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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 8, February 15, 2014

Climate, Culture, Cosmopolitanism: The Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, Shillong

Monday 17 February 2014

by Nabanipa Bhattacharjee

Clime as Muse

Surrounded by lush green hills, Shillong, the capital city of Meghalaya, is widely known for its salubrious climate and natural beauty. As one of oldest hill stations of the subcontinent, Shillong was chosen—after the failure of the British administrators and soldiers to continue operating out of Cherrapunjee—to house the headquarters of the colonial government including the Sylhet Light Infantry in 1864. Following the creation of Assam as a Chief Commissioner’s province (carved out of the Bengal Presidency) in 1874, Shillong, a small town then, was declared its capital. Shillong scored over others in that part of the empire, among others, due to two important factors. First, its climate, and second, the town being best suited to serve the colonial administrative, commercial and strategic interests.

As a result of the reorganised political geography of the region, a substantial number of European, Assamese and Bengali officers and clerks of the colonial bureaucracy lived and settled in Shillong. And so did a large number of tea planters of Assamese and European origins, Nepali staff of the colonial Army, Marwari entrepreneurs and so forth. Indeed, the quaint hill town, which was essentially populated by the Khasi tribe, acquired by the turn of the twentieth century a vibrant, cosmo-politan character which stood substantively (and perhaps best) reflected in the organisation of its cultural space. Shillong’s spirit of cosmopolitanism, as its socio-cultural history shows, was deeply embedded in the ideology of the recognition (and not mere political management) of cultural difference.

It was the extension of that spirit that led to the formation and growth of a variety of cultural organisations in the town. The salubrious climate of Shillong of course had an inspirational role to play too, for most of the organisations were devoted to literature and art—music, painting, dance and theatre. It was indeed the ideal place for literary and philosophical (and religious/Brahmo) pursuits; none other than Rabindranath Tagore, who visited Shillong in 1919, 1923 and 1927, would allude to that in the novel Shesher Kabita (The Last Poem) set in the town and published in 1928. Ten years after Tagore’s last visit, in 1937, the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad (hereafter BSPS) was established in Shillong. Undoubtedly, the formation of the BSPS was a significant initiative, but for the Bengalis of the town, who had a substantial presence in it since the nineteenth century, it was not the first time.

In fact, fiftynine years prior to the formation of the BSPS—and sixteen years before the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad was established in 1894 in Calcutta—an organisation named Shillong Sahitya Sabha was formed in 1878. Through its activities including publication of works of Bengali literature and also a magazine (mouthpiece) entitled Sahitya Sevak the Shillong Sahitya Sabha in fact paved the way for the establishment of the BSPS, as also did the already existing Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, Calcutta and of course, the encouragement of the ever Shillong-inspired Tagore. Headed by Brajasundar Ray, Principal, Lady Keane College, Shillong, the BSPS, with twenty ordinary members, resolved to establish itself as a branch of the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, Calcutta (confirmed in 1940) in its first executive committee meeting held on 9 May, 1937.

Flavour of Culture

The official meetings and literary activities of the BSPS, due to the absence of a permanent property to its name, were held in the residences of the members whose number reached seventy-four by 1942. While the broad mandate of the BSPS was certainly Bengali literature, yet other cultural (intellectual) activities were carried out with equal enthusiasm. It had supporters and members (both Bengalis and non-Bengalis) ranging from poets to political leaders who were tied together by the one urge to live and breathe a culture which was surely Bengali but imbued with the spirit of cosmopolitanism that Shillong nurtured and celebrated. Eminent Assamese, Khasis, Nepalis and Manipuris, for instance, from time to time, lent support to the BSPS. The organisation, in turn, not only engaged with their literature but rarely failed to record the contribution they made. The 1940s could be called one of the many high periods in the history of the BSPS in particular and Shillong in general.

In 1945 and 1947 the Nikhil Assam Bangla Bhasha O Sahitya Sammelan held its first and second respective conferences in Shillong. It was Kumud Ranjan Bhattacharjee, the then General Secretary of the BSPS (1941-1971) and also the conferences, who turned to be the man of the moment. He succeeded, on the occasion of the conferences, in having well-known men of letters like S. Wajed Ali, Tarashankar Bandopadhyay and Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay participate and speak, adding thus to the soaring reputation of the organisation and the town. To this list was added, in course of time, names like Nihar Ranjan Ray, Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay, Kalidas Nag, Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, Kshitimohan Sen, Shyamaprasad Mookherjee, Surjya Kumar Bhuyan, Humayun Kabir, Nalini Bala Debi, Syed Mujtaba Ali and many more.

Besides holding lectures and conferences, the BSPS felicitated eminent personalities drawn from diverse communities and professions. It also held functions to mark the birth and death anniversaries of noted (men and women) litterateurs, artists and public personalities. At the initiative of the BSPS Tagore’s birth centenary was celebrated across Shillong in 1961 which, among others, witnessed participation of both Bengalis and non-Bengalis, notably, Bimala Prasad Chaliha, Helimon Khongfai, Usha Bhattacharjee, R.B. Vaghaiwalla, Verrier Elwin, Mary Blah, G.G. Swell and others; the three houses that Tagore had lived during his visits to Shillong, namely, Jeet Bhumi, Brook Side and Sidley House, were accorded public recognition for the first time.

Spirit of Cosmopolitanism

By the 1970s the organisation had a property—built in 1965—at the heart of Shillong, an auditorium, a publishing facility, a theatre group, a library-cum-reading room and a magazine (mouthpiece) entitled Umiam. For Shillong, however, the eighth decade of the twentieth century was not the best of times, embroiled as the city came to be in violent ethnic conflict between the tribals and the non-tribals (Bengalis, in particular) triggered off by the Assam movement. The much celebrated plural ethos of Shillong was on the brink of being disturbed, if not destroyed, forever. It was in that climate of deep paranoia and despair that the BSPS turned fifty; that memorable year was 1987. Among others, it is interesting that the seminar arranged by the organisation to mark the golden jubilee had the “role of literature and culture in national integration” as its theme. Perhaps, the organisers thought that no other theme was more appropriate to comprehend (and sail through) the difficult and dark times that Shillong had the misfortune to witness.

With peace restored in the 1990s, Shillong heaved a sigh of relief. Periodic lulls notwith-standing, the BSPS kept up with its regular literary and welfare activities. In 1990, it launched a weekly (Sunday) literary discussion forum called Karmashala. Later, the forum began to publish its quarterly magazine (its mouthpiece) which also bore the same name. In fact, Karmashala, by the time the BSPS completed seventyfive years in 2012, established itself as one of the most widely read and rated Bengali little magazines in North-Eastern India and beyond.As a frequent visitor to Shillong, I have had occasions to participate in the (Sunday) Karmashala held in the BSPS premises. Also, I am a regular reader of the magazine which carries both prose and poetry written primarily by those who participate in the Sunday forum.

The latest Karmashala (August 2013) is a collection of old photographs and invited essays, reminiscences, biographical sketches and poems.

Published as a special issue to mark the platinum jubilee of the BSPS, it drives the reader to travel back in time. By way of narrating the cultural history of the Bengali community and of course the BSPS, this issue offers glimpses of the times when Shillong was about to be born and then grow to become a warm and comfortable home to diverse communities and cultures.

A number of Shillong-watchers, however, are sceptical of the Karmashala’s “feel-good” cultural narrative of the city. Taking that further, they unhesitatingly point to the steady decline of the city’s famed cosmopolitanism and the spirit of unconditional recognition of cultural difference in recent times: the ongoing violence triggered by the Inner Line Permit issue is, they believe, but another manifestation of that.

While such observations may not be completely unfounded, yet it is useful to recall that Shillong’s history has not been without moments of melancholy. But certainly such moments have been fewer as compared to those of celebration and joy. More than anything, the BSPS, at seventysix, bears testimony to the city’s undying cosmopolitanism.

Nabanipa Bhattacharjee teaches Sociology at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi.