Literary festival, Patna, 1937

From Nirad C Chaudhuri’s Thy Hand Great Anarch:

“… I had a joyous feeling at the prospect of going to the conference at Patna. Such gatherings were a typical cultural recreation of the Bengalis working and settled outside Bengal, the expatriate Bengalis as they were called: the Bengali Diaspora, who never forgot their Zion in Calcutta. Thus in every important city or town in northern India there was a cultural club to keep alive the traditions of Calcutta life. Patna was a big city, the capital of Bihar and Orissa, and it also had a large Bengali population…

The sessions of the conference were very well attended, actually in hundreds. In India lectures always attract very large audiences, however abstruse the subjects. To our surprise, the audience in Patna consisted as much of women as men. I thought that all the fashionable Bengali young women of Patna came to hear us. Bibhuti Babu persisted in saying that a very pretty girl in the front row was making eyes at him, which was, of course, the very last thing they would think of doing.

The guest writers read either from their works or spoke on literary questions, as Bibhuti Babu [Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay] did. On the first day he read one of his stories, and on the second discussed literary creation. But the real sensation in the way of lectures was provided by Brajen Banerji, although as a ponderous research worker he wrote in the most ponderous style. But this time his thorough research produced the opposite effect, and that was partly due to me. In order to relieve the awful solemnity of my address, I asked him to write on a light topic on which I too had done some research along with him. The subject was a revolution in the costume of Bengali women in the nineteenth century. I helped him to write his paper with great gusto.

It was indeed a revolution, but the men who preached it did that in the name of morality not of beauty. Traditionally, Bengali women wore only one sari, and nothing else with it. Besides, the higher the position of the woman the thinner was the sari. Thus, a charming Englishwoman who came to India in search of the picturesque in the thirties of the last century and was invited to the best homes of Calcutta, wrote in her journal when she saw Bengali women of the highest class: she now understood why none but their husbands or brothers were allowed to go into the zenana. To the reformers, who were all puritans of the most fanatical English type, this was abomination of desolation sitting where it ought not. From 1830 they began to denounce the scanty dress of the Bengali women, strengthening their argument by giving lurid descriptions of their semi-nudity. Brajen Babu, who had done as thorough a research on this subject as on all his other specialities, quoted these descriptions in his paper, which he read in the most monotonous style.

As he quoted one example after another, I thought at least these would bring some smiles, especially on the faces of the ladies. Instead, I was dismayed to watch a progressive hardening of the features, and realized that modern girls in the audience retained all the Puritanism of the reformers, although they no longer needed that. Sajani and others also noticed that. I gently pulled the tail of Brajen Babu’s tunic and looked at him. He did not pay any heed to that. Sajani from the other side gave a violent pull. Brajen Babu seemed to wake up to the realization that something was wrong. He looked at me, and then at Sajani, and after that, instead of skipping the examples and bringing his address to a natural close, he stopped at the end of this quotation: “Thanks to the muslin dhotis and saris from Dacca and Santipur, the males and females of Bengal are becoming lechers and lecheresses. When they put on these abominable things what remains to be unseen?” Then he sat down with a thud on his chair. He was a very bulky man. There had to be some formal applause, but it was very faint. The audience, and more especially the feminine part of it, looked as if they said: “We are not amused.”





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