As a student of English literature, “Eshob pore ki hobe?” is a question I've had to face on a near-daily basis. The society's scepticism of a life devoted to literature has been impossible to evade. It is, however, that same society that recites verses of poetry as fluently as nursery rhymes; with lines by Tagore and Nazrul lovingly repeated at dinner table discussions, in classrooms teaching political science, or on traffic-ridden commutes filled by conversations with a rickshaw-puller. As if in defiance to its increasing marginalisation on the global sphere, poetry remains as intricately woven into our lives as ever before. This endurance is further reflected in the theme of hope which can be traced through most Bengali poetry to this day.
Much of it takes the form of courage and political rebellion – in the works of Sukanta Bhattacharya and Achintya Kumar Sengupta in a post- World War II era warped by famine and societal unrest; in the “revolutionary voice” of Sikander Abu Jafar; and in Kazi Nazrul Islam's eminence as the “Rebel Poet”, among many others. But a more peaceful and positive kind of hope pervades the wide canon of Bengali poetry written in ode to the country's natural beauty, and the strength of its people and relationships. The biggest example lies in our national anthem.
Written in 1905, Amar Shonar Bangla was born out of Rabindranath Tagore's aversion to the Bengal partition. This history led a newborn Bangladesh to choose the song as its national anthem in 1972. Despite the violence embedded in both historic movements, the lyrics of the anthem are devoid of any dark or political content. Instead, the colours and sounds of Bengal are equated with the sweetness of nectar, the melody of flutes, and the tranquillity of a mother's shade. In Tagore's vision, a seemingly undivided Shonar Bangla basks in a “golden” light – a colour that connotes grandeur, warmth, and the light of dawn. These sentiments pay homage to the way that each side of divided Bengal exchanged “rakhis” in the hopes of maintaining unity during the partition in 1905, and the way Bangladeshis rose out of a bloody battle in 1971, victorious and excited to build a new country.
Years later, another Bengali would mark her place among a rich cultural landscape largely ruled by male poets. Born to a conservative family that frowned upon women's social exposure, Begum Sufia Kamal emerged from being a homeschooled young girl who devoured literature in the secret of night, to a social activist, a fighter of women's rights, and the brainchild behind some of the most seminal initiatives in Bengal's cultural history – the Martyrs Day March in February 1952; the Sangskritik Swadhikar Andolon; the Mahila Parishad; Chhayanaut. These strengths, reflected in her poetry, gave her a mentor in poet Kazi Nazrul Islam. In her ode to summer in Pochishey Boishakh, Sufia Kamal describes a fertile, bountiful land that worships the sun for never ceasing to rise each day. This reverence for an eternal force, felt by a land that is beautiful and giving in itself, reflects the hope with which Bengalis have continued to rise from each blow dealt by political suppression and unrest. Similar sentiments are present in her other poems, from her nostalgic messages to the youth in Ajikar Shishu, to her seeking of political guidance in Hey Mohan Neta.
To attempt to address the vast expanse of such luminous creative works in one go is a near-impossible task. Across the decades, Lalon Shah and Hason Raja's spirituality, Shamsur Rahman's quest for intellectual liberty, Al Mahmud's nationalism through his use of dialects, and Syed Shamsul Haq's focus on human indomitability have presented the Bengali spirit in its numerous shapes and colours. What has remained constant is the theme of resilience to strive towards a better tomorrow, garnered from the strong links between nature and human lives.
An article in The Washington Post titled “Is Poetry Dead?”explains that, “All the prestige of poetry dates back to when it was the way you got the most vital news there is. The Iliad. The Odyssey. Gilgamesh. All literature used to be poetry. But then fiction splintered off.” Today, these functions of inspiring (although 'influencing' might be a more relevant term now) people's sentiments and ideologies are carried out by movies and the media, abundant in Opinion pieces, analytical talk shows, and social media commentary. This, in addition to the disconnect from Bengali literature felt by a portion of the younger generation, indicates the ebbing relevance of Bengali poetry in our midst today.
But I don't see it as proof of the death of poetry. Changing in form and function along with the change in time, poetry has now evolved from serving as a vessel of information to a vessel of inspiration that continues to survive in little pockets across the country, often in unique forms. Poetry recitations, no longer confined within university campuses or the Bangla Academy grounds, are now popularly hosted by student groups and young artists in restaurants and cafes. Spoken word poetry - a modern twist on Kobir Lorai – is slowly gaining popularity, especially with the Ampersand group's inception in 2015. And the month of November has overtaken February and April in its outpour of cultural festivities. Following the fear and uncertainty cast by July's terrorist attack last year, the grandeur of 2016's Bengal Music Festival, Jazz and Blues Festival, and Dhaka Literary Festival highlighted most strongly our capacity for hope, resurrection, and defiant celebration in the face of misfortune.
Contrary to popular belief, literature is very much alive in the veins of the current generation of Bangladeshis who, once introduced to the large wealth of Bengali literature still being produced today, could work remarkable wonders with it. In helping Bengali verse survive, we need to make room for it in the inventive things being done with literature by our wildly creative artists today, applying to the task the same hope that runs through its historic lineage to date.
The writer is a student of English and Economics at NSU, and a member of the editorial team, The Daily Star.