Thursday, June 1, 2017


“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and spread its fragrance on the desert air,” wrote the poet Gray. If a young man named John Maloof had not discovered the wealth of photographs taken by Vivian Maier, the world would have never known of the street photographer who called herself ‘a sort of spy.’
            Vivian was born in France on February 1st, 1926. She was of mixed descent with a French mother and an Austrian father, who abandoned his family when she was a child. A portrait photographer named Jeanne Bertrand befriended her mother. Perhaps Vivian’s interest in photography was nurtured by this lady.
            In her youth, Vivian shuttled between France and USA until in 1951, she settled down in New York. She was an intensely private person, eccentric but intelligent, and cared nothing for what people thought about her. Shabbily dressed in a long loose dress with a baggy woollen overcoat, solid boots and floppy hat, she never stepped into the street without her camera dangling from her neck. Her first camera was a simple box camera. Objects and people on the streets fascinated her.
            Vivian came to New York as nanny to a family who sailed to USA from Southampton. She continued to work for the family between 1951 and1956, and could now afford to buy a more sophisticated Leica IIIc, with which she could take coloured photographs. From photographing objects and landmarks, she now turned to capturing people in her films. She had a great affinity for the poor, their life styles, and their struggles. Whatever caught her eye she photographed and documented. She also developed an inexplicable urge to hoard things. Newspapers, garbage cans, discarded items on the roadside were collected and stored in boxes.
            In 1957, Vivian moved to Chicago where she again sought employment as a nanny to three children. They were here closest family. She was like a second mother to the children, fond of them but also very strict. When she took them outdoors, she was also busy photographing whatever caught her fancy. She had a small room to herself which doubled as a dark room to develop her pictures. She also had access to the attic in which she hoarded her collection of newspapers, clippings, film rolls and other knick knacks. The attic was always locked permitting no entry to the children.
            During her tenure as a nanny, she would make short trips to other parts of the country, Canada, South America, and some cities in Europe. She always travelled alone and indulged freely in her hobby of photography.
            By the early ‘70s the children had all grown up and needed no nanny. She moved from family to family in Chicago and nannied in this city for a total of seventeen years. But she could no more develop her rolls of film. They had to be put in boxes with all the other junk she had accumulated. In 1980, she stopped photographing, and her camera too went into storage.
            Vivian managed to live in a tiny studio apartment which was paid for by one of the families for whom she had worked. But when she could not pay the rent to the storage companies, one of her storage bins was auctioned without her knowledge, to cover the rent.
            In 2007, John Maloof a young man was writing a book about Chicago. He visited the local auction to see if he could get photographs or material for his book. Paying $400/- he bought one of her boxes which contained hundreds of negatives depicting scenes from Chicago. He became obsessed with Vivian’s work and started buying back stuff from other buyers who had attended the auction. He also acquired items from her other two boxes.
            Within a year, John had salvaged about 90% of her work. There were 100000 to 150000 negatives, 3000 prints, hundreds of rolls of film and audiotapes. She had methodically documented many of the photographs. Vivian Maier became John Maloof’s magnificent obsession.
            In 2008, Vivian skidded on ice and injured her head. She never recovered and died in a nursing home on April 21st, 2009.

            The first story about Vivian was published in 2009. Her life and works not only became Maloof’s passion but also contributed to his livelihood. The first exhibition of her work was in 2010. These were scans of all her negatives. Since then this exhibition has travelled all over USA, from Chicago to Los Angeles to New York. It has been exhibited in many European countries as well. So well archived, it has rekindled an interest in street photography and in the life and work of an extremely private woman who was a law unto herself.

Friday, January 6, 2017



Maria Bicknell was the daughter of Charles Bicknell, a solicitor to the Prince Regent and the Admiralty. She lived with her parents in London, but would often visit her grandfather in Suffolk. He was Dr. Durand Rudde, the Rector of East Bergholt and also a very wealthy man.
Maria first met the impoverished landscape painter John Constable when she was twelve and he was twenty. They met again when she was a few years older, and love came unbidden into their hearts. But Constable was living on a measly allowance of 100 pounds a year from his father, which was scarcely enough for his own sustenance. They had to carry on their secret affair for seven long years, until the death of his father when he inherited sufficient amount of money to support a wife.
Their marriage was stoutly opposed by both families. Maria’s grandfather threatened to disown her, as Constable belonged to a lower social stratum. His father was not an intellectual but a trader, even though he owned a prosperous mill. Besides, Constable’s paintings did not bring in a regular income.
Though Constable was a landscape painter and an ardent exponent of naturalism, he occasionally undertook portrait painting because of financial necessity. Three months before their marriage, he painted a portrait of Maria. She was in London and Constable wrote from Suffolk, “I would not be without your portrait for all the world. The sight of it calms my spirit in all trouble.”
Their marriage took place in 1816, at the Church of St. Martin Fields in London. Neither family attended the wedding. But their steadfast love carried them through stiff opposition of their families and also through severe financial hardships. Charles Bicknell gave his daughter 50 pounds a year. But when her grandfather died, she received 4000 pounds as part of her inheritance.
Maria bore seven children in quick succession. She also had one miscarriage. Perhaps in those days the subject of contraception was taboo, and the young couple had no clue about Planned Parenthood.
Frequent child bearing took a toll on Maria’s health. She contracted tuberculosis and died at the age of 41, a few months after delivering her seventh child. On November 23rd, 1828, she was buried at St. John-at-Hampstead Churchyard in London.
On her death, Constable went into deep depression. He was unable to concentrate on his paintings. His clients were dissatisfied with his work and grumbled.
“I am intensely distressed and can hardly attend to anything,” he apologized.
To add to his loss, he was saddled with the responsibility of looking after seven children.
He wrote to his brother, “I do feel the loss of my angel. God only knows how my children will be brought up. She was a devoted, industrious, religious mother who was all affection. …….The face of the world has totally changed for me.”
            Their married life lasted for a mere twelve years. Frequent child bearing and tuberculosis had debilitated Maria. Death dealt the coup de grace.


Thursday, September 29, 2016


            Ruttenbai Ruttie Petit was sweet sixteen in 1916, when Prince Charming rode into her life. He may not have arrived on a white charger. But this dapper young man in his Saville Row suit and suede shoes cast a magical spell on this beautiful, bright, vivacious teenager who was ready for romance.
            Mohammad Ali Jinnah a prominent lawyer from Bombay had come to Darjeeling for a summer break, at the home of his famous client Sir Dinshaw Petit, a Textile magnate. Jinnah was enchanted not only by Ruttie’s beauty but also her intelligence. Her interests ranged from poetry to politics. In spite of her tender age she could harangue on a wide range of subjects including the Swaraj Movement which was involved in fighting for Indian independence.
            At the end of his stay in Darjeeling, Jinnah asked Sir Dinshaw for Ruttie’s hand in marriage, but was refused. Ruttie was only sixteen and belonged to the Parsi community. Jinnah was 41 years old and was a Muslim. Ruttie was prohibited from seeing or speaking to this man. But when she got back to Bombay, they continued their secret rendezvous for two years until she attained majority.
            In 1918, Ruttie converted to Islam and took the name of Maryam. She was married to Jinnah on April 19, 1918, at his home ‘South Court’ on Malabar Hill, Bombay. Jinnah presented her with a ring which he had received from the Raja of Muhamudabad, and a tidy sum of Rupees 125,000. Only very close friends were invited to the wedding. Sir Dinshaw disowned his daughter and never made contact with her again.
            The first few years of married life were blissful. Jinnah was smitten by her beauty and proud to show her off at various social functions. Ruttie was equally at ease in western attire as well as her flowing colourful saris. Her long tresses were decked with flowers and her head- bands dazzling with precious stones were the envy of other society ladies. They made a very handsome couple, as he too was always attired in custom made suits, a pipe perpetually dangling from his lips. Sarojini Naidu called Ruttie ‘Flower of Bombay.’ Dewan Chaman Lal who was smitten by her beauty said, “There is not a woman in the whole world to hold a candle to her.”
            Once when the couple went for dinner to Governor Wellington’s house, Ruttie had worn a gown with a low neckline. The prudish Governor’s wife asked the ADC to bring her a wrap. Jinnah was quick to take umbrage. He retorted that if Ruttie needed one she would have asked for it. The couple made a dignified exit from the Governor’s house without waiting for dinner.
            Apart from beauty, Ruttie was witty and could hold her own in any conversation. In May 1919, she made a very eloquent speech at the All India Trade Conference. She was also active in different social spheres such as welfare of children and animal rights. Her passion was for books, clothes and pets.
            The first six years of their married life were happy ones. A daughter Dina was born to them. But successful men do not always make loving husbands. They grew apart because Jinnah was so socially, politically and economically powerful. He was a leading barrister in Bombay and was also the President of the Bombay branch of Home Rule League. Ruttie felt his dour, humorless nature to be stifling. His preoccupation with politics left very little time for his wife. She felt isolated. But being of a strong nature she felt that if he could not give her personal time, she wanted liberation. Jinnah was so engrossed in his political aspirations that he had no time to bother about his wife who felt emotionally bereft.
            In September 1922, Ruttie and her daughter went to London for a few months. If she hoped that ‘absence would make the heart grow fonder,’ she was in for disappointment. Jinnah was totally preoccupied in campaigning for the Bombay seat in the general elections. Ruttie withdrew into herself. She suffered from insomnia, hallucinations and abdominal ailments. Her loneliness drove her to the world of spirituality, mysticism, séances and clairvoyance. Jinnah was totally oblivious of her failing health. In 1925, when he made a five-month tour of Europe and North America, he took his family along. The trip sadly widened the gulf between them.
            In 1927, when the Muslim League shifted its head quarters to Delhi, Ruttie stayed behind. She moved into a room at the Taj Hotel. Her deteriorating health added to her sense of isolation. She had just one friend and confidante Kanji Dwarakadas, to whom she poured out the story of her aching heart.
            In 1928, Ruttie went to the Champs Elysee Clinic for treatment of chronic colitis. While there, she poured out her heart in a love letter to Jinnah. “I have loved you my darling as it is given to few men to be loved……Remember me as the flower you plucked and not as the flower you trampled on.”
            Ruttie Maryam Jinnah died on 15th September 1929, at the age of 29 years. She was buried according to Muslim rites at the Khoja Cemetery in Mazagaon, Bombay. Jinnah sat like a statue at the funeral, but broke down when asked to throw a handful of mud on her grave. His friends said that this was the only time they had seen this dour, cold politician show some humanness. He visited her grave one last time in 1947, before leaving for Pakistan.
As Byron said, “Man’s love is of Man’s life a thing apart. ‘Tis woman’s whole existence.”
One wonders if Jinnah ever regretted the fact that he had never given his beloved wife the Gift of Time.


Thursday, June 9, 2016


When Johann Wolfgang Goethe the ‘Giant of World Literature,’ took as his mistress the uneducated maid Christiane Vulpius, it created a social scandal in Weimar’s high society. It was a love story that weathered the storm of criticism and lasted for all of 28 years. It began one fine day in 1788 when Goethe was taking a leisurely stroll in a park and Christiane approached him with a petition in favour of her brother. Her family was in straightened circumstances as her father had been put in prison for some minor bureaucratic error. Her brother a writer of adventure novels needed a job to boost the family income.
            Goethe was smitten by the girl’s good looks, her rosy cheeks, her sparkling eyes and her buxom figure. He took her home for a live-in relationship that lasted 18 years, before he made an honest woman out of her, through marriage on 19th October 1806 at the Jacobskirke in Weimar. Weimar’s high society both the womenfolk and the Literati like Schiller and Thomas Mann were highly critical of his choice. Mann called her ‘a beautiful piece of meal.’ The women resented Christiane because she had robbed them of Goethe’s attention. Charlotte von Stein his lover was livid. Charlotte the wife of Schiller called her a ‘round nothing’ and Bettina von Arnim named her ‘a black pudding.’ Even Goethe’s mother thought she was a sensual ‘bed treasure’ with no claims to intellectual ability.
            But though Christiane had little education and was of no social standing, she was a good wife and a loving companion. For her, Goethe’s welfare was supreme. When their first child Julius August Walther was born on 25th December 1789, Goethe greeted him with the words “Love formed you. You will receive just love.” He even prevailed upon Karl Augustus the Duke of Weimar to be the child’s godfather. But the child’s crying disturbed his work and he took himself off to Italy for long periods, returning only when the desire to be with Christiane took hold of him. Goethe’s mother came to know of Christiane and her grandson only in 1792.
            Three more children were born to Christiane. But none of them survived due to complications of Rhesus incompatibility. Goethe was away for most of the time during her pregnancies and was never present during her labours. As his literary productivity increased, he spent more time away from home.
            A strong friendship developed between Goethe and Schiller. When Goethe’s family moved into a large house in Frauenplan, Christiane proved a warm and friendly hostess in spite of Schiller’s animosity towards her. She was always kind and caring and never offensive. Schiller however, considered her only as Goethe’s housekeeper, and lacked the civility to thank her for her hospitality.
            On their silver anniversary, Goethe dedicated a poem ‘Gefunden’ (Discovery) to Christiane. Years later, her nephew Wolfgang Volpius wrote in her biography, “No wife who has reached her silver wedding anniversary year has ever got a more meaningful and more tender greeting from her husband.”
            Christiane died of uraemia on 6th June 1816. She had previously suffered two strokes and had painful convulsions during her death. She died alone. Goethe was never beside her when she needed him most. She was buried at Jakobsfriedhof in Weimar. After her death, Schiller’s wife wrote of Goethe, “The poor man wept bitterly. It grieves me that he should shed tears for such objects.”
            Christiane provided emotional sustenance to Goethe. She did not feel any sense of inferiority or inadequacy in spite of the barbs and insults thrown at her by Weimar’s society. She had a great capacity to love. Goethe’s mother had to agree that ‘she was a wonderful unspoiled creature.’ As Gary Oliver says, “Real love is choosing to make an unconditional commitment to an imperfect person.”
            After her death Goethe became fat and ugly and began drinking wine excessively. He died on March 22nd 1832.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016


Germaine de Stael was one of the early feminists who championed women’s right to self expression. Hailed as an important intellectual of her time, she was also ridiculed as ‘man woman,’ because she was strong willed, decisive and took a definite stand on issues close to her heart. She was dominating and bossy and knew how to influence people to further her own ends. There were three different facets to her character – political, intellectual and sexual- distinct and running side by side.
            Germaine’s one disappointment was that she failed to inspire Napoleon to envision her goals. At the outset, she was willing to proclaim Napoleon as great, provided he considered some of her ideas to turn France into an outstanding nation. A confirmed misogynist, Napoleon not only spurned her ideas but laughed at her attempts to influence him. He hated loud mouthed, self opinionated women and was immune to her charms. He preferred docile, submissive creatures like his wife Josephine or his mistress Mario Walewski.
“Who is the greatest woman in history?” she asked him.
“It is the woman who has borne the most children,” he replied, making her seethe with frustration.
            Germaine had a striking personality but was by no means beautiful. She was on the pudgy side with an enormous bosom, and her deep necked attire revealed much of her bulging breasts. On one occasion, he peeped into her cleavage and had the impertinence to ask how many children she had suckled.
            As Napoleon’s power grew turning him into a ruthless dictator, Germaine’s opposition to him escalated. She turned her father’s chateau at Coppet into an intellectual power house and a refuge for those who opposed Napoleon. She forcefully incited opposition against him. Her salon in Paris became a prominent political centre. She was constantly at loggerheads with the regime in France and encouraged her friends Talleyrand, Narbonne and Benjamin Constant to speak against government proposals.
            Napoleon considered her an enemy of the State. She was exiled three times from France, for short periods between 1803 – 1812. He persecuted Germaine at every possible opportunity, as he was aware of her great influence on anti-Bonapartists. Her book on Germany which introduced German Romanticism and Philosophy to France was seized by Napoleon’s police in 1810, as being UnFrench and subversive, and burned. It was subsequently published in London in 1813.
            Germaine put together a coalition that brought down Napoleon. Treaty negotiations between Russia and Sweden were mediated through her.
She came back to Paris only after Napoleon abdicated. Attempts to usher in Constitutional Monarchy were framed in her salon in Paris.
            Germaine was also an accomplished writer, though she never became as popular as her contemporaries Fanny Burney and Jane Austen. She did her finest writing in exile. Her books Delphine and Corrine or Italy were well known. Corrine published in 1807 made a great impact on women outside France. Corrine became an international symbol of Romanticism. Many famous women modeled their lives on the protagonist of this book.  Germaine also had good friends among the Intelligentsia of Europe like Byron, Schiller, Goethe, Chateaubriand and others.
            Germaine was born Anne Louise Germaine Necker in Paris on April 26, 1766. Her father Jacques Neckar a Swedish protestant, was Director of Finance under Louis XVI, but was dismissed in 1788. Germaine was his only child and he loved her very much, calling her his little ‘Minette.’ Her mother Suzanne Curchod a French intellectual was very dominating and showed no affection for her daughter. Germaine disliked her mother intensely.
            Germaine was married to Eric Magnus Stael von Holstein a Swiss nobleman who was eighteen years her senior. Through her father’s influence, he was made Permanent Ambassador to France. Germaine was now Baroness de Stael, the richest heiress in France. But they separated a few years later, giving her the freedom to dally with a succession of men. She was a sensual woman and of the five children she bore only one was sired by her husband. Viscount Louis Narbonne was the father of her two children Auguste and Albert. She had many brief flings.
            But the love of her life was Benjamin Constant, French author and political leader and their affair lasted on and off for seventeen years. Theirs was an intellectual and romantic bonding, exciting but also exhausting. Constant was the father of her daughter Albertine.
He described Germaine as a demanding lover and an attention seeker. “Everybody’s entire existence, every hour, every minute, for years on end, must be at her disposal or there was an explosion like all thunderstorm and earthquake together.”
            Her last lover was Lt. John Rocca, twenty years her junior. When her husband died in 1802, she married Rocca secretly. This was not known until after her death. She bore him a son.
            During her last years, this witty, voluble, bold woman began to abuse opium and was laid low with severe stomach pains. She suffered a stroke, and passed away on July 14, 1817, Bastille Day. She was just 51 years old. Her husband died six months later from TB.

            During her lifetime Germaine weathered many political upheavals - the last years of the Monarchy, the French Revolution, Napoleon’s rule and post Napoleon years. Napoleon said of her, “How does it happen that all who speak to her come to like me less and less.”

Tuesday, February 2, 2016



The fascinating life of Caroline Herschel proves beyond doubt that ingenuity, inquisitiveness and a keen sense of observation can override any physical disability or handicap. She was born in Hanover Germany, on March 6th 1750, to Isaac Herschel a musician in the Hanover Military Band and Anna Ilse Mortisen a housewife. Small pox disfigured her face at the age of three, leaving her with a drooping left eyelid. At the age of ten, an attack of Typhus dwarfed her stature, leaving her with a permanent height of 4’3”. While her father saw to it that she had an elementary education, her mother was convinced that she was fit only to be a scullery maid.
            Caroline’s brother Frederick William Herschel who was twelve years her senior, rescued her from such a plight and took her away to England to keep house for him. He was a musician who had settled in Bath. He taught Caroline music and helped develop her voice. She became a well known soprano and even began to sing professionally.
            But her brother had a passion for Astronomy since childhood. Though he was an outstanding instrumentalist, he gave it all up to pursue his passion. He trained his sister to be his assistant. She gradually began to share his interest in astronomy and worked closely with him.
            However, the telescopes they could afford were small and the images projected were often blurred. So the two worked together to build their own telescope, until they were satisfied with the clarity of the images it projected. William impressed on his sister that important discoveries could be made only through systematically observing the heavenly bodies, their interesting features and their relative positions in space.
            When William discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, Caroline was by his side. He was knighted and appointed court astronomer by King George III. Meanwhile Caroline who had developed a keen interest in the subject, made her own discoveries and observations.  William had also trained her in mathematics. In 1783, she discovered three new nebulae. On August
1st, 1786, she discovered her first comet and was the first woman astronomer to do so. It was called ‘first lady comet.’ Between 1786 and 1787, Caroline discovered eight comets and several nebulae.
             William began to develop many more powerful telescopes. Caroline assisted him by grinding and polishing the lenses. In 1787, King George III officially employed her as William’s assistant. It brought in a modest salary of 50 pounds per annum. She became the first woman to be paid for scientific services.
            Caroline also helped her brother to develop a modern mathematical approach to astronomy. Between them, they discovered 2500 nebulae and compiled their findings in a new General Catalogue.
            When William died in 1822, Caroline returned to Hanover, but continued her work in fields of astronomy and math and also in cataloguing nebulae. An asteroid was given her second name Lucretia and a lunar crater was named after her.
            In 1828 at the age of 75, she received a gold medal from the Royal Astronomic Society. She became the first woman to receive honorary membership of Britain’s Royal Society. On her 96th birthday, the King of Prussia presented her with the Gold Medal of Science.
            Caroline died at the ripe old age of 98 on January1st, 1848, and was buried at the cemetery Gartengemeinde, on 35, Marienstrasse, Hanover. She wrote her own epitaph which is engraved on her tomb stone. “The eyes of her who is glorified here below turned to the starry heavens.”
Though Caroline Herschel was a dwarf in stature, God gave her the enviable gift of surveying the heavens and reading the poetry of the stars.

Friday, November 20, 2015



            When Nadezha Popova a heroine of World War II died at the age of 91 in Moscow on July 8th 2013, no flags flew at half mast in recognition of her brave wartime services. In fact, the Night Bomber Units of the Russian Air Force had quietly slipped into oblivion after the war.
            Nadezha was born in Shabanovka, Ukraine on December 17th, 1921. She was not particularly interested in Academics but loved outdoor activities. At the age of 15, she joined a Flying Club to learn how to fly. Within a year she was able to take her first solo flight and also make a parachute jump. Later, she trained at an Aviation School in Kherson, Ukraine.
            During the war, German soldiers invaded her home and turned it into a Gestapo Police station. Her brother was killed and the family left homeless.  Overhead, German planes strafed innocent civilians indiscriminately and gloated over the havoc they created. It stirred up anger in this young girl and a desire for revenge.
            Women were not inducted into the Russian Armed Forces until 1941 because ‘no one wanted to give women the freedom to die.’ But realizing how women could be put to good use in the war effort, Stalin established three all-women Air Force units. One of these was the 588th Night Bomber Regiment.
            Nadezha was 19 when she enlisted. Most of the other girls who joined the regiment were also in their teens. They were ill equipped for this mission. Even the uniforms they wore were hand-me-downs from the men.
            The planes these young teenagers were expected to fly were obsolete two-seaters – the 1920 vintage Polikarpov PO2 planes. These had ply wood frames with canvas stretched across, and had the most rudimentary instruments.  No guns, radios or parachutes. The girls had to chart their course with compasses, maps and stop watches. Each plane had two bombs strapped under their wings. So the girls had to make several sorties during the night, as part of their duty. The planes had limited speed and had to be flown at low levels to escape detection by radar. They cut their engines before gliding over a target and releasing the bombs. Then they re-started the engines and flew away.
            The peculiar whooshing sound made by the engines sounded like witches riding in the sky on their broomsticks. So the Germans christened them ‘Night Witches.’ These dare devils caused a lot of damage to German military encampments, supply depots and isolated air bases. The Night Witches did about 30,000 missions in four years, and dropped 23,000 tons of bombs. Any German who shot down a Night Witch was decorated with the Iron Cross.
            The planes usually flew in formations of three. Two advance decoys were followed by the third plane which dropped the bombs. Each plane took turns in the bombing routine.
            These young women were fearless. Fired by a spirit of patriotism and hatred for the Germans, they were hell bent on doing as much damage to the enemy as their puny planes would allow. Many times they flew through walls of enemy fire. Some were shot down and lost their lives. Germans spread the rumour that these witches were given injections to improve their night vision.
            Nadezha Popova was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. She was active in 852 missions. Though she came under fire many times she was not badly hurt.
On one occasion when she was shot and forced to land, she found herself in a group of retreating troops and civilians. It was here that she met another pilot Semyon Kharlamov, who was also shot down. They saw each other several times during the war. In 1945, at the end of the war, they were both in Berlin and signed their names on the wall of the Reichstag.
            Nadezha and Semyon were married soon after and lived a happy life until Semyon’s death in 1990. Post-war, Nadezha went back to being a flying instructor. She was decorated with several honours – The Soviet Medal of Honour, Order of Friendship, Order of Lenin and Order of the Red Banner.

            Nadezha joins the ranks of the many brave women who risked their lives for their country in World War II.