Sukumar Ray has been an integral part of the world of children ever since he started writing. Expressions he coined, like huko muhko hangla, ramgarurer chhana, and kumro patash, have been household words ever since they appeared in print. In fact, it is impossible to think of humour in Bengali without remembering Sukumar Ray.
This remarkable writer-poet-illustrator passed away at the age of 36, with not very many titles to his credit. And yet he continues to remain a prime favourite with both children and adults, even after so many decades of his death; he holds a very special place in the hearts of his readers.
He was the father of Satyajit Ray, the famous filmmaker, artist and writer. “My father died when I was two and a half,” writes Satyajit, “I knew him through his writings and illustrations, a volume of drafts, notebooks, two handwritten magazines and from the accounts of my mother and other relatives. Life of a genius
His father was Upendrakishore Ray, whose many-sided genius found expression in his writings, songs and illustrations as well as his work as a printer. We find in Upendrakishore a rare combination of science and the arts; the East and the West. He played the pakhawaj as well as the violin, wrote songs while carrying on research in printing methods; viewed stars through a telescope from his own rooftop; re-wrote old legends and folktales for children in his lucid and graceful style, and illustrated them in oils, water-colors and pen-and-ink, using European techniques. Sukumar grew up under the influence of such a father.”
Sukumar's first poem Nadi (River) was published in Mukul, a children's magazine, when he was just 8 years old. He achieved distinction in photography from his student days, winning an Award of Merit from Boys' Own Paper.
He founded the Nonsense Club soon after graduation. The members were his friends and relatives. The name of the club indicates the direction Sukumar's genius was going to take. He wrote two plays for the club that are frequently performed by children even now. One was Jhalapala (Cacophony) and the second was Lakshmaner Shatishel (Lakshman and the Wonder Weapon).
As Satyajit puts it, “These contain the first expressions of Sukumar's humour. In the second play characters out of Ramayana descend from the epic heights to a world of spoof and horseplay… mixed up with vegetable curry, chemists, homeopathic drugs, Sandow, the muscleman, and recurring decimals. Hanuman, the monkey- god, eats sugar-puffs; the messenger of Death finds his salary in arrears and Jambuban is annoyed by the stink of Bibhisan's beard. Sukumar also made his debut here as a composer of songs, his simple tunes and rhythms adding greatly to the fun.”
An awesome illustrator
Upendrakishore launched Sandesh, a children's monthly in May 1913, in which Sukumar's writings appeared regularly. It was here that Khichuri (hotchpotch), the first poem in his famous Abol Tabol (Nonsense Rhymes), appeared. It was Sukumar's earliest nonsense rhyme on animals, followed by Old Man of the Woods, Chandidas's Uncle, The Shadow-Catcher, The Lug-Headed Loon and others. And he illustrated all his work himself. They are considered quite brilliant although he never had any formal training in art. The illustrations are both delightful and unique.
After his father's death Sukumar took over the editorship of Sandesh. He carried not just stories and poems but also essays, world news, folktales, puzzles and riddles. His evergreen creations include the hilarious exploits of Dashu and his pals, Heshoramer Diary, and Ha ja ba ra la.
The immortal satirist
Sukumar's work is free from malice but not from satire. What is most endearing about him is his spirit of nonsense. There have been wit and humour in Bengali literature before but hardly any nonsense until Sukumar arrived. He writes in the preface to Abol Tabol, “This book was conceived in the spirit of whimsy. It is not meant for those who do not enjoy that spirit.”
Sukumar's work made a mark, and has been loved by children and adults alike from the moment it appeared in print. They will continue to be loved - as is clear from the number of reprints of all his books - so long as the language exists.