Instances of ‘What Bengal Thinks Today India Thinks Tomorrow’

“What Bengal thinks today India thinks tomorrow”, a debated saying, came to my mind when I stumbled upon a few Facebook posts about India’s first transgender Durga idol worship in Kolkata. Though many non-Bengalis sniff at the saying on grounds of the lack of commercial development in Bengal, the saying has been true about the elites, artists and intellectuals of Bengal for ages. Bengal may have commercially lagged behind in rat race with other states; it has always been on the front in art, culture, entertainment and revolution.

Rabindranath Tagore was the first to write about the suppressed sexuality of young widows in the then society, according to the best of my knowledge. His Chokher Bali, written in the late 19th century and one of the popular novels for a mature audience, talks about a young widow’s pent-up sexual desires within the confines of a patriarchal society.

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Even before that Bengal was the lead in moving the law against the Sati practice in the Hindu society. Raja Rammohan Roy, a Bengali social reformist, put in the best efforts to make the Sati practice, a legally punishable offence in 1829. The emancipation of women from the superstitious clutches of the Brahmin society was not limited only to the Sati Regulation.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, one of the predecessors of Raja Rammohan Roy, is remembered for his efforts towards the betterment of widows’ lives in the orthodox society. With support of his contemporaries, he championed the practice of widow remarriage, which was a taboo in the then conservative Hindu society. As a result of his efforts to uplift the sorry status of widows, the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act was passed in 1856.

In India, Bengal was the first to have brought Nobel Prize in peace and literature. Among the Nobel Laureates of India, Rabindranath Tagore, the Bard of Bengal, was the first to have won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, and Mother Teresa, who founded the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata, was the first to be awarded Nobel Prize in peace in 1979. Amartya Sen, a Bengali by birth, was the first Indian to be awarded Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998.

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, who was born in the then undivided Bengal, was the first Indian to discover life in plants. Today what we know about plants as living being is because of him. The first Indian to have won an Honorary Academy Award was a Bengali, Satyajit Ray. After the history of Indian Cinema was initiated by Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra, Bengal made its first feature film Nal Damyanti in 1917, while the first South Indian feature film Keechaka Vadham was released in 1919.

Indian Cinema owes its golden age to notable Bengali filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Tapan Sinha, Shakti Samanta and Guru Dutt (a Bengali in name, not by birth) who maneuvered the film industry to dizzying heights of excellence in the post-Independence era. Satyajit Ray was the first and only Indian filmmaker to have won 42 National Film Awards in different categories.

Most of the winners of the National Film Award for Best Direction from 1967 till date are filmmakers from Bengal. Satyajit Ray was the first winner of the National Film Awards for Best Direction.

I was elated to read that Kolkata would worship India’s first transgender Durga idol this year in a bid to merge the marginalized transgender community with the mainstream society. one of the best National Award winning Bengali filmmakers, Rituparno Ghosh was the first to portray and play gay characters (non-comic) on celluloid in Indian Cinema though Bollywood had caricatured gay characters with comical attributes in films like Dostana and Student of the Year.

Bengal was the first to have got a university (the University of Calcutta in 1857) in India. India’s first metro rail was set up in the capital city of West Bengal. There are innumerable instances of “What Bengal thinks today India thinks tomorrow.”

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