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Literary Arts in India 2

In that older tradition, poets had the patronage of kings and queens. They belonged, sometimes, to a performative and oral tradition that lived within families, castes and communities – such as the traditional theatre or dance forms of Kathakali, Yakshagana or Ramkatha – all of which used poetry in addition to dance or theatrical elements of performance. The saint-poets of India, Mirabai, Kabir, Tukaram or, even poets of the mid-20th century such as Subramania Bharati or the contemporary Telugu poet Gadar, often left their homes and families, marrying themselves to their beloved gods or causes.

The Anglophone Indian poet fits awkwardly in this tradition. Taught to revere and imitate a different canon than the one that surrounds us in the everyday, we are caught, like so many others living in a post-colonial world, between tongues, tongues that play the role, interchangeably, of a rock and a hard place.

It isn’t until the generation of post-Independence poets such as Adil Jussawalla, Eunice de Souza, Keki Daruwalla, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Arun Kolatkar began to write (many of them published by the Clearing House Collective through the 70s), that some measure of confidence returned to poetry. Kolatkar had a list – a performative one – in response to the question, ‘what are your literary influences’ – that includes musicians, auteurs and classical and contemporary literature, as a way of – in Amit Chaudhuri’s phrase – ‘bypassing the linear’. It was a way of staking a claim to one’s place in the world.

Markets – as Ravi Subramaniam shows – are a different matter. Markets matter to publishers. Poetry is demonstrably unsaleable and therefore it is nearly impossible to get published. Most publishers – the big ones like Penguin or HarperCollins – feel they have done their bit if they produce three to four poetry titles in a year. A closer look reveals that these annual three of four titles usually comprise of either anthologies or Selected/Collected works of a poet with at least a few collections to their name.

But how are poets to acquire those collections in the first place, if publishers will not publish them? It is a Catch-22 situation and the way out has always been either poetry collectives such as the now-defunct Clearing House, or self-publishing, such as via Allied or Writers Workshop, Kolkata (which, under the aegis of the tireless P. Lal who died a few years ago, published almost every major poet of a certain vintage in post-Independence India, including Agha Shahid Ali and Vikram Seth). There are no University presses that publish poetry.

But being published or distributed is only one problem. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra said once that what is killing poetry in India is not its availability or lack thereof, but the quality of the criticism that follows its publication. He blames the quality of academic criticism, but the truth is that the media serves the reader equally poorly. Most reviews are a waste of space, full of platitudes or extensive quotes from the book.

It’s a circular problem. Yes, there is a lack of good criticism of poetry in India, but how is a willing critic to judge the work of poets when often not even one collection is available in print, let alone entire bodies of work? (In this regard, it’s worth noting that even the Selected or Collected works that publishers put out from time to time also go out of print very soon, or at least are not often available in bookstores.) Poets, when they die, rarely seem to bequeath their papers to universities; even university libraries often do not have comprehensive collections of the works of Anglophone poets.

The problems facing the Anglophone poet in India are various and intractable but they don’t seem to have affected the production of work. Every month or quarter, online journals bring the work of new, confident and breathtakingly good poets. Many poets are also translators and this engagement with the work of poets in other languages widens our literary circle of engagement.

Poetry has never needed the marketplace to survive; for us, as it was for Kabir, it is merely a place where one can stand and shout out one’s love.

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This essay was written in preparation for the Silk Routes Symposium, held in the Maldives, March 2014.