Sunday, September 23, 2018

A long-ago place and time where women were treated, unexpectedly, as people

A few days ago, Scroll.in carried something I wrote about women in pre-Partition Sindh, Freedom fighters and ticket checkers: The trail-blazing women of pre-Partition Sindh.
In 1936, Kishni Lalvani  (the second lady from the right), 
was one of a group of young ladies on a tour of Europe, 
chaperoned by a respectable Scottish lady who  lived 
in Hyderabad. Quite a stir they created, in their elegant and 
fashionable saris, from Norway to Spain and beyond! 
They visited cultural sites and interacted with cultural 
groups, and people were charmed by their poise and
flawless English. This clipping appeared on 20 June, 1936.
Captioned ‘Hindu students in Barcelona’, it went on to say,
“The group of Hindus students that is taking a study trip
through Spain has arrived in our city, visiting our museums,
our monuments and our teaching officers”.
The photograph, by Puig Farran, was taken at
the Patio de los Naranjos de la Generalidad.
Image courtesy Kishni's daughter, Bina Thadani. 
I wrote it several weeks ago, in response to another scroll article, about Om Mandli, a socio-religious organization which originated in Sindh in 1935. 
While discussing the article with some friends, one sentence struck us particularly: 
What is remarkable is that, in pre-Partition Hyderabad, where patriarchal norms and misogyny was at its heights, some of its courageous women powerfully resisted the yoke of men and subjugation. 
While there were certainly patriarchal norms and misogyny, and these continue to pervade the world, as far as we knew they were not at their heights in pre-Partition Hyderabad. I have interviewed quite a few elderly Sindhis and from what they told me, there were Hindu Sindhi women who owned property, made financial decisions and had certain privileges of empowerment even when they were not contributing to the family economically.
Gomibai Javhermal Shahaney relaxing at
home with her newspaper. Karachi c1940
Courtesy Sunita Shahaney
I sat down and wrote some of the stories. Eventually the piece was held back for so long that it didn’t make sense to link it to the Brahmakumaris story and though I worked on rewriting it, I did feel that the rejoinder version was much more effective . So I'm putting down the full version here, with more examples, photographs and details.
One charming snippet of memory from the 1930s has Ruki (daughter of a zamindar, Lokumal Malkani, and wife of Dr Naraindas Mirchandani) driving their children home to Old Clifton from the clinic, singing bhajans to lull them into a pleasant mood. Ruki loved to drive, as did quite a few of her generation; another was Jassie Kundanmal Ramchandani – Jessie to her friends – who drove her own car in Sindh even before she got married. 
Jamna Pahlaj Gidwani
(nee Jamna Sahibsing Shahani)
had a driving license in 1928.
Courtesy Nelum Gidwani
Jamna, daughter of the illustrious educationist Sahibsing C Shahani, had a license in 1928 and drove for years until – as her son Nelum Gidwani wryly observes – she ran over a chicken somewhere in France and decided she’d had enough of it. When Indroo Sitlani learnt to drive in Bombay after Partition, it was one of his sisters who taught him. 
While these were clearly women from well-off families, there were working women too. During the Second World War, sea routes closed and many Sindhworkis, men with trading outposts in ports around the world, were isolated from their families in Sindh. Hassaram Ramchandani and his sons ran stores in Cairo and Basra and could not return. It was his daughters Sati and Ishwari who managed Lucky Store, a front room of their home near Tikunda Park at Gadi Khato in Karachi. Sati was a Balkanjibari (Sindhi kindergarten) teacher and took turns with Ishwari who, as her son Ashok Shahani told me,  worked in the Locust Control office on Bunder Road until Partition. There were no toilets, and Ishwari wrote to Gandhi requesting support in getting toilets built. And that, says Ashok, a Supreme Court lawyer, was how the rolling plan of 1950 came to budget one toilet in each Central Government office.
Quite a few also worked for the Railways in Sindh, checking passengers’ tickets. For a woman to do this doesn’t just mean that she is outgoing and confident. It doesn’t just mean that her family supports – to an extent – her individuality and ambitions. It also means that the men of Sindh could accept authority from a woman. Sundri and her sister Popati, ticket checkers on the Hyderabad-Kotri commuter line, were beauties. There was a line of suitors. But Sundri fell in love with Gobindram Shahani and that was that. Popati married Mohan Mansukhani. After Partition they were able to continue supporting their families with jobs in the Railways. In an era of child marriage across India, both married in their late twenties. This was not at all uncommon in Sindh.
Many have told me that their parents ‘did love marriage’ in Sindh before Partition. Many have spoken of sisters who never married because they were overweight, dark-complexioned or disabled – negative attributes in the marriage market as they continue to be – because their families were unwilling to compromise them with potential grooms who were offered in marriage because they had less-than-appropriate attributes of their own. 
Mira Advani: a First Class
double graduate with MA
and MSc in pure and
applied Mathematics from
DJ Sind College at age
19. Karachi c1943
Part of the status of Sindhi women is due to the campaign for women’s education, introduced by Navalrai Advani, son of Shoukiram Advani, Mukhi of Hyderabad, who was so deeply influenced by the Brahmo Samaj that he made the one-week train journey to faraway Calcutta to find out more. The first school for girls in the Hyderabad Municipality c1885 was personally funded by him and Sahajrai Chandomal Advani. The progressive families of Sindh took women’s education very seriously. The list of the South Asians who became barristers at three Inns of Court in London before Independence, derived from research conducted by Mitra Sharafi at University of Wisconsin Law School, carries the names of two Sindhi women: Saraswati Dayaram Mirchandani who was called to the Bar in 1937 and Shakuntala Rochiram Hingorani in 1947. 
Dr Valiram Lakhani
Courtesy Dr Naresh Shivdasani
There were also a large number of ‘lady doctors’ (as they were called then) coming out of Sindh, a boon in a time when, despite high mortality in pregnancy and childbirth, families were reluctant to have their women administered by males. One of the earliest was Devi Lakhani, LMCG Edinburgh. Her father was Dr Valiram Lakhani of Hyderabad; all his daughters were well educated and he sent Devi off to study overseas in the 1920s.
Dr Hari Mirchandani, carrying Meena (now Meena Mani),
her brother's daughter whom she had delivered
two days previously, Delhi 1950.
Dozens of Sindhi parents sent their daughters to study medicine at Lady Hardinge College, Delhi, and live in the hostel there in the 1930s and 40s. Dr Hari Mirchandani practiced in Hyderabad and Mirpurkhas, and after Partition started a practice in Delhi’s Karol Bagh, then rented a house and, saving every paisa she could, built a one-storey house for her clinic, eventually building quarters above with a maternity home on the ground floor. 
Some time around 2009, in pursuit of a location for the
Sukkur branch of SIUT (Sindh Institute of Urology 
and Transplantation), Pakistani philanthropist Dr Abid Rizvi 
and his team came across the Chablani Maternity Home 
in a decrepit state. Dr Rizvi worked with the Sindh 
government to transform it into a modern facility 
by 2012 and they named it SIUT Chablani Medical Center.
They spent several months trying to contact Lila’s relatives
in India to get a portrait of hers to display in a prominent place.
Lila’s niece, Sujata Tolani, arranged for family photographs of
Lila to be scanned and composed to show her at different times
in her life, and sent this photograph to SIUT, Sukkur.
Lila Chablani, who ran a nursing home in Sukkur, stayed on after Partition and took care of her parents as they aged.
Quite a few other women too rose to be prominent citizens and lived independent professional lives in urban and rural Sindh. Most continued to practice in towns and cities across India after Partition; a walk through Bombay streets even today reveals nameboards and memories. In the 1950s and  60s, many went to live and work in the UK and US. Two of Dr Naraindas’s daughters, Mohini (later Gidwani) and Leila (later Advani) studied at Lady Hardinge too and both did their higher medical education in the UK. Before she left for the UK, Leila worked with Partition refuges in the children’s hospital at the Kurukshetra refugee camp in Delhi. 
In the early 1950s, the American Medical Association requested the Indian Medical Association to send a few young doctors as interns in their hospitals. Dr Popati, who had graduated from Lady Hardinge College, was in the first batch interviewed. Her father, Diwan Hashmatrai Mansukhani, gave permission for his young daughter, and subsequently two more daughters, to go to Chicago. It was a time when USA was considered excessively distant and Chicago was known for its high rate of crime. Diwan Hashmatrai faced criticism but his courageous act turned out to be a pioneering one because soon, other Sindhi families who were also victims of Partition and were worried about their children’s higher education realized that in USA it was possible to support yourself by working as you studied. 
Dr Lila Pahlajsingh Advani studied at Lady Hardinge College in the 1940s and after Partition built up her practice with a clinic in Colaba. In 1964 she moved to New York and continued working there as a doctor and living on her own for forty years. Lila was a keen photographer, she had a darkroom and developed her photographs herself. In Bombay, she spent time with her nieces and nephews, helping them with their studies and taking them on drives to Juhu where they made sandcastles on the beach and collected shells to make dolls and other curios. Lila never wasted a moment. She kept her knitting in her clinic so that she would have something to do between patients and was well known for the knitted, crotchet and tatting garments and table linen she made.
Kamla Hiranand
Courtesy Jyoti Punwani
Sindhi women didn’t just work, they also fought in the Indian freedom movement. The frail Devi Kripalani (Kamla Hiranand after marriage) led protests and challenged her jailers. During Jethanand Shahani’s six months in jail for his activities in the freedom movement, his wife Kala’s parents and his parents urged her to come and stay with them but she lived alone in her own home and continued to manage their secret press. 
One of the most prominent Sindhi woman freedom fighters, and the best known Sindhi woman social worker of her generation, was Jethi Sipahimalani. From a prominent and well-off family of Sindh, she completed four academic years at DJ Sind College as a casual student in English, a special facility created by Principal SC Shahani (father of Jamna Gidwani mentioned above) for girls who had not passed the matriculation examination to study further. In 1929, she was principal of Daya Ashram but quit the following year to join the Indian National Congress, participating in pickets and protests. Jethibai held prominent civic posts and in 1938 served as Deputy Speaker of the Sindh Assembly. After Partition, she worked for the displaced people from Sindh and her most enduring legacy is the Navjivan Society housing colonies she built in Bombay.
Mohini and Sujan Bhawanani
Calcutta 1972
When I interviewed Mohini Bhawnani in Kolkata in July 2016, she was 84. Mohini was born into an affluent family, but her father died when she was four and her brother two, a time of great struggle. After Partition, they moved to Kolkata and when their mother died, Mohini supported herself and her brother first by selling her father’s gold medal and then by working as a school teacher while she continued her studies. She gave a competitive examination to enrol as an engineer in the telephone department and was placed fourth among four hundred candidates. In 1957 Mohini married into a wealthy family but continued working and as the years passed, she was promoted to higher positions. One of Mohini’s memories was of her journey across the new border after Partition. Her mother had stayed on in Karachi to try and sell their home, and put her 15-year-old daughter on the SS Barpetta to Bombay in the care of an acquaintance, an Idnani. The first evening on the ship, he  got drunk and began making advances. Mohini escaped and took protection with the ship’s captain. Mohini was keen to share this story, more than a year before #MeToo went viral. 
As for the Om Mandli, I do believe that one of its aims was an early version of women’s empowerment. I have tried to uncover awful truths but only found it well-meaning (if slightly peculiar, in a cultish way). This was reinforced when I visited the Brahmakumari headquarters in Mount Abu last year. Whether ghastly relics lie around the corner remains to be seen.
Many of the followers of Dada Lekhraj were women of the Sindhworki community, and as Dr Devendra Kodwani, Dean at Open University, UK reminded me, the widespread travels of the men were likely to have impacted their outlook on life and views on the role of women. These were women certainly oppressed by dowry and family elders – Monica Bhojwani who was born in a prisoner of war camp in France in 1940, told me about a neighbour whose mother-in-law gave her no privacy even in her bedroom; no freedom to even express physical affection for her children. Still, long years of running their homes and families while their menfolk worked in other countries, certainly nurtured capability and decision-making ability. 
One of the things retired academic Madhuri Sheth told me is that when she was little, her father, Udharam Gurnani, had friends who were women from Sindhworki families. I found it interesting, and an indicator of a progressive society, that men and women could be friends in the 1940s, simply enjoying each other’s company and conversation. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A tribute to a truly extraordinary person

Dr Nandlal Tolani would have been 94 years old today if he had not breathed his last on 14 August 2017. He was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met and I consider myself very fortunate to have had the chance to work with him.
Pribhdas 'Kaka' Tolani (1893-1988) and his sons, Bombay, c1970s
Gopaldas, Pribhdas, Nandlal, Chandru
Nandlal was born in Sindh in 1924 into a family of wealth and social position. Through the hard work and intelligence of the previous generation, the family’s orchards had grown into an extensive landholding covering hundreds of thousands of acres. A princeling with a large estate he would inherit, Nandlal was also a brilliant student. He graduated from Agriculture College in Sakrand, and pursued his further education at Cornell University, USA. He was on his way home with a Master of Science degree in Agricultural Engineering, equipped to take his place on the family lands, when the impact of Partition started making itself felt. By the time his ship docked in Bombay in early 1948, it was clear that things were changing radically and Sindh would never be the same again.
Nandlal’s father had stayed behind in his home in Larkana – there was no reason for him to leave. However, he was jailed on suspicion of being an Indian spy. After several weeks, he was granted reprieve on condition that he leave Pakistan immediately. So Pribhdas ‘Kaka’ Tolani, a wealthy, prestigious and powerful landlord of Sindh arrived in Bombay as a refugee along with other hundreds of thousands who had been forced out of their homeland.
Members of the family went to work immediately to support themselves. As per the First Five Year Plan of the new Government of India, the focus was on agriculture and Nandlal Tolani, with his Master of Science in Agricultural Engineering, took up a project to build an earthen dam in Kachch. When that was successfully completed, he went on to do a second and, over the years, several more across Gujarat and Maharashtra.
In Bombay, Kaka constructed a building for himself and his family and gradually built more to house other refugees from Sindh who needed comfortable homes. As the years passed, Nandlal’s involvement in the Bombay business grew.
Finding absurd government policies and corrupt government officials difficult to tolerate, Nandlal returned to Cornell to work towards a PhD. This time he had his family, his wife Papu and their young children Rohet and Sujata with him. It was a pleasant interlude, and he wrote his thesis in less than two years, on the subject of how to develop an operational model to choose between a fertilizer plant and an irrigation project in underdeveloped countries. There were strong messages in this thesis for the Government of India, but sadly none were heeded.
Dr Tolani enjoyed life at Cornell and would in later years say that he considered himself more fit for a life in academia than one in business. He would have stayed on to study and teach at Cornell but Kaka wanted him back at home and,  the ever loving and dutiful son, he returned to Bombay.
However, Dr Tolani was determined to move away from construction. After considering many options in which business would be cleaner, he decided on shipping, which in the late 1960s was the Indian industry with the least corruption.
Starting with two ships – bought with savings rather than loans – Tolani Shipping grew gradually and systematically. Dr Tolani had no interest in becoming a great shipping tycoon and competing with other companies for the maximum number of ships. His aim was to create wealth and a comfortable life for himself, his family and his employees. While he achieved this, his company also grew to be highly regarded across the shipping world.
During this time, Dr Tolani systematically divided his time and energy between his work, his philanthropic activities, his leisure pursuits and his family. He started a college of commerce in Andheri East, and grew it into a centre where neighbourhood children, at an impressionable age, would receive a high quality well-rounded education with a strong academic component, the best extra-curricular opportunities and a wholesome moral base. He endowed a chair at his alma mater Cornell University – the Nandlal P Tolani Senior Professorship in International Trade Policy. His lifetime dream was to found an institute in India which provided a quality of education comparable to the education he had received at Cornell, and to do this he developed the Tolani Maritime Institute entirely with his own personal funds: a college of maritime education set in a large and beautiful campus with extensive workshops, library and a campus ship for practical lessons. As he said:
I never wanted to profit from my educational institutes. What I did want was to run professionally-managed organizations. I wanted to do good business and have a healthy bottom line, but always within the ambit of the law. While doing so, I wanted others around me to benefit too. Working with my team, we built a reputation for being decent, principled, and reliable. Today my biggest satisfaction comes from the respect that every member of Tolani Shipping, of Tolani College of Commerce and of Tolani Maritime Institute command, on the basis of this reputation.
Dr Tolani was never interested in wealth and power for the sake of wealth and power. The young Nandlal, a child who loved his grandmother dearly, had promised her that one day he would earn so much that she would have enough money to even fill up the toilet. When the time came that Dr Tolani could have fitted gold taps in his bathrooms, he chose instead the vision and the discipline to use his wealth to truly live life to the fullest. He built a beautiful home, indulged his passion for luxury cars – not with a fleet, but one which he would drive himself and another for his family – and surrounded himself with good friends. In his words:
To me, wealth has given security and some freedom of choice. I have been careful with my spending, and almost always chosen comfort over luxury.
I did use my wealth to indulge my love for bridge and sailing, and to try and attract others to these sports. These are sports that test our mettle, one mentally and the other physically. As such, they help us to engage and develop the faculties we are blessed with as human beings, and thus live life to the fullest.
If there is one lesson of life that I would like to leave my grandchildren, it is the fact that money has little value. Personal satisfaction is far more important than money. For my grandchildren, and for those who come after them, I leave a wish that they may always understand the true priorities of their own lives, and that they may always have the discernment to judge right from wrong. I believe these are the things, rather than money, by which a life may be deemed successful. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

My teachers and role models

My most favourite part of December every year is when I get to meet people who have been nominated for the CavinKare Ability Awards. And last night I was privileged to be there when some of them received the award. In the wheelchair you can see beautiful and vivacious Jasmina Khanna. She has cerebral palsy, and works in a responsible position in a multinational company, a valuable member of her team. (Incidentally, in her SSC examination Jasmina scored 100% in Mathematics!)
Next to her is the charming Gauri Gadgil. 27-year-old Gauri has Down’s Syndrome but she’s a Bharatnatyam dancer, a swimmer who has won medals for India in international sports events and the heroine of The Movie Yellow, a Marathi film that won awards and was a commercial success too.
Next to Gauri is Dr Roshan Shaikh. Roshan was sixteen when she fell out of a Mumbai local train and had to have her legs amputated. With family support, this daughter of a vegetable vendor got right back to her studies and completed XI Std without even losing a year. And she went on to study medicine at Kem Hospital, after fighting a court case to overturn a government refusal to give her a seat in a medical college because of her disability. Roshan completed her MBBS and internship and is now preparing for admission to post-graduation – and is prepared to deal with any government restriction that might come in the way ... this beautiful, kind and brave woman is going to be a surgeon.
Sitting on my left in the photo above is Raju Uprade, one of the most extraordinary people I've ever met. Raju, with congenital deformities and from a low-income family, completed his BE in Information Technology on a scholarship and after a long and continuous battle for employment, facing discrimination and mockery all the way, is now a key member of the international ‘Square Kilometre Array’ project hosted by Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). When Manoj Muthuveedan and I visited, he showed us around his workplace – introduced us to his colleagues who are all so proud and admiring of him – arranged lunch for us at the canteen and later made chai for us at his home. Raju, despite the challenges, lives on his own.
When Raju came on stage to receive his award, he dedicated it to his mother without whom, as he said, he could never have overcome his physical limitations. Raju spoke very simply and objectively, but facing the stark truth that a disabled child in India is usually considered a burden and so rarely given the nurturing to develop individual abilities, many in the audience were in tears. After all, Raju is not just a scientist and IT whiz, he is a poet too as you can see from his blog.
While Jasmina, Gauri, Roshan and Raju received the CavinKare Ability Mastery Award, the CavinKare Ability Eminence Award went to Mahantesh Kivadasannavar.
Mahantesh was born in village Neginval, 40km from Belgaum. At 6 months he contracted typhoid which affected his optic nerve and retina. His father worked for Department of Agriculture and had a transferrable job. 
Mahantesh was admitted in Shree Ramana Maharishi Academy for the Blind in Bangalore when he was ten . The school had a tradition of having an older boy take care of a younger one. Nagesh, three years older, looked after Mahanatesh like an elder brother. Together they played a lot of cricket, broke many glasses. They stayed in touch as Mahantesh continued his education first at National College, Bangalore and then Bangalore University, finishing with an MA in 1994 and MPhil in 1996 in English Literature. He began teaching at University Law College but discontinued when Samarthanam began to take more and more time. Nagesh and Mahantesh registered Samarthanam in 1997 in Bangalore, with the desire to create a better world for future generations. They stayed up late at night discussing their dreams and making plans. The seed money came from the University Grants Commission Junior Research Scholarship from which he received Rs50,000 per year to study. Mahantesh’s father paid for his studies, telling him to use the money for something he wanted to do. Mahantesh also received an LPG distributorship and this gave some income.
Today, Samarthanam is like a corporate group, with a large number of diverse interests, each purposefully run with its own team and resources. We had one day, and saw just part of it, and it was a tremendous experience – amazing to think it was started by two blind men, not yet 30 years old, in 1997.
Mahantesh and Nagesh formed an exceptionally good team and complemented each other: while Mahantesh was a dreamer and visionary, Nagesh would execute swiftly and excellently. This mirrored their disability: Mahantesh has a mild long-distance vision while Nagesh could see up close, “So we could walk any terrain together. I miss him every day.” Sadly, Nagesh succumbed to a heart attack in 2016. He was 49 years old.
Some of the most striking features of Samarthanam are ...
Diversity: the organization has so many different sides to it and these include cricket for the blind; education; rehabilitation, skilling, placement; creating awareness; events (cricket is one of the most prominent but there are annual Walkathons and other public events); promoting employment of disabled; care of mentally challenged as well as care of women who have suffered violence; food for children in government schools; an eco project, Parisara, which supplements the government efforts in Bangalore; cultural expression for the disabled in art and dance.
Scale: the number of people who have been impacted is huge; Samarthanam is growing at a rate of nearly 40% every year, adding new divisions and increasing old ones. It has also grown and replicated its model across India and registered non-profit organizations in the UK and USA.
Partnerships: Samarthanam started with a group of volunteers. As the organization grew, they took on paid professionals to work. Today the main reason for Samarthanam’s continuous expansion is the effective use of partnerships with large bodies including corporate organizations, other NGOs and the government and its various entities.
One of the most presently visible contributions by Mahantesh is promoting and streamlining blind cricket. India is a nation crazy about cricket, why should the visually impaired be left out? Mahantesh, a cricketer himself, played in school and encouraged others to play. In 1996, one year before Samarthanam was registered, he was one of the Indian Cricket team for the Blind who toured England. He later served as coach of the team. In 2010, Cricket Association for the Blind in India (CABI) was registered, with Nagesh as founder president and Mahantesh as founder secretary. This has been a spectacular way to showcase the abilities of the visually impaired. When India began winning international cricket championships, the country sat up and watched.
We visited the Gopalan Sports Academy where a camp was being held to prepare the 17 players selected from all over India for the national team. Next month they will play the fifth edition of the one-day international world cup in Pakistan and Dubai, and the participating countries are India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Australia. Captain Ajay Reddy told us about how his team defeated Pakistan in the world cup finals – a spectacular victory since till then Pakistan had been a fearsome foe! And it was a victory which so moved India that the Prime Minister has twice invited and personally felicitated the team and spoken about it in his Man ki Baat. Not only that, but ex-captain Shekhar Naik was awarded Padamshri.
The team, comprising visually impaired boys from rural India, are no longer relegated to being shoved aside, the fortunate ones set to weaving cane baskets to earn a living. They are performing brilliantly in public, and have grown in ability and self-esteem. They can speak with confidence and they are getting jobs and promotions.
All this is the result of considerable time and effort invested by Samarthanam in registering first the national body and then 24 state bodies and working to promote the concept with blinds schools and institutes, arrange matches at the local, then state and then national levels, create tiers and keep expanding. 

Ross Hunter, head coach of the England visually impaired cricket team was on the ground when Manoj Muthuveedan and I visited and he told us that he had been invited by Mahantesh to share best practices. While I assumed that he was visiting as a trainer, he told us that he was visiting "to learn what makes Indian blind cricketers the best in the world." He also told us that when he brought his team to play in Indore, they played in a stadium with 20,000 spectators, something they could never have in England and he is immeasurably grateful to Mahantesh for that.



Though delighted for those who received the award, I also felt disappointed, as I have done for each of these 11 years I've volunteered with Ability Foundation, for those wonderful, brave and brilliant people I met who did not get it.
India has close to 100 million people of disability and these role models will lead the way to bring them out into the mainstream.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Legacies of Partition




The herbal remedies manuscript


What do people carry with them when they are leaving beloved homes and know them may never return? Ever since I received an invitation to be part of the Remembering Partition event at Godrej Culture Labs, I've been putting stories together asking people I’ve interviewed to contribute to the museum.
A few days ago, I went to visit Madhuri Sheth whom I had interviewed for my book Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland and she gave me a hand-written Sindhi manuscript on herbal remedies which I packed and couriered to the museum. The manuscript was one of the precious belongings of her father, Udharam. Based on what she told me, here is something about it.
Udharam Holaram Gurnani came from a wealthy zamindar family of Old Sukkur, Sindh. To live an independent life, he left home and took up a job with the railways. Posted to different parts of the province, he lived with his wife and children in quarters provided by the railways. Whenever he was transferred to Sukkur, he would be given one of his father’s houses to live in. Udharam had studied only up to the fourth standard, but he had a wide range of interests – from medicine to spirituality and detective stories – and read a lot. He discussed philosophy with his friends, and his children were often included in the discussions.
Hemu Kalani
In August 1947, there were riots in Quetta and trains filled with fleeing women and children passed through Sukkur. Soon, migrants from across the new border started arriving to settle.  The town, once a prosperous place – a major centre of the fight for freedom, where 19-year-old Hemu Kalani had been hanged for his activities during the Quit India movement – changed fast with reports of looting and violence.
Udharam opted for a transfer across the new border. The family arrived in Bombay by ship from Karachi and lived on the docks for one and a half months, waiting for Udharam to be assigned a location.  Other families shared this plight. They cordoned off areas in unused parts of the dock’s warehouses, for themselves and their boxes of belongings. The government was distributing food, but there were no proper sanitary facilities.
When Udharam was issued posting orders for Achnera, a junction between Agra and Mathura, the family moved there but had to live on the platform for another few months, until quarters were allotted.  Even when baby Neelam, the youngest boy of Udharam and Parmeshwari’s nine children, died on the Achnera railway platform, the family continued to take the hardship in its stride, always conscious that there were others who had suffered more.
It was in 1987, when Udharam died, that his daughter Madhuri Sheth (born in June 1935) came across this manuscript, one of the precious belongings carried from Sindh in the boxes that had survived the months on the Bombay docks and the Achnera railway platform along with the family.  Udharam used these remedies along with healthy foods to treat illness in the family.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Born in the post office

I put this up as my profile photo yesterday because it was my brother’s birthday. It was taken in the late 1960s at High Forest Estate, where Ravi was born, in the Manager’s Bungalow.
When it was time for the baby, my dad called the estate doctor to be on standby while he drove out to fetch Dr Manchi Disawalla who was stationed at the nearby town of Mudis. Dr Disawalla was the best doctor in the district and he and his wife Gool, who was also an excellent doctor, were very good friends of my parents. As the story goes, by the time they got to the house there was no need to keep the expectant father busy arranging for big pots of hot water because the baby had already arrived.
High Forest is a rainy place – second only to Cherapunji, as my mother used to say back then. In the monsoon, clothes wouldn’t dry, biscuits got soggy in about five seconds, shoes would be lined with fungus within hours of taking them off. My dad would come back from the fields with leeches clinging to the long socks he had to wear to protect his legs from them. It had been raining non-stop but the morning the baby was born, after weeks shrouded by clouds, the sun came out personally to welcome him. Besides, it was a Sunday. So they named him Ravi.
And this is how it happened that while I grew up with an unpronounceable headache of a name – in South India the languages do not have a ‘z’ sound –  my brother had one of the most common names in the whole country. I felt awfully discriminated against. My mother once told me that, on a visit to the Mysore Zoo, we had gone to see the tiger and there was a board outside saying that its name was Ravi. Apparently I saw that and burst into tears, in the desolate knowledge that there could never, ever be a tiger anywhere in the world with the name Saaz.
In 1968, my father was transferred from High Forest to another estate, Prospect, in the Nilgiris. Ravi was just five. But High Forest would always stay with him. On his passport, ‘place of birth’ would always be ‘High Forest, Mudis Post Office’; in a country filled with so many thousands of remote places, and so many millions of letter-writers and money-order-senders, a post office was considered the only infallible indicator of location.
Years later, well into middle age, I told this story to a kind person who owns a gorgeous resort not far from Mudis Post Office and he sent someone to High Forest to take photos of the Manager’s Bungalow. The world had changed and so had Ravi’s first home: once elegant and beautifully maintained, it was now in a state of decay. In time I was able to locate two others who had lived in the same house in their time, Denis Mayne and Carolyn Hollis, now ‘back home’ (as it was called in those days) in the UK. I forwarded the photos to them  and they too felt sorry to see its reduced condition. Taking another look at those photos while I was writing this post, I realised with surprise that I had a few photos of the very same parts of the house when we lived in it.




Friday, June 30, 2017

For lovely M on a special birthday

Jewellery made with precious metals and stones is one of the most popular traditions of India. In my father’s community, the Kanara Saraswat Brahmins, it was a custom for married women to wear diamond earrings set in gold in a traditional pattern with seven diamonds each. Those earrings, like other jewellery given to a young woman who was getting married, were family heirlooms. As time went by, the world changed and so did family structures and traditions. In the early 1980s, I inherited eight of my grandmother’s diamonds. Since they were special, I had them set in a four-diamond pattern so that I could wear them all together. However, it turned out that I didn’t care much for the way the pattern sat on my ears. So for years they lay in my cupboard, unused. One day in 2005, my jewellery was burgled. I lost a lot of precious pieces, each of which had special memories. I felt sad and decided to give up wearing jewellery. Then one day I saw my grandmother’s diamonds lying neglected in the corner of a shelf and realised that I should give them the respect and affection they deserved! I had four set into a bangle for myself which I began to wear all the time, and continue to do. And I decided that when the time came I would pass them on to the girls in the family on special occasions.
Smt Shantabai Savur
As one such occasion approached, I began thinking about the box I would gift the solitaire nose-pin in and came across this picture of my grandmother in which she is wearing the seven-diamond earrings. I got it printed and set into a gift box. The box looked so beautiful that I made a few extra boxes and took one as a present (but with no diamonds in it!) for my aunt Sushila.
Sushilakka was born on 8 March 1928; I went to see her a few days after her 89th birthday. When she saw the box she was overwhelmed with emotion and kissed the photo, gazed at it lovingly, and could not speak for a while. Then she told me that the photograph had been taken in Masulipatnam when her father, an officer of the government’s revenue service, had been posted there.
It was 1938, and a ‘famous’ photographer from Baroda visited Masulipatnam. The Collector, the Chief of Police, and many of the other important people of Masulipatnam sat for family photographs and portraits. Naturally my grandfather did too, and this is a portrait of him and his family taken then.
Bhavani Shankar Rao Savur (1900-1961) and Smt Shantabai
Bab (Ramanand), Gopal (later Dr Gopal Rao Savur),
Sushila (later Mrs Tirkannad Sushila Amrit Rao
Gul (later Mrs Gul Raghuvir Dhareshwar)
The photographer then told my grandfather that his wife had the most beautiful profile he had ever seen; there was only one other woman whose profile was as beautiful and that was of the film star Sadhana! He asked my grandfather for permission to take her photograph, saying he would be happy to give him copies with no charge. “Of course Papa agreed!” Sushilakka said. This is the family photograph taken on that occasion: Bhavani Shankar Savur and Shanta Savur are standing and their children Bab (Ramanand, my father), Gopal, Sushila and Gool are sitting.
Sushilakka could not remember the name of the photographer but promised to think and phone to tell me later, when she remembered. She did tell me that years later, in the 1960s, she was living in Baroda with her husband and two young children and her father wrote to her, reminding her about the photographer and suggesting that she pay him a visit, which she did. She and her family received a courteous welcome and he remembered her well. In fact, he even mentioned her mother’s perfect profile and spoke of it admiringly all those years later.
I was moved by the story, and eager to find out more. It turned out that Masulipatnam is a place of historical importance, a trading port on the east coast of India used by the Dutch, the British and French. This engraving is from wiki: “View of Masulipatam. Anonymous. From Philip Baldaeus, A True and Exact Description of the most Celebrated East-India Coasts of Malabar and Coromandel”.
Masulipatinam is still a port and fishing harbour, but it is now called Machalipatnam. It is still famous for the Kalamkari block-prints on textile. A blogger, NP Prasad, writes that this was the place from where the Golconda diamonds were exported for centuries, along with other interesting facts about the place when he/she visited. Read more here. There are also photographs of the place, which make it look very interesting, on this link. They made me want to find a way to ask my grandfather about the place he lived in in 1938, the people he knew, the work he did, and his ideas about various things and his aspirations for his life.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Art in a Pune veggie market, again

Art Mandai 2017

Last year, Gauri Gandhi called some Pune artists together to sit in Mandai, Pune’s historic vegetable market, and exhibit our wares along with the vendors there. The event went well and it was a great experience.
In January 2017, the Art Mandai Group participated in the Pune Biennale at Let Art Work Gallery, with the theme Gauri suggested: Merawala Blue. We worked on a piece each, in our particular shade of blue. I had a terrible time, and painted a series which turned out to look so unappealing that I was in despair. At the last minute I went fishing … and, repetitive but true … up came Today’s Catch. I was away, interviewing for Ability Foundation, and missed the launch of the show and a spectacular performance by the inimitable Ruve Narang who is not just a writer and painter but a dancer too. Just a few days later it was time for Art Mandai again.
Art Mandai has two main purposes:
  • to integrate with local spaces and local communities, and 
  • to bring art into the mainstream, to people who avoid museums and galleries as restrictive or intimidating. 
Ours is a diverse group, with painters, sculptors, ceramic artists, masters of large installation, graphic wizards and more. One of my most favourites is Prabhakar Singh, who works with pieces of scrap metal and turns out evocative, lifelike figures (such as the ones seen here to the left and right).

One principle the Art Mandai Group follows is low pricing, so this year one of my products was a series of limited-edition plastic placemats incorporating an image of previous work along with a poem written for it.
I realised later that this was the first time my art and my writing had come together. Until then they had been quite separate, with the process of naming the pieces as the only point of contact.