An Amazing Literary Collaboration

Anna Liberata De Souza the Calicut Ayah and Mary Frere the memsahib

Sometimes you come across the most amazing persons in dark and musty historic alleys. They are coated in layers of dust and grime added on by the many years which have passed by and the many people who have handled them. Getting the original persona out of this jacket is therefore enormous fun, if you are so inclined. And Anna D’Souza made me do just that, just like she got academicians Leela Prasad at Duke and Kirin Narayan at Wisconsin interested. I am as you will also understand, borrowing from the intense efforts of Leela and Kirin in uncovering the story of a remarkable Ayah – Anna D’Souza, though my work unlike theirs will stick to Anna and not to her tales. Her tales are something you should read yourself, and a helpful link is provided at the tail end of this biopic.

Indian folk tales meandered along into world literature, and that started eons ago. You will find linkages between Greek tales and our epics, you will find connections and similarities between Western fairy tales and the Panchatantra or the Jataka and so on. But the person who provided fodder to a very popular set of tales, the first of their kind entitled ‘Deccan tales’ was actually one born to ancestors who lived in Calicut. It was also perhaps the only book of its time which gave the native narrator not only full credit but also space for introducing herself and telling her own tale. And interestingly, through these tales, Anna was the first person to introduce Kannaki’s tale from Chilappathikaram, in her own way, to the western world..

As we know now, Mary was educated at Wimbledon, she arrived at Bombay, where her father was governor, and in the following year (1864), in her mother's absence in England she was the young 18 year old hostess at the government house. With not much else to do, she accompanied her father on his Mahratha tours, traveling for 3 months during 1865-66. Quite lonely during the tour and having only one other female companion the ayah in the whole entourage, Mary started a conversation with her Calicut Ayah. It was thus that she gathered these tales from Anna Liberata. Let us see what Mary herself had to say on this collaboration which continued on for some 18 months.

Mary explains - The circumstances were as follows. In the cold weather of 1865-6, my father, whom I
accompanied, made a three months' tour through the Southern Mahratta Country, in the Bombay Presidency, of which he was then Governor. Our party (of around 600 souls) was composed of my father and his Staff, to whom were usually added two or three friends, and the Officers Civil and Military, who were commanding in the Districts through which he was passing. Our mode of progress consisted in riding or driving about twenty-five miles a day, from one of our Camps to the next….My mother being at the time absent in England, I chanced to be the only Lady of the party. Anna Liberata de Souza, my native ayah, went with me.

They traveled through Poona, Satara, Kolhapur, Bijapur, Sholapur, back to Poona and Bombay. It was certainly an eye-opener to Mary, new to the Indian countryside filled with rich, poor and varying races.

Mary continues - As there was no other lady in the Camp, and I sometimes had no lady visitors for some days together, I was necessarily much alone. One day, being tired of reading, writing, and sketching, I asked Anna, my constant attendant, whose caste (the Lingaet) belonged to part of the country that we were traversing, if she could not tell me a story? This she declared to be impossible. I said, 'You have children and grandchildren, surely you tell them stories to amuse them sometimes?' She then said she would try and remember one, such as she told her grandchildren, and which had been told her by her own grandmother when she was a child; and she told me the story of 'Punchkin;' which was subsequently followed by the others that are here recorded. Whilst narrating them she usually sat cross-legged on the floor, looking into space, and repeating what she said as by an effort of memory. If any one came into the room whilst she was speaking, or she were otherwise interrupted during the narration, it was apparently impossible for her to gather up the thread of the narration where it had been dropped, and she had to begin afresh at the beginning of her story as at the commencement of some long-forgotten melody. She had not, I believe, heard any of the stories after she was eleven years old, when her grandmother had died. As she told me a story I made notes of what she said, and then wrote it down and read it to her, to be certain that I had correctly given every detail. In this manner all the stories that she could recollect were one by one recorded.

Now how did Anna the narrator learn these stories? These stories were picked up by Anna’s grandmother while living at Calicut in the late 17th century, a period when the Mysore sultans ravaged the city and laid it to waste. We also know that they spoke in Malayalam at home (the Calicut language, with perhaps a bit of Konkani added). Anna also introduces one to what is known as the ‘Calicut song’, perhaps a ship song based somewhat on the Portuguese song ‘A Nau Catrineta’ written around Cabral’s exploits. I had written about the Calicut song some months ago

So I think it is time to get to know Anna D’Souza and her life. At one point of time, her family belonged to the Saivite Lingayat (perhaps vania potters (kumbar)) community residing in Calicut. Whether they drifted from Coorg or the Nelliyalam regions where they had prospered in the past, is not clear, but we do know that Tipu in particular was heavy handed with their community, once choosing to single out a Lingayat woman who according to local practice wore no upper garments. As the story goes he saw her selling curds (yogurt) on a street and had his soldiers seize her and cut off her breasts to make it a point that women had to cover themselves, as was prescribed in his religion.

The British were awarded the territory of Malabar in 1792 after Tipu lost the third Anglo Mysore war after which the new rulers settled down to administer Malabar, from Tellicherry. This was perhaps the period when Anna’s grandfather joined the British army and rose up to the position of Havildar. Sometime later he moved to Goa, converted himself and his family to Christianity and settled down there. It is certainly curious that he took a Portuguese family name, when he could have become a British Protestant Christian instead. I wondered if Anna’s grandmother, Anna Liberata was perhaps a Goan girl herself and if a conversion was needed to marry her, but that would not have been the case since their children grew up in Calicut and spoke Malayalam, not Konkani.

His father who had continued on in Calicut, was miffed and threw them out of the house, so they settled in Goa, but continued to speak Malayalam at home while learning new tongues such as English, Marathi and Konkani. We can surmise that all this occurred in the early 1812-1815 period as the British moved into Goa, and this is corroborated by Anna. Anna’s grandmother, a stately, tall, strong, fine and handsome woman, the original teller of all these tales, was named Anna Liberata after her conversion and they adopted the family name D’souza. The grandfather and Anna’s father continued to soldier on for the British with the latter becoming a tent lascar (tent-pitcher).  We note from Anna’s tale that her father and grandfather fought Tipu and considering the mention of Wellesley can also assume that they fought against the Pazhassi Raja, and were with the army during the same time as TH Baber in Tellichery.

Around 1817, we see that Anna’s father was in charge of the Khadki stores near Pune when the third Anglo Maratha war was raging at Khadki. Anna the narrator was born approximately around 1819-1823 in Calicut. After things had settled down, Anna and her eight siblings (seven brothers and a sister) moved to Pune and grew up in the cantonment, in care of their grandmother. Her mother did menial work and even ground rice for shopkeepers now and then, when she could for the extra income. When she did not, she took care of the children and to get them off the streets, told them many folk tales, sometimes over and over again, burning them into Anna’s memory. Meanwhile Anna brushed up her knowledge of English and became an Ayah, working as a trusted servant for many British officers. When she was 11, her grandmother died and a year later she was married off, aged 12. Eight years and two children later, Anna was widowed, and lost her son, whom she had taken pains to send to school. Her daughter Rosie however grew up to get married and bear more children. The stories that Anna heard from her grandmother were retold to her own grandchildren. This was her story until she met Mary Frere and the ‘Deccan Days’ project started.

Anna Liberata De'Souza
How old was Anna then? That is a tricky question since Mary says that Anna was an old woman, now would that mean late 40’s? The portrait itself shows a lower middle aged woman, perhaps closing in around the mid 40’s, so Anna’s date of birth hazarded by Leela Prasad, at 1819, seems plausible.

Mary adds that Anna Liberata de Souza's detailed her own story in the sum of many conversations she had with her, during the eighteen months that she was with them. She adds that the legends themselves were altered as little as possible.  To get a feel of Anna’s narration, read this

My grandfather's family were of the Lingaet caste, and lived in Calicut; but they went and settled near Goa at the time the English were there. It was there my grandfather became a Christian. He and his wife, and all the family, became Christians at once, and when his father heard it he was very angry, and turned them all out of the house. There were very few Christians in those days. Now you see Christians everywhere, but then we were very proud to see one anywhere. My grandfather was Havildar in the English army; and when the English fought against Tippo Sahib my grandmother followed him all through the war. She was a very tall, fine, handsome woman, and very strong; wherever the regiment marched she went, on, on, on, on, on ('great deal hard work that old woman done'). Plenty stories my granny used to tell about Tippo and how Tippo was killed, and about Wellesley Sahib, and Monro Sahib, and Malcolm Sahib, and Elphinstone Sahib. Plenty things had that old woman heard and seen. 

Ah, he was a good man, Elphinstone Sahib! My granny used often to tell us how he would go down and say to the soldiers, 'Baba, Baba, fight well. Win the battles, and each man shall have his cap full of money; and after the war is over I'll send every one of you to his own home.' (And he did do it.) Then we children 'plenty proud' when we heard what Elphinstone Sahib had said. In those days the soldiers were not low-caste people like they are now. Many very high caste men, and come from very far, from Goa, and Calicut, and Malabar, to join the English.

My father was a tent lascar, and when the war was over my grandfather had won five medals for all the good he had done, and my father had three; and my father was given charge of the Kirkee stores. My grandmother and mother, and all the family, were in those woods behind Poona at time of the battle at Kirkee. I’ve often heard my father say how full the river was after the battle--baggage and bundles floating down, and men trying to swim across--and horses and all such a bustle. Many people got good things on that day. My father got a large chattee, and two good ponies that were in the river, and he took them home to camp; but when he got there the guard took them away. So all his trouble did him no good.

We were poor people, but living was cheap, and we had 'plenty comfort.'

Mary concludes - These few legends, told by one old woman to her grandchildren, can only be considered as representatives of a class. "That world," to use her own words, " is gone ;" and those who can tell us about it in this critical and unimaginative age,, are fast disappearing too, before the onward march of civilization; yet there must be in the country many a rich gold mine unexplored. Will no one go to the diggings?Mary acknowledges that she records it for her ‘Little sister’- Catherine Francis Frere, for whom the tales were written down and then ‘to all those in India who love England and to all those in England who love India’.

After adding an introduction and a recommendation with notes by her father as well as illustrations
Government House - Poona
by her sister Catherine, Mary Frere published twenty-four of these tales in March 1868, under the title of 'Old Deccan Days.' The work was very successful, and was reprinted four times (fifth impression 1898). She had sent out advance copies to many other luminaries such as Kingsley, Tennyson, Longfellow and Grant, and not to forget, the Queen monarch. Max Muller commented that Miss Frere's tales had been preserved by oral tradition so accurately that some of them were nearly word for word translations of the Sanskrit in which they were originally told. More editions followed providing Mary decent profits from the effort.

Another reviewer stated (The Eclectic Magazine, Volume 9) - Many an English child has passed its early years in parts of India without hearing from native servants any one of the pictures as legends here gathered from the lips of Anna Liberata de Souza. If this woman still lives, it may convey to her a true pleasure, in the evening of a life which has had sore troubles, to know that she has made thousands of English children happy, and that here, if not in her own land, her name will be remembered with feelings of lively gratitude.

Anna’s words are prophetic - I don’t know what good all this reading and writing does. My grandfather couldn’t write, and my father couldn’t write, they did very well; but all that’s changed now. I know your language—what use? To blow the fire? I only a miserable woman, fit to go to cook-room and cook the dinner?

Other memsahebs had offered to take her to Britain, but she had no interest. She said - One lady with whom I stayed wished to take me to England with her when she went home (at that time the children neither little or big), and she offered to give me Rs. 5000 and warm clothes if I would go with her; but I wouldn't go. I a silly girl then, and afraid of going from the children and on the sea; I think--' May be I shall make plenty money, but what good if all the little fishes eat my bones? I shall not rest with my old Father and Mother if I go '--so I told her I could not do it. I would come to England with you, for I know you would be good to me and bury me when I die, but I cannot go so far from Rosie.

Khirkee battle
My one eye put out, my other eye left. I could not lose it too. If it were not for Rosie and her children I should like to travel about and see the world. There are four places I have always wished to see--Calcutta, Madras, England, and Jerusalem (my poor mother always wished to see Jerusalem too--that her great hope), but I shall not see them now. Many ladies wanted to take me to England with them, and if I had gone I should have saved plenty money, but now it is too late to think of that. Besides, it would not be much use. What's the good of my saving money? Can I take it away with me when I die? My father and grandfather did not do so, and they had enough to live on till they died. I have enough for what I want, and I've plenty poor relations. They all come to me asking for money, and I give it them. I thank our Savior there are enough good Christians here to give me a slice of bread and cup of water when I can't work for it. I do not fear to come to want.

Anna Liberata de Souza died at Government House, Gunish Khind (Ganeshkhind), near Poona, after a short illness, on 14th August 1887, 19 years after her tales were published. Her poignant remark about the decline in story telling with the advent of literacy, is something many of us will agree with. Mary mentioned this in her notes and that there was a performance aspect in the art of Anna’s storytelling – ‘half the charm, however, consisted in the narrator’s eager, flexible, voice and graphic gestures.’ Ironically, Anna as you can see never travelled to places she wanted to, but her stories spread far and wide, leaving behind a lasting legacy.

A few words on Bartle Frere would not be out of place. Frere was educated in the EIC College and
appointed a writer in the Bombay civil service in 1834. He became the collector of Poona in 1835 and then the PA to the governor of Bombay in 1842. Then he was the resident at Satara, after which he became the commissioner of Sindh in 1850. By 1862, he moved back to Bombay as its Governor. He was back in Britain in 1867. In 1877 he became the High commissioner of South Africa. His later years did not prove to be good in anyway with his behavior during the Zulu wars and in 1880 he was recalled and censured. On his death Mary Frere wrote a glowing obituary, which makes interesting reading. They used to have a Frere road in Karachi. Leela Prasad adds - Frere supported the inclusion of natives into governance, encouraged the vernacular, and developed a native infrastructure, all without compromising his commitment to British imperialism. He assumed the governorship of Bombay in 1862, and once again distinguished himself through his public works that modernized the city of Bombay. He encouraged the cotton trade to compensate for the scarcity of cotton for the mills of Manchester during the American Civil War years. Bartle Frere retired as governor of Bombay, and returned to England in March 1867. The manuscript of Old Deccan Days traveled back with him and his daughter.

Accompanying her father to South Africa when he was appointed high commissioner (March 1877), Mary Frere continued to mix with the local populace, like she did at India. She was after her eventual return to London, also invited by Queen Victoria for an audience. Later on, Mary travelled extensively and spent time in Egypt, and finally spending time at Jerusalem between 1906 to August 1908. She paased away three years later in 1911.  

As we saw, Mary Frere profited handsomely from her efforts, aided by the influence her father had, she kept in touch with Anna, but whether she shared the monetary profits with Anna or her progeny is doubtful. I tried to find out what happened to Rosie, but as they say the trail had gone cold years ago. Perhaps there is somebody in Khadki or Poona who vaguely remembers their great grandmother, who knows?

Old Deccan Days or Hindoo Fairy Legends by Mary Frere, Edited and with an introduction by Kirin Narayan
The authorial other in folktale collections in colonial India Tracing Narration and its Dis/Continuities - Leela Prasad


Khadki (referred to previously as Kirkee during the British Raj) was the site of the Battle of Khadki, fought between the British East India Company and the Marathas in 1817 in which Baji Rao II, the Peshwa ruler was defeated. Soon after the war, the British set up a cantonment here. It then became the base of the Royal Regiment of Artillery's 79 (Khadki) Commando Battery. Gunish Khind is Ganeshkhind, not far from Khadki.

The Italian prisoners of war at Bangalore

And the yellow tail from down under

Ironically, the story of the Italians arriving in Bangalore starts with the explosive success of a Bangalore invention called the Bangalore Torpedo, only that it was during the WW II attacks in Libya, the jewel of Mussolini’s crown. The unexpected Allied successes at the African western deserts of Libya and Egypt resulted in the capture of many thousands of Italian POW’s. Many were sent to work in Britain and South Africa. Officers who did not have to work according to the Geneva Convention (remember the dialog between Saito and Nicholson in ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’?) were the first to be sent to Indian Camp at Yol. The many tens of thousands of soldiers who followed were interned at various camps at Bangalore, Bhopal, Ramgarh and Dehra Dun. Some 22,000 of the so called group 1 landed up in Bangalore (Jalahalli, Jakkur and Hebbal). I will attempt to do a short study on this group and go on to trace the story of one prisoner who decided to do something else with his remaining life.

At the beginning of World War II the Italians military was ensconced in Libya. Mussolini had ordered his commander, Graziani, to attack the British in Egypt. His large army of 250,000 (though badly trained and ill equipped) faced a crack British force of barely 30,000 on torridly hot and dusty desert terrains. The British were led by two brilliant officers, Lt. Gen. Sir Richard O'Connor, who commanded the Western Desert Force, and Gen. Sir Archibald Wavell, supreme commander of Egypt. Operation Compass was O’Conner’s brainchild.

On 9 December 1940 the Western Desert Force attacked the Italian positions at Sidi Barrani overrunning them, and 38,000 Italian soldiers were taken prisoners. Later as the operation in the Arabian western deserts got underway, the ANZAC Australian troops rising early on 3 January 1941, ate a meal, drank a tot of rum and singing ‘South of the border down Mexico way’, (don’t ask me why) commenced the attack on the Italian XXIII Corps at Bardia for the next three days. Sappers blew gaps in the barbed wire with Bangalore torpedoes (12-foot pipes packed with ammonal which were slid under the barbed wire at 60 yards intervals) blowing the fences off.

The explosive charge called the Bangalore torpedo was developed in Bangalore by one Captain McClintock in 1912, which involved packing explosives in a tube (perhaps mimicking the old Mughal method of packing gunpowder in bamboo tubes) and used to blow up barbed wire fences by inserting it into the wire coils at the bottom. Such was the explosive effect in quickly breaching a fence that traditional time intensive wire cutting methods (the BT is still used by armies around the world and under the name Bangalore Torpedo) could be loudly done away with, when in a hurry.

The troops overran the Italian defenses, and eventually the Italian garrisons in the North surrendered after which about 25,000 prisoners were taken. The British allied troops lost only a few in these successful attacks. In the following months a half million Italians had surrendered. Many of these prisoners were destined to Bangalore, a place they would never ever have heard of.

Having achieved success in North Africa, the thoughts of the strategist and generals veered to the vexing problem of dealing with the prisoners. After much discussions and arguments, Wavell send a big lot of them to India. As we saw earlier, the officers went to live in relative comfort at Yol near Dharmasala, and the foot soldiers were sent off to Bangalore. Jalahalli which later became the location of the air force training school was the biggest of the POW camps housing the Italians. In all, over half a million Italian soldiers were taken prisoner during the Second World War and were sent to camps in Great Britain, the United States, North and South Africa, India and Australia. India accommodated in total more than 67,656 Italians, including over 11,000 officers.

In February 1941, about 2,200 Italian prisoners (mainly the ones captured at Sidi Barrani, Bardia and Tobruk campaigns) of war arrived in Bangalore after a weary ride on a special train and were marched to transit camps at Byramangala and Krishnarajapura. They were then moved to tent camps at Jalahalli the largest of them, Jakkur and also at Hebbal. By Nov 1941, around 22,000 prisoners (18,500 soldiers and 3,500 officers) lived in Bangalore, nearly half of the total 45,676 sent to India. Camps 1-6 in Bangalore were occupied by soldiers while 7 & 8 were occupied by officers. In total Jalahalli, Jakkur and Hebbal were home to a total of 8 camps.

For the next two years they were held in captivity and in 1943, following Italy’s surrender were
Original tent camp 1941
allowed a higher degree of freedom until 1945/46, as hostilities of the WW II ceased, were repatriated back home in troop ships. The International Red Cross photo library provides some detail of the life at the Jalahalli camps and the overall picture is not too bad. Initially they lived in open tents and thatched hutments and the prisoners had their kitchen, garden, pigs and sheep to tend. They had a laundry arrangement and a church, bathing areas, and recreation such as soccer and boxing.

They even constructed a large framework where a white sheet was strung across to show European movies (Bangaloregirl mentions that Ramalingam Mudaliar and his son had a contract to screen films brought in from Europe). They had a hospital building, were dressed in khakhi shorts and shirts, ‘sola-topi’ hats, though donning trousers for formal occasions such as Sunday mass, in their makeshift church. They made curios and musical instruments to while away time, and some took to gardening and growing chickens and pigs One collected and built up a bottled library of various types of snakes and there is even a story of an Italian who picked up a coiled cobra thinking it was a tennikoit (remember that game anybody?) ring and got bitten.

Frame used to sling a white sheet to project movies
Unlike Italian prisoners sent to London or South Africa, the POW’s did not have too much work except for building reinforced barracks for themselves (by 1942 the tents were replaced by thatched huts) and mostly led a boring and forgettable existence for two years. They had representations and evangelical radio messages beamed from the Vatican. Some did make attempts to escape as is narrated in a novel ‘Latin lovers’ by Ottone Menato, a soldier who spent his time in Bangalore.

The camps had barbed wire fence and armed sentries, Indian soldiers from the looks of it. I could also identify local Indian labor from some of the pictures, for delivering water, other menial jobs and were also perhaps used as help. Neatly laid out graves with crosses were the temporary abodes of those who departed for ever from Bangalore. I am not sure if these gravesites are still there in Jalahalli.

Playing Soccer
The inter-camp football matches were well attended with a lot of spectators on the sidelines and the teams can be seen properly dressed for the game, with canvas shoes and uniforms. The boxing teams show very healthy, muscular men with cross countenances and even wearing regular boxing gloves and shoes! So the British did take reasonable care of them.

Many others not too fond of rough and tussle in the field preferred to play chess (with regular wooden chess pieces) in their tents. We see that in the initial stages, they had bedding laid out on the ground, but in later photos, they seem to have used rope lined charpoys or Indian village cots. The brass band seemed to be a popular pastime with some youngsters learning to blow bugles. They had a canteen from which tinned goods could be purchased, but I am not sure if alcohol was ever served, though hooch service existed, as will be seen later. Special credit notes and temporary currency took care of their subsistence within the camps.The notes were printed alike with the name of the camp over printed or over stamped.  Bangalore issued denominations of 1, 2, 4, and 8 annas and 1,2, and 5 rupees.

In the kitchen, they made their own spaghetti and even obtained fish for their dishes! For contrast, it is interesting to read a comment from a letter of an Italian internee at Lameroo “These people demand so much of us Italians, and they would like to treat us as Indians – work without eating”.

Some amount of subversion of the non-fascist members of this motley group was planned by the British SOE and the so called Mazzini team of five Italians were to be inserted in these camps. It did not quite work out as planned and the idea was scuttled early enough, but the head of the team, an American Italian doctor (educated in Paris) named Lucio Tarchiani was later commissioned by the Intelligence Corps in March 1942, to serve as an interpreter and liaison officer at the POW camps at Bangalore and Dehra Dun.

Somewhere along the way a few of these POW’s strayed further south, albeit temporarily and ended up making a lovely Italian garden within the precincts of the botanical gardens at Ootacamund (Oooty) which can be seen to this day.

As we saw, the original camps were tent camps and it is mentioned that the Bangalore NST group supplied and/or erected the tents for these makeshift camps for the Italians towards the end of 1940. They were as you can imagine hastily constructed and the lack of good sanitation resulted in epidemics of bowel diseases such as enteric fever, dysentery and cholera. They were quickly contained.

Muthiah’s lovely book on the Spencer’s of Madras mentions that they provided catering to this camp at some point of time (perhaps for the officers?). Later when I saw the list of rations supplied to them, I could figure out that it did require an organization such as the Spencer’s to supply large amounts of imported goods. The Italians were placed on peace scale British standard rations and were given a cash allowance of 3 ½ annas per head each day! The working men got 4 ¾ annas per day. From the military records we can observe that a large number of prisoners were recalcitrant and did not cooperate resulting in them being maintained on a reduced ration (even then they had meat daily, fish, eggs, fresh butter, fruits and fresh vegetables, corn, onions, semolina, jam, milk and what not).

Rations were reduced somewhat during the 1945 famine but desirable items were available in the canteen for purchase. Some of these supplies were made by Nilgiri’s. Chenniappan of Nilgiri’s  states - "During World War 2, we had a good supply of butter to the military camps in Jalahalli, there were Italian prisoners there who laid roads and played football with the local team! There were also part-time wounded soldiers who needed good quality butter and we were the only people who supplied that quality."

In 1942 the Quit India movement was launched and started to gather momentum, and by 1944 the Bangalore palace construction was finally completed. Ravi idly (so they say) was invented by MTR to tide over rice shortages. Right hand drive lorries arrived at Bangalore all the way from America, to serve the Americans housed (serving the war cause) in Bangalore city and gashol (petrol and ethyl alcohol mixture) was used for vehicles. The first time football was played in Bangalore, according to lore and legend was at the garrison ground opposite MG Road where Italian prisoners clad in boots played against the barefoot locals. This was followed by games at the YMCA ground, the corporation ground in Austin Town and other grounds.

Between 1943 and 1944, after Italy surrendered to the Allies, the prisoners were allowed to roam around and some of them did turn out to be a nuisance for old-timers of Bangalore. Women were somewhat scared, with rumors floating around of women being kidnapped and taken to the camps, and they were kind of unruly in the movie theaters, but others did well, partaking in merriment, dancing at Funnels in Brigade road, competing in boxing matches or even helping form Soccer teams. They could be seen ambling past Brigade road, being allowed to shop only at specific shops.

The Italians loved romancing the many European women, dancing and football as is oft stated by the jealous old timers of Bangalore, especially those who chat about those days. Margaret Ledger, a Nurse mentions this in her memoirs “They were Italians who were captured in North Africa, who were employed in general duties.  They were very polite, but enjoyed hiding away from work. One day three of them had disappeared, and I went to search for them, because we were short of staff. They were sitting outside the Quartermaster’s Stores. I told them to come back to the ward. In a chorus of three voices, they replied “Madam, we do not make war, we make love!”

Boxing was of particular interest to these Italian soldiers and Bangalore rose to fame with keenly contested matches at the Opera house (Residency Rd), Hollywood city, Garrison sports ground and the Globe theater to name a few. As narrated in Samyukta Harshita- The matches were generally held in the evenings and continued till the night. Prices of tickets started at Rs. 6 for a ring side seat. Soldiers fought soldiers and soldiers fought civilians too. The American ‘Gunboat Joe’ was a famous boxer of that era.

The POW camps at Bangalore and Dehra Dun were closed on 15th September 1944. By this time the camp was a well laid out affair and fully self-contained and the Jalahalli camp gave way to what was in those days known as Hospital town, the largest hospital complex in the world and meant to tend to the huge numbers of British and Indians injured from the Burmese battles.

As such, the original tent town had been transformed by the Italians in the two years they stayed there - The original camps consisted of rather hastily erected huts, with walls of native basha  (Basha: the ubiquitous Indian building material of pliable dried palm fronds – thatched roof made of coconut palm leaves) work.

Their foundations, roofs, and timber were retained, but the walls were stripped and brick walls erected. Timber supports were embedded in concrete to prevent destruction by white ants. The huts thus completed were light and airy, attractively painted, and had wide verandas on either side. Each accommodated some 40 patients and contained duty rooms, sanitary annexes, and ward kitchens as well. Covered ways connected the surgical wards and operating-theatres, and there were flower gardens between the wards, which made the outlook for the patients more attractive.

Rene Thompson a nurse records - The Maharajah of Mysore had been building as a leper colony, before the army took over Jalahalli. We started to get returned prisoners from Japan, who were being assessed for the journey home. One man had inserted a piece of airplane in his leg himself, so he could walk. So it was, in the beginning of 1944, in order to accommodate casualties expected from South-East Asia, this camp was chosen as the site for a complex capable of taking about 10,000 patients at a time, both British and Indian (you will recall that in those days they got different treatment, just like different rations). Rather than build a large unit anew it was decided to convert these Italian POW camps to hospital buildings. The site was ideal from the medical point of view, while buildings and essential services (electric power, water, and sewage disposal) were already in existence. When built, eight hospitals and ancillary units occupied the area with each camp having a hospital of 1000 or 1200 beds. These units took in weary and wounded soldiers, almost dead from the death march across Burma and into India.

Some Italians hung around, Fred’s letters mention an Italian music troupe which played a band at the hospital and did well for a time. Many others took up odd jobs such as washing dishes and so on. The hospital town continued for some time and one Englishman who worked there poignantly records the words of his orderly at the end. "War finis," he asserted with an all-embracing wave of his hand, "English sahibs go: you sahib, you sahib, all go. Tig hai. Leave army."

The hospital complex became home to an Indian air force base and training school after independence in 1947. BEL, HMT and other organizations moved in to the area and the Italians who once lived there were soon forgotten. Perhaps some of them reminisced about that not so tropical sojourn during the war years, of the Indians and the funny places named as such by the English like Brigade, Residency, St Marks and so on, of the Funnels dancing floor and bouts with the great gunboat jack. Some Italians mention it as a horrible period of their life, but naturally, for they were prisoners of war. Some changed for the better, some lived the rest of their lives quietly and bit the dust. One did better than all of them.

So we now zoom rapidly into the story of that internee from one of these Bangalore camps. This bloke was named Fillippo Casella and he spent six years or thereabouts in Bangalore. His days in Bangalore are not well documented or retold, I can only hope that his now famous family may step forward and provide details, but from what I read, the brief snapshot below is his astounding story of perseverance, hard work and foresight.

When Filippo was born in 1920 to Guiseppe and Rosa, Italy was certainly not doing well and as the world war enveloped all of Europe, Filippo volunteered for military service in 1939. He was selected to serve in the Bersaglieri, the elite of the Italian Army, as a radio operator. The Bersaglieri were of above-average size and stamina, endured intense physical training and had to qualify as marksmen. 

Whilst fighting in Libya, he was captured and after journeying across North Africa eventually became resident of a prisoner of one of the war camps in Bangalore, India in 1941. It is said that Filippo put his alcohol-making talents to use, making a still and producing spirit using local fruit, such as papaya and raisins, for his fellow prisoners at Bangalore. He also used the opportunity wisely to study and learn English, French, math and history.

In Nov 1946, returning home after six long years, Filippo found a Sicily changed by time and war. Filippo the blue eyed, eventually married blonde haired Maria Patane of Sciara and took to tending vines in order to contribute to the family income but then again, life was even harder in war torn Sicily. The White Australia program allowing white Europeans to migrate to Australia was a golden opportunity which beckoned Filippo.

He immigrated to Australia in 1957 and worked hard for the next five or six years, with his wife and two children joining him later. After years of share-farming, cane-cutting and tobacco growing, the Casella family made a permanent home in Yenda in 1966, starting their own little vineyard (they purchased this property # 1471 for $19,000) called Casella wines. They supplied wine to bottlers in Queensland for the next 20 years. In 1990 Filippo suffered a heart attack and underwent a triple bypass. At this juncture, the family were faced with a crucial decision, whether to dispose of the business or not. As it happens in many an entrepreneurial family, the responsibility was passed on to John Casella, Filippo’s son.

John, Filippo’s son who had studied wine making at Wiggi Wagga and was trained with Australian wine makers such as Riverina wines, joined the family business in 1994. The legendary Yellow tail (The Yellow Tail logo incidentally depicts the yellow-footed rock wallaby, a relative of kangaroo) wine from the Casella vineyards at Yenda was formally created in 2001, for the US market, and 225,000 cases were sent out the first year. By 2006 sales rose to 8 million cases and the rest is history. The yellow tail is the signature brand and I myself can testify to the fine properties of their Shiraz and Sangria wines and I have a few in the wine cabinet at all times.

Today the Casella legacy has grown from the original fifty acre property to over thirty five wine-growing regions across Australia, including some of the best vineyards down under. It is a multibillion dollar business today.

Casella’s Yellow Tail is, I believe, savored in Bangalore these days and with that I must conclude that Fillippo’s circle of life is complete. His fellow Italians who drank his hooch at Bangalore would have been be the first to cheer. Perhaps Filippo himself, looking from up above would be smiling at the people of that land which gave him some relief during a war, a war in which he could indeed have lost his life.


The British Empire and its Italian Prisoners of War, 1940–1947 - Bob Moore and Kent Fedorowich
Enforced Diaspora: The Fate of Italian Prisoners of War during the Second World War - Bob Moore
From Tobruk to Clare: the experiences of the Italian prisoner of war Luigi Bortolotti 1941-1946 - Desmond O’Connor
English for Nurses - Nitin Bhatnagar
Official history of the Indian Armed Forces in the Second World War 1939-45. Medical Services B L Raina ( Volumes - Preventive medicine and Administration)
A Toast to Bargain Wines: How Innovators, Iconoclasts, and Winemaking Revolutionaries Are Changing the Way the World Drinks - George M. Taber
Currencies at the camps 1, 2
Italian families who want to track down internees can refer to this link – 1,
Hindu articles 1, 2


The pictures posted are the property of ICRC, the international committee of Red Cross. Please do not copy and reuse without permission or share

A reader Robert Bowman provided this input

I believe that my grandfather, Gordon McGowan was a commander at this camp.
I thought I would share some photos with you.
The first 2 are of a compact that was made for my mother by an Italian POW from a aluminium cooking pot. She was about 16-18 at the time.
I would love to give this to the family if it could ever be known who made it.
The second is a drawing done for her by another POW.


Helen Day provided the picture below of the embroidery piece her father did using thread/wool from socks used by Soldiers, who had passed on..


The Curious Case of Ramchandr Baladzhi

Prince Ramachandra Balaji in Russia

One of the first organized rumblings against the British EIC’s tyranny in India was the much written about Sepoy mutiny in 1857. The British had previously retaliated against early stirrings by hanging Mangal Pandey, but as the unrest spread to Agra, Allahabad, Ambala and Merrut, some British soldiers were lynched at Delhi while Bahadur Shah, proclaimed as India’s emperor, looked on. After the British arrested Bahadur Shah, things took a turn for the worse and the siege of Kanpur and the flight of the British resulted in the death of a few British with Nana Saheb being held responsible for the events that occurred.

For the uninitiated, Nana Govind Dhondu Pant, a.k.a Nana Sahib was the adopted son of the deposed Maratha Baji Rao II, exiled at Bithoor near Kanpur by the British. Recalling from my article on Manu, Nana Sahib's childhood associates included Tatya Tope, Azimullah Khan and Manu who later became famous as Rani Lakshmibai. 

Nana Sahib was the legal heir to the throne and eligible for the annual pension from the East India Company. However, after the death of Baji Rao II, the EIC declined to pay the pension on the grounds that the Nana was adopted and that the Maratha kingdom no longer existed. The Nana, as you can imagine was quite offended by all this and sent an envoy (Azimullah Khan) to England in 1853 to fight his case with the British. However, Azimullah Khan failed returning home in 1855. Matters dragged on with Nana remaining cordial with the English. The British expected Nana Sahib to support them when the rebellion spread to Kanpur, however Nana joined up with the rebels and decided to fight them instead.

The English military reached Kanpur in July and defeated Nana’s forces who in turn retreated to Bithoor. General Havelock went after Nana, but Nana Sahib had already escaped, never to be caught by the British. By 1859, Sahib was reported to have fled to Nepal with his family. Sahib's ultimate fate was never known. The British wrote a number of books and articles about Nana and the mutineers, painting a picture of those who revolted as the vilest scum on earth, for they had the temerity to maim and kill a few British men and women. Many anti British nations like the French projected Nana as a hero for standing up to the British. Jules Verne based the famous character of Prince Dakkar or Captain Nemo on Nana Saheb. Nana’s stories of valor grew and grew in the Indian mind.

But then again, let me remind you, this is not an article about Nana or his heroics. It is about another person, a very strange character and not yet known to many an Indian reader. In the year 1878, a scruffy Indian arrived in St Petersburg armed with letters of introduction from Iskandar Khan, grandson of Dost Mohammed, the Emir of Afghanistan. He, this shabby looking but proud man, was according to his own words, the nephew of the famous Nana Saheb who fought the British.

That certainly interested many top level Russians of the region. Why so? A little knowledge of the political scene post 1850’s is required. As you will see, the ‘great game’ was already afoot. Like most people who become insecure after acquiring riches, a beautiful woman or a great jewel, the British were worried about the loss of India, their great possession and source of all kinds of raw material, riches and semi-finished goods with little effort and great profit. Many others were eyeing the jewel from both the west and the North. While the British worried about the French on the western borders, the Russians were breathing down heavily from beyond the Northern Mountains. The only buffer was the northwest frontier provinces. Earlier in the 19th century, Napoleon (who had even planned to team up with the Russians to invade India) had been defeated and the French advances had been held up near Egypt and Syria.

To put it simply, Russia was fearful of British commercial and military inroads into Central Asia, and Britain was fearful of Russia adding "the jewel in the crown", India, to the vast empire that Russia was building in Asia. This resulted in an atmosphere of distrust and the constant threat of war between the two empires. If Russia were to gain control of the Emirate of Afghanistan, it might then be used as a staging post for a Russian invasion of India. Starting in 1830, the game moved like a well-crafted game of chess, with both parties trading pieces, only they were much bigger. In October 1838 Auckland issued the Simla Manifesto, a piece of propaganda designed to blacken the reputation of Dost Mohammad Khan (Emir of Afghanistan) and to ensure British influence was extended into Afghanistan for it to become a buffer state. In December 1838, the British marched into Afghanistan and arrested Dost Mohammad, and sent him into exile in India, replacing him with the unpopular Shah Shuja. By 1842, the Afghans were in a rebellious state and the British withdrew. By 1846 however the British had captured Sindh and defeated the Sikhs and later in 1857, the Persians. The Crimean War had ended in 1856 with Russia's defeat by an alliance of Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. The new and wary Czar Alexander II of Russia waited some years so as not to antagonize the British, then Russia expanded into Central Asia in two campaigns.

In India the EIC, after the 1857 rebellion, finally relinquished possession of the states and regions it held passing them on formally to the British crown. Now that domestic strife was contained, it was time for the British to go back to the troubled Northern borders. The Second Anglo Afghan War was fought between the British Raj and the Emirate of Afghanistan from 1878 to 1880, when the latter was ruled by Sher Ali Khan, son of former Emir Dost Mohammad Khan. The war ended after the British emerged victorious. The Afghan tribes were permitted to maintain internal rule and local customs but they had to cede control of the area's foreign relations to the British, who, in turn, guaranteed the area's freedom from foreign military domination. This was aimed to thwart expansion by the Russian Empire into India.

It was during these events that the troubled Russians heralded the arrival of a smooth talking Ramachandr Baladzhi or Rama Chandra Balaji, so called nephew of Nana Saheb, the peshwa who made the British tremble in Kanpur. The events that transpired between this one man representative of the Indians against the British, or so it was as he put it, and the Russians in St Petersburg was for me, very interesting. I must admit that my sources were few and with little corroboration, I have to depend on just one fine article by TN Zagarodnikova and bits from the doctoral thesis of Alexander Graham Marshall.

Alexander the liberator had become a reformist Romanov Czar after the emancipation of serfs in
Alexander II
1861 and after selling Alaska to America in 1867 and was avoiding assassination attempts all the time. As they say, Balaji presented a strange picture in St Petersburg, which was the Russian Czarian capital then. A scruffy man with a scar on his cheek, looking sad and hungry, and wearing shabby clothes, but with a proud countenance, this young fella was just scraping along, with borrowed funds and earnings tutoring rich families, in English. He spoke many languages, including Russian and French and perhaps Farsi. Curiously he cultivated a number of acquaintances in high places, some very important men, who were all trying to find him work or to help him.

Balaji arrived in Russia around the end of the Russo Turkish war, where the Russians were victorious as the Ottoman Sultan sued for peace; and the Treaty of San Stefano was signed by Russia and Turkey. Balaji was at that time in Turkey and came across an acquaintance, a Japanese officer whom he knew from his days in Berlin. The Japanese officer introduced him to the Russians who invited him to Russia. So that presents the first piece of a growing puzzle. What exactly was Balaji doing in Berlin or Turkey?

Balaji of course was effusive in providing details of his background, which when analyzed seriously proved to be full of holes. But let’s see what he said. According to his testimony, he was born in 1850. As the British soldiers arrived in Bithoor, he fell out of the window and broke his cheekbone. A childless English officer took the boy first with him to Calcutta and thence to London, where he found the climate less than salubrious. So he grew up in Italy, but as an Englishman, visiting London often, until he was sent to Switzerland in 1859 for continued education. He went on to learn Sanskrit from somebody who had come to London with Duleep Singh (remember the Kohinoor story?) and later owing to the benevolence of the Rajah of Kolhapur who died in Florence, got enough funds to make a trip to India and back to Switzerland (he was forced to go back by the British). In 1870, he entered the Berlin University for higher studies (curious that he did not go back to Britain), struck up an acquaintance with Prof Weber an eminent Sanskritologist, and KA Kossovich, the pioneer Russian Sanskritologist.  It was while vacationing in Britain that Balaji met Iskandar Khan, who invited him to Persia.

Iskandar Khan the grandson of Dost Mohammed had been trying to get back the Afghan throne for himself, but failing to get support from at first Russia and later the British, left in 1877 for Turkey and finally settled in Persia.

Balaji was not interested with that invitation then and went back to Berlin. Warned however by his friends that the British, wary of his friendship with Iskandar, were planning to send him off to the Jamaica, Balaji abandoned his studies and went to Tehran. From there he tried to go back to India, but after getting robbed by Afghan tribals, returned to Tehran. Interestingly his next venture was to launch an agitation favoring the Persian Japanese treaty to import green tea directly to Persia instead of Bombay, thereby damaging British commercial interests.

I checked this aspect of the story and it appears that a Japanese team did come to Tehran to discuss a trade treaty. Though the members of the mission held trading fairs in Bušehr and Tehran in order to exhibit Japanese products, they did not draw much interest from the Iranians. The treaty talk never took place, because Japan wished to be treated on a most-favored-nation basis by Iran and obtain the same extraterritorial rights that the European countries enjoyed, which Iran did not agree to.

The connection between Iran’s Nāṣer-al-Din Shah and iskander Khan is quite real, but the involvement of Balaji in these matters is somewhat circumspect what with his lack of experience in trade matters. It is also clear that balaji never mentioned any connections with Nana Saheb while in Tehran.

As the story runs through its course, Balaji next found himself in Istanbul where the San Stephano treaty was being negotiated. From there he found his way to St Petersburg, and it is felt by the Russians who studied him later that he had a singular plan. The English were not too pleased with the treaty signed between the British and the Turks and the Russians felt another war was in the offing. To avoid it, it was better to pose a threat to the British at the Indian frontiers and get them busy. Balaji (maybe induced to do so by Iskandar Khan) wanted to persuade the Russians to attack India coming down through Afghanistan, and liberate India from the British yoke. The real question is who would believe an unkempt Indian refuge with such a major idea. Well, that is the interesting part, for within months he had built up a social circle, though hardly making his own ends meet. His circle included VV Grigoriev, the famous orientalist, Baron Jomini and Von der Osten Saken top officials in the foreign affairs department, Grand Duke Nikolai Konstantinovich, Semenov Tyan Shansky, MN Katkov the editor of ‘Moscow Vedomosty’, and other personnel in the Japanese and Persian embassies.

It was also an opportune moment for Balaji to scout out a potential route to India, for the Grand duke was heading an exploratory trip to Turkestan in Central Asia. The intention of the trip was to check the potential in restoration of the Amu Darya’s flow, obtain cooperation of the Khivans and Bukharans, the acquisition of riches, and the opening of a new water route from the Caspian through the Amu Darya to India. Balaji proved to be very useful and accompanied the Duke. Balaji and Afghan Mirdali Khan apparently testified to the existence of ancient river beds and tributaries. Balaji was soon heralded in social circles and was to be seen in many parties and it is mentioned that many a Russian lady found him quite romantic. Articles about Balaji and his exploits appeared in Moscow newspapers and journals.

In India, Madame Blavatsky was livid and saw through Balaji’s caper. She wrote to newspapers that this fellow Balaji was an imposter, for she herself had been involved in resurrecting the Nana legacy in India and knew that Nana Sahib had no such nephews. She wrote to the editor of Indu Prakash

“Ever since my arrival here, in February, with a hospitality and persistence worthy of a better cause, I have been hailed by every class of society as a secret emissary of the Russian government—a ‘spy,’ to call things by their proper names. And yet, so poorly informed am I by the authorities of my native country of the ways and doings of the Russian police, that, in my ardent curiosity, I have now to apply to you for help. Will you kindly put your head together with mine to try and ‘guess’ who may possibly be a certain mysterious individual who has recently appeared in Russia? He calls himself a ‘prince of India,’ and provoking the greatest curiosity in the general public is, at the same time, received as an honoured guest by the St. Petersburg ‘court’ —though, as I am informed, secretly. This is what one of the numerous papers I received says of him, mentioning his arrival. I translate verbatim: . . . ‘A few days ago, arrived at Moscow, on his way from Petersburg to Samara, the Hindustani Prince Ramchander Balajee of Bhottor. Colonel and Aide de Camp on the general staff the Count N. Y. Rostovtzeff has been placed at the orders of the prince, and now forms a part of his numerous suite.’ Who is this prince? He evidently belongs to the native place, if he is not actually of kin to the famous Nana Sahib, of course. Though news for your readers, this piece of information will be stale for the omniscient police of India, who, for instance, have discovered in a twinkling of the eye that I was a dangerous Russian spy. They must certainly know all about this mirific prince. How provoking, then, that they will not tell!”

Interestingly, the Russians also had similar doubts. Col LN Sobolev had investigated Balaji and submitted a report with the result that suspicions of Balaji being a British spy were rife. His connection with the circumspect Iskander khan was another reason. Zinoviev the Russian ambassador in Tehran reported that Balaji never mentioned any connections with Nana Saheb while in Tehran and was actually selling medicines (herbal?). It is also mentioned that Balaji was finally recalled from the Grand Duke's party due to suspicions in higher quarters about his character and his 'bad influence' on the Grand Duke. But Balaji continued his meager existence till 1880, providing tuitions for children of the richer families or taking handouts and loans from his many friends.

Proponents for his cause such as Col Korolkov maintained that he was definitely not a British spy and that his plans to access India through the dangerous Samarkand route would not have been approved by the English. While there, Balaji had met the Sikhs living there headed by Guru Charan Singh (who promised support with some 300,000 people for a future attack against the British). He also published an article in 1880 – My visit to Abdurahman Khan in Tashkent, in a newspaper where he outlined the difficulties faced by Indians living in Central Asia without their families and the handful who had their wives and daughters, but were fearful for their safety in these khanates.

Gen Skobolev
The Russians must have decided that their suspicions were unfounded for we find next that Balaji obtained a Czar’s decree accrediting him to the Asiatic department and he is seconded to Gen Skobelev with an ample allowance of 400 rubles.

The nature of his duties were never clarified, and the questions were if he was to be a liaison for the various Indian envoys (of Indian princes and rajas such as the maharajah of Kashmir) who came to Russia for support, if it were to coordinate with new forays involving Iskandar khan in Afghanistan or if he was to coordinate the selection and facilitation of Indian born agents into the Russian forces. He was certainly knowledgeable and provided original opinion. He understood the various polemics played out in the region and the complicated geopolitics at play. His knowledge of the geography and history of the Central Asian khanates was more than adequate. But he also came up with wild ideas such as Indians being potentially encouraged to move to fertile Afghanistan from the crowded plains, plotting a revolt against the British through the Maharajas of Kashmir, Patiala and Gwalior and so on. His duty was to start work in Turkestan in right earnest and hoping for active Russian support, he soldiered on.

It was summer 1880 that Ramachandra suddenly requested permission to go to Tehran to attend to some urgent personal matters. Marshall believed another motive - Unhappy at the lack of positive commitments from his interviews with Russian War and Foreign Ministry officials however, Baladzhi left for Persia. The Russians provided him the necessary papers and money. Surely I believe they suspected something was afoot and wanted to check his movements,

Mme Blavatsky continued to air her suspicions wondering why Balaji was considered important 

"From Simla I wrote an article for the Novoe Vremya, ‘The Truth about the Nephew of Nana Sahib’. I have gathered the most elaborate information about this scamp. Golos constantly prints letters written by this liar, as if to incite England to make war on Russia. And Novoe Vremya disdained to print my note. For what reason? Besides being true, it is written as a free contribution. One would think they might have believed in the good intention of a countrywoman of theirs, of a Russian who is at the very source of the information about this self-proclaimed and false ally of Russia -- this Prince Ramchandra. His biography -- perfectly false -- has appeared in the June number of the Russian Herald, 1889. And his letters from Bagdad and Cabul, printed in Golos, amuse and needlessly irritate everyone here who knows the truth of the matter….

She continued her tirade in another letter- Nikolay Mihaylovich Prjevalsky (or Przhevalsky) (1839-88) was a famous military man, traveller, explorer and geographer. From 1864 to 1866 he taught geography at the military school at Warsaw, having graduated from the Academy of the General Staff. In 1867 he was sent to Irkutsk where he explored the highlands on the banks of the Usuri until 1869. In 1870, accompanied by only three men, he crossed the Gobi Desert, reached Peking, explored the upper the difficulties of the Bagh-o-Bahar and Baital Pachisi in the land of Wasudew Bulwant Phadke, or translating the exercise from Hindi into Russian in the “legitimate heir-loom” of the “Prince Ramchandra,” the hapless hero of the Russian Golos—in the North-Western Provinces! Will you kindly inform us whether Mr. Walter T. Lyall’s advice is to be immediately carried out, or must we wait till the Kali Yuga is over?

Balaji proved to be very erratic after that, for he first wrote from Baghdad that he no longer wanted to be part of the Turkestan project, but a month later wrote from Shiraz that he was trying to find business for the Japanese in Persia. Next he wrote to Gen Skobelev that he was willing to rejoin service. Skobolev was livid and recorded that he wanted no part of Balaji, who he believed to be mentally ill.

But strangely Balaji was very much part of the Skobolev camp during the Geok tepe conflict with the Czar’s express support, who insisted that Balaji be included, but be supervised strictly. Things did not go well and Skobelev complained about Balaji again to his HQ as being an evil person. Balaji, not waiting to see what the reply was, escaped, headed for India. But he was captured in Ashkhabad enroute to Herat and was sent back to St Petersburg with a police escort.

It is not clear if he was kept under house arrest or imprisoned, but a few months later in March 1881 was released and moved out to Moscow where of course he had neither the contacts nor means for his daily sustenance. He went back to St Petersburg and wrote to the Czar asking for an allowance of 1000 rubles to travel out and abroad. The Czar himself replied with his handwritten order on the side of the petition, that Balaji was not to be provided any further allowance and that he be escorted and released at the border.

We have to conclude that he left Russia after this three year troubled stay. But what happened to him? Nobody knows for his trail just went cold and he vanished……

Questions remain, who was Balaji and what were his motives? Why was he so important and how did he cultivate such a group of influential friends? Was he really a British spy whom the Russians toyed with during the great game? Was he just another Indian nationalist?

Some clues exist for the reasons why Balaji fell out of favor with the Russians, that Balaji was quite rude and short tempered, kept only to high society and upper class Russians, and that he simply could not get along with Gen Skobelev. It is possible that he had a falling out with the brutal General and that was the reason why he eventually tried to escape. Let’s see what happened in Geok Tepe where Balaji was an eyewitness riding shotgun (not exactly - he was consigned to the transport column) with Gen Skobelev.

In January, 1881, General Mikhail Skobelev, the hero of Plevna, with 7000 men, stormed the Tekke fortress at Geok Tepe, where were assembled 35,000 men, women, and children, with 10,000 horsemen. Nearly 20,000 persons were slain in the fort and during the pursuit, while the Russians lost barely 1000 men. This butchery broke, or rather annihilated, the Turkoman power, and, strange as it may seem, the survivors of the massacre have become loyal subjects of the tsar. The victory of Geok Tepe brought Russia to the borders of Khurasan.

Skobolev remarked once that he would not like to be a commander in an Indian invasion plan with a large army of 150,000 troops but at the same time mentioned, ‘It will be in the end our duty to organize masses of Asian cavalry and hurl them into India as a vanguard, under the banner of blood and rapine, thereby reviving the times of Tamerlane’.

Perhaps Balaji wanted no part of such a campaign. In 1881, the Czar Alexander II was eventually assassinated after many aborted attempts. Did Balaji go back to working with Khan in Tehran (We know that Khan was active in Mashad during 1887) or did he retire to England or India? We do not know. There is a glimmer of a possibility. In 1894, a two volume work was published in London anonymously with the title “Russia’s march towards India’ by an Indian officer. Was Balaji the author? Just a wild guess. In any case, it is clear that he had nothing to do with Nana Saheb, but was indeed a capable character at various forms of bluster and intrigue.

General Mikhail Skobelev died in the Hotel Dussaud in Moscow on July 7, 1882 under very strange circumstances. It was generally felt that his death was linked to a heart disease. Rumor had it however that he was actually poisoned by foreign agents and, lastly, his death was also linked to a female presence. More than a century after, the mystery still lingers (Sputniknews)

The great game continued and the Russians continued to irk the British, prophesying Iskandar khan who remarked to some of his London interlocutors years earlier- Our rocky country serves as a protecting bastion to English dominion in India. We are well placed by Nature in our stronghold, and we are warlike in a high degree. But we are much divided among ourselves as tribes, and by blood feuds. If once the Russians should succeed in lodging themselves there, it will be utterly impossible to dislodge them again."

On September 10, 1885 the Delimitation Protocol between Great Britain and Russia was signed in London. The protocol defined the boundary from the Oxus to the Harirud and was later followed by many additional protocols providing detail. In 1895, it was agreed that the Amu Darya River would form the border between Afghanistan and the Russian empire. The Russians gained all of the lands North of the Amu Darya which included the land claimed by the Khanate of Khiva, including the approaches to Herat, and all of the land claimed by the Khanate of Khoqand, including the Pamir plateau. To ensure a complete separation, this new Afghan state was given an odd eastern appendage known as the Wakhan Corridor. As William C Rowe concluded, "In setting these boundaries, the final act of the tense game played out by the British and Russian governments came to a close”

Nana Sahib’s Nephew in Russia – TN Zagorodnikova (Indian history a Russian viewpoint, ICHR MS8 – Ed. Eugenia Vanina)
The Origins of Conflict in Afghanistan - Jeffery J. Roberts
The Russian General Staff and Asia, 1860-1917 - Alex Marshall
Dar Al-Harb: the Russian general staff and the Asiatic frontier, 1860-1917 - Marshall, Alexander Graham (2001)
The History of Nations, Volume 5 edited by Henry Cabot Lodge
Indians Abroad - Sarva Daman Singh

It is mentioned that a number of sources relating to Balaji still exist in the former USSR Moscow and Tashkent archives. Many of the documents are in French, the formal language of Czarist Russia, others in German. In case anybody has additional information on this story, please comment in detail.

Turkestan, literally means "Land of the Turks" in Persian. It refers to an area in Central Asia between Siberia to the north and Tibet, India and Afghanistan to the south, the Caspian Sea to the west and Mongolia and the Gobi Destert to the east.

Thanks again to TN Zagorodnikova for the article on this interesting character, for much of the data in this comes from her article.

Additional information 10/31/16 – MI Salonikes article, British newspapers

After I posted the article, I found an online version of MI Salonikes’s – Indiiskii patriot v rossii and with a passable google translation, dredged out additional aspects of the Balaji story. In effect it does not change the story line, but provides more information, some changes to the time line and adds meat to the character. The additional points are
  • Balaji stayed at the Porsche pension while studying at Lausanne Switzerland paying 100CHF per month. He learnt and spoke French, German, Italian and English. At Switzerland he gave English and music lessons
  • During his yearly and obligatory summer visits to Britain, he learnt that his parents were alive and living in Nepal. He learnt that he had a brother named Sridhar(?)
  • In 1868, he met the Kolhapur prince at Florence and this man gifted him £2000 on his death bed. Using this money he went to Nepal where he met his parents and brother. The British learnt of his visit and sent him back to Britain in 1869 fearing that he might be persuaded to go against them.
  • He joined the Berlin University with British permission, and was a volunteer in the army hospital when the Franco Prussian war broke.
  • During the next attempt to go to India he got robbed and came back. Then he went to Turkey hoping to get their help in his plans to topple the British in India. Later he met the Russian staff officers and landed up in St Petersburg.
  • While in Russia he lived in the house of the Persian Consul Jabbar Ali. Help came from Yamamoto and Nissi of the Japanese embassy. Prof Kossovich from Berlin had given him letters of introduction.
  • Following the Amu Darya expedition, Balaji requested support from the Russians to infiltrate Russia and start a rebellion, but no help was forthcoming.
  • Following this he went to Tehran in 1880 and started the discussions with the Japanese on the tea imports. This is documented in a London Times report.
  • On his own, he went and joined up with Gen Skobelev as it was a war affecting negatively the interests of the British. He was distraught after seeing the violence and suffering and had a fall out with Gen Skobelev after mentioning this.
  • War minister Dimitri Milutin sent him off to Moscow and facing a terrible isolation there, Balaji wrote to the Czar, who in exasperation, expelled him.

His departure to Tehran in 1880 suddenly is explained in anxious British press reports as an intrigue to support the accession of Abdur Rahman, the new Emir of Afghanistan. The British press describe this as Prince Rama Chunder’s second missive to Afghanistan. They also confirm that Balaji was responsible for the arrival of Japanese trading ships at the Iranian port. We note that these are picked up as Balaji’s own reporting on the Golos newspaper.

 The pall mall budget reporting of Balaji’s visit to Kabul scoffs at Balaji and his ‘idle tales’ – Ram Chunder would to-day have no more influence (sic. in Cabul) than a New Zealand chief

In the end we can see that it was his objections to Gen Skobolev’s actions at Geok Tepe got him into serious trouble. But was he a double agent, a Russian agent or a one man army, an Indian Patriot? 


Ravi Varma and Ramaswamy Naicker - The rivalry

The Painter, his teacher, a rival and a muse

Though I know little about painting, I can certainly say that I like studying the women lovingly brought to life on canvas by Ravi Varma and his younger brother. There are some who would wonder why I brought up his brother’s name in the same breath. Well, they did work in tandem with the younger Raja Varma finishing up with many of the portraits of the elder Ravi, during their heydays. He was no mean painter himself, and is a person whose persona I will bring to light on these pages someday. Ravi Varma himself has been written about in so many books, but there is unfortunately quite a bit of conflicting and incorrect information in some of his early biographies, which were perhaps a little too effusive. Nevertheless, he was a genius and also in many ways just an ordinary person, deeply religious, meticulous in his work, quick to take offense and in later days a mite tired after the onset of diabetic symptoms, for which sadly there were no insulin therapies in those days.

Ravi Varma
Today our whole perception of the physical look of a Hindu god is somewhat due to Ravi Varma and his lithographs. The fine muscular structure of Shiva, the majestic look of Lakshmi, the somber face of Saraswati, Bhima’s physique, Yudhishtira’s pensive looks, Damayanti’s forlorn face, Ravana’s fierce countenance … name it, they were created from the faces of ordinary mortals of India, in the studios of Ravi and Raja Varma.. The saree was popularized with his paintings, Ravi was the first to depict to the masses the drapery of many a fine Maharashtrian and Kancheepuram saree.

But how did he get there? How did he learn his basics? The story is quite interesting and I got some detail from Deepanjana’s biography on the artist. Additional detail came from the debut book on the Travancore Royals by the young Manu S Pillai and an exquisite article on Travancore art by Sharat Sundar Rajeev. Was Ravi self-taught? Did he learn painting on the sly? In a previous article, we talked about his later day muses at Bombay, but who was his first muse, who was his first mentor and sponsor? If he learned from a teacher, who was the teacher and what kind of paintings did he do? The answers are very illuminating and throw light into the workings and life at the royal houses of Travancore.

Like most palaces, the rich Travancore abodes had their share of poets, singers, courtesans, writers,
Raja Varma (Brother)
scribes and painters. What was once the so called Kerala mural style of paintings or frescos dealing with mythical characters and legends, which you can still see here and there, were being replaced by the company style or hybrid Indo European style, steeped in very visible subjects and realism, but with a tint of the Mughal. The style of painting which took root in Travancore during Ravi Varma’s younger years however was the so called Tanjore style, itself influenced by the Vijayanagara style, and even the Company style.

If you recall from our discussions around Swati Tirunal and music, there was a steady flow of artisans from the declining Maratha Nayak kingdom to Travancore in the latter decades of the 19th century. The Travancore rajas, patrons of art and music were glad to receive some of those stalwarts moving out from Tanjore, westward. These artists (Rajus & Naidus) or ‘oviars’ were originally Telugu speaking people from the artistically vibrant "Rayalseema" region of Andhra, who moved to Tamil Nadu in the wake of the fall of the Vijayanagar Empire and the establishment of Nayak rule in Madurai and Thanjavur. Some of them famed in art, moved to Travancore, carrying with them mastery over a new medium, oil, in search of patronage, particularly to the courts of Swathi Thirunal (1829-47), and his successor, Ayilyam Thirunal (1847-80).

The encouragement to painting on modern lines in Travancore was given by Swati Tirunal who invited to his court Alagiri Naidu, a native of Madura, considered to be the best painter of the day (Pedda Dasari was another exponent who painted at the courts during this period). Alagiri Naidu, expert on ivory painting was the person who introduced canvas painting in Travancore and it was he who executed the painting of Dewan Subba Rao, and a few other exquisite paintings. Popular during the 1850’s Naidu was instrumental in teaching his methods to Raja Raja Varma, Ravi Varma’s uncle.

Ramaswamy Naicker or Naidu who followed him was an oil painter in the European style, specializing in portraits and served in Ayilyam Tirunal’s court. While some people pass off Naicker’s art as linear (I don’t), examples of which can still be seen in the Sri Chitra art gallery, he was popular and in 1874, at an exhibition in Calcutta, Ramaswamy of Travancore dominated. Naidu carried off the prize for 'the best work by a native artist'.  Looking at his two marvelous paintings “three Nair girls of Travancore” and “mother and child” you can see the influence he had on Ravi Varma’s picturization, especially the curves and depiction of native jewelry.

It was an incident between this Naicker and Ravi Varma that was to become a catalyst to Ravi Varma’s meteoric rise and Naicker’s (Naidu) decline. According to popular tradition, “once in a weak moment he (Ravi Varma) approached Naidu for some guidance, but Naidu only curtly refused.” Later biographers of Varma often point to this incident as a decisive moment in the life of young Varma, for it was when he made up his mind to excel Naidu at any cost. But let us see what a couple of his biographers have to say.

The 13 year old Ravi Varma who had already been dabbling in water colors, was brought to Trivandrum by his uncle Raja Raja Varma in 1862 and was presented to the maharaja Ayilyam Tirunal, mainly to be interviewed as a potential suitor for one of the palace princesses (a point debated by some). Manu Pillai explains - In 1859, less than two years after the adoption the Maharajah decided to get the Rani married and three young suitors were presented to her. One of them was Kerala Varma of Changanassery, the grandnephew of the Maharajah’s father. The other was Kerala Varma from Kilimanoor while the third was a Ravi Varma, also from Kilimanoor. The choice had to be made most carefully. A royal consort would father future Maharajahs and hence intelligence, good looks etc were all essential qualities. Rani Lakshmi Bayi chose the Koil Thampuran from Changanassery. She had rejected Ravi Varma because he was dark skinned and her sister Rani Parvathi Bayi had selected the second person.

His uncle sought a second meeting with the king and it was here that Ravi presented the Raja with three of his handiworks, one of which resembled the new consort of the Raja. The meeting covered many other subjects and the Raja took a liking for the young fella from Kilimanoor and asked him to stay back to live in Trivandrum and learn from the palace stalwarts. Nobody, or for that matter Ravi himself would have imagined that this one meeting would be the forerunner to the buildup of his brilliance, fame and name, but also the fact that he would sire the girls who bore future lineages of the Travancore dynasty.

Kerala Varma Koyil Thampuran (Parappanad royal family) born to a Parappanad Rani the cousin of
Bhageerathy (Wife)
Ravi Varma mentioned above (he was married to Kerala Varma’s mothers youngest sister) was a friend and sponsor. He was the person who presented Ravi his first set of Winsor & Newton oil paints around 1866. Ravi stayed at the Moodathu madom near the Padmanabhaswami temple and observed the painters of the palace and the sculptors at the temple, those were the informal lessons which formed his base. Ravi also found access to the palace collections and libraries, he saw European paintings, especially French art, on the printed medium. Ravi also struck up an acquaintance with Madhava Rao, the dewan, which was to serve him in good stead for the future. Three years passed by and as the young boy started to feel at ease in the palace, the resident painters started to get more wary of the new entrant (with an access to the king), as his paintings started to show more promise. In 1866 he got married to a child princess Bhageerathi from nearby Mavelikkara, but he was not to stay at his brides home for long (for that was custom), and he returned to Trivandrum to get back to a problem which was vexing him, the matter of mixing pigments with oil to create good paintings. It was something he simply could not master, even after some guidance by his uncle.  He requested Naicker’s help and the meeting between the two resulted in naught and left the two as bitter enemies. 

Ravi complained to the king, and Naicker did likewise, to his friend - the raja’s brother Vishakam Tirunal, the Raja’s rival and heir, whom he had always courted. Ravi Varma as you can see had brought about a minor palace crisis which was eventually resolved when Naicker was asked to let Ravi watch him at work. Ravi leaned nothing new, and the aspect of making and mixing of paint was always done in secret, in a neighboring room, well away from Ravi’s prying eyes. At some point, Ravi became friends with Arumugham Pillai, Naicker’s assistant. Whether he was bribed or he acted on his accord is not clear, but Arumugham became a late night visitor to Ravi’s studio to impart special training to him. The story reminded me of Dronacharya and Ekalavya, but left a question. Who was really the teacher Arumugham or Ramaswami? Pillai himself went on to excel at his work and set up the art section at the Napier museum and I would consider Arumugham as Ravi Varma’s guru.

Two events in 1868 were to turn the tide even further. One was the arrival of European painter Theodore Jensen and the other the entrance of a muse (and perhaps romance) in Ravi’s life.

A painter of Dutch origin, who had just finished working a commission for the British royal family, named Theodore Jansen came to India to seek his fortune as a portrait painter. Before moving to Travancore, Jansen had already completed a number of portraits at Poona and Bombay, and many of his works had been exhibited in the special Picture Gallery at the Nagpur Exhibition on 1865-66. Now his task was to create paintings of the Ayilyam Tirunal and his family, especially his consort the beautiful Kalyanikutti amma. It was a turbulent period in the palace, with the Visakham Tirunal scheming in the background, the new royal consort now the Nagercoil Ammachi establishing her will in the household and Dewan Madhava Rao getting estranged from the king. Let’s get to know the beautiful lady.

After the death of Thiruvattar Ammachi his first wife, the Maharajah married in 1862 one Kalyanikutty Amma (born 1839) the daughter of Krishna Menon, a former Dewan of Cochin and Lakshmi Amma. She had been previously married to Punnakkal Easwara Pillai Vicharippukar, a kathakali exponent.

As Sharat Sundar Rajeev, Travacore history buff explains - ‘Kaithavilakam Bungalow’ a.k.a. ‘Bungalow Ammaveedu,’ located in Punnakkal Lane, is the home of one of the prominent families inside the Fort area. The history of Kaithavilakam Bungalow is entwined with the life of Easwara Pillai Vicharippukar, one of the greatest Kathakali exponents of Travancore. Easwara Pillai was a favorite of Uthram Tirunal Marthanda Varma, the King of Travancore. According to popular family tradition, Easwara Pillai had married four times and one of his wives lived in the Bungalow Ammaveedu.

That was Kalyani Kutty. Kalyani arrived in Trivandrum during the 1850’s after eloping with the Pillai. When and how the king met this lady is not clear, but it is rumored that he met her either at Cochin or at Trivandrum and that he was so enamored with her and took to visiting her on the sly. Easwara Pillai as it seems, had no choice but to hand his wife over to the king.

In 1865 she was formally married to the king following three years of ‘kettilamma status or consortship’, and was adopted by the Maharajah into the Nagercoil Ammaveedu after which her full title became Nagercoil Ammachi Panapillai Amma Srimathi Lakshmi Pillai Kalyanikutty Pillai Ammachi.

Nagercoil Ammachi was also a scholar of Sanskrit and a poet in her own right, having authored Rasa Krida, Satya Panchakam, Pativrataya Panchakam, Ambarishacharitram and other works. She learnt English, hobnobbed with dignitaries, studied the Bible and so on, all very uncharacteristic for a Royal consort who should typically remain behind the scenes. Kalyanikutty Amma as we heard previously, was a woman of renowned beauty and a Carnatic composer of merit, as evidenced by her oeuvre ‘Saptaswara Sankirtanam’.

Jensen was now in Travancore to paint the king and this strong willed lady. Meanwhile Ravi approached Jensen to be formally inducted as his pupil and Jensen promptly refused, for this haughty painter had no intention in having any kind of competition. Ravi requested the king’s help again and the king ruled just like he did with Ramaswami naicker, that Jensen let Ravi watch him at work. 

Jensen had a torrid time for over a month painting the king and the Nagercoil Ammachi, for they were not sitting together but the painting had to show them side by side. With separate sittings and a glowering king, he felt very uncomfortable. Ravi on the corner was also doing the same portrait, but in his own fashion. After they were done, Ravi impertinently presented his portrait to the king, and his likeness of Kalyanikutty amazed everybody, with people agreeing that it was a brilliant painting.

It cemented Ravi’s reputation in Travancore and drew him to his first muse, the royal consort Kalyanikutty. Again, we have to rely on rumors that she became a patron of sorts, supporting him after that event and there are many mentions of the consort’s regular visits to Ravi’s studio at irregular hours. In 1870 the painter left on a trip to Mookambika, and that was when he took his first commission at Calicut to paint Kizhakke Palat Krishna Menon’s family.

As the tale goes, he came back and was gifted a Vira Shringala bangle by the king. Soon he rose to fame as a portrait painter and with it came busy days, more rumors etc. At the palace, the things were turning sour, with Madhava Rao breaking off from the king, the king’s tussle with his brother and the strong willed Nagercoil Ammachi’s involvement in state matters. Kerala Varma Koyil Thampuran’s hand in all this was suspected and as a result of all this intrigue, was declared a traitor and banished.

Manu pillai explains the intrigue - The Maharajah Ayilyam Thirunal, who ascended the musnud in 1860, was on bad terms with the Elayarajah Visakham Thirunal, who it was rumored had tried to secure the removal of his brother with the connivance of Dewan Rajah Sir T. Madhava Rao. The Dewan had been “retired” with a handsome pension, but the relationship between the Maharajah and his brother remained tense. Kerala Varma, who was a protégé of the Elayarajah, became the Maharajah’s pawn to punish his brother.

Over and above all this it appears Ramaswamay Naicker was behind spreading some of the rumors that Ravi Varma was getting singular praise only because of Kalyanikutty. By 1872, Madhava Rao was retired or dismissed and Ravi Varma who was considered to be close to Kerala Varma was also asked to leave Travancore. Eventually Ravi was called back to Travancore, only to leave again in 1881 after machinations by Naicker and the ill will shown by the new king Visakam Tirunal.

M Kasper writes - Relations between the painter and his Travancore patrons, however, were not always smooth. Ayialyam Tirunaal, Maharaja until 1880, was genuinely supportive, but his brother and successor Visakam was not. He thought Ravi Varma too big for his britches. He was especially miffed once when Ravi Varma happened to get an Imperial citation made out to Raja Ravi Varma, an honorific which the Maharaja felt the artist wasn't entitled to. Ravi Varma was bothered in turn, and thereafter he took to using the title openly, just to get the old ruler's goat. It might be noted that the only gift for which Visakam is thanked today is introducing tapioca to Kerala.

Naicker’s and Ravi’s tussles continued with both competing at exhibitions, and it is debated often as to who won and whose name remained for posterity. Finally Ravi Varma stopped submitting his work for exhibitions, for his fame had spread and there was no need. It was time to spread his wings and move North, with his friend and confidante, his younger brother Raja Raja Varma. In some ways that rivalry was necessary for that provided Ravi the impetus to excel. The rest of the story covering the days before he returned for good, will be taken up another day.

Let me now present an ode to the painter from Subramanya Bharati - Bharatiyar (a rough translation of Subramanya Bharathi's vaazhthupaattu- 'Chandiranoliai Eesan padaithathu)

God created moonlight and the Jataka bird to drink it. He also created gods to consume the nectar, he created Iravata the elephant to match the splendor of Indra, he created beauty in flowers, in the blue sky and on the countenances of women, for the famed Ravi Varma to paint it on Canvas…The master's light... . Has lit the palaces of Kings and the huts of the poor", bringing "delight" to all….

Even though I am great fan of Raja Ravi Varma’s works, the two paintings of Nayar girls by Ramaswamy Naicker are my personal favorites, of late. They are just fascinating, if you spend a few minutes in front of those works and look closely, some might agree. See them here 

But were they better than Ravi Varma’s figures? Well, it depends….

Sharat Sunder Rajeev, "The Durbar Artists of Travancore," in Tinpahar, October 12, 2015,
The Painter Deepanjana Pal
The ivory throne Manu S Pillai
Madras Miscellany By Muthiah S (when art breaks records 9Dec 2002) 

A note for the uninitiated – The Rani of Travancore is not the wife of the King, but the sister or neice of the king. The king’s wife is called an Ammachi or consort. The king’s son does not become king, but his eldest nephew becomes one. All this because of the practice of matriliny in Kerala. Ammaveedus were the residences of the consorts of the Maharajahs of Travancore in Trivandrum. The main Ammaveedus are the Arumana, Vadasseri, Thiruvattar and Nagercoil Ammaveedus. The Ammachi as Samuel Mateer put it…is not a member of the royal household, has neither official nor social position at court, and cannot even be seen in public with the ruler whose associate she is.” For further details refer Manu’s article 

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