Amar Shonar Bangla – Where art thou?
A few days ago, my mother had her somewhat outdated CD player on; “Atul Prasad Sen”, she said, was playing. Now I have never really paid attention to the Bengali songs often wafting from my parents’ gradually progressing-over-the-years and multifarious music players, other than the mandatory Tagore, the evergreen Hemanta from an Uttam-Suchitra hit or, later in my growing up years, Bela Bose being crooned by an earnest-voiced post-modern type like Anjan Dutta.
However, the words of this song caught my wandering focus: “Aabar tui bandhbi baasha” (“Will you build your nest again?) questioned a haunting and powerful voice and intoned the helpless desolation of having to let go again and again of home and identity. Will you have the strength to rebuild this time and again, the song asked the listener, and I listened, drawn to its pull, in silence.
In my mind, images flickered of a film I had watched recently on Amazon prime – Rajkahini, a period drama by director Srijit Mukherjee, based on the Partition of Bengal and riveted around a story of the location of a brothel placed directly on the Radcliffe Line running indiscriminately across the soon-to-be severed East and West Bengal. The film, one of the few made around the Partition of Eastern India, had shown the bloody exodus, that bloodcurdling, unspeakable holocaust, the spectre of which still haunts our country’s political trajectory.
Bengal, I thought, had been partitioned twice, once in 1905 on October 16 by Viceroy Curzon when the former province of Bengal was divided into two new provinces and separated the largely Muslim eastern areas from the largely Hindu western areas, and once again, this time irreparably, in 1947 when Mountbatten anaesthetised the death blow of Partition by giving Independence to both India and Pakistan.
Partition, followed by the “Boycott” of British goods, immortalised in Rabindranath Tagore’s novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World). Poets, intellectuals and the common people, all rose to the occasion with spirit, vim and vigour after the 1905 Partition was effected. The British government had passed the orders for the 1905 Bengal Partition in the month of August, coinciding with Shravan in the Hindu calendar, when the festival of Raksha Bandhan is celebrated, and Tagore dealt a masterstroke making Hindus and Muslims take to the streets to tie ‘the protective thread’ on each other’s hands to protest against the act. In fact, so pained had been Tagore by the imminent darkness, when asked to sing at an evening event on the occasion of a meeting of the Indian National Congress in Kolkata in 1886, he sang “Amay Bolona Gahite.” (Don’t ask me to sing).
But where is the overwhelming literature, the writing, the poetry and cinema of pathos of the uprooting and the migration of 1947 in Bengal? Punjab has managed to have some catharsis – the body of literature and celluloid that the scars of the Partition of 1947 have spawned is formidable. Art, its creation and the making of a collective cultural construct are almost therapeutic: they do administer to the agony of memory. Why then did Bengal fall behind in its search for this succour?
Last year, Goutam Ghose made his Indo-Bangla production Sankhachil and paid a rich musical tribute through a collage of “Swadeshi gaans” of the early 20th century including that of Tagore, Mukunda Das, Rajanikanta Sen and Kabi Kazi Nazrul Islam; the film, portraying the delicate balance between religion and identity through the plight of a modern-day Bangladeshi schoolteacher and his family living on the Indo-Bangladesh border and having to take on a fake Hindu identity to get his daughter operated upon in a Kolkata hospital, dwelt, I felt, somewhat fleetingly on the chilling legacy of Partition. In my view, we are too little too late.
The post-Partition films in Bengali which stand out for me have been the masterpieces by maestro Ritwick Ghatak: Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha. The films, gritty pieces de resistance in film noir, speak of an era in West Bengal, of relentless economic penury, the plight of helpless refugees living on a hellish existential edge in shanty towns near the all devouring black hole metropolis, Kolkata.
The Radcliffe Line not only split Bengal, a single and self-sufficient economic, cultural and ethnic zone but also unleashed economic havoc, the effects of which the two regions are still reeling from. Bengal’s two halves complemented each other: the fertile East was the granary of the West and the industrialised West made manufacturing its special skill. This mutually beneficial trade was severely disrupted and West Bengal suffered from colossal famines and food shortages as the fertile rice-producing districts went to the then East Pakistan. Jute had always been Bengal’s pride; in one fell swoop the Radcliffe Line left every jute mill in West Bengal but four-fifth of the jute producing land in East Bengal!
Ghatak’s films explored the aftermath of this economic decimation – Meghe Dhaka Tara revolves around Neeta, the fulcrum of a refugee family from East Pakistan living in the squalor of a typical 20th century Kolkata suburb; Neeta, a self-sacrificing beauty, taken for granted with undiluted brutality by her entire family, loses her fiancé, her job, and in the end, contracts tuberculosis, the killer disease, when with haunting vehemence she tells her wayward and selfish brother, “Dada, aami baanchte chaai (Brother, I want to live)”. The scene, now an indelible part of worldwide cinematic history, still sends a chill down my spine. Subarnarekha takes the horror of the refugee crisis one step further – in it a low-caste boy is rescued by a Hindu brother and sister duo just arrived from East Pakistan at a refugee camp; later when the boy, after enormous struggle becomes an educated grown-up with opportunity in front of him, old beliefs intervene and the brother, his guardian till then, refuses to let him marry the sister, with whom the boy had fallen in love. In a macabre twist of fate, the two run away, the boy is lynched by a murderous mob, and his wife, reduced to prostitution to look after their child, encounters her estranged and inebriated brother as a “client” one night. Ghatak’s darkness seemed endless and his dread a stealthy build-up to a terrifying finale – but this was the real trauma the survivors of that scathing time in history underwent and some lived to tell us the tale.
I only wish that more cinema be made on the theme of the Bengal Partition, more images which show our children the history which shaped their subconscious, their oral traditions and their genetic quirks, stories which speak of the reality of both: the agony of loss and the miracle of survival. It is ironic that Bangladesh’s national anthem, Amar Shonar Bangla is Tagore’s paean of pain to the 1905 severing: “My golden Bengal, I love you. Forever your skies, your air set my heart in tune as if it were a flute.”
What we need are more anthems to evoke a healing of scars still oozing past grief, still sore and still remembering. Seventy years on, time is still ripe and there is the taste of freedom in our nation’s soul to help us recollect, revisit and recover.