By Neeti Singh
Fractals by Sudeep Sen, an internationally acclaimed, Delhi-based poet, photographer and documentary film maker, is a comprehensive volume, a bouquet of pure art and poetry, new and old, running into 380 odd pages. About 250 poems are from Sen’s recent poems in English; besides that, there are selections from his earlier published poems, and lastly, a selection of Sudeep Sen’s English translation of poems from Bengali, Urdu, Hindi, Persian, Chinese, Hebrew, Polish and Spanish. Sudeep Sen’s classical orientation to poetic craft, his erudition and expansive engagement with global traditions in languages, visual arts, poetics and translation, is, to say the least, impressive and stunning.
For an essay that aspires to encapsulate in about 1500 words, an eclectic talent and legend such as he, it is a daunting uphill task. An anthology of over 350 poems, Fractals is designed with intelligent and passionate deliberation, and consists of a range of poetic forms from poem songs, cameos, erotica, prose poems, haikus to translations layered with inter/intra-textual signification and discourse across poetry, culture and other art media. With all regard to Sudeep Sen, I must say, very well done! You do us, Mr Sen, much service as world poet and Indian, by writing in English, a culturally cadenced poetic subtext that celebrates at par with other world art/cultures, the Indian – classical and folk traditions. The ethnography of the Hindu/Mughal nation with its indigenous heritage, topography and rasa-pradhaan poetic contexts – all weave their way subtly into the English idiom, as they take position alongside western/global poetics and blend in, refashion and enrich with intelligent skill, their overtly English matrix.
The range of Sen’s poems in Fractals is vast and this brief essay can strive to examine but a few aspects. I shall therefore contain myself to a reading of few poems that engage with Indian themes, lifestyle, cities and contexts. The India that emerges through Sen’s poems is classical, nonchalant, subtly layered and beautifully calibrated. At the same time, the people that occupy these cameos and word-pictures, are competent, unselfconscious and well embedded in the larger global framework. Poems like “Rural Mappings”, and “Four Watercolours” – Bombay, Delhi, Udaipur, London – are examples. His poems on Indian dance forms, “Mohiniyattam”, “Bharatanatyam Dancer”, “Oddisi”, refashion and infuse an experience, an aesthetic, that is quintessentially Indian, into a language/cultural texture that is essentially western and mainstream. In the poem “Odissi”, for instance, the dancing form of the dancer recalls on the one hand, the glory of the Indian goddesses – Kali, Madhavi, Parvati – and on the other hand it melts into figurines of sculpted stone on the ancient temple walls. “And yet she is human.” To quote from the prose poem,
I adore Kali, I adore Parvati, I adore Madhavi, I adore the trance-like temple postures – so pure that stone-art of the ancient Oriya temples melts to human form, exquisitely carved, yet breathing, breathing with the passion only reserved for the Gods. And yet she is human, and touchable. (126)
“Architectural love and body love are one” for the poet who easily traverses from one medium to another as though the whole world were his subject matter. In a Facebook post I recall him saying once that there is poetry all around us, all we need is the eyes to see and feel it.
Sudeep Sen’s poems are quite Baudelairean in their employment of Synaesthesia and in their engagement with the sensual and erotic. A controlled raw sensuality marks the love poems in the section titled “Erotext: Sixteen movements on Erotica.”
“Clumps of wet-smoke simmer in the pan, and slowly | lift to caress the outline of your breasts” (103) in the poem, “Indian Dessert” is a favourite example that evocatively interlaces the simmering of gajar-ka-halwa in a pan with the beloved’s body, as she cooks to create finally, “a creamed mouthful of untampered delicacy”.
His nature poems reflect the layered simplicity of Fernando Pessoa. There is also the cryptic crisp economy of an A K Ramanujan. And underlying it all is the attempt to recapture and recreate the experiential moment seeped in its sense of the aesthetic pleasure – the rasa. The shringara rasa of abhinaya for instance can be found in his poems on Indian dance forms. Added to this is the backdrop of Sudeep’s scientific approach to his surroundings, his photographer’s eye with its insistence on precision and detail, coupled with a classical approach to poetic form, understatement and restraint. These are aspects that frame and design Sen’s poetry which then presents a very eclectic image of the Indian land, an image that is at once ancient and contemporary.
at the feet
….. (Sati, 143)
Or the rains in “Rain, Maps” which he describes as a “grand show” and “a constant blur of water outside,” reminds one of Fernando Pessoa the Portugese poet infamous for his fresh nature poetry and innumerable pseudonyms.
Sudeep Sen is keenly conscious of his status as an artist and of the fact that poetry as an art form is part of a larger art experience, that it must therefore interact and partner in experimentation with other art forms to create yet newer, advanced levels of the poetic aesthetic and signification. His embedding of quotes from poetry in Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit is another way of acknowledging and performing inter-textuality. It is a way of alluding to parallel poetic traditions across languages, time and cultures – highly prevalent in western poetic traditions, this practice acquires in Sudeep’s work an added political dimension as lines in Urdu and ancient Sanskrit, find dignity and space in a modern English poem on the international page.
Yet another aspect that the poet has introduced in Fractals is his translations of poems from across the Indian and world language canvas. This juxtaposition of less known minor language poets with those better known and writing in English and other mainstream languages, is a commendable gesture. For here is an Indian poet who does not merely acknowledge the poetic heritage that surrounds him but has set a new precedent by sharing with it the privileged status that he enjoys and which he has earned, as an Indian poet who writes in English, international and mainstream.
Sen is impressively versatile and eclectic as a poet harbouring an amazing range in terms of poetic form and content. There are poems from haikus, triptychs and cameos to ekphrastic poems on works of arts, artists, performers and their performances, landscapes seeped in love and history spot Sen’s oeuvre, one fusing unto another in a sublime, delicate tapestry of personified image, metaphor, trope and filigreed description – Sudeep’s poetry churns up one macro melting pot where time, clime and subject matter are stirred, seasoned and structured into multiple bouquets of verse that is conscious, carefully crafted, wears a light flavour, and is frozen and fluid at the same time. There are ekphrastic poems like “Cow-dust hour,” “Cover Drawings,” there are poems that interact with Kafka, Ramanujan and other such writers, there are haikus, interactions with Japanese poetry, elegies on a dying Delhi, an ode to Kali, to Durga Puja, and song poems and narratives, then there are cameos like the “Four Watercolours” straddling cities like Bombay, Delhi, Udaipur, London. And finally, his nature poems which tend to focus on microcosmic subjects as for instance the “Lily Pads” painted with such terse crisp strokes, in an economy of expression, the poet performs live poetry here as word séances with visual layout, abstractions in mathematics, musical notes and philosophy. An excerpt from “Lily Pads,”
Seven – notes, tones,
arcing – an east-west helix.
sea sand, sonar sand, sun sand,
Gone bodyburst –
lily pads (35)
It is obvious Mr Sen takes his office as poet extremely seriously, he reads and experiments widely and enriches in turn his poetry which is supremely subtle, extensive, controlled and highly inter-textual in terms of poetic scholarship, craft and spirit that seep through and across his work. Here one finds a Baudelaire (“Erotext”), here a shade of Fernando Pessoa (“Rain, Maps”), a John Milton, or an Arun Kolatkar (“Raghu Rai Photograph”), or a painting of Salvador Dali, an Imtiaz Dharker, a landscape that resonates with Monet, a sculpture, melodies that remind one of parallel art forms or artists from anywhere across the world. Thus we have here in Fractals, a well structured oasis – a space of synaesthesia in the broader context, where the best in the world of art, poetry and thought culture gather, to engage with the most profound and banal in creative expression.
To conclude, it is fit to reiterate that Sudeep Sen’s poems ingenuously translate the Indian matrix of experience into the English idiom, they straddle global subtexts and cultural forms and celebrate with brilliant method and skill, their poetic subjects. And yet Mr Sen remains primarily, an Indian and a Bengali eating with relish, his “rice and fish.”
and tone –
gently, I relish it all. (233)
And a Delhite who bemoans the slow degeneration of Delhi’s cultural history, the city that once upon a time celebrated collectively, its Eids and Diwalis, but is now “only din, dust, death – and no light.”
Poet Sudeep Sen, a Bengali based in New Delhi, has made his place on the international map as one of the finest poets writing in English today. “His is a distinct voice: carefully modulated and skilled, well measured and crafted.”(George Robertson, BBC Radio) And according to a review in the New Welsh, “one of international poetry’s guiding stars.” (Paul Cooper)
The reviewer Neeti Singh is a poet, translator and a researcher who works as an English Faculty with the Department of English, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. She has an M.A., M.Phil. and a Ph.D. in English. At the moment she has just finished the English translation of a postmodern Punjabi novel and is scouting for publishers. She has published three books so far.