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Arundhathi Subramaniam on Bhakti poetry and celebrating voices that are 'invigorating, joyful, explosively free'

An excerpt from one of Janabai's poems (as translated by Arun Kolatkar) reads:

i eat god
i drink god
i sleep
on god

Another, from Telugu poet Kshetrayya (translated by AK Ramanujan, V Narayana Rao and David Shulman), written in a female voice, goes:

Now I’ve got you all alone.
If I hold you prisoner in this house,
who is there to release you? …

Now I’ve caught you.
If I tie you down to my bed,
who is there to release you?

"There are so many more of these voices that speak to the divine with this mix of imperiousness, sensuality and intimacy — which are the collective hallmark of the Bhakti traditions," says poet and seeker Arundhathi Subramaniam ahead of a two-day event titled Wild Women that was held at Mumbai's National Centre of Performing Arts (NCPA). Curated and conceptualised by Subramaniam, Wild Women is an amalgamation of poetry and performance celebrating the legacy of the women mystics and poets of the subcontinent.

 Arundhathi Subramaniam on Bhakti poetry and celebrating voices that are invigorating, joyful, explosively free

Arundhathi Subramaniam. Facebook

The Bhakti movement, which started around the 6th century (AD) and spanned all the way to the 18th century, in many ways broke barriers of gender, class and caste. At the same time, it shattered stereotypes associated with the perception of spiritualism; denounced orthodoxy and the rigid ritualistic practices of worship, and established a more personal and informal connection between the devotee and the divine.

From Basavanna and Akka Mahadevi in Karnataka, Janabai and Tukaram in Maharashtra to Kabir, Tulsidas and Mirabai in North India and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Sarada Devi in West Bengal — these mystics and poets challenged social hierarchy and questioned 'rules' of seeking salvation. In essence, the Bhakti movement gave an impetus to voices, most importantly the voices of the margins, to come to the forefront and denounce conventions. Hence, a Tukaram, who was born a Shudra (lowest caste in the Hindu varna system) could resonate with people at large regardless of their caste or class; a Mirabai could renounce her royal lineage and relationship and go out seeking the divine; and a Narsinh Mehta could speak to his God as a gopi (female lover) thus transcending the gender construct and the theological hierarchy at the same time.

Listen to: Arundhathi Subramaniam's Song For Catabolic Women

In an email interview with Firstpost, Arundhathi Subramaniam talks about her journey as a poet, her process and the insights she gained into the Bhakti saints and their poetry, during her own journey as a seeker. Edited excerpts:


How and when did you get introduced to the world of poetry? How did you comprehend poetry and the language then?

My love of poems began as a child, as it does with almost everyone I know. The only difference is that I kept at it. I always marvel at the fact that everyone has enjoyed nonsense verse and songs as a child, and everyone has written a love poem in their teens, but oddly, most stop reading and writing poetry after that. The only difference is that I didn’t. I enjoyed hanging around poems, and I still do.

As a child, of course, I was drawn to the sound and rhythm of poetry. Later, in my teens, poetry was a vital means of self-expression. Still, later, it was an excitement about the resources of language – metaphor and tone, in particular. Now, I guess I turn to poetry for its very singular, highly distilled verbal mix of beauty and truth.

As a poet yourself, what do you think poetry entails in terms of its creation, contextualisation and comprehension? What is your process?

My process is quite simple, but the impetus varies. It usually starts with a line or image that imperiously demands to be written. At other times, there is a strong need to spend a day around a blank page, allowing words and feelings to swirl about in one’s head. At other times, I might jot down a verse fragment on an airline ticket or a paper napkin when I'm at a restaurant. The process of making poems is for me a mix of doodling and dreaming, writing and waiting. I like to allow poems to take their time assuming their shape and form.

Subramaniam at an event.

Subramaniam at an event.

India’s ancient history is filled with lyrical ballads and poems, and that too in various languages and dialects. Is there a remarkable difference in the craft and content of poetry of those days vis-à-vis that of today?

This is a difficult question to answer. Primarily because we’re talking about a subcontinent with a plethora of languages, contexts, regions – where forms and styles are staggeringly varied, and each of which has had its own history. Any comment about ‘then’ and ‘now’ in such a complex scene is going to be a falsification.

I am a contemporary Indian poet who writes in English. And I consider mine an interesting cultural and historical context to inhabit. I am grateful to innumerable poets from this subcontinent – from Nammalvar to Annamacharya, from Janabai to Abhirami Bhattar. At the same time, I’m grateful to have had access to the work of poets across the world as well. That has been made possible by reading international poetry in English and in English translation.

The wonderful thing about being a poet today is that one also has this access to poetry across the world more than ever before – thanks to the online universe.

This allows for a complex legacy. I can love Keats, Basho, AK Ramanujan and Tukaram all at once. And I can have access to contemporary voices ranging from Dennis Nurkse to John Burnside, Agi Mishol to Iman Mersal as well. This diverse inheritance shapes one’s poetry in a host of subtle ways.

Do you think the lyrical quality and expressional rhythm is more organic when one reads poems in regional languages as opposed to either translations or writings in English?

I’m increasingly beginning to feel life is too short to be spent lamenting the language one uses. No language is good enough to translate all our dreams. No language is too deplorable to be used either. I think it's time to lay the language debates to rest. It’s time to speak of a single incredible language: the language of poetry. Whenever I’ve travelled in India or around the world, I’ve found poets almost always feel a certain kinship. The kinship poets feel is based on the fact that we all know what it’s like to spend hours in the smithy of our respective languages – excited, weary, startled, humbled.

In addition to writing poems, you also recite and perform poetry. Is the art of spoken word different to that of its written form? Does a poet always write knowing that his/her creation will be recited out loud?

Yes, I do enjoy the act of reading a poem aloud. It’s actually an integral part of my process of making a poem. When writing, I trust a poem when it works for me on the page and on my tongue. And I enjoy the act of saying a poem out loud. I don’t know if I see it as a performance. More as a joyful extension of a poem’s life from book to voice. I love the quiet interior experience of reading of a poem on a page. But there is an aliveness and sensuousness and immediacy about the vocal dimension that I love too.

What promoted you to conceptualise the NCPA event Wild Women?

A deepening fascination with the female voice in mystical literature. This began to develop when I was putting together a Penguin anthology of Bhakti poetry, Eating God. I grew interested in how women walk the spiritual path. I also grew interested in the kind of freedom that is available to the male mystical poet when he adopts a female voice.

We are heir to an incredible legacy of spiritual literature in this subcontinent — passionate, profound, provocative. It would be tragic to ignore or overlook or trivialise it.

Poetry is often considered a stronger medium of expression in comparison to prose. Do you think that is the reason why women poets, in India and across the world, have had to struggle to ensure their words are read and listened to?

Well, poetry is in some ways a more vulnerable form than prose. It is so distilled and heightened — so skinless in its aspiration — that there’s probably no escaping that. That’s why we have such a legacy of love poetry and spiritual poetry across cultures. It’s not surprising that mystic poets across the world have turned to poetry to express themselves. In life’s most intense, most liminal situations, we instinctively turn to poetry, rather than prose.

Does that mean women mystics have a harder time of it? Perhaps. The uninhibited female voice is always a subject of suspicion and censure. And there’s no doubt that these voices have been tamed, trivialised, coopted, sanitised in a host of ways. But it’s not just orthodoxy that has sidelined them. It’s also a contemporary world with its sometimes barren, desacralised worldview that habitually overlooks them.

This festival [Wild Women], incidentally, is not about the travails of being a woman, though there these mystics have certainly negotiated their share of challenges. It is a celebration and an invitation to listen. It is about listening to voices that are invigorating, joyful, explosively free.

Mirabai (left) and Tukaram (right) are some of the most well-known Bhakti poets. Images via Facebook

Mirabai (left) and Tukaram (right) are some of the most well-known Bhakti poets. Images via Facebook

What are the major differences between the works of female poets to that of male poets, in terms of Bhakti poetry? How do the spiritual journeys and the meaning of spiritualism vary between men and women poets of the Bhakti era?

While this question merits too long a response, let me just say this: if women today walk a city street differently from men, is it surprising that they have walked the spiritual path differently too? These differences don’t translate into a poetry of lamentation and grief alone. It translates into a poetry with a very particular resonance of eroticism, of joy, of sensuality, of freedom.

There are differences, but I am wary of freezing them into facile demarcations. I am not suggesting, for instance, that women mystical poetry is superior to that of its male counterpart. I just hope that hearing these women in poetry, in song, in conversation, will fine-tune our understanding of the singular timbre of their voices. It’s about listening to some remarkable individuals, not just to a category.

Your session in the event — He’s My Slave: The Body and the Beyond — reflects ‘on the role of the female body in Bhakti poetry’. Could you throw some light on this?

I’ve been startled and inspired by the visceral quality, the unabashed eroticism, the celebration of embodiment, the joy of incarnation, the freedom of self-discovery that suffuses many of these poems. In popular perception, none of these characteristics would be associated with ‘spiritual’ poetry. Also, my focus is not on women’s voices alone. I am also interested in male voices that adopt the female voice and the freedom that allows the poets.

How are spirituality and sexuality inter-related? Does that come into play when a spiritual person, a seeker, engages in writing poetry?

The voices of these mystics remind us that spirituality is not about some detached intellectual experiment. It involves all of us — body, mind, heart — and more. It certainly involves the transformation of our appetites and instincts, but how can there be transformation without an acknowledgement of the body? The finest Bhakti poems acknowledge the body as a wonderful instrument — the very basis of the spiritual journey.

Has the world become more accepting of female poets with out-of-the-ordinary thought processes? From Mirabai to today — what has changed, what hasn’t and what needs to?

I think challenges endure. But they’re different. I’ve been doing a few conversations with contemporary women mystics. Let’s see what that throws up and where it leads.

But let me also say this: we live in a world that often sees the spiritual journey as outmoded, irrelevant. That is why we have turned the mystics of our past into toothless saints, calendar art, decorative oddities. The absence of a supportive spiritual ecosystem today can make life more challenging for women and men on a spiritual path. And yet, this is a world in which individual freedoms are prized and protected more than ever before. This may pose its challenges, but I believe it is something to be grateful for.

How can the Bhakti poetry of today be seen different from that of the past? What does Bhakti mean in the 21st century in contrast to that of the earlier times?

My anthology, Eating God, was about the assortment of Bhakti movements that exploded across the subcontinent in different regional and local languages, questioning divides of caste, class, gender and sect in a host of ways. That happened at different historical moments across the country. But experientially, bhakti is as old as time. So, there’s a difference between a movement and an experience. The former is historical; the latter is universal.

Subramaniam's anthology titled Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry. Image via Facebook

Subramaniam's anthology titled Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry. Image via Facebook

When compiling the anthology, I wondered if I should include present-day voices because bhakti certainly exists today. It always has. But I decided that this needed another kind of book. I was concerned about diffusing the focus.

A poet told me the other day that he would be uncomfortable thinking of himself as a ‘bhakti poet’. I understood that. I would be uncomfortable too. For one, a tag runs the risk of setting up a kind of club membership. For another, there is a certain jingoistic and even self-aggrandising way in which the word ‘spiritual’ is used today. So, of course, one doesn’t try to become a Bhakti poet. That would be arrogant. Also vulgar.

And yet, being a poet is about becoming more and more yourself, not about becoming someone else. So, if you are on a spiritual journey, it would be absurd to amputate your deepening engagement with the spiritual. The only question is: does your spiritual engagement translate into poetry that works, or not? As a poet, you have to keep looking for fresher and newer ways to talk about what’s going on in life as you see it and live it.

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Updated Date: Apr 30, 2019 09:45:05 IST