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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Ashok Kumar Ganguly alias Kumud

Ashok Kumar’s biography has been much written. By Divine Grace the actor lived long and in full alertness of the mind and in good health and spoke freely to those who sought him out for interviews and a longer engagement. He has been an institution unto himself and has been almost intrinsically associated with Bombay Talkies. Yet, to understand Ashok Kumar, we pin him down to the song he sung both on screen as well as the playback in his first film, Jhoola, Ek Chatur Naar, the very same one that was remixed for the film Padosan releasing more than twenty years later and sung by Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar.

The song is interesting for here is a young man, who cleverly dresses himself up and cultivates seductive body language to attract women towards him. The young man is posing in front of the mirror, trying to anticipate which of his smiles, the bending of the neck and the arching of eyebrows and the flirtatious laughter in the eyes will get a girl in his snare is central to the image of Ashok Kumar and to the star of the Hindi film. We must understand that here is a medium that is prospecting the idea of the new individual, the individual having just been discovered through modernity, revved up with a set of human rights and charged with the modern institutions that guarantee her freedom against the archaic traditions. Such an individual is also the romantic in a Western sense, the notion of romantic love sits tight on some semblance of equality between the sexes. Hence, for the image of the romantic hero, masculinity must be compromised and this, the image of Ashok Kumar is trying to convey, eager to appease a woman, eager to seem attractive to the feminine gender and a lot of effeminising, therefore.

We now move back to Ashok Kumar’s social background and we find here a combination of many forces. His paternal side descends from the infamous Raghu Dakaat, his mother is a descendant of Raja Shibchandra Banerjee of Bhagalpur and he married a direct descendant of Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. The story goes that once Raghu Dakaat, in order to evade his arrest disguised as a Brahmin priest of a temple and the British police did not touch the elderly holy man. Thereafter Raghu Dakaat, who was a Robinhood like character, robbing the rich to protect the poor left his profession and became a priest in real life. Though one does not know the background of this brigand, one may safely assume that he may have been a low caste, who on account of his money and good will becomes a Brahmin through upward social mobility and their caste is known as the Amathe Brahmins. Anyway, Ashok Kumar’s father moves into Bhagalpur and marries his mother, the granddaughter of Raja Shibchandra Banerjee. We learn that Shibchandra and Bankim Chandra both jointly held the first position in Calcutta University law examination and both were offered jobs of the Deputy Magistrates by the British. While Bankim Chandra took up the employment, Shibchandra set up his private practice and earned a whopping sum of Rs 40 lakhs in 12 years and with this sum of money he laid out public parks and gardens and buildings and earned for himself the title of Raja. He entertained British guests lavishly and was seized with the strong desire to convert to Christianity, which somehow, he could not bring himself to do. In his advanced years, he developed senility and soon died. Ashok Kumar marries the granddaughter of Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. Ashok Kumar’s education was almost wholly overseen by his erudite mother, Gouridebi, who taught him Chaucer and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Among the three, Ashok Kumar’s father’s family was economically the most modest and it was thus important that he, being the oldest of the three brothers and a sister settle down as the next earning member of the family. Therefore, when he joined the films, it was indeed a risk. But in this he was encouraged by Sasadhar Mukherjee, his sister’s husband who was in employment of Bombay Talkies. Bombay Talkies was founded by Himanshu Rai in which Sasadhar Mukherjee was a partner. Himangshu Rai belonged to an aristocratic Bengali family, who studied in Santiniketan and then read law at Kolkata and established his practice in London. Here, he used his money to produce Indian films like Light of Asia and others. He met, love and married Devika Rani, grand niece of Rabindranath Tagore, who was a textile designer with her own assignments in London and together they moved to Bombay and set up the Bombay Talkies. Here, he met Sasadhar Mukherjee and Gyan Mukherjee, both of who were brilliant physicists in the making and studied under Meghnad Saha. Their acumen in physics helped develop the craft of cinematography. Himangshu had brought with him, his friend, Niranjan Pal, the son of Bipin Chandra Pal from London into Bombay to be a partner for his venture in the film studio. We see an interesting sociological profile of the Bombay Talkies; it is set up by Bengalis living away from Bengal, or better called as pravasis. We have Niranjan Pal with high political connections, Himangshu Rai with a moneyed background but also a professional, middle class scientist in Sasadhar and Gyan Mukherjee, partly middle-class background of Ashok Kumar and partly an enormously upwardly mobile maternal family of Shibchandra Banerjee. It is interesting that while an entirely Bengali enterprise, the studio did not have any Bengali from Bengal, except later by way of Amiya Chakravarty and Nitin Bose. The class ensemble of the film industry was thus a mixture of the aristocratic and the professional. But these being Bengali, combined the intellectual riches of the Bengali culture and the cosmopolitanism of the wider country and fused into products that constituted a class apart.

Ashok Kumar’s family settled in Bhopal was furiously anti communal and in their public life, they strove for communal harmony. Much of Ashok Kumar’s portrayal of masculinity was one of a comely man, eager to please women and with soft sentiments and misty emotions, a complete contradiction to the murderous masculinity of the communal being. But besides ideology, the other thing at work was to learn the art and the craft of the new medium, the cinema and to fully gain handle on its new and emergent technology. In other words, the pursuit of ideology and technology went hand in hand, complementarily to each other. Bombay Talkies had a galaxy of film makers from Europe, the most famous of them being perhaps Frantz Osten, from Germany.

Ashok Kumar is very sensitive to Gandhian ideology of communal harmony than he is towards Freedom. For the star, patriotism meant communal harmony and Freedom would be a by-product. Sadat Manto, Mehboob Khan, Dilip Kumar and Kidar Sharma are the young brigade for whom a free India is a land of liberal and secular institutions protecting individual rights and freedom. What does not worry him are international affairs of fascism, socialism or even the War or the Bengal Famine and strangely, not even the Partition of the country. Intrigued by a total absence of any mention of the Partition especially as K A Abbas and Sadat Manto both of who write such ferocious critique of the cruel consummation of communal politics in their essays are surprisingly silent about the matter on screen.

I have wondered why this should be the case?  I agree that a few studios may not agree to depict the pains of the Partition, but one wonders why overall, an entire film industry refused to touch the subject even with a barge pole? The answer may perhaps lie that the cinema by and large has oriented itself towards the discovery of a fulfilled individual and communal politics which is about the alienated and anomie individual may not find a place in the scheme of things.

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