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Sunday, September 22, 2013

No Country for Fallen Soldier: Remembering Ghadar Heroes



Ghadar Newspaper

What is our name? Ghadar(Revolution). What is our work? Ghadar. Where will be the revolution? In India…within a few years – thus started the first issue of The Ghadar, published from San Francisco on 1 November, 1913. With the publication of this weekly magazine in Urdu and Punjabi began the Ghadar movement. In its famous masthead it carried the caption – Angrezi Raj ka Dushman. And in their ever so dramatic style, always carried an appeal – wanted brave soldiers…to stir up rebellion in India. Pay – death, price – martyrdom, pension – liberty….


Sohan Singh Bhakna
By 1914, 15000 Indians – mostly Sikhs – were living in British Columbia (Canada) and US Pacific Coast. Faced with legal hassles and racial abuse, they started organizing themselves. They were joined by two groups of Indian students – one from Portland, Oregon led by Pandurang Khankhoje and Taraknath Das and another group of Indian students from UC Berkley (Kartar Singh Sarabha, V G Pingle). Together they founded the Pacific Coast Hindustan Association, which became Ghadar Party, with Sohan Singh Bhakna as President and Lala Hardyal as the main driving force. The turning point came with the First World War and the Komagata Maru incident in 1914. Canada by then had effectively shut new Indian immigrants out. When a group of 400 Sikhs travelling in a ship called Komagata Maru tried to reach Vancouver, there was a long stand-off. Finally the ship was escorted back to India and in November 1914, when it reached Budge Budge near Calcutta, there was a riot between the immigrants and British police, resulting in 22 deaths. With the onset of the War, thousands of Ghadarites started coming back to India, mostly via China, Japan and South East Asia, where they established contacts with Sikh soldiers posted there. War forced the government to remove most of the white soldiers from the subcontinent and the Ghadarites wanted to take advantage of the situation with a joint civil-military uprising.
 
Lala Hardyal
Pingle and Sarabha along with Satyen Bhushan Sen (who was known to Jatin Mukherjee) came to meet Jatin and Rash Behari Bose. Rash Behari was initially skeptical, so he sent his trusted aide Sachin Sanyal along with Pingle to Punjab. Sanyal came back and confirmed that a huge number was waiting for a revolt in Punjab. Things moved very quickly from thereon. Sarabha and others organized revolts in army units in Ferozepur, Lahore and Rawalpindi; Sachin Sanyal in Benaras and Danapore and Jugantar revolutionaries in Bengal. Meanwhile, Jugantar group, led by Jatin Mukherjee, popularly Bagha Jatin (Tiger Jatin), achieved a great success in August 1914 by stealing a huge cache of arms and ammunition from Rodda company godowns in Calcutta. It was decided to launch a coordinated rebellion across cantonments on 21 February, 1915. The date was brought forward to 15th February but the treachery of one Kirpal Singh alerted the police, leading to arrest of most of the leaders though Rash Behari managed to escape. However Punjabi soldiers rose in Singapore led by Jamadar Chisti Khan, Jamadar Abdul Ghani and Subedar Dawood Khan – British forces finally managed to quell it after putting to death at least 37 soldiers. In Bengal, Bagha Jatin with his comrades were waiting near Orissa coast for German arms to arrive, when British Police tracked him down. Jatin with his four comrades fought with a large police force till their ammunition ran out.
[Jatin in Balasore hospital, just before his death – saluting his bravery, Police Commissioner of Calcutta, Charles Tegart, said that had Jatin been an Englishman, his statue would have been erected next to Nelson’s at Trafalgar Square]

Student leaders of the Ghadar Party were responsible for forging important links with Indian revolutionaries in Europe. During the war years Berlin became the main centre for sending arms to India. With the active support of the German Foreign office, under the Zimmerman Plan, leaders like Birendranath Chattopadhyay, Bhupendranath Dutta and Lala Hardyal set up Indian Independence Committee. Through Turkey, Raja Mahendra Pratap, Obaidullah Sindhi and Maulvi Barkatullah went to set up an Interim Government of India in Kabul. Ghadar leaders like Ramchandra, who were still in the USA, were also trying to send money and arms to India. After 1915, Rash Behari and Abani Mukhopadhyay tried the South East Asian routes for the same purpose. But after the debacle of 1915, there was hardly any organization left in India to facilitate large-scale armed uprising. When the USA decided to enter the War, Hindu-German conspiracy case led to the end of Ghadar activism in the States.

Shahid-e-Azam Kartar Singh Sarabha
Though it failed but their greatest legacy was definitely rekindling the spirit of nationalism. Till then, this was the largest armed uprising since 1857. In Punjab in 1914-15 for the first and only time, revolutionary terrorism achieved something of a mass base. The government was scared as the revolutionaries tried to incite the armed forces, much like 1857. Nearly 50 freedom fighters were executed by the British and a large number were deported to Andaman, where they were made to suffer inhuman torture for years. It was Sachin Sanyal – detained in Andaman - whose moving autobiography Bandi Jibon (Life in Captivity), inspired next generation of revolutionaries most. Among those, who went to gallows uncelebrated was one Abdulla, only Muslim among a group of soldiers executed in Ambala. Rejecting the government’s offer to turn approver against his non-Muslim colleagues, he retorted that only the company of “these kafirs” would open the door of heaven for him. Two of the brightest stars – V G Pingle and Kartar Singh Sarabha were sent to gallows. Sarabha, hanged when he was just 19, famously told the judge that he would prefer death over life sentence so that he could be born again - …as long as India does not become free, I would be born again and again and would be hanged for my country. Bhagat Singh was deeply inspired by Sarabha. Compared to Congress leaders or even to Bengali revolutionaries, Ghadar martyrs are today largely forgotten. One hundred years later, it is perhaps time to salute their pioneering spirit of selfless nationalism.

P. S. Most of the surviving Ghadar and revolutionary terrorism leaders turned to communism. In 1912, Lala Hardyal wrote an essay on Marx in Calcutta’s Modern Review – this is the earliest piece of writing in India on Marxism. Jugantar leader Narendranath Bhattacharya, who went to Java in search of weapons, changed his name to M N Roy and went on to become one of the founders of Communist Party of Mexico. Birendranath Chattopadhyay, Chatto (elder brother of Sarojini Naidu) joined the German Communist Party and was eventually executed by Stalin in the 1930s. Other early converts to communism included Bhupendranath Dutta (younger brother of Swami Vivekananda), Pandurang Khankhoje (also went to Mexico, where eventually, he became a pioneer of Mexican agricultural revolution), Abani Mukhopadhyay and Sohan Singh Bhakna, later a pillar of the Kishan Sabha movement in India. Lala Hardyal (taught Indian philosophy in Europe and USA) and Taraknath Das (taught Political Science in Columbia) went back to academics. Sachin Sanyal, sent to Cellular Jail twice died of TB in Gorakhpur Jail. Rashbehari Bose, who fled to Japan and worked for India’s independence from there, prepared the ground for Subhas Bose’s INA. Bose, married to a Japanese lady, ran a restaurant along with his family and was also responsible for introduction of Indian cuisine in Japan. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

From Naxalbari to Bastar: Red Shadow Over India



Charu Majumdar
Naxalbari – the place which inspired a virulent political movement is today hardly half an hour drive from Siliguri, hub of North Bengal. It was the summer of 67 in this beautiful countryside on the foothills of Himalayas when a group of villagers went missing. Next day as other men went to till the lands, women followed them from behind the bushes. As the men got on with their work, police came to arrest them. Villagers realized that this was being done at the instigation of local jotedar. As women resisted, a scuffle broke out. In the melee, a police inspector, Sonam Wangdi was killed by an arrow. Policemen returned next day with a bigger contingent and faced angry villagers led by women with children tied at their back. Police opened fire on them, killing 7 women, two men and two children. Already there was a strong current of resistance in the area thanks to tea garden workers movement led by local communist leaders like Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal. A month later, a huge rally was organized near Siliguri with landless peasants and tea garden workers and a committee was formed to take the struggle forward. Charu Mazumdar called for an armed struggle to capture land.

In the late 1940s North Bengal was the epicenter of communist-led Tebhaga movement, which demanded at least two-third of the produce for the actual tiller. A number of participants later on felt that they were forced to compromise during the Tebhaga movement mainly because they did not take up arms. Two decades after independence, Bengal was tottering on the brink – feudal exploitation continued unabated in the countryside, industries were facing a tough time. Overflowing refugees from the East strained public resources. An insensitive political class failed to understand the frustration of a new generation. Calcutta was rocked by a series of agitations over tram-fare hike, over ration-supply, which alone ended in more than 50 deaths. A militant student movement, fanning out of Presidency College, took inspiration from student movements and anti-war protests going on at that time in the USA and Europe. To such Che Guevara inspired romantic revolutionaries, the news of landless peasants and tribal tea garden workers rising together provided the proverbial spark. Events followed quickly after June 1967. Two years later, on May Day, birth of a new party, Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) was announced – a party which promised to usher in Communism through armed struggle.
 
Following the clarion call of Charu Maumdar, students left for villages and planned to encircle cities with armed peasants ready for class struggle. Their mandate was to kill all class opponents – jotedars, rich landowners and whosoever was against the revolution. Between 1970 and mid-71, waves of Naxalite violence rocked the entire country though the intensity was highest in West Bengal (3500 out of 4000 plus reported incidents) followed by Bihar and Odisha. Some of the areas became Naxalite strongholds like Gopiballavpur and Debra in West Bengal, Mushahari in Bihar, Lakhimpur in UP and Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh. However, soon they realized that villagers were less than eager and they themselves did not have either the organization or the arms to take the revolution forward. A joint Army, para-military and police operations – Operation Steeple Chase – cleansed the Naxal strongholds ruthlessly between 1 July and 15 August 1972. Charu Majumdar, long suffering from heart ailment, died soon his arrest in July 1972. With his death curtains came down on the first phase of Naxal movement. A brutal police repression followed under Siddhartha Shankar Ray (1972-77) in Bengal, wiping out last vestiges of urban left-wing extremism.


Ashim Chatterjee
Eventually people of West Bengal rejected both the Red Terror and state repression of the Congress government. Since 1977 Congress failed to capture power in Bengal. In Bengal countryside, Naxals helped to dismantle the feudal power structure – a process later consolidated by the CPM government through Operation Barga and devolution of power to Panchayats. Only a plaque commemorates the martyrs of Naxalbari – most people in the area today hardly remember the events of late 60s. Jangal Santhal eventually died a broken man - a penniless alcoholic and a lonely Kanu Sanyal committed suicide in 2010. In urban Bengal, Naxal period is today viewed more as a romantic adventure of a generation. Among urban youth leaders those who survived brutal police oppression a large number went abroad and only a few ever returned to politics – most prominent of them is Asim (Kaka) Chatterjee. His face disfigured as a result of prolonged police torture, Kaka is still seen in protest rallies in Calcutta. Though the dots cannot be joined in a straight line from Naxalbari to Lalgarh or Sukma, their true political legacy continues today in the jungles and backward regions of India.



It was as a part of PWG's cultural wing, Gaddar became the revolutionary balladeer
Factionalism that had started in the ranks of Naxals even before Charu Majumdar died eventually led the political movement to a dead end. In 1980, with the founding of Peoples War Group in Andhra Pradesh by Kondapalli Seetharamaiah began the second phase of the Naxal movement. In 1992, police action led to killing and arrest of a large number of PWG men – dealing a blow to the movement. Between 1987 and 1992, another Naxal group – Maoist Communist Centre, MCC led deadly attacks in Bihar, mainly against upper caste landlords.

Kishenji, one of the most brazen Maoist leaders, briefing the press at Lalgarh
Present phase – which experts call the third phase - of the Naxal movement started in 2001 with the PWG decision to arm Peoples Guerilla Army with modern weapons. Andhra Pradesh has been the hot bed of this movement. In 2003, the then Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu survived an attack similar to Bastar attack when PWG guerillas attacked his convoy in Chittoor. The movement got a shot in the arm with the merger of PWG and MCC in 2004, which led to the formation of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Today Naxals are believed to be present in over 165 districts in 14 states but are most active in certain districts of Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Bengal. Instead of starry eyed student guerillas of the 70s, today they draw their support from the poorest tribals and landless people. They are much better armed, organized and ruthless. They are more successful than their romantic predecessors mainly because they have raised the issues closest to the people they represent. It is also a measure of their success that they have forced political parties to take up issues like forest rights and tribal backwardness. People, strategy and locations have changed but the grievances of the marginalized have only multiplied in last three decades or so and that is what – despite this terrible violence - keeps Naxalism alive.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Other Legacies of Vivekananda


Some of my friends questioned the main contention of my previous post on Swami Vivekananda - they felt that I tried to give an impression that introducing Hinduism and Indian philosophy to general population abroad is Swamiji’s chief legacy. In fact I tried to highlight just one aspect of his enduring legacy as a pioneer of Indian soft power ascendancy in the West. Within India I feel there are two important legacies of Swami Vivekananda – a proud nationalism more in a cultural sense than political and the legacy of service. Two separate organizations – Sangh Parivar and Ramakrishna Mission, respectively, have emerged as the primary torch-bearers for these two distinct legacies. It is important to remember that if one goes by his writings and recorded speeches, Swami Vivekananda was not always consistent in terms of his views and at times was even self-contradictory. Today therefore when we look at his legacy we must remember that this is how he has been interpreted by different people and organizations, which in turn led to continuation of these legacies.
M S Golwalkar
In 1963, while Ramakrishna Mission made acquisition of Vivekananda’s ancestral house the chief focus of their centenary celebration, RSS decided to build a national memorial and a nation-wide movement around it. Ramakrishna Mission’s project eventually was completed almost four decades later following a protracted legal battle. On the other hand, RSS Chief Golwalkar appointed Eknath Ranade, an energetic former Secretary General of RSS to spearhead this project. Before talking about Ranade’s spectacular success, let me go back to Guru Golwalkar – in his youth he joined Ramakrishna Mission and took diksha from Swami Akhandananda, a direct disciple of Ramakrishna and a pioneer of service in the Mission. Golwalkar went back to RSS after Akhandananda’s death – reportedly following his guru’s last wishes. Though founded by Hedgewar, who took inspiration from Savarkar and Maharastrian variety of Hindu nationalism (Hedgewar himself studied medicine in Calcutta between 1910-14 and admired Aurobindo Ghosh and Bankim Chandra), it was Golwalkar who defined the RSS philosophy for successive generations in his book – We or Our Nationhood Defined. Perhaps it was his short stay at Ramakrishna Mission with Swami Akhandananda, which prompted Golwalkar to introduce the concept of service in RSS fold.

Vivekananda Rock Memorial
After deciding on the site for Vivekananda Memorial at Kanyakumari, where Swamiji meditated for three days before leaving for Chicago, Ranade started building a full-fledged movement to collect necessary resources. He enlisted the support of a large number of politicians cutting across party lines; collected money from more than 30 lakh ordinary citizens by distributing Vivekananda’s posters/folders and even army units contributed for the project. It took four years to build the now famous monument at the southern tip of the country. Once it was done, the focus shifted to building of an organization – Vivekananda Kendras. This was to be the service affiliate of RSS, focusing on its twin objectives – man-making and nation-building. In half a century since then this organization – formally a special affiliate of RSS – has grown into one of the largest socio-cultural organizations in the country. Today it has 234 branches and runs a large number of schools, medical camps, and cultural organizations across the country with millions of people directly associated with it. It tries to reach out through soft cultural or social messages to marginal population or those who are not enamoured by open right-wing political campaigning. Other Sangh parivar outfits, particularly ABVP, routinely project Vivekananda as a youth icon. Vivekananda was responsible for instilling a great degree of pride in our (mainly Hindu) heritage and that way it may not be out of place to hail him as a nationalist icon. But the crucial difference is in approach – Sangh Parivar’s nationalist agenda is exclusionary whereas his was always inclusionary.

RK Mission Relief Work (from Mission's official website
Between 1890 and 1893, Swami Vivekananda travelled through a large part of India, mostly on foot and begging for food, not always successfully. Before this, from 1887 to 1890, he was trying to establish Ramakrishna Math with his brother monks braving crushing poverty. This tryst with poverty and real India opened his eyes in a way unseen in case of other great Indians of 19th and early 20th century. His experience of widespread starvation, illiteracy and resultant backwardness forced him to adopt seva (service to humanity) as sadhana instead of sticking only to religious activities. He was continuously writing to his brother monks to emphasize that a person has to be first provided food, educated and then only he would be in a position to appreciate his own spirituality. It is also important to remember that in his lifetime service was hardly the central theme of the Mission and even his attitude to service was at times ambivalent. Over the years, Ramakrishna Math and Mission has evolved into India’s premier humanitarian agency, providing healthcare, education and other facilities not only in towns and villages but also in remotest parts of the country from Arunachal to insurgency-affected areas of central India. It is also a pioneer in disaster relief – a service, through which the likes of Akhandananda, initiated the Math and Mission’s commitment to daridra-narayan-seva. Ramakrishna Mission does run programmes focusing on Vedanta, cultural heritage and other themes. In the USA, it mainly focuses on such activities. But today the main focus of the organization, which is the living embodiment of Vivekananda’s visions, is on managing and perfecting a complex web of service it offers across a vast geography of the subcontinent, including Bangladesh.
Though RSS and its affiliates have appropriated and in a sense expanded Vivekananda’s legacy of proud nationalism, it incorporated service also in its agenda, mainly through Vivekananda Kendras. On the other hand, within India, over the years, service has become prime focus of Ramakrishna Mission though it continues to work on his legacy of cultural nationalism/projection of Indian spirituality both in India and abroad.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Budget Story


James Wilson
James Wilson arrived in India in 1859 as the first Finance Member of the Viceregal Council, entrusted with the job to establish a tax structure, paper currency and generally improve the fiscal health of the country, which went nearly bankrupt as a result of the Great Revolt of 1857. Wilson, who died of dysentery within a year, was the man responsible for introduction of income tax in India. As Kautilya reminded us, taxation and warfare has a very close relation, income tax or rather the introduction of income tax is closely related to warfare – it was introduced in the UK in 1799 for the first time to fight Napoleonic wars. The word Budget itself originated from French Bougette, meaning purse or leather bag – till date our finance ministers invariably pose with a briefcase on their way to budget presentation.
Liaquat Ali Khan

Since Wilson, successive Finance Members of the Viceroy’s Council were responsible for presenting the annual financial statement of the government, till the role was taken over by an elected Finance Minister. Many believe that it was the (in)famous budget of Liaquat Ali Khan, Muslim League leader and Finance Minister in the Interim Government of 1946, which led the Congress leadership to make up their mind for the Partition. Khan proposed 25% tax on business profits over one lakh, introduced capital gains and proposed a commission to unearth tax evasion. All these scared the top industrialists of the country, most of whom were Congress fund raisers like G D Birla, Jamnalal Bajaj. This budget, however, is hailed in Pakistani nationalist history as Khan’s great Poor Man’s Budget. It was also the daily difficulties in dealing with Liaquat Ali Khan’s strict expenditure control – Patel quipped that he could not even appoint a Peon due to Khan’s objections – that drove Congress leaders to exasperation. Khan, who was born in a royal family in Karnal, Haryana and fought election from Western UP, went on to become Pakistan’s first Prime Minister and was assassinated at the same ground, where Benazir Bhutto was killed in 2007. 1947 budget was largely drafted in his mansion in New Delhi’s Tilak Marg, which is today the official residence of the Pakistani High Commissioner, though it is not known to what extent it was influenced by his wife, Gul-e- Rana, who used to teach economics at IP College.
Gul-e- Rana (nee Sheila Ireme Pant)
[His wife, his second wife to be precise, was a remarkable character herself. Born Shiela Irene Pant at Almora in a Kumaoni Brahmin family, recently converted to Christianity, she was a brilliant student of Lucknow University. While working as a lecturer at IP College, she met Khan when the latter came to deliver a lecture at the college. She converted to Islam while marrying Khan and went to Pakistan with her husband, where she immersed herself in nation building. Later on she served in many prestigious posts, including as Governor of Sindh. Today she is hailed as the Mother of Pakistan!]

Sanmukham Chetty: Independent India's first Finance Minister, like Chidambaram, he also belonged to the small but famous business community of Tamil Nadu, Nattukottai Chettiars
After Independence, Nehru chose R K Shanmukham Chetty as the first Finance Minister for his expertise on the subject. It was a controversial choice as Chetty was known to be pro-British in his political outlook. Chetty had to quit soon as there were allegations that he was favouring certain mills of Coimbatore. On his departure, John Mathai, who had to vacate the post earlier to Liaquat Ali Khan in the Interim government, was brought back. From Chetty to Chidambaram, India had a total of 25 individuals as the country’s Finance Ministers so far. In a rare coincidence, both the present President and Prime Minister are former Finance Ministers of the country. In 66 years of independent India, actually more than 80 budgets, including interim budgets have been presented. Morarji Desai presented the highest number of budget – 10 altogether. Three sitting Prime Ministers – all from the same family – Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi – have presented Union Budget in the Lok Sabha. Two Finance Ministers have become President so far – R Venkataraman and Pranab Mukherjee. Four Finance Ministers have gone on to become Prime Ministers till date – Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, V P Singh and Manmohan Singh. The only lady to hold the post till date was Indira Gandhi, who was her own Finance Minister between 1969 and 1971. The most historic budget without any doubt was that of Dr Singh’s in June, 1991, when he formally initiated the process of economic liberalization. Apart from him, in more than two decades since 1991, four other Finance Ministers have presented Union Budget – Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha, Pranab Mukherjee and P Chidambaram, who will be presenting this year’s budget too. Chidambaram, like the first Finance Minister Chetty, belongs to the small Nattukottai Chettiar caste, known for their business acumen in Tamil Nadu and across South East Asia.
On his way to presenting the historic budget of 1991
James Wilson, liberal economist and political thinker, is known to posterity more as a founder of Standard Chartered Bank and also, of one of the world’s most influential publications, The Economist. It was in 2007 that a tax official, C P Bhatia, researching on India’s tax history, re-discovered Wilson’s grave in Calcutta’s Mullick Bazaar Cemetery. His grave may remain neglected even today but come the budget day, it would be Chidambaram’s pronouncements on income tax that you and me would wait most eagerly.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Swami Vivekananda at the Confluence of East and West


Shrinwantu vishwe amritasya putra/arya dhamani divyani tashtu/vedamayetam purusham mahantam/aditya varanam tamasa parastath/tvameva vidithvati, mrityu methi/nanyah pantha vidyathe ayanaya

“Sisters and brothers of America!” – this opening invocation of Swami Vivekananda was followed by thunderous applause. It was 9/11, 1893. Chicago Art Institute was the venue for World Parliament of Religions, celebrating 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World. The young Vedantic went on to greet the youngest nation in the world on behalf of the most ancient order of monks in the world. At a stage, where every speaker was bent upon claiming superior status for his own religion or sect, Vivekananda humbly submitted that no religion was superior and all the streams would meet eventually in the ocean. He struggled very hard to cross half the world and reach Chicago uninvited. But finally when his moment came, Swami Vivekananda became the cynosure of all eyes. This epoch-making speech would soon open the door for Indian philosophy and religion in the West and help to pave the way for revitalization of Hinduism back home.
Swami Vivekananda at World Parliament of Religions

For the next two years Vivekananda gave public lectures and private classes in the USA on Hinduism, Indian philosophy and Yoga. This was West’s first direct introduction to Indian spirituality. Before him only a handful of academicians in the West were acquainted with these subjects. Through Vivekananda, common people for the first time came to realize India’s great spiritual wealth. Till then India was regarded as a backward colony, where – they thought – the only way of salvation was to send more missionaries to spread the message of Christ. On the other hand, a new generation aware of the strains caused by materiality of industrialization and mass urbanization found solace in Vivekananda’s teachings. As Romain Rolland – the great French writer and biographer of both Ramakrishna and Vivekananda – was to write later, the impact of Vivekananda’s lectures was simply electrifying. From the USA, he travelled twice to England in 1895 and 1896. He met some of the great thinkers of his age in London and also attracted a large number of followers. When he travelled back to India, a number of them came along with him – one of them was Margaret Elizabeth Noble, Sister Nivedita, who would stay back to promote women’s education in India.
Belur Math

On May 1, 1897, when Ramakrishna Mission was formally inaugurated at Belur, it had three units – Belur, Ramakrishna Mission of Madras and Vedanta Society New York, which Swamiji founded back in 1894. Very few people know that almost the entire Belur Math was built through the donation of Swamiji’s select western pupils. Even today Ramakrishna Mission, which has its branches in 20 countries outside India, has maximum number of centres outside India in the USA. Unlike in India, where Ramakrishna Mission centres typically combine education and social service with promotion of Vedantic philosophy and classical culture; centres in the US solely focus on philosophy and culture. Today transcendental meditation, Yoga, Indian philosophy, Hindu and Buddhist religions are some of the strongest points in enhancing India’s soft power quotient in the West. Many Indian religious teachers and organizations have since followed the same path to their Western audiences but it was the pioneering mission of Swami Vivekananda to introduce spiritual India in the West.
A part of Chicago's busy Michigan Avenue is named after Swami Vivekananda
 
It was his reception in the West, which brought the spotlight on him back home. He sailed abroad at a time, when others were busy in deciding the punishment for kalapani for a monk. When he came back triumphant, a subjugated nation found her confidence in his success. In Sri Aurobindo’s language, Vivekananda awakened India spiritually. This awakening came in the context of emerging nationalism and helped young people of India to find their inspiration in their civilization. Like all great Indians of his generations – Rabindranath, Jamshedji Tata – Vivekananda was greatly inspired by the success of Japan. In Japanese success they saw India’s future. On one side, Vivekananda acknowledged India’s past greatness but on the other hand he was equally pained to see ignorance and poverty all around. He was unwavering in his belief that the only way to rescue this country was through education and science and technology – nanyah pantha vidyathe ayanaya. Impressed by this young sadhu, when his co-passenger Jamshedji Tata offered him a large amount for his math, Swamiji asked him to build a scientific institution with that money – this led to the foundation of Indian Institute of Science, IISc Bangalore.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ravi Shankar: Strings of Power


 
On Sunday 1 August, 1971, a unique charity concert was organized at the most high profile centre of American music – New York’s Madison Square Garden. This concert, planned for the victims of a devastating cyclone and ongoing liberation war in Bangladesh, was the first charity concert ever to be held. The concert, a brainchild of Pandit Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, was initially planned at a much lower scale but enthusiastic response from fellow musicians forced them to look for a bigger stage. Among the participants that day apart from Ravi Shankar and Harrison were Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. A record crowd cheered them through the day, the organizers managed to raise huge amount of aid and for years afterwards, records of the concert continued on the top grossers’ list. But for India, there was a much larger gain. This concert was organized at a time when President Nixon’s administration was hardening its stance against New Delhi in the ongoing dispute between India and Pakistan over Bangladesh and despatched a US warship to Bay of Bengal. But this concert helped to change the perception – overnight everyone knew about the plight of Bangladesh and there was a discernible change in public mood. Decades before concepts like cultural diplomacy and soft power entered our foreign policy vocabulary, Indian classical music became one of India’s greatest soft power tools in the West and Pandit Ravi Shankar our most important cultural ambassador.
It, of course, should not come as a surprise for someone, who made his stage debut at the age of 11 in Paris, albeit as a dancer! Ravi Shankar's elder brother Uday Shankar was the original Indian cultural ambassador, pioneering Indian performing arts tradition in Europe and America. Uday Shankar presented the first vision of Indian classical dance to the Western audience in the 1920s in partnership with the celebrated Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. Later on he established his own dance company Uday Shankar Dance Troupe with his signature creative dance along with noted French dancer Simkie and a number of classical Indian dancers and musicians. Their presentation of Indian themes along with typical Indian music and dance in European style ballet format was the first taste of Indian performing arts for the West. Ravi Shankar toured with this troupe from a young age as a dancer and got his exposure to Western art and classical music and of course cinema, which remained his lifelong passion.
Uday Shankar with Anna Pavlova
 

It was a time when Indian classical dance traditions - so far confined to temples and houses of pleasure - were being given a new respectability by two men - Rabindranath at Shantiniketan and Uday Shankar, first in Europe and then briefly at Almora (where among his students were Guru Dutt and Zohra Sehgal). Yet young Ravi decided to opt for instrumental music and shifted to Maihar with Baba Alauddin Khan, who was a part of the Uday Shankar's troupe. He re-emerged on the classical musical scene after a rigorous ten year long training at Maihar and joined IPTA and then worked as music director of All India Radio between 1949 and 1955. It was during this period he composed the now famous music of Sare Jahan Se Achcha. He was also the music director for Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy and a number of Hindi movies including Anuradha and Godaan. Since 1956, he relentlessly toured around the world almost till the very end, often performing with famous musicians from other traditions like classical orchestra, Jazz, Pop and Rock. His association with the Beatles made him a household name in the West. From the 1970s, he was acknowledged as one of the greatest living cultural icons of the world.
 
Ravi shnakar and George Harrison
 Pandit Ravi Shankar was born in Varanasi as Rabindra Shankar Choudhury to his musician-philosopher cum barrister father Shyam Shankar and mother Hemangini Devi. He moved from Varanasi to Paris and then back to Maihar and then to Mumbai, where he founded his now world famous Kinnara School of Music, before embarking on a global career and settling down in California. His personal life has been controversial and perhaps unacceptable to many. As far as his art is concerned, it is for the experts to judge his original contribution to Indian classical music. But for India as a civilization, Ravi Shankar's greatest contribution has been to build bridges through his art. Not only during the time of Uday Shankar but even in the 1950s, when Ravi Shankar (and his fellow musicians, most notably his brother-in-law Ali Akbar) started touring the West, Indian classical music was still something exotic. It was his great ability to connect to a diverse range of influential people, particularly great musicians like George Harrison, Yehudi Menuhin and above all his prowess as an extraordinary musical performer, which helped to popularize Indian classical music all over the world. His performance on the stage was always on the borderline of sensuality and spirituality - at the same time he was able to highlight the richness of Indian music and portray Indian spiritualism through his art. When his sitar finally fell silent after more than seven decades of performance, Indian classical music has become mainstream, accepted all over the world as one of the greatest cultural traditions of the mankind – this in turn hugely enhanced India’s soft power quotient and lifted her status in the committee of nations - this will remain Ravi Shankar's immortal legacy.

 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Durga Puja: National Festival of Bengalis

The year was 1757. After defeating Siraj-ud-Daula, Robert Clive was the new Nawab of Bengal. Raja Nabakrisha Deb, one time Munshi to Warren Hastings and co-conspirator of Mir Jafar and Jagat Seth decided to say thanks to Devi Durga. After all, he was one of the largest beneficiaries of Palashi – he earned 8 crore rupees as his share of the loot and a lot more by selling land to the company in Calcutta. When Robert Clive wondered how he could attend a Hindu religious ceremony –Jagannath Tarkapanchanan, the greatest living authority on the Shastrasin Bengal, produced a ‘bidhan’ authorizing the firangi King to offer his prayer. Thus the first Durga Puja of Calcutta started with a British patron and beautiful Muslim tawwaifs or nautch girls, as Clive would have described them, providing most of the entertainment.


This year's Puja at Shovabazar Rajbari
 

Very soon other notables of the city also started organizing Durga Puja. It was difficult to say whether it remained an elitist affair because it required large amount of money or it was so designed to ensure Durga Puja’s elite character. At any rate, for the next 150 years, Durga Puja in Calcutta remained a zamindari affair with 10-day long festivities. Success was largely measured by the attendance of top British officials and beautiful baijees. For ordinary folks, there was kabir lorai or tarja(competition of songs/verses), Jatra(folk theatre) and many other forms of popular entertainment. It would be factually inaccurate to say that the Durga Puja originated in Calcutta, but there can hardly be any doubt that the Puja as we know it today evolved largely in the city of Calcutta. Devi Puja or worship of mother goddess had always been a dominant religious belief in the east. According to legends, Raja Kansha Narayan of Taherpur, Nadia introduced Durga puja in modern times. This was sometime in the 15th century. In all probability this Raja was little more than a Zamindar but somehow the trend caught up with other Zamindars and elites of Bengal.

Calcutta's first Sarbojonin Durga Puja: final touches to Pratima at Bhawanipore Sanatan Dharmaotsahini Sabha - this is the 103 anniversary



From the second half of the 19thcentury, as the city was growing towards the South, a new gentry was coming into prominence. This new service gentry was settled around Bhawanipore rather than North Calcutta localities like Chitpur, Shyambazar or Shovabazar, where the 19thcentury feudal elites resided. It was in this socio-economic context, a shift took place at the turn of the century. In 1910, some youngsters from Bhawanipore decided to organize a different type of Durga Puja. They collected money from everyone and decided to hold the Puja at a community ground rather than inside someone’s house. This Puja organized by the Bhawanipore Sanatan Dharmotsahini Sabha at Balaram Basu Ghat Street was the first public Puja and in a way marked the beginning of present day Durga Puja culture. Today most Pujas are described as Sarbojonin(lit. for all, meaning the entire community) or in more colloquial terms as baroyari(lit. organized by 12 yaar or friends) Puja. Century old Pujas of North Calcutta on the other hand have become something of a rapidly disappearing cultural tradition. These Pujas - banedi barir Puja – today are more known for their commitment to age-old traditions rather than glitz and glamour.




 
By 1950s, most of the Calcutta parasstarted having their own Sarbojonin Puja. Three decades – from 1950s to early 1980s – could be identified as the period of classic SarbojoninPuja culture. This was a phase where everyone in the locality would come forward to organize a Puja, which would be a modest affair, to be followed by cultural functions. This was the time, when best of Bengali talents – singers like Hemanta Mukhopadhyay or Shyamal Mitra would be the star attraction of late night jalsa. HMV would come out with its best song offerings, entitled Pujor Dali/Sharad Arghya. This was also the time when Sharadiya or Puja special issues of Desh and other magazines would showcase best Bengali literary talent. There was a lot of shopping then also but Durga Puja was more of a time for community bonding and showcasing of great cultural traditions.
 
From the late 1980s, decoration/lighting of Puja pandals emerged as the main crowd-pulling factor. This slowly became linked with the business of Puja – large number of sponsors gave big Pujas a different colour altogether. This also brought the local politician/tough guy in the scene. No doubt Puja provided a great platform to connect with the local people but more than that this involvement was needed to bring in more funds and sponsorships. First of the competitions – most notably Asian Paints Sharad Samman –started around this time. There was an unmistakable element of commercialization. Gradually, there was a list of must-see Pujas – College Square (especially for lighting), Md Ali Park, Sealdah, Ekdalia Evergreen, Mudiali and so on. There was a north Calcutta route and a south Calcutta route– one was expected to cover these mandatory pandal-hopping. People from suburbs and far off places started pouring in to Calcutta to see these Pujas. Big budget Pujas of suburbs or other parts of Bengal started imitating Calcutta trends in pandal designing and lighting.


 
Theme Puja: Durga in a China-themed Puja pandal - Mahisasur appears as (smiling) Chinese demon

With the new millennium, the new trend of“theme Puja” emerged. Socio-economic energy in the city has now shifted more towards outlying areas/suburbs. They found a new expression of their identity in promoting big-budget Pujas with specialist designer and artisans from different corners of the country. Behala was a pioneer in breaking new grounds with clubs like Sristi and Sahajatri leading the way. Behala was followed by such localities we never heard before one particular Puja, when their beautiful pandal brought the entire city to their thus far unheralded locality – in this way we came to know places like Badamtala (Asad Sangha), Bosepukur (Sitala Mandir) or Dum Dum Park (Bharatchakra). At the same time, residents of places like Salt Lake or new housing complexes tried to re-capture the true community spirit of Durga Puja by celebrating modest Pujas with their own cultural function and community lunch/dinner during the Puja days. Today there are these three clear prototypes of Durga Puja in Calcutta – Pujas based on theme, Pujas which celebrate team or community spirit and Pujas, which celebrate heritage. 

  For Bengalis, whether they are in Bengal or the original prabasi(settled for long time in other Indian cities) or the new generation prabasi(anywhere from Ireland to Finland but mostly in the US) Durga Puja is the most important community event to re-discover and celebrate their unique socio-cultural heritage. For Bengalis, irrespective of their location, Durga Puja has long become a social event rather than a religious festival. In recent years, despite the continuous downward slide of Calcutta as an economic centre, Durga Puja has been elevated to a public art festival, where the entire city is converted into an open air art exhibition during these four-five days, showcasing some of the best folk arts of India.
 

 
Most major festivals in India are celebrated in private or in a mixture of public and private. There are two major exceptions – Durga Puja in Calcutta/Bengal and Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai/Maharashtra, which are absolutely public festivals. It is worthwhile to recall that both the festivals evolved into their present characters around the same time (before becoming a sarbojoninevent, Ganesh Chaturthi was limited to Chitpavan Brahmin families, it was turned into a public celebration by Bal Gangadhar Tilak). Basic purpose was of course to mobilize communities at the height of Swadeshi movement –so community and nationalism, both found expression in these celebrations. A century down the line, across the world, Durga Puja continues to be the most important cultural expression of Bengali identity.