Sexuality expresses itself in the most beautiful and subtle ways. And perhaps poetry is an obvious vehicle to convey its journeys of discovery. But what happens when these journeys are brutally stopped short by undesirable experiences? What happens when sexuality has to come to terms with forces that colonise the body? How do the body and mind respond, then?
The poems here, by Karthika Naïr, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, K Srilata and me, explore the idea of the body as a metaphor of protest in the context of female sexuality. These are poems that trace the contours of the body and mind, when subject to violations or when conformities are imposed; poems that reaffirm power and authority over cowardly perpetrators of abuse.
While Naïr brilliantly employs myth to rise above subjugations of violence, Chabria uses cinematic technique to portray subtle scenes from the minds of her majestic, extraordinary women. And in Srilata’s poems, there’s an unmistakable and liberating rejection of the almost-cannibalistic male gaze.
In turn affirmative, lyrical, visceral, ironic and matter-of-fact, these are poems that refuse to be drowned in the hiss of violence.— Anupama Raju
I. Ahalya Anew
Fathers, husbands, gods:
you will no longer decree
whom I wed or bed.
That choice is mine. To be free –
whether woman, river, stone.
II. Antigone: Remains
You would slit this tongue,
smother voice and bury breath:
but what of my words?
Yes, words. Like blood, they will spill,
stain air, earth – and memory.
III. Aisha: How to Breed Darkness
At first, no veils ruled,
no seclusion, no silence:
He called us equals.
Then came Fear and Shame, prophets
armed by others: men, not gods.
IV. Draupadi: Violation
Brothers who would feast
on my broken, bleeding thighs:
their dazzle will blind;
touch, and you disrobe not me
but your luckless destiny.
V. Eve: Paternity
It was the serpent
that gave us life, not father:
knowledge, the real breath.
These poems were first published as part of No Violence, No Silence, Prajnya’s 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence 2012.
Karthika Naïr is the author of several books, including the award-winning Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata, and the principal scriptwriter of several dance shows including Akram Khan’s DESH and Chotto Desh. Also a dance enabler, Naïr’s closest association has been with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet as executive producer of their works like Three Spells, Babel (Words), Puz/zle and Les Médusés, and as co-founder of Cherkaoui’s company, Eastman.
Priya Sarukkai Chabria
Prayer as Three Camera Movements
Falconetti’s Joan of Arc Face
Cracked sun the teardrop that hangs on a lash and falls bursts
skids down her pitted skin, down her brokenness as she, stone
flower, sunflower, turns towards the inquisitor’s glare and her
sainthood is slowly hammered into chainmail breasts.
Her silent words are wrong whatever she says.
Extreme close-up: no let up to transformation. See the
trembling of cell, phrase & faith.
Kinuyo Tanaka’s Nape in The Life of Oharu
She drops her head to staunch her eyes’ rain as her
son who reigns walks past not knowing that sack of kneeling
woman is his mother who sinned & pulled herself out
of icy seas like a wounded seal, sealed to secrecy. See the
bent stalk of her nape, how soft, how ripe for the axe.
Crane shot ascends: suffering shrinks to dewdrop size.
Silence of the enfolding gaze.
Gauri’s Back in Sant Tukaram
“Accompany me to heaven,” her husband says. “Who’ll feed
the kids & scrub the buffalo if I come with you? Go!” She
rolls out chapattis, rough as dung-cakes, as holy bread. The saint
mounts god’s eagle & people chant. She flings the
sweat from her face on the earth. Her back sturdy as a tree,
Slow backward track: the unseen movement that remains as
time forgets the colour of clay.
Published in Calling Over Water (Poetrywala, 2019)
Priya Sarukkai Chabria is an award-winning poet, writer, translator and anthologist acclaimed for her radical literary aesthetics. Her books include speculative fiction novels Clone and Generation 14, literary non-fiction, a novel, three poetry collections, most recently Calling Over Water, translations from classical Tamil, Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess, winner, Muse India Translation Prize, 2017 and editor of Fafnir’s Heart World Poetry in Translation. Story Slo-Glo won Best Experimental Story in The Best Asian Speculative Fiction (Kitaab, 2018). Awarded for her outstanding contribution to literature, she presents her widely anthologised work worldwide. She edits Poetry at Sangam.
A note on the poem
Falconetti’s Joan of Arc’s Face
Marie Falconetti was a relatively unknown French stage actress when the legendary Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer cast her in the title roles in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). The film condenses the trial of Joan and her death at the stake to a single day. Falconetti played the role with profound spiritual power that was to change her for life, and she never acted again.
The film, celebrated for her portraiture of the saint, is often shot in excessive, almost excruciating, close-ups that intensify the realism of the film. The Passion of Joan of Arc still figures in many Top Ten lists, as does Falconetti’s performance.
Kinuyu Tanak’s Nape in The Life of Oharu
Among the outstanding actresses of classical Japanese cinema, Kinuyu Tanaka acted in several of the extraordinary director Kenji Mizoguchi’s films. In The Life of Oharu (1952) adapted from Saikaku’s 17th century novel, Mizoguchi fashioned a great tragedy about a woman at different stages in her life in feudal Japan. After serving in the Imperial palace Oharu is banished for loving a man of lower rank, sold as a concubine to a prince and finally sold to a brothel. As an aged prostitute, she is permitted a furtive glimpse of her son, now a prince. She finally becomes an itinerant nun. In a distinctive Mizoguchian final shot the camera cranes up to show the entire panorama. Tanaka was Mizoguchi’s amanuensis; here she plays the eponymous character with rare conviction and sensitivity. The film won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
Gauri’s Back in Sant Tukaram
The most celebrated bhakti/devotional film made in Indian cinema, V Damle-S Fattelal’s SantTukaram (1936), has won many accolades and was voted as one of the best three films at the Venice film Festival. Gauri was a sweeper employed in the Prabhat Film Co. in Pune when director and movie mogul V Shantaram spotted her talent. She went on to play numerous character roles in the 1930s, which is considered the Golden Era of Indian Studios. Her best remember performance is as Jijai, the hardworking peasant wife of the 17th century mystic poet Tuka in the hagiographic film Sant Tukaram (1936).
As the earthy Jijai burdened by housework, caring for their sole buffalo and hungry children she is the perfect foil to the saint’s otherworldliness and spiritual aura that is invoked in equally outstanding performance by Vishnupant Pagnis. The strength of Gauri’s performance commands viewers to empathise with her when she refuses to accompany her saint husband as he flies to Vishnu’s heaven, Vaikunta.
That Old, Young Body
Among the many bodies I mourn
from stalking old photographs,
is this one I am especially fond of –
No breasts, thin sticks holding up
a lack of waist and hips,
and yet that day on the bus,
a man who made me feel I had them all –
and stole them from me.
(For Kutti Revathi)
He smuggles it out the theatre
and into pathology,
the small man,
heedless of that which is in his hands,
still warm with blood,
and pleading, for a last minute reprieve.
I think: what if he is a cannibal, what if.
I picture him licking his lips after lunch,
his hands on his swollen belly.
Mulaigal, I think,
the Tamil coming to me unbidden.
Orange slosh of Adriamycin,
teeth on stand-by carrying traces
of daily gritting and forbidden sugar-love,
that slow switch to crumpledness,
and nurses with breasts
who come and go,
and she talking of Kannagi, of Otta Mulachi,
and me thinking of that which is in his hands,
still warm with blood,
and the night’s dark ceiling
sprouting a million missing breasts.
from The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans (Mumbai: Poetrywala, 2019)
K Srilata is a poet, writer and academic. She was a writer in residence at the University of Stirling, Scotland, Yeonhui Art Space, Seoul and Sangam house. Srilata has four collections of poetry, the latest of which, The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans, was published by Poetrywala in 2019. Other poetry books include Bookmarking the Oasis, Writing Octopus, Arriving Shortly and Seablue Child. Srilata has also published a novel titled Table for Four and has co-edited the anthologies Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry and All the Worlds Between: A Collaborative Poetry Project Between India and Ireland.
What you don’t know
You think you can
stun me to sleep,
shun my words
and hold me down.
What you don’t know
is I am an axe.
I cut you down.
She should have used a conditioner.
Would have made it smoother
when dragged by her hair.
Any brand would have done,
may have distracted her.
Conditioners can condition:
Hair, skin, legs, breasts, vagina.
But mostly screams which
don’t leave a mouth
held shut by a knife.
If only she had used a conditioner.
Would have been a softer ride
when the cop listened with empathy,
feeling her up.
That night she used soap
with glycerine and antiseptics.
Hoped it would clean her up.
But nothing came close to a conditioner.
Next time, I will condition myself, she thought,
as she brushed down her knotted hair.
Anupama Raju is a poet, literary journalist and translator. She is the author of Nine, and has been featured in several poetry anthologies. Her poems have appeared in publications, including Domus India, Caravan, The Little Magazine, Indian Literature, Poetry at Sangam, among others. She has been translating Malayalam writer Paul Zacharia’s stories into English. She collaborated with photographer Pascal Bernard on two Indo-French poetry and photography projects Surfaces and Depths (2012-2013) and Une Ville, Un Lieu, Une Personne (2011-2012). She was the Charles Wallace Fellow at the University of Kent, Canterbury and Writer-in-Residence at Centres Intermondes, La Rochelle, France.