High Flyers: Women in Aviation

Last week was Sankranti and all eyes were turned to the skies as the colourful kites soared and dipped, drifted and sailed with the breeze. Also in the sky were the avian kites, riding the thermals. From time immemorial, humans have gazed up and dreamed of soaring the skies too. The same week there was a news item about a young Belgian-British teenager who flew her single-seater Shark ultralight plane around the world in 150 days. 19 year old Zara Rutherford thus became the youngest woman to circumnavigate the world solo. One of the objectives of her mission, she says was to infuse young women and girls worldwide with the spirit of aviation. 

In the day and age when women are soaring high in all spheres, it is interesting that she feels that more women need to take to the skies. And even more interesting that India has a fair share of women, who have made their dreams of flying come true, not only today, but almost hundred years ago.

Google Doodle honouring Sarla Thukral on her 107th birthday on 8 August 2021

Sarla Thukral was the first Indian woman to fly an aircraft. Born in 1914 in Delhi, she later moved to Lahore, in what was then British India. At the age of 16 she married an airmail pilot PD Sharma who came from a family of fliers. The young bride was also smitten by the aviation bug, and encouraged by her husband, she started flying lessons. Having completed 1000 hours of flying time she earned her flying license, and did her first solo flight in a Gypsy Moth, a small, double winged plane at the age of 21, dressed in a sari. She was preparing to become a commercial pilot but the Second World War broke out, and civil aviation training was suspended. Tragically, around the same time she also lost her husband in an air crash. Sarla was grounded, but not her creativity. She took up with equal passion her love for the arts. She started studying fine arts and painting at Lahore’s Mayo School of Arts. She returned to Delhi after Partition, where she continued to paint. She married RP Thakral in 1948. She also started designing jewellery and clothes and set up a successful business which she ran till she passed away in 2008.

Sarla—high flier, in the sky and on the ground! And an inspiration for many young girls in India who have over the years taken to the skies.

One of the concerns expressed by young Zara is that there is still a big gender gap in the field of aviation in many western countries. Globally, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, around 5 percent of pilots are women. In India, the share of women pilots is significantly higher – at over 15 percent, more than twice as high as in most Western countries, including the United States and Australia. According to one report India has a total of 17,726 registered pilots out of which the number of women pilots is 2,764.

We have, in the last few years, always experienced a surge of pride when we hear a woman’s voice introducing herself as the pilot on a commercial flight. Even more uplifting is the increasing number of women who are flying shoulder-to-shoulder with men in the armed forces.

Women pilots have been flying transport aircraft and helicopters in the three Forces for a long time. As far back as 1994, when many people had reservations about allowing women pilots in the Indian Air Force, Gunjan Saxena, along with Srividya Rajan, defied convention, and took up the challenge; they were two of the 25 young women to form the first batch of women IAF trainee pilots. The Kargil War of 1999 was a real test of the true grit of these women. They fearlessly flew helicopters in the combat zone, and into hostile territory to drop supplies, evacuate injured soldiers and spy on enemy positions. Gunjan and Srividya’s contribution in this critical war effort was highly commended, and an inspiration for many young women who dreamed of a career in uniform.

In October 2015, the Indian Air Force opened the fighter pilot stream to women. The first three female pilots to be inducted in the fighter squadron in June 2016 were Avani Chaturvedi, Bhawana Kanth and Mohana Singh.  These young women, were fuelled by the sense of adventure as well as the spark of contributing to the defence of our country.

Today the Indian Air Force has 111 women pilots who fly transport planes and choppers, and 10 women fighter pilots.

As Bhawana Kanth said “It is not the right time for it now, it has always been the right time for women to become fighter pilots.”

Last year Flight Lieutenant Bhawana Kanth on 26 January 2021, became the first woman fighter pilot to be take part in the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) tableau at the Republic Day parade at Delhi’s Rajpath.

This year, as we mark the many strides forward that our Republic has made, and salute with pride the accomplishments of its citizens, let us put our hands together for all the young women who dare to dream, and who make their dreams come true. Soar high, sisters and daughters, and may even the skies not be your limit.

–Mamata

A Unique Musical Fest: Thyagaraja Aradhana

The Thyagaraja Aradhana held at Thiruvayaru, Tamilnadu, must be one of the most unique, participatory and joyous ways to celebrate the life and music of a great composer. The aradhana is held every year on the anniversary of the passing away of Saint Thyagaraja, and falls on 22nd January this year.

Saint Thyagaraja (1767-1847), one of the Trinity of Carnatic Music, is thought to have composed about 25,000 songs, apart from two musical dramas, the Prahalada Bhakti Vijayam and the Nauka Charitam. However, since the Saint hardly kept any record of his compositions, it is not clear how many songs he did actually compose. Only about 700 are known to us today—thanks not only to the lack of record keeping, but also vagaries of time, natural disasters, etc., which obviously were not kind to the palm leaf notes that his disciples kept.

Thyagaraja was completely immersed in bhakti, in his worship of Lord Rama. It is said that the King of Thanjavur, having heard of Thyagaraja’s musical genius, sent him an invitation to attend his court. The Saint not only rejected the invitation, but composed the song Nidhi Chala Sukhama  (Does wealth bring happiness?) in response!

Coming back to the fascinating history of the Aradhana. Thyagaraja died in 1847 after renouncing the world and taking sanyas. His mortal remains were buried on the banks of the Kaveri. A small monument was built there, but soon felt into neglect. In 1903, two of his disciplines Umayalpuram Krishna Bhagavatar and Sundara Bhagavata, now eminent musicians, made a nostalgia trip to Thirivayaru. They were appalled at the neglect of the memorial, and decided to commemorate the death anniversary of their Guru at the site, so that he could be remembered appropriately, and the Samadhi maintained.

The next year 1904, was when the Aradhana started. In 1905, it became a lavish affair with days of worship, dozens of performances by top-notch artistes, and feeding of the poor etc. While Krishna Bhagavatar and Sundara Bhagavatar were the moving spirits behind the festival, they obviously needed practical men with money and organizing power to see the event through. The brothers Tillaisthanam Narasimha Bhagavatar and Tillaisthanam Panju Bhagavatar stepped in to play these roles. However, the moneyed brothers soon developed disagreements, and by 1906 had formed rival factions which each conducted its own Aradhana! In time, a compromise was reached under which the group following the younger brother began its festival five days before the day of the Aradhana and culminated its celebrations on the day of the Aradhana, while the other group started on the Aradhana day, and went on for four days after.

The factions did dissolve their differences at some point and unite. Whether as two groups or united, one thing brought them together.  Their opposition to women to perform at the Aradhana. At that time, most women who performed in public were devadasis, and the keepers of morality decided they could not have them perform at such a venerable occasion.

Bangalore Nagarathnamma was one of the pre-eminent musicians of the time. She had earned name and fame as a highly gifted artiste. She was a great devotee of Thyagaraja, and felt she owed everything to him—after all, it was renditions of his songs that predominated her concerts and had brought her so much. However, as a woman, she was barred from participating in the Aradhana.

In 1921, Naratahnamma decided that she would dedicate her large wealth to preserving the Saint’s legacy. She bought land around the Samadhi and built up a temple over it. She had an idol of Thygaraja made and installed in front. The temple was consecrated in 1926.

The organizing group of the Aradhana was happy to let her do all this at her own expense. But when it came to performing at the Aradhana, they would not let her. The redoubtable Nagaratnamma decided to start her own Aradhana, which took place at the rear of the temple.This edition featured many women artists and became increasingly popular. She also went to court against the original organizing groups, saying they could not enter the temple because it was hers. While she lost the case, the court designated specific hours of the Aradhana day to her group, and the two other groups.

This was when a bureaucrat stepped in, and for once solved a problem! SY Krishnaswami, ICS, convinced the groups to unite, and in 1941 three rival events merged into one. And an important victory was won—women became part of the festival.

It was also in this year that the practice of singing the five pancharatnas of Thyagaraja as a group-rendering began. This is now the unique feature of the celebration. Five of the Saint’s compositions that were best suited to group singing were selected, so that all artistes could pay their homage to the Saint, unitedly.   A goose-bumping raising experience to see hundreds of people singing together, without any visible coordination.

Do catch it on You Tube.

Happy Thagaraja Aradhana!

–Meena

KING CROW 

Erect and majestic, against the clear blue January sky, sits the bird. It is imperious in its mien, the king of all that it surveys, from its perch on the branch of the drumstick tree. Its glossy black feathers lengthen into a long forked tail, like the regalia of a king. No wonder it carries the moniker of King Crow. But it is not related to the crow family.

Drongo
Drongo

This is the Black Drongo. It belongs to a distinct family the Dicrurus. Its scientific name is Dicrurus macrocercus. Dicrurus is derived from the Greek words dikros meaning forked, and ouros meaning tailed; macrosersus is from the Greek makrokerkos, where makros means long and kerkos means tail. It is this forked tail that is the distinctive feature of this bird. The body of the drongo is small (bulbul sized) while the tail is relatively long, giving it a graceful and regal appearance, not only when it is perched, but also when it flies with an undulating wave-like movement, alternating the flapping of wings, and gliding smoothly with wings held still. 

The Black Drongo can be seen in open areas—farmlands, grasslands, fields and even urban pockets, usually perched on poles and wires, or tree branches. These are favoured as they are good look outs for spotting prey. The Drongo is primarily an insect eater, on the alert for bees, butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers, cicadas, termites, moths and ants. The insects are snatched from the air with daring aerial displays—shooting up like an arrow, zooming down like a rocket, veering sharply to change direction—which are a delight to watch. Once caught, the prey is carried off by the Drongo, who with deft manoeuvres, clamps its catch under foot, and tears it to pieces before swallowing it. 

Drongos are also smart enough to avail of more easily available meals by being around when fields are being ploughed, or stubble is being burned, so as to feast on all the insects that are disturbed by this. They also hitch a ride on the back of grazing cattle, with the same purpose of feasting on the insects that fly up in the wake of the walking cattle. Thus Drongos help to control many agricultural pests, making them important biological pest-control agents, earning them the name ‘farmers’ friends’. 

The Drongo is not just agile in its movements, it has a versatile repertoire of calls—from harsh scolding calls to a range of sweet whistles. It is also a clever mimic, imitating the calls of other birds, so as to use this to its advantage in different ways. It can imitate sounds that make a flock of diverse birds believe that they are from the same flock; it will raise an alarm call that will cause others to abandon their food and flee, leaving the rest for the Drongo.  It is said that the Drongo perfectly mimics the call of a shikra which scares birds like mynas who fly away in panic, leaving the takings for the Drongo.

Despite its small size this bird is fearless, and can be aggressive, taking on larger species that may venture into its nesting territory. It is especially vigilant about keeping out crows who may poach their eggs. Thus being given the appropriate name of Kotwal or sentry in Hindi. The smaller birds take advantage of this vigil by also nesting safely in the ‘sphere of influence’ of this gutsy gatekeeper.  

The battle for supremacy between the freeloading crow and the feisty bird was vividly described by British civil servant and naturalist Edward Hamilton Aitken in his book The Common Birds of Bombay published in 1900. 

 “Its (Drongo’s) aim is true and its beak is sharp and its target is the back of the lawbreaker. The Crow is big enough to carry off its puny enemy and pick its bones, if it could catch it, but who can fight against a ‘bolt from the blue’? The first onset may, perhaps, be dodged, but the nimble bird wheels and rises and plunges again with derisive screams, again and again piling pain and humiliation on the abject fugitive till it has gone far beyond the forbidden limits. Then the King sails slowly back to its tree and resumes its undisputed reign.”

Little wonder then, that this bird, though no relative of the Common Crow, has earned the sobriquet King Crow. 

This agile and spunky little bird is equally celebrated for its cleverness. It displays these traits in a number of folk tales from different cultures and geographies—from South Africa to Australia to North East India. 

Here is one from the Shangani tribe of Zimbabwe.

A long time ago, the birds decided to choose a leader. A call was sent to all birds to attend a meeting to determine the same. When he heard this, Pau the Ostrich was confident that being the largest bird, he would get this title. Gama the Eagle was equally sure that he was entitled to this, being the bird that could fly highest. The little birds also decided to compete. Thus birds of every shape, size and colour arrived at the meeting. The elders had a long and argumentative discussion to fix the criteria for selection. Finally they agreed that the bird who could stay in the air the longest would be designated as leader. 

Pau the ostrich, who could not even fly, stalked out in protest at this criterion. Many smaller birds who knew the limits of their ability and endurance dropped out, knowing that they could not match the powerful fliers. But Matengwane, the fork-tailed drongo, did not throw in the towel immediately, and quietly planned his strategy. The next morning when the big birds set off flying on their course, drongo lightly settled on the back of Gama the high flying eagle, and hid amongst its feathers. As the race went on, more and more birds began to drop out from exhaustion, until finally it was only Gama soaring in the sky. The confident eagle descended, and landed to cheers. Just as the elders were about to crown Gama as the leader, they noticed that there was still one bird flying in the sky— Matengwane the drongo! The clever hitchhiker had detached himself from his ride, just as Gama was landing, and remained the sole winged creature in the sky. And thus was the Drongo declared the leader of the birds!

Certainly no bird brain—the Drongo.

.–Mamata

My Lockdown Book Project Starring Ladybug, Mouse and Dog

Lockdowns saw all of us sitting for hours in front of our home- computers. And when I developed some kind of cervical spondylosis, I spent a lot of those hours with a neck brace on.

My Sunday with Deedu and Daadu
Deedu, the Ladybug

It was only when Barnalee my 2.5 year old foster grand-daughter put the neck brace on her stuffed ladybug toy, fitted my specs on to it, and called it ‘Deedu’ that I realized that for her, these two items were an essential part of me!

Her imagination was the inspiration for my lockdown children’s book. I started wondering if I could do a book based on her daily routine.

But children’s books need illustrations! They depend on that. I knew few illustrators who could help me. And the ones I knew were too busy or too expensive.

That is when I remembered that my neighbor, young Harini a communications student, was a talented photographer and very skilled designer. So we decided to work on this together and make it a photograph-based book.

The ladybug would of course star as Deedu (granny). Barnalee’s  first stuffed toy, the dog Sheru, would star as Daadu (grandpa). And a stuffed mouse, which was her favourite, would star as Barnalee.

My Sunday with Deedu and Daadu
Barnalee, the Mouse

The mouse is almost 30 years old. I clearly remember buying it in a shop in Colombo, probably the equivalent of our state emporia, on my first visit to Sri Lanka, to attend a workshop on the use of Television for the Environment. It started life as a car-hanger, which was its original purpose. Then, when the string broke, it spent several years in the cupboard, till it was fished out for Barnalee to play with.

We built the story around the baby’s favorite activities, and used her toys and playthings as props. And things which were not supposed to be her playthings, but she played with anyway! We did all the shooting in and around the house and garden. Since both Harini and I were at home, we could capture the light at any time of the day or night that was needed. And we could do trial runs, pre-shoots and re-shoots to our hearts’ content. Another friend, Vidya Chandy, who is a very good photographer visited on a rare non-lockdown day and gave us valuable tips.

We thought we would be done in a few days—after all it was a book of about 20 pages, with maybe a total of 150 words! But of course these things are never so easy, are they? I would want to change one activity for another, or the flow of the activities, or to fine-tune the words and text. Harini would want to take the shot from a few more angles, want the shadows just this way or that. And together we wanted to change the fonts, the size, the page layouts. And sometimes, the baby would insist she wanted to play with just the prop we needed for the shoot, leading to postponements!

And then the final design and layout. We found we had to switch from a landscape format to a square format, as most publishers want that format. Thanks to Harini’s skill on the software, she managed to do that in a few hours. Watching her at work on the layouts opened my eyes to how easily and quickly software can accomplish what in the old days used to take us days and nights—whether it was layouts, change of fonts, re-positioning of pictures and text, changing backgrounds, etc. etc. And also brought home to me how skilled these young people are at working it.

And then we published! After a long, long time, the satisfaction of holding one’s book in one’s hand!

My Sunday with Deedu and Daadu
The Book!

So all in all, a lovely lockdown project.

‘My Sunday with Deedu and Daadu’.  Now available on Amazon, Flipkart and Kindle.

–Meena

First Lady Teacher: Savitribai Phule

I have often written in this space about ‘women warriors’. Women who have dreamed, and have made their dreams a reality, even in the face of adversity and opposition. These remarkable women are to be found in every age, and in every part of the world. And they continue to inspire, as well as to remind that what we take for granted today, was fought for, and achieved, by someone before us. One of these is the right of girls to education. This is a good week to remember a woman who paved the path for this—Savitribai Phule.

On 3 January 1831, a girl child was born in Naigaon village in Maharashtra. She was named Savitri. Her parents Lakshmi and Khandoji Neveshe Patil were Malis (traditionally vegetable growers and sellers), an economically and socially backward community. A girl child in such a community meant that she was not sent to school. The story goes that one day her father caught her leafing through the pages of an English language book and he was incensed; believing that only upper class males had this privilege. But this planted the seeds of the resolve in the young girl that she would, one day, learn to read and write.     

Savitri was married off at the age of nine. Her husband, Jyotirao Phule, also from the same community, was only 13 years old himself, and he was studying in class three. But fate may have decided that this couple would one day change the way of things.

Savitribai entered her husband’s house as an illiterate child. Jyotirao, a man ahead of his times, believed that girls had an equal right to education. He himself began teaching his young wife at home, in the face of great disapproval from the family and the community. His friends Keshav Bhavalkar and Sakharam Paranjpe also contributed to her education. Perhaps it is these early mentors who inspired in Savitri the resolve to become a teacher herself. Jyotirao supported Savitri’s journey from becoming literate to getting higher education outside the home. She enrolled for teacher training programmes, first in Ahmednagar in an institution run by Cynthia Farrar who was one of the first unmarried American women sent overseas as a missionary, and who lived and worked in India from 1827 until her death in 1862. Savitri also trained at the Normal School in Pune. She was now ready to embark on her life’s mission of educating and empowering girls.

After completing her training she started teaching girls in Maharwada Pune. Not long after that, in 1848, Jyotirao and Savitri, along with Sagunabai, a revolutionary social reformist, opened a school for lower-caste girls in Bhidewada in Pune. The curriculum included traditional western mathematics, social studies and science, as well as vocational training. Savitribai was the teacher. It is believed that she was the first Indian woman teacher. The school had only nine students to begin with, and it was a struggle to keep them in school. Savitribai offered stipends as incentive, and held parent teacher meetings to encourage and support the parents.

In a time when it was not at all common to send girls to school, this was in itself a bold step. Opening a school for lower-caste girls invited huge backlash, especially from orthodox high castes. The Phules were undeterred and determined. Over the next few years, they opened a series of schools in the Pune area for girls and for lower-caste boys and girls. This raised more hostility, which even manifested itself in throwing of stones and dung at Savitri as she walked to school. It is said that she used to carry with her two sarees, so as to change out of her soiled clothes after she reached school. Jyotirao and Savitri, who until 1849, had lived with Jyotirao’s father, had to move away due to the strong opposition from the local community. But the couple courageously continued with their mission; going on to set up 18 such schools in the region.

It is believed that when they had to leave their home, the young couple was given refuge in the home of Usman Sheikh. His sister Fatima held the same views on education as Savitri and had also studied at the same teacher training institute. She started teaching with Savitribai, and is believed to be the first Muslim woman teacher of the nineteenth century. She continued to teach at the Phule’s schools all her life. The two women shared a long friendship based on mutual respect and synergy.

Education was not the only cause that drove Savitribai. Supporting Jyotirao’s strong crusade against the practice of Sati, child marriage, untouchability and other social evils, she also worked tirelessly for freeing women of many of the social fetters that bound them. She spoke up against the practice of widows having to shave their head. The Phules opened a care centre for widows, rape victims and their children, and girls who escaped female infanticide and sati. The Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha provided a refuge for them to live, and raise their children, in safety and dignity. Later the Phules adopted a boy from here as their son.

Savitribai expressed her views not only by her actions but also through her words. She wrote poems extolling education as a means to a life of dignity. One of her poems in Marathi with the title Go, Get Education urges “Sit idle no more, go, get education, end the misery of the oppressed and forsaken. You’ve got a golden chance to learn, so learn and break the chains of caste.” Her first anthology of poems Kavya Phule was published in 1854.

In 1897 the bubonic plague broke out around Pune. Savitribai and her adopted son Yashwant set up a clinic to take care of affected patients. While tending to the patients, Savitribai herself caught the infection, and succumbed to it on March 1 1897.

Savitribai’s life was a tale of true grit and perseverance, and she was a pioneering crusader for equality and justice, especially for women. Today she is described as “India’s first feminist icon”. An article in the Oikos Worldviews Journal sums up her contribution thus ‘Indian women owe her. For in today’s world, whether an Indian school girl reading English, an Indian woman who reads, an Indian woman who is educated, or an educated international desi woman, her education as an Indian female grows from the garden planted by Savitribai Phule’.

–Mamata

Biju Patnaik, the Daredevil Maverick

A chance occurrence can reveal the depths of one’s ignorance in a particular field. For me, the latest such was a linkedin post that I read about Shri Biju Patnaik. I realized that that I hardly knew anything about him. The extent of my knowledge could be more or less captured in the following bullets:  that he was a freedom fighter; that he had been CM of Orissa/Odisha for a few terms; that he opposed the Emergency; that he had done a lot for the development of his State; that the Bhubaneswar Airport is named after him, and there is a large, imposing statute of him outside the airport; and that his son has been the CM of the State for so long that I quite forget any other CM.

Appalled at my ignorance, I set out to find a good biography. There was hardly anything available. I finally ordered one called ‘Legendary Biju: The Man and Mission’. edited by Maj. KP Mohanty, which seemed the most promising of the slim pickings.

Biju Patnaik
Biju Patnaik

I won’t go into the merits of the book, except to say that I am grateful that Maj. Mohanty and other friends and admirers of the great man put this book together, so that someone like me can get glimpses of him.

Born in 1916 in a well-off family, Biju never followed the conventional route. Daredevilry and adventure were his defining characteristics. The highlight of his school days was when he cut school to go and see an aeroplane which had landed near his town. Just looking at the plane, a very unusual sight in those days, filled him with excitement and he determined to become a pilot. The fact that the guards posted around the plane chased him away and would not let him get near it, only strengthened his resolve.

When he grew older, he with three friends undertook to ride from Bhubaneshwar to Peshawar on cycles. He joined Ravenshaw College, only to drop out so that he could get trained as a pilot. And he became a flying ace.

There are several tales of his derring-do as a pilot which sound more the stuff of fiction and film than real life.

After qualifying as a pilot, he joined a private airline, but ‘somehow or the other sneaked into the Royal Airforce’. This was at the height of World War II. Stalingrad was surrounded by the Nazis, and Red Army did not have enough weapons to hold the city. The fall of Stalingrad would have meant that the Nazis would be able to march to Moscow, and things would get really serious for the Allies. It was Biju Patnaik to the rescue! He flew 27 sorties and dropped arms and ammunition into the besieged city, which helped the Red Army defend it, and force the Germans to retreat. This was an important milestone in WW II.

During the Quit India movement, Biju Babu continued to in the service of the British—in fact, he was pilot to Lord Wavel, the Viceroy of India, and most trusted by him. But all the time, he was pinching secret papers and files which he had access to, and passing them on the freedom fighters. He  dropped political leaflets to Indian soldiers fighting under British command in Burma. He flew several leaders of the Freedom Movement, including Aruna Asaf Ali the intrepid freedom fighter, clandestinely. He was finally caught and imprisoned by the British. A secret agent more daring than James Bond!

Post-Independence, there were many occasions when his courage and skill as a pilot were called to the service of the nation. India was supporting the Indonesian Freedom Movement, which was fighting the Dutch colonizers. At one stage, Nehru with whom Biju Patnaik was very close, wanted the Indonesian leaders to attend the first Inter-Asia conference, and present their case at the world stage and garner support for their cause. The colonial masters were not keen that the freedom movement leaders go out of the country, and stopped all air and sea routes. But Biju Babu flew a secret sortie, brought the leaders to address the conference, and then dropped them back.

When the Pakistan Army attacked Srinagar in late 1947, the situation for India was really bad. There were just not enough troops or weapons in J&K for the country to hold and defend it. The only way was to fly them in. But it was not clear whether the Airport was still in Indian hands or had been taken over by the attackers. The Indian Airforce expressed their inability to land under the circumstances. One again, Biju to the rescue! He landed in Srinagar Airport, took over the control tower, ensuring that our Airforce places could land. And that turned the tide of history.

He had a role to play in Nepal too. When there was struggle between the Ranas who were the rulers, and freedom fighters of Nepal, India supported the freedom fighters, but could formally do nothing to interfere in the internal affairs of a neighbor. But Biju Patnaik went ahead and dropped 15,000 guns into Nepal to aid the anti-royalists!

And these were just his exploits as a pilot. But he was so much more. Apart from being an industrialist, he was of course a politician on the national stage, the CM of Orissa, a man credited for many significant development projects there.  (Hopefully, I can briefly cover some of these in a subsequent blog).


‘Maverick’ and ‘Daredevil’ are two terms which recur through the book. And for sure he was both of those. ‘Controversial’ could be added too. In his time, he was accused of corruption, of mis-administration and of encouraging lawlessness by asking people to take law into their hands and beat up corrupt officials (when he himself was CM!).

There is a crying need for scholarly biography, one which is accessible to the intelligent reader. It is the least that India can do to honour and remember this remarkable individual. They don’t make them in this mould any more!

–Meena

Looking Ahead With Hope

2021. What a year it has been. A year of bewilderment and bereavement. A year of being confined, and yet feeling adrift. A year of feeling connected by a common enemy, and yet feeling utterly alone, and helpless.

A year when we looked for even the faintest glimmer of hope at the end of what seemed like an endless dark tunnel. And then, as that glimmer grew brighter, the world strained at the leash, eager to be out and about. A demonstration of human resilience and, above all, of hope.

Much has been written how this period led us to look within, to discover in our deep recesses the strength that we did not know we possessed, or the value of bonds that we were often too busy to nurture. It led humanity to introspect, and we turned to the thoughts of wise men who saw the larger picture much before we did.

Two of these wise men, passed away this week, both on 26 December–Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the age of 90, and EO Wilson who passed away at the age of 92. Two persons that have inspired me, and about whom I have written earlier in this space.

Both very different, one a spiritual leader who was also an activist for human rights, and the other a world renowned scientist who devoted his life to studying the natural world, but who was also an activist, inspiring others to care for the natural world, as he did.

Both sharing a very similar world view and vision for the future of humanity.

This is a good time to recall some words of wisdom from these visionaries.

Edward Osborne Wilson or EO as he was called was not just the world’s foremost authority on the study of ants (a myrmecologist) but one of the founding fathers of, and leading expert in socio-biology and biodiversity

Tributes to EO Wilson describe him as “a true visionary with a unique ability to inspire and galvanize. He articulated, perhaps better than anyone, what it means to be human”.

“His gift was a deep belief in people and our shared human resolve to save the natural world”.

“A relentless synthesizer of ideas, his courageous scientific focus and poetic voice transformed our way of understanding ourselves and our planet”.

Alongside a distinguished academic career EO Wilson was a passionate naturalist who continuously drew attention to the fragility of the biosphere and advocated for its protection and nurture. He saw hope in the youth as the stewards of our planet.

His mission and vision was beautifully articulated in a Commencement Address that he gave in 2011 at the University of North Carolina.

“This is the time that in order to do that so we will have to evolve a better world order than the one we have now, which I like to call our Star Wars Civilization. I mean we have stone-age emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. In the case of emotions they evolved in pre-history over millions of years. In the case of our institutions, especially within religions and ideology, we are in constant conflict. And in the case of our technology, we are seeing things going almost beyond the control of our imagination. These three stanchions of current civilization explain why we are constantly in trouble. They are dangerous. They are very serious problems for the rest of life and, ultimately, with that ourselves. And today we are still (far) from even at the margin of solutions.

Ours is above beyond all an exponential world, changing faster than at any period of history before. We are now in the early period of an overwhelmingly techno-scientific civilization, connected literally person to person. The accumulated knowledge of the world is already at the zettabyte level — that’s a one followed by 21 zeroes of bytes. It is growing faster and faster by the digital revolution in communication, which is changing everything—all that we know, all that we need to quickly learn, all that we need to understand in order to survive as a species. The trajectory of history can only be dimly foreseen. It will consist of shocks and surprises. This country and the rest of the world needs university-trained young people prepared not only by knowledge itself but by the capacity to find new knowledge in order to respond quickly to unexpected needs and crises, challenging all the various professions, and in public affairs, and in simple, everyday life. And, with it all, to think upon and understand the meaning of humanity and yourselves and your lives. So, go forth. Think. Save the world.”

Today, EO Wilson’s words from a decade ago are resounding more true than ever before. And his call for humanity to see itself as part of a larger interconnected universe is even more urgent than it ever was. It echoes Archbishop Tutu’s constant reminder that “It does help quite a lot to see yourself as part of a greater whole.”

Desmond Tutu was an early member of The Elders an international non-governmental organisation of public figures including statesmen, peace activists and human rights advocates who were brought together by Nelson Mandela in 2007. The Elders offered to use their collective experience to work on solutions for seemingly insurmountable global issues and conflicts.

For Desmond Tutu the magic mantra that could guide these solutions was “Ubuntu”– a Zulu proverb that says: “I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours.” Archbishop Tutu felt that Ubuntu was the essence of being human. “Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness … We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

“You can think about others who are in a similar situation or perhaps even in a worse situation, but who have survived, even thrived. It does help quite a lot to see yourself as part of a greater whole.”

Desmond Tutu’s life was fraught with numerous challenges and hardships, but his resilience stemmed from his ability to find joy even in the grimmest of situations. But he also warned that Joy was never unadulterated. “Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardships and heartbreaks. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.”

“Much depends on your attitude. If you are filled with negative judgment and anger, then you will feel separate from other people. You will feel lonely. But if you have an open heart and are filled with trust and friendship, even if you are physically alone, even living a hermit’s life, you will never feel lonely.”

When we see others as separate, they become a threat. When we see others as part of us, as connected, as interdependent, then there is no challenge we cannot face—together.”

We have lost two wise men who, both from their own perspective, saw the interconnectedness of everything, and had an unerring faith in the power of connections.

Let their words continue to light our way as we look ahead with hope, to the new year.

–Mamata

Indian Coffee House: An Institution with a Hoary Past

Most of us, at least the more senior among us, would definitely have visited an Indian Coffee House at some stage in our lives. Quaint places, which serve coffee and snacks at reasonable prices. Usually centrally located, these places are manned by liveried bearers in old-style uniforms. But the best part—one can linger there fairly indefinitely over coffees and conversations.

The Indian Coffee House chain goes back to 1958, proving that coffee-places in India are not something invented or haunted by the young and with-it crowd. Our parents and grandparents ‘been there, done that’!

Coffee-drinking in India is only about a century old, though coffee has been grown here since the 16th century. But Indians didn’t take to it for a long time. The oldest reports are of Tam-Brahm Mamas drinking coffee in the 1920s in Chennai. It was pretty class and caste stratified, as were most things in those times.

The coffee-house culture which started in the 18th century here, was also subject to social restrictions—in this case racial discrimination. Only whites were allowed into these.

As time went on, the need to increase domestic coffee consumption was seen as important—purely economic reasons of course. With a view to to popularize the drinking of coffee and increase the sale of coffee seeds, the Coffee Cess Committee started a chain of coffee-houses, called India Coffee House. The first came up in 1936, in Mumbai. As a part of this objective, the British Government also set up the Coffee Board in the early 1940s. The chain of Coffee-Houses (then called India Coffee House) quickly gained popularity, and in fact became addas for freedom fighters, political leaders, students, intellectuals, artists and thinkers. These continued to flourish even after Independence, and were at the hub of political and intellectual discussions.

But in 1957, the losses were mounting and the Government wanted to close down the Coffee Houses. Not only would this have been a huge loss to the availability of spaces for debate and discussion, it would have resulted in retrenchment of several employees working in these places.  The All India Coffee Board Labour Union decided to take a hand in the matter.  Their Leader Shri. A.K. Gopalan a prominent Communist, along with some workers met the then Prime Minister Shri. Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru. The Prime Minister suggested that the coffee-houses could be taken over and run by worker-cooperatives formed by the retrenched workers.  As a result of this meeting, it was decided to form separate co-operative Societies in areas where these coffee houses were located, and to run the Coffee Houses as Cooperatives. In 1957, the first coffee house, now called Indian Coffee House, under this cooperative plan was opened, in the Theatre Communication Building in Connaught Place in Delhi.  Totally, 14 Societies were formed in different parts of India, and ever since then, have been running these units. Today, these have over 400 outlets spread across 20 States of India. Each worker in each of these units is a co-owner of the business and has a stake in its success. A unique model indeed.

Even after Independence, Indian Coffee Houses continued as intellectual hubs. In fact, so powerful a force were they that they were feared by the powers-that-be in the pre-Emergency era.

Indian Coffee House designed by Laurie Baker

Kerala has the largest number of Indian Coffee Houses—51 in fact. West Bengal has several too, with the most famous on being on Kolkata’s College Street—an outlet which in its time hosted intellectuals and artists including the likes of Satyajit Ray, Amartya Sen, Mrinal Sen and Aparna Sen.

The Coffee House at Trivandrum is very special in that it is an architectural landmark. Designed by the famous architect Laurie Baker, it is a continuous spiral ramp, with a circular central service core, and eating spaces provided on the outer side; jaalis let in light and ventilation. It stands on a very small plot in the middle of a busy urban area, and it is only by adopting the innovative circular design and interior design that it is able to cater to its many customers.

As we enter 2022, a time when capitalism is becoming more and more dominant, here’s a shout-out for the cooperative movement!

Long live coffee, long live coffee houses, long live addas which allow space for discussion and debate, long live the co-operative movement. Long live Indian Coffee House, which is all of the above!

–Meena

Magnolia Lady Janaki Ammal

Whenever I write a piece about plants, one of the things that interests me is how the plant got its botanical name. In many cases the nomenclature includes the name of the scientist which was associated with the discovery or study of the plant. Most of the names are western. It was a pleasant surprise to learn about a plant that is named after an Indian botanist, and that too a lady! This plant is a variety of the magnolia and is named Magnolia kobus Janaki Ammal.

The story of Janaki Ammal herself is fascinating and inspiring. And her contribution to plant sciences covers a wide and impressive range of achievements.

Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal was born on 4 November 1897, in Tellicherry (now Thalassery) in Kerala. Her father, Dewan Bahadur EK Krishnan, was a sub-judge at Tellicherry in what was then the Madras Presidency. He had a large family consisting of 19 children from two wives, and Janaki grew up amidst numerous siblings, in a home environment which had a well-stocked library, that included scientific and literary journals, and a well-tended garden. Her father had a keen interest in natural sciences and kept abreast with developments in the sciences. He also wrote two books on the birds of the North Malabar region. From an early age Janaki herself had an avid interest in the natural environment, and a scientific temperament.

It is this that decided her further academic studies after she finished school in Tellicherry. At a time when women (including her sisters) were married off at a young age, Janaki chose to move away from home in pursuit of higher education. She obtained a Bachelor’s degree from Queen Mary’s College, Madras, and an honours degree in botany from the Presidency College. After graduating, she taught for three years at the Women’s Christian College in Madras. It was then that she was awarded the prestigious Barbour Scholarship for Asian women to study in the United States. She travelled to America to join the University of Michigan as a Barbour Scholar in 1924 and earned her Masters of Science degree in 1925. She continued her work which focussed on plant cytology and breeding of hybrid plants to earn her doctorate in 1931. She was the first Indian woman to receive this degree in botany in the US.

Returning with a doctorate from the US, Janaki returned to teaching as a professor of Botany at the Maharaja’s College of Science in Trivandrum, from 1932-1934. She then joined as a geneticist at the Sugarcane Breeding Institute in Coimbatore. At the time, India was importing sugarcane. Although India also produced a lot of sugarcane, it was not as sweet as the imported one. The Sugarcane Breeding Station at Coimbatore had been set up to carry out research to improve the quality of sugarcane grown in India. The work of two scientists there, CA Barber and TS Venkataraman, especially in cross-breeding different varieties was so successful that in just five years the production of sugarcane doubled in India.

Ammal joined these scientists at the research institute in 1934, and started her research in sugarcane. Her cytogenetic research of sugarcane, and her experiments with cross-breeding and hybrids led to a better understanding of sugarcane breeds, in turn leading to better cross-breeds of sweeter variety. It also helped analyse the geographical distribution of sugarcane across India. Janaki faced many professional and personal challenges as a highly educated unmarried female scientist in a male-dominated institute where, despite the “science”, a patriarchal and traditional mind set prevailed with respect to gender and caste. 

In 1935, she was selected as one of the first Research Fellows of the Indian Academy of Sciences set up by the Nobel laureate CV Raman.

In 1940 Janaki went to England and joined the John Innes Horticultural Institution in London as an assistant cytologist. England had just declared war on Germany; Janaki worked through the bombings and blackouts, often, it is reported, diving under her bed at night as London was bombed, and going to her lab in the morning to clear the broken glass and debris from the previous night’s bombing, while she continued to focus on her research.

Janaki worked closely with the geneticist Cyril Dean Darlington for five years. The two collaborated to write the Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants, which is a key text for plant scientists even today. Unlike other botanical atlases that focused on botanical classification, this atlas recorded the chromosome number of about 100,000 plants, providing knowledge about breeding and evolutionary patterns of botanical groups.

In 1946, she joined the Royal Horticultural Society in Wisley in a paid position as a cytologist. Janaki became the Society’s first salaried woman staff member. There, she studied the botanical uses of colchicine, a medication that can double a plant’s chromosome number and result in larger and quicker-growing plants. One of the results of her investigations was a magnolia shrub with flowers of bright white petals and purple stamens. This was named Magnolia kobus Janaki Ammal in her honour, and continues to bloom in Wisely even today.

Janaki returned to India in the early 1950s at the request of the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Her brief was to “improve the botanical base of Indian agriculture”.

She was appointed supervisor in charge of directing the Central Botanical Laboratory in Lucknow. In this capacity, she would reorganize the Botanical Survey of India (BSI), originally established in 1890 to collect and survey India’s flora, under the supervision of Britain’s Kew Gardens.

It was during this period that Janaki found herself looking beyond pure research and realising that in the race for increasing food grain production, the country was losing vast tracts of forests and valuable indigenous plant species. She was also distressed that despite Independence the system of plant collections and research remained colonial in mind set and practice. She was also keen to revitalize and indigenize botanical surveys.  After spending decades applying her research skills to improving the commercial use of plants, she began using her influence to preserve indigenous plants under threat. She began to speak of the value of indigenous cultures and the important role of women in preserving and cultivating local plants, which were being threatened by mass production of cereals. 

Janaki was among the pioneers that foresaw and warned of the threats to the fragile ecosystems in the race for ‘development’. She continued to speak out about this till the end of her life. At the age of 80 she vociferously opposed the proposed hydroelectric plant in Silent Valley in Kerala that would have threatened the unique biodiversity of a pristine evergreen tropical forest. Her voice as an eminent national scientist was respected, and was contributory to the scrapping of the proposal.

Janaki Ammal continued her distinguished public career in many important government postions: She headed the Central Botanical Laboratory at Allahabad. She worked as an officer on special duty at the regional research laboratory in Jammu and Kashmir and had a brief spell at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre at Trombay. In November 1970 Janaki decided to settle down in Madras where she worked as an Emeritus Scientist at the Centre for Advanced Study in Botany, University of Madras. Her research work continued unabated, with special attention on medicinal plants and ethnobotany. She continued her research at the Centre’s Field Laboratory at Maduravoyal near Madras and kept on publishing her work until her demise in February 1984.

A lifetime of pioneering work by a woman well ahead of her times. But whenever she was asked about her life, all she had to say was “my work is what will survive”. An unassuming woman who lived a simple Gandhian life, married to her work, and her first and life-long love for plants. A brilliant mind who made her own choices and forged her own path in her pursuit of knowledge. A trial blazer who “sweetened the nation and saved a valley”—Janaki Ammal.

–Mamata

An Unusual Biography Brings a Colossus to Life: ‘Growing up Karanth’

Shivarama Karanth. A name that many of us have heard. One of those names many of us know we should hold in awe, maybe without quite knowing why.

He was a great writer, no?

He was involved with theatre, right?  

Wasn’t he an environmentalist?

He was into politics?

For many, it was his dramatic mane of hair that comes to mind on hearing the name.

Shivarama Karanth was all of the above, and much more. A Renaissance man, if ever there was one. A Jnanpith awardee, awardee of Sangeet Natak and Sahitya Adademy fellowships. A Padma Bhushan, who was bold enough to return the award as a protest against the Emergency. A man who came under the spell of Mahatma Gandhi and joined the Freedom Movement, but branched out from Gandhiji’s fold as he did not agree with his economic ideology. A doyen of Kannada literature. The reviver of Yakshagana in a modern format. A writer whom Ramachandra Guha has called ‘Rabindranath Tagore of Modern India’ and ‘one of the finest novelists-activists since independence’.

It is not in my place to even try to talk about his work and achievements. So I will confine myself to talking about a new biography of his that has come out. ‘Growing up Karnath’ (Westland), is a biography written by his three children: Ullas Karanth (an internationally-renowned environmentalist); Malavika Kapur (an academic who headed the Clinical Psychology Dept at NIMHANS) ; and Kshama Rau (a well-known Odissi dancer who runs her own dance school).

Shivarama Karanth
Biography of the legendary Shivarama Karanth

It is the format of the biography which makes it special. It has a few chapters by each of the authors, recalling their memories of their mother and father, and their relationship with their parents. And then a few chapters written jointly by the three of them, giving a perspective of their father after they had left the family-fold.

This gives space for a very intense, intimate and emotional story—from seeing the famous achiever as a father who spun magical and impromptu night-time tales on any topic that the child chose to give him; to one who made paper dolls and costumes; to one who was quite capable of losing his temper and scaring the wits out of a young boy—one gets an insider’s view.

At one level, it is a very sad story. The wonderful mother, Leela Karanth, independent beyond imagination for her times, who actually proposes to Shivarama Karanth, a man many years her senior, and marries him in spite of many obstacles, who sacrifices her many talents to support her husband’s achievements, who takes many bold steps to ensure her family’s well-being, succumbing to depression and mental illness which eat up the last two-and-a-half decades of her life. The amazing father, Shivarama Karanth, a man of a million talents who in his later years, cut himself off from his children and those close to him, under the influence of an outsider.

At another level, it is a story of joy. The joy of the wonderful relationship and the unusually-equal marriage of Leela and Shivarama Karanth; the father who let each of his children flower in whichever field they chose; the warm grandfather. The joy of the Renaissance Man to whom everything was a subject of enquiry, exploration and study; one who was as comfortable thinking about problems scientifically, as writing about them in verse; one to whom there was no boundary between one art form and another. The joy of creation, activism, and art. Of passionately-held ideologies and beliefs.

At yet another level, it is an expression of gratitude of the three authors. To their awesome parents of course, but also to the people who were part of their parents’ lives; who supported them at various stages, in various ways; who contributed in some measure to Shivarama Karanth becoming the giant he was. And that is a very touching aspect of the book.

The candour and the openness with which each of them writes is something that is amazing. It must have been an emotionally demanding experience, while at the same time a catharsis of sorts. We readers can only thank them for digging deep and throwing up their father and family to the public gaze, to help us understand the legendary Karanth as a man, with his amazing achievements and his very human failings.

However, I miss one thing in the book. While it gives a glimpse of Shivarama Karanth’s achievements, it still does not give me proper understanding of the depth and width of his work. There are of course references to some of his works and also a bibliography of his writing. But the magnitude of the work did not hit me hard enough to awe me to the extent it should: over 40 novels, half a dozen books on science, a dozen children’s books, biographies, travelogues, books on architecture, plays….. And his writing is only part of his work. His environmentalism, his revival of Yakshagana, his activism. Though one catches glimpses, one cannot get one’s teeth into any of it. But maybe this is an unfair comment. There are other biographies, and his own autobiographies to do that. The authors themselves make it clear in their foreword that ‘In large part, this book is our tribute to Tata (as they called their father) and Amma, celebrating the gifts they gave us while we were ‘growing up Karanath’. And this the book does in full measure.

And the other comment would be that there are naturally some overlaps because we have three authors, talking about the same people and the same incidents. But that is a minor issue.

Overall, a book worth the time you will spend on it, to get introduced to one of the Makers of Modern India.

–Meena

PS: Thanks Krithi Karanth for the book and the world it has opened to me!