Hemendra Kumar Roy

A Forgotten Colossus
Sudeshna Chakraborti

2013 marks the 125th birth anniversary of Hemendra Kumar Roy. Hemendra was a regular presence at Tagore's "Bichitra Sabha' and with his friends Satyendra Nath Dutta, Manilal Gangopadhay and Sourendra Nath Mukhopadhay formed the famous "Bharati" quartet, the "Kallol" and "Mouchak" groups. Apart from editing many magazines like 'Rangmashal' and 'Mouchak' for youngsters, Hemendra edited the famous "Naachghar", a Bengali periodical, which was the first of its kind. It stood out for its incisive articles on art, dance and music and was considered a pioneer in helping the ordinary man on the street to understand and appreciate the nuances of choreography in theatre. He choreographed the legendary Sisir Bhadury's play 'Sita' and also composed the lyrics. The song Andhakarer antarete oshru badal jhorey sung by K C Dey was so popular that everyone hummed it. Along with Kazi Nazrul Islam and a young S D Burman he set to music many of his songs which Burman sang to begin his career as a singer-composer. Hemendra also edited 'Chhanda' and 'Dipali' apart from being an art and drama critic for many publications including the then young Ananda Bazar Patrika. A comedy, 'Premer Pujara' written by him to entertain friends was launched by his enthusiastic friends including Sourindra Mohan at the Minerva Theatre under the aegis of the famous playwright Rasaraj Amritalal Basu.

A famous German translator Dr Reinhart Hobner wrote to him in 1930 describing some of Hemendra's stories as masterpieces. Hobner edited the German Sanskrit Reader where alongside Tagore, Saratchandra, Dwijendralal and Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay he chose Hemedra's short stories. Hemendra's first book of poems was 'Jouboner Gaan'. He also translated Omar Khyyam’s 'Rubaiyat' into Bengali.

However Hemendra's greatest admirers were his young readers whose hearts he had captured with his stories of adventure and detection. He created detective duos Jayanta Manik and Bimal-Kumar who epitomized the average Bengali youngster's idea of what courage meant and how it should be used in combination with intellect and integrity. Female characters rarely featured in his stories of adventure. Some of his stories were based on plots which were part of every youngster's reading list in the Western world but which would have remained unknown to the average Bengali child who received his education in his own tongue and access to good English education and books was next to impossible.

Hemendra and Nripendra Krishna Chattopadhay opened a new world for this thirsty lot of youngsters with their translations of the classics but Hemendra went a step ahead. He transcreated these characters to enable them to fit into their Bengali milieu but he never pretended his stories were entirely his own. He admitted his sources to enable his young readers to know from where his stories came.

Hemendra also took a great deal of interest in the world of spirits so his stories on the surreal and the spiritual world are unparalleled. Many of his original ones along with Western ones, completely Indianized, featured in these collections are scary enough to keep his readers awake. Cemeteries fascinated him as did spirits. Hemendra loved history and his historical stories reach a level that is on a par with his adventure stories. His famous novellas 'Bhaga-baner Chabuk' on Timur-e-Lang and 'Panchanader Tirey' on Alexander are so detailed and well written that they would give trained historians a run for their money. He greatly admired and closely read Sir Jadunath Sarkar and devotes an entire chapter in his memoir 'Ekhon jaader Dekhchhi' to this amazing man. Hemendra also translated Alice in Wonderland calling it 'Ajob Deshe Amala'. His amazing talent comes out in the nonsense rhymes featured in the book.

Time will best judge Hemendra Kumar Roy. All who knew him personally write of his amazing simplicity and vast knowledge of matters related to art, music, literature, cinema and history. He was secular and a liberal. Nazrul would spend days in his house singing, writing and composing music. Sibram Chakrabarty would often talk to him and his extreme generosity to people who did not do so well in life. The great artist Jamini Roy too benefited from Roy's generous patronage in the latter's early years of struggle as did sundry destitute actors and actresses of the stage and silent movie era. Roy's friend, a famous writer, wanted to marry a widow, an act his aristocratic family would not permit. Then he took the initiative and saw to it that the beleaguered lovers could marry and live happily. Today such help is common but not then, in the early 30s of the 20th century when society was very judgmental and conservative.

Hemendra was born in 1888 on Sept 2 and passed away on April 18, 1963 in impoverished circumstances because he was a bohemian, impractical and a spendthrift who never thought tomorrow was important. No one knew who held the copyright of his works though some publishers did their best to dig out what they could to bring him before the new generation. He never tried to do anything for his sons though a word from him could have got them good jobs. He was an existentialist, a dreamer, an iconoclast who lived by his own rules. He would not have cared that no one powerful from the world of publishing bothered to commemorate the 125th year of his birth. As long as the young read and enjoy the stories he has left behind, his soul will rest in peace.

Vol. 45, No. 50, June 23 -29, 2013

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