Categories
A Wonderful World

Where “Divides of Class, Religion & Ethnicities Collapse”

Painting of Durga Puja. Courtesy: Creative Commons
Wherever I look, a golden light 
Suffuses a vision of holidays,
The festive sun rises in the woods
Of puja* blossoms drenched in gold rays. 
             -- Tagore, Eshechhe Sarat

This has been a favourite poem of many who grew up reading Tagore, lines that capture the joy and abandon of the spirit that embodies the celebration of Durga Puja, a festival that many Bengalis deem as important as Christmas, Chinese New Year, Diwali or Eid. It is a major celebration in Bengal and large parts of the sub-continent, though not in all parts.

The reason that reviving the lore associated with this fiesta has become very important is that it centres around women. Given the situation in Iran, where the battle over how to wear headscarves has turned bloody, murderous and violent, celebrating an empowered woman, even if mythical, takes precedence over all else. Mythology has it that Durga was empowered by weapons given to her by various deities, all of who were men, and then, she did what all the male Gods failed to do — destroyed a demon called Mahisasur. Rama too prayed to Durga for victory around this time. And on Bijoya Doushami, the last day of the Durga Puja, some celebrate Rama’s victory over Ravana and call it Dusshera or Dashain.

Taking up this theme of the narratives around Durga Puja and how it has been made into an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO is Meenakshi Malhotra’s essay on the festival. Part of the citation reads: “During the event [Durga Puja], the divides of class, religion and ethnicities collapse….” 

To bring to you a flavour of the Puja, we have translations of poetry by Tagore describing the season and of a poet who was writing before Rabindranath, Michael Madhusdan Dutt, by Ratnottama Sengupta, verses exploring the grief of parting Durga’s mother expresses as her daughter returns to her husband’s home. This is also a festival of homecoming for, like Durga, those living far from their homes return to the heart of their families. Rituparna Mukherjee has woven a story specially around this aspect of the festival. Journals in Bengal, traditionally, brought out special editions with writings of eminent persons, like Satyajit Ray. We have an interview with a writer who wrote a book on Satyajit Ray, an actor called Barun Chanda, to bring a flavour of that tradition along with the translation of a celebrated contemporary Bengali writer, Prafulla Roy, by Aruna Chakravarti. We hope you enjoy savouring our Durga Puja Special.

Poetry

Eshechhe Sarat (Autumn) , describing the season of Durga Puja, by Tagore has been translated from Bengali by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read. 

Bijoya Doushumi, a poem on the last day of Durga Puja, by the famous poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, has been translated from Bengali by Ratnottama Sengupta. Click here to read.

Prose

A Mother, a Daughter & a Demon Slayer?, an essay by Meenakshi Malhotra, checks out the festival of Durga Puja against the concept of women empowerment. Click here to read.

Homecoming by Rituparna Mukherjee is a poignant story about homecoming during Durga Puja. Click here to read.

Nagmati by Prafulla Roy has been translated from Bengali as Snake Maiden by Aruna Chakravarti. Click here to read. 

Interview

Meet Barun Chanda, an actor who started his career as the lead protagonist of a Satyajit Ray film and now is a bi-lingual writer of fiction and more recently, a non-fiction published by Om Books International, Satyajit Ray:The Man Who Knew Too Much in conversation Click here to read.

Categories
Independence Day

“Imagine All the People Livin’ Life in Peace…”

Since 1991, Ukraine has been celebrating its Independence Day on August 24th. As another year of its independent existence starts, it is unfortunately embroiled in a state of war for the last six months where large parts of its territory have been forcefully conquered by the invading Russian army and cities have faced erasure — razed to the ground by incessant, unceasing, ruthless violence. Many human lives have been lost, more refugees generated and thousands have been wounded or taken prisoners. Families have been torn and natural resources depleted.

This year of all years, it’s most important to commemorate Ukraine’s Independence Day — to reaffirm the recognition given to a region and a culture that binds the residents together into an independent entity. One wonders if dreams as Lennon’s of “all the people/ Livin’ life in peace” could ever come true and have us create a beautiful haven on Earth where wars would be a narrative from the past…

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky

Imagine all the people
Livin' for today
Ah

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

Imagine all the people
Livin' life in peace
You....

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You

{Excerpted from "Imagine"(1971) by John Lennon (1940-1980)}

Voicing out in unison against the violence and violations faced by our fellow humans in war zones, we bring to you poetry and prose by fourteen writers from nine different countries, including one who had to flee Ukraine as the shelling shattered Kharkiv.

Poetry

Poetry from across the world in support of peace and voicing concerns over the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, we have Ukranian Lesya Bakun give us poetry as a war victim, a refugee. Rhys HughesRon PickettMichael R BurchKirpal SinghMalachi Edwin VethamaniSuzanne KamataMini BabuSybil Pretious and Mitali Chakravarty have contributed poetry written for the Ukraine crisis. Click here to read How Many Times Must the Cannonballs Fly…?”

Cry the Sunflower by Ihlwha Choi, who wrote the poem in Korean and translated it for our readers. Click here to read.

Utopia by Supatra Sen. Click here to read.

This Grey Morning by Marianne Tefft. Click here to read.

Prose

A Voice from Kharkiv: An interview with a Ukrainian refugee, Lesya Bakun. Click here to read.

When will we ever learn? Oh, will we ever learn?: Ratnottama Sengupta, comments on the situation in Ukraine while dwelling on her memorable meeting with folk legend Pete Seeger, a pacifist, who wrote ‘Where have all the Flowers gone’, based on a folk song from Ukraine. Click here to read.

Categories
Contents

Borderless, August 2022

Art by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

The Stars were Shining There for You & Me, for Liberty… Click here to read.

Conversation

The Making of Historical Fiction: A Conversation with Aruna Chakravarti unfolds the creation of her latest novel, The Mendicant Prince, based on the prince of Bhawal controversy in the first part of the last century. Click here to read.

Translations

Tagore’s humorous skit, The Treatment of an Ailment, has been translated by Somdatta Mandal. Click here to read.

Arise, Arise O Patriot! and Helmsman Attention! by Kazi Nazrul Islam have been translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

Pus Ki Raat or A Frigid Winter Night by Munshi Premchand has been translated from Hindi by C Christine Fair. Click here to read.

Tagore’s Song of Hope or ‘Hobe Joye‘ has been translated from Bengali by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Rhys Hughes, Ratnottama Sengupta, Mike Smith, Rituparna Mukherjee, Tony Brewer, Ahmed Rayees, Ron Pickett, Ramesh Dohan, Sister Lou Ella Hickman, Sambhu Nath Banerjee, Candice Louisa Daquin, Oindri Sengupta, Gigi Baldovino Gosnell, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Tanvi Jeph, George Freek, Michael R Burch

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

In Mini-Sagas: A Dozen Examples, Rhys Hughes talks of a new genre with dollops of humour. Click here to read.

Musings/Slices from Life

Istanbul

G Venkatesh has a stopover in the airport to make a discovery. Click here to read.

The Loyal Dog in Loyalty Island

Meredith Stephens makes friends with a dog in the township of Wé on the Lifou island, an ‘overseas territory’ of France. Click here to read.

The ‘New Kid on the Block’ Celebrates…

Dr Kirpal Singh ruminates over what led to the making of an island state, Singapore. Click here to read.

Remnants of Time Once Spent Together

Sayali Korgaonkar ruminates over loss and grieving. Click here to read.

Moonland

Rupali Gupta Mukherjee journeys through the moonlike landscape housing a monastery with her camera and a narrative. Click here to read.

King Lear & Kathakali?

PG Thomas revisits a performance that mesmerised him in a pre-covid world. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In A Bone in My Platter, Devraj Singh Kalsi shares a taste of running a restaurant. Click here to read.

Notes from Japan

Suzanne Kamata writes a light slice from life in The Boy & The Cats: A Love Story. Click here to read.

Stories

Does this Make Me a Psychic?

Erwin Coombs tells a suspenseful, funny, poignant and sad story, based on his real life experiences. Click here to read.

Hard Choices

Santosh Kalwar gives a glimpse of hope for an abandoned girl-child in Nepal. Click here to read.

No Rain on the Parade

Tan Kaiyi goes on a hunt for the National Day Killer. Click here to read.

Until We Meet Again

Shivani Shrivastav transports us to Manali for a misty union. Click here to read.

The Hatchet Man

Paul Mirabile tells a story of murder and horror. Click here to read.

I am Not the End

Aysha Baqir takes on the persona of a computer to unleash a poignant and chilling story. Click here to read.

Essays

How Many Ways To Love a Book

Sindhu Shivprasad describes passion for books. Click here to read.

Hiking in the Himalayas with Nabinji

Ravi Shankar explores more of Himalayas in Nepal. Click here to read.

Freedom is another word for… Zohra Sehgal

Ratnottama Sengupta gives a glimpse of the life of Zohra Sehgal, based on the book Zohra: A Biography in Four Acts by Ritu Menon, and her own personal interactions with the aging Zohra Sehgal. Click here to read.

The Observant Immigrant

In Can We Create a Better World by Just Wishing for it, Candice Louisa Daquin dwells on the question to locate answers. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

An excerpt from The Dreams of a Mappila Girl: A Memoir by B. M. Zuhara translated by Fehmida Zakeer. Click here to read.

An excerpt from Michael R Burch’s poetry book, O, Terrible Angel. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Meenakshi Malhotra reviews Tagore’s Four Chapters translated and introduced by Radha Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Gracy Samjatsabam visits Mamang Dai’s Escaping the Land. Click here to read.

Aditi Yadav reviews Pallavi Aiyar’s Orienting : An Indian in Japan. Click here to read.

Rakhi Dalal visits Neelum Saran Gour’s Requiem in Raga Janki. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews Rakesh Batabyal’s Building a Free India. Click here to read.

Categories
Editorial

The Stars were Shining There for You & Me, for Liberty…

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

“It just so happens that their[1] universes were different from ours: because why would their imaginations be constrained by a nation-state that would not exist for another thousand years?”

Anirudh Kansetti, the print.in

These lines from a recent article on conquests carried out by the Indian subcontinent in ancient times brings to focus that earlier countries or nation-states as we know of them today did not exist till the industrial revolution set the concept in motion. In the month many countries in Asia celebrate their independent existence or rather the drawing of borders based on colonial mapmakers’ whims, we should perhaps relook at the way the world stands divided.

Is this what we want as humans? Where are we headed? While conquerors write the history, we tend to gloss over what is left unsaid. The millions who died crossing borders, in race riots and of hunger, starvation and disease in refugee camps is overlooked, or worse, used to justify the divisions that still hurt the residents of the sub-continent and try to destroy any sense of oneness among the human species. We tend not to forget the atrocities of the colonials but we overlook the violence of the mobs that incensed with hatred instilled by politics annihilated and murdered. Their story is reduced to “us” and “them”. In our mood of jubilation, the recent bombings in the Middle East and the Ukraine-Russia war have already been delegated to the newsreels. But these are all people who are killed and displaced without any justification for the need to do so. One of the things that George Orwell had depicted in 1984 was an acceptance of a constant state of war. Are we stepping into that frame of mind with our cold acceptance of the situation worldwide?

In the last century, many united against the atrocities of the empire builders. They wanted to rise above the divides. At least greats like Nazrul vociferously objected to the basis of divides that were used to draw the borders. Translations brought to us by Professor Fakrul Alam showcase such poetry as does much of Tagore’s own writing and actions. Tagore organised a protest march against the colonial proposal of Partition of Bengal in 1905 by taking a procession in which he encouraged Hindu and Muslim women to tie rakhis[2] on men from the other community and make them their brothers. Tagore put the welfare of humanity above nationalism as can be seen in his writings and speeches. Reflecting on humanity, we have Munshi Premchand’s powerful story, Pus Ki Raat or A Frigid Winter’s Night, translated from Hindi by C Christine Fair, dwelling on the sad state of peasantry under the Raj. In a bid to rouse people like the protagonist of Premchand’s story, Tagore wrote inspirational songs, one of which, Hobe Joye (Victory will be Ours) has been translated on our pages. We also continue sharing Rabindranath’s humour with a skit translated by Somdatta Mandal from Bengali.

Humour is also stirred into Borderless by Rhys Hughes with a series of mini sagas in his column and a trip around the world in eighty couplets. These couplets actually are more in number — I tried counting them — and are guaranteed to make you laugh. We have travel stories in plenty too. Ravi Shankar again treks to the Himalayas and brings us wonderful photographs of his journey and G Venkatesh stops over at Istanbul airport to find a friend from across the border. Meredith Stephens travels to a French colony called Lifou Island — sounds unbelievable as in the month we celebrate the independence of so many countries across Asia, there is still a country in the Pacific that owes allegiance to a democratic European power! But other than writing about the beaches, Stephens talks of a temporary pet dog while Suzanne Kamata gives us cat talk in her notes from Japan in a lighter vein — a very pleasant glimpse of life. Devraj Singh Kalsi brings a grin when he talks of his stint at trying to run a restaurant.

Interesting non-fictions from a book lover, Sindhu Shivprasad, and from PG Thomas who talks of King Lear performed a la classical Indian dance mode, Kathakali, by an international caste add to narratives that focus on bringing the pleasanter side of life to our readers. Such stories are a welcome relief in dark times when people find themselves caught between price hikes due to the pandemic and wars. An essay by Candice Louisa Daquin looks for a way out of the stresses of these times. Erwin Coombs gives us a funny, poignant and tragic classroom encounter which reminds me of the 1967 Sidney Poiter movie, To Sir, with Love. We have darker tones brought into our journal also with Aysha Baqir’s story on child exploitation, a sad but hopeful narrative from Nepal by Santosh Kalwar about the rejection of a girl-child by her mother and a horrific murder brought to us by Paul Mirabile.

Our poetry section this time flows over with poems from Michael R Burch, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, George Freek, Mike Smith, Gigi Baldvino Gosnell and even Ratnottama Sengupta, who has also given us a powerful essay on an acclaimed dancer called Zohra Sehgal whose life was changed by the Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, basing her essay on Ritu Menon’s Zohra: A Biography in Four Acts and her own personal encounters with the irrepressible artiste. Michael Burch has also shared an excerpt of his book dedicated to his wife, O, Terrible Angel.

An excerpt from B. M. Zuhara’s The Dreams of a Mappila Girl: A Memoir, translated from Malayalam by Fehmida Zakeer, brings us close to a community we know very less about in the Southern part of India. Meenakshi Malhotra has reviewed Tagore’s Four Chapters translated from Bengali and introduced by Radha Chakravarty, a book that is a powerful voice against violence in the name of nationalism touching on the independence of women, a theme that is reiterated in another book that has been visited by Rakhi Dalal. While exploring Neelum Saran Gour’s Requiem in Raga Janki, Dalal contends that the book familiarises us with a singer “who carved her own destiny and lived life on her own terms, in times when women were generally subjugated and confined to roles given by society”. Gracy Samjetsabam has visited Mamang Dai’s Escaping the Land, a novel that tries to weave issues faced in the Northeast of India and integrate it with the mainstream by stirring human emotions.  Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Rakesh Batabyal’s Building a Free India, a collection of powerful speeches from the past.

Within the confines of the Raj, there was a long court case where a prince who had been declared dead resurfaced as a Naga sadhu[3], a claimant to the throne, this time not to abuse his power as of past but to be a sympathiser of the people in their tryst to fight the Raj. Aruna Chakravarti has woven a historical fiction around this controversy centring around the prince of Bhawal. In an exclusive interview, she tells us the story behind the making of The Mendicant Prince — her novel that was published just last month. Her responses could well teach us how to write a historical novel.

We have much more than the fare that has been mentioned here. Pause by on our contents page to take a look. My heartfelt thanks to the whole team at Borderless for helping with this issue, which we managed to get out in a shorter time than usual and Sohana Manzoor for her wonderful artwork. I am grateful to all our contributors as well as our readers. We could not have made it this far without all of you.

In the spirit of uniting under a borderless sky, let us look forward to cooler climes and happier times.

Cheers!

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com


[1] Guptas (4-6 century CE), Cholas (300 BCE -1279 CE) and other ancient rulers in the Indian sub-continent

[2] A festival held in August where sisters of all ages tie a talisman or amulet called the rakhi around the wrists of their brothers, who promise to protect them.

[3] Mendicant

Categories
Poetry

Poetry by Ratnottama Sengupta

SUN DAY

I gifted myself a
Sunday morning
Today.
When I opened my eyes
The sun was racing
To get a hold
Of the sky.
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,
I hold up that sky
For my world.
Thursday, Friday, Saturday,
I outrun the sun.
I outshine the lamp,
I stay up
Half the night,
There's a story to send.
I wake up and jump
To my feet,
There's tiffin to be made,
A wedding -- or a funeral
To attend;
Dents on the car 
Clogged drains
Flickering lights
CESC, KMC, TataSky*,
Landline, WiFi
Bills to be paid,
Fines to be avoided...
Today I will give a miss
To all that.
Today I will not answer calls,
Today I will not be
At any seminar.
Today I will stay in bed
And look out of the window
Today I will gift the sun
The whole run
Of the sky.

*CESC: Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation
KMC: Kolkata Municipal Council
TataSky:  An Indian direct broadcast satellite service provider

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. 

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Independence Day

Of Midnight’s Children and their Compatriots… 

At the stroke of midnight, on 14th-15th August, 1947, the colonials handed the Indian subcontinent back to the indigenous population — but they did not leave it as they had found it. They made changes: some reforms and alterations, like the introduction of railways  helped the subcontinent move towards a better future once the  plundering of raw materials and the transport of British mill cloth halted. However,  the major change which continues to create conflicts in the sub-continent to date was the Partition on the basis of religions. This was initiated by the colonial  policy of divide and rule, which came into play post the revolt of 1857 and is often perpetrated still by the local inheritors of the colonies. Was it justified and does the packaging by the colonials have to be given credence so that the progeny of the ruled keep othering and thinking of differences? 

To help you find answers, we bring to you writings about the days of the Raj like Aruna Chakravarti’s The Mendicant Prince, where the colonials try to deprive a state of its rightful ruler to fill their own coffers, and Premchand’s Pus ki Raat (A Frigid Winter Night) that reflects the sorry state of peasantry under the Raj. Prince or pauper — both suffered.  Voices that pleaded for secularism, like that of Nazrul, Tagore or Gandhi remained unheard by those who drew the lines of division. Bhaskar Parichha tells us in his review: “On his way to Noakhali and in the face of the large-scale massacre, to the question ‘Will Partition Change Us Forever?’ Mahatma Gandhi replied: ‘I have seen more of history than anyone of you, and I tell you that I have known Hindu boys who called Muslims ‘uncle’. Hindus and Muslims used to participate in each other’s festivals and other auspicious occasions.’”

And perhaps this is borne out from the life of Zohra Sehgal, a legendary dancer as reflected by the essay written by Ratnottama Sengupta, based on Ritu Menon’s Zohra: A Biography in Four Acts and her own interactions with the aging performer. Along with these, we have the voices from the present like that of G Venkatesh who finds that the borders may not be what the indigenous population had wanted and Aysha Baqir’s narrative reflecting on the darker aspects of life in the sub-continent.

Poetry

Arise, Arise O Patriot! and Helmsman Attention! by Kazi Nazrul Islam have been translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

Tagore’s Song of Hope or ‘Hobe Joye‘ has been translated from Bengali by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Prose

Pus Ki Raat or A Frigid Winter Night by Munshi Premchand has been translated from Hindi by C Christine Fair. Click here to read.

Aruna Chakravarti unfolds through the life of a prince in pre-independence era in her latest novel, The Mendicant Prince, based on the prince of Bhawal controversy in the first part of the last century. Click here to read.

Ratnottama Sengupta gives a glimpse of the life of Zohra Sehgal, based on the book Zohra: A Biography in Four Acts by Ritu Menon, and her own personal interactions with the aging Zohra Sehgal. Click here to read.

In Istanbul, G Venkatesh stops over at the airport to make a friend from the other side of the divide. Click here to read.

In I am Not the End, Aysha Baqir takes on the persona of a computer to unleash a poignant and chilling story based on the darker side of modern living. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews Rakesh Batabyal’s Building a Free India, dynamic speeches by freedom fighters of the last century. Click here to read.

Categories
Essay

Freedom is another word for… Zohra Sehgal

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. Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

Zohra Sehgal[1] 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 ‘A Biography 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[2] 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[3]  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[4].

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…

Young Zohra. Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

‘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[5] – 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[6], 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[7] and Chandralekha[8]; 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[9]’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[10] 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.

Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

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[11], 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[12] – they would associate with Utpal Dutt, Ritwik Ghatak, Salil Chowdhury, Hamid Sayani, Ebrahim Alkazi, Balraj Sahni and Prithviraj Kapoor[13], to pledge that they would present the crisis of the times through the medium of theatre.

*

Prithviraj[14], 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 [15]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[16] 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 mohallas[17]and 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.


[1] Born Sahibzadi Zohra Mumtaz Khan Begum (1912-2014)

[2] From the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

[3] Pathans of Afghan origin who migrated to Uttar Pradesh in the 1700-1800CE

[4] Communist Party of India

[5] A famous French dancer in Uday Shankar’s troupe

[6] Allaudin Khan(1862-1972)

[7] Nayantara Sahgal

[8] Chandralekha Mehta

[9] Feroze Gandhi (1912-1960), Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s husband and son-in-law of Nehru

[10] The Quit India Movement started on 8th August 1942

[11] All film stars

[12] Writers

[13] Film stars, directors, composers

[14] Prithviraj Kapoor(1906-1972)

[15] Hindu or a Muslim priest

[16] 16th August, 1946

[17] Colonies

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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Editorial

Whispers of Stones

When the mountains and grass
had life, stones whispered
how the world came to be…

'Stonehenge', Daily Star

And as the world came to be, there was war — war that seems to rage in some part of the world or other. The British Museum has an exhibit which states the first battle was staged 13,000 years ago… in what is now Sudan, long before the advent of written history. This was even before the advent of people who built the ancient Stonehenge which was constructed around 3000-2000 BCE. And battles still continue to rage. The Jebel Sahaba casualties in Sudan 13000 years ago were less than 100. But the current conflicts claim in terms of tens of thousands which prolonged could stretch to millions. The last world war (1939-1945) which lasted for six years had a total of  75-80 million persons who perished. Ukraine-Russia conflict has within five months had a casualty count of more than 14000. And yet weapons and nuclear arms continue to proliferate decimating humanity, nature and towns, destroying homes, erasing ruthlessly and creating more refugees. The only need for such battles seem to be to satiate the hunger of the warlords secure in their impenetrable fortresses while tens of thousands are annihilated and natural or nurtured landscapes lie emaciated, mutilated and polluted.

What would be a good way of ending such wars?

Tagore sought the development of better instincts in humankind as an antidote. He wrote in the last century: “Any teaching concerning man must have human nature for its chief element. How far it will harmonise with human nature is a matter of time.”

With wars getting deadlier and more horrific, we can only try to awaken, as Tagore suggests, the better nature in man to move towards a peaceful world. What would be a more effective way of doing it than writing with the hope of a kinder and accepting future?

For that let us start with translations of the maestro Tagore himself. We have a song about the season — monsoon, ‘Monomor Megher Songi (My Friends, the Clouds)’, translated by Professor Fakrul Alam, a painting by Sohana Manzoor interpreting the lyrics and a transcreation of Nababarsha or New Rains’ was shrunken into a popular Rabindra Sangeet and reduced to twenty lines in English by Tagore himself. The connect with nature is an important aspect that enables humans to transcend petty concerns leading to dissensions of different kinds as evidenced in the maestro’s humorous feline skit, translated by Somdatta Mandal. A translation of Dalip Kaur Tiwana’s ‘The Bus Conductor’ from Punjabi by C. Christine Fair adds zest to this section. Fazal Baloch has translated a folktale from Balochistan involving the supernatural and Ihlwha Choi has taken on the cry for peace on behalf of Ukraine while translating his own poem in Korean. The Nithari column has a story by Jishan in Hindustani, translated to English by Grace M Sukanya, showcasing the struggle of a youngster during the pandemic – rather a sad narrative, which though fictitious has its roots in reality. 

Our poetry section touches upon the timelessness of dissensions and darkness with Michael R Burch’s poem on Stonehenge and Supatra Sen’s poem on Ukraine. This has been allayed by love poetry by Maid Corbic from Bosnia. George Freek’s poem ruffles with its reflective lines. And in the midst of it all, is poetry by Ryan Quinn Flanagan reflecting on the seven stages of man. Will the process of aging or human nature ever change? I wonder if Rhys Hughes can find an answer for that in humorous verses as he has shared in this issue. In his column, Hughes has written about an imagined anthology of short stories.

Our short story section has echoes of humour around felines by Manzoor, somewhat in tune with the mind frame seen in Tagore’s skit on this issue. Humour rings tinged with an apparition in Erwin Coombs’s narrative – should one call it dark humour or is it just his style? Paul Mirabile goes for gothic darkness in his meanderings around Italy.

Strangely, we seem to have a focus on short stories this time. Keith Lyons has interviewed Steve Carr, a journalist, a publisher and writer of 500 short stories who is questing to create a ‘perfect short story’. Reading out excerpts from her short story at a literary festival in Simla, Bollywood celebrity, Deepti Naval, was in conversation with eminent film journalist, Ratnottama Sengupta. She spoke of her literary aspirations while unveiling her autobiography in verse, A Country Called Childhood. This conversation has been shared by Sengupta with Borderless. It is interesting to see how Naval’s reactions to social malaise contrasts with that of the film director, cinematographer and actor, Goutam Ghose, who was present during the unveiling of her book. He had responded to communal violence by making a film on Lalan Fakir extolling virtues of love and kindness, called Moner Manush (2010) and then made a book on the film called, The Quest (2013) which has beautiful translations of Lalan Fakir’s lyrics by Sankar Sen.  

Our non-fiction sections seem to be hosting multiple travel stories across UK by Mike Smith, along the Australian coastline by Meredith Stephens, on the Himalayas with Ravi Shankar and an unusual visit by Hema Ravi to a farm in US where animals that had been used in Disney films in the past are homed. Our environmental columnist, Kenny Peavy, actually wrote about his cycling trip from Thailand to Indonesia on a bamboo cycle made by a Singaporean! And from Japan, Suzanne Kamata explored a museum in the neighbouring town of Mure. The museum on a hill hosts the art of American Japanese Artists, Isamu Noguchi.

We do have non-fiction that moves away from travel: noir humour by Devraj Singh Kalsi and an essay by Candice Louisa Daquin on a very interesting subject – ‘Is it Okay to be Ordinary?’ Is it?  Dan Meloche has written a literary essay on Canadian novelist Andre Alexis’s award-winning novel, Fifteen Dogs: An Apologue (2015). While Meloche spoke of how the novel departed from Orwell’s Animal Farm, his narrative brought to my mind a novel closer to our times set in England by Jasper Fforde called Constant Rabbit (2020) – this a science fiction while Alexis’s was an apologue or an animal fable. Fforde did use the rabbits rather well to highlight the current times.

We have book excerpts of two recent books that I would call really outstanding. One of them is Aruna Chakravarti’s The Mendicant Prince, which is being released this week, and is based on the evergreen contentious case of the prince of Bhawal that has even been explored even in cinema. The other, Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar by Nabendu Ghosh, has been published posthumously and is not a translation from Bengali but written in English originally by this trilingual writer.  

Called ‘Dadamoni’ affectionately, iconic actor Ashok Kumar is regarded as “the one personality who symbolises Indian cinema’s journey from Bombay Talkies to Bollywood”.  This book has been reviewed by Indrashish Banerjee, who calls it ‘a reflection on the Hindi film industry’ as well as a biography. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Booker winner Geetanjali Shree’s Mai, Silently Mother, a Sahitya Akademi winning translation of her Hindi novel by Nita Kumar, reiterating the dialogue that had been kindled on motherhood last month by Rinki Roy Bhattacharya and Maithili Rao’s The Oldest Love Story (2022). Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Prosanta Chakrabarty’s Explaining Life Through Evolution plotting how life evolved on earth. Parichha tells us: “Meaningful, wide-ranging and argumentative, this is a must-read book. It will propel us to imagine and reimagine life around us.” Another book that sounds like a must-read has been reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra, Tagore’s Gleanings of the Road, translated by Mandal. She tells us: “ ‘Gleanings’ represents the quintessential Tagore…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.”

There is more to tempt. Please stop by on our contents page and take a look.

We would like to hugely thank all our contributors and readers for being with us and helping us grow. I would like to thank my team, who despite hurdles they face, always lend a helping hand and wonderful words from their pens or computers to get Borderless on its feet. I apologise for the delay and thank you all for your patience. Special thanks to Sohana Manzoor for her fabulous artwork.

I wish you all a wonderful July and peace in a war-torn world. We are all affected by the ongoing conflicts. Let us hope for peaceful and just resolutions.

Thanks.

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com

Categories
Review

The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar by Nabendu Ghosh

Reviewed by Indrasish Banerjee

Title: Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar

Author: Nabendu Ghosh

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar by Nabendu Ghosh (1917-2007) is a reflection on the Hindi film industry as much as it’s a biography of the legendary actor.  An eminent scriptwriter in Bollywood and director, Ghosh was an award-winning Bengali writer whose oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories. As a script writer, he wrote the scripts in Hindi for iconic films like Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta and many more.

Ashok Kumar (1911-2001) was a part of both the small and the big screen in India while he lived. Was Ashok Kumar a star? What was his position in the Hindi film industry? When did he become a character actor? Was he a good actor? These questions are very easy to answer about others but when it comes to ‘Dadamoni’, as he was fondly called, the answers become nebulous.

Ashok Kumar started his career in the early 1930s which makes him senior to stars like Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand who made their debuts and attained stardom when Ashok Kumar was already a reigning star. Ghosh knew Ashok Kumar personally for many years. And the personal touch comes through in many places – through anecdotes and because of the regard that shines through the narrative. The jokes that Ashok Kumar cracked from time to time, the things the thespian told the author, all find place in the book. There is also a visible attempt to protect Dadamoni’s reputation against any allegation of vices generally attributed to stars. Ghosh, who had gone to Bombay as part of Bimal Roy’s team, constantly tries to establish Dadamoni as a gentle, thoughtful and educated person.

But this gentle, thoughtful and educated person didn’t have it easy in the world of films. Ashok Kumar had a shaky start. A shy and retiring person, he had gone to Bombay while studying to become a lawyer in Calcutta — to become a director. The ambition was idealistically driven – films, a new medium then, could be a means of educating people. But fate intervened. The person supposed to play the hero’s role in Achhut Kanya (Untouchable Maiden, 1936) had gone missing and the search for a replacement was on.

One day, Ashok Kumar, an employee of Bombay Talkies then, discovered the owner of the studio, Himanshu Rai, quizzically looking at him. Rai had found the replacement for the hero of Achhut Kanya. But for the hero, it was beyond belief that he could act in a movie. The most endearing part of the book is how this diffident hero finds his footing in the industry becoming its earliest and biggest star. And the most poignant part is the gradual decline and death of the studio system even as its product – Ashok Kumar – rose to new heights.

As the narrative draws to a close, one is left wondering what is Ashok Kumar’s position in the legion of Bollywood stars? This has been answered exhaustively in the ‘Afterword’ by Ratnottama Sengupta, eminent film critic and Ghosh’s daughter, who brings in not only personal lore but also her own experience. She tells us Ashok Kumar served “as a textbook for actors wanting to perfect characterisations, voice control, timing, gestures postures” and that he transformed “the acting style in Indian cinema from theatrical to naturalistic – which is still the cinema language worldwide.”

Naming him the “Elder brother of the industry”, Sengupta asserts, “I’d say he is the one personality who symbolises Indian cinema’s journey from Bombay Talkies to Bollywood.” She brings in his stories of interactions with film stars, his hits and directorial ventures, his launching of major actors and his deep links with them, including his acclaimed brother, Kishore Kumar, with more anecdotes from multiple eminent actors like Shammi Kapoor, Moushumi Chatterjee, David Lean and his associates and family ties that stretch to embrace actors from different religion and race. Bharti Jaffrey, Ashok Kumar’s daughter, who has written a heartfelt forward for this edition, is married to actor Saeed Jaffrey’s elder brother.

What makes this book unique is that Ghosh wrote this book in English himself and it has been republished posthumously[1] with the addition of a forward and an exhaustive afterword by the well-known daughters of the two film icons. It also has classic photographs of Ashok Kumar. Both the emotionally charged forward by award-winning actress Bharti Jaffrey, and the afterword by Sengupta, a national film award-winning journalist, explore further the enigma that was Ashok Kumar. By the end of the ‘Afterword’, one realises how deeply tied and organic are the Bollywood families and how much they do to try and create bridges and close gaps – the Ashok Kumar Foundation being one such effort. The whole package – the forward, the narrative, the photographs and the afterword — leaves one spellbound.  

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[1] First published in 1995 by Harper Collins – mentioned in the ‘Preface’ written by Ghosh in 1995 and reproduced in this edition published by Speaking Tiger Books.

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

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Excerpt

Wordsmith Sarat Chandra and Tell-tale Ashok Kumar

Title: Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar

Author: Nabendu Ghosh

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Wordsmith Sarat and Tell-tale Ashok 

The child Ashok Kumar was highly imaginative and could tell stories to his maternal grandfather, Raja Shib Chandra.

‘Come on boy, tell me a new story,’ the Raja would demand with a smile.

The five-year-old great grandson would gravely start, ‘You see great grandpa, yesterday I was walking through the jungle –‘

The Raja narrowed his eyes, ‘At what time?’ he interrupted.

The boy did not lose his nerve. ‘Yesterday, when you were having a nap after your lunch,’ he kept up the grave tone.

‘And where was the jungle?’ the Raja quipped. 

The boy smiled, ‘On the bank of the Ganga.’

‘Carry on,’ said the Raja.

‘As I walked through the jungle,’ little Ashok went on, ‘there were birds chirping and peacocks dancing. I was feeling fine when suddenly I heard a tiger roar. I stopped. The birds stopped chirping, the peacocks flew fast and in panic. I turned around. And there it was standing, the tiger. It was a huge tiger, snarling at me and thrashing its tail on the ground…

‘Trembling in fear, I broke into a run. The tiger roared and sprang at me. I ran and ran hard. The tiger chased me. It almost reached me, it would soon fall upon me, grab me, swallow me. What shall I do? Oh, how shall I save myself? I prayed for wings and they sprang out of my two shoulders and I flew upward through the trees and escaped in the air. The tiger roared and roared and roared on…’

Little Ashok looked at the Raja for a due appreciation.

But the Raja looked at him with disbelief in his eyes and asked, ‘So you can grow wings out of your shoulders?’

The boy stared at him and nodded, ‘Yes, I can.’

‘Show me,’ the Raja demanded.

Undaunted, the boy said, ‘You become a tiger and I will show you my wings.’

The Raja roared with laughter. ‘Bravo my little one, bravo!’ he conceded. 

Two servants peeped in at this moment on hearing the Raja’s laughter. The Raja beckoned one of them in.

‘Jagai, go to Upen Ganguly’s house and house and call that dark chap – you know –‘ Raja Shib Chandra ordered.

‘Yes, master.’

Soon a young man came there. He was dark but attractive, with handsome features and exceptionally bright, penetrating eyes.

The Raja welcomed him, ‘Come here, my lad. Do you know my great grandson, Ashok?’

‘No sir – but now I will know him,’ the dark young man smiled at little Ashok and added, ‘Ashok is the name of an Emperor.’

The little boy smiled back at the compliment.

Shib Chandra said to the young man, ‘Look here, my great grandson is no less than you — he can also tell stories. Tell him a story Ashok.’

Before starting to narrate a story Ashok looked at the young man and asked, ‘Have you ever eaten silver rice and fried silver parval?’

‘I will eat them when I find them.’

Many many years later when the cinema houses displayed a ‘House Full’ board everytime an Ashok Kumar film was released, New Theatres of Calcutta invited the actor to join the concern. It had earned the reputation of producing quality films — and to this day the name remains nonpareil in the history of Indian cinema.

Ashok Kumar agreed to meet them to discuss the matter. When he met Birendra Nath Sircar, the managing director, in his office there were some other directors and a dark man with silvery hair and sharp burning eyes.

Mr Sircar introduced the gentleman in dhoti-kurta by saying, ‘Mr Ganguly, he is our pride — Shri Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, the great novelist.’

Startled, Ashok Kumar turned towards the legend and bowed low.

Sarat Chandra smilingly asked, ‘Do you remember me?’

Ashok shook his head, ‘No sir — sorry.’

Sarat Chandra laughed and said, ‘Try and you will remember that you used to narrate stories to me — of silver made rice and fried silver parval.’

And the scene came back to Ashok Kumar. So, he used to narrate to this great magician — story writer Sarat Chandra!

Every one had a hearty laugh when Sarat Chandra narrated the story from the past. In his tum Ashok Kumar narrated how Sarat Chandra’s uncle, the writer Upen Ganguly, would regretfully say, ‘This chap, my nephew Sarat, does nothing! I am worried about him.’ This unleashed another round of laughter.

Ashok Kumar finally acted in only one film, Samar. He did not join New Theatres. It was Bombay Talkies that had groomed him and made him what he was. He would never leave Bombay Talkies.

(But, in 1953, after Bombay Talkies closed its shutter for good, he bought the rights to Parineeta. It was the first film of Ashok Kumar Productions.) 

(Excerpted from Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar, Speaking Tiger Books 2022)

 About the Book:

Ashok Kumar (1911–2001), fondly known as Dadamoni, is one of the great icons of Hindi cinema. This warm, intimate biography traces his remarkable journey, from reluctant actor to Bollywood’s first superstar and, in his later years, a much-loved presence on national television.

Born in Bhagalpur (then in the Bengal Presidency), Ashok Kumar was enthralled by the ‘bioscope’ as a child. In his twenties, he quit his law studies and came to Bombay to become a film director. But life—rather, Himanshu Rai, the founder of Bombay Talkies—had different plans for him. Despite the director’s reservations, he was cast in the lead role opposite Devika Rani in the 1936 film Jeevan Naiyya when the original hero went missing. The same year, Ashok Kumar was paired with Devika Rani again in Achhut Kanya, which was a blockbuster. The transformation of the accidental hero into a charismatic star-actor had begun. Over the next six decades, he proved himself to be a master of the craft, playing cop and thief; genial grandfather and sly matchmaker; villain and hero; heartbroken lover and suave rake with equal ease in numerous films, including Kismet, Mahal, Parineeta, Kanoon, Gumrah, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Aashirwad, Mamta, Jewel Thief, Khoobsurat and Khatta Meetha. But as Nabendu Ghosh writes, Ashok Kumar’s world was much larger—he was also a charming conversationalist, mentor, homeopath, astrologer, painter, linguist, limericist and, above all, loyal friend and devoted husband and father. This book is also a mini-history of the early decades of Bombay’s Hindustani cinema, and its pages are rich with little anecdotes featuring legends like—besides Devika Rani—Saadat Hasan Manto, Sashadhar Mukherjee, Leela Chitnis, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Meena Kumari and B.R. Chopra. Sarojini Naidu and Jawaharlal Nehru make brief appearances too, as does Morarji Desai.

For anyone interested in the Hindi cinema of yesteryears—in its cosmopolitanism, camaraderie and charm—this thoroughly engaging book is a must-read.

About the Author:

 Nabendu Ghosh (1917–2007) was a dancer, novelist, short-story writer, film director, actor and screenwriter. His oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories, including That Bird Called Happiness: Stories and Mistress of Melodies, edited by Ratnottama Sengupta. As scriptwriter, he penned cinematic classics such as Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta, Majhli Didi and Abhimaan.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL