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Calcutta’s poet who was Rajasthan’s voice

Jaipur, Dec. 19: When the 20-year-old Calcuttan moved Tagore to tears with his poem one balmy evening in 1939, the budding talent was not holding out a promise to Bengali poetry.

Kanhaiyalal Sethia, living and studying in a city resonating with the sounds of a new and liberated Bengali literature, was instead paying his dues to his native Rajasthani tongue and a nation longing for political freedom.

The young man who smuggled a tiranga from Calcutta to Sujangarh in Rajasthan to defy a colonial ban on processions also kept the flag of Rajasthani literature flying in his faraway new home, where his family had migrated when he was just nine.

On Monday, four years after his death in Calcutta, his ancestral state honoured its beloved bard with one of the seven inaugural Rajasthan Ratna awards, whose other recipients included ghazal singer Jagjit Singh and musician Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.

If the prime historical ties between Bengal and Rajasthan have been forged by migrant businessmen from the desert state, Kanhaiyalal the poet built a unique literary bridge between them.

His grandson Siddharth, 39, who came to Jaipur with his father to receive the Rs 1 lakh prize, paid tribute to that link.

“Calcutta being the cultural capital of India, where artists and writers are honoured, perhaps inspired him to carry on writing as no other city would have,” the graduate of St Xavier’s College, Calcutta, told The Telegraph.

“My grandfather, a loving and gentle man, was mainly responsible for my learning the Rajasthani language despite living in Calcutta.”

Kanhaiyalal spoke Rajasthani at home and insisted that other family members do so too. It was a poem written in his mother tongue and steeped in veer ras (chivalry) that had so moved Tagore, who had himself turned Rajput bravery into verse.

In Rajasthan, every schoolchild knows Kanhaiyalal’s Dharti Dhora Ri, which describes the desert sand and its hues and has been adopted as the state anthem. The Rajputana Rifles and the Border Security Force use the song as one of their official tunes, and it has inspired a documentary by Gautam Ghose titled Land of Sand Dunes, which is how the poem’s title translates into English.

Kanhaiyalal was born on September 11, 1919, in dry and dusty Sujangarh in Churu district, about 200km from Jaipur, from where many families migrated to Calcutta in search of greener pastures. Kanhaiyalal’s family moved to the Bengal capital in 1928 and opened a garment and jute business.

But Kanhaiyalal never wanted to become a merchant. He plunged into the Swadeshi movement, wore khadi and persuaded his father to stop selling Manchester cloth.

The spirit of those days never left his poetry, much of which is marked by nationalistic zeal. His famous Peethal Aur Pathal, which depicts an episode from Rana Pratap’s life, was aimed at motivating Indians to throw the British out.

Kanhaiyalal wrote in Hindi and Urdu too and received the Sahitya Akademi Award for his poem Lilatamsa and the Jnanpith Moortidevi in 1986.

But he did not ignore his adopted home. When the Partition riots broke out, he formed the East Bengal Relief Society in 1946 and penned the poem Noakhali to express the nation’s anguish.

Raj Parbha Pangharia, a Jaipur-based gynaecologist and writer, said she was inspired by the simplicity and precision of Kanhaiyalal’s writings.

“It’s amazing how, coming from a small place like Sujangarh, he had this deep knowledge of so many things and could express them in such simple words.”

Kanhaiyalal lived in Ashutosh Mukherjee Road in Bhowanipore and graduated from Scottish Church College. He founded the Vichar Manch in Calcutta for upcoming talents in Rajasthani literature, painting and other cultural fields.

In 1978, he formed the Rajasthan Parishad, an organisation of Calcutta-based Rajasthanis.

Kanhaiyalal opened several schools, colleges and a medical college in Bikaner and Sujangarh and initiated the establishment of universities in Ajmer, Kota and Bikaner.