Home >Lounge >Features >The search for Kolar’s gold

One rainy evening in the summer of 2018 in Cornwall, UK, Laura Garcia was watching a documentary about Indian music on the BBC, wondering if there was any link between this tiny part of England—with its distinctive culture and language—and India. Curious, she did a Google search. Garcia wasn’t expecting to find anything but after a few pages of inconclusive results, she stumbled upon a cursory mention of Cornish miners making their way to a small town in southern India to work in the country’s only gold fields in the early 20th century. The find kicked off an obsession for Garcia, a member of Cornishfolk band The Rowan Tree.

The history and movement of the Cornish diaspora is well documented but the stories of the miners who went to the Kolar Gold Fields (KGF), now in Karnataka, are not as well known as, say, the histories of those who went to Australia or Canada. Garcia found a small paragraph about the Kolar miners in a book titled The Cornish Overseas: A History Of Cornwall’s ‘Great Emigration’ by Philip Payton, which pays special attention to the mining community that made its way across the world between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, comprehensive as the book is, it had limited information about the miners who went to India. Garcia was intrigued enough to start digging deeper.

Slowly, with the help of newspaper archives in the UK that contained announcements of births, marriages and deaths among mining families in KGF and the oral histories of people she reached out to with links to KGF, Garcia started uncovering the history of over 300 families who had worked in the gold fields in the early 20th century.

Many of the stories came from Cornish people in their 80s and 90s who were born in Kolar and are scattered around the world today. “I am a musician and I really don’t know much about historical research. But something about this story intrigued me and I felt compelled to throw myself into it," Garcia tells Lounge over the phone from Cornwall.

This research has taken the shape of a unique mixed-media project called Kolar’s Gold, helmed by Garcia and her brother Tom Fosten, who is also a member of The Rowan Tree. For the project, the team has put together a number of resources, such as a still-developing list of names of the Cornish miners in Kolar, letters sent by them to their families in Cornwall, a compilation of songs and hymns popular in the community at the time, and stories about their lives in KGF sent by people with links to both Cornwall and Kolar. In 2019, the siblings travelled to KGF and Bengaluru to meet experts—among them people who have written books on the now-abandoned mines and the history of the mining town. With their help, they are now reconstructing the lives of the Cornish mining families who lived in this outpost of colonial India.

Garcia and Fosten were especially interested in finding out more about the music of KGF and recreating it. Music was a huge part of life there and their project will reflect that— with an album of new compositions, traditional Cornish and Indian folk music, songs, hymns and carols they have collected through interviews with those still living at KGF and others who have written in. “Most importantly, the music part of the project is a collaboration between us and musicians from the KGF area. It is very important to us that we tell all sides of this story and represent the different cultures that coexisted at KGF," says Garcia. One of the points of commonality, for instance, were brass bands—the Cornish were famous band-masters.

(from left) Venky DC, Gayatri Chandrashekar and Laura Garcia at Venky DC’s studio in Bengaluru
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(from left) Venky DC, Gayatri Chandrashekar and Laura Garcia at Venky DC’s studio in Bengaluru (Photo: Laura Garcia)

In a musical collaboration with composer and music producer Venky DC in Bengaluru, The Rowan Tree have created several original songs that take inspiration both from Cornish airs and Indian music. Several of these songs were recorded at Venky’s studio in the city—with a reimagining of traditional Cornish mining songs sung to the accompaniment of pipes, tin whistles and the fiddle, as well as beats from the tabla and plaintive strains of the flute. The songs speak of universal themes like leaving home, finding love in a distant land, and the precarious life of a miner.

Man Of Letters was inspired by a long, wonderfully evocative letter written in September 1935 by miner Roy Tamblyn about his new home, in KGF, to his family back in the UK, which was shared by his daughter Pauline with The Rowan Tree.

The project is truly collaborative—in one of the songs, a Carnatic vocalist’s voice rings out in the middle of a Cornish tune; the vocalist is Gayatri Chandrashekar, whose father-in-law was an engineer at one of the four main KGF mines. A former journalist with Doordarshan, Chandrashekar is also the author of a book about KGF’s glory days called Grit And Gold, which Garcia used extensively for her research, along with other, mostly self-published, books like R. Srikumar’s Kolar Gold Field: Unfolding The Untold and Bridget White-Kumar’s Kolar Gold Fields: Down Memory Lane.

The album cover of The Rowan Tree’s ‘Kolar’s Gold’
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The album cover of The Rowan Tree’s ‘Kolar’s Gold’

Another song in the Kolar’s Gold album, which has just been released in the UK, contains a refrain from the hymn Lead Kindly Light. The singer learnt it from her mother, who went to a school run by Anglo-Indians in KGF. There are many such deliberate overlaps in the music—an effort to integrate the two cultures which, Garcia admits, were probably quite segregated, despite living and working in close proximity. While nostalgic books about KGF’s history tend to overlook this aspect of life in the community, The Rowan Tree and Garcia are mindful of it.

One of the collected stories reflects this accurately. “The story of Mr Jolly is an intriguing one. He allegedly committed a vicious crime against one of his servants and despite being acquitted, it is impossible to know whether he was in fact innocent, or whether being a wealthy European of higher social standing meant that he was more likely to be believed over his Indian servant," says Garcia.

She read about the incident in a report of the trial in a Cornish newspaper: “Mr Jolly was having dinner with his friend Mr Jackman, a fellow miner, when his servant cleared away his plate before Mr Jolly had finished eating. Mr Jolly became angry with the servant and then complained that he had also been given a dirty napkin. The servant replied that he had only been given one napkin for the whole week and had been given no soap to wash it. Jolly grabbed a table knife and stabbed the servant in the throat, causing a wound that was 2 inches long and an inch deep. The servant ran away, but collapsed, bleeding outside the Assay office. A Butler was passing and helped the servant to the police station and he was then taken to hospital. The servant of Mr Jackman confirmed this version of events when interviewed by the police."

Colonialism, racial tensions, bigotry—they are all a part of the KGF story, though most of what people remember today is viewed through the forgiving lens of nostalgia. Today, KGF is practically a ghost town, with its abandoned mines, crumbling colonial-style clubhouses and colonies of former workers reduced to living in slums, two decades after the mines shut down. But Kolar town, which came up around the mines, is bustling, and indistinguishable from hundreds of other small towns in Karnataka.

Even as there is talk of reviving the gold mines—the Union government asked the state to look into this in 2018—the prospect seems remote. The state would have to bear losses to restart Bharat Gold Mines Ltd, the public sector undertaking which took over the mines when the British firm running it left in 1956.

KGF and its unique culture will probably live on only in the oral histories of people around the world who still trace part of their identity to India’s lone gold mine.

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