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Guide to being the perfect BengaLee

CALEIDOSCOPE
The BangaLee guide

On Poila Baisakh, when most Bengalis were busy exchanging “Happy Subho Nava Varsha” texts, a gift on arrived on our desk, claiming to be a tonic for a race long perceived to be on a back gear. The box with a kitsch design cover carried a wake-up call, “Jago Bangali”, addressed to all Bengali kapurush, purush, mahapurush, anari o nari (men, women, great men, coward and inept). Inside was a chapbook, titled Sohoje Bangali hoiya uthibar sohayika (A made-easy guide to becoming Bengali), authored by a PR agency self-confessedly adept in oiling, and published by a fictitious publisher with its office on “Kochi Min Sarani”.

The introduction to the chapbook laments the decline of the Bengali race boasting great sons now reborn as Metro stations. Nothing arouses the sleeping Bengali, not even Japani tel, a sly reference to an advertisement on curing erectile dysfunction aired on local TV channels.

In the subsequent chapters, one is advised to keep one’s mind free of anger. But licence is granted to fume and fret when autorickshaw-wallahs bicker about lack of change or taxi drivers demand extra or when the boss or a colleague targets you in public or, better still, when a political party cancels a bandh after announcing one. Nothing riles the Bengali more than missing out on a holiday. The dress code for the daily regimen to attain Bangaliyana is pyjama, photua and a belt. The regimen includes martial arts practice. So why not use one to pack one’s paunch when there’s little prospect of attaining a titular belt as a trained fighter?

The suggested action to end the day is caressing one’s own cheek in front of the mirror. Possibly the logic runs thus: when there is little appreciation coming in the way of us, Bengalis, let that not dent our collective ego.

But there is one pin that pricks the preachy bubble. The box cover had claimed many times over that it is “Not made in China”. But sadly, Bengali is spent as Banga-Lee using a Mandarin font and with an obvious reference to martial arts star Bruce Lee. And the magic wand that would wake Banga-Lees up is a nunchaku, a traditional Chinese weapon. Even the inspiration of the modern Bengali is unoriginal and imported!

Grave hunt

The Zoological Survey (ZSI) of India recently paid tribute to its founder-director, Thomas Nelson Annandale (1876-1924), on his death anniversary on April 10. A team led by the director of ZSI, Krishnamoorthy Venkataraman, visited the Scottish Cemetery on Karaya Road to offer floral tributes on his tombstone. “We had a hard time identifying the grave…we heard it was in the South Park Street cemetery but then learnt it was here. Even then we had a tough time locating the right one. The tombstone was dirty with black marks and the lead filling on the inscriptions was gone, so the name could hardly be read. We cleaned the tombstone and the inscription was painted by a number-plate painter from the garages outside. We hope to gain permission to thoroughly clean the area around the grave, fix new slabs and flowering plants,” said Dhriti Banerjee of ZSI.

Zoological Survey employees pay tribute at founder Thomas Nelson Annandale’s grave. (Anup Bhattacharya)

Annandale, described in ZSI records as a man of slight physique, a high-strung temperament and restless energy, was born in Edinburgh. Having mastered both zoology and anthropology, he joined the Indian Museum in 1904. In 1923, he became the president of Asiatic Society of Bengal. He started seminal series of publications at the Indian Museum and worked tirelessly, but his foremost passion was zoology and it was his effort that resulted in the birth of ZSI in 1916.

Ever willing to applaud, Annandale lost no opportunity to give international exposure to emerging Indian scientists. Annandale himself left behind a legacy of invaluable research. He travelled widely to different parts of Asia and all over British India, gathering new information on lake biology, cave fauna, marine biota and the estuarine eco-system of the Hooghly and Matla rivers among others.

Shortly before his death, Annandale had been living in a bungalow on Barakuda island in Chilka Lake, studying the fauna of the island, which included a detailed account of the habits of termites. The Indian Museum has a large collection of his finds and records on everything from hydra in Calcutta tanks, Himalayan tadpoles, sting rays of Bay of Bengal, Oriental snakes, spiders and lizards of British India and Ceylon and many more.

Centenary song

The Bhakti movement in Bengal is closely associated with the singing of kirtan in fervent praise of Krishna. But kirtan is rarely heard these days except in select circles, and accomplished kirtan singers are difficult to find. Radharani Debi, whose birth centenary was celebrated last year, was one of the best-known kirtan singers of her time and is still remembered as such, although her talents extended far beyond. Sutradhar has published a slim volume on this singer, who was also a consummate stage and film actress, a radio artiste, and was fluent in Urdu and some other regional languages. Her repertoire covered light classical music and, thanks to her impeccable Urdu, listeners found it hard to believe she was a Bengali from Jiagunje in Murshidabad.

A scene from the play Waiting In The Wings by The Creative Arts. (Arnab Mondal)

Borrowing the opening lines of a famous kirtan the book is titled quite appropriately Radharani Debi: Shatek Barash Pore. It is edited by Abhik Chattopadhyay and contains a short list of songs she recorded (500 in all) in Bengali and Hindi although she sang in Nepali, Marwari and Gujarati too. The list of the Bengali and Hindi films and stage plays she appeared in is also there, although incomplete. There are biographical notes on people associated with her. There are many photographs of Radharani Debi from her films and plays. All this valuable information notwithstanding, nowhere is it mentioned that Radharani Debi died in 1997.

This book is essentially a compendium of two short articles on the singer — one by the artiste herself in the monthly Basumati — which had appeared long ago. The other is by film journalist Rabi Basu which came out in Desh Binodan. It was not considered respectable for women to sing in public in her times and women kirtan singers lived on the peripheries of society. Radharani Debi lived in genteel poverty with her widowed mother, but her singing talents were soon discovered and her training began at an early age.

She soon became successful both as a singer and an actress. At a very young age she fell for Nripendrakrishna Chattopadhyay (1905-1963) and lived with him till his death. He was a pioneer in the early days of All India Radio and had introduced popular programmes like Bidyarthimandal, Pallimangal Asar and Galpodadur Asar. He was, besides a writer of film scripts, essayist and novelist who used to contribute regularly to Deb Sahitya Kutir, at one time synonymous with children’s literature.

Although the maudlin tone can at times be off-putting, the book is a valuable document of the theatre, music and film industry in Calcutta in the 1930s, considered the golden age of this city’s cultural life.

‘Apptly’ human

Radharani Debi

She can sing in her sweet-husky voice while waving her hands, shaking her hips and winking. Her users can change the colour of her sari, make her say anything they like in the pitch and tone of their choice. She is Shilpa 202, an attractive, interactive and user-friendly mobile phone application of 2013. Thus starts C Sharp C Blunt, a one-woman act that was staged at Max Mueller Bhavan recently.

Directed by Sophia Stepf and played by actor-singer M.D. Pallavi, this Indo-German production by Flinntheater had the audience enthralled as they saw Shilpa initially trying to please her users, just like a woman trying to please a man, and then doing a turnaround.

Part of the performance is interactive, where the audience get to decide what they want Shilpa to do and exactly how. The second part of the performance is more sensitive and realistic. It shows how a female professional, married or single, in the entertainment industry is perceived as in a patriarchal society. The play is sarcastic, political as well as contemporary. We see Pallavi changing roles from being a mindless app at the beck and call of users, to becoming a character in a multimedia game, to being reduced to a bundle of nerves and frustration as the real person behind the plastic-sugary voice. This new theatre-meets-performance-art genre explores the technique of repetition as Pallavi gives her first solo performance and wins hearts.

Play within a play

How would the smart-phone generation take to Tagore’s Tasher Desh? Would they find a resonance in their lives? Directors Shuktara Lal and Ramanjit Kaur of The Creative Arts sought to answer these questions with their children’s production, Waiting In The Wings.

The plot of the play staged at Max Mueller Bhavan on April 3 and 4 revolves around a gamut of emotions and equations at play on the sidelines of a theatre production. There are fights over costumes, director-producer ego clashes and actors’ tantrums, as everybody gears up to make their play, Tasher Desh, a success.

“This has been the most challenging production in my five years here. We’ve been developing the project for over a year. Some real-life experiences have also been weaved into the narrative. The format is that of a play within a play,” said Lal.

Contributed by Sudeshna Banerjee, Sebanti Sarkar, Soumitra Das, Chandreyee Ghose, Showli Chakraborty