Tuesday, June 24, 2008


The pre-modifier and the post-modifiers of the word `writing’ in the term `Indian Writing in English’ have perpetually shackled the creative writing in English in India to the relentlessly hounding questions of nationality and the politics of English language in India. Both, accusations as well as apologies sound tiresome to our ears today. Amit Chaudhari’s recent review in the Hindu of a short book called `Jejuri: Commentary and Critical Perspectives’, edited and, in part, written by Shubhangi Jayakar, stirs up the same old weary debate about nationality of Indian writing in English. While one tends to agree with his complaint ` for 20 long years, influenced by Said and post-colonial theory, the aesthetics of estrangement has been confused with the politics of representation.’ one wonders if these questions will ever stop dogging the Indian writer in English. It is high time literary studies today stopped looking at the Indian Writing in English merely from the formalistic point of view or from the postcolonial approach, which highlights the politics of nation in the text. The ancestor of this disputation is the antiquated debate about `form’ versus `content’ in aesthetics. One has to go beyond this `either/or’ approaches and search for some ecumenical critical view.

It is a true that much of the recent academic criticism reads the politics of representation in literary texts. Reacting against its own earlier formalistic orientation, literary studies in the past couple of decades have obsessively focussed on the social, historical, and political context of literature. While this focus reveals that art is never `autonomous’, the formalist approach analyzes literature as a special form of language by isolating the `literariness inducing devices’ like defamiliarization. The inordinate preoccupation of the recent academic criticism with the political and historical context of art seems to promote a fallacy that these are the only contexts of art. They forget that literature is an intricate `language-game’ and has its own rules, which cannot be understood in these contexts alone. They also fail to explain why sorcerous appeal of certain works has cut across the specifics of time, region, and society. The nationalist, nativist or versions of Marxist criticism taken to their dogmatic extreme, reduce the work of art merely to its social existence and make it unidimentional.

While formalist criticism will find Kolatkar poems teeming with literary devices of `defamiliarization’ due to his oblique idiosyncratic vision , the opposite approach, which is usually some version of socialism, will focus on the theme of alienation of an elite English educated bourgeoisie from his cultural context. Both these approaches have predetermined notions of what Kolatkar’s poetry will yield. However, I believe that a successful work of art transcending the polarities of `social existence’ and ` individual vision’. One only has to take a closer look at Kolatkar’s poems to see that they are not only, in Bruce King’s phrase `defamiliarization and transformation of the commonplace’, but are also deeply embedded in the cultural and historical milieu.

Defamiliarization is not restricted to Kolatkar’s poetry only but is an indivisible part of the creative process. It is at once aesthetic and political because to perceive something, or to think in the ways that seem strange to the conventional ways of thinking, is an act of non-conformity. It may not be political in the obvious sense of conforming to some party doctrine, but simply because it dares to see something in a different way, it becomes deeply political. It is both art and politics and it is politics because it is art.

Poetry of Kolatkar does not just `employ the literary devices’ of defamiliarization nor does simply deal with the theme of `alienation of the western educated intellectual’ from his roots. His texts have complex, multiple meanings and operate at more than one level. His oblique vision dislocates the established ways of perception only to yield richer insights into Indian culture. This is certainly not the `tourist’ eye-view, nor is it written with the western audience in the mind.
Consider a poem from Jejuri:

The Reservoir
There isn’t a drop of water
In the great reservoir the Peshwas built.

There is nothing in it.
Except a hundred years of silt.

(Jejuri p.36)

Perhaps nativists, nationalists, or even formalists haven’t read the poem closely at all. Kolatkar’s oblique view of the things is obviously not merely a device. To say that the great reservoir of the Peshwas, one time potentates of Maharastra has run dry and contains nothing but clay deposits of history, is not a simple use of some literary figure of speech, but a significant cultural comment on the decadence and the irrelevance of the once powerful community. This point of view is not that of a person alienated from the culture but of a person who feels that the culture has very little to offer to him. Culture is distanced from the sensitive and intelligent speaker rather than the other way round. Therefore, it is better to take all the discussion about `alienation’ in Kolatkar’s poetry with a little pinch of salt.

Art is about divergent ways of seeing; poetry, about divergent ways of using language. Inseparable from the creative process, defamiliarization achieves its effects from uncovering relationships that are not obvious to others. Defamiliarization yields insights and discovers truths. It sees things from a different angle and a different level and this is what makes it semantically complex and multilayered. In epiphanic moments, the visual artist in Kolatkar sees things that startle the readers only to enlighten them. For instance, the `Pi-Dog’ in Kala Ghoda Poems, lying on a traffic island at midnight reveals

“I look a bit like
a seventeenth century map of Mumbai
with its seven islands” (p.16)

The perceived similarity between the appearance of a mongrel and an old map of the city with a history of cultural hybridization is not simply a technical device but a revelation, a discovery of truth. Discovery of these truths in Kolatkar’s poetry makes it difficult to understand it as poetry of estrangement and alienation. The defamiliarization in these poems is a road that leads to discovery and illumination, rather than being an agonized expression of an `alienated’ consciousness.

On reading the poems in `An Anthology of Marathi Poetry (ed. Dilip Chitre, 1967), we notice that much of Kolatkar’s early Marathi poetry was intensely dark, unsettlingly subjective, and surreal. Many of his poems are the types which TS Eliot in his extremely perceptive essay `Three Voices of Poetry (1953) called the poems of the `first voice’. Alluding to the observations made by Gottfried Benn, Eliot observes that the poetry of first voice is addressed to no one in particular and is a result of the intense struggle between the poet and his unknown dark psychic material. Many of these poems were called `kalya kavita’ or ` dark poems’ in Marathi. Metaphysical angst, depression, and existential sense of absurdity and all the stuff found in the early modernist poetry in India are abundantly found here.

In a Room Next to Death

In a room next to death
In a hotel in a way out town…
Lizards on the wall
Will cast my horoscope

In the ill humoured room in the hotel
Ina a way out town
Witness to masturbation
Will be spider in sardonic corner….

(In a Room Next to Death, An Anthology of Marathi Poetry, translation Dilip Chitre, and p.127)

Much of his later poetry became more and more allegorical, narrative, and mythopoetic. Eliot in his essay has pointed out that the poetry of second voice is that of the poet addressing an audience and the poetry of the third voice is when the poet attempts to create an imaginary dramatic character addressing another imaginary dramatic character. Poetry of Sarpa Satra, Kala Ghoda Poems, Bhijki Vahi, Droan, and Chirimiri (all collections published by Clearing House or Pras Prakashan, 2003) and some of the poems from his earliest collection including Jejuri belong to these voices.

Bhijki Wahi (A Soaked Notebook) is a remarkable collection of poems strung together with the archetypal motif of `The Weeping Woman’. Employing narratives, myths and legends from all over the world, Kolatkar has evoked woman’s suffering and agony. In this collection, one comes across poems on legends from Greek, Egyptian, Arabic and south Indian cultures and poems on the life of Osip Mandelstam’s wife Nadajada and on the series of painting `Weeping Woman’.

The Weeping Woman III

The splayed butterfly of the handkerchief
Is sitting
On your face

On the honey
Of the dark lotuses of the eyes

Now how will it lift
Its wings daubed with pollens
Of grief

It will be difficult
No very difficult
For it to fly in this state

I don’t think
The Pandavas of tear
Will permit it to fly

(The Weeping Woman III, Bhijki Wahi, p.287 , translation Sachin Ketkar )

Woman’s tears seem to symbolize the suffering of entire humanity. Human tears transcend cultural and temporal contexts and become universal. All the contexts of human suffering, historical, cultural, or regional are incidental. The collection ends with a prayer to the Cosmic mother and evokes the redemptive power of human tears:

When all this filth flows out
Out of your eyes
Then only a pure drop of tear
Just one
Will remain in the end
Save it in the eye
It will be the useful one
To create afresh
The Universe

Cosmic Mother
(The Last Tear, translated by Dilip Chitre, New Quest 157-158 July Dec 2004)

However, Kolatkar uses extremely contemporary language while dealing with his legends and myths. One has only to consider a poem called ` Kovalan’ based on the ancient Tamil classic `CilaPattiKarm’. After shuffling the Marathi word order of Kannagi’s line ` Ajun Kasa Parat Ala Nahi Kovalan’ (Why hasn’t Kovalan returned yet?) eight times in eight lines,

`How will the poor woman know
That the goldsmith whom he had approached with her anklets
Accused him of theft
And that police have finished him in an encounter?’

( Bhijki Vahi, 197 translation Sachin Ketkar)

To say that Kolatkar’s poetry is not embedded in its cultural environment and politics of his location is to be ignorant of much of his work. One has to consider a very early Marathi poem like `Suicide of Rama’ from the Dilip Chitre Anthology (p.137). The poem speaks of the epic hero committing suicide by leaping out of the epic-legendary narrative into the elemental presence of the river. After

`winding verses stir him up
the turreted epic shrugs him off…

from valmiki’s roof top rama jumps
disturbing a tile or two... .’

The godhead can have presence only in the epic imagination of the bard and the world of semi fictional narrative. The leap out of the world of cultural imagination into the phenomenal world symbolized by the river is the way Rama prefers to commit suicide. This `defamiliarized’ and poetic way of (mis) reading a culturally charged text create multiple layers of meanings. Playing on the binarism between cultural imagination and the phenomenal world, it obliquely asks if the whole effort of extracting a semi-fictional character out of a narrative and turning him into an unquestionable historical truth for political reasons is anything less than killing the spirit of the hero.

To look at poetry, like Kolatkar’s, merely with the questions its relation to nation state or merely from a formalist angle is be extremely reductive and simplistic. Obviously, both these ways of reading are inadequate. Both these approaches overlook the individual contours and specifics of the complex artistic texts. We can discover something new and interesting if only we abandon predetermined notions of what one hopes to discover in poetry and access it with more open mind. Serious engagement with Kolatkar’s poetry will begin once we abandon these stereotypical critical approaches and start reading it more carefully, sensitively, and intelligently. Once we start doing this, Kolatkar’s poetry will gladly share its wisdom with us.


Amit Chaudhari, `On Strangeness of Indian Writing’ in The Hindu (October 2, 2005)

Bruce King. "Two Bilingual Experimentalists: Kolatkar and Chitre." Modern Indian Poetry in English. Delhi: OUP, 1987, 162-82

Dilip Chitre. An Anthology of Marathi Poetry (1945-1965). Bombay: Nirmala Sadananda Publishers, 1967

____”_____ translation of Arun Kolatkar’s ` The Last Tear’ and `Reduced to Beggary by Mumbai’ in New Quest, 157-158, July Dec 2004

T S Eliot, `Three Voices of Poetry’ (1953), The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Major Author Editions, ed. MH Abrams et.al (p.1986-998)

1 comment:

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