Literary history

Those poems you read in school are not what Indian poetry in English really is

An excerpt from the first comprehensive collection of essays on a poetry movement that can equal any other in the world.

English poetry, it might safely be surmised, arrived in India from about the eighteenth century onward in the knapsacks, trunks, portmanteaus and bags of traders and adventurers intent on making their fortunes in the East. It then proceeded to establish itself among readers in exile and readers new to the English language with great and astonishing rapidity, fuelled in most part by the newspaper and periodical print culture that had spread through urban and semi-urban settlements in every part of the country.

The first newspaper in India, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, reserved a section of the pages of its first issue in 1780 for a Poet’s Corner, a demarcated space which would carry one or more poem in each issue for the short period of the paper’s existence, a practice followed by every nineteenth-century newspaper published subsequently. The poem published in the first issue was called The Seasons, and described, expectedly, the English seasons; it took a few months for a long poem with the title A Description of India to make an appearance here.

Does "Indian poetry" exist?

Since then to the present day, poetry written in India in the English language has, of course, changed hands and, indeed, changed nationality – what was once written by Englishmen in India, English poetry, is now Indian poetry (and has been since the nineteenth century), and is currently generally called Indian poetry in English to distinguish it from poetry written by Indians in the classical languages in the past and in the many powerful modern Indian regional languages since the mid-nineteenth century. If ever used in an over-arching sense, any category called “Indian Poetry” is a construct that is still hard to defend; in a 1963 article titled Bengali Gastronomy, the famous Bengali poet and critic Buddhadeva Bose had commented derisively that just as there was no such thing as “Indian food”, there was no such thing as “Indian Literature”, gesturing elliptically at the common understanding that every region in India produced its own variant tradition – of poetry or curry – and needed to be marked accordingly.

So there was Kannada, Punjabi or Gujarati literature (or cuisine), but nothing that could be described as “Indian” curry or “Indian” poetry outside of Indian restaurants and international publishing houses abroad. Besides, in India, Indian writing had never meant, and could never only mean, Indian writing that was done in English; the coloniser’s language was presumed to be a deracinated thing of the elites: unrepresentative, uninviting, and certainly unwanted.

Thirty five years from Bose’s comment, towards the end of the twentieth century in 1998, the pendulum had swung so far in the opposite direction that Salman Rushdie was emboldened to declare, in the introduction to The Vintage Book of Indian Writing 1947-97 that he co-edited with Elizabeth West, that not only was there something called “Indian Writing”, as their title indicated, but that on the evidence of the fifty years under consideration in the volume, it was best represented by writing in English alone.

Such a remark, of course, was always designed to provoke a backlash from the Indian literate classes, which it did with great success; less remarked upon was the fact that Rushdie’s notion of “writing” did not for a moment include poetry in it – irrespective of whether it was of the regional or Anglophone variety. Yet Indian poetry in English arguably has a more distinguished lineage than its counterpart, the novel; intrinsically, it has accomplished and achieved as much, if not more, than the celebrated fiction by well-known names that occupies so much shelf space, media space, and literary chatter nowadays, and it has done its work quietly, passionately, and to extraordinarily high standards through all these years. This book is an attempt to elucidate this fact and make a case for it in the wider world of reading.

A tradition without a history

Indian poetry in English is an indissoluble component of India’s existence in modernity, yet this is a tradition without a proper history, an unclaimed tradition for much of its beleaguered and secret existence. No clear notion of its origins and development exists in the minds of most literate Indians, who have generally been introduced to it through prescribed reading at school, alongside much-anthologised and occasionally syrupy specimens from the English canon, as some of the contributions to this volume will mention.

The first introduction to poetry in the English language for Indians might go back to pre-school childhood for some and linger in memories of books of English nursery rhymes with coloured illustrations (in what can only be described as Eastman colour) of blackbirds coming out of pies, rosy-cheeked boys and girls, fat pink pigs, or grandfather clocks with mice in them, all of which usually existed in middle-class surroundings far removed from the world depicted in the utopian space of the pages themselves. From there to Lochinvar and Daffodils in school, without any clear idea as to what the Scottish Border or the daffodil ever looked like, in common with almost every boy or girl studying English in formerly colonised countries anywhere, was a short hop.

The only concession to hard-earned political independence in these school text books was the inclusion of Derozio’s apparently dreary sonnet, To India, My Native Land (a title ascribed to the sonnet by the anthologist rather than the poet), or some even drearier Sarojini Naidu specimen on Coromandel fishermen or palanquin bearers that continues to be part of school text books today.

Excerpted with the author’s permission from the Introduction, by Rosinka Chaudhuri, to A History of Indian Poetry in English, edited by Rosinka Chaudhuri, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

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