Thursday, May 14, 2009

The politics of ‘Ruddhasangeet’

Bratyajoner Ruddhasangeet (Stifled Song of an Outcast) is the autobiography of Debabrata (George) Biswas, a legend in the world of Rabindranath Tagore’s Bengali songs, a form commonly known as Rabindra Sangeet. The musical career of Biswas started way back in the early forties. During the sixties he had already grown into a phenomenon, gripping the ardent Rabindra Sangeet followers with his deep, non-crooning and passionate voice. Biswas had a unique style of singing. Gleamed with enunciated pronunciation and sensitive modulation his performances could bring in life and vivacity into the songs. To many of his fans the sound of his voice resembled the voice of black American singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. However, from 1964 onwards, the ostensive purists of the Vishwabharati Sangeet Board had started raising objections about his presentation style on the ground that Biswas was altering the conventional tune-notations with melodic excesses and wrong tempo. He was also accused for overusing western instruments in the prelude and interlude section of the songs. As the copyright owners of Tagore’s works, the Vishwabharati Sangeet Board was authoritatively controlling all Rabindra Sangeet recordings at that time. It was compulsory for every artist to get their sanction before commercially producing any Rabindra Sangeet record. Deeply hurt by the dictates, an uncompromising Biswas was reluctant to bow down before the so-called exponents and experts of this puritan establishment. Initially he had braced himself to fight with the Board but later decided on his own to stop recording any more songs. The detailed story of this famous conflict was unfolded in his fascinating autobiography published in 1979. The following year on August 18, Debabrata Biswas was dead.

Besides his legendary persona as a Rabindra Sangeet artiste, Debabrata Biswas was once a card carrying communist. From its founding days Biswas was an active member of Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA), the cultural front of undivided Communist Party of India. He had joined the organization under the instruction of Muzaffar Ahmed, one of the pioneers of the communist movement in India. Born from the ‘Anti-Fascist Writers Association’, IPTA (known as Gananatya Sangha in Bengal) was launched in 1943 during the stormy days of the Quit India movement. It was also the peak stage of the Second World War when fascist forces were nearing to the Soviet Union. The draft resolution of the IPTA conference in 1943 had stated that, “The immediate problems facing the people are external aggression by the Fascist hordes who are the deadliest enemies of freedom and culture; internal repression by an alien Government which seeks to hold our people in subjection and prevent them from organizing an effective defense of their homeland…” The primary objective of the IPTA was to bring all progressive, left-leaning and politically conscious writers and artists together on an anti-imperialist, anti-fascist platform that can function as a social and cultural bridge between the party and the masses and gradually emerge as a socio-political weapon without ignoring the artistic aspires.

Shaken up by the grim realities of the devastating Great Bengal famine of 1943 which had caused nearly three million starvation deaths, many creative artists and intellectuals became associated with IPTA to awaken, inspire and agitate the masses for a revolutionary change. Several cultural squads were formed from various provinces and regions of the country. With great enthusiasm the artistes tried to reach out to the people through their literature, plays, song and ballets. Numerous Gananatya songs, ballets like Shahider Dak (Call of the Martyr) and Bijon Bhattacharya’s play Nabanna (New Crop) had created a big sensation among the people. The IPTA impact as a mass cultural movement on the Indian cultural scene was tremendous. To create a people’s art, the IPTA artists experimented with various art forms, related them with social contents and carried them to the rural interiors of the country. Through a socially committed approach they have significantly transformed the customary norms and practices of various art forms and were instrumental to give rise to a new form of culture. Along with Debabrata Biswas, many later day cultural icons of Bengal like Jotirindra Moitra, Binoy Roy, Chittaprasad, Bijon Bhattacharya, Hemanga Biswas, Suchitra Mitra, Ritwik Ghatak, Shombhu Mitra, Tripti Mitra, Utpal Dutt and Salil Chowdhury were the direct products of IPTA. Later in his life, Biswas used to fondly describe his IPTA days as Anandaniketan (abode of happiness).

Undeniably, a major inspiration to the 1940s IPTA movement was the Communist Party General Secretary Puran Chand Joshi. Though he was a man of politics, P C Joshi’s deep affection and understanding concerning art and artists had helped him to gather a brilliant team of creative personalities under the IPTA banner and delicately nurture the organization with the right kind of leadership. A man of remarkable human qualities, he was credited for encouraging “individuality among intellectuals and their growth and development along their own personality and taste, their own trajectory, even while urging them to put their talents at the service of the Indian people.” (Source) But the P C Joshi era of the Communist Party was short-lived. In the 1948 Party Congress, Joshi was removed from his post and gradually sidelined after being severely criticized for advocating unity with Indian National Congress (INC). After Joshi’s exit from the party leadership, the Communist Party’s widespread influence among intellectuals went into a steady decline. Under the new General Secretary B T Ranadive, the Party began moving towards an ultra-left line. Consequently, the IPTA was split into two camps – one supported the ultra-left Ranadive line, and the other strongly tried to oppose it. Instead of providing an effective cultural leadership, the party under Ranadive started dominating and dictating the artists. Personal and political conflicts brewed to overlap on each other. A large number of creative personalities started feeling stifled. Confused and frustrated by the internal developments along with the growing divisions in the international communist movement, many of them started leaving IPTA. In 1950, the party removed Ranadive for committing extreme and sectarian mistakes, for implementing unjust disciplinary actions against several party leaders and for taking up a ‘left adventurist’ line of struggles that has resulted in loss of life of several party members. (Source) But by the time, the effect of the Ranadive line has already taken its toll on the IPTA movement. A disheartened Debabrata Biswas parted from the IPTA and surrendered his party membership in the mid-fifties realizing that his Anandaniketan has turned into Dandaniketan (abode of torment).

Unlike several of his fellow travelers, Biswas had always maintained a dignified restrain about criticizing his party leadership and on many occasions lamented over the painful decease of the movement. Instead, he was bitingly critical about the role of his fellow IPTA artists and also strikingly self-critical. In his later years, he had expressed that the failure of IPTA was the result of a mistaken perception of the cultural movement. In a letter to Hemanga Biswas, he had written the following words which will spell out his viewpoint on the movement:

“I got involved with the Gananatya movement from the conviction that by awakening mass consciousness we can bring revolution in the country. But by carrying out my made in Calcutta and Bombay subject matter to the nook and corners of the villages and towns, by performing songs or screening Shahider Dak for years, I have failed to penetrate even half an inch among the people. I came to realize that it is necessary to learn the language, customs, tradition and practices of different districts and its rural communities – to do so it is essential to live among the village folks and get educated by them. Being employed at Kolkata, I could not avail the opportunity. The condition of the people remained unchanged. I had befallen to a wrong path. I do accept my mistake. You didn't do me any justice by saying that just hearing the name of Gananatya makes me mad.”

This is the backdrop of Ruddhasangeet, a much hyped theatre production recently being staged in Kolkata by a newly formed theater group Bratyajon. The group is steered by the upstart actor-director Bratya Basu who has also scripted and directed the play. By narrating the life and times of Debabrata Biswas, Bratya Basu has got on an ideal subject that has sufficient components to demonstrate how “the creative spirit has always been dominated by institutions with those in power never allowing individuals to flourish”. Answering to the question why he has chosen this particular subject, Bratya Basu has replied, “I see him (Debabrata Biswas) as someone who had the courage to take on the establishment for his artistic freedom, for what he believed in. And I think as an artiste, I too am going through a similar struggle”. (Source) Ruddhasangeet is therefore Bratya Basu’s statement about how artists should “continue fighting against the forces that try to bind or stifle them”. Make no mistake, the stinging indictment of the establishment depicted in the play is squarely referring to no other but the ‘blatantly anti-people’ CPI(M) establishment. The subject has provided him a wide-ranging scope to exploit the indistinct areas from the life saga of Debabrata Biswas and fill them with his own anti-CPI(M) populist agenda.

Compared to the much larger space Biswas had devoted in his autobiography to describe every minute details of his conflict with Visva-Bharati, the book hardly covers anything about how ‘artistic talents have been suppressed or regimented’ during the Ranadive era of IPTA. But so what? The over excited Indian Express in a recent feature article has jumped into the bandwagon of half-truths and whole lies to establish that Biswas was nothing but a ‘Communist dissenter’ who became ‘disillusioned with the Communists’ and expressed his ‘anguish with the party’ in the autobiography. (Source) Was Biswas actually disillusioned with the Communists or with the middle class pettiness of his fellow artists of IPTA? This is a debatable and knotty question that Ruddhasangeet has carefully avoided to portray.

The reason behind the ‘courageous’ excitement of the Indian Express is clear. The newspaper has obviously cherished the ultimate intention of Ruddhasangeet – its “stinging indictment of the CPM establishment in the state” that has “created ripples across the political and cultural spectrum”. It also took great pleasure to find that the play has tried to capture the “ruthless domination of cultural personalities in West Bengal under a repressive Communist regime”. The article has vividly described the Ritwik Ghatak episode of the play, where Ghatak while confronting a Communist Party commission chaired by Jyoti Basu, Pramod Dasgupta and Nirmal Ghosh shouts at Dasgupta: “Comrade Promode Dasgupta, I am Ritwik Ghatak...I am telling you, you are feudal. You consider party members as your own bonded labourers.” In real life, Ghatak was renowned for his little or no value emotional outbursts. He had once called the media group Anandabazar Patrika (ABP) a fascist organization and almost immediately corrected himself by saying that the group is actually a CIA agent! In fact, the Ritwik Ghatak episode proves nothing so special apart from generating a populist emotion among the audience who may not be fully aware about the complications surrounding the saga. Instead, we can recall how George Biswas was put under duress by the mighty Anandabazar group when Biswas took exception to the announcement of his name as a performer at the “Banga Sanskriti Sammelan” without his consent. The powerful cultural Czar from the group Santosh Kumar Ghosh, to whom Biswas had raised the objection, felt “humiliated” and went after him to lead an anti-George Biswas campaign. To add more music, the Indian Express article did not forget to quote Shaonli Mitra, renowned as the daughter of theatre legends Shambhu and Tripti Mitra. According to Shaonli, “There is a suffocating pressure from the ruling party in all spheres of life… We want change.” Here Shaonli is referring to the continuous campaign by a section of Kolkata artists and intellectuals who has recently put up a vague hoarding all over the city carrying pictures of their own vibrant heads with the statement ‘Vote for Change’.

The anti-CPI(M) tirade of the minuscule group of intellectuals which includes personalities like Bratya Basu and Shaonli Mitra has become a favorite media topic in Bengal. On daily basis, one or the other member of this ‘apolitical’ but utterly insolent to CPI(M) group is invited on TV talk shows to rant and rave against everyone and everything related to CPI(M). Tons of newsprints have been wasted in the hard attempt to popularize their ‘kick the CPM out – bring Mamata’ thesis. One of them has chosen to become a Trinamool candidate in the Lok Sabha elections; one is suspected for grabbing farmland in Bhangor of South 24 Paragana district, one has recently commented in public that by killing CPI(M) leaders and supporters the Maoists have done a good job. While some of them have complained that the veiled threat from the CPI(M) has badly affected their artistic career, in contrast, Bratya Basu’s Ruddhasangeet is “playing to packed galleries at the Academy of Fine Arts”. Isn’t all these instances not enough to prove how the CPI(M) led government has terribly regimented the ‘creative spirits’ in Bengal? Does it not prove how the artists and intellectuals have been barred from protest and dissent?

The CPI(M) baiter intellectuals have attempted to promote their glossy but fictitious agenda through the great support extended towards them by a section of the big media. Riding on the political inertia that has been craftily shaped after the Nandigram episode, these ‘pro-Left but anti-Left Front’ intellectuals are trying to reap maximum harvest from their one and only lofty theme – restoring the democratic environment and freedom of expression from a ‘demonic administration’. To reach their goal, they have chosen a strange bedfellow – Miss Mamata Banerjee. There could be a legitimate reason behind their strange bonding with the Trinamool chieftain. Creative brains always have a keen tendency to feel comfortable among intellectual stupidity.

Even if the upper layer of their ‘movement’ apparently looks woolly and fatuous, underneath there is a deep political conspire. We have to wait and watch how the plot unfolds in the coming days.