Editorial/ State within a status
A strange and sublime music
The Telegraph/ Diary
Letters to the editor

Will the real West Bengal please stand up? The sick state of India was ranked a member of the upper middle class in an assessment by the Confederation of Indian Industries. Measured by a host of social and economic yardsticks, West Bengal ranked the 11th best state in the country. In contrast, the report of the 11th finance commission placed West Bengal at the bottom of the heap. The demographer, Mr Ashis Bose, has argued West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa represent a fiscal underclass which he has dubbed the “Bigrao” states.

Yet West Bengal fared well in an analysis of the performance of various Indian states by Mr Montek Singh Ahluwalia, a planning commission member. His conclusion: between 1991-92 and 1997-98, only two states have seen per capita income grow faster than West Bengal. The percentage of West Bengal residents below the poverty level fell from nearly 55 per cent in 1983 to 35.7 per cent in 1994. Again, there is a flip side. A 1997 report by the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy calculated the gross output of workers in the states and gave West Bengal a thumbs down. Its output of Rs 300,000 a year per worker was three-fifths the national average and miles behind the Rs 700,000 of Maharashtra.

There is actually a pattern behind these contradictory figures. Things make sense if the West Bengal economy is broken into pieces. First take a look at industry. West Bengal’s status as the Sheffield of India is a footnote in history. The state’s share of the total value of India’s industrial output fell by half to five per cent between 1980-81 and 1994-95. Its much touted power surplus is a fallout of stagnant industrial demand for electricity. Then take a look at the laurels being reaped by the farm sector. Per capita agricultural income has risen by over four per cent a year from 1982-83 to 1996-97. Foodgrain yield is the fourth highest in the union. Finally, in parallel with the rest of the Indian economy, the state’s service sector has also grown apace. Between 1988-89 and 1993-94, services grew by 6.2 per cent a year, about two and a half times faster than industry. West Bengal is struggling to attract investment in information technology. But it is a late starter in this field.

A fourth facet of the economy is the state government. This is an unmitigated disaster. A comptroller and auditor general report last month showed the Writers’ Buildings to be an accountant’s nightmare. The state’s fiscal deficit has tripled in four years. Expenditure is growing five times faster than revenue. West Bengal throws its money away. The state government annually ploughs Rs 35 billion into various industries. It gets back five million rupees for its pains. A staggering Rs 50 billion is unaccounted for — a pointer to corruption. And no analysis or ranking, even ones which praise the state, has kind words for the government.

Like the proverbial curate’s egg, West Bengal is good in parts. The question is whether the state’s rulers are encouraging the good parts and containing the bad bits. The Left Front wasted much of its reign doing exactly the opposite. It tried to boost industry because of nostalgia, ideology and obsolete economics. Alimuddin Street has yet to shake the prejudice that West Bengal’s future lies in smokestacks and metal bashing. Agriculture has flourished in large part because the government has concentrated on infrastructure and left the rest to private hands. Support for the services has been half-hearted, reflecting the niggling belief among bhadraloks that real prosperity can only come with industry. This is the story behind the rankings: a state that succeeds despite its government. It is a matter of speculation as to what West Bengal could have been if market and government had worked in tandem all these years.    

The teaching and transmission of Indian classical music is, and long has been, achieved by largely oral means. The raga and its structure, the often breathtaking intricacies of tala or rhythm, and the incarnation of raga and tala as bandish or composition, are passed, thus, between guru and shishya by word of mouth and direct demonstration, with no printed sheet of notated music, as it were, acting as a go-between. Saussure’s conception of language as a communication between addresser and addressee is given, in this model, a further instance, and a new, exotic complexity and glamour.

These days, especially with the middle class having entered the domain of classical music and playing not a small part in ensuring the continuance of this ancient tradition, the tape recorder serves as a handy technological slave and preserves, from eternity and oblivion, the vanishing, elusive moment of oral transmission. Hoary gurus, too, have seen the advantage of this device, and increasingly use it as an aid to instructing their pupils: in place of the shawls and other traditional objects that used to pass from shishya to guru in the past, as a token of the former’s regard for the latter, it is not unusual, today, to see cassettes changing hands.

Part of my education in Hindustani classical music was conducted via this rather ugly but beneficial rectangle of plastic, which I carried with me to England when I was an undergraduate. One cassette had stored in it various talas played upon the tabla, at various tempos, by my music teacher’s brother-in-law, Hazarilalji, who was a teacher of Kathak dance as well as a singer and a tabla player. This was a work of great patience and prescience, a one-and-a-half hour performance without any immediate point or purpose, but intended for some delayed, future moment when I’d practise to the talas solitarily.

This repeated playing out of the rhythmic cycles on the tabla was inflected by the noises entering from the balcony of the third-floor flat we occupied in those days, in a lane in a Bombay suburb, before we left that city for good — an irate auto driver blowing a horn; the sound of overbearing pigeons that were such a nuisance on the bannister; even the cry of a kulfi seller in summer.

These sounds, in turn, would invade, hesitantly, the ebb and flow of silence inside the artificially heated room, in a borough of West London, in which I used to live in as an undergraduate. There,in the trapped dust, silence and heat, the theka of the tabla, qualified by the imminent but intermittent presence of the Bombay suburb, would come to life again. A few years later, the tabla and, in the background, the pigeons and the itinerant kulfi seller would inhabit a small graduate room in Oxford.

The tape recorder, though, remains an extension of the oral transmission of music, rather than a replacement of it. And the oral transmission of Indian classical music remains, almost uniquely, a testament to the fact that the human brain can absorb, remember and reproduce structures of great complexity and sophistication without the help of the hieroglyph or written mark or a system of notation. I remember my surprise on discovering that Hazarilalji — who had mastered Kathak dance, tala and Hindustani music, and who used to narrate to me, occasionally, compositions meant for dance that were grand and intricate in their verbal prosody, architecture and rhythmic complexity — was a near-illiterate and had barely learnt to write his name in large and clumsy letters.

Of course, attempts have been made, throughout the 20th century, to formally codify and even notate this music, and institutions set up and degrees created, specifically to educate students in this “scientific” and codified manner. Paradoxically, however, this style of teaching has produced no noteworthy student or performer; the most creative musicians still emerge from the guru-shishya relationship, their understanding of music developed by oral communication.

The fact that Indian classical music emanates from, and has evolved through, oral culture, means that this music has a significantly different aesthetic, and that this aesthetic has a different politics, from that of Western classical music. A piece of music in the Western tradition, at least in its most characteristic and popular conception, originates in its composer, and the connection between the two, between composer and the piece of music, is relatively unambiguous precisely because the composer writes down, in notation, his composition, as a poet might write down and publish his poem. However far the printed sheet of notated music might travel, thus, from the composer, it still remains his property; and the notion of property remains at the heart of the Western conception of “genius”, which derives from the Latin gignere or “to beget”.

The genius in Western classical music is, then, the originator, begetter and owner of his work — the printed, notated sheet testifying to his authority over his product and his power, not only of expression or imagination, but of origination. The conductor is a custodian and guardian of this property. Is it an accident that Mandelstam, in his notebooks, compares — celebratorily — the conductor’s baton to a policeman’s, saying all the music of the orchestra lies mute within it, waiting for its first movement to release it into the auditorium?

The raga — transmitted through oral means — is, in a sense, no one’s property; it is not easy to pin down to a source, or to know exactly where its provenance or origin lies. Unlike the Western classical tradition, where the composer begets his piece, notates it and stamps it with his ownership and remains, in effect, larger than, or the father of, his work, in the north Indian classical tradition, the raga — unconfined to a single incarnation, composer or performer — remains necessarily greater than the artiste who invokes it.

This leads to a very different politics of interpretation and valuation, to an aesthetic that privileges the evanascent moment of performance and invocation over the controlling authority of genius and the permanent record. It is a tradition, thus, that would appear to value the performer, as medium, more highly than the composer who presumes to originate what, effectively, cannot be originated in a single person — because the raga is the inheritance of a culture.

No wonder Hindustani music seems to lack a critical vocabulary that might properly extol the composer’s creativity. In our own time, for instance, Kumar Gandharva has been both composer and performer, but, tellingly, it is more as a performer that we remember and treasure him, as we do Miyan Tansen: the legend of the performer who can light a lamp or summon thunderclouds somewhat eclipses the composer who created Miyan ki todi, Miyan ki malhar and Darbari. The performing artiste, or even the guru, is not so much an originator as a medium through which the raga is made to live again, briefly, in the world.

There is a mythology that surrounds performance in Hindustani music. We shouldn’t be surprised when Annapurna Devi’s admirers claim they can smell sandalwood inside her flat after she plays a certain raga, or at her own confession that she can smell flowers sometimes after practising. These are metaphors for a form of knowledge that cannot ever be entirely possessed or mastered. They remind one of the gods that “come and go” for Lawrence, and in his “There Are No Gods”, of the lines “and then in the room, whose is the presence/ that makes the air so still and lovely to me?”

For Lawrence, too, forever an outsider to the English literary establishment, these were metaphors. In his poetic and aesthetic manifesto, “The Poetry of the Present”, he speaks of his need to escape the “crystalline, perfected” forms of canonical poetry into the poetry of “that which is at hand: the immediate present”. It is an astonishing instance of a modern mind responding to the politics of the notions of the eternal and the permanent in Art on the one hand, and the ephemeral and the performatory on the other.    


Her side is greener

Is didi forging an alliance with Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party? The question is doing the rounds in Trinamool Congress circles after NCP general secretary Tariq Anwar visited the city the other day. A former Congress working committee member, Anwar acknowledged that the Congress had underestimated Mamata. He also echoed former Congress president Sitaram Kesri in saying that Mamata “has a bright future in the coming days”. Describing Mamata as a “mass leader”, Anwar said his party is ready to forge an alliance with her party in the forthcoming assembly elections in West Bengal. Trinamool sources said didi has also reciprocated Anwar’s gesture by expressing her willingness to tie up with the NCP if it helps her oust the communists from Bengal. Anwar reportedly contacted some of his old friends in the state Congress who have already made up their minds to switch over to the Trinamool by the middle of this month. The Congress MLA from Entally, Sultan Ahmed, is one of those who had called on Anwar in a city hotel. Ahmed also requested Anwar to share a platform with Mamata at a conference of 12,000 Muslims in the city sometime in October. Observers view this as one of Ahmed’s attempts to uphold Mamata’s secular credentials.

And she calls a few shots

Didi’s success is making waves elsewhere too. With the resignation of Ram Jethmalani and Uma Bharti, the death of PR Kumaramangalam and the elevation of Bangaru Laxman to the post of BJP president, a cabinet change seems to be on the cards. The prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, is likely to reshuffle his pack after he is back from his US visit. And, guess what, the Trinamool Congress might be getting another berth in the changed scenario. The vacancy created by Bangaru Laxman in the ministry for railways is likely to be filled by C. Vidyasagar Rao, now minister of state for home affairs. Rao, it seems, sits idle in the home ministry since LK Advani rarely gives him the opportunity to work on anything. The BJP now wants Rao to be shifted to the railways ministry so that he can do something for his home state, Andhra Pradesh. Now, if Rao is shifted to railways, there will be a vacancy in the home ministry. Mamata Banerjee wants her man in the home ministry before the assembly elections in0 West Bengal. It might scare the reds. But she is averse to having a politician there. (Too much of Ajit Panja?) She plans to get a bureaucrat into the North Block. So the race is really between Nitish Sengupta and Bikram Sarkar. The latter defeated CPI’s Gurudas Dasgupta in Panskura.

Rooms with different views

AICC general secretary Motilal Vora has a funny habit. As Vora has grabbed two rooms in 24 Akbar Road, holding dual charge of party treasurer and AICC general secretary, he discusses money matters in one room and organizational matters in the other. As a result, you will see Vora frequently moving with his visitors from one room to another. He accepts or signs cheques only in the room meant for treasurer.

Whose buck is it, anyway?

History keeps persisting in most predictable ways. The vexed Kashmir problem has further widened the reported chasm between the PM and Advani. The Advani camp believes that the recent report in a major newspaper about the way in which indiscriminate firing by paramilitary forces resulted in the death of a large number of Amarnath pilgrims was based on information leaked by the PMO. On the other side, the PMO seems to be openly discontented with the fact that intelligence agencies directly under the administrative control of the home ministry had been remiss in gathering adequate information in the valley. At a recent background briefing in the PMO, a reporter asked how 100 people had been killed on the eve of what turned out to be the abortive Kashmir talks. The official who was asked pointed towards the North Block in answer. The North Block houses the home ministry. Obviously, the answer was meant to be, “Ask him.”

Search the past for glory

But history has other uses too. The Bollywood stars are now going back to the hoary past for hits. Shah Rukh Khan’s Dreamz Unlimited has launched Ashokawhile Amir Khan is working on a project called Lagaan, which deals with the British raj. Gautam Ghosh is planning to make a film on Aurangzeb’s brother, Dara Shikoh, while Ram Kumar Santoshi is thinking of a film titled, The Legend of Bhagat Singh. Research is in, or is it?

Footnote/ When bills play musical chairs

Union rural development minister Sunderlal Patwa was hospitalized in the AIIMS. During his recovery, Patwa killed time by listening to music on CDs and cassettes. Now Patwaji wants his ministry to pick the bill for CDs and cassettes bought from a prominent music shop in South Extension, New Delhi. The ministry officials are wondering under which head they should show such an expenditure — or extravagance, should we say?

Before this incident, Patwa had embarrassed the rural development ministry when he had asked officials to foot the bill for the purchase of a pomeranian dog. At that time, some NGO had bailed out the ministry by paying for the dog.

Rural development ministry officials are alarmed at the medical advice to Patwa that recommends three months of bed rest. They shudder to think of the new CDs piling up to help the honourable minister kill time. Worse, he may not come back to the ministry. The PM has been flooded with complaints and requests to change Patwa’s portfolio. If the minister does not return, who will sanction the funds, they worriedly ask their colleagues.    


Look at those genes

Sir — Prasenjit Dey, in his article, “Gene screening a must” (Aug 28), has raised a very valid point. Genetic screening, if conducted before marriage, can prevent the inheriting of mental disabilities. It is commonly found that carriers of these disabilities are often unaware of their condition and go in for marriage and even parenting. Proper diagnosis and genetic analysis of patients would at least make the existence of mental disabilities known. However, facilities for these genetic tests have not yet become available in India and this is a shame. The state governments should ensure that this facility is made available here as soon as possible. But tests which are available may help locate carriers of blood related conditions.
Yours faithfully,
Samar Basak, via email

Department of memory

Sir — Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s brilliant ovation to Susobhan Sarkar (“Question of teaching”, August 18) lacks in detail — Sarkar taught not only at Presidency College, but also in the post-graduate classes of Calcutta university. In 1940, I was admitted to the MA course in history and saw Sarkar teaching the dullest of compulsory subjects, the constitutional history of England.

At the very outset he attracted my attention by his special demeanour. During the two years that I was his student, I never found him in anything other than European attire, complete with tie. I soon learnt that he was a Marxist, for which he was not made a member of the of the prestigious Indian Educational Service. But the British authorities could not deny him a special grade in the British Educational Service because of his illustrious teaching and scholarship.

He did not consult any notebook or script and delivered his lectures extempore. He paused after each passage so as to enable us to take down notes. These lecture notes were adequate for learning the subject without referring to any other source. He never took his seat on the dais. He preferred to stand near the desk, with his left hand tucked inside his jacket. With his sharp nose and wide eyes, he stood there like a Roman noble. Years later, sometime in 1947, I met him in an informal setting. A few of us were trying to form the Calcutta Film Society and Chidananda Dasgupta and I went to his Elgin Road residence one evening. The weekly Parichaya meeting was in session there, and we sought the advice of the elite intellectuals present for our project. Sarkar personally served us tea and snacks.

Dignity and Marxism may not be synonymous these days. The Marxists that we saw in our days as students 60 years ago were dignity personified.

Yours faithfully,
Manojendu Majumdar, Calcutta

Sir — Presidency College has been for long asking the ruling leftist government of the state for autonomy in its management. Instead of granting that, the government has gone on to destroy the institution. The department of history, subject of much ridicule from Rudrangshu Mukherjee, is an indication of what this policy has done to the college. If Presidency College is to be restored to its pristine glory, not merely the teachers, but the students and the alumni too have to try their level best.

Yours faithfully,
Jayashree Sengupta, Calcutta

Pump them up

Sir — The corporation should not get rid of the petrol pump cafes. Some of these are cleaner than many wellknown restaurants.

Yours faithfully,
Biswajit Bhattacharya,

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