Articles and Reviews

Saturday, March 05, 2011

A Critique of Modernity: Kannada Poetry -Part 2

     In the impressive literary oeuvre of Chandrashekhara Kambara, the poet-playwright-novelist, the constant locale of all his works is ‘Shivapura’ –a fictitious Utopia like the city of ‘Kalyana’ in the eyes of the 12th-century-Veerashaiva saints.  Kambara’s most recent work Ellide Shivapura (Where is Shivapura?), published in 2009, is a collection of 54 poems on varied topics; and it is divided into four parts.  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 a massive heap 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 that register a normative centre: Bahubali who renounced everything, the flute-playing cowherd, the Sun who also has a shadow (Chaayaa his wife), and the strangers holding staffs of light – 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.

     As contrasted against Moily’s Ramarajya and Kambara’s Shivapura, Shivaprakash and Deva show us, with minute details, the ‘wastelands’ called ‘Avantikaa’ and ‘palace- turned-luxury resort.’ 

    H. S. Shivaprakash, poet-playwright-essayist, brings together, from his very 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 the 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 poem, addressed to the Statue of Liberty,   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.”  Avantika,’ the long poem, at one level views the ancient and legendary capital as a metaphor for all capitals of all empires that have risen and fallen 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 Avantika within himself.  In the form of a dramatic monologue, the entire poem lays bare, very powerfully,  the narrator’s fears, hopes, and yearnings.    

     Ramachandra Deva, poet-playwright-journalist, achieved considerable fame with his Indraprastha (1994), in which through the metaphor of Delhi, he laid bare the ugly facts of empires and capitals, and the way they depended on violence and forced labour.  In his recent and more ambitious collection, MaataaDuva Mara (2002), he ruthlessly exposes American cultural imperialism and the loss of native culture and literature.

     This long poem, divided into eight parts, has at its centre an old Indian tale of a speaking tree in a forest; the tree talks to us in our own language only when we approach it and talk to it, otherwise it remains quite hidden in the forest.  Deva develops this tree as a symbol for Tradition which yields us its insights only if we approach it.  Superimposed on this tale is another old tale of incest, ‘The Tale of Karthika.’   In this tale, a king forces his own daughter to become his wife and begets Karthika, who later turns into a Jaina monk.  These two tales are embedded into a modern story of an Indian king, who, after independence, cannot maintain his huge ancient palace and turns it into a luxury resort.  Through such interwoven stories, Deva exposes the kind of Americanization that is taking place in India, in almost every field –we find corrupt and lazy officers, incompetent ministers, sadistic policemen, Vice-chancellors running tutorial colleges, highly qualified professors justifying American intervention in such a backward country as India, and Indian girls in BPOs talking to Americans in American accent.  In fact, this long poem powerfully registers the kind of cultural anarchy dreaded by Arnold and spiritual death foreseen by Eliot.    

     Pratibha Nandakumar, perhaps the most widely translated woman poet in Kannada, has been very active in this decade.  She has brought out four collections which include such widely discussed collections as Munnudi Bennudigala Naduve (Between Introduction and Blurb) and Coffee House.  She is witty, urbane, and occasionally satirical.  One of her major concerns in her recent poetry is the ‘onslaught of modern technology on urban life’ (in the form of scores of T. V. channels, colourful advertisements, coffee houses, mobile phones, etc.).  They have created a ‘virtual reality’ blurring the boundary lines of illusion and reality.  However, she is not a ‘doomsday prophet’; she accepts change since it is inevitable.  But she also shows us wittily the nature of such changed life-styles – holding a slanted mirror. 

 Jayanth Kaikini is an urban poet like Pratibha Nandakumar; and his poetry deals with
concrete and sensuously apprehended things and objects around him, and the very pattern he imposes on these ‘trivial’ and unrelated details of daily life creates a perspective of irony or pathos.    Ondu Jilebi (2008), the fifth collection by Jayanth,  also reflects his abhorrence of theoretical statements and disembodied abstractions.  Even the kind of language used in this (as in other collections) has been consciously shorn of any lyrical or ‘poetical’ elements.  It is the juxtaposition of disparate images of daily life in a city like Mumbai or Bengaluru that leads to a distinct experience and a new awareness of life. Consider these typical lines:

“If only he had felt  the affection at the blue finger  tip/ Of the Lambani girl wrapped in a yellow daavani /Engaged in cleaning the glassy eye /Of the young man, holding his head, staring at  his eyes intent, and blowing into them/ While the young man stood tottering under the huge load on his head/ In the middle of the road, at noon, deserted, ...”  The kite, flying high, appears to the poet like “ a short application/ For the vacant site / In the mysterious world, priceless and incomprehensible. / For ‘immediate disposal’ / It needs the will of the cloudy system, above.”  Through such unexpected collage of images, Jayanth shocks us to a new recognition of the despair, agony and excitement of  life around us.       
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      Now a few generalizations:

a)   Modern Kannada poetry has always been characterized by contemporary
 consciousness; and, depending upon the way modernity is defined from time to time, it has either eulogized it or has launched a severe criticism against it.  But, its response has always been mixed with enthusiasm and fear vis-a-vis what it views as modernity.  In the first decade of this century, when neither tradition nor modernity is an issue, what terrifies most of the poets is Globalisation and its impact on native cultures and languages.  Also, the poets seem to be threatened with the onslaught of multi-channel TVs, Cyber culture of Internet, Email, and Ebooks; and they despair about the place of poetry in such a society.

b)   One need not bemoan, as many critics often do, that there are no influential
literary movements today in Kannada.  For, an influential movement patronises only such poetry which adheres to the assumptions and expectations of the movement, and hence breeds monotony.  But, today, when there are no influential movements, Kannada poetry is varied both in form and concerns.

c)   A curious situation exists in Kannada today.  Poets bemoan that readers do
not take their poetry seriously, and publishers groan that  readers have given up reading poetry.  However, good poetry continues to be written and new poets continue to enter the field.  Does the ‘bulk-purchase scheme’ of the Karnataka government explain this paradox?  I am not sure.

d)   Another novel feature is that the frontiers of poetry are getting extended
and the boundary-lines between different forms of literature are getting blurred.  The same poet (let’s say, H. S. Venkatesha Murthy or B. R. Lakshmana Rao or Jayanth Kaikini) writes what we call serious poetry, writes songs meant to be sung, and he also writes popular film-songs and songs for the T.V.  Perhaps, the time has come not to indulge in such differentiations as ‘serious poetry’ and ‘popular poetry.’  I am not sure if we should call this situation ‘modern’ or ‘post-modern.’

C. N. Ramachandran
  (Paper presented in the Seminar on “ Poetry in Transition: Critique of Modernity,” organized as part of Thunchan Festival, Trishur, February 3, 2011)

1 comment:

Laxminarayana Bhat P. said...

Dear Sir,

Namaste. Inventing a locale to situate one's creative ideas -- Kambar's Shivapura, or R.K. Narayan's Malgudi -- seems to me a tricky affair for two reasons: the freedom enjoyed by the author to paint the particular culture of his choice is absolute; and for this very reason becomes more of a 'showcase' or a 'framed referral point'. This an author could do perhaps only when he/she has a very definitive ideology to communicate i.e. the author is absolutely sure or convinced of his own stand and that all 'other possibilities' exist merely to be juxtaposed to provide a convenient, convincing evidence to drive home, quite artistically though, what the author primarily subscribes to. This is just a random thought, Sir. Hope I haven't oversimplified, or responded in haste!