The Golden Age

Midnight in ParisRecently I watched Woody Allen’s latest film “Midnight in Paris” in which the central character (Gil Pender), during his visit to Paris with his fiance’, manages to slip back in time to the Paris of the early 1920s. There Gil meets the greatest of the worlds literati during the period like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and many others. Gil always thought that the 1920s was the golden age of literature and art and Paris was the center of this world. It was Gil’s dream come true. There in the 1920s Gil falls in love with the beautiful Adriana, Pablo Picasso’s lover. But to Adriana of the twenties, the golden age was “la Belle Epoque”, the European revival during the late 19th century. By a twist in the tale, Gil and Adriana travel back to the “belle Epoque” era to Maxim’s and meet Edward Degas, Toulouse Lautrec and Paul Gauguin, the great artists of the period. But when asked, these great artists say that to them the golden age was the period of Renaissance! Continue reading

Atheism 2.0

Recently I watched this wonderful TED talk by Alain de Botton. He was talking about atheism, but unlike many other more radical atheists, he did not reject religion altogether. His philosophy is that, there is a class of people who do not really believe in the existence of god or gods, but they like the other aspects of religion like the rituals, the music, the literature, the art, the myths. Alain says that these aspects of religion, the more popular aspects which enrich us in many positive ways, we don’t have to reject them. I don’t want to go into the details of his talk, you can watch the video and listen for yourself, but this concept which Alain calls Atheism 2.0 rang a bell in me.
I love to attend our Durga Puja festivals, love to hear the mythological stories associated with Durga and Mahishasur although I don’t believe they really exist. I love to listen to the sonorous chanting of the “Chandi” or listen to the ecstatic Kirtan music and feel elated. I love Shyama Sangeet, I like to watch plays and listen to stories of Hindu mythology and the epics, although I don’t feel compelled to believe them as historical truth. And I believe, I am not alone. Many of us who have been sitting on the fence of religion, wondering which side to land on, now have this third option – Atheism 2.0. We refuse to be indoctrinated by religion, refuse to believe that ours is the best and for that matter any religion to be better than any other. But we gladly accept the goodies that these religions offers us and thus enrich ourselves with those aspects.
I would like to know what others think about this.

A Discourse on the Saree Fetish

By Amitava Sen

Why do we buy things?
Some for immediate consumption, like food, which we need for survival or mere delight of palate.
We buy theatre tickets, for enjoyment and entertainment.
Or, books and arts, to meet our intellectual needs.
We spend money on investment, with expectation for a return in cash or kind.
Also, for long term uses, like houses for shelter. The range of items like homes and cars are not always based on a minimum need; often times they exceed the rational limit. But their uses remain utilitarian nevertheless.
Amongst many others, clothing is an important area we spend our money on, so that we maintain a societal decorum and do not bare us to the world; and for sartorial splendor, of course.
Generally, we acquire thing to meet some kind of needs or perceived needs, material, physical or intellectual.
But there are a few items we get out of sheer obsession of the moments with complete disregard for need or return on investment and we make irrational judgment about the value of the acquisition. Consider for example, saree-buying frenzy of an India born women in our Bengalee community.
A mirror view is satisfying, but principally nice attire helps us look good in others’ eyes. At least that is a reasonable assumption. But observing some Bengalee women here, saree possession seems to have crossed the threshold of reasonableness; it looks like an uncontrollable mania. Continue reading

New Jersey Durga Puja 2011: A Personal Perspective

Believe me, it was white until it fell in your mutton curry.Yet another Durga Puja festival concluded with great pomp and fan fare. And each year we see the festival transforming itself in different ways. Some people hate change. They feel that tradition is something that should be protected with great care. Others feel, nothing should be cast in stone – rules and traditions should be broken to herald in fresh views and thoughts. I am okay with either school of thought, although I tend to lean towards the latter philosophy. Organizing an event like Durga Puja is not a trivial task, and not all things work according to plan. Besides it is not easy to satisfy everybody.  However, I can speak about my experience and what I felt about the festival this year, especially the one celebrated by Kallol of New Jersey. Continue reading

Durga Puja and Our Teenagers

Omkar and SouvikWhen we celebrate Durga Puja in this adopted homeland of ours, one thought keeps on playing in our minds – how much does our children enjoy this festival? Do they feel the same as we did when we were kids in our homeland? Many of us had the idea that our children really don’t care much about this favorite festival of ours. Often we have seen bored kids playing hand held video games in the hallways of our festival venue while their parents enjoyed inside. We sometimes debated, whether we are forcing our kids to come to the festival just because we want to, or it is our duty as a parent to introduce them to our culture and traditions? Is it working? Can they feel the spirit of the best festival of our community?
To get a more definitive answer, I asked my fourteen year old son Omkar and his friends a simple question. What does Durga Puja mean to them? And here are their responses. Continue reading

Durga Puja 2011 : New Jersey Style

It is said that you can take a Bengali out of Bengal, but you cannot take Bengal Durga Protima Kallol of New Jerseyout of a Bengali. I’d rather rephrase it by saying that you can never take Durga Puja out of a Bengali. The greatest Bengali festival is once again knocking on our doors and the New Jersey Bengalis are gearing up to greet their Mother Durga with utmost fervor. Although according to the Bengali calender the puja starts (Maha Shasthi) on Sunday October 2, the enthusiastic New Jersey Bengalis are not willing to wait that long. ICC of Garden State will start their festival on Saturday 24th September and continue till Sunday the 25th. The Puja will be held at the Mt Olive High School, 18 Corey Rd, Flanders, NJ 07836. They have also lined up an impressive cultural program featuring the famous Bengali singer Nachiketa (more on Nachiketa later), a Bengali play from Toronto, and Soumen Adhikari, another singer from Kolkata. Several other local programs and great food also awaits the attendees. Note: I just learnt that ICC has canceled Nachiketa’s program due to lack of timely confirmation from the artist’s agent. Instead, they will be presenting Nirmalya Ray, a well known artist to the NJ music lovers. Continue reading

We All Have Names! Let’s Use Them!

We Bengalis have a special characteristic. We tend to setup familial relationships with almost any person we get acquainted with, especially when they are older than us. We cannot just address them by their names. We always want them to be our brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, grandparents etc.

We do it with good intentions. We feel that it would be irreverent of us to address the middle aged gentleman we just met as “Arunabho” or “Satyen”. Addressing them by their first name is next to impossible. So we need to make a quick judgment call and decide what relationship we would like to establish with this new friend. Based on the looks, if the gentleman or lady seem to be close to our age, we try to make them our elder brother (Dada) or sister (Didi). If they seem to be middle aged, then “Kaku” or (Uncle) seems to be appropriate for men, and “Mashi” (Aunt) for women. For women, a subtle transition from “Mashi” to “Mashi-ma” can occur but one needs to be quite careful with that judgement. Often it so happens, that if it is a couple we meet, we call the husband “Kaku” (paternal uncle) and the wife “Mashi” (maternal aunt) – an almost absurd (although not impossible) relationship. When we meet a couple, “Kaku/Kakima” or “Mashima/Meshomoshai” is a better bet. It is odd though that the relations, “Mama” (maternal uncle) or “Pishi” (paternal aunt) are not used very often for such acquaintances. If you are ever doubtful about your social status in this relationship scale, I suggest you walk down the pavement in Gariahat Kolkata. The hawkers and roadside vendors will give you a perfect judgment about your age. Many ladies have experienced their development from “Didi” to “Boudi” to “Mashi” to Mashi-ma” to “Thakuma” from these experts. Continue reading

Learning About Our Heritage: A Task For The First Generation

by Amitava Sen

DurgaA few years ago at the annual Durga Puja, the organizing club published a booklet for the benefit of the generation born and raised here, explaining the significance and meaning of the festival and its various events on different days. Rightly so, the narration started with Mahalaya, the new moon day preceding the Puja. Mahalaya is actually a day when Hindus, typically Bengali Hindus pay homage to the ancestors, culminating in Sharodiya Durga Puja six days later. Indeed, it is a Hindu practice to invoke the blessings of the ancestors before any solemn occasion, be it a wedding or an Annaprasan. But that was not what the author of the little booklet wrote in his explanation of Durga Puja for our children. Mahalaya, according to his narrative was the day on which Calcutta radio broadcast an audio musical, Mahishasurmardini. And that was all, what Mahalaya meant! Continue reading

Rajar Chithi : A Playwright’s Note

Rabindranath Tagore in Berkeley CaliforniaAbout a year and half ago, when I was researching on Rabindranath Tagore’s visits to the USA, an incident caught my attention. It said, that apparently there was an assassination attempt on Rabindranath by some Indians during his visit to San Francisco in October of 1916. This piece of information shocked me to say the least and I started to dig into the matter further. I looked into several books on Tagore by well regarded scholars and slowly an image started to take shape. I’ll refrain myself from getting into the details of the various accounts published in several books (you may look for them in the attached bibliography), but just to put matters in context I’ll quote some references: Continue reading

Badal Sircar – The Maverick of Indian Theatre

Badal SircarOn 13th of May 2001, when the entire state of West Bengal was experiencing the euphoria of change, the landscape of Bengali theatre also changed forever. Badal Sircar, the maverick of Indian theatre, passed away almost unnoticed. But I am not going to write an obituary of Badal Sircar, neither I am going to write his biography. Rather I’d like to share with you my experiences with this theater personality through his work and from few of my personal interactions with him.

My first experience with Badal Sircar was when I was a child. In our campus (I grew up in IIT Kharagpur campus) the faculty, staff and students often staged plays and I think it was with “Boro Pishima” I first experienced theatre and it changed my life in many ways forever. Later I saw “Solution X” where my mother also participated in one of the lead characters. Few years later, when I was in high school, I went to see a student’s production (TDS _- Technology Dramatic Society) and was shaken to the core to see “Michhil” performed. It was an experience that I could never have expected. For the first time I realized that theater does not require a stage, does not require any expensive sets, any lights or any sophisticated sounds. All it needs are performers and an audience. And in most cases, the barrier between a performer and audience faded away – they became one whole theatrical entity.  I also learned the term “Third Theatre”. The apparent simplicity of these production made me think, can theatre be so easy?  My friends and I started to produce Badal Sircar, “Michhil”, “Bhoma” and others. We even started performing regular proscenium kind of plays in third theatre form. Continue reading

Why are there Tears in Bengali Eyes?

By Amitava Sen

Have you noticed that the City of Joy has turned out to actually be a City of Billboards? The skyline as viewed from the roads is plastered with huge hoardings. If only they were placed somewhat lower, they could hide the squalor directly below. The displays for luxury apartments hang directly over the shack dwellings; advertisements for purified drinking water cast a shadow over the polluted cesspools that are the byproduct of cleaning and washing by the shanty dwellers. Then there are displays for fancy snacks and beverages, frowning directly on the people down below who live on less that one dollar a day. But the advertisers have a point in placing their billboards here, for they are not meant for the pedestrian hoi polloi, you can only view these displays from a distance if you are riding an automobile. In addition to the billboards, Calcutta has a tradition of roadside walls and building facades covered with paper posters, to be on the eye level of the passers by. The billboards are gaining in prominence as the car population in Calcutta is climbing exponentially every day. Continue reading

Click For Boi : Online Bangla Boi Subscription

Click For BoiIf you are a book lover in Kolkata or any other part of West Bengal or India, your options for reading books are quite limited. The local books stores have a limited stock and they may take days to get you a copy of the book you are looking for. Your next option would be to go to the College Street book stores which is an uphill task during these hectic days and traffic congestion. Your local libraries can stock only a limited number of books constrained by their meager budget. ClickForBoi resolves all that problem by allowing you to get your favorite books online. Continue reading

The How and The Why – A New Play by Sarah Treem

New York City has always  been the launch place for successful American plays. Plays by newcomer playwrights launch their life from off-off Broadway  and gradually filter to Off Broadway and then the lucky few goes to the Broadway. However, recent trends have shown that many new plays now premiere at Regional Theaters around the country and gradually make their way to the glitz and fame of Broadway if they get noticed. Recently, I had the opportunity of watching the premier of Sarah Treem’s new play “The How and the why” at the McCarter theater in Princeton New Jersey. The play was directed by Emily Mann and performed by Mercedes Ruehl (the Oscar winning actress) and Bess Rous. Continue reading

Rabindranath Tagore and America

Rabindranath TagoreThis year we are celebrating the hundred fiftieth birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore. In America several organizations are busy in preparing for the celebrations around the year. In New York and New Jersey, Cultural Association of Bengal (CAB) is joining hands with multiple organizations to hold multiple events in New York, New Jersey and Maryland. Amidst all this excitement, I was trying to look at this myriad minded genius from a different perspective – from the perspective of an expatriate Bengali, more specifically a Bengali American. And when I say Bengali American, I do not imply any national significance, rather I mean a Bengali speaking person living in America.  I have been looking into this subject for more than a year now, and during the course of my so called research I have been fascinated in knowing a great deal about the history of expatriate Indians in America and their relationship with Tagore.

Continue reading

Parenting Asian Style

Amy ChuaRecently Amy Chua is in the news. Her book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” has raised a storm in American households. Although many may not have read her book, but the excerpt published by Wall Street Journal was enough to enrage many parents who challenged Amy in all forms possible.  To us, Indian parents, Ms. Chua’s parenting style is nothing new at all. Rather the western parenting style of protecting the delicate and fragile self-esteem of our children seems more foreign to us. We remember how we trembled to bring in our report cards that had less than 80% scores in front of our parents (well during our times 80% was a great score – letter marks, as we used to say). But after we came to this country, we learned that we should never exhibit our dissatisfaction when our child fails to deliver their best.   We should keep encouraging them, tell them that they are doing great, even when their grades keep slacking. Positive reinforcement, we learned, was the key to success. Continue reading

New Jersey Saraswati Puja

Devi SaraswatiSaraswati puja is a major Bengali religious and cultural festival, especially for the Bengali youth. Although Saraswati puja celebrates knowledge, learning and the fine arts, but it also had a romantic touch to it.  The spring time weather, the mild warmth of sunshine, the red Krishnachura and Palash blooming all around – it is the perfect time for romance and Saraswati Puja. In this country (especially in the north east), Saraswati Puja is celebrated in the peak of winter – and just like the Goddess, the landscape around covers itself in white.  We would have to cover our nice festive dresses in heavy winter clothing and trudge through snow, ice and slush to visit our revered Goddess of learning. But we the expatriates, many of whom are indebted to  Maa Saraswati for her blessings, carry the warmth of spring in our heart.  Just as we enter the Puja venue, we feel transported back to those days when we used to go around door to door to collect contributions for our club Puja, building and decorating the pandals, waking nights to decorate the venue and have a great time. We also had several rules that needed to be followed – like, we couldn’t eat “Kool” (the sweet and sour berry), no studying on the day of the Puja, and after the Puja write Saraswati’s name on the “Bel” leaves. No such restrictions need to be followed here, but sometimes we feel a small tinge when we see our kids missing out the fun. Continue reading

From The Tagore Kitchen

Thakur Barir Ranna by Purnima ThakurThe other day, while rearranging the books in my tiny library, I chanced upon a tiny book titled “Thakur Barir Ranna” (Foods from the Tagore Kitchen) written by Purnima Tagore (daughter of Pramatha Choudhury and Nalini Devi). This year being the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, anything related to Tagore generates special interest. Hence, after a long time, I started leafing through the book and was pleasantly surprised by the variety of cuisine and recipes listed in the book. In the preface, the author says that these recipes are collected from a recipe book handed down to her by her aunt, Indira Devi Choudhurani. Indira Devi, the favorite niece of Rabindranath Tagore, had never entered a kitchen or cooked on a regular basis. But whenever she liked a dish, she would make it a point to collect the detailed recipe from the cook and note it down in her book. Purnima Tagore has also included some of her own recipes in the book. Hence, it is not that all the recipes were from Jorsanko Thakurbari, but of course they are from the Tagore kitchens in general. Continue reading

Facebook – Not a Place to Hide Your Face

Mark Zuckerberg of FacebookTime magazine chose Mark Zuckerberg as the 2010 person of the year. A film on the life of Mark Zuckerberg is a strong contender for Oscars next February. He is twenty six years old and is worth 7 billion dollars. He drives an Acura TSX and rents a house. And he is the creator of the phenomenon called “Facebook”.

Yes, Facebook is no longer a website, it is a phenomenon. Social networking sites are nothing new. People on the internet started to commune together since the early days through bulletin boards, news groups etc., long before MySpace, LinkedIn, Orkut and Facebook came into existence.  Newsgroups were there (remember soc.cult.etc.etc?) even before web browsers and web servers were invented. People have always tried to use the internet to connect and to share. Social networking sites like Facebook has given the people the ideal vehicle to connect and share. And of all the social networking sites, Facebook has become the most popular platform primarily because of its ability to evolve continuously.  People have been able to connect with their friends after ages, they share their thoughts, their likes and dislikes, their photos and memories. It allows many to get their moments of fame and recognition from their friends and peers that was never possible before.  It has become such a powerful attraction to many that some psychiatrists are considering Facebook addition as a diagnosable ailment. Continue reading

To Criticize or Not to Criticize, That is a Question!

I often have this dilemma, is it okay to criticize? Often people ask me, how did I like a book, or a play, or a movie – and I find it very difficult to answer. First of all, if it is my opinion they are asking for, I can possibly try to answer quite diplomatically. My answer would also depend on who is asking me, and about what my opinion is sought for. But expressing an opinion and making a criticism of some work are two entirely different ball games. Opinions are personal, but criticism should be based on a solid foundation of theoretical and practical understanding of the craft. We often tend to confuse between the two and sometimes give too much weight to personal opinions as valued commentary of a piece of artistic or literary work. Continue reading

Two Plays in Kolkata

Kaachher ManushWhenever I go to Kolkata, I make it a point to see as many theaters as possible within the short breaks that I can manage from the hectic schedule. This summer too I had the opportunity of watching two plays in Kolkata, “Kaachher Manush” by Gandhar and “Srinwantu Comrades” by Nandipat.

“Kaachher Manush” is based on a Marathi play by Dr. Sirish Athwale (translated by Kamal Sanyal) and directed by Gautam Haldar. The play tells the story about how two people from different social backgrounds can come close together through a metaphoric process of healing.  Dadaseheb (a Marathi Brahmin played by Debshankar Haldar) is suffering from a paralysis of his right side resulting from a head injury and needs physiotherapy and occupational therapy to recover. Savitribai, a senior dalit lady (performed by Bijoy Lakshmi Burman), has been appointed as a nurse to provide him with his daily therapy and help him during the day with his household chores. Continue reading