Friday, January 27, 2017

The Metaphysics of a Rebel

Sananta Tanty is one of the most divergent and popular voices in contemporary Assamese poetry. Yet, he is rarely discussed in critical discourses. Whenever he is discussed in reviews, critiques and historical accounts of contemporary Assamese poetry, he is always paired with another poet, Sameer Tanti, because they share the same socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. This, however, is a gross disservice because Sameer and Sananta are two distinct voices.

Sananta Tanty is not the only victim of critical neglect. In fact, very little is available in Assamese literature regarding critical discourses on young and contemporary Assamese poets. This is a tragedy because while the stream of criticism is stuck somewhere along with the phrase Modern Assamese Poetry, in practice, Assamese poetry is a vibrant and flourishing discipline. Every year we see many emerging poets grabbing reader’s attentions.

Then how, and at what juncture in history the process of talking about a poet (apparently) stopped? For this, we need to examine the methods and processes of writing the history of the Modern Assamese Poetry, which again is a problematic phrase. Modernism is a makeshift idea, whereas the definition of the Assamese is an unspecified one. Assamese could be an idea. However, as a nation, it never had a complete shape and always seemed to be in a process of making. Under these circumstances, the stream of Assamese Modern Poetry, as we are accustomed to define so far, would reveal several intricate issues.

In the late 19th century, a group of young people, including Chandrakumar Agarwala, Lakshminath Bezbaruah and others, started a Journal called Jonaki and inaugurated a new romantic horizon in Assamese poetry, putting focus on nature, man and nationalism. The colonial parasol caused the strata where the youth had to look for a revivalist tactic. Alongside, the shift from the mediaeval classical literature also insisted the poets to put humanism in the centre. The Ramanyasbaad (Romanticism) was the first successful movement in Assamese modernity, paving the way for modernism. Jyoti Prasad Agarwala helped shape the growth of Assamese Modernity while addressing other issues like subjectivity and voice of the marginal, among others – issues that is becoming increasingly prevalent today.

Devakanta Baruah and Hem Baruah were the last successful Romantic poets in the sense that along with their unique poetic endeavour, they opened up a transitional phase through which modern Assamese poetry entered a new dimension. Navakanta Barua could be seen as the epitome of modern Assamese poets, with his poetry dense with references, from multiple philosophical schools, inspirations from poets like TS Eliot and Ezra Pound and the emergence of the urban individual with pain, pleasure and frustrations.

The last decades of the century after Independence, after Navakanta Barua, Assamese poetry was largely shaped by the pioneering poets like Nilomani Phukan, Ajit Baruah and Hiren Bhattacharya. Among them, Phukan is still active. This was a phase where Assam was going through political turmoil along with the emergence of armed forces, student’s movement and issues around ethnic assertion. During this time, Assamese poetry entertained a politically motivated genre, practiced by a group of progressive and socially committed young poets. Among them, poets like Kabiranjan Saikia were targeted and killed by the state.

Meanwhile, and before this, the emergence of the Leftist movements inspired a number of poets who decided to talk on the behalf of the people’s struggle. Unfortunately, an overview of this stream of politically and socially committed poetry have been treated as parallel, and gradually towards the intermediary two decades between the two centuries, critics failed to grasp the changing scenarios of Assamese poetry.

This is the phase where Sananta Tanty belongs, and he is the only poet who never gave up the rebellious voice that he had acquired from his commitment towards his people.

Assamese poetry is predominantly pastoral and rich with social and political concerns. Tanty does not add a completely new feature to Assamese poetry, but he positions himself with warmth and a radical subjective claim that remains unmatched.

The history of the development of Assamese modernism is also the history of the growth of the Assamese Middle Class in the post-Independence India. This was a phase where the geography of modern Assam as an independent Indian state was shaped and the search for a nationalist cultural identity was streamlined. This nationalist cultural identity of the Assamese constructed an obvious cultural hegemony where all the diverged voices from the margins tend to submerge in a centralised stream.

It is understood that Assam, containing hundreds of linguistic tribes and communities, could never be identified as one single nation. But the Assamese literature, monitored by a specific middle class and a particular language speaking group, hardly addressed the complicacy of ethnic diversions. In this, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala remains a rare example. He tried to create a voice for a Dophola man (belonging to the Nyishi tribe), in a deformed dialect within the mainstream Assamese poetry. A tribal man refuses to pay khajana (tax) and pronounces it as kejena and opposes the feudal system. A close look would made us realise that it was not only a voice against the feudalism under the colonial period but also an address to the linguistic and ethnic divergence of the land.

However, the massive political turmoil, caused by the six year Assam Agitation from 1979 and the aftermath, again failed to address the diversity of marginal existences. These last two decades of the century were successful, again, in making a pedestal for the nationalism; and we know that the idea of nationalism is always conclusive and totalitarian. Nationalism is largely against the subject.

This was the time when, coming from a marginal community, Sananta Tanty talked about the subject. Being a rebel.

Tanty’s poetry is largely lyrical, which is a predominant characteristic of the Assamese poetry, but the warmth of his words makes it distinct from his contemporaries. Tanty puts human at the centre stage, but it is far away from the romantics like Chandrakumar Agarwala. Tanty is also among the children of the nature, but he denies observing the nature in an objective gaze.

We have a strong lineage of progressive or people’s poetry in Assamese. Social commitment is not a rare feature in Assamese poetry, but it will be a reductive comment if we conclude that Tanty is a socially committed poet. Social commitment is not a feature in his poetry, but the struggle for freedom from all chains.

Sananta is a poet-individual for whom political belonging matters. But again, we cannot align him with just any other writers and activists who have been developing identity politics in other parts of the country. The rebel in Sananta Tanty is inherent and eternal. The subject of Sananta Tanty is not the subjective modernist poet aloof from the people on the street. The poetry of Sananta Tanty gradually expands from a tea garden community to the Assamese identity and to the universe. The rebel does not celebrate hatred or enmity, but puts love at its core. The anxiety for the social and political condition does not make the poet distressed, instead he announces the subject as a mode of immense festivity of the people:

I’m the luminous festival of man.

The spatial location of the artist, artwork and the spectator determines the significance of the dialogue. The first thing we notice about Sananta Tanty is that he confines his spatial location with precision. His poetic expression generates a dialogue where the actor speaks to a target audience. Even if it appears to be a monologue, there are two sides of the conversation.

During 1990s, writing on the future of the poetry, eminent critic Hiren Gohain said a poet who wants to speak on the behalf of the people needs to reside amongst the people to get their voices in their true forms:
...for that reason, poetry is beloved of the people; the poet is responsible to the people. Good poetry can make people’s mind free of the chains and they will be ahead towards the transformations. If the poet cannot be a part of the people, he would not be able to write such poems. The practice of the form is not confined only to the dictionaries or on the reading table, but at the eternal battlefield of people’s struggle.
(Dr Hiren Gohain, ‘The Future of Poetry and the Future of the Society’, Jogajog, 1993).

Sananta is that poet who resides amongst the people and speaks of the people through his practice.

Mixing soil with soil for my desired crop
I am the unending light of your darkness
the growing music in the silence of the night
creating the spreading sculpture
of survival and destruction
the dialogues of your tied tongues

I am yours; I am yours
(‘I am yours; I am yours’)

For Tanty, love for people is not just any other element in his poetry, but the essence. The rebel in him crosses the boundaries of the temporality. This helps the poet acquire a distinct subjective position. Tanty does not need to write an autobiography ever, as he puts his essential voice in his poetry, or conversely, the repertoire forms the body of the poet. This voice is his. It positions him in a locale and in a global backdrop at the same time. This unique ability makes his poetry universal.

Poet and critic Bhaben Baruah, while evaluating the progressive poet of the 1940s, Amulya Baruah, referred to a poem by Dhirendranath Dutta to highlight how progressive thoughts failed to express their warmth (in Dutta’s case) because of the wrong choice of poetic device. (Asomiya Kabita: Rupantarar Parba). One does not use the same idiom to talk about people’s struggle as it is used to describe the beauty of a flower. The poetic language of Sananta Tanty is direct, straightforward and he avoids rhetoric as much as possible. This frankness is disturbing.

The poet is a warrior,
without definition,
essentially a revolution.
(‘A poet is without definition, essentially a revolution’)

That is how Sananta Tanty is a rebel only for his content, but also for his form - strong enough to disturb the universe. Like the modernists, he does not hesitate: Do I dare? Do I dare to disturb the Universe? Unlike many of his contemporaries, he does not put a rhetorical blanket to his activism. He is equally eloquent for the people of Kashmir, as he is for the people of his own land.

Kashmir is no longer yours
Kashmir is no longer mine
Kashmir is for those who,
born in the blood of Kashmir,
fight for Kashmir

So, we can assume the reasons why we all love Sananta Tanty, but rarely want to talk about him. Without taking about the method of subjectivisation and activism, we cannot talk about Sananta Tanty as a poet, and perhaps, the political intellectuals (still suffering from the modernist hangover) are still not ready to do that.

Samudra Kajal Saikia

This article is a part of the book “SELECTED POEMS SANANTA TANTY”, Translated from Assamese by DIBYAJYOTI SARMA.

First published in January 2017 by i write imprint, 157/1, Patparganj, New Delhi 110091
Original Assamese Texts Copyright © Minati Tanty
English Translations Copyright © Dibyajyoti Sarma
Articles/Interview Copyright © Individual Authors
Early English Translations Copyright © Individual Translators
Sananta Tanty asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
© All rights reserved
ISBN: 978-81-929355-3-9
Translations Edited by Kamalakar Bhat & Shalim M Hussain
Price Rs 449

Some of the contents in the book few are: