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Devdas: from the story teller to the film-maker

"Devdas"... a theme tackled with intensity and passion.

THERE WAS a recent press report on a possibility of the Bhansali film of `Devdas' being nominated for the Oscar. Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (I follow Humayun Kabir's spelling) was the storyteller of the film. Sarat Chandra was born in 1876 and passed away in 1938. In this span of life, he wrote 25 novels in Bengali. Hooghly and Burdwan districts of West Bengal were his Wessex. His men and women spoke in the dialect of these districts. Yet his novels, short stories and his essays (some under a pen name - Anila Devi) were translated in all the major regional languages of India and in English.

There was much translation into Urdu in Lahore, which has been the centre of Urdu language in this subcontinent. Prem Chand (not the Munshi) was a leading translator. There were a number of Muslim translators. Such love for the Sarat Chandra fiction makes one realise that despite religious differences, there was something common to both Hindu and Muslim social contents, especially to the deprived womenfolk of this part of the world.

"Devdas" itself was purely a love story. After having written it, Sarat Chandra did not like it. It is said that the storyteller did not want its publication. He was overruled by his literary friends; Devdas came out. He was overruled also by the film world; Bansali's is probably the fourth or the fifth film version of the story. (I have seen in my teens only the Promothesh Barua version of the film. Director Barua played the title role).

Sarat Chandra himself has said about his father that he was a restless traveller and a storywriter who never finished his tales. Sarat Chandra grew up in terrible poverty. Therefore he had to finish his stories for money. He was totally professional. Many of his novels were published in monthly instalments in Bengali magazines - as Charles Dickens wrote in English.

Also like Dickens, Sarat Chandra had a bag of wonderful tales. Dickens, however, was a creator of a great number of fascinating characters. Sarat Chandra created a number of fascinating situations. His novels did not depend so much on personality clashes - as on clashes between social conservatism and social change. While developing his main themes he kept lighting up the landscapes and the portraits of his literature; sometimes also perhaps of self-portrait.

While reading his novels, I was reminded of the flat-bottomed barges steaming in total darkness, while lighting up for a careful pilot, the banks of the mighty Ganges/Padma immersed in inky blackness.

Early in my life, I was told that Rabindranath Tagore wrote for the classes, while Sarat Chandra wrote for the masses. This is a facile comparison. The fact, however, is that Sarat Chandra's fiction was read by a larger number of readers - not all of whom had the mental training for understanding the poetry of Tagore. It will not diminish Tagore's greatness if it is said that the itinerant storyteller's prose poems attracted a large number of Indians - some of whom are now Pakistanis. Tagore has not had his novels as widely translated in the Indian languages as Sarat Babu has. The two greats admired each other. Tagore wrote a preface for the translation of a novel of Chatterjee; one of his most powerful poems, "The ordinary girl," was written in the form of a long letter to Sarat Chandra. I came across while reading Sarat Chandra's novels only one reference to a Tagore lyric - "The Southern door is open".

Sarat Chandra, however, must have made himself disagreeable to the followers of the Brahmo faith; such people called Brahmos (arising out of the Sanskrit word "Brahman") did not like Chatterjee's novel called "The Betrothed" in which he told a tale of clash between Hindus and Brahmos (the latter had dismissed the priestly caste and the caste system). Tagore was a devoted Brahmo; there was deep in his mind a black mark for Sarat Chandra. A very reputed Bengali monthly magazine Probashi, edited by a top Brahmo Samaj leader, did not publish Sarat Chandra's works; none probably was offered.

To measure the social relevance of Sarat Chandra it will be convenient to group his fiction in two parts. The first group of numerous novels and some short stories display the core of Hindu orthodoxy. In most of his books he is toiling without fatigue against the prevailing social system. Men and women emerge out of the system with hunger in their mind and body - hunger for a new dispensation. Some characters stand out; the women amongst them are often the dominant personalities without in any way losing their femininity. The men are heroic in the expected "Gotterdammerung" of the Hindu society. The themes are tackled with agony, passion and intensity and with utmost command over words; in consequence the stories do not bore and are read without getting the appetite dulled.

Sarat Chandra Chatterjee.

The second group is of great fascination for the Hindu mind. The important thing in the Srikanta Quartet is the collision between social vision of purity and of rebellion against such concept of purity and impurity.

Rajlakshmi, Srikanta's lover, in order to undo her past (technically of fallen status) and the present (her relationship outside the marital state with Srikanta) goes through the entire gamut of purity rituals. She continuously plays the thrumming notes of background music - against which other characters sing of freedom. In the first book of the Quartet, Annadadidi, a very properly brought up middle class woman, revolts against propriety, and runs away with a Muslim snake charmer. In the second part, Abhoya, deserted by her husband, breaks out of her social environment to live in sin with a man she accepted.

In the third, Sunanda, a scholar, is also a rebel against the poverty imposed upon the peasant by the land tenure system. In the last book, Kamal Lata has walked out on her people and joined a Vaishnava sect based on total surrender and devotion. These gripping stories were told in a style of easy flow. The novelist does not pass any judgement himself; he lets the men and women he has created to speak for themselves. Sarat Chandra himself was unaware of the purity concept in the Hindu Social culture. He wanted only to raise the standard of revolt against the social cults, which debased and degraded humanity.

Devdas is an exception. After he finished the story (which he did not want to publish) he was sorry to see what he had done. Standing over the denial, the disease of Devdas, the storyteller turns to the spellbound audience, and begs them to have pity on Devdas. When Parvati, however, hurls herself on the closing iron doors of society, he leaves the matter to the filmmaker — Barua, Bimal Roy or Bhansali.


(The writer was a member of the Indian Police Service (IPS) and Inspector General of Police, West Bengal)

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