On the Ground in India (Part I)

18-Mar-2013

Our latest Diaspora visit was to New Delhi and Kolkata in India. There have been links between Scotland and India particularly from the days of the East India Company and many continue to the present day. Yvonne Murphy reports...

Our first visit was to the home of Shaheena Khan (left), freelance media consultant/journalist & writer and women's rights activist at Parvaz-E- Shaheen Rifat Sarosh Academy. Shaheena’s other talents are embroidery skills handed down to her from her mother, which she has passed onto her daughter, and a passion for writing poetry. Her father was acclaimed Urdu poet and broadcaster Rifat Sarosh and so she was particularly interested in the sketch we showed her depicting Rabindranath Tagore and Patrick Geddes. Tagore was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 and he corresponded regularly with his friend Geddes, who wrote nearly 50 town plans in India. Tagore shared his thoughts with Geddes on many things including some of his social ideas relating to People, Work and Place. Shaheena was inspired to help source images and research for this panel, and was also delighted by one of the tea themed sketches. We photographed a family antique teapot to add to the design.  Shaheena is keen to help recruit embroiderers in the New Delhi area.

Roshni Chopra runs a bridal business from New Delhi and engages women from the city and surrounding villages. The bridal wear is heavily embroidered and has been given a variety of surface ornamentation keeping Indian culture in mind. The women she works with are highly skilled and there is great potential for them to undertake a panel as well.

On landing in Kolkata we were taken by taxi to The Tollygunge Club in the southern suburbs for our first night’s stay. The Tollygunge Club was founded by a Scottish banker, William Dixon Cruickshank in 1895.  Prior to this, the main clubhouse built in the late 18th century, was the home of a Scot, Richard Johnson, considered to have been an indigo planter and an employee of the East India Company. The house was subsequently owned by Prince Gholam Mohammed Shah, the 11th son of the Ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan. (The story of Tipu or the Tiger of Mysore has associations with the Scots in India - http://www.tigerandthistle.net/ )

Ruby Palchoudhuri, Honorary General Secretary and Executive Director of the Crafts Council of West Bengal collected us from the club the following morning to take us to a couple of sites of Scottish interest. We met Adrian Thomas, an ex Director of The British Council in India who is currently doing historical research of the Kolkata Botanical Gardens, at St Andrew’s Church (right).  As there were superintendents of the gardens who belonged to the congregation he was keen to see inside it.  However, unfortunately we had arrived outside visiting hours and couldn’t gain access. We did manage to get some photos of the front façade by standing in the midst of Kolkata traffic!  The first stone was laid in 1815 by the Marquis of Hastings on St Andrew's Day and opened for worship on March 8th 1818. The church is responsible for the Scottish cemetery and that was next on our tour. The Kolkata Scottish Heritage Trust has been responsible for ensuring that the cemetery site has been cleared, that the area has been surveyed and recorded and now steps are being taken to renovate it. The cemetery has over 1600 headstones and monuments and some are of granite from Aberdeen.

The superintendent Mr Hall, showed us The Register of Interments books that record the names of the many hundreds of Scots who are buried there.

We then visited the Kantha Centre where groups of highly skilled women trained by Ruby Palchoudhari, in kantha stitch, embroider items for sale through Artisana, the outlet centre for Bengali crafts and managed by The Crafts Council of West Bengal.  The centre provides the women with an income, training and the gathering is also social occasion.  Work only begins once children are at school and housework is complete. The women sat in a circle, each working on individual pieces ranging is in size but with equal expertise in execution.  They will be undertaking a panel for the diaspora tapestry and it will certainly be unique as it will be stitched in this traditional manner.


After a delightful visit to the ladies at the Kantha centre and a visit to Artisana where Gillian and I learnt (and forgot) how to wear a sari, we were taken back to Ruby’s home where Mr G M Kapoor, Convenor, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) met with us to hear about the project.  He offered assistance with research, sourcing images and verification of panels.

Our report continues HERE