Of all the states in India, West Bengal stands apart as a rich and vibrant land of people with shared customs and tastes. If history stands testimony to the everlasting sea of stories, music and art that have evolved in Bengal and made a mark not only in India but globally, the very streets of the state resonate with a shared love for its cultural heritage.
Not to forget, Bengalis form the third largest ethnolinguistic group in the world. Over a quarter of a billion people — strong and growing — the Bengali community has produced three Nobel laureates, world class scientists and an unending stream of writers and philosophers. If Sourav Ganguly aka Dada ruled the cricket pitch for years, the surreal world of Satyajit Ray still evokes curiosity among cinema lovers. Rabindra Sangeet and macher jhol (fish curry), once a trademark in Bengali homes, have today travelled lengths and found a place in distant corners of the globe.
The Bengali culture, thus, is filled with a connecting sense of singularity and is yet uniquely diverse in its own way. Bengalis were also among the firsts in India to receive the benefits of Western education as Calcutta (now Kolkata) was then the Indian capital under British rule.
Throwing light on all these aspects that go into the making of the Bengali culture are three recent offerings from Niyogi Books. Presented in separate genres and styles, these three books are a stunning tour de force into everything Bengali. Together, they evoke a sense of satisfaction in the Bengali way of life, provide minute information about its traditions, open doors to discussions on customs that seem as old as time itself and present unseen photographs of a cosmopolitan city — Calcutta — within the otherwise close-knit community.
“Bengali Culture: Over A Thousand Years” by Ghulam Murshid (translated from the original Bengali by Sarbari Sinha) brings authentic recorded history out of the walls of libraries and classrooms, making it a part of everyday conversation of non-academic readers. The book further checks the entry of unfounded myths and bigotries into intellectual space.
“Contrary to what we think, it is not easy to describe ‘culture’, nor is it easy to write the cultural history. Writing the history of Bengali culture is even more difficult because Bengali society is truly plural in its nature, made even more so by its political division,” notes the author. Written for the general reader, the language is simple and the style lucid. It shows how the individual ingredients of Bengali culture have evolved and found expression, in the context of political developments, and how certain individuals have molded culture. Above all, the book presents the identity and special qualities of Bengali culture.
And then there is a pictorial book titled “Calcutta: 1940-1970”, with a foreword by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, text by Soumitra Das and photographs by Jayant Patel. This stunning collection of photographs, with the text running in between the pages, arouses a sense of nostalgia, a feeling of wanting to return to the city of the times when people lived their lives in the pursuit of pleasure and happiness. From a scintillating view of the Hooghly with a half-clothed Sadhu praying in the backdrop captured in 1943 at Outram Ghat to a leisure evening of 1954 at Ramakrishna temple at Belur Math where people can simply be seen lounging in the open, the book opens a window to the Calcutta of yesteryears.
But a careful study of Bengal cannot be complete without studying its literature and as Buddhadeva Bose, the noted Bengali litterateur, once observed that the greatest treasure of the Bangla literature is its children’s and young adults’ stories, here is an apt fiction title “Timeless Tales from Bengal: An Anthology of Bangla Children’s and Young Adults’ Stories”. The collection has been edited by Dipankar Roy and Saurav Dasthakur.
This unique anthology of 34 translated stories invites the reader to a feast that offers on the platter most of the sub-genres in the realm — fantasy, folk tales and animal stories through comic tales, detective fiction and adventure and suspense stories to ghost stories, historical narratives, sports narratives and tales of social consciousness.
Enriched with beautiful illustrations, bio-notes of the authors, a glossary and a well-informed Introduction, this anthology would also be helpful for enthusiastic researchers.