Literary Shelf

Of Delight, Decadence and Disillusionment

Indian English poetic firmament is bright, beautiful and bubbly with enduring contributions from myriad poets. The number and poems written in English undoubtedly astound any casual reader for the sheer magnitude of massive numbers added in twenty first century. The themes, tenor and expression are as divergent, vibrant and stimulating as the brilliant light spread across the cosmos. Yet, the credit goes to all those poets who contributed in the most modest manner despite the dazzling spirit that formed the fount of creativity in the twentieth century and earlier. Major contributions came from teachers of English then and even now. Among such remarkable poets stands Prof T.R. Rajasekharaiah tall with his humility keeping him as a tantalizing jewel among erudite scholars and eminent poets in India.

Self-abnegation contributed to a major extent to the perceived obscurity of T.R. Rajasekhaiah as a brilliant poet in English. His command over the language was amazing, his expression was peerless, and his spirit was indomitable. Personal predilections prevented him from occupying lofty seats of power and enjoying unbridled patronage and accompanying honours. A bilingual writer in Kannada and English, his distinguished work encompasses poetry, translation, book reviews and illuminating book reviews published abroad with uninterrupted regularity. 

Soon after passing B.A.[English]degree with first class first winning the Gold Medal in Maharaja College, Mysore, he was appointed there instantly as a Lecturer in English. He was a Gold Medalist in M.A. from Nagpur University where he took the examination as an external candidate to avoid embarrassment of a working teacher appearing for M.A. in the same university i.e. Mysore university. Immediately after securing a first class and gold medal in MA. Examinations, he applied for the post of a Reader in English in Karnataka University, Dharwad. While T.R. Rajasekhariah was selected on account of his brilliant academic credentials and erudition, A.K. Ramanujan, who also applied for the post was not selected. How the latter moved to Poona for a job as a Lecturer and migrated to U.S. subsequently is history.

T.R. Rajasekharaiah visited USA during 1964-66 as a Fulbright Senior Visiting Professor and taught at Fairleigh University, NJ and state University of New York Bufalo. Subsequently he was a fellow of the University of Minnesota in 1964-65 and New York University in 1965-66. As his student and colleague Prof Basavaraj Naikar mentions in the preface to the book The Collected Poetry of T.R. Rajasekhariah edited by him, “An original thinker, and an excellent orator, he addressed many clubs and cultural associations of America about Indian culture, literature and philosophy. Many of his speeches were telecast and broadcast widely in America. He carried out his post-doctoral research work on Walt Whitman and published his famous Roots of Whitman’s Grass in from the Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, USA. As he grew into a brilliant academician and studied American Poetry deeply, his own poetic mode slowly changed from romantic to realistic, especially satirical one.”

After his return from America in 1966 he was shocked to see all pervasive corruption, squalor, communalism, filth, superstitions, callous officialdom ruining India and her people. Rajasekharaiah resorted to composing satirical and realistic poetry debunking disgusting decadence that has spread like mult-iheaded hydra. Insistence on  publishing his poetry only in America, which was a farfetched dream, resulted in not a single book of his poetry was published, though he kept on composing them copiously. His students and colleagues joined hands in bringing out a collection of his poems in 1986 titled Desert Blooms on the eve of his retirement from Gulbarga University.

Basavaraj Naikar, a student and colleague of T.R.Rajasekharaiah, was the only research scholar of the poet who could acquire his Ph.D. degree on Shakespeare’s last plays. Not many could bear the temperamental swings of the erudite teacher. As desired by his teacher Basavaraj Naikar collected all published and unpublished poems and brought out an impressive and voluminous anthology of poems titled The Collected Poetry of T.R.Rajasekharaiah in 2016 carrying 99 poems.

The first poem ‘The Cow’s Tale’, a long poem translated from a famous Kannada song by an anonymous poet, symbolically depicts values and righteous conduct that were revered and followed religiously in ancient India and subsequently too. Gradual change in the scenario unfolds steadily in the poems that follow. This poem delineates nuances of a play narrated as a ballad portraying the truthful cow Punyakoti and the nobility of the terrible Tiger who jumps to his death from a cliff moved by the honesty of the cow, who returns after feeding her calf, to be devoured by the tiger. 

The poem ‘The Chicken’ humorously narrates the of dressing and preparing a tasty item with chicken. Ease of expression is at its best, funny though at times. ‘Upon a Pretty Girl Passing’ light-heartedly recounts male tendency to ogle at pretty girls passing on the way. It’s a generic weakness, in fact. ‘Diploma in English Speech’ is a humorous poem making fun of existing education system. Bitter truth of losing pleasure in teaching also is highlighted in the poem where end rhyme of ‘a b a b’ is followed. Several short poems reflect subtle humour and poet’s disgust for the worthless pursuits of man.

The poet scornfully dismisses in a majority of poems in this anthology endeavours of hypocrites to occupy seats of power and eminence through unethical means. The last poem ‘The Spiders’ is peach of a poem in portraying obnoxious scenes of reality in an amazing manner. Surrealistic images extend splendour to the absorbing piece.  Incidentally it is also the longest poem in this text. Eg:

“In the beginning was nothing.
Breathed upon the moving waters,
Smiled upon the heavenly sire.
Impregnating offspring
The dog was bred
That fed
The womb of its own birth and drew
Multiple copies, Xeroxing
The counterfeits.

 Go and multiply yourselves among the nation.”

Though this poem can be savoured by those who are well acquainted with English literature and world literature, the felicity in expression is a misleading feature. The poet deliberately appears to be light-heartedly composing it, but his scorn and pain for the all-pervasive decadence is shrouded by the veneer of his superb craftsmanship. In a word, it may be stated as the best poem in this text.

 In ‘The Man Who Was Afraid’ the poet candidly portrays man’s helplessness to face intimidation in the society. Eg:

 “It’s fear, stark naked fear   
Not the death that kills, nor of the punishing hell,
Nor of a heaven cheated.
The earth is our mind’s bugbear,
Fear of the thorny fence of our neighbour
Bleeding our heart. This is the land of un-fixities.
Not on the open sky, nor the steady starlight,
The fixed plan of God,
But depends here on so little
Raised by the will of man.”

Contemporary man is constantly under pressure, as expressed here under:

 “Next minute’s uncertainty tolls the bell
All the time. I haven’t the bovine’s peace to dwell
In the present time.”   

The poet further states:

“ …………..The griefs and losses invading our home
Are not the slips of the earth, they grow around us
In the manufactories of our neighbour’s greed,
Folly or private fancy.”   

Philosophical pondering may be viewed in poems like ‘The Onion.’ Eg:

 “ The onion is the best image
For the basic truths of existence.”

In the poem ‘Clock’, Rajasekharaiah declares:

“ Clock is a valiant faith
Candle in the dark winds
Lost child’s footprints in the woods
Figure of speech, shaping air bubbles out of sand.”

We rise only to fall,
We climb only to sink
Like swimmers on the crest of a wave
Riding down to the sea.”

The poet’s optimism is all the more admirable, as a major part of this anthology dwells on decadence in society, depravity of men and incurable, undesirable maladies that plague this society and world. Hence, a sort of melancholic tone runs as an undercurrent and the poet seeks relief for himself and others through sarcastic observations. In poems like ‘Valour’, ‘Patriotism,’ ‘Longings’ among others one notices a change in pattern of expression and themes chosen.

 ‘Valour’ showcases robust optimism of Robert Browning dwelling in the heart of Rajasekharaiah.

“ Here we die in the soul every minute
Though, refusing to yield yet,
We revive our imperishable nature,
Energizing it for the next blow.”

He reaffirms faith in the human spirit to reinvent itself through regeneration from time to time.

“The air we breathe, the fare we chew,
Even the anodyne for pain or woe,
Have destroyed us hourly
And our uninflammable spirit 
Has burnt the gall and rise from ashes.

The poem concludes with a statement that reminds a reader of the protagonist in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar:   

“ The coward dies just once in life
we are the valiants, who keep this strife.”   

The poet’s rationality is absolute and irrevocable, though he addresses, invokes or reverentially mentions ‘God’ in may poems. Mentioning ‘God’ at the drop of a hat may be a poetic compulsion if not a conceit! In the poem ‘A Prayer’ he asks teasingly:

“If God were wise and great and good,
Would we have all this stupidity,
All this meanness, this much evil
In the power of man?”

Sarcasm acquires subtle, yet admirable stature in his poems. In ‘Patriotism’ he derisively commends those who loftily talk about the need to love motherland and derides their hypocrisy:

“ But when it comes to the pens we use
The cars we drive and the shaving blades,
And the hundred other worldly goods
So essential to our body needs,
Merciful God and Walter Scott!
Allow us this frailty
(For we are human beings)
Of asking for things that are things
Of the right measure and the right quality,
Made in England, France or Germany,
Japan, Italy or even the far USA.”

Before liberalization and globalization transformed lives in India as elsewhere, Indians had a fad for foreign goods. Hence, smuggling and evasion tax on imported goods were on the rise. There are a good number of poems on poetry, poetic sensibility and impact of poetry. In ‘Poetic Prison’ Rajasekharaiah  observes:

“So the power of language
To liberate to open doors that connect,
Shuts up one from within instead,
And in that closing, imprisons,
Locking up all the accesses to life.”

‘Yudhishtara’s Lie’ reveals another view of the poet as regards poets and writers:  

“O come! The luckless are poetry,
Epic or prose; or other forms of insomnia.
Chance rules the world,
The lucky make love, or money and sleep with it.” 

These lines throw light on the fact that not all talented poets get recognition or rewards they richly deserve during their life time. Rajasekharaiah himself is an eminent example to justify this view. While many of his contemporaries basked in glory and enjoyed patronage of favourably disposed elements, many worthy poets who were less-fortunate could not even get recognition and respect their poetry and they were entitled to. In this world enveloped by toxic environment manipulation, management and money power fetch inconceivable returns beyond the comprehension of common man. The poet sarcastically comments in a subtle fashion about some creative writers’ weakness for wine and women.  

The poem ‘The Killer Sun’ is a veiled attack on many debilitating agencies and communes that sap vitality of man and society to render themselves fat with profits unlimited and pay lip sympathy to advertise their charitable activities in a ritualistic manner with well channeled regularity. This multilayered poem may be interpreted in myriad ways. Exploitation is at the centre of all existence. Undercurrent of many identity-based movements that were fashioned as a consequence of postcolonial studies is perceptible to a keen eye. Yet, the poet does not champion any group’s cherished agenda.

Referring to the harsh conditions obtaining in the subcontinent Rajasekharaiah says:

“Here the killer shines
And drains
The soul on the animal heat,
Christ of imagination
On the ridiculous pole
Of the flesh
Christs of the blood
On the ludicrous cloud pillars
Of the spirit.

Exploitation by the vicious agencies comes under unalloyed scathing attack:

“Our metaphors, our proverbs,
Quoted always out of context
Misread and misrepresented,
To generation,
Play harpies around our tables,
Turn honey into gall
And living into death.”

The results are what one views today, though the poems were written nearly half a century ago.

“We human beings,
Hereditarily mutilated,
Natally disfigured,
Hideously dressed up by home and school,
Blink into the sun.”

The poet paints a realistic picture of great poetry in ‘To the Pair of Eyes Unopened’:

“Can the sea show up all itself?
The puddle can. The clarity thou sleekest 
So categorically is the virtue of the shallow.
The sea would speak too. But what sounds,
What grammar, what lexicon intelligibility
Can help it utter? It would speak too.
For it has a heart; it has streams,
Where the vital flow of being and feeling,
Feeling that is being, pumps hot and quick
Into the living limbs of sentient tissues.”   

And he finally declares: 

“That is poetry, the poetry of all life
Of great measure, un-pourable into brick moulds
Of instant song or immediate hum
For an easy nod or smile of recognition.”

Basavaraj Naikar who has taken all the responsibility of collecting the work of his teacher has succeeded in offering this bouquet of beautiful poems of T.R. Rajasekharaiah embellishing it with a lovely ‘Introduction’ where he opines in the concluding part aptly, “The students of Indian English poetry can study his poetry fruitfully by comparing and contrasting him with other poets of India for their research. His poetry has, no doubt, enriched the realm of Indian English poetry.”


More by :  Dr. T. S. Chandra Mouli

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