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Bharat Ratna for legendary Bengalis: A brief history of award winners

New Delhi: Former President Pranab Mukherjee, who was conferred the country’s highest civilian honour Bharat Ratna on Friday. Mukherjee served as the 13th President of India from 2012 until 2017.

Former President Pranab Mukherjee

The 83-year-old’s political career spanned about five decades, during which he held various key posts in the Congress as well as in the governments of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, P V Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh.

In 2004, Mukherjee was the man who perhaps was best suited for the prime minister’s chair, but didn’t get the top job as then Congress chief Sonia Gandhi chose Dr Manmohan Singh instead.

Born in a small village of Mirati in Birbhum District of West Bengal, Mukherjee’s father was a Congress leader who endured great hardship including being sent to jail several times for his role in India’s struggle for independence.

Mukherjee pursued History, Political Science and Law from Kolkata University and embarked on his professional life as a college teacher and journalist.

He got married to Suvra Mukherjee, who was from Narail in Bangladesh, and migrated at the age of 10 years to Kolkata.

Mukherjee served as a deputy minister and Minister of State for Finance in 1973-74 and became Finance Minister in 1982.

Mukherjee also served on the Board of Governors of the IMF, World Bank, Asian Development Bank and African Development Bank.

A prolific reader, Mukherjee has authored several books.

He was conferred Padma Vibhusan, India’s second highest civilian award, Padma Vibhusan in 2008.

He was given the Best Parliamentarian Award in 1997 and Best Administrator in India Award in 2011.

Mukherjee was rated one of the best five finance ministers in 1984 according to a survey conducted by “Euro Money” Journal.

Awarding Mukherjee places him on par with other five legendary Bengalis, who have received Bharat Ratnas (Bidhan Chandra Roy in 1961, Satyajit Ray in 1992, Aruna Asaf Ali in 1997, Amartya Sen in 1999, and Ravi Shankar in 1999).

Here are brief biographical notes about each of the legendary Bengali personalities who received Bharat Ratnas except Mukherjee.

Bidhan Chandra Roy:- Second Chief Minister of West Bengal, in whose memory Doctor’s Day is celebrated in India on July 1. He was born on 1 July 1882 at Bankipore, Patna, where his father, Prakash Chandra Roy, was working as an Excise Inspector. Prakash Chandra was a descendant of the family of the rebel Hindu king Maharaja Pradapaditya of Jessore, in its Ash-Guha (Bengali Kayastha) branch, hailing from Sripur in Khulna district, now in Bangladesh.

Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy (1882-1962)

Roy passed the Entrance examination from the Patna Collegiate School and First Arts examination from the Patna College.
He graduated with an MD from Calcutta University, he did exceptionally well in England where he passed both the exams of both the Member of the Royal College of Physicians (MRCP) and Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS).

After returning to India in 1911, he participated in the independence movement, simultaneously becoming one of the personal physicians of Mahatma Gandhi.

He was West Bengal’s chief minister for fourteen years. His contribution to the country was rewarded by a Bharat Ratna award in February 1961.

Dr Roy passed away on 1 July 1962.

Satyajit Ray:- One of world’s greatest directors, Satyajit Ray was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) into a Bengali Kayastha family on May 2, 1921. He was from a family prominent in the world of arts and literature.

Satyajit Ray (1921–1992)

His grandfather, Upendrakisore Ray, wrote juvenile books and founded the first Bengali children’s magazine. His father, Sukamar Ray, a merchant, wrote and illustrated two books of nonsense prose and verse that are still popular in Bengal.

Ray passed the Matriculation Examination from Ballygunge Government High School, Calcutta and graduated with honors in Economics from Presidency College, Calcutta (now Presidency University, Kolkata) in 1940. He then studied painting for three years at Visva-Bharati University.

Ray, India’s first and only Oscar-winning director, started his career as a graphic artist before heading to London to realise his passion for filmmaking. He directed 36 films.

His first film, Pather Panchali (1955), won eleven international prizes, including Best Human Documentary at the Cannes Film Festival and an honorary Academy Award in 1992. Ray was honoured with the Bharat Ratna in 1992.

Ray is best known for his cult flms Pather Panchali, Nayaka, Aranyer Din Ratri, Seemabaddhaa, Charulata and the Feluda series.

Ray died on April 23, 1992.

Aruna Asaf Ali:- She was born as Aruna Ganguly on July 16, 1909, in Kalka in Haryana, She was the daughter of Upendranath Ganguly, a restaurant owner who had migrated from Barisal in modern Bangladesh.

Aruna Asaf Ali (1909 – 1996)

As a student, Aruna did her schooling in Lahore’s Sacred Heart Convent and completed her college education from All Saints’ College in Nainital. After her graduation, she joined work as a teacher at Calcutta’s Gokhale Memorial School.

In 1928, 19-year-old Aruna married Asaf ali in Allahabad despite parental opposition on grounds of religion and age (he was a Muslim and 23 years older than Aruna).

As Asaf Ali was a prominent member of the Indian National Congress (INC), this marriage brought his fiery young bride in touch with the political elite of the day. In fact, their wedding was attended by prominent nationalist leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawahar Lal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, C. Rajgopalachari and Maulana Azad.

Aruna was soon at the forefront of the freedom struggle. Two years after her marriage, She was arrested during the civil disobedience movement in 1930 and again in the course of the individual Satyagraha in 1941. She participated in the Quit India movement (1942-46) from underground. After India’s independence she became associated with the left socialist group, which in 1955 merged with the Communist Party of India. She was a leading member of the Indo-Soviet cultural society, Peace Council and National Federation of Indian women.

In 1958, she served as the first elected Mayor of Delhi. She was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1992.

She died in New Delhi on 29 July 1996, aged 87. One year after her death, she was honoured with the Bharat Ratna in the year 1997.

Amartya Sen:- He is an Indian economist and a Nobel laureate.

He has made contributions to welfare economics, social choice theory, economic and social justice, economic theories of famines, and indexes of the measure of well-being of citizens of developing countries.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen

He was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998 for his work in welfare economics.

Sen was born into a Bengali Kayastha family on 3 November 1933 in Visva-Bharati University campus, Santiniketan, West Bengal.

Sen started his education St Gregory School in Dhaka then switched to Viswa-Bharati, Santiniketan.

His father Ashutosh Sen taught chemistry at Dhaka University (now in Bangladesh). His ancestral home in Wari in Dhaka is not far from the Dhaka University campus. Father of his mother Amita Sen, Kshiti Mohan Sen who taught Sanskrit at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan. Rabindranath Tagore, founder of Visva-Bharati University, was a close friend of Sen’s maternal grandfather.

Tagore is said to have given Amartya Sen his name (Bengali অমর্ত্য ômorto, lit. “immortal”).

In 1951, he earned his graduate degree of first class in B.A. Economics from presidency college in Kolkata
The same year he went to Trinity College in Cambridge and earned the degree of B.A in Pure Economics. He also got PhD from Cambridge University.

Between 1960 and 1961, Sen was a visiting Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He has taught economics also at the University of Calcutta and at the Delhi School of Economics (where he completed his magnum opus Collective Choice and Social Welfare in 1970), where he was a Professor from 1961 to 1972, a period which is considered to be a Golden Period in the history of DSE.

In 1972, he joined the London School of Economics as a Professor of Economics where he taught until 1977.

From 1977 to 1986 he taught at the University of Oxford, where he was first a Professor of Economics at Nuffield College, Oxford and then the Drummond Professor of Political Economy and a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. In 1986, he joined Harvard as the Thomas W. Lamont University Professor of Economics.

Sen’s contribution to the literature was to show under what conditions Arrow’s impossibility theorem would indeed come to pass as well as to extend and enrich the theory of social choice, informed by his interests in history of economic thought and philosophy.

In 1981, Sen published Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), a book in which he argued that famine occurs not only from a lack of food, but from inequalities built into mechanisms for distributing food.

Sen also argued that the Bengal famine was caused by an urban economic boom that raised food prices, thereby causing millions of rural workers to starve to death when their wages did not keep up.

As a nine-year-old boy, he witnessed the Bengal famine of 1943, in which three million people perished.

Sen was honoured with the Bharat Ratna in 1999.

Ravi Shankar:- He was born as Rabindra Shankar Chowdhury on April 7, 1920, in Varanasi, into a well-off orthodox Bengali Brahmin family, as the youngest of seven brothers. His father Shyam Shankar Chowdhury’s native place was Kalia which is now in Bangladesh. His early upbringing was steeped in music and culture. As a child he had played a number of instruments and even sang in school functions.

Ravi Shankar (1920-2012)

When Ravi Shankar was very young, his father and brother (Uday Shankar) left India and went to Europe to live. This paved the way for Ravi Shankar’s entrance into European society. In 1930 he moved to Paris to be part of his brother’s troupe.

Paris had a very powerful affect upon the young Ravi Shankar. He continued his education in Paris, but more importantly he learned much from his environment. On one hand, he was exposed to Indian music and dance through his brother’s troupe. Of equal importance was his knowledge of Western ways. These combined skills would one day make him a formidable entity in the world of music.

It was in 1938 that he moved back to India to begin his formal training. He apprenticed himself to Ustad Allauddin Khan, affectionately known as Baba. He spent a number of years learning the sitar under his able tutelage.

After his apprenticeship was finished, he set out to pursue his professional career. During this period he began to create a name for himself in radio, and films. He composed music for such films as Dharti ke Lal, and Neecha Nagar. He also composed the music to Mohd. Iqbal’s Sare Jahan Se Accha which even today is the most famous version. In 1949 he became a music director of All In India Radio in Delhi. He also continued to travel back and forth between India and the West.

1966 was an important year for him. It was during this time that George Harrison of the Beatles became his student. This association catapulted Ravi Shankar to international fame. His performances at Monterey, Woodstock, and his numerous recordings earned him the undying admiration of an entire generation.

He has won many awards including the Bharat Ratna, several Grammy awards, numerous honorary Doctorates.

But his life has not all been easy. His mother died when he was very young, There were tremendous professional struggles during his youth. There was the failed first marriage to Annapurna Devi, and the premature death of his son. These difficulties would be hard for many people to bear.

However, in later years his personal life settled down. He married to Sukanya, and their daughter Anoushka Shankar, is a respected sitarist in her own right. One other daughter who has made a very big name for herself is the Nora Jones, the famous singer.

He performed his final concert, with daughter Anoushka, on 4 November 2012 at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, California. He died on 11 December 2012 in La Jolla, San Diego, California, US.


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