Frida Kahlo in a Sari

Submitted by Vijay Prashad on Thu, 05/11/2017 - 00:25
Frida Kahlo in a Sari


The Instagram account of Border & Fall carried a picture of Frida Kahlo in a sari flanked by two women. There was no comment there. The general reaction was: wow!

One of the women seemed familiar to me - she is to Frida Kahlo's left. It looked like a young Nayantara Sahgal, the writer who now lives in Dehra Dun. The other woman, on Kahlo's right, looked like Nayantara's sister Rita Dar.

Nayantara Sahgal and Rita Dar are the younger daughters of Vijayalakshmi Pandit - India's first ambassador to the USSR, the US and Mexico and then the United Nations (she was the sister of Jawaharlal Nehru). A nice introduction to Mrs. Pandit is in Manu Bhagavan's India the Quest for One World (Palgrave, 2013).

I wrote to Nayantara, asking her if this was indeed a picture of her with Frida Kahlo and her sister. Yes, she said, that is correct. 'I am on the right of the picture, my sister Rita on the left'.

In the early 1940s, Nayantara's entire family had been convulsed by the Indian freedom movement. Her parents were in prison. Even her elder sister  - Chandralekha - was in prison during the Quit India agitation in 1942. The British imperialist government told the Nehru-Pandit family that none of the children would be allowed to go to university unless they promised not to take part in politics. This was out of the question. At that time, Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling came to India with the express purpose of asking the imperialist government to allow the creation of an Indian national government. It would help the war effort, they argued. Madame Chiang - as Soong Mei-ling was known - had studied at Wellesley College. Madame Chiang contacted the authorities at Wellesley who accepted the sisters.

'I had just graduated from Wellesley College in the summer of 1947', Nayantara writes, when she went to Mexico for a visit. 'We visited Frida whom our host in Mexico knew'. Frida Kahlo, by 1947, was living in La Casa Azul, her childhood home. She suffered terribly from spinal problems, and usually wore corsets to help stabilize her back.


Frida in her corset


Nayantara and Rita visited Frida at her home. 'We put her in one of our saris and she loved it. Frida gave me two beautiful photos of herself, inscribed by her.'

Six years later, Frida Kahlo would die at the age of 47.


For more on Nayantara Sahgal's life, please see the biography by Ritu Menon: Out of Line: A Personal and Political Biography of Nayantara Sahgal (HarperCollins, 2014).

In the LeftWord Books volume edited by Githa Hariharan - From India to Palestine: Essays in Solidarity (, 2015), Nayantara has a very important essay.