Despite what countless Bengali stories would tell you, the planchette is an object and not a practice. It is a short movable wooden board with a pencil attached to one end, meant for scrawling a spirit’s message. But in Bengali “planchette” has become the umbrella term for all sorts of sessions for communicating with the spirits, whether or not using the eponymous board. It is to Bengali what the term “séance” (French for “session”) is to English. Many Bengali litterateurs participated in séances, either out of curiosity or to find consolation.
On November 6 1929, Rabindranath Tagore communed with the spirit of the deceased Sukumar Roy (1887-1923) in a séance held at his Jorashanko residence. Abanindranath (1871-1951), Rabindranath’s nephew, was in attendance. Rabindranath enlisted the help of Uma Devi aka Bula, daughter of his friend Mohitchandra Sen, who acted as the medium and conveyed the message from the spirits in writing. Rabindranath asked Sukumar, “(Sir Arthur) Conan Doyle receives messages from the other world, are they true?” The reply came, “True, but laced with imagination.” Sukumar’s spirit predicted the triumph of Rabindranath’s paintings in Europe and requested that his son Satyajit be accepted as a student at the Santiniketan ashram. Satyajit Ray (1921-1992), who repeatedly depicts (genuine or spurious) séances in his stories and was a life member of the West Bengal Parapsychology Society, would have heard of this dialogue from his mother.
Rabindranath held several sessions with Bula between October and December 1929. The spirit of Manilal Gangopadhyay (1888-1929), Abanindranath’s son-in-law, was made to draw a picture with the assistance of Bula and the legendary painter Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) at a séance held at Santiniketan. The outcome has not been preserved. Manilal was himself an expert on séances and authored ghost stories, which are collected in the book Kayahiner Kahini (Tales of the Body-less). When Rabindranath’s sister Swarnakumari Devi (1855-1932) had been too aggrieved by the death of her husband to edit the literary journal Bharati, Manilal communed with the spirit of her husband to receive information about the periodical’s future. But when quizzed by Rabindranath, Manilal’s spirit declared that occult practices in this world were hogwash and he himself had cheated a lot in his time.
The poet and scholar Amiya Chakravarty (1901-1986), who transcribed some of these sessions with Bula, later called them products of Rabindranath’s childlike whims. Amitabha Chowdhury in his Rabindranather Paralokcharcha insists that Rabindranath had an open, curious mind. He does not vouch for Rabindranath’s total acceptance or rejection of the dialogues with the dead.
The tradition of séances in the extended family of the Tagores was much older than Bula. Rabindranath informs in a 1937 letter to author Pramathanath Bishi (1901-1985) that he had once met the poet Michael Madhusudan Dutta (1824-1873), but that was through a pretbanibaha chakrajan or a wheeled vehicle carrying the messages of ghosts, i.e., a planchette. Rabindranath records in his memoir Jibansmriti that when the spirit of Kailas Mukherjee, a cashier of the Tagores, was convened, he bluntly refused to reveal to the living what he had learnt only after his death. It is also reported that Rabindranath tried to interact with the spirit of his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi on several occasions after her suicide in 1884. He also consulted his deceased wife Mrinalini on important family matters.
Besides, Rabindranath’s eldest brother, the poet and essayist Dwijendranath (1840-1926), was a founding member of the Bengal Theosophical Society, which set great store by communication with the dead. His sister Swarnakumari was the Secretary of its women’s chapter. Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott, founders of the Society, were frequent visitors at her Kasia Bagan residence in the 1880s.
Several key literary figures of 19th-century Bengal actively sought messages from the dead. In this matter, they were often inspired by the example of societies and individuals from the West. Peary Chand Mitra (1814-1883), social activist and author of the pioneering Bengali novel Alaler Gharer Dulal (The Spoilt Rich Boy) was the founding President of the Bengal Theosophical Society. He was said to have interacted with his deceased wife Bamakali on a regular basis. The dramatist Dinabandhu Mitra (1830-1873) and novelist Sanjibchandra Chattopadhyay (1838-1899) also eagerly participated in séances. A more spectacular case was that of Shishir Kumar Ghose (1840-1911), founder of the newspaper Amrita Bazar Patrika and author of devotional Vaishnavite texts. He became distraught after his brother’s suicide. Under the guidance of Peary Chand, he began holding séances with his entire family. At a huge expense, he obtained a spirit portrait (one allegedly drawn by spirits) of his deceased son Poyesh Kanti from the Bangs sisters of Chicago, who were later exposed as con artists.
In 1906, Shishir Kumar started a monthly called The Hindu Spiritual Magazine to share his conviction about the immortality of the soul. A similar periodical in Bengali, called Aloukik Rahasya and devoted to a respectful recording of supernatural occurrences, was edited by Kshirode Prasad Vidyavinode from 1909 to 1915. Kshirode Prasad (1863-1927), who started his career as a professor of Chemistry at the General Assembly’s Institution (at present Scottish Church College, Kolkata), had by that time established himself as a leading playwright for the Bengali stage with such hits as the musical Alibaba (1897).
The novelist Sourindramohan Mukhopadhyay (1884-1966), who co-edited Bharati with his friend Manilal Gangopadhyay from 1915 to 1924, strongly believed in the supernatural all his life. He declared that he had consulted spirits on more than one occasion to seek advice on legal matters. Among his younger contemporaries, the novelist and poet Achintyakumar Sengupta (1903-1976) conducted séances with his wife. During one such session, the spirit of his mother-in-law refused to come to his room since it had no sign of Hindu piety. Later, when a portrait of Sri Ramakrishna was hung in the room, the same spirit seemed to be very excited and started dragging the table used for the séance towards the portrait. A conversion soon followed. Achintyakumar became a devotee of Sri Ramakrishna, producing a 4-volume biography of the saint. Achintyakumar also told the researcher Gopalchandra Ray that he had summoned the spirit of Rabindranath and made him write a poem.
But it is Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (1894-1950) who carries off the palm among great Bengali novelists for his passionate dedication to the spirit world. Bibhutibhushan was drawn to Theosophy after the death of his first wife Gauri, his mother and his younger sister in quick succession. He lost his first appointment as a schoolteacher in Jangipara partly because he held séances on the school premises after sundown. He also held séances regularly at the office of the magazine Shanibarer Chithi, where one of his co-participants was the author Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay (1899-1970). Bibhutibhushan did not mind much if anyone questioned his literary abilities, but was deeply hurt if his friends expressed doubts about the hereafter. He even promised his friend, journalist and author Parimal Goswami, that he would visit him from the afterworld to dispel all his uncertainties. However, there is no evidence that this promise was kept.
Abhishek Sarkar is Assistant Professor, Department of English, Jadavpur University.