When K.V.S. Krishna sent me a picture soon after the passing away of Radha Burnier, the President of the International Theosophical Society, it triggered two memories. One was the Society’s connection with the scouting movement in India and the other was that memorable film The River, Jean Renoir’s 1951 classic.
My picture today features Radha Burnier as a 15-year-old Girl Guide in the Theosophical Society’s campus in Adyar (she’s 2nd from left, third row from the bottom, in saree because she’d just come from a dance class, according to Krishna who is also in the picture). Guiding started in India in 1911 in Jabblepore but was restricted to British and Anglo-Indian girls. It was opened up for Indian girls in 1916, the same year Annie Besant of the Theosophical Society established in Madras the Indian Boy Scout Association, with the first troops of Indian boys in the country. Till then, from the founding of the boy scout movement in India in the Bishop Cotton School in Bangalore in 1909, only British and Anglo-Indian boys were eligible to join.
In 1921, after Lord Baden-Powell’s visit, the Indian Boy Scout Association joined up with the Indian branch of Baden-Powell’s international Scouts’ Association. Other Indian scouts’ associations, except the Seva Samithi Scout Association founded in Allahabad in 1917, joined them to link up with the international movement as The Boy Scout Association in India. In 1938, in the wake of surging nationalism, the Seva Samiti Scout Association and breakaways from the Boy Scout Association in India formed the Hindustan Scout Association, while the Boy Scout Association in India formally joined the world movement. It was to be 1950-51 before all scout and guide associations in India became a unified organisation as the Bharat Scouts and Guides.
While all this was happening Radha Sri Ram was becoming an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer, one of the first two students to be trained by her aunt Rukmini Devi at Kalakshetra in the Theosophical Society campus. And there she was chosen by Renoir in 1948 for a role that was not a part of the original Rumer Godden story. As Melanie, an Anglo-Indian girl who is a part of one of the film’s love stories, she captured international attention with her dancing. Others, like Satyajit Ray who assisted Renoir, and cinematographer Subrata Mitra, who was to become Ray’s cameraman, continued in the film industry and went on to fame. But Radha Sri Ram, who had married a Swiss photographer, Burnier, in 1951, decided to focus on the Theosophical movement.
Radha Burnier who was born in the Theosophical Society’s Huddleston Gardens campus and spent almost all her 90 years there, became the seventh President of the Society. Her father, Nilakanta Sri Ram, who had joined the Society in his early 20s to assist Annie Besant with the editing of New India, was the fifth.
Cricket records of sorts
With all the brouhaha over Sachin Tendulkar’s 200th Test and his retirement, there went almost unnoticed, except by a few, the passing away of that maverick of Tamil Nadu cricket, S.R. Jagannathan, who had set a couple of cricket records of sorts himself. In his 87 years he attended nearly 87 General Body meetings of the Madras Cricket Association and its successor, the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association — and consecutively at that, it is said. Is there another member of the sporting fraternity or of a club in India — or, for that matter, elsewhere — who can claim such a record?
To that record add another one. In his lifetime, SRJ, as he was popularly known, was a cricketer, captain, founder of a club, club secretary, state selector, Life Member of the TNCA, member of its Constitution Committee, member of its Executive Committee, office-bearer and, as someone in the inner circles of Tamil Nadu cricket added, king-maker too! And not to be forgotten is the fact that this grandson of a one-time leading lawyer, Dewan Bahadur T. Rangachari, had inherited a legal mind that had him familiar with every nuance of the TNCA’s constitution, enabling him to resort to litigation from time to time to the discomfort of many a big wheel in cricket administration. On the other hand, he played a major role in drafting the Madras Cricket Association’s Constitution in 1952 and in revising it as the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association’s Constitution in 1990.
SRJ’s commitment to cricket began in school and flowered at Presidency College, which was when he was selected to play for the University of Madras as a dogged opening bat and a leg-break googly bowler. Those were the days when the inter-university contest for the Rohinton Baria trophy was one of the highlights of the Indian cricketing calendar. He once batted all day against Hyderabad University to be 49 not out at stumps. He was also selected as a Ranji Trophy reserve for Madras, but felt that his outspokenness had C.P. Johnstone keeping out of the playing eleven. His playing days, however, came to an end soon after when a motorcycle accident affected his mobility.
Once off the field, he promoted the Egmore Excelsiors, giving many a young cricketer the opportunity to play in the Madras league. One of his ‘finds’ was S. Vasudevan who was to go on to lead Madras in 1988 to only its second Ranji Trophy title. SRJ was also a staunch supporter of the Eccentrics Cricket Club founded by Denniston (later Sir Robert) of Best and Co. and A.P.W. Dixon of the Civil Service.
In later life, besides causing stirs and introducing various resolutions at General Body meetings, he launched Straight Bat, a monthly magazine with much of its focus on Tamil Nadu cricket. That was in 1997 and he was 71. He was to fund the journal and the numerous souvenirs it brought out during ‘Test’ series in Madras till his passing away. Such was his commitment to the journal that many a leading Indian cricket writer, like K.N. Prabhu, Suresh Menon and Rajan Bala, recognising his passion for the game, particularly at the grassroots level, wrote for it for free.
A father-figure for many, an ardent champion of local cricket, a crusader for the game at all levels, a stickler for the rules, SRJ who called a spade a spade may have been considered over-enthusiastic, or even eccentric, by many. But no one doubted that his heart was in the right place when it came to cricket or the promotion and administration of the game. He will be missed by a host of friends and cricketers who had enjoyed the stories he had regaled them with about the early days of Madras cricket or benefited from the advice he gave on batsmanship and leg-break bowling.
Two names out of the past
Once again, seeking the help of this column from abroad are those asking me to trace relics of the past. And once again, it’s my readers I turn to; believe it or not, I haven’t the answers to everything Madras.
The first inquiry seemed simple enough, particularly as it was connected with a name well-known in early 20th Century Madras. Giacomo D’Angelis was the owner of what was at one time one of the leading hotels in the city, Hotel D’Angelis, whose home is now the Bata showroom and a rabbits’ warren of shops at Round Tana, now Anna Circle. The hotel was later owned by Giacomo D’Angelis and Son, the son being Carlos D’Angelis. And the latter was the subject of the search I was drawn into by a descendant of the family living in Chile, Jefferis D’Angelis.
My Chilean correspondent had come across a news item in the Straits Times of February 23, 1920 reporting the tragic death the previous day of Carlos D’Angelis in a jheel in Pana(p/j)akam, 20 miles from Madras. He had gone with a friend for an early morning duck-and-teal shoot at the lake and before his shikari and his friend could get into the boat he had stood in it and fired a couple of times at birds flying overhead. The recoil took him by surprise, given his standing position in an unsteady boat, and had toppled him into the water. His body could not be found till the next day.
The newspaper report stated that he had been buried in the cemetery of St. George’s Cathedral and Jefferis D’Angelis wanted me to verify the burial and find the tombstone. Searches by friends did not turn up the tombstone, possibly because it has been hidden by a later burial, but a record in the church did show that he was indeed buried in its cemetery.
The second request for a search was in connection with a couple one half of whom I had vaguely heard of, but wonder whether I can get more information about the other half. Lina Bernstein from Franklin & Marshall College, Pennsylvania, is tracing the life of a Russian artist, Magda Nachman, who was married to M.P.T. Acharya from Madras. Acharya was one of the founders of the Communist Party of India and went through phases of nationalism, communism and anarchism in Pondicherry, Moscow, Berlin and London before “retiring” to Bombay.
Nachman and her husband arrived in Bombay (from Europe) in 1935 and appear to have spent the next 15 years there. She painted prolifically in Bombay and held several exhibitions there till her death in 1951. Her husband a couple of years later planned to exhibit her work in London to pull himself out of near poverty, but while he was packing the exhibits for shipment in 1954, he suddenly died. The paintings thereafter vanished.
Did, like his other possessions, the paintings too find their way to Madras, wonders Bernstein. Does the National Art Gallery/Museum in Madras and/or Madras collectors have a Nachman she could see, asks my correspondent. As for me, I’d like to know more about the couple.