In his preface to this bilingual selection of the poems of BIRENDRA CHATTOPADHYAY (2S September 1920 - 11 July 1985), his younger contemporary, Sankha Ghosh, poet and critic, describes him as 'in every sense, Bengal's foremost poet of protest.' In this new addition to the Thema series of radical literature. readers win discover a poet, uncompromising in his condemnation of social discrimination and injustice, and unsparing in his rage, an iconic figure for the rebellious youth of the seventies in his own state, but so far little known beyond the borders of his own state and language.
The translators, ROBERT HAMPSON and SIBANI RA YCHAUDHURI, have collaborated on this project which has taken quite a few years. HAMPSON is Professor of Modem Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London. Educated at King's College, University of London, and the University of Toronto, he has a Ph.D from the University of London, and has written extensively on Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, and coedited (with Peter Barry) New British Poetics (1993) and (with Chris Cheek) Alien Fisher (2008). SIBANI RA YCHAUDHURI is a distinguished writer for children in both Bengali and English; she has contributed to Sandesh in Bengali, and Spare Rib, Right of Way (The Women's Press) and Flaming Spirit (Virago). She lives in London and works as a school inspector.
For more than forty years Birendra Chattopadhyay had set himself the mission to liberate poetry from the confines of a small coterie and release it to society at large, to forge a new language for poetry. In return, readers of Bengali poetry had come to adore him as someone near and dear to them. People come to poetry not necessarily in search of artistic excellence, but more often to find a support for their joys and sorrows, to draw courage at moments of crisis, to seek connectivity as human beings. Readers had come to recognize the ease and extent of this connectivity in the poetry of Birendra Chattopadhyay. Along with it, his poetry registered condemnation of and protest against the social system and everything else that set up barriers against the natural connectivity that runs through human society. In every sense, he stands out as Bengal's foremost poet of protest. His poetry seems to open up to us a whole history, the history of our heart's desires and the history of our times. The collection of his poems that this poet published in 1946,jointly with a friend of his, had on its cover the three colours of the national flag of India still under colonial rule. When he published it and dedicated it to Subhas Chandra Bose, he must have had dreams of a myriad of new births, only to be followed by the gradual erosion ofthe dreams, as an Independence, vacuous and imperfect, cast a pall of utter desolation and deep resentment on the generation, the country appearing like 'the century's silent graveyard,' and its people turned to 'the bloodied victims of a hopeless, helpless night.' Around us there emerged a nation of the famished and the naked, and alongside, the killers, all caught in the throes of a 'terrible game' that involved the towns, villages, farms and factories of the country, its borders, its post offices, railways, hospitals, schools and colleges, its geography, history, science and literature, its songs and pictures, its salt and bread. Our poet's poetry is replete with images of that terrible game, as he evokes the Moon as a young woman stealing rice in transit for famine relief from an unguarded railway wagon at the midnight hour; a jobless young man passing by, singing a song of a patched pair of shoes; young men defying the threat of bullets, batons and gas to march in a demonstration; someone staying awake all the night to savour the smell of rice; teachers in a sit-in on the street after seventeen years of independence; War and Famine in a liplock as they surge forward ominously. What is the point of writing poetry in such a situation? The conditions that stare him in the face drive our poet to think at times that it might have been more worthwhile to plant and nurture a single tree over a lifetime than write thirty six thousand lines of poetry, for the former would have succoured mankind with flowers and fruits aplenty, and shade.
And yet, with the Ganga turned into a ditch, as he describes it in one of his poems, bearing its pile of 'spittle and excreta and the rotting carcass of a dog,' streaming by, his poetry becomes a new source for flowers, fruits and shade, even as he rouses the spirit for a new battle against the gaping horror of dissolution and decomposition. A new dream and a new resolution rise from out of the despair and resentment. Twenty years after Independence, a revolutionary surge tears through the country, drawing forth 'the police pouring gallons of blood at the roots of trees;' the stench of the police polluting the deodar groves and the roses; and the sight of blood, dripping and flowing ceaselessly, blinding one's eyes. But the poems throw up images of man, battered and yet defiant, with the daring to protest against the reign of murderers, with the challenge: 'Let's see how long you can flaunt your pack of ogres!' A new birth bursts forth with the declaration: 'We stake our lives.' A mass of millions, lost in a nightmare, rediscover faith, their faces flushed in the glow of flames. A teenager enters prison alone to discover that he constitutes a part of a mass of thousands. Travellers in hell ceaselessly trudging along a slippery ground, engulfed in darkness, learn that in the midst of all that 'it's a mandate to hold the head high.' However horrible the persecution inflicted by the power-mad may be, there will always be before your eyes the deeply ingrained sense of a being that gives you strength, a being that 'dips into seas of ice when it shuts its eyes, and floats in the infinite blue skies when it opens its eyes,' that 'sinks into clouds brimming with water, when it goes to sleep, and lands on the soil of its land of birth when it awakes.'
This is the way in which the poetry of Birendra Chattopadhyay remains tied in all ways to the soil of the land of its birth.
It is not as if poetry really touches us whenever it talks of the soil and water and humanity. We come across many works in our country and elsewhere alike where there is greatness in the statement, but the articulation lacks sensitivity. Humanism or progressive ideas too often come to us as heavy going idealism or abstract theory. There may be at times a sense of an obligation to give it an artistic form, but It is only when poetry rises out of the intimate truth of living itself, and not from any such sense of obligation or duty, that it has a tactile impact on us, and becomes a sensuous experience. No one can write a worthwhile piece of poetry from the thought that he should write about something. The authentic point of origin for a real piece of poetry is the feeling that the poet has that he cannot help writing about it. It is only then that the poem rises not from mere intellection, but from the entire being of the poet, almost desperately. One can feel the presence of a poetic being in a state of desperation at the root of the poetry of Birendra Chattopadhyay, and that is why it penetrates us so piercingly.
One who is implicated with life at his very core, and thus irrevocably committed, can tear down all the old codes of writing, since life and art tend to defy all such predetermined codes. Hence a true poet cannot stop at resentment and resistance alone, but feels the urge to reach out to sensations of serenity, love and even enervation. Why should he be daunted at such an urge? Are they not all natural states that we live? Can they in any way obstruct our progress?
A year before his death, at a small poetry reading session, a listener pleaded with him, asking him to read his poem Prabhas. The poet read the poem out, but not before confiding in the audience that it was a special favourite of his, but not particularly liked by the progressives. But why not? Maybe because the poet moves through evocations of sighs, weariness and shores of memory. Does a poem. losing on a line like 'Not a sound, bird, fall gently, flower/There's a night of sleep drawing near. Peace! Peace ! '-without any image of a fresh sunrise or a call to arms, necessarily anti-life? Was it mere nostalgia, the shores of memory, that kept the poem so close to his heart years after it had been written? That could have been an explanation, given the fact that he had come close to his end. But that does not seem to be the only explanation when one recalls the deep ardour with which he read the poem that day, or whenever he read it from time to time. There seems to have been a protest against our common notions of what we consider progressive poetry, in his avowal on that occasion.
It is only then that we realize that this poet nurtured a parallel universe of the glow of the full moon night, the waters of thirteen rivers, the neelkantha bird, the dadariya songs against the ballad of the black slum or the blood of the man shot by a bullet. As he evokes the fairy tales of Neelkamal and Lalkamal, Suorani and Duorani; or the tribals dancing, in wild intoxication, to their drums, or the keya flowers and green tamals, his poems bring the lotus in the heart and the lament of the pool together, to conjure up the site where Nature 'exposes her breasts and sends out a call to all the children of the world, black, white and yellow,' where one can stand and proclaim, 'The hills, the sun, the sky, the winds, the water, they are all divinities, our divinities.' Rising from the primordial sources of earth and water, Birendra Chattopadhyay's poetry glows with the luminosity of the expansive landscape. When we look for a militant poetry, we often make the mistake of casting away all those impressions of a state of trance in dream or love or at times inevitably those of a weariness under the sad burden of memories, to search for the poet of our choice. But no major poet can be caged within any such borders, any sectarian boundaries.'
Poetry reaches out to man and society. But how does one define the man and the society one addresses? We tend to stick to a one-dimensional, homogeneous and oversimplified identity, ignoring in the process thecomplex heterogeneity that modem life experiences have invested in both man and society. But poetry seeks to touch the entire being of man, ruptured and fragmented; an entirety that contains a myriad feelings of memory and hope, the explicit and the implicit intertwined. Who can reach that entire man? It is only one who has not seen life through the blinkers of any theory, one who lived totally in the midst of life. It is this all-embracing living that allows him to come close to the reader's mind. Ernst Fischer said that poetry does not step into the reader's mind through a door left open; as a matter of fact, it presses on the closed doors of the reader's mind to fling them open. To open the closed doors, the poet often has to depend not on the quotidian, but on the totality of the natural sphere, on his subconscious, and on his conscience.
At least, that is what our poet believed. Even after he had left behind the turbulent 1970s, he would insist, 'Though it is the conscious mind that is the source of the poetry of any true poet, there will always be a touch of the subconscious to it, and even if it be for a little while, a trace (or a bloodstain) of conscience.' In the works of this poet, not only in the first phase, but many a time in his later phase, separated from the first by a trail of blood, there floats above them a light screen of a weary breath rising from the depths of sleep or dreams; not a sign of waste, but an anguish for life, flowing from infinite love. In the early phase, there were traces of fairy lore, the world of myths, chronicles of primeval time, the charms of hills, pools and lotus leaves. His poetry then sought to draw from the spell of human birth spread over the cosmos, the transparent flow of life steeped in likes and loves. Why should we leave all that poetry aside on the plea that it is entirely personal or egotistic? Man has always desired to touch that flow, a post-revolutionary healthy generation will seek to touch that flow once again. Hence the poet continues in an intermediate phase to conjure up images of our daily agony, charged with intense sensuousness, as he sees ranged before him hordes of venomous fangs rearing to poison and destroy life. Then he comes to the fighting days. From a little before the 1970s and throughout the decade he presents an angry face, he emerges as the conscience of the country at large, carrying on a ceaseless tirade against all duplicity and persecution. In his protest, he naturally violated several old conventions of poetic composition, defied several codes of rhythm, imagery and vocabulary. From time to time he would offer mocking regrets over his failure to produce artistic poetry. He calls for new values of poetic appreciation to come to terms with the stark declamatory tone and the rugged everyday colloquiality that he brings to his poetry. And yet his words, his rhythms, his rhythmlessness still carry his old glow, the charms of the primeval fairy lore, myths and nature, his passionate love for the soil of his motherland, and the dense layer that exuded from his subconscious and his conscience, the layer that invests his revolutionary utterance with a profound dignity diffusing his angry face with the face of a lover.
This piece was not written as a preface ... It is only an acknowledgement on behalf of a few of his adoring readers of the fact that the history of his poetry has been for our times a rare history of intellectual courage. When we read this selection of his poems, we cannot but feel once again how difficult and complicated is the passage of communication between author and reader. In the present social order, with the shrewd strategies launched by the media in their overwhelming barrage of advertising and dissemination, to turn art, like everything else, into mere commodity, faces are hidden from faces. In this inevitable state of social crisis, the more determined the protest, the harsher the stifling of the voice. It is not surprising that this poet of protest has been persistently ostracized by the mainstream publishing industry. He has considered himself an outcast. But even when, with a tinge of pain, he has declared himself an outcast, he has never slipped into the slough of a lifeless, inert void; his attitude stands out as an example to later generations. He has fought a lone battle against this void. And yet maybe not quite alone. In one of his poems, a lonely adolescent, sent to prison, discovers how he is one of thousands. Did Chattopadhyay also not find camaraderie with a mass of young men and women, all outcasts, once he had declared himself as one of them, a mass that he could arouse and that could arouse him in return? They joined him, when he chose the unusual mode of printing poems on small cards or as folders, or slim paperbacks that he would carry in a sling bag hanging from his shoulder to sell to passers by at the book fair, to carry poetry to the masses. With no need for intermediaries, he could trudge along this long nurtured, personal course to connect with his readers easily and directly. His poetry and the history of the publication and dissemination of his poetry has given us the courage to connect, the faith in love. above everything else, and the confidence to face the worst of times with the avowal: 'It's a mandate to keep the head high.
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