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100 Years of Nonsense

Something strange happened in Hatibagan neighbourhood in North Kolkata recently. Every house was painted white, with balconies and windows and balustrades drawn with black paint all evoking Kolkata from 100 years ago. And amidst them were the drawings of fantastic animals and eccentric people and snatches of poetry.
Thousands of people came to marvel every day, laughing with glee and wonderment.


While a voiceover explained what it was all about in song


It was to celebrate 100 years of sheer nonsense
This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata.
Sukumar Ray is sometimes called the Edward Lear of Bengal. Abol Tabol his book of nonsense rhymes was part of my growing up. And I dare say every Bengalis. That book turned 100
And a designer named Anirban Pandalwala decided to bring the world of Sukumar Ray alive on the streets of Kolkata

AP1: Abol tabol chhilo shotoborshe. Sukumar ray mrityu shotoborsho.

The occasion was Kolkata’s famous annual festival of Durga Puja, the festival of the Goddess Durga. The Hatibagan Nabin Pally club in North Kolkata asked Anirban to pay tribute to 100 years of Abol Tabol.
He decided to not just build an installation but involve the entire street. Painting all the houses. It was like entering a world filled with its creator Sukumar.

AP2:ekta sukumar moy jogotey dhukey jaachi

Th Huko Muko Hyengla, who swats flies with its two tails, sat behind the grill on a tree branch extending into the house. The rotund flippered Kumropotash lounged on another wall. An electric feeder box turned into a Tyashgoru, a smug creature, with horns and wings and a scarf, the tail extending onto someone’s roof

AP3: okhaney electric er duto feeder box chill. Sheygulo enkey tyashgoru banano hoyechilo

Crowds oohed and ached as they recognised snippets of their childhood. Like the Tyashgoru.


Actors dressed like the characters performed the poems in the middle of the street


The installation was a huge hit drawing thousands of viewers for the week or so it was up. Durga Puja art is world famous as public but this project would have fallen apart says Anirban if even one house had not cooperated

AP4:. Na keu kichhu boley ni. SHobai cooperate koreche.

Probably Sukumar Ray nostalgia helped. Many still know many of the poems by heart says Anirban. Even from decades ago.

AP5: Moja hochhe kabita gulo eksa mukhoshto hoye geley mrityur aagey porjonto money thekey jaay.

But this isn’t just kid stuff. As we grow older we realise the poems are sly bits of satire, cocking. Snook at pompous bigwigs and tyrannical governments. Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri who translated many of the poems into English, says the best nonsense is often double edged.

SC1: The quality of really great nonsense literature is that it’s both sense and nonsense. It appeals at two levels. Even to the adult reader and also the child.

Its whimsy and yet rings true. Like In Ray’s world of bizarre rules and rulings, “those who sneeze without permission are thrashed in gentle admonition”. His Baburam snakecharmer needs to provide two snakes that bite no-one, never hiss and only eat milk and rice. Sounds rather contemporary to be honest.

SC2: Fantastic quality of the imagination. At the same time much of the nonsense is applicable to our actual life.

Ray didn’t live to see his book in print. He corrected the proofs on his sick bed. Before he died aged 35. A bust of Sukmar Ray at the entrance to the lane reminds visitors this is a twin anniversary - 100 years of Abol Tabol and 100 years of the death of its creator

CROWD3:  mrityu  doshoi september 2023

Ray is often compared to Edward Lear. But he was really gleefully and madly Bengali. His strangest creatures could live right next door to me in Kolkata. They even come with aunts and uncles. He is says Anirban, mass art reaching both intellectuals and those with just basic education.

AP6:Sukumar Ray kintu mass art.

That’s why it makes sense that this tribute to him involved the whole neighbourhood in the fun.
Anirban designs many Durga Puja sets with huge budgets every year. This one was a modest one in comparison. But it taught him that Simplicity is beauty. Truth is divine is beauty.

AP7simplicity is beauty. joto soho toto bhalo. Satyam Shiva Sundaram.

Sukumar Ray knew that. And now 100 years later we understand that’s why his nonsense still makes so much sense.

This is Sandip Roy, in Kolkata for KALW