When seven-year-old Rom arrived in India, he landed in the bosom of a large family of cousins, uncles, and aunts in Bombay. The matriarch was his step-grandmother, a stern-looking, stately lady dressed in exquisite handloom saris, and numerous colourful, tinkling bangles on her arms. With typical irreverence, Rom nicknamed her Amma Doodles, and to everyone’s surprise, she loved the moniker.
A decade earlier, in 1941, Amma had travelled extensively across Europe and the U.S. Helen Wierbun Boulter wrote in an article published in the now-defunct The Bombay Chronicle, “it seemed that the Americans were obsessed with snakes. They seemed to think that in India snakes casually strolled in and out of living rooms. Their constant reference to the subject irritated her [Amma] and she repeatedly told them that she had never seen so many snakes anywhere or heard so much talk of them as in America.” As if to prove Amma right, here was her American step-grandson talking of snakes incessantly.
Did she try to wean him from reptiles? “Never. In fact, both my mother and grandmother encouraged me. Amma brought me gifts of animal sculptures, handicrafts. There are a lot of animals in Indian art,” he said laughing.
One such gift was a little metal icon of Ma Ganga seated on a crocodile. Decades of worship had covered the goddess with sticky black soot from oil lamps. One afternoon, I worked on it with tamarind pulp, a wire brush, and muscle power. Eventually all the gunk came off, revealing the decoration on the goddess’s face, her ornaments, and the pattern of her ‘ghagra’. It’s a figurine of rare beauty.
“No matter how busy Amma was, she always thought of us kids,” says Rom. In 1953, she was on a visit to Kashmir when Sheikh Abdullah presented her with the furry skin of a gorgeous snow leopard. Amma in turn gifted this trophy to the one person who would appreciate it, her grandson, on whose bed in boarding school it lay draped for almost seven years.
Back home for vacations, Rom frequently accompanied Amma on her travels: Mangalore, Kashmir, Sanchi. She loved a good laugh and he was a prankster. He saw through her grave façade, and she was probably relieved to be treated normally. While Amma met artisans, Rom was off hunting snakes or fishing in nearby villages and forests. He was impressed with his grandmother’s single-minded pursuit: No part of the country was too remote to gather and bring to the world their fantastic tribal art.
Even though Doris, Rom’s mother, was divorced from Rama, she continued to manage her mother-in-law’s household until her death. She said Amma would squirrel away any nuts and snacks she found lying uneaten, only to serve them to any guests who showed up next. Doris had to perform a sleight of hand, replacing the stale, sometimes mouldy, nibbles before anyone reached for them. During the freedom movement, Amma was scarred so badly from years spent in jail, where food was inadequate and terrible, she became a compulsive hoarder.
When Rom returned from the U.S. as a young adult, Amma and he were rarely home at the same time although they lived in the same house. He says: “When we were together, she asked me lots of questions about what I was doing. But she was extremely reticent to talk about her work. And I never asked. I regret not taking more interest in what she did.”
I can see obvious signs of Amma’s influence on Rom. Both worked hard to encourage traditional skills and ensured these wares found market access. She was one of the pioneers of the cooperative movement in India, and it’s not surprising Rom set up a cooperative of snake catchers.
You may have guessed Amma Doodles was none other than Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, the force behind the resurrection of Indian handicrafts, handloom, and theatre.