The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page

I must have been very naïve to hope that great things would come out of the first big NRI conference in Delhi: they would set up big business in India, open up employment opportunities for the educated, unemployed young Indians, set up new schools, colleges and hospitals and generally show us that what Indians have achieved abroad they could achieve in the land of their forefathers.

In fact very little came out of their three-day assembly. It was a classical example of the Persian adage: aamdan (they came), nishastand (they sat), guftand (they talked), barkhastand (they departed). It was no more than a jamboree with little to show besides the wide coverage given to it by the Indian media.

They tell us that from now on many Indian NRIs will have dual nationalities and will be issued Indian passports to facilitate their coming and going. I know for a fact that most NRIs have no problem about coming to India: they have multiple visas which entitle them to do so. At any Indian international airport you will see long queues facing counters marked “Indian nationals” and very small queues facing “Foreign nationals”. They encounter no more problems than Indian passport-holders clearing immigration and customs.

They tell us that NRIs with Indian passports will be able to buy land and real estate in India. Most regular NRI visitors to India already do so in their own names or of their relatives or companies of which they are part owners. In any event, the ability to own property in their own names will make marginal impact on India’s economy.

The presence of people like Ujwal Dosanjh (ex-prime minister of British Colombia), Mohinder Chaudhary (ousted PM of Fiji), the prime minister of Mauritius, Lord Dholakia, the hotelier, Sant Singh and Fatima Mir from South Africa gave the gathering some lustre, but more positive impact was made by the interventions of the Nobel Laureate Sir Vidia Naipaul and his irrepressible wife, Nadira. It needed nerve to stand up in a crowded hall packed with celebrities to confront Narendra Modi and tell him how he had defaced the image of India by his hate-filled speeches and anti-Muslim violence he had sponsored in Gujarat. Bravo Nadira!

And Sir Vidia rightly took up the cause of Tehelka by accompanying its founder-director, Tarun Tejpal, to the Supreme Court to attend a hearing against one of his reporters. Tehelka has been the victim of sustained persecution by government agencies and brought to ruin. It had the guts to show alive on the screen two political leaders receiving cash from dubious sources. Instead of persecuting them, the government chose to harass the entire Tehelka outfit by instituting two commissions of inquiry, one after the other. It took a man of the stature of Sir Vidia Naipaul to expose the skulduggery to the Indian public. Two bravos for him!

The artist as I saw him

In the early Forties, two artists dominated the Lahore cultural scene — Amrita Shergil and Bhabesh Sanyal. At that time it was more their extra-curricular activities than their art that made them the favourite topic among the city’s gossip circles. When Amrita departed from the scene, Sanyal remained the centre of attention till Partition in August 1947. Like most non-Muslims, he was forced out of Lahore and came to settle in Delhi in a modest ground-floor apartment close to Nizamuddin railway station.

Bhabesh Sanyal was Assamese Bengali. He came to Lahore to take over as vice-principal of the Mayo School of Arts (founded by Rudyard Kipling’s father, Lockwood) next to the Lahore Museum facing the Zam Zamah which Maharajah Ranjit Singh had captured from the Afghans. The principal of the Mayo School was Mr Gupta, an artist of mediocre talent but father of Lahore’s uncrowned beauty queen, Kalyani.

It did not take her long to fall in love with the young, handsome Bengali-speaking assistant of her father and elope with him. Sanyal was promptly fired from his job and set up an art studio of his own. He soon attracted a bevy of young ladies with artistic ambitions to learn at his feet; they included Asghari Manzur Qadir, Damyanti Batra and my wife. Sanyal became a regular visitor to our home. One thing I remember about his visits is that our then one-year-old son was never able to pronounce his name. Every time he came when we were not at home, he would inform us with wide open eyes, “Talyan”.

It did not take Sanyal long to fall in love again. This time it was a Punjabi girl, Sneh. Apparently, her parents were not very enthusiastic about giving their daughter to a struggling artist who did not even speak their language. Sanyal was heart-broken. We persuaded him to come up with us to Simla, where my parents had a large and beautiful house in Mashobra. We did our best to cheer him up. Every evening after dinner he would go outside, sit on a moonlit hill and play soulful melodies on his flute. His persistence paid off. When we returned to Lahore, Sneh overcame her parents’ resistance and married Sanyal. It was as happy an alliance as I have known. In due course, they had a daughter, Amba. She grew up to be a lovely and talented girl and for a while was engaged to her childhood sweet-heart, Kabir Bedi.

After we migrated from Lahore, we lost track of the Sanyals. For long periods I was living abroad or in Bombay. The Sanyals stuck to Delhi. Success came to Bhabesh slowly because he never sought anyone’s patronage or official recognition. He came to be acknowledged as a good painter and sculptor. He was nominated head of the Lalit Kala Akademi and then honoured with a Padma Bhushan.

One thing unique about Sanyal was that unlike others of his fraternity he never indulged in self-praise nor ever said an unkind word about anyone. He often repeated that craftsmanship was integral to painting and sculpture. He had no patience with impressionistic art which boggled minds of common viewers. To that extent, he remained the people’s painter.

Later in life, Sanyal began to grow a beard. It suited him and he evolved a kind of regal personality. He remained as thin as ever, walked ramrod straight with his head thrown back. He looked exactly like Augustus John’s portrait of Bernard Shaw. As was to be expected, his 100th birthday was a cause for national celebration because he was both admired and loved by all who knew him.

Romancing a butterfly

Once upon a time a handsome

honey bee

fell in love with a butterfly

he met in a tulip tree.

He said, “I love you madly

And want to share your life.

Let’s fly away together.

Will you be my wife'”

She shook her head in sorrow

“No, no, no,” cried she.

“For I am a monarch’s

daughter —

And you’re just a son of a bee.”

(Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Tezpur)

Email This Page