HUMBLE BEGINNING

GUJARAT IS THE BIRTHPLACE of several great politicians of India: Mahatma Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel, Morarji Desai, and Narendra Modi, to name but a few. Kutch, which until soon after 1947 was an independent princely state, is now part of the State of Gujarat. It was the birthplace of an important, but now largely forgotten, ‘father’ of Indian Independence, Shyamji Krishnavarma (1857-1930).

The house in which Shyamji was born is the heart of the jumble of narrow streets in the old centre of Kutch Mandvi. Unlike the large house in Porbandar where Gandhi was born Shyamji’s birthplace is a very modest dwelling. Shyamji was the son of a poor man, who spent his working life struggling to make a living in Bombay.

We were shown around Shyamji’s birth house by Hriji Karani, who has not only founded a fine school in Mandvi but also instigated the creation of a monument to Shyamji at Kranthi Teerth.

The birthplace is now a museum, which is looked after by an elderly lady. In addition to caring fir the museum she helps her grandson and some of his friends with their schoolwork. Her grandson, aged only three, was able to speak a few words pf English as well as draw the Roman numerals on his slate.

The birthplace is devoid of household effects. Their pace is taken with exhibits, mainly photographs and paintings, relating to Shyamji’s fascinating life. Amongst the photos, there is one of the Middlesex Land Registry document relating to Shyamji’s purchase of a property in London’s Highgate, the building that was known as ‘India House’ between 1905 and 1910. This was the house where Shyamji and his ‘disciples’ including VD Savarkar plotted the downfall of the British in India. There was also a photograph of the block of flats in Geneva on which Shyamji spent the last few years of his life.

Shyamji and his wife died in Geneva. In his will, he had stipulated that his ashes were to remain in Switzerland and not to return to India until the land of his birth, India, became independent of the British.

Although India became independent, free of British domination, in 1947, it was not until 2003 that the ashes of Mr and Mrs Krishnavarma were brought to India. They were collected from Geneva by Narendra Modi, then the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and brought to India. I knew that from 2010, the black marble casks containing the ashes were put on display in a specially built pavilion at Kranthi Teerth, but I had no idea where they were kept before that.

Mr Karani showed us the small room in the birth house where the ashes were kept from 2003 until 2010. This little chamber, like the inner sanctum of a Hindu temple, now contains several photographs and a reproduction of an early flag designed for India by Shyamji’s feisty revolutionary colleague Madame Bhikaiji Cama and VD Savarkar during the brief existence of India House in north London.

A large oil painting depicts Shyamji with Henry Hyndman (1842- 1921), the British socialist whose anti-colonialist ideas strongly influenced Shyamji and his followers. Hyndman delivered a speech at the opening of India House in 1905. In the background of the painting there is a portrait of BG Tilak (1865-1929), one of the most revolutionary of the earliest members of the Indian National Congress and can well described as ‘the father of Indian independence’.
Like many other traditional houses I have visited in Kutch and Gujarat, the wooden staircase leading to the upper storey is incredibly steep, almost a ladder. The upper storey of Shyamji’s birthplace was a single room with more photographs and a tiny balcony that provides a view of backs of the houses on the street below.

Shyamji left Mandvi to study in Bhuj and then Bombay before setting off for England where he became a barrister in London and a world expert in Sanskrit based at Oxford. It is unlikely that he visited Mandvi much after beginning his impressive career. I have described the remarkable life of this son of Mandvi and esrly advocate of Indian independence in my book, “IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS”

Although I knew that Shyamji was born in Mandvi in a far from well off family, and I had already visited the town once before, seeing his actual birthplace, viewing its surroundings, and entering his childhood home helped me appreciate the ‘rags to riches’ aspect of his life.

IDEAS BOMBS AND BULLETS by Adam Yamey describes the life of Shyamji Krishnavarma and the centre for Indian freedom fighters that he created in North London. It is available from:
Lulu.com
Amazon
Bookdepository.com
Pothi.com (best place to purchase it if in India)
Kindle

A house in the desert

TWO YEARS AGO, we first visited Kranthi Teerth close to Mandvi in Kutch, once an independent kingdom and now a part of the Indian state of Gujarat. Kranthi Teerth is a memorial to Shyamji Krishnavarma (1857-1930) who was born in Mandvi. A brilliant Sanskrit scholar and a barrister, Shyamji became disillusioned with the British and by 1905 was advocating that India should become completely independent of the British Empire.

In 1905, Shyamji bought a large house in Highgate (North London). He converted this into a centre and hostel for Indians studying in London, a place where they could eat Indian food, meet fellow countrymen, and discuss affairs related to India. He called the place ‘India House’. The house still exists in Highgate but is now divided into flats.

Shyamji’s India House in Highate, not to be confused with the building with the same name in the Aldwych, rapidly became a centre for anti-British, anti-colonial activity until its demise by the end of 1909.

In 2009/10, a monument was created near Mandvi to commemorate the long forgotten pioneer of the Indian independence movement, Shyamji Krishnavarma. The monument includes a life size replica of the house in Highgate, which was once ‘India House’. The interior of the replica makes no attempt to copy whatever was inside India House back in the time of Shyamji. Instead, it contains portraits of numerous freedom fighters including some of those who either visited or lived in the house in Highgate when it existed as India House. There is also a collection of portraits of some of the heroes of the Great Rebellion, or First War of Indian Independence, that occurred between 1857 and ’58. One might question one or two omissions amongst the portraits (eg Jawaharlal Nehru and Gokhale), but there is a large selection of freedom fighters remembered here. Apart from the feisty Madame Bhikaiji Cama and Shyamji’s wife Bhanumati, there are no other ladies commemorated.

When I first saw the replica at Kranthi Teerth, which looks very incongruous standing tall in the flat sandy semi desert landscape, I became fascinated by its history. When we returned to London, I began researching the story of India House and its exciting contribution to the independence of India. Last year, I published a book about it: “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”. The title encapsulates what happened in India House: ideas were discussed; experiments in bomb making were undertaken; and guns were packed ready to be smuggled into British India.

It was interesting to revisit the portraits on display in the replica of India House after having researched my book. At our first visit, most of the persons portrayed meant nothing to me. However, seeing them again, having learnt about them while writing my book, felt rather like meeting old friends!

Yesterday, we revisited Kranthi Teerth and met Hriji Karali, whose ideas led to Narendra Modi’s encouragement of its construction. I presented the senior officials at Kranthi Teerth with a copy of my book. They appeared to be very pleased because until then they had not seen anything in English about Kranthi Teerth and the person it commemorates. My wife and I were given a warm welcome.

Apart from the replica of house in Highgate, there is a simple but spacious gallery where the irns carrying the ashes of Shyamji and his wife are reverentially displayed. These were brought to India from Geneva, where Mr and Mrs Krishnavarma died in the 1930s, by Narendra Modi in 2003 while he was Chief Minister of Gujarat.

I always enjoy visiting places more than once because each successive visit I discover more about them and thereby appreciate them with greater keenness. This was certainly true of our second visit to Kranthi Teerth.

“Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets” by Adam Yamey is available from:
Lulu.com
Pothi.com (best for purchasers in India)
Amazon
Bookdepository.com
Kindle

Picture shows setting of the replica of India House at Kranthi Teerth