Last Saturday, at London’s Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Samir Khan and Suddho mancha did something remarkable. They organised an event to pay tribute to some of those who have helped the UK’s Bengali community to sustain Tagore’s legacy. Those honoured were Arati Bhattacharya, Sushmita Bhattacharya, Pompa Dhar, Benu Rahman and my father, Jayanta Chatterjee.
Of course, there are many others who deserve to be honoured in this way. Sadly, they include some who are no longer with us, such as Tapan Gupta, who founded The Tagoreans and organised the UK-wide celebrations of Tagore’s 125th birth anniversary in 1986. However, as Samir Khan said in his introduction, this event was intended only to be a start of what could become a series.
When I refer to ‘Bengalis’, I mean the people of the part of the Indian subcontinent where Bengali is the main language. In modern political geography, this corresponds most closely to West Bengal (India) and Bangladesh.
However, Bengal did exist as a single province before Lord Curzon’s partition of Bengal in 1905. Tagore was opposed to that partition and wrote the song Amar shonar Bangla (My golden Bengal) in 1906. The song became a symbol of the campaign to annul the partition (and, decades later, became the national anthem of Bangladesh).
The 1905 partition provoked an anti-British campaign, not only in Bengal but across India. The pressure led to the annulment of the partition in 1911, although the resentment between Hindus and Muslims, which had been stirred up by the partition, continued – the consequence of the British policy of ‘divide-and-rule’.
Another partition of Bengal took place in 1947, when, as part of India’s independence from Britain, East Bengal was to be governed from the newly-formed, mainly Muslim state of Pakistan while West Bengal was to be part of India. East Bengal became East Pakistan, though it took the actions of the Bengali Language Movement to avoid Urdu being imposed in place of Bengali. After a civil war which started in 1971, with India’s support, East Pakistan became the independent country of Bangladesh in 1972 after seceding from Pakistan.
Returning to last Saturday evening, Samir Khan mentioned that someone to whom he had tried to sell a ticket for the event had told him that they wouldn’t buy one. The reason was that there was only one of “ours” and four of “theirs” among those being honoured. It’s worth noting that this distinction was based on a relatively recent and purely political development rather than a cultural one.
Almost 80 years after Tagore’s death in 1941, he is still revered throughout his native Bengal. His songs can be heard there wherever you go: to the extent that some consider his work to be too ubiquitous. Even TV soap operas seem to believe they are incomplete without at least one Tagore melody to give them a stamp of quality. The national anthems of not only Bangladesh but also India are songs written by Tagore, making him the only person ever to have written the national anthems of two countries.
Outside Bengal, the story is rather different. Tagore remains fairly well-known among graduates in Spain and Latin America, as well as in countries like France, Hungary, Italy, Japan and Russia. However, it is mainly the Bengali diaspora which continues to celebrate his works.
It is up to a few people, such as those honoured at last Saturday’s concert, to organise or take part in events and activities based on Tagore’s and other Bengali works. As well as offering an opportunity for second-generation Bengalis and non-Bengalis to discover Bengali culture, they also provide occasions for the local Bengali communities to come together … and for adda [light-hearted discussion].
Against this background, as Susmita Bhattacharya observed, it was surprising that last Saturday’s event was the first time in at least 35 years that anyone had thought of honouring the people behind these events and activities. Samir Khan said in his introduction that several people had asked him why he was bothering to take on the stress involved in doing so. As he went on to introduce each of the five artists being honoured with a moving, personal anecdote, he developed a picture of an artist paying his respects to other artists and organisers who had influenced his creativity in some way.
The evening’s programme included a presentation about Tagore, an excellent giti alekha (narrated presentation of songs) led by Malabika Ghose and written by Samir Khan. The concert ended with an absorbing solo performance by Jewel, who had come from Dhaka specially for the evening.
I hope that, by the end of the evening, Samir Khan felt that all his efforts in staging the event had been worthwhile. Maybe his initiative will inspire others, not only in the UK, to celebrate and thank those outside Bengal who help to sustain not only Tagore’s legacy but also their local Bengali communities. Perhaps that, in turn, would encourage more people to step out of the limelight (often imposed by work and family/social commitments) and take the trouble to do the same.