Picking your way through narrow, unevenly cobbled by-lanes, stepping around stray cattle and open drains and past flashy wall-paintings, you come to Kumiko House, a popular inn on Pandey Ghat here. A little distance from the three-storey quaint structure, which boasts a vantage view of the Ganga, a row of boats are anchored.
Shanti Ranjan Gangopadhyay, 85, is seated cross-legged on a thick mat. He rummages through washed-out diaries and files in search of old posts, pictures and newspaper clippings, mostly in Japanese and Bengali, about his long, illustrious life in art. His Japanese wife, Kumiko, 66, sits beside him, smiling.
Plural ethos If Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe’s >visit to Varanasi on Saturday was reflective of their camaraderie and the good relations between the two nations, then the life of Mr. and Mrs. Gangopadhyay is a living example of the plurality and multiculturalism that the temple city embodies. Ms. Gangopadhyay is among the many Japanese who have made Varanasi their home. It’s common to find international couples in the town but not many are as celebrated the Gangopadhyays.
Born in the eastern Bihar district of Purnea in 1930, Mr. Gangopadhyay worked with socialist leader J.P, Narayan’s Sarvodyaya Ashram in Gaya. His talent as an artist-sculptor won him an invitation to Tokyo, where he received advanced training in fine arts at Musashino Fine Arts University. Acknowledging the young man’s flair, in a letter in 1965, J.P. praised him as an “artist of perception and a person of deep humanity”. As Mr. Gangopadhyay achieved success, he held a number of exhibitions in Japan and other countries, winning acclaim.
Prestigious awards and monetary benefits followed as his art was sought after and commanded a premium. A true renaissance man, Mr. Gangopadhyay is a celebrated poet-scholar, a master sculptor and a textile-printing expert. Three idols crafted by him still attract tourists at the Sarvodaya Ashram. In 1971, he even claimed to have evolved a unique system of multi-colour batik (a wax-resistant technique of dyeing cloth) painting that cut down labour and cost without affecting quality. “One of his oil-paintings showing two in affection state was much liked by the Japanese,” notes a newspaper of that period.
Tokyo was also where Mr Gangopadhyay found love. Near his workshop lived Kumiko, whose father ran a grocery business. The two married but not without antagonism from her parents. “My father had served in the Army and had an idea about India through his time in World War II. He considered it a poor nation. ‘How will you survive there,’ he asked me?” says Kumiko, who was 26 when she came to Varanasi.
The couple intended to return to Japan soon after, but ended up staying here since. “Maharishis have considered Varanasi to be the place to attain Moksha ( salvation). This is where I learnt important lessons in life: experiencing things and then their renunciation. We must draw wisdom out of it the experiences,” says Mr. Gangopadhyay, also a philosopher.
No takers for art In Varanasi, however, the couple found it difficult to sell their art, and make a living. Mr. Gangopadyay then obtained a licence to be a working guide. Eventually, they opened a guesthouse, which they named after Kumiko. A chance encounter on the ghats enabled them to buy the now coveted, riverside property. Sometime in 1977-78, the couple were spending time on the ghats when they picked up a conversation with a stranger.
“He turned out to be a broker! And a Bengali,” says Mr. Gangopadhyay, about the meeting which eventually led to the purchase of the present Kumiko House for the princely sum of Rs. 50,000.
Ms. Gangopadhyay speaks fluent Bengali, while her husband is fluent in Japanese.
Initially, Kumiko found it difficult to adjust in Varanasi and was intimidated by the local people. For fear that their house would get broken into, they did not go to Japan for a vacation for a long time! The fear stemmed from a bad experience in New Delhi where Mr. Gangopadhyay was robbed of his suitcase containing important inventions and designs.
“The Japanese are simple people. I was very apprehensive of the hustling and fighting. But eventually we realised that if we didn’t protest, we would be pushed around ... Today, I give it back to them,” laughs Kumiko, recalling her early years in the city. The couple have two children. Daughter Bibha is married and lives in Bengaluru, while son Somyo helps them run the guesthouse.
The couple’s popularity and amiable nature is well-known even to local leaders.