In Search of Roots:

The Situation in the Poetry of Bangladesh

Poetry has always played a significant role in shaping the literary landscape of a nation. This is true of Bengali literature as a whole and particularly of the literature of Bangladesh. The history of Bengali literature is predominantly the history of the metamorphosis of its poetry. The task of assessing the poetic literature of Bangladesh is, therefore, far from easy. This is so partly because of its sheer volume and partly because the talents which it attracted are at once varied and complex in nature and so are the trends and traditions that make up its rich texture. Even though Bangladesh is a recent phenomenon in the political history of this sub-continent, its literary and cultural heritage dates back to more than a thousand years. During this long history it went through a number of phases absorbing on the way the influence of many cultures and many curious deposits of time. Thus it is not surprising that one may find In this literature the reflections of the rich and ancient Hindu mythology of India, the humanism of Buddhist ethical values, the rational religious values of Islam, the aesthetic notions of Indo-Aryan peoples as well as the ideas and intuitions of ancient animistic cultures that have long passed into oblivion. To talk of an animistic connection in our present context may seem rather far-fetched but a close study of the structure and diction of our poetry well confirms that it is not so far-fetched after all; a point we shall return to at a later stage. My object in this paper is not to deal with the entire history of our poetry but to attempt, in a modest way, an identification of the principal qualities that characterise it since the early 60's.

In order to comprehend the quality of poetic activity in this part of the world it is essential to keep in mind the socio-political changes that have taken place since the beginning of the twentieth century, particularly the events since 1947, that is, the partition of the Indian subcontinent and the creation of the new state of Pakistan, of which the region now called Bangladesh was a part. It did not take too long for the people of this region to be disillusioned with the dream of a homeland induced by a very transient phase of this sub-continent's history. Pakistan was to be an overly theocratic state or at least so she was made out to be by her exponents. The religious factor became a bit of a fraud as soon as the regions comprising it became actually independent. It took less than a year for vast numbers to realize that a state could not exist by dogma. It perhaps became clear even to the founder of the state himself. He, however, sounded rather unconvincing when he expressed the view that people of various religious faiths could safely co-exist in his dreamland of Pakistan: 'the Muslims will cease to be Muslims and the Hindus will cease to be Hindus', etc. Nobody listened to such wisdom, particularly when personal ideals and group interests came to the surface in dealing with larger issues of the state.

Urdu was declared to be the only state language of the country called Pakistan where the majority spoke, thought and dreamt in Bengali. This declaration was a denial of the rights of a culturally vigorous people to preserve their own traditions and cultural heritage and in fact their existence as a people was threatened. The later history of the movement centring round this issue is widely known and needs no repetition here. However, it is important to realize that it put into clear relief the fact that the language question was basically a question of survival of the Bengali-speaking population in economic, social, and cultural terms. That it was so became even clearer during the beginning of the 60's when the then rulers of Pakistan attempted to impose something they called 'national integration,' which meant a systematic and complete extermination of existing cultural patterns prevailing in the region now comprising Bangladesh. Starting from the advocacy of the use of Arabic and Roman scripts down to the encouragement of interwing marriages, all kinds of things were tried in the name of Islam. Pakistan was in fact a 'coup' by feudal and military bureaucratic interests, a consequence of which was the suppression of the spirit of a freely flowering culture of the masses in the regions comprising the new state. The conspiracy became clear to the people of Bangladesh no sooner than Ayub's military regime came to power. In the face of the well-calculated strategy of the Pakistani regime of the time to destroy the cultural identity of the Bengali-speaking people, the patriotic forces gained momentum and the necessity for survival expressed itself in a reaction against alien and imposed cultural influences, fads and fashions. This reaction manifested itself in numerous strikes and processions throughout the 60's during which any signboard in English or Urdu used to be smashed by irate young Bengalis and replaced with Bengali names and lettering. Thus while the official media were actively patronising 'mushaira' type programmes and a language replete with highly Personalised Urdu words, sometimes even replacing words invoking Hindu mythology with so called Islamised words, the young poets who grew up in this milieu consciously went forward and started to use such words and images as were drawn from a larger context of cultural heritage that not only comprehended the sub-continent as a whole but embraced the contemporary west. There was, therefore, a kind of polarisation in the literary activity of the period and in an atmosphere of antagonism even genuine poetic activity such as that of Farrukh Ahmed was scoffed at because his personal beliefs were thought to represent the establishment. The 'young revolutionaries', if we may so call them, were, therefore, basically anti-establishment and expressed themselves through various forums - mostly literary magazines brought out by a number of young poets some of whom were still students of Dhaka University. The prevailing anti-people Government attitude made some of the older writers ambivalent whereas the younger ones reacted with a return to a highly sanskritised language. Abdul Mannan Syed is a case in point.

The fact of the late flowering of literature in the region which is the concern of this paper is not difficult to explain. The political and economic circumstances that shaped this predominantly Muslim population are really responsible for the late growth and rise of a middle class in this region. From this perspective the birth of Pakistan was a historical necessity that opened the way to a surprisingly speedy growth of an educated urban class capable of sophisticated and artistic expressions of the ideals and aspirations of the broader masses from which it arose. Thus we find that within a span of only about 25 years an educated middle class emerged in the region now comprising Bangladesh, mainly based in educational centres like Dhaka and Rajshahi. The role of educational institutions such as Dhaka and Rajshahi universities in shaping a conscientious and questioning educated middle class was extremely important. It is with the rise of this middle class, consisting mostly of professionals, that conscious self examination began. The history of the poetry of Bangladesh is inextricably connected with the history of the growth of this newly educated middle class.

It is worthwhile to appreciate the unique characteristics of this middle class, which grew up after 1947 mainly in the three cities of Dhaka, Chittagong and Rajshahi, as juxtaposed against the large, traditional middle class that grew up and later fell into decay in West Bengal located mainly in the city of Calcutta late in the last century.

For one thing, this middle class was overwhelmingly a Muslim population inhabiting the areas that now constitute Bangladesh. The educated Muslims who came over to Dhaka after partition brought with them a kind of excited patriotism for their newly created homeland of Pakistan which was reckoned to be based on Islamic principles. Their orientation was basically communal and similar to the orientation of the educated middle class of West Bengal of the period. The reasons were not far to seek. The basic characteristics of British rule in India and the deliberate policy that they followed thrived in an atmosphere of antagonism between the two main religious communities of the sub-continent. In Bangladesh the deprivations of the common masses, mostly Muslim peasants, were enormous. When the educated middle class began to grow from amongst them against great difficulties, put in their way by the upper-caste Hindus, an entire generation developed extreme aversion to anything that smacked of Hinduism. This was one aspect of the situation.

The other aspect was the mental landscape and the psyche of the people inhabiting this region as a whole. In Bengal and particularly in East Bengal, perhaps owing largely to the very nature of the environment and geography, the people irrespective of their caste, creed or belief tend to lay emphasis on the devotional and mystical aspect of religion. This becomes particularly clear when the religious events of the last few centuries in Bengal are set against the militancy that the people of the western part of the sub-continent often exhibited in their moments of crisis. In this part of the world, therefore, the view of Islam appears to be substantially different from that of others in the sense that it is deeply devotional, passionately mystical and unambiguously spiritual in nature.

Both the ancient Hindu and Buddhist faiths as well as the later exponents of religious thoughts in this area emphasised compassion and love for humanity and devotion to God rather than a blind adherence to dogma and rituals created by an unjust caste-ridden society. The examples were Shree Chaitanya and in more recent times Ram Krishna Parama Hamsha; of particular importance for them both was man and his well being fostered by his relationship with the ultimate being in an intensely passionate and devotional way. These earlier trends, as well as Raja Ram Mohan's efforts in the direction of establishing a faith on the concept of an abstract Brahma, set the scene for a ready acceptance of the liberal humanism that came with western education. The regional differences in the attitudes to religion is well exemplified in the reaction to the fast spread of Islam in the predominantly caste ridden society of 16th and 17th century India. In Bengal Shree Chaitanya reacted with the message of love, compassion and devotion whereas in the Punjab similar precepts of Guru Nanaka soon degenerated into an avowed militancy.

The general feeling of antagonism and distrust between these two religious communities is, however, not of recent origin. In the literature produced in Bengal between the thirteenth and the eighteenth centuries one finds ample examples of unfriendly, and sometimes, totally unfounded ideas about each other. Manasa Vijoy (The Triumph of the Snake-goddess) of Biprodash Pipilai written in the fifteenth century, Annada Mongol of Bharatchandra, Amir Hamza, Janganama (The Tale of a War), and Sonabhan of Shah Garibullah written in the eighteenth century, bear testimony to the prevailing atmosphere of mutual misgivings. But the fact remains that in spite of all these differences, the people of this region as a whole, irrespective of their faiths, are strikingly similar at a deeper psychological level. Thus Nazrul Islam's use of Islamic myth, of which there were not many to exploit, instantaneously succeeded only when he, with his tremendous power of assimilation, could produce a song such as "Come, and behold the child in the lap of mother Amina" which distinctly echoes a powerful popular image from ancient Hindu mythology. Thus when Nazrul Islam in his song was dreaming of the distant land of Arabia while sitting in a thatched cottage of Bangladesh, he was, in fact, conjuring up in the mind of a rural Bengali listener, a vaguely known lush green landscape of idyllic beauty with perhaps a generous sprinkling of date palms. In the same way, neither was Mir Musharraf Husain, about a century earlier in his novel Bishad Sindhu (The Ocean of Grief), telling a story of just a martyrdom already known to the masses since the seventeenth century through Dobhashi Punthis. He was in fact giving artistic and contemporary expression to a myth which was badly needed by an imaginatively starved people groping about to find their own cultural identity. Here was a story in which they were able to find the woes, deprivations and injustices suffered in their own lives boldly depicted in terms of deep pathos. It seems to me that this actually accounts for the great popularity of the book despite the fact that the story of Karbala is one dear to the Shia Muslims and not something to be so consistently nurtured by the predominantly Sunni Muslims of Bengal.

This search for an identity was to remain the central point of quest for the creative writers, artists and poets of this part of the world for about a century or so; until it was resolved, at least partially, by the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.

Both Mir Musharraf Husain and Qazi Nazrul Islam were doing the same thing in their artistic creations. By their creative activity they were giving a distinctive identity to a people hitherto torn between the demands of their faith that came long ago from outside and the demands of their immediate environment. By the term 'immediate environment' I mean everything that belongs to this soil - the terrain, the physical features of the country, the climate, the centuries of struggle for survival and the ethnic fusion that the population had experienced in the process. All this together gave the people of this region their peculiar way of looking at life, their ability to respond to certain types of artistic and emotional values and stimuli.

Ethnically Bangladesh can be truly termed as a melting pot of races so that one finds such vastly varied features as those of proto-Australoids, Mediterranean-Caucasoids, Armenoids and also of the Semitic races of Arab, Persian and Turkish origins who settled in large numbers in the areas now comprising Bangladesh since the 8th century A.D. Therefore, the contention that the Bengali Muslims are not all descended from the lower-caste Hindus who were converted to Islam but that a substantial proportion are the descendants of the Muslims who reached these areas from elsewhere seems to be quite plausible. The little glimpses of the Bengali society from the thirteenth through the eighteenth century that we get from the literature of the period largely confirm this view.

All these influences have gone in varying degrees into the making of the people of this region and have given them their distinctive ethnic, psychological and cultural characteristics. In the course of centuries, Muslims, whatever the proportion of the mixture of the indigenous and the foreign, became firmly and deeply rooted in this soil. It is for this reason that any attempt to sever them from their roots usually results in rather strong and sustained responses bringing about violent, if not revolutionary, socio-political changes. Examples are the language movement of 1952 and the war of liberation of 1971.

The appearance of Mir Musharraf Husain on the literary scene in nineteenth century Bengal is neither accidental nor isolated. He heralds the emergence of the new Bengali middle class from amongst her large Muslim population. The basic features of his writings need to be fully comprehended in order to understand the later development of our language and literature in the geographical area that now constitutes Bangladesh. His writings are the first modern artistic expressions of the Muslim middle class ethos of Bengal.

It is also significant that the uniqueness of his most widely read novel Bishad Sindhu lies in its language and its treatment of the human aspect of the story which greatly deviated from history. Both the style and the treatment of his materials amply testify to his deep indebtedness to the literary tastes of Vidyasagar and Bankimchandra. It is also clear that he owed much to the traditions set by Vaishnava Padavalis as well as the Dobhashi Punthis. He was the first Muslim genius in modern Bengal displaying in himself all the characteristics of a latter-day educated middle class gentleman: quietly devoted, but not aggressively militant and largely liberal and humanistic in attitude and vastly different from the Muslims in any Middle eastern country as well as the Muslims in the western part of the sub-continent.

The middle class that has emerged in Bangladesh since 1947 is largely secular and liberal in its attitudes. This is partly because not many Hindus were around to vie with them in economic and social fields and partly because of the peculiar politics pursued by the Pakistani leaders. The more consistently they pursued the policy of keeping up communal tensions alive by continuously bringing up anti-Hindu and therefore anti-Indian points to the fore, the clearer became the hollowness of their arguments in the face of the growing regional disparity in the economy. An educated youth of Dhaka in the late 50's or early 60's who was born sometime around the late 60's or early 40's and had the opportunity of growing up in the comparatively liberal educational atmosphere of Dhaka, did not bear the bitter memories of communal discord that an earlier generation had to live through during the mid 3O's or 40's for example. This again was the direct outcome of the nature of Indian politics during this period. It so happened that it was the people of (his later generation who actually engaged themselves in artistic and creative activities in large numbers during the mid and late 60's. They could unfalteringly trace their intellectual heritage from the traditions already set by their elders who had migrated from Calcutta and at the same time equally lay claim to the broader literary traditions of Bengali literature of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, the artistic traditions of Michael Madhusudan Datta, Biharilal Chakrabarty, Rabindranath Tagore, Qazi Nazrul Islam and the poets of the 30's and the 40's who together constituted its modern era.

One very important feature of this generation of poets was, therefore, a unique freedom from any communal bias. These are the poets who accepted the artistic ideals of the mainstream of modern Bengali literature. The middle class to which they belonged had emerged with phenomenal speed from the comparatively better off part of the masses during a span of only about two decades. It was as if they had bridged the gap of about a century during which period its Calcutta counterpart had grown. It grew up in an atmosphere of new found opportunities. A large number of talented individuals had occasion to come into contact with the world outside by way of receiving higher education abroad, bringing back with them a wealth of new experiences. All these forces were gradually giving the new society its mental tone and colour and by the early 60's a number of periodicals appeared that defined its intellectual parameters. Samakal Purbamegh and Parikram are but a few to mention from a number of little magazines brought out by various groups such as Shakshar, Kanthaswar, Na, etc. Agatya, an earlier periodical, deserves mention here for its role in setting the trend and standards of progressive literary and social thinking in the Dhaka of the early 50's.

This new society of Bangladesh appears to me to be providing an exact counterpoint to its Calcutta counterpart of an earlier period. It was as if there was a cultural awakening in the eastern part of Bengal very like the one experienced in nineteenth century Calcutta, but quite different also due perhaps to the different context of time to which each belonged. In the later half of the twentieth century the world was wide open with improved communications and, therefore, it was far easier for the new society to come into contact with trends in world literature and to draw from it. Another important difference is that while the so called Bhadrolok culture in Calcutta grew with direct British patronage, liberal middle class culture in Dhaka had to fend for its existence against the forces of neocolonialism. In such an atmosphere various manifestations of an alien and often outlandish culture were being continuously pushed through the mass media of Pakistan. A preponderance of social and political content in the poetry of Bangladesh is therefore not difficult to explain.

It cannot but be admitted that the nineteenth century Bengali renaissance was very much a Hindu affair. Muslims, who became poor and remained uneducated, were almost entirely excluded from the cultural scene in Calcutta. In Bankim's world there was no place for the Muslims of Bengal. Having been impoverished economically and socially by a conscious British policy, when an English educated Muslim intelligentsia actually began to appear during the late nineteenth century, educated Muslim society naturally began to assert its separate cultural identity as Muslims, even though, in fact the issue was in its substance and significance basically economic and social.

The anglicised urbane Bengali Hindu middle-class that had emerged in early nineteenth century Calcutta was a typical product of the British Empire, whereas the traditional elite in Bengal who, as elsewhere in the subcontinent, belonged to the landed aristocracy comprising both Hindus and Muslims, were a product of Delhi based Muslim culture. However, particularly in Bengal, the Hindu landed gentry overshadowed the Muslims in no lime due to the impact of the Permanent Settlement. By the end of the 18th century the British were relying greatly on the Indian Civil Servants who often made their fortunes collecting taxes from the landed gentry who gave birth to 'Bhadrolok Culture', a culture which remained totally isolated from the rest of the people for a long time to come.

It was, however, not the same with the Dhaka based middle-class of the 50's. This elite class could not actually sever its links with the large masses of the population rich in folk culture and traditions. In fact, there was a revival of interest in folk arts and literature due to the efforts of some remarkable talents working in the fields of fine arts and literature during the 50's and the 60's. In a sense this middle class did not feel itself isolated from the hopes and aspirations of the masses. Part of this attitude was also due to the political wisdom of some of the political leaders of considerable stature. Thus when the time came and this class gave out a call to fight for the liberation of the country the entire population responded with surprising vigour and alacrity. It is significant that a poet of Rafiq Azad's stature proudly proclaims his direct emergence from a peasant background. This down to earth attitude and this ability to speak from one's origins may very well account for the general atmosphere of freshness and vigour which is often associated with the contemporary poetry of Bangladesh as opposed to the more effete, urbane and perhaps cerebral poetry of West Bengal. Most of the contemporary poets of Bangladesh do not perhaps perceive themselves as isolated snobs safely tucked away in their own ivory towers. They are on the contrary fully exposed to the currents and cross currents of life flowing through the country as a whole.

Above all the experience of the liberation war and the ultimate Victory of 1971 have thrown the door of international influences wide open. This has provided the contemporary poet with a broader source of ideas to draw on. Thus when Fazal Shahabuddin says: "I want to spread myself all over; I slake my thirst by drinking deep in the (whole) world's beauty and music/yet my heart beats perpetually to the tune of Bangladesh", it rings true. The case may not, unfortunately, be the same with his younger contemporaries who have appeared on the literary scene of Dhaka since the late 70's or the early 80's; they suffer from the obvious limitation of drawing from only one source: that of Calcutta. To this point we shall return in the next section.

It is customary to look at the poetic literature of Bangladesh as falling into two well-defined categories: one is described as Islamic or traditionalist and other as secularist or liberal-humanist. The latter category is also looked at as the vital living force in our literature today in spite of the fact that it includes vastly different personalities with widely different social views as well as aesthetic sensibilities. In such a classification it is rather difficult if not impossible to include such poets as Farrukh Ahmed or Al Mahmood in any one category. It is usual to look at Farrukh Ahmed, Shahadat Husain, Benazir Ahmed, Talim Husain and Mufakkharul Islam as belonging to the first category of writers who were imbued with the idea of Pakistan and followed consciously the traditions of Indo-Iranian poetry. Abul Husain, Sanaul Haq, Syed Ali Ahsan, Sikandar Abu Zafar, Abu Zafar Obaidullah, Hasan Hafizur Rahman, Syed Shamsul Haq and Shamsur Rahman on the other hand are perceived as belonging to the secular, i.e., liberal humanist traditions. Such classification of our poetic literature does not, however, remain valid after the 60's. By the early 60's the poetry of Bangladesh experienced an unprecedented resurgence and the so-called liberal humanist trend not only took precedence over the Indo-Iranian tradition but actually became the only living force both qualitatively and quantitatively. A poet may, however, follow his own traditions and still be able to go beyond it depending on his talents. Thus a Farrukh Ahmed or an Al Mahmood may write within his tradition and may still be capable of transcending it. It therefore seems to me that classification of our poetry either on the basis of the idealism and mental makeup of the poet, or on the basis of a certain time span may be fundamentally misleading. A decade-wise reference which has now become popular is, however, helpful for convenience of discussion. It also seems to me to be relevant and reasonable to look at our poetry as a whole as an expression of the sorrows and sufferings, the hopes and aspirations, of an emerging new society.

The search for an identity hinges on this basic fact. It expresses itself in various ways at various points of time in accordance with the prevailing consensus about the elements of our nationhood. This explains as to how it was possible, and perhaps even natural for a poet of the 40's not only to eulogize the concept of Pakistan but even to proclaim also that the dreamland of Pakistan was actually a place where there was no want and which flowed with milk and honey. Similarly, it was natural and imperative for a poet of the late 60's to depict the beauty and diversity of his or her own culture which had its roots in this soil of Bangladesh. It is important to realize that the poet of the 40's who belonged to an older generation were still many years behind the normal standards of Bengali poetry achieved by the poets succeeding Tagore and Nazrul Islam. It is the generation of Abul Husain, Ahsan Habib, Sanaul Haq, Syed Ali Ahsan and Farrukh Ahmed who set the standards of modern verse in Bangladesh.

We cannot always establish a relationship between outward events and the inner workings of the poetic mind. But in general the social and political atmosphere and the prevailing intellectual order of the day determine the nature of the literary activities of the period. Thus an Elizabethan poet would be quite distinct from a Victorian pool and so on. In Bangladesh poets like Abul Husain, Ahsan Habib, Syed Ali Ahsan and Sanaul Haq wrote in the modern manner. And then at the beginning of the 60's poetry appeared with a sudden effulgence with the publication of the first volume of poems by Shamsur Rahman, quickly followed by a number of volumes by his eminent contemporaries, Al Mahmood and Shahid Quadri. Since then, with the other poets of the 60's and the 70's, our poetry has made steady progress as far as poetic standards are concerned and has now come of age.

When the poetry of Bangladesh is viewed as a whole since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, it is easy to see how an assiduous search for an identity left its mark on the poetic creations of all these years differing only in form and sensibility and responses to the prevailing intellectual atmosphere. The passionate involvement of Gholam Mustafa with the idea of Pakistan, the extraordinary talent of Jasimuddin for narratives based on life in rural Bengal, the deep poetic insights, clothed in enchanting allegory and symbolism, of Farrukh Ahmed and his putting these at the service of his faith, the sophisticated urban sensibilities of Abul Husain, the creation of an intense sensuous personal world by Syed Ali Ahsan and his unique perception of forms in the nature of Bangladesh, the deep lyrical patriotism of Sikandar Abu Zafar, the all-pervasive expression of the middle-class ethos by Shamsur Rahman, the extraordinary perception of the continuity of humanity of Abu Zafar Obaidullah, the use of dialects in the poetic dramas of Syed Shamsul Haq, the deep pathos of human sufferings in individual and collective dimensions as captured by Rafiq Azad, the individual diction of Al Mahmood and his unique perception of our land and people, the capacity to delve deep into the pre-historic past of our people as evinced by Nurul Huda: all these are basically expressions of a relentless search for roots. Since partition and particularly from the beginning of the 60's the collective efforts of our poets gave varied expressions to the psyche of the evolving new society which was to lake a distinct shape by the early 60's and which was to reach a definite point of glory in 1971 to be followed subsequently by despair and disillusionment.

The poets of the 60's built on the traditions bequeathed to them by their predecessors of the 30's as well as the traditions set by the poets who had already attained some maturity by the time the subcontinent was partitioned. But in a sense they also broke away from their predecessors in as much as they were looking for a new language, new forms and structures. Some of them succeeded, some did not. During this period the appearance of Shamsur Rahman on the literary scene caused a definite efflorescence in our poetry at once rich, potent, vibrant, and sparkling with life.

Shamsur Rahman started writing during the late 40's but Ms first volume came out in the early 60's. It is significant that both Shamsur Rahman and Al Mahmood during their early period were deeply under the influence of Jibanananda Das and thus evinced a debt to neo-romantic traditions. Both of them had a Keatsian involvement with nature during their early days. Not so Shahid Quadri, who, like Shamsur Rahman and Syed Shamsul Haq fully explored the intellectual currents of the day and immersed himself deeply in contemporary world poetry. Together with their efforts there came to he published some excellent periodicals which contained the work of the upcoming new critics responsible for creating a good literary taste. Thus an intellectual situation existed in Dhaka that enabled a number of talented young men to give an artistic exposition of their predicament in the face of the repressive policies of the regime.

The period from 1969 onward is thought to be the most fecund period of our poetry. This is factually not correct. The political turbulence that was gaining momentum in the country did actually help the poets of the 60's to overcome their mental inertia and employ themselves enthusiastically in the search for their own identity. This fact showed itself in the great surge of activities during the mid60's which was carried on till after 1971. The 60's were the time of crystallization of the elements of our nationhood. It was as if the time was out of joint and, for our survival, finding a definite cultural identity was imperative and this consciousness found its best expressions in the works of the poets and artists who turned to their own surroundings and their own cultural heritage for their material. They based their creations on the literary traditions inherited from Michael Madhusudan Datta, Rabindranath Tagore and the poets of the 30's and 40's such as Buddhadeva Bose, Sudhin Datta. Jibanananda Das, Vishnu De. Amiyo Chakrabarty, Subhash Mukhopadhyay and their contemporaries and thus came out of the narrow communal mould into which the poetry of the 50's had unfortunately lapsed.

The poets of the 60's who actually came to represent the new society were able to break away at last from the narrow bounds of a communal identity and could extend their range of vision by disregarding the accepted literary standards when necessary. Thus they were able to establish a link with the broader mass of poetry not only of West Bengal but also of the world. The mood of the period is well exemplified in the writings of even such poets as Syed Ali Ahsan and Farrukh Ahmed. Syed Ali Ahsan brought out in his poems the quiet beauty and serenity of nature in an intensely personal and passionate vision of love for his 'East Bengal'. Farrukh Ahmed on the other hand created a unique poetic world of his own. In order to do so he delved into his own ideas of life and love, found powerful images and symbols and expressed them with extraordinary formal discipline and in a well-knit structural pattern based on the classical model of Bengali verse. His poetic self was obviously looking for his own roots in the past and embarked on a journey of exploration in the past world of Islam which offered very little in the way of myths. This situation forced him to utilize myths which were not Islamic at all, but often pre-Islamic Arab, which created the illusion of another world far removed from his immediate unattractive surroundings. But in poems like 'Sat Sagarer Majhi' (The Sailor of the Seven Seas) and 'Dahook' it is amply proved that wherever he was groping for his material he was firmly rooted in his own land and its language. Thus in a sense both Syed Ali Ahsan and Farrukh Ahmed were escapists in as much as they avoided their immediate locale, full of strife, turbulence and changes.

The poets of the 60's did not have to look for their materials elsewhere and least of all in the Middle East. Instead they found their true cultural identity in their own surroundings: in the life and nature of Bangladesh. Shamsur Rahman's second volume Roudra Korotite (Sunlight in the Skull) presents this life and nature with great intensity and articulates them in a very distinct and clear voice. Like him Al Mahmood also in his own way wrote within the tradition and still transcended it. Both Shamsur Rahman and Al Mahmood created a language of their own. For Al Mahmood the form and the content were at the same time modern and traditional. In his poems, for the first time we find the nature and people of this country depicted with a vividness and a freshness of colour hitherto unknown. It is as if the present has been linked with the long forgotten past and expressed with rare subtlety and vision. His diction, his use of both semitic montheistic traditions and Buddhist lore and, above all. his use of the imagery drawn from the life around us all attest to his rare gifts. His early poems as well as those of Sonali Kabin (The Golden Pledge) are examples of a well synthesized product of a complex and powerful poetic mind. To this was added the urban sophistication of Shahid Quadri, which though less prolific than both Shamsur Rahman and Al Mahmood was nevertheless equally powerful.

Thus the mid60's in Dhaka saw an intellectual atmosphere pregnant with ideas, as it were, ready to burst into remarkable artistic activities. The repressive political forces actually provided these young intellects a cause to fight for in order that they might realize their true identity. They were now capable of expressing their own inner being in literature in the arts, and crafts, the main inclination being towards poetry, true to the ancient Bengali tradition, During this period, therefore, a number of young poets appeared on the literary scene. They were actively encouraged, brought together and published by Abdullah Abu Sayeed, then a young teacher himself at the Dhaka Polytechnic Institute, in his periodical the Kanthaswar and more short-lived pamphlet Baktabya (A Point of View). Some of these poets then brought out their own mouthpiece 'Shakshar'. In a sense, they were, as they are often celled, angry young men totally dissatisfied with and irreverent in their attitude to the prevailing social and political order. This was a period of extreme political repressions and dire economic exploitation. The talk of the day was regional economic disparity, and these young men were in the very eye of the gathering storm of the struggle against the neocolonialist rule of Pakistan. They were acquainted with the writings of British angry young men and the beatniks of Greenwich village and in them found a model for the language of anger expressed in poetic terms. Many of them, unable to express their anger directly against the existing social order, turned against the insensitive and imperious establishment by upholding unusual and outrageous moral standards expressed in terms of overt sexuality. They have thus been perceived by some as decadents.

They were, however, neither decadent nor degenerate. On the contrary, they, in a way, projected themselves into the future and were the first to produce the poetry of defiance and protest. Their initial efforts were directed towards breaking all accepted standards of poetic language. Their diction was visibly different from that of their contemporaries and nothing was sacred to them. They were very sensitive and rather romantic in nature in certain ways. Their poems seem to me, in retrospect, to have been an expression of repressed social forces which aspired for equity, justice, and, above all, freedom; themes so clearly and categorically voiced by the poets of the later part of the decade completely in tune with the general political needs of the day. The pent-up social aspirations of the mid60's perhaps also strove for the acceptance of the idea that the down-trodden people of the then East Pakistan were culturally superior to their more noisy, high pitched, and generally superficial western counterparts. Since most of these poets were very young their efforts may have been naive in many respects initially but never insincere or lacking in conviction. There followed soon some distinct voices clear, resonant, and powerful. The foremost of them were Rafiq Azad and Abdul Mannan Syed.

Azad's poetry proceeds from the national to the universal in his consciousness and yet remains surprisingly down to earth and passionately patriotic, his patriotism being quite distinct from chauvinism. He acquired a unique diction and perfected his art during the 60's and came fully to express himself in the 70's and the 80's when most of his verse appeared. He stands out as a distinct voice in his perception of social reality and his deep insight into the middle-class psyche. He finds it hypocritical and tries to lay bare the truth about it. He has both the courage and the power to voice his feelings in an unabashed language, poignant and intense at the same time. Starting from his Simabaddha Jale Simito Sabuje (A Patch of Green in Scanty Water) through Asambhaber Paye (The Impossible) to his very last volume Parikirna Panshala Amar Swadesha (My Drunk Countrymen), he has been true to his poetic conscience and a source of inspiration to his younger colleagues despite his personal angularities.

Abdul Mannan Syed, who incidentally started writing under the pen-name of Ashok Syed, is on the other hand, generally labelled as a believer in the dictum of art for art's sake, a label he really does not deserve. The truth is that in his generation he shows admirable care for artistic discipline in exploring the depths of the modern man's predicament. At the same time he draws his inspiration from the life and nature around him. He may have a yearning for the remote, the unusual and the unfulfilled but, at the same time, he is very firmly anchored in the realities of his time and his locale, quite unlike a Farrukh Ahmed or a Sudhin Datta. Unlike most of his contemporaries he is extremely prolific both in prose and in verse and yet submits to a rare and strict literary discipline.

The poetry of the 60's is extremely prolific and covers a vast range of forms and themes. It covers almost anything starting from the surrealist experimentations of Abdul Mannan Syed to the mythopoeic and romantic poetry of Mohammed Nurul Huda. Together with formal and structural experimentations, the poetry of the 60's displayed a rare awareness of social, political and psychological realities. In the late 60's Nirmalendu Goon and Mahadeva Saha wrote even in a Marxist vein. On the whole there was in them a strong tendency to celerebration, social comment, patriotic fervour, and abstractions indistinguishable from slogans. But none of these generalizations would really help comprehend the variety, complexity and the versatility of the poets who were most productive during the decade.

When we consider the complexity and the diversity of the poetry of the 60's as well as the poetry that followed the decade we must not lose sight of the fact that all this took place in the context of the general intellectual atmosphere provided by the practising critics and the writers of the period, and also the language and sensibility created by the older poets starting from Ahsan Habib to Zia Hyder. Among them we would include Abul Husain, Syed Ali Ahsan, Sanaul Haq, Abdul Ghani Hazari, Sikandar Abu Zafar, as well as their younger contemporaries such as Shamsur Rahman, Hasan Hafizur Rahman, Al Mahmood, Abu Zafar Obaidullah, Mohammed Mahfuzullah, Alauddin Al-Azad, Zia Hyder, Fazal Shahabuddin, Shahid Quadri and Omar Ali. The influence that Shamsur Rahman, Al Mahmood and Shahid Quadri exerted is extremely important. The younger poets of the 60's owe a special debt to this trio so much so that today for convenience of discussion and analysis it is possible to relate a number of later poets to one or another of them. Thus Rafiq Azad, Sikdar Aminul Haq and Maquid Hyder can be grouped with Shamsur Rahman, Mohammed Nurul Huda, Rudra Mohammed Shahidullah, Asad Mannan with Al Mahmood ; and Abdul Mannan Syed, Shihab Sarkar, Abid Azad and Asad Mannan with Shahid Quadri. This is of course arbitrary, but still the point that the trio started trends of a certain kind cannot be altogether brushed aside. The debt to Shamsur Rahman above all cannot be over-emphasised for a number of reasons. Zillur Rahman Siddiqui aptly says of him: "deeply rooted in his own tradition, he still soaks the language of our times, transcending the limits of geography", "in his range of sympathy, his catholicity, his urgent and immediate relevance for us, Shamsur Rahman is second to none."

During the mid60's the most active poets were Abdul Mannan Syed, Rafiq Azad, Asad Choudhury, Afzal Choudhury, Proshanto Kumar Ghoshal, Shahidul Islam, Mohammed Rafiq, Shah Jahan Hafiz, Sikdar Aminul Haq, Rabiul Husain, and Humayun Azad; while during the later part of the decade there was a burst of new poetry created by such poets as Nirmalendu Goon, Mahadeva Saha, Abul Hasan, Ahmed Safa, Mohammed Nurul Huda, Farhad Mazhar, Ruby Rahman, Suraya Khanam, and Subrata Barua.

Apart from Nirmalendu Goon and Mahadeva Saha, among the young revolutionaries of the later part of the decade, the contribution of Mohammed Nurul Huda seems to me to be the most significant. He is prolific and also profound, being imbued with a unique vision of his land and the people connecting the present with the prehistoric past making extensive use of tradition as well as his own individual talent.

In the wake of the 60's there emerged such talents as Habibullah Shirajee, Rudra Mohammed Shahidullah, Abid Azad, Shihab Sarkar, Maquid Hyder, Sanaul Haq Khan, Zahidul Haq, Moyukh Choudhury, Shishir Datta, Kamal Choudhury, Zahid Hyder and Asad Mannari. Among the poets of the 70's, Rudra Mohammed Shaliidullah and Asad Mannan seem to me to be significant in the sense that they have not only been able to evolve a very distinctive speech but have also been able to display a unique perception of the nature and the people of this country.

For the purpose of our survey, as has been mentioned earlier, it would be best to look at our poetic crop in its totallity. But reference to individual poets and their temperaments becomes essential for the sake of order and convenience. Here it is worthwhile to mention a few names who are from widely varied age groups and backgrounds in an attempt to place them in their proper context. Abu Hena Mustafa Kamal, Mohammed Moniruzzaman, Hayat Mamud, Asad Choudhury, Manzur-e-Mowla and Belal Choudhury have produced excellent poetry with their fine sensibility and able craftsmanship. Abu Hena Mustafa Kamal and Mohammed Moniruzzaman contributed greatly towards enriching our poetic sensibility by their distinctive verse as well as their critical appreciation of our poetry and have exerted varying degrees of influences on their older and younger contemporaries. The romantic lyrical qualities and cultivated critical discipline of Mohammed Moniruzzaman, and the ability of Abu Hena Mustafa Kamal to invest ordinary prose speech with poetic significance have influenced many of their contemporaries and students. On the other hand Manzur-e-Mowla's controlled use of emotion and special use of language as a gesture of irony or understatement have made his readers conscious of the significance of intelligent and measured use of plain speech, the kind of speech forgotten since the very last poems of Tagore. Asad Choudhury is adept in using sound patterns and repetitions in the context of excellent visual imagery which immediately catches the imagination of the young and even the uninitiated. Belal Choudhury stands apart from his other contemporaries. By temperament he belongs to the early 60's, but he spent the 60's outside Ms country and had led a truly Bohemian life while cultivating excellent poetry all the time, poetry full of unusal visual imagery and a deep perception of the individual psyche. Most of his verse has been published after the liberation of Bangladesh.

In this context it must also be mentioned that some of our poets who had already made their mark earlier, after a period of silence appeared on the literary scene again and made important contributions, sometimes even excelling their earlier works in a number of ways. Examples are Abu Zafar Obaidullah and Sayeed Atiqullah. While Sayeed Atiqullah has crafted a pattern of broken prose speech entirely his own, Abu Zafar Obaidullah has created a unique flowing cadence in Ms poetry vaguely reminiscent of Arnold but something which is very much his own. In his volumes published during the early 80's he has not only created a cadence all his own but has also been able to blend the qualities of the classical and the modern with the contemporary idiom while continuously demonstrating the power of symbols. It is a long way that he has travelled from his Satnorir Har (The Seven-Stringed Necklace) to Sohishnu Protiksha (The Patient Wait). This power of rejuvenation is also to be found in a great measure in Syed Shamsul Haq whose contributions to our poetry during the 80's is extremely significant both in form and in content. He, among our older poets, has the air of unexpectedly appearing from nowhere, opening as it were a magic casement on perilous seas forlorn.

It is perhaps relevant in a discussion of our contemporary poetry,to mention about the contribution, both negative and positive, made by such organizations as 'Padavoli' and 'Kavikantha'. There has been a lot of negative criticism of the poetry reading sessions held by these organizations and, at one point, much mud slinging too. It is true that the existence of such organizations may not necessarily result in the production of good poetry, but the fact still remains that this country had a long history of oral traditions. From days immemorial Punthis have been read aloud by skilful readers to rapt audiences in the quiet huts of Bengali villages. And poetry is after all meant to be read aloud. It is important that since the early 80's there has been a renewed interest in our poetry on the part of the reading public. Today we find a number of organizations all over the country dedicated entirely to the recitation of poetry. While too much emphasis on this auditory factor may lead to an undermining of other qualities of good poetry, it must be admitted that such poetry reading sessions are entirely in tune with our indigenous traditions and have an excellent possibility of greatly improving the taste of the reading public as well as refining the speech of the ordinary people. It is undoubtedly very relevant to our culture. We are not greatly surprised today when we find even our political speeches sprinkled, with some poetry, good or bad. It is also significant that during the poetry reading sessions the audience shows a surprising feeling for good poetry in general.

The charge that since the early 70's our poetry has been drifting into decadence and desolation, is not entirely true. There is of course, for understandable reasons, a sense of despair and disillusionment in it, but it has to be noted that there have been unprecedented activities in the field of publication since liberation. Since then at least two hundred and fifty volumes of the known poets have got published, not to mention the others making ceremonious appearances, at odd times of the year. The problem lay not so much in the quantity of verse produced during the period, as in the lack of freshness and breadth, of something uniquely perceived, without which a poem may very well become a futile literary exercise. According to some critics this is what has happened to our poetry today due partly to a kind of editorial anarchy hitherto unknown. It is alleged that sometimes poems got published in the periodicals for reasons other than literary. Even though generous space is allocated in the weeklies these days to poetry, there is yet no regular periodical for the young practitioner. This drawback should be remedied for the benefit of poetry.

The situation has got further complicated because today there exists an acceptable model of poetic language as adapted to the contemporary idiom, and the young practitioner therefore easily submits himself to the effortless and seemingly endless repetitions of the same formal and thematic patterns. This practice greatly undermines the value of innovation, hard work and the training of the mind. A good critical approach to our poetry and conscientious editorial intervention before it sees the light of day are two very important requirements for creating a sound readership for poetry.

According to some critics our poetry by and large still lacks the desired degree of philosophical and aesthetic coherence, terseness and appeal to be able to cross the national frontiers and find an international audience. It is a question of opinion though, and one can only prove the validity of this theory by trying to get our poetry across the frontiers. It is a pity that after one and a half decades of liberation even the foremost of our poets have not been adequately translated into modern European and Latin American languages and not even in other sub-continental languages. No effort has yet been made to make our poetry available in the Indian market whereas our market has been hospitable to an anthology of modern Urdu verse in English published by Penguin Books Ltd.. The translations have been made by an Urdu speaking scholar. It is time that our poetry should find its deserved place beyond our national frontiers and thus form a bridge between us and other cultures of the world.

Photograph by: Din M Shibly

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