Jibanananda Das (Bangla: জীবনানন্দ দাশ) (February 17, 1899 - October 22, 1954) is the most popular Bengali poet after Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. He is considered one of the innovators who introduced modernist poetry to Bengali Literature, at a period when it was influenced by Rabindranath Tagore's Romantic poetry. Born in a literary family, with a schoolmaster father and a poet mother, he was raised and educated as a writer. After completing his MA degree in English at Calcutta University in 1921, he began an intermittent teaching career, frequently interrupted by political unrest and personal circumstances. He published his first poem in 1919, and continued to publish poems, collections and novels throughout his life.
In the early days of the twentieth century, Jibanananda was at the forefront of efforts to come out from under the dominating influence of the romantic poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. Jibanananda Das received little attention during his lifetime, and many considered his poetry incomprehensible. Readers, including his contemporary literary commentators, criticized his style and diction. Jibanananda broke the traditional circular structure of poetry (intro-middle-end), and the pattern of logical sequence of words, lines and stanzas. The thematic connotation was often hidden under a rhythmic narrative that requires careful reading between the lines. It is only after his death in 1954, that a competent readership started to emerge who not only was comfortable with Jibanananda's style and diction but also enjoyed his poetry with great pleasure. By the time his centenary was celebrated in 1999, Jibanananda Das was the most popular and the most well-read poet of Bengali literature.
Jibanananda Das (JD) was born Febrary 17, 1899, in the small district town of Barisal, located in the south of Bangladesh, a part of East Bengal of the undivided India at that time. His ancestors came from the Bikrampur region of Dhaka district, from a now-extinct village called Gaupara on the banks of the river Padma. Jibanananda's grandfather, Sarbananda Dasgupta, was the first to settle permanently in Barisal. He was an early exponent of the reformist Brahmo Samaj movement in Barisal, and was highly regarded in the town for his philanthropy. He erased the -gupta suffix from the family name as a symbol of Vedic Brahmin excess, rendering the surname as Das. Jibanananda's father, Satyananda Das (1863-1942), was a schoolmaster, essayist, magazine publisher, and founder-editor of Brôhmobadi, a journal of the Brahmo Samaj dedicated to the exploration of various social issues.
Jibanananda's mother Kusumkumari Das was a poet and the author of a famous poem called Adôrsho Chhele (The Ideal Boy), whose refrain is well-known to Bengalis to this day: Amader deshey hobey shei chhele kobey / Kothae na boro hoye kajey boro hobey (The child who achieves not in words but in deeds, when will this land know such a one? ) .
Jibanananda was the eldest son of his parents, and was called by the nickname Milu. A younger brother Ashokananda Das was born in 1908, and a sister called Shuchorita in 1915. Milu fell violently ill in his childhood, and his parents feared for his life. Kusumkumari took her ailing child and traveled to health resorts all over India, in Lucknow, Agra and Giridih. They were accompanied on these journeys by their uncle Chandranath.
In January 1908, Milu, now eight years old, was admitted to the fifth grade in Brojomohon School. The delay was due to his father's opposition to admitting children into school at too early an age. Milu's childhood education was therefore sustained mostly at home, under his mother's tutelage. His school life passed by relatively uneventfully. In 1915, he successfully completed his Matriculation examination from Brojomohon, obtaining a first division in the process. He repeated the feat two years later when he passed the Intermediate exams from Brajamohan College. Evidently an accomplished student, he now left his rural Barisal to go to university in Calcutta, the teeming city at the heart of the British Raj.
Jibanananda enrolled in Presidency College, then, as now, one of the most prestigious seats of learning in India. He studied English Literature and graduated with a BA (Honors) degree in 1919. That same year, his first poem appeared in print in the Boishakh issue of the journal Brahmobadi. Fittingly, the poem was called Borsho-abahon (Arrival of the New Year). This poem was published anonymously, with only the honorific Sri in the byline. However, the annual index in the year-end issue of the magazine revealed his full name: "Sri Jibanananda Das, BA."
In 1921, he completed his MA degree in English from Calcutta University, obtaining a second class degree. He also studied law. At this time, he lived in the Hardinge student quarters next to the university. Just before his exams, he fell ill with bacillary dysentery and this hampered his exam preparations.
The following year, he began his teaching career. He joined the English department of Calcutta's City College as a tutor. By this time, he had given up his law studies, left Hardinge and moved to a boarding house in Harrison Road. It is thought that he also lived in a house in Bechu Chatterjee Street for some time with his brother Ashokanananda, who had come up from Barisal for his MSc studies.
His literary career began to take off. When Deshbondhu Chittaranjan Das died in June 1925, Jibanananda wrote a poem called Deshbondhu'r Proyan'e (On the Death of the Friend of the Nation) which was published in Bongobani magazine. This poem was later included in the collection, Jhora Palok (1927). On reading it, the poet Kalidas Roy said that he had thought the poem the work of a mature, accomplished poet hiding behind a pseudonym. Jibanananda's earliest printed prose work, an obituary entitled Kalimohon Das'er Sraddho-bashorey, was also published in 1925 in serialized form in Brahmobadi magazine. His poetry began to be widely published in various literary journals and little magazines in Calcutta, Dhaka and elsewhere. These included Kallol, perhaps the most famous literary magazine of the era, Kalikolom (Pen and Ink), Progoti (Progress) (co-edited by Buddhadeb Bose) and others. At this time, he occasionally used the surname Dasgupta instead of Das.
In 1927, he published Jhora Palok (Fallen Feathers), his first collection of poems. came out. A few months later, Jibanananda lost his job at City College. The college had been struck by student unrest surrounding a religious festival, and enrolment had suffered as a result. Still in his late twenties, Jibanananda was the youngest member of the faculty and therefore the most dispensable . In the literary circle of Calcutta, he also came under serious attack, when the critic Shojonikanto Das began to write aggressive critiques of his poetry in the review pages of Shonibarer Chithi (The Saturday Letter) magazine.
With nothing to keep him in Calcutta, Jibanananda left for the small town of Bagerhat in the far south, to continue his teaching career at Profullo Chondro College, but lasted there only about three months before returning to the big city. He was now in dire financial straits. In order to make ends meet, he gave private tuition to students, and kept applying for full-time positions in academia. In December 1929, he moved to Delhi to take up a teaching post at Ramjosh College. This position also lasted no more than a few months. In his home town of Barisal, his family had been making arrangements for his marriage. Once Jibanananda arrived in Barisal, he failed to go back to Delhi and consequently lost the job.
In May, 1930, he married Labonya, a girl whose ancestors came from Khulna. At the subsequent reception in Dhaka's Ram Mohan Library, leading literary lights of the day such as Ajit Kumar Dutta and Buddhadeb Bose assembled. A daughter, called Monjusree, was born to the couple in February of the following year.
Around this time, Das published one of his most controversial poems. Camp'e (At the Camp) in Sudhindranath Dutta's Porichoy magazine and immediately caused a firestorm in literary circles. The poem's ostensible subject was a deer hunt by moonlight. Many accused Jibanananda of promoting indecency and incest through this poem. More and more, he turned in secrecy, to the short story format.
In 1934, he wrote the series of poems that would form the basis of the collection called Ruposhi Bangla. These poems were not discovered during his lifetime and Ruposhi Bangla was only published in 1957, three years after his death.
In 1935, Jibanananda, by now familiar with professional disappointment and poverty, returned to his alma mater, Brajamohan College as a lecturer in the English department. In Calcutta, Buddhadeb Bose, Premendra Mitra and Samar Sen were starting a brand new poetry magazine called Kobita. Jibanananda's work featured in the very first issue of the magazine, a poem called Mrittu'r Aagey ' '(Before Death). Upon reading the magazine, Tagore wrote a lengthy letter to Bose and especially commended the Das poem, saying, Jibanananda Das' vivid, colorful poem has given me great pleasure. It was in the second issue of Kobita (Poush 1342 issue, Dec 1934/Jan 1935) that Jibanananda published his now-legendary Banalata Sen. Today, this eighteen-line poem is among the most famous poems in the language.
The following year, his second volume of poetry, Dhushor Pandulipi, was published. Jibanananda was by now well settled in Barisal. A son Samarananda was born in November, 1936. His impact in the world of Bengali literature continued to increase. In 1938, Tagore compiled a poetry anthology entitled Bangla Kabbyo Porichoy (Introduction to Bengali Poetry) and included an abridged version of Mrittu'r Aagey, the same poem that had moved him three years ago. Another important anthology came out in 1939, edited by Abu Sayeed Ayub and Hirendranath Mukhopadhyay; Jibanananda was represented with four poems: Pakhira, Shokun, Banalata Sen, and Nogno Nirjon Haat.
In 1942, the same year that his father died, his third volume of poetry Banalata Sen was published under the aegis of Kobita Bhabon and Buddhadeb Bose. A ground-breaking modernist poet in his own right, Bose was a steadfast champion of Jibanananda's poetry, providing him with numerous platforms for publication. Moha Prithibi was published in 1944; the Second World War had had a profound impact on Jibanananda's poetic vision. The following year, Jibanananda provided his own translations of several of his poems for an English anthology to be published under the title Modern Bengali Poems. The editor Debiprasad Chattopadhyay considered these translations to be sub-standard, and instead commissioned Martin Kirkman to translate four of Jibanananda's poems for the book.
In the aftermath of the war, demands for Indian independence heightened. Muslim politicians led by Jinnah wanted an independent homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent. Bengal was uniquely vulnerable to partition; its western half was majority-Hindu, its eastern half majority-Muslim. Yet adherents of both religions spoke the same language, came from the same ethnic stock, and lived in close proximity to each other in town and village. Jibanananda had emphasized the need for communal harmony at an early stage in his first book Jhora Palok, which included a poem called Hindu Musalman.
In the summer of 1946, Das traveled to Calcutta from Barisal on three months' paid leave, and stayed at his brother Ashokananda's house through the bloody riots that swept the city. Just before partition in August, 1947, Jibanananda quit his job at Brajamohan College and said goodbye to his beloved Barisal. He and his family were among the refugees who took part in the largest cross-border exchange of peoples in history. For a while he worked for a magazine called Swaraj as its Sunday editor, but left the job after a few months.
In 1948, he completed two of his novels, Mallyaban and Shutirtho, neither of which were discovered during his life. Shaat'ti Tarar Timir was published in December 1948. The same month, his mother Kusumkumari Das passed away in Calcutta.
By now, Das was well-established in the Calcutta literary world. He was appointed to the editorial board of yet another new literary magazine, Dondo (Conflict). However, in a reprise of his early career, he was dismissed from his job at Kharagpur College in February of 1951. In 1952, Signet Press published Banalata Sen. The book received widespread acclaim and won the Book of the Year award from the All-Bengal Tagore Literary Conference. Later that year, the poet found another job at Borisha College (today known as Borisha Bibekanondo College). This job, too, he lost within a few months. He took up a post at Howrah Girl's College (today known as Vijaykrishna College), where, as the head of the English department, he was entitled to a 50-taka monthly bonus on top of his salary.
By the last year of his life, Jibanananda was acclaimed as one of the best poets of the post-Tagore era. He was constantly in demand for literary conferences, poetry readings, and radio recitals. In May 1954, he published a volume titled 'Best Poems' (Sreshttho Kobita}.
On October 14, 1954, he was crossing a road near Calcutta's Deshpriyo Park when he was hit by a tram. Seriously injured, he was taken to Shombhunath Pundit Hospital. Sajanikanta Das, who had been one of his fiercest critics, was tireless in his efforts to secure the best treatment for the poet, and even persuaded Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy (then chief minister of West Bengal) to visit him in hospital. Jibanananda died from is injuries on October 22, 1954.
His body was cremated the following day at Keoratola crematorium. Following popular belief, it has been alleged in some biographical accounts that his accident was actually an attempt at suicide. . However, none of the Jibanananda biographers have indicated that this was true.
During the later half of the twentieth century, Jibanananda Das emerged as the most popular poet of modern Bengali literature. Jibanananda Das distinguished himself as an extraordinary poet, presenting a paradigm hitherto unknown to his readers, who took time to accustom themselves to his unfamiliar poetic diction, choice of words and thematic preferences. Today the poetry of Jibanananda has become the defining essence of modernism in twentieth-century Bengali poetry.
As of 2007, Bengali is the mother tongue of more than 290 million people living mainly in Bangladesh and India. Bengali poetry of the modern age flourished on the foundation laid by Michael Madhusudan (1824-1873) and Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Tagore, a literary giant, dominated Bengali poetry and literature for more than half a century, inevitably influencing contemporary poets. Bengali literature caught the attention of the international literary world when poet Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, for Gitanjali, an anthology of poems rendered into English with the title Song Offering. Bengali poetry has traveled a long way in almost a century. It has evolved its own tradition, responded to the poetry movements around the world, and has assumed a variety of tones, colors and essences.
In Bengal, efforts to come out from under the dominating influence of the Tagorian worldview and stylistics started in the early days of twentieth century. Poet Quazi Nazrul Islam [1899-1976] popularized himself on a wide scale with his patriotic themes and musical tone and tenor. However, towards the end of the nineteenth century, a number of new-generation poets began consciously attempting to align Bengali poetry with the modernism emerging around the world, and to follow the trends emerging in contemporary Europe and America. Five poets who are particularly acclaimed for their contribution in creating a post-Tagorian poetic paradigm and infusing modernism in Bengali poetry are Sudhindranath Dutta [1901-1960], Buddhadeva Bose [1908-1974], Amiyo Chakravarty [1901-1986], Jibanananda Das [1899-1954] and Bishnu Dey [1909-1982]. The contour of modernism in twentieth century Bengali poetry was drawn by these five pioneers and some of their contemporaries.
Not all of them have survived the test of time. Of them, the poet Jibanananda Das was the least understood during his lifetime. He received little attention and his poetry was considered incomprehensible. Readers, including his contemporary literary commentators, criticized his style and diction. On occasion, he faced merciless criticism from leading literary personalities of his time. Even Rabindranath Tagore made unkind remarks about his diction, although he praised his poetic capability.
Jibanananda’s early poems bear the influence of Quazi Nazrul Islam and some other poets like Satyandranath Dutta. Before long, however, he thoroughly overcame all influences and created a new poetic diction. Buddhadeva Bose was among the few who first recognized his extraordinary style and thematic novelty. However, as his style and diction matured, his message appeared to be obscured. Readers, including critics, began to complain that his poems were illegible and question his sensibility.
It is only after his unfortunate and accidental death, in 1954, that a competent readership started to emerge who not only was comfortable with Jibanananda's style and diction but also enjoyed his poetry with great pleasure. Questions were no longer raised about the obscurity of his poetic message. By the time his centenary was celebrated in 1999, Jibanananda Das was the most popular and the most well read poet of Bengali literature. Even when the last quarter of the twentieth century ushered in the post-modern era, Jibanananda Das continued to be relevant, because his poetry had undergone many cycles of change, and later poems contained elements responding to post-modern characteristics.
Jibanananda Das started writing and publishing in the 1920s. During his lifetime he published only 269 poems in different journals and magazines, of which 162 were collected in seven anthologies, from Jhara Palak to Bela Obela Kalbela. Since his death in 1954, many of his unpublished poems have been discovered and published, thanks to the dedicated efforts of his brother Asokananda Das, his nephew Dr. Bhumendra Guha, and two researchers, Abdul Mannan Syed from Bangladesh and Deviprasad Bandopadhya from West Bengal of India. By 2003, the total number of poems, published and unpublished, stood at more than 630, and a number of novels and short stories had been discovered and published.
Jibanananda scholar Clinton Booth Seely has termed Jibanananda Das (JD) "Bengal's most cherished poet since Rabindranath." For many readers, however, his poems present a mental labyrinth. Jibanananda's poetry is sometimes an outcome of very profound feeling, that is depicted using imagery of a type not readily understandable. Sometimes, the connection between the sequential lines is not obvious. Jibanananda broke the traditional circular structure of poetry (intro-middle-end), and the pattern of logical sequence of words, lines and stanzas. The thematic connotation is often hidden under a rhythmic narrative that requires careful reading between the lines:
Lepers open the hydrant and lap some water.
Or may be that hydrant was already broken.
Now at midnight they descend upon the city in droves.
Scattering sloshing petrol. Though ever careful,
Someone seems to have taken a serious spill in the water.
Three rickshaws trot off, fading into the last gaslight,
I turn off, leave Phear Lane, defiantly
Walk for miles, stop beside a wall
On Bentinck Street, at Territti Bazar,
There in the air dry as roasted peanuts.
(Night - a poem on night in Calcutta city, translated by Joe Winter)
Jibanananda has been termed the truest poet by Annadashanker Roy, a poet who conceived a poem and shaped it in the most natural way, using intensely personal words, metaphors and imagery, sometimes juxtaposing village dialect on sophisticated language.
Nevertheless, the owl stays wide awake ;
The rotten still frog begs two more moments
in the hope of another dawn in conceivable warmth.
We feel in the deep tracelessness of flocking darkness
the unforgiving enmity of the mosquito-net all around ;
The mosquito loves the stream of life
awake in its monastery of darkness.
[One day eight years ago, translated by Faizul Latif Chowdhury]
... how the wheel of justice is set in motion
by a smidgen of wind -
or if someone dies and someone else gives him a bottle
of medicine, free - then who has the profit? -
over all of this the four have a mighty word-battle.
For the land they will go to now is called the soaring river
where a wretched bone-picker and his bone
come and discover
their faces in water - till looking at faces is over.
(Idle Moment translated by Clinton Seely)
Jibanananda successfully integrated Bengali poetry with the slightly older Euro-centric international modernist movement of the early twentieth century. His success as a modern Bengali poet may be attributed to his exposure to both the ancient traditions of India and the cultural clashes of the twentieth century. His poetry explored the slowly evolving, twentieth-century modern mind, sensitive and reactive, full of anxiety and tension. He invented his own diction, rhythm and vocabulary with unmistakably indigenous roots, and maintained a self-styled lyricism and imagery. He was at once a classicist and a romantic and created an appealing and unfamiliar world:
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 gray world of Asoka
And Bimbisara, pressed on through darkness
to the city of Vidarbha.
I am a weary heart surrounded by life's frothy ocean.
To me she gave a moment's peace -
Banalata Sen from Natore.
A sense of time and history was an unmistakable element in Jibanananda’s poetic world. Unlike many of his peers, who blindly imitated the renowned western poets in a bid to create a new poetic domain, Jibanananda remained anchored in his own soil and time, and successfully assimilated all experiences. His intellectual vision was thoroughly embedded in Bengal's nature and beauty :
Amidst a vast meadow the last time when I met her
I said: 'Come again a time like this
if one day you so wish
twenty five years later.'
This been said, I came back home.
After that, many a time, the moon and the stars,
from field to field have died, the owls and the rats
searching grains in paddy fields on a moonlit night
fluttered and crept! - shut eyed
many times left and right
several souls! - awake kept I
all alone - the stars on the sky
faster still, time speeds by.
Yet it seems
Twenty-five years will forever last.
(After Twenty-five Years translated by Luna Rushdi)
I do not want to go anywhere so fast.
Whatever my life wants I have time to reach
[Of 1934 - a poem on Motor Car, translated by Golam Mustafa].
A large amount of literary evaluation of the poetry of Jibanananda Das has been produced since his untimely death in 1954. However, English language readers will benefit from the ten-page Introduction of "Naked Lonely Hand," an anthology of fifty poems translated into English by Joe Winter .
Translating Jibanananda Das poses a challenge to any translator; it not only requires translation of words and phrases, but demands 'translation' of color and music, imagination and images. Translations are works of interpretation and reconstruction. In 1952, Jibanananda himself rendered some of his poetry into English at the request of poet Buddhadeva Bose for the Kavita. His translations include ''Banalata Sen'', Meditations, Darkness, Cat and Sailor among others, many of which are now lost. Since then many English translations have published, home and abroad, in different anthologies and magazines.
His Best Poems won the Indian Sahitya Akademi Award in 1955.
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