RABINDRA K. SWAIN AND HIMANSU S. MOHAPATRA
Tryst with Indian poetry
Never before has Indian poetry enjoyed such prominent coverage and lavish treatment as in a recent issue of Poetry.
The repertoire of poems displays strong social leanings.
Whitman’s A Passage to India, besides being a great American poet’s encomium on India, was a call for a bi-cultural project. The project has, in fact, become fully underway through the efforts of modern-day American mag
azine editors to anthologise the best of Indian verse.
Prestigious American journals such as New Letters, Massachusetts Review and World Literature Today have given Indian poetry exposure in the past. But never has it enjoyed such prominent coverage and such lavish treatment as in a recent issue (September 2007) of Poetry, a Chicago-based magazine with a commanding presence in the international poetry scene.
Poetry’s tryst with Indian verse goes back a long way. Its founding editor Harriet Monroe got Ezra Pound to introduce Tagore in its third issue in December 1912. Years later, in 1957, it showcased, under the editorship of Karl Shapiro, modern Indian poetry. It has returned to drink at its well after 50 years again, but under vastly changed circumstances. The portfolio of 13 Indian poems representing as many languages is conceived and presented by an acclaimed Indian poet, R. Parthasarathy. This in itself is a cause célèbre. It underlines the coming of age of the tradition of Indian critical commentary as well.
Parthasarathy’s introduction is a sheer delight in its lucidity and informativeness. “My intention,” says he “is to showcase select poems in a robust, contemporary English edition that will enable American readers to get the feel of Indian poetry.” He rues the fact that after Tagore and Iqbal, no other Indian poet has made it big in the West. This explains his strenuous effort to etch the Indian sensibility in the mind of American readers. One may complain that there are a dozen poets in each of the 13 languages who are equal to or better than the ones listed here. But it is an impressive listing, if not a comprehensive one.
Poetry has put up Amrita Pritam’s “Street Dog” and Vinda Karandikar’s “The Wheel” in its website. Pritam is supposedly a romantic poet. This poem is an exception, though. It is about a street dog that dies after being inadvertently locked up in a house put up for sale; an extended metaphor for her tragic vision of life.
The repertoire of poems displays strong social leanings. Even Parthasarathy gestures towards society rather than solitude. His poem, “The Stones of Bamiyan”, musing ironically on the Bamiyan Buddha’s defiance of time but not of the Taliban’s vandalism, ends poignantly, “Who will stop the Hun from knocking on our door?”
When Parthasarathy surveys contemporary Indian poetry, he does so from the vantage ground of Tamil, stressing the timbre and strength of the “new poetic” of Nakulan and Shanmuga Subbiah. More importantly, he has highlighted the scalpel-like sharpness and precision of the language of Dalit poets like N.T. Rajkumar and Azhagiya Periyavan and the “subversive language” of women poets like Salma, Malathi Maitri, Sukirtharani and Revathi.
The introduction has also addressed the question of the credible, “robust” translation into English. On the art of translation, it has quoted Kumarajiva, ancient Buddhist monk and prolific translator: “In the process of translating a Sanskrit text into Chinese it loses all its nuances.... ” Parthasarathy is, however, optimistic about the possibility of cultural transfers. The English translations on offer here attest to his optimism.
Poetry naturally waxes eloquent about this portfolio: “By once again spotlighting Indian verse, Poetry is proud to straighten its bond with a country whose poems continue to reflect the art’s vital role in human life.” Parthsarathy’s efforts for Indian poetry will help in inculcating in Western readers, now overfed on the novels of the Indian diaspora, a taste for a different and more authentic India.
Rabindra K Swain, a Bhubaneswar-based poet and a critic, is managing editor of Chandrabhaga.
Himansu S. Mohapatra is a Professor of English, Utkal
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