and other social events. As a colonial newspaper, the East African Standard – which commissioned most of these photographs – catered exclusively to the tastes of Kenya’s ruling British elite. One day, while Peter was away on holiday, the newspaper’s social editor, Lesley Clay, rang the Studio, requesting the services of a photographer. I took the call and offered to stand in for Peter. Ms Clay readily agreed to take a chance on me. “In a worst-case scenario,” she added, encouragingly, “we can probably do without a picture.” It turned out that Lesley wanted me to cover a horse show.

Ms. Clay was delighted with my photographs. Even I, when I processed and developed the pictures, was pleasantly surprised by how well they came out. This time the picture taken by Rolleiflex camera, and a 8×10 inch size was a magical thrill. This was the beginning of a long relationship with the Standard newspaper. Two dynamic white women – Ms. Haller and Ms. Clay – were thus responsible for both of the early breakthroughs in my career as a professional photographer.
With Lesley  I attended countless society functions at which she would introduce her paper’s turbaned Sikh photographer to individual party guests. All were white, of course, and many would simply turn away on being introduced to me, shunning my presence.

The newspaper work kept me busy for years, until eventually the Standard employed a staff photographer, John Parry from England. In those days, the paper paid us peanuts for our photographs. The going rate was just five ten shillings (the equivalent at the time of about $ 1.20 60 US cents) per column-inch.

When the British declared a State of Emergency in Kenya in 1952, the Mau Mau struggle became the big news story. We took photographs of the brutal ‘screening’ of Africans in the streets; of detainees in the Manyani Camp; of British troops and supplies arriving at the Eastleigh Airport. I was not mature enough then to take in fully what was going on around me, even though this period was one of the most politically charged in the country’s history. The awakening of my political consciousness would come later, when I took photographs of the Hola Camp Massacre in 1959. It was when the real horrors of this conflict start to hit me.

Halle Studio –

In 1954, Ms. Halle fell ill, and her brother Arthur Haller, who was then the Government Maize Controller, persuaded me to buy the business from her. He even went so far as to find me a partner, in the person of Oded Katzler, a wholesaler of cardboard packaging. Katzler raised all the capital – amounting to the then formidable sum of 20,000 shillings. At first, Oded remained a sleeping partner in the business, but after 10 months I was able to buy him out. Upon acquiring Halle Studio, I immediately relocated the company to a rented first-floor office suite in central Nairobi. This was in Nairobi House, the historic building then located on the corner of Delamere Avenue and Government Road (now Kenyatta Avenue and Moi Avenue). The work was exciting, and although it did not pay well I was happy enough at the time, as I had developed a taste for photo journalism and news reporting. As time went by, my professional photographic assignments started taking me further afield. Increasingly, I was called upon to cover safaris and expeditions in remote parts of the country.

Ambi – 

One evening in May 1958, my father – after coming home from work as usual – told me that he had some “wonderful news” for me. “Mohinder,” he said, “you are getting married.” Just like that.

Amarjeet Kaur Sandhu, known throughout her life as Ambi , was born in Kisumu, on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria, on September 20, 1940. She was educated at Kisumu Girls School, although, like me, she did not progress beyond ‘O’ Level. Bau Ji, for his part, was pleased to learn that Ambi had played tennis at school – at a time when Sikh girls were, for the first time, being allowed to play sports – was a strong point in her favour.

After our marriage, Ambi was not only conversant with all the studio’s day-to-day functions; she was also taking most of the passport, driver’s licence and ID photographs herself. This left me free to take on newspaper assignments at a moment’s notice. The result was that business at the studio picked up dramatically.

In those pre-Independence days, our bread-and-butter income came from a deal we had with the British Army to take ID photographs of its soldiers serving in Kenya, many of them then trying to suppress the Mau Mau uprising.  On at least six days every month, whole lorry-loads of British soldiers would be dropped off to have their pictures taken. Sometimes, the queue would extend down the stairs on to the ground floor of Nairobi House and out into the street. Ambi would sometimes take pictures of more than 300 British soldiers in a single day.

Ambi loved working at the studio. She loved the busy days especially, when streams of people would walk in to have their pictures taken or to collect their prints. She made friends with other tenants in the building, whom she spoilt with her home-made samosas, earning her the nickname ‘Samosa Lady’. The work set Ambi apart from former school friends of hers, some of whom were now also newly married and living in Nairobi, but who – as housewives, most of them – had only limited interaction with the wider Nairobi public. Ambi never criticised her married former school friends openly, but she did, in private, after meeting up with them at weekends, “I am far too busy,” she used to say, “for all this idle chatter” finding the closed world of their incessant society gossip exasperating.

With Ambi at the studio, I could devote myself almost exclusively to news photography, initially for the East African Standard, and then – increasingly – for UPI and other international press agencies as well. Come 1959, I was spending less and less of my time in the studio, as assignments would call on me to leave Nairobi to cover events elsewhere in Kenya and throughout East Africa. When, in 1960, I began covering events across the whole of Africa, I would be away for lengthy periods, leaving Ambi to ‘hold the fort’ at Halle Studio. Having acquired a passion for photo-journalism, I had become ambitious. So, in 1959, I wrote to Planet News Photos (subsequently taken over by United Press International, UPI) asking if this international agency might consider taking my pictures. The reply I received was surprisingly short and to the point: ‘Yes, Please’ – just the two words; no further explanation required; no demands; no doubts even over whether I could deliver photographs of the desired standard. This stunning breakthrough would prove the making of my company Africapix Media Limited.

Mohinder Dhillon (Founder and CEO of Africapix Media Ltd.) was the first photo and TV journalist to capture the plight of Iranian Kurds behind Khomeini’s lines. His first pictures shocked the world generating a lot for sympathy of Kurdish sufferance. He was knighted by the Order of Saint Mary of Zion during a ceremony at the Royal Artillery Headquarters in Woolwich, U.K. on November 12th 2005. “The honors were conferred upon those who had made significant contribution to the society. 

His films of Ethiopian famine finally moved the world into action resulting in one of the biggest famine relief operations in history. Relief planes from dozens of countries descended on little dirt air strips of Ethiopian countryside round the clock as if they were Heathrow or JFK airports. The very first pictures of the terrible Ethiopian famine was the combined effort of Mohinder Dhillon and Michael Buerk of BBC TV to gain entry into tightly controlled military ruled Ethiopia in 1984 opening the door for rest of the media and rest of the world.  


108 – A batch of lost friends & acquaintances

Class of  B.Sc (Bachelor of Science), Poorna Prajna College (PPC), Udupi district. Karnataka. Circa 1968.

Class of B.Sc (Bachelor of Science), Poornaprajna College (PPC), Udupi district. Karnataka. Circa 1969.

Image & Text contributed by Nishant Rathnakar, Bangalore

In 2010, while cleaning my wardrobe I stumbled upon my mother Ranjini Rathnakar’s old autograph book dating back to the year 1970. This 40 year old book was filled with autographs and inscriptions of her classmates from her College, Poornaprajna college (PPC), Udupi.  The ink and pencil writings in the book still dark and legible, as if it were written yesterday.

It wasn’t the first time I came across the autograph book. In the past 29 years, I had found it time and again; and each time I was fascinated reading it. Some amusing inscriptions like  “First comes knowledge, next comes college, third comes marriage and finally comes baby in a carriage” always made me laugh.

I would asked my mother if she was in touch with any one of her classmates and her answer was always a ‘No’, leaving me a little disenchanted. However, she would say that her best friend in College was a girl named Rose Christabel, but she never saw Rose after college. She had last heard that Rose had moved to Vellore in Tamil Nadu. That was 40 years ago. I made several mental notes that someday I’ll find mom’s old friends, maybe even Rose and make them meet again. I think that inspiration stemmed from my own experience because I was blessed with such good and decades old friendships that I recognised the value of having them around albeit we had the help of the internet & social media. A technological perk that wasn’t available to my mother’s generation.

For instance, one of my closest friends is Santhu a.k.a Santhosh. We have been friends for a decade now. We were in college together, worked as interns, and got our first tech jobs at IBM. Around the time I quit my job, I took-off on my first photography trip to the coasts of Karnataka, to our roots, our hometown, with Santhu as my accomplice. It was a special trip for both of us.

One evening, scouring over the pages of her college autograph book yet again, I froze, and I am very certain my heart skipped a beat too. I had gone through that book time and again, but I had never noticed one particular inscription –
Best Wishes. Bhaskar Adiga K. Kuppar house, Shankarnarayana, Udupi (S.K)

Now Santhu, my friend I just told you about, his full name is Santhosh Kuppar Bhaskar Adiga, Bhaskar Adiga being his father’s name, and the house that I stayed at during the journey to our hometown was called the Kuppar house, and it was in a town named Shankarnarayana, in the present-day Udupi district of Karnataka.

With my heart bursting in anticipation, I asked my mother if she remembered Bhaskar Adiga, she had no clear recollection, but then she got up, went inside the house and came out holding this photograph in her hands. It was her only class photograph from college, taken during her graduation. A photograph she too had only come to possess a week ago, from my uncle while he was clearing up their now almost uninhabited ancestral home.

Humidity and lack of maintenance had damaged the photograph. In it few faces were recognizable, including my mom’s (3rd from left in the row of women.) but Rose Christabel’s face was crystal clear (2nd from right). Given that I was asking my mother to be part of an identification parade of faces that were hardly recognizable and that too 40 years later, she took sometime. Then, from left to right, slowly she named all the girls in her class. But the boys, she wasn’t sure of. She said “Maybe the 5th person from the left, on the top row, with a tie, could be Bhaskar.

She didn’t know him that well and his face was hardly recognisable. I too had met Santhu’s dad many times, but could not picture his face with this one. I immediately emailed everything to Santhu and then called to ask him if his dad was a graduate from Poornaprajna college (PPC), Udupi, and if he had graduated in BSc, Zoology, in 1970. He cross-checked with his mother, and Hurray! the credentials matched –it was indeed Santhu’s dad. The 5th person from left, on the top row, wearing a tie… he said, resembled his dad. After all, there where only two Adiga families in Shankarnarayana, and only one Bhaskar from the Kuppar house. It had to be him.

I do not know how Santhu processed this information; But we were both thinking the same thing – “How I wish we had stumbled upon that page a couple of years earlier.” Santhu’s dad Bhaskar Adiga had passed away a year ago. I was in tears. For my parents or even most parents at the time, meeting with an old friend or an acquaintance was a rarity. My mom and her best friend Rose didn’t have the luxury of social media that I enjoy now. I was deeply disappointed . All along, I had wanted to gift my mother a small reunion with people from her younger days and her friends and I couldn’t do that.

That night I slept with great anxiety. I dreamt of Santhu and I getting our families together. I dreamt of drinking with them, laughing and talking about life. I imagined my mom and Santhu’s father recognising each other at the party, and talking about old times, about old friends, and about Rose Christabel. Maybe, Mr. Adiga knew where Rose might be. But I woke up to deep sadness and disappointment.

On the brighter side, Santhu was glad to see his father’s calligraphy skills in my mum’s autograph book. He said he would try hunting for the college photograph from his father’s collection. It may be our last chance to have a proper photograph of our parents from their college. I think the chances are bleak, but we are glad to have uncovered a shared history.


100 – The Khambhaita Brothers were among the best rally car drivers of the world

The Khambhaita Brothers after finishing the East African Safari Rally, 1965. Tanzania

The Khambhaita Brothers after finishing the East African Safari Rally, 1965. Tanzania

Image and Text contributed by the family of V.J. Khambhaita, London, U.K.

Our father, V.J. Khambhaita (right) was born in Kalavad (Gujarat), India in 1934 but spent most of his early life in Tanzania, initially in Moshi and then Tanga.

In 1953 he joined Riddoch Motors in Moshi as a mechanic and from 1954-1957 he worked at the Motor Mart & Exchange Limited in Tanga as a mechanic and foreman. He then set up his own business by the name of Rapid Motor Garage in Tanga before moving to Gujarat, India. While in India, he took up an offer in 1967 to setup and manage a mechanical workshop in Moshi, Tanzania as one of four directors at  J.S. Khambhaita Limited, the construction & civil engineering firm established by and named after our grandfather in 1938, until 1976.

V.J. Khambhaita showed a keen interest in motor mechanics and was introduced to the rallying scene in the mid 1950s by close friend and safari rally driver A.P. Valambhia of ‘Babu Garage’ from Morogoro, Tanzania. Having initially raced in Tanga and Morogoro, V.J. Khambhaita together with his younger cousin N.D. Khambhaita who had already been active in go-kart racing (left in the image) began to enter regional & national events and collectively became known as the ‘Khambhaita Brothers’.

During the late 1950s -1972 period, they represented Tanganyika (renamed Tanzania in 1964 after the union with Zanzibar) with private competitor entries in a range of rally cars – all hand tuned by V.J. Khambhaita himself – to include the Peugeot 203, Ford Cortina (Mark I & II), Ford Anglia, Ford Escort, Morris, Datsun SSS and the Peugeot 504.

The brothers competed in numerous events most notably the Tanganyika 1000, Kilimanjaro 500, Usambara, Richard Lennard trophy and Kenya’s Malindi rally. These were to be springboards for a more challenging and international East African Safari Rally, which had to cover around 6000 km through Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda in 4-5 days and nights of suspension-shattering racing.

Rallying was followed religiously by the East African public and the craze surrounding it was similar to the enthusiasm seen for cricket in India or football in the U.K. Even our grandmother followed the sport. Originally known as the East African Coronation Safari, it commenced in 1953 to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and quickly gained a reputation for being extremely tough, earning international status in 1957. It was not a race for the faint-hearted, with hazards including big game hunting dotted along a route that was open to public traffic, angry mobs and children throwing rocks at passing cars.

I vividly recall V.J. Khambhaita mentioning one such instance where a village of machete-wielding Masai warriors blocked a night stage through the Kenyan bush. He promptly reversed at full speed, changed direction and took a detour while getting battered by rocks that were coming in thick and fast from local children.

Avid observers will recall the 1962 East African Safari Rally for being particularly difficult as heavy rainfall caused mayhem around the most challenging section at the muddy Magara escarpment, near Mbulu in Tanzania. Many crews found themselves stuck in the mud bath that followed and consequently retired. The Khambhaita Brothers, however, in a group B Ford Anglia managed to finish the 4970 km race intact while some of the world’s best rally drivers and their factory prepared cars littered the roadside in surrender. In recognition of this feat, Hughes Limited – a major Ford dealer in Kenya – congratulated the pair on the achievement of seeing the finishing line when so many had failed. In a letter addressed to V.J. Khambhaita, President & Chairman J.J. Hughes – the man who introduced the Ford Model T to Kenya – congratulated the pair on their…

“Wonderful driving in the 10th East African Safari Rally over Africa’s worst roads and against the cream of the world’s best rally drivers. A car in tip top mechanical condition handled by a driver in first class physical condition is hard to beat.”

The brothers won or finished highly in their class in many Tanzanian and Kenyan rallies both in their own right with other co-drivers and collectively as the Khambhaita Brothers with the family soon running out of space to display the array of trophies, shields and finisher badges/medals. While the brothers never won the East African Safari Rally outright, they certainly tasted success within the various classes and in 1962 they took the best Tanzanian entry trophy.

In the late 1960s, the brothers began entering races independently with other co-drivers, bowing to pressure from family worried about the possibility of losing both brothers in a fatal crash. They did race together one final time in the 1972 East African Safari Rally, largely because the 6350 km route started and finished in Dar-es-Salaam (as opposed to Nairobi). Their sturdy Moshi-registered Peugeot 504 suffered overheating before reaching Morogoro, Tanzania with the brothers subsequently retiring early.

To the brothers, it was always about participation and sportsmanship with a hope of winning the world’s toughest motor rally. It was an era where men were men, even with ladies participating, cars were ‘just’ cars and a sense of adventure dominated motorsports compared to the technologically advanced ‘drive-by-wire’ scene nowadays where tools, maps and instinct have been replaced by the laptop and GPS.

Following the untimely death of N.D. Khambhaita in 1973, the Khambhaita Brothers team would never race again. At this point, V.J. Khambhaita decided to end his rallying career. The family moved to London, U.K. in 1976 where our father remained in motor mechanics and later passed away in 2008. We are left with fond recollections of adventure, photo albums full of priceless moments and more trophies than all his grandchildren combined can shake a stick at. And who knows…a new generation of ‘Khambhaita Brothers’ may still race again.


99 – Uncannily bonded to a famous grandfather I never knew

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

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

Image and Text contributed by Aurina Chatterji, Bombay/Toronto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


97 – The pioneer whose contributions in Africa survived early colonial times through to modern day Tanzania

The Khambhaita family photograph. Tanga, Tanzania. Circa 1960

Images and Text contributed by the Khambhaita family, U.K. & Tanzania

Our grandfather, Jagjivan Samji Khambhaita (top row, middle) was born on March 10, 1912 in Kalavad (Gujarat), India and came to Tanzania in 1928 when he was a teenager. He married Jashvanti Ben who was born on August 6, 1915 in Talagana (Gujarat), India and went on to have seven sons and a daughter. The family photograph was taken in the early 1960s in Tanga, Tanzania shortly after an uncle’s marriage during which the family had gathered.

A central pillar to the family, he was also widely known and held in high regard across communities in Tanzania, East Africa, South Africa and India. I witnessed this in 2008 on a visit to Tanzania when I went about purchasing a bus ticket in Dar-es-Salaam’s main bus station and was required to fill in my details. The elderly station clerk instantly recognised my last name and embraced me enthusiastically saying he knew of my grandfather. I was left speechless. I knew I was truly dealing with an individual who left more than just a mere footprint.

Our grandfather had an incredible flair for architectural design and entrepreneurship from a young age. He partnered with his elder brother in Moshi, Tanzania from 1928, building and contracting on various projects. In 1938, with his younger brother he established his own building & civil engineering contractor business under the name of J.S. Khambhaita Limited in Moshi and in 1942 he expanded the company to form branches in Tanga and Arusha.

By the early 1960s, the company employed around 300 Africans and 10 Asians and undertook large projects such as the European quarters for the Public Works Department (PWD) in Tanga and part of a large primary school in Moshi. They were also sub-contractors for the Air Ministry at Tanga and went on to become responsible for more than 150 prominent buildings in Tanga, Moshi and Arusha.

He split his time between businesses, travelling, photographing and participating in religious/social work with a significant contribution to the Hindu community, particularly in Tanga and Moshi. Indeed, in the 1950s his company undertook the task, free of all cost, to construct a Hindu temple in Moshi, against the scenic backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro. He travelled widely throughout East Africa, India and exactly like Mahatma Gandhi was also told to disembark from a train in South Africa under the apartheid regime.

J.S. Khambhaita was also particularly interested in family matters and genealogy, reaching out to and photographing relatives overseas and later compiling an impressive family tree dating back well over 350 years. He remained an Indian citizen for most of his life until 1964 when he took up Tanzanian citizenship. He passed away on March 10, 1976 battling Leukaemia on the day of his Birthday in Moshi, Tanzania.

Fast forwarding the clock to nearly 75 years to today, the company he founded in 1938 remains a strong concern in Tanzania and is termed a ‘Class 1’ contractor. It is one of a handful of private firms to have survived through early colonial times into modern day Tanzania. More importantly though, his name and legacy will continue to live on in the hearts of his grandchildren, great grandchildren and all those he reached out to during his life.