Saturday, 11 July 2015

The Palette is India

Many young voices are trying to find their own poetic idiom, rooted in their lived experience

Brian Mendonça

In our college days we studied Adil Jussawalla’s finely edited volume New Writing in India to know what Indian Writing in English (or IWE) was all about. Two inclusions in that volume stand out for some reason, viz. an excerpt from Bhalachandra Nemade’s Khosla translated from the Marathi as Cocoon and Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh’s lyrical poem 'Jaisalmer.'

What struck me at that time was the fact that Sheikh was a painter. After Kolatkar we felt compelled to visit Jejuri, curious to see how the life of a place in India could be breathed into ‘poetry.’ The rhythms of Indian poetry in English, compared to a diet of Shakespeare’s blank verse seemed so simple. So accessible. Almost like talking. Which is when I wrote my definitive poem 'Last Bus to Vasco' (1997) enroute from Panaji to Vasco in Goa. Poetry was something that wrote itself, to record the magic of the moment — 'Under the canopy of the evening sky/Everything dissolves / Places, smells, memories, distances...'

A poet needs to know what he or she is worth. A sheaf of poems I had pressed into Eunice D’Souza’s hand for her comments, when she breezed into the British Council, Delhi yielded no reply; Keki Daruwalla — though the coffee was good — felt there was no technique, and most of it, evacuation. That was when Jane Bhandari, who steers the Talking Poetry group called Loquations at the NCPA Mumbai, invited me in her cheery way to be the guest poet one Tuesday at the Chauraha. 'Thank you. So many languages, so many voices,' wrote Jussawala who was present at the reading.

It is the plenitude of these voices, which makes the poetry of India so rich today. We have a host of young writers trying to discover their own idiom of India with their intensity and freshness. They do not baulk at writing in their native languages, many are bilingual or even trilingual. They have a wide range of poetic experience, which reaches beyond the themes of the poets of Ezekiel’s generation; and are firmly located in India and experiencing her diversity. These are poets who have survived in the absence of guilds or established presses to sustain them. Despite sometimes humbling experiences. Sometime back, on a visit to a school to promote poetry, Bhandari was confronted by a small child who demanded to know who she was. 'I am a poet,' replied Bhandari. 'But you’re supposed to be dead!' was the incredulous response.

Many young poets have been successful in being published by newer publishers of poetry like Allied, Indialog and Yeti. Others have come together to support a volume or two like Harbour Line Press. These are poets who network intensely between cities and create spaces to write, read and listen to poetry. Special interest poetry groups like Caferati and Eos — the literary wing of NIFT, Delhi which recently hosted a free poetry recitation evening called Bardcode, support poetry and make it happen in cities where one may be forgiven to think everything is dehumanised.

Allied with Sahitya Akademi’s journal, Indian Literature, under the able stewardship of editor, Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee, are publications devoted entirely or in part to poetry, viz. Chandrabhaga edited by Jayanta Mahapatra, The Little Magazine edited by Antara Dev Sen and The Brown Critique edited by Gayatri Majumdar. The Asian Age incentive of Rs 1000 for the best poem of the month -- a selection of which is published on the first Sunday of the month -- is also another feather in the cap for the cause of poetry.

Fine translations of poetry written in Indian languages are available with the Sahitya Akademi. In one of these, Sanskritirani Desai writes,' Regularly / The guillotine of the horizon / chops down the day,/ and the sun,/a severed head, / tumbling, rolls away from the trunk' (translated from the Gujarati). The conviction is evident in the lines of Lekshmy Rajeev, a young poet who writes in English and Malayalam: 'I, your woman, a poet, calm you in your nights / I can write for you alone, on a wordless universe, and / make you feel like my god I can belong to, more than once.' Language itself (Avesta) breaks down in coming to terms with death and the Towers of Silence in Leeya Mehta’s first collection of poems: 'There are places/That I long to describe/In a language I do not know/ And the Towers, by our not being in them/that is our sacrifice...'

'There are times when inspiration flutters like wayward children / Disappearing with swift quickness before I capture them into cages of words. Walking the murky streets of your subconscious,' continues young poet Ethel Da Costa from Goa, Why is my voice hoarse, screaming the truth? But one doesn’t find many poems with a political zeal akin to contemporary Punjabi poet, Pash. Also, the younger poets seem shy of being inspired by Sanskrit love poetry. Priya Sarukkai is a happy exception: 'Yet in your passion, do not scar me/Do not split my lip, nor stifle speech/Do not force my cervix out of shape / Nor ram my individuality.' A poetic echo flutters in the lines of Ananya Sankar Guha: 'My body is a tree, shaken/by the marauding wind; winces / and like a poem hurts.'

What is heartening about young poets writing in India today is a rejection of superficial criteria of value. Makarande Paranjape said that, 'from being an exile the ie poet is now an NRI, a transnational artist, taking advantage of a world-wide English audience, very much a beneficiary of international print capitalism.' Poets writing in India are pariahs by this definition, and because they prefer to stay rooted in their nativisms are beyond the pale of the huge benefits which accrue to the ‘steam roller’ language, English. To write for everybody is to write for no one. At least not for an Indian.

'Indian literature is one, though written in many languages,' observed Dr S Radhakrishnan when he was Assistant Secretary, Sahitya Akademi. It is this plurality which is our essence. And our root. Perhaps we need to move out of a sense of onanism in our preoccupation of the self. The painterly eye is called upon to recuperate or salvage new idioms of poetry for the twenty-first century. Can the outer and the inner landscape be juxtaposed? What Sheikh and Nemade are doing is to point us back to the reservoir our own truth within a locus that is India. Our claim to write ‘Indian’ poetry is a commitment to the fidelity of lived experience of our Self in India. It is true that notions of the self and of space are porous but the palette must be India. And the brush must be a Hephaestus of words.
Published in Tehelka, New Delhi on 19 March 2005. Sourced from Tehelka archives at

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