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Eye on England

Marking 75 years of the BBC’s Bengali Service Field of dreams Cornelia bust  Top prize  Shami targeted Tittle tattle 

AMIT ROY Published 16.10.16, 12:00 AM

Marking 75 years of the BBC’s Bengali Service

Bengal link: Satyajit Ray interviewed for Bichitra by S.L. Sinha in 1957; (above) 
Jyoti Basu interviewed by Shyamal Lodh (right) in 1984. Pictures courtesy BBC

The BBC’s Bengali Service, which began transmission on October 11, 1941, is currently marking its 75th anniversary with a series of programmes.

It used to be located at Bush House in the Aldwych, next to India House and opposite the London School of Economics. The Bengali language service was part of BBC World Service, whose motto, then as now, was, “Nation shall speak peace unto nation”.

Researchers have done well to dig up evocative black-and-white photographs from the past. There was a certain style and elegance about the BBC Bengali Service which was enhanced by the quality of its guests.

For example, there is a photograph of Satyajit Ray being interviewed in 1957 for Bichitra, the Bengali features programme. His Pather Panchali had been awarded the “Prix du document humain” (Best human document) at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956. He had also completed Aparajito in his Apu Trilogy.

The magician P.C. Sorcar appears in a photograph from 1955. There is a picture of sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar from 1976. Jyoti Basu, then chief minister, was interviewed by Shyamal Lodh in 1984. 

On a personal note, Shyamal was one of the bright students my father recruited to be among his freelance contributors when he arrived from Patna, where he had edited the Indian Nation and Searchlight, two English language newspapers, to take over as producer and presenter of Bichitra. It was thrilling for us to listen to his voice on short wave across the oceans on our newly acquired radio. Six months later, my mother, my two brothers, two sisters and I joined him in London. 

As schoolchildren, we found Bush House, which then had no security, an incredibly glamorous place. Two shillings and six pence was enough to buy lunch in the BBC canteen — Bakewell tart with lashings of hot custard was my favourite.

Bush House has now been sold off and is being turned into a luxury hotel. The Bengali Service has been rehoused with the rest of the World Service in the expanded BBC Broadcasting House near Oxford Circus. The BBC Bengali Service has been renamed BBC Bangla because 74 per cent of its audience is now in Bangladesh, while merely 19 per cent is in India. The focus now is understandably on Bangladesh.

What I will say is that the old Bengali Service represented all that was best about Bengali culture. At home in Calcutta, there are photographs on the wall of my father with guests such as Uday Shankar. Of course, the images have faded in the sunlight or have been eaten at the edges by silverfish. But the memories remain. 

Field of dreams

Team Mirzya: (From left) Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Saiyami Kher, Harshvardhan Kapoor and Rohit Khattar

The two detective books I have really enjoyed in the past year are Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, which is set in Calcutta in 1919, and Vaseem Khan’s The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, which is set in Mumbai. 

A Rising Man is being developed for British television. Last week I learnt that Rohit Khattar’s film company, Cinestaan, has bought the rights to the latter.

It is a charming tale about a just retired police officer, Inspector Ashwin Chopra, who arrives home to find his uncle has sent him an unusual gift — a baby elephant. While not quite a Dr Watson, this elephant, named Baby Ganesh, is no ordinary elephant. We discover it has special gifts, though it has problems getting into the lift in the housing block where Chopra and his wife, Poppy, a childless couple, live. Poppy is forever at odds with a busybody neighbour, whom she considers to be always “in the wrong even when she is right”. 

Rohit has also bought the rights to Vaseem’s second book, The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown, as well as a yet to be published third novel, featuring Chopra and Baby Ganesh.

“We are developing a slate of films,” said Rohit, who runs the Habitat Centre in New Delhi and a number of restaurants, including Chor Bizarre in London.

Rohit is a producer of Mirzya, which has been screened at the London Film Festival.

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, who directed Mirzya, did all his media interviews at Chor Bizarre, flanked by two of his leading actors, Harshvardhan Kapoor and Saiyami Kher.

The reviews in India have been unkind in marked contrast to that in the New York Times, which applauded Mirzya as “one gorgeously shot movie” with an “easy-to-like story”. It commended “fine performances from the three lead actors”.

Cornelia bust 

London-based historian Kusoom Vadama has again offered a bust of Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman to practise law in India, to the Supreme Court in New Delhi.

Kusoom, who compiled and edited An Indian Portia: Selected Writings of Cornelia Sorabji, 1866-1954, received a two-line rejection the first time she made the offer four years ago.

Perhaps her gift, graciously offered, should be graciously accepted. After all, the 150th anniversary of Cornelia Sorabji’s birth, which falls on November 15, 1866, is being marked by India House in London with a lecture by her nephew, philosopher Sir Richard Sorabji.

Incidentally, Kusoom would quite like to hear from a well-known feminist publisher in India who took 1,000 copies of her Cornelia book for sale but has since gone silent and refuses to answer queries from London. It does sound more than a little unprofessional.  

Top prize 

Professor Sir Tejinder Virdee, who is based in Geneva and is one of most distinguished physicists in the world, has just been named winner of the prestigious 2017 Panofsky Prize of the American Physical Society.

The citation says the prize has been given “for distinguished leadership in the conception, design, and construction of the ATLAS and CMS detectors, which were instrumental in the discovery of the Higgs boson”.

The Nobel Prize has already gone to Peter Higgs, otherwise Virdee might have been a contender.

Shami targeted

Bengali baroness Sharmishta (“Shami”) Chakrabarti, the new shadow attorney-general in Labour leader Jeremy 
Corbyn’s top team, continues to be given a hard time over her decision to send her son to Dulwich College, a well-known fee paying “public school” in south London.

Labour policy is to support state schools. It has been reported Shami wanted to send her son to Eton.

Questioned last week on a flagship TV programme, Peston on Sunday, Shami would not be drawn on the specific issue 
of her son: “I am not going to get into the personal stuff because there is a child in this world who did not choose to be Shami Chakrabarti’s child, so I’m afraid I’m going to leave it at that.”

But leave it is something that the Right-wing tabloids won’t do unless she says: “Look, I am Bengali — and I want the best for my son.”

Tittle tattle 

Perhaps Baroness Shami Chakrabarti should be as honest as the late CPM economist Biplab Dasgupta, who met my holidaying brother-in-law in a Darjeeling-Calcutta first-class compartment after he had dropped off a child at a boarding school in Darjeeling. Pressed on his Marxist principles, he laughed: “Dekhun, ei shab baje school aamader poshay naa (these bad state schools don’t exactly suit us civilised middle-class folk).”

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