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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 13 New Delhi March 16, 2019

Subhas Mukhopadhyay: A Heretical Bengali Intellectual

Sunday 17 March 2019, by Arup Kumar Sen

Poet Subhas Mukhopadhyay’s birth centenary was recently observed in February 2019. An article on him appeared in Mainstream (March 2, 2019). This is another article on the poet. It was sent to us quite sometime ago but could not be used earlier due to unavoidable reasons.

Subhas Mukhopadhyay was a unique intellectual, who enriched Bengali poetry and journalism by his distinct styles of writing, choice of words and idioms. Other than being a major Bengali poet and prose writer, he made other creative ventures. His translations in Bengali from other languages include poems of the radical poet of Turkey, Nazim Hikmet, even before he had appeared in English. Mukho-padhyay wrote a shorter version of Niharranjan Roy’s monumental book on the history of Bengalis, Bangalir Itihas: Adi Parba. He also wrote for children, and co-edited the children’s magazine, Sandesh, with Satyajit Ray.

Born in Krishnanagar, Nadia district, in 1919, Subhas Mukhopadhyay spent his early youthful days as an active worker of the undivided Communist Party of India, and believed in its ideology from the core of his heart. To put it in his own words: “To me political slogans were not just slogans. I was vitally interested in them. Red Flag and processions were not part of the slogans. They were part of my life. I also wrote slogans but what were slogans to others were not just words to me. I was ready to give my life for those words.”

Mukhopadhyay started his poetic career against the spirit of Rabindranath Tagore. He wrote a poem in 1937-38, titled ‘Rabibabuke’ (To Rabindranath), in the style of an imaginary dialogue with Rabindranath. He told Rabindranath in the poem, “Your poetry takes me to the world of dreams. But, the cruel reality later crushes that dream. You save me from this pain. Either you withdraw your poems or you change the world.”

His first book of poems, Padatik, published in 1940, made a distinct mark in the world of Bengali poetry. The first line of the first poem in the collection marked his creative signature: “Comrade, would you not bring a new age today?”

The petty world of politics could not imprison Subhas Mukhopadhyay. He was an intellectual nomad. He, as a party worker, roamed around the villages, and lanes and by-lanes of Kolkata and its neighbourhood, which enriched his life and creative journey. He got new life after his marriage in the early 1950s, when he with his wife settled in the Byanjanheria village of Budge Budge in the Howrah district to work among the jute mill workers. It was predominantly a Muslim settlement. The everyday world of torn-cloth wearing Muslim children, such as Salemon, Jomila, Ahmmad, and Salim, and their families found creative expressions in the poems of Mukho-padhyay. The creative genius of Mukhopadhyay enabled him to transform ordinary words of everyday use into literary expressions with his distinct style. His literary awards include Sahitya Akademi Award (1964), and Jnanpith Award (1991).

The bureaucratic leadership of the Communist Party did not appreciate Mukhopadhyay’s creative journey. Mukhopadhyay wrote a book “Bhuter Begar”, based on Marx’s Wage, Labour and Capital. He used colloquial Bengali expressions and words to explain Marx’s theoretical concepts. It was published in 1954, and the Party disapproved it. To put it in his own words: “...I wrote a popular book Bhuter Begar which became controversial, because it was written in an easy style, and I was accused by the party leadership of having distorted Marxism. They banned the book from their sales and published a criticism in the name of the Party Committee. But our party economists defended me... That was the first instance when the intellectuals had rallied against the party leadership.”

The communist movement in India witnessed many divisions during the political journey of Subhas Mukhopadhyay. But, the character of the party bureaucracy did not change much. Mukhopadhyay continued his formal connection with the CPI up to the early 1980s out of “a sense of belonging with the Party”, though much before that time he “had great difference of opinion with the Party line and other things”. In 1982, he was called by the Party leadership to explain why he had translated Solzhenitsyn’s poems and published those in his book. The Party leaders asked him to withdraw his Solzhenitsyn translations from circulation and drop them in the next edition of the book. Mukhopadhyay said ‘no’, and decided not to renew his membership. During the period 1978-2003, he acted as the Chairman of the editorial board of the Bengali weekly, Saptaha, which started its journey in 1967 with the initiative of Subhas Mukhopadhyay and the eminent journalists, Nikhil Chakravartty and Viveka-nanda Mukhopadhyay, among others.

This year is the birth centenary year of Subhas Mukhopadhyay. It is expected that his creative journey will be revisited in detail by the poets, prose writers, and other cultural personalities of our time. We salute him on this occasion for his moral courage to go against the Communist Party’s orthodoxy and to put his distinct signature in the world of Bengali literature and culture.

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