The family name is the entry point. When Namrita Bachchan shyly holds out a rather slim hand as she apologises for being late, you remind yourself of the name.
A few minutes later, you’ve forgotten about it. The world of Amitabh Bachchan’s petite 33-year-old niece — who recently launched her coffee-table book of illustrations of her late grandfather Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s poetry in Delhi — is shorn of any grandeur. The conversation is easy as it ensues over a stroll and the works displayed in the art gallery are gentle and contained.
This second daughter of Amitabh’s brother Ajitabh is a poet-artist. “I always wanted to be one,” she says, her eyes luminous.
When she was ten, the family moved to Switzerland for eight years. After that, she got a degree in painting and art history in England and one in graphic design in New York.
She then moved back to Mumbai, and worked as a graphic artist for Neville Tuli’s Osian. She held her first solo show in 2004, and in 2006, she came out with Deliverance, her first book of illustrated poetry.
Her next — and most recent — work, Madhushala (with a foreword by her famous uncle) is an engagement with her grandfather ’s poetry, “written when he was around my age.” She looked to connect with his world, which was about “incompleteness and longing, something unresolved. It uses the metaphor of wine to talk about spiritual intoxication.”
Father Ajitabh explains, “When Namrita came back to India, she saw both her grandparents pass away. She wanted to do something involving the family’s history. This book is her effort to deal with her family’s legacy.”
The artist explains her approach to the work: “Apart from the commonality of experience, I tried to interpret it as independently as I could. Like the poem on a burial ground, that I illustrated through a Christian cemetery — that was, I guess, my Western education coming in.”
Mumbai-based artist Bose Krishnamachari, who has followed Namrita’s work, remembers of his interaction with her in 1999 in London: “She was never very outgoing and the famous surname followed much later. I always knew her as Namrita.” He likes the collage form and the motifs she uses in her work and says, “She’s a talented and dedicated artist.”
In Mumbai, Namrita has mostly lived alone. First, in Mumbai’s downtown Churchgate area, taking the local trains to work. Now in suburban Bandra, in a studio apartment minus a television or landline, with two stray cats for company. “A self- absorbed bubble” is how she puts it.
“She’s a shy girl, happy to just sit quietly and express herself through painting and writing poetry,” is how her father sees it. “My public life is contained in little outbursts,” she remarks. One of those came in 2007, when she came together with “cousin Abhishek and his wife” to paint for a charity event. “It was a statement on the idea of unity,” she explains.
Media-shy as she is, what’s her take on the incessant scrutiny of her family, on the ‘Abhi-Ash’ phenomenon? “She’s the most beautiful woman in the world, on celluloid, supposedly. He’s the son of his father. It’s a fairytale union. And people love love stories, though I don’t know why people love love so much,” she muses.
How does she reconcile their disparate worlds? “I’m not a celebrity and I don’t like being judgemental,” she begins, then adds, “Abhishek has a heart of gold.” And continues, “Everyone is doing their job. Theirs includes and requires the arc lights of the public sphere, mine doesn’t. Everyone is super busy but we are close as a family.” She smiles, clearly not wanting to say more.
The famous Bachchan diplomacy, you think. There had to be something besides the name, after all.