Joy of living

Published : Sep 22, 2006 00:00 IST

What made Sankho Chaudhuri unique was his ability to create a special occasion out of nowhere.

A FEW weeks before his death at the age of 90, he received a phone call from a friend in Kolkata. "It's nothing, really", said the friend. "I just wanted to hear you laugh, so that I could feel better."

Sankho Chaudhuri's laugh was so much like the man himself: open, full-hearted, exuberant and infectiously happy, combining innocence with understated sagacity. His wonderful sculptures were only one part of his gift to the world. The other gift, perhaps even more compelling though ephemeral, was he showed us how to live.

He was one of the foremost creative artists of Independent India. Born into what would become a very illustrious family originally hailing from Pabna district of East Bengal, his natural artistic inclinations were encouraged by his parents and his eldest brother, Sachin Chaudhuri, the founder-editor of the Economic Weekly (now Economic and Political Weekly). Sankho Chaudhuri went to Shantiniketan, where he joined the Kala Bhavan of Viswabharati University in 1935, focussing on sculpture. These proved to be crucial years - not only did he come under the influence of the remarkable self-taught artist Ramkinkar Baij, but he also met his future wife Ira, herself a very fine ceramic artist.

He must have imbibed something of the free-flowing and unshackled creativity of Ramkinkar, along with the innate discipline of form that sculptors must possess, for his work exhibited great flexibility as well as the ability to respond to and mould very different physical material - from terracotta to wood to stone to metal. I have been told that his works indicate both lyricism and austerity, but austere is not the word that springs to the mind for me. Rather, the pieces come out as strong, self-confident and expressive. Because he celebrated in his work almost every facet of human existence, there is great variety in the sculptures, though they are all vivid and flowing.

A later exhibition of his paintings some years ago brought out another aspect of his creativity, this time two-dimensional but with the same sense of freedom. It was this freedom, as well as deep respect for the artistry of others, which enabled him to play such a positive role in the formation of the "Baroda School", when he was the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Head of the Department of Sculpture for two decades from 1950. For much of the latter part of his illustrious life Sankho Chaudhuri lived in Delhi. He held some important positions - he was, for example, the Head of the Lalit Kala Akademi for some years.

But these were the least important things in his life. He became a Gandhian early in life, and remained one even in the contemporary world where those core values are so often derided. He had been to jail during the freedom struggle. The attributes that were most immediately apparent to those around him, apart from his acknowledged artistic genius, were his warmth and his zest for life.

On one occasion, when he was around 85 years old, he took a ride home with me after a musical soiree of Shantiniketan alumni held at the home of an old friend. On the way, he suggested that he could come and listen to some "real music" with us, after several hours of hearing the quavering voices of his once proficient contemporaries. So he settled down in an armchair in our home and blissfully listened to the recordings of Bhimsen Joshi and Kishori Amonkar for several delightful hours, the music interspersed with his fascinating reminiscences and inimitable laughter. Only after a frantic phone call from his daughter, who had been desperately searching for him for some time, did we realise that he had omitted to let anyone know what he was doing... .

It was this spontaneity, this utterly charming and attractive ability to respond to the moment and create a special occasion out of nowhere, and to extract from each bit of life the richest colours and fullest flavours, that made Sankho Chaudhuri such a unique personality. For me at least, this will also be his most treasured legacy.

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