Sunil Gangopadhyay: Irreverent romantic

Print edition : November 16, 2012

The funeral procession, in Kolkata on October 25.-PTI

Sunil Gangopadhyay (1934-2012), who died in the early hours of October 23, strode the cultural domain of Bengal on both sides of the international border like a colossus.

Around 2:00 a.m. on October 23, even as Kolkata buzzed with mirth and festivities amid music and bright lights on the occasion of Durga Puja, death snatched away one of the citys most beloved sons. The passing away of Sunil Gangopadhyay, a doyen of modern Bengali literature, marked the end of an era in Bengals cultural history. For the last four decades he strode like a colossus the cultural domain of Bengal on both sides of the international border, impacting various aspects of the arts poetry, novel, short story, childrens fiction, drama, travelogue, and even cinema. He was 78 years of age and is survived by his wife Swati and son Souvik.

President Pranab Mukherjee said in his condolence message: Gangopadhyay had enriched Bengali literature through his unique style. He was one of the best intellectuals among his contemporaries. The vacuum created by his death cannot be filled. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Governor M.K. Narayanan expressed grief at his sudden demise. In a literary career that spanned more than 60 years since his first poem Ekti Chiti (A Letter) was published in Desh magazine in 1951, Sunil, wrote more than 200 books in different genres of literature.

Early life

He was born on September 7, 1934, in Madaripur subdivision of Faridpur district, which is now a district in Bangladesh. His father, a poor school teacher, migrated to Kolkata with his family following Partition in 1947. Sunils early life was spent amid poverty and deprivation, as he noted in his autobiography Ardhek Jiban (A Half Life). He had to finance his higher education by offering lessons for a fee to schoolchildren. Poverty forced him to take up various jobs after graduation until he finally settled in with the noted Bengali daily Ananda Bazaar Patrika as a sub-editor in 1970. His association with this newspaper and the literary magazine Desh continued until the end.

The poet

Though Sunil gained immense popularity and critical acclaim as a novelist and short-story writer (Satyajit Ray made films based on two of his novels, Aranyer Din Ratri or Days and Nights in the Forest and Pratidwandi or The Adversary), it was his poetry that placed him in the forefront of the Bengali literary world, and that was where he remained until the end, essentially as a poet. He was the founder-editor of Krittibas (1953), a monthly poetry magazine that soon became one of main vehicles of modern Bengali poetry. His colleagues in Krittibas included such luminaries as Shakti Chattopadhyay, Tarapada Ray and Sarat Mukhopadhyay. According to the eminent poet Niren Chakraborti, who is 10 years his senior, it was Sunil who was the central force that held the disparate and brilliant talents in Krittibas together.

Sunil and his Krittibas group strove to usher in a new wave of Bengali poetry free from the overarching influence of Tagore. Though this was not a novel endeavourthe Kalloljug movement in Bengali literature attempted it in 1930sit was under Sunils leadership that it achieved the kind of success it did.

He was undoubtedly one of the most important poets in post-War Bengal. He was radically modern in expression, structure and idea and at the same time his poetry was deeply philosophical and radiant. His contribution to Bengali poetry is enormous, said Sampa Sen, Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Bengali Literature, Hooghly Mohsin College told Frontline.

Sunil Gangopadhyay-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Not only did Sunils poems appeal to the charmed circle of intellectuals, they were also extremely popular among the general public. His language was that of the spoken word, yet it was mellifluous in its rhythm and metre, thus blurring the wall between prose and poetry.

His series of poems addressed to Neera, the elusive woman of his fantasies, his muse and inspiration, continue to haunt the imagination of successive generations of poetry readers. Unlike Tagores Jeeban Debata, who was some kind of mystical muse, Sunils Neera, though imaginary, was a woman of flesh and blood. Here was his essential departure from Tagores romanticism, which almost always had a mystical bent. Though some have criticised Sunil for being uncharitable about Tagore and his works, it would be more accurate to say that Sunil objected to the deification of Tagore by his admirers. He did not dispute Tagores poetic genius, which he acknowledged more than once.

As Nabarun Bhattacharya, another eminent Bengali novelist, told Frontline, As a poet he was very modern with an anarchic and iconoclastic bent. He was a rebel, and that came through in his poetry. An unwavering atheist on the one hand, Sunil was also an undying romantic with an irreverent streak that strained to break down barriers imposed by traditions and societal norms. For example, in his ode to his first love, the goddess Sarsaswati, he appeals to her not as a goddess but as a woman:


Poetry remained his first love, but novels and short stories won Sunil fame and fortune. His first novel, Aatmaprakash (Self-revelation) published in 1966, the story of an angry young mans frustrations and struggles, was an instant success. For years he kept the Bengali reading public enthralled by his novels serialised in in the pages of Desh, and this was where his much acclaimed historical novel Shei Shomoy (Those Days) first appeared. Its characters, part historical and part fictional, are drawn from 19th century Bengal Renaissance, a period of tremendous cultural, social and political ferment. . It earned him the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1985 and was published in an abridged form in English by Penguin India in 1993. Another masterpiece was Purbo Pashchim (East West), written with the Bangladesh War of 1971 in the backdrop.

Prothom Alo (First Light), the much-awaited sequel to Shei Shomoy, was published in 1996. It was largely a fictional exploration of Tagores life and works.

Sunil also wrote short stories, for both adults and children. His crime/adventure stories centring around the crippled detective Kakababu, a middle-aged avuncular figure, was a great favourite of young readers. He also wrote a number of highly interesting travelogues in a completely different style under the pseudonym Neel Lohit, and literary criticisms under another pen-name, Sanatan Pathak.

He practically won all the important literary awards of West Bengal, including the Ananda Puraskar (which he won twice, in 1972 and 1989), Bankim Puroshkar (1983) and the Sahitya Akademi Award (1985). He became the president of the Sahitya Akademi in 2008.

Sunil was a beacon of hope and inspiration to an entire generation of aspiring Bengali writers. Nabarun Bhattacharya said, His commitment to literature has always motivated us and will continue to motivate us. As youngsters when we were trying to become writers, there were two luminaries, Sunilda and Shaktida. I will always remember his kindness and the help that he extended to me.

Abul Bashar, an established writer, recalled how Sunil had picked him up from an obscure village in Murshidabad district after reading his first effort at a novel, without even having seen him.

The leitmotif of Sunils works, both prose and poetry, was love; and this was reflected in his life as well. For all his accolades, his fame and influence among Bengalis the world over, Sunil remained a most humble and affectionate elder brother to one and all. Noted physician and author Dr Tamal Laha, who was closely associated with Sunil, told Frontline, He was Sunilda to everyone, from me down to my son. He was anything between 16-27 at heart, the foremost Bengali romantic after Rabindranath Tagore. One unique thing about him was that he could never say no to anyone.

Right until the end he was a gregarious, fun-loving Bengali, addicted to adda (unstructured, informal, desultory discussions a favouritepastime of Bengalis). His old friend and screen legend Soumitra Chatterjee said: We have been friends for more than 50 years Although he was quite advanced in yearsin fact, he was exactly the same age as I amhis death was unexpected, considering his vitality. It is a terrible loss.

Sunil neither believed in God nor in any form of after life. According to him, religion had done more harm and than good to society. He lived

(Direct translation: My love knows no birth, nor death).