A dialogue with
Shreekumar Varma : Poet, Novelist, Playwright and Columnist
Shree, You are a part of the Royal family of Travancore, descendent of the legendry artist Raja Ravi Varma and the grandson of the last Maharani of Travancore, your writings would have naturally been influenced by the environment essential to Royalty. Tell us about the poetry and grandeur, words and color that has brought your works to the forefront of Indo English writings in India today.
I’m afraid my works have yet to come anywhere near the forefront of Indo English writing! However, I have the faith that people will read and respond to a substantial body of work by me in the next ten years. This will include poetry, long and short fiction and plays. My children’s novel Devil’s Garden—Tales of Pappudom (Penguin) is out in July, and I feel that I will be writing a great deal for children in the future.
I grew up in a very ordinary environment, since both my parents are down-to-earth people. The Travancore royal family is also noted for its simplicity. We moved from the palace in Trivandrum when I was about four years and came to live in Madras. But I admit I was influenced by the grandeur of ideas and the richness of thought. Culture and the arts and an environment of temples must have charged me in some manner and “prepared” my writing.
2. I had told you earlier that I won’t talk about your novel ‘Lament of Mohini’ (Penguin) and the children’s book ‘The Royal Rebel’ (Macmillan). Enough has been written all over the world regarding these two books. The book contents have a common thread, a thread that binds you to a heritage and legacy. Instead I would like to ask you about prose and poetry, prose poems and only poetry. It is difficult for poets to indulge in prose. Vikram Seth wrote prose poems. When did you start writing poems?
I think a love of words binds the poet and the novelist. And a good writer’s prose isn’t necessarily prosaic. To let out a secret, I have even written songs! You then sense the music of words even more acutely. It’s just the poetry bursting forth. I think ordinary words get transformed when the poet feels. The poet has to frame his poetry, the novelist can afford to let it flow – that’s probably the difference. Even a playwright is a bit of a poet because he is trapping life through limited words. I wrote poetry even before I turned ten. My first poems (other than in school magazines) were published during my teens. As for Vikram Seth, I find poetry even in his novels.
3. You have the imagery of an artist, your poems reflect the colors on a broader canvas, poetry of Kerala and the common man:
When the sun dips as if forever,
when streaks of feeling
silver the horizon's brow
and the waves start up in excitement,
frothing and insatiable,
my thoughts betray me
and I can barely feel the world...
I think this is the time to tell you about a favorite theory of mine that I keep repeating ad nauseum during interviews and lectures – that our creativity is like a violin. When the so-called Muse passes like the bow over various points, various notes are brought to life. What I’m trying to say is that we are all creatively inclined people. All of us. Circumstances, training and the environment – and probably our genes – awaken certain aspects of our creativity so that we indulge exclusively and uniquely in those aspects. So the artist paints, the writer writes, the singer sings. And if you look around you, every artist is making use of elements from other art forms.
I experience color and music and poetry even when I am writing straight fiction. I have studied this permeability of art at first hand. I teach creative English to Math students who come from far-flung towns of our country, often with little exposure to English, and they have been able to write their own haiku and other short poems within a couple of weeks. One’s creativity isn’t necessarily limited by language, subject or the kind of exposure – creativity simply chooses a convenient form.
4. Your poetry has been accompanied to Bharat Natyam recitals. Mallika Sarabhai has given such performances to the poetry of Pritish Nandy, Astad Deboo has danced amidst sculptures and poetry readings at the Jehangir Gallery, Mumbai, Gopal Sharma and Jalabala Vaidya gave such performances at the Akshara Theatre in New Delhi in the seventies The Rotterdam International Poetry Festival this year discussed on Poetry and the Arts. Tell us more about poetry blending in visual arts, dance, theatre and films.
This is only an illustration of the point I was trying to make in my previous reply. If all goes well, I may end up making a film and also painting some day! These are dreams that have a right to flower!
5. You have taught extensively In India and abroad, teaching Bachelors and Masters Degree students in English Literature. How do they react to the subject Contemporary Indian Writings in English? Do you have students who have shown promise in Creative Literature of tomorrow?
I haven’t taught abroad, though I have addressed some forums outside India, and foreign groups who’ve come here. I was especially struck by the way the English and the Scots reacted to some very insular cultural and social phenomena that I speak about in my novel. These are so local that even other communities in Kerala may not be able to identify with them. But these people asked a lot of questions and seemed to have an uncanny understanding of the social situations. Among my students and other youngsters I’ve addressed, I find there is a western bias among those who read English books, or a local bias among those who read the vernacular. There are only a few who try and get into the spirit of different worlds and sensibilities. That is what makes for true literature. But I’m sure there are many creative giants waiting to blossom among the students I’ve taught.
6. Shree, Tell us about poets that have influenced you, Indian poets whose works you have read over and over again.
Surprisingly, I haven’t read as much poetry as I have fiction. I’ve enjoyed Sarojini Naidu, Nissim Ezekiel and Daruwala. I’ve also found some extremely sensitive and poetic voices among local poets in Chennai.
7. The Urdu couplet written by you, surprised me, you being a poet from Southern India could write such beautiful lines.
Hum ek hi jaam to peete thhe
Woh din gayey
Behke, saqui ki dua ki tarah
Hum ek hi rukh se jeete thhe
woh shaam dhaley
dard ki akhri dhuain ki tarah
Ab tho raahat yeh raha
na din raha, na raat rahi
na main raha, na yaad rahi
Hindi was my second language. And I’ve been exposed generously to Hindi films and music from a very young age. More than actual verbal competence, I think I have imbibed the spirit of Hindi and Urdu verse. About four years ago, we had a school reunion, and we produced a cassette of songs. I wrote all of them, in English, Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam. I even sang the Malayalam song! I think if you’re strong in the language – that is, if you’re familiar with its rhythm and flow, and as I said, its spirit, then I think it’s possible to express your emotions pretty well in it.
8. The poem below has been my favorite, tell us more about it.
(After the boat tragedy)
Days after the drowning when companion villages
raised the memory of their various dead,
and boats and blame were re-examined,
and officials packed up, exhausted,
dredging out certificates and compensations;
one evening when the wails had stilled the sky
like ghost singers fading out, and the lamp
reached the threshold like any other evening,
the old woman hobbled out, muttering her prayers
and cursing each member of her family
for leaving her alone,
unaware of the reason
for the terrible silence in the house
that invaded even her deafness.
Unlike some of my friends, I have rarely responded to current events and social problems by writing poetry. This one was a departure. I read about the Kumarakom boat tragedy in the paper, and it kept haunting me. Suddenly this image came.
In our houses in Kerala, one of the women comes out with the oil lamp, saying “Deepam, deepam”, and lights the lamp on the tulasi pedestal. The poem grew out of the tragedy and this image. Everyone kept talking about responsibility and compensation and things like that. I tried to think of how the accident could have affected one vulnerable individual.
And thanks, Amitabh, it’s one of my favorites too!