Film-maker and Tantric scholar
Tuesday 14 February 2006
Bhaskar Bhattacharyya, film-maker and Tantric scholar: born Darjeeling, India 4 June 1950; married 1988 Rohini Pathania (one son); died Madras 10 February 2006.
Behind the door at Bhaskar Bhattacharyya's bungalow in Delhi, drums were almost always throbbing. Throughout the 1990s, his household was a hub for mendicant mystics from West Bengal, learned Kashmiri pundits, feminist poets, or film-makers on a quest for authenticity. Chillums would be passed by ageing holy men, while writers and artisans downed pegs of whisky or Old Monk rum beneath the fug of hashish and joss sticks.
Bhattacharyya's deep bass chuckle would rumble through his beard, punctuating the cacophony of the minstrels with sheer delight. He was a prankster, eager to meet first-time visitors to India who "tend to have an orgasm every time they see a peacock".
"Bhaskar Baba" came to be seen as a globalised guru, a consultant to film crews and musicians from Britain, Europe and the United States, and he never lost his fascination for his Indian root chakra. For three decades he was tugged by two contradictory obsessions: the small screen and the big picture - nirvana.
Bhattacharyya is best known for bringing the international press corps to the 2001 Kumbhmela, a gargantuan festival for millions of Hindus who bathe in the Ganges at Allahabad, which takes place every dozen years. He helped run a deluxe tent camp for well-heeled visitors on the edge of the great spectacle, and dodged controversy when Hindu viewers in Britain complained that his Channel 4 cameramen seemed to focus exclusively on the ash-smeared naked Naga Babas.
Born in 1950, the son of two schoolteachers, Ramendranath and Mira Bhattacharyya, Bhaskar left the Himalayas at the age of five for colonial Kampala, Uganda, where he grew up among 16 Bengali families. The family moved to London to escape Idi Amin's excesses and the bookish teenager with the thick spectacles was captivated as the Summer of Love unfolded around him.
After completing A levels in Wandsworth, Bhattacharyya read Physics at City University for a year, but gravitated to the squats of Haverstock Hill where Tantric antics were in vogue. He couldn't resist joining the hippie trail through Europe, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, and eventually the self-dubbed Bond Street Brahman returned to his motherland. His uncle was a member of parliament for India's Revolutionary Socialist Party.
For six years, Bhattacharyya lived an ascetic life among sadhus, sufis and shamans, and he went on to study Sanskrit in Benares with the Tantric scholar Gopinath Kaviraj. In 1976 he returned to London to research Hindu and Sufi mysticism in library archives and his expertise was soon in demand. He was the Indian adviser for Granada's acclaimed teleseries Jewel in the Crown (1984) and a researcher for the BBC's Great Railway Journeys (1994).
Adept at video production, Bhattacharyya worked with musicians ranging from David Bowie to Yitzhak Perlman throughout the 1980s, as a means to continue his travels east. His own documentaries followed Tibetan refugees, gypsies and tinkers, and the Bahurupias of West Bengal (wandering village entertainers who disguise themselves as gods). But Bhattacharyya's connection with the Baul sufi minstrels of Bengal shaped his adult life. His collection of 84 Baul lyrics The Path of the Mystic Lover: Baul songs of passion and ecstasy (co-written with Nik Douglas, 1993) became a cult New Age book.
Between bouts of reporting for The Independent, The Times of India and the South China Morning Post, Bhattacharyya would craft his eccentric novel based on "the past and future lives" of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom he felt was a kindred spirit.
Like Shelley, Bhaskar drowned. During a morning dip in the Bay of Bengal last Friday, while shooting on location with a Channel 4 crew, he was overwhelmed by a strong rip current. Bhaskar's ashes will be immersed in the Ganges in Varanasi this week.
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