NK Hanumantayya, 1974-2010, was a brilliant Kannada poet and a playwright. In the short period he was with us, he published two collections of poems, apart from other publications. With his very first collection, Himada Hejje (Snow Steps), Hanumantayya impressed Kannada poetry lovers. His second collection, Chitrada Bennu (The Back of a Picture), received accolades from the likes of UR Ananthamurthy. In 2016, his collected poetry was published under the title Mamsadangadiya
(A Peacock in a Butcher’s Shop).

Hanumantayya’s poems are intensely lyrical. He wrote as if his poem were the lava erupting from a volcano. Yet there is a certain frostiness in the tone. In fact, ice and fire, poison and corpses, hunter and meat, and a host of other images that he deploys call our attention to the scenes of violence that these poems confront. While his lyricism on occasion promises excellent love poems, it would appear the caste-based violence in the society has little space for them.

Hanumantayya’s is essentially a dystopian worldview because his poetry confronts casteist cruelty. He seems to have digested several strands of emancipatory aspirations that the Kannada public sphere represented. His poetry is the uncompromising voice of an intellectually brilliant Ambedkarite, deploying the finest lyrical apparatus to articulate the pain, the anger, the hope, the defiance, and the dreams of the oppressed in a society indifferent to its immoral cruelty and hypocrisy.

He had discovered, or somehow had it in him innately, an unmistakably lyrical way of responding to the unjust world he inhabited. This lyricism never became sloganeering as in the writings of so many of his contemporaries, nor did it become esoteric and inaccessible. The imagery, symbolism, and lyricism of his poems would not disappoint a purist, and at the same time, his unique way of foregrounding an insurgent voice would please any firebrand social critic.

I say this especially as debates in Kannada poetry tend to pull in either direction, and many a poet is tempted to be swayed by one or the other side and write hollow and superficial poems. Hanumantayya, however, had the brilliance to rise above the divide and the myopia of extremism. No, he was just a brilliant poet who happened to be caught in a cruel context, which his poetry unconcealed with the sharpness of lightning. He could write about anything, and he did too, with the same intense lyricism.

Hopelessness and self-pity dominate the tone of the speaker in many of his poems. The imagery arouses in us a sense of disgust. The excessive violence his poetry depicts might remind us of the French writer Antonin Artaud. Hanumantayya, too, like Artaud, tends to use the surreal and the cruel to enact transgression. Kannada critic Rahamat Tarikere points to Hanumantayya’s persistent use of images such as muddy water, dead bodies, burning fire, severed organs, etcetera, and interprets it as the poet’s way of capturing the plight of the Dalit community suffering from caste atrocities.

Tarikere says, “Suffering from a sense of injustice, the speaker of the poems here expresses his convulsions in metaphors full of immense sadness, discomfort, and regret. These images are shockingly terrifying. In these poems, there arises a suffocating world of despair from which there is no escape. The agony and fear of destruction, the feeling of victimhood, are unimaginable. The anguish and self-doubt, ideals and dreams leave the reader exhausted”.

Hanumantayya was able to create such memorable images as the peacock in a butcher’s shop, hails that turn into coal, snails crushed under cars, or the cow-like cow-eater. One is stunned when he compares the tears in his mother’s eyes to the drops of hooch dripping from the palm tree. Hanumantayya sent a shiver down the spine of Kannada poetry with his poem, “A Cow-like Cow-
eater” with lines like these:

Yes, I eat cow and have become one.
I will not become a man like you,
Eating the fodder you give,
I will not become,
Like you,
A man-eater.

In the middle of portraying this piercing pain, this searing injustice of victimhood, Hanumantayya is sensitive enough to marvel at the pulsating life. It is not as if he alternates between the two or that he also is celebratory of life’s beauties, which is rare and never overt. But, yes, there is a mind that, through its symbols and images, can bring to the horizons of our thoughts how else things could be. Similarly, his love poems and poems about mother or father are much more evocative than poems of dissent. There is a tenderness that reminds me that these poems have emerged from a humane vision.

A bird is caught
In the net of day and night,
Hunters’ hearth is ablaze nearby.
She must sing its tiny tunes
To keep the hunters drowsy
She must turn her tiny beak
into a sword and cut through the net.

— "A Bird and the Net"

A sculptor
carved hundreds of elephants and howdahs
on a mustard seed
and twisted
his moustache proudly.
He laughed
as time started to rot
at the feet
of that
mustard seed.
A small bird
flew down the electric line
and ate the mustard seed.

the sculptor opened his eyes,
to face the mustard plant
in whose bed
an earthworm was devouring
the elephants and howdahs.

— "Elephants in an Earthworm’s Mouth"

On this ant
I put
my hefty foot
and pulled it back
after a while.
The ant is moving again.
Oh, pin-sized being,
I salute your spine
that bears
my weight.
Oh, snail,
you crawl slowly
on that fence,
I salute your flaccidity
that can’t bear
my weight.
Oh, bird
on the thread-like twig,
I salute your weight.
that swings on the twig
yet breaks it not.
Churning out ever-new colours
by boiling me in the cauldron of
flaming flesh,
oh, sorrow,
dwelling deep within me...
why do you carve out my shape again,
why do you etch a spine into my picture?

— "Picture’s Spine"

All poems translated from the Kannada by Kamlakar Bhat.