By Deepa Agarwal
Where would you encounter characters like the King of Bomboria, the Porcuduck, the Kaathburo who eats wood and Bhisma Lochan Sharma, whose singing makes bullock carts overturn and trees collapse? Where else but in the world of Sukumar Ray, who has reigned as the king of Indian nonsense for over a century?
An icon of modern Indian children’s literature, Sukumar was born on October 30, 1887 to a legendary father, Upendrakishore Raychowdhury and Bidhumukhi Devi. One of six siblings, he displayed signs of his creative genius early in life. His first poem “Nodi” or “River” was published in the magazine Mukul when he was barely eight years old.
The Bengal Renaissance was in full bloom then, and Upendrakishore Raychowdhury happened to be one of its leading luminaries. The story of modern Indian children’s literature actually begins at the time of this great cultural resurgence, between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the Ray family made an immense contribution to its development.
Writer, artist, photographer, musician, composer, entrepreneur and a pioneer of printing technology in India, Upendrakishore too, had begun to write at a young age, contributing a children’s story to the magazine Sakha, aged 20. Tuntunir Boi, Cheleder Ramoyana and Cheleder Mohabharata are among his well-known books for children. A brilliant artist, he illustrated them himself. He also wrote many articles on popular science. However, Goopy Gyne, Bagha Byne a comic fantasy adventure, remains his most famous work. In 1969, it was made into a much-loved children’s film by his illustrious grandson, Satyajit Ray.
Sukumar thus took birth in a family that passionately celebrated the arts. Upendrakishore had joined the reformist Hindu sect of the Brahmo Samaj, launched by Raja Rammohun Roy, which included the Tagores among its members. This meant that they moved in the highest literary and artistic circles of the time.
Sukumar received his early education in City College School, Kolkata. It is said that one of his classmates was the inspiration for his eponymous character, the madcap Pagla Dashu, hero of a number of rib-tickling short stories. After school, Sukumar joined the prestigious Presidency College in Kolkata and graduated with honours in Physics and Chemistry in 1906.
The works of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear had become popular then, and like Rabindranath Tagore and other literary figures of the time, Sukumar read them with interest and even founded a Nonsense Club. However, though both English writers were a strong influence, he went on to create his uniquely Indian brand of nonsense.
Upendrakishore was a born innovator. For better reproduction of his illustrations in books, he decided to explore the modern techniques of photography and block-making more extensively. Sukumar had been interested in photography since his school days. In 1911, he left for England to train at the School of Photo-Engraving and Lithography in London. He joined the Royal Academy of Photographers in 1912 and was to remain a member till his death. While in London, he gave lectures on Rabindranath Tagore’s songs and contributed articles to prestigious technical journals like the Penrose Annual.
Upendrakishore had set up the publishing firm M/s U Ray and Sons. Sukumar and his younger brother Subinay were both involved in running it. In 1913, Upendrakishore launched the Bengali children’s magazine Sandesh. This pathbreaking publication brought out entertaining fiction and poems for children along with informative pieces. Sukumar had returned from London, and both father and son contributed to making it into a treat for young readers. Their unique comic illustrations accompanied the text and would become a source of inspiration to generations of artists.
Sukumar’s genius flowered in the genre of nonsense—verses, plays and short stories. The 45 verses later collected in his classic work Abol Tabol (Gibberish-Gibberish; 1923) originally appeared in Sandesh. These whimsical poems with their lively use of word play, absurd notions, and underlying vein of satire acquired instant popularity both with children and adults. In the preface of the book Sukumar explains about the ‘spirit of whimsy’ or ‘kheyaal raush’ that is behind the rhymes and his creation of the new genre of nonsense—the tenth rasa in Indian literary tradition.
Many more works followed, like Khai Khai (A Longing to Eat), another collection of nonsense verse; Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law (Mumbo-Jumbo); Pagla Dashu (Crazy Dashu); Heshoram Hushiyarer Diary, the diary of a whacky explorer, an early science fiction parody; Abak Jalpan (Weird Drinking of Water), Bahurupi (Chameleon) a collection of short stories, and several others.
Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law, an enduring classic, is said to be his answer to Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland. The title is literally a string of letters consisting of the 33rd, 26th, 23rd, 27th and 28th consonants of the Bengali alphabet but has now become a synonym for nonsense in the language. Full of wordplay and preposterous happenings, it carries the reader into a topsy-turvy world where anything is possible.
Sukumar’s genius also blossomed in the field of drama and he wrote several plays including Jhhalapala, a farce, Lakshmaner Shatishel a spoofy take on an incident from the Ramayana, and Chalachittachancari a clever satire on the rivalry between two religious groups. His plays lampooned the British rulers, their sycophants and poked fun at society in general.
When Sukumar’s father, Upendrakishore passed away in 1915, he and his brother Subinay continued to bring out Sandesh, with Sukumar as editor.
In 1919, he got married to Suprabha Das. His son Satyajit was born on May 2, 1921. Sadly, Sukumar did not live long after that. He was stricken with the deadly kalaazaar fever for which there was no cure then, and passed away on September 10, 1923, aged barely 36 years.
Yet, in the short span of his lifetime, Sukumar Ray left an inimitable stamp on Bengali and indeed Indian literature. A wizard with words, he possessed a comic sense that worked at many levels. He also established standards of writing for children and its illustration that would inspire many writers and artists to enter this field. His stories, poems and plays continue to be widely read, recited and performed to this day.
Fortunately for non-Bengali readers, most of his classic works are available in English translation. His son, filmmaker Satyajit Ray, continued the family tradition of writing quality fiction for children and translated some of his father’s writing. Eminent translators like Sukanta Chaudhuri and Sampurna Chattarji have also brought out versions of Abol-Tabol and other works that creatively reproduce the flavour of the original.
And if you ever wondered why so many children’s book illustrators hail from Bengal, maybe the trailblazing Rays provide the answer!
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