Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004) was a reputed bilingual Indian poet whose poetic sequence, Jejuri, was re-published in the New York Review of Books Classics series in 2005.
One of the central questions Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004) asks in Jejuri (1976) is whether Jejuri is a heap of ruins or a part of a living tradition which can still animate the social imagination of the community. In the poem, “A Scratch” he observes:
what is god
and what is stone
the dividing line
if it exists
is very thin
and every other stone
is god or his cousin
The ironic tone is born of an ambivalence towards the significance of Jejuri for the poet who is neither an insider nor an outsider, in the strict sense of the term. In an interview, Kolatkar once observed: “A religious poet? No. Or religious in the sense that any experience can be religious if experienced deeply enough” (1989, 32). In the “Heart of Ruin” he puts this ambivalence differently: “No more a place of worship this place/ is nothing less than the house of God” (12). He understands that worship becomes a meaningful act only in the context of the community. Jejuri shocks him into an awareness of his own inadequacies as a modern urban individual. The questions he carries from this journey become the settings for his life-long explorations into his contradictions as a modern Indian. His poems are as much about him as they are about the world he lived in.
The dislocation of which Jejuri is a metaphor, results from the fragmentation of an organic community. This does not mean that the premodern social life in India was devoid of deep social divisions. In his unfinished poem, “Making Love to a Poem”, Kolatkar notes that “some of the finest poetry in India, or indeed in the whole world, has come from a sense of alienation” (2009, 223). Bhakti poetry found a distinctive voice of its own to counter the prevailing orthodoxy of the priestly class. Poets like Tukaram, Kabir, Mira, Eknath and Namdev appeared to him as contemporaries, because they dealt with issues which agitated him. They did not make a distinction between the sacred and the profane, the sublime and the gross. They used a personal voice deeply rooted in the life of everyday. They had no use for the prestige styles of Sanskrit poetry which embodied refinement of sentiment, purity of diction and idealization of a metaphysical view of the world. In his conversation with Eunice De Souza, he observed that the ordinary world hardly figures in mainstream Indian poetry, and added: “There is a gap between daily life and the remote imagery used by some of the best poets. To the ordinary man this kind of imagery is as remote as Greek imagery” (1989, 24-25). Kolatkar aligned himself with the small tradition of the vernacular and the popular. He shaped a critical poetic voice that speaks from the margins for the excluded and the outcastes. His poetry marks a radical departure from the high poetic modes which were self-consciously literary, exclusivist and scholastic.
The searching tone of self-criticism that permeates Jejuri explores the moral failures of a society that has lost its sense of human compassion and concern for humanity. The priest described in the second poem is threatened by starvation. As he looks at the long road winding out of sight “with the eventlessness of the fortune line on a dead man’s palm” he wonders whether there would be a puran poli in his plate (10). As someone living on the fringes of society, his questions are existential and not religious or metaphysical. The poem, “The Old Woman” drives home this point even more poignantly. Exasperated by the old woman’s persistent pleas, the poet turns around and faces her with ‘an air of finality’ only to be jolted by her piercing question, “What else can an old woman do/ on hills as wretched as these?”(21). This question of survival in a hostile world, has its echoes in the works of Tukaram and Kabir, in multiple contexts. The encounter with this Old Woman is a turning point in Kolatkar’s poetic journey. She prefigures many of the marginal human beings we meet in the Kalaghoda Poems (2004). The cracks that begin around the old woman’s eyes, spread beyond her skin, fragmenting hills and temples:
And the sky falls
with a plateglass clatter
around the shatter proof crone
who stands alone.
And you are reduced to so much small change
in her hand(22)
In the act of alms-giving his sense of dignity and humanity gets diminished. In recognizing a bond between himself and the old woman, the poet returns the reader to a radical vision of a communitarian understanding of the connected nature of our world. Kolatkar’s unique poetic vision enacts a new poetic which overcomes the othering inherent in the instrumental nature of modernity. His poems counter this by constantly invoking a space of liminality where the divisions between human beings, those between the human and non-human, the worldly and the divine become undefinable.
Kolatkar’s oral poetic owes a lot to the alternative traditions of poetry from across many cultures. In one of his last conversations with his close friend, Aravind Krishna Mehrotra, Kolatkar said that gangster films, cartoon strips and the blues had shaped his sense of the English language and he felt closer to the American idiom, particularly black American speech, than to British English (quoted in Zecchini, 2014, 81). His avant-garde idiom was mediated by an immersion in the popular culture of India and the West. Kolatkar was close to Balwant Bua, a bhajan singer in the varkari tradition of bhakti singers and had planned a book on him. He had once expressed a desire to live like a folk-poet, who made his living by setting his own poems to music and singing them himself (1977, 5). What he learnt from the Bhakti poets was the ability to embody the present, address his audience with a deep sense of intimacy and immediacy without the burden of metaphysics or philosophy. Christian Lee Novetzke shows how a sense of sharing is central to the performative traditions of keertan, bhajan, raaslila etcand this extends to “the meaning of sharing food, as a symbol, with both deity and fellow devotees and by extension, the sharing of a visible interactive community, a public” (Novetzke, 2008, 19). In Kala Ghoda Poems, Kolatkar enacts this semiotic of sharing through an oral poetic and the invocation of the collective against the background of the metropolis of Mumbai.
Kolatkar describes the life of those who eke out a living on the streets and pavements of Kalaghoda, reduced to destitution. They are condemned to destitution with no power to alter their fate. It takes an effort of the imagination to recognize that they are anything but a helpless and unhappy bunch living in utter despair. What comes alive in Kolatkar’s poetic treatment of their everyday life, is their capacity for imagination, cunning, collective action, companionship and creative improvisation to overcome the limits imposed on their body and mind. Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda poems are about transgression and subversion because it is about the struggle for survival in one of the most hostile environments of modern world in the heart of a metropolis where wealth alone decides the possibilities of your life.
In the depiction of each human being in this sequence, we recognize the struggle between the human and the ruthless, soul-killing order of the ‘maximum city’. One of the first human figures we meet in Kalaghoda is Parameshwari, who is an old lavatory attendant, sitting “on the steps of a dark and deserted Jehangir Art Gallery” (25). The poem does not shy away from the stark reality of her “leathery face and shrivelled dugs”. Though she appears a witch with no power of prophecy, she has the ability to see through appearances.
Even with her one eye dim
and mucus-green with cataract,
she can see through the new day
and know it
for the clever forgery that it is(25)
She stands her ground against the darkness that envelopes her. She has a clarity of vision which no one would attribute to her. What sets her apart is the ability to rise above illusions. Kolatkar allows the observed details to do the talking. There is no attempt to achieve any ‘poetic’ effect, despite the poem’s celebration of the ordinary and the uneventful everyday life of a city which changes its colours every hour. “Meera” is a sweeper woman whose routine involves putting on display “a fresh a new series of installations” on display everyday in front of the Jehangir Art Gallery, made of “modest piles of rubbish” all along the kerb. What could have gone unnoticed by common people is turned into an art work of rare distinction:
The installations might as well have been
titled “Homage to Bombay one”,
“Homage to Bombay two” and so on,
since a good bit of the city stands
on sweepings such as these(28)
Our ability to see and recognize the familiar is blunted by constant exposure to the common world. That is why these poems are different. They invite us to see our world afresh with all its “rubbish” which takes on a life of its own on landfills, reproducing itself into new life forms. A simple sight of a crow descending on the road to examine a twig becomes an occasion for high drama which unfolds frame by frame in Kolatkar’s poetry. Nothing in the world stands still and, under the intense gaze of the poet, things transform themselves into new shapes and formations. The disfigured and the de-formed humans on the pavements assert their right to humanity by seeking out occasions for celebration, action, music, dance and interaction.
By situating Meera as a sweeper/rag-picker in the Bombay street, Kolatkar creates an echo-chamber of intertextual associations. Meera the bhakti poet and the sweeper woman merge into one, as they create art from the waste of life. The sweeper woman dancing over the heap of rubbish to shape it into a manageable size is seen as “a Meera (dancing) before her lord”. At the end of it, her free arm raised in the air, “is a flamingo in flight” (32), indicating a trance-like posture. Kolatkar’s critique of art and literature as establishment becomes clear in the reference to the Jehangir Art Gallery which “is sleeping with its mouth/open as usual”. The trolley used for carting away the rubbish comes alive in Kolatkar’s description: it “has all the starkness/ and simplicity of a child’s drawing/ done in black crayon” (30). In his observation, “the more you clean Bombay/the more Bombay there is to clean” (31) you have an aphorism about the essential condition of the modern metropolis with all its high art and spectacular monuments as junk and rubbish.
The twisted and the mis-shapen do not exist as waste in the space of Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda. The ogress is a woman with one side of her face “burnt perhaps/ or melted down with acid”, but she becomes “an auxiliary mother/semi-official nanny/and baby-bather-in-chief/ to a whole chain of children/born to this street” (39). The lusty and luminous arc of urine passed by the boy newly bathed by this foster mother, has the sparkle of a refreshed world. The world renews itself in the most unlikely ways and the disabled and the lonely contribute to its well-being as much as the healthy and the sturdy. In “A Blind Man Strings a Cot”, Kolatkar shows how he brings the outline of a narrow, unstrung bed back to life:
making connections between
the adjacent sides
with a rolling hitch,
joining north to west,
west to south,
bamboo to bamboo.(127)
The blind man with his ‘rope-dancing’ fingers is an artist who creates something new out of nothing. The potato peelers remind one of a still painting by Vincent van Gogh, with three figures, “hunched over potatoes/rotating slowly in their hands”(132). They communicate even in their silence, as “the dark side of each one’s mind/faintly visible in/ the reflected light/ of the others’ unspoken thoughts” (132). Their “three-sided silence” further seizes “a fleeting thought that crosses/ the mind of a bakery boy/ as he parks his bicycle” (133). For Kolatkar, the world is always in communion, nothing remains in isolation or still.
The dynamic vision of a world in constant flux, transforming itself constantly, finds its fullest expression in the grand description of “Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda”. The thirty-one sections of this sequence are at the very centre of Kala Ghoda Poems. Those who participate in this grand feast are those who can be described as the scum of the earth. Their lust for life, capacity for togetherness and happiness, companionship and hospitality transform the breakfast time into a banquet, a communion where everyone is welcome. What animates this section of the poem is a carnivalized vision of the world where the social hierarchy is turned upside down to admit the voice of the lowly and left-out. In the act of collective consumption of food, given categories of social identity are transgressed. In naming his characters as the blind man, the rat poison seller, the knucklebones champ, the laughing Buddha, the ogress etc, the poet renders the usual social identities of caste, religion and gender ambiguous and irrelevant.
Mikhail Bakhtin has shown how the popular folk culture of carnival opposes the individualistic, rational ethos of mainstream culture patronized by the official power structures. The grotesque realism of the body is at the centre of the carnival culture. Carnivals were occasions to subvert “all that was ready-made and completed” and to move away “from the prevailing point of view of the world, from conventions and established truths, from cliches, from all that is humdrum and universally accepted” (Bakhtin, 1968, 34). The breakfast at Kala Ghoda is presented as a carnivalized narrative of a banquet in the open streets, creating an ambiance of celebration and companionship. The art of the carnival perceives the self as a process, ever in motion, always in the act of becoming. If we carefully analyse the syntactic structure of these poems, we cannot miss how they are located in the present. Lines like, “And here comes the shoeshine boy” (100), “Ah, but here comes the legless hunchback” (102), “(Idlis) lie gasping, belly to belly, or hump each other like turtles in a mating season” (103), show how all these events are being staged simultaneously in a perennial present. Grotesque images of the body recur throughout the poetic sequence, but they do not evoke revulsion. They remain human in their act of reaching out to others. All of them partake of the act of eating, devouring, consuming, which is a communion of ritualistic participation. In the carnival vision of life, the sublime and the sentimental are subverted in the language of the market place and collective celebration. Poems such as “The Shit Sermon” and “The Boomtown Leper’s Band” are characteristically transgressive and subversive; they emphasize how the human can only be synonymous with the inclusive and the collective. Laughter has the power to unmake and remake the world, provide a new perspective on the power relations in society.
Kolatkar’s avant-garde idiom embodies a new poetic that is grounded in an inclusive vision of society. He cannot be understood in terms of categories such as the local or the cosmopolitan, the Indian or the Western. He has assimilated elements from many traditions and in the process, reinterpreted their significance for his times and locations. He is deeply sceptical of the literary establishment and its public roles. He kept aloof from poetry readings or literary seminars, mainly because he knew that literature or art can only be grasped through personal engagement with human situations. As a bilingual poet and a translator, he had a critical relation with the languages he wrote in. His ambiguous relationship with these traditions was the very stuff out of which he created an alternative poetic mode. Kolatkar is one of the rare Indian poets who has articulated an alternative vision of art and life in his well-crafted poems in both Marathi and English.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.
De Souza, Eunice. “Interviews with Four Indian English Poets”, The Bombay Review 1, 71-84, 1989.
______________Talking Poems: Conversations with Poets, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Kolatkar, Arun. Jejuri. Bombay: Clearing House, 1976. Published by the New York Review of Books/ Classics series (with an introduction by Amit Chaudhuri), 2005.
__________. Kala Ghoda Poems. Mumbai: Pras Prakashan, 2004.
Novetzke, Christian Lee, Religion and Public Memory: A Cultural Memory of Saint Namdev in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
Ramakrishnan, E.V. Making It New: Modernism in Malayalam, Marathi and Hindi Poetry. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1995.
Zecchini, Laetitia. Arun Kolatkar and Literary Modernism in India: Moving Lines. London, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.
E.V. Ramakrishnan is a bilingual writer and translator who works in English and Malayalam. He has published four volumes of poetry in English: Being Elsewhere in Myself (1980), A Python in a Snake Park (1994), Terms of Seeing: New and Selected Poems (2006) and Tips for Living in an Expanding Universe (2017). His recent critical works in English include Indigenous Imaginaries: Literature, Region, Modernity (2017) and Locating Indian Literature: Texts, Traditions, Translations(2011). He has received Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award (in 1995 and 2018) and Odakkuzhal award (2019) for literary criticism in Malayalam.