Library of India

The many avatars of the poet named Ashok Vajpeyi

Kabir is as present in his poetry as the poets of the Soviet Union and of Latin America.

Most poets conceal themselves beneath the camouflage of a professional identity, wearing the badge of a respectable occupation, giving themselves titles that require no further explanation or justification, and speaking the language of a trade that is socially acknowledged as useful. Not, indeed, because we are ashamed of what we do – quite the contrary – but because such a strategy gives us the necessary freedom and space in which to pursue our secret, our real lives, the lives we lead as artisans dedicated to a continuous and productive struggle with language, as citizens of the republic of the imagination.

Whatever the nature of the host culture that has offered convenient accommodation to the poet in the world of everyday activities – the newspaper office, the civil service, the insurance company, the publishing firm, the advertising agency – the interiority of poetic practice continues to flourish beneath the surface of outward commitments, asserting itself despite the claims made on the poet’s time and energies.

So far, so Manichean. What complicates this simple duality between the manifest and the secret life is the danger that one might become as involved in the quest for experiment and excellence in one’s outward career as in one’s interior practice. This, in my reading, is the challenge with which Ashok Vajpeyi has had to wrestle over many decades; certainly throughout the course of his career as a distinguished civil servant, from 1965 to 2001, when he contributed in seminal and abiding ways to postcolonial Indian culture as a cultural administrator and institution-builder.

Asserting that the poet’s pilgrimage is nurtured rather than slowed down by the drudgery of quotidian work, Vajpeyi has written: “Poetry enters heaven with mud-soaked shoes.” Fortunately, he was able to transfigure his quotidian work through the prism of culture: he was instrumental in the foundation or transformation of several cultural institutions, most memorably Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, an institution that hosted a grand confluence of poetry, the visual arts, theatre, cinema, architecture, and research during his tenure there.

Curator and creator

The figures he brought together to animate Bharat Bhavan included the painter J Swaminathan, the poet and fiction-writer Dilip Chitre, and the theatre director B V Karanth. The building that houses Bharat Bhavan is no standard-issue PWD construction either; it was designed by the celebrated architect Charles Correa. There, also, Vajpeyi convened an international biennale of poetry as well as an international biennale of the graphic arts; under Swaminathan’s tutelage, a museum of contemporary art by metropolitan as well as rural artists was established.

Eventually, and having survived various political vicissitudes, Vajpeyi concluded his career as Culture Secretary to the Government of India; after his retirement, he has continued to be active in the cultural sphere and has, among other mandates, served as Chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi, India’s National Academy of the Fine Arts.

Throughout these busy years as a cultural catalyst and convenor, Vajpeyi has maintained a consistent and acclaimed record of literary production, as a poet, critic and essayist whose affective and intellectual investments span the arts. A long period of relative publishing silence had followed his first book of poems, Shahar Ab Bhi Sambhavana Hai (1966); he made up for this with a surge of volumes during the 1980s and 1990s, including Ek Patang Anant Mein (1984), Agar Itne Se (1986), and Tatpurush (1989) and Kahin Nahin Wahin (1991).

Over the last five decades, he has founded and edited journals, and written literary criticism. His criticism has proceeded, not from a desire to demarcate the vanquished and the triumphant in the cycles of avant-garde warfare, but to praise the writers he loves and to share his enthusiasm for them with others. Meanwhile, his writings have been translated into German, Spanish, French, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Arabic, Norwegian, and – until this substantial translation by Rahul Soni – somewhat sporadically into English. Among Vajpeyi’s most moving testaments, both in poetry and prose, are his acts of homage to the music of Kumar Gandharva and the paintings of S H Raza.

Never shy of embracing classical visions of the cosmos, even as he has contested the claims of those conservatives who would narrow and ossify an originally vibrant and mercurial tradition into a repository of crude prohibitions and inhibitions, Vajpeyi invites his readers, in the course of an interview he once gave, to consider an expansion of the Sanskrit model of the pancha-maha-bhuta.

“The classical Indian view has been that the universe has been created out of five elements – earth, water, fire, ether and wind. I add language as the sixth element that makes earth a world for us. Language, along with god, time and abstraction are four radical inventions of homo sapiens.”

If language is one of the six great elements that form the substance of the universe, and therefore one of the great and universally available resources for human sustenance, we have been entrusted with a demanding and magnificent responsibility. Just as we might poison and degrade earth, water, fire, ether and wind with our toxic activities and our dangerous negligence towards the ecology, so too might we poison and degrade language. The poet takes, as her or his mandate, the resistance to such a destruction of language. It takes the poet from solitude to sociality, from the intimate relationship with the word and the page to a more public relationship with those who use, misuse, abuse and sometimes are transported by words.

Civil servant

I picture Vajpeyi as he spent the years of his career as a civil servant: he sits at the large glass-topped table that serves the senior member of the Indian Administrative Service as a command post; he sits in a padded chair with a towel draped over the back, the legacy of British administrators coping with the heat and dust of the tropics and the exhaustion of punkah-wallahs.

He listens all day to colleagues who speak the argot of Indian bureaucratese. Curtailing his irrepressible sense of humour, he reads their submissions and memoranda without laughing at their needfuls and their expedites, their herewiths and their therewiths. He goes through the usual relay of files, making the marginal “notings” that are necessary, retaining for the telephone those remarks that are best not recorded in writing for posterity.

And all the while, his mind continues to crackle with distant yet visceral electricities: if he is reading Muktibodh, Agyeya, Shrikant Verma, Shamsher Bahadur Singh, Arun Kolatkar, he is also reading Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Miroslav Holub, Nazim Hikmet and Eugenio Montale.

He is making plans for poetry festivals and platforms that can host dialogues among the arts. He is working on collaborations among the adjacent yet estranged, such as metropolitan modern artists and rural folk artists; he is dreaming of startling encounters among dissimilar practitioners, from South-east Asia, East Europe, South America, and from across India’s spectrum of regions, languages and ideologies.

Living in the heartland

Ashok Vajpeyi was born in 1941 in the city of Durg, then in the Central Provinces and Berar, and now in the state of Chattisgarh. He grew up in the university town of Sagar, then in the Central Provinces, later in Madhya Bharat, and now in Madhya Pradesh. Sagar boasts the oldest university in Madhya Pradesh. The definition of the territory around it may have changed, but the town has retained its special character; and for those who grew up there and were nourished by its academic and intellectual ethos, such as Vajpeyi, it holds a special significance. Like Hubli-Dharwar, Miraj, Jhansi, Allahabad, Shimla and Cuttack, Sagar was a node in that cartography of university towns, railway junction towns, district headquarters, cantonments, hill stations and pre-jet travel international refuelling stops which today we too easily relegate to the forgotten domain of the provincial.

In actuality, these non-metropolitan, so-called mofussil zones were alive with their own distinctive cosmopolitanisms, their gift for melding a proximate and dynamic culture with the distant elsewheres of international modernity. Vajpeyi carried the impulses of Sagar with him to New Delhi, where he studied at the prestigious St Stephen’s College, and eventually both into the civil service and into his poetry.

Thinking of the sublime vocalist and denizen of Dharwar, Mallikarjun Mansur, whose music he greatly admires, Vajpeyi memorialises him in a manner that evokes the deceptive backwardness and the confident sophistication of the supposedly provincial (the adroit translation is Rahul Soni’s):

Setting his own pace
Mallikarjun Mansur
comes in
and marches ahead of time

A wide net

I have always been fascinated by Vajpeyi’s breadth of references, and by his ability to frame these into a kaleidoscope of differential patterns in his poetry. Like all sensible artists – I say this as one whose somewhat schizoid fate it is to be both a poet and a theorist – he dispenses with the constricting territorial conceptions of ideologues and the Procrustean periodisations of scholarly specialists. Instead, he embraces a transregional and transhistorical approach that is festive in its declaration of affinities with the proximate and the distant, the inherited and the contemporary.

In his poetry, we sense the presence of Kabir just as much as we sense the astringent presence of the samizdat poets of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries, the lavish opulence of the poets of Latin America. If he became familiar with the former through the oral and scribal cultures of transmission, he became acquainted with the latter through the Penguin Modern Poetry in Translation series that Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort had edited and sustained, and which he read during the 1970s.

Vajpeyi’s education in sensibility has been diverse and multi-faceted; his lifelong friendships and fascinations with musicians and dancers have also brought into his poetry a nimble awareness of temporality and cadence. It is not the phantoms of a congealed tradition that matter to him, nor is it a regional identity that defines him; rather, he defines himself through the self-consciously mapped and secured position of the dissenter, even the dissident, whose sense of a personal choice and destiny rescues him from becoming the spokesperson of an ideology, a nation-state or a public cause.

Which is not to say that Vajpeyi turns his back on the urgencies that exercise all of us as members of a body politic, of a society caught up in the turbulence of multiple and vexed transitions, out of the colonial and into the global. On the contrary, he is fully engaged with the crises of aggressive populism, ascendant majoritarianism, incipient authoritarianism, and the exactions they make upon the freedom of individuals, the solidarity among communities, and the liberality of the public sphere.

Vajpeyi’s understanding of the global contemporary would accord well with the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s account: we experience the meltdown of identity and location that the ‘liquid modernity’ of globalisation orchestrates while also suffering the ‘neo-tribalisms’ that such a meltdown unleashes in reaction.

Meditating on the cycles of violence that have attended the rise of a politicised religiosity in India, and dwelling on such cataclysmic moments as the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by Hindu-majoritarian militants in 1992, the bomb attacks in Bombay in 1993, and the systematic ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority in Gujarat in 2002, Vajpeyi wonders where such brutality leaves language and the practitioners of the linguistic arts:

A rotting, burning stench emanates from language –
it’s coated in blood and rags and brutally broken bones:

prayer has turned into a terrible curse

neighbourhoods are places of murder, streets are galleries of violence
those who were our own until yesterday have been othered today:
there are no bloodstains on the murderers’ faces but the aura of victory
I watch helpless at how words are sullied,
how hate is woven into the structure of language,

how the neighbourhood is cast out of poetry.

Can the forms and resources of language and of poetry be retrieved from the horrors of hate speech, from the barbarity of propaganda, from the flattening and nullifying impact of slogans? Might a certain degree of abstraction, seemingly a search for purity of form but equally a search for new and as-yet unnamed idioms of sensuous delight, act as a resolution to the problem of a violated language? Might the extension of the intellect and the senses into domains beyond the discursive help to renew language, to offer it fresh bibliographies of sensation?

In a poem dedicated to the painter Raza, a close friend of many decades now, on his eightieth birthday, Vajpeyi celebrates the variability of the artistic quest, the shifting relationship of power between the self and time, the form achieved through effort and the elusive significance of which the form is a herald and approximation:

Time isn’t a stone building surrounded by trees and shrubs:
sometimes you lay out paper on the heavy stone table inside,
sometimes your desires,
sometimes all the sadness you have collected in your life,
but you can’t live in it
because you live in indelible colours,
in their luminosities,
in the darknesses pulsing between their layers.

It is in the luminosities and the darknesses pulsing between Ashok Vajpeyi’s lines that we find sources of replenishment. They speak to us of the world of asymmetries and anxieties in which we live, but also point to continents of hope and dream yet to be charted.

Excerpted with permission from the Afterword, by Ranjit Hoskote, to A Name for Every Leaf: Selected Poems, 1959–2015, Ashok Vajpeyi, translated by Rahul Soni.

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