Dear Friends and Well-wishers,
20 October 2016 marks the eightieth birthday of Dr. Prithwindra Mukherjee. Born on 20 October 1936 to Tejendranath and Usha Rani, he the grandson of the famous revolutionary Jatindranath Mukherjee alias Bagha Jatin. He came to Sri Aurobindo Ashram in 1948, studied and taught at Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. He was mentioned by the Sahitya Akademi manuals and anthologies as a poet before he attained the age of twenty. He has translated the works of French authors like Albert Camus, Saint-John Perse and René Char for Bengali readers, and eminent Bengali authors into French. He shifted to Paris with a French Government Scholarship in 1966. He defended a thesis on Sri Aurobindo at Sorbonne. He served as a lecturer in two Paris faculties, a producer on Indian culture and music for Radio France and was also a freelance journalist for the Indian and French press. His thesis for PhD which studied the pre-Gandhian phase of India’s struggle for freedom was supervised by Raymond Aron in Paris University. In 1977 he was invited by the National Archives of India as a guest of the Historical Records Commission. He presented a paper on ‘Jatindranath Mukherjee and the Indo-German Conspiracy’ and his contribution on this area has been recognized by eminent educationists. A number of his papers on this subject have been translated into major Indian languages. He went to the United States of America as a Fulbright scholar and discovered scores of files covering the Indian revolutionaries in the Wilson Papers. In 1981 he joined the French National Centre of Scientific Research. He was also a founder-member of the French Literary Translators’ Association. In 2003 he retired as a researcher in Human and Social Sciences Department of French National Centre of Scientific Research in Paris. A recipient of ‘Sri Aurobindo Puraskar’, in the same year he was invited by Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for the world premiere of Correspondances, opus for voice and orchestra where the veteran composer Henri Dutilleux had set to music Prithwindra’s French poem on Shiva Nataraja, followed by texts by Solzhenitsyn, Rilke and Van Gogh. In 2009 he was appointed to the rank of chevalier (Knight) of the Order of Arts and Letters by the Minister of Culture of France. He has penned books in English, Bengali and French and some of his published works include Samasamayiker Chokhe Sri Aurobindo, Pondicherryer Dinguli, Bagha Jatin, Sadhak-Biplobi Jatindranath, Undying Courage, Vishwer Chokhe Rabindranath, Thât/Mélakartâ : The Fundamental Scales in Indian Music of the North and the South (foreword by Pandit Ravi Shankar), Poèmes du Bangladesh, Serpent de flammes, Le sâmkhya, Les écrits bengalis de Sri Aurobindo, Chants bâuls, les Fous de l’Absolu, Anthologie de la poésie bengalie, In Quest of the Cosmic Soul and Les racines intellectuelles du movement d’independence de l’Inde (1893-1918) ending up with Sri Aurobindo, “the last of the Prophets”.
On the occasion of Dr. Prithwindra Mukherjee’s eightieth birthday, an interview of his conducted by Sunayana Panda has been published in the online forum of Overman Foundation along with some of Dr. Mukherjee’s photographs with the Mother and some tributes paid to him by luminaries of the East and West.
With warm regards,
Photographs of Dr. Prithwindra Mukherjee with the Mother
Meeting Prithwindra Mukherjee
Prithwin-da’s story is remarkable not because of what he has achieved but the odds against which he has achieved it. He was a victim of the polio virus and from his early childhood had to walk with the help of crutches. He has faced outer as well as inner difficulties and has achieved some-thing that people even in normal circumstances would find hard to attain. True, he has lived in an advanced country like France and worked in an environment that encourages intellectual growth but let us not forget that moving to France forty years ago could not have been the smooth ride it is today for students and research scholars. But we are running away with our story. The right place to start from would be the beginning.
Prithwin-da’s connection with the Ashram is directly linked to the fact that he is the grand-son of the heroic Bagha Jatin, who at the height of the revolutionary movement in Bengal was closely associated with Sri Aurobindo. Prithwin-da’s parents had visited the Ashram earlier, as Sri Aurobindo’s guests. Then, in 1948, along with his mother and two brothers, Prithwin-da came to Pondicherry. His father, known to us as Tejen-da or Bod-da, continued to go back and forth be-tween Kolkata and Pondicherry until the Mother hinted that it was time he too settled down to the regular life of the Ashram. This was the Mother’s way of showing her love and concern. Prithwin-da reminds us that the Mother was particularly generous in her hospitality to the members of the families of those who had been a part of the political life of Sri Aurobindo and had participated in his work. This is the way she had opened her arms to Sahana-di and her sisters because they were the nieces of Chittaranjan Das, who had so ably defended Sri Aurobindo in the Alipore Bomb Case. This is the way the Mother had also been full of solicitude for Sudhir Sarkar and his family.
Growing up in the Ashram of the post-War years was an experience that clearly marked and moulded Prithwin-da. Already he had had an inner contact with the Mother before coming to Pondicherry. One day, when he was still a child, he had fallen down and broken his arm in several places and was in excruciating pain. While his mother had gone to fetch him a glass of water, he was looking at a picture of the Mother when he saw her coming down a stair of light and coming towards him. When his mother came back she found him fast asleep. Once they settled down in Pondicherry the Mother took a special interest in him. The Mother had often said that many human difficulties were present in the Ashram in a symbolic way and by working on them here she could transform them on a larger scale. Prithwin-da’s physical infirmity was also, in her eyes, one of those difficulties and by healing him she would win a battle against the force of inertia in the material physical and would be able to extend the limits of conscious-ness. With this work in mind she asked Pranab-da to help Prithwin-da. So Pranab-da set aside two hours three times a week to massage Prithwin-da’s leg and to make him do exercises. A chart was made and a programme strictly adhered to. The Mother followed very keenly even his smallest progress. To extend her help on a subtle level she gave him flowers with special significances such as “Perseverance” and “Concentration”. When he was leaving for Paris, many years later, the Mother reminded him that there were excellent surgeons in France.
Prithwin-da’s life had many restrictions because of his physical handicap but the life of the Ashram gave him the opportunity to interact with many extraordinary people. The Ashram was in full phase of growth and in this creative and warm atmosphere he could cultivate two interests which have finally become his field of expression and research. One was literature and the other was music. Because of his contact with Pranab-da he started working in the library that the Physical Education department was starting. Pranab-da took out subscriptions for four magazines from Kolkata for young readers. Prithwin-da’s first attempt at writing for publication was made when, at the age of thirteen, he sent a story to one of them. It was accepted and appeared in one of the issues. Prithwin-da recounts how he took the five rupees he was paid for this to the Mother as if it had been five lakhs and how the Mother accepted it with great joy.
Even before he finished his studies he taught English, French and Bengali at the School. Encouraged by Bharati-di (Suzanne Karpeles), he started translating original works of well-known writers from Bengali into French. He also wrote his own prose and poetical creations at the same time. He participated in the Ashram band and wrote musical notations of Indian pieces as well as original compositions for them.
Around the time he turned thirty, he felt that literary success had come quite easily to him, and now he wanted to make an attempt to test his boundaries. As he was equally interested in music and literature, he could have gone into either field. The first possibility which opened itself was at the Juilliard School in the United States. He was accepted. However, the Mother cautioned him against this choice, saying that she could see a dark cloud over that course of action. She also assured him that a better opportunity would come his way. Soon after that, he received a scholarship from the French Government to write a thesis at the Sorbonne University. Arriving in France in the mid-1960s he was helped by friends to make the transition. It was a transition which must have been difficult though, considering that neither communication nor travel were as easy then as they are now, and the gap between the life of the East and the life of the West was a wide one then. However, he continued to keep in touch with the Mother and kept his goal very clearly in front of him. Among others there was André Morisset who looked after him. He came back regularly to India and kept in touch with his roots.
Prithwin-da started writing from a very early age and was published in reviews and magazines, not only of the Ashram but also those which had a national circulation. He wrote poetry in both English and Bengali and was even included in anthologies of Indian poets. In France his first years were consecrated to his thesis on Sri Aurobindo after which he taught Indian Civilisation at University level. He was granted a Fulbright Scholarship which enabled him to do further research in the United States. Then he took up his thesis on the Pre-Gandhian Freedom Movement, for which he was conferred a PhD (Docteur d’Etat) by the French Government. After this he worked as a researcher in the CNRS which is France’s national centre for scientific research. Although he has now retired he continues his literary career.
What makes Prithwin-da such an exceptional writer is that he writes in three different languages. There are many in the world who can speak several languages and quite a few who read more than one language, but rare are those who can express their abstract thoughts in more than one language in writing. Even in India, where there are so many official languages, urban Indians have great difficulty in writing even one Indian language correctly. In such a context Prithwin-da’s language skills are remarkable. He can not only read several regional Indian languages but knows Sanskrit too.
One of the first translations he did for the UNESCO series was of a collection of three short stories by Sharat Chandra into French. He is one of those very rare translators who go directly from Bengali to French. He also translates in the other direction, that is, from French into Bengali. He has translated authors like Albert Camus, Saint-John Perse and Rene Char into Bengali. He has created links between the two languages, which is invaluable to both cultures. He points out that curiously enough the Bengalis are more eager about knowing French writers than the French are about Bengali ones. When he had first arrived in France the main focus of attention was Rabindranath Tagore since he was the only Indian writer who was known in the West. Now people prefer to read the new writers who write directly in English and who are instantly translated from the English original into French. His original creations cover a wide range. He has written poetry and prose, fiction as well as non-fiction. He has written on philosophy, musicology, history and Indian culture. His most noteworthy contribution to the world of literature is his biography of Sri Aurobindo written in French and published in 2000. This French biography has very clearly his own reflections in his characteristic sensitive style. He has himself translated Sri Aurobindo’s original Bengali texts directly into French. He has also produced programmes for Radio France and made a couple of documentary films. His poem “Danse Cosmique” on Shiva Nataraja has been set to music by Henry Dutilleux, senior composer, and included in performances all over the world.
The French national award of “Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres” is not his first. He has received several awards and honours in India and in France before this. He has also been honoured with the Sri Aurobindo Award in Kolkata in the year 2003. This recent award has been given to him by the French Minister of Culture for his contribution to the cultural life of France, for the whole body of his work and for bringing a knowledge of India to France and vie-versa. Usually this award is given to French citizens only after the age of thirty but it has been given to many non-Francophone writers, artists and actors as well.
Prithwin-da has answered our questions and shared his experiences as well as his views on life.
How was the passage from the Ashram to life in Paris?
First of all, the geographical contrast comes to my mind. My father used to name the three seasons prevailing in Pondicherry as: (a) hot; (b) hotter; (c) hottest. I reached Paris on 9th November 1966, when autumn was turning into rainy winter.
Invited by a friend to my first dinner in Paris, I chose for dessert an ice-cream! A cheerful inner attitude helped me enjoy with precaution every bit of legitimate experience that life here had to offer. Vegetarian on the whole, I discovered that the main courses at the university canteen mostly consisted of meat: I started selecting before tasting anything out of curiosity. In Pondicherry I did not know the market. With eyes wide open like those of Prince Siddhartha, while crossing streets in Paris, the sight of an entire cow neatly peeled and hanging in front of the butchers’ shops left me giddy. For weeks together I could not eat. Worried, I went to consult Dr Deniau, a homoeopath near our hostel. He advised me: “Young man, you are running a low pressure; eat as the Romans do as long as you are in Rome. Or go back to the place you have come from.” On entering his chamber, I had noticed behind the doctor’s seat a shelf packed with Sri Aurobindo’s books. I told him where I came from. Just upstairs lived Samuel Beckett. One day, leaving Jean-Louis Barrault at Théâtre Récamier, Beckett was driving me to a friend’s house, where we were invited to lunch. On the way he stopped to pick up a packet, with the comment: “I live here.” I told him that I often went there to see Deniau. Glad to hear that, Beckett replied, “I too am Deniau’s patient.”
The second point was handling of money. In the Ashram I had no contact whatsoever with money. The French Government scholarship allotted me 480 Francs per month. I rented my room at the hostel for 125 per month. The ticket at the canteen was 1.20 per meal, as far as I remember. We paid 5 francs for a simple cut at the barber’s shop, or a film in a normal cinema. In certain theatres we had concessional cinema tickets for 1.50. It was the glorious epoch of the New Wave French films, along with the experimental Italian and Swedish masters: each film brought me a new impetus. The evening paper Le Monde was sold for 30 cents. For a local telephone call we had to introduce two coins of 20 cents into the slot. Some friends even found out how to recover the coins after the conversation was over. The transport — metro and bus — was pretty cheap. As suggested by the Mother, André Morisset had appointed François Chan and Georges Gambelon to look after me. Grandson of a great literary figure, François helped me as a secretary. Gambelon had had correspondence with Sri Aurobindo. A bachelor, proprietor of real estate, he used to let out flats and consecrated all his income to the service of the Mother. As such, he took me out every Saturday afternoon shopping at the departmental store Belle Jardinière to purchase whatever I needed: toothpaste, stockings, shirts, underwear, for everyday use. At five o’clock, on the river side, we took our wafers with hot chocolate. A fine connoisseur of art, Gambelon made me discover the major museums. A Picasso exhibition simultaneously at the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais struck me with the tremendous creative vital and the masterly craft that animated this artist’s vision. Gambelon paid my railway trip back from St Paul de Vence when friends drove me to the Riviera to meet Picasso. Himself a musician, Gambelon offered me a sophisticated transistor to listen to good music. In addition to a costly overcoat, Paolo brought me elegant suits, neckties, pullovers regularly from Rome. His friend, the fabulous tailor Roberto Capucci was to take us around Rome (in his Rolls Royce) and even to visit Assisi, haloed by the presence of Saint Francis. The Mother had promised me to be constantly present: I never suffered from the lack of a single franc; nor did I save a single franc throughout my life in Paris.
The third point was politics: though we had faint ideas about the leading figures of India and of the world, as Ashramites we had other topics of interest than politics. In Paris, everything seemed to depend on the political options each individual had. We were not far from the Students’ agitation of May 1968, when politics stormed through the university gates.
What were your plans at that time and did you fulfil them?
My main objective was to write a thesis on the transition between Sri Aurobindo, the radical nationalist leader, and the dreamer of World Union. In 1970, I successfully defended it at the Old Sorbonne. The president of the Jury, Jean Filliozat (holding the Chair of Indian studies at the Collège de France), suggested that if I stayed on, it would be useful for studies on India, and it would do me good too. In 1955, I had started my research on the pre-Gandhian freedom fight launched by Sri Aurobindo and pursued by my grandfather; in 1965, over several months, I had serialised my findings in a Calcutta weekly. I waited for an opportunity to start my second thesis — for the coveted Doctorat d’Etat — on the intellectual roots of India’s freedom movement (1893-1918).
At last in 1974, on examining my documents, the renowned historian Raymond Aron declared my choice of these twenty-five years to be the missing link in contemporary history. He gladly accepted to supervise my thesis: he had never believed that it could be possible for a man coming from South Africa in 1915 to ask a people — under bondage for centuries — to stand up and join a non-violent mass movement. For Aron, my grandfather (Jatin Mukherjee) was the thinker in Action. In 1981, Aron obtained for me a Fulbright scholarship to explore American archives from coast to coast. When I came back with more than 8000 pages of notes, Aron thanked me: “What a gift for French re-searchers!” By the time I completed the thesis and Aron started constituting the jury, in 1983, he passed away accidentally. After more than two years of desperate attempts to defend it, at last I met Le Roy Ladurie (Professor at the Collège de France, a disciple of Aron and Fernand Braudel, and Father of the New School of History in France): he remembered that Aron had wished him to participate in my jury; so did Jean Naudou, specialist on India, François Bourricaud and Annie Kriegel, two eminent professors. I defended the thesis, and it was welcomed unanimously by the jury as “most honourable”.
With my knowledge of French and Bengali, I had wished, however, to be of use in teaching Bengali which, normally — like many modern Indian languages — should enjoy the status of a major world language. Appointed for several years as a lecturer by University Paris III-Inalco (Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales), I was proposed as candidate for the Chair of Bengali which was going to be created with a special fund. On enquiring with competent authorities — viz. the then Ambassador of India (a relative of Rabindranath Tagore), Collège de France (Filliozat), Sorbonne (Etiemble, Father of Comparative Literature in France) and UNESCO (Roger Caillois) — the President of the Institut, René Sieffert, was convinced about my profile as the ideal candidate. The National Professor Sunitikumar Chatterjee, on hearing about this proposal, committed himself to back my candidature. Unfortunately, local politics did not permit the Chair to exist. Fed up, I joined University Paris XII where a special course on Indian Philosophy was created to welcome me. Then, in 1981, I joined the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique (Department of Ethnomusicology) till I retired in 2003.
How did you keep your contact with the Mother in the beginning?
I wrote regularly to the Mother as well as to Dada (Pranab), Pavitra-da, Nolini-da, Amrita-da and my parents. Punctually the Mother herself replied to all my letters and Pavitra-da sent them with a covering personal word, by registered air-mail. Gambelon grumbled at times: “It seems the Mother does not write herself any more!” Once the Mother was not pleased with the construc-tion of one of my sentences and did not hide it when she wrote me back; it amused me because that sort of construction had become quite in vogue, whereas in the Mother’s time it was not.
With reliable friends, I used to send small jars of rose-petal jam made in Greece: it was very close to the Indian gulkand that the Mother seemed to like. In 1972, as a guest of the Hebrew University for lecturing on Savitri, I made the acquaintance of Yehuda Hanegby, editor of the monthly Ariel. As if he had been waiting for my visit, all of a sudden, Yehuda decided to leave for Pondicherry, to meet the Mother. What could he take as offering? I suggested honey, made in the kibbutzim. Madame Themanlys, commissioned to interview me for Kol Israel, the official radio, revealed her identity as the daughter-in-law of a personal friend that the Mother had in Paris, belonging to Max Théon’s group.
What were the lessons learnt in the Ashram that helped you most in your work and in your life in Paris?
The greatest and the most concrete lesson learnt in the Ashram is the alert attitude towards the body: however limited be its capacity, the body has always agreed to collaborate in the teeth of hard circumstances. It allowed me to spin through four continents. Next comes obviously the use of languages. Quite a few items from
What a Sadhak should always remember kept on prompting my decisions. An endless optimism and cool thinking has been of a great help in the midst of crucial tests. I often remembered an incident: one day, an infuriated man at the Ashram gate had taken to insulting Nolini-da vehemently; instead of commanding one of the young men to drive the fellow out, Nolini-da stood there for a few seconds, still like a steadfast flame, before stepping back and going his way silently, without a single reaction on his face.
In the core of my being I bear what the Mother told us: “The best gift that you can make to the Divine is gratitude!” A Bengali song has for refrain, tumi dhanya, dhanya hé!
You have written so much. Which particular writing gave you the most happiness?
I had long been waiting to write Sri Aurobindo’s biography for French readers. Since the limited edition of Monod-Herzen’s book published in the ’40s, people had been looking for a complete biography. When the Director of the series ‘Biographies’ published by the prestigious French firm Desclée de Brouwer invited me to write a volume on Sri Aurobindo, I felt really grateful to the Mother for having given me this chance. Every page I wrote was for me a communion with what the Mother called the psychic being. When the Ambassador of India released it officially, it was for me a fulfilment.
There were other occasions. For instance, in the United States, I used to hear about Eleanor Rosch and the theory of categories in cognitive studies. While working on the scales of Hindustani and Carnatic Music at the C.N.R.S., suddenly I made a rapprochement between those categories and our age-old system of seventy-two mélakartâs. Very happy to declare this identity, I was greeted with a cold shower accompanied by an increasing animosity from the guardians of the temple called cognitive research, for mixing up [human and social] science with fiction; my career came to a standstill for seven years; while I felt more and more convinced, my promotion remained desperately immobile. Making use of an international congress of linguists at Paris, I presented a paper on my topic: as it was appreciated by a few specialists, favourable echoes came from professors working on Indian music in European and American universities. I went a step forward by conceiving two electronic gadgets: one, for singling out the successive degrees of any of the mélakartâs; the other one, for situating the height of the twenty-two microtones (shrutis) used in Indian music. Once they materialise, these two diapasons may bring about a very modest revolution in the world of composition, as I have hinted in my book published by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, with a foreword by Pandit Ravi Shankar. The CNRS authorities chose to recognise my discovery with a bronze medal. My happiness welled from the fact that the Mother had led me to detect some truth and, with perseverance, I saw it conquer all hostility.
How did you feel when you came to know that you were being given this award?
Excepting the Sri Aurobindo Award that came to me from India and the medal from the Society of Encouragement to Progress at UNESCO, I have had two CNRS medals in my professional life. Busy executing plan after plan, I have had little leisure to stop and stare at awards. Recently, on his receiving the Légion d’Honneur, a friend of mine told me that he had been wondering why, in spite of all I have published and accomplished, there has been no official recognition. The way he posed the problem betrayed his intention to enquire further into the matter. When I received the letter of appointment from the Minister, I thanked the Mother who has been guiding me since I left Pondicherry physically. On seeing the joy it has caused around me, I try to convince myself about its importance.
How do you see the future of the world?
The Vision that Sri Aurobindo has revealed concerning the future of the world and of mankind is infallible, however long it may take to be realised. A few pioneering personalities I have occasion to meet here are aware of Sri Aurobindo’s prediction: some of them have already started thinking in terms of a World Government. In spite of a shy way of acknowledging man’s debt to Sri Aurobindo, in spite of our worshipping spurious idols, the Truth shall prevail. Our conviction is our strength.
What are your most cherished memories?
At the end of The Wizard of Oz, after a series of wonderful adventures, Dorothy disappointed the Mother by proclaiming, “There is no place like home!” Then the Mother gave a meaning to “home”: it was this physical world, the field of all realisations. In the Bâul tradition, they believe that even the gods wait for their turn to receive the boon of an earthly life, in order to progress in their spiritual quest. The medieval Bengali poet sang: janama abadhi ham rûpa néhârinu/ nayana nâ tirapita bhéla (“Since my birth I have contemplated Beauty, and mine eyes are not yet satiated”): quite a crowd of cherished memories run rioting in a flash.
In 1950, the Mother reserved the Mani House, 3 Easwaran Koil Street, for us (my parents and three brothers). She insisted on the fact that the house belonged to her and she knew perfectly all its nooks. We had no more to budge an inch. At times, in my adolescent years, desiring to live on my own, whenever I approached the Mother, she reminded me: “Do you forget who Tejen is? Who Usha is? Are there many children as fortunate as you are, to have them as parents? You have so much to learn from them! And that house is your field of realisations!” Indeed it was. The entrance was made of traditionally carved solid wooden doors. There were two small rooms leading to a large hall. From the walls, Sri Aurobindo’s and the Mother’s portraits seemed to hold us in their arms. A store-room opened on a kitchen, followed by the dining space with one of the first specimens of a large mosaic table made in the Ashram.
My mother wrought her everyday miracles in the kitchen: like my grandfather, my father had been used to sharing his meals with friends; and my mother served us all varieties of tasty dishes and sweets. Usually the Mother and Sri Aurobindo did not partake of milk or its derivatives. Sri Aurobindo, however, was glad to make exceptions with pântuâ, and the Mother seemed to be fond of chhânâr pâyés prepared by my mother.
Upstairs was an open terrace on the South, full of rose plants. As Sunil-da’s student, I had spent nights together there, observing the positions of the constellations season after season. There was a covered L-shaped verandah where, on a cot, slept my elder brother Rothin and, perpendicularly, my mother’s cot. Then there was a large hall with three beds. I slept on the left, my father in the middle, and Togo, by the side of two windows receiving the sea-breeze. This was the haven where the Mother accommodated our souls. Wherever I go, down the years, this is the nest I long for.
Who influenced you most during your growing up years in the Ashram?
The Ashram in our childhood was a rendezvous of great minds. Philosophers, musicians, poets, painters were ready to be of help to us, as a service to the Mother. Precocious and curious, by the age of fourteen I enjoyed the “friendship” of veterans like Pavitra-da, Nolini-da, Sahana-di, Dilipkumar Roy, Nishikanta, Amal Kiran (K.D. Sethna). But, for a very special reason, it was Dada (Pranabkumar) whose overall influence enriched me the most.
The Mother seemed to gather around her at the Ashram representatives of particular problems that required her force to be rectified, transformed from the spiritual point of view. The virus of polio had caused the loss of my lower limbs at the age of five. Busy extending the territory of Consciousness by conquering inertia, the Mother had proposed me her help, provided I collaborated willingly. In the process of that unwritten pact, Dada had stepped forward to execute her will. Muscle by muscle, in the Mother’s presence, he defined the nature of his intervention. He typed out two big charts and pasted them on cardboard: one, for active home exercises that I followed every day; the Mother had asked Rishabhchand to devise a solid bench specially for the purpose. The other chart was for passive exercises that Dada gave me along with an oil massage during two hours, three mornings every week, at the tennis ground, on the verandah separating the two apartments that housed Wilfy and Raju Garu; it was followed by bathing in the sea. Whenever there loomed a new response from a muscle, Dada invited the Mother to appraise it.
Enjoying Dada’s company, I asked the Mother whether I could assist him — by the side of Tara — in cataloguing valuable books and magazines on physical culture that his library contained. It was at the tail end of 1949, as far as I remember. Rajen-da’s nephew Hiren Ganguli used to come regularly for Darshan and, as an active business-man, he had a portable typewriter with him. On Dada’s request, Hiru-Kaku agreed to teach Tara and myself efficient typewriting. Very soon I was to learn from Sanat-da shorthand, too. On retro reflection, I discovered that my grandfather had been a professional stenotypist. Dada since his school days had been in contact with revolutionaries directly brought up by my grandfather and, as such, held my grandfather in high esteem. As a student of history, he encouraged me in my re-search on our freedom movement.
During the gymnastic marching at the Play Ground, at times Dada improvised melodies by whistling on the microphone: they seemed to rush down from another world. On noticing my interest in music, Dada offered me the first bamboo flute of my life. He had received a clarinet as a gift from the Mother, to learn both European and Indian music. He noted down in a fat register whatever ragas he learnt from Ardhendu-da and made it accessible to me; soon I started taking lessons of Esraj with Ardhendu-da. When the Ash-ram brass band reached its final shape with brand new instruments from Paris, I picked the piccolo for my instrument. In addition to whatever the bandmaster taught, Dada offered me a book with solo notations for piccolo. While I practised, amused by the tunes, he started supplying words — often humorous verses in Bengali — and sang heartily. I still remember his parody of Auprès de ma blonde, London Bridge and a more serious poem on the melody of The Bluebell of Scotland. He was sincerely pleased with my compositions for the band and ordered me to write the Mass Drill music for the annual function of 2 December 1957 and 1958.
Dada got me subscribed to four juvenile Bengali magazines. On noticing my intention to write for them, he mentioned it to the Mother; she liked the idea and, out of the four, she chose Shishu-sâthi — the most rigorous one — to begin with. Once a week, the Mother used to tell stories to the children. I started rewriting them for my Bengali readers. Ignorant of my age, the editor went on publishing me religiously every alternate month and also invited my contribution for the special Pûja annual: impressed by its attractive layout, Dada called it “ice-cream sandesh”, a Bengali delicacy.
After composing the Mass Drill music for the annual function of 2 December 1957 and 1958, my score for 1959 was ready; now let me tell you why it was not played. We were no angels and we did not necessarily live on honey-dew. The Mother warned us against the churning of the inner ocean under the action of her Light. Even Dada for a time became subject to bouts of an opaque depression; it could be accompanied by a slap or a blow meant for activating recalcitrant elements. Though we were not indifferent to his suffering, some of us humorously called it the “Mahakali Spark”… One day the Mother declared that she had conquered the Asura of Despondency. Dada was no more gloomy. Soon the Mother stopped coming to the Play Ground. During the rehearsal of the 1959 Mass Drill music, some members of our JSASA brass band — out of quite a comprehensible human reaction— refused to play my composition. It was rather an unexpected blow as much for me as for Dada. When I turned towards him, with a broken voice he advised me to withdraw my score. It was not an easy matter. Forty double sheets of staff notation, some representing individually the Eb instruments; others transposed to Bb; a group playing the melodic parts; another — complex — with the counterpoints : months of labour for me and for the Band Master who had copied out my notation in his professional calligraphy !
At this juncture, my publisher Prafulla Chandra Das of Cuttack — as one of the organisers of the All India Writers’ Conference — sent me an invitation with a first class train ticket, hotel reservation and participation to read my poems; Jawaharlal Nehru was to preside over this session. Prafulla Babu brought out even a bunch of my selected poems on this occasion to be annexed to the Souvenir. Finding it to be a delicate matter to disturb the Mother for her permission during her illness, I decided not to attend the Conference. Nolinida’s messenger asked me to go and see him. Nolinida was waiting for me with two messages. First of all, he told me that the Mother was pleased to hear about my discreet decision. Secondly, his personal counsel: the less I frequent such gatherings, the deeper will grow people’s esteem for me.
Tributes to Dr. Prithwindra Mukherjee
• “His [Prithwindra Mukherjee] mastery of Bengali, English and French makes of him one of the persons who contribute the most to the cultural bringing together of India and Europe.” (Jean Filliozat, Professor and Member of the French Academy).
• “I know him [Prithwindra Mukherjee] since many years and I have always very much appreciated his personal dignity, his affability, his care in accomplishing perfectly all his duties. These moral qualities honour him as much as his intellectual qualities.” (Olivier Lacombe, Professor and Member of the French Academy)
• “I have very great pleasure in testifying to my high opinion of the character, personality and linguistic and literary attainments of my friend Sri Prithwindra Mukherjee. He belongs to one of the most distinguished families in Bengal and India… Prithwindra had his education in one of our most advanced Institutions in India… associated with the hallowed name of the great national leader and thinker and saint, Sri Aurobindo. Here he got a thorough training in his mother-tongue Bengali (in which he is a very prominent writer in both verse and prose) as well as English and French…” (Suniti Kumar Chatterji, National Professor of India in Humanities)
• “Ardent in his research, very well placed in receiving and utilizing apt documents, Prithwindra Mukherjee has been tenaciously carrying on his work since many years. Combined with his human qualities of rectitude and affability, these characteristics draw towards P. Mukherjee the sympathy and esteem of my colleagues and myself.” (Jacques Maitre, Director of Research and President at the Section of Sociology, C. N. R. S.)
• “I have the pleasure of certifying that Dr. Prithwindra Mukherjee, now teaching at the University of Paris, has been for several years my pupil at our International Centre of Education in Pondicherry. He was always a diligent student and had an inner urge for knowledge and progress which made him take interest in many subjects such as languages, music, poetry and translations… In Bengali he is already one of the leading modern writers… He has been an able exponent of Sri Aurobindo’s vision and of Indian culture over the French Radio. An original musicologist, scholar and linguist, poet and writer, he is serving as a precious bridge between India and the Continent and helping to bring them closer to each other.” (Dr. Nirodbaran Talukdar, author and Sri Aurobindo’s scribe)
• “I have been delighted in noticing in these poems [Alo’r Chakor] the blossoming of a keen-eyed genuine poet: a poet indeed, established in the conviction of his own dharma (God-given Duty)… Therefore I congratulate Prithwindra with affection… Wherever he has been capable of responding to the higher Consciousness, he has composed successful poetry. So beautiful, simple, sincere a style and aspiration and vocabulary—at liberty conveyed through a flowing rhythm. We shall expect in his poetry an increasingly confirmed expression of this Aspiration. May Prithwindra continue to follow the loftiest inspiration which is his own, may he sing on—ever-awake in his radiant dream of a luminous ideal and of beautiful diction. It is certainly these which have found utterance in a cluster of poetic resonances through the poet-voice of Prithwindra…” (Dilip Kumar Roy, author, singer and composer)
• “The major components of the personality of Prithwindra Mukherjee are quite singular: the erudition of a university professor welded to the intensity of an inner concentration and to the elevation of a mystic. Added to this after all the freshness of soul of a stripling…To us Europeans, the musician who reminds the most of Mukherjee is Schubert:… I could as well cite the names of Saadi and Hafiz, the first Persians to speak of love with a human accent leading to God. But in the East, as soon as one goes upward, the various metaphysical trends converge towards the same Absolute. Mukherjee renders this Absolute accessible to our senses, just as the petal of a lily gives us the racy transcription of the delicacy and of the bursting force hidden in purity. He is, in Paris, a living example of the mystical radiation of India throughout the world.” (Gerard Mourgue, Poet, Novelist and Director of France-Culture—Radio France)
• “You have a mastery over the language, you have caught the melody…” (Syed Mujtaba Ali, renowned author)
• “I thank you quite cordially for your collection of poems, where I have the delight of rediscovering a mystical atmosphere so dear and familiar to me, a breath of vastitude, the metaphysics of Sri Aurobindo, and the simplicity of heart, probably the most difficult thing in the world… You are helping us to rediscover our soul, by this ‘icy night’ which you transcend audaciously…” (Jean Bies, Author and Professor)
• “Your words ring with a strange freshness in this West so often a desert, but at the same time how can we not see—and the thing is of a dazzling evidence—that all mystique is one?” (Gerard Engelbach, Poet)
• “How far is it possible to convey in Bengali the lukewarm sweetness or headiness present in the language and the atmosphere of Spain? Our translator is young and, probably owing to his age, even in his verbal constructions he has been able to recreate some sort of a taste of these qualities. Thanks to an identity of temperament, he has been able to capture at least something—a good deal, I was going to say—of the original savour, simple yet intense.” (Nolini Kanta Gupta, Philosopher and Author)
9 Replies to “Happy Birthday to Dr. Prithwindra Mukherjee”
I am grateful to the Mother for having prompted you to pen this page: it is the most precious of gifts I receive for having scored 80!
Thank you! For quite sometime I moved out of the place I am living in to wander in the past with our dear and esteemed Prithwindra to experience the Ashram life and closeness to sweet Mother and also the places in France (including the shops where he went to purchase his toothpaste etc as a young student). Simple words in remembering the events past and deep phrases in explaining his scholarly work (music including) makes this interview a treasure. Happy 80! And the best is yet to be!
Sri Bharatamata Mandir and Gurukula Ashram and Sadhu Rangarajan wishes happy birthday to Dr.Prithwindranath and invoke the blessings of the Divine Mother Bharatabhavani for another hundred years of life to Her patriotic son
Thank you very much, dear Anurag, for this wonderful posting!
I am thrilled to learn – and in such fascinating detail – about this very special child of the Mother, hitherto unknown to me.
Congratulations Dr. Prithwindra Mukherjee – May you live to be one hundred, in full vigour and continued service to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother!
With warm regards and all best wishes, on behalf of all the team at Savitri Bhavan, Auroville, from Shraddhavan
Dear Anurag ,
Thank you very much for your this remarkable writeup of ” Prithwin-da.”
His great and creative life armed with the Love for the Divine Mother is a great source of inspiration for all of us ..Lineage always irrevocably seals ts stamp of authentic meritocracy ..Thanks also to Sunayana for her perceptive and thoughtful interview with Prithwin- da..
Surendra s chouhan saice ’69
and always the best in the Mother’s love and sweetness.
R. Y. Deshpande
MOST CORDIAL THANKS.
THIS GESTURE OF ANURAG ASSUMES A GRAND PROPORTION.
VICTORY TO THE SWEET MOTHER.
Thank you, dear Anurag,
I know all the family so well.