8th November 2021
Aisik Maiti, University of Calcutta
Twentieth century modernist writing in Calcutta was textured, layered and nuanced, reflecting the multifaceted dimensions of the modernist movement. Characterised by a stark departure from the rhetorical and ornate poetry which dominated the realm of nineteenth century letters, this body of work featured voices which remained submerged within the solitude of the city. Not only was the experimentation radical, but it also embodied a critique – sociological, discursive and cultural. Prominent writers and poets such as Jatindranath Sengupta, Mohitlal Majumdar, Amiya Chakrabarti, Samar Sen, Sudhindranath Datta, Premedra Mitra and Bishnu Dey were radically experimenting and transforming the discourse of writing. This article will re-assess how the city and urban consciousness played a crucial role in the formation of the modernist ‘canon’ in Bengali literature, with reference to the works of Jibanananda Das and Buddhadeva Bose.
Reflecting on the poetry of Jibanananda Das (1899-1954), we find the city returning in a similar way as in Eliot’s ‘Preludes’ (1915) or as in Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’ (1945) (although the time-periods of composition are different): the existential solitude of mankind amidst the eternal play of life and death. Jibanananda voices the agony hidden in the alleys of a city to be rediscovered, the patterns of loneliness engraved upon the stillness which the city embodied. Sisir Kumar Das writes, ‘Jibanananda employed the practices of the Symbolists as well as Surrealists within his own poetic world.’1The ideas underpinning cultural modernism in Europe were being informed by symbolist and surrealist discourses, highlighting the transitory and fluctuating nature of all phenomena. In these experimental attempts to move beyond realism, cultural modernity also embodied an expression of human solitude. Similarly, in Das’ poetry, the city manifests a discourse beyond the limits of temporal order and the neat demarcations of realism:
From pavement to pavement, pavement to pavement,
through Calcutta –
Feeling through all my blood the bitter poisonous touch
Of the tram-tracks stretching underfoot, like so many
primordial serpent sisters2
Within the new discourse he was formulating, Das incorporated strands of cultural movements which were centering on urbanity. Not only was the city positioned within modernist discourse, but is part of the urban imagination – which played a prominent role in the canon of Sanskrit literature, in other cities too, such as Sravasti and Vidisa. Das’ articulation about the urban landscape gains more prominence when one considers that he was a poet who also blended the natural landscape of rural Bengal with its mythical past in his poetry. Therefore, his poetry embodies a quest for an escape, an ambivalent endeavour which not only liberates but connects selfhood to the dynamism of spatiality. He constructs a poetics of spatiality that is synesthetic and passionate. The city in his poetry resists the encroachments of time, for the poet, and becomes one with the silence of the ‘primordial’ – the only means of redemption from a despair-stricken world.
Buddhadeva Bose (1908-1974), speaking in an interview about the poets of the emerging Kallol group around the 1930s, said that ‘[t]here was a direction toward what was then called “realism,” but this new realism was also blended with romanticism.’3 The twentieth century modernist movement in Bengal was permeated by this constant presence of the romantic element. One of the prominent influences on this body of work being produced at the interstices of several discursive shifts was the late nineteenth century poetry of Baudelaire. As Bose says in his interview,
Naturally, new horizons have opened since Tagore’s time; in the 1920s we were all reading the Russians and the Scandinavians; Ibsen and Dostoyevsky and Tchekov … Baudelaire and the Symbolists, Pound and Eliot and Yeats, are widely appreciated’4
Modernism in Bengali writing can thus be seen located within a cross-cultural dialogue informed by European modernism as well. Bose was writing at a moment in the history of the Bengali cultural space when culture was witnessing a discourse of transition: political and economic. According to Sisir Kumar Das “Bose brought all the forces of modernism, howsoever disparate and contradictory, within one-fold.”5 As a founder and editor of Kabita (1935-61), a prominent quarterly facilitating modernist discourse, Bose further conflated the rhetoric of modernity along with tradition. His writing remains autonomous, lucid yet profound with an underlying motif of what lies beyond; his poetry searched for the inexpressible behind the material present. Selfhood and urban spatiality merges, generating a cartography which oscillates between the temporal and the permanent:
Only the personal is holy.
A shaded lamp
Then evening deepens: darkness spread like a sky
Around the hidden star of a yellowed page;
A letter written in the shy half-sleep of midnight,
Idly, to a distant friend.6
Here, the solitude, the silence, the inexpressible bridge between words and their shadows come together in a celebration of the vastness of the unknown within one’s selfhood, merging with the light of an electronic lamp, the letters on a blank page, the agony of the evening. Urban materiality thus becomes a site of memorialisation, which not only has evidential value but also an intricately crafted significance involving the corporeality of time, the liminality of selfhood and the vastness of the unknowable:
He sees then:
Which within the known had escaped imagination—
Lights, vehicles, buildings, ships in the harbour,
The city suddenly exposed in its entirety …7
Spatiality becomes the crux defining the location of the writer within the crisis in the discourse which the twentieth century witnessed. In a way, the city employs these mnemonic signifiers of disjunction to document the artist’s experiences within the spatio-temporal frameworks of urban modernity.
For Bose, the poetry is in the cafes, offices, crowds on the streets or the cacophony of sounds in the city. For him the city is more than an archetype – it contains the sublimity of modern life. Thus, the city embodies, for Bose, a collection of desires, of passions, hope amidst anguish, solitude amidst noise. It would be this precise motif which returns recurrently in his writing, with all its exuberant simplicity, liberating fiction, poetry and the city:
Bodyless skeletonless Calcutta, filled with shadows; like dreams,
autocratic, irresponsible. I too am a shadow, quivering on the wall
behind the curtain at the touch of the wind; in my heart sway
rain and wind, rain and wind, night and day.8
- Jibanananda Das, A Certain Sense: Poems, ed. by Sukanta Chaudhuri (Sahitya Akademi, 1998), pp. xiv
- Jibanananada Das, “On the Pavement”, Phutphate, first published 1938, collected in Mahaprithibi, translated by Ujjwal Kumar Majumdar.
- Buddhadeva Bose, “PERSPECTIVES ON BENGALI POETRY: An Interview with Buddhadeva Bose”, in Mahfil, vol. 3, no. 4, 1966, pp. 43
- Ibid: 47
- Sisir Kumar Das, History of Indian Literature: 1911-1956, Struggle for Freedom: Triumph and Tragedy (Sahitya Akademi, 1995), pp. 221.
- Buddhadeva Bose, “Sonnets for 3 A.M.” <https://www.parabaas.com/translation/database/translations/poems/buddhadebabasu_2.html> [accessed 23 June 2021].
- Buddhadeva Bose, “The Moment of Creation”
<https://www.parabaas.com/translation/database/translations/poems/buddhadebabasu_7.html > [accessed 27 October 2021].
- Buddhadeva Bose, “Rain and Wind”
<https://www.parabaas.com/translation/database/translations/poems/buddhadebabasu_2.html> [accessed 23 June 2021].