In British Museum, a heart that beats for India

India has been Richard Blurton’s life and it is to India that he is heading in the new year

  • Published 1.12.18, 10:13 AM
  • Updated 1.12.18, 10:13 AM
  • 4 mins read
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Richard Blurton behind the Shiva Nataraja in British Museum. Amit Roy

Prized possession

It was a big day and, in many ways, also a sad day for the British Museum when Richard Blurton retired as the head of the South and South East Asia Section, Department of Asia. Richard has been with the British Museum for 32 years, looking after its priceless Indian collection, now displayed in the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery. This is where Richard’s teeming farewell party was held, with many Indians among his guests.

Richard has been part of the India scene in London for as long as I can remember. On one memorable occasion, Richard, a “veteran of pandal hopping in Calcutta” and author of several books, including Bengali Myths, supervised the construction of a Durga idol in the museum forecourt by craftsmen from Kumartuli. Rather like a parent worrying about a favourite child, he hopes his collection will be looked after with as much love and devotion after he is gone.

With Richard in charge, you couldn’t possibly be cross that the Brits pinched so much stuff from India. Over lunch, he told me of the comprehensive book he is writing on the Indian collection. He then took me on a personal tour, pointing out everything from the 1100 CE statue of Nataraja to the delicate limestone Amaravati carvings safeguarded in an air-conditioned unit. He also mentioned the legacy bequeathed by Charles Stuart (“Hindoo Stuart”, 1758-1828), whose resting place is the South Park Street Cemetery in Calcutta. The collection ranges from the dawn of history to the present day, represented by footage of Uday Shankar dancing, clips from Mother India and one of Ravi Shankar’s sitars gifted by his daughter, Anoushka. India has been Richard’s life and it is to India that he is heading in the new year. 

Alyque Padamsee
Alyque Padamsee Telegraph file picture

Man from a different era

You need to be an Indian of some repute to merit nearly half a page in the obituary column of The Daily Telegraph, which remains one of the best bits of the paper. “Sandy, people are always dying to get into your columns,” we joked when its obituaries editor retired many years ago. Alyque Padamsee was 90 when he passed away on November 17, but it was still a shock to open the paper and find his obit last week. Maybe it focused too much on his role as Jinnah in Attenborough’s Gandhi but it also mentioned that he directed “more than 76 plays and musicals” and was once India’s “ad guru”.

There was a time when I would never visit Bombay without dropping in to see Alyque. He represented the spirit of the urbane, civilized, cosmopolitan Bombay before the enforced name change to Mumbai. Although I could never attend one, his “beer and bhelpuri” parties on Christmas Eve marked the passage of time.

Charm of a window seat

It was a former colleague who took me to Kewpie’s in Calcutta for the first time. What I liked was the teaspoonful of ghee added to the hot rice. Kewpie’s is the kind of restaurant we don’t have among the 8,000-10,000 curry houses in the United Kingdom, although many of them are run by Bangladeshis.

I am glad Kewpie’s has been included among the best 1,250 restaurants from 45 countries in a sort of global good food guide, Truth, Love & Clean Cutlery. But “best” is defined as “restaurants with high standards of ethics, integrity and sustainability as well as high standards of great food and wine and good times.” There are nine other restaurants from India included in the guide, namely the AnnaMaya, Dum Pukht and Indian Accent in New Delhi; The Bombay Canteen, O Pedro and Soam in Mumbai; Karavalli and Toast & Tonic in Bangalore; and Avartana in Chennai. The ambitious project was masterminded from London by managing editor, Katrina Power, and co-edited by the Times food critic, Giles Coren, who says: “The spirit of Truth, Love & Clean Cutlery is something you can sense the moment you walk into a restaurant... Nobody barks, ‘Do you have a reservation?’... They just show you to a table at the back, by a window with a view over the back garden...”

The plot thickens

The lawyer, Som Mandal, passed through London last week. Over tea at Fortnum & Mason (surely the most elegant department store in London), we talked not just about his political ambitions but also about the author, Barbara Taylor Bradford. He represented her in 2003 when she accused Sahara of stealing the plot of her bestselling, A Woman of Substance, for a TV serial in a case heard in the Calcutta High Court.

She didn’t win, but since then Indian producers have become careful about copyright infringements as their films are routinely distributed in the UK and America, where losing a case could prove very expensive. The author, now 85, has just done a piece for the Financial Times, describing the joys of buying a new apartment on Park Avenue in New York and being near Central Park, “that extraordinary urban oasis which is undoubtedly the greatest in the world”. Her new book, Master of His Fate, “a gripping Victorian epic”, is just out. 

Footnote

The Brexit debate is being used to settle scores. Sir Michael Fallon, former defence secretary, tried to sink Theresa May by declaring that her Brexit deal is “doomed”, even suggesting that she be replaced. No doubt he is smarting at not been recalled to government. He had to resign a year ago because of his proclivity for placing his hand on the knees of women scribes. He admitted in his resignation letter: “I accept in the past I have fallen below the high standards that we require of the armed forces that I have the honour to represent.”