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The bittersweet legend of a family mansion

(Left to Right) My great-great grand-uncle Ata Husain, seated with his younger brother, my great-great grandfather Fida Husain and his five sons. Hyderabad, Hyderabad State, 1900. Image and Narrative contributed by Afnan Khan, New Delhi This is a photograph of my great-great grandfather Fida Husain (seated second from right) along with his five sons and elder brother Ata Husain. It carries within it our ancestral memory of amazing accomplishments and family legends. In 1715, my ancestor, an Afridi Pathan teacher Husain Khan migrated from Kohat (now Pakistan) to Qaimganj (now Farrukhabad, Uttar Pradesh). Kohat was mainly a tribal area and Qaimganj was closer to Delhi, the capital of the erstwhile Mughal Empire and may have offered him better employment opportunities. Family legend says he lived for more than a 100 years and was known as 'Bade Ustaad' (The Great Teacher). His next three generations (sons, grandsons and great-grand sons) chose to serve in the army. Husain Khan’s great-great grandson (see photograph) Fida Husain was fond of academics and would borrow books from a lawyer in the neighbourhood that triggered his interest in law. He took the law examination and graduated in first class. Fida Husain then moved to Hyderabad (then ruled by the sixth Nizam), established a successful law practice, and built a house in Begum Bazaar, Hyderabad. He would also regularly send money to his father Ghulam Husain to supervise the building of a family home, a haveli (mansion), in Qaimganj (now Farrukhabad, UP) that he could eventually retire in. The mansion came to be known as ‘Mahal’ which translates literally to ‘Palace’. The family legend about the mansion is intriguing - During construction, an unfortunate incident took…

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Portrait of a debutante

Portrait of a debutante
My maternal grandmother, Monica Guha (née Roy Chowdhury). Calcutta, West Bengal. 1925

My maternal grandmother, Monica Guha (née Roy Chowdhury). Calcutta, West Bengal. 1925 Image and Narrative contributed by Aparna Datta, Bangalore This is a picture of my maternal grandmother, Monica Guha, (née Roy Chowdhury). The photograph was recently gifted to me by my aunt, my mother’s first-cousin. My aunt had found this classic studio portrait, complete with potted plants and painted canvas backdrop, amongst a collection of photographs belonging to her late father, Monica’s brother. On the reverse of the photograph is a rubber stamp with a date '3.11.25', with ink that hasn't yet faded. The photograph had been taken at Dass Studio, P 21/A Russa Road North, Calcutta. The rubber stamp stated “Copy can be obtain at any time. Please quote the number.” Endearingly, there is also a name “Monu”, her family nick name, hand-written in Bengali. While looking at the photograph I noticed she wore no bindi and no sindoor - symbols that a married woman would wear. Laden with jewellery, top to bottom, this simply had to be a rite-of-passage 'portrait of a debutante', a matrimonial image, intended to be shown to prospective grooms and their families. As a time-honoured ritual in arranged marriages, the significance of such a photograph, as a cultural artefact, was inescapable. 

I call this picture the 'Barefoot Princess'. The picture and the date-stamp had a rabbit-hole effect on me, drawing me in, coaxing me to contextualise the image. My mother had passed away, so I dredged the recesses of my mind, trying to recall bits of family history she had shared with me over the years. I spent weeks tracking down near and distant relatives all over India, picking up strands to weave into…

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One of the three earliest known Indians to have studied at the Royal College of Art, London

One of the three earliest known Indians to have studied at the Royal College of Art, London
My great great grandfather, Vasu Deva Sharma. Berlin, Germany. Circa 1920

My great great grandfather, Vasu Deva Sharma. Berlin, Germany. Circa 1920 Image & Narrative contributed by Nyay Bhushan, New Delhi This is the only image of my great grand-father, Vasu Deva Sharma, in our family archives. It shows him working as an artist in a photo studio in Berlin. Dressed impeccably in a well-tailored suit, he poses in front of an easel with a brush in hand, with the canvas depicting a portrait of a possibly aristocratic European lady. Vasu Deva Sharma was one of the rare Indians of his time who studied at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London in the 1920s. Vasu Deva Sharma was born on June 15, 1881 to Pandit Bhagwan Das in Pakpattan Sharif, District Montgomery, Punjab, (now in Pakistan). In 1910, he passed the Senior Vernacular Teachers Certificate Examination (Punjab Education Department) and in 1911 he joined Central Training College, Lahore as a Drawing Professor. The same year he married Saraswati Devi and on December 3, 1912, the couple had a son, Ved Prakash Sharma (my grandfather) and a daughter Ved Kumari in 1914. Tragically, in 1915 Saraswati Devi passed away and as joint families would, his brother Pandit Bhim Sen and sister-in-law Kaushalya Devi helped raise the two children. In 1920, at the age of 39, Vasu Deva Sharma gave up his job at the Central Training College, Lahore after receiving a scholarship to study at Royal College of Art. He sailed from Bombay to London on the ship Kaisar-I-Hind on the P&O line, and arrived in London on September 25, 1920. (Source : The National Archives, UK - Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960; www.ancestry.com) Upon his arrival in London he…

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