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OBITUARY: PRABUDDHA DASGUPTA

Prabuddha and I were both intrigued by Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat”. What is going on, in that song, between three people who seem to be connected to one another by life, longing, and a sadness that looks beyond regrets at something truly mysterious? Trying to figure that out broke the ice between him and me when we first met properly in Goa last year. There was a strange mix of shyness and awkwardness between us. The awkwardness was mine: I was meeting someone about whose latest book I had been critical in a review. And the shyness was his. But I’m glad today that it never quite went away even after we became deeply fond of each other in no time. For me, Prabuddha’s shyness was his truest, and most attractive, quality. There was nothing covertly manipulative or falsely modest about it. It was a genuinely humble, yet peculiarly self-assured, acceptance of his own vulnerability and unsureness as, first, a human being and then, an artist. It was like a gift that he was bringing to you, and if you received it, it settled into a combination of gentleness, affection and trust. It was what kept him and his work remarkably young and open.

In Goa, time stretches indefinitely and makes room for long, intense conversations. It was through a series of astonishingly free discussions of life, love and loss, conducted in the company of close, mutual friends, and with plenty of laughter thrown in, that I began to know Prabuddha and Lakshmi, his beautiful companion and the subject of some of his best photographs. Leonard Cohen helped. Prabuddha was a fan (“Sometimes I feel I am Cohen,” he told me in a voice that had more than a touch of Cohen in it). Again, the mysterious ménage à trois in “Famous Blue Raincoat” cleared the way for the conversation to enter our own lives. I realized how the openness with which he lived his life was actually a highly mature form of innocence. It was an ability to trust the simplicity of the heart’s dictates and then summon up the humility, and courage, to listen to these dictates and value them for what they were — difficult but cherished gifts.

One morning this summer, Prabuddha brought over a box of working prints to where I was staying in Goa. We laid out the photographs on our friend’s table-tennis table, and started to edit and sequence them together. He had allowed me the freedom to be ruthless, paring down his work to the essentials, so that we could think about how best to show them. This is a wonderful, yet profoundly delicate, thing to do with an artist’s work-in-progress, and again I was struck by how Prabuddha never took for granted that I would receive unequivocally the extraordinary gift of vulnerability that he was bringing to me that morning. Yet, I did not feel pressured to be anything but honest in my response to his work. I knew — and he made me feel sure — that somehow our new friendship would grow out of this always-uncertain place where his vulnerability sought out and met my honesty.

Prabuddha and I were planning a long interview next month, and I was looking forward to hearing more about his growing years when he actually lived on the premises of the NGMA in Delhi because his father — the sculptor, Prodosh Dasgupta — was its director. We felt that in revisiting that early experience of living every day among works of art lay the possibilities of exciting new work. (Imagine being able to indulge in a solitary, day-long reverie in the Amrita Sher-Gil Room whenever you wanted to.) But what keeps coming back to me today is a delightfully frivolous, though also a little nervous, conversation we were all having one night in Goa, in our friend’s open courtyard, about the perils of sitting under the coconut trees. I was telling them about a distant great-aunt who, according to family lore, had become slightly demented after a coconut fell on her infant head. “Gosh, what a way to go that would be!” Prabuddha laughed out loud with all of us, as the candles flickered and the frangipani tree dropped its blossom silently in the dark.