Gopal Bhardwaj: The archivist of Mussoorie

From Jim Corbett’s original negatives to photographs of the time when Landour came into being, Gopal Bhardwaj is compiling his rare images into a book


Gopal Bhardwaj. Photographs: Courtesy Gopal Bhardwaj
Gopal Bhardwaj. Photographs: Courtesy Gopal Bhardwaj

I have been asked to keep a lookout for Hawaghar on Camel’s Back Road in Mussoorie. And indeed, within 5 minutes, I chance upon a pavilion with a shelter-like structure built on it. A dilapidated sign feebly announces this as Hawaghar. A couple of benches lie under the white canopy, which in the days of the Raj must have been a beautiful, imposing structure. Like everything in Mussoorie, this too carries a whiff of the days gone by. Built in 1845, it used to be frequented by British officers and their families to enjoy the breathtaking views of the Himalayas. Today, tourists, walking along the road settle down on one of the benches for a brief respite and a cup of tea, oblivious of the history of the structure. “Some years back, it was going to be demolished to make way for a new structure. It’s only when my family and I protested that it was stopped,” says Gopal Bhardwaj, who lives in the lane below Hawaghar.

As we walk down the winding path leading to his house, he tells me about the days when the structure used to be known as Scandal Point. Bhardwaj has taken on the role of a repository of sorts, of Mussoorie’s myths, legends and histories. As we settle in the dining room, which overlooks the mountains and the yawning valley below, Bhardwaj shows me his mammoth collection of more than 200 photographs, maps and lithographs, most dating back to the 1800s—some of which were passed on to him by his father, Rajguru Rishi Bhardwaj, whose British-era cottage lies just below the one we are seated in. A famous astrologer, whose home was known as International Astrological home by the old-timers, he used to be consulted by the likes of Motilal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. He is believed to have told the former that his granddaughter, Indira, would achieve “unparalleled greatness, more than even 12 boys combined”. “Mahatma Gandhi used to stay at Birla House during his visits to Mussoorie and would always send a hand-pulled cart for my father,” says Bhardwaj.

Jawaharlal Nehru in Mussoorie
Jawaharlal Nehru in Mussoorie

He is now planning a book, featuring a compilation of these images, to be brought out next year to mark 175 years of the Nagar Palika—the oldest municipal corporation in India. “It will be titled Pictorial History Of Mussoorie,” he says. For 30 years, he has been trying to add to the collection by sourcing rare images from museums, private archives, libraries, friends and well-wishers. However, the richest source of such photographs has been the second-hand bookstores and kabadiwalas (scrap dealers) in Dehradun, Mussoorie and Delhi. “Just yesterday, I got one photo from a kabadiwala of a British lady coming up from Rajpur Road. Also, a lot of my friends have helped me. Mark Windsor, a teacher of science at Woodstock School, had put up an exhibition, Mussoorie Then And Now, and he gave me a lot of images from that before shifting to Nigeria,” he says.

Jim Corbett’s album of negatives
Jim Corbett’s album of negatives

I ask Bhardwaj what it is that drives him to embark on these long, and often arduous, journeys to the by-lanes of cities like Delhi and Kolkata, looking for lost images. “I was born in Mussoorie. This is where I have spent my whole life. I want to give the next generation an exact idea about the hill station: why was it set up, the daily life back in the days of the Raj, the personalities associated with Mussoorie, and more. I have spent all my money doing this, but it’s worth it,” says the 65-year-old.

As one looks at the assortment of images, it’s easy to be transported back to the 1800s when Landour Bazaar first came into existence or when Col George Everest—after whom Mount Everest is named—set up his laboratory and residence at the Park Estate, near Hathipaon. Bhardwaj shows me an image of Mullingar, one of the first houses built in Mussoorie by Captain Young, hardly recognizable today. There is a beautiful rose-coloured album from the 1860s and another one from the 1920s. Next is a rare 1945 image of Mussoorie steeped in 9ft-deep snow. “I have one from 1845 that shows a record 15ft-deep snow,” he says. What immediately gets my attention is a set of original negatives, which belonged to Jim Corbett. “His father used to be the postmaster in Mussoorie, before migrating to Nainital. But, Jim used to come here to visit his aunt. In fact, he had kept a pet tigress, Diana, at her home,” says Bhardwaj, as he whips out a photo of the tawny tiger. Besides the negatives, he also has a stove, pressure cooker and hunting dagger that belonged to Corbett.

Jim Corbett’s pet tiger, Diana
Jim Corbett’s pet tiger, Diana

Also interesting is The Scrapbook Of An Englishman, from 1822, which features quaint and quirky memorabilia that a British traveller collected during his stay in London and Mussoorie. “He put in whatever struck him as interesting. So, there is an entry ticket to a Guild Hall concert from 1929 and beautiful set of lithographs of Shakespeare and Julius Caesar. The scrapbook has a Gilling & Alford 1822 watermark and has been covered in fish skin to make it waterproof,” he explains. An 1814 wall-carpet of Major General Sir Rollo Gillespie of the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars and a fragment of a cannon ball from the Anglo-Gorkha War of Khalanga (1814) also form a part of his collection of artefacts and images. But it’s when he asks me to hold the first ever map of the Sanatorium of Landour and Mussoorie from 1842 by Major William Brown, which is now the Institute of Technology Management of the DRDO, that I am really struck into silence by the sheer rarity and historicity of the object. Back then, there were barely 22 houses in this pristine town and the names of the owners are mentioned in the map.

Three British children with their domestic help
Three British children with their domestic help

We get back to the photos: images of road signs that were forged in Agra and brought here; of pine trees planted by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1870, which are still flourishing in Lal Tibba; of mehfils (musical soirees) attended by Indian noblemen and British officers; and a series of images of important personages and everyday life taken by photographic artist T.A. Rust.

In the past, several authors and historians have tapped into his vast knowledge of Mussoorie’s history and collection of photos. In fact, it is in this context that I first came across a mention of Bhardwaj. An article, which had appeared in The Tribune in 2011, stated that Dr Dmitry E. Chelyshev, an envoy from the embassy of Russia, had enlisted Bhardwaj’s help to trace the literary legacy of the famous traveller-artist, Grand Duke Alexei Saltykov, who is believed to have visited the town in 1842 and had authored a book, Letters From India. The father-daughter duo of Virgil Miedema and Stephanie Spaid Miedema too got in touch with Bhardwaj for their book, Mussoorie And Landour: Footprints Of The Past. “He had a lovely photo of the Union Jack flying from a church in Mussoorie on the coronation day of King George VI. We have used that in our book. Gopal’s collection is quite historic. We had been talking to him about a collaboration, but it didn’t work out because of the distance factor,” says Virgil, who is now based in the US.

Hand-drawn carts on Mall Road.
Hand-drawn carts on Mall Road.

While chatting with Bhardwaj, it’s very easy to get transported back to the sepia-toned era of the British Raj when the ballrooms of the Savoy and Hackman’s would be full of British officers and their wives. “This was a real hill station back then—so clean and safe. One couldn’t break any laws here. If you would spit or scribble, you would be punished with lashes,” recalls Bhardwaj. Those who kept dogs and servants had to pay a special tax; residents were not allowed to hang their clothes on the side of the house that faced the mall road. “No vehicles could enter the mall road. When Pandit Nehru visited Mussoorie after Independence, the city board president decided to make an exception and allow his car to enter. But Nehruji refused. He said, your law states no car can enter the mall road, so I will go on a horse,” he reminisces. “The Nehru family started coming to Mussoorie 1906 onwards when Motilal Nehru needed to recuperate from an illness. Rajendra Prasad, an asthmatic, would also come here for health reasons.” Rudyard Kipling, Anita Desai, Rahul Sankrityayan, Tanuja, O.P. Nayyar, Asha Bhosle, Prem Nath: he rattles off the names of people who were frequent visitors to the hill station, some making it their home. “We were huge fans of James Bond films. So, we used to think that Ruskin Bond was related to him,” laughs Bhardwaj. “My wife, who is an educationist, knows him very well now. He is such a down-to-earth and simple man.”

This was also the chosen place to keep prisoners and exiles. “Maharajah Duleep Singh was kept by the British in Mussoorie during the summers,” he says. In 1841, Amir Dost Mohammad Khan, the king of Afghanistan, was brought here as prisoner of war, and installed in Bala Hissar, which now houses the Allen Memorial School. In the days of yore, Mussoorie was also known for its breweries, with beer and whiskies, which were taken from here in bulk to army cantonments. “Mirza Ghalib used to order his stock of whiskey from Mussoorie,” he chuckles.

I ask him how he manages to keep his memorabilia and photos in such good condition. “I do whatever I can and to the best of my knowledge. I have been entreating the government to allocate a space in the City Hall where the collection can be preserved. But I have had no luck so far,” he says.

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