Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay was one Bengali writer whose work transcended all language barriers, finding acceptance all over India, and even abroad. The audience could easily relate to the issues he picked from contemporary society, the life-like characters he sketched and the inimitable style of his narratives — the reason a large number of his works were found to be fit for successful screen and stage adaptations, in several Indian languages.
Born on September 15, 1876, in an extremely poor family, Sarat Chandra was sensitive and at the same time bold and fearless in his writings, which captivated his readers. And he let his works do all the talking. Through his simple but strong characters, the reader come across the person he was, the circumstances that made him and the society he wanted to live in or denounce.
Be it Srikanta, Devdas or Sabyasachi, most of his male protagonists resemble his own bohemian self — the Awara Masiha, a name rightly given to him by the late Hindi litterateur Vishnu Prabhakar who wrote his biography by that name. His female characters were all women of substance — affectionate, caring and chaste, sometimes oppressed and sometime rebellious.
On the sobriquet Awara Masiha, Prabhakar had said he wanted to tell the world how the vagabond free spirit became the saviour of the oppressed souls. “A vagabond has a lot of qualities but is directionless. The day he gets that direction, he becomes the messiah,” Prabhakar wrote about his protagonist who thought ill of none.
On his 139th birthday, here is a look at some of the works that made Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay immortal.
First serialised in 1916 in Bangla monthly magazine Bharatbarsha, the travelogue of Srikanta went on to became a big hit. A year later, the 13-part story was published as a book and called Srikanta-Part I. The four-part series chronicled the protagonist’s life on the move and the characters that influenced him.
There had been several movies, mostly in Bangla, on this particular character nurtured by Sarat Chandra for over a quarter of a century. Many believed he took inspiration for Srikanta from his own life. The movies mainly dealt with specific chapters from Srikanta’s life, barring the most recent one, Iti Srikanta (2004) by Anjan Das, which tries to give a complete picture of the character.
In the film Rajakshmi O Srikanta (1958), the bohemian protagonist played by Uttam Kumar finds his childhood love at a rich friend’s ‘mehfil’, as singer Pyaribai (Suchitra Sen), and goes after her, only to leave her again.
In Kamal Lata (1969), Srikanta falls in love with a Vaishnavi (worshipper of Lord Vishnu). Played by hit pair Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen again, Srikanta and Kamal Lata tell the story of an eternal, selfless love that is complete but only in separation. Iti Srikanta shows this conflict of the man torn between the court singer and the sage.
After leaving Rajlakshmi, and before meeting Kamal Lata, Srikanta goes to Burma and meets Abhaya on the way. This chapter of his life was the plot for yet another film, Abhaya O Srikanta (1965). Incidentally, like Srikanta, Sarat Chandra too had gone to Burma in search of work and stayed there for a long time.
Abhaya, played by Mala Sinha, is a woman deserted by her husband. Srikanta helps her find the husband but the latter, having married another woman, refuses to accept her. Abhaya takes care of Srikanta when he is unwell during a plague outbreak. This relationship is more of respect and gratitude than romantic as Abhaya reminds him of his Annadadidi.
Srikanta, with Farooq Sheikh in the lead, was also adapted as a Hindi TV serial aired on DD in the 1980s.
Sarat Chandra is known as a feminist, with his female characters making such strong impression. Swami is the story of a bright young girl, Saudamini, who has a mind of her own. She has academic ambitions and is encouraged by her uncle to study literature and philosophy. Saudamini is in love with Narendra but is married off to a much older Ghanshyam. This is the story of this reluctant wife, with a past that makes her feel guilty (she can’t forget Narendra’s kiss), who struggles to adjust to a new life way different from the way she was brought up. Drawing strength from her soul that knows the right from wrong, Saudamini takes on her simpleton husband’s cunning stepmother, fights for his rights. The story ends with the stubborn girl’s voluntary submission to Ghanshyam, her ‘Swami’.
Swami was first made into a movie in Bangla, with Pahadi Sanyal, Amita Bose and Pradeep Kumar in the lead. In 1977, Basu Chatterjee made a Hindi version with Girish Karnad, Shabana Azmi and Vikram.
Another lesser known Bengali version, Antaratma, was released in 2008.
It might not have been one of his best critically acclaimed works, but Devdas definitely tops the popularity charts. Adapted as movies several times in several languages — there was even a silent one — Devdas is a unique story that depicts the protagonist as an ultimate loser.
The plot once again has a childhood love, Paro, whom Devdas loses due to societal norms, and the courtesan, Chandramukhi, in whom he finds refuge, showing how the subject was quite close to the writer’s heart. The story also depicts the prevailing societal customs in the early 1900s that kept a love story away from its logical end.
This novel set in the Bengal of early 1900s gives readers four very strong women characters. Two of them are shown to have done something that earned them the notoriety of being choritroheen, or characterless, though it is established in the end, and very late, how they, and also the other two, were wronged by the men in their lives.
Savitri, the Brahmin girl forced by poverty to take up a job done by women from ‘lower castes’; Surbala, a young pious wife who dies in the end; Sarojini, an educated, modern woman caught in adverse familial circumstances; and Kiranmayi, the intelligent and argumentative married woman who elopes with another man — the four as different as chalk and cheese have their fates strung together, with three men playing important roles in all four lives. A serial by the same name aired on Doordarshan in the 1980s was immensely popular.
Pather Dabi (the right of way) was different from the usual Sarat Chandra creations. Set in British India, the story has a passionate freedom fighter and the charismatic leader of a revolutionary group as its protagonist. The introduction to the book mentions the thrilling story behind its release. All its 5,000-odd first prints were apparently sold out in a week. But it caused an enormous furore, and a ban was imposed soon after. This was lifted much after Sarat Chandra’s death in January 1938.
It is the story of a secret society by the name of Pather Dabi, which aims to free India from the colonial rule. Protagonist Sabyasachi is the leader of this organisation that has many other powerful characters as its members.
The story touches upon contemporary issues ranging from untouchability, orthodoxy and faith to rich-poor divide and the status of women in the society, criticising the British policies and also India’s inherent customs of religion and social structure with the same intensity.
Based on the story, a Bengali film, Sabyasachi, was made in 1977, with Uttam Kumar in the lead.