Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry


Contemporary Indian Poetry

"Like an Abhang, Unfinished"


There have been many anthologies of Indian poetry in recent times. The ones that come immediately to mind are Jeet Thayil's 60 Indian Poets (Penguin, 2008) - metamorphosed into the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Poets in the same year; Sudeep Sen's voluminous The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry (2012) featuring 85 poets writing in English, and an even more ambitious collection by Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo, These My Words (2012), going back to Vedic times.

With 22 official languages and an intricate literary tradition enriched over several centuries, there is much to savour in Indian poetry. Sanskrit literature that has its roots in the Rig Veda (1500-1200 BCE); classical Tamil Sangam literature (c. 300 BCE to 300 CE); the bhajans of the Bhakti movement as exemplified by Meerabai (c.1498 - c.1547); the devotional abhangs in Marathi of Sant Tukaram in the 17th century...there is all this and much more, both in the original and in English translation.

Against this backdrop, Indian poets writing in English form a miniscule community. Beginning with Henry Vivian Louis Derozio, they have spent close to 200 years claiming the language of the colonial rulers as their own, adding a vigour and vitality that is uniquely Indian in its ethos and language.

In 'A Study of Indian English Poetry' (International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications, Volume 2, Issue 10, October 2012), Dr Sunita Rana refers to three phases of its development; the early pioneers such as Henry Derozio, Michael Madhusudan Dutt and Toru Dutt "who began to poetize the Indian echoes in a foreign language" (1850 - 1900); the assimilative period, with writers caught in the maelstrom of nationalism and historical conflict and change, culminating in the attainment of political freedom in 1947; and the experimental phase which begins after Independence.

These post-Independence poets, though familiar with writers like T S Eliot and W.B. Yeats, began to grapple with the challenges of a new era, and were "free to use English which is not mechanically but organically out of a natural inwardness which gives a poem its immediacy of experience". Poets like Nissim Ezekiel, A. K. Ramanujan, R. Parathasarthy, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Keki Daruwalla, Adil Jussawalla, Gieve Patel, Jayanta Mahapatra and Kamala Das defined a new sensibility; as Adil Jussawalla told this writer, speaking of the heart of Mumbai's commercial district in the 1970s: "We discovered that D. N. Road was a fit subject for poetry". Kamala Das (1934 - 2009) broke many barriers for Indian women writers when she spoke of the "warm shock of menstrual blood" and Hoshang Merchant extended the discourse on Indian writing with India's first anthology of gay writing, Yaarana: Gay Writing from India (1999, Penguin).

In the last decade or so, women writers have also made a significant difference to the tone and quality of Indian writing, across languages. As Dr K V Raghupathi, convener of a recent National Seminar on Women Poets in Indian English Poetry observed in March 2013 at the Central University of Tamil Nadu, poetry by women writers in post-colonial times, has "organically responded to the Indian situation by raising questions related to self, identity, patriarchy, political and social consciousness. But visibility nonetheless remains a cause of concern, not only for the regional women poets but also for their Indian English counterparts".

The experimentation began early and across several languages: in 1961, for instance, Malay Roychoudhury, a close friend of Allen Ginsberg, founded the Hungryalist movement in Bengal. The 'Hungry Generation' shook Bengali traditions and is said to have influenced Hindi, Marathi, Assamese, Telugu and Urdu literatures. Roychoudhury, who is represented in this anthology, was prosecuted on charges of obscenity for his Prachanda Baidyutik Chhutar or Stark Electric Jesus written in 1963; this year, 2013, marks 50 years of the landmark work.

In the 21st century, more than sixty years after Nissim Ezekiel introduced a new idiom, Indians writing in English are still occasionally asked that irritating question about why they do not write in their mother tongues. The frequency of such questioning, however, seems to be diminishing, and today, while the phrase may still exist in academic circles, the writers no longer even refer to themselves as 'Indian English poets', a strange and uncomfortable label that they had accepted for some years.

As Arvind Krishna Mehrotra commented when he edited The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets in 1992, "Indians have been writing verse in English at least since the 1820s and it goes under many ludicrous names - Indo-English, India-English, Indian English, Indo-Anglian, and even Anglo-Indian and Indo-Anglican. 'Kill that nonsense term', Adil Jussawalla said of 'Indo-Anglian', 'and kill it quickly'." Judging by the titles that both Jeet Thayil and Sudeep Sen gave their recent anthologies, these terms are now well and truly dead.

In fact, many poets have been comfortable writing both in English and in their mother tongues. They include Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote both in Bengali and English, and translated his own work; Dilip Chitre (1938 -2009) and Arun Kolatkar (1931-2004), both of whom were well known for poetry in English and in Marathi. Kolatkar's first book of poems, Jejuri (1976) published at the age of 44, won him the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, and his third Marathi publication, Bhijki Vahi, got him a Sahitya Akademi award in 2004. Shortly before his death in the same year, he launched two landmark collections of poetry in English, Kala Ghoda Poems, a perceptive and sympathetic view of life on his favourite street in South Mumbai, and Sarpa Satra.

This mini-anthology cannot hope to encompass the breadth and vision of Indian writing, and do it justice. What I have tried to do, however, is to include selections from contemporary Indian poets who have a significant presence today, and some newer voices that are being heard. The word 'Contemporary' in the title has been interpreted loosely, to include writers who introduced a new voice in Indian poetry and are still writing actively; a few individual poems, which contributed to this evolution, first appeared in the 1970s and '80s. I have included them to provide some sense of perspective and continuity. I also chose to keep this collection broad-based instead of narrowing it down to any particular theme, as the global reach of an e-zine would mean that this anthology would connect with many who may be unfamiliar with Indian writing, and this would serve as some kind of introduction.

It would be impossible to represent all the languages in which poetry is written in India, so while the contributions are from different parts of the country, the choice is weighted towards poems in English, and some from other languages that I thought worked just as well in English translation. I would have liked to have included many more writers who have gained both a national and an international presence but that would have meant including at least one hundred poets. Perhaps it will be possible to bring out a second edition of Indian writing in a future issue; certainly there is scope, for instance, to put together an anthology of writing by Indian women, though there are already some available in print editions. I would also like to acknowledge and thank Adil Jussawalla, whose comments and suggestions were invaluable.

The title of this collection takes its cue from Anamika's lines, 'Let me be hummed/ like an abhang, unfinished', represented in this anthology. An abhang is a form of devotional poetry, an exuberant expression that creates a sense of kinship and free-flowing energy. Writing poetry may be a solitary and lonely activity, but when many individual voices come together to create a vibrant community, to me, it seems much like an abhang.