Of history in the making and poets as witnesses

Of history in the making and poets as witnesses

Hindi poet Kunwar Narayan, Kunwarji to his friends, is the winner of the prestigious Jnanpith Award for 2005 announced last month. Recently, his publisher hastily arranged a celebratory dinner for the publicity-shy poet and invited some of us, long-time friends and admirers, to listen to the reclusive octogenarian talk about himself and his art.

Time has lent a slight stoop to his frame, but Kunwarji’s face (which bears a startling resemblance to T.S. Eliot’s ) seems untouched by age and his mouth is still quick to twitch with a gentle self-deprecating smile when his work is being discussed.

“Three terms the saint poet Kabir uses have been all important to me," Kunwarji said, “Sabad (the word), Sakhi (the writer as an observer-turned-witness) and Ramaini (wandering). In a way they map the entire area of creative activity for me."

Listening to him talk about Kabir’s world and his own, I realized how far most recent Indian writing appear to have moved from their life-long commitment to the arts: that studiously sidesteps populist theories to just wander and watch and then turn their gaze reflectively inwards to weigh and to assess. Such poets are witnesses-turned-historians who can watch the entire span of civilizations pass before them, missing nothing, judging little.

One of Kunwarji’s unforgettable poems, Sarahappa, is about a great medieval wanderer who was both an iconoclastic saint and a poet. He was a Kshatriya prince who had taken to the?robes?of a?yogi, but was suddenly and inexplicably smitten by love for an untouchable Shabara beauty:

“…Together, both began a game in which

Both emerged winners and created

A poetry of game playing

And how it feels to be totally united

When man-woman, untouchable and touchable

Fuse into one…

(translated from Hindi)

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This is an age when everyone—from a jingle writer to a politico who pens mediocre to plain bad lyrics, may be described as a great Bhasha poet and acclaimed by the media. Driven by hyperventilating anchors and academic critics out to win friends and influence donors, the literary establishment is trivializing the arts in irreparable ways. For those that wish to be introduced to literature in Indian languages, the literary establishment will mostly offer an overwhelming number of borrowed theories, several of them driven by political ideologies of regional parties. One has seen Sarahappa being variously interpreted as a revolt by the low castes, or a tale of liberated feminism setting free a human libido created by patriarchy or a cautionary tale of a great mind being brought low by a lowly woman.

“I know you are rich up there," Kunwarji says wryly in one of his poems to such theoreticians, “I am mostly an avoidable query".

Ultimately it is life and humans in seemingly imperfect situations that Kunwarji’s poetry follows and records. Vajshravas, a father who, enraged by his son’s bold questions, tells him that he has given him away to death and the son marches off to the other world and asks the reluctant lord of death to take him. There is another man in another poem, vomiting statistics and being hauled to hospital where they give him laughing gas.

A Hindu poet complains he is dying to hate the British, the Muslims and the Sikhs, but can’t because of Shakespeare, Ghalib, Nanak and the ever so subtle Amir Khusro, a poet seven emperors tried to kill but who survived them all. These poems demand in the readers the same wayward imagination and flexibility of reason so rare today. The present system seems to be controlled almost entirely by humourless academics who have long ago given up Sabad, Sakhi and Ramaini, and a clutch of impatient publishers ever on the lookout for a Bhasha quickie in passable translation that could do well at Frankfurt, and last but not the least, the mega lit-fest creators. All these muffle the very idea of an easy-going and reflective waywardness of mind and the imperfections that poetry captures to make life worth living and poems worth treasuring.

Chagall once said that the worst thing for an artist to have too early is a little success, a little money, a little car, a little satisfaction. All of these hold him from the “Big Dedication". Thankfully, there are still a few writers such as Kunwar Narayan who embody that rare quality and ignore all distractions, because to them, as to Nabokov, a work of art remains important only vis-a-vis the reader, not as a socially relevant statement.

Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at theotherside@livemint.com