How Great Grandmother Came Home

My great grandmother died long before I was born. Elders in the family were reticent about her and references to her life and times ended in less than ten words. Her charcoal portrait however hung on one of the east facing walls in an inconsequential part of my grandmother’s (her daughter’s) house. Every morning for a few minutes the sun lit up the gilt edge around the oval portrait and highlighted the period jewellery around her neck. She never smiled, but I grew up under her inscrutable gaze and loved everything about her.

In the portrait, great grandmother (like the Nair women of her time) was shown dressed in cream seamless garments of a fine count with a woven gold thread border. One part of the garment was tied above her breasts and the other was draped elegantly over her left shoulder. Her black hair was parted in the middle, pulled back and possibly tied in a loose knot at the nape of her neck. She wore two pieces of exquisite jewellery around her neck and large globular earrings that fitted into her stretched ear lobes.

Day after day from her perch above the store room door great grandmother watched the perambulations within the house. Her daughter’s house was a tad small compared to her own mansion but big enough to hold many of the things she had around her when she lived as the wife of one of the leading men of that time. Around this time, great grandmother also noticed that little things that were dear to her were leaving the house one by one. First it was an alabaster bust, then it was a marble inlaid table and then the litany was too long to recite, or remember.

After grandmother’s demise, the house came up for sale and it was time to carve and make lots of what remained in the house. Every item that could be moved was placed in a list for each of grandmother’s four children. Even with the best of professional assistance, the rituals of family apportionment are never pleasant and this was no exception. My mother the eldest of the four children arrived when the divisions had been made and all that remained was to move the shares. She quickly noted that one of the biggest items in her share was a marble clock that had given up telling time. She took another look around and noticed that nobody was interested in great grandmother’s portrait. Down on the ground, it stayed unclaimed in a corner waiting the next turn of events. The portrait was huge, it was heavy, it was difficult to move and time was running out. My mother then wrote to ask me whether we could provide a roof for her grandmother’s portrait.

A few days later, great grandmother’s portrait and her marble clock arrived in Bombay. The portrait went up on the best wall in our apartment and the marble clock was taken apart piece by piece. In no time, great grandmother became the ice-breaker and the person who consistently made the best gambit in the drawing room. Many visitors went home wondering who inherited her jewellery!

Our life with great grandmother continued. For many years we were compelled to leave the portrait in storage and then reinstate her again on our best wall. In the interim, there was time to learn more about portraits made during the British rule in India.

The British encouraged European artists to visit India to capture as much as they could of the country and the people. These portraits now hang in museums as ‘Company Paintings’ and are about the only record of the days before photography took over the job of recording.   Madras Presidency pioneered the trend and Malabar which was a part of this Presidency commissioned artists to sketch and paint. Great grandfather who was (in modern language) a dignitary in the Malabar region grabbed the opportunity. It must have been stylish and trendsetting to commission artist Del Zugo to do a portrait of his wife.  Who was Del Zugo? Could he be included in the same club as Emily Eden and Richard Barron who gave the world those unforgettable sketches of India?  How did Del Zugo converse with his exotic subject? What did Del Zugo earn for the commission? There are no answers.

After many expeditions for spare parts to Mohamed Ali Road in Bombay, the marble clock started ticking and keeping excellent time. Great grandmother continues in her mahogany frame with the same jewels and gold trimmed garments. She now can hear her clock strike every hour and half hour, just as it used to when she was the mistress of her mansion.