Bina Dey: An introduction

— Satyasri Ukil

Bina Dey and Manjari Ukil (Bukuma)
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Bina Dey was born on February 12, 1906 in the family of the Roys of Khanakul in Bengal. Her father Gagan Chandra Roy was an officer in the British-Indian police service. Bina spent her childhood in various districts of Bengal and Orissa where her father held his postings.

In accordance to the custom of the day Bina was given in marriage at the tender young age of eleven, to the Chattopadhyay family of village Maluti, which lies tucked away in a quiet undulating location on the border of Santhal Parganas and Birbhum.

Her husband Sharadindu Chattopadhyay was a distinguished district-level worker of the Indian National Congress and was devoted to the cause of Mohandas K. Gandhi. In 1924 Sharadindu expired untimely at Swaraj Ashrama in Rampurhat.

1At a later period in her life, in 1932, Bina married artist Mukul Chandra Dey [1895-1989], who was then serving at the Government Art School, Calcutta as its first British-Indian Principal. Mukul, an early student of Rabindranath Tagore’s Bolpur Brahmacharyashrama, had carried-on his art education under Abanindranath Tagore at Jorasanko and subsequently in Japan, USA and in England [c. 1912-1922].

In her new married life Bina enjoyed a most rare opportunity to interact with a wide cross-section of people, many of them being memorable for their valuable contribution in the field of twentieth-century Indian national life and cultural scenario. Bina, in several of her diaries and correspondence, recorded her impression about these interactions.

2To gain an insight into Bina’s writings it is essential to understand and appreciate that her second husband artist Mukul Dey was primarily an extremely creative yet markedly unpredictable and a temperamental personality. He was adventurous and, at times, strong willed due to his determination and single-mindedness. It was this Mukul that Bina was in love with, and with him she came across a wide array of very interesting people, whom the author had recounted in some of her write-ups.

The present cluster of letters, composed in the form of a diary, was created by Bina for their only child Manjari, who was affectionately called Bukuma. In 1946 Bukuma was a chubby little girl of ten. Almost from the moment of their departure for Sevagram, Bina kept a record of the trip in a faded blue small little notebook. The author had titled the composition as “Bukuma’ke Ma’er Chithi” in Bengali. In English this could have been translated in various ways—but we have settled for a simple ‘Dear Bukuma’ as its present title.

The original manuscript occupies a length of twenty-six pages, recto-verso, of the said notebook, which was found inside Bina’s personal teakwood dispatch-box sometime in September 2006. It is very probable that in the preceding sixty years of its existence it may not have seen the light of the day. [The dispatch-box itself was partially engulfed in an anthill when we found it—ed.].

August 1946 was a memorable time in the history of modern India due to various reasons. Our independence and partition was about a year away; and, Bina’s Mss. provides a rare glimpse into Gandhi’s Sevagram during these historic days. We find almost all the important Congress leaders present at Sevagram and Wardha then. Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, C. Rajagopalachari and Sarojini Naidu; Prafulla Ghosh and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur…all were there either at Gandhi’s ashrama or at Bajajwadi, Wardha. It is presumed that they must have had many crucial discussions there regarding the approaching time of Indian independence.

On the other hand, it was in this very August 1946 and in just the opposite geographical direction from Sevagram that Kolkata suffered the mayhem, rioting and fratricide on the so-called “Direct Action Day” on 16th August. Bengal’s nightmare of blood-letting and death continued for days together. At Sevagram, it seems, the leaders were unaware of this not-so-distant thunder rumbling at the eastern horizon of the subcontinent then.

But why actually Mukul and Bina visited Gandhi at such an uncertain hour? Mukul gives a clue in the Preface of his album titled 3Portraits of Mahatma Gandhi. I quote:

“I soon discovered that I had come there at a most inopportune moment and did not wish to trouble Bapuji about my own affairs. It was already too late to discuss things other than those of more pressing and immediate interest. I therefore only sought his blessings on my project. Bapuji through his infinite kindness readily gave me his blessings and I departed from Sevagram on the day which was his day of silence.”

Mukul Dey’s visitors book. On December 19, 1945 Gandhiji recorded his visit to the artist’s studio Kalika in Santiniketan. Gandhiji’s signature is followed by signatures of Amrit Kaur, Pyarelal, Sushila Nayyar, Manilal Gandhi, Prabhavati Jaiprakash, Abha Gandhi and others.
Photo: Vineet Sabharwal
About nine months prior to Bina and Mukul’s trip to Sevagram, Gandhi had visited Tagore’s Santiniketan. During that trip, he had also visited, on December 19, 1945, Mukul Dey’s ‘Kalika Art Gallery’ located at the compound of artist’s residence ‘Chitralekha’ at Santiniketan.

In “Portraits of Mahatma Gandhi”, Mukul Dey recorded:

“The interest which he [Bapuji] showed in the various objects of art at the studio encouraged me to think that I might possibly find a way through him of establishing a National Art Gallery, Museum and Art School.”

In July 1943 Mukul Dey had opted for a premature retirement from the service of Government Art School and came back to Santiniketan to settle there with his wife and daughter. Apart from his own pictures, Mukul had brought along a huge personal collection of traditional and contemporary modern Indian paintings and drawings.

Mukul’s treasure-trove [since Gandhi’s aide Pyarelal once described the collection as “Alibaba’s cave”—ed.] had Indian illuminated Mss. and paintings by Kalighat Patuas, Rajput, Mughal and Kangra miniatures, along with scores of Jyotirindranath, Rabindranath, Gagonendranath, Abanindranath and all their disciples’ works.

Probably, leaving aside the famous Tagore Collection4 of No.5 Prince Dwarkanath Tagore’s Lane at Chitpur, Mukul Dey’s collection was one of the largest and most representative one in eastern India, supported by a number of printed and descriptive catalogues.

It was with the express desire of saving this collection that Mukul and Bina had traveled to Sevagram to gain an audience with Gandhi. 

In 1936-37, while Dey was still serving the Art School he wanted to establish a state art and crafts museum in Bengal. Though the project was supported by many important people of the time, including Rabindranath Tagore [see Tagore’s original letter supporting the scheme, dated March 7, 1936. Mukul Dey Archives collection—ed], Mukul’s idea could never take a shape physically.

On the other hand, after their return to Santiniketan from Kolkata in 1943, this collection suffered a slow and certain decay. Actually, Mukul never could make a proper storage for his precious collection. Many of the paintings were insect-eaten, and much was perishing every year by moisture during the monsoon months. Finally, in 1946 the artist-collector had approached Gandhi to save his art treasure.

Mukul must have been sad and desperate then. This is clear from other evidence as well. About a year prior to visiting Sevagram, the artist had a chance meeting with one Derrick Braham, a British air force serviceman on a vacation trip to Santiniketan.7 Even to him the artist made an offer to sell all of his art collection out rightly. He wrote to Derrick Braham on October 5, 1945 from Santiniketan:

“I have nearly 5000 pieces of original Indian paintings, drawings and other works of art of different ages and different schools including my own copies of Ajanta, Bagh etc.,…ranging from ancient times to the modern, a very representative collection and one of the richest among Indian collections. The real value of the collection would be more than 4 or 5 lac [i.e. 4 or 5 hundred thousand rupees—ed.]. But I am willing to sacrifice my entire collection by selling it for a lump sum of 1½ lacs only.”

Thus it is evident that, this desire to save his collection must have been the background of Mukul and Bina’s visit to Sevagram in 1946. 

As mentioned earlier, Bina composed these notes for her daughter Bukuma, who could not accompany her parents.

It is interesting to notice that through these records no preaching were showered on the little girl, the author having tried to capture some fleeting glimpses and moments of an extra-ordinary life-style, juxtaposed against the backdrop of a memorable journey across the subcontinent, about sixty years ago.

In this context it may not be out of place to mention that time and again the author drew attention of her daughter to the latrines used at the Wardha guesthouse [i.e. famous Bajajwadi or the residence of Seth Jamnalal Bajaj at Wardha—ed.] and at Sevagram Ashrama.

Latrine Arrangement at Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram, 1928
Photo: Mukul Dey
This is very important and we would like to draw our reader’s special attention to the relevant parts in Bina’s text. In his way of life and philosophy, Gandhi tried to find a practical remedy to the general unsanitary condition prevailing in the Indian lavatories. Gandhi had recorded in his autobiography5 some such candid observations in Rajkot, Gujarat way back in 1896.

In his own life he not only never ignored this major problem of Indian existence, wherever possible he tried to find a practical and affordable solution to questions of sanitation and community hygiene. In his Constructive Programme: Its Meaning and Place6 Gandhi writes:

“Divorce between intelligence and labour has resulted in the criminal negligence of the villages. And, so, instead of having graceful hamlets dotting the land, we have dung-heaps. The approach to many villages is not a refreshing experience. Often one would like to shut one’s eyes and stuff one’s nose; such is the surrounding dirt and offending smell.

If the majority of Congressmen were derived from our villages, as they should be, they should be able to make our villages models of cleanliness in every sense of the word. But they have never considered it their duty to identify themselves with the villagers in their daily lives.

A sense of national or social sanitation is not a virtue among us. We may take a kind of a bath, but we do not mind dirtying the well or the tank or the river by whose side or in which we perform ablutions, I regard this defect as a great vice which is responsible for the disgraceful state of our villages and the sacred banks of the sacred rivers and for the diseases that spring from insanitation.”

In the present translation we have tried to retain the original expression of the author as far as was possible. 

Bina’s narrative has some other subtle yet profound information stashed in it, which one may tend to overlook unless one is not enough inquisitive and careful.

For example, consider the passing reference the author makes about the story of Indra and Virocana in the entry of August 7, 1946. Though Bina never clarifies or elaborates it further in her Mss., we are almost certain that she made a note of it to share with Bukuma, later on, one of the most famous teachings of Chhandogya Upanisad7.

The little blue notebook, which holds Bina’s Mss., was also used as an autograph book for Bukuma. There on August 12, 1946 Asha Devi Aryanayakam of Hindustani Talimi Sangh had scribbled:

“Bukuma, service to [our] villages is the true service to Indian nation”


The manuscript was damaged with some worm-holes in it, and we have indicated such portions with ellipsis dots enclosed within brackets, such as this […]. In certain cases we tried to put appropriate word/s in brackets in an effort to make the reading more lucid. We have included the list of dramatis personae in the running annotations of the text. The readers will notice that in the annotation section we tried to explain some very common Indian words such as daal, saag, khichdi etc.—this was done keeping in view the needs of the readers of non-Indian origin, who may not be familiar with these terms. Curiously, on August 11, 1946 there is no entry recorded in Bina’s notebook, which is very conspicuous; yet, probably, we would never know the real reason behind that absence of information. 

Acknowledgement:  Vineet Sabharwal for the photographs and the precious help rendered by Nityananda Kabiraj and Suchismita Ukil in researching a part of the translation—ed.

Read “Dear Bukuma”

  1. 1. Bina Dey, Jivantaranga, unpublished Bengali manuscript. Mukul Dey Archives collection.
  2. 2. Unpublished original letters and diaries of Bina Dey. Mukul Dey Archives collection.
  3. 3. Mukul Dey, Portraits of Mahatma Gandhi, Orient Longmans Limited, 1948.
  4. 4. Original ‘Tagore Collection Catalogue’. This important document was created during the first decade of twentieth-century by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and artist Nandalal Bose [see Panchanan Mondal, Bharatshilpi Nandalal, Vol. I, 1982]. cf. G. Venkatachalam, Mirror of Indian Art, privately published from Bangalore, 1929, pp. 104—106.
  5. 5. M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography or the story of My Experiments with Truth, translated from the original Gujrati by Mahadev Desai, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, December 1945, pp. 210—211. cf. Katherine Mayo, Mother India, 1927, photo-illustration facing page 163, and text pp. 361—364, 373. Mayo quotes Young India of October 20, 1925, p. 371 and Young India of November 19, 1925, p. 399.
  6. 6. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Constructive Programme: Its Meaning and Place, Navajivan Trust reprint May 1991, pp. 15—16.
  7. 7. See Chandogya Upanisad 8.7.2—3, 8.8.1—4 etc., cf. Patrick Olivelle, Upanisads, OUP, New York, 1998, pp. 171—174.
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