Krishna Riboud 1927-2000
Krishna Riboud, who died at her home in Paris on 27 June 2000, was a unique product of the Indo-European encounter, a woman whose protean talent and prodigious energy were channeled into so many roles that only a Tagorean married into one of the most influential families of France could have acquitted them with as much elegance, courage and erudition.
As well as being a historian and collector of Indian and Chinese textiles, an important patron of the arts and powerful political hostess, Krishna Riboud, together with her husband Jean, was friend to democrats and dictators alike, from President Mitterand and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to General Ne Win of Burma.
Their wealth came from Jean Riboud’s zealous stewardship of Schlumberger, and his transformation of a company with a virtual monopoly in the manufacture of instruments used in oil exploration into a vast global corporation. But the Ribouds treated money respectfully, espousing unexpected causes and holding dearly to E.M. Forster’s dictum that should a choice arise between betraying your friend and betraying your country, it is preferable to betray your country.
Jean Riboud’s heroic record of joining the French Resistance and escaping from Buchenwald with the assistance of Communists as a young man matched Krishna’s early memories of watching her uncle Soumyendranath Tagore, a revolutionary and passionate Communist, being taken away in manacles by the British police at a railway station in Calcutta. Their experiences instinctively put them in sympathy with the left. Despite their political connections, it was their deep interest in art, however, that made them a formidable partnership. Their fingers were firmly placed on the cultural pulse of three continents – America, Europe and Asia.
Typically they were drawn to collecting works by Surrealists and Indian progressives – Max Ernst, Joan Miro, Yves Tanguy, M.F. Husain and J. Swami-nathan. They were enthusiastic supporters of the French and Italian new wave in cinema and were ins-trumental in assisting Henri Langlois establish the Cinemateque Francaise. Krishna Riboud was awarded the legion d’honneur by the French government the same year as Satyajit Ray; later she was appointed to the premier arts body of France, the Conseil Artistique, that approves purchases for French national museums.
Krishna Roy was born in Dhaka, the daughter of Rajendra Roy, director of public health in East Bengal and Ena Tagore, a niece of the Nobel laureate. Her father died when she was ten and Krishna grew up in Calcutta among her maternal relatives. But it was by virtue of her father having once saved an American girl’s life that decisively altered the direction of Krishna’s own. The American girl’s family encouraged Krishna to apply for a scholarship at Wellesley College which she won. And so, leaving memories of a city consumed by famine and war, Krishna sailed for America in 1945. At Wellesley she befriended the daughters of Vijayalakshmi Pandit. The Indian trio fell in with New York’s intellectual avant garde that included Henri Cartier-Bresson, the photographer, Isamo Noguchi, the designer, and A.J. Leibling, the New Yorker writer.
Cartier-Bresson’s black and white images from this period remain an evocative tribute to the Bengali ingenue’s compelling beauty. Krishna holding a cigarette aloft, Krishna falling off a sofa. It was Cartier-Bresson who introduced Krishna to the young French banker who, like her, was seeking a new life, away from war-torn Europe. Jean Riboud, the French Catholic from Lyon and Krishna Roy, the Brahmo from Calcutta, were married in Connecticut in 1949 and their only child, Christophe, was born a year later.
Parallel to Jean Riboud’s meteoric rise in the world of corporation-building and international finance (Mitterand offered him the prime minister- ship of France which he declined) rose Krishna’s star in the esoteric but exacting field of ancient textiles, particularly Chinese silks of the Han and Tang periods. Years of study at the Musee Guimet in Paris and the museums of London, New Delhi, St. Petersburg and Japan, and an unerring eye for the best examples, led her to amass a vast private collection. In 1979, this was absorbed into a private museum and research centre that she created exclusively for the study of Oriental textiles.
She has bequeathed part of this legacy, together with some of the finest Indian objets to the Musee Guimet which reopens this autumn, after some years of refurbishment, with a special gallery dedicated to the Jean and Krishna Riboud collection.
The Ribouds were indefatigable travellers and their hospitality was legion. Apart from their exquisite apartment in Paris, the Ribouds at one time maintained a 1300 acre country estate, La Carelle, outside Lyon, a ranch in Arizona, apartments in New York and London as well as Krishna’s parental home in Calcutta. Each interior was stamped with the imprimatur of Krishna’s distinctive style: a scattering of peacocks on the lawns of the 18th century chateau, a Chinese garden with ancient ferns and golden carp outside the Paris apartment, a collection of fine Mughal paintings, bidri ware and Iznik tiles spread about her Mayfair eyrie.
Personal tragedy did not deter her from her pursuits, nor dim her zest for living. Even after the death of husband and son, she carried on resolutely, travelling to India, China and Japan annually and several times a year to America. For a quarter of a century hers was a presence to reckon with in the museums and salerooms of the world. When Mme Riboud – the small rotund figure, usually dressed in black and often in her friend Issey Miyake’s creations – raised her little finger, scholars paused and auctioneers held their hammer. Only her friends were allowed to tease and cajole and brighten the evening’s prospects with the offer of an authentic Persian restaurant in the depths of Westbourne Grove.
Despite the implacable advance of cancer she managed to visit the sites of Pandua and Gaur two years ago. It was only in the weeks before her death that she retreated into her apartment, that tranquil world overlooking the private garden in the shadow of Napoleon’s tomb.
Danial Latifi 1917-2000
Danial Latifi, a senior advocate, Supreme Court of India, died in New Delhi on 17 June 2000 at the age of 83. Latifi belonged to that section of Indian students which became politically radical while studying in England. Even so, he toyed briefly with an ICS career, writing from Oxford to his parents on 22 January 1937:
‘There are four courses open to me, (i) to serve in the ICS in the Punjab; (ii) to serve in the ICS in Bombay; (iii) to practice at the Bar in Bombay, keeping away from Congress politics, perhaps with a view to office; (iv) to serve for some years in the ICS in the Punjab or Bombay, resign upon some oppressive action on the part of the government, and then to take up politics unhampered by any ties (this would probably mean fairly extreme Congress politics), while keeping alive by practising or by other means.’ In the event, Latifi did not enter the ICS at all and national politics itself took a direction he had not then anticipated.
He was a grandson of Badruddin Tyabji, one of the early presidents of the Indian National Congress, and was influenced greatly in his life and work by Mian Iftikharuddin, who was president of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee when Latifi returned from England to start his career in Lahore. Iftikharuddin was respected by the Communist Party towards which Latifi gravitated and by the Muslim League which Iftikharuddin and, for a while, Latifi later joined. Latifi’s political activities during this period took their cue from Iftikharuddin. But he returned to Bombay, the original seat of his family, somewhat before Partition. In Bombay he set up practice in the chambers of K.T. Desai, who had till then not embarked upon his judicial career. Latifi respected Desai’s legal acumen and looked back with warmth to that association.
Another influence on Latifi was that of the Bri-tish lawyer, D.N. Pritt. He had met Pritt briefly while in England and later worked together with him in important cases including the case of the Telangana Twelve in 1950 and 1951. Earlier, in 1930-31, Pritt had argued the appeal in the Lahore Conspiracy case involving Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru before the Privy Council in London. Like Pritt, Latifi did not hesitate to take up apparently unpopular causes.
The law for him was an instrument for change. This inevitably affected the nature of his practice. He defended trade unionists in several important cases in the Bombay High Court and elsewhere. His earlier cases saw him plead on behalf of the employee seeking payment of wages or other monetary claims from public and private authorities. These cases include Mushran v. Patil 1951 (53BLR1009) and Amritlal Varma 1953 (55BLR735). In Lal Badshah’s case, 1954 (56BLR859) Latifi appeared for an employee who, at the time of Partition, had been given an option by the Railways to choose between joining the service of the railway company in India or in Pakistan. Badshah was allowed to make a provisional choice to be confirmed within six months. Latifi’s client had initially opted for Pakistan, but ultimately decided to come to India. The Railways refused to give Badshah wages for the interregnum. Latifi won the case and the railway company was held bound to pay.
Another striking case was that of Belosay 1958 (60 BLR 1255) in which Latifi with Rajni Patel, then the true fellow-traveller, argued the position that the Bombay Municipal Corporation had no power to pass a resolution relating to the execution of Imre Nagy in Hungary. The High Court held in favour of Latifi’s client, holding that resolutions on international affairs were ultra vires the powers of the Municipal Corporation. Latifi’s client won a political point. But when 30 years later, Imre Nagy was rehabilitated and his body disinterred to be given a more befitting formal funeral, Latifi’s reaction was that of visible satisfaction. Other cases in Bombay in which Danial Latifi participated included the famous Nanavati’s case. Latifi appeared along with another counsel on behalf of the Bombay Bar Association. The Bar felt that the Navy could have been more respectful towards the court and Latifi was asked to make that point.
In the Supreme Court, Danial Latifi’s first major appearance was along with D.N. Pritt in the case of the Telangana Twelve (the cases of Janardhan Reddy and others (1950 SCR 940 and 1951 SCR 345). These cases were lost. The Supreme Court declined to interfere on grounds that the proceedings and the trial in which the accused had been sentenced to death had been conducted in Hyderabad at a time when the state was not part of Indian territory.
Latifi was involved in a line of cases concerning minority rights, i.e. cases focusing on the scope of Article 30 of the Constitution relating to institutions established or run by linguistic or religious minorities. Latifi appeared on behalf of the Old Boys’ Association in the Aligarh Muslim University case 1968(1) SCR 833 and in the St. Xaviers’ College case 1975 (1) SCR 376. In both cases attempted Latifi to balance the interests of minorities with the right and power of the welfare state to regulate these institutions. Although Latifi never went the whole way so as to drastically read down Article 30 as many are prone to demand, he looked back with satisfaction at the recognition by the Supreme Court in the St. Xavier’s case that the right to manage did not include the right to mismanage.
At one point in the St. Xaviers’ case, when the court appeared to be inclined to the view that Article 30 was restricted to providing religious or linguistic instruction only, Latifi related the story of how he had a friend who was fond of the bottle but afraid of his wife. On visiting the friend’s house one day he called out to him and it was only after a while that the master of the house emerged from under the sofa. The ‘master of the house,’ Latifi declared, in the course of the proceedings, had not yet appeared from under the sofa. On being asked who the ‘master of the house’ was, Latifi replied without a blink that it was the Union of India. (The Union of India had not made any argument in the case and the Attorney General was appearing only in his constitutional capacity). It was needless to spell out who the ‘wife’ was. It is not known whether the silence of the Union of India on the initial inclination of the court was a factor in determining the view that ultimately found favour with the 9-judge bench.
The Emergency (1975-77) came soon thereafter. During this period, Latifi appeared in several habeas corpus petitions. The post-Emergency phase was also eventful for Latifi. He succeeded in persuading the High Court of Delhi to intervene in a court-martial case and had an officer honourably restored to his rank and position in the army. The judgement rendered by the High Court in R.S. Bhagat’s case has spelt out the parameters of judicial review in such matters.
Among Latifi’s later cases was the well-known Shah Bano’s case, AIR 1985 SC 945. In this case, which became household knowledge in India, Danial Latifi cited the great Muslim jurists, including Imam Shafei and Imam Jafar, in support of his position that the sum provided for maintenance of the divorced woman must in all circumstances be reasonable. He was a source of strength to the Bhopal gas victims’ organisations which sought modifications and review of the settlement in February 1989 between the Union of India and Union Carbide.
Latifi was a great exponent of close Sino-Indian ties and was for many years the President of the All India Kotnis Memorial Committee established in memory of the medical mission sent by the Indian National Congress to China in the 1930s. He was, as such associations tend to be, uncritical of the Chinese.
A man of austere habits, Latifi’s interests encompassed literature, linguistics, military science and, in recent years, computers. His work on the problem of a common script for Indian languages is a tightly argued case for the adoption of what he has described as a modified Indo-Roman script. He argued that a single uniform script for the Indian languages would help national integration in a manner that few other methods could accomplish. Sentimental considerations, he argued, should never be decisive in the choice of a script.
After analysing the history of diverse scripts which have prevailed in India and in Europe, Latifi concluded that a language lives on while modes of writing change. In pursuance of his scheme for Indo-Romanization of the alphabet he prepared a compilation of some of Ghalib’s works under the title ‘GazaLiAt-e-GAlib’ (the capitals are deliberate and indicate assigned sounds). This is rendered in the proposed script and published on behalf of the Muslim Progressive Group (New Delhi, 1969).
In his last years Latifi began to evince greater interest than before in the development of Urdu. He was gratified to find that his stand on Shah Bano’s case had come to be supported by a wide section of Muslim opinion. His stamina was in evidence when after a paralytic stroke at the end of March 1989, he quickly recovered and resumed work. A few years ago he was stricken again, this time by cancer. He reacted in a matter of fact manner, quietly got himself admitted to hospital and had the malignancy removed. In recent months, his health had deteriorated once again.
He was full of ‘fight’ and nothing was too small for him. Some years back when there were fewer ladies at the Bar than there are now, it was discovered that a senior advocate of the court was prone to use the ladies’ washroom which was closer to his chamber than the men’s room. On one occasion, seeing the vene-rable gentleman enter the ladies room, Latifi bolted the door from outside, causing quite a commotion. A, perhaps apocryphal, extension of this story is that having locked up the eminent jurist, Latifi sent the key to the Chief Justice of India! Even upto a few days before his death, Latifi was in high spirits, regaling visitors with his theories of recent events in Pakistan.
His first wife, Sarahamma Ittyerah, was a well-known educationist in Lahore. She served on the Kumarappa Committee (on Industrial Development) in 1938-39, whose report was much praised by Mahatma Gandhi. She was also invited to help, before Independence, in the nationalist work on basic education. Some years after her death, and rather late in life, Latifi married Pakeeza Begum, a descendant of the last Moghul Emperor. Mrs Latifi maintains a warm home, steeped in the old world culture of Purani Dilli.
S.P. Godrej 1912-2000
I knew S.P. Godrej from my childhood; my earliest memories of him go back to when I was 10 years old, listening to him and my father discussing the state of the nation. Every few months on his frequent trips to Delhi, I would experience both my parents and him lost in intense discussion, mainly concerning politics.
He told me only recently that those days he never discussed environment and wildlife or tigers, since it was not an area of interest for my parents. But it became mine and soon after I spent long stretches of time in the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, I remember Soli arriving in colourful shirts and racing across the forest in what was his personal passion – to save India’s wildlife. Throughout the last 25 years I met Soli frequently and came to realise that at the centre of his passion was the tiger. Only weeks before he died, he called me from Bombay to talk of tigers and to invite me to actively participate in the matters of the World Wide Fund for Nature which his nephew Jamshed had just taken over.
During his tenure as President of WWF he had to face turbulent times as the entire set-up was plagued with controversies and politics. He always felt that the biggest problem of conservation was people not getting along with each other. Somewhere deep down, he believed in people and trusted them but somehow few delivered. In his last years he was very keen to involve the younger generation in matters to do with wildlife.
Soli was a tiger lover and a conservationist at heart and there are none like him in the world of business. However much I may have disagreed with him on so many issues, including the working of WWF- India, this was a man you respected for his unwavering commitment to the cause of keeping the beauty of natural India alive. How many do we know in this world who till their last breath talked of saving tigers and were active in this pursuit till nearly the age of 90.
He came to every wildlife event and function, talk and discussion, and sat right through them. When I completed the BBC series, ‘The Land of the Tiger’, he came to me and said, ‘It’s brilliant, the House of Godrej must sponsor it in India.’ And they did because it was Soli’s very special passion.
One of his frequent tirades was against the ever increasing population of the country. He would say: ‘How can we save tigers if we don’t curb our population growth – we must find a way to bring down our population.’ But we both knew and agreed that we lived in a country with little political will for such vital issues.
When I think of him my memory is of a man whose whole being was so full of the natural world that it always reflected outwards. S.P. Godrej will be sorely missed by forest officers and conservationists alike, but not just them – he will be missed by the countless living organisms that he defended and was the spokesperson for throughout his life. Indian wildlife has lost one of its greatest supporters.