By Gouri Chatterjee
From Chaku Khansama Lane To Shakespeare Sarani, Kolkata is very democratic when it comes to naming its streets. So it is really surprising there is no avenue, no street, no road, no lane or even a bylane bearing the name of one of its greatest cultural icons, Satyajit Ray. Even fifteen years after his death, and in a city that has made renaming streets into a fine art. Yet, Mamata Banerjee’s move to do so has got her no cheers, only jeers.
So much so that the great man’s film maker son, Sandip Ray, who lives in the house that was his father’s address for almost 22 years, has thrown up his hands in despair. “I do not want my father’s name to replace either Bishop Lefroy Road or Lee Road,” he told Times of India on Tuesday. The rechristening ceremony had taken place just the evening before.
Satyajit Ray used to live on Bishop Lefroy Road, practically where it turns into Lee Road. At a ceremony graced by several city notables, including Sandip Ray and a couple of actors made famous by Satyajit Ray films, the chief minister “requested” the Kolkata Municipal Corporation to “rename Lee Road” after Ray. Why Lee had to give way and the Bishop escaped unscathed was not made clear.
The mayor jumped to it and promptly announced he would convene a special meeting of the mayoral council right away and adopt a resolution to rename the road “Satyajit Ray Sarani”. Sarani – road, avenue, street, in sum, a pathway. That is what other worthies – Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, the aforementioned Shakespeare, et al have had to be content with.
Mamata Banerjee wanted more. She snatched the mike away from the mayor and declared, “We have had enough of Saranis. We will call this Satyajit Ray Dharani.” According to The Telegraph, “A buzz coursed through the audience and the faces of some of the dignitaries on stage betrayed a trace of disbelief. Mayor Sovan Chatterjee took a second or three to recover and then put on an approving smile.”
Dharani – the earth – for road! The city hasn’t stopped sniggering since. To conventional minds dharani can’t be used to denote sarani, however much they may rhyme. Some even consider it an insult to a man who was a master of words and had a deep involvement with this city, its history, its evolution. Of course, dharani too can be explained away as is being done by Didi’s acolytes – she meant it metaphorically, we are told, denoting the world of Satyajit Ray.
Whatever, Ray’s son too has had enough. “Everything happened so impulsively last evening that I couldn’t say anything,” Sandip Ray has told The Times of India. “One can’t make interjections when the chief minister is speaking. But I have not been able to accept it. When KMC gets in touch with me to give formal intimation of the decision, I will dissuade them,” adding that he would speak to the chief minister if necessary.
One reason for his hesitation is the fact that Lee Road had already been renamed – it’s been OC Ganguly Sarani for a few years now. OC Ganguly was a highly regarded art historian and collector whom Ray Sr too held in high esteem. The chief minister is not alone in being unaware of this name change. Few are.
Not that it would have mattered. An unstoppable force in most matters, Banerjee’s passion for renaming knows no bounds. When the famed actress Suchitra Sen died on 17 January 2014, the chief minister blithely announced, that very day, that Ballygunge Circular Road, Sen’s address, would henceforth carry the name of the actress. Trouble was, Ballygunge Circular Road was no more. It had already become Pramathesh Barua Sarani, Pramathesh Barua being a dashing actor of the generation previous to Suchitra Sen and considered “the first star of Bengali cinema”. But the city fathers did not let their Didi down. Of the barely 2.5 km road, Barua could retain only 350 metres; the rest became Suchitra Sen Sarani. (To most it is still Ballygunge Circular Road.)
The chief minister has acclaimed poets like Joy Goswami and popular song writers like Nachiketa on her side but when it comes to cultural matters she sees herself as second to none. Naming and renaming are evidently an important cultural activity for her. She has come up with names for (new and old) streets, flyovers, townships, metro stations, railway stations, shops, tourist spots, the list is long indeed. Why she names what is a mystery. ‘Ma’ for a flyover, ‘Roddur-Brishti’ (sun-rain) for a government-run chain of stores, ‘Agnibina’ from poet/singer Kazi Nazrul’s eponymous poem for the Asansol-Durgapur industrial complex though Nazrul had never had anything to do with those places or with industry, ‘MuktaTirtha’ or ‘emancipated pilgrimage’ for a “mega tourism hub” in north Bengal complete with a golf course but in no way a religious site – the mind boggles at her flights of fancy.
It is this, her complete lack of sensibilities coupled with her cultural pretensions, her crude flaunting of what she sees as her artistic achievements that sets middle class Kolkata’s, Bengal’s much-vaunted bhadralok’s teeth on edge. For Banerjee it is not enough to be a phenomenally successful politician, she has to lay claims to cultural greatness too. She takes pride in being a writer (and went and released ten of her own books while inaugurating the Kolkata Book Fair this January), an artist (who is not in the least surprised when her paintings sell for over Rs 2 crore a piece as they did before the unravelling of the chit-fund scam punctured that balloon), a poet (the government’s hoardings display her verse unabashedly), a singer (she made even businessmen sing her tune at one of her first meet with industrialists).
This has little to do with her day job though. It earns her no brownie points with the culturatti, just the reverse in fact, while the great unwashed couldn’t care less as long as she keeps the freebies coming. No, this is not for political gain, rather politics has provided her with the means to indulge in her wildest fantasies. Even renaming a street after Satyajit Ray a few weeks before the state elections may not have been driven by political calculations. In fact, so sure is she of winning the upcoming elections that her government has just gone on an ad blitz to whip up participation for next year’s, 2017’s industry meet in Kolkata. With full-page ads in all-India newspapers and prime time slots on national television, she is obviously not wooing just the voters of Bengal.
The mayor did acknowledge the polls but only to say that he would make haste to set the wheels for renaming in motion as “the election dates can be announced any time now and then this work would have to be deferred.” He wasted no time. The very next morning saw a new board on Lee Road/ OC Ganguly Sarani that read “Satyajit Ray Dharani”. Sandip Ray must have seen it by now and will learn to live with it too. In Bengal, the triumph of the low brow is almost complete.