Oral history interview with Partha Mitter

Mitter, Partha Manjapra, Kris 2006-06-18

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Interview Participants
KM
Today is June 18th 2006. We are here in Oxford and we are speaking with Professor Partha Mitter. This begins an Oral history. So Professor Mitter could you begin by stating your date of birth, please?
Yes, it is 13th of December 1938.
KM
Thank you. And lets begin by going into your childhood. Not in your childhood in specific but more in context of your childhood in whatever memories that pop into your mind. Let's begin with that, particularly about your family situation...
My earliest memories are in fact of my mamabari which is of course my mother's family and of course in Bengal, as well as I suppose in India, when someone, a woman is giving birth, usually she goes to her parents place, and I was born in my maternal grand parent's house. This was in Park Circus in Calcutta. And I remember my earliest memories of playing around... it was actually a big house, actually a well known house and yes, I mean, playing around with my mama , my mother's brother and then he got married and I was also very close to my mamima , my aunt. They are based out of Pasadena, so they are still around, very nice, and in fact I think my mama bought me up quite a bit. That's because you see... maternal grand parents house and my father's family...
KM
can I just break for 1 minute here?
Yes.
KM
all right, so you were speaking about your ... the mamabari in Calcutta?
Yes. I had a wonderful time there. In fact, certainly early childhood was very happy. I was the only child in the mamabari at that time and so it's kind of looked after by everybody. And I could... well, I always did what I liked. Park Circus is actually was, still is one of the Muslim dominated areas. So one of the very first very interesting impression I had ...well, I was actually absolutely terrified when I used to see the Muslim women in a burkha with two eyes sticking out, I did not know what they were. So that's one of my earliest impressions. My maternal grandfather was an ICS [Indian Civil Service] but he was posted in East Bengal which is now Bangladesh
KM
and my maternal grand mother lived in Calcutta and you know, my mother's younger brother were the two siblings and so my mama lived in Park Circus. So that's one of the impressions. In Harish Mukherjee Road, that's where my parents lived. That was also a very big house. Now what is interesting is that... you know, you go through your childhood and certain things make an impression. Yes I do remember. One of my first impression was my maternal grand father was very fond of me.
KM
He was an ICS officer.
Yes. He was a judge in East Bengal and he actually adored me but he didn't see me very often.
Yes. He was a judge in East Bengal and he actually adored me but he didn't see me very often. Anyway, we went to Barisal and I was there with my grand father and he actually doted on me and I sort of sat on his lap ... I was quite greedy and I loved sweets particularly Bangladesh in East Bengal sweets were quite famous and I remember eating sweets. Other impression was very interesting. He was a judge, he was an ICS, he had a very beautiful, I believe it was a very fine house on the river and my clear impression was that the kind of steamers passed by across the vast river, looked like sea...and I remember green and red lights of the steamers as they passed by... that I remember.
KM
And in terms of your parents and family in general, what kind of background were the professions of your parents?
Well, let me tell you a little bit about my actual family, starting with my father's family. The original ancestor. I am still gathering information you see. It has now become part of kind of hearsay tradition and so on. Because my grandmother who knew so much .. .. my father's mother died when I was about 23 or 4. But the point is, in those days I was not interested in family history or any history of the kind. I was more interested in European history at Presidency College . Did I regret that I hadn't interviewed or, kind of, discussed these things with her. We came from very near Calcutta, just close to Dum Dum
KM
it was called Rajarhat. Rajarhat, Bisnupur... our family, I believe had some connection with the Murshidabad, the nawabs [Nawab of Bengal] and my ancestor was an official. Of what kind I don't know. He was certainly around the day of the nawab I believe and he had several sons. The very illustrious branch was Ramesh Mitter. Ramesh Mitter was the first acting chief justice of the Calcutta High Court. Ripon had approached him and the European judge refused to go on leave but even then, Ripon forced the issue. That was called celebre. That was tied in with Ilbert Bill . Those two events became big issues with the European. They did not want Indians to be acting Chief Justice.
KM
This was the period of racism of the Raj... the early Raj.
1860s.... massive kind of uproar among the Europeans in Calcutta. But Ripon, the liberal Viceroy, wanted to push this through. And he was. Ramesh Mitter was also the earliest members of Congress as well. He was quite conservative I believe and he supported Tilak and he was in an age of consent and he didn't actually want it to be raised. It's quite interesting. He was one branch of the family, the other branch, his brother. His brother's son I believe was my great grand father and his name was very complicated. Tripundreswar Mitra but they all called him Tipen Mitra. He obviously a very bright lad I believe and the Singha's of Jorasanko. In Jorasanko there were actually two families that were very important. One was the Tagore family and the other was the Singha family.
KM
The most famous member was Kali Prasanna Singha. He was a very important literate figure who wrote this Hutum Penchar Naksa thats now being re-edited and published. Some of these I can supplement with actual documentation later on if you wish. So, the Singha's then called Singhi-badi were very major Calcutta family. And you know, we were kayasthas [kayastha] . As with Brahmins, so with the Kayasthas', within the Kayastha samaj or the community there were two kinds of Kayasthas. One is abhijat, who were kind of the aristocratic kayasthas and householders, grihastha. This is been the place where we started the Sovabazar Rajbari, Sovabazar's Raja's of course and they were also kind of rivals to Tagore's and singha's were very important so my great grandfather married into Singha family and this was the lady who was called
KM
Majanani which means the great mother when she came to our house was the but point is my great grandfather apparently had a very quick temper incredibly kind of you know very proud as well as very sensitive apparently for some reason he was which offended by something which was probably was caused by something at the Singha house. He said he would never enter the house again and he gave his wife the ultimatum if you come with me with whatever you have you can come as my wife otherwise you have to stay with your parent's family. So she left her family and came to live with my, my great grandmother, Tipen Mitter. Tipen Mitter decided to move into business in the sense he founded a very successful building and architectural firm, so the blueprint would be give, provided by the English architect but basically he was in charge of quite a few of the public buildings in Calcutta.
KM
I will give you a couple of examples. One was the lieutenant Governor's house, residence which has now become National Library that was built by my great grandfather and the Central Jail which was also a very big project, the Senate House in Calcutta, these are the three I know, other side I don't know. He was obviously doing very well and he began to really establish himself you know I wouldn't say he didn't but he must have been very competent but it also I can't believe it was not also family connection you know naturally he was there... Anyway, apparently when the lieutenant Governor's house was completed in Alipur and he was invited by the governor to come and meet him but he apparently he refused to wear European cloths. He went to this in his cloths, you know, what he wore. It was kind of semi Mughal and semi... you know,
KM
the kind formal dress we had. We also had an oil painting of him smoking the... this kind of nargila , this kind of man of fashion. Oh yes when the lieutenant Governor's house was demolished to build the new all the fittings the lovely one's you know they were kind of discarded. He used a lot of them for the house he built for himself in Harish Mukherjee Road. So we had this wonderful wooden staircase which was called musical deck you see very lovely sort of sound and various other things too I believe also you see that he brought the house is very fine house which he built which is still there which but badly vandalized by my, I mean, this generation demolished in front of it. And beautiful parts are all kind of gone now.
KM
It was was a very elegant portico house, with these steps going up and then you had wooden doors and then glass doors and very lovely staircase going up and there were these oil paints I remember as a child of Kali Prasanna Singha this intellectual and literary figure as well as rather as a member of the house so probably my great grandfather's father-in-law Jadubendra Nath Singha. Anyway, so coming back to he began to build up his fortune and he actually was reputed to have bought up a very large part of Calcutta the very sort of prime areas but he died very young about 42 because being very strong headed big headed he had he wasn't well and he was to go out there was very strong sun in Calcutta and he was advised not to go out but he refused to do that and he went out and fell drop dead so he died quite young. Anyway the family was established and his business was taken over by my grandfather. Now, the other part of family that are related the collateral branch. Ramesh Mitter's two sons, one was B.C. Mitter, they were all knighted, so B.C. Mitter. It's an interesting colonial family plus also other aspects...
KM
Were they all ICS officers?
No, no I will come to that very eminent lawyers as well, I mean this whole range of things I will come to it, but I feel that if you look at a lot of them old Calcutta families they have this kind of perhaps ambivalent twin aspects. They were, they did work for the British but they were either ambivalent or either pro British or anti-British you know there were different. The attitudes there harbored but basically also very involved with Bengali culture and also because it was a colonial situation they knew that you know they were involved with the British,
KM
they were the masters so it was not always that simple thing. So BC Mitter and Lord Singha the 2 of them the most eminent, the most brilliant barristers in the Calcutta High Court and BC Mitter enough started to spending part of his year in England and that was done by a lot of people like Romeshda and so on. You know that there's another project going on all Indians contributed to Britain lot of interesting links here, coming and spending time here so Lord Singha's family, part of family was settled in England but BC Mitter actually went back back and forth, BC Mitter actually died also quite young when he was 50. His younger brother BC Mitter another lawyer, I think he quite rather did not have a very good reputation and the reason being that he was one of the signatories and one of the people who was involved with the Rowlatt act, Rowlatt report...
KM
...of the 1918?
Yes, and that was the it was against, I mean, it was investigating Ramesh Mitter's movement so he must have but anyway BC Mitter's was eminent lawyer they were both lawyers but I think BC Mitter's family was still one of them of course is my cousin Sanjoy Mitter who was professor at MIT, he just retired you must go and meet him he is very very nice, ok. I am a bit worried whether my voice...I mean when I lecture I am fine but it's just that...
KM
...would you like some...?
...So that's one interesting part of the family now, again the Mitters, and so that's what Mitters are and we had this village the village we were born you know still we were there until we...
KM
...owned by Dum Dum...
...yes still we had this big, you know, lands I mean there's this my grandfather, who was also very very, there was all kinds, they believed in elegance and leisurely life and all kind of good things in life you know. He created this wonderful orchard in 42 bighas, which is very large, I have to check the bighas very large garden of mango garden,
KM
of the choosiest mangos, special mangos brought over from Murshidabad but also other things, massive lobsters etc. But also this different members of the Mitter family you see our Mitter family is very specific, Ramesh Mitter, Tipen Mitter and so on. The other Mitters we are not related, B.L. Mitter, so that's important to stress that. So there we also had Durga Puja lots of things happened until my grandfather you know died. He was living in Bisnupur. There was this very little not toy, but very small train called Martin's train. The gardener would signal to the driver the train driver and he would stop, and they would often get on from our kind of back of the garden, it's interesting. Martin's train was with this kind of small, narrow gauge railways, very much local train from Bisnupur to Calcutta. It's not many miles, in fact, now it is become a big township, Rajarhat. It's all been sold off and...
KM
Anyway, so coming back to... now Mitter is one part of the family that where there is always this interrelations, always marrying within the certain number of family never marry outside that, you see. You see, it's a very snobbish I don't think it's a good thing and you should never marry a, in those days, school teacher or even a professor or you know, lets say, any other engineer. They would always marry with this old family either a lawyer or ICS. These were seen as very, you know, desirable thing. Within a colonial world ICS was very important, I mean, yes very prestigious. Anyway, so the Mitters. And this related to the Singhas, Kali Prasanna Singha. But there were other connections as well well my grandfather had 3 brothers, you know they were 3 brothers he married the daughter of a very eminent lawyer, the Alipur High... court, that the small court in Alipur.
KM
And his 2nd brother married I believe married into the Sovabazar Rajbari family, the 3rd brother I don't know also married to a very well connected family so that side of it now I might resume that's very later, but let me go back to, oh yes also as a child I remember my father's father very vaguely but he was very kind now as a person he died quite young. My mother's father died at 59, my father's father died at 62 - 63. But in those days age was a different thing. He used to love, I mean, I think we had the one first motor cars among the Indians in Calcutta among the you know ah few families which had cars, early twentieth century. We also had the telephone. I remember the number which for many years was South 518, interesting, that I remember. And he also used to loved to drive, you know driving this I forget...
...Say this horse used to carry but the thing is that this horse bolted and he fell of the horse and he was injured and actually that eventually killed him after a few years he had a very bad fall he was in the family that played the board, you know tennis and there was a tennis court just behind our house there was this open kind of field and various other things too and they always did that. Later I remember when I was 5 or 6 we had this chauffer, this driver of my grandfather called Kapil that also I remember actually when the new special hydraulic breaks came in, I must have been 13, my grandmother and Kapil was driving it was not his fault breaks failed and she fell forward and hit you know her face and that actually also led to her becoming ill in many ways, so interesting anecdote, and but anyway. My mother's side is interesting, the De family. One of the fellow's you might know is later on he,
KM
the De's were 6 brothers, the oldest brothers son was a very well known Sanskrit scholar Sushil Kumar De, S.K. De, you remember ok but youngest son was my grandfather B.C. De, who was an ICS and he was a Cambridge College, Downing College. His I just, his 2nd or 3rd brother was K.C. De, who was at St John's College Oxford. He was also an ICS but much older than him so he must have been ICS quite early on. We can always find the dates for my cousin but then Tipen Mitter I was talking to you about number of things he did. We were in an area we were neighbors distant neighbours of Asutosh Mukherjee this well-known educationist this family we knew each other and a kind of closeness as well as rivalries in some ways...
...its obvious anyway my great grandfather is quite interesting he and Asutosh Mukherjee and various other people decided to form this high school. It's called Mitra institution as we are Mitras and my great grandfather with Asutosh Mukherjee founded it and that's quite interesting and because of that this loyalty in many other ways we always went to school that was were we were educated. Now, my mother's side, yes. So all these brothers, the De, they came from Satpukur, that was again quite a wealthy family, the seven pond, pukur, Sapukur. Satpukur's still there it's also close to Dum Dum, although they did not know each other then. So my grandfather my mother's father married the lady, the woman, she was the daughter of Sir Bipin Krishna Bose. Now Bipin Krishna Bose was a very successful eminent lawyer in Nagpur, in central India. You know, Bengalis actually travel all over India, they took up posts.
KM
That is something which later on, became kind of, wasn't seen very kindly by local people. I don't blame them. They dominated the whole of imperial network, you know. So Bipin Krishna Bose was a lawyer, very eminent lawyer, he also founded the Nagpur University. He had a house, a wonderful house, grand house, that was turned into, or his family gave it to the city itself. I don't know either the university or library whatever. Bipin Krishna Bose was a friend of Gokhale's and he was attacked by Tilak you know, who was against the liberal, moderates. He was a moderate. He was very good, quite close friend with a man called Digby. He became very eminent Digby family English family and then the last kind of areas a friend of ours he is quite well known,
KM
a Persian and Urdu specialist, Simon Digby, so that was an interesting connection in Nagpur. Bipin Krishna's son was sent to England and there he met this woman who was also a student I believe and they got married and came back to Nagpur. You know Krishna had house in Calcutta as well but this was also Nagpur house was where he built up his profession you know often the case Bengalis are having obviously these both sides...
KM
...what's your relation to him...
Now Bipin Krishna was my mother's grandfather...
KM
Mother's grandfather OK
Now, from my mother's side so his son married this lady called Catherine and they had 3 children. The oldest is Vivian Bose this is the eminent judge and then you also had Ina who married a Muslim, Turk, which is very interesting, Kamal Faizi, and his son, Murad, I am very fond of him, Murad, still in Bombay although he is quite, he is getting on...
KM
...and in what around what time they were married?
I would say '30s and Vivian Bose and Ina and oh yes the 3rd daughter was Irenie. Irenie came back to England when Catherine came back to England after her husband died. Her husband died quite young but although she came back and she was in Brighton, she used to be my music teacher. Irenie also never married and she also used to teach and then she settled in Devon, Irenie... oh yes sorry one more thing, Vivian Bose married someone called Irene. It's getting complicated. Irene was daughter of someone named, Dr. John Mott, who I believe was the first or one of the first Nobel peace laureates. This has to be checked, I mean he definitely was one of first, Dr. John Mott. And that's why I believe his papers are in Cambridge, I mean in Cambridge, MA, rather than... check that.
KM
... that's right Mott's papers or Vivian's papers, I think Vivian's papers...
I think both, and yeah and little Murad who was just born so they all went on to this great trip from I suppose Punjab Lahore by car. It was a Chrysler all the way to London of course that cost a channel and they wrote a memo they kept a diary about how the proceeded a great wonderful adventure to the Middle East they went so that is with Murad, I believe, I haven't been able to get a copy of it.
KM
...now moving a little bit towards your, let's say, school days, before you entered Presidency what was the kind of culture of parasona , of learning?
Let me tell you, my, in some ways my school days everything has been very unconventional...
KM
...unconventional
Let, I will tell you why unconventional...
KM
...because you went to this high school?
My parent's were seen to be very good looking and they had a very hectic social life. My mother was a great beauty. My father also was very good looking you know going to this again back and forth. My father came to England to read at the bar...
KM
He was also a used to practice law?
Yes, and when he came his 3 other...his 2 other brothers decided to that if they were also very close and also you know typical old Calcutta family, they didn't call each other by name, they called each other meja-babu, seja-babu, you understand?
KM
by all these names...
yes bara-babu, meja-babu, dadu is oldest one so meja-babu used to be, my father was very very bright, and very good looking and they were all, later on you know, I will show you all the pictures...
KM
Yes , yes I would love to...
...So they said if meja-babu is going to England then we will go so apparently through some sort of ah,
KM
I don't know whether through they got hold of some money from my grandfather's bank and set sail for London and they also had a very close friend couple of doors away there was a very tall man called Datta, Purnendu Datta, but he was always called Datta sahib. Anyway, so they all came to England because meja-babu had gone and by the time they arrived my grandfather was a bit annoyed, they didn't tell him that they were going. I suspect that they got the money by telling the bank that they can draw money from the bank I don't know from my grandfather's account so the 3 brothers were in England in the late '20s and one other brother was really not like them and I must tell you why my father was very very clever but he also liked to spend a lot of time not studying but doing other things. Their younger brother the rest of the.., so let's see, my father was the 2nd brother 3rd, 4th they also went to Europe and from London they went to Germany. They actually studied in Germany they did engineering.
KM
In the 1920's?
My father said he saw Hitler at the station. He was not so famous just becoming, so he was there at the time I think things were happening were meant to start but 4th son , 5th son was really an academic he did not want to go with them he was a very good student, he did his degree in chemistry and then he went to London, he did his degree he eventually became in the government in the food laboratory but he had connection and he was a very different kind of person. Very serious I mean if not serious then he did not want to spend all his time you know doing things which a lot of rich boys do.
KM
My father, the first thing he did was to buy an MG, all the first MGs that came out and he used to be a very good driver and in his MG he traveled thousands of miles as far as Polar east but he used to go regularly to Vienna and I have a picture of an his MG he hoisted it up by the crane into a ferry, in those days only two cars used to go across.
KM
And this is when he was living in Germany?
No, sorry let me clarify, my father was reading for the bar in London, his 2 brothers went to Germany.
KM
he did not...
No, but he spent a large amount of time in Germany, I'm afraid, he did a lot of the time, and he, he loved driving. He had a lot of, I'm afraid, macho bravado... absolutely freezing conditions and he would have this open car and drive coming home later in the morning. One of those occasions he had a nearly fatal crash. What happened was apparently crossing at the cross roads, another motorcycle coming from other direction, went over him, hit his right hand and severed it, the man was thrown of the thing, they were taken to hospital. Apparently for 2 or 3 months my father did not gain consciousness he was very ill and the man rather the driver was a learner driver and he was fine and next day he died of internal hemorrhage.
Some people said because my father didn't like his drink I must say in those days it did not matter you know if you drove but the only thing is that I will tell you why I think it wasn't his fault when he came to anyway and then there was a court case of course and very interesting the lady the wife of this man gave evidence saying look I do not drink it is the young man's fault, my husband could not drive he was learning and I told him don't go out at night this was, can you imagine, very cold night frost on the ground you can skid he said he apparently skidded and she said that he is not to blame. My father was very fond of England this is the interesting thing, one thing he said, he never forgot the wonderful nobility of the heart of this women, she could have said that he killed my husband but she did say that, the second thing was his as he came to know they had to decide what he had to do oh yes with his right hand
KM
it had been severed it had been doctor gave option that he could either cut it from here, but he said you are young and life is ahead of you so what I will do I will use a new technique, how are we for time?... it up and it was perfect and my father he could never use his hand anymore but he was alright so he also said that his life was really saved by this doctor.
KM
And this happened when he was in college you said the was in his 20s?
Yes, yes
KM
In his late '20s?
Yes, and then also yes sorry and when he was alright he said lots of things happened he was quite actually you know this thing about Indians being light skinned I mean he was very light skin his mother was... he said he was quite dark after his accident hospital he became much lighter, it's interesting...
KM
...so even he had great fortune in that department...
I don't know about that and his hair had gone all curly and wavy apparently but anyway and when he came out of the hospital his MG was waiting there absolutely repainted and all that and he just drove off and you know anyway he had a great time in Europe traveling continuously traveling, I believe having girlfriends and driving and so on, he did his bar and it wasn't difficult, he was very clever, intellectually academically clever but he didn't take, it is an ambivalence in his whole life didn't take it seriously at the university. After 10 years my grandfather must be getting fed up and gave an ultimatum to his son's come back or I will cut off all your license because he supported all of them you know 4 son's they did not have anyway so my father did come back and the other brother's too so it's interesting story oh yes Datta sahib this friend of there also constant companion he was what he used to do was
KM
his allowance would come and he used to immediately go and spend that he used to enjoy go around really lauding it lets say do is 2 weeks at the most more or less was rest of the month he would spend time inside the room because milk and bread and other things cakes were supplied by the milkman in those days that he would not go out and that's interesting, stories like that escapades, sorry I mean, so this is the thing so my father would immediately moved into this very high, very social kind of...
KM
When he returned to Calcutta?
When I was very small and when he came back and then he married my mother because again this was a big thing my mother's family, old too marry into this old family wonderful, they were quite savvy. Really, the Mitter's of Bhavanipur and at the same time you know my mother was so accomplished lots of thing, my mother was a wonderful linguist. She later in life she picked up Polish, she could speak Polish fluently, but she had learned French and English literature. She belonged to a period where she was not allowed by my grandmother who was actually brought up by governess but he refused to let her daughter to go to University so her education was at home but with the highest thing with my mother tremendous not only knowledge, but also great interest in English poets and literature incredibly well read and it didn't matter because she had such wonderful tutors she was a very accomplished
KM
women she became a creative writer she became well-known as a very young women to write for Prabasi and she was and that was a very interesting feminist essay she wrote and she also very very wonderful singer of classical much, Indian, and she was taught by none other than Kazi Nazrul Islam, he was very close to the family very interesting. Nazrul wrote a poem on her birthday I have to trace that poem.
KM
And now the name of your mother?
Yes, Pushpa and Lata De and then Mitter
KM
And the name of your father?
Rabindranath Mitter, so on one hand my mother also did European violin, under someone named Mr. Saundre when she was small
KM
Was that a violinist living in Calcutta?
This was when her father was posted in Chinsurah , it's near Bengal. Mr. Saundre taught her,
KM
she went to a convent as a child so this is an interesting mixture of European and Indian. She had an amazing Bengali interest in Sanskrit I mean so she knew that aspect oh, this becomes anecdotal, but coming back to my grandfather B.C. De. He also had a number of languages. He read French, English of course, but he was a great Sankritist. You know because of his Sanskrit he gave judgment as a judge in Sanskrit and this was in connection with one of the cases to do with monastery, monasteries, you know, and the pandits of Pathpara, you know, they gave him the title Siddhanta Sindhu so this is very interesting and yet he read French and he was I believe he was also very interested in the erotic, it's interesting, and lots of other things I inherited his wonderful collection of massive library but I will tell you later how it happened, but also I think he was intended to write a critical biography of Marquis de Sade, which is very interesting...
KM
You mean to say he was interested...
...So there were so many different aspects...
KM
...Right fascinating...
...So on the one hand they were very versatile...
KM
...This was you the grandfather of your mother?
Yes my grandfather, B.C. De, I might tell you like B.C. De that may be simpler otherwise you will get confused B.C. De. Yes, very very interesting so many interesting... also I have asked my mother this was in the '30s or '40s he was an ICS but did European ICS refuse to meet him. I mean, you've read Foster. Europeans and Indians never mixed. It didn't happen any more at least why because he was the judge at the station, and any European either, other officials who came over there to meet him. So there were dinners there were meetings and he had dinners with wine and liqueur, all these things, he had a wonderful collection of liqueurs include Chartreuse and so on...
...He I believe might have been on a blue, but I'd have to look at the picture, so that's the sort of background, he was Indian as well as Western...
KM
When you say western you mean not only British but you know you mean European, I mean pan-European, the French?
They were great when I say great they were known to be by Europeans as well, great dancers. Waltz, which my father learnt in Vienna my mother, they were then taught, and of course there were then fashion clothes and my mother had at least 30 to 40 pair of shoes very high heels in those days I remember those little details. My father used to press every couple of nights I mean and his jacket but also special summer, he liked the sharkskin white rather than black. Very elegant but then they went to from one club to another.
KM
So was this the Bengal Club and the Tolly Club and the...
There was this very very old club, South Club, then, both my parents were very great tennis fans and they played tennis once my father broke his arm they couldn't play anymore. They used to ride as well, my mother used to ride and she played tennis her cousin, K.C.-da's son, wasn't a great player but he was a very good tennis player he came at Wimbledon not you know obviously very very far but South Club is my great venue I saw the greatest players you know Gonzales, Segura. I got a picture of Henri Cochet sitting next to my mother and you know everybody was there, the Maharani of Jaipur. I mean that's a very elegant club, the best club in Asia.
KM
Even today is it still?... But that was the age of its greatness...
After India became independent, Delhi decided to take away the club from Calcutta and that also destroy the club, it's not looked after like that. I have all these memories and pictures of these very great tennis players, very close friend of my mother's and my parents' and Berglin who was the teacher of Borg, came, he was a very good player, not as great as Borg. Berglin was... by my mother's great beauty but there was a little friction with my father, he didn't like that he... but, a lot of these things I remember. Wonderful, every winter we had this great championship, European players coming 1 or 2 world figures.
KM
And that was the major social space?
No starting with that and then they moved to Calcutta Club because other thing is that because my father's cousins had a lot of money, and they would then, they ended up in 300 Club. It's a famous club, as it were, biography has been published by a man called Boris, I have to check the detail, so that there you can find a very slice, Calcutta in those days, social set. So that's the kind of thing. I'm afraid, I saw my father having an hangover quite a few of the times and then he would get up and get ready for his club and so on... but it always was a conflict and he was very very intelligent, very bright, so when he started his bar you know sort of practicing,
KM
he stood against, this is only by, you know a junior, against Tej Satyen Sapru, who is a great figure and Sapru actually came and said, young man you know, very nice, but the problem with my father was he was distracted you know he was born with a silver spoon. It destroys you know all his potential were... because it's too tempting. He had this cousin, this cousin actually was the son of, this is going to complicate... if you remember my fathers mother was the daughter of Kailash Bose, of the Alipur High Court, his son, so when he died, this lawyer, enormous wealth came possession of... only 3 brothers and the youngest brother got a lot of money, immediately bought a 12 cylinder Buick...
...Because my father very good and loved driving and he would always say come on Baku, let's go and go here and there, and my mother being the young bride she felt a little bit cheated because he would go off with the men doing their things. Anyway, so he was doing starting his wasn't doing too badly but never serious but then something happened this is going fast forward in 1946, this is very interesting...
KM
Two years before you were born... (n.b. Partha Mitter was born in 1938)
No no, '46, just a, this is very important for all of us lot of Indians historically, '46 and '47 you know. My great first consciousness was this. Oh yes sorry, little bit going back. This fifth brother who was an academic, came back to India with a bride Irish woman, fait accompli, but my grandfather did not mind. She lived with the family but my third brother father's brother also fell in love with a German woman in Berlin, but he didn't marry her, but this fifth one married and came back so that was interesting. They had a son, Anil, and I just remember that period, when my grandfather was alive, this was my father's father, and Anil was there and my other cousins. This is a big house all the brother's lived together. So lots of cousins you know very interesting also brought up because as I was the only child as I didn't feel this because all these cousins were, you know, I had two cousins who were very close to me as sisters.
KM
One is slightly older, I am still very fond of her, one of the closest, and another who died. I was really heartbroken when she died. Now that I remember. I was telling you about childhood memories. Park Circus and this little bit about that period. Anil was there. Sadly,
KM
Anil who was half Irish...
Son of the Irish but unfortunately they separated, divorced and he was taken away, well, what happened was this Irish lady she was called, Irenie, she married a Muslim,
KM
and they brought up the child sadly after many years, a few years ago, Anil when he was he wanted to meet his family and my uncle got so angry with this I don't know he didn't see him either. I feel very sad as well so I never got to see him again but then he left for Australia and I've lost track, and I've never met him.
KM
But you were very close to him when he was a child?
Also I wanted him to meet the family but my uncle married again and had other children...
KM
Started a new family... shall we take one break...
Yeah, I think we should.
What made me that's the thing?
KM
Yes, absolutely because actually I have this vision of you, you being a part of this social life in Calcutta, but what moved you towards...
I can tell you why I became a cosmopolitan, so that's the bit we need to... we'll start in a minute?
KM
Sure, yeah...
So, I was, no it's a bit rambling, so I hope you can make sense of it...
KM
Yes, very good...
You know, so until about '46 era, I thought I was living in a dream some sort of period, wonderful, both houses, everywhere, and being the only child, I mean, also, obviously my parents were very fond of me but mother did not have to look after me so we had a lovely nurse. She died rather sadly,I was very fond of her, she brought me up, but I had a lot of freedom because my parents were away, I mean, out a lot of time so that's interesting in a way.
KM
'46 was the big thing which made me a cosmopolitan and also which made me what actually, I like, I think of why is it that eventually I worked the way I did, I mean, for instance, I started a course in racism in 1974 in Sussex. This is before Said or anybody else. Why is it that I kind of deeply the kind of committed to anti-racism committed, I mean I was so worked, I was so... I hated prejudice and I had like to think back into why is this you see because I was very interested and I read so much about the Holocaust and so on... In India it is very difficult, it is so distant yet I always made me so angry and the kind of shocking thing about it and it seems I have always been very concerned about this thing about a lot of prejudice but racism and all these things. Of course, one wouldn't understand, I didn't understand the whole implication naturally. '46, I think 15th of August, suddenly you heard Suhrawardy had declared a direct action.
KM
I remember, sort of 7 or 8, if you to calculate '38, I remember that about 5 in the afternoon in the radio they started talking about things getting very difficult the riots breaking out all over Calcutta. I remember that and everybody was very tense very worried, what's going to happen you see...
KM
You were living in north Calcutta?
No, my house is in South Calcutta Harish Mukherjee Road. It's just going on from Victoria Memorial, in the straight road now the house is ruined 30th or 50th ... it used to be beautiful, avenue.
KM
It's a mile from Victoria Memorial... South Calcutta it All-Hindu area, but there was lot of worry and lot of things and of course my mother's family, B.C. De's family, by the way B.C. De died in about 1942 or something quite young of cancer. He never lit a cigarette with a match. It was one cigarette after another sadly he did not know that cigarettes can kill. Interesting. He didn't drinking a lot, he did, you know, social drinking, you know, wines etc. He did smoke an enormous amount. It's also loneliness because my grandmother decided to live in Calcutta to bring up the children, and he lived you know being transferred from area to area on his own, and I had a little fragment in his diary, very sad, anyway. He fainted one time, apparently, he was playing tennis and then had massive pneumonia and then eventually it was found out to be inoperable, lung cancer and he died.
KM
Anyway, he was very popular and although he was an ICS, he did feel much more for the Indians and also the politicians and terrorists as well. He is known to have let off some of the revolutionaries and then that went against him. Lot's of reasons he was never promoted to Calcutta High Court yet his cousin was promoted because his family had serviced the Raj, but anyways the house was in the Muslim area anyway so it started in the afternoon and then the first thing which I have never forgotten, as you know Hindus began to kind of, ah, formalize, all areas had Hindus and Muslims mixed up, I remember the Hindu mob bringing out I mean really dragging out one woman and child. They were beaten to death in front of me. I never forgot that. That's really revolting what people can do. They can be absolutely like animals. And that's a small child. That deeply affected me.
KM
Were you watching from inside your home, from the balcony looking from the window?
Yes, they were brought out of the little lanes where I lived. It's not entirely me I have to say my parents were socialite, they were very talented people. Perhaps my father could have achieved a little more, but one thing I learned from them was you must have an open mind. Now this time in '46 my father was appointed the food commissioner of the government, I believe of India, and certain in the Calcutta region, and this was a very important at that time simply because of those post-famine tremendous wartime scarcity, and so it's a very responsible... because people were stealing like anything, the other thing I have much to say, it's not that much to say, my father was incredibly honest he could never be corrupted and,
KM
that I thought, at least I don't know whether I would have been able to do it, but certainly.... But he had tempted a number of times perhaps he didn't need the money, I don't know, at least he didn't, ever succumb. Anyway my father became the commissioner at Howrah and Howrah at that time was absolutely, you know, ripe with riots, you know not only riots but gangs. Hindu, Muslim gangs, all sorts of gangs but absolutely dreadful, so governments said you have to for protection, carry gun. But my father replied that if I carry gun, I am more likely to be killed so he refused to carry, so he refused to have any weapons. The funny story is that Howrah was dominated by 2 gangs. The gangs were led by father and son. And they denied that they were related, they never admitted that they were father and son but they were absolutely, totally devoted to my father. You know, it's touching and so wonderful.
KM
My father realized that moment this that day when the riots started we had some very poor Muslims living in our house who used to work for us. What he did was to put them inside the car and took under cover and smuggled them out of our Hindu area, and left them in the Muslim area. When he came back word got around and 100s attacked our house. The house had twin gates and they started to throw stones and they said go and get confined in the house...
KM
And you were inside?
Yes, again the 4, 6 brothers of which my father and 1 other brother very brave, stood there behind the gate, others were terrified but they didn't do anything they were inside. It went like you are Muslim lovers, we are going to kill you and if you tell the police, you inform then we set fire you see from the balcony anybody could set fire. Luckily one of the friends, relations ...
This friend was very high up in the Congress and came and decided to intervene. They said, look, I know that this has happened but let us compromise. Then the mob well, ok, they said you have to pay compensation and open your house to the refugees who were coming from East Bengal. I didn't realize the whole thing. I loved it because so many people in the house. In fact, we never had that sort of people came inside the house because all those kind of I remember that a few refugees had temporary accommodation downstairs in another part of the house. But you know that I remember, but my father did that and they stood their ground and that gave me tremendous, others probably had done this too. But he never was a coward and said look he's Muslim after all. What is the matter he didn't do that. Also the thing is that they were very cosmopolitan in the sense they had faith they had a very spiritual they had a kind of very loose open kind of religion my father more than my mother.
KM
One thing I remember my father I've never when I was small had anything to do with caste, I mean I know caste always is there, and my father never I remember never cared never, you know, and in any case my family was very remote, they'd never eat outside anywhere you know. You would go to marriage kind of invitation but they'd never eat there and so, this kind of, perhaps its snobbish, I don't know, they'd never... But so my father never ever bothered about case so I wasn't very exposed to caste I will tell you later what happened but anyway so we saw that but also they had very close friends, very aristocratic Muslims, very famous, there were several.... One of the famous tennis players, one of the best ones before Krishnan, Ghaus Mohammed, and the other one was Irshad Husein. Now they used to give big parties of course. And we were not allowed.
KM
As children I was not allowed to be taken anywhere so I used to feel resentful, you know, and they had to throw this big party you know in our house and from upstairs we would be watching these people coming and my mother was a great cook you know. Ghaus Mohammed was Muslim and said, Mrs. Mitter your murg mussala is the kind of Muslim... I never had it... I think he's right, because she was a great cook. And Irshad Husein very close to my parents. After the first riot this was in 1946, they came to our area which was very brave for Id, this wonderful solidarity, just too also tell you about the '40s my parents because they moved in this high social set they had lot of also friends most Muslims apart from Europeans also English and American officers. So one of the officers invited them to America, afterwards, but I will come to this
KM
A military officer...?
...He was, a lieutentant Colonel, a middle range officer. They were all stationed in Calcutta so going back to this, so this happened and this side of the story from my father's side. B.C. De, you know, the Park Circus house, it was a marked house because it was so well known it had beautiful objects, it was all known. So, the Muslim mob with instigation from some leaders decided to attack it and so they did that and my uncle about 20, 24 or 25 and my aunt was very beautiful, 17 or 18, with a little baby, and my grandmother nobody else was there, they attacked the house and they wanted to attack them as well and you know they might have been killed. They had a, after my grandfather died they had a tenant who lived downstairs, called Shanti Lal who was a Punjabi but he was brought up in, I believe, in Lahore. So he knew Muslims rituals like the nawaz, the kalma, the Quranic verses. So when the mob ran over the house he said, "look this is my aunt, this is my sister my brother so you are not going to touch them"...
"You are not a Muslim". He said, "no, I am a Muslim, let me read the kalma". He read the Qu'ran. He knew it, so they were a bit, you know, being ignorant. So they let them go, because they could have certainly raped my aunt and so on... This was a horrific thing and we did not know anything about it whilst it was going on, and then they came out of the house and apparently my grandmother, my mother's mother, fluent in English, widow of an ICS, she sat on the pavement where other women for more than half a day. I think, you know, not a single army truck picked them up. You know this is the thing about history, we read history from different historian's viewpoint. I remember hardly that anything was done by the English. They wanted them to kill each other. This was very interesting, so after a long time eventually, some Gurkha, one of the officers rescued them and brought them to Hindu area to K.C. De's house, on Gokul road, this is very big house you must go and meet my cousin when you come the next time. See there house, very beautiful, it's still there. So there house then was set on fire...
KM
After they had left... they were outside?
Yes, they were outside and while this mob was rampaging the whole house, they first set fire to things. They destroyed and then all his books they couldn't burn all of them, they put them in and immersed in the water, so systematic, so that was a sad thing a lot of his library. I got only little bits and pieces, actually very interesting, and so extraordinary. Actually I will tell you a little story, Much Maligned Monsters, I don't know if you know the book, in the second chapter I talk about this piece of erotic art found in first object in Britain, Richard Payne Knight.
KM
I found a fragment of book where the same thing was mentioned and it was so very extraordinary because I have been tracing how this had been used in Britain because I couldn't find rest of the things, that was very interesting. Anyway I told you he had an interest in erotic, lot of you know sort of collect anyway so these 2 things happened. Eventually my mother's family survived, but the house was write-off, they could never live there it was sold off. And then lots of reason they fell into really its sad that after such a house that they lived and they led a very very..
KM
Your mother's side?
...Yes sad, and my uncle never complained his nobility, his wife was my aunt. Never complained, they came from a very distinct family, but hardly could make ends meet but anyways, you know, he was professor in Jadavpur University
KM
In what subject?
No sorry
KM
In what subject?
Yes, Organic Chemistry, and eventually he left with his children for Pasadena, and the last years of his life, he's happy and away from all these things and also left before the Naxalite thing happened. Anyway that was the riot you see why it made me, so to always never pander to any prejudice. I don't know whether I'd be able to do it, that way I will sound very pompous, and that is my ideal. You see Amartya [Amartya en] also talks about why he also felt he has to fight prejudice. There are some parallels, not entirely. He always felt after the riots and so on. But my father was then working for this Food Commissioner and apparently he was very successful.
KM
If he had this kind of thing where he could arbitrate and do things he was absolutely brilliant. This was a limited thing and he was very well paid, having his family property this was his extra lot of money so he had to decide what to do. Was he going to buy really one of the very expensive cars, his friend again his childhood friend, they had to some a very expensive car, sort of typical of that period, it will come back to me. Anyway, so anyway either that or go on a world cruise, go on a world tour on a cruise and because they also loved traveling so they decided on the latter...
KM
Did you come?
On the world cruise and my father said I wouldn't take my son because then all the fun is gone, you will be having parties, you can be doing things and my mother said no, I would not go without him so my father had to give in. So it was very good. I was taken along with them, and they were first invited by this very nice man, Charlie Beard, who was an officer in the army and they invited them to Atlanta, Georgia to come and stay with them. Anyway, so that's how they planned it. So we took the boat from Bombay to, via Colombo, Singapore Hong Kong and then on to San Francisco, and I remember this whole trip was amazing, magical. Singapore, I remember, Hong Kong, I remember, Shanghai, but Shanghai was terrible, dangerous and you know that was 1947.
KM
That Indian students for a tour, female rickshaw drivers robbed them of everything. Was just absolute chaos imagine just before the revolution. So all through went and number of things happened. I became mascot of the people traveling on the boat including lots of Americans, you know, Americans loved to at that time they used to be absolutely and so I became the mascot. My parents had the kind of adult life so and I remember that I used to be always with them, they kind of humor me. European music, now that I mentioned that my parents danced. They were, they listened to European music but my mother was a great classical Indian singer so they both... I saw a film called, The Great Waltz, this is Strauss' life. It is a very old film. I watched it with all this GIs and I found this soprano singing hilarious and I could not help giggling all through and my parents were a bit embarrassed,
KM
gosh, I used to be totally uninhibited a little child I would do anything I liked, say anything I liked. I wasn't used to speaking English but I didn't care what I said so I found this so funny that opera. Just to tell you when we left New York on the boat to Great Britain, to London, I saw another film that is there was one episode of the whale singing operas and I fell in love with it so what a transformation in 10 months.
KM
Opera?
That became a life long love and everything opera. European music and Indian music too, but I got obsessed with European singing. I listen to BBC 3 since 1962 to till now, only 1 station. Anyway I have great interest, and that interest eventually linked me up with Satyajit Ray, I will come to that...
KM
Was it about the...
The first thing that I found out was so strange and then I found it was so wonderful. Anyway, while I was going on this boat called Marine Adder, it was converted ship. You know in those days it was difficult,
KM
when my parents decide to go to America, foreign exchange documents were limited in supply in India but my father, because of his connections, was able to get enough but they couldn't travel the way they wanted to you know higher class. Although it was very good cabin very decent cost but not the kind of, you know, but it didn't matter you know. My father was very good at housekeeping money he managed to make that money the dollars he got, very small amount from the government to stretch all the way and we spent a lot of it so. The day we were leaving for Bombay from the Howrah station to catch the boat just want to tell you I am not exaggerating over 100 people came to see my parents off because they were very well known those 2 gundas who you know the father and son they came as well and they were so, you know, that they were going wonderful
KM
you know and the whole train was full of flowers and everything great to send off they always lived like this royal, they had this kind of aura because they were very good looking and they were very good cultured in those days. There were these social tensions and, you see, a few Indians exotic, you see, so they always had that you know very light skin and that also helped because in they were in Atlanta, for instance. So we arrived in San Francisco, they as usual they spend nights and I too in any case I had a different life in the boat which I loved and apparently I remember going to the Golden Gate Bridge in the early dawn and it was absolutely magical. We arrived in San Francisco and spent some time and then we went from San Fransisco to Los Angeles, there they had number of friends to contact and then they actually visited Hollywood, and the friends said look we are going to call you the maharaja of Bhavanipur.
KM
It was funny and they went Hollywood and they also went to this famous nightclub, Front End Gardens, I have all this little pictures. Anyway and my mother's birthday and then focus the light on her lots of things. They loved also jazz,Tommy Dorsey they saw, they were very very keen. Father, I told you, great dancer, I mean, jitterbug those days, an earlier form for that I told you they were great dancers in the earlier form, this is the pre- Rock & Roll era. So they had a great time in Los Angeles, great time but also my father had drinking damage my mother didn't like so much, but lots of things we did. The other thing is naughty now a days. I always left behind, friends, in friends house also dogs looking after me. I used to love dogs and there were these 2 very big dogs who used to look after me in Los Angeles, I remember, and they would go off. And we went from Los Angeles by train, in those days trains very beautiful trains. Noon daylight express, I remember, all the way through Pacific Coast, San Francisco, Los Angeles. Tell me how we are doing about time ...
KM
Well it's 12.30 but I am fine, but can we keep going? Let's keep going...
OK let's go a bit further and then on to, when we arrived in Atlanta we stayed with Charlie, and then came we were interviewed in the newspapers, very interesting, and they said, "what does sunny boy like", I said...
KM
They called you sunny boy?
...Yes, "Milkshake and funny books", in other words comics, great comics and very interesting education.
KM
I loved comics as well as milkshakes of course and yes I mean, this milkshake thing it went from San Francisco, there was this pretty young woman who used to serve milkshake, my favorite. But in Atlanta my parents were conscious that for instance as soon as you know the train was entering Atlanta my father met an Afro-American, as soon as he entered, he moved away and he just could not speak to him anymore, it was interesting, he knew of course...
KM
In Atlanta it was segregated in 1947 and there was very little interaction...
Any single argument you see my parents asked Charles, Charles was very fond of...
KM
Who was Charles, this is Charles Beard?
Yes, he would ask, "Why Charlie, you have this sort of prejudice, but look Puspa, Robin, look I don't have any prejudice against you, I mean, I drink of your glass but you know they have been our slaves". This is typical but you couldn't realize underneath such seething thing... American '47 was really idyllic for a child, wonderful everything. The magazines and all those things, amazing, and yet underneath and eventually erupted within a few years. My parents were kind of not surprised..
KM
...and they never experienced any racialized... ah, racism?
No, because for some reason too exotic, too good-looking, too... you know, it was so never, because the newspapers it was splashed across about Robindra, Pushpa and then sunny boy visiting Atlanta and all the thing about what all I liked and my mother used to wear these gorgeous gold saris, I have some pictures.
KM
Do you have that cut out from the newspaper?
I have to find it. Yes, I do and you know the other thing they found they met a lot of had a lot of, not only so-called Anglo-Saxon, but also Jewish friends and they found that the Jews, you know, there was such a lot of prejudiced.
KM
Some of them did not admit that they were Jewish, you know, which is very interesting things were so different those days I mean even the Jews were not at all... I think we met for instance, Sarah Neumeyer, who was, Dick Neumayer was their friend. Sarah Neumayer was one of the first curators of MoMa, in fact my mother stood, she said, probably next to Rodin at the MoMa, and that's the impression I remember... when we visited Moma because we were showed around by Sarah Neumayer. You know when I came back in the '70s she was still alive, I don't know why I didn't go and see her, it's a pity.
KM
Do you think part of the your facility with your visual texts, understanding things visually, do you think relates to comics books?
Well, yes, I probably like drawing in 1947, in America I started drawing very seriously, you know I draw, I paint that's my other side and this is the side you will hear and I started and I used to illustrate stories and that's how my whole arts started and then at 16 I wanted to be an artist. I wasn't academic at all. I'll come to this. So yes, these are the changes and someone made me...which is amazing. Such transformation...so different. I used to draw and draw and draw. And so Sarah Neumayer, my parents met MoMa, and this Florentine gardens... ...all these were great glamorous things and they loved that. And so parties, drinks and social things. And then from Atlanta came to Washington where we didn't know many people. There and then moved to New York. They met some people... and then they took the Queen Mary...Queen Mary was the fastest 36, I think, knots. And then went on for 5 nights....
KM
i was sick many times and I was out with other children. My parents never slept at night, danced every single night. And my father was a very good sailor and he never got sea sick so he could do things other's couldn't. Very interesting. And then we went to England and it was in an awful state because it was the end of war. But my father brought my mother to show England because he was so fond of England. You know, I told you he wanted to settle in England. Because he found it so wonderful in not just one thing but a lot of things. But it was so awful, my mother hated it. Contrast with America, all affluence, all easy and everything so beautifully done, material etc. and then we came back after a month, because we could not go to the Continent because of the post war and we took the boat back to India, Bombay.
KM
How did you travel, do you remember?
From Bombay to San Francisco was Marine Adder, from from New York to London was Queen Mary and then from London to ...not London sorry, from Southhampton to Bombay was to the City of Hong Kong, small, one class boat, quite very nice, affluent, quite lovely boat. Then again all these things the children and adults were segregated. Ahmed Ali was Ahmed Ali who was then the later Prime Minister of Pakistan. Ahmed Ali from Calcutta used to play bridge with my parents and we they had their whole group there
KM
And how old were you then?
I by that time would be about 9 by the time we came back
KM
So this was the year right after 46, this was 47
Yes, we missed the Independence celebration as we were in America at that time. It's a pity my parents felt a little sad but yeah, so that's the basis or background.
KM
OK to tell you very quickly, I mean, for me my parents friends people I got on better with would have been probably in English-medium school, the kind of so-called Public Schools in England, but they didn't want to because they had this thing about Indianness, Indianness, they didn't like me to become, in that sense.... Our school probably was but I hated it. I found it very claustrophobic. I wasn't... I did well sporadically but I wasn't a good student. At one time I was very bad because I wasn't doing anything, any work I hated it.
KM
This was Bengali medium school?
Yes, I can say one thing was the good thing was that it gave me the crowning in Bengali
KM
which wouldn't have happened if I would have gone to a English school, so in retrospect I am very grateful. So I don't think I have any problem with either English or Bengali. Some of my friends they really don't read Bengali you see, I can. Of course this was part of my, my parents were very keen. On the one hand they were very westernized the way my father dressed up you know he used to wear the jacket very nicely and used to go out and so on but on the other hand he believed strongly...
KM
And your mother was a great, a very learned figure very learned in Bengali...
Yes, a very learned figure and she could dress absolutely like a traditional Bengali bride, everybody knew that and...
KM
Did your father also, did he ever dress, you know, in the Indian style
All the time...
KM
At home, he would?
No, no, even in weddings and so on
KM
In the Indian style
Of course
KM
Really
He loved it
KM
So they were both
Yes they had no problems, they were a very easy life. They really didn't face prejudice, but I must tell you, my father said that didn't mean there was no prejudice and racism.
KM
Particularly from the British?
As students generally, he didn't but of course, yes come in...
KM
OK so this is the 2nd session of this oral history with Partha Mitter and this is June 18th, and we will continue. Now, so before we had lunch we spoke, you were speaking about 1946, 1947 and this trip to America and then return to India and also the... oh we were getting into speaking about your school life and these years that you were studying on your own and beginning to paint. So let's start with and go back to...
1947, in many ways was important both for riots for America, it changed me but also it was the beginning of decline of my family. It's quite interesting, my family very much prominent, but after independence lots of reasons it had begun to decline.
KM
The Mitter family?
Yes, our branch and lot of reasons, my father's father died quite young, I told you, all the brothers they were there. But you see my father had then begun to have lots of problems. He used to smoke a lot as much with a lighter and one day he gave up totally and that would never smoke again which was a good thing and he used to get a lot of vertigo and other things. That's when we had come to Benaras and he recovered and then he was given some very great opportunities, it wasn't his fault you know something went wrong, in India things go wrong... and he didn't achieve, and kept getting even more depressed, and then we were in decline.
KM
Great thing in my life was the tragedy of my little cousin who was a little bit younger than me. At 14, she had, this was a botched operation of appendix and she died and this actually shattered her parents. My aunt really literary went mad when she left home... not to enter again, for 3 or 4 years exiled and lived in Benaras. The girl's father before that, he used to be kind of lots of things, I mean he. They often got obsessed when they started this tennis table Club and playing and playing and obsessed and then health broke down and then money declined in the sense, I am not saying, I mean of course our classes should be taxed, it's absolutely, but somehow they couldn't manage the property and everything was sold for a song. They just didn't have any interest and gradually everything sort of began to go in this decline...
KM
It was from your teens into your 20s?
This would be from about it should be from 1948 to 1954 and also my great period of happiness was over. I was growing up and school was happening all these things you know made me very deeply, I suppose, insecure and perhaps one could say that. I hope I am not too faint in talking...
KM
No, its...
And then, you know, I withdrew into myself and my whole world was the world of the mind at home. I loved that refuge music, painting, books, the house also I loved it, but school I hated going and sometimes I did very well. But for all sorts of reasons began to really not be interested in schooling so eventually I started to read. I said about the war shed, so this is whole decline of the family in the post-independence but then systematic government policies and the road, Harish Mukherjee Road, was very leafy the Avenue was filled with a lot of mansions it was totally destroyed systematically by the government one after the other particularly eventually by the CPM Government not by the Congress too. They re-routed, they routed buses through our street, absolutely ruining things, it became unbearably noisy...
Awful, many years it was so awful, when they built the house they could imagine that this would happen. So this is all part of the decline of a colonial family.
KM
What did your mother experience, how did she feel about this?
She could not fulfill herself. As a woman who is so talented, extraordinary she never fulfilled. Later she was deeply that was very sad..., whenever she went out and met people in the environment she loved that as well so did my father, they were happy, otherwise deeply, felt deeply kind of deep depression.
KM
All this you know had an impact on me but it also made me very introspective. A friend of mean, I don't know, for some reason when he met me, this is a Scottish man, he didn't know my background, I reminded him of Hanno, is it Hanno in Buddenbrooks? At the end of the whole culture...
KM
The end of a family.
Yes, and I loved the novel, perhaps that's the thing that also made me so intense. At the end of school-leaving times, also I have to say if you don't conform, other children persecute you...
KM
Meaning at school, particularly at school...
Yes, only at school, nowhere else in school and see they didn't understand me. If said I had been on the Queen Mary, they said you're lying, Queen Mary was suck by the the Germans, rubbish, they had no idea. And they all kind of made fun and it was a very lower-middle class school there were some obviously from families but basically lower-middle class. My parents, my father drank or to clubs and things, they discovered and made me even more kind of insecure. I just had to hide, tried to but I couldn't. That's why, I feel, Swasti you've met, she said perhaps if you would have gone to an English-medium school you would have been happier because that was my background. Anyway it didn't happen and eventually, oh yes, this kind of life, we went to Benaras because my father was very ill and we were given time we were there a very close friend had a wonderful house on the river just on the Ghats. You have been to Benaras?
KM
I have never been to Benaras.
Lovely on the ghats, so I used to sit there and draw, main thing I remember that was a change. On the Ghats they played sanai, and the Ragini Kedara Raga this sanai played. My mother being this sort of ustad in classical music, I mean I loved it, told me what it was, and that was the beginning for my love for Indian classical music. So that is the beginning of my love for the Indian Classical music but later on my mother. I am very unmusical since I am very good at playing the record player, music system but not, you know, but she taught me to recognize the ragas. She used to take the musical instrument and show me and sing. She had an amazing voice you see sadly nothing was recorded.
KM
Once she sang for All India Radio but under an assumed name because her mother would have killed her if she knew that a respectable woman going and singing, she would not get married you see. So that was beginning of my love for Indian classical music but then the other thing was of course European classical music, opera and, you know, in America I used to read the Life magazine and there were quite a few issues. Later on reading I remember they were there when this McCarthy trial was going on with Humphrey Bogart and so on, they were great film fans and they loved Bogart I had that later on, and another thing Life magazine had em an article on Don Giovanni, and I loved it and of course, gradually, I became very very interested in Mozart but then other things, you know, Mozard and so on and I began to develop great various, obsessive, I mean really interesting ...
European classical music, different conductors, different singers, I knew...
KM
How did that manifest itself... you would be listening to records at home...
You see that was the colonial experience. Reproductions of art. I have been writing about this thing what you call this virtual thing, I mentioned, but what created the virtuality, definitely right from Rabindranath Tagore from almost everyone used reproductions for their art. Music too very much you learn through records and one of my very close friends in descendent of Tagore family, Surenda debi, this painter her grandson, Kisor.
KM
He has amazing knowledge of European music, BBC 3 once interviewed, asked in their program, but you see totally not totally largely on the basis of recording. This is not only confined to India but kind of world including Australia, New Zealand. What you had is records, that's how you formed your taste but then occasionally if you are lucky went on to meet musicians because I saw very very rare occasion my mother and I were particularly very keen saw Menuhin. Menuhin came for the first time and we of course knew him and his work. He played Bach's Partitas. I remember going to hear see him, concert.... I call it the repeatability reproduction and replication that is very important to the colonial world. But anyway I saw Menuhin the first time he came. Of course, he was thrilling and I knew his work.
KM
He found India music very strange and he said... I find it really strange at first, boring, repetitive, I don't understand. Very nicely he said but he came the year after, two years after, we went to hear him again and he said he absolutely loved Indian music. You know the whole story of him and Ravi Shankar.
KM
And you saw all this while in India, Calcutta?
On occasions yes
KM
And they would come?
Yes, I saw these 2 screenings...
KM
While you were still at the Bengali medium school?
Yes, at the Mitra institution, so it reached a stage that the it's quite interesting, all the school friends they always thought of me as bizarre and strange and all kind of great admirers of me now. Two days ago said he was absolutely thrilled by my work... oh god.
KM
Many things to live in
Absolutely, and '54 I left school, long time ago Kris, and I met them last year, how many years...
KM
For a reunion then?
Yes, reluctant but then once I met them I enjoyed but because I still have the resentment but then it is alright. It was very nice, they were very very, I had this lecture in Calcutta, there were about 300 people.
KM
They were quite stunned they didn't realize that... So, anyway, that time I began to do badly and I used to paint very seriously, so my parents although my father wanted me to go to Cambridge or you know the, but actually, I was painting my father wasn't very keen but also he was very reasonable. My mother was very keen on me becoming a painter so said OK, alright, if you really want to why didn't you tell me. And so that's the time my uncle, this is the Park Circus, my mother's brother De, he was in School with Satyajit Ray, so schoolmate very close friend so he said well I will take you to see somebody. An artist, very interesting, that's all he knew that he was a commercial artist and he will give you advice whether to go to painting so that's, I went to see him. Just a year before Pather Panchali was released,
KM
he was very young and he was really a man of my heart. I go into this very small flat, you know he came from a very distinguished family, zamindar and all those things, his grandfather lost all his money, his father died very young. He was brought up by his uncles but he was absolutely starry. He was very intellectual. I will come to the mentoring thing. In this little flat, this apartment, I used to read film magazines, opera magazines, everything I could lay my hands on...
KM
All of these in his home?
A lot of them strewn around and tremendous buzz going on what beauty, you know when he was completing his film
KM
this was to be Pather Panchali the very first and I was very shy but sure he was very tall about 6, even more than 6, must be very large, very amazingly powerful and wonderful and very handsome. I was also very tall, as well, the other thing I was so tall, Bengalis you know are not very tall and they used to tease me you know. Dhenga is the word for...
KM
For a tall man?
Compliment, later on I heard that Satyajit used to be called dhenga. Anyways we talked about paintings and yes he encouraged me, he saw my work and he liked it very much. At that time a lot of people liked it very much they thought I had a lot promise and I was deeply interested in painting.
KM
Actual, a that time when I was 14, the very expression is very powerful, very neurotic and obviously my kind of whole mind was pouring out in the paintin and he said yes, and while I was looking at I was inspired by somebody, Meera Mukherjee, the sculptors husband who was very close friend of mine, he said why don't you use newspapers and other piece of papers, use scrap papers to draw and I used to draw large, and I used to draw of one side and the other side often many things written, I used to annotate different conductors you Toscanini, Furchtwangler, Weingartner, comparative merits or things like that. Satyajit turned round, I don't know why, and he said very interesting, are you interested in music, he said what do you like? And we started talking of Mozart of course. One of his great loves and he uses that in Charulata and, in fact, we chased records right through Calcutta because you know we could because of export restrictions
KM
only few would come into the market and we would just go for them and Satyajit Ray's also great kind of quest and I used to do that, same kind of thing, we all did but you know he was very exited and you know that was the beginning of the sort of friendship. He was such a great man, I am not saying but you know also there were some things that I did not see much. He was a man of deep, I met a few great people who, some of them I think have influenced me not all but with Satyajit again, I am a great film buff not just Satyajit Ray but lots of world's great film very interested and judging by the style, I found him very very very good, very great, I never been sick of him and I never told him this and he also respected me and I saw him on occasions and he would ask me about films in Britain going on so there was that bond, interesting I have written about that but then you see...
...turned to be a painter. I had other painters that I had met. Ram Kumar, my old friend; he is now very famous Indian painter... lots of other ones. And I decided to join Arts School. Two things happened; one is that I went to the Arts School, I found it to be extremely un-intellectual. I am not talking about academically, absolutely dead meat. And I was a bit disheartened. Meanwhile my uncle, this is the Organic Chemist, he had been to Presidency College. Everybody had been to Presidency College. My grandfather had been...I mean, in Calcutta, as you know, Presidency College is the thing. You go there or you go somewhere else. And so this... we had this school finals... which is kind of the same as school leaving graduation... I mean, it wasn't my fault but I did very well which I wasn't expecting ... did very well and my uncle said ...look you can always paint...this is always the wrong thing... and I also felt a little disheartened by Arts Schools and applied for Presidency College. Out of 100,000 boys and girls ... a larger number at that point in time only 120 got into Presidency College. It was very exclusive. It was entirely merit... and I was very pleased.
KM
Yes. And what year was it?
It was in 1954.
KM
1954 is when you started at Presidency.
But Presidency College was wonderful. Not only the teachers not so much as the teachers but for the people I met. Two of my dearest friends both dead at a very young age which is very sad were from Presidency College.
KM
Who are they?
One was very nice ... my contemporary...Alok Bhattacharya. He is very average good student at Presidency college... and we became very good friends. The other one was very, very bright ... very interesting... unusual mind, a man called Surajit Sen, who was actually a contemporary of Gayatri Spivak. Gayatri, I must say she was very bright. She got the first and he got the second. Although he would get first class as a sort of topper but you still have this... he missed that, you know. But Gayatri was very, very bright. There was no question about that.
KM
She was also in your class?
Just one year earlier. But we were semi-contemporary. But I had known her for a very long time. You know Surajit had an amazing mind. Analysis of films and literature. Absolutely wonderful. Exactly my kind of person and I began to make these kind of friends and I changed from a very awkward. I suddenly shot up very tall, and became very tall which was very awkward ... I was very awkward, clumsy .. I think in the mid-period. But I changed and became very self-confident and Presidency College, very important and formative because it's where I met the students. I had great respect for... I only had him for a few months or about a year Susobhan Sarkar, the great figure, Sumit's father and that had been interesting. One man we all admired was Amal Bhattacharya was very fine who taught English literature. I didn't study English, I did History, but we had this minor subject. He had a wonderful way, he analyzed Wilfred Owen and people like that. Apart from that I didn't. By the 3rd year I also met Swasti.
KM
Swasti was also a student?
She came a little later because the girls were not allowed to join until the 3rd year. The first two years I was and I met her and that was a very famous... its still famous.... the romance was extraordinary... for a lots of reason because it was a difficult one... there has been a lot of conflicts...threats from her father, etc. So that's Presidency College.
KM
It's mostly because of the students and you would met, and you named these...
Yes. The teachers were good... I mean they were very nice...
better than I had, I had ever seen, but nonetheless... There is a lot of it that they have ever seen but nonetheless ...
KM
Has there ever been student friends that come to mind immediately or these are the ones you mention earlier?
Sujit and Amal was very close friend and the other person who would also used to be fairly close friend was Dilip Basu, who was in Santa Cruz, UC and then one or two other ones. I mean it was a milieu, a very good and interesting milieu and they were quite intellectual.
KM
And what kind of environment did they... in which you would share... you mentioned that these people had quite respectable intellects...was this in the coffee house, was this in the dorm?
Coming down to that. You see, Mitra Institution was very, in that sense, was very kind of traditional and to me limiting. In terms of results very, very good. One of the top two schools in Calcutta and so lot of them went to Presidency College but not the ones I went to school with. They all went to different parts of the world and they all did very well because that they were very bright. I am not denying that. But to me impressive had a much more affinity and I became very interested in Student Federation, you know ...I was kind of... I had a lot of ...and so on. People at one time would even say that I was a habit of Communists but I wasn't. But anyway, actually my father did not like Communist because he was one of those old-fashioned liberals and he was surprised when I voted communist.
KM
Presidency was quite a leftist kind of place at that point in time.
Very much. And I was part of that than the other side. There was a right wing also. One thing I must say, I had friends among right wingers and they liked me. But you know I always worried about factionalism... I am sorry, I do not have the...perhaps its not a very good thing for the faint-hearted. But I remember a pretty close friend who used to be wealthy who said... that kind of thing...but I liked him. Some of them later on became ...that was great, amazing. So that was a great wonderful time also the nice thing was that Presidency College students did a very very good exhibition of my paintings there. It was lovely. Susobhan Sarkar came there and you know very nicely appreciated it.
KM
So you were still painting quite seriously while you were in Presidency?
Yes. I used to draw full life regularly. So that was a very nice thing.
KM
And you studied.... well, studied History in Presidency did not allow you to focus on a particular field or was it a set course or did you...?
Basically, it was more a set course, but Presidency allowed to do more things...there is no doubt about that and
KM
that absolutely true and that depends on the teachers. I did. And I must say in all fairness to Presidency College and so on is that because of our romance and so on... she was... Swasti was a star pupil. We both did very badly... in the sense very mediocre results at the end of the period because of all the conflicts and tremendous stress and then I decided in 1958 when I finished my BA degree, I was going to give him to give up and really loved back to painting. Seriously. So then I began to learn French seriously. And this was in Alliance Française and they really teach very good French, direct method and which has always stood me in very good stead. There was a lot of people from different walks in life senior people and junior people. Even Gayatri's brother was there.... you know we were kind of doing this together... friendly rivalry..and I must say I did the best and, I must say, I won a scholarship to go to Paris. In those days Paris was the dream.
KM
Were you thinking of particularly of Academie des Beaux Arts?
No, no...just go there and paint there ...kind of whatever was possible.
KM
Just to be there.
That's the... if you look at ...anybody.. they all go to Paris.
KM
and Satyajit Ray, did he go to Paris?
Who?
KM
Satyajit Ray
No, no. He never left home.
KM
Satyajit Ray never left home?
That was interesting. That's what he said. He has a whole world and he was real cosmopolitan yet he said it doesn't matter I live here, that's where my basis is.. there was a time...when he was, you know he was in commercial...he was a very good illustrator...he created those Ray roman, it has become patent. He used to work for, I think, D.J. Khemer, one of those semi-European firms, advertising firms ...used to be in all kind of things ...design copy rights etc. They sent him to London and he was there for a year I think and during that time of course he was working, but he watched 1000 films...everyday 3 films. Absolutely interesting story. And then he came back.
KM
So he never actually....no he was not interested in Paris. His whole world was films. Although Renoir came to Calcutta and that's where he met him. No, Satyajit was... So I started learning French with a view to going to Paris. Unfortunately, although I did the best, I only got the bronze medal; the scholarship went to the minister's daughter somebody so that was a really great disappointment. But in India, everything is in influence and first of all my father wouldn't want to use it and in that sense he never really helped me. Fair enough. He never took anything from anybody so you know that's his pride, that's his old-world family thing. So I didn't get it and so I was in a bit of a quandary. Actually, I won't go into my other side of it. We had gone through a very stormy love affair and marrying and so on and we both had taken awful jobs but hers was better, mine was terrible.
KM
Where did you work?
At a high school for refugee children. I mean they used to throw bombs at teachers. It used to get really rough. But I managed to get a magazine out of them and when I left, at least there were some students I was able to send to art school so I was very pleased.
KM
And what did you teach?
General subjects ...history etc...right from class 1, which is about 8 years olds,
KM
to those who were nearly my age. That kind of, all right, that I gave up and then I worked at IBM started that thing in Kolkata...and its apt for a slave labor. I started that but didn't like it. I am not cut to be a corporate man. There was other things that wasn't not good but basically I was learning French and painting since I wanted to go. It didn't happen in '62. I was in a bit of a quandary, what to do? I had not done best results but I had done pretty respectfully.. so I was wondering what to do and I went to see one of my professors at Presidency College. He was very helpful, he said oh you can't go anywhere, its too late...Oxford and Cambridge which my father would have liked me to go. And there is only one place, I have never heard of before, School of Oriental Studies, and he said you apply there and you might get in. So I never heard about it, but I still sent in my application to go to London. Paris fell through but I could paint in London. I wasn't ...other thing... in my later stage of life I was interested in music, painting but not in English...
KM
When you said later you meant..
From about what... 14-15 years...for a long time, I was great admirer of French everything...literature etc. I lost that when I actually visited Paris I must say. I found Paris very kind of very busy and totally...I got to love London.
KM
How about Germany, Italy...?
Indirectly.
KM
Indirectly. But not as strong as Paris...
It is because of the kind of writers and so on...
KM
The French writers?
Yes. Absolutely...anyway, I came to London and I got a place in SOAS and they were happy to have me and my father decided to support me and send me...
...with an allowance because otherwise I could not have gone. He was kind and so I came to SOAS and started doing my history and in the evenings I joined St. Martin school of arts. There I met some very interesting artists who taught me like Derrick Greaves. I mean, I couldn't be taught much but at least I was there doing things. So there was these two things that were going on together.
KM
And this was in the early '60s perhaps?
'62. Now that's the beginning of my move to England. That's when a lot of interesting things happened.
KM
One of them you see, London SOAS is one of the colleges...UCL, LC were all the colleges. They all have their degrees, sort of degrees within London. It was divided into 1,2,3,4, 5... History 1, History 2...so I said you know History 4 because they always felt rightly, I think, that you need to have really good grounding in European and English History to really do Indian history. So at SOAS you really do English History ... I chose European and Indian. I did Ancient Indian and Sanskrit inscriptions.
KM
Did you already learn Sanskrit inscriptions?
We did. We learnt it in school and so on. So I did the Gupta period, the inscriptions of the Gupta period as a special subject and also European History. European History was very important for me because of the revelation of a new world. My very first lecture was given by someone called E.H. Gombrich, I had never heard of. He was not only a art historian but also historian. So the first lecture in the History series in London was by him on Hegel an idea of progress and I was bowled over because you see, we being vaguely Marxist again, we think of Hegel in a certain way. I could not believe that he showed another way of looking at it ...this idea of determinism ...
KM
this idea of progress that is inevitable...and I was very impressed. And that was my first year and then I read his Art and Illusion, somebody gave it to me and that is an amazing book, even better than the Story of Art to me. What a book. I used to paint and ran a student art society in London. Other things I did was, SOAS was a ghetto, ex-colonial ghetto. All the teachers were ex-colonials. Most of the students came from rather carelessly limited background or provincial background in India and so they were treated with a little condescension and so on. I didn't need that because I knew a lot of things and so I made friends with all my contemporises anyway and then they moved out to other parts of London university and made a lot of friendships was in a art society. When I was a secretary I think running it, I invited Gombrich to give a talk and we had a long discussion about things and he was very interested about the things we discussed.
KM
He was very modest, you know, he would come to places if you want. And so that was the thing... and then came the finals and this time I decided that I am going to be an artist. [laugh] So finally I went to Slade School of Arts and then Hammersmith School of Arts and Camberwell. I applied to many places because I was not sure that they would take me. Slade's secretary was very kind he said they would love to take me and be prepared. Sadly that year the Slade had changed their policy to taking mainly priority to school leavers so they couldn't take me at Slade. I got into Hammersmith College of Arts. Now that's the thing poised as to what I was going to do and then I took my finals and this is the irony, it's quite interesting...And well the results came out I did very well. I not only got first but I also get a prize and but didn't want to still do it. I went to London,
KM
you know, this city local government they give grants to everybody. They are very generous so if I want to art school I needed a grant because all although, a scholarship or a grant, and Swasti was already move into Cambridge she had a job as research and teaching. She said she will support me but I thought you know I need a grant in any case. I went for the interview and they wouldn't give it to me. They said if you have done badly in the exam we would have given it to you. This is the really...
KM
Exactly...
... So I was a little bit demoralized because I said I am not going to... One thing I didn't want to do all though I went to various teachers and I must say I had great affection and you know regard for A.L. Basham very well known, very kind man. He was wonderful he never taught me but he was very very really supported wonderful. But none the less I found Orientalism very kind of, you know, limiting...
KM
Orientalism as a...
No, in a general sense, the...
KM
Yeah
If had to do you know Ancient India
KM
I see...
From AD 68 to AD124, I would have died I mean, that's one thing. Second thing is I don't like to be told by people and I could see that my tutors and so as good as I tell you this is what you do and I just couldn't bear that you know so its very interesting my tutor was this very fine epigraphist. You know, the because you as them I working under him as a Sanskrit you know the inscription wonderful and but he has a Dutch man very fine scholar...
KM
What's his name?
J.G. De Casparis. Very well known but he was in a Japanese concentration camp. So he had this sort of look at you for 5 minutes and then said something very slowly and I was finish his sentences and sorry I used to get very impatient and he wanted to do work with me. I didn't want to, and I finally discovered his secret life. He once invited us to his house with his French wife. He was a great fairness playing Messiaen I mean in an image from music so that's another world. Anyway so what could I do. I mean, I can't paint but I have this scholarship not only I have got this scholarship from London University because of my result they also gave me private another extra 100 pounds and those days you lived on 500 pounds and I was getting 600 pounds.
KM
So what shall I do? So Swasti as usual she pushed me to go and see Gombrich. So I said, no, I don't want to see Gombrich, because he did not see me. I mean that's his he had this amazing aura I mean nobody I say I don't think so she anyway, she often does this, push me she got me there so I went to see him very uncertain and said I want to work on Paul Klee and he was very kind and he said nice and you must do that, he's a very fine painter. But said that but if you do that you know I can't to as I don't work on modern art, then you have to go and see and work with Antony Blunt. This famous artist or in who is later branded as a traitor you know this story.
KM
I don't know the story...
Another time...
KM
Yeah...
But very interesting. He's very fine but he said on other hand with your I think I talk to you, you realize that kind of bridged these two world is a one question which I have I haven't been able to answer. That why do we your Europeans find Indian Hindu Art so difficult, so then he said if you would like to work with me I will be very happy to so discussion I didn't say I will think about it. I couldn't I mean...
KM
This is Gombrich right yeah offering...
Amazing so I... of course I shall wonderful and he was very kind partly because my results he said don't you have to take any qualifying MA. You go straight into PHD. So that's very nice as well. So that was the beginning and...
KM
What had interested you why from where did you to get the interest Paul Klee, I mean this is...
I'm a painter I used to love Klee
KM
Yeah...
But the sort of wonderful so can you know this yeah absolutely you we are so grown hand sort of your European painting I have to say confess my precision on Indian Art, which of course I do teach, ancient art, or at least used to, came much later. My first love was, you know, and this is the thing
KM
And Continental Art as well I mean asked you
Very much so very much
KM
Yeah....yeah
My great love I mean my work is much closed to Germany Expressionists closest and early works for very you know Kokoschka and people Iike Beckmann I loved. Oh yes very much but I like Klee very much. I didn't worked like Klee but I loved his color my work is more kind of figure and full of angst, and so on. That's a reason but you see so then person I would say. Ray only a mentor in the sense that and to talk to him was such a wonderful experience, well I mean, you talk and exchange an he took me he took me seriously as a another individual, not, he never did that but the people always treated like that, but he didn't like that, that's why I didn't pester him with things. I occasionally saw him, I saw him quite a bit of late...
KM
anyway so Gombrich was my mentor. Gombrich in many ways little ways he became a life-long friendship with his sons. He was a professor and I become very friendly with Richard and his family friend my parents came over and Gombrich invited them and you know very very glam... and month before he died I spoke to him ooh he was very very sweet to me he was not uncritical. He didn't praise people but couple of months about 6 months before he died he phoned and said where's Partha and he is not here professor can be yes are you all right he say no I am not all right. I am not well but that's not of point I am phoning. I read his Indian Art very very good I like it I thought that was very nice. No, he due to the other things I could you say that we can talk about the method and what I developed that's no the aspect of how my work grew this is another thing but the thing about Gombrich is that he was my mentor in a sense he didn't tell me what to do. It is also hi interest, my my interest in is work actually led me to develop ideas...
KM
So is more through reading his work and engaging with his...
Yeah it's so ironic
KM
His methods as through conversations
Yeah.....yeah
KM
In....in through conversation or actually thing to this for that...
Yeah because you see it's very funny and ironic. When I started to work with him Gombrich said look go first on tour of your opinion museum see what's there and make a collection of a make a list of collection and study them and meet these people and so on which I did studiously for a whole year. Everywhere all the way from Stockholm to Amsterdam to you know Paris and so on, lot of work making friends as well. I came back and then second year I feel what I was going to do and taste for Indian art. Gombrich said you know how you want to work. I said what is question I want to say do William George Archer interesting artist you know of him
KM
Yes
I say this I was working on he said you know there's nothing no interest in he was right but the thing is what I did Gombrich was very surprised. My first thing I wrote was not about the collections. That became only in an appendix in my a first of all in my dissertation but in my book. Much Maligned Monsters which is a...
KM
Which is a book of your rotation...
Ultimately....ultimately it will very long time I mean to different process. But I had read Schema and Correction and that absolutely was the method and the second thing is I read Witchowa's famous article "Monstrous Races of the Middle Ages" and these things came together Gombrich was a bit bemused he didn't expect me to write this but he was, and he saw what I have written. He didn't say he didn't say much in that sense he wanted me to you know open up. You know Gombrich was a very complex man and some of my friends and contemporaries in difficult I am denying that. That in some ways he let me do things because perhaps in a way he felt what I had asked him is a legitimate question other being very fashionable he didn't like in kind of you know...
KM
The talk and the jargon and the... yeah
And what did I learn from Gombrich, you know, I didn't in his fifties his utter illusion can imagine he is using Benjamin Lee Whorf and he says that world is not created by no world is create through language and also said art is not nature as culture. I mean this is the true that have changed your perception of post-colonial. The thing is I know why so that was the thing I learned I discover then there was no where to be all these different... this was all gelling you know the happening everywhere. The Gombrich was an old-fashioned liberal. Conservative in some ways but very open-minded. Gombrich also had this very strange relationship he had real problem with modern art
KM
but only mainly with expressionism the once which were very very emotionally, over-emotionally he had this problem because of becoming from Austria he first freightened of the Nazis he was worred about, and even Freud he has to criticize, you know, that the rational side he couldn't take it but as a result couldn't see the good side of a rational. I mean things but that's its personal thing I always found that he is head and heart were in conflict. He would always say that European Art was best in the world. But conceptually whole, say, there is no such thing as best because taste is to do with culture and we talk to about this so I took from him the thing which have wanted but I pushed it more politically because much more monsters as you actually he was very generous and the reason he liked also he said in new that it more political and Art and Nationalism is very political but he Gombrich accepted that he was, you know, open enough to see that,
KM
even though all the people always thought he was closed-minded but he wasn't so I he was my mentor but I had this kind of totally so different trajectory but he always felt. All students, he said, that this my former pupil and friend Partha, but so that that change lot of things I learned and that was the beginning of the thinking about problem of culture, culture of representation and then on to other things, as I started teaching at Sussex.
KM
And how that change your sense of your identity because you changed from artist, what someone who was thinking of himself as becoming an artist to somebody who writes as a profession and how did that that just happen organically or without much conscious reflection or were you torn?
I would like to think that obviously my art history is informed quite a bit by my own
KM
Artistic sense...
...but my work is very, I deliberately don't like to, I understand a work which is a cerebral like Anish Kapoor. If you go to Boston you will go and see that show, it is wonderful but my work is more out of guts you know expression so I don't like to when I am painting to think about here are some antecedents, of course, so in that sense I don't make this kind of, you know, there's a separation. Incidentally Gombrich came see my work as a student he loved it actually was great,
KM
I was quite very and he never said anything, we just, and if he liked it he would say it otherwise he wouldn't. He was a very critical hyper critical man want to said badly but its still love you like so didn't so would you say but the conflict was there because I still I still less and less you don't have the time anymore to do these things all the time in a but I use to for a long time even when I was, you know, I mean very much still trying to and I have some exhibitions so have painted often regularly I mean one thing I have to do even I don't paint I do draw from life without that you can't remember your forms get very stereotype, you say that is one of the problem. Some of by compatriots they work often very interesting because they often haven't had the grounding in again what I say you know life study the figures tend to be still, you have to have that you can see what is happening changes. So that's been, but this is only kind of very tangentially
I also began very interested in well, you know, this was exciting, in retrospect, exciting my most exciting I must say in retrospect exciting to intellectual period was this first couple of years when I saw Gombrich ever fortnight as a student this was very exciting...
KM
This is the period, your post-graduate period?
Post-graduate period, doctorate. Doctorate period yeah and you know Warburg Institute, Warburg, that was a powerhouse and all the frightening people there even Michael Baxendall who was young man. There he was a little older than me but you know much more us young man comparable all big figures sitting there yes just great great Francis Yates, wonderful, and then Walker and then you know Sabrow the mathematician and I do no they very kind to me, they talk to me about things.
KM
You come and when do you present the papers I mean well what...
He had a personal vision every fortnight and writing and writing eventually gave the paper everybody was terrified from doing that the Warburg, right yeah people really very kind of yeah that's...
KM
And do you need in discuss with in what context to meet various members there...
Oh, at tea, one thing you haven't asked me a question I hadn't answer.
KM
At Presidency College my great social there was the coffee house across the road and we were there lot of times not the studious nice boys but really so that was also the kind of place we talked about things discuss and of course I have to say meet other women I mean the women students and you known t be branded as these are the guys you go on and talk to woman...
KM
Like in Presidency College yeah?
Actually I used to run, in Presidency College, I used to run secretary of his society
KM
which had men and woman from Presidency College and Brabourne is the women's, you know, equivalent, and couple of others, St. Xaviers, very exclusive little group, and I remember I used to organize things and young Amartya, then Amartya, just come back from Cambridge he gave a talk at our club. He probably wouldn't remember so many ago actually I should ask him interesting and the so coming back to it so this was very exciting but we I think we were I will be back...
KM
Then I will just wait...
Relax and you read and I will be back and then we will have some tea and meanwhile I was doing this work. Swasti who had a research first and teaching at Cambridge we moved to Cambridge and then I used to come down to London supervision...
KM
Every fortnight?
Na, you know, the whole week so I did that we moved to Cambridge and then Swasti again that time you know teaching the Indian woman, very young, she looked incredibly young, that's quite interesting, lots of things at Cambridge they were not used to. It is also fun enough. Cambridge had the lot of covert, not overt, that much racism and sexisms very much sexisms, but anyway, that's one part of it I don't know but basically she was there and started living and this should be about '67, about that time, and then I was thinking about what to do, I mean, I had come to end of my Ph.D. and so. I liked Cambridge very much and, perhaps, because I got to lot of people very interesting very intellectual...
KM
Actually by living there?
Yes, very smart, I sort of became friends I mean people like Quentin Skinner, I mean lots of there Mendlesohn historian on science... Yes I don't have his full name even Peter Gay came to...
KM
Mendlesohn is in Harvard now...
Yes, what's his name yes it was long time ago. Then John Hollander used to be a poet that I met at Churchill. So I began to meet people and again tea room at Cambridge library is a great meeting place and I think...
Life for, you know, its called Junior Research Fellowship at Cambridge start with there, but me being from London you know it was an outsider applying and there were some people I met like Joseph. He was wonderful he was a great figure. Joseph apparently wanted to meet me because my work, for a number of months. He kept on inviting different Mitras where once this doctor came and he wasn't master of keys wanted to meet him and eventually she said met him and said at last which is very funny but Joseph Needham was such a wonderful man, a great Scholar we became very close friends, anyway, I applied and eventually I had a Junior Research Fellowship for a year. There I must experience only for a year and there was a lot of hostility I think is well but also...
KM
Hostility meaning because of racism?
I don't know, it's a lots of things...
KM
right...
I was supported by man very interesting and very open-minded called George Steiner. He was my apparently great he said I must in
KM
Was he somebody that you would and would you represent your papers with or your work with him, you know?
No, he read, because we had submitted
KM
I see he supported the application...
And George perhaps he exaggerated, he said it's likes splitting the atom, it's wonderful work and he must get a fellowship but I think others wanted others to be you know this fellowship would be all subjects so there are 15 subjects from Engineering to Physics to English Literature whatever so I got it somebody else didn't get it, so I don't know. He went there but the great thing there once I met some body apart from anything else Francis Crick you know the DNA...
KM
Yes...
Wonderful, Francis this freindship again I was privileged to know him very well. I had a long close social relationship and friendship and actually phoned him a year before he died. I had gone to La Haya because I couldn't get to his place and so I phoned him out and he was quite ill and I said Francis your remember me and he said yes of course. I said he bought my book he had, and my paintings also because his wife used to paint and we were close friend's and whole circle in Cambridge was to paint and a very outrageous circle as well. I drew his daughter Gabriel but he was a wonderful person so open-minded, incredible. I mean so these three people, 2 whether they influenced or not but I personally feel these 3 are very great figures I couldn't...
KM
Which three again?
Probably be ever like them...
KM
Which three?
Yes, one is Satyajit Ray, I don't think I could, Ernest Gombrich and Francis Crick. Others I think I could if came the situation I don't think there could have been any superior, I think. There's a certain stage but these three I absolutely found. These are my, you know, people I feel I mean which of course Francis more a friend but certainly Gombrich and Satyajit, both figures, kind of very interesting.
KM
And how would you start to describe the impact these people have but it is kind of... is this the inspiration provide is it the breadth of their of their knowledge or is it their aura? What is it about...
Gombrich certainly method...
KM
The method, his method...
Definitely I learnt from him. This is the tribute, as Gombrich himself used to pay tribute to his mentors. I changed I move from another does not matter, he fired it. His work you know reading about art is not natural its cultural and the great revolution. That you know people's culture constructs I mean we do that in so that one thing Satyajit was aura as well as to have that capability didn't to speak to him this great wonderful sense and spontaneity. Lots of things like films later on we talked about. I was not because Satyajit Ray co-incidentally one of the early member of the Calcutta film society because I used to love seeing his great films. I saw Eisenstein... a lot of great films, Felini then I found out that he was apparently the founder of it so lot of inter discussion. It's very interesting I got in touch him because he knew so many people and he was so busy I phoned him and he said when did you come he didn't say who is it?
You know "acha kobe ele", its very very interesting, that personal touch he see then I didn't become a painter. That Satyajit accepted that and we made kind of friends you know. But then he came here and again Much Maligned Monsters, he absolutely was bowled over. He must say that very touching he loved it, he read it. He came to get his honorary degree at Oxford. He talked about my book he was so impressed. He always said so that was a great to meet a person so important. Intellectual and such an intellect like him, I could see and also. So he then became mirror of my work but he was an amazing person and also this thing about. Because we talked about painting and about different things and he had this sort of he would say things he would say a lot to, very interesting. My one regret is that I my Art and Nationalism have quite a bit about his family and I wanted him to read it and tell me sadly, it was to late, a month or couple months too late...
KM
For him to read it...
So that was sad because he help a lot with the sources he gave me that's so sad so that's one I feel that just by example and such a man I mean a figure great figure I mean one great man I have seen and his contemporaries don't under he is great that after he is our local boy why is he great? But if you spoke to him you would see the difference I mean he was very different
KM
You are just right that is different kind of...
He's got a provincial intellect sitting there talking about the world he is actually the centre of the universe.
KM
Producing it...
But then I have seen people coming in and sort of young directors would you please and you know and amazing...
KM
Yeah.. right
We used to see occasionally, you know, line British Film institute in London festival he had come. He saw a me in the queue, he was so we kokun ele and he took say he took me out of it and here...
KM
That's very funny...
Anyway so he didn't come I will keep today saying the city lights chaps have come you come with me and just very nice , and this is his natural thing I have often taken him in my car occasionally. Every body want's to see him that was a problem but he was very interesting in champion for cinematic thing it not just not you know so that can see that amazing intellect I mean so it hurt him lot when Calcutta people begin to attack him and then Indians in everywhere it's so silly, I mean, this people are not really I know he has limitations, who hasn't...
KM
Do you need to...
KM
PM: ...I want to tell you about cosmopolitan cosmopolis, it's quite interesting you can imagine. My parents deliberately did not show of anything but I took things for granted. Hierarchy, it's not surprising, when my parents visited United States hardly any Indians were there only privileged ones went to, they found that was a great thing to do and yes ironically very interesting within '47 and within '57, '60 they had this great task in the '60s so it is only a matter of decade less than that and my father was a bit shocked because he didn't think you know I didn't go abroad for that reason and it is different kind of operation, but what I want to tell you that my move into Europe, it wasn't Britain in the first place anyway but then later and I do love Britain in many ways I mean there's a kind of fairness. Fairness in some ways its very hierarchical tremendous glass ceiling and you cannot go up you know...
KM
And you mentioned before that experience in academia...
Oh yes, but on the other hand, very fair on the other sense that there's no violence. People often find injustice, blatant injustice they are against. They are always kind and there's a very good quality so much better than Europe, gosh Britain is a real...
KM
What do you think of one thing that I...?
Germans also even France is awful and Italy...
KM
Particularly the immigrants and migrants...
In Florence, yeah, I am sorry go on...
KM
No I was just, there is a sense of custom, and customary law in Britain is a very special law. Do you find the drawback or the benefit or this notion of way of doing thing which happens to emphasize fairness but is a particular culture...
Yes, very much, English are conservative radical they don't get intimate about anything. It's also a good point, now I will tell you why Britain is very important not because any better people than the French or Italians or the Germans or Indians whatever. One thing I do worry is that any country which does not have institutions really very arbitrary. I mean I am a great admirer of the Mughal Empire but when you read ultimately your life depends on your emperor or your own destiny...
KM
Kind of a patronage relationship of some sort...
Not only that, emperor was very cultured incredible, but he could put you to death if he wanted to according to his whim so that's the thing. Whereas in Britain awful in the eyes but it does not matter but law must be upheld, and that's a very good thing and the other you know when Abu Qatada has been released on bail it was extraordinary, in America he would have been sent to Guantanamo Bay and they were let out and I am afraid Britain has that quality and that's what I really admire. Ultimately that's important but in terms of glass ceiling they are conservative. They don't want people to get into 1 or 2 whim at all. There are very important examples, who are very extraordinary people, Amartya and others, but they didn't have the same problems as lot of others had simply because they like to have a view, but always worry about but that's something later we can talk about another time in Cambridge and all those things and we were one the first so that was very...
KM
Because when you came in the '60s this was also a part of great , there was a large wave that was also coming up...
No, but that's also very interesting, that's what I am coming to. Also in Cambridge, now Cambridge there are so changed, now there are many Indians, so many Bengalis than Oxford teaching very high. Naturally, but we had a very different perception very different you know kind of treatment. Now let's forget that. When I came to England, I mean to Europe, I want to make a distinction. I did not come as an immigrant. I want to make that distinction mean was voluntary, I became a cosmopolitan at 9, 8 or 9 when I was in America. I loved it I wanted to live anywhere, somewhere where I ...
...obviously perhaps its strange perhaps I would not have been a part of this country, but this whole business of London people who do not belong to the country. You have Paris artists from America they were a part of Picasso and not of France, that's an interesting city...
KM
Global city...
Very very interesting and that's what I liked.
KM
Why didn't you decide to go to America and give them that you became a cosmopolitan?
Yeah, yes actually that was my formative thing. You know this is very interesting. You know I must say I had this longing to live abroad, and I was longing to live abroad for some sort of reason and I found India very stifling and all sorts of social things all sorts of other things, I so I felt that would be the kind of freedom. I'd be painting and of course the music I love to the opera etc. So I was an émigré. But whatever it is my father was shocked. When I came in the '60s that was also the beginning of mass you know movement immigration and everything. So everybody was seeing the economy as immigrant. Well I lived in England, I wanted to truly but nonetheless I need to make that distinction
KM
that I didn't have these intentions as I want to better my position that's why coming here. I did feel to be so wonderful to, you know, Europe the continent and Britain less more dull but Continent. I have become much wiser, things are not as simple as that having lived here and knowing about the Continent is it's not simple as that. They have the prejudice, they have their problems but in certain ideas but again going back to this intellectual world you are reading people, you know, I don't know I mean Malarmé or Thomas Mann, all these people and you have this world which is very interesting. So this could have been, an artist...
KM
And why not in New York?
The thing this big complicated, you know by the time I was growing up, my parents loved America I must say because they had the great but I being much more left-wing oriented, you know I became influenced by friends, in America it was seen as place, it was seen as not very great it is a capitalist and so on. You know having being to America and nonetheless I loved it when I went there and first time after many years that was 1970, 1970-71, American and Canada I had this ambivalence. I think that I don't want to go to America because it is too capitalistic, it's too much of Uncle Sam. Europe will be much better, but Kris, I don't know if I were given choice as a young man today would have chosen Europe not for any other reason. One thing I find about America increasingly I appreciate that, is the energy and enthusiasm. Some times I am critical, I have to say, but still it's wonderful. This my book last 2 years there has been such a lot of excitement and enthusiasm...
KM
Particularly in United States?
...Yeah, I just had this very touching letter I don't know whether I can go,. I am sure it is from New York University students wanted me to come, but that's complicated and they don't have money, so as you see the point is so that's the thing. I suspect that what it was, and then I became fond of Britain and its values at Cambridge. When I moved to Cambridge I became junior research fellow and then I moved to Canada for short periods.
KM
To teach?
Yes, I was at the University UVAG, University of Victoria, you know near Vancouver. I loved it and I still think students I found this...
KM
How long you were there for?
Too short, 5 month period, 70-71 and then 72-74, now that, what happened was after my Junior Research Fellowship finished at Cambridge, because I was at Cambridge so it was very difficult and I must say I took a risk I was offered a permanent position in London, but I didn't take that up rather chose to quit...Because I found Cambridge very exciting, I don't know, Gombrich he didn't like it he thought I made a mistake not taking up a permanent job so stay of from India, lots of complex reason. I didn't take it but also that made my life very uncertain getting a job is not easy so Canada offered me but I do not live in Victoria. You know coming from Calcutta, I love Chicago, I love New York, I love Vienna, London I love as well. So London is not Britain, this is an amazing place so that was the thing oh yes as I got this job, just temporarily as I was going they would have made me permanent, I got another fellowship it was very nice fellowship at Cambridge that was a 4 year fellowship.
KM
The Senior Research Fellowship...
And I was one of the first fellows at Clare Hall. It was a daughter of Clare Hall and and lovely college unlike Church, where you face a lot of competition so Clare Hall was wonderful. I had a great time, 4 years, but then I had to get a job . Actually it is interesting, I was offered 2 positions and that was a crucial decision which later on of course affected my career what I had done. Same time I got a offer at Sussex and offer as US Santa Cruz. Now I don't know whether that would have been better, Santa Cruz is very isolated, but once I would have been in America I would have moved on I don't know. But then this man, David Pocock, who was the Chairman he phoned me and say would you like the job in you would be very interesting at Sussex. I definitely was a very difficult decision but I turned down Santa Cruz.
KM
The job at Santa Cruz?
You, mind you if it were workload but I mean that's the thing but I can see that or someone I could have turned it down but having done that today would have been. Sussex was interesting and that's where I developed a lot of my ideas and I had some very interesting colleagues and including Homi was there for a while and lots of other people
KM
And Ranajit was there for sometime...
Yes, Ranajit was my boss, he was a senior man...
KM
And he was head of the which program?
History, Indian History.
KM
And you taught with him History?
Yes, well basically it was in Indian History but you know I was teaching other things like this course called Empires and Images, which was the first on representation, racism, and, you know, stereotypes I looked at it a bit more historically. That's' the difference with Said, then from '74 I started semi-course...
KM
The book
Yes, my book came out in '78 and Said's book came out...
KM
Well, your Much Maligned Monsters came out in 1977
Yes, but I already had the idea's so I developed it the course. I would say the first intellectual analysis on racism and but about representation and it was an interdisciplinary course on literature, history and anthropology. It was not on art but also I was asked to teach art and also started this course the early one which no longer exists in Britain undergraduate course, specialist course, in ancient Indian art. Hindu temple I call it Buddhist and Hindu art so these are the things as well as I taught Indian History with Ranajit. He was a wonderful teacher but not an easy man, initially we had some, and you know it wasn't easy...
KM
Why?
I don't know, it's difficult, he had different expectations from what I had to offer yet...
KM
Was it kind of difference in vision or difference in personality?
No vision No, because it's very interesting personality he was quite, at one time, we didn't get on but he read my Much Maligned Monsters. He praised it, he was very very impressed so he had this intellectual sharpness to see what's good so that is good attitude, however, I am as a person he certainly saw that and later on he told me and he always had great of my work which I think is very, very nice.
KM
How old were you when you joined Sussex?
Gosh, something in my '30s, I had gone from one to another you see and I don't...I didn't even think that I would get the job. At Sussex I got it because somehow that time they were becoming very disciplinary asking these questions and I said I have written this book. I think they found that very interesting, the book was just being developed so that's the thing and so why it happened is a complex thing but Ranajit later told me that, he's not an easy man, he's a very intelligent man, a gentleman, not easy, because he had difference with everybody from Gayatri to Tapan-da, to everyone including all the subordinates. But he has a tremendous mind.
KM
I feel he's writing so wonderful so that's a great quality but when I saw him much later in Austrlia. You know he hmm at Sussex, was such a place that it made him very bitter he never had any promotion it's very interesting such a distinguished man. I know he hadn't produced some of the things he had but then others hadn't done anything either. Because he was not an easy man, they just kind of he didn't belong to the club, I didn't either and various other people. Homi didn't get any promotion and neither I got any promotion either. Homi was very clever to worked out so this thing so that's why America perhaps would have been, yes, I think you are right. By this change of my own views and this growing feeling for the, I mean, the Englishness and so on, I enjoyed that, I find this interesting but also this slightly, I find that English are not so interesting because Empire is gone, it's a deep decadence. Decadence creates, I was telling you about Buddenbrooks. Decadence creates a kind of sense of, slight, very fair, they've become very humane, but it's note a good place to develop new ideas. a kind of sense you know this slight very fair they have became very humane, but it is not a good place to develop new ideas.
KM
To get things done, yeah?
So that I think America would have been interesting, you know by the time I thought of going to America in my very late stage of my career. You know when you are young people want you, a lot of people, there's no problem. When you reach a certain stage if certain people want you others are absolutely against you and I could see that I mean number of where you know I think there was some very interesting but did not pursue that much but I could see that I be always such a and then it wouldn't just work and so that just does not matter. I go to America all the time and it's wonderful that I have been to all the 4 research institutions that are important for Art. Institute of Advanced Studies...
KM
at Princeton...
Then Getty, then Clark Art Institute and then Casper in Washington D.C. There's no other left so I can't fo with my grand but you see I have been there wonderful time exchanging ideas and the last 3 years I have been absolutely so much of interest and excitement and I felt that very exciting and less so in Britain. But then, Kris, I mean I should not be too ungrateful, there is less so but there is some people who appreciate me. I was very deeply touched and quite unexpected on 7th of July, Courtauld Institute of Art, you know, they decided to give me an honorary so that was very and that's interesting...
KM
Let's come back to '60s we can fast forward to...
Quick to continue, so this business of being an emigre which I enjoyed but then I got into the system and then of course the question of. Once you get a system there's a question on all kinds of things peer review, promotion, how you see and so but that's the thing. But what I was saying about racism, that racism at SOAS, people are very kind, it's that they put you they know what you are, it's that kind of stereotyping...
KM
So there's a kind of box that you are put in to...
...You know, they don't do it consciously, they box you, they you know expect you to you know operate in a certain way. They expect you to be slightly naïve slightly kind of speak in strange accent and they will be kind to you and so on...
KM
So in some ways... little condescending...
...This actually they couldn't do with me that am interesting now but I didn't understand I mean I couldn't theorize at that time but all these different things began to come together...
KM
At SOAS or at Sussex
... As I grew from SOAS to Gombrich. And Gombrich was a great catalyst not being involved in this kind of direct colonial past, it was openness.
KM
Interesting.
Very much so.
KM
And when was your first book Much Maligned Monsters was released?
In 1977
KM
It was long time afterwards however that really begin the classic, what is it to write a classic book, what was the experience like? Is it that people like to read a classic and you are, you know, it's just being published?
I will just tell you, well that's also, I have been thinking about. Looking back at my life too very interesting.
KM
I will tell you one story which I will not not push it too much well its just fascinating. I came to England to read Indian History and they didn't know me, I mean I was a student not that young slightly mature student my other's contemporary mostly English I very well with them I think I could speak the language. I knew some of the things more than they did so it's very nice but you see we were taking to a residential course but often teacher's have a way of things. This was near Chichester Cathedral, and I went there with this group. There were English boys and girls and me and a few non-English European, non-European me and then this African man very sophisticated, George Kabodja, obviously came from a very privileged family you know from which part of Africa I can't remember but it's interesting and I think that's wonderful, Kabodja was such a a great companion. Now all the whites were put in different rooms, George and I were put in one room.
KM
The 2 people who are not white...
I should have been with some white person and you know. He was very good, he was such an interesting man you know but that had stuck me. I couldn't see those as prejudice that's all but not again theorizing what it meant about colonial. Then at the residential course they took to pieces Pannikar's Indian and Western Dominance, they kept on calling Panic-er, oh what what panic, panic, and they made fun of it, and the students were encouraged to make fun of this book, and the book is very important, anti-colonial. And that was very amusing. And then there was a Jewish lecturer who later became a professor later at Cambridge and then he also showed lots of prejudice but that time when went left the room some say poor man, he's Jewish, he's had a lot of problems.
KM
Who said that? What is his name?
Oh gosh, Michael Lowy, he was professor at Cambridge. But you see. knew enough to see the kind of, I mean, I had been reading about Holocaust and all this and I knew but this kind of, not badly not unkindly and then I was one of the Indian boys who come from India. They were very civilized and patted me little bit not too much because I could not, I not usually shy rather. We went to see teachers at Chichester Cathedral and the Dean of the Cathedral came to receive us and he was going around showing the cathedral a little. They had the teachers, professors, they had about 5 professors and about 14-15 students and this man, I didn't realize, he was a major intellectual in Britain, a man of very great man of culture.
KM
I did not know that anyway last 2... I saw his Obituary and I was reading that he was objected to send and there I realized that this is the man I met as a student in '62 and we started talking for some reason I can't remember, I was patted just slightly I started touching, I started talking about music and he was a great lover of music. And he was a great lover of music. I remember what we talked about and the merits of Furchtwangler and... and the kind of the comparative, I mean, I am a great Wagner fan and he also seemed to have it's interesting. He was so exited and I was generally because he didn't have this colonial baggage you know what I mean. He and I started chatting...Lot about the group. He left waving and we went on talking and the group was left behind and then I came back. I was a little bit wicked, you know, teachers first felt they all kind of didn't know what to say.
KM
How could this and one of them said oh my wife paints can I show you her works and I would love to have your opinion and its very funny. He was a very sweet man actually. Did a very generous review of my book about 10 years back, Dr. Yapp. But, anyway, so amused me can you, that's one thing I remember. This is a story just because it shows what they expect of an Indians student of what they don't find. This has also worked against me, I am not saying as an stereotype Indian, you know, I speak very differently. I behave very differently and they often find that as stereotype and people actually being very, you know...
KM
white British people?
Yes, indeed...
KM
But this has also being the case from the other side. How have Indian scholars, academics kind of interacted with you? Have you found that they have also...
No, that was alright because you know, I don't speak English when I am with them. I have this facility, I never, I know a lot of people who can show off, I don't so I have always. Sorry it sounds, I can switch back to very traditional Bengali, College Street adda, so that, I so, I never found people... It was also less in my parents, my mother could really mix with those who were very poor, the so called subaltern servants so also I remember she had very very befriended an Anglo-Indian man, a very sensitive man but you know it is despised of in India, very close friend.
KM
She never made this distinction between somebody who had a different class, but she was of a different class she had the confidence but she had this I have always seen this. I am not that much of a snob but nonetheless I never had that problem because also have a strange ambivalence. They love people who speak good English, you know, who speak English and you know that it's interesting...
KM
Interesting. So was it also that there was a sense of...
Mentality...
KM
Yes...
Less so now...
KM
Right...
Although I must tell you, Kris, in India, English has not changed as a world language but it's possible to do anything all success I am afraid. Nationalism forced vernacular in some schools and they have done very badly. All the students have disadvantage compared with, I mean, Mitter school, our school was of the top when I was a student. Now because it's not English medium it's nonetheless it has lots of bright students who come out but it's no longer the same...
KM
There wasn't any sentiment, sense among Indian academics, why have you left India and gone to teach in England and abroad and not contributing to Indian, that's the nationalist line that would not have...
Again, perhaps, you see, I am unfortunate now there are 2 things, one in '60s we all went abroad not successful. In the '90s and 2000 they are all coming back so that's interesting. So those early times everybody had to go abroad and live and then they resented and then soon knew that this was not important enough and finally some of my people who have been here and suffered because once you went back people who have not gone abroad and tried obviously to but you know it should have been, people should have, yes, you know you, are very westernized and they can't do that because, you know, I have also written articles in Bengali and newspapers and so.
KM
Other thing is that one thing I must say that I am also deeply grateful for that. It so happened that because the book when I went to India after Much Maligned Monsters, there was not just Bengal absolutely India-wide, I mean, people I knew as sort of knew as great figures they came and said, Mulk Raj Anand, then Niharanjan Roy. They found the book so, they came and said how much they, so I was kind of very taken aback because I was one of those students you know. These are the people who were gods of in their, so they did that, and the other thing I still find everywhere Much Maligned Monsters had tremendous impact in India. People come up and say how much they and I found also very touching my second book. Particularly lot of young people came and said how much they were inspired and I constantly find this because I am so involved with India my work sometimes my Much Maligned Monsters,
KM
I didn't want to put it that way but they often for nationalist reason they liked it. "You have given it to West". I think its pretty naïve and that was not my point but they have also liked that some of them liked that but also they always felt that this was wrong, that my response to the West which they always deeply shared in their pride and that I found wonderful so that's why I never had that problem with Art and Nationalism and then I am constantly engaged with India. I have been attacked only recently by some...
KM
Recently means how long?
Last couple of years...
KM
Really that recently...
Yes, and really very bad line which I think perhaps they, one of them, have implied recently that I am West sucking up to the West...
KM
Now, was that in printed article or was that...
Yes, and the other one that thought, you know, I have no right to talk about subaltern Art and...
KM
Do you feel comfortable mentioning which scholars these were or were?
I could, but very limited actually, it's going on at the moment, I wouldn't do that I have responded to it and lets see lets put it...
KM
Where have you responded that you know I could?
This is going to come out, well when Art Bulletin the article called the "Descending Model" comes out do have a look and I knew him and know him very well and you see but some of these people now kind of feel that they had this fashionable personal attitude...
KM
How do you make sense of that in the '60s and '70s when you left and...?
Sorry, I don't have this card carrying a personal thing. They are very as you know kind of theoretical and they sort of neo-Marxian way. My work is, as you know, much more kind of in a way I don't believe in one kind of thing which they feel is softened. So they always praise Much Maligned Monsters and later on some of them feel that I should have pushed it further. At the centre sometimes it is not acknowledged, they have learnt a lot from what I have done, nobody had done it before anybody but sorry go on...
KM
That's very interesting. Now what was the, I am forgetting, the question I wanted to ask but...
People have prejudice, I could have taken out but anyways that's all right that's part of the game...
KM
How about Much Maligned Monsters, and the just can you go back little bit to the...
You see how the genesis was, first of all this vague idea about racism, not racism yet, but this kind of whole colonial. You know this the important thing this Radcliffe who partitioned India. Did you read that so that kind of environment, but I also had very lovely people like A.L. Basham. I told you and this was not all and they were not bad people basically its just that they were a part of this whole imperial complex and then they were so and that's how they...
KM
How did you manage? There must have been some experience of anger or discontentment with the, you know, the racism that one, how did you not permit it to become anger, but maybe something positive?
London was amusing, I found them very amusing. Sorry, I mean beyond that I thought and because I then moved on to lot of Indian friends were not involved with the Empire so it was much more comfortable to be with them and then Cambridge. Starting with Cambridge, I began to realize because this whole thing still on Art. I found I must say Cambridge was the first one I found so once you get a job when you are a student you find this. You actually don't face prejudice; you find prejudice when you are competing with the English the jobs I mean. One of the people I knew very well and do things together and he actually was initially supported me sort of.... Once a job came up and he came up and said this job I think was for an English boy...
KM
Who said that?
Well I mean...
KM
You will come to that thing...
Yeah, so I remember that and yet he was my patron. He supported my fellowship at Churchill and he also...This is a period of wider perspective of Enoch Powell you know this. This is a period of Enoch Powell and I faced real tangible wall as frightening in other words. There is a danger of being attacked that I have faced...
KM
Really...
Yes, not as much as other's but people were beaten up, injured and I was on a train whole train of... Englishmen, and this one man was going on about the blacks and perhaps I was standing there and nobody said a word and really awful. Cambridge train was very uncomfortable in the '60s, I mean, range of...
KM
Because this is also the British dealing with their post-colonial moment and making sense to run their Empire...
Tremendously ugly racism. I am not very physically strong I mean I can't take on the lets say 3 thugs sitting there I mean they used to say that. Once I remember I pretended to sleep they were saying things that were very ugly but otherwise middle class academy environment they never said anything but nonetheless Enoch Powell had such an impact. I think Enoch Powell was righ, you know. The same man said that was not right and at Cambridge we also had white South Africans. I knew some of the South Africans, they said they were racists perhaps they were not, I don't know. It is a difficult case to because basically I don't immediately judge a person just because South African so I should hate him because a lot of our friends at that time did that.
KM
Naturally, but Cambridge, also, I encountered some amount at Churchill, it could have been that it's not just racism somebody wanted to be his candidate to be... you know, I was there, not always racism but other grounds. There were racists I mean there were major figure great scientist, Edward Boullard, one of the leading scientist in the world he was sitting next to me and because he was sitting next to me all blacks were in the same and I loved to think that as well as I don't have any distinction and I was saying that Africans, I mean, that was for my benefit and things like that occasionally and then you see others were more polite but on the other hand you see the contrast with Francis Crick. Why I said I got to know his friends a very interesting upper class, a very interesting whole group, they were really zany, and in the '60s totally you know radical and all kind of, all kind of things, and that was very very nice. Francis was always but then Francis himself never got an knighthood in England, he left for America, La Hoya, he was one of the professor and he is one of the great figures.
KM
In the 20th century...
The man was seen as he was a senior partner anyway so I remember that. Only difference I must say in fairness. While at Cambridge could have kind of begin this way, Cambridge also had a great admiration for intellect. I have to say despite it being from outside, you see one of the things of course if you are not a part of Oxford you are Cambridge and I got the 2nd fellowship because I know entirely because they thought my work was important and the President head of the college said so so that was very very nice.
KM
So there has been a mix of meritocracy on one side and appreciating merit and on the other side some limitations and difficulties...
Because, you know, that job that came up and that was...
KM
Was for the Englishman, for the English boys...
But in fact that was a complicated story, the original lecture was an Indian and he was not getting promotion so he was very quarrelsome with everybody,
KM
so he gave it up in anger. This was a wrong practice and he should have waited a bit longer because not everybody gets promotion in Cambridge. Even George Steiner never got promotion but you know it happens outside and not all color, but outsider, that's the thing. In England club is important it does not matter what your color is but if you belong to the club and you don't and I never did but unfortunately I never belonged to the post-colonial club. I never belonged to any of these clubs so that's why I was always seen as, why should I have loyalty, so that...At Cambridge, that's my admiration as I made so many friends at Cambridge who were really. There's not only one but there are lots of other ones. Quentin is one, that's not the only one.... He was very good friend, still a friend made in Latin.
KM
Joseph Needham was so wonderful said such wonderful things about my book and the other person who had a great admiration for my book, I don't know, I met him at he very end of his life Rodney Needham. He was very famous. I mean so you do find that, I have to say that Sussex was petty, they were very liberal. Behind their liberal facade had and you don't have to put this in the book you know this is very much you and me as this is no point of picking a quarrel, a lot of liberals, they were liberal, but behind the liberalism there was incredible prejudice. Perhaps they thought I was a bit odd I didn't do things the way they wanted to do, but that's all right and Homi, the sort of Homi, the sort of Ranajit, none of these people ever got on you know, that's interesting...
KM
Now maybe we can go back little bit on to your either your students, some students that you remember who were particularly important for you or you think you connected with particularly or also colleagues or people who were your contemporaries who kind of sustained you more in terms of your field...
Now the problem was not problem you know we were very social my wife and I. We made lots of friends 100s of friends ain London, Cambridge, and so on, not so much at Sussex if you so that was not any problem. Yeah, we were known as a couple.
KM
So, you would invite people over to dinner I mean where you that kind of...
Oh yes all the time...
KM
Well that was always a part of...
Oh yes and they invited us and apparently because my wife also is a great beauty and she was known as that and everybody and yeah yeah absolutely those things always.
KM
We never, but yet, my friends suffered prejudice they couldn't get house and that's a friend who died Surit Sen, very bright student but we were very lucky we never faced this kind of prejudice. Only prejudice I faced say, Swasti, my wife faced but she worked against something challenging kind of some world economy the partly because it also is a period of women doing things and you know if you are independent sort of so that kind of a thing but that is the only thing I feel is the glass ceiling nothing more than that.
KM
In professional world...
Oh I had so many English friends and in fact some of the closest friends are English and they are very very close friends. They are so wonderful; we have been sustained I can tell you give you over the years. Sussex, generally, I had lots of people I knew. Some were very friendly but one person was absolutely wonderful. He always said that I injustice was done to me man called John Burrough. He's a very very distinguished historian, English intellectual historian, Victorian Britain, and then he became a professor. John was a great friend and people like there were other friends too. Since in institutions people are committed and then how they decide so that's something I did feel and later on you know I at one stage this and I anyways...
KM
And...
Lot of friends, at the University of London, I had whole range of English friends from Arts course society. There was somebody called Frank Knights, anyway Frank was my very close friend, then my contemporaries Patricia at very close friend somebody called Robert Take, this was really seeing them all the time spending time there place my place our place you know absolutely there's no question about that. I had lot of we have been always whatever its worth we had friends who kind of surrounded, if we ever felt isolated we were always but that's different from actual.
You know work situation where competition comes in but definitely then came we had lots of friends, mostly English, I mean they were that many others absolutely. Some of my friends, we still have very dear and very close friends. Somebody called Jill Tildon I got to know. I mean she did medieval Italian and Jill was a brilliant student at Cambridge and she became friends of ours. She is still Jill, very dear. You know we had another close friend called Karen Musthill, she is Chinese at SOAS, all this sort of friends I mean that I don't see them all continuously they have gone but Karen still is very close and we still keep in touch. She married first a South African Indian and then eventually she now married to last 15-20 years, very interesting, man very distinguished called Micheal Mustill, he was a Law Lord. So these things I kind of have a lot of friends. Joseph gradually got very ill, Dorothy was his wife, but he also had a girlfriend Lu Gwei-Djen, a Chinese woman and we saw them. Lately he got very ill. I mean very nice and so these are the people
KM
And you know...
This was our life from '62 to today except these short breaks in America
KM
This was the social world that you...
Our neighbors were wonderful in Brighton, they were not academics but they were wonderful. All walks of life then we our neighbors at Cambridge were very very lovely also. We still keep up with them very different English.
KM
We have all sorts of friends in America. I spent I met one of the close friend's from Victoria was this a man who used to teach with me. He was a complicated student, bizarre in the '60s, he was a gay, he became a gay and then he married a student, woman in Portland. They are a couple and again they are very old friends. They have 2 children and we met them at Cambridge and we still keep in touch with them in New England, so that sort of whole range of people everywhere all over the world. Say what happens as we grow old can't keep a tab with all of this and sometimes it's our fault and gradually...
KM
Although the affection is still there...
I think we'd been very very deeply unhappy, none of us had been very happy these are the issues you know we obviously faced and a little bit unhappy at work but certainly not unhappy because so many friends in other worlds including Britain I can't say, "no I can never make friends with British". I know some people say that, I can't say that then I am really I had friends they would do everything for us. So that's absolutely true but not just English, but from everywhere..
KM
Did you have...
You know Chinese and African...
KM
Who...
Some of them you know Evelyn Nicodermus was a very very fine painter artist. I met only 2 years ago wonderful we had brainstorming...
KM
Did you have connections with friends in Germany?
Yes, I have some very good friends in France, but not many. You see this is very few select ones. Italy, we have one dear friend in Italy, well my great idyll love is Italy that's one place I love absolutely. Florence, Rome and Venice, oh yes, that's what I always loved. Food, drink canals. I went there as a student looked at all the art and also with Italian friends, that's what we had...
Does that set something about you...
KM
Yes, absolutely, I did speak to the oh on the lives of the cosmopolitan...
Oh, you did, one thing I must say there's a thing about immigrants. by the time you are about 6 you start to long for your homeland. I have no homeland, I love everywhere you know where friends are and...I have lot of link with India of course it is the privilege of having written, and this close relationship and family but yes for me it is not important for me to go back to India and I could never go back and settle and as you see people ask me why don't you come back on occasions not always. They wanted me to come back but I find Indian politics defeating and I can't cope with it. Once you asked me about this and also why I felt so this vague idea about,
KM
this kind off stereotype representation and you know sort of colonial mentality. In Cambridge I met so many people, I was also thinking about the actual book. Gradually with the cause in '74 and things began to be actually much more clear which I have written little bit in the essay, I will send you once it is out in December. Talk a little bit about how also things not only the change, there are certain questions were being raised so you come to late '60s and '70s first feminism, before that '60s, that time also you were here, when dances, Beatles well all this a part of ..
KM
well the 60's the '68 revolution, an amazing time for the students, an era...
Oh, fully, we were involved but only as I mean we didn't we didn't go out and demonstrate but yeah, I must confess but yes very much so...
KM
That was also a part of life...
And that also, well, my wife too also being a feminist, she writes and her works very similar famous for this common thing, common bond women in global economy that became a classic but the thing is that, oh she has been very involved with lot of revolutionary groups but that was the '60s but whatever you do is not steered conceptually. Have you got time ....
KM
Yes...
OK, I will tell you later a little bit about what's interesting is that these were happening and I wrote the book and I didn't expect it to be so I think it is important isn't it?
KM
Yes absolutely.....
I didn't...
KM
You did not write thinking this is a classic.
...The first thing you know was from an army colonel from India Englishman he said rubbish the book. He said one shouldn't read this awful. So awfully, one should read Du Bois, the man who was my subject from the nineteenth century. So I was very... my first review... I felt a bit bad. But then a few months after the wonderful view came out, the very first, Francis... was the historian then he wrote an absolute page this book has absolutely changed people so that started though and set the ball rolling. Even then teaching racism, you the whole thing happened, it just started and then I was invited to the Institute at Princeton impart to a group very interesting Clifford Geertz,
KM
John Eliot and the economist Michael Hirschman, Michael Walzer, you know these names of course. Plus Cliff was very nice, I really got to know him better he was a lovely man and Robert Evans was a Regis Professor here, he was a young man. We were visiting fellows this is part of another group called "Percpetion as a historical Phenomenon". Sort of looking at the whole problem of representation but the interesting thing is while I was there...
KM
This is when
This is '81, at Institute for Advanced Studies. I was there, Bernard Lewis was also there. Bernard Lewis was my teacher not a direct teacher but he was a professor.
KM
Wow, well I didn't know..
Yes, he, there was this scandal there..... he ran of with his wife's SOAS, in any case, went to America. Bernard Lewis did a big conference, didn't ask me, invite me to that, as soon as I arrived at Princeton, called "East/West Mutual Perception". I didn't realize what was going on. Of course it was attacking Said. His book had just come out. Initially people said it's interesting but I'm not sure whether it was interesting, and so I was at the Institute and this conference took place and I said why are they so keen on...So I went up to see him. That's why I first met Edward in 1981, first time I went to see him very nice talk and I actually remember what he said, apart from anything else, Partha, you know all scholarship is political.
KM
Of course he would say that. Actually we wanted to do something together but you know things were out of control. I was too over-ambitious and I wanted to bring out two different sides together and the kind of Saidian and the others that were more orthodox. It wouldn't have worked, things were too fraught. I didn't see the so sense...
KM
Between Bernard Lewis and the other...
No, that was the actual fight not just between the people who were working with Clifford Geertz, but that never happened because the whole post-modern thing gathered such momentum and rightly so, that it was under control in that sense.
KM
So that also made my book a took longer to be established as a key text. But now in the last year several places, in Princeton and Harvard, I was so pleased. Two of the people who introduced me, had in invited me, said it was before Said. Now, outside the... is also very very interesting. We have a lot in common and we also had differences and I saw him you know, quite fond of him as a person...
KM
When did you meet him through the years, on occasion?
No, yes occasionally, so I met him then and we then didn't loose touch but then you know the the whole kind of thing the Saidian thing. The tremendous fight between Bernard Lewis and... have you ever seen those...
KM
Yes, yeah, they have captured...
You see the Edward always fought very hard, I am bit of perhaps people think I am too kind of... I don't like to attack people personally. I wouldn't have attacked Lewis, I would have attacked the position but it became personified anyways so that was part of the whole thing. Then over the years we did that and that went on. One was the last transfer Edward had invited me actually to Columbia. He had a centre which was simply to give fund scholars who came from abroad very nice that time he was quite old you see in this terrible problem pain but he sat through. I gave this paper Hottentot Venus, and I called it "Hottentot Venus and Western Man"
KM
Oh you wrote...
Yes, I was very interested in Saartjie Baartman and also this whole concept on, you know, what cultural beauty is in the West and she was very opposite in some but then yet not...
KM
Did you any publish this, your work where did you publish?
This was in that I can give you the reference but you know this is long time ago...
KM
certainly if you remind me I would, but you know so sorry... so Said that's all OK when recently, when he had his first illness, I did write to him and I asked him why he doesn't try our treatments, its very interesting. he said, "Partha, I have faith in a doctor and apparently in fact when he got ill his doctor he was also advised to go somewhere else to consult other consultants in Washigton but the same kind of thing , they said he is the best man so his doctor who was an Indian so he said I trust him and I said fine. It doesn't mean you do both and he didn't want that. He was a rationalist and that's why he didn't believe in anyways that's his thing and so we saw him that was his occasion. Last it was a moving occasion, I was in Calcutta when he came and he was, Sugata invited him you know for this Netaji Oration and it was very nice. He said Partha I think you have a home but I do not have a home it was quite interesting
KM
Meaning that you had a home where
In Calcutta, and he didn't have a home
KM
He couldn't go back to any...
You see that's the thing he had probably that poignancy but it was very nice. And he said you can't like Verdi, but Wagner you can...
KM
Because he is a great lover of...
I do like Wagner very much...
KM
OK, he said you... Can't like Wagner
He loved Wagner
KM
He loved Wagner, OK yeah
But Verdi... [laugh] Yes, he had this interesting paper called, and he's played lot of records I was there actually at Brighton he came and there was a big conference, and I saw him from time to time. He had a very sweet thing the scholars he thinks he and others he doesn't approve, he mentioned me, I was a bit flattered because he said that he saw "like Homi Baba, Gayatri Spivaks and the younger generation like Partha Mitter". I said gosh don't say that or Gayatri will be livid, I'm a lot older that Gayatri and Homi is a lot younger than me. He was very nice in many ways, he was combative in many ways I know, he was obsessed.
KM
He was obsessed with...?
You know obviously this the problem of Palestine, the problem of representation and the essentialism, ahistoricity and essentialism. These are the two elements. His field is English literature I agree but he doesn't need to be a historian but I do feel there is a certain historical dimension to racism so that I feel that something I prefer to see that way. But nonetheless we had things in common you know his idea of essentialism and the kind of East/West on all Jewish/Palenstinian things. Jackie Rose was my colleague and she was very nice, also she was sister to another very dear friend, Jillian Rose, who died, who was at Sussex as well. They both at Sussex. Jackie once had went into conference with him and asked him why do you see this in this terms. He said actually I don't but I do see it as a political situation you can't have that I don't know I mean he began to change, his last lectures were saying that we can transcend,
KM
interesting and awesome with Daniel Barenboim. Barenboim is wonderful. He pushes Wagner in Israel, and he says you have to. And that East/West divide and that orchestra is very very good. All these sorts of things very interesting so that's how the whole racism thing, I mean gradually developing this idea of that's what Much Maligned Monsters became. I finished the dissertation. That was much simpler I must say basic argument was there but it took time to refine and that happened in Cambridge.
KM
During your 4 years
These conversations
KM
OK, conversations with people
These conversations
KM
So you would say that conversations are an important part of the life of the adda and what is achieved through the adda...
You know that made my arguments much more grounded, and there are 2 kinds of adda. I mean I had the privilege of being a cosmopolitan because my parents but then...
KM
You said there are 2 kinds of add...
You also have virtual cosmopolitans. I call them virtual, reading books engaging with all but not having direct knowledge of the West and I met people I had a friend a bit younger man you know came from a not a very privileged family but he was talking exchanged and discussions from Malarmé, Valerie, French poets. Why why did he find these so interesting.
KM
And I find that very interesting he always continuously read and he had very bad sight he was short sighted that man he used to be a boy then he started as a school teacher but now I hear that he has gone to very good school so I am very glad. I thought what a waste you know, such an intellect and he couldn't... I don't know how successful he would have been creatively but at least he had the engagement so these are the things right through the friends we had and sat at the coffee house and I mean discussing everything right under the sun from mosques to you know to paining to music. Music you know only a few people had access like Surajit, great music lover
KM
Who?
Surajit Sen
KM
Oh yes
Because his father was a judge, again he was one of the ICS. He had wonderful collection Indian sculptors you know so he had this dual side. But he never learnt Bengali for which he later felt a bit embarrassed about. He went to an English school and Surajit had such a wonderful knowledge of music and films all this things he wrote a wonderful review of Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali. He also knew Satyajit Ray, some kind of family connection in Calcutta. So that's what we do have this Cambridge also was a great place you know sort of under, we would go for coffee in the morning and meet al this different people...
KM
Would it also happen over stouts in the evening?
No
KM
Pub culture, not so much?
Basically, the tea, you met socially as well for different things for parties, dinners...
KM
But not for conversations like this, this was in the morning?
Also Lisa Jardine, you know Lisa we were very good friends, we used to see each other and, Lisa had a friend Maggie Silverstein. Apparently she has become something like her secretary, agent that's interesting so all these things. That gave me a great deal of richness to much my monsters and developing this the first chapter you know was kind of theory I really developed that and on to the next stage and also the thing I did was to reading art history and basically Coomaraswamy as the last one. He was very very great in many ways but also he had certain limitation to whole colonial art history project, and mine was the first critique, '77. So these were I think important things. When you write you understand and I never thought that was what I was doing you know because when one's dissertation doesn't become a so it happened and then gradually I began to develop ideas from representation to identity that came a little later thinking about painting.
KM
Ah, that went back to my home, when I started painting I used to do it in an Expression manner. People in India say including Satyajit Ray's art director man called Bankimchandra Chandragupta very very nice but he said why do you do it in the western way and that's an interesting question and I wanted to find an answer to that. But all colonial art, art from the communists the peripherals all had this problem it is a dominant you know canon, and so how do you deal with this. So that started this art on nationalism, also you know to tell this story you a very important period intellectually. Art and Nationalism has a lot of intellectual historian in it particularly the last chapter on the debate between different groups of people about art and tremendous acrimony's and witty as well and lots of other things. I tried to understand it this whole movement nationalist art in Bengal School what it did mean for us. With Abanindranath and all these people so this was the last stage of that period, end of colonial period and the Triumph of Modernism, but that's the end. But modernism had added other new things, such as the Avant Garde, this whole question what does it mean in the Indian context, as well as context of nationhood, so this was a big project from much more than '47.
KM
So you can actually see it as a trilogy?
Oh yes I did.
KM
You did see
Fortunately or unfortunately I get a bit carried away and I am not very good at planning. This Art and Nationalism should have come out at least 10 years before came out long after it should have been. I should have finished it long before but I wanted to publish it as one whole thing after '47 but nobody would have published it.
KM
The three
No just the one big volume on Art and Nationalism after '47, nobody would have published it, come on
KM
It's difficult
So I am glad and then somebody said then divide it into 2 parts and that took time...
KM
So Triumph on Modernism is really the last part of this work.
But its all part of the trilogy. Starting with representation of the West you know of the Indian Art and then Indians trying to cope with that as well...
KM
Representation... identity
Looking back and forth you know Indian artists also asked we are also looking at Western art and Indian art through the Western eye and going back and either resisting art and whatever. This kind of constant double take that's, I see it, as this is the major work and there are a lot of links...
KM
You were saying it was representation, the question of identity and then the question of border-crossings and cosmopolitanism and what goes beyond divisive definition of identities towards and inter-subjective...
Now you can as an artist increasingly aware of that, I want to develop that...
KM
Can I ask you specifically, I know in some of your works, particularly where you talk of virtual cosmopolitans, you reference the Latin American world and you mentioned Chicago, New York, big global cities London, of course Mexico city is another one, have you had, Sao Paulo. What is your relationship to the Latin American , South American world?
Yes, I tell you what apart from my admiration for Rivera. Actually Orosco is my great, he's the most wonderful painter, but River is very important. Siqueiros as well and I knew them since I was very young I mean. Reading you know this is the thing, I must have been influenced by them, I must have been influenced by Orosco in my painting...
KM
In your own works, in your painting?
Yes, you know very powerful Expressionist thing, it's a mixture of Michealangelo, Expressionists and Mexican muralists and so on. The thing is that it also gave me an opportunity in 2000, I have to check the date, end of last century I applied because I was encouraged by people.
KM
You know Margaret Thatcher destroyed the whole firework on education then they all woke up and look who have lost all the research thing and the Government began to give a lot of money and they were again going to give big money for collaborative projects. So Sussex and another, it's actually called a combination of art schools, but they're actually research institutions. It's called the London University of Art. A collaboration to put forth a project.. The HRC, Arts and Humanities research, HRB, board then, Arts and Humanities research Board. I applied and put forward the proposal called, I've got it... later, if you wan, I'll... Modernity, Art and Identity India, Mexico, Japan, very disparate. I did not want to this polarity kind of 2 comparison with 2 it was kind of very simple but 3 makes it very intriguing. How do you that was wonderful, because I was given quarter of million pound for 2 years because they were giving all this to people to do this and this was wonderful.
KM
I had 24-25 people and I was director and then 2 directors from other institutions. We had 25 people from India, Japan, Mexico, Europe and America. A whole range of scholars and intense 2 years of... We met about 5 times we formulated plans, seminars and sadly its all lying there. I am seldom part of a group where every you speaker, or the participant, wanted to they all sent their papers before time sadly I left Sussex, I took slightly early retirement and Sussex decided to ditch the project, gave it to this other institution, just to tell you. Just to tell you this Keith Mossey got us he is a friend at Duke University, you know this one was in 2002. They still have not done anything...
KM
The other art institution in terms of pulling it again...
It's criminal because this whole dozen people gave their papers so anyway they published elsewhere. So it's very sad. So it's very sad, Modernity, Art and Identity.
KM
Looking across...
Yes absolutely and I didn't ... and I learned so much from all these scholars from Mexico and Japan.
KM
That was a very intense interactive thing. I haven't gone back to that I love to do that because last year was it last year I did this conference at Columbia. Very interesting called Modernism and its Discontents: Asian Art and the Canon. I had a very very interesting group of people.
KM
Did you organize that?
Sorry
KM
Did you organize that in Columbia?
Yes, and I want to publish that because they were very good people and they want me to publish that. So all these things I have been thinking about trying to go beyond this earlier because I do accept the importance of the process, ask different question and I think we need to build on that, what do you say?
KM
I think it's not a question on disagreeing but building on...
Yes, I remember this young scholar I met recently and all very interesting...
KM
Now how about your relationship to Gombrich, who would you say you would have that relationship with? I mean people you have mentored in the sense that either you found them very impressive or you have you know being thought as...
Kirs, it's very interesting question you asked, I will tell you why ... I have some wonderfully brilliant students some very good students and some students I am very fond of very close friends but intellectually I have never had any...
KM
Has there been that 1 student that you have just felt...?
It's so interesting that at Sussex, I had a very ambitious student who was doing very well but he is much more interested in subaltern art, Dan Dreicroft, if you ever meet him I am very fond of him but he's not my, you know, not my you know....
KM
He's not your of mind...
I have 2 students who I never had does that make sense...
KM
How do you mean?
They were in Columbia and were very keen to work with me. I never obviously joined Columbia but had I been there they would have been my students and I still think of them as my spiritual. One is Deborah Diamond and do you know,
KM
Yes sir, I know...
Deborah, I am fond of her, I think Deborah is somebody I feel could have been my student, the one that didn't have...
KM
When did you teach her?
She now is at Sackler. She's doing, she is a keeper of Indian... but she was in Columbia and she was very interested in my work and Molly Etkin was the other one, did you ever meet no you would not have because they were at Columbia. This both very interesting particularly Deborah, both of them I must say so what I found is not a student as such and there were reasons for that. At Sussex, I did not have the opportunity as well, funding all kinds of complex problems. By the time I had it was too late I had retired had lots of people to work with me and that time I really moved away so I find people who come up and say they learnt so much of work in India as well as...
KM
So it has been virtual in the sense that...
Yes indeed, no in fact they have been if there is legacy then there is a legacy and there if I have inspired them then I do feel that I have done something but nobody...
KM
You have never been interested in starting your own school of having a group that you imprinted, that you have marked stamped as your prodigy...?
Yes, perhaps the opportunity did not arise, if I were at an institution where this could have been done that probably never happened. It could be just this situation, perhaps my temperament. No I get very close to students really but, in a strange way, people have come to work because of my... and yet they have not actually with me but on the other hand it is a matter that is diffused much more people even you know this Keya Ganguly. I met her because she was very interested in my work and Tim Brenner. Tim said how much and all these people I had everywhere...On the word that I find very moving, that's when they came and said that they find my work stability lots of reasons as well so that's what I personally feel is the most kind of rewarding. I have not had any real, the thing that I wanted to build up was this in the Hindu temple, unfortunately that's what I say in Britain nothing...
KM
The class, the course...
Yes nothing survives and there is no real Ancient Indian course. I have taught Ancient Indian for a long time its very interesting... partly developing from if I criticize artists who are important in a way I want to say in a way little texts, Indian art that I wrote. I wrote and that had some of the idea that I wrote and these developed but there is also a territoriality I am sure the others who are special in the field oh he's trying to coach and but also I must say Kris I don't know why I do feel that Sussex was an complex period and strange where I spent the largest chunk of my life...
KM
You were there in how many years in total?
29 years and yet once I left Sussex. Things have been moving very rapidly you know I am doing so much and getting so much responses and that's interesting and I often find people who don't even know me they come and say that they have been inspired by my book and that's what I find interesting, but perhaps there is no such thing as, I mean, some like to create schools some like to, in my case, perhaps I hope that what I have written particularly some articles on Art History, these are the things that I hope will think more clearly like you know one of the things lot of ingrained ideas about history, those need to be tackled that's happening but...
KM
What is been your relationship with Tapati Guha-Thakurta?
I like her, she is a very bright student and you know we do see each other casually and I would say she was inspired by my work that's you know you don't need to quote that, but yes I think so and she was, you know, really the only good artist in India there's nobody.
KM
Who is of the same caliber.
Not really sure
KM
And in terms of your future project you mentioned something about between work on diasporic artists, what is that?
Yes, you know what I have been asked to do couple of Curating exhibition this is new thing that I am doing and...
KM
Curation. You are beginning to curate.
Yes, hoping that this is going through the exhibition of the progressives. I know them you see this thing and that's interesting that's other thing, as I come closer to these people kind of already known earlier generation. I knew some of them in Modernism and but not all of them so that's good but also I have written individually on some certain people and I am going to ask some questions as to what is this, can we use only the hybridity or shall we move onto something like, can we define transnational, I had this not a problem but this question came up? I must try and if you go to Boston I mean the catalogue is there the ICA writing about Anish Kapoor. He is a fascinating person, but where does he stand and also where. Initially, I had to sort out some of the things in his and that was a very interesting challenge that's one person. One or two other well known but pretty good becoming very well known somebody called Sohan Qadri and then Anil Refree in Washington
KM
and then Nath Prabhas all this people I knew. Younger people like Shahzia Sikander I have written and actually Sazia did a wonderful ballet from MoMa, before she met me based on the Much Maligned Monsters and then I have written on this women, Ritu, I have not written on her but I like her. Her work is very very interesting. She was very badly injured or something happened in her spine while she was in the hospital she began to imagine and she did her own figure against this kind of color field very very powerful but she was this sort of modest person. I hope she does get to show people what she is doing, so all these people I was starting to write and hopefully...It would be interesting because I am here and I am in the sense part of, you know, but also this younger generation what is that they are trying to do. Somebody as remarkable like Anish or others too that is an interesting.
KM
Anish has lots of issues to resolve because he is part Jew, part Indian, part Hindu, part Iraqi and so on and lots of other ones. That is what of course is the future to me. But hybrid is very interesting. You know Homi was very right to try and subvert it by saying it's not a bad thing, it's very much a celebration, but the probably again go beyond that, to ask questions about what are these people. They often don't like it somehow to be called...
KM
To be called hybrid...
Yes, I know, this is a real issue and so all these things I am thinking and hopefully this is the area I love to develop, right on...
KM
And I guess coming on to this...
Something I don't know whether I would be ever able to finish. I love to write on Bengal, this whole intellectual history little bit but its not, I mean, I can't do everything and then you are there, but I am still thinking about it as a personal memoir. Someday I want to write for my children when I have the time, I keep saying this but this, but I....
KM
There's so much that one can do, coming to a concluding question, you know perhaps being a part of artist or part of being a creative soul that there is a trajectory that one's life takes, a message that you are kind of writing through your life and it's clear listening to you that there is a kind of message that your life ha, there's an arc right that your life is sketching and drawing so what is the relationship between painting and kind of in a visual way, making a picture, and the way you have chosen to lead your life. Do you see your life as a kind of art, as a kind of art work in certain sense or not?
One thing I can't deny that art has played a very important role in my life but the most important role, now let me rephrase it, art has been very very powerful, no question about that, but emotionally, I been most moved by music even more than painting. I had to you know when I listen to my mother that is a passion, or by Rafi specially I remember him once singing extraordinary and that I think even painting does not reach you know that's interesting all these things but having said that yes Art is very much a part of because, also I see, now, very clearly because I had started off as an artist that is today even artists that I am using rather I could have been a literary history literature or I could have been straight political historian. I have never been that because of that I am sure because also that accident I couldn't go to an art school or I could have become an academic more... every time I have become an academic you know couldn't have been an artist.
KM
Now I can't say that too seriously but it has been very interesting in many ways. Sometimes when things are being difficult you know I used to like we have this wishful thing. Now when I painted I had this tremendous kind of involvement, physically so wonderful to do it, but then I came to, I am writing and I am doing things and so it is lesson less. I always had this ambition that I am going to do some wonderful painting you know this is a dream but it does affect my life of course but more than that 2 things I have tried to do more specific thing that becomes very boring. I constantly stress this thing that you know Western Art and canon, then you have to challenge, have to and that has been 1 thing which artists must come to terms with and that's what I am fighting still. This essay to be out in December, I hope, I want to do much more than that it becomes boring after a while and people say he has the same thing he ok that's 1 thing. Other thing on my own method on approach. I would say method or approach I believe that these scholars, the political, but 1 of the things I do believe that you see that...
Oh, I will tell you what I wrote once... review that Marx, I do believe Marx's great contribution were that humanity. It gave the press the weapon to fight but Marx was part of the 19th century and he couldn't get out of the teleology. The post colonials rightly challenge that, and the whole epistemology, you know, Manoni, and other people talk about colonial but they were caught within the same thing, they couldn't get out of that. You must distance yourself from the old intellectual apparatus to see what you are trying to do, you see, this whole thing about video historical truth there is no such thing it's a text. I do agree with that but, I don't believe in it as a bloodless thing. I wrote Hottentot Venus because I also thought she was a living human being and he was treated so awfully so they are both and also I talk about construction of beauty in the west. So Edward was actually the lecture and said it was very troubling and I don't know what he felt because he was much more textual man but nonetheless I do believe that combine you also have to look at the real issue of people suffering...
KM
People in their actual context of life...
Perhaps little pompous or wishy-washy liberal thing to say, I do believe in justice not in the very crass way. Let me put it this way. Nobody has the so right to be even though to call themselves oppressed. Everyone has the right, it's not the particular group but it's the way things, the whole mechanism, therefore I have been deeply steeped having read about the Holocaust. It's so awful, when I read all these people very respectable middle class I don't know what happened they I mean so brutal but at the same time I must say look at the way my you know Australian use a target practice. Don't forget that read Evelyn Nicodemus's or her work. Look at it to see that everywhere this thing can happen and women too oppressed, so I don't want to ...
KM
one one group, it's that thing we have to always fight against and so that transcends very narrow confines either Pro-Marxian or any other group. It is not humanism in many old fashion sense but constant sort of being able to see where this kind of thing lies because you know some of this has been rightly said that often there is a talk of don't talk about African and the oppression so that's absolutely true. Oh one thing happened only once or twice very rarely this man probably took it and he did this essay on the Virgins in Australia he was so upset, he got angry with me that he thought of me as a father figure and then he was angry with himself and gave up the thing and he was very disturbed. So you know that's the kind of thing has that human dimension but 1 thing all the benefit from the me is that having met so many people and become friends even briefly. I love meeting new people you know everywhere as I say Evelyn is a very recent one, she came to meet me because of my work and then we got to know each other and she is a wonderful artist.
KM
She did this wonderful scroll of genocide, she doesn't exclude genocide but she also has all this African thing. She suffered a lot. Feisty woman, she's living in Edinborough. Last month she moved from Brussels. I'll see her in August and things like that so that comes as engagement so I feel that we need to have research we need to use method which is not old fashioned and... No you always have to worry that it is a balancing act between universalism or univeresality which is somewhat spurious, which means that some dominant group is saying this is universal, and also that other side, it's not relativism.
KM
And fragmentation...?
Then you begin to like what you are doing, a group of people what are their....trying to experience or so as a historian also
KM
It sounds important in history...
My ideal was a very different kind of man and in many ways I don't agree with him but this trying to capture an age, Burckhardt, always thought of him as .. Art of Nationalism has two things which people didn't notice but a reviewer, he did a wonderful review, twenty page review, the rest of it was very lauditory. He said the book was constructed very musically, which was absolutely true. Very Mahlerian and Burckhardtian. I want to create a very last scale...
KM
You ever think you will write about music directly?
I have not much competent enough to do so that like Said who, of course, is a very fine musician. I listen passively, I know a lot about music but not the
KM
...technical...
...technical, I know the only the singing I can understand. I can't do scales and which I wish I learned... Satayjit Ray did, but I couldn't, but I if you take the whole background I think I know as anybody else so I have been deeply involved with composers and I also have this very ingredient in new composers, and I'm very interest in new composers and I'm interested in modern music, very modern. I mean beyond Stockhausen and so on... yeah, all the way.
KM
Well, I think I will end there. Thank you very much for your time. It was wonderful, really great.
Thank you, it was lovely.
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