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.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Top picks, best deals and all that you need to know for the Amazon Great Indian Festival

We’ve done the hard work so you can get right to what you want amongst the 40,000+ offers across 4 days.

The Great Indian Festival (21st-24th September) by Amazon is back and it’s more tempting than ever. This edition will cater to everyone, with offers on a range of products from electronics, home appliances, apparel for men and women, personal care, toys, pet products, gourmet foods, gardening accessories and more. With such overwhelming choice of products and a dozen types of offers, it’s not the easiest to find the best deals in time to buy before your find gets sold out. You need a strategy to make sure you avail the best deals. Here’s your guide on how to make the most out of the Great Indian Festival:

Make use of the Amazon trio – Amazon Prime, Amazon Pay and Amazon app

Though the festival officially starts on 21st, Amazon Prime members will have early access starting at 12 noon on 20th September itself, enabling them to grab the best deals first. Sign up for an Amazon Prime account to not miss out on exclusive deals and products. Throughout the festival, Prime members will 30-minute early access to top deals before non-Prime members. At Rs 499/- a year, the Prime membership also brings unlimited Amazon Prime video streaming and quick delivery benefits.

Load your Amazon pay wallet; there’s assured 10% cashback (up to Rs 500). Amazon will also offer incremental cashbacks over and above bank cashbacks on select brands as a part of its Amazon Pay Offers. Shopping from the app would bring to you a whole world of benefits not available to non-app shoppers. App-only deals include flat Rs 1,250 off on hotels on shopping for more than Rs 500, and flat Rs 1,000 off on flights on a roundtrip booking of Rs 5,000 booking from Yatra. Ten lucky shoppers can also win one year of free travel worth Rs 1.5 lakhs.

Plan your shopping

The Great Indian Sale has a wide range of products, offers, flash sales and lightning deals. To make sure you don’t miss out on the best deals, or lose your mind, plan first. Make a list of things you really need or have been putting off buying. If you plan to buy electronics or appliances, do your research on the specs and shortlist the models or features you prefer. Even better, add them to your wishlist so you’re better able to track your preferred products.

Track the deals

There will be lightning deals and golden hour deals throughout the festival period. Keep track to avail the best of them. Golden-hour deals will be active on the Amazon app from 9.00pm-12.00am, while Prime users will have access to exclusive lightning deals. For example, Prime-only flash sales for Redmi 4 will start at 2.00pm and Redmi 4A at 6.00pm on 20th, while Nokia 6 will be available at Rs 1,000 off. There will be BOGO Offers (Buy One Get One free) and Bundle Offers (helping customers convert their TVs to Smart TVs at a fraction of the cost by using Fire TV Stick). Expect exclusive product launches from brands like Xiaomi (Mi Band 2 HRX 32 GB), HP (HP Sprocket Printer) and other launches from Samsung and Apple. The Half-Price Electronics Store (minimum 50% off) and stores offering minimum Rs 15,000 off will allow deal seekers to discover the top discounts.

Big discounts and top picks

The Great Indian Festival is especially a bonanza for those looking to buy electronics and home appliances. Consumers can enjoy a minimum of 25% off on washing machines, 20% off on refrigerators and 20% off on microwaves, besides deals on other appliances. Expect up to 40% off on TVs, along with No-Cost EMI and up to Rs 20,000 off on exchange.

Home Appliances

Our top picks for washing machines are Haier 5.8 Kg Fully Automatic Top Loading at 32% off, and Bosch Fully Automatic Front Loading 6 Kg and 7 Kg, both available at 27% discount. Morphy Richards 20 L Microwave Oven will be available at a discount of 38%.

Our favorite pick on refrigerators is the large-sized Samsung 545 L at 26% off so you can save Rs 22,710.

There are big savings to be made on UV water purifiers as well (up to 35% off), while several 5-star ACs from big brands will be available at greater than 30% discount. Our top pick is the Carrier 1.5 Ton 5-star split AC at 32% off.

Also those looking to upgrade their TV to a smart one can get Rs. 20,000 off by exchanging it for the Sony Bravia 108cm Android TV.

Personal Electronics

There’s good news for Apple fans. The Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch Laptop 2017 will be available at Rs 55,990, while the iPad will be available at 20% off. Laptops from Lenovo, Dell and HP will be available in the discount range of 20% to 26%. Top deals are Lenovo Tab3 and Yoga Tab at 41% to 38% off. Apple fans wishing to upgrade to the latest in wearable technology can enjoy Rs 8,000 off on the Apple Watch series 2 smartwatch. For those of you just looking for a high quality fitness tracker, the Fitbit Charge has Rs. 4500 off on 22nd September.

If you’re looking for mobile phones, our top deal pick is the LG V20 at Rs 24,999, more than Rs 5000 off from its pre-sale price.

Power banks always come in handy. Check out the Lenovo 13000 mAh power bank at 30% off.

Home printers are a good investment for frequent flyers and those with kids at home. The discounted prices of home printers at the festival means you will never worry about boarding passes and ID documents again. The HP Deskjet basic printer will be available for Rs 1,579 at 40% off and multi-function (printer/ scanner/ Wi-Fi enabled) printers from HP Deskjet and Canon will also available at 33% off.

The sale is a great time to buy Amazon’s native products. Kindle E-readers and Fire TV Stick will be on sale with offers worth Rs 5,000 and Rs 1,000 respectively.

The Amazon Fire Stick
The Amazon Fire Stick

For those of you who have a bottomless collection of movies, music and photos, there is up to 60% off on hard drives and other storage devices. Our top picks are Rs 15,000 and Rs 12,000 off on Seagate Slim 5TB and 4TB hard drives respectively, available from 8.00am to 4.00pm on 21st September.

The sale will see great discounts of up to 60% off on headphones and speakers from the top brands. The 40% off on Bose QC 25 Headphones is our favourite. Top deals are on Logitech speakers with Logitech Z506 Surround Sound 5.1 multimedia Speakers at 60% off and the super compact JBL Go Portable Speaker at 56% off!

Other noteworthy deals

Cameras (up to 55% off) and camera accessories such as tripods, flash lights etc. are available at a good discount. Home surveillance cameras too will be cheaper. These include bullet cameras, dome cameras, simulated cameras, spy cameras and trail and game cameras.

For home medical supplies and equipment, keep an eye on the grooming and personal care section. Weighing scales, blood pressure monitors, glucometers, body fat monitors etc. will be available at a cheaper price.

The sale is also a good time to invest in home and kitchen supplies. Mixer-grinders and juicers could see lightning deals. Don’t ignore essentials like floor mops with wheels, rotating mop replacements, utensils, crockery etc. Tupperware sets, for example, will be more affordable. There are attractive discounts on bags, especially laptop bags, backpacks, diaper bags and luggage carriers.

Interesting finds

While Amazon is extremely convenient for need-based shopping and daily essentials, it is also full of hidden treasures. During the festival, you can find deals on telescopes, polaroid cameras, smoothie makers, gym equipment, gaming consoles and more. So you’ll be able to allow yourself some indulgences!

Small shopping

If you have children, the festival is good time to stock up on gifts for Diwali, Christmas, return gifts etc. On offer are gaming gadgets such as Xbox, dough sets, Touching Tom Cat, Barbies, classic board games such as Life and more. There are also some products that you don’t really need, but kind of do too, such as smartphone and tablet holders, magnetic car mounts for smartphones and mobile charging station wall stands. If you’re looking for enhanced functionality in daily life, do take a look at the Amazon Basics page. On it you’ll find USB cables, kitchen shears, HDMI cables, notebooks, travel cases and other useful things you don’t realise you need.

Check-out process and payment options

Amazon is also offering an entire ecosystem to make shopping more convenient and hassle-free. For the festival duration, Amazon is offering No-Cost EMIs (zero interest EMIs) on consumer durables, appliances and smartphones, plus exchange schemes and easy installation services in 65 cities. HDFC card holders can avail additional 10% cashback on HDFC credit and debit cards. Customers will also get to “Buy Now and Pay in 2018” with HDFC Credit Cards, as the bank offers a 3 Month EMI Holiday during the days of the sale. Use Amazon Pay balance for fast and easy checkouts, quicker refunds and a secured shopping experience.

Sales are fun and with The Great Indian Festival offering big deals on big brands, it definitely calls for at least window shopping. There’s so much more than the above categories, like minimum 50% off on American Tourister luggage! To start the treasure hunt, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of and not by the Scroll editorial team.