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My grandmother’s private past

My grandmother’s private past
My great great grandmother Ethel and grandmother Joan. Calcutta. (now Kolkata). Circa 1945

This is a picture of my maternal grandmother Joan Thompson (right) with her maternal grandmother Ethel Minnie McNair (left). It was taken in Calcutta (now Kolkata) around 1945. My grandmother Joan was born in Ranchi in 1930, illegitimately. Not much is known about the events surrounding her parentage though photographs in our family archives show her father Frank Thompson and mother Kathleen Chaplin, both in each other's company and with friends, as young people.Ethel, my great-great grandmother in the picture, was married to a British reverend Joseph Chaplin and had three daughters and a son including Kathleen and they lived in Calcutta. She was a matron at La Martinere and I remember my grandmother Joan saying that Ethel worked with midwifery too, since we also have photographs of her working with babies. Joan described Ethel as being born in Srivilliputtur, Tamil Nadu and as half-caste which could mean she was Anglo Indian (Eurasian), but could also mean that she was instead of mixed Indian ethnicity who had adopted Christianity. I have been told that Kathleen always wore gloves and make-up to conceal her heritage.

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The accomplished matriarchs of a family

The accomplished matriarchs of a family
My grandmother, Manorama Rao, Madras (now Chennai). 1939

My grandmother, Manorama Rao, Madras (now Chennai). 1939 Image and Narrative contributed by Rekha Rao, Hyderabad This is a photograph of my paternal grandmother Manorama Rao when she graduated and topped English Honours with the Grigg Memorial gold medal at the University level. My grandmother was born into a Saraswat Konkani Brahmin family in Madras (now Chennai) in 1917. She was the eldest of three daughters in a progressive family that encouraged education and goals. Her mother (my great grandmother) Kamala Devi Tombat was a progressive lady with immense willpower. My great grandfather, Kamala Devi’s  husband, Anand Rao Tombat had hired a British tutor to teach her English after their marriage and encouraged her to learn music. After her husband’s passing in 1944, Kamala went on to do a Visharad in Hindi (equivalent to a Bachelor's degree), became a Hindi Pandit (Brahmin Scholar) and then a Professor of Hindi and Sanskrit at Queen Mary's College, Madras, one of the first three colleges for women in the country. She wrote and composed devotional songs and even published a book with them, named Shri Gurugeet Bhajanmala priced at a mere Rs 1 in those days. She and her daughters regularly sang on All India Radio too. Not only does my grandmother Manorama bear an uncanny physical resemblance to her mother, but the musical, literary talent and zest for life have been passed on as well. After schooling at CSI Ewart School and Presidency Training School, Madras, in 1937, my grandmother Manorama joined Queen Mary's College where she topped the entire Madras Presidency in English and was awarded the Krupabai Satthianadhan Gold Medal for proficiency in the English language. She then joined…

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The Maharanis of Travancore

The Maharanis of Travancore
The Maharanis of Travancore. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (right) and Sethu Parvathi Bayi (left). Travancore (now central and Southern Kerala, India). c. 1905

The Maharanis of Travancore. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (right) and Sethu Parvathi Bayi (left). Travancore (now central and Southern Kerala, India). c. 1905 Image contributed by Jay Varma, Narrative by Manu S. Pillai, New Delhi This narrative is an edited version to suit the format of this archive. It was in the fall of 1900, that the Maharajah of Travancore adopted the two girls in this photograph (taken in c. 1905), as his Maharanis — and as his 'nieces’. For in Kerala, queens were never wives of monarchs, but their sisters. Under the matrilineal system of succession, ranks and titles passed in the female line; the Maharajah was a ruler not because his father was king before him, but because his mother was queen. The Maharajahs of Travancore (now central and Southern Kerala, India) inherited the crown from their mother’s brothers, and thus power passed in a topsy turvy fashion from uncle to nephew, down the generations. Naturally, then, the sons of kings from their own wives were not seen as princes, but were only exalted nobles of the realm, fated for oblivion after the deaths of their royal fathers. Instead, princely dignities were granted to sons of royal sisters, and it was these boys who were considered heirs to the throne. In 1900, however, the Maharajah had no heirs through his sister, and so the two girls seen here were adopted. They were cousins, and granddaughters of the famous artist Raja Ravi Varma. Sometime before the princesses were born, their mothers had journeyed to Rameswaram (Tamil Nadu) on a pilgrimage to pray for the birth of daughters to them. Legend has it that the deity appeared to them in a dream and promised the…

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The first Indian woman to perform on New York Broadway

The first Indian woman to perform on New York Broadway
Gopal Sharman & Jalabala Vaidya. Rome, Italy. 1967

Gopal Sharman & Jalabala Vaidya. Rome, Italy. 1967 Image courtesy Akshara Theatre Archive. Narrative points by Jalabala Vaidya, New Delhi Volunteer Assistance : Myra Khanna, 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…

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The Devadasi who became a Maharani

The Devadasi who became a Maharani
My maternal grandparents, the Maharaja & Maharani of Devas, my mother, uncle and great grandmother. Bombay. Circa 1931

My maternal grandparents, the Maharaja & Maharani of Devas, my mother, uncle and great grandmother. Bombay. Circa 1931 Image and Narrative points contributed by Cory Walia, Mumbai This picture is of my mother, the little girl in the center, and her immediate family taken around 1931 or 1932 in a British photo studio in south Bombay [maybe Kalbadevi]. There is no stamp on the photograph so I can’t tell which studio it may have been. My grandfather in this picture brought his family to Bombay specifically for having a series of photographs taken in the studio. He was very fond of studio portraiture and would travel to Bombay often to get his pictures taken. My grandfather, His Highness Malhar Rao Narayan Rao Puar was a King of a small kingdom in now Madhya Pradesh, near Indore called Dewas. Originally his family were Rajputs who like several of the other Rajput nobility embraced the Maratha/Peshwa fold and began adopting the Maratha language and customs in addition to their Rajput heritage. His family claimed to be descendants of Vikramaditya, the legendary emperor in ancient India. I hope it's true. Seated on the extreme right is my maternal great grandmother, a lady called Krishna Rao Salgaocar. She was a commoner and belonged to the erstwhile Devadasi tradition from the Devadasi house of Saligao in Goa. In this photograph, she wears black (or navy blue) because she considered herself to be a widow of the father of her children, who while alive was a leading businessman of that time but refused to accept his children as legitimate - as was usual at the time when it came to relationships or children with Devadasis.…

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