It is indeed remarkable when a chief minister of a state gets a by-line in a leading newspaper, even if that is ghost written to a considerable degree. But it is not really unusual, if the CM claims to be an artist, poet and creative writer who is forever reaching out to the masses through her art as with her political skills and rhetorical acumen. Mamata Banerjee has written a full blown account of her interactions with Suchitra Sen in the last few days of the actor’s life in a superb political public relations exercise in a Bengali daily. It tells us more about the chief minister herself than about Ms. Sen. It also once again tells us about the political leader’s relationship with the very nature of the culture that she peddles and how she seeks to leverage that aspect in the public domain. Beyond Bengal, such moves also suggest something very important in Indian politics right now: the relationship that the so called post-ideological popular platforms have with the cultural front.
The relationship of politics with popular iconography and sentiment is a fascinating realm. W. J. T. Mitchell has argued that we need to reckon with images not just as inert objects but as animated beings that exert a certain force in this world. The “complex field of visual reciprocity,” he writes, “is not merely a by-product of social reality but actively constitutive of it. Vision is as important as language in mediating social relations, and it is not reducible to language, to the sign, or to discourse. Pictures want equal rights with language, not to be turned into language.”
In our country, the mobilization, and whipping up, of moral-nationalist ideals in the middle and lower middle classes has always been by working through popular schemes, festivals and other cultural fronts. We all know how the left has often used such cults of the popular for political ends. The nationalists, of course, thrive on belief systems of the popular. It is in this context that what Ms.Sen might represent in the Bengali psyche is heaven sent to the popular mass leadership, and the chief minister can ill afford let it go without re-fashioning it politically. It is a trend we have seen in recent times which will not go away in a hurry: to mobilize iconography around exemplary deaths.
What does Ms. Sen represent, or what is being promoted as something she might represent, that makes it so significant? Two apparently divergent images jostle for primacy. On the one hand, here is someone who is sure of herself and her charms; is haughty, distant, capricious, humorous and deeply aware of her worth and esteem. It is an image of a surefooted worldly wise diva who made herself a recluse by choice, for her own needs. On the other hand, we also notice a seemingly contrary image of a god-fearing person in a spiritual quest—who decided, upon catachresis and eventual diksha, to eschew ‘greed’ and maintain an economy of minimalism and ‘poverty’ in her lifestyle—so we are told. In this mode she is no more a sexual being of flesh and blood to be coveted, or one who is desirous of material needs herself. Here is the grihi who is also capable of renunciation. And so here is a cocktail which is absolutely electrifying, begging to be successfully channelled by the mass leader and media houses to the people. And no one understands the power of this amorphous image better than the current Bengal chief minister.
The first thing that a populist leader likes to fathom is the religious and cultural aspirations of the hoi polloi, to gauge and work out methods in order to handle and whip up the potentials of lay spirituality. In this framework, it is extremely important to stress the psychological subtleties and interiority of the mass. And to simultaneously have a strong sense of the provincial and the everyday—sociologically speaking. Not ideology and theory, but a study of the practices and lifestyles of popular icons and figures needs to be done first and morphed into the aspirations of a people. It is therefore important, if a popular icon is be venerated and memorialized effectively , that the rituals and motifs about her be carefully collected, nurtured and crafted: from gossip, anecdotes, snippets, rumours, and of course, to make sure that there is a constant circulation of certain iconic moments from the diva or the saints’ works and life—the very basis of the aura—a rich amorphousness of her mystical iconicity.
It might be misleading to argue for metaphors and imageries for social reality but if we can create a network of images around a particular icon, built by the media and the powers that be, and then locate these networks in the social experience of a population, it may reveal to us what politicos most deeply care about themselves and hope to justify to others through certain other lives and events. But a caveat is in order here: even as we try to understand these manoeuvres, we have to see them as insiders functioning within a baroque modern formulation and not merely critique the phenomenon from ideological, juridical or historicist points of view. That mode is impatient and a short cut.
Elaborating on the word icon Saba Mahmood has reminded us that it refers not simply to an image but to a cluster of meanings that might suggest a persona, an authoritative presence, or even a shared imagination. In this view, the power of an icon lies in its capacity to allow an individual (or a community) to find him- or herself in a structure that has bearing on how one conducts oneself in this world. The term icon, she tells us, therefore pertains not just to images but to a form of relationality that binds the subject to an object or an imaginary. This is a communitarian definition of an icon that fits well with the popular-nationalist ideals in contemporary India.
So, what imagery and metaphors does Ms. Sen represent that is so important to the chief minister? In many of her successful films she indeed represents, as has been well documented, a deeply accomplished and modern persona who is also capable of getting under the skin of community values and expectations. Saptapadi, perhaps the iconic-romantic film in mainstream Bengali imagination where she plays the role of an accomplished Anglo-Indian woman steeped in modern, westernized values to begin with, is sharply divided into two neat sections. The first half of the film is where we see her as a bundle of vivacity and abandon, deeply aware of her charms and eventually falling in love with an earthy, meritorious, heterodox student of medicine, played by Uttam Kumar. The second half sharply shifts gear. Since their relationship cannot be consummated and given a social stamp for reasons of religious and racial difference, instead of revolting against patriarchal and communal values, both decide on renunciation and channel their energies into becoming a deeply spiritual doctor and nurse duo, helping the nation on the war front with the casualties and injuries of the Indian soldiers. The good doctor gives and routes her restlessness into the ideals of ‘service’ and social involvement.
In another of her representative films—Deep Jele Jai—Ms. Sen plays the role of a nurse again, this time in a psychiatric hospital. It is a narrative that takes us through the very idea of love and detachment, where nurse Radha Mitra breaks her emotional involvement with her patients at crucial junctures only to get admitted as a mental patient herself in the same mental health resort at the end of the film. It again plays out a deeply romantic ideal of giving up the personal (through performance)—all for the cause of positivist science, and make us ponder on whether all this is worth the effort. In yet another twist to the Abhijñānaśākuntalam narrative, Harano Sur is a film where Ms Sen is a doctor and the very picture of patience, good turn and service by which she is eventually able to break through the fog of her amnesiac lover’s mind. In Hospital, in another of her pardigmatic roles, again we see a variation on this theme: sacrifice that needs to effected in personal relationships in order to be true to the progressive ideals of the medical profession.
While these films project to us a particular kind of modern persona, there is another Ms Sen that remains in the popular imagination as a pre-modern being who embodied the community sentiments of post-partition Bengal–in and through the roles she played in films like Bhagoban Srikrishna Chaitanya to Dhuli, from Mejo Bou to Kamal Lata. This second Ms. Sen is much adored by the ‘lay popular’ as no other heroine has ever been in Bengal, since here is where she can be touched and reached, directly accessed—not as someone haughty and whimsical but someone who can be coveted as a woman who never left Pabna—where the real Krishna Sengupta had started her journey as a mellifluous local singer, elocutionist and a could embroider and stitch like no one else could in her school days. Here is where the lower middle class-suburban audience might feel another kind of connection with their loved one. In this framework, the icon is someone to be seen, not consumed—for adoration of the people. That is how consecration is effected. That is the moment of the elevation of the host (to use an auretic- religious terminology) when she is thrown into a starker prominence, by becoming one of us but at the same time made more equal than us because of certain extraordinary, mystical qualities inherent to her.
Dulali Nag, in her perceptive study of Ms Sen through the film Agniparisksha, has very correctly said that she resolves the crisis of the nationalism, caught between the contrary demands of the familial and the public sphere in defining gender roles during the time when the film was made. But in the second decade of the 21st century, is not the gender question much more laden with other modes of iconography and use by our political class and media, thereby helping to form a new audience around new norms of an amorphous, post-ideological politics? Is not the dialectic between urbanity and the traditional, the rural and the urban, the modern and the moffusil, which was much more open during her time, now being reinstated in other, more assimilative forms?
For our times, both these images, the humanist modern and the small town/antiquarian, coming together, must finally balance discipline with love in the mind of the lay receptor; such a successful balance is one of the cornerstones of popular national imagination. The political leadership which works on the nationalist-vernacular then must constantly create and recreate this lethal combination in present day situations (as an obverse of the cosmopolitan and the economically egalitarian models of cultural artefacts) by spinning images as exemplars and by restoring those images back to the believers via media and other public platforms, to the supposed insiders of the community: the putative and affective voters. What Nag saw as a subversive ambiguity must be made more palatable.
Devotion to the Idea of the Virgin
Among the stories about Ms. Sen that has now begun to make rounds and will surely augment (for she might prove to be another Netaji like figure of mysterious, invisible late-life and death, and therefore, ideal for sleuth-mongering), is the one narrated by one of her confidantes, the journalist Gopal Roy. Apparently, when already the mother of daughter Moon Moon, she is accompanied by Roy to a gynaecologist. An amused Ms. Sen comes out after her medical consultation to confide to Roy that the doctor, among other things, had pronounced that she was a virgin. Indeed, this humorous story hides beneath it a very powerful metaphor.
The idea of virginity, of immaculate spotlessness is central to work out a romanticism of the corporative world of the popular. Ms. Sen’s cult comes only second to Uttam Kumar’s in the popular imagination in the Bengali psyche and towers above all other actors, and that would perhaps include the most ever cerebral icon of the popular-left: poet, engage and actor Soumitra Chatterjee. In propagating the romantic perception of an untarnished maiden (and her remaining a recluse made sure that the image remains so) is of capital significance for the nationalist-vernacular manner of iconography. Such a model of purity can only lead to a tender connection with the populace. This virgin icon must also suffer to become a full participant in the vernacular-nationalist piety. The icon itself must not be over fervid and hysterical during adversity. She must be steady. But her receptors are free to discharge grief and suffering by setting her up as an objective correlative.
In this context the Ms. Sen’s intimate and organic relationship to the Ramakrishna math at Belur, as a modern sampradaya, is central. Here is someone who is able to fashion herself in the ideals of Sarada Ma and/or Sister Nivedita without making any overt social or religious investment whatsoever. She is at once a disciple and is sanctified now through other ways, as we witness. In this case, the symbolic virgin’s grief is presented as one undergone through a vow of being in volitional recluse. This is projected as an exemplary mode of being able to go through sustained suffering (a possible narcissist impulse is turned on its head), the noblest ideal, which is now a means to arouse compassion and suffering in the heart of the onlooker. This is turn could be transferred to the frugal image of the chief minister herself who is an equally spotless virgin—a reclusive artist among the hurly burly of the worldly affairs that she must conduct as part of her social duty! The job of the political person and the media is to see that the image of the recluse is dovetailed successfully with the potential receiver’s capacity to receive tender care and grace, love and humility of the surpassing kind. It is thus, through affective meditation through certain tropes, that devotion to the iconic film star is democratized; a prematurely consensual and dangerous democracy.
Every single death is an opportunity. An opportunity to dehistoricise and memorialize a persona through embodied practices within the sampradaya. To burn around the altar at the sacring time is the time of the death of an icon. After all the peeping, tooting and gazing, the icon is now ‘held up’ as a pure form. It is a privilege to see our beloved again, now as a pure form, however fleetingly, before she is memorialized. It brings benevolence.
Death in successful popular mobilization is never ever via lamentation or mortuary preoccupations. Rather, our living emotions need to be absorbed and accentuated through pity, resignation, longing and concern after the icon ceases to exist materially.
In this context the contemporary nationalist-popular in Bengal at least has been successful in mobilizing death where the State directly intervenes, through pageantry—military and social and makes it a case for public consumption now. There was a tremendous void now being filled and utilized routinely that the mainstream left imagination had not touched—that of hobnobbing with the end of life, that was perhaps always part of the popular imagination. The thought of mortality is being meticulously worked at now not to take people away from social involvement but to promote piety and sociality in this world, to fortify a sense of the vernacular community around the palimpsest of one more death, prolonging the presence of the death within the community of the living. As Eamon Duffy has said elsewhere: ‘…the cult of intercession for the dead can be seen as an incubus dominating the religion of the living.” This is what Mamata Banerjee has ensured in every mohalla and para—no death can remain private or even familial. Every death must go through the corporative rituals of the community. There is constant garish rabindra sangeet being played in shamshans—24×7, now in Kolkata.
And for the select: after annunciation, memorialisation. The fate of Ms. Sen has been no exception. This mode of effecting death and memorializing it through shrines and busts and naming of roads— is often profoundly hortatory and didactic as much as expressive. The people are called upon to reflect on this exemplar, giving life to one whose embodiment is no more but whose dazzling presence and moral rectitude lives on. For all its gross physicality, the idea of the feted, glorified death here is to bring home to the spectator the idea of mortality and a sense of urgency in his own dealings in life and with his fellow beings. The people seek an intercession and instead of priests and preachers (who are in tandem) it is the pietistic chief minister herself who provides the succour as a conduit, and carries on her affective duty with the populace. After all, it is to her that the diva had asked a few days ago, in a miraculous formation of bond between two wordly sadhvis “তুমি আমার কে হও ?” (Who might you be to me?). Thereafter she went every day to see Sen apparently, telling us in exacting details about how the rites of intimacy were enacted, how care and grace was given and received. In a manner they become the models, who by enacting and role playing show us how the exemplary in a polity ought to behave in times of emotional crisis—both superstars hoping to realize and stamp their positions in the eyes of the beholder through mutual recognition and admiration. The intensity of the deathbed scrutiny, led via the discretion of a consumerist media and a deeply astute chief minister in tandem, is thus given access to a waiting and concerned people.
The cultural imagination, when handled by amorphous platforms of the nationalist-democratic type, must not be representative or communicative. They must be assimilative. The economy and power of the icon must be brought into a situation of exemplary similitude, into a schesis, with the waiting audience, the aam admi. The chief minister of Bengal, in her ‘story’ about mahanayika Suchitra Sen in a Bengali daily on the day after her death, has emphasized this: an embodied habitation and intimate proximity to the icon and her subjects. Do other performative and political imaginations have the power and skill to match and counter this mode of operation?
Prasanta Chakravarty teaches English in Delhi University.