Title: Between Heaven and Earth: Writings on the Indian Hills
Editors: Ruskin Bond and Bulbul Sharma
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
She was eighty-six, but looking at her you wouldn’t have guessed—she was spry and took some care to look good. Not once in the five years that we spent together did I find her looking slovenly. The old-fashioned dresses she wore were clean and well-ironed, and sometimes she added a hat. Her memory was excellent, and she knew a great deal about the flowers, trees, birds and other wildlife of the area—she hadn’t made a serious study of these things, but having lived here for so long, she had developed an intimacy with everything that grew and flourished around her. A trust somewhere in England sent her a pension of forty or fifty rupees, and this was all the money she had, having used up the paltry sum she’d received from the sale of her property.
She’d had a large house, she told me, which she had inherited from her parents when they died, and she’d had an ailing sister whom she had nursed for many years before she too passed away. As she had no income, she kept boarders in the house, but she had no business sense and was losing money maintaining it. In the end, she sold the house for a song to one of the local traders and moved into two small rooms on the ground floor of Maplewood Lodge, a kindness for which she remained grateful to her friends, the Gordon sisters.
It must have been lonely for Miss Bean, living there in the shadow of the hill, which was why she had been excited when I moved into the floor above her. With age catching up, she couldn’t leave her rooms and her little garden as often as she would have liked to, and there were few visitors—sometimes a teacher from the Wynberg Allen School, the padre from the church in town, the milkman twice a week and, once a month, the postman. She had an old bearer, who had been with her for many years. I don’t think she could afford him any longer, but she managed to pay him a little somehow, and he continued out of loyalty, but also because he was old himself; there wouldn’t have been too many other employment opportunities for him. He came late in the morning and left before dark. Then she would be alone, without even the company of a pet. There’d been a small dog long ago, but she’d lost it to a leopard.
Camel’s Back Road, going to a tea party at a friend’s house, the dog sitting in her lap. And suddenly, from the hillside above her, a leopard sprang onto the rickshaw, snatched the dog out of her hands, and leapt down to the other side and into the forest. She was left sitting there, empty-handed, in great shock, but she hadn’t suffered even a scratch. The two rickshaw pullers said they’d only felt a heavy thump behind them, and by the time they turned to look, the leopard was gone.
All of this I gathered over the many evenings that I spent chatting with Miss Bean in her corner of the cottage. I didn’t have anyone to cook for me in the first few years at Maplewood. Most evenings I would have tinned food, and occasionally I would go down to share my sardine tins or sausages with Miss Bean. She ate frugally—maybe she’d always had a small appetite, or it was something her body had adjusted to after years of small meals—so I wasn’t really depriving myself of much. And she returned the favour with excellent tea and coffee.
We would have long chats, Miss Bean telling me stories about Mussoorie, where she had lived since she was a teenager, and stories about herself (a lot of which went into some of my own stories). She remembered the time when electricity came to Mussoorie—in 1912, long before it reached most other parts of India. And she had memories of the first train coming into Dehra, and the first motor road coming up to Mussoorie. Before the motor road was built, everyone would walk up the old bridle path from Rajpur, or come on horseback, or in a dandy held aloft by four sweating coolies.
Miss Bean missed the old days, when there was a lot of activity in the hill resort—picnics and tea parties and delicious scandals. It was second only to Shimla, the favourite social playground of the Europeans. But unlike Shimla, it had the advantage of being a little more private. It was a place of mischief and passion, and young Miss Bean enjoyed both. As a girl, she’d had many suitors, and if she did not marry, it was more from procrastination than from being passed over. While on all sides elopements and broken marriages were making life exciting, she managed to remain single, even when she taught elocution at one of the schools that flourished in Mussoorie, and which were rife with secret affairs.
Do you wish you had, though,’ I asked her one March evening, sitting by the window, in the only chair she had in her bedroom.
‘Do I wish I had what?’ she said from her bed, where she was tucked up with three hot-water bottles.
‘Married. Or fallen in love.’
‘I did fall in love, you know. But my dear father was a very good shot with pistol and rifle, so I had to be careful for the sake of the young gentlemen. As for marriage, I might have regretted it even had it happened.’
A fierce wind had built up and it was battering at the doors and windows, determined to get in. It slipped down the chimney, but was stuck there, choking and gurgling in frustration.
‘There’s a ghost in your chimney and he can’t get out,’ I said.
‘Then let him stay there,’ said Miss Bean.
Excerpted from Between Heaven and Earth: Writings on the Indian Hills, edited by Ruskin Bond and Bulbul Sharma. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.
ABOUT THE BOOK
‘What is it about the hills that draws us to them again and again?’ asks one of the editors of this collection. In these pages, over forty writers—from a daughter of the Tagore family and a British colonial officer in the 19th century, to a young poet and an Adivasi daily-wage worker in the 21st century—show us what the many reasons could be: Green hillsides glowing in the sun; the scent of pine and mist; the wind soughing in the deodars; the song of the whistling thrush; a ritual of worship; a picnic, a party, an illicit affair. They show us, too, the complex histories of hill stations built for the Raj and reshaped in free India; the hardship and squalor behind the beauty; the mixed blessings of progress.
Rich in deep experience and lyrical expression, and containing some stunning images of the hills, Between Heaven and Earth is a glorious collection put together by two of India’s finest writers, both with a lifelong connection with the hills. Among the writers you will read in it—who write on the hills in almost every region of India—are Rumer Godden, Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore, Emily Eden, Francis Younghusband, Jim Corbett, Jawaharlal Nehru, Khushwant Singh, Keki Daruwalla, and of course the two editors themselves. Together, they make this a book that you will keep returning to for years to come.
ABOUT THE EDITORS
Ruskin Bond is one of India’s most beloved writers. He is the author of numerous novellas, short-story collections and non-fiction books, many of them classics and several of them set in the hills of north India. Among his best-known books are The Room on the Roof, Time Stops at Shamli, A Book of Simple Living, Rain in the Mountains and Lone Fox Dancing. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1999 and the Padma Bhushan in 2014. He lives in Landour, Mussoorie.
Bulbul Sharma is an acclaimed painter and writer, author of best-selling books of fiction and non-fiction, including My Sainted Aunts, The Anger of Aubergines, Murder in Shimla and Shaya Tales. Bulbul conducts ‘storypainting’ workshops for special needs children and is a founder-member of Sannidhi—an NGO that works in village schools. She divides her time between New Delhi, London and Shaya, a village in Himachal Pradesh.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Ratnottama Sengupta gives a glimpse of the life of a woman impacted by the Partition, spirited enough to be a celebrated performer and to have a compelling saga written on her life posthumously, Zohra: A Biography in Four Acts by Ritu Menon, published by Speaking Tiger Books. This feature is based on the book and Sengupta’s own personal interactions with the aging Zohra Sehgal.
Zohra Sehgal mirrors, in a strange kind of way, the story of the Indian subcontinent.
Born a Khan in 1912, raised in purdah by the Nawabs of Rampur in palaces and mansions in Lucknow and Dehradun, educated in Queen Mary’s College of Lahore; trained in Western dance in pre-Hitler Germany; whirling through the globe and basking in limelight as the dancing partner of the phenomenal Uday Shankar; setting up her own dance school with husband Kameshwar Segal in pre-Partition Lahore; rising to carve a niche for herself as a member of Prithvi Theatres; dominating the screen as a nonagenarian cast against the legendary Amitabh Bachchan… Sahibzadi bestowed with an impulse to find her way in the world, made of her life what she would.
So, was it all sunshine and moonlight in the life of the lady who, when she turned 100, had the wit to say, “You are looking at me now, when I am old and ugly… You should have seen me when I was young and ugly…”? No. She had seen the failure of Uday Shankar Cultural Centre in Almora; the closure of her own dance school in Lahore. She’d relocated to Bombay and be a less appreciated ‘side-kick’ to her ‘prettier’ younger sister in Prithvi Theatres. She performed in makeshift stages more often than in the Opera House; traveled in third class compartments with the troupe, slept on trunks, washed her own clothes. She had to worry about providing for her children and their father. She had to cope with the whimsicality, alcoholism, depression and finally, the suicide of her husband… But the caravan of misfortunes never dampened her spirit. “If I were to be reborn, I’ll be back as a blue-eyed, five feet five, 36-24-36,” she could repartee with humorist Khushwant Singh.
But then, much of the tragedy unfolded around the Independence cum Partition at Midnight. And I thank Ritu Menon’s ‘ABiography in Four Acts’ for lifting the curtain on this side of Zohra Segal – the phenomenon I had the good fortune to know through the years we spent in Delhi’s Alaknanda area.
Zohra’s father, Mohammed Mumtazullah Khan had descended from Maulvi Ghulam Jilani Khan, the warrior chieftain of a clan of the Yusufzai tribe and a religious scholar of repute who came to the Mughal court in Delhi possibly in 1754. Along with infantry and cavalry and the title of Khan Saheb he was given Chitargaon Pargana in Bihar, but since the British rulers were taking over Bengal and Bihar, he fled to Rohilkhand and joined the Rohilla chieftains who survived the battle against the Nawab of Awadh and rose to become Nawab of Rampur.
Zohra’s mother, on the other hand, descended from Najibuddaulah, another Rohilla Pathan in the service of Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Mughals, who founded Najibabad in 1740 and received the hereditary title of Nawab. By 1760, the tract of land he ruled included Dehradun, Najibabad, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Badayun, Bijnor and Bulandshahar. After 1887 his descendents, being incharge of the Regency Council that looked after the affairs of the Nawabs, set up schools to teach English, impart western education, encourage education of girls…
So, like many of India’s Muslim royalty and landed gentry, the Mumtazullahs were largely liberal, often westernised, and mostly secular. Their daughters, educated in English medium schools, went on to become hightly qualified professionals, including as ophthalmologist or Montessori teacher. Their sons went abroad for further studies, as did Zohra’s betrothed Mahmud — her maternal uncle’s son who went to school in England, graduated from Oxford, became a Communist, married a comrade and distributed all his inherited land in Moradabad to the peasants. Her elder sister Hajra married Z A Ahmed, an alumni of the London School of Economics who, as a committed communist, organised railway coolies, press workers, farmers and underground members of the then CPI.
Yet, even for such a family it was unusual to send the daughter to a boarding school — Queen Mary College, founded in 1908 — in a distant city like the cosmopolitan Lahore. It was a purdah school for girls from aristocratic families from where Zohra matriculated in 1929. By then she had imbibed the secular, broadminded values of her mostly-British teachers, and of an education that placed equal emphasis on physical activities – sports, to be precise. Here Zohra was initiated into both, art and acting – two passions of Uday Shankar who proved providential in her life.
It wasn’t so surprising then, that after matriculating, she set out on an arduous, even hazardous, overland trip across Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey and Middle East, with a kindred spirit: her strong willed maternal uncle Memphis who, being a maverick much like Zohra herself, endorsed all her unconventional choices. He enrolled her in Mary Wigman Tanz Schule in Dresden; he financed her stay as too her owning a teeny-weeny car so she wouldn’t have to travel by train! None of this, however, ruled out her performing Namaz five times a day or reading the Koran. Years later, it was he who unreservedly stood by her decision to marry Kameshwar Sehgal when her own family was wary of the choice. And they spent their honeymoon in his house ‘Nasreen’ – now well-known as Welham Girls’ School. Built by an Irishman on five acres of land, it had pointed roofs, gables and half-timbering with extensive lawns, gravel pathways and exotic trees…
‘Can you dance?’ Mary Wigman had asked Zohra. It wasn’t to her disadvantage that her sheltered childhood did not have the scope for that. A radical artiste herself, Wigman had rejected formal technique in favour of improvisation although Zohra had to master theories, alongside choreography and dramatic pieces that entailed limbering up exercises for the whole body, from fingertips and wrists to arms and shoulder, neck, head, back, chest, hips, knees, legs, toes… There were no mirrors: the training did not allow them to look at themselves while composing since, Wigman held, “consciousness and awareness should proceed from within rather than from an external image.”
All this was different from the grammar of classical Indian dancing – and by the end of her third year, when Hitler was hovering on the horizon, she was nimble on her toes dancing foxtrot, waltz, polka and tango. When she returned to Dehradun, she enjoyed a newfound freedom that expressed itself in cutting all her silk burqas to make petticoats and blouses!
Zohra delighted in the adventure of travel, in discovering new places and people. She sought out travel agents, pored over brochures, spotted packages to travel with groups, by trains or buses, walked with friends, rucksacks on their back and sandwiches in their pocket, to Norway, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, France. This was the time when Uday Shankar and Simkie – Simone Barbier – were crisscrossing Europe. These stars of the Uday Shankar Dance Company were rapturously received by audiences who were mesmerised by the oriental exotica that had little to do with classical or folk dances of India. Instead, it offered romance and sensuousness wrapped in myth and mysticism. The blithe Adonis and his graceful energy cast a spell with his ‘physical beauty,’ ‘transcendental expression,’ ‘grandness’ and ‘command of muscles’. The ‘deep charm of the indescribable nobility’ of his dance became the face of ‘the rare yet mysterious personality of Modern India.”
When she joined Shankar in Calcutta as he prepared to tour Rangoon, Singapore, Moulmein and Kuala Lumpur, Zohra not only learnt to apply western make-up on an Indian face. She had to adapt if not unlearn her training at Wigman’s, to discipline her body and rehearse, rehearse and rehearse. For, at Shankar’s, there was no rule or theory. Instead, there were parties and dinners, meetings with the Viceroy and the Governor of Bengal, driving fast cars and boating, ballroom dances and cabarets too! If Zohra reveled in this, she also soon imbibed the almost religious atmosphere of Shankar’s performances that required them to travel regardless of the time of day or night and be in the theatre well before the hour in order to shed every thought other than the dance — one in which movements radiated from a concept and merged back into it.
Most of all, Shankar’s physical beauty and creative iconoclasm proved irresistible, and Zohra happily succumbed to the dancer and his stage lights. She saw how his unorthodox dance imagination reveled in sensuality and she marveled at its potential. None in India then was experimenting with form and movement nor choreographing for an ensemble. And then, Shankar was using a unique orchestra of violin, sitar, piano, sarod, gongs, drums and cymbals. The musicians composed for the dance, the dancers in glittering costumes moved on dazzling sets to their music. This transported audiences to unexplored aesthetic heights and conquered the world.
With Shankar, Zohra performed in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Greece, the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Switzerland. Belgium, Holland, Poland, Italy, France. By now, the company included Allauddin Khan, Ravi Shankar, Kathakali artiste Madhavan Nair, and Zohra’s younger sister Uzra. Names, all, that would go on to shine long after Shankar set up the Almora Dance Centre – modeled after Dartington Hall, a country estate in Devon, UK that promoted forestry, agriculture and education too, besides the arts. Before that, however, Zohra toured America performing love duets with Shankar, in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia. Wherever they went, they were greeted by applause and bouquets, photographs, reviews and receptions. Besotted audiences treated them like rockstars and on one occasion Pearl S Buck presented ‘the princess’ an autographed copy of The Good Earth.
On a subsequent visit to Bali with Shankar, she had the heady experience of romance and passionate discovery – of the splendours of dance and music on the island as much as her very being. The magnetic field that was Shankar aroused her senses thrilling awareness of her body. And on her return to India, she met Rabindranath in Santiniketan…
When the Uday Shankar Cultural Centre opened in 1940 at Almora, there were only ten students. As its repertoire kept growing, so did its popularity. Soon they were joined by Nehru’s nieces, Nayantara and Chandralekha; Guru Dutt who would one day become a celluloid maestro; Shanta Kirnan — later Gandhi — who’d shine on stage; Sundari Bhavnani who’d become Shridharani, the founder of Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam; and Shiela Bharat Ram, of the industrial family, who gained stardom as Baba Allauddin Khan’s disciple. Classes in technique combined with training under gurus of Kathakali, Bharatanatyam and Manipuri — Sankaran Namboodiri, Kandappa Pillai, Amoebi Singh — and to music by Shankar’s brother Ravi, and Baba’s son, Ali Akbar.
Zohra, besides assisting Shankar just like Simkie, also prepared a five-year course for the learners to improvise intricate movements. If theories of Shankar’s art gave form to his dreams, Zohra also learnt the importance of walking elegantly, suppleness of facial expression, and relaxation of mood, prior to dancing. The training evoked in his dancers the consciousness of the body as a whole. A body that moved in space to form patterns of intrinsic beauty.
Kameshwar Segal, a Rossetti-like boy, slim and fair with curly locks, slender hands and feet, fitted right into the scenario. The great grandson of one of the dewans – prime ministers – of the then princely state of Indore, he was well versed in Urdu and Hindustani besides his mother tongue, Punjabi. Soon he was a painter, set designer, light designer, mask-maker, handyman. Though Zohra, being involved with Shankar, had decided never to marry, she admired Kameshwar’s ingenuity, loved his humour and responded to his banter. Soon he proposed to his teacher. Zohra, senior to him by eight years, was aware of the odds against them. Yet she responded, perhaps because by now, the air in Almora was thick with romance and its byproduct, jealousy. Besides Simkie, so far recognised as his prime dance partner, there was Amala Nandi, whom Shankar would garland as his life partner. Simkie herself settled down with Prabhat Ganguly; Rajendra Shankar married Lakshmi Shankar, and Ravi Shankar married Baba’s daughter, Annapurna.
Uzra, who had met Hameed Butt in Calcutta, also married the same year – 1942 – as Zohra. But, unlike Uzra she had to reconcile with a vegetarian, orthodox Hindu family of Radha Soami sect. Surprisingly, her uneducated mother-in-law welcomed the alliance more readily than Zohra’s own father who was used to the interfaith marriages of his own communist sons but didn’t wish for either Zohra or Kameshwar to convert. Jawaharlal Nehru was to attend the civil wedding which took place on 14 August 1942, in Feroze Gandhi’s mother’s house in Allahabad, Zohra had learnt from his secretary. Her brother-in-law being Nehru’s secretary, the future prime minister of India had even shared that he would gift them Persian rugs. But two days before that the Quit India Movement started, and Jawaharlal Nehru was jailed. Zohra, ever her sprightly self, had revealed her own story to me: “My brother received him on his release, and the first thing he asked was ‘Where is the young couple?’ I asked my brother, ‘Why didn’t you ask him where are the Persian rugs?’”
However, the dream wedding may have been the peak moment of happiness in the life of Kameshwar and Zohra. There on the WW2 gained in intensity, transportation became difficult, food and money too got scarce. In a couple of years, Shankar downed the shutters at Almora and went on to film his dream project, Kalpana. Simkie soon left India never to return. Sachin Shankar set up his ballet unit in Bombay. But before that, when Zohra put her all into starting Zoresh Dance School in Lahore of 1943, Kameshwar staked his claim as director.
When the school was inundated with students, she was forced into motherhood. When she returned to the stage, they went on a national tour with boxes and curtains from Lahore to Amritsar, Bareilly, Dehradun, Meerut, Lucknow, Allahabad, Patna, Asansol and Calcutta. Artistically a huge success, the school, however, left the coffers dry. More importantly, at the end of the Big War in 1945, Britain didn’t rule the waves and India was restive. The Muslim League was at loggerheads with the Congress, equations between the Hindus and Muslims had soured, their Muslim friends were looking at them with misgivings. Lahore clearly was not an ideal place for a couple like them. Kameshwar and Zohra relocated to Bombay, where Uzra and Hameed had set up home.
But in the city of celluloid dreams Zohra did not stand a chance in cinema. Not only was she short, somewhat plump, not quite a beauty; in cinema, a nachnewali was merely a nautch girl. In fact, she did not ever dance on stage again. She re-invented her fluidity of movement and expression to make her mark as a choreographer in Prithvi Theatres where her sister was already a leading lady. Eventually, in mid-1950s she choreographed for a few films such as Navketan’s Nau Do Gyarah and Guru Dutt’s CID.
Their bungalow on Pali Hill – a neighbourhood that was home to British, Catholic and Parsi families — was surrounded with Uma and Chetan Anand, his brothers Dev and Goldie, Balraj and Damayanti Sahni, Meena Kumari, Dilip Kumar, the Kapoors… Frequent visitors included Guru Dutt, Raj Khosla, Mohan Segal, Geeta Dutt, Nasir Khan, writers Sahir Ludhianvi, Sardar Jafri, Vishwamitra Adil, Amita Malik, composers S D Burman, and Ravi Shankar … Names that would in the next decade become Bollywood royalty.
Cinema was of course the big thing in Bombay of 1940s. Bombay Talkies had already heralded glory days with titles like Achhut Kanya (1936, untouchable maiden), Kangan(1939, Bangles), Bandhan (Ties, 1940), Jhoola(Swing, 1941), Sikandar(Alexander the Great, 1941). Devika Rani, Ashok Kumar, Leela Chitnis, Sohrab Modi, Prithviraj Kapoor were stars who would soon be joined by Punjabis from Lahore such as K L Saigal, Jagdish Sethi, B R Chopra, F C Mehra. Partition wasn’t a certainty yet, in the city of the political beliefs of Right and Left, mixed with industrialists and progressive writers and struggling artistes, the cry for freedom had created a ferment of ideas and the house resounded with scripts, arguments, reading, dancing, painting. K A Abbas, Sajjad Zaheer, Sadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Shahid Lateef – they would associate with Utpal Dutt, Ritwik Ghatak, Salil Chowdhury, Hamid Sayani, Ebrahim Alkazi, Balraj Sahni and Prithviraj Kapoor, to pledge that they would present the crisis of the times through the medium of theatre.
Prithviraj, although a superstar on screen, believed that theatre should proliferate every city, not temples and mosques. Instead, he urged, “spend on theatres that would become centres for cultural education.” After the first election, when he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1952, he’d said, “In that temple called theatre, a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Parsi and Sikh all come together. No one cares whether it’s a pandit or a mulla sitting next to them. Communists sit with communalists, to laugh together and cry together. It would be the biggest temple for the benefit of the nation.”
Such a person could not reconcile to the Partition of the subcontinent. It meant, in his own words, that “You will turn me out of Peshawar, and leave my unfortunate Muslim brethren here in the lurch, with their roots uprooted from the soil!” His protest took the shape of four plays that started in 1945 by underscoring the folly of dividing lives on religious basis.
The quartet began with Deewar (Wall), an original play thoroughly contemporary in its politics and communicating its message in a language everyman could follow. The Partition was symbolised by two brothers who, egged on by the foreign wife of one brother – played by Zohra – insist on dividing their ancestral home into two halves by erecting a wall. At a time when Jinnah was raising his pitch for a Muslim nation, the play interpolated the dialogue with speeches by him, Gandhi and Macaulay. So prescient was the message that the British government refused to allow the performance without a green signal from the Muslim League, despite the go-ahead by its CID and the IG Police.
Eventually, despite objection by certain Urdu papers, the play continued to play till 1947 with the peasants pulling down the wall in the climax. In reality, though, the Radcliffe Line concretised the division on the midnight of 14/ 15 August, unleashing bloodshed and misery for millions. On that fateful day, the play was exempted from Entertainment Tax for one full year. Deewar was performed 712 times between 1945 and 1959, until Prithvi Theatres folded up.
The secular credentials of the company is summed up in one practise: The actors began their days with voice production handled by Prithviraj himself, and singing rehearsed by the music director Ram Gangoli. And what did they sing? The base tones were practised by singing Allah Hu! While the high pitches intoned Ram! Ram!
In another expression of his secularism, after the Direct Action Day riots unleashed on August 16th by Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan, leaving 5000 dead and 15000 homeless in Calcutta alone, Prithviraj drove through the city in an open truck with Uzra and Zohra on either side. However, this Hindu-Muslim amity resulted in death threats for them.
And on the eve of Independence, the entire company gathered in the compound of Prithvi Theatres, unfurled the Indian Tricolour, sang Vande Mataram, then took out a procession. Zohra danced with abandon on the streets of Bombay, while Prithviraj’s son Raj Kapoor played the drum. The euphoria did not last: at a personal level Kameshwar was annoyed; on a larger level, death and destruction stalked the streets and the country was engulfed in the horror of untold violence.
Prithviraj’s immediate response was to stage Pathan, the story of two friends – a Muslim Pathan and a Hindu Dewan. When Tarachand dies, Sher Khan promises to look after his son as his own. Local feuds result in a revenge killing where Vazir is implicated. When tribal custom demands an eye for an eye, Khan sacrifices his own son, Bahadur. And when this scene was enacted, there would be no dry eye in the auditorium. Uzra and, in particular, Zohra immersed herself in the play along with Raj and Shammi, the two sons of Prithviraj, who played the two boys. Raj, then only 23, also travelled to Peshawar to design and redesign to perfection the single set of the play. The play was staged 558 times between 1947 and 1960, when curtain fell on Prithvi Theatres.
When rehearsals for the play were on, so was rioting in the cities and towns across India. Prithviraj would, without fail, visit the affected mohallasand hold peace processions. The one dialogue that resonated long after the play ceased to be staged is still pertinent: “Do you want that Hindus should sacrifice their lives for Muslims and the Muslims should not sacrifice their lives for Hindus? Why should they not when they know they belong to one country, eat the same food, drink the same water, and breathe in the same air? Knowing this, you still raise this hateful question of Hindu-Muslim?”
Prithviraj truly believed that religion does not make for conflict, only the abuse of religion, turning it into the handmaiden of vandals, created conflict. “And it is the responsibility of art to present the true aspect of reality.” So, his next production, Ghaddar (Traitor) covered the period from Khilafat Movement to 1947 to deal with the question of the four million Muslims who had remained in India. If they were traitors, who had they betrayed – Islam or Pakistan? Prithviraj as Ashraf and Uzra as his wife join Muslim League but remain staunch nationalists. Shattered by the violence unleashed in Punjab after August 15, he vows to stay back and serve his motherland. He is therefore shot dead by a ‘friend’ Muslim Leaguer.
Zohra loved the cameo she played of a maidservant who refuses to go to Pakistan. Fully identifying with the sentiments of the character — whom she crafted after the family retainers in her mother’s home — she would add extempore dialogue, and these endeared her to the audiences. She was deeply pained that the Partition created personal loss in her family as many of her own people moved across while she, married to a Hindu, never even considered it. But, in covering the thirty-year span of the play she had to enact an old woman – and “feeling old from within” was against the grain of the ever-exuberant lady who, even at 102, would go to bed with a smile on her lips as she whispered to her long dead husband, “Wait just a little longer Kameshwar, I’m on my way to be with you…”
As with Deewar, Ghaddar too faced problems with censor board clearance. The chief minister of Bombay asked Prithviraj to approach the Central government. Sardar Patel introduced him to Nehru, who sent him to Maulana Azad. The Education and Culture minister not only gave him a letter of clearance but also a 50 percent reduction in train fare for all cultural troupes. But the Muslims boycotted the play; Muslim Leaguers in Cochin threatened to burn down the theatre; and some crazy elements wanted to shoot Prithviraj. When he invited people from Bhendi Bazar to watch the play, they concluded that, “People who have been shown as Ghaddar deserve to be shown as traitors.”
Meanwhile the entire population of villages — where their neighbours were their community, their family — were being uprooted in Punjab and Bengal. They were going crazy trying to decide, “To go or to stay?” People who didn’t know any borders were figuring out if, by crisscrossing the imaginary line, they would remain Indians or become Pakistanis. Would they forego their lifestyle by going or ditch their religion by staying? The questions assumed frightening proportion as two of Zohra’s brother, one of her sisters, and even her dearest Uzra relocated themselves in Lahore and Karachi.
However, the real tragedy in all this for Zohra was that Kameshwar had distanced himself from her. Never having found a foothold for himself in Bombay, he had taken to alcoholism, substance support, and perhaps occult activities. Her touring with the Theatre did not make matters easy. But the need to put food on the table combined with the draw of footlights, and acting became Zohra’s calling and, yes, her second nature.
Ahooti (Sacrifice), Prithvi’s final play in the Partition Quartet, was the story of Janki, who is abducted and raped on the eve of her wedding. She’s rescued by Mohammed Shafi and reconciled with her father in a relief camp. But when the family moves to Bombay, she is subjected to slander, and although her fiancee is willing to marry her, his father forbids that, compelling her to commit suicide. The story mirrored the life of countless ‘Partition widows’ – on either side of the border — who have found place in literature and, much later, in films like Shahid-e-Mohabbat Buta Singh(The Sacrificing Lover, Buta Singh, 1991) and Gadar:Ek Prem katha (Rebellion: A Love Story, 2001)too. The published estimates of the number of women abducted by the governments of both the fledgling countries put the figure at 50,000 Muslim women in India and 33,000 non-Muslim women in Pakistan. The enormity of the problem led the two governments to enter into an agreement to locate, recover and restore all such women to their respective families. But what of the women who had, in the meantime, acquired a new family?
In the original script it was to be the story of a mother and daughter but since Uzra had left the country, Prithviraj rewrote it as the story of a father and his daughter. Zohra did not have her heart in the play: first, becaue Uzra was not there; then, because her original role had been altered. Here too, she discerned Prithviraj’s self-indulgence. The play opened in 1949 to tepid reception and dull reviews that dubbed it ‘boring’. But the Deputy Genral of Bombay Police was moved by the girl’s plight and offered his services to help all such women. Prithviraj introduced him to one refugee whose daughter had been separated in the chaos of fleeing – and within days the daughter was found and restored to him. That is not all: at the end of the play the larger-than-life personality would stand with shawl spread out to collect any donation dropped into it, to help the relief work. Such was the emotional response that women even dropped their jewellery in the shawl – which Prithviraj soon requested them to desist from doing.
The Partition Quartet was to first perhaps to see where the rhetoric of religious difference can lead, the contest over territory can entail, the violence and violations that can result. Whatever the quantum of success or criticism they earned, they certainly provoked debate and affected political discourse that still hasn’t lost its sting. Zohra’s heart would swell with pride when Prithviraj rose to address conventions; call on people to turn his moves into a movement for peace. Through him she found herself performing in Punjab’s Firozpur jail, for prisoners who sat with hands and feet in chain… and she also got to witness the hanging of a man scheduled for the next dawn.
All this changed Zohra in a fundamental way: she shed her arrogance; she learnt to respect the dignity of everyone she worked with; she understood the transformative power of theatre. And perhaps she came to love her country, her people, her roots a little more.
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.
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Kabir’s life still holds importance in a society in pursuit of the one true Lord, steeped in religiosity and caste. He was born at a time when the Hindu-Muslim strife was raging across the subcontinent. Divided into various sects, Hindu society was already engaged in conflict and the arrival of the Muslims and the expansion of Islam intensified the conflict of the time. The two camps – followers of foreign and indigenous religions – could not find a way to come together. Arbitrary rituals and sacrifices were damaging their dignity and short-selling God’s glory. In such a time, Kabir was the most significant of intellectual sages who bridged gaps through his clarity of thought, unwavering devotion to the Lord, and humanist reading of all belief systems. In simple, clear and logical language he pointed out the irrationalities of men, without outright attacking any faith. His teachings were not only effective to his devotees but were helpful to adherents of other doctrines as well. One did not have to be part of his sect to receive his teachings and capture the meaning behind his words. Anyone free from the shackles of self-interest were able to accept it.
Though there is little to deny in Kabir’s words, there is much debate among the experts regarding the period of his birth and death. The historical facts contain many contradictory components as well. Evidently, one sees that there are two versions of Kabir’s life visible. One has been constructed through analysing historical data, the other through beliefs and commentary provided over the ages by his followers and devotees, though all such projection by his disciples cannot be understood in the same light. Yet it should be noted that the accuracies regarding some of Kabir’s facts of his life do not pose any doubt to his teachings and appreciation for beauty. Still, in light of the contemporary commentary, a brief biography of the poet is outlined here.
According to Kshitimohan Sen (1880-1960), a scholar and acting chancellor of Visva-Bharati, Kabir was born on 1398 in Varanasi and died on 1518 in Maghar village. While specifics are understandably hard to gather, most experts agree that he was of the time when Sikander Lodi (1458-1517) ruled over Delhi’s throne. Kabir had met the man, too. Lodi had arrived at Varanasi in 1498. Rabindranath had talked of this in his translation of Kabir’s One Hundred Poems, which was published from Macmillan. There, it is said he was born in 1440. Though Kabir’s Hindu devotees liken him as a devotee of the Vaishnava poet-saint Ramananda, it is still a matter of debate, for Ramananda was born in 1298 and most texts that refer to their connection can only be traced a hundred years after Kabir.
In his writings, mentions of the poets Jayadeva (1170-1245) and Namdev (1270-1350) are found. Though one was active in the 12th century and the other in the 14th. Moreover, one can find references to Kabir in the works of Raydas, Garib Das, Dharma Das, Pipa and Tukaram. Some of Kabir’s verses can be found in the Sikh religious text Guru Granth Sahib too.
There is much debate over his parentage and religion too. However, it is taken as fact today that he was born in a Muslim family or was raised in one. It is hypothesised that he had come from a family of Muslim weavers, who had a trade in cloth. Another legend had him as the virgin son of a Brahmin woman, born through seedless conception and then he was abandoned and found floating in a basket. The fact that he was born in a Muslim family is mostly evidenced by the fact that he had an Arabic name, which meant “Great”. There is further doubt on his race and caste. According to Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Kabir belonged to a Yogi community, for he would refer to his father as Gosai, meaning Guru. They were principally disciples of Nath-Panthis – worshippers of Shiva. While they had accepted Islam as their religion, they continued in their old ways as of yore. But Kabir did not proclaim himself as either a Hindu or a Muslim. As a result, many surmised that he probably wanted to be known as someone from the lower caste, who remained out of these two binaries.
The issue of caste might have irked him as well. It might have had no importance to him. This reticence had led to most communities intending to co-opt him for them, constructing all sorts of imaginary relationships. A Muslim guru of the time, Sheikh Taqi, had complained to Lodi that Kabir saw himself as a deity. His low-born caste led him to a path of constant discrimination. There are accounts of this discrimination in texts. He had been humiliated for proposing the idea of a formless God. Many a time he had been tied behind his back and beaten up. Let me account some of the accounts of his torture here.
The Emperor of Delhi, Sikander Lodi, had demanded Kabir be arrested and brought to his court. When he was somehow brought over, he stood there in silence.[i] The Emperor grew angry and asked, “Why don’t your curse at the Emperor, Kaffir?” Kabir answered, “Those who understand the other’s torment are called Pir, and those who don’t are termed Kaffirs.”
When the Emperor asked him why it took him so long to get to his court, he replied that he had seen such a scene on the way that he could not but be late. A line of camels was entering a gully as narrow as a needle’s eye. The Emperor thought he was being ridiculed and grew angrier. But Kabir said, “Oh Emperor! Can you feel the distance between the heavens and the Earth? The distance between the Sun and the Moon can be filled with innumerable elephants and camels, yet we can see these stars through a drop in our eyes.” The Emperor was so moved by the statement that he let him go.[ii]
Once, after a few Brahmin priests had complained, the Emperor ordered his death by tying him to a stone and throwing him off a boat. But while the boat itself drowned, Kabir was said to have been found unharmed and floating. When they tried to burn him, the fire wouldn’t take to his skin. They even accused him of being a witch and tried getting a mad elephant to stamp on him. But the animal got scared seeing Kabir and ran away – there are numerous myths of these nature surrounding Kabir.
Kabir did not receive a formal education. He did not know how to read and write. There is no evidence of him attending a school to learn of language and philosophy. Moreover, he had barely any experience with his weaving. Many are of the opinion that the “guru” he talks about in his texts refer to God or the Creator and that he did not have any mentors. However, researchers at times hold the opinion that he was a devotee of the Sufi mystic Sheikh Taqi. It is evident he was influenced by Sufism. He had similarities with the Persian poets Attar, Hafez, Khayyam and Rumi. Besides, he was considered a key disciple of the Hindu monotheist mystic Ramananda. Kabir hadn’t mentioned anyone directly in his texts. But through his songs, various interpretations are made by the public. Kabir’s best teacher seems to have been just life. The hypocrisy, short-sightedness, superiority regarding one’s beliefs and inconsistencies of men and society around him angered him, it made him anxious. This torment had put him to the path of sage hood. Kabir characteristically expressed his perceptions through simple and irrefutable arguments devoid of any personal animosity toward anyone.
Kabir was not an ascetic who abandoned his family to attain higher forms of consciousness. He lived with his wife and son and daughter. In his writings, he showed contempt against the sages who left their families. His wife was called Loi and his son and daughter were Kamal and Kamali. His second wife was Ramjania. According to Dr Ramkumar Verma, the second wife was possibly a prostitute. However, Kabir was not quite happy in his marriages. His devotion to his poetry and philosophy made him less attentive to the task of earning a livelihood through weaving. Some days, his family found themselves short of food after feeding his visiting devotees. He was thin, meditative and enthusiastic, and hated to beg for alms to survive.
We know from his works that he visited many places. It is believed he had gone on pilgrimage to Mecca. But it isn’t clear if he really physically visited the place or had a transcendental experience. Similarly, there isn’t any evidence of his visiting Baghdad, Bukhara and Samarkand. But it has been proved that he had visited many of the local pilgrimage sites around him.
Like his birth, the date of his death is cloaked in controversy. Some say he lived till the age of eighty. Others maintain that he was alive when he was 120. There’re broadly four dates that could refer to his passing. 1447, 1511, 1517, and 1518 AD.[iii] There is doubt, too, about his resting place. Some say he died in Ayodhya, some claim in Puri. The latter place is mentioned in the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s book Ain-i-Akbari.
Kabir’s literature and philosophy
The divisions and discriminations of religion had a profound effect on him. The communal conflict and the blatant ownership of God deeply tormented Kabir. He realised that God did not exist for any particular religion or people. He wasn’t a single entity either, but omnipresent. His realisations were a result of the overarching philosophical conflicts of his time. The clash and assimilation of various cultures into the Indian way of living had given way to myriads of philosophies and religions in the region. Among them, the radical ones, which professed to one sect’s superiority over the other were beginning to widen separatism in society. The first of these great conflicts were between the Aryans and Non-Aryans. It took many years for the two to assimilate.
Kabir and Rabindranath
Rabindranath had a prominent role in spreading Kabir’s words in Bengal. About a hundred years ago in 1910, he had written a preface to a book of translations of Kabir’s poetry. Kabir was among the few poets whose works were preserved at Santiniketan. Kshitimohan Sen had grown up in Varanasi, among the saints there, nursing a love for Kabir from a young age. A few months before his translations had come out from Santinektan’s press, Rabindranath had published Gitanjali. It was not possible to avoid drawing comparisons, with some claiming Rabindranath was inspired by the sage’s poetry. In Prasanta Kumar Pal’s biography of Tagore, the matter is discussed at length. He had written that in the original manuscript of Gitanjali, there were poems of various poets of such ages written over. Dr. Rameshor Mishra thought they were written by Rabindranath, but Pal could not agree with him. He had maintained that Kabir had been well-known as a poet over the years. Even before Kshitimohan’s translation, it would not have been unlikely for the young poet to have been aware of Kabir. Kshitimohan himself had dwelled on the matter saying that he had introduced Kabir’s poetry to Rabindranath after reading Gitanjali and finding the similarities in the balance of tone.
Whatever the case was, the fact that Rabindranath and Kabir wrote in a similar spirit cannot be denied. Rabindranath was heavily influenced by the Persian Sufis. One could clearly see the presence of both Sufism and Vaishnavism in Gitanjali. Rabindranath’s father was a devotee of the Persian poet Hafez. Hafez impacted Rabindranath as well. He had talked about this when visiting Iran at the end of his life. “My father was an admirer of Hafez,” he had said, “I have listened to his recitations and translations many a time. It is that beauty of Iran that has entered my heart during my travels here.”[iv] Around this time, he was studying Sufi theory as well. Therefore, one cannot claim it was solely Kabir who had an influence on Tagore’s Gitanjali. But Kabir did have an effect on Rabindranath, if for a little while.
Rabindranath began to work on Gitanjali in the early 1900s. He had written to Kshitimohan around then, saying, “I have been expecting Kabir. Do not delay.” The next year he wrote back to say, “Give my respects to him.”[v] From these letters we can see that Rabindranath had a good deal of interest in reviving Kabir. In one of those letters, he had maintained, “I have told you. One should not deviate from the principle aspect. If there is ambiguity regarding the literalness, then be it. Some of it is needed, or else the poetry loses some of its meaning.
“It is better to use the next most literal word when there is no direct translation possible. Kabir uses ‘word’ to express his songs and it seems that particular word does not work in all instances. There is a historicity to ‘word’ – one thinks of a child’s first cry, the first chants of creation. It is quite simpler and more complex than a song.”
Published as part of Santiniketan’s book series, Kshitimohan wrote in the preface of his translation that without the encouragement and help of Rabindranath he would not have been able to publish a work like this, that he was quite grateful to him. Rabindranath had a hands-on approach to Kabir’s translated poetry. That this happened around the time the poet was working on Gitanjali was a thing of co-incidence. Kshitimohan himself had talked of how he had brought Kabir to the poet’s attention after hearing about Gitanjali.
However, the matter has refused to die down. In books on Kabir, there have often been calls for Rabindranath to recognise the debt of Kabir in his texts, that Tagore’s mysticism had arrived solely from Kabir, which was merely given an occidental polish to accommodate the Poet’s international audience and that Rabindranath’s fame came from a decoration of mysticism for the pleasure of Europeans. Even as one notices the ludicrousness of such claims, it is understandable that much of Rabindranath’s spiritualism is a product of Sufi mysticism. Moreover, there was always a strain of India’s old traditions that included Kalidasa and the worship of beauty. He had discovered the bauls (minstrels) when looking for folk literature in his youth. He was fascinated with Lalon. However, Kshitimohan Sen had claimed that Rabindranath was not one to be heavily influences by these mystics. “The era of Gitanjali came head-to-head with the revival of these mystics. No one is indebted to anyone here.”
But how much of Kabir was on Rabindranath’s mind? Many would go ahead and say a great deal. That he had devoted to Kabir more so than Gitanjali in this period. Perhaps the indulgence toward both texts was a united effort in the pursuit of true worship. Two events around this time are noteworthy. One is Ajit Kumar Chakravarty’s translation of Kabir under Rabindranath’s guidance and the other is his own translations of Kabir. This was when Ezra Pound, too, was interested in Kabir’s poetry. There is no doubt that it was Tagore who had got Pound into it during their discussions on mysticism. Helped by his encouragement, Pound, who had little knowledge of Hindi or Kabir, made ten translations of Kabir’s poetry with the help of Kalimohan Ghosh. They were published in the 1913 January issue of Modern Review under the title, “Certain Poems of Kabir/ Translated by Kali Mohan Ghosh and Ezra Pound/ From the edition of Mr. Kshitimohan Sen.”
Rabindranath could have had the biggest scandal in his life regarding Kabir due to Ajit Kumar’s English translation. Ajit Kumar had decided to translate about 114 poems from the 4-volume work of Kshitimohan Sen while enjoying his summer vacation in Orissa. He was helped by Pearson. Rabindranath had to face quite a lot of criticism after winning the Nobel, both at home and abroad.
In his travels to America and Britain, he had to explain the mysticism apparent in Gitanjali. Moreover, when the text was published there, many Christian preachers had taken to saying that Christ had said it way before already. That Rabindranath had written these inspired by Christ’s sayings. This was a reason why Rabindranath felt it was important for the West to be acquainted with medieval poets and mystics such as Kabir, so that the long Indian tradition of spiritualism wasn’t co-opted by the West as one of their own. He even wanted to take Kshitimohan there and get to translating some of this poetry himself. He wished to show that the sages in India were preaching these truths long before the Europeans had arrived in their shores. If there is a sliver of debt that Rabindranath should recognise it is in this context. Gitanjali is not a deviation from Indian poetry; rather it is part of the land’s grand tradition. However, Rabindranath’s own translations did not seem to have gone far enough. He relied on Ajit Kumar’s.
Before leaving for America, Rabindranath was introduced to Evelyn Underhill, a Catholic writer and pacifist. She was a great admirer of both Jesus and Indian mysticism, authoring a book on the subject in 1911 called Mysticism. Rabindranath had referred to her as quite highly educated and influential in his letters. Tagore had even told Kshitimohan that with her help it would be possible to publish Kabir’s biography and poetry from Harvard University, urging him to take all necessary equipment with him. He had told Ajit Kumar that with the help of Ms. Underhill they would polish their translations and make it worth publishing. A review of the correspondence is enough to see that this translation project would come out under Ajit Kumar’s name. But that did not happen in the end. It came out as One Hundred Poems of Kabir, as translated by Rabindranath Tagore with a preface by Underhill.
Both Ajit Kumar and Kshitimohan were upset with this. How this had happened no one could know clearly. Whether it was Underhill’s doing or of Rabindranath himself, one could not know. From reading Rabindranath’s letters, it was quite evident that he had also thought the manuscript would come out under Ajit Kumar’s name. He had assured him as such in more than one letters. That Underhill might cut him out bothered Ajit and Rabindranath had written to him saying, “You have misunderstood. Evelyn does not wish to take your name off the Kabir Manuscript. Secondly, it is not my wish to leave you and Kshitimohan out financially.” In another letter he had said, “I don’t know how your book would do financially. Of course, there won’t be any lack of trying, but it is better to not hope much. Be content with what they give you.” [vi]
All we have in this case are conjecture. No concrete facts. Underhill in her preface had merely thanked Ajit and Kshitimohan and nothing more.
This had sparked a bit of controversy then and Rabindranath was accused of depriving Ajit Kumar of his credit. Rabindranath’s explanations regarding this matter was that it wasn’t intentional. That he did not even know this had happened until it was too late. It was Macmillan house that did this to bring more sales to the book. Rabindranath claimed to have sent in Ajit’s name under the title, but the publishers had disregarded it. It was the West’s commercialism at play, he said.
“Getting into the literary scene here is quite difficult. One is hard-pressed to enter if they don’t possess any reputation beforehand,” he said. But whatever Tagore’s excuse was, many did not see it sympathetically. Referring to his letters to Ajit, many pointed out his growing fascination with the manuscript. In one of the letters Rabindranath had said, “I finished the Kabir book after all this while. It seems that if I had done these translations it would’ve taken me far less an effort to read them through. I’ve had to write many poems but yours does make one clap.”[vii] There is no doubt that Rabindranath got most of the credit for the Kabir book that Macmillan had published. But many found the omission of Ajit had left a bad taste. Many felt his name should have at least been part of the conversation.
Rabindra Kokkhopothe Khitimohan Sen By Pranati Mukhopadhyay
Gurudeb O Shantiniketon By Syed Mujtaba Ali
RabiJiboni By Prasanta Kumar Paul
100 poems of Kabir By Rabindranath Tagore
[i]Who Invented Hinduism: Essays on Religion in History. David N. Lorenzen
[ii]The Bijak of Kabir. Kabir. Oxford University Press.
[iii]Bharatiya Madhyauge Sadhanar Dhara. Kshitimohon Sen. Pg.61
[iv] “Rabindranath Tagore’s Syncretistic Philosophy and the Persian Sufi Tradition”. Lewisohn, L
Mozid Mahmud is a poet, novelist, and essayist based in Bangladesh. Some of his notable works include In Praise of Mahfuza (1989), Nazrul – Spokesman of the Third World (1996), and Rabindranath’s Travelogues (2010). He has been awarded the Rabindra-Nazrul Literary Prize and the country’s National Press Club Award, among others.
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