Monday, 30th October 2017

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Comrades & camaraderie

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  • Published 11.07.10

Memories and associations have a strong role to play in creating the fabric of a city’s history. The demolition of the house at 46 Dharmatalla Street, known as Lenin Sarani now, apart from being a pointer to the little value attached to culture in Bengal today, obliterates an entire episode of the Leftist movement in Bengal.

It is also a joke on this city, the country’s cultural capital, for in place of this building, which stood witness to the flowering of the performing arts, emotional poetry reading sessions, and heated debates, will come up one of those concrete and glass office buildings that have disfigured Calcutta.

So vital was the building to the efforts of the undivided Communist Party of India to reach out to the masses through the media of songs and theatre that Leftist intellectual Chinmohan Sehanabish has left behind an entire book whose title recalls the once-famous address. This culture hub was not just a stronghold of the Leftist doctrinaire. The young and old applied their minds and talents to the business of creating literature, music and stage plays that would sway the masses. Their fervour and energy attracted not only Left-inclined men and women but even those who were at the other end of the political spectrum like Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay.

“It used to bubble with activity,” recalls Khaled Choudhury, who in 1944 first arrived in Calcutta from Sylhet.

Apart from Sehanabish’s record and stray references, few of those who had witnessed those heady days have survived. Saibal Mitra, who had made the documentary In the Land of Chhinnapatra, has been shooting a film on No. 46 since 2004. The shooting is almost over.

It must have been a liberating experience for those who participated in the activities at 46 Dharmatalla Street because in the initial stages, at least, absolute adherence to the party line was not imperative for the “community” song writers (“naba jibaner gaan”) and playwrights. According to Sehanabish, the story of No 46 began with the Youth Cultural Institute (YCI), which, in 1941, shifted from Kent House on P-33 Mission Row Extension to the second floor of No. 46. Many of the YCI members were university students, and although they were well aware of the devastation caused by the world war and the threat of fascism, they were also keen on having a good time.

Dancing was taken so seriously that one day during practice an Anglo-Indian tenant, who lived on the floor below, came up with her soup plate. With tearful eyes she protested: “Look what you have done to our dinner.” A chunk of plaster from the ceiling had landed on her plate.

Lectures were organised on subjects as diverse as mathematics and “human geography” by Hirendranath Mukherji, Humayun Kabir, Nihar Ranjan Ray, Nirmal Kumar Basu and other eminent professors. Hirankumar Sanyal’s article on eating places of Calcutta was a particularly engrossing one and left everybody salivating. Poster exhibitions were mounted and a particularly smart one was by Satyajit Ray.

The man who was best known as Tagore’s photographer, Sambhu Saha, screened his film on Gandhiji in Santiniketan, and Sarojini Naidu in her characteristic witty style read out a piece on an over-enthusiastic prompter. The habitues of this building had become so friendly with each other that they would compare notes on who was coming to hold forth next.

On June 22, 1941, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and six months later, Japan launched an offensive on Southeast Asia and the party members kicked off a movement to make the people aware of the threat of fascism.

Jolly Mohan Kaul, 89, who had given up a career in the Indian Civil Service to join the Communist Party of India in early 1940, to quit the party in 1963 when he became disillusioned with it, says in the 1940s “the party was going against the national mainstream as it was against the Quit India movement of 1942. Yet then it was able to draw the educated middle class to its fold.”

Earlier, its influence was confined to the peasants and workers. “At that time there were many who were pro-Hitler. However, organisations that the party formed then like the Progressive Writers’ Association, Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), which was born in Bombay, and the Friends of Soviet Union appealed to people who could see the larger picture and realised that fascism was the main threat.”

The second factor was that leading intellectuals like Bishnu De, Hiren Mukherji, Saroj Datta, Sushobhan Sarkar (he was flummoxed by the word “majdoor” in a song), Gopal Haldar (he, like his fellow travellers, prided himself on debunking Rabindranath) and Manik Bandyopadhyay were with the group. The young poet Sukanta Bhattacharjee, too, would drop by and recite his poems.

Earlier, the party did not have any office of its own and meetings and rehearsals were held in the houses of friends and acquaintances. So No. 46 was rented. It was a three-storeyed house and its groundfloor was occupied by B.H. Smith & Co, a sprawling furniture shop.

Kamal Ghosh, 81, of Megaphone says he used to visit the place when Salil Choudhury held rehearsals for the IPTA along with the likes of Hemanga Biswas and Geeta Mukherjee. Choudhury first recorded his famous “Hei samalo” with his company in 1948. Earlier, Suchitra Mitra and Hemanta Mukhopadhyay, among others, came to practise here. Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen visited No. 46 regularly, and the poet Louis Macneice, film director Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin and actor Nikolay Cherkasov were among the eminent foreign visitors.

Sehanabish records how Debabrata Biswas used to rehearse “community songs” and the compositions of Rabindranath, DL Roy, Nazrul and Atulprasad on the terrace of a friend’s house in Ballygunge, and poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay and Jyotirindra Maitra would burst into songs on the streets and in buses and trams.

Exhibitions were held of young artists, and the man-made famine stimulated the creativity of Somnath Hore, Zainul Abedin, Chittaprasad and photographer Sunil Jana.

The success of Bijan Bhattacharjee’s play Nabanna gave a tremendous boost to the Left movement and Sambhu Mitra and other greats of theatre were regulars. One need not subscribe to the ideology of these people with an impossible dream but the burst of creativity and excitement of those heady days is undeniable.

In 1948, says Kaul, the party was once again declared illegal and many of the leaders with a liberal outlook were again behind bars. What happened thereafter at No. 46 is not clear, but the party was certainly over.