The Nobel Prize Winners from Kolkata

My beloved city of Kolkata has produced another Nobel Laureate. This city, much maligned and excluded by Western media, has been a city where world-renowned artists, filmmakers, scientists, authors and poets have lived and worked. The tradition is still on.

Happy News for my American and European friends.

It is with great pleasure and pride I present to you the six Nobel Laureates we’ve so far had from my beloved city of Calcutta, which is now known as Kolkata.

When I announced to my labor union students in class today that another Dr. Banerjee from Kolkata got the Nobel in economics last week (my wife and I went to the same college that he did — the famous Presidency College), and showed them a short video, they all clapped. They obviously wanted to know if we were related.

Courtesy America media, most people here in USA do not know anything about the rich treasures of Kolkata, Bengal, or India: our science, arts, literature, movies, or history of our glorious pro-people struggles. In my thirty-four years in the U.S., I have never seen or heard anything positive about India or Bangladesh, or for that matter, any Third World country (except for two occasions — when media reported on the deaths of Mother Teresa and Ravi Shankar).

As if we do not exist. As if we have nothing good to report on.

And it has created enormous negative impact not only on Americans or Europeans, but on the new-generation Indians too, who never see anything good about Kolkata or Bengal. This is the neoliberal cultural imperialism, something that I discussed with Noam Chomsky a number of times.

I also call it Journalism of Exclusion, where corporate media selectively manufacture news, and carefully not include news they do not like.

On top of these six Nobels, we can easily include our filmmakers and artists such as Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ravi Shankar, Alauddin Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, or Uday Shankar, and then some phenomenal scientists, poets and authors Western powers have carefully managed to exclude from the list of Nobel recipients. Drs. J. C. Bose and S. N. Bose are two such scientists. I have written on this blog about Dr. S. N. Bose before. I had the privilege to see him when I grew up in Kolkata.

I plan to offer talks and classes on this subject at some point. But for now, I present to you this short, happy history. If you have any questions, please ask.

I am enormously proud of my beloved city and its people.

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REFERENCES

Ravi Shankar’s gift went beyond his skills on the strings
https://www.cnn.com/2012/12/12/showbiz/ravi-shankar-appreciation/index.html

Dr. Partha Banerjee of New York on Poet Tagore and Bengal and Today’s Cultural Crisis_Part 1 of 4

Devout and Liberal, Muslim and Musician!

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People tell me that I sometimes write angry blogs. They say I must tone down. They say, calm is good for your heart.

I agree.

Therefore, I’ve decided to write in a calm, peaceful, toned-down manner. I’ve decided not to use phrases or phenomena that might irk people unnecessarily.

Rather, I’ve decided not to use a language that might irk people unnecessarily. I can’t promise I won’t write on controversial subjects. But I promise that I shall try to put it in a softer, subtle manner.

See, I do it periodically, and then I get angry again. Especially when situation around me becomes too stressful.

But, leaders, thinkers and no-name blog writers can’t afford to lose their head. Because if they do, they do a disservice to the people they’re leading or making think.

In case of a no-name blog writer, losing head is even worse. They lose their head, and nobody even notices. A headless blog writer that nobody notices is no joke. Definitely no joke for the blog writer.

So, I shall not lose my head. I have a feeling if I don’t lose my head, my head won’t lose me.

Enough pun. Enough fun.

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Bade Gulam AliI was thinking while driving out to my weekend labor workshop on Long Island. Often these two things — driving and thinking — go together well. Especially when you’re away from the hustle and bustle side of civilization.

So, I was driving, and thinking of civilization.

I was listening to a beautiful Indian classical music on YouTube. It’s a Sitar and Sehnai duet played by two Muslim maestros named Vilayet Khan and Bismillah Khan. These are two household names in music-loving Indian families: Muslim or Hindu. The YouTube was playing a raga named Bhairavi, an early-morning tune.

Bhairavi soothes your mind. Its mood calms you down, just the same way a pleasant early morning is supposed to sooth.

(Bhairavi is also a Sanskrit word. A Hindu goddess is also called Bhairavi. Countless ragas these exponents mastered on have Sanskrit/Hindu names. To them, it didn’t matter. To me, it never even occurred in my mind before they cooked up and capitalized on the Hindu-Muslim chasm, for political benefits.)

If you want to listen to their beautiful instrumental duet, you can click on this link here. Make sure you’re a little away from the hustle and bustle side of civilization. Or, it may not have the same effect on you.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Km6KA-LDHek

Now, I was thinking: does anybody outside of India know that Indian Muslims, devout as Bismillah or Vilayet Khan, are so liberal and artistic and awe-inspiring musicians? I mean, think about it: Muslim, devout, liberal, artistic and musician — say these words slowly…together! Don’t we often have this perception that Muslims — especially the devout ones — are fundamentalists and fanatics and against art and music and all? Isn’t that how America and its media portray Islam to us? Or, for that matter, any religions or faiths outside of the box?

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I grew up in a place where dogmatic-variety Islam took a 180-degree turn, and became liberal and secular. Here, contrary to what we hear about Islam, not just Muslim men like Vilayet or Bismillah or vocal genius Amir Khan or Bade Gulam Ali, but Muslim women such as Begum Akhtar, Parveen Sultana, Zeenat Begum and Shamsad Begum have been major public sphere singers — both in India and Pakistan. Then, in a very liberal Bangladesh (again, contrary to what we hear about this “poor” country), Muslim women such as Sanjida Khatun, Fahmida Khatun, Rejwana Chowdhury Banya, Laisa Ahmed Lisa, Mita Huq have performed and taught Tagore music. Runa Laila is a pop musician of world reputation.

In Bengal, epicenter of Indian secular liberalism, legendary musician Alauddin Khan, a devout, conservative Muslim who could play twenty instruments, mentored two world-famous musicians Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, the latter being his son. Ravi Shankar had married Alauddin’s daughter whom the mentor named Annapurna, name of a Hindu goddess. Annapurna, they say, was a phenomenal musician herself.

Alauddin was a genius, and was a mentor of a generation of genius musicians: both Hindu and Muslim.

How many of us know about it? Ask…calmly…why do we not know?

ImageAnnapurna

I could go on and on. But you don’t have unlimited time, and I don’t have unlimited calm. I get carried away, and then get…you know what…angry.

I don’t want to be angry. so, I shall stop.

Just one final message before we adjourn.

Don’t fall for what they preach about Muslims. Know them well. There is a different world of Islam altogether.

They don’t practice fanaticism. They practice peace.

Peacefully, on this day of invocation of Goddess Durga,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

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P.S. — I couldn’t let you go without mentioning another devout and liberal Muslim musician named Kazi Najrul Islam, the national poet of Bangladesh. Look him up. He was a Muslim. He was also a revolutionary. And a legendary musician.

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Ravi Shankar: Sitar, Shanti and Soul

Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar and Baba Alauddin Khan
Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar and Baba Alauddin Khan

Sitar virtuoso, Indian music legend Ravi Shankar is no more. Pandit, Guru Ravi Shankar passed away in his California home on Tuesday. He was 92.

Many Indians, particularly the pre-kitsch, non-Bollywood-type Indians, and surprisingly a large number of Westerners know about Ravi Shankar and some of his remarkable achievements. They know of Shankar’s close association with Beatles’ George Harrison in the “psychedelic” sixties when Harrison took sitar lessons from Shankar, and promoted both the instrument and Indian classical music to the West. Some of know of Shankar’s memorable music direction to Satyajit Ray’s watershed movie Pather Panchali. Many others know that Ravi Shankar had a daughter out of a short-lived marriage, and the daughter is now a world-famous pop singer Norah Jones. Some others perhaps also know that Shankar had another marriage later which gave birth to Anoushka, who is now a well-known sitar player herself and has often played with her genius father at concerts all over the world. In fact, a simple Google or YouTube search would instantly find you thousands of stories and video clips on the legendary father and his two famous musician daughters.

It is common perception that George Harrison brought Ravi Shankar to the West. That may be true and Harrison did a rare act of recognition and appreciation for the Eastern culture; he also brought out the suffering of Bangladesh to the West during its 1971 Liberation War. But untrue is the nuance that Ravi Shankar became Ravi Shankar — the world-renowned musician — because of George Harrison. A genius like Shankar did not need any particular push to become a genius.

RaviIn fact, I have said it elsewhere that “Had he been born a Westerner, he might have been a household name like Beethoven or Mozart.” What I meant is that had he been an American or European, and not a Bengali-Indian musician from a West-undermined Bengal and India, his genius would be much more readily acclaimed at educated American and European living rooms. He would not have to find fame at select, elite liberal homes and even more select, elite university music departments — especially through identification with George Harrison or the so-called psychedelic sixties. Americans today have only remembered the marijuana smokescreen of the sixties and sadly forgotten all about its revolutionary search of peace and soul.

About that often-misplaced association, Shankar said “he was happy to have contributed to bringing the music of India to the West… The music he played, he said, was sacred.”

In fact, the music he played all his life was about soul and shanti. It was about humanity. It was about an ancient, thousand years of Indian civilization that taught the world how art and music can transcend the boundaries of man-made silos. Shankar and his co-disciples such as Ali Akbar Khan and their percussion accompanist Alla Rakha, as well as the more recent tabla prodigy Zakir Hussain all showed how the school of music they grew up in could take both the player and the listener from the world of mortality to immortality. To a Western aficionado, it might sound rather abstract, but in India, music is a way of worshiping Saraswati the goddess of learning. Music is a well-accepted spiritual yoga. One does not have to belong to a certain religious school or denomination to attain supreme religiosity.

Of course, some might say it’s not really that different in the West. They might say, other non-Harrison virtuosos Ravi Shankar Ravi and Rayplayed with: violinist Yehudi Menuhin, saxophonist John Coltrane, composer Phillip Glass or conductor Andre Previn — all touched God through their music. But as someone who grew up in the tradition of Indian classical school, I would not be able to tell exactly what these legendary personalities thought about soul-searching through their music; I can only assume that all of them found their God when they performed. I know I can look at Menuhin pulling his bow on the violin, his eyes closed, and I know that he transcended from our lowly, mundane, fractious world to a blissful, divine height. We can definitely say that about Ray Charles too: his side-to-side sways while singing gave it all away. I know he had found his God.

Very few people perhaps know about the source of that spirituality Ravi Shankar brought from India to the West. It was his mentor Baba Alauddin Khan, a Bengali Muslim who identified a young Ravi’s talent when the Baba (or father) toured with the ballet troupe of Ravi’s illustrious dancer brother Uday Shankar, and took the teenager sitarist boy in for an in-house disciple. Alauddin Khan taught young Ravi how to play the sitar and tabla, sing, and understand the ocean-deep treasures of the Hindustani ragas — the many musical moods and structures. Just the same way the Baba showed him the countless improvisations and varieties, flexibilities and nuances and departures from the raga — properties that are primarily different from a rigorously structured Western classical — the Homer of modern-era Indian classical music, who lived through the age of 110, also trained Ravi on the lessons of a sacred, yet completely secular lifestyle — a lifestyle of humility, spirituality and peace. Muslim Alauddin Khan named his daughter Annapurna, a Hindu goddess, who some say was an even more talented sitar player than Ravi, and she became Ravi’s first wife.

When I talk about Ravi Shankar’s music transcending the boundaries of race and religion, I talk about humanity. I talk about peace. I talk about a progressive, futuristic way of life. That is life’s way our Eastern mentors taught us through centuries. Whether it’s the ancient saints or medieval-era Sri Chaitanya, or whether it’s the more recent Godly personalities like Rabindranath Tagore or Ramakrishna Paramhansa, this value is what streams through our blood streams.

Baba Alauddin inculcated that forward-looking lifestyle on all his students: his children. Ravi Shankar carried that mission forward when he played his sitar and built bridges between the East and the West.

Through his music, Ravi Shankar touched his God: humanity.

Sincerely Writing,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

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Anoushka