Calcutta Posts

Extract from “The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution”

The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution by Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury is an interesting tribute to a short lived but intense literary movement in West Bengal that has left an lasting impact around the world. Their well documented relationship with the Beats poet is also analysed in The Hungryalists. This book will become one of the go-to reads on The Hungryalists precisely for the very reason that little documentation of the movement exists in English as these poets mostly wrote in Bengali. So to transcend languages and cultures requires a bridging language which is English.

The Hungryalist or the hungry generation movement was a literary movement in Bengali that was launched in 1961, by a group of young Bengali poets. It was spearheaded by the famous Hungryalist quartet — Malay Roychoudhury, Samir Roychoudhury, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Debi Roy. They had coined Hungryalism from the word ‘Hungry’ used by Geoffrey Chaucer in his poetic line “in the sowre hungry tyme”. The central theme of the movement was Oswald Spengler’s idea of History, that an ailing culture feeds on cultural elements brought from outside. These writers felt that Bengali culture had reached its zenith and was now living on alien food. . . . The movement was joined by other young poets like Utpal Kumar Basu, Binoy Majumdar, Sandipan Chattopadhyay, Basudeb Dasgupta, Falguni Roy, Tridib Mitra and many more. Their poetry spoke the displaced people and also contained huge resentment towards the government as well as profanity. … On September 2, 1964, arrest warrants were issued against 11 of the Hungry poets. The charges included obscenity in literature and subversive conspiracy against the state. The court case went on for years, which drew attention worldwide. Poets like Octavio Paz, Ernesto Cardenal and Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg visited Malay Roychoudhury. The Hungryalist movement also influenced Hindi, Marathi, Assamese, Telugu & Urdu literature. ( “The Hungryalist Movement: When People Took Their Fight Against The Government” Md Imtiaz, The Logical Indian, 29 June 2016)

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With the permission of the publisher here are two short extracts from the book:

Like everywhere else, the shadow of caste hung over the burning ghats as well. There were different burning sections for different castes. The Indian poets accompanying Ginsberg were usually Brahmins. Being there and smoking up was in itself an act of defiance, which normally nobody but the tantrics indulged in. Sunil, who had brought in his dead father here not too long ago, even joked about the place. Later, Ginsberg would go on to write:

I lay in my Calcutta bed, eye fixed

On the green shutters in the wall, crude

Wood that might have been windows

in your Cottage, with a rusty nail

and a ring iron at the hand

To open on heaven. A whitewashed

Wall, the murmur of sidewalk sleepers,

the burning ghat’s sick rose flaring

like matchsticks miles away, my cough

from flu and too many cigarettes,

prophet Ramakrishna banning

the bowels and desires—

War was on everyone’s mind. Ginsberg spoke extensively on what he called the ‘era of wars’. ‘There are as many different wars as the very nature of these wars,’ he had told his fellow poets. Following the death of Stalin and the Cuban Missile Crisis, an uneven calm seemed to have descended, only to be followed by skirmishes here and there. Issues of sovereignty dominated East and West Germany; the Kurds and Iraq were at loggerheads; closer home, the Tibetans were, of course, still struggling to ward off the Chinese invasion of their lands.

Without much ado, Ginsberg, along with Orlovsky and Fakir, arrived one Sunday at the Coffee House looking for Bengali poets. The cafe was abuzz with writers, editors and journalists. Each group had a different table—some had joined two or more tables and brought together different conversations on one plate. But somehow, everyone seemed to have an inchoate understanding of the business of war and what it spelled out for them in the end.

Ginsberg’s arrival was something of a coincidence, Samir mused. Contrary to what one would think was a far-fetched reality, especially in bourgeois Calcutta, a significant number of young Indian students had around that time begun applying for undergraduate courses in American colleges and universities. Times had fundamentally changed, of course. Where once an aspiring middle-class Bengali academic might have chosen to pursue his studies at either Oxford or Cambridge or some university in the Soviet Union, the new mindset now included American universities as the next lucrative biggie to venture forth into. Typically, one would hear snide remarks and private jokes about it in inner circles—about the disloyalty apparent in such choices and more. But those with aspirational values had learnt to live with it, was Malay’s understanding.

Even amid the erratic crowd and the loud voices that drowned everything in coffee, Ginsberg commanded attention. Samir had recalled to Malay:

He approached our table, where Sunil, Shakti, Utpal and I sat, with no hesitation whatsoever. There was no awkwardness in talking to people he hadn’t ever met. None of us had seen such sahibs before, with torn clothes, cheap rubber chappals and a jhola. We were quite curious. At that time, we were not aware of how well known a poet he was back in the US. But I remember his eyes—they were kind and curious. He sat there with us, braving the most suspicious of an entire cadre of wary and sceptical Bengalis, shorn of all their niceties—they were the fiercest lot of Bengali poets—but, somehow, he had managed to disarm us all. He made us listen to him and tried to genuinely learn from us whatever it was that he’d wanted to learn, or thought we had to offer. Much later, we came to know that there had been suspicions about him being a CIA agent, an accusation he was able to disprove. In the end, we just warmed up to him, even liked him. He became one of us—a fagging, crazy, city poet with no direction or end in sight.

All around the Coffee House, there were discussions on war. Would the Chinese Army march up to Calcutta? Would the Indian soldiers hold out? During one of these discussions, Ginsberg spoke with conviction: ‘People who want peace must intervene now, before it’s too late. But, no one will, I’m afraid. Let’s have debates if you will, let’s get talking. Let the Nehrus, the Maos and the Kennedys of this world come together, sit across and talk. Who are we without a debate?’

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Very early on, the Hungryalists had announced, rather brashly, their lack of faith and what they thought of god. To them religion was an utter waste of time, and they made no bones about this. In fact, in one of their bulletins, they had openly denounced god and called organized religion nonsense. Many of the Hungryalists, with their sharp knowledge of Hindu scriptures, had been challenging temple elders on the different rituals and modes of worship. This came as a shock to many, in a country where religion was very much a part of everyday life—a matter of pride and culture even. On the other hand, Ginsberg was evidently quite taken with religion in India and sought out sadhus and holy men wherever he went in the country. While this might have been because he was in search of a guru, he seemed to be fascinated, in equal measure, by the sheer variety that religion opened for him in India—from Kali worship to Buddhism. But like the Beats, the Hungryalists came together in denouncing the politics of war, which merged with their larger world view.

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A tribute to the Hungryalist movement was uploaded on YouTube. It is in Bengali. Here is the film. In the comments Malay RoyChoudhury has also replied.

Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution Penguin Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, an imprint of Penguin Random House, India, 2018. Hb. pp. 190 Rs 599

Further Reading:

Ankan Kazi “Open Wounds: The contested legacy of the Hungry Generation” Caravan, 1 October 2018

Juliet Reynolds “Art, the Hungryalists, and the Beats” Cafe Dissensus, 16 June 2016

A new book chronicles the radically iconoclastic movement in Bengali poetry in the 1960s” Scroll, 8 Jan 2019

Sharmila Sen “Not Quite, Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America”

When people move they inevitably bring certain things with them, leave a few things behind, and acquire new possessions. My parents had asked me to choose what I wanted to take with me to Boston. I was allotted a single suitcase.  Everything else was to be sold, given to relatives, or thrown away. This is what I chose to bring in my suitcase:

Red plastic View-Master with four reels (Disney World, Japan, Baby Animals, and Mecca)

Four Bengali books –Raj Kahini ( Royal Tales) by Abanindranath Tagore; Aam Antir Bhepu ( The Song of the Road) by Bibhutibhushan Bandhyopadhyay; Shishu ( Child), a collection of poems by Rabindranath Tagore; and gopal Bhand ( Stories of Gopal the Royal Fool)

My report cards from my old school, attesting to my grades from 1974 to 1982

My beloved collection of miniature plastic animals that came free with the purchase of Binaca brand toothpaste in India during the 1970s

A Misha commemorative pin from the 1980 Moscow Olympics 

A couple of dresses made of printed cotton 

A pair of gray denim pants, the closest thing I owned to the coveted American blue jeans

A pair of blue canvas shoes from Bata, the most popular shoe company in India 

None of these items were going to be of much practical use, as I soon found out. The tools and weapons I needed to survive and flourish in the New World were waiting for me elsewhere. I would find them in the hallways of my new school. And on the small screen of our black-and-white TV. 

Indian-born American Sharmila Sen’s memoir Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America is an absorbing account of her trying to negotiate her way through her new life in USA while her ties were still strong with India. She was twelve years old when her parents decided to move from Calcutta to the US. Having been born in a bhadralok ( cultured and well-respected) Bengali family she took certain privileges for granted. These were mostly of respect accorded to her cultural inheritance and the family she belonged to. She was not necessarily exposed to the rough and tumble ways of existence. Whereas in America the mere shade of her skin immediately put her in a different category. Her first experience of the classrooms where segregation was not visible as students had no choice in their seating arrangements was small consolation when it came to lunch time or other breaks for then the students promptly clustered in racially segregated groups.

Not Quite Not White is fascinating while moving account of Sharmila Sen negotiating her way through a new culture. She arrived as a young girl bewildered by the customs and social rules of engagement. By social standards of acceptance she did very well for herself as a non-white immigrant, primarily by learning to smile always. She taught herself to learn the rules. Ultimately she found herself being accepted by everyone so much so she heard remarks like “I always forget you are Indian” or “But I see you as white”. Sharmila Sen was educated in the public schools of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and studied in Harvard and Yale. She taught at Harvard for a few years too. Currently, she is the executive editor-at-large at Harvard University Press. Yet her memoir brings out the painful negotiations she has learned to make on a regular basis, imbibing much of it, so as to survive.

To buy on Amazon India 

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2 November 2018 

Abir Mukherjee’s Capt. Sam Wyndham novels

Crime writer-cum-accountant Abir Mukherjee has written three novels — A Rising Man  (2016)A Necessary Evil (2017)Smoke and Ashes (2018) . These novels feature opium addict Capt. Sam Wyndham, former Scotland Yard detective and a World War I veteran. Sam Wyndham is posted to Calcutta where his sidekick is a Bengali educated in England, Surendranath or “Surrender-not” Bannerjee as many refer to him. The three novels are set during the turbulent period of British India when the Independence movement was gaining strength. It is a challenging scenario for both police officers since the Englishman is viewed with suspicion to whatever crime scene he visits and the Indian is also receives a hostile reception for he is considered to be a traitor working with the colonial rulers. It is a fine balance the two investigating officers have to negotiate on a daily basis but they manage supremely well. It is also a balance managed with aplomb by the author himself who is a British Asian and culturally identifies with both nations.

With every novel Abir Mukherjee’s confidence as a writer seems to grow. The stupendous opening lines of each novel are a testament to the fact. They hook the reader immediately.

At least he was well-dressed. Black tie, tux, the works. If you’re going to get yourself killed, you may as well look your best. ( A Rising Man)

It’s not often you see a man with a diamond in his beard. But when a prince runs out of space on his ears, fingers and clothes, I suppose the whiskers on his chin are as good as place as any. ( A Necessary Evil)

It’s not unusual to find a corpse in a funeral parlour. It’s just rare for them to walk in the door under their own steam. It was a riddle worth savouring, but I didn’t have the time, seeing as I was running for my life. ( Smoke and Ashes)

The characters are more alive and they come into their own with the subsequent novels — A Necessary Evil and Smoke and Ashes. Also Capt Wyndham and Surendranath Bannerjee understand each other better. Astonishingly they begin to share an apartment together which is wishful thinking on the part of the author as such a scenario would never have occurred in history — a British officer cohabiting with his Indian colleague. Nevertheless it makes for a nice little creative touch to the novels.

With A Rising Man there is always a very surprised and yet tentative tone to the writing style as if the author’s own astonishment at what he is achieved is apparent on every page. This is only discernible after having read all the other novels in quick succession. In fact the writing becomes pithier in every novel almost as if the skill of precision learned as an accountant has  enabled Abir Mukherjee to write fine crime novels. This is a genre of writing whose prerequisite is to have a keen eye for details, precise dialogue, and exacting descriptions without flabby sentences. In the case of historical fiction such as these novels fact checking also becomes critical.

Abir’s parents emigrated from Calcutta to Britain in the late 1960s. Abir was raised in Scotland and so it is no surprise when at the Edinburgh Festival he was introduced as a Scottish crime writer ( “Crime Writing: Val McDermid, Abir Mukherjee and Lucy Ribchester” in conversation with Mariella Frostrup. BBC Radio 4,  Open Book, 1 Sept 2016). Approaching his fortieth birthday he was going through a mid-life crisis hoping there was more to life than accounting. It was then he chanced upon a TV breakfast show with acclaimed crime writer Lee Child. Abir Mukherjee immediately bought the first Jack Reacher book Killing Floor and was hooked. He says “I was amazed at how simply written and well plotted it was. I’d recently had an idea for a story centered on a British detective who travels to India after the First World War, and reading Killing Floor gave me the motivation to put pen to paper..” He had written about 10,000 words whenever he could spare the time from his day job when he chanced upon the newly announced Telegraph Harvill Secker Crime Writing Competition. This was 2013. He chose to send in the first 5,000 words of his incomplete manuscript and waited to hear. Three months later he did. He discovered that of over 400 applicants he had won the £5,000 competition and a publishing contract. He was very surprised as he writes in this Dead Good article ( April 2016) at having won . His debut, A Rising Man, won the CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger 2017 and was picked as one of Waterstones best books of 2017. Abir Mukherjee is now a part-time accountant as of January 2018 as he would like to devote more time to writing crime novels. (  Smokes and Ashes BBC Radio 4 interview with Samira Ahmed , June 2018) For the Harvill Secker crime writing competition 2018 he has been appointed as a mentor.

And yes, Capt. Sam Wyndham is a worthy creation, true to the spirit of Jack Reacher. Both the characters blossom with every passing novel; it is as if their creators become more comfortable living with the characters on a daily basis. (Listen to “In the Studio” by BBC World Service. In this episode Lee Child speaks of creating Jack Reacher.)  The storytelling of Abir Mukherjee and Lee Child too becomes richer and tauter with every novel of the series. It will be curious to see how the Capt. Wyndham novels evolve. Will the Englishman stay on in Calcutta as the Independence movement intensifies? Or will the author choose to keep his detective like a fly caught in amber and spin out a number of stories set at a particular moment of history? For now it is impossible to say since the first three novels of this series are set in successive years — A Rising Man ( 1919), A Necessary Evil (1920),  Smoke and Ashes ( 1921). Only time will tell. Perhaps with time too it may become clear if these books are optioned for film/television adaptations just as Arjun Raj Gaind‘s historical crime fiction novels set during British India have been optioned.

For now read these crackling historical fiction crime novels set during British India and you will not be disappointed!

Abir Mukherjee A Rising Man Harvill Secker, London, 2016, rpt 2017. Pb. pp. 390. Rs. 399

                                  A Necessary Evil Harvill Secker, London, 2017, rpt 2018. Pb. pp. 

                                  Smoke and Ashes Harvill Secker, London, 2018.  Pb. pp. Rs 599 

14 June 2018 

 

An extract from “The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta” by Kushanava Choudhury

The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury is a memoir of his time spent in Calcutta. It is the city of his parents and he has strong familial ties. Despite studying at Yale University he moves to Calcutta to join The Statesman as a reporter. After two years he quits and returns to do his doctorate from Princeton University. There are incredible descriptions recreating a city which is an odd mix of laid back, sometimes busy, always crowded, crumbling juxtaposed with the shiny new concrete jungles. The language is breathtakingly astonishing for in the tiny descriptions lie the multi-layered character of Calcutta. As William Dalrymple observes in the Guardian that The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta  is “a beautifully observed and even more beautifully written new study of Calcutta”. All true.  Yet it is impossible not to recall the late photographer Raghubir Singh’s book Calcutta, a collection of photographs that sharply document details of a city where the old and new co-exist and continue to charm the outsider. Both the books by Kushanava Choudhury and Raghubir Singh are seminal for the way they capture an old but living city but with a foreigner’s perspective that is refreshing. For instance the following excerpt about little magazines and literary movements encapsulates the hyper-local while giving the global perspective.

The excerpt is taken from The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury published with permission from the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing India.

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From Tamer Lane, along the gully that leads to the phantom urinal, there is a house with a mosaic mural of two birds with Bengali lettering. The letters read: ‘Little Magazine Library’.

Sandip Dutta sat in the front room of his family home. He looked a bit glum, half asleep, just like a Calcutta doctor in his chamber. Not one of those hotshot cardiologists who rake in millions, but more like the para homeopath without much business.

Surrounding him were bookshelves piled high with stacks of documents. Behind them was a glass showcase covered with pasted magazine clippings, like in a teenager’s room. They included cut-out pictures of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Ingmar Bergman, Vincent Van Gogh, Jibanananda Das, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, two big red lips, one big eye, Salvador Dalí and Che Guevara. A cartoon read, in rhyming Bengali: ‘Policeman, take off your helmet when you see a poet.’

On one wall was a taped computer printout: ‘‘‘I have been following the grim events (in Nandigram) and their consequences for the victims and am worried.” Noam Chomsky, Nov 13, 2007. 4:18:17 a.m. by email.’

Curios from local fairs were indiscriminately piled high on the desk. Cucumbers made of clay, pencils carved into nudes, tubes of cream that were actually pens, pens with craning rubber necks like swans, bronze statues from South Africa, masks from rural Bengal, a porcelain dancing girl from America. Behind them, Dutta looked like an alchemist in his lair.

‘I went to the National Library in 1971 and I saw that they were throwing away a bunch of little magazines,’ he said. ‘I had a little magazine of my own then, and I took it as a personal affront.’

No one was archiving little magazines at the time. No libraries kept them. When Dutta finished his masters, he started collecting them. At first he had a job that paid fifty rupees a month, then another for one hundred rupees, teaching three days a week in a remote rural school. ‘They were funny jobs,’ he said. ‘Jobs basically to buy magazines.’

In 1978, he got a teaching job down the road at City College School, he told me. That same year, in the two front rooms of his house, he began the Little Magazine Library. Since then he has been running this operation by himself – a bit like those heroes in Bollywood films who take on a whole band of ruffians single-handedly, he likes to say. His is a one-man effort to save the ephemeral present.

Every afternoon he came home from school and set to work at his library. A couple of days were devoted to maintenance, spraying to prevent bookworms and termites. The rest of the afternoons, he kept the library open to the public.

In Bengal, literary movements were usually connected to one little magazine or another. The heyday of the Bengali little magazine was probably the 1960s, when the poets Sunil, Shakti and Sandipan brought out Krittibas. No magazine today packs the same literary punch. Yet people keep publishing Bengali little magazines. By Sandip’s count, each year 500–600 little magazines are still published.

The little magazine originated in early-twentieth century America. Many of the radical strands of modernism – like James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was first serialised in the Chicago based Little Review – first appeared in little magazines before anyone bet on their viability in the capitalist market. The early works of T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, Tennessee Williams, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner and many others were all published in the little magazines of their day. Unlike regular magazines, they relied on patrons and modest sales rather than advertising. Shielded from market pressures, they provided a place for writers to be read, even if by a small number of people, and they gave intrepid readers a way to discover new writers. In Calcutta, like so many other aspects of life taken from the West – the tram, homeopathy, Communism – once adopted, little magazines then took on a life of their own and became central to how we understood ourselves. In a proper capitalist system, these magazines would have vanished long ago, taking with them thousands of writers. But like those 1950s Chevrolets in Havana, the Bengali little magazine rolls on, patched up, creaky, a source of local pride, as if it were uniquely ours and as integral to Bengali-ness as a fish curry and rice lunch.

***

Kushanava Choudhury The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta  Trade Paperback | 272 pp | INR 499

21 August 2017 

Guest blog: “Popular PRINTS of BENGAL” by Prof. Aloke Kumar

( I spotted the following  post on Prof. Aloke Kumar‘s Facebook wall regarding an ongoing exhibition in Calcutta. With his permission I have reposted it here with additional images from his own collection.)  

An exhibition of lithographs and oleographs from 19th and 20th Century Bengal presented by Ina Puri from the collection of Sanjeet Chowdhury has been mounted at the Harrington Street Arts Centre.

Such exhibitions are mounted to showcase a particular school of Paintings or Prints, to take pride in a collection created over years, to sell the artworks and to make it available to general public for appreciation and educative value. In my youth I saw these prints usually garish and stylised pictures of gods and goddesses and mythological scenes. They were sitting, framed, among the deities of Grandma’s puja alcove. Or lending period flavour to some battered publication as a quaint colour plate.

However on visiting the well curated exhibition at such a well-appointed unique gallery I was taken aback by the thin visitors in the exhibition. What a waste! There is still time. The exhibition is opened till 14th February. There is a Sunday in between. Do rush to the Centre. You will never get an opportunity to witness such a collection. Since I possess a collection similar to this one, I am telling you ,do make a pilgrimage.

I appreciate and enjoyed it so much for the aesthetic qualities of the exhibits as for the manner in which it has been presented, themed and placed in the right context the form that once could be seen in households slowly disappearing.

Since these prints have of late become collectibles worthy of being exhibited, they have acquired an altogether different status that would not be wrong to describe as exalted. Ina Puri, art provocateur, treats them with the seriousness due to them in her authoritative introductory note which hangs on the wall.

She divides the prints into three distinct categories, depending on their provenance: prints from Chorbagan, Art Studio and from other Bengal presses. Fortunately for the visitor, the names of the artist, publishing house, and place where printed are stated on each print. At the tailend, there could have been a wall sign on the techniques of lithography, chromolithography and oleography, which will help viewers appreciate the exhibition better.

The history of these prints began in Calcutta around 1878, when a chromolithography press opened on Bowbazar Street, followed by Kansaripara Art Studio and Chorebagan Art Studio. What will interest the informed are prints by identified though less-known artists such as Bamapada Banerjee and Shital Bandopadhyay from Calcutta. The artists who created these were often trained in Western academism, yet the gods and goddesses churned out by the presses inhabited a mythical world beyond the bounds of realism. Many such prints were closely linked to the freedom struggle, depicting nationalist leaders like Bankim Chatterjee, as well as Surendra Nath Banerjee.

These prints were responsible for the decline of Kalighat painting and also in large part to its inability to continue to adapt and compete with incoming forms of cheap prints. In the early 20th century, German oleographic printing techniques reached India and printmakers were swiftly able to out produce Kalighat painters. Calcuttans

Ganga Presenting her son Devavrata Future Bhisma to his Father Santanu Lithograph Print by B.P-Banerjee 1923were seduced by the photorealistic quality of print images, another value instilled by the influx of European art. By the 1930s, there were few if any patuas were  still near the Kalighat temple. The majority sought work elsewhere or returned to the villages from whence they had come.

were seduced by the photorealistic quality of print images, another value instilled by the influx of European art. By the 1930s, there were few if any patuas were  still near the Kalighat temple. The majority sought work elsewhere or returned to the villages from whence they had come.

In the next phase those who felt the fear of losing Indian culture to British influence and rule would soon use these prints as a tool for elite nationalistic self-determination, setting in motion the culture of patronage that would both support and take forward this popular print art into the 21st century. The potential that lay in harnessing popular mythological images for a nationalist cause. They saw, in these pictures, the portrayal of a glorious past, the propagation of which would induce in the beholders a sense of belonging to a great and once glorious tradition. India began to be projected as a country that had, over the centuries, been oppressed by foreign powers which had eroded and manipulated her traditional values; her culture was portrayed as one which, though failing in material advancement, had an inherent metaphysical strength and which enabled her to absorb past and present invaders. This was a rallying call to muster popular support for an independent India, the India for which gods and national heroes had struggled from time immemorial.

When Europeans came to India, the indigenous printmaking industry primarily comprised block printing on textiles. With the introduction of new modes of printing, including etching, lithography, oleography, intaglio and linocut. Indian artists were trained in the medium by the colonisers. It was introduced in the Government College of Art and Craft too. But back then, printmaking was encouraged to build the workforce and for technicians needed to sustain the print industry, not as a fine art.

The exhibition depicts a rich heritage replete with heroic legends from ancient epics, which were deeply ingrained in many layers of the Bengali psyche. The sheer reverence and admiration for these legends could be readily manipulated into fervent passion. The transformation of this passion into uniform images that could be easily replicated and widely distributed became one of the most potent
weapons in the hands of those leading the nationalist movement. In these pictures, the gods were equipped with nationalistic paraphernalia and national leaders were projected almost like celestial beings.

Prints distributed during the last phase of the struggle for independence were printed using the half-tone technique. New developments in printing technology also resulted in a change of aesthetics. The size of the prints tended to be smaller than that of the oleographs. New techniques dispensed with the highly glossy quality of the earlier prints. Now printed in only three colours — a far smaller palette as compared to the fourteen or seven colours of the oleographics prints — they had a somewhat drab appearance, rather like newsprint. Since many of these prints were made in small workshops, the artists worked them like collages of newspaper picture clippings, introducing a fair amount of their own folksy iconography

At the end of the 19th Century, a printing industry devoted to the production of pictures of deities and mythological themes was established. Being mass produced, they were the most visually influential medium of visual communication of the then socially and culturally fragmented Indian society, subsequently becoming a vehicle for political propaganda as well.

The show unfolds a fascinating narrative in terms of iconography and ideas, techniques and styles. There are a few realistic portraits in monochrome from the late 19th century that reveal sound training and are printed by Calcutta Art Studio. Art is preserved so to say, by other presses, too. Like Chorebagan Art Studio, Kansaripara Art Studio and Imperial Art Cottage which seem to have catered to different taste, both religious and pop.

So while Radha and Krishna in shimmering clothes with improbably lavish folds are placed in landscapes that quote miniature stylisation, the curvaceous Pramada Sundari in a diaphanous sari preening herself before a hand-held mirror ‘ a gesture enshrined in the lexicon of the Indian arts through sculpture, painting and dance-brings to mind Kalighat pat. Though perspective isn’t quite mastered, an appetite for elements of Western art seems evident.

___________

Images : Images are from the Exhibition titled : Popular prints of Bengal being held at Harrington Art Centre.

Those individual and unframed for reference and for a closer perspective are from the collection of Prof. Aloke Kumar

12 February 2017 

Saikat Majumdar, “The Firebird”

LR

LR

(Saikat Majumdar’s second novel, The Firebird, was published recently by Hachette India. I enjoyed reading it. Saikat and I exchanged a few emails. With the author’s permission, I am publishing an extract from the correspondence.) 

Dear Saikat,

I realised in my mail of the morning I did not specify how much I enjoyed reading your novel. I liked it for the sparing use of words but just enough to keep the story moving on. Yet it was packed with sufficient information to create an atmosphere. I would be careful not to use the word ‘detail’, since it does not have much, only that which is required. The story is evocative. And for many of us who may not have lived in Calcutta but were familiar with the Naxal movement and rise of the Communist Party, it does bring memories of stories conveyed by eyewitnesses. I particularly liked the way you wove in a decaying theatre with the determination of a young actress to work. Obviously given the set up at home there was no crying urgency for her to step out. Women were looked after. But I liked the steely resolve of this woman to step out every evening to perform, irrespective of the comments made at home, snide remarks directed at her in public and later the interference of the party members. She was trying to do the balancing act with no help from her husband. He really comes across as a weak man. In the slim novel, you take one through a range of conflicting emotions. I was not even very sure at the end whether to feel sorry or plain angry at the madman who strangled the young girl. I did feel very sad for the young girl and empathised with the young man when he left his mother’s apartment, years later. As for the father and aunt, no chance. Painful creatures.

It is a sad, sad novel with a claustrophobic air to it. But it gets the spirit of Calcutta and Bengali families ever so well. While reading it, my senses were tickled. I could get the smell and visualise much of Calcutta, even though it was not etched in as many words by you.

And yet, it is a wonderful story. Memorable.

One day, you must tell me more about it. How did you begin to write it? What inspired it? 8 years is a long time to spend writing it. Did it involve a lot of research?

I hope it sells well.

Warmly,

JAYA

Dear Jaya,

Thank you so much for your lovely words on The Firebird! It means the world to me! I wrote it after having done a novel and a book of criticism, as it were, getting the ‘firsts’ out of the way, after which I felt ready to write the ‘first’ real book! It sounds strange, but if you have read my first novel, Silverfish, you will perhaps know what I mean. I’m happy I wrote Silverfish and yet it obviously feels like a first novel now, and no, not one of the magical first novels that some writers produce either!

It took me about five and a half years to write this novel. I started this in August 2010, after abandoning about 80 or so pages of a novel that I realized was not going to work. Also, this was the period when I wrote most of Prose of the World, my book of criticism, so my attention was somewhat divided, especially during the early part of this period.

I think the most important that happened between my first and second novels is that I learnt, or rather unlearnt, the shadow of the intellectual, the metafictional, all that clever stuff that stays with us from our engagement with much 20th century fiction. Silverfish was similar to The Firebird in setting and even time period, but for all its attempt to evoke the local, there was something ethnographic about it, which is why, I think, the emotions did not pack the punch they should have. This one came out more viscerally, with more raw, physical power, almost beyond my control. However,  I worked hard to get the ‘spareness’ that you point out so well. I’ve always been a descriptive writer, something of a sensualist, but in The Firebird I learnt to achieve effect with minimal words, a hard lesson for a writer who grew up on Joyce and Woolf. Sometimes the narrative instinct and the descriptive instinct, I think, work against each other – one moves through time and the other through space – and description can slow down narrative. One of the most satisfying things about this novel for me is narration and description seems to have found a mutual equilibrium, and one has not hindered the other. People seem to be taking from it what they like. While most say they are gripped by the narrative, there are also those who have told me that the larger arc of the narrative seems – happily – overwhelmed by the fragrance of Chinese food or the odour of rum with Coke, or the blistering dust of burgeoning suburbs, whatever, and they didn’t even care about the narrative at those points. Completely paradoxical reactions, but I’m happy that the novel has evoked both.

Warmly,

Saikat

31 August 2015

Saikat Majumdar The Firebird Hachette India, Gurgaon, India, 2015. Hb. 

Naveen Kishore, Publisher, Seagull’s acceptance speech for the Goethe Medal, Weimar, 28 Aug 2013

Naveen Kishore, Publisher, Seagull’s acceptance speech for the Goethe Medal, Weimar, 28 Aug 2013

4_GM2013_Kishore_Foto_Schuck (1)( From the Goethe Institute website. In an outstanding way and at the highest level, Naveen Kishore represents dialogue and cultural cooperation between India and Germany, according to the statement by the Goethe Medal commission.

He is the founder and director of Seagull Books in Kolkata, which, with branches in London and Chicago, is established internationally like no other Indian publishing house. The house owns the worldwide English-language publishing rights for authors such as Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann, Jean-Paul Sartre, Thomas Bernhard, Imre Kertész, Yves Bonnefoy, Mo Yan, Mahasweta Devi, Peter Handke and Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Naveen Kishore is led not by the market, but by personal convictions and passions. By launching the German List book series, a collaboration with the Goethe-Institut, he lastingly altered prevailing circumstances for the reception of German-language literature in the English language not only in India, but worldwide. Over the past five years Seagull has acquired the publishing rights to over 60 books from German publishers. Seagull Books is the first to publish German authors such as Brigitte Reimann and Ralf Rothmann in the English language, in carefully edited and excellently translated editions. I am reproducing this speech with Naveen Kishore’s permission. )

Medaille

I found the words that had escaped.
Rounded them up at gunpoint.
Marched them into the compound ringed by barbed wire.
Knocked them senseless with the butt of my gun.
Watched them collapse into a heap of meaninglessness.
Lit a match.
Flicked it on to the heap.

It took several lifetimes.
But at last I succeeded.

To set the words on fire.

The rising smoke drew across the sky
the meaning of my life.

To write is to delve. To hope. To write is to set off on a journey. There’s no arriving. There’s no ‘getting there’. Just the tramping. The walking. The dust tracks as signs of life. Someone has walked this way before. The reassurance. The comfort of friends. And of course the words. Words as solace. Words as recollection. Incomplete words seeking salvation. Broken words in limbo. Premature ones spewed into the gutter even as they are born. Words without moorings. Or roots. Homeless words seeking shelter from the storm. Good. Bad. Indifferent. Words that act like an opiate. Words that sing a lullaby. Unashamed words. Naked and stripped of veils. Harsh and therefore often truthful words. Words of the people. Words that refuse to die. Or be buried. Fighting words. Words with a cause. Borderline words strutting to a neutral tune. Neither-here-nor-there words. Our words. Their words. Words of attrition. Those that feast on anger and prejudice. Words of war. And those that want nothing but a happy ending.

The freedom of language as we used to know it is under a cloud. The very clouds that we grew up turning into sentences are now under suspicion. Trusting words to mean what they say is no longer an option. Sure, we hear them. Often, we even ‘see’ them as they sway down the ramp of language. Stony eyed and anorexic in their transparent gowns. Unblinking in the harshness of the flashing lights. A dull salute to conformity. Or words in the grip of fear. Wrap your tongue round such a word and you see it thrashing and struggling to slip away. The desire to spit out words is unadvisable. Surreptitious tip-toeing after a cautious glance to the left. The right. Then scurrying across the road to safety That’s the way, today’s way, with words.

I have a disease, I see language. I was reincarnated as a publisher in my eleventh birth. In my tenth, I was born in the land of frostbite in upper Alaska and my mother taught me how to chisel the frost off my words as swiftly as the cold north wind froze them once again. In my seventh, I was a lighting designer, learning to backlight words that other people wrote and spoke. Sometimes, I simply lit the silence and waited, with the empty stage, for the entry of a new sentence.

How do you find your way without a compass or a map? Especially when you have set out to grasp that which is intangible? I say to you what others have said to me:
Let intuition be your compass.
Look for a credible (or incredible) way to slip out of the confines of your head, your brain, your training—to unlearn all that you have learnt.

Why does this magazine page or catalogue or book cover look the way it does? Is the designer in me expected to come up with an answer that will make you gasp with admiration at its insight, its erudition, its grasp of designer theory? YES! I’m afraid so. When you ask me ‘Why?’ I’m often tempted, even compelled, to say things like ‘I was attempting to render through a visual metaphor the metaphysical doctrine of XYZ . . .’ or ‘The poststructuralist theories of something-something ‘. Anything.
The sad thing is that I would never have the guts to simply look you in the eye and say: ‘The air above my head and yours is full of lots of somethings. I’ve just learnt to pull out the odd one and spread it evenly across a page. Like butter. Or jam’.
I would love even more to say: ‘Because . . .‘

I am often asked about ‘sustainability’ and ‘structure’, about ‘vision’ and the ‘ability to reinvent’. I never have convincing answers simply because I have no scientific or rational methods to explain my life’s work and the choices that have come with it. I live hand in hand or hand in glove, and therefore complicitly, with ‘the uncertain’ and ‘the intangible’. With the opposite of ‘structure’. I am aware that I also live in a time that does not lend credence to that feeling at the pit of your belly often referred to as the ‘gut’. Instinct is frowned upon, even in the arts.
Each new engagement brings with it a new insight, both in its execution and with its response. Over the years, this style of working has developed into a strategy that:
a) responds flexibly and immediately to a perceived need, be it that of an individual or a group;
b) cuts through the bureaucracy of thought that usually strangles such a dialogue and acts quickly and decisively to meet it; and, more importantly,
c) refuses to get jaded. Nothing is static. Everything has a dynamic plasticity about it.
This award recognizes my life’s work. My life. And, like life, the work is ever evolving, changing, coping, dying, renewing, responding, sustaining, nurturing . . . The closest I can come to describe the Seagull vision is to say: ‘Think of animation’—not a frozen piece of text nor a well-articulated, expertly crafted, neatly phrased all-encompassing legend that can be engraved on a brass plaque. The Seagull way of life is a mercurial, flexible, broad-minded, tolerant and philosophical practice. We respond, therefore we practice. The urge to keep doing, to keep working away at something that enhances things cultural in some form or the other; that benefits those that practice ‘things cultural’ and helps take them further, from Point A to Point D— that’s what drives us at Seagull. Every day.

Ours is therefore a practice that will always remain vulnerable. Not the vulnerability of the weak but of those receptive to new impressions. Our vulnerability to ideas makes us receptive to all that is new and untried. Especially in these dark times when culture is slowly but surely being hijacked by forces that are anything but benign. I do feel watched in a way I never have before. And I am afraid that a technology that I do not understand is both spying on me and entertaining me. I am under surveillance even as I am seduced by It. The all pervasive It of our lives. The It as State. As a state of mind. As a powerful presence that will have its way. It as Corporation. It as newspapers. As television. As theatre and cinema. It as Media with a capital ‘M’. It as power that knows no boundaries. It without conscience. Yes. It is like listening to music that is both hypnotic and evil. That attracts. That refuses to let go of my attention.
I listen to the songs but I do not understand the words.
The space for our songs is not as free as it used to be.

I have a flaw. I want to do everything. Don’t you wish that you could do everything? Or, at least, a lot of things? I want to experience. I want to be part of a process that has no apparent game plan. I want to be part of something that does. I hate the thought of being restricted. Allow us this day our daily attempts—at anything and everything. Why not?

Underlining all of this is an urge to survive and to do things. Not just any thing but ‘something in the arts’. And this is precisely what we have been doing for the last 40 years or so. ‘Survival’ carries with it a sense of the precarious, a kind of ‘just about keeping your head above water’. This is true but it need not necessarily make you unhappy! As long as you manage to take care of what you define as your daily necessities—the urge to produce a certain kind of book that few wish to buy; or organize an experimental performance because you feel it needs to be seen; or exhibit an artist’s work that needs to see the light of day—the rest will fall into place.

One day I will write something where each word is made up of a million waves and each wave sings its own story and each story sheds its own tears and the tears do what they must to carry on they smile and smiles come bearing the strings that make music and strings quickly learn to caress the bark of the finest violins which in turn play melodies that weave a magic spell over the hearts that beat and throb and every throb breathes new life into words words that bear echoes echoes that sound like the bells that adorn churches bells crafted out of the finest metal safeguarded over centuries for its ability to turn word into sound sounds that are pregnant with words words that bear the seed of silence silence that accompanies stillness stillness as we know is the mother of echo echo that every word carries within it of a life before the birth of language language that was once sensed rather than heard like the morning breeze celebrating a birth the birth of poetry

I am a man of words.
To me, the words matter most of all.

Naveen Kishore
Weimar, August 2013

Chitra Banerjee Divakurni “Oleander Girl”

Chitra Banerjee Divakurni “Oleander Girl”

 

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni

Oleander Girl. Chitra Banerjee Divakurni’s latest novel. It is about Korbi, who was orphaned at birth and is brought up by her maternal grandparents in Calcutta. She is a bhodra Bengali, while studying in college meets Rajat, a rich young man. (His parents own a very well known art gallery in the city and in New York.) They are engaged and to be married soon. It all seems to be moving correctly when Korobi’s life is suddenly thrown out of gear. She chooses to investigate her past since she would like to begin her married life knowing the truth. It involves her travelling to America soon after her engagement. A move that does not go down very well with her immediate family but she is determined. Korobi or Oleander (as she is named after the flower) is true to her name– “beautiful but also tough. Also knows how to protect herself from predators.”

Oleander Girl is a very readable novel. At the superficial level it is a love story with its moments of heartache. It is gently and charmingly told by Chitra Banerjee Divakurni. It is set against the backdrop of the Godhra riots and the events of 9/11. Frighteningly these events have an immediate impact on even bhodra families like that of Korobi. These unpleasant events also unmask the prejudices that exist in individuals too. It is an intricate web woven by the author and done without making it seem complicated.

A characteristic trait of all of Chitra Banerjee Divakurni’s novels are the number of women characters she has. The protagonist is always a woman but she is surrounded by women of all shades. Incredibly the author manages to make every girl and woman in the book a strong personality. They are memorable. In Oleander Girl, there is the grandmother Sarojini, Rajat’s mother, his younger sister Pia and Seema Mitra in NYC. Also not forgetting the late Anu Roy, Korobi’s mother. To put it blandly these are women who struggle, make their choices and survive the consequences. But the joy in reading the novel lies in understanding these women better. I am not surprised that Chitra Banerjee Divakurni writes the way she does. Some years ago when I met her she told me of her involvement with Maitri. http://www.friendsofbooks.com/blog/evening-with-chitra-banerjee-divakaruni )

In 1991, Chitra co-founded Maitri (http://www.maitri.org/ ). It is an NGO based in the San Francisco Bay area that helps battered women of South Asian origin. I asked Chitra if her experience at Maitri had in any way influenced her storytelling and the choice of prose. It seems that Chitra first began writing and publishing poetry, but after four years of working at Maitri, she published her first collection of short stories, Arranged Marriage. In fact, one of the stories in it is based on a true incident and so are some of the sketches in the later books. She also realized that writing prose was a far easier medium to communicate and tells stories than poetry. Yet, the rhythm, discipline and diction of poetry did and continues to influence her prose.

Oleander Girl is a must read. Junot Diaz calls Chitra Banerjee Divakurni “A brilliant storyteller”, which she is.

Chitra Banerjee Divakurni Oleander Girl Viking, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 290 Rs. 499

 

‘I publish what I wish to’, Naveen Kishore, Publisher, Seagull Books

‘I publish what I wish to’, Naveen Kishore, Publisher, Seagull Books

naveen in office 02

My interview with Naveen Kishore, Publisher, Seagull Books was published today in the Hindu Literary Review. ( online edition, 6 July 2013 and print edition, 7 July 2013). Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/i-publish-what-i-wish-to/article4884047.ece

Choosing a manuscript is a curious mix of instinct and detective work, Naveen Kishore says.

Naveen Kishore, publisher, Seagull Books, has been awarded the Goethe Medal 2013. Seagull Books owns worldwide English-language publishing rights for books by Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann, Jean-Paul Sartre, Thomas Bernhard, Imre Kertész, Yves Bonnefoy, Mo Yan, Mahasweta Devi, Peter Handke and Hans Magnus Enzensberger. The Goethe-Institut awards the Goethe Medal, an official decoration of the Federal Republic of Germany. It honours foreign personalities who have performed outstanding service for the German language and international cultural relations. Excerpts from an interview with Kishore:

Why did Seagull opt to make translations, especially from International literature, its focus?

We began in 1982 by translating Indian languages into English. When Seagull went international I turned instinctively to the kind of literature that had sustained me through my growing years. Translations from European languages had begun to disappear from English-language bookshelves, worldwide, over the last so many years. We thought we would bring them back!

Who are the prominent German writers you have translated into English?

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Alexander Kluge, Peter Handke, Chista Woolf and Ingebog Bachmann and, newer voices such as Thomas Lehr, Dietmar Dath, Inka Parei, and Tillman Ramstedt, among a list of almost 80 now.

In your catalogue translator Teresa Lavender Fagan says, “A translator must absorb the essence of a work, feel the author’s soul and do what she can to minimise what must necessarily be lost. The paradox of translation: the desire to replicate a work in one’s own language while knowing it can never truly be done.” Do you think you are able to achieve this?

We try and locate the best translators; people steeped in the literature that we are hoping to share with the world. I work with translators who have, over the years, become the English voices of particular authors. This nurtures long-term relationships between translators, authors and the publisher. We prefer to publish authors, not just books, and do more than one work by an author. Whether we have achieved a substantial body of translations is up to readers to judge. The paradox of translation will always remain, but that will not prevent great works of literature travelling from one language to another and spreading across the world.

Most English-language publishers have a very slim list for translations. The reason often given is that it is an expensive proposition. So, how do you achieve so many translations every year?

It is expensive. So what? The world of letters would be so much poorer without it that we juggle and stretch our resources on a daily basis in order to make it happen. There is no miracle formula. We do it because if we didn’t it wouldn’t happen.

What is the methodology employed?

I trust my own instincts and responses to manuscripts or books that I contemplate publishing. I seek the active participation of my colleagues and translators. I trust publishers that I work with who often suggest titles to me. I read the Rights catalogues sent to me from publishers all over Europe. Our translators are encouraged to give us their wish-lists. We have our own. Selection of books, therefore, depends on a combination of recommendations and detective work. The translations are always done from the original languages. All our living writers work very closely with their translators. For those no longer with us, the translation is sent to their Estate for approval. Translations, when they are successful, capture the essence of what a writer is trying to say. Always.

The Goethe medal citation says, “Naveen Kishore is led not by the market, but by personal convictions and passions.” Seagull Books has offices registered in London and New York. Its books are distributed all over the world (except India) by the University of Chicago Press. So isn’t the market an important consideration for publishing?

I publish what I wish to. My presence in the U.K. and the U.S. is in itself an interesting reversal of traditional market strategies! It also offers a model that no longer suggests that Indian publishers must buy rights only for India. Seagull buys world rights, because our distribution through the University of Chicago Press allows us to sell across the world. It is a globalised world; your geographical location is of no consequence. The market has a responsibility too, you know! The market must learn to find you. And it does. It takes time, but it does.

Prabha Khaitan “A Life Apart: An Autobiography” Translated from the Hindi original by Ira Pande

Prabha Khaitan “A Life Apart: An Autobiography” Translated from the Hindi original by Ira Pande


I recently read Prabha Khaitan’s autobiography A Life Apart, translated from Hindi, Anya se Ananya. Prabha Khaitan was from Calcutta, belonged to a prosperous family but chose to be an entrepreneur, a leather exporter. She was also a well-known Hindi writer. According to the information on the internet, her leather business was a multi-crore business. A Life Apart is a memoir that recounts her childhood, the sexual abuse that she suffered as a child (she was advised to hush it up), her experiences in America and the culture shock she experienced but she concentrates predominantly upon her lifelong relationship with Dr Saraf. She was obviously devoted to the man and his family. She remarks “my life was divided into three areas: business, creative writing and my emotional involvement. the first two were on track but my personal life gave me neither peace nor joy.” Dr Saraf’s son had become a part of her business and yet “instead of being praised for my generosity, I had to constantly hear his sarcastic comments about my passionate involvement in business matters.” Dr Saraf would complain “You are becoming like a man. All you can think of is profit and loss.’ Then, as a final barb, he’d say, ‘And why not? After all, this is how a successful business is run.’ Namita Gokhale writes in her introduction says “Pratibha Khaitan’s writing for me, lies precisely in this unwavering, unblinking, truthfulness.”

What is curious is that Prabha Khaitan was obviously a successful independent single woman, at a time when it was unusual and rarely heard of. Yet her memoir reflects the dichotomy in her life. Instead of being a balanced view of her writing, business and her personal life, it is wholly preoccupied with Dr Saraf and ends with his death on 10 Jan 1993. The last para is:

“At the memorial meeting held for him, he was remembered by several prominent personalities for his many qualities. He was called one of Calcutta’s most eminent citizens, a philanthropoist and a brilliant doctor who was survived by his wife and children.
Of a woman called Prabha Khaitan, there was no mention.”

The translation is super. Unfortunately the translator, Ira Pande has not written a word about her engagement with the text. A pity, since it would have been a pleasure to read what Ira Pande had to say about the process. She is always so informative and interesting about translation methodologies, including about the tricky area of transliteration, transcreation and/or translation. For someone like her, who is an accomplished translator ( Diddi and T’Ta Professor ) and fluent in Hindi and English, it is always a delight to hear her discuss translations and literature. She lives it. She breathes it. Hence it was very disappointing not to have a note by her. Making a text available in English for a larger market is I think insufficient, especially when it involves a translated text. The original writer has been heard, but the translator is an equally important part of the process. They too must be given space in the printed word.

3 May 2013

Prabha Khaitan A Life Apart: An Autobiography Translated from the Hindi original by Ira Pande. Zubaan, New Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp. 280. Rs. 395