January 14, 2009


Kolkatans celebrate with a photo exhibition the legendary leader’s visit to their city in 1973.

PHOTOGRAPHS: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT From the "FIDEL in Kolkata" photo exhibition in December 2008. The historic moments were captured by the late Satya Sen, a leading photgrapher of the time. Here, Castro alighting from his aircraft.

FIDEL CASTRO was in Hanoi when the news of Chilean President Salvador Allende’s assassination reached him. It was September 1973 and Vietnam was locked in a deadly struggle for independence against American imperialism. Castro cut short his stay in Vietnam immediately and headed straight back for Cuba. En route, his flight halted for less than an hour at the Calcutta International Airport in Dum Dum on September 17. The simple stopover turned out to be a historic touchdown. Even after 35 years, it excites the imagination of the people of the city, as the huge turnout at the photo exhibition of the occasion recently in Kolkata proved.

None of the Union Ministers was present at the airport to receive Castro as it was an unofficial visit. The then West Bengal Chief Minister, Siddhartha Shankar Ray of the Congress, was in New Delhi, and it was senior Cabinet Minister Tarun Kanti Ghosh who welcomed Castro on the State government’s behalf. Left leaders of the State including Communist Party of India (Marxist) stalwarts Jyoti Basu and Promod Dasgupta, State president of the Forward Bloc Ashok Ghosh, State president of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) Makhan Pal, local Congress leaders, members of the then Soviet embassy, representatives of various women’s organisations, government officials, journalists and photographers, all flocked to meet the legendary “Comandante en Jefe”.

The waiting crowd.
Outside, thousands of Kolkatans gathered to catch a glimpse of Castro. With the help of an interpreter, he chatted with everyone, posed for photographs, nibbled at the snacks laid out for him in the VIP lounge of the airport, and finally boarded the airplane after extending a revolutionary salute to the crowd.
The historic moments were captured for posterity by the late Satya Sen – one of the leading photographers of his time. The five-day “Fidel in Kolkata” photograph exhibition (from December 26 to 30) was organised by the Prabha Khaitan Foundation in collaboration with the Embassy of Cuba and the Nandan West Bengal Film Centre. Thirty of the surviving black-and-white photographs capture him alighting from the aircraft, shaking hands with Jyoti Basu, embracing veteran Marxist leader Gopal Banerjee, conversing with other Left leaders, posing with admirers, partaking of the refreshments, waving to the crowd, and finally boarding the flight to Cuba. The exhibition served to celebrate not just the 35th year of Castro’s visit but, more importantly, the 50th year of the Cuban Revolution.

CPI(M) stalwarts Jyoti Basu and Promod Dasgupta greeting Castro.
Castro left no one disappointed. Clad in his military fatigues and holding his customary cigar elegantly poised between his fingers or lips, he seemed completely at ease and every inch the stuff that myths are made of. Addressing the crowd from the airport portico, Castro recalled in his speech India’s freedom struggle and Kolkata’s tradition of people’s movements against imperialism.

Amid cries of “India-Cuba Solidarity”, “Long live Fidel” and “Long live Allende” from the crowd, he said: “I am well aware of the long cultural history and tradition of India, dating back thousands of years, and the way the country was laid waste by the imperialist powers…. This is where India and Cuba share the same fate in their impediment to development. To combat this requires more sacrifice and long-drawn struggle.” He ended his 15-minute speech with a call for the “workers of the world to unite to fight the forces of imperialism”.

In the crowd that had gathered to see Castro was film director Gautam Ghosh. Recalling his experience of the day, Ghosh said: “I was in my early twenties. Somehow the news had leaked out that Fidel Castro would be in the airport, though he wouldn’t be staying back. It was a chance I felt I could not miss and so I rushed to the airport just to catch a glimpse of him. Going through the pictures in the exhibition, was, in fact, a very nostalgic moment for me. I even tried to find myself in the pictures of the crowds outside the airport, but I couldn’t. I did spot Ruma Guha Thakurta [renowned Bengali artiste] though, but she was already quite famous by then, and I was still unknown, having just started making short documentary films.”

Castro embracing veteran Marxist leader Gopal Banerjee.

Ghosh said Castro and Che Guevara were the icons of his generation. “It was a very romantic era. The whole world was going through changes and we could not but be affected by it. In fact, many of my friends became naxalites, not so much inspired by the ideology as by the romanticism involved in the movement.”

Ghosh narrated how he discovered that Che himself had come to Kolkata in 1959. “Just recently I went across to the Indian Statistical Institute and chanced upon a picture of Che visiting the Kolkata ISI campus. I was thrilled by this discovery, and I don’t think that many people are aware of this fact,” he said.

Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee inaugurated the photo exhibition. Present on the occasion were Cuban Ambassador to India Miguel Angel Ramirez Ramos, CPI(M) State secretary and Left Front chairman Biman Bose, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury, CPI leader Manjukumar Majumdar, Forward Bloc leader Naren De, RSP leader Manoj Bhattacharya, artist Wasim Kapoor and writer Sunil Gangopadhyay.

The Cuban Ambassador said, “He [Castro] came and won the hearts of the Bengali people, leaving behind pictures and memories of his visit…. The message behind it is more profound. It is a message of friendship, of solidarity and of mutually shared values in a better world where social justice can prevail. On this occasion, when we do not only celebrate the 35th anniversary of Fidel’s visit to Kolkata but also start celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, there is no better audience or public space to do that.”

Nibbling at the snacks laid out for him in the VIP lounge of the airport.
Film director Mrinal Sen, who visited the exhibition on the inaugural day, said he particularly liked the way the exhibition served to keep alive something that took place so long ago. “Though I have never met Fidel Castro, I have had a close relationship with his dear friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who was the president of the Film School in Cuba when I had been there for a stint. Those pictures serve to recall the glorious days of the past and remind us what we are missing now,” he said.
The sentiment expressed by him is representative of the general feeling of the masses, especially the younger generation, towards the Cuban Revolution and its heroes, though the world has changed a great deal since then. Gautam Ghosh summed it up aptly: “Such exhibitions are very important. We live in the present, but the present is just a hyphen between the past and the future.

“It is important for the youngsters of today to know about the past, to try and understand why so many people flocked to the airport in 1973 just to catch a glimpse of Castro.”

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