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182 – The German garden designer of the Indian Subcontinent

My great-grandfather, Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel and great-grandmother Klara, with their family at home. Bangalore, Mysore Presidency (now Karnataka). Circa 1935


Image and Text contributed by Alyia Phelps-Gardiner, UK

This is a photography of my great grandfather Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel with his family, also known as GHK, taken at their residence, Granite Castle, in Bangalore.

My great grandfather Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel or GHK as we call him, was born on December 18, 1865 in Lohmen, Germany. He studied horticulture and garden design at Pilnitz, Germany and after graduating, wrote several letters for an opportunity to work with The Royal Parks in London, until finally, he was offered a job to design the flower beds for Hyde Park, the largest Royal Park in London, UK. After his contract at Hyde Park ended, he became an employee and a lecturer at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew (London district) and in his spare time studied Architecture design at Kensington University.

The beautiful gardens of London were a usual visit for most of the Indian Subcontinent’s Royalty and thus an impressed Maharaja of Baroda, Sayajirao Gaekwad III, asked for a horticulturist for his gardens. When GHK was presented with the offer to be his horticulturist for the Baroda State, and considering a radically different climate of the Tropics, I have no doubt that my great grandfather would have thought of it as the most interesting opportunity, and accepted the offer. GHK moved to India in 1893, at the age of 26 was soon joined by his wife, my English great grandmother Katie Clara who arrived at the shores of Bombay at the age of 18. My Grandmother Hilda, Great Aunts Frieda and Vera were all born in Baroda (now in Gujarat).

Over the course of time, GHK was hired by several Princely states across the subcontinent all of whom who had begun to compete with each other over gardens and talent. He designed his way across northern India with over 50 gardens, tea and coffee plantation estates of Ooty, several palaces and towns in Kerala and down south to the rocky terrain of Bangalore (now Bengaluru) when he was introduced to Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV, the King of Mysore. In 1908, GHK was offered the job as the superintendent to redesign the Lalbagh layout and was gifted a home, a bunglow known as Granite Castle. The family embraced Bangalore with their hearts and decided to make it their home.

During World War II, when the Dewan of Mysore, Mirza Ismail, appointed GHK as an architectural consultant to Mysore, Jaipur & Hyderabad, the British Residents in Mysore staged a huge protest. All Germans in India were declared enemies. Moreover, his letters show that he was quite vocal about his support for India’s independence. My English grandmother too, was labeled a traitor, because she had married a German. Twice it happened that the British Army imprisoned GHK in prisoner-of-war camps to be deported back to Germany. My great grandmother and her daughters were placed under house arrest, but both times the Maharajah of Mysore who had come to become a good friend, came to their rescue. The Maharajah later commissioned a painting and a bust of GHK, which currently resides at the Royal Palace of Mysore. Other visiting kings would gift GHK Tiger cubs and Elephants calves, until my great grandmother banned them from the house, as they would chew and ruin the furniture. A royal gift, a Gandaberunda bracelet, to my grandmother Hilda on her 18th birthday in 1915, is one that I wear often.

As a superintendent for Lalbaug, GHK got to work creating the best Botanical Garden of the country, and began obtaining seeds from other countries and in return introduced the west to collections of bamboo, varieties of rice, and mango from India. He planted hundreds of new ornamental plants and flowering trees in Bangalore that would be covered in bloom through the year, including over 50% of the nearly 9,000 trees from 800 genera in Lalbagh. GHK designed the ornamental structures in Lalbagh such as balustrades, arches, staircases, bridges, pedestals, vases and fountains and with the honour of picking the site for Vidhana Soudha (State Legislature), he began influencing several urban planning decisions within the city. He introduced Art deco architectural styles and used local materials that have significantly formed the urban aesthetic of Bangalore. Within a few years, GHK had Bangalore earn the title ‘Garden City of India’ and ‘Green City’. However, had he seen Bangalore today, I know he would have been severely disappointed with its upkeep.

My grandmother Hilda recollects that the great grandmother Klara was a master baker and all the staff at the botanical gardens would have cake with their lunch. On Sundays, both GHK and Klara would cycle around Lalbagh giving out plants to people and school children for free. He even began teaching prisoners to grow crops as he believed it would give offer them a renewed purpose. GHK envisioned a grand and healthy future in India through horticulture and inspired several other states in the Indian subcontinent to create a history of horticultural legacy.

After he retired from his post in 1932, GHK continued to live in Bangalore, working as consulting architect and advisor in town planning and horticulture. His very last assignment at the age of 90, was for the Indian Government to landscape the Raj Ghat Memorial Gardens in memory of Mahatma Gandhi.

My great grandfather Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel passed away in February of 1956 and was buried at the Methodist cemetery on Hosur Road, Bangalore. His epitaph reads, “Whatever he touched, he adorned”, and even though I never met my great grandfather, whenever my feet touch the Indian soil, I know, I’m home. The road adjoining the Lalbagh Botanical Garden is named after him as Krumbiegel Road.

138 – The Bicycle Soldiers of World War I

My grandfather S.L Stonely (standing right most) Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh. Circa 1916

My grandfather S.L Stonely (sitting right-most) Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh. Circa 1916

Image and Text contributed by Peter Curbishley, United Kingdom

This is an image of British soldiers, their wives and friends from 1/1st Kent Cyclists Battalion taken sometime between 1915 and 1919. They were at posted in Bangalore, Dalhousi, Deolali, Bombay, and then later at Lahore and Rawalpindi (now Pakistan). The sergeant sitting on the right is my grandfather A/S S.L Stonely. The image may have been photographed in Dalhousie before their posting to or from Rawalpindi. Dalhousie was a quaint hill station established in 1854 by the British Empire in India as a summer retreat for its troops and bureaucrats. Unfortunately, I do not know much about this image and I found it in a bunch of negatives sitting in an old box for years. Only recently I decided to get them digitised. It seems that several of these images were photographed by my grandfather, because the records show that Kent Cyclists Battalion had a Camera Club.

All I know is that my grandfather was a member of one of the Kent Cyclists Battalions which was formed before World War I. Upon being removed from regimental strength, in 1908, the Queen’s Own Regiment of cyclist soldiers was re-named as the Kent Cyclist Battalion, and at that time became the Army Troops attached to the Home Counties Division (Territorial Force).  The military use of cycles had begun in the 1880’s when a number of the old volunteer  battalions had set up Cyclist Sections, whose brief was to defend Great Britain in the advent of an invasion, being something akin to a part time rapid response unit. In 1915, the first units of the Army Cyclist Corps went to serve overseas, including India and were serving primarily in reconnaissance roles – as Dispatch Riders, engaged on traffic  directing duties and also assisting in locating stragglers and wounded personnel on various battlefields.

The Battalion served very well, albeit for a very short while. The bicycle had not long ago been invented and originally was thought to be a good way to get soldiers to move around, but the cyclists often found themselves attempting to negotiate unfriendly terrain, and on numerous occasions were forced to abandon their heavy army issue bicycles. On rough terrains such as India’s they would get stuck in the mud and not much of use.  With little future value, eventually, all Cyclists Battalions were disbanded in 1920. However, of all the various English, Scottish, and Welsh battalions that served during the Great War years, the 1st/1st Kent Cyclist Battalion was the sole battalion to be awarded battle honours. They were converted to infantry and used instead for foreign services in India.

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.