Obituary



IN MEMORIAM - Martand Singh, 222K, 1962.

Tribute from Laila Tyabji

Martand Singh

Dear dear Mapu, friend of many years. I was 13 or 14 when I first saw him in 1960, visiting his cousins at Welham Girls on Sunday. Doon School boys were always eye-candy for us male-deprived teenagers, but Mapu was extra special & we all gawked out of the dorm windows at his fey beauty.

In our early 20s, in 1971, we met again & started working together - he, interior designers Reena Ribjeet Singh & Shona Ray, my graphic designer cousin Zehra, & I, the junior-most team member working on a triumvirate of interior design projects - Hyderabad House, the Akbar Hotel, & the Administrative Block of the newly emerging Pragati Maidan Complex, in which we were also designing the Indian Tube Company pavilion. Interior design was a largely uncharted field then, with both practitioners & clients uncertain of its parameters & demands. We learnt on the job. I remember Mapu brilliantly ad-libbing when I forgot our concept drawings for a presentation to whichever Secretary to Govt was handling the Hyderabad House restoration, & our hysterics when we discovered that the conference table we had designed for Pragati Maidan would not fit through the Conference Room doors. The carpenters sawed away at the gigantic table all through the night, halving it down the middle, & then struggling to shift it into place & stick it together again - just in time for the inauguration next morning. Meanwhile Mapu, Shona and I sat by, feverishly playing Rummy; Shona puffing away at her cigarettes. I have a photograph somewhere..... Whenever Mapu and I met over the years we would giggle over the scrapes & fun we had then.

Mapu lived in Sunder Nagar, conveniently close to Pragati Maidan, so we often landed up there in the evenings. His exquisitely beautiful mother Sita Devi was still hopeful of finding Mapu a bride, & he would tell us stories of the various young women she sent him off to meet. All were "delightful", and "so sweet, darling" but one had lipstick on her teeth, & another a neighing laugh, & a third had chipped nail polish & thought the Dada art movement had something to do with his grandfather.....

I continued working with Shona till her tragically early death, but Mapu went off to the Calico Museum in Ahmedabad & we only met occasionally - at the Sarabhais or elsewhere. By the 80s, when we became neighbours in Hauz Khas Village, I with Dastkar, & he working on his extraordinary documentation of Indian Textiles, Amar Vastra Kosh, he had morphed into the elegant, fastidious textile guru & aesthete we all know - a fount of knowledge & fascinating textile lore, laced with wit & his own brilliant, wise & occasionally idiosyncratic insights - ever ready to share gyaan, appreciate beauty however esoteric & unusual; with a rare gift of recognising & nurturing talent in others. Blue jeans had been abandoned for beautifully tailored white khadi kurta-pyjamas, a 400 count muslin angravasta or shahtoosh shawl draped over his shoulder, setting a fashion of ethnic chic much copied by Delhi's cultural elite. This occasionally caused confusion:

In 1984 I was in a terrible accident & laid up in bed for months. Mapu came to visit, & our old bearer Yusuf, misled by the white khadi & a fleeting resemblance, mistook him for Rajiv Gandhi, by then P.M. Yusuf, beaming with pride, carried up a fantastic spread, complete with our best silver tea service & all the trimmings. Since my bedroom was up three flights of stairs, he was very cross when he discovered his mistake! As a result, when Rajiv G did drop by to check on me, Yusuf was not going to be fooled again & more or less ignored him; producing tea in mugs & no kheema samosas.

All through the late 80s and 90s, as the National Institute of Fashion Technology opened & Indian Fashion suddenly became a career option, Mapu & I often found ourselves co-jurors evaluating NIFT student collections. This could be an exciting sighting of emerging new talent, but also occasionally bizarrely funny, as hopeful students aped styles from the Western fashion ramp that they didn't full understand, or attempted over-elaborate Mughal-e-Azam pastiches. "Charming, darling, but how would you pee in that?..." I remember Mapu plaintively enquiring about one bouffant balloon skirt, embellished with thousands of stiff organza chrysanthemum petals. He also developed a way of emitting little grunts & groans & clucks, & occasional deep sighs - whether to alleviate boredom or to ward off a fit of giggles, (since he was very kind) I don't know. Both I and Ritu Kumar, another regular of these early NIFT Juries, deeply disapproved; protesting that they made him sound appallingly & prematurely middle-aged - we were all barely 40! But these, & other quirky little mannerisms, became a permanent part of his persona - the sage & savant, perennially neither young nor old; full of arcane wisdom. Especially in his later years, one was conscious of an innate spirituality & serenity. An other-worldliness which somehow melded quite harmoniously with his sharp eye for the kitsch, the second-rate, & absurd. (And he was always up for masaledar gupshup & gossip as well!)

The last time, Mapu & I met was in Jaipur 18 months ago, at a three day extravaganza celebrating Rajasthan heritage & fashion, where he was a star invitee. As always, it was a delightful, warm, jokey sharing of past, present & future, accompanied by the ritual minute examination of ones sari & jewels, a mythological anecdote about emeralds (precious stones were his new passion) & an invitation to that statutory scones & cucumber sandwich high tea in his home in Mussoorie. Alas it was not to be.

In a curious coincidence, the night Mapu passed away, the Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan, where we had spent so many days and nights in 1972, was bulldozed & demolished by Government order. Both Mapu himself & Raj Rewal's iconic building were an important part of post-independent India's cultural heritage, now both gone for ever.... Irretrievable except in our memory. Let us treasure those images - & remember with loving gratitude what they stood for.

Rest in peace, dear friend.