Voice and Voyage: Mapping A Contemporary Indian Poetics
The fact that India is a land of many cultures and languages is not unknown. There are 29 states in India and 23 official languages. These can be divided into two umbrella groups: Indo-Aryan, spoken by about 75% of the population, concentrated in the Northern and Northeastern parts of the country and Dravidian, spoken mostly in the south. Individual mother tongues number several hundreds, of which a couple hundred are endangered.
Many Indians are multilingual; other than their mother tongue they are also likely to know either Hindi or English. It is not uncommon for someone who’s been to school to be trilingual, with a working knowledge of both Hindi and English along with their mother tongue. Unfortunately, as children move through the school years, they find themselves immersed in Hindi and English, they begin to lose touch with their mother tongue. They speak it, but can’t read or write it.
For a young generation of writers, English remains a popular language of choice; it promises a wider audience, better remuneration and international exposure, if you are lucky. However, literature in regional languages continues to flourish, thanks to strong local poetic communities and independent presses. Government organizations such as the Sahitya Academy, also continue to publish work in regional languages from across the country. In fact, of all the books published in India, about half are in the regional languages and the other half in Hindi and English put together.
And where does poetry feature in all of this? As is the case anywhere else, poetry is generally ignored across curricula in the country; I remember having to read only about twenty poems during my time in high-school, and that hasn’t changed much. Unless one is a student of literature or has strong interests of their own, one doesn’t really encounter poetry in the schools. The past years have seen a huge surge in publishing in India, especially if the work is in English, but poetry still remains in the domain of small presses and government-funded publishing houses. The concept of an MFA in Creative Writing and especially Poetry is practically unknown in India.
Compiling this collection has been a lesson in how poetic communities in India work. It took me three years to put together this dossier. Numerous emails to poets were sent of which a majority remain unanswered. I was asked to do the project shortly after I had moved to India, and my knowledge of regional poetries was admittedly limited. It took a year or two to do the groundwork: finding poets in each language and going through the work. It wasn’t till last year that I finally found the translators, many poets themselves, who acted as my key into the poetics of each regional language. If it weren’t for the translators featured here, I would not have come across many of the poets included.
I had two main objectives while making the selections for this dossier. I wanted to seek the unfamiliar, the as-yet-unseen, in the writing that I was going to present. To me it seemed that poetry in India, particularly in English, is under a lot of pressure to maintain a certain identity—the subject of the poem is always the poet and the place he or she is from: India. I wanted to seek out poetry from India in which the subject was not India, but the being there, the becoming that depends on geography. Going through the translations I feel that each set of poems, each language has an inherent rhythm, a speaking that marks territories, which each poet tries to both preserve and push further. This is what I wanted to represent in this collection, an aura, a mood or tone perhaps, that marks the rhythm of a particular regional language. I am grateful to have found translators who were sensitive to the same.
I begin with a collection of Kashmiri poetry because it addresses the relation between a becoming and its geography. The collection in Kashmiri is from the translator Sonam Kachru’s forthcoming Make Humans Again. They represent, as the translator himself puts it, a mental climate of the place. Kashmir has been a place of great political turmoil and the poets here represent both sides of the politically fractured valley—Indian-, and Pakistan- claimed Kashmir. In a language where so much of the poetry is about the violence and turmoil of that place, I found Kachru’s selection unique because he brought to attention poets whose work aims, as he puts it, “to show that Kashmir can function as a principle of poetry for Kashmiris, who write for Kashmiris, when Kashmir is not the only subject of their song.”
Hindi is one of the most widely-spoken languages in India, with numerous poets doing very interesting work, most of which remains to be translated. For Hindi, I chose the poet-couple Rustam (Singh) and Teji Grover, and the young poet Vyomesh Shukla, translated by Rahul Soni, all of whom are at the center of a great effort to fortify contemporary poetry through translation, publication and international exchange. Grover, Singh and Soni have all been involved with the magazine Pratlilipi, home to some of the best contemporary writing in Hindi, and some of the finest translations from other Indian languages. Shukla is one of the finest poets writing in Hindi. Rustam and Teji Grover are also activists; they’re environmentalists, interdisciplinary artists and translators of Norwegian poetry. They travel internationally and work closely with several poets in the country, and these different involvements influence their writing. Shukla, a much younger poet, lives in the small town of Varanasi, yet his work, like Teji and Rustam’s work, is a marked departure from mainstream Hindi poetry. Sachin Ketkar, the poet I have chosen from Marathi, also lives in a small town, Badodra, but he has been instrumental, along with fellow poet Hemant Divate in making contemporary Marathi and Gujrati poetry available both in their original and in translation. These poets best represent the heart of a contemporary experimental poetry scene in India.
There are state-systems and then there are nomadic war machines. If Hindi and English constitute the language of the majority, functioning around the metropolis of Mumbai and New Delhi, then poets working in Kashmiri, Bhojpuri, Bengali, Assamese and Malayalam form nomadic groups that move around and navigate that majority. Always at war in order to retain one’s own identity, these regional poets have managed to establish their own poetics that are markedly different than those in Hindi and English.
The two best examples of such would be the poetic communities working in Bengali and Malayalam, and I have included several poets from each language. Each one has a strong literary tradition to uphold and a strong local community that supports emerging new voices. Working away from the metropolis of New Delhi and Mumbai, the Bengali and Malayalam writers represented here cover a range of poets, most of them living in small towns in West Bengal and Kerala. Like their counterparts in Odisha, Assam, Tamil Nadu and states across the country, these poets strive to maintain what it means to be a part of a larger apparatus (of Indian poetry) and still maintain one’s own identity and autonomy.
The Bengali selection represents a younger generation of poets such as Sanyal and Bandopadhya who have found an audience and recognition, thanks to the support of an emerging, wider readership, both local and online. Aryanli Mukherjee, the primary translator of the Bengali section, is a poet based in America who writes in Bengali, and then transcreates the poems in English, breaking both linguistic and geographical boundaries. Most of the Malayalam poetry selected here is edited by the renowned poet K. Satchidanandan, who has consistently produced radical work in Malayalam and helped bring to the forefront emerging voices as well. Poets such as Surju, Jayan, Raman and Rose Mary are a new generation of poets who work in different fields, artistic and other. They represent the range of creative work being produced in a regional languages, just as the whole collection represents the range of poetics in Indian languages across the country and beyond.
The selection of Bhojupuri poems from the translator Rajiv Mohabir’s collection A Veil You’ll Cast Aside, also addresses the idea of physical and linguistic migration. These are folksongs that are as popular in India as they are in the Caribbean. Mohabir has given a contemporary avatar to folksongs that have transformed through the years and yet manage to maintain their musical force and cultural relevance. They recreate mythology, give poetic shape to ritualistic utterances that are still performed today. Because Indian literature has historically been an oral tradition, I wanted to include something that is also sung. These poems “make present” the ancient, the traditional. They are relics of an oral tradition that has survived centuries and transgressed boundaries to exist as a part of a culture’s contemporary everyday practice.
I end with a small selection of Tamil poetry from two very important young Tamil poets, Malathi Maithri and Sukirtharani. Maithri grew up in a fishing community of strong, independent women. Determined to educate herself, she passed high school in spite of her parents opposition, worked in Auroville and is now a political activist working with human rights and environmental issues. Sukirtharani, a dalit poet who could barely afford to go to school, is very much an autodidact, a well-known poet now thanks to a chance encounter with poetry through small press literary “little” magazines several years ago. I would have liked to include many more women poets. The very small number of women poets I was able to include in this collection disheartens me. In a country where rape and violence against women is an everyday occurrence and where women live under unthinkable oppression, it is admirable that new young feminist voices are using poetry to express themselves and be heard. The issues they address through their poems are important, their concerns of utmost priority if India is to progress as a culture. While a majority of the poetry written in India by women takes these issues as their central theme, the poets represented here address these issues to different degrees, always using language in new ways, be it the formal invention of Teji and Fathima or the perceptual inversions and word-play in Rose Mary, Maithri and Sukitharini’s work. I have covered seven languages in this dossier. That is barely a third of the many official languages and only a small fraction of the many languages alive in India today. For this I must apologize, as I must for the lack of women poets represented here. My search to bring focus to more experimental feminist poetry in regional languages continues; I hope to represent more of such work in the supplement to this issue, available online. However, I do hope this fault of mine motivates people around the world to seek out these voices, to surpass the many barriers and help them be heard, for we cannot let their voices pass in silence.
January 17, 2014
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