Layers of time


A city's relationship to its past is an odd thing. Different cultures engage in very different ways with their histories, and one of the things that throws light on this is the way a big metropolis chooses to name its important places and roads, in what the people who transit through power at any given place choose to keep, continue, highlight or erase. Many years ago, travelling to Paris for the first time, I was quite startled to see that one of the metro stations was named Franklin D. Roosevelt and another one was called, simply, Stalingrad. Being a bit of a Second World War nerd, I understood immediately that the name of one station was obviously tipping its hat to an American president who had been greatly instrumental in the liberation of France, and the other to perhaps the greatest battle for a city in the history of mankind, but one which turned the course of the same war and helped the Allied armies to come and free western Europe. What was startling at the time, to a 15-year-old Indian, was that a city such as Paris could name something after a leader of another country, and on top of that, even give over a part of itself in Place du Stalingrad and its eponymous Metro station, to another city, and that too, one in a country that propagated a rival ideology.
Years later, I spent some more time in Paris and learnt that this generous naming of roads, squares and boulevards after foreigners was a typically French thing: in one of the banlieues of Paris I was surprised to come across a street, Rue Salvador Allende, and was told that there was actually more than one street named after the assassinated Chilean president in the socialist-run localities ringing the city. Besides the naming of streets and boulevards after their leaders and generals, the French were also good about remembering their scientists, poets and artists, giving them equal importance in the pantheon of memory.
More recently, I've found myself looking at the street names in Berlin where, again, the layered memory of the city's history is evident. Harun Farocki, whose films, video works and writing are about to be celebrated with a massive retrospective, had made a silent film called Musik Video: the film consists entirely of shots of Berlin street signs with names of the great composers, of which Germany has more than its fair share; one after the other, the montage takes us to a silent journey, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Chopin, inviting the viewer to remember the music in their minds. Like Paris, Berlin too has metro stations named after great poets and figures other than chancellors and generals, and this is part and parcel of a city being in a dynamic relationship with its history.
Calcutta may not be as old as Paris or Berlin but as a city we are neither short of history nor of great figures outside politics who've contributed to making us who we are. Why then, you have to ask, do we not have the many various names of our writers and artists proudly displayed on our street signs? Why should Calcutta and Bengal be constantly restricted in the bracketing between Tagore and Subhash Bose? Think of the names of our streets: except for a close cluster where Shakespeare, Picasso and Ho Chi Minh do adda, vaguely including Mother Teresa, there is no sense that anybody ever travelled out of Calcutta in the last hundred years or that any international ideas ever came into the city. Think of the names of our Metro stations: yes, Nazrul, Tagore and SubhashMukhopadhyay make an appearance, Uttam Kumar is recognized, but where are all the others? For instance, why is the name of Satyajit Ray consigned only to small street where he lived? Even though he might have scoffed at the idea, where is the road, square or institution named after RitwikGhatak, after Tapan Sinha? Where is SombhuMitra in our consciousness? Why do great actors like Chhabi Biswas and Tulsi Chakraborty not find a place in our city map? Or even the great, world-class associate architects of our cinema, SubrataMitra and Bansi Chandragupta? Did we not have any poets besides Tagore and Nazrul, have we been that poor in our literature over the last forty-fifty years? Or is it that many of the poets, novelists and film authors were anti-establishment and so the establishment continues to take its revenge on their memory, no matter which party is in power? To make a list off the top of one's head, we have nary a trace of poets such as Jibanananda, Shakti or now UtpalBasu; the great women actors like TriptiMitra and Shobha Sen are missing as well; as for our important painters and sculptors it is as if they never existed. Recent renaming has meant some small streets recognize some artists but the major thoroughfares, squares and avenues are still captured by political men from the past and rarely anybody else. Musicians, dancers, craftsmen, scholars, none of these lay any claim on our recognition.
What this points to is the narrow and unimaginative way our politicians perceive our history. For it's not enough just to name a street or a place after a great artist of the past, it is crucial that we teach our younger generations who such and such a person was and why they were important, why they are worthy of our continuing interest today. In terms of places and roads it is important that we stop wiping out our recent and older past, and rejuvenate the historical areas of the city, including 20th-century neighbourhoods that we don't yet see as being important to history. It's imperative that we don't hand over everything to rampant builders and real estate dalals.
Wandering in Berlin I can't help but think of Calcutta. The other day I went with friends to the Tempelhof Airport. The massive block of buildings and hangars was constructed by Hitler and his Nazi architects to overlook the vast expanse of the aerodrome from which the Reich would rule the world. That ugly dream died a deserved death and Russian and Allied aircraft landed on the airstrips in the middle of a smouldering, bombed out Berlin. A few years later, Tempelhof, now in the western sector, became the site for the Air Bridge, when American air force planes ran a conveyor belt of supplies through the worst winter weather to lift the Berlin Blockade imposed by the Soviets. The airfield has now been decommissioned for a while. Has this prime real estate area been handed over to shopping malls and upper-end apartment blocks? Not at all. Today, the place a vast park where people of all ages come to play, to run, to wind-surf and skate. The former Luftwaffe headquarters now houses artists' studios.
Last Sunday, the tarmac in front of the main building was taken over by a ten-hour long dance event where, one after the other different groups of contemporary and classical dancers came and performed before a shifting crowd of all ages and all classes. Standing in the late summer sunlight, you found yourself simultaneously looking at multiple layers of the city's past, at the tectonic shifts of the last eighty years. The name of the place was there in big letters, probably from the 1960s, but what mattered was that the past, even the darkest and most evil past was not erased but put into context. As forty children danced to Stravinsky's "Rites of Spring", you understood that they and the other kids watching them would not be cut off from their own history and the many struggles it has taken to reshape the city and society in which they are growing up. You could argue that Berlin is a freak place, an outlier different from anywhere else in the world, but that is no reason not to steal ideas and attitudes from a place that is as battered by history - albeit differently so - as our own city.