The Bengali voice of Paris

After Tagore, Lokenath Bhattacharya is the most translated Bengali writer into French. Henri Michaux had ensured a first publication in 1976 and 15 titles have followed since. All anthologies of poems in prose of singular writing that allies simplicity and amplitude, light and dream as if, in a single movement, this voice was revealing, infinite echoes of beings and things, as well as the author's scruples in breaking the silence in the name of his very problematic presence in the world.

On the back cover of Lokenath

Bhattacharya's Le danseur de cour published by Gallimard.

THIS is very true. With over 20 titles in French - to date some of which have not even been published in his native Bengali, Lokenath Bhattacharya represents India and contemporary Indian literature in the French speaking world with great distinction. Acclaimed by the public, decorated by the French Government, invited the year round, Lokenath is a much respected Indian presence for his natural humility, the nature of his poetic prose, his excellent command over the French language and his constant dialogue with his readers.

Since his arrival in France almost a decade ago, his renown has not ceased to spread. In the course of last year, he was on the move almost twice a month, not merely all over France but in different European countries as well, for poetry readings, round tables, literary seminars, radio talks, writers' meets and book releases. Accounts of his talks, his interviews or write-ups on his work can be found on the Net, at sites of regional cultural centres and libraries and even the ones put up by provincial book shops.

His poetry and fiction have been published by a host of publishers ranging from small specialised poetry publishers to major international publishing houses such as Gallimard and Christian Bourgois.

Lokenath has also entered an exclusive band of writers whose books are brought out in small, numbered, specially crafted editions. As an example, a large 8" x 11" 16 pages, Indian silk covered portfolio, with original 1972 photographs of Henri Cartier Bresson and grey felt wrappers in a neat blue slip case, with a first edition of only 30 numbered copies has been brought out by his publisher. It obviously costs a bomb - several thousand francs - and is almost certainly already out of print.

But for all this, Lokenath still remains, according to him, largely unknown. "I am a complete misnomer. In my country nobody knows me. India is, of course, very big, but even in Bengal - as the language I write in is Bengali - I am hardly known. It does not bother me at all, it is a blessing in disguise because of the path I have chosen". But somewhere deep within, it bothers him profoundly. The long years of struggle and neglect have left their mark.

His prose is an extremely personal prose. His poems cannot really be called poems in prose as they exceed the duration normally associated with this genre. "I used to write like other poets in verse and rhyme and some influential people in Bengal liked me very much. And then one day, I do not know why I decided to write in prose. This was in the early 1950s. That turned a number of people against me such as Buddhadev Bose, who is no longer with us. He had a first rate poetry magazine and he had accepted me. But the day, I decided to switch over to prose exclusively, he was strongly against it.

"I think what happened to us in India, we acquired all kinds of notions about literature from the West, since we had been colonised. We were cut off from the mainstream. We tried to imitate English poetry, English romanticism. In India, people do not generally know that the Brhdaranyaka Upanishad, generally recognised as one of the more important Upanishads was written in prose and what prose !"

Born into a family of Sanskrit scholars, educated at Shanti Niketan and Calcutta University, Lokenath finished his studies at the Sorbonne. Amongst the first translations he did and for which he is remembered to this day, even 45 years later, is Rimbaud's Season in Hell. Descartes' Discourse on Method, Molihre's Tartuffe and Sartre's Words were to soon follow. In his early years, in Calcutta he wrote and published extensively.

"I continued to write and publish in little magazines, some of them very prestigious, for example Chaturanga, edited by Humayun Kabir. Discourse on Method was published in this. Form was very important and marked my writings in a characteristic manner. But as it was not a very popular form and as I was very marginal in the literary world in Bengal ... whatever I published did not go anywhere. It did not sell very much, it was hardly known".

Throughout the years that Lokenath worked at the Sahitya Akademi and the National Book Trust, he continued to write. Before he left India to settle in France in 1989, Lokenath had published an impressive number of books by any standard : almost 30 titles and approximately 40, if translations were included.

But, sadly, he virtually never received any royalty payments. He recounts the only two instances when he was paid. Once a sum of Rs. 50 by Arnold Heinemann for an English translation and in the second instance Rs. 1000 for a Hindi translation. But he never received a single paisa for all his work published in Bengali. Absolutely nothing ever. "It was as if the publishers were doing a favour by publishing my poetry. And the only other time, I have been paid for my work is in France".

France, was a different story altogether. Discovered and strongly supported by the Belgian-French poet painter, Henri Michaux, Lokenath's first book was published in 1976. And Michaux remained very attached throughout to his "Bengali cousin", so much so that he dedicated the last poem he ever wrote, Fille de la montagne, to Lokenath. For someone known never to dedicate anything to anyone, this was a rare and precious gesture.

Another Belgian, but this time a prominent painter, Pierre Alechinsky discovered Lokenath's prose and said to the publisher: "I don't know who Lokenath Bhattacharya is but, after reading his texts, I have visualised him and have done his portrait". This was subsequently included by the French publishers as a frontispiece to one of Lokenath's collections.

"I have very good friends here, friends that I do not have even in my own country. My country has given me everything, I cannott ask for anything, my language, my dreams, my images, my mythology, my reflexes, my subconscious, everything is India. Here I am a foreigner". At the same time what this foreign country has certainly given him is recognition, immense respect and a large readership.


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