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177 – My father, the first antiquarian of Calcutta

My father Nirmal Chandra Kumar.  Calcutta (now Kolkata), West Bengal, India. Circa 1950

Image and text contributed by Professor. Aloke Kumar, University of Calcutta/ IIM/ ISRO

My father, Nirmal Chandra Kumar, born in Calcutta, Bengal in 1917, and was the eldest of seven children. After graduating from school at Mitra Institute, he went on to study at Bangabasi College. My grandfather was a trader and the family had a large Departmental Store at Shyambazar Crossing and a home at 52, Mohan Bagan Lane. My father grew up to be an avid reader, hungry for knowledge and to make a living, he worked several odd jobs and tried his hand at writing, which in his own words he said he failed miserably at.

In the early 1940s, after my father got his own place in Calcutta, he met an illiterate Muslim bookseller by the name of Yakub and began helping him read and organize his books. Yakub encouraged my father to trade in books; a venture that was not going to particularly help in making a living, yet in 1945, my inspired father opened a book-shop in his house, called Kumars and began collecting rare books and documents. He combined his pursuit with a broader interest to serve the society around him. In 1950, my grandparents also arranged for my father to be married to my mother Karuna, a school teacher from Adra, (Bengal and Bihar border) and my father continued working on his collection.

Kumars, my father’s book-shop, if it could be called so, spread over several rooms in his residence, around divans and reading chairs, and looked more like a personal library in a living room. In the 1940s, rare book collections were in a dismal, class-bound rut. The famous rare book-shop Cambray was already fading, Thacker & Spink, another well known bookshop was alive, but there were hardly any rare books. With a growing collection of rarities at my father’s book shop, it soon became was a hub for book lovers and a meeting point for people from all walks of life, ranging from iconoclastic artists to conservative writers.

With books on art, travel, ornithology, botany, history, literature, mountaineering, religion and Indology as its strengths, Kumars soon became the place to go. At the shop, my father could be found wearing a white collared half sleeved shirt, and a Lungi, (stitched or unstitched cloth worn around the waist) or a Dhoti and Kurta with pump shoes. We can’t even imagine somebody wearing an attire like that and smoking a pipe or a Davidus Cigar sitting in a library surrounded by books now.

My father had several agents buying books for him at auctions and establishments abroad such as Foyles, Bernard Quaritch and Sotheby’s. One of his many enthusiastic collections included the then unheralded works of British Painters, uncle and nephew, Thomas Daniell and William Daniell. He bought an elephantine Folio of 144 Views of their works from Sotheby’s, and had it sent to Calcutta. On the way it got damaged that resulted in a bitter battle with the shipping company, MacKinnon McKenzie records of which can be found in Calcutta High Court. Much of the folio is now entrusted in care of the museum The Victoria Memorial.

When Satyajit Ray, the filmmaker, began his research on the Indian Rebellion of 1857 for his film Shatranj ki Khilari (The Chess Player), he depended on my father for information on the subject. Kumar not only provided him with all the relevant books, but also went out of his way to bid for a rare scrap book on the 1857 Mutiny, at a London Auction that contained paper clippings and notes on the event, and later he also provided him with many antique props for his sets. Ray it seems did not forget this gesture and paid my father his biggest personal tribute. He based one of his characters in his well known Feluda series on Kumar – the character Sidhujata (Sidhu Uncle), a man with vast encyclopedic knowledge on several subjects.

Kumars became the haunt of an unlikely mixture of luminaries such as – Radha Prasad Gupta, the Anglophile & PR Head of Tata Steel, writer Mulk Raj AnandNirmalendu Chowdhury, the folk singer, Santi.P.Chowdhury, documentary film maker, Asok Mitra, the father of Indian Census, Subho Tagore, the founder of Cubism in India, Jean Riboud, the French billionaire industrialist and writer Peter Fleming. Ella Maillart, the traveller and photographer wrote, ‘to visit Kumar’s, was like pilgrimage. You spend the whole day browsing through books, chatting with Kumar on different subjects, meeting the Calcutta intelligentsia and enjoying the Bengali hospitality with the best of food and savories….all seamlessly interwoven.’

If rare works and books of painter William Hogarth, writers Colonel SleemanGeorge V HigginsJames Hamilton, the unknown Bishop Heber, Scottish writer O’Malley, African Missionary Traveler David Livingston and Sir Richard Burton were easily available in Calcutta to the literary landscape, it was in no small part due to my father, Kumar’s efforts. My father also convinced several people including Satyajit Ray to bid for rare works and if Lahari, the then Superintendent of Calcutta Zoo has been able to leave behind the rare collection of Himalayan Birds, books on Ornithology and Wild-life to the collection of The Zoological Gardens, it is again because of my father. Kumar introduced several artist works to Calcutta; mainly the Flemish artist, Francois Balthazar Solvyns, whose works constitutes the first ‘ethnographic survey’ of India or more precisely of Bengal.

As the 1960s moved into the 1970s, Kumars was a resource for international researchers, but my father was not able to cope as much of its collection had now begun to fade away. His health had deteriorated and much of it was due to a domestic crisis of two of his children becoming members of the Naxalbari Movement (Revolutionary Communist Party). With a pipe smoking habit, conversations in mono-syllables and interrogative questions, he began to resemble the eccentric film director Alfred Hitchcock. Soon he became a recluse and his once dazzling library dimmed.

For 30 years, he had presided over a vast rarest of rare collections in his own bookshop, Kumars, a pre-eminent institution. He was the first in the subcontinent to publish a catalogue of books in his collection. He even formalized the literary scene by initiating regular readings in the bookshop, an innovation at the time. By the end of the 1975, the rare book trade became thoroughly commercialized; books began to be torn for their prints and sold separately. My father did not want to be a part of this and lost out.

Nirmal Chandra Kumar died in 1976 of a cerebral stroke, aged 60 and this year, in 2017, is his centenary. He was a genuine antiquarian and possibly the greatest influence on a generation of artists, filmmaker, writers, musicians, activists, teachers and travellers – perhaps more than any art critic or editor of his time. With his death, the literary world lost an extremely generous and unselfish man who gave of his vast knowledge and delighted in the achievements of those he had influenced so profoundly.


167 – The man who compiled the first English to Hindi & Marathi dictionaries

My great grandfather, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari. Ajmer, Rajasthan. Circa 1955

My great grandfather, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari. Ajmer, Rajasthan. Circa 1955

Image & Text contributed by Myra Khanna / Rachana Yadav, Gurgaon

This is the probably the only photograph we have of my maternal great grandfather Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari or as we refer to him Nana Sahib. Born in 1891, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari was the eldest of four brothers. He was brought up in Bhanpura, a district in the Central Provinces of the subcontinent (now Madhya Pradesh, India). I never did get a chance to meet him, but stories my mother and grandmother tell me about him make me feel that would have been an honour to know him.

While there is some documentation that mentions our ancestor Rao Raghunath Singh Bhandari as the acting King of Jodhpur from 1713-1724, I am not sure how it all turned out because in our family’s current memory we had humble beginnings from a village called Jaitaran (Jodhpur District). The family then migrated to their maternal land Bhanpura where Nana Sahib was born. After his birth and as tradition was, his umbilical cord was cut and buried in the soil of our family home’s courtyard and a tree was planted. The house still stands in Bhanpura today, and in it’s courtyard so does a grand tree.

In 1904, at the age of 12, Nana Sahib was married off to 13-year-old, Roop Kavar, my great grandmother. Nana Sahib was not interested in the family business and ran away to Jodhpur to complete his education. He excelled at Marathi, Hindi and English languages and self-published his first works by translating Ralph Waldo Trine’s In tune with the Infinite in Hindi. He then went on to serve as editor to several newspapers & publications in Bombay (now Mumbai), Delhi, Patna, Ajmer and Indore. Through the course of his youth, he befriended and worked with several influential writers, poets, politicians, activists and royal families from all over the subcontinent. Deeply inspired and curious about world revolutions, cultures, literature & affairs he became a well-reputed writer and author. Two of his early books Bharat aur Angrez (India & the British) and Sansar ki krantiyan (World Revolutions) won him huge accolades and appreciation around the country.

Nanasahib was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and a fierce congressman. My mother remembers him always wearing khadi (hand-spun cloth). In the early 1910s as an assistant editor at Sadharm Pracharak, a weekly newspaper in Delhi, his articles featured Gandhi’s civil rights movement in South Africa and his words spread far and wide. Funds to support Gandhi’s cause flowed in and the newspaper was instrumental in raising Rs. 60,000 to be sent to Gandhi. In 1920, he helped establish the Congress party in Indore, Nagpur and Jaipur. Most evenings at home would come alive with debates, discussions and heated arguments between the greatest of minds of that time.

In the 1920s, he was invited to set up and co-edit an independent Hindi Marathi Weekly Malhari Martand by the Royal family of Holkars in Indore. While serving as an editor he wrote two books on the History of Indian States commissioned by Maharaja Tukaji Rao Holkar III that won him appreciation and monetary awards from several Royal Families around the country.

One of Nana Sahib’s several great accomplishments was that he was the first to have translated and compiled two 10 volume dictionaries – English to Hindi and English to Marathi; The dictionaries went on to be used as the blueprint for other regional language dictionaries that are used until today, and was used as a reference by authors such as Rabindra Nath Tagore. The dictionaries are considered to be one of the greatest achievements in Indian Literature. After the dictionaries he embarked on researching, writing and compiling the first Hindi books on around 30 academic subjects, with contributed material from international and national scholars. These books too won huge publicity and accolades around the subcontinent and were even used as reference by UNESCO in their reports.

Indore state is where Nana sahib earned countrywide respect, but also lost his fortune. My mother tells me that Nana Sahib was an extremely honest and liberal man and his views on religion, marriage, education and relationships were very modern for his time. But his honesty and high standards also made him gullible, resulting in huge losses of wealth. Amongst the many stories I’ve heard, the one I’d wish to ask him about is the time he seems to have contradicted his own belief system.

In 1925, the Bawla Murder Case (aka The Malabar Hill murder case) created a massive stir in the country. A love triangle comprising the Maharaja Tukojirao Holkar III of Indore, his most beloved courtesan Mumtaz Begum and a wealthy businessman Abdul Kadir Bawla, ended up in a royal conspiracy to kidnap the courtesan and murder the businessman by men from the Holkar house. Everyone knew that the king had given the orders and it was a great opportunity for the British to take control of Indore state. With pressures of possible dethronement, the King sought the help of Nana Sahib whose word was held in high regard politically & publicly. Knowing well that the king was indeed guilty, Nana Sahib nonetheless mediated the king’s appeal to political parties and the public. Eventually, his word paid off and the only consequence was a voluntary abdication of the throne to the King’s son Yashwant Rao Holkar II.

One would wonder why a man, so self-righteous and honest would help a man who conspired to kill. My mother and I conjecture that perhaps Nana Sahib was obligated to the Holkar family for its patronage, and returned the favour by protecting the King. As a reward, the Holkars opened up their treasury to Nana Sahib. Overnight, my great grandfather became wealthier than he had ever imagined. Ironically, he got carried away with wrong advice and bad investments, and again overnight he was back to his humble beginnings; only now with additional debts.

While Nana Sahib was still extremely popular and respected, losing money and the debt caused him some embarrassment and he decided to leave Indore and move to Ajmer with his family – his wife and five children – two sons and three daughters. Their home was open to anyone who wanted to learn and study and he would spend a lot of time educating children from the neighborhood. His youngest daughter, Mannu Bhandari (my maternal grandmother) went on to become one of the greatest Hindi authors of our times and his other daughter Sushila Bhandari established  India’s first preschool “Bal Nilaya” in the country, in Lake Gardens, Calcutta (now Kolkata).

My Nana Sahib, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari died of throat cancer at the age of 72 and spare a few copies scattered within the family, and in some libraries around the world, all of his literary works are either lost or were donated and bought by several publications. I am told he had a huge trunk in which he kept all of his works-in-progress and insisted on carrying it with him everywhere, including in his last days to the hospital. It seems that his last works-in-progress was translating the volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica into Hindi.