The Mango Belle
Translated from the original Bangla by Swapna Dev
Every connoisseur knew of the art gallery of North Kalkata's nobleman Raja Subhendranath Mullick of those days. His collection of Indian classical and folk art, especially of the terracotta and wooden dolls of Bengal and of various kinds of ‘pata’ which is painting done on canvas, was a cause of envy for many. This fact is recorded in many accounts of those days. Raja Bahadur’s patronage would always be bestowed on a deserving artist, be he from the country or an alien land. They, on the other hand, were grateful for inclusion in his exclusive coterie. They would execute his orders, and to please him, sometimes choose mythological subjects for their paintings and sometimes topical matters. They would occasionally draw family portraits or even a variety of pictures for entertainment.
One fine day, Raja Subhendranath summoned Nibaran Ghosh, a pata-painter from Kalighat. While returning from the temple a few days ago, he had marveled at this painter’s work. When he came, he took the painter to a special room in his art gallery. The doors and windows were all closed but as soon as they were opened, beautiful paintings shone with the light on them, like the moon and the stars in darkness. The Raja was quite proud of this particular collection of his. Nibaran was absolutely astonished looking at the collection.
Every painting appeared to be an amazing combination of uncommon imagination, sheer magic of the paint brush and color. It would be no exaggeration to say that each painting was a masterpiece.
Just like the famous Bengali sweets, sandesh and rosogolla, the beauty of the Bengal belle has a characteristic of its own, and it seems to exude from the perfect female forms portrayed in the paintings. Female forms with such exquisite loveliness and grace, with such postures, and such bewitching glances were never before seen in the folk paintings of this region. In their sensual appeal they were no less than the celestial beauties of Konarak!
Before Nibaran recovered from his trance, Raja Subhendranath said, “I have all kinds of beauties in my collection here, the beauty who entertains, the gorgeous beauty on a bed, the beauty who is fragility personified, the beauty holding a paan, or one holding a rose or even a violin. There remains one more beauty to be added to this to complete it and
none other than you can do it.” Nibaran was overwhelmed with pride and joy at the praise and bowed before Subhendranath. He thought to himself if he could please the gentleman, good fortune would undoubtedly dawn on him.
As Subhendranath reclined in the huge armchair by the window, the hookahbardar handed him the long pipe of the hookah. With slow puff at it, he told Nibaran, “In my collection there is lack of a beauty like the mango, you must paint one.” Saying this, he ordered the treasurer to give Nibaran an advance of one hundred rupees and went indoors. While going down the aisle, he turned a little and said, “Bring the painting in a month’s time.”
Mallik Bahadur, even though he was a man much given to luxury and enjoyment, wasn’t particularly fond of fruits. But for the mango he had a peculiar weakness and through the year he would wait for the fruit with childlike impatience. The act of eating the mango was to him as much a matter of senses as the act of spending the night with his beloved. In summer he would not take any other food, but instead have different kinds of mango juice with bowls of thickened milk. Following the advice of a “hakim,” he would have a little opium rolled into the size of a small pea. He believed it roused one’s erotic …
Now, to Nibaran, this particular assignment became a challenge. He lost his appetite and sleep, wondering how to give this form a shape. He almost stopped talking to the members of his family. He could not bring himself to rely on the ordinary imagination that other painters before him had depended on. Merely by making the woman hold a rose, a painter has named her the Rose Beauty.
A woman touching the tabla with her fingers was the Tabla Beauty. But his creation would be so unique in its conception, in its form and color and grace, that it would be regarded as one of the best creations in the folk art of Bengal. Of course, there was the prospect of a fat sum as reward from the Raja Bahadur.
Nibaran decided that he must first come up with a composition of a female model which, when transferred on to a painting canvass, would remind one of the exquisite mangoes about which one had only heard till then, never seen. This form must also excel in sensual appeal.
However, he was not sure how to proceed. Nevertheless, he realized he must find the particular woman who will evoke the same longing as a beautiful juicy mango. He began this pursuit in right earnest, and he did not have to go far for it.
His house was by the main road that led to Kalighat temple. He squatted there in front of his house. The sharp gaze of the artist tried to grasp the forms of the female pilgrims below the layers of their clothes. Days went by, but no woman seemed to have the remotest likeness of the form Nibaran was looking for, let alone any resemblance to his imaginary ideal figure. They were not even close!
Only a week was left from the one month that had been allowed to him. Nibaran was so worried that he stopped eating and sleeping. It was the month of Jaistha. Jamai Shasthi was a few days away. The market place was full of activity. Amidst other fruits and flowers were varities of mangoes. While he was buying, Nibaran suddenly saw an extraordinary mango the like of which he had never seen before, nor heard of. Like the grapes of Kabul that came in cases lined with cotton, the mangoes were displayed two, at most three in cases of straw. The mango was not longish, nor round, nor even oval shaped. The upper part was a little narrow and pointed, the middle portion was exceptionally broadened, and the lower part was plump and round like a lychee. The other distinctive characteristic of the mango was that every mango had, like the dimple on the cheek of a beautiful woman, a dent at the top, either on the left or on the right side. The color of the mango was fire-red, and on the smooth surface occasionally there were one or two black spots that could be mistakes for beauty spots!
Nibaran picked up a mango and caressed its smooth surface as if he were feeling a body of flesh and blood of a lush young girl. The fruit vendor recited two lines of poems in Urdu which narrated, how as soon as the Nawab knew of the begum’s desire for these mangoes, he issued a royal edict to get them.
In spite of the exorbitant price, Nibaran returned home with a mango. The specific mango was the result of long experimentation by an aristocratic Nawab from the Northern Provinces who was a leading expert on mangoes.
He studied it in different positions, in different shades of light, during different hours of the day. Suddenly it occurred to him that he could put two eyes on it and see the effect. Even though it seemed an absurd idea, he quickly sat down with his paints and brush. First he made rough sketches of various pairs of eyes with different expressions. He knew of lotus eyes, of fish eyes, of doe eyes, of conch-shell eyes, but rejecting these he drew a pair of eyes in which desire burnt like the liquid lava in a dormant volcano. He went out and bought a big round gourd. It always reminded Nibaran of the buttocks of a woman in a sitting posture. The moment he put a stick into the mango and fixed it on top of the gourd, the whole thing acquired the semblance of a beautiful woman. Nibaran stared at this in wonder and tried to figure out how he would create the rest of the female form.
Quite a few days went by but Nibaran had hardly progressed. Remembering that he would have to present his painting to Mallick Bahadur, his nervous tension increased and his blood pressure shot up. His wife was very worried and kept a wet towel round his head. By midnight Nibaran dropped off into blissful sleep.
A cyclone in the southern sky rapidly enveloped the whole town.
Nibaran found himself floating on a huge dry Ashwaththa leaf, and he could not make out where he was going. After miles of journey came to a mango grove in a green valley. There were multi-colored lamps on the branches of every tree. Reflected on the clusters of the ripe mangoes, the light was resplendent like a chandelier’s light. The leaves shone like bright tinsel. There was festivity all around. On inquiry, Nibaran found out it was the festival of mangoes. Nibaran advanced towards a mango-grove from where the sound of bells and other musical instruments seem to be emanating. Lights seemed to give that place an appearance of bright daylight. Deceived by the light, the birds were singing. In the midst of all this, there was an ornate Arabian tent made up of very complex pattern of flowers and ivy. Inside were many men, a beautiful dancer was dancing to the rhythm of different musical instruments. Those around her were raving about her and following her like men possessed. Some were bestowing their pearl or golden necklaces on her. To titillate them further, the dancer began to make gestures that would arouse even a half-dead man.
Just at that moment Nibaran screamed ‘Got it, Got it!’ and sat right up, rather nervously. He asked his startled wife to bring his paints, brush, and canvas. Quickly, he lighted a few lamps. Usually he drew on ordinary paper like the other Kalighat ‘pata’ painters. But in honor of Mallick Bahadur’s order, he had already prepared a cloth canvas strengthened with white chalk powder and tamarind glue. He started at the pata in front of him. His wife, meanwhile, got the hookah ready.
Nibaran puffed hard at the hookah and his attention was reverted to the canvas again. His adoring wife was quite disconcerted and did not know how to help him. For sometime she would fan him and then she would caress his head, shoulder and back with her fingers that were like the petals of flowers. Nibaran ignored all these overtures of affection, and began his work.
Initially, with a thin paintbrush and light brown color, he drew a rough sketch, wiped it off, and did this again many times. Finally, after ten attempts, Nibaran very carefully put a few brush strokes with light watercolor and then finished it off with light brown color all around the outline.
Gradually a woman’s form began to emerge on the pata. This form did not resemble the other female forms that Nibaran had drawn till then, and the total number was not miniscule, by any standard. In manner, proportion, form, complexion, and grace it was quite unique. Its dancing limbs seemed to suggest different varieties of mangoes and their forms. Her dress, like an extraordinarily delicate muslin, was embroidered all over with delicate designs of mangoes. In her bangles, her nose-ring, her armlet, her necklace, her ear-tops, her anklet, and also the ornaments adorning her fingers and her waist, the precious tones and thin golden wires were all given the semblance of mangoes, green and ripe.
Nibran would wash his brush in clean water immediately after each stroke. He could not tolerate even the slightest lightness of his paint. He held five to seven thick and thin clean brushes between the fingers of his left hand to maintain the purity of and the brightness of the colors. When Nibaran stood up, his wife prepared the hookah again. Earlier she had never had to obey the order to prepare the hookah so frequently. Nibaran closed one eye and breathing deeply, concentrated on the pata. He was surprised to see that the three-fourths of the picture was nearly complete. Nibaran began to contemplate on the last bit that needed to be finished and this was the most crucial bit.
In a few small pots, Nibaran mixed fresh colors. He mixed in equal proportions the colors of the red champak, the pomegranate flower, the ‘gulmohar,’ and a few grains of ground ripe wheat. He then mixed a dash of golden ash to it. And one very careful stroke of the paint on the woman's lovely body made it come alive. Truly, it seemed a figure of flesh and blood. Nibaran let himself be overwhelmed only momentarily by a feeling of contentment. He had now the most important and crucial task left. He sat in a posture of meditation for some time, with his eyes closed. His wife knew that Nibaran would reject the whole painting at the slightest mistake. The mere thought of it scared her. She began to fan vigorously. An excitement seemed to so permeate the small room that one felt almost suffocated in it. The whole world seemed to have come to a standstill. A few moments went by in unbearable anxiety.
Nibaran suddenly opened his eyes and looked first at the canvas, then at his wife. Confidence and contentment seemed to exude from his whole bearing. He dissolved and prepared three colors separately, the white of the rain-washed ‘Shephali,’ the black of the grim clouds of the rains, and the red of red hibiscus. He touched the inside of the damsel’s eyes with white, drew the outlines in black, and in the corners there was just that touch of red which made her eyes shine like the noon on the eleventh day in her mango-shaped face. They were exactly like the eyes of the mangoes he had seen in the cases of straw. Looking at his creation with satisfaction and pleasure, Nibaran’s tired eyelids closed in sleep. His wife softly put the mosquito-net over him and let him sleep.
The next morning she woke him up. Raja Subhendranath Mallick had summoned him and sent his carriage for him. Nibaran was amazed at his memory and at the same time was pleased with his love for the fine arts. He remembered that the Raja had allowed him a month to paint the figure of a mango belle and this happened to be the last day. Changing into proper dress Nibaran presented himself before the Raja Bahadur with his creation. He was waiting anxiously in his art gallery and was puffing at his hookah. Seeing Nibaran he stopped puffing at it and welcomed him. Mallickbahadur was overwhelmed with wonder when he looked at the painting. He showered praises on him and hugging him with joy, asked him where he has found this beautiful woman. Nibaran replied with all humility that she was conceived in a dream. Rajasaheb was very pleased and said it must be so because this woman was incomparable. She was not to be found in any other art gallery.
He summoned the treasurer. After whispering something to him, he departed to the living quarters. Before leaving he thanked Nibaran profusely. A servant brought sweets on a silver plate for him. Nibaran was getting impatient to leave when the treasurer came in and handed him an envelope and a big packet tied with a silk string.
The carriage moved towards Kalighat. On the other side of the river the deep blue of the monsoon looked even darker because of the smoke of the jute mills. Against this background a flight of cranes floated like a garland of gardenias as if approaching to offer it to the artist. Nibaran found five hundred rupees in the envelope and a blue sari for his wife in the packet. He was happy and contented. On his way home he bought a big case of that mango for his children.
Published in Parabaas, November, 2008
The original story "Amsundari" by Paritosh Sen
is included in the collection Amsundari o Anyanya Rachana published by Deep Prakashan, Kolkata, in 2005.
Swapna Dev. Swapna Dev taught English for many years at the Jesus & Mary College in New Delhi. After coming to the US, she joined Harvard University as a ....
Illustration by Paritosh Sen, taken from the book.
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