[HUG speaks to Sumanta Mukhopadhyay on his recent compilation of Pranabendu Dasgupta’s major poetry in two volumes (Saptarshi Publications, Kolkata, January 2016)]
Prasanta: This is a signal work Sumanta. This a great reason to celebrate poetry—that you, with able help from others, have been able to now bring out a large part of Pranabendu Dasgupta’s poetical works, including quite a few unpublished poems, in such a systematic manner. A true labour of love. As you have said in your editor’s note that there seems to be conscious design in removing this poet of poets from our consciousness. He is no more in circulation for a whole new generation of readers in Bangla. Why has that happened and how can new readers have a gainful engagement with him with these two volumes?
Sumanta:Thank you Prasanta. Thank you all who are attached to HUG. Keeping Indian poetry and world poetry in perspective one should read Pranabendu Dasgupta and HUG is providing that space for us. Do you think I have done this in a systematic manner? Not at all. In our language if you want to edit a collected book of poems you have almost nothing in your hand unless you are working with a poet like Bhaskar Chakraborty who kept every single detail of his own poetic journey in his personal archive or a poet like Joy Goswami, who can recall from memory almost the entire story of his time, in its diverse trajectories, or a rare Sankha Ghosh who whispers the journey of Gandhyarbo or Panjore Danrer Sabdo on some clouded evening.
For Pranabendu I had nothing! No diaries, No personal account, not even his writings after 2003(His last collection Roudrer Nakhore was published in 2003). I have no idea how many unpublished and uncollected poems are still left behind. I feel sad when I think about him suffering for his sanity, concentrating deeply on a single poem, and a lonely man with no one by his side. I can still remember one of our renowned professors, one of his colleagues at Jadavpur University, shouting at him: “You get out from here.” Some of his fellow poets mocking at him: “All his disease would be over; give him an award.” Or: “When he comes visiting me, I pretend to be asleep”. It was and is a cruel world. Yes, it is depressing. But still he tried. I had to go through all available little magazines for every single line. I tried to do it systematically but I could not.
Let us come to the next part of your question, Prasanta. I have written that the silent process of an annihilation could easily be understood but I did not mention the reason. It is quite difficult to figure it out. Like mist you can feel its presence but won’t be able to hold it by the scruff of the neck! Evidences are everywhere but the reason invisible. New readership hopefully shall feel the touch of an unfelt breeze and a completely new perception of the troubled time by reading his long untouched poems. Nobody has expressed it quite like him.
Prasanta: Let me start with one of Pranabendu’s observations in his short prose piece titled Poetry and I. “If I do not hear and absorb the inner turns and rhythms of Bangla language for some time, I am unable to compose poetry.” How does this inner voice and rhythm reflect in Pranabendu’s poetry? Does that evolve?
Sumanta: Of course that does! Look, he has written that small prose work in 1980 and he talked about the inner pulse of Bengali language rather the inner turn as you have interpreted. I would like to emphasise on the time: because the entire turbulence of 70s has created many inner turns in Bengali language which you never overtly find in his poems. But he was talking about the language as a living body. How it vibrates inside your existence and how you react physically to the rhythm.
I must declare one thing here. Pranabendu did mention his inability in the context of his second book— that he could not write Bengali poems in America, but the fact was something else. He tried to write in English! I have seen one such poem in a university journal, autographed by Robert Frost too. That volume must have been taken to Frost for his signature. (during those days he used to come to the university students for some fresh air; 1962 it was!) Frost signed under the poem with these words: ‘miles to go before I sleep’. So it must have been quite a complex history…this issue of language. We ought to track it later.
Prasanta:Let us talk about his first collection “A Season”—18 poems in total. More than symbols, this collection is about a large ambit of philosophic breadth. There is also a musical consciousness in this collection, a sense of the classical world? Can you please tell us more?
Sumanta: I have tried to mention all this in my notes. But, yes of course there is more to it. I personally think that Pranabendu started his career with a complex understanding of what constitutes song (music, if you like) and as his career grew he shifted towards visual images. The history of Bengali poetry I personally think is a history of negotiations with music in particular. I am talking about its form. Pranabendu, like his all fellow poets, started with a new sense of music in his mind. Remember Alokranjan Dasgupta’s remarkable research “Lyric in Indian Poetry”? If you delve deeper into the history of those days you would be surprised to find a musical consciousness was in the air, deeply entrenched. Everyone of them tried their own tune, so to say. It has nothing to do with the classical world. For Alokeranjan, it was “Jouban Baul”; for Sakti Chattopadhyay something else in “O Love, O Silence”. Actually,it was Buddhadeb Bosu who created a new meaning of ‘Song’ in his translation of Charles Baudelaire.
So all young poets had their own sense of the modern world, the unfolding modern world of poetry I mean.But from his second book , “Balcony of Sudder Street” he shifted himself to the world of painting, of colours and lines and space…and of course he negotiated with the language: through silence.
Prasanta: A bit of recapitulating history: what would be this young poet’s world and what about his movements in poetic circles in the 1950s and 1960s? Travelling between the magazines Shatbhisha and Krittibas and of course writing in Buddhadeb Bosu’s Kobita? Tell us about the particular appeal of his second collection, a landmark in Bangla poetry—The Balcony of Sudder Street. It provided a new diction and metaphor to the readers, right? Pranabendu found his poetic voice and also a philosophy of life?
Sumanta:It was perhaps the best of times in Bengali poetry! You must remember the Calcutta artist circle at the same time. Painters like Shyamal Dutta Roy, Suvaprasanna, Dharmonaryayan Dasgupta,Ganesh Pyne and Ganesh Halui were his close friends. He had the legacy of his painter grandfather as well. I have seen some of his doodling and one must remember at that time he was one of our renowned art critics.
Manabendra Bandyopadhyay, one of his classmates and then colleague, has written a rare and remarkable essay on him where he mentioned that Pranabendu never catered to any ideology or bias or the ways of any particular magazine. He tried to write in and record his own voice everywhere.
But his second collection had taken almost nine long years to be published. A crucial year is 1966, when the scenario of Bengali poetry had totally altered: Kobita was replaced by Krittibas. And from 1966 he started his own little magazine “Alindo”. Look at the spatial metaphor! “Balcony”! You can easily remember one of the pioneering books of that time “Chhander Baranda” by Sankha Ghosh which carved the aesthetics of the poetic turn of the decade. What does this symptomatic search of balcony signify? We need to think about that carefully. For Pranabendu, this space is an in-between one. Sudder Street was almost a silent literary movement. Inward world and the rapidly changing outside world meet here. His words,images, rhythm, voice and tone found a real tenor in this book—a sense of the in-between. Actually all his later anthologies carried their seeds from Sudder Street.
Prasanta: In a well known interview, given to Subodh Sarkar and Mallika Sengupta, Pranabendu says, quoting John Yeats, who writes to his son William Butler, that poetry is a social act of a lonely man. Again in another context he would say that writing poetry itself is an act of protest. Much later he would, in a different tone lament that one used to get hurt but never pronounced that fact to the world. He has made fine distinctions in this regard: সাফারিং খুব মৃদু ভাবে ঘটে আমার কবিতায়, মনে হয়. ঠিক যন্ত্রণা নয়, বিষাদ. আর্তিনয় , দুঃখ , আর্তনাদ নয়, আকুতি—আমার অধিকাংশ কবিতার স্থায়ীর সতা-ই –that suffering arrives in a tentative fashion in his poetry, not misery or affliction, but a constant sorrow beckons him. It would be a bad and banal formulation to slot him as a lyrical poet or an inward looking man. Not only because his poetry is far more complex than being solely about an inner turmoil but also because his poetry changed and evolved. What is your view?
Sumanta:I don’t think I got the whole drift of your query. Your observation has three parts as I read it. 1) He defines and defends his poetic stand as: social act of a solitary person. 2) At the same time he utters: I write poetry and that is how I protest. And then the third part: We should not judge him as lyrical poet as his poetry changed and evolved. He is not an inward looking man. Am I right? Do these parts relate to each other?
Prasanta, I would rather suggest: let us read those observations separately. The first part reflects his actual poetic stance,a true philosophy— how he tried to get connected to the real world. This is how he is different from Buddhadeb Bosu, Aloke Sarkar and some of the aesthetes of eighties and nineties. He is different from his friends who wrote poetry of protest in troubled times. He is also distinct from the mystic and metaphysical lot who shot to prominence after globalization in Bengali poetry.
The second part should not be read as a confession. It is rather an answer to certain untold questions which needles a poet recurrently. That line was written in early nineties, as much as I can recollect. You can still remember the air; those dicta once threw Jibanananda too. Those recurrent hollow, routinized words like protest, alienation, decadence, and so on…In 1992 what was the form of protest in West Bengal? You will find that same bitterness in Bhaskar Chakraborty as well, in his “Rehearsal to Dream”. We should read those lines in their context. You will find it in editorials of Alindo. I have quoted those editorials in the note of the volume.
And finally the question comes how one should read a poet, A to Z or Z to A? I love to read them in geometric progression. Yes I mean it. Do I disappoint you?You have made a fascinating comment as you distinguished his words for suffering. Yesterday I was eventually reading an essay of Aridam Chakraborty, যাতনা কাহারে বলে?/What Anguish Means?: he has clearly deciphered and distinguished the meaning of various kinds of pain in this essay. But when we read Pranabendu his entire life and work is an attempt to design suffering in various hues of light and shade.
Prasanta: Pranabendu has said: “I use light and shade, a kind of a chiaroscuro in my poems which no critic has till date noticed…. I knowingly generate ambivalence” Is this about creating a kind of a mysticism and obscurity, what he is called later, a conscious act of forging spontaneity—‘cultivated spontaneity’?
Sumanta: No, I do not think so. He never indulged in obscurity and mysticism in his poems. In his prose, “Poetry and I” he called his work simple though his simplicity irradiates like a mask (প্রতারক). He drew the image of an artisan’s well and talked about many layers of meaning underneath. He refers to light and shade, of ambivalences because he is talking about real life. And I believe that life truly is a miracle. He demurred from direct expressions and always tried to create a texture which is much closer to a strip of cloth woven in the hand-loom, where threads endure a certain tension. His images, words, sounds and rhythms, most of the time, tend towards an apparent calmness. But when we read “মস্ত একটা হাওয়ায় ভাঙ্গাঘরে/ মানুষ কাঁপছে”or “A Print of a Monk” –they strike you sharp and straight. But even in such instances we find a kind of ambivalence; you find a perplexed man who does not understand where he should place one hand after gripping his woman in another. We read: when someone is crying on the bridge, the river and the sky silently pass by. It is more of a process, a creative process to create tension between words, images, sound and tones. Yes it is a conscious effort. But this consciousness works rather magically every time! You chisel your own flute all through the day, you make your canvas ready and when the time arrives it is a different go altogether.
Now I must mention a section from the above mentioned prose work. He tells us in that piece that the poet lives his life always on his toes, even when he is engaged with his shoe laces. That means, if we wish to quote Bhaskar Chakraborty: poets have no Sundays. There comes the question of cultivated spontaneity. You are always ready like a tensed string. Am I clear? He clearly uttered this in his 7th collection “Emerge Sightless Life”.
Prasanta: In and from the collection “Emerge Sightless Life” (1984) he seems to be looking outward, for a meaning in life and in creation itself? Is this a consciousness that poets do have a kind of responsibility. Not exactly social, but another kind of responsibility as he writes? In the title poem of the collection, he writes: “…তুমি অনুভব করেছ যে , জেগে ওঠা মানে/এক অসীম দায়িত্ব নিয়ে বেঁচে থাকা / প্রতিটি মুহুর্তে কিছু না কিছুর জন্যে /তৈরী হয়ে থাকা , তারপর আজীবন /তার জন্যে পরিশ্রম করা.” Later, quoting Sefaris, he says “He carries the burden of the responsibility of the struggle between life and death.”Can you say a bit about this sense of poetic labour?
Sumanta: Not only the poet but every sensitive soul searches for a meaning in life. I differ from this approach that frames this question, as I know very well, that you are not the person to comprehend a poet’s life and work in some to and from method either. Throughout his career his journey was like that. From Sudder Street onwards his prime concern was connecting the self with the other. He was never an aesthete either like his teacher and mentor Buddhadeb Bosu. I personally feel his concept of engagement was much more close to that of Sartre’s—a kind of deeper, informed Hegelian one.
But I must emphasize that the word responsibility created its own trajectory in 70s and 80s. Pranabendu was teaching at Jadavpur University where the environment of student politics in early 70s was ultra left. From 1967 to 1971 in East Pakistan a new country emerged where Bengali literature and language got a complete new significance in history. In 1972 the election in West Bengal saw one of its worst kinds of skulduggery and violence. In this scenario the question of literature and responsibility was in the air. Pranabendu was never comfortable with these questions. He was a solitary person and always tried to keep safe distance from the political rhetoric. So he tried to design his own sense of responsibility. His own social work.
Prasanta: If I may return to history a bit: tell us about his continuing relationship and interactions with the magazine Alindo?
Sumanta: See, he sought a kind of freedom in writing itself. Right from 1966, after his return from abroad, and when he joined Jadavpur University, Pranabendu liked to keep a distance from factions. The heydays of Krittibas (from 1954-72) are more or less over. Some from that group are travelling and relocating abroad. Some others are looking for fresh pastures. Shatabhisha nurtured its own ways and people. On the other hand, a strong group of poets and litterateurs, working in an anti-institutional mode, are moving away and becoming part of the little magazine movement. Giving that movement a fillip. Pranabendu does not want to belong to either of these options. He is catholic though in sending poems to all kinds of magazines. On his personal front too, MaryAnn and he follow a sort of literary trajectory. She is a painter, poet and a critic. Both of them nurture a certain way of living. Alindo becomes a medium among all this to think and work for poetry. This is the idea of in-between-ness that I was referring to earlier. One notices that in the selection of poems and prose works too. In design one sees that clearly—till the mid 1990s. By that time he was not well physically. He was not producing books anymore but Alindo was a kind of responsibility, a commitment. This is what I think was a social act of the solitary creator. This he felt was a real form of existential politics. And this could be done by shunning both party politics and literary politics. He assiduously kept himself away from protibadi (protest) politics, a form of modern mainstreamization that has happened to Bengali poetry. He is writing quite openly about the political in prefaces of Alindo. Alindo becomes a space where he can clear his social standpoint.
Prasanta: Right. He had something to say about poetry festivals too, about the earnings of the poets and also about fame and popularity? You have a long discussion in Badha Peronor Gaan. How did he see all these things?
Sumanta: Kobita Utsab (Poetry Festival) and Kobita Shabha (Poetry Meet) were phenomena that would be ushered in by diverse sets of people and groups by the 1980s. Poetry shall become part of culture. Local area clubs—in Kolkata and in the moffusil would develop. Small pockets would mushroom. And these new local institutions would bring along with them a politics of exclusion and inclusion. Pranabendu bristled. He felt this mode of dissemination was limiting. As if the wider avenues of the poetic universe were being shut. That is what he felt. Also, in the 1980s, the cultural left and its own idea of political mobilization went into this kind of exclusion/inclusion too. These cultural events particularly got a fillip after the Babri Masjid incident: powerful people began to decide what and who were political and who were not. In 1992-93 the anti-Babri Kobita Utsab was a testing ground. True, it was the need of the hour and yet there was indeed a kind of literary politics that worked underneath. Others who opposed this mode (or were not invited) nurtured a different idea of the anti-establishment.
Pranabendu had a strong, though sometimes misplaced sense that he is being kept out of all camps. He himself was uneasy with these developments—on either side. Such busy mobilizations did not suit him. Within Jadavpur University too, this kind of overt politicization of art disturbed him. And yet he was hardly an aesthete. He was existentially attached to all social changes. Partly it is true that he, as a writer, would suffer—it is unimaginable without some kind of a covert, subterranean consensus coming into play as to why his poems do not get published as anthologies in the 1990s. One has to think about the reasons behind his collected works taking so long to see the light of the day.
Prasanta: Please tell us about your personal interactions with the poet in connection to Roudrer Nokhore. What are the changes that were happening around him at time? How did those things reflect in his poetry? And what about the three poetic plays which is also part of the second volume? Are these formal experiments of a kind or were they a detour about a different meaningful experience—from the point of view of play writing?
Sumanta: In his last three books he conducted a different kind of experiment with language. There is this sense of rambunctiousness, a sense of gaiety and ebullience which is at the same time quite aggressive in tone. The choice of words is not measured and proportionate anymore which is how we usually know him. There is an element of the theatrical that bursts forth. One feels sometimes that this shift is a forced one. But that is what he wished for at that time. See, in his major writings if there is any sense of the dramatic, it is a quiet drama between two people: as if the person standing by his side is quietly egging him to come up with his intimate thoughts and images and the tapestry of the poetic develop thus. But now things would be different. It seems now there are a multiplicity of voices and faces around him who are making him compose. The formations of language change consequently. Even in his final scribbles (which I have no access to, as of now), the formation of phrases and sentences get a much more aggressive shape and dimension. We have to wait for a few more years to see how a kind of literary madness takes shape in his scribbles and aphorisms.