Bengal hues, blues – The Tribune India

Chess Puzzles

Ira Pande

The West Bengal elections have begun and so has the familiar screeching on our TV screens and media portals. No one really knows which way the wind is blowing and speculations are rife about what will happen there and in the rest of the country after the results are announced on May 2. I often wonder whether we really care about consequences and issues at all or whether all elections are now played like one-day cricket matches. We have turned them into blood sports with battle lines drawn even between friends. Suddenly, everyone seems to have become an expert on the history of the state since it was first divided by Curzon and then again at the time of Partition.

I have had my own little insight into this history as I have finally submitted a translation of Amader Shantiniketan, my mothers memoir of her time there in the early decades of the last century. She and her siblings were sent to Shantiniketan all the way from Almora by their scholarly grandfather to study in Tagores ashram, for he had been most impressed when he had visited it. The Bengal renaissance that gave us some of our finest creative artistes and public figures was blossoming and helped mould generations of young minds into an alternate way of living and learning. The book, which is due to come out in May, will celebrate two figures whose deep influence continues to inspire Bengalis all over the world: Tagore, who passed away on May 7, 1941, and Satyajit Ray, Indias most famous filmmaker, whose centenary falls curiously enough on May 2, the day the results of this momentous election will be declared. The book has long, loving recollections of both these extraordinary Bengalis.

How much the state has changed from the Bengal my mother describes in her book! As for Shantiniketan, Tagores abode of peace, it has ironically morphed into a war zone with political leaders fighting to gain control over its legacy and reputation. How did a state that was the leader of the modernist impulse in Indian life become so regressive and parochial? Tagore sought to impart to his students a most liberal education that was premised on the kind of universal humanism and love for mankind that transcended religion and creed. That Shantiniketan is today a forgotten and overgrown garden with more weeds than blossoming plants, its fragrant mango groves and maulsari trees have been uprooted by the winds of change and turned this arcadian world into a battleground between two crass political parties.

Bengals misfortune was that it never stopped living in its past. Doubtless, its glorious history had much to be proud of but when this pride descended into narrow jingoism, it lost touch with the rest of the country. Isolated, bereft of its thriving jute and engineering industries after the Naxal phase and the slow dismantling of its enviable educational institutions led to a brain drain that enriched other parts of the country and the world, but impoverished Bengal itself. Poverty in these circumstances became a romantic trope that was mined brilliantly in its literature and cinema, but left it a shadow of its former self. Today, even Bangladesh, once its poor cousin, outpaces it on all markers of development. Surely, someone needs to answer what brought this proud state to such a sorry situation.

One of Rays most poignant films is Jalsaghar, his requiem on the death of feudalism. A rich zamindar hosts a last concert (played by the one and only Begum Akhtar) for his friends. His fortunes are long depleted so he sells his last elephant to pay off the debt he owes for this indulgence. The last frame of the film is of the elephant lost in the dust kicked up by a passing lorry as it is being led away to its new owner. A similar scene is Apu and his sister running across a field to catch a glimpse of a passing train in Pather Panchali. And who can forget the classic Shatranj ke Khilari where the two nawabs are immersed in their game of chess even as Outrams troops are going to dethrone Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Oudh?

It puzzles me how the Bengali elite chose to ignore a changing India, one where steam engines and factories were replacing the bullock cart and the rice field. All those great economists, historians, writers and thinkers who played such a vital role in the fashioning of a vibrant new world elsewhere were seemingly unable to persuade their comrades and fellow Bengalis to open the windows to let in this new world.

It was once said that when Bengal sneezes, the rest of India catches a cold. So today, when one is watching the sorry spectacle of two leaders exchange insults and brickbats and operatic speeches delivered in the most a-bhadra language, one wants to ask: what happened to the famous bhadralok of the novels of Sharatchandra and Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay? Was that an imaginary world that never really existed save in the romantic world of literature and cinema? Were Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray making films about an imagined Bengal whose fragile huts could not withstand the Kaal Baisakhi storms that shook the earth and uprooted noble old trees?

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Bengal hues, blues - The Tribune India

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