From Piccadilly to New Delhi

APPLE TREE YARD is a cul-de-sac near London’s Piccadilly. It runs east from Duke of York Street and parallel to Jermyn Street. On its south corner where the Yard meets Duke of York Street, there is an interesting monument consisting of three slightly separated carved basalt slabs with letters inscribed in them. The letters make up the following words, all in capital letters:

“SIR EDWIN LUTYENS ARCHITECT

DESIGNER OF NEW DELHI

LAID OUT HIS PLANS HERE IN APPLE TREE YARD”

Although I have never been to Delhi, I am familiar with the work of Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944). I was brought up in north London’s Hampstead Garden Suburb not far from its Central Square, which is surrounded by buildings that Lutyens designed before embarking on his projects in New Delhi. Although the above-mentioned basalt blocks were completed in 2015, I had not been past Apple Tree Yard  until yesterday (13th September 2022). Next to the inscribed blocks there is an attractive figurative bas-relief carving, also in basalt, mounted on a wall.

The carvings were made by Stephen Cox and he describes them in detail on a web page (www.lutyenstrust.org.uk/portfolio-item/apple-tree-yard-sculpture-honours-spirit-lutyens/). Here is a brief summary of what he wrote. The bas-relief sculpture is called “Relief; Figure emerging”. It was inspired by sculptures in Hindu cave temples, especially those around a town near Chennai (Madras): Mahabalipuram. The basalt that can be seen in Apple Tree Yard was quarried near the south Indian temple town of Kanchipuram. Cox, who has a studio in Mahabalipuram, was assisted by local carvers, when he created the bas-relief.  In summary, the monumental slabs and the nearby sculpture have their roots in India, which is highly appropriate as they commemorate an architect, who worked in India.

I must admit that amongst all the foreign architects, who have made significant buildings in India, Lutyens is not my favourite. Those, whose works I have seen in India and liked, include William Emerson (1843-1924), Frederick W Stevens (1847-1900), Le Corbusier (1887-1965), and Louis Kahn (1901-1974).

Lutyens, who was a former Viceroy of India’s son-in-law, drew up the plans for New Delhi in an office at number 7 Apple Tree Yard. Hence, the location of the monumental stones. Number 7 was for a long time the home of the Royal Fine Art Commission, but it exists no longer. It is now covered by a new building. However, his work in both India and the Hampstead Garden Suburb can still be admired by those who like Lutyens’s work. I feel that Cox’s memorial to him is much more elegant than much that I have seen of his buildings.

What! Why? Is there no Calcutta on the map?

VINCENZO MARIA CORONELLI (1650-1718) who was most likely born in Venice (Italy) was not only a Franciscan friar but also a cartographer. Recently, I spotted one of his maps hanging in a frame in a friend’s home. It is a beautiful work of art, bearing the title (translated from French): “Maritime route from Brest to Siam and from Siam to Brest”. It was made between 1685 and 1686, based on information provided to Coronelli by six Jesuit priests sent out to the Indies by the King of France. Coronelli, based in The Republic of Venice, drew the map.

I was particularly interested to see what of modern India is represented on the map. On the coast of “Guzararatte ou Cambaje” (i.e. Gujarat or Cambay), the Island of Diu, then a Portuguese settlement, is marked, as are “Surate” (Surat) and “Bombaim” and “Chaul” (also  Portuguese settlements). Further south, Goa is marked, and yet further south along the west coast, we can see Calicut and Cochin. On the east coast of India, we can see “Fort S. Thomé” and “Mahapur”, being old names for a place immediately south of Chennai and Mahabalipuram respectively.

The map becomes more interesting when you look at the “Bouches du Gange” (the mouths of the Ganges). Coronelli draws a complex collection of island’s that depict  the Ganges delta, but where one would expect to find Calcutta (Kolkata) on modern maps, there is only a small inset town plan of a place called “Louvo”. This is not a place in India but in modern Thailand (once known as ‘Siam’): its modern name is Lopburi.

The reason that Calcutta is not marked on Coronelli’s map is simple: the place with that name did not exist when the Jesuit priests reported back to Coronelli. Had they made their survey only a little later, they would have been able to report its existence because in August 1686 Job Charnock (c1630-c1692/3) established a trading post (‘factory’) on the River Hooghly, and that became known as Calcutta.  I have visited his grave and mausoleum in central Kolkata.

Painting by hand on a brick wall

IN THE LATE 1930s, my mother studied commercial art at the Michaelis School of Art in Cape Town (South Africa). One of her earliest jobs after leaving college was hand-painting posters advertising cinema films. Many years later, long after her death, I began visiting India and have been making regular visits there since January 1994. During the first few years of making trips to India, I used to notice the huge hand-painted cinema posters both in and out of towns. I recall seeing men perched on precarious looking bamboo scaffolding painting these enormous images. To someone, like myself, used to seeing printed cinema posters, seeing these men in action was an eye-opener.

A few years ago, I was walking near Shepherds Bush in west London when I saw a group of men colouring in details of a poster beneath a railway bridge. Like the painters in India, their scaffolding also looked slightly precarious, given the current preoccupation with health and safety in this country.

These memories of hand-painted posters came to mind a couple of days ago (late July 2002) while we were walking towards Lower Marsh (near Waterloo Station) from the Young Vic Theatre, where we had just watched a poorly acted, and badly written play called “Chasing Hares”. We spotted two ladies perched on a very adequate scaffolding device painting a colourful mural on a large expanse of brick wall above the Cubana Restaurant. It was good to see that in an age where machine produced images are common (and have largely replaced hand-painted adverts in India), traditional methods are still being used to create large images for attracting the public.

Drawn to remember: an exhibition by an Indian painter

THE PAINTER MAHESH BALIGA was born in the south Indian state of Karnataka in 1982. He studied painting at The Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts (CAVA) in Mysore, and then received a postgraduate qualification at the prestigious Faculty of Fine Arts, MSU, in Baroda (Vadodara in Gujarat). He has taught at various art schools in India and exhibited in several countries including India. Currently, he lives and works in Baroda. Between the 12th of April 2022 and the 28th of May 2022, some of his works are being exhibited in a solo exhibition, “Drawn to Remember”, at the David Zwirner Gallery in Grafton Street (in London’s West End).

The paintings on display were created using casein tempera. This kind of paint has a glue-like consistency, but it can be thinned with water. According to Wikipedia, artists like this kind of paint because:

“… unlike gouache, it dries to an even consistency, making it ideal for murals. Also, it can visually resemble oil painting more than most other water-based paints …”

At first glance, it is difficult to discern whether the Baliga’s paintings on display at Zwirner’s resemble water colours or oil paintings; some of them seem to look halfway between the two mediums. All of them, except one, are quite small canvases and without exception they are all attractive. The subject matter depicted in the works is varied, from studies of plants and animals to everyday scenes (often with depictions of Indian life) to the slightly unusual. An example of the latter is in the only large canvas of the show in which there is an image of a man with sticky plasters over his left eye. Another odd subject shows a man with flowers growing out of his shirt. This is appropriately named “Flowering Self”.

The small size of most of the paintings, which the artist described as ‘lap-sized’, has a reason. Many of them were executed on the journeys the artist made when commuting to and from Surat (in the south of Gujarat), where he held a teaching position for a while. Though they are not large paintings, each one of them provides a window on the artist’s experiences and and his take on them. Although the paintings are far from mundane, they are not over-dramatic or excessively visually challenging. The exhibition is well worth seeing.  I would be happy to hang any one of the works I saw at his exhibition on my walls at home.

Return to the Himalayas

SOUTHALL LIES NOT far from Heathrow Airport. Despite its architecture being mostly typical of dull London suburbs that developed between the two World Wars, it is far from being a run-of-the mill west London suburb. Recently, in March 2022, we visited Southall after several years since we last went there.

The centre of what was once the tiny village of Southall is about 1.7 miles north of Osterley Park house. The manor of Southall was owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 14th century. Separated by countryside from its neighbours, it lay on the road from London to Uxbridge and Oxford. It was only in the 1870s that the village began expanding southwards to the Great Western Railway line. Today, the place has been fully incorporated into London and retains little or nothing of its former rustic nature.

Detail of the roof of the Himalaya Palace in Southall

On arriving by train at Southall station, the observant traveller will notice that the station name signs are bilingual; they are in both Latin and Punjabi scripts. Southall is sometimes aptly referred to as ‘Chota Punjab’ (Little Punjab). The three Punjabi brothers, Charan Singh Bilga, Jagar Singh Bilga, and Lave Singh Bilga, began living in Southall in 1938. They were followed by Pritam Singh Sangha, who opened a shop in Southall in 1954, having arrived in the area in 1951. His shop was then the only shop in west London, if not in the whole of the metropolis, purveying Indian provisions.  Pritam Singh Sangha in partnership with his friend and business associate, Jarnail Singh Hura (also known as “Ghura”), established the first known business in Southall and Fakir Singh purchased numerous houses which he rented out to his countrymen.”

Vivek Chaudhary, writing in the Guardian in April 2018, recorded:

“By the time my own father arrived in 1960, local authority records show that there were approximately 1,000 Punjabis living in Southall, nearly all men. He would joke that one of the reasons why they settled here was because of its proximity to Heathrow airport, only three miles away, and “if the gooras [whites] ever kicked us out, it would be easy to get on a plane and return home”. It was a light-hearted reference to the uncertainty that was generated by the chronic racism of the time. It was the R Woolf rubber factory in neighbouring Hayes that attracted Punjabis to Southall – the general manager had served with Sikh soldiers during the second world war and was only too happy to recruit them…”

He added:

“Punjab was partitioned by the British in 1947; part of it fell within Pakistan with the remainder in India. Punjabis can be Sikh, Hindu or Muslim, and while all three demographics settled in this outpost of west London, it was the Sikhs who came in the largest numbers and gave Southall its distinct identity.”

Chaudhary mentioned that at the time he wrote his article, although at one stage Southall’s population was 70% Punjabi, this has decreased to about 50% and the descendants of many of the original settlers:

“…have prospered and moved to wealthier pastures, replaced by new communities from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia. At its heart, though, this corner of west London remains an indelibly Punjabi town.”

And so, it is. Southall is like the Punjab and other places in India or Pakistan, but with the often-dull English weather and rather pedestrian suburban architecture. The main streets, South Road and the Broadway (Uxbridge Road), are lined with shops, small bazaars consisting of several tiny shops, and eateries. Judging by the profusion of colourful, often glittering, Indian (and Pakistani) style party clothing on sale, one might be excused for thinking that the people of Southall do nothing apart from attending ‘glitzy’ weddings.   If you wish to sample shopping as it is in India without leaving the country, then Southall is the place to do it in London. It seemed to my wife and me that the quality of the clothing on sale was high, better than much that is available in India. A Sikh salesman explained that what is on sale in Southall is made in India but unlike what is on sale over there, this is export quality.

One building is worthy of special mention in Southall, apart from the area’s gold-coloured domed Sikh gurdwaras. This is the former Himalaya Palace cinema. Built in 1929, it is unique in Britain in that its façade is in the form of a Chinese Temple. It has a pagoda roof which is flanked by dragons. It used to screen films from India’s Bollywood studios until it closed in 2010. It has now become an indoor market called Palace Shopping Centre. Fortunately, the building is protected by a preservation order and the façade is likely to remain a wonderful landmark in the foreseeable future. Not far away in a less distinguished building is another mall, the Himalaya Shopping Centre. Entering these malls, and the others in Southall, is like stepping into a typical indoor shopping bazaar anywhere in India. The air in these Southall shopping centres has the special fragrantly perfumed odour I associate with India.

Near the former cinema, stands the former Southall Town Hall, which was constructed in 1898. On its wall, there are commemorative three plaques placed by an anti-racism group called Southall Resists 40. They are dedicated to Gurdip Singh Chaggar, who was killed in 1976; Blair Peach who was killed in 1979; and ‘Misty in Roots & People Unite Musicians Cooperative’. Each of the three bears the words “Unity against Racism”.

Buried in Bath

THE WALLS OF Bath Abbey are lined with memorials to the dead, many of whom are buried within the church. A remarkably large percentage of the funerary memorials commemorate the lives of people who worked in Britain’s colonies. There are monuments to people who lived and worked in the Caribbean, North America, and Asia, especially for the East India Company, which ‘ran’ and exploited India until 1858.

For example, Francis Mure Esq worked for many years in the civil service of “the Honourable the East India Company on the Bengal Establishment”. He died in Bath in 1810 aged 53. Henry Lynch Esq MD “of the island of Barbadoes” died in Bath in 1823, aged 49. Also from this place in the Caribbean was Benjamin Alleyne Cox Esq who died in Bath in 1802 aged 74.   In 1812, 78-year-old Rawson Hart Boddam also died in Bath, after having served as the Governor of Bombay in 1784. Robert Brooke Esq, who had served in the Bengal Civil Service died in 1843 aged 72 is also interred in Bath Abbey. Peter Read Cazalet, “of the Honourable East India Madras Civil Service”, who died in 1859, aged 37, is yet another old ‘India hand’, who is buried in Bath. Also in the abbey are the remains of Major General Sir Henry White KCB, part of whose inscription reads chillingly like some of the news bulletins in the current Ukraine crisis: “The judicious Position taken by his Division in the Attack on Agra Which accelerated its fall And the Reduction of The Strong Hill Fort at Gwalior By Siege Are Proofs of Zeal and Military Skill…” He died in 1822.

What puzzled me was why did so many of these men from the colonies ended their lives in Bath. Was it because they were sick and had come to the place to take the curative spa waters, which failed to cure them? Or had they retired to Bath? Or, as someone suggested, Bath is close to Bristol, which was in many ways involved with colonial affairs.

The answers to these questions must remain uncertain at present. However, I wondered why the wealthy American Senator William Bingham died in Bath in 1804, aged 49. He was involved with the Barings Brothers bank in London, which might have been a reason for him being in England at the time of his death. He left for England in 1801, when his wife was taken ill. What he was doing in Bath remains unclear.

Amongst the many fascinating memorials in the Abbey are several commemorating people who died abroad. Some of these people had been in India when their lives ended. An interesting example of this, which illustrates the hazards of warfare and the difficulties in subduing people, who have no wish to be colonized, is the monument to 1st Lieutenant George Dobson Willoughby, of the Bengal Artillery and the Commisary of Ordnance at Delhi, who died in 1857. His inscription includes the following details: “As a brave and zealous soldier he stood firm in the defence of the post intrusted to him, and when resistance failed blew up the Delhi Magazine on 11: May 1857 to prevent it falling into the hands of the mutineers and rebels. Burnt and wounded he subsequently fell a prey to the insurgents …”

Maybe, this is a lesson from which the dutiful Russian soldiers in Ukraine should take heed.

Republic Day

AFTER OUR HONEYMOON in the south of India, we returned to Bangalore, where we disembarked from an overnight bus from Ernakulam (in Kerala) at about 4 am on the 26th of January 1994. Several hours later and incredibly bleary-eyed, we joined many other residents at a gathering in a courtyard of the apartment block in the city’s southern suburb of Koramangala. Mr Zafar Futehally (1920-2013), a noted naturalist and one of the senior tenants, stood by a flagpole and made a brief speech. Then, the flag of India was raised, and everyone dispersed.  It was Republic Day, the significance of which was unknown to me back in 1994, when I made my first visit to India.

Ambedkar in Bangalore

Now, I know that on the 26th of January 1950, two and a half years after India became independent, the Constitution of India came into effect and India became a republic, having briefly been a Dominion since the 15th of August 1947. The Constitution was drafted by a committee that was led by Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956). After leaving school, he was educated at the University of Bombay, then at Columbia University in NYC, and then at the London School of Economics (‘LSE’). While in London, he qualified as a barrister as a member of Gray’s Inn.

Long after 1994, I learned that Ambedkar had lived in a part of London with which I am familiar. He resided in a house near Primrose Hill and Chalk Farm, where the Roundhouse is located. In my recently published book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs”, I wrote:

“Another reformer and patriot lived near Regents Park Road. He was Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), who championed India’s Dalits (‘untouchables’) and formulated the Constitution of India. Between 1920 and 1922 while he was studying at the London School of Economics and for the Bar, Ambedkar lived in a house at 10 King Henrys Road near Regents Park Road. In 2015, the house was bought by the Government of Maharashtra and was then converted into a memorial to Ambedkar. It is open to the public. Visitors can learn about Ambedkar from the well-captioned photographs on the walls of the rooms that they can wander through. The upper floor contains a re-construction of Ambedkar’s bedroom including a four-poster bed, some of the great man’s books, and an old pair of spectacles, which might have belonged to him. Other rooms contain shelves of books and various memorials to Ambedkar. There is also a commemorative plaque to India’s present Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who inaugurated the memorial house in November 2015. The garden contains statue of Ambedkar clutching a book (the Constitution) in his left hand. A few years ago, neighbours of the Ambedkar house complained about it, concerned that it would attract swarms of tourists.”

Although he could never have met him, Ambedkar’s home in King Henry’s Road was not far from the house in which Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) lived for several years.

The statue portraying Ambedkar statue in the garden of his former London home is typical of those found all over India. Apart from helping to give birth to India’s Constitution, Ambedkar campaigned for the rights of the Dalits (the ‘Untouchables’), as mentioned in the quote above. The Dalits were excluded from the four caste Varna system of Hinduism and considered by many Hindus as the lowest of the low, fit only for menial tasks that members of other castes would not deign to consider doing. Ambedkar, born into a Dalit caste, campaigned actively for the ending of social discrimination against this class of people. Mochis (cobblers/shoe repairers), who handle leather, are often Dalits. The best place to find a mochi is on the pavement beside a road. Sometimes, they sit on the ground surrounded by their tools and footwear awaiting repair. In other cases, they work from little stalls that can be locked up when they are not at work. These stalls often bear images of Ambedkar in honour of the man who did much to help the Dalits. What with the huge numbers of statues of him and of portraits on the stalls of mochis, Ambedkar must rival Gandhi as being one of the most frequently portrayed politicians of modern India.  

So, every Republic Day, it is appropriate to celebrate the birth of the republic and the adoption of the Constitution, but we should not forget to raise our hats and flags to Ambedkar, the brilliant man who did far more than father the Constitution.

Coiffure at the Club

I HAVE NEVER LEFT a barber’s shop without leaving a tip. This is a habit that was instilled in me by my mother during my childhood. Whether the cut was good or bad, I have always left my hairdresser with a gratuity.

In January 1994, I first visited the Bangalore Club in southern India. A few days before my wedding to a member, my in-laws decided that my hair needed a trim. Back in those days, the Club barber shop was located in a hut behind the Men’s Bar, which until a few years ago did not allow the entry of women and girls. Now renamed, this former bastion of maleness permits all drinkers regardless of their genders.

My haircut was at the very least satisfactory and cost all of 20 Indian Rupees, which was debited to my wife’s club account. In those days one pound Sterling was, if I recall correctly, about 40 Rupees. So, my haircut was remarkably good value compared with what I would have paid for it in London.

At the end of my session with the barber, I fumbled in my pocket to find some money for the tip. All I  could find was a 50 Rupees note, which I handed to the man who had looked after my coiffure.

When I related my experience to my wife-to-be, she was horrified that I had tipped more than twice the fee. I suspect that the barber was delighted.

Mahatma Gandhi in Hampstead

WHEN I USED TO visit Hampstead with my parents in the early 1960s, we always walked past a place that intrigued me when I was a youngster. It was the still standing Hampstead Quaker Meeting House, which has a lovely front garden. The latter is overlooked by its neighbour, the late 18th centuryMansfield Cottage, which in the 1960s housed a tearoom or restaurant. The Meeting House with art nouveau (Arts and Crafts) features was built in about 1907 to the designs of Fred Rowntree (1860-1927). According to James D Hunt in his detailed book “Gandhi in London”, Mohandas K Gandhi (1869-1948), the future Mahatma, spoke in this meeting house on the 13th of October 1909:

“… perhaps travelling there by the recently opened underground line … The Society of Friends (Quakers) were not at this time much interested in Indian affairs … The 1909 meeting was sponsored by the Hampstead Peace and Arbitration Society”

The speech, as recorded by Robert Payne in his “The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi”, was entitled “East and West” and outlined the evils of the British occupation of India and the sufferings of Indians in South Africa. I knew nothing of this or about the house when we used to stroll down Heath Street.

From Madras to Kensington

CAMPDEN STREET IN Kensington is a short thoroughfare running between Kensington Church Street and Campden Hill Road. On it, there is a distinctive building called Byam Shaw House. Until 1990, this edifice with its large centrally placed, north facing window was the Byam Shaw School of Art, which opened in 1910. Named at first as ‘Byam Shaw and Vicat Cole School of Art’, after its founders, Rex Vicat Cole (1870-1940) and John Liston Byam Shaw (1872-1919), it soon became known as the Byam Shaw school.

John Liston Byam Shaw is also known as ‘Byam Shaw’. He was born in British India, in Madras (now ‘Chennai’), where his father was registrar of the High Court at Madras. In 1878, the Shaws moved back to England, where they lived in Kensington. At an early age, he showed artistic promise and at the advice of the artist John Everett Millais (1829-1896), he entered an art school in London’s St Johns Wood. As he grew older, Byam’s works attracted less interest and he turned to teaching to earn a living. In 1910, he and Cole founded the art school in Campden Street. Sadly, Byam Shaw died during the great influenza epidemic that followed WW1.

The school in Campden Street has produced several significant artists including Winifred Nicholson (first wife of Ben Nicholson), Bernard Dunstan, Yinka Shonibare, Mona Hatoum, as well as stage designers, stained-glass makers, and actors. The inventor James Dyson also studied there. In 1990, the school moved to larger premises in Archway, and in 2003, the school was absorbed into the Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design. Byam Shaw would have been pleased to know that his school produced such fine alumni.  Guy Burch, who studied at the school between 1981 and 1984, wrote:

“The innovative independent Art School founded in the early 1900s, Byam Shaw had an open studio policy that suited my inability to fit into categories marked ‘painter’ or ‘sculptor’. Most art schools at the time made you choose one or other with cross-media working tending to be discouraged. Their studios allowed you to move between them. I was in the ‘Image Studio’, and worked on collage, painting and mixed media installations.” (http://www.guyburch.co.uk/?p=4358)

I feel it is a shame that the building in Campden Street, which has now become a block of flats, is without any notice commemorating its former use.