PLAYING WITH ‘FIRE OF CREATION’: RAMKINKAR BAIJ

Excerpts from My Days with Ramkinkar Baij

Somendranath Bandopadhyay
Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

I

first arrived at Santiniketan in 1942, after clearing the Matriculation examination. That was the first time I saw Kinkarda. In time, our acquaintance grew closer through my father, who, as Kinkarda’s batch mate, was a member of Kala Bhavana’s first student body.

I saw Kinkarda and marvelled at his works during my student life. Then again, I saw him with his works on burning afternoons or in the evening’s shadow-caped deepening dark. But at that time, I didn’t have the requisite insight and maturity to know him well. In 1957, I joined Visva-Bharati as a teacher. That’s when I found him again, in a totally new way. For twenty-three years, between 1957 and 1980, my close association with him made our relationship much more intimate and deeper. I hold this fellowship and intimacy in great esteem.

However, I didn’t realise that this closeness had also gradually fostered in me an uncomfortable dissatisfaction and unease. At one point this became clear to me. Everyone knows Kinkarda as an outstanding artist—one of the finest exponents of neo-Indian art and perhaps the greatest of sculptors, whose originality is undoubted, who never wore labels of ‘East’ and ‘West’, who was independent and walked on his own path. Some see him or like to view him as a rootless Bohemian artist. His lifestyle is completely different from Western Bohemian artists; rather, he is closer to the bauls of Bengal, oblivious of worldly concerns. In this respect, I wholeheartedly agree with respected Manida (artist K.G. Subramaniam). That Kinkarda is driven by an inner force, empowered by sheer outstanding talent, resulting in the birth of extraordinary works of art isn’t the full story. He lives in a world of introspection—contemplating about the nature of life. Entwined with this is his world of artistic thinking, in itself fertile and rooted in life’s experiences.

What many of us do not know is that these experiences have been shaped by the sharp observation of his highly alert sight, the perceptions and realisations of his overly sensitive heart, his self-study and reflection, and many other influences. Benodebehari Mukhopadhyay—Ramkinkar’s batch mate and another talent of Kala Bhavana—also took up the pen besides pursuing painting. He wrote many valuable articles, criticisms, autobiographical and semi-autobiographical pieces. These reflect his analytically-rich intellectual strength as much as they highlight his experience and perceptiveness.

Kinkarda, though, never took up the pen. He did not have that mindset. Nor did he have the time. He had devoted his body, mind, life to ceaseless creation….I decided that if he would permit me to do so, I would come to him according to his wish and leisure. I would glean bit by bit, the best I could, from my interactions with him. In this way, at least some things could be preserved for those who want to know him, understand him deeply, or those who would never have the good fortune to see him, to listen to him.

Even as I was contemplating this, an unexpected opportunity came my way. At the time, Kinkarda used to stay at Shankhoda’s (artist Shankho Chowdhuri) mud house in Ratan Palli. That house was on the verge of collapsing. To my great delight, Kinkarda came to live in house number twenty in our Andrews Palli, right next to me. Without wasting any time, I grabbed this opportunity.

Morning, afternoon, evening, late evening—I visited him at all hours. On off days and holidays, a passion to leave everything aside and run to him would seize me. After nearly a year of such sessions, the work was complete.

Read the rest in The Beacon

The Whore as a Metaphor for a City

Bombay Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto 
Translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad
Vintage International

First published in The Beacon

Sudhir Pattwardhan. “Street Corner” 1985

Mention Saadat Hasan Manto’s name and a landscape of tragedy unravels in all its grotesqueness. That he has become almost a Siamese twin of the Partition stories he wrote is a minor tragedy in itself. In both age and disposition, there is an altogether different Manto who predates his avatar as a chronicler of the Partition. Bombay Stories introduces one to this earlier Manto, and with him, the city that built his reputation as a writer. The same city that enabled him to become an indubitable annotator of “lowlifes.”

Manto’s Bombay (yes, still very much Bombay), part of pre-independence India, boils with cosmopolitan chaos. As a pot that melted extremes, the city became a home for everyone, from the business tycoon to the migrant labourer and the prostitute. The last group drew Manto’s literary imagination with an intensity bordering on obsession. Nearly every tale in Bombay Stories features a prostitute, even if she isn’t the central character. The skin-brushing proximity Manto evinces in projecting the lives of sex workers raised many an eyebrow in his lifetime. He had been accused of employing obscenity in his stories. One can see why. Manto presents the prostitute in her grimy and broken hovel, stripping her of exaggerated fancies of glamour and lust. The realism apart, the bigger surprise Manto packs in these stories is his not-so-hidden feminist agenda.

When Kanta opens the door to him stark naked, Khushiya, a pimp, is shocked and asks why she doesn’t have any clothes on.

          Kanta smiled. “When you said it was you, I thought, what’s the big deal? It’s only my Khushiya, I’ll let him in…”

The woman’s brazenness hits Khushiya as a whack of insult. It torments him that she could consider him so insignificant as to think nothing of appearing naked in front of him. This weird conflict in the pimp’s mind is a projectile of writerly brilliance. Who would think that a prostitute’s nudity — her most lascivious and prized offering — could be turned on its head and into a weapon to injure the male ego?

Manto’s prostitutes are the axiomatic flesh-and-blood, but they are more. They have beautiful minds of their own, which they exercise despite the compulsion of being tied to the body to pay for food.

The most visceral demonstration of this happens in The Insult, where Saugandhi, a sex worker kicks patriarchy in its shins instead of remaining in its bubble wrap of faux security. Ironically, Saugandhi’s provocation comes not from sexual exploitation but rejection from a potential customer. A man with whom her pimp sets her up says “Yuhkk,” in apparent revulsion and dashes away in his car. In the man’s single meaningless utterance, Saugandhi (literally, fragrant-smelling) decodes a lifetime of humiliation that masculinity has heaped on her. It is in her getting even that Manto concentrates the story’s greatest force. Shortly after the rejection episode, Madho, Saugandhi’s leeching “lover” reappears with his need for money. She rips his photos from her walls and throws them out of the window uttering, “Yuhkk. That is how she seizes her moment of showing Madho — and through him, every man — his place.

In Ten Rupees, Sarita, a young girl, is forced into prostitution by her mother. The story breaks one’s heart before enthralling and finally healing it — with twists as sharp as the ones Kifayat, the driver in the story – makes his car swerve to. Ten Rupees is evidence of the perversion of depraved men looking to sexually exploit a young girl. It is also proof of what the alchemy between a writer’s masterly imagination and his sensitivity can do to kindle the softest core of the human heart, no matter how savage. Ten Rupees is a fantastical story, electrifyingly so because of a young girl who is just that and the Hindi film songs she breaks into unbidden. It’s also an extraordinary story. Although almost a fairy tale, over the brief wingspan of its flight, it holds out the hope of coming true somewhere at some point in time.

In his depiction of prostitutes, Manto is somewhere between an exploiter and a benefactor – more like an ally. His vision has a diving mask that takes him beyond the prostitute’s essential physical territory. Accompanying him to their shanties allows the reader to see them, really see them — the way they live and dream, quarrel with or negotiate their fate. It isn’t difficult to find in Manto’s whores a metaphor for the Bombay of the 1940s. Like her, the city welcomed in a businesslike way anyone willing to pay for the pleasures it offered them. There were no strident calls for keeping outsiders out and the place teemed with characters from different regions, religions and communities.

Only one other character could possibly make the prostitute envious with the consistency of its appearance in Bombay stories. That of Manto’s. Most of the stories are in the first person, and the narrator refers to himself simply as Manto. It is tempting to take this as the author’s real-life persona, but one is well advised to read this character within the fictional framework of the stories. As translator, Matt Reeck informs us in his detailed notes, the Manto of the stories isn’t really a mirror image of the real-life Manto. Still, this self-depreciating, temperamental persona is close enough to the real Manto, one suspects. This is particularly true when he shares vignettes from the Hindi film industry, where he worked as a writer. He delights the reader with an insider’s view of the film industry, at once an enigma and an imperishable field of gossip fuel.

Consider this principle from a ten-point list Narayan, who works in the film industry draws up for working in the studio. #3: If you fall in love with an actress, don’t waste time dilly-dallying. Go meet her in private and recite the line, “I, too, have a tongue in my mouth.” If she doesn’t believe you, then stick the whole thing out. And#6, which rings so true, one could have written it today. Remember that an actor has an afterlife too. From time to time, instead of preening before a mirror, get a little dirty. I mean, do some charity work.” [Janaki]

The translators, Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad have rendered these stories into English with compelling credence without over-anglicising the text. The distinct Indian-ness of the narration is well preserved for the most part as is Manto’s signature sarcasm and wry humour.

One reads Manto not just for the stories he wrote but also because of the way he embalms each story with his deep humanity, his acerbic wit and his near-allergic impatience for masks — semantic or societal. In Mozelle, technically the only “Partition” story in the collection is also arguably the most brilliant in form, content and technique. It depicts the horrors of the communal tensions of the time with such vividness and neurotic pace that the reader is stunned into a suffocating silence. This one story is also an eerie foreboding of the departure of Manto himself from his beloved Bombay, which he had to leave following Partition and from the pluralistic freedom it offered him.


Bombay Stories
 is therefore, is an important collection to understand not only a city but its author who, tragically, died not in but of Partition.

When Ramkinkar Baij sculpted Rabindranath Tagore

In the following excerpt from My Days with Ramkinkar Baij, the sculptor shares with the author Somendranath Bandopadhyay, the backstory of his sculpture of Rabindranath Tagore, which he made in the presence of Tagore in Santiniketan. Translated from the Bengali by: Bhaswati Ghosh

‘Have you seen my two portraits of Rabindranath? The bent sculpture—bust—I made that later. It depicts Tagore’s last phase. The other one, a little abstract, is the earlier one. Many people think that one was made later. No.

‘Andrews had passed away then. Something was being written for his memorial ceremony. He (Tagore) was bent over his writing table. As soon as I went in, he looked at me with squinted eyebrows, as if a little miffed. After hearing my proffering he said, “In the West, an obstinate artist harassed me a great deal by measuring my face from many angles. Do you intend to do the same?” With apprehension, I quickly reassured him, “No, no, I won’t even touch you. You carry on with your work as you are. You won’t even get an inkling that I am around.”

‘He would do his work, and so would I—this was the deal. Bas—I got what I wanted.

‘I got to work in a corner of the room. A little away from his chair and table.

‘He used to remain engrossed in his work. However, I can’t say he never looked at my work at all. A couple of times, he did see it from the corner of his eyes.

‘He was a little unwell at the time. His hair had been cropped short—he didn’t have the mane. He had to bend over the table to write. It reflected a special side of his personality—and that’s what I tried to capture, my dear—the serious Rabindranath. Not the sweet and pliable Kobiguru. See, very few people have recognised this other Rabindranath. All through his life, he stressed on many things, did such a lot of work—in Shilaidaha, then here in Santiniketan—he begged until the end of his life—who ever paid attention to him? And how many people have done such bone-breaking work in our country? You think the poet only dreams. Ha, ha. We also see him only in our dreams. Look at the flesh and blood man, the real man.’

The words are clothed in deep sadness and grave perturbation. From his expression, that isn’t left to doubt.

 

Letters from a foreign shore — Rabindranath Tagore’s letters to his niece

First published in Cafe Dissensus

39

Shilaidaha

Thursday, January 9, 1892

[January 14]

For the last couple of days, the weather here has been vacillating between winter and spring. In the morning, northern winds send shivers through land and water and, in the evening, the southern breeze dances through the moonlight of the bright fortnight. It is clear that the spring is nigh. After a long time, an Indian nightingale has started singing from the garden on the other side. The human heart is somewhat excited, too. One can now hear strains of song and music from the village across, which indicates people aren’t too eager to shut their doors and windows and retreat to bed all bundled-up, while the evening is still young.

It’s a full-moon night – a giant moon stares at me from the open window to my left as if to check if I am berating it in this letter. Perhaps she thinks the earth’s residents gossip more about her blemish than her jyotsna. A lone bird calls to dispel the shore’s quietude. The river is still, no boat sails on it; the forest on the other side spreads its solemn shadow on the water. This massive moonlit sky looks a touch hazy – the way things appear when drowsy eyes try to stay awake.

Tomorrow onwards, evenings will begin getting darker again; as I cross this small river after completing my kutcherry work, I will notice a slight separation between me and my beloved away from home. Could the one who had unveiled to me her large and mysterious heart be wondering if all that self-revelation was prudent enough and thus pull back the curtain to her heart again?

Indeed, nature becomes intimate to one who lives alone abroad. I have truly felt for a few days now that I might no longer receive this swathing moonlight once the full-moon night is over; that from this foreign place, I will drift further abroad; that the familiar calm beauty that awaits me at the river bank every day after work, won’t be there for me, and that I would have to make my return journey on the boat in darkness.

But today is a full-moon night – this is the first purnima of this year’s spring, and so I record its story in writing. Perchance I might remember this still night – complete with that lone bird’s call and the gleam of the light on the boat anchored to that bank; this clear outline of the river, that coating of a quasi-dark forest and that detached, indifferent, pallid sky – after a long time…

(Jyotsna: Moonlight; Purnima: Full-moon night)

***

105

Shajadpur

July 7, 1893

This is a small village. Meandering through broken ghaats, a tin-roofed bazaar, granaries with split bamboo fencing, bamboo clumps, mango-jackfruit-palm-shimul-banana-akondo-bherenda-yam trees huddled in a bush, huge boats with raised masts anchored on the river banks, paddy submerged in water, and half-soaked jute fields, I reached Shajadpur last evening. This is going to be my abode for a while now. After spending days in the boat, it’s lovely to step into a house in Shajadpur. It’s wonderful to discover the freedom of being able to move around and stretch one’s limb at will and the impact it has on one’s mental health.

This morning, the sun is beaming from time to time, a wind is blowing swiftly, tamarisk and lychee trees are sashaying and rustling in a sway, a variety of birds are calling out in as many different ways to enliven the forest’s morning assembly. Sitting in this large, companion-less bright and open second-floor room, I am delighted to see a row of boats on the canal and, across it, a village flanked by trees on both sides. On this side, moderate activity guides the movements of a nearby locality. The workflow of a village isn’t rushed, and yet, neither is it inert or lifeless. Work and rest seem to walk hand in hand here.

Ferry boats sail on, passengers walk along the canal with umbrellas in their hands, women dip rice-filled wicker baskets in the water to wash the grain, farmers carrying bundles of jute on their heads head towards the haat, two men rest a log on the ground and crack it with axes for firewood, a carpenter upturns a fishing boat to repair it with a chisel, the village mongrel wanders around aimlessly, a few cows lazily sit on the ground and ward off flies by shaking their ears and tails before ingesting their lunch of the monsoon grass. When crows annoy them excessively by sitting on their backs, they turn their heads just a few times to register their protest.

The sounds of this place – the monotony of cracking wood, the cheer of unclothed children in play, the plaintive high-pitched song of a cowboy, the sloshing of oars, the shrill drone of the oil-grinding block – don’t create any dissonance when they combine with bird calls and rustling  of leaves. In fact, all of it is like a peaceful dream sequence of a bigger sonata, a bit in the manner of Chopin, albeit attuned in an expansive yet controlled composition.

My mind brims with sunlight and all these sounds; I better conclude this letter and soak in it for a while.

(Ghaat: River bank; Haat: Village market)

Image courtesy: theculturetrip.com

Ganga and Mahadev by Rahi Masoom Raza

Translation: Bhaswati Ghosh

My name sounds like a Muslim’s
Slaughter me and set my home ablaze
Plunder the room where my statements stay awake
Where I whisper to Tulsi’s Ramayana
And say to Kalidasa’s Meghdoot
That I, too, have a message.
My name is like that of Muslims
Kill me and torch my house
But remember that the water of Ganga courses through my veins
Throw a splash of my blood on Mahadev’s face
And say to that yogi — Mahadev
Withdraw this Ganga now
It has sunk into the bodies of the degraded Turks
Where it runs as blood.

गंगा और महादेव
राही मासूम रज़ा

मेरा नाम मुसलमानों जैसा है
मुझको कत्ल करो और मेरे घर में आग लगा दो
मेरे उस कमरे को लूटो जिसमें मेरी बयाने जाग रही हैं
और मैं जिसमें तुलसी की रामायण से सरगोशी करके
कालीदास के मेघदूत से यह कहता हूँ
मेरा भी एक संदेश है।
मेरा नाम मुसलमानों जैसा है
मुझको कत्ल करो और मेरे घर में आग लगा दो
लेकिन मेरी रग-रग में गंगा का पानी दौड़ रहा है
मेरे लहू से चुल्लू भर महादेव के मुँह पर फेंको
और उस योगी से कह दो- महादेव
अब इस गंगा को वापस ले लो
यह ज़लील तुर्कों के बदन में गढ़ा गया
लहू बनकर दौड़ रही है।

Afternoons in Bengal Countryside ~ Rabindranath Tagore

                                    Shazadpur,
                                    September 5, 1894

After spending a long time in the boat, it feels wonderful to have suddenly arrived at the Shazadpur house. Light and air streams in unrestrained through the large windows and doors — wherever I look, I see green branches of trees and hear bird call. The moment I step out to the southern verandah, all the veins of my brain fill with the fragrance of Kamini flowers. All of a sudden I realize a hunger lurked within me for an expansive sky — being here has fulfilled it completely.

I am the sole master of four large rooms — I sit with all the doors open. The inspiration and motivation I receive to write here is unlike any other place. A living essence of the outside world enters me unhindered through the open doors — the light and the sky and the air and the sounds and the smells and the waves of green mingle with the passions of my mind and create innumerable stories. Particularly, the afternoons here have a deep spell. The sun’s heat, the silence, the quiet, calls of birds, especially the crow’s and an extended period of leisure make me pensive and eager.

Shantiniketan 036

I don’t know why I have a feeling that Arabian stories are made of afternoons like these filled with golden sunshine. Those Persian and Arabian lands of Damascus, Samarkand, Bukhara…those grape clusters, rose gardens, the nightingale’s songs, Shiraz wines, desert paths, rows of camels, horse-riding wayfarers, a clear source of water amidst a thick curtain of date trees…cities with narrow royal lanes festooned with awnings, a shopkeeper wearing a turban and comfortable, loose-fitting clothes — selling melons and mewa at the end of the street…a massive royal palace by the roadside with incense smell wafting out of it, a huge mattress covered with kimkhwāb placed by the window…Amina, Zubeidi and Sufi wear zari footwear, wide pajamas and colourful corsets as they inhale smoke rising off a curled hubble-bubble near their feet, at the door, a habshi wearing flashy clothes stands guard…and in this mysterious, unfamiliar faraway land, in a wealth-filled, spectacular yet eerie royal palace, thousands of stories — possible and impossible — are being created out of the laughter and tears, hopes and anxieties of humans.

These afternoons I spend in Shazadpur are fabled afternoons. I remember writing the story “Postmaster” sitting at the table fully engrossed right at this hour. As I wrote, the light around me, the breeze and the shivering tree branches all added their language to it. There are few joys that come close to creating something close to one’s heart by being immersed in one’s surroundings. This morning I became inclined to write something on limericks and could become entirely involved in it, which brought me immense delight. Limericks make for a free country unbounded by rules and laws — like the world of clouds. Unfortunately, the land that rules and laws dominate is never far behind to follow one. As I wrote, a sudden insurrection of officials stormed in, blowing away my cloud land. When that ended, it was time to eat. There’s nothing more sloth-inducing than eating a full meal in the afternoon. It overwhelms one’s imagination and the spirit’s higher callings. Bengalis are unable to enjoy the deep intrinsic beauty of an afternoon because of their predilection to eat sumptuous meals at that time and then closing the door to smoke on tobacco and slide into a satiating slumber. This is what makes them hale and hearty. But nowhere do quiet, desolate afternoons spread over in the sweeping, silent manner in which they do over Bengal’s uniformly limitless plain crop fields.

Afternoons like these have haunted me since childhood. Back then, no one used to be in the outer third-storey quarters; I alone sat in the angular couch with the door wide open and warm breeze blowing in. My entire day went by with vivid imagination and unspeakable desires.

Satara
September 10, 1894

Translation: Bhaswati Ghosh

Leading Ordinary Lives / Kunwar Narayan

Kunwar Narayan
(Translation mine)

I know
I can’t change the world,
Or win a fight against it.

It’s possible that I
Become a martyr fighting
And beyond that earn a martyr’s
Tomb or an artist’s fame…

But being a martyr
Is a different game altogether

There are people who despite
Leading entirely ordinary lives
Have been known to become
Martyrs, quietly.

मामूली ज़िन्दगी जीते हुए / कुंवर नारायण

जानता हूँ कि मैं
दुनिया को बदल नहीं सकता,
न लड़ कर
उससे जीत ही सकता हूँ

हाँ लड़ते-लड़ते शहीद हो सकता हूँ
और उससे आगे
एक शहीद का मकबरा
या एक अदाकार की तरह मशहूर…

लेकिन शहीद होना
एक बिलकुल फ़र्क तरह का मामला है

बिलकुल मामूली ज़िन्दगी जीते हुए भी
लोग चुपचाप शहीद होते देखे गए हैं

A People Ravaged: Peeling off the Many Layers of Partition Trauma

First published in The Wire

Literature, Gender, and the Trauma of Partition: The Paradox of Independence
Debali Mookerjea-Leonard
Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017

In writing my first novel, whose protagonist is a young refugee woman from East Pakistan, I employed the device of coincidence to achieve a happy ending. Doing so wasn’t a sudden rush on my part to end what had become a protracted writing project but a well thought-out conclusion. It was not to be. When they read it, two of my trusted beta readers quashed it summarily, citing it as lazy and escapist. Even though incredible incidents can happen in real life, one of them advised, in a work of fiction, coincidences are hard to pull off convincingly.

An incident Debali Mookerjea-Leonard mentions in the preface to Literature, Gender and the Trauma of Partition: The Paradox of Independence starkly bears out this paradox.

Shortly after the All India Muslim League’s call for Direct Action in Calcutta in 1946, the author’s grandfather was stranded in Howrah station as public transport had been suspended in the wake of the sectarian clashes. He eventually got a ride from a kind Muslim family who had a private car, but had to climb on the footboard as the vehicle was full. To ensure his safety, he was given a flag of the Muslim League and advised to shout “Pakistan Zindabad” when passing through Muslim neighbourhoods. He did, and reached his home safely.

The insanity that gripped the subcontinent a year later when India was partitioned has been arduously chronicled in historical archives. In the privileging of journalistic reportage and record-keeping, personal histories surrounding the traumatic event haven’t received much attention until recently. The initiatives of Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin, and Jashodhara Bagchi, among others come to mind.

Mookerjea-Leonard’s book is an important intervention in this regard, not only because of its meticulous research and compelling arguments but because it sits in that nebulous middle – a no man’s land if you will – of fact and fiction. The author examines with incisive rigour fictional works on Partition and juxtaposes them against factual information and recent recordings of oral histories. As someone not directly affected by the event, hers is a lens that is both objective and earnest.

The works discussed in Literature, Gender and the Trauma of Partition are mostly from Bengal, which the author calls the “neglected shelves” of Bengali literature, written by writers from both sides of the Radcliffe divide. As she mentions in the Preface, this book is her tribute to her city, Calcutta. It is also a conscious effort to shine a light on the sufferings of those at the eastern end of the divide, as the tragedy of Partition in Bengal has been either underrepresented or misrepresented when compared to Partition in Punjab. This could well be attributed to, as Mookerjea-Leonard is cognisant of, the predominant and recurrent theme ofdisplacement in the east as opposed to that of horrific violence in the west.

Read the rest in The Wire.

The Wolf’s Eyes are Red/Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena

(Tr. mine)

The wolf’s eyes are red.
Glare at him
Until your eyes
Turn red, too.
What other choice do you have
When it’s in front of you?

भेड़िए की आंखें सुर्ख हैं / सर्वेश्वरदयाल सक्सेना

भेड़िए की आंखें सुर्ख हैं।
उसे तबतक घूरो
जब तक तुम्हारी आंखें
सुर्ख न हो जाएं।
और तुम कर भी क्या सकते हो
जब वह तुम्हारे सामने हो?

Book Review: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing

I recently had the opportunity tot read “Love and the Turning Seasons,” an exquisite collection of bhakti poetry in translation from Aleph. I wrote about it in Kitaab.

Love and the Turning Seasons

Title: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing
Edited by Andrew Schelling
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: 294
Price: ₹399

I left shame behind,

took as an ornament
the mockery of local folk.
Unswerving, I lost my cleverness
in the bewilderment of ecstasy.

— Manikkavacakar (9thcentury), Tr. A.K. Ramanujan

In a lover’s enraptured world, love is the breeze that strips one, quite simply, of the garment of shame. In reading Love and the Turning Seasons, the newest offering from Aleph Classics, a series that aims to bring new translations of India’s literary heritage, the reader is swept in that denuding breeze. Edited by Andrew Schelling, the collection of poems bears the slightly beguiling subtitle, India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing. I say beguiling because it would seem like the poems could fall in either category – spiritual or erotic. In reality, as Manikkavacakar, the ninth-century Shiva devotee tells us, the line between the two states is as diaphanous as air itself. For, in the “bewilderment of ecstasy”, who is left to distinguish between the flesh and the spirit? This seamless merging of the body and the soul is at the heart of this anthology of bhakti poetry, translated by various poets and literary translators.

Love and the Turning Seasons alights upon the reader as a songbird to take her across time and space – from the sixth century (barring the Isa Upanishad) right up to the twentieth, on an anticlockwise path beginning in the south of India and ending in the east. Despite the multiplicity of expressions of the bhaktas or poet-minstrels, informed as they were by specific cultural and regional parlance, what unifies them is their rejection of societal norms in their unwavering quest for the divine. These were among the first true radicals in the Indian context, repudiating, with delightful contempt, tradition and convention. Gender-bending, caste-subverting, these individuals lived and (even) died on their own terms and sang of the divine with ariose abandonment. As Lal Ded, another Shiva devotee from Kashmir said,

Who instructed you, O Brahmin,
to cut this sheep’s throat—
to placate a lifeless stone?

— Lal Ded (early 1300s), Tr. Andrew Schelling

 

The Sanskrit word bhakti means devotion and has come to connote intense, even blind idolatry, and in these troublingly skewed times, bhakta (devotee) has become a bad word, an uncomplimentary term for blind followers of certain ideologies, political or otherwise. As the anthology affirms through its diverse voices, the bhakti poets were anything but blind in their devotion.

Read the rest in Kitaab.