The Missing Climate Of Discourse ~ swapan mullick
WHILE visiting dignitaries ritualistically eulogise Bengal&’s cultural credentials on the basis of long-standing perceptions, insiders tend to cling to a reputation that has scarcely survived the ravages of time. Diplomatic politeness may still arouse feel-good sentiments about ideas and achievements rooted in the past. But it is nothing short of self-deception to ignore not just the developing evils that have taken a heavy toll on Bengal&’s claim to intellectual leadership but on attachments to the culture that embraces a blend of the mind and heart. That the intellectual claims have suffered and the culture buffeted by declining standards must have been recognised by the chief minister when she implored a group of toppers at Writers’ Buildings not to look for opportunities outside the state. The irony could not have been lost on the prodigies. It was an indirect confession that her government had produced no signs of expanding opportunities in the Sonar Bangla promised two years ago and that the students simply needed to sustain the pride of an illustrious past.
The toppers had no reason to be inspired after having seen teachers being brutally assaulted on the campus and a centre of excellence guided by a mentor group and faculty inducted from institutions abroad being subjected to mob violence. Prominent thinkers who had helped usher in change in 2011 shied away from public expression of dismay when a cartoon was seen to be alarming enough to send an academic to jail and a student wanting a simple answer from the chief minister in a live television encounter was dubbed a Maoist. If Mamata Banerjee had started off with the Tagorean inspiration of a mind “without fear’’ and a head “held high’’, it was soon clear that the new regime had little respect for outspoken dissenters. It became worse when prominent thinkers, poets, painters, playwrights and singers who either became ministers or adorned positions gifted to them made it clear that their social and intellectual concerns were not so much a response to the oppressive tactics of the last regime and the popular demand for change as a garb for either defending the indefensible in the last two years or choosing discreet silence as the most convenient option.
Is this the culture that would encourage the young toppers to seek a future in a soil that is becoming increasingly barren? The boisterous climate in shopping malls and multiplexes covers a section of the affluent but conceals the despair of many more who are compelled to leave the state where industrial growth has been tardy and law and order have become a matter of inter and intra-party politics rather than the responsibility of an unfettered administration.
There was a time when the thinking class was confined to areas of academic and artistic concern. They often expressed dissent with a Left bias when the Congress was in power. Occasionally they hit the streets as when Utpal Dutt took his theatre directly to the people during election time. The dissent evaporated when the Left came to power in Bengal in 1977 partly because there was virtually no opposition. It was only during the last years of Left rule that the rumbling began to be heard from those who believed that a decadent, devalued and discredited Left needed to be challenged not just at the political level but with an organised show of intellectual resistance.
This must have come as a surprise since dissent was traditionally associated with the Left. The prospect of protesters from the performing world joining forces produced ripples of hope that, if Bengal were to witness a change, it would come not just with renewed energy and enterprise but with a solid core of intellectual support. The last years of Left rule had seen a perverse categorisation of “we’’ and “they’’ that split the cultural fraternity down the middle. The loyalties that existed earlier had been expressed (and rewarded) in subtle ways. Dissent was frowned upon and uncontrollable cadres often sought to stifle voices from the other side. But they were never threatened in the way the Bajrang Dal hounded MF Husain out of the country. More important, no one expected the trend to be extended so brazenly as to cast doubts as to whether the present regime has any respect for a free flow of ideas. But soon the slightest hint that there was a body of opinion beyond the loyalists who had been rewarded with assignments, trophies and titles resulted in “unsympathetic’’ newspapers being removed from state libraries and journalists bearing the brunt of politically protected hooligans ~ conveniently disowned after the damage had been done. Where are the champions of social justice who couldn’t hold back their emotions when Tapasi Malik was brutally raped and killed in Singur but who have gone into a shell when a girl in a village in Barasat suffered a similar fate? Are these prominent minds constructed to respond only in a manner dictated from above? If there were any doubts on this score, they were cleared when veterans from the cultural world descended on the streets to condemn the assault on the chief minister and the state&’s finance minister in Delhi but chose to ignore the monstrous backlash in Kolkata that saw Trinamul stormtroopers reducing a university laboratory immortalised by the presence of those who went on to be intellectual giants to smithereens. That ruling party leaders made desperate attempts at damage control was not as shocking as the silence that underlined the selective display of intellectual concern.
All this has had a crippling impact on overall standards. What is one to make of performers who ought to be serving their Muse but have instead consciously chosen to become political puppets and, to some extent, surrendered the right to think with the freedom they still claim to cherish? What is one to make of regimented noises in the corridors of Writers’ Buildings every other day when an icon is remembered on a birth or death anniversary? What is one to make of party activists being handed out invitations to the inauguration of an international film festival to cheer a Bollywood star and the indoor stadium ~ chosen to match the spirit of the occasion ~ empties out when the screening begins because the political and screen heroes have left by then? What is one to make of Tollygunge starlets being inducted into a protest meeting against the Centre&’s move to allow FDI in the retail sector? The trivialisation of a cultural heritage is justified by a thumping majority. It is the political constituency that needs to be protected more than the legacy to which the rulers pay lip service by creating monuments to Tagore and Nazrul.
The cultural and intellectual identity that has found takers all over the world essentially recalls the climate of discourse that dates back to the literary movement of the 1930s that even targeted Tagore&’s humanism and later developed into the radical (almost subversive) worlds of Utpal Dutt, Salil Chowdhury, Ritwik Ghatak and Debabrata Biswas. If there was an atmosphere of intolerance that hit them, there were also free-wheeling debates that left the people to make their own judgments. That climate lasted enough to sustain the creative excitement. Now ideas and achievements tend to get soaked in emotions rather than sustain the brilliance that is being sought to be revived ~ without much success so far.
The discourses have disappeared because, with exceptions, there are conscious efforts to be politically correct. On the other hand, there are marketing imperatives that put a price on star-studded events at the expense of lasting values. It doesn’t mean that Bengal&’s cultural history needs to be rewritten. It reflects a passing phase where well-established conventions of creative freedom have been replaced by popular choices. The sooner that phase blows over, the better.
The writer is Director, The Statesman Print Journalism School