– Abhisek Sarkar
The reception of Whitman in India mirrors that of Tagore in the West, inasmuch as both have been victims of orientalist simplifications. The tendency of casting Whitman as a quasi-Indian magus would be energized by Emerson’s quip that Leaves of Grass was a “mixture of the Bhagavadgita and the New York Herald,” and Swami Vivekanda’s dubbing of Whitman as “the sannyasin of America.” Western commentators like Romain Rolland, Dorothy F. Mercor, and Guy Wilson Allen who suspect Whitman’s acquaintance with Indian spiritual monism nevertheless choose to hail him as an inherently and unwittingly pro-Vedantic soul. However, the reception of Whitman in Bengal has hardly been bothered about his spiritual career. Bangla responses to Whitman evince far more fascination with his earthiness and materialism, and are focused on the technicality and politics of his poetry qua poetry. Besides, in Bangla discussions on the poet the American-ness of Whitman and his iconoclasm form an enduring interest.
During his American travels in 1915, the social scientist Binoy Kumar Sarkar hailed Whitman as Markinatmar Vani-murti or the verbal embodiment of the American soul. However, the American poet to be most popular in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Bengal was not Whitman but Longfellow, whose “Psalm of Life” was rendered into Bangla by Hemchandra Bandyopadhyay as Jeeban Sangeet (1869) in his lifetime. Whitman was probably too much of a novelty for the Bengali audience who were steeped in the languid romanticism of the Victorians. Nevertheless, responses to Whitman in Bengal came from the most elitist of quarters. The first Indian to write on Whitman was Kshitindranath Tagore, nephew to the more famous Rabindranath. The essay was composed in 1891, scarcely six months before Whitman’s death, and published in 1910. Here Kshitindranath boldly typecasts English and American poets tracing their aesthetic propensities to cultural constitution: “English poetry is forward-looking within a tradition: American poetry is forward-looking in search of a tradition.” Kshitindranath further finds Whitman to be unique and path-breaking on two counts. First, his affirmation that “the female equally with the male I sing,” which Kshitindranath takes to signify a celebration of gender equality (if not androgyny); second, Whitman’s shift of poetic focus from the traditional realm of the amatory to the quotidian occupations and unglamorous sentiments of people. The second tendency in hindsight may be considered as a prominent strand of modernity in Bangla poetry.
Rabindranath himself was an ardent reader of Whitman, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries in Bengal. Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay records on two occasions in Rabindrajivani that the poet often read Whitman aloud to his friends, and also that Whitman’s disciple Edward Carpenter was a favourite with him. One can mark a thematic similarity between Whitman’s “When I heard the Astronomer” and two of Rabindranath’s poems, Tattva o Saundarya (published in Chaitali) and Purnima (collected in Chitra, both written in 1895), although the element of independent biographical provenance cannot be discounted. In his lecture “The World of Personality” delivered in 1917 Rabindranath rehearses the observation informing these poems. It is in the same lecture that he comments, “Walt Whitman shows in his poems a great dexterity in changing his position of mind and thus changing his world from that of other people, rearranging the meaning of things in different proportions and forms. Such mobility of mind plays havoc with things whose foundations lie fixed in convention.” Rabindranath thus takes into cognizance the unsettling character of Whitman’s non- conformity and the challenges it can pose to the unwary. He develops this stance in the message he conveyed in July 1937 to the students and teachers of City College, Kolkata who had organized a seminar on Whitman. Here he likens Whitman to a gigantic mine with an indiscriminate mixture of all manner of things, and adds that such all-consuming amalgamation requires a tremendous amount of energy and courage. Rabindranath concludes his message with the warning that one has to desperate to traverse the forest of Whitman’s poetry.
Perhaps more important from the point of view of Bangla modern poetry is Whitman’s role as the pioneer of the prose poem. Sri Aurobindo in his essay entitled “On Quantitative Metre” regards Whitman’s highest achievement as a “rhythmist” to be the “true quantitative free verse” in the best of his poetic efforts. Sri Aurobindo had earlier commended Whitman’s prose poetry in his work The Future Poetry, claiming “Whitman’s aim is consciently, clearly, professedly to make a great revolution in the whole method of poetry, and if anybody could have succeeded, it ought to have been this giant of poetic thought.” It was Tagore again who consolidated Whitman’s status as the pioneer of the prose poem. In the essay “Gadyachhanda”, originally read at the University of Calcutta, Tagore translated Whitman’s poem “I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing” to demonstrate that it has a strong rhythm. He clarifies that the text qualifies as poetry by dint of the delicacy with which the contrast between the self-sufficiency of the tree and the desolation of the lover has been conveyed. It may be inferred that Tagore himself was influenced by Whitman in his experiments with the prose poem. Besides, the entire collection of Punascha shows shows a Whitmanesque temperament as regards the holistic acceptance of the quotidian and even the sordid. Notably, in 1932, Satyendranath Dutta wrote to Rabindranath requesting from him poems in English written in the manner of Whitman.
It was Satyendranath who translated Whitman’s poem “To a Common Prostitute,” where Whitman is co-opted as an expotent of compassion for the underdog. The Bengali poet to be influenced by Whitman to the largest extent is Premendra Mitra. This influence, especially as regards the celebration of democracy and trans-geographical fraternity, is evident from his first collection of poems, Prathama (published 1932). Premendra brought out his translation of Whitman in the late 1960s as Whitmaner Srestha Kabita, which fails to do justice to the spirit and verve of the original because of the choice of diction and metre, and it is more redolent of the late Rabindranath than of Whitman. Echoes of Whitman may be heard occasionally in later poets like Sanjay Bhattacharya, Dinesh Das, and Birendra Chattopadhyay in his avatar as a liberal humanist and proto-socialist.
Whitman’s presence in the canons of Western poets read in Bengal has been limited, and ironically he has accrued a complexion of rarefied elitism that is contrary to his poetic credo. Whitman’s stylistic and thematic idiosyncrasies broadly distanced him from nineteenth-century readers, and they continue to limit his reception. It is also noteworthy that the Whitman glanced in his Bangla receptions is a censored and sanitized one, with his unorthodox sexuality and social iconoclasm suitably muted or toned down. Rabindranath chooses to be silent about the phrase “manly love” occurring in the Whitman poem that he translated, although he renders it suggestively as purusher bhalobasha.
The American-ness or otherwise of T.S. Eliot does not form a key motif of his reception in Bengal, but he was accepted by poets of the 1930s as the chiefest conduit of European modernity or contemporaneity in poetry. Yet again, Eliot’s Indian allusions do not influence in any way the Bengali reader’s approach to him. Buddhadev Basu recalls in Swadesh o Sanskriti (1957) that “The Waste Land” was an eye-opener for his generation as it acquainted them with the pervasive jejuneness of post-war civilization as nothing else did, and it introduced them to a poetic idiom for negotiating the zeitgeist. Incidentally, Eliot’s status as a poets’ poet in Bengal is easily attested to by the fact that most of the major poets of the 1930s, including Jibanananda Das, Sudhindranath Dutta, Bishnu Dey, Buddhadev Basu, and Amiya Chakraborty read and engaged with him.
Rabindranath mentions Eliot in the essay “Adhunik Kabya”, published in 1932, where he dismisses the latter’s poems as decadent and depressing. Rabindranath translated excerpts from “Aunt Helen” and “Preludes” to illustrate the contemporary poets’ fetish for ugliness and squalor. It was a trick played on him by Bishnu Dey that brought Rabindranath around to fancying Eliot. Bishnu Dey, a lifelong Eliot enthusiast, translated “The Journey of the Magi” as a prose poem and sent it to Rabindranath seeking advice on improving its metrics. He deliberately concealed the identity of the original. When Sudhindranath Dutta revealed that it was a translation of Eliot, Rabindranath regretted his earlier comments and decided to publish his translation. A later version of the translation, which Rabindranath had carefully matched with the English original, was published in 1933 under the title Tirthajatri. As a much maturer poet, Bishnu Dey translated the poem as Rajarshider Jatra. Rabindranath’s transformed attitude becomes clear from a letter written to Buddhadev Basu in 1936 where he holds Eliot as the ideal practitioner of non-rhymed, non-rhythmic prose poems. Further, in a letter written to Kamakshiprasad Chattopadhyay in 1940 Rabindranath praises Eliot and Auden as sincere poets who are driven by the intense urge to capture the impact of the troubled times, and he justifies the radical novelty of their idiom as being commensurate with the catastrophic changes in the life around them.
It was Bishnu Dey again who persuaded Sudhindranath Dutta to give his reading of Eliot a concrete shape. Sudhindranath read a paper entitled “Kabyer Mukti” (“The Emancipation of Poetry”) at a small seminar in the University Institute in 1928. It was revised and published as the essay of the same title, published in the first issue of Parichay the same year. Sudhindranath here quotes from Rabindranath, Satyendranath Dutta, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Wallace Stevens, D.H. Lawrence, Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Ezra Pound to substantiate his thesis about the necessity of debunking pre-set dicta about diction and metre in poetry. He excerpts 29 lines from “The Waste Land,” accepting it as a successful attempt at reflecting modernity in poetry. Sudhindranath agrees with Eliot on his precept about poetic impersonality, and indianizes Eliot’s analogy of the catalytic agent by calling the poet a ghatak or matchmaker. Sudhindranath takes the pilgrimage described therein as symbolic of the modern poet’s resolute and sacrificial quest for aesthetic fulfilment.
Eliot appears at the centre of Sudhindranath’s essay “Aitijhya o T.S. Eliot” (“Tradition and T.S. Eliot”), published in 1934 probably as a rejoinder to Rabindranath’s critique of Eliot. However, this essay is not a gushing eulogy of Eliot. It is remarkable for its balanced and percipient analysis of Eliot’s poetic precept and practice. Sudhindranath takes exception to Eliot’s surrender to Christian faith and his deployment of it as an organizing principle for his poetry. He contends that this reduces the intellectual scope of Eliot’s poetry and limits his accessibility. Further, Sudhindranath figured out the intended emotive function of allusions and excerpts in Eliot’s poetry, but showed grave doubts about their efficacy. In conclusion, he states that Eliot’s poetry is yet to attain indisputable success, but nevertheless reposes faith in his aesthetics and congratulates him for inspiring intellectual agility in his readers. Sudhindranath continued to rate Eliot highly, as is evident from the fact that he was translating “Burnt Norton” at the time of his death.
The same approach to Eliot is more apparent in Bishnu Dey, who discussed Eliot on at least eight occasions between 1932 and 1966 – both in Bangla and in English. Bishnu Dey’s Marxist persuasion did not deter his lifelong interest in Eliot. In the essay “T.S. Elioter Mahaprasthan” published in Parichay, 1944, Bishnu Dey credits Eliot as the go-between who introduced European modernism to English literature. However, Bishnu Dey’s stance is not of unmixed approbation. He marks in Eliot the absence of an uninterrupted consciousness, which bespeaks of his honesty as the denizen of a fragmentary culture. It is the urge to remedy this incompleteness, Bishnu Dey argues, that drives him towards classicism and mythology on the on hand and Christian fideism on the other. He further opines that spiritual fulfilment was basically alien to Eliot’s temperament, although Eliot ardently pursued the permanent settlement guaranteed by religion. This, according to him, has compromised the aesthetic success of his verse drama.
Bishnu Dey is also important for translating 17 of Eliot’s poems, a process that he started in the early 1930s. The success of the translation was immediately called to question by Sansha Ghosh in an article published in Bibhab, especially in connection to the cultural transference of allusions and quotations. For example, Bishnu Dey translated “Ash Wednesday” as “Chadaker Gaan,” rendered “The Virgin” as “Devakimata”, “Eternal Dolour” as “Chirantan Mathur,” and “Exile” as “Dwarakay Nirvasan Pala.” More strikingly, he replaces the line from Dante, Sovegna vos, with one from Chandidas’s Sreekrishnakirtan. Subsequent translations of Eliot into Bengali, such as Sankha Ghosh’s own rendition of “The Dry Saluages” published in 1962, Jagannath Chakraborty’s of “The Waste Land” published in 1964, Anil Biswas’s of “The Waste Land” published in 1974, Alokranjan Dasgupta’s of “Burnt Norton” in 1965, have been more cautious and loyal to the original with almost a scholarly precision.
Among the other poets of the 1930s, Jibanananda Das quotes and refers to Eliot repeatedly in his essays collected in Kabitar Katha (1955). He states in “Rabindranath o Adhunik Bangla Kabita” that his fellow-poets have visited Baudelaire, the French Symbolists, Yeats, Eliot and Pound repeatedly in search of a kindred spirit and also of fresh poetic expression. Jibanananda regarded Yeats as the greatest of the living English poets, but he found Eliot to be a more sincere poet than Auden, Spender, MacNiece, and Cummings whom he disliked for their verbal gimmickry. Apart from this, Amiya Chakraborty was able to locate in Eliot fascist tendencies as early as 1935, but he had no reservation about commending Four Quartets as a monument to the life and times that transcends the material devices of literature.
In retrospect, it may be stated that Eliot demonstrated an alternative to Rabindranath by writing an eminently cerebral and unsentimental poetry, and by constantly debunking or ironizing love as the fit subject of poetic endeavours. His influence was one of the adjuncts to the Bengali poets’ efforts to distance the formidable presence of Tagore. It would however be a grave injustice to their receptivity, resilience, diversity, and originality to suggest that Eliot was the only and decisive influence on modernism in Bangla poetry. The poets of the 50s were not so taken in by Eliot since they had in front of them a strong indigenous model of poetry forged by their elder colleagues with which to negotiate the impact of the modern. But Eliot was by then assimilated into the genetic map of modern Bangla poetry and he resurfaces unwittingly from time to time through the technical repertoire contributed by him, namely, the recourse to self-dramatization and interior monologue, the use of myth and anthropology as organizing metaphors, a bleak but engaged portrayal of urban reality, the deployment of strikingly concrete and incongruous imagery, an intellectual pursuit of impersonality, and the process of effecting an emotional resonance through the most abstruse allusions and quotations.