Sunday, December 26, 2021

When Santa arrived on elephant-back

A few days ago, Aravinda Anantharaman, the prolific columnist who writes as Tea Nanny for Mint Lounge, messaged me about a Brazilian blog called Tea Friends which was looking for an Indian Christmas story. Aravinda had read and enjoyed An Elephant Kissed My Window and remembered Ravindran's Santa-on-the-elephant episode. She arranged to send it on to Elizeth, who duly translated and carried it as Quando Papai Noel Chegou Montado Em Um Elefante – “Efeitos Colaterais” – 

In case you don't understand Portuguese, here it is, excerpted from the book!

Collateral damage

Another close encounter with an elephant left its mark. It was a year when our children were still young and I decided that it would be a brilliant idea to arrive as Santa Claus for the children’s Christmas party riding on the back of an elephant. What a thrill it would be for them!

There were tame elephants working in a nearby timber camp, so we sent for an elephant from there, and it duly arrived, accompanied by its mahout and a helper, at the group manager’s bungalow where I was waiting with my friends. One of the prerequisites of Santa-hood is that one must be sufficiently inebriated to remain in high spirits through the ordeal of being strapped with pillows and helped into the costume, cap and beard. In fact, it is a documented tradition among the planters of South India that a bottle of rum is mandatory on such occasions and if it can possibly be emptied before the proceedings begin, so much the better. 

Santa sets out for the party

Dressed as Santa, clutching onto a sack full of gifts, I proceeded to the location near the club where the elephant was waiting. The mahout got the elephant to kneel, and I was pushed up to a position from where I could clamber on to its back and pull myself up into sitting position. One of them put a rope into my hands and, winding the other end of it around the elephant’s neck, motioned me to sit astride the elephant so that he could then tuck my feet too into the rope. He then patted the elephant on its back and it slowly lumbered up. I felt the earth moving beneath me. It was a strange wobbly feeling as, with all four legs of the elephant in motion, everything under me seemed to be shaking! And – why had nobody ever told me before how sharp the bristles on an elephant’s back were? I was being jiggled up and down, dodging the sharp tickles the bristles were generously brushing my privates with, and the tail end of my vertebra was grinding painfully against the elephant’s backbone.

Impervious to my suffering, the elephant marched resolutely on, barely clearing the low-hanging branches of the coniferous trees along the narrow road. My heavy Santa padding prevented me from bending to avoid overhead branches and I began slipping down the side of the elephant. The mahouts appeared not to realise that something was wrong, merely stopping at intervals to prop me back upright. When Santa finally arrived at the club after the ride of a lifetime, he was hanging for dear life onto the stomach of the pachyderm. The waiting crowd at the club were roaring with laughter and the mahouts had a tough time rescuing Santa, by now practically comatose in his agony.

The children’s Christmas party at the Anamallai Club, 1985.
Santa, having survived the ordeal, is seen collapsed against the wall by the tree.

In later years when I climbed on the back of an elephant on safaris in Kenya and Kaziranga, it was always to ride on a bench placed there, and I would remember the foolhardy glory of my younger days when I rode bareback on an elephant and lived to tell the tale!

Excerpted from An Elephant Kissed My Window by M. Ravindran and Saaz Aggarwal


Saturday, May 15, 2021

He was one of a kind

The last time I saw Dharmam would have been about fifty years ago. I don’t think we ever exchanged a single word in conversation. And yet, the memory of who he was, and his professional contribution, have remained fresh in my mind.

In the late 1960s, Dharmam worked on Prospect, one of the four estates of the Estates and Agency Company (E&A, a company with its head office in London). It was one of the most prestigious estates in the Nilgiri District, its tea among the highest priced at the auctions. Thirty years later, when I visited Prospect to show my family the beautiful home I had lived in as a child, it was in a state of utter decline. I felt bemused by the changes, but gratified to learn that people still remembered my father, Bob Savur. Hoping to find one of the old-timers still around, scouring my memory for names, I asked after Dharmam. Sadly, nobody knew where he had moved to.

In 2019, I began working with M Ravindran, a former colleague of my dad’s at Prospect, on a book about the good old days, An Elephant Kissed My Window. Memories began to surface, and prominent among them was Dharmam.

What was the reason for my vivid recall? Why did his name and persona stand out so sharply, unobscured by the many eventful years since then? I soon began to realise that Dharmam’s work was essential not just to production but also to quality of life, since, along with being in charge of maintaining the factory machinery, he was also responsible for the estate vehicles, the civil and electrical upkeep of estate properties, and the estate’s water supply. And, Dharmam was not someone who restricted himself to maintenance. He embraced his work with the joy of inventive genius, and those I interviewed spoke with respect of his creative recycling. He is still remembered for the winch system at High Forest Estate, Mudis, which sent bags of leaf using a wire rope-pulley system to the factory. At Prospect, he created a pond on a hill and laid pipes that conveyed water around the estate. When the estate hired a bulldozer from outside the Nilgiris to construct India’s first green tea factory, Dharmam, always one to optimise the use of resources, persuaded my dad that they could use it convert the meadow near the staff club into a football ground, which they did. Dharmam’s contribution extended far beyond estate functionalities: he had crafted baking trays, piggybanks, even barstools, from scrap. My brother Ravi and I had a car he had assembled from tin sheets and bicycle pedals which we could actually ride in. It had an axle connected to a real steering wheel and a loud honking horn which once belonged to a lorry.

View of the High Forest Factory from his home
photo taken by Dharmam and provided by his son Rajappa

These memories and insights filled me with determination to somehow locate Dharmam’s children and send them copies of The Elephant Kissed My Window. No one at the Prospect office knew where he was, but continuous phone follow-ups resulted in a few leads. When my disgracefully inadequate Tamil became an obstacle, a kind classmate made the calls and eventually came back with the full names of Dharmam’s sons. This gave me hope, as the names are unusual, and it was a moment of delight to find Rajappa Charles on LinkedIn: he was Chief Engineer at St Stephen’s Hospital in Delhi. It took only a few eager phone calls to the hospital to get Rajappa’s number. And to learn from him that he had left Delhi and retired to Nagercoil – and that his father lived with him.

The book was not yet in print, and I was able to check and update some facts from Dharmam who, at 89, was as sharp of mind as ever. In fact, he and Rajappa both had fond memories of the time they bought their first car, a second-hand 1956 Fiat, when Rajappa was a little boy of seven: it was my father who drove them to Coimbatore to inspect it and make sure they were getting a good deal, and drove himself back to the estate while they inaugurated their new acquisition. In the 1960s, tea estate life still followed a somewhat colonial pattern. There was afternoon tea with hot buttered scones and jam, and an apartheid-like social divide. Hearing about this incident told me something about the deep affection and regard my father and Dharmam had for each other. No wonder he was one of the people I still remembered clearly, even half a century later.

Dharmam grew up in Nagercoil, and studied at the Scott Christian High School (a college now). After his matriculation, he did a diploma in mechanical engineering and joined Pioneer Transports, the first company to start a bus service in South India. He was sent to Chennai for diesel engine training and was in the first batch of the prestigious Perkins Diesel Engine institute.

PA Charles (left) with a colleague

After a break when he suffered a debilitating attack of typhoid, Dharmam joined E&A’s High Forest, where his father PA Charles was Tea Maker, as Mechanic. There he completed an electrical supervisory course, and was promoted to Electrical Supervisor. When my father, manager of High Forest at the time, was transferred to Prospect, he made sure that Dharmam was transferred there too. Dharmam’s wife, Helen, was a much-loved teacher on the estate schools. Their last posting was at Seaforth Estate, O Valley, during which Dharmam retired and stayed on for the few years she continued working.

Connecting with Dharmam and his family was one of my greatest joys of An Elephant Kissed My Window. In December 2019, I met his son Bimal and grandson Dharun in Chennai. Bimal, who has a Masters’ in Public Health from London School of Economics, was CEO of Christian Medical Association of India. After 35 years of non-stop travel all over India and many other countries, he retired in 2020.

Sadly, I would never make it to visit Dharmam in Nagercoil, as he passed away just three weeks short of his ninety-second birthday.

RIP Charles Dharma Sundara Raj (30 April 1929 – 9 April 2021)

This tribute was written for Planters' Chronicle April 2021 issue

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Mandai Nostalgia

Mandai 26 Jan 2021

Yesterday at Mandai was so very different from what it has been for the past five years. 
Since 2016, the first half of Republic Day at Mandai, Pune’s iconic vegetable market, has been a scene of festive crowds enjoying an art event. For the sake of continuity, I took a cautious break from isolation yesterday, and went to attend the flag hoisting.  Hanging out for a bit with Anuradhabai, my neighbour and colleague, felt good too. 

Mandai 26 Jan 2020

The world had changed after the pandemic, and naturally Mandai had too - it was a lonely morning, quite different to the crowded, bustling time we had last year with people pouring in to participate in the very exciting event that Gauri Gandhi, a professor at Flame University, started planning in late 2015. 

I'm grateful to Kunal Ray for suggesting my name to Gauri, and to Gauri for her wonderful idea and all her efforts in establishing it. Her idea of integrating with public spaces and local communities was very attractive. Mandai is a beautiful, historic building, not just a place to buy veggies but an icon of public art where art lovers and art students visit, and the Aggarwal nashta is pretty ok too! 
Each of the five events I took part in were great fun. You can read about some of them here and hereMandai was a wonderful opportunity for me because it took me out of my comfort zone and I suddenly found myself free to use absolutely any material and let it speak for itself. One of the purposes of Mandai was affordable art and I thought it would be good to use a low-cost material, so started off with roadside stones, offering them in the kind of baskets that the vegetable and fruit vendors of Mandai use.
Today's Catch Pune Biennale 2016
Some of what I have made over the years has been with things given to me by friends who did not have the heart to throw them away - like cassette collections and saris, once precious, now too old to be used.  It has been so very gratifying when people visited my stall, thronged around, and purchased. These are some of my favourite photos, surrounded by happy customers, money in my hands and glee on my face!

In 2020, when Gauri announced 'Harvest' as the theme of Art Mandai, I went a bit berserk with ideas, making collages on tiny canvas boards and turning them into magnets. There were harvests of corn and rice, of course; there were also harvests of fish (some lay dead in seas of plastic), eggs, flowers - and lice, snakes and even blessings. Unable to conceive of harvest without some kind of tribute to the Indian farmer, I did a series of 'farmer-suicide' magnets too, little expecting that anyone would buy - and was surprised when most were purchased. You can see some of them in the image below - I was sticking them on my heirloom Godrej cupboards as they got done, and this was taken a few days before the Jan 2020 show.

Mandai 2020 was also special for me in quite a few different ways! For the past four years, my business partner was my husband, Ajay, who always came along, dressed for the part, and took the wonderful transactional photos you saw above!
But in 2020, we had a family wedding in Delhi (I rushed to the airport to join them as soon as the Mandai event ended!) and I had two good friends, Ruve Narang and Dhananjay Kale come and sit with me instead, attending to customers, and keeping the collection safe!

Ruve was a member of Art Mandai in the early years, and she is the one who designed the group's lovely logo.
In 2020, I was also quite gratified to find that the Art Mandai PR team had made me an icon of the event! My photo appeared in all the media clips announcing it, you can see the Times of India clipping at the end of this post. Over the years, I found a lot of validation in seeing that I and my work were regularly featured in newspaper articles that covered Mandai. My basket of stone faces can be seen in the first article about it on this link and here are a few of the other clippings too!  

The Monet's waterlilies you can see in one of the images above are made from the old cassette boxes from my friend Candy's precious music collection, stuffed with pieces of chiffon torn out from a gorgeous sari that my friend Gita gave me as it could no longer be worn. And the inspiration came from Musée de l'Orangerie which I visited while in Paris to present a paper at a conference on Sindh Studies in ECSAS in July 2018. It's not like I knew I was going to do this, but after I saw what was emerging, I knew where it was coming from.
If you'd like one of my magnets - email me on!