Adiga’s Poetry: A Reappraisal
(Key note address at a Seminar on ‘Bhumigita- A Rereading` held on July 4, 2009 under the joint auspices of Govind Pai Samshodhana Kendra and Rathabeedi Geleyaru, Udupi.
It is fifty five years since Gopalakrishna Adiga first published his poem ‘Bhumigita’ (=Song of the Earth) in Navyadhvani (=Modern Voice) (1956), anthology of modern Kannada poems edited by Da. Ra. Bendre, and V.K. Gokak, two very important poets of the 20th century. Adiga`s collection of eight poems published fifty years ago in 1959 also has the same title. During these 55 years `Bhumigita` has been a living presence in Kannada literature and culture. Probably there is not a single month in the past fifty five years when this poem hasn`t created one or the other reaction in Kannada literary circles. Da. Ra. Bendre, one of the great poets of the generation previous to Adiga`s, published a poem titled `Nalpe Sukhmasti’ (=Pettiness has no happiness) in Navyadhavani. It was a reaction to the way Adiga sang of the earth. Beginning with that, many have criticized, appreciated, analysed, imitated, translated, dramatized, and staged this poem. The very fact that Kannadigas have reacted to this 129-line-long complex imagist modern poem with enthusiasm and gusto as they have reacted to a very few other literary works of the 20th century itself is a tribute to its vitality and force.
Remembering a poem written fifty or fifty five years ago need not be limited to `Bhumigita`. This or such similar occasions provide excuses for discussing many important literary works. Such discussions do take place in
and other important cultural centres of Karnataka. Recently there was a seminar on ‘English Gitegalu’ by B. M. Shreekanthiah, one of the very important 20th century Kannada poets. About two years ago there was a recital of Da. Ra. Bendre’s poems in Bangalore . There was a large gathering of people. Many came from different parts of Karnataka to Bangalore just to attend this function. And such celebrations are not restricted to Kannada writers. We have held discussions and seminars on important writers of other languages who made an impact on our writers and cultures. For example, there was a seminar on Franz Kafka in Bangalore on the occasion of his birth centenary. Kuvempu, Purnachandra Tejasvi, Girisha Karnad, U. R. Ananthamurthy, Pu. Thi. Narasimhachar, some of the important Kannada writers of the 20th century, are discussed whenever an occasion arises. Still, there are writers whose works are not properly discussed and evaluated. For example no in-depth studies of the writings of Devudu Narasimha Shastry or of the research articles of Govinda Pai are done. Only the lighter side of A. K. Ramanujan’s Kannada poetry has received recognition. The allusions, and the nuances of the language of his poetry are yet to be properly explored. How he made use of the tradition of Koravanji, a monthly journal of humourous writings in which he__and R. K. Laxman before him—published their first works is not yet studied. Programmes like today’s are a step in that direction. Bangalore
I think we have to raise our voice against the general indifference towards poetry and other works which make subtle use of words. We can do it in two ways. We have to fight against the general notion that what is popular, and glamorous, is greater than what is appreciated by a few intelligent people. The only way of doing it is to keep speaking about what is great and genuine. We have to publicize the good qualities of an important work, see to it that it is read by the people who have the discriminating power and can create opinions. It is also important that life for such writers is made as trouble-free as possible. Besides this we have to fight against mediocre works getting the label of great simply because of the social status of the writer or because of propaganda. Criticism has to distinguish between what is great and what is not. For example a few years ago there were many wall posters in
describing Veerappa Moily as a Mahakavi , a great poet. Today I don`t think any serious reader of poetry dare call Moily an important poet. He is a good administrator; his recent call to judges to declare their assets is a remarkable step towards curbing corruption. But, he is not a poet__an ability at versification does not make one a poet. Had Lankesh or Adiga been alive, nobody would have found it easy to get away by calling Moily’s poery great. Lankesh, through his characteristic irony, would have lampooned the causes behind such opinions about Moily’s work and Adiga would have expressed his anger in no uncertain terms. There would have been reasons for such anger. Throughout his life, through his writings, and through Saksi, a quarterly literary journal he was editing, Adiga tried to create a proper critical awareness. He wrote that one could be critical about fellow-writers` works and still be friends. And, he practiced it. Just a few months before his death, when he was sick and old, he declared in a public gathering of writers and readers that what is great and what is not is a matter of life and death to him. One can`t help admiring this conviction and the courage to practice it. Bangalore
The very foundation of our civilization is language: not our gestures, not our dresses, not our houses, not our vehicles, not our computers, not the airplanes or the trains we board. It is the language which is the storehouse of our memories and values. What serves as the basis of our civilizations is nothing but the languages we use. It is through language that we transfer our memories and experiences and values from one person to another, from one generation to another. Poetry is one very powerful way of making the language subtle. There is no proper yardstick through which we can measure the impact poetry has on people. But, without poetry, we would have all remained barbaric. All people have poetry in one way or another. Even folk poetry is capable of expressing very subtle shades of meaning. That was created as the result of the innate need of the people who speak that language.
The language of poetry becomes subtle when it has evocative power when one word acts on and with another word and thus creates
a meaningful structure in the body of the work. Adiga, in his poem `Saradgita`, compared it to a sculpture in which different parts add up to create a significant whole. In his own words, it is `savayavasilpada samagrikrana bala.` It is almost equivalent to creating a meaningful whole by using significant details. Adiga himself created such works in Bhumigita (1959). U. R. Ananthamurthy, who wrote an introduction to Bhumigita,
considers that `Bhuta` and `Prarthane`, two poems in that collection, are such works. Both these poems are available in English in A.K. Ramanujan`s translations as `Pasts and Ghosts` and `A Prayer`.
In Kannada criticism, it is common knowledge that it is through its suggestive power that language becomes subtle. Poetry should be capable of incorporating all the meanings that a word may contain and each word should support another in such a way that the whole poem becomes a unified organic structure. Adiga introduced this concept for the first time in Kannada and his poems are illustrations of this all-inclusive organic unity. In Kannada, critics have often held that poetry with an organic structure is superior to poetry without such a structure. This was the criterion M.G. Krishnamurthy, an important critic of the Navya school, used to judge whether a poem is successful or not. When in his introduction Ananthamurthy observes that `Bhumigita` concludes where it begins, and there is no organic development, he too speaks of this form or structure. M. G. Krishnamurthy later showed that it is a successful poem by speaking about its perfectly proportionate organic structure.
This is not new to English. This method of analyzing the structure was widely used by the Scrutiny-critics like F. R. Leavis, L. C. Knights and others. In fact, much of the great criticism of the 20th century in English is the result of applying this critical tool. But this was new to Kannada. After the publication of ‘Bhumigita’ many pre-Adiga poems were revaluated using this new tool of criticism. The structural beauty of Virasaivite poetry of 10-13th centuries became clear only after analyzing them by using this critical tool. This also helped realize the limitations of the works of Shivarama Karantha, Kuvempu, and others . Tughlaq (1964), a play by Girisha Karnad, short stories by U. R. Ananthamurthy have been subjected to this kind of analysis. This tool of criticism has helped discover the inner beauty of many works when it is used by those who can understand what is creative and what is only imitation. It has become intellectual circus in the hands of those who lacked such discrimination.
It is not true to say that Kannada criticism began with Ananthamurthy`s introduction to Bhumigita. Masti Venkatesha Iyengar`s foreword to Nadalile, collection of poems by Da. Ra. Bendre, and Da. Ra. Bendre`s foreword to Bhavataranga, first collection of poems by Gopalakrishna Adiga, are some of the finest critical writings in Kannada. When Muddana sent the manuscript of his Adbhutaramayana for publication in Kavyamamjari, hiding the fact that it was his own composition, writing that it was written by one Mahalaxmi, daughter of Rangabhatta of the 13th century, R. Narasimhachar, who read the manuscript, rightly guessed, on the basis of its language and style, that it could not have been a work of the 13th century but a more recent one, and the writer, in all likelihood, is a man and not a woman. This was almost a decade before I. A. Richards introduced the concept of practical criticism. But criticism became truly academic with the forewords written by K. Narasimhamurthy and Ananthamurthy for Adiga’s collections of poems. So long as organic unity was held to be the ultimate standard of judgement, Adiga was regarded as the foremost poet in Kannada. At the felicitation function held in Udupi in 1968 on the occasion of the fiftieth birth year of Adiga by a group of admirers led by Vijayanath Shenoy, Nizzim Ezekiel, one of the important Indian poets, said that Adiga is probably the greatest living Indian poet. In a book brought out by Penguin publishers on contemporary Indian writings in the late 1960s, its editor, Adil Jassawala, described Adiga as ‘arguably the greatest living Indian poet.’ But in the 1970s there was a significant change in critical approach. Structural criticism which laid stress on organic unity as the criterion of critical judgement gave place to cultural criticism. As a result it was now held that the greatness of a work should be judged not on the basis of the beauty of its organic structure, but on the basis of the importance of the cultural content of the work. This led to some problems. Firstly those works which conformed to the accepted political ideology of the time were regarded great. Many of the works of the Bandaya (=Protest) movement were considered great because their theme tallied with the critics’ personal ideology. Some critics thought that realization of experience in language by using the nuances of words is not as important as to have the themes in comformity with their political ideology. But those who wrote good cultural criticism like Ananthamurthy, D.R. Nagaraj and others did not forget the importance of organic structure and the exploitation of language for communication of experience as the criteria of judgement. Adiga`s poetry won as much appreciation for its cultural content as for its organic structure and beauty. But Adiga`s cultural stand was now criticized. The Bandaya critics, who were also leftist thinkers, thought that he was an exponent of Vedic culture. The last lines of `Bhuta`, in which he speaks of the building of a temple with golden cupola amidst the tilled land, was given as examples of his revivalist ideology. This tallied well with the Bharatiya Janatha Party`s demand for the reconstruction of Rama Temple in Ayodhya and served as a tool to argue that Adiga is a spokesman of the Vedic culture. Critics held that Kuvempu, Shivarama Karanth, Sriranga and others who attacked the hegemony of priests were more radical than Adiga who spoke of the need for a temple. I agree with them. I feel that 11th century Virasaivite saint-poet Basava`s stand expressed in lines like ‘Ullavaru Shivalayava maduvaru’ (Ramanujan translates this line as `rich make temples`) is more radical than the ending of Adiga’s poem ‘Bhuta’. The beggars beg in front of the golden temples too; most of the priests are corrupt and pretentious here too. In the temple conceived by Basava, legs are pillars and head is the cupola. In such a temple, there is no beggary, no rule of the priest. Every person is equal to the other. But, the important point is that building a temple with golden cupola is not Adiga`s final value. His final value is the development of personality. This is the value he emphasizes in such later poems as `Vardamana`, `Dehaliyalli`, or `Cintamaniyalli kamda mukha`. The perfect society is the one in which the potentialities of its members are fully developed. The ills of the society are the result of the people whose growth is stunted or perverted. Some of his finest poems depict different actions of perverted people.
Around 1954, All India Radio of Mysore started a series called ‘Bhuvi Nidida Spurti’ (Inspiration provided by the earth). It invited a few selected poets to write poems on this theme and broadcasted those poems over the radio. Who thought of this series is not known to me. Whoever it was, he certainly had a creative mind. The poets who participated in this series include Gopalkrishna Adiga, Ramachandra Sharma, and K. S. Narasimha Swamy. I don’t know who were the other poets. But of the three compositions on this theme by these three poets, Adiga’s is the best. For us who started reading poetry seriously in the 1960s, `Bhumigita` was the most interesting and challenging of Kannada poems. Many of us youngsters considered it an honour to write about this poem. Many highly respected critics and men of letters like U. R. Ananthamurthy, M. G. Krishnamurthy, Damodara Rao, and Rajiv Taranath have written about this poem. There are two versions of it in English. One is by A. K. Ramanujan and M. G. Krishnamurthy and another is by Rajiv Taranath and Michael Garmen. Song of the Earth and Other Poems, collection of Adiga`s poems in English translations was one of the first books published by Writers` Workshop, Calcutta.
In the 1960s, within a decade of its publication, `Bhumigita` was considered a work much influenced by T. S. Eliot`s The Waste Land. But, `Bhumigita` is different from The Waste Land in essence. It is true that `Bhumigita` is also an imagist poem like The
. But, most of the modern poems are imagist. And, there the similarity ends. The mental frame behind these two poems is different from one another. The Waste Land depicts a barren land with sterile people who are incapable of becoming either good or bad. `Bhumigita` is a dire contrast. This poem gives the picture of endless copulations, labour pains, and childbirths. This is the mother earth whose only concern is to keep producing innumerable off springs, and she is not interested in what happens to them after they are born. Waste Land
It has become a commonplace critical observation that Adiga’s poems are influenced by the western poetry. Ananthamurthy wrote in his introduction to Bhumigita that `Haddu` (=Eagle; border, limitation; control, restraint), a poem included in that collection is influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins`s `Windhover`. But, ‘Haddu’ is Adiga’s reply to Bendre’s ‘Hakki Harutide Nodidira?’ and B.M Srikantiah’s ‘Banadi’ – poems written by the poets of the previous generation. In these two poems of the Kannada Renaissance period, birds fly freely in the air. They go beyond the horizon. They are not bound even by the limits of time. The moon and the sun are their eyes. Bendre`s poem, written during the freedom struggle, also has a line that this timeless free bird does not care even for the emperors: it has hit the head of the emperor. Adiga’s bird is an eagle. It is not flying beyond the horizon but is descending on smaller creatures living on the earth. It is the messenger of death. It symbolizes the shortness of existence. It also symbolizes the change in the sensibility that has taken place after
. The spirit of an individual was soaring high before Independence . Now he is disillusioned, not so optimistic as before, and is aware of death, and the limitations of his possibilities. There are boundaries everywhere. The eagle, with its watchful eye, is hovering over our head and may swoop on us at any time. In Kannada, `haddu` means eagle as well as border, limitation, boundary. Adiga exploits all the meanings of this word in his poem. That is characteristic of his poetry. He increases our awareness of language by using all the meanings of the key words of his works. This is also how he builds up different levels of meanings. Independence
Adiga said thoughts and feelings should be synthesized to form one organic whole in good poetry. This too is an idea whose origin is traced to T.S. Eliot`s essay on metaphysical poetry. It is true T S Eloit calls for the fusing together of thought and feelings in good poetry. He cites metaphysical poetry as an example for the fusing together of thought and feeling. True, Adiga had read T.S. Eliot. But considering the fusing together of thought and feeling as an important element of good poetry is part of Kannada literary tradition too. Madhurachenna, in his poem `Nanna nalla`, sees the essence of life in the proper cooperation between emotion and intellect. In some respects `Bhumigita` is indebted to Bendre and Kuvempu. In Bendre’s ‘Modalagitti’ too the earth is forever flourishing, is ever fertile, and always keeps giving birth to one child after another. And, like Adiga’s earth, this earth too behaves as if the child just born is its first child and is indifferent to all previously born children. This poem of Bendre was written in 1938. The last stanza asks the mother earth whether a time would come when due importance would be given to children.
Bendre has written extensively on Mother. It is not just about his own mother Ambatayi from whom his penname Ambikatanayadatta (meaning Datta, son of Ambika; Dattatreya is his first name) is derived. He, in his poems, considers Dharavada, Karnataka, Kannada, Shrimata of Pondichery, and Bharata as mothers. A line in one of his poems portrays Bharatamata as mother who has put Karantaka, her child, in a cradle, is rocking it, and is singing a lullaby.
In all these poems Bendre portrays the manifestations of the mother in different forms. But in ‘Modalagitti’ mother is not a protector. She is indifferent to her children. Bendre’s attitude towards mother is ambiguous. Adiga does not see the protective aspect of the mother. He has not written about mother as caretaker. For him, she is step-motherly in her attitude.
`Bhumigita` is indebted to Kuvempu`s `Jadavadi` too. Adiga used to criticize Kuvempu’s poems for their verbosity, no doubt. But it is also true that he was influenced by Kuvempu. The figure of the helpless man in Adiga’s poems is first seen, though in lesser details, in Kuvempu’s ‘Kogile mattu Soviet Russia’ (=Koyal and Soviet Russia). The collection of poems under the same title was published in 1944. It was written in 1936. This was written in free verse. It has prose rhythm. The movement of its lines move as per the meaning. This shows even poets of the Renaissance period wrote in free verse as early as the 1930s. It describes the predicament of an intellectual caught in a dictatorial political system, as in ‘Gondalpura’ of Adiga. `Jadavadi`, one of the poems in Panchajanya of Kuvempu published in 1933, contains many details which later Adiga used in ‘Bhumigita’. The details about Kunti and Karna, considering the earth both as a womb and a tomb are some of the details we find in both these poems. `Jadavadi` foresees `Bhumigita`. `Kupamamduka`, another poem by Adiga, is in the tradition of Bhakti poetry. Adiga`s attitude to tradition, and the relationship between the past and the present are greatly influenced by B. M. Sikanthia`s views on the same subject.
What I mean to say is that Adiga was not responding so much to English as to Kannada poetry of his predecessors and to the Kannada intellectual tradition. He was only continuing the tradition of Kannada poetry of Bendre, Kuvempu, Madhurachenna, B. M. Shrikanthiah and others. This also makes us reappraise Adiga`s comments on originality. The meaning of originality is not creating something which has never existed before. It means the continuation of what is already existing by adding new meaning to it and by reinterpreting the previous materials.
Many disciples of Kuvempu were unhappy with Adiga because of his criticism of Kuvempu`s poetry. Many thought he was hostile to Kuvempu. None of them recognized that Adiga`s poetry is indebted to Kuvempu too. I do not know why they did not understand that Adiga was continuing the tradition of Kuvempu and Bendre in his own way. Probably they did not understand that a genius`s way of admiring his predecessors is by being different from them and still creating works that equal theirs in greatness.
Adiga`s `Bhumigita` is superior to `Modalagitti`, and `Jadavadi`, which made it possible. It depicts the state of mind of a whole generation of people. It showed a new man in Kannada. He is a man deserted by all others. He has been abandoned by his own mother. He is an agitated outsider. He is caught between the currents from opposite sides – between the attraction of the sky above and the earth below: between high ideals and the dark reality. He receives no light of guidance from anywhere. Alone he gropes in darkness to find his way. He is not sure of finding it. He has to seek it. He is only aware that he is caught in darkness. Such an individual - a modern man—an antihero__ is depicted in all the significant writings published in Kannada after `Bhumigita`. Therefore, historically also `Bhumigita` is an important work. It showed a new way of looking at the world to an entire generation of Kannada writers and readers. However much one may deny it, the protagonists of all the important works after `Bhumigita` are the off springs of its antihero. He is a weak, lonely, abandoned man, groping in darkness. He is hung in mid-air like Trisanku. It will be interesting to research how many Kannada works appeared with the titles meaning lonely, alone, abandoned, orphaned, deserted and such titles after the publication of `Bhumigita`. This itself shows the impact `Bhumigita` made on contemporary writers. Trisanku as an image was first used in this poem. The German critic Heidrun Brueickner says that the image of Trisanku appears first in Samskara. No, Trisanku and the man living in no man’s land first appeared in `Bhumigita`, ten years before the publication of Ananthamurthy`s novel Samskara.
This antihero of `Bhumigita` attains fufilment in Adiga`s later poems like `Vardhamana`. Like the protagonist of `Bhumigita`, the protagonist of `Vardhamana` too gropes in darkness. But now he is not in the narrow alley as in `Bhumigita`. An open space opens before him at the end of the poem. There are fruits and milk. He is likely to grow to develop his full potentialities
The limitations of Adiga`s poetry are now obvious to many writers who have come after him. There was a time when I thought imagist poems like Bhumigita, Haddu, Bhuta were the ultimate in poetry. Now I am not so sure. There are other models of poetry that are imagist and at the same time go beyond that too. The works like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana use episodes, stories, characterization, and also images. With the advent of imagist poetry, characterization, dialogues, and story-telling have been appropriated by the novel, drama, and the short story. It is possible that poetry too achieves what the novel achieves, retaining its imagist character. Homer, Vyasa, and Valmiki did that and may be modern poets should attempt at achieving it once again. What Adiga considered comprehensive and complete may not be so comprehensive and so complete after all.
A new writer can have a totally different concept of comprehensiveness and completeness and he may strive to achieve it in ways different from that of Adiga. And, by doing it a new poet may be continuing the tradition of Adiga as Adiga continued the tradition of his predecessors by being different from them.