ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Poetry of the 1943 Bengal Famine: Catastrophe and Radical Poetics in Late-colonial India


Bhattacharya Sourit - University of Edinburgh, English Literature, Edinburgh, United Kingdom


26 – Radical Poetics in the Literary Cultures of South Asia


 The 1943 Bengal famine broke out at the turbulent conjuncture of the Second World War and Quit India agitations. Thanks to intrepid journalism and artwork, the famine’s ‘originary’ links with governmental neglect and native hoarding was significantly brought out (Ghosh 1944; ‘Maladministration in India’, 1955; Sen 1982). Soon, the famine became a crucial gateway for writers through which to understand the significant questions of the day: fascism, imperialism, colonialism, and anti-colonial liberation. While prose fiction was widely used, I will show in this paper that poetry was a key means through which many of these political ideas were espoused and encouraged. My reading will centre around the poetry of Sukanta Bhattacharya, Dinesh Das, and Premendra Mitra to argue that while many of these poets were already engaged in left-wing radical poetic movements including on the importance of art in emancipatory politics, the famine threw at them a tremendous challenge of poeticising on the palpable socio-biological realities of hunger and starvation. I will show how the unexpected devastation of the famine (its eventfulness) enforced a rethinking of the conventions of crisis-driven radical poetry, compelling poets to draw extensively from the current hunger conditions and imagine an intersecting style of writing. This intersecting style in poetry called upon by the famine, I will conclude, can be understood through the aesthetic of ‘catastrophic realism’.