A Message for Today
By Sisir Datta
One of my earliest memories is of a place that fascinated me. It was not marked
by any spectacular monument, but I would slip there secretly whenever there was an opportunity to do so. It was a patch of
green surrounded by trees, different varieties of them, tall, short, round thin, with foliage of different shades of green,
leaves of different designs, sheltering numerous birds small and big which hopped or flew from branch to branch, whistling,
humming, chirping. Nearby flowed a canal. Occasionally a boat passed by, its oars making noisy splashes.
It was not far away from our house in Chittagong. My playmates and my brothers
and sisters to visited the meadow, but they went away long before sunset, for it was said that with the approach of dusk the
meadow became the haunt of ghosts.
I would tarry there quite long after sundown, with the keen desire to steal glimpses
of a ghost or two, but they never obliged me. I would lie down under one of the trees and gaze at the sky and listen to the
voices of birds and the rustling of leaves. One by one stars would twinkle and through the leaves and clouds. One by one.
And then in thousands.
Indeed I had fallen in love with that solitude. My mother was aware of my rendezvous
with the twilight. She would send our servant with a hurricane-lamp to fetch me. Muttering God’s name to ward off the
spirits, he would discover me and curse me for daredevilry.
Then came the storms. The Second World War. Famine. The Partition of Bengal.
My beloved meadow was lost to me. I was exposed to human suffering. Death, bloodshed
and violence stared me in the face. Then I knew what fear was. I was anxious for the safety of my friends and the dear ones.
And for myself too.
In the meantime unknown to others, I had lost my religion.
The war was on. I understood that the Germans and the British were fighting in
their own lands. But why should some British soldiers descend on Chittagong? The only friend whose information I could trust
was a Muslim boy. He seemed to know everything including the fact that the soldiers were fair-skinned and they swam naked
with fair girls and that they had invented chewing gum, a far superior cousin of the toffee we knew.
And once I observed him chewing this marvel. He had got it through a valuable contact
that worked in the barracks. He gaped and showed the stuff hanging like icicles from his teeth. It held the promise of a hitherto
unknown taste; one could chew it on and one for an unspecified length of time.
I begged for one. But he no extra piece. I implored him to part with a little of
what was already in his mouth. He was moved and he obliged me. Though the taste did not quite thrill me, I was very proud
that I had had a rare experience. But my friend shouted, “You have sinned. You are no longer a Hindu!”
Suddenly I realized the gravity of my blunder. I had eaten from a Muslim’s
mouth. Should my aunt hear of it, she would make me gargle with water mixed with cow-dung and drink it too. Only then could
I touch anything at home.
I prayed to my friend to keep it a secret. He promised to do so.
I waited to see what would happen to me now that I had lost my religion. Nothing
The incident was significant to me because it provoked me to search for many things.
It began with a search for religion – what it is – whether one can really lose it or gain it. I found that I was
encircled by darkness – the darkness of ignorance. I yearned for light. I visited places, which I would have never visited
ordinarily – or should not have. The same applied to my reading of books – and perusal of different art forms
– paintings, photographs, sculptures and films. My quest had expanded. It was no longer the meaning of religion alone,
but the very meaning of life that intrigued me. I struggled to know it.
Simultaneously I was struggling on another front – for survival, even though
I did not know the justification for it. I had become an artist. It would be more true to say that I was an artist.
I had begun to use my faculty for my livelihood.
Time rolled on. I left my youth behind. I would not say, like Disraeli, that youth
was a blunder, manhood a struggle and old age a regret. For me both youth and manhood have been struggles and the approaching
old age, I don’t think I have to proclaim it with regret.
Is it because I realized the meaning of life? No. It is because I have re-discovered
the green meadow of my childhood – the meadow I had taken to be lost. It surfaced in my memory, lush green as it used
I was amazed. How could it persist in me when I had lost a lot of apparently valuable
All I can say is, although the meadow has not answered all my questions, it has
revealed its own meaning to me and I believe that it can sustain me for the rest of my life – and sustain my art too.
The meadow was the clean innocence of my childhood – on which the Creator’s
love shone in tenderness as well as splendour. I have felt that I have no need of any artificial light. The living touch of
the Creator – reawakened in me – is enough. Behind the meadow is its Creator – the supreme artist –
with his unerring strokes.
And who am I?
The question itself assumed a different tone. I need not find a mental answer for
it. I am one of the strokes that went to make the meadow. I am also the meadow.
This awakening – or awareness – has meant much to me. I see men –
great ones among them – in the light of my meadow – the clear light of providence that shone on my childhood when
my eyes had not learnt to see through pride and prejudice.
Soon I met Omar – when a manuscript was placed in my hands with Omar’s
verses juxtaposed with rejoinders, also in verses. I was asked to illustrate and design the book on Omar Khayyam verses.
Wine and Women! Why aren’t there bars celebrating his name all over the world?
Surely, the theme is easy and attractive; several artists have contributed to the merry world of Omar Khayyam. However, deep
within me I found the theme uninspiring.
But I had accepted the project, and so had to work on it. I began reading the verses,
at first in a lighter mood and then with deeper concentration. An unexpected process set within myself: the ideas I had at
first formed about the verses soon crumbled. Verses that sounded easy grew more and more challenging. I pondered over them
for hours; confused and perplexed.
But I could not leave them. Rather they would not leave me.
And then came the open-sesame catchword to the mystery that was Omar Khayyam. A
single word of his was the key. I was overwhelmed. Silently I said, “Omar! Forgive me and forgive the world for our
failure to comprehend your profundity!”
The word was the very first word of the series of verses: “Awake!”
I found in the 75 verses a message to the world – the world of his time and
of times to come – a message hidden in a wondrous play of words – a message that could have come only from a seer.
Only a seer has authority to command us to wake up, to tell us about the fragile
nature of life and yet the great possibility every moment of life holds out for us. Time is not to be squandered away.
It made me brood over the half century of active life behind me – active
for money or fame; how my actions directed towards meeting my needs had become, unconsciously, a race for greed.
Nine hundred years ago Omar the sage, Omar the poet, knew that I would do so –
and had left a message for me.
I remembered my meadow – the dwelling of my soul in implicit silence and
at a phase of my life when I had imbibed no education, had no religion, and was innocent of the demands made by civilization.
I was with the sunlight and birds and leaves and flowers. And, yes, Omar was by my side, unrecognized by me.
In reading Omar now, I realize how my ego had cut me off from that serene world
of Nature, how it had veiled my eyes with a darkness that prompted me to look for logic and reason in everything, but hid
the truth that the one thing that sustained us was bereft of logic and reason – and that was Love. Love Divine. Religion
or the civilization of mankind is not only meaningless but takes destructive shape if we miss this TRUTH.
If my paintings have enhanced
the effect of Omar’s verses, I should rest content. And, if even one painting out of the 75 proves a passage for the
viewers to the hidden aspect of Omar’s vision, I will feel rewarded.
[Editor’s note: Mr. Sisir Datta is an artist of repute. He wrote the above for his book, with the same title, published in the year
1992. Particulars about him are mentioned on the webpage Artist’s Background.
31st August 2005]