Mamata plays culture's Lady Bountiful in broke Bengal

Is Didi trying to buy herself a cultural stamp of approval?

West Bengal might be cash-starved and broke and Mamata might be constantly taking up the cudgels for the poor aam aadmi but as far as her budget goes, according to The Telegraph the department that has just got itself a 125% boost is the ministry of Information and Cultural Affairs.

Panchayat and rural development was slashed by Rs 255 crore but the culture budget jumped from Rs 48.6 crores to Rs. 110 crore. Apparently if they cannot have bread, let them watch film festivals.

Mamata has made it quite clear that she wants to dominate West Bengal’s cultural space. In the run up to her electoral victory she wooed Bengal’s generally Left-leaning culturati who had become disillusioned with the Communists especially after the Nandigram and Singur killings. For a party that had quite the lumpen reputation, that cultural seal of approval was very important. Trinamool fielded singers, film stars and theatre personalities as candidates. “The battle for Writers’ Building has also been a battle for cultural spaces,” writes Monobina Gupta in her book Didi: A Political Biography. Buddhadeb was identified with high culture, avant garde European films and penned plays and wrote poetry. Mamata has resolutely fought to claim the popular culture space – demanding the press corps break into Rabindrasangeet, naming subway stations after cultural icons, promising to revive Uttam Mancha, the theatre named after Uttam Kumar, Bengal’s biggest film star ever.

 Mamata plays cultures Lady Bountiful in broke Bengal

A government that actively patronises the arts is not a bad thing. But should a government in a state as financially-strapped as Bengal spend Rs 18.55 crore to acquire movie studios and another Rs 9 crore to modernise them? Kamal Singh/PTI

As Chief Minister, Didi has been happy to put her money where her mouth is. Traffic signals started singing Rabindrasangeet. She celebrates the birthdays of poets and writers, martyrs and scientists,  at little impromptu ceremonies in front of her office, complete with garlanded portraits, songs and incense. She celebrated some 50 anniversaries in her first seven months in office including Kishore Kumar's 82nd birth anniversary at three hours notice. "It's all a function of her whims now," a nervous officer in the department told India Today. "We do not know whose turn it is next. We might just not have a photograph or portrait of that person." "Pictures of those like Bagha Jatin and Shahid Khudiram are not very easy to find,” an official told The Telegraph. The Information and Cultural Affairs ministry is now looking for a separate room to store all these portraits.

She started the Banga Bibhushan and Banga Samman awards, both of which include cash prizes, Rs 2 lakh and 1 lakh. Almost every cultural celeb from ninety-plus dancer Amala Shankar to veteran actress Supriya Devi were showered with awards.

She’s roped actors, writers and singers on to a slew of commissions and committees.  Supriya Devi told The Telegraph that she was on “several” committees but could not remember which ones. “I am very happy with what Mamata is doing for people involved in art and culture,” she said.

A government that actively patronises the arts is not a bad thing. But should a government in a state as financially-strapped as Bengal spend Rs 18.55 crore to acquire movie studios and another Rs 9 crore to modernise them?

There’s nothing wrong with the state’s intellectuals showing their political colours. After all cultural icons like Utpal Dutt, Mrinal Sen, Soumitra Chatterjee have never hidden their political preferences. But the question for Bengal’s culturati is this: Will the CM’s largesse force you to bite your tongue when she goes against your principles?

“If Mamata Banerjee does something that I cannot accept, I will change my stand,” said theatre personality Bratya Basu according to the book Didi: A Political Biography. Since that book was written Basu was appointed West Bengal’s Minister for Higher Education. Basu got into trouble for suggesting that government college lecturers had a right to strike just as they had the right to ignore a strike call. Didi who had made it her mission to foil that strike hauled him in to upbraid him. Basu has gone mum since then.

One of the few intellectual giants who has both supported Mamata and dared to speak out against her is Mahashweta Devi. Mamata brought the 87-year-old writer out in a wheelchair and touched her feet at her grand victory rally. But months later when Mamata's government denied the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights permission to hold a rally in Kolkata, Mahasweta Devi called it “a fascist act.” Mamata bristled and a couple of days later Mahasweta Devi affirmed her faith in Mamata but added, “There can be criticism of the government. That is democracy.”

Mamata as CM has no compunctions about issuing circulars that tell libraries what newspapers they can buy all in the name of spreading “free thinking”. Anyone who disagrees with her, even a rape victim, is painted as part of a conspiracy to defame her government. Mamata believes being CM means never having to say sorry.

Who is calling her on it?

“We believe that a well-defined and refined culture is the identity of a community,” culture clan member Arpita Ghosh told the media.  But what about the identity of the cultural community?

Isn’t it their job to speak truth to power?

There’s no problem with actors and writers getting Banga Samman awards. There is no problem with the government being a patron of the arts. But as Didi boosts the artistes’ share in Bengal’s budget is she putting them in a golden cage as well?

Read The Telegraph's Arnab Ganguly and Sreecheta Das' breakdown of the cultural budget allocations with charts and graphs  here.

Updated Date: Apr 02, 2012 12:58:59 IST



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