27 July 2019

Stepping into the past in Chunar

In February 2016, my grandmother and I went on a long train journey. It was dark and uncomfortable, and at one point there were cockroaches on me and I read fan-fiction to forget them.

Eventually, though, our train made a one-minute stop at our destination at 4 a.m., and we hopped out into the extreme cold. A frigid auto ride later, we were in the warm glow of my great aunt's living room, sipping coffee and eating plum cake. This was the first time that someone called me "my girl."

I like to think that this was where it all really began.

I had always been curious about the place where my grandmother would disappear to once a year, the place where my mother used to pluck fruits from trees during school vacations, the place that my great grandparents had decided, in later years, to call home. It seemed peaceful and other worldly, even to someone who knows the challenges of the pastoral. Perhaps it was because it had the whiff of another time, and was made of stories.

My great grandparents moved to Chunar in the late 1960s, after my great grandfather retired from his career in the railways. Though they had spent most of their adult lives in Calcutta and other cities in Bengal, they now sought a quiet place. A newspaper advertisement of this forgotten town somewhat in the middle of nowhere probably seemed just right.

Views of the cemetery and interiors of St Thomas' Church

Located in Mirzapur district in Uttar Pradesh, Chunar  though it may not seem like it  has an eventful past. Today, it is connected to Varanasi by road (23 km) and is known for its sandstone, pottery and clay toys. Evidence of settlement here dates back to as early as 56 BC, when it was occupied by king Vikramaditya of Ujjain, who established the formidable Chunar Fort overlooking the Ganga. Built from the local sandstone that is still found in the region, the fort, built on a rocky hillock, has been besieged and offered refuge to many throughout history. During the Mughal era, it hosted the emperor Babar, followed by Sher Shah Suri (acquired through marriage) and his descendants. The emperor Akbar captured the fort in 1575, and it subsequently became home to the Nawabs of Awadh for nearly two centuries.

The Well of Love (with a dungeon and underground changing rooms)

Jharokha of Fatima Begum

Execution area a.k.a herein occurred the execution of people

Sonwa Mandap

Prisons, where Humayun was allegedly kept by Sher Shah Suri

A view of the Ganga from the fort

Another view of the Ganga from the fort

Following the Battle of Buxar in 1764, the fort was annexed by the East India Company and was the depot for arms and ammunition. When Maharaja Chet Singh of Benares (Varanasi) raised a rebellion in 1781, Warren Hastings  the first Governor General of India  took refuge in the fort. At different times, the fort has housed prisoners (1815) and artillery (during the 1857 mutiny, when it served as a safe ground for the Europeans.) The home of Warren Hastings still stands in Chunar, and the cemetery provides testimony to many of the lives that passed through the town. There's also a cultural angle  Premchand allegedly taught a mission school here in the late 19th century; the 90s TV show Chandrakanta as well as the 2012 film Gangs of Wasseypur were filmed here.

Excerpts from The Letters of Warren Hastings to his Wife

To my great grandparents, though, it was simply home.

Simla, Delhi and Chandigarh are all very expensive and transport difficult & without a car one has a really difficult time. So back to poor Chunar, where things are cheap if nothing else.  
– Excerpt from a letter written by my great grandfather, dated 10 April 1970
Despite the harsh seasons of heat, cold and rain, there were little things to be thankful for.
Papayas are all starting again from the old tree – we do nothing and all come up by themselves again. Two of those old lime trees are bearing again, slowly but surely. We have a sort of sweet lime which is double the size of our limes now [...] Our jamun tree does not bear very good jamuns but it's something – our custard apples are coming up again this year, and of course the pomegranates. My roses are blooming sweetly again after the rain. 
– Excerpt from a letter written by my great grandmother, dated 4 July 1970 
Over the next few days, I got to see my great-grandparents' former home, now abandoned and overgrown...

"Clare Villa" | I've spent the last few days chasing part of my family history in a small town named Chunar. The sweetness of first visits, stories from yesteryears, old photographs, homes, cemeteries, and people I'd never met but always heard about... A small group of boys gathered behind us as nani and I compared the house with the photo, one of them bravely peeking between our heads to see what we were gazing at. I frowned at them and most of them took the hint. I was going to tell them to shove off when one said timidly, "yeh aapka ghar tha?" Nani explained that it's her mum in the photo, and then he asked "aur yeh aap hain?" She shook her head and told him who they were, and then we tried to calculate how old the photo must be... #history #Chunar #album #photographs #family #grammasters3
A post shared by Kriti Bajaj (@kritibajaj21) on

...And their final resting place.

One of the many gravestones dedicated to soldiers buried in the Chunar cemetery

When I wasn't playing with the littlest member of the house or riding on the back of a scooty or eating stew, my nani and I looked at old photographs. An important part of family history research is learning, and recording, who the faces in the photographs belong to.

We learned that my grandmother's elder sister, like me, had been rather fond of postcards...

...And found a photograph of her brother's family at the fort.

Circa 1960s

My quest for researching my family history has been a long one; I used to pester nani for names every so often. A family tree had been duly prepared, but it relied on memory alone. It seemed that I would never get further, and I didn't know how anyway.

But after being so close to them on this trip, I was keener than ever to learn more  and I got lucky. Returning to Delhi, my random Google search this time struck gold, leading me to new names and information, and the Genealogy Project was born. With these leads, though I knew I would verify them, I started collecting all I could find, and educated myself on the ins and outs of genealogy research. The rest, as it were, is history.

27 January 2019

On the road: 10 hours

On 29 December 2019, a fine Saturday morning, we drove to Panchgani, the land of strawberries. We started before the sun came up, and I diligently selected one photograph to represent every hour from 7 am to 5 pm. 

The first hour was an orange sunrise amid butterfly street lights, and the second was a brief blue pause. 
The third hour was a commercial breakfast, the fourth barely picturesque. 
By the fifth hour, I was struggling to find subjects to photograph, but there was a lake to drive by. 
In the sixth hour, we were thwarted for a while near our destination by a broken down bus, 
And in the seventh hour we made it to our container-room. 
The eighth and ninth hour were lunch and then dessert overlooking a strawberry field. 
The tenth hour was a vision.

01 September 2018


The last two months have been about change. Change for the better, I think, but change nonetheless. Change isn't always easy to deal with. I picked up and moved my life in almost every way. I met all kinds of new people in encounters that were fleeting, and those that will stay. Three people in my life said goodbye to this world in a span of ten days. My allergies returned and then calmed down. I found a room with a window with a view that tells me everything will be fine, and I found nature nearby for my soul. And I learned to learn from criticism and use it to grow.

I'm still learning.

It's not all stars and roses. I've complained a lot, and probably will some more. But I'm proud of and happy about and grateful for many of the things I've achieved, and received. There are things I want to improve upon and change, but as a wise friend said, this is only the beginning. I forget that sometimes. Everything happens in due time, and everything runs its course. There is no rush.

07 August 2018

In memoriam

For the man who loved this poem:

From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no man lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.

- A. C. Swinburne

Farewell, nana. 

31 May 2018

A Greek song about Madhubala

My obsession with Greece began ten years ago, when, in my second year of college, I opted for Greek and Indian Classics as one of my papers. I borrowed a book on Greek mythology, avidly discussed Homer and Euripedes and Aristotle's views on friendship, and made a wonderful Greek penpal, Sophie - my first friend from this beautiful country. From her, I learned that there is an island in Greece just like my name*, and about Yannis Markopoulos' Liturgy of Orpheus, based on Orphic poems and possibly my favourite character from Greek mythology.

I did not write that

I travelled to Greece seven years later to finally visit Sophie, who is a singer, among many other things. Every drawing of Orpheus and his lyre stood out to me, whether at museums or on a set of coasters (I bought the latter). I attended a concert in the awe-inspiring Odeon of Herodes Atticus theatre. And while visiting Santorini, I had the luck of being there during the Caldera Arts and Literature Festival in Oia and attended a concert of Cretan folk music by the Ross Daly Quartet. I was wonderstruck.

The Ross Daly Quartet performing at Atlantis Books in 2014 (not the one I saw).

2015 Caldera Arts & Literature Festival from Atlantis Books on Vimeo. I can be seen a few times but I won't say when!

I miss Greece, with its blue waters and kind people. I found a Greek restaurant in Delhi that somewhat made up for it, but it has since closed. I am yet to taste good moussaka here. But in February this year, when I found out, after a lot of investigation, that four Greek musicians would be performing rebetiko and other Greek tunes in Delhi, I knew I had to go. And it was at this concert, amidst melodies of old mountain songs, fire-walking rituals and Cretan dancing, that I found out that there is yet another connection between our countries: Bollywood music of the 1950s and 60s.

About halfway through the programme, the four musicians (Nikos Paraoulakis - ney; James Wylie - politiki lyra; Avgerini Gatsi - voice, accordion; Thimios Atzakas - oud) paused and explained to us that they would now play songs that were not quite folk, but a special category altogether: Indian movie songs from the 1950s/60s, that were reintroduced to Greek audiences with Greek lyrics. They proceeded to play a song in which the only word I recognised was "Madhubala", but which was fascinating nonetheless.

I decided to learn more about this bit of history, aided by a playlist that Sophie sent me. Apparently Hindi movies were cheaply accessible, and screened in Greek cinemas with new titles and translated subtitles. Nate Rabe wrote in Scroll.in:
Though they understood not a word of Hindi, Greek audiences connected with the themes of films such as Mother India (renamed Land Drenched in Sweat), Paapi, Aan, Awara and Shri 420. The unrelenting crush of poverty, a fast-changing society, new roles for women, not to mention the glamour and fantasy all captivated the heart.

The Greek version of the popular Hindi song "Pyaar Hua Ikraar Hua" by Petros Anagnostakis

The influence of Bollywood's music blended with the popular Greek music of the time to form a whole new genre called "Indo-prepi" (Hindi-style). In an interview with The Times of India Blogs, Helen Abadzi, a scholar on the subject, said:
The number of songs that were adapted from Hindi movies is considerable. From the 111 movies known to have come as well as from others whose importation is uncertain, 105 Greek renditions were identified. Many came from the best known movies: Awaara, Sri 420, Mother India, Ghar Sansaar, Laajwanti, and Aan
Many Hindi songs engendered duplicates, triplicates, and quadruplicates. For example, "Pyar hua ikraar hua" (Sri 420) and "Gao tarane man ke" (Aan) have four renditions. "Unchhi, unchhi duniya ki deewaron" (Naagin) and "Aa jao tadapte hain armaan" (Awaara) have three. At least 10 others have duplicates. 
Of all songs, 57 (55%) have a great similarity with pre-existing songs; 25 (24%) deviate significantly from the originals, 16 (16%) are partial renditions, where other melodies are mixed with Hindi, and 5 (5%) use only some musical bars. Most Hindi song copies were temporary hits or remained obscure. However, 11 were still known among the general public in 1998, about 35 years later.
She later added that because "Indian composers at that time typically gave up their rights to the music and movie companies and they only kept performing rights, they would not have gotten any money from Greece" - though she did contact an old company that issued many of the songs and managed to get some royalties. (Download a PDF by Abadzi titled "When India Conquered Greece" here.)

However, in a Greece that increasingly wanted to identify as a part of western Europe, both Indian cinema and indo-prepi tunes faced a backlash from those who felt that this was holding them back from modernisation (it was rendered in a musical style largely favoured by refugees from Asia Minor and poorer people, with Urdu considered too close to Turkish), as well as, it seems, annoyed by the popularity of Indian actresses overshadowing local stars ("tearful Nargis is much more popular than Vouyouklaki").

I hope to someday research and learn more about this exchange. In the meantime, there's a playlist to loop.

*Crete, spelled and pronounced "Kriti" in Greek. I also found that according to at least one source, "Kriti" means "creation" in both Greek and Hindi. As a side note, "Kriti" is also a form of composition in the Indian Carnatic music tradition. And while we're talking about music, my birthday is on World Music Day. It's coming up.
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