Remembering Shankha Ghosh: Poet, teacher and passionate democrat whose life was underlined by dissent

Jawhar Sircar
·6-min read

To Bengalis, Shankha Ghosh, who left the world on 21 April, was not just a poet and a writer, he was, in fact, a flaming torch who guided them through troubled times.

In this highly politicised and polarised state, the Left front's hegemony extended into its culture for 34 long years, and it was followed by a regime that also demanded absolute allegiance to its version of culture and politics for the next decade. Ghosh was among the remarkable few who defied both regimes and held his head high. His clear views were never accompanied by any overt display of belligerence, but appeared through his extremely popular writings and rare utterances. His pithy verses simplified complex issues of politics into eloquent but firm statements that ripped apart the hypocrisy of the ruling elites. The soft spoken poet and essayist had obviously more fire in him than most professional revolutionaries.

Shankha Ghosh was a frail man and his health had been causing concern for quite some time. However, in spite of odds, he managed to pull through till the age of 89, leading perhaps inadvertently those who looked up to him for guidance. But neither health nor age could deter him from fronting, even it be for a while, public demonstrations against encroachments by state power into domains such as human rights, pluralism and democracy.

He took to the streets some time ago in order to protest against the draconian amendment to the law governing citizenship. His very presence seemed to galvanise the citizens present, and lend greater legitimacy to the movements he participated in. Like most of his compatriots, he strove for a more equitable order and for improving the life of the wretched. He could, therefore, be said to belong to the 'independent Left'. The latter are surely left of centre, but are so driven by conscience and principles that they could never be shackled within the structure of any single political party.

He supported all measures to alleviate poverty and combat injustice, but he would never tolerate the high-handedness of the ruling Communist party. The last chief minister, who was steeped in literature and serious cinema, venerated him, but that did not prevent Ghosh from publicly castigating the Left regime for its excesses. When its police shot dead several villagers at Nandigram who were agitating against the government's unfair decision to acquire their land, he was among the most prominent personalities of Bengal to denounce the Left. Though the current chief minister has also attempted, on several occasions to 'reward' or 'honour' him, he stayed away from it all. He was, again, on the forefront when it came to censuring the present state government and its ruling party for their attacks on democratic polity.

He completed his graduation from Presidency College in Kolkata, and his higher studies from Calcutta University. His academic career was, however, focused mainly at Jadavpur University, where he was one of its legendary teachers. He also served deputations at Visva Bharati, Delhi University and Iowa State University. It was, however, his literature and critical analyses that won him the most accolades.

His expressions were simple yet eloquent, enchanting yet purposeful. Not all his poems were political, of course, for he combined the humanitarian and the aesthetic with rare felicity. He published some 60 volumes of which 16 were of poems. He was primarily an academic and a leading literary critic but he was, unquestionably, the foremost authority on Tagore and his work. It was in this capacity that he edited the second updated series of the encyclopaedic Rabindra Rachanavalis.

A delicate task that the chief minster had, however, entrusted me with as the state's education secretary, way back in 2003-04, was to gently remind him to complete editing the last two volumes. One remembers spending enriching hours with him as he sought to explain certain subtle nuances of Tagore, over cups of tea and snacks, and quite forgetting the assignment. It was, again, in 2010 that we tried to garner his services for the national and international celebration of the 125th birth anniversary of Tagore. He passed on his sincere suggestions but, true to his character, declined to attend the meeting of the apex committee in the prime minister's residence office €" that was attended by an eminent galaxy, from Sonia Gandhi to Narendra Modi.

We had a trying time persuading him to join the 'high level' cultural team that was invited by the Bangladesh government. One remembers the conditionality and the assurances one had to give to him and his family, before literally hijacking him. He was practically mobbed by the literati and the intelligentsia of Dhaka and one has witnessed the highest degree of adulation with which he was greeted everywhere and by everybody. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina was effusive, but Shankha Ghosh remained totally composed, perhaps a little embarrassed.

An elaborate 16-course Bengali lunch was arranged by our hosts at Shahzadpur, famous as Tagore's former 'zemindari', one that was overwhelming and simply unforgettable. Though he ate so little, Ghosh sat throughout and looked on indulgently, as we gorged through some nine types of fish and other delicacies, for well over an hour.

It was quite evident that he was deeply attached to Bangladesh where he was born and completed his schooling, moving from place to place with his father. He looked on so pensively at the mighty Padma river, lost in his own thoughts for a long time, as we stopped at a major bridge. Further along the road, we halted for a while at a village called Pakshi near Pabna, where he had once studied. As we alighted, a gentleman came forward to show us "the school where Shankha Ghosh had studied". He had obviously not recognised him, but Shankha Babu was too engrossed to notice. He was trying to locate a particular old tree in the compound and when he did, his usually composed face lit up. He obviously shared an emotional bond with it and appeared to whisper to it, as he caressed its trunk ever so lovingly. A man of few words, he said little, but later penned a very moving poem on this sentimental encounter.

The world of literature and culture revered him, for he was honoured with the highest awards €" the Sahitya Akademi Awards (twice), the Jnanpith, the Rabindra-Puraskar, Visvabharati's famed Desikottam, the Narsingh Das Puraskar and many others.

Shankha Ghosh's works have been translated into English, Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, Assamese and Malayalam. When it was decided to confer the Padma Bhushan on him in 2011, it suddenly dawned on the select few to first find out discreetly if he would accept it, as his aversion towards state power was well known. We were to persuade him, if necessary, and all of us breathed a sigh of relief when he concurred after a long, eerie pause. A true intellectual and a passionate democrat, he shunned governments of all shades throughout his life, but they could hardly ignore him.

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