Harindranath is an unmatched gift to Hyderabad from Bengal

Abhijit Sen Gupta
Abhijit Sen Gupta

In the year 1898, when Hyderabad was ruled by Asaf Jah 6th, there was born in the city, a child who grew up to be a man of exceptional merit. His achievements in the fields of literature, music, theater, and films made him a well-known figure throughout India and in other parts of the world. The boy who was named Harindranath was born into the illustrious Chattopadhyay family. His father was Aghorenath Chattopadhyay, principal of Nizam College and his eldest sister was the famed Sarojini Naidu.

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The family was originally from Bengal – to be precise, Bikrampur in undivided Bengal – which now lies in Bangladesh. The patriarch of the family, Aghorenath, studied in the Presidency College in Kolkata and then secured a Doctor of Science degree from the University of Edinburgh in the UK. Thereafter, on the invitation of the Nizam of Hyderabad, came to settle down in Hyderabad with his wife Varada Sundari Devi. Later his children were born in this city.

One of his children was Harindranath who was born on 2nd April 1898. It was a period of significance in world history. The Spanish-American war broke out as the USA declared war on Spain, in South Africa the Boer War began in 1899, and in India, the nascent freedom movement gained steam under the banner of the Indian National Congress which had been formed in 1885.

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The young Harindranath grew up in this milieu and was influenced by the happenings that he read and heard about at a young age. His alert and inquisitive mind imbibed many lessons which influenced his later outlook and character. Even when he was a student, he began writing poems, plays, and articles. Over the next few decades, he made immense contributions in diverse fields such as art, films, music, and literature.

His works were acclaimed by Rabindranath Tagore, among others. Some of his well-known poems included The Feast of Youth (written in 1918), The Magic Tree (1922), Ancient Wings (1923), and Blood Of Stones written nearly 20 years later. His poems take a close look at some mystifying questions of philosophy, religion, and spiritualism. His plays included Abu Hassan (1918), Five Plays (produced in London in 1937), and Siddharta, Man Of Peace (1956).

Like his father, Harindranath too went to study at the University of Edinburgh and then at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge where he did research on the subject of William Blake and Sufism.

But before going to the UK, he got married to a remarkable woman. Her name was Kamaladevi and she was from Karnataka. She was first married at the age of 14 but her husband died soon after. When she was studying in the Queen Mary’s College in Chennai, she became friendly with Suhasini Chattopadhyay, sister of Harindranath. What followed was that Suhasini introduced Kamaladevi to Harindranath who was by then a budding writer. Their mutual interest in literature and art drew them together and they got married when Kamaladevi was 20 years old.

Her marriage to Harindranath was her second marriage and that created quite a stir at the time when widow remarriage was frowned upon. Soon after the marriage, Harindranath went off to study in Edinburgh and she joined him later. In accomplishments, she proved to be no less than her husband.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay as she came to be known after her marriage to Harindranath, was involved in India’s freedom movement, took up the promotion of Indian handicrafts throughout the world and contributed to Indian art and culture. Several cultural institutions in India today owe a debt to her vision and hard work. These include the National School of Drama, Sangeet Natak Academy as well as the Crafts Council of India.

She was conferred with the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan by the Indian government and was also honoured with the Ramon Magsaysay award in 1966 for Community Leadership. She was the author of numerous books on Indian culture and social developments. However, her marriage to Harindranath ended amicably after many years of togetherness. The two of them parted ways with mutual consent. She eventually passed away in 1988.

But to get back to Harindranath, his zest for life continued to illustrate his creativity. He moved to Mumbai and acted in several films. Those who have seen the 1972 film “Bawarchi” produced and directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee (starring Rajesh Khanna, Jaya Bhaduri (now Bachchan), A K Hangal, Durga Khote, and Asrani among others, will remember the cantankerous old man (dadaji) in the family. That was Harindranath in his caustic avatar. Hero Rajesh Khanna eventually wins the old man’s approval in the story.

Some lyrics written by Harindranath have become famous in Hindi films. In the film Julie, which became very popular after its release in 1975, there was a hit song titled “My Heart Is Beating” sung by Preeti Sagar. The lyrics were written by Harindranath who captured the mood of the young lovers even though he was then 77 years old himself. Another popular song written by him is “Rail Gaadi”. It was a poem he often recited on All India Radio. It was turned into a popular song and sung by veteran actor Ashok Kumar (rail gaadi, rail gaadi..chuck, chuck, chuck, chuck…beech wale station bole ruk, ruk, ruk, ruk) in the 1968 film Ashirwad which was directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

Harindranath’s talent caught the eye of the maestro Satyajit Ray and he was asked to act in some of Ray’s Bengali films too.

Harindranath’s interest in politics was also close to his heart. Among his close friends were Annie Beasant and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. He contested the 1951 Lok Sabha elections from Vijayawada as an independent candidate supported by the CPI and won. He served as a Member of Parliament from 17th April 1952 to 4th April 1957.

He was honoured with the Padma Vibhushan in 1972. Once when he was asked in an interview on Doordarshan about the secret of his vitality, he answered that he always imagined himself to be a little boy. That vitality came to an end in 1990 when he was 92 years old. A cardiac arrest on 23rd June brought to an end a radiantly colourful and zestful life lived with a flair that arose from a mix of the cultures of Hyderabad and Bengal.

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Abhijit Sen Gupta

Abhijit Sen Gupta is a former Deputy Editor in The Hindu newspaper. In a career spanning 35 years as a sports journalist he has covered different sports including cricket, football, hockey, badminton, boxing, track and field, volleyball, water sports and polo.
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