The Big J-List
Badal Sircar, playwright; Anupam Roy, singer, composer; Ranjon Ghoshal, founder, Mohiner Ghoraguli, a rock collective; Suhel Seth, corporate consultant; Parambrata Chatterjee, actor; Churni Ganguly, actor; Neel Mukherjee, author; Barun Chanda, actor; Kabir Suman, singer; Sudipta Sengupta, first Indian woman in Antarctica; Jayant Kripalani, actor; Moon Moon Sen, actress; Sugata Mitra, education evangelist; Joy Bhattacharya, one of the brains behind Kolkata Knight Riders; Sanjay Anandaram, venture capitalist; Shovon Chowdhury, ad professional.
In the 1980s, before economic liberalisation had planted the seed of personal ambition in the Indian mind, the dilapidated arts faculty building of Jadavpur University in south Calcutta used to be fronted by a long stretch of three shallow steps, separated at intervals by pillars holding up the portico roof, and leading down to a small plot of open ground covered with untended grass and students smoking—sometimes tobacco, often pot. It would be hard to find a higher density of a dogged lack of purpose anywhere in India. In some magical fashion, the act of walking in through gate no. 4—either before or after a quick snack at a shanty across the road—seemed to rob the brain and body of any desire whatsoever for activity.
The whole idea was to spend as much of the day as possible slumped on those steps, whose informal name, the Arts Lobby, was absolutely accurate. All of us who read at Jadavpur University occupied the lobby in an eternal state of pause. “I’m not sleepy, and there is no place I’m going to,” sang one of us with an air guitar, and we were so contented we couldn’t even be bothered to rouse ourselves to get hold of a real guitar.
Yet, those 500 sq feet or so of crumbling concrete actually went on to gently squeeze out a succession of people who have determined the course of media, advertising, publishing, cinema and the social sector at the national level in the 21st century. The term ‘Bong mafia’ is legion in these fields already—but in many cases it might have been more appropriate to call it the ‘JU mafia’, more accurately ‘JU-A mafia’ for, without modesty, that was where it all began—not in the classrooms, but in the mental space created by enrolment in one of the faculties there.
That was when, without being formalised, without a charter being written, without even a tacit acknowledgment, the Network was born. Only, back then it was Notwork. There was an unstated vow never to leave Calcutta, never to go corporate, never to chase success and, of course, never to abandon the company of friends. But how was a living to be earned? All we were good for was talking, and telling people how to solve the problems of the world. Naturally, newspapers (no news TV those days), magazines, advertising agencies, ngos and, for the most intrepid—or laziest—the film studio were just a heartbeat away.
That network flourishes today. Just so that you aren’t bored by a long list—and it is very long—here is a handful of dropped names. In the offices of the Times of India, all editorial decisions stop at Jaideep ‘Jojo’ Bose’s desk (or phone). When CEOs look for deals that need discreet networking or problems that need aggressive image-building, they turn to Suhel Seth, founder of ad agency Equus and consulting firm Counselage. In public service advertising, one of the first go-to names is that of Radharani Mitra. The world of English language publishing in the country, already a subcommittee of JU-A alumni, pauses respectfully when the name of Diya Kar Hazra, currently publisher of Bloomsbury India, and for years one of the driving spirits at Penguin Books, India, is mentioned. And till his utterly untimely death in May 2013, the undisputed leader of Bengali new wave cinema was of course Rituparno Ghosh, whose reputation stretches across the country and the world.
Chaucer & cha Ad pro Mohit Hira, singer Moushumi Bhowmick at a lit faculty reunion
But (and here’s the big but) you could multiply the number of famous achievers on that list by any factor, and it still would not reflect the real success of this particular network. Nor do the connections here have anything to do with the usual lattice of references, introductions, I-know-someone-who-knows-someone-who, can-you-put-me-in-touch-with or all-other-things-being-equal-or-even-slightly-unequal-I-will-hire-someone-from-JU. The truth lies in one word: diversity. The lesson that we all learnt at the university, almost entirely outside the classroom, was that it takes all sorts to make the world, not just people like us. This in turn planted two ideas firmly in our collective consciousness.
First, that a privileged childhood and, therefore, enhanced access to opportunities did not translate automatically into special entitlements. These opportunities actually had to be equal—across gender, class, and income groups. This in turn led to an entire group of our companions in indolence to devote their lives to human rights. Working in the voluntary sector, these individuals have leveraged—management jargon can sometimes be quite accurate—the intangible network of a shared belief in equality to bridge the gaps between the haves and the have-nots.
The second learning flowed, in a sense, from this one. The living example of hundreds of young women and men seeking to overcome the limitations of personal circumstances through an education, engaging themselves in a life of the mind irrespective of their economic difficulties, was inspiring. Motivated by the possibilities, almost every member of this network has quietly broken out and beyond. From moving out of the warm familiarity of Calcutta to giving up the cosy limits of family businesses and venturing into completely different careers, from pursuing the mission of writing a novel or three—instead of sheltering in safe academia—to dancing across continents, it is really the quiet achievements that have kept the network alive, grateful and always ready to support and boost every member.
What form does this intra-network support take? Not money or anything resembling wealth. (Most of us don’t earn enough. The holiday photos we exchange on Facebook are never from Africa, South America, or the North Pole.) Usually, it’s words—of instigation. (That, after all, is the only thing we were always good at). And somehow, mysteriously, the words have joined up, in public life and in private, to create a network of voices in harmony that try to make a few lives a little more exciting—through the creation of books and films, through the telling of the truth, through the upholding of human rights. And, always, through satisfying lunches and dinners, which are followed, inevitably, by the smiling torpor that we mainlined on during those days at the JU Arts lobby.
(Sinha is a translator of Bengali fiction by night, an online professional by day.)
Apropos of The Lobbying Artists on Jadavpur University and its acolytes, the piece was nice but I would have liked to read about some of the school’s illustrious alumni too.
All very good, but I would have liked to read about some school alumnis too
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