Alexandra Indira Sanyal, New York, USA
If you are Bengali, or closely associated with the Bengali community, chances are that you’ve heard of Rabindranath Tagore, Subhash Chandra Bose, and Satyajit Ray. These three men, known for their societal contributions — ranging from arts to activism — are pillars of the Bengali cultural identity. Although they belonged to three different generations, respectively, each mans’ work was, and continues to be, so influential that they reinforce the Bengali reputation across India and beyond. Given their fame, Tagore, Bose and Ray have warranted the title of Bengali G.O.A.Ts, or, as the millennials say, “Greatest of All Time.” However, it’s quite possible that you may have witnessed, or been guilty yourself of, name-dropping one of these three figures without a true understanding of who they were, what they did, when and where they made an impact and, most importantly, why they remain revered to this day. If you find yourself asking any or all of these questions… this blogpost is for you!
Rabindranath Thakur (Tagore). Photo credit: Commons.wikimedia.org
Tagore was a polymath — a poet, musician, artist and influential thinker — born in 1861 in Calcutta, capital of the Bengal Presidency and British India. The youngest of a family of thirteen, Tagore was raised in the Jorasanko Thakurbari, located in the Bengali section of Northern Calcutta, by his father, Debendranath Tagore (1817–1905), and mother, Sarada Devi (1830–1875). The Tagore family was at the forefront of the Bengal renaissance — hosting theatre performances and recitals of Bengali and Western art and music as well as overseeing the publication of literary magazines. Most of the children were artists and intellectuals, reaping the benefits of their high standing and exposure to British elite life.
Tagore started his artistic adventures at an extremely early age, writing his first poem at the age of 8 and publishing his first collection at the age of 16. He spent his life creating poems, novels, songs, dance-dramas and even paintings — the likes of which spoke to both quotidian, Bengali realities as well as political and personal conflicts. His work invoked a poetic understanding of life’s beauties as well as horrors — through which a modernised Bengali artform, made by reimaging classical forms and linguistic structure, was born.
Part of his fame came from his ability to travel around India, and beyond, and meet other great minds of the time, such as Albert Einstein, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. As translations of some of his poems became more popular in the West, his fame grew, taking him across continents on lecture tours and explorations. His standing was solidified in 1913 when he became the first non-European as well as the first lyricist to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. His songs, categorically referred to as Rabindrasangeet (literally translating to “songs of Rabindranath”) make up the foundation of the Bengali musical industry and are covered and revisited by hundreds of artists, to this day — two of the most notable being Jana Gana Mana, chosen as the Indian national anthem, and Amar Shonar Bangla, chosen as the Bangladeshi national anthem.
Subhash Chandra Bose
Mahatma Gandhi and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Photo credit: Commons.wikimedia.org
Bose was a steadfast patriot and advocate for the Indian nationalist movement, born in 1897 in Cuttack, within the Orissa Division of the Bengal Province, as the ninth of 14 children of the wealthy Prabhavati Dutt Bose and Janakinath Bose. Given his family’s standing, Bose was put through elite, Westernized schooling and sent to Europe in 1919 to prepare and appear for the Indian Civil Services (ICS) examination — a step common for other Bengali sons who were being trained to eventually inherit the machinery of British Indian government. Although he came fourth in the ICS examination and was selected, Bose began to question notions of freedom and independence, refusing to work under another government and serve the British.
Instead, Bose returned to India and became the leader of the younger, radical, wing of the Indian National Congress, later rising to become Congress President in 1938. However, driven by an evergrowing nationalistic ideology and desire for anti-imperialist, pro-scioalist regime, Bose was ousted from Congress leadership positions in 1939, following differences with Mahatma Gandhi, and targeted by the British government as a threat to their colonial and political agendas. He was placed on house arrest but escaped, infamously, in 1940 and traveled to Germany and Japan in an attempt during World War II to secure military support to gain independence for India. Boes spend the rest of his life dedicated to the mission of the The Indian National Army (INA; Azad Hind Fauj or Free Indian Army), which was declared to be the army of Bose's Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad Hind (the Provisional Government of Free India) and, under Bose's leadership, drew ex-prisoners and thousands of civilian volunteers from the Indian expatriate population to fight alongside Indian nationalists and the Imperial Japanese Army to defeat the British.
The most notable mystery of Bose’s life was his uncertain and untimely disappearance. Scholars have asserted that he died from third-degree burns in 1945 after his overloaded Japanese plane crashed in Japanese-ruled Formosa (now Taiwan). However, many of his supporters, specifically Bengalis, refused at the time, and have refused since, to believe either the fact or the circumstances of his death — lending to numerous conspiracy theories that he survived and, like messiah, would one day return to Bengal. Despite a troubled legacy left behind, given his relations with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, Bose is commemorated as a staunch advocate for the complete unconditional independence of India, at whatever cost. He was featured on the national stamps in India from 1964, 1993, 1997, 2001, 2016 and 2018 and the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport at Kolkata was named in his honor.
Satyajit Ray. Photo credit: Commons.wikimedia.org
Ray was an Indian film director, writer, illustrator and music composer, born in 1921 to Sukumar and Suprabha Ray in Calcutta. He came from a renowned and wealthy artistic family, similarly to Tagore — his grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray, was a writer, illustrator, philosopher, publisher, amateur astronomer, and owner of a printing press by the name of U. Ray and Sons, while his father, Sukumar Ray, was an illustrator, critic, and a pioneering Bengali writer of Abol Tabol (Bengali rhymes) and children's literature. At the request of his mother, Ray reluctantly left Calcutta and studied at Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan, an experimental art school founded by Rabindranath Tagore. Once he completed his education, Ray worked at various advertising agencies and publishing houses as an artists and illustrator — giving him an exposure to literature that would later be the inspiration for his films.
Ray founded the Calcutta Film Society in 1947 with a few of his colleagues. The film society screened many foreign films, many of which Ray watched and seriously studied. In 1949, French director Jean Renoir came to Calcutta to shoot his film The River. Ray helped him to find locations in the countryside. Ray told Renoir about his idea of filming Pather Panchali, a classic Bengali literary piece published in 1928, which had long been on his mind, and Renoir encouraged him in the project — sparking the beginning of his successful film career. After unsuccessful attempts to persuade many producers to put up the money needed for the project, Ray started shooting in late 1952 with his personal savings, forcing him to stretch the filming over two and a half years, an unusually long period. With a loan from the West Bengal government, Ray finally completed the film in 1955, which earned numerous prizes and had long runs in both India and abroad.
Ray's international career started in earnest after the success of his next film, Aparajito (The Unvanquished), the second installation of what would become The Apu Trilogy. Before completing the Trilogy, Ray directed and released two other films: the comic Parash Pathar (The Philosopher's Stone), and Jalsaghar (The Music Room), a film about the decadence and decline of the Zamindari lifestyle. In 1983, after many years of successful films, while he was working on Ghare Baire (Home and the World), based on Tagore’s novel, Ray suffered a heart attack, after which his health and artistic abilities severely deteriorated. In 1992, while Ray was confined to a hospital bed and just over three weeks before his eventual death, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him an Honorary Academy Award — making him the first and the only Indian, yet, to receive the honour.
Tagore, Bose, and Ray: Pillars of Prestige
Given their impressive backgrounds and numerous contributions to the artistic and intellectual world of Bengal, India, and beyond, it is no surprise that these three men are celebrated, still. However, they are more than celebrated, in fact — they are idolized as Bengali cultural forefathers. Although a highly studied and often debated topic, there are a few reasons for the communal infatuation with these men, particularly by the Bengali community, that, in my opinion, solidify their standing:
They Are Products of a Colonial Calcutta
Though they acquired more followers and fans over decades, each of these men was born and brought up during the era of the British Raj and were privy to experiencing, understanding and even representing what Bengal was like at that time. They were each sons of esteemed families that stood as symbols of coexistence between Bengali and English elites and their inclination to rise to fame, despite belonging to the colonized, is a source of pride for many Bengalis. Oftentimes, in contemporary news outlets, Calcutta (and Bengal) are portrayed as decrepit, declining and devalued — notable for scenes of extreme poverty and backward thinking. However the Calcutta of Tagore, Bose and Ray (in his earlier life) was one of glory and of high reputation and this, ultimately, is the Calcutta for which Bengalis feel the most nostalgic.
They Paved and Preserved the Path Towards Global Recognition
At the height of their careers, each of these influential men reached a level of success that earned them recognition from the international community for their work. Beit Tagore’s Noble Prize, Bose’s diplomatic standing, or Ray’s Honorary Academy Award — these moments of celebration brought attention to the Bengali community. Once the British moved the colonial capital to Delhi, Calcutta and Bengali’s lost much of their standing. However, the rest of India continued to appreciate the art and activism coming out of the region; bestowing upon the region the role of India’s cultural capital (to this day). Additionally, Bengalis have migrated around the world, setting up close communities in multiple continents, and are proud and honored to be associated with the works of their cultural forefathers. It gives them a point of connection when revealing their Bengali backgrounds and assures that, though they may not hold the same standing that they once did, under colonial rule, they are still valuable and notable members of society.
They Immortalize Bengali Artistry & Intellectualism
It is an unsaid but widely understood custom that most proper Bengalis are well versed in arts, literature and politics — a legacy of artistry and intellectualism that dates back to the Bengali Renaissance (and Colonial Calcutta). Bengalis pride themselves in their creative sensibilities and their engagement with and knowledge of the various facets of society, beyond just economic means. A Bengalis’ reputation is often boosted if they are trained in singing, dancing and various instruments, comfortable discussing poetry and literature (both Indian and Western), and skilled at painting and other visual arts. Tagore, Bose and Ray — figures central to the artistic, political, and cinematic history of Bengal — act as models for a life driven by creativity and it is their works, their creations, that are so readily emulated now by contemporary artists and politicians alike.
Alexandra Sanyal is a Bengali-American designer, artist and activist based in New York City —and founder of Shrishti Studios, a creative consultancy that uses writing, film, photography, and visual design, to investigate the complexity of socio-spatial and cultural identity.