Book Excerpt: From Sudeep Chakravarti’s The Bengalis

The Bengalis 2


Āmādér Rōbindrōnāth

Tagore plus

The Bengalis are a lot more than Rabindranath Tagore, our most-cited cultural icon, Subhas Chandra Bose, West Bengal’s most-cited political icon, and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s most cited national icon. Although we might often seem to be striving, quite correctly, to escape the stereotype of being longhaired poets or rebels with or without a cause, that our three most famous sons—bongōshontān—have bestowed on us, we actually adore these images of us. Culture and cause, even reflected culture and cause, provide for some a core, for others a sheen with which, in our minds and through our days, we keep ordinariness at bay.

These three aside, there are several Bengalis who are known to the world outside Banglasphere. However, many not-Bengalis are unaware that a number of these worthies are Bengalis or have Bengali roots. Some of our greatest are not known outside Banglasphere but that’s fine too. It’s enough if we laud our own, if others do too, that’s a bonus.

Let me name a few here (numerous others appear elsewhere in the book), those whose names and influence have transcended our chauvinistic borders or, even if they haven’t, have enriched or enervated our lives in Banglasphere and outside it, shaped us for better and worse. If these judgement calls invite energetic and emotional debate — so be it.

Let’s begin with Satyajit Ray. In the 1950s, he marked the beginning of a certain global acclaim for Indian cinema and moved generations with a mix of realism and class. My former colleague and Ray aficionado Sumit Mitra recalls that time in Calcutta:

During the release of the Apu trilogy, between 1955 and 1959, his apotheosis was complete. The coffee-house crowds began to referring to him by his pet name, ‘Manik-da’.

Gatecrashing into his home on Lake Temple Road in Ballygunj on flimsy excuses became so common a cultural pastime that Sandip, his schoolgoing son, always full of pranks, posted a notice on the front door demanding an admission fee of eight annas. By the ’60s, he was too famous a figure to visit his favourite haunt, the corner room of the Chowringhee coffee house, which was called—still is—the House of Lords.

Lord Satyajit, marquis of the magic moment, arrived with Pather (or Pothér) Pānchāli and its poignant, occasionally joyous journey of Apu (Ōpu) on this ‘song of the road’ from the lushness and concurrent destitution of rural Bengal in the first film, imbuing a work, shot in black-and-white with superlative colour and mood, to the journey of fortitude in Oporājitō, with its Cartier Bresson-like framing of the ghats and lanes of Varanasi in the tale of the ‘unvanquished, to the pathos-imbued joy of love and its reclamation in Ōpur Shonghshār, a study in exuberance, self-pity and deliverance of ‘the world of Ōpu’. The first movie in the trilogy debuted one of Banglasphere’s most versatile and loved actors, Soumitra Chatterjee, Ray’s leading man in fourteen films.

Ray launched himself into the eye of his admirers through movies based on the books of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, a writer of such brilliance and nuanced observation that he is revered as much as loved in Bengal. No literary reading of Bānglā would be complete without him. Ray took Bandopadhyay with him to the world, as he did Tagore in a manner that Tagore himself and several of his early translators could not, bringing a layering of mood and his own sensibilities with several masterworks: Teen Kōnya, a meld of three short stories; Chārulotā, which drew from the novel Nāstōnirh, Broken Nest; and Ghoré Bāiré, Home and the World.

Ray conveyed modern literary maestros like Sunil Gangopadhyay and Shankar beyond the formidable reputations both writers enjoy in Banglasphere. Gangopadhyay’s novels Prōtidwōndi (which travelled the world as The Adversary) and Orōnyer Din Rātri (Days and Nights in the Forest) are two such. Shankar is the pseudonym of Mani Shankar Mukherjee, an unassuming gentleman who for years worked a day job at an office; and in his literary avatar wrote gritty books on the urban condition. As a journalist and devourer of his works, I have encountered both incarnations, one as the public relations face of Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation! Ray filmed his Jonō Orōnyō and Sheemāboddhō.

(For many Bengalis Shankar’s masterwork and translation into cinema continues to be Chōwrōngi, a book that gained cult status with its stunning depiction of layered relationships, infidelity and craven business. As a movie directed by Pinaki Bhushan Mukherjee, with a star cast of enduring legends—Uttam Kumar, Supriya Devi and Utpal Dutt—it also gained cult status. A translation into English of the book by Arunava Sinha brought him crossover fame among Western audiences.)

In the absence of extensive, quality translations of works from Bānglā to English and other languages—a situation that has only begun to be remedied with some velocity in this century with some superb translations—auteurs like Ray were for the longest time conduits beyond Banglasphere of their own art and that of others. It may have seemed an exaggeration to a Bengali but hardly to a not Bengali when film historian and critic Penelope Houston wrote that Ray’s Bengal would conceivably remain ‘Cinema’s India’ for a time.

Formidable directors like Mrinal Sen, whose gritty tellings of a time of churn, destitution, and rebellion (Bhuvan Shome, Podātik, Calcutta 1971, Interview, Okālér Shondhāné…) and Ritwik Ghatak, a fiercely left-of-centre theatrist and film-maker, a master of tragic romanticism driven by his experiences of famine, Partition and displacement (his best known work Méghé Dhaka Tara is cult coursework for Indian students of film-making; his other major works are Shubornōrékhā, Titāsh Ékti Nōdir Nām—technically a Bangladeshi film, based on the novel by Adwaita Mallabarman— and Ojāntrik) were both contemporaries of Ray. But they had less universal cachet than Ray, although their work is immensely respected and, for many aficionados, counted above that of Ray’s for its sheer energy, political content and humanism.

But none of his peers could touch Ray for the elegance of his work. In several ways, of those who succeeded the golden generation of Bengali film-makers, Ray’s natural inheritor is Rituparno Ghosh. He was surely the most luminous of our latter-day directors, wearing his art as fiercely as he did his sexuality, his talent freely acknowledged by colleagues of his generation like Goutam Ghose. From his breakout Unishé April, and Bāriwāli to Shob Choritrō Kālpōnik and Chōkhér Bāli and Raincoat to The Last Lear, Ghosh’s work melded classes, languages, and commercial and art house in nearly a couple of dozen movies in Bānglā, Hindi and English which he directed and for which he wrote the screenplay. Few would flaunt androgyny in their art and person as publicly as he did, chide Bengalis for their ‘moral panic’, and yet, when he died in 2013, receive as close to a state funeral as possible, with an honour guard from West Bengal police and mourners filling Nandan, the government-sponsored film festival hub in central Kolkata in tribute.

For all the distance, we haven’t remained far from Mumbai. Bengal’s advent in India’s film industry hub of Mumbai had its moments, though far from the art house sheen we stereotypically carry. There have been several significant clan and individual contributions in everything from acting and direction to set and light design, but the standouts have to be the Gangulys, of a prōbāshi family from Madhya Pradesh. For four decades, till the late 1980s, the Ganguly brothers, Ashok Kumar (born Kumudlal), Anoop Kumar (Kalyan) and Kishore Kumar (Abhas) were fixtures as actors, directors and producers—and Kishore achieved stratospheric fame as a playback singer. The only other Bengali singer spoken of…


About the book:

The Bengalis are the third largest ethno-linguistic group in the world, after the Han Chinese and the Arabs. A quarter of a billion strong and growing, the community has produced three Nobel laureates, world-class scientists, legendary political leaders and revolutionaries, iconic movie stars and directors, and an unending stream of writers, philosophers, painters, poets and musicians of the first rank. But, bald facts aside, just who are the Bengalis? What is the community all about, stereotypically and beyond stereotype? In order to find the answers to these and related questions, the author (a Bengali born and steeped in his own culture but objective enough to give us a balanced reckoning of his fellows) delves deep into the culture, literature, history and social mores of the Bengalis. He writes with acuity about the many strengths of the community but does not flinch from showing us its weaknesses and tormented history. He points out that Bengalis are among the most civilized and intellectually refined people on earth but have also been responsible for genocide and racism of the worst kind. Their cuisine is justly celebrated but few remember the cause and effect of millions of Bengalis dying of famine. Renowned for their liberal attitudes, they are also capable of virulent religious fundamentalism. Argumentative and meditative, pompous and grounded, hypocritical and wise, flippant and deep… Bengalis are all this and much, much more. With erudition, wit and empathy, this book manages to capture their very essence. Unarguably, it is the definitive portrait of one of the world’s most vibrant and distinctive communities.

About the author:

SUDEEP CHAKRAVARTI is the author of several groundbreaking and bestselling works of narrative non-fiction (Red Sun, finalist for the Crossword Award in 2009; Highway 39; and Clear. Hold. Build, winner of the Award for Excellence at the Asian Publishing Awards, 2014), novels (Tin FishThe Avenue of Kings) and short stories. His essays and short fiction have appeared in collections in India and overseas, and, like his books, have been translated into several languages.

He is among India’s leading independent commentators on matters of conflict and conflict resolution, democracy and development, political economy, and the convergence of business and human rights. An extensively published columnist at Mint and elsewhere, he has over three decades of experience in media, and has worked with major global and Indian media organizations including the Asian Wall Street Journal, where he began his career, and held leadership positions at Sunday, the India Today Group and HT Media.

An avid scuba diver, Sudeep’s key interest away from writing and travelling remains marine conservation.

He lives in the Velliangiri Hills in Tamil Nadu, and Goa.