100 Great Indian Poems brings together Eunice de Souza, Kalidasa to provide kaleidoscopic view of poetry
100 Great Indian Poems offers works written in languages as old as Bhili, Dongri and Maithli, and by authors as remarkable as Namdeo Dhasal | #FirstCulture
Anthologies are peculiar and odd tasks for editors. They are especially harder to ‘select’ more than they are to edit when the anthology is of poetry, for the simple reason that poems are written to different tenors, sounds and formats in different regions of a country. Given the number of dialects spoken in India and the number of languages now on the verge of extinction, it must be quite a task to compile a hundred of the best poems in Indian history, either in English or translated into English. As impossible as the task may sound, 100 Great Indian Poems, edited by Abhay K attempts something endearingly unique and preposterously impossible – to merge and collate 3000 years of Indian poetry's history India via a hundred of its samplings.
The collection begins with a note by editor, the highlight of which would be his disapproval of the ‘obsession with poets’ in Indian poetry. “Poems have a life beyond their creators. Often, poems outlive the poets who write them. What we remember is poems and carry them with us wherever we go, because they have power to move us. I quote Nobel laureate William Faulkner to buttress this point that what is important is the art work, not the artist. What is important is Hamlet not who wrote it. The same point is made by the Cambridge scholar I A Richards that words have life beyond their creators. Therefore I don’t understand the obsession of the 20th century Indian anthologists with poets,” Abhay says. Just last year, Abhay completed a massive project that anthologised poetry from different cities in the world, titled Capitals.
The same rigour and vision has gone into 100 Great Indian Poems, but it has involved the unenviable task of picking poems from a gamut of languages as old as Bhili, Dongri and Maithli, to ones that are as contemporary as the one they are all translated into – English. “I read a number of folk songs translated into English from Gondi and Bhili and included the ones which moved me the most. I pick up poems which strike a chord with me in the first reading, so there is not much literary analysis involved,” Abhay says. The list of authors and poems selected by Abhay underline his instinctive process. Though most of these authors are arguably well-read, it isn’t necessarily their most famous poems with the exception of a few, that make the collection.
The pithy verses of the late Eunice de Souza, next to the musicality of Kalidasa and the treacherousness of the Marathi poet Namdeo Dhasal offer a rare, kaleidoscopic view of India through its poetry. That said, the collection stands tall on the shoulders of translators of the poems, especially of languages other than Hindi, Marathi and Bengali. “The less said is better when it comes to the state of translation. We still need to create a culture of translating works from the many vernacular languages of India. Indian English writers and poets should come forward and translate at least one major work of a contemporary poet, short story writer, playwright or novelist from vernacular languages,” Abhay says.
Translations are one thing, but the relatively recent (in terms of the history this anthology goes back to) surge of Indian poetry in English has given birth to an oddity in itself, for the simple fact that Indian poetry in English is largely inspired by its anchorage in the west, but lays claim to the soil of its homeland as well. There is both escapism and nostalgia, a sense of footlessness in the landscape of elements, and essence. Not to mention how an attitude of co-option has championed a marginal literature. “Indian English poetry is at its best when it is rooted, as you can see it in poems of bilingual poets such as Jayanta Mahapatra, Arun Kolatkar and other Indian English language poets who come from villages, small towns or have worked in remote places for a long time. Most of the Indian English poetry sounds out of place, artificial, concocted, soulless, which is passed up as an experiment with the language but has little originality. Indian English poetry is also a very incestuous place where the ‘You scratch my back and I will scratch yours’ tradition perpetuates mediocrity,” Abhay says.
The selections in the 100 Great Poems suite have been made with an acutely contemporary viewpoint, in that they are short and persuasive through their ease of accessibility. The majority of them, Abhay says, were selected keeping in mind that they be easily translatable to other languages of the world. The exclusions, some of them even startling, only support the fact that reading poetry is a subjective exercise – the voice of each poem is always the reader’s. “I have read extensively and have selected poems which move me. Poetic taste is subjective and I have clarified this in my editor’s note to this anthology that there cannot be a universal definition of what is great; what moves me is great for me. I invite readers to experience the poems that moved me as I curated these and urge them to make their own selection of great poems,” Abhay says.
In all, 100 Great Indian Poems earns its pedigree by putting the poem first. It randomises the process of reading which in the case of a multi-lingual society like ours, should be the norm. That said, not all poets translate well, and as is the case with others, aren’t really translated well either. Marathi, Hindi, and Urdu especially, are the kind of linguistic deltas whose musicality is literally impossible to transpose, let alone translate. But that doesn’t meant the world does not deserve a reading of Indian poetry. It does, it must. Not only in English though, but rather through it.
Read some of the poems featured in the anthology:
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