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Since 1st March, 1999
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Serious poet of laughter
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L aughter is a complex matter. For example, there is the question of whether people laugh equally in all ages.

Milinda Banerjee thinks not. Moreover, Banerjee, whose book A History of Laughter, Ishwar Gupta and Early Modern Bengal (picture left), was launched recently at Oxford Bookstore, thinks that laughter must be present to the greatest extent in societies where there is anauchitya (incongruity), an instability of values. It can mock everything and take pleasure in everything.

This is what happened when Ishwar Gupta (1812 – 1859), a famous, early poet from Bengal, was writing. Banerjee calls this period in Bengal “early modernity”, which followed a period of trade, commerce, manufacture and social upheavals, in a kind of parallel to what was happening in Europe at the same time. With this Banerjee presents his second contention: that modernity predated colonialism in Bengal.

The book, therefore, is as much a project to rehabilitate Ishwar Gupta, considered reactionary and crude for long, and with him, “pre-colonial” modernity in Bengal. The humour of Gupta or his immediate predecessors or contemporaries, Bharatchandra, the kabials, practitioners of kheur or akhrai, could be coarse, bawdy. But it was also robust, carnivalesque, celebratory and anarchic — think Gopal Bhand, the fictional comic figure who was born around the same time — in a way perhaps laughter can be only when it is rooted in a mass, plebeian culture.

Tokhon A B shikhe, bibi seje, bilati bol kobei kobe (Having learnt the English alphabet and all decked up, she will insist on speaking English),” Ishwar Gupta had written, apprehensive of women’s education.

When the Englishmen came with their “civilising” mission, this kind of laughter died. The excesses went, so did the scatology, from “literature”, as it moved into the hands of the elite. Hence Banerjee’s rescue mission.

He thinks that laughter can never be totally totalitarian. When Ishwar Gupta was talking about women dressed as bibis, he was also taking pleasure furtively in the empowered woman.

But what about Hitler laughing uproariously as he watches a film in which the “enemy” is being slaughtered, one by one, by a brave young Nazi, as he is shown to do in the latest Quentin Tarantino film Inglourious Basterds? Is not laughter totally totalitarian there? “But Hitler is acknowledging his enemy’s presence. Laughter always has the potential to get entangled with the victim,” says Banerjee.

That is a really serious thought.

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