Saturday, October 15, 2011

Cherchez La Femme, Looking for Annie Mascarene


Yesterday afternoon after I had finally submitted the forms for registering the names of both my children at the registrar’s office in Sector 17, I decided to take a quick tour of the National Gallery of Portraits in the basement of the Central State Library Building, which fell between the registrar’s office and the parking lot and to which I thought I would bring the juniors when they are ready to start reading while standing on their own feet.

One of three such galleries in India (besides Delhi and Kolkata), Chandigarh’s National Gallery of Portraits houses some fine exhibits, portraits, busts of nationalist leaders and recordings pertaining to the “national freedom struggle” from 1857 to 1947. One thing I particularly liked was that unlike most Indian museums, this one allows you to click photographs. Alas, I wasn’t carrying a camera.

Crown presented to Ajit Singh by Tilak 
The first exhibit I noticed was the “crown” that Bal Gangadhar Tilak had presented to Ajit Singh, the uncle of Bhagat Singh, in 1907 at the Surat session of the Congress . (Photo courtsey: fulldhamaal.com) The purple-coloured headgear with shining tassels had the OM (ऊँ) sign and “Vande Matram” embroidered on the front. It was exciting to see this material artifact of history in a city that was born out of a resolve to make a clean break from the past. I turned and went around looking at the portraits and reading the descriptions about various freedom fighters and key events. Since this was an unscheduled stop, I decided to skim through the rest of the panels, after having spent some time reading about all the stalwarts of 1857 revolt on the first.

Together it all presented an impressively comprehensive assemblage of that heady 90-year period. It was a national conglomerate indeed. The Bengalis, the Punjabis, the Tamilians, the Manipuris, the Biharis, the UP-ites were all there. I don’t think I saw many from the “Dalit” backgrounds, though Ambedkar’s portrait hung there and there was one panel dedicated to Birsa Munda, the Adivasi. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Parsis were all present but hardly a Christian till I saw this European name. Yes, of course, I had come across Womesh Chandra Bonnerjee’s image next to A. O. Hume’s on the panel that showed the genesis of the Congress Party, but as far as I know, there’s nothing that distinguishes him as a Christian. Ambedkar in his speech/book, The Annihilation of Caste, names him as one responsible for forestalling social reform in favour of the so-called political reform in the 1892 Allahabad Session of the Congress. Bonnerjee, one can argue, acted in the interest of his class/caste background and not true justice.
WANTED Information about Annie
It was actually a serendipitous discovery. I lingered a little longer on the panel about the impact of freedom movement on the princely states. I had recently finished reading Javier Moro’s Passion India, having read about it in an article by A. J. Philip and this one topic continues to interest me. The “Maharajas” (not allowed to be called kings by the British; and befittingly called spectacles by Kipling) and their lives are fascinating studies, especially when one wants to understand the ambivalence of colonial encounter besides the truth about Indian monarchical system with its tantalizing pathos, in all its decadent glory. This panel had a strip of text of the 1939 statement by the Maharajah of Patiala made to Praja Mandal workers—who were bringing the rural folk in the princely states into the national “mainstream” politics—that forbade their activities in the state and ended like this: “…Remember, I am a military man; my talk is blunt and my bullet straight.” As my eyes moved to the centre of the panel, there was a mention of the Travancore state and a rare picture of a woman with that name that arrested my attention—Annie Mascarene.

Annie Mascarene could turn out to be like W. C. Bonnerjee, a keeper of the brahmanical order but she may also be a real harbinger of socio-political transformation of her state. There wasn’t any note on her on that panel. So I decided to search for her on the Internet once I got back home. Who knows she may turn out like Rajkumari Amrit Kaur? Though it was pretty clear that unlike that Kapurthala princess, she was not from the royal family. But like her she was a Christian woman.

While the princes, and princesses, in principle and practice were against the national freedom struggle and the Indian National Congress, Rajkumari or Bibi Amrit Kaur threw her lot with Gandhi and his Congress. She had always been the most-independent minded among the men and women of the royalty in Kapurthala. Javier Moro notes:

“Bibi enjoys enviable freedom in an atmosphere where it is practically impossible to obtain. That is why the women in the zenana look at her with suspicion, although deep down they admire her … She smokes, using a long black silver cigarette holder. The other women excuse her because she is a Christian. They consider her as half-white, as though she came from another planet … Her father has the reputation of being ‘a pious Christian’, and a man committed to the idea of an independent India. … She has come back from England with her mind full of discontent, and a desire to change the age-old mentality of her country.”

She gave it a shot by joining Indian National Congress and held the post of Indian first health minister.

But what about Annie?

To start with, there’s no Wikipedia page on her in English! There’s one in Italian though that Google translated for me making all the pronouns referring to her masculine. It said that she was born in 1902 in “a bourgeois family Catholic in the then kingdom of Travancore” (present-day Kerala), became politically active in 1935, joined the Congress and was part of the Quit India Movement but left the Congress after Independence, in 1950, “Because of his character is frank and direct often brought into conflict with their party leaders”. She fought the first general election in 1951–52 as an independent and won. Interestingly, in that election, out of the 20 independent candidates who fought against INC and RSP (Revolutionary Socialist Party) in Travancore, only three managed to win and she was the only independent woman candidate to run (Source: IBNPolitics.com). She gave up political career in 1957. She died on 19 July 1963.

Information on her is hard to come by, on the Internet at least. A search result points to a Rediff page but that is curiously all blank. Then there is Web site streeshakti.com that has small box of information on her but since the information is far too little, it has repeated a paragraph. But still some additional pieces of information: one, she was born on 26 May; two, her father was a “low-paid government servant” by the name Gabriel Mascarene; three, by 1925 she had done double MA, in economics and in history; four, she taught in Ceylon (Sri Lanka); five, she came back to India three years later and got herself an LLB degree (must be about 1930). And going back to that Italian Wikipedia article, she became politically active in another five years.

Another piece of information about her is found on the government Web site of Gandhi’s works. There is a strongly worded letter written by “BAPU” on October 28, 1945, from Nature Cure Clinic in Puna, to “DEAR MASCARENE” in which he is nearly reprimanding her for dragging his illiterate sister and barely literate niece in an apparent “controversy” on the question of primary education in Travancore and making “them repeat things parrot-like, leading the public to believe that some good work has been done”. He wanted to hear her version of the story. It would’ve been nice to get that. I hope I can lay my hands on her response and much else.

Till then let’s admire her autograph as preserved at indianautographs.com.


2 comments:

Sushant said...

fascinating reading. Do share when you find out more about her.

Archangelo M said...

Good. Awaiting more about Annie Mascarene

Archangelo M