A lesser-known culturally-rooted creation of Satyajit Ray for Children
It would be rather unusual to come across a 90s kid who has not heard of Byomkesh Bakshi, the detective created by Saradindu Bandhopadhyaya thanks to Doordarshan that telecasted a series in Hindi named after the eagle-eyed detective himself from 1993-97. The title role of Byomkesh Bakshi played by Rajat Kapoor was also critically acclaimed and was instrumental in making Byomkesh immensely popular. Thirty two Byomkesh Bakshi stories were written between 1932 – 1970.
But overlapping and in fact stretching beyond this period, another Bengali detective story series became quite popular in Bengal. The main protagonist was Pradosh C. Mitter alias Feluda. Interestingly the author of the Feluda Series was none other than the celebrated filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Not many are aware of this dimension of his creativity.
Sadly this detective series has remained by and large among the Bengali speaking community of India and world at large. Totally 35 Feluda stories have appeared between 1965 to 1990. All the 35 stories have been translated by Gopa Majumdar into English and have been published as Penguin paperback edition (2004) in two volumes.
These stories were originally written for the Bengali children’s Magazine Sandesh, started by Satyajit Ray’s grandfather in 1913 that later went out of print, only to be revived by Satyajit Ray again in 1961 and Feluda Stories were regularly published in Sandesh.
In the preface of the English Translation, Satyajit Ray states that he finished all Sherlock Holmes stories while he was still in school, thus, indicating the inspiration for Feluda from Conon Doyle’s famed detective. Though the inspiration is from outside, the brilliance of Satyajit Ray manifests in integrating Feluda with Indian landscape and culture.
Though I am not a Bengali, I got the opportunity to read Gopa Majumbdar’s translation (presented to my daughter by my brother–in-law) and I became an instant fan of Feluda. I came to know that a couple of movies have been made in Hindi on Feluda and telecasted by Doordarshan, but unlike Byomkesh Bakshi, for reasons unbeknownst, Feluda is not known outside Bengal.
Basically Pradosh C Mitter (nick name – Felu, ‘da’ means elder brother – short form of Dada), Tapesh Mitter (Feluda’s Younger cousin called by Feluda as Topshe) and Lal Mohan Ganguli (whose nickname was Jatayu, a friend of Feluda) are the major characters.
The 14-year-old Topshe acts like “Watson” to Feluda and the middle aged Lal Mohan Ganguli “serves as a foil to Felu and provides dollops of humor” as Satyajit Ray himself would put it.
Feluda stories attract me more because, as a person working in the field of Samskrita, Indian culture and Yoga, I find these stories culturally rooted. They are also clean and hence a great read for children.
About the suitability of the stories to Children, Satyajit Ray says,
“To write whodunit while keeping in Mind a young readership is not an easy task, because the stories have to be kept ‘clean’. No illicit love, no crime passionel, and only a modicum of violence”.(Preface)
Except the smoking of Charminar cigarette by Feluda, all the stories are indeed clean. Also it is seen in the series that Feluda tries to quit smoking.
Introduction to landscape of India
Though the stories were written for Bengali children, Satyajit Ray takes the readers to various parts of the country and culturally connected neighborhood.
The titles of some of the stories themselves indicate the various places. “Danger in Darjeeling” (the very first Feluda story) describes the relaxed way of life in Darjeeling. In “Trouble in Gangtok” – the beautiful North east region, the hills therein and the Buddhist Monasteries there are described. One of the Characters in the story, Mr. Bose says –
“In fact I have travelled all over- Sikkim, Lachen, Lachung, Namche, Nathula! Just Name it. It is beautiful”
(pg. 145, Vol 1)
Interestingly in most of the stories Topshe and Lalmohan Babu explore various places while Feluda is busy investigating. Sometimes Feluda also eventually joins in.
In “The Bandits of Bombay” Topshe says –
“All of us believed that unless one explored a city on foot one could not get to know it all. We had roamed similarly in Jodhpur, Varanasi, Delhi and Gangtok. ”
(pg.587, Vol 1)
In the story the “Mystery of the Elephant God” the following reverent description of Varanasi is found:
“ Topshe: “…it seems to be nice place to be in”
Feluda: Do you know why you feel like this? It is because the ancient tradition we associate with Banaras, Kashi, Varanasi…each name evokes a special feeling, isn’t it? Not just because it is considered a holy place, but also because of the age of the city. Every old building could tell a story of its own. To a new comer that is what counts. No matter how dirty or filthy the place may be. That’s the magic of Varanasi”
(Pg.520, Vol 1 )
In the passage above, while the dirt and filth of city is acknowledged (it seems to have changed vastly now, since the Prime Minister himself has made it his constituency, since 2014) showing the reality, the value of the tradition is also highlighted. Can there be any more balanced manner to introduce our culture and places associated with our culture?
Also, it has to be mentioned that, Feluda travels to various part of Kolkatta, its suburbs and other part of Bengal. Thus, as a non-bengali, I enjoyed travelling to various parts of Kolkatta and Bengal with Feluda & Co for company.
For example in the story “Robertson’s Ruby” we find the following description – Feluda Says:
“Birmbhum isn’t famous only because of Shantiniketan. There are hot springs of Bakreshwar. There is Kenduli where the poet Jayadev is born. There is Dubrajpur which has the rocks that we were talking about. …There are many temples in Bengal that have work done in Terracotta. But the best and the most beautiful are in Birbhum” (pg. 719, 720, Vol 2).
Thus Satyajit Ray takes the readers both within Bengal and outside Bengal which is equally informative and inspiring to both Bengalis and Non-Bengalis. Hence we see that Feluda is an all India material.
In the story “The Mysterious Tenant”, the following description is worth noting about Ramayan and Mahabharat –
“(Topshe says ) Of late, The Ramayan and Mahabharat have become staple reading for Feluda. I too had joined him and thoroughly enjoyed reading them. There was story after story after story. A new word has come into use these days – unputdownable… The Ramayan and Mahabharat are quite unputdownable”
(pg. 61 Vol 2)
Imagine how favourably children will be influenced when their brilliant Icon Feluda himself respects and reads the Itihasas with such intensity. Not only are the Itihasas mentioned, but are also used in solving the mystery later in the story. (pg.93, Vol 2)
In the story “The House of Death” ancient Manuscripts are introduced to the young readers. Let us look at the following conversation as an illustration –
“Feluda: Is everything in your collection in Bengali?
DG Sen: No. There are other languages. The best of the lot is in Sanskrit.
Feluda: When was it written?
DG Sen: Twelfth Century.
…. This one is called as Ashtadashasahasrika Pragya Paramita said Mr Sen.
There’s one more, just as old, called Kalpasutra
… The Manuscript itself has been written on palm leaf. I could never have believed any one’s handwriting could be so beautiful ”
In this conversation, Satyajit Ray has beautifully introduced the material of manuscripts and the variety of scripts that are used in writing manuscripts. The aesthetic value that they have is also presented (handwriting). The entire story revolves around attempts to steal these manuscripts thereby highlighting the need to protect and preserve these treasures of the past. How better could our heritage be introduced to our children?
Protection of Temples and Monuments
The need for protection of Temples and ancient monuments is also driven home by Satyajit Ray in various stories. For example in the story “A Killer in Kailash” we see the following words of Feulda’s Bibliophile scholar Uncle Sidhu–
“I think most people would agree that our present downfall notwithstanding, we have a past of which every Indian can be justly proud”. Uncle Sidhu went on “And today, what do we see of this glorious past? Isn’t it our art, chiefly painting and sculptures?”
(Pg.338, Vol 1)
Through the above paragraph, Satyajit Ray conveys the need to take pride in our culture i.e., Hindu culture but at the same time look at the downfall in current times and resurrect ourselves.
Satyajit Ray also teaches children about the destruction of Hindu temples by invaders and also the international mafia that is stealing our valuable sculptures to sell to various collectors and museums abroad. In the same story, we find the following strong note in that regard –
“Several rulers in the past have destroyed many of our temples. Kalapahar was alone responsible for the destruction of dozens of temples in Bengal. You knew that, didn’t you? But did you know that a new Kalaphar has emerged today? I mean, now in 1973″.
“Are you talking people stealing statues from temples to sell them aboard?” Feluda asked”.
(Pg.339, Vol 1)
It is to be noted that Kalapahar mentioned in the quote above was a Muslim general (who converted from Hindu Dharma to marry a Sultan’s daughter) who is said to have attacked and destroyed many Hindu temples in Bengal and also other famous Hindu temples – including Puri Jagannath, Sun Temple of Konark, Kamakhya Mandir of Assam and so on.
As a south Indian, I was aware of a Malik Kafur who attacked and looted the temples of the South, but Kalapahar of the East was introduced to me by Satyajit Ray.
Thus, these stories of Feluda, without mincing words, introduce the value of our sculptures and also describe the desecration and destruction of the temples. Though Satyajit Ray carefully avoids reference to any religion, Hindu parents while reading these stories along with children can educate them better. A talking point has been given by Satyajit Ray in a subtle manner to Hindu parents.
Practice of Yoga
Another important aspect of Indian culture that Feluda stories portray is the practice of Yoga. It is well known that because of the efforts of the current political dispensation, Yoga has been promoted a lot nationally and internationally. It is interesting to note that Satyajit Ray is very consistent in making Feluda a poster boy for Yoga much before the current effort to promote Yoga among youngsters. On many occasions in his stories, he glorifies the practice of Yoga in every possible manner. In the “Anibus Mystery” story we see the following words –
“…Feluda was doing Yoga. He had started this six months ago. The result was already noticeable. Feluda seemed a lot fitter and openly admitted that Yoga has done him a world of good.”
It is to be noted that these are the very opening lines of the story. Such is the importance that Satyajit Ray gives for Yoga.
There are mentions to Yoga practice also in “The mystery of Elephant God” where Satyajit Ray writes –
“For about three months Feluda had not accepted a single case, he had spent the time reading, doing Yoga and cutting down on smoking… ”
The following references on Yoga are also worth noting from the story “Crime in Kedarnath”–
“Feluda and I did not find it too difficult to walk uphill possibly because, we both did Yoga regularly”.
(Pg.320, Vol 2)
In the last Feluda Story “Robertsons’ Ruby” also there is reference to yoga practice of Feluda. Topshe Says –
“I don’t know what time he went to bed but he was up at five this morning to do this Yoga”
(Pg.755, Vol 2)
Thus we see the continued and intense desire of Satyajit Ray in inspiring his young readers to take up the practice of Yoga.
These are but just a few examples of the rich cultural content and connect that one finds in these stories of Feluda. As one immerses oneself in those stories more gems are there to be found.
On a personal note, as a Samskritist from the south, I enjoyed tracing the various beautiful Samskrita names written with a Bengali influence such as Bonobihari Babu (Vanavihari), Birupaksha Majumdar (Virupaksha), Binapani (Veenapani), Nilmoni Sanyal (Nilamani), Nobo Kumar and Nondo Kumar (Navakumar and Nandakumar), Siddhu Jetha (Jyeshtha) and so on.
As a master story teller, Satyajit Ray keeps the audience enthralled with intriguing and intelligent plots and riveting narration. In the process he also gives strong doses of traditional wisdom and culture as discussed above.
The very purpose of writing this piece is to shine light on this wonderful literature for children that too by a personality who is generally known to have contributed to filmmaking, rather than contributing to culturally connected children literature.
As an avid Feluda follower, it is my desire that Feluda should travel beyond the borders of Bengal and should be read by every Indian Hindu child. Movies, audio books and translations in various regional languages and also in Samskrita can be attempted with due permissions (already many Bengali moves and web series exist on Feluda, but not many in other regional languages and even in Hindi).
Also, Feluda can be taken as a case study and many such wonderful gems that are hidden in various other Indian regional languages can be mainstreamed and brought to the awareness of entire India. Children of Bharat will not mind reading more such wonderful indigenous writings.
This will aid, in a great way, to develop a strong, culturally rooted and connected nation.
To conclude, I would like to state that through this article I have played my humble part in giving hints to solve the mystery of the missing, culturally-rooted Bengali detective Feluda from the national scene. I hope all interested will take up the cue and work towards solving this case.
Image Credit: (Pinterest) Tamadeep Basu fb.com/ChashmeBadoo Graphical Poster Series on the stories of Feluda.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.