Saturday, September 2, 2017


Miriam Makeba a singer of international repute, who enthralled the world with her dynamic voice for over three decades, was born in Johannesburg, on 4th March 1932. Her father Caswell worked as a clerk and her mother Christine worked as a domestic help,
but was also a spiritual healer. When her mother was imprisoned for brewing illicit beer, Miriam as a child of 18 months was taken along and spent six months in jail.
            After her father’s death, Miriam lived with her grandmother in Pretoria, where she was encouraged to sing in church. In 1947, at the age of fourteen, Miriam gave her first solo in church during a Royal visit.
            Miriam lived up to her middle name ‘Zenzi’ (meaning you have no one to blame but yourself) by taking charge of her destiny early in life. She soon realized that her voice was her ticket to freedom. But she was also aware that as long as there was Apartheid in South Africa, there was no hope of a career in music.
            Africans were known for their musical creativity and improvisation skills in rhythm, tonal qualities and verbal content. African jazz and ragtime was combined with Anglican Church music to form a distinct vocal style called Mbube. For a while Miriam sang with the Cuban Brothers. She was also a member of the all female group called the Skylarks. In 1954, she joined a pop band called Manhattan Brothers. This advanced her singing skills. She had a wide voice range and her songs were poignant with emotion and touched the hearts of her audience. With Manhattan Brothers she toured Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Congo. In 1957, the band toured the rest of Africa for 18 months, with Miriam as its soloist of African Jazz and traditional African music.
            In a movie King Kong the story of a South African boxer, she was given the female lead.
International recognition came to her through her singing part in “Come Back Africa” a documentary of Black life in Africa. The Director Lionel Rosogin a white man invited her for its screening at the Venice Film Festival in 1959, which made her an instant celebrity.
            From there she flew to New York where Harry Belafonte took her under his wing. Miriam lived in Greenwich Village with other actors and musicians. She met film stars life Bing Crosby and Marlon Brando and musicians Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong and others. In 1962 Miriam appeared with Marilyn Monroe at John Kennedy’s birthday celebrations in Madison Square Garden. In 1966, she won the Grammy along with Harry Belafonte for their album “An Evening with Belafonte and Makeba.”
            Miriam was one of the first African musicians to bring African music to western audiences. Some of her songs were critical of Apartheid. Nelson Mandela said, “Her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us.” In 1962, she testified at the UN Committee against Apartheid and asked for economic sanctions and arms embargo against the government in South Africa.
            In 1985, for the first time in Britain, she sang at the Royal Festival Hall, London. It was on her 53rd birthday. Many criticized her for being anti-White. But she answered, “People have accused me of being a racist but I am just a person for justice and humanity. People say I sing politics. It is the truth. I’m going to go on singing and telling the truth.”
            Over the years, Miriam became identified with Black Consciousness. She was acutely antagonistic to Apartheid and the white minority government in South Africa. She became a vociferous activist and a champion of Black power. She took part in fund raising for these groups and held a benefit concert in aid of Martin Luther King Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Emperor Haile Salassie of Ethiopia invited her to sing at the inauguration of the Organization of African Unity.
For her anti-apartheid activities Miriam was banned from entering South Africa for 30 years. She could not even attend the funeral of her mother who died during the Sharpeville Massacre. However, she became an honorary citizen of 10 countries. In her autobiography published in 1988, she wrote about the demeaning aspects of Apartheid. Miriam was able to enter South Africa only after the end of Apartheid, when she sang at the function felicitating Nelson Mandela after   his release.
            Miriam’s personal life was something of a tragedy. She gave birth to a girl called Bonzi at the age of 17. Soon after, she was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. She claimed that she was healed by her mother’s herbal and spiritual administration. A decade later, she developed cervical cancer and had to undergo surgery.
Rather unconventional in her life style, she had five husbands at different periods of her life.
            Miriam’s best known songs are ‘Malaika’, ‘Pati Pati’ and the Click Song and are sung even today. Her output consisted of 30 original albums and 19 compilation albums.
            Miriam died at the age of 76 in Naples, on November 9th, 2008. This singing ‘Mama Africa’ as she was popularly known, had sung for thirty minutes at a concert in aid of a movement against organized crime, when she suffered a massive heart attack.
As Pearl Buck said, “The secret of joy in work is contained in one word – Excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it.”


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.