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By Dolonchampa Chakraborty
Saubhik De Sarkar, is a Bengali poet based in Alipurduar, West Bengal, a major district in the eastern Himalayan foothills of India. He has six books of poems of which the first one Sheet O Bayosandhir Haspatal was published in 1995. Other collections include Ekti Mridu Laal Rekha (2005), Jatrabari (2011), Dokholsutra (2013), Anugato Buffer (2015) and Punorbashoner Chil (2016). He is also a prolific translator. His most significant translation projects include but are not limited to the works of Saadat Hasan Manto, Roberto Bolano, Federico Garcia Lorca, Julio Cortázar, Namdeo Dhasal and Rudhramoorthy Cheran. His translation of the much discoursed Dalit chronicle My Father Baliah by Y.B. Satyanarayana into Bengali is set to be published in 2018. His selected poems translated into English, The Evening Gnome is also scheduled to be published from Authorspress in 2018. He is the recipient of Kabita Pakshik Award (2005) and Mallar Award (2017).
Dolonchampa: What encouraged you to be a poet? Can you think of a particular set of moments that still haunt your memory as the initial spark?
Saubhik: I grew up in the cultural and literary ambience of Alipurduar which had some artistic and traditional inheritance. The Little Magazine Movement also played a significant role in shaping and sharpening me up as it has had tremendous impact over the progression of Bengali literature. Since a young age I got to know the avant garde litterateur and poets of North Bengal who were involved in little magazine movements and an experimental writing process. Taking part in the movement provided the opportunity to access different avenues of literature and I chose poetry as the medium to express myself. Not any special incident or spark, but as a whole many features of poetry enticed me toward it. I found the essential freedom and a sense of unrestricted liberation within the realm of poetry.
Dolonchampa: Tell us about your literary influences.
Saubhik: A poet is indebted to many other travellers of the labyrinth of poetry. According to my recollection, Jibananda Das, Utpal Kumar Basu, Manindra Gupta, Swadesh Sen, Bhashkar Chakraborty, Nitya Malakar, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Sajal Bandyopadhyay, Shyamal Kanti Das, Samar Roy Choudhury, Shyamal Singha, Jahar Sen Majumder and Rahul Purkayastha are those few Bengali poets who had initially impacted my nous of poetry. Among the ones who wrote in other languages, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ana Akhmatova, Frank O’Hara, Julio Cortázar, Charles Simic, A.K. Mehrotra, Namdeo Dhasal, Agha Shahid Ali, Mahmud Darwish, Martin Espada and Kim Hyesoon influenced me a lot.
Dolonchampa: The unique elements of North Bengal—the landscape, languages, folk tales, myths, music have influenced your already rich linguistic inheritance. How do they shape your poems?
Saubhik: North Bengal, where I have lived so far has some particularly distinctive features. Located amid lustrous natural landscape within the range of three international borders, it is a unique multicultural, multilingual and multi-ethnic confluence. Populations hailing from separate ethnic clusters native to this place present themselves in different forms of myths, folktales, customs and rituals, and music different from each other. In congruence with the changing dynamics of the rivers flowing through the mountain range of North Bengal, the disposition of the people here also changes its form. People constantly move in and out of North Bengal. A larger phase of history has been a witness to this shifting identity and its restlessness for a rather consistent period of time. When I try to capture that particular identity in my poems, it appears with all its restlessness.
Political and economic contexts are not the same either. They are altering at a rather slower pace, but the transformation is indeed visible. Against the backdrop of the marginal and rural practices transforming towards a pro-urban formation, the decadence in the local colonial set-ups primarily established through the railways and tea-gardens become more prominent. The conservatively rural and marginal folk elements are developing themselves in an innovative manner, which to certain extent is definitely and more inevitably contributing to the degeneration of an old customary set-up.
All these shifts and changes, anomalies and transformations present themselves subtly in my poems. Although I feel the limitation of the standard lingua franca in expressing these conflicts, struggles and the confluences of the beauty, silence and serenity of North Bengal which appear in my poems. Hence, it is only reasonable that I should use words from the dialects, sub-dialects and other languages of North Bengal in my writing.
The other and more significant reason for me to use the elements of North Bengal is the responsibility to represent an aware and alert society which registers a systematic and sensible resistance in favour of the liberation of a language no matter how apparently insignificant and distant it is from the power hub of the premier language. Every language practises a kind of monopoly over its dialects and sub-dialects. So when I use a local word in my poem I do not want it to carry its local flavour only. I enable it to stand strong against the monopoly and aggression of the premier language.
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By Varsha Ramachandran
Director: Manoj Shah
Writer: Uttam Gada
Artist: Satchit Puranik
Rangashankara, Bangalore, Friday 29th June, 2018
The play’s title Karl Marx in Kalbadevi perhaps summarizes the play better than any critic could — the renowned political theorist Karl Marx speaking to the audience from the bustling neighbourhood of Kalbadevi. It is a brilliant adaptation of Howard Zinn’s Marx in Soho, written in 1999. Zinn’s creative production depicted the lionized philosopher as an ordinary human being, struggling to make ends meet to support his family in a time of political crisis. The play was set in the Soho district of New York, owing to Marx’s own life in Soho, London.
Karl Marx in Kalbadevi takes Marx out of Zinn’s American setting and places him in the crowded streets of Kalbadevi, in the city of Bombay, where no one has the time or the inclination to listen to the ‘high funda’ philosopher that Marx has come to be regarded as today. The narrative behind this quirky placement is that Marx, 160 odd years after his death, tired of being villainized for ideals he never advocated, comes to India hoping to clear his name. He goes to Bombay’s Mani Bhavan with plans to deliver a public speech but is comically turned away by the guard due to the new stringent timings of the museum. As the philosopher turns back in defeat, he meets Manoj Shah, the director of the play, who gives him 90 minutes of stage time to redeem himself with the sole condition that he gives the audience what they desire – entertainment. As promised, Manoj Shah’s play delivers precisely that which was promised to him by Marx; with the glorified icon Karl Marx rapping in Hindi to the lilting tunes of Psy’s Gangnam Style and ranting about his terrible experience with the ginormous Bhagat Tarachand Thali he was forced to endure by Shah, the play guarantees 90 minutes of straight up entertainment.
The play follows Zinn’s attempt to bridge the gap between the academic Karl Marx and the ordinary family man Karl Marx. With Satchit Puranik looking surprisingly like Marx himself, bumbling around the stage wearing a t-shirt sporting Gandhi’s picture and wreaking havoc with his large number of props, the audience begins to relate to the character on stage and Marx is slowly lowered from the elevated platform on which he is thought to stand. The plot revolves around Marx narrating to the audience the story of his life, family, friends and most importantly, his ideas of political economy. Shah uses ideas familiar to the Indian audience, ranging from Rahul Gandhi’s education to the BJP election slogan to what he calls Gandhi’s ‘perverse communism’, to communicate the essence of Marx’s philosophies. Marx narrates the story of his poverty stricken, practically nomadic life and paints vivid word images of his wife Jenny and his daughter Eleanor.
SCIENCE AS CULTURE
Many Indian scientists, competent in their fields of specialization, know less about science as a form of knowledge, or the kind of reasoning involved in the scientific method that can also be applied to other forms of knowledge. This might explain their surprising and tacit acceptance of some of the more ridiculous statements made by non-scientists on the fantasy-based claims pertaining to science as supposedly practised by our ancient ancestors. This reduces their ability to recognize the difference between the remarkably impressive knowledge of premodern Indian thinkers in some of the sciences, and the infantile fancies that are often projected in their name by those ignorant of science in both premodern and in current times. The reasons for doing the latter are more often political rather than due to any scientific assessment.
The onus is not only on the scientist but also on the historian. Not enough attention has been given by historians to integrating the ideas related to the sciences from earlier times to other aspects of culture. The historian’s intervention from this perspective would require the re-crafting even of some historical formulations. This is being done for some other aspects in recent historical reinterpretations. One of these is the notion of ‘civilization’ as a somewhat fixed and continuing historical unit.
Used more casually in the earlier centuries to refer to the softening of manners and to artistic and literary achievements, it became a widely accepted unit of history from the nineteenth century, coinciding with colonial perceptions of history. The world was divided into discrete, geographically bounded areas each with a dominant culture, recognizably different in intellectual, aesthetic, technological and religious attainments, all of which were associated with urban centres, the use of scripts, the existence of a state and of an organized social order. In A Study of History, the British historian Arnold Toynbee counted twenty-six such civilizations, each rising in response to challenges and declining when the response was inadequate. More recently the count has been reduced to eight in Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. As a spokesman of the American political right wing, his theory that the future of the world will revolve around the clash of civilizations inspired by religious identities seems to envisage conflicting civilizations as a replacement for the cold war.
Reviewed by Dr Madhu Kelkar
Title: Indian Cultures as Heritage – Contemporary Pasts
Author: Romila Thapar
Publisher: Aleph Book Company, 2018
Pages: 222 pages
Culture influences our values, world view, loyalties, behaviour and much more. Very often it is equated with civilisation a term that came to be used to describe societies that boasted of extensive territory, sophisticated language, literature, art and architecture, and above all, a single religion. Under the colonial influence, culture came to be redefined simply as a way of life of elite groups, for instance Aryans in the case of India. Unfortunately, our current understanding of Indian culture is overshadowed by this erroneous interpretation. Heritage, both cultural and natural, consists of ideas, objects and practices; contributes to quality of life, gives us a cultural identity and connects us with our past. India’s cultural heritage has always been subject to debates. While traditional historians favour the ‘unity in diversity’ approach in order to project a homogenised Indian identity and presumably invoke the spirit of patriotism, Thapar, in her latest book, Indian Cultures as Heritage Contemporary Pasts, does exactly the opposite.
A fearless, frequent and outspoken critic of our dogmatic and communal interpretations of the past, Thapar’s book does not to go into the historical aspect of the making of Indian culture but provides glimpses of what is often omitted, marginalized, trivialized or is even considered irrelevant to its understanding. Drawing on her lectures and essays, published in the recent past, this book challenges the idea that Indian culture is the monolithic phenomenon it is often portrayed as in Indian historical writing or what is being currently imposed on the Indian citizens by cultural nationalists. Identification with a single culture, she argues, despite the existence of many in the country, is risky since it tends to dismiss all that does not conform to the mainstream forms, perpetuates inequality and silences all kinds of reasonable resistance. Culture is deeply linked with historical developments and bound to change. But the two differ as well. While history narrates and explains the past, culture can invent the past without any historical evidence. Therefore, one has to guard against spurious history which can be manufactured by culture. Thapar’s argument that we need to subject the Indian culture to rigorous historical scrutiny and juxtapose historical and cultural forms to understand their interface is highly relevant, especially in the present context when cultural forms are being subjected to identity politics due to ignorance and lack of general or intellectual interest in other cultures, within and outside the subcontinent.