Our friendly neighbourhood literary club had recently covered Mangalkavya,so when I chanced upon Songseekers while browsing the pavements for second hand books ,and the backjacket advertised it as based on the Chandimangal, I picked it up to whet the curiosity on this fascinating genre that the erudite discussion had awakened.
It was an inspired decision. The SongSeekers by Saswati Sengupta,published by Zuban Books, is a find. Saswati Sengupta is a professor of English at Miranda House College in Delhi University, presumably a probasi Bengali like Uma,the protagonist, who is an English graduate from DU. The story begins with Uma having an arranged marriage with the aptly named Rudra of Kailash, the family home of the aristocratic, cultured and genteel Chattopadhyays of Calcutta. Ashutosh, the patriarch of the family has chosen Uma as the suitable girl and Uma leaves Delhi and dreams of a career or academics to be the lady of the north Calcutta manor.
Rudras greatgrandfather, Neelkantha, had been an ascetic of renown in East Bengal, and was the famed compiler of the Chandimangal kavya in his own words. The family fortune of the Chattopadhyays came from their printing business, which was launched by the publication of this manuscript. Uma, exploring the Kailash library , comes across this book she has heard all about, and starts studying it.
Now the story gathers meat. Kailash has another resident, Pishi, of ambiguous status and origin, whom Uma, breaking down barriers, befriends. She also bonds with the kitchen help in the house and decides to read to them from the classic.
This kitchen culture club, cutting across culture class and background, with gender the only bond, is the sutradhar for the thesis of this delightfull book.
Here the book does have a strong flavor of Eng Lit tutorials or notes on deconstruction and gender politics, but is all the richer for it.
I will not ruin the plot by telling it all, as I want all of you to read it –its available on flipcart and presumably bookshops, but will give you the trailer.
The basic thesis is threefold. First, irrespective of cultutre, class, education, pedigree, community or caste, women, as a gender, are bound gagged and subservient to the male sex, and the apparent freedom of the liberal society is an illiusion.
Secondly, history and culture have been appropriated by the male sex, and distorted to suit its agenda.
Thirdly, the ruling class, or greater culture, appropriates the popular or folk or minor cultures, and distorts them to suit their agenda.Chandimangal too is an example, along with many others, of Sanscritisation, sanitization, and distortion of popular, folk, feminist, indigenious and marginalized cultures. The Gods, songs, history and culture of the vanquished society morphs into one suitable to the victors vision.
Enjoy it folks.