Shamsur Rahman’s poetry can be seen as the most notable extension of the cosmopolitan and urban sensibility found in the poets of the 1930s and 1940s.
Rahman, who entered the literary scene in the 1950s, inherited the broader cosmopolitan look and urban sensibility from the poets of the 1930s and 1940s such as Jibanananda Das, Buddhadeb Bose, Bishnu Dey, Samar Sen and others.
In his early poems, Rahman creatively echoed the dreamy, languorous style of Jibanananda Das, but gradually he developed a language and a rhythm that suited more specifically his taste and temperament, themes and thoughts.
Even though, when Rahman’s poems show influences of Das, it is, in the main, in language, not in themes or their treatments. In Rahman, one will hardly find the personified essence of rural life and nature presented in a language of whispers as is found in Das.
Rahman, rather, goes closer to poets like Buddhadeb Bose and Samar Sen to reflect urban life, both as setting and subject matter. The language Rahman eventually developed also deviates from being dreamy and circuitous to precise and pointy.
As a true modernist, Rahman’s personal tone charged with his urban, cosmopolitan sensibility and acute political observation made him the ‘nishanga sheropa’, to take Humayun Azad’s words, of contemporary Bangla poetry.
In his life of 77 years, Rahman grew with Dhaka, he saw Dhaka turn from a polis to a metropolis. He was imbued with everything that Dhaka offered positive or negative, and made them stuff for his poems and fiction.
The centrality of Dhaka and urban sensibility, to say, characterise Shamsur Rahman though his themes often ramified into different areas. The persona from which Rahman writes is an urban persona fraught with the desires and aspirations, loneliness and ennui of an urban man.
‘Dhaka in its vibrant and subdued colours, with its joys and sorrows are most poetically present in Shamsur Rahman’s poems. His attachment to Dhaka made him a poet of the city where he was born, grew up and died,’ said Rahman’s friend and national professor Anisuzzaman.
A glaring account of his relation with Dhaka is vividly written by the poet in his memoir titled Smritir Shahor.
The city life provoked ambivalent attitudes and feelings in Rahman and afforded self-realisation. Very few of his contemporaries ventured urbanism so heavily and poetically in their poetry. Rahman is most noted among those to whom Dhaka became the epicentre. Most of his poems were set in this city. It was the city of birth and rebirth having a prominent place in his conscience.
Coupled with his urban sensibility is his cosmopolitan outlook. Rahman constantly alluded to and exploited other cultures and traditions in his poems.
‘While remaining firmly rooted in his Bangladeshi milieu (one might even say his Dhaka milieu, for, apart from brief visits abroad, he has spent his whole life in this old city) his sensibility is refreshingly cosmopolitan; it can draw upon his native tradition as well as upon diverse foreign sources - classical Europe, Biblical lore, modern Western art, etc’, writes Kaiser Haq in an article titled The poetic sensibility of Shamsur Rahman.
In many poems of his first collection titled Pratham Gaan Dwitiya Mrityur Agey (1960), Rahman gave expression to his love-hate relationship with the city. For example, poems like ‘Kono Porichitake’, ‘Tinshow Takar Ami’, ‘Atmajibani Khasra’, ‘Rupali’ and others reflect how Dhaka was ingrained in Rahman.
The approach Rahman took towards the city, as conspicuous in these poems, can be termed, as essayist Kamaruddin Ahmed writes in an article on Rahman published in literary magazine Kali O Kalom, ‘bishadmoy romanticism’(melancholic romanticism).
Tiny details of the city, ranging from its roads, horse-carts, and dirty drains to drunken gamblers and painted whores, come into Rahman’s poems.
In the poems of his next collections, Raudra Korotite (1963), Biddhasta Nilima (1966) and Niraloke Dibyarath (1968), Rahman repeatedly gave expression to the urbanised voice portraying the bitterness and decadence of urban life through a detached lover’s point of view.
Gradually, Rahman’s poems assumed a political colour reflecting the social-political environment around him.
In short, what happened in Dhaka, in Rahman’s city, happened in his poems, too. The mass movements from the late 1960s till early 1971 on the Dhaka streets led Rahman to write some of his major political poems including Asad-er Shirt, Barnamala Dukhini Barnamala, February 1969, Hartal, E Shahor, Duswapne Ekdin and others.
Next year during the liberation war, Rahman penned some of his most fan-favourite poems including Swadhinata Tumi and Tomake Pawar Jonya Hey Swadhinata, Tumi Balechhile and others. Portrayal of an occupied Dhaka and the muted lives of its people appeared in poems written during the war.
Through these poems the urban poet Rahman emerged as a political, patriotic poet. From now onwards, his poems would often bear traces of his political–patriotic consciousness. But the urban and cosmopolitan sensibility that the poet achieved early in his career, however, ran till the end.
Born in Dhaka in 1929, Rahman died on August 17, 2006. In his career spanning over five decades, Rahman authored over 70 titles including 65 collections of poems, memoirs, novels, collection of short stories and essays. Today is the poet’s 12th death anniversary.