A Hundred Years of Sandesh:
Imagination through Fun and Play
In 1913, Upendrakishore Ray (1863-1915) launched the children's monthly, Sandesh (Sweetmeat). One hundred years later after being nurtured by his celebrated son, Sukumar Roy (1887-1923), and grandson, Satyajit Ray (1921-1992), Sandesh remains THE magazine that all children's magazine in the Bangla language aspire to.
Born in Moshua in Mymensingh, Bangladesh, Upendrakishore studied at Mymensingh Zilla School from where he passed the Entrance Examination in 1880. His professional specialization, printing, made him a pioneer of his time. His passion however was writing and painting. Children were very close to his heart. It was therefore no surprise that Sandesh would launch as a juvenile magazine.
Book cover from Satyajit Ray’s Shera Shandesh.
Sandesh- with its colourful illustrations- instantly attracted the attention and imagination of children. Upendrakishore is one of the first writers to write for juveniles in Bangla and influence others. Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) with Bhut Porir Deshe; Priyomboda Devi with Panchulal started a tradition of juvenile literature in Bangla. Upendrakishore himself created immortal characters through Tuntuni- the talking bird; and Goopy Gain and Bagha Bain. He also started various columns in Sandesh that introduced children to new frontiers of knowledge and experience, but above all invoked in them a sense of imagination.
After editing, contributing and publishing 33 issues of Sandesh, Upendrakishore died in 1915. His son, Sukumar Ray became the next editor. Sukumar brought new dimensions to Sandesh. In his memoire, Satyajit wrote, “Baba's Sandesh was different from Thakur Da's. A juvenile magazine became a teenager's magazine”. Sandesh saw the inclusion of the informative Jene Rekho; and various scientific contributions. Sukumar would make quizzes, puzzles and jokes. Sometimes, puzzles would be presented in the form of rhyming poems. Through Sandesh, Sukumar kept the family tradition of making original contributions to children's literature through his nonsense verses that were vastly influenced by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Abol Tabol (Rhymes without Reason); Ho-Jo-Bo-Ro-Lo (Mumbo Jumbo); Pagla Dashu (Crazy Dashu) will keep Sukumar alive for as long as Bangla remains alive.
In 1923- at the age of only 36 years, Sukumar Ray
left the material world. Sukumar's younger brother Subinoy remained the editor of Sandesh till 1925. Then Sandesh stopped printing due to financial losses. It re-started in 1929 and continued till 1934 when it again ceased publication. Years later, the poet Subhas Mukhopadhyay (1919-2003) was having an adda with Satyajit Ray. Subhas threw the question, 'how about re-starting Sandesh'? The rest was history. In 1961, Sandesh restarted under Satyajit and Subhas. In 1963, Subhas left. Satyajit's Aunt, Leela Majumder, assumed Subhas's position. There was now no looking back for Sandesh- well almost!
If Upendrakishore gave birth to Sandesh; and Sukumar gave Sandesh an identity, then Satyajit took Sandesh to another planet. After film, Sandesh soon became more than a passion for Satyajit to uphold his father and grandfather's tradition to make youngsters imagine through fun and play. Satyajit did most of the illustrations himself. The covers of Sandesh during his time are now icons of a culture. Through Sandesh, Satyajit launched many of his timeless pieces in Bangla literature. The 1962 Science-Fiction Bankubabur Bondhu (Mr Banku's Friend) went on to influence Stephen Spillberg's ET- although the latter denied the claim- and also the Bollywood movie Koi Mil Gaiya. In 1965, Feluda- loosely based on Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, emerged and soon became THE Master Sleuth to Bengali children and teenagers. Around that same time emerged another sci-fiction character based on a cross between Sukumar's characters Hesho Ram and Nidhi Ram. It was none other than Professor Shonku- the inventor who challenged the imagination of generations of youngsters. Apart from all this, through many sketches, Satyajit also tried to make youngsters interested in film and film making.
When things are going too well, there must be a thunder and lightning around the corner that will strike sooner or later. After 31 years at the helm of Sandesh, Satyajit left the material world in 1992. Since then, Sandesh has been published irregularly. A Ford Foundation grant in 2006 tried to revive the magazine, but the legacy of the Three Rays has not been able to continue once again.
The iconic image of Sandesh rests on the genius of three generations of Rays: Upendrakishore, Sukumar and Satyajit. It was through their love for the next generation that Sandesh became a part of the lives of generations of youngsters. In the words of Upandrekishore Ray, “We would like to know what interests you. Through fun and play we would like to develop your mind”. Indeed. To known the unknown, the mind needs to break the four walls and roof of the claustrophobic classroom. It is this imagination that has made and kept Sandesh THE iconic magazine in the Bangla language. One hundred years on, the legacy of Sandesh lives and lives with the hope another Ray will once again bring youngsters back to the world of imagination. Happy Century, Sandesh. Thanks for all the imagination through fun and play.
(The author teaches economic theory at Jahangirnagar University)