Friday, May 04, 2007

60 Years of a State

When all of India is getting excited about the Golden Jubilee of our existence as a nation, West Bengal - in a naturally parochial manner - has pointed out that it is 60 years of our existence as a state as well.
For this occasion, Anandabazar Patrika had taken out a special supplement (on Bengali New Year's Day) on the 60 defining events since Independence that have - in some way or other, for better or for worse - shaped the Bengali psyche of today.
Some of them have a national resonance and some would appeal only to a Bengali, but like all such lists, they generate enough fodder for long debates.

I am not sure if the text is protected by any copyright or such thing but am listing it anyway, with my observations. It is obviously quite long (60 momentous events!), so only people drunk on Bong nostalgia are advised to go forward.

1. Formation of West Bengal (15 August, 1947)
East Bengal became East Pakistan and the same language became separated by two passports. But on the lighter side, a Bangal (East Bengali) and a Ghoti (West Bengali) are way too different to start off with! Hilsa and prawns, East Bengal and Mohan Bagan, Padma and Ganga... the list is endless.

2. Refugee Colonies (1947)
Bijoygarh became the first refugee colony as millions of people crossed the border to start their life afresh in a new country, connected by the same history. Camps became colonies and huge tracts of land in South Calcutta became home to people from 'Opar Bangla'.

3. Damodar Valley Corporation operational (July 1948)
DVC tamed the almost annual occurence of the flooding of the Gangetic plains and the consequent devastation of lives. It came as a boon to large parts of the population, though the floods just moved upstream to parts of Bihar.

4. Sister Teresa starts Missionaries of Charity (August 1948)
The Vatican allowed a simple Sister to leave St Mary's convent and start a hospital for the destitute in one of the more unfortunate areas of Calcutta. She fought innumerable hardships and accusations to become the beacon of hope for the absolutely hopeless.

5. IIT Kharagpur starts (August 1951)
The first 'temple of modern India' started in the town with the longest railway platform in the world. And became the most revered Indian brand the world over. IIM graduates may command astronomical salaries but they are yet to be absorbed into mainstream global business as IITians. Proof? Dilbert does not have an IIM grad as a character yet. Asok is from IIT. Probably KGP.

6. Publication of Krittibash (August 1953)
Krittibash's reputation is that of the most influential poetry magazine - probably in any Indian language. Its list of luminary contributors - Sunil Gangopadhyay, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Tarapada Ray - was probably its least important aspect. It revolutionised poetry publication by two things - one, it was sold and never distributed free and two, it always paid its contributors. Given the 'subsidised' nature of most poetry practices, this was quite unprecedented.

7. Performance of Raktakarabi by Bohurupee (May 1954)
Shambhu Mitra's theatre group performed Tagore's dance drama Raktakarabi - and the new theatre movement of Bengal was born. Set design, lighting, ensemble acting - all reached a new high. There were many to follow. Girish Ghosh, Badal Sircar, Utpal Dutt. Evam Indrajit.

8. Pather Panchali wins at Cannes (May 1956)
Long before Lagaan tried to woo the foreign audience, a Bengali filmmaker made a film for less than the price of the red carpet at Cannes and became the benchmark other Indian directors could only aspire for.

9. Freight Equalisation policy implemented (1956)
With the freight equalisation policy, the Centre took away all incentives for manufcaturing companies to be located close to the mine-rich areas of West Bengal and Jharkhand. If there was one moment when the industrial advantage of Bengal was neutralised, it was this one.

10. Police open fire on agitation for food (September 1959)
Hunger forced people to take to the streets and the police opened fire to control them. The subsequent outrage probably forced the realisation that the state is responsible for feeding its citizens and 'right for food' is a fundamental right. This was the guiding principle behind the 'Green Revolution'.

11. Senate Hall of Calcutta University demolished (1960)
Senate Hall - a long cherished monument of historic and nostalgic significance - was demolished and Calcutta mourned the passing of an era.

12. Saptapadi releases (1961)
Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen were the greatest icons of celluloid romance - and their chemistry reached a peak with the release of Saptapadi. And the hysteria? Take NTR, Rajkumar and Rajnikanth. Add them up and multiply by 7. Only the colours were not as garish!

13. VIP Road opens
Calcutta's only brush with 'highway' for a long time, the long road connecting the airport with the city was so good that it was meant to be used only for VIPs. What was sprawling greenery on both sides of the road till quite recently is now the expansion of the city into its extended suburbs.

14. Tagore Birth Centenary (1961)
The greatest icon of Bengal - thanks to a cultural blitz by the state government - literally became a household name on his birth centenary. One of future landmarks of Calcutta - Rabindra Sadan - was inaugurated, innumerable cultural programmes organised, films & plays on his works made and economical editions of his works published.

15. Sino-Indian War (November 1962)
When China attacked India, it united the country in its first moment of crisis. In a state with a strong Left presence, there was clear evidence of divided loyalties.

16. Joint Entrance Examination starts (1962)
Two premier engineering colleges of Bengal - BE College and Jadavapur University - started to hold a common entrance test for their entrance and for generations of students, the Holy Grail had been identified. Just as not appearing for 'Joint' became the symbol of refusal to enter the rat race.

17. Ravi Shankar conquers West (1962)
The Beatles thought he was a genius. And the Western world followed suit. The sitar maestro gave Indian classical music to the Occident. And Norah Jones as well!

18. Police fire at farmers in Naxalbari (May 1967)
In a sleepy little hamlet of North Bengal, police opened fire at a group of agitating farmers and the ideology of that town transcended geographical borders and became the buzzword (brand?) of a particular kind of militant revolution. The spread of this Maoist revolution extended to students who rebelled against the bourgeois system and a generation rose to the call of 'Amar bari, tomar bari - Naxalbari Naxalbari'.

19. Gheraos not legal, but legitimate (1967)
In a landmark statement, the Labour Minister of West Bengal said that gherao as a protest mechanism may be used and the law & order machinery may just look the other way when it was being used. And thousands of students and labour unions took advantage. One of the many nails in the coffin of industry in Bengal.

20. Ganesh Pyne acknowledged as India's most talented artist (1969)
MF Hussain called Ganesh Pyne - hitherto unknown - the most talented artist in the country and the art world started to look East. Bikash Bhattacharya, Jogen Chaudhuri, Jamini Roy (with retrospective effect) were all later day beneficiaries of this man.

21. Bidhan Nagar established (1972)
Bidhan Nagar - later to expand into Salt Lake City - was the first suburb of Calcutta, providing planned urban development and the first radial movement of the city. Housing in abundance was provided and a large number moved.

22. Nizam introduces the 'roll'
The humble kabab in a paratha became the all-pervasive Bengali snack as not only did it provide economic nourishment to the teeming millions on the streets, it also provided employment opportunities to the 'entrepreneurs' who started their food businesses. An instant hit for both!

23. 'Congress goons killed by public rage' (March 1970)
That was the official version of the event in which CPIM workers walked into the Shnai household of Burdwan and murdered three Congress supporters. The law & order machinery remained a mute spectator, under then Home Minister - one Mr Jyoti Basu. The leader at that event continues to be a strong Left Front leader till now and his posturings over Nandigram remain alarming similar. Violent politics with state help is still not a thing of the past.

24. Ban intended for Prajapati / Bibar / Raat Bhor Brishti
The supposed liberal nature of Bengal received a jolt as novels purported to be 'obscene' were referred to the courts for being banned and the authors punished. The novelists and the intelligentsia defended the works as a faithful representation of the society. Fringes of the underworld could hardly be depicted without graphic usage of their language and milieu. It took long years of legal battles before the novels were free to be published.

25. Formation of Bangladesh (1971)
The Mukti Bahini - assisted by the Indian Army - won its independence from Pakistan. And 36 years later, they paid back by knocking us out of the World Cup!

26. The first star RJ (1971)
Srabanti Majumdar was the first ever star RJ - as she held sway over her AIR listenership, not only as show host but also as a jingle singer of repute for quarter of a century. And if you are still wondering who she is, remember 'Shurobhito Antiseptic cream - Boroline'? She's the voice!

27. Farakka Barrage operational (1975)
The Farakka barrage was used to increase the water flow into the Hooghly-Bhagirathi branch of the Ganga (as opposed to the Padma). Without this, the reduced water flow would not only have threatened the existence of Calcutta and Haldia ports, it would have severely affected the potability of drinking water for Calcutta. The economy of this region as well as parts of Jharkhand was saved by the barrage.

28. Calcutta Doordarshan starts transmission (August 1975)
Satyajit Ray agreed to be a part of it. (His Sadgati inaugurated the colour transmission.) Uttam Kumar never agreed to be any part of it. But with the Chitramala on Thursdays, Bengali film on Saturdays and Hindi on Sundays, evenings were never the same again! After all, we still remember Chhanda Sen - three decades after she started reading the news on TV.

29. Calcutta Book Fair starts (January 1976)
The Calcutta Book Fair started off with a handful of publishers in the Maidan. Today, it is the most major event of the culural calendar of the city. It is no longer restricted to books only. It is a celebration of arts, culture and life.

30. Jyoti Basu becomes Chief Minister (1977)
The world's longest elected Communist government got its most famous face as Mr Basu took oath. His two-decade rule was identified by pushing back the clock by about a century, professed concern for the farmers, an annual trip to London to 'get foreign investment' and the 'blunder' of not being allowed to be Prime Minister by his party.

31. Share croppers' right to tilled land (1977)
In one clean sweep, the Left Front made their base in rural Bengal invincible by bringing the rights of the share cropper on their tilled land. All such land needed to registered in the name of the share croppers as well as the landlord. Large tracts of land were registered to include their names. On the back of the 'Tebhaga' (in which the crop was divided between the landowner and the cropper in a 2:1 ratio), this was instrumental in securing the croppers' rights.

32. Majid Baskar appears in the Calcutta Football League (1978)
Majid Baskar - an Iranian - was the first foreigner to play in Calcutta and created a cult. Iran, Nigeria and lately Brazil have sent their second-stringers to India and they have been worshipped in country which is currently some 165th in the world.

33. Origin of Subaltern Studies (1982)
Ranajit Guha's book on the subject raised national and global interest for the first time - to understand the contributions of the lower-lying strata of society. Subaltern - as a word - has crept into our vocabulary as historians as well as sociologists delve into this further.

34. Ananda Margis killed (April 1982)
Some 17 Ananda Margis were killed in broad daylight by CPIM cadres - with no sign of any police during the incident. The Ananda Marg (a religious outfit) and the Left parties had a bitter relationship but this use of cadres to suppress them was probably a harbinger of greater use of the party machinery as the state machinery looked the other way.

35. Mamata Banerjee becomes MP (1984)
The biggest symbol of anti-Left agitation in the country entered the Parliament on the Indira Gandhi sympathy wave and never needed any other support to create a ruckus. From being at the receiving end of a police lathi to Singur, she has been an one-man rabble rouser against the Reds. As they said, West Bengal Congress had one he-man - and it's her!

36. English teaching discontinued from Class I (1984)
The mother tongue obsession reached sickening levels as English teaching was discontinued from Class I and for lakhs of goverment funded schools, ABC started in Class VI. An entire generation grew up completely proficient in their subjects but unable to prove it to interview panels out of the state.

37. Metro Rail starts operation (1984)
The work started before I was born. One leg was complete when I was in my teens. The full thing was complete when I was finishing college! Delhi's is better. Bombay's will be bigger. But remember, we were the first! When the rest of India's celebrities were sitting on beaches and riverbanks for Mile Sur Mera Tumhara, ours were coming out of Rabindra Sadan Metro Station!

38. Asian Paints Sharad Samman (1985)
Gattu became a part of the Great Durga Puja Jamboree as it started to award the best pujos in the city. Pujos started becoming more culture-conscious as Rabindrasangeet replaced Bollywood, vedic mantras and traditional idols made a comeback. Of course, there were aberrations. Like Gregasur, this year!

39. Publication of The Circle of Reason (1986)
Amitav Ghosh's debut was the first Bongo-Anglian novel and it was received with great acclaim. The Bengali literary vein found expression in English and it was followed up by Amit Chaudhuri, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Kunal Basu, Jhumpa Lahiri and their ilk.

40. First Bengali Soap Opera - 13 Parbon (May 1986)
Tero Parbon ran for only 39 episodes - in two lots. But it created the habit of serial-watching in Bengal. Social problems got solved by the US returned hero on a weekly basis as the state tuned in. Sabyasachi Chakrabarti who debuted in the lead role, is still a major star.

41. Gorkhaland agitation starts (1986)
The tranquil beauty of North Bengal was shattered as the state machinery tried to stop yet another partition of Bengali. Subhash Ghising's call for a separate state created turmoil and bloodshed, only to be brought to an end by a sharing power between the state and the Hill Council.

42. Auto rickshaws start plying on Calcutta roads (August 1986)
Unlike the other metros, Calcutta took a long while to adopt the three-legged vehicle. And when it did, it did it in its own inimitable style. The autos plied on fixed routes, broke every traffic rule in the book and contributed significantly to the nightmare of the Calcutta traffic!

43. Hope 86 (December 1986)
The Red Citadel beckoned and the Bombay film industry responded in full force. Ostensibly for flood relief, Hope 86 had Mithun and Sridevi dancing to hit music of the day as Jyoti Basu looked on indulgently. Crores were raised from the ticket sales even as the ruling party termed it 'apa-sanskriti' (anti-culture)! Of the partymen to have boycotted the show was one Buddhadeb Bhattacharya.

44. Prasenjit's rise as Superstar (1987)
Prasenjit - son of Biswajit - became the unlikely superstar of Bengali cinema as he romanced, did 'action', did comedy and even produced movies to become the closest replace of an 'one-man industry'. His appeal was strictly restricted to the 'stalls' but the Bengali bhadralok woke up to the reality that Rituparno Ghosh is not what the 'market' wants. And in any case, Prasenjit acted in Rituparno's arthouse cinema as well!

45. Banks get computerised (1987)
After almost an entire lifetime of resisting inroduction of computers (for they were supposed to increase unemployment), the Left Front relented as the banks brought them in for use beyond data punching. It was not without teething problems as for several years, bank tellers cross-checked the balance on the computer screens with their calculators. And even now, this Bong counts the money dispensed by an ATM!

46. Vidyasagar Setu opens (October 1992)
The second Hooghly Bridge opened after an extended gestation period - and Calcutta woke up to a new vision of modernity. Leaving the city for a drive suddenly became easier as was reaching hitherto distant parts of Howrah.

47. Suman Chatterjee's Tomake Chaii releases (1992)
There was very little Bengali music beyond the genres of Tagore and Najrul. There was, of course, modern non-film music from the stalwarts but it was Suman's first album - Tomake Chaii - which brought the urban milieu, the modern angst and the political stand into the lyrics of the Bengali song. He spawned a whole list of inheritors as Anjan Dutta, Nachiketa and the like took off from Suman.

48. Sushmita Sen becomes Miss Universe (1994)
One more example of a Delhi girl being claimed by her 'mother state'. Her surname, her goggle-eyed excitement and her invocation of Kali on winning were all gleefully lapped up the Bengali bhadralok. Of course, the event eased the proof of the Bengali theory - if a global honour has to come to India, it has to come to a Bengali.

49. Mobile telephony starts (1995)
Jyoti Basu spoke to Sukh Ram (then Telecom Minister) and the hall applauded. Basu looked quizically and wondered what the big deal was? The big deal is apparent as about a decade later, Calcutta wonders (like the rest of the country) how life was before "Ami Rabindra Sadan-er shamney. Tui kothai?"

50. Durbar Mahila Samannay Committee formed (July 1995)
What started off as an AIDS prevention drive led to a committe for protection of the rights of one of the largest red light districts of the country. Sonagachhi's inhabitants came to be known as 'sex workers' and led to increased rights for them being a 'labour force'.

51. Operation Sunshine (November 1996)
A joint operation by the Calcutta Police and the Municipal Corporation, this was the eviction of illegal hawkers' stalls all over Calcutta. In an 'anti-votebank' action, the government reclaimed a public space and gave it back to the citizens. And Calcutta started walking on pavements again!

52. Amartya Sen wins Nobel Prize (October 1998)
If it had to come, it could have come to only one state. And the lineage of Amartay Sen was impaccable. He was in Harvard after Oxford after Cambridge after Presidency College after Shantiniketan. Oh - and he was named by Tagore, no less!

53. Bangla Band music has its first superhit (1999)
Bhumi's 'Barandai Roddur' (with its immensely hummable chorus 'Tomar Dekha Nai') was the first time rock-n-roll merged with the Bengali idiom and started a wonderful trend. Bengalis took to this with a gusto as bands like Parash Pathar, Chandrabindu and Cactus added a new dimension to the rich musical heritage of Bengal - you could dance to their music!

54. Sourav Ganguly becomes Indian cricket captain (February 2000)
Nobody symbolised the national selectors' apathy towards Bengal cricketers better than the Prince of Calcutta. And it was poetic justice that after he became captain, this 'quota candidate' was the most non-partisan of all Indian captains. Not to mention, the best.

55. Haldia Petrochemicals starts operation (April 2000)
Almost the sole representatition of investment during the two decades of Basu rule in Bengal, it went into action almost exactly when everybody had written it off.

56. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya becomes Chief Minister (May 2001)
After the moribund Basu rule, Brand Buddha took over and everybody was in a tizzy. The last six years saw more changes in the state than the previous sixty. Harnessing the state's intellectual power, the new CM wooed industry captains like never before and the results were there for all to see. Till two villages disagreed.

57. Salt Lake Sector V booms
Sector V became the hub of all major IT companies in the world as Mr Premji and Co realised it is far better to set up shop right in Calcutta instead of letting half their work force go on leave for a month every Pujo!

58. Forum Mall opens on Elgin Road (2003)
Calcutta finally left behind the days of 'Cholchhena Cholbena' and became 'happening' as the first mall-multiplex opened in Calcutta with Inox, Shoppers' Stop and Fabindia throwing open their gates to the comrades. If not anything else, Forum became a symbol of 'inverse snobbery' as hajaar people started claiming that they haven't been there!

59. Bandhs deemed unconstitutional & illegal (November 2004)
For the first time in Red Bengal, the Court ruled that the people (and the parties) will have to find other ways of protesting against the system. Stopping work would not do. Loopholes remain. In the ruling as well as in the common man's resolve to reach work if the bandh is on a Monday.

60. Singur-Nandigram boils (2007)
Industrialisation in India will continue to happen. But its proponents will have to take lessons from these two villages on how not to do it. The Tatas, the Ambanis and the rest were told in no uncertain terms that Bengal might be eager for investments, but on its own terms. Even the government cannot mess with people - politically motivated or otherwise - who don't want to toe their line.

A very exhaustive and reasonably representative list... now, let the debate begin!

UPDATE: As a continuation, read Nilendu's own list of 60 events relevant to the 30-something generation, broken down into Ups and Downs! (It's in three parts, all of which are linked above.)

10 comments:

Bishu said...

Dipta,can you please enable the complete feed for RSS reader.

Rimi said...

Thank you SO much. I live in Cal and I missed the special edition. I'll see if I can get it from someone because I'm assuming I can't buy it anymore.

Re. the later developments (I'm thinking specifically of the inclusion of Forum) -- there is a certain shift of emphasis on cultural identity to a generalised showcasing of (supposed) economic boom. Would you agree?

Kaevan said...

Post more on Calcutta. And how could you forget two famous sons of Bengal who rocked the nation through the 80's - Mithunda and Bappida!

Dipta Chaudhuri said...

@ Rimi: I think ABP, like a lot of Bengalis, are quite kicked with the 'novelty' of the mall-multiplex culture. Hence, there are probably two such 'showcasings' of the economic boom.
In any case, any such list is more symbolic than anything else!

Aqua said...

i beg to differ on the "reasonably representative list" bit. the darjeeling hills is also part of west bengal...how come there is no mention of any darj related item in the list? what about the start of the gorkhaland agitaion or the formation of the hill council. again...i don't mean to be rabid and all...just felt like pointing it out.
and hey "Tomake Chaii" is one of my all time favourite songs...now am off to hunt for the mp3.

Dipta Chaudhuri said...

@ Aqua: No. 41 on the list.

BTW, have you heard Anjan Dutta's songs? He grew up in Darjeeling and some of his compositions have very affectionate references to the hills.

Aqua said...

mea culpa. wonder how i missed # 41 :( we grew up in those agitation days...our days were peppered with 40 day strikes and alternate day strikes. have you read "inheritance of loss" - kiran desai. she paints quite an unflattering picture of the darj hills. i believe her aunt in kalimpong has disowned her now ...small price to pay for a booker :)
yes yes, i love his songs and his voice. but i did not know that he grew up in darj. google informs me he studied in st.pauls darj. and hey...how about a post on "coffe house"? it's my fav all time nostalgia song.

Corporate Serf said...

Also missed:

Salt Lake stadium and Bochum football club (and a few other international football matches, took the zing out of Mohan Bagan / East Bengal for me)

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Wunnerful stuff, sir. I shall store away this piece.

J.A.P.

Abhishek Mukherjee, BSc MStat said...

Girish Ghosh died in 1912. Did you mean Sisir Bhaduri? Even he died in 1959...