In 2014, Kedarnath Singh was in Kochi on a short visit to give away the Balamani Amma Award to MT Vasudevan Nair. I met him at his hotel and he agreed to visit my house for dinner. After dinner, I asked him, “Kedarji, do you need anything else?” He replied “Beta, mujhe ek cup elaichi chai chahiye” (Son, I need a cup of cardamom tea.) The tea came and he enjoyed it, but I was floored by his simplicity.
Singh’s poems are simple too, using everyday language and imagery. He has left behind a body of work which needs to be discussed and debated, particularly in our troubled times.
Singh began writing around 1952. He started with geeth (songs) and then moved on to write poems – his first poetry collection, titled Abhi Bilkul Abhi, was published in 1960. These early writings were influenced by Hazari Prasad Diwedi, Namvar Singh and Trilochan Shastry.
His poems are simple in style but thought-provoking – a rare combination of modernism and village life, as seen in “Come”:
Come, when you have time
When you don’t have time
Like the strength in hands
Flowing through arteries
Like the slow flames
Like the fresh thorns appearing
In babul trees
comes after tuesday
In Singh’s poems, you can find the voicing of the uprooting of trees, a river that’s a solace in times of trouble, the sounds of grains in the fields, a father consoling his son, and the explosion when man and words collide with each other. The Hindi critic Revathy Raman said of his work: “In the late ’60s those young poets who surpassed the middle class issues and penned poetry where the lives in and around you and nature were expressed – Kedarnath Singh made a distinct mark among them.”
The hallmark of Kedarnath Singh’s poems were humanism and nature. In his address to the third Taar Saptak, Singh said: “I don’t know whether the progressive elements and human values have found place in my poems, but there is a belief, a wish and a fire in them, which I try to protect from all adversities.”
This humanistic concern can be seen in his poem “I Saw That Man”:
I always love to see
Man crossing the road
This gives me a hope that
The world on the opposite side
Of the road would be better
Than this side.
In this poem, Singh hopes for a better world. Life is a mixture of merits and demerits and to uphold humanistic values in these circumstances makes him different from others.
In another poem titled “The Farmer Father’s Instruction To His Son”, Singh breaks a popular stereotype:
Don’t believe the
Believe the barking of the
Dogs from afar.
The falling star symbolises direction but the poet says to believe the barking of the dogs. The barking denotes a basti nearby. Believing in the falling star means one has to adhere to traditional beliefs. Singh breaks away from this and says that falling stars show direction but the barking of the dogs explains life, reinforcing the humanist belief in reality rather than in tradition.
Kedarnath’s poems on nature are humanistic as well, as seen in the poem “Attack of Honey Bees”.
Today in the afternoon
The honeybees made a ruckus
In the city.
They went around
Trees and the homes
And shouted slogans.
They yelled in front of
Aalaa Wazir’s gate
Honey bees demanded
Give us place, give us place
May be it’s small
But give us place
Then all the honeybees together
Gathered in front of a building
They sang sad songs for long
And the peace of the “mohallah”
Was disturbed for a week
It is a fact that forests are being destroyed and flats being constructed in their place. Animals and birds have lost their home and this poem compels us to think about our relationship with nature.
“Bagh” is one of Singh’s most popular poems, which conveys one meaning while read in part and another when reading in its totality. In his own words: “Today’s human being has come out of the reality of Bagh, that knowingly or unknowingly Bagh has become a mythical entity for him. But apart from this mythical entity, Bagh is a natural entity for us like the wind and water”. The varied hues of life can be read in “Bagh”, as seen in this excerpt:
There was a small
News item in today’s daily
A tiger had come into the city
No body saw it
None heard its footsteps
In the night.
Not a blood drop fell
On the road.
But everyone believed
The news in the morning daily
Singh was also an essayist. His observations on poetry and language were published in books such as Mere Samay Ke Shabd, Kalpana aur chayavad and Hindi kavitha ke bimb vidhan. He was also a skilled translator. Works of British poet Dylan Thomas, among others, were translated into Hindi by him.
On the other hand, the translation of Singh’s poems into several Indian and foreign languages is a testament to his acceptance as a poet, both nationally and internationally. I was fortunate enough to have translated selected poems into Malayalam for a collection titled “Kedarnath Singinte Kavithakal”.
The body of work that Singh leaves behind is huge. His major published works include Abhi Bilkul Abhi, Natya Sahitya Prakashan (Allahabad, 1960), Zameen Pak Rahi Hai (Prakashan Sansthan, Delhi, 1980), Yahan Se Dekho (Radhakrishan Prakashan, Delhi, 1983), Pratinidhi Kavitayen (Rajkamal Prakashan, Delhi, 1985), Akal Mein Saras (Rajkamal Prakashan, Delhi, 1988) Uttar Kabir aur Anya Kavitayen (Rajkamal Prakashan, Delhi, 1995), Bagh (Bharatiya Jnanpith, Delhi, 1996), Srishti par Pahra (Rajkamal, New Delhi, 2014).
Singh won the prestigious Jnanpith Award in 2013. and during the course of his life was also awarded the Maithili Sharan Gupta Puraskaar, Kumaran Asan Puraskaar, Jeevan Bharathy Puraskaar, Dinkar Puraskaar, Sahitya Akademi Puraskaar and Vyas Samman.
Singh will always be remembered as a humanistic poet. One can find mud, roots, wind, water, pickaxes and bulls in his poems. Hamlets and dust are an essential part of his poetry and the pivotal point of his poems are the common man and his problems. There is no doubt that Kedarnath Singh will remain standing tall in world of contemporary Hindi poetry.
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