When the MUSE came calling...
Does the smell of poetry indeed drive people away? In the large noisy world that we all live in now, louder and louder music, with fewer and fewer words, fills our ears
Ratna Raman Delhi
March is a wonderful month in New Delhi. The weather is fabulous and, although the cold is inching its way out, there are occasionally delightful mornings when one is sorely tempted to extend the luxurious languor provided by the jaipuri quilt. The crispness of fresh new mornings, the roundabouts full of flowers, and for those of us fortunate to have access to the university campuses, both North and South, this is the time when a thousand flowers bloom - in fact, when tens of thousands of flowers bloom.
March was also for the department of English, the month devoted to the muse of poetry. We had one of India's older living poets, Jayanta Mahapatra, as poet-in-residence for a brief period that month. At the first public meeting at Delhi University, responding to questions put to him and introducing himself, Mahapatra remarked with the modesty that can only come with eminence that he was one of the hundred thousand poets writing poetry. He went on to read from his poems and was then surrounded by students and colleagues for whom this was an important literary event. It is not very often that any of us encounter in the flesh authors and poets with whom one has shared an intense bond, primarily through the printed text.
This leads one to ask an overwhelming question, namely, what is the relevance of poetry in our lives? How does it, if at all, play a role in our lives? Mahapatra's observation that there are countless poets draws attention to a very important aspect of the influence of poetry in human lives. Poetry is the ability to arrange words in a non-prosaic order and this is an important cultural accomplishment, specific perhaps to the human race. Chanting and singing too are ancient cultural practices, which draw from a similar nonprosodic arrangement.
The earliest chants and hymns have been set to music in several religious traditions. Whether it is the hymns in the Samaveda, the psalms, the Gregorian chants, Sankara's Bhaja Govindam, Kabir's dohas, Lallan Fakir's Baul songs, Andrew Marvell's Bermudas set to choral music, or the soul-stirring renditions of sufi music, wonderful poetry very often lends itself to overtures from music and travels long distances through an aural tradition. The religious and mystical tradition, however, is not the only tradition that poetry has inspired. There is the poetry of love and longing, of heroism and chivalry, of deeds of valour performed for god, king, woman or country, morning aubades sung for several gods, and the song of the wandering minstrel who comments on the world. The poet has also often turned to speak of pain and suffering, of invasion and conquest, of struggle and defeat, and, sometimes, about statesmen, politicians and painters.
There have been many intersections between the world of poetry and that of music and these are set to grow in innumerable ways. One of the most beautiful renditions of Van Gogh's paintings is the song Starry, Starry Night, composed and sung by Don McLean. Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner has provided a new phase of introspection ever since it was sung by Dream Theatre, who seek to highlight perhaps the water crisis that is looming over the world at large. There is a huge appeal that the written word holds out for an aural tradition. The psalm By the Rivers of Babylon has captivated a global audience, widening its reach way beyond the dimensions of the printed material.
In fact, William Butler Yeats, Nobel laureate and major 20th century poet of Irish origin, titled his poems under headings like "Words for Music Perhaps" and hoped that the Dublin washerwoman would sing his poems as she went about her work. This did not really happen because the world wars and the advent of newer technologies, such as the wireless and the gramophone, put the small, personal poet very much in the shade. However, Yeats was unerringly accurate in his recognition of the human need for words and music. So, in the large noisy world that we all live in now, louder and louder music, with fewer and fewer words, fills our ears.
There are definitely smaller audiences for the poet today. When it comes to the printed word, the readers and listeners of poetry have definitely shrunk. Are there only niches that our poets can inhabit? Sudeep Sen remarked at the India International Centre in Delhi, where poet JP Das was in conversation with Mahapatra, with a modest group of listeners in attendance: "The smell of poetry drives people away!" (This was a passing reference to people who peered into the room through the glass pane in the closed door and then quickly made themselves scarce.)
Keki N Daruwalla, the urbane poet who addressed us at the South Campus shortly thereafter, seemed to echo Sen's sentiments on the subject of limited audience appeal. He had been a poet-in-residence at the South Campus a few years earlier and remarked that he found the campus a cold and comfortless place for poetry.
Along with Mahapatra, Daruwalla read out poems, witty and delightful, and through alternate readings they revealed to us the nuances of their poetry. Two men, one a teacher of physics at Ravenshaw College, Cuttack, and the other a student of literature and a police officer, with very different sensibilities, on whom the muse had come calling. Yet what delight their very different styles and poems provided, and how deeply they stirred the audience into responding.
Both spoke of being published in the Illustrated Weekly of India, edited then by Khushwant Singh, the grand old man of poetry and prose, who breathed life into a dormant English literary tradition in India and every week introduced poetry written in English into middle-class homes.
March is also the month for note-taking and memory as the harsh and hot summer approaches. Remembering contemporary poets and peers, Mahapatra mentioned a conference on New Literatures in English that he, along with 50 other delegates, had attended in Giessen. He spoke of a bus trip with AK Ramanujam to Marburg, a town in Germany on the River Lahn. Poet, translator and cultural historian extraordinaire, Ramanujan traversed the ancient world of Indian poetry, the Tamil and the Kannada, with ease, and wrote sharp poems in English, chipping away at the accretions of growing up in a rapidly modernising India, shaping his verse on the cutting edge of a rational western education and providing a lot of less informed readers with a wealth of information about the worlds he straddled.
As they waited in the bus, en route to somewhere, Ramanujan stepped out to pick up Birkenstock shoes for himself. Extolling the comfort value of the eco-friendly shoes (made of cork, manufacturing these did not involve chopping up trees), he asked if Mahapatra would like a pair for himself. Perhaps the latter's response was not too enthusiastic, because when Ramanujam returned it was with a pair of shoes for himself and a bottle of champagne for Mahapatra.
That was in June 1989, and a little later, on the same trip, Mahapatra made a quick visit to see the Berlin Wall. A few months after, the dismantling of the wall began. Wishful thinking, yes, but perhaps the confluence of poetic energies added its own impetus to the zeitgeist.
Ramanujan himself did not enjoy the indestructible Birkenstock for too long. Going in for a minor foot surgery in 1993 at Chicago, this composer of mesmeric verse and prose met his Achilles heel in the stupor induced by anaesthesia. Back home at Tinkonia Bagicha in Cuttack, Mahapatra heard the news of his passing away, gazed at the still unopened bottle of effervescent bubbly on his shelf, while engaging in dialogue with his own personal spectres.
Poets live a hundred lives and speak in several tongues. They record the iridescent details of human life, its ironies and its winters. They age when they are not heard, they shudder when their words are deliberately misrepresented, and are left dumbstruck when the lunatic Right fringe responds to their work with violence and bloody-mindedness. Ramanujan's essay documenting the pluralistic tradition of the Ramayana, part of history readings in a concurrent course at Delhi University, was singled out for such attention a little over a year ago. I would imagine poets die a thousand deaths when such things happen.