Gandhi’s Women Warriors: M.S. Subbalakshmi

‘Warrior’ is a word far from the image of M.S., the doyen of Carnatic music, and the personification of spirituality, goodness and gentleness to people across the country and the world. The one who voiced the message of world peace at the UN on the occasion of its 50th anniversary through Kanchi Shankaracharya Shri Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi’s composition, which starts with ‘Maithreem Bhajatha Akila Hrith Jeththreem’—meaning,Serve with Friendship and Humility which will conquer the Hearts of Everyone; and ends with ‘Shreyo Bhooyaath Sakala Janaanaam’—meaning,  May All People of this World be Happy and Prosperous.

But she was indeed a warrior active in the Freedom Movement.  Along with her husband Sadasivam who participated in the first Satyagraha launched by Gandhiji in 1920, she was passionately committed to India’s Independence. She attended several Congress Sessions in the thirties and forties and sang at many of them. Her husband Sadasivam also used to sing at the start of local political meetings–usually songs by the fiery Tamil poet Bharatiyar–to enthuse the crowds and fill them with patriotic fervour. But after he got married to MS, he never sang publically!

MS Amma and Sadasivam were close to Gandhiji, Rajagopalachari, and many other freedom fighters, and were iconic in the South as symbols of the freedom movement.

Gandhiji recognized her ability to raise money for the freedom struggle through her music. She gave several concerts to do this. In 1944, she gave a series of five concerts to raise resources for the Kasturba Memorial Fund. Gandhiji wrote her a letter to thank her for this, signing it in Tamil.

Gandhi MS.Subbalakshmi
Gandhiji’s Letter to MS Subbalakshmi. Google Arts and Culture

In 1947, a few months prior to Independence, M.S Amma received a message from Gandhiji to record one of his favourite bhajans ‘Hari tum haro..’ and send it to him. In keeping with her characteristic humility, Amma did not feel she could do justice to the bhajan as she was unfamiliar with it, and suggested to Gandhiji that someone else should sing it. Gandhiji replied that he would rather have her recite it, than have anyone else sing it! So she did the recording and sent it on immediately. Not long afterwards, Gandhiji passed away. After the announcement of this news on All India Radio, they played her rendition of the bhajan. It is said that M.S. fainted at this point.

She was the first musician to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, and was the first Indian musician to get the Ramon Magsaysay award.

Her generosity and charity saw her support to many other causes through her lifetime.  The Tamil Isai movement—the movement to promote Tamil songs in Carnatic music–was one she was passionate about, and raised a lot of money for.  Her manifold awards included huge cash prizes, most of which she donated. She is said to have given over 200 concerts for charity, and raised over a crore of rupees  (in the sixties and seventies!). The royalties from her recording of Venkatesa Subrabhatam, which rings out every morning in every South India town and village, were written over to the Veda Patasala of the Tirupati Temple. Royalties from many other recordings were given to several other charities. In fact, so deep was her charitable instinct that it depleted her personal wealth considerably, necessitating considerable modification of her lifestyle.

But in the spirit of any of Gandhiji’s warriors, it was others before self for M.S. Amma!

–Meena

Gandhi’s Women Warriors: Poornima Pakvasa

The women of India should have as much share in winning swaraj as men.  …I hope that women all over India will take up the challenge and organize themselves.”

It was in words such as these that the Mahatma appealed to the women of India to join the struggle for freedom.

Among the thousands of women across the country who responded to Gandhi’s call, and who continued to live and practise his message of satyagraha, self-reliance and dedicated service to the people right through their life, was a young woman from Gujarat—Poornima Pakvasa.

Poornima was born in Ranpur near Limdi in Saurashtra in a family of strong nationalistic beliefs. She first met Gandhi when she was eight years old, and this proved to be the defining moment in her life. By the time she was 18 years old she was an active participant in the Satyagraha movement.

Gandhi’s Dandi March in 1930 had ignited a nationwide fervour. Initially Gandhi had included no women in the Dandi March. But women everywhere protested this decision and insisted that they wanted to be full participants in the protest marches, demonstrations, boycotts, and even imprisonment. Kasturba Gandhi herself was equally adamant on this point. These women went from village to village and town to town, urging other women to come out of their homes and join the movement by picketing liquor shops, advocating the boycott of foreign cloth, and encouraging the spinning and weaving of khadi. Young Poornima was an impassioned crusader in the swadeshi movement and demonstrations of defiance to the British rule. It was during this period that she was arrested and put in prison in Rajkot. As it happened, she was incarcerated in the same cell as Kasturba Gandhi, Maniben Patel and Mridula Sarabhai who became her real-life inspirations and role models. While she was in prison Poornima spent her time teaching English reading and writing to the women inmates, including Kasturba. The two became close, with Kasturba nurturing the young girl, who in turn found in Kasturba the mother that she had lost. It is said that Gandhi was so pleased with Poornima’s efforts that he gave his blessings that she should continue on the path of education. And indeed, this is what was to become Poornima’s life mission.

In the meanwhile Poornima became more deeply involved in the politics of the freedom struggle. She participated in the 51st session of the Indian National Congress at Haripura in 1938. There was a massive turn out, estimated at more than half a million people, and Poornima proved her mettle as a volunteer in managing the crowds.

It was in the same year that Poornima got married to Arvind Pakvasa, the son of Mangaldas Pakvasa who was a close confidante of Gandhi, and who had left a successful practise as a solicitor to devote himself to the freedom struggle. He later became one of the first five governors of independent India. Thus Poornima moved into an active nationalistic family. But she herself took a break from political activism to devote time to her family, and bring up her three children. One daughter went on to  achieve fame as the danseuse Sonal Mansingh. Poornima herself was an accomplished Manipuri dancer, and singer.

Having been a part of India’s struggle for Swaraj, Poornima could not but be drawn back into active engagement with the issues that the Independent India was challenged with. In 1954 she started Stree Shakti Dal an organisation for the cultural, physical and spiritual education of women in Bombay. She encouraged women to become physically and mentally strong; girls were trained in using laathis, rifle shooting, and self defence. She also headed the Bhonsala Military School in Nasik for 25 years.

Through the years, Poornima had been deeply concerned about the condition of tribal girls, and was strongly driven by a passion to do something concrete about this. Poornima remembered how, when she was just a teenager, Kasturba had nurtured her with love and compassion, and also Gandhiji’s belief that she could contribute to the field of education. She pledged that she would live up to the faith of Kasturba and Gandhiji, and strived to give generously of herself to better the lives of young tribal girls.

Her vision and mission fructified with the establishment of the Ritambhara Vishwa Vidyapeeth in the Saputara region of the Dangs district of Gujarat in 1974. The early days were challenging, in a place (a remote hilly area) and time when education for tribal girls was unheard of. Poornima herself went from door to door to convince parents to send their daughters to school. The school started with only 15 girls. Poornima mentored the young girls and inculcated in them a love for education, and classical arts, as well as empowerment through physical fitness and vocational skills. 

Directed by Poornima’s vision and passion the Ritambhara Vishwa Vidyapeeth extended its activities to become a residential school and college for tribal girls of the area, where hundreds of tribal girls are provided free lodging and boarding facilities and education from 6th up to 12th standards. Over the years, thousands of tribal girls have emerged from the Rithambhara Vidyapeeth as self-confident and capable young women.

The Gramin Vikas Trust was set up to complement Poornima Pakvasa’s work in the educational field with overall developmental activities. Her trailblazing work and contribution to the nation was recognised by conferring on her the Padma Bhushan in 2004. But for the people of the Dangs, she was simply “Didi”– the big sister who was a mentor, a steady supporter, and an inspiration.

Poornima Pakvasa continued to live and work in Saputara until she passed away at the age of 102 on 25 April 2016. Her legacy lives on through the thousands of lives that she touched.

–Mamata

RIP Dr. SM Nair: Father of Natural History Museums

There are the pioneers, and he was among them. Museology is not a widely-known or popular field of study even today. Way back in the 1950s, it was even less so. This is the time at which a young boy from Kerala, after finishing his B.Sc in Trivandrum, travelled all the way to Baroda to pursue his M.Sc in the subject, at the M.S. University. He went on to do research on the Bio-deterioration of Museum Materials, and was awarded the first Doctorate in Museology from M.S. University for this work.

Dr. Nair started his career as an academic, first teaching at his alma mater in Baroda, and then moving on to Department of Museum Studies, BITS Pilani.

Mrs. Indira Gandhi, then-PM, and a leader who took great interest in the environment, had been very impressed by the Natural History Museums she saw during her visits to Europe. She wanted to create similar ones in India. She conceived of a plan for one in New Delhi and one in Bhopal. She put together an eminent team of museum professionals and scientists to take this idea forward. One thing led to another, and Dr. SM Nair, only 37 years old at that time, was chosen as the Project Director for this initiative in 1974.

Dr. Nair and Mrs. Gandhi at NMNH
Dr. Nair and Mrs. Gandhi at NMNH

Four hectic years followed, when the conceptualization, planning and execution was done by a dedicated core team including Shri D.P.Singh, S.K. Saraswat, B. Venugopal and several others. Dr. Nair visited the best Natural History Museums around the world. He got several artists and model-makers trained at the best centres in the world. And the National Museum of Natural History opened its doors to the public on June 5, 1978 (Environment Day). Subsequently, Regional Museums of Natural History came up in Mysore, Bhopal and Bhubaneswar  under Dr. Nair’s guidance.

The stuffed rhino that greeted one on the ground floor of the FICCI building where NMNH was housed, will surely be in the memories of many a Delhi school child. The rhino had died a natural death at the Delhi Zoo, and was stuffed and kept here.

The effort in NMNH was always to make the experience interactive for children. For those times, when most museums were static displays, this focus was unusual. The Museum also had a major thrust on outreach and extension. It had an active teacher training and orientation programme, which reached out to thousands of educators in its time.

Dr. Nair had a personal connect with every exhibit and activity at NMNH, and continued to take an interest in it even after his retirement in the late ‘90s. What he must have gone through on 26th April 2016, when the news of a fire breaking out in the museum and destroying the entire collection, can only be imagined.

Dr. Nair continued to be active in his mission of Environmental Education long after his retirement, working at WWF-India and Centre for Environment Education.

Not just at a national level, he was extremely respected internationally, serving as Chairman of Natural History Museum Committee of ICOM (international Council of Museums) and as

a Member of the Joint Museum Committee of the lndo-US Subcommission on Education and Culture.

Among his books are ‘Endangered Animals of India and their Conservation’, brought out by the National Book Trust, and  ‘Bio-deterioration of Museum Materials’ by Agam Kala Prakashan.

We knew Dr. Nair since the mid-eighties, as one of the fathers of the Environmental Education movement an India.

He mentored us first as a member of the Governing Council of CEE, and then as a senior colleague. Even today, old-timers in CEE-VIKSAT recall his contribution to these institutions with great respect—when it was a struggling NGO, he spotted the potential of the team and gave them a project to develop labels and take-away materials for the NMNH exhibits. This not only paid salaries for a couple of months, but gave them their first project from a national-level, government institution. This project was a critical stepping-stone.

We have also known him as the father of a colleague, Meena, who was inspired by him to follow in his footsteps in a career in Environmental Education.

NMNH and other natural history museums excited the imagination and curiosity of generations of children. NMNH may no longer exist, but Dr. Nair’s legacy lives on.

Dr. Nair passed away last week. May his soul rest in peace.

Dr. SM Nair (1937-2021).

–Meena

Gandhi’s Women Warriors: Perin Captain

This month as we remember the Father of the Nation Gandhi, it is also a good time to remember some of the many women warriors who played significant parts in the march for Indian independence. Among these was Perin Naoroji Captain.

Perin was the granddaughter of the ‘Grand Old Man of India’ Dadabhai Naoroji. She was born on 12 October 1888 in Mandvi in the Kutch district of Gujarat. Her father Ardeshir, Dadabhai Naoroji’s elder son was a medical doctor and her mother Virbai Dadina a home maker. Perin’s father died when she was only 5 years old. She did her schooling in Bombay and moved to Paris for higher studies where she did a degree in French language.

It was while she was a student at the Sorbonne in Paris that Perin met Madam Bhikaji Cama who was living there in self-exile. Bhikaji had gone to Europe, and then to London in1902, to rest and recover from the bubonic plague of 1896 which she had caught while volunteering to work with the victims in Bombay. Though she recovered, the disease left her in poor health. While she was in London Bhikaji met Dadabhai Naoroji who was a strong critic of the British economic policy and she began working for the Indian National Congress. She also was a close associate of Veer Savarkar. It was while she was in London that Bhikaji was informed that she would not be allowed to return to India unless she signed a statement that she would not take part in nationalist activities. Bhikaji Cama refused to do so, and remained in exile in Europe from where she continued to support the revolutionaries in every possible way.

At the time when Perin met Madam Cama, the latter was deeply involved in trying for the release of Savarkar who was imprisoned in London for defying the British. During her Paris student days Perin was actively involved in a number of ‘revolutionary’ causes including the conspiracy to get Savarkar out of jail, and working with Polish émigré organisations who were opposing the Tsarist rule in Russia. During these interactions, Perin and her sister Gosi also learned how to use firearms and assemble bombs.  

Perin returned to India in 1911. An opportunity to meet Gandhi transformed her ‘revolutionary’ zeal into a lifelong belief in the power of non-violent protest as an effective weapon. By 1919 she was fully committed to the Swadeshi movement and started wearing khadi. In 1920 she helped to establish the Rashtriya Stree Sabha, a women’s’ movement based on Gandhian ideals. She married the eminent lawyer DS Captain in 1925. The couple did not have children. 

The countrywide civil disobedience movement that Gandhi launched with the Salt March in 1930 marked the first time that women, en masse, became active  participants in the country’s struggle for freedom. Thousands of women, in cities and villages, demonstrated their support by joining the protest marches, picketing of foreign goods, and manufacturing and selling salt. In the first ten months of 1930 as many as 17,000 women were convicted for these activities.

 Perin Captain, along with other women leaders like Kamaldevi Chattopadhyay was on the forefront of the protests in Bombay. Every day they led groups of satyagrahis, singing national songs, to the seaside to bring sea water which was dried in cement pans. The salt was packed in small packets and the ladies went to different places to sell the packets. Sometimes the salt packets were auctioned and sold to the highest bidder (at one place the highest bid was two rupees). Perin and Kamaladevi addressed a number of public meetings encouraging people to show their solidarity and join the peaceful protests. This was all under the watchful eyes of the British police. The name of Perin Captain features frequently in the Daily Reports of the Police Commissioner of Bombay submitted to the Secretary to Government of Bombay Presidency. The police intelligence was keeping a close watch on the unfurling movement of civil disobedience, as well as its leaders.

As an active member of the Congress party Perin was also trusted by Gandhi to ensure that the protests remained scrupulously non-violent and passive. On 4 July 1930 Perin was arrested as she was setting out for the Congress office. As a newspaper reported “she cheerfully submitted to the officers who came to her home”. Once the news of her arrest spread, the Municipal Corporation of Bombay adjourned, the Sugar Merchants’ Association passed a unanimous resolution to boycott British refined sugar.

Perin Captain’s leadership qualities saw her playing an active role in many other areas, but the Civil Disobedience Movement was a defining episode in her public life.

Perin was a trusted and active member of the Congress party in the state. In 1932 she became the first woman president of the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee. In 1937 the Congress Party came to power in eleven provinces in the provincial elections. In order to prepare for the future responsibilities that such developments would lead to, the Indian National Congress formed a National Planning Committee with Jawaharlal Nehru as Chairman. The Committee was clear that in such a future, women would be on an equal footing with men, and any planning should be based on this premise. Perin was a member of the sub-committee on Women’s Role in a Planned Economy. This committee debated and planned policy for issues such as women’s social, economic and political status, education, marriage, maternity and succession.

Over time smaller Gandhian bodies were merged into what became the Gandhi Seva Sena. Perin became its Honorary General Secretary, a post she held until her death. The Gandhi Seva Sena promoted khadi by selling rural and khadi products from their stores.

Even after independence Perin continued to work actively in the field of social work and welfare.  Perin was appointed Chief Commissioner of Bharat Guides. She was honoured with the Padma Sri in 1954, the first batch of civil awards presented in independent India. She died in Jahangir Nursing Home, Pune in 1958.

Perin Naoroji Captain was not only the granddaughter of the Grand Old Man of India, she was a true daughter of India’s swadeshi movement who boldly carried the message of the Mahatma to thousands of her fellow sisters.

–Mamata

All Dolled Up: Golu Festival

When we were young, Navaratri was one of the most exciting festivals. Several reasons: first, it was the only festival which stretched for so many days; then, for the girls, it involved getting dressed up every evening and visiting neighbours, friends and relatives; it meant different interesting prasads every day; and importantly, there was an ‘official’ ban on studying on the day of Saraswathi Puja, when all books, musical instruments etc., had to be kept at the altar.

The highlight of Navaratri for South Indians is Golu, the display of dolls.  The first step involves the putting up of the ‘golu padi’ or steps on which the dolls would be arranged. Some houses had modest 3-step set-ups, while others had up to nine steps (always in odd numbers). Households brought their their engineering skills to full play—sometimes steps were made of trunks ingeniously stacked to form a stair case, and covered with a cloth. Some constructed temporary arrangements from year to year. Others had permanent dismantalable steps which were stored away in some attic and assembled every year.

Popular leaders in Golu. Dusshera Dolls Exhibition

Then the dolls would be unpacked. Wooden ones, clay ones, porcelain ones, you name it. Those whose dresses were worn-out would need new clothes. Others needed a lick of paint or minor repairs. There was a particular order to arranging these dolls, with gods on the top steps, saints and famous people below them, and regular ordinary everyday people and scenes below these. There used to be sets—e.g., village scenes, scenes from the Ramayana, occupations, musicians, etc. Every year, each family also bought a few new dolls.

Golu dolls
Kumbhakaran being woken up. Dusshera Dolls Exhibition.

Below the steps on the floor, would be garden scenes, or most coveted, a ‘thopakulam’ (pond). Again, family ingenuity would come into play here. What container would hold the water (usually a large shallow tub); how it would be concealed (that involved importing a lot of sand or mud into the house!); what would float in it—ducks and other birds, flowers (real or plastic), etc; and the scene around the pond, including benches, trees, people strolling around, and when there was a particularly enthusiastic family, twinkling street lights.

Hi-tech was very much part of the display. Not just the lighting, but setting up elaborate working train sets or car racing-tracks instead of a traditional pond, and running the trains was a favourite.

And then, every day, elaborate rangolies had to be made, as well as prasad including the mandatory sundal (legumes like chana, lobia etc. cooked with coconut etc.).

For the little girls, it was about pulling out all the pattu-pavadais (silk longskirts), reviewing which would be worn on which day, which had grown short and needed to be let out, begging mothers and aunts to buy them blingy ornaments, and deciding whose house to visit when. We also had to prepare songs—every Aunty would ask every visitor to sing, and after the mandatory coy no’s, we would all sing the songs we had prepared. It must have been torturous to the listeners because most of us couldn’t hold a tune to save our lives. But everyone would applaud most politely, and then we would be given our vatala-paaku, fruit and packets of sundal wrapped in newspaper, and depart to the next house. The highlight of course was to savour the sundals—all of them used to taste delicious, partly because there was a limited quantity in the packages we were given.  We would discuss the relative merits of the doll display for days, and neighbourhood reputations were made or unmade based on the displays and sundals.

Such were the excitements of our simple lives. And so are memories made and traditions continued.

–Meena

Both pictures were taken at the Exhibition of Dusshera Dolls, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, Bangalore.

Gandhi’s Women Warriors: Usha Mehta

Here is a mantra, a short one that I give to you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is ‘Do or Die.’ We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery. Every true Congressman or woman will join the struggle with inflexible determination not to remain alive to see the country in bondage and slavery.

These words spoken by Gandhi on 8 August 1942 launched the Quit India movement. Although Gandhi and many other leaders were arrested within hours of his speech, with the expectation that without their leadership the resistance movement would be rudderless, the effect was the opposite. Thousands of Indians, young and old, heeded this call and plunged into the movement, each contributing in their own way.

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Among the crowd that directly heard the words from Gandhi on that day was a 22 year-old woman who took on the onus of spreading his message far and wide through unconventional means—secret radio broadcasts. This was Usha Mehta.

Usha Mehta was truly a daughter of the freedom movement, growing up as Gandhi led India each step forward on the road to independence. She was born on 25 March 1920 in a village called Saras near Surat in Gujarat. She first saw Gandhiji when she visited his ashram as a five-year old. She was just eight years old when she took part in her first protest. This was against the Simon Commission, when the young girl joined in the shouts of “Simon Go Back”. She mobilised her young friends and organised prabhat feris (dawn marches with songs and slogans). As a teenager she responded to Gandhi’s call to defy the salt tax, and joined in the various acts of civil disobedience from picketing of British goods to spinning cotton. She also took the vow of wearing khadi, and continued to do so all through her life. 

Usha’s father was a judge in the British Raj and did not support his daughter’s nationalistic leanings and activities. In 1933 her father retired as a judge and moved to Bombay, where Usha continued her schooling. It was in 1942 when Usha was studying in Wilson College in Bombay that she heard Gandhiji speak at the historic meeting of the Congress party. Moved by Gandhi’s words, Mehta – with the help of a few other young independence activists – planned to set up an underground radio station which would share news about the real situation on the ground, and spread Gandhi’s message far and wide. In the face of many challenges, the group raised some resources, and for technical help they contacted a friend who was running classes in radio mechanics. The transmitter was ready by 13 August, and the first broadcast was on 14 August 1942 opening with the words: “This is the Congress Radio calling on 42.34 from somewhere in India.”

In a time when the press was supressed, and news censored, these radio broadcasts spread the message of Quit India to the remotest corners of the country, urging people to join the mass civil disobedience movement. The broadcasts carried all sorts of news, especially news that was censored or banned to be spread by the regular media, such as merchants refusing to export rice to arrests of leaders and civilians. The broadcasts reported on police atrocities, mass protests and strikes. Prominent leaders also gave radical speeches on the broadcasts. The team got news from messengers across India, as well as from the office of the All India Congress Committee.

In the beginning, the broadcasts were once a day, in Hindi and English; then they were increased to twice a day. Usha and her fellow broadcast conspirators (along with their transmitter) had to constantly evade the police who were on their trail. As Usha recalled in an interview many years later (Police) vans used to chase us regularly and very often it was merely a question of touch and go. It is believed that the team moved locations six to seven times in the three months that they broadcast.

The broadcasts on 42.34 became extremely popular with the people across the country. There were also specific programmes for different groups like students, women, workers and lawyers.  

On 12th November 1942, based on information leaked by one of the technicians, the police raided the hideout from where the radio station was operating in Bombay. Usha Mehta was in the building when the police came. She quickly took the broadcast material and rushed to the recording studio which was elsewhere, and with the help of some colleagues set up a new transmitter for a final broadcast. As Usha Mehta recalled that day: We played Hindustan Hamara, then we relayed some news bulletins and a speech. Just when we were at the end of the programme, playing ‘Vande Mataram’, we heard hard knocks on the door. The authorities broke down the door and entered. They ordered us to stop playing ‘Vande Mataram’. We did not oblige them.

The authorities seized all the equipment and photos and film footage of Congress party sessions. Usha along with four of her colleagues, was arrested, kept in solitary confinement, and intensely interrogated for almost six months, but she refused to betray her colleagues. Usha and three of her colleagues were sentenced to four years in jail. She was released in March 1946. As she said: I came back from jail a happy, and to an extent, a proud person because I had the satisfaction of carrying out Bapu’s message, ‘Do or die’, and of having contributed my humble might to the cause of freedom.

After India became independent the following year, Usha Mehta went back to her old Wilson College to pursue a doctorate in Gandhian thought; and spent the remaining years as an academic, teaching in her own college for the next 30 years, and continuing to spread the Gandhian ideals through her writing and talks. Like a true Gandhian, she led a spartan life, waking at 4 am every morning and working late into the evening. Her diet, dress and habits were simple and frugal.

Usha Mehta was honoured with Padma Vibhushan in 1998. She continued to spread the philosophy of Gandhi until she passed away in August 2000 at the age of 80.

Today, more than ever, we need to be reminded of such feisty women whose lives were driven by a passion for a cause, and who demonstrated their commitment with courage and conviction.

–Mamata

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A Thousand Flowers Bloom on my Table: Millefiori


When I was young, visits to my father’s office were looked-forward to treats. And one of the things that fascinated me were the beautiful, colourful glass paperweights that lay on the table, doing what they were supposed to do, i.e., keeping papers from flying in the wind created by the fan.

With bright colours and intricate designs, each one was different from the other. And of course, I always wondered how the fantastic shapes got into the glass dome.

It was only recently that poking around in a drawer, I re-discovered one of these. And I decided to read up on them.

Appropriately, the technique is called ‘millefiori’, Italian for ‘thousand flowers’ and is a kind of glass mosaic. The technique was probably invented in ancient Egypt and can be traced back to Ancient Roman Times. Samples have been found dating back to the 5th century. But the process got lost somewhere and was revived only in the 19th century by Murano glass artists. Vincenzo Moretti is credited with this, and is said to have put in years of painstaking trial and error to perfect the art. The term ‘millefiori’ itself first found its place in the Oxford dictionary in 1849. It was around this time that it became a rage in Europe, and factories came up in Italy, France and England, making paperweights, beads and marbles. France was at the center of the blossoming creativity. The Great Exhibition of London in 1851 and the Paris Expo of 1878 gave a fillip to the popularity of this craft. However, the trend petered out in a few decades but some artists still carry forward the tradition, creating works to suit modern sensibilities.

Millefiori paperweight
Millefiori paperweight

The first step in the technique is to create Millefiori canes by layering molten glass of different colours into a pattern in a cylindrical shape. Then the cylinder is pulled by two glassmakers walking away from each other, pulling it to create a long rod. When the rod is sliced, the pattern is seen. Each such slice is called a murine. Many murines are arranged in a pattern and cased in glass, resulting in the beautiful products, ranging from paperweights, vases, rings, pendants, decorative plates, ashtrays and even playing marbles. It is a craft requiring not just an aesthetic sense but also great skills of working with glass, and precision. While flowers are the most common patterns, there are paperweights with geometrical shapes, insects, etc. too.

Today, these weights are collectors’ items, auctioned by the likes of Christie’s.

Alas, the one I have dug out is chipped at the bottom, so unlikely to make me my fortune. But it sure gives me joy every day when I look at it on my table. As precious!

—Meena

The Naming of the Mahatma

Mohandas and Kasturba Gandhi on return to India in 1915
Source: mkgandhi.org

On January 9 1915, SS Arabia, a mail boat from England docked at Bombay port. Among those who disembarked were Mohandas Gandhi and Kasturba Gandhi, returning to settle in India after 21 years in South Africa. Gandhi was already well known in India for his 20 years of work for justice and satyagraha in South Africa. But the South African human rights activist had not yet become the leader of the Indian freedom struggle. However it was in the first few weeks back on his native soil that Mohandas would be bestowed with the title that became an integral part of his name for the rest of his life, and much beyond—Mahatma.

There are different stories about how this came to be, including that it was Rabindranath Tagore who gave him this honorific title in March 1915. In fact, it was three months earlier that the word Mahatma was first used to address him.

Upon return to India, following a week of a series receptions and meetings in Bombay, Mohandas left for Ahmedabad, and then travelled to Kathiawar. On 21 January 1915, Gandhi came to Jetpur where he visited the home of the town’s leading citizen nagarsheth Nautamlal Bhagvanji Kamdar.

The links between Gandhi and Nautamlal’s family had an older, slightly indirect history. Nautamlal’s daughter Manjula (Maya) was married to the son of Dr PJ Mehta, one of Gandhi’s oldest and closest friends.  Pranjivan Mehta, a medical doctor, was one of the first Indians that Gandhi contacted when he landed in England in October 1888, as a young and naïve law student. Dr Mehta eased the shy Mohandas into the life and customs of the new country. The two became close friends, and the bonds lasted through their life. It was Dr Mehta who encouraged Gandhi to return to India in 1915 and supported him in every way as he found his feet on the road that would lead to India’s freedom. By then Dr Mehta had moved to Rangoon where he had a profitable jewellery business. The two friends continued to correspond, sharing ideas, issues and problems, and even visited each other. It was Dr Mehta’s financial support that enabled Gandhi to devote all his time and attention to the freedom movement. Dr Mehta even procured a plot of land in Ahmedabad for Gandhi to recreate the Phoenix Ashram experiment. This became known as Sabarmati Ashram. He also contributed funds for the setting up of Gujarat Vidyapith. Dr Mehta remained Gandhi’s pillar of strength until he passed away in 1932.

Thus the family of Nautamlal Kamdar also became close to Gandhi, and were also generous donors to the Sabarmati Ashram and the Gujarat Vidyapith. But even before these were established, the Kamdar family were among the first to welcome and support Gandhi as he embarked on the long march to freedom, right from the first week of his return to Indian soil.

On January 21, 1915 the family organised a felicitation meeting for Gandhi and Kasturba to be held at Kamri Bai School in Jetpur.  Here both Gandhi and Kasturba were honoured with the presentation of manpatras (citations). It is in the citation to Gandhi that the title of honour of Mahatma was first recorded.

The original manpatra was in Gujarati, but here is an English translation of the same as sourced from https://nautamlalmehta.com.  

To Shriman Mahatma Mohandas Karmchand Gandhi. Barrister-at-law.

Gentleman, You have returned to your native land after leading a fight for many years for the right of Indians. We the residents of Jetpur, are honored and pleased to have you here. We have gathered here to commemorate this auspicious occasion and we heartily present this document of honor to you and to your wife.

You were born in an honorable family of Karmchand Gandhi in Kathiawad and acquired higher education and higher knowledge. You have set a direct example of duty to all the people by way of performing duties rightfully, and we are very proud of it. Your father had brought fame by enjoying an executive post in the states of Porbander, Wankaner, Rajkot, etc. In a similar manner as your father, you have enhanced your father’s fame by taking a leading part in the interest of the country and people as a top priority of your life.

For the people of Indian origin in South Africa, you fought, sacrificed and showed them a new light in their life, in order to fight for their rights, justice, and their dignity. The Indians all over the world know your dedication and your unbounded love for them in their hearts. You also stood against the mighty British Empire with the new weapon of Satyagraha. You have come out a winner in that. We feel very proud and happy about it. The way you handled the British government with skill, determination, will power, undergoing physical and family pains, and imprisonment are all the hardships that you underwent in order to fight for human rights, bring success and were able to change the laws. We Indians are very proud of you. No amount of words can express the deep gratitude we feel for the work you have done in South Africa and in India.

It would be a very long document if we enumerated all the achievements you accomplished in South Africa and in India. Even though you come from a noble family and earned a degree in law and have had biographies written about your achievements, we will not take up much of your time in enumerating them.

You discharged your duties without self-interest and sacrificed money matters. Your behavior is characterized by what is being told in Hindu religious scriptures about saints as to how they should behave and what religious practices they should follow. It is not an exaggeration to honor you with the title of “Mahan Yogi” (Mahatma), it is based upon your self-knowledge of the Mahan soul (atma).

We pray to the creator of world that you may continue the way in which you are trying for the well-being of Hind and that way obliging Hind, and you and your wife remain hail and healthy physically; and the almighty god may bestow upon you a long life; and that you may enjoy all happiness and peace, along with other members of your family.

Jetpur, 21-1-1915 (January 21.1915)                           

This week as we mark the birth anniversary of Gandhiji, it is interesting to discover how Mohandas became Mahatma Gandhi.

–Mamata

Motto: A Call to Action

A motto is a sentence, phrase, or word inscribed on something as appropriate to or indicative of its character or use’. It is a ‘short expression of a guiding principle’. A motto is official, like a logo or a statement, and an entity can have only one motto at a time (though they can and do change this over time).

Any entity can have a motto: a person, a country, a corporate, an educational institution, a non-profit.

Satyameva jayate
Satyameva jayate

India’s motto is Satayameva Jayata: Truth alone shall triumph. Some organs of the government have their own mottos too: The motto of our Supreme Court is: Yato Dharmastato Jayah. (Where there is righteousness (dharma), there is victory). The Indian Army: The safety,  honour and welfare of your country; Indian Air Force: Nabha sparsham Deeptam (Touch the sky with glory ); Indian Navy: Shaṁ No Varunah(May the Lord of Water be auspicious unto us).

Some interesting mottos of other countries are:

Truth prevails: Somewhat similar to India’s, this is the motto of the Czech Republic.

Janani Janmabhumishcha Swargadapi Gariyasi: Like India, Nepal’s motto is in Sanskrit, and means ‘Mother and motherland are greater than heaven’.

Rain: This is the motto of Botswana, and only one-word motto for a country. It pithily communicates the importance of rain for an agricultural county.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité: The motto of the French Revolution became the motto of two countries—France and Haiti.

In God we trust: This was taken as the motto of USA in 1956. Till then, the motto was ‘E pluribus unum’, meaning ‘Out of many, one’.

Some countries like the UK, China, Denmark, Bangladesh etc. have no official motto.

Business houses of course have mottoes too. Some are philosophical and conceptual, other very practical.

Tatas: Leadership with Trust.

Wipro: Applying thought

TCS: Experience certainty.

Reliance Industries: Growth is Life.

Non-profits convey their mission through the mottos:

Pratham: Every child in school and learning well.

Indian Red Cross Society: I Serve

Blind People’s Association: Touching People, Changing Lives

Adyar Cancer Institute: With Humanity and In Wisdom

Our educational institutions have profound mottoes too:

UGC: Gyan Vigyan Vimuktaye, meaning ‘knowledge liberates.’

IIM-A: Vidya Vinaygodhvikasah, meaning ‘development through the distribution or application of knowledge’.

IIT-B: Gyanam Marmam dhyatam, meaning ‘knowledge is the supreme goal.’

Delhi University: Nishta Drithiha Satyam: Dedication, steadfastness and truth.

Anna University: Progress through knowledge.

BITS Pilani: Gyanam Paramam Balam: Knowledge is the supreme power.

TISS: Re-imaging Futures.

There is not a motto of a country, an organization or institution which is not uplifting, elevating, noble. But sadly, I doubt if members of the entity even know or recall what their motto is. Maybe each organization needs to consciously set aside time on a regular basis to reflect, discuss and internalize how their motto should and can guide their day-to-day operations.  A motto can be an inspiration, a guide to action, something that conveys a mission, something that unites. It is a powerful way of bringing people together and inspiring them. But if they are left on paper, they are simply unreal statements of aspirational intent, rather than guiding principles.

–Meena

Giving Thanks

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift
.

Mary Oliver Contemporary American poet

As we look back into the tunnel of darkness that we are cautiously tiptoeing out of, one step at a time, the overwhelming emotion that many of us are experiencing, is that of thankfulness. We are grateful to be fortunate enough to have come out of a very dark and difficult period to face a new day.

The last year-and-a-half has led most of us to re-evaluate our life and our priorities. It has humbled us to be grateful for what we have, rather than always aspiring for what  we do not have. It has opened our senses and sensibilities to the smaller joys of living, and simply, just to count our blessings.

Well before the unprecedented pandemic taught us how to look for, and appreciate, the small rays of light in dark skies, wise people had recognised the power of gratitude. In 1965, during a Thanksgiving gathering at the International East-West Center in Hawaii, Sri Chinmoy, a spiritual leader and meditation teacher, had suggested that a day be designatedwhen the entire world came together for the message of thanks. After the meeting in Hawaii, many attendees began marking Gratitude Day in their own countries on the autumnal equinox in September. In the following years, Gratitude Day became bigger and bigger, and in 1977 the United Nations Meditation Group requested a formal resolution to give recognition for World Gratitude Day to be celebrated every year on 21 September.

The ideal of World Gratitude Day is to give people the opportunity to offer personal gratitude, but also to remember that gratitude is an essential emotion that should be universally shared.

While we usually think of giving thanks to people for all the happy things, we also need to think of situations and experiences that may have seemed difficult or painful, but that have taught us something, and made us wiser and stronger. This is a gift that makes us realise that no one person is an island, and that we are all interconnected in one way or another. Gratefulness shapes how we relate to each other, and to our circumstances. It stems out of generosity, compassion, and respect…towards those things that nurture peace.

Feeling and expressing gratitude imbues both the giver and the receiver with a sense of peace. When the emotion transcends the personal to embrace the universal, it could be the first step towards a peaceful global order. Perhaps this is what prompted the United Nations to also designate 21 September as the International Day of Peace–a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace. In a time when so many parts of the world continue to be ravaged by so much violence, in all its explicit and implicit forms, the theme for the United Nations International Day of Peace this year is “Recovering better for an equitable and sustainable world”. This reminds us to be grateful for what we may be fortunate to have, as individuals and as communities and nations, and to join hands for a world that is more equitable, inclusive, sustainable and healthy.

Human memory is short. Even as we rapidly try to regain the “old normal” and the climb back onto our treadmills and into the rat races, this is a good week to remind ourselves to give thanks for the new day, and all that it may bring. 

As the Sufi poet Rumi beautifully puts it:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

–Mamata