If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Meghnadbadh Kabya: A super rendition

Meghnadbadh Kabya (Slaying of Meghnad) was the most significant literary work by the greatest flawed genius of Bangla literature, Michael Madhusudan Dutta (1824–1873). It was published in 1861, the year Rabindranath Tagore was born.

To briefly explain the qualifier “flawed genius”, right since his days in Hindu College (Presidency College later), there was plenty of evidence of Madhusudan’s literary talent. But he was also snooty, quite shamelessly opportunistic (he converted to Christianity not out of faith, but to cadge a ticket to England from the colonial masters), and famously undisciplined. Thanks to his luxurious lifestyle and lack of self-restraint, Madhusudan went through long spells of penury and ultimately, drank himself to death. Had it not been for the consistent financial and moral support from Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar – who I believe was among the three greatest Bengalis in modern history – Michael possibly would have died much earlier, and Bangla literature would have been poorer.

Meghnadbadh Kabya, a tragic long verse in nine cantos, is exceptionally brilliant both in terms of its content and literary style.

In this poem, Michael looks at an episode from the Ramayana from a contrarian perspective. Indrajit, also known as Meghnad, was Ravana’s son and a great warrior. He had almost killed Rama and Lakshmana twice.

But in the morning just before he was to join the battle, while he was worshiping Shiva in the royal temple of Lanka, Laxman entered the palace “like a thief” with the help Bivisana, one of Ravana’s brothers. Meghnad welcomed Laxman as a guest, but rebuked him for being such a coward and asked him not to fight an unarmed man. But Lakshman killed his defenceless enemy anyway, making a mockery of the so-called “kshatriya dharma”.

A proof of literary genius is that catch phrases used by great writers become idioms in their language. Meghnadbadh Kabya in particular and Madhusudan’s poetry in general abounds with such gems. Here’s one that my mother often quoted when she had to refer to a troublesome adversary:

Raban swoshur momo, Meghnad swami, amiki dorai sakhi bhikari Raghabe?

Ravana is my father-in-law, Meghnad my husband, could I be scared of that beggar Raghava?

Michael once wrote:

Kato je aishwarya tabo e bhabo mandole
Sei jane, banee pado dhare je mastake

What treasures abound
In your boundless universe,
Know only those,
Who’ve embraced the feet
Of the Goddess of Letters.

Watching fine plays (and films) too is embracing the feet of the Goddess of Learning. And last night, I discovered a new treasure trove: The theatre group Naye Natua and Gautam Halder’s rendition of Madhusudan’s epic verse at the Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata.

It was two hours and twenty minutes of solo-acting by Gautam, supported by two drummers and four other musicians, every one of them joining in chorus too. Gautam recited and sang, acted and danced while effortlessly transiting from one character to another, playing every character of the story including both the combatants Meghnad and Laxman, with effortless ease but with tremendous passion and physical exertion.

If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have known that such performance was humanly possible on stage. And the beauty of the performance was that he hadn’t left out even one word of the original. Michael Madhusudan’s language contains lots of Sanskrit words and even educated Bengalis may not follow it entirely. But despite that, Gautam and his team kept the audience spell-bound, no one – well almost no one – moved or checked their stupid cell phones during the performance.

It was a captivating show, and almost flawless. After many years I was watching a play at the Academy of Fine Arts with every seat occupied. For average performances, there are 20 to 200 viewers and it was indeed heart-warming to notice that fine performance is still appreciated in a city where ignorance is bliss officially, filthy language is heard everywhere, and uncouth behaviour is considered normal.

I’ve been watching plays since when titans like Sambhu Mitra, Ajitesh Bandyopadhyaya, and Utpal Dutta straddled the theatre stages in Bengal. After their departure, there was an inevitable period of lull, and personally, I lost touch with the Bangla theatre as I moved away.

Yesterday, I realised that the tradition of Bangla theatre is very much alive. The flame burns with equal brightness and the pursuit of the pinnacle of excellence continues unabated.

19 November 2017

Photo of Michael Madhusudan Dutta courtesy: Wikipedia: By Unknown - Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51736483

Picture of the stage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PwBWXwJgUns

Friday, 17 November 2017

When I don't know ...

Monday, 13 November 2017

Note to My Students # 17

The best way to learn English (or any other second language) is to fall in love with her/him (depending on your gender and orientation!).

I fell in love with her long before my wife (confusion intended). And this is an affair where one doesn't feel jealous about competition. 

What about you?

13 Nov 2017

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Secret Superstar: A must-watch movie

I can recall lots of movies which end with teary melodrama or long speeches, but can’t remember even one of them which I loved so much. In fact, Secret Superstar is beyond love and hate; it brings you – once again – face to face with the reality of the perversely anti-woman world we live in, where a majority of half the humanity manage to live their troubled lives quietly, thanks to their abiding faith in the mantra jhel lenge: I’ll manage my pains, as they know there’s no escape. 

The second dimension of Secret Superstar is equally significant. As far as I know, no other Indian film ever has talked so openly and strongly about the sub-human existence of women in the Muslim society in today’s world. Here I must quickly add two caveats. First, the Muslim society is no monolith, I personally know several enlightened Muslim families and also, Muslim women – educated and not-so-educated – who are as free as the blowing wind. Secondly, it is not about Muslims alone, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, and Tarun Tejpal are no exceptions, they are visible threads of a huge and abominable pattern. Having said that, I do believe no major religious community practises institutionalised misogyny the way the Muslim society does in the 21st Century. And It works at numerous levels: from Triple Talaq which was legal until recently, to erudite men preaching the virtues of the hijab (in the narrower sense of the term meaning a head cover) on their Facebook wall.

The film deals this somewhat taboo topic boldly and I wouldn’t be surprised if an imbecilic mullah came out with a fatwa against its makers.

The story revolves around a woman in her late thirties, a victim of repeated domestic violence, and her teen-aged daughter who tries to free her, while simultaneously trying to make it big in the world, using her natural musical talent and gifted voice. The girl insists that her mother divorce her father, but in a poignant scene, the older woman observes that no one ever asked for her opinion about her own life, neither if she wanted to marry, nor if she wanted a divorce. The irony cannot be missed.

Moving back to the girl and her ambitions, the third dimension of the film is about the by-now clich├ęd “aspirational India”. Sadly, like many Bollywood movies, this film too glosses over the impossible odds stacked by a dysfunctional gerontocracy against a young person from an ordinary background trying to come up in life. Instead, it offers a quick-fix solution to make the girl an instant superstar. Consequently, it lacks credibility unlike say, Dangal by the same actor-producer Aamir Khan, which truthfully chronicles the long and punishing work required for success on a big stage.

However, if you suspend your disbelief willingly to create a hypnotic engagement with the characters on screen, you will see a significant Indian film in Secret Superstar. It is significant because – I believe – it will create a wider impact by making Indian Muslims take a hard look at themselves. After all, communities – like individuals – can reform themselves only from within.

We do not know how we can come out of the self-defeating bind of growing state-sponsored communal hatred that is tearing India apart, but it is essential that every religious community shed their baggage and look at everyone else as just another human being, like the young protagonist Insiya (Zaira Wasim) and her boyfriend Chintan (Tirth Sharma), who effortlessly rise above their religious milieu.

If the film helps some of us take a step in that direction, it will have served a huge social purpose. Let’s hope it will.

Wednesday, 01 November 2017