Shankha Ghosh: Conscience of Bengal

The poet Shankha Ghosh (1932-2021) could make the most powerful squirm in shame with the power of his pen and often brought upon his own head the wrath of political bigots.

Published : May 15, 2021 06:00 IST

Shankha Ghosh at home.

Shankha Ghosh at home.

Shankha Ghosh was more than just one of the greatest poets of post-Independence Bengal. For more than 75 years he was the representative of the collective conscience of the Bengali people; the voice of protest for succeeding generations; the shaper of their dreams and their pillar of strength when those dreams fell shattered by the blows of a cruel, uncaring future and the machinations of ruthless politicians. He was a visionary, a mystique, a prophet of humanity, whose art stood like the final citadel of resistance 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. His writing articulated the unuttered anguish of the forgotten and the grief of the forsaken.

On April 21, Shankha Ghosh’s death from COVID-19 brought to an end an epoch in Bengali literature. Bengal lost not just a literary giant, but also a friend, philosopher and guide—a shy, kindly guardian who silently watched over his wards and nurtured and protected them the only way he could, with his gentle art. Shankha Ghosh was 89 when he died and is survived by his wife, Pratima, and two daughters.

In a literary life that stretched over seven decades, Shankha Ghosh never lost his relevance and his poetry not only reflected and illuminated the different storms that swept through Bengali (and Indian) society, it also remained steadfast in its devotion to the one constant in changing times—humanity. He himself had once said, “Poetry has no other function other than telling the truth.” In the lines of his verses, the mute suffering of the subdued found its outlet and righteous outrage its articulation—“ Tar kono khyati neyi taar jonmo porichoy neyi/Taar kono mukti neyi lok jaake mukti bole thaake…/Tobu shey aemon bhaabe kon spordha kore bole jaai/Amaar dukhkher kaachey tomaader noto hotey hobey ” (Literal translation: She has no fame no identity/She does not have the freedom that people perceive as freedom…/Yet where does she get the audacity to say in such a manner/‘You will have to bow your heads before my sorrow’—from the poem Spordha , meaning “audacity”.)

Sampa Sen, Professor of Bengali Literature, told Frontline , “Every time a crisis loomed over society and the lives of people, Shankha Ghosh’s poetry 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.”

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Shankha Ghosh was not a poet of any particular genre, and neither could he be labelled by 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. In his youth he came under the influence of Marxist thought and was befriended by the great leftist poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay. According to Shankha Ghosh, it was Subhash Mukhopadhyay who wanted him to be more a “sympathiser” than an active party member. “I have never toed the political or literary line of any political party, and that is why I have been able to speak my mind. But all my poems are political in some way or another,” he had said. 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. “ Tumi diyechhiley bhaar / Aami taai nirjon rakhal ” (You gave me the responsibility/ and so I am the solitary shepherd), he wrote.

From the mid 1930s began a new revolution in Bengali poetry led by the great Jibanananda Das. It was a movement that attempted to come out of the all-pervading influence of Rabindranath Tagore. It gave rise to a new breed of great poets in the 1930s and 1940s, including strongly leftist ones like Bishnu Dey, Sukanta Bhattacharya and Subhash Mukhopadhyay. Sampa Sen said: “Shankha Ghosh, when he burst into the scene in the 1950s, was an inheritor of that new movement, but he did not adhere to any one particular tradition or form. In fact, there has never been a poet who has ever participated so wholeheartedly in mass movements without having any allegiance to any particular political party or political line. In spite of being very political, his poetry was fiercely individualistic. Stylistically, too, his poetry was varied, and he constantly explored metres and rhythms.”

Shankha Ghosh’s craft was a delicate balance between the deeply personal and the fiercely socio-political. Every passing period has been reflected in his writing. He wrote on the death of Jamunabati, a 16-year-old girl killed in police firing while participating in the food movement; he wrote on the death of his student during the naxal movement; he wrote on the atrocities committed by the state no matter who was in power. He was the eternal rebel who never backed off from taking on the higher powers when he felt that they were transgressing on the rights of the people.

At a time when the political world of Bengal was in a state of shock following 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 was the same man who had resigned from the Bangla Academy in protest against the death of 14 villagers in police firing at Nandigram under the Left Front and 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.

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Even in old age, his powers never declined, and some of his most scathing verses in the last years of his life were directed against a society falling under a fascistic spell. In 2019 he wrote a powerful poem, Maati , against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). “ Tomader paay paay amaaro jorano chhilo paa/Tomra jaanoni taake, phireyo chaaoni taar dikey/Du dhaarey taakiye daekho bhenge aachhey shobguli shnako/Konkhaney jaabo aar Jodi aaj choley jete bolo ” (Literal translation: My footsteps were there among your footsteps/You never knew her, never even turned to see her/Look around you see all the bridges are broken/Where will I go if you ask me to leave today” from Maati .)

There was enormous compassion even when he was at his angriest. In a lyrical short documentary made on his life by the internationally acclaimed film-maker Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Shankha Ghosh said that he himself always felt like a refugee: “I have lived in Kolkata for over 50 years, but the memory of an earlier life haunts this physical presence, and that is perhaps why my writings will always carry a sense of not having a country…. I feel like an eternal refugee.”

East Bengal roots

Born Chittopriyo Ghosh on February 5, 1932, in Chandpur (now in Bangladesh), to Manindra Kumar Ghosh and Amalabala, Shankha Ghosh spent most of his childhood in Pakshi, a small town in Pabna district. One of eight children, his childhood was spent in considerable poverty, his father being a poor school headmaster.

Though poor, Mahindra Kumar ensured that the children were brought up in an environment of culture and education. Under his father’s influence, Shankha Ghosh grew up reading the works of Rabindranath Tagore and inculcating Tagore's philosophy in his life. It was a passion that remained with him throughout; Shankha Ghosh the academic was also considered one of the foremost authorities on Tagore’s works. Interestingly, it was his mother who first encouraged him to compose poems.

After completing graduation in Bengali from Presidency College and his master’s degree from Calcutta University, Shankha Ghosh embarked upon an academic career no less illustrious than his literary one. 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. Though extremely shy of publicity, and always reluctant to come in front of a camera or on a stage, Shankha Ghosh nevertheless always had time for his students and admirers. Young aspiring poets would give their work to him and he would diligently read them and make suggestions. In many ways, he was like a kindly father-figure to contemporary artists.

Alongside his powerful socio-political poems, there were also beautiful, intensely personal and lyrically romantic poems. One of his masterpieces, Babur er Prarthana (Babur’s prayer), written when his daughter was ill, explores the universality of the love of fathers for their children down the ages of history. The poet relates his own helpless anguish with that of the mighty all-conquering Babur praying for his son Humayun’s recovery. Buddhadeb Dasgupta, himself a renowned poet, told Frontline , “It is a huge personal loss for me. Shankha Ghosh’s poetry is so beautiful, so powerful, that it can just carry one away. Every time you read any of his poems, you keep discovering something new in it. His poems unfold themselves magically to the reader with every reading. His entire being was immersed in poetry.”

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After more than 70 years in a literary life, it is almost unbelievable that a poet never ceased to remain relevant until the time of his death. There has never been a time when the people of Bengal did not turn to Shankha Ghosh’s poetry for comfort, inspiration, and the sheer beauty of the lines and ideas. Among his most famous works were Dinguli Raatguli , Murkho boro, samajik noy , and Baburer Prarthona . He was also an outstanding essayist. Sampa Sen pointed out that even in his prose he was fiercely individualistic and never approached a subject like a researcher— “instead he wrote his prose and his essays with the spontaneity of a poet”.

Among his numerous awards, he won the Narsingh Das Puraskar in 1977 for Murkho Boro, Samajik Noy . The same year he received the Sahitya Academy Award for Babur er Prarthana . He would win the Sahitya Academy Award again in 1999 for Raktakalyan , his translation of the Kannada play Taledanda . In 1989 he won the Rabindra Puraskar for Dhum Legechhey Hridkomoley . In 2011 he was conferred the Padma Bhushan and in 2016 the Jnanpith Award.

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, West Bengal Chief Minister 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.”

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