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Jul 4, 2018

Indianness in Indian English Poetry

V.S.V.L. Ramana

            Indian English poetry is an attempt to give a generic cover to the Indian imagination seeking creative outlet in and through English. Many Indian poets write in English because they think their creative urge can be fulfilled in a better way in English than in the vernacular. Prof. Srinivasa Iyengar rightly pointed out that Indian writing in English is a novel experiment in creative mutation when he said: “To be Indian in thought and feeling and emotion and experience, yet also to court the graces and submit to the discipline of English for expression”1 is some­thing that the present writers aim at. The post independence Indian English verse has gained in both strength and variety an appreciable position. It has been said that it is Indian in sensibility and context and Indian English, if we choose to call it so, in language. It is rooted in and stems out from the Indian environment and reflects its mores.

            In spite of the differences between one medium and another there is a unity of supreme significance among Indian writers writing in regional language like Oriya, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu or Marathi. The unity of Indianness, i.e., all transcending response to the physical, idealistic, and intellectual personality of India, in them brings these poets together.

            The Indian English poets, giving expression to the Indian, experience in thought and imagery, are in the main stream of a tradition. A cultural activity does not grow all of a sudden it has an origin and a development. It is pertinent to consider the tradition that has been built up by this output and the impact of this tradition on the writers of today. P. Lal remarks that these poets are instrumental in rediscovering “values and techniques within one’s own tradition” 2 which is a body of concepts and usages, ideas and feelings to be felt or thought, to win acceptance and currency or to provoke dissent or modification.

            The angle of the poet’s vision has been conditioned by his own experience and temperament by the primary attitudes or modes of his perception. “Language, Music, Form, Meaning, Style, Imagery, Inner Meaning, Mood, Attitude and Vision: this is how we get to know a poem in each stage of its creation, whatever the process of integration that goes to make up the poem as a whole,” 3 says V. K. Gokak.

            When we come to Indian English poetry, we find ourselves in a world in which the response to Indian reality, the underlying sensibility, the use of imagery, diction, etc., are strikingly different, particularly in the contemporary leading poets. Our attempt will be a study whether there are any noteworthy differences in the poetic sensibility shaped by their Indianness in the poets of pre-independence era such as Sri Aurobindo, Sarojini Naidu, etc., and the poets in the post-independence period with special reference to Nissim Ezekiel, A. K. Ramanujan, Kamala Das, Jayant Mahapatra and Shiv K. Kumar.

            Many contemporary poets write in English about their experience of today’s Indian milieu without losing their national identity. Gouri Deshpande, Meera Pillai and other poets from writers’ workshop rightly speak of the Indian background and they are not ignorant of the shaping of a national consciousness by the environment of the country, the climate, the background of tradition. But some of the new poets deny any umbilical connection with their historical past. A tradition cannot be wholly disowned. Amalendu Bose says that this denial “is a boisterous proclamation that these writers are upstarts, and rootless.” 4

            In a work of art, that is, a well-realised creative effort, presence of Indianness is invariably expressed. It must be noted that within the text, a good writer does not give direct indications of such a presence, but that the operational response of the Indian writer could be deduced by the sensibility working in it. What characterizes the Indianness in the writing is finally ‘the mind behind the orgaisation’ of the context, the life attitudes and modes of perception. C. R. Srinath aptly says: “The Indian poet while using English as his medium should have his roots in his own soil and yet be part of the common culture of the English speaking peoples, indeed of all mankind to the extent that it gives an edge to his native vigour and sensibilities.” 5

            Creative writing is an achievement of harmony between concept and medium, between what is to be said and how it is to be said. As for concept, the Indian poet is as capable in that area as any poet handling from another language group. It is in respect of the handling of the medium that the non-native poet’s ability has to pass through a fire test. Several poets have the ability to control their medium and thus achieve aesthetic success. The alien language does not necessarily diminish or regard the writer’s sense of heritage. Toru Dutt, Sarojini Naidu, Nissim Ezekiel, A. K. Ramanujan, Kamala Das and others have been compe­tent in retaining their Indianness in full measure. To discuss and evaluate the poets, the principal question will be the degree of their Indianness in terms of authenticity and credibility of their local and culture and medium of their expression.

            When Sarojini Naidu addresses and sonnet to India, her patriotic zeal is beyond all doubt and yet the actual product is too heavily cultured with stock ideas and responses and stale expressions:

            “Thy Future calls thee with a man if old sound
            To crescent honours, splendours, victories vast.6

            Unless the Indian poet’s experience is authentic and his own, and not derivative and imitative of conventional modes of the way, the mere choice of specifically Indian themes and settings would not make for authenticity. The Indian poet in English can be a poet only by being truly an Indian. For M. K. Naik to be truly an Indian of modern times is ‘to constitute a synthesis of the age-old ethos of India and the culture of the west which English literature and ideas brought to India; it is to live and breathe the culture of India as it exists today, a complex product which has changed, matured over millenia, losing and gaining much in the process; it is to write with Indian in one’s bones.”7 This synthesis has clear glimpses in the works of modern poets like Ezekiel, Mahapatra, etc. For example, Nissim Ezekiel’s “Night of the Scorpion” ably illustrates the Indian synthesis in the work of modernists. The contrast between the two attitudes to scorpion bite; the sceptic, rationalist attitude armed with a little paraffin as a remedy and the superstitious attitude fortified by prayers and incantations - a contrast typical of the modern Indian situation. Coolness, authentic and objectivity are some of the marks of Ezekiel’s harsher notations of Indian life.

            Ramanujan’s creative work, both as poet and translator, has drawn praise from the English speaking world. Ezekiel is of the opinion that Ramanujam has enriched the Indo-Anglican tradition of poetry’s Even the titles of some of his poems such as “A HINDU TO HIS BODY” (The Hindu: he does not hurt a fly or a spider either) “SMALL TOWN, SOUTH INDIA”, “OLD INDIAN BELIEF”, and “PRAYERS TO LORD MURUGA” suggest Ramanujan’s Indianness. In conventions of despair, the poet tells explicitly that he rejects the demands of the modern man such as marrying again and again:

            “I must seek and will find
            my particular hell only in my Hindu mind.” 9

            Ramanujan’s Indianness in his poetry indicates a complex interaction or psychological forces kept under linguistic and formal control. His poetry is essentially Indian with the modern connection vitalising it as in “A River,”

            “The new poets still quoted
            the old poets, but no one spoke
            in verse,
            of the pregnant woman drowned....” 10

            Ramanujan finds his objective correlative in a family around him. In the poem, “Obituary” he recalls his father’s death, and uses the occasion to comment ironically on ceremonies and rituals associated with the dead.

            There is a conspicuous craftsmanship, introspection and self analysis in Kamala Das’s poetry. Confessional tone is sharper in her poems. If we look for her strength as a poet, we must detect in her poetry the dust, the heat, the crowds, the poverty of India combined with misery and endurance of womankind. She tries to strike a sort of synthesis between the changing reality of a private passion and the apparently unchanging reality of the shining sun on Indian horizon. The overtones of the poem “SUMMER IN CALCUTTA” can be taken into account. She is not alienated from the Indian landscape or its social milieu.

            One of the Indian English poets who has emerged as a major poet only recently is Shiv K. Kumar, Kumar gives in his poetry an evidence of genuine poetic inspiration. His poetry has great precision and the image glistens like polished brass though he has often been criticised for his over refinement, a bizarre search for right word, right phrase, right stance. Subterfuses, Cobwebs in the Sunshine are evasions or de­captions that we encounter in our life. The cobweb being swept away, the subterfuses become visible to us. “A MANGO VENDOR” is an eloquent metaphor:

            “Through the slits
            Of her patched blouse
            One bare shoulder
            Two white moons
            Pull all horses
            Off the track.” 11

            Kumar’s originality lies in the uniqueness of his imaginative world. He grapples with abstractions and ideas, images of men and women on the social scene, the complex of emotions centering round human varieties like sex, love, companionship and problems relating to art. Through powerfully evoked images the past is relevened. “MY CO-RESPOND­ENT” is a fine example of how Kumar achieves an integrative of idea and image, statement and drama to provide a wholly satisfying experience.

            Deeply involved in his immediate environment, Kumar continues to strike a convincing note of contemporary life. Trapfalls in the Sky is his fifth collection of verse which won Sahitya Academic Award for 1987. The poems have flawless attention to detail, for instance, the opening poem “MOTHER THERESA FEEDS LEEPERS AT HER HOME FOR DESTITUTES, CALCUTTA”, and “AN INDIAN MOTHER’S ADVICE TO HER DAUGHTER BEFORE MARRIAGE”. 12

            The poetry of these and other modern Indian English poets suggests a case for exploring Indianness in terms of not only the authenticity of their locale and culture, but the medium of the expression. They regard English language as one of the many Indian languages, and their exploration of it to its fullest possibilities, both in range and depth produces some of the best poetry. Their poetry is lyrical poetry which is unique in that the weight or intellect never overburdens their authentic feelings.

1 Iyengar, K. R. Srinivasa: Indian Writing in English (Asia Publishing House, 2nd edition, 1973) P. 8.
Lal. P, quoted by Linda Hess in Meenakshi Mukerjee, Considerations (Bombay: Allied, 1977) P.25.
3 Gokak V.K.: An Integral view of poetry; an Indian perspective (1975) P. 64.
4 Sinha, Krishna Nandan ed. Indian Writing in English (1979) p. 64.
Kulshertha, Chirantan, ed. Contemporary Indian Verse; An Evaluation (1980) p. 96.
6 Naidu, Sarojini: The Sceptred Flute, p. 58.
Naik, M.K. “Echo and Voice in Indian Poetry,” in Contemporary Indian Verse An Evaluation ed. C. Kulshrestha, 1980, p. 37.
8 Sinha, Krishna Nandan. ed. Indian Writing In English (1979) p.121.
Parthasarathy, R. ed. Ten Twentieth Century Poets (Delhi: Oxford, Crown Se­ries, 1976) p. 97.
10 Ibid, p.98.
11 Ibid, p. 54.
12 Kumar, Shiv K.: Trapfalls in the Sky (Delhi: Macmillan, 1986) p. 13 & 14.


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