Saturday, February 12, 2000

A modest and lovable artist

I OFTEN think painters can be compared to daily newspapers: some paint pictures which are like photographs appearing on front pages of papers: they illustrate important events of the previous day and are easy on the eye. Others who are regarded as modernists are like the back pages of newspapers which have items like cross-word puzzles, chess & bridge problems. They demand close attention: you have to see them straight, sideways, upside down to understand what the painter is trying to say. Modernists have been in vogue since the 1920s and get huge prices for their works. The traditionalists have been put on the shelf with remarks such as "theek hai — they are okay." They get a comparatively less attention and less money for their works. Bhabesh Sanyal belongs to this category. Nevertheless he is a superb painter and sculptor. Art critics and art collectors have not been fair to him. At long last the Gallery of Modern Art has made amends by producing two illustrated volumes of his works with Bhabesh telling his own life story: The Vertical Woman — Reminiscences of B.C. Sanyal. The volumes have come in good time because Bhabesh will soon be 100 years old.

  B. C. SanyalI have known Bhabesh for over 60 years. When I set up legal practice in Lahore in 1940, he had already become a much talked about young man. He had been head of the arts department of the Mayo School of Arts started by Lockwood Kipling (Rudyard’s father). When Bhabesh joined it, the Principal was another Bengali, Samarendra Gupta. The Guptas had three children of whom the eldest Kalyani was the toast of Lahore. The small Bengali community of the city introduced Rabindra Sangeet, Kali pooja, maacher jhol, rasogullas and Sandesh to the Punjabis. Gupta, though a very mediocre artist, was a social climber and hoped to find a rich husband for his pretty daughter. When he discovered that she had fallen in love with his handsome assistant, Bhabesh was unceremoniously booted out of his job. He set up a studio of his own which soon attracted sons and daughters of top families of Lahore who had artistic aspirations.

Sanyal first came to Lahore on a commission to make a bust of Lala Lajpat Rai. He got other assignments, amongst them a life-size statue of Sir Chhotu Ram, Jat leader and Member of Punjab’s Unionist Government. During his years in Lahore there were quite a few celebrated artists in the city. There was Abdur Rehman Chughtai, Svetoslav Roerich, Bevan Petman and Amrita Shergil. They had exhibitions of their works. Amrita who had married her cousin Dr Egan decided to settle there. She died a year later at the age of 31. There were also Roop Krishna and his English wife Mary, Prasher and a few others.

Bhabesh came out of his short-time affair with Kalyani Gupta and fell in love with a Punjabi girl, Sneh. During his romance he spent a few days with me in Shimla. After dinner he would go out to the moonlit hillside and play on his flute as if invoking Sri Krishna’s help. Sneh’s upper-middle class parents were proving difficult. They were not happy giving their daughter to a Bengali babu whose background they knew nothing about and who made a meagre living painting pictures and sculpting. Ultimately it was the strong-willed Sneh who prevailed and married Sanyal. They had one child, a daughter named Amba.

The Sanyals came out of Lahore on the partition of the country and settled in Delhi. They built a home for themselves close to the Nizamuddin railway station. Once he visited Lahore at the invitation of his old students. He was given a hero’s welcome. Back in Delhi he sculpted his famous masterpiece, Vertical Woman, after which his memoirs are named.

Bhabesh has grown from a handsome young man to a more handsome old man. He sports a long beard with great eclat. At times he looks like the Tsar of all Russians; at others very much like Augustus John’s portrait of George Bernard Shaw — imperious and arrogant. He remains as he ever was a very modest and lovable man. It is hard to believe that his sculptures and paintings can be seen in the most prestigious art galleries and private collections over the world.

Eating people is wrong

Some years ago I wrote about a novel The Revised Kama Sutra by Richard Crasta. I gave it fulsome praise: it was beautifully written, witty, and above all, had dollops of sex and erotica. I wrote then, and believe to this day, that Crasta had the makings of a great novelist who would make India proud. However, Crasta did not produce anything that equalled the merit of his first novel. It was based in Mangalore and most of its characters were devout Roman Catholics. I recall showing it to Margaret Alva who was then a Cabinet Minister and happened to be sitting beside me on a flight from Bangalore to Delhi. Margaret is a Mangalorean Catholic. A faint blush came over her face as she remarked, "We are not all like Richard Crasta’s characters." She had evidently read it but wasn’t willing to admit she had enjoyed reading it.

Crasta had migrated to the United States and visits his native village Kinnigoli not far from Mangalore about once a year. During one of his visits he found that his father, a retired Subedar Major of the IndianArmy who had spent three-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war with the Japanese had scribbled notes about his experience at the hands of his captors and men of the first Indian National Army under the command of the incredible windbag "Captain" Mohan Singh.

Richard edited his father John Baptist Crasta’s notes and turned them into a coherent story of his sire’s career as a soldier. Most of it is about his captivity in Singapore. Being one of the many who refused to prove false to their oath of loyalty to the British, he was treated like a slave. It is a tale of unmitigated horror: savage beatings, starvation, malaria and dysentry, as they were shifted from one camp to another in over-crowded ships which were often sunk by Allied submarines. At many camps they lived on starvation diet of a handful of rice and dry coconut or tapioca without any salt. They died like flies and their bodies were left to rot in the jungles or tossed into the sea. By contrast, their Japanese captors lived and ate well. When they ran short of rations, they killed Indian prisoners and ate them. Things became worse when the tide of battle turned against the Japanese. Allied Air Force bombed retreating Japs and their Indian POWs, sank their ships, destroyed their ammunition dumps and trucks. The Japs were forced to lay down arms and surrender to the Austrlians.

Richard Crasta felt the story had to be told so that the world would know of the inhuman behaviour of the Japanese during World War II. So we have Eaten By the Japanese: The Memoir of an Unknown Indian Prisoner of War by John Baptist Crasta. It undoubtedly is the first book written by a man of 87. Richard has addded a short preface and an eulogy to a simple-minded, honest father who rode a bicycle till he was 80 and became too frail to do so. Richard had paid a handsome tribute to a man of courage and rectitude.


Two families were settling terms and conditions of a matrimonial alliance. The bride’s representative asked: "What make of fridge would you like?"

The bridegroom’s uncle replied: "We possess the latest brand."

"Microwave oven?"

"We already have one."


"We have theatre size."

"What about an AC?"

"Do not worry. By God’s grace we have all electrical gadgets."

"Then what should we give with our daughter?" asked the worried father.

The bride-groom’s father replied, "Just give us a generator to run all these items."

(Contributed by Madan Gupta ‘Spatu’, Chandigarh)