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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.


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.

 


93 – He designed motorbikes, served the British Army and worked in a circus with his wife.

My grandfather, Captain Glyndon Ralph O’Leary, fondly known as Mike. Location – probably Sibi, Balochistan Province (Now Pakistan). 1941

 

Image and Text contributed by Shaun Waller & Oonagh Waller, United Kingdom

These are the memories of my mother, Oonagh who was born in India to my grandparents, Glyndon Ralph O’Leary (Mike) and Sheilagh Anges Mary Maguire. – Shaun

“My father, Glyndon Ralph O’Leary was fondly known as Mike. He was born in 1902 in Toronto, Canada to Winifred and Ralph O’Leary, who were of Irish descent.

At the age of Twelve, he left Canada and began his military career in the Boys service, Indian Subcontinent from 1914 – 1919 and continued in various regiments serving the British Empire on and off until 1946.

Mike was also a Practical Motor Engineer: his brothers and he owned and worked in a motorcycle workshop and showroom called the O’Leary Brothers in Dehradun, Uttar Pradesh. They also designed and built a motorcycle called the White Streak. However, it never made it to production. At one point, they bought an old motorcycle, a Brough Superior from T. E. Lawrence (The very original Lawrence of Arabia) and exhibited it in their showroom.

While in the army in Lahore, Mike manufactured scale models for Forest Research, Rural upliftment, P.W.D. and Irrigation departments and also tactical models for training of mechanised fighting vehicles. 12 such gold medal standard models manufactured by him were on display in the Forestry Department of Lahore Central Museum. I wonder if they are still there.

Mike married Sheilagh Anges Mary Maguire in October 1928 in Lahore and subsequently had three children – Michael, Oonagh and Larry. Later the children went to boarding school in Mussoorie: Wynberg Girls High School and Allen Memorial Boys School.

In between postings, and to earn more money, Mike and Sheilagh also joined a circus, I don’t remember the name of the circus anymore, but it was in Lahore and managed by a Captain.Edwards. Mike trained would ride the Drome (‘Wall of Death’ or ‘Maut ka Kuan’) on his motorbike and also climbed a high ladder (in costume): he would douse himself with Petrol, set himself on fire and dive into a tank below full of water. Sheilagh, my mother, play her part too: she stood on stage with a cigarette between her lips while Captain Edwards, trained as an ace shooter in the military, would fire a pistol at the cigarette.

In Sibi, (a Balochistan province of now Pakistan) Mike and family represented the only military presence there, amid railway workers and their families. For leisure, Mike would hire ‘beaters’ and go on a wild boar shoot – the beaters would make as much noise as they could with sticks, tins etc. to flush out the boar then Mike would shoot down a couple. Back home the meat would be shared with neighbours.

On other occasions, the family went ‘fishing’, travelling on a trolley (a bench like structure on a platform with four wheels which fitted on the railway lines). Hired help would run along the lines, bare foot and push the trolley along and when the lake was reached, a halt was called. Mike would unsportingly throw a couple of sticks of dynamite into the water and the stunned fish would rise to the surface: all the men and boys would jump in the shallow end and retrieved the fish which, again, was shared with local families. His last posting was probably in Quetta (also a Balochistan province of now Pakistan).

Mike (Capt. Glyndon Ralph O’Leary) died in September 1945 during a Diabetic Coma. My mother Sheilagh and us children then moved to Meerut, Uttar Pradesh to stay with our maternal grandparents. A year later and a few months before Partition, in September 1946 we emigrated to England.”

On the ship, a whole trunk of personal belongings was apparently lost overboard and it included most of the family photos: very few images survive today. This is one of them.

 


85 – After the formation of India, they travelled to several countries looking for a better life

My paternal grandparents, Shehr Bano & Syed Ali Naqvi. Province of Bihar. 1947

Image and Text contributed by Zinnia Naqvi, Canada

This is an image of my paternal grandparents. My grandfather, or Dada as we called him, Syed Ali Naqvi was born in Khujwa, a village located in the Siwan District, Province of Bihar, India, on May 13, 1916. He was the sixth child of his parents. His father passed away when he was about eight years old and his upbringing and education became the responsibility of his mother and his eldest brother.

Dada was educated at the well known TK Ghose School, in Patna. The school has since seen alumni like the first President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, and the first chief minister of Bengal, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy. Later, Dada attended at the Patna College.
In 1942 he married Shehr Bano Naqvi, my grandmother. She was born in Khujwa too, on January 25, 1925. She was the last of seven children of her parents. Her father was a prominent police officer of the Siwan District. Dadi never attended school but was educated by private tutors at home.

After their marriage, Dada started working for the Government of Bihar. At the time of partition in 1947, he was working in the town of Midnapur, West Bengal. On August 14, 1947, when Pakistan was born, he and his family had to migrate to Dhaka (now Bangladesh) which was declared East Pakistan at the time.

In Dhaka, Dada started his own transportation business. They lived in the Lakhi Bazar neighbourhood of Dhaka and bought a big house abandoned by a Hindu family who had left for India. On May 9, 1949, my father, Afsar Naqvi was born. He was the third child of what would be eight children.

This image of my grandparents was photographed in 1947, after they were newly married. Dada is dressed in a modern suit and bow-tie, along with a Jinnah Cap, named after the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Dadi is wearing a traditional chiffon sari and the symbol of elegance, a pearl necklace.

The generation of my grandparents were forced to travel to all parts of the Indian subcontinent due to war, economic instability, religious conflict, insecurities, fear of life, and other obstacles preventing them from providing the best and safe living conditions for their many children. Similarly, my own parents migrated from London, to Karachi, to Toronto in order to provide the best possible safest opportunities for my sisters and I to be strong, educated, and successful. In the process, both were forced to leave behind many loved ones and memories of the places they once called home.

Today, this photograph hangs in the living room of our family home in Toronto. Inspired by the similarities between my parents and grandparents life, I have been working on a series called Past & Present. This photographic series contains images that are an example of how generations of family history can often repeat themselves. You can view the images here.