Vol. 4 Num 17 Sat. June 14, 2003  

The Little Magazine Movement in Dhaka: an exchange

The news about little magazines in Dhaka is certainly of the positive kind. After a long time there is a rekindling of hope in all of us who are still on track of the little-magazine movement in this country. People are writing on little magazines, on our movement, which is indeed, significant if only in the sense that it reminds us all that the concept of the little magazine and its movement is yet to die down, that it is alive and well in this country. And, of course, we believe that it needs to be closely studied and explained correctly, in an authentic way. Otherwise, readers will plunge in to find the truth in a world of enigma and dark confusion.

Recently I noticed an article written on the little-magazine movement, specially the poetry movement, in mid-eighties in Dhaka, by a leading young poet Subrata Augustine Gomes ('The Renaissance That Failed: the little magazine movement in Bangladesh in the eighties', The Daily Star literature page, April 19, 2003).

Subrata Augustine Gomes, my friend who himself was once a little magazine writer/activist and now is a 'defector', painted a grim picture of the movement in his article. It is, in my view, not the complete picture; that it, moreover, seemed to also be wishful thinking in that it failed to reflect historical reality. Surprisingly enough, nowhere in his article Subrata ever mentioned, not even once, our manifesto--Samograbadi Ishtehar--that greatly influenced the shaping of the new poetry movement in Bangladesh. 0n the contrary, he disowned fully not only the little-magazine movement but mentioned some names who I feel are not in any way deserving of the status accorded to them in the poetry movement. In this context it would be important to note that experimenting with poetry is one thing and poetry movement based on a radical idea and commitment is quite other. One has his or her different poetic aspirations and affections, views on life and society and nature, and above all, one's own set of technique and a self-innovative personal style, but it should not be viewed that he or she is actively involved in a movement. Having mingled those unwanted names with genuine little-magazine writers, one thus feels that Subrata virtually, in one way or other, showed disrespect for them and undermined the little-magazine greats, who in their unceasing struggle with the little-magazine movement bled themselves for near about two decades. And are still bleeding on. So he could have been more authentic and truthful had he not been biased and harboured preconceived notions and not tried to appease some quarters. In our estimation, there are many others who could have been included in his list of little-magazine activists, like Tareq Shahrier, Zahidur Rahim Anjon, Syed Reazur Rashid, Ahmed Nakib, Badrul Haider, Azad Noman, Qamrul Huda Pathik, Rokon Rahman, Sumon Rahman, Pablo Shahi, Shamim Kabir, Majnu Shah, Mujib Mehdi and many others.

The movement that started in the mid-eighties here in Bangladesh, and especially around us in Dhaka, had a different perspective. Both politically and culturally, literary conditions then were not favourable at that time for young writers like us. In those days, young writers were so confused that they had no tastes or ideals strong enough that would incline them to do anything unusual or something new. They got hooked on imitating the conventional popular poetry of preceding poets. Most of them were captives in the hands of so-called literary editors of some national daily newspapers and a few popular poets who had earned name and fame for their stage-breaking performance.

In such an odd situation, where an ubiquity of imitators and imitations was the predominant feature of poetry and where mere sloganeering was an established part of literary activism, we felt that the literary establishment, chiefly the daily newspapers and their recruited literary editors, were the main obstacles towards progress in the fields of literature and art, as if they had become the arbiters of culture and sole monopolists of the literary world, a world where without their certificate of approval and favour nobody would be able to be a poet, a writer or anything else.

In order to fight against such trends and out of a desire for new poetry, together with some of my poet-friends, we began first to contemplate in the extreme about writing new poetry and thus floated our manifesto on poetry-Samograbadi Ishtehar -which was jointly signed by Sajjad Sharif (currently literary editor, Prothom Alo), Shoyeb Shadab and me, and which was first published in Aninda. In it we set ourselves in opposition to the literary ancien regime in an effort to overturn the reigning tradition and those poets of the preceding decades, the members of the poetic/literary establishment, who had imposed on poetry artificial conventions and practices, against what we regarded as the whole poetic establishment.

In our eyes, the little-magazine movement and anti-establishment concept both were, and are, integral parts of the same ideological values. It consists in the belief that the life, artistic creation and writer's own personal dignity are important, in fact, are fundamental components which a writer should uphold on the basis of his/her commitment and uncompromising attitude. It would be erroneous, however, to understand the movement factor in a simplified way. Because we experienced that an establishment with vested interests is the basis of all other forms of evils, and even though it's a faceless structure but its role is more dominant in a rigid and traditional society like ours. To the best of my knowledge we were the first to introduce the concept of the writer- the 'complete little-mag writer'- in Bangladesh.

Under such circumstances, in order to write experimental poetry according to our manifesto, a need was felt to bring out a little magazine where no space would be allowed to those writers who usually wrote in the literary pages of daily newspapers and thus had compromised with the establishment. Habib Wahid, the young and fiercely independent editor of Aninda, came forward boldly to take the responsibility of publishing the manifesto and our new poems in his magazine. Alas, our relationship was short-lived and we separated after a bitter feud.

Then at this stage Tapan Barua, short story writer and the high priest of the little magazine movement, extended the scope of our movement by bringing out a new little magazine named Gandeeb, and steering it towards its present course. In the first issue of Gandeeb we again published the manifesto with our signatures. Paradoxically, however, our chief comrade-in-arms Sajjad Sharif, who had made an exceptionally important contribution in developing the manifesto, later deserted the movement and became its first defector, to be later followed by many others like Subrata Gomes, who used to come and go like seasonal migratory birds and left no lasting mark on the movement.

In our quest for new poetry, as much as we experienced various setback and opposition, we had also got support and inspiration from our contemporary writers, poets, painters, critics, filmmakers and well-wishers. They expressed their solidarity in our struggle for our cause. Among them short story writer Selim Morshed, Tareq Shahrier and Zahidur Rahim Anjon are noteworthy. I recall with gratitude many discussions on our movement that we had had with them. Particularly, in short stories as in poetry new forms came into being at that time and it was our manifesto that provided some of the stimulus. We are indebted to young painters Wakil Ahmed and Dhali Al Mamun who designed many magazine covers for us. I have to acknowledge that the movement had moved ahead not only because of our own ability only, but because we were supported by others like poets Mohammad Kamal, Kajol Shahnawaz, Syed Tarik, Vishnu Biswas, film-maker Tarek Masud, publisher Hossein Haider Chowdhury and many others.

That was indeed a tremendous movement in our part of Bengali literary history. It not only established the literary movement on this soil, but also ushered in a new poetic order. But all such experiments and movements would simply be impossible if there were no underlying philosophical percepts. In those days, when we were waging a historical movement against fuzziness and facile emotionalism that was embedded in the then existing popular poetry, there was also various groups who were trying to substantiate new trends that too could provide the basis for a different poetic outlook. Thus, a technical revolution in poetry was going on side by side with shifts in attitude.

Under these new conditions at least some of the objectives for fresh poetic developments were achieved. The subject matter of our poetry exhibits an extension of range and diction far beyond the previous poets. Most strikingly, the poets of this time resemble the Bengali poets of the thirties who led a similar rebellion against poetic convention. As a result, since then, the newly initiated poetic order based on the little magazine is still sweeping over here with the same rhythm and effectiveness. Whoever studies and assimilates it deeply, seriously and creatively will accept this new outlook through conviction based on reasonable arguments and proofs, and not on blind faith.

And our success is there, that we're able to draw a sharp division between popular poetry (mainly those poets of 50s, 60s, 70s and early 80's who wrote sentimental poems targeting stage-audiences and light-hearted readers) and radical poetry, and which consequently emerged as a new aesthetic of poetry. The new phenomena that arose through total rejection of the old were not created in a vacuum. We were able, by making use of the ground reality, to convert the possibility of a movement into something genuine, perhaps a real poetry movement, which became the beginning of a new order in the development of poetry. The old order dies away, and something new thus constantly arises over the course of time. But the question that arises is whether the new order entails any improvement of poetry or only brings chaos and disorder. It is not easy to answer that seemingly simple question.

Shantanu Chowdhury works at UNB.

Subrata A. Gomes replies:

Thank you, Shantanu, for your sweet admonishment. True, I failed to mention your Ishtihar in my article, and yes, true again, I did not mention a few of the little magazine activists whom you have kindly brought up. The principal reason behind my indeliberate amnesia is my emigration from Bangladesh in the mid-nineties and consequent detachment from Dhaka's little magazine scene. Another reason is that I was attempting to analyze the causes of what I felt was the failure of the movement, not write a Who's Who of little magazine activists in Dhaka. After all, there is the obvious constraint of space. If I had had to mention all the names involved in the movement the essay would have had to be published as a phone directory of some kind.

You are right again saying that I have indeed mentioned some names that you personally, and as a member of the Gandeeb group, abhor. But does your abhorrence make the ill-fated ones any lesser writers than they are? Must we exclude names like Khondkar Ashraf Hossain, Moin Chowdhury or Bratya Raisu simply because the Gandeeb group despises them? Must we forget their efforts towards the promulgation of the movement? Must we - the ones that were never part of the Gandeeb group in the strictest terms - take the movement as a household possession of one little magazine, namely Gandeeb? And I do not know why you reprimand my failure to mention writers like Kamrul Huda Pathik or Mujib Mehdi. Were they ever a part of the particular movement I had in mind? Or do you at long last admit that in spite of the differences in aesthetic goals, all Bengali journals of any class and intentions were part of the same movement? Why then should you segregate Ekabingsha or Pranta? And in what ways does Habib Wahid's Anindya differ from, say, Pranta, except that most of its issues were poorer in selection of writing and less innovative than the latter?

Your terming me and Sajjad Sharif as "defectors" amuses me. Who did we let down? What did we betray? Did we compromise our writing style to gain cheap popularity? The answer is, as you too will probably admit, no. All we have done is allowed ourselves to be published in the both the national dailies as well as little magazines. From the very outset, one of our many fruitless debates was whether we should consider the newspapers as part of the literary establishment. And some of us, such as Sajjad or myself, could never understand why some of the little magazine crowd insisted on making a paper tiger out of the puny literary supplements of the daily newspapers. It is, therefore, a matter of personal outlook rather than betrayal of any kind. And in spite of whatever you may call me, I still belong, and always will, to the little magazine and to the larger movement.

Muchhe jaak glaani, muchhe jaak jaraa,
Agnisnaane shuchi hok dharaa.

Subrata Augustine Gomes is a Bengali poet who lives in Australia.

Anindya Gandeeb