“The colonial master Macaulay famously said that all Indian literature could be accommodated on a single shelf in a library of European literature. And yet, I write literature in a language as old and rich as the languages of those who set up “vernacular schools” in colonially controlled Gujarat in the 19th century. He did not know. Do we?”
“I come from a time when being objective was important. And you’re telling me I can write a piece from my subjective point of view! This amazes me!” Thus commenced my conversations with celebrated poet and playwright Sitanshu Yashaschandra. A Los Angeles to Bombay video call, twenty three exchanged emails and three STD calls to Vadodara worth of discussion spanning Indian modernism, reactionary democracies, poetry that is a “static reiteration of comforts”, the histories of languages, and how Indian literature helped bust the colonial myth that India needed the British to move from a chaotic past into an orderly future later, we proudly present Mr. Yashaschandra’s first foray into blogpost writing!
“The great poet and public figure Umashankar Joshi used to say, “I am an Indian poet writing in Gujarati.” Through that description (“I am an Indian poet”), Umashankarji – a Gandhian freedom fighter and later, a Rajya Sabha member – indicated his views on the integrity of Indian culture and his love for it. While admiring him as a poet and a person, I contest his statement. I submit that I, on the other hand, am a Gujarati writer writing in Gujarati. There is more than modesty in my divergence. In fact, something quite different from modesty. My divergence comes from an optional understanding of what poetry and Indian-ness are.
Some of my contemporaries think that to qualify as an Indian writer (not just a regional writer) one has to do something more than “merely” write in one’s regional language. “Regional poetry is fine,” they seem to believe, “but Indian poetry is the thing!” And yet, another set (superset, so to say) of Indian writers believes that to be a “world class writer” one has to write in English and have a foreign publisher and win at least a prize from Paraguay or Uruguay if not the Commonwealth itself. Preferably one in a foreign currency, with lots of digits. A (non)sense of hierarchy is implicit in the first and explicit in this second belief.
I differ. I believe that you have to write well to be a writer and leave it at that. Aspirations and efforts beyond that tend to be disastrous for creative writers. All that a poet needs to do is write with total engagement with sahitya i.e. togetherness of word and meaning, language and reality, and writing and experiencing, as the critical theorist Bhamaha pointed out in 6th century CE. It sometimes escapes our understanding that “Indian-ness” and “world class” are not external to regionality; they are included in it. To be Gujarati (or Malayali, Assamese, Kashmiri) in itself involves being Indian and international. The latter two are abstractions. If they do not rest on the reliable foundation of time-space specificity, they are airy nothings.
Simply put – if a poet is not here and now, he is nowhere. Being here and now goes with being a poet – the two are related by what is called a-vinaa-bhaavi sambandha. I am a Gujarati poet writing in Gujarati. I am here and now. I am in my home in Sama, Vadodara, in the October of 2016. This is how I am fully capable of being anywhere else, in any other time. We all have an innate capacity for sama-samvedana or saadhaaraneekaran; an ability to step out of ourselves, feel a wider sympathy. Restrictive love for oneself marks the European notion of the “writer as reclusive genius”. Anu-kampana (to be moved in sync with others) marks the Indian idea of the kavi – as in the iconic figure of the archetypal poet or Adikavi Valmiki, who was moved on witnessing the pain of a bird whose mate was killed by a hunter’s arrow. This incident is what prompted him to write Ramayana. That is my genealogy.
A poet – like any artist – is innately spontaneous but unerringly transformative like a tree. There are many different kinds and colours and fragrances of trees, leaves, thorns and flowers – but they’re all alike in their roots looking for and finding water in the soil.
There was a vritti to my kaarika! – A tree has to be rooted deep in the earth but should also reach out high to the sky. If it is arrested in the soil – however rich it may be – the shrub could produce only potatoes and sweet potatoes (batata-sakkariya, indispensable in these Navaratri days!). All around us we see obese readers and listeners who feed on such arrested texts that are unable to grow out of reductionist segments of desi, dalit and naari-vaadi literatures. On the other hand, we see other readers getting tipsy on fermented drinks from rootless fruits produced in hanging gardens owned by the Indo-English literary industry.
As a writer in Gujarati, the deeper I go into the personal and collective lives of Gujarati speaking people, the more it empowers me to reach out to the distant lives in India and elsewhere. The more Gujarati I become (through instincts and hard work), the more Indian and international I turn out to be.
“How old is Gujarati literature? Was it just some kind of ‘folk literature’ before the British came in the 19th century and set up schools for us to learn English literature?” These are questions sometimes put to me by bright-eyed and kindly Gujaratis. They leave me speechless, and I can well visualise my contemporary Marathi, Malayalam, Assamese and Oriya writers rendered speechless too.
The writing of literature in modern Indian languages like Gujarati, Marathi, Kashmiri, or Kannada is as old as the writing of literature in English, Italian, or French – if not older. Till Dante wrote in “vulgar” speech – locally called Italian – all European literary writers wrote in Latin. Dante lived in the 13th-14th century. In India, till around 12th century the language of literature was Sanskrit, Prakrit or Apabhramsha. The earliest available literary Kannada texts are from the 9th century. Tamil literature has a long history among modern Indian literatures. Apabhramsha was used to write literary texts from 6th century to 12th century in many parts of India, including Gujarat. The earliest Gujarati literature in the Gujarati language were produced in the 12th century.
The colonial master Macaulay famously said that all Indian literature could be accommodated on a single shelf in a library of European literature. And yet, I write literature in a language as old and rich as the languages of those who set up “vernacular schools” in colonially controlled Gujarat in the 19th century. He did not know. Do we?
The self-imposed shame of living in slums of snobbishness is evident in all classes of Indian society today – the super-rich in five star hotels, the middle class in super fast a/c trains, and the poor sending their children to Englis meedeeyum schools in search of somebody else’s future. And this has not happened overnight.
I often feel that if we work sincerely and ask questions to our own past, it could – like the ocean churned in Indian mythology – offer us amrita (nectar) and visha (poison), and challenge us to become a people capable of taking care of ourselves.
As a Gujarati writer, I enjoy knowing about the adventures of Dante, the first Italian European “regional” poet of ‘Divine Comedy’ as much as those of Vajrasenasuri, the Gujarati Indian “regional” writer of ‘Bharateshvara-Bahubalighor’, the oldest available poem in a regional Indian language. The time scheme is the same.
If contemporary Indian literature is to explore and realise its potential, two kinds of interrelated work have to be done: to know, understand and critique its literary past and to know, understand and critique our contemporary socio-political reality. And above all, to innovate and enjoy new texts as readers and writers.
Utkarsh Mazumdar, a courageous and creative theatre person in Mumbai, performed one of my plays at the Prithvi festival a few years ago. This play was about 15th century Gujarati poet Narsinha Mehta, whose poem ‘Vaishnava jana to tene re kahiye’ became widely known through Mahatma Gandhi. The play focused on how Narsinha faced challenges and threats from oppressive forces such as the joint family, the caste system, market forces and the State. In one scene, Narsinha participates in an erotic ‘war’ between Radha and the gopikas on one hand and Krishna and the gopas on the other. This love war lasts long, and finally a truce needs to be arranged. The Gujarati poet Narsinha becomes an emissary for Krishna (whose bhakta he was), but who would represent Radha during the negotiations?
For this task Narsinha chose Jayadeva, the poet of ‘Gita Govinda’. In the 15th century, the Gujarati poet from the western coast of India knew the Oriya Sanskrit poet by work and made a convincing choice. This fact was never mentioned in the earlier films and plays on Narasinha. Weaving it into my play made me feel the ‘here and now’ that helped the writing reach out elsewhere and to other times. I know in my bones that it happened because I wrote in Gujarati and read directly from Gujarati and Sanskrit. The great theatre artist Satyadev Dubey was present at the festival, and he spent the evening after the play with Utkarsh, me and the two medieval Indian poets. That Indian togetherness was Bharatiya Sahitya.
My later poems include Gujarati ‘sound poems’ on Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara and Ibrahim Rugova. These are poems written and read in Gujarati. No language is incapable of producing literature that concerns the human condition, wherever it may be located. A good poem in Inuit by what we call an ‘eskimo’ poet is better than a bad poem in English or French. This simple fact is overlooked so often.
What are the challenges that confront me as a Gujarati poet-playwright today?
– The demands and commands of an ideologically stagnant State. Whether it is an ideology of the Left or the Right makes little difference. A writer is a person of ideas, not of any ideology.
– The manipulations of the marketplace. Through subtle psychological controls, the economic powers pass off counterfeit literature as being genuine and turn sahrudayas into consumers.
– Resultant dullness or sammudhataa of a society that becomes indifferent to itself.
Bharata in the Natyashastra insightfully described this state of loka, and explained how theatre deals with it. I have discussed this in some detail in a book called Ramanyiyataano Vag-vikalpa. It is in Gujarati.
What says thou, mere hamvatan?”
Conceived and edited with Tanvi Shah.
Ilustration art courtesy Atul Dodiya.
A special thank you to poet and painter Piyush Thakkar for his help!
Sitanshu Yashaschandra’s will be a conducting a Mumbai Local session at Kitab Khana (Fort) on Oct 21, at 5.30 pm. His talk ‘A language on the move: My writings in Gujarati’ will explore the role of the regional writer and the ‘alternative’ texts he writes. While these may not be at the centre of culture, could they cultivate a compelling presence for the public? Through readings from his own poems and excerpts from his plays, Mr. Yashaschandra will address writing as subversion, investigation and enquiry.
This session is part of Junoon‘s Mumbai Local series with fantastic artists and scientists.
To read more creative collaborative pieces, click here.