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Understanding Jibanananda’s Different Poetic Sensibility

Arunima Ray


Jibanananda Das’s poetry has the power to transport one to the obscure region of one’s being and sensibility beyond the everyday bounds of sense and reason.  He achieves it characteristically by endowing mystical attributes to mundane everyday objects of nature, especially the ordinary objects that we see in and around Bengal as Bengal was known then in its undivided entity. This rootedness of his imagination and sensibility is what makes Jibanananda Das a unique poet, different from almost all the modern poets of Bengal. Bengal has produced a great number of nature poets, the finest specimen of which could be no other than Tagore himself, the pictorial as well as spiritual quality of whose images has touched thousands of people across the world. But never before, perhaps, was there a poet in Bengal who like Jibanananda, time and again, made the so-called lowly and unattractive creatures and plants like idur (mouse), shalik (Indian maynah), pecha (owl), kaak (crow), churui (sparrow), hash (duck), ghash (grass), akanda (crown flower, calotropis gigantea), dhundul (a kind of local vegetable) and so on so 'ordinary' yet significant. I intend to discuss three poems by Jibanananda Das and all three are my favourite ones, namely ‘Before Death’ from his collection Dhushar Pandulipi (Grey Manuscripts), ‘I Shall Return To This Bengal’ and ‘Banalata Sen’ from his collection Rupashi Bangla (Beautiful Bengal) to examine his poetic sensibility as a modern poet, to examine his relationship with nature, a relationship with a difference, and the transformation that Bengal had undergone in his poetry because of this special bond. The order of discussion in my paper will have first ‘Banalata Sen’ to be followed by ‘Before Death’ and then ‘I shall Return to this Bengal’. In this context, it would not be wrong to refer to Tagore, and indeed I have already mentioned him as one of the finest examples of Bengal’s nature poets. With his vast range of songs and poems in praise of Bengal he remains not only relevant but a necessity for the expression of nearly all our moods and occasions, his songs fitting in and therefore being played during every single festival today in Bengal. Yet his description of Bengal remains more general, symbolic and romantic. Nature perhaps was a means of transcendence for Tagore, to be one with a greater being. Jibanananda’s association with nature and specifically that of Bengal is more specific, everyday, ordinary, and common but at the same time sensuous and mysterious. If transcendence is the uniqueness of Tagore’s verse, then that of Jibanananda is surely immanence, and this quality perhaps establishes Jibanananda as one who comes after Tagore with altogether a new sensibility and quest. Never before or since were the poems of his kind written. Buddhadeva Bose in his book An Acre of Green Grass rightly says of Jibanananda:

            A nature-worshipper, but by no means a platonist or pantheist; he is rather a pagan who loves the things of nature sensuously, not as tokens or symbols, nor as patterns of perfection, but simply because they are what they are (Bose, 58).

 Jibanananda’s singularity lies in his ability to perceive beauty in the unacknowledged and small objects of nature, and in that sense he truly made ordinary Bengal beautiful in the eyes of his readers.

At a time when Jibanananda Das was writing, many readers and admirers of his poetry had called him the lonely or the loneliest poet. The reason for using such a label was perhaps because of the pervasive sense of melancholy and of death in his poems. That label has remained with him forever. He was aware of it and had referred to it in the Introduction to the collection of his poems published in 1954 called Jibanananda Daser Shreshto Kobita (The Best Poems of Jibanananda Das). In the Introduction he says that many labels have been tagged to his name from time to time. Some have called him a nature-poet, some a poet of historical and social consciousness, while there are still others who would prefer to call him a poet of the subconscious or more specifically a surrealist poet. Many of these, as the poet observes, stand true for specific poems, but none describes his whole oeuvre. This problem of defining Jibanananda, as I see it, lies in the unusualness of his poetry. Jibanananda lived during difficult times. It was a time of severe political disturbances, the rise of the Left movement, unemployment, financial crisis, and so on. Premendra Mitra and Subhash Mukhopadhyay, Jibanananda’s contemporaries, had once even declared that they were poets of the ‘coolie and the lowly’ (Bose, 59) and ‘workers and peasants’ (Bose, 59) respectively. In terms of poetry writing European modernist poetry was a big influence on the poets of this generation, so much so that many of Jibanananda’s contemporaries were called Eliotesque poets. Jibanananda too had been at the receiving end of all this turmoil, but his uniqueness lies in dealing with the same situation in a different way. The world may have been chaotic, but the fecundity and correlative quality of Jibanananda’s mind, helped him create a unique world for himself even in the midst of all this turmoil. Hence most of his poems are neither rebellious nor angry nor dark, characteristics common to the poetry of many of his contemporaries. They are rather characterized by silence, tranquillity and a dreamlike ambience. This perhaps was the reason behind calling Jibanananda a surrealist by many. The Surrealists believed that the vagaries of the outside world could be overcome by invoking the powers of the mind to emancipate and escape into the world of amazing possibilities.

Angst which is the hallmark of modernist poetry was present in most of the poets of the time, including Jibanananda Das. Its presence can be felt in the pervasive presence of the sense of fragmentation, meaninglessness and even death in their poetry. But Jibanananda’s poetry is not to be marked by any of these, neither in terms of celebration nor lamentation. Rather his antidote for all this is to celebrate life, to be bound in love with this pulsating life as such in nature that makes it possible to be one with one’s own subconsciousness.  The mysteriously beautiful and distant places as well as the sensuous opulence of nature that his poetry draws on make this imaginative journey to be one with nature and hence with oneself possible and deeply enjoyable.  In Banalata Sen we encounter such a ‘tired’ soul of a journeying poet looking for peace and oneness. He claims he gets it from ‘Banalata Sen’, and we have the unmistakable feel that Banalata Sen, the loved one, is emblematic of Bengal, Bengal’s nature, its deep solace and shelter, so to speak. As he says:

                     For thousands of years I roamed the paths of this earth,

                     From waters round Sri Lanka, in dead of night, to seas up the Malabar coast.

                     Much have I wandered. I was there in the gray world of Ashoka

                      And of Bimbisara, pressed on through darkness to the city of Vidarbha.

                      I am a weary heart surrounded by life's frothy ocean.

                      To me she gave a moment's peace—Banalata Sen from Natore.

(trans. by Seely in Parabaas)

The poet, as we see in the poem, has travelled far and wide, but peace eluded him. It is only when he comes face to face with Banalata Sen, does he feel peace. Jibanananda gives free rein to his imagination illustrated by his travels to ancient and remote places of great beauty and attraction. Yet his quest ultimately brings him back to Bengal, to Banalata Sen. Hence it can be said that Banalata Sen is identified with Bengal, and to give a sense of more rootedness, with Natore of Bengal. As is the case, Jibanananda’s poems often give ethereal feelings and exotic sensation, yet the images which abound in them are enough to evoke one’s deep-buried memories of Bengal. Even when he describes a woman or a beloved, he draws comparison from nature and uses images which offer a larger-than-life or stranger-than-life impression of the person. Yet he makes sure that the person is situated and identified in the familiar sights and sounds of the soil she belongs to. Hence Banalata Sen belongs to Natore and her eyes are like the nest of a bird. When the poet encounters her, she says, ‘Where have you been so long?
And raised her bird's-nest-like eyes—Banalata Sen from Natore’ (trans. by Seely in Parabaas). At the end of the poem when the poet describes darkness as it descends on the Earth, the end of the day symbolizing end of life as well, he returns to Banalata Sen, his refuge. Jibanananda’s images come out brilliant and evocative, but often puzzling and therefore lasting for their oxymoronic effects. Banalata Sen’s ‘bird’s-nest-eye’ image is a case in point. It has made us all willing captives. It is his innate ability to give a fantastic touch to the so-called commonplace things; it is the ability to perceive the extraordinary in the ordinary; it is the ability to perceive pulsating life in the apparently inanimate; and it is this ability that opens the gateway for him to reach out to the life in nature and thereby to his own substratum. It is this ability that makes Jibanananda a modern poet with a difference. A sense of melancholy pervades in the last few lines of ‘Banalata Sen’ as he describes the day coming to an end. The images are hallucinatory, but tangible. As the poet says:

                        At day's end, like hush of dew

                        Comes  evening.  A hawk wipes the scent of sunlight from its wings.

                        When earth's colors fade and some pale design is sketched,

                        Then glimmering fireflies paint in the story.

                        All birds come home, all rivers, all of life's tasks finished.

                        Only darkness remains, as I sit there face to face with Banalata Sen.

(trans. by Seely in Parabaas)

Fantasy and reality blend as one when he comes back to his beloved Banalata Sen of Natore. This sense of life coming to an end recurs also in the other poem that I want to discuss and the very name of the next poem has the word death in it. But by now he has almost overcome the fear of death. Hence, in ‘Before Death’, the poet gives the readers reasons for having overcome the fear of death. As he says:

                        We who've walked deserted fields of stubble on Paush evenings,

                         Who've seen upon the fields' far edge soft river women spreading

                          Fog flowers — they all, alas, like village girls of days long past;

                          We who've seen in darkness the akanda shrub, the dhundul

                           Filled with fireflies, seen the moon standing silent vigil at the head of

                           Fields already harvested — not lusting for the crops grown there;

                            …Before death what more do we wish to understand?

(trans. by Seely in Parabaas)

The trope of death as we see extends to this poem also. But it loses its power over the poet however otherwise pervasive it may be. How can death daunt one like him, one who has seen all that is worth seeing in nature? This poem is a classic one which has Jibanananda’s unique style of describing nature. All his senses seem to be open and he appears to absorb nature in all its varied beauties, beauties that elude others because they are otherwise small, ordinary and everyday. But at his poetic touch the ordinary and the small become part of the sustaining substratum of life. His is a vision of total immanence in the life of nature.  He talks of the strange beauty of winter night, of local plants like akanda and creepers like dhundul bright in the light of glow worms at night, of the longing of a crow, of the mouse whose fur is covered in grains, of the smells of grass, sunlight, infant-mouth, crickets, the smell of the ancient owl, the eggs of a sparrow, and so on. In the poem he says that one whose mind is open to these pleasures of nature has already had the privilege of enjoying the supreme pleasures of life and perhaps there is nothing more that life has to offer after this. Buddhadeva Bose rightly says that Jibanananda has an inclination towards the exotic, but there is nothing uncanny about his poetry. Nature presents life in totality to the poet, so that just like the yellowing of a leaf or a day coming to an end or the change of seasons, death too comes naturally. But what is important here is that death comes not without fulfilment. Beauty in all forms, erotic and sensual, life in all its forms, pleasures in all its facets have been given to him by nature and they have filled him with ineffable joy. The last two lines of the poem talks of Jibanananda’s ultimate fulfilment before death and hence the acceptance that comes with it. As he says:

                      Before death what more do we wish to understand? Do we not know

                      Gray death's face awakes, arises, like a wall, at the head of all our prostrate

                       Reddened cravings? Once within this world were dreams; there was gold

                       That obtained tranquility, as if according to the dictates of some master of illusion.

                       What more do we wish to understand? Have we not heard bird wings call

                        After sunlight faded? Have we not watched the crows fly off through fog-filled  

                       Fields?  

(trans. by Seely in Parabaas)

Hence, after death, as it were, the poet says, ‘I Shall Return To This Bengal’. To Bengal he wants to return, a place which has given him utmost fulfilment during his lifetime, and in death too he desires the same place. No one really knows what happens after death, yet the desire that the poet expresses is eternal. But to Bengal he will return, not as a man. He will return as a mayna or a fishing-kite or a dawn crow or maybe as a duck.  As a human being he has perceived this life as an outsider. Now he wishes to be one with it, one with this life which is pulsating and which is strangely beautiful. This life is not completely knowable until and unless one is completely a part of it. Hence he says:

                         I shall return to this Bengal, to the Dhansiri’s bank:

                         Perhaps not as a man, but mayna or fishing-kite;

                         Or dawn crow, floating on the mist’s bosom to alight

                          In the shade of this jackfruit tree, in this autumn harvest-land.

                          Or may be a duck- a young girl’s bells on my red feet,

                          Drifting on kalmi-scented waters all the day:

                          For love of Bengal’s rivers, fields, crops, I’ll come this way

                          To this green shore of Bengal, drenched by Jalangi’s waves

(trans. by Chaudhuri, 9).

Buddhadeva Bose in talking of Jibanananda’s poetry rightly says, ‘He brings us no breath of heaven, nor blasts of hell, draws up no molten metal from the unfathomed mind; what he does is to intensify the everyday experience of our senses to a point where it seems transformed, transcendent, miraculous. He is important because he has brought a new note to our poetry, a new tone of feeling…’ (58-59). Bose is right and I feel the most important aspect about Jibanananda’s perception of life is that in making the ordinary extraordinary and in making the animals of the lower kinds like owl, mouse, crow, duck, shalik, and so on, desirable and capable of bringing out the poetic inspiration in him, he unites his self with the ‘other’, or rather cognizes the ‘other’ almost in the postmodernist way. The philosophy that exudes from his poems is that of a wholesome living wherein human beings are placed at a necessary oneness with this other side of life considered as ‘irrational’, ‘subhuman’. That perhaps is also the reason why he appears to be a surrealist, one who has moved away from the dominance of the mind and the rational that more often than not divides and reached out to the subconscious where all is one in terms of the irresistibility of the force of life and living itself. His poetic self finds itself fulfilled in discovering this irresistible pulsating life and beauty in nature, in the nature of Bengal, and in being part of it. As he says in ‘I Shall Return To This Bengal’,

                            Perhaps you’ll see a glass-fly ride the evening breeze,

                            Or hear a barn owl call from the silk-cotton tree;

                            A little child toss rice-grains on the courtyard grass,

                            Or a boy on the Rupsa’s turgid stream steer a dinghy

                            With torn white sail - white egrets swimming through red clouds

                            To their home in the dark. You will find me among their crowd

(trans. by Chaudhuri, 9).

 

References

Bose, Buddhadeva. An Acre of Green Grass: A Review of Modern Bengali Literature. Calcutta: Papyrus, 1948.

Das, Jibanananda.   'I Shall Return To This Bengal'.” trans. by Sukanta Chaudhuri in Modern Indian Literature. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Das, Jibanananda. ‘Banalata Sen’ and ‘Before Death.’ trans. by Clinton B. Seely in The Scent of Sunlight, Parabaas, 2011.

 


 

Published in Parabaas: November, 2012