Millennium Post

A patriarch of literary canon

Sunil Gangopadhyaya was just not a talisman of the Bengali arts and letters. He was much more. He has straddled the difficult legacy of post-Tagore Bengali literature scene with total and unequivocal élan. He had been a poet, novelist, literary executor and editor and had long held the distinguished position as the benign patriarch of the literary canon, often in the role of a literary patron and loving guide to many an aspiring poet and novelist of a generation that succeeded him. Nationally he was known as a great littérateur and in the literary establishment as an active and actively non-partisan head of the Sahitya Academy. But that’s only part of his identity.  In the dog-eat-dog climate of Bengali letters, he was unvanquished and known as a man of great gift and philanthropy, often staying away from the easy political patronage and unquestioned political parroting that many of his generation and after have given in to, often seduced by easy access to political and literary riches.  

Gangopadhyaya is best known for his epics Shei Shomoi, Prothom Alo and Purbo Paschim, all three masterpieces of contemporary Bengali literature as well as powerful testimony to the difficult and chequered history of the Bengali-speaking people from the heyday of the Bengal renaissance to post-colonial conflicts of race and identity. But he was primarily a poet, a man of great poetic gift and execution, who along with Shakti Chattopadhyay, redefined Bengali poetic territory in the 50s and 60s with their zealous undoing of its Tagorean roots and the legacy of Jabananda Das. Their group, the Krittibas, was and since then has been a profoundly influential Modernist school of writing and still holds a most prominent place in the contemporary history of literary movements in India. It was unfortunate that his poetic self was largely dwarfed by his achievements in literary fiction, a fact that he was heard to have bemoaned  very often, but that was partly thanks to his gifts as a storyteller and chronicler of his times. His fictional alter ego, Nillohit, remains a cult figure in Indian fiction writing as does his adventurer-detective Kakababu which remains an eternal favourite with young adults.

Gangopadhyaya was also a zealous defender of the Bengali language’s substantial gifts and insisted on its institutional vigilance, lest a generation forgets its many riches. Lately, he also wrote a critical monthly column in a popular Bengali magazine which tore open through many of the avowed but flawed institutions that Bengalis have patronised for ages. His is a great loss indeed, perhaps not as much as for what he could have given, as he was past his prime many moons ago, but because he stood as a vanguard against populist and cheesy new writing.
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