Samik Bandyopadhyay, teacher, publisher, writer, translator, and commentator on art, theatre, literature and politics, and of course, an avid reader, has recently donated his immense collection of more than 40,000 books to Boi Baibhav Foundation to create a library that will be a repository of much literary and cultural heritage. Scroll met the octogenarian Bandyopadhyay at his temporary lodgings in Lake Gardens in Kolkata, where he was recuperating after surgery. Excerpts from the interview:
How was this collection of books built?
It began with my father. He taught English at Jagannath College in Dhaka from 1918 to 1928. Amongst his students, who remembered him later when I met them, were Buddhadeva Bose, Premendra Mitra, Ajit Dutta and the economist Bhabatosh Datta. In fact, Bhabatosh Datta wrote about my father in his autobiography.
My father left for Edinburgh in 1928-29 to do his PhD under Sir Herbert Grierson, who is a legendary figure in the history of English literature, for he rediscovered the Metaphysical poets of the early 17th century. In fact, when we were in college in the 1950s, there was this seminal essay by TS Eliot on the Origins of Modern Poetry. That essay was actually a review of Sir Herbert Grierson’s anthology of the Metaphysical Poets.
My father came back with a PhD in 1932 and a good collection of books. For his work, which was on the growth and structure of the Elizabethan lyric, he had to learn French and Italian. So, we had all these books at home. This was the 1930s – the last phase of Rabindranath. There were journals – Probashi, for instance. We have many bound volumes of Probashi in my father’s collection. Also Parichay – quite a few of them. We have many first editions of Rabindranath’s works. First editions of almost 60% of the works published in Rabindranath’s lifetime are there in this collection.
As you probably know, Rabindranath did ten earlier versions of Raktokarabi. What we get is the eleventh version. The last but one version came out as a supplement in Probashi in 1924. Rabindranath translated this version into English almost immediately – Red Oleanders. It came out in the Vishwa Bharati Quarterly as a supplement. We have these two supplements in our collection, in my father’s collection.
Incidentally, I think, from my knowledge of publishing history, these are the first instances, in our country at least, of independent supplements, which are rather common these days, of an independent text appearing as a supplement in a magazine with a separate cover and an identity of its own. This is what I think but I need to confirm it.
In this case of Raktokarabi, there are two texts with two different covers. The covers were both done by Gaganendranath Tagore and the Vishwa Bharati Quarterly also had illustrations by Gaganendranath. In 1924, Rabindranath was still not confident enough to use his own paintings. He would start doing his own paintings in 1928.
Yet, he felt that the rich, loaded, complex text of Raktokarabi and Red Oleanders needed to be illustrated, but in a style very different from Abanindranath’s. So, these two first publications – even before they were published as books – are very significant. These are just instances of the kinds of books my father had. All this is part of the collection that I inherited.
My father was totally an academic. He was interested in the national politics of the period but kept his distance. He was very strongly anti-Gandhi and thought that you need violent means to throw these barbarians out. That was not from any strong political understanding but belief, passion.
There is this other very interesting part. My eldest brother, Subrata Banerjee, and his wife, Karuna Banerjee, who played Sorbojaya in Pather Panchali, were members of the Communist Party. My father didn’t quite like the idea of my brother joining the Communist Party in 1941, but he didn’t resist and there were no fights or anything like that. Much had happened by the time the Party was getting banned in 1948.
Subrata Banerjee, Dada, had gone to the War as part of the British Indian army on the Vietnam and the Burma fronts. He got demobbed when the War ended and became a Party wholetimer in Bombay. He got arrested in 1948 when the Party was banned and was in jail from ’48 to ’51, till the ban was lifted, after the undivided Communist Party got into an understanding with the Congress government that they would fight in the ’52 elections.
My father told us later that he owed it to his son to understand him if he was willing to go through all this risk, pain, discomfort and trouble for a cause. So, my father, academic that he was, started reading Marxism. He bought whatever books on Marxism were available at that time in English. So, Sumanta, my elder brother, and I were initiated into Marxism through our father’s collection of Marxist classics.
At one point, Baba started feeling that he would like to understand the Russian or Soviet use / application of Marxism more closely, and books in English were not available for that level. Whatever translations were coming from the Soviet Union were Russian classics, very well produced but not much about the application of Marxism, the problems of practice.
So, Baba thought it was important to learn Russian and get hold of Russian books. He started learning Russian on his own and got hold of dictionaries, records, grammar, books completely on his own. He had a knack for languages. He had learnt French and Italian in his student days.
But after about two years, he felt that he was getting stuck. There were things he couldn’t understand – grammar, even pronunciation – he was quite a stickler for that. He was a very, very private, homebound person. He went to teach – at City College and Calcutta University – he would go to teach and come back, that’s all. He didn’t have much of a life outside that.
So, Baba sent Ma, our mother, to a Russian teacher and Ma learnt Russian. So, we have these wonderful memories, where, after feeding us an early dinner, Baba and Ma would be struggling with Russian. I don’t know how they will be used, but I have a fairly good collection of Russian books. Russian classics from that period and books about the practice of Marxism in the Soviet Union during that point of time in the ’50s and early ’60s.
Talk to us about your own initiation into politics.
When I speak of the 50s and early ’60s, it means the Communist experience in the Soviet Union was also moving towards the big change and crisis. We were college students at that time and I joined the Party. I joined the Party after the 20 th Party Congress with a very strong feeling that – all the Stalinist excesses, etc were there on the table – if the Party and the state had the guts to acknowledge that they had gone wrong and it was time to take corrective measures, there was something to it.
So, we joined with that spirit. I joined college in 1955 – Baba’s books were there and exposure to Marxist thoughts and ideas because of the atmosphere at home. I studied English Honours and did my Master’s in English and my subsidiaries were Economics and History. So, I had the privilege and joy of studying under people like Bhabatosh Datta, Tapas Majumdar, Amiya Bagchi in Economics and Amalesh Tripathi in History.
In English, of course, we had the legendary Tarak Sen, Amal Bhattacharjee, Subodh Sengupta. So, my Literature studies also took a social sciences and political turn. Tthe books that I started to buy beyond those that I needed for my Literature studies were more into the social sciences and history.
The other thing I always say, especially in the context of this library, is that the ’50s and the ’60s were the time of the paperback revolution. It’s important in history and in publishing history that during World War II there were a large number of reluctant soldiers, young men who didn’t want to fight but were conscripted and to keep them content and happy in the camps you provided a large number of books, records, films in the camps.
This led to what was called the war economy books – in Baba’s collection, my brother’s collection and mine, there are a large number of those paperbacks but they were not only popular fiction. There were books on history and the social sciences. They came out as paperbacks – poor quality paper, newsprint, very cheap and widely available. After the War, naturally, the publishing standards, the quality of paper, all of it improved, but paperbacks became a big thing. You had Penguin Books, Pelican Books, and the parallel American series – the New American Library with two imprints, Mentor and Signet.
How did you get into studying anthropology?
After I my Master’s, I started schoolteaching. My interest shifted a lot to Anthropology, particularly Cultural Anthropology. I started buying paperbacks. I read a lot of Malinovsky, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead and also Lucien Febvre. I began collecting such books. I had been reading Anthropology for about a year all on my own in paperbacks but these are the classics of Cultural Anthropology.
In the ’40s and ’50s, particularly, there was this shift from Human Anthropology to Cultural Anthropology, and I was interested in that development. I reached a point when I couldn’t follow things. They were becoming too technical and scientific. And I did something quite audacious when I was teaching at South Point School.
The legendary Nirmal Kumar Bose was then the Director General of the Anthropological Survey of India. I found his phone number in the telephone directory, rang him up, introduced myself to him as a schoolteacher, and explained to him what had happened (in my Anthropology studies). Wonderful man that he was, very generous, he asked me to go over.
He always addressed me formally as “apni”. I tried very hard but could never make him address me with the more informal “tumi”. He asked me to visit him once a fortnight, when he would guide and mentor me. He gave me books to read and talked about things for a whole year.
Then he said that I must do field work if I wanted to learn Anthropology. I said that I don’t qualify and where and how would I do field work?, He was doing a project at that time on a Social Profile of Calcutta. It came out as a book in the ’60s named Calcutta: A Social Survey. It was an ASI project which he was supervising. They had provisions for Junior and Senior Research Fellows of ASI.
He asked me to apply for these fellowships. From his Gandhian values and principles, he said that he wouldn’t recommend me to anyone. He gave me a form and said that he thought that if I appeared before the selection committtee, I was likely to be selected. He also added that even if I didn’t get selected our sessions would continue.
I got selected and I worked for two years. That was also very great learning and experience. I was doing field surveys in five wards of Kolkata Municipality in south Calcutta. At that time, there were 80 wards in the Kolkata Municipal Corporation and they were divided up amongst the research Fellows for the survey. We had to identify settler families in the localities and institutions like schools, clubs, religious institutions and other societies and such like.
Near the Dhakuria Lakes, in Southend Park, I found this family that had been displaced in 1759-60, soon after the Battle of Plassey, from Gobindopur village (the three villages of Kolikata, Sutanuti and Gobindopur grew to become Calcutta). Gobindopur was actually the area from the Strand, the Maidan, Fort, Brigade Parade ground, Victoria Memorial and so on, covering Chowringhee and this whole area.
The first Fort William was right on the riverbank and Siraj-ud-daula laid siege to that, and so there is the story of the Black Hole. Then the English decided that was not the most strategic location for the Fort and it was shifted to its present location. So, this is actually the second fort. The fort needed an Esplanade. The surrounding area had to remain empty so that, if you sighted the enemy from afar, you could begin firing the cannons. Therefore, you needed a lot of empty space. We can still see this in some old forts in north India.
So Gobindopur was erased completely to provide the Esplanade – the name remains to this day. Today’s St Paul’s Cathedral, Nandan and so on were all part of the Esplanade. The poor people were just thrown out. The richer people who had homes, property, etc were given alternative spaces.
This family showed me a document where they were given land in Bowbazar, where there weren’t any settlements then. Families like these were old settlers – we were trying to see how and when they came to south Calcutta. I was looking at areas up to Dhakuria. Settlers from East Bengal came to Dhakuria, Jadavpur and those areas. I was looking at areas where people settled post WWI, in the ’20s.
There were many activities of the Calcutta Improvement Trust in the 1920s. The Dhakuria Lakes were dug. That entire area was a garbage dump. The area was cleaned up, dug and the water body made in the ’20s. The little island with the small masjid and the hanging bridge were already there on the straight forest road to the Sundarbans. There was no water in the Lake area.
However, when the Lakes were dug it was decided that the mosque wouldn’t be touched, and the island was created as beautification. Since the Lakes were created and the area cleaned up, settlements developed in south Calcutta.
Your interests went even further, however.
I got my Communist Party membership in 1959, when I was starting my MA. My political interest, academic interest, especially in the area of cultural and human anthropology and Nirmal babu’s guidance and mentorship became an area of interest and buying books. After this, I didn’t get any professional guidance and mentorship, and I continued buying books and reading.
Other interests like human politics and history at large were added. My interests spread, the range increased along with literature. That was the first range of books. I didn’t smoke or drink and any money I could spare went into books.
I was teaching – from school to Rammohan College and then to Rabindra Bharati University, where I taught in the English Department and the Theatre Department. By then my interest in theatre and cinema had developed. I was writing more about theatre and cinema than literature, and that became another field of interest.
So those books were added and in the early days of my interest in theatre and cinema, I realised I was dealing with visual culture and I got interested in the fine arts. So, performing arts and cinema and the fine arts. The interweaving, interlinking and interconnections between performing arts and the visual arts became a special area of interest in my teaching and writing. So, books, naturally, books and albums.
I also have a small art collection that has grown with my books. They’ll all go into the library. I have four Mira Mukherjee sculptures, two KG Subramanians – one of them is a very important work, one of his four Durgas. I have early Jogen (Chowdhury) and also others. Of course, I collected books – art albums. That has been the library.
What about the stories behind some of your books?
I have a lot of books which, because of my politico-cultural engagements, have special histories around them. For example, the Chilean film director, Miguel Littin came to Calcutta. Littin was the Director of Film Affairs in Allende’s government before the fall of Allende. He was making a long documentary on Allende’s period in power.
When Pinochet took over, Littin had finished most of his shoot. At that time, Chile did not have very good post-production facilities. So, Littin had gone to Paris with his stock of film to have it edited. He was in Paris when Pinochet overthrew Allende. So Littin got stuck in Paris.
A year later, when Pinochet was very much in power and Allende had been killed, Littin had surgery to change his appearance and went into Chile with a BBC TV crew. He filmed there quite extensively. At that time there were posters with Littin’s photographs announcing the price for his head – these are shown in his later films. He even interviewed Pinochet with the BBC crew!
He then returned to Paris and since it was no longer safe for him in Paris, he went to Cuba. And after that this news became public. Nobody knew till then. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was in Cuba then, and was the Director of the Cuba Film Institute. He was very excited and had a long interview with Littin and hence there is Garcia Marquez’s great book Clandestine in Chile, based on that interview.
When I met Littin in Calcutta, I interviewed him and I had my copy of Clandestine in Chile, which I asked him to autograph for me. Littin wrote a short poem in Spanish on the spirals of history and how they bring people together from all over the world to read history. It’s a beautiful little Spanish text which I had translated by friends later on. He did a rough translation for me. We were talking in English. So, this little book has a lot of history.
I collect old books and I have the first hardback edition of the English translation of Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus from the 1920s, which was owned by Dhurjoti Prosad Mukherjee, who is considered to be the Father of Indian Sociology. He was the first Head of Department of Sociology at Lucknow University. This was the first Department of Sociology in India.
The book has DP Mukherjee’s signature and a date. Then there are two comments on the title page. The first comment says “Brilliant and wise”. And a little below, there is another comment: “Maybe more brilliant than wise”. I think these are pieces of history.
All libraries across the world insist on silence. In my library, perhaps, we could have a section where there is no silence. Sit and talk to others about the book you’ve read, get into debates. We should also have space for that. As part of this Voices from the Library, rather, Voices in the Library, I would like to tell some of these stories and keep them recorded there. Say, someone picks out Clandestine in Chile and I tell them the Littin story and read out the English translation of the verse, rather than writing the English translation there.
You know, Peter Brook staged his Mahabharata in 1985 in Avignon, and it ran for about four years. They travelled to very few countries – maybe only two or three – because it was too elaborate. But in 1989 they made a film version – four hours and a half – which we can still see. In 1982, before he began scripting, Peter Brook, Jean-Claude Carriere, the Japanese music director Toshi Tsuchitori, and Marie Estienne came to India.
The British Council arranged a meeting where Peter told us that he had read the Mahabharata in a French translation. They had tracked down the scholar who first read out portions of that to him and Jean-Claude. Subsequently, they read the whole thing. Peter told us that he was not doing Mahabharata as an Indian text or as an attempt to discover Indian culture and history. He felt he couldn’t do that because he wasn’t capable of it.
He said that, to him, the Mahabharata was a “civilisational text”. It was about human desire, greed, jealousy, rage, violence, peace – everything. He explained this to us very clearly at the British Council in Calcutta. They were writing the script at that time. He said that the Mahabharata had many episodes and many trajectories and he couldn’t understand how to choose episodes from there and create a sort of a different, independent, single trajectory. This was a creative problem he was facing.
He asked us how the episodes were chosen in traditional Indian performance forms. He wanted to see such performances, do a sampling. He wanted to see what episodes were chosen and why. So, he was making a very quick tour of India just looking for this one thing. He asked what we had in eastern India and what could we show him in the next four days. This was a very tall order.
I didn’t like it very much. Typical colonial attitude. I consulted friends, particularly Dr Pashupati Mahato, anthropologist, singer, a wonderful person. He died a few years ago. Pashupati agreed to locate and identify traditional performers and performances.
There are three forms of the chhau dance in Eastern India – Mayurbhanj Chhau in Orissa, Seraikela Chhau in Jharkhand, and Purulia Chhau in Bengal. There was no Jharkhand then, it was the Chhotangapur part of Bihar. Pashupati had worked with grassroots performers and knew where to go. It was a privilege to have him as an expert.
The British Council provided a van and we went on a two-day trip. We reached Mayurbhanj in the afternoon and watched a Chhau performance. We spent the night in a dak bungalow and then went to Seraikela where we saw a performance in the rajbari, and then carried on to Purulia. I cherish the memory of travelling with Pashupati.
We reached Mayurbhanj around 4 or 4.30 in the afternoon. Pashupati had informed the performers accordingly. It was a very complex, mixed experience. We went to a small village in Mayurbhanj – with some 30 families. So, if we take 6-7 people in every family, there were around 200 people. The entire village had gathered.
The dancer-actor was lying there on his stomach – barebodied, wearing only a tiny loin cloth. There were four artists, two on either side, painting pictures on his body. Neatly, delicately. The whole village was watching in a reverential silence. The children too. They were not running around or shouting or anything. It was like everyone was under a spell. Peter got impatient in ten minutes! He started looking at his watch. “They were supposed to start at 4.30! We’ll get late,” he muttered. “They’ve just begun their make-up now!”
I took him by the hand and moved him away. I explained that the performance had started – here and now. There was a history in this. Those who lived just outside the forest, on its fringes, got their food from the forest – fruits, vegetables, animals. This young man who would be going – his entire dance – the delicate, noiseless stepping, adjusting to the levels of the ground, yet no disruption. This was the delicate art of walking in the forest which he had learnt and knew.
He went into the forest to bring things back for everyone, to sustain them. His safety and security were important. He had to survive the travails of the forest and the village was investing him with that power, confidence, trust. That’s why they were watching transfixed. They were preparing the artist for his journey to the forest, not just for a dance performance. “Try to understand this,” I said. And then, Peter stood quietly.
On the next day, we stopped at a dhaba for tea, on our way back to Calcutta. I then asked him to sign my copy of Empty Space. For our generation of theatre people, Empty Space was almost mandatory reading. My first copy of Empty Space had got lost – I had lent it to someone. I asked Peter to sign my second copy.
This team came back again to Calcutta in 1989 with their film. There was a small workshop, interactive session and so on. By then, Jean Claude Carriere’s script of The Mahabharata had been published and I had bought it. So, I asked Jean Claude to sign my book and he drew a Ganesh.
So, in the library, I can keep these books side by side and tell the stories that led to these inscription-texts. These pieces of cultural history come with their politics and relationships. So, it’s not only books but also all of these things.
A large part of my brother Sumanta’s books are also part of my collection. He gave a portion of his collection to the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences and the rest to me. In many ways, you can say, there are almost hundred years of cultural history in this collection, beginning from Dhaka. When my father was teaching there, Sushovan Sarkar was also there and our families have been friends since then. Their family has definitely played a role in our interest in history. You get a sense of the interweaving of culture and politics through these books.
This collection has many journals. Other than Probashi and Parichay, we also have files of Notun Sahitya – a leftwing journal of the ’50s. There’s some correspondence too. I have worked closely with Mahashweta Devi and Badal Sarkar at certain stages. So, I have letters from Mahashweta Devi and manuscripts from Badal Sarkar.
I left teaching and joined OUP in 1973. In publishing, I have worked with OUP, Seagull and Thema. Working with these publishers and others, I have documents about the production process of a book. So, I have final proofs of some books – you can see corrections, changes.
Gayatri Chakravorty-Spivak and I translated some of Mahashweta Devi’s works into English. I had introduced Gayatri to Mahashweta-di. When we embarked on the translations, Mahashweta Devi herself did an English translation of some of the texts – Bashai Tudu and some others – for our reference. These translations were not published but they are there.
Does your collection have books in many languages?
The books are mainly in English and Bengali. Some Russian books of my father’s. I am a finicky reader of poetry, so when I read Spanish or Italian poetry, I try to get hold of the original poem and more than one English translation. I also have a few Italian to English and Spanish to English dictionaries. If I want to know a poem particularly well, I try to read it in the original and then compare more than one translation. And of course, combine it with my knowledge of the English language.
I also had to learn some Italian when Sourin Bhattacharya and I translated Selected Works of Gramsci into Bengali. Sourin and I bought a set of the authorised collection of Gramsci when it was first published in Italian – maybe, fifteen years ago. We also got several Italian to English dictionaries. We were translating from the authorised English translation, but also referring to the Italian, and, in some instances, we have moved away from the English text.
Buying books is one thing, but how have you looked after this enormous collection?
My books are stacked in different piles. Some are in shelves and cupboards. I know how I have stacked the books and where I can find a particular one. My books are not catalogued. So, the first step is to catalogue them. My home is overfull. There are the books and my bed. That’s it.
We have to find a space and bring the books – subject-wise – put them on shelves and then catalogue them. We are raising money for the library, mainly through crowdfunding. However, we need philanthropists / patrons who will give us a space for the library.
But yes, I’ve had to dust them and spray them to keep them clean and free of pests. That has to be done. I have books from the 1880s and 1890s in my father’s collection.
There was a time when I was fascinated by William Blake. So, I have facsimile editions of Blake’s illuminated books.
Did you get these abroad?
I could source books from abroad through the ’70s when I worked at OUP. Then, for the past 15 years or so, DK Gupta of Allahabad helped me source books. After retiring from AH Wheeler, he built his own business. He had a select clientele of 50 or 60 people, and he met their requirements. He was licensed to import books. We have, sadly, lost him to Covid. The last book I got from him was a book on Diego Rivera.
Have you lost any books?
Yes, that has happened too, but not too much. I told you about Empty Space. My first copy was a Penguin edition. I had lent it to someone and it didn’t come back. I bought a second copy when I went to the US for the first time. By then, the book was no longer available in India.
I don’t lend my books for many years now. If necessary, I’ll get a photocopy made and give that to the person who wants to borrow the book.
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