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Artist under the tree and other snapshots from Santiniketan

Shivani | Updated on June 07, 2021

Rabindranath Tagore   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Memories of a time when Tagore’s critical appraisal of Keats didn’t quite measure up, and when Satyajit Ray’s baritone helped find a missing cook. A glimpse of writer Shivani’s life as a student at the ashram amidst legendary gurus

* So imagine my horror when we got our papers back — that wretched Tamilian genius had been awarded a 6 while I had a measly 4 out of 10!

* ‘Don’t tell anyone I wrote it,’ Gurudev told me in confidence

* Did I really have the temerity to ask the most famous director of all time to praise my performance that day?

***

Amader Shantiniketan / Gaura Pant ‘Shivani’, translated by Ira Pande / Penguin Random House / Non-Fiction / ₹ 499

 

Until a brilliant Tamil student, Shivshankar Mundukur, joined the Ashram, I was the star of my class. I was Dr Alex Aronson’s favourite student and basked in this fact. However, under the brilliance of this new entrant, my reputation stood threatened. One day, Dr Aronson asked us to write a critical appraisal of a Keats poem and bring it the next day. I ran straight to Gurudev. ‘Please write it for me,’ I begged him.

‘I don’t want that Tamil boy to do better. Please, please, please, Gurudev.’

He almost threw me out but when I refused to budge, he dictated a brilliant piece that more than matched the Keats poem. The next day, I confidently submitted my assignment, secure in the knowledge that a Nobel laureate in literature had written it. So imagine my horror when we got our papers back — that wretched Tamilian genius had been awarded a 6 while I had a measly 4 out of 10! Even more insulting was what Dr Aronson had scrawled at the end of my paper: ‘Too elusive.’ I ran straight to Gurudev.

‘You always tell us to honour our foreign teachers and look what they do! He’s given you just 4 out of 10!’ Gurudev threw back his head as he laughed. ‘Don’t tell anyone I wrote it,’ he told me in confidence.

***

Big brother: At Santiniketan, Satyajit Ray was always Manik da   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

 

The first round of a seminar on Tagore had just ended in Dumstadt’s vast hall when someone came up to me to announce: ‘The German radio has just flashed the news that Satyajit Ray is no more.’ I had never called Satyajit Ray by his real name; to us Ashramites, he was always Manik da, although none of us knew then that one day he would shine as brightly as the ruby of that affectionate nickname.

I turned my face towards the windows to hide my tears.

Grey rain clouds rolled outside, almost as if someone was drawing black drapes before arranging a condolence meeting in heaven. As I watched the trembling leaves, shivering in the rain outside the windows, a deep sadness seeped over me. And yet, I wasn’t alone in my grief — the entire assembly lapsed into a hushed silence as the news spread. Here I was, miles away from my homeland, I thought, mourning my friend along with hundreds of people I did not even know by name.

A host of memories crowded my mind and I shook my head to clear the pictures...

Suddenly I am reminded of Manik da once again. Our old cook Harihar had got lost after a picnic to Rangamati that year. We all called out, but our voices came back to us like empty boomerangs.

There was no sign of the old man and everyone started to panic. Then someone suggested we ask Manik da to call out Harihar’s name. ‘His voice can reach Burdwan,’ the man had quipped.

Manik da, no doubt disgusted by our childish high jinks, had moved away from our noisy group and was sketching, his back propped up against a tree trunk. Who would bell the cat? Finally, we managed to persuade his friend Soumendra to carry our request to the Artist under the Tree. We could see the two arguing over something, then Manik da reluctantly got up and called in his deep baritone, ‘Harihar, O Harihar...’, and I think even the forest stopped to hear him.

A little later, a sheepish and frightened Harihar arrived, saying, ‘Thank God you called, Babu, I was hopelessly lost!’

Manik da’s clarion call had worked.

***

Once, when we staged the play Sinha Sadan, I was given the part of a Muslim boy. A fez cap was procured from Bolpur...

Writer Shivani   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

 

[The artist] Jaya Appasamy looked at me critically and said, ‘You know, if you were to smoke a cigarette, you would look perfect.’

Fifty years ago, a girl who smoked was a rare sight and in the Ashram, one would not even dream of lighting up. If someone sent a letter to my grandfather in Almora, I told Jaya di, I’d be thrown out of the family for sure.

‘I’m not asking you to smoke a real cigarette, silly,’ Jaya di replied. ‘Just roll some ajwain seeds in a piece of paper and blow a few smoke rings. That’s all!’

And that is exactly what I did. You should have heard the applause my performance got. So when, a few days later, a handwritten magazine taken out by some Ashramites reached my hands, my blood boiled with rage. ‘Does it become a girl from the Ashram to smoke openly on the stage?’ someone had written spitefully. ‘We feel she should be suitably punished.’

There was no name at the bottom of the comment but we were sure that one of Manik da’s buddies was behind this. I stormed up to him, waving the magazine angrily in front of me. ‘Do you even know what I smoked?’ I lashed out. ‘It was just ajwain seeds. I can produce twenty witnesses who will swear to this. Why could you all not have said something about my great performance, tell me?’

I still blush with shame when I recall my furious tirade.

Did I really have the temerity to ask the most famous director of all time to praise my performance that day? Manik da listened to my outpouring with no expression except a faint smile. Not once did he say to me, ‘When I did not write that, why are you telling me this?’ Many days later, his friend Soumendra came to me and apologized for having written that article. ‘But why did you have to yell at Manik da?’ he asked me. ‘The poor chap knew I was the guilty one but kept quiet.’

Excerpted with permission from ‘Amader Shantiniketan’ by Gaura Pant ‘Shivani’, translated into English by Ira Pande, and published by Penguin Random House

Published on June 07, 2021

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