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.



Ravi Shankar’s gift went beyond his skills on the strings

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

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,


Brooklyn, New York