A New Politics – and Aesthetics – of Protest Is Coming to Life in Kolkata

The blend of the old and the new, the use of different instruments in musical performances, the infusion of jazz and popular Bangla rock into protest music – all these elements give the free-flowing, evolving movement a sense of diversity Bengal has rarely known in the past.

Kolkata: There’s a nip in the air, but the cut of the cold of the recent weeks is gone. As the evening fades into the darkness of night, the area from Philips More (CIT Road in the heart of Kolkata) to Park Circus maidan warms up with music, poetry, slogans and plays.

Livening up the carnivalesque ongoing protests, a new element surfaced this Sunday. This time, it was sportsmen – usually politically dormant – who signalled their protest, unequivocally and aesthetically, against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens. By the time Sunday drew to a close, Kolkata witnessed a twinning of music and football. Artistic performances of protest conjoined with the resistance exhibited at the city’s cherished East Bengal-Mohun Bagan football match.

Kolkata’s Salt Lake Stadium on Sunday. Photo: Facebook/East Bengal Ultras

Sunday’s Kolkata’s I-League derby match at Salt Lake Stadium saw a section of East Bengal fans speak their minds on the CAA-NRC controversy. In an unusual gesture, they unveiled an imaginative tifos – a choreographed exhibit forming a large script – in the stadium: “Rakta diye kena mati, kagoj diye noi (Not paper, the land is bought with blood).” Yet another banner displayed Bantul the Great, Bengal’s popular comic character created by Narayan Debnath, protesting using his superpower to rescue people, and declaring: “Pala pala, NRC ashchche (Go away, NRC is coming).”

Also read: ‘Land Bought in Blood’: Why Anti-CAA Protests at the Kolkata Derby Hold Meaning

Over 60,000 people watched the East Bengal-Mohun Bagan match. Large sections of traditional East Bengal supporters come from immigrant families hailing from erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). There used to be a time when such matches, dividing Bangals (people from East Bengal) from Ghotis (those from Kolkata), would rile both sides up. Impassioned speeches were delivered, shrill arguments bandied back and forth. Each side boasted extraordinary feats and talents in every possible realm, from musical to culinary skills. At Salt Lake Stadium, Mohun Bagan defeated East Bengal 2-1.

Further away, at Philips Maidan, the artists in the People’s Carnival Against Fascism gathered together and vowed to beat the CAA and NRC back. More than 20 theatre groups, bands and musicians performed in the eight-hour-long soiree. Everyone’s spirits were high.

The stage at Philips Maidan. Photo: Monobina Gupta

We have on display here a new, unconventional cultural movement that looks and feels different from Left-sponsored movements of decades past. Different shades and voices have become part of this new ensemble. Most importantly, young people are creating songs, plays and poetry. “We are breaking down traditional barriers in theatre,” Prithviraj Biswas, a final-year college student, said. He claimed a new language of protest is in evidence, describing the constantly innovating forms as ‘neo-theatre.’ “The classical forms of art and protest are dissolving,” Parichay Ghosal, a first year engineering student announced.

Also read: Modi-Shah Duo Bring About a Fine Unintended Consequence

How does this burst of creativity differ from past cultural interventions, led primarily by Communist parties in Bengal?

Shantilal Mukherjee, veteran theatre personality and actor, told The Wire, “This is an entirely new generation of protesters, many of them first-time protesters. There is no ism in their protest. They are resisting polarisation among people, demanding basic survival and citizenship rights.” The more conventional Leftist models of cultural protest have given way to myriad other forms that carry varied content. There is a fusion of conventional with unconventional music. Older generations are happy to follow the youth. “Famous octogenarian  playwrights like Rudraprasad Sengupta and Bibhash Chakraborty are joining the movement, marching with the young,” said Mukherjee.

This blend of the old and the new, the use of different instruments in musical performances, the infusion of jazz and popular Bangla rock into protest music – all these elements give the free-flowing, evolving movement a sense of diversity Bengal has rarely known in the past.

A play performance at Philips Maidan. Photo: Monobina Gupta

One could argue that the cultural autonomy of the anti-CAA/NRC movement has been possible only because of absence of control by any particular political party. This is what explains the fluidity of the songs and plays. On Sunday, musicians and bands went on stage and presented brilliant compositions, each resonating differently – with the others, and with those gathered. The usual political party brinkmanship that so often sours exhilarating experiences like these was conspicuous in its absence. In a state like Bengal, where the culture of music and theatre have so often been tightly controlled by ruling parties, the current phenomenon is striking.

Shantilal Mukherjee drew attention to the fact that there are at least 200 theatre groups which have been performing in alternative spaces. “We work throughout the year. Our group has been regularly performing in a school room,” he observed. But this perhaps is the first time that a mainstream space of protest has been so diverse, with the famous and not-so-well-known, and even unknown practically rubbing shoulders. Mukherjee agreed that the tricolour has played a large role in drawing different kinds of young people into the movement: “This generation would not have participated in such large numbers and so intensely if the movement was under a traditional Left flag.”

Kolkata is in the grip of cultural and political ferment. Cab drivers tell you there’s no telling where they will run into a group of protesters. Marching. Singing. Sloganeering.

Half-an-hour’s walk from the Philip’s Maidan, the streets surrounding Park Circus maidan are teeming with people everyday. This Sunday evening, like all other, women strode down the streets, leading spontaneous groups of people behind them. A woman in a wheelchair led a march. Following her was a steady stream of people holding up their hands, stalling traffic to cross the street and take the march deeper into mohallas. All around, one heard women’s voices, raising slogans; men taking their cue from them.

In many ways, the current battle against the exclusion of Muslims from citizenship is the mother of all battles in recent history. This, many say, is that last battle for survival that will decide the destiny of Bengal. Since Partition, Bengal has maintained communal equilibrium. But will that equilibrium hold this time?