Apu, Ekshan, Ikebana and being Bengali- Renaissance, uninterrupted – Remembering Soumitra Chatterjee

Soumitra Chatterjee

I was then 14, maybe 15, between studying English and science

Spending seemingly interminable days waiting for the variety

Of Puja Varshikis; back on our 3rd floor, waiting for that magic

Moment for the day’s Ananda Bazar to drop in a corner

Of the verandah, launched from the street.  And no sooner than

The thud was heard, rushing to get our hands on that treasure

Trove, hungrily wolfing down the day’s cartoons and sports pages.

And each day awakening to the heavenly sounds of Hemanta


And Suchitra on the radio.  These were the foundations of our

Young Bengali lives.  Then, the glamour-filled world of the cinema

Seemed shallow, lacking in substance, hence worthy of rejection.

Yet, right then, the task of upholding higher art in cinema fell

Upon the capable hands of a Satyajit, a  Ritwik and Mrinal,

A Tarun and Tapan- a handful of the keepers of a higher culture.

And there was you.  Doubtless, in the culture-conscious Bengali

Life, the pairing of Uttam and Suchitra was the unmatched


Heartthrob- yet, in my mind and a handful of others, you were

One so close to our hearts.  In you I have seen the artistic intellect

An unfathomable depth of the mind, the subtlety of sensibility

My mind refused to engage in the meaninglessness of branding

Matinee idols.  I had met you once, entirely by accident- I had

Yet to see you on film.  Cinema almost entirely lay outside our

Orbit.  Life had far more gravity than fluff.  Yet, the names

Satyajit and Soumitra were quite familiar- perched on seats


Of reverence.  It was 1971, as I recall.  My brother and I, in the

Company of our Borda, had boarded Kolkata’s double-decker

To spend an evening taking in the dazzling neons of Park Street

And the Esplanade.  Soon, Borda had treated his cousins to

The delectable Rally’s Rose Syrup.  Thereafter, Borda had taken

Us to visit the Academy of Fine Arts.  Later, having completed

Our tour of classic art, we found a distinguished looking Bengali

Gentleman seated on a stone bench on the portico outside.


Cannot recall if I recognized you at all.  Yet that evening became

Etched in my memory forever, when Borda went forward

And engaged the luminous gent in conversation. I discovered

Often Borda knew several Bengalis of world stature.  Now four

Decades on, I retain the conviction- you were one of our own.

In your personality there was not a trace of vanity.  Before long

Borda called us over, “Manu, Babun- come over.  This gentleman

Is Soumitra Chattopadhyay; these two are my maternal cousins.”


I first saw you on film in Ray’s Teen Kanya, as Amulya in Samapti.

Stepping off the boat, slipping on the mud by the riverbank-

Thereafter, witnessing the ridiculous city guy, pumps in hand,

Caked in dirt, the nearly-obscure young Mrinmoyee’s audible

Giggles.  In your company, later, Mrinmoyee’s transitioning from

A free and wild tomboy to a complete woman of beauty and grace.

Not long after, it was likely Borda again, who had brought home

An issue of a bi-monthly little magazine, Ekshan.  Flipping its


Pages, I learned that Satyajit Ray was behind both its name and

Its cover design.  It was my first introduction to your literary side-

Then co-editing Ekshan with Nirmalya Acharya.  Over the years,

Of course, you were simply indispensable to your cinematic

Mentor, Ray, and over the years, from Apu to Amal, from Amulya

To Felu-da- you brought the characters of his imagination to life

With complete ease. That sense of life as art- it stayed with you

Until the very end- a sensibility born out of the unmatched


Inspiration that was Rabindranath in your life (much as he has

Been for so many of us)- the profuse creative cascades of that

Greatest of poet-philosophers in human history.  Upon your

Shoulders you have carried the burden of keeping alive the very

Last gasps of our Renaissance.  Your station was upon the highest

Echelon of our collective identity and pride- time and again, I have

Witnessed you never compromising the higher standards of a

Priceless culture, never once did you interchange higher art with


Fluff, which tends to be so profuse, so common.  With you, it was

A lifelong non-cooperation with that which is crude, marketable,

Popular.  Hence it is I have regarded you as the hallowed emblem

Of our culture.  Like one of your idols, Sisir Kumar, you too

I understand, had once spurned a dishonorable national honor.

That was not an act of aggrandizement, it was a recognition of

The true value of art and humanism, and upholding their honor

In the face of all that is degrading. Regardless, you have received


Acclaim aplenty, from home and abroad, Friend, even as I for one

Realize that those awards are no more than bogs of folly- they

Measure not the outreach of one’s work or one’s greatness.  Your

Work in its fullest glory is scattered across the spectrum of your

Creations- much as that Ikebana (title of a poem you contributed

To our Puja Magazine)- a bouquet of your offerings at the altar of

Art.  Poems, recitation, conversation, the theater, the silver screen-

Variegated blossoms that found a place of love and honor inside


Uncountable hearts- there you reside, resplendent, an installation

Of permanence which shall never be shaken by anything shallow

And insubstantial, and much less by the depredations of a

Heartless virus.  Matinee Idol of our culture- upon the scales of

Time, you remain unassailable for eternity.

Here is also a YouTube recitation of the above poem and its original written in Bengali by Monish R Chatterjee:

Interpretive Glossary

Puja Varshikis-                     This is a collective description of a series of annual literary    magazines bought out in Bengal to commemorate the Durga                                   Puja, a major Fall festival.

Ananda Bazar-                     Name of a leading Bengali newspaper and publishing   organization.

Hemanta, Suchitra-              Two renowned exponents of Rabindra Sangeet, songs created   and composed by Rabindranath Tagore.

Satyajit, Ritwik,

  Mrinal, Tarun, Tapan-      Leading Bengali directors of art/intellectual films.

Uttam, Suchitra-                  A leading romantic pairing in Bengali cinema through 1970s.

Borda-                                  Bengali appellation of respect for an eldest brother/cousin.

Manu, Babun-                     Family pet names for my brother and self.

Teen Kanya, Samapti-          Film by Satyajit Ray based on three short stories by Tagore.

Nirmalya Acharya-              Co-Editor of Ekshan with Soumitra Chattopadhyay.

Sisir Kumar-                        Sisir Kumar Bhaduri, a leading theater personality from                           Bengal who pre-dated Soumitra Chattopadhyay.


Dr. Monish R. Chatterjee, a professor at the University of Dayton who specializes in applied optics, has contributed more than 120 papers to technical conferences, and has published more than 60 papers in archival journals and conference proceedings, in addition to numerous reference articles on science.  He has also authored several literary essays and four books of literary translations from his native Bengali into English (Kamalakanta, Profiles in Faith, Balika Badhu, and Seasons of Life).  Dr. Chatterjee believes strongly in humanitarian activism for social justice.

Monish R Chatterjee © 2020



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