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Article: KANAKAVALLI VIGNETTES : Mothers' Day Special - Mothers & Memories

KANAKAVALLI VIGNETTES : Mothers' Day Special - Mothers & Memories

In this Mother’s Day edition of Kanakavalli Vignettes, we meet Akhila Ravikumar and her mother Girija Radhakrishnan, who we found busy stitching masks together to distribute to essential workers and vendors in their neighbourhood. The quiet but firm resolve in their approach to the current crisis is a reflection of their personalities and their relationship—resilient, confident and creative. In conversation with Aneesha Bangera of The Kanakavalli Journal, Akhila shares her mother’s memories of a carefree childhood in Karnataka, followed by a life on the move as the wife of a naval officer. She reminisces about her own childhood, climbing trees, surrounded by pets, laughter and friendship. Akhila draws strength and inspiration from her mother’s dynamic personality; her ability to adapt to every challenge and make the most of every experience. It brings her great joy to see this courage, confidence and creativity in her children too, says Akhila, who believes that these virtues, more than any material object, are what she would like to think of as family heirlooms.

Mother and daughter both browse through the Kanakavalli online repertoire to curate a selection of kanjivarams that embody their deep sense of beauty and aesthetics. In this time of unprecedented uncertainty, our Mother’s Day Vignette is a tribute to mothers and daughters everywhere, and to the often-invisible threads that connect them, across time and space. At Kanakavalli we truly believe that we find mothers in many people we meet and bond with over the course of our lives, and that being a mum is about nurturing love and offering care, above all else. And we’d like to honour the efforts of Akhila and Girija as they do their bit to make a difference.

Mothers & Memories

My mother reminisces…

My mother had an idyllic childhood, growing up in Cuddapah and Bangalore. Her parents were originally from Tellicherry and Cannanore in Kerala, but she spent her whole childhood in Karnataka. My maternal grandfather was a forest officer and my mother, as a child, was in charge of keeping his travel bag packed with medicines for emergencies. Often, he would bring back a wounded deer or squirrel and she would nurse it back to health before releasing it into the wild again. My mother had ducks and goats as pets, and grew up to be amazingly fond of and knowledgeable about plants and animals. Even now, at the age of 87, my mother’s green thumb is as evident as ever. She can make any plant thrive and the little garden that she lovingly tends to is so beautiful.

My mother got married when she was 17 years old—before even finishing high school—to my father, who was a naval officer. Her life changed completely soon after, and involved accompanying my father to his many postings, and accommodating many transfers to different countries, and many cities within India. But I think she made the most of every experience.

Above (clockwise from bottom left): Girija and her husband with her parents at 'Ushas', their family home in Bangalore just after their wedding; Girija (front row second from right) with her parents, brothers and sister-in-law; In her 80s, Girija still enjoys various artistic pursuits including painting; A young Girija poses in her husband's Indian Navy cap; With her husband.

A life in the services

While posted in London, my mother learnt how to bake and how to cook Western cuisine; and in Lagos, Nigeria, she took part in all the social activities demanded of the wives and families of the defence services. She and my father made friends, adapted to different cultures, and learnt to cope with many difficulties.

Within India my parents lived in Cochin, Bombay, Delhi, Vizag, and Coonoor. The defence lifestyle involved interacting very closely with people from almost every state of India. This meant not only that my parents spent a lot of time socialising, but also that they developed an incredibly broad-minded and secular attitude to people of every background. There was so much cultural exchange by way of different foods, crafts and music, as people learned from each other. Thus, growing up, our family was never particularly concerned with any one religion or ritual. Instead, we celebrated a variety of festivals and occasions. Friends became family in a very real sense in this context, and every memory of my childhood is tinged with the joy of getting together with friends.

In a sense, my parents were far ahead of their times, and my mother was a very independent woman. When my father was away on work, she used to travel to Calicut to his family home. She would drive the car around confidently and in those days, this was an amusing sight on the roads. She recounts how people would point to the lady driving the car and exclaim in surprise!

The Face Mask Sewing Project

Akhila: While all of us today are facing anxious and uncertain times due to the lockdown, my mother and I decided to take up a little project. When I ventured out to buy some essentials for the house, I noticed that many of the small shop keepers, vendors and sweepers in our neighbourhood didn’t have face masks. I went home and found some cotton sheets that we began to cut up and sew into masks to distribute to those in need. This is our small way of contributing, and my mother has immersed herself in stitching these, something that I think gives her a sense of purpose and satisfaction.

Girija: I used to stitch nighties and baby clothes for Finlay’s shop when I was younger. I have always stitched dresses for my daughter and other girls in our family. This face mask is very easy for me to stitch, but I cannot sit for a long time as my back hurts. I’m happy that we can do something to help those who need these masks. I hope people will wash and reuse them to stay safe during this time. I also love to paint flowers and landscapes, and often donate my paintings to charities, or give them as gifts to my friends and family.

There was little my mother was not good at. She was most accomplished in needlework and sewing, and stitched all my clothes as a child. Looking at the old photographs of my childhood, I can still remember the designs and colours of all of my outfits so vividly. She also stitched a beautiful christening dress for my daughter Mandira when she was born. A gifted cook, my mother learnt recipes from all around the country and the world, and she baked us beautiful cakes on our birthdays. My mother was also extraordinarily beautiful, and was perhaps the first Indian woman to feature on the cover of Envoy magazine in the UK in the early 50s!

Above (Clockwise from left): The christening dress Girija stitched for her granddaughter Mandira; Akhila and her husband hold up the christening dress just before their daughter's birth; At 87, Girija's green thumb is still evident in the garden she lovingly tends; Girija's garden.

Despite making the best of every situation, it could not have been easy for my mother to bring up my brother and me with the constant travel and the many social obligations. It must have been hard for her to leave us with our grandparents so we could attend school in Bangalore regularly instead of being constantly on the move. Sometimes, my father’s new postings would come in at the very last minute, leaving them just a few days to pack up an entire household. My mother tells us about how she had six large wooden crates that she would pack up with all their belongings, placing them together to make beds after unpacking at the new location!

My mother recalls that when she returned from London by ship in around 1956, the Suez Canal was closed and, with the two of us young children, she had to take a one-month voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. There was a big celebration and a fancy dress party for all the passengers while crossing the equator, she remembers. When we landed in Bombay, both of us children and many others had chicken pox and were quarantined for 21 days! It really was an unusual kind of life. But my mother took everything in her stride, learning to adapt and making lifelong friends along the way.

Looking back on my childhood…

Except for a short stint in a school in Delhi, when accompanying our parents on a posting, my school education was in Bishop Cottons Girls School in Bangalore, right up to the eighth standard. As my parents travelled a lot, we grew up with my grandparents in a lovely family home surrounded by many aunts, uncles and cousins. Merciless teasing, pranks, mischief and laughter were the order of the day.

Above: A pencil sketch by Akhila of 'Ushas', the family home in Bangalore that she grew up in, filled with joyful memories of a carefree childhood.

This home was very special to me and I often dream about it and about those days, though they’re long since gone. My grandmother was a feisty and loving spirit. She looked after the entire brood of us with such casual and quiet firmness. She used to play tennis with the British ladies in her white sari in the 40’s. I have vivid memories of her walking all the way to school to bring me my lunch if I’d forgotten it. I also remember how she would carry large cans of water around the house to water the plants, using waste bath water. How she ran that house, with at least four families and ten children in it at any given time, is a wonder! These are still the memories that keep our family connected today.

When my father took an early retirement from the Navy, we settled in Madras. He built our home here; a home full of guests, parties and pets! My parents kept in touch with all their friends from the Navy days, and we constantly had people visiting us from all over the world. Sometimes they would drop in unannounced, but they were always welcome, and my parents would talk and laugh with them about old times.

Pets became a big part of our lives and I cannot remember a time when we did not have dogs or cats roaming the house. Friends remember hilarious anecdotes of our African grey parrot, which startled the wits out of our visitors by imitating my father’s voice so perfectly. As soon as a visitor would enter, the parrot would shout, “Hello, how are you?”, sounding exactly like my father. Of course, he would ask the same question repeatedly, leaving guests befuddled, and wondering whether my father was losing his marbles!

One of our family’s favourite stories of the African parrot is of the time it escaped from the house and was missing for some hours. We searched the entire neighbourhood, and only discovered its location when we overheard a neighbour telling someone to avoid a particular tree, saying it was haunted by a ghost! We immediately guessed where our talkative bird had hidden itself. Missing pets seemed to be a theme with my parents, as my mother recalls a duck she had while in the Naval Base in Cochin, who escaped one day to take a swim in the backwaters. A naval boat was alerted and the cadets were asked to catch the duck, which drove them crazy, disappearing into the water every time the boat went near! We are not sure how it eventually found its way home, but fortunately it did.

I remember the incredible tales that my parents would recount over family meals, amidst much fun and merriment. Sitting around the dining table was always so entertaining. We had a radio in the living room and we would wait to listen to Listeners Choice on Radio Ceylon once a week. We spent our days climbing trees and eating guavas. It was a joyful and carefree childhood.

Above (clockwise from bottom left): Little Akhila dressed in a kimono her father brought her; Akhila, her brother and their parents; Most comfortable in a sari, Akhila wears them every day; A smiling Akhila from years ago; Along with her husband, Akhila runs an architecture firm that focuses on providing functionality and creativity.

I was very sure that I wanted to study architecture, right from the very beginning. In ‘69, I joined the School of Architecture and Planning in Guindy. I handled my studies and projects with a lot of enthusiasm, and have worked continuously since then. It never once occurred to me not to be working. I worked in Delhi for three years, but very soon my husband and I decided to return to Madras. Staying close to my parents definitely helped with raising the children and helped our career grow.

At the firm that my husband and I started, our approach to architectural work has been to provide functionality and creativity, always with an eye on costs and the requirements of the client. It has been a satisfying and exciting career of 45 years. Each project has offered new and exciting insights and a deep understanding of people. To me, success is when you feel successful. We have, over the years, done many small and big projects, and in the successful completion of each there is so much joy. Someone else’s words seem apt to describe this feeling: “Success is not where I’m going, it’s what I’m doing”.

My mother and I

I think I must have imbibed so much by being with my mother over the years. Her resilience in dealing with the running of a home single-handedly, her efficiency in dealing with complex situations, her innate sense of beauty, her creative management of finances on her husband’s defence salary… all must have played a part in what inspired me in my life.

The relationship between a mother and daughter is a dynamic one: one of watching and learning, of appreciation and emulation. I think that unconditional love and affection are taken for granted between my mother and me. It’s always in play whether it’s verbally expressed or not. I observe cherished values, experience creativity and confidence, and take in my stride the inevitable ups and downs of the relationship. I have seen my mother’s incredible strength as she coped with the loss of her son and husband within a year of each other. I have certainly learnt from her in dealing with my own trials and disappointments; to be brave, cheerful and calm.

Three Generations: Akhila, Girija and Mandira, Akhila's daughter

I see with joy, the same confidence, intelligence and creativity in my daughter and son, and really cannot ask for anything more. More than material things, these qualities last and build character and, therefore, are most important in my opinion. My daughter is an architect whose hobby is creating miniature sculptures with polymer clay, while my son is a technical artist at a computer gaming company. They are both very accomplished, but I am most proud of the good human beings that they have grown up to be.

And gradually, it is with a sense of sadness that one watches a mother grow older—the failing health, the slowing down. It teaches, it tries one’s patience and strength, and yet at the same time, there is a deep sense of gratitude at having the opportunity to share a part of their journey. Times have changed, and our children may not be around when the tide changes for us, and yet we have to prepare ourselves cheerfully and with gratitude for all the gifts we have been given. We have ahead unprecedented times and uncertainty.

And gradually, the words equanimity and detachment begin to have new meaning.

On beauty and the sari

My mother wore a sari every single day, and now I wear saris everyday too. For my mother, dressing up was mostly about being practical. I still remember what she would say to us: “Take time, if you must, to dress to feel confident and respect the occasion. Once you are ready and out, forget about your dress!” I think that’s wise. I don’t like to dress in a way that I am self-conscious. For work I feel most confident and comfortable in crepe silk saris and for formal or festive occasions there is really nothing that compares with a kanjivaram. And my favourites are all from Kanakavalli.

Sari buying is sometimes impulsive and sometimes planned for an occasion. Either way, the favourites get worn again and again. Tastes change with time too. And personally, I find that dramatic colours and combinations have given way to pleasing and subtle designs.

Beauty, perhaps, is most evident when nature has been left alone and untouched by humans. How is it possible not to be in awe of beautiful wild landscapes? Ideally, beauty in architecture would be the ability to complement a land or culture, but it seldom gets a chance to do that in real life. So, I think beauty is when a space is harmonious to its surroundings, respecting the environment, and also creating joy and wonder for the user. I would say that the building, fairly modern, that took my breath away would be Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, designed by Antonio Gaudi.

My definition of beauty has been influenced by my mother’s—I think a person’s beauty lies in being thoughtfully and carefully dressed, and well-groomed. I also think people who are genuine are naturally beautiful—there is always joy in experiencing a warm smile, listening to a gentle voice or seeing the light in someone’s eyes.

Then and Now: then - in the inset - Girija and Akhila together, Akhila wearing a kurta stitched by her mother; now -  Girija on the left and Akhila on the right in their  favourite Kanakavalli kanjivarams. 
Girija wears a blue kanjivaram shot with pearl grey, with gold twill and geometric patterns on the border. The pallu features a seeprekku design alongside bands in gold zari and blue. Akhila is wearing an elegant and classic pink kanjivaram with temple motifs in gold zari on the border and a green selvedge.

On the Vignettes saris

Both the kanjivarams we’re wearing are impulse buys from Kanakavalli. I fell in love with both as soon as I saw them at the store, and have worn them for several special occasions. In fact, I’ve worn them so often that I now keep them out of sight so that my other saris get a chance to be worn too! My mother picked the blue kanjivaram for the shoot, which happened to be on her 87th birthday.

- Akhila Ravikumar and Girija Radhakrishnan, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera, photography by Raghuram Vedant.

View Girija & Akhila's accompanying guest curation here. 


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