A Table with Kansha Utensils

Hello to all of you !   In North India, although we are steaming in the 41 degree heat, we are also enjoying the pleasures that this season brings- the different varieties of mangoes, bael and green mango sherbet, and, soon, litchis.

A few days back, with a couple of friends coming over for lunch, I decided to pull out my mother-in-law’s kansha utensils to eat out of. It opened a flood of memories:  memories associated with a particular smell-   the smell of kansha.

It was the smell I got when I, as a young girl, drank water from kansha glasses at my maternal grandfather’s house in Tagore Town, Allahabad. Kansha utensils, scrubbed with ash till they shone like beaten gold, would be lined up to dry after washing on the stairs that led from the dining room to the terrace. The table with a dull red, cast terrazzo top was worn in places where the fine marble chips had come off the coloured cement. A small corner had chipped off where an over zealous uncle had knocked it with a heavy degchi full of rice. This  table held all the thalas and baatis and, on every Sunday evening that my parents and us siblings would visit my grand parents, there would usually be ‘mangshor jhol’ and bhaat–a watery, flavourful mutton curry with boiled rice. Both dishes would be carried in in degchis and our grandmother would serve us all with long handled haatas and the two youngest members usually got the section of meat on the bone that held the delicious, prized marrow.

Kansha, called Phool in Hindi, is a term for utensils cast in an alloy of copper and tin. They were and  are (in a few places where you can still buy them) usually hand crafted.  Upto our parents’ generation these utensils formed an essential part of Indian homes, often brought in by a bride as a part of her trousseau. In recent times kansha has been replaced in homes by steel utensils with kansha reserved for worship rituals.

At a party recently in Allahabad, there was food being cooked on a charcoal fired tandoor and my sister, Uttora,immediately said that it reminded her of Tagore Town (Tagore Town, a neighbourhood in Allahabad where many Bengalis lived, to our family, meant our grandparents’ home. Just as Allahabad, to those of the family that lived around India, always meant my parents’ home). In Tagore Town,  she reminisced, two trusted old servants, Gahru and Ramgopal, would light the coal chulha in the morning and evening and meals would be cooked on it–all dishes one after the other. So it was probably an amalgamation of the smell of burning coal, its ash, the blended spices of the mangshor jhol and the kansha metal itself that I recall smelling in that kansha glass of water.

In the home of my grandparents’-in-law, the house we now live in, my mother-in-law,Hena, would serve lunch on kansha thalas while dinner would be on china plates. It was the different, perfect shapes of the thalas, baatis, glasses and the dishes in which food would be served that always impressed me the most. The dishes, thalas, glasses were mostly one different from the other and the baatis were in three or four different shapes- what an elegant concept of mix and match ! And all this, when scrubbed with tamarind and ash or later, the Vim bar, would gleam like gold.

I go through phases when I pull out the thalas and dishes from a large sindook, a wooden trunk, that holds most of the dishes. It is no easy feat as the pieces are heavy and have to be lined in a particular way, one on top of another,so that the lid of the trunk can close fully and a padlock installed for added security. For this lunch for friends I felt inspired enough to pull these out for the table. When would I use them, I told myself, if not now.

A half an hour scrub with Vim and the fabulous powder, Pitambari, meant for scrubbing metal utensils, had the utensils gleaming, ready for the table.

Since I generally associate kansha with Bengali homes-especially the ones I grew up in–I brought out the other very Bengali piece of fabric that I had- a kantha stitch embroidered bed cover that I have always used on my tables. This piece was embroidered in a village in Pabna, Bangladesh to which my maternal grandfather originally belonged to. I bought it when we were posted in Dhaka. The motives on the fabric are traditional folk motives popular in Bengali villages. Once on the table, placed on the red fabric and the wooden table,I could admire  the perfect shapes.Here they are-

Our dining table is not too wide, so for the centre I placed the serving bowls, glasses and baatis or katoris as if they had been just washed and piled up to dry..not necessarily inverted…


Mango leaves in the ghot

The tip of a Mango branch with five leaves at its end, placed in a ghot, used in worship rituals

 

Delicate, curving stems of the Juhi creeper in our courtyard

Delicate,curving stems from the Juhi creeper in our courtyard

The most common shape in glasses–they came in different sizes but always beautifully proportioned

 

The traditional haata or ladle

 

Another interestingly shaped chaamoch or serving spoon

More elegant shapes

I was dying to share this tablescape- and snippets of my memories.  Hope you liked it. The fabulous shop in Delhi, ‘Good Earth’ stocks some kansha. Take a look- https://www.goodearth.in/collection/living_kansa_75/ 

Some local markets and shops in Lucknow and North India also have Kansha pieces and can make them on order.

Hope you have wonderful days ahead , in India ignoring the heat and eating the fabulous mangoes now in our markets. And elsewhere in the world, enjoy spring and all those first flowers !

‘Bye for now. Until next time..

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‘Rampriya House’ where the Raja of Pratapgarh also lived

 

Vidyarani was the Rajmata of Kasmanda- an erstwhile royal state in Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh. She was also the daughter of Pratap Bahadur, the Raja of Pratapgarh who owned properties in Allahabad as well.  My father, Jyoti Bhushan  and his siblings called Vidyarani ‘Mashima.’

During her visits to Allahabad from Kasmanda she would often arrive at our house  in a light blue Fiat Standard car accompanied by two ladies-in-waiting, one of whom was a striking looking Nepalese lady with a gold nose ring worn in the central cartilage of the nose and head covered with her sari palla. They waited in our verandah while Vidyarani sat in our drawing room chatting at length with my mother and father. As a child I found these visits exciting.  Vidyarani was slim, had a rounded face with lovely eyes and hair carefully arranged in small waves down the forehead ending in a bun. She wore high-necked, full-sleeved blouses with chiffon saris, the palla draped around her shoulders. She spoke in impeccable English and called my mother ‘bouma,’ and my father by his name, Jyoti.  She called my father’s grandfather,Sarju Kumar Mukherji, ‘Baba,’ or father. It came from many years of knowing and respecting him.

The east-facing facade of the house. The garden lies on this side

The association of Vidyarani’s  father, Pratap Bahadur and my father’s grandfather, Sarju Kumar Mukherji, a general surgeon through 19o5 to the 40s, was a close one. Sarju Kumar was also the doctor to the Pratapgarh family. I remember listening to stories about this association, including trips to foreign shores, but one among them stands out. There was the time when Sarju Kumar accompanied Vidyarani to Austria.  To have her gallstones operated Vidyarani travelled by ship to England and from there to Europe in the 1920s. Accompanying her were quite a few people. There was her young brother, the raja, Ajit Pratap. Because the trip would take months, there were Ajit Pratap’s tutors ; and finally there was their guardian and doctor, Sarju Kumar Mukherji. She was operated upon in Austria and the entourage returned after many months, after she had recovered from the surgery.

The north-facing portico

When she visited Allahabad, I remember, she always stayed in a place called ‘Rampriya House.’ The name used to come up often in the course of the adult conversations that I sat through. To me the house had remained an enigma for all these years. Up until now.

The drawing room with the ‘daat ki cchat’ or vaulted ceiling and old, original furniture

This sculpture of Carrara marble(brought to Allahabad by an Italian trader) was bought by Raja Ajit Pratap in the 1930s at an auction in a local club

This time, at my sister Uttora’s house I  met  two people: Amresh Singh and his lovely wife Geetanjali. Turned out Amresh was the grandson of Raja Ajit Pratap and grand nephew of none other than Vidyarani. We started to talk at once about Sarju Kumar, Ajit Pratap and Vidyarani. When I heard they lived in no other house but Rampriya, I asked to see it and they kindly agreed. I was delighted that it would be for me no more an enigma !

The floor of the drawing room in pale pink and black mosaic

It was the day after Buddh Purnima which was a day for the nahaan or holy dip during the Kumbh mela. The roads would be crowded with traffic regulations in place. Besides, it was somewhere behind the Prayag railway station and, hard to believe- even for us, we had never been to that area.  So Amresh and Geetanjali obligingly picked my sister and I up and took us to Rampriya House.

An elegantly furnished bedroom that is part of a suite. It belonged to Jageshwar Kunwar, Pratap Bahadur’s second wife.

The large but cozy dressing room of the same suite

The road to this house, after passing through busy parts of the city, meanders across a railway line that leads to the Prayag station, curves and ends in a large gate. From the main road it is hard to imagine that a house as large as this lies in the area.

The South facing, inner verandah has a low. sloping roof with Mangalore tiles

The large, inner courtyard with the two wings on either side that were built later to accomodate the staff of the Maharaja of Baroda

The senior maharajin who cooks vegetarian food on a wood fired chulha or stove(far end of picture)in the ‘jheonara,’ as kitchens are called among Rajputs

Rampriya House is a sprawling colonial bungalow in red brick. ‘In the past,’ Amresh Singh tells us,’ the house was called Kankar-wali  Kothi  because the road and driveway were lined with kankar or gravel. ‘  ‘As a young boy I was forbidden from riding my bicycle outside the compound of the house so I would ride my bike, round and round, along the outer periphery of the compound which was originally about 10 acres. We have only about 2 or 3 acres that remain with us now.’

A view of the dining room that has old crockery in cupboards as well as portraits of the family on the walls

The house, Amresh tells us, belonged to a Burmese princess . In an excerpt from a book,’ Trials in Burma’ by Maurice Collis who was District Magistrate in Rangoon in 1929-30 and had given many judgements adverse to the British, he writes about Princess Teik Tin Ma Lat of Limbin, daughter of Prince Limbin,(brother of King Thibaw of Burma who was exiled by the British to Ratnagiri in India in 1885 when they took over that country)who lived in Allahabad with her father and siblings and was educated in the Girls’ High School there. I imagine it could have been this princess who lived in this bungalow.

Pratap Bahadur purchased this property in the late 1800s and named it ‘Rampriya House’ after his first wife, Rani Rampriya.

The elegant corridor that divides the house, north to south, into two

A view of the tree-lined garden from the first floor terrace

The patio where the family sits out and entertains in good weather

Pratap Bahadur had three daughters, one of who was Vidyarani,  and a son. The son died when he was a young man. Pratap Bahadur himself died soon after. According to his detailed will, a young boy from the clan of ‘Somvanshi’ rajputs, was adopted, named Ajit Pratap, and made the heir to the properties of the Pratapgarh family. ‘In fact,’ says Amresh, ‘Ajit Pratap was only two years old when he was adopted. It was Vidyarani, who had become his older sister, and was already married to the raja of Kasmanda, who brought him up.’

The temple at the end of the garden that was added later for Jageshwar Kunwar to pray

The large portico stands facing north while the side facing east opens out onto a large garden at the end of which lies a temple. Beyond it the compound carries on east and dips into the ‘cachar’ or fertile banks of the river Ganga, although  you cannot see the river from the house.

The dashing Ajit Pratap Singh, who joined politics in 1952, consistently stood for elections from Pratapgarh and won everytime

The garden with chairs invitingly laid out and the facade of the house facing the garden are beautiful and what lies behind the red walls is intriguing. My  sister and I don’t know where to begin seeing the house !   An offer of tasting some guava cheese made by Geetanjali  and that rests in the dining room makes the choice easy: we head indoors !

The  north-facing portico is lined by a deep verandah. A central door leads to a wide corridor dividing the house, north to south, into two. It ends in a staircase on one side.  Doors lead off on both sides to different rooms. The drawing room is lined with old sofas. On the tables and a mantelpiece are arranged old vases and sculptures, many of which would be antiques.

An old framed photograph of Raja Ajit Pratap(right) as a groom on his wedding day and his nephew, Vidyarani’s elder son who died young

A suite with an informal sitting room, bedroom , dressing room and bathroom which is now Amresh and Geetanjali’s son’s area, belonged to Jageshwar Kunwar,  Vidyarani’s  mother and second wife of Pratap Bahadur.  She is the person who spent the maximum amount of time in this house. The raja spent a lot of his in their fort in Pratapgarh and in Lucknow where his children studied.

Ajit Pratap Singh’s youngest of three sons, and Amresh’s father, Akhil PratapSingh

The bedroom opens onto a rear verandah and then onto a large inner courtyard, the place where life revolved in the past. It has two extended wings on either side and store rooms and kitchens on the fourth side, facing the verandah. ‘This entire section,’ Geetanjali tells us, ‘was built later, around 1901. The Maharaja of Baroda was visiting Allahabad for an international exhibition. My great-grandfather-in-law invited him to stay in this house and built the two wings around the courtyard to accommodate his staff.’

Geetanjali and Amresh Pratap Singh

Two elegant, elderly women supervise the kitchen at the back of the house. They are the ‘maharajins,’ brahmin women who cook pure vegetarian food in hindu homes of north India. They are the third generation  that has cooked for the Pratapgarh family. In the past, food was presented to the family, they say, in silver thalis and katoris. Chapatis would be cooked and taken to the table, one at a time. Silver has been replaced with steel or china these days, they say. They, however, continue to guard their territory with zeal and cook with enthusiasm. They are the ladies who helped cook the guava cheese that had brought us indoors first.

Geetanjali with their only son, Abhyuday who is a student in a boarding school

Later, we sit outside in the garden and over splendid tea and, because it is winter in our part of India, chiwra-matar, we continue to talk. Amresh and Geetanjali are knowledgeable and self-effacing, have respect for what is old and, above all, are gracious.

On my next visit to Allahabad, they have kindly offered  to take us to visit Pratapgarh and other areas around Allahabad where old mansions, many crumbling, dot the countryside, waiting to tell their stories.

Thank you, Amresh and Geetanjali for sharing your home with us and for patiently answering all our questions !

Thank you, dear friends, for coming onto my blog page and reading. Do post your comments.

Until next time…

 

 

 

 

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A Tablescape with Red Apples

Hello, all !    If you are like me, you get tired of thinking of what you might want to eat for your meals every single day. Daal and sabzi is fine when I don’t want to think but every once in a while when I get the urge to eat Chinese food I end up cooking it myself with, among other ingredients, my stock of chilli bean paste, dried shitake mushrooms and black fungus and it ends up quite different from the fare offered in standard Chinese restaurants in India. So some time ago I promised my daughter’s friends or rather, my daughter promised her friends that I would cook them some of this Beijing-style food.

Red Simla apples in white tea cups for this tablescape

You see, way back in 1984,  when my husband was posted in Beijing, although Indian embassy officials were among the worst paid of embassy personnel, our officers were kindly given the option of employing local cooks and maids. Most did opt for them. My husband and I got lucky. We were sent a cook, Wang Xue Bin, who, until his present position, had been a waiter. Wang was an ambitious soul. He had a good knowledge of Chinese cooking and  he quickly got a grasp of Indian cooking from my own, then basic, knowledge of our cuisine. At home we cooked Indian food mainly when we invited non- Indians home. It was Chinese food that my husband and I were happy to eat almost every day. And Wang would plate up dishes that his family of three would eat at home or the spicier Hunan and Sichuan dishes that he had recently learnt and was eager to practice.

Little red berries from a bush in our garden to break the simple lines of the apple and tea cup

So Wang would happily go shopping , accepting even more happily the Foreign Exchange Certificates (currency)that foreigners in Beijing used. The locals used the Renmin B. Of course, there was a black market for the certificates as this was the currency that could be used in the sole ‘Friendship Store’ meant for foreigners which was stocked with food, drink and anything under the sun. The local markets were short of supplies so locals would give anything to get access to this store which allowed them entry , if I remember correctly, after 7 pm until closing time at 9.

Wrought iron candle stands with white candles to add another colour to the red and white

Armed with our certificates, Wang would shop in the local markets for our food, bringing back whatever produce was available in the local markets, using his own Renmin B and pocketing our FECs. Whether he used them at the Friendship Store or sold them at a premium we never asked because we always got back the balance. Back in the house, Wang cooked and I observed and noted carefully in a diary.

Alternating blue and green ‘Fabindia’ napkins on the blue and white dinner plates

Then when we got posted back to India we decided to buy some Chinese crockery because our own set was a small one and we needed to supplement it. Out of the four patterns then available at a local shop, we opted for the  ‘rice pattern’ blue and white crockery. To me, it beautifully represented China-the colours of blue and white and the motif of the dragon- all used in China since ancient times. To me, the pretty,translucent little rice grain shaped elements scattered across the plate represented the staple food of China and that we ourselves ate almost every day. Most local restaurants, too,offered food on plates of this very pattern.

Our black and red lacquer chopsticks on little porcelain chopstck holders-the tiny bit of red on the chopsticks picking up the red from the apples.

A hundred years later, back in Lucknow, in a spurt of energy, the day before I invited my daughter’s friends over,I had this carton brought down from a store upstairs and extracted these plates from the reams of now yellowing white paper they were wrapped in.  If I had them, I better not be lazy and might as well use them !  So finally, here they were on our table and, from what I had available in our refrigerator and garden, this simple, easily done tablescape followed.

Sprigs of money plant, also for variety, to break the monotony

I did not really want to have red that is commonly associated with China. So I chose a clean, off -white for the central spread. These were my mats from ‘Anokhi.’  Apples in our fridge could be that ‘China’ red in the centre of the table. I added sprigs of pretty red berries that grow in a bush in our garden and some money plant. Simple white tea cups became the holders of this little arrangement and, to add another colour and height, wrought iron candle holders in different forms.

Here is the table- green and blue napkins on the plates

And another view

The blue and white plates with blue and green napkins surrounded the apple arrangement, and I was happy !

To tell you the truth, I was cooking some of Wang’s food  after quite some time and when it turned out well I was thrilled.  So took some pictures. Here are two –

Hong shao Yu- a 3 kg Rohu lent itself to this dish

Deep fried French beans with ginger and soya sauce

And finally, I’ll leave you with one more picture of the table-

Wonder if you liked it as much as I liked putting this together.

Hope you have a wonderful Sunday !  See you next time !

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A Neat Flat in Bandra, Mumbai

I look forward to visiting Mumbai. I have three good reasons to do so. My son has set up base there, my niece lives there with her husband and two adorable kids and a few dear friends live there, too. There is the fact that there are places in Mumbai that I grew up reading about or seeing in films, reared as I am like most Indians, on Hindi films and I get to see these. And there are some good cafes and restaurants that have nice food and nice people. So here I am !

My son and niece live in Navi or New Mumbai. So on a chosen day I took an Ola taxi that drove me one hour and twenty minutes later to Bandra, an old, leafy neighbourhood which still has some old bungalows and apartment blocks, thanks mainly to the community of Christians and Parsis. Oh ! And I got entertained on that journey by a small screen that played movies or TV serials or songs-they are providing these in Ola cars that run on whatever constitutes a ‘long journey.’ So what if I watched ‘Vicky Donor’ for the third time !

Gool, Nariman Khambatta with little Yasmin on the doorway to their old bungalow

Yasmin Khambatta is one of my above mentioned friends who lives in Bandra. She belongs to a community of Indians that I admire a lot. She is Parsi-a community that believe in Ahura Mazda, (the creator of the universe) and their Prophet  Zarathustra or Zoroaster and his teachings. Most of you probably know that the Parsis belonged originally to Persia but, fleeing persecution, landed on the western shores of India around the 8th century and by dint of hard work and enterprise became one of the most prominent communities here. Like Hindi films, most Indians of the 20th century grew up seeing Tata trucks(that said, ‘OK Tata’) careening down our potholed roads, locking their valuables in Godrej steel cupboards that occupied pride of place in the tiniest of homes and seeing in magazines an institution that gave us back our collective self-respect, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel of Mumbai built by the same Tata who gave us our trucks.  So you have the Tatas, Godrejs, Nariman, Shapoorji-Pallonji, Wadias, etc, etc, the list goes on.

The cousins in the garden of the Khambatta bungalow. The quiet street is visible outside.

‘My father, Nariman, Nari to his friends, was a very kind man,’ says Yasmin. ‘ We had a large extended family. One part of it lived in a bungalow that stood where the building I live in is and the other part lived in a bungalow across the road. When I was a child, he would pack all the kids into his black fiat and take us to the Juhu beach where we played, bathed in the sea and were treated to ice cream.’  Nariman Khambatta looked after the public relations of his friend’s company, Chika limited, that manufactured chemicals, fibres and built boats. His wife,Gool, Yasmin’s mother, was anglicised. She admired the Queen of England and subscribed to the Woman and Home magazine (as my mother did !), followed its recipes and put very nice pies and cakes on the table. ‘There was, of course, Parsi food cooked most days and there were visits to the Fire Temple (where Parsis worship)on Hill Road in Bandra on Parsi New Year and birthdays. But since we lived away from the Parsi- dominated areas like Mumbai Central and Grant Road- that was about my only exposure to Parsi tradition !’

Yasmin’s apartment block, Sea Shell, surrounded by old trees, is a 3 minute walk to the sea front.

The wall of Sachin Tendulkar’s house next door rises from the road

‘There were probably many kindnesses done by my parents,’ says Yasmin, ‘because recently I bumped into a lady in a bungalow in Alibaugh (a suburb where the affluent of Mumbai have their houses)who turned out to be a nephew’s wife who remembered stories about good turns done by my parents that I did not know about.’

The entrance corridor has the beige, white and brown living room on its right

The coffee table and sofas are inspired by popular Danish designs of the 50s and 60s. Ebony sculptures Yasmin brought back from Tanzania decorate the room.

In the early 70s, the Khambattas sold their bungalow and when an apartment building was made in its place, bought a two bedroom flat for Rs. 60,000/-. Today, that sounds like a joke considering that Bandra is one of the most prime properties in India.

The large window with a honeycomb grill covers an entire wall. A broad window sill, also in terrazzo, is used to keep objects and also to sit upon.

The building has areas left all round giving it a feeling of space. There are some old trees that stand on it. As a contrast, next door, an old bungalow was pulled down and the trees on its grounds removed by none other than Sachin Tendulkar and, in today’s style, a huge block-like building has been constructed, rising almost from the road, using every inch of space.

The flat itself is neat and free from clutter. The floors are beautiful in terrazzo worked to a gloss. The woodwork is solid,  with lots of windows that overlook tree tops. The furniture in teak was made by a carpenter and copied from popular Danish styles of the 50s and 60s. The all-white kitchen is a study of good space utilisation and cleanliness, the latter attributed to Maria, Yasmin’s  long-time  help.

A single Worli Tree of Life painting adorns another wall

‘Maria looked after my daughter, Akeshya, after she was born. She jumps to her defence right or wrong. In fact, Akeshya listens to Maria more than she listens to me !’ says Yasmin. True to her words,  Yasmin requests Maria to ask Akeshya to put on some bangles and a particular pair of shoes(and not the ones she has on) for the birthday party she is going off to and Akeshya returns soon after with those pieces on !  Aryaan, her tall, teenage brother is walking her to her party on his way to a football game.

The small kitchen, across the corridor from the living room is a good study of space utilisation and is kept spotlessly clean

Yasmin, after a long hiatus, is back building a career out of photography and design.  She does both really well. She enjoys photographing kids and pets and has landed up shooting quite a few subjects. Right now she is busy designing diaries for a client where she will also use some of her portraits of women.

A beautiful, old apartment block from the 40s still stands proud until a builder claims it.

At the Bandra gymnkhana for dinner, the place packed with Bandra dwellers, some friends of Yasmin and I have just voiced the desire to have the Parsi Dhansak cooked by Yasmin in her mother’s style. Think we can reserve that treat for my next trip !

‘Bye for now. Hope you have a good week ahead !

 

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