Wednesday, November 5, 2014



            Chausseestrasse 125 in Berlin Mitte was the home of Helene Weigel, actress and Art Director of Berliner Ensemble, where she lived with her famous writer husband Bertold Brecht, from 1953 until her death in 1971. Her life is a fascinating story of courage, talent and determination. The guide who led us through this Memorial was so enthused with the lives of these two people that it left us hankering for more information.
            Helen Weigel was born in Vienna to Jewish parents. Her father Siegfried Weigel was the Accountant General of a textile factory and her mother Leopoldine Pollack, was the proprietor of a toy shop. Even at an early age, she showed her determination of becoming an actress. Much against her parents’ wishes, she started taking lessons in acting in 1917, and moved to Frankfurt. Helene was helped by Danish author Karin Michaelis to go on stage at 17. She acted for several years at the Frankfurt Theatre and Playhouse. She moved to Berlin in 1922, where she trained under Max Reinhardt, and worked at the Berlin State Theatre under the direction of Leopold Jessner.
            Helen was of short stature and her photographs show her as not so beautiful. But she had a deep and forceful voice that held her audience captive. She chose maternal roles like Mother, Mother Courage, Theresa Carair in Senora Carair’s Rifles and many others. These roles brought her fame as an actress.
            In 1928, she officially resigned from the Jewish community. She married the famous poet and playwright Bertold Brecht on April 10th, 1929, and performed in many of his plays.
She became a member of the communist party in 1930. Though Brecht was a believer in Marxism, he never really became a member. They were both opposed to Hitler and Nazism, and after the burning of the Reichstag in 1933, had to flee Germany. They were forced to spend fifteen years in exile in countries like Denmark, Sweden, Finland and finally in USA where they stayed for six years from 1941 to 1947. Helene couldn’t act during her years in exile but she continued with her voice and body exercises. Her German citizenship was cancelled in 1937, and Brecht’s in 1935.
            After the end of the war, Helene and Brecht returned to Berlin in 1949, via Zurich. Though Helene had reservations about East German totalitarianism, she was careful not to antagonize the party. So she was able to retain her position of Administrator and Director of the Berliner Ensemble till her death. Now Brecht was able to bring out his plays written in exile and have them played out on stage. The couple became prominent in German Theatre circles. Helene was able to produce and publish Brecht’s complete works as Director. She also acted in some of his famous plays.
            Though professionally they were a team, Helene had many challenges to battle. Brecht was a womanizer and his dalliance with various women brought about alienation in their marital relationship. While he stayed on the first floor of the house on Chausseestrasse, she moved to the second floor. They had a common kitchen on the ground floor. Brecht’s apartment has been retained as it used to be in his life time, with an assortment of tables, chairs and faded sofa sets, his typewriter, his writing implements and books. His bedroom and bed on which he breathed his last are also preserved. He died of a heart attack brought on by a viral infection in 1953. Helene continued to live in the same building till her death. She moved into a modest ground floor apartment overlooking a small garden. Her 2nd floor apartment was converted into the Bertold Brecht Archive which houses all her husband’s work. It was a labour of love. She was the executor of his estate.
            Helene was a philanthropist. She gave generously to orphanages and charities. She was known for her strength, energy, diplomacy and humour. She held open house for actors and friends and was an excellent cook. While in USA, she sent food packages to starving artists. Bertold Brecht commented on her modesty as an actress. “Never did she set out to show her own greatness but always the greatness of those she portrayed.”
            During her years in exile she was under surveillance of the FBI. She never lost her sense of humour and invited the FBI agent to come indoors from the cold so that he could observe her closely. She was also spied upon by the East German police.
            In 1950, she became the founding member of the German Academy of Arts. In 1954, she stood as a candidate for the SED party in parliamentary elections. Helene was awarded the National Prize of GDR in 1949, 1958 and 1960. She was bestowed the Patriotic Order of Merit in Silver, and also the Clara Zetkin medal.
            Helene was a chain smoker and suffered from lung cancer. In her last year of life she gave up smoking. But she died of multiple fractures sustained after acting for the last time in Paris. She died on May 6th, 1971, fifteen years after her husband’s death. Their house was open to the public in 1978. One is only permitted a guided tour to the first and ground floors.

            The couple is buried side by side in the neighboring Dorotheen Stadischer Friedhof, with simple rock headstones on which their names are engraved. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014


             Many people have been martyred for their faith. Some are well known, and people regularly pay homage to them as saints. Others like Queen Ketevan are almost forgotten.
Ketevan lived in the 17th century. She was queen of Kakheti in Eastern Georgia, by virtue of her marriage to Prince David I. Following his death in 1602, his brother Constantine I murdered his father Alexander II the reigning king, with the help of the Iranian Shah Abbas I of Persia. The brave queen rallied the Kakhetin nobles against Constantine’s forces and vanquished them.
            Shah Abbas I of Persia was a ruthless man. He was determined to wipe out Christianity from Eastern Georgia. Churches were razed to the ground, statues broken and crosses destroyed. Gold jewellery and precious stones were carried away for his queens and concubines. Almost 60,000 Georgians were slaughtered and many more, deported to Persia.
            In 1614, Queen Ketevan went to the Shah with two requests. One was to stop his forces from invading Kakheti and more importantly, to help enthrone her son who was underage, as king of Kakheti, while permitting her to function as regent.
            But instead of help, she was taken hostage and held captive in Shiraz for many years. He ordered her to renounce Christianity and convert to Islam because he wanted her in his harem. When Ketevan stubbornly refused to do so, she was subjected to horrendous torture. Burns were inflicted on her body by red hot irons. Finally after years of imprisonment, she was strangled to death with a bow string on 22nd September 1624.
            The St. Augustine Catholic missionaries witnessed her gruesome death.  Four months later, her body was exhumed. Part of her remains was interred in the Alaverdi Monastery in Georgia. The rest of it was carried to Goa in India, where it was preserved in a vault of black stone, in the church attached to the Augustinian monastery.
            The Augustinians abandoned the monastery in 1835, as Georgia withheld support to all religious groups. The church crumbled in 1931, leaving just a part of the church tower standing erect. In 1991, the Russian Embassy made a formal request to India for her remains, as there was renewed interest by the Church to give Queen Ketevan a proper burial in her own country. The Archaeological Survey of India got to work excavating the ruins of the Augustinian church and monastery. The relic hunt ended only in 2013, when a few bone fragments were unearthed from below the window of the church. Genotyping of the mitochondrial DNA of the fragments ruled out the possibility of them being of Indian origin. However, that particular DNA was common in people living around Georgia.
            Ketevan was canonized as a saint by the Georgian Orthodox Church. She was a fearless woman who showed the world that her religion was of incalculable value and was worth any sacrifice. Georgians celebrate her feast on the 13th of September every year.

Monday, March 17, 2014


Girona in N.E. Catalonia is famous for its association with the surrealist painter Salvador Dali. From Barcelona there are day trips to important museums in Girona depicting his life and work. But the Gala-Dali Castle in Pubol is special, as it was a gift to Dali’s wife and muse Gala.
When Dali bought this mediocre castle in 1969, it was a dilapidated structure with walls cracked and crumbling. The garden was overrun by thorns and bramble. Dali turned it into a beautiful palace for his wife, decorating it with painted frescoes and costly antiques. It was mutually agreed that he would not visit her there without her prior permission. Gala spent her summers in this castle between the years 1971-1980.
Gala was of Russian origin. Born Elena Dmitriovna Diakonova, she was a highly intelligent and intuitive woman. She grew up in Moscow, and though she lost her father at the age of eleven, her stepfather saw that she received a good education. She graduated with honours from the Brukhonenka Academy. Though there were many restrictions on women, she was able to give private tuitions and teach at a primary school with a special decree from the Czar.
Unfortunately, Gala contracted Tuberculosis in 1912 and had to be shifted to Clavadel Sanatorium in Switzerland, where she became romantically involved with a fellow patient Paul Eluard, a French poet. They were married in Paris in 1916. Eluard introduced her to many literary personalities and some artists of the surreal movement. Gala was a woman with an incredible sex drive. Even while married, she had an affair with Max Ernst who painted her portrait.
Salvador Dali met Gala and her husband in 1929, when he went to Paris to present a film he had made. He soon became friends with the couple and invited them over to spend summer with him at Cadaques. This was when he fell deeply in love with Gala, a married woman ten years his senior. Dali was just 25 years old when they met. In his diary he wrote, “She is destined to be my Gradiva, the one who moves forward my victory.” 

They started living together in 1934, and she became his muse and greatest inspiration all through his wildly eccentric life. Gala was the model for most of his portrait paintings, which are now in the Dali Museum at Figueres. Sometimes she was portrayed as a seductress, sometimes as a nun. Enigma of Desire, My Mother, Madonna of Port Lligat are some of the paintings that take one’s breath away.
Because of Dali’s eccentricities he was expelled from the surrealist movement in 1934. The couple spent eight years in the United States. But in 1948, they returned to Spain. They were married in 1958, in a Catholic ceremony at St. Angel’s Church in Girona, after living together for twenty four years. Spring and summer were spent in Spain, but in winter they shifted to Paris or the United States.
Theirs was a bizarre surreal relationship. Dali was aware of her many affairs. He even encouraged her flirtations as he was a practitioner of Candaulism – a sexual practice in which a man exposes his female partner or pictures of her to other people for their voyeuristic pleasure.
Even in her late 70s, she had a wild fling with a Rock Star Jeff Fenhoit. When she tired of him, she presented him with a Dali painting and a million-dollar house in Long Island.
            Gala was aware of Dali’s weak character, his vacillating moods and his megalomania. She took control of his life and his business affairs. There were rumours that she even turned him into a Valium addict. Towards the end, Dali began to despise her. But neither was he able to function without her.
            Gala died on June 10th 1982 at the age of 87. Dali outlived her by five years. But by then he was mentally unhinged. Gala is buried in the Pubol Castle grounds. The beautiful castle was opened to the public in 1996. It can be visited between March and December. It gives one an idea of the luxurious way she lived.
            Despite all his eccentricities, Salvador Dali was one of the greatest surreal artists of the 20th century. He has immortalized Gala through his many paintings and Castle Pubol is his monument of love.

Saturday, January 18, 2014


You may walk the length and breadth of Athens but you will never find the house where Agnodice lived nor will you find her last resting place. Modern Athens was rebuilt on an ancient city and Agnodice lived in the 4th century B.C. This has given rise to the belief that she is only a mythical figure. But whether her story is fact or fiction, it is something worth reading about. Her story was first documented by writer Hyginus in 1st century B.C.
            Agnodice always wanted to be a doctor. But women in Greece were prohibited from studying Medicine. So great was her ambition that she cut her hair and dressed like a man. Under this guise she was able to enroll under physician Herophilus in Alexandria. A brilliant student, she graduated with the highest marks in 350 B.C.
After completion of her medical studies, Agnodice returned to Athens and started her practice. Her popularity got her into trouble with other doctors, who said that “he” was seducing and corrupting married women. Women in those days, preferred to be treated by midwives rather than male doctors. Maternity and Infant mortality was very high. Moved by the pain of a woman in the throes of labour, Agnodice volunteered to treat her. But the woman refused, taking her for a male doctor. So Agnodice revealed herself as a woman by lifting up her skirts to show her female body.
Now women flocked to her for treatment. It made fellow doctors extremely jealous. They wanted her punished for deceit and false pretences. It was also against the law for a woman to practise medicine. The courts meted out the death sentence. But her loyal female patients including the wives of her accusers marched into court in her defence.
“You men are not spouses but enemies since you are condemning her, who discovered health for us,” they said.”If Agnodice is executed, then we will all die with her.”
So powerful and convincing was their defence that the court acquitted her. Soon the law prohibiting women from practising medicine was rescinded. Women were now free to become doctors.
            Whether Agnodice was a mythical figure or not, she has become a symbolic figure for female doctors even today.