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The Craft of Whimsy

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Abanindranath Tagore’s Khuddur Jatra or Khudi Ramleela is inscribed in a large-sized ‘ruled’ exercise book of 241 pages, scripted in small letters.  Abanindranath had written quite a few punithipalas or Jatra scripts, for most of which he used episodes from the Ramayana.  One of these has been in print for some time—Jatraganey Ramayana.  Hence there was no reason for any great excitement over this manuscript. The title Khuddur Jatra would suggest an addition to the list of writings in the mode of the absurd that the artist produced in a wild spurt of madness between the ages of sixty-two and seventy-two, when he had temporarily withdrawn from his pursuit of art. But as one went on turning the pages one by one, one discovered where it was different, for the manuscript was not just a written text, but decorated with different kinds of images, a sort of serial illustration for the narrative.

We are not quite unused to writers illustrating their own works. Sukumar Ray’s sketches are inseparable from poems inAbol Tabol; Rabindranath’s Sey is made up of both words and lines. Is Khuddur Jatra yet another instance of the same kind? One could have very well expected something like that from Abanindranath.  But the images of Khuddur Jatra are not quite pictures.  On the first page, the scribbles made around corrections tend to grow into a figure of Ganesha, in the manner of Rabindranath, but the pattern does not continue farther into the book.  The pictures in this book are not so much drawn pictures as pasted pictures.  These pictures are an extension of the playful obsession with carving forms out of bamboo stump, a dried-up bough, a thrown away stick, or a stone chip picked up from the road, that produced what he came to call the kutum katam.  In his life as an artist, he told Rani Chandra, he had ‘played with colours, brushes and paper,’ as almost literally illustrated in the present manuscript.

This must have been the exercise book that is described so evocatively by Jasimuddin (1904-76) in his Thakurbadir Anginay [‘In the Courtyard of the House of Tagore, 1961]: ‘Abanindranath sat with a pile of newspapers, using a pair of scissors to snap off pictures with great care; pictures from advertisements of all kinds that he pasted here and there in the manuscript of the Jatra.  He seemed to be a grown up engaged in child’s play.  He would cut off the head in one picture to stick someone else’s head there. The pictures thus assumed strange shapes.  He told me, I’m illustrating my Jatra book.’

It is in this illustrated manuscript that eventually became Khudi Ramleela. It was not only in the newspapers that he put to use in that leela of his. Just as he picked up any object for his kutum katam, so to illustrate his Jatra, he reached out to a wide range of objects include cinema handbills, cigarette packets, pages from the almanac, chocolate wrappers, pieces of cloth, jewellery designs, or, as Nandalal Bose discovered one day, ‘he cut off a woman’s face on a matchbox label and pasted it on to his manuscript.’ But the question is: how would Abanindranath integrate this multifarious body of objects to the Ramayana story and make use of them?

 

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Ramachandri Geetabhinoy is an alternative title for Abanindranath’s  Jatraganey Ramayana. The alternative title prepares us for the fun-spiced performance of ‘Begin with the adoration of the gods and then set out on Jatra.’ Throughout this pala, the straightforward rendering of the original narrative goes hand-in-hand with a go-as-you-wish, in a mode of free flow between the formal and the colloquial. Under the heading ‘ Chief male characters’, the palagan text lists nearly sixty names, under ‘Chief female characters’, nearly twenty-five.   But there are several in the list like Shatanada, Sumantra, Matali, Jamadanda, Sainda, Jamuna and Tamasa who cannot be really considered among the chief characters. As a matter of fact, several of the seventy who appear under ‘Other Characters’ play more important roles in the narrative.  The categorization thus is not so much in terms of chief and subordinate as to distinguish between the mythological and the fictional. These other characters in the Ramayana song are Hanchi (sneeze), Tik(house lizard), Tal-chadai,  Dhenki (husking pedal), Bhombal, Budan, Ban-manush, Metey-bhoot, Jalsabhoot, Mahamari (epidemic), Adyi-Madhyi-Anti (the beginning-the middle-the end), a galaxy of characters conceived by Abanindranath.

Abanindranath sought to change the character of the traditional jatragan by inserting these ‘other’ characters among the ‘chief’ of mythological characters.  Similarly, one can see how he seeks to give it hybrid, absurd dimension by the stick-and-paste of pictures in his Khuddur Jatra. In his manuscript, when Rama is preparing to go to the forest, with the ‘the sky of Ayodhya waving and swaying,’ the text is illustrated with newspaper clippings showing flames and ruins, and an inscription in English in large type: ‘DANTE’S INFERNO, SOULS IN HELL.’  A newspaper insertion of ‘Radu & Co., 75/A, College St., Calcutta’, with pictures of rows of shoes, is pasted next to the account of Manthara, Trijata-Trijata and Guhaka in conversation, and Bharata returning with Rama’s shoes.  To accompany the account of Lakshmana cutting of Shurpanakha’s nose, he inserts an advertisement in red of face creams and snow, showing a hideous creature before a mirror, with a jar in hand, wondering; ‘One wouldn’t mind stealing to take a dab.’  Jasimuddin must have had this in mind when he wrote: ‘He searches through the newspapers until he hits upon an old man daubing his face secretly with Himani Snow.  He illustrates the account of Ravana stealing Seeta with an advertisement for the Hindi film Hindkesari, showing Bahadur on horseback, with a couple of women’s faces underneath.  Seeta under the Asoka tree in her confinement in Lanka is drawn from a woman’s face of a matchbox label.  In the same context, there is a space kept blank with a piece of heavy paper pasted over it, with the inscription: BEHIND CLOSED DOORS…BECAUSE…” One wonders why the doors have to be closed.  Then one realizes that the piece of paper has been as pasted as can be opened like a door to reveal pictures scantily dressed foreign dancers, prompting the viewer to shut the door at once.  Accompanying the account of the slaying of illusory deer are pictures of deer of several species, a goat and a rhinoceros.  As Rama addresses Hanuman, ‘Show me now Seeta’s jewellery, my child Hanuman,’ there are pictures of necklaces and earring from sample books distributed by jewellers, and golden labels pasted on new clothes.  Sugreeba the monkey king preparing for war is illustrated with pictures of armed Nagas against a hill background.  A toy teddy bear accompanies an account of Jambuban. When plans are being made to cross the ocean, the text reads: ‘Brother dear, you’re the sharpest of the monkeys. If the ocean is a hundred yojanas, your words run two hundred yojanas.’ Next to it is a newspaper clip of a hurdle race. On arriving at the house of Ravana the Kind, the illustrations are of ‘BATHING BEAUTIES IN “ROMAN SCANDAL”,’ with a hero and heroine in the posture common in foreign films of the time, standing for Ravana and Mandodari.  Ravana’s court is represented by the faces of foreign footballers arranged around a football shield.  For the beginning of the War, there are pictures of the Swastika, parades by Western soldiers, generals placed besides machine-guns. While Hanuman prepares to go looking for Seeta, there is a newspaper headline in large letters, reading ‘SOME INFORMATION NECESSARY.’  A reclining woman is shown at some distance.  When the narrative moves into Lanka, there are pictures cut from the pages of an almanac, showing vegetables like lanka (green chillies), large red mula (radishes) , and shalgam, olkopi  (vegetables of the turnip group), wit captions in Bengali indentifying them.  Robinson’s barley, boxers, the Kathakali dance, irregular train schedules, heroes and heroines of Bengali cinema, swimmers diving into the Hedjaz pool—Abanindranath draws on all these images to illuminate his retelling of the Ramayana story. Sometimes he picks up the pictures straightaway, sometimes he creates collages, weaving a colourful form out of segments of pictures, perhaps the first appearance f collage in Bengal art.  When the old Kandhakata is described in the account of the rescue of Kabandha—‘Its nose , ears, eyes and head tucked in its stomach/ It speaks as if out of a bowl’ it is illustrated with a collage, drawing the eyes from a pictures, hands from another, placed at an absurd distance, one form another, with two pitchers from yet another picture balanced on the two hands, with a printed text, ‘teeth WARNING’ and along with the charming face of a young woman. As a first response to this manuscript rich in colour and form, Jasimuddin wrote: ‘Some of the most modern poets have picked up lines arbitarity from newspapers, and assembled them to experiment with the possibility of a new expression.  I cannot say if he too was engaged in a different creative pursuit with these advertisements pictures in the newspapers. ‘

When Jasimuddin published his memoirs in 1961, the cut-up method was already a major experiment with several Western writers.  Right at this point of time, William Burroughs, in his endeavour to cut free from the persistent control of the conscious, rational mind, was using in his novels clippings from newspapers, pictures and photographs that he had shot himself. He would collect for his working notebooks anything that had the least connection with the words that he had put together; as he felt that the cut up’s establish new connections between images and ones ‘range of vision consequently expands.’ But can these whimsies that Abanindranath was conjuring up in the thirties be really considered as a creative work?  A forging of new relationships? Rabindranath had gone through some of Abanindranath’s Jatra-palas  and written to him, ‘There is no one else who can produce such instances of the craft of pure madness. ‘ He was encouraging Abanindranath to publish these. But the present manuscript compels one to wonder to what extent it is pure madness, and to what extent it is a sophisticated craft that calls for close study.

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When he gave up painting for a long spell in the last phase of his life, he would often offer the excuse that he no longer found in his work the joy of ‘overcoming difficulties.’ Was this the only reason for his withdrawal from painting? Or was he facing some other question from within about his own creative work? Late in life, this artist, considered to be the foremost figure in Indian art, had occasion to mock the very notion of ‘Oriental art’ and express serious doubts about its validity.  The character of Abanindranath’s creativity, as it comes out in Rani Chanda’s account in Jorasankor Dharey,becomes somewhat different when she comes to Shipiguru Abanindranath asking in the latter: ‘What have I gained, after all that I have done?’ Obviously, he was changing direction towards the masks and the kutum katam, towards a fascination for form per se.

With this change in direction in his art, a change in his use of language and literary sensibility was inevitable. Abanindranath had blended the lure of imagination with the charm of brata and fairytale narratives to make a world of his own, that provided the ambience for his literary works from Shakuntala to Pathey Bipathey.  His adaptations likeBudo Angla and Alor Phulki  linger in the reader’s memory by virtue of the sheer density of their sensuous poetry.   All these works belong to the period when he was engaged in painting.  But when he took temporary respite from paintings ,and chose to play with language instead, for a whole decade his use of language he sought capriciousness instead of gravity, whimsicality instead of austerity.  A considerable part of this attitude seemed to be a protest against his own past. The play Shibsadagar (1918) already shows signs of this turn to a new direction even while he was nearing fifty.  When the band of tota-bhonta [lit. ‘dull-witted parrots’] introduce themselves to their new guru, Shibasadagar, with an evocation of ‘Balaram, my great-grandfather, his father…’ the guru stops them, saying, ‘Enough, you’ve well mastered the formal idiom. Take a new lesson now. Hold your ear, and bawl out: ‘Ek hat Totaram, Dui hat shing. Nachey Totaram ta dhing dhing.’  ‘one foot Totaram, two feet horn, Totaram dances, ta dhing dhing.’ ] Still, the incorrigible Tota goes back to the formal idiom: ‘Ei bela sakaley miliya palayn kori aiso.’ [lit. ‘Let us all join together and make our escape.’] the bear snaps at him: ‘Abar sadhu bhasha? Choprao.’ [lit. ‘Again the formal idiom? Shut up.’] One can relate to this Abanindranath’s bold remark to Prabodhendunath Tagore, seeking guidelines to the art of language: ‘Rabi-ka [Uncle Rabi, i.e. Rabindranath Tagore] is a master at steamrolling the boys. Don’t ever go to him.’  And one can at once sense that this artist was aiming at a more ruptured idiom against Rabindranath’s more sophisticated idiom and literary taste through his experiments in the punthis, palas, and stories.

A substantial lot of these works were doubtless specimens of sheer madness, or what he himself described as ‘the hysteria of imagination,’ that allowed for an unrestrained surge of characters and words, often bereft of continuity or consistency, leaving the reader utterly disoriented. But can we not touch from time to time within that medley a line of thinking?  Are these assaults on the conventions of language and imagination not quite often an assault on some supposed social values?  A major part of the characters in his works, whether in a serious spirit or a lighter vein, represent the lower orders, just as his reminiscences of his younger days are full of characters like Nanda pharash [an attendant in feudal home, laying the carpets and tending the oil lamps], Samsher the coachman, the lame Govinda, the servant Ramlal, the old sweeper, the Oriya bearer, the waterbagman, the coolie, the guard, the postal peon. When Shibsadagar, the new guru,  asks his potential pupils, ‘Tota, what does your father do for a living?’ The answer comes,:

We’re farmers, busy farming,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Iching biching barbers and cobblers,                                                                                                                                                                                                                    We’re ironsmiths and potters and from the lower castes.

There is only one in the group who is a descendant of the high caste Brahman court pundit. He says, ‘We have to have a bath when we go back home, after having been with these lowcastes.’ T he ‘iching biching barbers and cobblers’ would like to run away from the estate of Phatik Raja, but are scared of his sentries even if they turn into flowers or trees or fish.  In the pala, Noah-r Kisti [Noah’s Luggage Boat’], mollahs, padres, pundits and rabbi, and ‘Manu-babu alias the False Noah’, and the Shaitan or the Devil or Koli or Iblis have all assembled in the ‘Dire Straits, the ominous night/ The twelve Suns, the Forty-nine Winds, the clouds and the lightnings, all at once.’  When the rabbi says, ‘Ahur Mazda,’ and Manu says, ‘Hey, I’m not your Mejda [second eldest brother], I’m Manu, everyone’s eldest brother,’ it may be pure fun. But it is no longer fun, when we are told, ‘The woodworm of religion is deadly.  You can say this only because you do not know how it operates.  IT can sneak into cowdung, green leaves, even into water. There’ll come a time when you’ll discover that these men have sent the woodworm eating into the staff of justice you hold in your hand.’ At the close of the play, when there is the possibility of the creation of a new world’, Noahani says, ‘Clear the way that allows men to come into the light.’ She releases the hens and ducks, the cows, the buffaloes and the sheep into the new world, and tires to organize ‘the homes, the cowsheds and the grazing grounds.’

In the play, Rasdhari, we learn of the pains of one born in a Badshah’s home. The author of Kshirer Putul [The Milk-Pudding Doll] writes: The moment I was born as a milk-pudding doll in the house of the Badshah Sobur, I was surrounded by a horde of ants from all over the country…When I had grown up a little, there came the Chopdar [lit. One who silences others], and the Hukumdar [lit. one who passes orders] then came the maulavi to teach me to speak like a parrot, then came the teacher. All of them took their turns in secret to pinch of lumps of my milk-pudding-laden flesh.’ In this story, all the Badshah’s gold fly away as birds, butterflies and fish.  The moneylenders gloat, ‘Luckily we had already turned all our gold into paper.’ The King watches, ‘All the gold turned into birds and flew away. All the rich men became smaller in size.’ The King himself discovers that his cloak has gone loose on him. He asks: ‘What’s the matter? How could I turn so small? What does it mean?’ The tailor tells him that the King himself must have reduced himself. The minister observes, “It is a known fact that the less gold the subjects have, the more of a gainer the ruler is.”

 

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With such implications surfacing in Abanindranath’s writings from time to time, Khuddur Jatra calls for a second look. When a man continues treating the same theme in the same vein in variation after variation, it cannot be that he is merely indulging himself. Jasimuddin’s perception of Abanindranath’s motivation in the ‘cuts’ is not quite convincing.  Jasimuddin felt, ‘He did not care for all the sensational events reported every day in the newspapers, or the exciting happenings in the political scenario recorded by the Press.’ According to him, Abanindranath chose to gather only absurd items instead.  But one has only to take a second look at the pictures in the manuscript to realize that it was not always a spirit of fun that motivated Abanindranath, but more often than not it was a critical mind at work, sniping at times at developments in the national and international political scenario.

If it had been otherwise, the idea of placing the picture of a German General next to the account of Ravana’s war cry would not have come to him. There is a pencil sketch at a point, drawn by someone else, dated July 1934, with advertisements of the Hindi film Hindkesari (1935), the English film Road to Glory (1936) and the Laurel and Hardy starrer Our Relations (1936) pasted close to it. These items suggest a date for the manuscript corresponding to the period of war preparations in Europe.  When the artist selects and organizes pictures of men and events from books and newspapers from the West to go with the account of the war preparations by Rama and Ravana, and incorporates pictures from Africa, then the Khudi Ramayana steps beyond the Ramayana narrative to capture traces of our own times at the level of the State and our everyday society alike.  In our society in the thirties, the film stars were emerging for the first time as players in the dreams and imagination of the common people, as models for lifestyles; consequently, Abanindranath’s Lanka becomes a dream world in cinema, crowded with the bathing beauties of Roman Scandal, seductive dancers, and heroes and heroines in embrace.   When Ravana comes to steal Seeta, Hollywood penetrates Indian culture, with early avataras of the Phantom appearing among the Hindkesari riders, or the stars inBahadur ka Khel, with black patches on their eyes, and whips and pistol in hand.  Laurel and Hardy and Frankenstein offer ironic parallels, along with Romantic rural scenes from Bengali cinema.  The mockery extends to the charkha, the Save the Cow movement, and irregular trains.  The mockery catches the very manner of advertising. The largest collection in the Khuddur Jatra manuscript is that of contemporary advertisements for products including shoes, snow, cream, barley, films and theatre conjuring up the consumerist-commercial society that was taking shape before Abanindranath’s eyes; and he could probably read in the signs premonitions of the ‘Dire straits, the ominous night, the dozen Suns, the Forty-nine winds’ in Noah-r Kisti. Hence he let the gust of the Forty-nine winds blow through his manuscript, even as restlessness worked through his madness.

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But whether one reads it as madness or in term of its inbuilt criticality, the problem is that neither achieves the discipline of a totality in Abanindranath’s hand; with a heap of possibilities idly diffused.  In his study of Bengali children’s literature, Buddhadev Bose had recorded his discomfiture over ‘somewhat wobbly structure. In its melange of story, rumours, mythology, history, geography and nonsense, it has not become something fresh and original as Budo Angla. At places it shows signs of disjuncture.’ The pala-punthis that Abanindranath wrote in his last years remained scattered in periodicals, some of them remained unpublished in any form whatsoever.  Bose had nothing to say about these writings that still remained uncollected. But the ‘wobbly’ and ‘disjointed’ style that he found at its initial stage inBhutpatri burst into a sweeping, disorderly tumult in his last works.  Even whimsy needs a hub to organize it into expressive form .  One needs an inner discipline to structure something that may look chaotic externally.  But once Abanindranath turned away from painting and took up writing, he was so bent on subverting this discipline in every possible way that he ends up with  a medley of a wide range of objects and elements of art scattered in total disjuncture, never coalescing into a consolidated piece of art, something he did not envisage anyway.

If someone read the palas and complained, ‘I couldn’t find a plot,’’ Abanindranath could have very well retorted, ‘How could you think of finding a plot? I didn’t have a plot in mind.  It is enough that little children will sing and dance in joy. What do I need a plot for?’

But Jasimuddin recalls a different impression altogether from one of his meeting with Abanindranath, an impression not of collectivity but loneliness, not of joy, but of sadness.  He recalls:

He asked me: Would you like to listen to my jatragan?

I said: Of course Dadamashai [Granddad].  He opened the manuscript and went on reading      from it like a seasoned actor. When the songs of the Judi [the chorus] and the characters came, he sang them for me.  The whole afternoon was taken up by the reading.  The reading stopped only when the letters became indecipherable in the gathering darkness of the evening.

I took his leave and came back home. He had not asked me for once what I felt about his jatragan.  He must have desired only a silent listener like me.  He had found his happiness only in being able to read it out to me.  As he read to me, he must have extended for once the secret  cell of creativity at the core of his being. A silent listener is a great help in the act of creation.  What use would he have for my opinions?

He would write pages after pages day after day, and leave them lying. Once his act of creation was over, it seemed as if he did not care for any reactions, did not need new readers either.  He said himself, ‘I wonder how I could write such an enormous lot.’ In his conversations with Rani Chandra, he refers to these palas. ‘I sat and made so many changes, so many fair copies. So many of the notebooks got stolen…From time to time I take out and take a look at the few of the scripts that have stayed on with my sons.’ Some of these he looked at from time to time, but the rest remained unnoticed. Some of these came to be noticed by all, while some stay undiscovered.

Khuddur Jatra  or Khudi Ramleela, a manuscript, 241 pages long, is one of those that have gone unnoticed for long.  The madness in the making of words, so evident here, is there in several other palas by him, as in Jatraganey Ramayana. Hence it may not be a great loss if all readers cannot access the present book .  But one who has had a chance of setting his eyes on this books will always feel the urge to share his thrill with more readers an urge charged with the desire to carry the joy and the pity that grow around the world made out of images, colours, words and writing by an artist in his loneliness to all and sundry.   One know at the same time that there is no way to fulfil this desire in its entirety, for in this printed form, the manuscript is bound to lose one of its distinctive feature, for the printed book will homogenize in an impersonal mono-dimensionality the marked distinctions of the multi-coloured film and theatre handbills, cigarette packets, pages from almanacs, pictures from calendars, chocolate wrappers, pieces of fabric or matchbox labels.  The reader of the printed book will not sense why Abanindranath said, ‘The artist’s work is an act of collaboration, a making in which pictures and songs and words merge into a totality.’ This notebook, so intricately crafted, stands, still unnoticed by so many, as a primary contribution to that possibility of a mixed art of collaboration.  It is not a well-structured art,; but it bears within itself disparate clues to the subversive onslaught on the sophisticated and structured forms of art that will be launched in our country too in some not too distant future, maybe in the form of some desperate thrusts carving out a new direction.

Seven decades after its making, the notebook appears in print.  It is a momentous occasion in the scenario of our art and literature.  A few of the original ornamentations have dropped off over the years.  But there is whole new experiences on offer in the book even for those who have know Abanindranath’s works intimately.

Jump to exibition on Khuddur Jatra

 

Translated from the original Bengali by Samik Bandyopadhyay

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