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One after the other, Left loses icons

Seeger performs in Calcutta in 1996

Calcutta, Jan. 28: The party that desperately needs to overcome the odds has lost its “We shall overcome…” man.

Pete Seeger’s death has left the communists of Bengal with only one international icon they can look up to — an ailing Fidel Castro.

CPM leaders today mourned the passing of Seeger, whose adaptation of the protest song We Shall Overcome and its translated Bengali version Aamra Korbo Joy had become more potent than The Internationale, the Left anthem.

“Seeger was an inspirational genius. Thousands would rise to their feet whenever he took up the guitar. We Leftists were in awe of him as he could move the masses,’’ party leader Rabin Deb said.

Buffeted in poll after poll since 2008, it’s the masses the CPM needs to sway ahead of the upcoming national elections.

The Left has lost several icons over the past few years. Nelson Mandela, whom the Jyoti Basu government had hosted in 1990, passed away last year. Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan President who had introduced his brand of socialism to combat “American imperialism”, died in March 2013.

Historian Eric Hobsbawm, an inspiration for Indian communists for decades, passed away in 2012. It’s only Castro, Cuba’s ailing octogenarian leader, who remains the sole international icon for the Indian Left.

“Icons like Seeger are needed for mass movements…. The fact that Seeger was present in the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 gave the protesters, most of whom were young, a boost,” said Ritabrata Banerjee, the CPM’s Rajya Sabha candidate from the state. “His death would cause a deep wound to the communist ideology.”

Culturally inclined Bengal had its first tryst with Seeger when the American troubadour visited Calcutta in 1963. Then, in the backdrop of the Sino-Indian war, the communists were readying for a split that happened the following year.

So preoccupied were the communists then with their internal frictions that Seeger’s visit to Calcutta went largely unnoticed. Seeger, then 44, had come as a visitor, not a singer, said an old-timer in the CPM, recalling a hurriedly organised gathering at Park Circus Maidan.

The singer returned for another visit in 1996, when he performed in Nazrul Mancha. The event drew thousands.

“We came to know about Pete Seeger’s interest in performing in Calcutta,” said Subhendu Maity of the Gananatya Sangha, a Left platform of theatre artistes. “We spoke to Subhas Chakraborty (the late transport minister). He assured us he would try to have a show organised in association with (culture body) ICCR.’’

Maity said singer and Trinamul MP Kabir Suman, who was “close to Pete Seeger” had also done much to see to it that the show was held. Seeger and Suman had followed up the Nazrul Mancha event with a joint performance at Kalamandir.