Nirmal Chandra Kumar - Bohemian bookseller and champion of arts

Aloke Kumar

I was extremely embarrassed by my father. Not knowing what he did as a profession was a constant ‘nag’ in my mind. When my school friends asked me I used to fumble.

My father had his own library full of books and the whole day spend his time with his books, maps and prints. He smoked his pipe once in a while and talked over phone often,and most of these were centered around books . Books recently listed in catalogues. Books surfacing in the many auction houses in Britain and Europe. Books in private collections. It was books, books and books.

nirmal kumar

Which led me to believe for a very short time that my father is a teacher. He looked the part with his pipe and an all round air of intellectuality. But this was short lived. To be precise a period or two in the English Class as the teacher asked me to write essay on ‘My Father’. I twirled the tale and wrote that my father is a ‘Professor’. He has a large home library like the intellectual gentries and is always reading. He knows many a subject from Arts to Architecture. From History to Histrionics. And that brought me to the point. Then why doesn’t he go to colleges or universities to teach instead of staying at home.

Always reading and waving his wand over my mother, directing her to cook the best of recipes, taking a siesta in the afternoon, followed by a big ‘adda’ session in the evening where his fiends came in number to continue the discussion on books. Friends who all had proper jobs. Filmmaking, Public Relations, Actors, Book Publisher, Folk Singer, Writer, Bureaucrats et all.

When I told him once that my friends often ask me what my father does, his answer was simple and straight . “I am a Bookseller”. But where is the Book shop? And where are the buyers. I knew he was joking. But that did not solve the mystery.

In my mind he neither fitted here nor there. Simply clad most of the time in lungi and half-sleeved shirt. Lungi, a linear cloth sewn from the centre worn in hot regions where the heat and humidity create an unpleasant climate for trousers. At other times he wore a Dhoti and Kurta sporting a pump shoe, smoking a pipe. What a sight. A man traditionally dressed in Bengali attire smoking a well manicured British pipe or a Havana Cigar at times endlessly pouring over pages of books on all and varied subjects.

It is only after his death in 1976 that I came to know from his many friends that my father was the first antiquarian in India. I had never heard of the term neither had my friends. Indeed it became a tool to shock many of my first interviewers when I was looking for a job.

My father , Nirmal Chandra Kumar, who died of cerebral stroke in 1976, aged 60, was a man who was an antiquarian. He was also among the greatest influences on a generation of artists, from filmmaker to fiction writers, folk musician to folk artist; actors to activists, writer to wanderer; teachers to travelers -more so perhaps than any art critic or editor.

For 30 years, my father, a stocky Bengali, presided over his own collection of rare books, prints, maps, manuscripts and other materials in his own bookshop opposite a Protestant Church, in a place near Entally, in Calcutta. A place also famous, for the birth of the Communist Party Of India, Mother Teresa’s Nirmal Hriday and birth of the Revolutionary Communist Party, Naxalbari.

The bookshop from its opening in 1945, until the death of my father in 1978 was Calcutta’s pre-eminent rare bookstore. Whether you wanted books on art, travel, ornithology, botany, history, literature, mutiny, religion, mountaineering; KUMARS was the place to go. Under my father, its Art and Indology section was its greatest strength, and the tradition of bohemian bookselling was carried forward into the 1950s and 1960s.

Kumar’s bookshop, if it could be called so, as it spread over several rooms at our home and looked more like a personal library housed in a well-appointed living room, was a hub for book lovers. In the early 1940s, rare book collection was in a dismal, class-bound rut. The famous rare book shop Cambray, who provided Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee with 90% of his books, was already fading, Thacker & Spink the well known bookshop was alive but there were hardly any rare books, more or less you had to hunt your way in College Street Bookshops to add rare books to your collection.

My father helped to change all that. His enthusiasms included, the then unheralded British Painters Thomas and William Daniel to be re-introduced to Calcutta once more. He bought the rare Elephantine Folio of 144 Views of T&W Daniell from Sotheby’s to sail it to Calcutta. That it got damaged in the way and a bitter battle was fought with the then, Macanon McKenzie is history. Much of the Folio remains today with The Victoria Memorial in Calcutta. He had agents to buy books for him at auctions abroad and purchased books and prints from such well-known establishment as Foyles. Bernard Quaritch and others.

My father’s collection boasted books by the painter Hogarth, Travel writers such as Colonel Sleeman and George V Higgins; Anglo Indian writers from the forgotten James Hamilton to the unknown Bishop Heber. The Scottish writer named O’Malley was also a favourite, as was the great African Missionary Traveler David Livingston and Sir Richard Burton. If these rare works were easily available in Calcutta to the literary landscape, it is in no small part due to Kumar’s efforts. When he obtained the complete set of the famous journal Reis & Rayot from the Maharaja Tagore library, he persuaded none other than Satyajit Ray to add it to his personal collection. A rare set of Daniells landed with my father and he begged R.P.Gupta to take it, without much success. Gupta later in his writing confesses and laments the decision. If Ashok Lahari, then Superintendent of the Calcutta Zoo, has been able to leave behind a rare collection of Himalayan Birds and other books on Ornithology and Wild-life to the collection of The Zoological Gardens, it is because of my father.

To walk into my home, survey the books on display and ask my father's advice was to enter a new world of bibliograph. My home became the haunt of an unlikely mixture of luminaries, from Radha Prasad Gupta, the famous Anglophile to Satyajit Ray, the famous film-maker, Kamal Majumder, the well-known writer to Mulk Raj Anand the famous art historian; Nirmalendu Chowdhury, the folk singer. Santi.P.Chowdhury, the first Documentary film maker of India, Asok Mitra, the father of Indian Census and Professor of Art JNU and a host of others.

Thanks to him, and his friends, my home in the 1950s became a kind of counter-cultural nexus: a place where you could drift from paintings to graphics to early prints and thence to the maps. You could visit Somerset, then walk down the Hoogly and then take a ride up the Nile. There you would find my father at the heart of a group of autodidacts, film makers, musicians, writers, lowlifes and just plain booklovers whose cultural heroes were Jean Renoir, Jamini Roy, Richard Burton (not the film actor, the great 20th.century traveler) Ananda Coomarswamy, Sir Auriel Stein, and many more Not only food for thoughts, my father was a gourmet and loved food. He organized the very best of fine cooking to be presented to his friends. Sometimes such delicacies that you would only find in the pages of some rare Mughal document. R.P.Gupta recollecting the same comments, that it reminded him of the fabled stories of the Arabian Nights where the food was served fit for royalty.

My father formalized its literary scene by initiating regular readings in the bookshop, something of an innovation at the time. Visiting Americans, from old travel heroes like Peter Fleming to British Army Colonel like O.L.J.Milligan read there; so too did the Calcutta writers Kamal Majumder and R.P.Gupta. Ellla Maillart who was born in Geneva, Switzerland and gained international recognition as an expert for Asia, an ethnologist, and a writer wrote that ; ‘to visit Kumar’s, was like pilgrimage…. you spend the whole day browsing through books, chatting with Kumar on different subjects, meeting the Calcutta intelligentsia and enjoying the Bengali hospitality with the best of food and savories…. all seamlessly interwoven’ .

Jean Ribaud, the French billionaire and industrialist who married the daughter of Somen Tagore was one such visitor. Ribaud was introduced to my father, by R.P.Gupta, not to forget that many of the people who found their way to this quaint address was introduced by him. Whenever Ribaud visited his in-laws place, which was near Entally market and opposite to Kumars, he made it a point to visit Kumar. With his Kurta, he very easily slid into the mileue and spend his time pouring over books, many of them in French which my father had acquired from Chandanagore, the erstwhile French colony in Bengal. Ribaud loved to eat a Bengali starter, called “shukta”, which had no equivalent to any cuisine of any other countries. It was a concoction of bitter gourd and sweet potatoe among a host of other ingredients. Jean made it his specialty and compared it with the taste of Campari.

When Satyajit Ray, started his research on the Mutiny for Satranj ki Khilari, he depended on my father for rare books on the subject. Kumar not only provided him all the relevant books but also went out of his way to bid for a Scrap Book on Mutiny, having paper clippings of the happening. Ray did not forget this gesture and paid Kumar his biggest personal tribute by having one of his characters in his series on Feluda etched on him. The character Sidhujata (Sidhu Uncle) in his Feluda series with an encyclopedic knowledge immortalizes my father.

Vasant Chowdhury, the well-known Bengali Film actor was offered the role of the 19th. Century, educator, Raja Rammohan Roy. Chowdhury was elated and reached home, to give the good news. The detailed study of the Raja began -the way he sat, wore his shawl, his dress and posture. Hundreds of documents were referred to including paintings, which were at home and abroad. It is during this race for information on the Raja that my father bumped into, maybe the only engraving of Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, another notable educationist of the same period, and which was till date completely unknown.

A trader’s son, born in Calcutta, Bengal, Kumar was the eldest of seven children. After local schooling at Mitra Institute, Kolkata, he went on to Bangabasi College. The family had a large Departmental Store at Shyambazar and the family had their ancestral house nearby. Kumar lived with his parents before moving separately to Taltola, in the early 1930s. He did odd jobs and tried his hand at writing, which in his own words, he failed miserably. Thereafter, he started collecting rare books, which became his passion. This he turned into a business, at which he was neither a success nor could he make it pay for his living. This did not deter him and he continued with his passion. In 1900 he invited his parents to come and live with him, as his father had a misfortune in business. His parents arranged for his marriage to Karuna, who was a teacher in a school, in a sleepy railway hamlet, called Adra, which is in the border of Bengal and Bihar. Their thinking was that they would make a good pair as books and teaching go together. He continued working on his collection, but side-by-side gave support to a lot many fledging artists and writers in those days.

As the 1960s moved into the 1970s, my father became a resource for Calcutta’s researchers, but he was not able to cope up as much of its collection had faded away. His health had failed and much of it was due to a domestic crisis of two of his children becoming members of the Naxalbari Movement. By the end of the 1975s, the rare book trade became thoroughly commercialized; books started to be torn for their prints and sold separately. My father did not want to be a part of this and lost out. Its last remaining outposts of bohemianism swamped by cheap commercialization, and it was with a sense of bowing to the inevitable that he mentally gave up.

Nirmal Chandra Kumar died in 1976 and with his death, the literary world lost a genuinely unselfish man who freely gave of his vast knowledge and delighted in the achievements of those he influenced so profoundly. 

With him the tradition of such meeting points faded away. Places where you could literally spend your time to educate yourself.

(Aloke Kumar is a Second generation lover of books.Travels miles in search of antique materials. Romances on a world full of books.Took up from his father but found himself inadequate.)

Jun 21, 2017

Aloke Kumar [email protected]

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