Literary Shelf

Indian English Poetry - Towards Realization

Continued from “Poetic Scenario After 1940”

Though poetry of nineteenth and first half of twentieth century sowed seeds of chaste and elegant poetry where nature, love, romance, value system and adventure formed sound basis that later on, turned into feelings of patriotism and nationalism, and spoke authoritatively of ancient heritage and culture yet poets observed apparent restrain. However, it was after 1920 (one must invariably give ten years space for variation as the final word is yet to come) that poetic voices from growing cities began asserting its presence and the themes appeared lofty, sublime, humane and patronizing with pessimistic strain. Thoughts of freedom strengthened creative artists and they become forceful, open-minded, straightforward and expressed feelings and thoughts freely without loss of human goodness and integrity but maintained dignified restraint. Not only country’s early attainment of autonomy worried but personal freedom also gained significance. In late fifties and sixties, lyrics of anguish, monotony, sufferings and suffocation of urban life, and life in general stunned as these revealed harsh truths of changing realities of life in metropolitans, and life in general. However, after sixties, poetry assumed quickness in intellectual and emotional explosion. To reach the present phase of life in urban and other areas in the beginning, it is necessary to look into the background.

Poetry is close to heart’s finer and chic attributes of man’s inner panache for grace and virtues, and it offers moments of latent joys and inherently transcendental ecstasy. Poetry is the first expression of love and fervour for humankind, and then it expands horizons of heart and intellect without disturbing man. Since the times of Chaucer, English poetry has traveled a long distance. If one looks back, one feels sanctified when one recalls endearing names of Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Tennyson, Shelley, Keats and Byron to Eliot, Yeats, Sylvia Path and many others.

Many literary movements influenced man’s emotions and thoughts and molded intellectual fields to suit changing prototypes of lifestyle as powerful critics contributed meaningfully. Here, in the country, one goes back, visits and revisits ancient days of Ramayana and Mahabharata and comes to Kalidas, Tulsidas, poets and saints of Bhakti Movements down to slightly changed perspective as new meanings surface in later years. It is an interesting journey from the poetry of Toru Dutt, Sarojini Naidu, Tagore and Dutts to Shiv K Kumar, Jayanta Mahapatra, Keki Daruwalla, Kamla Das, Pritish Nandy, Ramanujan, Nissim Ezkiel to Krishna Srinivasa, Menon, Hazara Singh, Ranchan, Baldev Mirza, Yayati M Gandhi and to Nirala, Bachan, Dinkar, Pant, Muktibodh and Ageya (of Hindi) and many more. If one examines lyrical yield of different ages and various countries, one scarcely finds any distinction in elemental emotional regions of man. Therefore, it is necessary to probe into the environment to arrive at a sequential growth of creative minds particularly in Indian English poetry in view of expanding urban culture and consciousness but also awakening of society in totality. At the same time, politics carried varied influences as intellectual interpretation of life in spite of socio-economic and political regimes of different perception took deep roots affection life and one can easily visualize it influence on the life of ordinary man.


A literary journey of an age requires tremendous patience and perseverance. Literature reflects outlook of people in totality regardless of quality and it leads to the study of varied facets necessitating in-depth scrutiny of psychology and philosophy of man and comprehension of socio-economic and political scenario. In this respect, a profound study of the complex historical-cultural orientation and historical-political construction of society also are relevant though Professor Asoke Basu (of California State University, Hayward, U S A) observed in a somewhat different context.

‘Academics’ politics is rooted in the historical-cultural development of their nation. Characteristically, three actors in the development of a nation-state may be note –intellectual, bureaucracy and public.’ It can now be argued that where historical-cultural development of nations has been such that the intellectuals and the state functionaries (bureaucracy have fought to gain control of the traditional authority and thus power, the intellectual find themselves in adversary positions. To the contrary, where there has been a historic fusion between these two groups, the intellectuals’ attitude is integrative…. Conversely, those academicians who find themselves in the adversary positions tend to reflect oppositionist political orientation.’ (Culture Politics and Critical Academics, Archana Publication, Meerut, 1981)

Inconclusive is the outcome as certain inadequacies agitate. After the First World War, situation in India was hostile to Indians, for the English did not adhere to assurances they had given. Transfer of power to Indians was a sacred objective of different movements but non-transfer of power caused violent irritation. Political movement gained momentum. People were fidgety and annoyed. Congress and Muslim League were unhappy. Epidemic after the War increased sufferings of people as social, economic and political life experienced anguish but firm resolve to fight against an alien power strengthened, and raised hopes for early attainment of objective.

Impact of happenings outside

Happenings around the world had immense influence on the people of India, and as Indians learnt lessons from Europe, Russia and America, they began to challenge Western thought. Arrival of Gandhi on the scene brought radical changes in social and political thought and with a strong and vigorous assistance of people belonging to various sects, political segments and movements, he rejuvenated the spirit of nationalism and so, attainment of democratic form of government gained strength. Social reformers from different strata of society played a noteworthy role in shaping and defining the psychological and political aspirations of people. Apparent efforts to structure a cohesive thought continued to achieve the principal objective (Independence of the country) as various religious and reformatory organizations infused extra energy to political movements.

A strong movement under the leadership of Gandhi gathered momentum. Nationalism and patriotism guided people to the objective despite discordant voices creating cacophony. Political differences, interests of the English, religious sentiments and communal disturbances, bitter conflict of interests between the Congress and Muslim League, socially predisposed role of Christian missionaries, re-emergence of secular thoughts, assertion of social reformation and political awakening, invigorated sagging spirit of people and directed it towards a strong secular and collective goodwill. Incessant sufferings, injustice and exploitation, and conscious efforts of rulers to create division in Indian society also worked as a force that hastened dissolution, and eventual collapse of a great empire.

In difficult and uncertain times, creativity suffers because intellectuals are unsure, irresolute, self-doubting and wavering and one cannot put aside and ignore tenuous nature and structure of society and doubting citizenry of turbulent years. However, even with varied hurdles, ambush of political and economic limitations, loss of faith and a restrained awakening sustained to inspire people, contributed to the nationwide movement. International situation also influenced happenings in India.

Disruptive and conflict-ridden policies played a major role and now, increasing industrialization gave birth to insatiable thirst for material wellbeing, instability, socio-economic and political insecurity, shortages, poor health and exploitation. This situation was similar what Alvin Toffler once called ‘Indust-reality’. Crisis-ridden situation led to framing of legal apparatus that worked against nationalistic forces. A cruel mechanism of the English harmed people, and therefore, disintegrating factors grew in strength. In the circumstances, values and morality, principles and ideal code of man’s conduct, worked out a relatively fragile thought-pattern and situational meaning that caused unbearable damage to intrinsic sensibilities.


A creative artist cannot stand aloof because every incident big or small makes an imprint on the mind and even if not wanting, he reflects, analyses, evaluates and draws conclusions and not for a while, forgets history and culture, and so, multiple occurrences inspire and recreate happenings in new settings when he alone permits imagination to look back. At that moment, a man whether rich or poor, becomes essentially central object of creative art.

If man learns to live with man in perfect harmony, it creates an ideal environment and he is free from any sense of prejudice and injustice based on caste, creed and colour irrespective of status in society. It was dream of Gandhi partly realized. A sense of inequity and exploitation, perpetuation of poverty, hunger and social inequalities, violence and gender discrimination provoke a sensitive artist to aerate views emphatically and therefore, literature of times cannot stand silent. No genre in literature can stay unaffected as vast changes take place with lasting impact on man.

Initial poetry, thoughts and trends

If poetry of the first fifty years of last century carried patriotic and nationalistic spirit in abundance and poets spoke eloquently of nation’s heritage and value system, it also awakened consciousness of Indians to put up collective efforts against foreign supremacy, a callous authority. Poetry in English was slightly inactive and at times, it appeared to struggle against probable obstacles. Indian English poetry in initial years carried impact of foreign swing, outlook, cultural and linguistic allure and the notable trend was subtly good for the expansion of intellectual horizon bringing a unique synthesis of Eastern and Western thought. Consequently, it influenced creative potential because English as a language created its effective and tangible region of recognition among the elite and so after freedom, it was impossible to negate it.

It was exactly what many English knowing people wanted to perpetuate when the white man moved out, for history never allows domination of a particular nation, dynasty, party or people as a collective unit forever. In the beginning, one might call it a colonial hangover or psychic obsession, but it was not so, for English is now, deeply entrenched in Indianness, and undoubtedly, it is an easily transmissible medium to connect, interconnect and revitalize India’s multilingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural characteristics giving birth to literature of secular and universal excellence without any distinction.

A cautious poetry lover finds influence of English poets with a distinctive advantage that undermines sectarian approach to various cultures and religions, and indirectly celebrates humanistic thoughts and ideals. When one looks into the growth of maturity in lyrical richness in Indian English poets after 1960 or so when it really started appearing convincingly with a few exceptions , one detects revelation of an astonishing truth, a truth that man is ‘one’ indivisible and needs love, compassion and sympathy. If one discovers a few signs of love for an alien language and lifestyles, it is a collective carry-bag of more than two hundred years with remnants of alien language, cultural involvement as approach to life makes some innovative shifts in living, liberal intellectual superiority towards life and existence with outlines of arrogance, which now, appeared merged in Indian psyche.

However, poetry retained its Indian spirit with diminishing impact of outside intrusion in thoughts. Undoubtedly, poets reflected on varied regional and cultural influences in lyrics but kept a collective consciousness intact. Poetic horizons widened as years rolled on and it absorbed different changing moods of fast developing growth in material world and rapid transformation in mental and psychological attitude of people where ingenuousness and forthrightness began to determine areas of psyche and analytical Indian intellect. It found abundant springs of inspiration in heritage, culture and glory of civilization. Ancient Indian thought having roots in Vedas and Upanishads brought about a startling amalgamation of modern and ancient thought while it did not entirely reject what was good in Western thought.

Merger of the oriental and the western and effective comprehension of contemporary temper led to secular and universal approach ignoring ever-present parochial and fanatical origin that often drove man to restricted provincial thought posers and ego syndrome of self-image and glory. At the same time, it did not neglect the world within, the indefinable spiritual aspects of life and as such, the internal and the external world find noteworthy expression in recent poetry. Now, poets communicate effectively, and frequent wandering into history, myths and legends assumes interesting dimensions and if need arises, poets do not hesitate to refer to Western mythology and history, and thus, emphatically give it a universal character.

Industrial growth and various movements influence life and creativity

Changing lifestyles and rapid industrial growth holding its area of influence ventilated feelings and thoughts of urban life while rural aspirations also began to assert. A brief mention already exists about the role of English in India and its subtle entry into Indian mindset –the educated middle class and elite, which was not very favorable. However, urban thought with increased love for city life also strengthened. If one notices new love for nature and patriotic sentiments in the poetry after the mutiny of 1857, one also discerns a notable change in poetic scene after 1920 as social awareness and zeal for restructuring and redefining life take roots. Here, liberal thoughts get impetus as society observes slow but determined shift in living conditions along with migration of people from rural areas to the growing urban regions for material and intellectual expansion. Creative artists did not stay away from the fast growing changes around and therefore, become ostensibly more genuine, emphatic and forceful but retain poise and mildness in freshening views and intrinsic human values. A love for Indianness, legacy, culture, religion and philosophy is quite apparent in creative works with measured appropriateness in demonstrating current social, economic and political anxieties in precise historical perspective.

Interestingly, Indian English poets’ presence is authentic, and foremost characteristics of humanism are visible notwithstanding country’s multilingual and multi-ethnic spectrum of life in entirety. In many poets, the spirit of empathy encompasses the myths and legends of various countries, and connects it to contemporary times and thus, conveys continuity in culture and civilization where love and harmony in life highlighting virtues of life, goodness, righteousness and truth get precedence over negative aspects. It offers an integral thought merging humanitarian perception with an optimistic purpose to modern life’s anxieties and thoughts - a perfect sophisticated expression, and therefore, it secularizes religion and spirituality sans hang over of any fanatic thoughts in life.

Indian English poetry largely depicts its fragrance of soil and Vedic concept of life that enshrine humankind as a whole irrespective of faith man espouses the world around. Range of creativity is immensely vast and at times, appears unfathomable, for interest in a foreign language gave fillip to more inquisitive guts and so the artists learnt refinement and daintiness of idiom, cadence, fine distinction, coherence and spirit of English language.

Not only poetry but also other genres of writings suffered tremendous strains during the difficult times before Independence. However, despite initial hurdles it depicted changes, empirical and pragmatic insights warily without prejudices. Literature is nothing but an expression of age, living, thoughts and faith of society in totality but never in absolutes, as it believes in relative values of life. Inner and outer contradictions, defiance and areas of bitterness, challenges, hopes and failures constitute movement of society and at the same time, it goes back and back to find correlation and correction in present, past and future for locating concept of life because an inherent wish to live, gives new dimension to realistic outlook and philosophy of life.

Creative artists appear quite genuine in giving authenticity to the age in which they live if one goes back to inquire into what they felt and how they said. Nineteenth Century was a century of many social and religious movements as patriotic groups also formed a dominant part in the society and it led to mutinous situations. Later, formation of Congress and then, Muslim League and various political outfits carried the struggle collectively with the support of social and religious movements as mentioned elsewhere. Those were difficult times but the phrase was laudatory and categorical, and it unnerved alien power everyone knows. Literary fraternity vocalized feelings and sentiments effectively one learns while evaluating writings or when one recalls and analyzes literary output.

Culture, urbanity and poetry

In initial stages, Indian English poetry owes its roots to urban areas for obvious reasons. Growing cities bring particular issues relating to living under stressing social, economic and political conditions with offshoots of incessant shortages, pollution, suffocation and consequent filth affecting warmth, as inexplicable coldness and indifference determine social conduct and thoughts. Difficult life conditions in crowded towns led to convoluted feelings and intellectual broodings. If poets thought of life and evaluated relations, incidents and social status impassively, it also drove creativity to varied series of complexities of thoughts with a blend of rational and poignantly dreary approach to life, existence and identity of man and woman in swiftly changing societal basis.

Expansion of cities changed the lifestyles of people and taught them to live in multipart environment away from nature. It brought unique revolution within and a city-man began to look at life from not only material comforts and joys but also from philosophical and psychological viewpoint and therefore, faculties of analysis and appraisal extended cerebral horizons as he calculated life and existence, and compared growth of man.

Man confronted a new set of problems affecting life that did not prove congenial. Questions of earning livelihood in cities if brought money, it also had sufficient share of sufferings as living conditions worsened. Tremendous progress also stirred man’s hunger for material comforts and it left little space for locating areas of inner happiness. When peace and harmony suffered, an erosion of warmness in relations caused tension. Material pleasures if caused excitement, more hunger for luxuries imported nervous strain. Now, poets touched varied issues confronting life and tried to probe into the existential issues. Creative artists writing in English whether living in India or elsewhere touched various aspects of life realistically. Until 1980, poetry remained more or less restricted to urban areas or regions where missionary worked (in most of the cases, missionaries were happy and comfortable in rural areas and enjoyed serving poor people) for social or economic uplift.

It spoke of genuine human aspirations, for most of the creative writers carried memories of nascent years of India’s freedom and of the political will to ameliorate deplorable social and economic life of people, who suffered immensely during the foreign yoke. Poetry of first thirty years struggled hard and left an imprint on the coming generations of poets. Poets go back nostalgically to past and talk of culture, ancient civilization, value system, ethics, feelings and aspirations together with inner disturbing thoughts that caused failures and defeats. They speak eloquently of the complexity of intellectual inquiry, multiple regional influences and eroding warmth in relations where family life suffers and individuals incline towards lonely areas of apparent comforts but agonies together with lasting fissures and vacuum in human bonds, perpetuate.

Yet, lyrics give expression to social disparities, economic unrest, social exploitation, corruption, political dishonesty, loss of probity in public life, laxity in values, anguish born of failed bonds and infidelity in relations as realism struggles to assert in multifaceted cultural life. Anxieties and questions regarding human ties, thoughts and feelings crop up umpteen times every now and then without any radical change. In another context, in Beginning Theory, an Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, Peter Barry rightly observes, “Human nature is essentially unchanging. The same passions, emotions, and even situations are seen again and again throughout human history. It follows that continuity in literature is more important and significant than innovation.” Otherwise, also ‘human beings, human society and the human condition’ may change but nature seldom undergoes any fundamental change. Even then, cynicism and skepticism determine most of the appraisals, many critical and discerning minds understand while ingenious writers revel in artistic creation. These features exhibit how aesthetically sound they are and to what extent they demonstrate seriousness in creative art in spite of the critics holding different opinion.

Many such factors contributed to the growth of English Poetry in India. In retrospect, one cannot forget valuable contribution of literary figures like Dr V. K. Gokak, M. K. Naik, K. R. Srinivasa, K Ayyapp Paniker, Nissim Esekiel, P. Lal R Parthasarathy and few others. Poets and scholars like Shiv K. Kumar, Daruwalla, Ramanujan, Jayanta Mahapatra, Pritish Nandy, Kamala Das, Jussawalla, Kolatkar, Mehrotra, Gieve Patel and many, enriched urban sensibilities and gave really good and intelligent poetry depicting consciousness of a significant period though not forgetting at times, to have a short but joyous plunge into beauty of nature. To evaluate poetry of these poets is not the objective here, which will form part of a separate thematic study in future.

These poets mostly lived in metropolitan regions and as such, lyrics they wrote constituted ‘urban poetry.’ Many got education abroad, held high connections and status and carried impressively alien cultural habits and inclination to English language and lifestyles as mentioned elsewhere. They wrote poetry with elegance and sophistication, and city life was a major subject and area of creative output with very meager meanderings into life and aspirations of people as a whole. If they wrote appealingly about poetry and creative writing in English, it was about creative artists of urban areas, and it appeared an arrangement as if. Urban poets of different regions - merely four-five metros of the country, consciously or unconsciously promoted one another and therefore, urban poets gave an impression that no notable poet existed beyond cities and developing big towns. They were aware or did not know (perhaps?) that poetry right from the time of Krishna Srinivasa to Hazara Singh to Baldev Mirza, Syed Ameeruddin, Sharma, Som P Ranchan, Bhatia, Bhatnagar, Yayati Madan G Gandhi, P K Majumder, R C Shukla and Reddy was significant. A healthy continuity strengthened as P C K Prem, D C Chambial, R K Singh, Bakshi, Rajender Krishan, Sankarsan Parida and many others from different areas of the country also created its aura and region of peculiar poetic sensibility and eloquently depicted contemporary sensibilities. Indian cultural heritage, perception and realization dominated as poets spoke of people’s worries and anxieties realistically not only of rural landscape but also of country in totality in a more authentic and analytical way.

Thus, it is clear that urban poetry got more space at the cost of poets, who lived in far-flung areas but served Indian English poetry ardently and also steadily learnt idiom, nuances and phrase of alien language and wrote effectively with confidence. Highlighting urban poetry is inexplicable and puzzling. Perhaps, it could be one of the reasons that poets or creative artists of cityscape were not aware of poets and creative writers of inaccessible (?) regions of the country. Time has arrived when creative writing in English particularly poetry needs a fresh appraisal in right historical perspective. Poetic scenario would become obvious when poets from different regions of the country, who did not get justified space, are also critically analyzed and put in proper perspective.

Poetry of this period sticks to the principles of down-to-earth stance without ever hinting so dominatingly about moral issues, which had begun to creep into the system even though it never revered or cherished nobility so apparently in politics. At the same time, it knew that politics determined life in totality. Text of poetry of these poets, at times, befuddles and irritates. However, down deep poets demonstrate anxiety for profound questions of life and existence. They evaluate summarily vastly changing lifestyles and display disquiet for cultural heritage, man’s sufferings and joys in present-day complexity of perspectives. Many a time, it misleads as it gives the impression of prosaic and ennui inherent but feelings and philosophic reflections of urban pulse and proclivities reveal genuine intent and objective of poets despite cautious recurrence of themes. Nevertheless, life is a repetition and echo of twisting surprises and inanities and therefore, a connoisseur of literary art particularly poetry must accept that nature and dimensions of Indian English Poetry reflect multiple approach to life and embrace universal concept of humankind avoiding predetermined analysis scrupulously, and so, it speaks of its strength.

Continued to “Spiritual Quest, Mystical Region and Sufferings of Man”


More by :  P C K Prem

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Views: 3463      Comments: 1

Comment Premji
We are firmly on our foot forging ahead.
Your summing up of the state of affairs in the progress of our poetic achievement is both valid and penetrating.
Complete this and publish it for our students of Eng. Lit
Rama Rao

v v b ramarao
21-Jun-2016 10:41 AM

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