The Old Playhouse and Other Poems is among the classics of modern Indian poetry in English. This new edition carries an eminently readable and insightful introduction by V.C. Harris. Not only Kamala Das’s major themes but the specific terms of her poetic address, voice, and concerns (as a woman, poet, and social being) receive fairly close and critical attention in these pages. Harris concludes his discussion of “The Old Playhouse” with an altogether fresh and illuminating reading of Kamala Das’s “An Introduction” in the light of postcolonial concerns of home and the world, and the poet’s conversion to Islam in the last year of her life.
“Talking about Kamala Das today means talking about not merely post-Independence Indian poetry in English,” he observes, adding that other, far more complicated issues “relating to gender, violence, identity and difference, hybridity, contradictory coherence, and… language and the art of writing the self” cry for renewed attention, preeminently in this collection.
New readers of Kamala Das will find her as engaging and challenging as the old readers have always found her.
Furthermore, as Harris suggests in his essay, no reader could leave “The Old Playhouse” without being awakened by a newer conscience and unmoved by fond memories.
Kamala Das is one of India’s leading poets writing in the English language. The thirty-one poems in this collection are representative of her best work.
Her theme is physical love; her medium, free verse. Her writing is intensely lyrical-sometimes soft and musical, sometime with a bitter edge to it. Its unpretentious brilliance is revealed in strong yet subtle imagery, and the natural and autobiographical tone heightens its poignancy.
This is an invaluable book for those who are interested in modern poetry and particularly in modern Indian writing in English.
First published in 1973, The Old Playhouse and Other Poems by Kamala Das contains a few poems from her earlier collections such as the title pieces in Summer in Calcutta (1965) and The Descendants (1968). If this is repetition, it is repetition with a difference, for it says something about how the “self' talks about, or continues to talk about, itself. In the poem “Composition", for instance, she writes :
I must let my mind striptease
I must extrude
The use of the word “extrude" here is interesting, for it flags a number of key ideas and concerns that inform much of the poetry written by Kamala Das. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (6th edition) gives two definitions. 1 (formal) to force or push sth out of sth; to be forced or pushed in this way (as in Lava is extruded from the volcano), and 2 (technical) to shape metal or plastic by forcing it through a hole. How, then, do you extrude autobiography? It implies several things. One: there is a suggestion of force or aggression, even violence, here; two: there is a sense in which the whole process is supposed to be formal or technical in character; and three: it gives shape to something, but you need a hole for it to be pushed through. And what is this hole? The poet's mouth through which she speaks? (“You dribbled spittle into my mouth,” she says in “The Old Playhouse”) Her mouth where at times her tongue faints because, as he says, she will perish from his kisses, as in “Gino”? Or is it some wound that she has suffered at the hands of her specific condition? Or, again, let us ask ourselves, is it the womb(s)/lineage/history responsible for her being here in the first place and liable to leave her with descendants who may finally disown her? “The Snobs” for instance, ends thus :
We must move on and on until
We too, some day, by our children
May be disowned.
Let us get back to the mouth. There are endless references to the mouth, and other parts of the human body, in The Old Playhouse and Other Poems, not to mention the other collections of poetry written and published by Kamala Das. It can be seen that most of these references revolve round questions relating to violence: physical/sexual violence on the one hand, and on the other, violence of a “deeper” (for want of a better term) variety. Look at these two examples picked up in a random fashion :
He talks, turning a sun-stained
Cheek to me, his mouth, a dark
Cavern, where stalactites of
Uneven teeth gleam.... (“The Freaks”)
Of what does the burning mouth
Of sun, burning in today's
Sky remind me . . . oh, yes, his
Mouth, and . . . . his limbs like pale and
Carnivorous plants reaching
Out for me, . . . . (“In Love”)
Dark caverns, burning skies, carnivorous plants-all betoken a kind of aggression or violence here that is purely physical or sexual in character, as, indeed, in “Glass”:
He drew me to him
With a lover's haste, an armful
Of splinters, designed to hurt, and,
Pregnant with pain.
In this poem, she goes to him as “pure woman, pure misery / Fragile glass, breaking/ Crumbling . . .” Such examples could be easily multiplied; suffice it to say here that the poems collected in this volume have in general a strong sense of physical oppression and violence. But there is also a different kind of violence, or sense of violence, at work in some of the poems, as in the opening lines of “The Descendants”:
We have spent our youth in gentle sinning
Exchanging some insubstantial love and
Often thought we were hurt, but no pain in
Us could remain, no bruise could scar or
Even slightly mar our cold loveliness.
This is probably because the hurt, or pain, is so deep and so profoundly ingrained in them that it cannot appear or remain as a mere scar on their “cold loveliness”. Also, this is probably the reason behind the final exhortation to the sea in “The Suicide”:
Bereft of body
My soul shall be free
Take in my naked soul
That he knew how to hurt.
What is the response (or, shall we talk about it in the plural?) to this violence? How do the poems in this collection negotiate the vexed territory of such force, oppression or violence? Before we attempt to answer this question, it may be necessary for us to go back to the second issue that we identified in the beginning in relation to the word “extrude”, that is, its formal or technical nature.
It is a critical commonplace that post-Independence poetry in English found a new “voice” through the works of writers as diverse as Nissim Ezekiel, Dom Moraes, A. K. Ramanujan, Kamala Das, et al. The tone and tenor of this voice, and its underlying structure, are so different from those of the preceding generations of Indian poets in English that it is now easy to see how the formal, or technical, aspects of poetry also undergo a major shift during that period. One of the important ways in which this is achieved is through liberating poetry from the burden of its metric past; and along with metrics also disappears a certain kind of poetic language or diction-let us call it rhetoric-that sought to place poetry on a pedestal that is more or less inaccessible to everyday speech and living. It is as if the language and discourse of the colonial master are in turn being mastered, reworked and relocated by the newly emerging free “subject”. More of this later; suffice it to point out here that the generation that Kamala Das belongs to, the generation that she too helps give shape to in quite important ways, is acutely aware of the possibilities of a differently constituted structure of poetry.
Kamala Das too writes in what can be called free verse, as the poems contained in the present collection testify. But, in spite of the obvious lack of old-fashioned metric rigour, these poems have their own specific rhythms and cadences. The length of the lines, as well as their tone and tenor, varies in accordance with the issue at hand and the emotional intensity with which it is sought to be articulated. Take, for example, these lines from “Composition”:
When I got married
my husband said,
you may have freedom,
as much as you want.
There is a kind of briskness here which somehow produces an apparently contradictory sense of both urgency and indifference. It may be necessary for us to get back to this apparently contradictory sense obtaining in the poetry of Kamala Das in greater detail later; but, take a look at how the last stanza of “Gino” begins:
I shall be the fat-kneed hag in the long bus queue
The one from whose shopping bag the mean potato must
Roll across the road. I shall be the patient
On the hospital bed, lying in drugged slumber
And dreaming of home....
Here, obviously, the rhythm is different; it is something that goes along with “the fat-kneed hag”, “the long bus queue” and “drugged slumber". In The Old Playhouse and Other Poems there are also a couple of pieces that can be called prose poems: “The Swamp” and “Sunset, Blue Bird”. All this suggests that by tweaking one of the important formal/technical aspects of poetry Kamala Das is able to produce something new: a new way, perhaps, of talking about herself, or, to put it in more formal language, a new poetics of subjectivity.
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