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A GRAND OLD MAN - How a fun-loving barrister became a devout Gandhian

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By Malavika Karlekar
  • Published 15.06.08

By the 1870s, the camera entered the lives of the Indian landed elite and the growing middle class; it was invaluable in the depiction of family life and newly-acquired professional roles where it became de rigueur for men with or without their families to be framed for posterity. Elaborate formal attire, the pose and the positioning of persons, were of vital importance; in the case of a married couple, how each spouse was seated or standing individually and in relation to one another often indicated relative status within the marital bond. Individuals or families in groups stood or sat elaborately dressed, framed against the backdrop of phantasmic studio sets — distant lakes, castles, tropical forests — that looked beyond everyday realities. This juxtaposition of the mundane with the imagined can be viewed as an image of the colonial encounter, where both ruler and ruled were involved in the intricate practice of redefining themselves; make-believe too had a role in this complex process.

In time, better-placed families preferred to ask photographic studios for a home shoot. Today, in the digital age of instant production, the performative function of such an event that involved the movement and setting up of equipment, handlers and, of course, the photographer, can hardly be comprehended. Apart from the sheer convenience of not having to make a trip to the studio when large numbers were to be photographed, to afford the luxury of being photographed at home was an affirmation of status.

Some families, more than others, have been conscientious in the preservation of family photographs, diaries, memoirs and other random writings, a case in point being that of the Sulemaini Bohra Tyabjis of Gujarat. Family archivist Salima Tyabji has painstakingly organized, arranged and curated the many photographs of this amazing family (most of which are in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library); it is almost possible to reconstruct a family history and indicate social change on the basis of these visuals alone. For instance, several document Abbas Tyabji’s metamorphosis from a Western-educated fun-loving professional to a devout Gandhian, the camera zeroing in infallibly on changed dress codes, demeanour and pose. The recently published biography by the historian, Aparna Basu, brought out by the National Book Trust, tells us about this metamorphosis of the by-then-elderly Abbas. This informative little text recounts how he came to be referred to as the ‘chhota Gandhi’ — an ironic epithet, as Tyabji was 17 years older than the Mahatma.

Basu has relied on his diaries and public papers held by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library as well as published and unpublished biographies, and “an unending stream of letters” between him and M.K. Gandhi. The present photograph that Basu uses in her book clearly belongs to Abbas’s pre-Gandhian phase (picture). In this family photograph taken at Abbas Tyabji’s Bombay home, the photographic establishment has almost re-created a theatrical set, the central characters being Abbas (seated in the middle without head gear), and wife Ameena who is next to him. As the photograph was being taken at home, the photographer was able to devote more time to its composition, very likely with inputs from the family.

What is particularly interesting is that nobody engages with the camera: not one of the 17 people looks straight at it — and yet there is a certain dynamism in the visual. The photograph forces the viewer to give it more than a passing glance. Abbas’s head is almost at right angles while Ameena looks askance, with somewhat downcast eyes. A close examination of each person’s pose indicates that there is nothing accidental about any of them. Generations and genders are mixed, clothes, postures, demeanours composed — if not dictated — and arranged to give it a certain dramatic quality. There is movement in stasis and several sub-groups within the larger assemblage in this conversation piece, that is like many group portraits by the 18th-century British painter, William Hogarth, with all the “atmospherics of a domestic drama”. Clearly considerable thought — if not debate — ensued before the shot was taken. And as it is likely to have been taken in the 1880s, if not the 1870s, the entire event would have taken quite some time, perhaps even half a day.

The Tyabji family had known great wealth, penury and then a steady ascent into professional recognition and stability. In 1803, after a fire devastated their home, shop and belongings, Bhai Miyan and his wife, Hurmat Ali, moved to Baroda. Their son, Tyab Ali, started life as a hawker and peddler in Bombay, and when his peregrinations took him to the elite Malabar Hill area, he was fortunate enough to meet a Parsi who loaned him enough money to set up a shop. He soon became a wealthy man, now known as Tyabji, a name that has remained that of the family. One of his sons, Badruddin, became a president of the Indian National Congress and a leading barrister of his time.

Born in 1854, Abbas was Tyab’s eldest grandson and, his father, Shamsuddin, having joined the family business, continued to live in Bombay like “a merchant prince”. Abbas was initially educated by private tutors at home, and as he kept indifferent health, was sent to England with his uncle, Badruddin, who was going to eat his dinners at the Inns of Court. His nephew too went on to study law and became a barrister in 1875. He “left for India a very loyal subject of Queen Victoria, impressed by British institutions, Western life and thought and joined the Bombay bar”, moving on to Baroda at the invitation of the Maharaja’s dewan. After the death of his first wife, he married his cousin, Ameena, and the couple was quickly integrated into the social scene in Baroda, the food at their table much the delight of the city. With the active encouragement of Maharaja Siyajirao and his wife, Maharani Chimnabai, Ameena gave up purdah and adapted fast to the hybridized life of the Indian elite: her daughter, Raihana, recalled how “Parsi and Hindu friends would request mother to teach their daughters how to eat with knives and forks and spoons. Other friends would ask her to teach their daughters to speak and converse in English”.

Abbas had become a member of the INC in 1885 and, interestingly, in the same year became a judge of the Baroda high court. He retired in 1913 and, by 1920 (when he was almost 70), had re-invented himself. Jallianwala Bagh had greatly disillusioned him about the British whom he had so long admired, and the turning point came when he was introduced to Gujarat politics at the invitation of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Soon, the Mahatma took note of the man whose impassioned speeches he felt influenced Gujarat’s early acceptance of non-cooperation. He became an active campaigner and wrote to Gandhi that “the khaddar adopted at Bezwada has simply made me twenty years younger”.

It did not take him long to set fire to the expensive clothes belonging to his earlier life, persuading many others to do the same. Abbas Tyabji became a frequent visitor to Sabarmati Ashram and, as a 76-year-old, joined the historic Salt March to Dandi in 1930 — the oldest member of the group and the one who took over leadership of the movement after Gandhi was arrested. Soon, together with 58 others, he too was charged under Section 143 of the Indian Penal Code with unlawful assembly and breaking the provisions of the Salt Law.

On his release from six months’ rigorous imprisonment, he continued to work for khadi, and both he and Ameena sold Rs 1,500 worth of material in 1933. Not long before his death in 1936, in the heat of the Gujarat summer, the couple had gone around in a bullock cart propagating the homespun cause. When he died, Gandhi publicly mourned the “Grand Old Man of Gujarat”. In private, he must surely have grieved for his good friend, Bhurr: Basu quotes Tyabji’s daughter, Sohela, as saying that the two men called each other “Bhurr” in memory of a cold night they had spent together in the now infamous Godhra station, bhurring and chatting to keep the cold at bay.