The picture of our house , in the center. The wall seen here is along Ratna Vilas Road. In the cricket pictures, in the background is Anand Bhavan if I remember right, where Krest Park Apartments stands now
Ratna Vilas Road
This is a picture of our house, Mahadev Vilas, which was at the corner of Ratna Vilas Road and Kanakapura Road. In present day terms, it is diagonally opposite to Krest Park Apts. My grandfather M Ramabrahma bought and moved into that house in 1944 after retiring in Ahmedabad as an education officer in the Bombay Presidency .
I asked my father, Sheshagiri, who turned 93 this March 12, about Ratna Vilas Road and he of prodigious memory , told me the name comes from a house on the road, where a lady was running an “abhayashram” or a shelter for girls and young women who were victims of exploitation. Sometimes girls who had gone “wayward” and had been abandoned for their sins too found their way there.
My father who was 21 years old at the time, and studying to be a dairy officer at the National Dairy Research Institute says the house, a smallish building with gabled front, a style that was popular at the time, had a small compound with several trees. He remembers an almond tree or two, and also that it was a bleak, depressing place.
Ratna Vilas Abhyashrama ( not sure about the exact name) was run by a trust, with an endowment left by donor whose name is not known. The girls were given training in sewing, tailoring, and the like.
Not many people wandered into that neck of the woods, so to speak, and it was still developing as a residential area in the forties. It was such a gloomy place, that children didn’t need to be told to avoid going near it. Appa said he and friends rarely wandered in that direction, unless they were headed for Nagasandra Circle, or Gandhi Bazar or MNK Park, which they could reach through other roads.
Appa says after a few years, the home wound up, probably ran out of funds, and no one was willing to invest in it. It must’ve been sold, demolished and a new house built , and probably in going by current trend, that too has been pulled down to make way for an apartment block.
That, at least has been the fate of Mahadev Vilas, which had a vast compound, with the house in the middle, and originally had the outhouse on its side facing Kanakapura Road. (This is the road the leads off the South End Road somewhere near what was once Shanti Theatre, and goes on to Armugam Circle, and straight on by MNKrishna Rao Park, past the charming Renuka Devi temple). The outhouse was sold to K.S Ramaswamy, who was Editorial Representative of The Hindu, and named their house Sita Bhavan .and our two families have been friends ( and family by marriage, and sometimes purely on an honorary basis cousins, currently in third generation)This bonding was made all the more easier by the little wicket gate in the compound wall by the big champak tree, between the homes, which saw a great deal of traffic -kids, parents, and the grandparents, playing, knitting, and talking. As can be seen from the photographs, the compound was large enough for a game of cricket to be played. And it was!
This is the house we lived in when I was born, and in the pictures here are my brothers and their cousins and friends playing cricket. In the background can be seen Anand Bhavan , with a bandstand, which has made way to Krest Park Apartments.
Another nugget from Appa illustrates the charming, simple lives that was lived in those days, and indeed into the sixties when I was born. With no TV, or Internet, and telephone being a luxury, people were always visiting each other, exchanges news of births, marriages and deaths, and many things in-between. Even the installation of traffic lights at MG road was big news!
So when the R. B Muthu , wife of Capt. R.B Subramanyam, a doctor who had served in the WW-1 and had settled in Bangalore on retirement, came to Ratna Vilas Road all the way from the Cantonment where they lived, my grandmother, Venkamma, ( Subramanyams were friends of our grand-uncle M. Subramanyam who was a major, and a doctor who had served as health officer of Solapur and who lived on Patalamma Gudi Road) welcomed her, and enquired as to the purpose of her visit to these parts.
Muthu, told here she had come to see about the Ratna Vilas abhayashram.
Which alarmed Venkamma a great deal, who exclaimed, ” Ayyo why do you need become a member of such a place,!”
Muthu explained she was a member of the committee that manages the home, and see to it that everything ran smoothly, much to Venkamma’s relief!
Ratna Vilas Abhayashram must been a strange presence amongst the homes of mostly middle and upper class families settling down in Basavanagudi in the 1940s, and while no one doubted its usefulness , they were also wary of it, probably being aware of how the girls who ended up there came to be there.
It wound up a few years later, until today, when the question has popped up , “How did Ratna Vilas Road get its name?”
I could look to Appa, and ask him! And get an answer.
PS – I spoke to him this morning, and when I rang off, he had left Ratna Vilas Road way behind, and racing toward Model House Street, Alur Venkat Rao Road, which referred to as Albert Victor Road, and mumbling merrily about the bus service from market via Minto Hospital , Shankar Mutt Road and terminating at Old Poor House Road.
PPS: Bye I need to catch up with him
Appa turned 93 on March 12. He and Amma had 57 years together, from 1955 to 2012, when Amma left us. This, however is the story of another relationship, one that Appa started when he was about 14, and endures to this day. An intimate relationship that never bothered Amma , though she was often angry, and petulant and even disparaging of Appa’s choices and preferences. Sometimes, it seemed to me that Amma reserved an extra dose of meanness for him when she laughed at his expense, and felt torn – should I laugh with her, or show solidarity with Appa by not smiling. Appa himself never let it bother him, I think. Come to think of it, I don’t remember when I last saw Appa being “officially” angry, about anything. It was the sole preserve of impatient, intolerant Amma, whose impatience, and intolerance, I have to admit, dissipated as quickly as it erupted, and her whacky, often wicked sense of humor took over.
Then I grew up and came to realize that they were still together, carrying on their strange, monologous arguments conducted by Amma, interspersed with Amma’s demands for help with the crossword, her giggles over Appa’s pooja which she found very funny- he’s saying the shlokas hesitantly, as if he doesn’t want to disturb the gods, she’d say. I often found myself snapping at Amma or Appa with impatience and immediately regretting it. We would all sulk a little,laugh a little in a conciliatory manner, or let the moment pass while I’d look rueful, and then ask for coffee, and everything became “normal” again . I also learnt that no one can understand, or explain the how and why of a husband-wife relationship, other than the two who are in it. Why even Valmiki wisely steered clear of this relationship, and refrained from including “husband” in the 16 attributes of the ideal man, before he began composing the Ramayana.
I digress, as is my wont. This is about Appa and his companion of 79 years. A part of our memories and thoughts of Appa. We remember how we’d wake up and go bleary eyed to the bathroom, to find three toothbrushes ready with toothpaste, laid out on the cement counter around the cauldron which used firewood for heating water for bath (not used, for we had graduated to the brass “anda” fitted with an electric heating coil). For Big Brothers Subri, Bunty, and for me. We never had to squeeze paste on to our brush. In the summer holidays, when we went to Madras, or Nellore, we’d forget to pack our brushes, and Appa would forget we weren’t there, and it would be left to Amma to scrape off the dried paste, and fling them into the waste bin.
Since I left for school early, , it was only on Sundays that I got to see Appa emerge from the bathroom, wrapped in his towel, and the nostrils would catch a whiff of his soap, Mysore Sandal .The scent of comfort, and contentment.
Which brings us to the point of this story. We have known Mysore Sandal Soap for as long as we have known Appa. I espy the familiar cream box with green border, and the logo of Sharabha, the mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of an elephant, in an Indian store here in Herndon, and I remember Appa. Sometimes I pick up one to use, though it is not my personal choice. Indeed, I’ve found it never wears out, just sitting there for weeks, hard, and relentlessly smelling of stale sandal. If Appa didn’t ask for ia new one every few days, I’d think he ‘s been using the same cake all this time time!
So let’s begin at the beginning. , in the Old Days of Belgaum, as Appa is fond of beginning his oft-repeated stories , which he amazingly rememberswith great clarity, for f Appa’s choice of soap is no mere story, but history.
In 1937, Appa (Sheshagiri, from now on) and his elder brother Pandu were sent to the hostel of Sardar High School Belgaum. Their father, M.Ramabrahma, Headmaster, had been transferred to Poona. It was also the time they made a few choices. The one we are concerned with is- the soap of their choice to lather up with.
For the 1930s was the decade when soaps came to be regarded asa neccesity and not a luxury. and most households had long since abandoned the desi way of bathing with shikakai, or besan and turmeric. Sheshagiri remembers there were some soaps claiming to have shikakai in them, but they never did really become popular.
Soaps came to India with the British, naturally, with the Lever Brothers England introducing modern soaps , importing and marketing them here.. The first soap manufacturing company in India was set up in Meerut, by the North West Soap Company where they started marketing cold process soaps in 1897. It floundered during the World War I , but picked up again soon after the war ended.
The first indigenous soap factory was set up by Jamshedji Tata in 1918, after he purchased OK Oil Mills in Cochin, Kerala 1918, where coconut oil was crushed, and laundry soaps were made for the local market. IT was renamed Tata Oil Mills and branded soaps made an appearance in the early 1930s.
In the year 1906, urged on by Lokmanya Tilak the Indian National Congress began the swadeshi movement, and Ardeshir Godrej decided to launch Indian made soap The Governments of Mysore and Madras started independent soap factories in 1916, and in 1918, the Godrej company came out with its product, making them from vegetable oils instead of animal fat. In 1920 Godrej introduced a soap named No.2, which was followed by No.1 in 1922.
By 1937, when a 14-year-old and his older brother were ready to settle down with their personal choice of soap, there were soaps called Turkish Bath, and VAtni which means “of the motherland” There was, indeed, a wide array of soaps to choose from, both imported, and swadeshi. Lux, and Pears, and a few other brands that came from England. , The Government Soap Factory in Bangalore, Godrej Soaps in Bombay, BEngal Chemicals, Tata Oil Mills and the Lever BRothers company, were already vying for the attention of Indians who bathed with passion , or even obsession.
Pandu picked Pears Soap. It was first made and sold in 1807, by Andrew Pears, at a factory just off Oxford Street in London, England, according to Wikipedia.Everyone knows it was the world’s first mass-marketed transparent soap with a 100 year history of its own, already. Like many other brands, mainly Lux, it came all the way from England, who still ruled over us in the 1930s. It had arrived in India in 1902.
Its not clear what clinched it for Pears Soap with Pandu. Perhaps he was fascinated by its transparent amber color, and that he could see through to the other side. Or its pungent scent, and the feel of its lather on the skin? The extremely racist ads Pears put out in the African continent , didn’t make their way into India, so they are unlikely to have lured Pandu into buying Pears. There was this cheesy one which looks like Goddess Lakshmi was endorsing Pears soap for a baby she was holding, around that time. Even Pandu would surely have found it cheesy.I do not know how long Pandu ( who is of course, our Periappa) used Pears. Perhaps Leela Periamma, his wife and our aunt, will be able to tell us.
Sheshagiri’s choice was a historic one. A soap that had a royal birth, from the mind of Mysore Maharaja, no less. Mysore and its sandalwood are an inseparable part of old Mysoreans’ cultural memory. And why not.
In early 1900s, a small, exclusive stretch of forest was the solitary home of the sandalwood tree, and this lay in the Kingdom of Mysore. Much of the sandalwood was exported to Europe, and it was only royalty, or the rich Mysoreans who coould dream of possessing some. World War I changed everything. Mysore was left with a glut of sandal which it could not export. The great Sir M. Visveswaraya, urged the Maharaja, Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, to set up the sandalwood oil factory, and in 1916 the Government Soap Factiry became a reality. Sosale Garalapuri Shastri, was the man who came up with the process to make soap using sandal oil. Appa mentions that one of the engineers involved with this project, later launched a clone, calling it Kailash. It was quite unsuccessful . Perhaps it was Mr Sosale, something that needs verification.
It is 2016 now. Mysore Sandal Soap is a hundred years old. At 93, Appa is still using it. When he married Thulasi (our Amma) in 1955, they never thought of going out together to see if they were made for each other. They just got married, as arranged by their parents, and that was it. Mysore Sandal Soap, was luckier. Appa dated it for a while, used some other soaps before decided to settle down with Mysore Sandal Soap, seven years his senior. He remembers seeing the ad in Aluru Venkata Rao’s monthly Kannada journal, Jaya Karnataka, that said Mysore Sandal Soap was “kaasige thakka kajjaya” ( kajjaya being a regional sweet, fritters, made with rice flour and jaggery and deep-fried.and eaten at weddings, and on Deepavali. ) In other words, Mysore Sandal Soap, like the kajjaya , was full paisa vasool!
Aluru Venkata Rao, is known to us as the Father of the idea of Karnataka Ekikarana, bringing together all Kannada-speaking areas together to form the State of Karnataka.
Appa agrees. About the Kaasige thakka kajjaya. He thinks the soap has remained unchanged in these eight decades of bathing together. Perhaps it may have shrunk in size a bit, but the non-descript shade of brown, the scent of sandal, and it’s quiet, oval presence has not changed at all.
Appa, of course, has aged , well, gracefully. Unlike the other guy, the famous, charming, debonair,the late Dev Anand, who was born in the same year as Appa. Whose numerous face-lifts are legendary, and who, four years ago, looked nothing like the dashing hero he’d once been in Tere Ghar Ke Samne or Jab Pyaar Kisise Hota Hai. If he had used Mysore Sandal, he’d surely look nearly as good as Appa does in this surprise selfie that he took on his birthday.
As I wind down to The End of this story, I wonder if the people at Government Soap Factory, now called Karnataka Soaps & Detergents Ltd, would be interested in this Soap Appera Sandalous, in the year that marks Mysore Sandal’s centenary. What better endorsement than one from who has bathed away 79×26 oval bars of Mysore sandal soap , all it’s life, barring seven years?
As I wrote about Rukmini Devi and our Great-Grandfather Alladi Mahadeva Sastri, I realized our aunt Sharada, who is the second student of Rukmini Devi, and has been given the Sangeet Natak Akademi award , it’d be a good idea to share an interview of her which shows how deep and close the connections are. I know Sarada mostly from listening to my father speak of her , though she did visit me a couple,of times when I briefly lived in Madras .
Long associated with the doyen of Bharatanatyam, Rukmini Devi, and privileged to be the second student to graduate from Kalakshetra (the first being Radha Burnier), Sarada Hoffman, now at 73, is the first recipient of the Rukmini Devi Medal for Excellence in the Arts from the The Centre for Contemporary Culture, New Delhi.
Residing in a small flat, near the seashore in south Madras, Sarada who has spent all her life dancing and teaching, now leads a quiet life with her husband Hoffman and her books. Born in 1929 and hailing from a family of theosophists, dance has been the only dream, passion and mission of this artiste, who did not seek to be in the limelight. Sarada who formally retired at the age of 60 in 1989, continued her services till 1996 at Kalakshetra.
Although awards and honours have been given to her now, (she received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1997), what she still cherishes is her younger days spent with Rukmini Devi and the temple of fine arts. She reminisces about them in an interview with Kutcheribuzz Reporter S. Aruna.
Award for Sarada Hoffman – Click here.
You have received an award in the name of Rukmini Devi, what does it really mean to you?
It is a very special honour, since this is the first time that an award has been instituted in her name and I have been chosen to receive it. I’m indeed happy and appreciate their gesture. Although, awards are not for which I worked. I just enjoyed working and with the person I wanted to work with.
How did you get to be called ‘Chinna Sarada’?
Simply because there were many ‘Saradas’ during my time. The older Sarada was called ‘Periya Sarada’ and since I was younger, I became ‘Chinna Sarada’. Besides, there was also a Saradambal amma.
About your theosophical background?
I belong to the third generation of theosophists. My grand father, Alladi Mahadeva Shastri was the Director of the Adyar Library in the 1920s. My father M. Krishnan, also a theosophist worked for the Olcott Memorial schools. (There were five schools originally, with one left right now, which is being run by the society.) He was the first Indian to head the institution, who opted to work for the downtrodden, in those times. So, I was born and brought up in the theosophical estate.
About your first meeting with Rukmini Devi?
She knew my family since my grandfather, Alladi Mahadeva Shastri, was the priest who performed the ceremony while conducting her marriage with Arundale.
I met her in 1934, when I was about six. She was producing an English play, ‘Light of Asia’ by Sir Adwin Arnold. It was the life story of Lord Buddha, and she asked me to take part in the play. She was Yashodhara and I was her son Rahula. I had no major part except to sleep next to her! In the play, she also danced the ‘Swan’, which inspired me.
When did you see her first perform?
She gave her first Bharatanatyam performance in 1935, which I attended. It was a memorable occasion, which I’ll never forget. Such beautiful dancing. She was like a goddess and the audience was spellbound. She gave this performance to prove to the people, the divinity in dance. It was a time when the British were against dancing in the temple.
So, did you begin learning your first dance steps from her after this?
When we approached her, she said I was too young and therefore we had to wait. But I was enrolled as one of the first students in the Besant Memorial school (later renamed Besant Theosophical school), founded by her and Dr. Arundale.
When I was ten, she said I was ready.By then, she had started Kalakshetra, where Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai conducted the classes for her, while his nephew, Chockalingam Pillai, conducted the classes for the other students. I was a student for four years under him.
What do you remember of her as a student learning from a Guru?
I have watched her learn from Meenakshisundaram Pillai and the way she responded to what was being taught. He saw that she was creative and would let her portray the abhinaya according to her imagination.
Were there many students taking to dance then?
Oh yes. When she became famous as a dancer, everybody wanted to learn Bharatantyam. Many wanted to learn from Menakshisundaram Pillai. So he moved to his village, Pandanallur. Later even Chockalingam Pillai left and Rukmini Devi was left without professional teachers.
How did she manage the crisis?
She conducted the classes herself. She learnt to handle the nattuvangam (cymbals) from Bhairavam Pillai, who played the mridangam for her concerts. She conducted my arangetram and did the nattuvangam for my performance. I was about 14 then. Then on, she began training her own teachers. When I was 16, she asked me to assist in handling the classes for the younger students and in 1947, I was appointed as a teacher officially.
Were you also giving solo performances then?
Yes. I was a solo dancer since 1945. Sabhas would invite us to give performances. But I was working with Kalakshetra and the institution took priority.
How did the dance dramas that Kalakshetra is known for, originate?
In 1944, Kalakshetra produced the first dance drama, ‘Kutrala Kuravanji’. It was Rukmini Devi’s original contribution and was done with her own intuitive knowledge. The Kuravanji was done in the temples as a tradition and she wanted to revive them and present them on stage. She invited Karaikkal Saradambal, who gave her suggestions on the production. The music was composed by Veena Krishnamachariar and Rukmini created the entire production. It was premiered in Bombay and traveled all over north India.
She played the role of the heroine, Vasantavalli and I was a sakhi (friend).
In 1947, she organised the ‘Besant Centenary Celebration’ all over India. Somebody suggested that she could work on Kalidasa’s works and so she produced ‘Kumarasambhavam’, which was the second dance drama produced. She played the lead role of Parvati. She would say that the dance drama was one way of expressing bhakthi (reverance) and wanted the people to be conscious of the divinity in dance and not that it was just a show. She was trying to make the Indians aware of the Indian classical dance.
Was Kalakshetra getting stronger then?
By this time the institution had grown and we had a number of teachers and a lot of youngsters poured in. It was an established institution. Besides dance, classes in music, painting, poetry, Bhagavad Gita and theosophy were also conducted. In 1954, the first Ramayana was produced. In all this, I was helping her. She would choreograph them on me and in turn we taught the sequences to the students.
What is unique about the Kalakshetra style?
Rukmini Devi was particular about refinement and whatever was portrayed through dance was dignified. She made sure that any kind of vulgarity was eliminated. Movements have to be stylized on stage and our style was particularly noticeable.
Many people feel that Kalakshetra today is not what it used to be?
Now I’m not there so, I can’t say anything. But the ideals of the institution were based on her principles then. Her whole idea was that through dance one must transcend to be a better human being. Many students have branched out from the institution, but that is how it should be, to propagate the art and its values everywhere.
And surely dance isn’t what it used to be?
Sensitivity to aesthetics is lacking today. If it is there, the quality is different. The quality that was seen when I grew up is not much seen today. One must forget oneself to be an artiste. Only when the mental attitude is focused on the divinity and purity of dance, one can shine as a dancer. If you think of money, popularity and publicity, you may be appealing but you don’t touch the heart. The art must elevate the dancer and the audience.
And how do you see what many dancers call their work as ‘innovative’?
Considering the actual meaning of the word, nobody has done anything new. They haven’t developed any new techniques. Concept and themes may be different but the techniques are the same. Change is a way of life, but today, we’re trying to compete with the west. We can be rich in our own culture.
Any dreams that never came true?
I wanted to be a dancer and I wanted to help the person I admired most and I did it till the end. No more dreams were necessary. I had no time left for any.
Any favourite pieces in the dance repertoire?
I used to dance Andal’s dream, ‘Varanam Aiyaram’, which was specially composed for me, since I was fond of Krishna. It was a lovely piece which I performed in 1945 at the Theosophical Convention.Later I played the role of Andal in ‘Andal Charithram’ in 1961 The Anandabhairavi varnam, ‘Sakiye’ is another refreshing piece.
Are you completely retired?
I just like to lead a quiet life now. I spend my time reading, which I enjoy. Earlier, we worked from 6am to10pm and I hardly had any time to read. Occasionally, some students come for help.
Has your husband been supportive all along?
Oh yes. My husband is a very nice husband! A theosophist himself, he came here from the U.S in 1949, to assist Rukmini Devi in her various projects. He was the first editor of ‘Animal Citizen’, the magazine on animal welfare started by Rukmini Devi. In fact we got married at Dr. Arundale’s house in 1960.
She resides at Flat 2E, 23 B, Coral Bay Apartments, 3rd Seaward Avenue, Valmiki Nagar, Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai-600 041. Ph: 4420246.
First, the marriage of 16-year-old Rukmini Devi and 44-year-old Dr George S. Arundale in 1920,was performed by Alladi Mahadeva Sastri, the Vedic scholar, who happens to be our great-grandfather. After serving as curator at Oriental Research Institute, Mysore, the great-grandfather had become the Director of Adyar Library, in the 1920s.
Wikipedia informs me that “The ceremony was conducted by Alladi Mahadeva Shastri. Rukmini Devi “was the first well-known Brahmin lady to break caste by marring a foreigner.” She and her family were ostracized by their Brahmin associates, but with support of Theosophists, the Indian public eventually adjusted to the marriage.
His son , M. Krishnan ( younger brother of my grandfather Ramabrahma) who was a theosophist, and worked for the Olcott Memorial school run by the Theosophical Society.
And then our aunt, Sarada Hoffman, ( cousin to my father and my mother) became her student, her second , after Radha Bernier, danced and taught at Kalakshetra all her life, and now lives a quiet retired life close to it.
As Sarada says in an interview, -I belong to the third generation of theosophists. My paternal grand father, Alladi Mahadeva Shastri was the Director of the Adyar Library in the 1920s. My father M. Krishnan, also a theosophist worked for the Olcott Memorial schools. (There were five schools originally, with one left right now, which is being run by the society.) He was the first Indian to head the institution, who opted to work for the downtrodden, in those times. So, I was born and brought up in the theosophical estate.
The Great Grandfather also taught Annie Besant Sanskrit for a while. His daughters, my maternal grandmother Indira, her sisters Padma and Kamala were married on the campus. There is a photograph of Paddu Pati’s wedding ceremony , being held under the banyan tree on the theosophical estate, which, I’m afraid I’m not able to lay my hands on at the moment. I am not sure if their youngest sister, Vasantha was also married there.
Mahadeva Sastri has authored a slim volume titled “The Vedic Law of Marriage Or The Emancipation Of Women”. Which I have started reading, and in which he explains that the Vedic times were good times for women. More on this as I finish reading, this and his other works, chiefly. The translation of Shankara Bhasya on Bhagavadgita and Dakshinamurthy Stotram
Here is the interview of Sarada Hoffman, a legend in her own right, of whom my father speaks of with fondness and deep affection.
The only wealth , (apart from the Telugu translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana) that Mamidipudi Ramakrishnaiah aka Chamanna left his large brood of grandchildren was the 16 children he had with Indiramma. How rich we 29 cousins are in aunts and uncles who babysat, played with us, got us icecream and took us to movies, and were willing accomplices in the many capers that were wrought by the young ones , gamely taking the rap, or skillfully concealing the entire op from the authority.
We were all lucky it never mattered which aunt was in charge of an army of cousins. No one felt the lack of their respective moms, and happily demanded whatever was needed from the aunt in charge. At Saraswathi’s there was always the aroma of great sambar wafting from the kitchen, and there were tons of M&Bs to be found . You could see serious conversations between a 4-year-old and an aunt/uncle,in Nellore, or at Rohini’s and it would be hard to say who was the grown-up there. At Jani’s you could expect some sharp scolding if you didnt eat your vegetables, but as much snacks and junk food you wanted to munch on while playing, if you did eat your vegetables.
Everybody calls each other by name, the raucous arguments often unfold when the clan gathers , the side-shows wher secrets are traded and uncles (as in the spouses of the aunts) commandeer a passing kid to massage their legs, and a great game of Monopoly is played. There are aunts cooking up a storm in the kitchen, and an impromptu contest is announced to judge who, Thulasi ( my mom, she’s been gone four years now) or Jani (Janaki, also gone , for a long time now) makes the best masala dosa. There’s Rohini, our youngest aunt, whose adventures in North Indian cuisine is my introduction to cooking with basmati and garam masala!
Rama went two weeks back, to join her parents and eight siblings, who now reside in our hearts, and memories. And we who know ourselves to be so rich in aunts and uncles, are feeling suddenly bereft of a presence that was many things- the one we went to when we needed an old myth verified. the juicy details of an old , forgotten scandal, or trying to untangle a hopelessly knotted branch of the vast family tree. She was the aunt who generously gave of her affection to all her nieces and nephews, cooked the most delicious anything , excelled at embroidery and crochet and a host of other crafts, and somehow ended up being the spare Amma to all of us.
I wish it was possible to remember when you realized your mom was your mom, or the first time you met an aunt and began a beautiful relationship in which you got most of the fun. I remember that fun part. A summer holiday when I was may seven or eight. Venky, Sekhar, Vimala, brothers Subri and Bunty and I, were all sent to Rama’s house -the mansion on Poes Road. Her mother-in-law, also Athya since she was Chamanna’s sister was there. Venky and Sekhar winkled a permission to raid the mango tree and divest it of the season’s best, only to be roundly chastised, by Athya, who was under the impression that she had said they could gather the fallen pieces, and was quite devasted at the loss of a couple of bottles worth of avakkai in this caper.
I was quite taken with the collection of Chandamama , all bound , 12 issues to a book , that were upstairs, though I think they were Telugu, and i could barely read a few words. Athya , I remember told me the story of Little One Eye, Little Two Eyes and Little Three Eyes.
There were cats. and they loved ompodi. We knew there’d always be ompodi, and as long as there was enough for the cats, we could help ourselves, which we did.
Subri tells me that one afternoon, the Rita Icecream cart came by. Everyone ran out, and Rama said she’ll fetch the donnes ( cups made out of palm leaves) . By the time she returned, everyone was done eating icecream, and Vimala informed her, “we are done already, you can take the “donti” back “. Rama went, laughing
Kids that we were, none of us bothered to consider where the money to pay for the icecream came from. When she went to doll-making class, she asked me to pick which kind of doll I wanted. I asked for a Japanese doll, and soon enough a 10-inch Japanese maiden in rich orange and cream brocade arrived, to delight me for many years, sitting on top of the showcase. I wish I’d kept it.
Thanks to Rama, I discovered the Woman & Home and Woman’s Weekly, the British magazines that she subsribed to, and had also collected and bound. They were passed on to Vimala and me later, and for many years I treasured mine, reading and re-reading the serialised romances of Iris Bromige, Lucilla Andrews, Lucy WAlker whose stories were located in Australia. In WW, the royal photographer Cecil Beaton wrote a column, and this is why I think I know a great deal than I am supposed to about life in Buckingham Palace, in the 50s and 60s. Again it is courtesy of these magazines, that also had knitting and embroidery patterns, and recipes that I pretend-cooked and today, know that I will never feel lost in London and its neighbourhood if were to be left to find my own way around that city.
When the news came that Rama had left us , on Jan 26, the first thing that hit me was that I would no longer be required to rustle up sweetcorn and vegetable soup, and make a bowl of dosavakkai because Rama was coming to visit.
There would no longer be little deceptions practised over cooking egg at home. Rama’s fuss over eggs was legendary, and everyone learned to walk around , well, eggshells on this matter. Eggs made a hesitant entry into the diet in some of our kitchens on account of “doctor’s orders” due to some of us kids being underweight, and it was an open secret that some kitchens in the clan had become “eggstraordinary”.
She once refused to eat an eggless cake that I’d baked, saying ” cake means egg”. Later, Patta ( our Mama) said of her, ” now she’ll eat anything that has a green dot on it”.
Our aunts and uncles have taught us to laugh at ourselves and laugh with each other. Rama’s loud crack of laughter at some joke, her delight at a baby nephew’s cheeky line, her trademark habit of clutching her forehead with her thumb and little finger, which she would then flap vigorously, meaning that she thought someone (among us) was being annoying, a thalanoppi in fact, has amused us always, and everyone uses it now. It could become sign by which we cousins can recognize each other, across the globe like Freemasons !
SOmetimes Amma would keep the battered little nonstick pan in a corner of the kitchen, and it would be pointed out to Rama and she’d be told, ” don’t use that Rama, it’s for the eggs. She’d nod , and we’d avoid eggs while she was visiting. and instead, get her to make her famous vankaya koora with podi, and kandhi patchadi and any Nellore specialities that we fancied.
I called Srikala, and we spoke tearfully of Rama, and Srikala announced she’d make Dondakaya koora Rama style in her memory. Venky has said he’ll frame a peice of Rama’s crochetHe ha and hang it up in the living room. He spoke reminiscently of ompodi , and cats and one summer of mango-picking.Nandini remembered the summer holidays in Nellore, and Rama’s excellent minimula pachadi and kathrikai curry.
Appa, and the aunts and uncles, have seen Rama suffer many tragedies, and much misery. Yet, she was always cheerful, never dwelt on her own problems, Appa says, and I agree, we never saw her brooding or moping.
The oldest cousin, Mahesh, who grew up in Nellore, and Popy, and I spoke long about what Rama meant to us. How well-read she was, and well-informed – she always read the paper from masthead to imprint, and could discuss politics like a pro. I remember some years ago, when Bangalore had a brief outing with floods, Chief Minister Kumaraswamy came visitng houses in the Kamakhya neighbourhood, when cousin Sheeli lives. Rama was visiting at the time.
He looked around, and asked them if they were ok, and then Rama asked him , “do you know Alladi Jayasri, she’s with The Hindu?”
Mr Kumaraswamy, who, it so happened had heard of Alladi Jayasri, and had a few days earlier called up personally to thank her for the story on his interaction with women prisoners that was telecast be Doordarshan, said he did.
With pride Rama told him she was said Alladi Jayasri’s aunt.
Rama our little aunt who had boundless affection for all her nieces and nephews, and enormous pride in what they did, and enjoyed being among them, as they laughed, played, argued and fought together, sometimes with her. She’ll be missed much and for long.
Picture (Rama in glasses, and it’s our Indira Paati with her back to us) courtesy Vagiswari. She tells me it is from the wedding of Mani and Jayanthi. The others are Vagis’ parents and siblings.
She wrote long letters, filling the entire blue inland letter with her neat handwriting, with news of the uncles and Pati and visits and trips and asking when Amma would come.
A regret that I have to live with every day is now four years old. Two weeks from today, Jan 9, will be four years since Amma left. Today, she’d be 79. Up there in Amma heaven, I suspect, she must have roasted up several pans of Dibba Rotti, and invited everyone to sink their teeth into this crusty -what is it exactly?
It looks like an XXXL idli trying to pass itself off as an extra-thick dosa that has been roasted to a crisp , and it has flecks of red chilies and the Telugu people’s best kept secret that the rest of the country has not yet discovered.
And my life-long regret, that is now four years old, is that I postponed asking Amma how to make this Dibba Rotti, which , she knew, came second after upma in my list of much-reviled, nevertheless eaten tiffin items, but made it any way and them called me imperiously drop by for a chomp. Eaten with a slosh of onion chutney or ginger chutney, I never knew when Dibba Rotti wormed its way into my affections, or rather addictions-must be an eating equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome , I’m thinking, and I finally decided I must ask her for the recipe .
Having decided, did I reach for the phone and ask ? There was always going to be time, wasn’t there? In a day or two. She isn’t going anywhere, is she?
Well, she was. She went without a fuss, quickly. Without even waiting 20 minutes to see her siblings Rama and Venkatesh who had called to say they were dropping by. She did tell them joyfully, though that they were going to have a great time talking the afternoon away. We’ll never know why she went without that last conversation with her siblings.
I haven’t even seen a Dibba Rotti since then. When cousins get together, and talk and Dibba Rotti figures, with much derision for its pretensions to being worthy of a place alongside idli and dosa, we remember that when Amma made it, we just ate it, because it pleased her, and she reveled in being Annapurna, feeding everyone who came within her orbit, even if it happened at 2 am . My friend Sharada, is , I think the last one to have eaten an Amma-made Dibba Rotti.
Of course, as far as Google is concerned, there is no such thing as a secret. A search for Dibba Rotti will throw up dozens of blogs and videos that show you how it’s made. I’ll probably download one of those someday soon. The pity is I cannot download Amma.
But she is here. I roll chapatis with her rolling pin, and in a jam jar that sits among the spices and powders, is a green powder. It is the karivepallai powder (curry leaf powder) that she made and sent with the Spouse, in 2011. It’s no longer the fresh green, aromatic powder that I can sprinkle generously on a tiny mound of ghee-soaked , steaming rice, and eat.
ButI like knowing its there, I look at it often, and yes, I talk to it sometimes. I think of all the times she annoyed me, and how often I disappointed her by not visiting, and dashing about being too busy to visit, or call. She never complained, and when I asked/demanded minimula pachadi, or vendakkai gojju, she’d was so happy to be asked.
She was nuts about bottles of all kinds. Bournvita, Nescafé jars, Afghan Snow jars, Charmis bottles with its ribs and blue lid. ” Six of those bottles will look good,on the shelf, ” she’s say, and employ all kinds of tricks- buy all the six and hide them , out of Appa’s sight, beg from siblings and cousins and friends.
I am not surprised to see myself pick up 6 or 12 of anything-mugs, jars and bottles, plates, cushion covers . It is a round, even number that leaves me contented.
Amma would approve I think. Of the way she is remembered, spoken of, and spoken to. And surely she enjoys living in my kitchen, making food, and memories happen. That Dibba Rotti,when it’s made, will be exactly as she would have made it. Indeed it will she who made it
December 8 was Grandfather Ramabrahma’s 132nd birthday. From his diary entries, we know he enjoyed birthdays, his own , or that of his children and grandchildren. He noted in his diary the gifts he gave, and received, and the visits of his daughters and son, with their families, to mark anyone’s birthday. I serendipitously chanced upon two of his diaries among Big Brother Bunty’s things a couple of years ago.
That’s why I’m pretty sure he’d have enjoyed knowing how his 132nd birthday turned out, and that stiff upper lip ( it’s a prominent feature of my picture of him, for he died when I was four, and I remember nothing of him ) would’ve uncurled the teensiest bit to smile, and Vasanthi’s name would have entered his diary entry for December 8, 2015.
I woke up to a Facebook message from Vasanthi, who is a busy, busy, busy journalist, anchor and friend . She had sent me three photos, and I was to guess what they were. I failed, and the suspense was killing me. “Your Tatha’s school, Belgaum,” Vasanthi shot back, and I kicked myself for being such a forgetful chump.
Forgetful, but a thilled chump, I happily told her it happened to be said Tatha’s birthday, and she said, it’s serendipity! There it was again, that happy-making word. The pictures were of Sardar High School, where Ramabrahma was Head Master, in the 1930s, and his two sons, Pandurang and Sheshagiri ( the Dad of us) were students.
Vasanthi had been in Belgaum a few months back, on work, and I’d suggested she swing by Sardar High School.I forgot all about it, but she apparently, had not. When she was next in Belgaum again, she swung by Sardar High SChool and took pictures for me. Which she has sent me three months later, to arrive exactly , serendipitously, on the Grandfather’s birthday.
I called Appa, and sent him the pictures to see, and he went back 80 years to the time he was 12, playing rough and getting dirty with his brother, and friends at Sardar High School, where the burden of being the Headmaster’s sons weighed down their young shoulders, not that they were aware of it. He said it had changed a great deal, though he recognized the steps to a stone building at the far left corner.
But yes, that was the flag pole around which they had run, and played, and done stuff that boys do. Like win a prize for general proficiency, a book in Kannada titled “Nanna Himalaya Yatre” and the certificate is signed by the Headmaster, who is also the Father.
Ramabrahma’s diary entry for Dec 7, 1964, the eve of his 81st birthday, reveals his eager anticipation of the celebrations, and the plans he made, which was mostly to fall in with my mother, Thulasi’s plans.
“As decided yesterday night, I went to the Gandhi Bazar and placed an order for plum cake at Harsha Stores and khara mixture at the Sweet Shop,” Tatha writes. As I read it I remember Harsha Store, and the treats we used to get – cake with yellow and pink icing, fruit cake, and badam milk, and this man with peaches-and-cream complexion, with ruby studs glinting in his ears, who served, with a smile. Harsha Stores has been history for three years, or more.
I see, too . where Amma’s love for plum cake came from – we always had it from Christmas to January 9, her birthday, and in my day it came from Nilgiris. Not Harsha Stores.
Ramabrama notes that Thulasi has invited all his daughters (Kutti, Mangala, and Vimala ) who are here, and Pandu and family , to tea after 4 pm tomorrow.(Pramila, his youngest daughter, lived in Ahmedabad).
In the evening, he went back to Gandhi Bazar, to pick up the cake and the savories .
He received two invitations, one for the wedding of R . Ananthasubramanyam’s grandson , and another for tea at Woodlands on the 11th, with S.S Kumar.
Who are these people who the social diary of Rambrahma in the Bangalore of the sixites?
The following day, Ramabrahma enjoyed his 81st birthday. My Birthday, he underlines, adding I completed 81 years of my life. “My neighbour K.S.Ramaswamy was the first to offer me birthday greetings, ” . Him, I know, Ganga’s Tatha, who, I beleived then was mine too. He was a journalist, and known as Hindu Ramaswamy. Though I too became a journalist, and was with The Hindu for 13 years, no one called me Hindu Jayasri !! But I feel blessed, because long after Tatha died, he was the grandfatherly presence in my childhood, when a grandfather is most needed.
I digress. Ramabrahma , says his diary, then met Lakshmi, and her children, who also greeted him . Lakshmi Maami, I know now, used to come in every day and read to Tatha from the Upanishads or other texts .
He went to Canara Bank, and withdrew Rs. 115, and noted that his pension for November had come in. He received greetings , by post, at 4.15 pm, from Bharathi and Bala from Sweden ( Bharathi is the daughter of his second daughter Mangala. Who brought me the gift of Githa Papa, my little shut-eye doll, a couple of years later)
He then had tea with all those who came home at 4 pm,- how he loves to note the time that anything was done!- Mangala and Nanjundaiah, Kutti, Vimala and Bobby, and Pandu came at 8 pm, had (dinner? .. one day I will figure what these scrawls mean) All his sons and daughters gave him useful smoething, while Vimala gave cash.
Two years later, in 1966, he is still counting his birthdays, with underlining. His 84th year begins , and he was wished by the children ( that’s us) and Thulasi when he came for his morning coffee. We were given Parry’s toffee, he says. At 8.15 am TVS Iyer came home and wished him. He gave my dad a cheque for Rs. 140, of which Rs. 100 was for household expenses, and Rs. 40 forhis needs. Kutti came at 11.30 bearing a gifit of one (umbrella?) and two packets of biscuits. Nanjundaiah, Mangala, Bharathi and children came and offered birthday wishes. Oh. and he ate food at 10.45. No cake and tea this time.
I wonder if, up there, he’s noting in his diary that Vasanthi sent pictures of Sardar High School, and his 132nd birthday was celebrated with much nostalgia by all of us.
Some day, serendipity will let us know.
Rambrahma’s Gandhi Jayanthi
Grandfather Ramabrahma , who famously lived by the clock, and loved to note the time he did anything, also wrote a diary. probably every day of his life.
We chanced up two, for the years 1964 and 1966. His children mostly remember him as a self-centred man-in a positive way, if such a thing is possible! And it is!
I mean, he writes of the comings and goings of his sons and daughters, and their spouses, the birth of his grandchildren, and their cradle ceremonies and birthdays , and the little
presents he gave. The letters he wrote and received, neighbors and siblings, and festivals , and how my mother, Thulasi celebrated his 80th birthday. He writes that he went to Harsha Stores to pick up the cake that was ordered, and that Thulasi had invited the family over for afternoon tea!
Basavanagudi, Kanakapura Road, Ratna Vilasa Road, Gandhi Bazar and MNK Park, were his little universe, as he lived his twilight years at Mahadev Vilas, and to us, it brings back the Bangalore that once was.
There is gossip, though he’d be surprised to hear his entry about his brother’s cook being ill, due which said brother Dr Subramanyam had to take his meals at our house, being termed gossip.
Somehow, the image springs to mind of Ms Marple of St. Mary Mead putting away this important factoid in a corner of her mind, while solving a murder mystery which nobody asked her to solve, any way!
Here are his entries on Gandhi Jayanthi in 1964 and 1966
Friday, Oct. 2, 1964
A national holiday ( Government, bank and postal holiday)
Went in the morning to Vimala’s place
Lakshmi came in the afternoon, and read the yoga niti ( I think) chapter in Gita Sandesha.
( note from me :these words are scribbled in Kannada and the niti bit is unclear)
Finally a very mundane note , which however, must have comforted him exceedingly, for his self-centeredness mostly involved following doctor’s orders faithfully—
The Bread man gave bread for today and tomorrow.
Sunday, Oct.2, 1966
He has wrongly entered on the page for Oct. 3, and making no mention of Gandhi Jayanthi, it goes like this-
Pandu ( Appa’s elder brother) and Leela , Girija and the baby, will leave this place by Madras Express at 7.20 (p.m?) they will have their food here today. Ashok will take his food here during their absence.
Went to the doctor at 9 am for,injection and dressing of foot.
Kutti came here at 1.45 pm and took Sheshagiri , Thulasi and the children for a film show.
There was a little rain at 3.30 pm went for a short stroll at 5.30 pm Went to Usha’s place too.
The baby who went to Madras with Pandu is cousin Anand who had just been born in Jan. that year. They were headed for ‘Calcutta’ and Jamshedpur , I’m guessing, to visit Leela Periamma’s sister.
The kids who went to watch a film is us. Subri, Bunty and lil me. And probably Manjula, and Ashok .
Now the mystery is which movie it was. Must ask Manjula. Will update on that soon.
“What was the color of Amma’s reception sari? ” I asked, wistful, and ruing the fact that I had never thought to put the question to Amma. Now she is gone, I am frantic in my efforts to retrieve every memory and make my story whole. The 11 black-and-white photographs of their wedding are peopled with more siblings and cousins than , I suspect, the Mahabharata, every face with its own history and sub-text.
Its easy to see that the sari has a solid gold zari border, and zari checks, and her toes coyly peep out, with a coat of nail polish( or is it mehendi- gorintaaku?) Just the minimum of jewellery, and no make up. But the color of the sari, I can only guess, or ask Appa, which i just did.
“It was blue, cobalt blue”, Appa said.
I have sent him back 60 years in time, I realize, and I jump in for a ride, reflecting for the umpteenth time, that its not fair that we don’t get to attend our parents’ wedding.
Sheshagiri(Appa) and his eldest sister Kokila, fondly known as Kutti, and cousin Ramachandra, were tasked with purchasing the trousseau to be given to the bride from the groom’s side. They picked Rukmini Hall, in Chickpet, Rukmini Hall History Here and went shopping a few days before the July 20 wedding in 1955. They were a party of very modest shoppers, and no more than three or four sarees were selected, and they left with their small booty. Our aunt Kutti being a doctor, a gynaecoligist who later retired as Superintendent of Bowring Hospital, was a familiar figure in these parts, and this ensured special treatment . OF course, those were days of languid leisure when life was lived in slow motion, and wedding saree-shopping was a pleasurable activity for all concerned, the shoppers and the shops.
Outside, they suddenly found they’d stepped into a , well, a film show , only it was very real, and all the denizens of Chickpet had gathered to gawk. Well, who wouldn’t want to stop and stare if they suddenly found, in their midst, legendary film star Ashok Kumar and the Andhra beauty, Suryakumari equally legendary Telugu actress/singer, whose rendition of Maa Telugu Thalliki in the film Deena Bandhu went on to become the official song of Andhra Pradesh
Appa says they were shooting together for a new film. I googled, but I found nothing about a film of them together. This scene they had stepped into was in the aftermath of Udan Khatola, in which she acted with Dilip Kumar. She did a few more films later, and went, as part of a delegation of Indian film industry to America , where among other things, she researched Indian stories for Alfred Hitchcock. She ultimately moved to England where she did significant work in theatre and the arts founding India Performing Arts, a project to train performers and mount productions. Annual performances by Surya herself, her students and fellow artists followed at the Purcell Room, in the South Bank Centre, for the next 40 years. The British press paid fond tributes on her death in 2005 Obit Here
The film was probably abandoned, but if Appa says a scene was shot in front of Rukmini Hall, it was. Of course, there’s a way of finding out. When the owner of Rukmini Hall learnt that stardust was at his door, he got into a fine tizzy, and shouted for a photographer, frantically tried to get the celebrities into his store. They might , just might have some pictures in their archives, beside the photos of Minugu Taare Kalpana shopping at their store. . A the picture which is the 1955 version of the selfie.
Appa , Kutti and Ramachandra oozed out of the scene, unnoticed and Wooster-like and went home.
Too much history in this post. I think. First, the shop. Rukmini Hall has been around since the 1930s. We have these wedding photos, with Thulasi (Amma) giving Suryakumari a run for her money, wearing the sarees bought at Rukmini Hall.
I need to hotfoot it to Rukmini Hall asap, and show them these pictures, and ask if they have any of that starry morning. 60 years ago.
My cousin Manjula, Kutti’s’ daughter, tells me she remembers the saree, which Amma wore at my ear-piercing ceremony when I turned one. I was taken to the goldsmith’s on Reservoir Street, Basavanagudi, and Manjula said I cried and drooled all over that cobalt blue saree. Well. Babies cry. They drool. Moms just take it on the pallu. Amma , I think wore her wedding sarees out, used them well, at other weddings, and when they were worn thin and threadbare, gave them away. Probably exchanged them for stainless steel vessels with the steel paatrakaran — which went into the steel trunk , which was marked for my “dowry” .
Once again I say, what a shame we can’t attend our parents weddings. If I had my way , I would keep the sarees, threadbare or not. But the paatrakaran was a chief source of entertainment in those days, when there was no TV, and all we had was a moody radio (Bush) that needed a lot of coaxing before it sang or spoke.
Now even that radio is gone. It’s criminal how we throw precious memories away. All the more reason to retrieve and cherish the ones we can. For in them, those who have gone, will never leave.