Memories of Uncle Mulk

Eminent novelist Mulk Raj Anand took delight in generating awareness about art. B.N. Goswamy recalls some of his efforts that created a new stir

Mulk Raj Anand
Mulk Raj Anand

"Ajeeb aadmi tha woh..." When I heard, recently, Zohra Sehgal, 93 years of age and all, recite – in a moving performance – this among a whole cycle of poems in Urdu, other names than those of Kaifi Azmi came suddenly to the mind. Javed Akhtar’s tribute to that fine poet, I thought, described also another unusual man whom so many of us knew personally: Mulk Raj Anand.

For he too was a man cast in the same mould: greatly gifted, belonging to the world but rooted in his own culture, compassionate, open-minded, capable of being angry and humane at the same moment, a free spirit, full of contradictions and a bit of an anarchist at heart. But a gentle anarchist.

There is so much that has been written on Mulk Raj Anand, both while he was still alive, and then, when he passed away last year. Now as his first death anniversary approaches, surely more will appear in print, possibly by those with whose lives his own was interwoven closely. Something still urges me to write about him, for in so many ways he belonged to these parts, and because the contribution he made to this city, in which he spent many years of his life in the sixties, was signal. I find myself able to write about these things for there are moments that I can vividly recall and speak of concerns he used to share with me, and others here. He was simply ‘Mulk’ to many people; others of the younger generation often referred to him as ‘Uncle Mulk’; but for me he always remained ‘Doctor Sahib’ – sitting down in the evenings and just taking off: in which direction, it was difficult to predict but so compellingly that one just listened.

Having been appointed the first Tagore Professor of Art and Literature at Panjab University, ‘Dr. Sahib’ simply took ‘charge’ of art, not only at the university but in the city, almost as soon as he arrived here. I was out of the country at that time, but when I returned, I found a new stir in the air, as it were. Suddenly there was a body of artists, not all professional, that had materialised from nowhere; works of art that he had started buying for the University, on a shoestring budget, were becoming the subject of discussion; he would simply announce to some institution or group that he would be lecturing to them, and everyone would fall in line. To have Mulk Raj Anand in your midst was a privilege. There was no necessary focus to all his talks, and there was little of art history that he was interested in pursuing methodically, but he was here to encourage the cultivation of sensibilities, as laudable an aim as any. He was concerned with minds: impacting, inciting, challenging them. As he sat and reminisced, this he did often, names, each of which had a great resonance, would come rolling off his tongue with ease, for he had known them personally in his years in England and Europe: E.M.Forster, Clive Bell, Eric Gill, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, Andre Malraux, Pablo Neruda. Never once did I hear him take any name for producing an effect. There was always some point he was making, some sentence or formulation or attitude that he would be recalling. And then, in an endearingly self-deprecatory manner, he would break into Punjabi and add with a chuckle something like: "Imagine that man trying to explain something that subtle to me, the son of a sunar `85.!"

‘Dr Sahib’ was always, it seemed to me, holding a dialogue with someone, including, not unoften, with himself. Not surprisingly, for there was so much that he had, and wanted, to share. So many times I found him entering a room – no greetings, no real acknowledgement of the people present – saying to no one in particular, almost in an agitated fashion, something like: "You know, Picasso was right `85." What statement of Picasso was he referring to, or with whom he was sharing this yesterday, or whenever, no one could guess. It was as if there was one continuous, ongoing conversation that he was holding on themes that he seemed to be constantly living with. There was of course a ring of admirers, and climbers, all around him, and so no dearth of listeners. But he chose shrewdly when it came to sowing the seeds of ideas, or taking initiatives. Having published an article of mine in Marg, the distinguished art journal he founded and edited for countless years, he would sometimes turn towards me and say: "Why do you continue to stick to History?" (I used to teach in the Department of History at that time). "Art is where you should be." And that is where eventually I landed: not in art per se, but in art history. "Why shouldn’t the university have a museum of art of its own?" he would sometimes say. "Let me talk to Nirguna Sen (this was his name for Triguna Sen, then Minister of Education in the Government of India), and see what happens". As it turned out, he did succeed in getting some seed money for building a museum, but, interestingly, this he achieved after he had left the University. The idea had stayed with him.

I could go on in this strain, but it is time to close. Or else, I might find myself saying: "You know, Dr. Sahib was right...."