A familiar figure in Santiniketan of the 1950s and 1960s was
a fair-haired foreigner in a red-bordered khadi
sari, often seen hurriedly bicycling along the dusty lanes under the blazing mid-day
sun, a woven palm-leaf hat on her head. This was Lila Ray, writer, poet and
translator, musician and art lover, a grass roots social worker, and a wife and
mother. Highly energetic and always on the go, she was a fearless and
independent-minded person, with a secure sense of values and a deep sense of humanism;
a true internationalist who believed in the harmony of multiple cultures. Lila
was my mother.
My parents came to live in Santiniketan in 1951 when my
father Annada Sankar took early retirement from the Indian Civil Service to
devote his time to writing. They spent the next two decades there, and even
after moving away my mother returned to Santiniketan frequently to see friends,
tend to her garden, and write undisturbed. My parents chose to live in
Santiniketan because they believed in Rabindranath Tagore’s philosophy and
wanted the Tagore-style of education for their children. Rabindranath had
personally urged them to settle there when he had met them during the 1930s.
My mother’s journey to
born as Alice Virginia Orndorff in
a daughter of American pioneers, descending from German immigrants in the 18th
century and from English immigrants a century earlier. Her father Lee Orndorff Jr.
was a well-off businessman and real estate investor in
and college, and then went to
became interested in Indian music and was encouraged to explore it for herself
by a friend of my father in
She arrived in
and met Annada Sankar for the first time in the provincial town of
just begun his career. Lila and Annada Sankar were married in October in
(at that time, Annada Sankar sometimes wrote under the pen name of “Lilamoy”). Of
interest to Santiniketan buffs, the writer Pramatha Chaudhuri and his wife Indira Devi Chaudhurani were present at the
Lila and Annada Sankar had many common interests and held
similar views. Lila had an insatiable curiosity about Indian culture and
history, and Annada Sankar was the perfect guide. He was well-read, and very
familiar with the West. His book on his travels in
received. He whole-heartedly supported Gandhi’s non-violent approach to
independence and was an ardent admirer of Tagore.
Curiously, the adventuresome Lila’s story has parallels in
the life of one of her forebears: her grandmother, Alzina Carolina, born in
1859, an intrepid, pioneering woman, who from modest beginnings became quite
wealthy. With her first husband, Levi H. Orndorff, a postmaster in
her husband’s death, she married Charles de Groff. The family prospered in that
frontier town, and Alzina acquired considerable property in nearby
the Shelton Hotel, where Mexican nobility took refuge during the war of
and the Orndorff Hotel, now known as the Cortez office building. Alzina soon became a celebrity in
Texas appointed her to the first board of the first technical institute in
elected to the El Paso Hall of Fame. She was also the first president of the
fighting for equal voting rights for women. When news of Lila’s marriage in
stirred up controversy in her conservative family, the person most sympathetic
to Lila was her step-grandfather, Charles de Groff, who no doubt recalled the adventuresome
Alzina he had married some forty years earlier.
A New Life in
Lila quickly adapted to life in the small towns of rural
smile and generous heart, she made friends easily. She fully accepted the
Indian perspective, having observed the inequities of British rule from close
quarters. She wore saris made of khadi,
spun the charka, and avoided the
affectations of being a “memsahib.” My parents were extremely supportive of
each other’s activities. They adopted an unostentatious, simple life-style,
free of alcohol or tobacco. They did not practice any religious rituals, and
the Upanishads and the Bible were
both read at prayers. Their circle of friends grew—writers, poets, artists, intellectuals.
Besides managing her household, Lila concentrated on bringing up her children (my
older brother Punya Sloka and my two sisters, Joya and Tripty; another brother
Chitrakam died at a very young age). She studied Bengali in earnest, which was
difficult at first, but soon read, wrote, and spoke Bengali with complete fluency
(the soft Bengali “d” and “t”, however, were difficult for her).
Exposure to the richness of Bengali literature and culture led
to Lila’s life-long interest in translation. She and Annada Sankar also became
members of PEN, an international organization of poets, essayists, and
novelists. The Indian chapter was set up in 1933 by Sophia Wadia, with Tagore presiding
over its initiation in
Her first publication, an article on the Bengali writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay
after his death in 1938, appeared in PEN magazine. PEN also published Bengali Literature: A Historical Survey
(1942), with Lila and Annada Sankar as co-authors. Lila translated the Bengali
passages quoted in that volume. She also wrote on Rabindranath Tagore, the
literary contributions of Abanindranath Tagore (until then known outside Bengal
only as an artist), promising young writers and poets of
the different strands of literary criticism in Bengali literature, and the
local cultures of Birbhum and Mymensingh.
Move to Santiniketan
Soon after their marriage, Annada Sankar took Lila to
Santiniketan to meet Tagore, who greeted Lila warmly and asked her to think of
Santiniketan as her home. Tagore repeated that invitation when he met her again
in 1939, adding that she would be free to join any department she liked and
could decide on her own program. Finally, in 1951, Lila and Annada Sankar were
able to move to Santiniketan, enroll the children in school and college, and set
up their home on the edge of the lalbandh
Lila’s joy knew no bounds. She had found the “home” to which
Tagore had invited her. Annada Sankar no longer had to work for the government,
and Lila was free to spread herself in all areas of interest to her. Her first
task was to take care of her family without the help of the retinue of servants
to which she had become accustomed as an ICS wife. This she did with great
gusto, using her bicycle to run daily errands, including bringing home the mail
from the post office rain or shine--“the family peon,” as she called herself.
She was probably the first “older woman” to ride the bicycle in conservative
Lila fully immersed herself in Santiniketan life, and
“Lila-di” or “Lila-mashi” became a much-loved figure. In Santiniketan, Lila and
Annada Sankar’s social network expanded, and people could visit them at any time. For
scholars and students from abroad, Lila’s residence became a hub, a home away
from home. There were books and magazines from
records of classical Western music, and occasionally, Lila’s home-baked
chocolate brownies. She was always welcoming, doing everything she could to
treat her guests well.
Social Work and the Land
My mother cared deeply for the less fortunate around her.
She had helped the needy in
and continued with social work in the villages and towns where she lived,
including around Santiniketan. She knew how to treat victims of snake bites and
kept the necessary antidotes with her. She was regularly called to help women
during childbirth. She organized small groups of women to teach them general
hygiene, pre-natal and post-natal care, as well as the benefits of khadi and the charka.
Lila had become a follower of Gandhi and his eminent
disciple Acharya Vinobha Bhave.
She enthusiastically joined Bhave’s program for voluntary
land distributions, and travelled to the villages with Bhave’s supporters.
According to the well-known Gandhian Sailesh Banerjee, Lila was a true believer
in the Gandhi-Vinobha approach. She continued to spin the charka even after independence and actively helped create the Khadi
center in Bolpur. She translated Bhave’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, which was published as The Steadfast Wisdom. To help villagers, she translated from
English into simple Bengali the paragraphs in the Indian Constitution dealing
with fundamental rights.
Ananda Pathshala—A School
for Young Children
Children were very special to Lila. She was passionate about
early childhood learning and loved to devise special games to amuse children
and teach at the same time. Pratima Devi, Tagore’s daughter-in-law, and Indira
Devi Chaudhurani, Tagore’s niece, had started a women’s group in Santiniketan
called Alapini, whose members carried out a variety of social welfare work
around Santiniketan. Bina Basu was the first secretary of Alapini, and Lila
succeeded her. Lila took the lead in establishing Ananda Pathshala for children
between the ages of four and six, in 1954. When Sudhiranjan Das became
vice-chancellor in 1961, the school was transferred to its present location,
Deholi, and regular financing from the university was arranged. After Lila’s
death in 1992, her family built a playroom in her memory at Ananda Pathshala
for the children she so loved.
Research on Bauls
Another strong interest of Lila was the culture of the Baul
Lila first came in contact with them in 1935, while living in Kushtia, where
she learned about the music and philosophy of Lalan . Her exposure to Bauls was
renewed in Santiniketan. This is where she befriended Nabani Das, the leading Baul
at that time, and his young son, Purnachandra Das. Purnachandra, a life-long
friend of my parents, became internationally well known in later years. Lila
also used to visit the large Baul camp beside the Ajoy river nearby, travelling
by bullock-cart with a few friends or with her younger daughter.
One of her neighbors was Kshitimohan Sen who was an
authority on Indian philosophy and religions, and probably contributed
substantially to the development of Tagore’s own ideas in this area.
Kshitimohan asked Lila to translate his book on the Bauls, which was first
serialized in the Visva-Bharati university magazine under the title The Bauls of
Lila’s own writings on Bauls also helped subsequent researchers on the subject.
Although my mother became fully integrated into Bengali
society, she never forgot her Western roots. She read voraciously, and kept
herself fully informed about literary developments in English, Spanish, German
and other languages: some referred to her as the “walking encyclopedia of world
literature.” She had brought her Steinway grand piano with her from
town during the family’s many moves in
She mainly played Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart and was admired by those who
appreciated Western music, particularly Indira Devi Choudhurani. Once, invited
by students to give a lecture demonstration, she chose Beethoven’s ninth
symphony; her old gramophone and the set of records were taken to China Bhavan
where the event was held.
Many foreign scholars and students at Santiniketan in the
1950s and 1960s became close to Lila. Among the younger crowd were Cynthia
Bowles (US), Thomas Okelo (
Lili Mi (
and among the post-graduate group were Roy North (UK), John Berry (UK), Bill
Small (US), Lillian Burke (US), and David McCutcheon (UK). There were also the
foreign-born wives of several residents, in particular Eta Ghosh (
Together with her friends, Lila organized the Christmas celebrations at the
Santiniketan Mandir in 1956. Their efforts helped revive Christmas celebrations
in Santiniketan which were initiated by Tagore himself in 1910.
Lila’s participation in the Christmas celebrations were
particularly meaningful to her as she had remained true to her Christian roots.
This is evident from a letter she wrote to her mother about the event in
“Here I took the
service on Christmas day. There was, as always, a huge crowd. We sang old
Christmas carols, two in German, one from the 14th century and one
from the 16th. The service opened with one of Tagore’s songs in Bengali. That
was followed by two carols. Next came my reading from the Bible. Two more
carols and another Tagore song completed the program.”
Essays and Poems
The literary interests that Lila had developed before coming
to Santiniketan became reinforced during her stay in Santiniketan. A boost came
when Annada Sankar initiated a Sahitya Mela (a series of seminars) in 1953,
reuniting writers from West Bengal and
role, and translated and published the proceedings.
Lila liked to write poetry, and had published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1956, which cited
her in its list of emerging poets. Her first book of poems was Entrance (1961), published by Writers
Workshop. Subsequently she published The
Days Between (1976), Alive and Dying
(1976), Songs of Mourning (1976), The Valley of Vision (1978), Once There Was (1985, poems for children
written with Chandrahas Ray, one of her grandsons), and A Visit to the Zoo (1986, also for children). All these books were
written in English, and her book of poems in Bengali, Ekoda, was published posthumously in 1993. She read her own poems
in a cassette recording in 1978.
Her prose writings include many essays, the first set of
which was published as A Challenging
Decade: Bengali Literature in the Forties (D.M. Library, Kolkata, 1953),
and a second set was published as Equities
(Indian Institute of World Culture, Bangalore, 1956). She was invited to give
the Tagore Memorial Lecture at
published it as The Formative Influences
in the Life of Tagore.
Lila wrote the chapter on Bengali literature in Bengali Language Handbook, by Punya
Sloka Ray (Center of Applied Linguistics, 1966). She also wrote Engreji Sahaj Path, a textbook, with
Punya Sloka Ray (Banishilpa, Kolkata, 1987). She also translated the papers of
Punya Sloka on the valuation of a language: Bhasar
Lila was a prolific translator of novels, short stories,
essays, and poems. Her first effort was Vigil,
by Satinath Bhaduri. It was the first book from
List of Important Works, 1965. This was followed by Ganadevata, by Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay (1969), A House of Joy, by Sisir Sen (1970), Bhuvan Shome, by Bonophul (1971), A House Undivided (from Oriya), by
Kalindi Charan Panigrahi (1973), and Phatik
Chand by Satyajit Ray (1983).
She published several anthologies of her translations of
short stories, the first one being Broken
Bread, 1957. This was followed by Flight
and Pursuit, by Annada Sankar Ray (1969), The Prisoners, by Jorasandho (1975), and Woman and Other Stories, by Annada Sankar Ray (1977). She also
translated modern Bengali poetry, including the poetry of Lokenath Bhattacharya, Daud Haidar, Asokebijoy
Raha, and Annada Sankar Ray.
Her translations of Vinobha Bhave and Kshitimohan Sen have
already been mentioned. She translated a selection of Sanskrit slokas with
Sujit Mukhopadhyay, as The Path of
Universal Love (1957), and also Confessions
of a Believer by Mahbub-ul-Alam (1957). Her non-fiction translations
included many essays on topics such as Gandhi, Tagore, and Indian culture, as
well as the biography of Pandit Nilakanta Das, a well-known Oriya leader (from
Lila collaborated with Satyajit Ray on the subtitles of
several of his films, such as Ashani
Sanket and Ghare-baire. She also
translated Satyajit Ray’s Bengali script of Pather
Panchali at the request of Cine Central of Kolkata. Satyajit Ray and Lila
remained good friends until her death.
Lila believed that translation is a creative discipline that
requires a good rapport between the author and the translator, which can be
based on direct interactions or when that is not possible, on research.
Translation should not be regarded as a mechanical or clerical process. She
expressed her views in several essays, including “Violets and Crucibles” (Visva-Bharati Quarterly, 1956), and On Translation (Translators’ Society of India,
Lila was invited as the Indian delegate to a Round Table
Conference on Translation in
organized by the international PEN. She came back convinced that translation
needed to be encouraged in
as a profession, especially because
The central authorities in
this view, and organized a conference in
in 1963, to discuss the training of translators. Lila was asked to prepare a
syllabus that universities could use to train translators.
Lila and her colleagues founded the Translators’ Society of
India (TSI) in 1968, with help from Sekhar Sen, who had also created the
Writers’ Guild in
first initiative in
to organize and assist translators. Later, the National Book Trust convened a
four-day workshop in 1973, with Lila as the technical director. As the Book
Trust and other organizations entered the field, the TSI faded away. There is
no doubt however that the TSI, and Lila in particular, stimulated the emergence
of translation as a worthy profession in
Lila’s life is the story of an enterprising young American,
a lover of music and literature, who came to
with a remarkable young man. She was a most supportive wife and mother and a caring
grandmother, who lived life to the fullest. She did her share in building
bridges between the land of her birth and the land where she made her home. My
mother loved the star-encrusted, night skies of Santiniketan and enjoyed
explaining the constellations to visitors. In one of her poems, she seems to
write her own epitaph:
When to be asleep in the deep night
Is the starlit end of a sunlit life
And death is adventure to me
I will seek these stars.
I am grateful for the suggestions of many friends,
particularly Surajit Dasgupta, whose biography of Lila Ray in Bengali was very
helpful. Also helpful was correspondence with Alex Weyand, a descendant of the
Published June 2015
Anandarup Ray, a son of Annada Sankar and Lila Ray, was a student in Visva-Bharati in the...
Photographs courtesy .