Veeraswamy’s of London

Palmer’s Indian restaurant – And the interesting story behind it

During a trip to Gangarams in Bangalore many a decade ago, I found the cookbook, Indian Cookery by E.P. Veerasawmy. Some of the recipes in it were quickly mastered (the concept, that is) and became a staple in our kitchen. I had always believed, that the author was a Tamilian, named EP Veeraswamy. Later on in life, I passed by the Veerasawmy restaurant on many occasions while living in the UK, and believed that the same Veeraswamy once owned that restaurant. Recently, while studying the stories of Indians in the UK, I learned that Veerasawmy was an Anglo-Indian named Edward Palmer. The EP in the name stood for Edward Palmer and Veerasawmy was apparently, his alter ego. Note the spelling of Veerasawmy, for we will get into that later.

Edward Palmer (EP) alludes to the following about his native Indian parentage in his preamble to the cookery book, also telling us about his lifelong interest in watching, trying out and mastering Indian dishes. Quoting him - But more than all, I can remember with love and gratitude my mother - the greatest exponent of Indian cookery - inculcating in me the science and art of the Indian cuisine and explaining the dietetic value of the many spices, seeds, etc., and the nutritive value of various foods.

After some research, I discovered that Edward Palmer was the son of James Edward Palmer, an Anglo Indian, and initially read that his mother was one Annie Vasooramal, an East Indian. Later on, Palmer’s granddaughter, who I got in touch with, informed me that EP’s mother's name was Annie Ponnuswamy, the daughter of a Mr. P Thomas. James and Annie got married in 1850 and Edward was born in 1861, at Hyderabad, where his parents lived.

EP incidentally, belonged to the eminent ‘House of Palmers’ at Hyderabad, which once owned a banking institution that had collapsed decades before his birth.  Now, one could argue at length, about the Palmer bank mishap, if it was a result of the vindictive actions of the English Resident Metcalfe or it was Palmer’s miscalculations and wrongdoings. I will provide brief highlights of that story, if only to provide some perspective and also to debunk a lot of false information, out in the internet about EP and his origins.

The house of the Palmers was started by William Palmer ‘the king’. William Palmer, was incidentally, the Eurasian son of General William Palmer by his second wife, Faizunnissa Begum from the ruling family of the Nawab of Oudh. If one were to disregard the varnished reporting of the EIC residents at Hyderabad, and concentrate on contemporary studies on the Palmer affair, they would get a better understanding of how Charles Metcalfe, an autocratic EIC resident, manipulated rules to his company’s benefit. As such, then current British rules did not permit money lending by Brits in EIC territory or charging an interest rate greater than 12%. However, William Palmer was a Eurasian or Anglo Indian and together with a Gujarati named Benkati Das (and other English partners) advanced very large sums to the Nizam, much to the alarm of the British EIC. Strictly speaking, the action was taking place in Hyderabad, then not part of EIC territory, and Palmer did charge >12% interest.

After a career fighting and winning battles for the Nizam, Palmer settled to trade and banking but found a tough adversary in Metcalfe, who did not like competition to his outfit, the EIC. Another white Mughal Kirkpatrick was a good friend of his, so also William Hastings. Anyway, as matters progressed, the loan balances to the Nizam became too high, and the bank was taken to task and liquidated, and as a consequence, the Nizam had to trade the rich province of Berar, to the British. Metcalfe had hated his secondary position to Palmer in the Nizam’s eyes and was forever envious of the political power Palmer possessed, undermining British EIC overlordship. Anyway, the bank failed from Metcalfe’s manipulations, though the house of Palmers continued on and was eventually cleared off all their debts, with Metcalfe’s departure.

Edward Palmer (Veeraswamy) was the son of William Palmer’s third son, James Edward Palmer, the blind major of Secunderabad, who had married Annie Ponnuswamy. William ‘the king’ Palmer died in 1867.

Palmer tells us how he got to England - I can remember being sent to England to study medicine and, in the intervals of my study, looking down areas and watching bakers at work, staring into shops where sausages and onions were being cooked, and often wishing that I could fry fish and chips in the fish shops. In order to join up for medicine, he should have completed his schooling in Hyderabad, and he must have been around 18 years old, so I would believe that he landed up in London circa 1870. But he never got to study any medicine and I have not been able to figure out that part. We can however see that he got married in 1884 and had six sons, from his first wife. In total, he was apparently survived by 17 children through three wives Lucy, Adelaide and Merry May.

The book goes on to say that EP launched out in the production of food, both Eastern and Western. Indian cookery fascinated him, and for the next forty years, he devoted himself to it; lecturing and teaching in schools of cookery for Councils of Education in public halls for charity, in classrooms, in hotel and restaurant kitchens, at Exhibitions (including Wembley), and even at Aldershot to the military cooks at the request of the late General Lord French. In 1915, the same year his young son Stanley died in battle, he published the cookbook (While other sources mention 1936, I have a copy of a 1915 edition, scanned from the Birchanda library) through Arco Publishers London.

EP proudly informs readers of his book, that should they fail to get any major ingredient, they only needed to contact him at 15, Clarendon Rd for his ‘Nizam’ branded pulses, spices and condiments. In the book, he states that it was being published during the evening of his days (we can see that in 1915, he was 55 years old).

From this point onwards, Palmer’s story of kept changing, sometimes the handiwork of an enthusiastic reporter, sometimes through inputs from future owners of the Veerasawmy’s restaurant. Some books mentioned that he was a retired ex-serviceman from the British Indian army, others mentioned that he was a doctor and some others even went on to highlight his royal connections, e.g., that he was a direct descendant of the Nizam, etc.

Nevertheless, we can observe that Edward Palmer did move around in the guise of EP Veerasawmy from Madras while instructing or educating the public on Indian cooking. The name Edward Palmer would not have suited the image of an Indian chef, and Palmer did have South Asian looks. When you peruse his book, one would find a clear Tamil tilt to the recipes and names in there, with support from Madras linguists and the book is stated to be the effort of Palmer's alter ego - EP Veerasawmy, and there is no mention of any Edward Palmer. In a later edition, EP Veerasawmy is qualified as ‘the world’s foremost Indian Chef, who owns the famous Indian restaurant in London’. By way of qualifications, the following can be seen below his name – Gold Medalist: Indian Catering advisor to the Indian government, British Empire Exhibition, Wembley 1924-25. Founder of Veerasawmy and Co, Indian food specialists 1896, and of Veerasawmy’s India restaurant, 1926-30. There is a mention in the Palmer’s history that Edward served at the Ministry of munitions, but it must have been quite brief, and details are hard to come by.

Let’s get back to EP’s forays into the cooking scene. We see that he was conducting cooking classes for ladies, at Debenhams and Freebody on Wigmore St, in 1898, i.e., after establishing a unit purveying spices and condiments under the Nizam name. He also offered to provide private classes advertising his services as a Ladies’ newspaper put it – Considering India is part of Her Majesty’s dominions, we ought to be keenly interested in, and as ready to adapt Indian as continental!

A report states - Ladies shopping in the West End, who have lunched at Messrs. Debenham & Freebody's in Wigmore Street (where there is a first-class restaurant for the convenience of ladies shopping there), have much commented among themselves on the excellence of the curry supplied. The truth is that these curries are cooked by a first-class Indian chef, Mr.Veerasawmy, of Madras. At the end of January Mr. Veerasawmy gave a demonstration of Indian cookery to which many ladies had sent their cooks, many attending in person. Mr. Veerasawmy cooked a complete menu of Indian dishes, and the audience had the opportunity of tasting the result. The recipes were printed, to assist the audience in following the chef, who, clad in a superb oriental coat of crimson brocade and snowy turban, proceeded deftly with his task. His directions were clear and concise, expressed in excellent English. A more delicious chicken curry I never tasted. Mr. Veerasawmy deprecated the practice of cooking up cold meat and calling it a 'curry'. He insisted that raw, good meat only could produce a genuine curry. Alack! Few English cooks know what a curry is. ('Spinnings in Town', Myra's Journal, 1 March 1898: 11)

In 1906, he is mentioned again (Edwardian England – E Holland, 2014) as conducting a demonstration at the 17th Universal food and cookery exhibition, patronized by Queen Alexandra – where EP Veerasawmy MCA did a demo lecture entitled ‘Fish, flesh, poultry & vegetables! Now the MCA threw me off initially, but I believe it was the ‘Marine cookery assessment certificate’. The Epicure V6 (1888-89) mentions his lectures and daily demonstrations, adding - Mr. Veerasawmy, who is nowadays the most popular exponent of Indian cookery in this country, will, as the program shows, take a prominent part in the Cookery Demonstrations from day to day, while his firm, Veerasawmy and Co., of Madras and London, will make a display of their Nizam Curries and other Indian Culinary Specialties, opportunities for tasting which at their stand will, we believe, be frequently afforded to visitors….

The 1901 Kind Edward’s cookery book provides testimony to his ready mixes - Boiled rice is always served with a curry, either handed separately on a folded napkin or forming a border round the dish on which the curry is served. It is essential to use good curry-powder. Veerasawmy's curry-powder, paste and chutney will be found excellent.

Wembley Indian exhibition, the turning point

This was evidently a turning point in EP’s life. We can establish it from the following extract, taken out of the commissioner’s report of 1924. In the agreement signed on behalf of India, the Government of India reserved the right of having Indian curries and other dishes cooked by Indian cooks and Indian tea served possibly by Indian khitmatgars. Under the agreement, India, like the dominions, was to bear the cost of erecting and equipping the restaurant and in return to get 10 per cent, of the gross takings…Under the power reserved in our agreement, Messrs. Lyons were called upon to employ a certain number of Indian cooks ; and to supervise the cooking and the quality of the dishes, and generally to maintain the Indian character of the restaurant, to which the Government of India attached much importance, we appointed Mr. E. Palmer of Messrs. Veeraswami & Co., 11, St. Mary’s Road, Canonbury, London as Indian Adviser at the restaurant. Mr. Palmer comes from Madras, and has established a business in London in Indian curry powder, condiments, chutneys and pickles. His selection was happy, and the success of the Indian cafe was largely due to him. The Indian Cafe was not only appreciated by Indian visitors to Wembley who were able to get their vegetarian food, but was very popular with the British public. Since the close of the Exhibition, Mr. Palmer has had numerous inquiries, and I have myself passed on many to him. The demand for Indian food properly cooked and served is so great that at any future exhibition I should recommend the cafe to be built, at least, twice as large, and to be run as India’s own concern. Mr. Palmer estimates that on the average 500 portions of curry were ordered daily. The total takings at the Cafe were £26,657-11-2 and our share under the agreement came to £1,900.

Readers will take note that the writer of the official report one Mr Vijayaraghava Acharya, who spells the company name as Veeraswami and not Veeraswamy!! I must add here that most Veeraswamy’s in England and France at that time spelled their name as Veerasawmy! That was the way Sawmy was written, just as it is phonetically uttered in Tamil - Sami, not as Swamy!! All the stuff later doled out in various sources as a printing error, a twist to his mother’s name Veera etc were, I believe publicity connotations. Veera was neither his grandmother nor was Sawmy misspelt. Perhaps his mother Annie Ponnusawmy, fondly called him Veerasawmy, or as I feel, his full name may have been Edward Palmer Veerasawmy!! I also felt that it is simply not possible to call oneself Veerasawmy in public and in the press, for 30-40 years without reason or basis. So, the name was perhaps not an alter ego, but what he grew up with.

We read previously that EP taught Indian cooking at hotel and restaurant kitchens, and to military cooks at the request of the late General Lord French. Regarding the lessons at the military messes, we have to resort to conjecture. Lizzy Collingham, in her “Curry – A tale of cooks and conquerors’ mentions - In 1936 Edward Palmer, caterer to the Wembley exhibition of 1924–1925 and founder of Veerasawmy’s Indian restaurant, was invited to lecture to the army cooks at Aldershot on curry making. During the Second World War trainee cooks in the army catering corps were taught how to make curries by adding curry powder to a roux of flour and army stock books show that cooks were allotted supplies of curry powder each month. Slightly sweet yellow curries, dotted with raisins and made with fantastical fruits, were still served in British army messes in the 1970s and 80s…

Veerasawmy’s was finally opened in 1926 and Edward Palmer managed it for 4 to 6 years. It was not the first Indian restaurant, but was indeed the first high-end restaurant, catering to the upper class of Britain. Palmer mentions his disassociation from it around 1930, and we can also see that an MP William Steward acquired it in 1932/34. In 1928, Veerasawmy had extended his restaurant, and in 1933, yet another expansion and facelift were carried out. The reviews were glowing. It was considered to be the place to dine for the higher echelons of London society, as well as ex ICS and army blokes who had once lived in India. Soon it became a place to visit and many Indian events were hosted there.

Steward owned and ran it until 1967. Glowing reports stated - Veerasawmy's, “India in London, "as it is known all over the world, is the Mecca of all Epicures, while the owners exhorted - Don't stop here, carry forward the good will of fellowship and unity by entertaining your friends at Veerasawmy's, perfectly cooked Indian and English foods and irreproachable service in luxurious surroundings. A newspaper announced grandly -Veeraswamy's in Regent Street (London) conjured up a fantasmatic vision of imperial opulence, where there were tiger skins on the wall, where punkahwallahs worked the fans and where Indian doormen held umbrellas as customers returned. Most people agreed that EP retained a colonial atmosphere, with fawning uniformed waiters serving food suiting the palate of the fussy Englishman (The menu also had a few British items, for those queasy about Oriental food).

It had an interesting décor, which got copied later in many other Indian restaurants in the UK, with bright wallpaper, plates of Indian scenery on the walls, real Indian punkahs (manual fans) and punkah wallahs. The Indian waiters were attractively clothed in white with turbans and red sashes, serving up an Oriental dream, to the diners who came in.

In 1930 - 34, after it was sold to William Steward, Edward got down to academic pursuits, researching about his ancestry, writing about the Sanad given to his great grandmother Faiz Baksh, studying the collapse of his grandfather’s banking empire and what not. The Palmer family after William Palmer’s death were still apparently owed £250,000 plus interest by the Nizam and Edward Palmer, his grandson, our protagonist, tried to recover all or some of it with his sister Emma, but it was to no avail.

So, that was the story of the dining haven which EP created, and we are not going to go on with the subsequent owners of the restaurant, suffice to state that it continues to this day as a pricey, high-end destination in Central London, replete with a Michelin star - for those desiring to munch on something Indian and relive some of India’s colonial past.

Now for some interesting trivia - I don’t think many of you will know that an ex-president of Pakistan, Iskandar Mirza apparently worked as an accountant at Veeraswamy, after fleeing Pakistan following a failed coup.  Crime beat readers on the other hand may recall the Veeraswamy knife case, where the murderer Backary Manneh who once worked at the hotel was caught by Scotland yard, after he used a distinctive knife stolen from Veeraswamy, to stab Joseph Aku in 1951. After the murder, Backary Manneh ran off and was not found until after he went to the hospital with a wound caused during the struggle. Clinching evidence was the ‘Veeraswamy knife’! Many a dignitary graced the dining room at Veeraswamy’s and owners reel off names such as Gandhi, Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Krishna Menon, The prince of Wales, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin Marlon Brando, Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh, and the list can be replete with many of today’s stars.

These days, the restaurant scene in the UK is mediocre, and most eating houses serve quickly conjured up concoctions based on standard curry pastes supplied by third parties, boiled with a protein of your choice, dressed up, garnished, and paired with rice or bread. Dals, Vindaloos, Kormas and Balti curries rule the roost, while Chicken tikka masala reigns supreme. Thanks to a tale about a Danish prince, beer got matched to Indian curries and so instead of wines, you have choice Indian lagers to accompany curry!

That my friend was the story of an Anglo Indian with Tamil origins, who left Indian shores to make his name in England, of his efforts at establishing Indian cooking in London, of his pioneering cookery book and of the establishment of Veerasawmy’s, a hotel which is one London’s premium culinary establishments, to this day.

On a personal note, I must add that Veeraswamy’s egg curry (Undah ka Salun) featured on page 80 of that 1915 book, has graced our dining table for over three decades, though slightly modified by yours faithfully. My wife, children and many guests would testify to its fine quality!!  

Thank you, Edward Palmer, or Veerasawmy, as you called yourself, so also your grandma Annie Ponnuswamy, for that. Rest in peace…

Indian Cookery – EP Veerasawmy
The Palmers of Hyderabad – Edward Palmer
Palmer and Company: An Indian Banking Firm in Hyderabad State - Karen Leonard (ModernAsianStudies 47, 4 (2013) pp. 1157–1184.© CambridgeUniversity Press 2013, doi:10.1017/S0026749X12000236 First published online 16 January 2013)
London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis - Jonathan Schneer
Armorial Families: A Directory of Gentlemen of Coat-armour - Arthur Charles Fox-Davies
Globalising Housework: Domestic Labour in Middle-class London Homes,1850-1914 - Laura Humphreys
Curry – A tale of cooks and conquerors – Lizzy Collingham
Report by the Commissioner for India for the British empire Exhibition – 1924
Star of India: The Spicy Adventures of Curry - Jo Monroe
Cannabis Nation: Control and Consumption in Britain, 1928-2008 - James H. Mills
Eating for Britain - Simon Majumdar

My thanks to Max Knudsen and Cilla (EP’s granddaughter) for their valuable inputs, also to Dr Karen Isaksen Leonard, historian and anthropologist, at the University of California, Irvine - the author of the referenced paper on the Palmer bank, for putting me in touch with the Palmer family.

And I learned two new words – Alack and fantasmatic!! The former means ‘an expression of regret or dismay’ whereas the latter means ‘an illusory likeness of something’.


Mohan Singh, the Enigma

The first Indian airman – Licensed to fly in 1912

It is not often that a story grips you, and this was one. We had all been brought up on reports that JRD Tata was the first Indian pilot, that he possessed the #1 license, and so on. But in reality, there was another pioneer from India who was licensed some 17 years before JRD! As you will see, Mohan Singh, that pilot, was an incredible character, his life every bit adventurous. Now you may wonder why I used the word enigma, and soon you will see that not only did he arrive into the limelight unannounced, but just like his arrival, his departure was abrupt, he simply vanished one fine day. Along the way, he recreated himself so many times, he was a daredevil pilot, doing stints as a butler and chauffeur, dabbling in real estate, and ending up as a Yogi. In between, he spent years fighting the US administration who had granted him citizenship but stripped him off it, reasoning that he was not a white man. What follows, is his remarkable story.

I am reasonably sure that many a quizmaster would expect the answer JRD Tata to the question about India’s first pilot, but from now on, state vehemently that it was Mohan Singh, licensed in 1912, just 9 years after the Wright brothers flew their aircraft and that this Mohan Singh, was a pioneer and a famous barnstormer of that period. Barnstorming was a form of entertainment in which stunt pilots from flying circuses flew throughout the US selling airplane rides and performing stunts. Now how on earth did a Punjabi Sardar end up in that mix?

Mohan Singh, born March 13, 1885, hailed from Himmatpura in the Moga district of Punjab province, British India. Just as the 20th century dawned, the agricultural revolution in Punjab which had started before Mohan was born, had taken shape and the region had suddenly become a huge and profitable agricultural colony. However, it was not very good for the rural Punjabi farmer, who ended up heavily indebted, especially after a number of famines and bouts of plague. New taxes and tough British acts alienated the common man. Thus, a huge emigration took place, towards US and Canada, and between 1903-08 some 3,000 Punjabis had landed up in the US (plus about 6,000 in Canada).

Though there was general unrest around this time in Punjab, perhaps poverty (Nihal Singh mentions – After taking a discharge from the Indian army, having heard from an American settled there, a rosy account of the wealth awaiting any man who had the enterprise to go there) must have been the reason for this young 18-year-old teenager to boarding a ship bound for the West. As we can gather, Mohan arrived in Cuba in 1903 and then boarded a vessel named Oratava bound for the mainland, arriving in the US in Feb 1904. He settled first in Chicago, where he worked as a domestic servant. Life was not so good for these early Punjabi’s and they faced a good amount of racism and discrimination. As the vast majority of them worked in California, most of them drifted towards CA (Sacramento and Imperial Valley) where other Sikhs had congregated. Sometime in 1910, Mohan Singh finally arrived in California with his meager savings. The tall, grim-looking, gaunt Sikh, now 25 years old, it appears, saw an advertisement in the newspapers that changed his life.

Act 1 – Taming the skies

Powered flight in America was pioneered by the Wright Brothers in North Carolina, and by the end of the first decade, they had brought flying to the mainstream. Glen Curtiss, who had been toying around with bicycles and motorcycles (dubbed the fastest man on earth – driving a bike at 236kmph!), got into the act and started making engines for planes. On June 8, 1911, Curtiss received U.S. Pilot's License #1 and commenced airplane manufacture, though regularly involved in litigations with the Wright brothers. Curtiss arrived in San Diego on January 1911, searching for a site for a training school to teach Army and Navy flyers. It was here that he developed his biplane, later the hydroplane, to become the father of naval aviation. He supplemented his income with a flight training school on North Island, near San Diego.

The Curtiss School of Aviation at North Island remained open for three short but fruitful years. During that brief period, Curtiss conducted remarkable experiments and produced equally remarkable students. Graduates, flying his reliable biplanes, set world records and became some of the most illustrious flyers in the world. Capitalizing on this success, Curtiss embarked on an advertising campaign to ensure a larger enrollment at the San Diego winter facilities. Curtiss charged $600 for the hydro aeroplane course and $500 for the regular class, which could be adjusted towards a purchase of a plane. In addition to military aspirants, civilian applicants were welcomed. And it was to one of these classes that our man Mohan Singh applied and got selected. The tall, brooding pilot to be, never smiled, talked little, and hardly ate or drank, making him stand apart. 

The 1911-12 season attracted a few foreign students. Among them were Mohan Singh from India, Motohisa Kondo and Kono Takeishi from Japan, and George Capistini of the Greek army. The third lady pilot to be, “Bird Girl” Julia Clark also enrolled, so also two married couples. Attired in leather caps and goggles, these fifteen students went out to the flat fields of North Island to learn the science of flying. Unfortunately for the instructors, teaching foreigners was not as easy, they had to give lessons in sign language which, as you can imagine was a hairy situation, high up in the air!

After nearly eight months of instruction, catching seagulls, and practicing flying, the winter training camp came to a close. In May, the Class of 1912 received their pilots’ licenses and became professional aviators. Mohan Singh, the “Flying Hindu” with license # 123 dated May 8th, 1912, of British Indian nationality, was one among them. That incidentally, was 17 years before Tata got his license in Feb 1929, and by that time, Mohan Singh was already into his final act!

During his stay in San Diego, he spoke sparingly, avoided meat and alcohol, but the newspapers tracking the ‘Hindoo pilot’ spun tales of his being a Hindu prince, a lieutenant, major or Captain from the Indian army on furlough and hailing from Bombay or Delhi. The aura of mystique, as well as his arresting personality, resulted in a number of press reports about the ‘World’s first Hindoo Pilot’.  

One news article said -The list of new aviators who have within the past week taken their licenses at the Curtiss Aviation Camp, here, reads like an Oriental city directory. They are: M. Kondo, Tokyo; J. Kaminski, Poland; Mohan Singh, Bombay, India; K. Takeishi, Yokohama. These are the newest flock of fledglings who have preened their wings at the San Diego aviary and who will return home to show their respective peoples the latest thing in the "Beachey flipflap" and the "Madman's Whirl," as practiced in America. Kondo has the distinction of being the first licensed aviator of his nationality, while Mohan Singh can make a similar boast as the only qualified flying man in all India. The San Diego Camp is the most cosmopolitan gathering of flyers and pupils ever assembled in this or any other country. Kondo and Takeishi will take Curtiss aeroplanes home with them, and Singh expects to do likewise. Kaminski likes America and will remain to thrill the county fair crowds in exhibitions.

In those early years, many of Curtiss’s students suffered crashes and a few died, including Julia Clark, the Bird Girl. The San Diego School of Aviation continued for one more winter until Curtiss’ lease expired in 1913. The U.S. Government then took over the hangars and landing field and established the Rockwell Field. Curtiss moved on to Florida. In fact, Mohan Singh was also injured and during one of his interviews with the press clarified that he was not deputed by the British Indian government, but was on his own and that he planned to fly a Curtiss machine to Ceylon and train some of his countrymen.

But contrary to that report, Mohan Singh did not return to India with his biplane, he moved to New York in January 1914, where he worked for Curtiss’s unit. He took to flying biplanes, participating as a daredevil barnstorming stunt pilot, in flying circuses and even accompanying Curtiss to Europe in 1914 to conduct hydroplane demonstrations. We also see that he was employed in Chicago briefly, by ER Hibbard who had purchased a flying boat and had employed Mohan Singh, one of the few licensed to fly it, as his pilot, to race about the Lake Michigan! In 1916, he was listed as a flier available during the war, but of Chinese nationality!!

A news article in 1913 states - Glenn H. Curtiss is sailing again for Europe, and expects to be there for several months, His immediate destination is the Paris show, but most of the winter probably will be spent in Italy. With Mr. Curtiss will be Mohan Singh, a Hindu from the Punjaub. Singh has been in America for the past three years. He became interested in aviation in 1910, joined the Curtiss training camp at San Diego, and few a Curtiss land machine for a year or more. With the development of the hydro aeroplane he took up water-flying and in due course qualified as a flying boat pilot. He is one of the few licensed pilots operating three types of machines. Singh's present intention is to make his way to India by easy stages. There he hopes to take some part in the development of aviation in his country. En route he will make a short stop in London. Singh's real ambition is to find among the wealthy Indian visitors of the metropolis some multimillionaire rajah who would like to navigate the Indus at a speed of a mile a minute in a Curtiss flying boat. Well, nothing came out of it as far as I know and Mohan did not go to India.

Act 2 – Taking on the Constitution

The money was perhaps not very good or Mohan was bored, by 1916, he settled down in Los Angeles to work again, as a butler and chauffeur for a wealthy family.  He also decided to settle down for good in the US and applied for naturalization, but in those days when color was paramount, his application was turned down with the notation ‘not a white man’. He appealed together with his lawyer SG Pandit, citing the cases of the Parsi Balsara and a Sardar Bhagwat Singh, and the federal court judge reversed the decision two years later, on the conviction that high caste Hindus of Aryan stock, were Caucasians! The judgment from District Judge Bledsoe mentions - In the absence of an authoritative declaration or requirement to that effect, it would seem a travesty of justice that a refined and enlightened high caste Hindu should be denied admission on the ground that his skin is dark, and therefore he is not a 'white person’….

Mohan Singh decided to change his name in March 1922 to Harry Mohan (His full name was apparently Hari Mohan Singh) and dropped the Singh since it was often confused with the Chinese surname Sing. Seven years passed by, Harry Mohan was still in California but embroiled in some sleazy land dealings (buying plots of land in burial grounds) and as we note, was swindled out of his savings.

Making matters worse, the Thind case outcome in 1923, hounded him. One Bhagat Singh Thind was denied citizenship in a landmark case, also affecting others who had previously attained US citizenship. Harry Mohan was one of them, his citizenship was canceled in 1924. Ironically the judge who decided this was the very same judge who had granted him citizenship earlier!! The definition of Caucasian had been modified and Hindus would not any longer qualify as Caucasians.

In Feb 1924, Bledsoe ruled, based on the fact that Mohan Singh had testified as a Hindu - In each case the right to a cancellation of the naturalization of the defendant is based upon the allegation, admitted by the motion to dismiss, that defendant is and was a high-caste Hindoo of full Indian blood, and as such not admissible to citizenship in the United States of America under the provisions of section 2169 of the Revised Statutes (Comp. Stat. § 4358). That such an individual is not admissible to citizenship may not now be questioned in this court. United States v. Thind, 261 U. S. 204, 43 Sup. Ct. 338, 67 L. Ed. 616.Where, however, the case is that the person presenting himself as an applicant for citizenship admits that he belongs to a particular race, members of which are not eligible for naturalization, then no question of conflict of evidence arises, and upon the applicant's own petition or testimony, or both, naturalization must be denied.

"Free white persons” within the meaning of section 2169 of the Revised Statutes (Act of June 29, 1906, 34 Stat. at L. 596) was construed to mean Caucasians in the popular and not in the ethnological sense. The instant case overrules a previous decision. In re Mohan Singh (1919, S. D. Calif.) 257 Fed. 209.

To this day Mohan Singh’s case is studied and quoted by immigration lawyers and law schools, read together with Thind’s ruling. In those dark days where color and race were paramount, the Punjabis in America led a tough life, not able to bring in their families or cohabit with white people, many marrying Mexican immigrants to raise alter families. As far as I could gather, Harry Mohan remained single.

Act 3 – Yogi Hari Ram

What would you think our man Harry Mohan did? I don’t know very much about the mental state of the slighted Sardar, but it was a period in America when the mysterious East was becoming popular. And so, Harry Mohan simply reinvented and launched himself as Dr Hari Mohan - Yogi Hari Ram, the master of levitation, the disciple of the absolute, and a metaphysician, from India! Donning Ochre robes, and sporting a beatific smile, Yogi Hari Ram was prepared, he had been studying yoga books and attended training classes with Paramahamsa Yogananda.

Already well versed with the way things were done in the US, he had a clear business plan. It was to go big, advertise all over with buzz phrases (miracle man, secrets never revealed before, free, last chance, money-back guarantee, only chance, practical demo - not theory, once in a lifetime, he will never return) and launch lecture sessions across the country. Perhaps he had a chip on his shoulder after the citizenship fiasco, perhaps it was an act of revenge, I don’t know, but he decided to gup and grab some money from the gullible, and in return, he would give them ‘9 keys’ to life improvement. Dr A Lewis Allen his manager would have helped him fine-tune the package.

He had to differentiate his package and so it was called ‘Super Yoga Science’ coupled with levitation classes (that got a lot of people going!) yogic exercises and breathing demonstrations, and all kinds of other esoteric stuff mixed in. Classes were announced and from the beginning, it was clear that the Yogi’s presence would be short-lived, that he would be gone by 1928.

People, get ready to take the classes before the Yogi goes away!!

Thomas Masson, the famous Anthropologist noted - I suppose the best teacher from India who ever came to this country was Yogi Hari Rama. I am told that his birth was registered in his native place in 1828. He is therefore over one hundred and looks from his picture like a man of thirty-five, with wonderful penetrating eyes. Of course, that was incorrect and he heard wrong, Mohan Singh was born in 1885 and was 40 in 1925.

Dr Hari Mohan thus taught Hindu and yoga Philosophy traveling across California. In 1926, he was popularly known as Yogi Hari Rama and hit various US cities giving classes on ‘Super Yoga Sciences’. His book detailing all this was already published i.e., Yoga System of Study: Philosophy, Breathing, Foods and Exercises (H. Mohan, 1926). By 1927, reports stated that he had many thousand followers, with some even claiming that he was able to walk on water, but only in an emergency. The book which he published is available online, so you can take a look, fairly harmless and complete with yogic recipes!

Several hundred students gathered for his lectures and classes, and 12 (six men and six women) were initiated as apostolic disciples to further spread the ‘yoga science’ - which concentrated on the three mental states of sub-consciousness, consciousness and super-consciousness. This would he said, awaken latent powers through strict living and eating habits and various exercises. Anyway, it was all wildly popular during its time. He gave lectures on consciousness, vibrating from conscious to super consciousness, the seven seals, path of truth, spirituality, Christ and the Hindu, mystic and occult power, mantra chanting, reincarnation and what not!

He resorted to some hocus pocus and mumbo jumbo as well, like breathing noisily through his ears, with his nose and mouth closed, lifting three fat men on his tummy, talking in what people believed was Sanskrit (most people said it was unintelligible, must have been Punjabi) interspersed with American slang, showing color slides of Indian monuments etc. A 1926 news report quoted Hari Rama stating that sending prana to affected areas could cure most diseases, that he had received his teaching in ancient Sanskrit, and that he was more than 100 years old, expecting to live to a 200!

Though not emphasized by him, the Benares League of America which was an offshoot of this program, was quickly the most widespread organization (50 chapters) of its kind in the United States, by 1928. Some researchers even believe that there was a guild of some kind, working to maximize Yoga business in USA and that Mohan Singh had been drawn into such a caper.

Was he also somehow associated with the Ghadr movement? Circumstantial evidence points to such a link since Surendra Mohan Bose who was arrested in India in 1914 had a photo of Mohan Singh, the pilot as well as his Chicago address, in his pocketbook.

Act 4 Samadhi – Vanishing act

In August 1928, as advertised in advance and reemphasized, a supposedly rich Yogi Hari Ram, a.k.a. Harry Mohan, a.k.a. Hari Mohan Singh, vanished from the surface of this earth, never to be seen or heard of, again.

Some chapters of the Benares League survived for a few more decades, and by the 1960s hardly any trace of Yogi Hari Rama or his League remained. He and his yoga movement vanished without a ripple, without complaints from people getting bilked out of their life’s savings, or women getting groped or assaulted. Nor were there any mentions of psychedelic drug usage, or of the guru enriching himself or flitting about in Rolls Royce cars, leading a high life in mansions replete with orgies, or the such.

Was it so that he had an immigration deadline to depart US in 1928 and left as he should have? It is rumored that he went to India, but that would be interesting – he had no US citizenship or passport and his British Indian Citizenship may have been rescinded, so how did he travel back? Researchers opine that his appearance fees could have resulted in huge collections, perhaps totaling to millions, but I wonder how Mohan could have got all that money across to India, during those pre-war years!

If anybody can help me complete Acts 5 – Hari Mohan Singh’s days after leaving US, I’d be obliged…

As I mentioned at the outset, he was indeed India’s first pilot but well, very much the enigma.

The many lives of Mohan Singh, a pioneering aviator who conned America as a yoga guru - Philip Deslippe ( Many thanks for helping me lead my studies, with his succinct article.
Yoga system of study – Yogi Hari Rama (H Mohan)
The Benares League of America (1928-1930) – Franklin Merrell Wolff fellowship site
Franklin Merrell-Wolff: An American Philosopher and Mystic: A Personal Memoir - Doroethy B. Leonard
Benares League of Portland, Oregon records, Berkley online record (date of arrival etc)
Aerial Age, Volume 1, Issue 1 (advertisement picture)
Aero and Hydro, Volume 4
Aeronautics: The American Magazine of Aerial Locomotion, Volumes 12-13, Volumes 13-14
Hundreds of news clippings from US newspapers – Yogi Hari Rama

Note: Do not confuse Hari Mohan Singh with Manmohan Singh, another aviator who trained later in the UK, flew a Pussy Moth and was a contemporary of JRD Tata.


The Amazons of Hyderabad

The Guardnees of the Zenana, a.k.a. the Zafer Paltan, and the battle of Kharda

Sometimes, my search for information takes me to unrelated but strange and interesting stories, and this is one of them. It has nothing to do with the establishment of the Amazon office in Hyderabad and deals with something which pre-independence travelers to the princely states, found curious, amusing, interesting, and took note of. Its connections to the royal Harem and/or the Zenana of the immensely rich Nizams of Hyderabad made it even more interesting to the lay reader.

First a bit about the Amazons of Scythia, who were part and parcel of Greek mythology. They were considered to be fierce female warriors and while many believed they were just myths and never existed, things took a new turn in the 1990s, when archaeologists began identifying ancient female skeletons buried in warrior graves in the same region. Much later, the Amazon region (and river) in South America were discovered and named so, after explorer Francisco de Orellana encountered female warriors who were - very white and tall, with very long hair braided and wound about their heads. They were robust, went naked with their private parts covered, and with their bows and arrows in their hands, doing as much fighting as ten Indian men.

Anyway, over time, the name Amazon became the name of our very famous contemporary conglomerate which supplies us anything we can think of - goods, books, and audio-visual media, after Bezos decided that his company should be renamed after that large river, changing it from Cadebra to Amazon. Keeping all that aside, note that this article is all about the so-called Zaffer Paltan, or the Amazons of Hyderabad as some colonials called them, and as you will gather soon enough, they were not fierce warriors but were the Nizam’s guardians of chastity.

To get to the story, we have to first cover a little ground on the Nizams of Hyderabad and how they rose to prominence. Abid Khan of Turkmenistan, connected to the bloodline of Abu Bakr, the first Khalifa or Caliph of Islam happened to meet the then young prince Aurangzeb, resulting in a long-lasting relationship. After the death of Aurangzeb, Asaf Jha the descendant claimed the area thence known as Hyderabad and established his own dynasty and kingdom in the region. Asaf Jha II continued the reign and was involved in not only numerous conflicts with the Mahrattas, but also in bringing the East India Company to the area.

Chowmahalla Palace

As we can gather, this Nizam had a sizeable harem of some 500 vivacious beauties from the world over housed within a large Zenana or women’s quarters, in the palace grounds. The special Women’s regiments to guard the Zenana were created by this Nizam - Ali Khan Asaf Jha, and these regiments were later known as the Zaffar Paltan, the victorious platoon or the Nizam’s Urdubegis. (Mrs Poter visiting the Zenana later in 1891 describes the quarters, click on this link to read it. While there were mentions of male guards or eunuchs, the first guards were the 2,000 strong all-women Zaffer Paltan. They were, in those days, smartly attired, well trained and armed with weapons.

The first detailed description of this regiment comes from an official publication which stated - What can be said to the existence of a corps of female infantry at Hyderabad, regularly trained in the manual and platoon exercises, and in the performance of elementary movements? “The late Nizam had two battalions of female Sepoys of one thousand each, which mounted guard in the interior of the palace, and accompanied the ladies of his family, whenever they moved. They were with the Nizam during the war with the Mahrattas in 1795, and were present at the Battle of Kurdlah (Kharda), where, at least, they did not behave worse than the rest of the army. One of these battalions was commanded by Mama Burrun, and the other by Mama Chumbebee, two of the principal female attendants of the Nizam's family. The present Nizam still keeps up a reduced establishment of those women; and Moneer-ool-Moolk has also a party of them. They are dressed as our Sepoys formerly used to be, and carry muskets; and they do the French exercise with tolerable correctness. They are called Zuffer Pultuns, the victorious battalions, and the women composing them are called Gardunees, a corruption from our word guard. Their pay is five rupees a month."

Julian James Cotton writing in the Calcutta review adds - Female sentries, dressed something like Madras sepoys, were on guard before the doors, and about twenty or thirty women were drawn up before a guard-room in sight - The Nizam's harem of six hundred ladies was guarded by an Amazonian corps known as the Zuffer-pultan (regiment of victory). Like a similar body in the service of Runjeet Singh, they wore uniforms resembling those of the Company's sepoys, and could perform the manual and platoon exercises with great smartness, and deliver a volley with precision. They showed conspicuous steadiness in action on more than one occasion. Their representatives of today, discharge the comparatively unexciting duties of State musicians (as depicted in the second picture), although they still occasionally act as gentries at ceremonial functions.

Asaf Jha II
George Burton though was notably wry, in his remark - They (the British troops) fought in the presence of the Nizam's corps of Amazons, known as the Zafar Paltan, or victorious battalions, who did not behave any worse than the remainder of the army on that occasion. It does not appear whether the Amazons earned the distinguished appellation of Zafar Paltan by the glory of their deeds, or whether it was merely a tribute to what should have been the gentler sex. They have long since been disbanded, the place of muskets on their shoulders being taken by smiling infants.

So, we can now figure that the platoons did participate, at least once in the Nizam’s regular battles with the Mahrattas. The story of what happened in that battle (the reason why they went to war is equally curious!) at Kharda (near Ahmednagar) is quite interesting and somewhat unique.

Ijjat ka sawal - Battle of Kharda -1795

The Nizam’s large army, all the associated retinue, including his harem and his dancing girls, trundled on, in the direction of Poona, along the banks of the River Manjira, while the equally large Mahratta forces led by Kerkar lumbered slowly towards them. To protect the harem, the platoons of women soldiers clad in red coats marched alongside the covered howdahs perched on many elephants. Leading the harem was Bakshi Begum, the Nizam’s senior wife. Now don’t ask me why the Nizam went to all this trouble, perhaps the palace life was too unexciting, and the women wanted some adventure, I don’t know, this was the practice in those days and we know that from some Mughal war accounts as well. The Zaffer paltan was commanded by Mama Barun and Mama Champa, and the former, Mama Barun, was one of the two senior aseels or wetnurses of the royal family.

It was on the 14th March 1795, that the Nizam’s Army arrived at the top of a ridge known as the Moori ghat and looking down, saw the vast Mahratta Army encampment below them. The next day, fighting orders were given and the French troops in each camp started to fire upon each other. As you may have gathered, both parties employed French mercenaries, one lot being Bourbon French commanded by de Boigne and the other Republican French belonging to the Nizam, led by Francois Raymond. Raymond’s twelve newly raised infantry regiments as we read (in Dalrymple’s account) used their higher altitude to great effect, showering de Boigne’s flanks with sprays of grapeshot, but Raymond’s forces were assailed by arrows fired by the Bhonsle’s bowmen from the other flank.

As we can read from various accounts, the Women’s Regiments were ordered to descend and so, the Zuffur Plutun or Victorious Battalion advanced equally steadily downhill with their muskets, and succeeded in holding their own against the Maratha right wing. As the sun set, the Nizam, deciding that it was late, signaled a stop to the firing.  The tired and spent warriors settled down for the night in their tents. You would imagine that they slept through an uneventful night, dreaming of succulent food and other thoughts of Hyderabad, but what happened was just the opposite, it turned out to be very eventful when some intermittent cannon firing by the Sindhias took place.

The already queasy Bakshi Begum and some others woke up startled at around 11PM hearing cannonade and went on to have a nervous breakdown, terrified for her life, and screaming that she wanted to get out with the rest of the women. If the Nizam did not listen to her or get them out right away, she would go out of the tent, remove her dress and expose herself to the Mahrattas!! How about that!

The Nizam had his honor to preserve and had no plans to allow his senior wife to carry on with her threat. The retinue hastily moved on to a nearby indefensible and half-ruined Kharda fort, for it was the only somewhat hardened shelter available nearby, and which lay at the very bottom of Moori Ghat, just over three miles behind the front lines.

During the panic and confusion of the Nizam’s inexplicable retreat, a small party of Marathas looking for water stumbled on a Nizam’s picket, and the brief exchange of fire in the dark was enough to throw the remainder of the Nizam’s troops into a complete panic. They rushed back towards the Kharda Fort, leaving all their guns, baggage camels, ammunition wagons, stores, and food behind them. The Maratha Pindaris moved in to loot the deserted camps.

The Mahratta scouts looking for water got back and after the sun rose, much to the surprise of the Mahrattas the Nizam’s army had fled to the Kharda fort. The Nizam was pinned in the fort with a small force inside, while the major part of his army remained outside. The fort was blockaded by the advance troops of the Peshwa under Sindhia.

Kharda Fort
The fate of the people in the fort after the said event turned out to be quite miserable, they were trapped, the siege lasted 17-22 days and many died of starvation and disease as negotiations between the Mahrattas and the Nizam got extended. Finally, when they ran out of food or water, the Nizam and his entourage surrendered. The Nizam’s minister Azeem-ul-omrah was handed over to the Mahrattas.

I must add here that some accounts of the battle at Kharda, perhaps revisionist, do not mention the begum’s disrobing threat as the real reason for the Nizam’s withdrawal, and try to point out that the Nizam had fled due to the ferocity of the Mahratta attack. Interestingly the Peshwa saw through all this and reacted to the Nana later - "I grieve to observe such degeneracy as there must be on both the sides, when such a disgraceful submission has been made by the Moghuls and our soldiers celebrate a victory obtained without effort”. It must also to be added here that the British stayed away from the fight and did not support the Nizam, who incidentally was under their protection.

As reparations, the Nizam had to cede much of his territories to the Mahrattas and pay some 3 crores compensation. But as it transpired, the 21-year-old Peshwa Madhava Rao II fell off his balcony or threw himself off it, the same year, not able to carry on with Nana Fadnavis. A lot of in-fighting followed, which enabled the Nizam to evade most of the payments, as well as the promised transfer of territory to the Mahrattas. This battle of Kharda was incidentally one of the last among the Nizam-Mahratta wars.

Later on, in 1804 – the Amazons were to figure in more palace intrigue when they were deployed to extract the senior begum Sarwar Afza Begum from her palace and to search for jewelry that had been secreted in her palace, wrongly. These female guards had to resort to violence and dragged the screaming begum out, after which the floor was dug up to reveal the jewels. It appears that they found these jewels, an expensive pearl armband, 35,000 gold mohurs, 50,000 pagodas, 7 lacs and 92 thousand rupees, gold vessels as well as a bejeweled howdah with pearls. So, we can see that they were indeed powerful and used for maintaining law and order in the Zenana. We can see that they were employed to assist in the case of the abduction of Kilpatrick’s wife

British commentators who saw the Zuffur Plutun on parade tended to make snide remarks about their ‘ridiculous appearance’. Those who saw them in action, however, were quite surprised by the women’s ferocity, discipline and effectiveness: Henry Russell later quoted ‘an officer of high rank in the King’s Army [who] once said on seeing a party of them that they would put half the native corps in India to the Blush’.

Dalrymple tells us that Mama Champa, featured in a palace painting, was a tall, large-breasted and large-bottomed woman with powerful, masculine hands and an extremely fearsome expression on her face, began her career as the Nizam’s nurse, was very intelligent, due to which his Highness entrusted many of the works of state to her. Mama Barun on the other hand, was a little older, more stooped and emaciated, with her face speckled by smallpox; but she is made to appear wise and canny, with a hooked nose and the hint of a smile at the edges of her mouth. Her monthly salary was raised from twelve rupees to forty and she was given a palanquin as well as the land of Champ Paith and marriage with Faujdar Khan, the master of elephant fighting. She seems to have accumulated a massive fortune in presents and bribes from courtiers anxious to acquire her services!!

Zafar Paltan over time…

When Alexis Soltykoff visited India in 1841, he chanced upon the Zaffar paltan while visiting Hyderabad. A chapter in his book loosely translated from French provides a fascinating aside. (The sketch of the paltan women, based on his painting however shows the girls with bare feet and British uniforms, while the description indicates curved slippers of the Mughal style)

Yesterday, while going, to see one of the reserved gardens of Nyzam, in the company of Colonel Macdoraid, we greeted each other, at the entrance, by a row, young soldiers, dressed in red, who presented me with arms, to the sound of drums and bugles. The extreme youth, the delicate air of these soldiers attracted my attention; and what was my surprise when I learned that they were women, a regiment of amazons, specially assigned to guard the royal harem! I then examined, with keen curiosity, this squad of armed girls. They had shakos red and trimmed with green plume, under which were seen from behind their beautiful black braids, curled en masse round; their complexion was yellowish; and their delicate features but slightly flattened, attested to their Mongolian origin.

Their slender body stood out under their cloth uniform red, and on their breasts crossed the white buffalo; the pants were green, and on their bare feet were embroidered slippers with curved points, which they did not keep in the apartments. They held bayonet rifles over their shoulders. Their hair in a braid and the slightly developed chest were the only clues by which we could recognize their sex; had it not been for this, they would have been taken for very young people.

I asked the prime minister of Nyzam for permission to make a sketch of it, and he was kind enough to send a detachment of about twenty in one of the numerous courtyards of its vast palace, in the middle of which was a piece of water. There they first performed some maneuvers to the sound of their war music; and then I made a sketch of it very hastily so as not to tiring, but with the accuracy of which I am quite happy, even with regard to the resemblance of the heads..

Mrs Major Clemons writing in 1841 adds - The first thing we were shown excited our surprise and attracted our particular attention: it was the Nizam's regiment of women, a fine and really handsome corps, which is appointed as guard over the seraglio. They turned out to receive us, went through their exercises, and performed some maneuvers in a most soldier-like manner. Their dress consists of a kind of tunic, and loose trousers, military cap and other accouterments of a soldier, but bare-footed. The band was formed of all ages, and the bass drummer was a remarkably stout handsome woman.

Capt Wilson is uncharitable in his remarks - The sentries may at all times be observed very alert on their posts, excepting in the case of those who may have an infant to take care of, when, perhaps, one hand may be employed in holding a musket, whilst the other is engaged in nursing. Women in this condition must find it a very difficult matter to conduct their duties to the satisfaction of their superiors. The husbands of these Amazons have nothing whatever to say to the regiment, and follow their own occupations, either under government, or upon their own responsibility!!

Narendra Luther, the chronicler of Hyderabad concludes - In course of time the practice was ended, the supervision of the seraglio being best done by eunuchs according to the age-old practice. The eunuchs were specially selected for this job because they were incapable of any `mischief' with the ladies of the harem. They also ensured the effective observation of the code of morality by them.

As time went by and the Nizam’s power and revenues reduced, these Amazons faded out gradually. In 1861, Briggs, Assistant Resident at Hyderabad saw six of those girls in the Nizam’s Paigah and mentions that while doing a drill for him, they giggled in shyness like any other girl. At this time, they looked quite unmilitary - with chappals for footwear, unpressed trousers, and wielding bamboo staves. The picture of these onetime Amazon’s, as you can see above, is quite unflattering.


Memoir of the Operations of the British Army in India: During the Mahratta wars 1817-1819 - Valentine Blacker
Scotland and the Indian Empire: Politics, Scholarship and the Military in Making British India - Alan Tritton
White Mughals – William Dalrymple
Voyages dans l'inde - le prince Alexis Soltykoff
Ledendotes of Hyderabad – Narendra Luther
The battle of Kharda and its significance – K Sajjan Lal

Pictures - The picture of the paltan in British uniforms comes from the Harper’s weekly and is supposedly based on the Soltykoff sketch, but seems to have been manipulated by the Brit artist who did them in 1859 or thereabouts. The second picture is sourced from N Luther’s book Lendotes, page 206 is reproduced after obtaining kind permission (acknowledged with thanks) from the late historian’s son Rahul Luther. PLS DO NOT COPY..

The Chowmahalla palace was where Asaf Jha II lived - The Palace complex is made up of four palaces: the Afzal Mahal, Mahtab Mahal, Tahniyat Mahal and Aftab Mahal, all arranged around a central courtyard garden with a marble cistern in the center. The Chaumhalla Palace was commenced in 1750 with later additions by successive Nizams. The palace has four quadrangles and the Zenana is situated beyond the third.


Discordant Notes

The Swati Tirunal – S Balachander imbroglio

The serene and melodious Carnatic music scene at Madras suddenly found itself in a cacophonic conundrum, when a doyen among them - Veena S Balachander, decided to throw a heap of mud on the face of one of the greatest musical exponents, the Swati Tirunal Maharaja of Travancore, grandly announcing that the latter was no great poet, that he never existed and that the Maharaja’s work was in reality, a hoax, plagiarized from other musicians his court. Accusations flew thick and quick, and battle lines were quickly drawn. Perhaps it was getting a little too cozy and dull in the hallowed corridors of the 1980’s Madras music academy, Carnatic music aficionados were soon avidly following the scandal in the press, for here was a new controversy, which they could now discuss animatedly, sans ragas and meter. Let’s take a look.

We had in past articles studied Swati Tirunal, his birth, his court musicians and, a little bit about his life, so I will only provide a brief introduction of the Raja.  The Mahajara of Travancore, Swati Tirunal Rama Varma (1813-1846), an enlightened and well-educated young man, who led a wary life in his palace, under the watchful eyes of British residents policing his state, nevertheless found time to partake in the study and application of classical music together with the pursuit of administration and other studies such as astrology, astronomy, science and what not. As a music composer, he is credited with over 400 compositions in various languages. Drawing on the lives of the Serfoji’s at Tanjore, Swati Tirunal patronized music and dance, bringing to the fore arts such as the Mohiniyattam, Sopanam and, of course, Carnatic music. His short life is replete with so many achievements, but at the same time, it is also a testament to the friction which existed between tradition and modernity, the imposition of western morality in the region by zealous missionaries supported by British residents, and a lot of palace intrigue, in the background.

Padma Bhushan S Balachander (1927-1990), the self-proclaimed genius and Veena Virtuoso, on the other hand, was a lot of things as well, he was a filmmaker, an actor, dancer, singer and poet, who made his mark and dazzled listeners with new techniques of Veena strumming. A flamboyant character, Balachander believed that he had been blessed and ordained to take the music of the gods and the Vedas to lowly earthlings. Nobody taught him, his traditional skill came from kelvi gnjanam (by keen listening), and he hated fusion music sans purity as well as jugalbandis (instrumental duets), remaining friends only with his treasured Veena. Ever a supporter of tradition, he attacked anything new in the music field, but above all, he was an eccentric who ended up creating a style of his own which some called the Balachander school or the Balachander Bani. As a popular veena player, he tried to bring the Vainika to the same level as the vocalist and got the instrument to mimic the vocals, not just provide supporting tones, getting experts opining that he singlehandedly brought the revered Veena to the fore as a solo instrument not inferior to the vocalist. But naturally, he had following him, after several awards to boot, a large number of ardent admirers, and strong critics. Above all he also held another self-professed role, that of the watchdog of ethics in the musical world, making his colleagues and comrades wary and occasionally fuming at his rabble-rousing and attention-seeking gimmicks.

Balachander was also becoming popular in the press for other reasons, especially his attacks of the music academy and artists associated with it. While Balachander did love to be in the limelight, it was not just that or any kind of regional politics which made him throw caution to the wind and attack the very traditions which he upheld. In his tirades and attacks, not letting the sleeping dogs lie, he found an ally, the press, and he was careful to collect a lot of supporting material and after establishing that he had a case. In some cases, he sailed through, but in other cases, he found adversaries equally proficient and counterattacking. His attack of Balasaraswati who had been felicitated by the music academy, as a Sangeetha Kalanidhi, fell flat when the feisty danseuse counter-attacked with a vengeance. The tirade against Balamurali Krishna and his new raga, conversely left Balamurali and the MMA – Madras Music academy somewhat shamefaced, casting doubts on Balamurali Krishna’s arguments. When both Balachander and Balamurali eventually boycotted the music academy, the mud-slanging fights in the press started taking legal proportions.

But what erupted into a huge scandal was the furor created by Balachander’s salvo at the long dead, and revered Swati Tirunal. What did he hope to achieve other than some press? We will understand all this as we continue on with this interesting story. To get there, we have to see how Swati Tirunal got under the skin of Balachander.

Without getting into too much background, we should start with Sethu Parvathi Bayi, otherwise known as the Junior Rani of Travancore and the mother of the young king Chithira Tirunal Balarama Varma.  Though her reign and her relationship with the Dewan Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer as well as the many years of troubled governance at Travancore have been recounted in other articles, we now focus on one of her great qualities. She was very fond of music, and wanted to regularize its teaching in Travancore. After the king was installed on the throne in 1930 and Sir CP became the Dewan in 1936-37, it was Sethu Parvathi’s aim to bring in the compositions of Swati Tirunal into the teaching syllabus and popularize his music. With Sir CP’s support, she got Muthaih Bhagavathar appointed as the principal of the Swati Tirunal Music academy.

A team went through many of the old records, unearthed many compositions of her ancestor, Swati Tirunal, published them in swara lipi, and polished the music in them. The original sopanam style was done away with on some of them and the compositions were reset into a traditional Carnatic style, from what I could understand. The person who later assisted Muthiah was none other than Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer, relocating to Travancore in 1940. The twosome would resurrect Swati compositions, try them out with Parvathi Bayi, and after her approval would formalize and popularize them through the school and through concerts. Soon enough, most of them became popular and well-known Swati Tirunal compositions.

The Swati Tirunal Music academy paralleled the Madras music academy in quality and fame, the music festival became popular and practicing musicians took note. In 1940, the theme at Madras was Swati Tirunal’s compositions and in 1943, the Madras music academy celebrated the birth anniversary of the late King and composer. The MMA also found in the Travancore royal house and Sethu Parvathi Bayi, a reliable patron.

Days went by, Sir CP left Travancore, Semmangudi was advancing in age, and in 1963, he was replaced by GN Balasubramaniam. Around that time, a book extolling the virtues of the King composer, was published by S Venkita Subramanya Iyer titled ‘Swati Tirunal and His Music’ introducing the composer to the larger public. Though he had mainly praise for the king in the book, he did voice some doubts concerning some works of Parameswara Bhagavathar and Irayimman Thampi which he thought were wrongly attributed to Swati Tirunal. He also alluded that the Raja may have been assisted on some of the Telugu works by the Tanjavur quartet, but summarized in the end that the great Raja was more than a musician and perhaps more talented than the revered Tanjavur trilogy of Thyagaraja, Dikshitar, and Sastry.

In 1981, Semmangudi, then the vice president of the MMA, published a book on Swati Tirunal extolling his virtues and especially his skill as a composer, under the auspices of the NBT, the national book trust.

In 1982, KP Sivanandam (with his brother Kitappa), a descendant of the Tanjore quartet family and a Veena player of repute, gave a press interview and published an article where he claimed that many of Swati compositions belonged to Vadivelu, had been translated and formally attributed to the King after adding his mudra Padmanabha. Sivanandam then claimed that the works published by Semmangudi had all been picked up from palm leaves possessed by his family. Following this messy press tirade, Sivanandam was ostracized by the MMA and he was no longer invited for any event.

These were the events that triggered fury in the mind of Balachander. He had after hearing about the scandal, met Sivanandam and studied the case. Deciding that Sivanandam was right, he sent out an open letter as he usually did, to the press, stating that people like Semmangud would soon project that all English and French compositions in the world were also done by Swati Tirunal and that this was an evil propaganda scheme of the Travancore Royal house. But he did not directly state that the king Swati Tirunal plagiarized Vadivelu’s work, he was only unhappy that Swati Tirunal was placed on the same pedestal as the trinity. He also wanted Swati’s portrait (actually painted by his brother Rajam) placed side by side with the trinity, removed from the MMA hall and relocated elsewhere.

The MMA and the Travancore royals ignored Balachander, infuriating him. At Travancore, critics remarked that the accusers were peeved, only because they had not been invited to perform in Travancore. Stronger counter-arguments came from RB Nayar and S Natarajan who took apart Sivanandam and Balachander, implying that Vadivelu and his brothers were refugees in the first place, and would have taken back copies of their palace work (the cadjun granthas) in retirement. They added that Sivanandam had tried to sell some of those palm leaves to the palace for a massive sum, but since the deal did not work out, were disappointed and took umbrage.

Though Balachander received some personal letters of support, his request for a formal investigation by an MMA expert committee, reached nowhere. His arguments were that a book by an expert like Semmangudi cemented Swati’s place falsely recreating history, and that the Travancore palace had provided no corroboration for the originality of Swati’s work, whereas Sivanandam had indeed produced some palm leaves. He also argued that it was simply impossible for Swati to create 400 compositions in slightly over a decade, with calculations to argue it. Demanding that the Semmangudi book be withdrawn from circulation, he listed his 20 questions on the issue which required urgent answers. When he was again ignored by the authorities, he published a booklet in 1985, with all the incriminating information he had collected, sending it to all and sundry, including the president and prime minister of India.

Balachander was by now a man possessed, and stated- The musical image of Swati Tirunal is a mere product of sheer propaganda, a hoax, a myth, a fraud, a planned deception, a fabricated lie perpetrated in this our generation, before our very eyes and ears! The time has arrived to put a stop to this madness, and halt the frenzy forever and to universally expose the sordid and shameful, gigantic scheme of royal and regal proportion.

Semmangudi told the press that Balachander was going bonkers. Balasaraswati who was supporting Sivanandam (many of the prominent Bharat Natyam dancers of that time had studied in the Quartet’s schools) faded away quietly, and Sivanandam too disappeared for a while, only to surface and pick up a Sangeetha Kalanidhi award from the very MMA which had ostracized him. He no longer sported the previous accusatory attitude. Balachander of course plodded on, in his staunch belief and conviction that his rabbit had 4 horns. He teamed up with a proficient Malayali lawyer named Vijayaraghavan and started to analyze old records to establish errors in the name, date of birth of the Maharaja, his years of rule, and so on. But what he did not quite realize was that he was getting lost in the myriad conventions and culture of Travancore concerning naming, calendars, inheritance, relationships and what not.

His major blunder was his next act of declaring that a king named Swati Tirunal never existed. A big press conference was called, in which Balachander spoke for hours and hours, accusing and abusing all and sundry. Pretty soon he was the only one left listening to his voice. The other detractors were gone, so also the cause, and the case itself, got virtually closed by the investigator’s own actions. The Vainka and the lawyer did not give up, they filed a writ petition in 1989 in the Madras high court. Attempts to rally other singers to their side did not work (he even tried hard to get MS Subbalakshmi stop singing Swati songs, but she would not accede). He was, as they said, the last man standing.

All in all, in this egoistic battle, Balachander wasted years and years of his time and a substantial amount of his savings, earning nothing but ridicule in the end. Finally, the stress caught up with him and the brilliant musician passed away in 1990, at Bhilai. After his death, the writ petition was withdrawn by his family, since as an expert S Satyanarayan had provided reasonable clarification on behalf of the NBT which accepted that some of the hyperbole by Semmangudi had been erroneous. The scandal died a natural death though some aspersions on the MMA getting swayed by Travancore patrons, remained. The public felt that money and power could bend rules and averred that the royalty of Travancore had both.

Many answers to Balachander’s questions were finally published 16 years after he passed away, when Dr RP Raja took it upon himself to delve into the issue, perusing a huge number of sources. Let’s see what he had to say.

Understanding the musical scene in Kerala is not so easy, especially since the style of Sopanam, Attakatha and Harikatha are quite different from other South Indian music forms. I had covered this in a separate article, and you can trace therein, the music developed in the region. Needless to state, that the style was used in Travancore by both Swati and his uncle Irayimman thampi. Carnatic music had spread from Vijayanagara to all the neighboring kingdoms, not just Tanjore. Musicians moved to all the regional patrons, and while the Serforji’s were the largest patrons, musicians were also working in Travancore and Ettayapuram, just to name two prominent locales. The biggest problem of the Swati Tirunal music legacy is the fact that as a king, he never had disciples and so his work did not pass down orally, as such. That the court had a large musical and dance ensemble is well known and their collective output spearheaded by the genius Swati Tirunal was, over a couple of decades is perhaps what we should be looking at.

His mastery over languages is attested by a contemporary writer, T Shungooni Menon, who testifies that he was fluent in Sanskrit, English, Tamil, Malayalam, so also, Mahratta, Persian, Hindustani and Telugu. I can only comment that one is usually fluent enough in other languages if only to translate and transcribe, not think in. Even though one’s mother tongue is Malayalam, we publish in English because it has a global readership. Similarly, in the case of musical pieces, perhaps Tamil, Kannada and Telugu were important, so also Sanskrit and Swati Tirunal published pieces in those languages. The granthas which recorded the efforts were copied and passed on to many members of the team, and surely Vadivelu as one of his closest confidantes would have possessed a working draft. A group working with multiple languages in the palace, may have relied on Sanskrit as a common medium, though copies in other languages would have also been used.

Dr Raja establishes that the first published collection of 86 compositions came out as the 1853 treatise Utsava Varna Prabandham. The next 11 came out in Shungoony Menon’s ‘History of Travancore’ published in 1878. The 1917 work Balamritham by Ranganatha Iyer, provides notations for 125 works of the King (interestingly his father excelled as a leading musician in the Kings court). Discounting 15 of the songs, which had already been mentioned in previous works, the Balamritham lists 110 more of his works.

The writer who saw the original script, handwriting in the cadjun leaves was one Chidambara Vadhyar, who set out to find important documents from the heap of granthas lying about in the palace library and list them in his 1916 work. He testifies to seeing himself, about 23 leaves with compositions signed off as Ka Ra – the king’s signature in Telegu and receiving in all, 311 works eventually, copies from various sources. Anyway, as a result of all this, the authorship of some 472 works, can be attributed to Swati Tirunal. From a language point of view, the vast majority were in Sanskrit, followed by over 50 in Manipravalam, and just a few in Telugu, Kannada, and Hindustani, with some musical pieces (Tillanas) and narratives to complete. All of the pieces mention the Raaga used.  However what Dr Raja does not quite detail is if or all of the cadjun leaf collections still exist in the palace, or clarify if those collections were analyzed and transcribed and were used in the polishing efforts by Semmangudi and Muthiah. HM Vaidyalingam who assisted his father Muthiah, stated that they painstakingly collected the many songs from elderly people (Mullamoodu Bhagavathar descendants) who remembered them.

While one can thus trace the authorship of the many sahityas as above, how about the Dhatu or the musical part to establish that he was a Vaggeyakara? This is identified with the large amount of Swaraksharas (letters coinciding with notes, thus embedding music in the text) in Swati’s compositions, which only a musically proficient person can do. It also proves that others did not set his sahitya or text to music, separately. Palace accounts testify Swati Tirunal purchasing a violin and a Maddalam and having a Swarabath constructed, so it is presumed he could play those instruments.

The use of the signature Padmanabha by multiple persons was another argument that Balachander did not quite follow. The Trippadi danam concept itself may have been unfamiliar to him, for the Travancore royals had surrendered the entire kingdom and possessions to Lord Padmanabha. So, the felicitation of the lord in all the songs and its use as a mudra may have been followed by the entire group working on the pieces and especially, both Iriymman Thampi and Swati Tirunal.

It is sometimes difficult to imagine how Swati found time to balance his musical talents and the administrative demands, as a king. At the same time, it can be understood that there was a larger unit at work, just like the music industry today. Surely the many composers and musicians met and collaborated, they discussed ideas and brought out finished work, attributed usually as was the practice, to their patron (any patrons prerogative), the monarch. That is the only way such a large number of compositions of brilliance could be completed in a short period. I don’t believe there was any competition or a need to bring in special protection for their intellectual property. The music was created and used as palace recreational music and temple music, never spread out for general public consumption.

In the Tanjavur scene, it was a competitive situation and with three or more schools competing for royal patronage and fame, it was more important using mudras as well as the methodology of publishing music, albeit orally. Nevertheless, even in those Tanjavur schools, with a Guru and his pupils, there are always elements of work completed by the Shishya on behalf of his guru. Also, there was a wider listening audience in Tanjore, compared to Travancore, with public performances more common.

To answer Balachander, one can say - Yes Swati Tirunal existed, he was the H.H. Maharaja Raja Ramaraja Sri Padmanabha Dasa Vanchi Pala Rama Varma III born on 16th April and he left behind a musical legacy which died for a while as he had no shishyas, but which has fortunately been brought to life by many musically proficient people. His family drew neither copyright nor royalty for his work and we still enjoy the fruits of his labor. So, suggesting that Swati Tirunal was assisted (which he was) but in a derogative fashion, does not reduce his abilities or lower his proficiency.

The Vadivelu descendants do possess a trove of cadjun granthas inherited from the quartet, and it is clear that the Travancore Royals were possibly interested in perusing them, but not to paying large sums in acquiring them. If the family wanted to establish alternate authorship, they would have done it by now, for the leaves are still around in the residence. Also, Sivanandam’s claim that those works were Vadivelu’s compositions translated with the new mudra Padmanabha added in, does not hold water simply because I feel it is not feasible to insert swarakhsharas into such versions at exactly the right places when translating, it can only be composed so in the original language of composition.

From a historical perspective, mentions indicate (e.g., Chinnaswamy Mudaliar - Ragamalika) that Swati Tirunal was known as Kulashkhara Maharaja and his formal name in English records was Sree Padmanabha Dassa Vunchee Baula Rama Vurma Koola Shakhur Kireeta Putee Swatee Rama Rajah Bahadoor Munnei Sooltan Shemshair Jung. Dr Achutashankar S Nair has provided more corroborative evidence of published works soon after the Raja’s demise such as the Swathi Thirunal Ponnu Thampuran Kalpichakkiya Krithikal (1853), Sangeetha Sarvartha Saara Sangraham by Vina Ramanuja (1859), Navarathri Keerthanam by Bhagavathy Pillai (1883), and many more (ref: article - Rare Sources of Information on Swathi Thirunal)

It is quite possible that Sethu Parvathi Bayi used her power, connections and influence to back the promotion of the Swati Tirunal legacy, and surely it was a just and proper cause, for musical experts agree that the work so promoted was of fine quality, just as students agree that they are challenging, and the audience who found and still find them, melodious and sonorous. That is the big picture, the rest, these silly attacks are ‘noise’ which one must learn to filter out. Charisma, personability and power promote popularity, whether you like it or not. But in the end, though we have a song with a name and a signature, what remains and are repeatedly performed, are mellifluous musical pieces that withstand the test of time.


Voice of the Veena - S Balachander - Vikram Sampath
New light on Swati Tirunal – Dr R P Raja
Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The Postcolonial Politics of Music in South India - Amanda J. Weidman
Demystifying Swati Turinal – Dr Achuth Shankar S Nair (Journal of MMA – Vol 80, 2009)
Rare sources of information on Swati Tirunal – Dr Achuth Shankar S Nair