Harindranath Chattopadhyay juggled many roles in his lifetime. He was a renowned poet, dramatist, singer, songwriter, Member of the Parliament and actor. Movie lovers of a certain vintage will remember Chattopadhyay from his roles in Seemabaddha and Bawarchi. But the role that Chattopadhyay seemed to enjoy playing the most was that of a child. In a television interview for Doordarshan at the age of 88, Chattopadhyay said, “I am a little boy,” when he was asked about the secret of his vitality.
Born on April 2, 1898, in Hyderabad, Chattopadhyay belonged to an illustrious family. His father was a scientist. His mother was a singer. His elder sister, Sarojini Naidu, would go on to become one of the major leaders of the Indian independence movement. His first collection of poems, The Feast of Youth was published in 1918. The following year, Chattopadhyay married Kamaladevi Dhareshwar, the future pioneer of craft and textile preservation, and moved to London to work as a research scholar. He got admission into Fitzwilliam College and began research on the poet William Blake. While studying in Britain, his poems were published in the Indian Magazine (the journal of the National Indian Association) and Britain and India (the journal of the Theosophical-influenced Britain and India Association).
Chattopadhyay also wrote a play Tukaram (1929), based on the poet-saint of Maharashtra, which was performed to critical acclaim and established his name back in India. He had a prolific output in poetry, including the titles The Magic Tree (1922), Poems and Plays (1927), Strange Journey (1936), The Dark Well (1939), Edgeways and the Saint (1946), Spring in Winter (1956), Masks and Farewells (1951), Virgins and Vineyards (1967), and Life and Myself (1948).
Here are two of his best-remembered poems.
The noon a mystic dog with paws of fire
Runs through the sky in ecstasy of drouth
Licking the earth with tongue of golden flame
Set in a burning mouth
It floods the forest with loud barks of light
And chases its own shadow on the plains
Some secret Master-hand hath set it free
Awhile from silver chains
At last towards the cinctured end of day
It drinks cool draughts from sunset-mellowed rills,
Then chained to twilight by the Master's hand
It sleeps among the hills.
In days gone by I used to be
A potter who would feel
His fingers mould the yielding clay
To patterns on his wheel;
But now, through wisdom lately won,
That pride has gone away,
I have ceased to be the potter
And have learned to be the clay.
In other days I used to be
A poet through whose pen
Innumerable songs would come
To win the hearts of men;
But now, through new-got knowledge
Which I hadn't had so long,
I have ceased to be the poet
And have learned to be the song.
I was a fashioner of swords,
In days that now are gone,
Which on a hundred battle-fields
Glittered and gleamed and shone;
But now I am brimming with
The silence of the Lord,
I have ceased to be sword-maker
And have learned to be the sword.
In by-gone days I used to be
A dreamer who would hurl
On every side an insolence
Of emerald and pearl
But now I am kneeling
At the feet of the Supreme
I have ceased to be the dreamer
And have learned to be the dream.
In 1962, Chattopadhyay made his debut as an actor in the Guru Dutt-produced Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam. His character is called Ghari Babu, a man who keeps an eye on the clock and reminds inhabitants of the palace where the film is set of its ominous ruin. He followed the role with cameos in Satyajit Ray’s Bengali films, playing a magician in Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne (1969), an avuncular man in Seemabaddha (1971), and a wiseacre in Sonar Kella (1972).
Chattopadhyay kept his appearances brief in Hindi and Bengali films, taking on character roles that allowed for eccentric behaviour. He struck gold when he was cast in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Bawarchi (1972). Playing the role of a dotty patriarch of a joint family, Chattopadhyay is best remembered for his one-liners that mock members of his brood.
Chattopadhyay also sang in the movie Aashirwad (1968) with co-actor Ashok Kumar. In this video, the two engage in a vocal duel, singing gibberish. They also sing the duet “Kanoon Ki Ek Nagri”, but more famously, Ashok Kumar sings the ever-popular children’s ditty “Rail Gaadi”, written by Chattopadhyay.
The government honoured Chattopadhyay with the Padma Vibhushan award in 1972. The man who never wanted to grow up died in 1990.