Subho Maitro pays tribute to Sandip Dutta – the custodian of a huge invaluable literary treasure called Little Magazines in West Bengal.
Traversing from College street, the hub of Bengali bibliophiles, towards Sealdah railway station, the busiest one used by millions of working people to throng the city for their livelihood, if one takes a detour to the narrow left alley meandering and giving a feel of bygone century named Tamer lane, may suddenly find himself or herself in front of an old house, the house of Duttas who are residing there for generations. On its ground floor hangs a board – Little Magazine Library. Behind this humble and inconspicuous looking façade and signboard, like a sphinx used to sit Sandip Dutta, surrounded by thousands of bengali literary magazines. He was the custodian of a huge invaluable literary treasure called Little Magazines in West Bengal. We would see no more of him, for he passed away on 15 March in a government hospital.
For the uninitiated readers I must say a few words about the Little Magazine, which by now has become an integral part of Bengali intelligentsia and its culture. The Little Magazine movement in Bengal started in the beginning of the last Century and flourished to its boom period in the sixties and seventies. Little Magazine by definition is a small-press, avante-garde magazine production, meant not for mass-market consumption, rather its goal is to subvert the market oriented literature production and its profit based system. Little Magazines became part of the anti-establishment movement of the by-gone century not only in Bengal but also in other parts of the country, and we must in this regard mention the Marathi Little Magazine movement which was the womb of the Dalit literature. In West Bengal too, Little Magazines were a medium of progressive Left-literature movement, along with the apolitical art for art’s sake avant-gardism, bohemian individualism, esotericism etc. In a broader sense it can be said whatever was the political ideal and motives, there was one common trait, not to affirm the hegemony of bourgeois mass market literature and to resist it.
Sandip Dutta was the sole custodian and archivist of this rolling, rambling, vastly digressive, often ephemeral thing for nearly half a century in West Bengal. He was like a keen, devoted, zany entomologist who knew every species from a part of a torn wing and collected, tabulated, preserved each one with diligence and care. He started collecting Little magazines from his early youth and after a while in 1978 opened a library of them in a small room of his ancestral house in Tamer Lane, of north Kolkata. Over the decades his singular effort became the biggest resource and research center of the Little Magazine movement of Bengal. Currently the library stocks over 80000 Little Magazines.
What he achieved is one of the most important and significant in the history of modern Bengali literature. The best of the Bengali literature produced in the last hundred years can safely be said to be the outcome of Little Magazines. From Jibananda Das to Nabarun Bhattacharya, any writer of significance in Bengal throughout this period published their work in Little Magazines. Take any writer and search any of his work, chance is that one will find it was first published in a Little Magazine. Unfortunately though, as much effort was given by so many over such a long period of time in publishing Little Magazines, the effort of preserving and archiving them was never done. Even in College street which is eponymous to book and magazine publishing in Bengal, one will find a lack of enthusiasm for documenting and preserving its history. The lacunae can be seen in the academic institutions too, and more so by institutes of establishment which will naturally not be keen to preserve the history of dissidents against itself.
Amidst this climate of general amnesia and carelessness, a person’s lone effort seems more astounding and no praise is enough for his effort. Single handedly he has created a library which can be the envy of any library of esteem in any part of the world. Sandip Dutta, the archivist is no less than say the Lomaxes of the USA who collected folk music and preserved them, or the encyclopedists of eighteenth century France. And his effort given the current right-wing attempt at rewriting past history, culture and narratives seems a more important and significant task.
Little magazine by its nature is a thing not easy to collect and preserve. Firstly, they are published, distributed and sold not from the center but outside of the whole organized publishing industry. There are a few famous ones, well documented, but most of them are published outside the metropolis or from its underbelly, on cheap paper with redundant printing technology, which makes them prone to decay faster. The idea of these magazines often are antithesis to shelf value, the motto or the mantra or the slogan is to say – we care for Now, class-ism of well-bound luxury objects is what we want to fight against. Once a poet of a Little Magazine Subhabrata Chakraborty (now deceased) said to me – the beauty of the little magazine is in its ephemeral nature. Why had we written in little magazines if we had hunger for posterity, we could then write in mainstream commercial magazines? So this is a paradox and one can say it is a quixotic task to preserve this history of ephemerality. But there was someone who diligently and meticulously kept collecting and preserving them, saved them from getting lost forever, so that we and the future generations will get a glimpse of this literary treasure.
A lively and vibrant ongoing movement is a thing of the present time but it is also a lighthouse for the future, but our tragedy is that we dwell more on this ‘now’ and often forget the importance of the future. The people of this sub-continent, emerging up from the yoke of colonial subjugation of centuries, are still unable to comprehend the importance of preserving the elements of its history and traditions. It will be foolish to assume that the institutes run by the government will have the urge in preserving things which are antagonistic to the prevalent ideas of state or society and question them. The thin veneer of that kind of liberal democratic culture we had after independence has eroded rapidly and the majoritarian and intolerant nature of the state and its institutions are starkly visible today. Most of the intelligentsia, including writers and poets, have accepted self-censorship and become part of the dominant political or cultural establishments. It will be futile to accept that they will come forward in this task. In this environment what is the alternative?
Yes, there are historical reasons behind not having sustainable alternative structure for this kind of work. We have seen archives, research centers, libraries founded by individual effort in Bengal by the benevolent landed gentry and merchants. The nationalistic zeal gave impetus to these and fighting colonialism was one big driving force which drove many individuals to contribute to efforts aimed at archiving nationalist history. After independence the Nehruvian dream of a democratic welfare state became a natural refuse for these kinds of endeavors and the government either took them under its wings or aided them. Thus there never grew a culture of independent (non-state) people’s collectives keeping the documents and history of any movement alive and well preserved. Even the Left movements which went through many stormy phases, ups and downs, splits into many streams, failed miserably to cultivate this culture and even preserve their own history. When the Left (CPIM led Left Front) came to power in West Bengal, they followed the same system of bringing all initiatives under governmental patronage or party control. The non-CPIM Left didn’t care, they perhaps didn’t believe in the usefulness of collective efforts to create a school or resource center for cultivation of literary knowledge and theories. Thus when a hostile, autocratic, rightwing reactionary force was ascendency in the country, when they have penetrated and captured every institute, all the left, democratic, secular forces have become clueless and are helplessly watching the vandalism of culture, knowledge and traditions.
Individuals like Sandip Dutta’s effort should be given more importance in this situation. He was one real anti-establishment warrior who showed indifference to state, governmental or party help or aid. He knew that with that comes an unwritten bondage, censorship of various kinds. He walked alone in his mission. His Little Magazine library is open to everyone, one doesn’t need any degree or certificate or any special recommendation from universities or institutions. So why not his work should be taken as a model for alternative approach and be carried on by collective effort. If it works as a resource center it can really provide backbone to the alternative voices and be a real people’s asset to people’s cultural resistance.
In this post-truth world where information and its dissemination are the biggest weapons for mass subjugation, resistance to that can only be done by serious cultivation and propagation of knowledge and culture. To keep cultural diversity and plurality alive one has to fight not only economically or socially but by resisting the cultural onslaught. And here comes the importance of people like Sandip Dutta who worked lifelong with the zeal of a true encyclopedic.
Sandip Dutta is no more. Bengali Literature can never forget his contribution and his personal zeal will be remembered by many like us. But the question is, is one Sandip Dutta enough for us? In other words, can we afford the luxury to wait for an individual like him to take up the mantle? Or is it now the time to create a practice of collectivization, and through it preserve the plural, diverse, avante-garde, secular literature and culture, which in itself will be a huge work of resistance?
(Subho Maitro is an independent journalist and author)