Poets Against War-Summer Newsletter 2006

In this issue:

Breyten Breytenbach: "Imaging Africa"
Prabal Kumar Basu: "Bengali Poetry"

Sam Hamill: Director's Report

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Bengali Poetry Since Independence

by Prabal Kumar Basu

The later half of the twentieth century is significant for several reasons. The first half of the century felt the impact of the Russian revolution, spread of communism, the spectacular advances in science and technology in producing powerful weapons of destruction and offering at the same time fresh avenues of creation. The paradigm shifted from one's inner psyche to the material world. The urge for introspection and self- evaluation clashed with the developmental forces. This had a deep impact on the sensibility and ethics of humanity. The centre of power gradually shifted towards economics. Politics came to prefer democracy to monarchy or dictatorship. The second half of the last century bore the brunt of it.

India did not remain unaffected by these tendencies. In the middle of the twentieth century India was freed from the British Raj, after two hundred years of colonial subservience. This came about at a time when the British were in the process of slowly winding up their vast empire. The prized independence of the country was earned at the cost of splitting the country into two on religious lines. A new state, Pakistan , was born, with deep and long-lasting implications for both countries.

Punjab and Bengal in India were the two states directly affected by this partition. Both were geographically severed, some portions of the erstwhile states now belonged to Pakistan. People in these parts of the country felt insecure and imperiled. Many could not associate themselves intimately to the new state. They had to forego their entire belongings of a lifetime to move into a new country as refugees. The affluent and socially well placed suddenly faced the perils and the trauma of the have-nots. A new struggle for existence had begun for them.

In the wider perspective, India 's struggle for existence had also begun. India had to ensure the impregnability of her sovereignty and at the same time come of age. In the midst of all the shock, bewilderment, and despair there lurked a hope which actually helped to shape India to its present configuration. The fall-out of the devastation has gone deep into the social structure, the thought processes and the expressions of Indians as reflected in Indian culture, literature and art. The truncated Bengal witnessed a much greater impact of all these transformations.

At the time of Independence in 1947, the province comprising the present West Bengal and the country Bangladesh was together known as Bengal. Lord Curzon had divided this into east and west Bengal at the beginning of the last century. The area marked as East Bengal became part of the new state of Pakistan after Partition. People of the same country, same soil, speaking the same language, with the same food habits, abruptly found themselves separated by barbed wire.

The majority of these people belonging to a particular religion felt insecure and moved with meager belongings to West Bengal as refugees. They now had to cope with a completely new life.

Yet another significant feature of post-Independent West Bengal has been the wide dissemination of leftist ideas, which later in the sixties took a more radical direction in the Naxalite movement. It had far-reaching consequences politically, and on the social milieu too. The main objective of the movement was to radically change the prevalent social system. Later the leftists changed or had to deviate from their stand and pragmatically modify themselves when they came to power in the late seventies, and they have continued to rule West Bengal since then. This is an exceptional instance when compared to the political character of the other states of the country. No political party has continued to be in power for such a long period in any other state.

A simultaneous inner evolution was silently transpiring, with the gradual slackening of the traditional human bondage that has been the core of Indian society till then. As life became urbanized and industrialized, people were becoming more conscious of self. All thoughts tended to pivot around the self. The question of livelihood took center stage. People were forced to move away from their roots for professional obligations, calling for a lot of adjustments. An overall alienation could be perceived. Deviousness was the outcome of this detachment. People took to deception. Masked faces paraded around.

Art and literature document contemporary reality. Modern Bengali poetry grew out of and reflected this anxious, restless state. Modern poetry is thought by many to be different from the earlier poetry. Some find it is less accessible, some call it difficult. But this phenomenon is not extraordinary. Human beings are naturally resistant to change, and find it difficult to accept the new directions in art and literature also. One of the directions Bengali poetry took during this phase amounted to a retraction from more conventional free play of the imagination and a creative negotiation with more impersonal image-making, with the vision extending beyond the seen and the physically existent. Poetry tended to become more predominantly confessional, with individual confession drawing on the collective, seeking to open up the hidden spaces in the stricken soul of the community. For Bengali poetry in the post-Independence period, modernism was defined in terms of this self-disclosure.

Modern Bengali literature identifies Madhusudan Dutta as the first modern poet, although he belonged to the nineteenth century. He is the only poet of that period who had the vision of twentieth century and a philosophy to which one can relate even today. Though Madhusudan Dutt was the first modern Bengali poet, his writings failed to create a real impact on his successors. It was with Rabindranath Tagore,the Nobel Prize-winning ( 1913) poet, that Bengali poetry began to become modern in its totality. The post-Tagorean era can be rightfully called the era of modern poetry. The significant poets advancing modernism were Jibananda Das, Sudhindranath Dutta, Bishnu Dey, Amiya Chakraborty, Buddhadev Basu, Samar Sen etc. They had all blossomed and established themselves as poets much before Independence, and still remained creative for more than a decade after Independence. Their sense of modernity created a real rift in the history of Bengali poetic diction due to the influence of west in their training and thought. Compared to their immediate predecessors they had more access to the contemporary western literature which had impressed them. However in their regards for the western modernism they differed from each other in their response to the earlier tradition of Bengali poetry. They also differed in their own way in their style and philosophy in appropriating this influence. Jibanananda Das emerged out as most powerful and left significant influence on the next generation due to his unconventional metaphors ,uneven diction and sensuous imagery. He could reflect the sentiments of the people and society at large, who were facing the wrath of urbanisation and industrialization and had to leave their childhood village to cope up with these as well as the partition of India little later. The urbanization had just begun at that time.

I shall return to this Bengal

I shall return to this Bengal, to the Dhansiri's bank

Perhaps not as a man, but myna or fishing kyte;

Or dawn crow, floating on the mist's bosom to alight

In the shade of this jackfruit tree, in this autumn harvest-land

Or may be a duck – a young girl's –bells on my red feet

Drifting on Kalmi-scented waters all the day

For love of Bengal 's rivers, fields, crops, I'll come this way

To this sad green shore of Bengal, drenched by the Jalangi's waves


Perhaps you'll see a glass-fly ride the evening breeze

Or hear a barn owl call from the silk-cotton tree

A little child toss rice grains on the courtyard grass

Or a boy on the Rupsa's turgid stream steer a dinghy

With torn white sail – white egrets swimming through red clouds

To their home in the dark. You will find me among the crowd.

(Poem by Jibanananda Das ,Translated by Sukanta Chaudhuri )

There is a prevalent system of placing poets in their respective decades according to the time span in which a particular poet had begun writing and came to be recognized. Poets are often identified by the decade to which he or she belongs. Thus the last fifty years of Bengali poetry could be divided into five decades with distinct traits. Poetic idiom, thought and philosophy have distinctive character in each of the decades.

India became independent in 1947. Immediately thereafter for next ten to twelve years, the emerging poets were born between 1930 and 1940 and had the childhood memory of struggle for independence. This is the generation that also faced the aftermath of partition.

The Fifties began with a dream … the dream of building a new nation... a whole world of expectations. These dreams and expectations gave birth to a kind of romanticism, made up of the vibrancy of the youth on the one hand, and doubts on the other. Distrust was yet to come. Love was no longer a myth. Love sought to crack the myth and reach physicality. Everything centered on the city. The sense of helplessness that haunted the poets of the immediately preceding generation, the sense of political ineffectiveness that led them to burst into protest, the folk conventions that persisted half way towards urbanization and the cravings that marked them, were conspicuously absent in the fifties. The poetic idiom was fast shedding all artifice to approximate to the colloquial. Everyday speech provided the staple of poetic diction.

At the time of independence, as mentioned, most of the poets of the post-fifties were either in their childhood or adolescence. In other words, the excitement and thrill of the freedom movement had eluded them. But they had to bear the burden of the fall-out. After a decade of freedom India was slowly coming of age. After the initial euphoria, people now were face to face with reality. The dawning of reality bred disbelief and turbulence, sharpening both self-consciousness and a passion for self-discovery. The political parties were in the throes of internal discussion on ideological issues. The Communist Party of India was divided. Dreams soon started getting shattered by reality. The state witnessed the first armed political revolution … the Naxalite movement. The inner conflicts and tensions that came with these developments led to a spirit of alienation in Bengali poetry—an alienation that intensified the self-questioning that had already surfaced, and that would now manifest itself in a wide range of experimentation.

A rather controversial literary movement, the Hungry Movement, began in the sixties. That hunger often turned out to be mostly of the senses, drawing the charge of obscenity against several of these works. Debi Roy, Moloy Roychoudhury, Shakti Chattopadhyay were the main poets who lead the movement.Poetry faced the wrath of the police and the law.The Hungry Poets spoke in favour of obscenity, they used words and phrases which the civilized society consider as slang, they expressed their views which were considered to be detrimental to the society. Like some one wrote...Oh God, I desire to kiss you in your ass. Many poets were put behind bars. The movement broke down under the onslaught and fizzled out. Not a true hungry poem but a poem by one of the leading hungry poet is ..

Hunger I am

That dangerous feeling and mystery of Hunger

flashing in my eyes…

Who can sleep with his hunger?

What is there to rely upon?


I want a sure calm shelter.

Hunger, come on ! with my empty stomach

I will take religious advice from you

with bent knees.

Hunger do you know me well enough

to change my life?

Hunger, I want you to co-operate!


Hunger, I have realized the final truth

I feel hate for myself

Hunger, you are an emperor ,you have got me

handcuffed under your feet

Hunger are you a bureaucrat?

are you an international ? are you obscene?

Hunger, may I never escape you?


Hunger, you are my only religion….

Hunger, are you Christ ? Buddha? Makaali ? Oam Guru ?

Mohammed? God ?

Hunger, who are you ? Who sent you ?


I am hungry. I have caught hunger to the last

Whiff of my breath. Hunger – that means belief,

Hunger – that means shameless desire. Can a

Hungryalist have anything else?

Hunger: ‘man-made-law’ shows me its red eye

Hunger: I have seen the ultimate crime;

but it is going to be judged after all,

it is my clear concept.


Hunger, come on, I will change your religion.

Hunger, come on, let us march on Vietnam

Hunger, lets show up in Greenwich village

in Iowa, in Moscow, the two of us …

I am very Hungry, I want peace through my hunger, liberty!

I have taken the banner ' I am Hunger '

I have come out on the street

I'll certainly make my way

through the hunger- fire


Hunger, I am ready.

(Poem by Debi Roy, Translated by Carl Weissner )

Another movement that gained momentum at around the same time was the ‘Sruti' movement. It rallied for self-criticism or self-analysis. The poetry of the sixties tended to defy conventional metrics and adopted prose as a vehicle. The objective of this movement was to search for multifarious dimensions in a word, to make the audible and the visible complementary to each other. It sought the portrayal of an expression. The expression also underwent a thorough metamorphosis. Often the stress was on form, artistry.

Quite a few powerful poets were associated with these two movements. But ultimately the movement failed to leave any definite, long-lasting impression.

During the seventies, we witnessed the return of the native poetic meters in Bengali. The majority poets of the sixties, in their predilection for experimentation a la western poetry, tended to neglect the metrical beauty of Bengali traditions. The poets of the seventies, however, rediscovered this native genius and exploited it to its fullest potential. The seventies saw the emergence of poets who were born after independence and did not experience the turmoil of the freedom movement or the split of the country.

Some of the examples of poems written during seventies are:

To my Father

You spent your whole life

Fighting to keep the wolf from the door


No art, no indulgence, no detachment

Could touch you


It is beyond me

To write about you


You are an inch away from

The ambit of my writing


As the power station stands

A little distance away from the city.

(Poem by Ranajit Das and Translated by Rolla GuhaNeogy)


O My Motherland

Just beyond the barbed wire fence

Is a long unbroken wall

Cross the wall and there is smoke

Millions of bricks are being slowly fired.


Walls walls walls again.







Laburnums, red and yellow flower

Blossom in Bankura and Medinipur

Red dust blows in Jessore and Khulna

In the groves of Haridaspur rings the flute.


Yet ,O my motherland for fifty years

We haven't looked at each other's faces

(Poem by Shyamalkanti Das and Translated by Kalyani Ghosh)

The post-independence dream started cracking in the seventies. Pakistan faced another split. East Pakistan fought and won the battle for a separate state. During the liberation movement of Bangladesh, many people had to abandon their belongings and flee to India yet again. The refugee problem took new dimensions. Disillusioned and confused people were driven to think along fresh lines. Decadence threatened the very existence of society. Urbanization and its complexities created more confusion. And as a result, poets took to satire.

How To Be A Good Communist

Take a morning walk on the grass, bare-foot

Sit awhile by your old mother, in the descending darkness of the evening

Throw the sickle into the air for sometime

The hammer into the river-bed

Let the stars return to the stars


Listen to the birds

Your left side is lost

Listening to the endless slogans

Speak softly

Good words can be uttered in low voice too


You needn't think of the masses

Look after your own ward, rather

Rear him up well

(Poem by Subodh Sarkar ,Translated by Kalyan Dasgupta )

Communist doctrines had aroused considerable interest long before Independence. Marxist philosophy was naturally reflected in poetry. Sheer romanticism no longer held sway. It was giving way to protest. By the end of the decade, dissent was manifest in a body of feminist poetry that articulated the sense of humiliation and deprivation inflicted on womankind by patriarchy nurtured by women for too long – a line of poetry that has developed still further in recent decades. Kabita Sinha, Krishna Basu, Sanjukta Bandyopadhyay and Chaitali Chattopadhyay are some some of the proponent of feminist poetry.An example of such a poem is ……

A Woman's Corpse

Just at the culvert-end a trapped corpse

A woman's corpse

It lies trapped, unable to let go

Her face is turned towards her child

Her face is turned towards her family

Her face is turned towards her man

That man who had battered her incessantly

Her face is turned towards him


Foolish, petulant, care-hungry face

Even today it is turned towards life


Just at the culvert-end a trapped corpse

A woman's corpse

It lies trapped, unable to let go.

(Poem by Krisna Basu, Translated by Sanjukta Dasgupta)

Nature has inspired Bengali poetry since its origin. Among the post-Tagorean poets Jibanananda Das and Shakti Chattopadhyay have been strongly committed to a Nature that is accessible to feelings and leads one on an inward journey from the conscious to the sub-conscious. The majority poets of the sixties had moved away from this feeling for nature. In the seventies, nature was back again in the poetic landscape, primarily from the predominance of a generation of poets that had grown up far from the city of Kolkata and had naturally been exposed to Nature in their formative years. The more human habitation turned city-centric, the more it has lost contact with Nature.

The manners and morals of urban life demanded more from poetry than a preference for the pristine beauty and calm of Nature. Contrary to the seventies, a predominantly urban spirit highlights the eighties. The city-bred poets faced the perils of industrialization. They became more consciously concerned with livelihood than poetry in their daily lives. India had a long tradition of joint family system which started breaking up with the progress of industrialization, and the poets of the eighties were the first to experience this split, which naturally was reflected in their creation.


The photo portrait is of my uncle. Aunty beside him.

This, my cousin brother. Prabashi Bengali settled outside Bengal

But within India ofcourse, at Kashidham now called Benaras

Then how Prabashi? Lets forget such quibble. Listen,my dear cousin

is a perfect tongue in Hindi, our national lingo. One day I was telling him

about Panchmundi hills, Shyamali rivers – he was also relishing like

nonsense verses…then suddenly the idiot box blurted out National programme.

An add on detergent powder or something like that was on the screen

in Hinglish(Hindi+English) my cousin brother called my aunt and said Had I, Mom been born from

the womb of that wife in ad, I would have been as handsome as her son there.My aunt

hung her head in shame. My goodness, if somebody changes your or my mother and

suppose replaces her even by film actress Hema, oh no, Can you imagine?

Well you write poetry, have a go with this one…..

(Poem by Pinaki Thakur ,Translated by Boudhayan Mukhopadhyay)

At almost the same time, rank opportunism came to dominate Indian politics. Money rules supreme in society. People grew to new realizations through the frustration of unfulfilled promises, and a sense of mortification. Under the impact of the new socio-political reality, people sought to reassess and redefine their positions at a point outside the maelstrom of change upon change. Mockery came to be the thrust of much poetry of the time. The satiric strain became still sharper.

The Rhino Scape

In the file there hid the Rhino

One day he jumped out of the file

And sat down on each one's chair

in the office.

I came to office one day

and saw a Rhino sitting on my particular chair

getting over my surprise I looked carefully to find

he did look quite a lot like me

as he worked with my papers


Terrified I run into the Boss's chamber

only to find a Rhino looking exactly like the Boss

rocking in the revolving chair

when the secretary, Miss Sanyal's antechamber

turns out to be the same

I get totally puzzled

How did the office turn into a wildlife sanctuary?

Back home it's the same scene

A Rhino, looking exactly like my wife

Is making tea

I feel uneasy in this game sanctuary…

Will I then become a poacher?

Under their thick skin I can not make out the real people.

(Poem by Prabal Kumar Basu,Translated by Kalyani Ghosh)

Yet another striking characteristic of the poetry of the eighties can be found in its development beyond modernism into post-modernism, a convergence of several contradictory directions in both form and content; poetry became more an act of construction that composition, intellection ruling over emotion.


Suicides being so common these days, its obvious

That ropes are no longer mistaken to be snakes.But some

must think them garlands with scent of tuberose or roses.

Here is how it goes – office workers at their desks, grow tired

Pushing and pouring over ledgers and files day after day

When fed up enough, they think of death day after day

Till suddenly one day, staring at the clothes-line,

Suicide comes to mind. I've questionedsome people and found

The bell-rope in trams and buses makes them feel the same way

Others grow tired keeping count of skulls. With death

Ever on their minds, petticoat strings, walters' belts, horses'

Tails build an obsession about suicide. Before our eyes

Suicide ropes shimmer like moonlight. And then


Every year the rains come, the ropes gather mildew

Next year it rains again, the ropes mildew again

That year it rains like earlier years, mildew again


Not a bit of rope left then for suicide, its all rotten


(poem by Dhiman Chakrabarty, Translation by Madhuchhanda Karlekar)

The eighties also witnessed the consolidation of power by the leftists in the state and they have ruled ever since with virtually no opposition from right wing parties. To do this they had to nurture their breed of loyalists by the easiest method: rewarding them. The shortest route to success became the order of the day and mediocrity started ruling the roost. No major struggle or crisis was faced, and people accustomed themselves to finding the easy route. Creative community including poets could not maintain safe distance from this trend and as a result the voice of protest was fading out .Everyone looked for some opportunity in their respective areas as a result of which all other things ruled over the merits.

The one subject that has held pride of place in the making of poetry throughout these decades— beyond the mapping offered above—has been love. Love, as silent prayer, as revelation of hurt, or many times as dejection; in intense pain or passion or in distant adoration. This everlasting passion continues to fascinate Bengali poets through all of the vicissitudes of life after Independence; only the expression of the passion varied according to the prevailing idioms each decade.

In the last decade of the century, Bengali poetry became lyrical again, with simple descriptive poems, sometimes more a matter of externals and sometimes more subjective. The tumults of the surroundings had subsided; political inclinations or values were often decided by the rewards they might accrue. Personal bitterness, frustration and dejection dominated the poetic language. Bengali poetry saw the influence of mass media, both print and electronic format, and growing dependence on power centers. This also influenced, to some extent, poetic diction.

Bangladesh was formed out of Pakistan in 1971 on the basis of language. The official language of Bangladesh is Bengali, and the literature of the country is also very rich. Though written in the same language it differs widely from that of the Indian counterpart— in diction, in form and in content. The spirit of nationalism is more eminent in Bangladesh Poetry.

The senior poets of Bangladesh have seen two great upheavals. One when Pakistan was born after dividing the Indian subcontinent in 1947, and the other when the Bengalis of erstwhile East Pakistan revolted on the basis of language and fought for a separate homeland of their own in 1971. The country has been troubled by unrest since its inception. The first Prime Minister and his family were savagely butchered just four years after Bangladesh came into existence. Consequently, the poetry of Bangladesh has absorbed all these turmoil in its body. The story of the evolution of Bengali poetry in Bangladesh should properly be the matter of another article altogether. The most prominent poets are Al Mahmood, Samsur Rahman. Nirmalendu Goon, Rafiq Azad, Syed Samsul Haque, Belal Chowdhury, among others.

My sleeping Mother

All around me moves a procession of memories

like some hotly pursued grief.

Blood spattered faces of my friends

their passionate raised fists,

and fierce shouts as sharp as arrow: Bangla, Bangla –

who art thou uttering there

my sleeping mother's name ?



I look out of the window

and in a fleeting moment I see

at the edge of the horizon the white lotus of time.

And the length and the breadth

Of the main street fill at once

with the twittering of February's fearless birds

and with the faces of my singing brethren, a glow

like purple flowers.




Scattered cries of my sleeping mother's name

rise intermittently here and there.

(Poem by Al Mahmud, translated by Kabir Chowdhury )



There is a big crowd at the police station.

Suspicious soldiers of the city are receiving firearms.

Frightened citizens, in accordance with military

Directives, are depositing their shotguns,

Rifles, pistols and cartridges like promised offerings

at some holy shrine. On the table

lay the saint's hand like flower.


Only I , disobeying the military directive

turned a mild rebel. I am openly returning

to my room, and yet with me rests

a terrible firearm like the heart.

I didn't surrender it.

(Poem by Nirmalendu Goon ,Translated by Kabir Chowdhury )

Today a contemporary Bengali poet can not simply turn his face to what is happening worldwide. Its reflection has to be there in their poetry. No sensitive individual can be apolitical. It's the time when poets need to stand up from their very personal romanticism and take a call through their poetry. West Bengal is politically and socially pretty stable since last few decades and it is not plagued by the problems like communal riots, casteism or separatism as faced by some other states of India. Still the poets need to awaken to these problems as well as other problems being faced by rest of the world and their poetry needs to reflect the same.

Note :

Naxalite Movement: This started during end sixties and perhaps the only mass movement after independence. Lots of middleclass educated youth joined the movement with a dream to have classless society. Most of them were either murdered or killed.

Pre-Independence Poetry: We have Rabindranath Tagore in Bengali literature who won Noble Prize in 1913. During later part of nineteenth century and beginning of 20th century, Bengali literature was mostly dominated by Tagore. Jibananda Das, Sudhin Dutta and others named were the first who came out of Tagore's influence and developed a style of their own.

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