A conversation with Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharya, the translator of Samaresh Bose’s In Search of the Pitcher of Nectar, brought out by Niyogi Books.
In 2017, the Kumbh Mela (the festival of the sacred pitcher) was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage. A Times of India report read: “The committee noted that as the largest harmonious conclave in the world, Kumbha Mela stands for values like magnanimity and patience that are very beneficial for the modern humanity. Moreover, the concept of Kumbha Mela goes well with the current international human rights tools because the festival welcomes people from all corners of the world without any differentiation.”
Five years down the line, Niyogi Books brought out a translation of Samaresh Bose’sIn Search of a Pitcher of Nectar, an epic travelogue translated from Bengali by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee on the festival at the confluence of the three rivers, Ganga, Saraswati and Jamuna — in Allahabad. An eminent acknowledged writer, whose stories won not just literary acclaim like the Sahitya Akademi award but were translated to prize winning films, Bose’s solo voice stands alone in the translated version — as that of Kalkut, one of the pseudonyms he assumed.
In the early part of the book, Bose gives the reason for his journey into this crowded event which even in the middle of the pandemic (2021) had 3.5 million visitors: “Observing this great variety of humankind on the move is a thirst that is not easily quenched.” Bose’s exploration came long before the pandemic as his book was published in 1954. Then a Bengali film was made on it in 1982.
The writer claimed to have set out to look into the heart of the nation: “I would dive deep into that heart of India. I would identify my own face in this strange mirror of India. That face is my mind. My religion.” And he discovers, “the poor India was there like a faded cloth by the side of a muslin chunni.” While peeling layers of poverty and ‘respectability’, he introduces us to a bevy of characters which include not just Godmen, but also women, who evolved from wifehood to prostitution to godwomen, to young girls forced to marry polygamous octogenarians, to people in quest of lost family members, to men in search of the intangible — and all united together for a dip in the holy ‘sangam’ of three rivers, the ultimate panacea for all ailments and ills for believers. That the author is not part of the believing crowds, but a sympathetic, humane commentator is obvious from his conversations with various people and his actions, which defy boundaries drawn by the respectable god minding devotees thronging the festival. He uses the event to pinpoint the flaws of socially accepted norms and to find compassion for the less fortunate. He laces his narrative with love and compassion for humanity.
The title itself both in Bengali and English conveys the quest for nectar or the divine amrita of immortality which led to a festival that washes away sins with a dip at the confluence. Legend has it that the gods and the rakshasas worked together to draw out the ambrosial drink at this sangam and then, the gods cheated and consumed all of it, judging the other party as too evil to be handed eternal life in a cup. The unbreachable walls had started and perhaps continue even to this date.
The real origin of the festival as Bose contended remains disputed like that of many other cultural lores, though people do continue to quest for miracles in the waters that were supposed to have thrown up the ambrosia. The narrative implies the educated and schooled rarely participated in this event. There is a mention of the prime minister at the festival, but that would be as a dignitary, and not as part of the crowd.
The crowd in its urgency to take a dip at the holy hour, results in a stampede and many deaths. It is a sad and philosophical ending which clearly takes us back to the questions raised at the start of the narrative. “If lakhs of people are blinded by faith, then why not search for the reason? What is that celestial blinker which can blind lakhs of eyes?”
While questioning faith, the narrative exposes the gaps in society with compassion — even between the educated and uneducated that has become a severe point of contention as more fissures into society and creating more boundaries. At the end of the book, one wonders have things really changed from the 1950s when Bose wrote the book to the current experience where the UNESCO, a modern-day construct and belief, has dubbed this festival as a juncture where all humanity congregates? Do they? To enlighten us on this issue, we conversed with the eminent translator of this powerful book, Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee.
What led you to translate Samaresh Bose’s In Search of a Pitcher of Nectar?
Samaresh Bose was a celebrated novelist. Social content of his novels can never be over-emphasized. But when he started writing travelogues under the pseudo -name Kalkut, he invented a new creative trajectory. Amrita Kumbher Sandhaney, Kothay Pabo Tareyare all classics in Bengali literature. I have been reading and rereading Amrita Kumbher Sandhaney for decades and always felt it should be presented on a national and international platform. Hence, when time and opportunity arose, I took up the translation work and the result in In Search of the Pitcher of Nectar.
There was a Bengali film (Amrita Kumbher Sandhaney, 1982) made with the story of this book. Did you use this as a resource too for your translation? What do you think of the film? Did it capture the book well?
Yes, I have watched the film when it was released. I don’t remember the details now, but the impression remains that it was a reasonably well-made film. But I don’t think it has acted as a resource for my translation work. On the contrary whenever I tried to think of Shyama, the sophisticated face of Aparna Sen would appear in my vision.
In 2017, UN declared the Kumbh-mela as an intangible cultural heritage. And yet, here Samaresh Bose mentioned a stampede within the Mela that killed many people. Do you think things have changed since he wrote this travelogue?
Definitely. Now, the Kumbh-mela is an extremely well-organised event. The way in which the administration handles the flow of lakhs of people is something to be seen to be believed. Even Harvard University researchers had undertaken a study to analyse how an ephemeral city comes up with all the civic, municipal and medical facilities for a temporary period of time. The stampede that Bose mentions are things of the past.
Have you ever been to a Kumbh-mela? Is it as he describes?
Yes, once; obviously inspired by the reading of the book. It was in early 70’s. I found it tallying with Bose’s description to a large extent. It was a lifetime experience for me, because I also went with an open mind, an agnostic as I am.
What in this book strikes you the most?
Two things struck me most in the book. One, unlike all other visitors, Bose’s was not a pilgrimage. He did not even take a dip at any of the auspicious dates and moments. He was in quest of understanding man’s urge for piety. It was as if an atheist’s search for the godhead. Secondly, the technique of writing was a unique blend of travelogue and fiction. His character sketches are something unparalleled in the history of travel writing anywhere in the world. I hope I am entitled to give this opinion, having a modest exposure to the world literature.
You are a felicitated translator. When you translate from Bengali to English, what strikes you as the biggest hurdle? And how do you get over it?
The biggest hurdle in translating from Bengali into English is the problem of culture specific transfer. Here one is not translating from an Indian language into another. Here translation is not just linguistic transfer, but culture transfer also. One has to be very careful where to valorise the source language and where to make some sacrifice for attaining compatibility to the idiom of the target language. I guess I have learnt to strike a balance between the two.
You have translated the Bengali portions fully in this book but not always the Sanskrit or Hindi? Why not?
The Sanskrit and Hindi portions in the text are very well-known quotes from Tulsidas and other celebrated poets. I thought they would communicate even without translation. More importantly, they are all in rhymed couplet or quartet. If the end rhyming is done away with, their linguistic impact will drastically reduce. And maintaining a semblance of rhyming in English was beyond me. So, I left them as they were. The case of the Bengali quotes is totally different. There I could confidently take some liberty and attain the desired impact.
Do you think a translation is better if it is closer to the text or if it captures the spirit of the piece and conveys it to the readers, though it departs from the text as in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat?
It depends on the motive of the translator. Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak in her celebrated essay ‘Politics of Translation’ suggested that we should approach the text with love and empathy. If that is achieved, the translator remains as close to the text as possible; and yet he/she can take occasional liberty to capture the spirit of the original. But if the motive is to sanitise the text to cater to a particular reading community, as Tagore wrongly did or civilise the text from the point of view of master-slave attitude, as Fitzgerald did, then it is wrong. We now know how much of Tagore or Khayyam is lost in these English versions.
You have translated major writers from Bengal like Mahasweta Devi, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay and Samaresh Bose. Which has been your favourite author to translate and why?
Well, all the authors I translated so far are my favourite authors. I can not translate unless it is so. I greatly enjoy Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s young adult stories, Sunil Gangopadhyay’s romantic novels, Samaresh Bose’s dexterity in narration and characterisation, Mahasweta Devi’s socially conscious works. I have translated two novels of Tagore also for their universal appeal and extremely thought-provoking themes.
After translating this many novels, are you planning one of your own?
Oh no, I am not a creative person. I hopelessly lack imagination.
Do you have any advice for upcoming translators?
Well, I don’t feel entitled to give advice to anyone, I can only say that a wannabe translator should live with a book for some time before venturing into translation. You should not take up any translation work unless the book resonates with you or speaks to you, so to say.
Thank you for bringing the book to non-Bengali readers and also your time.
Title: The Shaping of Modern Calcutta: The Lottery Committee Years, 1817 – 1830
Author: Ranabir Ray Chaudhury
Publisher: Niyogi Books
If you ask any layman about the city of Calcutta (now rechristened as Kolkata) you will get three major pieces of information — namely, it was founded by Job Charnock in 1690; it was the seat of East India Company and capital of British India till 1911; and that it was divided roughly into two sections — the white English town at the centre and towards the south and the native town in the north. Beyond that, very few people have the idea of how the city developed spatially and how several major arterial roads, tanks and squares were built systematically during the beginning of the nineteenth century and this is where The Shaping of Modern Calcutta: The Lottery Committee Years, 1817 – 1830 by Ranabir Ray Chaudhury gives us plenty of information about the gradual development of Calcutta. This was undertaken by raising money through sale of lottery tickets and implemented by the creation of a Lottery Committee which functioned specifically for thirteen years from October 1817 to 1830.
Under the system then prevalent, the surplus lottery funds remained with the Bank of Bengal which would continue to be involved in the sale of tickets and the payment of prizes but would have nothing to do with other payments. The three senior members of the committee were John Eliot, Charles Trower and Henry Wood who had already looked after the construction of the square and tank at Baparitala (Wellington Square) and the new road being built from Dharamtala Road to Bowbazar. Later officials like Henry Shakespear and Barwell, G. Gordon and A. Colvin were inducted, and featuring in various sub-committees, they were also deeply engaged in the city’s development work.
In 1830, for all practical purposes, the functions of the committee relating to the improvement of the city ceased effectively. Though the beneficial impact of the committee’s work affected everyone, native and European alike, and there was nothing remotely furtive about it, yet the Directors of the East India Company in London were not happy with what was happening in distant Calcutta on the city-development front, choosing to view the evolving picture in a different light. Keeping in mind the virtues of economy in expenditure, the Company wrote to its Government of Bengal that whenever there was any activity relating to general and public utility, some part of the charges ought to be borne by the inhabitants. Further, the Lottery Committee was handling large sums of money and perhaps there was the Company’s deep-seated skepticism about the sensibility of such expenditure in general and a tendency to conclude that the money was not being spent efficiently. The work done by the committee was phenomenal because the projects conceived and implemented by it still cast a long shadow on life in modern Calcutta.
It becomes very clear that the city of Calcutta gained immensely from the development work carried out by the Lottery Committee since October 1817. The Strand Road had spruced up the eastern bank of the River Hooghly beyond recognition; the western side of Tank Square (today’s BBD Bagh) down to the Maidan till the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, had been given its modern shape with its grid of streets; pucka drains had been built and upgraded all over the city; the major north-south arterial road extending from Park Street in the south to Shyambazar in the north with four squares along it had been constructed; Free School Street had been made; the entire area south of Park Street up to Circular Road had been transformed into ‘virgin’ land ready to be settled in by the genteel (for the most part, sahib) population of Calcutta; and the modernisation of the Garden Reach area, reaching up to Khidirpur in the north, had been begun.
Among other things, the Lottery Committee built the major arterial roads in the northern and central parts of the city, which in time determined the layout of the contiguous residential areas. Dalhousie Square and the entire ground between Park Street and Circular Road were developed by the committee. Previously, a large part of the ground south of Park Street was low-lying and marshy, generating pestilence all around. Bustee clusters were located here probably because of the availability of Gangajal from Tolly’s Nullah (the Adi Ganga) through the existing network of drains, the river being some way off to the west.
The story of the making of Strand Road is narrated in detail, as with increasing economic activity and population pressure, it would provide the inhabitants with easier access to the river, both for recreation and commerce. The Lottery Committee was also responsible for putting up the first brick-and-mortar decorative balustrade which still adorns the Chowringhee area and Red Road. Thus, in its 13 years of effective functioning (till 1830), the committee had been successful in providing the critical push necessary to transform Calcutta from the topographical shape it had inherited since the years immediately following the landing of Job Charnock at Sutanati in August 1690 into one which, in a manner of speaking, would make the city ready to be launched into the 20th century and beyond.
The interest in reading the book persists throughout because apart from the maps, figures, numbers, statistics, and other logistic details, we get a lot of information of the different hindrances the Lottery Committee faced while implementing their projects. Human nature has not really changed much and so we read about people at that time who flouted the rules to line their own pockets and for whom profiteering was the norm.
The basic premise here is that human nature being what it is, there are some aspects of life and behaviour which are universal in their reach, both temporally and spatially. Another very interesting area of study is how the officials encountered the problem of encroachment, the process of land acquisition and the demand for compensation by native plot holders. The committee was aware of matters affecting the native sentiment and there are instances of how they altered the alignment of a major road to suit the convenience of the natives. Even then in some instances tiffs and legal hassles with local residents in North Calcutta were also recorded. Apart from private property rights, religious considerations too played an important role in the decision-making process of the committee.
Before concluding it is worthwhile mentioning a few lines about the author of this volume. During his quarter-century with The Statesman in Calcutta (1970-94), principally as a leader writer, Ranabir Ray Choudhury became interested in the past of a great city which the East India Company had selected as the nerve centre for its operations in the Indian subcontinent and further to the east, extending to Singapore and beyond. In time, this growing interest led to three compilations – Glimpses of Old Calcutta 1835-1850 (1978), Calcutta a Hundred Years Ago 1880-1890 (1987), and Early Calcutta Advertisements 1875-1925 (1992). He next wrote The Lord Sahib’s House, Sites of Power: Government Houses of Calcutta 1690-1911 (2010). A City in the Making, Aspects of Calcutta’s Early Growth (2016).
This volume under review is his sixth book and thematically is a sequel to the last one. That work ended with the formation of the Lottery Committee in 1817: this book takes up the story from there. From a connoisseur of the city, we get details of its development to a point that a lot of unknown facts are provided to the reader which the author garnered from documents and archival material available at the West Bengal State Archives.
Though he is not a historian, trained or otherwise, the author mentions in the ‘Introduction’ how he faced the constant struggle to avoid getting enmeshed in detail and to refocus attention on the broad current of policy and the effects of its implementation. Attention to the specific problems faced in the day-to-day execution of projects also does help to throw light on the precise nature of hurdles encountered at the grassroots level. The book is therefore highly recommended for scholars of history, architecture, town planning and every layman reader who is interested in Kolkata – a city which has been defined in multifarious ways as a city of joy, a city of palaces, a dead city, and so on.
Somdatta Mandal, an academic, critic and translator, is a former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Aalo Amar Aalo (Light, My Light) a song by Tagore, has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty from Bengali. Click hereto read.
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A conversation with VR Devika, author of Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights, Niyogi Books.
“Education, Freedom and Responsibility bring out the best from the individual and race. This will apply to all men and women irrespective of caste, creed or colour.”
—Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, Muthulakshmi Reddy:A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights
Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights by VR Devika is a biography of a woman who shouted out to demand reforms among devdasis ( women who had been ‘married’ to lifelong service of a deity or a temple) and prostitutes in the nineteenth-twentieth century. The biographer, V R Devika, is a storyteller, educationist and Gandhi scholar.
Muthulakshmi Reddy (1886-1968) was born to a devdasi mother and transcended the system that had deteriorated from when a devadasi was considered ‘auspicious’ as she would never be widowed or married, and she could maintain her status quo, the book informs, adding a historic perspective to this ‘norm’. By Reddy’s times, these women had been reduced to become mistresses to rich men. In ancient times, before malpractices set in, a princess is said to have opted to become a devdasi. The decline started in the sixteenth century when devdasis were transferred from temple to temple.
The narrative is simple and straightforward but what stands out is the value of the content, the strength of the woman who could speak up boldly and demand reforms — even have some of them instituted. She spoke out for reforms with searing words. The author quotes from many of her speeches.
“Muthulakshmi used strong language to explain her position on the Devadasi question. ‘Of all the laws, rules and regulations which down the centuries have helped to place women in a position of inferiority, none has been so very powerful in creating in the minds of men and people a sentiment of scorn and contempt for women as the degrading idea of the double standard of morals.’
“She thundered, ‘From this double standard that has sprung that worst attack on women’s dignity, that safety valve theory that a certain number of women should exist, should sacrifice their self-respect, their honour, their comforts, their health and happiness to satisfy the lust of the other sex. At the present day, the continuance of such a doctrine and of the laws which are founded on it, is a shameful anachronism unworthy of our civilisation. Both in the past and in the present, women have disproved their inferiority, and how then can we at the present day tolerate or connive at a system which transforms a woman of whichever caste or class she may be, into a mere chattel, a piece of tainted merchandise? The inequity of the system is too deep for me to give expression, and further under that inhuman and unjust system the innocent children of a certain caste or community are trained to become proficient in all the arts of solicitation that they become captives to vice.’”
That men and women perpetrate social norms to justify the existence of the so-called ‘world’s oldest profession’ is well brought out in the book. That women forced into the sex trade are not doing this out of choice is conveyed with conviction. Names of Reddy’s associates include Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) and the well-known singer whose mother was a devdasi too, MS Subbulakshmi (1930-1997).
Reddy was one of the first female medical graduates in India, the first woman to enter an Indian Legislature and the first woman in the world to preside over a Legislative Assembly. A recipient of the Padmabhushan and more accolades, she, as a doctor founded the Addyar Cancer Institute in 1952 after her sister was caught with cancer, and, as a humanitarian, started the Avvai Home in 1931 for those rescued from brothels and streets. Her spirit is well captured by the author when she writes:
“In 1942, during the World War II, soldiers of the British Royal Airforce camping in tents on the banks of Adyar river had made some derogatory remarks about the girls and harassed them. Muthulakshmi stood vigil all night with a stick in her hand and dared any soldier to come near the Home. She even went up the ranks to the commander’s house near Fort St. George to complain to him about the conduct of the soldiers and curb their behaviour.”
VR Devika has extensively shown that Reddy was a force to be reckoned with but she has not given way completely to adulation. She has objectively shown how Reddy over ruled her son’s choices for the well-being of her own institutions. It brought to mind Gandhi’s attitude towards his own family. An established cultural activist, VR Devika has been associated with the inception of Chennai’s Dakshinachitra Heritage Museum and Tamil Nadu INTACH, has been visiting the Avvai Home and in this exclusive she tells us the story of how the book came about and why she visited this home and its impact on her.
Tell us why you felt that Muthulakshmi Reddy’s story needed to be told. What was the readership you had in mind when you wrote the biography?
The dance scholarship [donors] consisting of mainly outsiders who had a hypothesis, got a good grant, employed interpreters and cherry picked to denigrate her in a fashion that took dance academic world by storm after the 1980s. I had also bought into them when I began to learn Bharathanatyam. But when I joined INTACH Tamilnadu and Madras Craft Foundation in 1985 after having been a schoolteacher since 1974, I began a project of English language as a skilling programme and theatre as empowerment for Avvai Home. That is when I began to get the other side of the story that was really fascinating. I kept thinking I must reach this story out. Dr.V.Shanta, chairman of Cancer institute, said I must write her [Muthulakshmi Reddy’s] biography and I decided to work on it after she passed away. I had young people who were studying English but had no access to English other than their textbooks as the target audience but I am a story teller and I just began to tell the story in simple way as I always do.
You tell us in the authorial note that you went on ‘work’ to the Avvai home. Tell us about the home. Why were you there?
Geetha Dharmarajan and I lived near Avvai Home. I had no idea about the history of the home etc. But I knew very poor girls studied there. Geetha had spoken to them and I went along but Geetha relocated to New Delhi and started Katha and I stayed on helping Avvai Home in many different ways. I have written a full story of Avvai Home in the book. It was volunteer work. Rajalakshmi of Avvai Home requested me to help them on a production on Dr.Muthulakshmi Reddy. I interviewed Sarojini Varadappan, Dr.Shanta, and several others to write the script for the production. I am now on their school advisory committee.
For me, the most interesting aspect was how Muthulakshmi Reddy made the transition from being born a devadasi to empowering herself enough to outlaw the custom. Did her parents ever marry?
No there was no way they could marry as a girl born in the system was barred from ritualistic marriage according to Hindu custom. She was his companion.
Your narrative is direct and eulogistic of great names and associations of/ developed by Muthulakshmi Reddy and the lady herself. The personal is largely left out, except to emphasise her achievements. Why?
I cannot [describe that] as I never met her. I had to sketch a portrait from her writings, her achievements and her son’s writing.
Would you regard the devdasi system as a social ill that has been erased or is it an ongoing battle?
There is no social evil that has been erased completely. Nostalgists for devdasi system denigrate her [Reddy]. But there is the social evil of discrimination against Dalits still, but should Ambedkar be blamed for giving a legal handle for those who wanted to come out and achieve something of their own despite the caste hierarchy? Those who benefited from the abolition of dedication are in thousands while those who bemoan the loss of culture in the way they want it are in hundreds.
The devdasi system is a generic system in a number of states in India. Did Reddy’s reforms benefit all the states? Was the Avvai Home open to all devdasis or only from her state?
Avvai Home never claimed to be only for devdasis but for girls who needed protection and access to education. No reform benefits everyone. Her law was for the Madras Presidency of the time which consisted of parts of Andhra, Orissa and Karnataka too as part of it.
Muthulakshmi Reddy started a number of things, including the second oldest cancer hospital in India. But all these were reactions borne of personal experiences. Do you think if she had been born into a regular family, and her sister would not have had cancer, would she have striven for these institutions too?
I can’t answer a hypothetical question. How do we know what she would have done?
What was the driving force behind the reforms instituted by Muthulakshmi Reddy?
Her own indomitable will and the stubborn streak that sought to get it done and get others who would help her come in whole heartedly.
Would you justify the “emotional blackmail” on her son to fulfil her own dream by giving up his own? Do you think that it is right of a parent to impose their will in this way?
I am not justifying it. It happened that way. Just telling the story. She did not force her elder son who went into Electrical Engineering. Her second son never resented the “emotional blackmail” He went along whole heartedly.
What for you was the most endearing quality of Dr Reddy?
I have many who worked with her telling me she was very kind, but she was also a tyrant and would not bend. Her own indomitable will and the stubborn streak that sought to get it done and get others who would help her come in whole heartedly. She was a mother (Amma) was the unanimous opinion.
Travels formed an integral part of the personae and creative artist that was Rabindranath Tagore. During his travels to England and the America (1912-13 and 1920) Tagore wrote essays for publication in various Bengali journals. Rabindranath Tagore was an inveterate traveller who travelled to the furthest corners of the globe. Detailing his travels in the colloquial everyday language (also referred to as ‘chalit’ bhasha or language) during his tour of England and USA in 1912-13, he used to publish regularly in journals like Prabasi, Bharati and Tattwabodhini Patrika. As the translator-editor Somdatta Mandal informs us, Vishwa Bharati Publication Department in 1946 decided to discard Rabindranath’s own selection. They went back to the earlier formal register and included writings of the 1912 tour, irrespective of whether they were related to his travel.
The book blurb says: “In 1939, Tagore selected fourteen of these essays and an appendix containing seven letters he had written to some of the teachers in the Santiniketan ashram while he was on these trips, for publication as a volume. It was at this point that he rewrote the original essays then using the colloquial instead of the formal language; he also revised the texts substantially. Later editions altered the number of essays, sometimes digressing from Tagore’s own selection, sometimes going back to Tagore’s original formal language.”
The travelogue, if it can be called that, provides an insight into Tagore’s perception of the different facets of western life and the diverse philosophical issues that cross his mind as he journeys from one continent to another. Thus perhaps it is more appropriate that the collection is named “gleanings’’ rather than a travel account or narrative. They are philosophical ruminations where Tagore holds forth on various aspects of civilizations and cultures.
In the very first segment, Tagore’s critical observations about Indian society comes to the fore. Thus he comments on what he sees as cultural differences and civilizational clashes, in “Prelude to the Journey”: “We always comfort ourselves by saying that we are a religious and spiritual race”. He sees this as a compensatory move by Indians to cover up our own sense of inadequacy, about our “weakness” in the external world.(Tagore was acutely conscious of India’s status as a colonised country). “Many of us boast that poverty is our asset”, dwelling perhaps in a haze of pseudo-spiritualism which balks at admitting that this attitude is merely a kind of bravado.
Tagore’s essay here unpacks the notion of the binary that the West is materialistic while the East is spiritual by lauding certain aspects of Western and European culture. Thus he writes that “if we go to Europe with the aim of a pilgrimage, our journey will not be in vain”. He further explains that this is not only because of the material developments achieved by Western culture, but their spirit and attitude.
Power, according to Tagore, is more than an external manifestation; rather, it has to do with a sense of real inner strength. He goes on to cite the instance of the Titanic and people’s altruism and self-sacrifice that was in evidence at that time, to interrogate the view, held by many Indians, that the average European is self-centred and self-serving. On the other hand, Tagore also gives plenty of instances where the spiritual poverty of Indians was in evidence. Thus he writes, “I know there has been a clash between our welfare and that of Europe and because of that we are suffering deep anguish and pain. We do not trust their religion and we criticise their culture as being too materialistic.” However, he continues that there are aspects of European culture which are worthy of emulation, which we would do well to follow, without feeling that it threatens our culture. He strongly commends that the path to seek the truth is a pilgrimage on which we should proceed without being blinded by ego, prejudice and false pride.
Coupled with this contrast of cultures, are observations about people and places. Thus he talks about the women of Bombay who are visible on the beaches of Bombay and contrasts it with the city of Calcutta, which according to him, is bereft of women in public places. Tagore also muses on the vast and limitless ocean which to him offers a cornucopia of literal and symbolic meanings. The sea and the ocean signify vastness, depth, boundlessness and infinitude, as well as the lure of the unknown. In contrast, he bemoans the loss of man’s ties with nature signified to him by the colonial appropriation of the river. He reflects that the river “Ganges was once one of Calcutta’s ties with nature…It was the one window of the city from where you could look out and realize that the world was not confined to this settlement.” He bemoans the fact that the once natural strength of the Ganga had been dissipated, “it has been dressed up in such tight clothes on both its banks and its waist band has been tightened so that the Ganges seems to be the image of a liveried footman of the city”. In contrast, the “special glory of the sea is that it serves man but does so without wearing the yoke of slavery on its neck.” His evocative description brings to life the various aspects of the landscape in full measure.
Tagore’s ‘travel’ writing is not just a mapping of people and places, but shows him as the supreme cartographer of the imagination. Witness his contrast of the earth and the ocean. The earth is compared to an excessively doting mother who binds her children to her and does not allow them to venture far away; the ocean by contrast “constantly allures him to venture towards the unattainable”. He adds, “Those who responded to that call and moved out are the ones who conquered the world.” Moreover, “that race of people on this earth who have specially welcomed this ocean have also found the unceasing effort of the ocean in their character.” Travelling on the Arabian sea, glimpsing distant shores, he stresses that the union of the two — the land and the ocean — signifying stability and movement are vital to an understanding of the truth.
The urge to travel, to move forward continuously, is forever present in man. In a philosophical vein , the poet muses that the soul “always wants to travel” and that it dies if it does not do so.In a series of similes and metaphors drawn from nature, he reflects: “Let us keep moving on, like the waterfall, the waves of the ocean, the birds at dawn, the light at sunrise.” He even transcends to the next plane when he says that “even the call of death is nothing but just a call to change the dwelling place”. In almost the same breath, he compares himself to a fairy princess who is fast asleep and who cannot be woken from her slumber, except with a golden wand.
Part anthropological study– at one point, the poet reflects that the vastness of the surrounding sea would have elicited devotion among many Indians, unlike the European traveller who is intent on enjoying the comforts and varieties of entertainment on the ship-part philosophic meditation, “Gleanings” represents the quintessential Tagore. His interrogation of Indian claims to spirituality is made in the tone of a concerned father warning his children not to fall prey to false pride and vanity. Deeply patriotic as well as an internationalist, he straddled two contrasting worlds of materiality and spirituality, without succumbing to limiting binaries and stereotypes.
Ably introduced and translated by Somdatta Mandal, a renowned Tagore scholar, the translation captures the iridescent and luminous quality of Tagore’s prose and its chiaroscuro effects.
Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.
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Rakhi Dalal reviews Geetanjali Shree’s Mai, Silently Mother, a Sahitya Akademi winning translation of the Hindi novel by Nita Kumar
Title: Mai, Silently Mother
Author: Geetanjali Shree, Translator: Nita Kumar
Publisher: Niyogi Books
To live in a South Asian country means to grow up with an absolute idea of a mother. A mother is always giving, nurturing, sacrificing and working. Her day begins and ends with looking after the household. In context with India, this notion also seems to be defined by the structures of caste and class. Although an opinion of her position, based upon the ideas imbedded in conscience, takes on different interpretations when seen broadly from the lenses of patriarchy or feminism. With the former, it is more of a responsibility or duty that is taken for granted and in many cases not even given a second thought. In the case of latter, it might be considered as oppression in some situations, where the mothers are deliberately subjugated into drudgery of family grind by the patriarchal structure.
Mai by Geentajali Shree presents to us the complexities brought about by the conflict between both of these ideas in a domestic realm. However more than that it compels us to think when we talk of a mother, exactly whose opinions are being discussed and whether we also explore it from the point of view of the mother herself.
It is the debut Hindi novel of the author and is centred on the world of a mother as observed by her daughter. The English translation of Mai by Nita Kumar had won Sahitya Academy Award in 2002 and was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award in 2001. Ret Samadhi by Geetanjali Shree, whose English translation Tomb of Sand by Daisy Rockwell won International Booker this year, also has at its centre a mother.
Shree writes stories and novels in Hindi. Her much acclaimed novels Tirohit and Khali Jagah have also been translated into English. She has written a biography of Premchand in English and is also associated with theatre. Nita Kumar, the translator of Mai, is a Brown Family Professor of South Asian History at Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, California. She has also authored several books and is engaged in innovative education in Varanasi since 1990.
The household in Mai is a typical middle class in a small North-Indian town where the patriarch set the diktats rolling for a joint family. Governed by the binaries of outside and inside, the roles of each member are clearly defined. ‘Outside’ is a world to be conquered by the men whereas the confines within the house are to be looked after and cared for by the women. Three generations of a family living under the same roof offer resonance with confirmations and contradictions inherent to the structure they are bound by.
With this backdrop, the author successfully pulls strings to present an image closer to the familiar realities of such a household. Silently mother, the subtitle of Mai, is the identifier which Sunaina, the third generation daughter, associates with her mother. From her early childhood, she has watched her mother attending to the call of her family silently. Always bent, always working, from behind her purda, the mother seemed weak. Slowly however, and with much subtlety, Shree offers the reader certain glimpses into the character of silent Mai. Instances which, as Kumar suggests, mean that her silence does not equate with being speechless. At the most crucial points, we witness the mother speaking up for her children, even if it is only a single word or sentence is being uttered. She never questions their choices or decisions, thereby giving them freedom to get on with their own lives, something which makes them closer to her than to their father or grandparents.
The reader also finds that mother does have her own moments of joy when she retires at night to the bedroom she shares with her children, lets go off her veil and laughs at their jokes, when she appears in the forbidden courtyard humming a song or when she takes on the responsibility of entire house after her husband meets a tragic accident.
For Sunaina and her brother Subodh however, her silence equates with oppression. They are obsessed with the idea of rescuing her from the fetters which they believe are afflicted upon her. So much so that it becomes the sole purpose of their lives. With passage of time, their mission nevertheless remains unaccomplished as they realise in frustration that their mother doesn’t need to be saved. It is only towards the end that they realise her strength and contribution in building their lives.
In the afterword, Kumar says, “We do not know ‘what’ mothers are, we do not know if a given mother is ‘fulfilled’ in what she does, or what else she ‘wants’. But we could progressively know whether to ask certain questions, how to ask some others, what any of them might imply, how to refrain from asking and retrack, how to pause and begin to comprehend little glimpses better. We could start evaluating silence differently from what we do in our dichotomous, rationalist world, like Subodh and Sunaina’s tells us to. We could question agency, strength and weakness anew.”
With an impressive 50 page critique of Mai, the afterword is an added treat to the reader. Kumar writes on the matter of mother and looks at it from the point of history and anthropology. She discusses the challenges associated with the task of translation and her discourse engages the reader, bringing focus on her work which is done exceptionally well.
This splendid novel by Geetanjali Shree, with its nuanced portrayal of sensibilities across class, gender and age, invites the reader to look closely into the preconceived as well as acquired notions around ‘mother’. It stresses profoundly that the mothers are not only made invisible by the veil which patriarchy forces upon them but also by the partial and opinionated understanding of their desires. Maybe if we try to catch the little glimpses better, we may start seeing her coming out of shadows.
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
Our ashrama school is situated in the midst of a meadow, a place where both the old and the young, students and teachers all reside in the same room. We also have other playmates; we do not have a concealed relationship with the blue sky, the light and the breeze. Here the early morning rays of the sun fall directly upon our eyelids, the evening stars in the sky directly stare at our faces. When the storm comes, its dusty stole warns us from a very long distance. The arrival of a new season is first heralded through the new leaves on our trees. It is as if Nature does not have to wait for a moment outside our doors. Our desire is to share this kind of a relationship with the people of the world as well. The desire of our heart is to see clearly all the seasons that come and go in the history of mankind, the rising and setting of the sun or the tumult that storm and rain create. This is possible for us because we stay far away from human habitation. Here all the information of the world is not received in a particular cookie-cutter mould; if we want we can receive them in an unadulterated form.
In order to make the relationship of our institution to the rest of the human world an open one, I feel it necessary to explore the world. We have received the invitation of that larger world. As it is not possible for all the 200 students of this school to accompany me in this grand tour, so I have decided that I shall alone attend the invitation on your behalf. Through me I shall complete all of yours travel. When I will again return to your ashrama I will be able to capture a lot of the external world in my life and bring it for you. Once I come back I will share my experiences at leisure, but now, before departing, I want to clearly explain some of my thoughts to you. Many people ask me why are you going for an Europe travel? I cannot find an answer to this question. If I give a simple answer that I am going because I simply want to travel, then people will think that I am dismissing the fact lightheartedly. Man is not at peace until a result is declared and an assessment made of the profit and loss involved. Why should man venture out of home without any need is a question that can be raised in our country only. We are oblivious of the fact that the wish to venture outside is a natural instinct in man. Home has bound us up in such a manner that we are tied by many superstitions and tears once we decide to set our feet across the threshold. Thus the outside is totally beyond us while its connection with home has been completely severed. Our friends and relatives enmesh us so closely that outsiders are outsiders in the true sense of the word.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Travels formed an integral part of the personae and creative artist that was Rabindranath Tagore. During his travels to England and the USA (1912-13 and 1920) Tagore wrote essays for publication in various Bengali journals. In 1939, Tagore selected fourteen of these essays and an appendix containing seven letters he had written to some of the teachers in the Shantiniketan ashram while he was on these trips, for publication as a volume. Tagore rewrote the original essays then using the colloquial instead of the formal language; he also revised the texts substantially. Later editions altered the number of essays, sometimes digressing from Tagore’s own selection, sometimes going back to Tagore’s original formal language. The travelogue provides an insight into Tagore’s perception of the different facets of western life and the diverse philosophical issues that cross his mind as he journeys from one continent to another. Translated from Bengali for the first time, Pather Sanchoy would be of interest to all those who enjoy exploring unknown territories geographically and psychologically.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rabindranath Tagore, sobriquet Gurudev, was a Bengali polymath who reshaped Bengali literature and music, as well as Indian art with Contextual Modernism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Author of Gitanjali and its “profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse”, he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913.He is sometimes referred to as “The Bard of Bengal”.
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
Somdatta Mandalis a former Professor of English and ex-Chairperson, Department of English, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships like the Fulbright Research and Teaching Fellowships, British Council Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship, Rockefeller Residency at Bellagio, Italy, Salzburg Seminar and Shastri Indo-Canadian Faculty Enrichment Fellowship, she has been published widely both nationally and internationally. She has also an award from Sahitya Akademi for the All India Indian Literature Golden Jubilee (1957-2007) Literary Translation Competition in the Fiction category for translating short stories series ‘Lalu’ by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya.
As the world celebrates Valentine’s Day, one pauses to think how far commercialisation has seeped in over time that the very concept of a tender emotion was questioned by Tina Turner in a song called, “What’s love got to do with it” nearly four decades ago.
This was written even before Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) published a nostalgic memoir of 1930’s Santiniketan in Bengali in 2001. She raised her pen to ask the very pertinent question that is quoted above. Why is education in love not a part of our curriculum anymore? She was reminiscing about her days in Santiniketan where children were brought up with rigorous academics while discipline was coloured with love and affection. They nurtured a love for nature in students too. This has become a rarity for many and perhaps needs to be revived as the Earth struggles to continue habitable for humankind. In the process of educating students to love and give, Santiniketan threw up many greats like the writer herself. We are delighted to host an excerpt from the start of Our Santiniketan translated beautifully by Radha Chakravarty.
Santiniketan was only the very visible part of a huge project taken on by Tagore (1861-1941). The other part now united with Santiniketan under the banner of Visva Bharati University is Sriniketan, a group of villages where Tagore experimented with raising consciousness and standards of villagers to integrate them into a larger world. He brought in new techniques in agriculture and crafts into the villages under this programme involving many prominent scientists, artists and humanists. And the project has blossomed. Did you know Tagore thought of himself as an NGO and his ‘life work’ he felt was developing villages (Sriniketan) and educating young minds to build a world where borders of knowledge, poverty and ignorance could be smoothened?
He wrote: “I alone cannot take responsibility for the whole of India. But even if two or three villages can be freed from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established.
“Fulfill this ideal in a few villages only, and I will say that these few villages are my India. And only if that is done, will India be truly ours.”
All this can be found in a book called A History of Sriniketan (Niyogi Books), written by Uma Das Gupta, a major authority on Tagore who moved from Oxford to Santiniketan and made Tagore’s work in these two institutions her own life’s work. We have featured her and her book in our interview/review section.
Raised out of such ashes of poverty that Tagore sought to dispel, are youngsters from the village of Nithari, where ceaseless efforts by volunteers of organisations like Saksham and pandies’ has given a new lease for life to those who have been exposed to violations, violence, divides, poverty and deprivation. One of them, Sharad Kumar, now studying to be an engineer, kicks off our new section called Pandies’ Corner with his story in Hindustani translated by a volunteer, Grace M Sukanya. His story learns from history and shows rather than tells.
A similar approach to view the present through lenses focussed on the past at a much grander scale has been taken by Shazi Zaman, an author and journalist, who has stepped into the Anglophone world with the transcreation of his own novel from Hindi to English, Akbar, A Novel of History (Speaking Tiger Books). He has brought to the fore how in days when sectarian violence based on religions killed, Akbar (1542-1605) tried to create a new path that would lead to peace so that he could rule over an empire united by administration and not broken by contentious religious animosities which often led to wars. In his interview, he tells us of the relevance of the Great Mughal in a period of history that was torn by divides, divisions so deep that they continue to smoulder to this day and date. That history repeats itself is evident though our living standards seem to improve over time. Bhaskar Parichha’s review of Growing up Jewish in India: Synagogues, Customs, and Communities from the Bene Israel to the Art of Siona Benjamin, edited by Ori Z. Soltes, also reinforces these divides and amalgamations in the modern context. The other books that have been reviewed include The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloudby Indrashish Banerjee, and Gracy Samjetsabam has introduced us to an intriguing murder mystery in Masala and Murder by Patrick Lyons.
Ratnottama Sengupta has also paid a moving tribute to the music legend, Lata Mangeshkar, who died at the age of 92 on 6th February, 2022. The choral symphony of multiple voices that hums through the paean recreating the larger than life presence of Lata reinforces that her lilting voice will stay embedded in many hearts and lives forever. Her perfect honing of musical skills delivered with the right emotions make her an epitome of human excellence. She gave the best of herself to the world.
Wrapped in more dry humour is Devraj Singh Kalsinarrative on why he does not want pets. Meredith Stephens, on the contrary loves pets and sails the seas of West Australia with her camera, words, seals and dolphins. Luke PG Draper also speaks for animals — for the intrusion of pollutants that harm creatures like whales in his short story. Hop all over the world with Ravi Shankar breaking nightly fasts with food from different cultures. More colour is brought in by Suzanne Kamata who starts a new column, Notes from Japan — introducing us to Japanese sensation, Masaki Nakagawa, who has sung his way to hearts with Lativian songs that he loves, so much so that he got to perform at the Japanese coronation and has pictures with the Latvian President.
The time has come to let you discover the mysterious pieces that have not been mentioned here in the February edition — and there are many.
Before I wind up till the next month, I would like to thank our fabulous team who make this journal possible. Keith Lyons has now become part of that team and has graciously joined our editorial board. Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious deserve a special kudos for their fabulous artwork. Our grateful, heartfelt thanks to all our wonderful contributors and readers who keep the journal alive.
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 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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Title: Growing up Jewish in India: Synagogues, Customs, and Communities from the Bene Israel to the Art of Siona Benjamin
Editor: Ori Z. Soltes
Publisher: Niyogi Books
This is a wonderful anthology of non-fiction on Jews in India. The gorgeously produced book offers a historical account of the primary Jewish communities, their synagogues, and unique customs. It traces how Jews arrived in the vast subcontinent at different times from different places, both inhabiting diverse locations within the larger Indian community, and ultimately creating a diaspora within the larger Jewish diaspora by relocating to other countries, particularly Israel and the United States.
Edited by Ori Z. Soltes, who teaches art history, theology, philosophy and political history at Georgetown University and who is also a former Director of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum having curated more than 85 exhibitions on history, ethnography and modern and contemporary art, this book gives a veritable account of the Indian Jews who have retained their distinctive physiognomies. He shows Jews have been integrated into the larger Indian diaspora because of their receptive, flexible and inimitable traits.
The text and its rich complement of more than 150 images explore how Indian Jews retained their unique characteristics despite being well-integrated into the larger diaspora of Indians and have continued to offer a synthesis of cultural qualities wherever they reside. Understandably, the editor Ori Z. Soltes, contends not many communities feel a sense of belonging with two countries they view as their own — the Jews call India their motherland, and Israel, their fatherland.
The Bene Israel Jews are the largest Jewish Indian community and there are a number of theories regarding the timing of their arrival on the western coast, some dating back to the reign of King Solomon, 3,000 years ago. Another theory is that they were part of the lost 10 tribes that disappeared from north Israel and from history in the aftermath of the conquest of the Israelite kingdom by the Neo-Assyrian Empire. And there are other theories too on which Soltes elaborates to bring clarity to the matter.
The book has an elaborate discussion on the unique art of Siona Benjamin, who grew up in the Bene Israel community of Mumbai and then moved to the US. Her work reflects Indian and Jewish influences as well as concepts like tikkun olam (Hebrew for ‘repairing the world’).
In a sense, the book is a memoir on growing up Jewish in India with essays on Siona’s Fulbright work in India and Israel, plus her other series of works. It offers a portrait of a unique slice of the Indian world for readers interested in history, art, religion, and culture, worldwide.
In combining discussions of the Indian Jewish communities with Benjamin’s own story and an analysis of her artistic output, this volume offers a unique verbal and visual portrait of a significant slice of Indian and Jewish culture and tradition.
The book begins on an existent note: “Indian Jews have historically lived across diverse parts of the Indian subcontinent over the centuries without experiencing the sort of anti-Semitism that has been so common in many other parts of the world, particularly Christian Europe, which exported its anti-Jewish sensibilities into the Muslim world eventually, particularly in the context of European colonialism and post-colonialism in the Middle East, culminating with World War I and its aftermath. Indeed, the most obvious exception to the rule of Jewish experience in India arrived with the control of Goa in the early 16th century by the Portuguese, who brought with them not only anti-Jewish feelings, but the specifics associated with the development of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition that would affect New Christians suspected of secretly continuing to practice Judaism-and continue until the formal abolition of the Inquisition authority in 1812.”
The introductory chapter throws light on the non-violence Hindu culture in India which allowed Jews to live in harmony with other communities as opposed to European countries: “The general lack of hostility and persecution may be understood in part as a cultural phenomenon, but also as a function of the nature of Hinduism, by far the dominant religion across India, and its embrace of diverse perspectives regarding how, specifically, one might understand and address divinity. Within the singularity of Brahman-Being-what we term ‘Hinduism’ recognises a nearly infinite possibility for divine manifestations: Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Devi, Krishna (and many other more minor figures) are both separate from each other and all understood to be part of each other and subsumed into a singularity that is Brahman.”
It further contends that India is as diverse with religions as it is linguistically. It is, as most people are aware, the country in which Hinduism was born, in fact the word ‘Hindu’ refers to the place, India, not to the form of faith. According to the author, “Hinduism’ is also a misnomer in being used as if there is a monolithic form of faith that goes by that name, just as it is often misunderstood to be polytheistic: there are, after all, any number of gods and goddesses, it would seem, that occupy its pantheon. In truth, (to repeat), an Indian who is part of this spiritual tradition understands all of these ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ to be particularised manifestations of a single god of Being.”
What is Hinduism? Soltes argues: “Hinduism’ may be understood by Westerners as a more complex version, in a sense, of Christianity in its understanding of God as triune, for instead of a threefold, Father/Son/Holy Spirit Godhead, ‘Hinduism’ offers a poly-une Brahman (Being) expressed as Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, Devi, and others. So, one is typically a Saivite, say, or a Vaishnavite, believing that Siva or Vishnu represents the consummate expression of God, but embracing the legitimacy of other expressions, as well. Moreover, among the 10 avatars assumed by Vishnu over history, one of them is as a dark-skinned (blue or black) anthropomorphic, Krishna, and over time, a growing community of Krishna’s followers or Krishnaites views him as the consummate manifestation of God-not as an avatar of Vishnu: on the contrary, Vishnu is viewed as a manifestation of Krishna.”
The book has in all six chapters with a foreword by Ralphy Jhirad. There’s a chapter on Kerala synagogues by Orna Eliyahu-Oron and Barbara C. Johnson; another on the synagogues of Calcutta Baghdadi Jews by Jael Silliman. Silliman weaves her narrative around the three synagogues of Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta, giving deep insights into the lives of the city’s Jewish community whose numbers have dwindled from 4,500-odd in the mid-20th century to 700 or so in the 1970s and about 20 now. Benjamin writes a memoir, ‘How I Turned Blue and Other Stories I Remember Growing up Jewish in India’.
Benjamin’s piece gives a snapshot of the life of a diasporic Jew. She writes about her grandmother Elizabeth’s long and interesting life journey. Born in Quetta in Pakistan, Elizabeth’s family later migrated to India’s west coast. Her children dispersed to Asia, Africa and North America, perpetuating the idea of the diasporic Jew. The distance between the families seemed to widen with her parents in India, most of the family in Israel, a few relatives in the U.S. and Canada, and some in Africa. Soltes writes on ‘Refocus and Return’. Benjamin’s multi-layered art dots the book. Soltes also pens the epilogue on the community’s past.
The book is a must read for all as it addresses a complex issue in a rich scholarly way while making it eminently readable. It would be of interest to Jews and non-Jews, Indian and non-Indian alike, as well as to history enthusiasts and the general reader interested in art and culture.
Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of Unbiased, 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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