On April 21, COVID-19 carried away one of the greatest literary figures of modern Bengal, Shankha Ghosh. The 89-year-old legendary poet had tested positive for COVID on April 14, and was being treated at his residence, as he did not wish to be hospitalised. He is survived by his wife Pratima and two daughters.
Shankha Ghosh’s death brings to an end an epoch in Bengali literature. From the 1950s till the end of his life, he had been an intrinsic part of Bengal’s cultural and moral psyche. To label him simply as a great poet or a litterateur would be grossly insufficient. In many ways Shankha Ghosh was not just the conscience of the Bengali people, but also a visionary, a mystique, a prophet of humanity, whose art stood like a pillar of support at the darkest hours when all else was falling apart or crumbling. In his poems people found reflections of their own existence made bearable by the beauty of his words, the cadences of his rhythms and the power of his vision.
Professor of Bengali literature Sampa Sen told Frontline , “Every time a crisis loomed over society and the lives of people, Shankha Ghosh’s poety would appear like a beacon of light. For the last 75 years we have sought shelter in Shankha Ghosh’s works; sought guidance from his words. For this reason I believe Shankha Ghosh ranks second only to Rabindranath Tagore in his influence and impact on Bengali society.”
Shankha Ghosh was not a poet of any particular genre, and neither could he be labelled to any school of politics or thought. His subject matter was humanity in its all-encompassing aspect and poetry to him was a tool of conveying the truth. With the power of his pen he could make the most powerful squirm in shame and often bring upon his own head the wrath of political bigots; but none could make him deviate from his chosen path.
At a time when the political world of Bengal was in a state of shock by the rampant violence in the 2018 panchayat elections, and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s close aide Anubrata Mandal claimed that “development” was standing on the roads, Shankha Ghosh sliced down the arrogance of the ruling party with just three withering lines: ‘Daekh khule tor teen nayan / Rasta judey kharga haatey / Daariye aachey unnayan” (Literal translation” Open your three eyes and see/With a sacrificial sword on the road/Stands Development.”) This is the same man who had resigned from the Bangla Academy in protest against the death of 14 villagers in Nandigram in police firing during the rule of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front and had openly sided with Mamata Banerjee who was then the main opposition; but that did not stop him from acting upon the voice of his conscience.
Though he never represented any political party or even any political ideology, Shankha Ghosh’s works were of tremendous social and political significance. Even in old age, his powers never declined, and some of his most scathing verses in the last few years of his life were directed against a society falling under a fascistic spell. In 2019 he wrote a powerful poem against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Age could not dull his rebellious instinct and his free spirit. He never lost his relevance, and there has never been a time when the people of Bengal did not turn to Shankha Ghosh’s poem for comfort, inspiration and beauty. Some of his most famous works include “Dinguli Raatguli”, “Murkho boro, samajik noy”, and “Babarer Prarthona”. He was also an outstanding essayist and an authority on Rabindranath Tagore. Among his numerous awards, he won the Sahitya Academy Award twice (1977 and 1999), the Rabindra Puraskar (1989), and the Jnanpith Award (2016). In 2011, he was conferred the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India.
Following his death Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “Shri Shankha Ghosh will be remembered for his contributions to Bengali and Indian literature. His works were widely read and admired. Saddened by his demise. Condolences to his family and friends.” Union Home Minister Amit Shah said on social media: “Anguished to learn about the sad demise of a renowned Bengali poet and Sahitya Akademi Awardee, Shri Shankha Ghosh Ji. He will always be remembered for his outstanding poems, deeply rooted in the social context.” Expressing grief at Shankha Ghosh’s death, Mamata Banerjee said that she had a very good relationship with the poet and his death was an irreparable loss in the world of literature. “Today we have lost a jewel of Bengali literature and poetry, Shankha Ghosh…. We are stunned with grief at his passing.”
Born Chittopriyo Ghosh on February 5, 1932, in Chandpur (now in Bangladesh), Shankha Ghosh did his graduation in Bengali from Presidency College and his Masters from Calcutta University. Throughout his life he taught in various colleges before settling down at Jadavpur University, from where he retired in 1992. He was also known to be an outstanding teacher. In fact, students from other colleges and universities would quietly attend his lectures at Jadavpur. “His teaching itself was an art. He taught how to read and study Rabindranath Tagore in a new way. He was devoted to his students. His mellifluous voice still resonates in my ears long after I stopped being a student,” said Sampa Sen, who studied under Shankha Ghosh. Although extremely shy of publicity and self-effacing, he nevertheless always had time for his students and admirers. Young aspiring poets would give their works to him and he would diligently read them and make suggestions. In many ways, he was like a kindly father-figure to contemporary artistes.