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।

To Have Loved

What a beautiful thing it is to have loved.
To stand next to a Japanese maple tree slowly

dying and admire the burgundy stars
shimmering on its branches in sunlight.

To hold a father’s unsteady hands as the
breath ebbs out of him on an uncertain night.

To dig through rubble, fresh and still warm from
the bomb that fashioned it, for your daughter’s

missing doll. To chat with your friend’s
granddaughter over Whatsapp, epistles of

encrypted affection. To think of your daughter’s
face, now in prison, with a trembling heart and

a colourless smile. What if you don’t make it until
she’s freed? To let go. Of a withering Japanese

maple, your father’s sentience, the head of your
child’s lost doll, the hope to see your daughter again.

To have loved is to make peace with loss even though.
To have loved is to know the insolence of desire.

Copyright. Bhaswati Ghosh

LOST SEASON

Spring has lost its
Spring and doesn’t
spring anymore. It waits
a long time to
alight from behind a steely
Curtain. Politely, in slow
Overtures, with well-rehearsed
daffodil smiles.

Once spring was rambunctious,
impolite. It burst open
Like a ripe wood apple
In summer, pregnant with
Forbidden pleasures.

Spring lured us into sucking
a pit off its berryness.
Abandoning textbooks.
Diving into a sea of
yellow, the colour
of sudden love. Faces were
canvasses for
freestyle paint-throwing.

Spring waited for no one.
It raced straight into summer.
Spring. Sprint. Vanish.
The ripening berries its
only remnant. As tart and
impolite as spring.
As irresistible.

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

BURIED KNOWLEDGE

Do seeds talk to each other
as they gestate in the earth’s
deep, dark womb? Are there
secrets ripening with promises
that only unborn vegetables
can know — the alchemy between
trapped moisture and heat, between
fire and water, between desire
and drowning — before
the sapling cranes its neck
overground?

Is that how seeds find
their way inside chubby aubergines
and slender beans? Life bursting into life.
One unto a pod, a bed, a whole
efflorescent farm.

Is that how, by
Multiplying, desire eclipses
drowning?

Photo by Gelgas Airlangga on Pexels.com