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Five reasons Indian poetry matters more than ever

Considered too esoteric for readers and commercially unviable for publishers, Indian poetry is losing its reach to people. Here’s why that’s wrong.

Rabindranath Tagore, Indian poet, writer, composer and artist, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for his collection of poems, Gitanjali, which were described as “profoundly sensitive, fresh & beautiful verse”. Since then, India has gained her freedom from British rule and gone on to become the world’s largest democracy and second most populous nation, with Indian literature making significant strides as well. Booker prize winners, a myriad of literature festivals and one of the fastest growing publishing industries in the world often make headlines for India. The genre of poetry is part of this vibrant, pulsing field, too, and here's why you should know more about modern Indian poetry.

1. Poets bring history alive 

India’s rich poetic legacy dates back more than 5,000 years in ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pali, with renowned epics such as the Bhagavad Gita written in verse. Bhakti poetry, devoted to asceticism and enlightenment, moved from south to north, creating a movement of its own, inspiring people to look at society, God and worship in new ways.

Then came the Muslim invasion and colonial rule, introducing Urdu forms such as the ghazal as well as English rhyme and meter. During India’s struggle for freedom from British rule, slogans, poems and songs flourished. Though barely a hundred years old, Indian poetry in English draws from this legacy, offering a powerful, multi-hued history of India and its people.

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is one of India’s foremost poets, as well as an anthologist, literary critic and translator. In the poem Engraving of a Bison on Stone, Mehrotra grapples with language, history and the passage of time:

The land resists
Because it cannot be
Tempted or broken
In a chamber. It records,
By carefully shuffling the leaves
The passage of
Each storm, rain
And drought.


2. Poetry thrums with the pulse of a billion people

Poetry is a powerful ambassador, a medium through which awareness on greater issues can be raised. In a few short stanzas, it can tell a story, convey a message, and bring a slice of the world to you. With over a billion people, India’s voice is one that we should all be hearing.

In 5.46, Andheri Local, poet Arundhathi Subramaniam beautifully brings together the strengths and vulnerabilities of Indian women, turning the ladies’ compartment of a train into a powerful goddess in motion:

Like metal licked by relentless acetylene
we are welded –
dreams, disasters,
germs, destinies,
flesh and organza,
odours and ovaries.
A thousand-limbed
million-tongued, multi-spoused
Kali on wheels.


(From On Cleaning Bookshelves, Allied Publishers, Mumbai, 2001)


3. Poetry thrives in a diversity of languages

India has 22 official languages, including English, and 398 documented languages in total. Can you imagine all the poetry that has been, is being, and will be written? While some poems in Indian regional languages have been translated, there is a treasure trove of Indian verse waiting to be unearthed and explored.

In renowned Punjabi poet and writer Amrita Pritam’s poem Letter, she deftly captures the anxiety felt at the time of India’s freedom struggle:

And now only some sparrows come,
straw in their beaks,
and sit on my body
and worry about the next generation.
(How wonderful to worry about the next generation!)
Sparrows have wings on them,
but resolutions have no wings
(or resolutions have no second generation).


Translated by D.H. Tracy & Mohan Tracy


4. Poetry shows us English is an Indian language

Indian English is a rich patois of regional words and experiences mixed in, depending on which part of the country you live in. If you read Indian poets in English, especially the work of Arun Kolatkar, Gopal Honnalgere, Manohar Shetty and Jeet Thayil, it is hard to think of their work as anything else except “authentic Indian”, even though they write in a language brought in through colonial rule. India is a thriving example of many languages co-existing and having the power to capture an experience in their own way. The fact that English is globally recognised means that India’s rich, vibrant and uniquely Indian verse can be accessible to people all over the world.

In the poem Malayalam’s Ghazal, poet and novelist Jeet Thayil cleverly traverses culture and language by invoking his mother tongue, using an Urdu/Arabic poetic form, written in eloquent English.

Listen! Someone’s saying a prayer in Malayalam.
He says there’s no word for ‘despair’ in Malayalam.
Sometimes at daybreak you sing a Gujarati garba.
At night you open your hair in Malayalam.
To understand symmetry, understand Kerala.
The longest palindrome is there, in Malayalam.
When you’ve been too long in the rooms of English,
Open your windows to the fresh air of Malayalam.


(From: 60 Indian Poets, Edited by Jeet Thayil, Penguin India, 2008.)


5. Diaspora poets rock as much as diaspora techies 

People of Indian origin are all over the world, making strides in science, commerce and the arts. India’s diaspora, the second largest in the world after China’s, is estimated at over 25 million people. Poets in the diaspora are engaged in a compelling, ongoing documentation of migration and growth that is vital in understanding the world we live in.

Indo-American poet Vijay Seshadri won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his collection 3 Sections,  a gritty examination of human consciousness. In the poem Trailing Clouds of Glory, Seshadri pushes the reader headlong into a multitude of selves that celebrate, engage, question, and explore identities and environments.

Even though I’m an immigrant,
the angel with the flaming sword seems fine with me.
He unhooks the velvet rope. He ushers me into the club.
Some activity in the mosh pit, a banquet here, a panhandler there,
a gray curtain drawn down over the infinitely curving lunette...
...So why the angel with the flaming sword
bringing in the sheep and waving away the goats,
and the men with the binoculars,
elbows resting on the roll bars of jeeps,
peering into the desert? There is a border,
but it is not fixed, it wavers, it shimmies, it rises


(From: 3 Sections By Vijay Seshadri, Graywolf Press, 2013.)


Poetry suffers from a bad reputation: too esoteric for the common man, not commercially viable for big publishers. But because of its ability to pack experience and emotion within the confines of a stanza – to take snapshots with words, if you will –  poetry deserves to be utilised in the same way that we text, tweet or post pictures. It is a perfect mode of communication for the digital age.

Indian poetry is an ongoing, multi-octave raaga of history and human experience. We need to honor and learn from the rich landscape  of Indian poetry –  of voices such as Kannada poet Gopal Honnalgere who have died in obscurity, or like Meena Kandasamy who bear postcolonial witness to the nation’s wrenching twists and turns.  Otherwise, we may be asking ourselves, as Mehrotra does, “What happens to my drafts, my manuscripts, after my death? They will be kept in boxes and sold by the kilo to the raddiwallah (scrap dealer).”

Shikha Malaviya is an Indo-American poet passionate about promoting, archiving and teaching Indian poetry. Her book, Geography of Tongues, was published in December 2013. She is a co-founder of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a literary press hard at work to publish India’s most diverse poetic voices. To learn more, visit www.greatindianpoetrycollective.org.

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