Poetry in English
The expression Indian writing in English or for that matter Indian poetry in English has a strange colonial hangover. It smacks of this, as if it is a carry over and a legacy of British imperialistic rule. After all do we say Australian writing in English, or American writing in English or African writing in English. Rather we say Australian literature, American literature and African literature. Anyway since we have been under this stranglehold we still continue with the cliche: Indian writing in English especially as part of curricula.
When it comes to Indian poetry in English it has a long past perhaps longer than fiction written in English today. Indian poetry in English took roots much before independence say around the twenties and thirties with writers like Henry Vivian Derozio, Sarojini Naidu, Michael Madhusudan Dutt etc. They wrote under a neo romantic strain and were sharply influenced by English Victorian and Romantic poetry. Moreover, they were swept by a feeling of idealism with the Nationalist Movement just around the corner. This briefly was the context in which they wrote and shaped their thought processes. Their poetry was a poetry of apotheosis in which the country was deified and everything around them look beautiful. There were no concerns with social or political realities.
The contexts changed after independence with the advent of poets such as P. Lal who founded the Writers Workshop Movement in Calcutta, and gave fledgling writers and poets a chance to be published, many of whom became established writers. Soon poets such as Pritish Nandy wrote about the trauma of the times and post independence violence engendered by political movements such as the Naxalite Movement in West Bengal which was not only marked by violence, but also by gruesome death of young people.
Pritish Nandy introduced irony in his poetry which was marked by lyricism. Nissim Ezekiel also introduced subaltern forces in his poetry by looking at the common man and his immediate surroundings. Ezekiel portrayed an India of poverty, squalor but associated these with an inner sense and indefinable beauty which he saw in India, epitomized by the city he lived in - Bombay. His Very Indian Poems In Indian English portrayed a sense of humour and 'Indianisms' but there was a pathos underlying these poems, whether he talked of the railway clerk, the common man or a beautiful woman in the slums. Ezekiel also employed techniques of irony and the satire.
Very soon in the sixties and seventies we had poets such as Kamala Das, Meena Alexander, Keki Daruwalla, Adil Jussawalla, Deba Patnaik, Mamta Kalia, Jayanta Mahapatra etc who wrote with a fluent immediacy whether it be about their cities, towns or a personalized dilemma. Mahapatra was perhaps the first to introduce the small town syndrome often talking about his primal relationship with the city of Cuttack or Orissa in general with its paddy fields, myths and temples. His poems had a meditative strain and at best they were deeply lyrical. Mahapatra's later poems became more mystical and recondite.
In the eighties there arose a large number of a younger generation of poets based mainly in Mumbai who formed the Bombay poetry circle with the blessings of poets such as Nissim Ezekiel and Saleem Peeradina. In the meantime, a poet such as Kamala Das continued to write her starkly honest poetry marked with brevity and lyricism. Kamala Das however had a tendency to shock both in poetry and prose and this did not always go down well with the readers.
Again in the eighties and throughout the nineties a body of poets emerged in North East India specifically in Shillong who introduced folklore and mythic elements in their poetry and who re-worked English poetry in India in a fresh manner having local referential in their poetry as well as folktales, myths and legends. They introduced a new kind of Indianisms in their poetry fraught with love for the land, its people and infusing these themes with human relationships. In fact, the commingling of love and politics were the novelties in their poetry. These poets are: Robin S Ngangom, Desmond Leslie Kharmawphlang and Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih all based in Shillong. They continue to write today and their poetry has a deepening impact on the younger generation of English poets from North East India.
Contrary to popular thinking Indian Poetry in English has a longer history than its fictional counterpart but this has not come to the notice of many because poetry, especially poetry written in English by Indians does not have market value. But its aesthetics and proliferation cannot be denied.
Based on a talk delivered on September 8, 2012, in St. Anthony's College, Shillong.
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Ananya S Guha
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