Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Remembering Henry Brownrigg

HENRY Brownrigg died at his London home on December 22, 2016, as he was trying to get  into a car to go to his sister’s home for Christmas. As his nephew Christopher Lindsay,who held his hand at the time, told me the next day, his heart just stopped ticking and in another moment he was gone. This year-end trip to his only sister’s place was quite routine for him: Henry once told me his sister’s home used to eat money all the year round and then at the end of the year, it came alive as all the family members came together to celebrate Christmas and New Year.

He was ailing for some time, with a liver disease and a few weeks ahead of his demise he had undergone a surgery and came back home cheerfully, and in the next few weeks he spent much time reading and reviewing a book on politics and economy that I was writing. His comments were extensive and in depth that I think the ideas he had set out in those emails might be enough for another book on the subject.

Henry was highly knowledgeable, helpful to others, and he remained optimistic and witty about life even in the trying times. He was a liberal, a supporter of British Labour Party, and a democrat who remained steadfast  in his commitment to an open society. He responded to the developments in the world around him in a passionate way and I remember the night of the Brexit vote he kept himself awake late into the night and as the outcome became clear his  immediate reaction came in three words: ‘Oh, my God...!’ He was extremely well read, had travelled all over the world and had personal contacts with people in many continents. He told me a few weeks before his death that he was working on a few projects including a coffee table book on his collection of photographs of Kerala churches, a research project on some aspects of the Geniza records even as he was reading a few books that caught his fancy.

He never took his scholarship and academic brilliance seriously, though he had written scholarly articles on Kerala history in the South Indian Journal of History that came out from Kerala University in Trivandrum and also gave lectures at places like the University of Pennsylvania on topics of his life long interest. He was a highly rated expert on history and that was one reason why he was a guest at the 70th anniversary memorial service on the D-Day at Normandy  in France, a battle in which his father had served as a captain of a battleship of the Royal Navy.  

I became friends with Henry almost a decade ago when I was working on the European tombs and other heritages on the Malabar coast that date back to many centuries. He was at the time Kerala representative for the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA) and he sent me lots of material  that he had gathered. His deep contacts in all these places were unbelievable--once I was wondering how to locate a small gravestone of a British soldier who had drowned to death in river Chaliyar in the interior of Nilambur forest early in 20th century and then he told me he had been there and had all the details of the gravestone.

It was a pleasure to work with Henry on matters of mutual interest, and luckily we had quite a lot of common interests. He had toured Kerala criss cross for many decades and had visited and photographed many temples, churches and mosques over the years. This way, he was a chronicler of the changing times and cultural practices in Kerala landscape. Most of these old places of worship, many of them built side by side in a display of the traditional camaraderie among the region’s various faiths, had quite a lot of common features from an architectural point of view. Often they were built by the same architects or thatchans who served the local kings who had Muslims, Christians, Jews and caste Hindus as his prominent subjects. He had taken many photographs of Christian and Muslim places of worship that were remarkably similar to the Hindu temples in a wonderful display of this cultural symbiosis that was the hallmark of Kerala history for a long time. (See accompanying photographs of two mosques in Malabar with traditional Hindu temple features--from Henry's collection.) Now that many of these older places of worship are being pulled down, and modern monstrosities taking their place, Henry’s own work might be one of the staunch reminders of this great Malayali heritage, now sadly being lost to our own collective memory in an age of deliberate cultural exclusion and religious bigotry.

I think Henry was aware of this aspect of his work and he acutely felt the significance of cultural links between peoples and nations. In India he had seen how communal politics could play havoc in a society known for its peaceful ways. A week before his collapse at his home on November 15 which took him to a hospital for three weeks, Henry wrote to me as follows, when he was reading a history of Calicut  by historian Dr MGS Narayanan:

R.[a mutual friend] certainly agrees that Narayanan, though still probably the most prominent historian of Kerala, has moved to the right and is giving de facto support to the BJP.  So I started reading the book with a critical eye, and found it less biased than I had feared. I agree with you that he underplays the Christian role, but arguably Christianity was the nemesis of Calicut which never fully recovered from Portuguese suppression of Arab trade and the consequent rise of Cochin. MGS accepts the early role of Buddhism and Jainism - for instance that the Thiruvannur Temple was adapted from Jainism to Saivism in the C11th, as is reflected in the apsidal form of its srikovil. He is also quite good on the Kuttichira mosques, debunking the suggestion that their architectural similarity to temples means that they might be Malayali versions of the Babri Masjid. And he goes out of his way to make the point that the strong Islamic presence in Calicut can be attributed not just to the Cheramen Perumal legend but certainly to the mutual benefit of of international trade. So Hindu-Muslim Calicut was a prototype for a tolerant inclusive India.  Surely this is not the sort of message which the BJP is anxious to hear.”

This note alone is sufficient to show that Henry was a great friend of Kerala and also of India and acutely aware of its secular historical and cultural roots. His love affair with this country started in the mid-seventies when he first came here as a representative of the Anglo-American Gold Company which used to own many gold mines in various parts of the world. It was the days after the Emergency in India and Morarji Desai was the prime minister. Henry used to tell stories about the gold love in India and the illicit trade that became hectic during those days of Gold Control Act. He once took an adventurous trip in Dubai, going blindfolded to a dhow that was involved in smuggling of the precious metal to India. He was furious about a London newspaper which had promised to publish his experiences and instead went to town with the story attributed to someone else in their desk. His article published in 1982  in the company journal Optima was an excellent piece of writing on gold in India--its role in the country’s ancient culture and history, the legends connected with the yellow metal and the peculiar aspects of trading in gold in the small shops in Rajasthan and the big malls in Mumbai.

Henry came from an upper class family in UK -- his father retired as an admiral in Royal Navy and then served as chairman of an independent television channel. After public school, Henry went to Oxford where he was an office-bearer of the Oxford Union in the early sixties. He told me about the evening they hosted Malcolm X, the revolutionary black leader from the US, at Oxford Union debate and the dinner they had together. It was one of the last public appearances of Malcolm X as a few days later he was shot dead back home. Henry had kept a photograph of the Oxford Union leaders with Malcolm X and among them was writer Tariq Ali, who remained a life long friend of Henry, like many others from every part of the world.

Henry refused to write down his own thoughts but his letters and emails that he fondly wrote out on a regular basis are so rich in ideas and images that bring out the intellectual brilliance of this most affable of human beings who will be missed by all those who knew him.


Teresa Stokes said...

I was fascinated to read this - I didn't know Henry but have met his sister as she is the cousin of one my oldest friends, and stayed at her lovely home in Sussex. But I was also amazed to see in the group photo with Malcolm X, there sitting right beside him is a distant cousin of mine, Humphry Berkeley, the politician and author. They have spelled his name Humphrey in the photo which is wrong but a common mistake.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Thanks, Teresa, for the comments.

Mr Berkeley was there, next to Malcolm X, as he was the main debating rival to the American black leader that evening.


Unknown said...

Hi! Chekkutty : Excellent write-up or commemorative on Henry. I had known him for a few years now. I started as a customer at his stand n Portobello market - he always had a limited but good stock of watercolours and the odd engraving of India & I often ended up buying something - and used to drop in on Saturdays whenever in London. Soon, there were discussions on India and once he learnt I am from Kerala, the discussions became more focused. There were exchanges of several emails and invitations to the Travellers Club and also animated chats about his collection of Betel Cutters from all over the world, especially India and the Far East. I am sure you are aware he has written a book on betel cutters - once described by Henry as the best, worst & only book on betel cutters!! He was a Wykehamist, Oxford thereafter, always immaculately dressed and with a soft spoke, very proper accent, a lovely and gentle man.Another friend attended Henry's Memorial Service a couple of months back and reported that there were many fine speeches, recollections and recitations of poems, followed by refreshments at the Travellers' Club. Wish I had been there. V.Narayan Swami. (VN).

Deep K Datta-Ray said...

Glad to see this, particularly since I'm one of those he helped