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The Shillong Poets . . .
|by Ananya S Guha|
One is amazed at the richness of poetry written in a small place like Shillong, especially in the English language. Such a wealth can be attributed to the locale, its natural surroundings, places of scenic beauty in and around Shillong, in Meghalaya in general. Also what cannot be divested of this fact are the rich oral traditions, myths and folklore of the Khasis and the Garos, the inhabitants of Meghalaya. Such details infuse the poetry of certain poets from Shillong, drawing inspiration from the oral narratives and legends.
Three poets began this tradition in the mid eighties and early nineties: Robin S Ngangom, Desmomd Leslie Kharmawphlang and Kynpham Sing Nonkynrih. Although the first named, Robin is from Manipur he has been living in Shillong for over three decades. These poets brought a veritable revolution in the world of Indo-English poetry by breaking away from the mainstream tradition of city based cultures and urbanized images which marked poets from Mumbai, or Calcutta.
Of course in the 70s a poet such as Pritish Nandy based in Calcutta then talked about the severe societal crises in Bengal due to violence and the Naxalite movement. A lot of the poetry written by him was centred around the city of Calcutta, feelings of hurt caused by death of people perhaps savaged by a policing effect. Pritish Nandy in fact could evoke such passions lyrically as well as in his love poems.
However, in the mid eighties Robin S Ngangom and Desmond Leslie Kharmawphlang in their twenties forged distinct voices of their own by writing about the small town axis and a feverish societal crises witnessed by people's agitation as in Assam and Meghalaya over issues such as infiltration of outsiders and foreign nationals.
Moreover, there were repressive police measures to tackle student agitationists, and since the late 1970s a peaceful hub such as Shillong was plunged into the throes of crisis. In neighbouring Assam there was the people's intervention in the form of the famed Assam agitation over the illegal immigrants issue which incidentally still continues today. In the other neighbouring states of North East India such as Mizoram, Tripura and Nagaland militant forces were at their height asking for independent nation states. In fact, the entire North East India Manipur included was plunged into a veritable war between armed forces of the Indian Government and militants termed variously as extremists or terrorists.
Robin S Ngangom in fact, hailed from Manipur and came to Shillong to study. These two poets reacted to the bludgeoning violence of their immediate society and took the route of 'escapism' by speaking of the natural beauty of their land, the hill-scape, the ravines and gorges cut deep into their psyches. These were recurring motifs in their poetry as also were the legends, myths and folk tales of their societies.
With Robin S Ngangom it was perhaps a more complex and painful process as he had left his home state and adopted another which he loved. He used Khasi legends and myths in his poetry which he took pains to read and understand. However, his homeland Manipur was visibly present in his poetry as he invoked the historical past of this great culture and its ancient kingdom: Kangleipak. The violence that was circumnavigating his home land was also poignantly reflected in his poetry as he mourned the loss of a land, of friends, spoke of a brutalized society and the obliteration of the halcyon days of a mythic past.
This conflict between past and present and their subtending realities were also present in Desmond Leslie Kharmawphlang's poetry which was sensitized deeply by his love for folk traditions, the oracle of the past, the folk narrator and spoken oral tradition. This gave to their poetry a strong Romantic element which mythologized their poetry with an innate charm of the small town, small loves, wishes and desires. However, the violence that was taking place in the town and elsewhere was a means of greater reflection and introspection in their poetry especially in that of Robin S Ngangom's.
With Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih we come across a more flexible poet conscious of pure literary forms such as the satire or the haiku. Moreover, he also used humour as a satirical means and chose off beat themes for his poetry such as a person going to the market or a traditional local funeral setting. He is also a poet of nature and he often speaks about his home town Sohra popularly known as Cherrapunjee in idyllic and idealistic terms.
Last year Harper Collins published a collection of Kynpham's Poetry. The point that I am trying to make in this essay is that an antithetical trend emerged in Indian Poetry in English in Shillong in the mid eighties and nineties which has now paved the way for a larger scaffolding of poetry in English written by poets who are from this region but are now based out of it such as Janice Pariat, Nabina Das, Nitoo Das, Anjum Hasan, and Aruni Kashyap. In fact, if the contribution of Indian Poetry in English is due to a number of poets of North East Indian origin, these three poets mentioned above significantly led the way.
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