CONTEMPORARY INDIAN ENGLISH POETRY: A Review
Book Review P. Raja & Rita Nath Keshari (Editors)Contemporary Indian English Poetry Pondicherry: Busy Bee Books, 2007. Pages: xix+524, Rs. 495.
A serious and a much-needed attemptTalking about the current situation in Indian English Poetry, R.K. Singh in his article “New Indian English Writing: Postcolonialism or the Politics of Rejection?” states that “the growth of Indian English Poetry has been marred by lack of recognition by the local/ native audience with taste, pride and professionalism.” This is quite true as in almost every issue of literary journals across the country, we come across reviews of books by well-known or new poets; but how many of them go on to get the deserved attention from the readers or the academia, or win accolades of the literary establishment? Singh believes that this politics of rejection of many new Indian English poets is practiced not only by the “governing-elites-cum-cultural elites of India but also by the media and academia that think there is nothing worthwhile in recent writings that are not honored by a Pulitzer, a Booker, a Sahitya Akademi, a Commonwealth or a Whitbread Prize…or have a ‘foreign’ stamp.” He further points out that “those writers who are settled abroad and have been receiving good attention from media and academia…do not like to be called Indians.” Singh’s article draws the readers’ attention towards the vacuum that has sustained in Indian English Poetry for the past two decades, and angrily questions: “How long the so-called established scholars, critics, reviewers, university dons at home will continue to ignore the poets appearing in small journals or publishing their books spending their own hard-earned money?”
Singh’s article seems to have had the desired effect on the mind and the heart of some scholars. The anthology under review appears to address the question raised by the article and in a way marks the dawn of a new era in the history of Indian English Poetry. Dedicated to the great visionary Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the book makes a refreshing shift from the mainstream writers to the less-known or academically ignored writers. The poets in this anthology are from different parts of the country and from different professional backgrounds—they include an academician, bank officer, auditor, executive, civil servant, social worker, and media person.
The editors’ introduction gives a brief account of the trends and the shifts in Indian English Poetry from the 1950s to the 1980s, mentioning the different phases that went into the making of this literary genre. They also pay attention to the contemporary Indian English poets “who are actively engaged in conveying their experiences with highly chiselled skills”. The editors make a decisive choice in favour of practicing poets who have been writing for more than two decades or so, and write briefly about them to justify their inclusion in the anthology. Through this mapping of the terrain, the editors make a bold attempt to foreground the selected poets in Indian English Poetry and to contest the hegemony involved in validating literary art. In the introduction, the editors Raja and Keshari aver, “many critics would like to know how much they mingle with the mainstream …this attempt of determining their rank or whether they can rub shoulders with the forerunners in this field is best left to the literary historians and to the test of time” (xxiii-xxiv).
The anthology is a serious and a much-needed attempt to extend the range of Indian English Poetry. The seventeen poets included in it are Shiela Gujral, R. Rabindranath Menon, I.K.Sharma, Baldev Mirza, M.L.Thangappa, Dwarakanath H. Kabadi, I. H. Rizvi, Ashok Khanna, Pronab Kumar Majumder, Mohammed Fakhruddin, D.C. Chambial. Ram Krishna Singh, P.Raja, B.V. Selvaraj, Manas Bakshi, K.V. Raghupathi and Rita Nath Keshari. These poets balance themselves between tradition and contemporary reality, between the outburst of spontaneity and the rigours of craftsmanship, and are aware of the redemptive powers of poetry that can heal the fragmented self.
Shiela Gujral’s poetry mirrors the changing socio-cultural environs, the existentialist dilemma of modern man, and nature as a soothing balm to all tensions. Her exuberant intimacy with her natural surroundings is superbly conveyed and it leaves the reader spell-bound.
R.R. Menon’s disillusionment with contemporary society is well reflected in most of his poems. Tennyson quietly shook hands with the changes of Time, accepting it as inevitable: “Old order changeth yielding place to new” (Idylls of the King). But for Menon it doesn’t seem to be that easy. In poems like ‘The Last Gasp’, ‘Bald Man’s Comb’ and ‘Computer Craze’, he laments the loss of old values and shudders at the new ones.
I.K. Sharma is the most representative poet of our time. ‘A firebrand non-conformist’, he presents the squalor and sordidness of contemporary society, the prevailing injustice and hypocrisies which have maimed our society. Through irony and realism the poet sensitizes the reader to the chaos and anarchy rampant in the society: “In this city/ of speed, smoke and cinema, /Sunday is a dainty episode/ in the history of barren weeks, /When love is renewed, /and father cherished at home/like a prize long overdue.”
D.H. Kabadi’s broad canvas depicts social discrimination (in poems like ‘Hunger’, ‘Let the Graves Smile’, ‘Disposable Gods’, ‘Existence’, ‘Sour Milk’, etc) and degeneration of moral values. He gives a bare outline of truth without any sort of ornamentation: “Marxism/A medallion/On a dead body Capitalism/A bullet/In a living heart Humanism/Still a seed/In a dry land”.
Environmental degradation in urban centres is the theme of Ashok Khanna’s poetry. In the poem ‘Fulsome Figure’, the female figure becomes a metaphor for the transformed city of Mussourie and with gentle irony the poet focuses on the ecological degradation. The same concern can be found in such other poems as, ‘You’re From Delhi Indeed’, ‘The Yamuna’ etc.
P.K. Majumder too expresses deep anguish about the general callousness towards ecological issues. The word ‘progress’ has shattered the societal structures and moral values. The ever-increasing mindless dependency on technology has corrupted the human mind and has also brought havoc to the planet.
M. Fakhruddin portrays the various facets of human nature with a fine blend of humour and irony. D.C. Chambial’s expertise lies in not only exposing the general decay around him but in finding some meaning in this chaotic world. Poems such as, ‘Brahmoasmi’, ‘Dawn’, ‘light’, ‘Drink Deep Nature’s Bounty’ and ‘Beautiful Beyond’ delve deep into the warring personalities that constitute a man’s total existence.
R.K. Singh’s poetry not only touches upon environmental and socio-political issues but also has metaphysical traits. ‘Helplessness’ and ‘Restlessness’ are the two major themes that run through his poetry.
P. Raja’s lyrical poems paint the quirky behaviour of people around him with a perfect economy of expression. Apart from social violence he also captures nature’s violence in ‘A Balance Lost’.
The work of these poets is marked by Indianness and presents an image of India in its various hues and sensibilities—socio-cultural, political and ecological. The selection of seventeen poets with 20 poems each, along with their photographs, detailed bio-data and exclusive analyses of their work make the anthology the first of its kind in the History of Indian English Poetry anthologies. (The only other example of this kind, though on a limited scale, was Continuity: Five Indian English Poets (2003) edited by R.A. Singh.) The bio-data and critical analyses of the poets’ work provide enough guidance to a reader or researcher interested in studying any of these poets. In fact, this compact volume on contemporary Indian English Poetry deserves to be on the syllabuses of universities. I wish, however, the editors had included more women poets in the volume.
History ‘happens’ on a large canvas; its representations are always smaller in comparison. Writing reflects but also shrinks the scope of life and creativity. We need more editors like Raja and Keshari to unearth ‘many a gem’—talented poets such as Maha Nand Sharma, R. S. Sharma, Asha Viswas, P. K. Singh, Tejinder Kaur, Sudha Iyer, Maria Netto, Anuradha Nalapet, Nilima Wig, Vijaya Goel, P. C. K. Prem, D.S. Maini and others.
1. R. K. Singh. “New Indian English Writing: Postcolonialism, or the Politics of Rejection?” Creative Forum, 16.3-4 (July-Dec 2003), 107-112.
2. Rajni Singh. Tennyson and T.S. Eliot: A Comparative Study. New Delhi: Sarup and Sons, 2005.
Published in Muse India, Issue 18, March-April 2008. http://www.museindia.com/showcurrent7.asp?id=895