Fire and Other Images comprises a selection of prose pieces by Paritosh Sen, originally written and published in Bengali and rendered into English here, in an attempt to make them available to a wider audience. The pencil sketches that illustrate the narratives were done by the artist for this book.
In these vignettes of his past Paritosh Sen evokes a world that we have lost, a memory of what has been and gone; yet, the very act of evocation creates a powerful presence. His family was large enough for him, as a child, to lose himself in his own vision of the world: a vision that has remained with him and is recalled in moments of reflection. It is this vision that he shares with us in the pieces that bring to life memories of his boyhood in Dhaka; of his relationship with his father which, though distant, is deeply imprinted in him; of the fire at his father's cremation which he describes in forms and colours that explode in his mind's eye; of the death of his mother which he poignantly juxtaposes with the anguish of a mother mongoose separated from her captured babies.
Paritosh Sen responds profoundly to the landscape, trees, plants, birds and people that surround him. For him the magnificent Arjuna tree, the 'tree in his village', for instance, is like a high-rise building -with a hierarchy among the birds that nestle separately in the various branches of the tree, and between them and the snakes and iguanas in its roots. The tree thus becomes a universe in itself.
On a lighter note, we share his enthusiasm for gourmet meals ranging over a spectrum of cuisine. His ability to laugh at himself is the most appealing part of those pieces where the underlying hilarity arises from unexpected encounters - with women in unusual situations or with strangers who make incomprehensible demands.
Paritosh Sen the artist comes through forcefully in the pieces where he recalls his meetings with Brancusi and Picasso. The description of Brancusi in his studio is a splendid glimpse of a sculptor at work. In his narration of his encounter with Picasso we are made aware of the initial awe that is gradually replaced by a recognition of the immense human qualities that go into the best creativity, and of the way in which Picasso epitomized some of these. The artist in Paritosh Sen also surfaces in his stunning description of travelling across the waters at Abu Simbel at dawn.
The creativity inspired by a recollection of a past world and of the attempt to comprehend the present, is preserved in both his paintings and writings. This connectivity is germane to Paritosh Sen's understanding of himself as a part of the universe and it provides many dimensions to his perceptions. Some enter his consciousness fleetingly and others are more deliberately called forth, but they all provide clues to what goes into the making of his articulation as an artist. One of the most impressive among these is his conviction that creativity can only exist in a condition of freedom. Both his painting and his writing are statements that endorse freedom as necessary to creativity and as central to the human experience.
Born in Dhaka (now in Bangladesh) in 1918, Paritosh Sen studied art at the Government College of Arts and Crafts in Madras, and at Andre Lhote's School, Academy Grand Chamier, Ecole des Beaux Arts and Ecole de Louvre in Paris. Since 1946, he has had numerous one-person and group shows in India and abroad, and his paintings are part of the collections at the National Gallery of Modern Art (Delhi), the Lalit Kala Akademi (Delhi), the Ministry of External Affairs, Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Birla Academy (Calcutta), to name just a few. He has also taught and lectured on art at various national and international institutions. Documentary films on his work have been made by the West Bengal government (1962), by Doordarshan, Calcutta (One Day in the Life of a Celebrity, 1988), and by German television on the occasion of the India Festival there. Among the more recent of his many awards are: a prestigious medallion, Tofficier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres', conferred by the Republic of France in 2002, a Doctorate of Literature by the Rabindra Bharati University, Calcutta, in 2002, and the Aban-Gagan Puraskar given by Visvabharati, in 2000. Paritosh Sen's publications include numerous articles in journals on the problems of contemporary art, and three Bengali collections of essays and stories: Zindabahar, Abu Simbal, Picasso o Anyanyo Tirthe, and Amsundari o Anjanyo Rachana.
The essays and stories in this book, originally written in Bengali, have been selected from three of my books - Zindabahar, Abu Simbal, Picasso o Anyanyo Tirthe, and Amsundari o Anjanyo Rachana. Writing came to me by sheer chance when I was about sixty years old. A request from a Bengali little magazine titled Kabipatra to write my childhood memories kindled in me a hitherto unperceived urge to express myself in the form of belles lettres. The initial efforts, I felt, suffered from literary pretension. This failure prompted me to rethink and make a fresh beginning. It then occurred to me that I was gifted with a pair of painter's eyes. Why not let my eyes do all the talking? Since my art school days, I have always been good in portraiture. I decided to draw pen-portraits of people, places and objects that have remained stored in the inner recesses of my mind. As I started writing about them, they came gushing forth, like fossilized images suddenly coming to life.
The first story I wrote was 'A Tree in my Village'. To begin with, I made a pen and ink sketch of the tree. I then contemplated it for two or three days, trying to figure out how to transform it into words that would convey its visual richness. Altogether, it was an exciting experience. After completing it I passed the story on to Satyajit Ray, Radhaprasad Gupta and Shanti P. Chowdhury for their comments. I had great respect for their literary taste. To my surprise, all three of them expressed their unqualified praise and asked me to keep going. Ray even suggested that I devote more time to writing than painting. In fact, I did not touch paint and brush from then on until my first book, Zindabahar, was ready for publication.
One after the other, the stories and essays (translated into English) in this book came to be published in such well-known Bengali little magazines as Ekshan (jointly edited by Nirmalya Acharya and Saumitra Chattopadhyay, Ray's favourite actor) and Krittibas (edited by the famous poet and novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay), and, of course, in the popular Bengali weekly Desh. A few were also published in the now defunct weekly Amrita. A facsimile deluxe edition with numerous illustrations of 'A Tree in My Village' was published in the form of a portfolio by the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. It became a collectors' item and soon went out of print.
The present volume is the result of many friends' urging that I should reach out to a wider readership by publishing a selection of my writings in English. This would not have been possible but for the magnanimous offer made by Ms Enakshi Chatterjee to do the tedious job of translating the prose pieces from Bengali into English. Except for 'A Tree in My Village' which I translated, and 'The Devotee' which was translated by Ms Ela Datta, the rest have been translated by Ms Chatterjee. I will remain ever grateful to her for the time and care she has so ungrudgingly given to the task. My gratitude is also due to Professor Kunal Chakrabarti of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, for his help in the selection of the stories. He also suggested the title of the book. It is my honour and privilege that Professor Romila Thapar has written a foreword to this book, despite her many engagements. Last but not the least; I am grateful to Ms Indu Chandrasekhar of Tulika Books for having agreed to publish the book in its present form and for having taken the trouble to oversee its production.
First saw Paritosh Sen's paintings in the home of my friends Santi and Pula Chowdhury and it was also in their home that I later met Paritosh and his wife Jayashree. There were many conversations about the paintings, about Paritosh's writings, much acclaimed, which unfortunately I could not read because they were in Bengali and most of all about Paritosh's perceptions as a creative person, not only in contemporary India but in the world of today. These ranged from the immediate environment and the present, to the many manifestations of the worlds that he has known. I therefore read these essays anticipating a further discovery of his perceptions, an anticipation well fulfilled.
In these vignettes of his past, Paritosh Sen, in looking back, evokes a world that we have lost. Landscapes have been reworked, cityscapes have taken new forms; the assumptions on which human relationships are based have undergone a mutation. His memories of childhood in Dhaka inevitably carry an evocative quality. What they evoke is a memory of what has been and gone; nevertheless, the act of evocation creates a presence. This is what is not lost and the evocation is a powerful presence. This remains with him in the continuity of his experiences in life that are alive in his paintings and his prose writings. The latter are familiar to a Bengali audience, and it is as it should be that some of these pieces have now been rendered into English for a wider audience.
His family was large enough for him, as a child, to lose himself in his own vision of the world: a vision that has remained with him and becomes real in moments of solitude. His relationship with his father, so much the quintessential bhadralok 'gentleman', is at times distant, but despite this is deeply imprinted in him. The fire at his father's cremation rivets his attention to the forms and colours that explode in his mind's eye - a vision that now kindles his remembrance of reading about Duryodhana burning the house of the Panda-vas, the vision of the universe that Krishna reveals to Arjuna, and passages from Dante's Divine Comedy. In describing the death of his mother he juxtaposes with poignant empathy the anguish of a mother mongoose separated from her captured babies: a juxtaposition that heightens the mother-child relation but also hints at other dimensions of such a relation.
He responds repeatedly to the landscape, trees, plants, birds and people that encompass him. The magnificently large Arjuna tree - the tree in the village - has been profusely illustrated in another publication. He compares the tree to a high-rise building with a hierarchy among the birds that nestle separately in its various branches - a hierarchy that seems to control the varied relationships between the birds in the tree and with the snakes and iguanas in the roots of the tree. The tree becomes its own universe. Suddenly the system is disturbed by an invasion of monkeys. The birds fight back, almost ruthlessly, to regain their branch-hold. There is something almost Hitchcockian in the scene.
On a lighter note one shares his enthusiasm for gourmet meals ranging over a spectrum of cuisine. His ability to laugh at himself is the most appealing part of those narratives where the unspoken, underlying hilarity arises from unexpected encounters, sometimes with women in unusual situations, or with strangers making seemingly incomprehensible demands.
Paritosh the artist comes through forcefully in his recalling his meetings with Brancusi and Picasso. The image of Brancusi in his studio is a splendid glimpse of a sculptor at work. Picasso, he writes, had the most lasting influence on him. One is made aware of the initial awe and then the gradual fading of the awe, to be replaced by recognition of the immense human qualities, how-ever whimsical, that go into the best creativity and the way in which Picasso epitomized some of these. The artist in Paritosh also surfaces in his stunning description of travelling across the waters at Abu Simbel at dawn, which becomes almost a moment of epiphany.
The creativity inspired by a recollection of a past world and of the attempt to comprehend the present, is preserved in both his paintings and writings. This connectivity is germane to his understanding of himself as a part of the universe and it provides many dimensions to his perceptions. Some enter his consciousness fleetingly and summon links to varied cultures of the world of Asia and Europe. Others are more deliberately called forth. They provide some clues to his reading, his observations and his thoughts, all that go into the making of his articulation as an artist.
One of the most impressive among these is his conviction that creativity can only exist in a condition of freedom. Paritosh believes firmly that if this freedom is shackled by ideologies that are intended to obstruct free expression; such ideologies become an assault on creativity. Assaults of this kind have been made in recent times, in India, and have to be resisted. Both his painting and his writing are statements that endorse freedom as necessary to creativity and as central to the human experience.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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