Ecopoetry is the new buzzword. As the world faces biodiversity loss of unprecedented scale with around one million species on the verge of extinction, poetry with a strong ecological content has started to take the centre stage of contemporary poetic discourse. Anthologies of Ecopoems have started appearing.
Some notable ones are Wild Reckoning, edited by John Burnside and Maurice Riordon (2004), The Thunder Mutters: 101 Poems for the Planet, edited by Alice Oswald (2005), Redstart: An Ecological Poetics, edited by Forrest Gander and John Kinsella (2012), and Earth Shattering: Ecopoems, edited by Neil Asteley(2007).
The description of Earth Shattering states: “This is the first anthology to show the full range of ecopoetry, from the wilderness poetry of ancient China to 21st-century native American poetry, with postcolonial and feminist perspectives represented by writers such as Derek Walcott, Ernesto Cardinal, Oodgeroo and Susan Griffin.” But Indian ecopoetry finds no mention here, although Meghaduta and Ritusamhara by Kalidasa are some of the best examples of ecopoetry.
Recently I translated both Meghaduta and Ritusamhara from Sanskrit. Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara describes changing life in six seasons – summer, rains, autumn, frost, winter and spring – by making reference to different flowers, plants, animal, seasons, rain, rainbow, wind, sun, moon, stars, stones, rivers, and mountains among others things, animate and inanimate.
Kalidasa emerges as an ecopoet of very high sensibility and empathy, as he describes the plight of animals in different seasons in Ritusamhara, and how even animals come together to support each other despite their animal instincts. For example, in Summer –
Antelopes unable to bear the sun’s blinding glare
with parched throats and thirsty tongues, jump
towards the distant sky – dark like the fine powered
collyrium, thinking it as a sheet of water in another jungle.
Tormented by the sun’s savage rays
scorched by dust , the Cobra pants
time and again with his hood drooped
as he creeps to rest in a peacock’s shade.
Lion, the lord of beasts, lolls his tongue,
pants loudly, his jaws wide-open, mane
shaking, powerless with intense thirst
he ignores the elephant though nearby.
Unafraid of the lion anymore, elephants
spray cool water from their trunks
to soothe their ears from the blistering sun
suffering from intense thirst
they roam searching for water.
A peacock, breathless, struck with the sun’s piercing
rays like burning flames of sacred fire on the altar,
lets the snake live, which pokes its head
into the discs of his dazzling plumes.
Singed by the scorching sun rays
frogs leap out of the muddy marsh
and sit under the parasol hood
of a deadly cobra – tired and thirsty.
With foaming mouths and rose tongues
wild buffaloes emerge from the hill caverns
frenzied by thirst, their vision blurred,
snouts raised in the air sniffing water.
German philosopher Martin Heidegger thought that the function of poetry is to save the earth from the consequences of an instrumental or technological attitude towards nature. Kalidasa’s poetry exactly does that.
I have not come across any other poet who describes the lives of antelopes, peacocks, boars, lions, elephants, cobras, frogs, buffaloes in such detail and with such empathy. In Ritusamhara, Kalidasa continues to delight us with these vivid descriptions of plants, insects and flowers in the rainy season –
Like jade fragments, the green grass rises
spreading its blades to catch raindrops,
fresh leaf-buds burst from the Kandali plants,
Indragopaka insects make a riot of crimson, green,
purple and gold, the earth is draped in colourful
jewels like an elegant and charming woman.
Roused by the pleasing sound of thundering clouds
a pride of amorous peacocks fill the air
with their joyous screams welcoming the rain,
throwing themselves into the love-play of billing and fondling
and begin to dance spreading out their resplendent feathers.
If rains and clouds are equally important in making even peacocks alive with joy, what of humans then?
Wild elephants, delirious, trumpet endlessly
as if challenging the thundering clouds
their secreting temples resemble a blue
lotus frequented by the honey bees.
The splendour of Indragopaka insects and Kandali plants would be lost without these stanzas of Kalidasa. Poetry shows the splendour, majesty of all these species in their finest glory and touches our conscience exhorting us to do all to protect and preserve them.
In Ritusamhara, Autumn begins with Kasa blossoms, silver moon, white hamsas, blooming lilies, fragrant white jasmine, white is the colour of the season. Now, let’s look around a modern megapolis of today, concrete buildings all around, streets filled with cars, polluted air to breathe and so on. How does one perceive the change in seasons? Kalidasa’s poems show us the path, tell us that we are heading in the wrong direction, we must take look back at Kasa blossoms, silver moon, white hamsas, blooming lilies, fragrant white jasmine and take them along.
The earth wrapped in Kasa blossoms,
nights lit up with silver moon
river currents white with hamsas
and ponds with newly bloomed lilies
forests – a riot of saptachadda trees
bowing gently with the weight of flowers,
gardens fragrant with malati blooms,
white reigns all around, pleasing our eyes.
The sky is deep blue like glossy collyrium
The earth is glowing like dawn tinged
pink by Bandhuka pollen, fields bright
green with blooming Kalama rice,
whose young heart would not throb
with sensuous longing?
[Bandhuka: Jungle geranium, Ixora Coccinea]
The breeze caresses gently the blooming flower buds
and tender young leaves on swaying boughs of Kodivara tree
Among the soft whispering of the leaves, the delirious bees
suck trickling honey greedily. Whose heart would not overflow
with joy looking at these lovely trees?
[Kodivara: Mountain ebony, Bauhinia, Kachnar]
The Shyamaa creepers’ twigs full of flowers
outrival the grace of women’s jeweled arms
and the malati blossoms entwined
with flowering Asoka vie with the sparkling
teeth of women smiling radiantly.
At sunrise, aroused by sun rays
Pankaja opens up like the glowing
face of a young woman, while
the moon turns pale at dawn
the smile vanishes from the Kumuda petals
like the smile of young hearts
when their lovers are gone far away.
In the season of frosts, Kalidasa underlines the importance of powders, incense, and perfumes obtained from various plants in enhancing women’s beauty, and the role of plants and animals in arousing passion in young hearts.
Young women rub Kalakeya perfumed powder
on their bodies and tattoo their faces
blossoming like lotus with the remains
of the foliage, and perfume their hair
with the incense of Kakaguru as they
get ready to meet their lovers to make love.
[Kalakeya: Fragrant turmeric powder
Kakaguru: Resins of Aloe Vera]
The fields covered with ripened paddy
as far as eyes can see, their boundaries
full of herd of does, midlands filled with
sweet cries of graceful demoiselle crane,
ah! what passion they arouse in heart!
In Winter too, women drink flower wine, eat betel rolls, wear colourful silk and fragrant flowers. It seems impossible to love without the flora and fauna surrounding them.
Wives aching for love, their mouth perfumed
with flower-wine, retire to their bedchambers
filled with fragrance of aguru incense, carrying
betel rolls, chaplets and sensuous perfumes. 5
[Aguru: black aloe]
Shining like stars, their voluptuous breasts held
tightly by lovely bodices, gorgeous thighs covered
in colourful silk, fragrant flowers adorning
their hair, women welcome the winter’s arrival.
Spring arrives like a warrior armed with spiky mango blossoms and humming bees. Who but the ecopoet in Kalidasa can imagine spring as warrior armed with fresh blossoms and humming of bees and women’s sensuality enhanced by fresh blooms of Karnika, Ashoka and Navamallika flowers?
The warrior spring comes completely armoured
my love, armed with spiky shafts of mango blossoms
his burnished bowstring made of humming bees
he pierces the hearts of lovers with his flower arrows.
Fresh bloom of Karnikaras on their ears,
a chaplet of Ashoka flowers and full blooms
of Navamallika vines on their curly dark hair,
magnify the sensuality of beautiful women.
Crazy cuckoo drunk on mango nectar,
as drunk with wine, kisses his partner
honey bees too hidden inside lotus petals
hum sweet sounds to their sweethearts.
Spring has brought forth groves of flowering
Palasha trees swinging in the wind, bowed
with loads of flowers resembling raging fire
and the earth resembles a just-married bride
dressed in elegant radiant red attire.
In Redstart, Forrest Gander and John Kinsella ask, “The damage humans have perpetrated on our environment has certainly affected a poet’s means and material. But can poetry be ecological? Can it display or be invested with values that acknowledge the economy of interrelationship between the human and the nonhuman realms?”
Kalidasa’s poems cited above exactly do that, they don’t merely acknowledge the interrelationship between humans and nonhuman realms but go beyond it in underlining the vital role the flora and fauna play in shaping human culture and civilisation and how in their absence we humans would be reduced to nothing but machines.
Forrest Gander further adds – “less interested in ‘nature poetry’ – where nature features as theme –than in poetry that investigates – both thematically and formally – the relationship between nature and culture, language and perception.”
Kalidasa’s genius lies in bringing together ecological with sensual and creating everlasting sensual ecopoetry.