V K Krishna Menon – The enigma

Maddy in conversation with Jairam Ramesh, author of ‘A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of V.K. Krishna Menon’

While many people have opined that they could never understand VK Krishna Menon or his ways, let alone his actions, even those who have been close to him throughout his life such as Jawaharlal Nehru have admitted being somewhat puzzled by his character. Menon remained an enigma and thus became a cause for the birth of many a myth or legend. One person who has recently taken upon himself to study Menon at depth is none other than Jairam Ramesh, who has just released a hefty treatise on Menon and his life’s journey. It is as he defines it, a chronological archival biography, documenting Menon’s successes and failures, relying on a huge amount of archival records, some which have been just released into public domain, some which had been top secret intelligence agency records and interspersed  good amount of personal correspondence obtained from members of his family.

I have been studying Menon and his life for well over 10 years and have written about him off and on, but I must admit that the sheer depth of Jairam’s study of the ‘undiplomatic diplomat’ and  ‘the politically incorrect politician’, provided me appropriate answers and references to many of my remaining questions.

An opportunity for a conversation with the author was therefore a godsend. 

We are now in conversation with Jairam Ramesh, an academic, an economist, a politician and a chronicler of the Nehru times through his books on Indira Gandhi, PN Haskar and now Krishna Menon. Jairam Ramesh as a politician belonging to the Indian National Congress, served previously as a Union Cabinet minister.

Jairam Ramesh
Armed with a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical engineer from IIT Bombay, he proceeded for higher studies to the Carnegie Melon University in USA where he acquired a master’s degree in Public policy and management. His doctoral studies at MIT were cut short due to family exigencies and Jairam found himself back in India in the late 70’s. Brief stints with the World bank, the planning commission and the CSIR provided him the necessary grounding for work in the complicated field of the Indian economy and its growth as well as its environment. By 2004 he had been inducted into the AICC, thus entering politics, and was subsequently elected as a member of parliament. In 2009, he took over responsibilities  first as Minister of State for environment and forests and later in 2011 as Cabinet Minister for Rural development (with an additional charge for Drinking water and Sanitation). His fields of study and expertise cover Indo China relations, the Nehru years, forests and environment,  the Indian economy and rural development.

Last month, Jairam released his well-researched, compelling and detailed biography of VK Krishna Menon. There have been extensive reviews and coverage on the book as well as personal interviews with the author, in the print and visual media.

In this conversation with Jairam, we will not only touch upon some of the usual topics associated with Menon, but also get to know Menon the human being, a little better. Hopefully, Menon will be a less of an enigma, to our readers, when we finish.
Maddy: Thank you Ramesh for giving me the opportunity to discuss the topic of Krishna Menon and his chequered life, one that is of mutual interest. Let’s start with your choice of study. Why and how did you choose Krishna Menon as a subject? Was it because it required one to understand Menon if he or she had to understand Nehru’s actions? Is it so that Nehru and Menon were in intellectual tandem, or even better, in mental harmony throughout their careers?

Jairam Ramesh : I chose VKKM because he was such a consequential figure in Nehru’s  life between 1935 and 1964. He was Nehru’s intellectual soulmate and indeed an integral part of his family. No student of Indian political history can ignore Nehru and no student of Nehru can ignore VKKM. To understand India’s role in world affairs in the 1950s especially requires an understanding of VKKM. Also, he left behind a treasure trove of personal papers which make a narrative biography based on contemporary written material possible. Other than that VKKM is such a fascinating figure—warts and all.
V K Krishna Menon

Maddy: In my opinion, the typical cynical Malayali has differing points of view and his/her actions are at times a bit different and nonconforming. Was Menon more English in outlook and did he lose anything by way of this Kerala character after his settlement in UK?

Jairam Ramesh :VKKM spoke, read or wrote no Malayalam. Other than his sister VK Janaki Amma I can’t think of any decisive ‘Kerala’ influence on him except M.A. Candeth who helped him out in Presidency College in Madras. He was certainly more English than Malayali in his outlook. Incidentally, he vehemently opposed the formation of a separate state of Kerala in 1956 as I have discussed in my book and warned Nehru against accepting this recommendation that was  being canvassed by another distinguished Malayali, K.M.Panikkar. VKKM’s constantly fought against fellow Malayalis in Delhi—VP Menon, KPS Menon, TG Sanjeevi Pillai and N. R. Pillai . But it was not just Malayalis he combated. He was an equal opportunity offence giver. Also, he tacitly supported the imposition of Article 356 in Kerala in 1959. Ironically one of the ministers in the dismissed EMS government was to later establish the Krishna Menon Memorial Society in 1975—V.R. Krishna Iyer. And of course  VKKM won elections in 1969  (Midnapur) and 1971 (Trivandrum) with the full support of the Communists.

Maddy: Menon did some stints as a lawyer, once as a lawyer for Udham Singh (who assassinated O’ Dwyer) and many decades later as the lawyer for EMS Namboothiripad of Kerala. Why did he choose these high-profile cases, and did he argue a good defense?

Jairam Ramesh : His legal career was nothing much to write home about except these two cases. He also appeared in the famous bank nationalization case in the Supreme Court in 1969. In England he appeared pro bono many times in behalf of Indian clients. He did create the Indian Society of International Law in New Delhi which is now housed in VKKM Bhawan and has a bust of his at its entrance. But on the whole his legal accomplishments like that of Nehru was mediocre.

Maddy: The Nehruvian years had many a Menon and Nair traversing the corridors of power in the various offices at South Delhi, so much so that a joke used to circulate around that Delhi had been affected by Menongitis. Aubrey Menen, the great satirist mentions in his autobiography that he changed his surname from Menon to MENEN only to differentiate himself from ‘the Krishna Menon’ he admired greatly (both were contemporaries in London). Would you say that Menon suffered his fellow Malayalis greatly? Did he think any one of them passed muster? KM Panikkar for one was also close to Nehru and dealt extensively in China affairs. Did Menon have a good working relationship with Panikkar on China?

Jairam Ramesh : I have already addressed this. Other than M.O. Mathai, VKKM was at loggerheads with other Malayalis in the corridors of power. KPS found him insufferable. Sanjeevi Pillai thought he was a communist and VP Menon thought he was Nehru’s busybody. Mathai and he were very  close although Mathai has been scathing about VKKM in his scurrilous and unreliable memoirs. One Malayali VKKM was very fond of and  close to for all his life was Shankara Menon who lived in Madras and worked with Rukmini Devi to build Kalakshetra. VKKM wrote for Mathrubhumi for many years from London—his articles were translated into Malayalam.

Maddy: One of the bones of contention between Menon and Panikkar was the creation of Kerala on linguistic lines. Menon was against balkanization of India as he termed it and thought it was nothing more than a personal view of KM Panikkar.

Jairam RameshYes, VKKM was against the creation of a separate Kerala on the grounds that it would become a  communist bastion. He was also against the creation of a separate Madras on the grounds that it would become a citadel of linguistic fanaticism. He argued for a large multi-lingual Dakshin Pradesh. But Nehru realized it was a romantic idea even though it appealed to him instinctively. Nehru was a strong advocate for the retention of a multi-lingual Bombay state and was persuaded finally by Indira Gandhi only in 1960 to agree to the creation of a separate Gujarat and Maharashtra. In the 1950s there were also proposals for one West Bengal-Bihar state which was advocated by people like BC Roy. I have dealt with this subject in my CD Deshmukh Memorial Lecture at the India International Centre in January 2019.

Maddy: Why did Menon get a hostile reception when he arrived at Delhi and why did it continue throughout his life? Why was he not given an opportunity or flexibility to perform? All his life in parliament, the opposition e.g. Kriplani and Morarji Desai were baying for his blood, is it so that he was being attacked as a proxy since Nehru was a difficult (being immensely popular) target?

Jairam Ramesh : The Congress party was resentful of his proximity to Nehru. Till 1956, he used to actually live with Nehru. Here was a man who had not been lathi charged, who had not been imprisoned, who had not gone on hunger strike, who had not paid obeisance to Gandhi and yet was Nehru’s closest confidant. Those who disliked Nehru made VKKM the target of their ire not wanting to attack Nehru himself directly because of the unique position he occupied in Indian public life. Of course, VKKM made no special or extra effort to build networks or expand his circle of friends knowing as he did that, he had the confidence of the one man who mattered most (and that man’s daughter too I may add).

Maddy: Menon was famous for surviving by drinking a great many cups of tea and munching a few buns. It is interesting to note that he was instrumental in bringing some South Indian cooks first to London and later to Delhi. It is said that Menon would go on an overdrive to help his fellow countrymen, is that right?

Jairam Ramesh : He was extraordinarily helpful to all and sundry but especially to Indian students who came to England. He was very solicitous about their welfare and well-being and built cheap hostel accommodation in London for them. He took on cases for Indian clients without expectation of being paid. He was completely non-parochial.

Maddy: Menon was at times like a child, be it his enthusiasm on collecting toys or his interest in field games. There are mentions of his gleefully running on to the field after India’s hockey team beat Britain 4-0 in the 1948 London Olympics and another, years later, after retirement, of his running barefoot to a journalist clutching a radio (in an Allahabad hotel reception area) only to ask what the latest cricket score was. Was he always like that, an enthusiastic and ardent supporter of Indian players and artistes?

Jairam Ramesh : Many stories of him are of course apocryphal—both the positive ones and negative ones too. I have used only those for which I was able to get written evidence and confirmation. But yes, when he was in London he supported Indian artists enthusiastically. Mulk Raj Anand I venture to suggest was a major influence on him in this regard . So was Rukmini Devi. Between 1957 and 1962 almost all of Bollywood was in thrall of him. He figures,  for instance, in Dev Anand’s autobiography. Balraj Sahni and KA Abbas were his acolytes.

Maddy: It is said that Menon was instrumental in roping in Lata Mangeshkar to sing at what became her first overseas outing - the famous Albert Hall concert. What is the story behind it? Was Menon a music enthusiast?

Jairam RameshHe roped in the Nightingale of India in early 1974 to raise funds for his pet project—a Nehru Centre in London. Lata had been his ardent admirer for almost twenty years and she responded to his appeal instantaneously. The Centre finally saw the light of India with Government of India support two decades later.

Maddy: Menon’s actions were sometimes driven by emotions and at other times by self-preservation but were usually logical. It is therefore surprising that he was quite superstitious and took to checking his future often with astrologers in Malabar. Is that right?

Jairam Ramesh : I found this aspect of his personality most difficult to understand. The supreme rationalist, the strong leftist, the atheist of sorts, the great believer in modernity and science was besotted with astrology and bugged his sister Janaki Amma every now  and then on this score. That doughty lady showed his horoscope to different astrologers mainly in and around Calicut. One predicted he would marry and have a son—so much for astrologers!!!

Maddy: Menon was plagued by the infamous Jeep case, for much of his working life. Why was it not cleared up and why was the complete Iyengar report never made available to the public?  Was it an error of judgement, did Menon make legitimate, but purposeful errors or was he a victim of the circumstances?

Jairam Ramesh :  I have dealt with the jeep scandal in great detail based on material that has never before been available. It is on the basis of a careful reading of this material that I came to the conclusion that VKKM’s buddies did make money and that part of the money was used to support the India League and its various activities. I find it difficult to believe that VKKM did not know that his friends were not all that straight. But he allowed them unfettered access and defended them till the very end. VKKM should be accused of poor judgment. Whether he was complicit is really hard to tell although it would be natural to come to that conclusion. VKKM was a poor administrator and really violated all procedures in the jeeps saga although the Indian army too was not without blemish.

Maddy: Many a resource mention Menon’s dependence on Luminal, a phenobarbital prescribed for seizures, anxiety, insomnia etc. Was it perhaps a reason for his occasional bouts of incoherence and irrational behavior?

Jairam Ramesh : Mine is not a medical or psychological biography. Yes, he was under medication for various afflictions including arthritis and recurring back pain. I don't delve into what effect medication for them may have had on his moods although I do say he was prone to  frequent mood-swings, bouts of self-pity and self-recrimination. His arrogance masked many insecurities although why he should be insecure foxed me.

Maddy: There is an interesting story of Menon Vs Menon and how KPS’s wife’s letter found its way to VK’s room. Were they good friends or adversaries?

Jairam Ramesh : VKKM and KPSM were adversaries in the peak of their careers although KPS was very generous in his tribute on VKKM’s death in 1974 which I have used. KPS and VKKM were ideologically aligned but their personalities were different. VKKM may have resented the fact that KPS was an ICS officer and that Nehru was fond of him too.

Maddy: Menon had a rough time with the army brass from the very beginning of his tenure as defense minister. While it is quite clear in hindsight that he was unsuited for such a position, did Nehru persist with him due to the need for a dependable and trustworthy ally holding that most important portfolio?   Were there cross purposes at play, such as the army brass desire to import armaments from the west right at the outset?

Jairam Ramesh : I have dealt with this in detail in the book. VKKM had thought of India’s defence policy in the mid-1950s and written to Nehru on it. Nehru was looking for a livewire as defence minister having himself held that portfolio for almost two years. Between 1957 and 1959 VKKM justified his appointment hugely. He started establishing the foundations of India’s defence production industry and made the DRDO a reality. He was very popular among the lower ranks of the armed forces. He initiated the modernization of the armed forces. But from mid-1959 onward things began to change and his clash with Thimayya particularly began to dent his image. The top army leadership was also at fault and for the first time I bring out their shenanigans as well. True, the army (and air force) wanted western equipment which was not very often agreed to by VKKM on very valid grounds. The top army personnel spoke loosely which fuelled VKKM’s irritation with them. After the Ayub Khan coup in Pakistan in 1958, VKKM became wary of the larger than life figures in the armed forces like Thimayya. Adding to the problem was that for 3-4 months a year VKKM was away as head of the  Indian delegation to the UN which allowed space and time for cross purposes come into play.

Maddy: Menon was frequently pilloried by his critics and his detractors through the press to get at him and his boss Nehru  - should Menon in hindsight have employed a public relations assistant or a press secretary? Would it have burnished his image?

Jairam Ramesh :   Yes, VKKM was his own worst enemy by what he said and how he said it. The press was divided on him.  He had his champions and he had his detractors in equal measure. He didn’t particularly care for his image I must admit. But he was too much of a maverick to be subject to the discipline of an organized PR machinery. He could be charming and abrasive at the same time. Even the articles most critical of him would almost always highlight his positive attributes and his strengths. The thing to understand is that he was a bundle of contradictions and he made no effort to hide them.

Maddy: Menon’s role in the Indo -China war of 1962 is perhaps one of the most talked about in his public life.  It is also known that important documents such as the Henderson Brooks report are still not released for reasons of national security. Does your study reveal influence of other nations and larger geopolitical events in precipitating the 62 debacle or was it fully or partially due to the foreword policy  action? What exactly was Mao Tse-Tung’s role in the Chinese decision to attack?

Jairam Ramesh : These are questions that have been studied and continue to be studied by scholars all over the world. Mine is not a history of  why and how 1962 happened. Mine is a biography of one of the pivotal figures of the 1962 episode. VKKM always believed that the decision to attack India was that of Mao—and scholarship has indeed upheld that position contrary to Neville Maxwell’s coloured account. Rod Macfarqahar and John Garver have addressed Mao’s role in triggering the 1962 war in my view quite definitively.

Maddy: Continuing with Menon and 1962 – why was the Indian air force not used in this war? Was it to prevent the escalation of a relatively smaller skirmish into a large-scale war? Was it not known to India, at least through her Russian connections that the Chinese air force was grounded due to lack of spare parts from Russia at that moment?

Jairam Ramesh : I have not dealt with this at all because I found no archival evidence on the subject. My book was not a history of what happened or did not happen in 1962 but a biography of VKKM. Maybe there are files in the Ministry of Defence and the Prime Minister’s Office that would hopefully be declassified soon so that this particular question of yours can be answered convincingly.

Maddy: MO Mathai who was once a good friend and supporter of Krishna Menon later became a bitter enemy, what was the reason behind this development?

Jairam Ramesh : By (1959 – Maddy) Mathai was a bitter man, bitter that he had been forced out from Nehru’s innermost circle. Between 1946 and 1957 Mathai and VKKM were close and friendly. Their letters to each other were very warm. Both were chums of Rajkumari Amrit Kaur. But the ‘left lobby’ finally ousted Mathai and it was speculated that VKKM played a part in Mathai’s exit. There is no clinching evidence though to substantiate this speculation.

Maddy: Several Bollywood actors, directors and writers held Menon in high esteem. How did Menon discover and develop camaraderie with that unlikely corner? Was it due to the efforts of Dr Baliga and Blitz Karanjia?

Jairam Ramesh : Yes Dr. Baliga the famous (doctor) played a hugely influential role in this regard and there is a wonderful picture in my book of VKKM with him and Nutan. But there were others like Rajni Patel, Balraj Sahni, Raj Kapoor, Nargis, K.A. Abbas who also helped VKKM become the darling of Bollywood. It certainly helped that both in 1957 and 1962 VKKM won the Lok Sabha elections from Bombay.

Thank you Jairam for the erudite answers and a stimulating discussion.

The book is I can assure you, compelling reading, for those who want a deeper insight into the Nehru years and VKKM himself.

In conclusion, I add here an extract from Jairam's book introducing VKKM, laying the ground for an excellent study.

This new biography does not intend to eulogize Krishna Menon for his numerous contributions nor castigate him for his many sins. It is, instead meant to be a clinically objective narrative of his chequered life, based almost entirely on contemporary documentary evidence. I narrate a complex tale letting the written material speak for themselves. Krishna Menon is an eminently fit subject for what has been called ‘psychohistory’. I have refrained from tilling that field and have stuck mostly to what the archives can tell us. This is not a judgmental undertaking: it is, instead, what I could call a pretty straightforward narrative biography. As far as possible, I have kept myself out of the story. Krishna Menon’s proponents have spun many legends, just as his detractors have propagated many myths. Neither approach does full justice to the man and his mix of contradictions and brilliance. My task has been to pierce through the legends and the myths, the embellishments and the exaggerations and present the mans as he was – erratic, insecure, frequently acerbic in speech, very often supercilious in silence, but always arresting and compelling. He could never be ignored and always stood out, warts and all.

Krishna Menon was never a perfect or infallible person. In his public life, he was eminently suited for certain roles while proving to be an abject failure in others. He was always the greatest traveling salesman and spokesman for India at august gatherings such as the United Nations or as a roving ambassador for Nehru. But when amongst his subordinates and colleagues, he proved to be a difficult manager - opinionated, abrasive, authoritarian and sometimes, downright rude. Nevertheless, while some focus on the devious actions he took to prove his point or his bad manners, others vouch for his resolute work ethic, flashes of brilliance and total honesty.

In the end, Menon was a just a man who held India foremost in his heart and actions, his friend Nehru a close second and no one or nothing thereafter.

  •  K Sankara Menon who administered Kalakshetra, was VK Krishna Menon’s cousin brother. Sankara Menon was the youngest of three sons of Vengalil Sankara Menon and Kariottukalathil Kalyani Amma from Calicut.
  • O’ Dywer’s role in the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre has been covered in the following articles - Dwyer, Dyer and Nair Hans Raj - The British Approver 
  • The club which Menon set up was the India club and the hostel is now the Indian YMCA. I have stayed there a few times, a very well-located place!
  • For details of what Dev Anand had to say about VKKM, read this article, Two facets of Krishna Menon 


Hanuman’s tunnel

Sheikh Othman (Hanuman) in Yemen

Many years ago, one Sir Syed Ahmad Taqvi bin Syed Muhammad Muttaqi KCSI, commonly known as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, an Islamic pragmatist, reformist and philosopher of nineteenth century British India wrote thus at Aden, circa 1870, in his ‘A voyage to Modernism (Safarnama-i-musafiran-i- Landan)’.  While out of the mosque we were sitting in, we met a Hindu and sat with him. He was a Marwari. He had come to Bombay and ran a money lending business. He had lived here a long time and traveled by ship. He informed us that there were three Hindu temples in Aden - Mahadev, Hanuman and one more I don’t now recall, they were built by donations from the Hindu travelers to Aden. I was delighted to know that Hindus traveled across the ocean in steamers as far as Aden without polluting their caste and religion. May god bless the Hindus of our part of the country also with similar wisdom!

You may wonder why I mentioned this in starting. Well, one the Hanuman temple and its relevance in distant Aden and secondly the fact that Hanuman according to legend, reached Aden through a tunnel under the sea. Surprised? Well, there was such a myth, and recorded so among others, by the 13th century traveler Ibn al-Mujawir.

And with that, I will introduce you to a certain Arab version of our epic Ramayana.

Ibn al-Mujawir’s Tarikh is a wide-ranging work, framed in large part as a typical rihla or travel account of his journey through the Hijaz and Southern Arabia. In it he narrates - The Indians have reported as follows – Aden was the prison of Dassir, the name of a djinn with ten heads,  one of them al-Ghazl Dasir. He used to live in the Jabal al-Manzar and take a walk on the sands of Huqqat. After his death Hanuman lived in Huqqat. It was Solomon, son of David- PBUH- who drove them out when he arrived in the land of the Yemen for Bilqis, since the people mentioned above are spirits….Aden was called Samran by the Hinds…

Jabal irah is a lofty mountain in the sea opposite Aden and Jabel Al Manzar… In the mountain is a well called Anbar and called by the Indian sages Fu Bar, was turned upside down and continuously puts out smoke… No one can look into it because it is too hot, of difficult access and dark. There are broken stones around the well, also sleeping vipers and snakes are rearing up. The Indians said that Hanuman, i.e. the spirit mentioned above dug this well. It is not really a well, but an underground passage leading under the sea to the town of Ujjaini Vikramaditya, the seat of King Malwa in India.

I was informed by Mubarak al Sharabi, the client of my father Muhammad B Masaud, as follows – The reason of the digging of the well to Fu Bar was that a spirit Hadathar stole Sita from the regions of Ayodhya, took her off and settled with her on the summit of Jabal Sirah. He said he wanted to change her shape to that of a Djinni. While they were engage in argument, Hanuman heard of what was going on, he being another spirit in the shape of a monkey. So he dug this underground passage from the middle of the town of Ujjaini Vikramaditya beneath the sea. The ends of the excavation reached the middle of Jabal Siran and he did all this in one night. He left the hole and found her asleep on the summit of the mountain under a thorn tree. HE picked her up on his back and took her down the underground passage, journeying by night until he reached Ujjaini. As dawn shone brightly, he handed her over to her husband Ramachandra. She bore him two male children one called Lava and the other Kusa. There is a long story full of incident attached to her, the telling of which would take too long, but the underground passage has remained till now.

Now he continues to mention that this is not the only tunnel to India – A certain Indian dug an underground passage in Devalvara in the regions of Al Sumanat the end of which led to….. in the regions of Devagiri the first part of the borders of which are Malwa. It also ran under the sea and sand and is said to be the work of a djinn, there can be no doubt about that! And then he talks about another Indian tunneler who dug a complex tunnel for a noble man so he could secretly tryst up with the daughter of the king. Ibn al-Mujawir, also notes that Aden was often referred to as Habs al-Fir’awn—Prison of the Pharaohs—and Muqam al-jinn—Abode of the jinn. Ibn al-Mujawir apparently cited his anecdotes from a local Yemeni chronicle, Kitab al-Mufi d fi Akhbar al- Zabid. In the book, Ramachandra is Ram Hyder, and Hanuman is Hanumat (hanuman) an ifrit - a clever and powerful form of the djinn. 

Just to see how different people view the same story, take a look at this Mughal painting depicting a scene showing Sita shying away from a differently dressed Hanuman, thinking it is Ravana in disguise.

As we can see, this version is quite different from the Lanaka Ramayana which we are all familiar with where Rama, Lakshmana and Hanuman are involved in the rescue of Sita from Ravana living in Lanka.  In this version, Ravana is replaced by Hadathar in Aden. 

The temples in Yemen which Muttaqui mentioned are actually the Tarichmerga Temple which was built in 1862, the Ram Temple built in 1875 and the ‘Sheikh Othman’ Hanumanji Temple was built in 1882. This was spread over an area of five acres in the Sheik Othman district. It reportedly used to have a garden with a pool which was used by the devotees for bathing. It also had two lodgings for the Indian community. The temple no longer exists now. Another temple named Shankar Hanuman Temple used to exist: It was built in the nineteenth century and was located inside a large cave in the Dashmi Bazar, Khusaf Valley in the Crater area.

But Hanuman as some readers already know was indeed involved in tunnel travel in Indian versions of the Ramayana and perhaps multiple events and stories got mixed and corrupted by the time it reached the Arab traveler. Let’s see one of the many versions to see a possibility.

The war with Ravana is raging. Ravana sends for Ahiravana for help. Ahiravana arriving disguised as Vibhishana, abducts the two sleeping brothers, Rama and Lakshmana at night and carries them off to Patala, the netherworld. Hanuman who was responsible for the security despairs and takes it upon himself to rescue the brothers before they are sacrificed to Mahakali by Ahiravana. He enters Patala through a crack in the sea floor and goes through a tunnel to the netherworld. As Hanuman trudges along to the palace, he is stopped by a monkey guard looking just like him, only to understand that this is his son Makaradhawja, conceived from his sweat (Hanuman was celibate) through a fish Makara which swallowed the sweat drop! But his son would not let him in, so Hanuman has no choice but to wrestle and subdue him. Hanuman soon assumes the form of the goddess and starts to consume every offering that is served, and awaits the offering of Ram and Lakshmana by Ahiravana. As Ahiravana is about to slay Rama for the goddess, Hanuman pounces on Ahiravana and lops off his head. On the way out, Rama asks Hanuman to untie his son and makes him the new lord of Patala.

In other versions, we have Ahiravana digging upwards to the location where Rama and Lakshmana are sleeping and eventually manages to kidnap them. Hanuman tracks them later going through the tunnel and rescues them. I guess that is how tunnels and the connection to the Djinn in Aden came about. Was Hadathar the Ahiravana or the Ravana with ten heads? Difficult to surmise.

You may wonder how Ujjain came into contention in this story. Even though the world map depicts a relatively straight line from Aden to Ujjain, I can see no practical reason for the connection since dhows shuttled between various western sea ports in Malabar and Gujarat to Aden in the past. Ujjain was of course very important to the Hindus and was part of anything mathematical, navigational and astrological, because that is where India’s ancient Prime Meridian zero longitude and the Tropic of Cancer once crossed. Lord Mahakaal, the presiding deity of Ujjain is considered to be the God of Time. Even today, wherever a horoscope is made according to the Hindu almanac, Ujjain time (roughly 29 minutes behind IST) is usually its basis!

Why was such a fable created? Intermingling of cultures, traders and tales over cups of coffee, the elixir of Yemen? Who knows? Then again where and what was Patala and who was a Rakshasa? Some knowledgeable people have connected the area south of the Deccan to Patala and the darker skinned matrilineal Dravidians to rakshasas. We will discuss all that another opportune day and later, we can also take a look at the Chinese versions of the Ramayana.

A Traveler in Thirteenth-Century Arabia / Ibn al-Mujawir's Tarikh al-Mustabsir edited by G. Rex Smith
An Account of the British Settlement of Aden in Arabia - By Frederick Mercer Hunter
Imperial Muslims: Islam, Community and authority in the Indian Ocean, 1839-1937 by Scott S. Reese - Hanuman’s Tunnel: Collapsing the Space between Hind and Arabia in the Arab Imaginary
The rich Hindu temple heritage in Aden – Embassy of India Yemen


Bharatanatyam - A 140 year old institution in Baroda

Tanjore’s Nautchinis, Tawaiif’s or Dancers in Sayajirao’s court

In 1926, the Viceroy to India Lord Reading visited Baroda and was hosted by King Sayaji Rao. After somber discussions, they say down to watch a bit of Tanjavur Nautch, performed by the dancers Gaurabai and Kanta. The reporter wrote - Lord Reading was minutely surveying the Tanjore Dancers who were giving an exhibition of ancient Hindu dances, the like of which he had never seen before. These dancers hailed from the South and the dances were peculiar too and required a tremendous amount of energy of which the dancers in spite of their age, seemed to have plenty.

Well, that must have given you some idea, but you must be wondering who these dancers were and why they were dancing Sadir or Bharatanatyam in Baroda, of all places? Well, therein rests the story, embedded in the arrival of Rani Chimabai I, from Tanjore, when she married Sayajirao Gaekwad III, the King of Baroda in 1880.

You know, I used to travel to Baroda every month during the 80’s at Bombay, but I did not have a clue about the Baroda Bani (Bani is style or school – like Gharana for Hindustani music) of Bharatanatyam! I do recall eating at the Madras café across the railway station and did come across many a Tamilian there, but though they had nothing to do with this story, I did not know the Tamil connection between Baroda and Tanjore, effected by the Travancore Dewan Madhava Rao (the statue at MG road Trivandrum, at the statue junction, is to honor him, if you did not know).

Sayajirao ruled Baroda from 1875 to 1939 and was a keen follower of classical music and dance.  Many artists, painters and musicians graced his palace and as we all know Ravi Varma did a large number of his famous paintings, under his patronage. The person who introduced Ravi Varma to Sajayjirao and effected the wedding with Chimnabai was the ex-Dewan of Travancore, Madhava Rao who had taken over in Baroda around 1875. After her arrival at Baroda, the palace built for them was named Lakshmi Vilas, in her honor.

Chimanbai (born Laxmibai) did not live long in Baroda, succumbing to tuberculosis in 1885.  The Maharani had gained much esteem, she was well educated, and seemingly exerted her influence within the Baroda Palace and the states administration, though Sayajirao mentions that she was "a mild, charitable, amiable woman, a devoted mother and a loving wife. Their only son from this marriage, Fatehsing Rao, died in 1908, aged 25, leaving two daughters and one son, Pratap Rao, who became the heir apparent. The Ravi Varma (completed by Rama Varma, later) painting of Chimnabai seen here is dated 1880- 1881.

Chimnabai it appears was erudite in Baharatanatyam and Carnatic music. When she arrived in Baroda in 1880, she brought with her as part of her dowry, a dance troupe which comprised the following: Gauri aged 10 and Sharada (or Bhanumati) aged 9 - both devadasi dancers trained at the Kamakshi temple Tanjore, Kammu - Gauri’s mother, to look after the girls, Kannuswami and Vadivelu – the two Nattuvanars or dance choreographers, Sabapati (Vadivelu’s son) the Mridangam player, Subramaniam the vocalist and assistant Nattuvanar, Muthuswami a nadaswaram player and Ramaswami – the bagpiper or Tuthi player. Each of them had high repute and the Nattuvanars belonged to the Tanjavur quartet lineage.

What follows is the story of how they created the Baroda-Tanjore Bani or style of Bharatnatyam closely allied to the so called Pandanallur style.

As the story goes, Gauri and Sharada, the two dasis, with their retinue of musicians, performed and entertained at the Baroda Darbar for some 3-4 years. Sharada (or Bhanumati) left and was replaced by another dancer from Tanjore - Nagai Amma, who too left after a while. After a lonely period for the next 5 years, Gauri was joined by Kanthimathi, her cousin and these two not only performed but also taught dance for well over 5 decades in Baroda. Their dance repertoire included the standard program of those days (it was called the “Tanjori Nautch” at this time) and some “light” dances at the end. In the middle of this busy performing period, they also had a regular family life. Mridangist Appaswamy arrived after the demise of Sabapati, in 1895 and was to become the father of both Gauri’s and Kanthimathi’s children (according to Sapna’s article). The children are the “Tanjorkars” e.g. Kubernath Tanjorkar.

Sayajirao took good care of his dancers and his Kalavanth Kahta, the department for artists, laid strict rules, duly administered by an inspector. The dancers were together paid Rs. 433/- month, much more than other dancers. Their accompanying musicians were paid a total of Rs. 272/- month. Unlike the South where the Nattuvanar took leadership, the Baroda rules required that the dancers were responsible for the whole troupe, were well dressed, purchased their own costumes and were fit, clean and healthy. They had 4 days monthly holidays, 3 months maternity leave, and performed for the king on every Wednesday and Saturday, after dinner. All gifts given to the dancers including money was distributed based on a fixed ratio with the rest going to the state treasury.

Their repertoire comprised a standard Bharatanatyam performance followed by five light dances, the Radha Krishna dance, the kite dance, the scorpion dance, the drunkard dance and finally the snake charmer dance. The Radha Krishna dance was a theme set around a light quarrel over kite flying with Gauri flying the kite and Kanthimathi, the helper. In the Scorpion dance, a tragic element is introduced as the two girls go to a garden to pluck berries with Gauri being bitten by a scorpion, while Kantha prepares medicines. The drunkard dance has Kanta acting as a Muslim man getting the Nagar girl Gauri drunk, then seducing and later wedding her. The snake charmer’s dance is the well-known number, as done today. A Varnam which included Sayajirao’s name to the last stanza was also performed, and at the tail end, a Tillana was performed. It appears Gauri used to perform a butterfly dance with a fan during her early days.

After Chimnabai 1 died, Sayajirao, got married again and that was the progressive queen, Chimnabai II (Given name being Gajara Devi from Dewas) in 1885. Chimnabai II who arrived at the palace illiterate, was quickly trained in languages and arts, traveled a lot and became a very popular queen who also had women’s welfare, in mind. She continued the tradition of support for the Tanjore girls. A 'Tanjore dance' teaching school was established with Gauri as the head teacher, but it had only 6 pupils and was stopped after a year. 

As time went by, both leading dancers retired from active service by the year 1941 (passing away the same year) to be replaced by Ratnamala and Saraswathi, duly trained by Gauri. Saraswati moved on to Bombay while Ratnamala stayed back in Baroda. Gauri had performed for 52 years in Baroda and it appears the Maharaja had considerable regard for her. Kanthimathi had in all served for 35 years and retired to Tanjore (where she went only a month ago her death) in 1953.

Sayajirao had invited Augusto Felici, a renowned sculptor as well as a painter from Italy to Baroda in the year 1893. Felici stayed in the service of Maharaja till 1897, and was the one who created the sculpture of Gauri’s dancing form, which can be viewed at the palace, with the painting of Chimnabai on the side wall, as though gazing at her!

When Baroda was merged with the Bombay state, The Kalavant Khata was disbanded though Bharatanatyam was continued at the department of fine arts attached to the new University of Baroda. Some of the descendants of the original dancers served as instructors. This was how Bharatnatyam was introduced in Baroda 140 years ago and continued to be maintained by a single troupe from Baroda and their descendants.

The dancing duo of Gauri and Kanthimathi performed not only for the Baroda monarch on certain days of the week, but also traveled afar. We note that they performed for weddings of nobles or rajas, such as the Prince Harbamji Rawaji of Morvi’s  (Pandav Arjuna’s lineage) marriage in 1895. We can also see references to the Bhopal dance meet where the nautchini of Baroda contended in graceful emulation with the nautchini of Ulwur, and the cathacks (or male dancers) contended with both. In fact Madhava Rao, Dewan of Baroda who had been the catalyst for the Chimnabai SayajiRao union, made it a point to invite dignitaries often to Baroda to watch the Tanjore ladies.

EM Merrick visiting Baroda in 1898 revisits her experience of watching Gauri dance - A band played operatic airs during the whole of dinner, and afterwards a nautch girl from Tanjore came in, her dancing and dress being quite different from anything of the kind I had seen before. She was pretty and very graceful, in spite of her unbecoming dress of trousers made tight at the ankle and a great deal of drapery twisted round her waist and hips. Her movements were much more varied than the ordinary nautch girl's, as she flitted about the room, and a butterfly dance with a fan in her hand was exquisitely performed.

1926 - Continuing the reporters recording during the Reading visit- They seemed to make as much noise as possible, now beating the floor with their feet, now turning to the left, then to the right, now making a sudden forward movement as if they were going to fall on the spectators but then suddenly stopping their progress and now and again making wonderful gestures to suit their weird music and quaint dance, while the persons who stood behind them with darkish faces but wearing gold and red turbans seemed to have absolutely no mercy on the instruments they held. So wonderfully had they colored, clothed and jeweled themselves that they became objects of admiration and their dances were loudly applauded. After showing several types of dances, Kanta and Ghoura as they are called gave imitations of the snake charmer and of kite flying and finished up by playing the Hindu mythological scene of Radha and Krishna, one playing the hero and the other the heroine. His Excellency had a huge smile as he evidently thought that a demonstration of this kind on an English stage might perhaps cause a sensation. Every one of the guests appreciated these dances but Capt. Sadekar who was sitting by the window side was half asleep but it was no fault of his and he felt relieved when the ’noise’ ceased.

After the death of Appaswamy in 1939, Kanta’s son, Kubernath Tanjorkar, trained by Meenakhsi Sundaram Pillai of Pandanallur, moved on to Lucknow and Madras, but returned to Baroda in 1949 to teach Bharatnatyam. Later he established the Tanjore Dance Music and Art Research Centre at Baroda which is still run by his progeny. Thus was created the Baroda Tanjavur sub Bani.  

The Tanjavur bani incidentally covers three sub bani’s - the Tanjavur bani, the Pandanallur bani and the Baroda bani. So what is the Pandanallur style? The Pandanallur style is equated to a romantic poem, it is considered simple, enjoyable and leisurely, almost languorous, while the Kalakshetra style is more energetic and robust, has more body movement and contains a lot of geometry in it.

Thus Kantimati’s son Kubernath and his family continued the fine tradition, but how about the pioneer Gauri or Gaurabai as she was known? Gaura had three sons and a daughter. Her sons, trained as Nattuvanars did accompany her initially, but later gave up the tradition and started a musical instrument repair shop. Gauri’s daughter Chandra too danced at the Baroda palace.

What if I told you that one of Gauri’s pupils, not only learnt the form and published a wonderfully illustrated book Nrtta Manjari but also went on to grace herself, not on a dance floor, but as the first Indian to compete in the Wimbledon tennis championships? She was none other than the eminent Leela Raghavendra Row Dayal! She needs a whole article to herself, so I will get to that another day.

Writing in 1948 Leela says - His late Highness the Gaekwad Sayaji Rao of Baroda brought to his state Gaurabai, one of the best Tanjore dancers of her time. She was the Baroda court dancer for over fifty years; even now though she is over seventy, her movements are incredibly precise and exquisite and her facial expressions interpret all the poetic emotions of the song and dance. While teaching me, she was always particular that I should practice each movement minutely so as to be able to concentrate entirely on expression, once the steps were thoroughly mastered.

But then she also writes - Bharata Natyam is essentially a woman’s dance; and on no account should a man perform it. The dance is for beautiful young girls, with slender waists and large expressive eyes. Hmm. Today’s world will not accept that, I guess!

And as Bharatanatyam slowly drifted out from the courts of the kings and entered the common man’s world through the university and the teachers from the lineage of Gaurabai and Kantabai, another star entered the arena. Ahmedabad’s eminent physicist, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, while doing research in Bangalore, met and fell in love with the highly accomplished Bharatnatyam dancer, Mrinalini hailing from Kerala. He as they say, brought back to Ahmedabad not only a lovely bride but also, through her, the school of Bharatanatyam - Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, established 1949, taking off just as Gauri and Kanta retired. I must add here that Chandramma, Gauri’s daughter performed till 1981, Ratnamala was perhaps her company and soldiered on, even after the palace festivities declined after independence.

The other day my Gujju friend Akshay bai from Surat was telling me, bhaiyah, what are you saying, you have maybe 3-4 varieties of idli-dosa in the South, we have a restaurant in Surat which serves 100 varieties of dosas with lots of sambar and many chutneys, aisa hona chahiye!

And so, just like that, Tanjore’s Bharatanatyam has perhaps become a native to Gujarat, reminding us once again that real art is boundless!

American Folklore V 71 1958 – The great tradition in a metropolitan Center Madras – Milton Springer
Dance in Baroda – Sapna Rangaswamy - Sruti Aug 2007
With a Palette in Eastern Palaces - E. M. Merrick
The Theosophist, Volume 17
The Dance History Column by Ashish Mohan Khokar - Baroda makes Bharatanatyam national, Nartaki March 17, 2014

Pics and dating

Baroda Nautch girls (Kanta and Gauri - photo dated 1900) - The living races of mankind - Johnston, Harry Hamilton, Sir, 1858-1927
The photograph of the Tanjore girls is sourced from the Rama Varma book, i.e. Gauri and Kantha is dated 1895. Raja Ravi Varma, Portrait of an Artist: The Diary of C. Raja Raja Varma
A film from the period (though without sound) survives, which can be seen at this link. Minai has done a lot of research to identify the dancers in the 1930-35 film. They appear to be Saraswati (or Chandramma) and Ratnamala. What could be the occasion? In 1929, the Yuvraj PratapSing got married. In Jan 1936, Sayajirao completed 60 years on the throne. Perhaps it was connected to the latter.
Leela Row - courtesy newspapers.com - The Star Press, Muncie, Indiana 01 Jul 1934, clipped by Johndawsonkc