Praful Bidwai: A foot-tapping Marxist

As I knew him, several mutually aloof elements blended in Praful Bidwai. The first, quite likely by design, was reflected in the music that wafted over the electric crematorium at his studiously dignified, non-religious funeral on Saturday. Kituwe gaye logwa jin sang sukh payo. The opening lines of Mallikarjun Mansur’s searing Yamani Bilawal revealed a yearning for the beautiful people who had gone away. The antara wove a quicker phrase, speaking of cordiality in discussions: Jin me sajile din me beet gayo baat, krodh nahi aawe. As Praful would have liked, I cross-checked the composition with Priyadarshini Kulkarni, a learned Pune-based exponent of Mansur’s Jaipur-Atrauli style of singing, whose fan my friend was.

While a trained singer himself, Praful’s love of classical music could also work against any friend who dropped him home after a late night outing. The floorboard of my tiny Korean car is pockmarked with the stamping of the Marathi-speaking brahmin’s faded shoes. On our way back from one of the periodic intellectual soirées that would inevitably turn into happy hours, the angst in Ali Akbar Khan’s Durga set off an uncontrolled bout of feet stamping. His demeanour on such occasions could pass for haal or trance associated with qawwali listeners moved by the sama or aura of the rhythm. The legendary sarod player had recorded the pentatonic Durga on September 3, 1963, in Lucknow.

That’s the kind of detail I could expect to get about music only from Praful Bidwai, even if the audio CD happened to belong to me. I checked, and he was right. One day Kesarbai’s Nat Kamod caused even deeper dents on the fragile floorboard. I must state here that Praful’s own trademark jalopy was an even tinier contraption. Anyone who dared to hitch a night ride, with him in the driver’s seat, could find it a challenge to remain an unflinching atheist, as Praful was when he passed away in Amsterdam last week. He was 66.

Marxism works differently on its diverse range of supplicants. It has the propensity to make some followers very dry and humourless, a quality often intensified by a proselytising zeal that practitioners exude not without a textbook-stern look. Praful Bidwai, to my mind, was just the opposite, a man of easy manners but with an exacting moral compass. He was a Marxist with a tremendous capacity for self-criticism, which blended with his ability to laugh (and rage) at an ideological setback. It was thus that he could be a picky music connoisseur and also a generously eclectic leftist ideologue.

A slice of the latter talent should be on display in Praful Bidwai’s forthcoming book on the history of India’s left. His close associate in the project Harsh Kapoor says the book promises (or threatens) to be an unsparing critique of all that has gone wrong with the country’s communist movement. He finished the manuscript in time to keep an academic appointment in Amsterdam and unwittingly to a sudden death at a dinner with friends. The departure was illtimed because those he worked and struggled for did desperately need him now.

Indeed, in recent days, many who could have been a buffer against India’s steady rightward slide chose instead to be absorbed by the system they promised to confront. Praful Bidwai and his close comrades stood their ground. Shunned by the mainstream media, a fate that befell the best of Indian journalists in India’s “growth story”, Praful often had to produce up to four well-researched articles in a week. This was necessary to keep his means of livelihood and ideological objectives from faltering.

Explaining religious fanaticism and its alliance with economic authoritarianism was his forte. Praful kept a close watch on West Asia, always engaging sympathetically with the Palestinians against Israel’s occupation of their homeland. He excelled as a credible advocate for peace on the India-Pakistan circuit. Many admirers and followers from across the border lauded his reasoned critique of hawks on both sides. It was possibly his last engagement as a conscientious public intellectual when he drafted a biting criticism of jingoists in the Indian administration who sought to commandeer an upsurge in India’s volatile Northeast to point fingers at Pakistan and China. There are not too many people left who can tap their feet to riveting music while drafting a cogent strategy to defeat fascism, as Praful Bidwai could do with flair.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi
By arrangement with Dawn

( Source : deccan chronicle )
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