Mangaluru, Aug 28: The audience that assembled in the Shehnai hall of Deepa Comforts here on a rainy Sunday August 27 evening was witness to an enriching journey into the world of poetry, particularly Indian poetics, as internationally renowned Gujarati poet and critic Sitanshu Yashaschandra delivered a fascinating talk on the topic ‘Indian Ways of Understanding Poetry’.
An eloquent orator, Yashashchandra, recipient of Padma Shree, Central Sahitya Akademi Award and many more honours, delivered the VI James and Shobha Mendonca Endowment Lecture on Poetry organized by Kavita Trust to an informed audience who sat in rapt attention latching on to every word.
Sitanshu Yashaschandra is contemporary Gujarati literature’s most celebrated poet and playwright. Also a critical theorist, translator and academic, he has read from his poems and plays at Paris, Berlin, Frankfurt, Stuttgard, Moscow, Riga, Croetia, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seoul and across India. A Fulbright Scholar and a Ford West European Fellowship recipient, Yashaschandra has a doctorate in comparative literature from the USA and another doctorate in Indian poetics from Mumbai. He has served as vice-chancellor (Saurashtra University), UGC emeritus professor and national lecturer, as well as chief editor of the Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature (Sahitya Akademi).
He began his talk by addressing the audience, who consisted chiefly of poets, professors and literary enthusiasts, as his ‘valiant friends’. “It is a privilege for me and I believe, for any writer, who has chosen his mother tongue or the language of his region to write poetry and other forms of literature. It is a privilege to be in the midst of Konkani poets and lovers of Konkani language. Languages are not given to the writers, though it may seem so. In a country like ours, there are so many languages always available to a writer. English is one of them, so also Hindi. There are advantages of writing in languages which have a larger spread. So here is a group of eminent writers who are known nationally – Melvyn Rodrigues is the face of Konkani for the rest of India. We have chosen to write in a particular language, it is not the language of literature for us only because we have been born into it. That is why the adjective ‘valiant’.
‘Soumya’ in Indian Poetry
“Umashankar Joshi, a great Gujarati poet, who was chancellor of Vishwa Bharati founded by Rabindranath Tagore, speaks of two words – ‘soumya’ meaning ‘gentle’, and Sanskrit word ‘kshatar’, meaning ‘worshippers of shakti (power)’. The latter word has been corrupted by the Gujarati people because they want to point out at some corruption. The word ‘kshatar’ has been turned into Gujarati as ‘chhakto’ – it means and an arrogant, violent person who has lost control over himself. They woship power but they cannot handle it. That is something Indian poetry has been doing over the millenium, over the decades. But what about the other word ‘soumya’? Umashankar Joshi takes you to the root of the word – it derives from the word ‘soum’, which means the nectar or the juice which the sages would drink. If you have the divine drink, you become gentle, and if you consume the fermented drink, you become violent. The quality that relates the Konkani and the Gujarati speaking people is this gentleness. These two languages, along with other Indian languages, do not permit you to raise your voice beyond a certain point. They permit you to use the great device of undertones. So, Indian languages, many of them, have this ability to speak in undertones, and Indians have very sharp ears. We have the ability to listen to things which are said very soflty, very gently.
“Let’s see how this gentleness of Indian poetry has come about. The listener or the reader is ‘sahrudaya’ – ‘hrudaya’ means heart, ‘suhrudaya’ means one who has the ‘living heart’. Konkani language has a unique quality. Other languages have the facility of having a geographical location which is related to state power, but a language’s mettle is tested when it is spread over three or four states, and yet has oneness. It lives because of you, and not because of the patronage of the state. It is there because of the patronage of the people,” he said.
At this point, Yashashchandra appreciated NRI entrepreneurs James and Shobha Mendonca, patrons of the annual endowment lecture year after year, and said that they and the trustees of Kavita Trust were ‘sahrudayas’ driven by a love for their mother tongue and literature.
Relating to the Past
“Indians are everywhere, and they do not become non-Indians, nor do they become non-Chinese (if they are in China) or non-Europeans (if they are in Europe). How do you develop this subtle relationship which denies nothing and affirms everything? How do you relate to places which are far away, and times which are far away? Indians, especially those who are the majority of Indians, that is the Hindus, do not quite realize that their own past is also a foreign land. It is not easy to go to a foreign land, which is your own past. The visa is not available to go to the past. How do you go to the past? How do you maintain that continuity, how do you belong to the several centuries at the same time? That is the tall order – not to see us belonging to your own time, to the here and now, and yet to belong to the very many layers of the past, which are in a sense, continuous, but in another sense, distorted? ‘Sahitya’ – that is the word, which means ‘together’. If you come to India from a unicultural country, you will really wonder and think highly of Indians, who are so different, yet live together. What is this ‘sahityata’? Why do we name our literature ‘sahitya’, while for others it is related to being literate? Being literate has nothing to do with being together. On the contrary, very often the more literate you are, the more divisive you become. So, ours is a culture which fashions its language, poetry and criticism, the language of culture, with much care. We call it ‘sahitya’.
“Our past has its own curses, its own follies. And if you pamper those follies and go on defending them, you can become a great lawyer, but you cannot become a poet, because the poet is one who points out to our errors and frees our own past from its curses and its follies.
“So who is the Adi Kavi for us? In Rig Veda, there are any number of beautiful poems, written by both men and women. They have been mentioned in the Rig Veda. It is the oldest recorded text of mankind, yet none of those poets was named as ‘Adi Kavi’. Only one person is known as Adi Kavi in India, and that is Valmiki. Valmiki was an aborigin who did not belong to the mainstream. India has peculiar ways of understanding creativity, and how it relates not only to our own time but to our past. So Konkani literature does not begin with Christa Purana, it begins when literature began in India. It is inherited – We are not paupers, we are the richest writers of mankind anywhere. If you dig into our inner courtyard, you will find riches in the soil. Valmiki was a ‘sahrudaya’, he was first a reader, a listener. He did not need to go to war sites to write tragedies. The sight of hunter killing two birds evoked great poetry in him,” Yashaschandra said, quoting powerful lines from Valmiki’s poetry.
Relating to Language
“We also relate to our language. Europe and India have two different semiotic tragectories. In Europe, till 12th century, literature was written in Latin and no other language. It was Dante who started writing when people began writing in Indian modern languages, 11th-12th centuries. Karnataka is the oldest, where they started writing in 8th-9th centuries, for example, ‘Vaddaradhane’ and ‘Kavirajamarga’. Dante started writing a little later. There was a great rebellion in Europe – Italian was called a vulgar language, but after Dante started writing in Italian, it became a great language. So Latin was dethroned and the new European literature came. In India’s case, the situation was very interesting. If you read Kalidasa – the king Dushyant speaks in Sanskrit, the queen Shakuntala speaks in Prakrit, and yet they can make perfect love. There was a third language – Apabhramsa. It was the ‘dirtied’ language, but it was a language of literature. Kabir and others wrote in it. They were the rebel poets. These three languages constantly interacted with each other, they enhanced and supplemented each other. This is the relationship which modern Indian languages, including Hindi, should establish among ourselves. We should relate to each other, and Hindi should not become another English or Persian, the languages of power. Hindi is called the language of wandering saints, and that is how it should remain. It should refuse to become the state language. So the choice of language (of poets) is not just valour, but affection,” he said.
Personal and Objective Poetry
“India has been reading and listening to poetry in a myriad ways. And that is our strength. A K Ramanujan, a great professor who taught at Chicago, has pointed out that in Kannada language there are two words – ‘aham’ or ‘akam’, and ‘puram’. ‘Aham’ or ‘akam’ is the subjective space, and ‘puram’ is the objective space, the public space. In Europe, the town square is public, the home is the castle, the private space. In India, Ramanujan says, the kitchen or the dining room of the family becomes ‘aham’, and the outer room where guests sit is the ‘puram’. When the father sits with the guests in the outer room, that becomes the ‘aham’, and the courtyard the ‘puram’. And in the evening, when the grandfather narrates a story to the villagers in the courtyard, that becomes a ‘aham’ and the rest of the town the ‘puram’. During festivities, the entire village becomes ‘aham’. So you see how private and public relations are very different in India. This dicotomy of personal poetry and objective poetry is not there in India. The Indian listener of poetry is the ‘sahrudaya’, whose ‘hrudaya’ is not limited by artificial boundaries, where the borderline is flexible and porous, where there is symbiosis,” he said.
“When Mahabharata and Ramayana serials were shown on television, the streets in Mumbai used to be deserted, and not only in Hindu localities, but in every locality. That was the identity of India. Whether Muslim, Christian or Sikh, everyone wanted to watch Mahabharata and Ramayana, because it was India. So listening is place-free, time-free, and in every way context-free. Otherwise we would be reading Mahabharata and Ramayana as westerners read Homer’s epics. In India, most people do not know Sanskrit, yet these two epics are constantly translated and changed according to times. So the listener, the ‘sahrudaya’ is free. That is the knowledge which liberates you from the fetters that bind you. India is the only culture in the world where two epics of poetry (Mahabharata and Ramayana) have replaced four books (Vedas) of the seers as basic religious texts. Everyone swears by the Veda, but nobody reads it, but everyone knows Mahabharata. This is the kind of culture that we have. This is the kind of readership we have cultivated. I enjoy reading Christa Purana. When I read Christa Purana, the poet does not ask me to change my religion, but he gives me so much, because I understand how the severe Christianity of the west has been made so delicate, so affectionate, for instance in the image of the Infant Jesus,” he explained.
Lamenting that the great Buddhist tradition of India has almost been lost, Yashaschandra said, “One of the greatest three or four Indians of the 19th century, apart from Gandhiji, was Dr Ambedkar. Dr Ambedkar could have opted for any other religion, but he became a Bauddha (Buddhist). Many Dalit poets are nava-Bauddha poets. And that to my mind is another great aspect of contemporary Indian poetry. This aspect of Buddhism does not begin with 20th century or with Dalit poets. The Dalit poets are also inheritors of a great Indian tradition which is lost to us. But they have inherited it, we also should inherit it.”
In conclusion, he quoted a dialogue on achieving Nirvana between Soma, a woman monk, and Mara from ‘Therighata’ of Buddhist poetic scripture, and said, “If a woman or man is a human being and can go beyond the ‘I am’ to ‘you are’, ‘we are’ or ‘they are’, you can move in language, in poetry and in life. For this great movement of life, we can all get together, across the languages.” He also suggested that poets and writers of Gujarati and Konkani translate each other’s works to achieve this togetherness.
‘Selective Criticism Dangerous, Uniform Critical Gaze Lacking Today’
During the interactive session, the poet answered various questions posed by the audience. To a question on ‘monopolisation of myths’ in today’s time, Yashaschandra drew attention to the dangers of ‘selective criticism’ and said, “To me the greatest danger today is to be selectively critical. What is happening today is that because a certain party is in power, all our critical gaze is focused on that party. I have many friends in Jadavpur University (in West Bengal), and in Kerala, so I know of the tyranny of ideology, of political parties on the left. Right now, our critical gaze has been shifted from there and fixed only on the political ideology of the right. If we do that as intellectuals and as thinking Indians, we would only encourage the common Indian, who is not so sophisticated in debate and perception, we will only encourage the majority to club as ‘detractors’ of the majority. We should not do that. This is what is happening, and that is why if certain forces, which are terrible, come to power, people will be in trouble.
“We must learn our lessons. That is the point I am making. There are many errors in the past, and we must try to correct them. There is no civilization that is error-free. The sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we will be free, wherever we are, whichever religion or region or linguistic identity we have. But uniformly critical gaze is what is lacking today. If there are riots three hour-long riots, where men are killed, then people out only two of those riots. What about the others? This is not uniform criticism, it is focused criticism. Some say ‘these people rioted for only three hours, others have rioted for three months’. This is the argument that where we decide which is the lagest riot that should be punished, and other smaller riots should be ‘tolerated’. This kind of argument enters because we focus our criticality only on one set of ideology or one set of religion,” he said, adding, “We need to find out for ourselves how India today could retain its critical faculty without being subservient to one or the other political or religious or any other ideology.”
He also narrated how he rejected honour from his state government as it had failed to restore the state literary academy to its constitution.
Prior to the talk, patron of the endowment lecture, NRI entrepreneur James Mendonca, and Dayan D’Souza who was instrumental in organizing annual multi-lingual poetry session by Kavita Trust, were presented bouquets.
The office-bearers and trustees of Kavita Trust presented Sitanshu Yashaschandra with a copy of ‘A Land Called South Canara’, a book authored by William Pais and Vincent Mendonca.
Trustee William Pais welcomed the gathering and introduced the poet. Malini Hebbar compered the event with poise and grace.
Founder of Kavita Trust Melvyn Rodrigues, current president Kishoo Barkur, secretary Averyl Rodrigues, treasurer Andrew DCunha, trustee Vitori Karkal and many others were present.