One of India’s foremost contemporary artists, Jatin Das was born in 1941 in the village of Mayurbhanj, Orissa, growing up in a joint family amid a large bunch of siblings. On Father’s Day, we share a “note” to his daughter Nandita Das, a well-known actor and activist. This letter reminds us all that there is a world beyond the call of money, one where honesty, decency, and concern for the people around you still matters.
(Excerpted from the book Legacy by Sudha Menon, with permission from Penguin Random House. Photos courtesy www.jatindas.com, www.nanditadas.com)
One’s family is a private space. The media today is intruding into the private lives of people, and the people at large are not shy or hesitant to spread themselves thin and expose themselves and their personal lives to the public. I, for one, strongly believe in the sanctity of the private space.
Children are very special to their parents and vice-versa, especially when they are little. And I reminisce those moments very dearly.
I know you will be surprised to see a typed note by me, one being printed and read by others even though it is meant only for you.
Your childhood was spent in small flats, travelling between the urban cities of Bombay and Delhi. Contrastingly, my childhood was spent in the old, princely state of Mayurbhanj, in a large family consisting of five brothers and a sister. We grew up in a big house with a garden extended with ponds and a farmland where I spent my time until I was seventeen years of age. I remember my mother saying, ‘No one has come today, I don’t feel like eating’. Sudden visitors were always welcome with open arms.
When I moved to Bombay in the sixties, many of my friends came and stayed with me, though I was staying in a single room flat at the time. At twenty-six, I got married to your mother. You were born in Bombay. Eventually, we decided to move to Delhi and six years later, Siddhartha was born.
We lived in Nizamuddin, in a first floor flat with terra red flooring which I got polished and smoothened so that you were comfortable when you crawled. This ‘house’ became ‘home’ to all my artist friends who came and stayed with us. You knew all of them well and received their affection and caring.
My studio always occupied the largest room in the house. You grew up with the smell of turpentine and saw a painting grow day by day. I always painted bare figures and both you and Siddhartha were never shy about it. Poets and artists breezed in and out all day and friends from Bombay, Calcutta, and various parts of the world came to stay with us. Slowly, the Nizamuddin home in Delhi became a guest house.
I hope you remember all the happy times we spent in that flat. I was housebound because my studio was at home. I was not only the cook and the gardener, I was also the babysitter, changing nappies and feeding you all. Since your mother was working full time at the National Book Trust, I was fully in charge of the house. You may not know I changed your nappy many a times.
I remember my friend Paritosh Sen would always come and stay with us and would babysit you when we went to parties. At other times, we would bundle you up and take you with us to exhibitions and get-togethers. I taught you paper cutting and tooth brush painting on stencils. I vividly remember when we were at an exhibition showcasing artist J. Swaminathan’s work at the Kanika Chemould Gallery and you told me, ‘Look, look baba—Swami Uncle is also painting like me, the way I spray on stencils with a toothbrush.’
Many of my artist friends’ children and you grew up together. Ramachandran and Chameli’s daughter, Moli, and Paramjeet and Arpita’s daughter, Boban, were your best friends. We had a lot of shared meals together and I still have several black and white photographs of that time.
For all festivals and vacations, we went home to Baripada, our hometown in Mayurbhanj, Orissa where you and Siddhartha (Nitu and Babul) spent quality time with my mother, brothers, cousins, and their children. At our home, all cousins were considered brothers; there was really no concept of a ‘cousin’ as such. When my mother was ill, you stayed back for a month to nurse her back to good health.
After my mother died, our visits to Baripada became less frequent. But the innumerable photographic mementoes were enough to remind us of the good old days. With both my parents gone, the family slowly disintegrated. Everybody moved to other parts of the country, and here in Delhi, we found a home away from home.
When you were tiny, I remember you trying to pull out a leaf from a plant. I had gently twisted your little finger and you had said, ‘It hurts’. ‘It must have hurt the plant too’, I remember telling you. I never forced you to study or do anything. For me, you learnt and imbibed everything yourself. Whenever you got a chocolate, you first shared it with the maid and then ate it yourself.
You went to Sardar Patel Vidyalaya (SPV) instead of Delhi Public School (DPS) or Modern School. Your school had a very progressive curriculum that put a lot of emphasis on the importance of studying art and culture. Many of our friends’ children studied there as well.
You did well in your studies and always had varied interests. You even studied Tamil and went to a village adopted by your school to do shramdaan. That is probably from where your notion of social work developed further.
I am sure you remember we had a Morris Minor, the round baby car which we had to push to get it started so it could take you to school. But since the battery would be weak, it would often die and I had no money to replace it. You would get angry as it had to always be pushed to start, in the process of which you would inadvertently get late for school. It was shell white in colour and as we drove past Sudha Menon 98 the neighbourhood, the children would always shout, ‘Here goes the mendhak (frog)!’ I have the Morris Minor all done up and bedecked now.
Do you remember for one of your birthdays, Leela (Leela Naidu, acclaimed Indian actress and wife of Dom Moraes), who had also designed your dress, bedecked you like a fairy to dance in her garden in Nizamuddin? Do you remember Dom was your godfather whom you would affectionately call Uncle Dome?
You learnt Odissi from Madhavi (Mudgal) for many years. It’s a pity that you gave it up. I remember you joined the street plays of Safdar Hashmi’s Jan Natya Manch. You took them very seriously. I went to see a few of those plays. They were very touching. I knew Safdar because I taught in the art department at Jamia Millia Islamia. He was a wonderful and gentle person, killed by political hooligans because his plays were strong, outspoken, and forthright. You were supposed to act in that same play when the goons attacked. But you were away at Rishi Valley, teaching. We were all shocked and stunned.
I never do paintings about events. But I did a large canvas in oil on Safdar, which was auctioned in Delhi at the Lalit Kala Akademi, and the money was jointly shared between SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust), Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, Habib Tanvir, and many others that had been set up in the memory of Safdar. It was the voice of the creative community.
You have always been actively involved in social work. I remember you travelling to the tribal pockets of Orissa and Gujarat to work for the women and children there. You also learned pottery at Sardar Gurcharan Singh’s famous Blue Pottery in Delhi. Later, you made a documentary on him called Imprint in Clay.
I never had anything special to give my children, kept no bank balance, no nothing. The only thing I did have to give them was my affection. But somewhere I’m sure you both share the ethics and concerns that I nurture. After your Master’s degree, you took a year off and went to teach at the Rishi Valley School and travel across the country. You have worked on various films on social concerns, even with first-time directors, in different languages. But your first directorial debut Firaaq got me worried because of the socio-political undertones in the film which was based on the aftermath of the Gujarat riots. Though I respected your conviction and courage, at the same time I was scared for you because of the prevailing political situation.
On your first trip to London, you had lived with a very dear friend of ours—Maurine Ravenhall—and one day she had asked you to cook. Although you had never cooked at home, you had the taste of good food in your palate and you must have cooked a meal from this memory of yours. They raved about it.
This also reminds me of your first trip to New York when you had called me. I had told you, ‘Beta, keep your head on your shoulders’ and you had replied, ‘Baba have you ever compromised? Neither will I.’
While I am writing this note, so much water has flown under the bridge. You have all gone your own ways. Now you are a mother and you are going through what I went through with you. Nursing your child.
I had never asked for favours all my life and I am glad my children have grown up with similar values.
I hope you are holding the hand of your little one in bed, as I did yours.
With lots of love,