Articles and Reviews

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Kannada Poetry Today: Themes and Concerns -Part 1

First, let me set out the broad contours of my paper.  Though I am aware that the history of Kannada poetry –of any poetry for that matter – has scant respect for the artificial periodisation of time in the form of decades and centuries, only for the sake of convenience, by ‘today’  I mean Kannada poetry in the last decade –ie. the first decade of the 21st century.  

During this period, many great and established poets like G. S. Shivarudrappa,  Chandrashekhar Patil, and Vaidehi,  haven’t published any poetry although they are active in other fields; however, fortunately, many other senior poets such as U. R. Ananathamurthy, Chandrashekhara Kambara, Veerappa Moily, Siddalingayya, Aravinda Malagati, H. S. Venkatesha Murthy, Pratibha Nandakumar, H. L. Pushpa,  Savitha Nagabhushana, and a host of  younger poets are actively engaged in  poetry.    

Secondly, there is no perceivable new or influential literary-cultural movement in this decade.   As a matter of fact, throughout the last century, influential movements (such as  Navodaya, Pragatisheela, Navya and Dalit-bandaya) arose from time to time and gave Kannada poetry new concerns and newer forms; but even the last literary movement of ‘bandaya’ or revolt lost its force by the end of the last century.   

Hence, what I intend to do in this paper is not to discuss any one major poet in detail but to broadly draw a map of the themes and concerns  of Kannada poetry in the last decade.  The major themes and concerns, roughly, can be identified as follows: a) Quest for Utopia, b) Meditations on Life and Poetry,  c)  Transcending Ideological Frames, and d) Physical poetry.  I need not add that these themes often crisscross one another. 

a)    Quest for Utopia: As a matter of fact, this theme is as old
as The Ramayana and The Mahabharata in India, and Plato’s Republic, Virgil’s Aeneid, and More’s Utopia in the West.  Probably, the disappointing functioning of democracy in India and pressures of Globalization have added a new edge to this old motif.  Kannada poets have explored during this period the nature of an ideal society in two different ways: through a reinterpretation of  old classics and through speculations on a fictitious society.

     1: The most ambitious work concerned with such a quest  is the poet-politician Veerappa Moily’s Shree Ramayana Mahanveshanam.  Moily’s work is  the result of astounding amount of research and reading.  The entire epic is divided into five volumes published between 2000 and 2005, and it runs roughly to 43,000 lines.  It undertakes ‘anveshanam’ or exploration of what constitutes ‘Ramarajya’ or an ideal state.  Though Moily closely follows Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana, he introduces scores of new characters and incidents, and re-interprets many familiar incidents from the point of view of modern ethos, drawing freely from Jaina and Folk traditions.  Among the incidents re-interpreted, the major ones are the Ahalya episode, Shurpanakha’s disfigurement, and Sita’s Fire-ordeal.  Coming to characterization, Lakshmana is the hero of the epic and Ravana  a tragic figure and not a villain.  It is very interesting to see the way Moily’s work introduces burning contemporary issues through  new characters and incidents –such as the Arya-anarya (tribal) confrontation, exploitative mining in tribal areas, need for universal education, alcoholism, etc. –so unobtrusively. 

     More than all, what distinguishes Mahanveshanam is the lofty vision it unfolds for India in future –the vision of a secular nation of many voices, many cultures, and many peoples.  On one occasion, Rama declares that “Mono-cultural doctrine dumps us into a well of darkness.”  At the time of coronation, Rama unfolds before his subjects his vision of Ramarajya in these words: “ ‘Ramarajya’ has no other creed and no other goal / But progress and upward evolution.”  In short, Moily collapses the past and the present in his work in such a way that his epic remains rooted in the Indian context and still it transcends time and space.

     2:  In the impressive literary oeuvre of Chandrashekhara Kambara, the poet-playwright-novelist-educationist, the constant locale of all his works is ‘Shivapura’ -- a fictitious Utopia like the city of ‘Kalyana’  in the Vachanas of the 12th-century Veerashaiva saints.   His most recent work Ellide Shivapura (Where is Shivapura?), published in 2009, is a collection of 54 poems of varying length and topics; and it is divided into four parts:  Ghodgeri, Hampi, America, and ‘bayalu’ (Space).  Though the poems are on different subjects, collectively, they connote the socio-cultural contours of the ideal society, Shivapura.

     The poems in the first part suggest that Shivapura is an independent and self-sufficient place: its small roads lead nowhere but to one another.  It is a place full of creativity: the narrator’s mother is an inexhaustible granary of old stories and songs.   The poems in the second and third parts –Hampi and America –suggest, collectively, negative models.  Hampi, both the capital of the medieval Vijayanagara empire and a metaphor for all power-centres like Delhi, connotes kingship, power, and authority; it respects only the language of gods, and it breeds violence.  Consequently, it is reduced today to massive heaps of rocks, broken idols, and ruined palaces.  America, in a different way, is a negative model: it has no poetry (‘the Moon is dead there!’);  the Queen-America sells dreams to all and sundry of  unending sensual pleasures, and every one there is happy looking at his/her own image in mirrors.  The fourth part contains a series of lyrics with metaphysical overtones: Bahubali,  the flute-playing cowherd, the Sun who also has a shadow (Chaayaa his wife), the strangers holding staffs of light, and Adiga the poet – all these connote the various aspects of a living and creative society.     In short, Kambara’s Shivapura fuses together the Marxist ideal society (pre-industrial organic society) and the Brindavan-society full of music, poetry and dance. 

  3:  Beginning with the last century, surprisingly,  many ambitious and successful epics continue to be written in Kannada –Kuvempu’s Shree Ramayana Darshanam (1947) being the most meaningful, to be followed by Moily’s epic in the beginning of this century.  In this context, two more epics written by Latha Rajashekhara deserve our attention.

     Latha wrote her first work Buddha Mahadarshana in 2004; it is an impressive work in six volumes, running into roughly 16,200 lines.  Later, in 2007, she brought out another, more ambitious work, Yesu Mahadarshana, in nine volumes totaling 21,600 lines.  In both of her grand narratives she follows the accounts of life of the Buddha and Jesus Christ handed over by tradition; and she narrates their lives chronologically.  What characterizes her traditional narratives are her study of most available sources so as to make her accounts authentic, the strings of novel similes and metaphors, and her focus on the visions of these two great men.  She draws their works and visions so poignantly that they transcend their religious frames and become universal.

     4 Ga. Su. Bhatta Bettageri is another poet who reinterprets the classics like the stories of Jwala and Nala-Damayanti’ in a new way in order to expose unequal man-woman relationships and tyranny of kingship.

b)    Meditations on Life and Poetry: Ananthamurthy, Venkatesha Murthy and Shivaprakash
     1  U. R. Anantha Murthy, better known for his path-breaking Fiction and daring socio-cultural criticism, is also a significant poet.  In the year 2009, he brought out his fourth collection of poems Abhaava, besides bringing out translations of selected poems of Yeats,  Rilke, and Brecht, each with a critical preface and explanatory notes.  Clearly, poetry to Anantha Murthy, as he states in his introduction to Abhaava, is something that possesses him like a spirit, periodically.  He writes what he calls in Kannada ‘gapadya,’ a kind of poetry that exploits conversational rhythms and day-to-day language.  His latest collection contains 18 poems, of which six are translations of Brecht, Rilke, Edwin Muir and others.

     From the very beginning, the process of creation (be it poetry or fiction) has both fascinated and frustrated Anantha Murthy; and many of the successful poems in this collection attempt to give a concrete form for that formless process.  One of his highly successful poems in this collection is ‘kaavyada Aatmaanusandhana’ (roughly, mediation between poetry and self), in which he uses the game of cowries played by children as a metaphor for the poet searching and waiting for the right words to give shape to his experiences.  The poem ends with this awareness: “It’s difficult: resolution isn’t enough, it also needs  luck.”  Similar poems in this collection, emphasizing chance and waiting on the part of a poet are “Pakshigaagi Kaadu” (Waiting for the bird), “Simbalist Kaavya,” “Saavina Sanne,” and such.  Other poems of this collection (and earlier collections) explore the dualities inherent in Life. 

     2  H. S. Venkatesha Murthy, poet-playwright-novelist, has published till now 16 collections of poetry.  His poetry is rich and variegated, characterized by mythical, narrative and oral elements.  One special feature of HSV as a poet is that he writes serious poetry as successfully as children’s poems, and also popular songs for films and cassettes.  His latest poetry collection, published 2009, is Uttarayana And … .

    The 31 poems in the collection are divided into four parts.   The title of the collection  is very suggestive: ‘Uttarayana’ means the ‘northward solstice traditionally believed to be auspicious period for one’s death, and ‘uttara’ in Kannada also means ‘answer.’  Uttarayana and … is a journey seeking answers to the eternal questions of life and death. 

     The lyrics in the first part establish the importance of familial relationships (even Rama and Shiva are ‘gods with a family’).  The songs in the third part narrate child Krishna’s pranks and thereby divinize ‘childhood’ and ‘innocence’; and Krishna’s exhortations in the last part document the process of one becoming ‘Krishna’ –feeding the cattle, scrubbing the horses, and serving elders. 

     The second part contains one long eponymous elegy, divided into 24 sections (written on the untimely death of the narrator’s wife).  It evokes a welter of emotions and moods through precise and authentic images: disbelief at the sudden disappearance (“like a wick burnt out, oil finished”), despair about his helplessness (“You can’t break the mirror, you cannot catch the reflection”), haunting memories of their past life, speculation on her ‘form after death’, and the final acceptance of the inviolable law of nature.  This personal elegy, remarkably, universalizes a personal experience.      

  3  H. S. Shivaprakash has brought together, since his first collection, myth, mysticism, and social criticism; his recent collection, Matte Matte (‘Again and again,’ 2005) is no exception.  The forty poems in this collection meditate on history of Man, economic imperialism of the West, and metaphysical truth.  The title is based on the saying, ‘history repeats itself’; and in the eponymous poem, he dreams of the Jews in Hitler’s concentration camps, and when he gets up he reads in newspapers the torture of Iraqis  by the American soldiers.  Another ends with these pungent lines: “ O goddess of liberty! In the heaven of commodities that you are building/ Smoking cigarettes / Is a very small sin.”  Aavantika,’ the long poem, at one level views the ancient and legendary capital as a metaphor for all capitals of all empires that have nourished, lived and died in violence.  At another level, it becomes a liberator of one through death; it tempts the narrator: “How wonderful / To get total release from all colours / From all pulls of this dualistic world / And from counter pulls.”  At a different level, it becomes the patron of poetry and poets.  Finally, the narrator finds Aavantika within himself.  In the form of a dramatic monologue, the entire poem lays bare, very powerfully,  the narrator’s fears, hopes, and yearnings.     

(continued in Part 2)

-Dr. C.N. Ramachandran

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