Categories
Essay

A Solitary Pursuit: The Art of Suhas Roy

Ratnottama Sengupta journeys with the signature art of Suhas Roy as it transformed in theme, style, and medium

Suhas Roy = Radha.

Correct.

Suhas Roy = Crows.

Right. 

Suhas Roy = Jesus.

So true.

Suhas Roy = Sensuality.

Yes. Witness the Mistress of the Moon.

For each of these Suhas Roy (1936-2016) was chased by galleries and collectors. His works have been widely exhibited and are well documented. Many of them on view at Mumbai’s prestigious Jehangir Art Galley (January 17 to 23, 2023) are not on sale. The intention is to train viewers on the diversity and skilfulness of the much loved artist from Bengal. In short, to hold up the totality of the artist who enriched Contemporary Indian Art with sketches in Western Academic style, graphics, landscapes; with his series on Crow, Jesus, Radha, The Seductress of Khajuraho; with aluminium paint on glass, acrylic on paper, egg tempera on canvas…

So where do we start? Where did he? There’s a story at every turn in the journey, so let’s start at the very beginning.

A little boy in Tejgaon, now in Bangladesh, had lost his father when he was not even two. One Kaji Saheb, who taught geography in the village school and doubled as the art teacher, took the child under his wings. If the boy learnt to outline India on the blackboard, he could also draw papayas and brinjals. And everything he drew scored 10 on 10. His teacher would say, “It seems you’ll grow up to be an artist!”

The boy loved to spend all his hours drawing and fishing. “How will these pleasures serve you in life?” the family elders would admonish him. The youth would smile in reply and go on, eventually to join the Indian Art College, study new methods of printmaking under Somenath Hore and S W Hayter, visit Paris and Florence to study Michelangelo’s David and Pieta…

Suhas Roy

However, Paris post WWII was an eye-opener for artists like Suhas Roy and, a decade before him, for Krishna Reddy, who had graduated from Santiniketan. Both India and Europe had come out of prolonged periods of turmoil. But, poised on the threshold of an independent existence as a sovereign nation, India was looking back to its roots for defining its identity, whereas England and France and Germany – which were eager to get over the bitterness left by their recent history – were looking for a complete break with the past. For Suhas Roy, returning home meant returning to his cultural roots. And Venus emerging from the Water became kin of the image of goddess Lakshmi emerging from the lotus-laden pond closer home.

*

This Indian-ness was reinforced when he joined Santiniketan as a painting teacher. The lush green environs, the ponds and rivulets, the chirping birds and rustic villagers took him back to the childhood haven snatched away by the politics of religion that had culminated in the Partition of the Subcontinent. Suhas Roy, raised in the British Academic mood, with undying admiration for the values of the Italian Renaissance and the visions of the French Classicists, riding the high tide of Modernism, debating whether to go Abstract or Semi-Abstract, started painting landscapes!

Yes, landscapes. Regardless of what the critics said – just as they did for the Bengal Masters – Suhas Roy was not being ‘regressive’. For, he did not paint any particular spot with fidelity to topography – as John Constable did. Instead, his landscapes were an expression of his yearning for a paradise lost: his place of birth. When he moved from Kolkata to Santiniketan, in a reflection of spatial reality the neighbourhood palm trees started putting their heads up in his paintings. His sensitive foliage, the birds and animals and ponds were all in answer to his quest for the luxuriant green he had left behind, across the Radcliffe Line.

“Santiniketan gave me back the opportunity to go fishing as I used to in East Bengal, and I rediscovered the beauty and calming effect of Nature,” he had said to me when I curated the Living Santiniketan exhibition in Delhi of late 1990s. “It came as a relief to me, burdened as I was with the constant thought of ‘What to paint?’ For, Nature constantly changes.” Additionally, he realised that appreciation of beauty is not confined to a class or profession. “Doctors and poets alike love flowers. So, I decided to go back to landscape, taking no note of whether it was in fashion or out of it.”

*

The crow, very much a part of the Bengal landscape, then became his signature in the 1970s. The scavenger was an attraction because of its black feathers. Japanese water-colourist Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958) — notable for his role in creating the painting technique of Nihonga — had come to Bengal in early 20th century with scholar Okakura Kakuzo (1863-1913) and helped Abanindranath Tagore master the medium. He had done a series of Mount Fuji in black-n-white. Chancing upon that in the Santiniketan library, Suhas was so impressed as to reach for the austere palette. The crow readily lent itself to the scheme. Spraying the canvas with acrylic paint before construing the image in watercolour, Suhas would use a Japanese colour stick to create tones and dimensions. The Far Eastern concept of an object in a wide open space came to be highly appreciated and widely collected – including by philanthropist politician, Karan Singh.

In Indian philosophy and literature, Nature is the Eternal Feminine. That could be why, after ten years of doing landscape, Suhas Roy’s imagination sought out the allied image of tribal girls. It was a natural progression, for women – especially tribal women – have a symbolic if not symbiotic link with trees. Often, he would counterpoise a tree with a woman. Taru[1], he titled one done in an art workshop.

From a woman in a landscape to Radha was just one step away. For an exhibition on Krishna organised by Gallery 88 of Kolkata, Suhas Roy played with the concept of the Blue God being the Ultimate Being. Melding Purush and Prakriti – the Male and the Female forces of the Universe – his canvas sported a nude woman against a dark blue background. The painting, titled ‘Radha’, not only sold for an enviable sum, but it also set in motion an astonishing demand for the image that shows no sign of abating.

Truly he basked in the adulation of resolved collectors, one of whom said, “When I am tossed and tired of problems, I look at your paintings. They act like balms.” Yet, for painting these very ‘balms’ the artist had to hear the criticism that he was feeding the appetite for calendar art. His Radha was a concept no better than the ‘mass produced’ icons ubiquitous in Indian spaces.  But the master was far from apologetic. “It is the very definition of icons,” he had pointed out to me one afternoon. “Images of personalities deified by popular imagination, be they mythical, historical or social, are repeated again and again, generation after generation, in different styles and contexts.” If one age worshipped them as bronze figurines and gold paintings, another flaunted them in oleographs and calendars. It has been so with Radha-Krishna, Ram-Sita, Buddha-Jesus, and even with Gandhi-Tagore-Teresa, I realised.

*

Jesus, though, had entered Suhas Roy’s world long before Radha. Sometime in 1969 he had visited Florence to see David. He found the sculpture epitomising masculine beauty “too proportionate”, and wandered into the church next door preserving Dante’s Divine Comedy in parchment. There, in one corner, he saw the last work of Michelangelo – an unfinished Pieta. Such infinite pathos! The artist could not brush it off his memory even after he returned to Calcutta and one day its picture postcard inspired him to paint a Jesus. When he stopped, the canvas was sporting a contemporary pieta – Jesus without the head, his body descending from the heavens.

As a persona, Suhas Roy had deep regards for Jesus. He was, to the Bengali artist, a symbol of forbearance. Perhaps he also saw the serene visage of the Prophet sporting a Crown of Thorns as a reflection of his own self – or was it of his country, that had been crowned with an Independence bloodied by Partition? Somewhere Suhas, a father who in his own lifetime lost both his children to Eternal Sleep, saw Jesus as a redeemer who showed mankind how to bear every suffering and pain that was a mortal’s lot. That is why such palpable love, even when tinged with sorrow, pain or sadness, flows out of His veins. This must have prompted even Vatican to acquire his Jesus in 2006.

Suhas Roy arrived at ‘Khajuraho’ in the mature years of his well lived life. He was intrigued by the carvings on the walls of the temples in central India that have embarrassed some and outraged some. Considered the descendants of the celestial Moon, the Chandela rulers had celebrated love in every expressed formation. Love, the invincible bonding between man and woman, man and man, indeed between man and all living beings, is made explicit here. Surely Suhas Roy was not equating love with lust. Was there a spiritual pursuit layering the physicality of the actions immortalised in stone?

No doubt there was. For Moon has always been equated with romance, love, passion. The artist was exploring the mysticism that wraps the ascetic deity inside the temple. Much like the sculptors of yore, his ‘Seductress’ is a quest for the sublime. If the ancients believed that you must leave all your worldly longings outside the temple door if you seek moksha, deliverance, the contemporary artist continually sought nirvana, redemption from conflict, in the beauty of peace.

*

Rigidity was unknown to Suhas Roy. The changes in his art came spontaneously, and every good result goaded him to go on. He dwelt on a theme only until another creative urge besieged him, be it Khajuraho, the series he titled Mistress of the Moon, or Cappadocia in Turkey. Never shy of experimenting, his foremost concern – always – was meticulous quality. His temperas would have egg yolk with oil and Japanese porcelain, gelatin with resin and tamarind seed. If it held the promise of a finer texture for details, he would use a watercolour brush for oil paintings. For, he would repeat, “Good art will never lose its demand just as diamond will never lose its market.”

For Suhas Roy, the aesthetic and the spiritual were one and the same. And even the hurly-burly of political turmoil had to adhere to his norms of aesthetics. Did Suhas Roy, then, live in an ivory tower away from social realities? No, he insisted, he “never ran away…” Once, on a fishing trip outside Santiniketan, he witnessed dead bodies being fished out of water following a flash flood in Ilam Bazar. Haunted by that image he had painted the Disaster series, depicting landscapes with shrouded bodies. Indeed, when the Naxalite period gave rise to despondency, he was tossed by the political reality of his land. But he prophesized that “every turmoil, be it social or political – including the ongoing one at Singur – would be short-lived.” So, if contemporary art became mere documentation, then that too would be short-lived!

“Only when it transcends the here-and-now can art have lasting value,” maintained the artist even when disturbed by the dark side of humanity. So, though distressed by cruelty, he chose to decry war by showing not blood-spill but the meditative power of peace and sublimity of love. “I focused on what has lasting appeal. Flowers blossom in the same fields that are crushed by battling soldiers. I speak of the war through the Buddha who transcended war.”

This sublime pursuit of Suhas Roy explains the unending appeal of his Seductress, his Radha, his Jesus.

Bonophul

[1] Translates to tree

*All the photographs have been sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.

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Review

The Shaping of Modern Calcutta through Lottery Sales

Book Review by Somdatta Mandal

Title: The Shaping of Modern Calcutta: The Lottery Committee Years, 1817 – 1830

Author: Ranabir Ray Chaudhury

Publisher: Niyogi Books

If you ask any layman about the city of Calcutta (now rechristened as Kolkata) you will get three major pieces of information — namely, it was founded by Job Charnock in 1690; it was the seat of East India Company and capital of British India till 1911; and that it was divided roughly into two sections — the white English town at the centre and towards the south and the native town in the north. Beyond that, very few people have the idea of how the city developed spatially and how several major arterial roads, tanks and squares were built systematically during the beginning of the nineteenth century and this is where The Shaping of Modern Calcutta: The Lottery Committee Years, 1817 – 1830 by Ranabir Ray Chaudhury gives us plenty of information about the gradual development of Calcutta. This was undertaken by raising money through sale of lottery tickets and implemented by the creation of a Lottery Committee which functioned specifically for thirteen years from October 1817 to 1830.

Under the system then prevalent, the surplus lottery funds remained with the Bank of Bengal which would continue to be involved in the sale of tickets and the payment of prizes but would have nothing to do with other payments. The three senior members of the committee were John Eliot, Charles Trower and Henry Wood who had already looked after the construction of the square and tank at Baparitala (Wellington Square) and the new road being built from Dharamtala Road to Bowbazar. Later officials like Henry Shakespear and Barwell, G. Gordon and A. Colvin were inducted, and featuring in various sub-committees, they were also deeply engaged in the city’s development work.  

In 1830, for all practical purposes, the functions of the committee relating to the improvement of the city ceased effectively. Though the beneficial impact of the committee’s work affected everyone, native and European alike, and there was nothing remotely furtive about it, yet the Directors of the East India Company in London were not happy with what was happening in distant Calcutta on the city-development front, choosing to view the evolving picture in a different light. Keeping in mind the virtues of economy in expenditure, the Company wrote to its Government of Bengal that whenever there was any activity relating to general and public utility, some part of the charges ought to be borne by the inhabitants. Further, the Lottery Committee was handling large sums of money and perhaps there was the Company’s deep-seated skepticism about the sensibility of such expenditure in general and a tendency to conclude that the money was not being spent efficiently. The work done by the committee was phenomenal because the projects conceived and implemented by it still cast a long shadow on life in modern Calcutta. 

It becomes very clear that the city of Calcutta gained immensely from the development work carried out by the Lottery Committee since October 1817. The Strand Road had spruced up the eastern bank of the River Hooghly beyond recognition; the western side of Tank Square (today’s BBD Bagh) down to the Maidan till the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, had been given its modern shape with its grid of streets; pucka drains had been built and upgraded all over the city; the major north-south arterial road extending from Park Street in the south to Shyambazar in the north with four squares along it had been constructed; Free School Street had been made; the entire area south of Park Street up to Circular Road had been transformed into ‘virgin’ land ready to be settled in by the genteel (for the most part, sahib) population of Calcutta; and the modernisation of the Garden Reach area, reaching up to Khidirpur in the north, had been begun.

Among other things, the Lottery Committee built the major arterial roads in the northern and central parts of the city, which in time determined the layout of the contiguous residential areas. Dalhousie Square and the entire ground between Park Street and Circular Road were developed by the committee. Previously, a large part of the ground south of Park Street was low-lying and marshy, generating pestilence all around. Bustee clusters were located here probably because of the availability of Gangajal from Tolly’s Nullah (the Adi Ganga) through the existing network of drains, the river being some way off to the west.

The story of the making of Strand Road is narrated in detail, as with increasing economic activity and population pressure, it would provide the inhabitants with easier access to the river, both for recreation and commerce. The Lottery Committee was also responsible for putting up the first brick-and-mortar decorative balustrade which still adorns the Chowringhee area and Red Road. Thus, in its 13 years of effective functioning (till 1830), the committee had been successful in providing the critical push necessary to transform Calcutta from the topographical shape it had inherited since the years immediately following the landing of Job Charnock at Sutanati in August 1690 into one which, in a manner of speaking, would make the city ready to be launched into the 20th century and beyond.

The interest in reading the book persists throughout because apart from the maps, figures, numbers, statistics, and other logistic details, we get a lot of information of the different hindrances the Lottery Committee faced while implementing their projects. Human nature has not really changed much and so we read about people at that time who flouted the rules to line their own pockets and for whom profiteering was the norm.

The basic premise here is that human nature being what it is, there are some aspects of life and behaviour which are universal in their reach, both temporally and spatially. Another very interesting area of study is how the officials encountered the problem of encroachment, the process of land acquisition and the demand for compensation by native plot holders. The committee was aware of matters affecting the native sentiment and there are instances of how they altered the alignment of a major road to suit the convenience of the natives. Even then in some instances tiffs and legal hassles with local residents in North Calcutta were also recorded. Apart from private property rights, religious considerations too played an important role in the decision-making process of the committee.


Before concluding it is worthwhile mentioning a few lines about the author of this volume. During his quarter-century with The Statesman in Calcutta (1970-94), principally as a leader writer, Ranabir Ray Choudhury became interested in the past of a great city which the East India Company had selected as the nerve centre for its operations in the Indian subcontinent and further to the east, extending to Singapore and beyond. In time, this growing interest led to three compilations – Glimpses of Old Calcutta 1835-1850 (1978), Calcutta a Hundred Years Ago 1880-1890 (1987), and Early Calcutta Advertisements 1875-1925 (1992). He next wrote The Lord Sahib’s House, Sites of Power: Government Houses of Calcutta 1690-1911 (2010). A City in the Making, Aspects of Calcutta’s Early Growth (2016).

This volume under review is his sixth book and thematically is a sequel to the last one. That work ended with the formation of the Lottery Committee in 1817: this book takes up the story from there. From a connoisseur of the city, we get details of its development to a point that a lot of unknown facts are provided to the reader which the author garnered from documents and archival material available at the West Bengal State Archives.

Though he is not a historian, trained or otherwise, the author mentions in the ‘Introduction’ how he faced the constant struggle to avoid getting enmeshed in detail and to refocus attention on the broad current of policy and the effects of its implementation. Attention to the specific problems faced in the day-to-day execution of projects also does help to throw light on the precise nature of hurdles encountered at the grassroots level. The book is therefore highly recommended for scholars of history, architecture, town planning and every layman reader who is interested in Kolkata – a city which has been defined in multifarious ways as a city of joy, a city of palaces, a dead city, and so on.

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Somdatta Mandal, an academic, critic and translator, is a former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India.

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Tagore Translations

Rabindranath & Autumn

Eshechhe Sarat ( Autumn) by Rabindranath Tagore was published in 1937. The poem flows to describe the season of Sarat, or the early part of autumn, when Bengalis celebrated their major festival, Durga Puja

Autumn in Bengal by Sohana Manzoor
AUTUMN 

A cool breeze awakens
Autumn anew.
At dawn, the grass rim
Is lined with dew.

The amloki groves shiver.
Their hearts pound like drums,
As they know the time to shed
Leaves has clearly come.

The shiuli branches are laden with buds.
The togor blossoms hold sway.
The bees visit sprays of the
Malatilata twice a day.

As the rains have ended, 
The clouds roam the skies free. 
They drift with the breeze, 
At leisure and full of glee. 

The ponds ripple with water.
Their banks bloom with flowers.
The young rice plants fill the fields
The wind swings the paddy bowers. 

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. 


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Amloki is Indian gooseberry
Togor (genera: milkwood), shiuli (jasmine)and Malatilata (Rangoon creeper) are flowers that bloom around autumn
*Durga Puja

This poem was a part of Sahaj Path, a set of books created by Tagore to teach the Bengali language. The four books that constitute the set were illustrated by the famed artist Nandalal Bose (1882-1966), who was also a major part of Santiniketan.

Sahaj Path, Tagore’s Bengali primer, of which this poem was a part. Courtesy: Creative Commons

(This poem has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty with editorial backing from Anasuya Bhar and Sohana Manzoor)

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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
Tagore Translations

The Funeral: A skit by Rabindranath

Translated from Bengali by Somdatta Mandal, this satirical skit[1] was part of Hasyakoutuk (1914) or Humour by Tagore

Rabindranth’s bust in  Hungary, Balatonfüred, Tagore promenade

Scene One

Ray Krishnakishore Bahadur is lying on his deathbed. His three sons Chandrakishore, Nandakishore and Indrakishore are busy consulting each other. A doctor is present. The women are close to tears.

Chandra: Who are the people we should write to?

Indra: Write to Sir Reynolds.

Krishna: (With great difficulty) What will you write, son?

Nanda: The news of your death.

Krishna: But I am not yet dead, son.

Indra: You might not die right now, but we have to fix a time for the event and write that down…

Chandra: We should collect the condolence letters from all the Englishmen here and get them published in newspapers. No point in publishing them when all the excitement is gone!

Krishna: Patience boys; let me die first.

Nanda: We can’t wait, father. Let’s make a list of the letters to be sent to the people in Shimla and Darjeeling. Come on, let’s get all the names down.

Chandra: The Governor, Sir Ilbert, Sir Wilson, Beresford, Macaulay, Peacock –

Krishna: Boys, what names are you chanting so close to my ears? Chant God’s name instead. When the time comes, He is the only one who can save us! Hari –

Indra: Yes, good thing that you reminded us, we forgot to include Sir Harrison.

Krishna: My sons, say Ram, Ram –

Nanda: Really, I had forgotten about Sir Ramsey.

Krishna: Narayan, Narayan!

Chandra: Nanda, write down the name of Sir Noran also.

Enter Skandakishore.

Skanda: So, you people seem so relaxed! You still haven’t done the real thing!

Chandra: And what is that?

Skanda: We have to inform in advance all the people who will be part of the procession going to the funeral ghat.

Krishna: Sons, which one do you consider the real thing? First, I’ll have to die, only then –-

Chandra: No worries on that account. Doctor!

Doctor: Yes sir!

Chandra: How much time is left for father to go? When do the public have to be here?

Doctor: Perhaps–

The women start wailing.

Skanda: (Disgusted) Ma, will you stop it? You’re creating quite a scene!  It’s better to sort out everything in advance. When doctor?

Doctor: Most likely this night at—

The women start wailing again.

Nanda: This is a huge problem! You shouldn’t disturb us during work. What do you think your crying will accomplish? We are planning to publish condolence letters sent by important Englishmen in newspapers.

The women are sent out.

Skanda: Doctor, what do you think?

Doctor: From what I can see I think he will expire around four a.m.

Chandra: Then there is no time – Nanda, go quickly, get the slips printed at once right in front of your eyes.

Doctor: But first mustn’t the medicine—

Skanda: Look here! Your medicine shop will not run away. On the other hand, we’ll be in trouble if the print ring shop shuts down.

Doctor: Sir, the patient might not —

Chandra: That is why you must hurry. For who knows what might happen if the slips are printed before the patient —

Nanda: Here I go.

Skanda: Write down that the procession will begin at eight tomorrow.

 Scene Two

Skanda: What, doctor? It’s already seven now instead of four.

Doctor: (Apologetically) Yes, yes, amazing the pulse is still strong.

Chandra: You are a fine one doctor to have got us into this mess!

Nanda: Everything went wrong when I was late in bringing the medicine. In fact, dad began to recover as soon as the doctor’s medicine was stopped.

Krishna: All this time you were so very cheerful, why is everyone looking so glum all of a sudden? I am feeling fine now.

Skanda: We aren’t feeling that great. We had already finalized all preparations to go to the funeral pyre.

Krishna: Is that so? I guess I should have died.

Doctor: (Feeling irritated) Do one thing and that will solve all problems.

Indra: What?

Skanda: What?

Chandra: What?

Nanda: What?

Doctor: Instead of him why don’t one of you die when the time is ripe.

 

Scene Three

A lot of people have assembled in the outer house.

Kanai: Hello, It’s already eight thirty. Why are you all late?

Chandra: Please sit down. Have some tobacco.

Kanai: I’ve been [chewing] tobacco from the morning!

Bolai: Where is everybody? I can’t see signs of any arrangements being made.

Chandra: Everything is ready – it’s not our fault – now only—

Ramtaran: Hey, Chandra, we shouldn’t waste any more time.

Chandra: Don’t I understand that – but—

Harihar: What is causing the delay? We’ll be late for office, what’s the matter?

Indrakishore enters.

Indra: Don’t be impatient. We are almost ready. In the meantime, why don’t you read the condolence letters?

He distributes them.

This is from Lambert, this from Harrison, this is Sir James’s—

Skandakishore enters.

Skanda: Here take them. In the meantime, read the obituary notices on father in the newspapers. Here is The Statesman, here The Englishman.

Madhusudan: (To Yadav) Isn’t this typical? Bengalis won’t ever learn what punctuality is all about.

Indra: You’re absolutely right. They will die and yet never learn to be punctual.

The guests shed tears reading the newspapers and the condolence messages.

Radhamohan:  (in tears) Oh God, the poor man’s friend!

Nayanchand:   Alas! To think that even such a good man has his share of troubles.

Nabadwipchandra: (in a deep breath) Lord! Everything is your will!

Rasik:‘The lotus that blooms in the heart’ – I’m forgetting what comes after that –

                        ‘The lotus that blooms in the heart

                        Has been plucked untimely

                        The lotus heart sinks in the sea of sorrow!’

This is exactly the case here. The lotus heart in the sea of sorrow. How sad! Add esquire. O tempora! O mores[2]!

Tarkabagish[3]: Challchittang challadbittang, challajiwan – The mind is inconsistent, wealth is transitory and one’s life is perishable. Oh how sad!

Nyayabagish[4]: Yadupathe kri gata mathurapuri, raghupate – Where is the city of Mathura that belonged to the Lord of the Yadavas (i.e. Krishna), to the Lord of the Raghus (i.e. Rama Chandra)? (chokes)

Dukhiram: Oh Krishnakishore Bahadur, where have you gone?

 A faint voice can be heard from within:  I am here. Please, don’t shout.  


[1] [Translated from “Antyashti-Satkar” in the Hasyakoutuk series Bhadra 1293 B.S. by Somdatta Mandal].

[2] “Oh the times! Oh the customs!” – Latin phrase, first recorded to have been spoken by Cicero

[3] Bengali title given to an expert debator

[4] Bengali title given to a legal expert

Somdatta Mandal is a former Professor of English and ex-Chairperson, Department of English, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships like the Fulbright Research and Teaching Fellowships, British Council Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship, Rockefeller Residency at Bellagio, Italy, Salzburg Seminar and Shastri Indo-Canadian Faculty Enrichment Fellowship, she has been published widely both nationally and internationally. She has also an award from Sahitya Akademi for the All India Indian Literature Golden Jubilee (1957-2007) Literary Translation Competition in the Fiction category for translating short stories series ‘Lalu’ by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya.

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

Categories
Tribute

Celebrating Tagore

Was he a poet? A writer? A humorist? A social reformer…

At an intellectual plane, we could keep arguing about labelling Tagore. He was truly a polymath. But, the most important thing is he touched our hearts with his words and used that to earn and pour into projects that benefitted the underprivileged. This year, on his 161st birth anniversary, we will explore some lesser known aspects of the maestro: Rabindranath, the social reformer and the humorist weaving both the Gregorian calendar (7th May) and the Bengali calendar (9th May) dates into our celebrations.

Tagore, the Humorist 

Many of us from Bengal grew up reading light pieces by Tagore embracing his creations as a much-loved part of our hearts. We present translations by Fakrul Alam and Somdatta Mandal of Tagore’s humour — a light poem about a giraffe and playlets by the maestro. 

Giraffe’s Dad by Tagore: Giraffer Baba (Giraffe’s Dad), a short humorous poem by Tagore, has been translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

Playlets by Rabindranath Tagore : Two skits that reveal the lighter side of the poet. They have been translated from Bengali by Somdatta Mandal. Click here to read.

Tagore, the Social Reformer

Tagore thought his “life work” lay in developing villages and bridging gaps. A recent book by Uma Dasgupta brought this to light. We have an interview and review of her book, A History of Sriniketan: Rabindranath Tagore’s Pioneering work in Rural Reconstruction Along with that we have some translations of his poetry focussing on his call to bridge gaps — one of them by Fakrul Alam and another that has been mentioned in Dasgupta’s book as a description of his mindset that led to the Sriniketan project. Meenakshi Malhotra’s review of Radha Chakravarty’s translation of Mahasweta Devi’s Our Santiniketan and an interview with translator Somdatta Mandal, an ex-professor of Visva Bharati shifts the focus to Santiniketan. However, the icing on Tagore’s birthday cake is yet another excerpt from Radha Chakravarty’s latest translation of Char Adhyay or Four Chapters, his last and thirteenth novel which takes up issues of nationalism, gender, gaps in upbringing against the setting of a budding romance. The heroine is truly modern in her outlook and passionate about service to humanity. 

Sriniketan: Tagore’s “Life Work” :In Conversation with Professor Uma Das Gupta, Tagore scholar, author of A History of Sriniketan, where can be glimpsed what Tagore considered his ‘life’s work’ as an NGO. Click here to read. (Review & Interview).

Oikotan (Harmonising) has been translated by Professor Fakrul Alam and published specially to commemorate Tagore’s Birth Anniversary. Click here to read.

Ebar Phirao More (Take me Back) a poem that calls for bridging gaps between the rich and poor translated by Mitali Chakravarty … Click here to read.

Mahasweta Devi, Our Santiniketan : Meenakshi Malhotra reviews Mahasweta Devi, Our Santiniketan translated by Radha Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Where the Whole World Meets in a Single Nest: In Conversation with Somdatta Mandal, a translator, scholar and writer who has much to say on the state of Santiniketan, Tagore and more. Click here to read.

Rabindranath Tagore Four Chapters: An excerpt from a brilliant new translation by Radha Chakravarty of Tagore’s controversial last novel Char Adhyay. Click here to read.

Categories
Editorial

Where Have All the Sunflowers Gone?

Only when the cries of the wretched of the earth will stop renting the skies,
Only when the oppressor’s bloody sword will cease smearing battlefields,
			A rebel, weary of war,
			Only then I won’t stir.
…
I’m the ever-rebellious hero--
	Soaring over the world, all alone, head forever held high!

--  Rebel or 'Bidrohi' (1922) by Nazrul, translated by Fakrul Alam
Borderless: Digital Art by Ayaan Ghoshal
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
…
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.         
 Shantih shantih shantih

-- Wasteland (1922) by TS Eliot

These lines reiterate values we would do well to live by in a war-torn, dissension-worn world where the need for a rebel to recreate a humane society that lives with values such as peace, generosity, acceptance, tolerance, compassion and restraint — is a felt need. The two great poems made history by remaining as popular a hundred years after they were written — ‘The Rebel’ by Nazrul and TS Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’. Nazrul defined a rebel as an iconoclast who breaks norms to find peace, justice and love for all, to move towards the creation of an ideal world. TS Eliot quoted from the Upanishads and ended with redemption coming with giving (giver perhaps denoted generosity), compassion and restraint. Despite the wisdom of these great poets and seers, war still continues a reality. The values remain neglected not just in as we see in conflicts, like the one in Ukraine that destroys lives, property and nature with intolerance towards differences, but also in our personal lives. Tagore also reiterated the same need for stepping out of personal, social, economic and political insularity. We carry a translation of a song that echoed this need while inviting participation in his ecstasy. He wrote:

Why do you sit in isolation,
Dwelling on self-centred issues? 

Tagore had not only written of the negative impact of isolation from the world but he led by example, building institutions that could lead the world towards pacifism with acceptance of diversity and inclusiveness. Sriniketan and Santiniketan were created to move towards these ideals. Many of the people he influenced or who studied in Santiniketan made history, like Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Satyajit Ray; many added to the sense of inclusiveness, like Mahasweta Devi, who other than her enormous work to integrate different cultures, also wrote a memoir about Santiniketan in Bengali. Radha Chakravarty, nominated for the Crossword Translation Award (2004) for In the Name of the Mother by Mahasweta Devi, has translated this memoir, a narrative which brings us close to Tagore’s ideals of the whole world being a family. How wonderful it would be if the world were open to such ideals and would behave like a global family and not go to war!  Mahasweta Devi, Our Santiniketan, which has been reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra, reiterates Tagore’s vision of a planet living in harmony with the flora and fauna.

Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed another non-fiction by Ashok Kumar Pandey, Why They Killed Gandhi; Unmasking the Ideology and the Conspiracy. Parichha writes: “The finest point about this book is its storytelling…” The book review brings to mind in the midst of a war and violence that Gandhi had tried to erase this mindless destruction of lives, nature and cities with Ahimsa or non-violence. Will we ever rise up to it? Perhaps… We see strains of recognising the negative impact of insular outlook in writings like that of Temsula Ao, a Sahitya Akademi Award winner, according to Indrashish Banerjee who has reviewed her new book, The Tombstone in My Garden: Stories from Nagaland. Keith Lyons has reviewed Asian Anthology: New Writing Vol. 1: Stories by Writers from Around the World, edited by Ivy Ngeow, an exotic medley of Asian stories, one of which has been excerpted as well.

We are privileged to carry another excerpt from Ruskin Bond’s Friends in Wild Places: Birds, Beasts and Other Companions, a hilarious story about a pet tiger adopted by the legendary writer’s grandfather. What is amazing about Ruskin Bond’s writing is the love and compassions for all creatures great and small that colours the tongue-in-cheek humour he rolls out to his readers. If only we could think like Bond, there would be no wars. His writing, I feel, transcends political borders or ‘isms’, and laces with love and compassion tales of menageries of monkeys, snakes, mongoose, humans of different denominations. This excerpt is a treat we are giving Borderless Journal as the journal completes two years of its existence. We are truly grateful to Speaking Tiger for sharing this excerpt with us. But our celebrations this time are sombre as the war rages with incoherence accompanied by heart-breaking ravages.

The refrain from Ukraine has been taken up by Ratnottama Sengupta as she takes us through the past and present experiences of the devastated country, bringing in the views of the legendary folk singer and pacifist, Pete Seeger (1919-2014), who she had interviewed over a span of four days. The writer of ‘Where have all the Flowers Gone?’, a song based on an Ukrainian folk song, Seeger said, “The point is not to ask for yourself alone — one has to ask for everybody: Either we all are going to make it over the rainbow or nobody is going to make it.” Candice Louisa Daquin has also pondered on the justification of war, contextualising it with the current one along with her essay on the paradox of modern linguistic communication.

We have an exhaustive essay on the legendary Satyajit Ray’s creations by Anasuya Bhar. Malhotra has pondered at exclusivity reinforcing divisions, margins and borders to plague humankind, against the backdrop of the Women’s Month, March. Highlighting women in writing, we have interviewed two female writers, one from Nepal and another from Bangladesh. Sangita Swechcha lives in UK but her writing, till now largely in Nepali, often pines for her home embedded in the Himalayas whereas, an expat, Neeman Sobhan, shuttles between Bangladesh and Italy with the affluence and assurance of a privileged background.

Finding a way to override lack of privileges, deprivation and violence, are the youngsters of Nithari on the outskirts of Delhi where less than two decades ago other than poverty, savage criminality devastated the local populace. These youngsters transcended the suffering over time with help from volunteering NGOs to create narratives that amaze with their inventiveness and confidence. Tanveer Hussain from Nithari, self-motivated and self-made from a young age, asks questions that would be relevant for all humankind in a letter to God. It has been translated from Hindustani by Vritika Thareja of pandies’. This edition’s translations include Professor Fakrul Alam’s mellifluous rendition of Jibanananda Das’s poetry from Bengali to English, Ihlwha Choi’s Korean poetry and a Balochi poem by Munir Momin rendered in English by Fazal Baloch. Baloch had earlier translated poems by Akbar Barakzai, a great poet who departed on 7th March, depriving the world of yet another powerful writer who imbibed hope of a better future in his poetry. We are privileged to have hosted the translations of some of his poems and his last interview.

Another well-known poetic voice from Singapore, Kirpal Singh, has given us poignant poetry that can be applied to the situation that is leading to the wreck of Ukraine. Anasuya Bhar has  poetry, one of which despite being in the ilk of Nazrul’s great poem, ‘Rebel or Bidrohi’, questions gently mainly social constructs that obstruct the flow of harmony. Ryan Quinn Flanagan has pondered on the acceptance of a changed world. We have humour from Rhys Hughes in poetry and wonderful poems by Michael R Burch on spring. Jay Nicholls shares the last of her dozen Pirate poems as Blacktarn sails the lemon seas to fight pollution. Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, George Freek, Sutputra Radheye, Mike Smith, Shaza Khan and many more have contributed a wealth of beautiful lines. Penny Wilkes has captured storms and seas with photographs and text and Rhys has surprised us with some strange, bizarre tales in his column.

We have musings from around the world. San Lin Tun, Meredith Stephens, Erwin Coombs, G Venkatesh have all brought in flavours of multiple cultures. Devraj Singh Kalsi has spoken of a book fair he visited in a semi-sardonic tone. He has also given us a short story as has Farah Ghuznavi – a truly borderless story which takes place in an aeroplane, in the sky where all borders collapse. We have more stories from Balochistan, US and India.

Suzanne Kamata continues writing on Japan as she  introduces us to an Australian film maker who is making films in Japan and in Japanese, called Felicity Tillack. Cultures are perhaps truly crossing borders as we can see Kenny Peavy, an environmentalist who moved from US to Indonesia start a new column with us called ‘Mission Earth’. We hope, like Tagore or Rousseau, he will help to revive our felt need to live with nature, acknowledge the nurture that we get from the planet to live in harmony with it and on it.

At the end of twenty-four months of existence – that sounds better than a mere two years— we are happy to host a melange of writers from across the borders and be the meeting grounds of writers and readers from across continents. I am truly thankful to all of you for helping concretise an ideal. Huge thanks to all the writers, artists, photographers and the readers for the contribution of their time, effort and love. And thanks to our fabulous team who continue to support the journal unwaveringly. I would also like to thank Sohana for the lovely visuals she generously shares with us. A special thanks also to young Ayaan Ghoshal for his digital art where hands reach out to support a truly borderless world.

As usual, all the content has not been covered here, I invite you all to enjoy our March edition of Borderless Journal.

At the start of the third year of our existence, let us march onwards towards renewed hope – maybe the Ukraine experience will take us closer to a war-free world with an awakening of a felt need for peace and compassion in a planet without borders.

In quest of a peaceful, humane world, I invite you all to continue being part of this journey.  

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Tagore Translations

Ecstasy & Tagore

Written in 1894, the year his son Samindranath was born, Tagore’s Anondodhhara bohichche bhubone (The Universe reverberates with celestial ecstasy), can be found in the largest collection of his songs, Gitabitan.

Painting by Sohana Manzoor
The Universe reverberates with celestial ecstasy 

The Universe reverberates with celestial ecstasy. 
Days and nights overflow with ambrosia in the limitless sky. 
The moon revels sipping nectar from her cupped palms—
The eternal light that never fades shimmers forever—
Illuminating our daily lives with its aura.

Why do you sit in isolation,
Dwelling on self-centred issues? 
Look around you and expand your heart. 
Petty sorrows are insignificant.
Fill your vacant life with love for humanity. 
The Universe reverberates with celestial ecstasy. 

These lyrics seem to capture not just the distance between Tagore’s own ecstatic experience of the natural universe and the self-centred pettiness that afflict those who continue to remain disconnected from the poet’s euphoria but also his attempts to help humanity discover the same joyful reverberations. Such emotions seem to find an echo in his letters later as found in Uma Dasgupta’s A History of Sriniketan. In 1915, Tagore wrote to an estate worker who was part of his work at Sriniketan (a project to upgrade villages): “I have something else to urge upon you. A note of joy has to be sounded in all your work. Village life has become very dull. The dryness of the heart has to be banished. All welfare work ought to be turned as far as possible into an occasion of festive joy.” Is he doing just that in this song?

Here we present the song beautifully rendered by the legendary singer who was groomed in Tagore’s school at Santiniketan, Kanika Bandopadhyay during his times. Kanika Bandopadhyay was a contemporary of Mahasweta Devi who wrote of her as Mohor in her memoir on Santiniketan (translated by Radha Chakravarty) where she explained the ambience that existed, “But during my time in Santiniketan, how forceful was the torrent of energy that flowed from the source the river of creativity descending from the snowcapped mountain peak!”

(The song has been translated for Borderless Journal  by Mitali Chakravarty, edited by Anasuya Bhar. Tagore’s words used here have been translated by Uma Dasgupta in A History of Sriniketan (2022) and Mahasweta Devi’s by Radha Chakravarty in Mahasweta Devi, Our Santiniketan (2022) )

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

Categories
Review

Santiniketan: Memories of a Curriculum of Love

Book review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: Mahasweta Devi, Our Santiniketan

Translator: Radha Chakravarty

Publisher: Seagull

Mahasweta Devi’s reminiscences about Santiniketan, where she spent some of her formative years, between early 1936 and the end of 1938, (almost three years between the ages of 10 and 13), is a beautifully written and luminous tribute to this unique educational institution.

The place, people, flora, fauna, educational method and curriculum (through co-curricular activities), the people it housed and the ideas it nurtured are described by Mahashweta Devi in loving detail, with great skill and observation. What makes these reminiscences even more remarkable is that the book Amader Santiniketan is based on memories of events which transpired almost sixty-four years before the book finally came to be written. A richly flavoured chiaroscuro of events, ideas and people all woven into the fabric of memory, Mahashweta compares her memories to a feather. “Like a dazzling feather that has floated down from some unknown place, how long will the weather keep its colours, waiting? The feather stands for memories of childhood. Memories don’t wait. Memories grow tired. They want to go to sleep”

Describing a life lived in the lap of nature, the book depicts the beginnings of her growing closeness with the natural environment and the eco-system it fostered before the depredations caused by man’s excessive needs and greed. Thus, she writes, “Santiniketan taught us to respect nature, and to love it.” Using two frames — of a dimly remembered past time steeped in nostalgia and a disturbing present — she voices her sense of disillusionment: “Now with each passing day, I see how humans destroy everything. Through the agency of humans, so many species of trees, vines, shrubs and grasses have vanished from the face of the earth-so many species of forest life! Aquatic creatures and fish, so many species of birds, have become extinct, lost forever.” Further, a great calamity has befallen the natural world and while science and technology have advanced, the “balance of nature can never be restored.”

The author’s sensitivity to and observation of animals is perhaps unusual and also prescient in its engagement. Thus, she recalls how she long harboured a “profound tenderness” towards donkeys. Her thinking seems to almost anticipate a trend in thinking that has increasingly been identified as post humanistic.

The translation captures the iridescent quality of the writing irradiated by flashes of memory as the ageing author is often assailed by amnesia. Thus, she writes, “I have travelled a long distance away from my childhood” and that her memories are losing their colour and their sheen.

A book by a trailblazing activist writer like Mahasweta Devi writing about Santiniketan, a unique educational experiment nurtured and fostered by Tagore, who was a world-famous poet and Asia’s first Nobel laureate, is a literary treat of a special kind.

Tagore was so prolific that it could be said of him, that not only was he great but also that he was the cause of greatness in others. Santiniketan was the privileged space which witnessed a cultural efflorescence, the full flowering of the 19th century Bengal Renaissance that started more than half a century before. Thus, it was a site where the creative arts, literature, painting, sculpture, music and dance flourished. The institution attracted new talent to itself, both from India and beyond. About the educational methods of Santiniketan, Mahasweta writes: “In Rabindranath’s time, Santiniketan offered independence and nurture.” And “those days, they did not teach us the value of discipline through any kind of preaching. They taught us through our everyday existence.” Precepts and ideals were instilled subliminally, “they (instructors in Santiniketan) would plant in our minds the seeds of great philosophical ideals, like trees.” She also adds that Aldous Huxley felt that Rabindranath’s major legacy lay in his thoughts on child education. The educational curriculum that was practised in Santiniketan taught students not just to know things, but to love nature and the universe. A vital question that she poses is: why does education in love not figure in today’s curriculum?

Time and again, Mahasweta bemoans the fact that the outlook and attitude towards education that is in evidence these days has entirely missed the point and the essence of Tagore’s teachings that were manifested and actualised in Santiniketan. This is not just nostalgia but a clear-eyed recognition of the quality of nurture — both physical and intellectual– offered by Santiniketan. It offered a wonderfully varied work schedule. It trained their vision and       offered the valuable lesson that no activity is worthless.

 At the center of her narrative is of course that colossus among men, the towering figure of  Rabindranath Tagore, poet extraordinaire and visionary, carrying out a unique educational and pedagogical experiment. The author feels inadequate and unable to measure his greatness. She also describes with particular poignancy the eco-system devised by him which nurtured, honed and showcased the talents of others. Many luminaries figure in the book. Some hover in the margins of the texts -characters /personages whose achievements merit a narrative of their own. So whether it is the artists Kinkar (Ramkinkar Baij) and Nandalal Bose, singers like Mohor (Kanika Bandopadhayay) and Suchitra (Suchitra Mitra),a leader and nationalist like Sarala Debi Choudhurani, a writer like Rani Chanda and a dancer like Mrinalini Swaminathan (later Sarabhai)—Amader Santiniketan takes us through a veritable hall of fame.

The book is also interesting in the glimpses it affords into the formative influences of an important writer, Mahasweta Devi herself. Her writings constitute a unique blend of narrative and activism, theory and praxis and marks a strong sympathy with the dispossessed. She writes of tribal cultures with a strong conviction of their relationship with the land. In the Imaginary Maps (1995, short stories translated by Gayatri Spivak), Mahashweta Devi bemoans a lost civilisation:

“Oh ancient civilisations, the foundation and ground of the civilisation of India……A continent! We destroyed it undiscovered ,  as we are destroying the primordial forest, water, living beings, the human.”

There is a self-revelatory aspect to the narrative. Even as her reminiscences conjure up a glowing image of Santiniketan as an idyllic haven in a bygone era, there is a poignancy in the book’s dedication to Bappa, her son Nabarun Bhattacharya, when she writes “I gift you the most carefree days of my own childhood, let my childhood remain in your keeping.” Mahasweta’s son was estranged from her, since she left her husband and his father Bijan Bhattacharya, when Nabarun was presumably thirteen.

Radha Chakravarty is a fairly renowned translator with a vast repertoire of experience. She has translated many writings both by Rabindranath Tagore and Mahasweta Devi. That she has previously worked on Mahasweta Devi’s writing, adds to the nuanced quality of her translation and observations. Beautifully and sensitively translated by Chakravarty and produced/brought out by Seagull, the book is a collector’s delight.   

While the book is not an autobiography in the traditional sense, it weaves together fact and affect, “a fragmented whimsical mode of narration” punctuated with digression and asides. A mixture of hazily remembered facts and sharp recollections, it is peppered by flashes of the author’s indomitable spirit. In the words of the translator, “Mahasweta Devi’s text draws us in what she tells, yet baffles us with what it withholds or reinvents, teasing us with its silences uncertainties and incompleteness.” Further, “vividly present to our imagination, yet beyond the reach of our lived reality, a remembered Santiniketan hovers in the pages of the book, just like the dazzling but elusive feather inside the locked up treasure box of Mahasweta’s memory.”

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  Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.       

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Click here to read a book excerpt of Mahasweta Devi, Our Santiniketan

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Categories
Essay

The Kaleidoscopic World of Satyajit Ray

By Anasuya Bhar

Satyajit Ray in New York. Courtesy: Creative Commons

The last year and a half has seen exhaustive commemoration of the works Satyajit Ray (1921 – 92) as it marked his birth centenary. To us in India and to the world in general, Satyajit is now revered as a filmmaker, primarily. He has become a myth and a legend in the art of filmmaking, so much so that Akira Kurosawa has pleaded that the ignorance of the former’s art is comparable to not having seen the sun or the moon. Nevertheless, it would be highly unjust to his artistic persona if we study him merely as a film maker. He was a polymath intellectual who was versatile in several arts, where literature, visual art and music were only among a few of his talents apart from cinema. Satyajit had re-invented himself severally, in various times of his life and career.

The Beginnings

Born to the illustrious and talented family of the Rays of Gorpar in north Kolkata, Satyajit was grandson to Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury (1863 – 1915) and the only son of Sukumar Ray (1887 – 1923), whom unfortunately Satyajit lost, when he was merely two and a half years old. The vein of versatility ran high in the family. Upendrakishore distinguished himself as a pioneer in the art of photography and later also in printing technology. In fact, to him we owe the science of half-tone printing and photography. His research papers were published in the prestigious Penrose journals of England. Upendrakishore also distinguished himself as a writer of children’s literature and published not only in Bengali journals like Mukul, Sakha and Sathi (in the nineteenth century), but also founded his own magazine for children in 1913, by the name Sandesh – a name indicative, not only, for a Bengali sweet meat, but also for information and news. Sukumar Ray was primarily a student of science, with a double B.A in Chemistry and Physics honours from Presidency College Kolkata. He, however, went to England to study Printing Technology with the long term goal that he would assist his father in their own press, U. Ray and Sons. Sukumar too, got his research papers published in prestigious scientific journals. He was in England at a time when Rabindranath Tagore, too, had made his visit in 1912 and was a witness to some of the poet’s reading of his poems from Gitanjali (1912) in the company of many influential people in that country. Sukumar returned to Kolkata and was compelled to take up the editorship of Sandesh from 1915, after the death of his father. Sukumar had already started the ‘Nonsense Club’ and his hand written journal Share Batrish Bhaja (Thirty-two and a half Fried Savories) even before he went to England. The vein of the ‘nonsense’ tradition only perfected itself after his return; his own poetry and prose began to see the light of day from the time he began to edit Sandesh. However, and rather unfortunately, his life and career too, came to an abrupt end in 1923. It was only a few years after this that the magazine Sandesh closed down.

Satyajit Ray was largely brought up in his maternal uncle’s home in Ballygunge, from where he completed his schooling at Ballygunge Government School and attained his B.A in Economics (Honours) from Presidency College Kolkata. His mother Suprabha Devi, preferred that Satyajit follow up his education under the guidance of ‘gurudev’ Tagore and hence cajoled him to join Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan in the year 1940. The reluctant Satyajit actually wanted to study ‘commercial art’, but was denied that opportunity in Santiniketan. Nevertheless, he was struck with the brilliance of Nandalal Bose and Binodebehari Mukhopadhyay, whom he got as his mentors in Kala Bhavana. Satyajit was steeped in the nuances of western art, music, films and books; ever since his childhood he was an avid listener of western classical music and a keen viewer of foreign films as they appeared in erstwhile Calcutta.

Santiniketan, for the first time, afforded a glimpse of the beauty of rural Bengal, a gift that he would utilise later when he would make films. While here, Satyajit still felt restless and left after completing only over two years of the course. He returned to Kolkata and joined the advertising firm of D. J Keymar in 1942 as Junior Visualizer, where D.K. Gupta was then Assistant Manager. Among his colleagues were the talented artist Annada Munshi and the younger O.C. Ganguli and Makhan Dutta Gupta. It may be mentioned here that Satyajit, at that point, was rather keen on getting a job and procuring an independent residence for himself and his mother. The scourge of having to labour without a father was quite evident. In 1943, the Signet Press was founded by D. K. Gupta and Satyajit was assigned several books to design. Thus began a career in book designing, which marks an interesting chapter in his artistic career.

The Composite Artist

Satyajit Ray has designed as many as over 300 book covers. The repertoire of Ray book covers is extensive and varied; he continued to remain a composite and wholistic artist throughout the span of his career when he evolved as a writer, mainly for children, even while continuing to make films. He designed books for a host of writers beginning with Sukumar Ray to Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay, to Premendra Mitra, Jibanananda Das, to Lila Majumdar, while he worked for Signet, and later even for other publishers. Each of these covers were aesthetic statements linking themselves to the themes and the content within. The frontispiece as well as the illustrations inside, ranged from the linocut / woodcut designs to fine lines and geometric solid shapes. Each one of these designs proved beyond doubt his versatility, talent and uniqueness of vision. Some of Ray’s book covers found pride of place in internationally reputed journals like the Graphis (in 1950).

Book cover by Satyajit Ray from personal collection

Ray’s artistry found new space in the covers of Ekshan, a Bengali bi-monthly periodical edited by Nirmalya Acharya and actor Soumitra Chattopadhyay between 1961 and 1995. The periodical died an untimely death after the demise of Nirmalya Acharya. Satyajit designed several of its covers and each one of them is a masterpiece of visual jugglery. There are three letters in the title and Ray seems to act as a visual conjuror of these three letters using various planes, letterings, geometry and even characteristics of various art forms.

Ekshan journal, Photograph from Frontline Ray Commemorative Issue, November 2021

The 1950s saw Ray totally emerged in films and his own maiden attempt at a directorial venture took shape in 1955, with Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) Ray also designed his film posters, title cards and even fliers, apart from writing the screenplay himself. Later, he also graduated to composing his own music and writing his own stories; seldom do we see such a versatile artist.

It may be pointed out here that while we keenly study the various facets of Satyajit Ray, he was not alone in diversifying the art of design and illustration in books. One may mention here the works of Purnendu Patri, Pranabesh Maity and several others whose works are significantly remarkable in the history of book making. As mentioned earlier, Satyajit has constantly re-invented and adapted himself to the changing face of time. This has allowed him to survive several cultural and historical changes.

The Writer

Satyajit began writing consistently from his fortieth year, somewhat out of necessity. Before that he wrote sporadically. That year, 1961, saw the revival of the children’s magazine Sandesh under the entrepreneurship of Ray and his poet-friend Subhas Mukhopadhyay. The magazine, inactive since the thirties, saw a new lease of life when Ray and Mukhopadhyay decided to revive it in 1961. They were also the editors of the new Sandesh. Ray designed most of its covers and like the various letterings of Ekshan, he juggled with the masthead of Sandesh as well.

The magazine continues to be among the leading children’s magazines till date and is currently being edited by Sandip Ray, Satyajit’s son. In the first issue of the new Sandesh, published in May 1961, Satyajit decided to translate some of Edward Lear’s The Jumblies into Bengali, simply as a gesture of participation. The second issue of the magazine carried his first short story in Bengali along with his own illustration. That marked the beginning of a series intriguing literature primarily published in the pages of Sandesh in a Bengali that is modern, contemporary, smart, and attractive to the young and inquiring minds of children. Some of his works were also published in Anandamela, another children’s magazine in Bengali and Target, a children’s magazine in English, which was quite popular in the 1980s. The latter mostly published Ray in English translation, mostly made by himself. Some of his English translations were anthologised in Stories, published by Secker and Warburg in 1987. There are many more translations of Satyajit now available in English; those of the adventures of Feluda and Professor Shonku, and Fotikchand and many others are also published by Penguin.    

Satyajit Ray’s books were a staple to the children of the eighties in the last century. Most of us then, welcomed our teenage with the scientific adventures of Professor Shonku and those of the private investigator Prodosh Mitter alias Feluda. These books were the repository of a variety of knowledge – one emerged cleverer and better enriched after regaling oneself with the exhilarating laboratory experiments of Shonku, while on the other hand, one cajoled one’s brains with the cerebral magic of Feluda. For children like us, Ray’s identity as a filmmaker came second to his writing, as we understood less of that art in that age. In fact, his stories were a rage among our contemporaries then, and we marvelled at his plots, along with his accurate illustrations and cover designs, all of which made him a supreme artist-figure in our childhood. There were also occasions when we connected his films on children with respect to his books. Hence, the adventure tales around the ‘golden castle’ (Sonar Kella, 1974) or those around in Benaras (Joy Baba Felunath, 1978), were only a derivative of what we perused in the books of the same names.

The Ray Generation

It would, perhaps, not be wrong to say that Ray’s writing created a brand in the genre of children’s literature. As contemporary and the immediate consumers of his books, some of us identify a part of our childhood with the Ray literature. He was a master in the handling of the bizarre and the fantastic, the investigative crime thrillers and also the evolution of the science fiction. Again, Ray may not be said to be a pioneer in any of these genres, but he made them highly palatable and attractive to the young minds. One would be guilty of falsification if one does not mention Sukumar Ray himself, or Hemendrakumar Ray and Premendra Mitra, who made, perhaps, the earliest forages into the art of the bizarre, the supernatural or the sci-fi in their own times and generations.

Satyajit Ray’s repertoire as a writer for children is extensive. He is credited to have composed thirty-eight adventures of Professor Trilokeshwar Shonku. In him, Ray creates a familiar Bengali with extraordinary scholarliness who was once a teacher in Scottish Church College Kolkata, but now resides in Giridi. Although his only companions are now his valet Prahlad and pet cat Newton, he has an elaborate family history which the author creates as a back drop for his readers. Professor Shonku’s various travel destinations offer extensive scope for young minds to travel within the safety of their homes. In creating the several marvels of science Satyajit must have surely drawn extensively from the works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells as well as The Chariot of the Gods (1968) by Erich von Dӓniken – works with which he must have been familiar ever since his childhood. Scholars also propound similarities between Professor Challenger of Arthur Conan Doyle (The Lost World) and Professor Shonku. However, there is also reason to believe that Professor Shonku has a distant antecedent in the character of Professor Hushiyar (Heshoram Hushiyerer Diary) created by Sukumar Ray. With time, of course, Shonku evolves as a more serious and responsible, internationally acclaimed scientist. Ray had also wanted to make a film on aliens, with a sound background on science fiction, but this dream remained unexecuted. The first ever film on Professor Shonku was made by his son in 2019.

The Private Investigator Mr. Prodosh C Mitter first made his appearance in the arena of Bengali detective fiction in the year 1965. The Bengali readership was already accustomed to private detectives created by Niharranjan Ray (Kiriti Ray) and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay (Byomkesh Bakshi) before Ray launched the career of Feluda, who emerged as a highly identifiable neighbourhood man with his nephew and assistant Topshe and their elderly writer-friend Jatayu. One may again mark the presence of other detectives in contemporary literature like Kakababu (Sunil Gangopadhyay), Gogol (Samaresh Basu) and the boy group of Pandava Goyenda (created by Sasthipada Chattopadhyay), which were also available to the young readers along with the adventures of Feluda. All of them were simultaneously popular among contemporary children, although Ray scored higher because of his razor sharp intelligence and complete artistic and aesthetic package that his books offered. Some, made into films, made him the most popular among children and adults alike. Apart from his series characters like Shonku or Feluda, Ray has created a host of other characters in numerous short stories and novellas, over a period of thirty years or more. There is, quite interestingly, very little adult fiction written by Satyajit, with the exceptions of Nayak (The Hero, 1966), Kanchenjunga (1962) and Pikoo’s Diary (1980), all of which have been made into films.

Ray as Translator and maker of Children’s Films

Ray distinguished himself as a translator as well. The first major translation done by Satyajit Ray was, perhaps, those of a selection of Sukumar Ray’s Aabol Taabol (‘Nonsense Verse’, 1923). About ten such poems were translated / trans-created in the pages of a radical weekly called Now, edited by Samar Sen during 1967-69. These poems were then noticed by P. Lal of Writers Workshop, a pioneering publishing enterprise which patronised (and still does), Indian writing in English, since 1958. They were brought forth as an independent collection by this house in much admiration for Satyajit’s skill in rhyme and meter, in 1970. The edition has remained a popular one and has recently suffered alterations in the fourth corrected and expanded edition in 2019. The text is also prescribed for study in a course on Popular Literature in the undergraduate syllabus of the University of Calcutta, since 2018.

Satyajit also translated some works of Upendrakishore along with other works of Sukumar into English in various times of his career. These are now available with the translations of his own works, in a compendious edition titled 3 Rays (Penguin Books, 2021) and edited by Sandip Ray.According to Sandip Ray, these were mostly done with a view to popularise the works outside Bengal and to a larger audience, mostly as recreational activities, which Satyajit undertook between the shooting of his films.

In 1969, Satyajit Ray directed Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, a novella originally written by Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury about two rustic simpletons Goopy and Bagha and their careers in music. The occasion was the birth centenary of Upendrakishore and was a result of requests from his teenaged son Sandip, to create something for children. The film was an improvement on the literary text, and continues to be a marvel in the study of the fantastic, given the limited means with which it was produced. Satyajit introduced in the film a dance – the sequence of the ghosts’ dancing – which remains a marvel of cinematography and an example of ingenuous thinking, intelligent editing and deft execution within a limited budget. As always, Satyajit creates a family pattern for Goopy and Bagha, too. They re-appear after a hiatus of ten years in Hirok Rajar Deshe (1980). By this time, the duo has earned fame as extraordinary performers, with magical powers to transfix their listeners and with uncanny powers to unravel the mysteries of state politics. On the domestic front, they are also married to princesses as well as proud fathers.  Hirok Rajar Deshe or ‘The Land of the Diamond King’ is a study on an ugly regime of totalitarianism, where almost all are being brainwashed to worship a power hungry king. The film may be identified as a political satire under the garb of entertainment for children, where good eventually overcomes evil. Satyajit makes extensive use of fantasy and magic as well as creates a world where science is being used to destroy the good sense of people. It is the musical duo of Goopy and Bagha who re-affirm good sense and sanity in an anarchic and dystopian state. The duo returns in Goopy Bagha Phire Elo (Return of Goopy Bagha, 1991) and the setting now is influenced more by a sense of science fiction and fantasy. The last film of the trilogy was directed by Sandip Ray, who re-affirms his presence in a cyclical and metaphorical ‘coming of age’ marking himself as a filmmaker.

The cover page of the Commemorative Calendar celebrating 50 years of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne

The enormity of the Satyajit Ray papers, letters, manuscripts, posters, notebooks, sketches, as well as his film prints are now being collectively maintained and conserved by the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives. The Society also organises regular lectures and exhibitions and looks to the publication of books on the maestro. It is significant that Penguin India has decided to dedicate a whole collection of books on Ray as ‘The Penguin Ray Library’. One must not fail to acknowledge the scholarship and hard work of his son Sandip Ray and Satyajit-scholars like Debashis Mukhopadhyay and Pinaki De, who mesmerise with their encyclopaedic knowledge on the master. The past year and half have seen innumerable lectures and scholarly interactions on Ray where the two have shone independently. The present author stands in awe of their scholarship.

( Note: All the photographs used in this article are taken by the author, except the one licensed under creative commons.)

References

  1. Frontline – ‘The World of Ray: A Commemorative Issue’, November 5, 2021
  2. Ray, Sandip (ed.). 3 Rays: Stories from Satyajit Ray. New Delhi: The Penguin Ray Library, 2021.
  3. Ray, Sandip (ed.). Sandesh. Festival Numbers 2020 and 2021. Commemorative issues on Satyajit Ray entitled ‘Satyajit 100’. Kolkata.
  4. Ray, Satyajit (trans.). Nonsense Rhymes – Sukumar Ray. Kolkata: Writers Worshop, 2019.
  5. Ray, Satyajit. Shera Satyajit. Kolkata: Ananda Publisher’s Private Limited, 1991.
  6. Robinson, Andrew. Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye – The Biography of a Master Film-Maker. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1989.

Dr. Anasuya Bhar teaches English at St. Paul’s Cathedral Mission College Kolkata.

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