Buddhadeva Bose (1908-1974)
Buddhadeva Bose (1908-74) is a major Bengali writer of the twentieth century, the most multi-talented amongst those belonging to what is for convenience termed the 'post-Tagore' period. Like Rabindranath Tagore he was a versatile writer, comfortable in every literary genre. A brilliant poet, he also wrote novels, short stories, plays in both prose and verse, and non-fictional prose such as travelogues, memoirs, and literary essays. He was also an editor-publisher, a translator, a writer for children, and a consummate critic.
Bose was born in Comilla in Eastern Bengal and grew up in Noakhali and Dhaka. He studied English Literature at Dhaka University. He taught for a good part of his life, and set up the Department of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University, Calcutta. He also taught at various American campuses and travelled and lectured widely.
At the beginning of the twentieth century the Bengali literary scene was dominated by the towering figure of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). When Bose was growing up, it was very difficult for aspiring writers to get away from Tagore's ubiquitous influence. Such were Tagore's powers of self-renewal during his long life that it was aptly said, even in his lifetime, that the first new voice in Bengali literature after Tagore was Tagore himself, the Tagore of the prose poems of Lipika (1922), of the novella Shesher Kabita (1929), and of the striking collections of poetry published in the last decade of his life. Indeed, the language of contemporary Bengali poetry can be seen as derived in a line of direct descent from the poetry shaped in the thirties by a number of innovative poets, including the late Tagore and those who took his pioneering efforts further.
The twenties saw a younger generation of writers getting distinctly restless, fretting at always being in the rain-shadow area of the mountain called Tagore, and keen to express the anxieties, uncertainties, and convictions of their times. The fiery, rebellious Nazrul Islam (1899-1976), poet, singer, songwriter-composer, was a popular new voice during this period.
Modernist efforts began to consolidate themselves through twenties magazines such as Kallol ('Roaring Waves', founded in Calcutta in 1923), Kali-Kalam ('Pen and Ink', founded in Calcutta in 1926), and Pragati ('Progress', founded in Dhaka in 1927). Buddhadeva Bose, in 1927 just a student, was one of the two editors of the last-named magazine, of which he had already launched a hand-written version in 1925. Published for a little over two years, the printed Pragati made a remarkable contribution to the emerging modernist movement. It was a platform where Bose, barely nineteen years old, tried to arrive at some kind of negotiation with Tagore, so that, as he put it, the youngest generation of writers did not remain for ever trapped in Tagore's vast net, so that the elder writer could become 'bearable and usable' for the younger writers. A degree of rebellion against Tagore was a major ingredient of the twenties turmoil. Tagore's greatness and relevance were never challenged, but certain features of his world-view were.
In the thirties and early forties a new generation of poets succeeded in establishing themselves. It is to this generation that Bose belongs, along with Jibanananda Das, Amiya Chakravarty, Sudhindranath Datta, Bishnu Dey, Premendra Mitra, Achintyakumar Sengupta, Ajit Datta, Sanjay Bhattacharya, Samar Sen, Subhash Mukhopadhyay, and several others. Bose was the first to gain recognition - for his 1930 collection Bandir Bandana ('A Prisoner's Song/s of Praise') - and from Tagore himself.
In 1935 Bose founded the poetry quarterly Kabita, meaning 'poetry', which he edited with loving care for a quarter-century. This became the leading Bengali poetry magazine of its time, in which all important poets aspired to be published. It was also an extremely important magazine for the discussion and review of poetry. Bose set up for his magazine its very own publishing house, Kabitabhavan, 'The House of Poetry', and began to publish books under this imprint also. The first-floor apartment at 202 Rashbehari Avenue in southern Calcutta where he lived with his family in the period 1937-66 was the base from which he carried on his literary activities. Affectionately referred to as '202', this apartment home of the poet became an institution in the city's arts world. It was a place where writers, intellectuals, publishers, and their friends dropped in at all hours of the day and late into the night for endless cups of aromatic tea and animated literary conversations. It was a platform and a network of which poets anywhere in the world would be envious. Bose's influence was seminal on younger poets and critics, to whom he was invariably generous and helpful. But the help he gave to the career of someone like Jibanananda Das (1899-1954) who was a little older than him was as impressive as the help he gave to launch the careers of poets younger than himself.
By virtue of his magazine and publishing outlet Bose became the central figure in a cluster of poets who came to embody post-Tagore Bengali 'modernism'. These poets shared an international outlook which was the hallmark of their generation. They constituted a group that took in the intellectual movements that swept across the world in the inter-war years and understood the literary experiments that had changed, or were changing, the face of European and American writing. Yet these poets were in no sense imitators. They never lost their Indian bearings and knew how to mine their own complex traditions and hone their own Bengali styles.
Several post-Tagore Bengali poets also took a special interest in poetry translation. Sudhindranath Datta, Bishnu Dey, Bose himself, the somewhat younger Loknath Bhattacharya were all distinguished poet-translators. The impact on us of their translations was profound. From the fifties onwards we were transformed by these translations, which added new horizons to our poetry.
Bose's translations from Kalidasa, Baudelaire, Hölderlin, and Rilke effected a sea-change in Bengali sensibility, and his well-written prefaces and scholarly notes to the translations enabled us to contextualize the new material. His introduction to his translation of Kalidasa's Meghaduta made us look at Sanskrit poetry with new eyes. Through his sensitive renderings and brilliant introductions Baudelaire, Hölderlin, and Rilke ceased to be 'foreign poets' and became our own kinsmen. At the other end of the scale, Bose's reinterpretations of old stories from India's classical hoard gave them a new lease of life and reintegrated them with the present.
Bose has been a mentor in my own life as a writer. Not only did he give me encouragement in writing poetry from childhood onwards, but I also know for sure that the tenacity with which I have continued to write in Bengali in diaspora owes a debt to the two ideals which I imbibed from him and internalized at a formative stage of my life: an artist's vocation and that of service to the mother tongue, in both of which he passionately believed. I took my cue from the coexistence in him of a wholehearted loyalty to the mother tongue and an equally committed cosmopolitanism.
Now I am translating a selection of his poetry into English so that those who cannot read Bengali but can read English can have some idea of his poetry. I consider him to be one of the great poets of the 20th century. A great poet belongs not only to his own language-group, but to all the world.
© Ketaki Kushari Dyson
The above is an edited extract from the Introduction to the Selected Poems of Buddhadeva Bose, being prepared by Ketaki Kushari Dyson. Published 25th Feb, 2001
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