USES OF POETRY

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind: Why no one has stopped reading the poet Shakti Chattopadhyay

The maverick lyric poet died on this day, March 23, in 1995, hours after delivering a lecture in Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan.

The 1960s were an incredible era, and especially so in Bengal. Poverty, unemployment and frustration shaped the lives of many – but all the while hope burst like flame of the forest flowers from the red earth of April. The homelessness caused by the Partition and the hunger from the Bengal famine had already become game-changers in a society still struggling to find some semblance of normalcy. As a result, rebellion, cultural frustration and an attempt to break away from the older mould became an instinctive call for many.

It was around this time that, along with other like-minded friends, the young firebrand poet Shakti Chattopadhay burst onto the scene. He would go on to change how an entire generation perceived poetry or even wrote it. Chattopadhyay and his friends wrote verse distinctly different from the refined poetry that Bengal was used to. This was more real and vividly closer to the lives of the man on the street than poetry had ever been, and in this it gave vent to the pent-up feelings of frustration and angst of the youth.

As the older, Communist poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay said, it was as if these new poets had gone into the forests to fight a war for those who did not know how to.

With their new writing, they gave birth to the Hungry Generation poets, a group that advocated an entirely new kind of writing, with Chattopadhyay as its leader. Such poetry moved away from stereotypes and gave direction to the youth, and in the process, Chattopadhyay, who had not even completed his formal studies, became a literary sensation almost overnight.

The reasons for his rise to fame in a city already full of poets might be manifold. His poverty-ridden origin, inability to stick to either his education or his jobs possibly gave him the halo of a bohemian poet, frustrated with much in life but not willing to toe the line in spite of this. In this regard the stories of his many escapades from humdrum life, or his rebellion at work, or even the long absences from his family and home on sudden whims, added to poetic folklore and gave rise to the mysterious aura of a rebel poet.

The poet beyond the rebel

For many who understand, read and appreciate poetry and remain curious about the poet himself, Chattopadhyay’s is perhaps a classic case. His bursts of creative energy, sudden impulsive ways, and total disregard for the norms that governed society led to his being specially idolised by the young – but it was his haunting poetry that earned him the respect of the literary-minded.

Twenty-three years after Chattopadhyay’s death, a search for who might step into his shoes seems a lost cause. Primarily because it is near impossible to duplicate the model – seemingly without a care in the world, in love with the wilderness, and furiously in love with a woman for whom he ended up writing thousands of love poems, Shakti Chattopadhay was one of a kind.

The politics of hunger and unemployment have a way of changing people and their emotions – Chattopadhyay was no exception. Friendships often became scarred with bitterness, and many of these writers scattered in their own directions soon after, but not before they had driven home the message that a new tongue had sprouted, one that was free from the gigantic emotional burden of being under the shadow of Rabindranath Tagore.

In that sense poets like Shubho Acharya, Malay Roy Chowdhury, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Utpal Kumar Basu and others released an entire generation of young writers from the obligation of continuing with the Tagorean legacy, a process that had already begun with Jibanananda Das. This tendency also gave rise to numerous independent magazines like Kallol or Krittibas which published new writing. And even though Chattopadhyay would sing Rabindranth’s songs all his life in that haunting baritone, his poems smelt of his own creativity, free from influences of any other. Such as this one:

Men used to appreciate the love of their congeners
one day an unmistakable smell was discovered in the hermit’s cave,
the smell of a heart, offered by a devout disciple,
we accepted it gratefully. Why does the world commit suicide today?
Why? Knowingly, accommodated in indifference,
men hide like weeds in the depths of their minds...
Quiet, caged in the noise, alive only in appearance,
I see men running towards a bloody celebration of death
in single file, like insects in the rain, poisoned
or even more blue, pale, overcome by despair.
Men? You could call them that, but nothing else.
If the heart of a child were born in my country
full of faith, he would whisper in his ears:
men appreciated the love of men
once.

Whimsy in real life

Poet and contemporary writer Pradip Choudhuri says, “Shakti was my senior but I never addressed him as dada. There was a strange sense of respect but great friendship too. He would show great respect for my father always. During the time that I lived in the Panthanibash hotel during my initial days in Calcutta, Shakti would come almost every day for our poetry adda and many others would join in soon. He loved his drink and would mostly bring a bottle of liquor and some meat-based snacks from the shop nearby. He would then regale us with anecdotes and read some of his poems. Theose were such wonderful days.”

Choudhuri also recounts that Chattopadhyay had once casually drawn him out of the Coffee House where he had been chatting with other friends. “Let’s go to Shantiniketan,” he had said. They had taken the evening train and arrived around eleven at night. They were offered lodging at Kalo Bari on the Visva Bharati university campus, and they returned the very next day. Was it just whimsy? “There was plenty to learn from him but we did not always talk about poetry,” says Choudhuri.

Living beyond death

It was around the beginning of the 1960s that three important works of Bengali poetry were published: Shakti Chattopadhay’s He Prem He Noishobdo, Binoy Majumdar’s Fire Esho Chaka and Sunil Ganguly’s Eka Ebong Koyekjon. All three works had made a great impact on the readers and brought instant fame to their writers. Chattopadhyay came to be recognised as one of the major love poets in Bengal and there was no looking back for him.

Get me flowers from the tree now
Get me all the flowers right now
All of them will fall to earth at dusk
I will not be here either at dusk
I will go away somewhere at dusk
I will never stay here at dusk
Get me flowers from the tree now
Love me close so you can be free now 

If the hallmark of a poet’s greatness were to be the longevity of his poems, Chattopadhyay’s poetry certainly makes the mark, being at a zenith where it is remembered more than two decades after his death with as much reverence as it had been in his prime.

Mimlu Sen in her book Baulsphere recounts how she had met Chattopadhyay for the first time at Joydeb mela at Bolpur. He had been drunk that night and had staggered in late into the heart of Tamlatala, the heart of the Baul ashram under the giant Tamla tree resplendent with fruit. Even in his drunken stupor he had introduced himself as Bengal’s poet laureate. Young and smug, he might have been off the mark then, but for those who remember Shakti Chattopadhyay the poet now, it does not seem a far-fetched claim anymore.


Maitreyee B Chowdhury is the author of The Hungryalists, to be published in August 2018.

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