//My Favourite Bangalorean, The Telegraph

My Favourite Bangalorean, The Telegraph

The achievements of the Parsis are well known. A community numbering some 70,000 people has produced some of India’s greatest patriots (Dadabhai Naoroji, Bhikaji Cama); its most prominent and philanthropically oriented business houses (the Tatas, the Godrejs); its finest scientists (Homi Bhabha); its most respected lawyers (Nani Palkhivala, Fali Nariman); its most admired writers (Rohinton Mistry); and its best loved cricketers (Polly Umrigar, Farokh Engineer).

The Parsis came to India fleeing religious persecution in their native Persia. Their contributions to their adopted homeland have been colossal. The Parsi role in the making of modern India is widely acknowledged; so much so that the Union Government, alarmed by the abysmally low birth rate within the community, has sponsored a programme called ‘Jiyo Parsi’ to encourage young Parsi couples to have more babies, presumably in the hope that these will grow up to become eminent entrepreneurs, scientists, writers, and artists (and perhaps even cricketers).

Far less well known than the Parsis are the Chitrapur Saraswats, a Konkani-speaking community from coastal Karnataka, whose members are now spread across India and the world. They number a mere 25,000, and yet have produced a range of extraordinary individuals too. They include the civil servant and constitutional expert B. N. Rau (whose role in framing the Constitution of India Dr B. R. Ambedkar himself acknowledged); the father-and-son duo of educationists, Narayan and Vittal Chandavarkar; the actor Deepika Padukone, the director Shyam Benegal, and the actor-director Guru Dutt; the playwright and actor Girish Karnad; the writer Santha Rama Rau; the journalist and anthologist B. Shiva Rau; the former Governor of the Reserve Bank B. Rama Rau; the badminton champion Prakash Padukone; the mathematician Ramesh Gangoli; the classical musicians Dinkar Kaikini, Lalith Rao, Aditi Upadhya, and Yogesh Samsi; the entrepreneur-technocrat Nandan Nilekani; and the remarkable Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, who began public life in the theatre, then threw herself into the freedom struggle (being jailed during the Salt Satyagraha), next took the lessons of civil disobedience to the American South, then after Partition played a major role in the rehabilitation of refugees, before playing an even more important role in the revival of handicrafts. (Somewhere along the way, Kamaladevi helped found the All India Women’s Conference, the Indian Co-operative Union, the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, the Crafts Council of India, the Crafts Museum, and the India International Centre.)

The Chitrapur Saraswats refer to themselves, in an endearing act of conceit, as ‘amchis’, Us Folks. An ‘amchi’ as considerable as any one of the individuals listed in the previous paragraph, if far less famous, died in Bangalore this past week. Her name was Tara Chandavarkar, and her career was as gloriously varied as that of Kamaladevi, a woman she greatly admired (and incidentally was related to).

Tara Rama Rao was born in Mangalore in 1928, and went to school there. Halfway through her B. A. degree, she had an arranged marriage, moving with her husband N. P. Chandavarkar to Madras and then to Bangalore, where he founded the city’s first professional firm of architects in 1950. Tara had four children; while raising her family, she cultivated a serious interest in Hindustan classical music. In the world outside, her husband’s firm flourished, as Bangalore experienced a construction boom with the siting of many public sector factories in and around the city.

In 1963 Tara Chandavarkar’s husband died. Her father, a man of means in Mangalore, asked her to move there, where he would pay for her children’s education. Tara Chandavarkar instead chose to take over her husband’s architectural practice. She had, of course, no professional qualifications; what she did have was exceptional intelligence, and an even more exceptional courage. She took on a partner, Pesi Thacker, whereupon the firm named itself Chandavarkar and Thacker. She herself learned on the job, so quickly that the practice grew steadily.

Tara played a key role in running Chandavarkar and Thacker for two decades. In the late 1980s her son Prem, himself formally trained in architecture in Delhi and in the United States, returned to Bangalore. He later assumed principal responsibility, though she retained a close interest in the practice for many years thereafter.

While running Bangalore’s most respected architectural firm, Tara Chandavarkar yet found time to make other substantial contributions to the city’s life. She was a founder Trustee of the Ujwal Trust, which runs one of Bangalore’s best schools, Aditi, as well as the Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology, whose moving spirit is Tara’s protégé Geetha Narayanan. When Aditi’s first Principal, Anne Warrior, died last year, at her memorial service Tara Chandavarkar gave a magical speech, a combination of witty and empathetic recollection that was quite the best eulogy I had ever heard from anyone, anywhere.

Tara Chandavarkar loved the young, and cared for the elderly. She played a key role in Ashvasan, a group that aims at healing ‘the self-esteem, dignity and sense of purpose’ of senior citizens. Ashvasan runs as many as ten centres in the city, which host seminars, talks, and recitals that have provided nourishment to thousands of pensioners.

The prime mover behind Ashvasan was Tara’s close friend Lalita Ubhayaker, who founded the group after having lost her own mother. Some years previously, she had lost her young son. Lalita Ubhayaker was herself a fine classical vocalist (of the Agra Gharana), who stopped singing after her son’s death. Her friend Tara encouraged her to sublimate her grief by encouraging younger musicians. Thus was born the Devnandan Ubhayaker Yuva Sangeet Utsav, an annual festival showcasing promising singers and instrumentalists, which is now in its twenty-eighth year. Among those who performed at the Yuva Ustav when they were unknown were those now celebrated artistes Rashid Khan, Sangeeta Shankar, the Gundechia Brothers, and Kaushiki Chakravarty.

Despite the thirty years that separated us, I thought of Tara Chandavarkar as a friend, and always called her by her first name. Our bonds were various: she had known my father and his siblings when growing up in Mangalore; her firm had designed the buildings of the Indian Plywood Research and Training Institute, when my maternal grandfather was its Director; she was very fond of my wife, a graphic designer with a strong interest in architecture; my children had studied at the school she helped found. Then there was music. At the annual Yuva Utsav I would always seek to sit next to Tara and Lalita Ubhayaker, who knew much more about the music than I, and had plenty of other things to talk about besides. These two ladies were a rare mixture of charm and compassion, and were astonishingly accomplished as well.

A highly regarded professional; an educationist who helped start a pioneering school; a social worker who put in place institutions to care for the elderly and ailing (aside from Ashvasan, there was Karunashraya, a hospice which Tara supported and which her firm built); a connoisseur and patron of classical music. Her achievements are remarkable enough; they are made more remarkable still when we consider how, like her friend Lalita Ubhayaker, Tara Chandavarkar had known much personal grief, losing a daughter and a grandson before her eyes, and her husband long before that.

Tara Chandavarkar was the Bangalorean I most greatly admired; and also the Bangalorean whom, my own family apart, I most deeply loved. For beyond the public, and public-spirited, woman, was Tara the person, sparkling with zest and energy, hospitable and generous, and often quite witty as well. The home I most cherished an invitation from was hers, off Palace Cross Road in central Bangalore, where the talk and food were good, and the music sublime.

When, early on Tuesday morning, I heard the news of Tara Chandavarkar’s death I was listening to one of my favourite pieces of music; a jugalbandhi by the veena maestro Doresamy Iyengar and the sarod wizard Ali Akbar Khan, playing a raga known as Kalyani to the one and Yaman to the other. The choice was serendipitious; for this was a private concert, held in Bangalore in the year 1962, in the home of Lalita and Shivram Ubhayaker, with Tara and her husband almost certainly present.

Later that morning my wife and I went to Tara Chandavarkar’s home to pay our last respects. In that living room I knew so well, her body lay, circled by a large and unapparently unending stream of mourner-admirers, among them more or less all of Bangalore’s architects, many students and teachers from the institutions run by the Ujwal Trust, plenty of music lovers, and a good number of ‘amchis’ as well. In a corner sat Aditi Upadhya, singing bhajans in a superbly controlled voice, sublimating her grief in her music in the very room where her great father, Dinkar Kaikini, had sung so many times himself.

Before I entered her house that day I was tempted to think that with Tara’s death a piece of Bangalore had died; but after seeing the stream of men and women, young and old, come to pay tribute to her, and hearing the music still so sweetly fill her home, I changed my mind. Tara Chandavarkar’s courage and dignity, her grace and her charm, her almost unique combination of professional excellence and public service, will live on in the words and actions of all those whom she touched in Bangalore, and beyond.

Ramachandra Guha
(The Telegraph, 30th April 2016)