Left to right (foreground): Kaberi Chatterjee, Ranajit Roy & Shipra Roy at Bolpur Station in January 2004
Ranajit Roy was renowned and widely respected for his integrity.
His father, Shibdas Roy, was one of the early students at the school Tagore founded in Santiniketan. Thanks to being a very good singer, Shibdas Roy became one of Tagore’s favourite students and, later, an honorary teacher at the China Bhavan, teaching English to Tibetan monks. The family used to live in their ancestral home in Moukhira, about 18km from Santiniketan.
One day, when Ranajit Roy was still a little boy, Shibdas Roy took him to Santiniketan to present him to Tagore. It was a Wednesday morning and Tagore was coming down the steps of the Mandeer after prayers. The young Ranajit was so impressed by the image of the strikingly handsome, long-white-haired Tagore in this setting that he asked his father, “Is this God?” Shibdas Roy introduced his son to Tagore, who gave him a toffee.
Later on, Ranajit Roy followed in his father’s footsteps and joined Tagore’s school, Patha Bhavan. This was probably the source of his keen artistic sense and his love of nature. The latter led him to study Agriculture at University.
He became very good at football and cricket, particularly as wicket keeper. He was an artist and a keen photographer, processing and developing his own photos. He also encouraged his wife Shipra Roy to follow art studies at the Kala Bhavan at Visva-Bharati University.
From 1970, he, his wife and daughter Kaberi started living in Ratan Palli, Santiniketan. As soon as he returned home from work, he would start a new drawing in his sketch book. Later in the evening, he would pick up the collection of Tagore’s songs (Gitabitan), select a song whose lyrics he appreciated and ask Kaberi to learn how to sing it. He would also advise and help his wife with her artwork.
As Block Development Officer for a number of different areas of the district of Birbhum in West Bengal over thirteen years, among other things, he was responsible for authorising licences to sell various commodities such as rice, cement, fertiliser and kerosene in those areas. This could have allowed him to accept gifts in return for preferential treatment but he always refused them, returning any which arrived nonetheless at his house. He always followed what he felt to be the fairest and most honest course of action.
The Ajoy River flood of 1978
‘Ranjitda’, as many knew him, became a local hero after saving many lives when the Ajoy River burst its banks in 1978. It was typical of his sense of responsibility that, if he heard that someone was in trouble, he would drop everything and do whatever he could to help. One rainy night, in the middle of a power cut, he was called to the Ratan Kuti Guest House, which had the only telephone in the area. As Block Development Officer for Illambazaar at the time, he was asked to oversee the situation at Illambazaar, which had been flooded.
The Chief Medical Officer’s car was going to pick him up from the Guest House and take him there. However, in the forest, they found that the road to Illambazaar had been blocked by a fallen tree and there was no way to cut through it to reopen the road until it was daylight. He didn’t return home but went to Bolpur Health Centre, where he stayed until dawn before heading back towards Illambazaar.
Daylight revealed that the water level had risen considerably and the 1km-long Ajoy Bridge at Illambazaar was shuddering as the swollen river flowed past it. ‘Ranjitda’ found hundreds of bewildered people waiting at his office. Those people and animals who had been lucky enough to hold onto something which would float (bales of hay, palm trees, sacks of wheat, etc) were being swept past the bridge by the fast current. An old lady, sitting on top of a sack of rice was praying and counting religious beads as she floated past.
‘Ranjitda’ sequestered nearby shops to find ropes which could be used to pull people to safety from the river. When the District Magistrate arrived later to see what was going on, the crowds rose to attack him. Many villages had been flooded and people had been made homeless. ‘Ranjitda’ was given District Magistrate powers to deal with the emergency. He ordered rice, lentils, utensils, etc to be taken from the shops so that they could be used to feed and shelter the homeless.
Meanwhile, many students from Santiniketan, where the school and university hostels had closed for the holidays, became stranded on the way to their homes in Calcutta, on the other side of the river. Supriyo Tagore, then Principal of Patha Bhavan, had decided to escort a group of the students. With ‘Ranjitda’s help, they made it across the river.
Back at his house, after waiting for three days, the 10-year-old Kaberi started sitting at the window crying because her father hadn’t come back while other fathers had returned for the puja celebrations. ‘Ranjitda’ was busy helping people. Mrinal Mukherjee (the father of Tuli Mukherjee, who was a dancer in the Shyama in Egypt team) was then working for ‘Ranjitda’ and ferried clothes and food from the house for him.
Moukhira too had not escaped the floods. The villagers made their way to Illambazaar so that they could have something to eat at the shelter.
‘Ranjitda’ found the mental strength to deal with the emergency with the moral support of his guru Mohonanda Maharaj. Although ‘Ranjitda’ had originally been sceptical of gurus, his father had been a friend and devotee of Maharaj. Reluctantly accompanying his father to see Maharaj, he had been astonished to find later that Maharaj had correctly made a number of predictions.
Kaberi and her father understood each other very well. When she was nervous about sitting her Higher Secondary exams, he reassured her that she shouldn’t be afraid and that she should carry on and do whatever she could. Everything would be fine.
When it came to the decision to study dance at the Sangeet Bhavan of Visva-Bharati University, he was the one who encouraged her to do so as that was the subject she was most passionate about. He had also told her that if she did something else and the passion went away, she would never be able to come back to it.
When she had initially decided not to try for the Indian national scholarship in Manipuri dance because she didn’t think she would get it, her father had told her that, even if it meant that they would have to travel to Delhi for the exam, they could all take the opportunity to do some sight-seeing once the exam was over. Even if she didn’t succeed, he told her that at least they would all have been on holiday together.
Of course, she did succeed and it was also through his encouragement that she started her PhD in dance and became one of few people in India to have such a PhD.
Although, ‘Ranjitda’ had been known for telling humorous anecdotes, in recent years, he fell increasingly silent. As well as being separated from his beloved daughter after our marriage, he became absorbed with the property-related tension between him and his younger brother, who had been very close.
‘Ranjitda’ was the eldest of four children but, other than identifying parts of the land in Santiniketan and Moukhira for ‘Ranjitda’, their parents had not left a will setting out how the rest of their property in Santiniketan and in Moukhira was to be divided between the children. It became apparent that the younger brother had been selling off agricultural land around Moukhira which had been assigned to ‘Ranjitda’, without his knowledge and without giving him any share of the proceeds. The younger brother refused to register a division of the property which had been agreed by the four siblings and had not spoken to ‘Ranjitda’ since 2004.
That was the last year ‘Ranjitda’ went to the annual Durga Puja festival he used to enjoy at the ancestral house in Moukhira. His near-exile from Moukhira was an open secret among the villagers. Having brought up his younger brother like a father and paid for his education, ‘Ranjitda’ felt a deep sense of betrayal and shock. This was probably the main reason for the depression and Alzheimer’s which eventually led to his death on Friday, four days before his 85th birthday, after several years of suffering. Unfortunately, we found out too late that coconut oil might have helped to treat the Alzheimer’s.
Through everything I have seen and heard about my father-in-law, I recognise his sincere belief in Tagorean values and humanism, including his sense of social justice and his aversion to corruption and insincerity. Needless to say, we got on with each other very well as a result and he always gave me a very warm welcome.
Of course, these beliefs and principles live on in Kaberi and they are the common message of the dance-dramas we have filmed together. He was always keen to watch dance, music and theatre performances. If ever he wasn’t able to attend one himself, he would want to hear a full account of the performance from anyone who went.
In spite of his illness, he continued to encourage us as we made the films, enjoying the rehearsals and filming of Shyama in 2007 and making a special effort to visit us in the Lipika Theatre as we were filming Chandalika and Chitrangada two years ago.
However, my favourite memory of him is probably from the first visit of Kaberi’s parents to Europe in 2005. Together with my father and Kaberi, we had all spent a gloriously sunny day in Belgium’s Ardennes. Towards the end of the day, as we sat having a drink at a riverside bar in Dinant, Kaberi had asked him how he felt. He had replied that he thought he was in heaven. Perhaps it was the combination of the beauty of the natural scenery, being with Kaberi again and being away from the family tensions in Santiniketan.
In any case, probably this poem by Tagore sums up how he felt:
যাবার দিনে এই কথাটি
বলে যেন যাই —
যা দেখেছি যা পেয়েছি
তুলনা তার নাই ।
যে শতদল পদ্ম রাজে
তারি মধু পান করেছি
ধন্য আমি তাই —
যাবার দিনে এই কথাটি
জানিয়ে যেন যাই ।
কতই গেলেম খেলে ,
অপরূপকে দেখে গেলেম
দুটি নয়ন মেলে ।
পরশ যাঁরে যায় না করা
সকল দেহে দিলেন ধরা ।
এইখানে শেষ করেন যদি
শেষ করে দিন তাই —
যাবার বেলা এই কথাটি
জানিয়ে যেন যাই ।
রবীন্দ্রনাথ ঠাকুর (গীতাঞ্জলি ১৪২)
Tagore’s English version of this poem was as follows. The phrases in square brackets come from his manuscript, which seems to me to be closer to the original than the published version (which is recited by Prajña Paramita in the video below from The Story of Gitanjali):
When I go from hence, let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable.
I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus [yonder] that expands on the ocean of light, and thus I am blessed—let this be my parting word.
In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play and here have I caught sight of him [that eludes all forms].
My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch; and if the end comes here, let it come—let this be my parting word.
by Rabindranath Tagore (English Gitanjali – poem 96)