Meander through a vanishing culture

Calcutta Conversations
May 7, 2004

Calcutta, India's most intellectual and cultured city, is legendary for its adda : a leisurely chat among a small group of people about politics, literature, art, cinema, philosophy - just about any subject. At its best, adda is a creatively stimulating experience, at its worst, it is feeble gossip.

Calcutta Conversations is a collection of transcripts of adda sessions with members of the Bengali intelligentsia. They were conducted in the 1980s when Calcutta was going through yet another phase of physical and political turmoil as a result of the crippling construction work on the city's underground railway and the shambles of Bengal's Left Front government.

Some of those talking are professional academics, but the conversations also include journalists, town planners, writers, dramatists, a public-relations manager, a publisher, a politician, a police inspector, a propagandist, an art collector, a lawyer and an executive employee of the US consulate. No painters, such as Paritosh Sen, or film-makers, such as Mrinal Sen, or musicians, such as Suchitra Mitra.

Moreover, all are men. Lina Fruzzetti, the US anthropologist who does the chatting, should have interviewed some women, such as the writer and social worker Mahasweta Devi and the film director, actress and magazine editor Aparna Sen. The omission becomes glaring when Fruzzetti writes that at the time of these conversations, she was also conducting "extensive interviews with women all over the city".

The conversations tend to evolve out of the participants' professional occupations and characteristically meander into inconclusiveness. Everyone has an opinion on the state of the city, some of which still pertain almost 20 years on. The burning issue - of how the Bengali values that have dominated Calcutta from its beginnings in the 18th century are being swamped by migrants to the city such as the Marwaris - gets passionately aired. One feels that to talk about this issue was a kind of therapy for these inhabitants of a city riddled with civic predicaments such as power shortages, pollution and endless political rallies.

For the majority of those talking, who were born in the 1920s and 1930s, there are memories of a time when most things in Calcutta worked; and a book reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement could be obtained within a month. They have read, and still read, their Rabindranath Tagore, their Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and their Bibhutibhusan Banerjee; they understand classical Indian music; they identify with the films of Satyajit Ray. So their lament is real.

But reading these conversations today, one notes the changes that have occurred since the 1980s. The Calcutta underground transport system is now the pride of the city. The power supply is good. There are swanky shops and restaurants. Through the internet, Calcuttans are more closely connected with the rest of the world.

However, there are no artistic figures (since the death of Ray in 1992) of international significance. Calcutta's culture, which flourished in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, is in a state of stagnation because the Bengali ethos of educational betterment no longer dominates.

Coarse commercialism brought in by non-Bengalis and political manipulation by opportunists of all parties seem to rule the day. Satellite television fills homes with slick entertainment of little substance, and Bengalis are enthralled.

For me, the cultured city of my birth is fast becoming another undistinguished metropolis, with air-conditioned shopping malls boasting designer outlets, pizza parlours and western-style dance clubs. Calcutta Conversations catches Calcutta (renamed Kolkata in 2001) as it prepared mentally for this regrettable transition.

Krishna Dutta is the author of Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History .

Calcutta Conversations

Author - Lina Fruzzetti and Akos Ostor
Publisher - Chronicle Books, New Delhi
Pages - 242
Price - Rs 575
ISBN - 81 8028 009 8

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