Rabindranath Tagore once described Jibanananda Das' poems as “Chitraroopomoy” (painting-like imagery). Eminent poet and ambidextrous litterateur Syed Shamsul Haq recently recited his poetry at the Daily Star-Bengal Arts Precinct amidst the evocative ambience of paintings by master painter SM Sultan of whom the poet cherishes many fond memories. This writer caught up with the poet prior to his performance, and talked to him about Bengali poetry, the relation between poetry and painting and other subjects.
“Imagery lies both in poetry and painting; while poetry predominantly revolves around images, painting generates newer imageries. Emergence of new words in poetry might be scarce, but the visuals around us are in constant flux. Sometimes poets reshape old ideas and use age-old words in a newer fashion. Yet, there are poets who discovered images and incorporated those in their works. Say for example, 'Pakhir Nirer Moto Chokh Tuley Natorer Bonolata Sen' is Jibanananda's invention. Again, in the line 'Banglar Mukh Ami Dekhiachhi, Tai Ami Prithibir Roop Khujitey Jai Na Aar', here 'Bangla' and 'Prithibi' are not images, but when they reflect into each other, they form a beautiful image that Das discovered…the beauty of eternal Bengal in the earth and vice versa!
“Today I am here to recite poetry. I had a longtime association with Sultan Bhai (SM Sultan). My wife knew him from her childhood. Whenever he visited Jessore, he would have food prepared by my mother-in law. I have many sweet memories of the master. Time and again we sat by the river Chitra and puffed mahatamak (super tobacco) together. He would share his artistic vision with me. I saw him doing a canvas by pouring river ebony or velvet apple juice (locally known as gaab) on jute sacks. He had a close affinity with nature and its elements including animals, birds and even reptiles.
Syed Haq recited some of his lesser-known poems depicting images of idyllic and nostalgic Bengal that is on the wane; mostly to those, living in the cities. Besides, he recited several compositions of other poets, including Rabindranath. “I regard Rabindranath Thakur not as a Sonar Thakur (Golden Thakur) but rather as one of my greatest predecessors. He is the best poet of Bengali literature. Unlike others, I remember him differently because I have learnt my craft from him.
In response to my inception of a Tagore excerpt, “Debo Ar Nebo Melabo Milibo…”, Syed Haq said that though Tagore nurtured almost all the genres of literature, art, music and culture, we, the craftsmen or creators, evaluate him prioritising his angik (viewpoint) rather than his speech. His creation of stance is innovative with regard to his speech. We cannot reach him in these times; because the time we witnessed, such as the country's partition, shedding blood for language, military rule, genocide and Liberation War of which Tagore experienced nothing. These happenings have greatly influenced my whole perception.”
About his famous poem “Amar Porichoy”, Syed Haq commented “I wrote 'Amar Porichoy' at a point when I was inspired to write a short history of Bangladesh for young readers. It was to enable them to learn the history and backdrop of our identity. Later, I changed my mind to express my feelings through the most antique form of literature --poetry. Thus an interesting and well-received poem emerged in 1993. It was also published. But, for some reason, I do not know for about 15 years, it was not noticed. But suddenly, it has surfaced and everybody recites and quotes from it and I am very happy that it gives you a patriotic passion revisiting the roots of our identity. I have tried to include the four pillars--nationalism, secularism, socialism and democracy – the essence of the Liberation War. I have tried to assimilate that through my poetic effort…say for example, excerpts like, 'Ami To Eshechhi Barendrabhum-e Sona Masjid Theke, Ami To Eshechhi Matir Deul Aaul Baul Thekey' or 'Ami To Eshechhi Zainul Ar Aban Thakur Theke, Ami Tho Eshechhi Geetanjali O Agniveena 'r Theke' evokes that essence. The poem has been included in the textbook of class nine. An official of the National Curriculum and Textbook Board called me and said that, 'Sir, we are to give a long list of annotations at the end of the poem. It's true indeed!”
“Poetry is a kind of performance. Like W.H. Auden I believe that 'poetry is inspired dialogue.' And the way I hear it in my cranium, I try to reproduce that. Many tell me that I perform my poetry beautifully. In reply, I say that I simply transmit it -- just as I receive it.”
The French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes believes that the death of an author makes readers more responsible towards the creations of the author. He concludes his essay, Death of the Author thus: “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.”
Here judgment or the birth of a reader takes a prominent place. How will he judge his poetry as a reader? I asked. In reply Syed Haq said, “In one of my plays 'Irsha', I said, that a creative person… if you believe me to be a creative person, a poet, which I am not always. The moment I am involved in a creative endeavour, an elevation takes place within me. Later, when the job is finished, I am an ordinary man like others. I am no more the poet who wrote it. And I always view my writings as a reader, as a man outside them, and not as a poet who wrote them. If I am to ask for evaluating my poetry, I must say it is still miles to go; many things to do. Say, for example, I am not at all happy to see the trend of Bengali poetry, especially in Bangladesh. I don't really come across a good metaphor; a good image, even most of the poems I come across are not even complete and seem unfinished, repetitive and loud. Being loud is not a fault. Nazrul was loud! In poetry, there are two voices -- the private voice and public voice. Nazrul was perhaps the first public voice in our whole milieu of Bengali poetry! But when it seems contrived and doesn't come from within, it generates confusion and appears as if you are trying to attract an audience by being loud,” he concludes.