When Indigo was grown in Cuddapah





Indigo is of the oldest natural dyes known to mankind, and Indians knew how to extract the colour almost 5000 years ago. Europeans, on the other hand, were unaware of its existence until the sixteenth century. Even as late as in the eighteenth century, many dyers believed indigo was a mined mineral.


Once one of the most sought after dyes, indigo is swathed in mystery and romance.

So highly prized was the plant that its true nature remained a closely guarded secret. Few, even today, are willing to reveal how the shades of blue are extracted from the dye which many times seems to have a mood of its own


(November-December, 2000)


Cuddapah as once famous for its indigo cultivation, but strangely, no one could direct us to the home of a single farmer who was cultivating indigo. We were in Cuddhapah in Andhra Pradesh, which, at the turn of the twentieth century, had 32,149 acres under indigo cultivation, as Sir George Watt says in his book The Commercial Products of India, published in 1908. Statistics like these apart, there are sadly few archives on traditional dyeing in the country, an art which may well be forgotten very soon despite the efforts of craft councils and dyers centers. In Cuddapah only some of the elderly people remember the practice of indigo dyeing in these and surrounding areas, but since the younger generation has gone the way of higher education with no interest in dyeing, the elders know that their knowledge will probably die with them. And their eyes mist over when they realize the vats that they have used and maintained for so many decades will remain idle in the years to come.


Even the relatives of Polu Pitchi Reddy, one of the largest cultivators of indigo in the country, have all taken up jobs in the IT industry; one of his brothers-in-law is with Microsoft in Atlanta. Encouraged by his father, Narayana Reddy, who remembers his childhood days when every home in Cuddapah had an indigo dyeing vat, Pitchi Reddy today cultivates indigo on a part of his 50-acre farm where he also grows rice. Indigo, rich in nitrogen, provides nutrients to the soil and, what is more, the waste from indigo vats acts as a natural fertilizer.


In him there is a determination to revive the traditional glory of blue extracted naturally from the leguminous plant Indigofera tinctoria, and to put Andhra on the world textile map once again. “We dress in simple white cotton clothes but there is an intangible magic to the colour indigo. The whole process is so fascinating,” he says, as he welcomes us to his home in the tiny village of Vallur in Cuddapah. In the backyard are the indigo vats which his father bought some years ago. It was his father who wanted to get into indigo cultivation. Pitchi Reddy, the more practical one, looks after the marketing. “We have Japanese buyers who come every year for the indigo cakes that we produce,” he tells us proudly.


The entire indigo plant – root, stem and flower – is used to make the dye. The plants are placed in the vat with water. The vat is closed for 12 to 15 hours to allow fermentation, before it is reopened to let out the black-coloured water into another vat. Here the waste is beaten with wooden lathes until the colour of the water becomes green, then blue, and finally the colour separates as flakes and settles to the bottom of the vat. The indigo stays in the vat while the supernatant liquid is drawn out. The pulpy mass is then boiled with fresh water for some hours to remove impurities, filtered through thick coarse cloth, and pressed to remove as much moisture as possible before it is cut into cubes and finally air-dried.


Indigo, one of the oldest dyes known to mankind, is also one of the most complex to obtain. Indeed, it has to be cajoled, coaxed, and charmed before it reveals its true colours! Timing and patience are everything. Reddy urges us to come to his house before dawn, for the plant has to be plucked before the first rays of the sun touch the earth. Once dew makes its presence felt in the atmosphere the plant must not be touched, so September usually marks the end of season for dye-making. In fact, it is actually for only 10 days in a year that that the plant attains just the right maturity to be plucked to obtain the just right shade of blue.


“This is a time-consuming process, and we have to supervise everything when we make the dye. These 10 days are like having a marriage in the house. We can’t even go out,” says Pitchi Reddy, not seeming to mind the onerous responsibility one bit.


Early in the morning, having explained the exact process of dye extraction, the elderly supervisor opens the vat with the flourish of a magician about to perform his most famous trick. What we see are dark black bubbles frothing on the top of the water which, says one of the many indigo legends, are singing. Those who actually do the singing, however, are the indigo workers who step into the vat and begin to beat the fermented liquid. The song is of the earth, the beat the rhythms of the heart. We watch in awe as the colour gradually settles down at the bottom of the vat.


The blue from the indigo plant has been highly valued from time immemorial, not for the money alone but because only few knew how to extract the colour. It requires patience, concentration and an eye that knows when to stop the process, at just the right tint. The dye changes colour almost every day, and the correct formula for how a particular shade of blue emerges remains forever elusive.


Until the invention of synthetic indigo in 1880, the indigo from India was precious and expensive, a sought after natural dye. It is one of the things, like mathematics and astronomy, which Indians knew about almost 5000 years ago. Europe was wholly unaware of this extract till almost the sixteenth century. It is no wonder, then, that the while awarding the Nobel Prize for Chemistry to Adolf von Baeyer in 1905 for his research on the composition of indigo, the Nobel Committee remarked that this was a difficult dye to fathom, and that the research had its origins on the banks of the Ganga.


The word ‘indigo’ is derived from the Greek indikon and the Latin indicum, both of which mean ‘a substance obtained from India’. The properties of ‘asuri’ or ‘askini’ find a mention in the Atharva Veda, and evidence that indigo was used in India well before the medieval age is based on the writings of an Egyptian trader in the first century AD. So famous was the lasting quality of the colour, that St Jerome in his fifth century version of the Bible likened the value of wisdom to the permanence of India’s indigo dye!


Blue was a predominant colour even in the funeral wardrobe of Tutankhamen. The linen wraps of urns containing the Dead Sea Scrolls carried symbolic geometric patterns in blue. Historical records of Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (c. AD 80) speak of indigo as being exported from Barbarikon, a Scythian town on the Indus and the port for the metropolis Minnagar. In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo gave a somewhat grotesque though accurate account of the native indigo industry as seen by him in Colium in India.

Examples of Indian art and textiles bear ample testimony to the exuberance with which colours like indigo permeated the soul of Indian artists who used it with abandon. Colour is central and significant to Indian culture. As the diva of Indian textiles and crafats, Pupul Jayakar once wrote, “In India, the sensitivity to colour has expressed itself in painting, poetry, music, and in the costumes worn both by the peasant and the emperor. ‘Raaga’ was the word used for both mood and dye.” While red is the colour of lovers, neel or indigo is for the sky and the water in which the sky is reflected. It is the colour of Krishna who is likened to a rain-filled cloud, and of Shiva who drank poison that tinted him blue down to the neck. Blue is also the colour associated with royalty. Known as ‘ai’ in Japan, it was a colour once so cherished that its use was regulated by a code that permitted only royalty to dress in blue.


Indigo is indigenous to India but spread along the Silk Route to other South Asian countries, and even to Africa. It continues to be cultivated on a small scale in parts of Indonesia and large parts of Africa. In these countries there are legends and folklore associated with the dyeing of the cloth, and songs about it have come to be identified with the suppressed voices of women. In Africa, blue cloth is sacred, connected with rituals of birth, marriage and death. In islands near Bali, only women who have reached menopause are allowed to participate in the dyeing – symbolic, it is believed, of them having mastered not only the complex process of indigo dyeing but also their bodies!


Indigo was, for the most part, available in western India, and was shipped from the port of Surat. Sarkhej, near Ahmedabad, and Bayana, near Agra, were the two major indigo centres, and ancient vats exist in these towns even today. The Portuguese carried the dye to Lisbon from where they sold it to dyers in Holland. It was partly the desire to procure a regulated supply of indigo (along with spices) that led to the establishment of the Dutch East India Company, and shortly thereafter to the overthrow of Portuguese supremacy in Asia.


The persistent export of the dye from India by the East India Company had the effect of stimulating the Spanish, French, Portuguese and English colonies to produce indigo in as many countries outside India as possible. However, when the British colonies in the Americas declared independence, the British began to make renewed efforts to produce indigo in India. This time Bengal and Bihar were selected for its revival. Large tracts of cultivable land were taken over by British traders who leased them out to small peasants, forcing them to grow indigo to the exclusion of all other crops, and was one of the reasons that led to what was called the Bengal Famine of 1943. It was the plight of the exploited indigo worker that compelled Gandhi to visit Champaran, a remote village in Bihar, in 1917, to fight for their rights. It was thus with indigo that he conducted satyagraha for the first time and launched his struggle for freedom!


Just as the Industrial Revolution sounded the death knell of Indian textiles, the discovery of synthetic dyes dealt a fatal blow to the vegetable dye industry of the country. In 1856, William Perkin discovered the first synthetic dyestuff – mauveine, an aniline dye – and in 1878, Adolf Baeyer synthesized indigo for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1905. The synthetic indigo dye, marketed from 1897, is chemically identical to natural indigo and has replaced it almost completely. It is cheaper than natural indigo, more uniform in concentration and dyes more evenly.


Today, few have the patience to work on vegetable dyes, which are time-consuming and don’t always give the expected results. There are, however, people like Uzra Bilgrami and her Dastakar Andhra group who believe that the age-old skills of the Indian weaver should be pulled out of archival memory and museums and made a living, viable tradition. Dastakar has adopted Chinnur, a small village in the Adilabad district in Andhra, which has traditionally been a weaving community but gave up the profession for lack of a market. The weavers who have joined Uzramma’s cooperative travel to Hyderabad and Karimnagar to procure yarn, dye it themselves with techniques taught to them by the legendary K. V. Chandramouli of Bangalore and Jagada Rajappa of Hyderabad, and weave it into scarves that find a market in distant Japan.


There is an earthiness to natural indigo whose subdued magic can never be replicated synthetically. The subtle variations in tone, the way in which it seems to look more beautiful with each wear, make natural indigo still precious the world over.


One wonders whether a woman in, for instance, the US, who buys a blue ikat scarf from India would be aware of the long journey that the colour has made, from the indigo plant in Cuddapah, to the stylish store in California. But perhaps just running her fingers through the scarf she may sense the pulsating energy of a 5000-year-old tradition.


Whether it was khadi or indigo, Mahatma Gandhi saw these as joyful expressions of the creative life as well as a rooting with natural ways. Gandhi had urged his followers to continue spinning the charkha even if the yarn occasionally snapped. In carrying on the indigo tradition, Pitchi Reddy in Cuddapah and others in Chinnur, have ensured that the yarn of continuity of this age-old process that may have come close to snapping, has at least endured.




Indigo’s medicinal values


Natural dyes are derived from plants, animals, insects and the earth. The wide range of climatic zones and altitudes in India has resulted in a rich biodiversity that has gifted us with many sources of natural dyes.


There are about a hundred plants found in the Himalayan range alone from which dyes may be extracted. Of these the most commonly used are madder for red, and indigo for blue. Indigo is obtained from the plants of the Indigofera genus. There are about 40 species of Indigofera growing in India alone, of which only 16 yield dye and only four are commercially cultivated.


Indigo dyeing was at one time thought to make women sterile but this is at best a rumour floated by vested interests to discourage the production of this plant. Indigo is in fact a medicinal plant and used as an emetic. The Chinese use Indigofera tinctoria to clean the liver, detoxify blood, reduce inflammation, alleviate pain and reduce fever. The powdered root of Indigofera was used in South America to alleviate toothache.


Indigo was used in ayurvedic medicine in India too. According to TV Sairam in his book Home Remedies, indigo has anti-toxic properties and is therefore a good antidote for poison. It is believed to cure abdominal enlargement, excessive urination, problems connected with the spleen, giddiness and gout. The plant is also reputed to possess anti-tubercular properties and is useful in the treatment of snake bites. Niligbrigandhi tailam made from indigo is believed to promote hair-growth.


A quarter teaspoon of indigo leaf juice taken with a cup of milk is traditionally said to be good for those suffering from asthma, palpitation of the heart, kidney disorders, lung disease and whooping cough. And the juice of a young stem mixed with honey is good for the treatment of mouth ulcers.img_3632


On being Mani da







KG Subramanyan has straddled the art world for over six decades. If he is known as an important contemporary artist, he is equally well known for being an inspiring teacher. He may be a painter but he is equally felicitious with other media, clay, glass, bronze, even scraps of wood. He has not only held positions of eminence as a teacher in MS University Baroda and Vishwa Bharati, Santiniketan but has been a member of Crafts Council of India and the Handloom Board. More importantly he has written extensively on matter of aesthetics, and has the ability to look at issues critically. As if all these were not enough, he is a poet and a storyteller.


He is a colossus among contemporary Indian artists and a giant among teachers. KG Subramanyan is not just an artist (a sculptor, a painter, a muralist, a print maker, an illustrator) but also an aesthetician and a critical thinker who has the ability to look beyond the surface of things. He asks questions on not just matters of aesthetics but of contemporary political and social issues, of his own works as much those of others. He demolishes every theory of art, modern, traditional, contemporary, even chopping into fine pieces ideologies such as postmodernist Western or Progressive Indian art. Mani da (as he has been known for almost decades, hangover from his days at Santiniketan when the Bengalis couldn’t say his Tamilian name) however doesn’t expect to be treated like the giant that he is among artists. Its just that the towering man that he is, taking those long strides and embracing ideas, thoughts, people, engaging with the world around him, as he moves along, he is that colossus, the one sun around whom other planets have no choice but to hover.


Legends, have the ability to be rude and arrogant. And as journalists, sometimes we do expect that and go prepared with armours when we go to interview such larger than life people. However in Mani da’s case such caution is entirely unnecessary. Even before he has met us, when I call him asking if we could come to Baroda to meet him, he asks if we would like to have lunch with him. He does not even enquire who we were or why we want to meet him. He has met many journalists in the course of his life, but he is patient with every question we ask even if these are questions people ask time and again. Sometimes he does have the tendency to throw the question back at you without giving a direct answer but he does it in the good natured manner of a kind uncle. This kindness extends to asking us to drop in again, for some more questions or just for tea-time gupchup. “Yes, come along again the evening, we can have some good coffee,” he says with the joviality of a good south Indian host.


Mani da will be 85 this February, and whatever his energy even now, to not just paint but to be engaged with students, friends, journalists, he does get tired sometime. So having spent the whole morning talking and sharing a vegetarian meal with us and showing us his works, he feels the need to rest, and resume conversation after a gap of a few hours. But there is nothing of the fragility of the elderly in him of ill health and other things, though he confesses he does not like to travel that much because of his age. Uma his daughter who lives in Mumbai with her husband visits him every month in Baroda. “She doesn’t have children. So she keeps an eye on me,” he says good humoredly, adding that even when she’s in Mumbai, she calls him at least three times a day to see if he is alright. The concerns of a daughter.


When his wife Susheela Jasra, a Gandhian social worker whom he met in Santiniketan passed away a few years ago, Uma urged him to move to Mumbai, but he would have none of Mumbai’s chaos in his life. “The closest I can be to her is Baroda. Here I have friends, here there is an art community,” says Mani da whose neighbours are the artist couple Rini and Puroshottam Dhumal. Here in Baroda, or Vadodra, (people like him and us do not really care what they call these old cities anymore) he has a two-storeyed house: downstairs is the living area, and upstairs, spread across three rooms are his studio and workplace. How prolific he is can be guessed from the number of works, canvases, drawings, reverse paintings, terracotta works that are stacked and stored in these rooms, extending even to the verandah. If this is how his rooms are, one can only marvel at how stacked with ideas his mind must be!


“Three spacious rooms. An open verandah,

Facing the eastern sky. Where you could sit

And watch the world around and slowly draw

Your inner phantoms out from the dimly lit

Tunnels of mind. And ramble in-beween

Sounds with shapes, amorphous images,

Lost things, remembered things, fragmented scenes;

Events and objects scrawled on the musty pages

Of age-worn memory…….”

(From the Purvapalli Sonnets 3, KG Subramanyan, published in The Magic of Making)


“I like to finish a work as easily and as quickly as possible. The ‘preparedness’ itself may take a few days and nights, but when I begin a canvas I like to be done with it quickly. Sometimes something like a mural may take longer, but you already have the basic concept in your mind. If you are a skilled artist, a painting should not take you any longer than it would a child,” he explains about his creative process. Adding that each artist has his own method of working, as for instance Cezanne who would take months to do just a shirt collar. “But then the image is changing,” he says. “For me the painting has to come immediately, even if sometimes one is unsure of some element in a painting. Just as you might grope for a right word in writing.” His getting prepared to paint include doodling, and he has any number of such notebooks with what might be called his initial thoughts. “Doodling around, you discover things. Leonardo believed that while doodling you can discover the personality of things, of the clouds, the sky.” “I scribble a lot– on paper and canvas,” he says casually though it might be understatement to say Mani da’s works are mere doodles, straddling as he does so many styles and artistic sensibilities: from contemporary Indian art, modern western art, Japanese and even Chinese art, not to say Indian folk art.


“Call me a craftsman if you want to,” he says defiantly speaking about the various media he works with: clay, wood, stone and paper. He has even made toys for children during the mela held every year at the Baroda Art School. “The artist has to connect with the larger world outside,” he says remarking it would be sad to see the connect between the artist and the craftsmen disappear especially because of a sense of superiority in the artist. Sometimes even a craftsman can be an artist (if he has a vision) while an artist who gets obsessed with the technique is no better than a craftsperson. “It’s the innovation, the vision that distinguishes a craftsperson from the artist,” he says. Mani da, incidentally was consultant to the Handloom Board in the 60s and was the president of the Crafts Council of India among many other teaching positions he has held at Baroda University and at Santiniketan.


It is the inner urge which makes you want to paint or write according to him. “Without that inner urge, nothing much is going to happen.” He however does not want to change the world through his painting or work of art. One is indeed anguished by things that go on in the world, such as the recent terrorist attacks. While certain images from such political situations may creep into the works (he is thinking about a series called “Anatomy Lessons” which are provoked by the recent attacks) he says vehemently, “we are not just artists. We are also individuals, citizens of this country. And we can do something as human beings too.” That’s the thing about Mani da: when you ask ask him a question, there are no pat and practiced answers. Everything has to be ruminated upon, even if these ideas he has pondered upon many times earlier.


The contemplative mode comes partly from his natural inquisitiveness.(Natural to all artists and scientists he writes in one of his many essays). Even if he has accepted an idea he does not mind taking it out of his bag of thoughts to give it one more reflection. When you ask him something, even something as innocuous as what is favourite food, when he is ill, he will stretch himself to his full height, and ponder over it before giving an answer.( It incidentally is rasam and chutta appalam! ). So many times the answers are wry and witty and you don’t know if he’s being serious. As when I ask him, over our own rice and kadhi at his dining table, if a little suffering is good for the artist, he retorts, “Why only the artist? A little suffering is good for everyone. But not too much. If you keep weeping all the time, nothing much is going to be achieved at all.”


Does he consider himself a philosopher? and he says I am not a philosopher in the sense who you think they are. Is he spiritual, no not in the sense you understand the word, he says prevaricating. “I am not ritualistic or anything like that. I think the religious places, especially the Hindu places of worship could be better maintained. If I go to a temple at all, it is to look at the sculptures,” he confides.


He defies every category that you might want to slot him in. Just as I am settling into thinking, so here is an artist I see that his house over laden with books and papers making me think, so then is he a professor who also paints and writes? As he leads us up the staircase to his studios upstairs, what I find overwhelming are not just the veritable feast of paintings but an equally eclectic collection of books in the rooms. Andre Gide, Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, apart from a host of writers in Hindi and Bengali. The whole of Abanindranath Tagore’s works in Bengali. And works of that great scholar in Hindi,

Hazariprasad Dwivedi. Abanindranath wrote a lot on art, but the problem is he wrote everything in Bengali, he says having himself undertaken to translate some of his writings but giving up the task somewhere along.


Few, except who know him intimately, are aware of his felicity with languages. He has speaking knowledge of his mother tongue Malayalam, but can speak, read and write, Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi and having grown up in Mahe during his childhood had at one time a working knowledge of French. He writes in English of course. And just as you think this teacher is from Baroda having inspired a whole generation of artists from that school, out comes his Bengali heritage, of that institution called Santiniketan of which he is a worthy son. He straddles both these art movements, if you think about it. If he is a product of Santiniketan and the Bengal School he also has been the guiding force of the post Independent movements in Baroda.


Can art really be taught? you ask this teacher. And he says art schools do not mean much. He pauses before remarking contemplatively, “You fire a rocket for instance, and how do you know where it will fly and fall?” He says a good teacher says more by his silence, as he often times did in Baroda! Abanindranath he says, felt art could not be taught. Like caterpillars which go on eating leaves until they recede into a cocoon to remerge again students absorb all they want from a institution to hibernate and come up with their own language. Sadly, he says students nowadays are replicating the known image without fully finding their voice.

Nandalal Bose on the other hand had other ideas about art teaching: he felt the discipline of art was like the potter getting his wheel steady before he made the pot; the art institutions steady and fine tune the technique. And what did he himself learn from Santiniketan? I ask. “It gave me a perspective,” comes the reply. Perspective on art, you query, to only hear him say, “No, on life and living itself!” “The institution showed me what the question really was,” he remarks.


KG Subramanyam was born in 1924 in Koothurpuram in Thelasarry in what is now Kerala. Since he lost his father at a young age, he went to Mahe where his brother almost 30 years older than him was teaching in a school. He moved back to India where during the height of the Quit India Movement he was in Presidency College doing economics. Being fired by nationalism sweeping through the country he picketed the Secretariat for which he was given a six month jail sentence, in 1943. Until then, Mani da who was more interested in economics and literature never thought he could take up art study seriously. More to keep him out of trouble, his other brother who was in Madras then thought Santiniketan would suit his rebellious temperament and began to correspond with Nandalal Bose, who suggested he come to Kala Bhavan which he did in 1944. Even before that he was doodling and scribbling as he says in his hostel rooms, when someone who worked at the Art College in Madras showed his sketches to Panicker who in turn showed them to Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury who invited him to join the art school (in Madras) which he did not of course wanting to dabble in the idealism of politics .


“In jail I realized that while I liked some people in the politics of the times, I didn’t like others. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with such fellows,” he says critically. He never went back into politics after his student days in Madras, moving to Santiniketan where his mentors were the likes of Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Bihari Mukherjee. Santiniketan, he remembers was a loose creative community then, where one went in search of finding a vocation rather than a degree. Classes were informal meetings he says, remembering he met Ramkinkar Baij more at the tea shop than in the classroom! “People thought the institution would not last, set up on a poet’s whim as it were,” he muses. If teachers salaries were no more than Rs 250 a month, he remembers his fee including canteen and dhobi charges were no more than Rs 25!


There are other stories as well. Of how he met the Punjabi Susheela who worked for the Kasturba Memorial and was then training under Nandalal Bose in Santiniketan. Of how they later got married, and he worked in refugee camps in Punjab post Independence, and much later moved to Baroda where he taught for years and went back to Santiniketan as professor of painting in the 80s.


He will turn 85 years in February this year. Already Naveen Kishore of Seagull Publications (who is like a son to him) is planning a three day music festival in his honour in Santiniketan when his friends and family will be with him. Will there be a retrospective of his works, I ask naively. “I’ve already had three retrospectives. My first retrospective in 1958. You know I have lived very long,” he whispers in an undertone.


Outside his cottage-like home in Baroda, there is a Kadamb tree. As we are leaving I see some of the Kadamb flowers that have fallen by the road, and I am fascinated as I had never seen the Kadamb flower before. Maybe it was a metaphor for an artist whose likes I had never seen before. Artist, thinker and philosopher. A man who is aware of a world around him. But more importantly is willing to engage with you just as his mentors at Santiniketan must have.


Incidentally, why is the Kadamb so puzzling? If it’s a flower why does it look like a fruit?image1image1


First published in Housescalls. Photos: Kamal Sahai









The magic of Ajrakh: the real story





When disasters occur, among the things that anchor people are ties, a sense of belonging and holding on to familiar traditions. When the Gujarat earthquake took place in January 2001 and people lost their homes, family, virtually everything, in the flash of a few seconds, the entire community came forward to help. And interestingly, in Kutch, craft traditions for which the region is celebrated helped people not only to rehabilitate themselves but also to work out their fears and traumas.

Ismail Mohammad Khatri and his brothers are ajrakh printers from Dhamadka, a village near Bhuj, which was at the heart of the quake-hit zone. With their homes collapsed, they began to work towards relocating the whole community of ajrakh dyers and printers in the area to the newly created Ajrakhpur. There is now also a heightened awareness among them that they should live more in harmony with nature, and revert to the use of natural dyes

Four years later, the devastation is still visible in the worst affected areas of the Gujarat quake – Bhuj, Anjar, Dhamadka, Bachchau and surrounding villages. Everywhere there is evidence of houses that had collapsed and rubble that had rolled out on to the streets.

As outsiders, it is difficult to gauge the psychological trauma of a people who lost home, family and friends, all in the space of 90 seconds on that fateful day, 26 January 2001. As I began to speak about it to people, the horrors seemed even worse than anything one could have imagined. They spoke of how the sun became dark that morning and the earth developed gaping fissures, how snakes and scorpions came out of cracks in the ground, a loud exploding sound, children in a school hoisting the national flag with pride only to have the school building collapse on them, a woman praying in a temple who died because a pillar fell on her…

For those not present, it is impossible to visualize what really happens during a natural disaster, but we can certainly admire the resilience of the human spirit, the courage to move on despite tragedy. Tradition and custom, along with family give one the strength to move on with life. That is what we saw in Kutch, which has a long tradition of craft – weaving, embroidery and printing. In an exhibition organized by Carole Douglas of Sydney, Australia, called ‘Resurgence: Stories of Earthquake, Survival, and Art’ at Ahmedabad (earlier exhibited in Australia), I was amazed to see the work that emerged from some of the earthquake victims.

Both from the point of view of the themes that they worked on and from what they were saying, it looked as if they had worked out their shock through their traditional craft, whether tie-and-dye work or the intricate embroidery that women there are so skilled at. A young woman of 19, who worked on an Ahir embroidery piece for the exhibition, is quoted as having said: “Before I made the piece my head could not forget the earthquake. Now it is out of my hands and I can move on with my life.” Then there is Ali Mohammad Isha, creator of three beautiful black bandhini pieces, who said, “The earthquake book is closed. I begin a new chapter. Using my work as my handwriting, I invent a new language for the future.”

There was also the master printer and dyer, Ismailbhai Khatri, with his ajrakh printed piece using natural dyes. He put it philosophically: “The spider is never defeated. When its web breaks, it finds a new place and starts all over again. My family is like a spider. This time we will build a place that will not break.”

This is, in fact, the story of Ismail Mohammad Khatri, his two brothers, Abdul Razzak Mohammad Khatri and Abdul Jabbar Mohammad Khatri, and their sons, of ajrakh printing, and of their life before and after the earthquake. And it is indeed a story of the spider that is never defeated but moves on to weave another web. Giving them the strength to start all over again is ajrakh, which has existed before them, and will continue to do so after them. Ajrakh printing has been a family tradition for nine generations now. They brought it with them from Sindh (now in Pakistan), and it seems set to continue in the family as Ismail’s son and nephews have learnt the technique of printing. One of them even hopes to go to an English medium high school so that he can study at the prestigious National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

Ajrakh, or ajrak-u as it is called in Sindh, is closely associated with Sindhi ceremonies relating to birth, marriage and death. It is believed to be one of the oldest extant textiles in the world, and its history can be traced to the ancient civilization that flourished in the Indus Valley (circa 2500-1500 BC) where Sindh is now located. Ajrakh printing is today practised in parts of Sindh as well as in Dhamadka and Khavda in Gujarat, and in Barmer in Rajasthan.

The origins of the word ‘ajrakh’ are unclear, but may have come from the Arabic word, ‘azrak’, for blue, referring to the indigo-dyed ajrakh cloth with its red, black and white floral or geometric patterns. Ismailbhai says the word may also have originated from the Hindi ‘aaj rakh’ (meaning ‘keep it for a day ’), for the longer the cloth is subjected to a particular process the faster and richer are the colours. He goes on to relate an amusing story of a king who would have his bed linen changed every day, till his chamber attendants placed an ajrakh sheet on his bed and the king responded with “Aaj rakh”! This story however seems an apocryphal one as there are no references to it anywhere else. “My father once said ajrakh looks like stars shining in the night sky,” muses Ismailbhai, with pride for a tradition that has been with his family for centuries.

To call ajrakh simply a printing tradition would be to overlook the closeness of its link with the life of the Khatris who produce it, or with the local people, both Hindus and Muslims, who wear it everyday. It would be to reduce the textile, much as the British did, to a commodity to be traded and exchanged, rather than see it as the heartbeat of the people who work on it. It would be, above all, to miss the living continuum ajrakh represents, passed on from father to son, down the generations. And it would also be to miss all the sensory experiences of dipping the cloth in a vat of indigo dye where you can see greenish bubbles dance and sparkle and talk to the dyer, or of holding a block and stamping it on a pre-dyed cotton cloth with a gentle thud.

Much of the history of ajrakh is based on oral tradition. Ismailbhai can recall nine generations of ancestors, tracing his origins to a certain Khatri brahmin, Jeeva, an ajrakh printer and dyer who migrated to Kutch on the invitation of the king, Rao Bharmalji I in the early seventeenth century. The king invited not only dyers like him but printers, potters and embroiderers from Sindh. The Khatris came from a village in Sindh called Dhado. They believe their forefathers were kshatriya brahmins, and descendants of Lav and Kush, the sons of Rama. Two generations after they migrated to Kutch, a Sufi saint converted one of them to Islam. Ajrakh is still sacred to the Sufis who present ajrakh cloth as a mark of respect to those they revere. And even today, Hindu and Muslim Khatris in Sindh practice this form of printing.

Ismailbhai’s father, Khatri Mohammad Sidikbhai, is something of a legend in ajrakh printing. He was responsible for reviving the earlier tradition of printing with natural dyes that his forefathers had been familiar with, but which had fallen into disuse with the introduction of chemical dyes. “My father too used chemical dyes, till people from NID and the Gujarat handicrafts board came to him and spoke about the importance of natural dyes,” says Ismailbhai. They had been unaware that what knowledge even a child in their family had about indigo and madder dyeing would be considered significant! “When they asked if we used desi dyes, we did not understand that they meant natural dyes,” says Ismailbhai. “We now know how harmful chemical dyes are for those of us who work with them. They must be more harmful for people who wear clothes that are dyed with them,” he says thoughtfully.

It was around 1975 that Sidikbhai began to work with natural dyes, and then became known not only for his proficiency in printing but also for his knowledge of dyeing with vegetable colours. There are photographs of him demonstrating the dyeing process in Mattiebelle Gittinger’s Master Dyers to the World: Technique and Trade in Early Indian Dyed Cotton Textiles.


“There was a gap of a few decades between the time when everyone in Dhamadka began working on ajrakh with chemical dyes to when my father revived working with natural dyes,” says Ismailbhai. “We don’t know what knowledge was lost in those years.” He himself remembers the wild indigo reeds that used to grow freely around Dhamadka in his younger days and which have now disappeared. That complicated dyeing with lac must have existed is evident from the Rabari house we visited, where an aged Rabari woman displayed a bedspread she was using, quilted with old and torn lac-dyed pieces of cloth. Ismailbhai is sure his father must have dyed this maroonish coloured cloth.

Whatever the Khatri brothers know about ajrakh comes from their father, and Razzakbhai remembers small benches made by their father on which they used to put cloth and learn the art of ajrakh printing. Like his father, Ismailbhai is now becoming well known in the natural dyeing circles, where many are overawed by his knowledge of bringing colours to a fabric as if by magic. Students from NID and other such institutes come to meet him. Recently, a lady whose PhD was based on what she learnt from Ismailbhai, recommended his name to Montfort University of Leicester in England. Much to his astonishment, the university conferred a doctorate on him.

When Ismailbhai and his siblings were growing up in Dhamadka, there were no schools. Even now there is only one primary school there. “I have not passed even high school, and when I was told I was going to be given a doctorate I didn’t know what it meant till someone said it is the highest degree in any educational institution,” says an awed Dr Ismail Mohammad Khatri!

This acclaimed master dyer is today not only a brand ambassador for ajrakh but a community leader. During the Gujarat earthquake, though he and members of his family were themselves injured, they went out on a limb to help others and transported many from their village in Dhamadka to hospitals in Bhuj for treatment. The family recalls the exact moment the quake occurred. Jabbar, the youngest brother, was printing a bedsheet for a Canadian customer, Razzak was at the school nearby where he was the chief guest at the Republic Day function, and Ismail was at home, on the verge of leaving for the farm where the washing and dyeing takes place.

“I was on the threshold of the house, about to leave, when I heard a loud noise as if the world was going to explode. A part of the house fell on me. It injured my back, but I did not realize it then. Now, however, it needs to be treated because I cannot stand still for a long while without experiencing some pain,” he says. Several members of his family were hurt, and he lost his mother and a daughter (whom he does not like to talk about) in the aftermath of the tragedy.

“My mother was injured, and not realizing that the quake could have occurred in Bhuj too, we took her and many others there, only to find that the hospital itself had collapsed and they were treating people in temporary shelters that had been put up. More than because of her injury, it was when she saw so many dead people in the hospital that she received a severe shock and died of heart failure,” recalls Ismail.

The brothers took their mother and the others to the hospital in Bhuj by stopping buses on the highway and emptying them of passengers. They recall that this was not the first quake in the area – there had been one in 1956 too, when the family shifted from its original village to Dhamadka. Now, even as Dhamadka lies in ruins, with the aid that has come in and with government help, Ismailbhai has been the primary mover in setting up a village exclusively for ajrakh printers and tie-and-dye workers. This township will be more environment friendly, with trees and solar panels, a common tank for washing the dyed fabric, and an improved layout for the houses. They realize that one of the reasons that houses collapsed and led to deaths was that the houses in Dhamadka were in too close a proximity to one another. Appropriately, the town will be called Ajrakhpur, and they hope it will become a centre for excellence for printing and natural dyes, and serve as a model for other communities of craftspeople.

For almost three months after the quake no printing work was done in Dhamadka, and there was so much fear that they used to sleep in tin sheds outside. Razzak and Jabbar continue to live in Dhamadka in their partly restored homes, while Ismailbhai has shifted to Ajrakhpur. The family is split for now, though the two brothers hope to move to Ajrakhpur in course of time.

Unlike other traditional textiles that are available in local markets, to buy ajrakh people have to specially come to the Khatris. Ismailbhai recalls how their father, armed with lengths of ajrakh, would go every four months or so to Maldhari and Rabari villages, where he would exchange cloth for grain or ghee. While travelling around Bhuj, we saw several men from the Rabari and Maldhari communities who wore ajrakh, though most seemed to have switched to the cheaper chemically dyed lungi and safa (turban) cloth. We met Yousuf Dinna, an old Banni, to whom the Khatri brothers had given an ajrakh lungi which he was happy to wear in the traditional way and pose for photographs.

It appears that when the Khatris moved to Kutch they made cloth not only for the royalty, but also served the needs of the farmers and herders of the area. They produced varieties of ajrakh to suit the sartorial needs of different communities, some of whom believed that the blue of ajrakh had healing properties. For the Rabaris and Ahirs, who are herders and farmers, they made tie-dyed cloth for veils, skirts, and turbans. The ghagras, or skirts, had different prints for the different stages of a woman’s life – of which there are 50, according to the Khatri brothers! The jimardhi and dhambura prints were for older women, the haidro badshahpasand for younger girls, while the widows wore limai. The cloth used for everyone was traditionally cotton or wool, though the affluent would usually opt for the much more expensive double-printed ajrakh.

With the advent of synthetic cloth, some with crude ajrakh prints and at one-tenth the price of cotton ajrakh made with natural dyes, the local people today have unfortunately almost stopped wearing ajrakh-printed cotton. The cost of cloth and dyes has also risen sharply, and the Khatris now work only against specific orders. However, given the demand for naturally dyed textiles across the world, the work of the Khatris is being sought by foreigners. Textile aficionados come to Ismailbhai to tap his wealth of knowledge on natural dyes, which he is only too happy to share. What is more, several of his works are now displayed in national and international museums, and by collectors.

Traditional textiles of any region are the warp and weft of its heritage. They speak of its history, as ajrakh does for Kutch and Sindh. So it is that when a Banni like Yousuf dons traditional attire and sits with his grand-niece, he becomes a link in the long chain of events that connects him to his ancestors, regardless of which part of the subcontinent they came from. We should indeed be grateful to the Khatri brothers for carrying on a painstakingly slow and laborious form of textile printing, although it is not really viable in today’s economics-driven society. In Japan, a craftsperson such as Ismailbhai would have been declared a national treasure!

They say the pattern within the pattern that characterizes ajrakh printing is like the Sufi mystic’s search for his beloved God. It symbolizes the oneness he seeks with the Supreme. Just as, perhaps, the repeated washing of the cloth till just the right colour emerges may well reflect the Sufi saint’s search for perfection!


Ajrakh, like the stars twinkling in a blue sky!

Ajrakh printing is considered one among the world’s most sophisticated methods of printing and dyeing. It uses 22 different blocks, involves at least 14 different stages of repeated washing and dyeing, and the entire process takes up to three weeks to complete! The result is a cloth usually dyed in indigo and madder, with complicated floral and geometric patterns that are block-printed using a system of mathematics that only the printer can comprehend!


Accounts of early textile trade confirm the mastery of Indian dyers and printers. This is evident from the dyer’s workshop that was unearthed at Mohenjo-daro. Indigofera tinctoria, or indigo, was known to have grown in abundance along the River Indus.


A statue of a king-priest discovered at Mohenjo-daro (circa 2500 BC) has a trefoil motif on the shawl he is wearing. This pattern of small circles filled with red pigment is similar to a fundamental design of ajrakh. Interestingly, the same pattern has also been found in remnants of ancient Mesopotamian textiles as well as on the covering of the couch used by the great pharaoh Tutankhamen (1341-1323 BC)! The trefoil, composed of three sun discs joined together, may well symbolize the unity of the gods of the sun, the earth and water.


Believed to be the earliest extant Indian textiles, dating to around AD 641-969, the Fustat Textiles were excavated in the nineteenth century. Fustat, once the capital of Egypt, was the principal port for trade between Asia and the Mediterranean till the city itself was destroyed by a fire and abandoned thereafter. The largest collection of these is held at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, typically resist and mordant dyed with madder and indigo. When Ismailbhai went to receive his doctorate in England, he visited Oxford to view these old textiles and was allowed to photograph them. From the photographs we saw that they do indeed resemble the ajrakh prints of today!


Kutch was quite isolated from the rest of India until recently, when communications and roads were greatly improved particularly in view of defence, and those living there have, therefore, been fairly isolated for several generations. It is no wonder then that so many of the Khatri designs have remained unchanged over the centuries and have such a visible link with the past.

Till aniline, a tar derivative, was discovered in 1856, chemical dyes were unknown, and the world looked with disbelief and admiration at the Indian dyers’ knowledge of how to colour cloth with different minerals and vegetables, how they knew what could be a mordant, and how to make indigo yield its greenish tinge.


We watch with utter fascination as Ismailbhai boils pomegranates with tamarind seeds in a huge cauldron and sprays the water on a cloth that has been fixed with mordant, to have a yellow pomegranate-dyed fabric emerge a few days later. We see repeated dyeing of a georgette scarf in natural indigo, and when we lift it to look at it after it has dried, he snatches it back from us to say that the material has yet to get the brilliant indigo hue for which it will have to be re-dyed.


Before the dyeing and printing, the cotton cloth is torn by hand into lengths suitable either for use as a garment or a bedsheet and taken to the river to be washed. It is shrunk by washing it in a mixture of camel dung, soda ash, castor oil and water, and then left overnight folded in a sack weighted with stones. Originally, it used to be left for five to ten days depending on the weather. Camel dung is used to soften the cloth and also acts as a bleaching agent!


The following day, it is washed in a solution of soda ash followed by vigorous rinsing in water. After a process of calendering, the cloth is washed in myrobalan solution, which is a pre-mordant. Jabbar remarks that this opens the cloth to the absorption of colours. It is dried in the sun and the myrobalan powder is then dusted off.


The cloth is now ready for printing. A resist of lime and gum ensures that, in the final product, certain areas will be white or pale because they will not take the dye. Once these white outlines have been marked, it is time for the black outlines. This involves the use of a mordant of metallic salt, iron acetate, which enables the colour to bond with the cotton fabric.


Iron paste is made by mixing pieces of rusted iron with water, chickpea flour or atta, and jaggery, and stored in recycled oil drums for 10 days. The resulting acetate solution is strained through a cloth and boiled for the required consistency.


For the next stage of printing, a mixture made from alum and tamarind seed powder is used. As alum is colourless, the Khatris add a fugitive colour to enable the printers to see where to align the blocks. Alum, molasses, Fuller’s Earth and, in some cases, millet flour, is used on areas that are to be protected against the indigo dye – that is, the white and black areas and those that are to become red. This is sprinkled with sawdust for protection while the paste dries. The redness of the cloth becomes evident only after it has been boiled in the red dye bath.


The cloth is ideally left for seven days in the sun so that the colour metamorphoses into a deep shade. It is only after this that the cloth will be dyed in indigo for the first time, after which it is submerged for at least an hour and washed by the workers in a rhythmic count, this way and that, until almost all the excess dye has been washed off and the white areas emerge.


The next stage is boiling in alzirine or madder root powder, both of which are red

dyes. These are heated over a log fire and the worker lifts and immerses the cloth in the solution several times for many hours till the desired shade of red is achieved. The cloth is then left to dry in the sun, and it is at this stage that the ajrakh colours and design make their full impact. Traditionally, however, the entire process would be repeated one more time to achieve the depth of colour the Maldharis, for example, would expect. Such double-dyed cloth is known as minakari. One can only imagine how much labour it is for Khatris and their workmen to achieve such brilliance of colours!


Perhaps, when ajrakh is called a sacred cloth it is because the craftsmen work in such harmony with their environment – with the trees, water, sun, the whole world around them – harnessing their own energy with that of nature!

From Housecalls archives:

(March- April 2005)

A lament for all things that have disappeared


Anyone for old-fashioned things like sewing?


I was amused when a young lady recently mailed us asking that we write about her sewing class. Amused because I wondered who, in this day when readymades and designer brands are all the rage, would want to sew clothes, or, for that matter, even learn crafts such as sewing or embroidery.

But I was happy that the lady who says she herself learnt the craft from her grandmother wanted to show children how much fun sewing could be. I would add, not just fun, but also teach children patience and the slowness of things.

I am constantly saddened by the many things that are disappearing in our fast-paced world. I don’t mean just languages, flora and fauna or even tribes that has the anthropologists in a tizzy. I am talking here of other things –traditions and games that made our own growing up so much richer but which are no longer considered valuable.

Listening to a story read out aloud, for instance, was one of the pleasures of childhood. I can’t remember reading the puranas, but can only recall hearing these stories that were told to us by a parent. Not only were these stories of good and evil, of rakshasas and apsaras engrained into our subliminal memory but this oral tradition was a way of bonding. Just those words, “once upon a time…” opened up a whole world in our imagination as children. This was a world whose very sound was comforting and safe.

I realize too that many games that we played as children have disappeared. Does anyone know what hopscotch or skipping rope is any more? These were not something we did as exercise but rather to have fun with other girls our age. Or playing marbles or flying kites that we girls would indulge in just so we could hang out with our brothers and their friends. Then there were rhymes like “oranges and lemons” and “ring-a-ring-a roses” for which we did a ‘husha-busha all fall down’. And which few would have heard of now.

The other thing that has disappeared is people doing things together as a family. By this I don’t mean things like going to the mall or the movies. Rather things like having a meal together when our school day would be reviewed, and father told us a thing or two about values. Values that included not wasting food on the plate or talking with your mouth full. Family time would also include sitting together for a puja especially on Diwali or Ganesh Chathurthi. More than the sacredness of it, during these times we had a crash course in mythology: of how Ganesh laughed at the moon and had to pay for it, or how Krishna with Satyabama in tow went to kill Narakasura on Diwali day.

And yes, though I did miserably in the stitching class at the convent school I went to, (and had to have a friend finish the napkin we had to embellish with cross stitch designs), I still remember the class. We all sat quietly sewing and embroidering, while the teacher read a romance novel, keeping a watchful eye over us. At the end of the class, she would summon us to her desk to display our work. Mine was so clumsy that she would scold me on the hemming I did and rip apart my embroidery!

So many more things have disappeared. Writing with a fountain pen. Writing letters and sending them by post. Learning classical music or at least a sloka.

These had a meditative quality about them that I miss in our frenzied lifestyle of multi-tasking. I, at least, will make one last effort at embroidery or at least stringing a thread through a needle.


Wow! Hyderabad Editorial, 2011

What’s my password?

Like many of us, I have various bank accounts. The impression naturally is that I am burdened with cash. In reality, what I am burdened with is a plethora of passwords that I need for everything from checking details of my online accounts to withdrawing cash from an ATM. The other day, at an ATM I got the passwords of all the three accounts I had mixed up, so that none of the cards I was carrying worked; with others who were wanting to withdraw cash, giving me dirty looks that they reserve for scamsters. But how I immediately got an SMS alert saying that I had used a wrong password from the very ATM that refused to accept my debit card, is beyond me. Did it mean that the machine was smarter than the man? Or the woman?

These are times when our lives are governed not by god but by secure passwords. We need passwords to not only operate bank accounts but also when we need to use our credit and debit cards. And any casually thought password such as RatnaHyd won’t do. When we can be sure, the god of passwords will send us a message to say it’s a “weak” password to make you feel dim-witted for thinking of such an innocuous and obvious password. I am not sure how others feel, but the moment I see the word, “weak password” flashing on my screen, I think of it as a personal failure and add so many dots and dashes to my password all of which I forget next time I have to log on and am constantly pressing the button that asks, “Forgot password?”

I can understand (though not completely) the need for a “strong” password for bank accounts and credit cards, but why do I need a password for using my twitter account, for Facebook, for shopping on Flipkart and Infibeam, for buying air tickets, train tickets, even cinema tickets and yes, sometimes even to open this laptop!

Security: My tech savvy friends will laugh and point out on reading this. (If they are Facebook friends I don’t have to hear their comments as I can block them for which of course I have to remember my FB password.) Instead I ask my friends to give me options for colorful passwords that are enigmatic, cool and those that even I cannot forget or mix up.

This brings me to the other problem of having to remember all these passwords that I have created for ATMs and Flipkart like sites. I am not sure what devious ways others have thought of to store their passwords, but though I should not be making this public — I write down the passwords in a fancy pocket book (yellow, in case hackers are searching my house) under various convoluted headings such as Ameerpet Axe when its actually Axis Bank in Banjara Hills whose manager lives in Ameerpet!

Sometimes I have saved a pin number under titles such as Spin and other times under Sins feeling pleased at the deviousness of my own mind. I have so many codes to unlock my passwords in that pocket book, that these days I wonder if I need another diary (not so fancy of course) to write what these codes stand for.

This other diary which has the codes to my passwords I seriously believe I should store in my bank locker which I cannot do immediately as I am not able to recall the double digit number of my locker I have stored somewhere under the heading, “De Beers”.

I am not sure if anyone else has had this bizarre experience. When I call a certain credit card company for my last bill or to check if they have received my payment, the girl who answers the phone will first (for about half an hour) cross check my date of birth, place of residence, phone number, email id, mother’s maiden name, first film that I saw, and just when I heave a sigh of relief at having crossing various hurdles, there is a further security wall. She tells me I need a secure code for my credit card before she can reveal anything more. If anyone has worked with these call center men and women to key in this secure code and not had a breakdown I think they deserve some award, even a Padmashri.

These days if you see me going around Hyderabad with a glazed look murmuring under my breath, it is because I am reciting my all my passwords as if they were mantras for liberation. Except there is no liberation from this bondage of passwords.

Editorial, Wow! Hyderabad, August 2014

Zohra Sehgal and her full blooded life


 Published in Housecalls July- August, 2006

Text: Ratna Rao Shekar

Photographs: Kamal Sahai




ZOHRA SEHGAL: Abhi tho main jawan hoon


It appears a charming irony that these days when upcoming starlets are willing to pay newspapers to have their photographs published, newspapers and magazine are flocking to Zohra Sehgal for interviews and photographs and are willing to pay money for it! She has more movies and is more famous now than she ever was, and people in her neighbourhood insist she has tea with them whenever she goes for a stroll. She also has enough money today to buy a matching bag for every dress. This, the very lady who would scout around for cheap bread in England when she was looking to make a living after her husband died!


Zohra Sehgal once told her daughter, the danseuse Kiran Sehgal, “You are seeing me now when I am old and ugly; you should have seen me when I was young and ugly!” She may have said this in all seriousness, but there is hardly anyone with a more interesting face or anyone more youthful …


How do you relate the story of a woman who was born in the early 1900s, and whose life has been as tumultuous as this century? You not only have to relate the events of the time but the details of her own life, which has seen more excitement than the first man landing on the moon or the discovery of Marilyn Monroe. A life that has seen more personal horrors than the wars of that period, a life which has been more inventive than the greatest inventions of the century, the telephone and the motor-car


How do you describe the life of Zohra Sehgal in a few thousand words? How do you convey the breadth of her activities: from dancing, acting on stage and in films, from the many roles she has played as daughter, wife, mother, her many rebellions, her eternal optimism, and the journeys she took across the world? Or the people she has met during the course of her life, names that she uses in the first person such as Jawahar (Jawaharlal Nehru), those good looking boys with beautiful eyelashes (Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi), or Dada (Uday Shankar)? Of how she broke the conventions of the time by declaring that she did not want to get married but wanted to have a career – it was something unthinkable, coming as she did from an orthodox and aristocratic Muslim family – and veering off midway into a career in dancing, that only tawaifs in north India indulged in then!


A competent writer can attempt to tell her story, but even then how do you convey the mobility of her face as she recites Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Intizam’? The persona of a little girl she assumes while reciting Majaz’s ‘Ek nanni munni si pujarin’? How does one capture the many emotions that flit across her face when she talks of her father, of her large family of sisters and brothers many of whom now live in Pakistan, or the tears that well up when she says, “I cannot express what this piece of paper that says I am a citizen of India means to me”? Her sense of humour when she declares that in her life she has gained fame and fortune, not because she danced with Uday Shankar, not because she toured for 14 years with Prithviraj Kapoor as one of his lead actors, but because she is now a recognizable face in Hindi cinema as the stereotypical dadima!


Lives such as Zohra’s are the stuff of great biographies and are stories we need to read about in these days of lacklustre heroes. When she wanted to publish her memoirs and approached publishers in England, they said that as her formative years had been spent in India she should find a publisher there, and when she approached Indian publishers they said that as she had studied and worked in England for the better part of her life she should find a British publisher. Finally it was Kali for Women who published her memoirs, Stages:the Art and Adventure of Zohra Sehgal , which she wrote with Joan L Erdman. As I said, it is a difficult task to write about Zohra in a few hundred pages, and not surprisingly, the book falls short of expectations. It can only be a sort of added attraction to the main film, which is Zohra herself.


When we call her the first time, she says in Urdu, “Mera waqt barbad mat karo, mujhe exercises karna hai” (Do not waste my time, I have to do my exercises). She then says she charges Rs 3,000 for an interview, and says she is putting money away for her funeral expenses. But we suspect this is more because she wants to put away pesky journalists who have begun to take increasing interest in her.


Zohra has agreed to give us an hour and has told her daughter Kiran Sehgal, an odissi dancer, to tell us not to tire her out as she is just recovering from knee surgery. Of course, with Zohra it is hard to say goodbye in an hour, not only because you fall in love with her recitations but also because she is a wonderful raconteur. We just have to mention that we loved her as the gun-toting, ‘dappad maroing’ nanima to Govinda in Chalo Ishq Ladayi and she launches into the story of the film which, incidentally, she says for my benefit, was shot in Hyderabad! She also launches into the story of Cheeni Kum in which she acts with Amitabh Bachchan. In that movie, in one shot where she had to have a glass of champagne, she muttered to no one in particular that she wished the champagne was for real. Someone asked for her address in Delhi, and lo and behold, she says, it was Amitabh himself who sent her a bunch of flowers and a bottle of champagne a week later. “He’s so nice you know, and in this film he acts his age,” she says.


Zohra is like a little girl who can’t stop herself from reciting one nursery rhyme for the benefit of her admiring audience, and then goes on to recite the litany of rhymes she has learnt in school. She is not happy reciting just one line of Faiz Ahmed Faiz or Sardar Jafri, but must go on with the entire poem, intonations and accents all in place! “I love an audience you know!” she says with a twinkle in her eye. We, for our part, can only sit in silence watching with fascination the dramas that unfold on the theatre of her face.


“I told Kiran to tell you people not to take too much of my time and here I am the one talking so much,” she says, scolding herself. We did not mind the entertaining time with her but did feel guilty when she declared, “Now I cannot do some of my exercises as it’s late in the afternoon.” These include walking up three floors to her apartment which is on the topmost floor, while Kiran stays on the second floor. She walks up and down the stairs at least five times (77 steps, she says from memory).

The first time we meet her she is all dressed up in a pretty blue Lucknowi salwar-kurta, her hair neatly braided with a parinda, and tied into a small knot at the back. The second time we drop in to see her, she has again granted us just one hour. This queen of stage and cinema greets us by our names. “Ratna Rao Shekar saheba, kaisi hain?” she enquires, while I fumble with my atrocious Hindi. Her memory is phenomenal: we had to tell her our names once and they were embedded in her memory. When she mentions a year from her childhood when she left for Almora, or when she returned from Dresden, she says it precisely, remembering the exact date. This comes from keeping her memory sharp by reciting every morning all the poems she knows by her favourites, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Kaifi Azmi, Sardar Jafri, Majaz, and others.


Her room is crowded with memorabilia but as she crisscrosses the years of her life, a window to another world, another time, opens before our eyes. She unfurls for us the vast horizons of her world in which we too have begun to feel like characters.


Sahebzadi Zohra Begum Mumtazulla Khan, or Zohra as she later shortened it to for passport purposes, was born in Saharanpur in UP in 1912 into an aristocratic Muslim family that traces its lineage to the Pathans. She attributes her sense of pride and loyalty to her lineage even while blaming her habits of parsimony and miserliness to that very background! She was third among seven boys and girls and says that large families were the norm in those times. Her father’s family comprised 19 brothers and sisters! Her mother died in childbirth; the fact that she had children in quick succession must have hastened her early death. It was her father and an older sister who brought them up. “Being an optimistic child and naturally happy, I did not let the fact that my mother had died affect me very much,” she says in her autobiography.


Her mother, who was herself uneducated, had wanted all her children to study, and left all the money in her will for their education, especially of the girl children. In a somewhat unusual move, as it was unheard of for girls to go to boarding schools in those days, Zohra was sent to Queen Mary’s College (it was actually a school, she adds), a purdah school in Lahore for children of aristocrats and maharajas. Most of the teachers were British, and no Christians were in fact admitted to the school. In her irrepressible style she writes in her memoirs that no men were allowed into the school, and those like gardeners or sweepers were allowed in only at night when it was thought the girls would be “safely” asleep. The school also boasted of the first 10 lavatories in the state, five in the Indian style for the juniors and five in the European style for the seniors! There was some censorship of Christian prayers such as ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, but she writes that as she was not overly religious she thought that stories from the Bible were just interesting tales to be read for pleasure.


She would say her prayers five times a day as a devout Muslim only when she went home for the holidays. The children would spread a jai namaz carpet, and say namaz four times in Urdu and once in Arabic. Much of the time Zohra did not understand what it meant, but she prayed anyway in order to accrue religious merit.


In school she was a tomboy, climbing trees and taking part in plays. She was rather good at embroidery but hated the cooking classes. Even when she married, she says, it was her husband Kameshwar who used to cook delicious meals. When, after taking part in a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk her teacher remarked, “My god, what talent, she could earn 10 pounds a week on the London stage!”, she made up her mind to become an actress.


Initially, after reading about Amelia Earhart the pilot, Zohra wanted to be a pilot, until she wrote to her father for permission. The girls, it appears, were always writing to him for permission – once her sister Uzra even asked for permission to smoke, to which he replied in Urdu, that of course she could, as a result of which she never did! Anyway, her father replied to Zohra that she could become a pilot, but he would never forgive himself if anything happened to her, at which she gave up the idea, as she didn’t want to die and leave her poor Abbajan in tears.


In the 1930s, when she graduated from Queen Mary’s, like all well brought up girls of her time, Zohra was expected to get married and settle down. Zohra, however, rebelled and said she wanted to study acting abroad, a declaration which did not overly please her father. Her mother’s brother, Dr Sahebzada Saiduzzafar Khan (who studied medicine in Edinburgh and was the first Indian principal of Lucknow Medical College), whom she calls Memphis, said she could go by ship to Europe but it might be more fun to travel by car. So one fine morning, she, her uncle, a mechanic and a cousin of the film director Waris Husain, all set off from Dehradun in a Dodge Tourer with a caravan attached for luggage.


Zohra, not being good at geography and not one to study maps, had only the faintest notion of where she was heading in her silk beige burqa that she had got sewn for the adventure. She reveals an interesting fact, though: when she wore the burqa as they were leaving Multan and travelling through Waziristan and Baluchistan, Pathans, who she believed were bandits, came and lifted her veil, and looked at her strangely, as in their own village there did not seem to be any system of purdah! She goes on to say that she was dumbfounded to hear Pathans speaking in Pushtu (or Pashtu), and it came as a surprise to learn that most people in these areas had originally been Hindus.


Somewhere along the way, her uncle’s son Mahmud joined the group with a Swedish companion, and one evening he said to Zohra, “I have heard that you are going to England to act. Show me how you would react if your lover sent you a letter saying he could not meet you? How would you portray initial excitement and then disappointment?” “I had never met many boys, either at home or at school, so how was I to know how a girl would react in such a situation?” says Zohra looking back. Embarrassed, she told him she was not in a mood and, later, while going up to her room, she began to clap her hands in rhythm to the music floating up from the hotel. Noticing Mahmud’s admiring glances, she began to perform Luddi, a Punjabi folk dance she had learnt at school. Her cousin asked why she could not become a dancer instead, and she decided on the spur of the moment that a dancer she would be, having just finished reading a biography of the great dancer, Isadora Duncan.


Midway through the journey, the family decided she should go to Germany to the Mary Wigman Tanz Schule in Dresden. There they left her, after providing her with resources to enable her to lead a somewhat carefree life. At the school she was to study dance pedagogy, specializing in teaching dance to young children. When German teachers asked her about Indian dance she did not have the faintest clue, having seen only a few kathak dances at weddings and the Ramlila pageant on the streets.


As she was shy, she wore a long blouse and bloomer type of knickers while practising, and saris at all other times. Classes comprised mostly limbering up exercises for the entire body, moving the shoulders forward and backward, twirling the arms around, and working with the fingers and wrists, then moving on to the head, hips, and bending the knees. Incidentally, to this day Zohra goes through the motions of these exercises that take almost an hour in the morning. Unlike classical Indian or Western dance, in creative dance there are no set rules and one just had to let the emotions flow through the body to a rhythm, Zohra explains.


At the end of her stay in Dresden in 1933 she was awarded a diploma in eurhythmics, but dance being what it was in India then, there were absolutely no jobs for dance teachers. Being Zohra, forever inventive, she joined as a drill teacher at her old school, Queen Mary’s, Lahore. She taught the girls exercises based on what she had learnt in Dresden and used English songs like ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ for music. Soon a rumour spread to Government House that a German was teaching the girls dancing, which was quite improper, and the principal, a Miss Cox, was summoned. She explained that the teacher was not German but just one of her old pupils who had been to Germany, and she was not teaching dancing but eurhythmics. “They let it pass as no one understood what eurhythmics was,” she recalls.


Just as she was becoming reconciled to the fact that despite all her boasts of becoming a world famous dancer, all that she was destined to become was a drill teacher, she received a telegram from Uday Shankar saying he wanted her to join his troupe as a dancer, and could this be soon as they had to leave for Japan?. She had no hesitation, as Uday Shankar and Simkie, his partner, were, by then, taking the world by storm. She had met Uday Shankar when she was studying in Dresden and had been unimpressed, dismissing him snobbishly as a “dhoti-clad Bengali”! While everyone else had been taking his autograph she had had a good mind not to give him her address when he asked for it. But obviously, eventually she did, for when he was looking for dancers from good families to join his troupe, he thought of her.


She was with Uday Shankar for nearly eight years, giving over 1,000 performances and touring from North Cape to Luxor on the Nile, from San Francisco in the USA to Penang in Malaysia, and later to Bali and Java as a dancer with the Uday Shankar Ballet Company, being toasted and feted and staying in luxury hotels wherever she went. Her sister Uzra, the more beautiful of the two, was part of the ballet company too, and once when an admirer came to their green room asking for Ms Mumtaz, the witty doorman wanted to know which Mumtaz he wanted, the one with the big eyes or the one with the big hips. Zohra adds that while Uzra was endowed with beautiful eyes, “I had been endowed with surplus wealth in that particular sphere of my anatomy!”


When she was with Uday Shankar she met the youngest of the Shankar brothers, Robu, by her admission a sickly child. “Who would have imagined at that time that he would become the world famous sitarist, Ravi Shankar?” she rolls her eyes and exclaims. As a young teenager, he tried to teach Zohra to sing only because his brother thought Zohra had a good voice. She also met Ustad Allaudin Khan at this time, as he had been roped in to compose music for the ballet company. Allaudin Khan not only became Ravi Shankar’s guru but also his father-in-law.


The ballet company was dissolved some years later, though not before a private trip Zohra made with Uday Shankar to Bali and Java, meeting ‘Jawahar’s’ daughter, Indira on the ship. “She later remembered me as the woman with orchids in her hair,” she writes.


A long-standing dream of Uday Shankar was to start a dance school where he would expound his method of dance and explore his ideas about India’s visual and performing arts. The place chosen was Almora near Ranikhet, in what was then the United Provinces. Zohra was the lead teacher in the Uday Shankar India Culture Centre at Almora. It was here that she also met a student, Kameshwar, a man younger than her and a Hindu, whom she later married.


As a young girl, she says, she did not want to get married not only because she had very vague notions of sex but because she saw the unhappy marriage of her older sister and the death of her mother in childbirth. “I chose a career because I wanted to escape marriage,” she says. As girls, they had such vague notions of sex that once when she outrageously flirted with a cousin and he called her a ‘mirch’, she was afraid of becoming pregnant, a maid having just then become pregnant through an illicit liaison!


Even when she fell in love and Kameshwar suggested they marry, she resisted the idea until one day she could not put it off any longer, and they decided to tell her father about it. Khandaan and izzat were words loaded with importance then, and when she told her father she wanted to marry a Hindu, he was broken-hearted, though he could not deny his daughter her happiness. The only thing he asked was that she should not get married in Dehradun where he was then living. “When we decided to get married in Allahabad, he came up to the car, and said, “Beti, shall I too come for the wedding?” “To that I said, ‘No Abbajan I have already caused you enough pain, do not come’,” she says, speaking about the incident to us. Tears brim over as she speaks of him and the goodness of his heart.


This unusual woman says that just as she was not ecstatic when she saw the Taj Mahal for the first time, she was not overcome with joy when she gave birth to her daughter, Kiran. “I did not believe in ‘Ma ki mamta’ then. That was until one day I heard a faint cry, as if a small cat was meowing next to my hospital bed, and that really tugged at my heart. Since then and until now my heart fills with tenderness when I hear Kiran’s voice,” she says. She has another child, Pavan, a computer professional who currently lives abroad, and who, she says, we must add, as in most interviews he is never mentioned, while Kiran as a dancer in her own right gets all the attention.


Kameshwar, while talented both as an artist and a dancer, never really found his peace in the world and, to Zohra’s horror, he locked himself up one day and committed suicide. At that time both were in Mumbai working with Prithvi Theatre, where Zohra was a dance director and lead actor. Her sister Uzra of the beautiful eyes was with the theatre company too, and it is rumoured that she was to Prithviraj Kapoor what Nargis was to Raj Kapoor: the great passion and love of his life.


While with Uday Shankar she travelled in first class liners and stayed at the best hotels, with Prithviraj Kapoor she learnt all about simplicity and humility, as Prithviraj himself travelled with them in third class compartments, sleeping on the floor, and eating food that was cooked in a common kitchen, even though he was a member of parliament and entitled to a first class ticket. Pappaji, as Zohra called him, seemed to have left a lasting impression on Zohra, for she says he not only taught her all that she knew about stagecraft but about life itself. For 16 years he kept the tradition of theatre alive in India single-handedly, she remarks.


The plays were nationalistic in character, and were conceived by Pappaji himself, often put together in the extempore dialogue which he often broke into, deviating from the original script! The language in the plays was Hindustani, a form of Hindi and Urdu that was easily understood all over North India where they were mostly staged.


He would take voice production classes for the troupe himself, and it is from him that she not only honed her Urdu diction but learnt to memorize great Urdu poetry. Just as she does an hour of exercise, moving her body limb by limb, she recites from memory all the verses of Urdu poetry (and some English) that she knows. It was Pappaji who insisted that they recite Hafeez Jullundari’s Urdu poem, ‘Abhi tho main jawan hoon’ which to this day she renders so beautifully.


Zohra bade goodbye to Bombay once Kameshwar passed away, as she could not bear to be in the same environment where the two had shared so many memories. After unsuccessful attempts at trying to establish herself in Delhi, she shifted to London hoping to make it as an actor, so that she could support her two children who were then in school and college. Not knowing that Britain had something called the dole for those like her without a job, she survived as a dress assistant to London theatre artists who used to tip her. This woman from an aristocratic family felt humiliated because she had to survive on tips, but if she had to start life all over again she damn well would!


It was difficult to break into London theatre with its guilds and agents, especially as she was already in her 50s, but she began to do a series for BBC radio which was then telecasting two shows for Asians, English by Radio and Look, Listen and Speak and Make Yourself at Home, both of which she was asked to anchor. Though she could never go on the British stage, she began to get movie offers, including one with Yul Brynner and Trevor Howard called The Duel. She thought Brynner was rather stuffy while Trevor was all charm. Other offers followed – from Merchant-Ivory films, the first being Guru, and from Channel Four which was then making programmes for Asians. She became a recognizable face in Britain, with people falling at her feet in London. “Pavan who was with me at that time, wished himself a hundred miles from the scene but I quite enjoyed all the attention,” Zohra says truthfully.


“What more can I ask at this age: I am with my children and grandchildren, and I have more money and fame than at any other time in my life. Do you know, I have a matching bag for every sari I wear?” she remarks.


Although, to shock an interviewer (they get younger and brasher these days, according to her), she said that the secret of longevity was sex, I personally believe the secret to being 94 but feeling 19 and beautiful, is her sense of fun. She has no special philosophy of life, except that, when the chips are down she tells herself, “Get on with it, girl!” She is not particularly clever, she says, and has not thought about what would happen to her after death. However, if heaven is indeed not a hell, where one meets all the boring people one avoided on earth, she would meet all the people who have passed away and left her bereft: people like her Abbajan, Dada, Pappaji, and Kameshwar. What fun even heaven would be with Zohra around!


She is not, however, ready to leave, for her Abbajan himself lived up to a healthy 100 years of age. As this beautiful lady sings with such abandon, ‘Abhi tho main jawan hoon’



khushiyon ke din manaaye ja,

dil ke taraane gaaye jaa

tujh ko jawaani ki qasam ,dil ki lagi bujhaaye ja

duniyaa meri bassaye ja,

aaja piya aaja piya

abhi to mein jawaan hoon…

abhi to mein jawaan hoon..

zaheed yun hi badnaam hai

gham se tujhe kyaa kaam hai

yeh muskuraati zindagi zindaa dili ka naam hai

dil dil se muskuraaye ja kuchh gaaye ja,

bal khaaye ja

abhi to mein jawaan hoon


No concern of expansion or closeness, neither of height nor depth,

Nor of what was or is, nor of the original covenant,

Gone is hope, gone despair, senses and judgment,

Oblivious to all that surrounds me,

All else except the glass is gone.

Let there be no dearth of wine, friendship with a flask remain, let this merriment continue.

Oh singer, strike a raag creating merriment,

Producing anguish,

So that the wail of your instrument sets fire to hearts.

Every lip should voice the cry, “Do not stop, oh wine-bearer,

Fill up my cup, fill up my cup!” (for)

I am yet young! …