Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in India on Thursday for the annual India-Russia bilateral summit that has been taking place since 2000 alternately in Moscow and New Delhi. As such, it is a good time to take a look at the close ties between the two countries.
From cultural connections to strategic partnerships in defence, space and atomic energy, India and Russia share a relationship centred around mutual respect and goodwill. In fact, it won’t be an overstatement to say that Russia, more than any other country, has stood by India through all kinds of geopolitical upheavals.
While most Indians are aware of this long-standing friendship, few know of the time when top Soviet leaders visited the Nilgiris and were left impressed by a talented Ooty barber!
The year was 1955. Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin and the then Communist Party Secretary Nikita Khrushchev arrived in India on November for the first official visit of Soviet leaders after Independence. It was also the first time since the start of the Cold War that Soviet leaders were visiting a developing country that was not socialist.
Welcomed in India with much fanfare, the arrival of the Russian dignitaries at Delhi’s Palam airport saw excited crowds that far exceeded the expectations of the authorities. Exuberant crowds indeed became the hallmark of duo’s entire journey across the country. Interestingly, the apogee of this trend was reached in Kolkata.
In PM Nehru’s own words, the gathering of nearly two million people that welcomed Bulganin and Khrushchev in Calcutta’s famous maidan was the “largest anywhere in the world”. Little wonder the open car carrying the Soviet leaders broke down. Unfortunately, so did General Serov — the KGB chief accompanying them.
Panicking at the sight of the crowds surging towards his leaders, Serov demanded that the troops be called out to fire upon the unruly hordes. He had to be restrained while Bulganin and Khrushchev were packed into a police van and taken to the Raj Bhawan!
That said, the Russian duo’s momentous visit to Punjab, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata heralded a new era of cooperation between the two countries.
However, it was their sojourn through smaller towns and hamlets that left an indelible mark in the hearts of the residents.
For instance, when travelling through Tamil Nadu, Khrushchev and Bulganin visited the village of Vadamadurai near Coimbatore. It was here that Bulganin stopped at a local farm to sip tender coconut. Even today the place is called ‘Bulganin thottam’ by the locals!
The duo then visited the Nilgiris where they sought the services of Ooty’s most famous barber, N. Varadhan.
One of the most prominent citizens of the picturesque hill station, Varadhan had a deft hand with the scissors and a knack for making people comfortable. It was also widely acknowledged by many that the genial barber’s head massage was an experience by itself. In fact, back then, Varadhan’s humble hair saloon was part of picnic tours offered to tourists visiting the hill station!
As for his dealings with the Soviet leaders, a 2003 report in The Hindu describes the fascinating anecdote:
“The proudest moment of Varadhan’s life came in November 1955, when he was brought in a car to the Raj Bhavan here to attend to the tonsorial needs of the then Soviet Prime Minister, Nikolai Bulganin, and the then chief of the Communist party of Russia, Nikita Khrushchev. For meeting their requirements satisfactorily and seven others of the Russian party, Varadhan was given a hundred rupees.”
A man who did his job with the flair of an artist, Varadhan left quite an impression on the Russian dignitaries. With time, he would also find fans in MGR, Sheikh Abdullah, and Dilip Kumar.
As for the Soviet entourage, Bulganin and Khrushchev stayed in the Nilgiris only for a couple of days but left behind quite an impression of their own.
“Those leaders may never have known how much of an impact their trip had in the Nilgiris for more than a generation. There was a lot of demand for Tamil translations of Chekhov’s and Pushkin’s works. Even in the early 1980s, when the song Rasputin by Boney M became popular in Ooty, many people associated it with Khrushchev and Bulganin”, former Tamil Nadu bureaucrat V Raghavan told Russia Beyond.
At a time when visits of foreign leaders last hardly more than a day or two, one has to appreciate the time and effort put aside by the Soviet leaders to reach out to India. Little wonder, three decades later, it would be termed by the Los Angeles Times as “a watershed for the Soviet Union’s relations with India and, in fact, with the rest of the developing world.”
(Edited By Vinayak Hegde)