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. 

LA CASA AZUL

First published in Saaranga

For Frida Kahlo

A sea rises from your iris,
its cobalt waves mapping
your skin, tunneling into your

Bones a freak accident left
Paralyzed — life’s black
humour at 18. But what use

Would you have for walking
When you had wings to take
Off to the azure horizon and

Set it ablaze with the crimson
Desires of your heart.
The earth smells in

you a confidant who knows
Its ripe secrets — the dust
and sweat of toilers. So do

the flowers that sprout from
Your hair. And the birds in
Your seeded tropical oasis.

The urn still breathes in your
Warm scent that wanders
Alongside the cats in the blue house.

La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s house in Mexico City. Photo: Bhaswati Ghosh

PLAYING WITH ‘FIRE OF CREATION’: RAMKINKAR BAIJ

Excerpts from My Days with Ramkinkar Baij

Somendranath Bandopadhyay
Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

I

first arrived at Santiniketan in 1942, after clearing the Matriculation examination. That was the first time I saw Kinkarda. In time, our acquaintance grew closer through my father, who, as Kinkarda’s batch mate, was a member of Kala Bhavana’s first student body.

I saw Kinkarda and marvelled at his works during my student life. Then again, I saw him with his works on burning afternoons or in the evening’s shadow-caped deepening dark. But at that time, I didn’t have the requisite insight and maturity to know him well. In 1957, I joined Visva-Bharati as a teacher. That’s when I found him again, in a totally new way. For twenty-three years, between 1957 and 1980, my close association with him made our relationship much more intimate and deeper. I hold this fellowship and intimacy in great esteem.

However, I didn’t realise that this closeness had also gradually fostered in me an uncomfortable dissatisfaction and unease. At one point this became clear to me. Everyone knows Kinkarda as an outstanding artist—one of the finest exponents of neo-Indian art and perhaps the greatest of sculptors, whose originality is undoubted, who never wore labels of ‘East’ and ‘West’, who was independent and walked on his own path. Some see him or like to view him as a rootless Bohemian artist. His lifestyle is completely different from Western Bohemian artists; rather, he is closer to the bauls of Bengal, oblivious of worldly concerns. In this respect, I wholeheartedly agree with respected Manida (artist K.G. Subramaniam). That Kinkarda is driven by an inner force, empowered by sheer outstanding talent, resulting in the birth of extraordinary works of art isn’t the full story. He lives in a world of introspection—contemplating about the nature of life. Entwined with this is his world of artistic thinking, in itself fertile and rooted in life’s experiences.

What many of us do not know is that these experiences have been shaped by the sharp observation of his highly alert sight, the perceptions and realisations of his overly sensitive heart, his self-study and reflection, and many other influences. Benodebehari Mukhopadhyay—Ramkinkar’s batch mate and another talent of Kala Bhavana—also took up the pen besides pursuing painting. He wrote many valuable articles, criticisms, autobiographical and semi-autobiographical pieces. These reflect his analytically-rich intellectual strength as much as they highlight his experience and perceptiveness.

Kinkarda, though, never took up the pen. He did not have that mindset. Nor did he have the time. He had devoted his body, mind, life to ceaseless creation….I decided that if he would permit me to do so, I would come to him according to his wish and leisure. I would glean bit by bit, the best I could, from my interactions with him. In this way, at least some things could be preserved for those who want to know him, understand him deeply, or those who would never have the good fortune to see him, to listen to him.

Even as I was contemplating this, an unexpected opportunity came my way. At the time, Kinkarda used to stay at Shankhoda’s (artist Shankho Chowdhuri) mud house in Ratan Palli. That house was on the verge of collapsing. To my great delight, Kinkarda came to live in house number twenty in our Andrews Palli, right next to me. Without wasting any time, I grabbed this opportunity.

Morning, afternoon, evening, late evening—I visited him at all hours. On off days and holidays, a passion to leave everything aside and run to him would seize me. After nearly a year of such sessions, the work was complete.

Read the rest in The Beacon

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.

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

Two Lights: Flash Fiction

First published as a part of a contest in The Clarity of Night

“Coffee?” He exclaimed, without waiting for my reply, then jived his way to the kitchen, a song on his lips. I smiled. The rugged terrain and the daily dance of death had failed to harden him.

I finished the painting with a smudge of blue. He joined me, holding his drink. For an infantryman fighting seven thousand miles away, a four-day trip back home was luxury.

After discussing his health, the kitties, and the weather, I told him about the divorce and Mark remarrying. Was he upset for being kept in the dark? His lips clipped with unsaid words. Was it the heat when he yelped at gulping a large sip of coffee?

Caffeine over, he was back to his ebullient self. “Let’s see how the masterpiece looks.” He placed the canvas on the wall. “I’m gonna steal this one once I start living on my own. Make sure you sign it.”

“It’s yours,” I said with a weak grin.

“Well, aren’t you a sweetheart?” He hugged me.

Then, he gave me the gift; two beautiful crystal lights. He positioned them at the ends of the chest, just below the painting.

Three days later, a day before his nineteenth birthday, I received his death notice. Today, he would have been twenty.

I stepped into the room that had remained unlit for a year. I turned on the two lights and glanced at the painting.

“May the light shine for you, my son,” I whispered, before a lump blocked my throat.

Cutting Through Mountains to Build a Statue

An excerpt from Somendranath Bandyopadhyay’s My Days with Ramkinkar Baij where the sculptor and painter shares with the author his experience of sculpting the Yaksha-Yakshi statues that stand outside the central bank in New Delhi.

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

Kinkarda’s innocence amuses me. He is oblivious to the gigantic cost of cutting through a mountain. I know that once he had to pay the price for this inexperience. Recalling the incident I say, ‘You did do a major work by cutting stones later, though. In front of New Delhi’s Reserve Bank.’

‘Yes. The Reserve Bank governor had provided me with a lot of conveniences. Their only request was “Do something”.

‘I made Yaksha-Yakshi. Many people call it ‘Kuber’. Arre, why should it be Kuber? It’s not Kuber. It is Yaksha. They aren’t even husband and wife, but brother and sister. Yakshi. Had it been the wife, she would have been called Yakshini.

‘In Bharatpur and Sanchi, I had seen ancient Yaksha-Yakshi statues. Their limbs were broken. I also studied a few of those at the Patna Museum.

Yakshi holds the territory of land and agriculture. And Yaksha reigns over wealth. Kuber is above them. You must have read Coomaraswamy’s book; that contains everything.

‘You might have noticed that I’ve placed a discus in my sculpture’s hand. That was my idea. Addition. It’s a modern-day machine and is symbolic of industry. I got the idea for the flower and paddy cluster in Yakshi’s hand from the old statues. You know what Yaksha held in the ancient statues? A mallet. And a bag in the left hand. I have placed that too. Money bag. My Yaksha is completely modern – with a machine and a money bag. And is it possible to have the money bag and not have a fat belly? Yakshas do have protruding bellies, my dear. You must have seen ancient Yaksha statues. My Yaksha has it too.’

Read the rest in The Wire.

 

MY Days with Ramkinkar Baij

Twenty Andrews Palli. Kinkarda lives in this house now.

He sits in the room adjoining a small veranda. He lives in this room; it is his living room as well as bedroom. The door is ajar; it is always like that.

[From My Days With Ramkinkar Baij]

 

I found the way to that door about five years ago. As it was ajar, I entered, though not without some measure of diffidence. The world of a towering genius called Ramkinkar Baij, Kinkarda to his loved ones, had opened up to me, but was I capable enough to navigate it? Gladly, printed words, not the actual, near-mythical persona of Kinkarda, paved my pathway. The hesitance started fading, like the lifting of a soft mist off an enormous mountain. This monumental (I don’t use the word lightly) sculptor-painter had me entranced–with his works, life. And words.

Yes, words, because My Days with Ramkinkar Baij, which I read as Shilpi Ramkinkar Alaapchari in Bengali, is Ramkinkar’s life in his own words. From a timid reader, I turned into a zealous admirer. In the five years that followed, the book took me to Norwich, UK (I received the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship to work on the translation of this book); I got married and moved to the U.S. and then to Canada; became a translator; my translation of Shilpi Ramkinkar Alaapchari found a publisher and became My Days with Ramkinkar Baij.

Even as author Somendranath Bandyopadhyay, through his smooth and sensitive narrative–based on his closeness to Ramkinkar–recounted his days with the awe-inspiring artist, the past five years enabled me to experience My (own) Days with Ramkinkar Bai–vibrant, many-hued, at times tumultuous.

For this, I couldn’t be grateful enough.