Khuddur Jatra: a transformation from literature to art and back to literature
by Debdutta Gupta
One day Abanindranath was sitting with childlike whims in front of piled newspapers and creating a picture collage by cutting the pictures printed on them. It was a truly bizarre enterprise where he pasted the head of one picture over the bottom of another. He said “I am illustrating my book of the jatra”.
In 1961, the poet Jasimuddin experienced this moment and scribbled it down in his Thakur Barir Anginaye. He was lucky to see Abanindranath working in his project called Khudi Ramlila or Khuddur Jatra while staying at the Jorasanko Thakurbari. He also wrote in his book:
“… The dailies carry numerous thrilling reports of events, so many exciting narratives are composed on the country's political performance-stage, he had never paid heed to any of these…
… Some of the ultra-modern poets have recently engrossed themselves in the act of experimentation, where they arbitrarily collected phrases from newspapers, putting them together in an attempt to figure out if this could produce an innovative expression. Whether Abanindranath too, in using the visuals from newspaper advertisements for a specific creative impulse, was guided by an exactly similar impulse, I cannot say for certain… From the newspapers he would search out images like, a senile oldster indulged in the act of surreptitiously applying “Himani” over his face…”
Sankho Ghosh in Kalpanar Hysteria mentioned in a certain essay called Paglamir Karushilpo (the one that he quoted from Jasimuddin) in an instance where Abanindranath had chosen an advertisement for cold cream showing a funny old man applying cosmetics on his face in an illustration with the caption “the cutting-off of Surpanakha's nose”. In Abanindranath's collage technique and the kind of meaning that he wanted to emanate out of this artistic endeavour, it is evident of a tone of irony and satire if the visual text can be put to effective contextual enterprise. The printed visual reads “one desperately longs to apply it even if by stealing”. Even though this is a connotation of the event from the epic where Surpanakha's nose has been cut off by Lakshman, a definite interpretation of the text with its implied essence remains an ugly man's desperate aspiration for beauty and charm; beauty in the European (English) sense of the term; in an allegory in which the Dravidian Surpanakha wanted to impress the Aryan Lakshman, but in vain.
In Khuddur Jatra, Abanindranath had inscribed in his own hand the title script of the manuscript. My propositions in this essay are primarily based on my personal experiences of the text after having gone through them from a personal collection. In an initial response, I felt an immediate urge to draw parallels between this revision of the visual epic and the artistic advents of the European tenets of Dadaism. Both de-contextualized meanings and in turn established a totally new connotation which was present in none of the old representations but in their furthest suggestions. But where Abanindranath was different from those of the Dadaists was in the obviously different intentions between the two different paradigmatic expressions. Abanindranath did not deny existence in the nihilistic way of the Dadaists. He, rather, was more interested in the immense possibilities of the absurd and the curious achieved through various levels of displacement of the original context and re-establishment of a new image in its place. The resonance of the rasa of the adbhuta became predominant and generative in multiple dimensions. If a socio-political critical commentary simultaneously did become possible, that certainly was not the exclusive intention.
It is obviously significant of the fact that Abanindranath called his manuscript a jatra. This underlines a specific tone of folk essence and simplicity. Contemporary social situations and its corresponding visuals added a bizarre tone of interpretation if read in context of the Ramayana. Mohanlal Gangopadhyay recalled the same moment of conception of the Khuddur Jatra from an extremely consequential dimension (Dakshiner Baranda, Visva Bharati, 1388 Bengali era). He thought that the conception began from discovering the possibilities of transforming contemporary literary comedies into performable texts. Then Abanindranath transformed that play into a Ramayana. He had a copy of a torn and tattered Krittibasi Ramayana. Abanindranath got it rebound by “Radu” and worked towards a re-emergence of a literary transliteration of the epic to the performable text. So he created the methodology of opting for a break in between jumping from a text to a play. That break in between was this collage technique. He dismantled the Krittibasi Ramayana into the stature of a “punthi”- a hand-written manuscript. This gave birth to a list of several other texts: Chnaiburor punthi, Pora Lankar punthi, Hanumaner punthi, Marutir punthi, Jayramer punthi, etc.
In an age of Abanindranath's literary exercise, this definitely is an exceptional citation because this deviated largely from the domain of literature and entered into a performable paradigm through an exclusive visual exercise. This manuscript succeeded the Arabian Nights series and preceeded the Kabikankan Chandi series. The elements of the classical of the former got uniquely blended with the ones of the typically folk of the mangal-kavya tradition of the latter text. Deconstruction of the epic narrative and entrance into the world of the absurd gave the rendering to the text into what it is.
The over two hundred and forty pages text of the Khuddur Jatra manuscript is basically an exercise book with printed horizontal lines. In it the text has been written in cursive letters, spaced with widely diverse and readily available visuals comprising advertisements, newspaper documentation, advertisements from gramophone records, portions of film posters, war-time photographic newspaper-documentation, discarded wrappers of consumed sweets, jewellery catalogue, etc. There is also no fixed format in which each page is laid out: it varied and depended exclusively on the matter that was to be illustrated in that page along with its context. Therefore each page turned out to be a unique arrangement!
And we do have several dynamic results out of this creative enterprise. He wrote several plays, children-stories, composed queer sculptures and once also gave up his career and took to playing instruments.
Like any other epic, Khuddur Jatra also begins with an invocation; a typical trait of an epic. In it there are corrections and erasures of shapes that might well remind us of Rabindranath's correction-scribblings. In the present scribbling the image refers to the figure of lord Ganesha, playing on a drum (mridanga). Beneath it are the words “khuddur amader khuddur jatra/ dhe re ke te ha te re ke ted ha” (khuddur jatra is our little journey/ tra-la-la-la-la). Ganesha's image on the invocation is absolutely traditional and in conformation with the epic tradition. The mridanga is a personal addition to suggest the essence of a performance (jatra), but it could be a connotation to a famous mridanga player, a real life contemporary personality by the name Ganesha, whom Abanindranath appears to be reverentially recalling time and again (ref: Jorasankor Dharey; a text in which Ganesha, the mridanga player, is recalled).
The master's handling of medium and exploring possibilities mark some major aspects of modernity. His genius lay in his handling of an extremely traditional text into a completely novel medium. He has remained spontaneous and creative while illustrating Jambavan, the bear-leader of Rama's army. This he did using the picture of a popular soft toy; the teddy bear. While Bharat returns to Ayodhya with Rama's sandals in his hand, Abanindranath does much in appreciating this moment by using cut-outs from an advertisement of a shoe company which distinctly reads “Radu and Co.” and has their Calcutta address and manager's name printed on it. Along with this, the words “religious faith: that driving force” were printed on it. Thus Bharat's devotion towards his elder brother found an oblique reference and subtle suggestion through this picture montage. One needs to seriously reconsider the accusation of Abanindranath being “over-romanticized” along with other pioneers of the Bengal school while interpreting subtle texts such as the one in question.
Abanindranath had successfully blended contemporary references with an ancient tale. The mention of Sita's ornaments dropped from the skies on her way to Lanka where she was being taken captive by Ravana, consist of a page from a jeweler's catalogue. The punning play on words is described in the artist's use of printed botanical drawings of cabbages and turnips on a text which mentions monkeys..These pictures give us anecdotes and references of Bat-tala prints. The generic name for these vegetables in Bengali is “kapi”, which also has a second meaning in the Bengali language: it means a monkey. Thus such use of words, through fantastic juggleries also mark this unique text.
There are also several viewer-reader exercises in the text itself which require active participations. One example of this is the instance where the visual on the front surface is a door, made of stiff paper, with the words BEHIND CLOSED DOORS inscribed in red characters on the left and BECAUSE… on the right of the knob and lock. The reader curiously opens the door to look out for what's there inside: a photograph of a group of South East Asian women with weird ornaments. The inner surface of the doors have two images. On the left a typist furiously bangs the keys of a type-machine, but her apt attention appears to be directed towards the lady at the right. The strangely attired ladies are of course members of the demon clan who serve Ravana, to keep a watch over Sita, who is behind the closed doors of Lanka. The typist reports Sita and her activities to Ravana, the king of Lanka.
There are also examples of several unique use of cut-ups. Consider for example the use of flit insecticide spray, as if these were cannons, where in the text he writes: “… Rakshasgan/ machhi marite filit kaman dagchhe, sethay khara dam…” [the demons there are upright because the charge “flit” cannons to kill the flies. Of course “filit” is a metrical adjustment of the word “flit”. There is another cut out which observes the mundane activities of two women at the spinning wheel. The picture is supposed to read Sita's mundane life at Valmiki's hermitage. The picture in its original was intended to popularize khadi cloth as part of India's nationalist struggles. Of course it talks about Sita's humble life. But it also addresses the nationalist sentiments of the same veins; where leading a humble and sober life comprised the nationalist agenda.
Abanindranath was truly aware about the political phenomena and the world around him. Though Jasimuddin claimed that the genius was hardly aware of the political phenomena that kept happening around him, I reckon, Abanindranath was highly aware of his political surroundings. He was so consciously and subconsciously aware of the political happenings, that he often included visuals of political connotations in his personal interpretation of the primary epic in question. A prominent example of such a strategic use of a collage would be the page where the army of Lanka (including description of Ravana's son Indrajit mounting his chariot) is supported by a printed drawing of foreign (British?) soldiers marching in a line; the printed text reads within two circles “we keep good time” and “and so do we”. References of the Ramayana and political contemporary situations are too transparent to be mentioned crudely. “Dante's Inferno” on the page where Rama leaves for exile is apt as is “souls in hell” in the advertisement index pointing at the pathetic condition of Ayodhya as well as the grotesquery of wartime massacres.
Art in India always thrived upon the equations of the patron and the painter. Therefore an artist had to primarily cater to the needs of the audience. This relation shaped the fate of the art in India. As a result art failed to flourish in ages that received weak patronization. However this also resulted in an artist's endeavor to look beyond the scopes of the patron-artist relationship and produce art even without support from the patron. Although the advent of English colonization brought about a big change in the way in which art was viewed and started to be viewed in India, eventually the artist suitably adapted himself to several foreign forms; cast-shadow, chiaroscuro, perspective, etc. to name a few. The creative mind did not find satisfaction even in these innovations to express his personal language best. The evolution of the “Bengal school” resulted out of this constant dissatisfaction and Abanindranath may definitely be credited as one of the pioneers of this trend.
“Khuddur Jatra” as a re-interpretation of the original epic of the Ramayana was an exceptional visual project that showed us the need to perceive the artist's painterly quest and aesthetically an immense wide spectrum!
Images Courtesy: The Author