Opinion and Editorial

Long Read: The man who is a restorer of history

Prasun Sonwalkar/London
Filed on April 30, 2021

After his maternal grandfather’s death, Shore received various family treasures, among which were Garrett’s drawing instruments.

Most of those who served in India and other colonies of the British Empire have passed on, but their descendants possess a large number of items linked to their tenures in the colonies.

Employees of the East India Company who returned with vast riches were called ‘nabobs’; some of them purchased political power, others arrived with ‘native’ servants and settled in prime locations in London, or constructed residences and spaces that reminded them of the lives they led in the colonies. There is no database of such artefacts in the possession of descendants of former soldiers, administrators and employees, but at least one of them is keen to return the “precious items” to where they belong and has already handed over some in India.

Iain Shore, a retired chartered accountant based in East Sussex, has several family links with India: the Shore family lived across the sub-continent since the mid-18th century; the foremost among them was John Shore, who was the governor-general of Bengal from 1793 to 1797.

“India is our home, really,” he says. “It is in our bones, our hearts. We always felt alien in England. It is my belief that much of India’s history was removed from India. I feel a personal debt to the country which gave so many of my family birth and infant nurture. I should like to return whatever I have, which is of historical significance, so they can be enjoyed in the place where they belong.”

One of Shore’s ancestors, Major Arthur Garrett of the Royal Engineers, was a keen astronomer. He was appointed assistant state engineer of the erstwhile Jaipur State by architect Samuel Swinton Jacob, who was director of the Public Works Department and built the iconic Albert Hall in central Jaipur. He was then given the task of restoring the Jantar Mantar built by Sawai Jai Singh in the early 18th century. Garrett, who is known for his books on irrigation and dams in India, commenced work in May 1901, completed it in February 1902 and restored the heritage site to largely what it is today.

After his maternal grandfather’s death, Shore received various family treasures, among which were Garrett’s drawing instruments. He travelled to Jaipur in 2016 to hand over the items to the director of Albert Hall Museum in Jaipur.

Shore says: “Our very first foray into returning objects to where they belong was to present the architectural drawing instruments in Jaipur. After that, we gave various military and veterinary items to the Army Remount Depot at Saharanpur. We now have more items that need to go back to India. One is a giant solid silver rose bowl inscribed with the officers’ names of the 35th Sikhs: its destination will be the Sikh Regiment, of course. Although presented by the Regiment to my great great uncle, its proper place is back in the Regiment he loved, having retired in 1910. The other, that just predates Independence, is a silver scale model of the ‘VB’ light machine gun, manufactured in Ishapore (West Bengal). The Small Arms Factory for India is still based there. Accompanying this are many photographs of the testing and proving of the gun for adoption by the Army.”

Married to Gujarat-origin Kshama, who was born in Tanzania, Shore adds that family and cultural interests draw him often to India, where he says he shouts at people for dropping litter and takes the management of tourist sites to task for service failures. He gave a speech in 2014 at Humayun’s tomb in New Delhi to the site’s workers and management on the importance of service delivery to national well-being.

Many British families keenly preserve possessions linked to their ancestors’ time in the colonies, but some hand over rare documents, items and artefacts for sale in auctions. For example, a vendor in Bristol was not aware of the value of Mahatma Gandhi’s glasses lying in a family drawer for nearly 50 years, but when offered in auction at a reserve price of £15,000 in August 2020, the pair of gold-plated circular glasses worn by Gandhi during his time in South Africa attracted so much interest that it was bought by a US-based collector for £260,000.

(Prasun Sonwalkar is a journalist based in London.)

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