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Satyajit Ray, Bibhuti Bhushan & Nabendu Ghosh and a Famous Triology

Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay was a classic immortalised further by Satyajit Ray’s films, also known know as the Apu Triology. Here is a translation from Nabendu Ghosh’s autobiography which introduces how the film came to be. This portion has been excerpted from Eka Naukar Jatri (Journey of a Lonesome Boat) and translated by Ratnottama Sengupta as a celebration of the Satyajit Ray Centenary.

Pather Panchali : Unprecedented

The year, in all probability, was 1938. (This was the year of the Prabasi Bengali Sahitya Sammelan in Guwahati. Nabendu met Bibhuti Bhushan later, probably in 1942 or 1943, when the Bengal Famine was on.) Nabendu Ghosh talks of his meeting with Bibhuti Bhushan, reading whose novel, he was transported to Nischindipur, where the narrative was set. When he met Bibhuti Bhushan, he felt he had met Apu. When he saw Song of the Road, he could only chant, ‘Apurbo!’

The Prabasi Banga Sahitya Sammelan ( Bengla festival of expatriate writers) was being held in Guwahati. Delegates from all over the country were to meet and discuss Bengali authors, novelists and poets, enjoy cultural evenings, and to tour the city in between the sessions. From Patna we – five of us – set out with printed copies of the annual number of our magazine, Prabhati. The chairman that year was Anurupa Devi (1882-1958), one of the most reputed women novelist in the British colonial era. This eminent writer was the younger sister of Surupa Devi who also wrote under the pseudonym of Indira Devi. Anurupa Devi’s Poshya Putra (Adopted Son), when staged as a play, had become a super hit. I had read two of her major novels, Mahanisha (1919) and Mantra Shakti (1915), which were made into films in 1954 with a star-studded cast. Finally I was face to face with the formidable personality. To me, to this day Anurupa Devi tops the list of women writers.

The other name that made a deep impression was Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay. Everyone was talking about his Pather Panchali – apparently it was “mesmerizing.” At the end of the session, as soon as I reached Patna, I visited the city’s biggest bookseller, Burman Company. The owner Bidyut Burman hailed from Madhya Pradesh but spoke flawless Bengali. The minute I mentioned Pather Panchali, he brought out two copies. I bought one for myself.

I finished reading it in three days. Every night I was supposed to switch off at 11 pm but, on the pretext of writing an important tutorial for my college, I stayed up all night to finish it. Three days later I shook my head and shouted at the top of my voice, “Apurbo!” (That is the name of the protagonist, and it means ‘unprecedented.’)

Maa heard me shout and came running, “What is the matter? Why did you scream?”

“For the heck of it, Maa,” I assured her, “in sheer delight.”

“Delighted? By what?” – Maa asked me.

“This book Maa,” I pointed to the copy of Pather Panchali.

“Put it on my table,” Maa said. “Let me read it.” 

Morning till evening Maa had so much work, it took her two weeks to read the book. When she finished reading she returned it to me with these words, “What a lovely reading re! Soaked in sadness, yet it enriches you from within. In fact, it loyally reflects reality – life is such! Reading this book purifies the soul.”

The way Maa put it, my admiration for the greatness of the work went up manifold. Truly, Pather Panchali is a vivid chronicle of the journey of life. Simple in its language, unadorned but poetic in its descriptions. I learnt to look at Nature anew. I got acquainted with many a tree that I had only heard about. I discovered many that I was not even aware of. The names of many creepers brought me the story of a world so far unseen. Now I was in communion with Benibabur bagan, the widespread garden that surrounded the rented house we lived in.

Bankim Chandra was my first guru in literature but honestly speaking, I could not identify with many of his characters. Sarat Chandra evoked a world much closer to the one we inhabit. I could understand the motivations of his characters who were of my age. But Pather Panchali revealed one hundred percent the inner world of my childhood. Particularly in my case. I was raised in the happy environs of our house and yet, even in my young life I had witnessed extreme unhappiness too. In every station of life innocent children with their sinless minds are drawn to happiness. The way they raid the natural world to seek out the bare minimum quota of joy from nature, what they dream of — all this is stuff this novel is made of. When I finished reading it, I felt I AM Apu — Apurbo Kishore, the protagonist of Pather Panchali: timid, faultless,  ever keen to drink of the honey of life – much like a butterfly. Apu who is not ‘smart’ or clever, Apu whose constant hunger is for flowers and fruits and dreams…

After reading Pather Panchali my attachment with Benibabur bagan grew manifold. I felt that it was the abode of Nischindipur (where the novel unfolds). In the hazy light of morning, in the stillness of sun scorched noon, in the lazy twilight of sundown and the stifled darkness when night has swallowed day, I would be transported to Nischindipur.

Many many days have passed since then. I was a youth who was knocking on the doors of manhood, thereon I have advanced towards super annuation — but that little boy Apu still resides within me. The Apu of Pather Panchali who grew up into the teenaged Aparajito, Unvanquished, and then the young man who marries and sets up Apur Sansar — Apu’s household — and travels into fatherhood, stands frozen in time there. But he sets out on a new journey into childhood through his son Kaajal. This child breathes life anew into Nischindipur.

To me, Nischindipur equates the land of No-Worry. I am reminded of W B Yates’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ :

And I shall have some peace there, for

Peace comes dropping slow 

Dropping from the veils of the morning

To where the cricket sings…

***

Without prior notice I got an opportunity to go to Calcutta. The occasion was the wedding of my paternal aunt’s son Radha Gobinda Ghosh, who had just completed his Master in Arts studies with distinction and secured a government job.

Let me confess here that the wedding was but a pretext to go to Calcutta.  My real intention was to meet the author of Pather Panchali — Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay.

Mani Bhushan Da, the editor of our magazine, Prabhati, had provided me with his address on Mirzapur Street. He lived in Paradise Lodge, next door to the famous sweetmeat shop Putiram. It was a seven minute walk from Sagar Dutta Lane where my cousin Radha Gobinda Da lived.

The day after I reached Calcutta I told my aunt that I was going for a stroll up to College Square. “Don’t stray too far,” she cautioned me. “No, I won’t,” I assured her and set out.

I walked down Kalutola Street and across College Street, the hub of books and publishing industry in Bengal. There, on my right was Putiram, beckoning me with its array of sweets. I ignored them all and turned into the three-storeyed structure next door. The dominating signboard at the gate read ‘Paradise Lodge’.

I entered and asked for Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay. An elderly person directed me, “Climb non-stop upto the terrace and walk into the room there.”

It was like a chilekotha – a garret. It had the touch of middle class living all over it: a table with chair, a cot, the floor covered with a sheetalpati woven out of mat, an almirah full of books.

Clad in a cotton banyan a gentleman seated on the chair was reading a book. The minute I showed up at the door he looked up with a question in his eyes, “Yes?”

“I would like to meet Bibhuti Bhushan, Sir.”

“I am that very person. Where are you from?”

“Sir I am from Patna. I am carrying a letter from Manindra Chandra Samaddar of Prabhati Sangha.” I touched his feet before handing him the letter.

“May you prosper,” he blessed me with a raised palm. Then, before opening the letter he said, “Come, sit — you have come all the way from Patna!”

He smiled after reading the letter. “So you are in Mani’s team. Well well, I know Mani — a splendid person with matchless character and breathing idealism. I have gone through the last annual number of Prabhati. Very good effort. Mani mentions that you also write.”

He called out a name.

“Yes sir, here I c-o-m-e –” the name replied. He was one of the attendants at Paradise Lodge. “Get some sweets, and tea for my guest — he has come from Patna,” Bibhuti Bhushan looked at me. Then he started asking me for details about me and my writing. It was his way of getting acquainted with Nabendu.

When he paused, I ventured to speak, “I am charmed by your Pather Panchali.”

He smiled at me. “I am happy to hear that.”

Out of the blue I popped my query, “Tell me, are you Apu?”

He smiled as he nodded, ” Sure I am there in Apu. Actually every writer blends himself in with what he has seen and heard to create his characters. They see the people around them, their joys and sorrows, they laugh and cry with them, they get involved with the problems and crises in their lives and then they adapt them to their novels and stories. You are also penning stories — be a bit more aware, observe more carefully, objectively, and you will find that you are also doing the same.”

Until that moment I was not aware that such a process was at work behind what I wrote. After I heard Bibhuti Bhushan I realised the truth of his words.

The tea and sweets didn’t take too long to appear in the chilekotha room. I decided that they must be from Putiram.

As I made to take leave, he said, “Read a lot. Read the established writers. As you keep writing you will yourself realise where to start and where to stop, how much to tell and how much to leave out.”

When I left I was convinced that I was leaving Apu of Nischindipur. By this time he had become an elderly relative of mine — a well-wisher.

***

Years later. Could be 1952. 

Puffing on his Chesterfield in between the sips from his teacup, Bimalda said, “Now that Maa is complete, What next? We need new work. Bombay Talkies is in a precarious state now – in case Maa is not a hit, we will be like bad penny to them. So, before Maa is released in the theatres, we must get a new contract. And for that to happen we need a stock of stories. Hiten Chaudhuri is talking to two possible producers, two others have got in touch with me. But without a story none of these will work out.”

So we needed stories. But what kind of stories? The kind that wins over viewers when it is reflected on the silver screen in a darkened theatre. One that compels them to repeat, “And then? What now? What will happen?” But what will happen to whom? To the problems and crises in the lives of the characters. If the problems are pregnant with drama, that will blend with the skill of unfolding the narrative and keep pumping the adrenaline of the viewer and raise his blood pressure higher and higher and they will wonder, “And then? What now? What will happen?” In unison with the persona, seeking a resolution of their conflicts, they will wordlessly demand, “And then? What now? What will happen to them?” 

In our country most people gravitate to stories that revolve around the crisis called ‘love’, perhaps because desire to love is universal and to be loved is eternal. So love is a safe bet, especially in cinema. We have just completed Maa for Bombay Talkies, but that does not revolve around love between a man and a woman — it is structured around a mother’s love, for her husband and her sons. It is a family drama. We will know the power of this love only when the film releases.

So what kind of stories shall we narrate to the producers? Which stories will assure them that their investment will be secure and prompt them to say, “Yes sir! We will film this very story!” Because, no matter which story you decide on, to make it into a film means investing lakhs of lakhs — and every producer prays that he should recover his investment if not make a profit.

Over the next five-six days, we discussed and narrowed down the list to a few ideas. We listed some stories and novels from Bengali literature.  Bas – done — we were equipped for one more round of chess with success. 

The problem with cinema as a mode of livelihood lies in this: the success or failure of each film decides the film you will get to do or not do next. The director’s team is engaged to constantly come up with ideas, concepts, narration that will appeal, first, to a producer and then to a financier.

That is the first stage. And, in the final stage, the viewer will give his verdict, “Waah!” “Lovely!” Only then will the moneybags be willing to hear your next story. There is only one problem: What if the aesthetics of the moneybag is not evolved? Or, sometimes, for the sake of livelihood you bow to his ego and settle for a story idea he supplies, then all your effort might go waste like a falling kite. In short, the art form we have embraced as our mode of eking a living is a dicey form — we are constantly walking the razor’s edge.

***

Suddenly I remembered the novel that had mesmerized me. I went up to Bimalda and said, “I want to remind you of this classic novel which you must have read…”

“Which novel?” Bimalda was curious.

“It can translate into a spellbinding movie. I am talking about Bibhuti Bhushan’s Pather Panchali.”

For a few seconds Bimalda gazed fixedly at me. Then, slowly, pondering over every word he said, “Yes, it is an amazing novel. But in this Hindi film industry nobody will be able to appreciate its innate rasa. No Nabendu Babu, there will be no taker for it in this market.”

End of story. But I could not forget Pather Panchali. That very evening I met Phani Da (Majumdar) in his office and, in the course of our conversation, I mentioned it to him. I did not stop there: for almost an hour I narrated the highlights of the novel to him.

Phani Da also responded, “It will be extremely difficult to sell this in Bombay. But,” he went on, “there is no doubt that it has the possibility to become a movie of an entirely different flavour. Let’s do this: Let’s buy the rights to the story. You please write the letter.”

Write to whom? In 1950, at the age of 56, Bibhuti Bhushan had left for his heavenly abode. I did not know where his son lived. So, the next day I wrote to the publisher, the noted writer Gajendra Kumar Mitra. His company, Mitra & Ghosh had published Pather Panchali and I was lucky to claim his affection. So he would certainly guide me in the matter.

A week or so later I heard from Gajen Da. The movie rights of the novel have been purchased by the art director of the established advertising firm, D J Keemer, Mr Satyajit Ray. Initially the name was not significant to me but then, within brackets Gajen Da had written “He is the son of Sukumar Ray, the author of HaJaBaRaLa (Habber Jabber Lawand Pagla Dashu (Mad Dashu).” The name acquired a certain significance then. 

At the same time I felt a sense of loss. For three years after that the sense of loss would surface like a bubble, at unguarded moments.

One day all of a sudden I learnt that Pather Panchali will be screened for a private gathering. Along with Bimalda we made a beeline for the show. By then Bimalda had become an international celebrity thanks to Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land).

During the interval, lighting up his Chesterfield, Bimalda said, “You can do justice to a classic of Bengali literature only in Bengali. West Bengal government has sponsored the making of this film — that is a rare happening in the history of cinema worldwide. Director Satyajit Ray deserves congratulations.”

***

Indeed everything about Pather Panchali was unprecedented. The casting of characters, the creation of environment, the re-creation of Nischindipur where the actions unfold, the cinematography, and — finally — the background score: I repeat, every single aspect of the film was unprecedented. Apurbo!

Since that evening the sense of loss has never surfaced to torment me. After watching the film I was convinced that the Good Lord had created Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay to write Pather Panchali, and that very Lord had created Satyajit Ray to transcreate the novel on screen.

Nabendu Ghosh and his daughter, Ratnottama Sengupta

Nabendu Ghosh (1917-2007) was a dancer, novelist, short-story writer, film director, actor and screenwriter. His oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories. As part of a team of iconic film directors and actors, he was instrumental in shaping an entire age of Indian cinema. He was the recipient of numerous literary and film awards, including the Bankim Puraskar, the Bibhuti Bhushan Sahitya Arghya, the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award and the National Film Award for Best First Film of a Director.

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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. 

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Bhaskar's Corner

Manoj Das – The Master Storyteller

Bhaskar Parichha pays a tribute to one of the greatest storytellers from the state of Odisha, India, Manoj Das( 1934-2021), who lived to be 87 and passed on from normal causes this April

“I have now read the stories of Manoj Das, with very great pleasure. He will certainly take a place on my shelves beside the stories of Narayan (R K Narayan). I imagine Odisha is far from Malgudi but there is the same quality in his stories with perhaps an added mystery.”

Graham Greene.

“Whenever people praise Paulo Coelho and the like, I always think of Manoj Das. What a great prolific writer we have. He could have easily reached the heights and beyond of the one Coelho reached. But he preferred the silence, simplicity and serenity to fame and glory. In this, he has lived the very values he gave us through his stories.”

— Aravindan Neelakandan, Indian Journalist

With the passing away of Manoj Das, Indian literature has lost a master storyteller who wrote bilingually — in English and his mother tongue Odia — with equal affluence. Novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, editor, columnist and a sadhaka, Manoj Das will be remembered by generations of Odias for his literary outpouring for over half a century. Odisha-born (in a village called Sankhari in Balasore district bordering West Bengal), his fame went far beyond terrestrial limits.

Manoj Das began   writing quite early. His first work — a book of poetry in Odia — Satavdira Artanada (Cries of a Time) was published in 1949 when he was barely in high school. In 1950, he launched a literary magazine, Diganta (Horizon). His first collection of short stories Samudrara Kshudha (Hungry Sea) was published the following year. Manoj Das often cited Vyasa, and Valmiki and Fakir Mohan Senapati, as his early influences.  

He took active interest in student politics while studying for his bachelor’s degree in Cuttack’s prestigious Ravenshaw College. A youth leader with radical views, he even spent a year in jail for his revolutionary undertakings. After graduating from Puri’s SCS (Samanta Chandra Sekhara)

College, he received a postgraduate degree in English literature from Ravenshaw College. He was also a delegate to the Afro-Asian students’ conference at Bandung, Indonesia in 1959.

After a short stint as a lecturer in Cuttack’s Christ College, Manoj Das came away to Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry in 1963, where he had been professor of English Literature at the Ashram’s International Center of Education. Pondicherry (modern Puducherry) became his ‘Karma Bhoomi’ and his abode of sadhana. His quest for devoutness motivated him to become an inmate of Sri Aurobindo Ashram of which he was an integral part till his end.

Manoj Das wrote expansively and in various genres. Poetry, novel, short story   travelogue and books on India’s history and culture dominated his works. Shesha Basantara Chithi (Spring’s Last Epistle ),Tuma Gam o Anyanya Kabita (Your Village and Other Poems) Dhumabha Diganta ( Dusky Horizon), Manojpancabimsati (Twenty-five short stories) and the most recent one, Shesha Tantrikara Sandhanare (In Quest of  the Last Tantric), are among the Odia works he is best known for. His writings in Odia have mesmerized readers for decades. 

Manoj Das has often been known as the Vishnu Sharma of modern Odia literature —   for his magnificent style and effective use of words. His   oeuvre displayed many dimensions of human nature. He was a truth-seeker, a thinker-writer whose works are defined ‘as a quest for finding the eternal truth in everyday circumstances’.

He began his English writing in 1967 with the publication of the short story collection A Song for Sunday and Other Stories. It was followed by Short Stories of Manoj Das. Both attracted commendation from literary doyens like Mulk Raj Anand, K P S Menon and K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar. Some of his other notable works in English are ‘ The Escapist’, ‘A Tiger at Twilight’, ‘The submerged Valley and Other Stories’, ‘The Bridge in the moonlit Night’, ‘Cyclones’, ‘Mystery of the Missing Cap’, ‘Myths’, ‘Legends’, ‘Concepts and Literary Antiquities of India’. He wrote his memoir ‘Chasing the Rainbow: Growing up in an Indian Village (2004.) 

After the publication of ‘The Submerged Valley’, Graham Greene, whose appreciation of contemporary Indian fiction was limited to R K Narayan, wrote to Dick Batstone, publisher of the book, expressing happiness at his discovery of Das. “I imagine Odisha is far from Malgudi, but there is the same quality in his stories with perhaps an added mystery.” 

Manoj Das is best known for his dramatic expression as well as satire. His writings dealt with various social and psychological issues: displacement, natural calamities such as floods, people’s belief in ghosts and spirits, duplicitous politicians, et cetera. While his writings were social commentaries on post-Independence times, the short stories, novels, essays and poems blended physical experiences with fantasy and left an indelible impression on Indian literature.

An exponent of the philosophy of ‘Sri Aurobindo and The Mother’, Manoj Das wrote weekly columns in almost all national dailies: The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and The Statesman. A whole generation of readers grew up reading his columns, which were contemporaneous and dealt with emergent issues. His newspaper writings — revealing the subterranean truth — are treasured by many.

He wrote for academic journals and periodicals too; and his international appeal grew most in the 1970s and 1980s when The Illustrated Weekly of India and The Imprint published his numerous stories. He also edited a cultural magazine, The Heritage, published by Chennai’s Chandamama group.

Awards came to Manoj Das effortlessly:  the topmost being the Saraswati Samman, Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan for his lasting contribution in the field of Literature and Education. Kendriya Sahitya Akademi conferred its highest award on Manoj Das. He was Member, General Council of Sahitya Akademi, and the Author-consultant, Ministry of Education, Government of Singapore in the early eighties besides leading an Indian delegation of writers to China.

In 1971, his research in the archives of London and Edinburgh brought to light some of the little-known facts of India’s freedom struggle in the first decade of the twentieth century led by Sri Aurobindo for which he received the first Sri Aurobindo Puraskar (Kolkata).

Being a bilingual writer, when someone asked about the language he envisaged before writing a piece, he answer back:  “In the language of silence — if I do not sound presumptuous, the creative process ought to be allowed some mystery. Inspiration surely precedes articulation through any language. This is absolutely true in regard to good poetry and substantially true in regard to good fiction. Without this element of inspiration, which is beyond language to begin with, literature can hardly have a throbbing soul.”

From a disenchanted Marxist to an ardent humanist, Manoj Das was an ingenious author. His creative works – running into a thousand and more — dealt with the Indian psyche and were so spontaneous that it impressed both the Indian and the Western reader — for the authenticity and the diversity.

Manoj Das had an uncanny capacity for presenting the serious and the serene in a way that was amusing, often arousing a lasting humor. Elements of fantasy as metaphor have a domineering presence in his fictions.

 P Raja, author of Many Worlds of Manoj Das, has a deeper insight into his works: ‘Mystery in a wide and subtle sense, mystery of life, indeed, is the core of Manoj Das’s appeal. Born before Independence, he has thoroughly used in his fiction. His experiences, gathered at an impressionable age, of the epoch-making transitions through which the country was passing. Thus we meet in his works lively characters caught up in the vortex of India’s passage from the colonial era to freedom, the impact of the end of the princely states and the feudal system, and the mutation of several patches of rural India into clumsy bazaars.’

For thousands of men, women, and children of the past three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of courtesy and bliss. His words have inspired countless readers and have instilled a faith in the purpose of life.

Glossary

Sadhaka – Someone who pursues a certain discipline with devotion.

Sadhana — Meditation

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Musings

Gliding down the Silk Road

By Ratnottama Sengupta

These contemplations have come out of Ruhaniyat-e-Aam, an online festival of migrating music. Hosted by Indus Band, its focal theme was ‘Reconstructing the Silk Route’.  A webinar was the finale of the concept that was put into practice long before ‘COVID’ entered the Oxford dictionary – in 2018 when Somali Panda, founding head of the Kolkata-based Band came up with the novel concept of connecting online with performers in Greece. They played their music, we joined them with my reading, Tamal Goswami’s painting, and Somali’s songs.

Subsequently, during the pandemic, “when the world was compelled to stay indoors, the importance of connecting with the rest of humanity forcefully struck us,” says Somali. She then went on to host this series of interactions with musicians, artists, filmmakers and academicians from Greece, Czech Republic, Egypt, Iran, Kazakhstan and India — all participating in a celebration of the Human Migration that established bonding amongst nations, cultures, civilizations, and created a global community long before the term had come into existence.

The prime purpose of reconstructing the Silk Route — philosophically, ideologically, conceptually – was to forge a measure of friendship. Friends they became – Labros Kantos, singer from Greece; Saimir Bajo from the Czech Republic; Mesbah Kamal, academician from Dhaka; Sharofat Ara Bova, filmmaker from Tajikistan; Arqavaneh Folklore Ensemble from Isfahan, Iran; Mohamed Abu Zid from Cairo, Egypt; Sarower Reza Jimi, playwright from Lisbon, Portugal… Because music connects people most readily since it overrides the barrier of language, “and it gives inner peace and solace,” Somali adds.

 By the time it ended, Ruhaniyat-e-Aam had traced the cultural exchange from the time of Alexander and helped to understand how Hellenic Culture became Hellenistic through synthesis. Most of us know that after Alexander conquered the Persians, he established the city of Alexandria (339 BC). A little more detail: this was in the Fergana Valley of Neb – around modern-day Tajikistan. Leaving the wounded warriors behind Alexander moved on, and in time the Macedonians intermarried with the indigenous populace creating the Greco Bactrian culture that flourished in the Seleucid Empire after his death.

*

This festival of Migrant Music set me on a virtual journey down the Silk Road, the 6,400 km caravan tract that was actually an ancient network of trade routes. Formally established during the Han Dynasty of China, it linked in commerce the regions from China to Mesopotamia – should I say modern day Iran? – through India, Asia Minor, Egypt, the African continent, Greece, Rome and Britain too — between 130 BC and 1453 AD. Originating in Xian – now famed for its Terracotta Army – it followed the Great Wall of China to its northwest, bypassed the Takla Makan Desert, climbed the Pamirs, crossed Afghanistan, went on to the Levant region from where merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea.

What many of us don’t realize is that the Silk Route was not one single road. There were some that were longer and safer; some were shorter and more difficult. Some had been journeyed on much longer and thereby had witnessed more exchange than some of the shorter, more precarious roads and pockets like, say, Bhutan. And few travelled the entire length of the road: goods were handled in a staggered progression by middlemen.

The greatest value of the road lies in the exchange of culture it effected. Art, religion, technology, language, science, architecture — indeed, every other element of civilization was exchanged on these roads, along with the commercial goods that merchants traded from country to country

Marco Polo: Creative Copmmons

With the loss of Roman superiority and rise of Arabian power, the Silk Road became more and more unsafe. However, during the rule of the Mongols/ Mughals, Venetian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) travelled right up to China along the road that is now supposed to have been the main artery along which travelled the bubonic plague bacteria responsible for the pandemic of Black Death that decimated the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.

The network was used regularly till about 1453 when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with the west and closed the routes. By this time Europeans had become used to goods from the east, and so merchants set out to find new trade routes – over the oceans. That, as we know, led to the discovery of the New World and of new civilizations and forging of new cultures. In sum, we may say that laid the groundwork for the modern world.

*

What many of us don’t know: Part of the Silk Road still exists as a paved highway connecting Pakistan and the Uygur, an autonomous region of Xinjiang in China. It had given UN the impetus to plan a trans-Asian highway, and a railway counterpart of the road too had been proposed. The road had inspired cellist Yo-Yo Ma to found the Silk Road Project in 1999 in order to explore cultural traditions along its route and beyond, as a means for connecting arts worldwide, across cultures.

But why look back on the Road that has little to do with how it existed 2000 years ago? Forget the zeros – it is probably not like it was even two and half years ago! So what is its importance?

To my mind, the importance lies in the layers of history lining it. Glancing backward we realize that we stand on the shoulder of giants. Every visit into the past unearths stories of human civilization. And whenever I have done that – as I did in Kazakhstan as part of an ICCR effort in 2009 – I have got answers to questions like:

 A) Where was the Road going and why?

B) Why was it such a life transforming journey?

C) The road traversed through remote parts of the world, especially a huge part was ice covered desert. Then, why did the horse become such an important part of the journey on this road?

D) Horse was only one of the animals that were traded on the route. So, who named it Silk Road and why?

Arabian Nights

 It was so named by Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877 CE because silk was a treasured part of the trade – indeed it was the primary attraction that started off the trade but few travellers walked the entire length of the road. They came to different posts on the route, exchanged goods, food, plants, and ideas along with spices and tea. Stories of The Arabian Nights give us an idea about the exchanges that were taking place in city like Baghdad. And we realise that the flying carpet was not a mere figment of imagination, it became a metaphor for journeying from one world to another.

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Enough of history? Well then, let’s take note of the cultural exchanges closer to our life and times. Since Ruhaniyat-e-Aam was about Migrating Music, what we naturally traced was the commonality of instruments like sarod, santoor and violin… How come the last named string instrument most associated with Western Classical music gained such acceptance and became inseparable part of music in Iran and in South India’s Carnatic music? Was rabab, the folk accompaniment most widely associated with Afghanistan, the precursor of India’s sarod, internationalized by Ustads such as Ali Akbar Khan and Amjad Ali Khan? Indeed, it was from them that I learnt there have been several versions of the rustic musical instrument that was honed, refined, perfected and sophisticated until it became the sonorous voice of Indian classical music.

Again, our santoor has a close affinity with instruments in China, Persia, Greece, and so many other places. I remember my visit to China for the Festival of India under the aegis of the Ministry of Human Resources, then headed by Arjun Singh. As part of that government-to-government initiative, I visited some music schools and was amazed to see how much our santoor — once called shatatantri or hundred stringed veena — had in common with the Chinese hammered dulcimer, yangqin. There have been many versions of it – in Iran, Iraq, Greece, Armenia. I noticed that the music played on the Chinese instruments were a bit more staccato; in India I learnt from maestros closely identified with santoor — primarily Shiv Kumar Sharma and Bhajan Sopori – that strings have been added to get the murchhana or greater resonance so that the notes linger on…

If we go on to visual arts, the first name that comes to my mind is of Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947). The Russian lawyer-painter-archaeologist-philosopher born in St Petersberg had developed an abiding interest in Eastern religions, in Theosophy and Buddhism as much as Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, Tagore, Vedanta and Bhagavad Gita. His spiritual leanings took him across the Himalayas and make his home in the Himachal town of Naggar where he breathed his last.

Of greater consequence to Ruhaniyat-e-Aam was the fact that in mid-1920s the Roerichs together with their son and six friends went on a five-year-long Asian Expedition that started – in Roerich’s words – “from Sikkim and went through Punjab, Kashmir, Ladah, the Karakoram Mountains, Khotan, Kashgar, Qarashar, Urumchi, Irtysh, the Altai Mountains, Oyrot regions of Mongolia, the Central Gobi, Kansu, Tsaidam and Tibet…” A decade later he was to return to Mongolia and Manchuria to collect seeds of plants that prevent soil erosion.

In plainer words, because of these travels Roerich intimately knew not only the Himalayan range but a lot more of the Silk Road. This armed him with a scintillating palette of colours that painted mesmerizing mountains that are bold yet lyrical, rather mystical, even spiritual. I was absorbed by the tranquility that imbues the hypnotic series of 36 immersive images of the Himalayas preserved in the Roerich Gallery at the Chitrakala Parishath in Bangalore.

Roerich’s journeys along the Road had also prompted him to talk of preventing the destruction of art and architecture and work toward preserving the cultural wealth of the world. This had led to his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929.

Deb Mukharji, a retired member of India’s Foreign Services, has also travelled through its hardy folds – and extensively photographed the Abode of Snow. The keen photographer who has authored Kailash and Mansarovar and exhibited Tall Tales of the Himalayas — among many others — is concerned about the ecosystem of the rugged and culturally rich Himalayas. “It is threatened by the highways that are being built through the mountains, either to promote religious tourism or for other purposes, he says after treks that took him from Garhwal to Nepal and Kailash to Manas.”

Cinematographer-director Goutam Ghose has journeyed through the Silk Route to make the ten-part documentary, Beyond the Himalayas. His project had started in 1994 and initially he had travelled with only 5-6 members who drove in a jeep and through the countries. “Our purpose was to look back from here and now in order to connect all the yesterdays that have transformed life and made us what we are today,” the celebrated filmmaker had said to me then.

So many stories of the exchanges enrich our literature too. Saradindu Bandopadhyay, author of many Bengali classics, had penned a story titled Maru O Sangha – The Monastery in the Desert. This was turned into a film, Trishagni/ Sandstorm (1989) by Nabendu Ghosh, another celebrated Bengali writer who became a legend as screenwriter of Hindi films. His film revolved around a monastery in Central Asia, somewhere on the Silk Route.  It showed traders who came to the monastery with a ration of food, clothes and other essentials. Those were days when people could not fly in in a helicopter and drop supplies… it took months for these traders travelling in groups to reach from one stupa to another. There was a focus on the lifestyle of the times. Buddhism was the first organized religion, and monastery being the centre of Buddhism was thus the centre of such exchanges 2000 and more years ago. These monasteries subsequently became the prototype for Islamic Madrasas and before that, of Christian universities: they were built along the lines of the monasteries which dotted Central Asia. And it is believed that the Stupa also gave the concept of the gumbad, the round top of so many masjids and forts too.

Another important exchange that was happening came to light when Trishagni was screened in many international film festivals outside India – in Tehran, Cairo, Thailand… One of the questions that cropped up was this: “You are talking about Buddhism but why are the men (and women) dressed like they dress in Islamic countries? Islam wasn’t there then!” It had to be pointed out that philosophy – and religion is a part of that – and ideas travel but Geography moulds what we wear. Because of the weather, when there was no air conditioner or even fans around, people in some parts of Africa wore no garments and in some parts of the Asian desert men wore long robes to cover the body from head to toe from the hot flying sand particles. They started covering their heads and ears and part of the face, and that wisdom became a convention and then a tradition.

Thus, geographical reality moulded why people in certain parts of the world dress in certain ways. And with the journey of religion, these dress codes also journeyed. The Romans did not wear silk because they admired the style in which the Chinese wore it but because of the inherent quality of silk. Cotton was also much in demand on this route since it was hot in the desert. So was indigo – native to India, primarily, and sought in Mediterranean countries as pigment for dyeing, medicinal and cosmetic use.

These exchanges which are now history happened largely because of geography. Why? I got the answer in the course of a seminar where artistes and academics had come from Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkey. I started realizing that people were travelling from China down to Northern tip of Africa or the Mediterranean country, certain lifestyle changes were taking place. These landlocked pockets that had no access to the sea, had little green and only animals to live off. Naturally, many turned their attention to what was going on the Silk Road. Two very interesting things happened:

1) Many became bandits who would rob these caravans.

2) Many did the opposite: they offered themselves as guards to protect the goods in the caravans from bandits.

So, the same problem generated two different approaches to life, two different lifestyles. Those who became guards would travel with the caravans and they became warriors. They became warriors because they were living in very tough terrains, and they became skilled warriors because they were fighting off bandits to protect the caravans. Before long these men turned aggressive. Wars between tribes became endemic – and many of the lands strived to find stability and prosperity for their people by going into the lands of other people. (Once again, geography and history came together to define lifestyle and culture.)

We find versions of this later when people set out from Europe and landed up in America, and a new culture and civilizational evolved. Another such change took place when people were forced to travel from the Queen’s England to Australia. All these migrations and journeys have influenced the arts, ideas, religion, food habit… Why is it that in India’s Northwest – Afghanistan, to be specific — people cook meat and roti in tandoor ovens while in Bengal well-being is synonymous with ‘maachh-bhaat’ – fish curry and rice? Once again the answer lies in the history of geography – that is, geography moulding tradition and shaping history.

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In 1892 Rabindranath Tagore wrote Kabuliwala, a story that touches the heart of humans everywhere in the world even today. It pivots on a peddler from Kabul who comes to Calcutta each year to sell dry fruits, and befriends a child, Mini. Circumstances force him to go to prison on charges of stabbing a debtor. On his release he goes to meet Mini and finds she is getting married. Rahman realizes that his daughter, now grown up, will also not have any recollection of her father – and he starts on his return journey, towards home.

This story has been filmed in India in Bengali by Tapan Sinha (1957), in Hindi by Hemen Gupta (1961), by Kazi Hayat of Bangladesh (2006), by Anurag Basu for a television channel (2015), by Deb Medhekar in 2018. It has been reimagined in totally different contexts.  Bioscopewala, set in 1990s, had Minnie going to Afghanistan where her father has died in a plane crash. In another script French Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi sets the story after the destruction of the Balmiyan Buddhas. This man from Kabul spells another exchange of ideas: he comes because this part of the world believes in reincarnation — and he is seeking his little girl who died during the destruction of the Buddhas!

Taking her cue from this same story, Sharofat Imam Arabova of Tajikistan made a lilting film where an Indian vendor selling things in that land strikes a friendship with a little girl. Desirous of paying a tribute to the author, the FTII-trained director approached Somali Panda to incorporate Tagore’s music in the script. “And when we did that using a santoor, it was so strikingly in sync!” says the music-maker from Kolkata who extensively used Raag Bhairavi. “That is the power of music – and also the bonding of migrant music,” she adds. And even as she spoke, I was reminded of Mrinal Sen’s Neel Akasher Neechey/ Under the Blue Sky (1959) wherein a Chinese hawker, Wang Lu, sold silk on the streets of Calcutta of 1930s, when India was under British rule. His life changed forever when he met Basanti, a housewife who gets arrested for her involvement in politics.

So what’s common between these stories? What connects the diverse players? Human situation where a man has travelled for work and struck friendship, an equation with a child – the most basic, most innocent form of humanity.

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This is the importance of revisiting the Silk Route and renewing acquaintance with migrant music: that human beings everywhere in the world have been migrating. Individually too we have migrated. My grandfather migrated from East Bengal – Dhaka – to Patna, then a part of Bengal Presidency. Now Dhaka is a different country, and Patna is part of Bihar, a different state from West Bengal. My father ‘migrated’ from Patna to Calcutta to Bombay Presidency which became two states – Maharashtra and Gujarat. I was born in Bombay, which has become Mumbai, lived in Delhi which was earlier a Union Territory and now has become a state. At present, I live in West Bengal. My brother who was born in Patna studied in Pune, graduated in Medicine from Calcutta, lived in UK and worked in Germany, Brunei, Cyprus, Bosnia… So many migrations!

Today technology has opened new highways, new vistas of connecting with the world. And even as we speak (or read, as in this case) we are crossing boundaries almost every minute of our day. Within families to, a child goes out to study in London or New York, makes Singapore or Sidney his workplace, his family perhaps lives in Delhi, and he travels to Johannesburg to  Rio, Texas to Tokyo, Moscow to Hong Kong, Sweden to Israel. So many outposts of civilization – just as people on the Silk Road once did, for their trade.

The crux of it? Stories that tell us about human lives and human emotions highlight one simple thing: Humans are the same everywhere. They are all born of their soil – geography. And geography moulds our history. Because we are creatures of these two forces, periodically we need to look back and trace our commonalities in order to transcend the schisms in society.

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Ratnottama Senguptaformerly 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. 

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