October, 1954. The Karthik moon would have been full and yellow in a clear indigo sky; thousands of tiny boats made of cork or banana tree barks, carrying oil lamps, would be journeying in the Mahanadi – let afloat by eager children celebrating the Bali Jathra (voyage to Bali). The festival, one of the biggest in Orissa, marks the day ancient seafarers left for the distant shores of Bali, Java and Sumatra in Indonesia for trade. On the shores of the Mahanadi, near the Barabati fort, the large open fair would be in full swing. People all over Orissa would be thronging this historic area of Cuttack buying everything from toys to curios to clothes and gifts.
An affable man in his early fifties would have been there too – in a temporary stall complete with a generator set, doing brisk business. His ‘kheer mohana’ would have been so popular that for a distant observer it would have looked like the fat, round and pinkish rosogollas, simply appeared and disappeared, as if by magic.
For Bikalananda Kar, the sweet journey to extraordinary success had just begun.
Born in 1902 to a poor Brahmin family in a village near Salepur, around 25km from Cuttack, Bikalananda was so named because he was born after years of frantic prayers to Lord Shiva. Bikala literally means ‘desperate craving’. Poverty did not give him much chance to educate himself and he had to go to Calcutta in his early teens to eke out a living.