Sudhindranath Dutta (1901 - 1960)

Sudhindranath: the Person I Knew

This grief --- it never goes away.

Incessant as the monsoon rain
Clinging as ivy on rock
Stubborn as grass on earth

This grief
    follows me
       like a shadow

Wherever I go.

It was very early morning of 25th June, 1960.

We were all asleep when the phone rang stubbornly until I got up, perplexed, and picked it up. Someone said from the other end, “Buddhadeb Babu should be informed that Sudhindranath is no more”. Half-awake half-asleep I just didn’t understand what that meant. Yet, I did. I still hear my voice desperately asking like a person possessed, Who? What? Which Sudhindranath? Which ... which ... which ... long after the man put down the phone.

It was another matter that I knew no other Sudhindranath at that time but the poet, whom we loved dearly as a very close friend of the family. He was also my professor at Jadavpur University. It was impossible to think that he could die. DIE!!?

That was the last day of my Honours examination at Jadavpur and I had already started to unwind, the way one does when one sees the end of the road after a stressful journey. But that message over the phone changed it all.

We picked up my sister and her husband on our way to Russell Street just as a pleasant summer morning was breaking, cruelly unconcerned about our grief.

Sudhindranath’s death was my first bereavement.

In truth, our whole family was devastated by the suddenness of the event. I hadn't seen my father so totally shattered and grief-stricken ever before. Although they had known each other for long years, recently they had bonded very strongly as like-minded friends thanks to the newly founded department of Comparative Literature that my father started in 1956 at Jadavpur University and for which he roped in Sudhindranath to teach in his dream-department.

He got Sudhindranath to join the dept. after a minor fight with the University authorities. Sudhindranath didn’t have an M.A. degree, how could he be eligible to teach at a University??!! Although my father won the battle at the end, the all-sacrosanct rules couldn’t be broken. The problem was solved by giving him an ad hoc part-time position.

Neither Sudhindranath nor my father cared for the technicalities of the position as long as he could teach in our department. I was one of the fortunate students of that time to have been taught modern European and English poetry by two great scholars who were also major Bengali poets themselves: Sudhindranath Dutta and Buddhadeva Bose.

But Buddhadeva Bose was my father, so all my “awe” concentrated on Sudhindranath. Also, he was one poet I didn’t grow up seeing all the time, as I did many others. And now, when I came to know him so closely, I was grown up enough to be swooning over his extreme good looks, imposing personality and awe-inspiring scholarship, apart from being haunted by his love poems. I was overwhelmed by their music and depth. I loved his poems then, I love them as much now.

His lifestyle was also something I was fascinated with. It was something quite outside my familiar world.

I watched Rajeshwari and Sudhindranath both with wide-eyed bewilderment and admiration as I got exposed for the first time to the European way some of our rich elite lived right in Calcutta. They talked mostly in English, served drinks in the evening instead of tea, the ladies publicly smoked and they were obviously wealthy --- it was definitely a different world from the one I grew up in. When I first saw their friends-circle, they all struck me as ‘foreigners’ although they were mostly Indians. Thinking about it now, I feel, among their close friends my parents must have been the only couple who came from East Bengal and had no family wealth.

For me, it was a completely new experience to visit them in their beautiful old apartment on Russell Street, one of those high-ceilinged large flats left behind by the British. It was spacious and immaculately kept. Innumerable books were stacked with great care in open shelves that covered the walls upto the ceiling. Not a speck of dust could be detected anywhere. A large painting by Van Gogh hung most prominently on the front wall. No, it wasn’t an original --- even Sudhindranath wasn’t that rich ---- it was a copy made by Jamini Roy, the great painter, at a period when he was doing “copies” of the impressionist masters. When I was 4 or 5 years old, even I was lucky enough to be presented by Jamini Roy one of his versions of Van Gogh’s “Sunflower” on my birthday. Till this day that remains my most precious possession. But Sudhindrath’s was truly a superb copy made on a large canvas and simply grand. I still regret not knowing where that invaluable painting found a wall!

We usually sat around in the casual sitting area, with very comfortable seats. Bearers with white uniform and headgear served tea and snacks if it was tea time, but if it happened to be evening we were offered drinks!! Feeling honoured and embarrassed at the same time I had my first taste of alchohol at Sudhindranath’s place! Rajeshwari was always there, a perfect wife for Sudhindranath in every way, a lovely hostess!

Sudhindranath combined in him the best of the Eastern and the Western cultures. He had an aristrocratic family background and his in-depth knowledge of Sanskrit and Indian literature and philosophy was directly inherited from his famous father, Hirendranath Dutta. He also was a close associate of Rabindranath Tagore. Like Tagore he too had abandoned all the old-fashioned ways of conventional Bengali families and eventually became a true citizen of the modern European world. Surely, he was a “Shaaheb”, as we Bengalis called the anglicised people of that time, but in the truest and the best sense of the term. Rajeshwari and he both used to be immaculately dressed and groomed, well-mannered to the extreme, jovial and hospitable, a truly cultured couple. Sudhindranath never wavered from his love and respect for Bengali and Sanskrit, while being a genuine scholar in European languages and literature. Rajeshwari, a punjabi by birth, was equally fluent in many European languages. She was trained in music in Shantiniketan under Tagore himself and proceeded to become one of the major Rabindra Sangeet singers of her time. They simply added on the best of European culture without ever neglecting their own. I was lucky enough to personally know these two exceptional human beings with golden hearts.

As our families became more and more close, they enjoyed visiting us in the totally Bengali ambience of our house ---- so different from that of their own ---- where Buddhadeva Bose lived with his wife and three children. Here, numerous visitors known and unknown dropped in without any prior appointment, children’s friends freely came and went at all times, servants behaved like bosses without any dress code (read bare-bodied with knee-high dhoties), and an unmanageable number of books competed with the residents for space in a two-and-a-half roomed flat, that was called “Kavita Bhavan”. 202 Rashbehari Avenue, the postal address of which house later became quite famous simply as “202” among the intellectuals of Kolkata.

My brother Pappa was the “kid” of the household at that time and Sudhindranath would always address him as “the only sane member of this mad house”! He was very fond of all of us including Jyotirmoy, my sister’s newly married husband. He convinced my father to serve some kind of alchoholic beverage, something unknown to our family, when Sudhindranath and Rajeshwari visited since they were used to drinks in the evenings.

I remember one of such visits when some Indian brand whisky was brought in by Jyoti, while Ma thought it proper to serve “rasogollas” and tea! Baba burst out in his typical uninhibited laughter and said, “Ranu, ‘mishtis’ can’t be served with drinks”. Sudhindranath laughed throatily and objected, “I will certainly have rasogollas with my whisky Mrs. Bose, give me the whole plate here”. Rajeshwari’s beautiful teeth sparkled as she giggled like a young girl, or was it a waterfall? And we all laughed in our various ways, I, not quite understanding what was so funny about having ‘mishti’ with drinks!! Peals of laughter --- it still rings in my ears ---- filled our overcrowded all-purpose room where my dad worked and slept and studied; entertained guests and visitors who came from any corner of the world.

It was clear that Sudhindranath enjoyed a robust literary friendship with my dad, while relishing his close relationship with his family, the ‘crazy’ lot that would gather around as soon as he came, almost always with his wife. Perhaps it was a new experience for him too to be surrounded by children of the next generation. We knew our fondness for each other was mutual and fufilling. The tall, well-built, robust man was a picture of health. That Sudhindranath should leave us at the height of our friendship was an unbearable grief for each of us.

He was not even 60 on the 25th day of June, 1960.

As I wept uncontrollably as the men carried out his lifeless body out of that beautiful flat on that fateful morning sitting near a devastated Rajeshwari, she asked me to come closer and hugged me tightly. For the first time I felt the mother in her as we clutched each other and cried together without shame.

-- by Damayanti Basu Singh

Biographical Data

Sudhindranath Dutta: B. 30 Oct. 1901 -- D. 25 June 1960
Father: Hirendranath Dutta
Mother: Indumati Vasu Mallik (sister of Raja Subodh Chandra Vasu Mallik)

Education: Theosophical High School, Varanasi, 1914-17; Oriental Seminary, Calcutta, 1917-18 (Matriculation).
Scottish Church College, Calcutta, 1918-22
University Law College, Calcutta, 1922-24
Calcutta University, Dept. of English, 1922-23
(He didn't finish either his law degree or his M.A. He was preparing for attornyship under his father -- he did not complete that either.)

First Marriage: With Chhabi Basu in 1924 (there was no legal divorce between them, and she outlived her husband)
Second Marriage: With Rajeshwari Vasudev, the famous Rabindra Sangeet singer, in 1943.

First trip Abroad: 1929 to USA and Japan with Tagore, then toured Europe alone.
Second trip: 1943 to Europe
Third trip: 1955-56 to Europe
Fourth trip: 1957-59 Japan, Europe and U.S.A.(was associated with Univ. of Chicago for 7 months to write his autobiography in English. This project also remained incomplete.)
Founded "Parichay" in 1931 and edited it for 12 years. Left it completely because of difference in political views with his associates and friends, but supplied funds nonetheless. Associated with the daily "Forward" and Pramatha Choudhuri's "Sabuj Patra".
Other jobs: Light of Asia Insurance Company 1930-33; ARP 1942-1945; The Statesman 1945-49; DVC 1949-54; Institute of Public Opinion 1954-56; Jadavpur Univ. (part time in the Dept. of Comparative Literature) 1956-57 and 1959-60.
Books of Poems
1. Tanvi(1930), M.C.Sarkar &Sons
2. Orchestra(1935), Bharati Bhavan
3. Krandashee(1937), Bharati Bhavan
4. Uttar Falgunee (1940), Parichay Press
5. Sangbarto (1953) Signet Press
6. Pratiddhani (1954) Signet Press
7. Dashamee (1956) Signet Press

Books of Essays
1. Svagato (1938), Bharati Bhavan
2. Svagato (1957) New changed version from Signet Press
3. Kulay O Kaalpurush, (1957), Signet Press

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