Monday, March 16, 2009

Kabir Suman: Mamata Banerjee’s cute ‘Muslim’ candidate

The Congress party (INC) high command has ultimately declared that their party will ally with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the coming Lok Sabha polls in Bengal. After hesitating for some time and begging behind her for no clear reason, the party has finally succumbed to Trinamool chieftain’s effectual arm-twisting. Gulping their own, the party high command has unconditionally accepted all of Mamata’s pre-poll terms and conditions. Though the alliance formula is virtually a sell-out of the Bengal Congress to Mamata's party which has caused extreme dejection of the genuine Congress workers of the state, party leaders sitting in Delhi are showing a brave face. Justifying this meek surrender at Mamata Banerjee’s feet, the tacticians of the Congress party has said that the alliance is shaped in accordance with the ‘aspiration’ of Bengal’s anti-left public – to prevent anti-left votes from splitting. It’s disgraceful to watch the worried face of a century old grand party uncertain about sustaining the minimal influence it holds in certain pockets of Bengal. Is it an alliance, seat adjustment or simple understanding? Will Trinamool cut off its tie with NDA? Is there a possibility of Trinamool joining UPA? All these questions remained unanswered. Obviously, both the sides are not sure enough about the post election scenario.

However, like in all previous elections in Bengal, there is an upbeat atmosphere deliberately manufactured by the local and national print/electronic media to project a sure collapse of the Left and a sure success of this dubious alliance. Apparatchik columnists are working overtime to establish that the Left has reached a tipping point in Bengal and after the TMC-INC alliance “voters have a genuine choice” to push them out.

In a recent article, one Delhi-based armchair economist/columnist is too keyed up to ensure that the readers see only what he desires them to see. By using selective and manipulated statistics that fits his impish agenda of portraying the Left governance in Bengal as a total failure, he has even exceeded Mamata Banerjee’s own estimation on the outcome of the coming election and forecasted 8 seats out of total 42 to the Left! In the same article he has also suggested that “The Left’s governance record doesn’t warrant its being voted back” and loftily counseled the Left that “…some years in opposition may be good”. By sheer excitement the stupid columnist has overlooked the fact that he is not writing in the context of an Assembly poll. The Parliamentary election outcome can’t depose or reinstate the Left in Bengal. Impatient he might feel today but he has no option but to wait till 2011 to know whether the people of Bengal has rejected the Left or not. Also, neither Mamata nor the Congress leaders are in a position to assure whether the present opportunistic alliance is going to continue after the polls or not.

To woo the influential Muslim voters of Bengal, the ecstatic Mamata is now flamboyantly displaying her Muslim compassion and is boastful about her four Muslim candidates. Launching her party’s election campaign from Nandigram, Mamata on Saturday has reportedly said how the Trinamool Congress has selectively placed their Muslim candidates in ‘winning’ seats only. The Left Front in comparison has assigned all ‘losing’ seats for their Muslim candidates to contest. It is hard to identify with this ‘winning seat-losing seat’ jargon as in the last election Trinamool had won only one seat! Interesting enough, one of her Muslim candidate is the infamous Kabir Suman, the agnostic-nihilist-anarchist and self proclaimed polygamous singer. Kabir Suman doesn't believe in the institution of marriage but amazingly has wed five times ‘out of deep respect for the woman’! (The Telegraph, 2 September 2007) Media report suggests that his former German wife Maria had dragged him to court on grounds of torture. His international career as a bride-groom is inert for now following his marriage with Sabina Yasmin, a noted singer from Bangladesh. As a requisite to marry Sabina, he embraced Islam and became a Muslim. Kabir Suman himself has given a different ‘progressive’ reason of his conversion: “I decided to get rid of my Hindu Brahmin identity on the day that Graham Staines and his two boys were burnt alive.” The Australian missionary Graham Staines and his sons were murdered in Keonjhar district of Orissa in January 1999 by Dara Singh, an affiliate of Bajrang Dal – the Hindu hooligan-activist group. The Bajrang Dal is intimately tied up with the hydra-headed RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) just like BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) – its political wing. It is worthy of note that in October the same year, Mamata Banerjee had pompously joined the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and became the Railways Minister.

While announcing her list of female candidates, Mamata Banerjee evidently stated that people should not consider her as a ‘female’ at all as she thinks herself just ‘a human being’. She ‘belongs’ among everything and therefore is above any gender identity. By saying so she has cleared all anxiety from the minds of her devoted admirers who were getting quite nervous about Kabir Suman’s proximity and subsequent encroachment.

Kabir Suman is the only celebrity from the big names of Bengal’s intellectual fraternity and civil society campaigners of Singur-Nandigram agitation who has blissfully agreed to contest the polls with a Trinamool ticket. It is certainly a big disappointment not to find any other ‘awake and aware’ names in the Trinamool list! This ‘cultural crusader’, as the media loves to describe him, has passed adulatory remarks on Mamata to a TV channel immediately after his candidature was announced by her. He proclaimed that Mamata is not only necessary for Bengal or India but is also immensely crucial for the well being of the entire planet!

Recently, in a hot gathering of Trinamool party workers, Kabir Suman elevated his sycophancy to a newer level. He reportedly remarked that “Mamata does not just mean Mamata Banerjee. It means our soil, our earth, water and animals” and asked the party workers to start greeting each other by ‘Jai Mamata’. “Bengal never had any democracy. Today democracy is emerging …” he ecstatically reveled to the crowd. (see link) Kabir Suman carries a sly brain inside his head. Whether he will win the election or lose is a different question but it took him lesser time to grasp the cajoling culture of Trinamool.

In a sense Kabir Suman shares a reciprocal relationship with Mamata. Like Mamata, Kabir Suman also has a stinking mouth. In a protest gathering during the peak Nandigram days, Kabir Suman pulled a girl to the stage and yelled against the CPI(M) leaders, “Son of a whore Laxman Seth, dumbfuck Binoy Kongar, come and rape in CPM style…let’s see what you can do!” (see link) A good section of bhadrolok (gentleman) Bengalis were highly impressed by his ‘let’s kill three CPM everyday’ appeal as a bold and daring attempt to register protest against the CPI(M) ‘atrocities’. He had once enthralled his audience by turning his buttocks towards them and asking them to find out how sweet they are. Otherwise why do his critics, those who “don't have the brains or the balls to understand me” love to pinch them? This firebrand jack of all trades poet-lyricist-composer-singer-journalist-writer-actor-activist’s frequent and spontaneously disgorged F-words are also been appreciated by a section of the ‘cultured’ Bengali middle class who loves to see in him a Bengali Bob Dylan. They get emotionally tempted to admire this lexicon and irreverent attitude. One intense critic of CPI(M) has once furiously written (see link) that the enduring contribution of the thirty two-year rule of the CPI(M) in Bengal is “vulgarization of the Bengali language, vandalization of the Bengali culture”. Why can’t the author, a former Secretary to the Government of India, for once mention that the language of Kabir Suman is similarly “threatening the very basis of Bengali language”? He probably contemplates the language of Kabir Suman as a blow for blow response to the ‘vulgar’ CPI(M) and thus praiseworthy!

In the year 2001, Kabir Suman had created a great fuss when he claimed to receive a phone call threatening to blow up his house. Immediately this former Voice of America (VOA) employee started distributing a chain of e-mails to his friends and well-wishers using a Bangladesh-based website. He wrote in the mail that though he was “…quite used to such threats since 1993” things have become “even worse now” and he is “not feeling safe in Kolkata”. He also alleged that “I have never felt secure in this city and in this state”. (The Times of India, 10 September 2001) This deceitful and obnoxious plot was hatched by him to establish his core agenda: how dangerously unsafe Kolkata has become under the Left rule (read CPIM rule) where a law abiding citizen, especially a ‘Muslim’ like him can be so easily threatened. This is a typical Mamata Banerjee style gimmickry and deception that Kabir Suman has flawlessly adopted. However we still remember that the same law abiding citizen was once reprimanded by the Kolkata police because he was found to be abusing and threatening a popular Bengali screen actor every night on telephone.

Kabir Suman’s entrance into the Bengal cultural milieu in the early 1990s with songs dotted with sympathetic social commentary and bouts of progressivism had acted as a balm on the urban emotions of Bengali youth. In his songs he articulated about his dream of bringing a change in the system, a dream very near and dear to the heart of the Bengali middle class. He sang about his hope to see worldwide collective farms before dying, sang about familiar anger, rages and unknown reconciliation, on endless longing for a classless society, about unsung victims and heroes, about the disgust, disdain and adoration of urban life. His lyrics were highly critical about vote bank politics, has ‘artistically and intellectually’ criticized the mainstream communist parties for adapting the path of parliamentary democracy. His advice to the Rajus and Amits of the younger generation was to keep away from vote politics and bombs which he considered equally dangerous for their future. Today after his candidature was announced, the same Kabir Suman has said, “If anything has to be changed it has to be through parliamentary democracy.” To him, “Trinamool Congress is not merely a political party, it is a movement.” Days are not far when we may find him pronouncing that Trinamool Congress is the only political party and Mamata Banerjee is the only leader ‘not only in Bengal or India but in the entire planet’ that will bring to an end his ‘endless longing for a classless society'.

The French writer Andre Gide once said that a true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception and lies with sincerity. The words of Gide fittingly delineates Mamata Banerjee’s cute and celebrity ‘Muslim’ candidate Kabir Suman.

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Sunday, March 8, 2009

What’s happening in Bangladesh?

From the 25th of February, disturbing news started coming in from Bangladesh. The Pilkhana headquarters of Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) in Dhaka was seized by a mutiny and at least sixty-four army officers along with seven non-army personals including women and children were massacred by the mutineers. The dead includes the BDR chief Major General Shakil Ahmed and other high ranking officers. The killings mainly happened in the ‘Darbar Hall’ inside the BDR premise during the annual gathering of BDR commanders and according to the few survivors most of the killings were done between 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. on the first day. After killing the senior officers, the mutineers stormed the residential officer’s quarters, attacked and dragged out the family members and set the quarters on fire. Gold ornaments, jewelries and money were looted. The dead bodies were disfigured with bayonets and later dumped into nearby sewers and mass graves inside the BDR compound. The full horror of the mutiny became evident when bodies of the slain officers including the wife of the Director General were recovered. The mutiny was also reported to have spread to twelve border districts of the country including Dinajpur, Chittagong, Rajshahi and Naugaon.

Intense rumors of an imminent army take-over soon spread out like wildfire all over Bangladesh. But according to media report, the army chief Moin Ahmed assured Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina by saying that “Rumors are swirling… but the army belongs to you.” His force remained loyal to the civilian government which took over power just in December last year after a landslide victory in the general elections. This assurance reinforced the government to deal with the situation with firm resolve. It was Hasina’s insistence for a political solution of the crisis that the army kept itself away from any direct confrontation with the mutineers. Sheikh Hasina herself met fourteen representative leaders of the BDR rebels and after discussing their grievances initially announced to grant them amnesty. Various leaders and ministers including the Home Minister Sahara Khatun were busy throughout the night to keep dialogues between the government and rebel soldiers open. In a daring act, Ms. Khatun and State Minister Jahangir Kabir Nanak entered the BDR premise at midnight and rescued an injured officer and forty family members who were held hostage by the rebels. However, when all sorts of negotiation failed to make the mutineers to surrender, the government strategically started mobilizing the Army on the second day. Eleven tanks moved in to encircle the Pilkhana complex; people living near the BDR headquarters were evacuated. Hasina addressed the nation in a televised statement and appealed to the troops to surrender the arms. Finally, on 26th of February between 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. the unnerved rebels surrendered by laying down their arms. By then, many of the rebel soldiers had fled their posts. Two hundred mutineers were arrested while trying to escape in civilian outfits. The police started a massive manhunt ‘Operation Rebel Hunt’ throughout the country to capture the fugitive masterminds of the revolt and soon arrested BDR's Deputy Assistant Director Touhidul Alam and four other suspects. According to an official estimate, about two thousand suspected mutineers are still absconding. The government later clarified that the general amnesty announced by Sheikh Hasina will not be applicable for the masterminds who was directly involved with the planning and killings.

Formerly known as East Pakistan Rifles, BDR is presently a 67,000-strong paramilitary force deployed to guard the 4,427 kilometer long Bangladesh boarders with India and Myanmar with additional anti-smuggling operational charge. The force revolted in 1971 against the West Pakistan army by joining the Bangladesh liberation war. After the emergence of Bangladesh the force was renamed as Bangladesh Rifles and emerged as the new country’s leading paramilitary force. BDR administration is mostly controlled by officers from the Bangladesh Army.

Rebel leaders speaking to private television channels affirmed that the mutiny was directed primarily against the corruption of their officers who came from the army. According to them, the other central reasons of the uprising were the disparity of pay, benefits, working conditions and promotional opportunities as compared to their army counterparts. Their 22-point demand includes withdrawal of army officers from the command structure of BDR. The mutineers were initially successful to represent the uprising as a class conflict between exploitive officers and exploited soldiers and accused the officers as abusive and utterly insensitive towards the woes of ordinary soldiers. They claimed that their long-standing grievances were repeatedly raised before the authorities but all fell on deaf ears. Unofficial reports suggested that BDR Director General had promised to discuss their grievances with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina but failed to keep his promise when Hasina visited the barracks on 24 February to inaugurate the BDR week events. The uprising might be partly impulsive though there are ample reasons to suggest that there could be a ‘deep-rooted conspiracy’ behind it.

Since Bangladesh was born in 1971 there were several big and small coup attempts in the country. The country’s history of army coups started in 1975 when Sheikh Hasina’s father, the country's iconic founder president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was brutally assassinated along with his wife and three sons by junior officers of Bangladesh army. Given its history of coups and counter coups, the first thing that obviously appeared in the mind from the uprising was that the country was heading for another coup. The present army leadership’s credible pro-democracy stance has negated this proposition. The cross-border theory of a ‘bigger conspiracy’ involving Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) which has strong pockets of influence in the BDR came next. It suggested that the violence was the handiwork of the ISI, aimed to spoil growing ties between Sheikh Hasina’s government and India. The ISI also wanted to signal India about its capability to stall New Delhi’s growing influence in Bangladesh. Indian media came up with the story of Salauddin Qadeer Chowdhury, a senior Bangladeshi businessman and BNP politician. Involving Chowdhury with the conspiracy for having close links with the ISI, the media reports also stated that the original planning was hatched in Pakistan and then passed on to radical Islamist organizations operating in Bangladesh like the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami (HUJI). Differing to the Indian side story, conspiracy theories were floated within Bangladesh which claimed that India’s external intelligence agency RAW was involved to revenge the death of nineteen of their Border Security Force (BSF) personals killed by the BDR at Padua of Sylhet and Boraibari of Roumary in 2001. The name of Britain based Islamist organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir also popped up which for the last couple of years is known to reckon Bangladesh as its area of interest.

Was it really a deliberate and well crafted attempt to incite the army to apply force, take over power and subsequently destabilize the new democratically elected government? Questions were asked why the mutineers had brutally killed the officers and their family members instead of following the usual method to accomplish their demands by holding the army officers as hostages. The modus operandi of the uprising and latest developments emerging from the investigation is supporting this speculation. Investigators have started gathering evidences which are contrary to the initial perception that the uprising stemmed out of grievances. The perpetrators might have exploited the deprived feelings of the common BDR men and motivated a section of them in the heinous act. Latest revelation from the investigation hints about the presence of uniformed outsiders during the massacre. BDR soldiers who had fled Pilkhana through the back doors and now reporting back are claiming that masked soldiers brandishing guns and firing blank shots forced them to join the revolt. Whatever might be the truth, one thing is certain. The evolving events do suggest that Hasina’s government is fronting an extremely intricate problem to deal with. It has to move cautiously otherwise the ramification could turn disastrous.

Sheikh Hasina’s well-known pro-India stand has caused enough displeasure to the pro-Pakistan elements of Bangladesh. Fingers of suspicion are been pointed towards the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, their extensive network of grassroot organizations and the former Razakar and Al-Badars – who has regrouped within the Jamaat fold. These are the atrocious elements that had collaborated with the Pakistan Army during the nine months long Bangladesh’s Mukti Juddho (liberation war) and staged the mass genocide of millions of their own people and enforced million others to flee to neighboring India as refugees. After Mujibur Rahman was assassinated, Zia Ur Rahman helped to resettle these Islamist collaborators in Bangladesh politics. He legalized Jamaat-e-Islami as a political party, allowed them to carry on with their vicious socio-political activities and had also permitted Jamaat leader Golam Azam to return to Bangladesh from his exile. Azam’s citizenship was previously nullified by Mujibur Rahman for his resolute opposition to creation of Bangladesh. After the resettlement, Jamaat-e-Islami continued to flourish and strengthened their base at the time of General Hossain Mohammad Ershad’s regime in areas like Chittagong, Sylhet and Rajshahi and steadily became politically important in Bangladesh. Jamaat allied with Zia Ur Rahman’s wife Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), lead a four-party coalition government during 2001-2006 and held two Ministries in the government. There is little doubt that Jamaat-e-Islami has a sizeable presence in the country’s rural areas and their fanatic Mullahs has infested enough Pan-Islamic religious extremism and hatred among the illiterate and poor populace. The BDR rank and file is drawn mainly from these economically backward and poor rural belts.

These elements are infuriated and deeply worried about Hasina's plans to set up a war-crimes tribunal to put on trial the collaborators of West Pakistani army. In the second week of February, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari had sent his special envoy to Dhaka and pressurized the Bangladesh government to retract from the trial which the government immediately turned down. By pulling the ear, the head comes along – besides a number of Jamaat leaders, some of the bigwigs of Khaleda Zia’s BNP could also be in genuine trouble if the government goes ahead with the trial. Hasina has also announced that she will not allow Bangladesh’s soil to be used as a haven for terrorist activities. Her government has promised to eliminate terrorist camps in Bangladesh and to restrain ISI operations from Bangladesh territory. All these factors are enough to incite rage and enmity among co-religionist and Pan-Islamic elements against the present government and army leadership. From their extremist inspiration these elements apparently might have tried to send a warning to the government that it should restrain from implementing their secular-democratic agenda.

Historically, Bangladesh’s political style has always been marked by its confrontational nature. This style of politics was introduced during the liberation movement when the political class, bureaucrats, army, students, elites and intellectuals became divided either into pro-liberation or pro-Pakistan camps. This hate-inspired division has eventually created a gravely corrupt political system and weak institutions. This sense of hatred has been aggravated by centralization of power in the hands of the executive class. Taking advantage of the chaotic state of Bangladesh politics that prevailed following the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the army directly got involved into the political sphere to play the role of the savior, fingered external relations and consequently demolished the democratic values. The subsistence of successive post-Mujib regimes heavily depended on the army support. The present army leadership appears to be committed for democratic values and is free from Islamist bias. This is a positive sign for Bangladesh’s future in contrast to the lopsided role the army has opted so far.

Bangladesh is still one of the poorest countries in the world. Concentrating on the precarious economic situation is therefore the utmost job of the new government. Sanitizing a corrupt political system and standing firm against rampant corruption in the high offices is also another major objective to attain. It also needs to carefully address the menace of religious fundamentalist elements in its society. Whether in Bangladesh, India or Pakistan, the face of religious fundamentalism is common. It is always autocratic, brutal and driven primarily by hatred. In a society where most of the people are illiterate and miserably trapped in poverty and religious inducement, the incidence of the BRD mutiny will remain a matter of deep concern.

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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Reassessing 'Agantuk' - Satyajit Ray’s final statement as an artist

In the year 1991 Satyajit Ray made Agantuk (The Stranger), his last film before his death in April 1992. Here, Ray made a unique attempt to convey his annoyance about the materialistic quest of modern civilization through his characteristic storytelling style. The film depicts how the protagonist uncle Manomohan Mitra’s sudden landing into a conventional milieu of hosts made a panicky effect on them and exposed their priggish pride as a sham. The uncle was initially suspected as a fraud and later assumed to be a person with an insular objective to ‘fill his empty pockets’. In fact the depiction in the film turns into a near perfect surgical analysis of not only the benevolent protagonist but his mean-minded middle class hosts. It uncovered a terrible status of the modern urban middle class – acutely selfish and self centered, extremely money driven, always worried about security and hypocrite to the core. When at the end, taking account of his host’s ‘hospitality’, the altruistic uncle simply leaves the million dollar cheque of his inherited money as a small message ‘of little or no value’ for them, it falls like a slap on the face of the middle class smugness. The only member of the host family who was totally unsuspicious about Manomohan from the beginning was his grandnephew - the host’s little son. He was the first to convincingly declare that his grandfather is not a fake but genuine. The child has not yet been infected by the synthetic worldview of his parents and is yet to become a slave of conventional habits. His innocent and keen observations of his grandfather were the only one which was without any prejudices.

In many ways Agantuk is an inciting film. Though there is a genuine doubt if at all the grungy middle class can really think today in the way Ray wanted them to think. The basic theme is an intellectual soul searching for a re-discovery of the lost human values. It bluntly focuses on the vices of the post-modern world. The reckless immorality of the elite class, their greed for material possessions is harshly criticized. A ‘civilized’ person was defined as the person who can wipe out an entire population with lethal weapon by just pressing a button but has awfully forgotten how to embrace an alien stranger! The contradictions of high-rise and rickshaw pullers, NASA and ‘NESHA’ (drug addiction), technology and organized religion, the phenomenal decay of principles and values, the deep rooted systemic corruption and the death of curiosity are among some of the dark hidden corners of civilization that Ray has scornfully declared in Agantuk as ‘symbols of civilization’. How can the tangibility of a person's identity be proved through a passport in a fraudulent world? Who is civilized and who is savage? Class, caste and religion, values and prejudices, politics and power really have no place in the concrete humanity and morality that Ray has articulated throughout the film. Through his quest and vast experience of life Manomohan has recognized the brotherhood of Man which is beyond any country, language, cast or religion and free of any form of identity crisis. Ray’s own beliefs become clear when he speaks through Manomohan that, “I do not believe anything that divides Man – religion does it, and organized religion does it certainly. For the same reason I do not believe in caste…” According to him, caste and religion in the present form is only spreading hate and dividing Man. Technological achievements may well become counter-productive to provoke blatant greed. Modern civilization boasts on the achievements of science but forgets that it was the Neolithic age when Man had already made most of the indispensable inventions crucial for his survival.

Agantuk has two discern layers. The upper layer of the film deals with the problems of the urban middle class morals. This layer is relatively easy to recognize while viewing the film. In this layer Ray is mercilessly probing the harmful effects of money, the artificiality of values, the idiocy of war, the emptiness of an acquisitive worldview and the absurdity of identity. But there is also another deeper and subtle layer that exists side by side with the upper layer which apparently looks abstract. It deals with a much wider gamut of pertinent issues. This layer is inciting the viewer to position him/her in front of the history of human race to re-discover the natural Man in relation to his social state.

Honestly speaking, the anthropological aspects of the film were not Ray’s own. He had often spoken about how Agantuk was inspired by the thinking of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. In his works Lévi-Strauss had firmly stressed that the mind and intelligence of the primitive savage people were certainly not inferior to civilized people. The universe of the primitives and of the civilized is different due to the approach in which primitive and civilized people conceptualized their world. The savage mind according to Lévi-Strauss is equally logical ‘in the same sense and the same fashion’ as the civilized minds and therefore no negative value could be attributed to it.

In his memoir Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss had revealed that in every part of the world and in every forms of society, whether savage or civilize, human beings has always followed its own styles and methods of thinking and has structured unlimited social systems for themselves. Every society is a product of the inescapable norms of these systems. The systems originate from the human thought process and then are applied in real life practices. The application of systems to reach the objectives of life might differ in time and space according to the cultural values of a specific society. This diversity is caused mainly by the different thought processes and its conclusion which evokes from the diverse reality of a particular time. The physical world is approached and conceptualized by the savage thought process in a supremely concrete way where the point of view originates from the sensible qualities of the savage mind. On the other end, civilized humans apply a supremely abstract method in their thought process which is derived from the formal properties of their civilized minds.

Whenever the strangeness of the primitive world is unintelligible to the people of the civilized world, the reality of the primitive people is viewed by them as ridiculous and disgusting. Frustrated by the inability to comprehend the culture and values remote from them, the primitive reality becomes insignificant, a ‘vanished reality’. This ignorance then becomes an excuse for the modern mechanistic civilization to gradually trap, overcome and finally destroy the radically different society of the primitives. As Lévi-Strauss has pointed out, human societies or individual human beings never create absolutely but “choose certain combinations from a repertory of ideas which it should be possible to reconstitute.” The values and social norms of the primitives are therefore important. To understand another system one needs to be tolerant, reflective and curious. Sadly, the mechanistic civilization by and large has lost these qualities.

Lévi-Strauss has asserted that, “Certain social groups must be adjudged superior to ourselves, if the comparison rests upon their success in reaching objectives comparable to our own…” The phenomenal evolution of human beings from anthropoid apes to modern man is the greatest evidence of this success. Certain civilizations of the past knew quite well how best to solve the same problems which the modern civilized society is still struggling to solve today. If one can diversify the field of investigation into different societies it will “eventually become plain that no human society is fundamentally good: but neither is any of them fundamentally bad; all offer their members certain advantages…” Cannibalism is considered to be the most horrible, disgusting and ‘uncivilized’ of all savage practices. But according to Lévi-Strauss, “…no society is proof, morally speaking, against the demands of hunger. In times of starvation men will eat literally anything, as we lately saw in the Nazi extermination camps.” By looking from outside one could be easily tempted to distinguish two opposing types of society. But once one had “lived as they live, and eaten as they eat, one well knew what hunger could be, and how the satisfaction of that hunger brought not merely repletion, but happiness itself.” Every form of society thus has its own impurity within itself that “finds outlet in elements of injustice, cruelty, and insensitivity.” Societies which seem to be brutal may turn out, to be reasonably humane and benevolent when examined from another point of view. By nature, no society is perfect. Claiming one form of society as superior in its relation to all the others is thus a shameful stupidity. In Agantuk, the representation of the Bison of Altamira convincingly explains this point.

In a most bizarre way, the honest provocation generated by Ray in the film has stirred his detractors. He is criticized as an ‘armchair liberal functioning as a simple humanist’ who is placing his ‘hopes and disillusionment on some grass-root cultural activity’ and on the innocence of children. Is he not oversimplifying social reality by viewing it as an ‘individual vs. society conflict’? Is he not an old fashioned, anti-progressive artist under a humanist cloak trying to spread pessimism? Do not forget that Ray was accused by similar criticism for romanticizing India’s poverty for foreign consumption in his seminal work Pather Panchali. These are stupid arguments essentially stimulated to achieve solace from envious intellectual melancholy of the present time and its flatulence from indigested modernity.

Ray did not profess for the primitive form of society which many of his critics thought he did. He has simply chosen a middle path where Shakespeare, Tagore, Marx and Freud can equally contribute along with the experience and values of primitive ancestors. While he has harshly criticized the war mentality of the civilized world, similarly he has disapproved the tribal custom of polygamy. His intention was to raise relevant issues from a certain perspective which can stir his audience to look differently. As a genuine artist, Ray did not intend to show the solution but tried to guide the audience to find one. Agantuk assists to shift the focus of the civilized world towards re-evaluating its root.

Similarly, Ray has definitely not spoken about any individual vs. society conflict in the film. He got the fundamental idea from Lévi-Strauss to put up incisive interrogations on society and culture as a whole. Is it possible to take an unbiased view of customs and ways of life distant from one’s own? Is it possible to doubt the rightness or naturalness of the customs of the civilized society instead of taking it for granted? Is it possible to find a middle way between the primitive and modern values? How to find elements from other societies and make use of them that will help the civilized world to reform its own customs? How to gather experiences from a remote culture and get enriched by them? Is it possible to unravel what in the present nature of Man is original, and what is artificial? Is it possible to re-discover the natural Man in his relation to the social state he belongs to? Even if we believe, how do we prove that other societies may not be better than our own?

The level of depth inscribed in the oeuvre of Satyajit Ray’s films is unique. In the age of the banality of Slumdog Millionaire and the hoopla surrounding an overcooked myth of Bollywood’s theory of culture, it is worth talking about Ray and his phenomenal artistic mastery.

Altamira Bison image: