Saturday, July 30, 2016

The (De) Void Between Us

Volume 1, July,2016

An Introduction to this Volume:

The present volume explores the notions of different spaces and places, from the eyes of insider-outsider, having connections with the place and yet amused as a curious traveler adamant upon exploring the myriad layers of a specific place.Manila, Habana and Nagaland are worlds apart not only in distance and cognition yet the authors in this present volume seem to be questioning the formations of place and their fluid transcedental nature in being one in many and many in one space/s. As a conclusion as well as contribution by our In-Space columnist, Rajib tries to explore the question of Permanent Address, distributed across absolute and psychological space and yet in search of a amalgamation of both.

This volume contains:

Manila: A Brief Sentimental History by Charlie Samuya Veric 
The post tries to mediate memories, spaces and feelings between two worlds, two spaces by a person trying to question and rediscover the ways of belonging in what was/is old and new. In performing belongingness, feelings of one place are frequently being juxtaposed upon the facade and experience of the (re)newed old.

La Habana by Tapo Banerjee
Habana has a very stereotypical representation in media especially in photographs. The present photo essay is an attempt to portray the myriad facades of Habana, the diversity in composition in terms of people, places and their objects of being.

Looking Nagaland from Ting Ya & Monai Ting Naga Villages by Juri Baruah

Most often, the interest lies not in boundaries or relations across it but in the spaces which are created by practices, beliefs and institutions.  The imagination of Nagaland as a different state and the political conflict in the border areas always remains debatable. While questioning the ways in which the insider outsider perspective relatively draws the b/order, it is necessitated to examine the reactions and the discourse of state and its fragmented spaces observed through heterogeneous spaces of the two Naga villages namely; Ting Ya and Moina Ting located in Sivasagar district.

Silver Side of the Mirror by Rajib Nandi: In Space Column

The latest contribution titled Permanent Address discusses and questions about the notions of home, place making and what and how a permanent address, a rootedness in space can be defined along with questioning its connection with one's identity; both formal and informal.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Anti Social Media

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Modak [LADDOO], a mouth watering dish of Maharashtra

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The History of Tea

Saturday, January 9, 2016





I have been arguing that caste in Bengal is found in unusual sites. In this post, I will begin with such a site and then recall a story. Both in some way; hark back to the 1940s and 50s. The first is about the use of some words and terms. I choose a particular word: Acharya, or respected teacher or a minister in the original sense of the term, as distinct from its common sense connotation of a political operator holding an executive position within a ruling dispensation. In the original sense, a minister is one who administers, or presides over a ceremony. In this sense then, Acharya is also a term close to Purohit or priest. Be that as it may, we see that the term Acharya, or Minsiter, originally refers to a priest who administers (usually worshipful) ceremonies. Whichever way you use it, the term Acharya cannot escape a (dignified, formal) sense of an individual presiding over an institution conferring some merit on those in association with it. For instance, in India the Chancellor of a University or institution of higher learning is called an Acharya, and the Vice Chancellor an Upacharya.  

The Politics of Acharyahood

In Bengal, the word would be in use to refer to great teachers, scholars and learned men. Yet it would not be in use to refer to all great teachers, scholars or learned men, without discrimination. At the moment, I am referring not so much to formal titles but popular points of reference. For instance, nobody formally conferred the title Acharya to scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose. But in common parlance, he is always referred to as Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose and Bose Institute is referred to as Basu Bigyan Mandir (or The Bose Temple of Science). The honorific became so powerfully associated with him that it has become a second nature of Bengalis to refer to him as Acharya. The history of the first time he was so referred has happily erased itself from public memory. It is hard today, though not impossible, to trace the precise moment when Sir J.C. Bose (as known to the world) became Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose to the Bengalis. Now I have no issues with Jagadish Chandra Bose. With Acharya though, I do, and I will come to that soon.

Yet another great Bengali scientist P.C. Ray would be popularly referred to as Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray. In his case, his austere lifestyle, or clothing, or generosity might have inspired the title; apart from his excellence and originality as a scientist and teacher. But here too, one is not sure about exactly when and how the honorific of Acharya was first attached to his name. Ditto for another sagely Bengali scientist cum teacher Satyendra Nath Bose. All of them were and are popularly referred to as Acharya, even when they did not head Universities, or minister religious ceremonies. It could be said that their excellence as knowledge seekers and dispensers culminated to earn them this honorific in the Bengali spaces of popular or public, iconography or mythology; well and good.

Who can be an Acharya?  

But are all Bengali scientists of such stature, excellence, temperament and renown accorded the honorific Acharya by the popular Bengali mythology? Sadly, no. I refer particularly to Meghnad Saha, who was arguably no less talented or renowned or as successful as the three I named above. Has anyone heard Meghnad Saha referred to as an Acharya by the Bengalis? I wonder why. Surely, he should have been. If Bengalis with global renown, learning and respect had an entitlement to the title Acharya, which had presumably been secularized, Meghnad Saha had as much of an entitlement to it as Satyen Bose, who was a batchmate of Saha, as a matter of fact. Both were students of J.C. Bose and P.C. Ray, both were outstanding students of Presidency College and both had earned global renown as alpha physicists. Every student of physics in Bengal and India, if not the world, would have heard of Bose and Saha. In public profile, Saha was no less remarkable than Bose in any sense.

The Crucial Omission

It would be a mistake to assume Bengalis, or Indians, do not recognize or respect Saha. Both Saha and Bose have major research institutions named after them. One of the most elite and beautiful roads in Kolkata is named after Meghnad Saha. He has an assured space in the Bengali mythology. For all practical purposes, he was recognized as a shining star, and an equal of Bose in merit, so far as doing science was concerned. Yet, the title of Acharya would elude him. At best, he would be respectfully addressed as Dr. Saha, but never as Acharya Meghnad Saha. I do not know why. Is it because he came from a non Bhadralok caste background? Who knows?

Unusual Sites

Caste, as I have been suggesting, are found in Bengal in such unusual sites. Let me recall yet another old story. It would look and sound familiar today, but in its time it was something of a precedent. As you know, these days writers are often publicly heckled, beaten and even murdered. You also notice; most often that some group of people find their portrayal in a film objectionable and raise a furore. But in Bengal, especially in early twentieth century, writers would enjoy a near divine status. There would be literary soirees organized by local youth associations, and hearing writers speak about their work and about kings and cabbages was a common enough form of popular middle class entertainment. Just as actors and singers entertain crowds today, writers would entertain crowds with their discourses. It would be something akin to Lit-Fests of today, but something far less ostentatious and ceremonious, and far more open and invested with far greater popular participation. In other words, in early twentieth century Bengal, writers were itinerant teachers of the public in Bengal. They would be held in the highest esteem. Movies enjoyed a secondary status to novels. Bengalis those days would believe that a movie is best made as a faithful translation of a novel. Indeed, a cinema would often be referred as a Boi or book and the highest possible praise for a novel translated into a movie would be that it had been a faithful representation.

Assault on an Author

In such a world, the unimaginable happened on April 10, 1949. A major contemporary Bengali writer was actually heckled and beaten. Writer Tarashankar Banerjee had earlier published a novel called Sandipan Pathshala in 1945. In April 1949, an eponymous film based on the novel had been released. It was a story about a poor Sadgop  ( A middle ranking agricultural caste) teacher taking to education as a first generation learner and later setting up a primary school in which he offered lessons to first generation learners from Kaibarta (fishermen) and Shundi (Toddy tapper) castes. Incidentally, Meghnad Saha too hailed from the latter caste, although he came from East Bengal. The events in the novel were based in Tarashankar Banerjee’s native Birbhum district. There the Kaibartas were indeed poor and petty traders involved in fishing and other small jobs.


But in Howrah and Midnapore districts, the majority of the agriculturist section of the Kaibartas; had over the last half century or so made great strides in education and employment. Indeed, a great many of them had become middle class professionals. Besides, at Howrah many of them had become small scale entrepreneurs. The most successful entrepreneur among them at the time was one of the largest industrialists in Bengal in the 1940s. Some of them took great offence at their portrayal in the movie.

A Novel turned Movie

Let us now return to the story. In the novel, indignant members from the local Brahman zamindar family cause all kinds of trouble to the initiative of the poor teacher. Yet, the main branch of the zamindar family support, indeed welcome his labours. The elder son of the zamindar family, also a nationalist, lauds his work and his mother appoints him as tutor for her younger sons. Gradually, obstacles are removed and the humble teacher spends a life time teaching young students from humble backgrounds. He does not make any money but earn respect from the locals, and some of his students later turn into successful professionals in their own right. The novel was basically a tribute to this humble teacher.

Sociologizing Mahisyas

Yet, the novel did indeed sociologize Kaibartas and Sunris. Kaibartas were portrayed as characteristically unwilling to be educated, and taking to petty trade, as opposed to the upper castes which ‘naturally’ send their children to school and aspire for a gentlemanly life. Even if the portrayal of Kaibartas of Birbhum may be historically defensible, Mahisyas of Howrah and Midnapore had every right to feel offended. They were still popularly referred to as Kaibartas, and their social mobility was only 40 or so years old; since it had formally begun only in 1901. But they had since made great strides. By 1949, they were staunchly nationalist; the largest number of members of the ruling Congress party came from the districts in which they had been a majority. The engineering industry in Howrah had earlier been a monopoly of upper castes; but since 1920s Mahisyas had gradually upstaged the upper castes and occupied the lion’s share among the Howrah engineering industry entrepreneurs.

Endorsement by the Bhadralok Literati

Meanwhile, the movie had been hailed as a great triumph of art and as a faithful translation of the novel by the Bradralok literati in Calcutta. They discovered in the novel and the movie a great message, of education being a great liberating influence. The major functionaries of the government and a large number of Bengali litterateurs issued public endorsement in favour of the movie. The government immediately granted a tax waiver. Indeed, the circulation of the movie was now officially endorsed as a lesson, to be imparted to the entire population of Bengal. At the same time, Mahisyas lodged a protest campaign against the movie and the author. They suddenly appeared to find their hard earned respectability and rise to urban prominence reduced to insignificance.

The Assault and its Aftermath

Amid such tension, Tarashankar Banerjee had gone to a literary conference in Howrah, right at the heart of Mahisya dominance. On his way back from the literary soiree, he was waylaid by a Mahisya mob and physically assaulted. The incident was immediately condemned from all quarters, including the Mahisya caste association, which issued a statement dissociating themselves from the incident. The Congress party, concerned that its base among the Mahisyas may be eroded, arranged for a reconciliation meeting and the author gracefully agreed to withdraw the allegedly offensive portions from the novel. Radicals regretted his position as a defeat of the writers as a whole. I have written a longer piece on the incident, in which I see the incident as a confrontation between two ‘nationalist’ images: one that of a dedicated humble school teacher from lower caste background, almost a lower caste Brahman, as endorsed by the Bhadralok literati and the other as the hardworking and prosperous, but not too literate, Mahisya entrepreneurs.

There is no need to elaborate on the incident or its various dimensions. The point is that in Bengal even the ‘liberating’ images of the lower caste was in effect determined and controlled by the Bhadralaok literati. While the ‘criminal’ aspect of the assault was universally condemned, the politics of nationalist imagery in circulation often goes unnoticed.  

Author's Bio- Note:

Anirban Bandyopadhyay researches social and cultural history of modern Bengal and India, with particular reference to caste questions in the public domain. He has a PhD in history from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India and is working on his first monograph. Bandyopadhyay has published on caste in edited volumes, EPW and South Asian History and Culture. He also publishes general interest columns on caste, cinema, sports, books and politics in Deccan Herald, DNA, Economic Times, Open Magazine, The Telegraph, Anandabazar Patrika and Ei Samay. A bilingual academic cum public intellectual, he currently works as a Junior Research Officer at the Educational Multimedia Research Centre, Kolkata.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015