Poetry is a highly under-appreciated literary art. I’ve always enjoyed the power of a poem to say so much with so few words. Partly, I think that poetry gets a bad rap because, all too often, it is either too lofty and filled with inaccessible allusions or word tricks or it is simply prose broken up into irregular lines. The best poems take both the aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language and give us new, insightful meanings beyond just the literal meanings of the words put together.
I started looking deeper into Indian poetry only a few years ago — both written in English as well as in regional languages. During my time in India, other than the handful of pre-Independence works by poets who wrote mostly nationalistic or sentimental/romantic works, poetry was not (and still is not) mainstream. So, as I’ve continued to discover wonderful poetry of past and present poets in India, I’ve written appreciations of specific works to help shine a light on them (see links below). More to come, of course.
In particular, poetry from the Indian diaspora is interesting as they are borne out of so many different influences. That said, there is plenty to mine from within India as the many Indian sub-cultures have centuries-old poetic traditions that are still being carried forward to this day.
1/ The godfather of Indian poetry, Rabindranath Tagore, is the most well-known, of course, in both the East and the West. He has also been our only Nobelist in Literature. Yes, he wrote a lot of nationalistic works. But, he had such a way with words that, even today, his works can be enjoyed. I find even his plays very lyrical. So, here’s an appreciation of an excerpt of his one-act play, ‘Chitra’.
2/ Padma Sachdev writes in her native language of Dogri. Her poem, ‘The Well’, is anthemic in its statements of a woman’s need for independence and individuality. Sachdev herself has embodied those qualities throughout her life.
3/ Kamala Das was a revolutionary writer for her time. She wrote in English during a time when Indian scholars looked down on the practice as a post-colonial hangover and an inferior art form. Yet, many of her poems are raw and beautiful — quite a few with overt sexuality. ‘Hot Noon in Malabar’ is one such poem, but it also so much more.
4/ Javed Akhtar is more well-known for his Bollywood writing career than he is for his non-Bollywood writing. Yet, in the past decade or so, the latter has been rising like a shimmering moon that, for me, eclipses that more well-known body of work quite easily. These couplets of his are simple, beautiful and insightful.
5/ Mahadai Das was from Guyana, but of Indian origin. She left us all too soon, but her poems will live on long. ‘Bones’ is about hope, even though it starts out with dark imagery. It is about trying to find one’s place in a different world and culture as the Indians who had emigrated to Guyana had to do all those years ago.