15 June, 1964
313 South Capital
Iowa City, Iowa
Right now I am resting beneath a largish tree on the bank of this river. Windy it is. And 5 dozen cans of beer. Been watching this white girl in swimming costume. Occasionally I am mildly kicking her bottom—how does that look visually? I am literally resting in this state. But I am not part of this setting. As soon as I bring my palms closer to my eyes, everything recedes. No woman’s face. No hunger. No thirst. But beer—yes, that is a reality. Have been reclining on the grass for hours actually. Tried at least 5 times to catch this rabbit but failed miserably.
I was in love with your letter for a couple of days. Especially the letters marked with the red pencil. I knew pretty well that you will not like my story. I have no illusion of delighting you ever with my prose. This is because you have written some great prose at one point. Not anymore. But the kind of magic you have produced—we are simply not close enough. I cannot write such prose. I will not write such prose. But that kind of prose pulls me irresistibly. That you will be one of my readers makes me tremble. Still I write prose. Mostly for money. I do not recall indulging in prose but for monetary consideration. Once I had written a novel—quite unlikely that it will ever get published. I do not fear you though for my poetry. I write poetry like prose and shall continue to do so. I have no qualms about that kind of a style. Shakti has written some extraordinary lines. Much, much deeper and larger than me—this Shakti. I respect him a lot. But his poems are headless. I cannot write like that and do not want to write like that simply because I do not live that kind of a life. I can relate much more to Utpal. But this, my resting with beer, makes me oblivious to all poetry. There is no poetry, no heart, nothing.
Sandipan, why have you not written much of late? What is this thing about occasional prose pieces? This habit of yours has attracted you to the Hungry Hangama—this latest fad. I did forbid you. And you did not trust me. And then you simply distanced yourself gradually. I never stopped Shakti. Shakti is greedy. Utpal too has taken that route. But I knew that you were not greedy. I have often shared a bed with you, stood in the same shadow while walking in the sun. I know very well the contours of my own greed. And therefore, I could instinctively feel that your greed is less than mine. I became deeply uncomfortable, generated some strong aversion to this new phenomenon. I had always felt that to compose in the English language in order to earn cheap accolades in the West is the worst possible form of greed and narcissism. This feeling has deepened this time here, at Iowa. Would you ever like to be an object of curiosity and pity to the outsider? I have met some Hungry wallahs here—it is these that drive them at the bedrock. Every single day I receive some invitation or the other to write in English. I have refused. Steadfastly. There are 7 crores of potential Bangla readers for me. Much more than French and Italian. I am just doing fine. I write poetry and have no intention to translate my sensibilities. If you wish to access my thoughts in English—do translate me. Happily. I had officially come here to do this kind of mutual back-patting. So far I have resisted that lure.
But the real problem with Hungry is not English. The Bangla is even worse. They try shortcut stuff—the idea is to taste readymade fame by abusing and slighting others in the trade. I hope you do not end up really thinking that Malay has some writerly stuff in him! I am wondering because in a recent Hindi literary magazine I have a read an effusive piece by you on this Hungry fad. I was rather surprised that a thinker so abstract as you could feel that writings in the Illustrated Weekly merit any real literary discussion! I know the Hungry folks have tried to pit themselves against the Krittibas or Sunil. I could have dismantled that attempt. That I could. But I refrained. I am telling all this to you because I so much value you as a writer and thinker. There is no trick in this my exhortation Sandipan.
I did not follow very well the kind of new things that have happened at your end. Why did you send the same letter to four of your friends—us? I could not fully grasp this method. But then again who has given me this right to understand how your mind works! The point is that once I return to Kolkata, I will sleep peacefully, will walk around rather happily fleet-footed. I do not need any literary-andolan. I really wondered why Malay had published my letter. I hope he has not published any truncated version. That will be so out of the context. I have written to him recently: “If you edit sections of the head or tail of my letters and use some fashionable rubbish like threesome dots or some such instead, I shall box your ears and slap you real hard once I return.” The same is true of your letter. Shakti’s and yours and my private linen is being washed in the public.
But these are ephemera—really. No one can touch you. And I shall stand by you always. We have fought over many issues, Sandipan. But I have thought about you patiently: we cannot do without you. I cannot. In a manner of speaking you are my obverse—your fragmentary-disjointed character, your errors and your treachery—to all these I aspire. Like a life I never had but so wished for. Whenever I think of any writer in our generation with some real promise, I think of you and only you (except for Tanmay Dutta). There is no one in the city of Kolkata—who will dare touch your subtle body. You keep on sleeping softly, oh so softly with Rina and tell her those stories from Mars.
I shall reach Kolkata on the 18th of August. Have been detained here for sundry reasons. My idiocy, mostly. There is an outside chance of staying in Paris during late July or in early August. But before that—by mid July I travel to NY City and then to England. How did you even think that I will join a Master’s program here at Iowa? You have lost all sense of proportion! I have troubled you a lot about your writings in Krittibas, but this time I became rather pensive not seeing your imprint in that magazine. Any hukum for me to get something for you from here?
Sunil Gangopadhyay (1934-2012) was a poet and novelist from Bengal.
The Hungry Generation Movement, a literary movement in Bangla, was launched by what is known today as the Hungryalist quartet, i.e. Shakti Chattopdhyay, Malay Roychoudhury, Samir Roychoudhury and Debi Roy (alias Haradhon Dhara), during the 1960s in Kolkata. The approach of the Hungryalists was to confront and disturb the prospective readers’ preconceived colonial canons. They took the word Hungry from Geoffrey Chaucer’s line “In Sowre Hungry Tyme” and they drew upon Oswald Spengler’s idea of non-linear time in a particular culture for philosophical inspiration. This movement is characterized by expression of a closeness to nature and sometimes by tenets of Gandhianism and Prudhonianism. The works of the participants in the movement appeared in Citylights Journal 1, 2 and 3 published between 1964 and 1966, edited by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and in special issues of American magazines including Kulchur edited by Lita Hornick, Klactoveedsedsteen edited by Carl Weissner, El Corno Emplunadoedited by Margaret Randall, Evergreen Review edited by Barney Rosset, Salted Feathersedited by Dick Bakken, Intrepid edited by Alan De Loach, and San Francisco Earthquake, during the 1960s.
Mainstream, VOL LV No 37 New Delhi September 2, 2017
Saturday 2 September 2017, by Sankar Ray
It was a court room of the mid-1960s in Calcutta. A prosecutor, on behalf of the Government of West Bengal, was hell-bent on ensuring conviction for some leading poets of the Hungry Generation like Malay Roychoudhury. Subimal Basak, Subo Acharya and Samir Roychoudhury. Intrepid as the latter were, their struggle was to rid poetry of the establishmentarian tradition of civilising manoeuvre and were for a narcissistic spirit, injected into the creative mindset of bards. They sought to inculcate the vomitous horror of Satanism and self-chosen crucifixion of the artist as elements in the making of a poet, away from drawing-room creativity. Obviously, the state refused to accommodate the anarchic poetry which rebelled against the civil society.
In defence of the HG was one who in principle opposed the la poesie of those self-declared déclassé but put his foot down against the state for policing the poets. He was then a well-known Bengali poet in his late thirties.
The following are excerpts from the exchange between the judge, Amal Mitra, prosecutor and the contesting muse who taught Economics at a well-known undergraduate college.
The deponent questioned the very definition of obscenity, imposed by the prosecutor, Satyen Bandyopadhyay.
SB: Do you think the poem, an exhibit, is obscene?
Deponent: What do you mean by obscene?
SB: There is a Bengali word ‘ashleel’ (obscene). Do you understand the meaning of it?
Deponent: In my opinion, it is not obscene at all.
SB: Well, Mr Sanyal, what do you mean by obscene?
Deponent: In my opinion, obscenity is of two types. First, personal. Second, social or collective. Obscenity can harm an individual but there is obscenity of another kind that harms the society. Whatever causes a downgradation of conscious-ness, is obscenity in my view.
Judge AM: Well, Professor, you better speak in English. This Bengali seems to be too hard for the court.
Deponent: To me, obscene means something which causes mental depravity to an individual. When something becomes the cause of depraving the society, I would consider that to be obscene.
AM: What do you mean by society in this pretext? Do you mean a group of persons?
Deponent: Yes, exactly, my lord.
AM: If you find any of your pupils in the college reading a poem of this sort, what would you do?
Deponent: I won’t mind.
AM: What would be the effect of this poem on the street?
Deponent: I don’t find any difference.
AM: Do you mean to say that this poem would have the same effect on a man on the street and a student of degree course?
Deponent: I think so. He would have the pleasure of reading a piece of art
The deponent was Tarun Sanyal, a Rabindra Puraskar laureate and one of the last few leading Bengali poets of the 1950s along with Siddheswar Sen, Shankha Ghosh, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Amitava Dasgupta, Ananda Bagchi, Rajlakshmi Debi and the like, most of whom predeceased Tarunda who breathed his last on August 28 in Kolkata.
He was born on October 29, 1932 at village Parjona of Pabna district (now in Bangladesh), a one-and-a-half mile away from Shahjadpur, where Rabindranath Tagore spent months as a benevolent landowner and rural development activist and wrote some of his best poems. He made his mark with the publication of his first collection of poems, Maateer Behala (Earthen Violin) in 1956. Thereafter he published 20 books of poems, six dramatic poems and several collections of essays. His all-sided erudition made him a mini-polymath.
Tarunda, who influenced our generation of poets, takes me back to the politically heady days of 1960s when the ‘City of Joy’ was aflame with two extremities—the romanticism of the Great Prolerarian Cultural Revolution and HG. Then a frontline functionary of the Communist Party of India which ideologically opposed the GPCR and kept up a polemical battle with the defenders of the GPCR, rallying behind the newly-formed Communist Party of India-Marxist-Leninist. But he was a cognoscente of a different mould with an independent thinking for which reason he could depose himself at the court, disregarding the disapproval of his party leaders.
He was a class one orator, vying with many top-class political leaders. His gift of the gab excelled equally from culture and literature to political mass meetings. He joined the All India Students Federation in the Burdwan district before being adult and when the AISF was banned in 1949, he was detained under the Preventive Detention Act, an infamous colonial hangover, abolished in West Bengal by the United Front Government in 1967. In jail he joined the hunger-strikers who demanded political status for detainees and his condition of health deteriorated, forcing the newly-independent government to release him as he was yet to be an adult.
He was politically groomed by Communist leaders like Harekrishna Konar who later became the General Secretary of All India Krishak Sabha, led by the CPI-M and Binoy Choudhuri, Polit-Bureau member of the CPI-M in the 1980s. Recollected Tarunda, “Harekrishnada exchanged views for about two hours to rope me in the new party formed in 1964 but failed.” Although the two had bitter political differences, the junior of them had unflinching personal respect for the senior. Went on Tarunda, “Harekrishnada, Benoyda, Sarojda (Mukherjee, later CPI-M MP, PB member and Left Front Chairman in West Bengal) and others used to stay at the district party commune, eating very poor quality rice and embracing poverty. Harekrishnada’s father, Saroj Konar, a rich peasant, managed to get his son married, hoping that the son would quit ‘dangerous politics’ albeit in vain. One day when the newly married couple was returning home from the bride’s home, suddenly Harekrishnada said, ‘Biva, do you love me truly?’ The young lady blushed and said, ‘Yes.’ Pat came a request, ‘Then give me all your ornaments.’ She did so. They were donated to the party.”
Tarunda quit the CPI after Sripad Amrit Dange was expelled for open defiance of the party line, joined the newly formed All India Communist Party, recristened later as the United Communist Party of India.
It’s not the time for a critical appreciation of Tarunda as a poet. Remember Cecil Day Lewis’ obituary after the untimely demise of Louis Macneice in 1963, a comrade-poet belonging to the pro-communist Oxford Group of the late 1920s and early 1930s along wth W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender and others: “The death of a poet is no occasion to post-mortem the works of his lifetime.” Nonetheless, some of Tarundfa’s verses are a never-failing source of bliss in a state of seclusion. Let me try translating them in free verse.
“Deep inside the nail is blue, alas! the earth is so blackish./Not the mystery of grasses, nor as low as the secret of seed bed/ Dust unto the dust, but go into the dust I am to / Oh, pathos, why the silent love turns into a deluge?”
“As if the electrified barbed wire/encircles the deep yellow walls with glass-plaques? / Come uncoveted allment on to my chest/ restless with humiliation/ Devastate me with the bent horn of the moon and beat me to salvage.”
His political wit was reflected in his poems. When Che Guevara was killed by the US mercenary forces in connivance with the CIA, he brought the simile of Ranjan, the martyr symbol in Tagore’s famous play, Red Oleander, “There lies Ranjan, the slain Guevara.”
A successful teacher in Economics, he wrote a small book, Arthanitibid Marx (Marx as an Economist) which I think helps young people to have a basic grounding in Marxian economics, yet it is not a made-easy of DasKapital.
He was the Joint General Secretary of the now-defunct Indo-Soviet Cultural Society with another noted economist, Professor Kalyan Dutt. He visited the Soviet Union several times, let alone Bangladesh where he was popular among the intelligentsia.
With Tarunda’s exit from the mundane surroundings hyphenating the present generation of Bengali poetry departs a rare-breed muse, but sadly enough he didn’t receive the recognition he deserved. Was it because he refused to imbibe smartness in poetry, blessed by the establishment, backed by a powerful group of newspapers that made many leading poets submit to poetry, delinked from the people’s day-to-day struggle?
The author, a senior journalist based in Kolkata, specialises in Left politics and history.
As you mentioned, the American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg came to stay in your Dariapur home in 1963. Could you share any favourite memories of the time? How did the two of you influence each other?
Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky had first gone to Samir’s place at Chaibasa, a tribal region, in 1962, where Samir was working in the Fisheries Department. Ginsberg had started collecting Hungryalist bulletins, and was sending them to his mother in the USA for preservation. This information I came to know from Bill Morgan of the Allen Ginsberg Trust who visited me in Kolkata. Ginsberg was familiar with our names. On his way to Rajgir from Bodhgaya, Ginsberg visited me and stayed in our house, using Samir’s room. Neither me nor Samir had read ‘HOWL’ before Ginsberg visited us – in fact, we were not aware of the poem. The book was sent to us by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in December 1964. Ferlinghetti had later sent me a gramophone record of Ginsberg’s reading of ‘Kaddish’.
Ginsberg had a wooden Krishna in his sling-bag which he used to worship, chanting “Hare Krishna”. Subsequently he showed me a piece of stone on which a series of small Buddhas were sculpted. He felt it was a divine call from Buddha. He said he got the stone while he was shitting on a paddy field in Bodhgaya and found the stone. At that time, Bodhgaya was not as developed as it is now with Japanese help – it was almost a far-away village surrounded by paddy fields. Instead of Hare Krishna he started reciting “Buddham sharanam gachchami”. I learnt from Bill Morgan that Ginsberg was not able to carry it to USA because of archaeological restrictions.
Conveyance at Patna at that time was a hand-pulled rickshaw. We hired one for our daily trip. Ginsberg said that the rickshaw puller was of his father’s age and made the rickshaw puller sit by my side and he himself started pulling it. Midway a police constable intervened as one is required to have a licence for plying a rickshaw. Ginsberg with folded hands said “sorry” to the police constable.
One day we went to Golghar, a huge stupa-style dome which is used for storing grains and has 144 circular stairs. Its height is 29 meters, and diameter is 125 meters. Inside the dome, if one shouts, there would be twenty one echoes, one after another. Ginsberg recited his ‘Sun Flower Sutra’ inside the dome and enjoyed the echo. I also recited a few lines from ‘Stark Electric Jesus’ which had not been published then.
I don’t think we influenced each other, but nevertheless, Bengali poetry did influence him.
One day I took him to a government-approved shop to purchase cannabis, hashish and opium. He was startled to see that things were so cheap at a government outlet. In 1985, these shops were closed after the government banned them due to pressure from the USA. However, for usage by Hindu Sadhus, the government did not seem bothered.
Another day I took him to my elder cousin sister’s bungalow, where Ginsberg saw my nieces practising songs in tune with a harmonium. He was fascinated with the musical instrument being played by small kids, and decided to purchase one when he reached Benaras.
In one incident, my photographer Dad was quite angry with Allen Ginsberg when Ginsberg gave a him film reel for development, and Dad found out that Ginsberg had shot beggars, lepers, destitutes, famishing men, mutilated paupers, half naked sadhus etc. Dad told him, “You foreigners are all the same, whether you are a poet or a tourist, you visit India to glamourize and sell our poverty.”
Thereafter I advised Ginsberg to get the film developed in some other shop. I thanked myself that I did not take him to Imlitala!
I don’t think we influenced each other, but nevertheless, Bengali poetry did influence him. If you see his ‘India Journals’, you will find that he was trying to write poems with breathing lines similar to ‘HOWL’ and ‘Kaddish’ – however, he fails to regain the tempo even after resorting to drugs. This was because he was continuously listening to Bengali poetry at the Kolkata Coffee House, and at other functions.
Ginsberg also picked up the ‘three fishes one head’ symbol from the floor of the tomb of Emperor Akbar. Akbar wanted to assimilate the major Indian religions in his treatise ‘Deen-E-Ilahi’. Strangely, some writers in USA have called this symbol to be Buddha’s foot mark! It would be an insult to Buddha to think that a living form was beneath his feet.
How would you describe the spirit of the Hungry Generation?
During the Freedom movement, Gandhi had given a call to ‘Quit India’ to the British rulers. The Hungryalist movement gave a call of ‘Quit Colonial Canons’. This was the spirit of rebellion which presaged the Naxalite Marxist upheaval of 1970s when an entire teenage generation stood up against the establishment and was eliminated mercilessly. Anil Karanjai and Karunanidhan Mukhopadhyay, two painters of the Hungryalist movement, had sympathised with the Naxalites in writing and painting, for which their studios were raided and ransacked by police, and they had to go underground for more than two years.
The Hungryalist spirit embodied the boundless faith in change of a postcolonial society through anger, frustration, a sense of defeat, and social putrefaction within the confines of post-partition agony of social and political crisis in Bengali life. It would seem contradictory, but the hordes of displaced families from the then-East Bengal displaced West Bengali families as well, and the new state of West Bengal in India was in great turmoil.
Publication of my poem ‘Stark Electric Jesus’ marked a turning point in Hungryalist literature. For that particular issue of the bulletin, warrants of arrest were issued against eleven Hungryalists. I was handcuffed, and with a rope tied to my waist, I was paraded with six other criminals through the street. Samir was arrested in Chaibasa and suspended from his job. Utpalkumar Basu was dismissed from his job of a lecturer in Jogmayadevi College. Pradip Choudhuri was rusticated from Tagore’s Visva Bharati. Subimal Basak and Debi Roy were transferred out of Kolkata at the instructions of the establishment.
The ten others arrested with me were freed after charges against them were withdrawn, whereas my trial went on for 35 months. I was sentenced for one month’s jail by lower court. I appealed to Kolkata High Court and was exonerated.
The movement spread to other languages such as Assamese, Nepali, Hindi, Telugu and Marathi during the Sixties.
What was the inspiration behind ‘Stark Electric Jesus’?
I mainly wanted to work on the oral speed of a poem of love, and innovate my own style. Bengali poems of love were and are still quite slow and soft. I wanted to use explicit imageries and words which had never been used in Bengali poetry earlier. There had been a thought lingering in me as to who I am and whether there were alternatives. I wanted to use exclamations as well, which had been a taboo earlier. I do not have the several handwritten drafts of the poem as they were seized by Kolkata Police, and never returned to me. In fact none of the books, manuscript, typewriters or letters were ever returned despite our efforts. I would like to make it clear that I never resorted to drugs while writing poems or fictions – I avoid drinks as well when I write.
So to say the least, ‘Stark Electric Jesus’ shocked many. You have spoken about the use of obscenity and its necessity. Do you think it is possible to begin a revolution without these ‘obscenities’?
Strangely, the original Bengali version of ‘Stark Electric Jesus’ is no more considered obscene. The poem has been reprinted umpteenth time in leading newspapers and periodicals of Kolkata. Several websites have it. Bloggers put it on their blog every now and then. Except for pornography, nothing seem to be considered obscene in Bengali literature at present. Times have changed. Woman poets are also using abusive street lingo, foul language and slangs relating to coitus in their poems and fictions. The revolution started by us has reached a complete cycle, and there is no further scope for a literary revolution. In fact, I had tested the limit in an almost pornographic novel of mine titled ‘Arup Tomar Entokanta’ (2012), without inviting the same type of attacks as we used to face during the Sixties. The fiction has rather been academically appreciated.
It is well known that you politely decline literary awards. Why is this?
All literary and cultural awards carry with them the muck of the institution or individual. If you accept any, you are bestowed with the values of dirt that they are involved in, whether political or pecuniary underground. If it is given by the government, it is much dirtier, and you willingly associate yourself with the ideology of the ruling establishment.
Looking at Kolkata today, do you feel the spirit of Hungryalism goes on?
Sure. The movement has caught the fancy of the younger generation of today, and animated a group of Kolkata poets in their twenties comprising of promising poets such as Sayani Sinha Roy, Rajdeep Datta, Rifat Khan Anik, Sayan Ghosh, Ayan Ghosh, Arghya Dasgupta, Supratim Bandyopadhyay, Sanyal Kabir Siddiqui and others who are claiming themselves as members of the Hungry Generation, and publishing their works under the Hungry Generation banner.
They have not approached me or Samir. They appear quite aggressive and untamed in the use of the language. They are more vocal in attacking the current Indian/Bengali establishment. This is happening after more than fifty years of our movement.
What advice would you give to young aspiring poets today?
Young poets do approach me for advice. I tell them to follow their own gut feelings, and draw from personal experience in order to blaze their own trail. If possible, they should mix with the people on the streets, and pick up their unrefined non-literary diction and explore literary limits.
What’s next for you ?
Presently I am working on a mash-up of my own poems with a novella I am writing about a man and a lady who both suffer from bipolar disorders, and meet accidentally in a park, and try to entice into each other’s nefarious world of dirty politics and crime. However, their bipolar positions never match. I have just started, and it will take some time to come to initial shape. I want to try a bipolar text as well.
Thank you for your time, Malay.
Thanks Nickie for evincing interest in the Bengali language, which remains neglected at the world stage.
This is a special post for me. Firstly, it’s sort of a comeback – I was suffering a wordless hiatus and a long depressive bout, when I decided that the best to break it was to put my hands on the keyboard and go tap-tapping. Secondly, this post is dedicated to a disturbing poet, one who I dare not fathom. Whatever, I put down here goes farthest to what I gauge of Malay Roy Choudhury, Bangla poet, scholar, main propagator of the Hungryalist Movement in Bengal in the mid-sixties. He, along with companion poets, erupted in the sixties Bengal with an angry plea for change in face of a decadent society.
I quote below from Wikipedia,
“ The Hungry generation literary Movement was initially spearheaded by Roy Choudhury, Samir Roychoudhury (his elder brother), Shakti Chattopadhyay, and Haradhon Dhara (alias Debi Roy). Thirty more poets and artists subsequently joined them, the best-known being Binoy Majumdar, Utpal Kumar Basu, Falguni Roy, Subimal Basak, Tridib Mitra, Rabindra Guha, and Anil Karanjai.
Roy Choudhury is to the “Hungryalist Movement” as Stéphane Mallarmé was to Symbolism, Ezra Pound to Imagism, André Breton to Surrealism, and Allen Ginsberg to the Beats. The movement is now known in English as Hungryalism or the “Hungry generation“, its name being derived from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “In the sowre hungry tyme”; the philosophy was based on Oswald Spengler’s “The Decline of the West”. The movement’s bulletins were published both in Bengali and infrequently in English as well as Hindi Language by Roy Choudhury since November 1961. The movement, however, petered out in 1965. Thereafter Roy Choudhury ventured out, apart from poetry, into fiction, drama, and essays on social and cultural issues that Bengali people have been suffering from.
Howard McCord, formerly English teacher at the Washington State University and later professor of English language and literature at Bowling Green University, who met Roy Choudhury during a visit to Calcutta, has succinctly traced Malay’s emergence in these words in Ferlinghetti-edited City Lights Journal 3: “Malay Roy Choudhury, a Bengali poet, has been a central figure in the Hungry Generation’s attack on the Indian cultural establishment since the movement began in the early 1960s”. He wrote, “acid, destructive, morbid, nihilistic, outrageous, mad, hallucinatory, shrill–these characterize the terrifying and cleansing visions” of Malay Roy Choudhury that “Indian literature must endure if it is to be vital again”.
That should give you a fair idea, atleast much fairer than I would give you on his life and times, firstly, because I believe in the immediacy of feeling to write something that would attack the reader’s sensibilities, and secondly, because I believe my immediate interaction with him in the cyber world is of utmost relevance to this post.
I was fortunate to meet Malay Roy Choudhury or ‘Malay Da’ as I like calling him through Facebook. This incident has somewhat mellowed my acidic rejection of ‘social-networking’. My initial contact with Malay Da’s work was through a learned source, a year or two back, which I can characterize as one of the turning points of my life as yet. One that pushed me off the brink of a cliff of reason into the abyss of somewhat frenzied knowledge where am still trying to get my hand hooked to a creeper and terminate a dangerous free fall.
The first body of work that I got acquainted with is the translation of ‘Prachanda Boidyutik Chuttor’, or ‘Stark Electric Jesus’ on the net. I quote the lines that made me blush and where I covered my eyes and felt heat steadily climbing up to the roots of my hair,
“Shubha let me sleep for a few moments in your violent silvery uterous
Give me peace, Shubha, let me have peace
Let my sin-driven skeleton be washed anew in your seasonal bloodstream
Let me create myself in your womb with my own sperm
Would I have been like this if I had different parents?
Was Malay alias me possible from an absolutely different sperm?
Would I have been Malay in the womb of other women of my father?
Would I have made a professional gentleman of me like my dead brother without Shubha?
Oh, answer, let somebody answer these
Shubha, ah, Shubha
Let me see the earth through your cellophane hymen
Come back on the green mattress again
As cathode rays are sucked up with the warmth of magnet’s brilliance
I remember the letter of the final decesion of 1956
The surroundings of your clitoris were being embellished with coon at that time
Fine rib-smashing roots were descending into your bosom
Stupid relationship inflted in the bypass of senseless neglect”
I hadn’t read anything like this before. The first thing that I did was to look around and see whether The Orthodox of my family was peering down on her haunches on my screen. My eyes screwed up in little dilated balls as a graphic brain converted the lines in voluptuous images. What is this man writing? He’s raving mad!” and then for several hours afterwards, I tried to come to terms with the fact that I had been scandalized, raped by a few lines. I wasn’t alone. Malay Da had suffered court trial and punished for being ‘obscene’, in a historic trial where some of the best names in Bangla poetry spoke against him.
After a week of hot, sleepless afternoons, I kept returning to this poem, like an adolescent who’s just discovered the secrets of the body. The firs animal instinct to touch the opposite sex, to plunder a body, to grow insane in wild desire. The power of his language had paralyzed me, forever.
And then, I met him on Facebook, and a strange fear gripped me. Frankly, I am dead scared of such people. There is a community of artists who’re too real in their artistry. This class that charts names like, Allen Ginsberg, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and many others are Art Extremists, a term I’ve coined for them. They exert an irresistible attraction towards the opposite sex, who’re drawn to the edgy and dangerous involvement they have with their art and times. Pablo Picasso is often compared to the Minataur, the half man-half monster. Like the Minataur he demanded women to be ‘sacrificed’ to him, a view that is corroborated in his tumultuous personal life, that left behind a trail of agonized wives, mistresses and children. Malay Da told me of a woman who was 20 years his junior and who had threatened him with suicide if he didn’t marry her. She kept her promise and drank toilet-acid.
I entered the Malay Da’s cyber territory stealthily, careful to remain a shadowy admrer and not get myself dangerously embroiled in insanity. I’ve not been quite successful. I asked him the ithing question at last: What is the role of the explicit use of sex in his poetry?
His answer was surprising in a daring nonchalance:
“It procreates the poems from my intercourse with the tantalizing body of language.”
Again, I grappled with wordlessness. I went to his sites (all enlisted in the ‘Blogs with Jobs’ tab) where people had rejected his poetry as “obscene rants”. Again Malay Da had asked them,
What exactly is the non-obscene?
Is placing good-sounding, pleasing/romantic visions in a few lines called poetry?
You better practice reading. It’s an art.
He reminded me of Kamala Das, the only other poet who has had a similar effect on me. She too, crossed shackles of Acceptance to write her voice. For these people, Poetry is an extension of Living. It is, or so I think, as normal as bitching about your friend, grumbling about your boss, brushing your teeth or urinating. These are people who cannot bear to cover up the unpleasant for the sake of earning popularity or admiration. They are dangerous, the character Ammu out of Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things, a insane edge, a reckless energy, like a brother and sister making love, crossing the Love Laws.
I am reading Malay Da’s Chotoloker Chotobela (The Childhood of an Indescent Man) on his childhood. It is a lucid
account of his poignant childhood, warm in recollections, rigid in opinions, surprising in honesty and chilling in sarcasm. Malay Da grew up in a seedy corner of pre-independent India in Patna, Bihar. He describes the world seen through the boy Malay and changes narrative to the now, author, wizened, roughened, merciless in honesty. His family, from the Sabarna Chodhury line was typical in their false prejudices of forgotten riches, striving to bob up their heads above intolerable poverty. He speaks of poverty, his first sighting of a nude woman from the window, a pair of mute and deaf Muslim tailor brothers who stitched clothes for the entire family, the absurd and tedious bathroom rituals, the keen adolescent absorbing visitors touching genitals of Greek statues at the Patna Museum where his eldest uncle was the Keeper. Anything, Nothing and Everything you would expect from a book that starts with the poet’s 15 year old cousin getting caught red handed when he was seeing off a prostitute at the door, at the death of the night.
Malay Roy Choudhury is disturbing to say the least. Sometimes, I am repulsed, almost nauseated by the images he draws with his pen. I am forced sometimes to believe that his poetry is almost fradaulent, a meaningless rant, negative and sensationalist. And then I come back to calm evenings when everything falls into place – the time, the anger, the mistrust in the human situation.
I feel angry and frustrated when I talk to this man, now a septuagenarian living as a retired government officer with his wife in Mumbai. How dare he be so startingly honest? What gives him the audacious liscence to be irresponsibly independent? When ask him these questions, I can almost see his silent laughter in his reply:
“ Have you thought of as to who can be the person in your life whom you hate and love at the same time ? I am like a sinister animal who enjoys being attacked ! Have you noticed that the alpha male always uses it’s head butt to defeat it’s opponent ? Bison, Jiraffe, Lion, elephant, Rhino, Croc, any animal with power. I survive like those animals who are at the head of a Pride. Like the lion, I am a loner. I utilize my head. For writing, go on writing whatever you want. The reader is irrelevant. It is the LANGUAGE with which you are in love.”
And just like that, he’s decided to call his recent category of poems, ‘Alpha Male Poetry’. Just Like That. This man is irritatingly simple. There is no gestation between his heart and hand. Somebody has lapsed the lightyears between his feeling and his pain. We, the ‘rational’ ones can only but gape at such insolence. We can call it frenzied rants, we can rile and write pages on controversy, put him behind lock and key, stop people from researching on his work, but we are powerless in claiming their pens, their angst, their pain, them.
I once asked him, does he behave like an ordinary family man? Does he go to the bazaar, sip on strong milk tea? Etcetera. He answered me matter-of-factly. His wife takes care of marketing. And he has liquor tea. And being a family man is better than living on the edge.
I cannot forgive him for evading my deeper concern, Is he for real?
“Read your page on Picasso. Great. Why don’t you write a page on me, now that you have read my books in original. Write freely. don’t worry about my reactions. I am Gandar-chamra* writer. You have good command over your thoughts. So go ahead. Give me a ‘piece of your mind’.”
Gandar-chamra* – Bangla proverb meaning ’ as hard as the skin of a Rhinocerous’ or ‘one who is thick skinned/unaffected by criticism.
This is my small-something to you, Malay Roychoudhury. Long Live Obscenity.
Malay Roychoudhury is an Indian Bengali poet and novelist who founded the Hungryalist Movement in the 1960s. He was awarded a Sahitya Akademy award for translating Dharamvir Bharati’s Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda in 2003 but he refused to accept it. He spoke to The Sunflower Collective at length about his work, Hungryalist Movement, Allen Ginsberg, other writers associated with the Movement, politics and rifts with other poets, publishers, and the establishment during the Movement.
The Sunflower Collective: Young poets are calling themselves Hungryalists in West Bengal again, as you said in a recent interview. Jeet Thayil is making a BBC documentary on Ginsberg’s time in India for which he met you. Deborah Baker wrote a book about the same not so long ago. Internationally, several films about the Beats hit the screens in quick succession in recent years. Do you see it as a revival of the two movements that were linked willy-nilly?
Malay Roychoudhury: I don’t think so. Saileswar Ghose, Subhas Ghose, Basudeb Dasgupta had been editing Hungryalist magazines, Kshudharta and Kshudharta Khabor, before they died a few years back. Pradip Choudhuri is still publishing Phoo and Swakal. Rasaraj Nath and Selim Mustafa are still publishing Anarya Sahitya. Ratnamoy Dey is still publishing Hungryalist Folder. Aloke Goswami had published Concentration Camp before he concentrated on writing novels and short stories. Arunesh Ghose continued publishing Giraffe before he died a couple of years back. Since these magazines are in Bengali and they are not active on social media, you don’t hear about them. Pradip Choudhuri has done a lot of translation of Hungryalist work in French.
Prior to Jo Wheeler and Jeet Thayil, another producer, Dominic Byrne, had come and made a radio programme exclusively on our movement. Marina Reza had come from Weslyan University for research on our movement. Daniella Limonella had come from Italy for the same purpose. University of Exeter has published an interview of mine in their Exeposé online newspaper. Mrigankasekhar Ganguly has made a film based on my poem, ‘Stark Electric Jesus.’ A debate is going on for a decade, for and against this poem on a Bangladeshi news portal.
Deborah Baker neither met any Hungryalist nor consulted any written material available at Kolkata’s Little Magazine Library Research Centre. Most of the information is wrong and concocted, though she claims to read and write Bengali. This Research Centre has an exclusive section on Hungryalist periodicals, bulletins, manifesto, and books.
Students at IIT, Kharagpur, Jadavpur University, Rabindra Bharati University, Visva Bharati University, Calcutta University, and Assam University have been doing PhD and M Phil, etc. on our work for more than a decade as a matter of academic routine.
Academic interest in the Beats, especially Allen Ginsberg, continues. He had himself established a Trust to look after the interest of all the Beats and his own work with the million dollars he got from Stanford University by selling his collections. Bill Morgan, one of the Trustees, had visited me when I used to reside at Kolkata.
We, the Hungryalists, have not even been able to bring out an anthology of our work in English and Hindi, as there is no commercial interest in our work from the publishers. And none of us are well to do. Hindi being the prime Indian language, the Sahitya Academy should have evinced interest in bringing out an anthology.
TSC: Ginsberg was concerned that the Beats did not receive the amount of academic attention in America they deserved. Do you feel the same about the Hungryalists, as far as the Indian academia is concerned? In the case of the painter Karanajai, it appears even the critics abandoned him after a while leading to a very embittered existence. What are your thoughts on this?
MRC: Yes, he was worried during his lifetime that the American Establishment is not ready to award them with governmental and academic recognition. However, presently a lot of academic work is being done on the Beats due to the next generation of poets, who took an interest in them. Even if the Beats were anti-Establishment, they were typical products of the American capitalist world. Ginsberg created his trust with a huge fund to carry on his legacy. Kerouac’s manuscript roll was sold for 2.40 million dollars, enough to carry on his legacy by his Trustees for eternity. Ferlinghetti opened City Lights Bookstore on West Front in order to regularly publish the Beats. In Greenwich Village, they had Barney Rosset’s Grove Press, James Laughlin’s New Directions and the Village Voice newspaper for support. They regularly interacted with the digital companies and brought out their recitations and films, etc. They appointed secretaries to enable them to get paid invitations for poetry readings from various European and American cities.
As I told you just now, there has been continuous academic work on Hungryalist poets and writers. Sahitya Academy has awarded prizes to Utpalkumar Basu, Sandipan Chattopadhyay, Binoy Majumdar, Saileswar Ghosh, and Subimal Basak. Since I do not accept literary and cultural prizes, I had refused their award. The point is we do not get publishers like Ferlinghetti or James Laughlin in Kolkata to bring out our works and arrange for distribution. And we do not get translators who would translate and publish our works in Indian periodicals. There is still a strong lobby against us at Kolkata, though it has weakened after Sunil Gangopadhyay’s demise; nevertheless Sunil’s trained disciples are still active.
After receiving the Lalit Kala Academy prize at a young age in 1972, Anil Karanjai started sympathizing with the Naxalite Movement; his studio at Benaras was ransacked by police. To avoid the repression, he married an American lady and went to Wahington DC to live there. He was soon disillusioned with the Western world and came back a few years later after divorcing the lady. He got involved in social activities and avoided the dirty machinations that painters had started resorting to at that time. Karuna Nidhan also fled from Benaras and went to Patna, where my elder brother Samir opened a coloured fishes shop for him. When Anil returned to Delhi, Karuna joined him. Anil married Juliet Reynolds and settled at Dehradun to avoid the Delhi painters’ circus. Anti-Establishment writers and artists in that circuit are rare these days.
TSC: What are your views on Shakti Chattopadhyay leaving the movement?
MRC: Shakti Chattopadhyay testified against me because Shakti had fallen in love with Samir’s sister-in-law, Sheela, at Chaibasa. He felt that he could not marry Sheela because of Samir, who did not want her to get married to an unemployed drunkard. That Sheela was living at our Patna residence at that time for post graduate study at Patna University added fuel to Shakti’s fire.
This, along with instructions from a newspaper group which was against us, and which offered Shakti a sub-editor’s job, forced him to leave the movement. Now, after Sunil Gangopadhyay’s death, when Sunil’s letters to his friends are being published, it is found that Sunil was goading his friends to leave Hungryalist Movement, as Sunil thought that my sole motive in launching the Hungryalist Movement was to destroy his ‘Krittibas’ group. Almost all of these letters spew venom against me. In these letters, Sunil wrote that to be an anti-establishment writer, you have to join the Establishment and work from within.
TSC: Is there something akin to an anxiety of influence which informs the relationship between the two movements? In his Indian Journals, Ginsberg continues to profess adherence to the Blake vision. He mentions the harmonium but there is no indication he first learnt about it through the Hungryalists. At what point do you think he discarded the Blake vision and allowed the Indian influences to play out? Could you give some specific examples? I understand that his use of breath as a measuring unit for verse might be one?
MRC: I don’t think we were bothered about influencing each others’ movements. In an interview to LIFE magazine, Ginsberg had said that the Blake vision departed from him when he was traveling in a train while returning from India and started weeping.
When he had visited Bodhgaya, he had chanced upon a piece of stone wherein small replicas of Buddha were inscribed. He had told me that seated on two stones he was shitting, as at that time the Japanese had not developed Bodhgaya and it was almost a village. He said it was a divine direction from Buddha; thus he became interested in Buddhism and departed from mysticism. Due to archaeological restrictions, he could not carry the stone to USA. He had cleaned that stone with his tooth brush at our Patna residence.
Bill Morgan, one of Ginsberg’s trustees, who visited me, had said that there were more than fifty copies from which edited pages were included in his Indian Journals. Ginsberg was spied upon by the Indian agents and a few of his copies were picked out of his shoulder sling-bag by some of these agents to find out what he was recording. Ginsberg himself told me about it. The harmonium story might have been in one of the fifty copies.
Sunil Gangopadhyay, who was in the USA at the time of editing Indian Journals, tried his best to shut out the Hungryalist Movement from this book. Bill Morgan had told me that Ginsberg regularly mailed packets to his step-mother in New Jersey so that she could arrange the papers in the almirahs of their basement. Ginsberg had country-wise almirahs. He collected most of our manifestos and they are available in Stanford University.
TSC: In his Indian Journals, Ginsberg does not allude to your movement, although he knew about it and took a deep interest. Do you think it was deliberate? Do you think he appropriated your techniques and attitudes regarding poetry and art in general?
MRC: I think I have answered your question just now.
TSC: Ginsberg met poets in Bombay also, including Kolatkar and others. How can then it be said that he was principally influenced by the Hungryalists?
MRC: He met poets of other Indian languages for a day or two ; but he stayed in Kolkata for about two years, attended Bengali poetry readings, went to country liquor den Khalasitola, visited by Bengali poets, Sonagachhi visited by Bengali poets, and smoking joints, visited by Bengali poets.
TSC: You have criticised Ginsberg for clicking pictures of beggars while he was here. Is that part of a larger disenchantment with your old friend? Do you think at the end of the day, he was as superficial as other white tourists?
MRC: Yes, when Ferlinghetti sent me a copy of Indian Journals I felt quite ashamed. I did not show the book to my dad, who had admonished Ginsberg for taking photographs of beggars, lepers, lame men, naked sadhus, etc. I have visited other countries and never thought of making a mockery of poverty of certain people. In his Indian Journal, there is a photograph of Ginsberg himself in the guise of a beggar seated beside a beggar.
Ginsberg had several photo exhibitions in USA, which highlighted Indian beggars, lepers, destitutes, almost naked sadhus, cows on the streets, stray dogs, goats, etc. Cards to these exhibitions were sold to patrons. When he revisited India during the Bangladesh War (1971), he shot photos of refugees fleeing the war zone.
He did have the typical white tourist in him.
Probably my childhood in Imlitala slum taught me to respect the poorest man.
TSC: Could you tell us about the politics of the Hungryalists? Were there direct links back then between the Naxals and the Hungryalists?
MRC: Hungryalist Movement had started in 1961; the Naxalite Movement started in the Seventies. I have already told you about the plight of Anil Karanjai and Karuna Nidhan. My first book was on Marxism. Saileswar Ghose, Subhas Ghose, Aloke Goswami had joined the CPI (M) for literary gains. I was disillusioned with Marxism after I started reading about the activities of the Soviet establishment as well as the activities of the lumpens of CPI (M). Strangely CPI (M) resorted to the same murderous activities of the earlier Bengal governments. Now the new Bengal government has co-opted the same lumpens and are resorting to same murderous activities.
TSC: The Beats were criticised for their lack of gender awareness. How do the Hungryalists fare in your opinion on that count? Were there female hungry gen writers and artists? Also, did the movement display consciousness of caste issues?
MRC: Young bold women writers were rare at that time. We had one lady member, Alo Mitra, who later married Tridib Mitra. They together used to edit two Hungryalist magazines, one in Bengali, named, UNMARGA, another in English named, WASTE PAPER.
We were the first to bring lower and backward class writers and poets in literature. Prior to us, there was not a single poet to be seen on the pages of poetry magazines. Debi Roy, Subimal Basak, Abani Dhar, Rasaraj Nath belong to lower or backward class.
TSC: Tell us a little about your poetic process? What influences and inspires you? Is the process of writing poems that deal with stark reality harder than facing the wrath of audience and editors?
MRC: I was initiated into poetry in a strange way. Being a Brahmin family, at our Imlitala house we were not allowed to eat chicken eggs. I was sent to fetch duck eggs from our Shia Muslim neighbour quite frequently. I was ten. The elder girl of their house whom I called Kulsum Apa was fifteen-years-old. She used to recite Ghalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz to me, whom I did not understand; but she explained those poems to me. She indirectly, through those poems, told me that she loves me. One day when I asked for the meat being cooked in their house because of the scent, she induced me into a sexual relation. The meat was wonderful and she licked clean my lips with her tongue. After a few days, due to painful scratches on my penis, I got scared and stopped going to Kulsum Apa’s house. However, the impact of the poems remained. I had told about this sexual relation to my grandmother, who told me to never talk about it to anyone in my life. I still miss Kulsum Apa. When I last visited Imlitala, I enquired of the family and was told that they had sold their house and left Imlitala.
My next influence was again a girl of higher class named Namita Chakroborty at the Ram Mohun Roy Seminary, who doubled up as Librarian for the Bengali section. I had a great crush on her. She initiated me into Marxism and introduced me to works of Brahmo writers and poets, including Rabindranath Tagore and Jibanananda Das. One day I had kept a chit on her table in which I had written ‘I love you’. She had preserved the chit and showed it to one of my aunts after several years, when my name started appearing in magazines and papers. Both Kulsum Apa and Namitadi had dimples.
At Imlitala house, we had two servants, Shivnanni and Ram Khelawan, who were paid in kind, that is food, dresses, and shelter. Since they were servants, they could not reprimand us children directly. Shivnanni knew Ramcharitmanas by heart. Ramkhelawan knew dohas of Kabir, Rahim, and Dadu. Both of them reprimanded through quotations and explained the lines as well. Shivnanni used to play a game called, Ramshalaka, that is a metal stick. You have to close your eyes, open a page and put the Ramshalaka on a line. Shivnanni explained how our day will pass based on the line.
Imlitala was considered a bad influence by Dad as we were exposed to free sex, toddy, cannabis, country liquor, etc. He constructed a house in Dariapur and we shifted there. My elder brother Samir was packed off to Kolkata for post-school studies. It helped me. He joined groups of poets and brought lots of poetry collections and periodicals for me. Ginsberg had come to our Dariapur residence. Prior to that Ginsberg and Orlovsky had visited Samir at Chaibasa, Singhbhum and experienced Mahua drink.
I am not bothered about editors in my life. Only when I am requested, do I send my poems and novels to them. Most of the editors are younger to me and they respect me. Yes, dealing with reality is harder. Earlier I used to maintain a bank of images, words, lines, sentences when I wrote with pen on paper, Now, because of arthritis of fingers, especially the thumb, the process has become difficult with the computer. Since I take a lot of medicines, including sleeping pills, I tend to forget these days.
TSC: What is your opinion of the current writing scene in Bangla and English in India? Are there any writers you like in particular?
MRC: I do not have much idea about what is happening in Indian Writing in English. As far as Bengali writing is concerned, lot of exciting things are happening in the little magazine world. Every year a Little Magazine Fair is held apart from the Kolkata Book Fair. Book Fairs are also held at the district headquarters. This gives us a glimpse into a wide range of creative writing.
The poets whom I have noticed recently writing in a new way are Raka Dasgupta, Sridarshini Chakraborty, Mitul Dutta, Barin Ghoshal, Dhiman Chakraborty, Anupam Mukhopadhyay and Bahata Anshumali, to name a few.
TSC: Are you concerned about the general rise of right-wing and other intolerant forces in India and elsewhere?
MRC: Yes, I am very much disturbed by the latest events taking place all over India. It appears that a worthless government run by cheaters was better than one influenced by fundamentalist criminals baying for blood of the meek and helpless. I wonder how this country had once given us Khajuraho, Puri temple, Meenakshi temple, Konarak, Ajanta, Ellora; how kings enjoyed meat and wine after the Ashwamedh Yajna.
TSC: Is Neera in Sunil’s poems and the one whose name appears in your poem, “Please Don’t tell my grandmother”, the same person? Was she real? Was she a writer/publisher who could be associated with the Generation? Is Mala in Debi Roy’s Malar Jonne real? Was she, too, a poet associated with the Generation?
MRC: Yes, she is the same Neera. Sunil Gangopadhyay never asked for a poem from me for his magazine, Krittibas. After his death, his wife Swati Gangopadhyay became the editor of Krittibas, which Sunil used to edit. Krittibas asked me to contribute a poem. I had sent this poem but they were scared to publish it in Krittibas. They did not publish it and told me to replace it. Obviously I had to decline. But the fact became known to the little magazine circle of poets and writers in Kolkata.
No, Debi Roy’s wife Mala was not a poet; she was a housewife. She died recently.
The interview was first published in The Sunflower Collective on 10/11/15
Malay Roy Choudhury is a Bengali poet and novelist, who founded the Hungryalist Movement that took the poetry scene in Bengal by storm in the 1960s. The Hungry Generation was a literary/art movement that Malay Roy Choudhury, along with Shakti Chattopadhyay, Samir Roychoudhury and Debi Roy, had started.
Juliet Reynolds, well-known art critic and wife of the Hungryalist painter, Anil Karanjai, met the editors of the Sunflower Collective at her Jor Bagh residence recently for a chat about her husband and his art, the art-world of India in general, and the Leftist politics and its understanding of art. The conversation started with a discussion about a previous post on TSC describing Karanjai as “embittered” towards the end of his life. This is part one of a three part series.
Juliet Reynolds: I was just a bit taken aback by the word ‘embittered’. And I got your point; you clarified it. Anil’s…wasn’t so much embitterment.
Abhimanyu Singh: I understand.
JR: In the Malay interview, that word comes up again. It hit me…
AS: Has Malay da used the word?
Goirick Brahmachari: I think one of the questions had it…
AS: Actually, that’s my understanding from reading the book (Finding Neema). I don’t put a negative value to bitterness. I like Bob Dylan; his songs are bitter. I think any reasonable person will feel bitter with this world because it is unfair.
JR: Bitterness was never really in Anil’s character. He could be very fiery; he would express a lot of rage and anger. But he also had a very soft, quiet side; he would feel sad about it then. There was a sad side to Anil… (almost) melancholic. He would feel deep sadness about things that had gone wrong…and then at times, he’d be furious. Maybe, in a way, there was an element of bitterness…
GB (to AS): I think you had meant to say that his experience was bitter…
GB: Not that as a man he was bitter.
JR: Ok, we clarified it now.
AS: He had taken to painting landscapes which were not considered highly in terms of concept.
JR: For him, landscapes were his own rebellion against mainstream art, which was more and more imitating the trends in the West; he always felt strongly about that…art going into post-modernism, installation, he refused to do it.
AS: What is your view on it?
JR: Very rarely have I seen anything (of this sort) which struck a chord in me…emotional or intellectual. Recently, I was at the Royal Academy in London and I saw Ai Weiwei’s work and it was mostly installations. I was skeptical at first… because he is critical of the Communist regime so the West is making him very big…but I recognised that the man really has something, he has originality. Anish Kapoor is a midget in front of him, frankly.
AS: You don’t care much for his work?
JR: No. Highly over-rated.
AS: And Subodh Gupta?
JR: Also highly over-rated. Ridiculous. And it is not particularly new exhibiting bartan and garbage …even people like Vivan Sundaram, from an older generation, a really well-trained, very skillful artist, even he has piled up garbage at the Lalit Kala Akademi.
AS: Do you think identity is being peddled in the name of art?
JR: Certainly, I think there is tokenism. Anil was not only against it … from deep inside his core, he could not do (what others were doing). It did not come from within. If his art did not come from somewhere deep inside him, he wasn’t going to do it.
There were many aspects to his painting landscapes. One was going against the mainstream. But he never protested for the sake of it. He was drawn to landscapes because he liked going into nature. He got a great feeling of solace and comfort from it. There is a film on him…
GB: Which was shown at the Sahitya Akademi?
JR: Yes, and he talks of spiritual loneliness in it. He wasn’t religious though. So that connection with nature he felt. He also wanted to give a contemporary, modern language to landscape while not straying too far from realism. That got him into a lot of trouble. Some called it calendar art. Anil looked at calendar art. He wanted to bridge the gap between high art and low art, to communicate with people. He was not interested in painting only for the elite. He wanted to communicate with as wide a public as possible… (Of course) no artist is going to produce a masterpiece every time. It takes trial and error, experimentation. That happens to every artist. But everywhere his detractors would be saying “aah”, “ooh”…“look at him, he’s painting Lodhi Gardens.” Lodhi Gardens was the closest place where he could be in nature. Like Cézanne, he was exploring the forms of nature, something much deeper, something more rooted; like Cézanne painted that mountain in Southern France (Mont Sainte Victoire) hundreds of times, looking for something, that feeling he would get standing in front of it, how could he capture that feeling?
AS: Do you think he was protesting against the diktats of the Progressive movement and its emphasis on social realism?
JR: He knew about the Modern masters and paid homage to them in his early works. But he was not very influenced by any one artist. Maybe in his early years he liked the old master, Hieronymus Bosch…To be a Modernist, your work had to be full of contortions and distortions; he was also turning his back on that. But it wasn’t just for the sake of it, it was because he felt it also.
GB: It was more organic…
AS/ GB: Tell us about his politics?
JR: The Hungry Generation were anarchists, nihilsts. But Anil did not share that; from a very early stage, he was associated with the Left, the far-Left. I think he became a cadre of one of the mainstream Marxist parties also but they told him that he should wear dirty shoes when going to the people, that he should fill up these forms if he wanted to be promoted up the hierarchy, so he told them to take a running jump.
AS: So he did not favour their dogma and pretences?
JR: Oh no no! Never! But when the revolutionary movement was going on…
AS: You mean the Naxal movement?
JR: Yeah…He wasn’t in Bengal at that time but he would go to Calcutta…. Also, there were student movements going on in Benaras, he was involved in all that. You couldn’t just define him narrowly. Anything which was questioning the status quo, something with solid foundation that could overthrow the status quo, anything of that kind had his support.
To come to Malay, they did not really share politics. Anil used to tell me that he did not really share their politics, anarchism and all that…it was because of the anti-establishment stance that he was part of the movement. And also, the energy and their creativity. He joined them for that. He was a bit at odds with their politics, although not in any major kind of way. But he stuck to them because the Hungry Generation experience for Anil was life-changing. I never realised until much later how much he missed it. In fact, Malay came here once, just once…
GB: In fact, he told me about you and that’s how we got in touch.
JR: Anil talked a lot about Malay after that and how much the movement had meant to him. Anil and Karuna (Nidhan, another Hungryalist painter) were in Benaras at that time, with flower children and hippies…
GB: And the student politics…
JR: Yes, and I don’t know why the Hungry Generation fell apart, maybe there were ego problems…
GB: More than that, I think there were mass-arrests and the government…
JR: …Cracked down on them. But there were some differences between them, between Malay and others…
GB: There are.
The interview was first published on The Sunflower Collective on 12/31/15. Read the full interview here.
The Sunflower Collective is a blogzine based in India that researches on and translates The Beats and The Hungry Generation poets. It also publishes contemporary poetry from around t