MUKHERJEE, Srijit (director), Jaatiswar [reincarnation]: A Musical of Memories, a Bengali music drama, 148 mins, 2014.
‘Kavigaan’, the Site of Contact: Re-exploring the Ambivalence of Colonial Encounter in Jaatishwar. Srijit Mukherjee’s Bengali movie, Jaatishwar (reincarnation), is a musical memoir, concentrating on the arrival and settlement of Hensman Antony (1786-1836), a folk artist of Portuguese origin, in colonial Bengal. ‘Antony Firingee’, as he was popularly referred to, refused to be a firingee or foreigner in derogatory terms, showing impeccable strength to resist such demarcation by becoming one of the popular Kaviyaals (folk artists) of his age. The film addresses the ambivalence, dormant in settler-native discourse – while Antony becomes a Kaviyaal, he is also shown as a social outcast, castigated by a section of local Bengali rural community; his world views and actions are held in tension with the conservative outlook of those communities. In the cosmopolitan Calcutta, he had to struggle harder for acceptance; but the enlightened upper-class ambience gives him a scope to display his talent and he eventually succeeds in creating a space for himself. Anthony’s negotiation with this ambivalence of colonial process – rejected by a section of the conservative rural population and at the same time accepted as the Kaviraaj, the lord of Kavigaan, by the most established singer Bhola Moira in a Kavigaan asor (gathering arranged especially for bard’s duel) arranged in the urban atmosphere of Calcutta – is remarkably addressed in his songs. When Antony sings ‘Sosur bari baper bari eki poshak eki besh/ ei desheri chhele ami Firingeero Bangladesh‘ [There is no difference between sosur bari ( house of in laws) and baper bari (paternal home), for both are different sides of the same coin (‘poshak’ and ‘besh’ both mean dress and used here as a metaphor for dwelling – native and adventitious, the idea being how the two distant places integrate) / likewise I belong to India/Bengal, and Bengal/India belongs to me], one unmistakably notes the earnest urge of a settler to belong to the community where he is a guest. Naturally therefore he is shown to be at ease in a distant land: ‘Ei banglay bangalir beshe anondete achi’ [I am perfectly happy in Bengal wearing the Bengali attire]. Srijit Mukherjee’s film presents Anthony as a de-anglicized Westerner, who gives up his Western clothes for a typical Bengali one. Jaatishwar thus overturns the imperial assumption of the West to look down upon the East as exotic, strange and unfamiliar by indigenising the Westerner. As he decides to settle down, he also endeavours to master the local language. He has no hidden agenda to dismantle the native’s house with the native’s tool; rather he believes that a culture and its language are interminably connected, and so learning one and leaving out the other would only be a half-learning. His sincere efforts got the recognition they deserved as he eventually began composing songs in the local language. He relished the wide repertoire of the music of Bengal with diverse flavours including bhaktigiti (devotional songs), folk songs, classical Bengali music, colloquial version of music from kavigaan asor (Bard’s Duel), songs of troubadours and collected bits and scraps from everywhere, his identity emerging to be a fascinating collage of musical memories.
The main storyline in the film is well complemented by the movie’s co-plot – the love story of a Gujarati (born and brought up in Kolkata) research scholar, Rohit Mehta, whose unrequited love for a fervent Bengali nationalist and feminist RJ, Mahamaya, makes him learn and compose in the language –thus enhancing his own narrative. In fact, the film is strategically set between two shifting time-frames – 19th century and the present—as it not only helps to propel the two plots forward, one captured through the tattered memory of a fictional reincarnation of Anthony and the other through the attempts of a research scholar who chose Anthony’s life and music as his dissertation topic under some Indo-Portuguese university exchange programmes, but also essentially captures the transnational nature of Anthony and his narrative. Interestingly enough, it is the love for Bengali song that connects the apparently disjointed plots. Anthony’s journey through the labyrinthine paths of a foreign culture following his ecstatic passion and the ultimate recognition he got coalesces with Rohit’s voyage across the emotional turbulence of his life, as if he is following the footprints of a progenitor. The two plots develop in the same pace, one clasping hand with the other, Anthony’s promenade existing as a trace for Rohit.
The addiction towards music of all forms, however, was something with which Anthony was born, something which inevitably made him an outcast in his own trading family. His unflinching dedication to melody compelled him to leave his kith and kin and come to Farashdanga (now Chandannagar). He always harboured an intense desire to be one among the natives and so during his first days, he is shown enchanting a group of native enthusiasts circling him, with his sweet tunes from the far away land of Portugal. As it crosses the binaries of colonised/coloniser politics, it is music that systematically tends to unite the warring sides in Jaatishwar . No wonder Srijit Mukherjee includes within the primary narrative the early 19th century Bengali musical tradition when Kavigan (literally the songs of poets) reached its pinnacle of popularity.
It is Kavigan which becomes the contact zone in the movie. It is significant that Kavigan is a dialogic form of performing folk songs engaging two or more groups. In Kavigan, consisting of usually two competing groups, kaviyaals or sarkars were the chief song-smiths and the accompanying singers were known as dohar whose task lied in playing instruments and repeating the catchy refrains in a duel. Kavigan became the dominant form of musical expression in Bengal in the late 18th century, patronised by the wealthy zamindars and Rajas who arranged asor or jalsa (Jalsa is a synonym for asor, both meaning a gathering where people perform recitation, songs and dance)in the domestic sacred performance space (thakurdalan) to celebrate auspicious occasions. Long before the arrival of Anthony in Bengal more specifically in Farashdanga [Chandannagar], both kavigan and kaviyals wove the narrative of voice and texts, that are fundamentally Bengali in origin and practice. Conventionally, Kavigan is composed of five stages – Bhabani Bishayak (Goddess Durga being the subject of the lyrics), Sakhi Sangbad (Stories of Radha and Krishna), Biraha (sad love songs from the lives of common people), Kheur (frivolous lyrics revolving on affairs of gods and goddesses, sometimes scurrilous) and Lahar (personal verbal attack). The final stage of Lahar is the most deciding one, a slippery zone turning the fate of the kaviyal (lead singer) upside down, while the rest of the five are just preludes.
In Jaatishwar, Anthony’s first invited visit to a concert of Kavigan is at Shobhabazar Rajbari (now in Kolkata), as a guest of Raja Gopimohan Deb, was an occasion which was to change the course of his life. In the musical exchange of the two groups of poets – Haru Thakur on one side and Nilu Thakur, Bhabani Bene on the other – Anthony found a new vista to explore his musical passion, but for a Portuguese to want not only to speak in native tongue but also to compose lyrics for songs ranging from devotional to colloquial, was a Sisyphean task. The songs of the Bengal tradition at that time were deeply rooted in Baishnab Shakto Padabali, which is a verse form containing conversational lyrics between Radha and Krishna (Hindu God and Goddess) centring on the stories of their courtship, love and languish. Anthony started learning the philosophies of the East by acquiring Sanskrit and immersing himself in religious texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas and Upa-puranas along with roaming from places to places in the lure of all forms of folk music – jhumur, panchali, bhaoaiya, baul and many more. At this pivotal crossroads of his life Anthony met Gorokkhonath who used to work as bandhondar (lyricist for a singer-poet), the helping mate for poets in the crisis of creativity. Together they formed an amateur group (dnarakobi used to be the Bengali term for such a group and it was essential for a Kaviyaal to form a dnarakobi) and Anthony’s voice was ready to enter the discursive grand narrative. It is to be noted that Anthony’s success in the primary stage owes much to the contribution of this Indian lyricist (Bengali language) and this explains his difference in temperament from the other dominant cultural representatives in the movie.
Beyond all the songs he composed and the melody he created, his expansive philosophy transmitted a kind of aura obliterating binaries. Anthony achieved the apex of fame and appreciation in a duel with Bhola Moyra arranged during the Durga Pujas (the most popular festival among Bengalis, the heart of Bengali culture). Bhola was one of the pioneering Kaviyals prized for his ability to spontaneously coin charismatic phrases and defeating him therefore was difficult. The musical conversation from the lahar stage of Kavigan between Bhola and Anthony, extracted from the film, is illuminating in the way how Anthony was treated as an over-ambitious marginal entity even after adopting the culture and language of Bengal wholeheartedly. Anthony’s prompt yet thoughtful reply reveals the complete transformation he underwent. Anthony’s identity was hybridized and marginalised from the perspective of the people desperately clinging to the centre which itself lost its validity when the voice of a foreigner became inseparably united with Indian ones, even in accents and intonations. To Bhola’s taunts — “Tui jaat firingee, jabarjangi/ toke parbo na to twrate/ son re bhroshto, boli spashto/ tui re nashto, mahadushto/ bhajge ja tui Jishu Khrishto/ Seeramporer girja te” [You are a foreigner, an upstart crow/ You have forsaken your religion/ You are rotten and wicked/ Why don’t you go and worship Christ at the church of Seerampore?], comes Anthony’s fitting rejoinder “Krishte ar Christe kichu tafat nai re bhai/ Sudhu namer fere manus fere…./ Amar khoda je, Hindur Hari se.…” [There is no difference between Krishna and Christ….Man is lost in the maze of names….My Allah and your Krishna are one….]. Anthony’s catholic ideas mesmerized his opponent, so much so that Bhola accepted Anthony as Kaviraaj (‘raj not as ruler but as superior proponent of song) greeting him with his own garland. He further adds ‘Amar khoda je Hindur Hari se’ [my Allah and Hindu’s Hari are similar]. More than preaching communal harmony, Antony tries to liberate the Kavi clan from their narrow, selfish perception of a firingee. Truly, Jaatishwar offers a fresh perspective to colonial discourse where the settler tries to find a link among diverse religions through song. Aptly the lyricist, Kabir Suman, writes in one of the intense songs from the movie “Khudar Kasam Jaan” [In the name of Allah, my love]: ‘Girjar Ghontay mile jawa bhorer ajan..’ [The Church bells mingle with the morning prayer (ajan) for Allah]. Overlooking the religious divide, Anthony finally asserts the value of a common humanity above anything else.
These laurels, however, are counter-balanced by the disturbing twist in Anthony’s personal life. His failure to create a ‘third way’ becomes evident towards the end of the movie. His appreciation and acceptance within the cultural frame cannot rescue him from the blind conservatism of the rural populace. The huge hiatus between the enlightened and the intolerant people are obvious by the time he reaches his home, at the outskirts of Farashdanga (Chandannagar). The puritan, moralist, rural society that never accepted Anthony’s voice against sati and always considered his marriage with Soudamini, the Brahmin-widow as a transgression, sets his house on fire, leaving him a deranged man, guilt-ridden and self-blaming for Soudamini’s death. The limitation of cultural interaction is stressed as Anthony Firingee, the song-poet whose devotional Agomoni songs ( songs sung to welcome Goddess Durga) are eternally valued, lost his everything to a retribution inflicted on him by the rural people for worshipping the idol of Goddess Durga in his courtyard.
The Bengali word Jatiswaar means a reincarnation, somebody who remembers his past life, a figure in transition, trapped in between a half-forgotten past and an out-of-the-place present. In the film Kushal Hazra, through the lens of whose memory the life and times of Anthony are viewed in glimpses, suffers from a split-personality disorder, he being reborn with the memory of a past where he left a commitment unfulfilled. The film is shot in many locations in Chandannagar – the Strand, in front of the Sacred Heart Church, including Central library and the crowded market place. Srijit’s narrative essentially talks about a Chandannagar (Farashdanga) from the pages of history expanding throughout the late 18th to the early 19th century during the Governor-Generalship of Lord Cornwallis and later. The film itself stands as a reincarnation of a musical past of Chandannagar, a city which was established as a French trading post in 1763, and which could not shake off the memories of a French past. It exists as a palimpsest of a European heritage in India that is never really lost.
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