Thursday, 6 September 2018

Whom the History books forgot.

 (In January 2018 All India Radio was to record, for a documentary on the Constitution of India, a short interview with artist Bani Patel, granddaughter of Acharya Nandalal Bose.  She had left her imprint in the pages of the Constitution of India along with other towering figures in the world of arts and aesthetics of her time.  At the end of the interview, she admitted that this was the first time any media was searching her out. A tribute from Shamayita Das who traced the then 89-year-old to her home in Pune)

An artist bid adieu to the world on 3rd September 2018, just 17 days before her 90th birthday. No Google doodles, no Facebook posts inundated with RIPs. A quiet last journey!

It was quite a thrilling revelation for me that our Constitution – the Horoscope of our country – is the only illustrated manuscript in the world. What a herculean task it might have been to bring this precious document into being, I wondered. 

We are all aware that Baba Saheb Ambedkar was the master mind behind the drafting of the Constitution, but who were those involved in shaping up its physical form? And hence, my quest started to trace history to recent times.

The template of the programme on the original handcrafted Constitution of India

Let me take my readers back to the last week of December 2017, when the Central English Features Unit received an official letter, to produce a documentary to mark India’s 69th Republic Day. From preliminary internet search, I got to know that the original manuscript of the Constitution of India was single-handedly calligraphed and was in the safe custody of Parliament of India’s library. At National Archives of India, I found the photolithographed copy (made by Survey of India, Dehradun) of the original document.It was carried on the head by the Archive’s staff, as if it were a holy scripture! 

Flipping through the pages of the photolithographed copy, I came across page after page of glorious illustrations. The names of the illustrators who formed the team of the revered Master of Bengal School of Art, Acharya Nandalal Bose… Kripal Singh, Amita, Gouri, Jamuna, Bani, Biswarup, Nibedita, to name a few. 

These names find their places at a distant bottom left corner of each page of the Constitution and bears the might, weight and grandeur of the spirit of the Republic, etched in black Chinese ink. Will any of those artists be alive now? Anybody… perhaps a distant relative, or a student. A sense of despair started to prevail as if I started my journey in a graveyard, looking at the tombstones to show me some light, somewhere!

One development was that I could establish direct lineage of 5 out of 21 illustrators, to Nandalal Bose, with the help of Sri Susobhon Adhicary, a professor at Kalabhavan, Shantiniketan (the arts department). But the question that whether anybody is alive, continued to haunt me.

Emotions overwhelmed me when a phone number reached my hand. A queer feeling. Do I really deserve this? This contact was a ray of hope indicating that all the characters of my documentary, were not yet dead! One and only living person from the original team of illustrators of the Constitution, is still alive- Bani Patel, Granddaughter of Acharya Nandlal Bose.
The photograph of Bani Patel shared with AIR by her son Anup Patel

Should I dial or not dial? I was in denial for a while anticipating the unknown. She was 89. Hard of hearing. Old! Will she agree for a short interview? I mustered all my courage, prayed and dialled her number….

Bani Patel, though she spent most of her life in Gujarat and Pune, yet Shantiniketan was embraced in her bosom forever. Under the guidance of her illustrious grandfather, she had illustrated a couple of pages of the manuscript of the Constitution with a technique called brush painting. She was only 21 years old then and the youngest illustrator of the team. 

Gold colour was extracted from gold leaf and with deft controlled strokes the borders of each page were illuminated on parchment sheets that were brought from Birmingham. These sheets were made of certain animal protein, ensuring protection against microbes. These sheets are believed to have a shelf life of 1000 years, as told by the chief of National Physical Laboratory, which is entrusted with the upkeep and preservation of the original manuscripts (one in Hindi and the other in English). It is only 69 years old now.

An illustration by the grandfather-grand-daughter duo
(the initials of the artists 'Nanda' and 'Bani' on the bottom right corner of the illustration)

And who knows perhaps this unsung artiste, Bani Patel, had been waiting for the last 69 years for some acknowledgement, some recognition for her contribution to Indian history?

The phone finally rang! It was a call to Bani Patel from me on behalf of AIR. I waited with bated breath for someone to answer. “Hello”… A sharp, hassled voice answered the phone. 
I felt as if a lifeless name from one of the pages of the Constitution suddenly sprang to life!  I was indeed connected to Bani Patel. I could feel that she had been trying hard to conceal her inability to hear. Before I could complete my introduction, she handed over the phone to her son Anup Patel. I began my introduction all over again. I was stopped and informed that he too like his mother have auditory problems! I was instructed to talk as slowly as possible. My hopes were reinstated. It was decided that I would email him the questions that I want to ask his mother.  He would read out the questions and if his mother was willing, then he would get back to me.

 The wait seemed endless. But by midnight the same day, I received a confirmation email from Anup Patel. He said that his mother vividly remembers her experience of illustrating the Constitution and that she would speak in English!

An illustrated page of the Constitution of India done by young Bani Patel

 The date of recording was fixed for 22nd January 2018 at 2 pm. Meanwhile in Shantiniketan, Bani Patel’s younger brother Pradyot Bhanja who actually provided me with the phone number of Bani Patel, was elated. He said that that was his sister’s maiden interview to any media for the work she had done. Her name drowned under the supreme legacy of their grandfather. She remained unsung and forgotten.

There was one concern still. How would we proceed with the interview telephonically given that both mother and son had auditory problems! But somehow from some cosmic source there was a touch of warmth and positivity.  

On 22nd January at 2 pm, my senior colleague Ms. Basudha Banerji (who was the producer of this programme) and I, started preparing for a recording which promised high historical and archival value. Sharp at 2 pm, the recording began in Dubbing 10 studio. It is imperative to mention here that Anup Ji and Bani Ji both cooperated with us to their limits. They were not receiving proper network on the cell phone that they were using, and Bani Ji had to be moved around the house so that they could hear us! At that moment, our heart sank to think about the trouble that we were giving her. The interview began, and emotions overflowed. She gave us vivid anecdotes from her life 69 years ago. 

Bani Patel’s initials in Bangla at the bottom of a page of the Constitution 

Speaking lucidly in English, she fondly told us about her grandfather, the paper that was used, the style and method of painting and did mention that she recalled one or two names who were her co - illustrators. And lastly her unforgettable closing remark – “Thank you!”
My senior colleague told me that I truly earned my salary that day and as for me what could have been a better Birthday gift?

The programme was broadcast on 26th January 2018 on the National hook up of All India Radio at 10 pm. Heart touching responses were received from listeners, colleagues and family members of Bani Patel.  

The surreal feeling continued to be with me for days till I received the news of Bani Patel leaving us for ever. 

As I pen down my memories, I can’t thank Akashvani and my senior colleague enough to have given me the opportunity to become a Maadhyam in its truest sense. A Maadhyam for whom the tryst with Akashvani and Bani Patel will remain immortalised forever and after!

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