These days, scholars squinch whenever one relates an anecdote about Shakti Chattopadhyay. They say there isn’t as much discussion on Shakti’s poetry as on his life—this is tantamount to insulting the poet and trivializing poetry.
Buddhadeva Bose had once remarked that no one knows what really undermines poetry—does it happen when poems descend to the level of a sidewalk or when they come out as the dry refuse of degree-granting machines called schools or colleges? The point had been made as a reference to Arun Sarkar’s “Read more poetry” campaign.
Will the innumerable fables surrounding Shakti eventually fade away like dewdrops in the sun? I doubt it. I firmly believe that these stories, while providing some understanding of our truncated times, also enable us to grasp such an amazing personality. I don’t claim that these stories are entirely accurate. However, a lot of times the stories that come to be associated with the lives of famous people match their personalities. Historians don’t give a lot of credence to the fable of Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar throwing his slippers at Ardhendusekhar Mustafi on seeing the latter’s theatre performance as an oppressive British officer in the play, “Neeldarpan” or Vidyasagar swimming his way through a tumultuous, rain-swept Damodar river at night to meet his mother. They say that for a person of Vidyasagar’s stature to throw his slippers at an actor on the stage and not make it to the headlines the next day couldn’t have been possible. And he was practical enough not to risk swimming through Damodar on a rainy night. However, these stories are so much in keeping with ordinary people’s image of Vidyasagar that we actually want to believe them. Similarly, one wants to believe Sandipan’s story about Shakti: that an unlettered shoeshine boy, while brushing Shakti’s shoes in front of the Anandabazaar office, had once said, “Saakti-da, aapnar kavitar kitaab ekthho hamake dilen na?” (“Sakti da, won’t you give me a copy of your book of poems?”)
I don’t know how great a poet Shakti was; nobody has given me the responsibility to make that judgment. Future critics will carry out that task. However, only we—his friends—are witness to how big, how different a man Shakti was. We, who have, day after day, year after year, seen these stories unfold before our eyes. Through these stories, a near-mythical image of this man kept becoming clearer to us. After us, no more witnesses to these stories will be left. If we don’t tell these stories, the coming generations will never know that such a man had once walked on Kolkata’s streets, like a bloodstained newspaper blowing in the spring breeze.
From the illicit liquor-tasting sessions accompanied by fire-roasted bats with the Doms under the Kalighat bridge to lavish parties in a nearby five star hotel where Black Sea caviar accompanied Chivas Regal, his singing—in a voice both robust and deep—rang with the same passion as well as detachment. This is not fiction—I had heard him sing in both these places, where adda-lovers would pull him in with similar enthusiasm and even pronunciation—“Hey, Ssokti-da is here!” In both places, the listener’s level of education and comprehension were more or less the same, and in both places, he had the gatherings’ pleasure with his full-throated singing of Rabindrasangeet, full of joy yet dripping with sorrow.
We—who had seen Shakti, bonded with him, and gained acceptance as his friends—can do this one thing for him. In the future, critics will decide how big a poet Shakti was. How many years have passed since Shakti left us? Only twelve. How many years did it take after Jibanananda’s death for the first book on him to be published? Nearly fifty years have passed since the death of Sudhindranath Datta—how many books have been published about his poetry? Why should we go that far; how many years after Tagore’s death did books about his works start getting written? And what was the standard of those initial writings? Nobody reads those now—the omnipresent and the truth, the boundary and the boundless, jeevandevata (god of life) and death consciousness. Those mist-laden theories about Upanishadic depth in Tagore’s poetry written by learned scholars have now been reverently stocked in the highest shelves of libraries; no one disturbs their peace. Instead, we look for Tagore’s memoirs these days, don’t we? The writings of those who saw him, were close to him, observed him during many careful and careless moments are much more valuable to us than all those Upanishadic theories, because we know that no matter how biased these memoirs—written by ordinary people—might be, they reveal the true Rabindranath to us in a way that any critical writing can never do. We also know that without the help of any critic, we can comprehend Rabindranath’s poetry in our own way—and even use them for social, aesthetic or spiritual purposes. But if we want to understand the man called Rabindranath, we have to keep aside the theorists and reach for his memoirists—to the Rani Chandas, Rani Mahalanabis-es, Sita Devis, Maitreyi Devis, Pratima Devis, Rathindranaths, Khagendranaths, Susovan Sarkars and Pramatha Bishis, and many others who had, at some point, been close to him and have documented their association. We are grateful to them.
Shakti’s case is similar. It’s not too important to evaluate Shakti’s stature as a poet because those who can will do so without my help. And those who cannot, will not, even with endless theorizing. However, only those of us who have seen Shakti closely and been beside him in joy and in sorrow know what a unique person he was. The coming generations will never know about that if we don’t put it down in writing. A poet like Shakti isn’t born every day, and the same is true of him as a person. He was a poet in every breath and movement, a poet in laughter and tears, in glory and in humiliation. A person who can induce emotion in another is a poet—there’s no other definition of a poet. Shakti’s association, his songs, his words, and his love for the universe continually awakened us to the eternal light hidden behind our middle-class grinds. Rabindranath’s reference reminds me that I haven’t come across any discussion on the relation between Shakti—as a poet and a person—and Rabindrasangeet. Yet, Tagore’s songs comprised a big part of his being; at least from the time he became a poet, there was scarcely a day when he didn’t sing at least a couple of lines of Rabindrasangeet. Even while writing the manifesto for the Hungryalist movement, as he wrote, “Ghosts scatter lethal urine in the flower garden,” he also wrote, almost in the same breath, poem like "Sthayi" (স্থায়ী, 'Permanent') with unmistakable Rabindric sensibilities.
Merely a few months separated the two poems.
His style emulated Tagore’s from nearly the start. His first anthology, “He Prem, He Noisshobdo (হে প্রেম, হে নৈঃশব্দ্য)" (O Love, O Silence) has poems almost moulded in Tagore’s style. Any reader can see examples of this in poems such as “Minoti Mukhochchhobi (মিনতি মুখচ্ছবি)” (Potrait of a Plea). Then there were the absent-minded sprinklings from Rabindrasangeet in his poems.
Emono dinei shudhu bola jaye tomake amar
bawdo proyojon chhilo
(এমন দিনেই শুধু বলা যায় তোমাকে আমার
বড়ো প্রয়োজন ছিল।)
Only on a day like this can it be said
that I needed you badly.
Tomake niye kobita lekha shuru kore aami
Mawhaan khelnaye giye pounchholam
e-boyosh khelnaar noy, helaphela sharabelar noy
(তোমাকে নিয়ে কবিতা লেখা শুরু করে আমি
মহান খেলনায় গিয়ে পৌঁছলাম
এ-বয়স খেলনার নয়, হেলাফেলা সারাবেলার নয়)
In penning poetry on you
I have stumbled upon a magnificent toy
this isn’t my age for playthings, nor for
whiling my time away.
Amaar bhitor ghawr korechhe lokkhojonaye
Ebong amaye pawr korechhe lokkhojone
Ekhon amaar ekti ichchhe, taar beshi noy
Showstite aaj thaakte de na aaponmone |
(আমার ভিতর ঘর করেছে লক্ষজনায়
এবং আমায় পর করেছে লক্ষজনে
এখন আমার একটি ইচ্ছে, তার বেশি নয়
স্বস্তিতে আজ থাকতে দে না আপনমনে।)
Within me, a million people live
And a million have deserted me
Now I have but one wish, not a lot
Leave me alone, can you not?
Many poets of our generation, those who started penning poetry in the 1950s, never liked Tagore’s poetry; but surprisingly, it was hard to find anyone who didn’t like his songs. One could safely say without exaggeration, they were all devotees of Tagore’s songs—genuine, mad lovers. This implies that they found in Tagore’s songs something more than what they got from his poetry. What could that something be? His paintings are a different subject altogether; the attraction of modernists towards them is understandable. His paintings reveal a spectre of modernity, the shadowy world of evil—all those searing sensations that he didn’t want to or couldn’t find the courage to express in his poetry, he expressed in his paintings. He did so with the confidence that the lack of his countrymen’s knowledge of modern art would safely allow him to convey, through the language of his paintings, all that which he couldn’t say in his poetry, prose or music. Those who like to call him Bishwokobi (world poet) or Gurudeb would never comprehend his paintings and consider them as creative idiosyncrasies.
This is probably why his paintings are dear to the modern man. But his songs speak more or less the language of his poetry; even his music isn’t too far removed from the classical Indian style of music. What then explains the popularity of his songs among modern Bengali poets? Why does a Shakti Chattopadhyay choose nothing other than Rabindrasangeet when he feels like singing? Why do his poems abound in bits of Tagore’s songs?
(Ghaate boshe achhi..)
(Ere bhikhari saajaaye..)
Alas, there’s no record of his early singing! I don’t have any, and possibly no one else does. Cassette recorders came to us only towards the end of 1960s. I have a total of twenty four songs in my collection, six of which are duets with his daughter. The earliest of these songs dates back to 1977, recorded in our flat in Lake Gardens. It’s his favourite song of all—Mori lo mori, amaye banshite dekhechhe ke. It has my organ accompaniment—which, besides sounding too loud to me now, is also out of tune in places, owing to my lack of practice. Shakti was forty four at that time. Even though he sang exceptionally well, almost making one gasp, the performance could hardly be compared with the voice he had in his youth. Four years ago, on his 40th birthday, he had written:
Bhalomondo dukkhoshukh joubawn amar
rongborno kere nebe ujjawl jamaar
Shojjho hoye ashe rawkte tuchchho othha-pawra
Bhalomondo dukkhoshukh joubawn amar
(ভালোমন্দ দুঃখসুখ যৌবন আমার
রঙবর্ণ কেড়ে নেবে উজ্জ্বল জামার
সহ্য হয়ে আসে রক্তে তুচ্ছ ওঠাপড়া
ভালোমন্দ দুঃখসুখ যৌবন আমার।)
My youth—good and bad, happy and sad
will rob colours off bright attires
Blood gets used to trifle ups and downs
Good and bad, happy and sad is my youth.
(Mori lo mori...)
These were not the songs of Shakti’s youth. These were from a time when his lungs had little strength, when singing just a line or two tired him. Even then, he managed, as if by applying some mantra, to make the listeners transcend to an enchanting place that they couldn’t have reached otherwise. I have had the experience of listening to Rabindrasangeet by two friends who sang them like no one else—one was Deepak Majumdar, the other, Shakti Chattopadhyay. Neither had any musical training, both often substituted their own words for forgotten lines, and used their imagination even for the tunes. They would start the songs from any point—to put it another way, they would sing Rabindrasangeet exactly the way it was supposed not to be sung. But the manner in which they could build personal expositions of songs, the way they could explain the song by taking the listener right to its soul could not be matched by many.
Shakti sang like a sage. The way Ramprasad, the devotee of Goddess Kali, is depicted on the cover of some editions of his song books—a bearded Ramprasad sings while putting up a fence around his house even as the Goddess, disguised as his young daughter, hands him bamboo sticks for the fence. While listening to Shakti’s singing, this image becomes credible, as if there was nothing unnatural about this. At the memorial following my father’s demise, Shakti sang “Jaya tawbo bichitra ananda hey kabi (জয় তব বিচিত্র আনান্দ হে কবি)” (“Hail thy wondrous joy, O poet”). The heroic stories of my father’s eventful life had deeply moved Shakti. He particularly liked Baba’s detached way of recounting his experiences, as if he were narrating the story of a film he had just watched. Shakti shared a different kind of bonding with him.
For the purpose of writing this essay, I played Shakti’s CD on my computer after a long time. As it played, I looked out the window and listened. Quite a few songs are incomplete; some are marred by extraneous noise. On the whole though, the songs present something beyond the temporal, with an air of ethereal mystique. What clarity of pronunciation, manner of starting and ending notes, and flourish for creating an individualistic rhythm and a personal exposition for the songs.! The real depth of darkness of “Nibido ghawno andhaare (নিবিড় ঘন আঁধারে)” (“In the depth of darkness”) could never be felt unless one heard him stress on the "do" of Nibido.
(Hridoye tomaro dawya jeno paayi..)
Kobi mour, rekhe gaele chinno hote smaarok, mawrmawr…
Neerawbe kaemon achhi bhalobeshe aamrityu shawngjoto!
(কবি মোর, রেখে গেলে ছিন্ন হতে স্মারক, মর্মর...
নীরবে কেমন আছি ভালোবেসে আমৃত্যু সংযত!)
O Poet, you left behind the memorial in marble to be uprooted…
How I love thee in silence, restrained till death!
Title illustration is by Prithwish Gangopadhyay, taken from Shaktir kachhakachhi (শক্তির কাছাকাছি), eds. Samarjit and Ina Sengupta; Dey's Publishing; Kolkata, 1996. Photo for "Ghaate boshe achhi.." is by Arnab Gupta.