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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 1, December 22, 2012 [Annual 2012]

Don’t Forget the Golden Age

Thursday 3 January 2013, by T J S George


In his acclaimed survey of history, Eric Hobsbawn marked the third quarter of the 20th century as a golden age in the West. His argu-ment was that industrial progress occurred in the postwar years alongside egalitarianism and rising living standards for all. Before long, however, income inequalities began widening in what some experts called the great U-turn. As the rich-poor gap grew, the golden age dimmed and democracy itself weakened.

Hobsbawn’s theories have triggered debates. The intention here is not to join the debate but to draw attention to a remarkable coincidence. The years the British historian identified as the West’s golden period were precisely the years of a golden era in India too. It did not come about because of industrial progress nor end due to economic imbalances, but the timeline was concurrent with the West’s.
The “third quarter of the 20th century” of course meant 1950 to 1975. Both were landmark years in Indian history, one signifying the best and the other the worst in the experience of the freshly independent country. In 1950 the Cons-titution of India came into effect, crystallising the aspirational essence of a proud citizenry and filling every heart with joy and optimism. In 1975 the internal Emergency came into effect, suspending the Constitution, neutering Parlia-ment and the judiciary and filling a bullied people with fear and helplessness.

Mainstream was born in the middle of the golden age, in 1962. Within a few years it fell victim to the wholesale negation of all that the golden age stood for; it chose to close down rather than cope with the Emergency’s press censorship laws. It is useful to remember the anniversary of such events because they help us recognise what is happening to us and around us. Unfortunately we have not been faring well and the movement of our history has been in circles if not backward.

The lifting of the Emergency after two years should have led to a new era of sunshine and confidence. Instead, it led to the travesty of dynastic democracy and a genetically engineered political culture. Enmeshed in the artificialities and hypocrisies of this culture, it is difficult to imagine that we had a golden age of ideas and articulations only a few decades ago. It is important not to forget that period. It is important in fact to keep it vibrantly alive in our memory because the freedoms and creativity of that brief interlude are our best hope that some day we may be able to reclaim our lost heritage.

So what made the 1950s and 1960s golden? Primarily it was an age of great expectations. Considering the extent of brutality and destruc-tion that marked independence with partition, it was something of a wonder that the new nation found its buoyancy in a very short time. Men and women of extraordinary capabilities appeared from all parts of the country and found inspiration in one another’s talent, in the prevailing spirit of everyone respecting every-one’s freedom and appreciating the finer things of life. Science flourished alongside art, music and dance found new levels of acceptance, cinema broke new grounds, education and research looked for advancement. There was a feeling that nothing was beyond the reach of the new nation.

Take science, for example. India had firm roots in this field, the Calcutta school winning international laurels with the work of J.C. Bose, P.C. Roy, M.N. Saha and S.N. Bose. It was in Calcutta that C.V. Raman conducted his research. But during the 19th and early 20th century, they were all necessarily under colonial limitations. These were broken when Homi Bhabha inaugu-rated atomic physics programmes followed by Vikram Sarabhai launching space technology programmes in the 1950s. No less of a pioneer was S.S. Bhatnagar who established a series of national laboratories in the country. No develo-ping country made more progress in science and technology than India did thanks to Jawaharlal Nehru giving free rein and generous funding to Homi Bhabha, and Bhabha encou-raging Sarabhai, and Sarabhai mentoring Raja Ramanna, and Ramanna inspiring A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and a whole generation world class scientists coming up in the wake of the pioneers. The glow they gave to their age was indeed golden.

The field of economics, a foundational plank of modern India, saw institution builders of geat eminence. Perhaps the most eminent of them all was V.K.R.V. Rao who fathered the Delhi School of Economics, then the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi, then the Institute of Social and Economic Change in Bangalore before he became the Union Education Minister in 1971.

The man to whom V.K.R.V. Rao passed his baton at the Delhi School of Economics was K. N. Raj, a young Ph.D from London who designed the nuts and bolts of the First Five Year Plan with a clarity and freshness that turned Nehru into a fan. But Raj’s real achievement was in turning the Delhi School of Economics into a nest of singing birds. Among the professors he attracted to the school were Amartya Sen, Manmohan Singh, Jagdish Bhagwati, Sukhomoy Chakravarty, M.N Srinivas. Like his buddy from the London days, K.R. Narayanan, Raj could have ascended ministerial heights. But he believed that the new India would need economists and sociologists and planners in their thousands. So he devoted himself to building up the country’s intellectual infra-structure. That was the spirit of the golden age.

For the most spectacular outpouring of the spirit of innovation and creativity, we must look at cinema and the arts. Something unexpec-ted happened to spur cinema on to new heights and the credit for it must go to a bureaucrat—Mohan Bhavnani, the first chief producer of the Government of India’s Films Division. He had trained abroad and had directed feature films of his own. But as a government employee, he organised in 1952 India’s first International Film Festival. People thought it would just be a novelty, but perhaps Bhavnani had higher expectations. The Festival gave film-makers and audiences in India their first exposure to foreign films other than the Hollywood variety. Films of masters like Vittorio Da Sica, Roberto Rossel-lini, Jean Renoir and Akiro Kurosawa left audi-ences spellbound.
Indian film industry was never the same again. Satyajit Ray himself openly spoke about the influence Da Sica’s Bicyle Thieves had on him. Bimal Roy, K.A. Abbas, Raj Kapoor and A.R. Kardar were some of the others who were directly influenced by what they saw at the film festival. Some of our great movies belong to that era: Do Bigha Zamin 1953, Pather Panchali 1955, Mother India 1957, Mughal-e-Azam 1960.

A bunch of then unknown modern artists emerged from a side street in the Kala Ghoda area of Bombay in the 1950s. Men like F.N Souza, M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza, K.H. Ara who set up the Progressive Artists Group transformed the style, the tempo and the philosophy of Indian art. They made India a celebrated name in the salons and galleries of the world. By the sheer magic of her talent, M.S. Subbolakshmi could break social barriers and become vene-rated as a symbol of bhakti music. Vilayat Khan’s mastery of the sitar enabled him to modify the instrument and achieve amazingly close approximations to the human voice. Bismillah Khan would not leave his Kaasi even for medical treatment because his ties to the Ganga and to the Vishwanath temple where he was the designated shahnai player were precious to him.

The 1950s and the 1960s were an age when values mattered. Those who did something wrong recognised that they did something wrong. Many did good things without expecting personal gain. Novelist Raja Rao could return from Paris and persuade a friend to open an art cafe in Bombay with paintings on the wall and bookshelves in a corner. G.V. Desani, recovering from All About H. Hatterr, could come to India and vanish into caves in unknown places looking for enlightenment. P. Lal could start Writers Work-shop at a time when book publishing was a largely unknown activity in India and, as his own copy editor, proof reader, type setter, paginator and cover designer, bring out books by new writers like A.K. Ramanujam, Nissim Ezekiel, Vikram Seth and Kamala Das.

It was also an age when Sachin Chowdhury could start a publication called the Economic Weekly (later Economic and Political Weekly) and substantially shape the thinking of a generation of readers. And Nikhil Chakravartty could start Mainstream with equal impact. We have lost the values that made the golden age possible. If we cannot regain them, we will continue to be at the mercy of a vile political class that has subverted our democracy.

The author is a veteran journalist and columinist.

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