By Hridi

Twenty-one months later, Rai[1] arrives in Paris. It is spring and she is here on a pilgrimage of memory. It is not her first time in this city, she has visited it before through the eyes of another: a city bathed in the mellow yellow of an exceptional limestone, chestnut trees abloom beside the Seine, a river green as malachite, the white sleek pleasure boats and the chuffing barges passing under the grave arches of thirty-seven bridges, each distinct from the last, a differently shaped shadow rippling below, connecting over and again the opposites of what divides the city, a people who know the art of touch all too well. Yes, the sights, the smells, all familiar. The spring air smells of her beloved; an enormous peace descends upon her.

Ever since she stepped on the train from the suburbs where she has taken her rooms, she finds herself scanning every face in the metropolitan crowd, every face looking elsewhere, somewhere, lost outside the present of their almost mechanical movements, perhaps like her, seeking another face. Strangely, this feels like home, like the city she left behind many months ago, ostensibly to travel. For all it takes from its inhabitants, a great city gifts them an anonymity that is sacred to the human heart. Therein remains its primary seduction for diversity. Your face becomes a mask of itself. You live, unapologetic, learning to make room for yourself where none exists. Every great city has this air of elsewhere, she concludes. I can already see Rai could live here; it is reminiscent of where she grew up. Yet, today, more than ever before, she is homesick, for the soil, the faces, the lives she tore herself away from.

You wonder how I glance into her heart with such ease. Let me lead you to the answer.

She has your address, half-a name, a few photos. What does it matter? One cannot create what one did not destroy first. She is obeying the laws of physics you joked about nineteen months ago, the laws that would inevitably bring you nearer and nearer. Here she is, touching you almost, a ghost walking beside her, pointing out every other piece of beauty in this city which does not lack of them. You stood here once, your feet touched this pavement, oh god, you stood here! This is where you clicked the photograph you sent her saying, “Remember me.” But she isn’t speaking to you, not yet.

Insecure, naïve, scared, stuck she had been, but mostly scared…terrified… of losing you, the last thread of sanity in a world collapsing around her, screaming into her ears with a deathly consistency, inevitability. You had been her escape, god, how she had escaped… Looking back, she thinks… no, there is no looking back. I almost lost my mind when you left, she would like to say, but… almost, that word… I was living with monsters tearing each other apart. To you, I showed only what I hid from others, and hid from you all that offal the monsters would leave behind at the end of each meal. They knew how to devour a girl of nineteen. The result is her face, at twenty-one, that of an old woman.

But that is an advantage, especially in big cities.

when you left even the stones were buried:

the defenceless would have no weapons.[2]

Her poet knows she remembers every place you promised to show her. It is the city of forgotten promises. She has read every book you ever recommended, watched every movie you spoke of, revisited two languages for you, painted you, cursed you, pleaded with you, desired you, hated you, shattered the boundaries of her known world for you; for the rest of her life, she will celebrate the nineteenth of July as the birthday of her heart; and yet, you are only a ghost who she cannot talk to. But she will, now that she has reached your city. Tomorrow she will talk to you. Tonight, she will write for the first time in twenty-one months. Through the dim lights of the small window of the suburban apartment, you will see her typing away. She will write again.

The painting earlier this morning made her think of God. This is not unusual, merely the first impact of a Monet painting on one who has only seen photographs all her life. Remember the poems she would translate for you? She reads them sometimes now, searching for mistakes. Her innocence makes me laugh, her capacity for love is adorable. It is what she will write about.

Why did you introduce all those new words in her mind? That was a mistake. Didn’t you know words are a writer’s biggest fear? Well, you can see the result for yourself, aren’t you happy? That she forgot how to write, that she mixes up alphabets of three different scripts every time she picks up the pen, trying to find a language that will make you answer. But you tricksters play on…

This city is a mausoleum of your memory. This is the first line she writes. The rest of the night is spent weeping between fits of sleep. You watch on, right outside the window. I watch you watch.

It is still very dark when Rai finds herself irretrievably awake. A faint fragrance of some spring blossom is wafting in through the half-open window. It is light by the time she reaches the small station; the air is crisp as the ticket in her hand, the cold from the river making her button up her coat. Today she will walk beside the Seine.

Many have said that the soul of Paris flows in the green waters of the Seine. Obviously, those fools know nothing about souls. Souls do not flow away, they haunt.

The yellow aura of the buildings is enhanced in the pale morning light, the river dappled in the golden, the empty promenade inviting. Later in the day the tourists and hawkers will crowd this part of the city, but it is yet hers, all hers. A few joggers and some sleepless ones as her claim the early hours.

She starts walking from the tower towards Musée d’Orsay along the river. You walk behind her, slightly unsure. On this morning you realise this city entwined itself in her personal history long before you arrived. It wounds your pride, shakes your confidence in her fidelity. The artworks hanging in that building yonder have been the pursuit of her fascination for almost a decade now. You knew it, if fact, that is where you met, in a shared longing of elsewhere, of nostalgia for a world you were never a part of.

In senior school math, they taught that for an equation to have real solutions, one must apply constraints. But within the parentheses of those limits exist an infinity of choice. Remembrance is a choice. Her math tutor from school, the old man with the twinkling eyes, would insist mathematics is the purest form of poetry. How long has it been since she remembered him? What is the pollen in this air that brings back the past so lovingly?

The path Rai traces, to a viewer like me, appears most comical. But I’ve been around here long enough to know lunacy is the mother of imagination, it afflicts the seekers more often than you would think. Sometimes she walks beside the river, sometimes climb the stairs to cross a bridge that fancies her, then strolls again along the other bank, as if her wandering steps cannot have enough of the novelty of a river joined with such frequency, such care. In her culture, the poets have sung for centuries of the two banks of a river as lovers separated in togetherness, together in separation. This far from home, the metaphor revisits her.

My memory is again in the way of your history2. A city with a history of over two millennia, glorious in this spring, what does it care of your unrequited love, foolish girl? Yet she would repeat under her breath these lines from her favourite poet. He spoke of war, of a heritage blown to bits overnight, over years, preserved in the memory of its refugees; how interchangeable is it with the torn love she carries with such grace? Foolish as she is, I think I am getting quite fond of her stubbornness.

And you! I almost forgot your apparition there, caught in watching her too. What are you sulking about? Quick, she is walking towards the Pont des Arts. Wicked rogue, won’t you play her once on the love lock bridge of clichés? She is standing at the centre now, spread before her the split halves of tremendous urban life, speeding fast in the midday heat; on either side, decades of forgotten promises caught in iron, rusted, locked away. She bends to inspect the locks. Even as you rush ahead to play your game, you turn back and shout at me, “You are wrong, it is a cliché only if you win in love.” Through the strong breeze on the bridge, I try to make myself heard: “So much for your words, go close enough if you dare and she will speak to you.” I think you heard me. The plan works. On one of these locks, Rai discovers her own name, a single name, a word, perhaps echoed in rust from decades of a solitary namesake on the same bridge, but that staunch heart knows what it wants to believe. Who will save her? You are close enough to touch her now, and she senses you. When you have spied on people’s secret lives for as long as I have, you tend to expect melodrama. But Rai, travelled across twenty-one months of quiet longing, is not surprised. You have appeared before her on fretful nights, sweat-stained afternoons, rainy mornings, in songs, in tears, in sudden joy, in sunshine, in broken shadows of grief, in the citadel she has built for you, how can she not expect you? She is narrating a story now, the story of what her name, written on that lock, means.

It was the one of the first fables of love ever fabricated in her part of the world. Centuries old. The story of a woman who falls in love to the music of a cowboy she has never laid her eyes on. Their illicit love-making becomes the whisper of the land. With the passing years, the musician in the boy slowly succumbs to the warrior in the man, who eventually gets crowned in a country far away. Rai is left waiting; music is not so easily forgotten. Like all classics, this too is of unrequited love.

The lazy warmth of the afternoon has brought out many on the promenade. Sunning away, relaxing with beers, some sitting alone, some in picnics; in the little island of Île de la Cité, a band of young jazz enthusiasts blow into their trumpets; the flowers compliment the myriad soft colours on all dresses: the Seine is the frame of happiness. I watch the two of you stroll, a happy couple, woman and ghost, breathing in the Spring you promised her not so long ago. Grief is the kindest of opiates, it dissolves in its own fantasia. Tonight, with all the walking, she will need some wine. The cheap wine of this tired evening will put her to sleep. You do not have to sing lullabies, but pray, lie down beside her. Let her hold in her palm the ghost of your erect manhood, rest her head against the illusion of your chest. In you, she desires sleep so in her sleep she may desire you, consummate a mirage. Do not stay outside.

It is night yet when she leaves. “The Frog & British Library” glows in its ironic neon, the streetlights halo in the clear blue hour. The Pont de Tolbiac stoops groggily over the ultramarine blue of the water pregnant with shimmering reflections: the illumined buildings, the barges anchored at the edge, the symmetrical reflections from the arch of the next bridge, perhaps (she fancies), the last of the stars too. The beauty of this night stings her eyes with an almost physical pain. She is thinking of you, of what remains of what you were.

I’m everything you lost. You won’t forgive me.

My memory keeps getting in the way of your history.

There is nothing to forgive. You won’t forgive me.2

Her poet is speaking again. Yes, she is here to ask for your forgiveness. She has left everything behind, for nothing ahead, in this long, long solitary journey only to ask for your forgiveness. Forgiveness for naïveté, for insensitivity, for distance, for loving with more sincerity than a heart bears without protest. The little crystal she wears around her neck on a string, she believes it has a beauty she does not deserve, like you, who loved her more for the magnanimous reflection in your kindness than her own small artless self. Your absence fills the air above the deep blue Seine like a forgotten god of this city that is yours. The semi-circle of these lanterns shiver beneath her like a pantheon of answers. Hope costs nothing, you told her once, and that is how she dared. To cross an ocean for you. The boatmen of this world speak of riches on the opposite bank, her voyage was merely to free the emptiness of her claustrophobic heart, restless, restless, oh, ever so restless. Perhaps, and I speak only as the outsider who inhabits you both, you should forgive her now.

Years ago, on summer nights, her grandmother would tell her the story of the boy who dived into the bottomless pond in the middle of the desert to salvage the pink pearl. The next morning, the villagers found a banyan tree at the centre of the pond, its roots vanishing into the fathomless. Legend says every full moon night, the heart of the boy cries for the pearl, and in the morning, a new column is added to the mass of hanging roots, a stream of condensed tears feeding the pond. Thus grew the desert city of Ehsaan around an oasis of endless fertility.

The blue is beginning to fade, a turquoise haze envelopes the bridge, the barge, the lamps, her; from the horizon, a faint blush rises, spreading softly over the sky. It is still night, the crescent moon still in bloom, but the last scattered stars are evasive now.

If only somehow you could have been mine,

what would not have been possible in the world?2

Suddenly, the streetlights go off. In this instant, dawn has arrived. The sky transits less hastily. The city of her beloved is waking up. A bus awaits to take her where she came from, through fields of uniformly shaven colour- yellow, green, brown, waves of symmetry upon a calm earth. A piece of this calm resides in her now, the river has doused the fire scourging her insides. Something has healed.

She will return. I, the Seine, rushing past a million lives, over a hundred thousand springs heartbreakingly beautiful, have promised to save the pink pearl in my bosom until then.

[1] Another name of Radha, the beloved of the divine cowherd Krishna

[2] Excerpted from “Farewell” by Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001)

Hridi is an Indian writer currently based in Belgium. Her works have previously appeared in AainanagarContemporary Literary Review IndiaModern Literature, The Piker Press and Across the Margin, among others.


Musings Tagore Translations

Two Birds: Musings on Tagore

Ratnottama Sengupta muses as she translates Tagore’s song, Khachar Pakhi Chilo (1892, The caged bird was)


In a coop of gold, lived Cage Bird,
In the forest dwelt Free Bird --
How did the twain meet on a dawn?
What had Fate ordained?

"Dear One in cage," Free Bird called out,
"Come, let's fly into the wood."
"You come inside," chirped Cage Bird,
"The enclosure can be our home!"
"No!" Free Bird cried, "the chains are not for me!"
"Alas!" Cage Bird sighed, 
"How can I live in the holt!"

Free Bird sat outside and sang
All the forest songs he loved.
Cage Bird parroted all 
The tricks it had been taught -
'Twas as if they spoke two tongues!
Free Bird pleaded, "Dear one!
For me sing one Forest song!""
Cage Bird said, "You better rote
Songs of the cage, loved one!"
"No!" Free Bird wailed, 
"I do not parrot cliches!"
"Alas," sobbed Cage Bird,
"How do I sing what I've never heard!"

The Free Bird chimed, "Deep is the blue 
Of the sky above,
There's no bar in its expanse!"
"See!" Cage Bird twittered,
"How well-netted is the aviary
on all its four sides!"
"Let go of yourself!" Free Bird whistled,
"In the clouds above, just once!"
"This cosy corner is so very tranquil!"
Cage Bird chirped, "Why not 
Submit to its peace?"
"No! Where will I then fly?"
"Alas! Where in the clouds 
Will I find a perch?"

Thus the two birds loved each other
But could not unite.
Through the gaps their beaks would kiss
Their eyes bespoke their longing
But neither could understand
Nor express to the other
Their biding constraints.
They flapped their wings
They stretched their arms
"Come to me dear, let me
Hold you to my heart!"
"No!" the Free Bird feared,
"The door might snap shut!"
"Alas!" lamented the Caged Bird
"I have no might to fly!"
Birds in a large cage in Saratchandra’s home. Photo Courtesy: Ratnottama Sengupta

Growing up in a Vaishnav family where kirtan was a part of daily life, I had always loved this song Rabindranath Tagore composed in the kirtan style. In my later years I thought the Universal Poet had penned the Natya Geeti — song drama — in the context of the Freedom Struggle. No, I learnt in an essay by the poet: it was penned in 1892 to put into words a more universal philosophy — the duality that is part of every human existence. 
Difficult to comprehend? Perhaps not, once we obliterate the sameness of the two birds and attribute gender markers to them. Tagore himself thought of the caged bird as the woman in every man, and the free bird as the man in every woman. Perhaps that is why it is structured along the lines of the traditional Shuk Shari samvad — a conversational song between between two birds (parrots perhaps?) — wherein Shuk is a follower of the masculine, Purushottam Krishna, and Shari of Radha, the essence of femininity. However, I was prompted to look up the poem recently when I saw a large birdcage in a corner of Saratchandra Chatterjee’s house in Deulti some 60 km from Kolkata. It was pretty routine, apparently, for households then to have aviaries ‘domesticating’ finches, canaries, parakeets, cockatiels, lovebirds and other feathered pets — much like today’s people with pet dogs and cats. But I was struck by a different thought: Did the two birds represent the two stalwarts of Bengali Literature who lived at the same time? Did one look inside homes and scan woes besetting the happiness of their human relationships? And did the other take off from his perch on a branch of the tree rooted in terra firma, to swim in the boundless ocean above? Even today, one draws you out into the vast expanse while the other pulls you homeward. Together? They give us a  universe…


Kirtan is devotional music.

Tagore (1861 to 1941) and Saratchandra (1876-1938) were contemporaries. While Saratchandra wrote stories based on real life to expose and reform social ills, Tagore’s work was more philosophically inclined, though he has written of such societal issues too.

In 1894, Rabindranath wrote in Aadhunik Saahitya while commenting on the works of the poet Biharilal Chakraborty –

“… There is an independently moving masculine entity within our nature, which is intolerant to bondage alongside a feminine one which preffers to be enclosed and secured within the walls of the home. Both of them remain united in an inseparable fashion. One is eager to develop significantly his undying strength in a diverse way by savouring ever-new tastes of life, exploring ever-new realms and manifestations and the other remains encircled within innumerable prejudices and traditional practices, enthralled with her habitual deliberations. One takes you out into the vast expanse and the other seems to pull towards home. One is a forest bird (or the free bird of the translation by Ratnottama Sengupta) and the other is a caged bird. This forest bird is the one that sings much. Although, its song expresses with its diverse melodies the whimper and its craving for unrestricted freedom.”

Rabindranath Tagore was a brilliant poet, writer, musician, artist, educator – a polymath. He was the first Nobel Laureate from Asia. His writing spanned across genres, across global issues and across the world. His works remains relevant to this day.

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. 




Festival of Lights

After welcoming the dark half of the year with Halloween, we light lamps to observe yet one more homecoming festival — that of the legendary Rama. Though Diwali or Deepavali is interpreted variously in different parts of India, in the North, Rama’s homecoming after fourteen years of exile and victory over various demons is celebrated with the lighting of lamps and fireworks. Simultaneously, in Eastern India, they celebrate the victory of good over evil with the worship of Goddess Kali. In the Southern part, the victory of Krishna over a demon or asura known as Narakasura is jubilated. This festival is observed as a national holiday across a dozen countries now. There are a dozen different rituals, Gods and Goddesses correlated with the festivities. But victory of good over evil is a concurrent narrative along with prayers for prosperity and well being of the world. Both of these themes are a felt need in the present times.

In keeping with the theme of light, at Borderless, we celebrate this season with stories and poems connected with lights or lamps along with narratives around the festivals themselves… all from within our treasury.


Light a Candle by Ameenath Neena. Click here to read.

One Star by Ihlwha Choi. Click here to read.

The Candle by Matthew James Friday. Click here to read.

The Starry Night by Sunil Sharma. Click here to read.


What Ramayan taught me about my parents: Smitha R gives a humorous recap of how the legendary epic brought the family together. Click here to read.

How a dark Goddess lights up a Fallen World: Meenakshi Malhotra talks of Kali and the narrative of the festival that lights up during this festive season. Click here to read.

The Dark House: A Balochi folk tale translated by Fazal Baloch that reflects on the crucial role of light in a young girl’s life. Click here to read.


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.


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.)




Lost in the Forest

By John Drew

Philosophers and theologians warn us about the danger of becoming distracted and misled by images. In the age of the selfies, with photography being used to sell us so many things we do not want or need and convincing us that smiling celebrities are gods and goddesses, we have reason to take their warning seriously.

But what of images that warn us of the same danger, even while they enchant us? I ask this question while looking at a beautiful wall-hanging of the gopis seeking out Krishna in the forest of Brindaban. 

The wall-hanging is composed of 38 episodes, each framed by a woodland glade, laid out in six horizontal lines of 7,6,5,7,7 and 6 frames. At the top, Radha and seven other gopis leave the city, pots of curds on their heads, and wave farewell to their husbands as they enter the forest of Brindaban. After their many encounters with Krishna, the story concludes with Radha and Krishna haloed and seated together in a pandal beside a lotus-filled River Yamuna. 

The trouble is, when you try to follow the story of their search for love’s fulfilment line by line, top-to-bottom on the wall-hanging, the frames don’t follow one another in any recognizable sequence. Almost all the frames show three gopis confronting Krishna, apparently arguing with him and either turning away or being turned away but in no particular order.

The gopis emerge from the city in the third frame of the top line. Amid scenes otherwise always sylvan, the towers and rocks of the city are seen in the first frame of the third line and the rocks alone in the fourth frame of the final line. This phased departure from the city suggests these may be the first three frames of the story. Yet the gopis, who accompany the protagonists in each are in different-coloured saris and, apart from this glimpse, don’t appear again. We are left without a clue as to what might be the fourth frame in the sequence.

It seems it might be easier working backwards. The last frame of the last line is so obviously the culminating frame and the one before it has Krishna and Radha, both haloed, walking through the forest. But then the only other frame with the pair haloed is fully a line before this and they are seated on a rather different pandal decorated as if for a wedding and with a more ornate base. Something is not quite in order.

The colour of the saris is one obvious determinant.  Most prominently, there’s Radha in her green-and-red sari and her friend Lalita (let’s call her that) in green-and-yellow, often with a third gopi in blue-and-red  behind.  But sometimes there are suddenly gopis in brown-and-yellow and black-and-yellow instead and once or twice gopis in blue-and-yellow and  black-and-red. Sometimes the figures obscure one another and we have a glimpse of just one colour of a sari and this may belong to the eighth (otherwise missing) gopi. And why, if the colour of the saris is indicative, does Radha once appear twice in the same frame? And why, when the gopis emerge from the city, are seven of the eight figures wearing Radha’s colours? 

These concerns may appear rather silly: after all, the painter’s palette may account for such occasional discrepancies. However, the larger picture may suggest we are being deliberately misled by an artistic representation of the magic of the Ras lila. We try to make sense of what is going on in the pursuit of love’s goal and we simply get lost in the forest?

It is not totally baffling. There is some downward and, less obviously, left-to-right movement in the development of the story. Right in the very centre of the wall-hanging there is a frame where Radha steps out to engage with Krishna. This is in the third frame of the five-frame third line and given that the story culminates in the sixth frame of the sixth line, it is tempting to construct a diagonal across the matrix: Radha in the first frame of the first line engaged in a conflicting hand-to-hand pull-and-push with Krishna; in the second of the second, Lalita approaching Krishna, hand on curd pot, whether as confidante of Radha or as rival – or both – is unclear; in the fourth of the fourth, three gopis, two in Radha’s colours, turn away from Krishna; and, in the fifth of the fifth, Radha, now potless, submits herself to Krishna. This diagonal might serve as a plot for the whole story, however jumbled the frames all around.

Radha and her two main friends figure most prominently in the frames of the first line but there is no easily discernible order to the frames. The first four frames of the second line foreground different gopis and it may be that the particular story of each in turn is to be tracked, however tentatively, zig-zag down the wall-hanging before we return to the next frame as a starting-point?

The last two lines of the wall-hanging are distinct from those before in that all their frames (bar those of Radha-Krishna haloed) show a gopi approaching Krishna with a pot no longer on her head. The fifth line starts with a frame where Krishna is himself removing the pot from (if not replacing the pot on) Radha’s head (presumably as a token of his choice); in the next frame he is fanning a potless Lalita; and in the others receiving gopis who have discarded their pots.  Should we take this to be an act of collective submission following Krishna’s choice of Radha or are they the final frames of individual stories that have threaded their way down through the thickets further up the wall-hanging?

Images from nature are also tricky. Initially monkeys, one springing in from the left and another from the right, promise to show us a sequence:  in the end they at best indicate only mood. This may also be true, given their place in Indian iconography, of trees and flowers. Perhaps like the ever-shifting designs on the saris, changing from dots to dashes to crosses to ovals, they too are decorative, deceptive only in a suggestiveness that ultimately reveals nothing?

We do not know whether or not the painter is following the poet he has placed seated on the rocks in the top right-hand corner of the painting, he has wrought cunningly. Looking to piece together individual stories of the search for love, we have been baffled by their erratic course. But, however erratic, the course is perhaps common to all the gopis, however much or little we can see of each. The advantage of a closer look, however bewildering, reminds us that, instead of being distracted by a surface that leads us to a merry dance, we should discover the common pattern that underlies all and is concentrated in the composite figure of Radha, one that is ultimately subsumed in that of Radhakrishna. 

We may then tell ourselves that, even though we cannot say how we got here, we are no longer lost in the forest.


Ras Lila: Dance of Radha, Krishna and Gopis

Gopi: Handmaidens of Radha

Pandal: An ornate tent


John Drew, author of India and the Romantic Imagination, was married in India, has worked in Singapore and now lives in Cambridge with his wife Rani.