In Labour Reconciled, an installation for an exhibition that ran earlier this year at Kolkata’s Experimenter Gallery, the artist Sanchayan Ghosh brought together different elements of labour practices around the intellectual project of envisioning a possible utopia.
At the centre of the room was a large mortar slab, the sort made by the roof makers of Birbhum district in West Bengal. It was surrounded by pictures of those roof makers, the first edition of a Bengali literary journal and two editions of the journal Labour Law. By putting on headphones that hung from a wall, one could hear the songs of the mostly Dalit women who used to practise this occupation—which disappeared during the 1980s—songs that have often entered poetic traditions largely curated by male poets. The mortar slab bore a looming tablet, as if out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, on which were displayed lines from “Jokhom”—Wound—a poem by Malay Roychoudhury:
Chadowaye agun lagiy
Tar neeche shuye aakasher udonto neel dekhchhi ekhon
Dukkho koshter shunani multobi rekhe
Ami amar shomosto shondehoke jera kore nichhi
Having set the canopy ablaze
I lie watching the blue sky fly away above me.
Having adjourned the hearing of my sorrow
I interrogate every doubt I have ever had.
This stark vision, of a possible future in perpetual retreat and its dependence on creative destruction by a beleaguered modern subject, is integral to understanding the angry millenarianism of the Hungry Generation, a literary movement that captured the cultural imagination of West Bengal in the early 1960s. Along with the poets Samir Roychoudhury, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Debi Roy, Malay Roychoudhury was a founder of the “Hungryalist” movement, which frequently found itself in opposition to literary and legal establishments of West Bengal, which in turn combined to denounce and persecute its members, eventually disbanding the group itself. Nevertheless, its influence was diffused into Bengali, as well as Hindi, literature. The Hungry Generation is frequently cited as an example of the impact an underground literary culture—largely confined to the dedicated readers of alternative “little magazines”—can have on an entire body of a vernacular literature.