Tuesday 30 April 2019

Z is for Zat's all, folks!

Well, hasn't the month just zipped past? Always a mixed feeling to get to the last post...   

Zinga Goshty was Bangladesh’s pioneering pop band, formed a decade before Bangladesh was independent. Here is one of their hit tracks from 1982 – Dhaka, sung by Nazma Zaman on Bangladesh TV. 

The following track is from an album called Beche Thakar Mane (The Meaning of Survival) sung by Nachiketa from West Bengal. The lyrics are by Zulfiqar Russell, a Bangladeshi lyricist, poet and journalist.

Mitthe is from Ekla Prothom, the first album by Zooel Morshed, known simply as Zooel. He is a sound engineer and artiste from Bangladesh. 

And the final track for this A-Z series on Bengaliana - is from Miftah Zaman, a Bangladeshi singer-songwriter and musician with a title called Dujon Dupothe (Two people on two paths) about drifting apart, about divergence. 

Zamindari...under the Mughals and the British...

Zamindar, from the Persian zamin=earth/land, dar=suffix indicative of possession, means a landlord. The zamindari system was first set up by the Mughal emperor Akbar (1542-1605). In those times, the zamindars were tax collectors in charge of the land cultivated by peasants. They belonged to the nobility and were mansabdars (mansab= position in Arabic - commanders in the military with a fixed number of troops, varying from ten to over 10,000. Higher mansabs were granted to the princes of royal blood and to the non-Muslim kings who accepted Mughal suzerainty). The collection rights given to these collectors were not necessarily hereditary, the Emperor always had the final say and could allocate the office to another more favoured nobleman, all land belonged to the Empire. The zamindars were also responsible for certain policing, judicial and administrative duties in their domains.

Akbar put in place a taxation system which was thorough and generally fair to the farmer. Though it was not that abuses on the ground did not happen. But by and large the system was based on the fertility of the land, and actual yield potentials. The tax amount varied from 1/3rd on top grade fertile land to 1/26th of the yield on poor quality land. Extortion and abuses, if complaints were brought, were dealt with very severely. Seeds were made available to the farmers by the state, wells were dug, loans were given also. In the case of droughts or famines, taxes were remitted on a case to case basis. Not necessarily a cushy life for the farmer, but it wasn’t a total write off either, crushed by taxes and the state. This system served the Mughal Empire very well. Consider this, the land revenue at Akbar’s time was Rs 175 million; it rose to Rs 211 million under his grandson Shah Jahan, and finally to nearly Rs 300 million during Aurangzeb’s reign. Things kind of fell apart for the Mughals after Aurangzeb and that is when the EIC made its move on Bengal/India, as we have seen earlier in this series.

Some zamindars came to wield enormous power at the grassroots level and sometimes ran their zamindari almost independent of the Empire. Notable examples of such zamindars were the Baro Bhuiya (Baro=Twelve/Several; Bhu=Land, Bhuiya=One with land) of Bengal, around the Bhati or the Delta region in the late 16th century. The Baro Bhuiya included both Hindu zamindars such as Raja Pratapaditya of Jessore, and also Muslims such as Isa Khan. These formed a confederacy that repulsed attacks by the Mughal Empire itself, through superior use of naval power and strategies. The Mughals were pathetic at naval warfare and the navy was the weakest branch of their defence forces. While any ruler of lower Bengal clearly had to be conversant with a riverine warfare regime – the Bhati/Delta region of Bengal is really more water than land. It was only in the reign of Jahangir, Akbar’s son, that Bengal was finally and properly brought under Mughal control. And incidentally it was during his reign also that the first firman granting the British the right to trade was issued.

Getting back to the Bengal zamindars,  they were great patrons of the arts, built many monuments, promoted cultural, educational, and economic developments, played key roles in the Bengal Renaissance and the First War of Independence/Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. However, they were also known for developing the urban centres at the cost of the rural masses and exploitation of the peasant farmers. Both Raja Ram Mohan Roy  and Rabindranath Tagore, two monumental figures  of the Renaissance, were connected to zamindaris, the Raja was himself a zamindar and Tagore was the youngest son of one. Both were vocal in condemning social evils of their time and advocated for social reform.

After the British gained control, Lord Cornwallis put through the Permanent Settlement of Bengal in 1790's, as part of the Cornwallis Code. This affected life in Bengal on many levels and created a powerful landowning class that initially supported the British. In the Mughal era, the zamindars were functionaries of the Empire reporting to the imperial Diwan, whose responsibility it was to make sure that the system did not tax farmers so as to jeopardise future tax collections.

When the EIC took over the Diwani of Bengal in 1764, it found itself short of trained manpower well-versed in the local customs and laws and agricultural practices. (The setting up of educational institutions to train local Bengalis to serve in the British administration, and also the interest in local languages and systems so that Britishers could run the province, were direct by-products of these.) As a result of this gap, zamindars remained unsupervised and/or reported to unscrupulous/clueless/corrupt officials – farmers were taxed without any thought for local welfare or future income.

Once the British took India, many zamindars were granted/assumed the titles of Raja, Maharaja, Rana, Rai and Nawab, all meaning ruler, king or viceroy. While the British retained the zamindari and its associated systems, they changed the land revenue calculations, withdrew the facility of loans without any thought for the future or farmer. The landlords were given lifelong tenure, the zamindari became hereditary, effectively the zamindar became the landowner. However, they were no longer allowed to maintain their own troops anymore. Under this system, the zamindars were liable to pay a fixed sum to the British, pegged at 10/11 parts of the amount realised from the land, and retain one part for themselves. They were free to set the taxes due from farmers to the zamindari. The zamindars thus brought in a certain amount for the British irrespective of weather conditions, fertility of land or any other considerations. Absentee landlords who bore no burdens of the cultivation but claimed the lion’s share of produce appeared as a consequence of this policy. A switch to cash crops like sugarcane, jute, cotton was forced through at the expense of food crops, ultimately resulting in food insufficiency and famines. No-one, neither the British nor the zamindars did anything for the peasants during famines. Not exactly a great system - what had survived under the Mughals for 200 years, did not complete even a century under the new rulers.

Though the British had sought to create a class of native Indians loyal to the Company/Crown through this system, the zamindars ultimately formed a separate, powerful, elite interest group, caring nothing for the cultivators and often at loggerheads with their British masters. The zamindari system was abolished after independence in the early 1950’s in both Bengals in major agrarian reforms. 


So. Zat complete’s my A-Z Challenge 2019… Heartfelt thank yous to those of you who came along on this heady trip home, I hope you enjoyed yourselves as much as I did. Off for some much needed zzzzzz now...see you next month! 

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2019 

Monday 29 April 2019

Y is for...Yatri... Yen... n... Yonder

Here's a track from a band called Yonsample. They are one of the most prominent metal bands out of East India/Bengal. Have a listen - a very different sound -

The next two tracks are from multi-award winning playback singers Sabina Yasmin (Bangladesh) and Alka Yagnik (India). Sabina has been singing for more than 50 years and has been awarded the highest civilian honours of Bangladesh. Alka Yagnik is a Bengali by domicile, also an award-winner and a very highly regarded singer from the films, mostly of Bollywood. Here she is singing Bengali Adhunik (modern). Two different voices from two parts of Bengal.

Yen...n...Yonder, preferably blue...

The Bengali is an indefatigable traveller (=yatri). According to a BBC estimate in the late noughties, more than 50% of Indian domestic tourists were made up of Bengalis. Though the percentage might have moved as incomes and standards of living improve in India, I don’t think the essential conclusion of that exercise has changed majorly in ten years. Travelling, like politics and poetry, is a Bengali passion. 

Famous poem by Tagore on mindfulness and nature
(translation by yours truly). But why I am putting it 

up here are the opening lines - that even a hundred
years ago there was much travel and much money 
spent on it by Bengalis. Needless to mention,Tagore
here is assuming a persona, that of the ordinary,  
middle-class Bengali, an inveterate leisure traveller. 
I have elsewhere in this A-Z series mentioned about Atish Dipankar travelling to Sumatra and Tibet and Sri Chaitanya travelling all over India with their respective spiritual messages and missions. Similarly, a 19th century monk, Vivekananda, took the message of the Vedanta as far as America. Travel in Medieval and Ancient Bengal was primarily religious tourism – the few who could afford to do so, went on pilgrimages to the Himalayas, or to Varanasi. Majority of the people who travelled were religious scholars or monks – both Buddhists and Hindus. Muslims were obliged to go to Mecca once in their lifetime as a religious duty and some surely did, but many did not - both the Emperor and the pauper for obvious reasons. The sea route to Mecca was pirate-infested and dangerous, so much so that the Haj pilgrimage was declared non-mandatory at some point by the Mughal court. But apart from that deviation, it was common for affluent Muslim men, noblewomen and royal consorts to go to Mecca. 

Leisure travel, like many other things, arrived with the foreigners. The Anglicised Bengalis would travel by horse carriage for a ‘change of air’ to the ‘dak bunglows’ even before the railways started. Others took more conventional routes. In 1850, Ishwar Chandra Gupta recorded his journey by boat to the Sunderbans and published it in his newspaper Sambad Prabhakar - this was the first travelogue in Bengali. Incidentally, he was primarily a poet and used the penname ‘Bhromonkari Bondhu’ which translated means Travelling Friend.

Once the railways were introduced, travel got a major fillip. And Bengali literature, where the first slew of super-creative, innovative Bengal Renaissance writers were beginning to pen the first Bengali novels, magnified the effect through heroes who took the train ‘West’ at the drop of a hat. As the century turned, this trend of traveller-heroes continued. From Ghona-da to Teni-da to Felu-da the fictional characters were always going off on adventures  - to Dooars, to Lucknow, to Gangtok, to Rajasthan, to Mars even! And of course their fans had to check out for themselves what the forts and forests and the general terrain looked like. The tradition of travel writing and essays continued too, to motivate Bengalis to pack their bags and hop onto the nearest train.

The long summer vacation for schools and the court got institutionalized, and the fortnight’s break during Durga Puja. In 1864, the British formally moved their summer capital to Shimla, a thousand miles away from Calcutta, to escape the relentless heat of the plains. This break was another opportunity for the Bengalis to travel -  more ‘hawa bodol’ (change of air) at places with restorative properties. Many of the more affluent Bengalis acquired vacation homes in Darjeeling, in Puri, in Giridih, even as far as Benares. The landowning families such as the Tagore’s acquired or built properties up in the hills and/or at the waterfront.  In time, the lower income classes joined the wanderlust club. Both the mountains and the seaside started offering less exclusive accommodations for the Bengali tourists.

By 1933, one of the oldest Indian tour operators had started up in Calcutta – Kundu Special. They have been organising package tours for over 80 years now. Particularly popular because they cater to all the food quirks and culture-specific requirements that middle-class Bengalis have.

Outside the five-star luxury orbit, Bengalis remain the most well-travelled community in India. Wherever one might look - from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Ajanta to Kamakshya, there will be  Bengali travellers out to improve their health and broaden their horizons. With rising incomes and better air connections, Bengalis have now started venturing out of India as well. The Bengali travel-maniac has crossed the seven oceans. Read more here and here.

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2019

Saturday 27 April 2019

X is for...Xikes!!!...Xrumbs!!! ...Xood Xrief!!

Like Q, there's no X in Bengali so I thought there won't be much choice today, can’t be picky or anything, but even so…managed to find some nice numbers. Quite surprised frankly, phew! 

Starting off today with this lovely track – Tomar jonno (For you). For you. It's from X-Factor, a fusion rock band from Bangladesh.

Next is a modern rendition of Karar Oi Louho Kopat (Those Steel Prison Doors, 1924) by the Bangladeshi group Xodiac. The original was written and composed by Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) during the Independence Movement against the British, reportedly while Nazrul was himself incarcerated. It is an incredibly powerful revolutionary song and has been sung by heaps of professional artistes as well as in rallies and protest marches by ordinary people. Forget the exact meanings of the lyrics, the internal rhymes and the robust marching beat can be felt by everybody. The song played an important role in the both the Indian Freedom Struggle and Bangladesh’s Liberation War decades later. Nazrul, Bangladesh’s National Poet,  combined both Hindu and Islamic imagery seamlessly in many of his compositions, drawing upon his own vast knowledge of both faiths and the syncretic traditions of Bengal. Enjoy!

Finally, here’s Chronic Xorn featuring Lakkhichhara with Paliye Berai (I’m on the run) in a live performance. Both bands are from West Bengal, and both have been featured earlier in this A-Z series.

X is for… eXactly Xilch...n...Xero in Bengali  

What do you do when you can’t dredge up an X-word from your own alphabet? You call upon your neighbours for help. That’s what I’m doing, and I’ve gone to them in the past too…they’ve never turned me down yet. China has Xplorers and poetry and pilgrims and monks for the most challenging of the Challenge letters. Ask and you shall receive.

So. Today I’m talking about Xuanzang, a Chinese traveller/monk who literally helped write Bengali history. Xuanzang, also written Huan Tsang, (602-664) was born in Henan province of China during the beginnings of the Tang dynasty. Born into a scholarly, erudition-crazy family, he was given a Confucian education. He had a keen interest in Chinese classics and the ancient sages. Encouraged by his elder brother who was a monk, Xuanzang became a monk himself at thirteen, was ordained at twenty and his interest turned to Buddhist subjects. He travelled in his early years in China’s different provinces to collect and study old Buddhist manuscripts. However, he came across many discrepancies and conflicting ideas in them which his Chinese teachers could not resolve. Xuanzang therefore decided he would travel to India, to the very fountainhead of Buddhism, study and figure things out for himself.

But…not so fast! The then Tang Emperor came to know of his wish and promptly forbade his trip on security grounds, since the Tang were at war at the time with the Gokturks, the Eastern Turks. Xuanzang was not discouraged though, he made his plans in secret and fled, travelling by night and hiding by day, without guide or companions, facing the hardships of the road and the Gobi desert alone.  In 629 he finally reached the western border of the Chinese Empire, the start of the Silk Road, where the local ruler invited him to the court in Turfan. Though the ruler’s plan was to detain Xuanzang indefinitely as the ecclesiastical head of the court, the monk was able to persuade the king to let him leave. Xuanzang was sent on his way with letters of introduction to all the kings and kingdoms en route, down to the formidable Turkish Khan on the borders of India, so that he was no longer a fugitive fleeing the country, but a scholar and pilgrim.

Xuanzang reached India in 630. He travelled widely within the country to various Buddhist monasteries and centres of learning. In all he spent some 16 years in India spanning the length and breadth of the land from what is now Pakistan to modern day Bangladesh, Assam, Bihar and West Bengal. His entire itinerary is super interesting but may not be relevant here, so I’m going to restrict the focus to Bengal/the Delta region alone. He reached Bengal in roughly 638 and spent around half his time in India in travelling the various regions of the Delta.

Credit. 7th century Bengal.
He arrived in Bengal during the reign of Shashanka, one of the early rulers of great importance. Shashanka is thought to have been in power from roughly 600 to 625, a major political figure of his time. Xuansang's account of this kingdom form a significant source in understanding Bengal's history. However,  Xuanzang painted Shashanka as anti-Buddhist, recording his religious persecution of specific Buddhist leaders. Though Xuanzang himself studied in Nalanda with thousands of other Buddhist scholars in Shashanka's domain and noted the flourishing presence of other Buddhist monasteries within the kingdom. Therefore, several eminent historians believe that Xuanzang was partisan (he favoured Harshvardhan, Shashanka's rival and a Buddhist as opposed to Shashanka who was a Shaivite Hindu).

Okay, let's forget the partisanship issues, what did he actually say about Bengal? He recorded that Shashanka's kingdom was “rich in all kinds of grain-produce.” And that it was thickly populated. The people valued learning and scholars. There were around 20 Buddhist monasteries close to the capital with a 3000 strong community of Buddhist monks and scholars. (How this is possible if Shashanka was anti-Buddhist beats me!) He also remarked on the presence of Jains and Jain temples. 

Passing from the northern areas to southeast and into the lower coastal region, Samatata, he observed “the land lies low and rich and is cultivated with many crops.” That the climate was mild and the people agreeable. Here too they valued scholarship and learning. There were 30 Buddhist monasteries with 2000 priests.

In Tamralipta, to the west of Samtata, Xuanzang found Buddhists and non-Buddhists living side by side (early evidence of religious tolerance in Bengal). There were 10 monasteries and a sangha of 1000 Buddhists there, and Brahmanical temples there numbered around 50. “The coast of the country is in a recess of the sea; the land and water embrace each other. Wonderful articles of value and gems are found here in abundance, and the people of the country are very rich.”

The main impression of Bengal  he creates is that of a prosperous, populous agrarian economy, keen on education and scholarly pursuits. Xuanzang also, very helpfully, gives the exact areas and distances between the kingdoms and their capital cities which I am not recapping. Read more about his travelogue here.

Xuanzang went back home to China in 645, he was received by the Emperor with great honour  and was offered an imperial position. He declined the job and went into  a monastery where he, with the help of a team of translators, translated the 600-odd Sanskrit texts he had collected from India. Many original Buddhist texts which were subsequently lost in India, were recovered from their Chinese translations that Xuanzang did. He also translated Lao-tzu’s works into Sanskrit and sent them to India.

On the request of the Emperor, he wrote his travel experiences in the book Great Tang Records of the Western Region, which became one of the primary sources for understanding the early medieval history of South and Central Asia. His influence on Chinese Buddhism was far reaching. He died in 664. Read more about his contributions to Buddhist philosophy here.

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2019

Friday 26 April 2019

W is for...West Bengal... Why... When...n ...What the Wreck happened here??

First track today is from Habib Wahid - a musician, composer and singer from Bangladesh, with Beporowa Mon (Reckless Heart) - 

Next I have for you Wrong Tuli with a modern version of a golden oldie folk number Tomar Ghore Bosot Kore Koi Jona (How many live in your home). Fun fact - wrong (conventionally transliterated as rong) means colour/paint in Bengali. Tuli means a brush. Some sublime flute playing in there!

Finally here’s Warfaze, among the top ten Bengali bands from Bangladesh, formed in 1984. Take a listen to their Purnota (Fulfilment) -

West Bengal...n... five honest serving men

Recently while on a break back home, colonialism and Calcutta came up during a family chat.  The sum of it was that the Raj affected all regions equally. The city actually had an advantage in being the capital. Other places in India have recovered and moved on, why hasn’t Calcutta? A glorious past, great infrastructure, brilliant, progressive minds, passionate people. Four Nobel Laureates. Trail-blazing entrepreneurs. All manner of creative output.  Why then is the present so dim? What’s happened? Is West Bengal stagnating and why?

The questions are not new – I’ve heard them in various avatars since childhood. In the late 70’s, my father had written to the Dean of a prestigious institution in Calcutta, his alma mater, exploring the chances of his daughter’s admission. The Dean had written back lamenting that Calcutta was not the best place to get an education anymore.

In the mid 80’s, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi called it ‘a dying city.’ This caused a furore, the Calcuttans were livid – sure, it was a superdumb, foot-in-mouth remark for a PM to make, but all the Bengalis could do was to trot out the usual dead greats.

From 1948 to 1962, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, a follower of Gandhi and also his physician, a Congress Party stalwart, was the Chief Minister and the architect of modern West Bengal. During his tenure cities like Durgapur, Kalyani, Salt Lake, Ashokenagar and Habra were established.

When Dr Roy died in July 1962, West Bengal had recovered from the Partition – land reforms, the smooth accession of princely states, the setting up of a large number of infrastructure schemes like the Durgapur Steel Plant, Damodar Valley Corporation, Chittaranjan Locomotives and a host of other industries, premier educational institutes – all in place.  West Bengal was still the leading industrialised state of an independent India.

One issue that remained unresolved was that of the refugee resettlement. Millions had migrated to West Bengal from East Pakistan at Partition.   Various resettlement proposals had been mooted by the Roy government but were opposed by the leftist parties. Another pending issue was land redistribution.

In the early 60’s, a thoroughly unprepared India was attacked by China. The Indo-China War, which was a spectacular defeat for India, affected the economy and the morale. Illusions of a Sino-Indian ‘brotherhood’ nurtured by a naïve Indian leadership vaporised  - the need to beef up the Indian defence became plain.

Then a relic of Prophet Mohammad went missing from the Hazratbal shrine in faraway Kashmir. Some East Pakistani politicians called it a Hindu conspiracy and sparked off communal riots there.  Hindus were slaughtered in major cities. Sporadic incidents of revenge attacks took place in West Bengal, escalating the violence across the border manifold. As a result, waves of East Pakistani Hindus came into Calcutta again. In the 1967 elections, for the first time in twenty years of independence, a fractured Congress lost West Bengal to a coalition of leftist parties called the United Front. But Congress, albeit weakened, was returned to power in Delhi. The Centre-State relationship dynamic shifted. And then a few months down the line, the Naxalbari uprising happened.

The Naxal movement was an armed uprising which drew inspiration from Maoist philosophy and sought to annihilate ‘class enemies’ in order to achieve an equal society. It found strong support among the students in Calcutta. Thousands joined, the schools in Calcutta were shut down. University machine shops and departments were taken over by the Naxalites to make pipe guns and plan their revolutionary operations. The law and order situation deteriorated to abysmal levels.  

The UF government was dismissed and President’s rule was imposed. In fresh elections, the Congress made a comeback in 1972. The new Chief Minister, mirroring the attitudes at the Centre, treated the Naxalites as terrorists. The police crackdown was brutal, many young people were tortured and killed, and the movement was crushed by the mid-70s. The best of a generation was lost to this violence and counter-violence. People were killed, infrastructure was damaged, militant trade unionism strangled many industrial units. Meanwhile, the violence in the Bangladesh Liberation War had sent further waves of refugees into Calcutta. West Bengal reeled. Several businesspeople, the main target of the Naxal movement, relocated taking the businesses with them. Growth plummeted.


The Left Front, a coalition led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), came to power in 1977, but nothing changed. Strikes and lock-outs continued, the government carried the baggage of their anti-industry bias. CPM-led trade unions refused to let business owners operate freely. The tools of ‘gherao’ and ‘bandh became overused, and a hierarchy of henchmen became the facilitators to the political elite – a culture of thuggery prevailed. Well-known companies like Philips India, Shaw Wallace, Brooke Bond, Britannia, some of which had been born in Calcutta, gradually left. 

The Left Front ruled West Bengal for thirty years on the back of their focus on the agri-sector, but did little to attract industries. In fact, the long-serving Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, once famously told a businessman that ‘capitalists were class enemies and should expect no sympathy.’ A confrontational stance towards the government at the Centre did not help either – industry was regulated through licences by the Central government. The state continued to flounder and got deep into debt.

The West Bengal government put together an industrial policy and went scouting for investment only after the Indian economy was liberalised in the early 90’s. But by then it was altogether too late, West Bengal’s reputation was in tatters. The joint debacle of the Tata Nano automobile project  at Singur and the Nandigram SEZ were the final nails in the coffin. The government had  tried to acquire agricultural land for these projects but local villagers opposed it. The protests were supported by many activists across India. Trinamool Congress (TMC), a breakaway faction of Congress, took up the cause. After much bitter wrangling and violence, the Tata’s withdrew and set up their plant in North India. The Nandigram project did not materialise either. The CPM government was duly booted out in the next election, TMC came to power in 2011.

Since then, the TMC leadership has tried to woo industrialists. However, given the population density and that the major part of the state is farmland, land acquisition for any project remains a constraint. The work ethic continues to be an issue. The debt situation is still a concern. The politician-middleman-thugs unholy nexus continues unabated. More and more young people break away from Kolkata and go elsewhere to pursue studies, jobs and dreams. The whole of West Bengal increasingly resembles a retirement home.  Overall growth in GSDP has seen some modest progress, but really there is an entire Everest to climb still. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step...I guess I'd be happy to see baby steps, they are better than no steps at all. Read more here and here.

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2019

Thursday 25 April 2019

V is for...Voyagers...Vision...n...Vedanta

The first track I have for you today is from Bangladeshi band  Vikings. They got together in the late 90’s, went dormant for a decade in the middle and then the leader made a comeback with a difference – in film music. Take a listen to one of their old 90's numbers – Valobashi jare (The one I love).

Next  there’s Vabnar Lamppost from Feelings, vocals by James, again a 1990's track from the album Jayl theke Bolchi (Speaking from the Prison). 

Take a listen to Vibe, one of the alternative rock bands from Dhaka active in the noughts. Chena Jogot (Known World), their first full length album was released in 2007. The following year they disbanded. Some of the members are making music still, having moved to other popular bands in Bangladesh.

Last but not the least, here’s a track from an album called Voyankor Sundor (Terribly Beautiful) by Bangladeshi band Chirkut, which is an internationally acclaimed, award-winning fusion band. They have performed in concerts in USA, India and Europe. Ei Shohorer Kaktao Jene Geche (Even the Crow in This City Has Come to Know) - enjoy!

Voyagers. Vision. Vedanta.

There have been many spiritual leaders in Bengal’s history who have travelled widely, added to, and broadened the religious discourse in South Asia and the wider world. Atish Dipankar (980-1054) took Buddhist learning and philosophy to Tibet and Sumatra. Sri Chaitanya (1486-1534), one of the most prominent Bengali saints, travelled all over India and popularised the Vaishnav cult. Voyagers like the founder of the ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) movement in modern times. Born Abhay Charan De in Calcutta in 1896, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada circled the globe six times taking the teachings of bhakti yoga to the world.  But long before him, another Bengali monk mesmerised the attendees at the Parliament of Religions in 1893 in Chicago. This charismatic sannyasi introduced the Vedanta and its precepts of tolerance and assimilation to the Western world for the first time. His name was Swami Vivekananda.

What can one say about Vivekanada in a blogpost? He was born Narendra Nath Dutta in 1863 in Calcutta, his father was an attorney, the family well established. Narendra got a western style education at the premier institutions of the Bengal Presidency. He was a brilliant scholar and a voracious reader with a photographic memory. He was early on exposed to Indian spiritual teachings through his family and Western philosophy, Christianity and science. He read widely in English, Bengali and Sanskrit.

Social reform was his main interest and he joined the Brahmo Samaj, which advocated the elimination of superstitions, caste-barriers, illiteracy and evils like Sati and the social isolation of widows. He later met and became a devotee of Ramakrishna Paramhansa who was a prominent mystic of the times and demonstrated the essential unity of all religions. Vivekananda formally became a monk in 1886, after Ramakrishna died. In 1888, Vivekananda left the monastery as a parivrajaka – a wandering mystic, and travelled to many parts of India, bringing the teachings of the Vedas and Upanishads to people, always stressing service over dogma. During his travels he came to hear about the Parliament of Religions   to be held in Chicago in 1893 and became interested in attending it. He set off for USA in May 1893 and landed in July after a difficult voyage.

He started his address to the Parliament with “Sisters and brothers of America” which got him a standing ovation that lasted for two minutes. In the address he demonstrated the essential tolerance that Hinduism had towards other faiths because of its pluralism. He went on to found the Vedanta Society of New York in 1894. He travelled to other parts of USA and also to UK preaching the Vedanta and introducing the West to Hindu ideas and philosophy. He was acknowledged by the public and the foreign press of the time as a powerful orator. Back in India, he founded the Ramakrishna Math – the order of the monks of Ramakrishna, which worked towards education for the underprivileged and social service. He passed away in 1902 after singlehandedly changing the perceptions of Hinduism in the West. Read more about his life and works here. The order founded by Vivekananda in Bengal - The Ramakrishna Math & Mission, has completed more than 120 years and continues to work towards his vision. Read about more them here.

I'm travelling for the rest of the week and will catch up with you as and when I can, but definitely once I'm back. 

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2019

Wednesday 24 April 2019

U is for... Untrammelled ... Uplifted ...or ...Utterly screwed... i mean, skewed?

U is for...Uchcharon, one of the very first pop groups of Bangladesh, formed way back in 1973 by Azam Khan (1950-2011). Azam Khan was an awarded and much loved singer, lyricist and record-producer. He was honoured with the Ekushe Podok by the Bangladesh government posthumously. Here are the current band members singing the band's old hits live.

This next track is also from Bangladesh, Valo Achhi Valo Theko, the songwriter was a well known, romantic poet called Rudra Mohammed Shahidullah (1956-1991) from the 80's. I like this cover by Ujaan better than the version arranged by Kabir Suman and sung as a duet by him and Sabina. 

Today U is being rocked by tracks from Bangladesh! :) - the next title is Udhao, presented here by two very popular bands - Chirkutt and Joler Gaan, a lovely melodious tune.

Finally, this number c/o Kolkata is by Usha Uthup, a senior singer from Kolkata, born a Tamil and a Bengali by domicile. She has been singing since the 60s and has sung in multiple languages including Arabic and Swahili, apart from a great number of Indian languages.  A very characteristic, easily-recognised voice and an equally trademark stage presence - always dressed in a saree with the typical bindi on her forehead, whatever language she may be singing - Usha is rooted firmly in her own culture.

And if you are in a hurry today, this is where we say goodbye, because the next bit is unconscionably long and totally unsuited for the A-Z. However, if I am taking about Bengal ...can't just ignore the ugly parts... 

U is for...Unbelievably Upsetting...n...Underbelly

In recent years, after a spate of horrific rape/murders, there has been a massive amount of concern expressed in the media as well as by ordinary citizens regarding the situation of women in India, and also in West Bengal. Much discussion about the chances of women ever fully participating in society/economy if they can’t move around freely. Heated exchanges between citizens and the Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, a woman herself, have been reported in the media.  I have followed these with spiralling disbelief and disquiet.

I have  lived in Kolkata and in Delhi, and  I’ve made work-related solo trips to several  cities across North, South, and Western India. My take, limited necessarily by my own experience, is that Bengalis do have a different, more respectful, less unequal stance towards women. But these are perceptions and maybe outdated to boot, because for many years I have lived away from Bengal, though I’m a frequent visitor.

Through this post, I want to explore how correct my perceptions are. Is Kolkata turning rapidly into another rape capital? And what about Bangladesh, are the women across the border better off?  

The statistics on crimes against Indian women, given by the National Crime Records Bureau, show that:

West Bengal as a whole has an alarmingly high rate of crime against women. In 2016, the Bureau ranked it 7th in terms of crime rate after Delhi UT (North), Assam (East), Odisha (East), Telengana (South), Rajasthan (North), Haryana (North). Overall incidence of crime targeting women has increased almost threefold during the last 10 years. This is partly due to  1) categories of crime being added in as new laws are passed – such as acid attacks and stalking, ten years ago these were not reported separately, and 2) more women coming forward to report cases of domestic abuse, sexual harassment and rape.

But for me what is super-disturbing is this - WB used to be at par with the national average ten years ago, with Kolkata being way lower. At present, WB as a whole exceeds the national figures by a pretty shocking margin. Kolkata thankfully is still much lower than the national rates, but there too crimes against women have increased. Bangladesh has a comparatively lower rate of crimes against women, this may be due to reporting bases being different, but certainly there are concerns that they are on the rise.

Spousal violence experienced by women in West Bengal is appallingly high – have a look at this infographic by Hindustan Times. Rape makes up less than 4% of all crimes against women though. West Bengal has a substantially lower rate of sexual crimes as compared to the national average. Occasional, one-off cases of honour killings, which had been wiped off from Bengal more than a century ago, seem to have made a comeback. But even one such murder is too many.

Kolkata  is ranked 17th among the cities, safer than Delhi and Mumbai, and even smaller cities like Pune and Surat.  Clearly, the threat to women is greater in the rural areas of Bengal rather than inside the capital. Trafficking, missing children, and acid attacks are all of great concern in the state. West Bengal has porous borders with Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan and has therefore become a transit point for trafficked women/girls. Women from economically weaker sections are especially vulnerable.

The fundamental cause of these forms of aggression against women is the ingrained preference for male children in the subcontinent. But I have always heard that Bengalis were by and large freer of this bias. We have sent women to school in the 19th century, the first Indian women graduates and post-graduates were Bengali (Chandramukhi Bose, Kadambini Ganguly, Sarojini Naidu), some of the first women doctors (Bindubasini Bose), the first South Asian/Indian feminist was a Bengali too (Begum Roqeya). We are comfortable with educated, empowered and liberated women, we do not necessarily think of them as burdens.  Or do we?

...n for…Ultrasound

The preference for sons has manifested itself in a deadly manner in the shifts in child sex ratio in India. As diagnostic imaging improved and become widely available from 2000 onward, selective abortion of female foetuses became common, skewing the ratio towards boys. There are laws against pre-natal sex determination, but the enforcement is difficult and  therefore loose. However, the sex ratio in W Bengal is within safe limits and foeticide cases are so low as to be negligible (phew!) – unlike the north of the country where it is seriously skewed. While Bangladesh has made remarkable progress on many parameters, still there are 2.7 million missing women due to preferential treatment of sons. (In India the estimates vary from 10-30 million!)

So, baby girls are not being killed in the womb for their sex in both Bengals. But are daughters getting the same treatment as sons? Let’s take a close look -

The female literacy rate in West Bengal is 70.5% based on the latest Census (2011) data, higher than the all-India levels and very similar to female literacy in Bangladesh at 70.1%. Both Bengals have been closing the literacy gap. Overall literacy is marginally higher in West Bengal (76%) than Bangladesh (73%), but bear in mind that the latter started off later and without the educational infrastructure that W. Bengal traditionally had. Bangladesh’s progress re women’s situation has been quite phenomenal, all things considered.

According to the World Bank, only 20% of the female population in West Bengal have any secondary education, this lags behind majority of the states in India. However, enrollment of girls has increased over the last decade, with more girls enrolled in schools than boys in 2015. The award winning Kanyashree Scheme has no doubt given a fillip to education  efforts. Bangladesh (which initiated such schemes in the 80s) has shown much sharper growth in progress – more girls than boys in schools and rising enrollments for females there too. As far as education goes, girls on the other side of the border seem to be doing better. However, early marriage and early childbearing are concerns in both regions, but more glaring in Bangladesh (Read more here and here).

Even so, women’s participation in labour force is inadequate on both sides of the border. Only 33% of the women in Bangladesh work, and the figure stands at an abysmal 26% in West Bengal. (Read here and here.) While there has been some job creation in West Bengal in the last decade, these have been non-farm, temporary manufacturing and construction jobs paying a casual wage - most of them have been taken up by men. Women’s empowerment in West Bengal is nothing to write home about either, as per this report.

Maternal mortality rates have been steadily declining in both Bangladesh (322 to 180 per 100,000) and West Bengal (192 to 113 per 100,000) but that seems to me a prerequisite for any self-respecting society rather than something that comes with bragging rights. The lowest MMR is, just to keep things in perspective, 3-5 per 100,000 live births in countries like Japan and Sweden. Even neighbour Sri Lanka has an MMR in double digits at 30.

So what’s the final score?

  • Sexual violence/harassment/assault is less of an issue for Bengali women than spousal/domestic abuse which has climbed to outrageous levels in West Bengal. There is an apprehension that crimes against women are rising in Bangladesh too.

  • Kolkata is safer than many other Indian cities, but rural areas in West Bengal are less so.

  • Human trafficking is an area of serious concern. Honour killings, through sporadic, have made a comeback after a century.

  • Early  marriage and early childbearing are still an issue, particularly among the economically weaker sections. Maternal mortality has been falling both sides of the border, but is still nowhere near acceptable levels.

  • Women’s participation in the labour force in West Bengal is abysmal, while Bangladesh is somewhat better. But across the community, majority of women don’t work outside the home and more importantly, seem to have very little control over the choices.

  • Girls’ education is seeing major progress, however, literacy levels are higher in West Bengal than many other Indian states. Bangladesh has taken giant strides. More girls than boys are now enrolled at schools across both the Bengals. This is the single, but significant, ray of hope, as the way out of this current quagmire for Bengali-speaking women can only be through education, education, education!

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2019