G.G.Welling: From Wedding to Retirement

 

One studio. Two photographs.

Two photographs that bookend a wedding and a retirement and life that happened in Bangalore from 1955 to 1979.

The most precious picture in our collection is the wedding photograph of the parents , Sheshagiri and Thulasi, who were married on July 20, 1955, in Nellore. A few days later, Sheshagiri brought his new bride to Bangalore, and they went to G.G.Welling Photo Studios , M.G. Road to have their wedding picture taken.

Because everybody went to Welling when they wanted to have their momentous occasions frozen in a frame, when Sheshagiri retired 26 years later,  he ttook Thulasi  to Welling again , for he was required to submit a picture of them together for his pension purposes. Though many momentous occasions happened in these 26 years, including the birth of their three children – aka My Big Brothers Subri and Bunty, and of course me, they were not frozen in frames at Welling’s, for reasons unknown. However, we have a treasure trove of memories between the two pictures- Leaving Mahadev Vilas on Ratna Vilasa Road after Grandfather Ramabrahma died, moving house three times, changing schools and starting college.

How many times have I sat down with Amma and pored over that album with all the photographs. Their wedding pictures, those of my aunts’, uncles and ants and cousins and the maternal grandparents in their Nellore home. But this picture, taken by Welling is the one that the eye lingers longest on. It holds a thousand stories, of nine little girls and their seven brothers , the weddings of the girls all of which took place in the house of their Ramayana writing father Mamidipudi Krishnaiah.

I’ve tried to imagine the colour of Amma’s saree- it was maroon, with a gold bordern, my aunt, Amma’s youngest sister Rohini tells me. The blouse, was pink, and the special lattice-work at the neck is the “jalebi neck” .

It’s five years ago that Amma went, and two years ago, it was their 60th anniversary. 1955 was the year named Manmatha, the God of Love, and Spring, and Colors, and everything beautiful, and in 2015 it had been again Manmatha Samvatsara, the year in which Appa was left with 57 years’ worth of memories.

In 2015, I asked Appa why his parents ( Ramabrahma Tatha and Venkamma Paati) are not to be seen in any of the 10 wedding photographs . “it was taken by Thambi Mama” he explained. That would be Amma’s eldest brother, M Venkatakrishnan, known as Thambi . I remember Thambi Mama, the bachelor uncle, chartered accountant who was well known in the Madras music and dance circle, for encouraging young artistes who needed an introduction into the Sabha circuit , and taking them under his wing.

Appa then said, ” may be you shouldn’t post the reception photo, don’t we look funny sitting far apart, almost hugging our corners of the two-seater”

Too late, I responded, we have already shared all the photos last year, and told the story of your wedding , of which I’m very proud.
July 20, 1955:- the wedding of Thulasi and Sheshagiri was celebrated at the grand residence of Mamidipudi Ramakrishnaiah and Indira, at Nellore. Appa, , told me that on July 18, 1955, when the groom’s family had arrived, the bride’s home was abuzz with wedding-related rituals, and the house was beginning to look like it was in Malgudi instead of Nellore, an elder know-all pointed out that the next day, the wedding eve when the groom is welcomed was going to be a day of Amavasya. No one had thought of this, and there was momentary consternation. But soon enough , someone suggested that the ritual could begin on 18th, and that’s exactly how it was done. Thanks to Amavasya, another day of wedding revelry came to be enjoyed by everyone!
Our mother, The bride of the day
61 years ago, is in Amma Heaven . Her absence has become a presence, and she talks to us in everything we do. Appa and I have pored over these photographs, and he remembers little nuggets about the wedding . His cousin Baba travelled with him from Madras I remember him telling us when Amma died, about what Grandfather Ramabrahma had said of the bride chosen for Sheshagiri- he had got the most beautiful one of the seven daughters of Ramakrishnaiah.
How simple,and yet grand, a wedding could be in those days! It’s just not fair that we never get to be at our parents’ wedding. I notice my mother’s bare feet at the reception, and how
the bride and groom are seated as far away from each other as the two-seater permits! No visits to the beauty parlor, no make-up.
I remember playing wedding games , with Amma looking indulgently, and telling me the bride must sit with left leg folded up, and the left arm around it, and that’s what, I thought it took to be a bride!
Amma often told me about how the daughters of Ramakrishnaiah learnt of their impending marriage – suddenly, the house would begin to buzz with activity.  A set of imposing parents  would arrive and go into a huddle with the grandparents. The head of a party of wedding cooks would make several visits, a priest who conducted weddings would  drop in and leave with horoscopes  and return with list of auspicious muhurthams. 
The oldest un- married daughter would soon realize her turn had come to leave her parental home. The bride and groom would probably get to throw furtive, glances at each other.
Father it turns out, had seen his future wife much before their marriage was decided by the elders. At the wedding of his cousin in Madras, he was a dapper 21-year-old when he first saw her, a seven-year-old, running around in a little pavadai and blouse, with no idea whatsoever that she would wed this man 11 years later. She probably had no idea he was even there at that wedding, nor interested ! Glad to know she did marry him, for if not , this tale would never be written!

The retirement photograph caused much hilarity. Both of them had put on weight. “He couldn’t fit all of Amma in the frame, ” we said, and she had  laughed, as she always did at the fat jokes. We’ll never know if it hurt, or offended, and the laugh was meant to hide her annoyance. She was just Amma, and took it all on the (double) chin.

 

THE G.G. WELLING STORY

The Wellings come from a place called Veling in Goa They have been in the photography business since the 1850. Srinivas Mahadeo set up the Mahadeo and Sons photo store in Belgaum. They manufactured and sold cameras, and other photography equipment . Appa, who spent his childhood in Belgaum, around 1935 , remembers Mahadeo and Co as one of the first photography store in the town, although Katti Studio came up later. Grandfather Ramabrahma,was Headmaster of Sardar’s High School at the time, and Appa remembers that the services of Katti Studios were engaged on a few occasions, since it was the new kid on the block.

The Wellings opened the Bangalore store in 1903. It was then owned by Gajanan Goving Welling, who decided to go back to their roots, and added their native village as the family name. IT must have been the second generation Welling in Bangalore who took the parents’ wedding photograph in 1955. I have taken two or three passport photographs at Welling’s. The last must have been when I was with The Times Of India, just a few doors away from G.G.Welling.

Kailasam On Our Shelf

Appa will soon be 94, but has been on a steady descent to anecdotage for as long as I can remember! We are a family that prides itself on its sense of humor, and revel in inflicting Appa’s puns and limericks and funny stories on unsuspecting visitors who actually leave with a promise to visit again soon for more! I often wonder if it’s politeness and if our guests really pay attention? Perhaps they keep nodding and smiling and fool us into believing they’re listening?

We do that sometimes, too. I confess. Not pay attention to Appa as he rambles on, and sometimes gruffly tell him “I know that story already” only to regret it and desperately try to un-say it all. Most of the time though we have conversations. He talks, we listen. we ask ,he answers…. He’s been around a long time, and remembers more than I have learned and forgottten! Memories of our Amma, Grandfather Ramabrahma, Grandmother Venkamma, his being a boy in the decade when we received the gift of Malgudi, and actually living the life of Swami and Friends….

Our own childhood, was growing up in a home where Mark Twain and Wodehouse lived and Kailasam was never far away.. though I never read much Kailasam as a kid, it never mattered because Appa could quote/recite/sing Kailasam from memory, and make us laugh.

Listening to my Appa has become more important now, with Amma gone. For she was our Pensieve before J K Rowling gave us a word for it, and I knew all about our uncles, aunts and cousins , and friends and neighbours, because of listening to her.

So it was that during a random conversation with Appa a couple of years ago, I learnt of his “Kailasome” summer, 75 years ago!

“Tell me about Grandmother Venkamma,” I said, for she had died when Big Brother Subri was barely a year old, and we have never seen her. Amma had spoken fondly of her, and yes, her sense of humor, and there were a couple of photographs.

She was a good hostess, a great cook, and had blended comfortably into life in Dharward, and later Belgaum, wherever her husband Ramabrahma’s job as an education officer in the Bombay Presidency took him. She had started to wear her sari in the Maharashtrian style which was common in Belgaum , and introduced her friends to the Tamil way of celebrating Varalakshmi pooja.

Many grey eminences , writers and citizens of Bangalore often came to Belgaum on work, and Ramabrahma, Headmaster, Sardar’s High School hosted them in his home, or in one of the hostels on the campus So it was that the great,eccentric racounteur, the soul and spirit of Kannada theatre, and humor literature aka T P.Kailasam, came to stay for a few days. He was delighted to learn that Venkamma could laugh in Kannada, Tamil and Telugu, and some English, and he set about regaling his hostess with spontaneous one-liners, and tri-lingual puns. Appa (around ten at the time) and his elder brother Pandu, were not so keen on the Kailasam brand of humor, not that anyone asked, but Appa told me, Kailasam was not very popular in those parts because his humor was more Mysore than Bombay.

He was a thoughtful guest, and he gave the two boys a book each. Pandu got Robinhood And Appa received a copy of Aesop’s Fables- published by Ward. Lock Co. Ltd. It was inscribed with a message from Kailasam, and signed. Appa, who had just then begun studying English, was not too pleased that the book had no illustrations, and told Kailasam, with childlike candor. Kailasam sent out immediately for an illustrated version,

Sadly, Appa remembers, he had left by the time it arrived, and so his book ddidn’t have any inscription. He enjoyed reading the book, and loved it for the illustrations, and told me that his favorite story was about the traveler and the donkey’s shadow. The book was lost a few years later, and Appa forgot all about it.

TOLLU GATTI ONE-MAN PHOTO

Meanwhile, Kailasam undertook an unusual project at the legendary Katti Studio in Belgaum. He made himself up as each of the characters of his play Tollu Gatti, and got photographs taken of each of them. He then sat with the studio owner and explained to him the technique to put them all together and voila’ ! He had a single photograph of Kailasam as entire cast of Tollu Gatti!

The fate of that photograph is not known. Neither do we know why Kailasam undertook this project. But plainly, he enormously enjoyed dabbling in “trick” photography!

It was a few years later, when Appa was about 18, and studying at the DAV College, Solapur, that Kailasam trundled into his life again. One morningAppa was summoned from his classroom to the chamber of his English Professor Sadasiva Iyer. . He went, wondering what lay in store, and presented himself before Mr Iyer, who said, “ Ah Sheshagiri, Mr Kailasam has just arrived from Bombay, you are to take him home to your uncle. He is to be your guest for a few days.”

(Appa will be referred to as Sheshagiri, reading on)

Sheshagiri complied, quietly pleased at the prospect of a few evening filled with humor and that would break the tedium of polite conversations at the dinner table. Home was the residence of his paternal uncle, Dr. M Subramanyam, the Health Officer of Solapur City, while Sheshagiri attended college. With cousin Shankaran away studying in Poona, it was quite lonely for young Sheshagiri expect when Shankaran visited for holidays.

Uncle welcomed his guest with the stoicism of a long-suffering host. remarking to Sheshagiri that the man was not likely to leave very soon, and, would doubtless cause him many a headache, throwing the household quite out of gear. But he was practically family, and a genius who was going to alternate between bouts of prodigious output and agonising writer’s block, and one had to make allowances for his eccentricity. After all, when Old Gally came to nestle in the comforting arms of Blandings Castle, Lord Emsworth could hardly give him the heave-ho.

SHESHAGIRI IS SHORTS-CHANGED

For Sheshagiri, the “entertainment” began right away. Kailasam’s luggage had gone missing on the train from Bombay where he had attended some literary do, and he “borrowed “a pair of shorts from the clothesline at the back of the house. It happened to be Sheshagiri’s PT shorts, which was never returned to its owner.

Kailasam settled down quickly, writing, drinking, smoking at all hours, and being very , very indisciplined. Mealtimes, and any other time when the mood struck him, the master of wit regaled the host and his young nephew with his endless supply of spontaneous puns, one-liners, impromptu poetry, and even, on occasion, titbits from the play he was currently working on.

The 1940s Solapur , a dusty little town with many cotton textile mills, already famous for the Solapur bedsheets, was not known to be a place where the high-minded gathered and discussed literature and philosophy. An occasional cinema, and dramas on the theme of mythology were the most popular entertainment, for the large workforce employed at the mills. However, Kailasam often had visitors, the local grey eminences, so to speak, with whom he had long conversations and discussions, and he went out to meet people at the office of Prabhat Theatre, which had been provided to him by the manager.

Sheshagiri and his “chaddi dost” spent many evenings being a one-man-show for a one-man-audience. Sheshagiri learnt that Kailasam was assistant to a hata yoga master who had become very popular in England when he was a student there. This hata yogi used to give lectures, and perform “magic” at private events and for a while Kailasam played his assistant. The magic tricks included chomping glass and sipping acid.

It was Kailasam’s job to go around the audience showing them the glass and the acid.

Kailasam told Sheshagiti that a little girl in the audience once asked “why does he eat glass?”

Because he wants to eat bread,” Kailasam had said, by way of saying it was the magician’s source of living.

An excellent football player, a fact he used as a bargaining chip to continue being a student in London, he was asked, “why don’t you go back to India?”

Because I fear my father has reserved the fatted calf for me,” he said, meaning his father, T. Paramasiva Iyer, was waiting to deliver a kick on his backside, when he returned home, Gandhiji’s recently acquired love for soya bean inspired the Kailasam-speak that went “ Khaya bean, soya Gandhi”,

Sheshagiri wondered if it was true Kailasam could blow smoke rings, and sign his name in it. Kailasam had a hearty laugh, saying he had been trying to do that, but had never really succeeded. But the myth had persisted, and now it simply wouldn’t go away!

Kailasam, described by N. Sharda Iyer as a scientist , sportsman, wit, actor, playwright and bohemian in her book, “ Musings Indian Writing In English”, then put on his scientific hat and explained to Sheshagiri the science behind smoke rings. He demonstrated how it was done- with a mouthful of smoke, which was expelled with a flick of the tongue. A simple experiment that demonstrates the diffusion of gases, he told Sheshagiri, would explain how smoke rings were made.

A few weeks later, Mr Kailasam had a visitor.Mr M.S.Sardar, aka Barrister Sardar who was also part time judge in the Akkalkot Samsthana , who took him away , to be the guest of Akkalkot royalty. Akkalkot, now a municipality of Solapur, was ruled by the Bhonsle family, which had been installed as rulers by Chatrapati Shahuji in 1712. Going by history, Kailasam’s host was Vijayaraje Bhonsle, who ruled from 1936 to 1952.

He was gone about 10 ten days. When he returned, he brought with him a neatly typed and bound copy of his latest work, which, plainly, he had been putting the finishing touches to in the preceding weeks at Solapur.

Sheshagiri soon learnt that Kailasam’s latest work was the play, “The Brahmin’s Curse”, about the tragic prince Karna and his guru Parashurama, from the Mahabharata. A reading was arranged at Prabhat Theatre, and Sheshagiri was part of an audience of about 50 Solapurians, making him one of the first to hear the play read by the great man hinself. He never forgot the last lines of the poem “Karna”-

Availed thee naught ‘gainst unjust death! Alas,

Be fooled babe ‘gainst fate’s bewild’ring odds!

Bejewell’d bauble of the jeering gods.

Seventy-five summers later, Sheshagiri, our Appa, recited these lines to me from memory. I took notes. Appa asked, “ do people know Kailasam these days? Who reads him? Who’d be interested in my Kailasam story?

Let’s find out on SweetKharaCoffee, I said.