On World Poetry Day, an ode to the quiet genius of Kedarnath Singh's verses
Inspired initially by Brecht and later by Neruda, Kedarnath Singh found rare balance between accessibility and depth | #FirstCulture
Kedarnath Singh begins Banaras, one of his more popular poems, with ‘Like a flash/ with no hint, no warning/Spring comes to this city’. Without a hint, he similarly vanished from the landscape of Indian poetry and the lives of those who adored it, on 19 March 2018. World Poetry Day — coming just two days later — found itself saddled up alongside his last ride, as a thoroughly modern outtake on something that requires sincerity and perhaps a kind of abandonment. But what makes Singh’s demise all the more saddening is the fact that his love for the Hindi language was rare, for it never blinded his view of what role it should (or rather shouldn’t) play in politics.
Singh was known as one of the pioneers of modern Hindi poetry. Alongside the likes of Vinod Kumar Shukla, he was seen as breaking away from traditional style and structures. Though he was briefly associated with the Nayi Kavita movement championed by Agyeya (twin of the Nayi Kahani movement started by Nirmal Verma) he soon broke free and even wrote against some of its aspects. In large parts, Singh’s poetry is a bespoke reflection of what is amiss from the arts of today. The rampant urbanity of culture or its adoption as a national standard makes the likes of Singh and his poetry priceless. The kind of eye that produces gems like:
People of my city
it is terrifying to discover
that all the steps
of the city
lead up to
where no one lives.
Singh was born in a village along the borders of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, his locale defined by the Ganga and his language influenced by Bhojpuri. He described himself as belonging “between the Ganga and the Ghaghara”. Despite the fact that he wrote in Hindi, it wasn't lost on Singh that it was his local dialect that informed his writing — and not the other way round. In an interview with EV Ramakrishnan (also one of his translators) he said, “Hindi is a language with no locale, an artificial language. However, people from different areas enrich it by their dialects. My first lyric which attracted attention has got something to do with my Bhojpuri background, and not my Hindi.”
Such a statement would be considered blasphemy today. It shows the preeminent progressiveness of the artists of Singh’s ilk. But more than anything else it was Singh’s ability to speak of the village with equal measure as he would of more attractive landscapes, that makes him stand apart. In The Dust of Kasba he writes:
The dust is the most living
And lovely thing of my land
The most restless
The most active
The earth’s most nascent
And most ancient dust
Both dust and the village feature prominently in Singh’s poetry — as true and earthly a sieve through which India can be viewed. The decline of the very ethos that is today considered modern is testament to Singh’s greatness. Throughout his life Singh tried to simplify Hindi poetry, without making it simplistic; to express his love for things without being obsessive. So much so, that he seldom wrote ‘romantic’ poetry or poems about love. He, rather, addressed these subjects organically whether it would be a poem about a truck or a cupboard.
In a time and age, when language has been impoverished by its use as a political tool, and all roads lead to the urban centres where it goes to die, Singh’s poetry stands tall for its ability to set distance, and retain its interest in people, their villages and kasbas and the situations that bring them together. What is alarming is not only the decline of interest in tropes that Singh perpetually used and himself claimed was nowhere as successful as he would have hoped, but the injection of a kind of identity in language that militarises it against the ‘other’. The dialects need not be reserved to tell the story of the downtrodden. Inspired initially by Brecht and later by Neruda, Singh found rare balance between accessibility and depth. He writes in Come When You Find The Time:
like the fresh thorns
in babul trees
after the rains.
Of course, only half his oeuvre appears in the many translations there are available. But Singh wouldn’t mind being read in any language, as he did not mind ceding to any. The depth in Singh’s late poems, especially his Sahitya Akademi winning collection Akaal Mein Saras and Yahan se Dekho are evidence of his constant efforts to delegitimise the colonial hold of a language on music and ideas. Singh will be missed most as a writer who could connect with the mundane just as he did with the hyper-real, and the already overwritten. He went farther (he came from just as far) than most poets dare to; beyond the room, beyond the gates of colonies and borders of cities into homes and places where life can be rolled into a quixotic query like:
What kind of animal is this
That thinks of grass all day
And of God all night