A doyen of Bengali literature, Sunil Gangopadhyay called poetry his first love, but successfully delved into all literary genres with his versatility and varied experiences of life, leaving generations of readers in India and Bangladesh mesmerised over decades with his creativity and writing style.
Often a bohemian in lifestyle, Gangopadhyay was one of the most popular poets in post-Rabindranath Tagore Bengal, with his Nira series of poems having retained their popularity, particularly among the youth, through the years.
A prolific writer, Gangopadhyay authored more than 200 books over six decades, with his magnificent range of creations touching upon diverse segments like novels, children’s fiction, poetry, literary criticism, travelogue and essays.
Gangopadhyay was born in Faridpur, now in Bangladesh, in 1934, and his family shifted before the partition to Kolkata - a city that saw the flowering of his talent shaped by a passion for reading and endless informal chat sessions with literary and other cultural geniuses and even the ordinary people from all walks of life.
However, it was Gangopadhyay’s father – a teacher – who played a catalytic role in bringing out his poetic talent.
‘After my school final examination, my father – to keep me engaged – asked me to translate Tennyson. After translating some of the poems, I thought why don’t I try out my hand in writing some poems of my own? I liked what I wrote.’ His first poem Ekti Chithi [A letter] was published in 1950.
In the 1950s, Gangopadhyay and some of his friends brought out a seminal poetry magazine Krittibas, which published poems of only young writers and became a platform for young talents experimenting with various forms. Gangopadhyay was the founder editor.
His first novel, Atmaprakash [Emergence], published in 1965 in the prestigious magazine Desh, was critically acclaimed though it triggered a controversy, with some calling it ‘obscene’.
Among his well-known poems are Kavita Sangraha, Shada Pristha Tomar Sangay and Amar Swapna.
In 1985, Gangopadhyay got the Sahitya Akademi award for his historical fiction Sei Somoy [Those Days].
Among his other works are Pratham Alo [First Light], and Purbo-Paschim, a novel on the partition and its effect depicted through the eyes of three generations of Bengalis in West Bengal, Bangladesh and elsewhere.
Besides the Sahitya Akademi award, Gangopadhyay got Ananda Purashkar, the Bankim Puraskar and Hindu Literary Prize.
His thrillers of the Kakababu series were very popular among children and teenagers.
Known for his liberal, secular and open-minded views, Gangopadhyay always spoke out against religious bigotry, and his pen was sharp in condemning the 1992 communal riots.
Through his career, he used several pen names including Nil Lohit, Sanatan Pathak and Nil Upadhyay, each dwelling on a particular form and style of writing.
Several of his novels were made into films by acclaimed directors. While Satyajit Ray did Pratidwandi and Aranyer Dinratri, Tapan Sinha made Sobuj Dwiper Raja, and Goutam Ghose directed the much-awarded Moner Manush based on the life of Baul singer Lalan Fakir.
Gangopadhyay got a chance to put his vast knowledge of literature, particularly Indian literature, to good use when he took over as Sahitya Akademi president in 2008.
Under him, the Akademi launched a large number of projects to popularise Indian literature across the world, translate works from one Indian language to another, and increase interaction between writers in various Indian languages.