25 Jul 2014

An Interview with Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya in May 1991 – History Desk

[Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya (1922-2010) was one of the closest attendants of the Mother and the Director of the Physical Education Department of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry. Physical Education is taken very seriously in the Ashram, far more than what most people would expect in an institution dedicated to spiritual growth. Literally all the members of the Ashram have a daily routine of physical exercise interspersed with work and meditation. All the students of the Ashram School have compulsory physical education every day for an hour and a half. The Dept. of Physical Education is thus very well-organised and pools the talent of more than a hundred voluntary captains, coaches and helping instructors, without mentioning those who maintain its numerous grounds for playing football, basketball, hockey, volleyball and other games. There is also enough infrastructure for the regular practice of Athletics, Swimming, Gymnastics and even Combatives. Competitions are held every year in which older Ashramites vie with the young students of the Ashram School. Ashram records are timed with stop watches, carefully measured with tapes, and systematically noted down. These are then databased and preserved for posterity so that you can get an analysis of your athletic performance twenty years back at the touch of a button. One would actually wonder as to whether the Ashram is a Yogic or a sports institution! But no, in the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, sports can be turned towards Yoga, and the perfection of the body can become a Yogic ideal. At the same time, physical health undoubtedly imparts a great stability to life, whether you choose to do Yoga or not.

The Mother’s deep involvement with sports and physical education in the Ashram in the forties and fifties galvanised the Ashram community to don shorts (including ladies, which was unheard of at that time), participate in mass drills and march to the tune of a brass band. Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya joined the Ashram in 1945 when the first batch of children in the Ashram needed to be kept busy and focussed after school hours – the Ashram School began in a modest way in 1943. The Playground had just been bought and he took charge of a group of fourteen boys and taught them the fundamentals of physical exercise. A little later the Playground became the centre of Ashram life when the Mother started coming there every evening to watch the children do their exercises under the supervision of Pranab.  Soon the elders of Ashram also gathered around her to listen to her evening talks, join the collective concentration and partake of the prasad (in the form of groundnuts) at the end of the day. It was during this period and more precisely from the 15th of August 1947, when the Ashram was attacked by local thugs and an Ashramite was mortally stabbed, that Pranab came close to the Mother and became her trusted lieutenant. (Pondicherry was still part of French India at this point of time and the Ashram was unfortunately misconstrued as supporting French rule and against Pondicherry joining the newly independent state of India.) After Sri Aurobindo’s passing away in 1950, which was a difficult transition in the Mother’s life by her own admission, and until the Mother herself passed away in November 1973, he took unflinching personal care of her, making her walk during her last days and coaxing her into taking the minimum nourishment to sustain her physical body. During these years, the service that he rendered to the Mother can be fully appreciated only by knowing what the Mother wrote to him after Sri Aurobindo left his body,

‘I want to tell you to what point you are what Sri Aurobindo asked you to be when He left His body—the material support of my body, the energy that enables it to face all the ordeals after this sudden and irreparable collapse of that feeling of total and absolute security that gave me thirty years of unmixed happiness.’”

(Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya, By the Way, Part-III, p. 150)

It is this exceptional regard for Pranab and the love and affection poured on him by the Mother that put him in high esteem among the senior disciples of the Ashram. Likewise the Physical Education Dept. that he developed in a very down to earth and professional manner had a deeper side to it. The Mother wrote to him in 1958,

You are for me the living and perfectly representative symbol of the physical life ready for the transformation and wanting that transformation consciously.”

(Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya, I Remember, p. 335)

It is in this background that the following interview with Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya assumes considerable importance in the history of the Ashram. – Bireshwar]

An Interview with Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya 
(May 1991)

Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya: Who will question? (general laughter)

Interviewer: Will you tell us something about your background in physical education before you came to Pondicherry?

PKB: Shokto [difficult] question! See, I have a family background of sports and physical culture, both from my mother’s and father’s side. My great grandfather was playing tennis in his youth, even up to a late age. I saw him play. He described how, when he was playing, a ball hit his solar plexus and he fell sick, and then he left playing. In our house library I found a book that was presented to him from his college for his proficiency in gymnastics. It must have been, I think, mid 19th century. Then my grandfather, he had a very beautiful body, 6 feet 2 inches tall, muscular, and he did all the basic kasratdand baithak and all that. Those days grip dumbbells of Sandow were very popular, and I had seen him doing grip dumbbells with that muscular body. My father was an athlete – a long distance runner – and a football player. My uncle Mota-kaka [Charupada Bhattacharya] was a very good back in football and he was doing plenty of rowing in the Ganges. My youngest uncle was a physical culturist and a player – he used to play football, hockey and cricket, and do physical culture and wrestling. On my mother’s side, my mother’s father was a lawyer by profession, but he did plenty of wrestling and sword fighting in his youth. I didn’t see him doing exercise. Of my two maternal uncles, one was a football player and another was a physical culturist – he had a beautiful herculean type of body. So seeing all that, the interest in physical culture came naturally from a very young age. When they were doing it, I also tried to copy them in my childhood.

Then I came over to Calcutta. My father brought me at the age of seven to Calcutta and I was suffering from tonsils. He took me to a homeopathic doctor, who saw me and was so impressed (I don’t know what he saw in me) that he told my father: “This boy must be guarded from all bad influences and you must see that he doesn’t fall in bad company." He treated me and didn’t take any fee from my father. So that went into the head of my father and he searched and searched and found out a school opened by one Charuchandra Dutta, who was an idealist. He had opened the school in his mother’s name, and in the whole school there were some thirty or forty boys, and in each class there were five or six boys. Our school started  early in the morning at 6.30 every day. From 6.30 to 7 o’clock, we had drill, P.T. and parade, from 7.30 to 9 school. At 9 o’clock during the three months of summer (our school was just by the side of Bhawanipur swimming association), we were taken there for swimming. The tiffin time was at 1.30 and naturally we were playing freely. In the afternoon at 4 o’clock, the school was stopped and, during the football season, we were taken for a game of football. Now as you see, the games are played all through the year. In our time the football season was in summer and the rainy season, cricket was in the winter season and hockey was after the winter season and before summer. Those were the three main games.

On the other side, when I was seven years old, my father was a member of YMCA. He was taking me there and I got some boxing lessons.  First, there was a south Indian coach (I have forgotten his name), and then afterwards a Bengali coach, Madhusudan Majumdar. He went to America for education and came back as a professional boxer. Those days in India there were some experiments in professional boxing, and there were some professional boxers, but it didn’t go very far and it was stopped. He was one of them. So at that age it started. Then I came out from the private school at the age of thirteen, and I got admission in a bigger school from where I passed my Matric. There I got the opportunity of learning boxing properly under another professional boxer, J.K. Seal. He had a big name and he was organising boxing all over Bengal – school championship, all Bengal school championship, college championship, and all Bengal open championship, state championship. There I took interest in boxing and then I played football, not much, but I played hockey for two years. Then I came out, and I also had contact with Biren-da in connection with boxing. Biren-da was a student of the professional boxer J.K. Seal. So he told me: “If you want to learn properly, come to my club." So I joined his club and I learned boxing quite well, and with that I did wrestling and some physical culture. I also learned there a little of volleyball. That was my background during school time. I had a very good coach in bodybuilding -- Prabodhchandra Dey. He took a lot of interest in me and he taught me all the fundamentals of body building in barbells and dumbbells. I still have some of the charts he made for me in 1936, 1937, 38 – those charts are still with me. He gave me some of his books (he had a good library), I have them here. Then after finishing my school at Calcutta (I didn’t like the Calcutta atmosphere, I liked very much my hometown Berhampore), I went over there, took my admission in a college and opened a physical culture club in 1940. There I actually learned about organisation as I had to participate for the club. I was not very good in swimming, but I did some seven miles swimming in the Ganges, and though I came 10th out of twenty, I was just participating for the club. And we were having volleyball, hockey, football was not possible (we didn’t have a good ground), physical culture, and there was a coach, who was himself a very good athlete. With him I practised shotput, javelin throw, hammer throw, discus throw, these four things. There was also a good long distance walker and I walked with him and became quite a good race walker. In 1500 metres (now it has gone out of Olympic items), in 1500 metres I did, I think nobody has done here, in 5 minutes 52 2/5 seconds. I saw my old record, it was even better than the world record at that time. 5 minutes, 52 2/5 seconds is quite good for race walking. That was my background before I came here. There was a proposal from the town, they wanted to send me to America to the Springfield College of Physical Education, Massachusetts. They said, "You go there, have training and then organise physical education here." But somehow it didn’t materialise. With that background I came here.

Interviewer: What about boxing?

PKB: Yes, yes, when I was in my peak form in boxing, the World War started in 1939 and everything got disorganised. All these school, college and state championships for boxing got disorganised. But I was in very good form at that time. Then after 1944 when the allies were winning, many soldiers came to Calcutta. Among them there were very good boxers, so I took the opportunity and did a lot of boxing at that time. I took part in some fights and lost two and won eight in open championships, open contests. I let even go my B.A. examination. I was to appear for my B.A. examination in 1944, I thought I could do that afterwards because when the soldiers go away, I wouldn’t get the opportunity to do boxing. So the whole year I did boxing – practice and matches – and it was quite good. I did quite well and those two in which I got defeated, those were the last two fights. Of course, you will say that it is an excuse, but I didn’t get proper food at that time as my mother was here. Nobody was there to look after me because it was War time. My father was busy, he was working in Bengal Telephones which was under the military. He was out the whole day and night, so I was all alone and the servant was cooking very badly; with that food and care, I couldn’t do well. So that is my boxing story, but more than my personal performance, I learned how to organise a club, how to conduct a physical education organisation, and I learnt it by doing. When I came here for the first time in 1942, I enquired whether Mother liked physical exercise and I was told (not by Mother, by some of the disciples) that Mother didn’t like physical education, physical exercise. She thought that one gets better exercise through work, so it was of no use. So when I came here finally, I thought, “Alright, if there is no physical exercise, I will let it go, I shall work, I shall study, do meditation and pass my days. So I came down; I had just reached home, and my mother with my three brothers was staying where Mona is staying now. I just reached home and Sumantra came with a green coconut and said, “Pranab-da, I heard you can break it with a blow, please break it for me,” and he gave me the coconut. So with a blow I broke it and he was very happy. With that my life started here, you know, by breaking a coconut! The first time when I came here, I was working in the Laundry – I liked the work. Those days Nolini-da was giving work, not Ravindra-ji. So I asked him to give me some work that needs a lot of physical labour and he gave me Laundry work. I liked it, and so when I came here finally in 1945, I went straightaway there and joined the work. At thattime the playground had just been acquired – it was only a courtyard.

Interviewer: Before you came here, did you have any concept of the perfection of the body?

PKB: Yes, I was doing physical culture myself. The thought came to me: “Yes, I have built up good strength and a good body, but it will not last. Is there any way of keeping it permanently? Actually that was one of my seeking through which I got this contact with the Ashram. We had contact with the Ashram since 1936. My uncle first got it and then the whole family came in contact. But my seeking started in that way, whether I could make my body immortal and overcome disease and old age, as Buddha had thought. That was one thing. On another side, I was considering Sri Aurobindo as the leader, as our national leader, and I was quite confident that he would make India free. How, I did not know. He tried with revolutionary activities and now he was doing yoga, and he will surely make India free. That conviction I had. So with that I came here. The playground had just been opened. Manoj called me, "Pranab-da, come and see the playground." So I went and saw it. It was a little thing at that time. On one side, they had some arrangement for pole-vault in the passage. Just before I came, our Kunjebihari had hurt his knee by doing pole-vault, so it was stopped. On another side, Nirmal-da was taking football for the boys. In the same ground, Shanti was looking after the girls, who were doing high jump or something, and there wasthis game of croquet. It just started like that.

Kittu Reddy: Purani-ji was in charge at that time?

PKB: No, not at that time. He had already gone out. He was sent by Mother to organise physical education there, and Kittu did some mischief and he gave him a good beating.

Kittu Reddy: I was copying him and he turned around and gave me one slap.

PKB: Then Mother stopped him from coming to the playground and doing that work.

Interviewer: How many children were there?

PKB: At that time? Not many children. I started physical culture with fourteen boys and there were small children – how many? Some ten or fifteen. Yes, Manoj called me there and I found that I had got my field of action, and there was a possibility. So I wrote to Mother: "These boys are telling me to do something, can I start?" Mother was happy and she gave her permission, and I started. And when it came to me, I began thinking that the physical education background that I had was good for running a small club or good for myself, but this would be a big organisation and it needed some special training. So I told Mother: "If you give me leave for about two years, I will go to some physical education college, get myself admitted, get trained and come back and organise." Then Mother said: "It is not necessary to do that. You bring their syllabus, the syllabus of the physical education college, and you select. Make a selection of two books every month and give it to me, and I shall get them for you. You study them and apply them and you will see, you will build a big organisation and it will be so nice that people will come to see and praise it." She said that, and that is how it started and gradually it became what you see now.

Interviewer: Those two books were the beginning of the library?

PKB: No, I had some personal books, ten or fifteen books, those that I had brought, and with these two books I started.

Interviewer: Did she guide you as to what are the things to be done for physical education, such as which the items to introduce?

PKB: Not in that way. She came and saw my activities and gave a hint that the body should be made (that message was given) free from disease, it should be fit, healthy and one should do activities that are beautiful, and that will help to get a beautiful, enduring and healthy body. She spoke in that way, not naming any particular activity.

Interviewer: As for physical education, you had to plan it yourself independently?

PKB: Yes, we started with fourteen boys. At that time we had just this. We prepared four small size mats from four gunny bags, and we called them bags, even now people call them bags. We had four like that and some sticks to do kathi dances, pyramid building, marching and freehand exercise. With that we started, and Benjamin started our football in the military ground and then in the Rodier Mill ground and sometimes near the French missionary property behind the mills.

Kittu Reddy: Reveil amical [a local sports club]?

PKB: No, not Rodier, Saravane’s place. Yes, and we had gone to another place which is on the way to Cuddalore, behind Bharati mills. There we played for some days.

Interviewer: Nearabout Ray’s Pottery?

PKB: That was a good ground. Now you find all rubbish dumped there. That was a very good ground in earlier times.

Interviewer: Was there anybody to help you in the organisation?

PKB: No, nobody, only Mother’s inspiration. I wanted to find out a pattern. I got this book – the 1919 syllabus of physical education of the British Board of Education. From there I got some idea, I still have that book with me. A big Canadian fellow came here after the War. I asked him how to get information. So he gave me an address, I think it was Springfield College of Physical Education, Harvard University. I asked from them their programme. They sent it; it was rudimentary, but I got from there a hint on organising a Group, those papers are still with me. So the idea grew of organising a group headed by a group captain and helped by many assistants, and making an all-round programme spread throughout the year. In my place, I was handling only boys. I didn’t have any idea about how to organise the girls’ Group, but I started it. Kittu was first, I think, in the smaller group. At that time there was no B Group, and among the fourteen he was not there, he was junior. So I started with those fourteen in which there was Mona, Gama, Sumantra, then Debu and others. Then there were the small children – that was the second group. And the girls wanted to participate, they were thirty-three in number, I remember, Kumud, Paru, Chitra, Bhavatarini – Anuben was captain afterwards. All those details I have given in my paper.

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