Mamata Banerjee the politician has few parallels: the woman who virtually single-handedly formed a party, took on the Left behemoth in West Bengal, rode to power, and last year, handed the Modi-Shah-led BJP a crushing defeat.
Mamata Banerjee the artist virtually stands alone too: hundreds of books, countless paintings, state logos, Durga Puja song records, at least one sculpture, and thousands of poems, over 900 of these in one book alone. All this while charting the course of Bengal’s history.
It is the book with 900 or so poems, Kabita Bitan, by the Trinamool Congress Chief Minister that is in the news currently. After the Paschimbanga Bangla Akademi announced the ‘Annada Shankar Smarak Samman’ award for Mamata for the book, Bengali writer Ratna Rashid Banerjee said she would return the award that she had received in 2019, saying she felt “insulted”. A member of the Sahitya Akademi’s (Eastern Region) General Council, Anadiranjan Biswas, resigned from the institution’s Bengali advisory board in protest. Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen said the award to Mamata showed that “Kolkata’s writers, artists and intellectuals are all sold out”.
Other writers too criticised the award for the CM by the Akademi, which is a wing of the West Bengal government’s Information and Cultural Affairs Department. The recently constituted award, honouring “relentless literary pursuit” by persons who write literature while working in other fields, was conferred on the birth anniversary celebrations of Rabindranath Tagore. Mamata was present but the award was received on her behalf by State Education Minister Bratya Basu, who incidentally is the chairperson of the Akademi.
While Kabita Bitan, the book in question, was released at the 2020 International Kolkata Book Fair, Mamata has been pretty prolific before and since. Her books and “thousands of poems” cover subjects as varied as her struggles as an Opposition leader, the movements led by her in Singur and Nandigram that powered her to the CM’s chair in 2011, the Centre’s policies such as demonetisation, GST, CAA and NRC, and violence.
Kabita Bitan wasn’t her first book at the Kolkata fair either. Every year, a publication by her features there and becomes a bestseller.
Painting is another art that Mamata frequently dabbles in, with auctions of the same fodder for news. One such painting, after she had come to power, was sold for Rs 1.8 crore. The buyer was allegedly Sudipto Sen, chairman of the Saradha Group who has been in police custody since April 2013 for the Saradha chit fund scam. The Opposition had a field day with reports of that supposed deal.
Mamata has often said that proceeds from her painting exhibitions go to TMC coffers or the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. She also gives away some of the paintings as gifts to dignitaries, such as President Ram Nath Kovind. During the Assembly polls last year, she turned out two paintings in the course of one dharna against the Election Commission.
Then there are logos, such as the Biswa Bangla one (the Emblem of West Bengal), or logos for government schemes such as her Kanyashree Prakalpa for girls. As she points out, she charges no money for the same.
Ahead of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in 2017, Mamata designed a sculpture to mark the occasion, that was later installed outside Salt Lake Stadium or Vivekananda Yuva Bharati Krirangan.
Come Durga Puja, songs recorded by the CM are played in pandals; in fact, notable Community Durga Puja Committees are known to line up to request her to write songs for them. On some occasions, she has also composed the music for her songs, with videos on social media of her trying her hand on the synthesiser. Maa Go Tumi Sarbojanin, sung by playback singer Shreya Ghoshal, is one of her most popular songs.
While anyone else would be exhausted by the pure breadth and depth of her ventures, Mamata says all she needs for writing, painting and the like is some time from her busy schedule.
Slamming the award to Mamata, Leader of Opposition in the Assembly Suvendu Adhikari said: “It is an insult to the culture and heritage of Bengal to confer such an award on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Tagore. Using her power, she could have received this award on some other day. Besides she has written poems such as Epang, Opang, Jhapang, which have no meaning.”
That poem revolved around soil as motherland, and the title was a take on a Horlicks ad.
In a letter to Education Minister Bratya Basu, returning her award, Ratna Banerjee said after Mamata had got one, it had become a “crown of thorns” for her. “As a writer, I feel insulted by the move… The Akademi… praising the so-called relentless literary pursuit of the Chief Minister is a travesty of truth,” she said.
Asked about her decision, Ratna Banerjee, a write of over 30 books of short stories and compiled articles, told The Indian Express: “There is no politics behind my move. I have said whatever I had to say.”
Bengali poet and a member of the Bangabandhu Bangla Akademi, Subodh Sarkar, however, says criticism over the Akademi’s award to Mamata is unwarranted, and directed by those “who malign her throughout the year”. Nobody was talking about the book for which she was given the honour, he says, adding: “This award is to be given every three years to someone who is relentless in their work for the betterment of society and is a catalyst for change. A writer of about 113 books, Mamata Banerjee’s name was at the top of the list of probable winners. The jury members took a unanimous decision.”
Sarkar adds that the award was given to the TMC chief for her contribution to literature. “This has been given for her body of work. If Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Winston Churchill can get such awards, then why not Mamata Banerjee?”
Minister Bratya Basu says: “Only Bengalis have the ability to protest against fellow Bengalis. It is very unfortunate. Non-Bengalis would never have done such a thing.”
Famous painter Suvaprassana also sees nothing wrong. Rather, he says, “If Rabindranath Tagore had been alive, then he would have himself given the award to Mamata Banerjee.”