mystery stories

The Indian woman who sat for a notable American portrait in the ’60s and forgot about it – until now

In Donald Trump’s America, a painting by Alice Neel acknowledges the history of Indian immigrants.

In a 1966 portrait currently on display at an art gallery in Manhattan, a dimpled young Indian woman sits on a deck chair, looking amused. Her mauve bandhani sari, its pallu wrapped snugly around her hips, accentuates her figure. The white of her petticoat is visible under layers of chiffon (too diaphanous to be polyester, not crumpled or starched enough to be cotton). Her blouse, also white, is sleeveless. Bollywood heroines started wearing sleeveless blouses in the 1960s, so she must have been quite fashionable.

She looks a little like Sharmila Tagore.

Her thick braid falls down her right shoulder and dangles below the seat. She poses with the long fingers of her right hand resting on her cheek, her chin a few inches above her palm. Her large brown eyes are lined with kohl, her gaze is confident. She stands out in Alice Neel, Uptown, an exhibition of selected portraits by the American artist Alice Neel at the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea.

Neel painted these portraits during the five decades she lived in New York City’s Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side, until her death in 1984. Most of them focus on African Americans and Latinos whom she encountered in her neighbourhoods and in the art world. The others are of people of colour too: Cyrus, the Gentle Iranian (1979); Abdul Rahman (1964), a Black Muslim; Ron Kajiwara (1971), the Japanese-American designer.

There is no information, however, about the only South Asian face here – just the title, Woman (1966).

Woman, 1966. Oil on canvas 46 x 31 inches Private Collection, Miami. © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London and Victoria Miro, London
Woman, 1966. Oil on canvas 46 x 31 inches Private Collection, Miami. © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London and Victoria Miro, London

She also remains conspicuous by her absence in the art historian Pamela Allara’s Pictures of People: Alice Neel’s American Portrait Gallery, which chronicles Neel’s life and work. Allara writes that Neel “revived and redirected the dying genre of ameliorative portraiture by merging objectivity with subjectivity, realism with expressionism”. Neel described herself as a “collector of souls,” Allara writes, adding that she was categorised as “a sort of artist-sociologist”.

Neel painted the mysterious woman a year after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act profoundly changed the American immigration policy, removing longstanding quotas on newcomers from India (among other places). Indians called it the “brain drain”, as the highly educated – particularly doctors – left for the American dream.

Was the woman in the portrait a young doctor then?

She wears gold jewellery – balis, a bangle, and a ring on her middle finger. A red bindi dots her forehead. A pinkish shadow on her hairline seems like the remnant of sindoor. She evokes a picture of Ashima Ganguli, the Bengali housewife in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, set in the American North East during the same time period.

Neel had moved to a “more middle-class neighborhood” near Columbia University when she painted this young woman. Was she then a student at Columbia? Or a professor?

Hilton Als, a theater critic at The New Yorker, who curated the Alice Neel exhibition in Chelsea, writes, “In the years since her death, viewers young and old have experienced the kind of thrill I feel, still, whenever I look at Neel’s work, which, like all great art, reveals itself all at once while remaining mysterious.”

The identity of this sitter of Neel’s portrait does seem a great mystery. Even the internet offers no clues.

Ujjaini Bhattacharya, just before she left for the US.
Ujjaini Bhattacharya, just before she left for the US.

The answer to the mystery finally arrived in an email from a research archivist at the David Zwirner gallery: “The sitter in the portrait is known to be the daughter of the Indian social-realist novelist Bhabani Bhattacharya (1906-1988), who had been invited to New York at the time by his American editor Millen Brand of Crown Publishers. At the time of this sitting, Bhattacharya’s daughter was enrolled as a student at Columbia University.”

Bhattacharya was a pioneering Indian writer who wrote in English. He was a contemporary of RK Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao. His books were translated into several European and Indian languages. The New York Times’ literary critic Charles Poore, in a 1952 review of Music for Mohini, wrote about Bhattacharya’s protagonist Mohini: “We’ll all be lucky if we meet a more appealing heroine this year.”

It took five hours to locate his family. Their names are not in any academic paper, news clipping or obituaries about Bhattacharya, who spent the last two decades of his life in the US. His two daughters and a son are mentioned in a small 1988 funeral notice in the St Louis Post-Dispatch, a local Missouri newspaper: “Surviving are his wife, Salila Bhattacharya; a son, Dr Arjun Bhattacharya of Ladue; two daughters, Ujjaini Khanderia of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Indrani Mukerji of Calcutta, India; and six grandchildren.”

Ujjaini Bhattacharya in 1967.
Ujjaini Bhattacharya in 1967.

Ujjaini Khanderia of Ann Arbor, Michigan, avoids all calls from phone numbers she doesn’t recognise. She is particularly bothered by a caller who leaves a morbid message: pick up the phone or you will die.

She ignores the first message left on her voice mail asking for an interview, but answers the phone in the middle of the second.

Khanderia, now in her seventies, remembers when the portrait was made, but the details are hazy. She remembers the artist, but not quite. “She said would you like me to… I didn’t even know who she was, she made a portrait of me.” Khanderia speaks in fragments, then stops mid-sentence, gathers her thoughts and asks: “So tell me a little bit more. This is some famous gallery? What’s her name again?”

Fifty one years ago, Ujjaini Bhattacharya came to America on a scholarship to attend the University of Michigan. (She never went to Columbia, the gallery had the information wrong.) Before starting graduate school, she spent a week in New York City, where she lived with the family of her father’s friend and publisher Millen Brand.

“I was terribly homesick and wanted to go back to India the same day that I landed in New York,” she said. “I was NOT good company given my depressed and sad state of mind.” Brand took her sightseeing, and they stopped by at his friend Alice Neel’s studio apartment. Khanderia says she agreed to sit for the portrait. “Since I was lonely and homesick, I thought this was a good opportunity to be left alone without having to act friendly.”

When she met her now husband Sharad Khanderia in college, she remembers telling him about the “lady who drew a portrait of me. And that’s all. That was the end of the conversation.”

It never came up again, she said. She didn’t even think about it.

“I just thought she was a local artist,” she said. “I thought she was just practicing something.” She remembers Neel to be friendly and unassuming, engrossed in painting more than talking. She sat for Neel for about seven hours and was pleased by the finished portrait, “But my thoughts were elsewhere – I was more concerned about how I would survive in Ann Arbor where I knew nobody and had no help.”

She wondered whether her portrait can be shown in public without her permission. She said she never heard from Neel again. She tried to remember if Neel sent her a picture of the painting.

It was so long ago. It takes her a few minutes to get her bearings.

“Oh, so you’re going to be writing about the portrait,” she said, with a nervous laugh. “Ah, I thought you were writing something about my father. My goodness! That’s unbelievable! I could never imagine what you’re saying!”

The day she reached the US, Ujjaini Bhattacharya wanted to return to Nagpur.
The day she reached the US, Ujjaini Bhattacharya wanted to return to Nagpur.

In 1966, New York was a blur, in an America where Indians were not yet a “model minority”. They lived in the margins of American society, straddling the line that kept people of colour firmly outside. It was overwhelming for a 21-year-old from Nagpur. “I was too homesick to think about anything but home.” As a young student in Michigan, she said, “I was terribly afraid, I was totally unprepared. It was very scary. It was very, very difficult for me.”

It took her years to adjust to the country, the culture, the clothes. “I used to wear saris when I came to the US,” she said. “In Nagpur, we didn’t wear Western dresses, we wore saris more comfortably.” (She bought that mauve bandhani in Nagpur.)

She lost her way on the first day of college and was almost in tears when “a young student from India who saw my plight, offered to show me my way around campus”. Soon after Ujjaini Bhattacharya married Sharad Khanderia in America. They both eventually taught at the university’s College of Pharmacy. They had two children. This year, they will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. They still live in Ann Arbor.

Indians have been in the news in America the last few weeks, and America has been in the news internationally, the last few months. In the midst of vicious attacks and vitriol, Neel’s portrait gently celebrates Ujjaini Khanderia’s – and that of other people of colour – contribution and belonging to America.

Cyrus, the gentle Iranian, 1979. Oil on canvas 39 7/8 x 30 1/8 inches © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy: David Zwirner, New York/London and Victoria Miro, London
Cyrus, the gentle Iranian, 1979. Oil on canvas 39 7/8 x 30 1/8 inches © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy: David Zwirner, New York/London and Victoria Miro, London
Ron Kajiwara, 1971. Oil on canvas 67 7/8 x 35 1/8 inches © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy: David Zwirner, New York/London and Victoria Miro, London
Ron Kajiwara, 1971. Oil on canvas 67 7/8 x 35 1/8 inches © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy: David Zwirner, New York/London and Victoria Miro, London

Alice Neel, Uptown was on display at the David Zwirner gallery, New York City, till April 22. It will be on show at the Victoria Miro Gallery, London, from May 18 to July 29.

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.