Vikram Seth rocked the second day of Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Lit Fest. For a poet whose every syllable is meditative, verse deeply ponderous and rhythm lovingly measured, Seth's performance at the Tata Theatre was a delightful departure from an image one might have naively built up of him.
His book, The Rivered Earth, from which he read to the audience, is a compilation of libretti written for a musical project for composer Alec Roth. It was written in four parts over four years. "A libretto is a small book, what opera goers used to look at when they couldn't figure out what the heck the opera singer was singing. It was the text of the opera. Since then, a libretto has come to mean not only a book on the opera but any text that is set to music," Seth explains. "It has everything I value in it, from art to calligraphy to photography to music to prose to poetry."
At the reading from his soon-to-be-released libretti, he explained the Chinese and Arab calligraphy by him therein and ended with a fiery, fiery performance of, Fire. Straight and simple, like his writing, the performance turned suddenly, yet so subtly. A sip of water, and then, a sudden intensity. Watch this:
"The whole thing was pretty chancy. I was supposed to be in England for the launch of The Rivered Earth yesterday. I was in Mumbai for the first exhibition of my sister's works. Anil Dharker (the festival director) plucked me off the air and got me on the cheap," says Seth.
His libretti — written in four parts — touched three civilisations: European,Indian and Chinese, geographies that he has long inhabited. The title, The Rivered Earth, "the two halves of the phrase encompass the four texts. The first starts with the image of the moon reflected in the river and the last ends with the image of the good earth spinning through time and space."
The first libretto was a translation of Chinese poet Du Fu's work, and sung to the violin guitar and harp. Called Songs in the Time of War, Du Fu's work was set in a time of great national and personal distress.
Hear Seth read Thoughts While Travelling at Night from the first section:
This is how it sounded when sung to music:
Each section has a calligraphy.
Du Fu was writing in the time of war, separated from his wife, his children died of starvation. "He has a combination of deep feeling for the poor people of his time and this nice sort of self-deprecation," say Seth after he reads his next translation.
The next section, written second year, was inspired by the works of poet George Hebert in whose house the poems were written. Herbert poetry, when set to paper, had elaborate forms, like one Seth showed to the audience, that looked like two larks flying eastward. "I certainly borrowed forms from Herbert." But what looked like larks to Herbert, to Seth was an Oak tree reflected in the river. And so the next poem he read, called Oak.
And this one about the house built by Herbert:
In the third third year, Seth moved to India in 2008, the year when the Salsbury Cathedral was to celebrate the 750th anniversary of its consecration. This is where Seth's third work, The Traveller, was to be performed. "I needed a theme that was grand and intimate and suited to the mood of the cathedral at night. Why not all human life? With that modest thought, I tried to look for a structure, which I found in the mysterious hint of creation in the Rig Ved which has seven hymns, within which I rested the six arches of life — infancy, youth, adult, old age, unborn and dead." He reached for the translated secular texts by Surdas, Kabir, Rahim, etc who sang about these different stages of life.
The last section of his book is about the common elements of the three cultures he knows intimately— European, Chinese and Indian. The seven compositions, thus, are about earth, air, fire, water, ether, wood and metal, which he talks about in the video above.
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Updated Date: Nov 06, 2011 12:47:43 IST