Revisiting the Calcutta Writers Workshop

I remember finding volumes printed by the Calcutta Writers Workshop while browsing the library as a young graduate student, but at the time I didn't have much context or understanding of the history of the group or its philosophy. Indeed, at that time I found the books to be kind of shoddy -- the hand-printed aspect of the volumes made them seem archaic.

More recently, as I've been researching "modernism" in India and Pakistan, I've been learning more, and I now have a much greater appreciation of what P. Lal and company were trying to do. First, a little background: Calcutta Writers Workshop was founded in 1958 by a group of seven writers -- mainly as a venue to share poetry. By 1960, the group had begun publishing chapbooks of poetry and small books of criticism; they also started a journal called Miscellany. The group is still active as a publishing house, with recent volumes listed on its website here.

I would also recommend readers check out P. Lal's essay on the founding of the Writers Workshop here. And see the profile of P. Lal in The Hindu, from last year.

On the one hand, the non-commercial outlook of the journal and the publishing house in its first decade allowed it to consider publishing experimental poetry in English at a time when there were few other venues to do so within India. (The experimental movement in poetry and fiction was already well underway in Hindi and Urdu -- as we see in the Nayi Kavita and Nayi Kahani/Naya Afsana movements.) The writers of the Writers Workshop had a high degree of cosmopolitanism, and the imprimatur of the group seemed to have a catalytic effect for the generation of Indian writers that emerged in the 1960s and 70s, as one sees by the impressive list of some of the authors whose first books were published by the Workshop:

Writers Workshop India has published first books by many authors who went on to fame, including A. K. Ramanujan, Agha Shahid Ali, Adil Jussawalla , Arun Kolatkar, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Gieve Patel, Jayanta Mahapatra, Keki Daruwalla, Kamala Das, Meena Alexander, Nissim Ezekiel, Pritish Nandy, R. Parthasarathy, Ruskin Bond, Vikram Seth... (link)

(Interesting to note how many of those writers ended up living and writing abroad!) Despite the obvious positive that the Writers Workshop acted as a welcoming point of entry into publishing for so many young writers, the international focus and experimental outlook of the early Writers Workshop volumes did come at a price -- the writers were not engaged with or interested in some of the extraordinary writing being done in South Asian languages in the 1950s and 60s. This isolation from other writing within India is unfortunate, and leads to some awkward comments and symptomatic intellectual posturing at times.

One example of such awkward posturing can be seen in the second issue of Miscellany (1960), which prints statements from several writers involved in a Symposium, earnestly debating the question "Can there be such a thing as Indian poetry?" (most respondents said yes -- but even the posing of the question is rather telling). Another odd moment can be seen in a 1965 special issue of Miscellany dedicated to T.S. Eliot. There it's striking to note that the American and British writers contributing to the volume, many of them core members of the Writers Workshop group, were often quite critical of Eliot. By contrast, nearly all of the Indian writers and critics in the issue (notables include Mulk Raj Anand and Ahmed Ali) were emphatically appreciative of the Great Man.

* * *

I came across a recent essay by one of the founding members of the Calcutta Writers Workshop, Pradip Sen, in a volume edited by Nalini Iyer and Bonnie Zare, Other Tongues: Rethinking the Language Debate in India. (There are many great essays in this volume, including a really interesting essay by my friend Arnab Chakladar, about which I may have more to say in another post.)

Here is what Sen has to say about the founding of the Writers Workshop:

In the late 1950s, frustrated by a lack of publishing outlets and convinced that English was the language for our creative efforts, a few of us joined P. Lal, a young professor of English, to form the Writers Workshop, Calcutta, in 1958.

In the 1950s, this was regarded as an aberration, a passing phase, a colonial hang-up. In some quarters, creative writing in English bordered on a lack of patriotism. Lal and Raghavendra Rao had jointly edited an anthology of Indo-Anglian verse [Modern Indian Poetry, Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1959]. In my view, this constituted a watershed in the history of Indo-Anglian writing and created quite an impact. It led to the workshop's formulating its manifesto on the role of Indian writing in English and to a controversy with Buddhadeva Bose and Jyotirmay Datta, leading figures of the Bengali literary establishment. [...]

In the 1950s there were a few outlets for our creative effusions -- the Illustrated Weekly of Bombay being one of them. Its editor, C.R. Mandy, was supportive but whimsical. Quest was a magazine devoted to art and literature and Nissim Ezekiel was its editor for a time. Thought, a weekly edited by Ram Singh from Delhi, and East-West, edited by Srinivas Rayaprol from Hyderabad, were among a few others.

Lal changed all that. Starting with a few slender paperback volumes and a bimonthly journal, The Miscellany, the Writers Workshop now has almost four thousand titles to its credit; its beautiful sari-clad volumes and calligraphic titles are well-known and have created a niche for themselves. (Pradip Sen)

Unfortunately, elsewhere in the same essay Sen at times seems a little defensive about the English-only nature of the early Writers Workshop, alluding a fair bit to the antipathy between 'Bhasha' ("language") writers and writers who work in English. That said, he does mention the important fact that over the years the Writers Workshop has published quite a few translations (however, in its early years, many of these translations were of ancient Hindu devotional texts, not contemporary Indian literature).

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Another good place to look for material related to the Writers Workshop is Bruce King's book, Modern Indian Poetry in English (OUP Delhi, 1987). King offers a fairly exhaustive account of the different poets who were actively writing in English in the 1960s, including not just the Writers Workshop folks, but also other important figures, such as Dom Moraes, Kamala Das, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar, Pritish Nandy, and Nissim Ezekiel, to name just a few.

One interesting thread in King's account refers to a growing tension between the Calcutta Writers Workshop approach, under P. Lal, and English-language writers (many of them based in Bombay), associated with Nissim Ezekiel. To be reductive, one could say that the Nissim Ezekiel group is more progressive in general (and also more engaged with a broad array of contemporary literature in Indian languages), while P. Lal and the early Writers Workshop may be somewhat more conservative and T.S. Eliotish. Some of this emerges with reference to a rival journal that Ezekiel briefly edited, called Poetry India:

The six issues of Poetry India, edited by Ezekiel, were one of the high moments of modern Indian poetry [in English] and a link in the line of serious places of publication that started with Mandy's Illustrated Weekly. Besides Parthasarathy, [Gieve] Patel, Gauri Pant (b. 1920), Keki Daruwalla (b. 1937), H.O. Nazareth (b. 1944), K.D. Katrak, Kamala Das, Arvind Mehrotra, Saleem Peeradina (b. 1944) and Adil Jussawalla, Ezekiel published translations from Indian languages (by Kolatkar, Ramanujan, Vinay Jha, Patel, Chitre, Lal, Sujit and Meenakshi Mukherjee), along with reviews and articles on English and Indian-language poetry. [...] Also important were the affinities that were found between modern verse in the many Indian languages; the English-language poets seemed part of a spectrum of post-war modern Indian verse, rather than isolated and alien. [...]

Along with the growing number of little magazines in which Indian poets could publish during the late '60s, a new phenomenon was the appearance of critical monographs. Although the difference between the aims of Ezekiel and Lal had widened (Poetry India strongly criticized Lal's 1966 'Change!' They Said), the first monograph on Indian poetry [in English] was from the Writers Workshop on Ezekiel (1966).

I have not yet had a chance to track down the negative review of Lal's poetry in Poetry India, but when I do I'll try and post a bit more about it here -- I have a feeling it may be indicative of something important in terms of the differing understandings of 'modernism' in Indian English writing at the time.

A final note: another interesting thread in King's account of the English-language poetry scene in India in the 1960s is the growing influence of contemporary American writing, including the Beatniks. The latter were an influence on writers like Pritish Nandy, as well as Arvind Mehrotra. Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, of course, actually visited India and met with many of the key writers and critics I have been talking about. Here is King's brief account of that meeting:

In 1962 the American poets Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky visted India. After meeting Malay Roy Choudhury and the Bengali 'Hungryalist' poets in Calcutta, whom they publicized in American literary journals, Ginsberg and Orlovsky moved briefly to Bombay where they read their poetry on the terrace of Alkazi's flat; they accused the Bombay poets of still writing old-fashioned British verse and of not having found their own voice.

This is an interesting complaint. And while I do very much respect what writers like Ezekiel, Moraes, P. Lal and Pradip Sen were trying to do in their early English poetry, it's hard to deny that at least some of the work from this period is clearly derivative of British high modernist style -- stifled by Eliot, one could say.

Along those lines, here is part of a poem by Ezekiel called "A Morning Walk" that could be criticized for sounding imitative:

The more he stared the less he saw
Among the individual trees.
The middle of his journey nears.
Is he among the men of straw
Who think they go which way they please?
Returning to his dream, he knew
That everything would be the same.
Constricting as his formal dress.
The pain of his fragmented view
Too late and small his insights came,
And now his memories oppress,
His will is like the morning dew.
The garden on the hill is cool,
Its hedges cut to look like birds
Or mythic beasts are still asleep.
His past is like a muddy pool
From which he cannot hope for words.
The city wakes, where fame is cheap,
And he belongs, an active fool.

But on the flip side, here are a few lines from the conclusion to Ezekiel's confessional poem, "Background Casually," that I think are wonderful:

The Indian landscape sears my eyes.
I have become a part of it
To be observed by foreigners.
They say that I am singular,
Their letters overstate the case.
I have made my commitments now.
This is one: to stay where I am,
As others choose to give themselves
In some remote and backward place.
My backward place is where I am.