The genius of nonsense literature
Sukumar Ray’s 95th death anniversary
Bengali poet, fiction writer and playwright Sukumar Ray (1887-1923) was perhaps the most famous practitioner of "literary nonsense" in the subcontinent. He is often compared to Lewis Carroll. His works such as the collection of poems "Abol Tabol", novella "Ha Ja Ba Ra La", short story collection "Pagla Dashu" and play "Chalachittrachanchari" are considered nonsense masterpieces equal in stature to "Alice in Wonderland", and are regarded as some of the greatest treasures of Bangla literature. Close to a century after his death, Ray remains one of the most popular authors among children's writers in both West Bengal and Bangladesh.
His family was originally from Masua in Mymensingh. His father, Upendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury, who also wrote for children, was a musician and mechanic and his son was the Oscar-winning filmmaker Satyajit Ray. After passing the Entrance examination from the City School, Sukumar Ray took his BSc in chemistry from Presidency College. He then went to England on the Guruprasanna Ghosh Scholarship to study photography and printing technology. Sukumar studied at the Manchester School of Technology, where he proved the effectiveness of photo printing in halftone invented by his father.
Sukumar Ray was also the convenor of Monday Club, a weekly gathering of likeminded people at the Ray residence, where the members were free to express their cheeky opinions about the world at large.
About Ray, noted poet and rhymester Asad Chowdhury said, "Sukumar was an unparalleled genius. He lived a short life but created many valuable literary pieces. It is very significant that Rabindranath Tagore was a great admirer of Ray. He introduced an innovative style and his approach was ground-breaking. His use of language, structure and technique gave a distinct aspect to Bengali literature. His writings are not only popular among the young, but also among adults."
Sukumar Roy was a versatile genius. He used to compose rhymes at an early age. Along with photography he learnt painting. While at college, he used to write comedies and act in them. He also acted in a play called Goday Galad with Rabindranath Tagore and Abanindranath Tagore at Santiniketan. He composed some songs during the Swadeshi movement and also sang the songs himself. After his father's death, he took over the Sandesh, a magazine published by his father. While in England, he sent stories, poems and paintings to be published in the magazine.
According to well-known poet Shihab Sarkar -- "Ray's brilliant rhymes still remain unparalleled. He is still unique. He produced several nonsense verses and plays. It is very disheartening that he did not live long. But if he had, he could have given a new dimension to our Bengali literature."
In 1906, Ray graduated with Honours in Physics and Chemistry from the Presidency College, Kolkata (then Calcutta). He was trained in photography and printing technology in England and was a pioneer of photography and lithography in British India. While in England, he also delivered lectures on the songs of Rabindranath before Tagore won the Nobel Prize. Ray also drew acclaim as an illustrator. As a technologist, he developed new methods of half tone block-making, and technical articles about this were published in journals in England.
While Ray went to England to learn printing technology, Upendrakishore purchased land, constructed a building, and set up a printing press with facilities for high-quality half tone colour block-making and printing. Ray also launched the children's magazine, "Sandesh".
Apart from the cultural and creative activities, Ray was also a leader of the reformist wing in the Brahmo Samaj.
Ray died in 1923 of severe infectious fever, Leishmaniasis, for which there was no cure at the time. Satyajit Ray later shot a documentary on Sukumar Ray (in 1987), five years before his own death.
September 10 marked the 95th death anniversary of Ray.
The writer is a freelance contributor.