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Saturday April 19,2003

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The Renaissance That Failed: the little magazine movement in Bangladesh in the eighties

Subrata Augustine Gomes, The Daily star

Bangla literature, more specifically, poetry, of the late 1960s through to the early 1980s was marked by an excess of raw emotions, verbiage, and descriptiveness. Influenced, among others, by the Liverpool poets and the Beatniks, and given impetus by the recent hard-won national independence, which was a tailor-made subject-matter, Bangladeshi poets of those decades made good use of the time to secure immediate popularity. One would be hard put to find another era in our history where poetry was so successful a commodity. In fact, poetry became the most accessible of the art-media to readers and poets alike. One would need only to find a suitably sensitive theme such as freedom or love or hunger, and an accompanying wide range of adjectives to go with it to enlist in the business of writing a popular poem. These poets had as aids to their efforts the effeminate "reciters"(a unique profession that sprang out of the immediate post-war sentimentalism) who in loud G-sharp voices would broadcast poetry (of all things!) from around the street-corners, theatre halls, parks, cafés, and even the radio and television. Literary pages and special supplements of daily newspapers and journals of the day were flooded with lines such as:

"Freedom, you are
the loveliest dream I have ever dreamt,
Freedom, you are
also the ugliest of my nightmares..."
 

Or

"For my love only,
I planted the rose tree I've just cut,
For my love only,
I have cut the rose tree I planted..."

So on and so forth.

This frivolity ("jug jug to dirty ears" maybe) went on and on, undiminished, until around the mid-eighties a group of young poets and writers emerged who threw these formulaic poems completely overboard, and sought to do something worthwhile, something that in their eyes, would represent a genuine literary effort. This "Little Magazine Group" (as they came to be known later) consisted of young and promising poets and writers like Ashim Kumar Das, Tapan Barua, Masud Khan, Khondkar Ashraf Hussain, Moin Chaudhury, Shamsul Kabir, Amanullah, Swadesh Bandhu Sarkar, Raja Hassan, Salim Morshed, Sajjad Sharif, Bishnu Bishwas, Syed Tarik, Sarkar Masud, Rifat Chaudhury, Shahidul Alam, Parvez Hussain, Shantanu Chaudhury, Shoeb Shadab, Bratya Raisu, Matiyar Raphael, Jewel Mazhar, Shahed Shafayat, Bayejid Mahboob, Masud Ali Khan and many others, including the present writer.

Modelled after their famous Western counterparts like the Dial and the Criterion, and naming themselves after The Little Review, the little magazines are, first and foremost, literary journals that facilitate new and counter-culture literature. In Bengal, while the advent of little magazine may be attributed to Pramatha Chaudhury's Sabuj Patra or Kallol, it may be more correct to mention Buddhadev Basu's Kavita as the first real Bangla little magazine, being closest to the kind of non-commercial journal propagating new ideas and art forms associated with little magazines. After Kavita, both banks of the Ganges have seen a steady flow of such journals--Pragati, Parichay, Kanthaswar, Samakal, Bijnapanparba, Kaurab--to name a few.

This trend was slightly altered in the late eighties when in both West Bengal and Bangladesh comparatively younger writers began opposing the gradual institutionalization of the aforesaid journals and at the same time started to position themselves against the social, political and commercial establishments--the high priests of status quo in their view. Therefore, in order to avoid the mistake of these journals which had started to become institutionalized, they deliberately started to bring out their journals sporadically--that is to say, when they were able to and deemed it fit to do so. These journals were generally short-lived, and defied the stylistic norms that were adopted by their precursors (a few of them were actually handwritten and stencilled).

Belonging exclusively to the new writers (the writers of a new kind of literature, that is), these journals were considered by some as "yet another avant-garde madness," while by others the true indicators of what literature would be like in the approaching century. The most noteworthy of such journals in Bangladesh, especially the ones that were actively involved in the inception and nurturing of the movement, would include Ekabingsha (editor, Khondkar Ashraf Hussain), Gandeeb (editor, Tapan Barua), Anindya, Sangbed, Nadi, Pranta, Prasun (edited jointly by Masud Ali Khan and myself), Nirmiti, Pencha, Nisarga, Purnadairghya, Bipratik, etc.

The contributors to these journals were reluctant, first of all, to compromise their standards and acquiesce to the publisher, the newspaper editor, as well the common reader. In short, they refused to turn their œvres into commodities. Another value to which most of them strongly adhered to was an express disrespect for whatever they considered outdated and stale. This attitude gained them more foes than friends, and up to the very end they continued to be the targets of venomous censure and unfair attacks (these went to the extent of physical assaults a few times). To be honest, however, it must be admitted that insiders of the little magazine world rather than the outsiders contributed more to the disintegration of the group in the early nineties.

For the sake of historical correctness, I should mention that this particular variety of little magazine originated not in Bangladesh, but in West Bengal. Poets like Mridul Dasgupta, Gautam Chaudhury, Prasun Bandopadhyay, and Jay Goswami (I cite his name with some reservation), and fiction writers (or, more properly, anti-fiction fiction writers) Subimal Mishra were amongst the real progenitors of this school. Nevertheless, from the very outset, we had a quite different objective than our West Bengali counterparts. We were less politically and socially motivated and were less given to using our journals as weapons against establishmentarian 'mouthpieces' like Ananda Bazar, which allegedly represented and promoted political and social dogmas the little magazine group in West Bengal detested, and were regarded to manipulate and exploit writers for these ends.

We on our part had no such very obvious opponent, and ours was, therefore, a more purely aesthetic movement (that is not to say that we were not at all concerned with the establishment, in fact, the issue of whether we should write for daily newspapers gave rise to such huge battles over the 'correct line' to take that some of us were literally ousted from the group as a result). We fought not against bad politics (the state of political affairs was of course quite as bad, if not worse, in Bangladesh, exactly as in West Bengal but we found our authorities simply too vulgar to be the subject of literary attacks), but against bad taste. Consequently, we failed to attract any readership, but that was not one of our principal concerns either. Being the writers, editors, distributors, and even readers of our own magazines, we were fairly content to publish them for ourselves. But the financial constraints were extremely forbidding: deprived of any support from both the public and the private sectors, we were to depend solely on our own mostly small and uncertain incomes, along with the patient but not endless, generosity of our parents, friends and relatives.

However, this factor, even though it did contribute heavily to the downfall of the movement, was not the only, or even the major, cause of our dispersion. One of the more crucial issues was the fact that while we knew, probably too well, what not to write, we tended not to have as clear an idea of what to write, and even worse, what to read. Our immediate predecessors in the little magazine publication world had not faced this particular dilemma. For the great majority of them, the world was not any bigger than Great Britain and the USA, and they were fairly complacent with their anecdotal knowledge of poets like Keats, Yeats and the like, and, say, critical theorists like Arnold and Eliot.

Looking for other gurus across the world in our turn, we were instantly bewildered by the profusion of isms out there, and were unable to determine which one of those we were to espouse. We tortured ourselves with Russian Formalism, Post-Structuralism, and Deconstruction Theory to little or no avail. There was nothing, not even a good library, and no one, no outstanding academic or teacher, who could show us the way or light the path ahead, and we scoured through such diverse sources as Richardson and Kafka, Rilke and Seferis, Borges and Soyinka, without pausing in between, reading in between. We noted wide-eyed the advent of the African writers into the very select circle of immortal literature and cursed ourselves for not being able to come up with a single something to regain and secure a position in world literature that was lost to the Bangali nation after Tagore. Following the example of the magic-realist Latin Americans, we felt strongly the need to work with our own resources, but could not decide what exactly could be made use of, and in what manner.

Ultimately, as a natural upshot of this undefined, unfocused struggle against obscurity, our small group split into yet smaller sub-groups, and a painful period of factional and intensely personal in-fighting ensued. We started blacklists of writers, imposed embargoes on one another, and very soon all of us were deadlocked against one other, and the demise of the movement began before it could even be properly born. Yesterday's dearest friends became sworn enemies, and the whole atmosphere became so poisonous that some of my ex-comrades had to run away to God-knows-where, some stopped being writers and went back to a "normal" life, some succumbed to drug addiction, and a few others literally cracked up and ended up in sanatorium wards. Thus the narrative came to its bitter conclusion.

Rather than go back to the sorrowful tale that has so far been related, I should, in conclusion, like to end on a positive note. Before I emigrated to Australia in the mid-nineties, our group having completely disintegrated by then, I'd had started to notice that even younger writers, most of whom had just started, were writing in the same fashion as we did; that the rejection of the older trends was complete; and that we'd created, out of the charivari of discord, a symphony, that, albeit indistinct, was resonating, slowly but surely, in various quarters. My satisfaction, therefore, lies in the fact that after about five full decades of the 'old' literature, we were the first in our country to have felt the need for a radical change in our literary thinking and practice, and to have worked towards that end, and that inspite of our apparent failure, Bangla literature will surely benefit from our committed efforts in the new millennium.

Subrata Augustine Gomes is a Bangla short story writer currently living in Australia.

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