The birth of Shantiniketan through Rabindranath Tagore and the earlier association of his father Debendranath as a place for meditation, coincided with the generation of our grandparents –maternal and paternal – and their strong association with the 19th Century Hindu reform movement of the Brahmo Samaj. The Brahmos were key movers of the Bengal Renaissance, which brought many of the progressive ideas and educational principles of the West, using them to modify the social and religious practices of India in the Nineteenth Century.
“Mitali”, as a family home, was the inspiration of Indira (“Bulbul”) Dey as her husband Sushil had never wanted to own his own home. She had decided in the late 1960s that it was time for her family to stop their gypsy wanderings around the world, (courtesy the United Nations!) return to India and Bengal, and lay down roots in the then peaceful surroundings of Tagore’s Shantiniketan. Sushil and Bulbul then searched for a place on high ground with no other buildings in sight, an unobstructed view of the emerald paddies and palm trees, a Santhal village (Phuldanga) in the distance, located just 1 km from Tagore’s University, Viswa Bharati. It did, however, require bringing electric lines and telephone cables from 2 kilometres’ distance. They were sold on the site when they saw and heard the migrating ducks from Siberia, in perfect formation against the setting sun, wings flapping low to settle on food and water in the surrounding fields.
The house, its architecture influenced by a visit to Morocco, emphasized communion with nature, fresh air and light in every room, with 15-inch thick walls and 13-foot high ceilings. Mitali was completed with the help of caring relatives in Calcutta and Shantiniketan by 1969, following Bulbul’s detailed instructions and drawings sent from Rome. Probably a first in this area for long-distance construction! The Deys saw it in its completed state when they arrived from Rome late at night, glittering white in the pitch-black darkness of a moonless night. It was love at first sight.
Bulbul and Sushil had first met in 1916, in a music school in Calcutta when she was 4 and he was 9, a life-time romance, with Rabindra Sangeet a constant companion. It was a regular feature for them to visit Shantiniketan when Tagore put on a newly-penned dance-drama, or read out his poems. Bulbul’s Brahmo father, Dwijendranath Maitra, born in Dacca, was a renowned eye-surgeon and close friend of the poet. When Tagore went on his first long trip abroad to Britain and the US, armed with his new volume of poetry “Gitanjali”, at the invitation of his English host William Rothenstein, it was his doctor-friend who accompanied him there. When Dr. Maitra launched his Bengal Social Service League, it was Tagore who inaugurated it. Also a Brahmo, Sushil’s maternal grandfather was the firebrand leader Bipin Chandra Pal from Sylhet, publisher of Bande Mataram, who, along with Lajpat Rai and Tilak formed the Triumvirate whose battle-cry (Lal-Bal-Pal!) opposed Curzon’s plans for partitioning Bengal in 1905. He was also the first national leader to call for total Independence from the British Empire.
It was an intellectual conflict for Sushil, as a gold medallist in Economics from Calcutta’s Presidency College, to have to travel to London to sit for the I.C.S. (Indian Civil Service, the apex body of the colonial administration) examinations in 1929 after a post-graduate year at the then left-leaning LSE under Harold Laski. The family of six siblings of whom he was the eldest was short of funds, and the ICS was one of the best-paid professions in those days. It also provided far more scope for introducing socio-economic changes in village India with very little interference or direction, unlike the constraints faced by the current IAS. Travel to a post often took several days on elephant or horse-back,, there were no mobiles or telephones, and no political parties. After their marriage in 1930, life for Sushil and Bulbul was in the districts of United Bengal as Magistrate and Commissioner where their two eldest sons were born, Shantanu (“Rusty”) and Partha (“Babi”). When World War II started, Sushil was called to the State Secretariat in Calcutta where the new home for the next 15 years was a beautiful colonial building next to the Maidan on 3A Theatre Road. The two younger children were born there, Anuradha and Krishno, supported by an English Governess, and then attended Loreto Convent and St. Xavier’s respectively.
Calcutta in the days before Independence was seen as the second city in the British Empire after London, an intellectual and cultural centre that brooked comparison with Paris and Berlin for elegance and attraction. When the War started and Sushil was placed in charge of forming a Volunteer Corps to deal with the prospect of heavy Japanese bombing, a fascinating group of committed individuals thronged the living-room in Theatre Road. Prominent among them were M.N. Roy, the ex-Revolutionary and Communist party founder, the poet Sudhin Datta and his singer wife Rajeswari, Arun Mukherjee later Justice of the Supreme Court, Professor Sibnarayan Roy, and Bulbul’s brother Satyen Maitra who became a key figure of the Adult Literacy movement in India. With Independence and the appointment of Dr. Bidhan Roy as Chief Minister, Sushil was a busy Secretary and then West Bengal’s first Development Commissioner. As children we benefited from going out to the villages frequently, where camp discussions with the villagers were held on Community Development and rural planning.
In 1955, Sushil decided to retire early from the ICS, and responded to an invitation to join the United Nations as a Director, then in its early days and with the charismatic Swedish Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold in charge in New York City. For two years, Anuradha and Krishno attended the newly-started UN International School, located then in Queens, and in 1957 the family shifted once more to Rome, where Sushil worked initially with the Director-General of FAO, and later in charge of all Rural Institutions and Services. In 1963, he helped to set up the World Food Programme in Rome, making use of food surpluses for development and emergency relief. Sushil was later appointed Associate Executive Director of the WFP, and UN Under-Secretary General, before retiring in 1969 to Bengal once more. Anuradha stayed on in Rome with a vocation as an artist and conservationist/restorer (joining Italy’s National Institute of Restoration in Rome, married a Doctor of Pharmacy, Antonio Colicchia, and became an Italian citizen. They had a daughter, Nayantara, who, with her partner from Hyderabad whom she met at her workplace, also FAO, had two lovely daughters, Indira and Scylla.
Krishno studied in Rome for a year before joining an English Public School in the Peak District for 6 years. His remaining studies were at Oxford (PPE at Brasenose College) and for a Masters degree in Economics at Manchester. In 1969, he joined the UN System initially in Morocco and enjoyed a rich experience for 26 years in many countries and the Headquarters of several UN Agencies, notably UNDP (the United Nations Development Programme), ECLAC in Latin America, UNIDO in Rome and the UN Volunteers in Geneva. He had been wanting to get back to India and Bengal for many years, and this wish was fulfilled in 1995 when he came back to the family home in Shantiniketan with his wife Chandana and their two children who had been born in Cyprus (Gautam, in 1985) and Geneva (Nandini, in 1990). They were divorced in 2008, and Krishno later re-married Sukanya in 2013. They currently share their time between Kolkata and Shantiniketan. Gautam became a Research Scientist in Molecular Biology, completing his Doctorate in Stanford in early 2015. Nandini studied Political Science at LSR in Delhi and then, for her Masters at London University’s SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) through a Felix Scholarship, issues related to the organisation of Labour and Employment.
Sushil was able to enjoy Mitali for only two years before he died in 1971. Bulbul managed the home for 21 years on her own before she too passed away. Chandana managed Mitali for 11 years. The home was re-fitted as a Homestay in 2011 in order to manage its upkeep, and to make new friends from across India and from all over the world.