Wednesday, June 19, 2024

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Dhaka Tribune

Looking Back, Perhaps in Anger

Update : 30 Sep 2022, 09:43 PM

Jagjit Singh, in his now immortal song, Woh Kaagaz Ki Kashti, talks of a yearning for the times gone by. This longing or nostalgia is so intense that the poetic voice is willing to give up the fame and wealth that has been accumulated over the years in exchange for the paper boats and the monsoon of the times past. From the will-o-wisp of the times gone by, it is sometimes a forgotten tune, a familiar fragrance and texture is what we hold on to. Some semblance of familiarity or recognition and since those were not the days of saving images on the “cloud,” most of it is from memory. But as Emily Dickinson famously said, “ Memory is a strange bell/ Jubilee and knell.” Our constructions of events from memory might not be a full-proof trustworthy exercises: To introduce a sartorial metaphor, we snip/clip and stitch events that we think had taken place but which might be totally different in someone else’s retelling. 

I stand on the shore of October, and this year’s Durga Pujo is only a couple of days away as I write this. Perhaps by the time, these words are in front of you, it is probably Shoshthi. Many things that we have come to associate with the Pujo have gone from us. For instance, in the 70’s and right up to the 80’s, record companies would sign up artists for a Pujo Special album. The likes of Hemanta Mukherjee, Kishore Kumar, Sandhya Mukherjee, Asha Bhonsle, and Lata Mangeshkar would have their Pujo releases, popular in both East and West Bengal.  Stepping into the 90’s, India walked into the welcoming arms of the economic liberalisation and among things like Coca Cola and imported electronic goods, in came cassettes and in the late 90’s, music CDs. The sound of music changed and as the years rolled by, music labels’ interest in releasing an album on the occasion of the Pujo also dwindled. But one thing has stayed and I dare say, grown over the years -- the publication of Pujobarshiki, or the special Festive Issue from the leading publication houses catering to the young, the young adults, and the grown-ups. 

In Calcutta in those days, the benchmark for good cerebral literature had been set by Desh magazine, with the who’s who of the Bengali literary scene contributing novels and essays on life, culture, and politics for the reading public. There was also Anandalok, a magazine dedicated solely to the tinsel town. The Bengali film industry, after the death of Uttam Kumar and the retirement of Suchitra Sen, was desperately trying to find a saviour of sorts. And in its absence, with Rituporno Ghosh still a few years away from reclaiming the lost glory of Bengali cinema, it was not surprising that the focus of the magazine’s festival issue would be the Hindi film industry or Bollywood as it was and still is known. The other thing that comes to mind is the invasion of VCR and video Cassettes flooding the subcontinental familial space. These were the pre-multiplex days and the latest Hindi films could be got on rent for the viewing of the entire family (and sometimes the neighbour’s family as well). So, it is only natural, that the Shah Rukhs and the Salmans who had become the cynosure of every household, would also generate a kind of almost voyeuristic interest into their lives. And Anandalok, provided dollops of it. 

But to my just stepped into teenage mind and heart, the magnetic pull was from somewhere else. Anandamela was a youth magazine published twice a month and Shuktara was similar and these two brought out their festive issues, published probably just a couple of weeks prior to the festivities would begin. 

We Bengalis have a tremendous fondness and vulnerability for nostalgia. We have been accused of holding onto the cobwebs of memory and viewing the present through the lenses of the days gone by. But this deliberate sojourn in photo albums and memoirs remains punctuated by what we found in the artistry of the early 20th century fiction writers, something that we call “association of ideas” -- where a whiff of a perfume, the passing of a train, a fleeting glance all bring to mind some other event or moment or just memory of some other person. This interiorisation of the narrative was something that gave credence to Ezra Pound’s call to “make it new.” The reason why I talk about “association of ideas” is because I feel, that there are many things that make Durga Pujo such a potpourri of emotions and feelings. I am sure most will agree, that we tend to focus on the cultural aspect of it more than the religious, something that the right-wing Hindus have brought into limelight over and over again in the last few years. But the point I am trying to make is that there are other associated things that make this festival complete -- the skies turn bluer no matter which month the Pujo is held on, there are fluffy white cloud grazing all across the blue canvass, there is a peculiar smell in the air which the romantic Bengali invariably associates with the festival, the sight and sound of the roadside hawkers selling their wares, the big fashion houses announcing a festive “sale” or discounts and roadside noodle and fast food joints cropping up to do business all night long. And amidst all this, was the publication of the Pujobarshiki, fresh from press, their covers and pages smelling like a dream. In short, a treasure trove for the entire month waiting to be devoured and consumed. It was impossible to imagine, “Pujo” without at least one festive issue from these publication houses in hand. 

These special editions, especially the ones meant for the school going kids, were an eclectic mix of detective stories, poems, articles on sports, novellas and even crossword puzzles. The likes of Sunil Ganguly (with his Kakababu Adventures), Shashtipodo Chattopadhyay (his five young sleuths and a dog based on Enid Blyton’s The Five Find Outers), Shirshendu Mukherjee (his madcap world of ghosts, old world charm and eccentric characters), and Moti Nandy were all regulars and were perhaps the main draw. As time went by, however, new additions were made. Satyajit Ray’s Feluda adventures and the exploits of Professor Shonku found graphic representations within the pages. The good thing however was there were several other small-time publishers investing in these festive issues and encouraging upcoming authors to contribute, something that is the need of the hour to allow emerging voices find a pedestal from where they can make a mark in the literary scene.

I began this article talking of the loss of a once familiar world. The last few years have seen a spike in the emergence of new voices, but whether that has led to an automatic increase in scholarship is a matter of debate altogether. One might also say that the literary quality of the contributions coming in has also suffered because of the lack of a proper and more stringent screening and review process. But these contentions are up for scrutiny. What I find more fascinating is the overall attitude to the festivities themselves.

To someone not familiar with the intricacies of the celebration, the revelries (during our time) would begin on the sixth day of the festivities, culminating on the ninth, which was a sort of “twelfth night.” The tenth day marked the end and the beginning of the waiting for another year with an unmistakeable air of sadness hanging around the entire population. Strangely though, with an increase in the number of Pujas in every nook and corner of the city, the celebrations in certain parts of the city have begun by the second day itself. The thing is, the festivities are no longer a cultural local thing. They are broadcast live over the internet; awards are given to the pandals drawing the most crowd. Added to it, is the question of sponsorship and revenue generated from advertising -- the skyline is hardly visible with the entire city scape covered in billboards. As a result, there is this mad rush to visit as many Pandals as one can and with social media playing such an important role, there is also the added motivation to share pictures on Instagram and Facebook. A couple of decades back, the scenario was much different. Of all the clothes we would have bought or received as gifts, we would have saved our most favourite for the Navami night (the ninth) and worn the least favourite ones on Shashthi and Shaptami (the sixth and the seventh day respectively).

But now, we are all consumers and we hardly know it. Perhaps the greatest casualty of all this has been the magazine’s special issues. Surprisingly, the big publication houses now publish them almost three/four months prior to the beginning of the festival, thereby robbing its unique association with the excitement and expectancy that would accompany the beginning of the holiday cheer. With so much choice available, in the form of OTT releases, multiplexes, social media, economic deals on travel, it is a legitimate fear on their part that there will be a dearth of readership and greater difficulty in capturing the reading market if the issues are released just a fortnight before the Pujo. All said and done, they just don’t feel connected to the festivities anymore. In an article published almost six years ago, Professor Abhjit Gupta of the Department of English, Jadavpur University, made the following observation -- “A pujabarshiki which does not come out during or just before the Pujas is an aberration which cries out for nothing less than divine intervention.” The pujabarshikis may have grown in number and it also may have received the kind of exposure, financial funding and limelight that it needs to survive, but there is still something amiss. I think we all know what that might be. 

Sayan Aich Bhowmik is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Shirakole College, West Bengal. He has recently published his debut collection of poems, I Will Come With A Lighthouse.

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