Jibanananda Das: Poet of autumnal dew

Audity Falguni
Yesterday, 22 October, was the 56th death anniversary of poet Jibanananda Das, acknowledged to be the pioneer of modernism in Bengali poetry. The American scholar Clinton Booth Seely has termed this poet as ‘Bengal’s most cherished poet since Rabindranath.’

In words of the literary scholar Hayat Saif, `…Tagore for the first time brought Bengali poetry into the world literary scene but could not connect Bengali poetic tradition meaningfully with contemporary poetic diction. During the beginning of the 20th century there was a clear shift in the civilization and culture of mankind, quite different from any previous paradigm or worldview. Bengali poetry had to wait for the generation next to Tagore in order to properly understand and internalize that changed worldview and express it in a suitable poetic language. This was achieved by Jibanananda Das, the most fecund poetic genius of his generation.’1

Although influenced by Eliot, Yeats and Pound, Jibanananda Das was free of the Catholic world-view of Eliot, glorification of the Irish lineage of Yeats and the fascist faith of Pound. Standing in sharp contrast to Tagore and other Victorians in Bengali poetics, Jibanananda presents woman’s beauty in a completely different metaphor, unknown so far in our literature before his utterance: Her hair was like an ancient darkling night in Vidisa / Her face the craftsmanship of Sravasti.

Now, where is his uniqueness? During the poet’s lifetime the following collection of his poems got published: a) Jhara Palak (Fallen Feathers), b) Dhusar Pandulipi, 1936 (Gray Manuscripts), c) Banalata Sen, 1942, d) Maha Prithibi, 1944 (The Great World), e) Sat Ti Tarar Timir, 1948 (The Darkness of Seven Stars), f) Banalata Sen, 1948 (enlarged Signet Press edition), g) Jibanananda Das-er Shreshtha Kabita (The Best Poems of Jibananda Das), 1954. Notably, Rupashi Bangla<> was published posthumously in 1957.

The mystique that lies in his poems are to be found in images like ‘sound of dew’ or `sun’s smell’, ‘grey smell of rice,’ `salty woman,’ `cancered pumpkin,’ `your naked lonely hand’, ‘fragrance of sleep’ and ‘furry exuberance of darkness.’2 His poem like Night (Ratri) begins with lines like these: ,’Lepers open the hydrant and lap some water, Or maybe that hydrant was already broken.’ It was quite a new shock and jerk for Bengali readers!

Edward C. Dimock, Jr., in his article, ‘The Poet as Mouse and Owl: Reflections on a Poem’ by Jibanananda Das3 translates a complete poem of the poet at first and then analyzes it. Note a few excerpts from Dimock’s translation and analysis:

One day eight years ago,

It was heard they had taken him

To the dissecting room;

…His wife lay beside him, his child too;

He had love, and hope- in the moonlight- and then he saw

What spirit? Why did he wake from sleep?

…I know- still I know

A woman’s heart- love- child- home- this is not everything;

Not wealth, or fame, or power-

Another endangering surprise is playing

In our inmost blood;

It exhausts us

And exhausts us, and exhausts us.

There is no such exhaustion in the dissecting room so

In the dissecting room

He lies stiff upon a table.

: Aat bochor ager ek din (One day eight years ago).

After translating the entire poem, Dimock explains: ‘…the poet’s deep concern here with the paradox of life in death and death in life reminds one of the curious passages in Taittiriya-Upanisad 3:10:6: `I am food, I am food, I am food. I am an eater of food, I am an eater of food, I am an eater of food…I who am food eat the eater of food. I have overcome the whole world.’

Noted Bangladeshi intellectual Salimullah Khan, while analyzing the aforementioned poem in his own way, maintains: `…a voyeuristic-sadistic idealization of sexual relationships; a personality that achieves self-realization only in suicide; a consciousness of the others that can only be satisfied by Hegelian murder.’ 4

Mary McClelland Lago and Tarun Gupta, in their co-authored article Pattern in the Imagery of Jibanananda Das5 mentions an anthropomorphic moon, a metaphorical cat, an imaginary woman in Das’ poems. They analyze how in his poems a rebel loves his gold and silver, a merchant commits suicide lusting for future life, a lover loves his lady but the lady enjoys the affections of ten other fools. The poem ends in a surrealistic pattern, very typical of the poet: ‘That order is not the diurnal motion of the earth; the sun in its normal aspect.’ Readers, is it too incomprehensible to grasp?

Treatment of romance and sexuality in Das’ poetry raised a storm in his lifetime and he was charged with obscenity by old-fashioned literary critics like Sajanikanta, particularly for his poem ‘Camp e (In Camp):’

One by one deer come from the wooded deep,

Leaving behind all water’s sounds in search of another assurance.

Forgetting tooth and claw, they approach their sister there

Beneath the sundari, bathed in moonlight.

As man draws near his salty woman, lured by scent,

So come those deer.

Or think of Sajanikanta’s bitter mockery of the following lines of the poet, ‘I have looked upon woman with love, I have looked upon woman with apathy, I have looked upon woman with hate!’ The old-fashioned critic ridiculed Das thus: ‘…the poet has done everything with women. He has loved, hated and remained indifferent to them. He just did not marry them.’ So full of conceit was the standard of our literary criticism at the time!

In Rupashi Bangla (Beautiful Bengal), the poet tells of Bengali women in past centuries: ‘how many centuries ago did they disappear, trailing their yellow sharis, breasts like pathetic shells.’ Bengali fairy-tale princesses like Shankhamala, Behula and others come together in this collection and Jibanananda Das wishes to sketch the pre-historic tale of Bengal before British colonization.6

Actually, it is very difficult to finish the uniqueness of this poet in a single article. A poet who lived his life amidst hardship, poverty and conjugal unhappiness and died in a fatal accident at the mere age of 54 at a fatal road accident in city of Kolkata, still enchants us with his poetry, especially when a young man requests a young woman called Suranjana not to speak to another young man or where the corpse of another maiden, Mrinalini Ghoshal, floats upon the water silently in shades of red, blue and silver.

Banalata Sen

Translated by Clinton B. Seely

For thousands of years I roamed the paths of this earth,

From waters round Ceylon in dead of night to Malayan seas,

Much have I wandered. I was there in the grey world of Asoka

And Bimbisara, pressed on through darkness to the city of


I am a weary heart surrounded by life’s frothy ocean.

To me she gave a moment’s peace- Banalata Sen from Natore.

Her hair was like an ancient darkling night in Vidisa,

Her face, the craftsmanship of Sravasti. As the helmsman,

His rudder broken, far out upon the sea adrift,

Sees the grass-green land of a cinnamon isle, just so

Through darkness I saw her. Said she, “Where have you been

So long?”

And raised her bird’s-nest-like eyes – Banalata Sen from Natore.

At day’s end, like hush of dew

Comes evening. A hawk wipes the scent of sunlight from its wings,

When earth’s colour fades and some pale design is sketched,

Then glimmering fireflies paint in the story.

All birds come home, all rivers, all of this life’s tasks finished,

Only darkness remains, as I sit there face to face with

Banalata Sen.

The marked points in the article have been taken from ‘Essays on Jibananda Das’, edited by Faizul Latif Chowdhury. Audity Falguni is a writer and critic .


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