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Epic India in Verse

2015/5/8 — 14:22

【Text by Farisa Khalid (Farisa Khalid is an art historian with a background in global health.)】

Reviewing Poetry of India: Anthology of the Greatest Poets of India, ed. Paul Smith (New Humanity Books, 2014)

A few months ago, a friend of mine who was curious about the nuances of Indian culture asked me to explain the artistic differences between North and South India. I realized it was a loaded question, and I could only give him a general overview of similarities and differences between north and south, Aryan and Dravidian, and Central Asian, Persian-Turkish influences versus Burmese and Sri Lankan. I felt I had a vague generalist understanding of my country of origin, though my answers seemed to satisfy him.

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It is exceedingly difficult to encapsulate the cultural diversity of the Indian subcontinent, spanning across India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, with a cultural nebula across Burma, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. To travelers like the seventh-century Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang (the 14th century Central Asian [Uzbek] warrior), the marauder Timur (the subject of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine) and even Mohandas Gandhi, returning from years of living among the racist Boers of South Africa, India remained a baffling and exotic mystery to the intellect and senses.

Fortunately for us, a book like Paul Smith’s massive anthology, Poetry of India: Anthology of the Greatest Poets of India, gives curious readers of Indian culture and literature an adequate place to start. Paul Smith is an Australian poet and scholar of Indian and South Asian literature. He has translated the works of Rumi, Hafiz, and Nizami, as well as the works of various other Sufi and Persian poets. In this anthology, he delves straight into the complexities of Indian literature, Sanskrit poetry from South India and the Deccan states, medieval Tamil poetry, and poems by well-known nineteenth and twentieth-century poets like Makhfi, Ghālib, Tagore, and Iqbal.

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The book itself is an 800-page lilac-covered paperback volume of Sanskrit, Persian, and Urdu glossary terms, collected poems, and poet biographies. It is helpful to have elucidated key terms like śloka, masnavi, ruba’i, and ghazal, before delving into the complexities of Sanskrit and Indo-Persian poetry, though at moments the combination of terminology and actual verse occasionally makes the entire volume appear a bit pedantic. The glossary is certainly helpful, though one wishes it may have been placed discretely in the back of the book.

The volume begins with Vālmīki (who lived around the 3000 BC), the poet of the Rāmāyana and inventor of the śloka (the early Sanskrit syllabic verse line) and progresses to the poetry of Vyāsa (the author of Mahābhārata), the extraordinary fourth-century poet of the Gupta Empire, Kālidāsa (the great innovator and visionary of Sanskritpoetry and drama—if it’s possible to combine the vigor of William Blake and Anton Chekhov into one artist, he would probably be close to what Kālidāsa was), the seventh-century Tamil poet Appar Tirunavukarasar, Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan, or Ghālib, as he’s invariably known, Tagore, Iqbal, and Shabir Hassan Khan Josh Malihabadi, or Josh. These poets comprise a snippet view of the many others included in Smith’s vast volume.

The glaring contrast between the exalted grandiloquence of Sanskrit poetry and the sensual intimacy of the Indo-Persian poetry of the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries is sharp and palpable. The great mid-twentieth century Scottish scholar and translator of Sanskrit literature, John Brough,once said there is no conventional individualistic love-lyric in classical Sanskrit poetry. Expressing the world of one’s private feeling was not the purpose of poetry in pre-medieval India, where instead, the role of the poet involved performing the work of a dramatist. As with many bardic traditions and cultures, the verse served the narrative, usually rooted in myths and folklore. Smith’s translations of Sanskrit verse often employ a graceful lightness that brings intimacy to the exalted poetry. In his translations of excerpts of Kālidāsa’s “Kumarasambhava,” for instance, the meandering descriptions of the cloud-adorned abode of the mountain-god Himalaya is rendered into rhyming couplets that at times reminds one of the glittering effects of Milton or Coleridge at their most fanciful:

Magic herbs pour out their screaming light

from mossy caverns through the dark night,

and lend a torch to guide the trembling maid

where waits her lover…in the leafy shade…

 

He has caves within, whose inmost cells

in tranquil rest the murky darkness dwells,

and, like night-bird, spreads brooding wing

safe…

Of course, the tones and timbre of the actual Sanskrit will have its own effects of coloring and beauty that is lost in this English translation, skilled as it is. But in translation, we do encounter a window into another time where patterns of thought were contingent on light and nature in way that they are perhaps less so now.

I also enjoyed translations of the tenth-century Tamil poet Andal, reflective of the stories of the Hindu gods and avatars that reminded me of the fantastic qualities of luminous miniature paintings depicting scenes from the Ramayana or the Bhagavad Puranas at various Asian art museums, like the scene of Krishna wrestling the massive water serpent, Kaliya:

Listen, who in this world live joyfully

to deeds we must do to live truthfully,

and sing of Him, the Supreme Lord…

Who, sleeps upon that snake, hooded

within sea of milk, at dawn bathing…

no ghee nor milk we will be consuming:

we won’t with kohl eyes be painting…

and flowers our hair won’t be adorning.

In the transition between Sanskrit and Hindu poetry to the poetry of the Mughal culture of India and the influence of Persian, Turkish, and Arabic poetic traditions, I wish Paul Smith had placed some sort of introductory material explaining this shift in the middle of the book, rather than piling it all up at the beginning. In reading the poems, I moved from the world of Kālidāsa to the world of Ghālib far too suddenly, and the effect is jarring.

The portion of the book dedicated to the poetry of Ghālib is more substantial and dense compared to the attention given to many of the other poets. I think given Ghālib’s scope, genius, and place in Indian poetry, that was a sensible decision.

Ghālib is credited with having innovated and expanded the possibilities of the ghazal in India. This Arabic-Persian rhyming couplet-based verse became the hallmark of Indian poetry from the nineteenth century to the present day, where it is still used in songs in mainstream Bollywood movies, which is a little like setting a Petrarchan sonnet to the rhythms of contemporary pop music.

Smith’s translations of Ghālib wisely highlight the poet’s remarkable, visionary use of Persian Sufi symbolism to catalogue his contemporary sense of romantic disenchantment and loss:

I am now kept busy by this world’s petty affairs:

a tired thing far from my nature: it, being

where?

 

In the mosque’s shadow, a winehouse there

should be:

near the eye is the eyebrow, room for all around there

should be.

 

Which unfortunate one seeks happiness in a winecup?

I, night, day, tasting a delicious lack of care,

Should be.

 

Charming in different ways are tulip, rose, eglantine…

In all, presence of spring that is almost here,

should be.

Each ghazal verse is a contained universe of experience unto itself, as Smith explains in the book’s introduction, and can stand alone as a short poem or fit into a larger sequence. Mirza Ghālib spoke for the emerging modern consciousness of the India during a pivotal moment in its history—the period between the end of the Mughal Empire and the early years of entrenched British colonial rule. He and his family witnessed the horrors of the Indian Rising (Sepoy Mutiny) of 1857 in Delhi and the ruthless British reprisals (“I front of me, I see today rivers of blood,” he wrote in his famous post-rebellion diary). Thoughts of nationhood and national identity affected Ghālib profoundly throughout his life. As a Muslim of Turkish descent in a predominantly Hindu India, Ghālib trusted secular liberal values when strong sectarian religious affiliations were quite common (“the Son of Adam, be he a Muslim, Hindu, or Christian, is dear to me”). One ghazal of Ghālib’s that Smith includes in this volume, set in the mythic, verdant cloistered garden of Persian poetry, is emblematic:

Once an emperor a golden orange did possess,

it was yellow but no fragrance it did possess

but, if only once he had a mango been shown,

he would have squeezed gold, it far off thrown!

The mango, indigenous to India, is not the sort of fruit one finds in classical Persian poetry about gardens: it is Ghālib’s special appropriation to signify his vision of harmony between Hindus and Muslims. India, the garden of paradise, is place where the mango and the pomegranate can thrive together side-by-side. Ghālib’s influence is far-reaching, even in the West. Adrienne Rich wrote “Ghazals (Homage to Ghalib)” just a few months after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and less than a month after Robert Kennedy’s death. She continued to explore this form in “Blue Ghazals”:

A man isn’t what he seems but what he desires:

Gaieities of anarchy drumming at the base of the skull.

In 1971, the Kashmiri poet and academic Aijaz Ahmad asked poets W.S. Merwin, Mark Strand, and Rich to render their own translations of Ghālib’s ghazals based on literal translations. Critics like Pariksith Singh were skeptical of Rich’s approach to the complexities of this verse form, and felt that she composed ghazals with the kind of New Age zealousness that drives American and European women to yoga and Eastern meditation in a sometimes superficial way. But Ghālib’s effect on writers and artists, not only in India, but also in the West, is unmistakable. His wit, cleanness and clarity of composition, and singular vision of sensuality and spirituality, are part of what makes people come back to his work again and again.

The volume’s section on Rabindranath Tagore, however, is unfortunately succinct and limited. Along with the introduction and poet’s biography, the section totals nearly six pages. The section on Ghālib was about twenty-two. Some of Tagore’s great poem, “The Gardener,” is included, as are some poems from Gitanjali (though I wished they had been better labeled and classified) but many other wonderful Tagore poems like, “Brahmā, Vishnu, Śiva,” “The Golden Boat,” “Palm Tree” and “Sing the song of the moment…” are sadly left out. It is curious that so much attention is given to poets like Kālidāsa and Ghālib, while the attention given to Tagore’s contribution to Indian literature and world literature, which is considerable, feels a bit slapdash and hurried.

In the sections on the more contemporary poets, the translations and commentary is strongest in the areas featuring the Urdu poets, like Ghālib, working within the legacy of the Sufi, Persian-Turkish literary traditions. As with the section on Firaq Gorakhpuri (1896-1982), we get a ghazal evoking longing and loss personally and historically with the end of British rule in India and the trauma and horrors of Partition. In the aftermath of 1947, families were divided and so were lovers. Lovers hailing from either side of the ethnic, religious, and cultural divide. The ubiquitous trope of Indian Urdu poetry, the lover as an eternal wanderer or traveler in search of his beloved, the lonely musafir (مسافر) adrift on a roaming caravan, karvan (کارواں), is a familiar one in Indian culture—the subject of romantic striving in everything from classic nineteenth-century ghazals to popular Bollywood songs:

Love’s caravan goes on travelling…as before now,

same way, same signpost passing…as before now.

Its heart and its soul it is offering, as before now;

Beauty, is as worthwhile having…as before now.

Source of scandal is love’s grieving, as before now.

my story is on other lips, gossiping, as before now.

In the night of life, the faming heart is the torch…

Lamp of love is the world lighting, as before now….

In the darkness and in light, love gained nothing…

in the twilight world we are living, as before now.

As for the rest of the modern poets, luminaries like Mehroom, Iqbal, Josh, and Faiz are included, but there is no mention of the other remarkable figures of Indian poetry like Humayun Kabir, Subramania Bharati, Kaifi Azmi, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Gulzar, or Parveen Shakir, to name only a few—a list that could go on. The focus of the anthology is biased towards Urdu and Hindi poetry, with less attention given to the other the other regional languages of India, such as Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, and Bengali. At times it seems like a more fitting title of the book would be The Poetry ofNorth India.

The Poetry of India, is a substantial, elegantly laid-out anthology that covers the diverse breadth and scope of Indian poetry from the ancient world to the present day. Its translations are supple and a great pleasure to read. I encountered the complexities of cultures within India through poetry from the Sanskrit sloka to the Urdu ghazal, and the book provides readers relatively new to Indian poetry with an ideal guide with which to begin their journey.

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