A Dalit as India’s cultural Ambassador in Europe
By Vidya Bhushan Rawat
We all celebrated when Bobby Jindal made it to American Congress several years back. Similarly whether it is Mahendra Chaudhury in Fiji or Vasudev Pandey in the Carribeans, Indians always rejoice on the victory of their ‘own’ people. But, it is strange that an Indian who is known as the ‘cultural ambassador’ of India for his noble efforts to propagate Indian arts and culture in Sweden, remain unknown to a large tribe in India. It is certainly because he happened to be a Dalit and has no public relation firms to publicise his work and achievements. Nevertheless, PK Mahanandia’s life and achievements can give us many lessons of how we treat our geniuses and that if opportunities are provided any body can shine under the sun. Moreover, in a country where caste hatred dominate our discourse, Mahanandia got an opportunity to develop his life and show his skills to the world only after he left India. He got married to Swede Nobility after a pure love story, which virtually had no parallel? Much before, he could achieve so many distinctions even as representing Sweden at various UN conferences, Mahanandia was humiliated in his home state of Orissa and later in the streets of Delhi just because he happened to be born in an untouchable family he had no God father who could guide him and provide support to pursue his dream to become an artist? It is important that we should understand what this story tells us. So first let me introduce him to you. Yes, Mr P.K.Mahanandia, would have made it to Swedish Parliament this year had his party Junilistan received some more votes at the national level. Mr. P.K.Mahandia became legend in his own lifetime for his amazing work, his love story and his contribution to strengthen the multicultural life in Sweden.
PK as he is fondly called was originally Pradyumna to his parents. Born in an untouchable weaver family, in 1949 in a village of district Kandhapada, Orissa, this outcaste always had a fascination for the nature. He had seen the dangers of the Varna system and how it reduces people to nothing. An individual become useless because of his caste identity. His father was a postman who later rose to become postmaster. The father wanted to educate his children and hence PK was sent to local schools yet his caste identity always came in between to haunt him. His fellow student would laugh at him and mock his family and caste. Knowing this, his father arranged him a hostel at Mahendra High School but here also the cook behaved in the similar fashion what I would recall what Dr Ambedkar witnessed when he returned to India from Abroad. It agonized the young mind of Pradyumna. I am sure all those who are reading this would understand that caste is not class in India. It is worst than any other disease,
Pradyumna was a born artist who had grown in the lap of nature. From the college days, his art started reflecting in his various works. But very unfortunately Pradyumna was unable to concentrate on his education. While he remained weak in mathematics even though, he was a keen student of science at the school level.
He later joined Viswabharati to study art on the advice of his elder brother. Despite his selection at the art school, it became impossible to pay the high fee and he had to return home disappointingly. It was more disappointing that this legendary artist could not find a Bhadrlok gentlemen taking care of him and exploring his art. One wonders what were the virtues of Vishwabharati if it could not nurture a talent in India. But perhaps that is not in our traditions particularly when we all suffer from Dronacharya syndrome. Hence, after his failure to get admission in Vishwabharati, he joined college of art, Khallikote, which was affiliated to government of Orissa. But that did not satisfy his quest to develop art and he finally took admission at Delhi College of Art to study Fine Arts 1971.
In Delhi he had to face similar problems. The struggle continued where he slept on the streets and used the public toilets. He still remembers those horrible days when he used to roam around particularly near the old coffee house, which is now Palika Bazar More painful was that there was no body to help him provide him the basic necessities of life. He would walk barefoot and was virtually homeless till a friend Tariq Beg shared his accommodation with him. Talent never remain hidden and with in few years, Pradyumna became an expert in making portraits, as his biographer noted Oriya poet of international repute Mr Jayant Mohapatra writes ‘, The excellence of the portrait of the cosmonaut Valentina Tereskova was the first in his efforts at portraiture, and remains a memorable creation for all time. His art became topic of discussion everywhere, and his name found prominent place in the country’s newspaper. Pradyumna could then easily obtain permission from the Delhi High Commission and he began to take his art to the streets, sketching and painting near the Fountain in New Delhi’s Connaught Place.’
In 1975 Charlotte, a Swedish student Charlotte came to know about the creation of portraits by Pradyumna, in a leading English Newspaper the Hindustan Times. Perhaps, that changed the entire life of Pradyumna. Charlotte decided to visit his exhibition and went to Connnaught place where Pradyumna was making portraits of those who desired so. Watching him make portrait of people made immediate influence in the mind of Charlotte. During the making of portrait for Charlotte both of them fell for each other. They married according to local traditions and Charlotte was later rediscovered as Charulata and in short Lotta.
While Charlotte had to return to Sweden because of her visa, Pradyumna decided that he would go on his own to that country. May be, the traditional ‘purushartha’ or ‘manliness’, prohibited him to take a favor from his wife who could have easily send him an air ticket. It was nearly impossible to earn that much of money by designing portraits in the streets of Connaught place in the mid seventies. So one fine day, Pradyumna realized that he probably might not earn the amount of money required to buy an air ticket to Stockholm and therefore he decided to go to Sweden on Cycle, which was his support system to commute in Delhi. It was 1977 and Pradyumna started from Delhi and passed through Amritsar and reached Afghanistan. From there he proceeded to Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Germany and Austria, Denmark and then Sweden. PK remembers how difficult it was for him to travel in these tough mountainous regions. At the Sweden border, Pradyumna was stopped by the immigration authorities, who wanted to know the purpose of his visit to Sweden. The poor fellow showed them his marriage photographs and letters with Charlotte which the officials refused to believe. The official found it unbelievable that a woman from Swedish Nobility would marry to an ordinary man from India. They feared that the man was lying and therefore they called her. It was only after Charlotte informed that that the said man was her husband that the authorities decided to let him in. It was remarkable that Charolotte had never referred to her family background to Pradyumna very unlike with our stiff traditions where family background and father’s business becomes bigger subject than the individual getting married.
This shows also a clear difference between the two cultures. The Indians value system and the Swede culture. At a time when we have witnessed many honored killings in India because of the caste tag, a woman of Swedish aristocracy marrying to an Indian Untouchable boy in the 1970s was itself unbelievable. For an India, which is still struggling to accept that Dalits are equal partners in development, this is an important lesson. When I asked this question to PK Mahanandia as what difference he found in the two cultures since he has been living in Sweden for nearly 40 years, he said, “I personally never felt any discrimination in private or in public. May it is due to my personal image in this country. People respect me by knowing my background as an outcast and married in the Swedish aristocracy’.
It is interesting that PK has been able to find some relationship between India’s caste system and similarities in Sweden. ‘Perhaps you know CHATURVARNA, of India is the same as in ancient structure of Nordic society. In Sweden It was called "Fyra Stånden. "Swedish society was divided into four main groups ADEL, PREST, BORGAR and BONDE. Their birth professions were like Chaturvarana in India. If you enter into Swedish Parliament There is a room of Chaturvarna (Where I had arranged Dalit arts exhibition), you can se 4 huge oil paintings representing Adel, prest , borgar and Bonde like Kshatriya, Brahmin, Vasya and Shudra. It seems Sweden has already come over the problem of Chaturvarna a long time back but India is not able to get rid of Chaturvarna mentally”, he says.
Mr. Mahanandia says that India can learn a lot from Sweden, as they are a better democracy than ours. India has a long way to develop itself into a mature democracy.
Interestingly, a documentary film on his life, broadcast by Swedish National television three times, became the entry point for common Swede to hear and understand the word "Dalit". Impressed with his impeccable credential P.K.Mahanandia was invited by a new political party JUNILISTAN to visit European Parliament Brussels and then nominated as a candidate to contest the elections for the Swedish Parliament. ‘I personally got 9.7% of all votes where margin is 8%. It means I would have come into the Swedish parliament if my party had got 4% vote in whole of Sweden. Last EU election 2002 party had got more than 14. %,” Says Mahanandia.
In Delhi, as the Lok Sabha passed the reservation for OBC bill, the merit mongers have again taken to the streets decrying government actions. Merit is again the talk of the town and Dalits are lampooned as dull, ordinary, lazy and non-meritorious people. I felt compelled to ask Mr Mahanandia, who is a living legend and respected for his art all over the world as what is his view of merit. He said, ‘Merit does not belong to any caste, creed or sex. If opportunity is given any one can rise. Reservation should be according to the population of the area in private and in public’.
Many of the dalits have converted to other religions because of the continuous humiliation at the hand of the caste Hindus. What is the right choice, I ask. According to him, ‘Buddhism is more human and more democratic way of living, after all now whole world is crying for humanity’. He sincerely feels that the struggle of Dalits is a battle of whole humanity. While treating love and marriage is private affair, he feels that discrimination is a disease and can only be cured by individuals. So it is important to understand that individual is supreme and that caste discrimination kills individual identity.
In 2005 Orissa’s Minister of State Mr Nagendra K Pradhan proposed his name for Nobel Peace Prize, for his outstanding work to promote peace and art all over the world. PK has started Orissa Cultural Centre in Boras, Sweden.
The most important part of Mahanandia’s achievements is that he is not bitter even after having faced so much of discrimination in life. In fact, his contribution to spread Indian art, culture and handicraft has been immensely respected and acknowledged in Sweden and other parts of the world. More over, in 1979 he instituted scholarship for needy students of art, Indian dance and music. His village had severe water problem and PK understood this and arranged drilling tube-well for solving the water crisis. In year 2000, he built ‘eco-cottage’ to encourage village tourism in Orissa. He regularly supports and sponsor activities in his village. A large number of his admirers visit this eco village in Orissa. It is a tribute to his conviction and work that 20% of his income is invested in Orissa.
As a rare individual, P.K.Mahanandia is a role model for all those who aspire high and fight against the unnatural injustice imposed by a priestly class. In Mahanandia’s success lies great lessons of humanism for India and its people. Indians need to be proud of him and his achievements but at the same point of time must introspect how legends like him are nurtured and respected world over but not in their own country. How long will we allow this to happen and then claim that we believe in ‘ Vasudhaiv Kutumbkum’. More importantly, can we really say that discrimination in India is based on economic condition and not on the basis of the caste identity of an individual? P.K.Mahanandia’s story also reminds us to get rid of our ‘matrimonial’ values based on caste and religions and bring different culture together by human bondage based on purely inter personal relationship of love, respect and affection.