Ratnottama Sengupta trains the spotlight on actress Swatilekha Sengupta(22nd May 1950- 16th June 2021)
“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.”
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 But after the ‘administrative division’ was rescinded, the call to boycott foreign goods in favour of Swadeshi, indigenous, appealed to the masses – and that led to tensions between the anti-British activists and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 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!
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?
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 enthralling anecdotes and Kharaj Da’s  humour filled recitation, Swati Di refused to join in. Instead, she retired within herself, just as Arati would.”
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. 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.”
That is why I am doubly delighted that the makers marked the release of Bela Shuru– the duo’s last film – around Swatilekha’s birth anniversary, 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…
Surely a far cry from the bias that you lamented when you celebrated the 150th birth anniversary of Notee Binodini in 2013, Rudra Da?
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 foundedStar 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.
 Women in Theatre suffer bias.’ – quoted from Times of India, article by Ratnottama Sengupta.
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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In Conversation with Professor Uma Das Gupta, Tagore scholar, author of A History of Sriniketan: Rabindranath Tagore’s Pioneering work in Rural Reconstruction published by Niyogi Books, 2022
Tagore (1861-1941) has been celebrated as one of the greatest poets of the world, a great philosopher, a writer, an artist, a polyglot but what did the maestro himself perceive as his greatest ‘life work’?
He wrote: “My path, as you know, lies in the domain of quiet integral action and thought, my units must be few and small, and I can but face human problems in relation to some basic village or cultural area. So, in the midst of worldwide anguish, and with the problems of over three hundred millions staring us in the face, I stick to my work in Santiniketan and Sriniketan hoping that my efforts will touch the heart of our village neighbours and help them in reasserting themselves in a new social order. If we can give a start to a few villages, they would perhaps be an inspiration to some others—and my life work will have been done.” This was in a letter in 1939 to an agricultural scientist, Leonard Elmhirst (1893-1974), who helped him set up Sriniketan, a craft and agricultural development project for the villages which fell under the purview of the Tagore family zamindari.
To Tagore, his ‘life work’ lay in the welfare of humankind and poetry was just one of the things he did, like breathing. He told a group of writers, musicians, and artists, who were visiting Sriniketan in 1936: “The picture of the helpless village which I saw each day as I sailed past on the river has remained with me and so I have come to make the great initiation here. It is not the work for one, it must involve all. I have invited you today not to discuss my literature nor listen to my poetry. I want you to see for yourself where our society’s real work lies. That is the reason why I am pointing to it over and over again. My reward will be if you can feel for yourself the value of this work.”
These are all incidents woven into a book called A History of Sriniketan by historian and Tagore biographer, Uma Das Gupta, who did her post-doctoral research on the maestro and the history of the educational institutions he founded at Santiniketan and Sriniketan. She moved out of Oxford and pursued her studies in Calcutta. She has highlighted Tagore uniquely as an NGO (Non-governmental organisation) operator and also an educator. Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) in her book Our Santiniketan, recently translated by Radha Chakravarty, focussed on his role mainly as an educator who sought to revive values, a love for nature along with rigorous academics to create thinkers and change makers like the author herself.
A History ofSriniketan is about his work among villagers to bridge gaps. Often, his poetry and writing expresses the empathy he felt for pain and suffering, his need to instil beauty and well-being into humankind so that they could evolve towards a better world — an ideal which he described to an extent in poems like ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’ and India’s national anthem.
Dasgupta did this by not only delving into Tagore’s own writings but by devoting her life to unearth the depth of the maestro’s commitment and the hard work and money he invested in the project he described as his ‘Life’s work’. She even visited the villages and talked to the beneficiaries and workers. Her book is peppered with photographs of the Tagore in Sriniketan. It is amazing to see pictures of the poet with people from Sriniketan sitting on the ground or celebrating festivities.
Tagore, Das Gupta tells us, poured all his Nobel prize money, into the Sriniketan Bank project which was led by his son, Rathindranath. The project hoped to free the peasant from debt. How well were these experiments received by Tagore’s contemporaries? Das Gupta writes in her book: “It would not be an exaggeration to say that Rabindranath had to encounter all of those things, that is, to ‘overcome opposition’ and to ‘conquer space and time’, in no uncertain measure. In short, he had to drive hard to do anything good for a better village life. As a first step, he insisted that Indians should unite to provide nation-building services to the village and not look to the State for doing what was our own duty towards our people. For him, this had to be the more important function of the Swaraj being sought from alien rule.
“In Rabindranath’s view, what had misled society in our transition to modernity was the introduction of the Western concepts of private property and material progress. What this led to was that mankind, though never free from greed, now crossed the limits, within which it was useful rather than harmful. What came about as a result was that property became individualistic and led to the abandoning of hospitality to our people and loss of communication with them. As a consequence, there was an increasing divide between city and village. He found all that to be the reality, when trying to bring about changes, both in his family’s agricultural estates and in the villages surrounding Santiniketan-Sriniketan.”
To bridge this divide, Sriniketan was created with the involvement of more of the Tagore family, agriculturists, scientists from all over the world, like Leonard Elmhirst whom Tagore had invited in 1921 to lead the Sriniketan work, and artists, like Nandalal Bose. It was a path breaking experiment which found fruition in the long run. They adapted from multiple cultures without any nationalistic biases. Rathindranath brought batik from Indonesia into the leather craft of Sriniketan. We are told, “One of the early influences was from Santiniketan’s association with a group of creative thinkers from Asia, who were spearheading a Pan-Asian Movement that questioned Western hegemony in art and artistic expression. A pioneer of the Pan-Asian Movement was Kakuzo Okakura (1863–1913, Japanese scholar and author of The Book of Tea). He came to Calcutta in 1904, when he met Rabindranath, and they became friends. Okakura admired and supported Rabindranath’s Santiniketan school. Nandalal’s Kala-Bhavana syllabus included Okakura’s artistic principles of giving importance to nature, tradition, and creativity, which were the same as Rabindranath’s artistic principles.”
That Tagore’s effort was unique and overlooked by the mainstream is well brought out through the narrative which does not critique but only evidences. For instance, Das Gupta contends: “He (Tagore) wrote the same to Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, in a letter dated 28 February 1930, when appealing for a government grant towards agricultural research. ‘I hope I shall have the opportunity on my return for another talk with Your Excellency in regard to what has been my life’s work and in which I feel you take genuine personal interest.’ Lord Irwin had come for a visit to Sriniketan at the time and Rabindranath was told of his favourable impression of what he saw during his visit to Sriniketan. In his letter, Rabindranath wrote how he was doing the work ‘almost in isolation’, without any understanding from his people or from the government.” Does that often not continue to be the story of many NGOs?
Sriniketan by Dasgupta is a timely and very readable non-fiction which brings to light not just the humanitarian aspect of Tagore but the need for the world to wake up to the call of nature to unite as a species beyond borders created by humans and live in harmony with the Earth. It all adds up in the post-pandemic, climate-disaster threatened world. To survive, we could learn much from what is shared with us in this book. I would love to call it a survival manual towards a better future for mankind. Scholarship has found a way to connect with the needs of the real world. The book is reader friendly as Das Gupta writes fluently from the bottom of her heart of a felt need that is being voiced by modern thinkers and gurus like Harari — we need to bridge borders and unite to move forward.
Das Gupta retired as Professor, Social Sciences Division, Indian Statistical Institute. She was Head of the United States Educational Foundation in India for the Eastern Region. Recently, she has become a National Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IAAS), Shimla, and a Delegate of Oxford University Press. Her publications include Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography; The Oxford India Tagore: Selected Essays on Education and Nationalism; A Difficult Friendship: Letters of Rabindranath Tagore and Edward Thompson, 1913–1940; Friendships of ‘largeness and freedom’: Andrews, Tagore, and Gandhi, An Epistolary Account, 1912–1940. In this interview, she focusses mainly on her new book, A History of Sriniketan, while touching on how Tagore differed from others like Gandhi in his approach, his vision and enlightens us about a man who created a revolution in ideological and practical world, and yet remained unacknowledged for that as in posterity he continues to be perceived mainly as an intellectual, a poet and a writer.
You are a well-known biographer of Tagore and have done extensive research on him. What made you put together A History of Sriniketan?
Grateful for your kind appreciation.
Writing a history of Sriniketan has been a priority for me. As a Tagore biographer, my dominant theme is about a poet who was an indefatigable man of action. His work at Sriniketan is of prime importance in that perspective. The secondary theme is of him as a poet and writer of many a genre, lyric, poetry, narratives, short stories, novels and plays. I had to make a choice of emphasis between the two themes since I did not intend to write a full-scale biography covering all aspects of Tagore’s life, equally. My choice was to explore his educational ideas and to examine how he implemented them at his Santiniketan and Sriniketan institutions. His work as an educator and rural reformer is even today hardly known because his genius as a poet and a song writer overshadowed his work as an educator, rural reformer, and institutional builder. That area of research was quite virgin when I started it as a post-doctoral project in the mid-1970s. For perceptions about his poetry and his large oeuvre I have drawn on the work of the scholars who know the subject better than I do.
My focus is on the concerns that featured persistently in Tagore’s writings and his actions. These were about the alienation in our own society between the elite and the masses, about race conflict and the absence of unity in our society, India’s history, nationalism, national self-respect, internationalism, an alternative education, religion, and humanism as elaborated by him in his collection of essays titled The Religion of Man (1931).
A History of Sriniketan is a detailed presentation about his ideas and his work on rural reconstruction. The idea of doing something to redeem neglected villages came to him when he first went to live in his family’s agricultural estates in East Bengal. His father sent him as manager in 1889. The decade that he spent there was his first exposure to the impoverished countryside. He was then thirty, already a poet of fame, and had lived only in the city till then. The experience played a seminal part in turning him into a humanist and a man of action. The closer he felt to the masses of his society the further he moved from his own class who were indifferent to the masses. His independent thinking gave him the courage of conviction to work alone with his ideas of ‘constructive swadeshi’.
As a pragmatist he knew there was not a lot he could do given his meagre resources as an individual in relation to the enormity of the needs. But he was determined at least to make a beginning with the work. His goals were a revitalized peasantry, village self-reliance through small scale enterprises, cottage industries and cooperative values. He wrote, “If we could free even one village from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established…Let a few villages be rebuilt in this way, and I shall say they are my India. That is the way to discover the true India.”
Disillusioned with nationalist politics he turned to his own responses to the many troubled questions of his times. Tagore was convinced there could be no real political progress until social injustices were removed. He pointed repeatedly to the sectarian elements of Indian nationalism which kept our people divided. He hoped that the Santiniketan-Sriniketan education would create a new Indian personality to show the way out of the conflict of communities. He thus brought a different dimension to nationalism by arguing for universal humanity. It led to doubts about his ‘Indianness’ among his contemporaries. He had the courage to defy the idea of rejecting the world as a condition for being ‘Indian’. In fact, he tried continuously to break out of the isolation imposed on his country by colonial rule. He had the foresight to sense that the awakening of India was bound to be a part of the awakening of the world.
What is the kind of research that went in into the making of this book? What got you interested in Tagore in the first place?
I am a historian by training. Historians have to back up every statement they make in their analysis by written documents. That is why the historian’s main source is the archives. Likewise, my research for this book has been mainly archival. I searched for written documentation from 1922 when the Sriniketan scheme of rural reconstruction work was officially launched. The documentation included the minutes of meetings, memoranda exchanged among the workers of the Institute of Rural Reconstruction, official notes, and annual reports written and filed.
In addition, I used to visit the villages in which the scheme was implemented to get an understanding of the ground reality. The work was started with six villages in 1922, extended to twenty-two more villages in the first ten years, and to many more villages afterwards. When the work was being run on a small scale, the Institute tried to post a village worker to stay in the village itself and work along with the villagers to implement the Sriniketan scheme. Some of these villages actually kept notes and records of their work which I could use as part of my local level research. I also interviewed some of the workers who had retired but who were still living around Sriniketan in their old age though their number was small. I have used those oral interviews in my documentation. Some of the Village Workers had their own private correspondence to which they gave me access.
There is also extensive personal correspondence in the Rabindra-Bhavana Archives between the leaders of the Sriniketan work. Among them first and foremost are Rathindranath Tagore and the British agricultural scientist, Leonard Elmhirst, whom Tagore had invited in 1921 to lead the Sriniketan work. Elmhirst had been to India earlier as a Wartime Volunteer during World War 1. When Tagore came to know of him through another British agriculturist working in Allahabad, Sam Higginbottom by name, he contacted Elmhirst with a request to come to Santiniketan and to lead the Sriniketan work. One of Tagore’s prime targets was to implement Scientific Agriculture in the villages. In fact, many years earlier, in 1906, he had sent his son Rathindranath and another student of the Santiniketan school, Santoshchandra Majumdar, who was Rathindranath’s classmate, to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne to study Agriculture with the view that they would bring back the expertise for the Sriniketan work at the completion of their studies.
Elmhirst was in Sriniketan from 1922 to 1924 after which he returned to his work in England. He worked closely with the Sriniketan team even from far through the letters they exchanged. Rathindranath consulted Elmhirst regularly over Sriniketan’s work in progress and this correspondence is in the archives.
There is also a very charming body of personal letters between Tagore and Elmhirst. Tagore’s originals are among the Elmhirst Papers in the Dartinghall Hall Trust archives in Devonshire, UK, and Elmhirst’s original letters are in the Rabindra-Bhavana archives, Santiniketan. This correspondence has been published.
Another very important source of documentation is available in the Diaries of Leonard Elmhirst which he wrote from the start of the Sriniketan work in 1922. Elmhirst’s Diaries were published by Visva-Bharati titled Poet and Plowman. There are some day-to-day accounts of how the work was being done on the ground by a group of senior students from Santiniketan who had chosen this field for training and of course by the Village Workers who had been appointed by the Institute. There were other leaders who helped with the work throughout like Kalimohan Ghose who later carried out the pioneering Surveys of the Villages. I have included some of these path breaking Surveys in the Appendices of A History of Sriniketan.
Last but not the least important for my research were Tagore’s ideas of education and rural reconstruction about which he wrote several essays in two important collections, namelyPalli-Prakriti(Countryside and Nature) and Sikshya (Education). Some of the essays were autobiographical as to how he started the rural work in his family’s agricultural estates in East Bengal where his father sent him in 1889. He stayed at Selidaha, the Estates’ headquarters, with his family till 1900 when he moved to Santiniketan in South Bengal’s Birbhum district where his father had founded an ashram and called it Santiniketan, the ‘Abode of Peace’. It was not a monastic ashram but one for householders to spend some days in prayer and meditation away from their household responsibilities. This is where Tagore and his young family moved in 1900-01 with his plans to start a school for children in the heart of nature. It was to be a school where the children could learn to creatively assimilate the knowledge imparted to them instead of in the classroom that characterised colonial education. This was how his Santiniketan school was founded in 1901.
Santiniketan was located within two miles of the Bolpur Railway Station on the East Indian Railway Line. It was situated on high ground, in the middle of a wide plain, open to the horizon on all sides. There, father and son had planted noble groves of mainly mango and sal trees. There, in the heart of nature not far from a big city, Tagore had the advantage of being able to draw upon both raw materials and cultural products in equal measure as it were. There was the influence of trees, open fields, and the seasons changing so starkly on the one hand; on the other hand, there was the inspiration of artists, science teachers, libraries, and hand-made, machine-made, equipment.
You ask why I got interested in working on Tagore. There is a very personal story to share. When our son was born in Oxford where my husband and I were working with University Fellowships during 1972-73, we decided to move to Visva-Bharati on an invitation from the then Vice-Chancellor, the eminent historian Pratul Chandra Gupta. We were of course attracted to the possibility of being at Tagore’s institution and also to the prospect of raising our child in its pastoral environment. We did thus move to Visva-Bharati in 1973 leaving our Calcutta jobs at Presidency College, where my husband was Professor of History, and Jadavpur University, where I was teaching. Once we went Visva-Bharati, I began to explore the possibility of doing post-doctoral research on Tagore rather than on colonial history as was the area of my doctoral dissertation at the University of Oxford.
What would be the purpose of such a book? Do you think Tagore’s model would work if multiple NGOs adopted his ideas?
As I have already mentioned I am a biographer of Tagore’s educational ideas and the history of his institutions at Santiniketan and Sriniketan. To me writing this book on a history of Sriniketan was an integral part of my research. But at a personal level, I was concerned that the history of that practical and experimental work that Tagore did under the most difficult of circumstances might get completely forgotten if it were not documented. That was a genuine concern because of two reasons. Firstly, while Santiniketan has retained its charm as a popular tourist spot, and as Santiniketan’s oldest buildings of exceptional architecture had become heritage buildings, Sriniketan did not have anything to show or display for outsiders to connect with its one-time strident presence in bringing life and action to the villages. Secondly, Sriniketan never reinvented the wheel but just carried on from the 1950s as a unit of Visva-Bharati University to fill in for routine bureaucratic and funding purposes. Even its beautiful and thriving craft work that brought acclaim to Sriniketan from well beyond its precincts, would slowly but surely erode.
Therefore, the primary purpose of this book is to document a pioneering humanistic enterprise for posterity, and also for the next generations who were expected to be engaged in the field of rural development even though the original model was not necessarily practically and theoretically viable in today’s socio-economic scenario. The book is also for the scholar and for the generally interested person. When I was starting my work in the mid 1970s, there was no doubt in my mind that Sriniketan was becoming less visible.
As for whether multiple NGOs could use the Tagore model is for the NGOs to tell us, but I do know that in its neighbourhood, Sriniketan remains an important inspiration for mobilizing villages non-politically. There have been one or two such movements in the vicinity of Santiniketan-Sriniketan which are continuing to work actively at grassroots. One is Pannalal Das Gupta’s ‘Tagore Society for Rural Development’. Founded in 1969-70 as a registered society, the Tagore Society specialises in motivating villagers to take on environmental self-help projects. There is also the ‘Amar Kutir Society for Rural Develoment’ located very close to Sriniketan which was once a shelter for runaway political prisoners. Founded in 1923 by Susen Mukhopadhyaya, a young revolutionary freedom fighter then, who was attracted to Tagore’s work in rural reconstruction. We learn from his writing that he kept observing the work while coming in and out of jail himself. ‘Amar Kutir’ developed the work of organising local crafts persons, upgrading their skills, training them in design, and in marketing their products for economic rehabilitation. The Birbhum district had several families of traditional weavers. Some of them had been engaged in trade by the East India Company.
Another such non-governmental private initiative for rural development has come up more recently in 1984 in the outskirts of Sriniketan called the ‘Elmhirst Institute of Community Studies’, (EICS), whose members are working mainly in the areas of women and child development including family counselling, family adoption, de-addiction and rehabilitation, HIV/AIDS education and intervention. They were started with substantial moral and financial support from Elmhirst who was interested in spreading Sriniketan’s pioneering enterprise and taking the ideas further to meet the needs of the later day.
In other parts of India individual leaders were drawn to the work of building village self-reliance and a few had dedicated themselves to the cause in post-independence India. For his Ashrams at Sabarmati and Wardha, Gandhi himself kept closely in touch with Sriniketan which he visited several times even after Tagore’s passing and knew it well. Gandhi’s follower, Baba Amte, in Madhya Pradesh was a key worker in the field. More contemporarily one reads of the utopian commune ‘Timbaktu Collective’ in rural Andhra Pradesh where a husband-and-wife team, Bablu and Mary Ganguly, have organised the hapless farm labourers of Anantapur district to work for the regeneration of wasteland and start projects on organic farming, soil conservation, propagation of traditional food crops and have also taken steps for women’s and Dalit empowerment and rural health. Most of these ideas were at one time born and nurtured in the holistic laboratory for socio-economic development that Sriniketan was. Bablu Ganguly acknowledges Fukuoka as his mentor. Being Bengali by birth, it would not be surprising if he was aware of Tagore but perhaps only as a poet and songwriter.
Tagore withdrew from the national movement to develop villages, which is where, he felt lived a large part of India. Gandhi had a similar outlook. So, where was the divide?
With his deepening sympathy for the suffering millions of his country, Tagore became increasingly critical of the changes that Britain had brought to India. But he also felt strongly for the West’s ideas of humanism and believed they were of benefit to Indian society. Revolutionary changes were inescapably entering into our thoughts and actions. This was evident in the proposition that those whom our society decreed to be ‘untouchables’ should be given the right to enter temples. The orthodox continued to justify their non-entry into temples on scriptural pretexts, but such advocacy was being challenged and resisted. The people’s ‘voice’ had put out the message that neither the scriptures nor tradition nor the force of personality could set a wrong right. Ethics alone could do so.
There were important factors that led gradually to this new way of thinking. The impact of English literature was one such. Tagore pointed out that acquaintance with English Literature gave us not only a new wealth of emotion but also the will to break man’s tyranny over man. This was a novel point of view. The lowly in our society had taken it for granted that their birth and the fruits of their past actions could never be disowned; that their sufferings and the indignities of an inferior status had to be meekly accepted; that their lot could change only after a possible rebirth. Society’s patriarchs also held out no hope for the downtrodden. But contact with Europe became a wake-up call. It was no surprise that in his landmark essay Kalantar (Epoch’s End) Tagore recalled and endorsed the British poet Robert Burns’s unforgettable line, “A man’s a man for a’ that”.
It was in that longing to bring hope to the deprived people that Tagore and Gandhi felt really close. They were both carrying out rural reconstruction work because they knew that the majority of Indians lived in villages and wanted to bring awakening and national consciousness to the villages as the prime goal to freedom. Both men focused their attention on the peasantry as the largest class within Indian society who were paralysed by anachronistic traditions and weighed down by poverty and the absence of education.
The major issues on which Tagore and Gandhi differed were debated nationally. Before discussing the specific issues in the controversy, it would be useful to examine their general positions on freedom and nationalism. In The Religion of Man (1931), Tagore developed the position that the history of the growth of freedom is the history of the “perfection of human relationship”. Gandhi applied the same principle to resolving India’s racial conflict. Tagore took the idea further and challenged the credo of nationalism. Tagore argued that the basis of the nation-state was a menace to the ideal of universal harmony or to the “perfection of human relationship”. But to the nationalist leadership all over the country, including Gandhi, political self-rule or swaraj came to be understood as a necessary phase of spiritual self-rule, or swarajya, and nationalism as the first step towards attaining free human fellowship.
Tagore alone spoke out against that trend. He argued that the crucial stumbling block in India’s future lay in the social problems of the country such as the absence of human rights for the masses and the alienation between the educated classes and the masses. He emphasised what the country needed most of all was constructive work coming from within herself and the building of an ethical society as the best way for rousing national consciousness. The rest would inevitably follow, even political freedom.
In his novel, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1916), Tagore seemed critical of Gandhi’s call for Khadi and burning of mill cloth imported from England. Yet, Sriniketan was a handicraft forum for villagers to find a way to earn a living through agriculture and craft. So, why the dichotomy of perspectives as both were promoting local ware? Where was the clash between Gandhi’s interpretation of Khadi and Tagore’s interpretation of selling indigenous craft?
There was never any conflict in their perceptions or feelings for the poor, Gandhi’s and Tagore’s. Other issues were stirred in relation to the Khadi campaign and the burning of foreign cloth. For instance, the Congress in 1924 moved a resolution under Gandhi’s recommendation enlisting its members to spin a certain quantity of cloth on the charka (spinning wheel) as a monthly contribution. The idea was to give the movement country-wide publicity, and also, to make spinning a means of bonding between the masses and the politicians.
Tagore was wholly opposed to the idea of using the charka as a political strategy for swaraj and explained his position in his 1925 essay titled ‘The Cult of the Charka’. He argued that there was no short-cut to reason and hard work if anything was to succeed; that nothing worthwhile was possible by mass conversion to an idea; that our poverty was a complex phenomenon which could not be solved by one particular application such as spinning and weaving Khadi. Tagore raised the question if our poverty was due to the “lack of sufficient thread”, or due to “our lack of vitality, our lack of unity”?
On burning clothes Tagore’s position was that such a method hurt the poor by forcing them to sacrifice even what little they obtained from selling those clothes. He concluded that buying and selling foreign cloth should be delegated to the realm of economics. In his reply Gandhi wrote, that he did not draw “a sharp or any distinction between economics and ethics”. He added that the economics that hurt the moral well-being of an individual or a nation “are immoral and therefore sinful”.
Is Sriniketan unique? Can it be seen as Tagore’s model for rural development?
To the best of my knowledge there is no parallel institution in India.
I am not aware if Tagore was ever talking of a ‘model’ that he expected others to follow. He was certainly hoping, as he wrote, that his work will help to establish an “ideal” [his word] for the rest of the country.
My own sense is that an “ideal” has been established given that empowerment of the villages through the Panchayats has become a nationwide project. Of course, the government’s approach is not fully in character with Tagore’s holistic vision for the individual’s humanistic development. Today the individual hardly counts, politics and economics are what matter. All the same it has to be said that the villages are getting some attention and are not left to rot as had been the case in the earlier century.
You have said that Tagore faced criticism for the way he used Nobel Prize money. Can you enlighten us on this issue? Tell us a bit about the controversy and Tagore’s responses.
As anyone would surmise the Nobel Prize money was very precious also to the Santiniketan community because the teachers and workers there had to struggle over the resources for the institution. But contrary to the community’s expectation, Tagore decided that the Prize money would be given to the cause of rural credit. He had started the Patisar Krishi (farmers’) Bank in 1906 followed by the Kaligram Krishi Bank. According to Tagore’s biographer, Prasanta Pal, the total investment in the rural banks in 1914 amounted to Rs 75,000 of which Rs 48,000 was invested in the Patisar Krishi Bank at 7% interest per annum and Rs 27,000 at the same rate of interest in the Kaligram Krishi Bank. Tagore decided that only the interest from those investments could be used to pay for the maintenance of the Santiniketan school. The actual purpose of the fund was to give loans to the poor peasants so as to relieve them from exploitation by moneylenders and some unethical landlords too. In order to repay their loans, the peasants had to sell their produce at a rate lower than the market price immediately after drawing the harvest. This phenomenon was causing them perpetual indebtedness. The Krishi Banks were to loan money to the peasantry at a lower rate than the money lenders and relieve them from the age-old exploitation.
Tagore was firm that the primary beneficiary of his Nobel Prize money would be the poor peasantry of his family’s estates, and the Santiniketan school would be only the secondary beneficiary. He tried thus to balance his two main concerns when settling the future of his Nobel Prize money.
It cannot be said there was a ‘controversy’ over this as Gurudev (which was how the community addressed Tagore) was too revered for a controversy to be raised about a decision that he had taken. But there was disappointment. It seemed strangely that even his inner circle had not realised his deep emotional attachment and ideological commitment to the cause of the impoverished peasantry. Perhaps, my response to your earlier question may explain why.
Tagore had noticed the gaps between the different strata of Indian society. Sriniketan was an attempt to bridge the gap. How far did his ideals succeed?
There was tremendous societal gap between the different strata of Indian society. With all of Tagore’s will and effort, it cannot be said that the Sriniketan ideals could bridge the gap. Even today, a perceptive visitor, who visits Santiniketan and Sriniketan, located only within two miles of each other, can tell the difference between the two. Santiniketan looks bright and thriving, but Sriniketan looks neglected.
Community life in the Indian villages was seen to break for the first time with the emergence of professional classes among the English-educated Indians. The city began to attract them away from the villages. Those Indians were happy to let the government take over guardianship of the people and relinquish to it their own traditional duties to society. The result was a widening gap between town and country, city and village. Tagore knew from his life’s direct experience that none of those who dominated the political scene in his time felt that the villagers ‘belonged’. The political leadership apprehended that recognising this vast multitude as their own people would force them to begin the real work of ‘constructive swadeshi’. They were not even interested to try. That was where the Sriniketan effort was invaluable to Tagore. He saw that the endeavour built at least a relationship with the village, if nothing else.
The Sriniketan scheme sought to bridge the gap by bringing to the village a combination of tradition and experiment. Tagore knew that a civilisation that comprises of only village life could not be sustained. “Rustic” was a synonym for the “mind’s narrowness”, he wrote. In modern times, the city had become the repository of knowledge. It was essential therefore for the village to cooperate with the city in accessing the new knowledge. One such vital area of expertise was in agriculture. His study of “other agricultural countries” had shown that land in those countries was made to yield twice or thrice by the use of science. A motor tractor was bought for Sriniketan in 1927 because he believed that the machine must find its way to the Indian village. He wrote, “If we can possess the science that gives power to this age, we may yet win, we may yet live.”
Your book tells us that Sugata Dasgupta’s publication, A Poet & A Plan(1962) showed that Sriniketan had benefitted the villages it adopted decades after Tagore’s death. Has there been further development of these communities or is it status quo?
No, it cannot be said that it is status quo from the 1960s. There have been changes for sure. There have been benefits to the villages from the Government’s projects. Indeed, the government had adopted some of their early projects from Sriniketan’s original work.
More interventions are needed of course but it has to be said something is being done. Of course, the changes I can mention that have benefitted the condition of the villages and therefore the villagers’ lives came well after Sugata Dasgupta’s publication. The three that I can mention are communications, roads, and electricity. Today there are more long-distance buses than ever before transporting people to and from the villages. Totos and cycle rickshaw-vans take passengers from the bus stands to the interior villages. Roads are another major development. Besides the highways, the mud paths in the villages are now being converted to metalled roads. There is electricity in the villages.
I should mention one other significant change which is that secondary education is now fairly common to the present-day rural populace. College education has also come within their reach.
What is the current state of the present day Sriniketan? What do you see as the future of Sriniketan?
Presently, Sriniketan runs as a department or unit of Visva-Bharati University and works according to the University’s requirements. I am not acquainted with the requirements. I continue to be a regular user of the University’s Rabindra-Bhavana archives even now. But I have not been connected with the University in any official capacity after the 1980s which is a long time ago.
Thank you for your time.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)
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The Hungarian Marxist philosopher György Lukács coined the term “transcendental homelessness” in his essay The Theory of the Novel, to explore the feeling of homesickness prevalent in the arena of modern philosophy. The ecosystem of the epic was governed by the cosmic laws of fate, the transcendental signified was ever-present to protect mankind, and the human soul found a transcendental home in that cosmic destiny. The celebrated Postcolonial scholar Edward Said, in his essay, ‘Reflections on Exile’ observes, “Classical epics, Lukács wrote, emanate from settled cultures in which the values are clear, identities stable, life unchanging.” Novel, the brainchild of modernity, is the site where this “transcendental homelessness” functions. The European novel emerged out of a changing society, where the omnipotent figure of God had been effaced, with the invasion of skepticism and rationality. Novels germinate from a societal structure, Said writes, “in which an itinerant and disinterested middle-class hero or heroine seeks to construct a new world, that somewhat resembles an old world left behind forever.” A sense of retrogression, an insatiable urge to return to that erstwhile home haunts the modern world, which suffers from an ontological homelessness. The shadow of this sense of homelessness and estrangement also haunts cinema, which has a novelistic structure. Cinema, which is engraved on celluloid, is written by an auteur, the director, who is analogous to the author of a novel. The characters of the celebrated Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s films suffer from a sense of perpetual homelessness; pangs of isolation and estrangement haunt their sinews and nerves, in the midst of a kaleidoscopic world. This essay would focus on two of Ray’s films: Kanchenjungha (1962) and Charulata (1964) and try to analyze how they create an atmosphere of isolation and estrangement.
Kanchenjungha(1962) narrates the saga of a wealthy aristocratic family, during the final lap of their vacation at Darjeeling. Inclement weather has shrouded the peak of Mount Kanchenjungha with mist, and a parallel mist of confusion, contradictions, unrequited desire, and unspoken words has enveloped the characters. The film describes the primacy of the father figure in the family ecosystem through the character of Indranath (played by Chhabi Biswas), who is a snooty, pompous, and authoritarian figure, who wants his daughter Manisha (played by Alokananda Roy), to marry a wealthy man whom he has hand-picked for her, but she seems to be reluctant to accept this unilateral decision of her father. William Wordsworth, in the poem Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey(1798), had instructed his sister Dorothy to believe in the ways of nature, which fills the mind “with quietness and beauty” and “lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues, rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men” can demotivate her. But Indranath, it seems, stands vertically opposite to the arena of Wordsworthian exhortations; he is completely alienated from nature, his materialistic drive has effaced his capacity to appreciate the beauteous aspects of Darjeeling and the Himalayan wildness. When the ornitho-enthusiast Jagadish, his brother-in-law (played by Pahari Sanyal) talks about his search for a bird, Indranath nonchalantly asks, “Roast hoy? (Could it be roasted?”). He is marooned in his sequestered island of materialism, and his desire to catch a glimpse of the snow-clad Kanchenjungha is basically a competitive desire to acquire a coveted product, real love of nature is not associated with that. He has high opinions about Banerjee (played by N. Viswanathan), the potential groom for Manisha, because he has a starting salary of twelve hundred rupees, which was indeed a handsome amount in the postcolonial context of the film. Indranath’s wife Labanya (played by Karuna Banerjee) is a subjugated woman, who has a feeble presence before the domineering existence of her husband, and her subjectivity finds no outlet. She, therefore, sits on a bench by the abyss, and at the hour of descending fog, sings the Tagore song E Parabase Rabe Ke Hay (“Alas, who will live in this forlorn and alien land”), set in the Hindustani Classical Raga Kafi, which uses the notes komal gandhar (E-Flat) and komal nishad (B-Flat). The raga creates a melancholic mood, as the song touches the somberness of gandhar and the solitary bohemianism of nishad (which is widely used in the mercurial and melancholic Bengali folk music), and it reflects the alienated state of a woman, who has not had her share of love from her husband. Fog dilutes the outlines of the horizon, as her hopes slowly get extinguished and desperation reigns supreme, and the last line, “Temon apon keho nahi e prantare hay re (There is no one dear and near in this alien world)” mingles with the fog to create an atmosphere of perennial loneliness. Jagadish’s comment, “You have sung after such a long time,” indicates that Labanya’s daily hectic life and Indranath’s iron fist have isolated her from her artistic persona. Rabindranath Tagore talks about the importance of aesthetics in his seminal work Japan Jatri (Travels through Japan, 1919) if humans become too much obsessed with the utilitarian domain, they become machine-like entities, whereas the domain of aesthetics is the area where they can actually realise the true nature of their existence, leading to the experience of the Lebenswelt (life-force)described by Edmund Husserl. The song not only translates Labanya’s melancholia into musical notes, but it also signifies her urge to rediscover her real self, as she expresses concern over the possibility of the smothering of Manisha’s artistic qualities and urges after the marriage. The golden Kanchenjunga, which appears in the last few frames of the film, signifies that cosmic home, the abode of hope, which has hitherto remained elusive to the characters. But in this journey to the cosmic abode, the rogue Indranath is left behind, as he frantically searches for his compatriots, and a terrifying wave of isolation hits him, along with a mocking, derisive tune of a hilly song.
Charulata(1964) is widely regarded as one of the premier achievements of Ray. The film, which is based on the 1901 novella Nashtaneer (The Broken Nest), written by Rabindranath Tagore, narrates the heart-wrenching saga of the eponymous heroine (played by Madhabi Mukherjee), who walks down the solitary passages of an aristocratic house like a spectre. Her husband, Bhupati (played by Shailen Mukherjee), the editor of a political newspaper, nurtures the dream of expanding his business, while Charu suffers from lovelessness; sexual and intellectual dissatisfaction simmers within her. The much-lauded opening scene sets the melancholic tone of the film. The scene where Charu is seen knitting the initials of Bhupati’s name on a handkerchief might remind the audience of Alfred Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, who is imprisoned in an island castle. She weaves a colorful web in her solitary chamber under the shadow of an unknown curse, which will befall her, if she looks down at the city of Camelot. She can only catch glimpses of the “shadows of the world” in the mirror that hangs before her. Charu, like the Lady of Shalott, is imprisoned in an urban mansion, where household chores are managed by a fleet of servants. She watches the activities of the outside world through binoculars, in an effort to reconcile the differences between the home and the world. The images of the palanquin bearers, a man with monkeys, a fat man with an umbrella crossing the road- all these are reminiscent of the “shadows of the world” in Tennyson’s poem written in 1842, which have now appeared on the glasses of Charu’s binocular. But the Lady of Shalott had to pay the price for abandoning her loom and looking down at the blooming water lilies and the “helmet and the plume” of the gallant knight, as Tennyson writes,
Out flew the web and floated wide; The mirror crack’d from side to side; “The curse is come upon me,” cried The Lady of Shalott.
Similarly, the curse of infidelity and adultery hits Charu, with the arrival of Amal, her attractive brother-in-law (played by Soumitra Chatterjee). He enters her life in a tempestuous way, which echoes the knight’s entry into the lady’s life. Charu’s isolated state makes her desperate to efface the boundaries separating the home and the world, and the entry of Amal signifies the eruption of the outside world in Charu’s domestic discourse. Ray portrays the psychological gulf between Bhupati and Charu by making Charu stare at the fleeting image of Bhupati through the binocular. He is engrossed in his world of political journalism with no time to accompany his wife, while the latter tries to find solace in literature and other artistic works. But the binocular episode underscores the irreconcilable differences between them. The camera unprecedentedly backtracks, as she lowers the device and stares at her husband with a note of derision in her eyes. This derision anticipates the arrival of Amal, who will occupy the void left by Bhupati will emerge as his sexual and intellectual rival.
The last scene, which incorporates the freeze-frame technique, is reminiscent of the final scene of François Truffaut’s film The 400 Blows (1959) where the teenage protagonist Antoine Doinel stares at the audience by rupturing the fourth wall, and the camera zooms in on his face and refrigerates time, to show the signs of discontentment on his face. Charu and Bhupati face each-other, and the latter’s heart is exploding because of his wife’s supposed infidelity. Though a note of reconciliation is hinted at, when Charu invites Bhupati inside, the frame eventually freezes, the music halts, and Bhupati cannot hold Charu’s extended arm, underlining the impossibility of their conjugal bond. Antoine’s discontentment, along with a sense of guilt, now appears on the couple’s faces, as the word Nashtaneer or “Broken Nest” appears on the screen.
Tagore had celebrated the grandeur of a peaceful abode when he wrote the song “Ohe sundar mama griha aji paramatsaba rati, rekhechhi kanaka mandire kamalasana pati (Beauty, I have laid down the bed of lotus in the golden pagoda for you, on this auspicious night of festivity)”. But Charu and Bhupati fail to construct that resplendent home, since they are separated by circumstances. They could be inhabiting the same house, but with an abysmal gulf between them, they would be suffering from a sense of metaphorical homelessness. In this regard, Charu, Bhupati, and Amal anticipate the ménage à trois between Bimala, Nikhilesh, and Sandip in Ray’s Ghare Baire(1984). Bimala (played by Swatilekha Sengupta) too becomes a victim of the broken nest syndrome, as her nationalistic aspirations are at loggerheads with her conjugal fidelity.
These two films illustrate the urge to reach a cosmic abode of love, unity, and security, which is throttled by the constraints of worldly relationships and circumstances. Charu is searching for that elusive home, where she can find her true self, and fine-tune her soul with the ethereal harmony of the universe, but her failure to touch the perimeters of that utopian abode fills her hearts with pangs of isolation and estrangement. Labanya’s personal moments of discovery through the song by the abyss marks the intersection of solitude and loneliness; solitude has a personal dimension, when an individual can explore the hidden self away from the worldly bustles, but loneliness has an excruciating and universal dimension, that unravels her marooned condition, when materialist forces have encroached and decimated her subjectivity. Kanchenjungha and Charulata underscore the desire of these characters to travel from the world of loneliness and estrangement to the world of solitude, where they can re-explore and rediscover themselves to understand the divine mechanisms of the universe. It is an inward spiritual journey, which intersects with the journey of Christian, the protagonist of John Bunyan’s magnum opus The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678,1684) who had embarked on a quest for the Heavenly City.
Rebanta Gupta has completed his Postgraduate studies in English Literature from Presidency University, Kolkata. He is interested in Literary Theory, Hindustani Classical Music, Hermeneutics of Film, Narrative of Bengal, and Cultural Studies.
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‘I have seen the Mahanadi in so many ways: in the early morning light, in the reclining afternoon glow, in the blaze of the midday and in the shadow of the orange tinge of the sunset. I have seen this river in the form of its narrow current in winter, amidst profuse rain, in the forested region where it originates, and in the turbulent boundlessness of the estuary. And each time the river, serene, terrifying and quiet, has filled my mind with tremendous joy and nostalgia. Many people, both at the origin and basin of this river, are known to me. Their lives, inextricably linked with the river, have made me think, and have both fascinated and enriched me. The chronicle of this river, therefore, is also an extract of my life.’
One of the largest rivers of India, the Mahanadi has flown more than a thousand kilometers through Chhattisgarh and Orissa from the foothills of the Sihawa hills in Dhamtari district of Chhattisgarh and has fallen into the Bay of Bengal. Leaving behind the huge diamond reservoir at Sambalpur in Orissa, the archeological background of Subarnapur and Buddhist districts, the plains of Nayagarh, Cuttack and Jagatsinghpur flow through the middle of the deep forested gorge of Satakoshia, finally crossing the border near the port of Paradip.
But its journey is endless, as it flows day-after-day from the plateau to the forest to the ravine and finally to the plains. It unites with the sea every day. At every new turn, it leaves behind scores of villages, towns and cities. The din and bustle of a mofussil town, the solitary life in a standalone village, people’s struggle for survival, the episodes of their joys and sorrows, the sighs of the displaced people of Sambalpur during the building of the Hirakud dam mingles with the cries of the endangered people on the banks when the river overflows.
In the long journey of the river, it encounters mountainous plateaus, dense forests, villages and uninhabited emptiness. There are traces of the Paleolithic era at its source. There are ancient lyrical stories around it. Farmers, weavers and artisans have come and settled on the banks of the river to draw in the water. Mahanadi is to Odisha what Huang Ho is to China.
And so, Anita Agnihotri’s novel Mahanadi –The Tale of a River (translated from Bengali by Nivedita Sen) captures all these essential elements in a never written story of a stream which is a sorrow rather than a joy for crores of people in Odisha.
A civil servant, Anita Agnihotri, writes in Bengali in a wide variety of genres — poetry, novels, short stories and children’s literature. Recipient of prestigious awards like Bangiya Sahitya Parishad Award and the Bhuban Mohini Dasi Gold Medal conferred by Calcutta University, her writing explores the vast and complex Indian reality, many facets of human relations, and brings out the unheard voices of the marginalised and the underprivileged and has been translated into several Indian and foreign languages.
Translator Nivedita Sen taught English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She worked on other popular genres, apart from Indian writing in English, post-colonial fiction and translation studies. She has translated Tagore’s Ghare Baire, and stories by Syed Mustafa Siraj, Leela Majumdar and others.
In the fiction, the narrative is through stories of the people living on the banks of the Mahanadi. Characters like Tularam Dhuru, Malati Gond, Neelakantha, Bhanu Shitulia, Parvati and others might never meet each other, but the story of their lives will remain strung together by the common thread of the ever– the streaming Mahanadi. The chronicle of Mahanadi is a journey through travails and misfortunes into life’s joys and mysterious beauty.
Writes Sen in the ‘Translator’s Note’: “A socially conscious writer with a relentlessly dissident voice, Anita Agnihotri’s writing explores struggles in the lives of marginalised communities that are oppressed by underhand politics, social privilege and economic disparity. Though she was a member of the Indian Civil Service, she has maintained an anti-establishment stance throughout her writing career spanning four decades.
“In this novel, her non-noncompliance exposes the irony of Nehru’s urging those dispossessed by the building of the Hirakud dam to accept their suffering in the larger interest of the nation. She critiques the police turned into mercenaries by the state when they passively stand by during a violent attack on a social activist because they are paid to do just that. But she also elicits commensurate outrage at two policemen having to confront and succumb to senseless Maoist violence. The novel depicts how a cotton mill falls apart due to squandering of money and corruption in higher places and also how an upcoming steel factory with international collaboration threatens the livelihood of betel-leaf farmers. Her characters with enhanced sensibilities are haunted by the blatant social and economic inequality they witness all around. Yet Tanmay’s research on the abysmal living conditions in the slum clusters of Cuttack cannot resolve their problems.”
What is of significance is that there are a lot of facts in the novel that substantiates the geography, history and economics of the river and the state it mostly passes through. She sensitively kindles – rather in great detail — the realism, the deprivation and the travails of the people living on the riverbanks. The river forms the crux of the narrative, both as the central character and the primary subject.
As a novel, Mahanadi is poignant and is a fitting tribute to the place and people. Anita Agnihotri has been a percipient writer.
Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.
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Anasuya Bhar explores the various lives given to a publication through the different edited versions, translations and films, using Tagore as a case study and the work done to provide these online .
Rabindranath’s first efforts at writing poetry, what he refers to as padya or rhymes, were made when he was merely a boy of seven or eight years. This is what he has to say about his maiden experience, the magic and the awe with which it surprised him –
“I had, until then, only witnessed rhymes in printed books. Without any scratches, mistakes, nor any signs of thought even – there seemed to be no sign of any of the earthy weaknesses either. I dared not imagine that these rhymes could be produced by one’s own efforts. … But when the skilful mixing of a few words gave rise to the rhythm of the ‘payar’, the magic of making rhymes remained no longer an illusion. “(My translation from Jibansmriti ‘The Poetry Beginnings’, VB, 27)
The above excerpt from Jibansmriti is significant in many ways. The memoir was written when Rabindranath was in his fiftieth year, in 1911. A careful study reveals that there are three manuscript versions to the text of Jibansmriti and the one available on print (and published by Visva Bharati), is the third and the latest version. Jibansmriti (My Reminiscences) is a piece of Rabindranath’s own life writing, along with two other pieces in book form: Chelebela (My Boyhood Days, 1940) and Atmaparichay (The Self Revealed, 1943).
Rabindranath was a reluctant biographer of himself. Perhaps his first conscious efforts at autobiography is to be found in an essay called Atmaparichay that was first published in 1904, wherein he had consistently defended his wishes to not fuss over his life. In fact, he had wanted to keep separate his jiban and brittanto, that is the biological nitty-gritty of his life and the descriptive and analytical of his creative life. He believed that a poet’s life inheres in his poetry; that there is no need to separately concern oneself about his life details. This was re-iterated in more than one places. Nevertheless, although Rabindranath was reluctant of a conscious autobiography, he has revealed much of himself in his letters, and other non-fiction and travel essays. He was a self-conscious writer with a great emphasis put towards self-expression as well as expression of the self. To know about him one needs to scour through these writings.
My intention in this essay, however, lies not in the history of Rabindranath’s life writing. I would, instead, like to dwell on those scratchings, mistakes and etchings of the poet’s mind that made Rabindranath ponder about the final version of any of his manuscripts. He was a relentless revisionist of his own writings. My interest lies in that branch of study, quite recent in academic scholarship, which tries to examine the various changes that each text suffers before being available for the final print. The changes might take place in the manuscript or during the correction of proofs. The successive texts, the manuscripts, the proofs, and finally the printed text all seem to have their own dynamics and seem to possess an autonomy and character of their own. This seems true of all texts of all writers and those of Rabindranath are no exception. Between the ideas and their writing, between the manuscript and the print, between the printed text and its translation into other language(s), a particular text seems to have many distinct lives. Until a short time ago, these fell within the purview of textual criticism and editorial scholarship of a text. Now, they may be considered under the rubric of ‘alternative readings of a single text’. Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940), the German Jewish philosopher, talks about the ‘afterlife’ of a text in his essay ‘The Task of the Translator’ when it is translated, that is to say, a text assumes a different and separate life, with its own dynamics and dimensions when it is translated, from the original. The lives of a text then, multiply when multiple translations take place.
If one studies the three manuscripts of Jibansmriti, one notices three separate beginnings: the first two distinctly pointing to his life proper and his unwillingness to share details of it, while the third and the printed version has a more abstract vision of a painter-like selection of memorable incidents from his life. The text as it exists in Bangla now, begins in medias res, as it were, with the recollections of his early childhood, as becomes permissibly natural for the memory of a fifty-year-old person. What is interesting are the insights that time and aesthetic distance have provided. Editorial and textual scholarship of Jibansmriti as revealed in Rabindra Rachanabali (Volume 17, Visva Bharati), ‘Grantha parichay’ (introducing the text) cites the minute changes and differences in the three versions of the text. I enclose photographs of all the three versions of the text:
The different variations and all the manuscripts of not only ‘Jibansmriti’, but the entire Rabindranath Thakur corpus, including his plays, fiction, non-fiction, drama and poetry in English as well as in Bangla, are now available in the Online Tagore Variorum, Bichitra, which was inaugurated by the then President of India, (Late) Shri Pranab Mukhopadhyay, as a part of the Sesquicentenary (150 years) celebrations of Rabindranath Thakur’s birth, in the year 2011. The programme of the digital archives for Rabindranath was co-ordinated by Sukanta Chaudhuri, Professor Emeritus of English, Jadavpur University, and prepared by the School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University. The digital archives bring together all the available versions of all his works and makes provision for their collation, thus allowing the researcher or anyone interested in the world-poet to look through the vast stretch and range of his works. Hence the aptness of its name ‘Bichitra’, meaning ‘various’. It is a unique venture of literary scholarship as well as of software engineering and has been put together by young members all below the age of 35, and academic degree holders mostly from Jadavpur University. It is a rare and pioneering achievement in the field of Digital Humanities in this part of the world.
Any given text may have three or four kinds of an ‘afterlife’. They may be interpretative or of the hermeneutic kind, for instance, those spelt by Rabindranath’s manuscript versions. Another may be achieved through translation, as mentioned earlier. The next may be when a text is being performed. The performance text, the play text, or even the screen play of any text, are effectively different texts in the new scheme of textual afterlives. Each of Rabindranath’s texts then, automatically have different autonomous afterlives as practically all of them have been translated and have several versions as well. Along with these familiar afterlives, the hypertext now, also adds a yet newer dimension. The study of afterlives of a text gains in an all-new dimension when a new text is created based on an older text, by retaining its title or its literary essence. For instance, Aparna Sen’s film Ghare Baire Aaj (2019), is not only an afterlife of Rabindranath’s text of the novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1916), but also one on Satyajit Ray’s 1984 film Ghare Baire. The study of the afterlives of a text is a never ending and rich treasure trove and affords endless intellectual curiosity and study. The English Gitanjali (1912), too, is a unique example of a text with many afterlives, even after a hundred years of its literary history. I have written about its complicated trajectory, elsewhere.*
Sukanta Chaudhuri’s book The Metaphysics of Text (Cambridge University Press, 2010) provides significant and perhaps, pioneering insights on this newest aspect of textual scholarship. Among other aspects of a text, Chaudhuri dedicates one whole chapter on Rabindranath’s ‘katakuti’ (pen scratches and crossings) which invariably were shaped into diagrammatical forms, which Chaudhuri identifies by the name of ‘doodles’. The printed texts do not showcase these pictorial designs or doodles.
The visual aspect of these manuscript pages afford yet another dimension to the working of the poet’s mind while he was working on a poem or a song. They are creative outputs of a different kind, which remain hidden from the printed version of the text, thus disallowing the reader the privilege to dwell with the thoughts of the poet, his seemly and unseemly corrections, as it were. The digital archive Bichitra make all these easily available to us. Understanding, teaching and enjoying Rabindranath’s works become a more gratuitous experience for all of us. If translation is one way of making Rabindranath easily available to most corners of the world, this is yet another move to make his works and all his manuscripts available in every home of all corners of the world. A hundred and sixty years have passed and the magic of Rabindranath or his works remain undiminished and ever contemporary.
*Bhar, Anasuya. ‘The Many Lives of Gitanjali’ in Evolving Horizons, Volume 5, November 2016, pp. 20-27, ISSN 2319-6521
Dr. Anasuya Bhar is Associate Professor of English and Dean of Postgraduate Studies, at St. Paul’s Cathedral Mission College Kolkata, India. She has many publications, both academic and creative, to her credit.
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In exploring the question of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and alternative masculinities, it is important to keep in mind the multiple contexts and registers in which this question can be explored. One is obviously Tagore’s critique of and take on man-woman relationships in his books and stories throughout his life, which he had observed at close quarters in an extended/joint family context. Many of his short stories, like “The Exercise-Book”, and novels like, Chokhher Bali (A Grain of Sand), show a keen sympathy for women’s aspirations and the situation of that unaccommodated woman, the young widow. Tagore demonstrates his sympathy, even empathy, with the young widow, Binodini, while recognizing that she might pose a threat to social stability within the household of Mahendra and Asha, his girl-wife. The second register is the intertwining of creative writing and androgyny (the latter being a necessary attribute for an author, according to Virginia Woolf), and how Tagore in his capacity as a creative writer had qualities of empathy and sensitivity, which he drew upon to forge unusually close emotional bonds with women. This theme has been discussed by writers and critics under the rubric of Tagore and the feminine or Tagore and women. However, this article seeks not just to explore Tagore’s views on women but his search for a calibrated and balanced way of being in the world without falling into the binaries of imperial and colonized masculinities, and to shape the contours of a self which makes the world its home and is at home in the world.
In his novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), we come across a criticism of extremist politics and jingoistic nationalism. A tripartite narrative about the growing political consciousness of Bimala, her failure to understand her liberal husband, Nikhilesh, a landlord and his friend Sandip, a fiery nationalist and a turbulent petrel, who storms the bastions of their household and marriage. Sandip’s brand of militant nationalism appeals to Bimala, who had once harboured feelings of inferiority because of her birth in an ordinary family, and who feels elevated and special under Sandip’s scrutiny. Sandip singles her out for special attention and calls her the “Queen Bee’’ and his muse and inspiration leading her to ignore Nikhilesh’s more mature and balanced views. Early in the novel, Nikhilesh who often functions as a mouthpiece for Tagore’s views in the novel, says that though he loves his country/nation, he cannot place nationalism over humanity. Reflecting Tagore’s views, which espouses internationalism and humanitarianism, Nikhilesh is not understood by his politically immature wife and ignored by his self-serving and unscrupulous friend.
Central to the formation of Tagore’s political views and suspicion about nationalism was his ideological debate with his own niece, his sister, the novelist Swarnalata Debi’s daughter, Sarala Debi Chaudhurani. A keen and fiery nationalist and patriot, Sarala was deeply impressed by the physical culture of imperial masculinities. She was particularly enthused/motivated by the concept of uplifting the nation through encouraging the growth of a physical culture. A statement that resonated with her was the idea of national character and she quotes lines from the ‘Educationist’:
“Physical weakness is a crime-against yourself and those who depend on you. Weaklings are despised and a weakling nation is doomed. The decline of ancient Greece and Rome which fell rapidly from the pinnacle of supreme civilization was due to physical neglect and abuse of the inflexible laws of nature. A physically weak nation is drained out mentally, its feet are on the downward path and it will end upon the scrap-heap if it does not act before it is too late.”
She also quotes a proverb which pronounces that the“battles of England are fought and won in the fields of Eton” (Chapter 18,129). Her interest in and involvement with the politics of the freedom movement led her to initiate the celebration of Birashtami (festival of heroes to celebrate martial prowess, bravery and courage)) to mark courage and martial valour. Her belief in developing a physical culture and strengthening the national character made her revive certain traditions, re-invent rituals in order to paint a glorious version of India’s past. In doing so, she encouraged celebrations of Birashtami and invoked and revived the ‘braveheart’, Pratapditya, a landlord with questionable antecedents since he was also guilty of killing his father. In elevating such a figure to a status of a nationalist war-hero, she elicited mixed responses, particularly from her Brahmo family and her uncle, Rabindranath Tagore.
Rabindranath Tagore, among others, strongly objected to Sarala’s invocation of the figure of a parricide as a martial hero. Such a figure could act as a dangerous precedent since it would seem to encourage untrammeled and uncontrolled aggression and blur moral boundaries and ethical codes. This blunting of all moral and ethical codes and boundaries, the danger lurking in a militant and violent nationalism was, as indicated above, represented by Tagore in his novel, Ghare Baire but also in his essays on nationalism. In the novel, the conflict between a rational civic and humanitarian nationalism which eschews violence is embodied by the idealized figure of Nikhil and the primordial reactionary chauvinistic version of nationalism which endorses violence by his ‘friend’, Sandip. After casting a spell (metaphorically speaking) over the impressionable Bimala, whose affection he then misuses to drive a wedge between the couple and then to extract money from her to fund his terrorist activities.
Rabindranath’s indictment of Sandip could be viewed as his response, a sort of extended debate and dialogue with an ideological viewpoint diametrically different from his own, which was represented by his niece. The increasing rift and estrangement between the two — Rabindranath and Sarala — might explain the wistfulness and occasionally melancholic and autumnal tone of Jibaner Jharapata (The Scattered Leaves of My Life) Saraladebi’s autobiography. A proud and self-respecting person, Sarala was probably conscious of the slur or aspersion of effeminacy that the British had cast on the Bengali character. She felt the humiliation and indignity too keenly to accept such descriptions and attributions quietly.
Gandhi and the Crafting of Political Masculinity
One common threadthat runs through the work and writings both these towering personalities of Tagore and Gandhi, is a critique of existing, culturally prescribed and sanctioned models of masculinity as they prevailed in the eastern (Tagore) and western (Gandhi) extremities of India. Both these great men, as public personages, were conscious that they were thought leaders and role models and that examples set by them would be emulated.
In the case of M.K. Gandhi(1869-1948), a great national leader who was instrumental in India’s throwing off the yoke of colonialism in 1947, there is a conscious experimentation with the “truth’’, presumably of one’s inner self, to oppose certain culturally sanctioned models of masculinity. Interestingly, his great-niece, Manu Gandhi referred to the ageing Gandhi as “Gandhiji, my mother” in her diaries, which were translated into English in 2019. When we focus on his corporeal politics, we see in Gandhi’s “experiments with truth” a series of experiments to do with the body which express both a consciously crafted gender ambivalence and throws a challenge to the concept of the manly body of the colonizer. Here my point is that Gandhi was consciously deploying his self, his body identity/ies and attendant subjectivities, in order to make a political point. He used his body and body-politics to establish his difference from the colonially attributed native body and also to mark his distance from colonial models of masculinity. While in one sense, this fluid body seems almost gender ambivalent, it is also an invitation to re-imagine and revision stereotypical notions of gender which circulate in cultures.
Both of these thinkers were probably conscious of the import of the political masculinities espoused by them, particularly under the yoke of imperialism, at a specific historical conjuncture. This conjuncture is the first two decades of the twentieth century, when the models of masculinity available can be broadly conceptualized as imperial, colonial and ascetic masculinities.
The imperial masculinity model is based on the white imperial ‘master’, the civil servant, the ‘pukka saheb’, the kind extolled by Kipling and criticized by E. M.Forster. Coincidentally, this Kiplingesque masculinity, often caricatured, found its takers in people who extolled the muscular, strong masculinity of imperial cultures, like Sarala Debi, Tagore’s niece. The Forsterian view that the English public school culture shaped “well developed bodies, under-developed minds and undeveloped hearts’’ was not known to her, nor would it have found favour. This model also made its way into Indian discourses where it becomes linked with questions of national character and patriotism. In his book, The Intimate Enemy (1983) Ashis Nandy proffers the view that the Indian elite in the 19th century perceived the British as agents of progressive change and accepted the ethos of aggressive imperial masculinities.
According to historians and critics like Indira Chowdhury, Mrinalini Sinha and Chandrima Chakraborty, there was a developing discourse of de-masculinization and emasculation among the British, where they denigrated the Indian middle class and particularly the Bengali men as weak and effeminate and this also led some political leaders to move in the direction of defining and conscious crafting of alternative masculinities.
The third or ascetic model is available in Ananda Math by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and CharAdhay ( Four Chapters, 1933), the last and thirteenth novel by Tagore along with real life characters such as Swami Vivekanand (1863-1902) and Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), albeit delineated with some ambivalence. Chandrima Chakraborty in her book on Masculinity,Asceticism, Hinduism: Past and Present Imaginings of India (2011), highlights the “conjunctural alignment of asceticism and masculinity in Indian political history,” in order for its transformation into a strident symbol of Indian nationalism.
Interestingly, there is a further dimension and addition to this narrative. Jibaner Jharapata is not the only source of Sarala’s life story. She is described in Rajmohan Gandhi’s biography as Gandhi’s “spiritual wife”, because he felt strongly drawn to her, seeing in her a woman who possessed a unique combination of education and emotional strength. To Gandhi, she was a woman whose love for the nation was equally strong as his, although it followed and developed along different trajectories. In a peculiar role-reversal, we find Sarala Debi, who spent her formative years in Tagore family mansion at Jorashanko, inverts the models of “colonized masculinity” to promote and propagate militant nationalism. Tagore and Gandhi, whose spheres of influence she existed in, do not seem to have brought about much of a change in her. The great men eschewed and turned away from existing models of masculinity and moved towards the crafting of new masculinities, drawing on asceticism and spiritualism to do so.
Chakraborty, Chandrima(2011)Masculinity,Asceticism, Hinduism: Past and Present Imaginings of India. Delhi: Permanent Black
Chattopadhyay, Bankimchandra, Anandamath or The Sacred Brotherhood.Trana Julius Lipner, New DelhiOUP
Chaudhurani, Sarala Debi(2007)Jibaner Jharapata, Calcutta, Dey’s Publishing.(Bengali) All references in the text are to this edition,with translations by the author of this paper
Gandhi, Rajmohan (2006) Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire. New Delhi:Penguin/Viking.
Kumar, Radha (1993) The History of Doing: An Illustrated History of Doing. New Delhi, Kali for Women
Malhotra, Meenakshi (2018) A Dark Goddess for a Fallen World: Mapping Apocalypse in Some of Bankim C.Chatterjee’s Novels in Unveiling Desire: Fallen Women in Literature,Culture and Films of the East eds Devaleena das and Colette Morrow. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press
Ray, Sangeeta (2000) En-Gendering the Nation: Women and nation in Colonial and Postcolonial Narratives Duke UP
Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development at several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing theSelf and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL