I walk up the gravel path to the government guest house at Chasma Shahi in Srinagar with my mother. The promise of a meeting with Chacha Nehru could get a seven year old going early in the morning in those days. We are greeted by a lady arranging cut branches in a large bowl. She does not approve of the guest house - "big, cold and ugly," she says. She smiles at me and tells my mother to go in. Holding out her hand, she asks, "To aap mere saath bahar chalenge?" Will you come out with me?
The next ten minutes are spent in the garden. The lady is talking to the gardeners but she takes the trouble to engage me as well. "Do you know the colours before they bloom?" "Will these bulbs last in Delhi’s heat?" My mother returns, the lady bids me goodbye and tells me to come back and see the garden in bloom. What I remember most from this first meeting with Indira Gandhi is her dislike of government architecture and her ‘no fuss’ approach towards me.
I met her again, over the years, but it was a cultural project that really brought me in close contact with her, at a time when she was coming to her own as India’s prime minister. Quick to gauge the public mood and bend rules, Mrs. Gandhi decided to change the Republic Day parade into a more people-driven, less officious festival. Ebrahim Alkazi of the National School of Drama was asked to direct it but Shanta Gandhi, who had no love lost for Alkazi, wanted her own stamp on the event. She asked me to prepare designs for the floats, and I drew out a few ideas that could help break the usual format of ‘jhankies’ pulled by tractors. My sketches were colourful, cocky, and casual - but they got her curious and excited, and were translated into reality. It was wonderful for a young brat like me to have a top politician understand my language.
The other project which brought me in close contact with her was was the Health and Family Planning Pavilion for the Asiad ’72, called Ek Yatra. Mrs.Gandhi got on to the space craft I had built, which had a rather precarious moving platform - she felt unstable and held my arm. Later, of course I was pushed out by her entourage of officials. But I noticed how good she was at shooing away photographers and hangers-on with the terse remark, "Either you see or let me see."
We remember great souls by their brief encounters with us. Personal encounters with them become milestones in our lives. But what about them who meet thousands of people, each with his or her own story? When Mrs Gandhi was looking at you she would focus, but her eyes would also look beyond. Was there something else she was seeing? I always felt that the silent gaze allowed her to enter her own space in the middle of a meeting.
I had the privilege to work with Mrs Gandhi again, when the concept for the Festival of India was being thrashed out. She understood so well the need for a cultural policy with a broader canvas of concern. She understood the connections between our past and our future, of the arts with the sciences; the need to bridge the divide between city and village, East and the West. These were lessons Mrs.Gandhi had learnt well from the teachings of her father. It all came together as a strategic game-plan for a policy of cultural diplomacy that carried her distinctive stamp. Her close confident Dorothy Norman, with whom I became good friends in New York during the Festival of India in the US, observed that Mrs. Gandhi had an impeccable sense of housekeeping. We would often speak of her excellent eye for décor, and I have a few personal encounters to relate.
I’d just returned from the success of the Aditi exhibition for the Festival of India in the UK. Natwar Singh met me at Mrs. Jayakar’s and spoke to us about the coming Commonwealth and Non-aligned Heads of State conferences. These were to be held in Delhi over a span of six months, putting unprecedented pressure on our airports. A special ceremonial lounge had to be created to contain delegations of visiting heads of state, some of whom didn’t want to bump into each other. I thought about Gandhiji wanting India to be like a room with all its doors and windows open, capable of withstanding all the winds of the world and yet not getting swept off its feet. The doors and windows of India would become the leitmotif for my décor, and I would add crafted pigeons and doves sitting here and there as harbingers of peace.
Mrs.Gandhi heard me out patiently, chuckling when I suggested putting Gujarati Chabutras (ornately carved homes for pigeons put up in the public squares of Gujarat) at the entrances; but when I wondered aloud if this pigeon play might not attract birds to the terrace, she immediately sent for Rajiv to get his opinion. She was visibly excited while showing him our plan and, fortunately, Rajiv approved. "Don’t be silly, mummy," he said affectionately, telling her not to worry about painted pigeons being a flight hazard!
The execution of the lounge was completed in a record time of six weeks and Mrs. Gandhi went to see it one night. Her handwritten note to Pupul Jayakar, penned at midnight when she had far more pressing issues issues to worry about ( there had been a massacre in the Northeast that morning) shows why artists can never forget her:
"The special Airport lounge done by Rajeev Sethi is so beautiful and typically Indian. Do you think we could have colour photographs taken and an interesting write-up done for interior decoration or other magazines ? We haven’t any such in India but I am sure American or British magazines would be interested.!"
A little while later, I was asked to look at the interior design of the PM’s plane. Mrs.Gandhi was going to Madras and I was told to join her on that the flight. I asked if I could quietly observe her at work while flying without disturbing her. When I walked into her cabin, Mrs.Gandhi was seated behind a desk on a large chair propped up by cushions. She had a low black trunk low on one side of her, and there were too many files on her small table. There was nothing distinctive or pleasant about the interiors but I didn’t think it proper to start a conversation until I had some solutions to offer. I watched, and occasionally scribbled irrelevant notes to show I was working. Watching her, I felt I was seeing a vision of an extraordinary person - tiny in frame - flying high above the country she led, her demeanour serious, imperial and alone. Suddenly, Mrs. Gandhi looked up and smiled mischievously, put her pen down, and asked, "So what are you observing?" Taken aback at having my ‘invisible’ cloak yanked off, I blurted, "Are you comfortable… in that chair?". Sensing my nervousness, she started to look at her files again, and while working asked "You mean - metaphorically?" She wasn’t smiling, nor was I. "No! No". I said, "I mean all those cushions… why do you have them?" She said she knew of no chair she had ever sat on that her back had liked, and talked of how, from an ergonomical point of view, cushions were the best adjuncts to bad design. Holding up the cushions supporting her back, she looked up and smiled again. "These too, could be metaphorical you know!" I have since cursed myself for being too tongue-tied to avail of the finest opportunity to start a meaningful conversation with a woman I had seen becoming larger than life almost before my eyes.
The day Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated I was sitting 10 houses away, silent and alone with J.Krishnamurthi. Mrs. Jayakar had rushed to the hospital. The air was thick with uncertainty. The great sage was uneasy. He squeezed my arm and asked me to go to Mrs Gandhi’s Safdarjung Road house and find out where Pupul was. I arrived, and waited for someone to show up. The place was deserted with hardly any security. Rajiv drove in, got out of the car and went back to shut the wooden gate of the house himself… no security! Then he walked across the gravel drive way and I was able to hug him.
My thoughts often go back to Mrs. Gandhi and the alchemy shared so briefly through design. She knew so many master craftsmen by name and they knew they had access to her. The craftsmen, like her, belong to a special world - a world defined only by the pursuit of excellence perfection and by the evolution of skill.
I stand at Shakti Sthal, in front of the large red rock mined in Orissa where Mrs. Gandhi gave her last speech "My last drop of blood…" A hard stone - jasper, with veins of iron ore and hematite - stands like an obelisk marking the site of Mrs. Gandhi’s memorial. Fragile flowerbeds on grass mounds of earth, dotted by tenacious rocks and trees reluctant to send deep roots, surround me. I ask the gardener, "Will the flowers will survive Delhi’s heat?" And remember my first encounter with her, when I was seven years old.
(This is an abridged version of a tribute to Indira Gandhi on her 88th birth anniversary)