Tea with Lord Mountbatten

Tea with Lord Mountbatten

It was a typical grey November day in London in 1976, when I stepped out to meet Lord Mountbatten at his apartment where he had invited me, two days prior to my exhibition at India House London that he was to inaugurate.
I had had a long talk with Ambassador B. K. Nehru the previous day, discussing the protocol and programme to be followed for the event. He had informed me that owing to a political slip-up years ago, Mountbatten, who was the Official Patron of India House, had not visited the premises for about decades. Both B. K. Nehru and Natwar Singh, who was the Cultural Head at the time, were extremely happy that my exhibition was to bridge this gap, at last. So they planned to go all out to make this a really big occasion.
My husband and I were driven to Mountbatten’s apartment in the Embassy car and was shown in by a major domo in a black suit.
The living room was not very large and the furniture was covered in smoky blue-grey dust sheets. I thought it somehow reflected the overcast sky outside! Apparently, Mountbatten had arrived there only the previous night.
He had not yet made his appearance, and we were requested to be seated. So we sat down.
It immediately occurred to me that this was a bad idea. Do we rise when the host comes in? A lady never rises— especially one in my position— the cardinal rule of the day. And yet, Mountbatten’s position was such that one was expected to stand up and acknowledge his entrance.
In a trice, I had solved the problem. I stood, intently examining an oil painting that was hung on the opposite wall. This way I need not rise!
I had not long to wait. I was aware of the door opening a crack, and Mountbatten behind it taking stock of us! I pretended I was totally unaware of this, absorbed as I was of the painting.
The next minute Mountbatten came in. “Ah, I see you also admire Romney,” he said, genially. I turned to greet him, and he shook hands warmly.
He was tall and impressive, and his presence seemed to fill the room.
“Won’t you sit down ?” he asked, “I can’t, until you do.”
The ice was broken and we spent most part of the morning and early afternoon in conversation, over cups of tea and biscuits a server brought. He remembered my grandmother and spoke of his great admiration of her personality as well as her administrative capacity.
“Did you know” he asked me, “the opening of your exhibition is scheduled exactly at the same time as the Queen’s Garden Party and also the Miss World Contest. However, I have opted for your event. I am looking forward to it.”
In the course of conversation he told me, “I only come to this apartment for specific work. You must come to Broadlands, my place in the country.”
A photograph of this “place” revealed a sprawling manor with well manicured lawns.
“I heard you ride,” he said, “would you like to take part in the fox hunt? I will arrange it if you can be here during the season. I leave in four days. It would be a pleasure to have you and your husband travel with me back to my country home in Hampshire.”
That was one invitation I was extremely disappointed in being unable to accept since our flight back to India was booked for, two days after the exhibition.
This meeting proved to be pivotal in my career, serving to considerably enlarge the circle of recognition of my works.
At the exhibition he was much taken up by the painting I had done of a young boy lounging against a temple pillar. “Reminds me very much of a Romney,” he complimented. Afterwards, he sent word whether he could have it , but by then someone had already purchased it.
I continued corresponding with him after I returned to India for the next three years.
He was planning to arrive in Bangalore in September 1979, accompanied by Prince Charles. It was arranged that he would sit for me for three days, an hour at a time, for his portrait. He wished to be painted in Indian attire, complete with ornate turban and close coat— very princely !
I had prepared the canvas and already done the initial work from a photograph. The clothing would be worked later. However, I wanted real life reference for the skin tones, for which purpose he would sit at intervals of fifteen to twenty minutes, for a total of an hour a day.
All plans proceeded well. I had a communication from him early in August confirming his visit.
But fate had a terrible twist in store.
A month before he was to arrive in India— Delhi was to be his first halt — the shocking news hit the headlines. It was August 27, 1979. He , together with his young nephew Nicholas and another boy were victims of a dastardly assassination plot, in a boating accident!
It was shattering news to me. It took me a while to recover from it.
The meeting with Mountbatten was one of the memories of the past that is etched in my mind. He was a gracious man with a keen sense of humour and a great penchant for art and culture. His personality was as colourful as was his term as the last Viceroy of India.

Rukmini Varma

Rukmini Varma is a leading Indian artist who paints in the classical tradition.