A Tribute

Nityapriya Ghosh

Someswar Bhowmik

Extremely polite and suave in manners but equally ruthless and often caustic in his expressions—this in a nutshell defines Nityapriya Ghosh, who passed away on 7th September at the age of 87. In his passing the world of critical thinking around us has become poorer.

For around five decades he has been praised and reviled for unrelentingly cross-checking and questioning facts about Tagore as if it were a pastime—“I can’t give away my right to question. Tagore never gave away his.” In raising those questions he often sounded irreverent, but he knew his facts like he knew the palm of his own hands. What exasperated the reverential minds were his interpretations which were definitely out of the box, although based on objectivity and solid logic. He was a Tagore scholar par excellence but with a difference. His reasoned aversion to the idolisation of the person has mostly been construed as disrespect and dismissed, which is hardly an ideal way to sustain a discourse and enrich the intellectual environment.

However he did not confine himself to what his critics have termed as Tagore-baiting. He had his unique perception about iconic personalities and events. He used it to the hilt no matter what to present before his readers an unusual, and often unpalatable, perspective. Call it western-style iconoclasm or India’s millennia-old argumentative trait, he revelled in ruffling feathers left, right or centre with élan and then sat back enjoying the brickbats with a wry smile.

Born on December 3, 1934 in Barisal town (now in Bangladesh), Nityapriya was the fifth child of Manindra Kumar Ghosh (1898-1991), a philologist-educationist with progressive ideas, who interacted regularly with high-profile cultural figures of Bengal, including Tagore. Chronic ill-health during childhood and adolescence affected Nityapriya’s school education. Partition also intervened. After the turmoil, when his family finally settled down in Calcutta he appeared for the Matriculation Examination from Hindu School (1951), finished graduation from the Presidency College (1955) and completed post-graduation from the University of Calcutta (1957). In his professional life he straddled three diverse worlds, first working, briefly, as a lecturer in English with the West Bengal Higher Education Service, and then having another brief tenure in the Defence Estates Services, before shifting to a career in corporate publicity and public relations. In this final incarnation he worked with the multinational Bata Shoe Company and the public sector United Commercial Bank, before retiring from service in 1992.

He was as brilliant in his academic career as he was successful in his professional life. But while his academic brilliance and professional successes are realm-specific and temporal, the impact of his intellectual acumen and works have defied boundaries and temporality.

His foray into the intellectual world began while working as an assistant editor in 1966-1967 at Now, a radical socio-cultural weekly with focus on analytical writing, under Samar Sen as his editor. When Samarbabu founded Frontier, a weekly with a more strident voice and political outlook in 1968, Nityapriya followed him there and continued to contribute on a wide range of subjects. For both these publications he regularly wrote anonymous editorials, and used a cryptic nom de plume if he had to write longer pieces occasionally. Being mostly on the payroll of the government those days he had to resort to this in order to avoid legal complications for being critical of the prevalent system of governance. Only once did he make an exception to this self-imposed anonymity while reporting on the devastations wreaked by the floods of river Teesta across North Bengal districts in 1968.

Samar Sen in fact was more a mentor to Nityapriya than an editor. So Nityapriya was the natural choice to write a monograph on Sen for Sahitya Akademi soon after his death in 1987.

Since the early 1970s he began contributing regularly to journals and newspapers, writing on current affairs, culture and media, both in English and Bengali, and irrespective of their reach and readership. One element of his USP was a lucid style, combining racy prose with crisp expressions. But lest his readers be carried away by such facile use of language, he packed the pieces with sufficient antidotes of acerbity and pungency to give them a sense of the real world people live in. He loved being critical without being malicious. At the same time his critical persona was not ostentatious.

His first monograph, Biplober Katha (The Story of Revolutions, 1973), was on the Marxist interpretation of revolutions in different geographical locations and historical eras as a social game changer. On the evidence of this debut publication, which was purely an academic exercise, Nityapriya has often been dubbed as a leftist. But in reality, he turned out to be an unwavering non-conformist, always at war with myths, anomalies and contradictions surrounding events and personalities.

He truly found his mettle when he delved into his research on Tagore. An overwhelming majority of his publications centres on Tagore and his diverse activities. And this is where he carved a niche for himself. However, it is high time his commentaries on media and media personalities were compiled properly. These include pieces on books, authors, cinema, theatre, television and their practitioners. These are relatively less known than his much more impactful writings on Tagore. But these are equally incisive and insightful, and need to be preserved for their intrinsic values.

Lately Nityapriya has been writing reminiscences and memoirs both to the delight and fright of his readers. Some of these narratives shed nostalgic lights on vignettes of the times in which he was growing and working. But his last published book, Thikana Khat (2022, Address Bedstead) is a no-holds-bar throwback to his personal experiences in a post-colonial urban society and polity. The apparently hilarious or jovial tone of the anecdotes only tones down his sarcasm on the transformation of perceptions and value systems in rapidly changing times. It is in a league of its own as an important social document.

Knowing the person that he was, nothing could have been more appropriate than this brilliant sign-off.

Frontier and NPG: Ashis Lahiri adds
For us, the greenhorns of the late sixties and early seventies of the last century, Nityapriya Ghosh was nothing short of a phenomenon. His apparently laconic and iconoclastic, but essentially profound comments (e.g., just like there can't be a Marxist shovel or bucket, there can't be any Marxist aesthetics) were just gobbled up by us and debated ad infinitum, until the arrival of the next kick.

The Bengali word Nityapriya means 'ever-dear'; but we used to say he was noted for his ever-unpleasant acerbic remarks. He simply didn't care what the accepted wisdom was, what would people think of yet another outrageous attack on that wisdom. It is thus obvious that NPG and Frontier were as it were made for each other. The great editor Samar Sen had found in him just what the doctor ordered: a learned man with a fine literary sense and wit, an excellent writer of English prose, a fearless pen and a down to earth sense of reality, including politics. On top of that he was marked by an unflinching loyalty to the cause. And yet, he was not hesitant to question his editor's decisions. One remembers that when at the insistence of Samar Sen, one had made a rather laboured positive review of a public stage play by Soumitra Chatterjee, NPG rebuked one for 'praising an essentially shallow' production. Personally, however, he was the embodiment of kindness and sympathy for youngsters, even when he differed from them .These traits he maintained till the last day of his life. His departure is, in a sense, the end of a fearless era, when the pen really mattered and the term intellectual had not become profaned. Love and regards, Nityapriyada.

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Vol 55, No. 13, Sep 25 - Oct 1, 2022