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.