Friday, 9 May 2008



By Tridib & Alo Mitra


The Books and web pages we have read so far on Allen Ginsberg, the American poet of Beat movement, have one thing in common. They do not bother to examine the impact India had on his inner self and identity, and the influence we Bengali poets, artists and thinkers of the Hungryalist movement had on Ginsberg’s post-India poetry and literary persona. This is despite the fact that Allen Ginsberg’s longest span outside USA was spent in Kolkata and Benaras where the Hungryalists resided during the sixties.

Allen Ginsberg was the poet, short-story writer and editor Samir Roychoudhury’s guest for about a week at his Chaibasa hilltop hutment during Hindu Rathayatra festival in 1962.

The hutment was right in the middle of a tribal village. Ginsberg had gone there with another Hungryalist poet Shakti Chattopadhyay. Shakti had stayed with Samir during the period 1958-1963.

In April 1963 Ginsberg visited younger brother of Samir, i.e. Malay Roychoudhury at their Patna residence..Ginsberg along with Peter Orlovsky resided in the same locality, i.e. Bangalitola , where Hungryalist painters Anil Karanjai and Karunanidhan Mukhopadhyay had their studio.

None of the Hungryalists knew about him prior to his arrival in India. We read his poems for the first time in 1963 when Lawrence Ferlinghetti sent us books of Beat poets.The

Hungryalist movement had been launched from Patna in November 1961 by Malay Roychoudhury, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Debi Roy and Samir Roychoudhury.

The word Hungryalism was coined by the Hungryalists from English poet Geofrey Chaucer’s line In the Sowre Hungry Tyme.The Hungryalists felt that the post-colonial dream of a new,ecstatic , resurgent India had turned sour due to license and permit raj of a corrupt bureaucracy-politician nexus and the country was hurtling towards a nightmare after partition of the Bengali time and space.

The philosophical base of the movement, in keeping with the Chaucerian idea of Hungry time, was drawn from Oswald Spengler’s sense of history. Spengler,more or less like Hindus, had seen history not as a linear progression, but as the flowering of a number of self-contained cultures, each with a characteristic spiritual tone, or conception of the space within which they are to act. Spengler had also argued that cultures go through a self-contained process of growing, going through their seasons, and perishing. There were no historically intelligible laws to this process.

The Hungryalists were impressed with the idea. Spenglerian argument that a culture is creative during its ascendancy, when it depends upon its own productive resources. Once the creativity reaches its zenith, the culture starts waning, and starts feeding on alien resources. As a result, the culture starts degenerating, and its hunger for outside supplements becomes insatiable. The Hungryalists felt that there was no further scope to produce cultural and intellectual giants like Rammohan Ray, Vidyasagar, Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore.


Like all American tourists, including Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky had landed at Bombay (now Mumbai) port in formal Western attire. They visited North and North-East Indian tourist spots and hill-stations with their coat, trousers, tie, shirt, shoes, socks on. Once they arrived at Calcutta (now Kolkata), their metamorphoses began, They threw away their Western dress and clothed themselves in home-attire of the Hungryalists of the time, viz., handloom kurta-pyjama and rubber chappal footwear, with a cotton sling bag hanging on the shoulder. They allowed their hair and beard to grow like some of the Hungryalists.

The reason why Ginsberg was attracted to this Bengali literary movement is because there had been continuous media coverage of activities of the writers, poets, and artists preceding his arrival in India. It is interesting to note that he did not make friends with poets and artists of Marathi, Hindi, English, Punjabi etc. languages though he visited those states also. When he arrived in Kolkata the movement had on its platform such literary names as Sandipan Chattopadhyay, Binoy Majumdar, Utpalkumar Basu, Basudeb Dasgupta, Pradip Choudhuri, Subimal Basak, Subo Acharya, Falguni Roy, Saileswar Ghosh, Sambhu Rakshit, Tapan Das, Ramananda Chattopadhyay, Subhash Ghosh, Satindra Bhoumik, Arupratan Basu, Haranath Ghose, Bhanu Chattopadhyay, Nihar Guha, Amritatanay Gupta, Shankar Sen, Ashok Chattopadhyay, Jogesh Panda, Manohar Das and many others.

Allen Ginsberg’s logo of three fishes with one common head displayed in all his post-India publications, albums, cassettes, exhibition cards etc, which appeared for the first time in his India journals published by City Lights, was a replica of the engraved drawing on the stone floor near the entrance to the tomb of Emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar. The meaning of this drawing was explained to Ginsberg by Malay Roychoudhury, when they visited Khudabaksh Library at Patna where the same drawing was found on the cover of a Persian book, which was the famous “Deen-E-Ilahi” written by the Emperor, a treatise in which the Emperor had aspired to combine the tenets of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. Christianity had not entered the kingdom till then.

Ginsberg had come to India for a makeover of the image for which Jack Keruak had warned him of a quick burn- up. He did not go to Nepal like other foreigners who used to halt for a couple of days at Malay’s Patna house. Instead of a makeover, India gave Ginsberg a genuine new image .Even Peter Orlovsky had a changeover through his torrid affair with the lady guitarist Manjula Sen. In fact when Ginsberg departed for the USA, Orlovsky had stayed back in the company of Hungryalist artists of Benaras.


Allen Ginsberg was in awe with the depth of tolerance and resiliency of Indian masses. For the common Indian man, as well as the Hungryalists who all came from Hindu family, such binary opposites as God and Devil, and therefore, pure good and pure evil, were non-existent. In the company of Shakti Chattopadhyay, Asoke Fikir and Karunanidhan Mukhopadhyay, Ginsberg met many religious persons such as Sri Sitaram Omkardas Thakur, Swami Sivananda, Meher Baba, Swami Satyananda, Sri Gopinath Kaviraj, Sri Kalipada Guharai, Sri Bankebihariji, Sri Shambhu Bhartiji and sundry godmen at the burning ghats. Being born in a Jew family, absence of the binary opposites was a riddle for him. A professor from Illinois who visited Ginsberg at his Kolkata hotel, remarked that Ginsberg was transformed into revolt of the shudras poet;that is exactly what the Hungryalist poets were called before Ginsberg’s arrival.

Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and “Kaddish” were products of a social consciousness squeezed out of clash of monotheistic binary opposites. After his life in India, and time spent with Hungryalists, he was unable to write poems in the same vein as that of “Howl” and “Kaddish”. This is evidenced from his failed attempts that we find on the pages 134, 135, 136, 176, and 177 (City Lights edition) of Indian Journals. His post-Indian poems have Indian breathing span and Hungryalist rhythm sequences.

Acceptance of Akbar’s three-bodied fish by Ginsberg as his logo reveals that he had spiritually disowned monotheistic American inheritance in 1963 itself though he converted to Buddhism in 1972. Malay Roychoudhury has written in April 2007 issue of “The Storm” that when Ginsberg visited his Patna house, he had shown Malay a brick-size stone from an ancient Buddhist temple on which small Buddhas were carved out. Ginsberg had washed it in soap water and cleaned the stone with his tooth brush. This real-life experience was enough to relieve him from his Blakian hallucinations, and extra-mundane claims of visionary supernatural senses and impalpability of consciousness. He went back a different man.


Allen Ginsberg did try to conceal, it appears, the Hungryalist literary inputs and change of spiritual persona by jamming his Indian Journals with photographs of naked Hindu saints, famishing fakirs, beggars, lepers and destitutes. Malay Roychoudhury’s photo shop owner father had rebuked Ginsberg when he found that all the shots of a film contained such snaps. Ginsberg’s subsequent activities reveal that the postcolonial Indian social turmoil of the sixties sharpened his post- McCarthyan American teeth.

Though TIME magazine in its issue of November 20, 1964 had written that it was Ginsberg who influenced the Hungryalists, the fact is other way round. Hungryalists had indelible impact on all dimensions of his identity. Simply look at him how he was when he came to India, and how he looked when he went back. One wonders why Ginsberg preserved manifestoes, bulletins, magazines etc of the Hungryalist movement at Colombia and Stanford University archives, and at the same time kept silent about them in his published journals!

Ginsberg carried a harmonium from Benaras when he returned to USA, and introduced the custom of extempore poetry composition, and singing, while playing on the harmonium. When he was in Benaras , Anil Karanjai and Karunanidhan Mukhopadhyay, the Hungryalist painters, and Hindi poet Nagarjuna (a Buddhist), had introduced him to this musical instrument, which is played on by devotees when they sing poems composed by Tulasidasa, Kabirdasa, Meera Bai, Tukaram, Krittibas, Ramprasad Sen and other saint poets. Ginsberg had found the same tradition at the Vaishnava, Shaivaite and Ramakrishna ashrama temples in Mayapur, Nabadwip, Puri, Chaibasa, Patna, Gaya, and Kolkata. According to Malay Roychoudhury, Ginsberg perfected playing on the instrument at the residence of Malay’s cousin sister Savitri Banerjee, where her daughters were playing on the harmonium and singing compositions of Bengali poets Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Atulprasad Sen and Dwijendralal Roy.

The Hungryalist influence in this regard had gone beyond Ginsberg in USA, inasmuch as several young American poets adopted this tradition after importing harmoniums from India. Moreover, during the sixties, translated Hungryalist writings appeared in magazines of United States, Europe, Australia and the Latin American countries, such as City Lights Journal, Salted Feathers, El Corno Emplumado, San Francisco Earthquake, Trace, Burning Water, Inetrgalactica, Imago, Klactoveedsedsteen, Ramparts, Whe’re, El Rehilite, Guerilla, Panorama, Kulchur, Trobar ,American Dialogue, Evergreen Review, Folder etc.


It would also be worthwhile to mention that Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Leroy Jones (Amiri Baraka), Margaret Randall, Carol Berge, Eric Motram, Howard McCord, Daisy Aldan, Allan de Loach, Robert Kelly, Dick Bakken, Gordon Lasslet, Allan Van Newkirk, Carl Weissner, Barney Rosset, George Dowden, Ida Spaulding, James Laughlin, Lita Hornick, Bonnie Crown, David Antin, Joel Oppenheimer, Dan Georgakas, Diane Di Prima, Octavio Paz, Ernesto Cardenal, George Bowering, Paul Blackburn, Allen Hoffman, Clayton Eshleyman, Carol Rubenstien, Armand, Schwerner, Ted Berrigan, Jerome Rothenberg, Roberto Juarroz and several other writers, poets, artists had creative contact with the Hungryalists. Some of them had visited India and participated in Hungryalist happenings. In New York, poets used to read from Hungryalist writings to raise funds to enable Hungryalist writers to defend themselves during their 35 month long tortuous trial at dinghy Bankshal Court. Washington State University had published Malay Roychoudhury’s controversial poem Stark Electric Jesus. Bowling Green University had a writers’ workshop on Hungryalist writings. Illinois University has a Hungryalist archive. Anil Karanjai had a painting exhibition in a gallery at Washington. In India Prof. Swati Banerjee has done her M. Phil.on a comparative study of Hungryalist and Beat Literature.

Ginsberg’s declaration that “if it isn’t composed on the tongue, it is an essay”, is an insight he received from the stories of oral poets of 19th century Kolkata (Bhola Moira, Anthony Firingi, Ram Basu, Jagneshwar Das,Gonjla Guin, Nityananda Boiragi, Nilmoni Thakur, Nrisingha Rai, Bhabani Banik, Krishnakanta Chamar, Raghunath Das, Haru Thakur, and many others, who incidentally were mostly “revolt of the shudras poets”). Ginsberg came to know about them from Asoke Fakir, whose Champahati hutment used to be frequented by Hungryalists for substance celebration.

Allen Ginsberg has described Asoke Fakir as “saffron robed long black hair Negro” in his Indian Journals. Asoke was rather good looking. Author Shyamal Gangopadhyay had written a novel based on the colourful life of Asoke Fakir. The first thing Asoke did to foreign writers was to give them a shock of their life by taking them to the Nimtalla Ghat, the Hindu funeral place where dead bodies are regularly burnt on pyre logs. This was an experience which Allen and Peter had never encountered before. Thereafter whichever city or pilgrimage centre Ginsberg visited, he invariably went to the Burning Ghat like a haunted man, even in such remote tribal places like Chaibasa.

Hindi poet Nagarjuna had told us that Allen used to spend brooding hours all alone at the famous Manikarnika Burning ghat almost everyday at Benaras, and that his tanned skin and long black hair gave him such an Indian identity that he freely entered all Hindu temples, which are otherwise barred for non-Hindus. Ginsberg was fascinated with the funeral pyre as the burning dead body was a constant reminder of inevitable mortality, a reminder that the living flesh is tender and vulnerable. A grave, on the other hand, gave a false notion of immortality. We are sure that his post-India discourse is built on this premise.

The anti-substance law was enacted in 1980s. Ginsberg was surprised to find easy availability of ganja or the Indian marijuana, bhang, hashish, opium. Etc. at or near all Burning Ghats from government-approved shops. These herbal inebriants have remained ritualistc inputs for Hindu devotees of certain order, including some of the Hungryalists who were devotees of any Hindu cult. Obviously, the Hungryalists did not consider these herbs to be drugs or narcotics. However, for Allen Ginsberg they were. He felt like defying US law in India. He found out that for the common Indian man, use of these herbs was neither unnatural nor immoral. He drew support from this experience and advocated loosening of legal restrictions on the herbs after he returned to USA. The Hungryalists were never into chemical substances.

(Tridib Mitra and his wife Alo Mitra edited two Hungryalist magazines, one in English named “Waste Paper” and the other in Bengali named Unmarga. They also edited collections of letters written to Hungryalists: one in English and another in Bengali. Thesecollections and manifesto, bulletins etc .are available at the Hungryalist archive of Little Magazine Library and Research Centre, 18M,Tamer lane, Kolkata 700 009.)