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Literary Review

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POETRY

Recovery and recognition of a literary past

RENUKA RAJARATNAM

Eunice de Souza's anthology gives a present-day perspective of the past and includes an eclectic range of contributors.


Early Indian Poetry in English: An Anthology 1829-1947, edited by Eunice de Souza, OUP, Rs. 475.

POETRY is regarded in strikingly contradictory ways and those contradictions are ultimately bound up with questions of values. It is seen both as an elite and an esoteric form as well as a private and an intensely subjective one. In old times and perhaps more in the recent times, cultural differences wrought with subtle and involuted tensions have proved to be an active source of poetic energy, resulting in powerful political, polemical and polysemic forms of expressions.

Literary criticism in Britain has always been the privileged centre of power in validating the quality of literature. British models of exegesis have been applied to critically assess forms of writing in other countries as well, but often re-contextualising the application to suit each one's own literary cultures. However, the traditional attitude in upholding the principle of hierarchy in valuing remained the same. Traditional esoteric forms were often placed in privileged positions, personal poetry was somewhat precariously placed and the political and the polemical were often dismissed as unfit stuff for the standard of poetry. Their specificity was treated as limited and aberrant. Entrenched beliefs about humanist, spiritual and romantic ideologies continue to exert profound influence over attitudes and expectations about poetry. In such a scenario, what does a recent anthology on the early Indian poetry in English signify? To what extent does a re-mapping of the pre-independent Indian writing in English influence the contemporary readers? What were the attitudes and aesthetics reflected in the flurry of anthologies published then? Does it matter how Indian the Indian poetry in English is? What are the negative implications of nationalism then and now?

Useful information related to these questions may be found in the introduction of the Early Indian Poetry in English: An Anthology 1829-1947, provided by Eunice de Souza. The introduction offers a thoughtful discussion on the aesthetic criteria of selections and a critique of anthologists whose selections have failed to depict the whole picture of the literary culture of the time, based on the criteria of quality. Eunice de Souza's anthology gives a present-day perspective of the past and includes an eclectic range of contributors who were less known at that time, thus extending the profile of poetry. In the process of this literary excavation, valuable remains of silenced voices are unearthed and retrieved. It is no doubt a risk-taking venture but the editor decisively re-orients the course of early Indian poetry in English and recovers the names of lesser known poets and re-places them firmly within their cultural and socio-historical contexts. Through this exercise of re-charting, Eunice de Souza not only attempts to redress the imbalance in representation but contests the ideological hegemony of cultural precepts involved in validating literary art. One of the most valuable things to emerge from this anthology is the refreshing shift in criticism to move from questions of value (who does the valuing anyway?) and accept poetry from whatever source of culture and language it springs from — be it the colonised or the coloniser's. After all, poetry at its best reflects the world(s) from which it comes.

The diverse selection of the anthology allows the emergence of contexts within which broader resonances of the poets' work might stem from. The range of thematic scope, stylistic experimentation, imaginative impact and deployment of diverse forms are some of the interesting aspects of the selection. Poets such as Kasiprasad Ghose, Henry Derozia, Joseph Furtado, Ram Sharma, Manmohan Ghose, B.M. Malabari, Jehangir Rustomji Patel, Beram Saklatvala, Samuel Solomon and Raman Vakil sit alongside well-known poets of the time ranging from Toru Dutt to Sarojini Naidu and Harindranath Chattopadhyaya. Apart from writing poetry, these poets were also teachers, reformers, editors, translators and thinkers. Their work is distinguished by a refined secular outlook combined with a national sensibility shaped by the cultural and political environment of the time.

Although the poets insert their national themes into borrowed styles and forms of the English tradition, they do make sense of their culture amidst an atmosphere of colonised cultures. Some of the poems like Ram Sharma's "Ode on The Meeting of Congress at Allahabad on 26 December 1888", "The Jolly Beggars", Malabari's "The Stages of a Hindu Female Life", Henry Derozia's "The Fakir of Jungheera" and Thakar's "Hitler's Tears" have an astonishing power moving through them.

Finally, in keeping with this eclectic inclusivity, a few appendices in the form of essays are provided in order to convey the sense of the poets and their contexts. These appendices may not interest the non-specialist reader as most of the poems selected speak for themselves. However, the anthology is a must-read for literature lovers and workers and is a useful book to be placed in the departments of English, India, South Asian and Poetry Studies.

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