The burden of the past

Walking through the Maharajas' palaces, where his grandparents had once lived as honoured guests, Konstantin Fritz enters the lost world of pre-Partition India in search of his grandfather's paintings and lost glory

Last week, a seven-member team finished filming a documentary on the life of Hannes Fritz-Munich, a German artist, who achieved prominence in the courtly circles of pre-Partition India. Tracing his footsteps was his 33-year-old grandson Konstantin Fritz, who grew up in Seeshaupt, a village half an hour south of Munich, "with the subcontinent in his head".


Hannes Fritz-Munich in front of his just-finished portrait of the Maharaja
of Morvi at Darbargadh Palace, Morvi, Gujarat in 1936. Pics courtesy:
Konstantin Fritz

Fritz and his director-producer Walter Steffen shot extensively across northern and western states of India, including Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat, searching for seven portraits that Fritz-Munich had painted of the rulers of those princely states. The duo was able to locate five of those paintings.

The film will be released at the Munich film festival in June, and Steffen hopes to show it in India at the Goa Film Festival. Talking of the impetus to make a film about Fritz-Munich, who stayed in India for several months at a stretch from 1932 to 1937, Steffen said, "I'd been searching for a good story to film in India, which I've been visiting since the 1990s. Then I heard the story of Fritz-Munich from his son, and I knew this was it."


Konstantin Fritz traced his grandfather Hannes Fritz-Munich's 1936
portrait of the Maharaja of Morvi, relocated to the New Palace in Morvi

Like the fairytale land of India, which Fritz-Munich and his dancer-wife, Editha Woelfl, lived in for a short time, the story of how they got here is part of the Fritz household's mythology. The painter, who was on his way to India for his honeymoon in 1932, met the Maharaja of Burdwan aboard the steamer.

One night, the Maharaja asked Fritz-Munich to draw a portrait, and finding no other surface to paint on, Fritz-Munich took a piece of charcoal and drew a "remarkable likeness" on the floor. Impressed, the Maharaja asked Fritz-Munich to visit him. Fritz-Munich's reputation as a court painter grew, as he was referred from one prince to another. Having a beautiful wife, who was a renowned dancer -- Editha performed four times at the Taj Mahal hotel -- helped too. Photos of the duo show an elegant couple consorting with the Indian elite of the 1930s.

Fritz was also a prolific photographer -- he took over 2,000 photographs and shot footages of more than two hours, which includes never-before-seen shots of Mahatma Gandhi. "When I grew up, I had all these names in my head: 'Patiala,' 'Mourvi', 'Udaipur', 'Bombay'. There were paintings at home too, of warriors of Udaipur, an album of all the portraits that my grandfather had made, and an elephant trunk and foot that my grandfather had procured from what was then Ceylon," said Fritz. "It was a fairytale world, which my grandmother would talk about with a smile on her face."

So what prompted Fritz-Munich to leave India? Perhaps a clue would come from Fritz-Munich's diary, where in an entry in 1937 he wrote, "I'm not well accepted at the courts." Soon after, Fritz-Munich left for Seeshaupt, where he bought a studio and settled with Editha. They spent the rest of their lives reminiscing about their glorious days in India, while Fritz-Munich painted soldiers, who would visit the village during the war. Fritz-Munich died in oblivion, and steeped in his past.

For his grandson, this film is perhaps a way to put the ghosts of the past to rest.

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