sunday sounds

The conscience keepers: Poetry of Sahitya Akademi protesters

Poetry at its best does not always require translation as this sampling from some of those who returned their awards recently shows.

In the past few weeks India has been hit by a tsunami.  Not one raging sea waters, this tsunami has been made up of something much more intangible and rare: truth. As writer after writer gave back their awards in protest of the perceived failure of government to fulfil some its most basic duties – the defence of vulnerable citizens, moral leadership, delivery of justice – the world was offered a stunning example of what honour and integrity (abstract concepts most of the time) look like in real life.

To an "outsider" this wave of protest has been an extraordinary thing to observe. It is not everyday that we get to witness such a clear and consistent exercise of citizenship (another hard to grasp concept) in action.In any country.

One of the features of a tsunami is its unexpected and rapid arrival. And the pace with which poets, critics, novelists and historians have returned their prizes and opted for personal integrity over tarnished public glory has been impressive.

As the list of protesters grew longer, I became curious about the actual work of these men and women. Some I knew of but most were new names to me. What was their poetry all about? Were they radical revolutionaries? Had their writings always been marked by protest and dissent?  In the process of researching this week’s offering, I was delighted by what I discovered.

These artists are in love with words, pure and simple. And the beauty and encouragement which comes about when words are put together, spoken and sung.  Where I understood the words, I didn’t hear any messages that were overtly political but rather the themes were human and universal. Where I didn’t understand the language, I was mesmerised by the music-like cadences, alliteration and inherent beauty of the sound of each stanza and word. Poetry at its best does not always require translation.

Here, for your enjoyment, are a few samples of the poetry of some of India’s unexpected cadre of Sahitya Akademi protesters.

Ashok Vajpeyi
Darwaza (Hindi)

A former Chairman of Lalit Kala Akademi, senior bureaucrat and arts administrator, Ashok Vaypeyi reads from his poetry collection, Kahin Nahin Wahin for which he received the Sahitya Akademi award in 1994.  In the introduction to this poem, Darwaza (Door) Vajpeyi refers to some of the purposes of doors as being "open to truth which sometimes remain closed and which often we are not even aware of". Poetry, according to Vajpeyi, is a kind of door calling out to be opened.

Mandakranta Sen
Ghor (Bengali)

Sen is a prolific writer (19 volumes of poetry, two novels and more) whose intimate, bold and sometimes sensual writing has set the standard for contemporary Bengali poetry. The angst of the feminine experience is a recurring theme in her work. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Young Writers Award in 2004.

Surjit Patar
Shairi recitation (Punjabi)

A Sahitya Akademi award winner in 1993, Surjit Patar has also headed the Punjabi branch of the Akademi.  A senior artist who in addition to composing his own verse is an active translator of foreign and non-Punjabi Indian literature, Patar enjoys a huge popular following among Punjabi speakers.  In this wonderful recitation he sings several of his poems evoking the Sikh tradition of shabd kirtan. His poetry is filled with deeply felt references to nature and the ancient land of his native Punjab.

Manglesh Dabral
Bachi Hui Jagahen (Hindi) 

Hailing from Tehri Gahrwal’s mountains, Manglesh Dabral’s Hindi poetry has been widely translated into most Indian languages as well as several foreign languages. Like most of his peers, he has served in editorial positions in literary magazines as well as a journalist.  In this poem he speaks of loss, remembrance, fading faculties and the essential rituals of daily life. Dabral was awarded the Akademi’s prize in 2000 for his collection Ham Jo Dekhte Hain.

K Satchidanandan
The Mad (English)

Writing in Malayalam and English K Satchidanandan’s contributon to Indian arts and literature is huge. Until 2006 he served as the Secretary of Sahitya Akademi and has represented his country and peers in dozens of international forums and events around the world.  In addition to his writing, Satchidanandan has contributed to the cause of higher education in India serving both as professor and technocrat in various institutions.  He has long been a champion of secularism and anti-caste discrimation and in this poem speaks compassionately (even enviously) of those "mad" who we the "sane", so often dismiss and ignore.

Aravind Malagatti
Selected poems (Kannada)

Perhaps it could be claimed that Dr Aravind Malagatti, a Dalit poet and activist, is the most "revolutionary" of the poets in this selection.  Certainly, for Malagatti poetry and literature are not a discipline, an art or a passion that can be separated from the political realities of an oppressed people.  His active public life has included him being recognized and honoured by the Karnataka Sahitya Akademi for his "total contribution" to literature in that language. Like all the others featured here, he has returned his award.

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