In the winter of 1977, a man from Orissa (now Odisha) cycled through Punjab in his quest for love. He was perhaps unaware of the folk of the land of five rivers, where Heer once sang: “Ranjha Ranjha kardi, main appe Ranjhan hoyi (Singing of Ranjha, I became Ranjha).”
“Giving one’s self to the other is every lover’s state of mind,” Gurbaksh Singh Preetlari, Punjabi novelist, said. So was Pradyumna Kumar Mahanandia’s, then 28, when he undertook the journey on his second-hand bicycle from New Delhi to Sweden to be with his better half, Charlotte von Sledvin.
Mahanandia, a Dalit from Athamalik village in Orissa’s Kandhapada district, was making portraits at New Delhi’s Connaught Place when he first met with Charlotte, then 19, in 1975.
She, on reading a news report in Hindustan Times about Mahanandia’s art, had come to see the skills of the final-year student of the Delhi College of Art. As the young artist sat down to sketch the pretty lady, he became unsure of his hand. Beauty has its own aura and PK, as Mahanandia is called fondly, was captivated by it. He failed to sketch a faithful portrait but that was immaterial, considering that both fell for each other. “It was love at first sight for me,” Mahanandia recalls. As for the lady, she was attracted to Mahanandia’s simplicity.
They soon married according to traditional rites. Charulata, as she was renamed after marriage, had to return soon to her country. She had offered him to go along with her but Mahanandia was still to complete his studies. She had proposed to send an air ticket, an offer that Mahanandia declined and, instead, said he would reach Sweden on his own, but the reality of what he had said soon struck him. Not the one to go back on his word, he sold his belongings that came to a shade over R1,200, bought a second-hand bicycle for R60, took his pack of paint and brushes, and set out from Delhi.
But what made him undertake the journey on a bicycle? “I was inspired by Hippies, who were reaching India by road. Charlotte too had driven all the way to India on a van in 22 days,” he says. Before starting the journey and during the course of it, he had mixed feelings. He was fearful of death and hopeful about meeting his wife on reaching the “destination of love”.
From New Delhi, he reached Amritsar where he made portraits of Europeans, Australians and Americans and earned valuable money but to keep them safely was a task for him. Tattered pants were the reason. This is where his meeting with Kants proved helpful. Mrs Kant stitched “bhola-bhaala aadmi’s” pockets and advised him how to keep money safely — “something I had not learnt in my village”.
From the holy city, he advanced to Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Germany, Austria and Denmark. His bicycle broke down many times and he hitch hiked cars and trucks. “On several occasions, I was exhausted but never thought of giving up,” he remembers.
There were days when he went without food, had no place to stay at night but all this did not deter him. May be his correspondence with Charlotte through Post Restante (long before internet, head post office of every city across the globe had special services for tourists having no address to receive letters) provided the much-needed adrenaline to keep him going.
After four months and three weeks of laborious journey, he reached his destination – Gothenburg on the west side of Sweden. There he was interrogated by Swedish immigration authorities on the purpose of his visit. “Until then, I was not stopped from entering any country as very few Scandinavian counties required visa for travel,” he later said.
To answer immigration officials’ query, the artist showed them his wedding pictures but they did not believe that a “girl from a noble family could marry a poor Indian”. Till that moment, he had no inkling that the girl he had married to was blue-blooded. She had neither divulged her family’s ancestry to him nor asked about Mahanandia’s. For someone whose caste proved a roadblock at every step, Charlotte’s concern for nothing but her emotion left Mahanandia humbled. He apprehended whether or not the woman from the highest ranks of the European society would accept him. To his amazement, she drove 70km from Boras, her hometown, to Gothenburg to claim him as her life’s partner.
Charlotte’s parents were equally effusive in their concern for the man who had cycled all the way to Sweden. They accepted him in their family but not without violating their tradition. “A traditional written law has it that black people are not permitted to stay where nobility stays. This means they had to break the racial rule to make space for me in the family, which they did gleefully for their daughter,” Mahanandia says.
The couple married again in 1979, this time as per customary Swedish rites. Mahanandia, now 64, never thought of returning to the land that had given him nothing but insults. Today, a sought-after person on peace that forms a major part of his work, he is not angry at the degrading treatment he received at the hands of ‘higher castes’ in his village. “Love gave me the pardon power.” This is what he teaches his children – daughter Emelie, 27, and son Siddharth, 24.
How we met PK
On October 3 last year, your reporter received a mail from a person in Sweden, appreciating his news report ‘Caste still a bar’ that appeared on September 23, 2012. At the end of the letter, it was written ‘PK Mahanandia, Culture Advisor & Member, The Swedish House of Nobility’. In the subsequent mails, we learnt about his cycle journey and PK Mahanandia as a person.