Cartoon of a fisherman with his catch glued to a page that describes Ram wondering how to cross the sea. (Sudeshna Banerjee)
The man who wrote Buro Angla and Kshirer Putul, and was an artist, also produced a jatra. It was a retelling of the Ramayana.
Abanindranath Tagore had called his take on our oldest epic Khuddur Jatra. The text, written between 1934 and 1942, draws on a multitude of images from the time, particularly from advertising, cinema and politics. What makes the manuscript special is the way he has added layers to the story by doodling and sketching on subjects as varied as fashion and natural history, and pasting whatever he fancied — emblems, labels, wrappers or advertisements.
The manuscript lay all this while with Abanindranath’s grandson Sumitendranath Tagore and then his wife Shyamashree. It has now surfaced in print courtesy Priyabrata Deb of Pratikshan.
The printed facsimile preserves the feel of the manuscript, including a folded flap. The pictures pasted on the sidelines provide commentary on the text and vice versa. “We can see the period through his work and his criticism of it,” said poet Sankha Ghosh at the launch.
Next to Ravana declaring war is a picture of Hitler. When Bharat carries his brother Ram’s wooden slippers on his head, he has an advertisement of Radu shoes for company. The shoe ads recur where Manthara, the scheming maid, exults over Ram’s expulsion. At the beginning of Lankakando is a picture of a chilli. Beside a page describing Ravana’s room are bathing beauties in a still from the 1926 film A Roman Scandal. Hanuman searches for Sita in Lanka next to a newspaper cutting with the heading “Information wanted”.
As art historian R. Siva Kumar said: “Everything about Abanindranath is happening late not because of weakness but because of the strength of his work. We are trying to match up to his concepts 70 years later.”
But one needs to sample how he has played with the language, giving it a lightness of touch and a flippancy of tone that underlines his irreverence. In one chapter, Sushen, the physician, enquires on the state of soldiers wounded in war and is told by Jamboban how all are cringing at the arrows like caterpillars. Says Jamboban: “Ar khobor, baney baney sobai gutishuti gutipokar baba shuopokar borabor…”
“There is scope for research on the interrelation between picture and text or even what the pictures stand for,” feels Samik Bandyopadhyay, who has provided an English commentary and a shortened translation. There is also a transcript of the hand-written text.
Man who wrote pictures
The school of art that Abanindranath Tagore founded had too many facets to be just labelled “Bengal School”. Debashish Banerji, great-grandson of the protean genius, who described himself as the “man who wrote pictures”, argues in his book, The Alternate Nation of Abanindranath Tagore, that “the art of Abanindranath, developed during the Bengal Renaissance in the 19th-20th centuries, was not merely a normalisation of national or oriental principle, but conducted a critical engagement with post-Enlightenment modernity and post-colonialism,” to quote the press release.
The book, brought out by Sage Publications, was released on Thursday evening at the Oxford Bookstore by Tapati Guha Thakurta, a professor at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Calcutta.
Guha Thakurta said with the recent publication of several new books on him in English, Abanindranath was enjoying a wider audience today, and he was being “relocated” beyond the nationalist framework.
The later Abanindranath of the 1930-51 was a complex figure who was outside the public domain, although the Jorasanko household itself was like a small township. Banerji, who is a professor of Indian Studies and the educational coordinator of the University of Philosophical Research, Los Angeles, read out a section of the book in which he analysed Abanindranath’s painting of Sindbad.