Had he lived three more months, Sukanta Bhattacharya would have got the best birthday gift of his life. Three months and two days after the revolutionary poet breathed his last, his beloved country achieved its hard-earned Independence – on 15th August, 1947. Kavi Sukanta, as he was popularly known, would have turned 21 that very day. But that was not to be. Tuberculosis snuffed life out of the young and promising poet who would have turned 92 today.
One of the key figures of modern Bengali poetry, most of Sukanta’s works had been published posthumously. His reputation grew, and the world knew of his genius only after he died. Soon, he became one of the most popular Bengali poets of the 20th century.
On August 15, 1967, on his 42nd birth anniversary, Sarswat Library, owned by his family, brought out a collection of Sukanta’s writings, mostly poetry, for the first time. ‘Sukanta Samagra’ was an instant hit, as it accomplished the absolutely impossible mission of putting together the writings scattered across West Bengal and erstwhile East Pakistan — in the form of manuscripts, handwritten or typed letters and published works.
The book has a preface by its editor and well known poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay, who was very close to Sukanta. Mukhopadhyay was pursuing his graduation from Scottish Church College in erstwhile Calcutta when he was first introduced to the young poet’s works. Sukanta was his friend’s younger cousin. Mukhopadhyay writes how surprised he was after reading the teenager’s poems. The mastery over language, meter and rhyme was unbelievably matured for a 14-year-old to achieve.
To convince them, the friend finally produced the soft-spoken teenager in front of Mukhopadhyay. They bonded in no time and the friendship remained until Sukanta’s death.
Born to Nibaran Chandra Bhattacharya, the owner of Saraswat Library, and Suniti Devi, who he lost to cancer at a young age, Sukanta’s ancestral place was in erstwhile East Bengal’s Faridpur district. He was however born in Calcutta at his maternal grandfather’s place, and grew up there as his father’s family too moved to the city. Sukanta would write from a young age and had earned the moniker of ‘Kavi Sukanta’.
Though raised in a city, the introvert Sukanta found himself more close to nature, and his feelings would reflect in his poems.
Sukanta was a man of varied emotions, and that made him real, the boy next door. The honesty in his writings at times made him child-like — but then he was indeed a child, a prodigy. Though Sukanta died after he turned 20, most of his published works are from his teen years.
Sukanta was known as a revolutionary poet, and the communist bend in his writings was pronounced. At a very young age of 18, in 1944, Sukanta Bhattacharya joined the Communist Party of India. In his own words, according to Mukhopadhyay, he was happiest if he could exhort party workers with his writings.
However, he was a die-hard romantic by heart at the same time. A small incident narrated by his contemporaries displays his romanticism. On one of his last birthdays, it is said, one of the elders in the family gave him Re 1 as a gift. He took the money and went straight to a photo studio and got a photograph of himself clicked. That is perhaps the only photograph we have of Sukanta Bhattacharya.
Sukanta would sound depressed at times in his poems, filled with hope in the next; his one poem would depict his hurt, the very next would speak of bravery and grit.
In ‘Runner’, he portrayed the pain of the men who walked miles to deliver letters to faraway places, while Priyatamasu described a mercenary’s homeward journey after fighting many a wars for others.
Sukanta would surprise all with his metaphors and similes, even at the cost of aesthetics at times. His heart bled for the poor and downtrodden. In a matter-of-fact pointer to hunger, Sukanta compared the full moon to a burnt chapatti in ‘He Mahajiban’, asking poetry to take a backseat in the world ruled by hunger.
A very short poem of his described the story of a chicken — from its desire to eat good food to landing on the dining table as food. He wrote about the “exploited” Cigarette, and the “small and insignificant” but “explosive” Matchstick. He wrote about the middle class, the labourers, the soldiers, the enemy, the farmer. He wrote of Kashmir, Manipur and Rome –encompassing all he could in his short life.
Sukanta, writes Mukhopadhyay, was too young to leave a voluminous body of work. Had he lived longer and written more, some of the Sukanta Samagra content might not even have found place in the book. They were the imagination of a very young mind and had flaws, says the editor.
At the same time, however, his poems like ‘Obak Prithibi’, ‘Bodhan’ or ‘Thikana’ leave all awestruck with his choice of words, depth of thoughts and delivery of substance.
During his lifetime, Sukanta’s poetry was published in magazines. But except for Chharpatra, all his writings were published posthumously.
Many called Sukanta Bhattacharya the John Keats of Bengal. The English Romantic poet too died very young, at the age of 25, and of TB.
Four of his poems are known to have been made into songs. Famous music director Salil Chowdhury set music and legendary singer Hemanta Mukherjee lent voice to three of them — ‘Obak Prithibi’, ‘Runner’ and ‘Thikana’.
The fourth song is ‘Ekhane brishti mukhor lajuk gaayen…’, composed and sung by Bhupen Hazarika.
‘Obak Prithibi’ is unarguably one of his most popular works. Sukanta pours out his heart for an enslaved India, giving a clarion call to set it free.
Today is the 92nd death anniversary of Sukanta Bhattacharya. It’s unfortunate that the youth who advocated, fought for revolution to see a free India did not live to see the end of the struggle.