Soumitra Chatterjee is a maverick genius who dabbled the different streams of performing and creative arts with ease and a rare poise. For six decades he remained a harbinger of hope for Bengalis all around the globe. He was a way of life, a pride in the collective racial identity. Only his mentor Satyajit Ray and the universal gurudev Rabindranath Tagore precede him in adoration and reverence.
But Soumitra Chatterjee was never a star in the glamour sky. He was a daily sustenance in the mundane. Firmly rooted, in his private spaces he was a curious mind free of inhibitions. Silhouette editor Amitava Nag had the privilege of engaging with him in numerous discussions over months and years. Not interviews in the formal sense. But exchanges – of ideas, experiences and reflections.
Blue Pencil is set to release a short and succinct account of those interactions as the book Murmurs: Silent Steals with Soumitra Chatterjee, on 19th January 2021 to celebrate the legend’s 87th birthday..
For every Sunday till then, there will be individual episodes of the book.
Three words making a sentence are very strong. In English. Because there has to be a verb almost always. And then, one is left with two words of which one has to be a pronoun or a proper one in most cases.
‘I love you.’
‘You repel me.’
‘He is dead.’
Very strong, subtle and pungent. Like the beads of a poem. Poetry is the strongest form of literature. Cause poems can hold one captive to the pages and also, liberate her through the vacuum of emotions. Poems are strings balanced on feelings, not like birds that glide passion-less in air. Birds seldom have self-doubts, poems do. A bird doesn’t evolve by piercing the air in ether, a poet hopelessly aspires to. A successful poet, an accepted one, desires to be someone different.
The problem of writing is that, one can never be a failure all the time. Yet, if it lingers achingly long one may forget how to relate to with the outside world.
It is a shiny morning. There is a crisp air of benevolence all round. We are discussing Van Gogh. An artist who failed himself more than the others outside.
‘This whole business of entertainment is a permanence of erosion,’ Soumitra-babu lifts his eyes from a book of Bengali poems that I had published a few years back. He now looks at me, fully.
‘You know, we all need to move out more, out of us. Whatever we do, act or write, or paint. Just like failure puts you outside, success does the same as well,’ he no longer looks at me though his head is turned towards me. His eyes are still but there is a search. Beyond. Far. Beneath the heaps of praise he goes to sleep every day of his life.
‘What do you take with you to sleep, every night. The successes or the failures?’ I insist he probes further. Before me.
Coffee is served in small cups with sugar-free tablets alongside. I prefer black coffee without sugar.
‘Na, I can’t have it without a sweetener, that’s appalling,’ he concludes. I smile at him. We have previously discussed the small-sweetening life offers us, differently.
He is mixing the tablet in his coffee with a teaspoon. There is a whirring sound from the wall-mounted fan which makes more noise than the effect it is for. Occasionally the spoon touches the insides of the cup and makes a sweet sound. He is stirring the coffee with all concentration, and probably taking his time to rearrange his thoughts.
‘I don’t look back in general. That will make me stagnant. I love to do things, work, keeping me engaged,’ he finally says, still looking closely at the circles of motion on the surface of coffee in the cup in his hand.
‘And yet, we all do. We wait, we wait and then realise the chance is gone, don’t we,’ I am honest. That is how it has mostly been. For me, with art. In life.
He slowly lifts his head and looks at me again.
‘Amitava, going to sleep every night means getting up again the next morning. Most mornings are so same. Most nights dread me of the same mornings.’
I know this feeling. Since nothing ever changes. The lives flow on – with success or in failure, external, outside and we glide like birds – without emotions, with no remorse, no guilt. But, with a sense of defeat as we sit before our poems. Poems, which unshackle the poet more than the reader. The poet wishes to alleviate from his tragedies, his daily, painstakingly ordinary living.
I have come today to speak about a possible selected translation of his Bengali poems in English. A publisher requested me to ask him if he is agreeable to the idea. A selection of fifty or sixty, a first anthology of his poems in translation.
‘We will decide on the translator, later on’ the publisher insisted that I mention this bit to him. So I am, today, in his drawing room asking for a permission.
There is a sudden silence in the room that we are trying to bridge with our waiting for the other to speak. It is getting late for his lunch. I start to feel sorry for the gloom. Is it a wrong question that I asked? Do I rub any hidden wound, a sore pain in the life of an artist? I don’t know him well enough to understand this yet.
He gets up, ‘another day, Amitava. A better day may be.’
We come out of his room. I have left him here so many times, in darkness, with light. He pats me on my shoulders with an impish grin–
‘Why don’t you?’
He leaves me with the three words. In the sky the stars seem to smile down from behind the luminance of noon. Their happy tears drizzle down the canopy overshadowing his driveway touching my head the way some grandparents caress their grandchildren.
Three words, way too feeble, make mornings a memory of happiness.
Catherine Berge’s Gaach (The Tree, 1998) is a rare documentary on Soumitra Chatterjee. Silhouette is grateful to Catherine and producer James Ivory for providing permission to make it available to the Silhouette readers.
More to read on Soumitra Chatterjee
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