Shakti Chattopadhyay: The Poet Who Would Rather Not Be Called a Poet

By setting his face determinedly away from hallowed poetic mores and literary conventions, Shakti Chattopadhyay evolved an idiom and an ethos entirely his own.

In his foreword to the Collected Poems of Shakti Chattopadhyay (Podyo Somogro, Ananda Publishers, July, 1989), Subhash Mukhopadhyay pointedly located Shakti in a direct line of descent from Jibanananda Das.

Subhash was not suggesting that Shakti wrote like Jibanananda or shared his Weltanschauung, or even that he had learnt his craft from the senior poet who exercised such a powerful influence on many poets of Shakti’s generation. What Subhash really meant  is that while it was Jibanananda who had helped restore Bengali poetry post Rabindranath Tagore to its main stream – after it had drifted in such different directions as cerebral poetry, devout/pious poetry and ‘committed’ poetry – Shakti had carried on in the Jibanananda tradition of pure poetry. In other words, that if a serious reader was to trace the development of Bengali poetry in its purest form, she had to necessarily focus on the work of these two true poets.

One can disagree with Subhash’s take on the development trajectory of Bengali poetry, but he makes an important point nevertheless: that both Jibanananda and Shakti stand apart from most poets of their respective generations both in what they were seeking to achieve and how they were going about it. In some sense, Shakti was even more of a heretic than Jibanananda whose early lyricism was often redolent of the limpid grace, the easy mellifluousness of much of Rabindranath Tagore’s middle period. Consider the opening poem of Jibanananda’s first major anthology, ‘Dhusar Pandulipi’ (‘The Greying Manuscript’, 1936):

Maybe you don’t know it, not that you need to know –
And yet every song I sing has only you at its heart.

Contrast this with some of Shakti’s earliest offerings, for example the poem Jarasandha published in 1956, when he was a callow 22 year old, later anthologised in He Prem, He Naishabdya ( ‘Hello Love! Hello Silence!’):

When a mild breeze rises, I tend to think the sea is near. With your wasted
hands you hold me tight. That tells me, if I would go bathing with the dark-
ness of all I have, the ocean would recede, the chill would recede, and so
would death.
Maybe then you gave birth to death, thinking it was life. I live in darkness,
will stay on in the  dark – or become darkness.
Why did you get me here? Take me back.

Also read: The Portrait of a Poet

Nothing quite like this had been attempted by a Bengali poet before. Buddhadeb Basu, whose poetry magazine Kabita had carried Jarasandha, was excited by the discovery of an explosive new talent. And yet Jarasandha somehow linked up with tradition in some sense, for it foregrounded a character from the Mahabharat. Soon, however, Shakti was venturing into completely uncharted territory, trying his hand, in another poem published in Kabita, at what may be legitimately described as automatic writing that defied both sequential thinking and ‘rational’ structures:

I won’t live very long I don’t want to
At harvest time I’ll take in enchanting vistas
Have settled liegemen down in my home unlighted
Will pick some for a while but not live too long.

Here was a rebel who would brook no constraints on his poetic imagination, no limits on his artistic apparatus, by way either of diction or of metrical structures and rhyme patterns. And he insisted that the hermetic world of his kind of poetry was the only one that mattered – or even existed. Literary or linguistic conventions meant nearly nothing to him, and he cheerfully, and audaciously, melded respectable Sanskrit-originated (‘tatsamo’) words and turns of phrase with unalloyed colloquialisms, even colourful street lingo. Miraculously, he seemed able to pull it off most times, too, often to the consternation of readers brought up on more staid diets.

Volume 1 of his collected poems, always called Podyo Somogro.

Early on, Shakti also began to stress that he wrote podyo (verse), not kabita (poetry). The mystique of high art, Shakti was telling his readers, was not what he was striving after. His verse was not an instrument of exploration, but rather a tool of affirmation. Its reward, he believed, lay not in the excitement of discovery, but in the pleasure of encountering the familiar, though often in an atypical garb. (Which is why his collected poems have always been called Podyo-Somogro, not Kabita-Somogro.) He was also trying to trace his path back to the original meaning of the word poetry – which is ‘heightened speech’. And it was the process of heightening that concerned him more than what it was seeking to heighten.

This is not to suggest, however, that Shakti Chattopadhyay was content with testing and expanding the formalistic capabilities of his art alone. Far from it, indeed. His irreverence, his predilection for iconoclasm, his infinite capacity for  self-deprecation and the intensity of his feeling for nature helped significantly widen the content horizons of Bengali poetry in the 1960s through the 1980s. Here is the sparkling little poem Epitaph – rendered into English by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra – dripping with wicked humour but also, strangely, bitter-sweet:

He gave up none of the world’s pleasures;
He was a poet and a scrounge.

Rejoice!, said his publishers. The fellow’s dead.
At least he won’t now turn up threateningly at the office,
Dressed for the evening, demanding his royalties:
The money, you swine, or I’ll gut the place.

 And so he was laid on the pyre – troublemaker, pauper, poet.

 Shakti rarely had a ‘message’ to deliver through his lines. But when he did permit himself a broad comment on the human condition – which, admittedly, was not very often – he could bring to his commentary such strikingly simple, but vivid, imagery as to make his ‘statement’ a profoundly moving one:

It’s not given to man to know what comes ahead or after him.
Succeeding is not all, for it’s no more than appearing
Nicely turned-out before the man who is stark naked;
Or perhaps, on the beach,
Riling up the party with tall tales from the hills –
It’s not given to man to know what comes ahead or after him.

The first Hungriyalists. Shakti Chattopadhyay is top left.

Looking back, it was only natural that this arch nonconformist was caught up with what came to be known, in the early 1960s, as the Hungry Generation – the artistic movement that had set out to storm the citadel of the ‘poetry establishment’. The movement happened to be the most comprehensive repudiation of the values around which Bengali poetry had grown since the 19th century – rationalism, intellectual discipline and a belief in progress – junking them as degenerate and retrograde. (The jury is still out on the movement’s lasting achievements, but there is no question that it had a transformative effect on the vocabulary of many younger poets of the day.) Indeed, I like to think that, more than Malay Roychoudhury who is generally credited with the authorship of that first, famous Hungryalist Manifesto of November 1961, it was Shakti Chattopadhyay who was responsible for these scalding lines, or, at any rate, for the thoughts underlying them:

“Poetry is no more a civilising manoeuvre, a replanting of the bamboozled gardens; it is a holocaust, a violent and somnambulistic jazzing of the hymning fire, a sowing of the tempestual Hunger….. Poetry is an activity of the narcissistic spirit. Naturally, we have discarded the blankety-blank school of modern poetry, the darling of the press, where poetry does not resurrect itself in an orgasmic flow, but words come out bubbling in an artificial muddle.”

You can scarcely claim to spy the ‘bamboozled gardens’, original or ‘replanted’, in the opening poem (or all  the others that follow it) of the book Sonar Machhi Khun Korechhi (‘I Killed the Golden Fly’), here presented in excerpts in Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s excellent translation:

The body shakes all over, walls crash into walls, cornices into cornices,
The midnight sidewalks change places.
It’s the hour of homecoming, home inside home, leg inside leg,
Ribcage inside ribcage,
And nothing else – or is there more? – until one gets home…..

‘Stop!’ And you freeze. Your hands go up,
Until you’re bundled into a van.
Black Maria inside Black Maria inside Black Maria.
You whiz past rows of unlit windows, doors, a graveyard, piles of skeletons,
Maggots inside skeletons, life throbbing inside maggots, death inside life,
And so death inside death
And nothing more…

Imagine, the train stationary and the platform gaining speed,
A fused electric bulb as bright as starlight;
Imagine the feet not moving and the sandals walking away,
Heaven where hell is and hell where heaven;
Imagine, newborns carrying in perambulators the dead to Nimtala,
And, across the river, decrepit old men dancing in the bridal-chamber…

There came a time in the mid-1960s when Shakti disavowed his association with the Generation, but if there was one poem the Hungryalists would be proud to have their ensign emblazoned with, it has to be this tour de force of poetic inspiration and ingenuity. What is remarkable about this kind of ‘instant’ writing is that, even though it is straining at the leash all the time, the poet’s imagination never strays beyond the central vision that drives the poem, and, for all one knew, the impression of ‘automatism’ was a carefully-crafted illusion. It is a virtuoso act of poetic craftsmanship. Perhaps no other poem, individually, with the possible exception of Jibanananda Das’s One Day, Eight Years Ago, has done more to push the frontiers of post-Rabindranath Tagore Bengali poetry to quite this extent.

Also read: ‘The Place of Love is Uncertain’: Two Poems by Vinod Kumar Shukla

A quick word on the Hungriyalists and their supposed intellectual/spiritual ancestry which is often traced to Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation. Ginsberg arrived in India in 1962 and travelled widely across the country, seeking what he believed was the fountainhead of an ‘irrational existence’ free from the trappings of consumerism and predatory capitalism. In Kolkata, he met and befriended Shakti and his Hungry Generation friends in what proved to be the intersection of not only two cultures, both also two insurgencies, and each, no doubt,  fertilised the other in varying degrees.

But perhaps Ginsberg took away from this encounter much more than he left behind here, and it may not be appropriate to claim that he became a seminal influence on Shakti or his poetic idiom. The Hungriyalists had already raised their mutinous flag in Kolkata and elsewhere in India, and even Shakti’s own poetry, having imbibed the spirit of that mutiny, had begun to move in the direction that would define his work for the rest of his life.

Shakti Chattopadhyay was seldom an easy read. Subhash Mukhopadhyay makes no secret of his early struggles with Shakti’s poetry, confessing how picking his way through the maze of associations and very private memories that lie strewn over much of Shakti’s work often proved to be such a challenge. Soon, though, he realised that the trick was to not try to understand everything, to stop worrying about ‘meanings’, and allow oneself to be swept up with the elemental power of the poetry.

Most readers will agree with Subhash here, who is suggesting, though he does not say it in so many words, that Shakti was, above all, a lyric poet, who, unlike some of his contemporaries, was always unabashed about this fact. (His repeated insistence that he was a versifier, rather than a poet, also points to this acknowledgement.) He was always at home in such charmingly lyrical pieces as the following, but each of these little poems is lighted up with its own quirky humour:

   It was still dark                                                it was still light
   In the alleyways of Hridaypur                         games of caprice thrived.
  Mists shrouded the river                                 fuzzy lay the sky
 The debonair moon yet shed                          an unforgiving light.
  What good is it surpassing her                   whose brow knit in a frown
   Invites shut doors all around                      and cautious watches abound?
   What good is it calling to her                    now at the long day’s end
  As Hridaypur’s games of caprice                play out to their jejune end?

Translating Shakti presents challenges quite as formidable as those confronting the translator of Jibanananda Das. Or maybe the problems are somewhat more daunting here, for lilting end-rhyme patterns that make up so much of the appeal of Shakti’s poetry are impossible to transliterate. That is perhaps why translators such as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra strike out in different directions, without bothering to construct rhyme or metrical patterns mimicking or even paralleling the originals, instead instating metrical structures recognisable in the other language.  Here is Mehrotra doing just that with this gem of an early poem:

                      A memory comes back.
                            The whistle, the junction,
                          The level crossing, the stalled train.
                         Will I see you in the window, reading Hart Crane?

                          The journey was long, a hundred and fifty miles,
                         At the end of which all I got is,
                       ‘You aren’t so rich to be wasting money like this’.
                         You were right. I was just a schoolteacher then.

                       We sat in the moonlight.
                      You took out a photograph
                      And said, ‘Keep it.’
                      I have it in my wallet still.

                      A memory comes back.
                      The whistle, the junction,
                    The level crossing, a stalled train.
                    Don’t tell me you still read Hart Crane.

With his infinite curiosity about new forms and structures, Shakti wrote prolifically and fast – at times, one suspects, a little too fast – and nothing – no theme, no motif – was anathema to him, or too sacred to deal with. On occasion, he would tell himself that, as poet, he needed to engage with things that he had either neglected or not found stimulating enough:
Poetry needs to step up to unlock every temple door,
For that’s what poetry is about:
Shedding the indolence of the pitch black night
And cradling in your hands the moon…

One would like to believe that, in his own way, this exceptionally gifted poet did his best to cradle the moon in his hands. But most Shakti aficionados would yet remember him as a nonpareil lyric poet who could fashion, when he wanted, the plain word and the unremarkable image into pictures of ineffable beauty:

Behind tightly-shut doors the town sleeps,
When sudden the night erupts
In a cry of ‘Abani, are you home?’

It rains here without end all the year round,
As clouds graze lazy,  like pregnant cows.
Sated and heavy, the grass, lush-green,
Grows over the door-step and hems the door in:
‘Abani, are you home?’

Half in stupor, faraway in my heart,
From pain I drift off into sleep,
When suddenly the night erupts
In the cry of ‘Abani, are you in?’

Is this humble verse, or high poetry? At least one reader does not care.

The author gratefully acknowledges the permission to use a few of poet and translator Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s previously unpublished translations from Shakti Chattopadhyay. The poems/excerpts not ascribed to any translator were done by the author.

Anjan Basu can be reached at [email protected].