The Primeval Woman in the City: Modernism in Poetry of Malika Amar Sheikh - gatewaylitfest.com

| June 19, 2018 | Blog | No Comments
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–Sachin Ketkar

Gateway LitfestWhile reading an anthology of Marathi women’s poetry titled Aahvan: Maharashtra Raajyachya Nirmitinantarchya Kalalatil Nivdak Stri Kavitecha Pratinidhik Sangrah edited by Vijaya Sangvai and Shirish Pai (1990), I was stuck by two interconnected but curious facts. The first one was that Malika Amar Sheikh (1956) who happened to be the youngest in the group of thirteen women poets was the only one who can be labeled as ‘modernist’ in terms of sensibility, style and expression.  I noticed that she introduced an urbanized sensibility, a cosmopolitan world view and modernist avant-garde idiom to women’s poetry in Marathi with her collections like Valucha Priyakar (1979), Deharutu (1999), Mahanagar (1999) and Māṇūsapaṇācā bhiṅga badalalyāvara (2007).  She did to Marathi women’s poetry, what BS Mardhekar (1909-1956) did to Marathi poetry in general: it exploded both the conventional romantic idiom and rather obvious and flat social realism to introduce new voice of urbanized despair, cosmopolitanism, avant-garde experimentation, existentialist darkness and utterly hybridized and maverick diction. While the second curious fact was that while I was aware of the chronological variation in inauguration of modernisms in various Indian languages (for instance, in Bangla it would be in the nineteen thirties, in Marathi it would be mid nineteen forties and in Gujarati it would be somewhere in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties), I was stuck by the time gap of modernisms across genders in the same language like Marathi. This time-gap brings to the fore the patriarchal social context of modernisms in India and also underlines the gender as a critical category in analysis of modernism in India. The feminist critique of modernism in the west and its canon have focused on what Bonnie Kime Scott terms as ‘the unconsciously gendered masculine’ in its selection of authors, styles and concerns .  This applies to the Indian versions of modernism as well.

It is possible to read Malika Amar Sheikh as representing Indian modernism which is a distinctive type of modernism .This distinctiveness can be found in what the Czech comparative scholar Dionyz Dursin (1984)  terms as the ‘interliterariness’ of a special kind. Her works belong to the international modernist movements, and shares some of its basic features like the metropolitan background, impact of Euro-American avant-gardes, little magazine movements, the themes of alienation, sexual agony, myths, existential angst, rebellion against the middle-class values,  cultural decadence and the desire to invent a tradition and so on. Moreover, it also exhibits its affinities with other modernist poets on the Indian subcontinent too like critical engagement with the questions of caste, religion and gender repression in India.

Deploying theorization about ‘interliterariness’ of Dionyz Durisin for analysis of Indian literatures, modernism in India can be understood as an interliterary phenomenon. The western avant-garde modernist literature combined with the avant-garde literature in other Indian languages overlapped to produce the Indian version of the international modernist movement. However, the literary resemblances were not merely due to ‘contactual’ relationships but also due to ‘analogical and typological parallels in many social processes like urbanization, industrialization and the global catastrophic events like the world war II. The distinctive history of the subcontinent also created a ground for the reception of the international modernist movement.

Malika Amar Sheikh’s verse seems to be compatible with Chris Baldick’s definition of modernism discussed earlier in many ways. However, her poetics and politics are deeply informed by feminist thoughts, Dalit and working class movements in Maharashtra.

A typical Malika Amar Sheikh poem like ‘A Poem for a Dali Painting’ would reveal relationships with the western avant-garde movements like surrealism, expressionism and imagism; it would also reveal its links with disengagement with bourgeois values and cosmopolitan and urban sensibility. It is also a distinctively feminist poem.

Earlier version published in  Literary Insight (ISSN 0975-6248) Volume-7, January 2016, pp.102-107  


 A Poem for a Dali painting[2]

These refusals

Scattered everywhere

These faces

Pouring out of words

This dead eyelash

Everything is arid

Even then, time is still alive

Resting on it

Dali’s watch still elongates

The tongue of time

Soaked and squirming

Even then

How come these black and red ants of desires

Are still alive

Who is alive?

Time? Or is it us? Or is it this shapeless space?

This throbbing of breath

Or are we listening to the ticking of this watch

Primitive millions of years ancient

What is behind that huge eyelid?

A watch

A moment a silence

Or a dead tear?

All translations are by Sachin C. Ketkar and are published on Poetry Sangam, Sangamhouse.org, Sangam House, Jan 2017, except otherwise indicated.


The poem, in terms of the themes, style and sensibility is markedly different on the one hand from typical ‘women’s problem’ social realist poems written by Marathi women poets  and on the other hand marked differently from the Indira Sant- Shanta Shelke school of romantic lyricism.  What sets it apart is its experimentalism which explicitly not only deploys surrealistic imagery and devices but is also a poetic meditation on Dali’s famous work “The Persistence of Memory”.  It is valuable to see this assimilation of the western avant-garde idioms and vision, including feminist vision into Marathi is an ‘interliterary’ phenomenon, instead of seeing it as ‘influence’ because the term influence is marked by the hierarchy of the influencer and the influenced and takes away creative distinctiveness of modernist poetics on the subcontinent. The speaker in the poem refers to the dialectics of refusals and desire, death and life, time and timelessness. The poem ends with a rhetorical question about what is the actual mystery that lies behind the “huge eyelid” and points to the persistence of human suffering, silence and humanness of time.

 

Her poem ‘Venus’ depicts a similar cosmopolitan and ‘interliterary’ sensibility. This modernist sensibility, however, is shaped by her radical feminist vision.

Venus

She doesn’t have arms

Like me

Her vision utterly dead

She stands in a showcase

Frozen stiff

Like me

With difficulty,

She manages to cling

To the rocky robes of culture

Between her legs

And stony lips

Closed tight

Like me

Women in the cities melt

Turn into statues of Venus

A primeval woman

Lets out a stony scream

The city collapses

At her feet

Throwing the sky

In disarray.

The speaker in the poem identifies herself with the mythical goddess, portrayed as a helpless victim, handicapped, showcased and struggling to protect her dignity. The surreal vision of women in the cities melting and turning into statues of Venus is sinister. The primeval woman, the woman-within-woman, if not ‘essential’ woman,   lets out a scream as the city which is the symbol of civilization collapses at her feet. Slavery of women and their primitive feminine self in the patriarchal structures will result in the collapse of the civilization itself.  Primitivism of some form that emerges out of the image of ‘primeval woman’ is an important aspect of modernist art in the west. Loneliness and the angst is a common theme in her early poems like ‘Torrential, Grief-Stricken Tree of Loneliness’ that combines the surreal elemental imagery of the sky imagined as an enormous tortoise and the pervasive branching of grief and loneliness as a torrential tree:

The Torrential, Grief-Stricken Tree of Loneliness

The enormous tortoise of the sky

Slides slowly

The fluffy swabs of clouds

Press against the drops of sunlight

The torrential, grief-stricken tree of loneliness

Grows inside me

And the rains haven’t poured down yet

One comes across the image of ‘ Primeval woman’ in another poem called ‘ Lush Green Girls’ (Trans. Niranjan Uzgare, Indian Literature, Sept-Oct 2000, p. 18- 19) which deals with the predicament of ‘ lush green girls’ and women, ‘ like the ripe apples eager to get sold’. The ‘lush green girls’ are ‘folded during the night/ they get up frightened at midnight and examine the wombs.’ The fear and exploitation of the patriarchal set up in a city terrify and ruin the natural ‘lush greenness’ of girls. In the last stanza of the poem, we find

A primeval woman in the city

Still shrieks, screams

And gives birth

To the same old brat

Who tortures the city

And is born again and again.

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The same old brat of patriarchy, who is also accountable for destruction of the city and the civilization, is perpetually born to the ‘primeval woman’ who has to undergo the labour throes repeatedly. This theme of patriarchy destroying civilization because it destroys the ‘primeval woman’ is a significant one in Malika’s poetry.  There is an interconnection between this primitivism, modernism and urbanization and the theorists like Monroe Spears explored this relationship in his book Dionysus in the City (1970).

Commenting on the significance of city to the modernist movement, Tew and Murray note, “Modernity is largely defined by urban experience and the city occupies Modernism’s centre stage.” In Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890–1930, Malcolm Bradbury argues that ‘In many respects the literature of experimental Modernism which emerged in the last years of the nineteenth century and developed into the present one was an art of cities’ (96).

The urban and cosmopolitan sensibility combines with the modernist device of startling juxtaposition in many of her poems in Mahanagar (the Metropolis). The sordid images from metropolitan life and combined to bring out the essential existential ‘fraud’ underlying the urban experience:

The Metropolis -3

A drowning sea

A patient suffering from venereal disease

A bored pair of spectacle

A black ugly form

You put all this together

And you have one big fraud

 

This existentialist angst, and surreal juxtaposition of startling and sordid images, which is typical of the modernist idiom, is rare in women’s poetry in Marathi. Most of Marathi poetry by women very often engages in a very obvious and flat style of ‘social realism’ and ‘women’s issues’ and turns out clichéd and boring.

Malika’s poetry, like her controversial autobiography Mala Udhvasta Hoichai (1984), translated by Jerry Pinto as I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir takes on the personal as political, though not without a comic and ironical tone, however as the following two later poems indicate:


Betrayal or What My Husband Feels

Like all the husbands in the world

My husband feels

I love him a lot

I don’t want to shatter his illusion

Yet I don’t feel it is right for him

To live with this illusion for his whole life

In a careless moment of embrace

I might tell him

If I come across a more good-looking

More intelligent

More understanding man

I might even have a fling with him

Without hesitating

The moment of ecstasy is a beautiful one

Which men have commonly found

To tell you the truth

I would love to betray

And I won’t even feel guilty about it later at all

On the contrary I will love my husband more after that

That he allowed me to betray

Gave me an opportunity

To have that rapturous moment

An opportunity to prove my humanness.

I would apply more ghee to his chapattis

I would even read recipe books to find out

How to make his favorite vegetables better

Turn compassionate

About his relatives

I would become more aware

Of the color of the curtains

The interior design

I will find greater intensity

In Ravishankar’s notes

Find deeper meanings and talk endlessly

About Hussain’s paintings

To even the clueless onlooker

I will spend hours looking for my husband’s tie.

With the joy of getting the right to sex

Which nobody gets

I will even spend the rest of my life happily

Stupidly and senselessly

In the four walls of domestic security

In the husband’s warm embrace

Remembering his breaths

I will enjoy like a man

The lovely betrayal

Probably even my husband

Would be remembering some other woman’s face

Both of us in our illusions

Like worms in the bad apple.

Our faces would turn like those

In Picassos paintings

And the Pied Piper would be sitting and piping

On the corner of the blank canvass of the domestic bed

The musical procession of the world’s most beautiful swindle

Would follow him

And the violet love on the every bed

Will take off its mask

Let every woman get what she wants

Amen.

 

I Lick My Catness

 It was when I was in my husband’s embrace

That all of a sudden I discovered

I had turned into a cat

 

The cat with soft fluffy fur

And large sly eyes

 

My large furry tail

Knocked against my husband belly

 

My sharp nails

Cloaked in the soft pad

Of my rose-tinted paws

My sparkling fangs glinting

 

I rolled happily on my back

Contented

My belly made purring sounds

Of terrific pleasure

 

Now I was the cat

Who would unfailingly land on her all fours

And return home

Even if she was gathered in a sack

And forsaken far away from the village

 

I licked my husband’s ears, his cheek

I wet my paws and licked his whole body clean

As one would clean one’s home

 

I hung around my husband’s feet

I lapped up his kisses

As I would lap up milk and cream

 

These days he doesn’t stuff me in a sack

And abandon me in the forest

To get rid of me

He is fed up

As he is sure I would turn up

Home before he would

And besides, he felt

That there was a greater chance

Of him getting lost in the forest of people

 

I would stretch out leisurely

In the entire house

( No corner would be forbidden for me)

I am loving my catness

To the full

He too likes it

When I claw his clothes

And rub my head against him

 

He probably thinks

It is better than other long-winded women

Who would constantly nag

For more money or jewellery

For all that I would utter

Was a single word, “Meow!”

And be silent

 

He pats me on my soft domesticated back

As he continues to work

My belly makes happy rumbling sounds

 

In my husband’s warm sunlit shade

I lick my catness


Considering Malika Amar Sheikh as a representative of Indian modernisms would allow us to analyze the phenomenon of modernism on the subcontinent in a fresh way.  Using a comparative framework, it would allow us to discover striking parallels and convergences with the western modernist movements and the Indian ones. One would notice that the processes of urbanization,  the avant-gardes, little magazine movements, the themes of alienation and disillusionment, sexual agony, uses of myths, existential angst, rebellion against the middle-class values,  cultural decadence and the desire to invent a tradition and so on are strikingly similar to the western modernist movements. Moreover, it also exhibits its affinities with other modernist poets on the Indian subcontinent too like critical engagement with the questions of caste, religion and gender repression in India.  It is far more fruitful to view these parallels as ‘interliterary’ process in Durisinan sense. The literary resemblances were not merely due to ‘contactual’ relationships but also due to ‘analogical and typological parallels in many social processes like urbanization, industrialization and the global catastrophic events like the world war II. The distinctive history of the subcontinent also created a ground for the reception of the international modernist movement. Durisin’s framework would allow us to engage with radically creative nature of Indian modernism instead of dismissing it as a merely derivative phenomenon.

What sets Malika Amar Sheikh apart from other major modernist poets is lack of obsession with Bhakti, which is typical of others like Arun Kolatkar, Dilip Chitre and Mardhekar in Marathi. This refreshing lack of enthusiasm for Bhakti tradition can be attributed to her engagement with Dalit, feminist and the Marxist politics which are suspicious of feudal and patriarchal subtexts of traditionalism of Bhakti. It can also be attributed to engagement with the international modernist vision. Located on these global and local convergences and divergences, Malika’s poetry is remarkable accomplishment not only in terms of her stylistic innovativeness, creativity, and her uncompromising radical political vision, but also in terms of her contribution to the development of Marathi poetry in general.

 

Works Cited

Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York: Oxford

University Press, 1999. Print.

Bradbury, Malcolm, and McFarlane James. Ed.Modernism 1890–1930, Harmondsworth,

Penguin, 1976. Print.

Childs, Peter. Modernism. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.

‘Contemporary Marathi Poetry by Women Poets’, trans. Niranjan Uzgare, Indian Literature: Sahitya

Akademi’s B-imonthly Journal. New Delhi. Vol. 199. Sept-Oct 2000

Dionyz, Durisin. Theory of Literary Comparatistics, Trans. Jessie Jocmanova, Veda, House

of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislavia, 1984. Print.

Philip, Tew, and Alex, Murray. Eds. The Modernism Handbook. London and New York.

Continuum Books, 2009. Print.

Scott, Bonnie, Kime. Ed The Gender of Modernism: A Critical Anthology, Bloomington:

Indiana University Press, 1990. 2. Print.

Spears, Monroe, K     Dionysus and the City: Modernism in Twentieth Century Poetry, New

York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Print.

Sangvi, Vijaya and Shirish Pai ed.  Aahvan: Maharashtra Raajyachya Nirmitinantarchya Kalalatil      

Nivdak Stri Kavitecha Pratinidhik Sangrah, Mumbai. Continental Prakashan. 1990


[1] Earlier version published in  Literary Insight (ISSN 0975-6248) Volume-7, January 2016, pp.102-107  

[2]  All translations are by Sachin C. Ketkar and are published on Poetry Sangam, Sangamhouse.org, Sangam House, Jan 2017, except otherwise indicated.

Sachin Ketkar

About Sachin Ketkar

The Baroda-based Marathi writer Sachin is a bilingual writer, translator, editor and critic, and has a collection of poems in Marathi and English. Apart from translating and editing an anthology of Marathi poetry, titled Live Update, Sachin has also translated short stories and poems from Gujarati and Marathi into English. Sachin holds a doctorate in translation studies and is currently the professor of the English department at the MS University, Baroda.

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