In remembrance: Somendranath Bandopadhyay

Somendranath Bandyopadhyay (1926-2022)
Prof. Somendranath Bandyopadhyay taught Bengali Language and Literature in Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan during 1957–1991. His subject was mainly Rabindranath Tagore. He wrote several books on Bengali poetry, art, philosophy and literature. In 2011, the Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata awarded him the D. Litt. The following is my personal tribute to him. 

1986 — A teacher’s visit

I am in Class 7 and we have moved to Chittarajan Park, South Delhi’s very own Bengali pocket, only a year ago. It’s 7 or perhaps 7:30 in the evening, a busy time for our family of six. I and Dada, my brother, are hunched over our schoolwork — homework, preparing for a class test and such. Dadubhai, my grandfather, is coaching me as usual. In the kitchen, my grandmother and mother, both tired from a day’s work at their respective offices, are hustling to get dinner ready. Suddenly, there’s a knock on the door. We have no telephone (cell phones haven’t been born yet) and aren’t expecting any visitors in particular. When the door is opened, two tall gentlemen, one of them in pristine white dhuti and panjabi, are found standing. The gentleman in white, the older of the two, asks for my mother, and when she comes to the door, she, and the rest of us, are startled beyond words. Professor Somendranath Bandopadhyay, her teacher from Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, where Ma went to study for her MA in Bengali, has come to visit her. The last time the two of them had seen each other was more than a couple of decades ago, while my mother was his student.  Back in her student days, he had shown extraordinary compassion to help her get through a difficult academic patch.

They had kept in touch through letters, and that year, as a student of class 7, when I witnessed this incredible moment, I realized why my mother held this teacher in such high regard. Professor Bandopadhyay was visiting relatives in Chittaranjan Park and mentioned that he wanted to meet his former student, who also lived in the neighbourhood. The conversation that followed through the evening is a blur to me, but I remember helping my mother sift whole wheat flour through a soft cotton cloth in the kitchen to ‘make’ refined flour as Ma and Grandma got busy making luchi, a delicacy that had to be served to a special guest. I remember my grandfather, a man of few words, expressing amazed delight that a teacher had taken the trouble of tracing his student’s house and visiting her. I remember that we were all amazed. I remember how a teacher’s visit had changed the complexion of a weary city evening. Over the next many decades, we would receive letters from him on postcards with beautiful line drawings depicting flowers, leaves, and nature on them.

2007 — Visiting a teacher

The author in Santiniketan; Photo © Bhaswati Ghosh

After working for many different bosses for more than a decade, I finally decide to work for myself and become a freelance writer-editor. Working my own hours gives me the reward of finding more time to do the things that bring me joy — write, cook, travel. I plan a long vacation to West Bengal with my mother. We spend the bulk of our time in Kolkata, but also have Santiniketan and Bishnupur on our itinerary. At Santiniketan, when we seek accommodation at the in-campus guest house, we’re turned away, with no vacancy offered to us by way of explanation. We put up at a lodge close to the campus. That evening, when Ma and I visit Professor Bandopadhyay, now Somen Mama to me, she tells him about our lodging woes, and he chides her saying she should have called him right from the guest house. He asks us how long we plan to stay for, and when he learns it would be the next three days, he calls up the guest house to get us a room there. We move back into the campus, a pilgrimage for me, where she would wake up to, as she did in her days as a student, to the calls of doel, the oriental magpie and bou-kotha-kao, the Indian cuckoo. I would discover mornings that sounded sweeter than anything I’d ever experienced in my existence as a city-bred. 

At Somen Mama’s house for breakfast one morning, his affectionate wife, Boudi to all students, and Maami to me, treats us to a deliciously elaborate spread, complete with luchi, torkaari, chop (croquettes), mishti and her signature vanilla pound cake that I’ve come to relish. We sit at the low jol-chowkis in the dining area of this aesthetically pleasing and inviting house as Mama talks to us about Tagore’s worldview and the radical relevance of the Buddha’s teachings. Now and again, a humorous vein emerges, and he breaks into a laughter — resonant, uninhibited, completely disarming. We drift back to the living room for tea and more stimulating conversation. He then brings a copy of his latest book — Shilpi Ramkinkar Alaapchari — that he signs for my mother as a gift. He gives me a beautiful pair of polished burgundy wooden chopsticks that he’d gotten from his visit to Japan. I spend some quiet moments in their beautiful garden outside, soaking in the prettiness of flowers — clusters of Ashok and hibiscus in several colours.

Flower arrangement at Somen Mama’s house; Photo © Bhaswati Ghosh

Back in Delhi, my mother reads the book and keeps nudging me to do the same. I politely keep telling her I will, until I can’t put it off any longer. I’m barely into the first paragraph when I realize I wouldn’t be able to put it down before devouring every last sentence, every last word of it. The book’s format is deceptively everyday — it’s a series of conversations between two neighbours. Only, in this case, both the interviewee — the artist-sculptor Ramkinkar Baij and his interviewer — Somendranath Bandopadhyay are so much in synchronicity that the reader couldn’t ask for two better conversationalists. 

Shilpi Ramkinkar Alaapchari

By simply describing the living quarters of the renowned artist who he found as his neighbour, Somen Mama, draws me in. I am transported to the Santiniketan of Baij’s student and work life, to his world of mud and plaster, of studying from other artists, both at home and globally, of his interactions with Rabindranath Tagore who encourages him to chart his own course without looking back, of deeply empathizing with and drawing inspiration for his work from the Santhal Adivasis living in the area, and most of all, of living a passionate, feisty, and fiercely creative life on his own terms. The book is not merely a gift to my mother, to us, I realize; it’s a gift to all who can read the Bengali language. I am so taken by it that I want to tell the world about it and excitedly write a blog post and translate a few favourite parts. Later that year, I send my proposal for translating this remarkable book to an international translation fellowship. It gets accepted. 

2008-2012 — A teacher for life

I am back in Santiniketan with Ma to meet with Somen Mama, to give him the good news, to seek his permission to translate the book. He talks about having heard of a certain blogger from Delhi who had translated parts of the book; then he realizes that person is me. So far he’s only known me by my pet name, so it has taken him a while to make the connection. While we’re here this time, I ask Somen Mama, now my author, lots of questions regarding the book’s technical aspects. He takes out big tomes from his study and patiently answers each one of my queries. I also spend my time looking more closely at Ramkinkar Baij’s sculptures spread across the open campus — Sujata, Santhal Family, Mill Call. My seeing is now informed by the history and context of these iconic works, captured with vivid sincerity by Somen Mama. 

I travel to Norwich, UK, the site of my fellowship and complete translating the book. Over the next year, I look for publishers for the book and fortunately, the book finds a home. A journey that began with my mother’s master’s education in Santiniketan comes full circle as my name appears below his on a book cover. Shilpi Ramkinkar Alaapchari becomes My Days With Ramkinkar Baij in English. 

2022 — The final adieu

On a March day, we receive the sad news of Somen Mama’s final departure. It’s still difficult to think of him in the past tense. As I reflect on this wonderful human being and the fullness of his life that enriched so many of us, I know what I will remember of and receive as blessings from him the most — humility and grace, a childlike zeal for exploring new realms, and above all, a deep, empathetic compassion for those around us. 

Letter Writing by Rabindranath Tagore

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

You gave me a gold-plated fountain pen
And a cornucopia of writing equipment.
A small walnut-wood desk.
Letterheads in different designs.
Silver paper with an enamel finish.
Scissors, knife, sealing wax, ribbon.
A glass paperweight.
Red, blue, green pencils.
A letter must be written every
Other day,
You ordained for me.

I finished bathing in the morning
So I could sit down to write a letter.

But I can’t decide on what to write.
There’s only one news —
That you have left.
This, you already know.
Yet, it seems like
You aren’t really aware of this.
So I think of letting you know —
You have left.
Every time I begin to write
Something tells me this isn’t easy news to share.
I’m no poet —
One who can give voice to a language;
Or vision to words.
The more letters I write, the more I shred them.

It’s ten o’ clock already.
Your nephew, Boku, is ready for school,
I need to feed him first.
This is my last attempt —
Let me write to inform you
That you have left.
The rest is only a jungle of
Doodles crowding the blotted ink.

GITANJALI - The original manuscript By Rabindranath Tagore Published by  Sahitya Samsad This is the original versio… | Handwriting analysis, Rare  books, Book layout
পত্রলেখা

দিলে তুমি সোনা-মোড়া ফাউণ্টেন পেন,
           কতমতো লেখার আসবাব।
               ছোটো ডেস্‌কোখানি।
                   আখরোট কাঠ দিয়ে গড়া।
        ছাপ-মারা চিঠির কাগজ
           নানা বহরের।
রুপোর কাগজ-কাটা এনামেল-করা।
        কাঁচি ছুরি গালা লাল-ফিতে।
           কাঁচের কাগজ-চাপা,
        লাল নীল সবুজ পেন্সিল।
    বলে গিয়েছিলে তুমি চিঠি লেখা চাই
           একদিন পরে পরে।

         লিখতে বসেছি চিঠি,
           সকালেই স্নান হয়ে গেছে।
লিখি যে কী কথা নিয়ে কিছুতেই ভেবে পাই নে তো।
           একটি খবর আছে শুধু--
               তুমি চলে গেছ।
        সে খবর তোমারো তো জানা।
               তবু মনে হয়,
        ভালো করে তুমি সে জান না।
               তাই ভাবি এ কথাটি জানাই তোমাকে--
                   তুমি চলে গেছ।
               যতবার লেখা শুরু করি
        ততবার ধরা পড়ে এ খবর সহজ তো নয়।
               আমি নই কবি--
ভাষার ভিতরে আমি কণ্ঠস্বর পারি নে তো দিতে;
        না থাকে চোখের চাওয়া।
           যত লিখি তত ছিঁড়ে ফেলি।

দশটা তো বেজে গেল।
    তোমার ভাইপো বকু যাবে ইস্‌কুলে,
           যাই তারে খাইয়ে আসিগে।
               শেষবার এই লিখে যাই--
                   তুমি চলে গেছ।
               বাকি আর যতকিছু
           হিজিবিজি আঁকাজোকা ব্লটিঙের 'পরে।

When Ramkinkar Baij sculpted Rabindranath Tagore

In the following excerpt from My Days with Ramkinkar Baij, the sculptor shares with the author Somendranath Bandopadhyay the backstory of his sculpture of Rabindranath Tagore, which he made in the presence of Tagore in Santiniketan. Translated from the Bengali by Bhaswati Ghosh

‘Have you seen my two portraits of Rabindranath? The bent sculpture—bust—I made that later. It depicts Tagore’s last phase. The other one, a little abstract, is the earlier one. Many people think that one was made later. No.

‘Andrews had passed away then. Something was being written for his memorial ceremony. He (Tagore) was bent over his writing table. As soon as I went in, he looked at me with squinted eyebrows, as if a little miffed. After hearing my proffering he said, “In the West, an obstinate artist harassed me a great deal by measuring my face from many angles. Do you intend to do the same?” With apprehension, I quickly reassured him, “No, no, I won’t even touch you. You carry on with your work as you are. You won’t even get an inkling that I am around.”

‘He would do his work, and so would I—this was the deal. Bas—I got what I wanted.

‘I got to work in a corner of the room. A little away from his chair and table.

‘He used to remain engrossed in his work. However, I can’t say he never looked at my work at all. A couple of times, he did see it from the corner of his eyes.

‘He was a little unwell at the time. His hair had been cropped short—he didn’t have the mane. He had to bend over the table to write. It reflected a special side of his personality—and that’s what I tried to capture, my dear—the serious Rabindranath. Not the sweet and pliable Kobiguru. See, very few people have recognised this other Rabindranath. All through his life, he stressed on many things, did such a lot of work—in Shilaidaha, then here in Santiniketan—he begged until the end of his life—who ever paid attention to him? And how many people have done such bone-breaking work in our country? You think the poet only dreams. Ha, ha. We also see him only in our dreams. Look at the flesh and blood man, the real man.’

The words are clothed in deep sadness and grave perturbation. From his expression, that isn’t left to doubt.

Letters from a foreign shore — Rabindranath Tagore’s letters to his niece

First published in Cafe Dissensus

39

Shilaidaha

Thursday, January 9, 1892

[January 14]

For the last couple of days, the weather here has been vacillating between winter and spring. In the morning, northern winds send shivers through land and water and, in the evening, the southern breeze dances through the moonlight of the bright fortnight. It is clear that the spring is nigh. After a long time, an Indian nightingale has started singing from the garden on the other side. The human heart is somewhat excited, too. One can now hear strains of song and music from the village across, which indicates people aren’t too eager to shut their doors and windows and retreat to bed all bundled-up, while the evening is still young.

It’s a full-moon night – a giant moon stares at me from the open window to my left as if to check if I am berating it in this letter. Perhaps she thinks the earth’s residents gossip more about her blemish than her jyotsna. A lone bird calls to dispel the shore’s quietude. The river is still, no boat sails on it; the forest on the other side spreads its solemn shadow on the water. This massive moonlit sky looks a touch hazy – the way things appear when drowsy eyes try to stay awake.

Tomorrow onwards, evenings will begin getting darker again; as I cross this small river after completing my kutcherry work, I will notice a slight separation between me and my beloved away from home. Could the one who had unveiled to me her large and mysterious heart be wondering if all that self-revelation was prudent enough and thus pull back the curtain to her heart again?

Indeed, nature becomes intimate to one who lives alone abroad. I have truly felt for a few days now that I might no longer receive this swathing moonlight once the full-moon night is over; that from this foreign place, I will drift further abroad; that the familiar calm beauty that awaits me at the river bank every day after work, won’t be there for me, and that I would have to make my return journey on the boat in darkness.

But today is a full-moon night – this is the first purnima of this year’s spring, and so I record its story in writing. Perchance I might remember this still night – complete with that lone bird’s call and the gleam of the light on the boat anchored to that bank; this clear outline of the river, that coating of a quasi-dark forest and that detached, indifferent, pallid sky – after a long time…

(Jyotsna: Moonlight; Purnima: Full-moon night)

***

105

Shajadpur

July 7, 1893

This is a small village. Meandering through broken ghaats, a tin-roofed bazaar, granaries with split bamboo fencing, bamboo clumps, mango-jackfruit-palm-shimul-banana-akondo-bherenda-yam trees huddled in a bush, huge boats with raised masts anchored on the river banks, paddy submerged in water, and half-soaked jute fields, I reached Shajadpur last evening. This is going to be my abode for a while now. After spending days in the boat, it’s lovely to step into a house in Shajadpur. It’s wonderful to discover the freedom of being able to move around and stretch one’s limb at will and the impact it has on one’s mental health.

This morning, the sun is beaming from time to time, a wind is blowing swiftly, tamarisk and lychee trees are sashaying and rustling in a sway, a variety of birds are calling out in as many different ways to enliven the forest’s morning assembly. Sitting in this large, companion-less bright and open second-floor room, I am delighted to see a row of boats on the canal and, across it, a village flanked by trees on both sides. On this side, moderate activity guides the movements of a nearby locality. The workflow of a village isn’t rushed, and yet, neither is it inert or lifeless. Work and rest seem to walk hand in hand here.

Ferry boats sail on, passengers walk along the canal with umbrellas in their hands, women dip rice-filled wicker baskets in the water to wash the grain, farmers carrying bundles of jute on their heads head towards the haat, two men rest a log on the ground and crack it with axes for firewood, a carpenter upturns a fishing boat to repair it with a chisel, the village mongrel wanders around aimlessly, a few cows lazily sit on the ground and ward off flies by shaking their ears and tails before ingesting their lunch of the monsoon grass. When crows annoy them excessively by sitting on their backs, they turn their heads just a few times to register their protest.

The sounds of this place – the monotony of cracking wood, the cheer of unclothed children in play, the plaintive high-pitched song of a cowboy, the sloshing of oars, the shrill drone of the oil-grinding block – don’t create any dissonance when they combine with bird calls and rustling  of leaves. In fact, all of it is like a peaceful dream sequence of a bigger sonata, a bit in the manner of Chopin, albeit attuned in an expansive yet controlled composition.

My mind brims with sunlight and all these sounds; I better conclude this letter and soak in it for a while.

(Ghaat: River bank; Haat: Village market)

Image courtesy: theculturetrip.com

The Art of Solitude: In Rabindranath Tagore’s letters, the gifts of a life in solitude

First published in Scroll

After a week of rain, hail and non-seasonal arctic chills, a balmy sunshine and a breeze carrying whispers of spring indulge us in the Southern Ontario suburb where I live with my husband. With a book in my hand, I step out into the backyard and find it to be the venue of an unrehearsed celebration of this climatic turnaround. All our immediate neighbours are out – the daughters of our next-door neighbours yell hellos to their school friends in the backyard across theirs; our other next-door gardener neighbour is busy tending to her perennials; my husband readies the soil for his impending vegetable garden.

Human hums and giggles enter me along with the constant chirp of the backyard birds. As I open my book Chhinnapatrabali – Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of letters, written for the most part to his niece, Indira Devi Chaudhurani, I don’t miss the rare synchronicity this moment brings, especially in our current physically distanced world. The cover of my reading material is beginning to tear up, evidence of the book’s confidant-like association with me through the decade of my life outside India.

Tagore wrote a lot of these letters from his family estate in East Bengal, which he’d been tasked to manage in his youth. While opening a window to his literary talent and creative process, the letters also serve as a manifesto of living in and celebrating solitude and its many gifts. A shift away from the human-centric way of life is one of these gifts. In letter after letter, Tagore speaks of how, whenever he lands in the rural environment of his estate from the industrially-rushed Calcutta, he senses centrifugalism of the humankind. “There’s less of man and more of earth here,” he notes in a letter and adds, “when in the village, I cease to see man as an independent entity,” likening mankind’s journey to that of rivers coursing their way through forests and cities.

Chhinnapatrabali also endears itself to me because of the way it reveals the everyday Rabindranath, shorn of his career accolades and their accompanying weight. With gentle humour and uncensored vulnerability, the letter writer brings out his deepest loves and anxieties, his humanism shining through them like the sun gleaming in our rain-sodden backyard.

In reading the letters nestled in this volume, I learn, recurrently, the need to take a pause from the staged antics of a mechanized life. For, as Tagore shows, true viewing – whether of blackbirds and squirrels in my backyard, or the rivers and trees, boatmen’s songs and women’s banter, cows chasing flies away with their tails, a silent full moon night in a Bengal village – calls for rest and repose. Not only of the outer eye that sees. But of the inner eye that makes, out of one, a seer.

Letter photo source: The Daily Star

Notes of Eternity: Rabindranath Tagore

                                                                                                                          Calcutta |May 2, 1895

A nahabat recital can be heard playing somewhere today. A morning nahabat makes the heart quiver strangely. I haven’t been able to discern the significance of the unspeakable state that envelopes one’s mind when listening to music. And yet, every time the mind attempts to dissect that state. I have noticed that whenever beautiful music plays, the moment its intoxication hits the soul, this world of life and death, this land of arrivals and departures, this world of work, of light and darkness recedes into a distance — as if across a vast Padma River — from where everything appears as if it were only a picture.

road nature trees branches

To us, our everyday world doesn’t always appear to be the most well balanced. A tiny fraction of our life might seem disproportionately huge, our hunger and thirst, daily squabbles, rest and labour, petty annoyances besmirch the present moment. Music, with its beautiful intrinsic equilibrium, can, within moments make the world stand in a perspective where the small, transient imbalances disappear. With music, a whole, vast and eternal balance transforms the entire world into a mere image, and man’s life and death, laughter and tears, past and future land in the present to play in one’s ears as the meditative rhythm of poetry. With that, the intensity of our personal tendencies decrease, we become puny and immerse ourselves without strain into the immensity of music.

Small and artificial social ties are useful to function in the society, yet music and other evolved art forms instantly show us their insignificance, making every art somewhat antisocial. This is why listening to a good poem or song quickens our hearts, tearing asunder social formalities and igniting in the mind a struggle that seeks the freedom of eternal beauty. Anything beautiful stirs in us a conflict between the fleeting and the permanent, causing us a certain inexplicable pain.

Poona | May 6, 1895

Nahabat: A temple music tower. Musicians sit on the upper story and play during festivals and sometimes at the time of daily worship. (Source)

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Afternoons in Bengal Countryside ~ Rabindranath Tagore

                                    Shazadpur,
                                    September 5, 1894

After spending a long time on the boat, it feels wonderful to have suddenly arrived at the Shazadpur house. Light and air streams in unrestrained through the large windows and doors — wherever I look, I see green branches of trees and hear bird call. The moment I step out to the southern verandah, all the veins of my brain fill with the fragrance of Kamini flowers. All of a sudden I realize a hunger lurked within me for an expansive sky — being here has fulfilled it completely.

I am the sole master of four large rooms — I sit with all the doors open. The inspiration and motivation that I receive here to write is unlike that in any other place. A living essence of the outside world enters me unhindered through the open doors — the light and the sky and the air and the sounds and the smells and the waves of green mingle with the passions of my mind and create innumerable stories. The afternoons here, in particular, have a deep spell. The sun’s heat, the silence, the quiet, calls of birds, especially the crow’s and an extended period of leisure make me pensive and eager.

Shantiniketan 036

I don’t know why I have a feeling that Arabian stories are made of afternoons like these brimming with golden sunshine. Those Persian and Arabian lands of Damascus, Samarkand, Bukhara…those grape clusters, rose gardens, the nightingale’s songs, Shiraz wines, desert paths, rows of camels, horse-riding wayfarers, a clear source of water amidst a thick curtain of date trees…cities with narrow royal lanes festooned with awnings, a shopkeeper wearing a turban and comfortable, loose-fitting clothes — selling melons and mewa at the end of the street…a massive royal palace by the roadside with incense smell wafting out of it, a huge mattress covered with kimkhwāb placed by the window…Amina, Zubeidi and Sufi in zari footwear, wide pajamas and colourful corsets as they inhale smoke rising off a curled hubble-bubble near their feet, at the door, a habshi dressed in flashy clothes stands guard…and in this mysterious, unfamiliar faraway land, in a wealth-filled, spectacular yet eerie royal palace, thousands of stories — possible and impossible — are being created out of the laughter and tears, hopes and anxieties of humans.

These afternoons I spend in Shazadpur are fabled afternoons. I remember writing the story “Postmaster” sitting at the table fully engrossed right at this hour. As I wrote, the light around me, the breeze and the shivering tree branches all added their language to it. There are few joys that come close to creating something close to one’s heart by being immersed in one’s surroundings. This morning I became inclined to write something on limericks and could become thoroughly involved in it, which brought me immense delight. Like the world of clouds, limericks make for a free country unbounded by rules and laws. Unfortunately, the land that rules and laws dominate is never far behind to follow one. As I wrote, a sudden insurrection of officials stormed in, blowing to dust my land of clouds.

When that ended, it was time to eat. There’s nothing more sloth-inducing than eating a full meal in the afternoon. It overwhelms one’s imagination and the spirit’s higher callings. Bengalis are unable to enjoy the deep intrinsic beauty of an afternoon because of their predilection to eat sumptuous meals at that time and follow that by closing the door to smoke on tobacco and slide into a satiating slumber. This is what makes them hale and hearty. But nowhere do quiet, desolate afternoons spread over in the sweeping, silent manner in which they do over Bengal’s uniformly limitless, plain crop fields.

Afternoons like these have haunted me since childhood. Back then, no one used to be in the outer third-storey quarters; I alone sat in the angular couch with the door wide open and a warm breeze blowing in. My entire day went by in the company of vivid imagination and unspeakable desires.

Satara
September 10, 1894

Translation: Bhaswati Ghosh

Letter to Niece ~ Rabindranath Tagore

Shilaidaha, June 16, 1892

The more you spend time on your own on a river or in an open space in a village, the clearer it becomes that nothing could be grander or more beautiful than to simply do your daily work with ease. From the grass in the field to the star in the sky, all elements are doing only that. Because nothing is making a desperate attempt to cross its limits, there’s such immense peace and beauty in nature; and yet, whatever each thing does isn’t all that valueless — the grass has to use all its energy to remain grass; it must engage the very end of its root to the ground to soak in the nectar. The earth is so resplendently lush only because the grass doesn’t try to overstep its boundary or ignore its routine work with the ambition of becoming a banyan tree.

In reality, it is through fulfilling daily small tasks and duties, not through grandiose initiatives or overstatements that the human society maintains its grace and harmony. Whether it is art or valour — nothing is complete in itself. On the other hand, even a small act of duty contains contentment and wholeness. To sit and continuously gripe, contemplate, consider every situation to be unworthy of oneself — all the while letting time and small and big obligations slip one by — nothing could be worse than that.

© Bhaswati Ghosh

When one resolves to and believes in one’s ability to carry out all tasks up to one’s capacity with truth, strength and a full heart amid all pleasure and pain, one’s entire life is filled with happiness and all petty sorrows disappear.

Calcutta
June 17, 1892.

Translation: Bhaswati Ghosh

Book Review: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing

I recently had the opportunity tot read “Love and the Turning Seasons,” an exquisite collection of bhakti poetry in translation from Aleph. I wrote about it in Kitaab.

Love and the Turning Seasons

Title: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing
Edited by Andrew Schelling
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: 294
Price: ₹399

I left shame behind,

took as an ornament
the mockery of local folk.
Unswerving, I lost my cleverness
in the bewilderment of ecstasy.

— Manikkavacakar (9thcentury), Tr. A.K. Ramanujan

In a lover’s enraptured world, love is the breeze that strips one, quite simply, of the garment of shame. In reading Love and the Turning Seasons, the newest offering from Aleph Classics, a series that aims to bring new translations of India’s literary heritage, the reader is swept in that denuding breeze. Edited by Andrew Schelling, the collection of poems bears the slightly beguiling subtitle, India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing. I say beguiling because it would seem like the poems could fall in either category – spiritual or erotic. In reality, as Manikkavacakar, the ninth-century Shiva devotee tells us, the line between the two states is as diaphanous as air itself. For, in the “bewilderment of ecstasy”, who is left to distinguish between the flesh and the spirit? This seamless merging of the body and the soul is at the heart of this anthology of bhakti poetry, translated by various poets and literary translators.

Love and the Turning Seasons alights upon the reader as a songbird to take her across time and space – from the sixth century (barring the Isa Upanishad) right up to the twentieth, on an anticlockwise path beginning in the south of India and ending in the east. Despite the multiplicity of expressions of the bhaktas or poet-minstrels, informed as they were by specific cultural and regional parlance, what unifies them is their rejection of societal norms in their unwavering quest for the divine. These were among the first true radicals in the Indian context, repudiating, with delightful contempt, tradition and convention. Gender-bending, caste-subverting, these individuals lived and (even) died on their own terms and sang of the divine with ariose abandonment. As Lal Ded, another Shiva devotee from Kashmir said,

Who instructed you, O Brahmin,
to cut this sheep’s throat—
to placate a lifeless stone?

— Lal Ded (early 1300s), Tr. Andrew Schelling

 

The Sanskrit word bhakti means devotion and has come to connote intense, even blind idolatry, and in these troublingly skewed times, bhakta (devotee) has become a bad word, an uncomplimentary term for blind followers of certain ideologies, political or otherwise. As the anthology affirms through its diverse voices, the bhakti poets were anything but blind in their devotion.

Read the rest in Kitaab.

 

 

Of faces and portraits: Ramkinkar Baij

I recently had the opportunity to read from “My Days with Ramkinkar Baij” on the occasion of the launch of “Could you Please, Please Stop Singing?”, Sabyasachi Nag’s book of poetry at the Art Gallery of Mississauga.

In this excerpt, Baij talks about the essence of portraits and the fodder faces can provide to an artist. He also discusses his own treatment of Tagore for sculpting a bust of the poet.

Here’s a video recording of the reading.