The other side of Pupul Jayakar



MY first memories of my mother go back to the early forties. I see her seated in my grandmother’s veranda, writing in the accountant’s red logbook she has converted into a diary. She lives with her husband, Manmohan Jayakar, her brother, Kumaril Mehta’s family and me, her daughter, in her widowed mother Iravati’s house in Bombay.

We were surrounded by servants from Uttar Pradesh, Mataprashad is the white turbaned bearer, Mahanand, the driver with ancestral memories of the 1857 Uprising, and Hiralal the excellent  cook trained by an Englishwoman. The shadow of colonial U.P. hung over the house. On Sundays her three sisters would gather in the veranda and Amru, the youngest sister, the one with the beautiful voice, sang Wajid Ali Shah’s farewell song to his kingdom Babula Mora Naihar Chhooto Jaye.

Pupul’s mother Iravati had been a public-spirited woman, and a memsahib presiding over lavish households in Lucknow, Allahabad, and Banaras. Married in Surat, she was transported as a sixteen-year-old to a totally alien milieu of Muslim aristocrats, English civil servants, and prosperous lawyers, in faraway Uttar Pradesh. Ably assisted by Mrs Beaton’s book of household management, she mastered the art of serving a five-course meal, with appropriate wine glasses, cutlery, and crockery. She then stepped beyond her home and established a shelter for abandoned women and children. As president of the Oudh’s Women’s Conference, she promoted the Sarada Act, and in 1928 won the ‘Kaiser-i-Hind Medal of the First Class for Public Services’.

Pupul’s father, Vinayak Mehta, from a literary family of Gujarat, was a member of the Indian Civil Service posted in eastern Uttar Pradesh. In 1915 the year Pupul was born, he finished writing a biography of his novelist father Nandshankar. Pupul believed herself heir to her forebear’s literary legacy; unfortunately, having been brought up as a civil servant’s daughter by an Irish governess, she could not read Gujarati, so her grandfather’s Karan Ghelo and her father’s Nandshankar Jeevan Chitra remained unread.

Even then, the values animating these works, including what one might term a proto-feminism, came alive in Vinayak’s household – in his relationship with Iravati and his four daughters. He often talked to his daughters of his own feisty grandmother who, widowed at the age of twenty-four, had refused to abide by rules that required widows to remain in their husband’s house instead, strapping her young son to her back waded across the Tapi river, to reach her maternal home in Olpad.


In an age when it was usual to prepare girls for domestic life, Vinayak frowned when his daughters knitted, sewed, or cooked; he urged them to be writers, painters, and musicians. To reinforce his idea of his intellectual daughter Pupul, he gave her a copy of the Buddha from the Mathura Museum and sent her to study journalism at Bedford College in England. He incorporated a rare passage from the Manusmriti into the eight auspicious verses sung at his daughter Nandini’s wedding ceremony: ‘The gods delight [in homes] where women are honoured.’ It was like a coded message to her future husband’s family.

Vinayak was not a pucca sahib. He did not drink chhota pegs seated on the chabutras of his large district home. Nor was he a shikari returning home after a successful shoot with a braise of snipes, ducks, and geese. On many a wintry evening, he sat with village elders listening to their experience of crops and famines, and what the direction of the winds presaged. These stories, going back ‘untold centuries’, were preserved in the form of mnemonic aphorisms. In 1926, Vinayak published the peasant aphorisms with a dedication to the farmers of Uttar Pradesh: ‘The enthusiastic farmer is like Tulsidas, the ideal devotee of Ram. May the cost of cultivating rise fourfold and debts accumulate he still is devoted to his field.’

The firsthand experience of the oppressed peasantry in the feudal districts of U.P. is everywhere in Pupul’s early stories. So is the lyricism that flavoured the oral culture of their everyday lives. It formed the hinter-land of her consciousness, shaped her writing and her later work. That the poor of India though dispossessed and illiterate were not without a poetic sensibility, influenced her work with the artisans, and played a role in her later friendship with Ivan Illich.

When his daughters came of marriageable age, Iravati and Vinayak reverted to the traditional pattern governing women’s life and proposed alliances with a range of suitable men from wealthy families across India. They had suitors lined up for Pupul, too, but she set aside her parents’ choice of dazzling grooms and the security of wealth in favour of a tall, handsome, and dashing young barrister she met in England at the London School. Pupul and Jackie were married in Bikaner, in 1937, where Vinayak was Dewan.


The young couple moved to Bombay, rented a flat on Breach Candy, close to her childhood friend Krishna Hutheesing, Motilal Nehru’s daughter, and not far from the Willingdon Sports Club. Jackie played tennis, bought a two-door sports car and Pupul entered the card room to become a prize-winning bridge player. They lived extravagantly, well beyond their means, so in 1940 the couple moved in with her mother.

In 1939 Pupul was six-months pregnant, when she faced her first tragedy. She developed eclampsia,
a life-threatening condition accompanied by soaring blood pressure and convulsions; she lost the baby she was carrying and went blind for ten days. Blindness, she discovered is not absolute darkness but its opposite, ‘an explosions of colour, the like of which one does not otherwise know.’ ‘…blindness was not absolute, colours started sweeping across the darkness. Colours born of the night, untouched by the sun – startling oranges, the green of parrots, the blue of the peacock’s throat, the red of blood spread over the darkness to tint the canvas of my blindness  leaving me entranced and in ecstasy…’


A few months later, in January 1940 her father died. ‘And suddenly the ground gave way beneath and I felt myself plunged into a dark bottomless void – I would never see him never– never-never-never-never – my heart tore within me. I wanted to see him again just once – to hear him call me – Pupli – to talk to him to touch him to feel his presence.’

‘When you go through an experience like that, you come through with a new perception of life.’ So began Pupul’s search to make something of her life – ‘Let me forget everything let me start afresh,’ she wrote in her diary.

The path that would lead Pupul to public life began with her association with Mridula Sarabhai, the elder daughter from the distinguished Sarabhai family of Ahmedabad, who were family friends. Mridulaben was a staunch Gandhian and a leading figure in the freedom movement. In 1940, she was member secretary of a committee Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Bose had formed to study women’s role in a planned economy. Woman’s Role in a Planned Economy (WRPE) was a sub-committee of the National Planning Committee (NPC) that the two young socialists set up in 1938. Pupul assisted Mridula in writing the final report of the NPC.

The report was well ahead of its time, its recommendation that women have complete control over their earnings and ‘that economic value of house work should be recognised and in lieu of payment all facilities and rights as workers should be extended to women for domestic work’ rattled even some the members of WRPE.

A notable image in the report transforms the Soviet image of a man and woman marching forward hammer and sickle in hand into the more tender image of a man and a woman progressing towards a common future with a child, perhaps to mollify the outraged committee members. ‘We would like to displace the picture so deeply impressed upon the racial imagination of man striding forward to conquer new worlds, woman following wearily behind with a baby in her arms. The picture which we now envisage is that of man and woman, comrades of the road, going forward together, the child joyously shared by both. Such a reality we feel cannot but raise the manhood and womanhood of any nation.’

The war intervened and the report was completely forgotten, so Mridulaben’s attention turned to rural Gujarat and Gandhiji’s programme for the upliftment of women’s lives.  ‘Our women joined the salt satyagraha, they came out of their homes.’ Gandhiji once wrote to Mridula: ‘It is now your duty to see that they should not be imprisoned within the four walls of the kitchen.’ Pupul, who had hardly ever entered the kitchen, let alone been imprisoned within its four walls, followed Mridula to the interior villages of Gujarat, and was active in organizational matters related to village women’s welfare, and setting up cooperatives for artisans. For her ‘it was a tough and vigorous initiation.’

In the course of her travels she discovered India’s rich artisanal tradition and its ‘enormous repertory of skills’. ‘Colour is life’, she wrote as her vision enlarged, and the hitherto private sensibility found a counterpart in the rural world of craft. ‘The indigo, alizarin or madder and roghan processes are employed by chhipias (printers) in villages and towns where printing is a traditional craft, with a long and ancient history’ she wrote with passion.

Mridula went to jail during the war years, Pupul did not. During the Quit India Movement she tended Jackie who fell ill with a life-threatening case of typhoid, then she herself needed to be operated for appendicitis. She did not compensate for these missed opportunities by spinning the charkha or wearing white khadi sarees, symbolic acts that might have given her a certain legitimacy in the eyes of Gandhiji’s followers. In short, she lacked what Ram Guha describes as ‘sturdily nationalist credentials’. Even though she did not conform to a Gandhian identity her love of country found expression in the Mahatma’s constructive programme, in particular his vision of India’s future built on a flourishing artisanal base.


Her one recognizably Gandhian gesture was to transfer me from the J.B. Petit School, where we sang hymns, shouted hip hip hurrah at the war’s end to New Era, the Gujarati school dedicated to the Mahatma. Here, on Fridays, we recited prayers from the Bible, the Avesta, the Quran and chanted ‘asato ma sad gamaya’ from the Upanishad, and I read my grandfather’s classic Surat ni Aag from our prescribed prose reader. I lived with my grandmother throughout the years Pupul travelled the countryside and even after she set up house in New Delhi.

In 1944, Mridula Sarabhai as organizing secretary of what became known as the Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust, chose Pupul as organizing secretary of the Mumbai central office. But Thakkarbapa, the Secretary of the trust’s executive committee, ‘vehemently’ disagreed with Mridula’s choice. After all, Pupulben, as a daughter of the Raj and a card-playing member of Bombay’s Willingdon Club, did not quite fit the ‘new woman’ of Gandhiji’s vision. Despite the setback, Pupul remained associated with the Kasturba Trust and with Mridulaben as mentor she travelled throughout village India.


My memories move to Himmat Niwas, to a flat across the road from her mother’s house Pupul rented in 1946. Nostalgia is absent in the flat, but there is sorrow, for Pupul gave birth to a child who died two weeks later. The anguish of loss went into stories published a few years later. In ‘Two Women’, a mother on her way to join a convoy about to cross the border to safety lays her sleeping child under a tree as she stops to take a last look at her ancestral land. The child wakes up and wanders away. She searches frantically for her son, but it is too late, the convoy departs as the killer mob begins to arrive.

Pupul covered over her sorrow with fierce ambition, for Pupul was a woman of action, with confidence in her capacity to build an independent future as social worker, writer and to eventually climb the political ladder. She has been a member of the Congress party since 1941. Inclined towards its socialist wing, Ashok Mehta, Minoo Masani, Acharya Narendra Dev and Yusuf Meher Ali were friends. Her connections in the Congress extended to her father’s friends Gobind Vallabh Pant and Jawaharlal, the future prime minister. She had a solid record of social work in the countryside behind her and was active in resettling refugees from Sindh.

She was a figure in Bombay’s cultural world. Mulk Raj Anand recently returned from England, and she jointly edited a children’s magazine. Raj Thapar, Raj Malhotra at the time, was assistant editor; M.F. Husain contributed a ‘early colour drawings of a horse and bull-driven cart’, and Shivax Chawda illustrated children’s stories.  She retold the life of the Buddha and stories from the Ramayana for the children. The magazine featured a painting by Jamini Roy on its cover.‘I write, I am in politics, I work for distress relief, politics, art. There is so much action, so much doing, so much living’, she wrote with obvious relish in her diary.


In 1948, being at a loose end one Sunday, she accompanied sister Nandini to meet a sage newly arrived on the scene. She expected the typical guru dishing out the usual array of homilies. But was startled by Krishnamurti’s challenging stance – he seemed to be holding up a mirror to her, in which she discovered the hidden side of her being, ‘I had covered up my sorrow with layers of aggression I had never spoken of this to anyone – not even to myself had I acknowledged my loneliness: but before this silent stranger all masks were swept away. I looked into his eyes, and it was my own face I saw reflected.’

Pupul withdrew from politics and abandoned the card room at the Willingdon Club.  The emotions anchoring her socialist ideology – a sympathy for the destitute, and her commitment to public life – nonetheless survived. Her experience of craft communities of Gujarat, their mastery of colour, the grim poverty of their lives now led her to a small outlet for handmade products run by the Provincial Industrial Co-operative Association of the Bombay Presidency. She had been a member of its board since it was instituted in 1946.

Playing designer, sales assistant and publicity manager, Pupul launched the shop, which soon acquired a zing. It drew the smart set, ladies who wore georgettes and chiffons and decorated their home with gingham table cloths and polka dotted curtains to cotton textiles printed with tribal, folk and prehistoric images. A surviving catalogue draws attention to the material on sale – a bride and groom painted on the walls of village huts, a horned deer painted on prehistoric pottery, a knight errant on horseback all configured as designs for curtains and bedspreads in a modern home. Her aesthetic sensibility now channelled through an entirely novel and successful business enterprise, enhanced her credentials as a capable woman.


Pupul’s connections with the Sarabhai family at this point found common ground with Mridula’s younger siblings, Gira and Gautam. ‘Do you own a textile mill’, the great Indologist Ananda Coomaraswamy had asked brother and sister in 1946; ‘If you do not have a textile museum then sponsor one.’ The suggestion introducing aesthetic and conservation dimensions to their father’s Calico Mill appealed to the young Sarabhais, who asked Pupul to join them in the task that lay ahead.

The historian Aparna Basu with privileged access to the extensive collection of ‘papers, diaries and letters preserved in the Sarabhai Foundation’, identifies Pupul’s fundamental role in the founding of the museum. ‘This [the conversation with Coomaraswamy] was the genesis of the Calico Museum of Textiles that Gautam and Gira, together with Pupul Jayakar, founded in 1949, arguably the best of its kind in the world. They worked together as a team in putting together the collection, as well as in displaying it.’


Jackie was transferred to Delhi as ACC’s representative to government in 1948. A flat in Sundar Nagar, a swanky new area of the city, came with the position. Dividing her time between Bombay and Delhi, Pupul worked on two fronts – in Delhi she established an elegant household, and renewed her connections with government; in Bombay, she worked at the emporium and became part of the fabric of her maternal home. In 1952, soon after the All-India Handicraft Board with Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay as head was established, Pupul was appointed member of the board.

Late one morning in Bombay, as she stood behind the counter at the Bombay Cooperative Sales Depot, two foreigners came into the store. Edgar Kaufmann Jr. and Alexander Girard were shopping for a forthcoming exhibition on Indian craft design to be held the following year at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). A chain of consequences followed this chance meeting as Pupul steered the two men to the network of craft centres, museums, emporia and village bazaars in the country.  She introduced them to Gira Sarabhai in Ahmedabad, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay in New Delhi, to private collectors like Sheila Bharatram, who loaned them objects for the exhibition in New York.

The Museum of Modern Arts’ (MoMA) extraordinary exhibition, ‘Textiles and Ornaments of India’, drew a large number of visitors. Pupul was invited to attend and along with John Irwin of the Victoria and Albert Museum commissioned to write the introduction to its lavish catalogue. She lent her voice to Charles and Ray Eames’ exquisite documentary, which was filmed to the strain of Ali Akbar Khan’s sitar and Chattur Lal’s tabla, with snatches of Shanta Rao dance. She returned from New York with dazzled sensibilities. She, who had always been deeply engaged with objects, with a textile fragment or seal from Harappa, learnt about the orchestration of sound and light in the display of objects in the exhibition and museums. Her visit to Charles and Ray Eames’ house and their studio in California, two of the great design spaces of the 20th century, became an enduring source of inspiration for her later work.


Pupul Jayakar’s engagement with the Government of India in New Delhi officially began in 1955 after T.T. Krishnamachari, then minister of Commerce and Industries, divided the Handicraft Board into two sections, the Handicraft Board headed by Kamaladevi and the Handloom Board of which she was appointed the head. Aware that handloom weaving was after agriculture the major source of employment in the country, and that poverty was the weavers’ lot, Pupul hesitated. ‘Go do it; you will learn as you work’, she quoted Krishnamachari as telling her.

So began her national presence in the fields of design institutions, export promotion and conservation. The Weavers’ Service Centre, Handicrafts and Handloom Exports Corporation (HHEC), National Institute of Design (NID), National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) were among the organizations she helped found. NID and NIFT have since multiplied, INTACH has extended its reach to Chapters in various parts of India; the Handloom and Handicrafts Boards have been eliminated. She was appointed chairperson of the Festivals of India held in the 1980s in France, the United States and Japan, which was perhaps responsible for why she came to be known, ironically, as the Tzarina of Culture.



In 1982, Pupul was invited to speak at the Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. She presented herself to the graduating class as lacking in management theories but in no way handicapped by the lack. ‘The last place in the world I expected to speak was at the Institute of Management, Ahmedabad’, she told the students. ‘I am one of those survivors from the days before independence, who entered the stream of economic, social, cultural nation building, with no proper training or experience. I am an outsider in the field of management, but, over the last four decades, I too have been responsible for the building of a large number of cultural, social and economic institutions in this country.’

From the mid-eighties Pupul turned her attention to her literary past to write biographies of J. Krishnamurti and Indira Gandhi. She formally resigned from government in 1990, retired to Himmat Nivas in Bombay and her family of sisters. She died in 1997 at the age of eighty-two.



Aparna Basu, Mridula Sarabhai: Rebel with a Cause. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1996. Aparna Basu, As Times Change: The Story of an Ahmedabad Business Family: The Sarabhais: 1823-1975. Sarabhai Foundation, Ahmedabad, 2018.

Pupul Jayakar, God is Not a Full Stop. Kutub Publishers, Bombay, 1949. Pupul Jayakar, The Children of Barren Women: Essays, Investigations, Stories. Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 1994.

Maithreyi Krishna Raj, ‘Women’s Pers-pective on Public Policy: An Incomplete or Lost Agenda?’ Gender, Technology and Development 4(2), 2000, pp. 161-200.

Vinayak Mehta, Nandshankar Jeevan Chitra. M.N. Tripathi and Sons, Bombay, 1916.