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A Special Tribute

In Memoriam: Star of the Stage Shines on Screen

Ratnottama Sengupta trains the spotlight on actress Swatilekha Sengupta(22nd May 1950- 16th June 2021)

Swatilekha Sengupta in action in Shanu Roy Chowdhury. Photo sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

“Swatilekha is more talented and far better actor than I. Still, everyone keeps asking for me!” Rudraprasad Sengupta was not boasting to me – the helmsman of  the celebrated Nandikar Theatre Group was citing just one instance to show that “women in theatre still suffer bias[1].”

He wasn’t far from the truth: Swatilekha Sengupta, who passed away exactly a year ago on June 16 at 71, had graduated in English, mastered Western classical music in England, received guidance in theatre from iconic names like Tapas Sen, B V Karanth and Khaled Chowdhury. She composed music for, directed and carried on her shoulder Nandikar productions like Madhabi, Shanu Roy Chowdhury, Pata Jhore Jaay (Dry Leaves Fall), Naachni(Dancers).

Madhabi was adapted from Bhishm Sahni’s Mahabharat based play; Shanu Roy Chowdhury was adapted from Willy Russel’s Shirley Valentine; Naachni encapsulated the exploitation of the nautch girls of tribal Purulia. She wrote some, she composed the music for some, she travelled to UK and USA, Germany and Norway and Scotland… with husband Rudrapasad, with daughter Sohini, even to stage a one-woman play.  Yet, she is most recalled for playing Bimala in Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire (Home and the World, 1985) – although, ironically, she faced fierce criticism for its critical failure!

Growing up in Allahabad Swatilekha – then Chatterjee – had repeatedly watched Charulata (1964) and Mahanagar (1963) with her school friends. She even wrote to Ray seeking an opportunity to work under him. Of course the letter went unanswered – or perhaps it went astray? For, Ray watched Swatilekha in Nandikar’s Galileo and zeroed in on her for the dream role of Bimala: the wife of a forward-thinking zamindar, Nikhiliesh, whose concern for the welfare of the peasantry under his care is critiqued and upended by an upstart revolutionary, Sandip.

Tagore had written the novel, told through the personal stories of the three protagonists, in 1916 when the Nationalist movement was peaking. The 1905 Partition of Bengal had outraged both, the Hindus and the Muslims, and the protests against the religion-based partition also saw Tagore set Bankim Chandra’s Vande Mataram to music and singing the song to protest the imposition of foreign rule. But after the ‘administrative division’ was rescinded, the call to boycott foreign goods in favour of Swadeshi, indigenous, appealed to the masses – and that led to tensions between the anti-British activists and the idealists. Swadeshi was critiqued as being unaffordable for the peasantry by Nikhilesh in the film and by Tagore, who contended that humanity came before nationalism. Effectively, then, the drama had pitted the conservative versus the radical, rational versus the emotional, East versus West. In short, the home versus the world.

So keen was Swatilekha’s appetite for the character that, on the first day, she’d defied a local bandh[2] and walked from her home in north Calcutta to the legend’s Bishop Lefroy address across the city. On learning that she’d not read the Tagore classic the iconic director had insisted that she should NOT read it. On noticing that she was staring at a harpsichord Ray had asked her if she could play it, and on hearing that she played the piano he’d asked her to play a Beethoven and he had himself whistled along!

Swatilekha Sengupta & Soumitra Chatterjee in Satyajit Ray’s 1985 film, Ghare Baire. Photo sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

All this camaraderie must have passed on to his actor: when the film released to the world, a prestigious American newspaper praised the “immense grace” of the “pretty, surprisingly wilful Bimala”. But the demanding viewers at home tore her to pieces saying “she neither lived nor looked the role”. Suddenly her ‘home’ had turned into a horrid world… “I sunk into depression and wanted to end my life!” Swatilekha had confessed to my young screen-writer friend, Zinia Sen, while preparing to return to the screen 30 years later — with the same co-star, Soumitra Chatterjee, in Bela Sheshe (In the Autumn of My Life, 2015), which is now considered a cult film.

The story of Arati and Biswanath Majumdar takes a curious turn when, on the eve of their 50th anniversary, the husband seeks to divorce his wife. Because? Arati, a typical, traditional housewife, happily spends her life cooking and cleaning, washing and nursing. For, in her vocabulary, those are just other words to say ‘I love you’ to her husband; for looking after her in-laws; for expressing her concern for her daughters and son and grandchildren… This is a far cry from her husband’s definition of a dream partner. For Biswanath, the proprietor of a fabled bookstore, has unending curiosity about the world and wants to travel beyond the map… 

The five relationships depicted in the film attempt to define the life-long companionship we brand as marriage. Do marriage vows ensure the fairy tale ending of happiness ever after? Is married life built upon promises kept and love requited? Or do unfilled expectations and unarticulated expressions also cement the friendship? Is it possible to walk into the sunset hand in hand?

Soumitra Chatterjee and Swatilekha Sengupta in Belasheshe. Photo sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

Bela Sheshe made on a budget of Rs 1.1 crore reaped Rs 2.3 crore. More importantly, while reviving faith in institutionalised partnership it also breathed new box office appeal in the screen partners, Soumitra Chatterjee and Swatilekha Sengupta. In Belashuru (A New Beginning, 2022) the latest outing of Nandita Roy and Shiboprasad Mukherjee, the director duo have again cast them as Arati and Biswanath. This time, though, it is a new beginning for the husband is eagerly striving for his Alzheimer afflicted wife to recognise that the ‘stranger’ who follows her everywhere, even her bed, is her now-aged groom. For, Arati now lives in the past she left in Faridpur, along with the pond she’d fish in with Atindrada and the textile shop of her comrade in crime, when she got married…

The film pivots on Arati, and Swatilekha outshines one and all in the cast. Not surprising: the actor’s total commitment to the character is borne out by Zinia. She recalls that, “when the rest of the unit sat listening to Soumitra Da’s [3]enthralling anecdotes and Kharaj Da’s [4] humour filled recitation, Swati Di[5] refused to join in. Instead, she retired within herself, just as Arati would.”

Swatilekha Sengupta as Ammi in Dharma Juddha, a film that will be released in August 2022. Photo sourced By Ratnottama Sengupta.

This is echoed by Raj Chakraborty, the director of Dharma Juddha (Religious War ) which was screened in the recent Kolkata International Film Festival. He recounts that the film was shot in Purulia that suffers extreme summer, but “since the sequence was set on a winter night, she kept her warm clothes on all through the shoot. Such was her dedication to the character and the script!”

Having followed her theatre over a long time Raj counts it amongst his blessings that he could work with her. “I’m certain there was more left to learn,” he sighs as he awaits the masses’ response to the film which once again, rests on the sturdy shoulder of Ma/ Ammi/Dadi[6]. Raj could envisage none but Swatilekha as the protagonist who shelters to two sets of men and women when Ismailpur is seized by an apocalyptic night of communal rage. The pacifier succeeds in instilling brotherhood in the four victims from rival camps – until the tragic truth about her son’s death is revealed. It drives home the realisation that the foremost religion is humanism.

Like Swatilekha, Soumitra Da too had a strong presence on the stage. And fortunately, the screen pair’s daughters – Sohini and Poulami, respectively – are also deeply into theatre.  “I had chosen theatre when I wanted to direct,” he’d said to me when Sangeet Natak Akademi had decorated him, “because, if I make films, people will always compare me with Manikda[7].”

That is why I am doubly delighted that the makers marked the release of Bela Shuru [8]– the duo’s last film – around Swatilekha’s birth anniversary[9], with a unique exhibition. it showcases Soumitra’s typewriter, the script he penned for a play, a collection of pipes acquired on travels abroad; his paintings, poems, letters to his daughter from his Jaisalmer shoot for Sonar Kella (1974)… And it showcases Swatilekha’s violin and mouth-organ; the costumes she wore in Nachni and Bela Shuru; and, a congratulatory letter to Swatilekha, from a star admirer — Amitabh Bachchan…[10]

Soumitra Chatterjee and Swatilekha Sengupta in Bela Shuru. Photo Sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

Surely a far cry from the bias that you lamented when you celebrated the 150th birth anniversary of Notee Binodini [11] in 2013, Rudra Da[12]?

*

Yes, theatre people the world over agree, that the ‘Moon of Star Theatre’ was deprived of her rightful honour when the theatre that was founded by her not named after her. Why? Because “the aristocrats would not like to enter a place named after a noti.” Thespian Noti Binodini might have been, but she was a fallen woman, wasn’t she? So what if this contemporary of Tagore was the first South Asian actress to pen her own story – Aamar Katha — a lucid memoir that portrays the 19th century society in Bengal which was at ease with European ideas but confined women to homes. So what if the sage Ramakrishna had gone into a trance as he watched her essay Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1884)? Such was her portrayal that thespian Amritlal Bose wrote, “Whenever I bow to any wooden or painted image of Sri Chaitanya, I see Binodini before my eyes.”

Binodini Dasi had gone onstage at age 12, under mentor Girish Ghosh (1844-1912), and her career had ended when she was just 23. Merely 11 years, but those were the years when the proscenium theatre modelled after European convention was spreading in Bengal. In those 11 years Binodini enacted 80 roles, playing Sita, Draupadi, Radha, Kaikeyi or Pramila, Mrinalini, Motibibi, Ayesha. Please note: She pioneered modern stage make-up by blending European and indigenous styles.

“Because of this, people who had seen her in one role could not recognise her in another,” Girish Ghosh himself wrote. Yet this same stalwart of theatre, to please whom Binodini had drained her own resources and founded Star Theatre in north Calcutta, refused to write a foreword for My Story as it contained uncomfortable truths about Binodini’s patrons!

Why did the chroniclers of Bengal Renaissance overlook the contribution of this marginalised star to the land’s cultural mileu? “Because of the class-caste divide,” Soumitra Chatterjee suggests in his foreword for the memoir. “How could the Brahmo-Brahmin dominated upper crust acknowledge the talents of a lowborn ‘prostitute’?”

More than a century later, Swatilekha took it upon herself to train the spotlight on the fact that the years had failed to change the plight of another set of dancing artistes – the Nachnis.


[1] Women in Theatre suffer bias.’ – quoted from Times of India, article by Ratnottama Sengupta.

[2] Strike where transport was halted

[3] Soumitra Chatterjee (1935-2020)

[4] Kharaj Mukherjee : Actor and comedian

[5] Swatilekha Sengupta (1950-2021)

[6] Grandmother

[7] Satyajit Ray

[8] Release date: 20.5.2022

[9] 22. 5. 1950

[10] Amitabh Bachhan, one of the most nationally and internationally awarded and influential actors

[11] Play based on the life Binodini Dasi

[12] Rudraprasad Sengupta, husband of Swatilekha and a theatre personality

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
Essay

What’s Novel in a Genre?

                                        

By Indrasish Banerjee                             

  I mostly read commercial fiction and novels the first eight to ten years after I started reading. At that time, I was not familiar with the concept of genres and didn’t know – much less cared – about them. I was taking my first steps into the world of books and reading a new novel and finishing it was all that mattered. A decade or so later, now much more comfortable in the bibliographic world, I started experimenting with other types of books. Freakonomics (2005) by Steven Levitt was my first foray into non- fiction.  Then I experimented with a few more history non-fiction books (history was one of subjects in graduation) mainly by William Dalrymple and Jawaharlal Nehru but also by other writers. Keen on territorial conquests of another kind, I experimented with Khushwant Singh, Anita Desai, RK Narayan and a few works by a few more Indian writers. Further from home, I tried out Charles Dickens (had read some abridged versions of his novels in school), Thomas Hardy, EM Forster and more. I read their novels, short stories and essays whatever I found.

 I had travelled very far from where I had started many years ago, crisscrossing genres. But my idea of what makes a good read had hardly changed. Whether it came to fiction or non-fiction, contemporary or classic, it still revolved around ‘a story well told’. Of course, some characteristics had changed. I had become more patient with slower narratives, more adept at handling complex narratives, more comfortable with narrative calisthenics and more at ease with diverse types of writing. I had also developed an understanding about the basic differences between literary and commercial works. Even so, my idea of a good read had remained resistant to transformative changes, engendering the question in my mind: “Do genres really matter?”

 The answer is both yes and no. Genres help categorise books based on what the reader can expect of them. There are millions and millions of books in the world and just imagine there being no basis to separate one book from another. The reader would have to go from the beginning to end of a book to understand what it was all about or start a journey without knowing what lay ahead. As much as it could be a delightful experience, it would bring in its own challenges. One of them would be to market the book.

Even if we don’t want to overlook the importance of commerce to art, let’s admit that no two things in the world treat each other with as much suspicion. Be that as it may, writers have, from to time, expressed their derision for genre. Kazuo Ishiguro, who has written many genre benders, once said in an interview that genres have no profound literary purpose or any substantial contribution to literature. They are creations of book marketers and their purpose is solely to sell books.

  But is literary genre’s relevance to literature only archival and commercial? Maybe a minor digression will bring in a new perspective.

 In Hindustani music, genre plays a vital role: it adds variety and richness. There are multiple gharanas (schools) in Hindustani music. Their identity is based on their geographical regions (Lucknow gharana, Carnatic gharana) they come from, the distinct musical heritage and ancestry they represent and the musical form they practice. However, the uniqueness of each gharana is determined by the raga it engineers by combining several suras (pitches). There are seven suras (notes) in Hindustani music.

 Film genres contribute to films, of course, in terms of variety but also by creating slots based on audience preferences, social anxieties, aspirations and various other factors which allow filmmakers to address the associated emotions by placing their films in the predefined categories which helps to find a ready audience. Film genres are more fluid than Hindustani music genres. They come and go and also get clubbed creating a hybrid genre where different genres are built into one narrative to appeal to a wider audience.

On the other hand, traditionally, book genres have had rigid boundaries with very minimal or no cross-genre exchanges. In fact, the boundaries have been so rigid that authors of one genre have never shied away from expressing their disdain for their counterparts in another genre. Broadly speaking, the two warring factions have been literary and commercial fiction.  

In The Naive And The Sentimental Novelist (2011), Orhan Pamuk says commercial novels (detective, crime, romance, sci fi novels) lack a ‘centre’ – a profound reflection on the meaning of life – which is integral to literary novels. This absence of a centre in commercial novels makes almost all of them same with nothing substantial separating one genre novel from another except their characters, plot twists and the murderer. This lack of substance makes it important for genre novels to always provide excitement to their readers, he alleges. On the contrary, according to Pamuk, a literary novel is a constant quest for the centre not just for the reader but also for the writer.

 Some writers may not know the centre to start with discovering it while writing the novel as an act of serendipity. Some may structure their plots such as to illuminate the centre.  Tolstoy had to change War and Peace (written in 1869, Translated in 1899) many times to discover its centre. Pamuk informs that Dostoyevsky had suffered epileptic attacks, after writing The Devils (1871-72, translated 1916), when he had realised that he had made a mistake leading to the sudden appearance of a new plan. And he had changed everything radically, Dostoyevsky had claimed.

 Howevee, in The Miraculous Years, Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky’s biographer had said Dostoyevsky was exaggerating. The new plan had indeed changed the novel from a mediocre novel with one dimensional characters to a brilliant political one, but Dostoyevsky hadn’t changed more than forty pages of the 250 pages he had written the previous year. Apparently, it’s the ‘centre’ of the novel the great writer had referred to when he had said he had radically changed it, Pamuk concludes.

  In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh blames this obsession of serious literature with daily humdrum, or the ordinariness of life has traditionally kept it away from dealing with subjects which are not considered ‘serious’ leaving them for the humbler genre fiction. Climactic events like a gale flattening a town or massive rains drowning it were considered too incredulous, not making the cut for nineteenth century literary gravitas.

 Until 19th century the division between fiction and non-fiction was fuzzy. In the 19th century, thanks to Industrial Revolution, there was a profusion of factories – moving workforces from unorganised, ruralized setups to more disciplined and controlled environments.  What followed was people constructing their lives around their workplaces. This transformed rural and agricultural societies into orderly and urbanised ones bringing about a new kind of society which was far more cloistered, sober and unexciting than earlier societies which, being agricultural and rural, were far rougher and exposed to vagaries of life and nature. The colourful stories of pre 19th century couldn’t adequately capture this new reality; it needed a new kind of literary tool. In came the serious fiction or what we call today the literary novel.   

Pamela by Samuel Richardson (1740), Shamela by Henry Fielding (1741) and Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1760) were the first attempts at literary novel dealing with such solemn themes as social differences, inner conflicts and women’s sexual autonomy. This style of writing travelled far and wide. Among others, it was adopted by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, among the earliest practitioners of the novel in India, digressing from the earlier traditions of storytelling in India, the Jataka tales and so on, informs Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.

 Over a period of time, puritanism around contours of literary fiction set in, and it’s difficult to say when the wall between serious and literary fiction collapsed – in fact one can say it never did. But just as literary novels had emerged to accommodate a new kind of reality in 19th century, breaking away from genre fiction, genre benders have accounted for another kind of changing reality which is presenting challenges hitherto unimagined within the conventional boundaries of human life, like the effects of climate change and technological advances like artificial intelligence and machine learning.

  To capture the idiosyncrasies of modern life, many literary writers have flouted the boundary between literary and genre novels by setting their plots in the genre format while retaining the treatment of literary fiction. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000), Christopher Banks, now a private detective in London, sets out to investigate how his parents disappeared from Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War.  The novel is about life’s profundities like memory, nostalgia at its heart, although it’s written like a detective novel. The plot constantly moves from one incident to another keeping the reader waiting for the end, even as it draws a detailed picture of Shanghai society during the war. In Ishiguro’s recent book – Klara And The Sun (published in 2021) – he explores what separates human from robot even after the robot has acquired human-like intelligence. The book has a children’s book like element to it which is its main charm.

  Many writers have experimented with multiplicity of forms, but among the notable books are Kobo Abe’s 1950s novel, Inter Ice Age 4, which starts as a hardwired sci fi but slowly evolves into a political thriller and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979) whose plot bifurcates into two in the middle of the novel. There on, in some chapters, the reader is solving literary mysteries while the other chapters are the first chapters from other novels of varied styles.

 The novel like any other art form has survived and moved ahead through adoption from within its various forms or external influences. When a new form arrives as a reaction to a social change or occurrence or an enterprising writer pushing back the boundaries, puritanism sets in to preserve the form in its purest state if it achieves literary acceptance and fame. Novels with magic realism and migration are some examples. When the form outlives its utility or is made obsolete by emerging trends or excessive repetition, it gets subsumed by another form and survives as part of it or slowly dies out. And thus, a new form, a mix of the two or many more, emerges. And the novel lives to fight another day.

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Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India. 

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Categories
Essay

When Needles Became Canons…

Ratnottama Sengupta, who has edited an encyclopaedia on culture and is a renowned arts journalist, gives us the role ‘kanthas’ (hand-embroidered mats, made of old rags) played in India’s freedom struggle

“Chhenra kanthay shuey, sinhasaner swapna?!”

(Sleeping on a rag, and dreaming of the throne?!)

Sarcasm dripped from every word when the Bengali proverb was missiled at a person who might have ignored his limited means when planning a revolution. But revolution indeed was wrought by the womenfolk of Bengal in the late 1890s and early 1900s when they discarded the brightly coloured drapes from factories across the seas and opted for the desi taant or handloom cotton saris that were less vibrant, even coarse. They were rising in response to Chaaran Kavi Mukunda Das, the itinerant singer who appealed to them through ballads such as “Chhere dao reshmi churi, aar poro na Banga nari (Leave behind silken threads, do not wear these on Bengali women)”. On the streets, in response to Gandhi’s call for Non-cooperation, men were burning clothes from the mills of Britain. The womenfolk, though confined to the inner courtyard, were not to be left behind in the struggle for the dignity that is freedom.  

Subarnalata by Ashapurna Devi

Jnanpith winner Ashapurna Devi, in Subarnalata – the second part of her timeless trilogy on women’s struggle for empowerment which begins with Pratham Pratishruti (The First Undertaking) — records Haridasi, the housemaid who washed dishes round the clock in the wealthy joint family, bring back the expensive vilaiyati (foreign) sari she’d been given for the Durga Pujas. “Here, even if you can’t replace it, please take this back as this is an absolute no-no in our basti (colony) now,” she tells the karta, head of the tradition-bound family. Muktakeshi is stung by this insolence and threatens to sack Haridasi. But her daughter-in-law Subarnalata uses the incident as an excuse to make a bonfire on the terrace, with all the foreign made clothes the family elders and children had been gifted. If she’s chastised for this, so be it! When even little boys were submitting to police atrocities and men were sacrificing their all to sing Vande Mataram (Salute Motherland, authored by Bankim), how could the walls lock out the liberation cry?

Subarnalata, born and raised in the City of Palaces, is not alone in the silent war. Phuleswari, an elderly aunt-in-law she visits in the countryside, asks her if she has the borders of discarded saris. She needs two colours, black and red, to complete a kantha she has worked on. “But make sure these are not from vilaiyati saris,” she tells Subarna. “Those are far more attractive. The desi (Indian) ones are not half as shiny. But if I fall for the shine, my son Ambika will be offended. He told me, ‘It’s only because you have embroidered Yashoda-Krishna, else I would have fed this half-done kantha to fire!’” Subarna, who has not come armed with worn out saris, takes out her newly acquired hand-woven saris, tears off the desi borders and gives them to Phuleswari.

*

Yashoda chastising Krishna, gopinis (women friends or the milkmaids) pleading for their clothes, or dancing the Raas with Krishna, Duryodhan disrobing Draupadi, Durga slaying Mahishasura, Jagannath on the Rath with brother Balaram and sister Subhadra, Dasarath in a forest, Rama hunting the golden deer, Royal Bengal tiger, alligator, rows of elephants, horses, peacocks… Legends and icons were the major themes tackled by the ladies who inherited the evolved art of the needle from their mothers and aunts and grand aunts in the Hindu families. But these intricate lores were for the especially worked ‘lepkathas or sujnis – bedspreads primarily meant to be quilts or perhaps light wraps. Since these were given at marriages or at childbirth, soon ‘secular’ motifs such as boats and palanquins too entered the rectangular ‘playfield’, as did jewellery and ornaments like bajubandh which lent itself to the snake motif, and paati-haar or mat-patterned necklace.

But what kept the womenfolk busy round the year was the khoka (baby) kanthas used in the days when diapers were unknown, and every branch of the family tree became proud parents several times over. These small sized kanthas widely used the central motif of lotus and water lilies that were seen all around in the land of rivers, ponds, jheels or lakes. Surrounding the flora would be vines, the betel leaf, hand fans, fish, parrots, sparrows or some other small birds.

Then, there were the Aasan or carpet-like spreads meant for sitting on the floor. If they were to be used at mealtime, they would be patterned with kitchen utensils like ladle, kadhai, boti – the Bengali all-purpose knife, sickle or kaita, coconut dessicator, and fish that spells prosperity. The ones meant for daily pujas in the prayer room were adorned with floral motifs, leafs from nature, the paisley off a mango or recurrent curvilinear swastikas to ward off the evil eye. Such kanthas also served as covers for the mirror, on pillows, or even as rumal (kerchiefs).  

In households that would spread out the jainamaza (prayer rug), dastarkhan (for mealtime spread) or gilaf to cover the Quran, the running stitch — mostly in red and black or green and blue thread drawn from worn out clothes — would conjure the tree of life, the pond laden with lotus, or simply abstract the rippling effect of water and of chatai, the mat in every Bengal home. In short, the craftsperson’s aesthetics built upon utilitarian objects of every shape from the landscape of everyday life. In this respect, kantha shared a kinship with Alpana, the art of drawing patterns on the earthen floor with rice powder.

*

The coming of the British changed the age-old tradition that is believed to have originated with the famished Buddha lying in the open, covered by patchwork rags or quilted cloth. Until, roughly, the 1800s the rag and the needle accounted for only the material half of the kantha: the hand that stitched and the imagination that determined the pattern to be embroidered spelt the other half.  Both, the material and the motif were altered, subtly and gradually, by the historical and social metamorphosis that set in with the advent of the Europeans. For, with the imperialists came the tapestry inspired art and the needlework on matte cloth that relied upon the cross-stitch for its staple.

Now, this form of crafting spreads – be it for the bed, the table, or the floor – used designs that were published in books that came from England, France, Germany, and depicted European floral bouquets, pups and kittens, girls in bonnet or with umbrella, fairytale cottages, Greek warriors, even Zodiac signs. These mirrored the social reality of the landscape in which the rulers had grown up and left behind when they set out to conquer and rule. So, for the ‘natives’ this was as remote geographically as it was historically or in terms of tradition.

When the British rulers set up schools for girls and colleges for ladies, the students naturally took to crafting cross-stitch tablecloths and napkins, hand towels, tray cloth and tea cozy that were a part of the colonial lifestyle. The more enterprising ones even stitched the yardage together to make bedspreads and wraps but the amount of labour that went into it was immense. More importantly, the kantha was a unique, creative way of recycling that simultaneously conveyed the love of the elders who would make them in their minimal spare hours. Their kanthas may not have been autographed – though some were, but they certainly were ‘Stay Happy’ blessings even when the words ‘Sukhey Thako’ were not embroidered in by the unlettered grand aunts when the monsoon showers forced them to cut down on the outdoor rituals of preparing vadi, papad, achaar(pickle), kashundi(sauce) and sundry items for consumption round the year, or by widowed aunts with little wherewithal.

In later years, the creatively endowed craftswomen who could stitch layers of cloth without using a single knot, would also start stitching Radha Krishna, Shiv Parvati or Ram Sita on the matte. But by this time the Kantha had also come to grips with the social upheaval and had started depicting guns and cannons on the quilt! By this time, the Bengal Partition of 1905 had been reversed and the Nationalist movement had surged. Durga slaying the Bull Demon had acquired a renewed meaning as Sarbajanin Durgotsab – people’s celebration – took on a nationalist fervour. At the same time Khudiram, Netaji and Tagore gained wide popularity as icons to be mounted on the wall or even to be gifted as swaddle cloth for newborn to signify such blessings as “May you be like them!” or “May you live in a Free Country”.  Gandhi’s charkha (spinning wheel) also gained popularity as a motif along the border of the kantha – this was another quiet way of joining the bandwagon of khadi that was spreading the unarmed war against the rulers into the interiors of the land.

As collections in some Museums of Folk Art such as Gurusaday Dutta’s show, the change in motif also saw the head to toe ‘Gora Sahib’ – a white-skinned European, as Bengal had also gone through periods of French domination – make his appearance in kanthas. This was not unique to the needlework art, though. The coveted Balucharis of Bishnupur and Murshidabad that were conventionally identified by their depiction of battle scenes from Kurukshetra or nawab-begums smoking hookahs or driving horse carriages were now sporting Europeans – suited booted and donning hat, and sometimes along with their automobiles!

This change carried itself into the terracotta tiles too: the terracotta temples of Bankura and Birbhum that stand to this day, singing paeans to the heroism of the Devatas who vanquished the Asuras, or of Radha Krishna, Shiv Parvati and Sri Chaitanya, now showed Bengali Babus wearing ‘chapkan’ like the ones we see on social reformer Raja Rammohan Roy or litterateur Bankim Chandra.

There is another, more subversive side to the use of motifs on kanthas. At the peak of the Nationalist movement, when almost every house in Bengal Province was proud to see their youngsters follow Shahid Khudiram’s way, when Master-Da Surya Sen and Binoy-Badal-Dinesh were inspiring the curbs to join organisations like the Bengal Volunteers, and when women like Bina Das, Kalpana Dutta and Pritilata Wadedar too were picking up guns and bhojalis (daggers), the preteen girls played messengers and couriers. Often, when they could not openly send out a message, the revolutionaries would code it through the motifs on the innocuous kanthas that would be draped on babies in arm.

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This last bit of history comes from my personal family. My father-in-law Kshiti Prasanna Sengupta, first cousin of Shahid Dinesh Gupta and active member of Bengal Volunteers, was jailed in 1933 right after his Matriculation Examination to be released only at the crack of 1947. His incarceration followed the bombing of three consecutive District Magistrates in Midnapore – of James Peddie in 1931, Robert Douglas in 1932, and B E J Burge in 1933. His sister Rama, then in her pre-teens, was often one such unaware courier as she was asked to reach innocuous objects to one or the other household – among them, baby kanthas.

Kantha, as mentioned before, were crafted by women in their moments of leisure carved out of a daily household routine that enjoyed little assistance from mechanical tools and kitchen gadgets. Stitching together three, five or seven layers of saris or dhotis was an arduous pastime to say the least. Yet they took pride in this pastime as the result was their very own creation, not only putting to good use what would otherwise be considered waste but also adding to the wellness of family members, many of whom would not even have the comfort of sleeping on a charpoy. Away from any thought of carrying forward a heritage, our grandmas were not even doing it for economic benefit or ‘self-help.’

Then came the generation of my mother Kanaklata, mother-in-law Aparna and aunt Smritikana, who had gone to schools where they mastered the art of cross-stitch on matte and knitting woolens that would then be sent off to British soldiers on the Burma border of 1944. They were game for the simple art of running stitch; they were adept at crotchet and could weave silken laces by using the hook that interlocked yarns or thread. No longer were they confined to the inner courtyard although they did not have the compulsion to go out to earn their bread. Neither did they crave for an identity in the world out there save by preparing their offspring to usher a brave new world. For these mothers and aunts, the needlework creations were a matter of self-dignity alone: they took pride in preparing the trousseau of their daughters and daughters-in-law with the labour of their own nimble fingers.

The turbulences in the outer world are the stuff of history. The luminescence and crevices, the glories and betrayals of those events mould the rock bed of idealism for the generations that follow. But do we realise how the hand that rocked the cradle helped us rule our own nation? Until recent times we failed to take note of the demolitions and reinventions witnessed within the inner courtyard. The turmoils our mothers and aunts lived through changed the complexion of society, of their age, of the way people of their times thought. So much has changed since, too. But women like Ashapurna Devi started relating the story of Subarnalatas, we too were indifferent to the significance of such restructuring. It is time to celebrate those brave women who fought with bare needles and midwifed liberation in the dark quarters where maids would lose their jobs for refusing to wear foreign clothes.

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. 

(This essay will be published in Traditional & Contemporary Kantha, edited by Jasleen Dhamija, made possible by the effort of Siddharth Tagore. It has been shared by the author with permission of the editor and publisher.)

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