Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Sabad World Poetry Festival, New Delhi
Reflections 2: Indian Poets

Les Wicks (Australia) reading, other poets seated

Reading and reception

The practice in the readings was to have the poet at the lectern while, behind him or her, and also at the side of the auditorium, the words of the poem were displayed in English. The poems on display were selected from the ten that were requested to be sent. If the poet had chosen to read something not previously sent, there was the official portrait instead. The auditorium was large and dark, bar for the first two rows where some light from the stage spilled over. The poet could see neither the screens nor the audience. We spoke into the dark.

The Indian poets 

There are various ways of performing poetry. One may read, recite, chant, act, sing, speak with or without gesture, with or without dramatic inflections. One may invite an audience to listen; one may amuse, address or harangue; one may whisper, bellow, sermonise, rant or simply talk to, as if talking to many individuals at once, but to each individual personally, in dialogue.

Most of these ways were in evidence in Delhi. All have a context of culture, tradition and expectation. Each demonstrates a different understanding, not only of the nature of projection, but also of the role of the poet.

We certainly heard chanting and singing in various original languages of India - in Sanskrit, for example, in Kannada and others. The voices were always strong and forceful, all male. The text was by heart and accompanied by marked hand gestures as if the lectern were a pulpit, all rhythm complex and emphasised. The translations were of marginal help here since the rhetorical pattern of the poems on screen was divorced from both voice and language. The voices were commanding, addressed outward rather than inward, the poems themselves often involving a clear first-person  'I' figure who served now as exemplar, now as priest. Understanding that figure 'I' is difficult from the outside, since, with few exceptions, we don't really have a European equivalent. Sometimes it sounded boastful and self-admiring, establishing its importance within a cosmic realm, other times, simply an epic voice on an epic scale.

Even when the poet was not chanting the poetry retained a ritual, almost didactic manner that assumed the poet was an important figure accustomed to teaching - not in the university sense (though that too) -  but in the sense that he was delivering wisdom: as if delivering wisdom were the poet's role. The poems included lines of philosophical or moral perception, emphasised with a crescendo and a powerful hand gesture, that the audience would greet with a murmur, or even a faint ripple of applause. The audience expected wisdom, not new wisdom, but succinct expressions of a wisdom it already knew. It was a rather liturgical performance in that sense, a liturgy without the formally phrased response, but with an inward 'Amen'. The same applied, in a subtly different way, when the poet dealt of political matters. Applause signified agreement, another sort of Amen.

Not all were like this. There were some who read as a European poet might, saying the poems, talking to the audience, referring to the page: Mangalesh Dabral, for instance, who wrote in Hindi chiefly of memories, the Malayamam poet P. F. Ramachandran (whose poems were as Larkinian as Indian poetry probably gets) and the much younger, English-language poet, Ranjit Hoskote, more intellectual, more learned in the modern sense, more international. I say more 'learned' but almost all the poets were consciously scholarly in one way or the other. The scholarship was part of the poetry.

There was a clear contrast between the poetry of cosmic forces and the poetry of specific things. This came fully into focus in the course of one of the two discussions, about Time and Timelessness in poetry. One poet argued for the classics, for eternity, for broad symbolic elements, for a grandeur of vision; the other for the details that made up life, the transient human detail of which human lives were composed.

As Europeans we know and feel more of the latter while recalling some elements of Ginsberg, Whitman and Blake as well as of certain Spanish or Italian poets, but modernism generally means 'no ideas but in things' to us.  We have been busily following Rimbaud and wringing the neck of rhetoric for over a hundred years now. Having said that, my impression was that the former - the chanted, the didactic and the rhetorical  constituted the majority here.


Two further notes since the subject of time has been mentioned.

Indian time is not quite western time, in the same way that raga is not quite sonata form. Many Indian poets overran their given time limit without, apparently, any consideration for the poet due to follow. The following poet, however, did not seem to mind. In commenting or introducing a subject some of the Indian poets - generally those who were of the chanting, singing kind - preferred high monologue to conversation.  The procedure reminded me somewhat of Delhi traffic where cars cut each other up all the time but no one minds. People just learn to negotiate each other without much reference to rules. Nevertheless they survive in a condition of relative equanimity. Nothing, not even patience, is inevitably a virtue, but it works here. As Europeans we can learn to live with it.

And what of the audience? They were always there, always attentive, always in numbers. Some were official observers, some the general literary public. Their approval was hard to gauge. They began slowly, with silence and an occasional, very brief, ripple of applause. This brief ripple sometimes greeted the performers, but not always. Some poems elicited a brief ripple, some didn't. All performances ended with a brief ripple. Rapture would have been signfied by a slightly longer ripple, possibly slightly louder. These ripples increased in number as the festival went on, possibly because the audience was developing greater confidence. Afterwards, outside the hall, the enthusiasm would be more overt, more individual.

I came back with many more books than I had set out: gifts accompanied by business cards, addresses, compliments. More on this later.

There were only two women among the Indian poets, one of them, Mandrakanta Sen, young, in her early thirties, with an extraordinary nineteen volumes of verse already behind her, as well as eight novels and much else. She was clearly modern. She wrote in English, read the poems crisply, with no introduction, and was firmly in her time limit. She was also very good, and formally adroit.

There were considerably more women among the 'world' poets.

The next blog on the other readings and not so much on manners as themes and forms.

No comments: