Adaptations in Bengali poetry
I was first introduced to Bengali poetry when I received a small book coauthored by Aryanil Mukherjee and Pat Clifford. Titled chaturangik/SQUARES, and published in Goa by CinnamonTeal, this book uses the game of chess to bring together two languages, English and Bangla. Each page renders nine squares of the chessboard with one outlined in black — if you flip through the pages this outlined square progresses across the board in accordance with the rules of the game. In this way, the book suggests its inspiration by the renowned director Satyajit Ray’s 1977 classic The Chess Players. One of the film’s plotlines features two chess-loving noblemen, Mirza Sajjad Ali and Meer Roshan Ali, who retreat to a small town where they can continue to play their beloved game of shatranj (chess) unaffected by the turmoil of the British overthrow of Lucknow, India.
Although this plotline is often humorous, Ray’s larger message is that the detachment of the ruling classes, illustrated by the chess players’ voluntary exile, allowed the British to overtake the region without opposition. A similar theme of social engagement can be detected in chaturangik/SQUARES. The form of the book, with its circumscribed movements and tight little blocks of text, suggests the extent to which our own movements are restricted to specific, approved patterns; the face-off between the players is reminiscent of contemporary global struggles. Each section begins with an image by Mithu Sen that reinforces the work’s contemporaneity — knight, bishop, rook and king are depicted as humanimal blends, and Sen’s use of skeletons reinforces the disastrous consequences of unchecked power. At the same time, chaturangik/SQUARES explores the creative possibilities that emerge from disaster: much as the rules of the ancient Aryanic Indian game of chess changed and developed with the Mughals and again with the British, so too the rules and procedures of this book developed through the writing process. Mukherjee explains that it was composed through a process of continuous exchange, translation, and modification: Pat Clifford would write something in English, to which Mukherjee would respond in Bengali; Mukherjee would then translate each text into the other language, and Clifford would alter the text in English, necessitating further revision to the Bengali texts. The two-player structure empowers both to adapt continuously to the conditions imposed by the other.
As this feature explains, Bengali poetry has a long and rich history of incorporation and adaptation both in its language and in its sources. In spite of the private, concealed mood of the earliest Bengali poetic texts, contemporary Bengali poetry differs significantly from Anglophone poetries insofar as it enjoys a high public profile. Well-informed readers, often with extensive backgrounds in information technology, enjoy poetry as an entertainment art. And Circumcontentive Poetry in particular engages its readers’ as well as its authors’ scientific backgrounds: drawing upon the languages of thermodynamics and systems theory, explaining their poetics through complex equations, combining referents according to the logic of tensors and vectors, imagining the construction of a poem through the complex mechanics of genetics, Circumcontentive Poetry is a wholly different discourse than any Anglophone poetics of which I am aware. Mukherjee’s comments on Louis Zukofsky’s Anew exemplify this unique approach to literature. Focusing on Zukofsky’s use of words like “condense” and his attention to light and waves, Mukherjee outlines contemporaneous trends in scientific writing upon which Zukofsky might have drawn: “I thought Zukofsky’s description of the sea came very close to [nuclear physicist George] Gamow’s model,” Mukherjee explains. “Especially where he talks about ‘many condensers large and small’ … That a great deal of electric stress (and light) can be stored in between the surface waves and the seabed in layers and all of that can be actually ‘transmitted’ without a real ‘felt’ medium in between is perhaps not just scientific truth but also poetic electricity.”
The poets included in this feature, Mesbah Alam Arghya, Subhro Bandopadhyay, Sukanta Ghosh, Raad Ahmad, Sabyasachi Sanyal, Santanu Bandyopadhyay, and Aryanil Mukherjee, are a young group born in the 1960s and ’70s. Primarily educated in the sciences, they live in many countries and read and work across a broad variety of linguistic and national traditions — from Canada to Chile to Spain, the Netherlands, Australia, India, and the USA. Many of them have never met in person; the group has never gathered. But they read each other’s work and converse online, creating a densely interwoven conversation that draws upon Bengali-language news sources, scientific journals, lyric meditations on exile, and cybernetics. Using equations and charts to map the flows of these discourses, the pulses of their texts, the members depart from each other as much as they do from other poetries with which I am familiar. But the quality of surprise in their shared experiment astounds me. Sitting across the chessboard from Circumcontentive Poetry is a profound intellectual challenge, a demand to adapt, and above all a delight.
This feature, created collaboratively by all of the poets, but spearheaded by Mukherjee, provides a deep and wide introduction to this exciting movement in Bengali literature. I am thrilled that they have undertaken the laborious process of translating all of this work in order to share it with Jacket2.