This article has been republished from Dhaka Tribune’s archive on the occasion of poet Shamsur Rahman’s 91st birthday
Shamsur Rahman is by general agreement our foremost poet. Many consider him the most significant poet in Bangla since the five great first generation modernists in Bangla poetry – Jibanananda Das, Amiya Chakrabarty, Sudhindranath Dutt, Buddhadeb Bose, Bishnu Dey – who turned away from Tagore's romanticism and incorporated the lessons of European modernism in their work.
Each of these poets was distinctive in the particular variation of modernism adopted. Jibanananda's was a complex post-Romantic sensibility that conflated reality and the dream world; Amiya Chakrabarty was a sophisticated cosmopolitan who could write with equal grace about his own roots and about his self-exile in the West, Sudhindranath was a classicist and a post-Symbolist who bore an easily recognizable kinship with Mallarme and Valery; Buddhadeb owed much to Baudelaire but eclectically imbibed the lessons of later modernists; Bishnu Dey was the most Eliotesque of the generation, at least at the outset, and later incorporated a Marxist outlook.
The diversity among these poets was essential to the vitality of their influence, since it gave their successors a wide range of examples on which to model themselves. Shamsur Rahman was conspicuous in his affinities with his predecessors, especially Buddhadev Bose and Jibanananda Das, when he began writing in the late forties, but soon after began blending other influences, both Bangla and Western.
The result, spread over more than 70 volumes, is a poetic oeuvre remarkable for its versatility and the stamp of the poet's individual voice. Broadly speaking, the development of Rahman's poetry, from a languorous dreamy verse to a more vigorous exercise in poetic exploration, has a parallel in Yeats. Though at the beginning Rahman was through and through a “private” poet and his audience was a coterie, his position in the broader cultural context was significant. He and those of his contemporaries – Hasan Hafizur Rahman, Al- Mahmud, Shaheed Quaderi and others – who were, so to speak, his allies in pioneering the modem trend in Bangladeshi poetry, were in effect creating a counterculture vis-a-vis the policies dictated from Karachi, Pindi and Islamabad. As opposed to poets like Farrukh Ahmed and Golam Mostafa, who were blinkered in their vision by the ideology of Pakistan, the self-conscious modernism of these poets was accompanied by a liberal, secular outlook.
The importance of this became obvious later, because the work of a poet like Rahman paralleled on the cultural plane, and at one point merged with, the economic and political struggle that culminated in the liberation war. As Rahman responded more and more explicitly to the changing socio-political scene, his poetry became more “public,” more direct in its technique, yet without sacrificing his personal tone.
The sheaf of poems he wrote as an exile at home during the Liberation War is a case in point. Always prolific, Rahman became more so in his later years, and continued to delight, provoke and move his readers with his observations and meditations till his last days.
One coming to his poetry cannot but be impressed by their range, both thematic and stylistic. From the short lyric to the dramatic monologue, from strictly rhymed verses to flexible mixed forms, he has handled all modes with effortless mastery. He is equally interesting in his treatment of topical and historical. subjects and the timeless themes of poetry – political turmoil, war, political leaders; the many faces of love, the exploration of the self, the passage of time; mortality.
While remaining firmly rooted in his Bangladeshi milieu (one might even say his Dhaka milieu, for, apart from brief visits abroad, he has spent his whole life in this old city), his sensibility is refreshingly cosmopolitan; it can draw upon his native tradition as well as upon diverse foreign sources – classical Europe, Biblical lore, modern Western art, etc.
This city holds out a wizened hand to the tourist,
wears a patched kurta, limps barefoot,
gambles on horses, quaffs palm beer by the pitcher,
squats with splayed legs, jokes, picks lice
from its soul, shakes off bed-bugs.
This city is a cut-purse, scoots at the sight
of a Policeman, looks about with eyes like the naming moon
This city raves deliriously, teases with riddles.
bursts into lusty song, sheds the sweat
of its brow on its feet in tireless factories,
dreams at times of cradles,
ogles the pretty girl standing quietly on the verandah.
In scorching April or monsoon-drenched June
This city put its mad shoulder to the wheels
Of pushcarts, makes for the brothel at nightfall,
Burning with desire to celebrate the flesh,
This city is syphilitic, it tosses and turns
between the white walls of a hospital ward,
This city is a suppliant at the pir's doorstep,
wears charms and talismans
on its arms, round its neck,
Day and night this city vomits blood,
never tires of funeral processions.
This city tears its hair in a frenzy, dashes its head
on the walls of dark prison cells,
This city rolls in the dust, knowing hunger
as life's solitary truth,
This city crowds into political rallies,
its heart tattooed with posters
becomes an EI Greco reaching for lofty azure.
This city daily wrestles with the wolf with many faces.
Shower me with petals,
heap bouquets around me,
I won't complain. Unable to move,
I won't ask you to stop
nor, if butterflies or swarms of flies
settle on my nose, can I brush them away.
Indifferent to the scent of jasmine and benjamin,
to rose-water and loud lament,
I lie supine with sightless eyes
while the man who will wash me
scratches his ample behind.
The youthfulness of the lissome maiden,
her firm breasts untouched by grief,
no longer inspires me to chant
nonsense rhymes in praise of life.
You can cover me head to foot with flowers,
my finger won't rise in admonishment.
I will shortly board a truck
for a visit to Banani.
A light breeze will touch my lifeless bones.
I am the broken nest of a weaver-bird,
dreamless and terribly lonely on the long verandah.
If you wish to deck me up like a bridegroom
go ahead, I won't say no
Do as you please, only don't
alter my face too much with collyrium
or any enbalming cosmetic. Just see that I am
just as I am; don't let another face
emerge through the lineaments of mine.
Look! The old mask
under whose pressure
I passed my whole life,
a wearisome handmaiden of anxiety,
has peeled off at last.
For God's sake don't
fix on me another oppressive mask.
Note: Banani - An affluent suburb of Dhaka. It has a well-known cemetery
(Reprinted with permission from Selected Poems: Shamsur Rahman [Pathak Samabesh, 2016]. The book is available on Rokomari and at the Pathak Samabesh Kendra, Shahbagh, Dhaka)
Kaiser Haq is Bangladesh’s most celebrated English language poet. His poetry collections include Pariah and Other Poems (Bengal Lights Books 2013), Starting Lines (Dhaka 1978), A Little Ado (Dhaka 1978) and A Happy Farewell (Dhaka: UPL 1994). His translations include a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, Quartet (Heinemann Asian Writers Series, 1993); a novel by Nasreen Jahan, The Woman Who Flew (Penguin India); the poetry collections: Published in the Streets of Dhaka: collected poems (UPL, Dhaka); Combien de Bouddhas, a bilingual poetry selection with French translators by Olivier Litvine (Editions Caracteres, Paris) and the retold Bengali epic: The Triumph of the Snake Goddess (Harvard University Press)