Shukanto Bhattacarya - known as a young Bengali poet of hunger and revolution
Essay by: BARUA
Shukanta Bhattacarya (15 August, 1926 – 13 May, 1947), or Kobi Shukanto as he is affectionately known, is perhaps the best known among young poets, to have left permanent mark with full vigor, in Bengali literature. Unfortunately, due to not being exposed to the world in English translations, he could not win the similar appreciations from the world as did Keats or Shelly. Indeed not many of his writings saw the light of the day during his lifetime even in Bengali itself. In fact it was during the last few months before his death, while his friends were collecting funds to treat him when he was suffering from tuberculosis, that some of his writings got published. Then it was too late, at least for Shukanto, and seeing how gladly the contemporary critics and intellectuals - whom he admired so much - accepted his writings, he expressed pathetically that he wanted to live and write for some more time. However in the transitory nature of existence it was not in any of his admirers’ capacity to fulfill the wish of their beloved poet. Yet, what Shukanto gave us was sufficient enough and Bengali readers – both of West and East Bengals – have certainly given him the place he deserves in the Bengali literature.
When one speaks of Shukanto, a young boy of 21 producing such great works in literature, one often remarks that his talent was “God-gifted”. In fact the reality is that it was the socio-political system of his time that provided the ground for Shukanto’s writings, not God. The household problems of
Bengal such as untouchability, exploitation of the poor by the land lords, etc. were there. In addition the World War II and the Man made famine of Bengal. In all these Shukanto responded in a way, most teen agers do not even dare to. The nationalist or patriotic writings of Shamsur Rahman or any other Bengali poet were written when they became actually matured and practically started to get exposed to and involved in the international political scenario.
Shukanto is most fittingly titled as ‘young Nazrul’, in comparison with Kazi Narul – the national poet of
Bangladesh, known as the ‘rebel poet’. Shukanto’s uniqueness is not with regard to his involvement with the contemporary politics, which many young boys did, but in his extra-ordinary capacity to express his emotions in writing. Nazrul, a venerable patriot, joined the Indian army when he was only 14; and at his twenties Tagore had already published several volumes of poetries including his Letters from Europe, which did not escape hard criticisms and accusations of immaturity from contemporary critics. Yet, reading one after the other poems of Shukanto – even the hardest critics are awe-stricken, and commonly agree that no better representation of spirit of youth is possible in literature. Shukanto’s poems talk a lot about the youth – what young people are; what nationalism, patriotism, and most importantly, the life means to the young people; their responsibilities; and what and how they deserve to be cared. Among several perspectives in Shukanto’s poems one important message is that young generation must not be neglected. They have so much of potentialities and when provoked they can be the burning fire. In broader sense, he was representing not only the rebellion youths, but also the ‘people’ – the common people who were subjugated, discriminated, and tortured by land-lords of home, and the foreign colonizers. The message is very simple – the common folks who are condemned as illiterate and fools by the so called ‘respectable or civilized folks’ can become the messengers of death when aroused. He proved this through his own life as the example.
According to the popular version of his biography Shukanto failed in his Entrance Examination in 1945 – and he never attempted for further institutional education. Although resembling to Tagore – who could not cope with any institutional educational systems, even in
Europe, Shukanto’s commitment was different. The society at his disclosure had taught so much to him that he was taking the role of a social reformer, not student any more. The reasoning is like this – he failed in Entrance Examination because he neglected his studies, he neglected his studies because he loved his country, and his practical life taught him so much. Then he subscribed into leftist politics. And then he became a member of the Communist Party. Very soon, even though he was a failure at the Entrance Examination, he became the editor of an anthology named ‘Akal’ and ‘Kishore Sabha’ section of Dainik Shadhinota – a Marxist Daily Newspaper. Due to over-working for his party and organizations Shukanto passed away on 13th May, 1947. Everything happened so fast. Sometimes it appears that there was something happening in Shukanto – that instigated him not to continue institutional studies, to have a better view of the agony of the country, and perhaps warned him of the nearing-death. And for Bengalese, the need for Shukanto-spirits among teenagers is always felt.
When teenagers of our time are playful and seeking to perform mischievous tricks and who hardly understand politics, Shukanto, at his teenage was thinking of his country’s unwise political moves and various social injustices of which he had bitter experiences. It was the time Shukanto thought himself as a hero – who would work for the country not for a selfish purpose, but truly out of deep devotion for his mother land – a hero he really was. He loved his age – and realized that the youths have immense potentialities. His poem ‘the eighteen years age’ is one of his most popular poems that still continue to generate exuberant feelings among the youths. He says that the eighteen year olds do not know how to bend down their heads, when necessity demands they can hold guns. Although referred as ‘young Nazrul’, in Shukanto there was a unification of both Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Narzul. His rebel-spirit resembles with Nazrul, but for his poetic arts and humanistic as well as romantic ideals he was devoted to Tagore. He did not imitate any. He himself declares in a beautiful poem referring to Tagore “even now your bright presence in my heart, generates (a soothing) vibration, every moment.” In his poem ‘the song of rebellion’, he declared revolution, practically a war, to his fellow rebels, not imitating ‘the rebel’ of Nazrul, but in his own way like this: Has the clock stricken? Let us revolt now. Let all roar, “We are our own protectors”…
It was the time of war. In 1943 famine – one of the scandals in the history of
Bengal – over five million people died of starvation and epidemics. All these come alive in Shukanto’s poems. He writes: “burning in hunger, the world is in prose; the full-moon reminds me of roasted bread.” What could he do? He is said to have worked as a relief worker during the time of famine. It was not at all in his capacity to change the system. In fact he was in the category of the oppressed. His position he expresses in many poems. In Agami, he writes: “not an inanimate, not dead, not one of mineral in darkness; I am a living soul, I am a germinated seed; nourished on soils, weak, yet only at the calls of the sky; I opened my susceptible eyes, dreams surround me; (I am) so insignificant in this world of banyan trees; yet in this little body, rustling sounds are heard, in secret…” He never visited Europe. Even then his comparison of his homeland with Europe is a sharp reality and seems written so fresh.
There it is May now, days of melting frosts,
Here it is the blazing Baishak days of sleeplessness;
Perhaps soft southern winds have started blowing there;
Here blighting stormy winds beating the back terraces
Here and there flowers are blooming in your country
Colorful, variegated the night approaches.
Many children leave houses, in the streets
In this Spring, so many festivals, singing songs.
Here the flowers are dried up, in the color of the dusts
The country is forlorn, the peace burning in the hearth.
In fear of severe sun the children are locked up in houses,
All are quietened; to rise in a boshekhi storm.
After so much of hard works, so much of struggles
Everywhere now there are gardens in your country;
In war and famine this country, the earth burning with bones
It is May in your country, here it is tempestuous boishak
Yet Shukanto has promises to make to his younger generations. In his poem Cha?patra he refers to the new-born babies. A baby is born; its first cry declares that the place must be vacuumed for it. The people dying at war and famine were already vacuuming the place. Its future is ‘blurry and snowy’; it needs certainty and security for future. Shukanto made the promise that he would stake his life to secure the hopes of the new-born – representing the new era.
The child who is born this night
I got message from him
That he has brought a letter,
At the very moment of birth
In sharp (piercing) cries…
Declaring about his rights in this new world
A Little body helpless, yet his hands with firm fists,
In certain incomprehensible promises.
Nobody understands that language,
Some laugh, some furtively reprove.
But, I understand that language in my conscience
I have received the (indication) of the approaching era
Reading the letter of identity of the new-born child
In blurry snowy eyes.
The new child has come, for him the place must be vacuumed;
In this decrepit world, bearing
Failed, dead, piles of wreckages
We have to leave.
We shall leave – yet as long as there is breath in this body
Staking our own lives, we shall remove the rubbish heaps
And make the earth habitable for the child
This is my firm promise to the new-born.
At last, accomplishing all the tasks
With my blood I shall bless the new-born
Then only I shall become the history.
Shukanto is regarded as a pioneer among Marxist poets in Bengali. He wrote many poems in the name of Lenin and for equality. However Marxism is only a partial identity. He was above all concerned about the human sufferings. He felt strongly the necessity to overcome the class discriminations and to establish equality. For that he got support from Marxists. He wrote poems in the names of Gandhi, Tagore, Langston Hughes, etc. humanists and international figures. Shukanto mainly wrote poems and his expressions are so clear and vigorous that in an instant reading of his poems the reader is not only delighted but is also stricken by their contents. The messages are instantly felt. Concerning Karl Marx’s composing poems it has been said “While writing poems he developed a critical approach to the retrogressive and repressive ideologies and realized, in the process, that the time had come to put an end to composing lyrical poems and hence he devoted the rest of his life until his death in 1883 to formulate a political programme with a view to redeem mankind from exploitation and oppression, the project, in my belief, is Karl Marx’s monumental epic.”
[Prof. Desmond Mallikarachchi, “The little known lyricist within the socialist: Tribute to Karl Marx on his 125th death anniversary” Sunday Times, 3 March, 2008]
Reading Shukanto’s poems one feels that poetry is not a weak medium of communicating Socialist ideas. Here we have an active Marxist who was a social activist, a poet and who composed many songs that convey the messages of humanity across every category of people – Marxists and non-Marxists alike. In comparison Shukanto reminds of the people he himself admired – Langston Hughes for example. Without proper English translations of his poems Shukanto’s place in the World Literature would not be felt.
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