The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The twain met in the Thirties and Forties

There is no greater pain than to recall a happy time in wretchedness.

— Dante, “Inferno”, v, 121-3.

It is difficult to record and lament the death of a sensibility. The task is rendered well nigh impossible when it is occasioned by the death of an almost forgotten individual. Chanchalkumar Chattopadhyaya, who died last week in Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States of America, was 89 years old. In his youth, he was part of a group of young men in Calcutta which included Samar Sen, the poet, Debiprosad Chattopadhyaya, the commentator on the atheist tradition in Indian philosophy, and his brother Kamakshi, poet, Jyotirindra Moitra, poet and singer, and Asok Mitra, the bureaucrat. Inspiring and guiding this circle of literary-minded young men was the poet Bishnu Dey, and further afield, the Parichay group. In the Thirties, apart from literature, it was opposition to fascism which inspired these young men as it did many others whose names are not normally associated with any brand of leftism — Buddhadeb Bose, for example.

Unlike Samar Sen, Chanchal Chattopadhyaya did not leave behind an imprint on the poetry of Bengal. As a poet, he was low-key and cerebral; the muse of poetry captivated him only in fits and starts. What is the need, one might well ask, to remember him'

He was stirred to write occasionally because his intellect was driven in a different direction. As a younger contemporary of Bishnu Dey, he had read with the poet, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. He wanted to pursue the classical allusions in their writings and he chose to fulfil his quest the hard way. He decided to teach himself Greek, Latin, French and Italian. The last named language gave him one of his life’s loves: Dante. The other love was Western classical music.

Chanchalbabu — as he was fondly known — went on to read Dante in the original, to write commentaries on the text in Bengali and to make translations of sections of the The Comedy (few know that the word “Divine” was a later addition to the original title). His commentaries were detailed and his erudition staggering. It was not an easy task, sitting here in Calcutta with only the resources of the National Library at his disposal. The only parallel that comes immediately to mind is the redoubtable Nirad C. Chaudhuri who trudged all the way from Shyambazar to the National Library every day to educate himself according to his own exacting standards. Chanchalbabu’s learning was homespun save a visit to France in the Fifties.

It is no coincidence that Niradbabu and Chanchalbabu knew each other. What brought them together was their love for and interest in Western classical music. It was Bishnu Dey who introduced Chanchal Chattopadhyay to Western classical music, as he indeed did many others. But Chanchalbabu’s mind was not satisfied with merely listening to gramophone records, which he did in Niradbabu’s tiny house in north Calcutta in the company of Satyajit Ray. The latter remained a lifelong friend and admirer. Chanchalbabu, like Ray and Chaudhuri, taught himself to read a score. It is highly unlikely that he had a piano in his Bhowanipore home. This was a completely cerebral activity. For a long time, at Western classical music concerts in Calcutta, much more common then and then the preserve of the sahibs and the Westernized social elite, Chanchalbabu, Ray, Chaudhuri and Dey always stood out because they were the only ones dressed in dhoti and punjabi.

Chanchalbabu was an autodidact in his appreciation of both Dante and Western classical music. His profound interest in the latter was explicit in essays that he wrote in Bengali in the journal Sahitya Patra (established by Bishnu Dey in the late Forties with Chanchal Chattopadhyaya as the first editor). He tried to explain to Bengali readers the intricacies of reading a musical score and the various structural forms of Western classical music. He explored the arcane world of Gregorian chants: the origin of plainsong, the importance of polyphony and plainsong’s extraordinary and unique musical structure. This was in the late Forties when listening to plainsong in secular musical circles was not very popular even in the West; neither was the scholarship of this genre of music as well-established as it is today.

Chanchalbabu was not a prolific writer. He did not care for accolades. He wanted to write as a convinced man and without any consideration of fame or material gains. Perhaps he took as his life’s motto, the lines from the fifth canto of Purgatorio: “…and let the people talk; stand thou as a firm tower which never shakes its summit for blast of winds.”

What is significant is that Chanchalbabu represented a special sensibility in the culture of Calcutta. He and other representatives of this ambience drew sustenance from all that was aesthetically worthwhile in European culture. In so doing, they nurtured a cultural attitude and they were willing to undergo a certain amount of hardship and toil to carry out this nurturing. The fact that their spring of intellectual and aesthetic enrichment was located in Europe did not in any way diminish their Bengali identity. They wrote proudly in Bengali and wrote well; they were all at the forefront of an urbane Bengali culture. In their own sensibilities and their cultural preoccupations, they brought together Western civilization and a Bengali identity. They could write with ease on Dante in Bengali and found nothing paradoxical in cultivating a European sensibility while remaining rooted in their own urban Bengali identity.

Calcutta was never more globalized than it was in the late Thirties and through the Forties. Poets, writers and artists came together to form the Anti-fascists Writers’ Association. The creation of this platform came not from a shared political ideology but rather from a shared aesthetic sensibility. This intellectual globalization had no fanfare as its baggage. Three individuals listening to Bach on a Victrola in a poky little flat in Shyambazar felt themselves to be at one with the best in European culture.

World War II engendered a milieu in Calcutta that facilitated an amicable encounter between a particular kind of European mind and a rooted Bengali sensibility. In Bishnu Dey’s middle-class home near Lake Market, men as varied as E.M. Forster, Joseph Needham, J.B.S. Haldane, Louis Macneice, Verrier Elwin, WIlliam Archer, John Irwin and so on could walk in and feel comfortable discussing art, politics and literature with the poet and his younger friends.

It is easy to ridicule the quest of that generation to make itself civilized and cultured in terms of parameters derived from Europe. It is easy also to scoff at them for their elitism. But their pursuit was a little more substantial and a little more noble than crude attempts to impose Bengali by destroying windows of shops that have their signboards written in English. Once cosmopolitan, Calcutta is twice insular today. A Bengali reading Dante in the original is as rare to find today as a Bengali teaching himself to read the notation of Western classical music. There are too many people around who see red when they hear the word culture.

Yet, Calcutta was at one time the home of Chanchalkumar Chattopadhyaya and his friends. They have all gone and so has a vital bit of the city’s history and charm.

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