Two Virtuosos and Palghat

A place where they grew up…

Palghat, a quiet and unassuming district, is the granary of Kerala. An uncomplicated and uncluttered place on the Western side of the Sahyadri range, this was where a gap in the mountains opened out for the artisans of the Tamilakam, allowing them to trade and communicate with the developing domains of the Malayalam culture, near the coast. As a border town of sorts, it became home to many diverse communities and resulted in an admixture of Tamil and Kerala lifestyles, art, and culture. The language, the food, and the outlook of Palghat are, therefore, somewhat unique. As an important railway junction in the British rail network, it later connected travelers coming in from the North and the Eastern cities to Kerala, a junction diverting them North towards Calicut or South, onwards to the metropolises of Cochin and Trivandrum.

Not only was it a locale peopled by all kinds of Hindu religions and castes, but it was also a place where many Rawuthers and Muslims settled down, especially near Puthunagaram and Palghat, these people having filtered in from Coimbatore and other palayams where Haider and Tipu used to camp once upon a time. After all, this was the principality where the Achan rulers once invited the Mysore Sultans, to help them ward off the invasions of the Zamorin. Primarily an agricultural district even today, you come across temple towns and paddy fields along the way. Not much happened in these places, other than temple festivities. When occasion permitted or when one got truly bored, the adventurous would in the old days, board a clackety bus to Palghat to either to see a film, buy some clothes or to eat some tiffin at the Ashoka Bhavan or chomp a biryani at Noorjehan.

Bullock carts hogged the road and the occasional bus would creak and growl along behind them till the road opened out and allowed them to pass, with a frustrated roar. Cherumar workers walking in a row carrying hay and paddy on their head to the granary of the landlord’s house was a perineal sight, and some could be seen crouched or hunched over the paddy fields, planting or harvesting, much like you saw in the old black & white movies, while the Nair landlord clad in a dhoti would walk by, head held up, taking in the scene and the situation of the crops, calculating the returns. Over yonder, behind the many coconut trees or the occasional iconic palmyra palm, jack fruit and mango trees, you could hear faintly, music being played through the temple speakers, typically a Carnatic kirtana – perhaps even an MS Subbalakshmi offering.

Walk towards that noise and you would cross an Agraharam with row houses on both sides facing a lovely temple pond ringed with coconut trees, all starkly spartan, where you would see ladies of the house wearing their sarees the Tamilian way and drawing kolams or a rare child at play. The bathhouse still has a few semi-clad women, washing clothes, with the sound of the pounding – of cloth hitting the granite stones, just to get the dirt out, sounding rat a tat, akin to gunshots, splitting the silence, sans a croaking frog or a bird's call from the distance. The ambi pattar uncle sitting on the easy chair on the Kolayi of the home, angling his Hindu newspaper to catch the morning light would be muttering about the state of the affairs, the government and what not, and how Madras was going to the dogs, cursing the political parties. Siva Siva. Today, there are no children or youngsters in those agraharams, they are all gone, with their parents to Chennai or Mumbai or Bangaluru. But come vacations or Navaratri, the homes will be buzzing with activity, children on the street and animated chatter all the way through the row houses.

Anyway, for some obtuse reason, I don’t really know why, the place, perhaps due to its serenity and quietness, resulted in the creation of so many great personalities who not only graced the administrative corridors of New Delhi and its politics, but also the armed forces and the railways, many a corporate office and of course much later, the IT industry. Add to that a vast number of incredibly talented artists - Carnatic or light music, there were vocalists, instrumentalists, and there were so many performers (actors) and writers. But I am not going to be general anymore, I will be specific and simply introduce two of the greatest exponents of their art forms, one a wonderfully talented Carnatic music singer, another a brilliant actress, both of great renown, favorites across generations. The actress was never of Palghat origin, but just stayed there for a while, but they remembered this little town years later and talked about it. That’s all the connection.

An uncle of mine called Kichetta, who used to work in the estates and a great buddy of my dad, had settled down for good in a place called Vandazhi, upon retirement, this place being just a few miles away from our village at Pallavur. The last time I visited him at Vandazhi was a couple of years ago, but this uncle passed away last year, sad to say. I still recall the last visit, and of Ammayi taking all the pains to make fresh unniappams and many other delicacies to welcome us on that occasion.

Like many other villages in Palghat, Vandazhi too is surrounded by fields and has a couple of temples, and in the 80’s boasted a school or two, perhaps a dispensary or a primary health care center, a few grocery shops and a tea kada or two. Like most other villages, a few buses which plied the bus route between Palghat in the North or Trichur in the West touched at Vandazhi, and well, it also had a post office where people would congregate and chit chat.

This was the village where our young lady spent her vacations, where she heard temple music wafting over loudspeakers and perfected her Carnatic music and her mastery over its ragas, talas and swaras with each visit. I was not aware of her connections to Palghat, as her name led most astray. When I listened to her speak on this specific subject, Vandazhi I was surprised to say the least - now remember, I have heard her voice so often as a music enthusiast and my skin tingled when I listened to her podcast of her younger days at Vandazhi, and how it got her interested in music, how the songs of Baburaj, Yesudas and other music directors enthralled her.

She was a Tambram (Tamil brahmin) too and a PI (Palghat Iyer) whose family had flown the coop long ago and one who realized many years later – that this was where she wished to settle down - By the water, with lush coconut groves around. The air filled with a few voices speaking Malayalam. And in the distance, the quiet sound of a temple bell. She added that she would always remember her vacations at Vandazhi and long to go back there, again and again.

That person is Jayshri Ramnath, who was born in Calcutta and grew up at Bombay to become a Maestra in the field of music, earning many awards, much recognition and numerous laurels along the way, a Padma Shri lately. For those still a bit confused, that is none other than the well-known singer Bombay Jaishri, granddaughter of Palghat Narayana Iyer.

I am sure most of you know who Bombay Jaishri is, but let me give you some highlights of her career and some background. Jaishri has this lovely thick, husky and mature tone, and has over the last two decades, given us so many lovely light music and classical renditions, a few of which are very popular, such as the film song Vaseegara. Jaishri was termed Bombay Jaishri by an interviewer many years ago, wanting to distinguish her from the many Jaishri’s in the field, and the name stuck.

Along the way she would pick up many awards and grace the Carnatic music field, also gracing the light music arena with an occasional film song. These days she is popular in the Carnatic performance circuit and is a philanthropist to boot. Not only is she well known in India, but is also much-traveled, giving performances all over the world. Some years ago, she won an Oscar nomination for her composition in ‘The life of Pi”. But we will come to some highlights of her career a little later, let us get back to her memories.

Those interested should listen to her 7-minute podcast about those school summer vacation trips to Vandazhi in Palghat and how the music she heard there, as well as the daily extempore group singing sessions by the entire family taking turns, during the evenings, instilled the essence of Carnatic music into her soul. Her grandfather was the headmaster of the CVM school at Vandazhi, and every vacation (just like many of us did) she, her mother Seetha and her two brothers took the train from Bombay to Olavakot station in Palghat, then the bus to Vandazhi, to spend all of two months, in that blissful world away from the hustle, bustle, smell, noise, grime and dust of Bombay. Jaishri mentions her thatha’s house had a thatched roof, but that sounded a little incongruous to me, for a headmaster in the early 80’s would have surely merited a tiled house, even if it were rented.

Nevertheless, her descriptions match the typical Palghat scene I mentioned earlier, a house surrounded by coconut, mango and jack fruit trees, a temple nearby, with the temple pond and of course temple music wafting from the loudspeakers early in the morning, from 4AM as Jaishri sates, and that daily infusion was according to her, what influenced her music deeply, even before she learned music and its structure and grammar. The music of Vandazhi remained with her, and came back often, bringing nostalgia, gratitude and many good memories. She recalls the magical voice of Yesudas from the temple speakers and she recalls the days when they partook more in music than conversation, at home. The scenery, the sounds of the rain and the music of the insects hovering around the dimly lit bulbs, always remained with her.

She starts the podcast singing an evergreen Malayalam song popularized by Yesudas – Sumangali nee orkumo. Though her Malayalam accent is typical of a Tamilian, she narrates the story magically. While the rest of the episodes are as good though short, the one about Vandazhi, is of course dear to me. Her narration is splendid and tinged with nostalgia, and she tells us about her uncle who always purchased two extra bulbs so that no evening would go dark due to a blub failing with the voltage constantly fluctuating, and her grandpa would tell them stories of his childhood, lounged supine on his easy chair. This maternal grandpa was the Headmaster at CVM Vandazhi, and she refers to him as Vicha Thata.

Her paternal grandfather Palghat Narayana Iyer, who used to offer music tuitions at Bombay, must have originated from another Palghat agraharam, Jaishri does not mention those details in this podcast. Anyway, she says it was that temple music she heard between 4-630AM which got deeply imprinted in her mind as she grew up, this helping her internalize and connect to serious Carnatic music, later on.

A few highlights from her life and career would help you understand her journey - Both her father Subramaniam and mother Seetha were quite proficient in Carnatic music, and her father used to perform in concerts. He died young when Jaishri was just 6 but her mother Seetha ensured that her music lessons continued. Initially, she learned Carnatic music under TR Balamani (Shankar Mahadevan, another PI was also part of the group) at Matunga. After usual rounds in the light music and Geet, bhajan, ghazal performance scenes, she became a jingle and track singer in Bombay. She was then chosen as a disciple of the violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman and was trained in the nuances of Carnatic vocals by that great performer. That was when she moved to Chennai. Also proficient on the veena, Jaishri was trained on the instrument by G N Dhandapani Iyer. Before she performed Carnatic concerts at the age of 28, she was as I read, the voice behind many a jingle, notably Ponds dream flower, Bournvita, Mealmaker and Rexona!

Somehow her connections to Kerala continued, and the one song which blew her into the limelight had yet another Malayali connection. She got a call to sing for a film, directed by one Jayraj. Thinking that it was the Malayalam film director Jairaj whom she had previously sung for, she went to the studio to see a young fella clad in shorts getting it all ready for her to sing a seductive song. Alarmed and assuming that she was in the wrong place, she was quickly convinced by this new music director that she was in the right place and chosen for that very song due to her low pitch, that was how the young Harris Jayraj, got her to sing that iconic song Vaseegara, the song which catapulted her into the common man’s heart!

A commerce graduate, with a diploma in Indian music and also trained in Hindustani classical music, Jaishri is very popular in the performance circuit. I don’t need to say more, for she has achieved so much and is at the pinnacle these days, so mellifluous to listen to. In fact, sometimes when we pick up a  kirtanam to learn in our music class, most suggestions are to learn them from the Jaishri versions.

Jaishri has high regard for the Malayali music fan and she once said “Kerala’s culture and tradition are quite different from elsewhere.  The people here love music and enjoy music festivals. I performed here on the occasion of Vishu. People appreciate music here”. But after she got nominated for the Oscars, things got a bit complicated when she was accused of plagiarism, as some Malayali’s believed she had borrowed heavily from Iryimman Thampi’s Omana Thingal Kidavo, to create her version, without attribution. I am sure that matter has all been laid to rest and forgotten, I feel there is nothing much to argue about, in this case.

There are so many other stars with Palghat origins who don’t mention their Palghat connections, probably they have no lasting memories of the town, or it could be that they prefer their karma Bhoomi to their Janma bhumi, as I mentioned in my article on PI’s or Palghat Iyers some years ago.

So that was Jaishri Ramnath and her association with Vandazhi, a place that inspires her to sing. How about the other person? Even though she makes only a brief mention, I would like to add her to this little article, because I thought it fits in here. She was a great actress of yesteryears who regaled us with brilliant performances in the movie Guide, and many Guru Dutt movies, such as Pyaasa and Kaagez Ki Phool. The actress is none other than Waheeda Rahman, who spent a few of her childhood years in Palghat.

In the early days, Palghat was a little different. After the Mysore Sultans arrived during the second half of the 18th century, they decimated Malabar and also disrupted the entire structure in Palghat. Life had taken a new turn, the Nairs were a hunted lot, so also the Brahmins (Nambuthiris and Tamil brahmin settlers), after attacks and looting of the temples by the Mysore soldiers. Camps were established for the soldiers near the border, at Palghat, near Koduvayur and closer to Trichur.  After a while the British came in, to defeat the Mysorean army and with it, the ownership of the entire region passed on to the East India Company. But the magnificent fort which was constructed by Haider remained, as it does to this day, and the Kotta Maidanam and the fort are basically rallying points at Palghat. Families go there during holidays, while concerts, games and processions, as well as meetings, are regularly held there.

As I had written before, I have always passed the fort, since the road that takes me from Palakkad town to Pallavur, snakes by the Kotta Maidanam (the ground by the fort) and is beside one of the ramparts of the majestic fort. Sometimes it is dry and black, sometimes it is covered with moss, but it has always stood there, hardly damaged by the years, the weather or the many thousands who folk by every year to see it. The complex is square in shape, situated on 15 acres of land, with walls of immense thickness and strong bastions at all four corners and in the middle. The sober majesty of those laterite walls of the fort quietly hides many tales of valor and courage.

After the British took over the fort, it was made into a Tahsildar’s Kutchery, and the fort housed several British government offices. It was turned into a jail in 1877. In the 20th century, the fort became a Taluk office once again. Now declared as a monument, the Fort is under the custody of the Archaeological Survey of India. The old draw bridge has since been replaced by a permanent one.

From my earlier article on the ICS officer Ratnavelu Chetty and his tragic days in Palghat, you would have noted that Ratnavelu was at Palghat during 1880, and well, by this time the British administrative setup was pretty well in place. During the 1930’s a district commissioner was posted to Palghat, named Mohammed Abdul Reham. Among his four daughters, was one, who remembered her days from Palghat many decades later.  She is none other than Waheeda Rehman, one of India’s leading and popular actresses. Let us see what she had to say about Palghat, her earliest memory. Quoting Waheeda from the nice biography penned by Nasreen Munni Kabeer…

My father was a district commissioner. His name was Mohammed Abdur Rehman and my mother was Mumtaz Begum. Father passed the IAS [Indian Administrative Service] exam and finally became a district commissioner sometime in the 1930s. It was through his friends that his marriage was arranged in the late 1920s. My father was posted all over south India, so we managed to pick up some of the local languages. I am not very fluent in Tamil and Telugu, but I can get by. You don’t easily forget what you learn in your childhood.

I must have been about four or five years old. My father was posted to Palghat, which is now called Palakkad. It’s in Kerala. During the Onam festival we went to the Palghat Fort to watch the procession of decorated elephants. We stood on the parapet and my father lifted me high in his arms so I could see the elephants through the opening in the fort wall. The image of those beautifully adorned elephants is still clear in my mind.

Like a fool I told my father that I wanted to own an elephant. He said: ‘Darling, it’s not possible. An elephant is a big animal; you can’t keep an elephant as a pet.’ ‘What about a baby elephant?’ He patiently explained that the baby elephant would grow up into a big elephant.

A brilliant dancer, a popular actress and the quintessential beauty of Bollywood, she hailed from the Madras presidency. From her teens, she went on to act in scores of movies in numerous languages, winning a plethora of awards including the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Shri.

Interestingly one of her favorite performances was for the only Malayalam movie she acted in, one that never got released – she names it as the 1972’s film Trisandhya. The storyline is based on a short story by Uroob, and the film was directed by Raj Marbros. Waheeda plays the character of Indu who is in love with Bhasker, but gets married to his elder brother instead. In an accident, the husband dies and a paralyzed Bhasker is bedridden, with Indu taking care of him, donning the role of a Nurse. This film explores the delicate relationship between a housewife and her young brother-in-law. Her friends and produces were quite upset that she did this arty role at that time. I read elsewhere that her experience with this film was also not so good, following which she refused to regional themes, interestingly Benegal’s Ankur. That was Waheeda Rehman and her little tryst with Palghat.

So many other luminaries had connections to Palghat, and I will bring this to an and by mentioning some of those names. On the musical side we can talk of Usha Uthup, Sreevalsan Menon, Shankar Mahadevan, Haricharan, MS Viswanathan, Stephen Devassy, P Unnikrishnan, P Leela, Unni Menon, Swarnalatha, Malaysia Vasudevan, the Ranjini - Gayatri sisters, the list can go on and on. Add to them the many virtuosos from the past such as Mani Iyer, Chembai, MD Ramanathan, and of course the pioneer of them all, Parameswara Bhagavathar who graced Swati Tirunal’s court.

On the film side, we have examples such as Trisha, Vidya Balan, Priyamani, Ajit (Thala), Gautam Menon. So many writers came from those quite environs, some are OV Vijayan, VK Madhavan Kutty, Malayatoor Ramakrishnan, Anita Nair and then again, we have administrators and politicians namely CS Nair, VP Menon, KPK Menon, SS Menon, TN Sheshan etc. and not to forget, our inimitable Shashi Tharoor.

But I will admit, few were as evocative as Jaishri when it came to remembering those roots.…


Conversations with Waheeda Rahman – Nasreen Munni Kabeer 

Vandazhi – A short video

An interview with Bombay Jaishri and a link to her podcasts 

The Iyers Of Palghat - Historic Alleys

pics – Bombay Jaishri – Wikimedia courtesy – Kayaniv, waheeda Bollywood Hungama (Wikimedia)


The Laccadives, Pakistan and Sardar Patel

Lakshadweep - Transfer of power deliberations, and a brief history

There are many discussions these days about those remote islands to the west of Malabar, namely Lakshadweep. I had written about the caste quarrels out there and also some of its histories as connected to the Cannanore Royalty and the Arakkal Beevi, many years ago. What really brought me back to the subject were a number of news articles and forwards which appeared recently about recent legislations which rightfully irritated its Moplah majority, so also press reports as well as speeches mentioning the involvement of Sardar Patel, the Mudaliars and Travancore in hoisting the tricolor at the Laccadives as well as an apparent visit of a Pakistan vessel to the islands in 1947.

The islands in the Laccadive archipelago have always been there, and many seafarers entering the Arabian Sea with a purpose to trade with, subjugate or colonize India have come across it sometime or the other. Many ships have capsized in those areas, some survivors have lived to tell their tales, and the first indications come from the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea which mentions a variety of tortoise-shell originating from the islands off the coast of Limyrica (Malabar?). Ptolemy is more specific - Over against Taprobane lie a multitude of islands, said to number 1,378.  Several of the islands are identified by name, including "Kanathra" (Kavrathi), "Monache (Maliku), "Ammine" (Amini) and "Agidion" (possibly Agathi). Later sources are vague about many islands to the West of Malabar.

As you may be aware, there are three island archipelagos in the region, the southernmost being the Chagos, then further North the Maldives and closer to Malabar in longitude, the Laccadives. The Laccadives is thus some 27 islands (the name suggests a lakh - 100,000 islands in the archipelago, but how the lakh was attached to the name has never been cleared up) just over 12 square miles in area. 10 of those are inhabited while the others are not. The inhabited ones are Chetlat, Bitra, Kiltan, Kadmat, Amini, Agathi, Androth, Kavrathi, Kalpeni and Maliku. There is a large gap between Kalpeni and Maliku (closer to the Trivandrum longitude), separated by the 9-degree channel.

Then there is the legend of a search party sent out by the Kolathiri Raja to search for the Cheraman Perumal who had gone to Mecca. As it appears their ship capsized near the islands and the survivors were the first settlers. In reality, all the Northern islands were settled by Moplahs of Malabar, the Maliku island people seem to have some Sri Lanka or Male ancestry. While a Malayalam dialect is the main spoken language in the Northern group, the Maliku people speak a version of Sinhalese. It is also believed that Buddhism and Hinduism predated the introduction of Islam, which was brought over by an iterant preacher from Arabia named Ubaidullah (Mumbe mulliyaka – First Musaliyar) circa 661AD who then married a local girl named Hamidat Bibi. Their families and lines survive to this day. The islanders belong to the Shafi’I Sunni sect compared to the majority in India who follow the Hanafi traditions. The Tangals have much in common with the Hadrami sayyids and it is likely that they were the representatives of these South Arabian clerical from the Wâdi Hadramawt fanned out in those times to increase their followers.

Sulayman al-Tajir, 851 A.D refers to both groups collectively, or to the Maldives alone, as DIbajat Al-Biruni (1030 A.D.) divides the islands according to their chief products, into the Diva Kanbar (Coir Islands, or Laccadives) and the Diva Kudha (Cowrie Islands, or the Maldives). From a sailors plan, we can see that  shipping bound for Southern Arabia and the Red Sea from Malabar, as well as shipping bound for the East Africa coast from Malabar, would pass close to the southern reefs of the Laccadives; while, westbound shipping from the region of Goa would pass close to the northernmost reef of the Laccadives.

Coconuts, coir and fishing were the main occupations and means of livelihood. Some of the locals also freelanced for Arab ship owners as shipping pilots in the region. Generally, historians of the past bunched the Maldives and Laccadive archipelagoes into one, considering that the distance between Maliku or Minicoy and the nearest Maldives (Ilhavandiffulu atoll at the 8-degree channel) is just 71 miles. In a previous article, I had detailed the caste structure and problems which arose later, and how the islands managed to survive these until the end of the British occupation. But we did not discuss the happenings and history of the islands until the British took over, so let’s take a look.

We know that the Chinese seafarers mentioned the islands often in their annals. Chinese records, particularly from the Ming period, do in fact contain descriptions of the Liu-shan, the Chinese term for both island groups as well as the sea routes in the area. Certainly, the Cheng Ho voyages, some if not all touched, but it is not clear which islands or which archipelago it was. Several islands are mentioned by name, including three which have been identified with the Laccadives, viz. Ma-li-ch'i (Maliku), Chia-p'ingnien (Kalpeni) and An-tu-li (Androth). The Chinese were very careful and tried to avoid these coral islands, if possible, due to the danger posed to the ship hulls. But the Chinese did stop over often at Male down south.

This is the period when The Portuguese arrived at Calicut and later constructed a fort at Cochin after battles at Calicut. But naturally, they turned their eyes westward to the islands which they referred to with the Baixo de Padua - Shallows (shoals) of Padua while navigational maps identified the Padua and the Sesostris mud banks The Portuguese epoch is one the islanders wish to forget for it was indeed a period of strife. It was also the locale where one of Magellan's ships capsized. Nevertheless, most Portuguese accounts term the Laccadives as the Mamale islands after Mamale marakkar (Ali Raja). 

We read that their rule, though short, was characterized by religious intolerance and acts of great brutality. So much so, a person nicknamed Kathil anjakkaran (meaning - with bored ears) was sent to the Amini island by the Kolathiri Raja. This person kept the Portuguese happy with booze and then fed them snake venom poisoned wine (wonder if there were any snakes in the island, and how they got there?) thus decimating the entire Portuguese garrison. This event was later commemorated at the Pambanpalli ("Snake Mosque") at the Pamban parambu where the poison is said to have been prepared. But it was to exact massive retribution from the Franks, who in 1549-50 retaliated by massacring over 400 Amini Islanders including the Qazi, Abu-Bakr, who is still revered among Mappilas as a martyr. There are mentions of at least two further massacres by the Portuguese, again on Chetlat Island, but apparently, no further attempts were made to establish permanent Portuguese military settlements. Zainuddin Makhdum also refers to these events, in his Tuhfat ul Mujahideen. Sometime in the medieval period, the Kolathunad Raja turned over control to the Arakkal Bevi or the Ali Raja of Cannanore.

The Malikku (Minicoy) island was however largely disregarded until the time the Marakkars started to prowl the seas. It appears that the Malikku island was targeted by the Marakkars and the islanders appealed to the Cannanore chieftains for help. Logan mentions that Minicoy was "surrendered by them to the Cannanore House on condition of protection being afforded to them against the Kottakkal Kunjali Marakkars, the famous Malayali pirates who used to harry the island periodically”.

Though the Portuguese had established themselves at Goa by the end of the sixteenth century and generally controlled the region, the Ali Rajas of Arakkal had by then arranged overlordship of the Laccadive Islands, paying a peshkash or tribute of 6000 panams to the Chirakkal Raja. As time, passed The Ali Raja rule became increasingly oppressive and independent after the Kolathiri dominance declined. Taxation was steadily increased and the islanders were subjected to a series of crippling monopolies imposed by Cannanore. The Ali Rajas offered no protection and the islanders consequently suffered raids by both Indian and European pirates. In fact, we can see that - During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries English, French and Irish corsairs (including the infamous William Kidd) descended on the Laccadives where they spent their time "ravishing women, murdering men, burning houses and behaving in a most villainous manner"

In 1786 the people of the northern islands of Amini, Chetlat and Kiltan rose in protest against the harshness of Arakkal rule in general, and against the coir monopoly in particular. Anyway, things were quite bad and somebody decided that Tipu Sultan could be a savior, an answer to their problem. Two boats belonging to the influential Kulap and Porakat families managed to sail to Mangalore in 1783, where, they disposed of their coir to Tipu. The Bibi sent her men to the islands to take revenge on these families and this finally resulted in a revolt at the islands. The Karyakkar Abdul Khadir was put in chains and the leaders sailed to Mangalore to offer their allegiance to Tipu. As Ellis explains – Tipu, however, was by this time once more on friendly terms with the Bibi, and tried to persuade them to return to their allegiance to her. All his endeavors proving unsuccessful, he, at length, in I787, accepted the offer of the islanders and granted in compensation to the Cannanore family a jaghir from the Chirakkal territories. Sheik Hassan was appointed as his Monegar and a period of calm prevailed.

After the Anglo Mysore wars, the East India Company and later the British Crown became masters of the islands, when Tipu ceded all his acquisitions to the English. Interestingly the southern islands passed to the EIC in 1791 after the loss of Malabar and the Northern islands in 1799 after the fall of Seringapatam. This division in administration continued in the British bureaucracy as well, with the Amindivis, administered under South Kanara and the southern islands under Malabar. The British initially allowed the Arakkal Beebi to retain the Laccadives and Minicoy on the condition that she paid an annual tribute, to the EIC.

Things went from bad to worse, and as the power of the Ali Rajas waned, the annual peshkash fell into arrears; and living standards at the islands declined rapidly. Finally, in 1861 the British stepped in and sequestrated the islands for a period of five years and in 1875 they were permanently sequestrated, though the Ali Rajas continued to enjoy a nominal sovereignty until 1908.

During the first world war, the German battleship Emden was around. Ellis tells us that the German Cruiser Emden operated off the Laccadives for a short time in September in October 1914 and sank several (Six - I believe) vessels on the trade routes which ran north and south of Minicoy. Several lifeboats and some wreckage had washed up on Kalpeni.

Life continued on at a leisurely pace till the end of the second world war, with hardly any major development at these islands. Laccadives was part of the Malabar administration under the Madras presidency (note here that Travancore, Cochin and later Travancore-Cochin were not part of the presidency, they were among the princely states) and Amini under S Kanara. The freedom movement had little effect in those outlying islands, nobody cared. And now we come to the deliberations during the transfer of power, in June 1947.

Stevens, Mills and Barry were tasked to prepare recommendations on the Laccadive islands. They opined thus “These islands which are sparsely inhabited coral strips assume strategic importance from the air point of view if we find we cannot retain all the facilities we require in India. In such circumstances, they would be essential for our air reinforcement and transport route to Australia, New Zealand and the Far East”. All that was needed was to provide adequate navigational aids and an emergency landing strip by making use of the Laccadive Islands. They concluded- Since we cannot assume that the successor States in India, even if they remain Dominions, will give us continued and full co-operation in the provision of the necessary facilities for the air transport route to the Far East, we must re-ensure by means of an alternative. The only alternative is the retention of the Laccadive Islands. We therefore conclude that legislative provision should be made for the transfer of the Laccadive Islands from the Government of Madras to the Administration of H.M.G. (Her majesty’s Government) in the United Kingdom.

During continuing negotiations, the committee was then notified that the islands were not up for discussion as they were part of Malabar (and Amini part of S Canara)- As regards the Laccadive Islands the Committee were informed that they formed part of the Madras Presidency: in these circumstances, they agreed that it would be necessary to seek by negotiation any facilities that we might require for their use for strategic and defense purposes. On 1st July 1947, the Air Ministry wrote to the India Office, noting the decision in regard to the Laccadive Islands, and requesting that the approval of the Govt of India be sought for a reconnaissance of the Islands with a view to the installation of navigational equipment and if possible, the construction of a landing strip there. In due course, Lord Mountbatten sounded Pandit Nehru informally on the subject, reporting on 19th July that he had spoken to Nehru who was ‘quite friendly and said there was no objection to an official approach being made though he could not commit himself until all implications had been considered’.

However, the situation with respect to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were different. Jinnah representing Pakistan, while disinterested on the Laccadives in spite of it being a majority Muslim territory, was ambivalent on the Andamans. He insisted on ownership of the Andamans as it was strategically en route to East Pakistan. At the same time, Australia wanted it transferred to HMG due to its strategic importance but Nehru and the Indian negotiators flatly refused. As the situation became increasingly acrimonious, a final decision was taken to award it to India on the grounds that the INA had been in possession of the islands obtaining it from the Japanese and because India had a strong emotional connection to A&N due to the huge numbers of convicts incarcerated there (Kala pani), over the years. It was a bitter pill for Jinnah to swallow.

In spite of all this, the worst mistake committed by the team, busy with the main partition discussions, was I guess, the neglect of the Chagos islands (Diego Garcia) and the Coco (Keeling) Islands. The former was appropriated by the British and leased to the US as we know, while the latter sitting to the North of the Andamans became Burmese property, where the Chinese since then, established a SIGINT station. Both have become strategic military locations these days.

Back to the declaration of independence - As far as the islanders of Lacadives were concerned, they knew about it many months later. A lovely article by Suresh Thomas, provides some detail. As I read therein, one Chekkekeel Khalid who had gone to Calicut arrived back at the islands with the news after the monsoons, in Sept/Oct 1947, and only much later was the tricolor hoisted.

Now to the role of the Mudaliars and Travancore. As Laccadives were administered by Malabar and S Kanara, there is little justification for ships going out from Travancore. Also, in June 1947, Travancore represented by Sir CP, her Dewan was actually duking it out with the British and Indian administrators, even considering allying with Pakistan (See my article for further details). By August, Sir CP had returned to Madras to recuperate and prepare for his world tours. Considering this background, it is unlikely that the Maharaja of Travancore deputed a ship to the Laccadives to hoist a flag, purportedly, after being exhorted by Sardar Patel through the Mudaliar brothers. AR Mudaliar came to Travancore as the vice-chancellor of its university much later, but until 1949, he was the Dewan of Mysore and so his and his brother’s role in this matter, is circumspect.

Another report mentioned that the collector of revenue at Travancore had been contacted by Patel (VP Menon is not mentioned) who then sent a boat to Kavaratti to hoist a flag. All articles conclude by stating that a Pakistani ship which came by, saw the Indian flag hoisted and went back. Then again, one should note that the transfer of naval assets had not been fully completed in August 1947, so the possibility of Pakistan sending one of the three frigates they eventually obtained, in order to check out the situation at Laccadives in August, after sailing for approximately two days to cover the 900 miles distance, seems unfeasible. Certainly, Jinnah a shrewd politician would not have chanced armed conflict at that juncture, in my opinion.

Anyway, on August 15, 1947, India became independent. The Madras Presidency became the Madras State and a part of the Indian Union. As a consequence, the Malabar and South Canara became Indian districts. 

Dr Pookoya provides the actual sequence of events in his book - A few odams that reached in the end of September that year (1947) told the news that India was free from British Raj. But changes in Administration was much delayed and the Amin rule continued without any change. Trade with Calicut, Cannanore and Mangalore continued through Dallals. The Lakshadweep was then known as Laccadive Minicoy and Amindivi Islands, which was included along with Kerala under the Madras State. On 4th August 1950, the first unit of Indian National Congress was formed at Kalpeni Island by P.I.Pookoya, who was a freedom fighter, who celebrated first Independence Day of August 15th at Kalpeni Island in 1950. Sri S.V. Sayedkoya Thangal of Androth Island was nominated as Member of Madras Legislative Council (MLC) from Laccadive, Minicoy & Amindives in 1950. The Laccadive, Minicoy & Amindivi Islands came under Union Territory of Indian Union on 1st November 1956. Development was very slow & sluggish during that period. The British flag was flying on the Minicoy Light House till 1st April 1956.

At Minicoy lighthouse on 1st April 1956 British flag was replaced by the Indian flag. An Administrative Office was started in Calicut at a rented house at Puthiyara, on 1st November 1956. U R Panikkar took over charge but was replaced by S. Mony ICS, on the 8th of November1956.

Thus, on 1st November 1956, Travancore-Cochin joined with the Malabar District of Madras State to form the new state of Kerala. In accordance with the promulgation of the States Reorganization Act, the islets and atolls were all combined to collectively form a union territory. With all this background, I find it difficult to accept reports of the deputation of a ship that then arranged for the hoisting of the Indian tricolor, just after independence. It could still be a possibility, but I doubt it.

That said, the foregoing provides anybody interested in a better understanding of the history of those lovely islands. I can only hope that they are unaffected by divisive politics and religious animosity.


Sources Towards a History of the Laccadive Islands (JOSAS) – Andrew D W Forbes
Kalpeni Island History, People and Culture – Dr CG Pookoya
Lakshadweep – Theodore Gabriel
A short account of the Laccadive Islands and Minicoy – R H Ellis
Cornered in a world of their own (Fountain Ink) – Suresh P Thomas
Travancore’s Pakistan Intrigues, 1946-47
Mammali Marakkar
The Umbrella riots (LivehistoryIndia)


Yellapragada SubbaRow – A Great Man of Science

Relentless in the pursuit of cures

North of Guntur in Andhra Pradesh where it's famed red-hot chilies grew, and South of Rajamundry where many a graceful courtesan of yore was trained is situated a sleepy little village, named Bhimavaram, the name literally meaning "the gift of Bhima". Bhima means giant, as you all know. Legends tell us that around 890–918 AD, a Chalukya king named Bhima built a Siva temple and laid the foundation to this town, which thence carried his name. Legends and lore have faded away, leaving just Bhima’s name behind. This was the village blessed by the birth, in 1895, of a little boy named Subbarao (fourth among seven siblings) to Jaganatham and Venkamma. This little boy, Yellapragada SubbaRow, would go on to become a giant, yet another Bhima, in his field of expertise.

To a certain extent, he was a confused man in his teens, wanting only to make a name for himself, then wanting to become an ascetic monk, which he forsook (his mother Venkamma refused permission) to thence follow a career in medicine. When he first ran away from home, aged 13, with his cousin to Varanasi, the boys had planned to sell bananas to pilgrims in order to make a living. They were caught and brought back, and schooling continued, but Subbarow made a few attempts to pass his matriculation. Nationalism was on the rise and for a while, that fervor took a hold of him, due to which his stentorian mother sent the boy off to Triplicane in Madras to continue his high school. Tragedy struck, as his father who had not thrived as a revenue officer, succumbed to beriberi. But the boy passed his exam on the third attempt. Though he drifted toward the Ramakrishna Mission for a while against his mother’s wishes, Subbarow passed his intermediate, with distinction in Maths. Eventually, he joined the MMC Madras Medical College, in 1915.

Somehow, in the middle of his medical studies, he got married to a very young child bride Sheshagiri, and obtained some financial support from his father-in-law, a prosperous agriculturist. It was a personal affliction and tragedy which led him into Ayurveda. Acute dysentery caused by tropical sprue laid waste two of his brothers and nearly took his life too, as allopathic medicines failed to help. Ayurvedic treatment cured him and got him interested in that line of medicine for a period, but as you guessed, he drifted on, still in search of his future. Apparently, due to his nationalistic fervor and wearing khadi clothes, Subbarow was failed his surgery exams by the British professor and thus obtained only an LMS certification, not an MBBS degree.

A chance meeting with an American doctor John Fox Kendricks, convinced him that his future lay in America, and Row applied to the Harvard Medical school of tropical medicine and got admission, but then found that finances were impossible to come by and a scholarship hard to get, especially so since his brother who could have helped with the necessary recommendation, to the philanthropist, Satyalinga Naicker’s charities had passed away after contracting sprue. With no other avenues open, he accepted the post of a lecturer in the Madras Ayurvedic college at a Rs 70/- monthly salary.  He kept at it, spending time on a pet project of codifying available knowledge on Ayurveda, into a tome.

His efforts to go to America continued and his application to Harvard again bore fruit, but the US university informed that research in Ayurveda was not something up their avenue. They also made it clear that a scholarship was not available. Somehow, with the help of his father-in-law and another friend, Row managed to scrape enough finances for the forthcoming voyage to Boston. One thing was clear though, the young wife Sheshagiri would remain in India while at the same time, the prospect of Row’s return to India seemed bleak (even though he promised to return in 3 years). Row was on his way, and the sailing on the P&O liner SS Kashgar to Boston via London, uneventful. Interestingly, he had prepared for the voyage and in order to combat seasickness, he practiced the motion on a swing for many days, near his home.

SubbaRow disembarked in Boston on 6th Oct 1923 and joined the course for tropical medicine with some financial support from Dr RP Strong, his mentor as well as an anonymous doctor. His certificate from Madras was not good enough to get him a job in any hospital, and the only job he could get was as a night porter at the Bringham hospital, washing urinals and bed pans every night, and living in the dark basement of a nearby building. Though Dr Strong tried hard to get him another job, he was unsuccessful, perhaps due to the young Indian’s color and lack of acceptable qualifications. All he could do was to give him flexibility for his classes in parasitology. That research led SubbRow to study in-depth E-Coli, Filariasis and Trypanosomiasis. By the end of the year, he heard glad tidings that a son was born to him in India. Eight months later, he obtained his diploma in tropical medicine.

Some people even though eminently qualified in the fields of science tend to be superstitious and SubbaRow too was no different, he was sure his son would die in his infancy and kept writing home trying to get his family to come to terms with the impending doom. As he prophesied, the child died in 9 months of a streptococcal infection. What SubbaRow did was to send some instructions and a kit to the Kings institute in Guindy, so that they can use it for such a future case of infection, if anybody contracted it.  A few days later, he lost his night porter job, but received the scholarship from India which he had been waiting for, and joined up for Biochemistry at Harvard. This was good enough for his tuition, and around the same time, a benevolent American in New York arranged a $30 per month stipend for his subsistence.

His relationship with his supervisor was to turn his life around, the person being Dr Cyrus H Fiske. Folin the department head managed to get him instated as a regular graduate student, with a part-time job as a library assistant. As luck would have it, he obtained a scholarship while the MSN charities in India doubled his scholarship. With a little savings, he purchased a secondhand microscope, and his barebone living continued.

Life went on smoothly, SubbaRow made some friends, Finke being one of them. He became somewhat of an eccentric at college with a reputation of being adept at his work. His first original work was the submission of a paper with Fiske on the method of estimating phosphorus in the human body, something very important to diagnose many diseases. In 1925, the colorimetry procedure was successfully demonstrated, and the Fiske-Subba Row method became the standard, to this day! Their next brilliant success in 1927 came when researching insulin effects on blood sugar, and the presence of phosphorous compounds in muscles. Eventually they discovered phosphocreatine and detailed how this agent controlled muscular action. It was revolutionary, for just a few years ago another (incorrect) hypothesis had won the scientists Myerhoff and Hill, a Nobel prize. Two lobbies formed, one supporting the erstwhile prize winners and another for the Fiske Row discovery. In addition to that, the Eggleton couple published their discovery of a similar phosphorous compound just two months before Fiske and SubbaRow could do it. A period of intense rivalry and determination of the compound continued between these parties and it appears that the discovery of ATP was eventually credited to K Lohmann from Myerhoff’s lab (Those interested in the details may peruse - The Discovery of Adenosine Triphosphate and the Establishment of Its Structure: Koscak Maruyama).

SubbaRow (as he chose to spell his name) was by now getting noticed and becoming famous, fellowships followed, and his earnings increased. With the newfound confidence and a fatter purse in his pocket, SubbaRow plunged into the American way of life. But two things made him plan an exit from Harvard, one being covert racism and the other being a lack of proper remuneration. Even years after his brilliant discoveries, he, a PhD holder (obtained it in 1930) was at the bottom rung of the ladder, working as a teaching fellow, a position usually reserved for graduate students. Even Folin’s persistent attempts could not break the prejudice, for example, he, a colored man would not be allowed to teach female students, at that time!

At this juncture, Folin passed away and Fiske angled for a promotion to fill Folin’s post. To boost Fiske’s chances, it appears that SubbaRow wrote a letter to the dean stating that all credit for the previous inventions were fully Fiske’s and that he was just helping Fiske. It did not help Fiske and an outsider Dr Hastings was brought in, while Fiske was awarded full tenure and SubbaRow, left in the cold got nothing. His experiments with Nicotinic acid had not been going quite well, nor did his collaboration with other universities. His teaching stint with a small promotion did not work out, students complained they could not understand his accent. Harvard later tried to explain their shoddy treatment of the brilliant young man, stating that he was offered limited opportunities only because he had a time-bound visa at that juncture, and that this uncertainty prevented them from offering him a proper faculty position.

But there was a little consolation, for a lady had entered his life – Vilma Prochownick, from Germany, as a research assistant. He would tell her often of his racial inadequacy on the America of the 20’s, of his thoughts on returning to India, and of a planned future away from Harvard, hopefully with her. This was not to happen, as Vilma contracted TB and was sent off to a sanitorium for a while, where she decided that science was no more her passion, but that literature was. WWII had broken out, her parents in Germany could no longer support her and she was hellbent on working in a library, to be among books! The two of them finally parted ways. Meanwhile, Sheshagiri in India was waiting for her husband who had no plans to return. He would write to her and send her money, but all she wanted was him to come home. Th three years had by now extended to seventeen years.

Lederle - Pearl River
Racial prejudices were a continuous problem and in one instance, he was arrested and held overnight when a lady in the neighborhood got molested. Around this time, in 1940, Lederle with whom he had collaborated while working on precocious Anemia and liver extracts, offered him a regular position with earnings of $15,000 as against the measly $2,700 Harvard was paying him. Joining Lederle, his responsibilities took a new turn, synthesizing vitamins and negotiating patents, as well as managing around 300 scientists. As years passed by, he concentrated on folic acid (part of the vitamin-B complex), helped develop its derivatives, teropterin and aminopterin (now being used to fight cancer), directed research that produced the new broad-spectrum antibiotic, aureomycin (a cure for serious infections untouched by penicillin or streptomycin). He also laid the foundations for the isolation of vitamin B12.

One of his important discoveries was the cure for filariasis using two-ethyl compounds. I guess in many ways, he was the reason many hundreds in Kerala were cured of this terrible ailment, especially those residing near the canals and rivers and toiling in cottage coir industries.

His collaboration with Dr Sydney Faber in using teropetrin for chemotherapy against cancer are legendry and explained in detail in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s lovely book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.  At Farber's request, SubbaRow's team developed a series of antifolates (folic acid antagonists), including aminopterin, and found that these disturbed the metabolism of leukemic cells in chickens and mice, an effect that could then be reversed by administering folic acid. It was rumored that SubbaRow’s next project would be to find a cure for cancer and his associates were sure he would succeed.

Sadly, it was not to be, YSR, Sub or SubbaRow as people addressed him, aged just 52, passed away in his sleep, due to natural causes on Aug 9th, 1948. An autopsy pointed to a heart attack. Poignantly, his mother Venkamma outlived him for 41 years, to a ripe old age of 94. After SubbaRow’s death, his pastor Merton Lockhart, held onto his ashes, with no plans to send it to India for a Hindu disposal, believing them to be inconsistent with Baptist beliefs and the confidence that SubbaRow had accepted Christian beliefs.

Along the way he posed like most Americanized Indians but he was still not a naturalized citizen. Until 1946, America did not permit people of Indian origin to apply for American citizenship even though Caucasians and Chinese could! In 1946, PL 483 passed by President Truman allowed Indians to apply for American citizenship. SubbaRow processed his papers and obtained the necessary clearance, but failed to go through the next step, of submitting a declaration of intent.

SubbaRow had varied tastes, he learned how to swim, ride horses, shoot arrows and fly planes. He developed an interest in orchids and was trying to figure out how he could get them to grow faster. He learned to fly on an Aeronca biplane, mostly to relieve work tensions, and flew a long distance just three days before his death.

A few years after Subba Row’s death in 1948, Lederle laboratories opened a plant in India at Bulsar near Bombay. A plaque was unveiled, stating: “Science simply prolongs life—Religion deepens it.” The Lederle plant in Bulsar symbolized Dr. Subba Row’s scientific contributions made to the United States and India. As was stated, many of the pharmaceuticals produced under his direction have improved the quality of life for people in both countries and for millions of others around the world.

While SubbaRow was indeed a meticulous scientist and researcher, his personal side is not very well known to the public, so I thought I’d spend few paragraphs on SubbaRow, the person. The eulogies and the two or three biographies are flattering and present SubbaRow in a single dimension, a man fighting a racist organization, struggling to make ends meet and always a humble introvert. But in reality, he was a little more to the center, and quite an ordinary person, with a lot many virtues and a few faults or deficiencies. These become quite clear in the many interviews conducted by his first biographer Gupta, and thankfully uploaded in the Subbarow website, for others to peruse. These kinds of work pressures exist to this day on and some amount of discrimination is still evident but mostly as an undercurrent.

My interest in delving deeper started with this aspect - SubbaRow had informed Seshagiri that he had annulled their marriage and remarried in 1941, now what and who could that be? The interviews I perused are the ones Gupta had with YSR’s American colleagues, assistants, and supervisors.

Almost everyone highlights his astounding photographic memory, dominating personality, his punishing work ethic, his demands for total loyalty from his subordinates, and his boundless enthusiasm when he identified a cause to go after. Almost everyone noticed that he was very often in the American Cyanamides – Lederle lab premises at Pearl river at 6 o’clock in the morning and up until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning. While he did ask often about the wellbeing of his assistants, he allowed just a handful to get close to him, and only one or two into his two-bedroomed apartment, lined with many books and spartan otherwise.

His eating habits were noticed by some of his colleagues, that he was an unhealthy eater, prone to putting on much weight. His longtime associate - Anne Irene Schivek Mowat, mentions - I believe it was Sparr’s Drug Store and he ate most of his meals there - his eating habits were very bad - his table manners were all right but he just didn't eat the proper food and he didn't eat enough or at regular hours.

Another important aspect we can note is that in the beginning, he got his way in his new lab, budgets and funds were approved, personnel hires were quickly approved, but as the company got bigger, issues cropped up and so also the many frustrations and the demand for all the administrative work. His spare time was spent in trivial pursuits - Mowat believed that he took up flying and bowling out of sheer boredom - not because he was sociable - his social life was of his own choosing. She continues - He was lonely, but I think this was the structure of the man, I think he was so wrapped up in his work he wanted his time for himself to spend the way he wanted.

There is one intriguing aspect in his life, especially the background SubbRow presented to some of his friends as well as the Baptist church he was associated with. Almost all accounts establish that SubbaRow sailed from Bombay to Boston, via London. Mrs Mowat, Torgersen and some others were led to believe by YSR that he spent a year in London and acquired an MD in tropical sciences there. In fact, he also went on to tell them about his difficult existence in London, having had to eat meat and so on. Was he trying to garner sympathy? Perhaps! In reality, he embarked from Bombay in Sept 1923 and arrived Boston In Oct 1923. After completing tropical medicine at Boston, he started his PhD efforts in 1924, but completed it only in 1930.

Interesting tidbits abound, that he was a bad driver, scaring his passengers, sitting back, looking through the steering wheel and racing away in his car. He often met with the famous Coomaraswamy in New York. We can also note that at times, he was opinionated, short-tempered and sometimes quite vindictive. He never drank, but used to smoke often and then stopped it entirely. He did like praise and did want honors. All in all, what we should learn from the above, is that SubbaRow was a simple human being, not always a paragon of virtues, but a great human being, nevertheless.

Most of his colleagues called him Sub and noticed how his voice went up in pitch as he got excited and his diction somewhat difficult to figure out, at that instant. The Mowat’s state that SubbaRow expected his team to be totally focused on work and did not really appreciate social commitments such as marriage, children, and the such. But as his prosperity increased, he treated himself to a new car, and involvement in many activities such as riding, bowling, flying, archery and so on

The most important chapter in his short life was very personal and involved a congenial, personable, and sociable lady named Doris McKenzie hailing from Florida, who arrived at Lederle in 1943, as Dr Hill’s research associate and later became a chemist under SubbaRow. While SubbaRow hardly talked about the relationship, his colleagues noticed and provided some pointers after his death. We can conclude from the discussions Gupta had with YSR’s colleagues that YSR was certainly enamored by Doris Mckenzie, socialized with her often (and getting closely associated with her Baptist church) and as one colleague mentioned - I think he loved her very deeply and he was frustrated. I don't think she could take him as her husband. Well, she couldn't anyway unless he got a divorce. Toward the end, he was trying to get his marriage annulled.

After his death, Doris was eased out of Lederle and she was quite miffed about it. A colleague added - At the time he died she was very much left out - I understand that she probably was the top paid person that he had - paid more than anyone else under him. She was really turning out results - after he died, she became discouraged and left. In fact, Doris (and a colleague) got to the apartment and opened the door to see him dead. Perhaps he died heartbroken, perhaps it was the telling pressure at work. Doris McKenzie continued her research with TB, cancer and chemotherapy, writing many papers as late as 1967 and working at the Departments of Medicine, Veterans Administration Hospital and the University of Miami School of Medicine, Florida.

Sheshagiri, his wife, said to Gupta later – “It is my misfortune that he did not come back. But our marriage served him to get the mission of his life fulfilled because it gave him the opportunity to get his medical degree and to go to USA for research."

Today, dermatologists treating psoriasis, oncologists working with cancer, physicians prescribing broad spectrum antibiotics, filaria patients and pregnant mothers, can all thank SubbRow for his untiring efforts to get them effective treatment, and sometimes, even a cure. Many of his contemporaries and subordinates earned their laurels from his support and hard work, but SubbaRow never demurred, receiving neither awards nor titles in that monochromatic period.

As Doron K. Antrim observed, "You've probably never heard of Dr. Yellapragada Subbarao. Yet because he lived, you may be alive and are well today. Because he lived, you may live longer.


In Quest of Panacea: Successes and Failures of Yellapragada SubbaRow - Sikharam Prasanna Kumara Gupta, ‎Edgar L. Milford

Yellapragada SubbaRow, a Life in Quest of Panacea– Raji  Narasimhan

Yellapragada SubbaRao Archives OnLine

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer - Mukherjee, Siddhartha (2010).

With many thanks and due acknowledgment to SPK Gupta whose sources and interviews have been referred to, while preparing this article.


The VOA fiasco – New Delhi 1963

The gloom which had set in after the Indo China conflict of 1962 was slowly abating, but the mood in the country and especially the capital at New Delhi, was still downbeat. Nehru had been discussing additional support from America with the energetic Ambassador Galbraith who was the interlocuter between the US President Kennedy and the Indian Prime Minister. Small military aid, albeit temporary, was starting to flow in while at the same time, India had completed negotiations of the MIG 21 deal with Russia. Hoping to maximize the thaw in the hitherto cold relations between US and India, even though the US were miffed with the MIG 21 deal, and with Defense Minister VK Krishna Menon sidelined, Galbraith pushed for stronger ties between the two countries. In fact, the US saw an opportunity to woo India away from Nehru’s policy of non-alignment and towards the concept of a collective defense of the sub-continent, using a defense umbrella concept sponsored by America.

Today you can see news channels from anywhere in the world on your TV set in India and there is hardly any restriction and censorship, but there was a time when the only mass media tool was the radio and the airwaves were uncrowded. The technology was guarded and the limited time and bandwidth available, was carefully used to deliver calibrated messages. We now go to a time when there were just 400,000 or so radios among the Indian population and just one AIR service delivering news. The MW and SW sets also picked up transmissions from Europe, but of course English transmissions from the BBC were the mainstay.

The other news channel was a collection of newspapers and by 1962 there were dozens of papers and a large circulation. What the editor decided was what the reader saw, and they wielded some control on the politicians, this being the only checks and balance. English newspapers were popular mainly in Metropolises.  The cold war effect was also paramount, so which side a country, or its press supported was important and allies viewed transgressions seriously.

The US were embroiled in the Cuban missile crisis around the same time and it took a while for the USA to lend serious focus to the Sino India conflict and its aftermath. Nevertheless, there had been a lot of clandestine activity underway and we talked about it in some articles previously, concerning the US surveillance over China, the U2 missions and the establishment of the Charbatia base etc. We also glossed over the involvement of airman Biju Patnaik, his relationship with the CIA and the US administration, and of his being the go between for some of the direct discussions. Another high-level contact the US had in the Indian parliament, though not overly public, was Morarji Desai.

As David Devereux explains in his paper on Anglo American relations with India in connection with the Sino Indian conflict - The brief war was costly to both sides; China secured its frontier on its own terms, but lost a major potential ally in India, and the war also further fractured its already tense relations with the Soviet Union. India lost its credibility as leader of the non-aligned movement. The reasoning for the Chinese focus on the strategic Aksai Chin region in the west became apparent when China’s secret efforts at developing atomic weapons in distant Sinkiang province were exposed after a successful test there in 1964. The US continued to believe that Indian defenses needed to be strengthened, and was convinced that delicate wooing could persuade India to abandon nonalignment.

It was with this backdrop that a number of other schemes were hatched by Galbraith and others in the think tank, aided by inputs passed through Biju Patnaik and Morarji. November 1962 was a month of turmoil in New Delhi, the Chinese incursions were preying on the psyche of Prime Minister Nehru as well as his team and we see the following note of a radio station, in the Ambassadors journal dated Nov 13th. The Indians are asking us for help on presenting their side of the dispute to the world. The New China News Agency is getting an enormous amount of stuff out through Hong Kong; the Indians feel their side of the story is not being told. Perhaps we can give them some help in monitoring the Chinese propaganda and they could then send someone to Hong Kong to get out an answer. And we can get more of their position on Voice of America. Maybe we should lease them some time on V.O.A. I am not greatly impressed with the importance of this sort of thing, but everyone else is.

American interests are better explained in an old congressional hearing dating to Aug 1950 where the topic was ‘the Soviets have India’s ear” and in a discussion about VOA, Robert Turnbull’s report got tabled. Turnbull stated - Very few of India's 400,000 radio sets, one for every 8 persons—are ever tuned in on the Voice of America. It is not because listeners don't want to hear the American broadcasts. The fact is quite to the contrary. Indians are anxious to hear both sides, but so far as radio propaganda is concerned, the Soviet Union and its satellites have a virtual monopoly on the Indian air waves. This situation exists simply because the Voice of America has no transmitter near enough or with a sufficiently powerful beam to be heard at favorable hours, whereas the powerful Russian stations can be received with moderately priced sets virtually around the clock. The Voice of America is heard best in India late at night when few persons are listening in this early-rising country.

Also, the Voice of America's wavelength is so close to that of All-India Radio, the Soviet stations and the big transmitter in Ceylon, that it suffers constant interference aside from Soviet jamming. So, we are letting the radio war go by default. If it is not possible to build a transmitter sufficiently close, or to penetrate the wall of interference, the next best proposition is to purchase time on Radio Ceylon, which is heard clearly in this whole area. This is under consideration.

Robert Turnbull added - We suffer another disability in this propaganda war that the Russians do not. Indians do not like to feel that they are being propagandized. Therefore, American operations in this field are suspect and sometimes have an effect opposite to the one intended. But somehow the Russians get away with it. Probably that is due partly to innate leftist tendencies in the Asians. Closely related to this is an underprivileged people's resentment of American prosperity. Our demonstration of the benefits of free enterprise must be handled with extreme tact.

No records exist of the discussions prior to the signing of an agreement between the US and India, notably between the AIR and the VOA on the 9th of July 1963, but I understood that it was VOA director Edward Murrow’s plan, in order to replace the ageing transmitter located at Ceylon.  Anyway, Galbraith pushed home his idea and Nehru accepted it in the heat of the moment, after all, Galbraith and America had helped him out of the Sino India situation and Nehru owed him one. So we can conclude that the agreement was mooted with Galbraith’s gentle prodding is clear, and it was signed on the eve of Galibraith’s return to the US after his Ambassadorial tenure (He returned to take up his position at Harvard in July 1963).

But once it was done and the news got out, the uproar in the news media as well as in political circles and the parliament was not only acerbic, but persistent and vocal. There were some supporters, but much more against and critical about the entire affair as well as the secretive decision process. Interestingly, even Krishna Menon who had until his ouster been Nehru’s biggest supporter and friend turned publicly against him over the agreement, calling it ‘a piece of national humiliation’! Why so? Let’s try and find out by looking at the so-called VOA deal (copies of the deal are still not available and only extracts available in Brecher’s paper).

The timeline and rationale are explained by Nehru in his August 13th reply to the parliament (fifth session – vol XIX). He tells us - The need to strengthen All India Radio's external broadcasts' had been repeatedly brought to Government's notice and this need became more urgent after the Chinese aggression towards the end of 1962, more particularly in the context of the vicious and venomous propaganda against the Government of India by Chinese broadcasting services directed in various languages to bordering areas of India and to various Indian regions, as well as the countries in South East Asia and Africa. A decision was taken in November 1962 to explore the possibility of obtaining high powered transmitters on reasonable terms from countries where such transmitters were available.

The preliminary enquiries made in pursuance of the decision to explore the possibility of acquiring a high-powered transmitter showed that the only transmitter of this kind readily available was with the Voice of America, who mentioned in March, 1963 the possibility of their offering the transmitter on certain terms to the Ministry of information and Broadcasting. As we felt strongly the need for a high-powered transmitter to counteract the Chinese propaganda, the Government of India decided to ascertain the terms and conditions on which such a transmitter could be acquired from the Voice of America.

We note from Brecher’s study that the people involved were: Secretary of India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I & B), Nawab Singh; his minister, G. Gopala Reddy; the Foreign Secretary, M.J. Desai; Prime Minister Nehru; and some technical specialists, notably, the Chief Engineer of All-India Radio. The chief U.S. negotiator on the VOA Agreement was William H. Weatherbee (Counsellor for public affairs - US Embassy) while Loomis represented the VOA.

Nehru & Galbraith
Nehru continues - Discussions between the officials of the Government of India and the U.S. officials concerned continued, with some intervals, from March to June, 1. While it was known that the possibility of Voice of America broadcasts being made through the transmitter under Indian control presented a difficulty, it was agreed to go ahead with the discussions and see what the terms and conditions relating to the offer were. I was consulted on two or three occasions but did not go into the whole matter at any particular stage. The matter was, however, briefly mentioned to me before the agreement was signed and, in that context, I must assume responsibility.

So, we see that the officials discussed and signed an agreement on July 9th. What exactly did it entail and why would it snowball into a controversy? Why was Nehru suddenly defensive and expressing that ‘he was responsible’? Did he not involve the rest of the 20 persons in the think tank? If so, why?

As it transpired, the Weatherbee-Loomis response was that the US could help only through an agreement involving shared time and the joint operation of technical facilities. About a dozen sessions took place in June, by the two teams of civil servants and technicians: on the U.S. side, Weatherbee, a government lawyer, a VOA executive, and an engineer; on the Indian side, Nawab Singh, the Secretary of the I & B Ministry, the Chief Engineer of All-India Radio, and two other experts. The discussions were quite interesting. The U.S. offered to build the transmitter, pay much of the cost, and share its operation. India insisted that the U.S. sell it the transmitter for one rupee, in return for which VOA would receive three hours of prime radio time daily to relay its programs to Southeast Asia, but only in languages of that region. It appears that the US agreed to most of the Indian terms and the final draft was notated ‘I agree’ by Nehru.

The agreement can be summarized thus – The US would sell a 1000KW medium Wave transmitter and related equipment for Rs 1/- in exchange for 3 hours of radio time, to relay Voice of America programs to Southeast Asia in Southeast Asian languages only, for which the US will pay India Rs 1/- per annum, for five years, the duration of the agreement. The station was to be built near Calcutta, and mentioning further that the contents of VOA programs "will take into account the friendly relations which exist between the Government of India and other countries and that a schedule of programs and texts would be provided to Indian officials for any review”.

A week after the signing of the agreement, Nehru spun around in a volte face when he stated in parliament, on July 13th that ‘it would be a mistake to go ahead with the agreement’. The cabinet also agreed that the agreement could be implemented only if the US gave up its shared time!

The new US ambassador Chester Bowles arrived after Galbraith’s departure and tried to get the ball rolling again, in a meeting with Morarji Desai, but realized that it was sinking, noting thus later in his memoirs (Promises to Keep) - An indication of this paradoxical new relationship was Nehru's agreement that the United States be permitted to set up a Voice or America radio station on Indian soil which would carry both Indian and American broadcasts to Southeast Asia. At the breakfast table on our first day in New Delhi, I read in the newspaper that India had withdrawn from this agreement. Although some pressure had been brought to bear by the Communists, the most effective opposition came from individuals and newspaper editors who were normally friendly to America, but who questioned the wisdom of such a close tie to the United States. Perhaps the average nonaligned Indian’s mind was on a little overdrive, I guess, in those days.

It quickly became clear that the changed situation was due to the opposition parties, such as the left leaners and added pressure from Moscow. Continuing with Nehru’s statement to the parliament on August 13th, we see - Immediately thereafter, it became clear that this arrangement was not in consonance with our general policy and will, if further pursued, not only make Indo-U.S. relations a subject of controversy inside India but will prejudice our main objective of counteracting anti-Indian propaganda broadcast from Chinese radio. We have taken up these matters with the U.S. authorities and are discussing with them how the difficulties mentioned above can be met. These discussions are going on. Any decision will have to be in consonance with our basic policies. 

To get to the involvement of Moscow in these deliberations, we have to look at the parliamentary papers once again. On Nov 13th Nehru, quizzed again on the agreement, replied that talks were still underway about modifying the agreement. At this juncture, Nath Pai asked - May I know whether any protests were received from any countries after the announcement of this agreement with the U.S.A., and if so, the names of those countries, and whether in reply to the protests from the Soviet Union, the Indian Ambassador in Moscow offered by way of mollifying Soviet objections. that the Soviet Union, in order to maintain quid pro quo could set up a transmitting station in Bombay?

Nehru replied - I do not think that any formal protests were received from any country. It may be that in the course of informal conversations, something might have been said. I do not quite recollect what the Indian Ambassador in Moscow said in reply, but possibly he did say that it was open to any country to , enter into the same type of agreement with us. A news release later reported that Ambassador Kaul had informed Moscow that the Soviets could supply a transmitter as well, if they questioned the political propriety of the Indian deal with the US.

In September, Krushchev’s letters to Nehru were published – The release added "India's professed policy of nonalignment, although tenaciously defended by Nehru before Parliament, no longer seemed to have any meaning, as India sought and received Western arms aid, scheduled joint air exercises with the United States and Britain for November, and almost agreed to set up a Voice of America transmitter near Calcutta."

The news was by then all over the press. As expected, some were supportive, but the left leaners like the FPJ and a few others were critical and seemed aghast at the deal made ‘with the devil’. As Nehru vacillated, Menon sulked, the opposition made merry on the situation (Interestingly, Menon would harp on this, years later as an example of mismanagement). Nehru decided to disassociate himself from the case entirely, stating ‘The matter was not processed in the normal way, and the Agreement was signed without the Cabinet having considered it.... The Agreement should be revised radically’, he declared. "If that cannot be done, we should do without it! In his support, news reports also stated - "At the crucial decision-making stage the main actors in the drama were a handful of top civil servants."

Gopala Reddy, the administrator and a Shantiniketan product as some observed, and an ineffective minister as some others noted, was the obvious scapegoat for Nehru’s error in the Voice of America fiasco earlier that summer as Brecher noted in his book - Succession in India. But to be fair, Nehru did not throw Reddy to the dogs." He rejected 'the demand that the officials be punished, reiterating: “It is as 'much my fault as theirs”. But in the end, the deal was scuttled, and the US also dropped the discussion. But the VOA deal resulted in Nehru getting further weakened politically, and Washington, red faced. Eventually, arrangements were made with BBC’s Singapore station to relay AIR programs to SE Asia.

Nevertheless, the Kamaraj’d Reddy did resign and after the passing of Nehru in May 64, the new I&B minister was none other than Indira Gandhi. She announced on Sept 14th that, according to the technical experts, a 1000 KW medium wave transmitter would not be of much use in combatting Chinese propaganda in Southeast Asia; further, that an easily-obtainable 250 KW short- wave transmitter was more suitable, because of its wider range and because it could be used day and night.

MO Mathai, Nehru's one time private secretary would acidy remark later, in his memoirs - I have never suffered from over-humility; and I am vain enough to assert that if I were with Nehru officially, the deal with the United States about the installation and partial use of a high-power radio transmitter in eastern India by the Voice of America, would have been nipped in the bud at the initial proposal stage. It was a bewildered man, ill-advised by incompetent and unimaginative officials, who allowed this deal, which would have compromised our sovereignty, to be entertained and almost finalized. I guess we know by now, how Mathai had this tendency of attaching all importance to himself, so we can discount some of  the matter. Interestingly Mathai himself was accused of being an American mole, at that time.

But this was not the end of US-India cooperation and later projects were handled differently, such as the ISRO, TERLS, the satellite and space program as well as the efforts of Vikram Sarabhai (see an earlier article). The Charbatia project and a few others were put into place, but the Bokaro steel plant aid request would not pass the US Congress and eventually the Soviets took over the financing for the plant.

In the end, it amounted to a fleeting shift from non-alignment towards closer ties with the West, this resulting in a blip on the Indo-Soviet friendship. It was quickly corrected, and the ship quickly righted to an even keel, but still facing stormy waters. Decision making in the parliament after this event carefully considered press reactions, the public and the opposition, to a certain extent.


Ambassadors Journal – John Kenneth Galbraith

The Sino-Indian War of 1962 in Anglo-American Relations - David R. Devereux

India's Decisions on the Voice of America: A Study in Irresolution - Michael Brecher

US Congressional records Vol 96, Part 10

Promises to Keep – Chester Bowles

Daily Report, Foreign Radio Broadcasts, Issues 141-142, 187-188

Charbatia and the CIA

Terls Thumba



Propaganda Wars – India in WW II

Part 1 - Azad Hind – Free India Radio

The group of ragged looking youngsters, some called them revolutionaries, huddled around the radio looking furtively around, before they tuned the set to the German shortwave frequency. Today was going to be a big day, the 19th of February 1942. The Far East was in turmoil, the Japanese were advancing. And then, more than a year after his dramatic escape from India, they heard Subash Bose’s voice: “This is Subhas Chandra Bose speaking to you over the Azad Hind Radio. For about a year I have waited in silence and patience for the march of events and now that the hour has struck, I come forward to speak. The fall of Singapore means the collapse of British Empire, the end of the iniquitous regime which it has symbolized and the dawn of a new era in Indian History”.….

Most of the written material and film documentaries on the INA tend to focus on the individual, namely its leader - Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Literature on previous struggles such as the Ghadar movement and a few other works between Ghadar and the Bose led INA, though sparse are just starting to arrive. There are a few books written by some of the other INA leaders, but the story of the foot soldier who threw his lot with the INA fails to peep through most of them. None detail the turmoil faced by millions of INA followers, or the many estate laborers in Malaya, Burma, Vietnam and other South East Asian locales. Stories of the British Indian soldiers who were captured by the Japanese and who formed the INA were also lost along the way, vanishing along with the stragglers who trudged the murderous route from Rangoon to India, through the jungles, ending up as bags of bones at the Eastern cities of India. Perhaps the shame of the loss at the battlefields overwhelmed them, very few talked or penned their memoirs.

After the Japanese started their Asian advances bombing the Victoria point airport at the southern tip of Burma, a fervor set in throughout the region, allowing Bose to create a virtual nation across the borders.  ‘Dilli Chalo’ was to be the culmination of it all, and together with the Japanese army, his forces were to march through the border gates and liberate Hindustan from the British. Only a few know that the INA and the Azad Hind bureaucracy in SE Asia were largely financed by the Tamil Chettiars and the Sindhi’s living in Burma, Malaya and Vietnam. Tragically, their contributions and losses have also been largely ignored, so also the terrible events resulting in the deaths of many tens of thousands of Tamil laborers drafted to work at the Japanese death railway project. I will tell you about all of them soon, but for today it is the story of the Azad Hind Radio, the INA’s propaganda machine.

If you recall, we had talked about the Desi Congress radio which operated illegally for a very short period before the people behind it were rounded up and jailed in Bombay. Transmissions and transmitters were banned in India and that was the reason why rebel radio stations were created and manned at Anti-British locales of the world. Let’s follow the story of the creation of the Azad Hind radio, check out its reach and in a follow up article, focus on the British response from India with the famous George Orwell countering Axis and Azad Hind propaganda, manning the mic himself, from Delhi.

Looking at the listening statistics, one wonders if it was indeed that important, for the number of wireless licenses bought across India, in 1932 was just 8,557, growing to 92,782 at the end of 1939, among a population of 380 million. By this time, faith on the British masters had eroded so much that any alternative news offering was lapped up with gusto, and that was how people started listening to the English and Hindi broadcasts from German and later on the Japanese radio.

Experiments with short-wave broadcasting were carried out in Germany from 1929, but there was no regular short-wave service until 1st April 1933, after the Nazis had come to power. Short-wave broadcasting was carried out on three wavelengths, with a couple of directional antennae. In 1936, twenty-eight countries signed a League of Nations convention agreeing not to transmit subversive propaganda and false news. But Germany and Italy were not party to this and so as you can imagine, the Anti-British radio transmissions emanated from Italy to start with and then moved to Germany, increasing multifold after Indian soldiers captured in the African theater were transferred to Berlin.

By October 1939, German radio stations were transmitting in 18 languages; in 1944, this had increased to nearly 50 programs in languages other than German. The powerful short-wave transmitter in the village of Zeesen near Berlin was used for propaganda broadcasts to regions of the British Empire such as South Africa and India depicting Germany and Japan as liberators from imperialism and professing support for the subjugated peoples. It beamed its service to Arabs, Turks, Persians, and Indians using freelance announcers and translators. During the war years listening to the radio in the Arab world took place primarily in public places like squares, bazaars and coffee houses. The Germans skillfully mixed anti-Semitic propaganda with quotations from the Quran and laced it all with Arabic music. There were special programs and translations for India, Africa and Arab countries of the Middle East. Indians at Berlin participated by delivering talks in Hindustani. The radio assault on India thus began well before Bose entered the scene. 

As the airs got filled with all kind of transmissions by the start of World War II, European powers established official monitoring posts, in order to assess the threat of incoming transmissions.

Himalaya Radio

A few Punjabi Ghadar activists had found their way to Rome in the 30’s, and it was Mohammad Iqbal Shedai and Sardar Ajith Singh, mainly the former, who started the Friends of India society.  The Italians, with Mussolini’s blessings helped them set up a station named Radio Himalaya, to broadcast their ideology towards Asia. With Ajit Singh and Labh Singh manning the mics, they broadcast regular programs in Hindi and Urdu.  Some historians cast them as amateurs, that the Italians were content with letting these three disgruntled old men rave and rant on radio, not only against the British but also the new nationalist leaders in India, and contemptuous of the passive Congress. As people started to take notice, the British were caught on the wrong foot and believed that the broadcasts were from within India or the NWF, while the announcers deliberately led listeners to believe that they were in cold caves close to the mountains. People listening felt it a pirate station on the run, lending mystery and creating its own aura.

After directional analysis (Where is the Himalayan radio station – Indian information vol 8-9, 1941) the Brits finally discovered that it was indeed part of the larger Axis propaganda setup. At this point, German radio did have a formal Hindustani service and the Himalaya Radio came in mostly after German broadcasts ended, but clashed with the BBC’s Hindi service. A blunder mentioning Himalaya’s frequency problems with the Italian service gave the game away to the British and its potential location in Rome.

Those radio transmissions were indeed stuff for propaganda, offering prayers for Hitler’s long life, fancy schemes such as pensions for everyone in India aged 50 and above should the Axis powers and their attacks (which would result in massive bloodshed), succeed. It was somewhat tilted in favor of Jinnah and separatism, and caused many problems for British intelligence owing to its popularity among the tribes of the NWFP. Shedai later went on to create a small force of some 350 soldiers recruited from POW’s, the Centro Militaire India (eventually disbanded in 1942 after a mutiny). While British parliament debates show that the radio existed as early as 1936, other accounts mention that transmissions came on and off towards 1940/41.

However, the experiment was short-lived and Shedai did not see eye to eye with Bose after the latter’s arrival, accusing Bose of herding a bunch of communists and improperly handling POWs transferred to Germany, while Bose accused Shedai of being a Muslim separatist. The Himalayan Radio sputtered on for a while, grinding to a stop after Bose’s Azad Hind radio became the main revolutionary channel. Interestingly the British pursued this phantom station in the Himalayas for many months before locating it in Italy, they even sent teams to Lhasa and Sikkim to check for a chain of radio stations, even thinking it was the brainchild of British MP and Nazi collaborator Timothy T Lincoln.

Azad Hind Radio – Huizen, Berlin

Bose entered the scene as HE Orlando Mazotta, (I had detailed his flight in a previous article) an Italian diplomat. There are some indications that his Italian passport was arranged in the NWF with the assistance of the same Iqbal Shedai (Schedai in German files). But when they met, their strong personalities clashed, with Bose was making it clear he will be the boss of all India related matters, and Shedai would have none of it. After Bose had settled down in Germany, their next tiff occurred when Bose wanted the many thousand Indian POWs interned at Rome, transferred to the German Annaburg camp. Bose’s intention was to train and persuade the prisoners, the Jangi Quaidis (Ordinary soldiers) to join the armed India legion or the 950th regiment.

Before we get to the Azad Hind radio, we should also touch on the so-called Radio Bhai Band broadcasting from Lacanau-ville (they published a newsletter too) in Germany for the prisoners at Annaburg, a station which was set up after Bose’s arrival. A low powered transmitter transmitted cultural programs, music and training instructions for the Legion, and its leaflet stated - You can listen daily in the evening. Between 5:30 PM to 6:00 PM: MW 449.1 and SW 47.6, Between 8:30 PM to 9:00 PM: SW 47.6, The Voice of Bhai [Brother] Band Radio. Broadcasts correct news from all over the world, plays Indian music and news for the betterment of Indian soldiers.

Getting back to Bose, who we now know was still in the guise of O Mazotta, reached Berlin. After cooling his heels and seeing that the German high command had little interest in India at that time, Bose tried to elicit support from Italy, but after a lack of response there and issues with Shedai, was undecided for a while. Disenchanted with Germany’s plans concerning Russia, Bose left for Bad Gastein in Austria with his partner Emilie, but returned to Berlin in the summer of 1941. The Germans agreed to support Bose with a propaganda unit, printing newspapers and manning a radio channel. He did not go on the microphone initially (remember that he was incognito as Mazotta and had still not divulged to the world that Mazotta was Bose) and wanted to divulge the news only after the Axis leaders had declared support for Free India.

Thus, with the support of the German foreign office, Bose/Mazotta focused on setting up the Azad Hind propaganda machine, with its press and radio. That was how Azad Hind Radio or Free India radio commenced its operations within the ZTI or the Free India Center in Nov 1942. Its first transmission was on 7th Jan 1942. The radio station became a part of the Concordia stations, namely station H, technically handled by Germans, while all the broadcasts and program material were created by an Indian team comprising GK Mookerjee, MR Vyas, BP Sharma, BL Keni, P Sengupta, JK Banerji, A Majumdar, AM Sultan, S Chandra, A Jhowry, A Naidu, B Moorthy, A Hakim, GD Lal, Bhatta, Kalyan Bose and AN Ahuja. They were generally not censored by the Germans and Azad Hind Radio were free to create their own scripts and programs. While the location of its transmitters was not public at that time, an impression was given that the speakers were in India. The actual broadcasts took place from Huizen in Netherlands on a Philips transmitter appropriated by the Nazis. It had originally been built to maintain contact with the Dutch at Java and had an identifier PHOHI. This was the unit taken over by the Germans when Netherlands was invaded.

However, Bose’s voice, when it eventually came through was electric and galvanized patriotic feelings. He addressed Indians for the first time telling them about the fall of Singapore and about his escape, in his first broadcast on 19th Feb 1942. Discarding his Mazotta cloak, Bose continued with regular personal speeches boosting not only the morale of his supporters but also his personal standing as the leader of a tougher front against the British. The Azad Hind radio thus stated its regular broadcasts early in 1942, in many Indian languages including Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, Pashto and also English. Naidu handled Tamil while Moorthy did the Telugu broadcasts. The team had to move frequently to escape allied bombardment, but continued their teamwork preparing for each day’s broadcasts. It also broadcast Indian classical music (re-recorded from BBC) together with the two daily news bulletins. While the quality of the broadcasts according to some listeners ranged from mediocre to slightly better than the British and ‘not a sheer waste of money’, most agreed that the announcers were professional, sounded like trained propagandists, and not just persons reading from a dull script.

The Berlin group also toyed with two other radio stations later, namely "National Congress Radio" and ‘Azad Muslim - Free Muslim Radio’ for Muslims manned by H Rahman and Sultan. The National Congress Radio of Berlin ("National Congress Radio," was another illegal transmitter of 1942 located in Bombay which I detailed sometime earlier) was more specialized and was reported to be highly popular. The Azad Muslim radio late merged with the 3-hour Waziristan transmissions.

As the war at the western front ground on, events moved with greater rapidly, in the Asian front and the Japanese victories convinced Bose that it would be better to focus his efforts from a location near the Indian border, if he were to plan an armed assault on the British together with the Japanese. As he left, ACN Nambiar was handed control of the radio, and all Azad Hind activities in Berlin.

Free India Radio – Singapore, Shanghai, Bangkok and Rangoon

When Bose realized that the war in Europe would not lend any support for Indian freedom, and that the Germans would not go up in arms against the British in India, he moved to the South East Asian operations, expecting Japanese support. Japan was already into the business of propaganda and had Rash Behari Bose and AM Nair at Japan guiding them along. After the Japanese had taken Singapore, Malaya and Burma, they were in control of the broadcast transmitters and allowed ‘Free India Radio’ programs manned by Indians. With the arrival of Bose these were marshalled into a mostly cohesive unit preparing the propaganda material in unison under the auspices of the Azad Hind Radio (though better known by the anglicized term Free India Radio). Broadcast teams with Indians were set up at Singapore, Bangkok, Rangoon, Shanghai and of course Japan. Not only was the radio used for propaganda and INA speeches, but also to send messages from SE Asian Indians to their families back in India. Many of these transmissions were carefully transcripted and filed away, and in some we can read that Bose, in his broadcasts termed the AIR as the Anti India Radio and the BBC as the Bluff and Bluster Corp!

The NHK international service in English from Japan commenced on two shortwave channels with seven programs, one of them, a three-hour daily session with India-based content, as early as in summer 1941. Once the war started, with the Japanese victories, strong anti-British & American propaganda was waged in all its broadcasts. After Rangoon had fallen and the Japanese were in control of the whole SE Asia, Japan's radio war on India was launched with an increase in broadcast time to the subcontinent, coinciding with the unrest in India and the Quit India movement. Around March 1942, Radio Tokyo inserted a news and features program spanning over three hours with announcers in Urdu and Tamil to start with, later adding Bengali and Punjabi.

In March 1942, the Singapore radio station was restarted and it became the center of all Indian independence related broadcasts, including variety programs in Tamil and Hindi, besides English. The Hsinking station in Manchuria and some of the repaired stations in Burma also beamed broadcasts aimed at India by this time. Shanghai already had Japanese manned stations, so also German and Italian services and started an Indian channel in Shanghai (Mar 1942) purported to be located "somewhere in India". Announcers stated that it was "The Voice of Free India" and "The Voice of Indian Independence", on two frequencies. BY the end of 42, programming was revamped and the station identified itself as "The Voice of the Indian Independence League".

Stations at Saigon, Bangkok and Bandung joined in and soon all of them were strengthened with powerful transmitters to form a coordinated onslaught at the British and to impress on the Indians of Japanese peaceful intentions and instill a perception as liberators of India from the British Yoke. Operated by the army and staffed partially by N.H.K. employees, these stations transmitted regular programs totaling to over 30 hours every day. But the response and Japan’s credibility in India changed when Gandhi in July, accused Japan of mercilessly attacking China without provocation, making it clear that it was unwise for India to be reliant on Japan.

After Bose's escape to the Far East (he arrived at Tokyo in June 1943), the Azad Hind was provided air-time in the Japanese schedule. The Provincial government of Free India and the INA were quickly established, and Rash Behari Bose broadcast from Tokyo that “You have, today, not only a National Army of your own outside the borders of India ready to come to your aid, but also the powerful co-operation and support of mighty Japanese Empire and the inexhaustible resources of entire East Asia”. By Dec the Singapore transmitter strength was increased to 50KW and two hours were sanctioned for the Free India Radio.

At Tokyo, Rash Behari Bose continued coordinating the Free India Hour" began at 9.15pm with the Indian National Anthem and proceeding with a commentary in English and recorded commentaries in various languages (Commentaries in Hindi, Bengali and Gujarati were broadcast on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and in Tamil on Sundays and Wednesdays). During a visit to China Subhas Chandra Bose also broadcast over Radio Nanking to unoccupied China, presenting Japan as the defender of the New Order in East Asia and exhorting Chiang Kai Shek to place his trust in Japan.

As the Imphal battle continued to seesaw, Ba Maw at Burma declared its independence, and the upgraded Rangoon radio started Free India transmissions. Burma radio broadcast in Burmese, Hindi and Bengali to Burma and India, and after the Burmese independence declaration in 1943, the radio focused on Indian issues, broadcasting in 13 Indian languages. Like Radio Shonan in Japan, Indians assisted at Radio Rangoon controlled by the Indian Independence League and Bose. The Saigon station broadcast to Australia and India and Radio Bangkok also broadcast to India. In Indonesia, Radio Batavia broadcast on short-wave to India, North America and Australia. Radio Taipei too retransmitted Japanese broadcasts to India.

We do know some more about the Saigon station from Gerald De Cruz’s interviews and biography. He joined the Saigon Free India radio primarily to communicate with his sister Hazel who had been sent away from Singapore to India, for safety. De Cruz who joined Radio Saigon, admired Bose, whom he had met several times but quickly discovered in Saigon that messages to India were being sent from another radio station operating from the Radio Saigon premises, which was the Free India Radio Saigon run by INA officers. The second-in-command there was Lieutenant-Colonel Inayet Hassan, with whom he became friendly. De Cruz thus started to broadcast talks on Free India Radio Saigon. He sent a message to his sister telling her that the family was well and asking her to reply urgently because their father was very ill, getting a reply sometime later that all was well.

Recalling the times in his oral History Interview, he recounted how the Japanese radio station sent out fabricated news about the war in the Pacific. But Free India Radio Saigon had an entirely different purpose: to send news about Indian prisoners of war and those who had joined the INA and get messages back for them. Also, it worked to increase anti-British feeling in India. Free India Radio Saigon supported Gandhi, Nehru and other Congress leaders who were in jail.

To summarize, the themes of the broadcasts did not vary much throughout the war. There was Abdul Wahid at Radio Batavia who frequently urged Indian Moslems to accept the leadership of Gandhi, and asked the Moslem League to unite with Congress in order to achieve independence. Speeches made by Bose from both Singapore and Tokyo promoted independence. Even after Japan's surrender Bose's tone remained defiant. His final message read over the Singapore station was, "The roads to Delhi are many, and Delhi still remains our goal”.

Indians who could be near radios did listen to these broadcasts and the common man was divided between Gandhi and Bose. Jagjivan Ram gives a vivid description – "One evening Subhas was to speak from Berlin. I tuned the radio set and was thrilled on listening the voice of Subhas Bose, I was advised to keep the volume of the receiver low as listening to broadcasts from Axis countries was banned. With thrill, we listened. Many of the things he said were highly appreciated by the listeners. The people gathered round radio sets in thousands of homes in the country to listen the message of Subhas Bose”. For many, listening to the programs of Radio Azad Hind became a daily ritual, although the British authorities tried in vain to forbid people to do so. Sugatha Bose mentions that some 120,000 sets in India tuned into these broadcasts after 1942 and we come across many mentions of people gathered around radio sets to listen to Azad Hind radio broadcasts, with rapt attention.

But then again, one must note that the Azad Hind radio and Axis radio broadcasts were different in nature and should not be confused to be one and the same. The common man on the street it appears trusted the Axis radio more than the British controlled BBC or the AIR, at that juncture. Isabel Huacuja Alonso explains the reasoning in the linked Scroll India article - In an environment where cynicism and mistrust ran high, manipulative and fake radio news, and outrageous rumours, gained currency. This helps explain why Axis radio was a lot more popular in India than, for example, in France.

Whatever one may conclude were the reactions within India to German, Japanese, and Indian nationalist broadcasts, its effect on the British administration was considerable. They created considerable concern in Britain, and resulted in the British debating and establishing a concerted counterattack. Part 2 will cover those British attempts to counter Axis and Free India broadcasts.


A Beacon Across Asia: A Biography of Subhas Chandra Bose - Ed Alexander Werth, Sisir Bose, SA Ayer
The sign of the Tiger – Rudolf Hartog
India in Axis Strategy – Milan Hauner
Directed Jihad (Made in the West) – Jyothirmony Banerjee
Tokyo Calling – Jane MJ Robbins
The Life and Times of Gerald de Cruz – Asad Latif
His Majesty’s opponent – Sugatha Bose

Pics – Wikimedia,,