Sundeep Bhutoria with his daughter Aavya M Bhutoria
A name that’s synonymous with social welfare activities and philanthropic work, Sundeep Bhutoria is widely known for his contribution towards folk artistes and local artisans, and promotion of Indian literature and culture. The Kolkata-based social and cultural activist spearheaded change during the lockdown period with his various initiatives through his foundation, Prabha Khaitan Foundation and project Pronam, which is run in collaboration with Kolkata Police, is an outreach programme for the welfare of elderly citizen. With these programmes, along with several others, Bhutoria has been actively doing extensive ground work in 35 Indian cities and abroad.
A wildlife lover and person of Indian values, Bhutoria is known as the ‘IT’ man in the country’s socio-political landscape and his connections with dignitaries from India and overseas simply exemplify that. Being a visiting lecturer in renowned universities across the globe, Bhutoria – who’s also an author, columnist and a blogger – considers education as a paramount factor in changing the course of society. If your kindergarten-going child has been saved from the onslaught of online classes, the credit may also go to Bhutoria’s active campaigning. In the past, he has also been credited for encouraging the government in changing the policies that had inconvenienced parents to take their infants to the passport office.
During the lockdown, you were quite busy with several initiatives to help the needy section of the society. While you have always been active in social work, how were things different during the lockdown period?
Honestly, the lockdown period has been the most hectic time of my life, unexpectedly. We live in an unprecedented time, and it is unfortunate that everywhere there are job cuts, and people are getting laid off. However, we have been able to create more job opportunities during the lockdown and added people to our team. Before the lockdown, our foundation was operating in 30 cities. At present, we have extended to five more cities and our Ehsaas Women Network, which is a women empowerment initiative of our foundation has also grown along with our international activities. We have also collaborated with many like-minded NGOs and overseas universities. The work for project Pronam, run in collaboration with Kolkata police which is an outreach programme for the welfare of elderly citizens also keeps me on my toes during this difficult time, as our senior citizens are absolutely homebound.
Tell us more about the work you do at Pronam for the senior citizens.
Pronam at present has about 19,000 senior citizens as its members. I am so grateful and thankful to Kolkata police for working round the clock in helping our senior citizens, from providing them medical assistance, taking care of their essential commodities, safety and security, etc. Our honourable Chief Minister has also encouraged the welfare of senior citizens from time to time. Our Pronam executives are also putting their time and energy in meeting the needs of our senior citizens with the help of Kolkata Police, and some of them stayed in the office and worked continuously during lockdown and Amphan. I believe there is a need for initiating more projects like Pronam for the elderly in India. We from the Bengal – a Kolkata-based NGO that brings together eminent citizens, thought leaders and achievers to promote various socio-cultural and welfare activities are committed to such activities in the state.
Sundeep Bhutoria at the Independence Day celebration with the Pronam members.
You also finished a book in mid of all this? What was the driving force behind it?
In between all this, I was also able to put together a book titled Calcuttascape during the lockdown, which grew out of my blogs. Calcuttascape is compiled from my blogs which has also been printed as columns and featured in a few newspapers a decade back. The first idea for this book took root in 2013, before I knew it seven years had passed me by, as my busy schedule kept pushing it back. In fact, the foreword by Kunal Basu and Jaya Bachchan were also written in 2013. Finally, when the coronavirus pandemic slowed down our lives and forced us into lockdown, I got down to sifting through all the columns and putting this book together. While the column started a decade back, many of the issues are as pertinent today as they were then. We have chosen more than 100 articles for the book, covering themes that continue to matter. The topics discussed in my column struck a chord with the readers, and their feedback prompted me to put together this book, to reach a wider audience. And yes, the book is doing well.
Sundeep Bhutoria browsing his new book Calcuttascape
Being a positive person yourself, you’ve always encouraged Indian core values to pursue joy. And, this is what most of us could manage to do during the lockdown period. Amid the sea of work, did you manage to sneak out more time for your family?
Yes, of course. I travel a lot, almost every week and I don’t remember having stayed in one place for such a long period. However, this lockdown has given me a chance to spend quality time with my family and my daughter Aavya. Certainly, the lockdown has been a learning period, when it comes to my daughter, she has taught me a lot of patience. I also learned about Peppa Pig, Zoe Zebra and Candy Cat from her, and also staying at home, I witnessed how much a mother can do for a child.
You even released an audio-visual piece with your daughter that garnered positive responses on the digital platform. Please share the thought behind it with your readers.
It was inspired by Tom Foolery ‘The Great Realisation’ that makes a positive future seems tangible. It was very touching. We live in a very unprecedented time with darkness looming and hence wanted to look at the optimistic angle to this situation and instil hope in my daughter and other children of her age and to our society that this pandemic too shall pass. So I went ahead and requested poet and Bollywood lyricist Manoj Muntashir and Neelam Muntashir along with Grammy award winner Vishwa Mohan Bhatt to come on board to spread positivity. They happily agreed, and Neelam helped me with putting these thoughts together in beautiful words and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt along with his son Saurabh Bhatt orchestrated the music for it, and that’s how ‘Once Upon A Time’ for my daughter Aavya happened. The audio-visual has over 10 million views on various social media platforms put together.
The digital wave soared higher during the lockdown as the world sat inside the confines of their homes. Your Prabha Khaitan Foundation was one of the first such organisation to go digital. Was it challenging?
Personally, I am not that techno-friendly, and it’s a team effort, and a lot of work goes into it. We had initially started streaming our virtual events on Zoom, after which we start using Cisco Webex, and now from this month onwards we shall soon have our own portal where we host webinars and meetings online. We are so blessed to have had so many personalities from different walks of life grace our events, and the response is overwhelming across the globe.
As you stated earlier, you have never stayed at a place for a long time being an avid traveller. How did you manage the travel bug in you during the mandatory stay-at-home period?
Well, the first thing my friends and acquaintances asked me when they call is which city are you in, because of my constant travelling, in fact, I was scheduled to be in New York before the lockdown. I do miss travelling, but desk work keeps me really busy, and at the moment I am exploring more opportunities to curate significant and impactful online programmes not only to entertain but to support various artists and performers as well. Our lockdown live programme which we started after the lockdown is successfully running in seven states in India now with our associates.
Now when you go back to meeting young students at renowned universities across the globe, will there be any post-lockdown life lessons that you’d would you share?
The lockdown has taught us invaluable life lessons; one is, we have to focus on what we need and not what we want. We must have realised by now that we need very little to survive and to live our daily lives in comparison to what we want in the name of life. As the greatest poet of our life Neeraj said “Saman Jitna Kam Hoga, Safar Utna hi Aasan Hoga”. I also feel that the lockdown has allowed us to rediscover ourselves and increase our creative output.
Sundeep Bhutoria giving a presentation in New York University
You’ve spearheaded several social initiatives over the years and have driven real change, but rarely we get to see you accepting awards or be the centre of your own events. Why is that?
Your work should speak for itself, and I don’t believe in using my own organisation for my personal visibility. Your work should be more visible than you as an individual. As for me not accepting awards, there is much more to be done before I can accept an award. For every award I’ve been offered, I’ve always found people who are more deserving than me. Also, no achievement is accomplished individually; it is always a team effort. I strongly believe that it is your work which has to be visible, not your individuality. If your work is visible, you will get visibility on your own.
You are one of the most sought-after men in Kolkata and are known for your influencial skills. Please share your secret.
Well, I don’t claim that! But yes, I do believe in making friends and maintaining relations. I have friends across the globe in all segments of society. To be honest, I never make enemies. Those who become enemies, do so by their own choice. My friend once told me that your presence itself in many places is a cause of worry to many and to stop thinking about it. What I can say is, in my field of work, you can love me or hate me, but you cannot ignore me.
Every few months, the news about you joining politics gets rife. Are we going to see you enter politics, finally?
No, not at all. I do have good relations with political leaders across party line as I support individuals in politics rather than the party. I want to put all rumours again to rest regarding speculations of me joining politics or any political party. I have no interest in joining politics or any political party in the future, period.
You are often spotted with film personalities at page 3 parties, and have done some interesting cameos as well in movies. Any plans of venturing into the commercial film world?
As far as films are concerned, I am not at all venturing into film productions either. I have excellent friends in Tollywood. I did a cameo on my friend Arindam Sil’s film with Mithun Chakraborty years back. In fact, in his upcoming film Maya Kumari I have a cameo with Rituparna Sengupta.
Sundeep Bhutoria on the set of Maya Kumari, a film scheduled for release in December 2020
What’s your next passion project?
I am working on another book on wildlife which I hope will be out by this winter.
A snapshot from Dhak and Dhanuchi Utsav last year hosted by Sundeep Bhutoria as chairman of Chaltabagan puja. Governor of West Bengal Jagdeep Dhankar along with Aavya M Bhutoria daughter of Sundeep Bhutoria, Ustad Rashid Khan, Roopa Ganguly MP , Dev Adhikari MP, diplomats and other dignitaries in one frame
MP and actress Nusrat Jahan at the famous Sindoor Khela of Chaltabagan Durga Puja in Kolkata with her husband Nikhil Jain along with the chairman of Chaltabagan Durga Puja, Sundeep Bhutoria and his wife Manjari Bhutoria.
Lastly, Pujo is around the corner, and we are still in mid of a pandemic sans a vaccine. What are your plans and any advice you have for people as the chairman of Chaltabagan Puja, the most famous celeb puja of Kolkata and also one of the most-talked about Sindoor Khela?
We are doing Durga puja this year for sure and shall adhere to all the new norms indicated by authorities. In addition to other things, we are also working on an online Durga puja show and a musical film on goddess Durga.