The curious life of my great-grandfather Balwant

My great-grandparents Balwant and Laxmibai Kale, with their son Madhav (my grandfather, seated left). Poona, Bombay State. Circa 1940

IMP Research Intern : Priyanka Balwant Kale, Pune

Image and Narrative contributed by Priyanka B. Kale, Pune

This photograph of my great grandparents was taken in c. 1940  at the M.K.Gokhale photo studio in Poona (now Pune) in Bombay State, (now Maharashtra) and it shows my grandfather Madhav – as a nine year old boy (left), his father, my great-grandfather Balwant Sitaram Kale (centre), and my great-grandmother Laxmibai Kale (right). When reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, I had barely reflected upon how my own family history too would have its own share of eccentric and curious events and discovered an unusual legacy worth exploring. 

Unlike today, getting photographed at the time, that too in a studio, was a special and extravagant event. Photography became practice among many well-to-do Maharashtrians, and that included marking a woman’s pregnancy as a special occasion to commission formal portraits, wherein the pregnant ladies would pose with their husbands and/or immediate families. 

In this photograph, my great-grandmother Laxmibai, who herself looks like a teenager, is noticeably pregnant and decked up for this studio session. She wears a cultural Maharashtrian attire: a silk nauvari (nine yard) saree, nath (nose ring), huge gold bugdis (piercings) in ears, pairs of gold painzan (anklets), and jode (heavy anklets) on her feet. Compared to Laxmibai, the men don European attires. Seated authoritatively in the centre, Balwant holds a wooden cane, flaunting his silk jacket & tie, and leather boots (he was particularly fond of western boots). The boy, their first-born, my grandfather Madhav, also wears a European suit tailored for young boys, and a flashy topi (cap) and like most Indian male children, Madhav too was indulged a lot. Quite discernible to me, is Balwant’s imposing posture – he occupies the central space and stares straight into the camera. Meanwhile, Laxmibai stands reticent beside her spouse, perhaps confused as to what expression is expected of her, mirrored by a bemused Madhav. While the manners and aesthetics of the British Empire were embraced by many Indian men in power, for the majority of women it was necessary to be and look “traditional”, and maintain the sanctity of cultural purity – their formal education and literacy, a least priority. 

According to family knowledge, Balwant and Laxmibai’s relationship was considerably strained. Four years after their marriage, he married again, for the second time, to a lady named Kamalabai, because he thought that Laxmibai was not beautiful enough and that the marriage was arranged against his wishes. Consequently, Laxmibai’s life was riddled with difficulties and illness, compounded with eight pregnancies of which only three children survived. While Kamalabai would accompany Balwant in his travels to Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bombay (now Mumbai), and Delhi, and she attended to her husband throughout his life, Laxmibai had to stay home, and look after their kids. Ironically, the conspicuous absence of Balwant’s second wife, Kamalabai in family group photographs could be for the fact that she was unable to bear children. Both women suffered discrimination in different forms. Having said that, Kamalabai looked after her step-children as her own, even after Balwant passed away. 

My forefathers belonged to a village called Pimpal, on the outskirts of Nagar district, and were Vatandars (landholders), holding the title “Kulkarni”, a blend of kula (family) and Karanika (“archivist”). A suitable employment in the British government promised upward mobility, and an attraction towards a contemporary city-life motivated my ancestors to migrate to Poona. They built a home located in the heart of the city, the Madiwale Colony (a former share brokers’ colony) that has accommodated three generations, including mine. 

Balwant, my great grandfather was intelligent and financially comfortable, but he was known for his mercurial temper and a bottomless appetite for wealth and power, so much so that he began to indulge in occult practices to attract more of it. Then he began to invest and multiply his money in properties, and stocks, but the fortune was short-lived. Bulk of his investments in the Indo-Burma Petroleum Company (now IBP Co Ltd) fell apart when the company suffered heavy losses in 1941, during the Second World War. In the wake of Japanese invasion of Burma, the British government ordered their own oil fields and refineries to be destroyed, denying its usefulness to the “enemy”. Moreover, the Indo/Pak Partition in 1947, and the Independence of Burma in 1948 added to the downfall of the Indian economy causing millions of people to lose their savings and livelihoods. My family believes that Balwant’s black magic practices for guidance on investments invited the wrath of our ancestral spirits. 

It seems around 1944, one day Balwant returned home from a tour in Calcutta, and never went back to work. His mysterious decision to resign is speculated to arise from feuds with colleagues, and power games at the workplace. His increasing experiments with occultism, and increasingly erratic behaviour was seen as mental instability, and led the family to send him away to Yerwada Mental Hospital (Asylum), where alone and miserable he died a tragic death in 1953. Meanwhile Laxmibai, his first wife, my great grandmother, got duped into signing off several of his properties to her brother who took advantage of her illiteracy. Adding a thriller quotient to this narrative, a family relative conjectures that my great-grandfather was wrongly framed as mentally unsound. It was strategic conspiracy to seize his properties and wealth. 

What followed were years of poverty and despair for the family. As soon as my grandfather Madhav finished school he began working at a bank to earn as much as he could for the family. Bulk of family jewellery, including what my great grandmother wears in this photograph had to be mortgaged or sold. But trust the women of my family to come through – both of my great grand-mothers also took responsibility to deal with their hardships. While Laxmibai looked after the children and the household, Kamalabai began to work double shifts – selling homemade puran poli (dessert), kurdaya (dry snacks), and then working at a factory, to keep the household running, and ensuring the childrens’ education. 

While this beautiful photograph is a reminiscence of better times within our family, it also represents to me the paradoxes of colonialism, and power-dynamics within traditional Indian households. Everything seems “stable” and “unchanging” yet, I know now, our histories, our families, and the relationships within are complex, and nothing is like it seems. 

The addition of this Photo-Narrative to the archive has been made possible due to the generous consideration towards Research Internships by Nazar Foundation, New Delhi.

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