Tag Archives: utpal dutt

Utpal Dutt and the Magician: A Tale of Two Performers ©

Utpal Dutt, before he turned into a professional actor commanding pan India fame, was a school teacher. No run of the mill teacher he was of course. Any student exposed to his teaching skills in the early days of South Point High School in Kolkata will probably affirm this. Not unlike a magician, he could make his students fall into a trance. The medium of instruction in the school was English and he taught us English literature. His English accent was immaculately British, which we admired to no end. But coming from middle class Bengali homes, as most of us did, we were fully aware of our own inabilities to pick up his brand of English. Despite Utpal Dutt’s sincere efforts, our limitations lingered.

Dutt was an amateur stage actor as well at the time and the founder of the Little Theatre Group (that later changed to People’s Little Theatre). In the interest of the students, his acting group often performed Bengali versions of Shakespeare’s plays in the school premises, translated by Dutt himself. These included plays such as Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night and others. Thus, he was equally at ease with Bengali and English, reserving English for the classrooms and Bengali for the stage.

He was, however, not the only entertainer we were exposed to. On special occasions, the school had its students entertained by other varieties of performing artists too. This story concerns one of those, a stage magician, and his interactions with Utpal Dutt. The school had no auditorium at the time and shows were held on make shift stages. One such was rigged up for the magician in the manner of Dutt’s own stages and the students congregated there to watch him. Utpal Dutt simply loved the students and, as was his wont, he too joined the festivity.

The magician appeared to be earning a living of sorts from his skills, while Dutt was probably dreaming at the time about a professional acting career. In a way therefore, the two were not equals as far as their earnings from stagecraft went. Of course, the magician was not particularly well-known in his profession either and was almost certainly struggling to establish himself. He never found the success he sought, or so it would seem, for his name hasn’t survived the tides of time. No Houdini, or Sorcar, or Gilli Gilli Gogia Pasha he was therefore, or even remotely managed to turn into. As noted, Utpal Dutt too was then relatively unknown and neither performer knew the other personally. However, Dutt was destined to climb great heights in later life. The magician, therefore, had little idea about the great actor to be that he was facing on that long lost evening.

The conjurer kept us enthralled with a series of tricks and, encouraged by Dutt, we clapped thunderously at the end of each item presented. Quite unexpectedly though, one of those tricks caught Utpal Dutt on the wrong foot. The trick appears in hindsight to have been reserved for Utpal Dutt and him alone. It commenced with the magician stepping down from the stage and approaching the audience with a pack of playing cards. His eyes searched for the right face and landed quite randomly on Utpal Dutt. He confronted Dutt, requesting him politely to choose a card from the pack and reveal it to everyone present, except the magician himself. Dutt did what he was told and then replaced the card in the pack. The pack was shuffled thoroughly and the magician went over to the stage to place it inside an empty drinking glass on the top of a table. Following this, he turned back towards the audience looking directly at Utpal Dutt. And it was then that the fun began.

“Now Sir, why don’t you request your card not to hide inside the pack any longer?” began the magician. “After all, I am not acquainted with it. Can’t you ask it to show us its face?” The magician was speaking mostly in Bengali, which the students understood quite well. Utpal Dutt was visibly embarrassed by the idea of speaking to his chosen card, though the actor in him could well have done a great job of such conversation. However, he avoided that course of action and remained seated amongst the audience and simply smiled sheepishly.

The magician though insisted doggedly, which is when the English language invaded all of a sudden, for Dutt was asked to address his card in English with two simple words — “get up”. Simple yes, for he could well have used more sophisticated expressions like “reveal thyself” or, “come out of hiding, will you?” But it is unlikely that his acquaintance with the English language went that far. Worse, he was as ignorant of his own shortcomings vis-a-vis that language, as he was of Dutt’s outstanding command over it. Dutt could hardly refuse, for a room full of students were staring at him expectantly. He followed the magician’s advice therefore and came out with his version of the “get up” order in what sounded like trochaic meter, delivered in an Othello like booming bass.

Like any other magician, the one facing us possessed rudimentary acting skills too. He used them to his advantage now and almost collapsed on the stage in feigned fear as soon as he heard Dutt’s voice. Then, wearing a scandalised look on his face, he reprimanded Utpal Dutt in chaste Bengali. “If you scare the card this way, how will it even manage to peep out of the pack? Please don’t scold it so loudly, will you? Be polite, be nice to it? You are forcing it to remain in hiding!”

Then he went on to demonstrate the way he needed our teacher to utter the two fateful words. What he said sounded like a request alright and a passionate one at that. But there was a problem. The “get up” he insisted upon was somewhat songful in nature and spoken in a manner that made the words sound more Bengali than English. His tone bore a close resemblance to that of a doting Bengali mother urging her pampered brat of a child not to throw garbage on the heads of unwary passersby.

In short, his English was as far removed from Dutt’s as a tropical rain forest could have been from the Sahara desert. We, who were closely familiar with Utpal Dutt’s diction roared out in laughter, though our own pronunciation was doubtlessly far closer to the magician’s than Dutt’s. Yet the goings on appeared hilarious in our eyes, because we doubted that the teacher could reproduce the magician’s version of “get up” without distorting what he taught in his classes. The magician of course little knew why the students were laughing. He merely believed I suppose that he had excelled in his job. He responded with a wide grin.

Now, more than half a century later, I cannot fail to note a paradox of sorts surrounding the event. There is little doubt that no native English speaker could have understood what the magician had said to Utpal Dutt. Any such person would probably have expressed his incomprehension by merely scratching his head. But the thunderous manner in which we reacted amounted to jeering at the magician for his lack of speech wise sophistication. Quite obviously, we had developed into a bunch of snobs under Utpal Dutt’s tutelage, even though he had never intended things to happen that way. The paradox lay in the fact that Utpal Dutt ended up directing many a stage actor to speak the magician’s “Bengalified” English, purely for its comic effect. He must have spoken it himself too if the role demanded it. But on this day, Dutt the teacher refused to imitate the magician’s accent, which he could have done effortlessly. In fact, if he did imitate, his students would have gone back home with the impression that he had demeaned the man, not for being an incompetent magician, but for a reason totally unrelated to his trade. His fault would lie in the fact that he spoke his mother tongue more freely than he spoke a foreign language.

None of us would have reacted the way we did if the magician could have come up with Utpal Dutt’s English. This, however, was quite impossible, for the school he had gone to had almost surely not employed a Shakespearean actor to teach English. Unlike the students he was facing, he had probably studied in a school where English was not the medium of instruction. Most likely, even his English teacher taught the language in Bengali. Consequently, he was not familiar with the niceties of English accent. He could not speak King’s English. Nor could we.

Utpal Dutt probably realised the nature of the paradox the way I myself do today, having graduated out of my teenage asininity. Instead of mimicking the magician, he spoke the words in the manner of a boy soprano. Moreover, in doing so, he demonstrated his magnificent acting skill as far as voice control went. We heard open mouthed the range his voice could travel, from bass to treble. This did not quite satisfy the magician’s demand though, but he decided it was not as fearsome as Othello preparing to strangle Desdemona. He did not insist any further and much to everyone’s delight, the card in question did in fact climb out of the pack by itself and allowed us to verify its identity. Utpal Dutt came out with an earth shattering bravo and the rest of us clapped cheerfully.

A few days later, some of us came across the magician one more time. He was waiting near the school office, to collect his compensation for the performance. We began to chat with him and he turned out to be a friendly person. As all young people do on such occasions, we started enquiring about the secrets of his tricks. He told us vaguely about the art of magic and ended up at one point asking us to request the school authorities to start a magic course for the students. This was certainly unheard of. No school on earth meant for general studies offered a course in sorcery. Even at that young age, we concluded that the man needed a steady income, an income that would let him peacefully concentrate on his art without having to depend on a hand to mouth existence, which is what his stray performances ensured at best. We knew that his proposal was absurd and the matter ended there.

The magician’s own future could not have been clearly visible to him either, but one suspects that he in his turn too had undergone a professional change sooner or later and vanished, unlike Mr. Dutt, inside a dark alley of anonymity. Yet, one cannot help wondering, what could have happened if he was offered a chance to teach some subject or the other, say Geography or Mathematics, in the school for a regular salary. He would then have enjoyed the position of Utpal Dutt himself. Dutt was able to pursue his dream career, which could not have produced a dependable flow of income at that stage of his life. This did not pose a problem, probably on account of his regular income as a teacher of the English language. The magician’s academic qualifications did not measure up to Dutt’s, or even lesser teachers’ in the school. Not merely the school where Dutt taught, but elsewhere too. Besides, he was probably not inclined towards teaching either. He must have ended up in some lonely island or the other to earn his living and whatever work this might have involved, it could not have lent much support to his performer’s hopes. Also, who can tell? Unlike Utpal Dutt, who was able to walk miles to achieve his dream, the magician may not have possessed the grit to struggle against the unavoidable odds faced by a creative artist. It is a cruel world we live in.

Royal Russian Ballet — Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in India

Robert Fogel, the Nobel winning economic historian, had once made a remark to a few of his colleagues, which I, an inconsequential graduate student, had overheard. It was not Economics that Fogel had discussed. Instead, he explained why he was disinclined to attend live symphony orchestra. The problem with these, he observed, was that they left no room for encores, however much one might wish to listen to a favourite tune a second time.

Fogel therefore preferred to hear his music on a record player. One could always lift the stylus, he said, and move it back to enjoy repeatedly the parts that had caught one’s fancy. Being music-wise non-professional, he was not entirely correct though in believing that live performances precluded encores. Legend has it that at the première of Beethoven’s 7th symphony in Vienna, the second movement, Allegretto, turned out to be so captivating that it was encored in response to public demand. Such encores, of course, are exceptions that prove the general point that the professor had made. The conductor of a philharmonic orchestra is unlikely to regale the audience by repeating portions of a just concluded performance.

It was pre-internet age when Fogel had expressed himself. With the arrival of Internet, sites such as YouTube have lent additional relevance to his viewpoint. Audio-visual repetition of a performance, part or whole, can occur now in cosy corners of sitting rooms.

One wonders, though, how the likes of Fogel might react if they ended up attending a live performance, but were treated to a recording alone of the musical score, with no sign whatsoever of the performing musicians. Replay of the recording may well not be ruled out under the assumed circumstances, but one does not purchase tickets to be so favoured. A live musical opera with missing artistes is a contradiction in terms and the contradiction turns into a travesty if it is a ballet one is watching that is not only unaccompanied by live orchestra, but is accompanied instead by the blinking lights of monstrous electronic equipment occupying the greater part of a front corner of the auditorium, with electricians in casual working clothes distracting the audience. Add to this large and dirty green trunks stacked on top of one another in the first wing, stage right, and a stage hand in a pair of American rose coloured trousers and a black tee shirt standing in the second in full view of a good part of the audience. Fogel had not been exposed to this horror, but Calcutta was, when the Royal Russian Ballet (RRB), advertising itself as a group devoted “to saving and promoting the best traditions of Russian classical ballet around the world” performed Tchaikovsky’s immortal composition Swan Lake in Nazrul Mancha.

Fortunately however, the classical Russian tradition has been lovingly preserved by YouTube in its archives. Among other wonders, a performance of Swan Lake by the Bolshoi Ballet in 1989 can be easily accessed there. As one watches it, one cannot help wondering if RRB would have been allowed to present in London, Moscow or New York, what it did in Calcutta.

In all fairness though, a travelling ballet group finds it super-expensive to have orchestra hands accompany it and that may well be the reason why the live orchestra was missing. However, by Indian standards at least, the tickets were steeply priced too. Not as steep perhaps as the rupee equivalent of the dollar price in New York, but steep they were nonetheless, steep enough to spare the audience the grotesque sight of an Odette (in pristine white) or an Odile (in gorgeous black) flanked by an elegantly clad Siegfried on the left and a man in crumpled red pants and black tees on the right.

Anna Pavlova or Isadora Duncan they were not expected to be. Yet the dancers did not exactly disappoint, but the audience needed to exercise supreme self-control to ignore the technicians, the uncouth boxes, stage hands in red trousers and hairpin adjusting ballerinas in the wings. With stage wings revealing what they were supposed to cautiously conceal, the magic, the supreme illusion of Swan Lake lay shattered.

India in general and Calcutta in particular have their own classical traditions. No Bharatnatyam dancer performs without instrumentalists occupying a part of the stage. Utpal Dutt’s Tiner Talowar, had a Shakespearean stage within the stage with instrumentalists sitting on the main stage to re-enact classical Bengali drama. Calcutta’s proscenium theatre has a long history, that actors like Girish Ghosh, Sisir Bhaduri, Sambhu Mitra, Utpal Dutt, and many others, including a somewhat unappreciated Kamal Majumdar, had enriched. Even beginners here rarely violate the basic rules of stage discipline.

RRB plans to return with other items in its repertoire. Going back to Fogel, watching YouTube instead should be a more rewarding experience.

Enjoy the Bolshoy Ballet’s performance here.


Tryst with a Teacher

Teachers who stick to a syllabus bore me to death. I have always enjoyed being taught by teachers who didn’t mind crossing boundaries and trespassing into other subjects. Arithmetic mingling with geography, history with chemistry, or, for that matter, English literature taking a u-turn into physics. Teachers who lead you that way are eccentric for sure, but I am quite convinced that they are the ones who make learning a gloriously enjoyable experience.

I am reminded in particular of my English teacher in school. He made us read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and while he was teaching that book, he introduced us to events leading to the French Revolution in magnificent detail. It was not clear whether he was teaching European history or English literature. And we thoroughly enjoyed all this, especially so since he didn’t stop with the French Revolution. Soon enough we were learning about the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and his retreat from Moscow. Needless to say, we used to look forward to his classes, for each class exposed us to ever new surprises. And the surprises didn’t remain confined to history alone. They bordered sometimes on sci-fi as well!

“Do you know what an atom is?” he asked us one day in the middle of his lecture.

Some of us knew, some didn’t. So, he went on to explain the basic structure of an atom, telling us what neutrons, electrons and protons were. He described how sub-atomic particles revolved around a nucleus at unimaginable speed even as the physical body that was made up of the atoms, like the black board for example, clung to the wall betraying not a single sign of any movement.

The students stared at him in puzzled silence.

“You see, an atom is a bit like the solar system. The sun in the middle and the planets circling it ever so restlessly. But you and I continue with our lives without bothering about such matters. Yet, we are continuously seated on a gigantic ferris wheel! Isn’t that surprising?”

We nodded our heads vigorously. True indeed, how stupid of us. But then he went on.

“Is it possible though that the solar system is merely an atom, one amongst endlessly many that are sticking together to make up some colossal structure?”

We scratched our heads.

“Well, look at the black board. It is merely a collection of endlessly many atoms and each atom has a queer resemblance with our solar system. Let’s put together trillions of these solar systems and may be they will begin to look like a solid body. Perhaps like a stone on a ring worn by yet another super-gigantic creature. An infinitely large brobdingnagian individual, who loves his ring, but doesn’t know that there are nano beings living somewhere in his ring. He has his life to lead with no idea at all about the love and hate that keeps us busy as well.”

We listened to him open mouthed and stared back at each other. Some smiled stupidly.

He suddenly raised his voice several decibels and came up with an even more dramatic possibility. “Suppose by accident, some of these subatomic particles crash against one another. They are circling at such immense speed that the atom might explode. Right?” He smiled.

We nodded vigorously once again.

“An atomic explosion of sorts! What will happen to the black board if such an explosion were to occur? It will disintegrate into splinters. No?”

Yes, that did look like a possibility, however absurd.

“And what will you do with the blackboard if such an incident were to take place? You will have it thrown away. You will have no use for it, right?”

Yes, of course, a splintered blackboard should be quite useless in a classroom, we agreed.

“But now, suppose such an accident occurs in our solar system.” He said this and waited for our reaction.

We didn’t react. We were quite dumbfounded.

“Well, an atom in the giants ring stone would have exploded, thereby destroying the stone altogether. The giant will be puzzled for sure. Why did the ring disintegrate? he could wonder for a while. Then, since he has other important work to do, he will not worry too long about the broken ring. He will simply take the ring and throw it away. Just as you said you will throw the blackboard away. Right?” He came up with a stage whisper as we continued to remain spellbound.

This sci-fi story has stayed back with me for a long, long time. I think it was 1958 when I heard this imaginary tale.

I have often told you about this teacher. His name was Utpal Dutt, one of the best stage cum cine actors India produced. Only few know how good a teacher he was too, before changing his profession.

I have no doubt in my mind that it was he who inspired me to take up teaching as a profession.


Prehistoric Memories — Radhakrishnan

R. Radhakrishnan. 

Ramanathan Radhakrishnan, to be somewhat more precise. 

Or, just Raddy to many of us. 

No idea how many of those holy “us”-es exist anymore. And that includes Raddy himself. 

But he did exist once upon a time. My classmate of course, a classmate who keeps floating up every now and then in my stream of memories. Among other flotsam I guess. I wonder why. He must have been special.

Radhakrishnan was a loveable chap, somewhat childish in temperament though. I mean as a student of Standard VI, if you take into account the number of times he would break into tears, literally so, when circumstances did not favour him. There were many such. And ours was a co-ed school. Raddy didn’t mind weeping in public.

One related to reading comic strips. It was a taboo in school during our time. Utpal Dutt and N. Vishwanathan were particularly strict as far as this law went. Not that it had any impact on us. We merrily read them at home and borrowed from each other. Johnny someone or the other who carried two guns, Roy Roger, Jessie James may be (I shouldn’t mention these names to you kids — highly unlikely that you’ve heard of them — I am inadvertently revealing my age to you!!). But Julius Caesar figured there too — original Shakespeare. 

As I said, all this was taboo. Reading comics was a sign of mental degradation. Only Mr. Dutt didn’t know how degraded we actually were. Except of course for Raddy. Not that Raddy was stupid. Just that he was innocent and didn’t understand why reading comic strips would stand in the way of his rise to glory. So, he brought the comic books to school and read them mostly during lunch hour and sometimes while a class was in progress. I can’t exactly recall the occasions, but Mr. Dutt could have been teaching us Milton with Raddy deeply engrossed in reading his cowboy comics. 

As I said, he was somewhat innocent. Which means he would get caught. And commotion followed invariably. Mr. Dutt (or was it Mr. Vishwanathan?)  would walk down the aisle and catch hold of the book Raddy had fallen in love with, snatch it away from him with a warning that harsher punishments would follow if he defied the law. A sheepish, though adorable smile, was what Raddy used to respond with, knowing probably that the book would soon come back to his possession, so long as he promised not to repeat the crime again. Perhaps it did. 

And then he repeated this heinous crime, again, again, again and then again and again. Till one day Mr. Utpal Dutt took hold of the book and tore it to pieces in front of the class. Now Raddy had probably borrowed it from a friend or a local library ( who knows). So destruction of the book mattered. He was liable to return the book. Tears streamed down his cheeks as on all such occasions. Not silent mind you. He wailed and accused the person engaged in the cruel act of chastisement. What sort of logic he came up with to defend his case I have no memory of alas. But that crying face continues to haunt. 

The crying face of a young boy. We were all quite young of course, but he was surely the one who stood out. On one occasion Raddy loudly protested through his tears and told Mr. Vishwanathan I remember that he was Mr. Vishwanathan’s favourite victim whatever “crime” might have been committed by whoever it was that committed it! How much truth there was to this accusation I can’t tell, but Mr. Vishwanathan even tried to argue in self-defense. Recorded history, unfortunately, does not have anything to offer on the manner in which this battle ended.

Raddy, was single mindedly devoted to science. I am sure he wished to grow into a scientist. And that was fun, at least for me. He taught me how to manufacture electric bells. We would walk over to an electrical goods shop near our homes (he lived 5 minutes’ walk away from mine) and purchase the necessary raw materials and before we sat down to work on the bells, we would discuss with great interest the theory underlying the simple devices. That was enjoyable, though we quarrelled once in a while too and Raddy would storm out of my home. Accompanied by rain, that is his crying as usual. On one occasion, I remember running after him to drag him back. 

Raddy was so scientifically inclined that he often mixed up his English literature work with scientific experiments in the Chemistry lab. Once he submitted a homework to Mr. Dutt which described a man quenching his thirst as he drank out of a beaker. Mr. Dutt had no idea what a beaker was doing in his literature class. He yelled at Raddy, “What’s this you have written?” Raddy replied calmly that he was speaking about a beaker. Which took us nowhere of course. I think Raddy had tried to impress the teacher by using what was classy English in his opinion. To no effect alas! Utpal Dutt wouldn’t accept a beaker to serve liquid refreshments. 

It was Raddy who taught me how South Indian Brahmins wrote their names. Ramanathan was his father’s name and Radhakrishnan was his own. Much later I learnt that Ramanathan himself would be preceded by the name of the locality where the family originated and Radhakrishnan in his turn would be followed by an Iyer or an Iyengar, depending on whether one was a Shaivite or a Vaishnavite. But as I said, I learnt this much later. By then I had lost touch with Raddy. So, the prefix and suffix in his case belong to the domain of unknowables for me.  

The other important lesson he taught me was that the word “Madrasi” was a Bengali invention. He explained to me carefully what he meant and I understood him quite well. But I don’t think I ever referred to him as a Tamilian. At that young age, he continued to be a Madrasi to me. Raddy was a Madrasi, just as much as Kamla Vilas was a Madrasi Guest House and Restaurant. 

They lived in a cramped looking flat in an apartment building (such buildings were rare at the time). I have a vivid memory of his father’s face, but not his voice. He had never spoken to me, or else I would. As I think about the man now, he was somewhat strange. The rare occasions I came across him at their home, he would stand at a distance and simply stare at me. Expressionless. Completely so. Otherwise, I would have concluded that the face reflected a hidden sadness.

His mother was different. She was able to converse in broken Bengali and would always come out with a warm smile when I visited their home. “Won’t you wait a little, Radhakrishnan will be here soon,” she used to tell me in her version of Bengali. Very motherly, dripping with kindliness. 

Many years later, when I was in charge of ISI, Delhi Centre, a cousin of mine (who had attended the same school) told me that he had news of Radhakrishnan. I followed up the link and tracked him down in US. He recognized me and replied to my email. I told him that I had fond memories of his kind mother. He informed me that she had expired under unfortunate circumstances. That’s about all that passed between us. He never responded to my mails after the first one or two. 

Also, Raddy sounded different. He didn’t sound the innocent little boy I knew. He was more like a busy professional. It was clear that he didn’t shed tears anymore. His tears may have dried up. He had shed them all as an youngster. 

It was my time to cry. Over my lost childhood.