How does one begin to write about the loss of one’s closest friend? Shobita Punja who passed away early in the morning on June 28 was my closest friend for 50 years. For both of us it was friendship at first sight. It started in mid-July 1974 in an elevator in the School of Social Sciences which was then in what was called the “Old Campus’’ of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Since then, the flame of friendship never dimmed, it still glows. She was my complement and I hers with all our combined frailties and our many differences.
Shobita studied ancient history while I did modern. JNU those days was small in terms of student numbers. Almost everyone knew everyone. But within that expanding circle, Shobita Punja, Indu Agnihotri, Chitra Joshi, Neeladri Bhattacharya and I formed a small cosy group who ate together, discussed together and laughed together. Shobita was indisputably the joyous centre of our circle so it is ironic that she was destined as the first to be wrenched from the cluster which survived even after we had all left JNU and gone our different ways.
A diligent historian
Shobita went to Stanford and I to Oxford and this was the only period in our lives that we didn’t – because we couldn’t – see each other regularly. I still remember how my heart leapt with joy when Chitra Joshi told me in Lucknow, where we bumped into each other sometime in 1981, that Shobita was back in Delhi. I went to see her almost immediately and it was as if we had never parted.
From that time, we watched each other grow, helped each other grow. Shobita trained as an art historian and became a museologist and conservationist. She joined the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training where she worked with school teachers to enable them to make art and handicrafts part of their pedagogy. Her mentors were Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Kapila Vatsayan, and Premlata Puri. This was work that she really enjoyed and what she learnt became one of the pillars of her sustenance. She moved to Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) where Mapu (Martand Singh) became her inspiration, philosopher, and friend. In many ineffable ways, she never recovered from Mapu’s untimely passing. I know this because she spoke to me often about him and her sense of loss.
From such outstanding individuals, Shobita learnt about artisans and their crafts, about fabrics, about monuments and from Mapu, particularly, about gems. She worked closely with INTACH and the Helen Hamlyn Trust to restore many old buildings. She never sought credit and the limelight. She was happy that she was working to preserve India’s heritage. The most frustrating period of her working life occurred when she was persuaded, much against her instinctive reluctance, to become the CEO of the National Culture Fund. She swore never to work for any government again.
Alongside this work, Shobita fashioned herself as an author. She wrote about the museums of India and Pakistan. She recreated the stories about women in Indian myths in a marvellous book called Daughters of the Ocean. But her truly wonderful book – the one she enjoyed writing the most – was Divine Ecstasy: The Story of Khajuraho. In it, Shobita brought together her knowledge of architecture and her reading of texts especially the Shiva Purana. She also observed, much like an anthropologist, in the course of innumerable visits to Khajuraho and its environs, how the people of the region celebrated Shiva Ratri. Through this blending she provided a comprehensive analysis of the temples and their panels. The erotic sculptures in some of the panels became part of a holistic pattern in her analysis.
I watched all this almost like a participant because she took me by the hand in her intellectual journey. Her personal life was enriched by the arrival of Samiha, her daughter. I shared in her joy and admired the effort and love she put in to bring up Samiha and then her confidence to let her go and make her own life. Samiha was Shobita’s pride and joy. Samiha was Shobita’s vanity and she had no other.
‘Look at that detail’
My friendship with her was something like an enduring and enriching subterranean flow connecting our separate lives. We wined and dined, we chattered as close friends do, wo confided, we grumbled, and occasionally differed without rancour. We laughed with each other and laughed at each other. We moved effortlessly from the lightest trivialities to profound things. Looking back, I can recognise that all this was possible because we shared certain fundamental values – honesty, love for art and culture, commitment to India’s pluralism and to ahimsa.
We also travelled together. For me there was nothing more educative than going to a museum or an art gallery with Shobita. She taught me how to look at paintings. One of my great joys was to walk around Oxford with her (Toby Sinclair was also with us as he was in our innumerable lunches and dinners – the Gang of Three we were once labelled) – “Show me your Oxford’’, was Shobita’s demand.
Another memorable experience was when she took me to see Ajanta and Ellora. I don’t think we stopped talking till our eyelids drooped. In 2019, I was invited as a visiting professor to the University of Beijing. Shobita and my wife, Dayita, insisted they would both accompany me. While I went about my academic chores, they went sightseeing across Beijing and other parts of China. Both reported separately to me how much they had learnt from each other and what fun it had been.
When I became the founding Vice Chancellor of Ashoka University, I roped in Shobita to teach a course on heritage preservation at the Young India Fellowship programme. As I had anticipated, she was an instant hit with successive cohorts in the early years of the Young India Fellowship. Students found her inspiring and lively; some of them remained in touch with her even after their fellowship had finished.
Unfortunately, she had to stop teaching because of her ill-health.
One idea that had long been in my head was to co-write a book with Shobita. This increasingly seemed unlikely till, during the pandemic, David Davidar of Aleph Book Company sprang the idea that has taken shape as A New History of India. Working closely with Shobita – mostly on Zoom or e-mail because of the pandemic – I was impressed by her objective criticism of what I was writing, her ability to listen to suggestions and most of all her capacity for sustained work despite her declining heath. Once, when the pandemic was petering out, over two days (working more than 12 hours each day) we went through the typescript with toothcombs. And on another occasion, with the pictures positioned in place in the book the two of us and Toby again went through the proofs over one and a half days. Our work was made possible in Shobita’s house and with her gracious hospitality. She was happy with the book and was somewhat amazed by its success.
I have tried to keep my emotions on a leash. It would be disingenuous to leave this piece on that register. In innumerable small ways she is a part of my life. Whenever I will walk into 360 at The Oberoi in Delhi I will think of her making a bee line to the buffet for smoked salmon; a flute of champagne will never taste the same without her; I will never look at a painting without her voice whispering, “Look at that detail, Rudrangshu’’; I will never laugh uproariously with anybody again; I don’t have anybody else to scold for having the occasional cigarette. Nobody will share her deepest personal worries with me. Who shall I turn to at my darkest moment? Shobita, you have left me lonely and without solitude. You have also left me homeless in Delhi.
My remembrance of her would be incomplete without saying that she was a beauty. She was one of those rare individuals whose physical beauty was reflected in her personality, her boundless generosity and her joie de vivre.
Shobita, I think you know this: no one loved you the way I did. That is my vanity. I have no other.
Rudrangshu Mukherjee is Chancellor and Professor of History at Ashoka University. His latest book, A New History of India, was co authored with Shobita Punja.