HAPPINESS AND BEAUTY - Sankho Chaudhuri, a sculptor forgotten by Bengal

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  • Published 15.09.06

In the more than half a century since the Lalit Kala Akademi was set up, Sankho Chaudhuri was only the second Bengali to be invited to be its chairman. His passing last month evoked sorrow all over the country. Condolence meetings were held at different centres, including in such an unlikely place as Jammu. There was not a ripple though in Calcutta’s supposedly super-sophisticated cultural circles. A couple of dismissive little notices in an inside page of some newspapers, a ten-second reference in one or two television channels: that was about all. Not one grief-laden statement on behalf of any group of artists and sculptors. No organization, whether official or non-official, bothered to convene a memorial meeting: the closest thing was a get-together arranged by relatives where memories of this extraordinary man were fondly recalled.

The experience was no different when the centenary of his elder brother, Sachin Chaudhuri, was observed four years ago in a small way in Calcutta. That Indian economists are now thought of so highly all over the world is in large part because of the pivotal role played by Sachin Chaudhuri’s creation, the Economic Weekly, later the Economic and Political Weekly. This unique journal, published from Mumbai, became the talk of the town as much in the two Cambridges, Tokyo and Canberra as in New Delhi and Bangalore. But Calcutta’s parochial crowd could not care less. Only events and happenings within the precincts of Presidency College and Rabindra Sadan mattered; everything else was dispensable. Sachin Chaudhuri was a non-person in Bengal while he was alive; the situation has not changed in the forty years since his death.

Sankho Chaudhuri’s fate has been no better. After early childhood in Dhaka and schooling in Santiniketan, he went adrift, boisterously exemplifying the Tagorean quest; not here, not there, somewhere else, at some other wondrous shore. Imprisonment during the Quit India movement; that interregnum over, he took some time to decide whether to be a country balladeer — he had a rich baritone — or devote himself to the arts. His preliminary experiments were in painting, with both watercolour and oil. Ramkinkar Baij’s influence was however too overpowering, Sankho Chaudhuri soon switched over to sculpture. To be outrageously idiosyncratic was his guru’s forte. Sankho Chaudhuri followed suit. Perhaps not quite.

Shocking the cognoscenti for the sake of shocking them was nonetheless his cup of tea. Yes, one had to be bold with theme as well as form. These, however, had to have a meaningful link with the reality around. Even if the work-in-progress insists on assuming an abstract form, it must have a context in everyday life. He had toured Europe extensively for a number of years and inserted ideas he picked into the specific ethos of Indian sculpture. What emerged was an altogether new genre. It was neither Epstein nor Giacometti. It could not be; after all, our subject was Ramkinkar Baij’s foremost disciple, and his works remained comprehensively Indian with severely native themes.

What needs to be stressed is that the range of medium and material he chose to experiment with was simply astounding. Trying out terracotta forms with rude, rough Bankura-Birbhum soil was only a starter. Once he fully migrated to sculpture, it was not just bronze or cast or wrought iron, he would crush into smithereens diverse metals, make a cocktail of them, slap the semi-liquid alloy into unbelievable shapes. An occasional diversion into wood apart, in later life he was increasingly fascinated by mortar, stone and marble. His trek to the quarries at Makrrana was a romantic adventure loaded with grandeur.

Did you ever gaze at some glistening pink figurettes of stunning beauty in this or that museum or this or that collection in a rich private household? They must have been, rest assured, from Sankho Chaudhuri’s ensemble of creations. Remember coming across in an exhibition the exquisite Lady with Cactus, which proved that statics is dynamics and vice versa? And what about those busts, which make us feel that the departed greats such as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Satyendra Nath Bose are not gone, they are in repose right next to us?

This great innovator was also an outstanding teacher and organizer. His fifteen years at the University of Baroda transformed the department of fine arts there into a shrine where the minutest aspects of different creative arts were not just reverentially talked about; it became a plaza of major creative activities.

Birds flock together. Artists too, Sankho Chaudhuri felt, should be together; that would enable them to learn from and inspire one another and, at the same time, hasten the pace of integration between creativity and evolving technology. Which is why he took the initiative to establish the Garhi Studio in Delhi, where artists have the freedom to experiment with ideas, forms and media. Those working at this locale do not allow themselves to forget that an artist needs to be also an artisan, and must fill the role of an ordinary worker; he must do himself the mixing of oils he wants to experiment with, melt himself the metals and prepare his own alloy, chisel himself the stones he wants to transform to life: creative art and sub-contracting do not go together.

This man nurtured within himself layers and layers of dream; they strained to burst at the seams. He was, for instance, disturbed by the absence of even an elementary sense of aesthetics in middle class Indian households. Lack of aesthetics, he was convinced, has absolutely no relationship with the level of income or wealth; the living proof was the neatness observable in adivasi abodes. Fatcats sometimes buy works of art, perhaps to show off, perhaps for reasons of speculation. The more relevant issue is how to eradicate the illiteracy of the bourgeoisie in general. For expanding this aesthetic awareness, he had for long considered organizing community parks where the history of the relationship between art and the civilization of man could be presented in chronological order. He lobbied hard to sell the idea. Nobody in officialdom or tycoonland was interested. And of course, Bengal never ever would welcome him.

Sankho Chaudhuri was disappointed, but he had the strength in him to bypass setbacks. To him, happiness and beauty were coterminous. From there, it was easy to arrive at what he regarded as the central point in human existence: to be full of love is to be full of life. He loved his family, his neighbours, his friends and in fact loved to be in great terms with those who wanted to consider him as their enemy. He would laugh away the rest of the day’s agenda. His raucous laughter could almost compete with the famous guffaw his brother, Sachin Chaudhuri, would break out into in his flat on Merewether Road in Mumbai, which, according to legend, shook the foundations of the Gateway of India a furlong away.

This eminent Bengali, Sankho Chaudhuri, was ignored by Bengal even in his death. Why shy away from the fact that cultural degeneracy is fast spreading its wings in the neighbourhood? A few years ago, one of the most outstanding exponents of Tagore’s music died in a Calcutta hospital, and her body was to be taken to Santiniketan for the performance of the last rites. The van carrying the body could not make it out of Calcutta for a full three hours: a rising star in the Mumbai film world was visiting the city, thousands of earnest youngsters had gone mad to have a glimpse of him, the streets were jammed by then. Kanika Bandyopadhyay’s corpse could wait.

When told this story, Sankho Chaudhuri laughed uproariously. But there was a tinge of pale in his laughter. A harsh thing to say, but it is good that he died when he did; it would have been an excruciating experience for him to continue witnessing the crumbling of civilization.