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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.


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.


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

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

Image and Text contributed by Amita Bajaj, Mumbai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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.


57 – India’s foremost philosopher with his friend, the future president of India

S Radhakrishnan, the future president of India with his friend, my great great grandfather, and well known philosopher Prof. M. Hiriyanna. Mysore, Karnataka. Circa 1925

Image and Text contributed by Arati Rao, Mumbai

My great great grandfather – Prof. M. Hiriyanna (seated right) was an exceedingly well known philosopher in Mysore state (then a large part of Karnataka). In this image he is photographed with his friend and colleague, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who went on to become the second President of India in 1962. My great great grandfather M. Hiriyanna, was a Professor of Sanskrit and S. Radhakrishnana was a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Mysore.Our family seems to have had very humble antecedents in a small village called Bargehalli in Karnataka. In 1910, Hiriyanna moved to Mysore and set up house. He was an inspiration to several generations and I really wish I had known him. Legends about him are abound and I hang on every reminisced word, for he seems a larger-than-life man. A principled man. And a 100% self-made Stalwart. We still inhabit the house that he built: 962, Lakshmipuram, Mysore, known simply to our family and friends as “962.”

According to N. Sivarama Sastry, “Prof. Hiriyanna lived a perfectly ordered and disciplined life. He often reminded me of Kant and the Philosopher’s Walk. He was simple to the verge of austerity. He dressed simply and everything about him was scrupulously neat and clean, he was correct and punctual, he promptly answered communications, kept all his engagements, and never made a promise which he could not fulfill. He was fastidious to a degree and a perfect artist in everything he did – from mending a pencil to writing a work. Though he did not spare himself, he was tolerant of those who could not come up to his exacting standards. He was in fact noted for his kindness and consideration and unfailing courtesy. He never denied help to any student or scholar. He was equally well known for his honesty and uprightness. He was exceedingly modest and his learning did not sit heavily on him. And beneath his modesty and humility he was keenly sensitive.”

Hiriyanna, by all accounts, was a philosopher par excellence. A glowing tribute to him by President S. Radhakrishnan left no room for doubt as to his regard in those circles. “When Plato said that philosophers should be Kings, he did not mean that the main task of philosophy was to make laws and solve political problems. For him the philosophical temper of mind, the exalted, calm, noble, dispassionate attitude unmoved by motives of personal gain, ambition or power is the only temper of mind which can solve these problems.
In these days of increasing specialization and party strife, when we are unable to see the wood for the trees, when the effort of genuine thinking has yielded to the acceptance of slogans, the need for philosophic reflection on life’s problems is most urgent. … It is this spirit of philosophy that Hiriyanna illustrates in his reflection and life.”

My aunt, Malathi Jaya Rao grew up around him and says – “He always emphasized physical courage; an unbending spirit; self esteem without pride; not taking things that are not ours, and created in us an enduring value: what a man is, far outweighs his wealth or intellectual attainments. An immaculately dresser, in a spotless white dhoti, cream colored close collared coat, a laceless  turban, an uttariyam and pump shoes, he used to get up very early, collect flowers from the garden, have a bath and then do puja (worship the gods). He was very particular that the family joined him for the Mahamangalarathi at 6 a.m.”
It seems he would sharpen pencils exactly the same amount and use them until they wore down up to a pre-determined length. Short worn pencils were then passed on to the kids in the family. He has left us a priceless legacy in his writings on Indian philosophy – many of which are now textbooks and staples.

Some of the family still lives in the house Hiriyanna built – 962, and the descendants visit several times a year. We are now scattered across the world, seven generations and several nationalities incorporated into the gene pool. The house ‘962’ he built has not changed since 1910. Its hundred year-old stones are the ones that know him well and when I run my hand along the walls or sit on the cool red oxide floors, or enter “his room,” and read his wisdom in his own beautiful hand, I stand a little taller knowing there is a bit of this great man, somewhere in me.


34 – The fourth President of India, before he became one

The Farewell party for V.V Giri, then the High Commissioner of India to Ceylon (Now Sri Lanka), Columbo. July 3, 1948.

Image and text contributed by Sunder Mirchandani

Since Colombo was a relatively small capital, much of the social life of expat Indians involved mingling with the diplomatic circle. When an officer was transferred there would be a round of farewell parties. This particular farewell was hosted by my parents Sita and Nari Mirchandani at the Galle Face Hotel for V V Giri, (Varahagiri Venkata Giri) then the High Commissioner for India in Colombo prior to his return to India. I sit next to him, as a child. The Hotel is still a landmark  in Colombo. V.V Giri went on to become the fourth President of India in 1964. He was in power until 1974.