Irayimman Thampi (1782-1856)

Life and times of a poet extraordinaire…

You can only understand the magic of Thampi’s works if you spend a while and listen to lovely renditions of his poetry in the mellifluous voices of KS Chitra and Sreevalsan Menon. As you let the lullaby Omanathinkal Kidavo caress your mind and take you to your childhood with the memories of your mother or an aunt humming that very song to put you to sleep, the notes of Karuna Cheyvan enthu will make you recall one or more of those trips with your family for a wedding or otherwise to Guruvayur. And as you linger longingly on the memories of a liaison in your youth, you might recall the sensuous poem Prananathan enikku Nalkiya, or perhaps, as you slip into a forlorn mood, you might recall Thampi’s Arodu cholvene Azhalullathellam, a tune wallowing in sadness, with a tear or two at the corner of your eye.

Some years ago, we talked about this great poet’s signature poem, the lullaby written to herald the birth of Swati Thirunal. Though we had a hurried glimpse of the poet and his times there, he surely merits a more detailed writeup. Interestingly, this uncle of the Swati Thirunal was already thirty-one years of age when the king was born, but outlived him for a decade.

Before we get to know more about him, we should understand the structure of the royal households in Travancore, which were quite different from those in Malabar. The royal consort or consorts were titled as Ammachis and bestowed with palatial homes called Ammaveedu’s as well as vast tracts of lands to live a comfortable life, though living a fully shielded life, away from the royal palace. Thampi was born to Aandiyirakathu Puthumana Ammaveedu Parvathi Thankachi and Cherthala Naduvil Kovil Kelaru Kerala Varman Thampuran (Ummini Thampi was a member of this household) in 1782. Parvathi was the daughter of Makayiram Thirunal Ravi Varma (younger brother of Dharma Raja).  Thampi was named after his grandfather, and though formally named Ravi Varman Thampi, was always known by the shortened version Irayimman Thampi.

It was in Kizhake madom that he grew up, and his early tutorship after his father, was under Moothad Shankaran Elayathu covering areas such as grammar, linguistics and Sanskrit literature. One blessed with poetic skills, a poem written when Thampi was 14, pleased Karthika Thirunal who playfully titled him Sastri Thampi and he was soon bestowed with a position in the royal palace, which stretched through a long career until his death while serving four kings and two queens who followed. Through the period he served under Dharmaraja, Balarama Varma, Swathi Thirunal and Uthram Thirunal as well as two queens, Gouri Parvathy Bai and Gouri Lakshmi Bai, he excelled in creating a vast volume of Carnatic, semi-Carnatic, folk and manipravalam poetry which now enriches the treasure trove of Malayalam literature.

While he was not always credited as the primary creative genius in the palace, he was always considered as the main part of that golden era in Travancore when music and dance rose to a high position and spread to the masses. We will get to a precis about his compositions a little later, most of which will just look like a dreary long list to readers who are plain music listeners, so I think it will be more appropriate to talk about how his life intertwined with the various royal patrons, especially Swati Thirunal and how their association resulted in Travancore becoming a destination for many great musicians from afar, to the court of Travancore.

RV Poduval explains that devotional music was initially formalized thus - Saivite hymns with the Tevaram and Tiruvachakam styles, and the Vaishnavite hymns of Nalayiraparbandham and Tiruvaymoli in their specific styles during the 6th-9th centuries. From this evolved th Sopana sangeetham which we covered earlier. The combinations of Pan (Janaka ragas) and Thiran created tunes which were popular then. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the influence of Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda was huge and many padams were introduced. This is the time when we see the development of music around Krishnattam (another topic which we had covered earlier). After this Ramanattam developed in Kottarakkara and this morphed into the Kathakali we know today. Attakatha is the poetic composition used for these classical dances, especially Kathakali.

Tunchath Ezhutatchan, from the 16th-17th century is credited with ushering the modern usages of Malayalam by fusing Manipravalam and Pattu variations into a single language pattern of the modern Malayalam. It was supposedly following Ezhuthachhan that the outburst of the dance drama Kathakali resulted in many poetic Attakatha creations, as we will soon see.

Let us step back a bit and see how the music scene in Travancore developed until the time of Swati Thirunal. Virakerala Varama of Kottarakara modeled his musical compositions around the Ashtapati and following him was Dharmaraja Karthika Thirunal who authored many Kathakali compositions and who we saw was on the throne as Thampi was born. During this period the Prince Aswati Thirunal was also considered a notable composer, so also the great Unnayi Variyar. Iriyamman Thampi grew up with these legendary composers and surely picked up a lot. One biographer mentions that he was quite close to Vadivelu Nattuvanar of the Tanjore quartet and Palghat Parameswara Iyer during the Swati Thirunal epoch.

Kunchan Nambiar, a great tullal (Ottanthullal) poet and satirist well known to Malayalees was one of the early geniuses who drifted in search of patronage from Palghat to Travancore in the early decades of the 18th century, to serve under Marthanda Varma and later the Dharma Raja at Travancore. After his retirement and demise in the 1770’s, there was a lull in the poetry department. European influence was being felt, many versions of Keralolpathi were being released in Malabar, so also works by Christian missionaries. English was being taught and the concept of formal education was starting to reach the masses - changing from the early gurukulam method which was available only to the upper classes.  All of this was happening in Travancore as well, just as the young prince Swati Thirunal came to the throne. But as well all know, Thampi shot to fame during the birth of the prince, with his most popular composition, the lullaby Omana Thinkal Kidavo, which we explored a few years ago.

Poduval sums up the brilliance of Thampi in simple words - Swathi Thirunaļ Rama Varma Maharaja, the great musician and composer, was the father of modern music in the state and whose reign may aptly be called the Augustan age in Travancore. Not only were local musicians and composers encouraged and patronized by His Highness; but talented singers from outside the state, particularly from Tanjore and Palghat, were invited to his court and liberally helped.

One of the greatest of Travancore musicians who adorned his court was Irayimman Thampi whose compositions evince a rich musical tradition and possess melody of priceless merit. There is a variety, richness and depth in the sweet concord of his sounds. All the musical material that could be assimilated by a genius into a mature art, he vitalized in his own way, and he had no imitators in rhythmic and melodic organization. What gives a remarkable impressiveness to his high standard is his delicate ornaments and choice of rhythmic words indicative of a slow pace in singing and a noble stream of melody. Though he did not possess much musical scholarship and erudition, he was a past-master in the perfect fusion of untranslatable emotion with every beauty of musical design and tone. His in short is a classic example of what flawless musical form can be.

Even though a senior in age, the uncle Thampi and the nephew Swati Thirunal formed a great bond throughout their life and collaborated often, not only with music composition, but also with Thampi providing poetry and music for the Mohiniyatam events and dances by the many court dancers. This was the time when the Tanjavur Quartet arrived at Travancore, so also other Carnatic exponents such as Sharadkala Govinda Marar, Maliyakkal Krishna Marar, Palghat Parameswara Iyer, Meruswami and so on – a collection of geniuses who together with an equally gifted and brilliant patron Swati Thirunal provided Thampi with the impetus to excel, and excel he did, going on to create a large number of excellent works, purportedly numbering to around 500. He was one of the Asthana vidwans (scholar poets) had been awarded a virashringala, one of the highest palace honors of that time.

That they had a special relationship unlike the others is clear. Thampi was quite close to Swati Thirunal and could afford to take more liberties than the other virtuosos in the royal court and we can see an example in the incident where Thampi once used a short poem with dual meaning verse to explain his predicament to his patron Swati Thirunal, in a subtle way, showing his genius at wordplay.

mahIpatE bhAgavatOpamANam, mahA purANam bhavanam madIyam ….

nOkkunnavaRkkokke viraktiyuNTAm, arttha”n”aLillennoru bhEdamuNTu …

Meaning:  Oh King! My house is very very old (purANam) just like the Epic bhAgavata purANam; those who glance through it will have immediate detachment (virakti), just like the feeling you get when you read the Epic; but there is one small difference - my house has no artham (monetary value) whereas the epic is deep in artham (meaning). The King immensely pleased with this poem, approved the renovation of Tampi’s house!

We are also given to understand that Swati Turunal would show his compositions first to Thampi and seek his opinion about them, and we have also heard rumors of his personal friendship and involvement in the affairs of the heart concerning Swati Thirunal, such as the case of the song Prananathan Enikku Nalki composed by Thampi for Swati Thirunal.

Let’s now take a look at the involvement of Thampi in the area of Attakatha’s. As some of you may be aware, the first of the Attakathas, were the eight plays dealing with the Ramayana, known as Ramanattam, composed by the prince of Kottorakkara around the mid-sixteenth century. Though their texts are still available, only three of them, Sita Swayamvaram, Bali Vadham and Thorana Yudham are enacted these days. The next Attakatha composer was the Raja of Kottayam (Malabar) who wrote four plays, Baka Vadham, Kirmira Vadham, Kalyana Saugandhikam and Kalakeya Vadham in the late seventeenth century. Those were days when Kathakali had not attained a set pattern even in the matter of dress and make-up of the actors. The brilliant Nala Caritam composed by Unnayi Variyar was followed by the three plays of Irayimman Thampi, namely Kichaka Vadham Uttara Swayamvaram, and Dakshayagam, all deservedly popular for their fine music and literary merit.

Most of Thampi’s compositions are in Sanskrit, but he also used Manipravalam judiciously which combined the best of Malayalam and Sanskrit. Sometimes he used rare ragas such as Manji, Jhingala and Kakubha. Because he had the same mudra i.e., Padmanabha used also by Swati Thirunal, many of his compositions are sometimes mistaken to be Swati Thirunal’s, such as Seve Syanandur esha and Bhogindrashayinam. Veena maestro Balachander was one who felt that Thampi was the composer of many of the songs attributed to Swati Thirunal, since Padmanabha was actually Thampi’s mudra. I will get to that story another day, as to how it came about and how it resulted in a complex and needless polemic which destroyed Balachander’s career and also sullied Swati Thirunal’s legacy for a while.

Thampi’s everlasting contribution was of course Omana Thinkal Kidavo, a lullaby created when Swati Thirunal was born, just in time to ward off a British takeover of Travancore. Uncle Irayimman Thampi, the learned poet of the family was entrusted the task of creating a royal lullaby which he did in inimitable fashion, in the tradition at that time, in Manipravalam (mixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam) the Malayalam poetic fashion, rather than pure Sanskrit. Paravathi Bayi could hum this song for her son, unfortunately, only for two years for she passed away in 1815. But the song left its mark on the young boy who rose to become a musical prodigy.

The people of Kerala agree that it is the most beautiful and melodious composition of the times to date and is more a people’s lullaby rather than just the royal lullaby. As you hear it today, it continues to strike the same tender chord in one’s mind and the feelings are testimony to the clarity, purity and brilliance of the composition. Avid listeners would have noted that the lullaby does not ever mention anything about sleep! Unlike other poems which simply provide superlatives of the human, this composition compares the young regent to various lovely aspects of nature and goodness.

As one review extoled the piece - Generations of children have been lulled asleep by its soothing notes. Sung by generations over centuries the strains of this lullaby have been dyed into the warp and woof of the Malayalee’s cultural repertoire. Evoking intense nostalgia for a bygone phase of one’s life filled with tender affections and motherly care, the lullaby also thrills one with a sense of dejavu.

Prananathan enikku nalki - is a padam from the pen of Thampi, a work of love with ample doses of sensuous text. As the story goes, Swati Thirunal and his consort had a lover’s tiff, following which they did not talk to each other for some time. Sugandhavalli, the consort finally decided to ask Irayimman Thampi for ideas to break the ice, and of course the learned man who knew his nephew very well, provided her the poem to explain her ecstasy and joy from the union between the two on an earlier occasion. As the story continues, she danced to it and well, that broke not only the ice, but brought them together again.

While many would place Omana Thinkal on the highest pedestal, in my opinion Thampi’s most noteworthy gift to us is the simple composition, the keerthanam - Karuna Cheyvan enthu thamasam Krishna. Originally composed in Sriraga, it is nowadays sung in Yadukula Khamboji. Legend has it that it was a favorite of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and the story goes that he once suffered major problems with his voice which no doctor could remedy. In despair, he prayed to Guruvayurappan, the deity invoked in this song, after which he not only recovered his voice, but recovered it with a new clarity and brilliance.

VRP Nayar tells us that Thampi wrote this devotional song in praise of the Lord of Guruvayur at a time when there were no quick means of transport to Guruvayur from Travancore (one had to go by boat to a port near Vanchi or Chettuwa and then by cart), that sacred shrine was physically and also mentally far from the poet’s place of residence, that too at a time when the King Swathi Thirunal had not traveled beyond Alappuzha!

Nayar adds - The term Raagamaalika is quite common in the domain of classical Carnatic music: it is all about rendering in different raagas the same text or its different sections. Thampi has gone farthest in experimentation of ragamaalikas as well by setting different sections of the same song not only in different ragas but also to suit different taalas and has, indeed, met with commendable success as in the case of the wrestling scene (mallayuddham) in Kichaka vadham.

From the presently available Thampi collection we find some 33 kirtanas, 5 varnas, 22 padas all in the Carnatic format, the three attakathas - Kichaka Vadham, Uttara Swayamvaram and Dakshayagam. For his attakathas, Thampi used ragas mainly used only in Kerala such as Kakana Kurinji, Indisa, Maradhanasi and Samatha malahari. He also worked with Kanthara, Padi and gopika vasantham, all rare ragas. Also, among his compositions can be found many lullabies or cradle/thottil songs. Thampi has to his credit a kriti in Tamil ‘kanchamizhiyaala koncham un mele’ in ‘Devagaandhari’ raga set to Chempata taala. The famous ‘kummi’song, ‘Veeravirada kumara vibho,’ which remains an inevitable part of Thiruvathira to this day, was penned for the women folk of the palace by Thampi.

He also did a Navarathri Prabandha (on the festival of 1835), a musical work in four cantos describing the Navarathri festival and associated processions. The description of the procession of Saraswathi Devi being started from Padmanabhapuram and ending at Navarathri Mandapam at East Fort in Trivandrum form the theme of the prabandham. Each canto starts with a poem followed by songs in Panthuvarali, Yadukulakambhoji, Nadanamakriya and Punnagavarali respectively.

According to SV Iyer, Thampi was the only composer other than Swati Thirunal to compose Varnas in Travancore – The ones on Amba Gauri as well as the varna on the Attingal goddess are considered to be fine pieces. The rest are in praise of Swati Thirunal. It is said that his passages on Ekalochanam in Uttara swayamvaram puts any dance artist’s ability to severe test - by forcing him to look with one eye in one direction and the other in another, showing anger in one and sorrow in the other, but at the same time keeping both feelings subservient to love!! I can’t imagine the Kathakali artist’s situation!

Ayyappa Panikkar sums it all up very well - Thampi has an unerring ear, and for sheer verbal felicity, his attakkathas have few rivals. He was a master of words and melody. The famous dandaka (long stanza) in Keechakavadham reveals Tampi 's exquisite artistry with words; it describes in graphic and dramatic terms the response of Draupadi to the queen who had asked her to go to Keechaka's palace with his food.

Thampi was married to Kalipilla Tangachi, the daughter of his maternal uncle and among their seven children, their daughter Lakshmi Kutty Pillai Thankachi proved to be a gifted composer and perhaps her father’s only disciple. Kutty Kunju Thankachi (1820–1914) as she was popularly known, continued her father's artistic and poetic legacy. She composed a number of beautiful compositions on various deities besides some Attakathas and musical narratives like Thiruvathirapattu.

Sharat Sundar Rajeev who writes often on Travancore matters tells us that Indira Bayi Thankachi, the last Durbar Dancer to the Travancore royals was a member of this illustrious family. Her father Narasimhan Thampi had started the first Swati Thirunal music school even before the Swati academy of today was founded. ‘Chitramezhuthu’ Kizhakkaemadhom Padmanabhan Thampi was the son of Kutty Kunju Thankachi and Kunjunni Thampan.

Perhaps time to heat to youtube and listen to a few of his lovely compositions (see links below)


Music in Travancore – RV Poduval

Iriyamman Thampiyude Attakahtahkal – Kerala Sahitya Academy

Iryiamman Thampi and his royal lullaby – PP Narayanaswami

Malayalam Poetry— A Kaleidoscopic View - G. Sreedharan

Iryiamman Thampi – Dr S Venkitasubramonia Iyer (Glimpses of Indian Music)

Contributions of Travancore to Carnatic music - S. Bhagyalekshmy

Iryiamman Thampi – VRP Nayar

Tracing the life of an artist of yore – Sharat Sundar Rajeev (Hindu May 6th 2014)

This is the house where Irayimman Thampi was born – Reshmi Radhakrishnan

Maddy's ramblings - Related articles

Maddy's Ramblings - Sopana Sangeetham 

Maddy's Ramblings - From Krishnattam to Kathakali 

Maddy's Ramblings - Omana Thingal Kidavo 

Maddy's Ramblings - The King and the dancer 

Some of Thampi's mellifluous compositions

Nandini singing Chentarsayaka (starts at 3:38)

Nandini singing Enthu njan ihacheyvu

KS Chitra Omana Thinkal – the definitive version 

Sreevalsan Menon  - Omana Thinkal Kidavo 

KS Chitra - Karuna Cheyvan  


Wishing all of you a better New year, happier, healthier and less stressful…

The Browning of the Raj

More Curry tales

There was a time when British India had these nice dining cars on trains with set tables and liveried waiters at call, fancy cutlery, and so on, but they were long gone before my time. Then there were the restaurants and clubs in cities which pandered to the Raj. But for the British who ventured beyond their dank and dreary environs, it was a long trip and along the way, some went native, others got curried, while the food served to them got browned and sometimes roasted to darker hues, and the curry became a part of the Brit’s life, so much so that these days, a Brit without his weekly curry fix is a lost soul. Don’t you think we should spend a while chatting about the influence of Indian food on the Raj as well as the reverse impact on Indian eating habits? Don’t you think you would like to know about the ‘Muls’, the ‘ducks’ and the ‘quihys’ as we trace the culinary osmosis brought about by the many invaders and colonizers of India?

The impact of the foreigner on Indian cuisine started eons ago, with the arrival of the Northern and Northwestern invaders, the arrival of meats and fancy cooking, with fats of many kinds. The Mughal and Persian impact show even today in the Northern half of India and has already seeped into the Southern kitchen. Down South, Arab traders influenced cooking in the West and Southern regions, while southeast Asian and Chinese cooking influenced the Eastern and Southern regions. Then came the Portuguese and with them came so many new vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, tapioca, different types of chilies, stew concoctions, and whatnot. The Dutch followed, but I have not heard of any major Flemish influence in Indian kitchens, and following them were the French and the British. The British stayed the longest, so they should naturally influence the eating habits the most and vice versa, I thought, but it turned out to be mostly one-sided. The Chinese in Bengal created the Chindian cuisine which is a mainstay in our kitchens and thanks to Maggi, noodles is more like a national dish. 

When food rationing was introduced during the 60’s and 70’s, wheat dishes entered the South and became a standard, at least once on weekdays. With travel and affluence increasing, South Indian dishes especially the tiffin varieties started to gain popularity in the North. Specialty hotels sprung up, and dotted the metropolises. As families split and spread out, the retinue of servants reduced and homes became smaller. This brought about changes in cooking methods, so the time spent in creating a dish, while the lavish spreads for joint families were quickly replaced by easy dishes for the nuclear family on the move.

The traveling Indian found now that his palate had started to change again, after having tasted different cuisines around the world. Fusion cooking became the ‘in thing’ and new dishes blending flavors and looks ushered in haute cuisine to the upwardly mobile Indian’s kitchen, or well, at least to hotels they liked to visit. Michelin stars, ratings and so on followed, but for the vast majority of Indians, that does not really matter, and they still go by word-of-mouth oral reviews in selecting a place to eat or food to order. Today the culinary adventure in India is something you will be consumed by, with many food channels, a multitude of restaurants, classy, cheap, specialty, exotic, fusion – you name it, they are there to take you on your culinary journey.

But let’s go back a bit in time, to the Arab influence on the west coast, after which we will trace the trail set by the Parangi, or the feringe (which created the word foreign) on the West Coast. The earliest Arab influence on dishes was of course limited to the Moplah and other coastal Muslim communities dotting the west coast. The Yemeni Biryani, the buttered rice, and their sparse sides came through seafaring traders who sailed the monsoon winds. What many don’t know is that they had to stay at the Malabar port till the winds reversed course and the ships sailed back with spices. It was this 3-6 month stay which resulted in the physical intermingling of communities as well as the infusion of Arabic dishes with the local. Grilled and roasted meat, pickles or achars, flavored milk drinks, halwa, dry fruits, figs and date infusions, stuffed breads, cooking and holding the flavor in a pot – the Dum concept, all came with the iterant Arab trader. 

The many Jews on the west coast who arrived with the Arabs thousands of years ago also contributed. While the Baghdadi Jews brought in the Hameen, the Kobe and the Aloo makalla, The Yemenite Bene Israelites South of Bombay adapted to Marathi dishes as can be seen in the padhar, malida and purim, and their cooking methods. The Cochin Jew adapted to Cochin customs, as an example the Bonda took the place of their potato latkes, and they made their own version of Hamin (Chicken rice)

Perhaps the largest influence in India was from the Mughals and the Persians - a study which can easily stand on its own. To this I should add Turkish as well, since the Mughals were Turkic in origin and had a shared cuisine with the Turks from Central Asia. Their Kebabs, Koftas, flavored rice – biryanis remained close to their origins. Thick and rich milk, yoghurt and cheese based creamy curries, which were mildly spiced, flavored with butter or ghee, garnished with dried fruits and aromatic spices, have left a deep mark in our culture. They also introduced a variety of flavorful wheat breads such as the naans, phulkas, parathas to mention a few. The tandoor which they brought, Persian or Mughal, can’t be sure about that, is another important aspect. Not to forget, they brought in diverse meats into the kitchen - Goat, fowl, venison, rabbit and birds like quail and partridge, all fire grilled to grace dinner spreads. With patrons in the many kingdoms that sprung up in the Northern half of India, the richness of the dish was directly proportional to their master’s affluence. Curious, right – when Baber first arrived in India, he said that the people of Hindustan ate lousy food. Perhaps it was their life’s mission to set it right!!

A Parsi’s kitchen was markedly different and even now one can find Parsi arrivals to our cuisine such as dhansaks, the banana leaf steamed patra fish, the many eeda (egg) dishes, Sali boti, Saas machi, khurchans and semolina sweets, when in Bombay. Looking at their origins, one could assume they are North Persian, but the influence of Western culture went on to create a mouthwatering blend of khaatu-meethu-teekho tastes as vinegar and jaggery were added to the mix!

Chinese and South-Eastern influence can be seen mostly in the South and Bengal, due to the centuries-old trade relations with China. Steamed dishes such as the rice noodles (sevai), puttu, idli, kanji, the many utensils used to make them, and a few vegetables do trace their origins to China and the far east, but it was the Chinese in Calcutta who fused the traditional Chinese food with the spices of India to create the lovey Hakka Chindian or Sino Indian food which we can’t live without these days. Nestle’s Maggi took care of the rest.

Most people underestimate the influence the Portuguese had on Malabar and later, Indian cooking. So much of what we eat today came through the Portuguese friars and traders, and you can attribute tomatoes, potatoes, red Chilies (Kappal mulaku – chilies from ships - apparently introduced to wean locals away from pepper consumption, so that they could obtain more for export, while increasing imports!), newer varieties of mangoes (Alfonso), cashew nuts, couscous, apples, cabbage, cauliflowers, pomegranates, pumpkin, papaya, the Chinese potato (Kurka), yucca or tapioca, pineapple, guava, custard apples, lychee, cocoa and of course, addition of vinegar in cooking, all to the Portuguese. The list goes on and on, and shows the influence over the many hundred years they dominated the South western coast. The appams and Bole’s, the stews which grace Kerala and Goan cuisine can be traced to them. Adding coconut milk to spice it down, they originated the stews, but also retained the fiery vindaloo (a derivation from Carne de Vinha d’Alhos), and brought in wines to the Christian kitchen. Pao’s and biscuits were introduced to us from their borma (bakery) and they taught us the use of yeast in baking. While Bengalis can’t be without their Bandel Cheese, Mangaloreans will swear by the kulkul they eat every Christmas. It is said that Vada Pav and Pav Bhaji can be traced to them too, but I am not too sure of that except for the Pav connection. And many of these recipes traveled back to Portugal, Holland and Brazil, with the spices and the returning traders.

The French had only a marginal influence, much like their presence and you can see a bit of it in Pondicherry – where curries are more like sauces, with fish cooked in the French style, less of tomato and a lot of bread, hardly any rice. The dosa was made in a crepe fashion and the Bouillabaisse morphed into Meen Puyabaise with turmeric and creole fusions graced their tables. Fine baking, croissants and crème brulee left a great impression, as you can imagine.

And with that, we come to the British, who well – in my mind brought in a little but took away a lot. But along the way, they changed our food and eating habits, cooking methods, utensils, dining styles be it at home or on the run and that upheaval affected not just food, but the enjoyment of all the six classes of pleasures which Al-Baghdadi had once listed in the 13th century – Drink, Clothes, Sex, Scent, Sound and Food, of which food stood in the first place, being the noblest and most consequential!

So, it was into that India, that the British arrived. The brilliant colors, flavors, scents, aromas and tastes left behind by the Arabs, Mughals, Persians, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, Jews and the Parsees –assaulted their senses which had been dulled by the cold and dank weather at that island out west, and by the hardy lifestyle they had been used to. Many of them adapted to become culinary explorers, some resisted changes and brought in their homegrown tastes across the seas, many adapted and fused their lifestyles to ours, most survived and fell in love with the sub-continent which became their new home.

After a relatively obscure entry through Surat in 1608 (Keeling came to Calicut in 1615-1616) to enhance their spice trading, the EIC started to establish control over Indian lands in some way or the other after securing a foothold and building Ft St George in Madras, 30-35 years later. From then onwards, the destiny of India was directed by the British for the next 300 plus years. As we all know, the vestiges of the Raj still remain in many facets of our life, and quite a bit can be found in our food and food habits. Most of these changes occurred at the zenith of the rule of the Raj, 1858-1920 after the EIC relinquished powers to the crown.

It all started with the formalization of the bureaucracy, and the arrival of a bunch of lads with Victorian morals in the ‘heaven-born’ ICS tradition and an intent to instill those values on what they perceived now as a decadent, backward society. The burra sahib took wider control of the world well beyond the cantonment, for he was no longer the colonial Kohai, but the Edwardian master of the realm. To serve the sahibs and the mem sahibs (burra mem) were the malis (gardeners), the khansamer (cook), the masalchi (scullery boy), the bhisti (water carrier), syces (grooms for the horse), punkah wallahs (fan boys), dhobis (washermen), the list can go on.

The tropical weather was rough on the English constitution through their lifestyle was no longer as tough as it was for the pioneers. Plenty of help was available, but the Englishman had yet to adapt. Even though it was all so alien, they had to adapt, for it was ingrained into them that they were in for a long stay and acclimatization was vital for success. EIC surgeons meanwhile cautioned against too much of meat ingestion, to forsake luxuries of the effeminates and embrace the food of the natives - which according to Surgeon Curtis, comprised - boiled rice, and fruits, highly seasoned with hot aromatics, along with meat stews and sauces, but with a small proportion of animal matter. It was not so easy to implement that principle though, for the glutton blamed the devil which was actually in the climate, to justify five meals a day for the affluent.

The day started with the Chota Hazri or small breakfast (early tea in Madras), soon after dawn around 6AM, with regular tea and some fruits after which the colonial officer looked at some mail or a quick horse ride. Some sources mention that toast and boiled or poached eggs were eaten at this time, maybe even a bit of porridge, mirroring the Malabar breakfast of Konji (rice porridge).

The Burra Huzri or large breakfast of the Raj consisted of Bread probably toasted, butter, omelets, sometimes a bit of rice and fish, muffins, chutney, some cold meats and lots of tea. This in some areas was substituted by the popular Kedgeree (Kichdi), a mish-mash of rice, fish and hard-boiled eggs (sometimes chicken) served with butter or cream, topped with Parsley and lemon juice. On the side were a spread of jams and chutneys from mint, coriander and coconut. There are mentions of lavish spreads at larger mansions such as - a selection of crumbled chops, brain cutlets, beef rissoles, devilled kidneys, whole spatchcocks, duck stews, Irish stews, mutton hashes, brawns of sheep heads and trotters, not to mention Hindustani varieties such as Jhalfrazie, prawn dopiaza, chicken malai and beef hussaini. Phew!! In fact, these hefty breakfasts were originally recommended by British doctors to fuel heavy workloads in the hot sun, but that was not really for the latter-day bureaucrats who gleefully adopted it as their own.

It is interesting to note an absence of lunch in the earlier days after such a heavy breakfast, which was followed by a 3-4PM tiffin and a dinner at 8-9PM. The tiffin was eaten after breakfast and interestingly the usage comes from the word tiffing (tiff – imbibe small portions), meaning snacking between meals and was delivered in a tiffin box (like our dabba) to officers on duty typically containing some rice, lentils, curry, vegetables, chapatis and "spicy meats” usually redone leftover meat from the previous night’s dinner. The tiffin perhaps stretched both ways to become an elaborate lunch during weekends. Snacks for the road comprised of sandwiches of various sorts, meat, vegetable and what not.

The concept of the evening tea is quite misunderstood, in the beginning, it was actually the high tea or evening meal for working men at 6PM. High society introduced the lavish version of tea with cakes, biscuits and other items such as scones and dainty cucumber sandwiches. Supper or dinner time moved towards an 8-9PM slot and was not necessarily heavy or extended. Meats and breads, various soups and meat curries, usually freshly made took their place at the table with a drink or two to wash it down. During and between the many meals, alcohol such as wine, brandies and gin show their constant presence in various accounts plus the customary drink before tucking in or the one for the road, so also a variety of lighter options such as jeera, tamarind and nimbu panis interspersing the meals. Though diarists mention huge meals in their writings, most homes were on a budget and many mem sahibs did find it a chore to manage the many servants, food and home management, with their limited allowances provided by the man of the house. 

Some of what we inherited from the Brit could list the egg roll, the Bombay duck, the British Sandwich loaf, the many types of sandwiches, curry puffs, cutlets and chops, omelets and scrambled eggs, patties and pasties, fritters and croquettes, cakes, macaroons, potato chips, cocktails and rum. All of you will know that tonic water was prescribed for those in India to survive Malaria, a sugar and quinine laced additive to make the famous Gin and Tonic with a dash of lime. Not to forget the fried dishes like the pepper-fry’s. Many of these dishes were later adapted for the Indian officers in the army and the many British-Indian clubs. “Military hotels”— restaurants where meat and poultry were served primarily to troops were often run by Parsis or Muslims, so also Nairs in Madras. Spencer’s and their role in making sure that some or many English ingredients from across the seas were available for the wealthy English folks has been covered in detail in the past, I am linking to the article, here.

But not everybody will know that there were three types of ‘curry eaters’ in the Raj. They were the Muls, (Kohai’s) Quihy’s and the Ducks with at least two types connected intimately to the food they ate. The Muls were those Brits from Madras, after the Mulligatawny soup, while the Ducks were the Britishers from Bombay after the various feathered varieties favored by them in their food. Those from Calcutta and the North were called qui hy’s’ or Ko hai’s after their customary shouts of Koi ho (anybody there) - for their servants. 

Dak bungalow cooking depended very much on the native cook, his mood and what he could rile up at short notice, but fowl, dals & breads were usually available and so it was more spartan due to the lower amount of foot traffic. I wrote about the Railway catering service and its development some months ago, but one should note that before refreshment rooms at stations, you ambled up to the dining car at a stop and ate in it (because there were no vestibules). Soup, pudding, roast and an entrée were served in style. Hands were washed with pinki-pani (water with potassium permanganate). Hawkers were omnipresent, selling chai and snacks, but what surprised me the most was that there were hawkers selling Hindu-pani and Muslim-pani. The railways adopted with lighter railway curries, and the railway mutton curry is something many will remember. 

Days passed, food habits across the world as well as eating traditions changed. Trends came and went, as chefs dreamt out new dishes or dug out ancient ones from ancient cookbooks, recreating the marvels. It will be surprising if you do not come across an Indian restaurant in any major town across the world, and if you think, one word defines that travel – spice! Fast food trends in New York and England testify to the popularity of the taste of Indian spices, you can order a tandoori chicken pizza from dominoes and a McSpicy burger at McDonalds. 

The story of the curry’s trip back to Britain, Europe, Australia and America, the many curry cookbooks and the introduction of the Chicken Tikka Masala (CTM) in Birmingham is a hefty topic, but well, I should do a one liner on the CTM. As the story goes that the dry tandoori or tikka on a bed of flavored rice did not quite go well with some of the patrons, who wanted a dollop of gravy over the meat - and voila! the CTM was created. My younger son swears by that dish and thrives on it, I doubt if anybody can beat him when it comes to CTM orders. Living in Manhattan, he has been eating it every week, for years!! 

So many legends accompany us in any trip to meet with the many spices of India and the most repeated one is related to the lure of pepper and the Portuguese desire to monopolize the trade – of how the Zamorin dryly mentioned that the Portuguese could always take away his pepper, but “They can't seize our monsoons, can they?”

Man… I am hungry, let me go down the steps to see what my wife is upto! I think it is going to be appam and ‘ishtu’ a stew of potatoes, onions, ginger, pepper and coconut milk. 

The story has taken a complete turnaround, all the way back to the adventurous Portuguese…


Curries and Bugles – Jennifer Brennan

Taste of Conquest – Michale Krondl

Curry - Elizabeth M. Collingham

The Raj at Table - David Burton

The Ghost Radio - Congress transmitter 1942

This is Congress radio calling from somewhere in India on 42.34 meters

The Vilayati RDF lorries were making yet another circuit trying to triangulate the weak radio signals which were now becoming regular. The CID had started out early in the morning, driving around Girgaum to locate the dammed congress transmitter which came alive twice a day. Even though the lady at the mic announced it was ‘from somewhere in India’, Dy Inspector Fergusson and CID officer Kokje knew it was right under their noses, in Bombay. Ferguson was tracking it himself, with a radio receiver in his car, tuned to the frequency. The lorries drove around slowly, the detection coil on the roof of the van spun around on their axis, trying to pinpoint the transmitter, but the strength of the signal was low. Fergusson made notes as the frequency decreased or increased, but he simply could not get a fix.  Both could hear the transmissions, waxing and waning, sometimes crackling, and by now officers had memorized the voices of the main announcers, a woman, and a man.

Oct 1942 –The transmission started at 8:30 AM with the playing of the popular rallying anthem of the masses - Sare Jahan se Accha" formally known as "Tarānah-e-Hindi" ("Anthem of the People of Hindustan"), an Urdu language patriotic song for children written by poet Muhammad Iqbal in the ghazal style of Urdu poetry.

After a garbled speech by a male announcer, they heard the lady announcer stating – This is Congress radio calling from somewhere in India on 42.34 meters. Now you will hear a program on the Vijaya Dashami. After another 25 minutes the transmission ended with a playing of ‘Vande Mataram’… followed by an announcement that an English program will be aired at 39 meters. That was ominous warning for the listening police detectives, a second transmitter was coming up! Ferguson was wondering about the irony – It was in 1940 that Jinnah announced his desire for a separate Pakistan while the anthem sung by the masses of Hindustan, was originally penned by a Muslim in Lahore!

By the time they got a reasonable signal strength, it was the end and the anthem was playing - The transmitter went off the air. The maze of buildings in front of them were impossible to comb through. Too late again to track the infernal device, but the two officers knew from experience that it would come on again at 845PM and that it may move to some other location. That the Congress had some radio experts advising them, was clear and it had been two months now on the trail of the anti-British Congress radio team, with no success.

How did we get here? A quick recap of the situation would give you proper perspective. The mass movements against British rule had strengthened and were entering the end stages, but the great war was on. Subhash Chandra Bose had slipped out earlier in 1941 and made his way to Germany, broadcasting on the Azad Hind Radio, rallying his supporters. In Dec 1941, Japan bombed Burma and were soon in possession of SE Asia, after decimating the British at Singapore, Malaya and Burma. The eastern Indian borders were under threat and in the summer of 1942, the very prospect of an invasion of Madras had driven the population crazy. Famine as well as the British policy of scorching earth and destroying agriculture fearing an invasion were making things very rough for India.

The British were worried about the INA and of a large number of Indians tying up with the victorious Japanese, waiting at the gates. Roosevelt from America was breathing heavily done their necks, pushing for a resolution in India. On 8th August 1942, Gandhiji and the Congress launched the Quit India movement at Bombay with a ‘Do or Die’ motto. Within hours, the Raj cracked down and arrested tens of thousands of Congress leaders, including all the main national and provincial figures. Indians recoiled and very soon, the huge civil disobedience movement created utter disarray. Post offices and railway stations were damaged, offices were demolished, cash and stamps were destroyed, railway lines were damaged and telegraph wires were cut.

A motivated Nanak Motwane, the Sindhi owner of Chicago light and Radio, a company dealing with electronic equipment and holding a virtual monopoly on all imported audio equipment such as microphones and loudspeakers in the sub-continent, committed the events of the congress meetings, to film. He also had the singing of Sare Jahan Se Acha by Master Krishna, cut on Vinyl. As we will soon see, this interesting entrepreneur who was the first person to broadcast on radio in 1920, was to figure in the conspiracy which followed. It was said that Ram Manohar Lohia mooted the idea, authorizing a congress worker Vithaldas Madhavji Khakar to start a radio station. Khakar’s association with a failed Parsi businessman Nariman Printer, would go on to crystalize this into a workable project.

Nariman Abarbad Printer’s association in the project gave it the impetus, but as we will see, also its eventual downfall, when his past caught up with him. One of the early HAM radio enthusiasts of Bombay, with a callsign VU2FU, Printer hailed from Rawalpindi and was educated in Lahore. He moved to Bombay and started a radio and wireless engineering school in Byculla named Bombay Technical institute, in 1931. Not a very astute businessman, Printer was perennially in debt and always getting into trouble with authorities, frequently accused of fraudulent practices such as cheating his students. In 1937, he went to England with five students, to study television and purchase a unit, with an intent to get back and install the first transmitter in India to broadcast films and music, but returned the next year without having made much progress. He had hoped to organize a circle of interested people in Bombay and to get them to install receivers, and thus become the first viewers in India. According to the court documents, he purchased a radio transmitter and was licensed in 1938, after his return. But when the WW II commenced in 1939, all licenses were cancelled.

Printer did not surrender his set, but hid the parts for the future and instead started a new business with Khakar and RA Mehta, to manufacture and sell Kerogas equipment (a retrofit unit to run cars on Kerosene). This business also ran into trouble when the government banned the use of Kerogas, due to Kerosene shortage. Printer, never short of ideas now decided to make Hydrogas units from Calcium carbide. During the next three years, his expenses skyrocketed, he borrowed heavily from his partners, reaching nowhere and racking up a Rs 60,000 debt. By July 1942, Khakar and Mehta were fed up and took over his offices at Noble chambers and decided to disassociate themselves from Printer’s ventures.

It was after the arrest of the congress leaders on 8th August that Khakar (presumably goaded by Lohia) approached Printer and asked him to build a transmitter for Congress, with the parts he had hidden. With additional parts purchased from NG Motwane at Chicago radio, Printer reassembled the radio at his home. Seeing the heavy risk in their venture, Printer asked his partners to find a proper venue for the transmissions, and on the 29th August, they rented a top floor flat in ‘Seaview’, Chowpatty. The congress bulletin of 3rd Sept announced that transmissions would commence on Sept 3rd, at 845PM, on 41.78 meters. This was when a young 22-year-old Usha Mehta joined the gang and started to prepare the material for transmission with Khakar. The radio actually went on air on Aug 27th, 1942.

Printer as you can imagine, was the technical brain and he sensed that the authorities would start tracking the station and try to shut it down. He suggested that they move quickly and after a fortnight at Chowpatty, they moved to Ratan Mahal in Walkeshwar Rd.

The transmitter continued to be relocated, and on Sept 25th, it was moved to Ajit Villa at Laburnum Rd (this was RA Mehta’s home) and from there on Oct 4th to Laxmi Bhavan at Sandhurst Rd. The team soon figured out that live transmissions through a microphone were not as good as recorded ones evidenced by the opening and closing music records. At that point, they decided to create home cut records of programs and play them on the phonograph. Vithaldas Jhaveri procured a record cutting machine from Chicago radio and it was at his home that Khakar and Usha Mehta recorded and cut the transmission discs.

Khakar was just a 4th standard English pass, and worked for his father in the tile business until he teamed up with NA Printer. He was possibly supported and financed by Ram Manohar Lohia in this Radio enterprise and was one of the chief arrangers and voices on the radio. Usha Mehta, a spinster, was more literate, she had completed her BA and LLB by 1939, a Fulbright scholarship in US and was articulate in Hindi as well. An ardent congress worker, she was Khakar’s fearless lieutenant and the chief broadcaster. The two others in the team were Vithaldas and Chandrakant Jhaveri, the former a wealthy congress worker, the latter also a wealthy jeweler and had been previously associated with Khaker and Mehta. The gang as you can see was all Gujrati, save for Printer a Parsi and Motwane (only tangentially connected as a supplier of equipment), a Sindhi. Many others such as Thakur the radio engineer, Jagannath, Misra, RA Mehta, Tanna and so on were briefly involved, we will get to hear of them later in the story.

As Printer guessed, the police were on to them quite early, in fact the same day as the transmission started. Their task was to find the illegal radio, shut it down and nip it all in the bud. Fergusson and Khokje (CID War Branch) headed the team, while police stenographers typed out each of the transmissions. Fergusson drove around with his radio receiver tuned to the Congress radio frequency after noting the fixed transmission times, working together with the RDF lorries, trying to triangulate the signal. Fergusson eventually deduced that the transmitter was between Chowpatty and CP Tank, and with this intelligence, the police placed a watch on another amateur radio enthusiast, BM Tanna (He had been arrested previously in 1940 for broadcasting about cotton futures) as well as the officers of Chicago radio who could easily assemble such a transmitter.

Remember that the airwaves were not so crowded in those days and even though these broadcasts of that lowly 10W unit were picked up as far as Burma, complaints of poor quality made the team think of increasing the units’ power. Printer offered to get it up to 100W and again, the suppliers as you can imagine were Motwane’s Chicago radio, but his officers were careful in making sure that the company’s name was removed from the components. The Blailey crystal unit was changed and the transmissions were now at the 42.34-meter band.

I guess finances were not a big problem and the gang moved again, this time to Parekh Wadi in Girgaum, renting 4 rooms and transmitting from room 106. Simultaneously they decided to assemble a second unit to transmit in English at 39 meters from the Paradise Bungalow in Mahalakshmi. I am sure they knew the police were closing in, but the desire to be the do or die warriors for Gandhiji and the Congress had already lit the fire in their bellies. These radio warriors were at war and cared not of any consequences.

The topics broadcast covered news as well as many other issues, in Hindi and English, read mostly by Khekar and Usha Mehta, though other announcers including a mysterious Parsi lady are mentioned. They read about the anarchist rule of the British, Gandhiji’s teachings and opinion, death and destruction in the global war, the plight of Indian Muslims, Japanese submarine attacks on shipping in the Arabian sea, arrests and picketing, appeals to stop supporting the railway, stop factory work, not visit cinemas, inflation, Nazi evil, goondagiri, life in the villages, hartals, suspended policemen, false propaganda, the declaration of independence by Abdul Ghaffar Khan, rapes by soldiers, and what not. Speeches by leaders such as Sardar Patel and many others were aired. A look at the subjects will tell you what a small but determined group, can achieve!

They covered the South as well, such as the mishap of a warship near Calicut, of American soldiers being washed ashore there, torpedoed by a Japanese sub, the shameful acts of Sir CP, crowded Travancore and Cochin jails, even some funny news like the British arrest of donkeys in Delhi ( the donkeys were supposed to represent the Viceregal executive council) and the owner, who represented the Viceroy.

How did Fergusson close in? Neither the RDF lorries nor Fergusson’s monitoring of the broadcast led them to the final location of the Congress radio. It was all purportedly due to the involvement of BM Tanna, the only other amateur broadcaster in Bombay, who was trying to make a second radio for the Congress. Tanna ran a company named Tanna Radio Acoustics, and the radio engineer who was working on it reported the matter to the military police. The police allowed the assembly to go on, and accosted the persons who came to take delivery of the set on 31st Oct 1942. The Tanna brothers were quickly arrested, so also Nihalchand Shah, the manager of Chicago Radio.

On Nov 11th Nihalchand’s interrogation let to the apprehension of Chicago radio’s chief engineer Jagannath Thakur, who by the way was also the person who maintained the Printer made Congress transmitter and helped cut the records and now working on assembling a new and powerful set for Tanna. Thakur spilled the beans and within no time, Khaker, Jhaveri and Printer were arrested on 12th. Printer led the police to Parekh Wadi and they closed in in room 106.

What happened next is crucial and takes us in different directions, if you think independently from the presiding Judge’s conclusions. As things went, the 845 PM transmission was concluding when the police burst into the room. In the room, they found Usha Mehta and Chandrakant Jhaveri transmitting. At that juncture, the fuse blew and the Pancha who were there to make the nama concluded their work summarily with some kerosene lamps. Room 106 was sealed and Mehta and Jhaveri were taken to the CID office.

The next day, the police again went to Room 106, photographed everything, made notes about the transmitter (now with radio experts Mistry & Majumdar), the Phillips check radio, 120 records and bedrolls. Following all this Vithaldas Jhaveri was arrested on 13th and NG Motwane on 18th. The second unit under assembly was also seized on 19th at Walkeshwar. Experts concluded that the handwritten labels on the records were in Khaker’s handwriting. Inspector Khokje then raided the offices of Chicago Radio, and VG Motwane, Nanak Motwane’s brother was also arrested, but released soon after.

A case was subsequently registered on IPC 120B against Khakar, Usha Mehta, the two Jhaveri’s, and Motwane. Printer and RA Mehta took a plea deal and became prosecution witnesses. While all accused pleaded not guilty, Usha Mehta remained mum, and tight lipped. The defense argued at the trial the following year, that it could not be proven that the transmissions took place from the Parekh Wadi transmitter, while Khokje insisted that the Vande Mataram was being played as they entered. Fergusson who was monitoring the broadcast said that the transmission went off air just after Hindustan Hamara was played. The prosecution maintained that Fergusson was mistaken.

The judge concluded that Khokje was in error since the panchnama and the photographs do not show the needle on the Vande Mataram record nor does any other mention show that record was on play and that the fuse must have blown well before the police arrived on the scene. A long discussion then transpired on the frequency of the transmission, and the conclusions (from the case record) of a technical nature, can be termed as poorly arrived at by a team of non-technical people. Anyway, the judge established that there was no second set on the basis that no further transmissions were heard for another three months. In Feb 1943, a lone transmission came on air and then that station also ceased transmissions. Another clinching aspect was the presence of the 120 hand cut records and that 35 of them had recordings which matched the transcripts made by the police, earlier.

There is another angle readers must now take note of, which is the contention that the British initially felt a 5th column was at work, that this radio was to support a Japanese invasion, but as the investigation continued they agreed that this radio was purely an effort to spread the congress manifesto and inform the masses of events, sans censorship.

Printer’s dealings were discussed in more detail since it was key to the prosecution’s case and the general conclusion was that he was an unscrupulous man, who not only cheated students and other creditors, he also tried to cheat Khekar and the radio gang by making false claims about hardware, crystals, radio power and what not, to embezzle more money from them. But his evidence stood up to scrutiny and matched material evidence. RA Mehta the other witness insisted that he was a reluctant party in this whole endeavor and that Printer forced him all the way to be the front man in renting all the homes and rooms which were used for the project.

To sum it, it was determined in March 1943 by Justice Lokur that Khekar actively formed the conspiracy, and Mehta and Jhaveri were of course, caught red handed. Motwane’s direct connection to the conspiracy and his company’s involvement in supplying the active part of the transmitter – the Bliely crystal for the transmitter in question, could not be established and so was acquitted. Vithaldas Jhaveri and NG Motwane were also acquitted, Khekar was sentenced to 5 years rigorous imprisonment, Usha Mehta for four years and Chandrakant Jhaveri for one year. The judge expressed regret that he could not convict Printer, Mirza and RA Mehta, but then again, they had secured a plea deal, so there was nothing he could do.

Although the Secret Congress Radio functioned only for  a short three months, it disseminated news and information otherwise banned by the British-controlled Indian government of India and kept the leaders of the freedom movement in touch with the public.

Printer simply vanished from the scene after the event, the tight Pari community closed their ranks around their man, I suppose. His expired call sign, VU2FU, was re-issued to a different Indian amateur operator after the war.

Bob Tanna VU2LK, the other radio HAM, whose role was so critical in this whole radio case, as it was known then, continued with his radio work and recalled his involvement in the Congress radio affair, but differently. He was imprisoned for 9 months after severe torture, and was officially recognized as a freedom fighter, Tanna passed away in 2011. Some documents mention that Vithalbhai was the person behind the second radio being assembled.

Usha Mehta’s role is particularly heat warming, her father was a judge at that time, and she enjoyed the action and her role in the whole affair even though her incarceration was not good for her poor health.  She remained in the jail till April 1946. After her release in 1946 she took to teaching and later obtained a doctorate on “Social and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi”. Her actions on the day she was arrested is testimony to her determination and courage- That afternoon as Khekar’s office was raided, he implored Usha to shut down and escape. But she rushed to Vithalbhai who was busy recording the day’s program. She decided to continue herself with the broadcast, on schedule. She then went home, informed her mother and brothers about the possibility of a police raid. Despite her protest Chandrakant Jhaveri accompanied her to the transmitting center, also willing to take the risk.

Usha mentioned in a later interview that the fuse was indeed pulled by a technician thus repudiating Fergusson’s testimony – She wryly mentions  - After the Vande Mataram, we were going to announce the raid on the radio when the fuse was pulled off to stop the transmission and there was just darkness, but our friends who were monitoring the broadcast knew of the arrests as they heard the hard knocks on in the transmission. Justice Lokur of Bombay High Court was to compliment Usha Mehta later for her courage of running the radio station from a crowded area of Mumbai for three months and not telling a lie to save herself. Mehta later an acclaimed scholar, continued her commitment to Gandhian activities and Ushaben as she was popularly known, was awarded the Padma Vibhushan and passed away in August 2000.

Vithalbhai K. Jhavari, joined her years later briefly as one of her editors for the birthday volume on Gandhiji. Others such as Khokje and Fergusson continued their work in Bombay police, this was just another case for them. NG Motwane continued to prosper with his Chicago Radio company and became a sole supplier of microphones & loudspeakers to the congress government. His story requires another article which I will get to once I collect some more information. Chicago radio and Blailey electronics still exist and prosper in their respective fields.

The ‘illegal radio’ recordings are available at the Gandhimedia website and those who want to hear some of the transmissions, just need to click on this link. While this story hardly finds a mention in mainstream congress accounts and accounts of Congress leaders at that time, those who possessed a radio receiver in the 40’s would have recalled the voice of that wisp of a woman, a brave voice expressing her rebellion, on the airwaves, softly announcing,

This is Congress radio calling from somewhere in India on 42.34 meters…

And as I wrote all this, I fondly recalled college days in the late 70’s when with the help of a friend Chilprakash, I had built a little AM transmitter to broadcast a bit of this and that, in the campus.

Those were the days…


Secret Congress Broadcasts and Storming railway tracks – S Sengupta, G Chatterjee

The Mahatma’s Hams – Owen Williamson


Some additional information added  for completeness (Source - Quite India Revolution – KK Chaudhari)

Lohia was indeed the person behind the scheme, per his admission after his 1944 arrest. Money for the radios was collected from wealthy businessmen. He and his cohorts tried to install radios in Calcutta, Delhi, Kanpur, Madras, and Nepal, but these projects did not work out. The Calcutta radio could not get activated because they could not find a battery for it, locally!

Usha Mehta apparently tried to set up a radio station on her own, before all this, but it was destroyed in a fire.

Many more radios were being fabricated with parts from Chicago Radio and after the capture of the Congress radio, the second station went on air in Jan 1943 but ceased transmitting in March 43. Another radio appeared in 1944, but also disappeared after a short stint.

The reason why many people listened to these illicit broadcasts was due to the fact that the Colonial radio waves had become quite untrustworthy. Azad Radio from Saigon, Berlin and Tokyo had already started in full strength, but was more aligned to Axis strategy. I will cover the Colonial propaganda efforts in a separate article

Radio pic – courtesy Doordarshan video interview

Listen to the Radio broadcasts  

Ithu oru nalla pasu (this is a nice cow)

On the Germans interned in Yercaud 1940-45 and the fascinating story of the Friedmann family

Yercaud is not on the way to anywhere, for you have to go there, and I have not been there. So my description of that magical place comes from the memories and threads woven by so many others who lived there. The image of a misty hill station, once a colonial refuge and home to the Monfort School, a school which boasts of alumni such as Shashi Tharoor, S Muthiah and Nagesh Kuknoor, hides many a mystery. Many an interesting person lived there and went on to do other things with their lives, forgetting this hillock. Some did not.

One such person whom you may have never known was an eminent scientist and professor named Herbert Claus Friedmann, a German Jew and Indian Citizen for a time, a charming gentleman who passed away recently. You would hardly have expected to read that a German, a global authority on matters such as bacterial enzymes, the biosynthesis of vitamin B12 and texts on the history of biology actually completed his bachelors and masters university degrees from the Madras University. Well, he did that and more, rubbing shoulders with the many Iyer’s, Iyengar’s, Chettiar’s and a Malayali or two. 

Without further ado, I will launch into his remarkable story.

My little story starts in an industrial town called Mannheim in South West Germany, once the home of fine arts and many classical music composers, later a city gobbled up by the Industrial revolution to become a base for all kinds of large factories. It was the locale where the Zeppelin’s or airships were once made and where plants producing goods for the German war economy buzzed with frenetic hurry. Many Jews lived and once prospered in Mannheim, and the Friedmann family was one among them.

Herbert explains his birth at Mannheim, that it was “nine years after the end of World War I and 12 years before the beginning of World War II”. As we can see, his mother Lili was a musician and his father Martin, a physician who desired to become an ophthalmologist but ended up a dermatologist after being assigned to care for soldiers suffering from syphilis during the war. Life meandered along for the Friedmann’s (with occasional weekend picnics to Switzerland and Holland) and even though the number of patients at Martin’s clinic declined steadily, life was livable until 1938, after which their world was turned upside down by the Nazi’s.

What started in 1933 as persecution of sorts, became vandalism in 1938 and on Nov 9th and 10th 1938, the SS ordered Kristallnacht (night of the broken glass) on all Jewish storefronts.  The Nazi’s arrested Martin and transported him to Dachau, the first of the German concentration camps. That same day, a group of men entered and ransacked the family's apartment, including Lili’s violin and Martin’s medical instruments.

In those early days of the holocaust, Jews were permitted to emigrate overseas if they "voluntarily" gave up their property and had a valid visa to travel. The Friedmann’s had planned to leave and their destination of choice was India. Martin’s friend Ganz taught at the Bombay University and Martin had planned to visit India to study leprosy which was prevalent (at that time) mainly in India.

It was a visa for that move and that disease which ultimately saved him and his family, as Herbert was to state subsequently.

Even though Martin’s postcard posted from Dachau five days later, stating that he was healthy and fine, was comforting, Lili (Erna) Friedmann was frantic and terrified. So was Martin actually, as the horrors of life in a concentration camp slowly started to unfold, changing him forever as inmates died or were murdered, around him.

Lili was quick in action, and applied to the gestapo at Karlsruhe with Martin’s passport showing them the lifesaving Indian visa, and with that, she secured Martin Friedmann’s timely release. The family of four, including Herbert’s brother Gerhart got ready to travel to India, but Herbert’s grandmother refused to move. As the story unfolds, Martin left first, hoping to find a job and a place to live and that he did on a ship bound for Batavia via Genoa, from which he disembarked at Colombo and travelled to Madras reaching there by Dec 1938.

Martin as Herbert recalls, was overjoyed walking amongst the hawkers of Mount road, sensing and feeling the warmth of not only the tropical city, but also the warmth of freedom after the harrowing days in Nazi Germany.

The exodus from Germany had started, but there was also a Nazi group in Bombay watching and working to threaten asylum seekers to India. By 1938, some 50 physicians had come in and were presenting serious competition to the local doctors who were quite alarmed. After the Anglo German visa law became defunct in May 1938, the Jewish relief Association or JRA took over to supporting Jewish Immigration to India. The British gave visas only to those who were ‘not politically undesirable’ and those who had friends or relatives in India. Later the rule was amended to allow the JRA as a visa sponsor and some 300 had already been issued visas by mid-1938. Interestingly there were 550 Germans in Bombay, 195 in Calcutta, and quite a few in other places, totaling to 1500 by then.

A month later, Lili and the children arrived at Madras. They had a house with a mango tree at the rear and "Idu oru nalla Pasu" (This is a nice cow) was the first sentence that the 12-year-old Herbert Friedmann learned in Tamil when he joined up at St. Bede's school in Madras in 1939. It was all so different from his Ivy League school – the Karl Friedrich gymnasium in Mannheim where he had been wrestling with Latin, and now it was tongue twisters in vernacular Tamil.

Life did not remain static for them and as World War 2 was declared in Sept 1939, all German males in India were rounded up, termed as hostile foreigners and interned at Ahmednagar. Rules were put into place even before internment, they were not allowed to possess certain goods such as cameras, phones, binoculars, cars or maps. All males above the age of 16 were to be arrested, nobody was allowed to travel more than 5 miles outside their place of residence, and were required to report daily to the local police. After the internment policy was passed, 850 of these men were arrested and sent to the Ahmednagar camp. Martin was one of them.

Across the oceans, in Nazi Germany, some 3,500 British subjects were in limbo and Germany offered to allow them to depart so long as free departure was provided to the Germans interned in India. Accordingly the Darling committee was appointed to interrogate internees at Ahmednagar. Some 560 were eventually released, but by then these Germans had a bigger problem, for the jobs they held before arrest were no longer available nor were employers recommended to take them in. In addition some of them had to be repatriated to Germany (Germans who were not Jews and who wanted to return). As expected all embassy and consulate staff (173) returned to their motherland.

Provinces such as Madras were not happy and the Governor complained that Darling was not thorough and was perhaps too lenient and humanitarian, letting slip many Nazi sympathizers through the cracks. Some did not want German wives to reside near British troops or locations of strategic interest and as you can imagine, Madras was one of them. And so, remote parole centers were opened in Satara, Nainital, Hazaribagh, Kodaicanal and Yercaud and about 410 Germans were moved to these locales. I will not dwell too much into the details, but as we note, Martin, Lili, Herbert and Gerhart Friedmann were cleared, asked to move with 2 days’ notice and ended up at Yercaud in Aug 1940, with yet another life to start all over again. It proved to be very difficult for them, for Yercaud, as we say here in America, was like the boondocks, for somebody coming from Mannheim.

Our little village in the hills, Yercaud

Yercaud in those days was definitely a sleepy little hillock and decidedly chilly, being at an altitude 5,000 feet above sea level. Part of the Shevaroy hill range, and not too far from the town of Salem, it was a place frequented by Jesuit priests. The place got its name from the lake (Yer meaning lake and caud meaning forest in Tamil), situated amidst the forest and it was popularly considered the poor man’s hill station.

It was in those days an outpost for some 100 or so eccentric British planters still living a quaint Victorian life and toying with coffee plantations. It also home to administrators when the life in the plains and cities proved too hot and humid. As Dane Kennedy wrote - Yercaud, remained a small and sleepy hamlet in the Shevaroy Hills even after the railway came within fourteen miles of it. She adds ”for those who are simply exhausted in mind and body from prolonged exposure to a high temperature in the low country, and who need rest from work and a cooler air to breathe.

It was here that the Friedmann’s and other Germans, totaling to 98 were headed. The government had sequestered some 23 bungalows for their house arrest. Recall now that there are two categories of prisoners, the Germans under care of the German government and the German Jews on their own or under care of the JRA - Bombay. Some like the Friedmann’s obtained very little support. They lived a secluded and withdrawn life, during weekends they listened anxiously to news of the War over a loud speaker in the camp and perused newspapers sent from the JRA, worried about their friends and family.

The gaebler site provides details of the Yercaud parole station. In 1941, 23 bungalows had been rented by the Indian government and all bungalows were surrounded by gardens. The internees were allowed to take their own furniture, pictures and household items at the expense of the German government or to use the furniture provided by the Indian government. Families with children were accommodated in a bungalow, or it was two childless families or perhaps 3 - 4 individuals sharing a home. The bungalows generally had two to three bedrooms, a dining room, a living room, kitchen and 2-3 bathrooms. They usually had electricity and where there was none, "Petromax lanterns" were provided.

Some of them received a modest monthly allowance of Rs120/- per married couple, Rs30/- per child and Rs70/- for individuals. Those who had savings were allowed to employ servants. They were not allowed to leave their houses between eight o'clock in the evening and until six o'clock in the morning, but otherwise they were free to move around Yercaud and not beyond. School going children were enrolled in the Monfort Catholic School. A small hospital was available but more severe cases could be treated in Salem. German doctors were also interned, but were allowed to practice.

Unlike the non-Jewish internees, who received financial support from the German Reich through the Swiss consul, the Friedman’s were more or less on their own. They did manage to employ a cook, but the family managed along in a small house which had neither a toilet nor a running water. The water as I read, had to be drawn from a well and boiled before they could drink it. While it sounds OK to most of us, remember that the Friedmann’s had just moved from Europe and found this all quite a chore.

Martin Friedmann did not complain too much, not that he could anyway, and treated other prisoners for a small fee to keep the family going.  Herbert like other children joined the Monfort School. The war killed thousands across the globe and the Nazi’s decimated many of the hapless Jews in concentration camps. For the Friedmann’s, their life in Yercaud was far removed from the horrors of Europe, especially Germany.

After the War, Martin Friedmann decided to stay on in Yercaud. During this period Herbert’s grandmother who had refused to accompany them, was sentenced to a concentration camp in Bohemia but hung herself to death before the event, an act which was to affect the family in India deeply. Martin continued with his profession, treating the workers of coffee plantations suffering from malaria, tuberculosis, or parasites. However, as many of the poor plantation workers were not able to pay money as fees he had to be happy with gifts such as jackfruit. Martin Friedmann thus earned very little (less than 4,000 rupees a year, approximately $1,000/-). The Friedmann’s however received a monthly support of Rs150/- (from 1945 onwards) from the Jewish Relief Association. They could not even afford a refrigerator and used to store precious penicillin at a planter friend’s estate some 5 miles away.

Martin continued with his research in various fields of tropical medicine, presenting papers on ophthalmology as well as several papers covering dermatology, parasitology, human metabolism and malaria, all while at Yercaud. Herbert his son, whose story we are tracing, had in the meantime passed out (in 1944) from Monfort school with multiple distinctions, second to one Chengappa. On the final day at school, his principal treated him to his first cigarette, to celebrate his ceremonial passing into manhood, an event that Herbert recalled gleefully in his interview with Thalia. I believe he continued with his bachelors course at the Madras Christian College.

Herbert then moved to the Madras Medical College, as the only European amongst Indian students. He is emphatic in his statement that he never felt victimized or discriminated against and always enjoyed his days in India. But he does admit that he always questioned if he was German, Indian (not Indian according to him since he did not have a caste), European or something else. He labored on, to complete his post-graduation in the Madras University. He submitted many papers from the MMC biochemistry department, which can still be viewed in their records (Method to diminish pigments secreted from urine, Aug 1952).

Christiane Fritsche provides continuation - Back in Yercaud, Martin Friedmann's already tense financial situation worsened dramatically in the spring of 1953, when he became seriously ill. He was, of course, "too proud," as his lawyer working on the reparation for the Friedmanns in Germany would state. Lili Friedmann wrote a letter in April 1953, apparently behind her husband's back, and asked the lawyer urgently - To deal with the "accelerated settlement" of the claims for reparations from the state of Germany. After all, it was probably "a mystery & Martin a terrible worry" for the family to get through without the income from practice.

In May 1953, Martin Friedmann also submitted an application for ongoing support payments at the Federal Consul General in Bombay, and the Friedmann’s received about DM 440 from the Consulate monthly from June 1953.

Martin Friedmann's health deteriorated as his affliction became serious, the diagnosis was Amoebic dysentery. He was moved to CMC Vellore (Started by the American Ida Scutter) for treatment but succumbed to a heart attack. On August 28, 1953 Martin Friedmann died, aged 63 years and was buried in the Vellore cemetery.

For his widow and his two sons, the deputy consul general of the German Consul General consented, and demanded, on account of her "urgent need", the rapid processing of the claims for reparations. Lili Friedmann was obviously at the end of her powers. In March 1954, no compensation had yet been received from Germany, and according to a statement from the Foreign Office, the Consul General had reduced her support by half. Lili Friedmann then turned to the German authorities and recommended that if they were to continue their "Jewish extermination policy", they should send "the necessary cyanide" and take over the funeral expenses. Whether this enraged letter had anything to do with it, what we do know is that in May 1954, the Landesamt für Wiedergutmachung issued an initial decision providing the Friedmann family a compensation payment of a good DM 12,600..

Herbert Friedman - The German Jew with an Indian passport…

It was at this juncture that Herbert Friedmann was contacted at Madras by the very same man who helped his father immigrate to India, Herr Ganz, who had by then become the Chancellor of the University of Frankfurt. He helped Herbert get a fellowship for a PhD course at the University of Chicago through one Robert Felix, Professor of Biochem at Frankfurt and a visiting professor at University of Chicago.

With that, and the new fortune, the family decided (Lili incidentally moved to BC Canada with Gerhart and passed away in 1973, they had contemplated moving to Australia earlier) to make North America their home and they sailed out of India. Herbert upon landing in Halifax was instantly struck by the absolute silence that assailed them in that port, after years of bedlam in India with the noises on the roads and the teeming masses.

Herbert Friedmann, the scholar from Madras University continued to possess Indian citizenship and an Indian passport. It is interesting to note that he an Indian national living in USA, travelled back to Europe and Germany using that passport, with a visa for Germany and other countries. Herbert went on complete his doctorate from the University of Chicago, under Birgit Vennesland in 1958. Some years after arrival, he acquired American Citizenship.

Continuing on, he worked as a research associate and later moved to Baltimore to complete a two-year fellowship at the Johns Hopkins University, where he met his future wife, Joan Bowerman. In 1960, Friedmann returned to Chicago as an assistant professor in physiology and began his extensive studies of vitamin B12 and its role in bacterial nucleotide synthesis. He was later promoted to associate professor and excelled in teaching to become a favorite among students at UC. For his exceptional undergraduate teaching abilities, Friedmann won in 1978 the coveted Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence.

His 56 teaching laws, something oft quoted by all and sundry is what any aspiring teacher should keep to their heart or by their bedside. His books on enzymes are studied by many a medical student. I do not know if he interacted with entrants from Madras or if he had anything to do with India after becoming American, I would only assume in the affirmative after listening to his fond remembrances of his lovely days in India. It had as you will all agree, been a long journey for him and his family…

Herbert C. Friedmann 86, passed away on January 13, 2014.

Gerhart followed Herbert’s footsteps. He too obtained a B.Sc. and an M.A. from Madras University, worked briefly with the Tata institute of fundamental research Bombay and obtained a Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia (working with the Raman Effect!). He taught Physics at the University of Victoria in Canada from 1958 to 1990 and was a keen chess player. He had passed away earlier, in 1990 and is remembered through a bursary for aspiring scholars, awarded in his name, annually.

I do not know if the alumni or the administrators of the Monfort School in Yercaud remember Herbert or Gerhart Friedmann or if the old-timers of Yercaud remember his father Martin, the German doctor who treated them in return for jackfruits, making India his world, but perhaps this small article may do just that, gently remind them.

Let me end with a few extracts from Herbert’s 56 laws of teaching

  •      Never snow a student under, with an exhibition of your erudition: a student is far less interested in what you know than in what he or she can learn.
  •      Look at the students when you lecture; the ceiling and the floor are not interested, and neither is the blackboard.
  •        Never expect your students to learn or to understand anything that you cannot or did not learn or understand yourself.

Herbert said in his interview with Thalia that it was after all two dreaded diseases that gave back his family their life – Syphilis and Leprosy!!

But above all, Herbert always remembered India as a wonderful, wonderful place and he fondly recalled the one Tamil sentence he had memorized in school. It was as you would have guessed, ‘Ithu oru nalla pasu - This is a nice cow’.


  •  Transcultural Encounters between Germany and India: Kindred Spirits in the 19th and 20th Centuries Edited by Joanne Miyang Cho, Eric Kurlander, Douglas T McGetchin
  • Jewish exile in India - Anil Bhatti, ‎Johannes H. Voig
  •   Gaebler website on the Germans  
  •  Thalia Gigerenzer’s Podcast on Friedmann 
  • University of Chicago tribute 
  • Ausgeplündert, zurückerstattet und entschädigt : Arisierung und Wiedergutmachung in Mannheim, Von Jackfrüchten und dem Guineawurm: Die Familie Friedmann in Indien - Christiane Fritsche, Johannes Paulmann
  • Herbert Friedmann picture courtesy – University of Chicago website as above. Martin’s picture courtesy Geni website
  • Herbert’s 56 teaching laws 

Note – I have three people to thank specifically in this effort. One is Thalia for her podcast featuring an interview with the late Herbert Friedmann, the second is Christiane Fritsche for her article (cited, in German). Finally the late Mr S Muthiah, the chronicler of Madras who gently nudged me in this direction with his comment - why don’t you check on the Italian prisoners in Yercaud, after I sent him a link to an article on the Italian prisoners in Bangalore…

Previously published in Madras musings in a concise and edited format as The scientist from Montfort & Madras 


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