Dr. Nandini Sahu is a major voice in contemporary Indian English literature, widely published in India, U.S.A, U.K., Africa and Pakistan. She is a double gold medallist in English literature and also the award winner of All India Poetry Contest, the Shiksha Ratna Purashkar and Bouddha Creative Writers’ Award. She is the author/editor of nine books entitled The Other Voice (a poetry collection), Recollection as Redemption, Post-Modernist Delegation to English Language Teaching, The Silence (a poetry collection), The Post Colonial Space: Writing the Self and the Nation, Silver Poems on My Lips (a poetry collection), Folklore and the Alternative Modernities (Vol.I), Folklore and the Alternative Modernities (Vol. II) and Sukamaa and Other Poems, (a poetry collection), published from New Delhi. She has one poetry collection under publication, Sita (A Poem). Presently, she is an Associate Professor of English in Indira Gandhi National Open University [IGNOU], New Delhi. Dr. Sahu has designed academic programmes/courses on Folklore and Culture Studies, Children’s Literature and American Literature for IGNOU. Her areas of research interest cover Indian Literature, New Literatures, Folklore and Culture Studies, American Literature, Children’s Literature and Critical Theory. She is the Chief Editor/Founder Editor of Interdisciplinary Journal of Literature and Language (IJLL), a bi-annual peer-reviewed journal in English.
In an exclusive interview with Dr.Sahu, Mr.Vipan Kumar, Lecturer in English, CASS, Adi Keih, Asmara, Eritrea, NE Africa, asks her about her idea of marginal studies on the occasion of the launch of her fourth poetry collection, Sukamaa and Other Poems.
Dear professor, you have a good name in modern Indian literature in English. Would you tell me something about this journey?
NS: I am thankful to you for your kind words. I don’t know nor have given any much conscious thought to whether I am a ‘name’ as you put it, because I have consciously never done anything for the sake of fame. Yes, looking back today to where I started from, there is a degree of satisfaction at what life has given me as a person of Literature. Born and brought up in a traditional Odishan village, educated in what many would call ‘white tile’ institutions but with a very strong family educational backgrounds, I have always found my moorings in my medium of thought and expression, the most nondescript of things in my surroundings, and most importantly, in the varied and vivid experiences in the journey of life. To tell you the truth, I am happy to have become what I always wanted to be….a passionate student of English Literature, an academic and poet in my own right and on my own terms.
Basically, you are a poet. But, do you think that 'poetry' has a good demand in this era of science and technology?
NS: I am both surprised and amused that the issue still exists! See, every age of civilization has had its own eras of scientific thought as befitted the levels of knowledge and advancement of the age; and literary pursuits in general and poetry in particular have always coexisted with that. In fact, some of the best minds of bygone eras have inculcated both facets in their work. From Aristotle through Omar Khayyam to Jayanta Mahapatra nearer home, I could give you instances galore of luminaries who were men of science in their academic capabilities and excelled either as poets or as connoisseurs of poetry. In our own times, I might mention Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, formally a student of Physics and Aerospace Engineering, and one of the most erudite Presidents our country has had. I refer to Dr. Kalam as an answer to the veritable bridges between Poetry and Science and Technology that you talk of; a man of Science with a soul and spirit that is as ‘poetic’ as can be! What else is poetry but the effusions of the innermost core of the human mind? From classical texts to the ultra post modern of them, practising poets and theoreticians have accepted as such. A poet today doesn’t live in an ivory tower and dream of the fantastic; he/she draws material succinctly from Life. Poetry (as an inclusive term), which to my mind, is basically the panacea for the myriad stresses of life, is most often a corollary to what you mean as the era of science and technology. The busy corporate might not be accepting the proposition overtly in so many words, but I see no conflict between the two! To put these thoughts in verse, I’d quote from my own musings that are of course now in print:
The gentle art of looking through,
A concrete experience of the abstract,
the union of life and peace,
the vision and the visionless
the song and silence,
the corners where all the rivers flow
amid the heart’s dark floor,
a rapport with mortality,
a formula of sight,
a clarity of light,
a sign of the heart,
a look into the night,
a day that’s bright, . . . .
what else is poetry
but a clear insight?
In one of the interviews, you mentioned that your main sources of inspiration are your land, people, place and what social and political inequalities you see everywhere. But now as you reside in New Delhi, do you find any different social and political scenario here?
NS: Yes, my land with its topography and uniqueness, my people whom I’ve known intensely, the culture that has reared me and the socio-political milieu that I’ve seen evolve around me, though not necessarily in that order, have indeed been both my moorings in life and the inspiration behind my creativity. As far as residing in Delhi goes, well life in a big city has myriad hues, but the perspectives and insights acquired through felt experiences over the years have never really changed. It’s true that life today is comfortable, but the scenarios that differential power equations bring about are fundamentally the same. I have never been able to turn my eyes away from the obverse side of life; wherever I may be spatially located. The dream of reaching out to the disenfranchised (that is in several senses) that has been a nascent one only gets stronger by the day. As a poet and a human being, I would consider myself successful if ever my thoughts of a better tomorrow can be translated into action, in my own small ways.
You are a folklorist and recently your two volumes, FOLKLORE AND THE ALTERNATIVE MODERNITIES have been released. Do you think folklore is a full-fledged literature in itself?
NS. A literature, the product of and is a representation of mass culture, is definitely authentic and full fledged. Since there is this aspect of faithful representation of the ways of life of communities at the core of folk literature, I consider it as literature that is autonomous. The two books on folklore experiment with a flexible view of folk, removing notions of folk as part of marginal literature. My strong belief is, folk is not something out there in a museum, it is a part and parcel of our lives, and thus, fit enough to be our mainstream literature. The modern literary texts that have made explicit use of the folk traditions to make it available to the readers today are also treated at par with the folk texts that have only the oral tradition, called the pure folk. The books examine the nature, concept and function of folk in modern Indian literature. These volumes are of immense value for the literature teachers, researchers, folklorists, anthropologists, and experts of social psychology marginal studies, dalit studies, developmental studies, culture critics, linguists and policy planners. In the same vein, I have designed courses for my own University and have also been on similar assignments abroad on folklore and culture studies. My ideas of folk are appreciated and accepted all over, because roots are ultimately important for all.
What are the special benefits of interdisciplinarity?
NS: There was a time when interdisciplinary studies would have to be ceremoniously taken up, but in these times it has become the norm by default. To my mind, this was inevitable, for both the study and practice of literature and the frontiers of human life have simultaneously opened up manifold. My passion for folk literatures for instance, has sprung from an avid interest in life forms that are often not very evident at the mainstream level and the moment I am taking it up as a serious study, I wily nilly become a student of allied areas like Sociology, Anthropology, Bhasa literatures and of course the acquiring of a vast variety of regional and sub-regional dialects even. All this in turn, enriches my oeuvre of creative literature by peopling the mind with numerous forms of life. This is just one instance from personal experience, there could be numerous. Guess your question in a way also answers your previous interrogation on the relevance of poetry in the modern era too!!! Interdisciplinary approaches have indeed given tremendous dynamism to the very idea of literature, and that is the driving force behind our journal IIJL.
Your fourth poetry collection, SUKAMMA AND OTHER POEMS, is a tribute to the marginal, the subaltern. What do you understand by 'subaltern'?
NS: Sukamaa and Other Poems is, I would say, a subconscious recreation from a vantage point my tryst with deeply felt notions of subalternity that I now realize were always there like a nagging thought at the back of my mind, even when I wasn’t old enough to know any of these technical terminologies. The title figure Sukamaa was a rural, poor tribal Kondh woman, my childhood domestic help who was in no way related to me/us by ties of blood and was yet a vital support system for the family. In my poetic thoughts on the subaltern, I see her as an archetypal figure and my discourse is from the ‘other’ side, that is to say, an assay in unearthing the voices of the millions of Sukamaas who, true to the Wordsworthian conception of the rustic, are capable of showering elemental love and care on us, the more fortunate, without ever stopping to wonder at the unequal relationships of power that determine their interactions with their masters/employers. Somewhat in terms of a Marxist exaltation of the proletariat, I could as well say that they shine in their work and dedication that go beyond any reasoned analysis of rewards and returns; till they become inadvertent signposts never erasable from our repositories of memory. In that sense, my fourth collection is a long standing debt I owed to my past.
As you have defined 'subaltern', do you think this 'subalternity' can be minimized?
NS: I wouldn’t really say I have ‘defined’ the subaltern, because this is an entirely subjective response that has emanated in my poetry. As a social being and citizen of a country that is into the sixth decade of its independence, I look at subalternity more as a socio-political phenomena that perhaps needs to be honestly addressed by the powers that be. Having seen the most vivid glimpses of the two Indias all my life, I somewhere feel with sadness that the subaltern has existed perhaps because the centre has always needed a margin over which it can hold sway. Alternately, there is also some kind of a trope wherein the subaltern is apparently glorified, with the agenda of actually containing the dissident voices. Of course, marginality in India is a complex thesis altogether, one that goes beyond Gramscian binaries of domination and subordination and includes marginalisation of communities, minorities and others in the name of religion, location, occupation and so on, besides marginalization in the name of class, caste, gender and tribe. At the level of representation, the idea of a dedicated collection for the subaltern came to my mind because I felt literature needs to have the nature of a discursive articulation if it is truly intended to have a vision of presenting subalternity with a view to minimising it. The first step towards minimizing is of course creating an empathetic awareness and to this end, my recent collection Sukamaa and Other Poems is imbued with a revolutionary zeal to set the record straight. As a creative writer, this is only my first obvious step, and I hope we shall be able to start building an awareness of the necessity of addressing the issue by means of something like a citizen campaign among privileged sections of society as well.
In one of the interviews you suggested to the poets of new generation to read classical literature. Don't you think that classical literature is dying?
NS: No..I don’t think it’s dying. Classics or classicus means belonging to the highest, thus it has the position of its own. Classical literature denotes to the great masterpieces of the Greek, Roman, and other ancient civilizations, like Homer's Iliad, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Virgil's Aeneid, or Oedipus the King by Sophocles, or works by other ancient writers in epic, lyric, tragedy, comedy or pastoral. In Indian literature, it can be the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Vedic texts and many such. Classical literature builds up the base for all other literatures, so how can it die? Starting from our universities’ syllabi to our coffee tables, classical literature always asserts its position. In my writings, I do not intend to give teleological account of history, but tradition shapes me to what I am today.
Professor, as you are very much active, industrious and energetic, what would you like to suggest the budding writers?
NS: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) is one of the paramount methodical thinkers in the account of Western philosophy. The essentials of Hegel’s social and political philosophy are the concepts of autonomy, purpose, self-consciousness and recognition. There are significant relations between the metaphysical or theoretical vocalization of these notions and their solicitation to public and radical realism, and the significance of these thoughts can be gripped only with knowledge of their common and chronological understanding. This idea of individual freedom is discussed in Hegel’s book Philosophy of Right (Philosophie des Rechts). Hegel’s idea of ‘individual freedom’ in the state starts with ‘home’. What I understand is, everyone at home, including a small child, is a small little citizen out there in the society, thus, s/he deserves as much respect and recognition at home as an adult. We cannot take the views of a child and a woman who is the homemaker lightly, which is seriously lacking in India. Most Indian men do not consider the wife as a citizen with individual freedom, thus most marital rapes and domestic violence occur in Indian households. In my writings, I dare to take the responsibility of announcing loud and clear that "the emperor has no clothes on!" I venture to use metaphors that encompass a situation wherein a group of observers readily accept a shared ignorance of an evident circumstance, even though they individually know its irrationality I accept my admirers and detractors with the same vein.I would suggest the budding writers to be honest to their writings ,belong to a tradition, have the soul to call a spade a spade, and of course to take appreciation and criticism in the same disposition.