Movie Making In The Mind… Suraj and Vikas Yadav

How Do We Watch Films? Vikas Dubey’s Death

On the 9th of July 2020, Vikas Dubey a dreaded gangster of Kanpur died in a police encounter. Weeks before he died, he killed eight policemen at point bank range when they raided his den of vice. As if in an act of revenge, the police killed him too in a supposed encounter, brought him dead to the government hospital in Kanpur and thus ended the life of Vikas Dubey. Now this drama was almost telecast live through the 8th of July 2020, which had Suraj, my 35-year-old domestic help glued to his mobile phone. Thoroughly excited with the dramatic encounter which involved the very city hospital in whose premises he was born and raised before he migrated as a casual worker for sundry jobs in Delhi. Suraj’s day was made, the episode charged him up, got all his nerves alert and excited and made him joyful in the daily the drudgery of the routine chores in our house. So, elated he was that the very same hospital in whose premises he stole mangoes, had his wounds dressed by an attending nurse, and had that surgery of his hernia by the resident surgeons, the very chowk at which one had to take a turn into the campus were not only the site of the drama but also beamed over in all the news channels. Suraj gathered every detail in his head of the encounter, from Vikas Dubey’s arrest in Ujjain, the spot where he was slapped by the police for saying that he was Vikas Dubey, Kanpurwallah, the spot where the accident was made to happen, namely in the overturning of the police car. In his mind, Suraj enacted every bit of the events, sometimes taking on the role of Vikas Dubey, sometimes the policemen, as he narrated and narrated the story, to us and his friends in the neighbourhood or discussed with his brothers over phone, he presented a solo drama, playing all the characters as they appear in the narrative and weaving the narrative tighter and tighter with each retelling.

Suraj manages to read the Hindi newspaper which we subscribe at home for him. He scanned the newspaper for each threadbare detail on the case. He devoured all the channels in YouTube to get as many details about Vikas Dubey. In his inspections he gathered details of how he married at the age of 20, love marriage, he underscored, how his children are studying abroad, how he emerged into the world of crime, how he planned kidnaps and ransoms, appropriation of land and properties and even fraud. Dubey, it seems had politicians and policemen in his pay roll as well. Next, he reads the news of how his mother shut herself up in her room after she received the news of the death of her son, Suraj now imaginatively fills in the emotions. I think that this is how we watch films.

Step One

Firstly, he gets charged by a movement, there is unusual movement in the rhythm of things. Why is it that Suraj gets charged and not I? It is fine to say that Suraj gets all excited with car chases and shoot outs because he is unlettered and uncultured, and I may get excited by discovering a new author writing on fascism because I am so erudite and elitist. Well, these differences are with us and cannot be used to explain an immediate and perhaps a short lived phenomenon; for there are many things those which invoke the same responses from Suraj and I, namely the Covid 19, the sorrow at the loss of our pet, and to outcomes to India’s performance in T20 matches. The immediate cause must be related to something in the phenomenon of immediate response, namely the event of Vikas Dubey’s dramatic encounter and death. To my guess, it must be the movement itself, the movement which is of a different beat to the beats of everyday life as it unfolds for Suraj. Suraj has a more anxious and agitating life than I do for he lives on far many more contingent parameters. Compared to my parents back in Kolkata I have a more agitating life because relative to them, the existential parameters for me are more uncertain and tentative.

Suraj lives in an overcrowded slum, struggles over water and his turn into the washroom, fights mice, ants, and lizards in his cramped room, faces frequent raise of rents and tuition fees for his children and lives at our beck and call. The rhythm of his life is high pitched, disharmonious, and high strung as compared to mine. My life is high strung with frequent power cuts and uncertain water supply, conflict over car parking as compared to that of my parents. My liberation lies in rhythms those are at a pitch higher than those I face at present, which would mean access to better quality of service deliveries. I vote for a government that promises “vikas”, not the Dubey, but genuine development. Suraj has no chance of a better life, for him the liberating rhythm would be a release of his tense nerves those which grow taut within constant confinement of his life, namely waiting for his turn in the washroom, fighting pests at home and so on. His emancipation lies in the release of his energy, which could be sports but then that needs social camaraderie which the poor do not have, nor access to playgrounds and far less the access to institutions which support sports. He would thus love the opportunity to be on the streets. The popular Hindi film, known as Bollywood these days has a lot of street in it where heroes chase and fight villains, romance heroines, ride on vehicles with wind in their hair. Here in the streets also grows the high drama, high decibel, fast movements, actions like shoot out resulting in the serious consequence of death. Such an ensemble of stuff presents a rhythm that Suraj, in his social condition finds redeeming and even relaxing. Suraj thus absorbs the rhythm of the events within his body as he mono acts the entire “play” of Vikas Dubey’s arrest.

In this he finds as most inspiring the fact that the “sets” of the drama are his very own. He immediately identifies with the film since he can ‘’enter’’ easily through the familiarity of the subject. The “film” has no “hero” he can identify with, no issues, he identifies with its “sets” which are the premises of his home in Kanpur. The identification is the “point of entry”.

Once he aligns into the rhythm and finds the identification, the two may exchange places or happen simultaneously, he is eager to set into his heads as many details he can and place them in a logical sequence. In the first few rounds of the retelling of the stories, he uses the details which are apparent in what is shown to him, namely through the news videos but as soon as he organizes them in a time sequence, he goes back into looking for details on Vikas Dubey’s biography, his marriage, children, parents and even childhood. His mind, now over with the initial excitement of the drama seems to settle down into the “research” mode in which he looks to collect details those which are not directly available or accessible to him; namely details of Vikas Dubey’s past.

Meanwhile he also taps on the prevailing emotions in the story, tragedy of the mother having lost her son, resignation of her family, the anger of the policeman, the villainy of politicians. Only after engaging with the possible emotions, Suraj concludes the story, Vikas Dubey killed. Then he emerges into the morality of the plot for without drawing a moral QED, the story does not end for him for he is sincerely a theist who believes that there is justice in this world, might not be for individuals but for the system as a whole. The bad men need to die. Didi, he tells me, Vikas Dubey had to die because he was immoral. But did Suraj really think that way? Was there not an admiration in his voice for the guy? His children study abroad, he said, with suppressed satisfaction, he has made a lot of money, again admiration and looked after his mother very well, deep respect. Yet, he had to be killed, fatalism as watching the antihero, acceptance of the consequences of the huge risk this man took in his life. Vikas Dubey, on further reflection started getting transformed from dangerous dacoit to a loving family man who gave up his own life for the comfort of his family, the ultimate sacrifice and heroism of a man in the Indian society. Suraj, like millions of men like him, feels the pressure of being a breadwinner, often the sole breadwinner of his family for even if wives and children work, their contribution is not a serious income, it is only man who is supposed to earn for the family. When opportunities of legitimate incomes are few and far between especially in societies with low education and high unemployment, avenues of upward mobility are often through illegitimate means. This sociology is the genesis of the antihero in Hindi films. Once Suraj finds a moral rationale for the death of Vikas Dubey, namely he had to die, he dwells on his personal attainments, his sacrifice, the emotions and even the other side of the question, that he was a brave and a brilliant man who finally achieved what every man dreams of achieve, a wonderful life for his family as members of the upper class. Vikas Dubey, now punished is over; what remains of Vikas Dubey is what Suraj is free to cherish, his persona, his being a perfect family man. Sounds so familiar to the last dialogue of the mother in Deewar where she hands over the gun with which the police will kill her son and says to herself, that as a mother she has punished the son, as a woman she will now go to her progeny; as a social being she has disciplined, as a natural being she will love. Ditto same for Suraj.

What we see then in the above story of Suraj, the making of a film audience, indeed a popular film, the low brow and the kitsch and not the high art for the high brow audience.

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Steel Authority of India Limited

SAIL was set up in 1954, on the 19th of January with head quarters in Kolkata. Born out of the Industrial Committee Report of 1951 led by Subimal Dutt, SAIL was to use public money to build capital where only a thin pool existed in India. India of the 1950’s was hungry, naked, ill and poor and only the government had the money to make capita expenditures. The idea was to lay down a broad industrial base producing basic goods upon which further investments using such basic and intermediate goods were to be hosted. Thus, was born the Steel Authority of India. Aligned with its power over capital, SAIL attracted the best of employees and since these employees were to run pioneering and new technology, these had to be the absolute best of professionals. SAIL paid very well, in tune with international standards, housing employees in plush bungalows, state of art hospitals, the very best schools with the best teachers, steel cities were islands of high living resembling self sufficient Greek city states, boundaries to cut it off from the land of indigenous tribes and enclosing within it, the best standards of urban dwelling.

Those who lived inside its premises, because of the high life they led and because at work they handled the best of machines, unknown to most of India, SAIL made the best steel in terms of quality, the most in terms of quantity and earned the highest in terms of profits. Like the cities the employees lived in, SAIL had its own coal, iron ore, limestone, and dolomite mines, it had its captive power plants and water supply system. SAIL survived in an island, wholly owned by it but which was a firm spot on which it stood to move the world. Those days were the days of SAIL. It was literally the sailboat to a bright future of India.

SAIL’s sail got a hole for the first time in 1964 when the Joint Plant Committee was constituted to orient the company to the market economics. It was as if Greece was being shadowed by Rome; the idyllic city states were now to be sewn together as an Empire. The Joint Plant Committee was born of the Raj Committee Report that sought to ‘decontrol’ the steel industry which meant that the surpluses those were earned by each company, namely Bhilai Steel Plant or Rourkela Steel Plant would be used by the respective plants to expand their capacities and produce more steel. The years starting with 1964 were bad years for the Indian economy yet steel demand seemed to increase on pressures of urbanization; some shifts were taking place as population was moving from the villages to cities and in increasing numbers. The JPC put its finger on the first step of decontrol, namely the price. It allowed companies to charge their own prices; and to prevent them from charging high prices which they could have because of the oligopolistic nature of steel production, the JPC devised the famous price formula. By this formula, parameters of efficiencies were demarcated and “fair costs” calculated with a mark-up. Therefore, only the efficient firms could make profits and expand. Clearly the Bhilai Steel Plant and Bokaro Steel Plant expanded while Durgapur and Rourkela did not. The pricing spread to semis as well as all mill products.

While expansions would be made from profits, yet one would have to be careful about the demand of the mill products. JPC started collecting end user data and forecasting demand based on such demand. Integrated mills do not have significant flexibility of product mix and thus the demand was first disaggregated and then divided up across all mills so that every mill had a fair chance to optimally use their plant and machinery. This exercise was done by the Economic Research Unit, or ERU that was set up in 1983. ERU ran a grand model of optimization based on the linear programming and its first recruits were not economists but operations research persons. Economics came in much later, to the best of my memory only after 1997, post the Asean meltdown. Before that cost accountants and technical persons had a far greater say in matters of the ERU.

Under the JPC system and more so under the ERU, SAIL was opened to the surgical lights of analysis in terms of stuff those threatened its exclusive ensconce within the walled cities. Much of its autonomy was compromised, not because someone took it away, but because every decision of it was to pass through the JPC system, into the Ministry and then if the company was lucky, these were approved without further loops once more into the ERU. Most of the JPC personnel were respectful of SAIL as many came to the JPC system through SAIL, but one could never rule out the rude cost accountant, the arrogant operations person and the disdainful technical guy, and one negative comment could sour SAIL’s confidence because the management stood upon sensitive humans under a sheltered environment. Few realized that SAIL was aristocratic, it could function only when its exclusiveness was assured. SAIL was not trained to face rough weather; if one wanted it to perform one had to give it the assurance that its superiority would not be challenged.

Unfortunately, in 1991, SAIL was completely punctured as was divested of its exclusivity as the economy opened to private capital. SAIL was construed as being inefficient, slow, and slothful only because it was in the public sector. Discourses in the media, in the mind of the people, among politicians and in the Ministry, SAIL was discredited because it was in the public sector. All of us systematically exercised to damage the confidence of the company, or literally to take the wind out of its sail. Despite the hostilities around it, it is only SAIL which has consistently performed in a steel industry given to unsold stocks, excess capacities, and mounting debts in the form of the NPAs. It is not a matter to set aside that the steel industry leads the economy in NPAs especially it is supposed to be an industry promised to grow by 300%!.

As the private sector mindlessly pursued capacity expansions, SAIL held on its own ground, adding less and less of gadgets and kept its nose on routine production. When the lockdown happened, SAIL was thus positioned to be the only company that survived the flight of the workers. When life limped back again, SAIL was the only company that could resume production for its integrated supply system and resident employees. Also, being within a city, it could keep itself protected from the pandemic. When the waters started to recede, it could fire furnaces in no time. That is the beauty of the company and that is the worth of the public sector. SAIL is founded on solid ground with solid staff; its workers live in the steel city, their needs are met by the steel city, they don’t leave the plant and can swing back to production where others have to fight the flight of workers. SAIL does not need to be flashy, nor flighty, nor showy in buying and selling of steel facilities across the globe, it does not need to straddle continents in search for strategic acquisitions of minerals; instead SAIL can just focus on its work and deliver astounding profits just like the one it has done right now. SAIL needs respect and give that to the company, it will flourish.

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Rituparna Ghosh into Eternity

Rituparna’s Eternity

On the 31st of May 2020, the anniversary of Rituparna Ghosh’s cross over day from a body with a soul to just a soul in the eternity of time, I read through his writings published in two volumes of First Person. The second volume, though thicker is not too relevant as these are notes on his travels for shooting or for film festivals and also contains some scripts those which were never made into films. The latter volume though could have been nice travelogues, but they were not because these travels were not; he was too full of himself and worried about work to notice the world he was travelling to. But the first volume though written badly, and Ritu never claims himself to be a writer, contains some interesting clues about the persona from where sprung some of the most amazing cinema in my opinion, why in Bengali but perhaps anywhere else in the world.

Rituparna is a fragile child, emotional and sentimental whose life’s purpose is to protect himself from hurt. He seeks spaces and creates those crevices into which, if ensconced well he thinks that he will be protected. He is scared of the outside world because of its violence, he shudders when he encounters the murder of Nirbhaya, hates it when the world oozes cruelty on Pinky Pramanik, he cringes at communalism but the final violence that gets him are the violence of Singur and Nandigram. The CPIM, he observes is another religion, a party behind the veil of ideology is a religious fundamentalist. How does he emerge into this world then?

Boys are supposed to be boys; Ritu must have hated his biological birth for an aversion to the violence of the external world to which boys were subject. He shrunk into a space of his own closer to girls, for he remembers many of them and suffered a sense of loss when the girls grew up because then he had to fall into the gendered role of his being a boy and different. One of the reasons why psychologically Ritu remained a child was because that helped him stay away from gendered existence. I was getting a feeling that his involvement into books and stories both of which required quiet and secured places lay at the root of his aversion to more intense physical activities. He may have been a sporty guy were it not for the fact that he loved being with books more than with a cricket bat. He shied away from being a boy because that would involve running, rushing, punching, kicking, none of which gave him as much of a high as stories did.

I don’t get the feeling that he read detective novels, nor ghost stories, for he admits he suffers a deathly fear of ghosts. He doesn’t seem to be too fond of travelogues either. But he loves novels, short stories and most of all, he loves poetry. And he reads almost every Bengali author those which have walked the earth. I am not sure whether he is attracted to music; he may be but he gets excited more with Lata Mangeshkar than anyone else, not for her Hindi songs but for her Bengali non cinema songs, which would blare from the microphones of the local clubs in preparation to their run up to the Durga Puja. Ritu’s favourite season seems to be autumn, he loves everything about it and Lata Mangeshkar somehow sits irretrievably meshed up into the blue vaulted skies with its white pile of cottony clouds. I am not sure whether he is much into the arts as well, he loves Jamini Roy though for his paintings of the faces of Goddesses, the prime Goddess being Durga, Ritu’s favourite and once again of the autumn. I may be wrong but I get a strange feeling that Ritu doesn’t quite like the spring time as he loves the other equinox; somehow he gives March, death. Memories in March is about loss, and spring in Bariwali is ominous.

Ritu loves movies, and like almost every Bengali of his times adores Ray and wants to be a filmmaker. But he is has no eye for the photograph because he can’t click photos and hence does not carry a camera when he travels. He is not a traveller at all and now he admits that he has no eye for the photograph as well. Then what is it about his movies? I was trying to think what is it about Ritu’s films that I recall as soon as I think of those. I remember dialogues of Bollywood, frames in Satyajit, faces in Uttam Kumar and Bengali movies but in Ritu’s films, I remember the flow; just the flow of one frame into the other, smoothened cuts and edits without sharp edges. His films are not jumpy, never surprise you, do not scare you, don’t try to titillate you, but just as a river would flow, the film just flows on. That flow is what one remembers. Satyajit Ray’s introduction to filmmaking, it seems started when he assisted the French director, Renoir as the master made his film, River. Renoir made the flow of the river as his essential theme and Ray understood that cinema is not the story it tells through its characters, nor the ideologies it professes; these are the pegs on which hangs the real tale, the real tale being the movement of the cinema. Deleuze was to write of this some years later and he did so after reading Henri Bergson, a French continental philosopher who placed said that art appealed to humans not through the ideas it presented by through the physical stimulations it invoked in the body. That’s was Ray believed, his inspiration from Renoir was to seek the real story of his films in the movements; so was Ritu’s in the flow.

Ray is expressionist; Ritu is impressionistic. Ray agitates the frame and produces images out there, unambiguous, unhesitant. Ritu really has no image, it’s always a flow of images, of movements, movements those which absorb images, loosen their borders, mix them up and surge them into the narrative stream. I think that the mastery of the flow is where Ritu becomes the master director of his craft.

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Shakespeare as a Social Scientist

This is not out of boredom of the lock down, I have far too much in my schedule to find time even during these days. I have been pursuing Shakespeare for quite some time now, more as a sociologist than a connoisseur of literature. I am completely convinced that he is a genius because he seemed to anticipate categories of thought and analysis which would come into vogue at least 300 years after his plays were first staged. He is a genius because he could see the limitations of his age in each of the discourses those were in circulation during his times and he imagined a set of virtues for the individualism that came to be recognised by social sciences centuries after his death. Presented below are some of Shakespeare’s less read plays because of their scant presence in our syllabus and school and college curricula. Here they are:

Richard II

Often construed that Richard II as portrayed by Shakespeare is a construction of Queen Elizabeth, her deep suspicions of her nobility, among who she feared may arise to depose her. Richard II is a war monger trying to unite Britain by claiming Ireland and for this he raises money from the noble lands. The nobles feel threatened that they may be deprived of their property and hence plot against Richard. Richard seeing that he has lost the support of the nobility abdicates his throne in favour of his cousin Bolingbroke, who would eventually rule as Henry IV.

The outstanding part of the play is the penultimate scene with Richard’s monologue in the prison where he is counting his numerous thoughts, reviewing his multiple selves, and ruminates on who an individual is, beyond what he is born into, beyond the accidents of life. This is a long discourse on individualism, a definite beginning of modernity.

Henry IV

An interesting play and yes it is more in the tavern and less about the Royal courtyard. And the character who stands out is not the King but the fool, the comedian, the anti hero, Falstaff. Indeed, the historical plays are overwhelmingly around the repeated appearance of Falstaff. Despite this attachment to Falstaff, and the fact that the King goes on without any specific description, to me Henry IV is a remarkable document of history of the early 15th century England.

The King tries to unite Wales, Ireland and Scotland into England in the name of Christianity so that he may also wage the Holy Crusade. His principle aids like Northumberland, a very well respected regional ruler is happy to remain in his autonomous region as its sovereign head but feels betrayed when Henry imposes uniform taxations to perhaps collect money for his dream project, the Crusade. Henry faces rebellions from Wales and Scotland and though he suffers defeat in Wales, his close aide Hotspar wins Scotland. But eventually the friends turn foes as allies turn rivals of the King. The King fails to merge as a moral agent despite his unification plans, ideation of the nation and Christianity. Prince Hal, whose primary aide Falstaff is turns into a highway robber, a metaphor for the royalty and the State, it collects taxes backed by force and violence. Dialogues and conversations speak too much of hanging, let me be hanged, let the executioner come and so on, referring to the practices of punishment.

The conversations in the tavern shadow the court, what is the court if not the tavern? One drinks the wine of power. The conversations between the tavern owner, a woman and Falstaff where he calls her names and hurls obscenities upon her, may be a metaphor of the rapacious State that is molesting the more local and earthy communities under its more esoteric idea of the nation. The play is a criticism of the King, who is nothing but a better version of the highway robber, of the idea of the nation which is an insult to the more real local communities and Christianity that supports such robbery and rapacious activities of villains.

The rebellion of Henry’s aides show that power and not ideals brace the royalty, greed for power.  Prince Hal is interesting, he is royalty and like his father brave as well. But for most of the play, while he is still the prince, Hal is a waster. He then represents the individual over the dynasty, a guy who is yearning to be on his own.

Henry V

Now Prince Hal is Henry V. After ascending the throne he is a changed man, kind, wise, honest, moral and astute and loyal to the country. He exiled Falstaff who has died of a broken heart and intends to change the idea of a kingdom. But his assumption of moral power especially under the idea of a nation scares the Catholic Church, who then plot to divert the king’s attention, albeit in the name of the nation towards France. A war is waged though Henry V creates rules of war, no stealing, no pillage and hangs his close aide from his tavern days for a petty theft. He was especially cruel to his close ones so as to emerge as an exemplary King who was both strict and was equally disposed towards one and all.

There is a scene and interesting it has not caught much attention and which is that Katherine, the daughter of the French King learns English from her maid. This shows that culturally England was gaining ascendancy and this was due to the proliferation of its common people across the public spaces, most probably due to the rising commerce. Would this then mean that the English were already gaining a foothold in the economy even before the industrial revolution?

The armies of the French and the English are unequal. The English army is about a tenth of the French army. Despite this, the English win. The English win due to a combination of strategy and determination and Henry gives an arousing speech on the eve of the war infusing patriotism. This speech is a mettle of management people and the speech is used in many places especially by football coaches and management gurus. But to my mind, this speech when contrasted with the encounters of Henry V as he moves in disguise among his soldiers the night before the war. In the later case, the soldiers are eager to understand whether the sins of their death in battle would be on the King or not, to which Henry replies that each will live or die according to his individual fate and that the King is only a cause. It might be interesting to note that the concerns of the soldiers are purely Catholic and Henry’s answer is Protestant and the rousing speech is nationalistic.

The next point of interest is Henry’s wooing of Katherine. Here he says that he has come to love France and contribute towards it, the marriage is an alliance. History tells us that this peace was short lived because the battle of Agincourt was the start of the 100 years war between England and France.

The attitudes of the French and the English are interesting as well, the French underestimate Henry as a wannabe, refer to his wanton days and imagine that he can do nothing. This attitude of condescension that the entrenched and the privileged have over the newly emerging talents is a sure reason for their defeat.

Henry VI

Henry V dies a respected King. But he leaves behind his infant son Henry VI. There is a clamour among the elites to gain control of England, Lords are going over to the Church to become cardinals and for this they pay money. They have to raise the money again from their fiefdoms. The plays of Henry VI revolve around elites, nation and the Church. The Church continues its machinations into politics. England though it raises the bogey of nationalism, it now seems that France has been able to forge together a nation. Though France does not spell out the nation yet it brings together the common men, the nobles, the pagan leaders like Joan of Arc who now leads the army against England.

The discourse that braces England is no longer the rousing inspiration of Henry V but the release of superstitions of Catholic Christianity against paganism when Joan of Arc us burnt at stake.

There is an interesting appearance of women characters. From the independent and autonomous tavern owner in Henry IV to the passive Royal women of Henry V to the more active women namely the Lady and Joan both of who play important roles in the defense of France. When men lose their vision and power, women step in. Lord of Suffolk falls in love with Margaret, a commoner and marries her off to Henry VI so that the prince remains within his command. Mortimer, the real claimant to the throne dies in prison and here genuine royalty falls to ambitions of meaner and baser men. Power struggle is only power struggle, avaricious, capricious and mean. There is no higher ideal in any of this.

King John

This is about King John the 12th century King from the Plantagenet dynasty who introduced primogeniture in England and appears as the popular villain, King John in Robin Hood. King Philip II of France raises the issue of the claims of John to the throne of England insisting that Arthur, the son of Richard, the Lion hearted should be the King, suggesting primogeniture. Suddenly there arrives two brothers of a decorated officer, where the older one claims that he is not the son of the same father as the younger guy. He uses facial resemblance between father and the younger brother and his own lack of it to say that he is not the biological son of his father. A long debate ensues on who the father is, whether it is the pater or the genitor. King John faces baron rebellion owing to his wavering with the rules of inheritance and eventually survives with the help of the Church.

King John was instrumental in the Magna Carta in 1215, the document that made every individual subject to the same set of laws and trial by jury. This was later in the Henry VI plays diluted as law was replaced by the nobles’ machinations and manipulation so. Whatever it is, King John in the play was a guy concerned with inheritance. He kills Arthur, the primogeniture. It seems that France gained ascendancy over England, dictating which laws it should follow and who the rightful inheritor to the throne should be. How did France get such a hold over the affairs of England? Through the Church and in the name of the Crusade, the Imperial Christianity.

Richard III

Richard the Third reads more like Othello, a story of personal revenge by a bad looking man. This is a gregarious guy who tries to get everybody’s confidence, pretends that he is a friend to all but conspires against each and every. His ultimate revenge is on his brother’s wife because it seems to him that the only way he can get a woman is by defeating her husband and then claiming the vanquished wife as his own. Richard III destroys the ruling dynasty as he is its last King.

Pericles, the Prince of Tyre

This is a morality play of the truthful prince, Pericles, how he is attached by the King of Antiochus for revealing dark secrets about him and how he is on the run. The play is literally about the flight of Pericles from persecution and his exile. He faces shipwrecks and separation from his wife and daughter. In the end everything works out for him because he is an honest person, thus so far ends most of the interpretations of the play. Considering the tumultuous times of Shakespeare, caught between two epochs, the pandemic of plague and the civil war, we may try and understand that ideals of behaviour, the right values and morals in modern terms were yet to develop and be articulated from a very different set of morals of medieval times. In this regard, Shakespeare must have been a genius to have articulated modernity.

But why is Pericles a good man? He tells the truth, he accepts his fate calmly, and even in the face of utmost misfortunes he never loses gratitude. He remains an altruist, has very little consciousness of his own interests, and looks to uphold the needs of others. He remains himself in the company of the rich and the poor alike, and when he is accepted as a ruler of Antioch, he accepts it without being overwhelmed or taking it as a personal glory. He reaches food to those states which need them, he stands in for people who call upon him for help. His daughter, who he thinks is dead, too is an epitome of strength. When she is taken away to be raped in a brothel, she convinces the rapist that he has more to gain from her if she earns money by teaching crafts and skills than she can by prostituting herself. The rapist is convinced because she instils in him a higher self by showing him that he can do the very task that he has set himself to do through honest and noble means. The goodness of Pericles and Marina, the daughter lies in the fact that they can appeal to the larger interests of humanity and therein lies their goodness which is a broadness of mind and understanding. Hence, Pericles is a story about rationality more than it is a morality play.

One wonders what incest had to do with the story, why the story must revolve around the incest of the father and daughter of Antiochus. Was Shakespeare speaking against the Greek God, Zeus? And hence against the Greek morality, and thus against the Renaissance? Did he find the Greeks too hedonistic? Did he look for morals which were both utilitarian and humanitarian?

Timon of Athens

This too is a severe critique of the Renaissance. Timmons is a rich gentleman of Athens and soon has unctuous flatterer a surrounding him. He loses his wealth through overspending on works of art, paintings and throwing lavish parties. When he is thus broke he has no one to stand in for him and he leaves the city to go and live in the forest, or to die in it. His faithful servant, Flavius, knowing fully well that his master cannot pay him nonetheless decides to serve him. Timor discovers gold in the forest, returns and pays his creditors back and compensates Flavius but does not return to his flatterers nor does he reveal anything regarding his discovery of gold. Timor realized the value of wealth and refuses to spend above his immediate wants because once it is used in surplus, it invites falsehood. The play is a criticism of the high elite culture of Renascent Europe and hence perhaps Athens is used as its metaphor.

Troilus and Cressida

This is a play out of Homer, where Troilus is against war. He finds no glory in war except a competitive ego, which in turn is based upon a peculiar construction of masculinity. The play has a very strong discourse against masculinity.

Measure for Measure

This is a critique of Puritanism where Puritans are shown to be people jealous of the status of the high elite and their culture. The Puritan lobby gets too powerful and the Duke goes on a vacation leaving Angelus, a Puritan baron in charge of the city. The Duke does not leave the city and instead stays on, disguised as a friar to observe the going on. Angelus arrests Claudius, a gentleman of high standing on grounds that he is immoral, the immorality being his status. thus Angelus’s Puritanism is exactly what right wing of today is, more to do with status anxiety than with other concerns.

Claudius is not subject to law but to will because Angelus soon asks Isabella, Claudius’s sister who is becoming a nun to sleep with him, if she wants her brother’s life. Isabella decides to let go of her brother rather than to compromise on morals and the Duke, still disguised, substitutes the head of an already deceased prisoner as the head of Claudius. The prisoner suggested that another prisoner, long due for execution be executed in place of Claudius but the Duke stopped it. The discourse turned against capital punishment. Meanwhile, he also substitutes Marianne, Angelus’s fiancée to go in place of Isabella. Angelus rejected Marianne because her dowry was sunk in a shipwreck.

The Duke appears in the city to free Claudius and force Angelus to marry Marianne and forces another baron to marry the prostitute by who he has an illegitimate son. The Puritans are thus shown their place and eventually the Duke proposes to the remaining Puritan, Isabella to marry him. The play is a full tirade against Puritanism.

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The Famine of 1943 and the Partition in 1947 – Bengal Crisis

Bill Gates predicted the epidemic and during this epidemic said that the fight against the virus is uniting the whole world. While he was right on his first prediction, he went horribly wrong in his second one as the pandemic has divided humanity as never before. There are concerns over child and woman abuse in quarantined homes, rapes in hospitals, doctors who are all fangs against patients of a different community, landlords who are turning doctors and nurses out of homes, theories that say that minorities are behind the pandemic, conspiracy theories linking the Chinese to a wilfull spread of the virus like suicide bombers, villagers attacking students from cities who return home, natives attack the migrants.  In social distancing, each one is against the other, constructing any and every human as a source of infection, portending death. Untouchability has never attained such a high rationale as now.

The pandemic with its panic has invoked within each human each of her hate categories who, in her mind must yield her the space to live by dying off or disappearing from the face of the earth. Something very similar happened during the Bengal Famine of 1943, whose direct fall out was the Partition. Few historians have connected the two dots, namely of communalism and famine together and encouragingly Rakesh Batabyal is one of the very few, if not the only one to do so. Using the data he has placed, I will attempt a sociological analysis as why pandemics, famines, disasters invariably invigorate the social fault lines so bitterly, often to points of no return.

What happened when the Famine took place?  In simple Malthusian terms, there was less food than there were mouths to feed. So, if people died and demand for food was adjusted to the reduced supply, one would need to take a decision as to who should die; the one who is taken as a surplus; for Hindus, it were the Muslims and vice versa. It need not have been this way if a communal feeling was not already endemic within the Indian society.

Hindu Muslim enmity and rivalry is not an invention of the British nor is Divide and Rule their sole creation. One has to read Al Biruni, Jaisi, Amir Khusro and the various accounts of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to know that the hate towards each other came right at the start of the Muslim conquest of parts of India. For the Hindus, India lost freedom with the conquest of the Turks, meaning Qutab Uddin Aibak and the establishment of the Slave Dynasty. Now that Freedom drew close, it was time to reclaim Independence; for the Hindus, this meant freedom from both the British as well as the Muslims. For the Muslims, at least as per the accounts of Richard Eaton, the arrival of the Islamic conquerors meant a semblance of order to the rather fragmentary and tentative rule of Hindu kings. We must recall that just before the Islamic conquests, the political map of India was highly fragmented with constant skirmishes among small kings and petty regional powers. Many Hindus converted to Islam, not so much due to social oppression as it is made out to be, but more in a desire to be with the winner class, as Hannah Arendt says in her book, Banal Evil. The Hindus and Muslims represented two kinds of politics, two kinds of world views and at the level of religion, they did have distinctly different cosmologies. So the first line of division in the political space, where considerations of nature of the State, or the idea of nation, or of the idea of sovereignty are concerned, the Hindu Muslim divide is the first cleavage along which the society would respond.

During the Famine, these ideas of the State, nation, sovereignty were raised; and this was again because the famine broke the social network of production relations, as Schumpeter has so clearly written in his essay on the Circular Flow of Economy, turning people into destitute with only the State to support them. The state did a very bad job of it and as Amartya Sen writes that the drop in production was only about 10%, there was widespread speculation and hoarding that made people without the means to buy food drop dead in the streets. The Bengal Famine killed 3 million persons, the largest death so far before the Chinese Famine under Mao which clocked 5 million. Rakesh Batabyal finds that during this time, both Hindu and Muslim merchants hoarded rice, but the Muslim merchants used their supplies to use as relief and thus created a feeling that as if the Muslim League was in command and could ensure food security. The Hindu merchants made money and accumulated capital. The Hindus, who had a sense of land and construed Muslims as being outsiders and aliens, notwithstanding the fact that they were of the same ilk, felt that if the Muslims went away, the lowered supply of rice would match the lowered levels of population and hence equilibrium could be achieved. It is interesting to observe that Hindus wanted the Muslims out, Muslims wanted their own people to head the Government. Jaya Chatterjee presents such a thesis.

The problem with the Famine was that in either case, people lost faith in the governments because the State was seen as being incapable of helping people live on. The Hindus, who were socially more entitled imagined that they could drive out the excess, or the unnecessary or the surplus population, namely the Muslims away, while the Muslims thought that a better protection would be to go under the Muslim League because of their relief work. Unable to arrive at any equilibrium bargaining point, the country tore, the game ended.

Pandemics work first by disturbing the social networks which ensure the flow of goods and money; or the tracks on which the economic goods run. Once the social units are delinked from the track, they turn to the State, and if the State cannot fulfil the needs, riots ensue which means that people using one identity try to stave off people from other identities so that the lowered supply of goods equal to the lowered population, lowering being achieved by rampant killing and genocide. Rakesh Batabyal’s work on Communalism and Famine in the context of Bengal in the 1940’s is a step by step key to the dangers that disaster can spell for communal unity, social integrity, political legitimacy which are crucial infrastructure that hold any economy together.

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Corona Cadaver, Notes on the Covid 19

These days I think a lot about Dida, my maternal, grandmother, especially of the day of Nabami when in her village, Nirole she tumbled down the steps of the Kamakhya mandir and broke her crown. Boromama was fortunately present there and he being a surgeon of both eminence and excellence always carried with him sealing gel with which he managed to stop the bleeding on Dida’s head. Dida was gingerly balancing herself and two large bell metal plates upon which rolled precariously mondas and kodmas, naarus and the ensemble of peas which make the paanch kolai. She was coming down without holding or touching anything because the touch of a surface could pollute her purity needed for the temple. And then she fell, head down. I think of her often as I try to go down the steps with stuff in my hand without touching the walls, or the bannisters, fearing that someone, unnoticed by me must have touched the same and it would be informed to me that he or she has been diagnosed Covid 19 positive. I know that as of now, I can only get the virus when I come in contact with someone who is already infected, but in my mind, I am well into the following stage of community contagion. No amount of logic can kill the panic in my mind.

Dida had a strong sense of the entho, I don’t know how to communicate this in any other language. But literally entho means something touched by the sputum or the mouth. As adolescents just getting to know the erotic world, we often laughed at the kiss being entho. Nonetheless, you could not speak while holding a plate full of cut fruits about to be offered to the Gods, you could not use your teeth to tear something used in the sacred spaces, like a packet of sholtes, or candles or incense sticks. That would be entho. The mobile phone, though Dida did not live to see it would have been entho of the first order. You needed to wipe everything with gangajal just as we use the sanitizers these days. Dida’s greatest anxiety would be a refill of gangajal, just as mine is the sanitizer. Dida was finicky with currency notes, with coins, with slippers to be worn for the outside and those at home, eventually she went bare foot. Then there were series of saris, those which were clean and those which were unclean, much like mine these days, there are clothes for me to step outside home, there are clothes to stand in a queue at the medicine shops and there are clothes in which I stay put at home. Same for footwear, careful how far these can enter into the homes, and by what means am I to clean these and how I should dispose off the material with which I clean. The corona regime has brought back each and every bit of the clean versus unclean culture that I learnt from Dida. Not to mention of hair and nails, not to mention of defecation.

Food was served either on the plate or in small bowls, individually, no self-service by digging in spoons on a bowl full of rice at the table. One could not leave anything in the table because if so, then it could not be placed in the fridge again. The surface of the dining table was entho because it came into contact with food which came into contact with saliva, hence entho. My younger cousins measured the degree of impurity of touch from the height from which bowls were dropped; torkari from a lower height, daal from a slightly greater one and fish from the greatest one. Soon they made a model of everything, saliva it is. Vegetables have little saliva and fish itself has saliva. Admirable anthropology of the likes of Claude Levi Strauss. The climax of Dida’s regime manifested while serving food, the left hand is entho because it is used to clean the anus, while the right hand is the clean hand. So never to use the left hand for anything. I am using the body fluid model enthusiastically, I am calculating my risk according to what can receive the body fluid the most. The newspaper vendors are ahead of me in these concepts, they refuse to pick up newspapers from the streets because that’s where people throw their saliva the most. One calculates closely, don’t touch elevator switches, someone with Covid 19 may have touched it. Friend’s neighbour lives in the next block, but her daughter lives in the same block as hers and the daughter’s son has come down from America. So we assume the son is infected, daughter is also infected and daughter is going up and down the lift to see mother, hence she has infected the elevator with virus. No stepping out for my friend QED.

Dida’s entho stopped at objects, it did not extend to humans. For the others of her generation the obsession with cleanliness went into untouchability. They designated people as dirty, those of the lower echelons who moved around a lot catching saliva especially with their hands and feet. The poor are construed as unclean because of unclean hands and feet, no matter what you do, some germ remains, just as we say of the Covid 19 patients. How can you ask the sweeper to fetch you water? Unclean fellow, ostracize him, his family for they are in constant contact with him. You get the entire concept of unclean castes, the untouchability. I think that Hinduism was born out of some germ caused epidemic. Avoid the touch, avoid social mingling, avoid contact with bodies, do not touch surfaces, change clothes, wash hands after whatever you touch are very similar to the avoidances we have with the Corona Virus.

Central to both the corona virus and Hinduism is the idea of the clean and the unclean; some surfaces are clean like marble is clean, carpets are unclean, leaves and reeds are cleaner than fabric, wool is cleaner than cotton as if we are speaking of the duration of the virus on surfaces. There are body parts to be avoided; hands, legs, hair and nails. The entire schema is best evident in Tagore’s Jeebansmriti where he remembers a senior servant who looked after the children of the household and his puritanical regimen manifested in his deep distrust not only of anything that was external to his body as he avoided touch with anything or anyone around him but distrusted his own arms and legs too. Hence, he would furtively look everywhere, roll up the holy thread around his ears and suddenly dip into the water as if he wanted to give all natural elements the slip. The body would be held so sacrosanct till an absurd extend where it had to recoil from itself. Ditto same with the corona virus. We distrust everything because through some remote and impossible connection we find the virus travelling all the way into our bodies; we construe the world to be so extensively infected that we have nowhere to hide from which includes our own bodies as well. The idea of Hinduism is just this; the withdrawal of the body and eventually the self from the world petrified of getting polluted. 

There is no point in saying be careful, don’t panic. Panic is panic, it cannot be a half-way house. We cannot panic partially and in part be reasonable. The television, the government and the unprecedented lock down is completely strange and eerie. We have been made to see the corona virus as a death sentence that braces each of us, the sword of Damocles that eventually spares none. May be to keep us all at home, the threat was repeated many times, which eventually turned people paranoid. Each one is a potential threat to the other; members of the family look suspiciously towards each other, even a small sneeze makes parents hate children, siblings fight sibling, friends are friends no more and we all become islands unto ourselves, anyone trying to mingle is an enemy. This mutual suspicion blows into witch hunting; suddenly doctors and nurses are asked to vacate rental premises in West Bengal, a man attacks a woman saying that she is a Covid 19 patient, animals are attacked, passengers coughing out of some unrelated reasons are deboarded, people are scared to meet familiar faces in streets for the fear of greeting. I find myself taking the far corner of the pavement when I see another human walking on the same path; I feel like the Brahmins of Kerala who would beat up a Shudra were her or his shadow to fall on the way of the Brahmin’s steps. The corona has made every Hindu custom based in the formula of cleanliness and purity and pollution into a rationality. This, is the real danger of the disease, more than the disease itself.

The disease has not got us together; the disease has only united us in fear because we realise that each one of us is like the other because we have the same fear. As far as the real unity of mankind goes, the disease has taught us to hate one another, to fear one another, to construe that each one out there is an enemy, detrimental to my life and longevity. One of the basis of human unity is a recognition of mutual dependence. Unfortunately, everyone is trying to avoid the other, cutting lose ties of exchange, should the invisible strain of the virus travel through any kind of communication. My nephew tells me that his friends have stopped calling, ostensibly because they feel that the virus travels through the phone. Extend this to the attempt at creating noise to quell the corona virus by banging thalis on Amavasya, the equation settles on both sides.

The cleanliness principle is now being extended to humans. Notwithstanding that the corona virus has been imported by the richer foreign returned Indians, in the minds of humans, it is the poor those who need to be avoided like plague. How can the rich ever be polluting? It is the poor who are unclean and hence the hate for the poor is so evident in the mindless beating of vegetable vendors and delivery boys by the police in Kolkata. In times of social distancing due to the virus, the most virulent form of prejudicial social distancing is underway. The panic of the virus is the panic of the poor, and these are the poor who help reach services at home so that we can maintain the social lock down and not overcrowd market places. Yet, the fear of the germ, which translates into the fear of the world, of others and of one’s own body blinds the consciousness so much that one loses any capacity to relate to the complex forces that makes for her existence in the world. This is why, the role of the poor in reaching out services to the community so that no one needs to leave their houses was never acknowledged in the planning for the lock down.

The administrators just said lock down; in most places the lockdown was not planned in details. As a result of which all the essential services locked down as well bringing hordes of panicked consumers into the markets, falling over one another for a significant length of time. Social distancing was belied because the possibilities were not worked out in detailed. The problem of the consciousness based upon the phobia towards germs makes one so involved in the self that the details of seeing how the self owes its existence to a host of supporting services are never considered.

Jainism is perhaps the world’s most detailed address of the germ theory. The Jain covers her face, her feet, does not touch agriculture, does not eat roots, all for fear of touching germs. The Jain absolves herself from the world, minimises footfalls, minimises the impact of her existence in the world. Suicide is valued in Jainism. The Hindu is not quite this; hers is a heavy footprint with the dynasty trailing for generations behind her, she is eager to stave off the world away from her, instead of allowing the world to go on as if she was never there as the Jain does. Suicide is anathema to the Hindu psyche. The corona virus, despite the masks and the gloves, the head and body covers is decidedly Hindu, for it seeks its own self above the other. Corona scare has not taught humility before God, but reinforced the belief that one deserves to live more than the others and hence goes the poem circulating in the social media where the Indian hoards kilos of rice and staples, medicines and essentials so that come what may, her family will not be distressed. This, is also the case as people fall over one another into panic hoarding. In hoarding, the Hindu social distance is even consolidated, no one wants to remember friends and extended family, all wrongs done by them to the self are conjured up in memory as if to build up a case of not sharing the proudly hoarded stuff to last over the lock down.

The depression of Indians are unlikely to be over a sense of helplessness, that as an individual she can do nothing to alleviate the situation. The west perhaps faces this because despite the selfishness of the western individual, her sense of moral agency as a foundation of individualism cannot be denied. The depression of the individual in India is that of having been subject to an order to which she thought that she was an exception, because through her entire consciousness she has tried to be aloof from the world and now being subject to rules has accelerated the prejudices in her. This is the essence of a caste society; for this is a society that refuses to be equal to every other. The individual, as a moral agent will have a semblance of being equal to every other in matters of law, though she will aspire and compete mindlessly to have more headspace than her ilk. The panic of the external world, which the corona virus consolidates, has reinvoked the casteist fervour of Hinduism as the most reasonable thing to do. This is the great harm that the disease will do, reverse each and every victory we may have wrenched by way of social reforms.

The problem with this panic is that it complete unsettles the mind, making it worry about touch, what one should not touch, how many times one should wash hands and an ever alert mind of who and what to avoid. This preoccupation makes it difficult for the mind to engage in vital and meaningful activity. Such a mind so fearful and so conscious of cleanliness is a distracted mind, with little concentration and when such a mind engages in gaining command over the world descends into superstitions like clanging utensils to scare away the virus instead of setting up state of art laboratories to test and collect big data for analytics.

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Bura Na Mano, Holi Hai

I used to be a Holi enthusiast in school; I simply loved Holi as a sport of running, ducking, springing surprise on one another with attacks of aabir or pichkiri and then of course the coming together of the adults and children; adults who relaxed their control over our movements on the day. But soon I grew to fear Dol, when neighbourhoods had new and unknown people from different communities and boys from the neighbouring slum also came and took over the streets where we played our colours. I realized that Dol is enjoyable in enclosed and safe places because it involved so much of touching and loosening of social rules of avoidance. It is a festival that involved embraces and hugs and intimate and unruly handlings and so it could also be a festival where girls and women became vulnerable and perhaps even boys and men, who knows? So, the camaraderie of dol is also about restraint, the nature of touch and the extent of reposing faith on the participants of the sport. Hence, in a sense, dol brings together but divides as well. Public conduct of all individuals makes or breaks Holi, whether it is a festival of friendship or of fiendish opportunism. So it is fine to fear Holi especially if you live among strangers or people with who you may not have a long continuity of life, whether in the past or in future. Reports of Holi violence now abound newspapers; Holi is now a festival that claims lives.

Muslims may have similar fears about Holi as above; being minorities and especially those who have had a conflictual relationship with the majority community. What they fear about Holi may be the same as the one I felt, or so many women and men feel. Perfectly legitimate. But what saddened me was a post from two Muslim boys, one from West Bengal and the other from Bangladesh who tried to say that spraying of colours was a Hindu imposition, and that too a Brahminic one. The problem is one of wrong labelling and of labelling. Firstly, Holi is not a Brahminic festival at all; Khatu Shyam, Dharma and Holika have no status in the Hindu pantheon; for long and indeed for very long indeed, Holi was not a religious festival, it was pagan and involved the community. Mughal Kings used this popular and participative festival into a court and official celebration. To give things a religious and hence a communally divisive flavour is a sign of a community seeking conflict, in search of quarrels and excuses to fight. In such matters, both Hindus and Muslims have their roles beyond the offender and victim labels. The fight in Holi is one between levels of civilization; exclude the less civilized ones, include the more civilized persons. Let Holi be graced with graciousness, that’s why, traditionally Holi would be drawn with all things secular, colours, bhang, sweets, songs and above all poetry and rhymes, composed by all, irrespective of the social status or class.

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Ekushe February

The development of the Bengali language into a formal self-contained written language emerged in the 12th century with the coming of the Sultanate. It was then that the territorial identity of Bengal was formed as well. Despite Islam being the religion common to Delhi and Bengal, the rulers in Bengal were somewhat more jealous of protecting a geographical area over which a distinct economy developed of the small peasant as large farms were difficult due to marshy and moist land that was often thickly wooded or densely vegetated. Language constituted a certain pattern of social relationships with in-built mechanisms of oppression too.  

Indeed, then the tension within the language namely a Sanskritized Bengali spoken by the “outsiders’’ or the colonisers namely in the form of the upper caste Hindus and the native Bengali with their varied dialects being closer to the Prakrit. Interestingly, the language of the native Bengali was closer to Magadhi, or the language spoken in a large part of Bihar while the Sanskritized Bengali was quite distinct from any other language spoken in any other part of India. Bengali, we know today is really this Sanskritized language. This version, rather than the Prakrit leaning language bound itself within the borders called as Bengal in the modern form.

Shashanka was a ruler of Bengal, so were the Senas and the Palas but the Bengal of the ancient or early medieval times was not the same Bengal of contemporary times. It was the Vaishnav movement of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu that the Sanskritized Bengali seemed to have found its niche. The Vaishnav movement was a movement of the moist soil, it found little resonance beyond Birbhum in the west, Bankura in the North but moved along to coast right into Orissa and thereafter into deeper coastal Andhra. Much of the reasons for the development of the Bengali language into its own syntax and tone and especially its dissociation from Magadhi and Maithili was due to the Chaitanya movement. The Bengali language exuded a power, the moral power of the Vaishnav as a rising class of the educated and the knowledgeable, who taught, wrote down accounts and coded laws. As Bengal grew into a rich business community, the need for writing and records was important and soon the Bengali language spilled too into a poetic and lyrical avatar, acquiring much of the sweetness it is now known for.

The fillip to Bengali came of course with the Bengal Renaissance when Bengali expressed and heralded the modernity of Bengal, the rise of reason and science and the fight against the dark superstitions. Bengali language expressed the intellectual precision, the cultural acumen and the grandeur of wealth of the Bengalis, culminating in Rabindranath Tagore. Thereafter the language continued, Bibhutibhushan, Tarashankar et al, the Kallol and the Nabakallol writers who wrote more flowingly, sentimentally, descriptively, emotionally but also in a more pedestrian style. They emanated from the mind of the middle-class subordinate of the government or of large corporate capital but no longer as Tagore and his predecessors would write from the vantage point of a ruler class.

The change in the social class of the writer from a zamindar to a salaried employee of large capital or the government reduced the ambitions of the Bengali and relegated the ambitions of the language from writing science and technology, law and philosophy into only a set of grievances and despair. Bengali became a language of loss and it lost its ability to be philosophical, moral, scientific, rational, legal and of course, formal. As Bengali becomes inadequate for the expression of formal matter, impersonal stuff, and official engagement, it loses its ability to change things related to the material world; policy, politics, planning and power. This was totally the opposite of English, where poetry fell and the novel declined and English was only a language for official communication, more and more emptied of the emotional content. English became universal but collapsed as a creative culture.

To revive the Bengali language, one must revive the Bengali; the power of a language depends on the power of the speaker. If power is to return to the language, then power must return to the Bengali. For power, the Bengali must again return to command the ideology, to command capital, to command property and then politics.

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Dhaka Diary

I had resolved that never in my life will I visit Dhaka for I feared to face a city that would have been mine had the Partition not taken place. I have no idea why my mind thought that way because none of my relatives ever belonged to Dhaka. Some were posted in the city on a transferable job before 1947 but as far as roots are concerned I have never been able to trace any. Even then by the stories of origin my paternal family was supposed to have lived in Vikrampur in Dhaka district and by that token the members of my mother’s family which hailed from Katwa in West Bengal created enough centripetal forces to push me to believe that I was a refugee in India and I was supposed to live forever in Dhaka. Such sentiments lie beneath the CAA against which the real, historical India of an unbroken tradition of thousands of years has risen. Nonetheless the nagging guilt in my subconscious infused and concocted by people who have understood very little of the land they are born into, that I must be on the other side of the border inculcated in me a kind of repulsion towards Dhaka. Chittagong however is comfortable.

But this time Dhaka it had to be for I had friends to meet and new avenues to explore for the development of economic research in the steel industry. Bangladesh like Japan and even United Kingdom has no mineral deposits that can make steel and yet like England and Japan Bangladesh actually makes very good quality of steel. They have to make their steel strong because their structures rise high upon moist and soft soil of the delta. The country has built a bridge across the mighty Padma with strong undercurrents and violent tidal pulls wholly with steel produced by BSRM, which melts scrap in the induction furnace! No one quite associates Bangladesh with steel and yet in terms of quality products it is a formidable country. Steel is heavily advertised in public spaces, in airport billboards, road signage so road dividers and in traffic barriers. In every corner of the city, steel advertisements abound in posters and plaques, signboards and walls.

The police who frisked me in the Delhi airport asked me whether I was a Bangladeshi. She was an Oriya and a Hindu with an ostensible sindur on her hair parting. She must have done well in her life to get a job in the police force, a government service in days of severe unemployment across the country must have been very good for her. In a sense of victory she must have set out to attack her core enemies, or the ones like us who constitute the social class of her bosses. Also, there is a cultural attack, a woman like me, single, unmarried and wearing western clothes without covering my body with a dupatta must have irked her because despite her reaching her own zenith, she finds herself so much lower in social standing than me. Hers is a typical fascist ire that hides behind the veil of nationalism to throw out some people from the reckoning, namely those who are too poor or, in her eyes, like me, too rich. Hence she assigns me a Bangladeshi nationality. You must be a Bangladeshi, she asks me. I retort that I can only expect such foolish stuff from an anti Bengali Oriya as I tell her of the anti Bengali riots in the late 1960s in Orissa. Then I scold her for she being a policewoman she must notice that I am carrying an Indian passport. Then I scare her by asking whether she owns her grandparents property papers for if her grandparents don’t own any property she will end up spending the rest of her life in a detention camp. So she should never dare to speak up to propertied people like me because I will report her state of property lessens to the CAA authorities for her to be picked up. You want to converse, please then ask about the weather or some such stuff. Don’t you dare start foolish talks of nationalities for Indians, I cower her till her eyes develop some fear. I am happy, sadistically.

Indigo was very late because they messed up with some paper work which they tried to pass off as a technical fault. Immigration clearance in Dhaka was very slow again. As the queues got longer and people impatient, I learnt that such things happen whenever Indians arrive because the weblink to the site of the Indian passport is too weak and the immigration staff have to enter the data manually. The cab that was coming to pick us up for it took close to an hour to reach to the arrival gate. Traffic was pathetic and legendary in slowness, not only troubled with traffic signals but more so due to the movement of the VIPs, the military in this case. By the time we reached the hotel it was well into the night. The city, despite its traffic looked lovely as it was all lit with fairy lights, green and red, to celebrate the victory Day, which were also the Christmas colours and bright shades of silver, gold, jade and turquois for the New Years.

Turjo, our young friend was waiting for us and he looked visibly tired and exhausted. Anyway we had excellent and authentic Japanese food in a restaurant in Gulshan. Turjo told us that there was a huge Japanese presence in Bangladesh almost in every avenue of high technology and that it was because of them that one could find such fine Japanese food in Dhaka. Also, the authorities were pretty strict about quality and so were the Bangladeshis themselves and restaurants had to be very fine in order to survive in the business. We walked back to the hotel almost close to midnight, we did not find speeding cars with loud music, nor did we find drunken riffraff nor any footpath dweller. Some rickshaws sailed past us and soon a group of boys in their early twenties were coming from the opposite side. In India this would be a risk especially in the nightly hours and when there is no policeman anywhere in the vicinity. But the boys just went past as though they were only mist. I felt much safer in Dhaka than I would ever have in Delhi or Kolkata. Dhaka seemed to be more like Mumbai.

30th December

The hotel staff as well as the driver warned us that if we have to reach Motijheel by 10am we may have to start two hours before time. That did not happen and we started only with an hour and fifteen minutes to our appointment. The driver was very smart and clever too for he drove through the lanes and by lanes to duck the traffic and I reached my place ten minutes before time. As he manoeuvred through the chaotic parking spaces he was generous in his abuses. But those who caught his irritation most were the timid looking drivers wearing the skull cap. He called them as Tupi, meaning caps and as soon as he cat called them, some parking lot help would rush to clear the poor tupi away. Islamists did not seem to be too comfortable in the city.

Listening to Bangla everywhere was indeed very pleasant but it was more pleasant to see the language being used officiously and formally. In India we descend into Bengali to take off formality and sink into chatty and the familiar mode. Since Bengali is the only language in the country, it is used more as the official language while the variety of dialects were used for the more informal communications. I thought that I heard some Hindi being spoken here and there and also I distinctly heard Hindi being spoken at the washrooms of the airport in Dhaka. When we spoke to Turjo about this he said that the Biharis were a substantial minority in Bangladesh and they were so populous in Mirpur, a locality in Dhaka that the zone won Independence only in 1972 and not in 1971 when Bangladesh was finally free of Pakistan. But Bangladesh had much closer ties with Bihari in terms of the proliferation of the Bharta in their cuisine and much closeness with Hindi in the many phrases like banana as in pair and mojaa as in enjoyment of palette and so on.

After Motijheel I was keen to drop by at BUET, the IIT of Bangladesh. They have a commendable metallurgy department and I wanted to meet Prof Fahmida. It would not have been out of the way because we were in any case going as far as the Dhakeswari Temple and from there to Ahsan Manzil and then visit Lalbagh Quila. Our driver, Hassan dropped us off at the heavily guarded Dhakeswari Temple gate. I suppose no government takes the risk of any possible harm to a minority community and hence the precautionary measure with impregnable police barricades, CCTV cameras and batons weilding men on duty. Hassan sped off into zones away from the police. We walked to Lalbagh biting into crunchy guavas which were larger than our palms. The walk was fairly comfortable despite the roads being narrow and soon we were in front of the fort built by one of Aurangzeb’s sons who looked after Bengal. The poverty of the structure shows the poverty of Aurangzeb and his sons, lesser people invariably have communal and divisive minds.

Across the Lalbagh was a Bhooter Baari, a gaming centre with some small and modest fun stuff for children. There is often a long queue to enter the site and the entertainment house served as a clever distraction for children who get impatient. From Lalbagh we took a rickshaw to reach the estate of Nawab Salimullah Khan called the Ahsan Manzil. Situated by the Buirganga the estate sprawled no less than an acre and a half, now restored into a museum. I was long under the impression that Nawab Salimullah was the political head of Bengal, or at least of Dhaka. Much to my surprise I discovered that he had no political authority and was a very wealthy merchant hailing from Kashmir. His family was into the business of raw hides and timber along with other commodities, made much money and settled in Dhaka. It becomes immediately apparent that Dhaka is the Mumbai of the east. As the rickshaw veered dangerously through narrow serpentine streets packed with merchandise, food grains, wheat flour, daal, textiles, steel and scrap and even timber one sensed that the Bengalis of the east are searching for self fulfilment but not chasing competition or aspirations. Perhaps the only sign of modernity and of prosperity was the intense use of stainless steel. Banisters of staircases, front gates and door frames of shops and offices were made overwhelmingly of very robust quality of stainless steel and stood out as anomalies in this part of the old town. Again the quality of steel was very good.

There were restaurants and most had long queues waiting to grab tables. The most popular ones were Sultan and Kolkata Biriyani, not to miss the adjective authentic. But unfortunately there were no Bhaater Hotel. Dhaka is not showy but it is very clean possibly because street food is so restricted. We did see a jhaal muri man near the Dhakeswari temple but others on carts were only fruit sellers basically selling their own produce. I realised that the Tk 100 which I gave to our driver would fetch nothing and like us, he too may have to go without food. Bangkok is clean but with plenty of street food, Kolkata struggles to keep up a semblance of cleanliness but has food stalls any and everywhere in the city. Access to food is very important and the Bangladeshi municipality having disallowed food vendors in street, I learnt as expected kept our driver hungry through the day. Not that we had any lunch either because our friend, philosopher and guide in Dhaka, Zahidbhai refused to eat food anywhere but in his own home. So the guava it was.

Old Dhaka is a commercial city, shops and warehouses stuffed and even overflowing with textiles, cereals, packing material, corrugated paper, steel pipes, sheets and rods, cycle wheels, glass sheets, wooden furniture and so on. Restaurants had long queues and with no street food, people had to go for big meals only. There were numerous mosques including the star mosque, a famous tourist attraction, and only a few hair cutting saloons and beauty parlours. Mobile shops about selling chips and data, a few shops selling footwear but surprisingly hardly any shops for ready made garments except for salwar kameez. Women’s cosmetics, hair clips, diaries and lens, knives and nail clips were almost absent from the streets. Old Dhaka was wholly a commercial centre with very little space retail outlets, far too occupied by delivery vans and wholesale merchants so as to leave space for the casual buyer shopping at the Windows.

Ahsan Manzil was an eye opener not only because the family of Salimullah was Kashmiri and not Bengali but because he was a man who spent every bit of his mind and money towards Europeanizing. The palace itself is modelled in a Gothic style with its petal domes and high arches and they have felicitated every Bengali worthy of notice both Hindu and Muslim. We see portraits of all eminent Bengalis from Maharshi Debendranath Tagore in his youth, Acharya Jagdish Bose, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, Sri Aurobindo Ghosh and many others. Very noticeably missing are Swami Vivekananda and Sri Paramhansa. This means that the last mentioned never visited the place. Perhaps because the family of Salimullah hailed from Kashmir we have so many Kashmiris in Dhaka, many immigrants come as students to study medicine.

Salimullah could have been Sir Syed Ahmed and perhaps even greater but he worked without a well supportive elite by his side. Yes, modernity was his pursuit. He designed and implemented the city water supply in the late 19th century, a time when very few European cities had water supply. He also got batteries to run electric fans, lights in his banquet halls. Salimullah entertained heavily, every eminent person namely scientists, poets, educationist and even religious leaders were in the august guest list. He entertained the Bengal governors as well. The ballroom is exquisite with provisions of fusion music, baijis on one side and the grand piano forte on the other with the dance floor in the middle.

The women of the family of Salimullah Khan were educated and politically and socially aware. They wrote and spoke, taught and counselled on the importance of girls education. The Bengalis of the land often lament that a Vidyasagar was not born in the Muslim community but Nawab Salimullah and especially the women of the family answered the need very well. They promoted education of women, gave liberal donations to Sanskrit college in Varanasi as well as to girls’ schools across East Bengal. Salimullah also contributed generously towards flood relief, earthquake relief, famine relief. He established the Dhaka University. He was a modernist, a reformer, secular because he promoted every religion, a humanist, a liberal. He was keen to promote a life style, a style statement to the world that he was in no way any less than the glitterati of aristocratic England. The main aim behind Salimullah’s initiative was to create a Muslim elite along the lines of the Hindu elite; from the photographs, the artefacts, the architecture and the altruistic activities it does not appear that the aims of the Muslim League was communal politics. In fact, it seems that Nawab Salimullah’s aims were quite the contrary. It may be worth exploring of how the liberal and secular and a nationalist party descended into a communal, regional and parochial outfit.

The washrooms were cleaner than what I feared would be. Couples abound the compound of the estate overlooking the Buriganga, taking photos and selfies, holding hands and publicly displaying affection. Bangladesh did not look like a conservative society at all. I did not quite find all women’s gangs though. It was not too common to see girls moving about on their own without boys. I was also somewhat surprised to see far less families among the tourists unlike in India where it is more common to see people coming out as families in India Gate or to the malls.

We suffered the traffic as we dropped Zahidbhai to the outskirts of the city but our smart driver found a much better route than Zahidbhai’s GPS and we reached pretty comfortably to our hotel. At night we had lovely home cooked food for dinner with Prof Nashid Kamal and lovelier chats. Exhausted but fulfilled, we had Hassan drive us back to our hotel. She gave us many gifts of books, writtern by her, her mother and her maternal grandfather. I have of course finished reading Prof Nashid’s novel, I am yet to read the other two and cherish my anticipation of their contents.

31st December

This morning we were to head towards Sonargaon and picked up Zahidbhai on the way. I was eager to visit this old capital of Gourbongo. I read in history in school that Sher Shah’s Grand Trunk Road started from this place and went all the way to Peshawar. This was also Isha Khan’s seat of power, who like Nawab Salimullah Khan four centuries later was also a merchant and belonged to a Hindu family from Rajasthan. When Mansingh attacked Bengal in full gear of elephants and horses and guns, Isha Khan mobilised almost forty zamindars, Hindu as well as Muslim, used sophisticated imported guns from China, mounted these on bullock carts and routed the mighty Mughal army. Isha Khan’s endeavours were known as the Revolt of the Baro Bhuinya, though the participants were many more than the twelve.

Isha Khan’s palace was a maze, rooms leading to other rooms all around an open courtyard. The layout was so symmetrical that the palace looked exactly the same from every angle. Next to the main palace was another building which now housed the tourist and the estate offices that looked very different, almost like a house in the Middle East. Among the artefacts were giant earthen pots, the very same stuff that is used in Bangladesh to store grains and oilseeds. Then there were puppets which looked so typically from Rajasthan. It was much later that I learnt that Isha Khan’s grandfather, one Badrinath was a Rajasthani merchant who came as a trader to Bengal and his father, Kalidas continued to settle down in the land. Isha Khan converted to Islam when he joined the Sultan’s forces to defeat the Vaishnav King of Tripura, Gobindo Manikya and assume charge of the toll plaza at Sonargaon where the Brahmaputra merged into the Meghna and the river was wide enough to look like the sea. Here ships from Ahom and Tripura, Srihatta and even China would sail down into the Bay of Bengal. Tax collection would be of a mind boggling amount. It was from here, during Isha Khan’s father’s time that Sher Shah built the land route of trade. The Hindus and the Muslims were fairly divided on the sea and the land; Hindus did better on sea while the Muslims did better on land. But in Bengal, the Muslims, mostly converts for barely a generation or two and basically the sons of soil, dominated the waters of the Bay of Bengal. Orissa has a festival called the Bali Jatra signifying the times when ships would sail towards Bali, Indonesia, Java and Sumatra. The Trinity of Jagannath presides over the Bali Jatra. It was interesting to see Shubhadra’s idol at [1] Sonargaon, Bengal being a land of the various goddesses must have singled  her out from her brothers.

We visited the crafts museum at Sonargaon, where the rulers, or the powerful merchants took care to promote and develop the various crafts, textiles, Kantha, woven paatis and baskets, metals like wrought iron and silver, wood and stone, bamboo and clay, porcelain and precious stones of various kinds. It was a three floor high museum of crafts. The artefacts mostly of use for the high elite as well as for the more ordinary householder but they were specific to the Bengalis and their culture. The only exception were the jewelry, these were purely for the Banjaras and were typically those we find in the deserts of Rajasthan, round, solid, thick and heavy.

The library was amazing, scholars of Bangladesh have done encyclopaedic work on Bengal. It is not possible to explore Bengal intellectually until and unless one visits this marvellous library. Among others, there are definitive histories of the development of crafts, even I have a book on crafts in Dhaka in my collection. I think that I bought it just as a curiosity because who writes about crafts in a modern city? Crafts seem to do be a major interest for Bengal in its eastern frontier. I reviewed in my mind the ordinarily held ideas about East Bengal by people living in West Bengal that the east is agrarian and peasant like while the western part is more industrialized. I realized that quite contrary was the truth. Industry, crafts and manufacture was keener in the east because of the influence of the Afghans and Turks or because of the land being situated as an entrepôt. East Bengal has always had a predominant merchant class, and the so called important rulers like Isa Khan or Nawab Salimullah Khan were merchants and not political officers.

Zahidbhai suddenly struck up a conversation with the librarian, an elderly lady called Dilruba. She asked whether we were Hindus or not and then lamented why we had to move away to India. She said that she has seen Hindus really crying when they left their land, religion is nothing, it is abstract and vague. Only the motherland, land of one’s people, the real location of humans on earth. No religion ever has the power to rise above the motherland. The motherland is the truth, religion its false companion, asserted the elderly Libarian. Dilruba believes in the free movement of humans, there can be some tax collections and toll posts, collect money by all means but why restrict the movement of people. Humans should be like birds and animals, free to move about. Yes, I thought to myself, and for that we need an ecological security. That ecology for humans should be another set of institutions, another level of statehood.

We had to take an e rickshaw to go to Panam City, which looked very similar to Bhangarh, the abandoned merchant city of Rajasthan and an abode of the ghosts. The city constitutes a set of uniform buildings, mainly the offices of the merchants and their warehouses. The land at the back of these buildings on either side were the parking lots of the carriages which may have relayed the goods out of Sonargaon onto the highway, or what is the Grand Trunk Road. We veered towards the river for a boat ride and was surprised to see that a small shipbuilding yard still exists on the banks of the Meghna. Meghna is still navigable, Sonargaon is still an entrepôt except that the political boundaries of the Partitioned subcontinent has cut off trade along with its ties. So water hyacinths float where the Panamax vessels should have sailed.

Unlike in Ahsan Manzil where one saw only tourists and couples, Sonargaon looked more familiar with bunches of picnic parties consisting of family with elders, children and their parents. We drove through the crowded areas of the old Dhaka city in Ahsan Mazil, we rode through the lush villages of Sonargaon. Both looked prosperous and clean but not ostentatious or wannabes.

Life turned into Hell as we tried to reach back to Gulshan on the night of the 31st. All roads were blocked and the single entry to Gulshan via Kakoli was jam packed. Hassan poured out his grievances, how it is so useless to visit Ahsan Manzil as it only showcases a rich guy’s lifestyle, how Isa Khan is a better guy because he fought battles, though the museum at Sonargaon was absolutely devoid of any weapons while Ahsan Manzil had a few basic stuff of personal security guards and some tiger hunting guns but nothing suggestive of desiring yo fight wars. Hassan was very smart, well-spoken and very articulate often intolerant of people with lesser abilities than his. He scolded incompetent drivers and was pretty annoyed with Zahidbhai’s GPS when it took us into the blind alley. Expectedly, he was from Barisal. Barisal is as much joked about in Bangladesh as it is on its Indian side.

1st January

We greeted the New Year by looking out of our hotel room on to the Jheel that ran along side. Today we would head back to Delhi and the only a few hours we had with us would be spent at a breakfast meeting with Rifat, a bright young person with a good knowledge of his country. People of all hues were walking down the walkway around the Jheel. They were not strolling nor were they in their cardio morning walk, they were going for work, head down, resolute jaws, purposive steps. I realized that in the two days that we were continuously driving down the city jammed with cars, buses and lorries Dhaka was rather silent despite its vehicular density. People hardly used the horn, even when they did, the tones were mellow and not sharp. There were arguments but these did not proceed beyond two or three sentences, Bengalis in this land are so different from the Indian Bengalis. Dhakais are sentimental and emotional but very formal in their public demeanour, there was nothing to suggest that they would snap, neither at the drop of a hat nor ever. People spoke less, rarely ever moving beyond the necessary, and when they did, they were articulate, specific and to the point. Not only there was hardly a horn blowed, but people spoke little making the city fairly silent and as free of noise pollution as of city garbage. That’s so true, now I recall, I could not see garbage piled along any street.

Madhusree and I were strangers, dressed differently, heads uncovered and perhaps too old to be gallivanting around the city. We were aboard on rickshaws for quite a while too. But never did we feel eyes looking at us, in fact no one looked. But people noted nonetheless because at Ahsan Mazil a young man came rushing towards us from inside the ticket enclosure and asked whether we were Indians or not. I knew that my dread has come true, Zahidbhai tried to pass us off as Bangladeshis by buying a ticket meant for citizens and not as foreigners from the subcontinent. Bangladesh laws are very strict, enforcement even more so, there is no question of going past the guards and the police. The level of alertness is very high, eyes those never cast a glance at you seem to have memorised you to the hilt.

The streets were free of animals, no stray cattle, or dogs, nor cats, and not even birds like the crow or the sparrow. A possible reason for this could be the utter lack of food or because many of the animals, especially the cow is eaten as food. Bangladesh seems to be liberal with beef, but that is also a recent matter because many among the Bengalis believe that eating beef is harmful for health. It is interesting that the streets were also free of plastic wrappers strewn inattentively around. However, in tourist places, there were cats and dogs because of the picnickers and plastic wrappers were found here as well. Bangladesh was a different country because of the behavior of its people in the public space.

Madhusree noticed and Zahidbhai seconded that women now wore the borkha, something that was nearly absent even ten years earlier. Zahidbhai spoke of his own family and how his sisters and mother and aunts now thought that it was very fashionable to do the dress. I am not sure whether a return to Islamic conservatism or a growing religious fundamentalism can explain this. There is something else, as women emerge more and more in the public space, the veil is often a good way to feel comfortable against the annoyance of the male gaze; because it bears a religious connotation, women might feel more protected against the bad touch. Besides, the veil is now a designer fashion statement, the colours, the brooches and the pins. Girls have to now be freer, move on their own and into spaces where women usually did not venture and the veil became a talisman protecting against possible lapses of safety. Also, the veil hid from the public eye, many of the revealing dresses women now wore as fashion, only to be seen by those they want to see them, and eliminating from sight the unwanted ones.

Yet, despite its public discipline and professional acumen, its high social skills and work orientedness, Dhaka somewhere conveyed to me that the governance system had its problems. It was not a democratic country in its core; people were suspicious of the government and the government was not as empathic as it should be in democracies. The gap between the ruler and the ruled was very apparent. The trust between the government and the people seemed to be a bit precarious. But some policeman here, some bureaucrat there, some technocrat as the odd one out were trying hard to bridge the divide. Bangladeshis spoke far less about politicians than they spoke about opportunities for work abroad, of migration and investments, of business prospects and education, accepting the fact that the governments would forever be corrupt and immoral.

After a nice coffee and conversation with Rifat, Madhusree and I rushed to Arong for last minute buying of gifts and mementoes. The rickshaw puller almost passed out, partly because of our combined body weight but also in part because he had no food since the morning. He cried Allah and Ma, and puffed and panted. It seems that he comes out early in the morning for work, his mother too old and wife too lazy to cook food for him. This is funny, I thought, for he can at least keep some leftovers which he can heat and eat in the morning. He is wont to get his own food, because like a true Bengali, he believes that since he is the sole breadwinner of the family everyone should pamper him. Well, such an attitude, I thought would make us one of the same history and sociology.


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Music of the Muses – Brahmo Sangeet From Raja Rammohan to Tagore

Last evening I attended a lecture demonstration by Srenanda Mukherjee organized by Sohini tracing out the path of the Brahmo sangeet from Raja Rammohan Roy to Rabindranath Tagore (The vowel in Brahmo being pronounced as the O in oval). Brahmo sangeet turned out into a genre of its own imbibing the Indian classical, the western classical and a variety of Indian folk, all contained within an assemblage of diverse religions into the meditation upon the Transcendental Formless God. With such a diversity in the grand unity of the Brahmo Samaj its music started attracting some of the best musical talents in the country. The startling fact is that most musicians were commendable philosophers and vice versa. Such a development has a lot to say about the importance of music in times such as the early 19th century.

Brahmo Samaj was started by Raja Rammohan Roy and a few others in the early 19th century and clearly music was at the very foundation of its praxis. Rammohan was trained by Kali Mirza for tappa and Vishnu Chakravarty in Dhrupad both of which he combined in his various songs. In the samples played at the lecture venue I fancied that the Brahmo music had already assumed the form of the modern song, which is amenable to the notation and instrumental accompaniment with a prelude. The other interesting feature is the chorus, a feature introduced most probably by the Marathas, for the Peshwas introduced the chorus in the Dhrupad.

The Brahmo Samaj attracted the best minds in Bengal and the best musicians as well, Jadunath Bhattacharya, better known as Jadu Bhatta, Ramgati Bandopadhyay, Bipin Chandra Pal and others and later Jagdish Chandra Bose, were deeply involved with the Brahmo music. Ramkrishna Paramhansa who represented almost a parallel worship of the Transcendental One, albeit with Kali’s image at the centre, too was in the same line of thought that all paths led only to the deep contemplation of the one who defies any form.

Maharshi Debendranath brought in two very interesting inputs into the Brahmo Sangeet, one is the poetry of Hafez, the Sufi Saint and Sanskrit hymns from the Vedas. Combined with these was the chorus and later when Jyotirindranath introduced the piano, a much greater level of harmony was possible into the Brahmo music. These made the music sound more officious and ecclesiastical. The role of the Tagore family was enormous in enriching the lyrics. While there were many talented lyricists outside the Tagore’s, most were sidelined because the Tagore’s documented and published their work with greater zeal.

It seems that the Brahmo prayers and the Maghotsav became very important events in the life of Calcutta for not only the songs were new and unique but also because these became opportunities for the people to hear women sing. It seems that a small time zamindar, Kalinarayan Gupta from Kushtiya, the same place as the one where Lallon Phakir was born and now in Bangladesh overheard unsavoury stuff about the Brahmo Samaj and desiring to verify the facts for himself trudged over to a prayer meeting. He became a devout Brahmo and introduced an entirely new trend in the music by merging with the rising harmony and the notations, the folk as in the bhatiyali and even the Panchali. This tradition continued his grandson, the renowned Atul Prasad Sen. Soon Harinath Majumdar who led a group called the Kangal Phikirs, a name taken after their guru Phikirchand, the baul became an important constituent of the Brahmo Sangeet.

Upendrakishore Roychowdhury, a photographer, children’s fiction writer, also wrote prolifically on music. Satyajit Ray’s command over music especially the technology that produces and records music seems to be a remarkable legacy from his grandfather but also from the long trend of the Brahmo sangeet.

Yet another watershed moment is perhaps Manomohan Chakravarty who spread the Brahmo Samaj into Bihar and Assam. As the Brahmo Samaj becomes more cosmopolitan, it starts absorbing features from the rest of India like the bhajans of Mira, Kabir, Nanak, Ravidas, Surdas and other medieval Bhakti saints. Rajanikanth Sen and Atulprasad Sen seem to be masters at the punched and remixed heavy metal music.

Keshab Chandra Sen brought into the nagarsankirtan, which was tried to replicate the kirtan sung in a group that went in a procession, often turning rowdy through the streets of Nabadwip. Keshab Sen’s penchant for the kirtan, raised into almost a kind of a street procession is indeed both a musical as well as a political transformation of the song.

Most of the above mentioned musicians were excellent composers as well as accomplished players on the sitar, esraj, flute and pakhwaj. The pakhwaj seems to have played the key role in raising the essential Dhrupad into the chorus and in creating the harmony. The flute has mellowed the formal attire of the song into absorbing the lilt of the bhatiyali. It is quite another matter that these musicians were also writers, philosophers, mathematicians, linguists and perhaps this was why also theorists of music.

It is evident that Tagore has drawn enormously from the music of the Brahmomsangeet which he has refined to emerge into an entire genre of its own. He has exhausted almost every strain of the tunes composed and turned them into his own through mixes and modifications.

Two kinds of music quickly followed the Brahmosangeet in the early 20th century and those were the nationalist music of Charankobi Mukundadas, D L Ray and Rajanikanta Sen and the other was the film music totally dominated by a different class of musicians but working in the same format of the modern song, mixing Indian and western classical and the various strains of the folk. Interestingly, in the film music, the instruments in the background changed overwhelmingly to the tabla, harmonium, piano,accordion,sitar, sarod, violin, flute, saxophone, that is to say the pakhwaj, high was the centrepiece of Brahmo sangeet almost disappeared. The change could be due to the sound system in the film, a recorded medium.

We now return where we left, namely to understand how and why music became so important for the Renascent sensibilities of the Bengali society? Did everyone respond equally to the Brahmosnageet, or what is the same thing, was its popularity unalloyed? Does music have a deep connection with proselytisation of a new religion, which the Brahmo movement wanted to perpetuate? Actually, the assimilative character of the Brahmo Sangeet became the assimilative character of the National Movement when the nation was conceptualized as a unity of diverse cultures and legacies composed of many religions, creeds and belief and languages. There was also a deep need to absorb the West in order to modernize archaic religious systems that ran contrary to human freedom. The politics of the Bengal Renaissance that underlay the Freedom Movement and eventually went into the essence of the Constitution of India was a search for a liberated individual, free to pursue creativity and in the process absorb the others into a composite idea of the self. Brahmosangeet is an expression of this spirit, music represents its supralinguality, or what is the same thing, the transcendental thought.

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