Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Russell in Russell's Viper

Wood engraving of a Russell's Viper.
The Royal Natural History by Richard Lydekker and Illustrated by W Kuhnert, F Specht, P J Smit, G Mutzel, A T Elwes, J Wolf, Gambier Bolton, and many others.  Published 1893,1894, 1895, & 1896

One more chip for my jigsaw puzzle. Dr. Patrick Russell, after whom the deadly snake, Russell's Viper is named, worked as a naturalist in Vizagapatam around 1781 and did most of his reptilian research in the hills of the Coromandel coast. He was also a physician and icthyologist -- a general man of science in short.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Observatory Family

Remember the astronomer of a previous post - Nursinga Rao? Apparently his family-or rather, his wife's family-was quite a prominent one in Vizag.
Will gather my notes together tomorrow or some time later to give the story. Just keep biting your nails on this fact: Nursinga Rao's descendents are still around in the city...and they play quite a prominent part in its affairs.


One more interesting source right under my nose. The Hindu Metro Plus of Vizag publishes (or used to publish) a column called Vi(zag)nettes. It appears to be written by old-timers who remember the city of their childhood. There's also a diary entry that describes life in the old town seven decades ago; this piece also includes how it was to live through Japanese air raids during the world war.

I'm finding many little bits of information, but am floundering when it comes to deciding on my theme. My piece surely cannot be a loose collection of anecdotes and articles and heresay. It should have some binding element. What will it be?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Observatory

Finally something worth putting down! The Vizagapatam Observatory.

In my explorations into Google, I dredged up some information on the positions of planets, the transit of Venus etc. with which I did not know what to do. However the date - 1850s - and one name that kept popping up throughout - one Nursinga Row - caught my attention.

I continued looking up this person. At first, I thought he was a minion at the observatory. Then it appeared he was quite an important astronomer: his work was published in international journals.

Finally I found some biographical information, both about the observatory and the man. The observatory, named G.Y. Juggarow Observatory was founded by a man of the same name. He was a wealthy zamindar from the town and had a daughter, Sri Ankitam Atchayamma, whose husband was our much sought after Nursinga Row.

He gave up his post as the deputy Collector (I did not know the British encouraged locals to hold such posts) and took charge of his in-laws' estate after their death. He also devoted himself to astronomy and apparently made several valuable contributions. (I would definitely like to understand what they were.)

Quaint fact: Nursinga Row started the practice of firing an evening gun to give Vizagites a common reference by which to set their watches (if they had any at the time). He even bore the costs for this practice.


I'm beginning to despair. I think I'm running in circles. Searches are leading nowhere concrete. The Vizagapatam Gazeteer does offer something to munch on, but I suspect what's in it is already known to the whole wide world.

Google is showing more articles up on auction. If I were to go by this search engine, there's not much to Vizag apart from ivory boxes for storing gloves, needles, my hot frying head...

But all the searching did give me a chance to change my opinion about the ivory work. It does look quite fastidious as in this glove box.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Ivory inlay work

One more discovery, or, rather, a confirmation of what I had read about in surprise some years ago: Vizagapatam's ivory inlaid handicrafts were in high demand in the mid-to-late 1700s. I found an article on this topic by one Amin Jaffer in the Feb 2001 issue of Magazine Antiques.

The impression I get of these crafts is that they were exquisite and in very high demand among the European population in Vizagapatam as well as royalty everywhere in India. Strange that we don't find a single piece in Vizag. (I must check out the museum once I get there.)

The pieces, however, did find their way all across Europe. Quite a few of them -- a porcupine quill sewing basket, dressing tables, caskets and chess sets -- are on auction. A very ornate writing and dressing table is apparently part of a collection that a once-chic German couple, Edmond and Lily Safra, has set up for sale. This one is estimated to go for around $50,000 to $70,000.

Here's a picture from the catalogue:

But from Amin's article I get the impression that the larger pieces of furniture were not quite the thing. Their proportions were a bit off sometimes and dressing table mirrors were not always the right size, as workmen made do with whatever glass was available. It was the smaller betel nut and other portable boxes that were more exquisite and also more in demand. They were mostly made of sandalwood and inlaid with ivory with lac providing the black background or outline.

Other impressions
The article also mentions that Vizag's chintzes were highly valued. Let me get you the quote: "Major John Coreille (b.c. 1727) wrote in the 1750s that Vizagapatam's 'chintz is esteemed the best in India for the brightness of its colours.'"

I also get the impression that Vizag was quite the cosmopolitan sea port, as it was the only natural harbour between Calcutta and Madras. Vessels from Canton in China stopped by and Amin says it's not impossible that Chinese workers lent Indian workers a hand, as the furniture designs do reflect a Chinese influence. However, all local craft was moulded to the European taste, as the English settlers were the main buyers.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Cloth trade

It's emerging that the cloth trade was quite a thing in Vizag. Got clues from a book called “India Trade Under the Danish Flag 1772-1808".

There are also records of the bales of cotton that was shipped off Vizag to Europe. From these I gather the cloth was of better quality than that from Ganjam.


Have started looking up for stuff on the origins and history of Vizag. There's some exciting writing on the Web, mostly about the British time though. Letters, articles by people who visited it, gazettes. They provide details that just so painstakingly weave a tapestry that will finally emerge as Vizag across the ages.

Exciting stuff.