For me, 1, Dharamtalla Street has been a known address ever since I stepped into adolescence. Our ancestral home was in Bangladesh. We hail from Jamalpur, a small sub-divisional town by the Brahmaputra in Mymensingh district.
Many of us were into writing poetry and short stories and there were discussions over whose worked we liked the most. Together, we brought out a hand-written magazine called [Kallol]. Apparently, I was the best with the illustrations, so the responsibility for doing the pictures inevitably fell on me. In those days I used only a pen and ink to work. I knew only about water colours, oil paints didn’t even exist for me. It wasn’t easy travelling to Kolkata in those days. The stories of Kolkata we heard seemed like tales straight out of Aladdin’s magic lamp. Those who lived and worked in Kolkata went home only during festivals. I arranged for my paints and brushes through one of these infrequent travellers. But however much I tried, I couldn’t mix them with water. For someone like me it was a matter of great surprise. Finally I found “Student oil colour” written on the tubes and realised that these weren’t water colours. My reason for going into this story is that I still remember that the envelope in which the brushes had come into my hands had `G.C. Laha Pvt Ltd. Leading Artists Colourmen 1, Dharomtala Street, Calcutta-13′ inscribed on it.
This address was one of the most significant discoveries in my life. Often I would sit by the river and paint, and my journey began with the box of colours that came into my hands by post.
In 1950 my family had to pay the price for Partition. We floated around from camp to camp — bearing the title of refugee against our name. But I never stopped painting. I would still get my paper for doing water colours from G.C. Laha. Then in 1951, I joined the Government Art College. My coming to Kolkata is part of a fascinating history, but it was through this journey that I got acquainted with G.C. Laha’s shop.
Whenever I think of this acquaintance the person I remember first is Pashupatibabu. He had nobility written all over his face and I would be fascinated by the man. And it was a nobility plain to the eye even in his old age. They were three brothers, the others were Bishwanath and Loknath. More often than not, Pashupatibabu would sit at the front counter. Behind him sat the accounts keeper Charubabu. Nandababu and Hemantababu, both to the right of him, were always busy with the various demands of the customers. Among them, Nandababu was always liked by the customers for his friendly behaviour. When there was a crisis of imported paints, he would hunt out the Davidocks paper, water colour cakes and tubes.
I took up a job and went away to Ajanta, but even there I would get my paint, paper and brushes from G.C. Laha by V.P.P. post. But I would never have to send any advance for this, I would just pay up later. In those days , that is before G.C. Laha was established, there were many big shops selling materials for industrial paints and draftsmanship. But there weren’t any shops for just artists. After appearing for the entrance exams from Calcutta University, Girindra Coomar Laha joined his father Akshay Coomar Laha’s shop of industrial and domestic paints. Then in 1905, at the age of just 16, he started the famous G.C. Laha Pvt Ltd in his own name. Even today the name stands for dependability to artists. Whenever one wants to buy goods of high quality, G.C. Laha and Aukhoy Coomar Laha’s name spring first to mind. Girindra Coomar shared a cordial relationship with famous artists like Raja Ravi Varma, S.G. Thakur, Percy Brown, Abanindranath, Nandalal, Ranada Prasad Bagchi and Hemen Majumadar. It was the same way with me and Pashupatibabu. I’ve been to their house a number of times and it was there that I first saw an original work by Hemenbabu. G.C. Laha would bring out its calendar by printing the works of these well-known artists. Pashupatibabu would say that Hemenbabu would paint with his wife as the model. Such beauty is seldom seen in Bengali families.
They were the first in West Bengal to organise a sit-and-draw contest for children. In his early years even Satyajit Ray was deeply connected with this. He would act as a judge. Later on, many of us also became involved with these efforts. The judging was mostly done either in G.C. Laha’s house, at the Government Art College or at the house of their relatives. Through this initiative I became acquainted with Pranab Chandra Daw. In that year over 2,000 pictures had been brought to his house to choose the winners from. Pranabbabu was the husband of Pashupatibabu’s youngest niece, Monika. I gradually came to Pranabbabu better. Durga Puja was held every year in their ancestral house at Jorasanko. Pranabbabu was a member of the Rabindra Bharati Society. It was through his initiative that in 1990 I managed to get almost 36 works of Abanindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath the Tagore, Kshitindranath Majumdar, Sunayani Devi for the Bengal Artforms exhibition held to commemorate Kolkata turning 300 years old. So here again, G.C. Laha had an important role to play in this. I wish all success to this pioneering institution tha.r has sabided through three generations.