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A Special Tribute

Jean Claude Carriere: A writer for all directors

Ratnottama Sengupta pays a homage during the 27th Kolkata Film Festival to Jean Claude Carriere, the legendary screenwriter of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, first performed on stage in 1985 and then released as a film

Jean Claude Carriere (1931-2021). Courtesy: Creative Commons

A Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for someone decorated with a Padmashri? One easily understands the Oscar when you spell out that the awardee had written the screenplay of a hundred and more films for the Who’s Who of World Cinema – starting with Luis Bunuel, and going on to Volker Schloendorff, Milos Forman, Pierre Etaix, Jacques Tati, Andrzej Wajda, Nagisa Oshima, Louis Malle, Abbas Kiarostami, Philip Kaufman, Jean Paul Rappaneu, Jacques Deray… not necessarily in that order. The Padmashri also falls in place the minute you hear it was for the writer of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. Indeed, how many names have bridged the inner core of two extreme cultures of the East and the West, so smoothly as Jean Claude Carriere?

This French writer-actor’s equation with the land of Kauravas and Pandavas was way beyond that of any tourist who may’ve visited India twenty-five times.  For, this was the man theatre legend Peter Brook had zeroed in on to play his Ganesha. Meaning, act in the play? No, he was to write the nine-hour magnum opus that would ensue after sunset and end at sunrise at the theatre annual that identifies Avignon in France. Who could’ve imagined his interpretation that the five sons sired by different deities — Yama, Vayu, Indra, the Ashvins — could be cast as men from different races, leading to Yudhistira being blonde and Bhima an African? This, remember, was three years before Doordarshan started airing the B R Chopra epic that continues to enthral.

A scene from Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. Courtesy: Creative Commons

But why am I comparing Carriere – whom I had the good fortune to meet on one of his visits to Delhi – to Ganesha? Simple: Siddhi Vinayak, the God of Fulfilment, was the ‘scribe’ Vyasa approached to pen down his magnum opus – and he laid the condition that Vyasa should not pause in his narration of the events even once. Vyasa agreed on the condition that Ganesha would not pen down the words without comprehending their depth, their emotion, their implication… Carriere had done just that for Peter Brook.  And the mythology had stayed within the writer. Hence, three decades later, he wrote a lyrical text for Sujata Bajaj when the Paris-based Indian artist from Kolkata exhibited her iridescent body of work titled Ganapati.

At least eight years of reading and researching had gone into Mahabharata, 1974 onwards, before Carriere’s forays to India started in 1982. And four years later, it mesmerised viewers in the desolate quarry outside Avignon. For the two following years, the play was performed in French and English, it toured the world for four years, it was adapted for television as a six-hour series, it was shortened to a three-half hour film screened in India, Carriere wrote Battlefield based on it, and published a book sketching his India tours… The 25 actors seen in Avignon 1987 came from 16 countries – and the only Indian was Mallika Sarabhai who played Draupadi!

“I compare India to Draupadi in the dice game – she keeps unfolding,” Carriere famously said later. Elsewhere he said he felt that India was a mansion where one room leads to another, that to yet another, and that to some more rooms… In India, Carriere observed a unique continuity since the antiquity now lost in time — one he did not find in either Greece or Egypt. That is distilled in the book, In Search of the Mahabharata that chronicles the three initial years of his journeys in diary-like jottings and numerous sketches. “They have more immediacy, more intimacy, greater feeling than camera,” he told the book’s Delhi-based translator, Aruna Vasudev.

Carriere of course was a seasoned hand at adaptation. Long before the curtain fell on his 91 years, he had adapted the German novelist Gunter Grass (The Tin Drum, 1979) and French Marcel Proust (Swann in Love, 1984) for Volker Shloendorf; the Russian Dostoevsky for the Polish Andrzej Wajda (The Possessed, 1988), the French journalist Joseph Kessel (Belle de Jour, 1967) and French poet Pierre Louys (That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977) for the Spanish Bunuel, French dramatist Edmond Rostand (Cyrano de Bergerac, 1990) for Jean-Paul Rappaneu, Czech Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1988) for the American Philip Kaufman… And what was the key to this success? It lay in Carriere’s belief that “a scenario is created when you and the director establish a near telepathic communication. This requires on both sides a receptiveness and a trust which can never be taken for granted. The writer must submerge his ego since, ultimately, it is the director’s film and you are there only to facilitate him.”

My first experience of this ‘facilitating’ was Happy Anniversary (1962) that won director Pierre Etaix – who co-produced it with writer Carriere – the Oscar for Best Short. Half-a-century after its viewing the 15-minute short remains vividly etched in memory. A woman is preparing a romantic dinner to celebrate their wedding anniversary while the husband is running around and making stops to pick up gifts for his wife. But the Paris traffic is against him, and by the time he reaches home the flowers for his wife have wilted, and his drunken wife has finished dinner and fallen asleep. What a captivating comment on urban realities!

Carriere’s most abiding partnership — his 20-year-tie with Buñuel – had started in 1963 when the Spanish director was looking for a French co-writer to adapt The Diary of a Chambermaid by Octave Mirbeau. The maid who exposes the sexual, religious and social repressions of the middle class provincial French families set the keynote – social satire – that Buñuel would repeat in Belle de Jour. Its erotic narrative with subversive wit exposed bourgeoise hypocrisy through a respectable doctor’s wife who enjoys her afternoons as an inmate of a high-class brothel. Buñuel’s absurdist humour not only alerts viewers to the failings of the French bourgeoisie, but it also sets the tone for his constant anti-establishment ire. In The Milky Way (1968), two tramps set off from Paris to make a pilgrimage to a Spanish shrine and on the way meet characters who expound on the six central ‘mysteries’ of Catholic dogma. Another amusing anti-clergy film, it reveals Buñuel’s target shifts from the church to the military, to the state — that is, only within the different faces of establishment. This influenced Carriere to later state, “In art a certain anti-conformism is necessary.”

Jean Claude Carriere was a remarkable storyteller, it is clear, just as it is that he had no dogma. Effortlessly he could move from one world to another. One of ideals and spirituality, to that of warfare and political spoils. As one reviewer noted, “he had the knack of entering the dream world not on the wings of some abstract imagination but on the legs of reality – with absolute groundedness.”

Carrier knew what he wrote was not for publishing, it was written not to be read but to be transformed into a film. He is known to have said: “If you want fame, and a beautiful statue made of yourself, don’t be a screenwriter. The writer disappears. He works in the shade.” It was absolutely essential to be forgotten. His art exemplified this, though not the writer who also acted in some films. He knew, if not forgotten, very often screenwriters are ignored. That is why, in his Honorary Oscar acceptance speech in 2014, he expressed his happiness that such an award was given to a screenwriter. For, “they are like shadows passing through the history of cinema. Their names do not appear in reviews, but still they are filmmakers,” he asserted sharing his Oscar with screen writers around the world.

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.

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Categories
A Special Tribute

Born to be Wild…

We share the planet with creatures great and small. To commemorate the World Wild Life Day, we present to you a selection of non-fiction, stories and poems around the fauna and its conservation

Poetry

Vanilla Gorilla by Rhys Hughes. Click here to read.

Animal Limericks by Michael Burch. Click here to read.

A translation of Tagore’s Amar Shonar Horin Chai (I want the Golden Deer), set against the backdrop of the woods in Ramayana. Click here to read.

Prose

One Small Ancient Tale

Rabindranath Tagore’s Ekti Khudro Puraton Golpo (One Small Ancient Tale) from his collection Golpo Guchcho (literally, a bunch of stories) has been translated by Nishat Atiya. The story centres around birds in wilderness. Click here to read.

Forsaking Distant Hemispheres for the Immediate Locale

Meredith Stephens introduces us to the varied fauna (ranging from seals to monitors) found in South Australia with vivid photographs. Click here to read.

Navigational Error

Luke P.G. Draper explores the impact of pollution on whales with a short compelling narrative. Click here to read.

Memory Gongs

Rhys Hughes creates a legend with wild elephants. Click here to read.

Categories
A Special Tribute

The “New World” of Jibananda Das

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

Jibananada Das (1899-1954) was born on 16th of February in a united Bengal under the colonial regime. During his life, Das wrote beautiful poetry, novels, essays and more. He believed: “Poetry and life are two different outpouring of the same thing; life as we usually conceive it contains what we normally accept as reality, but the spectacle of this incoherent and disorderly life can satisfy neither the poet’s talent nor the reader’s imagination … poetry does not contain a complete reconstruction of what we call reality; we have entered a new world.” To try to position any poet or writer in a pantheon as the best or second or third best is unfair to his art. And therefore, on his birth anniversary let us revel in his poetry and share some of the best translations of his poetry to English, along with an essay by an academic who shows how his poetry was influenced by the political ambience of the times. There is so much more to his poetry in Bengali that it can only be savoured as excellent translations in an Anglophone world. The flow and the images are beautiful, often like a painting of the Bengal he lived in…

Translations of Jibananda Das’s poems

By Fakrul Alam

Banalata Sen Poems. Click here to read.

One Day in the Fog. Click here to read.

If Life were Eternal. Click here to read.

I Will Sleep & Arghayan’s Wintry Wilderness. Click here to read both.

By Rakibul Hasan Khan

Motorcar. Click here to read.

Essay

‘What remains is darkness and facing me – Banalata Sen!’

Rakibul Hasan Khan explores death and darkness in Fakrul Alam’s translation of Jibanananda Das’s poetry. Click here to read.

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A Special Tribute

Gandhi & Our Future

Bapu or Gandhi (2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948) on India’s currency. Courtesy: Creative commons

Gandhi with his call to combat violence and hatred with non- violence and truth is perhaps a voice that needs to be  recalled out of history books on dusty shelves. His ideals cry out to be retrieved beyond the reach of currency notes, statues, buildings, names of parks and roads. Like Tagore, we may not agree with all his ideas but he put together an ideology which, perhaps, could be realised and implemented to make a better world across borders. If peace is forced by nuclear warheads and the ruthless are allowed a field day to govern any country because they have the might, perhaps it is time to question the efficacy of manmade constructs created through history, especially after the Second World War. Do we want bloodshed, chaos and the pandemic to be part of our daily news? Or, can we explore the philosophy of a man who mingled the best from the East and the West to create a system which has impacted many across the world? Leaders and great statesmen learnt from him — Martin Luther King Junior, Nelson Mandela, Al Gore, Barack Obama, John Lennon and Albert Einstein to name a few — just as he had learnt from greats across the world. 

Today, in an attempt to recall the best in Gandhi’s philosophy, we wanted to present to you a selection that tries to connect us with his ideals — give a glimpse of his dreams that might have led to a better world if we only had listened and acted. Of the pieces we are showcasing here, some have painted a world that needs a Gandhi while others have written what they imbibed from his ideals into their own lives. Can we ride on the crescendo with these voices to achieve a better future for our children by embedding and internalising his values?

Interview

Santosh Bakaya interviews Tushar Gandhi, great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. Click here to read.

Poetry

Gandhi & the Robot

A poem relooking at Gandhi’s ideology in the present context, written in Manipuri by Thangjam Ibopishak and translated by Robin S Ngangom. Click here to read.

A Poem for Dreamers

Michael R Burch wrote this poem under the spell of the famed “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Junior, an ardent practitioner of  Gandhi’s ideology, a student and disciple of the Mahatma. Click here to read.

Fiction

In Bapu, Denied, Sunil Sharma pulls Gandhi down from a pedestal and explores his ideals in the current world. Click here to read.

Non-Fiction

What Gandhi Teaches Me

Candice Louisa Daquin applies Gandhiism to her own lived experiences. Click here to read.

When West meets East, Greatness Blooms

From our treasury, Debraj Mookerjee reflects on how syncretism impacts greats like Gandhi, Tagore, Tolstoy, Emerson, Martin Luther King Jr and many more. Click here to read.

Categories
A Special Tribute

In Conversation with Tushar Gandhi

Santosh Bakaya interviews Tushar Gandhi, the great grandson of Bapu, after paying a brief tribute to the Mahatma

Gandhi (1869-1948) was assassinated on January 30th 1948. This was one of the last photos of him – sometime in 1947 when both, Gandhi and Nehru, apparently were appalled and concerned about the carnage resulting from the separation of India and Pakistan. This photo was published in Newsweek, Aug. 4, 1997. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Before I begin the interview, I would like to pay a small tribute to the great Bapu, the unarmed fighter, the environmentalist, the vibrant economic philosopher, who talked of Swadeshi and self- dependence long before the modern world is slowly waking up to its benefits, who emphasized a people -centered economy rather than a technology centred one, where we find individuals stripped off their dignity, becoming insignificant cogs in the machine. The plight of the migrant labourers during the current pandemic is branded on our collective consciousness, all because of a flawed-topsy- turvy model of development. Only if we had heeded Bapu’s call of making the villages self- sufficient and self- reliant.

Right from the time he refused to ‘cheat’ to correct the spelling of kettle in a class test during the visit of the school inspector, to the time he abruptly called off the Non-cooperation movement, due to violence at Chauri Chaura, well-aware of the repercussions that would follow, he shunned mendacity and violence. Belying his physical fragility, he managed to emerge as a strong moral icon. In a world torn asunder by war and violence, he succeeded in teaching many a world leader lessons in the powerful weapon of non- violence and truth, pitting soul force against brute force. The vulnerable Mohan, full of complexes, foibles, fears and phobias, a boy who was afraid of snakes, ghosts, multiplication tables, metamorphosed into the valiant, venerable   Mahatma, [a sobriquet he did not feel comfortable   with]. Under the seemingly frail façade, was a man who could flex his moral muscles and shake a comatose nation out of its languor. This unarmed warrior, went on to exemplify self- introspection, self -analysis, self- mastery, and a humongous moral power. Denigrated as the half-naked fakir by Winston Churchill, he was the very epitome of minimalism, but well- clothed in the raiment of love, compassion, fearlessness and forgiveness.

During the Dandi March, women from all sections of society- women who had never been part of public gatherings, women who had not stepped out of the four walls of the house, unlettered village women, poured out on the streets because he had very intelligently linked salt, a common kitchen ingredient to an uncommon call for freedom. Kamladevi Chattopadhyay valiantly stalked into the High Court premises, and while a stunned magistrate gaped, hurled a question at him whether he would like to buy “the salt of freedom”, she had prepared.  Songs of freedom rang in the streets, women metamorphosed into human shields blocking the paths of policemen, facing lathi blows and even landing in jails.  What do you call such a man – an intelligent strategist?  Quixotic? Charismatic?   A maverick?  Was this not a coup of sorts?

Bapu’s strategy paid off and the Indians realized that throwing off the foreign yoke was not difficult, if heads are held high and spines, straightened.  Gurudev Tagore told the Manchester Guardian of 17 May, 1930, “Europe has completely lost her former moral prestige in Asia.” Louis Fischer wrote in the chapter, ‘Drama at the Seashore’, in his biography of Gandhi, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, “The British beat the Indians with batons and rifle butts. The Indians neither cringed, nor complained, nor retreated. That made England powerless and   India invincible”– all because of a seemingly weak, five-foot five man, who sent quivers down the rulers’ backs by a handful of salt.

Tushar Gandhi with his book

In this interview with his great grandson, Tushar Gandhi , author of a book called Let’s Kill Gandhi (2007), chronicling the last days of his great grandfather, we hear more on Bapu and Gandhi-ism in the current world.

It is with a feeling of immense awe for the descendant of a great moral icon that I am here with my questions for you, Tusharji.  If you remember, this is not the first time I am talking to you.  It was in the year 2015 that I not just met you, but presented you my poetic biography of Bapu, Ballad of Bapu, for which you had graciously written the foreword.  I remember being awe-struck by your unassuming demeanour coupled with a self-derogatory sense of humour, which your great-grandfather was also known to have had. Please tell us something about yourself, which we don’t know already.

I am an ordinary, simple person of limited abilities who is very lucky to be born a descendant of very illustrious ancestors. Life has taught me that greatness is not an inheritable quality it must be earned. I remember when a celebrity TV presenter Richard Quest was doing a series for CNN called ‘Quest for Greatness‘, he shot the concluding episode at Sabarmati Ashram and invited me to talk to him. His precept was whether places associated with greatness were the source of that greatness. He talked about the greatness of Bapu and about how the place attracted so many leaders of the world to visit it and be inspired by the place and the legacy of the person with whom the place was associated. He asked me if the fountain of greatness was at Sabarmati Ashram and was that the reason leaders visited it to partake of that greatness. My answer was yes, absolutely, sometimes the place inspires great actions and sometimes the aura of the great person associated with the place lingers on to inspire future generations. That draws them to the place.

Tushar Gandhi with his father at Hriday Kunj Sabarmati Ashram

Yes, that is absolutely right. The lingering aura of a particular place cannot be shrugged off, and if it is a place associated with our beloved Bapu, it will always keep inspiring people. The fragrance that I inhaled on my visit to the Sabarmati Ashram, is something I can never forget. Its aura and extraordinary energy seems to cling to ordinary visitors.

Richard’s concluding question for the show was directed at me, he asked, “There is no doubt that Gandhi was great. Scientists believe that our nature and what we become is also hot-wired in one’s DNA, genes. Did Gandhi have the greatness gene? As his direct descendant have you, Tushar inherited that greatness gene?”

My answer was immediate and short, I told Richard, “Greatness cannot be inherited, it has to be earned.”

I am overweight, the result of an indulgent lifestyle. I am lazy, when you sent me these questions my first question was how long would you be willing to wait for my responses! I haven’t, as yet developed the courage to be absolutely truthful. I succumb to anger and passion. I am enslaved by the sense of taste, to delicious food. I am unable to reduce my requirements in life. I know Bapu would have disapproved of me.

So, I live within my limitations, aware of my short comings.

 No one is perfect. We all have our fads, foibles, idiosyncrasies and shortcomings. Yes, I remember, seeing some pictures, of your early teens, in one of which you are even holding on to your pet dog.  What were your dreams then?  Were you aware of your monumental legacy? Were you curious to know more and more about your great grandfather?

Yes, Zendy was more of a brother than a pet. I loved him, poor chap was a bit of a cripple, he had very limited abilities in his hind legs and so he would drag himself around or we carried him around.
As a child I was inspired by my mother’s brother. He was a pilot in the Indian Air Force. So, from very early childhood I wanted to become a pilot. As I grew older, I wanted to join the Indian Air Force and become a fighter pilot. I even sat for the NDA entrance exam, unfortunately I could not qualify and so abandoned those plans. But my desire to become a pilot was obsessive and so I never considered doing anything else and when that dream crumbled, I was left adrift, not knowing what to do. Finally at my father’s suggestion I joined the Printing Institute to do a diploma in printing, I qualified as a printer, but my heart was never in that work and so after several halfhearted attempts, I gave it up as a career.

I don’t have any recollection of a moment or age in my life when I became aware of the legacy I had inherited. I feel I was always aware of the greatness of my ancestor, as I grew older, and my understanding increased the awareness about the greatness of Ba (Kasturba, Gandhi’s wife)and Bapu and my grandparents has grown and along with it my pride in the legacy they have bequeathed to me and with it the awareness of my limitations too.

Kasturba Gandhi. Courtesy: Creative Commons

I never had to request my elders about information about Bapu, I remember as a child my bedtime stories as told by my grandmother or by her sisters and cousins were almost always about their recollections of Ba and Bapu. As a child sometimes I would get fed up and throw a tantrum demanding to be told stories of kings and princes, fairies and princesses. But all I got were stories of Ashram experiences and anecdotes with Ba and Bapu. As I grew older, and my abilities of understanding evolved, I realised and understood the profound lessons those stories taught and the reason why my elders insisted on instilling those stories into my psyche.

My study of the ideals and the methods of Bapu continues. That is a lifelong never-ending quest.

We would love to know about your early life — your idols and heroes. Was Bapu also one of them? Are you also known for your candid, straightforward, hard-hitting words like your great- granddad?

My childhood, like me was very ordinary and unremarkable. I was a very average student someone who would have been diagnosed as being dyslexic, I am still spelling-challenged in all the languages I can write. If it wasn’t for the word processor software with their built-in spell checks I would never have been accepted as a writer, let alone a published author.

Were you a mischievous boy in school?

I was known to be a mischief maker and spent a record amount of time in detention. But it turned out to be a boon. In detention we were made to sit on a bench outside our principal’s office. The door of his curtain-less office always remained open, so he kept an eagle eye on all the benched ones.

The rule was that after we told him why we were on the detention bench, we had to go to the library, get a book and read it while sitting on the bench. I was so often on the bench that I got hooked to reading to such an extent that our school librarian when asked, why he was spending more than what was budgeted for library purchase, complained to our principal about how he had to keep buying new books because I had read all the books in the library. 

This is hilarious! Your punishments turned you into a bibliophile!

The reading addiction grew so much that by my teenage years I was black listed by four libraries in our neighbourhood, because I had read through their collections of books!

In my childhood, shopkeepers used to keep paper bags made from pages of magazines and newspapers.  I remember back home after the purchases had been put away, I would open up the bags and read whatever was printed on them, even though it was incomplete. My obsession with reading continues even today, now on laptops and smart phones, but I still prefer to read stuff printed on paper.

I had many idols during my childhood many still are, my ancestors, naturally. Revolutionaries too. Heroes from the folklore and history, sports icons, armed forces legends and martyrs.  Those associates of my great grandfather I was fortunate to meet, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, C. Rajagopalachary, Maniben Patel, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, once and several others. They all left an indelible impression on my mind.

Since I am well- aware of my limitations I am not as honestly outspoken or frank as Bapu, but I am not known to mince words.  Brash, is how I am more often described.  But, as we live in a world of increasing hypocrisy, I have realized the need for plain speaking, so I too am becoming more and more outspoken.

To suit myself I have reinterpreted Bapu’s favourite three Monkeys from ancient Japanese and Buddhist lore who were actually four, Mizaru, who covers his eyes and sees no evil, Kikazaru who covers his ears and hears no evil, Iwazaru who covers his mouth and speaks no evil and the obscure fourth Sezaru who covers his lower abdomen and does no evil.

In today’s times I have reinterpreted them, feeling that they more appropriately convey the message: “Don’t shut your eyes and block out evil acts or crimes. Don’t close your ears so as not to hear a cry for help or to the bitter truth. Don’t shut your mouth and remain silent while evil is done, and hate is preached around you. And don’t remain indifferent against injustice, act against it decisively.”

I strongly believe Bapu would have adopted the fourth monkey too and reinterpreted all of them.  It is no longer the time for polite and diplomatic talk, we need strong but honest words, not necessarily angry ones and most importantly, actions.   

Very rightly said. In his very first public speech, on 4 February 1916, at the inaugural ceremony of Banaras Hindu University, because of his forthright words, Annie Besant had to plead, “Sit down Gandhi”, when he had ridiculed the highly bejeweled princes who were glibly talking about poverty. “Our salvation can only come through the farmer”. Don’t you think these words of Gandhi resonate today with a renewed vigour?

Yes, Bapu did fall foul of the organisers at the foundation stone laying ceremony of the Banaras Hindu University where he was invited to speak, as the hero of South Africa. When he criticised the bejeweled and pompously attired princes and the elite gathered there, Annie Besant who presided over the function, requested him to stop on several occasions. 

When he started talking about swaraj (self-rule), the dignitaries on the dais staged a walk out and Ms. Besant called the meeting to a halt, but the student body gathered, insisted on listening to Bapu and trooped out of the venue and held an impromptu meeting on the open ground where Bapu continued his very ‘hard hitting’ and what was then dismissed as, impertinent ravings.

Yes, the students had applauded his candid utterances, saying Hear Hear! much to the discomfiture of the organizers and the princes. 

The students were very fascinated by Bapu’s thoughts. It was after this that Bapu forayed into the Champaran Satyagraha, registering a decisive triumph over the colonial power, and gradually taking hold of the reins of the freedom movement.

There is a lot of dissatisfaction and frustration in our country and much that needs to be set right. To begin the process, we need a leader with Bapu’s ability of calling a spade a spade and yet not speaking in an offensive, insulting manner. India today suffers from a very dangerous epidemic of hate, it mustn’t and can’t be countered by counter hate. We must revert to Bapu’s method, honest, truthful words, yet not the language of hate and abuse.

India is witnessing an ongoing protest by farmers from northern states now almost a year old, there is discontent and despair in the entire farm sector, but it is being compromised by a general apathy towards their plight, today it is the farmers, tomorrow it will be another group of us, we must wake up and fight together, united.

Indeed, we need to yank away our comatose stupor, before it is too late. Bapu is said to have had a great sense of humour.  Do you recall having heard any incident of Bapu which had tickled your funny bone immensely, as a child?

Bapu is reported to have said that ‘If it wasn’t for his sense of humour he would have gone mad.’ and also that ‘ If he did not have a sense of humour, the ability to enjoy the funny side of everything he would have been driven to despair and committed suicide.’ This is how much Bapu appreciated and valued humour. His humor used to be laced with sarcasm. When an American journalist asked Bapu what he thought about Western Civilisation, Bapu replied “It is a good idea!”

Yes, that witticism by Bapu never fails to bring a smile to my lips.

I recall a personal anecdote told by my grandmother. This happened in Sevagram, Wardha. Bapu received a request from a group of women village sevaks (workers), who wished to greet him on his birthday and spend 2nd October at the Ashram. Bapu welcomed them but said that he was a poor man and so they would have to bring their own meals and not burden the Ashram.

On 2nd October, they came to the Ashram early morning and participated in the activities of the Ashram. At lunch time when everyone at the ashram assembled at the dining hall, Kasturba noticed that the visitors were sitting under a tree, opening the cloth bundles they were carrying. She called my father and asked him why the visitors were not eating along with all the other residents of the Ashram? My father told her of the condition Bapu had laid down to permit the visitors to spend the day at the ashram.

When Ba heard the story, she was very angry, she told my father to call the visitors to assemble in her kutir (hut), she would cook a meal and feed the guests. Unlike her husband, she refused to forget her dharma (duty) as a host. Ba hurriedly cooked Khichadi and fed them. This defiance of his order by Ba was reported to Bapu, everyone expected him to get annoyed and reprimand her. But he smiled, quipping, ‘At one time the British Queen listens to me, but my words hold no authority over Ba.’

A typical Bapu witticism! We have mutated into rodents, running the rodent derby in helter-skelter haste.  How would Bapu have reacted to this rodent derby?  Would he still have continued to walk alone – taking long strides towards self- discovery, advising\ rebuking people along the way?

Bapu would have warned us about our devolution into rodents. But he would not have just warned us about the evil, danger and unsuitability of our way of life, he would have presented humankind with an evolving alternative way of life and lived it himself. Walking alone was second nature to Bapu, he was so far ahead of his times that he had no option but walk alone, not intimidated by the unknown. Having said that, his belief in the omnipresence of God was so deeply entrenched that he never considered himself to ever be alone.
 
Please tell us something about yourself as a student, were you obedient and disciplined?  How did your peers and teachers treat you?  Did you have a rebellious streak in you?

I was a very average student. In our times we were expected to be obedient, and we too believed that we should be obedient, so I also obeyed my elders and teachers.  I was only nominally disciplined, there was a rebellious streak in me, muted most of the time, but it did manifest itself from time to time. 

Please tell us something about Bapu’s walking habits. He shunned physical classes in school, but later did a lot of physical labour, becoming a very agile walker.  “The modern generation is delicate, weak and much pampered.” He said during the Dandi March and walking less than twelve miles a day, he considered, “child’s play”. How did he become such a sturdy walker?

Bapu acquired the habit of walking far and fast in South Africa. He used to compete with his friend Herman Kallenbach to see who walked the longer distance and who was faster than the other. This became a daily lifelong habit and when at the age of 61 he lead the Dandi March, others much younger than him had to run to keep pace with him. There is a very iconic photograph of a child holding on to Bapu’s walking stick and seemingly pulling Bapu along. 

Yes, I have seen that iconic photograph. 

The child is Bapu’s grandson Kanha, who lived with him when Bapu was briefly staying at Juhu in Bombay.  Every evening Bapu would insist that Kanha accompany him on his walks on the beach. Kanha walked very slowly, so, to make him walk faster, Bapu used to push him ahead of him with his walking stick. Over the years some dexterous photo retouching artists touched up the photo to appear as if the child was pulling Bapu along. Bapu had a very long stride which also added to his speed of walking.

Bapu was a staunch supporter of women empowerment, but in the Dandi March, if I am not mistaken, among the 78 handpicked volunteers, who accompanied Bapu on the 240-mile march which lasted 24 days [12 March to 6 April 1930], only a few women joined the retinue from the Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, other women only joined him later. Did this issue not become a bone of contention among the women? I recall having read that powerful women like Kamladevi Chattopadhyay, Sarojini Naidu and Perin Captain (the granddaughter of Dada Bhai Naoroji) were displeased that they were not part of the handpicked retinue, strongly venting their ire, saying that they would not be satisfied merely by picketing shops. But yes, I remember Sarojini Naidu becoming a part of the March during the last stretch to Dandi, and raising a fistful of salt on 6 April,1930, and saying, “Hail Deliverer”.

There was a reason why Bapu refused to allow women to accompany him on the Dandi March. His objective was to provoke the Colonial Government to deal harshly with him. Threats were also made against the Satyagrahis, news was leaked that the Government would unleash a regiment of Pathan Sepoys to beat them and disrupt the march, not even sparing Bapu. Sardar Patel was arrested a week before the March was to begin and locked up in Sabarmati Prison. This was a warning to Bapu. Bapu wanted such harsh responses. He knew that if women accompanied him the Colonial Government would claim that Gandhi had taken women along as protection.

Gandhi leading the Dandi March, 1930. Courtesy: Creative Commons

He knew that the ‘gentlemanly’ colonial government would not harm women and so he had insulated himself from reprisals by hiding behind a protective shield of women. So Bapu decided that women would not accompany the marchers, hence they were not allowed to accompany him and his handpicked companions on the March from Sabarmati to Dandi.

There was a lot of discontent among the leading women Satyagrahis of that time, and they protested against Bapu, but they obeyed him too.

After he picked up salt at Dandi and broke the law on 6th April 1930 they demanded that now they must be allowed an equal opportunity to participate in Satyagraha in the front lines of Satyagrahis. Sarojini Naidu and Mithuben Petiet welcomed Bapu at Dandi. Eventually a Women’s Conference was held at Dandi and addressing the attendees, Bapu ordered the women to participate in the Satyagraha from then on.

Bapu used symbols very powerfully. Symbols such as minimal clothes, charkha(spinning wheel), salt, khadi were very effectively used by him for mass mobilisation.   We would like to know something from you about his strategic use of symbols.

Bapu was a master communicator throughout his campaigns, first in South Africa and later in India, he utilised the power of symbolism to a great advantage. Bapu’s use of symbols and gestures was unlike the very artificial and dramatic use of symbolism, by the ‘leaders’ of today.  He used them in a much more honest, sincere and believable manner. After deciding to embrace poverty when he was one of the most prosperous Indian lawyers in South Africa, Bapu chose to live simply to identify with the poor Indians he was leading and living amongst at the Phoenix Settlement. Yet he continued to wear the western attire of a gentleman.

It was only towards the end of his struggle in South Africa after a few Satyagrahis died during the Satyagraha and as a result of the brutal incarceration they were subjected to, that Bapu discarded the western attire and appeared in public dressed as what was then contemptuously described as the dress of a ‘Coolie’. When he arrived in India in 1915, he had started dressing in an elaborate costume of a Kathiyavadi gent. The dress of his home region in India.

In Champaran and before that during his year and half long travels to discover India, Bapu came face to face with the abject poverty of its populace and it was then that he began dressing less. Finally, it was when he saw the farmers of Madurai toiling in the fields, dressed merely in a brief loin cloth, that he discarded the kurti that he wore and adopted the attire of a mere loincloth to identify with the people he wanted to lead.

Yes, that is what riled Winston Churchill and he commented adversely on his attire.

Yes, it was this that bugged Winston Churchill and when Bapu visited Buckingham Palace to have tea with the royalty dressed similarly, Churchill called him ‘the half-naked Faqeer’. When Bapu was questioned by a reporter as to whether he would be dressed as he always did if he was invited to meet the Emperor he had replied that if he dressed up in any other manner he would be dishonest and disrespectful towards the Emperor.

The charkha to him was not just a symbol but a tool for the rejuvenation of India’s traditional crafts and village industries, he used it as a symbol of his idea of the ideal ‘industrial’ revolution in India’s villages he wished to usher in.

Salt was one of his most brilliant and evocative symbolisms, which he turned into a symbol of the British oppression of the masses of India. Their suffering and their aspirations for freedom, dignity and existence. It caught the fancy of the people of India and the attention of the entire humanity.

It goes without saying that through the powerful use of symbols and symbolic language, he was able to drive many a point home. Could you throw some light on his relationship with Kasturba? Both were married at the age of thirteen, and both grew together, and all of us know that Ba’s death devastated him completely. Obviously, with his obstinate ways, he was definitely not an easy man to carry along with. Yet, she was the moral strength behind him.

Gandhi & Kasturba. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Ba was Bapu’s anchor. Throughout his evolution he has acknowledged her as his teacher of several important lessons, one of them being Passive Resistance.

Ba had the unenviable task of living with him as he transformed and surviving each of his catharsis. She not only survived but carried the family with her- immediate family initially, her growing sons and then the extended ashram family as she learnt to accept all of them and started feeling responsible for them.

Initially tumultuous, at times it was difficult to believe that their relationship would survive. But what Bapu wrote to the Viceroy and Lady Wavell replying to their message of condolences on Ba’s death, illustrates the depth of their relationship, showing how much Bapu relied on Ba.  I quote:

‘I send you and Lady Wavell my thanks for your kind condolences on the death of my wife. Though for her sake I have welcomed her death as bringing freedom from living agony, I feel the loss more than I thought I should.

Gandhi at Kasturba’s Memorial. Courtesy: Creative Commons

‘We were a couple outside the ordinary. It was in 1906 that after mutual consent and after unconscious trials we definitely adopted self-restrain as a rule of life. To my great joy this knit us together as never before. We ceased to be two different entities. Without me wishing it, she chose to lose herself in me. The result was she became truly my better half. She was a woman always of very strong will which, in our early days, I used to mistake for obstinacy. But that strong will enabled her to become quite unwittingly my teacher in the art and practice of nonviolent non-co-operation.’

One does not require to say any more.

Do you not find it a daunting task to carry forward the legacy of Bapu?

It is daunting but I have always lived within my limitations, and I don’t bother to live up to the expectations of others, this has made it easier to live with such a ‘heavy’ legacy. I have always considered the legacy I have inherited as a boon and so I have never felt it a burden.

It was Martin Luther King Jr who had said, “Gandhi was perhaps the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale”, which is indeed the truth. There is no denying the fact that it is a dystopian world that we are living in, where all are caught between the harsh tones of hatred and the insidious currents of revenge and rancor. How can non-violence again be revived as an effective social force?

Even in the past, we have lived in the age of hate, prejudice and strife; family relationships too have become fragile due to this but it’s not entirely a new phenomenon. When Bapu arrived in India, one of the first things he realised was the disunity between Hindus and Muslims due to distrust and hostility.  He concluded that to effectively fight the colonial power he had to unite the two religious groups, and he set about working diligently towards it by igniting the passion for freedom in every heart.

He achieved his objective, but the glue was tenuous, and as independence became a reality, it rapidly deteriorated and the traditional distrust and hostility resurfaced. Hate and violence took center stage in 1946. Bapu realised that he had lost his dream in his hour of triumph. In 1946-47 and the first month of 1948 , insanity prevailed in India and the newly-created Pakistan.

It was only Bapu’s murder which shocked Indians and restored sanity for the time being. That sanity lasted for the first fifty years of its existence because of compassionate leadership and the memory of the sacrifice of Bapu.  But then opportunist ‘leaders’ stepped into the forefront and unleashed a campaign of untruths and communal hate. The venom has now permeated to our cells and altered our very DNA, and we see its manifestation in every aspect of our existence. Unfortunately, now there is no Gandhi to jolt us back to sanity by sacrificing himself. Even if one was to emerge, I don’t think we collectively deserve such a deliverer.

Yes, we indeed need Bapu to remerge, and pull us back to sanity. Tell me, can walks for peace change mindsets?  What triggered the idea of the re-enactment of the Dandi March? I remember, it was the year 2005, the 75th anniversary of the March I was in my MPhil class, and the news of the reenactment of Dandi March was very much in the air, and my students were hurling questions after questions at me – most of them laced with cynicism.  Can you tell us something about your experience during these marches?  I remember seeing pics of the March where one man was dressed like Bapu. How did this image of Gandhi impact the people?

My reenactment of the Dandi March in 2005, in its 75th anniversary year, was a personal challenge and a token gesture of response to the violence of 2002 the state had endured. That is why I went out of my way to invite the participation of a group of Pakhtoon Khudai Khidmatgaar, descendants of the legacy of Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan. It was a privilege to walk alongside the almost 100 Red Shirts from Pukhtoon Khwa in Pakistan and watch the people of Gujarat warmly embrace them and invite them into their homes.

The personal challenge was that three of my ancestors had walked the entire route in 1930: my great grandfather, Bapu, my grandfather, Manilal and my uncle, Kantilal. It always felt challenging to me. I wanted to test if I had it in me to walk the distance. I was always the proverbial ‘Couch Potato’, so, it was an intimidating task. After putting it off several times, I decided to take the plunge. None who knew me, believed I would complete the journey. On several occasions during the March, I wanted to give up mid-stride, the agony too excruciating.  Then I visualized walking with Bapu, imagining his walking stick pushing me along and it gave me the strength to complete the walk-first that day’s walk and then the entire 241 miles.

There were several people who dressed as Bapu during the March, but one had a remarkable resemblance to Bapu, and it was very inspiring, walking the entire distance, barefeet!

That was indeed a commendable feat. Gurudev Tagore, who was deeply revered by Bapu, happened to be in the vicinity of Sabarmati Ashram on 18 January, 1930, and paid him a visit. When asked what plans he had for his country in 1930, Bapu remarked, “I am furiously thinking night and day, and I do not see any light coming out of the surrounding darkness.” But then the Inner Voice spoke to him, and light came in the form of the iniquities of the Salt Tax, and he decided to embark on the path of Civil Disobedience. What exactly was the nature of this Inner voice, for him?

For Bapu his inner voice was his conscience keeper. He acquired the ability to hear it after much effort. Once he began hearing the ‘still faint voice’ it became his search light, it guided him, showed him the direction and illuminated his objective.

Bapu was not against technology as such, but he was staunchly convinced that our education system bred mediocrity. What would he say about the education system of today?

Bapu had rejected the western education system outright as unsuitable for Indian needs. He believed it till his end, begging with his sons in South Africa and then in his Ashrams in South Africa and India he developed a new system of basic education that he believed would cater to the varied needs of India. It was based on the principle of Enlightening the mind, Awakening the heart and Empowering the hands. He named his model of Basic Education Buniyadi Talim and then Naee Talim.

True to his brutally honest utterances, he would have termed the education system in India today as a curse on India and Indians and would have crusaded to destroy it completely, at the same time, offering a more suitable sustainable alternative.

We are witnessing that our basic education model has completely failed and only churns out substandard students, worth next to nothing. Same is the case with the higher University education system. Upon graduation, students realise that their ‘qualifications’ are worthless, they are not able to get jobs which their parents were able to secure upon graduation. Even with professional degrees, it is the same. Engineers acquire a degree in Management even after specialising in a field of engineering, even after a masters. Doctors study for super specialisation after specializing to enhance their earning ability. Education from being a medium of enlightenment has been reduced to merely being a means of earning. That is the resounding failure of education system the world over, but starkly so in India.

Yes, it is indeed pathetic. If you happen to meet him again, what would your first question to him be?  Any niggling doubt that you would want to clarify?

If I were to have an opportunity to meet Bapu now, my question to him, even though I know what his answer would be is, “Bapu, how may I seek revenge for your murder?” My biggest regret is that I did not get to learn from him and so the rest of the time I would sit patiently and absorb whatever he thought I needed to learn. I would not waste my time in asking questions.

In this era of Instant gratification, truth and honesty have become outdated. How would Bapu react to the WhatsApp forwards, short cuts, cutting corners, passing the buck and the inhumane behaviour of the human beings that have become so much a part of the present socio- political- psychological ethos?

Bapu would have rejected it all and made a bonfire of all of it.

Do you think Bapu was a disillusioned man in the last days of his life?  On 14\ 15 August 1947 midnight, when the thrilling words of Nehru’s epochal “Tryst with Destiny” speech rang through a free India, sheathed in a celebratory fervor, a frail but morally strong man, lay on a frayed mat in Beliaghata in Calcutta praying, fasting and relentlessly spinning, considering the partition ‘a spiritual tragedy’, ruing the vacuity of such a freedom, but still not losing faith in humanity.  Mulling over many things– if he had erred somewhere, maybe he could set it right, somehow? What do you think were the issues that were going on in his mind that day?

The last years of his life were tragic for Bapu, as he had faced betrayal, he felt abandoned, cast away by those he had trusted. He saw the true nature of his people, his countrymen and women, whom he had assumed he had transformed. But his personal grief would have been enhanced because for all the things he saw going wrong with his people and in the nation, he had helped liberate, he would have blamed some weakness of his own character some flaw in his actions and he would have been harsh on himself. That was the greatest agony he had to endure.

On the first Independence Day, he pondered over his anxieties but continued to work to set things right and guide his people back on the right path and to do penance for everything wrong, that he blamed himself for.

After India won freedom, in a message to the cabinet of ministers of West Bengal, he wrote, “From today, you have to wear the crown of thorns.  Strive ceaselessly to cultivate truth and non-violence. Be humble. Be forbearing…   Do not let yourself be entrapped by its pomp and pageantry. Remember, you are in office to serve poor in India’s villages.”  Humility is needed like never before.  Is the India that we see today the India of his dreams? Are the poor in India’s villages being served?

India became Independent on August 15, 1947. But it never achieved ‘Purna Swaraj’ that Bapu had aspired for, 75 years later it still hasn’t.

I quote Bapu to show what he believed ‘Purna Swaraj’ was. In 1925, in the issue of Young India of 29th January he wrote. ‘Real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition –of authority by the few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words, Swaraj is to be obtained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.’

Then again writing in the April 16, 1931 issue of Young India, Bapu said, ‘ Let there be no mistake what Purna Swaraj means. It is full economic freedom for all the toiling millions it means no unholy alliance with any interest for their exploitation. Any alliance must mean their deliverance.’

One does not need to illustrate how far India has diverged from Bapu’s concept of Purna Swaraj for his people. Today those he commanded to become servants of the people have become their Overlords.

Martin Luther King Jr. had pointed out, “He lived, thought and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore Gandhi at our own risk.” Ever thought of recreating a New India based on Bapu’s principles, with you heading it?

I am not capable of the task. I have admitted my short comings right in the beginning and once again let me remind you ‘Greatness cannot be inherited it has to be earned’.

It was an absolute honour interacting with you and getting to know a lot more about you and Bapu. Immensely grateful for this enriching and enlightening discussion.
Thanks for your precious time.

The pleasure and privilege are mine. Thank you.

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Dr. Santosh Bakaya is an academician, poet, essayist, novelist, biographer, Ted Speaker and creative writing mentor. She has been critically acclaimed for her poetic biography of Mahatma Gandhi [Ballad of Bapu]. She has more than ten books to her credit , her latest books are a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. (Only in Darkness can you see the Stars) and Songs of Belligerence (poetry). She runs a very popular column Morning meanderings in Learning And Creativity.com.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
A Special Tribute

The Many Faces of ‘Freedom’

Romanticised by writers and artists over time, freedom has been variously interpreted. There is the freedom of birds that fly, of the clouds that float across the connecting blue skies, of the grass that grows across manmade borders, of the blood that flows to protect the liberty of confines or constructs drawn by man, the river that gurgles into the ocean, of the breeze that blows.

The many-splendored interpretations of freedom and its antitheses in Borderless journal are presented here for you to ponder … tell us what you think. Can freedom come without responsibility or a tryst with circumstances?

Poetry

Then Came the King’s Men by Himadri Lahiri, tracing dreams of freedom through the ages. Click here to read.

Poetry in Bosnian from Bosnia & Herzegovina, written and translated by Maid Corbic, explores the freedom of speech. Click here to read.

The Storm that Rages from the conflict ridden state of Kashmir, Ahmed Rayees writes of hope, freedom and peace. Click here to read.

Prose

The Protests Outside

Steve Ogah talks of trauma faced by riot victims in Nigeria while exploring the bondage of tyranny. Click here to read.

A Prison of Our Own Making

Keith Lyons gives us a brief essay on how we can find freedom. Click here to read.

A Life Well-Lived

Candice Louisa Daquin discusses the concepts of the role of responsibility that goes with the freedom of choices. Click here to read.

The Parrot’s Tale by Tagore

Exploring the freedom from bondages of education social norms and more, this story has been translated by Radha Chakravarty from Bengali. Click here to read.

Categories
A Special Tribute

Peace in the footsteps of Hiroshima & Nagasaki

The mother of a soldier once told me she did not agree that winning a war was a solution to peaceful living. She said, “If our army kill the enemy, some other mothers lose their sons; some other wives are widowed; some other children lose their fathers…”

Her summation of the war seems like an accurate description of the current day scenario. While politically the bombs that killed 140,000 in Hiroshima and 74000 in Nagasaki on 6th and 9th August respectively(1945), destroyed two cities, ended the Second World War (1939-1945) which claimed a total of 70-85 million lives over six years and led to the celebration of VE Day (Victory Europe Day), can we afford such horrors of violence and annihilation again? This is a question that remains in the grey zone as nuclear non-proliferation looks like agreeing to peace because the terror of war frightens. Will we ever have a world where peace is loved for the sake of what it brings and not for the fear of annihilation?

Writers in this special commemorate the horrors of the atom bomb and write their plea for peace. While American-Japanese writer, Suzanne Kamata, and Manjul Miteri of Nepal explore victimhood, Michael Burch talks of the Enola Gay, the legendary bomber that dropped “Little Boy” and annihilated a whole city. He reflects on the testing that continued on Bikini Island and further to ‘maintain peace’. We also have the words of Kathleen Burkinshaw who continues impacted by this terror — though it was her mother who was the hibakusha or survivor of the bomb blast. We round up this section with Candice Louisa Daquin’s reflections on peace and the reality as it is.

Poetry

Commemorating Hiroshima: Poetry by Suzanne Kamata that brings to life August 6th and the impact of the bombing on the victims and the devastation around them. Click here to read.

Oh Orimen! A poem in Nepalese about a victim of the blast written by a sculptor, Manjul Miteri, who while working on the largest Asian statue of the Buddha in Japan visited the museum dedicated to the impact of the blast. The poem has been translated to English by Hem Bishwakarma. Click here to read.

Mushroom Clouds: Poetry by Michael Burch that reflects on Enola Gay and the Bikini atoll. Click here to read

Prose

Surviving Hiroshima

Kathleen Burkinshaw is the daughter of a woman who survived the Hiroshima blast. Burkinshaw suffers neural damage herself from the impact of the bomb that her parent faced. She has written a book called The Last Cherry Blossom recounting her mother’s first hand experiences. Her novel has been taken up by the United Nations as a part of its peacekeeping effort. She has been actively participating in efforts to ban nuclear weapons, including presenting with Nobel Laureates. Click here to read the interview.

Peace: Is it even Possible?

In the post second world war scenario, Candice Lousia Daquin explores war and peace through history. Is peace possible? Click here to read.

Categories
A Special Tribute

Dilip Kumar: Kohinoor-e-Hind

In a tribute to Bollywood legend Dileep Kumar or Yusuf Khan in real life, Ratnottama Sengupta, one of India’s most iconic arts journalist, time-travels to the days when the ‘Fankar-e-Azam’ – the great actor – sprinted about on the sets of Bombay’s studios …spiced up with fragments from the autobiography of Sengupta’s father, famed screenwriter and litterateur, Nabendu Ghosh

“Actually the quality of a performer is also measured by the contrast that he can handle. To do something different, to be humorous, and intimidating, and also to make them feel sorry for you… that is the way people like you.” – Dilip Kumar

On 7thJuly, 2021, I was at a loss — in trying to think of an epithet for the thespian who had just passed away.  So am I now, in deciding where I should start my recollections of the deathless legend. For, Dilip Kumar was already B-I-G when I started understanding the word ‘Cinema’.

I was born in 1955 — the year of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali in Bengal, Bimal Roy’s Devdas in Hindi films, and also of Azad. Years would go before I learnt that Apu-Durga’s Song of the Road had placed India on the celluloid map of the world. Before I understood that my father, Nabendu Ghosh, had a hand in immortalizing Devdas by writing its screenplay – often dubbed ‘direction on paper.’ And before I observed this curious coincidence: Azad had released the same year as Devdas, the ode to undying, self-destructive love. Curious, because it brought the Monarch of Tragedy with Tragedienne, Meena Kumari, in order to create a comedy! A fun outing where a rich man, Azad, rescues Shobha from bandits; and when she decides to marry him, her family discovers Azad is the bandit.

1955 First release of Devdas . Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

I became aware of this film only recently, while working on the song Apalam Chapalam – danced by Sayee and Subbulaxmi – for my underproduction documentary on Dance in Hindi Films. That number is a lesson for anyone studying dance. But aeon before I came to it, I would start dancing every time the Murphy radio in our Malad bungalow played Radha na boley na boley na boley re (Radha shan’t speak to Krishna).  I would pick up the hairband lying in front of our mirror, put it on and start swaying in a circular motion. I must have been about two-and-half. There was no television, no silver screen, no Meena Kumari in my life, only a radio. And it cast a spell with this song from Azad, one of the few comedies of Dilip Kumar, with Kohinoor and Ram Aur Shyam.

Years down the star actor had talked about distributors objecting to his playing a comic role. “’But people are used to seeing you in tragic roles… so you will die in the end, right?’ they would insist. ‘But I wanted to alter the image. I did not want to be stuck in one groove. There is a risk in breaking a familiar mould, but if people can anticipate you, that is the end of your mystery! So you must do something different each time, a departure from your familiar personality. You must work a little harder and change the chemistry of the personality’.” This could be the Bible for any actor if he plans to defy time.

Dilip Kumar captivated me with a dance which – like Meena Kumari’s in Azad – was no classical number, only robust, folksy Nain lar jai hey toh manwa ma kasak hoibey kari (When our eyes meet, I feel a pang in my heart). This was in Gunga Jumna (1960), produced by Dilip Kumar and directed by his mentor Nitin Bose. The star gustily dancing with a bunch of guys in dhoti – he was so spontaneous, so natural! This at a time when women danced but men dancing was seen as effeminate. Yes, the traditional dance gurus were male, but the movie idol had to be macho, so no dancing! Dance gurus were revered in life but on screen they were lampooned as in Padosan (The Next-door Neighbour, 1968). But he was so confident, suave you cannot but be infected by his joi de vivre.

The other thing about Gunga Jumna was its dialect.  The tongue he speaks — an admixture of Brajbhasha, Khaiboli, Awadhi, Bhojpuri — connects all our people in northern India. That may be why, when Amjad Khan was preparing to play Gabbar Singh, his lines garnished his dhobi’s (washerman’s) dialect with Gunga’s. Again, Lagaan (2001) returns to this tongue which Aamir Khan once more picks up as PK (2014), the alien who knows no earthly language of communication, from a street walker in a psychic manner, by simply holding her hand.

Dilip Kumar’s dialogue delivery was distinctly different from his other contemporaries, Raj Kapoor or Dev Anand. One had cultivated a generous dose of Charlie Chaplin in his mannerism; the other had to thank Gregory Peck for his angular tilt of head. Dilip Kumar’s controlled delivery, low and clear, probably stemmed from his admiration for Paul Muni. He whispered for the benefit of his lady love alone – how romantic! A person standing at an arm’s distance, and being addressed almost with reverence, at a time when so many of contemporaries had yet to cast off the theatrical manner of vociferous enunciation: this intensity charmed my mother’s generation of men and women and spilled over to actors of my preteen years – unabashedly they subscribed to the adage, ‘Imitation is the foremost form of adulation’.

When Joy, the worthy son of Bimal Roy, made his centenary tribute to his father, he had started by interviewing Nabendu Ghosh. In it, while talking about Devdas, the screenwriter says: “On the first day of shooting I saw Dilip Kumar loitering by himself, aloof, remote. So I asked him, ‘What’s the matter Yusuf Bhai? Every day you sit with us, talk to us, join us in our banter. Why are you so preoccupied today?’ He replied, ‘Woh teenon mere kandhe par baithey hain Nabendu Babu (those three are weighing me down like a burden on my shoulder).’ ‘Kaun teen (which three)?’ – I asked him. He replied, ‘Barua Saab, Saigal Saab, and Sarat Chandra.’” The first two legends had played Devdas (1935), Pramathesh Barua in Bengali and K L Saigal in Hindi, in New Theatre’s bilingual production, and Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (the author of Devdas) of course is the most translated author in India: Devdas alone has seen a dozen versions in as many languages if not more. Nabendu continued: “So I asked him, ‘What do you think of Sarat Chandra as a writer?’ And he replied, ‘He had divinity in his pen.’”

What a pithy appreciation of a literary master. Hardly surprising that Dilip Kumar was a major presence on the stage when the Sarat Centenary Celebrations were held in Bombay. Others present included Nitin Bose and Biraj Bahu Kamini Kaushal along with Sunil Gangopadhyay, then a young Turk who pooh-poohed the literary giant. Baba, having scripted Parineeta(1953), Devdas, Biraj Bahu(1954), Majhli Didi(Middle Sister, 1968) and Swami (later filmed by Basu Chatterjee), as much as due to his standing in Bengali literature, had chaired the unforgettable celebration.

 When Nabendu Ghosh was wondering about Yusuf Saab’s eloquent reticence, clearly the actor was in the process of pouring himself into the soul of the persona — or was he giving Devdas the stamp of Dilip Kumar? It was this total absorption that saw him transcend every known interpretation of the character and make his Devdas the abiding face of an indecisive, love-torn soul.  In an interview Dilip Kumar had said, “If I have to be convincing as a 30-year-old, I must familiarize myself with what he has gone through in the preceding 29 years.”

 However in another interview — this one, to renowned film critic, screenwriter and director, Khalid Mohamed — he had debunked method acting saying, “Yeh kis chidiya ka naam hai? What is this thing you call Method Acting?” Okay, so he did not learn – or unlearn – the acting technique of the Russian master Stanislavsky but he certainly believed in the ‘art of experiencing.’ He must have drawn on personal experiences or their memories to inform his characterization, the truth behind the persona who lived and loved in another space and time.  This I can say from my visit to the sets of Sungharsh (Clash,1968) directed by H S Rawail.            

 I can’t remember why I had gone there but I remember visiting with my father. The crew was busy preparing lights for the shot. This was the last film where Dilip Kumar was seen with Vyjayantimala: their first was Devdas, and included Gunga Jumna, Madhumati, Naya Daur, Paigham. I noticed him running round the sets, dressed in a dhoti with a gamchha tied round his waist. “Why is the hero working himself out of breath?” I’d wondered to myself.  I got the answer when they started the takes: the scene required him to run up, axe in hand, and breathlessly deliver a message.  The film based on Mahasweta Devi’s novel, Layli Aasmaner Aina (The Mirror of Layli Aasman), revolved around a courtesan and a thugee, and almost half a century later Baba wrote Sei Sab Kritantera (Those Gods of Death) which won him the Bankim Puraskar, about the cult of bandits. But circling back to Dilip Kumar, I find it astounding that a quarter century after his screen debut, the legend was preparing for the shot by physically running around!                 

No wonder he was so natural. Yet this perceptive actor did not skyrocket into fame with Jwar Bhata (Ebb and Flow, 1944), directed by Amiya Chakravarty, nor did Pratima, directed by Jairaj with music by Arun Mukherjee, do any good to his career. It was with Nitin Bose’s Milan (The Union), based on Tagore’s Naukadubi (The Wreck) and released on a Friday preceding 15tH August 1947, that his listless performance gained sparkle. Along with Jugnu (Fireflies), which was the highest grosser of the year, Milan laid the ground for the long innings of the resolved player. Small wonder, when he produced Gunga Jumna, he singled out his mentor to be the director.

All the three films, Jwar Bhata. Pratima and Milan were produced by Bombay Talkies, then being run by Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar. The popular pair of Achhut Kanya (The Untouchable Girl, 1936) was responsible for most decisions in the milestone production company that gave breaks to other majors of Indian cinema like Dev Anand, Gyan Mukherjee, B R Chopra, Sadat Hasan Manto. Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani had given Mohamed Yusuf Khan, the son of a Pathan dry fruits trader from Peshawar, his screen name. “Why did Yusuf Khan become Dilip Kumar?”  is a much asked question. To Khalid Mohamed the thespian had revealed, “The choice was between Jehangir and Dilip Kumar. The second seemed a better option because it sits easy on every tongue.” Many others have seen a different reason behind the change.

Ashok Kumar Ganguly was directed to lop off his family name at the instance of Franz Osten, the Bavarian director who partnered Himanshu Rai in the early years of Bombay Talkies, to make him more ‘Indian’ rather than a Bengali or a Brahmin. ‘Kumar’ – meaning, young prince – was, since then, included in their name by most actors — Uttam Kumar too. When Dilip Kumar debuted in mid-1940s, the national movement to free India from colonial harness was coming to a head — as was the crescendo for a separate political identity for the Muslim populace. In this scenario, many in the profession that depended on the support of maximum number of viewers, were opting for names that did not underscore their Islamic roots. Thus Mahjabeen Bano became Meena Kumari, Mumtaz Jehan Dehlavi became Madhubala, Nawab Bano was renamed Nimmi by Raj Kapoor, Nargis had started as Baby Rani, Hamid Ali Khan had assumed the name of Ajit. However, Dilip Kumar spawned many other clones. Thus, commenced the age of Pradeep Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Manoj Kumar, Sanjeev Kumar, Akshay Kumar. And many tried to clone his histrionic abilities too!

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The year 1947 proved a turning point in the life of Dilip Kumar in so many ways. Mehboob Khan’s Andaz (Gesture,1949), his Aan (Pride) and Nitin Bose’s Deedar (A Glance), both released in1951, Amiya Chakravarty’s Daag (The Stain,1952), Bimal Roy’s Devdas, Yahudi (Jew), Madhumati,  K.Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960) — all the films thereafter proved super hits. They also carried a message for the masses, be it against alcoholism, or war; in favour of fidelity in marriage, or unadulterated friendship. They turned the brooding hero into a popular idol. At a time, the country was rapidly industrializing, Naya Daur (New Age) focused on the conflict between modernity and tradition through a race between a tonga and a bus. Yahudi, through the love between the Jewess and the Roman prince, sent out a message of communal bonding.

Dilip Kumar, it is evident, kept pace with the transformation coming in the nation’s life. His own performance, his selection of roles all reflected this. That could be why Gunga Jumna by the family production house of Citizen Films, became a precursor in so many ways. I have already spoken about its dialect. Projecting dacoits in the central roles was another. Later decades saw dacoits being replaced by smugglers as villain, drag racketeers as the evil guys, terrorists as the despicable ones.  But the dacoit theme kept recurring through Mujhe Jeene Do (Let Me Live, 1963), Mera Gaon Mera Desh (My Village My Land, 1971), Sholay (Flames, 1975), Pratiggya(The Oath, 1975(, Ganga Ki Saugandh ( Swear by the Ganga, 1978), Bandit Queen (1994), Pan Singh Tomar (2010). More so, the keynote of two brothers on either side of law was to see many reincarnations – most remarkably in Deewar (The Wall), which turned Amitabh Bachchan into the legend he is. Years later Dilip Kumar teamed with Amitabh Bachchan to play father and son aligned on opposing sides of law – again, with amazing success.

The legend teaming with a younger icon was not something new for Dilip Kumar, nor would it be the last. Keeping pace with his growing years he had shared screen space with Anil Kapoor in Mashal (The Torch, 1980s), and with Naseeruddin Shah in Karma. Prior to Deewar he had appeared in Paari (1970s), a Bengali film, where the then rising star Dharmendra played the lead. This film was remade as Anokha Milan with the same cast. Likewise, Tapan Sinha’s Sagina Mahato (Bengali) was remade as Sagina (Hindi) with his wife Saira Banu opposite him.  This remains one of Dilip Kumar’s most significant performances — perhaps also his most ‘political’ incarnation on screen. Here he is a factory worker who becomes the first to stand up to the tyranny of the British bosses in the tea gardens on the Himalayan reaches of North Bengal. Once more he surprised us, his younger viewers, to whom he was nothing but a man named Sagina Mahato whose naivety was being cleverly exploited. I had seen both the Bengali and Hindi versions but I have no answer as to why the remake did not work a magic nationally. Dilip Kumar was, after all, a master of delivery in Hindi and Urdu, although his English too was flawless.

Dilip Kumar seems to have had a special equation with Bengal, which could have grown out of the fact that so many directors from Bengal dominated the Indian screen through 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s… in other words, the screen idol’s active years. I was won over by the charisma of the star in Madhumati, incarnated from a story by Ritwik Ghatak. He had penned the first draft of the immortal classic that continues to mesmerise viewers to this day, then he was summoned back to Kolkata to direct two of his own films, Bari Theke Paaliye (The Runaway) and Ajantrik( 1957). The final script was prepared by Bimal Roy, as was his practice, in conference with his team. As a part of this Nabendu Ghosh had worked on detailing the reincarnation film as Dilip Kumar himself revealed in the interview to Khalid Mohamed. I was simply enchanted by the actor’s screen presence. Here I was, growing up in the age of Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, remember? Yet I was compelled to surrender to the charm of this actor! The only other ‘Kumar’ who superseded his charm for me was Uttam Kumar – and both had started their screen journeys in 1940s – long before I was born! Madhumati itself was ‘born again’ – most successfully as Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om (2007) but the enduring charm of Dilip Kumar as an engineer arriving the upper reaches of Kumaon Hills and losing himself amidst tribals remains matchless.

Baba (Nabendu Ghosh) also scripted Yahudi where Bimal Roy directed Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari as the Roman prince and the Jewess who fall in love – endangering lives. In the Nehruvian era, it resonated with the values of secularism that the super actor himself enshrined. In his personal life, this saw Dilip Kumar align with the Congress. He donned the hat of the Sherif of Bombay (1980) and raised funds for causes, including for the physically challenged, through exhibition cricket matches. His commitment to the country’s constitutional framework saw him campaign in support of V P Singh — and later Manmohan Singh — as Prime Minister. Nominated to Rajya Sabha — the Upper House of Parliament — from 2000 to 2006, he served in Standing Committees that brought in amendments to Indian Medical Council Act 2006. He used his MP funds to restore Bandra Fort and improve the Bandra Promenade. These kept earning him laurels in India and beyond. The Dadasaheb Phalke Award winner was decorated as Padma Bhushan in (1991), Padma Vibhushan by the present Modi government in 2015, and — befittingly — accorded state honour at his funeral.

My most significant interaction with Dilip Kumar happened four decades after Yahudi – in 1999. Atal Behari Vajpayee was then the Prime Minister, and the Pakistan government was to confer their highest civilian award – Nishan-e-Imtiaz on the actor. In the wake of the Kargill infiltration and the ensuing war this was red rag to the right wingers. Shiv Sena had laid siege outside the thespian’s Pali Hill mansion, objecting to his receiving the award of merit as a betrayal of his own country. At that point Dilip Kumar, who continues to have a massive following across the subcontinent and beyond, had come to meet the Prime Minister. And I, then the Arts Editor of The Times of India, was given a special audience – perhaps also because I was the daughter of ‘Nobendu Babu’.

I clearly recall his words: “I was born in Peshawar, which by a twist of events is now in another land. A boundary line has turned it into a foreign country but I continue to be a produce of that land. I cannot deny that nor do I wish to. And I am not breaking any law of this land by accepting this Order of Excellence. If my country benefits in any way by my refusing this award, then I am willing to do so. If instead it strengthens bonding with a (warring) nation, why should I decline it?”

This is what he said to the Prime Minister too, resulting in Vajpayee ji issuing a statement to the effect that Dilip Kumar does not need to prove his patriotism to anybody. He will do just as his heart dictates. Whether he should accept the Nishan or decline it will be decided by his inner self. No one needs to tell him that.

In later years I have thought to myself: Suchitra Sen, another abiding icon who was paired with Dilip Kumar in Devdas, has been honoured by the Bangladesh government because she was born in Pabna, and we felt happy. Soumitra Chatterjee has been honoured by the French Legion de Honor – as was his mentor Satyajit Ray before him – and we felt honoured. The Government of India conferred the Padma on Sir Richard Attenborough for his directorial essay on Gandhi (1983) and we rejoiced. If all of these gladdened our hearts, why should we take exception to Nishan-e-Imtiaz? Why must we carry scars of the past in our mind and heart? Would it not be better to apply balm on wounds and reinforce peace? 

Before I wrap up, I must time-travel back to 1991. That was the year the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) conferred an Honoris Causa on Nabendu Ghosh whose 25 year association (1966-1991) had seen the emergence of such famous alumni as Kumar Shahani, Jaya Bachchan, Subhash Ghai, Girish Kasaravalli, Aruna Raje, Syed Mirza, Ketan Mehta, Kundan Shah. “By honouring his association with FTII we are also honouring the milestones the screen writer has gifted to the world of cinephile,” Dilip Kumar had said as the Guest of Honour handing over the honorary doctorate.  And in his address to the students, who had caused waves of unrest in FTII, he had said: “You have come here to learn the art of filmmaking. Instead, do you wish to teach your teachers? In our times we did not have any institute, we learnt from our directors. Bimal Roy himself was an institution. Nitin Bose, Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan – they have moulded masters who come to teach you here. You stand to gain if you learn from them. Never forget to benefit from those who have learnt by experience…”

The words stay with me, as do the performances of the timeless actor who stopped short of scoring a century.

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Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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