Editorial / Not at home abroad
Tagore liberated
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

There is a certain spirit of intolerance abroad. One has only to look at the rise of right wing parties in France and Holland and their success in the elections. Denmark, Italy and Portugal have also witnessed similar revivals of right wing ideologies and parties. The success in these countries has not been as spectacular as Pim Fortuyn’s in Holland and Mr Jean-Marie Le Pen’s in France but their emergence and their growing popularity cannot be ignored. One common point in the rise of these parties in Europe has been their anti-immigration stand. They articulate a genuine problem and concern that Europe faces. There is a fear in Europe that the third world and the poorer countries from what was previously the Eastern Bloc are now knocking at its doors. Conceivably, in the not-so-distant future, Europe will become a multiracial continent. There is the concern that European culture, however defined, will be swamped by cultures that the immigrants are bringing in. The right wing parties are articulating a position that was made notorious by Enoch Powell in Great Britain in the Seventies. The immigration issue that is raising jingoist hackles in Europe is to a very large extent a function of economics. Prosperity inevitably creates a demand for cheap labour which is being provided by the people of the third world and those of the poorer European countries. Nobody resents this but they want the immigrants to live in Europe on terms set by the natives. That is, the immigrants should jettison their cultural practices and should not claim any rights in the countries in which they work; they should integrate with the society but should demand none of the political and civic rights that the proper citizens enjoy. Immigrants should have a liminal existence: part of society as labourers but outside it in terms of rights and privileges.

The European situation has parallels with what is happening in India today. India has also seen the political triumph of a right wing ideological formation called the sangh parivar. The latter argues that India is the land of Hindus and non-Hindus can continue to live in India on terms set by the Hindus and after accepting the supremacy of Hindus. The integration of religious minorities into the cultural space called Bharat can only be at a subordinate status. This conception finds no relevance for notions like cultural diversity and pluralism. Culture should be of one kind: that of the majority and the powerful. Culture should be a mosaic determined by the dominant, not a melting pot without a set pattern.

Underlying these ideologies is a spirit of intolerance which, as Gujarat so terribly demonstrated, can easily spill over into violence and brutality. The quest to impose cultural homogeneity is often a reaction to a more insidious kind of homogenization. The global village and the message of economic liberalization have engendered cultural forms which are recognizable across the globe. Denim jeans, Macdonald’s hamburgers, Starbucks coffee, the language of the internet all transcend cultural boundaries. The inevitable response to this, among certain types of people, has been the closing down of the hatches, and seeking one’s own cultural roots. The first victims of this reaction have been, inevitably, the poor, the marginal and the minorities. This might well become the most crucial battle of the third millennium.


Mukta Rabindranath — “Rabindranath liberated”. It is a curious notion; a curious image. It directs us to Tagore’s childhood, when, the fourteenth child among fourteen children, he daydreamed about freedom. Rote learning, the Normal School, and the English lesson, “the degradation of being a mere pupil”, were anathema to him. As a child, even life at home in Jorasanko was part incarceration; the promise of elsewhere was always more attractive. These sentences from Jiban Smriti (My Reminiscences) instruct us that a very thin line separated inactivity from melancholy in the afternoons: “Just below the window of this room was a tank with a flight of masonry steps leading down into the water; on its west bank, along the garden wall, an immense banyan tree; to the south a fringe of coconut palms. Ringed round as I was near this window, I would spend the whole day peering through the drawn Venetian shutters, gazing and gazing on this scene as on a picture-book.”

We know, of course, that this vague desire for escape, this identification of the outside world with the imaginary, this jaundiced view of the classroom, translated itself into the project of Santiniketan, the impossible, slightly naďve, vision of children dancing and singing and painting underneath a tree. It translated itself, too, into a longing for space, recorded in the early letters written by Tagore to his niece Indira when he journeyed down the Padma, overseeing his estates (“I want more air and more light”). Inwardly, more richly, it became the metaphysical yearning we find in poems like poem number 36 in Balaka (“Not here, not here, elsewhere”). But, in the songs, that longing still retained its schoolboy vocabulary and energy, its argot of “chhuti” and “khela” — Megher kole rod hesechhe, badal gechhe tuti…/ Aaj amader chhuti, o bhai; or, Aaj khela bhangar khela.

Now, with the expiry of the copyright on Tagore’s works, that playfulness has been given, as it were, a fresh lease of life. For six decades after his death, it was as if Tagore had been made into a child again, locked, for his own good, in a room by grown-ups, left to peer out occasionally through the Venetian shutters. How the Bengalis allowed this to happen is not altogether clear; perhaps they were looking the other way. If anyone felt uncomfortable with Tagore’s figurative imprisonment — and it’s fairly certain many did — no one said very much about it. It’s part of the perennial self-division of being a Bengali: to say one thing in public, to believe another in private.

The expiry of the copyright has become a metaphorical turning point, a break, in the recent history of the Bengali. It is like the end of a war, or a country gaining independence, or what the death of Princess Diana was to the English — things are going to change, people feel; they are going to get better. Whenever the termination of the copyright has been mentioned, a murmur has been audible; its tone has veered from the politely scandalized to the outraged to the excited and vindicated. It’s as if a taboo subject were being broached for the first time; “Surely,” as Yeats had said in “The Second Coming”, “some revelation is at hand.” The ostensible subject of the debate has been the songs and the literary estates. But it also suggests the deep, inarticulate yearning the Bengali has for change, for the sort of renewal and rejuvenation implicit in the words “chhuti” and “khela”. These words are part of the reason why Tagore is such a transformative poet, and why bhadralok Bengali society, which even now reveres “pada shona” and professional and academic success more than it does Tagore, must have a necessarily ambivalent relationship with the poet; why “mukta Rabindranath” must be a suppressed, if pulsating, part of the middle-class Bengali psyche.

Symbolic shifts of power, as Tagore knew very well, don’t guarantee a change of heart; the old values are perpetuated under a different sanction. This is what one must guard against with the termination of the copyright; not the imagined monsters who might emerge from the woodwork to vandalize the legacy. It is the songs I’m thinking of: the dreariness with which they have been rendered for about thirty years now symbolizes, for me, a general cultural dreariness, an unimaginative and insistent earnestness. And the worship of the three-headed totem, Suchitra Mitra, Kanika Banerjee, and Hemanta Mukherjee has done the Tagore-song, alas, more harm than good.

Let’s discuss the more absurd possibilities granted by the expiry of the copyright — like setting Tagore-songs to rock music — later; let’s first find a way of not sounding, every time we sing a Tagore-song, like Suchitra Mitra or Kanika Banerjee or Hemanta Mukherjee. Before we embark on our more radical experiments, like composing tunes for Tagore’s lyrics, let’s solve the fundamental, and widespread, problem of singing in tune. Why has it become appropriate for our major and minor Rabindrasangeet exponents to sing in a key that is neither completely in tune, nor completely out of tune? The end of the copyright is not a time for outré experiment, but to reconsider the basics of tunefulness and originality, to start from scratch, to scrutinize what we mean by the word Rabindric or “Tagorean”. With the exception of Subinoy Roy, who has, for a long time, been the greatest exponent of Rabindrasangeet, there are no originals around; or, if there are, we have no opportunity to hear them. There is a free market in used goods, in imitations of Kanika and Suchitra and Hemanta; and, on the basis of a recent survey, they sell very well. Even Suchitra Mitra is a pale, often painful, imitation of the early Suchitra Mitra, just as Kanika and Hemanta became imitators of Kanika and Hemanta respectively. To enter the world of Rabindrasangeet is to enter an echo chamber of familiar wails and sighs.

Finally, if Tagore is to be truly free, or mukta, we have to learn to leave him alone. There is much else to discover. To circumscribe myself to the Tagore-song alone, I’d say the predominance of this form — predominance is a mild word, ubiquity would be more accurate, though still mild — means that its exponents have crowded out those who sing other variants of the popular song. In jealously guarding Tagore, we have not only kept out the barbarians, but some of the most singular exponents of our musical heritage; we have, in subtle and misleading ways, rewritten the history of the modern Bengali song.

The greatest modern Bengali singer is neither Hemanta Mukherjee nor Debabrata Biswas; that honour must be shared between Vishmadev Chatterjee, Sachin Deb Burman, Jnanendra Prasad Goswami, and Tarapada Chakraborty; but the ragpradhan is a neglected genre. Almost as much neglected is the shyama sangeet, at which the brothers Dhananjoy and Pannalal Bhattacharya excelled. Why Dhananjoy, whose gifts as a singer are of a far higher order than Hemanta’s, did not capture the public imagination as the latter did is a mystery: it must at least partly be ascribed to his abstention from Rabindrasangeet. I can only presume that the same reason accounts for the fact that the greatest female singer of modern Bengal, Uma Bose, is hardly heard of these days, let alone heard. The outstanding Anjali Bandhopadhyay, whose vocal prowess in her pioneering recordings for children is astonishing, is still heard, but only by children; the adults are tone deaf. Will a “liberated” Tagore give us a more varied understanding of music?

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Exit, pursued by Mamata

In demand Adversity, they say, is a great leveller. Mamata Banerjee is realizing this only now, much to her chagrin. While earlier, our didi would behave as if the state BJP didn’t exist, or worse, existed at her mercy, she realizes she can’t do so any longer if she still wants to make it to the Central cabinet. Mamata is thus ready to make her peace with Tapan Sikdar, only the state BJP chief can’t abide the lady — in fact, the very mention of her name is enough to drive him to an apoplectic fit. Subrata Bakshi, Sudip Bandopadhyay, Mukul Roy & Co have therefore directed their attentions to Muzaffar Khan, Sikdar’s blue-eyed boy. A rising political star, the young Muslim BJP leader is also close to many Central party leaders, besides being on back-slapping terms with the Congress’s Somen Mitra and many left leaders. But that popularity can have its downside too is something that Muzaffar is realizing very fast, under the onslaught of the Trinamoolis’ Operation Court Muzaffar. To top it all, Muzaffar’s wife, Shivani, has made known that she isn’t averse to a political career herself. Caught between the devil and the deep sea, is it any wonder that the harried Muzaffar has taken off to the Andaman isles — apparently to reflect on life and living? Looks like the poor man really needs it.

What goes up...

Ambika Soni is under fire. A three-page letter by one Sneh Lata Singh, supposedly a “sufferer of 1977”, has reached most Congressmen, high and low, over the past few days. A veritable list of all her past sins, the letter rakes up the story of how Soni had had a journalist arrested during Emergency and later blamed Indira Gandhi, of how she had once left the party to join Sharad Pawar. In other words, that Soni is unreliable, a traitor, and that Sonia Gandhi should stop preferring the former Sanjay Gandhi acolyte at the cost of all those who had stuck with the Nehru-Gandhi family through thick and thin. Soni however is not one to be cowed down by such a shadow campaign. She took the letter to the Congress president, claiming there was a campaign to malign her. Soni-loyalists Jairam Ramesh and Salman Khurshid are also toying with the idea of floating a “counter-letter” against all her detractors. With the AICC meeting scheduled for May 24, the war of letters is expected to hot up.

You didn’t say it

Retaliation inside Parliament comes more naturally to Indian politicians than the thought of retaliating on the borders. The other day Pramod Mahajan tempted fate when he reportedly said ordinary mortals like him had to scrounge for dictionaries when the external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, and the Congress spokesman, S Jaipal Reddy, decided to speak in English. Jaswant let it pass. When it was his chance to speak, the former major in the Indian army delivered in shudh Hindi. Mahajan conceded sheepishly, “Now I have to refer to a Hindi dictionary.” Whichever, Pramod.

Who’s going out

While lines buzz with names for presidental candidates, it seems the chances of the Maharashtra governor, PC Alexander, making it to the Rashtrapati Bhavan are far stronger than KR Narayanan’s chances of staying put. Alexander allegedly has the support of the NCP, the Shiv Sena and the AIADMK. And the grapevine has it that he is all set to become the official candidate of the NDA. This would nix all chances of Narayanan retaining the tenancy of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Meanwhile, vice-president Krishan Kant is supposed to be going the BD Jatti way. He has no sponsors in spite of the established precedent of the vice-president being elevated to his senior’s chair. In fact, given that the NDA is likely to have its own candidate for the vice-president, Kant, in all likelihood, might find himself replaced by BJP’s LM Singhvi. No small change here.

Change of site

Epic battle in Jammu. It is rumoured that the ongoing tussle between the former maharaja of the state, Karan Singh, and the state administration may lead to the Raj Bhavan being shifted to Jammu Ashok. The Raj Bhavan, currently on lease for around Rs 23,000 per month belongs to the erstwhile Dogra rulers. The royalty is reported to have slapped a suit in the state high court, demanding a higher rent. The trust that manages the properties of the former sadar-e-riyasat argues that the income from the orchards within the Raj Bhavan alone exceeds one lakh rupees. Demanding a little hike in the rent is thus not unfair. Truly, your majesty.

A helping hand

A slight change of tone. The Samajwadi Party seems to be breathing a little less fiercely down the Congress neck. When the Akali leader, Simranjit Singh Mann, last week demanded an apology from the Congress for the 1984 riots, BJP MPs pounced on the Congress, alleging that the country’s oldest party had two faces. It was then that Mulayam Singh Yadav came to the Congress’s rescue, saying that the BJP too sported multiple faces — RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and so on. What’s on buddy?

Painting the town red

Politicos as party animals. Not too difficult to imagine if Vijay Mallya, RK Anand, Suresh Kalmadi and Subbirami Reddy become the movers and shakers of the capital. There were apparently 23 big parties in the second half of the budget session. As one cine-star turned politician put it, “I barely got a chance to eat dinner at home during the entire season.” There were others as fortunate, surely.

Footnote / Speaking from the chair

Dual roles. Lok Sabha MPs on the speaker’s panel are also leading members of the brat pack that occasionally brings the house down with its lung power — AIADMK’s PH Pandian, BJP’s Vijay Kumar Malhotra and RJD’s Raghuvansh Prasad Singh to name a few. Last week when Pandian sat on the speaker’s chair, Raghuvansh Singh trained his voice on two NDA ministers for their alleged involvement in an airline scandal. Pandian, pristine in his chair, said he could not allow Singh to gun for Union ministers. Raghuvansh dangled a newspaper clipping. But the speaker refused to budge. It was precisely at this moment that the Congress chief whip, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, pipped in mischievously that he too had been making similar allegations of corruption against his DMK colleagues, Murasoli Maran and TR Balu in the Union cabinet. Pandian would not let Singh go on. Change of scene. Minutes later when Raghuvansh sat on the speaker’s chair, Pandian was in the benches, screaming himself hoarse against the DMK ministers. Change of role?    


Marriage of optimism

Optimistic outlook Sir — The pomp and lavishness on display at the wedding of Laloo Prasad Yadav’s second daughter is reminiscent of his first daughter’s marriage (“Wedding of the season”, May 12). The most striking resemblance between the two is however the former chief minister’s choice of sons-in-law — both are computer professionals. As with the first, Yadav has been very prompt in addressing the infrastructure problems of his second beti’s new sasural. Perhaps this is not without a motive. Yadav might just be dreaming that his sons-in-law will bring about a technology revolution that will put Bihar ahead of the other states. And dreaming is never a crime.

Yours faithfully,
Vikash Goenka, Calcutta

Picture this

Sir — The picture on the front page of The Telegraph on May 3 showed “Minorities and Dalits at a first-ever joint rally organized by Save India Front in New Delhi, where they pledged to fight the BJP”. The absence of a related news report was disappointing. Nor did the caption provide details of the time and venue of the rally. But the picture in itself was powerful enough to transport the reader to the scene. It also guided him through the thousands of years of Indian history when new religions like Jainism and Buddhism gave voice to the oppression faced by low-caste Hindus. Even Hindu religious sects like the Vaishnavites tried to preach the message of equality within Hinduism itself.

But these initiatives were often thwarted by clever manoeuvrings of the oppressors. It was not surprising, therefore, that the regions most affected by caste-hatred in India usually witnessed the worst forms of religious hatred too. This perhaps also explains why parts of the country which have seen the rise of low-caste Hindus to political power are comparatively free from religious violence even in the middle of such charged atmosphere as now. Religious minorities of India and the Dalits may well succeed in doing what the intelligentsia and political leaders still have not done.

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Dasgupta, Calcutta

Sir — The day Muslims and Dalits organized a rally in New Delhi to protest against the killings in Gujarat was also the day four Dalits were massacred by Muslim musclemen of a Rashtriya Janata Dal leader in Bihar (“Caste killings in Laloo backyard”, May 3). This was just another in a series of clashes between Muslims and lower-caste Hindus in the country. For one, this shows that all is not well with the unity between the minorities and lower-caste Hindus which the rally in New Delhi tried to flaunt. For another, it draws attention to the striking difference in “secular” India’s responses to a minority community attacking another minority community, the majority community attacking the minorities and vice versa.

Yours faithfully,
Udita Agrawal, New Delhi


Sir — The report on neo-natal deaths compiled by the Union health ministry and quoted by the health minister of West Bengal, Suryakanta Mishra, is nothing but a statistical absurdity (“State ‘poor third’ in infant mortality”, May 9). According to this report, West Bengal has the third lowest rate of infant mortality at 51 per thousand births, above Kerala (14 per thousand) and Maharashtra (48 per thousand), and most importantly, above the national average of 46 per thousand live births. It is surprising that no one pointed out that out of 25 states, if 24 happen to have a mortality rate of above 46, there is no way the national average can be 46. The health minister is advised to consult a statistician before making his statements.

Yours faithfully,
Kumar R. Ray, Calcutta

Sir — An infant mortality rate of 51 per thousand births is shocking. More unfortunate is that 60 per cent of infant deaths are neo-natal deaths. Pre-natal nourishment is a must for Indian women, and this is tied to questions of poverty. Pragmatic measures such as trained health workers, modern methods of delivery and proper nutrition for mother and child can solve the problem.

Yours faithfully,
Govinda Bakshi, Budge Budge

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