About The Book
A redefinition of the paradigms of modernism has been underway in Indian literature during the three decades in which the poems anthologized here were written. Modernism in the poetry of the Indian language included here began as an aesthetic project that emphasized an insular, hermetic realm of art. However, the poets of the 70s and 80s recovered the primacy of the everyday world of lived reality. Problems of caste, gender, language, ethnicity, communalism, consumerism and environment came to be debated with urgency and concern in poetry. This anthology hopes to highlight the radical phase of modernist Indian poetry. The turning away from the constricted, narcissistic idiom of aesthetic modernism towards more open and socially responsive and responsible forms is illustrated by the writings of the Dalit poets and women poets included here. This volume will also show that the radicalization of poetry has not been achieved at the cost of the poet’s ability to preserve a certain inwardness and meditativeness in his idiom. The three generations of poets assembled here—the elder ones were young reels in the sixties and the younger ones are fighting their battles in the channel-surfing nineties—share a common belief in the potential of poetry to renovate the apparatus of our thinking and revise our ways of seeing the world.
E.V. Ramakrishnan has published criticism and poetry. Among his recent books are: A Python in a Snake Park (Delhi 1994), Making It New: Modernism in Malayalam, Marathi and Hindi Poetry (Shimla, 1995) and Vakkile Samooham (Kottayam, 19970). He was awarded the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for criticism for his book Aksharavum Adhunikatayum in 1995. He teaches English at South Gujarat University, Surat.
Every anthology tells a story of its own-a story of omissions and exclusions, likes and dislikes, receptions and rejections. The present one is going to be no exception. A collection of 136 poems by 52 poets cannot exhaustively project the diversity of voices and themes available in the poetry of four major Indian languages namely Malayalam, Marathi, Gujarati and Hindi in a period spanning a quarter of a century. Since this is meant to be a companion volume to my comparative study of modernism presented in Making It New: Modernism in the Poetry of Malayalam} Marathi and Hindi (MS, 1995), my choice of poems has been further dictated by the trajectory of modernism outlined there. However, poetry is not written to illustrate critical arguments. I hope this volume speaks to the general reader as well. Poetry can make things happen.
In his controversial introduction to a recent anthology of Indian writing, while castigating the prose of Indian languages in the last fifty years for its inferior quality, Salman Rushdie had to grudgingly admit that 'the rich poetic traditions of India continued to flourish in many of the sub-continent's languages' during the last 50 years though he had no space for them (Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West 1997: xi). Several anthologies of translations from Indian poetry are needed if its range and reach are to be clearly understood. Poetry, unlike fiction, has greater 'genre-memory' and is deeply implicated in its past. This makes poetry translation difficult if not impossible. However, modernist poetry written in Indian languages has greater translatability since it seldom uses traditional metres or syntax. This is not to forget exceptions such as Kolatkar in Marathi, Ravji Patel in Gujarati or Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan in Malayalam. Their richly intertextual poems refer back to earlier poetic traditions creating resonances that are lost in translation. But it can be safely said that modernist Indian poetry has produced a considerable body of eminently translatable poems.
A redefinition of the paradigms of modernism has been underway in Indian literatures during the three decades in which the poems anthologised here were written. There has always been a radical centrifugal impulse 'in Indian literary culture which looks towards the resources of the regional and the folk experience and forms. In the post -1960 period, this subaltern realm of subversive voices has acquired a new legitimacy. There has been a shift towards the peripheral and marginal voices in the sphere of Indian poetry. The first generation modernists had failed to comprehend the relationship between poetry and the public sphere in Indian society. The lofty aloofness cultivated by the dense, resonant, imagistic writings of several of these poets subscribed to the same ideology of the aesthetic sublime one encountered in the sloppy sentimentality of the romantic lyric earlier. I have described such poets as 'High Modernists' in my book mentioned above. What high modernists gained by way of perfection in form they lost in their ability to reach out to a larger public. Increasing technical formalism, as Edward Said observes in the context of literary studies, leads to the loss of "a historical sense of what real experiences actually go into the making of a work of literature" (Said 1994: 57). When the aesthetic project of modernism had to confront the ethical problems resulting from the creation of an insular, hermetic realm of art shut off from the everyday world of a turbulent society, it necessarily had to revise its agenda. It is this turning away from the constricted, narcissistic idiom of aesthetic modernism towards more open and socially responsive and responsible forms that is mapped in this anthology. This has resulted in the re-discovery of discourses and voices previously suppressed or marginalised.
The metaphor of the tongue in the title of this anthology is a reminder of the proliferating discourses that erupt into the public sphere from the realm of the suppressed subaltern life. "The Tree of Tongues" written by Satchidanandan during the Emergency invokes the memory of Thiruvarangan, the folk -bard who roams the countryside singing to awaken households. When poets withdraw into 'bunkers of individualism' (D .R. Nagaraj 1992: 108) poetry comes to be privatised and the larger public function of poetry becomes suspect. The ideological location of celebratory individualism becomes visible and available for criticism only when the interrogatory idiom of a radical voice puts it in relief. This is an attempt to dialogise poetry. A poet like Dhoomil in Hindi could do it effectively in a tone that alternates between concern and confrontation:
[20 years after Independence]
Dhoomil's self-questionings are directed against the manufactured consents that inhibit our voices and the colonial legacy that we retain in our attitudes and institutions. The cultural space opened up by this self-critical enquiry has made it possible for the Dalit poets of the 1970s and the woman poets of the 1980s to represent their worlds more convincingly. This radicalization of poetic idiom is evident in several poems of this anthology. This is not to say that the poetic tone here is militant or strident. Public poetry can become tedious and tiring when it cannot preserve a certain inwardness as a characteristic mode of resistance. The three generations of poets assembled here- the elder ones were young rebels in the sixties and the younger ones are fighting their battles in the channel-surfing nineties-seem to constantly search for the tight-rope walking tone of tense, taut lines that can balance the private and the public without the safety net of ideology below them.
When poets incorporate their self-awareness about their very medium into the language of their poetry, they problematise their speech. The central motif that runs through this volume is that of loss of language and the need to recover or invent a language. Satchidanandan's ''Languages'', Kolatkar's "Old Newspapers", Sitanshu Yashaschandra's ''Language'' and Raghuvir Sahay's "Hindi" restate in personal and political terms the acute agony of Mardhekar's famous line, "Grant me, 0 Lord, just this one boon: May my tongue be never paralysed". The Dalit writer and the woman writer have understood that mainstream literary language excludes them. They have to purge the existing language of its associations and sub-texts before it can be deployed in their defence. The politics of speech has never been so central to the reading of poetry in Indian languages. What is 'regional' about language becomes a sedimentary layer of cultural memory to be invoked and rediscovered in the struggle against spurious versions of identity fostered from above. The search for a new language and the theme of resistance become inseparable in poets as diverse in themes and styles as Dilip Chitre, K.G. Sankara Pillai, Vasant A. Dahake, Sitanshu Yashaschandra and Kedarnath Singh. It is no accident that several of the poets collected here retain their access to their dialects and through them to the hidden resources of social imagination.
In a perceptive moment Dhoomil described his village as a Bhojpuri version of 'narak' (hell). He did not, of course, mean Dante's text but the great Indian dream that had gone sour. The Dalit poets in Marathi and Gujarati refuse to translate their particular hells back into the middle- class dialect of poetry. Their historical sense has an undercurrent of anguish and irony. Pralhad Chendvankar calls for a social audit of history in ‘Audit’.
The italicised words happen to be in English in the original Marathi poem. This destroys the illusion of poems as well-crafted artifacts. In several poems concerning history such as K.G. Sankara Pillai's "The Trees of Cochin", Dilip Chitre's "Emergency", Ghulammohammed Sheikh's "Delhi", Shrikant Verma's Magadh sequence; Pravin Gadvi's "When Nadir Shah Arrived", Attoor Ravivarma's "Re-Call" and D. Vinayachandran's "History", poetry becomes urgent, immediate speech like despatches from zones of civil war where intermittent fighting goes on. Attoor Ravivarma's poem is in fact about civil war and ends with the agonising lines:
Mark that tone that captures the cramps in the conscience. It neither panics nor pleads in the face of a moral crisis that has no easy resolution.
The women poets also demonstrate the same ability to turn inward while probing the public world. The troubled conscience becomes their only manifesto. Vijayalakshmi in her (Malayalam) poem "The Animal Trainer" speaks of the caged animal retreating into the silence of the cage out of habit. She is perfectly at home in the metrical idiom of traditional poetry even when she communicates an anger that cannot be easily contained by traditional metrics. Women poets such as Malika Amar Sheikh, Savithri Rajeevan and Teji Grover seem to be looking for more open-ended forms. There is a hint of the free play of surrealist imagination in their irreverent images. They would not like their speech being slotted into pre-fabricated idioms. Savithri Rajeevan in her "Slant" warns us of the dangers inherent in our globalised notions of self- hood. These are poems that remind us that the moral crisis gripping the nation can only be understood by addressing the subject that speaks through us in our daily discourses. Decolonisation, like charity, has to begin at home. History figures as a major theme here since memory, both social and personal, is the site where the struggle against colonised notions of the body and social structures has to be fought.
I have steered clear of the term 'postmodernism' in describing the new poetic trends of the eighties and nineties. It is true that the radical sensibility represented in this volume comes very close to post-modernist sensibility because these trends share 'a set of characteristics that place them in an adversarial relation to high modernism' (Krishna Rayan 1996: 41). But there are significant distinctions to be made. A Euro- centric post-modernist package would effectively neutralise the emancipatory thrust of the poems produced in Indian languages. There is nothing to be gained by blurring the difference between passive acceptance (of Western technology) and active resistance (implicit in domestic production). An Indian postmodernism which distances itself from Western modernism and Western postmodernism on the one hand and Indian high modernism on the other will naturally have a place for the liberating potential of the radical sensibility represented here.
The persuasive power of poetry comes from its ability to infiltrate the collective voice of the community. The poets gathered here do not labour after the false elegance of transcendental visions. They also question the relevance of such supreme fictions and apocalyptic visions.
No attempt has been made here to make these translations particularly presentable. They grapple with the otherness of the source language in their separate ways. They make us aware that it is in the everyday world of living- that problems of caste, gender and power are encountered. In a poem titled 'Call Me Caliban', Dilip Chitre presented Caliban more as a precursor than a victim. Those who have to invent a language can turn the disadvantage into an opportunity. The radical sensibility in Indian poetry has the advantage of having no ready-made language to write in. Each blank page affords a challenge and a chance to redeem oneself through speech. When the wounded tongue tree sprouts branches, buried truths gleam on each leaf.
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