In a recent essay in Frontline magazine, Ghulam Murshid writes of the ups and downs of Tagore’s reputation in Bangladesh. So long as it was East Pakistan, the poet was not looked upon very favourably-in part because he came from a upper-class landed family, in larger part because he was a Hindu. As the Tagore centenary celebrations approached in 1961, newspapers supported or funded by the Pakistani government ran many articles villifying the poet.
State propaganda could not quench or conquer the people’s own inclinations. As the movement for an independent Bangladesh gathered pace, Tagore’s songs, especially those extolling the beauties of his native land, were sung again and again, in a simultaneous defiance of West Pakistani domination and affirmation of Bengali nationalism. To those who sang Tagore—or performed his plays and dance dramas—he came, writes Ghulam Murshid, to ‘symbolise the spirit of a secular Bengali culture.’
Tagore did not have a chauvinist or communal bone in his body. Nor did his younger contemporary, Nazrul Islam, despite several attempts over the years to represent him as a poet of or for the Muslims. Although he spent his last few years in Dhaka and is recognized as the ‘national’ poet of a professedly ‘Islamic’ Republic, Nazrul, like Tagore, symbolized the spirit of a secular Bengali culture. Like Tagore, again, he also symbolized outstanding literary achievement—he is a great world poet who merely happened to be born in Bengal and thus wrote in Bengali.
In the last week of December 2011, the West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, announced that a large house in Salt Lake once used as the Chief Minister’s residence would be converted into a museum and research centre devoted to the life and works of Nazrul Islam. Although its most recent occupant had been the Communist Jyoti Basu, the building itself was named for Indira Gandhi, who had briefly stayed there in 1972 while attending a session of the All India Congress Committee in Kolkata.
The decision to rename Indira Bhavan as Nazrul Bhavan provoked anger and dismay among leading Congressmen in West Bengal. The state Congress President, Pradip Bhattacharya, wrote to the Chief Minister urging her to restore the building’s earlier name. ‘The Indira Bhavan is closely associated with the memory of our beloved leader [the late] Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and sentiments of millions of people are involved with the name and memory of Indiraji,’ wrote Mr Bhattacharya. If Ms Banerjee did not withdraw her decision, he said, the Congress would organize a series of agitations across the state.
There are four possible reasons why Mamata Banerjee changed the name of this building in Salt Lake. The first is that it expressed a longstanding admiration for the poems and songs of Nazrul Islam. The second is that although Nazrul was himself non-sectarian, the fact that he was born a Muslim and carried a Muslim name might make the renaming attractive to the large Muslim population of West Bengal. The third is that it was a consequence of the growing rift between the Trinamool and its coalition partner, the Congress Party. As with the opposition to FDI in retail and to the provision for Lokayuktas in the Lokpal Bill, Ms Banerjee may have been asserting her independence of the Congress.
A fourth possible reason is that Mamata Banerjee may have wanted to diminish the image of Indira Gandhi, since there is room for only one feminine figure of authority in the political culture of West Bengal. In the aftermath of the Bangladesh war, Indira Gandhi was compared to Durga—it was soon after that military victory that she stayed in the building in Salt Lake. Forty years later the glow has dimmed, somewhat; and for it to dim further and faster this change of name would be of some assistance.
I have never met Mamata Banerjee, and do not know any of her advisers. I cannot therefore say with any authority which of these reasons were active in the decision to substitute a poet’s name for a politician’s in a building in eastern Kolkata. Were I to guess, I would say that reasons two and three were at work, rather than reasons one or four. That is to say, the move was most likely motivated by vote-bank politics and the assertion of political independence rather than by a love of literature or a distaste for the cult of personality.
Whatever the reason(s), I must say my first reactions to the renaming were one of pleasure. When I read the news, I remembered an argument I had on television with a spokeswoman of the Congress Party. The new international airport in Hyderabad has just been named for Rajiv Gandhi, an act that owed itself wholly to the facts that the Congress was in power in Andhra Pradesh and in the Centre, and that the Congress President was known to be fanatically devoted to the memory of her late husband. I suggested to the spokeswoman that it would have been more appropriate if the airport had instead carried the name of the composer Thyagaraja, who was arguably the most remarkable individual produced by the Andhra country.
I am not Bengali, and can read the works of Nazrul Islam only in translation. And I have decidedly mixed feelings about Mamata Banerjee. Still, I was delighted with this particular act, for I have long hoped for the greater appreciation within our public culture of the contributions of creative artists. Back in the mid 1990s, I took part in a campaign, led by Gopalkrishna Gandhi and the late H. Y. Sharada Prasad, to have the peerless M. S. Subbulakshmi be awarded the Bharat Ratna. A series of mediocre or malign politicians had been dignified by that distinction, and yet M. S. had been passed by. The campaign succeeded, in that M. S. as well as Lata Mangeshkar, Ravi Shankar and Bismillah Khan were to win the Bharat Ratna, thus somewhat redeeming the reputation of the Republic of India’s highest award.
That a public building in Kolkata would now be named for a poet pleased me; as did the fact that it was at Indira Gandhi’s expense. For while I admire Jawaharlal Nehru, I have a deep distaste for the dynastic culture of the Congress Party in its Indira and post-Indira phases. With Sonia Gandhi as Party President, this may have reached an all-time low. Legislators and Ministers feel obliged to regularly praise the living Nehru-Gandhis, namely Sonia and Rahul, as well as deceased Nehru-Gandhis, notably Indira and Rajiv. A Congress leader seeking preferment thinks it prudent to name buildings or airports after Indira or Rajiv, or to issue costly advertisements at the taxpayer’s expense extolling their real or imagined achievements. The protests of Congressmen in West Bengal at the renaming of Indira Bhavan as Nazrul Bhavan are a manifestation of this culture of deference and sycophancy.
Those who think that, in these acts of naming and renaming, politicians generally get far more than their due, and writers and musicians far less, may therefore take heart from this change in Kolkata. I might also direct their attention to a South Asian city where a poet’s name is attached to an entire airport. I refer to the Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore. Indians do not always wish to emulate Pakistanis, but they might wish to make an exception in this case. Were a new airport to be built near Puné, who better to name it for than the poet-saint Tukaram? And if ever Kolkata itself were to need a second airport, it could, indeed should, be named for two poets instead of one, for Tagore and for Nazrul Islam, together.