Monday, July 4, 2011

Trip to the 2011 North American Bengali Conference (NABC) and Longwood Gardens

The annual North Americal Bengali Conference (NABC 2011), a major affair attended by several thousand Bengalis from all across the country,  took place at the Baltimore Convention Center over the weekend of the 4th. of July.  Having never attended one before, we decided to take a road trip, detouring for a day at the Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia, one of the grand gardens of this country.

I hoped to do some photography at Longwood, and I packed both my cameras --an old Nikon D70 with my favorite 60 mm f2.8 macro, and a small Panasonic GF1 with a 20mm f2.0 lens, a great street camera for those who cannot afford Leicas.  The sun was high at the time that we arrived at Longwood, too high for good photography, but the garden was breathtaking.  Built up by the du Pont family in the early 20th century, this 1000 acre property was a planned arboretum since the late 18th century and is home to the most magnificent trees and gardens.  M  walked eagerly ahead.  She rattled off names, histories, breeding histories for plants, while I worked the shutter. A couple of hours passed by.  It is a worthwhile education even for a non-gardener like myself.  There are spring gardens, forests, fanciful wood houses integrated around enormous trees, elaborate waterworks, and an indoor conservatory with rolling lawns, several ship’s worth of exotic plants, and a roomful of pianos.  It is not just the variety of botany, but the opulence of early 20th century, ultra-rich in America that one gets a feel for. 

We head for Baltimore the next morning along US-1 South:  a semi-rural highway lined with old stone houses and cornfields that takes us across the Mason Dixon line. The car pops up and down over gentle undulations on a largely flat countryside.  It is a blazing hot day.  A yellow sign by the road warns that the bridge ahead may be frozen.  Many years ago, as a schoolboy, I had seen an American comic book with a picture of a field of rutabagas, somewhere in the flat Midwest, and in the middle of it a bleak, forlorn house.  The image impressed upon me the enormity of the scale of the American countryside, and has remained with me.  It gets reinforced on trips such as these.

Three to four thousand Bengalis from all across the country have descended upon the convention center at Baltimore.  The NABC is a mega-cultural event conducted with commendable efficiency over the course of three days, packing in film screenings, concerts, theatre performances from top “artistes” (this now a word that the Bengali language has appropriated—arteeste—offering a certain license, both sartorial and behavioral, to the personality deemed as such) flown in from Kolkata.

The downtown Hilton has been taken over by Bengalis.  We pass a couple in their fifties, the woman regal in a sweeping silk sari with muted elegant colors, her moth eaten husband with a half head full of unkempt hair, a plastic shopping bag and sneakers follows a step behind.  Inside the convention center, another lady in her 50s berates her husband—“you are really something” the befuddled man has been trying to find a cell phone number.  In his red T-shirt with a breastpocket full of pens clipped to it, and an old Lt. Colonel style mustache, the little man passes by us with a grunted namaskar--a seasoned boxer who knows how to roll with the punches.  The world is small.  A professor of nanotechnology, whom I know professionally, walks past me.  Bengali friends from various places are here.  We define ourselves by our children—what they are up to, where they are headed.  My older son is with me. I suspect that he tires at times being with us and is reassured when one of my friends lets him know that he will skip the comments on how big he has grown in these years. 

We walk into a large exhibit hall with a moderately sized trade show representing real estate, jewellery, and music, but very few books and not a single dedicated bookstore of quality.  This I found to be uncharacteristic-- for it is unthinkable to me that the middle class Bengali can be too far away from a book.  But yet , there was the distinct feeling that in this enormous hall full of sari clad women swirling around like whirling dervishes, and men in long embroidered kurtas, there is a changing of the guard and an emerging lifestyle that is part Bollywood glamour, part American pragmatism.  I see little signs of the introspection of the traditional Bengali intelligentsia, except for brief glimpses of a famous writer who in his younger days spent time with Allen Ginsberg and the poets around Washington Square Park, but now seems resigned shooting the shit with the somewhat duller edge of the industrious Bengali diaspora.

The evenings had performances by several singers with both regional as well as national standing—their common denominator was a connection with Bengal.  On the first evening, we heard the magnificent Srikanta Acharya, a singer who takes us through a mountain full of exhilarating turns with his silken V8 engine of a voice, singing just past midnight.  The second day, there were even bigger national stars—Sanu and Yagnik—singers who have broken all kinds of records and won all kinds of awards.  They reaffirm their love for Bengal and the Bengali, and the crowd roars its approval.  They sing with rich, luxurious voices, and handle the audience with practiced aplomb.  Their catchy numbers send sari clad middle aged ladies bounding to the dance floor ready to dislocate their hips.  Under the blue and purple spot lights of the stage, they hold the magician’s wand that night.

The poet and writer Rabindranath Tagore hangs like a giant piece of stalactite over any dispensation of Bengali culture.  Several of the songs sung these nights are his, composed mostly in the early 20th. century.  His writings and compositions have changed the course of Bengali literary thought, at times freezing the path for new movement. But where is a Bengali without his poetry?  And for that, all of the songs, plays, and dances, are deftly linked together by occasional recitations of Tagore’s verse by the expert master-of-ceremonies on hand, Ms. Maitra.  There is a practiced cadence to Bengali recitation, honed through the decades, and memories flood back of bright summer mornings in the school yard where these poems are recited or Rabindrasangeet sung, against the backdrop of vendors vocally plying their trade on the street outside, of children with wet, combed hair; of the lower lip that quivers slightly in extolling the intonation of a tune; of the flared nostrils of a seasoned elocutionist who sends your pulse racing with his recital of a poem (as my father could).   

There are screenings of new films.  In the Indian film industry the crown is often passed from parent to child, and the Bengali film industry is no exception to this inheritance system.  Sandip Ray, the son of Satyajit Ray is here with a new film.  Prosenjit, the son of the actor Biswajeet and an actor himself,  masterfully captures the compassion and intransigence of the 19th century minstrel Lalan Fakir in Moner Manush, Gautam Ghosh’s riveting film that examines the Bauls’ conviction of the way human life, desire and belief should be freely enjoyed without divisiveness.

The Bengali band Bhoomi performs on the afternoon of the last day.  They are unpretentious, talented, and play multiple instruments—they remind me of “Dispatch”.  Bhoomi arrived in the early 2000s with a fresh sound referred to as urban folk, but it seems as though they have reached their peak—their song production has slowed, and they sing that afternoon with too much reverb built into the microphones--it provides a satiny quality to the voice, but sucks the life out if it.
They say that the best way to examine the history of a culture is to examine the mores of an immigrant population for they “time-stamp” their practice of the culture to the period of their departure.  One observes this in the festivities of the Trinidadian and Guyanese Indians—my previous Guyanese neighbor use to refer to 19th century hindu festivals that I had never heard of.  There are some signs of this cultural disjoint in the Bengali diaspora, but they are fading, for in this massively networked society, events like the NABC are the great equilibrators that do not allow differences to build up over distances any more.

Alumni networking sessions have been planned for in the afternoons.  The Jadavpur alumni complain that they cannot match the organizational capability of the IIT Kharagpur alumni.  The IIT Kharagpur meeting itself ends in a pissfest—some are despondent about their inability to recruit high quality faculty.  The discussion spills over to the American education system.  Even that is going down the tubes, comments one participant, in sad but assured reflection.  An argument breaks out--that as far as I can make out--seems to be in search of an argument to argue over.  I finally get a glimpse of the Bengali despair and angst that I have been seeking—it is alive and kicking.  It is time to return home.


  1. Nicely written!loved reading this.
    How about some notes on the Ale, though.

  2. Very nicely written.
    Great read. I was looking for some notes on the ale too:)

  3. You are such a great observer and commentator. It was great to read the article and I compliment you for your eloquent use of the language.

  4. the bengali angst has vanished altogether in this age of consumerism!

  5. Very witty and subtly ironic! Thanks for sharing this...