Bangalore based poet and writer Maitreyee B Chowdhury talks about The Beats & The Hungryalists, India and music

"Throughout the world, poetry and music have been forerunners in challenging the mindsets of people. Irrespective of the genre and language both music and poetry have constantly motivated people into thinking differently, into rising in revolt against mediocre or oppressive thought processes."

Maitreyee B Chowdhury: Bangalore Blues

Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a Bangalore based poet and writer. She has three books to her credit- ‘Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen: Bengali Cinema’s First Couple’ and ‘Where Even the Present is Ancient: Benaras’. In the year 2013, ‘Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen: Bengali Cinema’s First Couple’ was nominated for the Crossword Book Awards, 2013 (Non Fiction category). Maitreyee is organiser of Bengaluru Poetry Festival, and poetry and fiction editor of The Bangalore Review, a literary journal. Maitreyee’s writings can be found in journals both national and international. She lives in a house with a family of dogs and poetry.

Her third new book titled, The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution (Jan 2019). What happens to a highbrow literary culture when its fault lines-along caste, class and gender-are brutally exposed? What happens to the young iconoclasts who dare to speak and write about these issues openly? Is there such a thing as a happy ending for revolutionaries? Or are they doomed to be forever relegated to the footnotes of history?

This is the never-before-told true story of the Hungry Generation (or 'the Hungryalists')-a group of barnstorming, anti-establishment poets, writers and artists in Bengal in the 1960s. Braving social boycott, ridicule and arrests, the Hungryalists changed the literary landscape of Bengal (and many South Asian countries) forever. Along the way, they also influenced iconic poets, such as Allen Ginsberg, who struck up a lifelong friendship with the Hungryalists.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the literature influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Being a writer entails that you become part of your work in an indescribable way. At what exact point your life becomes entangled in literature is difficult to explain. The way I look at it, literature influences not only what you end up writing but how you lead your life and the choices you make. Literature teaches you compassion, to be more sensitive and perhaps to develop a patient ear- all of which become a part of your living. You end up feeling grateful for being a part of this tremendousness but also marvel at the fact that there’s scope for understanding about much of life that is lived in the microcosm. Having said that this journey can be a lonely one and often you end up being misunderstood. The trick is to tell yourself that there are others who might feel the same and in the end it’s all worth it.

What were the reasons that you started the Hungryalist Movement research? What's the legacy of?

My story of researching on the Hungryalists began by a reading of the Beats and their journey to India. The story about how Allen Ginsberg’s journey to India had unfolded, had been written. His interactions with poets and writers from India been documented. Strangely enough, the world knew little about the Indian side of the story. What was the Indian reaction to Ginsberg and to the Beats, what were the consequences of the leaders of two parallel poetry movements coming together, why were the Hungryalists not as talked about- I tried finding answers to these questions, which eventually led to the book The Hungryalists. But the book isn’t only an account of the Hungry Generation; it takes a look at the Sixties as an age for counterculture both in India and abroad. It also talks about Indian spirituality, about the Bauls, about the worship of the feminine in rural Bengal in contrast to the Western fixation of worshipping a single male God. It is the story of Central Asia and the literature that had begun emerging from this part of the world. It is also the story of the consequences of the 1962 war on the literary mindset in Calcutta and the political ramifications in India and China.

How would you characterize the philosophy of your poetry? Where does your creative drive come from?

I grew up in the lap of the blue mountains- the Patkai ranges in the hills of North East India; as a result my philosophy rests in nature and stems from it. I’m grateful for my travels throughout the world though, which gives dimensions to my writing. Detailed story telling fascinates me, writing that can make me smell the flower I’m reading about is where I tend to go. I feel it is the right time to tell the stories from this part of the world, people throughout the world are aware of the intricacies that govern this part of the world; there is renewed interest in its varied complexities. Much work remains to be done in many such dimensions and I’m excited that I can be a part of it.

What has been the relationship: music and poetry in your life and writing? How does affect your inspiration?

Music and poetry play huge roles in my life. I’ve been told poetry creeps into my prose too, and while that might be both good and bad- it’s more of a statement of the fact that you could be anything you choose to but poetry refuses to let go of you, especially if you’re embedded in it. I grew up with Indian classical music, learnt parts of it and continue dabbling in it. But Blues and folk music are an intricate part of me too.

The story of music and its history inevitably convinces you that human emotions and desires are the same throughout the world. I started listening to the Blues much later in life but what struck me immediately was the similarity it had with Indian folk. These are the same musical stories of labour, angst, joy of work well done and the simple pleasures of life. The African-American narrative especially is stunningly similar in so many ways with the music I heard in the tea plantations or the music scene in Nagaland or Meghalay, the experimentation with the strings and the poetry in that music, is infused in the same spirit.

"The Beat generation was to my mind above everything else-a journey into the self, liberation of sorts from the closeted pre-conceived notions that governed literature, its presentation, language and its use and the ability of an individual to use his/her mind to perceive the world at large."

What do you miss most nowadays from the poetry of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Poetry is mostly a reflection of one’s state of mind and the fact that we are no longer simple creatures is reflected in our writing and understanding of poetry too I suppose. I admire contemporary poetry as much as I enjoyed what I had read in my school days. We change as people, all of us, and it’s rather simplistic to assume that we would be able to write or perhaps enjoy the same kind of poetry we used to while we were kids. But yes, the simplicity of the narrative is something I miss, though I’m not sure I’m capable of it myself anymore.

There’s such fantastic writing and experimentation happening in all genres, one can only be wide eyed.

What do you think was the relationship of the spirituality and literature of India to the Beat Generation?

The Sixties were tumultuous times throughout the world and the fact that the Beats were affected by it showed in their poetry. That Ginsberg was affected by his Blake vision was only one of the manifestations of his disturbed state of mind, their poetry had begun to reflect it and by the time Allen and Peter arrived in India looking as if for an instant fix- one could tell, there was more to it than a veiled understanding of Indian spirituality. It is of course evident that Allen was on the lookout for a spiritual Guru. Only much later did it dawn on him, that the search for a Guru and finding one, is as layered a process as understanding India and its spirituality. His travels in Benaras, smoking Ganja at the burning ghats, following the Bauls in the Bengal heartland and questioning the Dalai Lama about his hallucinations were all directed at the same quest. Fellow Beat poets Joanne Kyger and Gary Snyder who were in Japan discovering their own spirituality in Zen Buddhism had similar journeys of self exploration. In the end it was not about how much they had gleaned from these journeys, but the fact that they were part of it made all the difference in their understanding of themselves and to a certain extent achieving the peace that they were looking at finding.

How does the underlying philosophy of Beat Generation impact you? What touched (emotionally) you?

The Beat generation was to my mind above everything else-a journey into the self, liberation of sorts from the closeted pre-conceived notions that governed literature, its presentation, language and its use and the ability of an individual to use his/her mind to perceive the world at large. All of this appealed to me. The beauty of the Beats lies in the fact that they speak for free spirits of every generation. There’s much to learn from Allen’s vision of bringing together so many writers and poets, his generosity and the group’s ability to find a new middle every once in a while- be inspired by, and never become restricted to a single notion of right and wrong.

What is the impact of poetry and music to the racial, feminist, political, and socio-cultural implications?

Throughout the world, poetry and music have been forerunners in challenging the mindsets of people. Irrespective of the genre and language both music and poetry have constantly motivated people into thinking differently, into rising in revolt against mediocre or oppressive thought processes. Whether it is the songs, poetry and revolt of Dylan in the West or Kazi Nazrul Islam in the East, what remains common is that when it comes to changing the mindsets of people with regards to important issues, the role of music and poetry is unparalleled.

What does to be a female poet today's and what was the status of women in "the Hungryalists" era?

I don't usually distinguish between male and female poets. The gender of a poet is mostly incidental I believe. But having said that, I also think it is an important time especially for women poets to make their opinions heard especially with regard to matters concerning women. There are certain problem areas that are better understood perhaps by women, that's where the role of women poets could be significantly highlighted.

The role of women (or the lack of it) in the era of the Hungryalists as well as that of the Beats has been questioned time and again by not only feminists, but also by others. My reading and many discussions with the Hungryalists themselves have revealed that they weren't looking at a gender specific movement and as such the inclusion (or not) of women writers is only incidental. Malay Roy Choudhury tells me that there were very few women poets at that time who held individualistic opinions, moreover the fact that the Hungryalists were ill reputed added to the hesitancy of women who wanted to be seen with them. With the exception of Alo Mitra who was a fire brand herself, most women preferred keeping to themselves. My conversations with Deborah Baker recently reveal that she had almost similar opinion of the Beats. They were so busy writing and communicating between themselves that they couldn't really be bothered to look into the fact that there were hardly any women Beat writers. In fact Joanne Kyger's diary reveals her frustrations at being ignored by the so called 'boys club' between Allen, Peter and Gary while they were travelling together.

"Music and poetry play huge roles in my life. I’ve been told poetry creeps into my prose too, and while that might be both good and bad- it’s more of a statement of the fact that you could be anything you choose to but poetry refuses to let go of you, especially if you’re embedded in it." (Photo: Malay Roychoudhury & Maitreyee B. Chowdhury)

Do you consider the Hungryalists a specific literary and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

I think they are a bit of both. More than the Beats in fact, the Hungryalists were a product of their circumstances. Their work was a reflection of several questions that needed to be tackled simultaneously. More often than not, it was their state of mind which led to their artistic outpourings, which in turn led to the movement itself.

Where would you really want to go with a time machine? What memorabilia (books, records) would you put in?

Since two of my books are set in the Sixties, I guess it might be a wild idea to re-visit the Sixties!

I’d take with me the music of ‘What a Beautiful World’ by Donald Fagen and lines from a poem by poet Subhash Mukhopadhay-(It is revolt as its incisive best, about how the roots of a tree dips into the concrete and laughs at society)

 

ফুল ফুটুক না ফুটুক

আজ বসন্ত

শান বাধানো ফুটপাথে

পাথরে পা ডুবিয়ে এক কাঠ-খোট্টা গাছ

কচি কচি পাতায় পাঁজর ফাটিয়ে হাসছে

 

(Translation)

Whether the flowers bloom or not its spring today

Standing on the concrete pavement

dipping his toes gently into the rock

a Curmudgeonly tree

decked out in new leaves

laughs his heart out.

Maitreyee Chowdhury - Home

Photo: The Hungryalists - The book The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution (Jan 2019) isn’t only an account of the Hungry Generation; it takes a look at the Sixties as an age for counterculture both in India and abroad. It also talks about Indian spirituality, about the Bauls, about the worship of the feminine in rural Bengal in contrast to the Western fixation of worshipping a single male God. It is the story of Central Asia and the literature that had begun emerging from this part of the world. It is also the story of the consequences of the 1962 war on the literary mindset in Calcutta and the political ramifications in India and China.

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