Memories, Memorabilia and Memorable interviews: Talking to Mithoo Coorlawala

Mithoo Coorlawala looking at photographs of Homi Bhabha’s set design for Ideomeno, performed at Cambridge in 1939. TIFR Mumbai, 2009.

I hear Mithoo Coorlawala’s voice before I actually see her. It was 26 March 2009 and I had just finished giving a talk hosted by the Mohile Parikh Centre  at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai. My talk titled, “Collective Memory, Institutional Archives and the Writing of Contemporary History” was based on the experience of setting up the Archives of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research founded by the physicist, Homi Bhabha in 1945. “I was in Cambridge during Homi Bhabha’s time and I witnessed the world premiere of Mozart’s Idomeneo for which he had designed the sets.” Mithoo’s clear voice rang out of the front rows of the darkened auditorium. It takes me a while to focus on the petite woman, dressed in elegant trousers and a white top, who had made this statement during the discussion that followed my talk.

My first encounter with Mithoo was delightful. I had met very few people who knew Homi Bhabha in Cambridge. This was hardly surprising because we were nearing Bhabha’s centenary in October 2009 and there were very few of his contemporaries still around. Mithoo Coorlawal, born in 1917, was younger by eight years to Homi Bhabha. At Cambridge, the hierarchies of academic life had stood in the way of their interaction. “I was a first year student – and he was an exalted Fellow” – she tells me when I interview her a few days later. 

The first evening we meet is magical and remains firmly etched in my memory.  Mithoo holds out before me a world I had, until then, only had a glimpse of from letters, documents and photographs. She insists on dropping me to the TIFR Guesthouse where I was staying. We are both so deeply engrossed in Mithoo’s recollections of her times that the short ride appears even shorter. We also discover a different connection. I was at that time helping the pharmaceutical firm Dr. Reddy’s set up their archives in Hyderabad. It so turned out that Mithoo had grown up in Hyderabad. But she mentions another link – Dr. K. Anji Reddy had acquired the piano in Mithoo’s Hyderabad home for his daughter. Mithoo recounts that he had come with his “little girl” to look at the piano. This appears like an interesting factoid that ties two people from two different projects together. It is only later, on reflection, I realize that this chance conversation and interrelationship contributes towards laying the groundwork for the space within which we would co-create the past in the course of our interview.

A few days later, I formally interview Mithoo at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) for the book Ananya Dasgupta and I were doing on Homi Bhabha. Mithoo’s interview gives us insights into several aspects of Bhabha’s life. We learn the Cambridge Society performed a Shakespeare play annually to raise money for their Scholarship Fund and he was very involved with fund raising. “Actually, Homi belonged to many worlds”, she elucidates. Then, vividly describes the Christian Dior Fashion Show organized by Bombay’s Time and Talents Club and held at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1962. The show saw Parisian models walking the ramp at the West Lawn of TIFR. A show on this scale obviously needed the support of  Homi Bhabha, Director of TIFR, but the person without whom the show would not have happened at all was Bhabha’s friend and companion, Mrs. Phiroza ‘Pipsy’ Wadia who was Vice President of the Time and Talents Club.  Mithoo was the secretary. But she was also a close friend of Pipsy’s. In my interview with her she mentions how she and Rodabeh (JRD Tata’s sister, affectionately called “Dabeh”) had corresponded with Dior and set up the whole show. She relives the excitement as she recalls: “It [the show] was held in the lawns of TIFR – the ramp was set up from behind the West canteen and it ran into the lawn. Pipsy had set up the venue. The models and Marc Bohan’s Autumn Collection of that year came from France. The show raised money for charity. Dr Bhabha was there of course and he hosted the dinner afterwards. A very elegant affair!”

As we talked, I tried imagining what the place looked like during the Dior Fashion show in 1962. Later, when I mention this informally to a few members of the staff at TIFR most are not amused. Indeed, one of them asks me not to write about it – an institution reputed for its scientific research having a fashion show on its premises sounded grotesquely improper. Mixing the two worlds, according to some, seemed incongruous and somehow disrespectful to science. But Mithoo’s interview evoked a time when it was possible for these two dissimilar and incongruent cultures to co-exist in the same space, however fleetingly.

Mithoo’s recollections, alerted us to multiple dimensions of Bhabha’s personality. She also spoke about the dinner she organized as part of the Cambridge Society to honour Bhabha after he was admitted to the Royal Society. Incidentally, Bhabha had been elected to the Royal Society in 1941 but because of the War, was admitted into the Royal Institute along with Sir Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar in a special ceremony conducted by Sir A.V. Hill in Delhi in 1944. On the day of the dinner, Bhabha had called Mithoo to announce that even though they had not invited her, he would be bringing along Pipsy to the Cambridge Society dinner. But Bishop Lash, the Chairman of the Society felt that the “learned doctor had put them in a predicament” as theirs was an inappropriate relationship – “they are not married”. But Mithoo had responded with some indignation that “it did not matter to anybody in Bombay – as they were well accepted and well respected.” Bhabha and Mrs Pipsy Wadia did attend the dinner in the end, mainly because of Mithoo’s refusal to yield.

While setting up the Archives at TIFR, I had come across Phiroza ‘Pipsy’ Wadia on several occasions: she was part of the committee along with Karl Khandalavala and TIFR scientists such as MGK Menon and K Chandrasekharan that selected the mural by M.F. Husain that now adorns the lobby. Pipsy was also involved in several art purchases that Bhabha made for his institution. M.F. Husain who we briefly interviewed for our book, mentioned Pipsy as the person who conveyed to him the news that he had won the contest for the mural. Mithoo recounted her relationship with Pipsy with great affection – “She looked amazing. She was tall and she had platinum blond hair. She wore a sari very elegantly and moved very elegantly. She didn’t bother about her appearance. She was just beautiful. We liked each other – so we did things together. We went to plays and we used to read poetry together. TS Eliot at that time was a favourite.” Mithoo’s narrative also reveals several dimensions about Pipsy and Bhabha’s relationship – we learn of Bhabha’s integrity in relationships and how public approbation did not matter to him or to Pipsy. More importantly, Mithoo conveyed to me through her stories the liberal free-spirited culture of Bombay of the 1960s.

There was another reason why Mithoo’s story was interesting for me as an oral historian. Oral history, as we know, is always a dialogue between interviewee and interviewer, it is a conversation in which the historian too becomes a protagonist and where speaker and listener are related through what Michael Frisch has called “shared authority”. Together, the oral historian and interviewer, co-create new historical knowledge. Mithoo’s lively recollections about the past made me see subtle aspects of Bhabha’s life, his relationships and the milieu to which he, Pipsy and Mithoo belonged. Mithoo also recounted other facets of Bhabha’s life – how she had listened to him play First Violin in a Cambridge concert, how despite being the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Establishment, he had helped restore her Gulmohar trees which had been knocked down by a monsoon storm and how he had teased her about her involvement with the Swatantra Party founded by Chakravarty Rajagopalachari in 1959. My co-author, Ananya Dasgupta and I felt, her interview was a unique resource with which to understand cultural and political context of Bhabha’s past. “Great lives” exist too often in the official domain and Mithoo’s interview illuminated significant, unofficial dimensions of one such “great life”. Her narrative, in many ways, countered deferential and official narratives about Bhabha the scientist. Our task as oral historians is perhaps to learn how different dimensions of the past intersect and create new networks of meaning.

Mithoo edited her final transcription with care without diluting the significance of her anecdotes or glossing over the details. We retained most of her interview in our book.  Her edited version, however, included an “Afterword” which for constraints of space, we could not include in our book. I have reproduced it here after a decade:

After our wonderful morning Indira, at the TIFR, I was filled with recollections and memories of Homi and Pipsy which have stayed with me. It doesn’t seem possible that what we recalled was over fifty years ago. Now, at age 91 I am anguished to think that Homi was only 57 years old when his life ended so tragically; but with so much accomplished and perhaps most of his visions translated into reality.

How prophetic that he wrote, ‘If I cannot increase the duration of my life, I will increase it by its intensity.’

My interview with Mithoo was done in the context of collecting material for a book on one of India’s leading nuclear physicists. This context did not let me focus on Mithoo’s own life story. Yet, her way of narrating the past was so compelling that it led me meet her several times after the interview. Now when I revisit the interview, a decade later, I find that her anecdotes tell me as much about Bhabha as it does about her – a self-assured, confident young woman, quick witted and with courage to stand up to a figure of authority. I have always regretted not interviewing Mithoo about her life. That morning when she visited the TIFR, she had brought her Cambridge albums and we had poured over the photographs of student protests in Cambridge in the years preceding World War II. Although I missed the opportunity of interviewing Mithoo about her life, her stories and the lively emotions she infused them with have remained with me. She became a person with whom I continued to communicate as well as meet over the years.

Mithoo’s interview taught me to look with fresh eyes at the relationship between memory, memorabilia and the interview itself. Mithoo was thrilled to see archival memorabilia – photographs of the sets of Mozart’s Idomeneo designed by Bhabha. She recalled with her characteristic spark, “There were curtain calls – I remember that.” I shared this blogpost with Mithoo before publishing it online, wondering if she would agree with my interpretation of her memories. At 103, she is still remarkably sharp and responds through her daughter, Uttara Asha Coorlawala that she found the blogpost ‘quite fine’. ‘She is,’ as Uttara puts it, ‘amazed by the clarity of your representations of her memories.’

Mithoo taught me a very important aspect of the oral historian’s craft – the co-creation of historical knowledge in the course of an interview depends not on the evidence presented, nor on the information made accessible but by the interviewee’s ability to transport the interviewer to the past. Mithoo’s rare ability to communicate remembered emotions enabled me as a listener to relate to anecdotes that had happened a long time ago. That perhaps is the reason why Mithoo’s interview stands out as a very memorable one.

Indira Chowdhury

Acknowledgements:

I thank Sherena Khan and Uttara Asha Coorlawala, Mithoo’s daughters for being active participants in all my email communications with Mithoo. I am very grateful that Malavika Bhatia interviewed Mithoo Coorlawala for the Citizen’s Archive of India (CAI). This 5-hour long interview when made accessible, will ensure that Mithoo’s experience is available to historians to interpret and make sense of the past. The CAI in its Instagram handle has a photograph of Mrs. Mithoo Coorlawala on the day of her convocation ceremony in 1998 – 60 years after she had studied at Newnham College, Cambridge. [https://www.instagram.com/p/Bc_3TfFlW3f/?utm_source=ig_embed]

The British premiere of Mozart’s Idomeneo took place in Glasgow in 1934 followed by the performance in Cambridge in 1939.

The book I was working on at the time was an archival book on Homi Bhabha co-authored with Ananya Dasgupta. See Indira Chowdhury and Ananya Dasgupta, A Masterful Spirit: Homi Bhabha 1909-1966, New Delhi: Penguin, 2010.

For an institutional history of TIFR see my book, Growing the Tree of Science: Homi Bhabha and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016.

For the concept of shared authority see:

Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History, New York: SUNY Press, 1990.

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Published by Indira Chowdhury

I am a writer, researcher, teacher and oral historian. I have a PhD in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. My first book "The Frail Hero and Virile History: Gender and the Politics of Culture in Colonial Bengal" (OUP: 1998) was awarded the Tagore Prize in 2000. I translated Ashapurna Devi's path-breaking novel, "The First Promise" (Orient Longman: 2003). My latest book "Growing the Tree of Science: Homi Bhabha and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research" (OUP: 2016) was supported by a New India Fellowship. I have set up archives and oral history archives for several institutions in India, including the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, Economic and Political Weekly, Naandi Foundation, Sasha, Dr Reddy's and Cipla. I work at the Centre for Public History, Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology.

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11 Comments

  1. Indira- This is fascinating! I really enjoyed. When we are all imprisoned in COVID fear and the media relentlessly barging us with mostly negative news, your article brings fresh air to my mind.
    Please do share such articles. I will love to read.
    Will catch-up soon!
    Cheers!
    Pradip

    Like

  2. That was a delightful read, Indy!! We’ve come to know so much about the other aspects of the great scientist, Bhabha.Your thoughts are so clear and presentation is so lucid that the past floats up clearly, making it so interesting. Do keep sharing these often.

    Like

    1. Thanks Alpana. I love revisiting my interviews.And a readers like you keep me wanting to write about them.

      Like

  3. Indira you truly write so well that after a while into the piece, I start wishing that it should not end again so soon as they normally do.
    Now a question how are you archiving these sweet little blogs?
    Then a suggestion. Why not get these compiled and published in a smart paperback. For title, how about INIDIRA’S BLOGOLLECTIONS?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Uday for your suggestion. Will try to take it up when I have enough material for a book.

      Like

  4. Your style of narration is feels like a video magazine and everything comes alive with words.
    Enjoyed reading it thoroughly Indira!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m inspired but also not surprised by the various sides to the life of our “nation’s great physicist”- a truly humanising window into his life. And exceptionally recalled, Indira. Can’t emphasise enough.
    Although, I had a question. How pervasive do you think was this liberal Bombay society that comes alive through her recollections? It was delighting to know about it, but I also wonder if in general perception the “liberal society” was an elite phenomenon in Bombay life. Just wondering.

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    1. Hi Ishan,

      Sorry for the delay in responding to you. The answer is complicated – I think some aspects of “liberal society” in Bombay were part of an elite phenomenon, while other aspects were more general. I have friends among the elite Parsis and also among the middle class Hindu and Christian families who were working in offices – most of this latter group also feels that Bombay remains liberal despite current political trends. I guess, Bombay’s identity as a liberal city also stems from the very mixed population it has had for a long time because of being a port and a commercial city. Thanks for your question.

      Indira

      Like

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