The Telegraph
Sunday , March 16 , 2014
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Life in pictures


At a time when the British Council Library was on Shakespeare Sarani and it used to stock the most wonderful books imaginable, one much sought after was a series on the life and times of English authors and poets. These books were remarkable for they brought to life the period in which they worked.

A clean-shaven Rabindranath Tagore after his father’s death

It is a pity that no publisher in Bengal, a state which justifiably prides itself on its past literary treasures, ever thought of bringing out a series on these lines where words and pictures complement each other to flesh out the zeitgeist. Abhikumar Dey’s voluminous (and agonisingly heavy) series Smritir Chhobi (memory pictures) on Rabindranath Tagore fills that gap. This book illumines the many despairs and joys which moulded his verse and prose and his personality. The pictures give an identifiable reality to the various episodes of his life, and his words — manuscripts are often reproduced — give us a better insight into his brilliant creative genius.

Dey has been working indefatigably on this project for over 30 years without any institutional help, sorting out and stringing together like a garland of thousands of images from myriad sources. This exercise has already resulted in two heavy volumes covering the periods 1861 to 1900, and from 1901 to 1915. The latter phase is the subject of the latest volume. It begins at a time when the poet was a rather dandified young man with a perfectly trimmed beard, and by the end of the volume, he has a grizzled head with silver strands in his beard. The intervening years have added dignity, serenity and gravitas to his personality, and in the last photograph, he stands erect and looks into the distance. In between, we see a rare photograph of a clean-shaven poet after the death of his father. The poet himself provides the narrative link of this garland of pictures, and his plaintive voice can be heard throughout.

Visva-Bharati had rejected Dey’s appeal for help but he tried every other source imaginable from newspapers and journals to telegrams, letters and old publications. He had even established contact with several institutions abroad, the ones which the poet had visited. Fortunately, many individuals had allowed him access to their personal collections. The poet, Sankha Ghosh, generously vetted his manuscript, often filling up gaps in information. Dey plans to complete the series with two other volumes in the near future.

Unfolding before our eyes are the advent of the ashram school in Santiniketan, the partition of Bengal, the writing of Gitanjali, Jeebansmriti, his autobiography, and his novels, the publication of various seminal journals with which he was associated, his travels abroad and his encounter with the intelligentsia in the West. This was when Rabindranath read out his translation of Gitanjali to Yeats, and Macmillan published translations of his writings, events culminating in the award of the Nobel prize.

Dey has been successful in creating a living portrait of the poet by highlighting both his private and public face and tracing his relationships with various personalities through their correspondence and other rare documents. The detailed notes at the end of the book are invaluable. One wishes Dey had been a little more careful about proofing the few English words used in this book.

Stamp of identity

One of the Lithuanian stamps on display

A Baltic nation of less than 30 lakh people celebrated its 96th anniversary in the city in a novel way last month. Its ambassador to India flew over with a special collection of stamps to display on the day.

The theme of the stamps was the coats of arms of Lithuanian towns and cities. “It is a tradition in Lithuania for every city and town to have its own emblem, which represents the character and aspirations of its people. Since 1992, our post office Lietuvos Pastas has been releasing three stamps every year representing the coats of arms,” said ambassador Laimonas Talat-Kelpsa. A total of 43 stamps were displayed.

The capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, has as its coat of arms St. Christopher crossing the Vilnia river with baby Jesus over one shoulder and the cross in his other hand. “It dates back to the times when the city was Christianised,” said the ambassador who himself is from Vilnius.

The Act of Independence of Lithuania had been signed by the Council of Lithuania on February 16 in 1918, proclaiming the restoration of an independent state of Lithuania.

The idea of the exhibition was mooted by Arvind Sukhani, whose father M.C. Sukhani used to be a leading stamp dealer, with the aim of promoting bilateral ties between Lithuania and India. Some of the medals the octogenarian founder-president of India Stamp Dealers Association received at philatelic exhibitions were displayed.

“My father used to import containers full of stamps in ships. The rarest stamp he had handled was a Queen Victoria’s inverted head printed in 1854 at the survey office in Calcutta. It is believed that three sheets of 12 stamps each were printed with the error. He had got a unique cut-square piece posted on an envelope from Christie’s auction house in London for £75,000 for a client. After a few change of hands, the price we last know of the four-anna stamp had escalated to Rs 3 crore.” The medals, he said, were mostly won for his own collection of the stamps of independent Indian states, especially Bhopal.

Singer Swapna Ray flanked by Tanusree and Soumitra Chatterjee at the launch of her first album of devotional songs at Haldiram Banquet. Picture by Arnab Mondal

Voice of Northeast

It is not easy to live in fear, to be made to feel like an outsider. But five women from the Northeast have risen above such challenges, inhibitions and prejudices, and turned their situation to an advantage. They shared their success story at the American Center for the fourth edition of Our Voice, Our Journey.

The event — presented in collaboration with Ananta Aspen Centre — saw Binalakshmi Nepram, the founder of Manipur Gun Survivor Network, Jahnabi Phookan, the director of Assam-Bengal Navigations, R. Lalramengzami, the vice-president of Mizoram Cancer Foundation, Szarita Laitphlang, the vice-chairperson of the State Development Reforms Commission and the state secretary of Meghalaya Pradesh Congress Committee, and Abokali Sumi, the programme founder of Organic Nagaland, talking about their work and lives in the Northeast. The discussion was moderated by Helen LaFave, the US consul-general in Calcutta.

Binalakshmi was not present at the American Center but the audience were shown a video of her work as she helped in the rehabilitation of victims who had lost their sons, brothers and husbands in the insurgency-ridden Manipur. Szarita spoke about her political ambitions and how she had to transform herself and look more “Indianised” to fit into the political environment. It was always her indomitable will that kept her going. “I yearn to be reborn here so that I can complete what I started,” she said.

Lalramengzami or Mazami began with “I have a beautiful breast…” as she shared with the audience her fight against breast cancer. From painful chemotherapy sessions to the fear felt by cancer patients, Mazami’s account touched every heart. Her cancer foundation in Mizoram works at giving patients mental strength as well as fighting for better medical facilities.

Abokali spoke of Nagaland, its culture, her people and how they live in fear when officers of the army check on them suddenly. “Education is liberation for me. It liberated me from all childhood fear,” she said. Jahnabi spoke of her tourist venture Jungle Travels India and how despite all the violence and insurgency in the Northeast progress is also taking place side by side. “Listen to our positive stories too,” she said.