I recently had the opportunity to moderate the Q&A session after a viewing of Shonar Pahar, The Golden Mountain, at the 2018 Chicago South Asian Film Festival. This gave me the opportunity to think about Bengali cinema – and Bengali poetry – in a way I haven’t consciously processed in many years.
Shonar Pahar pays tribute to a childlike wonder about the world and the director, Parambrata Chattopadhyay, beautifully weaves a story about the power of the imagination to create an alternative joyful universe even when the reality is rather bleak. This is a nuanced, gentle story of the magical friendship between a 70-year-old woman and a seven-year-old boy. However, the use of a Tagore poem, Birpurush, as a trope in this movie was problematic.
This much-venerated poem has become a classic of Bengali literature and the patriarchy inherent in the fable of a little boy single-handedly saving his mother from dacoits in the deep dark jungle was very much a product of the time it was written. (You can read the poem and an English translation here.)
Iconic or not, how likely would it be that a feisty single mother – and a librarian with a wealth of literary texts at her disposal – would so worship a poem about little boys being their mothers’ saviours? The intertextuality with Birpurush made me question the director on whether the movie could have been more nuanced when it came to gender-roles in this movie, or whether that would be unrealistic.
Sugar and spice and all things nice
As I considered the treatment of this single poem in the movie, I also thought hard about the Bengali poems from my own childhood, which made me, as a young girl, feel brave or empowered.
I could not think of a single one.
Bengalis have a wonderful tradition of intelligent nonsense rhymes and playful neologisms (HaJaBaRaLa, Abol Tabol) but it requires some intellectual maturity to figure out the irony behind the characterisation of the “perfect” groom Gangaram (Sat Patro). By that time, girls have already been indoctrinated into Bengali folk and fairy tales – Rupkatha – populated by a harem of jealous queens who bury seven brothers and their single sister alive until they bloom into champa flowers (Shaat Bhai Champa); jealous sisters who give away the queen’s three children (Arun, Barun, Kiranmala); a green-eyed queen who wants to bathe in her two stepsons’ blood (Basanta ar Hemanta). Grown women are evil connivers who wield power disgracefully; little girls have no agency except that of mild goodness. and are invariably outnumbered by male siblings.
From babyhood, girls are lulled to sleep with poems about swinging in the air, red comb in hair, waiting for a groom to sweep them off from there (Dol dol duloni...bor ashbe aekhuni, niye jabe tokkhuni). Another about a new bride, speechless with shyness (Aata gache tota pakhi...aato daki tobu keno kaw na kotha bou?). The most memorable nursery rhyme is about a young girl’s wedding (Chaand utheche, phul phuteche...Shonamonir biye).
But the wedding arena is not exclusive to girls, shared as it is with a bat wedding (Adur badur chalta badur), and little boys marching to their brides accompanied by 600 drummers (Dol dol dol...khokha jabe biye korte shaate chhosho dhol), then another goes to his wedding accompanied by a tomcat (Ghore ache hulo beral komor bedheche).
Snips and snails and puppy dog tails
Rhymes abound with little boys dancing and animals being exhorted to watch (Ai re ai tiye...ore bhodor phire cha, Khokar nachon dekhe ja); elder brothers randomly cruel to fish (Noton noton payra guli...dadar haate kolom chilo churey mereche); boys watching the dangerous play of frogs on the heads of snakes (Shaaper mathai baeng nachuni, cheye dekho na khoka moni). In these poems, little girls are absent.
The moon is a maternal uncle (Aye aye Chandmama...), but the dispenser of sleep is an aunt, called in to – you guessed it – spread sleep on infant male eyes (Ghumparani mashi pishi...Khokar chokhe ghum nai, ghum diye jeyo).
It may seem silly to complain about misrepresentation from a different time (who thinks of Catholic priests and sex when reciting Goosey Goosey Gander anymore?) but representation matters. If we are still teaching little girls that they are invisible or less worthy of being seen from babyhood, it has real repercussions. The language used to frame the girls born into our homes triumphs over any tradition of chanting mantras at our clay goddesses.
India as a whole has a problem with female foeticide. In West Bengal the sex ratio is 951 girls per thousand boys and Bengal ranks fourth in child marriages nation-wide: 54.7 % of marriages involve a child bride...Still, nobody thinks about female foeticide or child brides while sing-songing about little girls getting married under the full moon with adorably footloose elephants and horses. Bangla nursery compilations are now on YouTube, animated with Pixar-inspired goggle-eyed children, but the lyrics remain largely true to the originals.
As creative artists, we all tread a fine line between standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before us and genuflecting on the archaic. Asking uncomfortable questions is only the beginning.
An earlier version of this article appears here.
Dr Dipika Mukherjee is an internationally touring writer, sociolinguist, and global nomad. She holds a PhD in English (Sociolinguistics) from Texas A&M University and is the author of the novels Shambala Junction, which won the UK Virginia Prize for Fiction, and Ode to Broken Things, which was longlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize. She lives in Chicago and is affiliated to the Buffett Institute for Global Studies at Northwestern University.