The Rhetoric Of Negation: Why Durga Will Bless Rama But 'Calcutta' Might Disown Him

The Rhetoric Of Negation: Why Durga Will Bless Rama But 'Calcutta' Might Disown HimRam in Bengal
Snapshot
  • The peculiarity is perhaps typical of the 'island of Calcutta' and not that of the federal unit at large.

    In fact, the sharp rise in the vote share of the BJP — from 10 per cent in 2016 to 38 per cent in 2021 — suggests that the slogan 'Jai Sri Ram' had excited the Hindu population in the federal unit.

Those in the business of scholarship have every right to criticise Hindutva. It is fundamental to academic liberty. But when such criticism is repetitively biased, then a political academy is instituted.

A commitment to partiality is the perpetration of self-censorship which is anti freedom of thought.

A.K. Dubey of the CSDS has underlined the perils of such scholarship in his ‘Hindu Ekta Vanam Gyan ki Rajneeti’ (Hindu Unity Versus the Politics of Knowledge) (2019).

I concur with Yogendra Yadav that the book should be translated for an even wider readership. It is a must-read to understand the political academy in Bharat-India in terms of what Michel Foucault has canonised as power↔knowledge.

Even the most distinguished academics can fall prey to the use of negation. It may sometimes be willful but it can be a matter of forgetfulness as well. But then, many argue that memory is hardly not a matter of politics.

I shall illustrate with the case of a Nobel Laureate (NL) who needless to say is a towering scholar.

On 5 July 2019, the NL made curious observations in the course of a public talk titled ‘Kolkata after Independence: A Personal Memoir’. He announced that Bengali culture has no precedence of the “Jai Sri Ram” (Hail Lord Ram) utterance or that of Ram Navami celebrations.

The NL argued before his audience in Jadavpur University that Durga is the most prominent deity of West Bengal. He suggested that his conclusion is credible because of what his infant granddaughter said on this matter.

The NL from Harvard University added that “Jai Sri Ram is a recent “import” to attack people. The Telegraph reported what he said and provided a translation:

First of all, to my knowledge ‘Jai Shri Ram’ is not a very traditional Bengali chant. It’s a recent import. People are asked to chant it as a ploy for beating them. It’s not as though it has a connection with Bengali civilisation. Like, for instance, Ram Navami; I hear that Ram Navami is being observed widely in Calcutta nowadays. Haven’t heard of it being observed earlier. The other day, I asked my four-year-old granddaughter who was her favourite among the gods and goddesses she saw. She took a while and said: Maa Durga. So, the stature that Maa Durga enjoys here cannot be compared to Ram Navami. (emphasis added)

“Calcutta” gleefully greeted his words with giant billboards as soon as the NL claimed that “Jai Sri Ram” is an “import” into what he implies is the exceptional space of West Bengal.

But the peculiarity is perhaps typical of the island of “Calcutta” and not that of the federal unit at large. Just before the 2021 election in West Bengal, Snigdhendu Bhattacharya and Sambit Pal published books that document the popularity of “Jai Sri Ram”.

In fact, the sharp rise in the vote share of the BJP — from 10 per cent in 2016 to 38 per cent in 2021 — suggests that the slogan had excited the Hindu population in the federal unit.

It was obviously not enough to defeat a stalwart leader like Mamata Banerjee, who is sincere about welfare schemes.

But how feasible is the assertion that ‘Jai Sri Ram’ is foreign to West Bengal? The NL may have said it to arrest the popularity of a slogan which seemed to usher the BJP in West Bengal. But the NL’s historiophony (pun unintended) and The Telegraph’s historiography may have become casualties in the process.

Krittibas and Bangla Ramayan is a documentary film produced in English by the Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL). It summarises the history of the epic in West Bengal.

Among others, the research of prominent historians of Bengali literature — Chinmoy Guha and Nrisingho Prasad Bhaduri for instance — is narrated and performed by a stalwart mix of academics and artists.

Folk singer Shaonli Mitra contributes immensely to the project. Though the documentary film is cinematically sterile, yet it recounts the remarkable history of the Bengali Ramayan.

In fact, the episodes of such history are widespread due to folklore and school textbooks on Bengali literature.

The CIIL production suggests that Krittibas Ojha had sought patronage of the Islamic ruler Rukunuddin Shah in the 15th century. The king was a patron of learning and he obliged the poet.

But Krittibas looked forward to adapt, not translate, the Valmiki Ramayan in Bengali with a covert purpose.

His aim was to forge an evocative tale which would unite the Hindu population of Gour — pre-colonial Bengal — against Islamic conquerors. His creation came to be known as ‘Sri Ramer Panchali’ (The Ballad of Sri Ram) or ‘Krittibasi Ramayan’.

The adaption of the Sanskrit Ramayan into a ‘panchali’ (Bengali ballad) was intended for mass mobilisation. The unmistakable rhyme and the fixed rhythm made it circulate fast among networks of mass recitation.

Another ingenuity that Krittibas carried out was the fusion of Ram and Chandi (Kali) in ‘Sri Ramer Panchali’.

The ‘Kalika Puran’ and the ‘Brihadharma Puran’ are medieval compositions that continue to guide the Shakta tradition in Assam, West Bengal and Pakistan.

The first suggests that one autumn, Ram had prayed to Chandi to help him cross the sea and defeat Ravan in Lanka. This was an exigent invocation as the customary moment to worship the mother goddess is in spring.

Bengalis thus celebrate Durga Puja in autumn following Ram and the exception is well known as ‘akal bodhan’ (untimely worship).

In his Bengali Ramayan, Krittibas made this insertion which has no mention in the Valmiki Ramayan. Centuries of intertextuality or textual intercourse have transformed the fierce Chandi into the relatively benign Durga.

Pika Ghosh (2003) writes in her paper ‘Unrolling a Narrative Scroll: Artistic Practice and Identity in Late-Nineteenth-Century Bengal’:

Most nineteenth-century Ramayana scrolls depict the 10-armed goddess worshipped by Rama, accompanied by his brother Lakshmana and the monkey devotee, Hanuman… This episode of Rama’s worship of the goddess is not only distinctively regional but very popular in oral, written, and painted Ramayanas in Bengal.
(p. 849)

In the same paper, Ghosh describes the intrinsic relation between Ram and Kalighat, which is one of the most important pilgrimages in Kolkata. She writes:

Like the scrolls, Kalighat images [‘pata chitras’ i.e. scroll paintings] focus on narrating the event. In one example from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection, Durga, ten armed and brandishing her armaments, approaches Rama, reaching out with one hand to touch his hand, while he raises an arrow to his eye … In another Kalighat image, bearing the title Akal Bodhan … Durga is depicted interacting with Rama, blessing him with one raised hand, acknowledging his devotion, and grabbing his other wrist…
(p. 853)
Like the scrolls, Kalighat images [‘pata chitras’ i.e. scroll paintings] focus on narrating the event. In one example from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection, Durga, ten armed and brandishing her armaments, approaches Rama, reaching out with one hand to touch his hand, while he raises an arrow to his eye … In another Kalighat image, bearing the title Akal Bodhan … Durga is depicted interacting with Rama, blessing him with one raised hand, acknowledging his devotion, and grabbing his other wrist …
(p. 853)

The historical relation between Ram and Kali in West Bengal is further attested by the fact that Sri Ramakrishna attended to Ram before he turned to the worship of Kali in Dakshineswar Temple.

To cite popular culture, Bengali children generationally memorise “Bhoot amar poot, petni amar jhi, Ram-Lakhsman booke ache, bhoyta amar ki?” (The ghost is my son, the witch is my servant, Ram-Lakshman reside in my heart, how can phantoms harm me?).

It may have been quite uncomfortable for historian Partha Chatterjee — a signatory to the support letter for the ‘Dismantling Global Hindutva’ Conference — to preside over the talk by the NL.

The Telegraph reported that Chatterjee described the talk as a “very personal account of his understanding of what this city was like in the years of his youth.”

It is best to conclude that what the NL said about the history of Ram and Durga in West Bengal is indeed a “very personal account”.

Sri Ramer Panchali’ by Krittibas demonstrates that the phrase ‘Sri Ram’ dates back to medieval Bengal. The inset of ‘Jai’ (Hail) before ‘Sri Ram’ is not singular as well.

The prefix is usual to the pantheon of Hindu deities —– “Jai Bholanath”, “Jai Ganesh”, “Jai Kali”, “Jai Loknath” … Instead of hasty negation, it is the duty of research to explore the complex circumstances that have bound “Jai” and “Sri Ram”.

Perhaps, it would have served the audience better had Chatterjee or another historian from Harvard University among them — Sugata Basu — pointed out the elephant in the lecture hall.

But then jarring trumpets transform into melodies from the Pied Piper’s flute in an echo chamber — Whether that is in Jadavpur University or in an online conference.

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