The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Ray’s juggler tosses up tricks-of-the-trade academy

When Jatayu was trembling at the thought of facing the dagger-thrower in Jai Baba Felunath, there was probably just one person who was not laughing at his discomfiture: the dagger-thrower himself. He was busy making sure he did not make a mistake; the film was, after all, being directed by Satyajit Ray.

That dagger-thrower returned again in Phatikchand — playing the dummy, again, for a flame-catching Kamu Mukherjee — and Goopi Bagha Phire Elo, where he played himself on screen, balancing on rollers while juggling two hammers and a ball.

Abhay Mitra, Ray’s juggler, is now 64 but is working at a feverish pitch, giving final touches to his “long-cherished dream”. An institute — the first of its kind in the country — that will train budding jugglers in an art that is inching towards the lost-species list. Academy of Juggling is set to open its doors at the Boy Scouts of Bengal tent on the Maidan. “I will not charge a single paisa for my visits there once every week,” says Mitra, at his Uttarpara residence on Sunday. “My only wish is to ensure that the art is alive and kicking before I die,” he adds.

Mitra is desperate that the art, now pushed to the roadside or the grassless patches of the Maidan, “moves out of this family”. The man who inherited the skill from his father (Kalosona Mitra), who died when he was just seven, has now passed it on to his children. But that’s just not enough. The institute will enrol any kid between six and 16 years of age. “But special emphasis will be on the physically-challenged and mentally-retarded,” says Mitra. “I have seen juggling, in step with the rhythm of music, work wonders for them.”

Mitra’s dreams may lie in the future but it’s the past that has shaped them, he admits. The past that took him to Paris. The past that saw him working with Ray. The past that found him meeting Mother Teresa. He remembers his first meeting with Ray. Taken to his residence by P.C. Sorcar (Jr), it was very brief. He faced three questions from the maestro — “Can you do the dagger-throwing act' Can you juggle' Can you show me what you do'” The answers to them all: “Yes.”

Showtime was fixed for the next evening (6 pm on a June evening in 1978) and Ray, accompanied by wife (Bijoya) and son (Sandip), watched Mitra perform for one whole hour. When Mitra was over with his dagger-throwing, ball-and-stick-and-hammer-juggling, ribbon-dancing, sword-balancing, hat-throwing act, Ray rose from his seat and patted him on the back. “Well done,” he told Mitra, before signing him on for the behind-the-scene operation acted out by Kamu Mukherjee to please Maganlal Meghraj (Utpall Dutt).

A lot has changed, but Mitra still gets calls from both Ramoji Film City and the Durgapur City Athletic Club. Having staged at least 5,000 shows in the past 50 years, he makes it a point to respond to both. After all, the art of juggling must be spread far and wide, before it is too late.

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