Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Adiga’s Poetry: A Reappraisal-Ramachandra Deva

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 Bangalore 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.

            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 Bangalore 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.

       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 Waste Land. 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.
              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 Independence. 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.

        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.                                                                                                              


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