Studies of Bangladeshi subjects, cultural or otherwise, routinely begin by stating that though Bangladesh - the People's Republic of Bangladesh, to give its full, constitutional nomenclature - is a very young entity on the geopolitical map, it is a millennia-old civilization. The complete literary history of the country, consequently, is virtually coterminous with that of greater Bengal. In concrete terms this means that Bangladesh and the Bengali-speaking parts of India share the entire Bengali literary heritage that had its inception in the Buddhist Charyapada, and over the centuries grew to encompass a broad range of folk literary forms, from the devotional Vaishnava lyrics to gripping narratives like the Manasamangal, before the impact of British rule "globalized" Bengali literature by infusing varied western influences.
Within this broad framework, the definition of what is specifically Bangladeshi literature is not as straightforward as it might seem. There is no problem with recent writings, of course: anything published by writers who are Bangladeshi citizens is Bangladeshi literature. The net can be widened a little to include writers of Bangladeshi origin who have adopted another nationality, e.g., Monica Ali. But we cannot stop there, and as we try to extend the net back in time our retroactive appropriation can safely categorize as Bangladeshis those writers who belonged to the present geographical area of Bangladesh - e.g., Mir Mosharraf Hossain (1847-1917). But then in the twentieth century it gets caught up in the politics and ideology of Partition. Bengali writers who opted for Pakistan, even if they died before the birth of Bangladesh, like the poet Kaikobad, are now regarded as Bangladeshi writers. But someone whose family hails from what is now Bangladesh but who opted for India, like Buddhadev Bose, Jibanananda Das or Humayun Kabir, is not counted as a Bangladeshi writer.
This may seem straightforward enough, but taking such principles of definition seriously can lead to bizarre "manipulation." After the birth of Bangladesh it was decided that the new-born republic needed a national poet as an aid to self-definition, and the choice fell on Kazi Nazrul Islam, even though his ancestral home was in West Bengal and he and his family lived there as Indian citizens. The Indian government was requested to allow the poet to move to Bangladesh so that he could become a Bangladeshi citizen and the country's national poet. The request was generously granted, the poet and his family moved to Dhaka and until his death in 1976 it was an occasional media event to see him amidst admirers - garlanded but silent, staring blankly, for he had long since lost his mental faculties, since 1942 in fact.
Be that as it may, the adoption of Kazi Nazrul Islam as the national poet of Bangladesh gives us a useful historical marker for defining Bangladeshi poetry. For all practical purposes we may regard what is specifically Bangladeshi poetry within the broad tradition of Bengali poetry to begin with him. As a landmark he also serves to define the scope of the present anthology, for modern Bangladeshi poetry can also be loosely described as that of the post-Nazrul era, which may be said to have begun when the poet went out of his mind - in 1942. We have therefore left out Jasimuddin, a rare example of a poet with a modern education who wrote entirely in a manner organically related to the region's folk tradition, since he began writing in the 1920s. An exception has been made in the case of Sufia Kamal (1911-1999), whose first collection of poems came out in 1938, because it was from the 1950s onwards that she really began to make her presence felt as poet and, more importantly perhaps, a cultural activist.
It is fitting that Sufia Kamal should be the earliest of the poets in this anthology, for she is something of a transitional figure. Her poetic mode is late-Romantic, pre-modern, even though in her long and fruitful career she was ever alive to the significance of the historical forces impacting on our society. All the other poets have, in varying degrees, been shaped by modernist and contemporary movements, which have been global in their impact.
The earliest of these emerged in the 1940s, in the wake of the modernist movement in Bengali poetry, spearheaded by the five great figures in the post-Tagore era - Jibanananda Das, Sudhindranath Datta, Amiya Chakravarty, Bishnu De and Buddhadev Bose. These poets, and a few of their younger contemporaries, like Premendra Mitra and Samar Sen, were regarded as exemplars by the first generation of modern Bangladeshi poets, notable among whom were Ahsan Habib, Farrukh Ahmed, Abul Hossain and Syed Ali Ahsan.
Among them Farrukh Ahmed can be distinguished by the definitive impact of Partition politics on his sensibility. Interestingly, this came after a phase of youthful socialism in the 1930s. As the independence movement split along communal lines, he came to identify himself more and more with Islamic and especially Perso-Arabic culture. His interest in Arab culture extended into pre-Islamic times, as is witnessed in his use of the legends of Hatem Tai. Farrukh Ahmed, however, stands apart from a number of other poets inspired by Islam and the ideology of Pakistan, like Talim Husain, Mufakkharul Islam, Abdur Rashid Wasekpuri or Raushan Yazdani, who, as Professor Zillur Rahman Siddiqui has pointed out, "lack the first requisite of a modern poet, the ability to write a kind of verse which has profited from the technical developments already achieved."
Of the other modern poets mentioned above, Abul Hossain is generally regarded as the most accomplished and urbane. Ahsan Habib has been influential both as a poet and a literary editor, and Syed Ali Ahsan, probably, more as a critic than a poet. A growing number of younger poets emerged in the wake of the Partition of 1947, within three years of which an anthology titled Natun Kavita ("New Poetry"), edited by Ashraf Siddiqui and Abdur Rashid Khan appeared to present them to a somewhat uncomprehending public - for in East Pakistan modern poetry was still something novel, and to some, an outrageous violation of literary decorum. Professor Harunur Rashid rightly comments on this anthology, that "It failed to initiate a movement but it was the first puff of fresh wind and had projected a poet, Shamsur Rahman, who was to become a major figure within the next two decades."
It has now become customary - and with good reason too - to regard Shamsur Rahman as the leading light of a group of poets who emerged in the 1950s among them Hasan Hafizur Rahman, Syed Shamsul Huq, Al Mahmud, Fazal Shahabuddin and Shaheed Quaderi. In the steadily expanding provincial metropolis of Dhaka these poets and a number of others among their contemporaries assiduously cultivated literary modernism. In this they differed somewhat from their contemporaries in Kolkata, who had swerved away from modernism to look for more accessible poetic modes. Shaheed Quaderi, who was born in Kolkata and emigrated to Dhaka with his family as a small boy, is perhaps the most conspicuously modern voice among the Bangladeshi poets.
Shamsur Rahman is so far the only Bangladeshi poet who has been acclaimed as the leading Bengali poet of a generation: William Radice in an obituary in The Guardian (London) unequivocally described him as "the greatest Bengali poet of his generation." Spread over more than seventy volumes, his poetic ouvre is remarkable for its versatility. He began as a "private" poet addressing a coterie, but even this had a political significance because, as opposed to the poetry of those imbued with the ideology of Pakistan, the self-conscious modernism of Shamsur Rahman and his contemporaries was accompanied by a liberal, secular outlook. Eventually, the voice of these poets blended with the chorus of popular protest against the Pakistan government. Not surprisingly, their poetry became more "public," more direct in technique.
A number of interesting poets emerged in the sixties and became an integral part of the tradition founded by Shamsur Rahman and others mentioned above. By then the cultural climate had begun to register new influences, coming from the West as well as Kolkata. The Beat Generation had appeared and its leading poet, Allen Ginsberg, had spent a long sojourn in Kolkata, where some young Bengali poets announced their kinship with him by forming the so-called "Hungry Generation," a group more conspicuous for the deployment of obscenities than for poetic depth. A number of young Bangladeshi writers, most of them poets, among whom Rafiq Azad and Mohammed Rafiq stood out, named themselves the "Sad Generation." The members of this group were inspired by the various anti-Establishment movements then in the ascendant - the Beats, the Angry Young Men, the Hungry Generation. These new influences were blended with those of the great modernists of the West as well as Bengal.
A rather piquant touch to the avant-garde tendencies in the country was added by a little magazine titled Na ("No"). Inspired by Dadaism and avowedly nihilistic its ethos four issues of the magazine appeared, each in a unique and curious format: one was bound in jute sacking and printed on brown wrapping paper, another was circular in shape. Drawings and graphics played as important role as texts. Rabiul Husain, who was prominent among Na poets, continues to publish, but in a more traditional idiom.
Later in the sixties, more young poets emerged, eager to epater le bourgeois, to the dismay of their parents and the delight of youths. Nirmalendu Goon can be regarded as the most conspicuous figure in this group, and alongside him the relatively sober Abul Hasan and Mahadev Saha.
By now the democratic movement in the country had begun to morph into a nationalist movement, and poetry reflected this dramatic development with great flair. This can be seen as part of an instrument of protest. The Bangladesh war of independence in 1971 too elicited an eloquent poetic response. Shamsur Rahman published a collection significantly titled, Bondi Shibir Thekey ("From the Prison Camp"), and other poets too registered their shock, outrage and militancy of spirit with great rhetorical energy. A popular anthology of the poetry of the independence war runs to 300 plus pages. The poetry of the independence war was a fitting culmination of a tradition of anti-Pakistani protest that began with the movement for the recognition of Bengali as a state language, which is now commemorated as "Ekushey," in remembrance of the five martyrs who fell to Police bullets on 21 February 1952.
After the liberation of Bangladesh, with the victory of the allied Indo-Bangladesh forces over the Pakistan Army, a new phase began in the country's history. Sadly, if inevitably, the romantic dreams inspired by the independence struggle were rudely shattered. As usual in such cases, the na�ve had been led to expect utopia to emerge. The dire economic problems that independent Bangladesh inherited defied whatever measures could be adopted by the government. Left-wing militancy increased, and generally a mood of frustration and despair gripped the nation and found its way into poetry. With the series of coups that have occurred in the country and the precarious fortunes of democracy, this mood has indeed become a lasting feature of Bangladeshi literature. Lately the threat of militant Islamic fundamentalism has become a source of grave anxiety.
We are perhaps too close to the literature produced in independent Bangladesh since the 1970s to be able to speak about the younger poets with objectivity, but a few broad trends may be pointed out. There are certainly more women writing now than before - in both prose and verse - and this phenomenon is obviously related to the rise of Feminism. Literature as a whole perhaps evinces a greater interest in folk culture than before. At the same time recent international trends like Postmodernism have also made a noticeable impact. A recent issue of the little magazine Ekobingsho ("Twenty-First"), edited by (query - the recently-deceased) Khondakar Ashraf Hossain is devoted to Postmodernism. Those who write poetry in a Postmodernist vein seem to derive their intellectual orientation from Post-Structuralist Literary Theory and post-Althusserian Marxism. How the young talents develop will be interesting to watch.
Although nearly all the poetry published in Bangladesh is in Bengali, we should not forget that there are other languages in which some literature is produced by Bangladeshi. Besides English, there are more than a dozen languages spoken by ethnic minorities. It is hoped that in time the significant writers in those languages will be identified and their works translated, both into Bengali and English.
*adapted from the introduction to Padma Meghna Jamuna, a volume of bangladeshi poetry, published by SAARC, 2008.