While 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
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
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 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.
She doesn’t have arms
Her vision utterly dead
She stands in a showcase
She manages to cling
To the rocky robes of culture
Between her legs
And stony lips
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
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
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.
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 understanding man
I might even have a fling with him
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
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
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
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.
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 Earlier version published in Literary Insight (ISSN 0975-6248) Volume-7, January 2016, pp.102-107
 All translations are by Sachin C. Ketkar and are published on Poetry Sangam, Sangamhouse.org, Sangam House, Jan 2017, except otherwise indicated.