Harindranath Chattopadhyay: A Life Lived to the Fullest
Sarojini Naidu and her sister-in-law Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay are two of the biggest names among the women leaders of the Indian freedom movement. But perhaps eclipsed by these two trailblazing women, stands Harindranath Chattopadhyay, Sarojini’s brother and Kamaladevi’s husband.
Harindranath Chattopadhyay (1898-1990) was a polymath, a true renaissance man, who deserves to be much better known. Variously talented – a first-rate, prolific poet in the English language, a playwright and stage director, a pioneer of nursery rhymes in Hindi (it was not his mother tongue), an inspired singer-songwriter in Hindi, a composer of tunes and a painter – Harindranath was many lives packed into one. He was an elected Parliamentarian to boot, a member of the first Lok Sabha, having been elected from the Vijaywada constituency.
Harindranath (Harin-babu) was born in one of the most extraordinary Indian families of the day. His father Aghorenath hailed from Bikrampur, now in Bangladesh, and had studied at Presidency College in Calcutta, and at Edinburgh University. He joined the service of the Nizam of Hyderabad and became the first Principal and one of the founding fathers of Nizam College.
He was also the first Indian to acquire a Doctor of Science (D Sc) degree from the University of Edinburgh. His interests took him beyond science and academia and he was also a writer of mystical poetry. Harindranath's mother Baradasundari was a fine singer and wrote in Bengali.
Harindranath had many illustrious siblings. His sister Sarojini, the ‘Bulbul-e-Hind’, was the first Indian woman President of the Indian National Congress and herself a poetess of eminence. His brother was Virendranath, who had a highly adventurous life as an international revolutionary and who met a tragic end during Stalin's Great Purge of the 1930s. Another sister Mrinali became an academic and Principal of Gangaram Girls' High School in Lahore, now known as Lahore College for Women University, and is one of the biggest women's educational institutions in the subcontinent founded through the philanthropy of Sir Rai Bahadur Gangaram (who also built large hospitals in Lahore and Delhi.) Yet another sister Suhasini was among the first Indian women communists and married to (but later separated from) A C N Nambiar, a close aide of Subhas Chandra Bose in Europe.
The family home in Hyderabad is now an annex campus of the University of Hyderabad and is known as the ‘Golden Threshold’, named after the first volume of poetry published by Sarojini. Harindranath described the Hyderabad of his childhood as a city straight out of the Arabian Nights, with sights of elephants, camels and men with daggers on the streets not quite uncommon. The siblings engaged in creative activities of various kinds, and one would imagine that their household was a miniature version of the famed Jorasanko Thakurbari (the House of Tagores) of Calcutta.
Beginning of a Creative Career
Harindranath published his first volume of poetry when he was only 19. The work, titled The Feast of Youth, drew instant appreciation from reviewers. Its foreword was written by eminent poet James Henry Cousins, where he referred to the author as “a true bearer of the Fire”.
– While still in his 20s Harindranath staged his highly successful play Abu Hassan, an adaptation, largely in verse, of a tale from the Arabian Nights.
It ran very successfully in several places. In Bombay, it was staged at the Excelsior, where it pulled unprecedented crowds. And it is said that in Madras there were special local trains timed to bring the audiences to the show.
Marriage and Separation
Just into his 20s, Harindranath met and married Kamaladevi. She, the daughter of a civil servant, had been married at 15 and widowed soon, before she met Harindranath in Madras, where she had come for her education at the university. It was quite an unorthodox act – marriage between a Bengali Brahmin and a South Indian widowed girl. Both were driven by a fire to work for the common masses. They chose theatre as their immediate medium.
The couple went to England to sharpen their knowledge in the arts and humanities. While Harindranath joined the Fitzwilliam Hall and did research on 'William Blake and the Sufis', Kamaladevi joined the Bedford College and enrolled in Sociology and Economics. In a recommendation letter to the university, eminent poet Arthur Quiller-Couch, who had read Harindranath's works, wrote of him: “We would have given Shelly and Keats a chance. Why not this young poet?”
During their London stay, they were also exposed to the dramatic traditions of the London stage as well as those of the Royal Academy of Drama and Arts. Harindranath published his poetry in several leading literary magazines. He also moved in literary circles and befriended several leading literary figures of the day, like Laurence Binyon who once wrote of him: “He has drunk at the same fount as Shelly and Keats.”
The young couple stayed in London for a few years but eventually dropped their academic pursuits and returned to India, where they thought they could do much more.
Kamaladevi and Harindranath did a number of plays together. During this time, their son Ram was born. Kamala also ventured into the feminist movement (an interest she would retain all her life) and met key suffragists like Margaret Cousins. She became involved in the All India Women's Conference and contributed to the starting of the Lady Irwin College in Delhi. In 1926, she stood for the Madras Legislative Assembly elections from Mangalore and lost narrowly, by a margin of 51 votes.
However, with time, the couple began to lead separate lives. Kamaladevi was prominent in the handicrafts movement, helping organise the makers of traditional crafts, thus ensuring a fair livelihood for them. She rose in the Congress ranks and caught the attention and admiration of Gandhi himself. She was one of the early flagbearers of the Congress Socialist Party, a socialist caucus formed within the wider Congress platform, along with persons like Jayprakash Narayan, Acharya Narendra Dev and Yousuf Meherally.
Kamaladevi led a long life dedicated to the causes she had chosen. When the country became independent, a Cabinet berth or governorship was well within her reach. But she was more of an activist on the ground and took upon her herself harder battles. She was primarily responsible for settling the refugees of Partition in the colony which later emerged as Faridabad. She was the force behind the setting up of the All India Handicrafts Board, the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, and also the visionary behind the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the National School of Drama, and the India International Centre. She was honoured with the Padma Vibhushan.
– It is interesting to note that the first legal separation of any married couple in India was between Harindranath and Kamaladevi.
Literary and Theatrical Gifts
Harindranath continued on his path of song, drama, and other creative pursuits. He published an anthology of his playlets titled Five Plays in London. The volume had commendations from personalities like Rabindranath Tagore, Alice Meynell and Theosophist poet George W Russell. S. Fowler Wright wrote the foreword and compared Harindranath to Joseph Cornad.
Quite a few of his poems had philosophical and spiritual moorings. He lived for three years at the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, and his literary output was very productive during this time. He wrote a poem almost every day and sent it to Sri Aurobindo for his comments. The Master also wrote back to him, offering new insights.
Sri Aurobindo in a review wrote of Harindranath: “We may hope to find in him a supreme singer of vision of God in Nature and Life and the meeting of the divine and human which must be at first the most vivifying and liberating part of India's message to a humanity that is now touched everywhere by the growing will of the spiritualizing of the earth-existence.”
Among notable poems of this type is Shaper Shaped, which is commonly taught in universities across the country. In this poem, the poet reflects upon a change in perspective that he underwent upon gaining maturity, losing his egotistic way of thought and life. Its opening stanza goes as follows:
In the days gone by I used to be
A potter who would feel
His fingers mould the yielding clay
To patterns on his wheel;
But now through wisdom lately won
That pride has gone away,
I have ceased to be the potter
And I have learnt to be the clay.
Some of his poems were greatly valued by no less than Tagore himself, who for a while even toyed with the idea of translating some of them into Bengali. Tagore was particularly fond of the poem The Flute, and he did translate it into Bengali. In a letter to the eminent musicologist and friend of Harindranath, Dilip Kumar Roy, Tagore wrote that “the Bengali language cannot contain him (Harindranath)”.
Harindranath’s mother tongue was Bengali but he hardly wrote any poetry or songs in that language. Throughout his creative life, he worked chiefly in English and in Hindi. During the Gandhian movements, he wrote songs in Hindustani, which were sung by a large number of people. This also led to his incarceration. A notable song from this period is Shuru Hua Hai Jung Hamara. Only towards the latter part of his life – during the Mukti Sangram of Bangladesh did he compose two songs in Bengali.
Harindranath showed great talent in writing Hindi nursery rhymes, many of which are still taught in schools. His poem Tati Tati Tota is famous in this genre. Another famous poem is Railgadi, which was sung by Ashok Kumar in the film Ashirvad, a film in which Harindranath acted and also sang. He also wrote the lyrics of the superhit song My heart is beating from the 1975 film Julie.
Harindranath also collected Jain parables and made poetry out of them. He was in touch with several mystics and considered Sri Ramana Maharshi as his Guru.
He was a very fine singer and composer too. A very popular song of his describing the mood of the labouring classes after a hard day's work is Surya Ast Ho Gaya. Another song with a semi-classical base was Tarun Arun Se Ranjit Dharani. These songs also show his singing prowess. Many of these songs were very popular in the 1950s when the Indian People's Theatre Association was sweeping the cultural landscape of the country and were sung by other great singers like Hemanta Mukhopadhyay.
Harindranath also did plays on saints like Tukaram, Raidas, Pundalik and Sakubai. His songs in these plays, bereft of any instrumental support, captivated the audience. He staged Tukaram very successfully on the London stage and he sang live in Marathi. He always made bold experiments in his stagings. In the play The Sleeper Awakened, he had his actors singing English verse to Vedic meter and the result was a tremendous thrill among the audience as they witnessed this creative marvel.
As a creative genius wanting to seek engagement with several art forms, Harindranath also involved himself with cinema. He performed in dozens of Hindi films – his most memorable role was in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Bawarchi (the Hindi remake of Tapan Sinha's Bengali film Galpo Holeo Shotti), where he played the role of the grandfather. Among the other films he worked in was the Navketan production Tere Ghar Ke Samne, and in the role of a ghadi-babu (a timekeeper) in the Guru Dutt production Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam, where his character witnessed the decay of the Bengali Zamindari system.
He also worked in the first-ever Ivory-Merchant Production The Householder, where Satyajit Ray, who informally advised and helped the makers, saw his acting talent. Harindranath thereafter had a very affectionate relationship with Ray and he never declined any offer which his dear ‘Manik’ (as Ray was called in close circles) approached him for.
It was due to Ray's genius and Harinbabu's screen presence that all three roles in Ray films – the magician Borfi in Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen, Sir Baren Roy in Seemabaddha, and the polymathic Sidhu Jyatha in Sonar Kella – are firmly etched in the minds of anyone who has watched them. Interestingly, these were the only Bengali films Harindranath acted in.
– Hrishikesh Mukherjee held him in great esteem and it is no surprise that two memorable Hindi film roles Harindranath did were in Mukherjee films – Ashirvad and Bawarchi.
Mukherjee once said that his films were marked by a simple idea that Harindranath had given him – that it is simple to be happy but so difficult to be simple. This was also used as a dialogue line in Bawarchi.
In Public Affairs
When the country became independent, Harindranath too endeavoured to play a more direct role in public affairs. He contested and won in the first General Elections to the Lok Sabha from Vijaywada as an Independent candidate (supported by the Communist Party of India). In Parliament, there were occasions where he, with his characteristic sense of humour, cut jokes at the expense of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. On a personal level, Nehru was fond of him. After one term, Harindranath had had enough and that was the end of his direct engagement with politics.
Harindranath remained active till his last years. He was honoured with the Padma Bhushan in 1973. He passed away in 1990 at the age of 92.
Persons like Harindranath Chattopadhyaya were products of the cultural flowering of their times, the tremendous morally orienting atmosphere of the freedom struggle, and the optimism of ushering in of a more humane era after the Independence. But the optimism of even an individual like Harindranath took a jolt as he saw how the country had deviated from the path envisaged during the freedom movement. A fine expression of this mood was in his poem, the inspiration of which came while watching a Republic Day parade. He recited this in a meeting with the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The opening lines go as follows:
The older is marching
the younger is marching
and right through their marching
One hunger is marching
What were the factors that informed the flowering of such a versatile artist as Harindranath? Can he be called a product of the Bengal Renaissance? He was born to Bengali parents and, to be sure, his beginnings were shaped by his parents and the general ethos of the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century. But he had soaked the cultural traditions from across the subcontinent, and made himself one with hopes and aspirations, trials and tribulations of the different peoples who inhabit this land.
Whether it was the culture of the Nizam's Hyderabad, or influences as wide as Sri Ramana, Sri Aurobindo, other spiritual luminaries of the Indian spiritual firmament, or the spirit of the freedom movement, or even the international awakening among the toiling classes that was brought to the centre stage by the Communist movement, he did not close himself to any of them. He imbibed it all into his person, and the outward expression was nothing short of marvellous.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vinayak Lohani is the founder of Parivaar (parivaar.org), a humanitarian institution based in West Bengal, and seeks inspiration in the spiritual and humanistic ideals of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda.