Jibanananda Das: Tropes, Tensions, Tendencies
Today, February 17, marks the 123rd birthday of Jibanananda Das (1899-1954), recognized today as one of the greatest Bengali poets of all time. But he was quite neglected during his lifetime. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) did not take Jibanananda seriously at all. His initial reaction to Jibanananda’s poems was downright harsh and even grossly dismissive, while his later reaction was brief, dry, but supportive – albeit inadequately – as he spoke only of the enjoyment of looking at Jibanananda’s poems, emphasizing thus the profusion and fullness of visual images in his poetry. Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) went so far as to mock Jibanananda by saying something along the lines of: For him, metaphor is more important than mother.
But then, it is true that metaphors and images constitute and characterize the very power of Jibanananda’s poetry, although he is much more than his tropological and metaphorical interventions and inventions as such.
But, among his notable contemporaries, only Buddhadeva Bose (1908-1974) bothered to read Jibanananda and evaluate his work as far as possible. Yet I argue that despite his fondness for Jibanananda, Buddhadeva – remaining high on Western poetics and aesthetics, while characterizing Jibanananda as the loneliest of poets – ultimately failed to do justice to his far-reaching body of work which does not cannot simply be reduced to themes of simple individual loneliness, alienation and even existential crisis, although these themes are by no means absent from his work.
Jibanananda’s first collection of poems, titled Jhara Palak (Fallen Feathers), appeared in 1927. Then its second volume, Dhushar Pandulipi (Manuscrits Gris), appeared in 1936, while the year 1942 saw the publication of one of his major works, Banalata Sena real tour de force. His other major collections such as Mahaprithibee (The Big World) and Satti Tarar Timir (The Darkness of Seven Stars) was released in 1944 and 1948, respectively. It was in 1954, the year of his death, that his Sreshta Kabita (Best Poems) was published, and his posthumous collections such as Rupashi Bangla (Magnificent Bengal) and Bela Obela Kalbela (Time, Odd Time, Inauspicious Time) appeared in 1957 and 1961 respectively.
Indeed, Jibanananda Das’ writing career spanned 35 years, from 1919 to 1954, during which time he published a total of 269 poems in different magazines and journals. Of these, only 162 poems have been collected in his seven volumes which I have already mentioned. But, over a span of more than six decades after his death, Jibanananda’s many poems, 28 novels, and more than a hundred stories, including his essays, letters, diaries, songs, even drawings and pencil sketches , along with his huge “literary notes” of no less than 4,272 pages – were discovered. Thus, it is clear today that Jibanananda the poet was also an extraordinarily powerful short story writer and novelist as well as a thinker, among other things.
His novels – which have yet to be adequately engaged – were written between 1931 and 1948, and some of them include Purnima, Bibha, Karubasana, Jeebonpranalee, Pretinir Rupkatha, Mallyaban, Jalpaihati, Basmatir Upakkhyan and Sutirthaexperimentally structured and textured works of fiction that explore the complexity of modes of to become and to be— as well as the limits of our language — differentially enmeshed as they are in the tensions and transactions between the autobiographical, the psychological, the social, and even the politico-economic, to say the least.
But, of course, Jibanananda Das, known as one of the leading modernists in Bengali literature, was first and foremost a poet. Today, critics and readers – citing Western figures or approaches – find in Jibanananda things like Keatsian sensuality, Edgar Allan Poe’s sense of the mysterious and even the macabre, Mallarmé’s symbolism, sense of melancholy and of the death of WB Yeats, the imagism of William Carlos Williams, etc. The aesthetics of synaesthesia – or what I would call the “intersensory” experience that the great French poet Charles Baudelaire memorably embodies in his superb sonnet titled Matches—is also at work in Jibanananda, as the critic Alakranjan Dasgupta once pointed out. And then, a whole series of critics have found in Jibanananda certain elements of impressionism, abstract expressionism, dadaism, surrealism and even “postmodernism”.
This list, far from being exhaustive, gives at least an idea of the textual plasticity and the hermeneutical hospitality of the extraordinarily rich poetic work of Jibanananda, who nevertheless remains exemplarily rooted in his own country, Bangladesh, both urban and rural.
For example, in his collection of incomparably beautiful sonnets called Rupashi Bangla alone, the immense image constellations of Jibanananda – silent lights and silent waves of damp smells in the peasant’s field, dewdrops soaking chalta flowers, brown wings chalik cooling in the shadow of twilight, the kadam forest under Ashvinthe autumn sky, the spotted owls smelling of the rice fields, the kingfishers iridescent by the sun, the ripening mangoes, the stellar totality of star fruit, the branches of lemon trees hanging in the dark, the sharputi and chital the leaping of the fishes, then the rivers Karnaphuli, Dhaleshwari, Padma, Jalangi as well as the proverbial Dhansiri river itself, among others, testify clearly and abundantly to the sensual roots of the poet in rural Bengal.
In fact, this very Bengal comes to constitute a “concrete universal” in much of Jibanananda’s work. It is not for nothing that the poet announces with ardor in one of his sonnets: “Go where you want, I will stay on the shores of Bengal.”
But then, cities and their daily dirty dialectics – engendered by capitalism and colonialism – also feature heavily in much of Jibanananda’s poetry. Even in his book Banalata Sen– as in his other works – city streets, trams, buses, gas lamps, bricks, signs, windows, doors, roofs – among others – serve as ubiquitous, even governing tropes, while the hustle and bustle of the slums and bustle of the bazaars, the cries of peddlers and lepers on the sidewalks, daily and rickshawsbeggars and even lumpenproletariat, etc., come to characterize much of the urban landscape divided into classes of Jibanananda, whose brand of modernism singularly represents the tensions and transactions between cities and villages, for example. Indeed, Jibanananda was one of the most class-conscious poets among the modernists in colonial Bengal.
And – as I have argued elsewhere – he even skillfully mobilized the tropes of political economy into the spaces of his poems themselves, advancing his “micro-criticism” of the commodity culture of capitalism and thus undermining the characterization otherwise misleading of this poet as a “purist”, or as an “aesthete”, indifferent to the boring prose of everyday life. Indeed, the Jibanananda of political economy has remained ignored in contemporary Bengali literary criticism.
Now, as for the major thematic preoccupations of Jibanananda in his poetry, we can continue to name them in a great variety of ways: for example, the contradictions between the temporal and the timeless within the determined horizon of the history, metaphysics and the physicality of language and love, prehistory and even geological time, geo-cartographic imagination, war and peace, social conflicts, deep nostalgia, corruption and hypocrisies of politicians and businessmen of the middle class, moral decadence of contemporary society, deadly pessimism yet tremendous optimism, and even the question of Revolution (it is not only interesting but also suggestive that he directly uses in his poetry the word “biplob” or “revolution” a number of times since, say, at least Mahaprithibee for Satti Tarar Timir for Bela Obela Kalbelanot to mention the many poems discovered after his death).
Be that as it may, it is easy to see that the political and the philosophical intersect deeply in the poetic spaces of Jibanananda forged with energy and momentum. I must also point out that the rhythms and pressures of its historical conjuncture – characterized by events such as the Second World War, communal riots and violence, famine and the partition of India, among others – have significantly influenced its poetic sensibility and his poetry.
Now let me make some more general observations about Jibanananda Das. It is true that he most effectively and influentially shaped the idiom of modern Bengali poetry, while his enduring preoccupations with all the places, peoples and seasons of his own country testify with strength of its anti-colonial roots, emphasizing its brand of poetics that defies Eurocentrism at every moment. turn.
In fact, Jibanananda eventually emerges as an anti-capitalist, anti-colonial and anti-community poet. And, thus, he is markedly different from some of his contemporaries known as the modernist poets of the 1930s – Sudhin Dutta (1901-1960), Amiya Chakravarty (1901-1986) and Buddhadeva Bose (1908-1974), for example. Moreover, Jibanananda’s relentless explorations of the historical and the unconscious—accompanied by his explorations of different rhythms of time and different spatial contours and constellations—have given his poetry the type of textures as well as a range and a stylistic flexibility totally unknown before. him. It is because of all this that Jibanananda is still with us.
Let me now conclude by commenting on his own statement about his poetry made in the preface to Shrestha Kabita (Best Poems). He himself told us that his work should not be reduced to filing labels, many of which are already in circulation; rather, he seeks a critical consideration of his work as a whole. And the very question of totality remains a challenge for readers and critics of Jibanananda Das.
Doctor Azfar Hussain is Acting Director of the Social Innovation Graduate Program and Associate Professor of Integrative, Religious, and Cultural Studies at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, USA. He is also Vice President of the US-based Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS).