Jharkhand's Palamu An Arcadia For Poets

The landscapes of Jharkhand served as a muse for Bengali poets during the mid-20th century. The region's serenity and natural beauty ignited their creativity, resulting in the creation of some exceptional literary pieces
Palamu boasts rich biodiversity and dense foliage
Palamu boasts rich biodiversity and dense foliage

Shakti had a habit of taking off without warning, but this time he was gone for months. Rumors about his whereabouts began to circulate at Coffee House, a popular spot for artists and poets near Calcutta University. Some said he was visiting a friend in Jharkhand, while others feared he had been imprisoned. Concerned for their friend, novelists Sunil Gangopadhyay and Sandipan Chattopadhyay decided to embark on a rescue mission, despite not knowing how to get to Chaibasa. They brought cigarettes, biscuits, and tinned cheese for Shakti, assuming the jail food would be terrible. Upon arriving at their destination, they walked to a small rivulet near Chaibasa to get their bearings and started singing songs by Rabindranath Tagore. Their duet was interrupted by a bearded man who emerged from a nearby house and demanded to know who was singing Tagore songs besides him&ndashit was Shakti.

&ldquoChaibasa was a picnic spot for the poets of the Krittibas group,&rdquo Bengali poet Pradip Choudhuri told me when I interviewed him in 2016. &ldquoSamir was a great host, and all his friends who were poets and writers stayed with him for weeks.&rdquo Sunil also acknowledges the hospitality of Samir and his wife, Bela, in his autobiography. He recollects visiting the Roychowdhurys at several places in Jharkhand&mdashDaltonganj (Medininagar), Dhalbhumgarh&mdashwhere Samir would be posted as a government employee in undivided Bihar. He also recollects their adventures like drinking mahua, a local brew derived from the eponymous tree.

&ldquoThese places had a significant influencon Shakti&rsquos poetry,&rdquo writes Sunil. &ldquoThey also influenced Sandipan&rsquos work. But these experiences did not leave much of an impression on me. Rather, I could not use them much in my writing.&rdquo This self-appraisal might be accurate for Sunil&rsquos poetry, but it was, in fact, his experience of a spontaneous trip to Dhalbhumgarh along with friends that served as the material for his novel &ldquoAranyer Din Ratri&rdquo (Days and Nights in the Forest). First published in 1968, it was adapted into a film with the same title by Satyajit Ray in 1970. This film was a departure for Ray, from adapting works of more classical writers such as Tagore, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, or Rajshekhar Basu to younger novelists such as Sunil or Shankar. It was probably inspired by the socio-political upheaval in Calcutta, like the far-left Naxalbari movement. But what prompted Sunil, Shakti, and their friends, who grew up and worked in Calcutta, and were embedded in the city&rsquos literary landscape, to seek inspiration in the hills and forests of Jharkhand

City Poets

Sunil, Shakti, Sandipan, and Samir were the first generation of post-Independence Bengali poets, as much a product of the hopes of a newly minted post-colony as the violence of Partition&rsquos cartographic cosmetic surgery. They would be eventually known as the Krittibas group, thanks to the eponymous literary magazine named after the 15th-century Bengali poet.

The others in the group were Ananda Bagchi, Dipak Majumdar, Sarat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, Shanka Ghosh&mdashexclusively male, till Nabaneeta Dev Sen joined them, occasionally, much later. Coffee House, which was a hangout for writers, artists, actors, film and theatre people, also served as the temporary office of Krittibas. &ldquoIn this initial phase, most of the editorial work of the magazine was done by Sunil,&rdquo writes Bhaswati Bhattacharya in her book &ldquoMuch Ado Over Coffee.&rdquo &ldquoOne table at the Coffee House served as the office of the magazine.&rdquo

Bhattacharya&rsquos book, an analytical history of coffee drinking in India, centred around the Indian Coffee House chain in cities like Calcutta, Allahabad, and New Delhi, also claims that such places catalysed the development of a literary bourgeoise like the coffee houses in 18th-century Vienna, or 19th-century London. Sarat Kumar Mukhopadhyay describes the first edition in his essay &ldquoKrittibas-er Ramayan (Krittibas&rsquos Ramayana)&rdquo &ldquoThe firstnedition was published with great care. Thick art paper, 44 pages printed beautifully, proper borders&mdashit would be difficult to guess from these that the people included in these pages, and their friends, were capable of anything explosive later on.&rdquo

Besides hanging out at the Coffee House, their other activities included getting drunk at country liquor outlets like Khalasitola and Chhota Bristol in central Calcutta, visiting the red light district in Sonagachi, or roaming the empty streets at night. The urbanity of these poets is perhaps best expressed in Sarat Kumar&rsquos short poem, &ldquoMatta Obsothay Rochito (Drunken Poem).&rdquo

After midnight, four young men through a crematorium-empty Calcutta

Ride from Chowringhee, Bhawanipur to Shyambazaar 

Only the insomniac hear their horses&rsquo hooves, whistles of their whips

Mongrels are startled by the sparks they make on deserted tramlines

A handful of red-capped police heads are scattered all over

They are startled on hearing the horses

As the sound fades, they bend their heads to

collect scattered coins

None of you have seen this scene, only the

sex workers have seen it at midnight 

Going West

But the city was not the only source of inspiration for the Bengali poets of the 1950s. The forest beckoned them. The happy coincidence of Samir working at different places in the Chhotanagpur Plateau region

acted as a catalyst. The Chhotanagpur Plateau covers an area of about 65,000 sq. kms in Jharkhand, and its neighbouring states such as West Bengal, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha. When the East India Company obtained the right to collect taxes from Bengal in 1764, &ldquothe Grand Trunk Road which ran east-west along the Chhotanagpur Plateau was dilapidated and without bridges,&rdquo writes poet Mihir Vatsa in his book Tales of Hazaribagh, which was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in 2022.

&ldquoThis road was notorious for theft and dacoities... Quietly aptly, the region was dubbed the &lsquoJunglebury district&rsquo by the British. It was a mysterious province of many myths... home to sneaky tigers, exotic rituals, and primitive tribes. Here, the tigers were more cunning.&rdquo

Over the 19th century, the region attracted both colonial officers and Bengali babus, who wanted to escape the heat and dust of the Gangetic plains, and enjoy the salubrious climate of the hills and forests of the Chhotanagpur region. Small towns such as Ranchi, Hazaribagh, and Netarhat were called &ldquohill stations&rdquo, though they were at a much lower altitude than the hill stations up north. In the film Aranyer Din Ratri, as the four young men from Calcutta travel to Palamu in a car, one of them, Sanjay, reads from a memoir of Sanjib Chandra Chattopadhyay &ldquoAccustomed to flat landscapes, Bengalis marvel at the sight of the smallest heap of earth. Naturally, I was dazzled by the hilly landscapes of Palamu.&rdquo Sanjib Chandra was the elder brother of Bankim Chandra, the author of Vande Mataram, and one of the key figures of 19th-century Bengali literature. His book, Palamu, &ldquowas one of the earliest in a long line of texts containing accounts of the Bengali bhadralok&rsquos journeys to Paschim,&rdquo writes Ahana Maitra in her paper &ldquoOld Landscapes, New Babus.&rdquo

Paschim&mdashliterally meaning &ldquothe west&rdquo&mdashreferred to regions west of the Bengal Presidency, now in Bihar and Jharkhand. The Krittibas group&rsquos travels to the region in the 1950s and 1960s were within the well-rehearsed literary and cultural framework of the metropolitan centre of Calcutta and its &ldquoother&rdquo&mdashthe hills and forests of Jharkhand.

A Pastoral Space 

The film explores this dichotomy quite consciously, a theme that Ray would continue to explore in later works. In films such as Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956), Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959), or Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963), Calcutta is a source of inspiration and opportunity. However, the city turns increasingly belligerent and claustrophobic after Aranyer Din Ratri. The films of the Calcutta trilogy&mdashPratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970), Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1971), and Jana Aranya (The Middleman, 1976)&mdashdepict in some way the social upheaval in the city, especially the violent far-left Naxalbari movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Historian Rochona Majumdar in her book Art Cinema and India&rsquos Forgotten Futures writes that unlike Ray&rsquos earlier films, which depicted a transition from a feudal or colonial past to a modern present, the &ldquocity films... are bereft of this sense of historical movement along any clear-cut, prognosticable trajectory. Despite the tremendous contemporary upheaval that all three films register, the present they depict is not a time of transition.&rdquo

Even in his last film, Aguntuk (The Stranger, 1991), Ray explores this dichotomy through the character of a Calcutta-born anthropologist, played by Utpal Dutta, who spends decades in various First Nation communities across the Americas before returning home and rejecting urban civilisation altogether as barbaric and hypocritical. Film scholar Darius Cooper draws upon Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin and finds Ray employing carnivalesque techniques in Aranyer Din Ratri to find a resolution to the anxieties and tensions of its urban characters in the unfamiliar landscape of the forest. Their drunken merrymaking allows them to abandon the personas they assume in the city and connect to their atavistic desires.

For me, however, the film has always been a pastoral, as described by scholars such as Terry Gifford, who show that the urban characters might leave the city and relocate, albeit temporarily, to a rural/forest setting, but they are never able to abandon their personas and to which they eventually return. Some resolution of the urban tensions might be possible in the pastoralcsetting, but it is not essential.

Fact To Fiction

In his autobiography, Sunil writes about some of their strange experiences &ldquoOnce when we were in Daltonganj, we hear the news that hills were being auctioned nearby. I ran to watch the auction. People were buying denuded hills for two-three thousand rupees...Of my friends, I was the only one from a refugee family. We did not have even a patch of land anywhere.&rdquo Sunil felt tempted to buy one of the hills, but where would a young, impecunious poet get the money for it

&ldquoAfter that, for several days, I built a cottage on the peak of a small, lonely hill in my imagination and lived there,&rdquo he writes. His novel condenses many of these experiences. &ldquoFour of us &mdash Shakti Chattopadhyay, Sarat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, Bhaskar Dutta, and I&mdashset off for an unknown destination,&rdquo writes Sunil in his autobiography. &ldquoWe boarded a train without buying tickets and disembarked at Dhalbhumgarh on the advice of a co-passenger. At that time, Dhalbhumgarh was a solitary area, with a forest nearby, a village of Adivasis, and a government-sanctioned watering hole that sold only mahua.&rdquo

In the novel, too, four young men arrive at Dhalbhumgarh one morning, getting off a train and embarking on their adventures. In the film, Ray changed the setting to Palamu, about 370 km northwest. Using personal experiences for fiction was not a remarkable innovation, but Sunil learned the technique from American Beat novelist Jack Kerouac. The two met when Sunil was at the Iowa Writers&rsquo Residency in the early 1960s.

He remembers Kerouac telling him &ldquoI don&rsquot have to go looking around for plots. Before starting a novel, I try to recollect some of my experiences. What was I doing that month of that year When I remember I start writing from there. The writing progresses on its own from there.&rdquo Sunil&rsquos first novel, &ldquoAtmaprakash&rdquo (Self Expression, 1964), is written self-consciously in this technique. Even the name of the protagonist remains unchanged as Sunil. While he changes the names of the characters in &ldquoAranyer Din Ratri,&rdquo little else is altered.

The City Becomes A Hill 

Shakti Chattopadhyay also acknowledges the influence of Chaibasa in his poetry. &ldquoThe good time for writing in my life was in Chaibasa and other places around it,&rdquo he writes in an essay titled &ldquoJangale-Pahare

(Forests and Hills, 1985).&rdquo &ldquoSandipan showed me the way. Samir took the responsibility of feeding and housing me like a brother. I would write 15-20 poems in a day, exhausting myself completely. Most of these are lost. But that&rsquos no loss.&rdquo These experiences not only inspired several poems in his second published collection &ldquoDharmey Achi Giraffe-eo Achi&rdquo (I am in Religion, in Giraffe Too, 1965), but also his novels &ldquoKinnor Kinnori&rdquo (1976). In a later poem, &ldquoPaharia Kolkata&rdquo (Hilly Calcutta), included in his book &ldquoJetey Pari Kintu Keno Jaabo&rdquo (I Could Go, But Why Should I, 1982), he creates a synthesis between the urban landscape and the hilly one

The earth dug out for the underground

railway has made hills.

The Maidan has changed into the Santhal


On the hilltop are trees, pine forests. At the


Harvest festivals take place each year.

County liquor festivals

Each evening, the beats of the drums


The days and noons of Kolkata with hilly


The poem shows that the hills and forests need not necessarily be a counterpoint&mdashthe &ldquoother&rdquo&mdashto the city. A synthesis is possible.  

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