Essay: “The afternoon wind comes and goes between India and Brazil” – A new literary dialogue through 100 Great Indian Poems in Portuguese
By Prof Dilip Loundo
In the journal of her trip to India in 1953, the Brazilian poet Cecília Meireles writes: ‘As paradoxical as it may seem, it is easier to understand the East (India) by knowing Brazil, whose problems are curiously similar (struggle for the affirmation of nationality, urgency to adapt to international circumstances, use of wealth, racial setbacks, economic consolidation, education plans), except for their respective ages and the date of their independence[i]. By exploring the potential territory of dialogue that is represented by the poet’s intuition, we witness a fascinating situation. Brazil and India are complex societies with a large territory and population and these countries are regarded, from the historical point of view, as antipodes in birth: India, one of the oldest civilizations of humanity and Brazil, one of the youngest. At the same time, they present a remarkable common characteristic: a content of unity that articulates, intrinsically and organically, a cultural diversity. In other words, they are societies that have two fundamental implications: (i) a dynamic of inclusiveness, a cultural permeability that is, at the same time, matrix of genetic constitution and matrix of historical interaction with external agents; (ii) a dynamic of the imaginary, as an essential structure of articulation of the cultural diversities that confers plasticity and iconographic profusion. This underlies, on the one hand, a postcolonial environment relatively immune to the Cartesian-Enlightenment rationality and, on the other hand, a natural disposition for intercultural dialogue, which emerges as a spontaneity that reinforces and guarantees the continuity and survival of a civilization.
It is within the scope of literature, a privileged sphere of sense building, that the potential of Brazil-India dialogue reaches its most exuberant expression. Although clearly unsystematic, this dialogue registers significant events, both with regard to the presence of Brazilian literature in India[ii] and, especially, with regard to the presence of written and oral sources of Indian literature in Brazil. With respect to the latter, we can identify, initially, a level of predominantly oral subconscious presence, represented by the incorporation of the Indian narratives of the Pañcatantra in the popular folklore of the Brazilian northeast[iii]. Another level, of a more conscious and written character, is represented by an extensive group of Brazilian authors who, through the most diverse and distinct regions of Brazil, came into contact with the ancient literature of the Vedas, Upaniṣads, Vedānta, Yoga, and Buddhist sutras, and the contemporary literature of key personalities such as Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. This is the case of Cruz e Souza, Augusto dos Anjos, Machado de Assis, Guimarães Rosa and the modernist writers associated with the Festa group, in which Cecília Meireles stands out, whose philosophical lyric is fundamentally constructed in the light of a sui generis with Indian spiritual sources[iv].
It is in this context, therefore, of the enrichment of the still incipient dialogue between Brazil and India in the sphere of literature, that the importance of the translation of 100 Great Indian Poems (Bloomsbury India, 2018), edited by Abhay K. into Portuguese titled 100 Grandes Poemas da Índia stands out. Abhay K. is an Indian poet-diplomat currently based in Brasilia who has received SAARC Literary Award 2013 for his contribution to the South Asian poetry. He has also edited CAPITALS, a poetry anthology on the capital cities of the world and has published six collections of poems. 100 Grandes Poemas da Índia, has been published as a special edition of Cadernos de Literatura em Tradução, a reputed journal of literature in translation by the University of São Paulo. This edition is entirely devoted to Indian poetry. It is undoubtedly a very important contribution to the cultural dialogue between Brazil and India and a unique opportunity for a radical encounter with the multiple facets of the civilizing soul of the Indian subcontinent and its cultural, social and religious expressions.
Preparing an anthology of contemporary Indian poetry is a complex task. The cultural and linguistic plurality of India is such that it does not allow totalizing pretensions in terms of ‘hegemonic tendencies’ or ‘representative narratives’ of a supposed ‘national character’. The political independence of 1947 is the modern aftermath of a long process of coexistence of a multiplicity of cultures that are united in a millennial history and destiny. The structuring of India as a Federal Republic – consisting of 29 states and 7 territories of the union, and a population of approximately 1.2 billion people – met, among others, the imperative need to ensure the relative autonomy of the multiple components of its cultural and linguistic diversity. The Federal Constitution, following the criteria of number of speakers and literary relevance, and among languages that exceeds more than a hundred, officially recognizes 23 official languages, of which Hindi – the language with the largest number of speakers (about 480 million) – and English are the official languages of the central government and the others, official languages of the regional governments.
In the 100 Great Poems of India, Abhay K. gives voice to the most diverse poetic manifestations of India, throughout its entire millennial history. Linguistic diversity and regional representation impress: there are 28 Indian languages represented, covering almost every state in the Indian subcontinent – Assamese, Bengali, Bhili, Dogri, English, Gondi, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Khasi, Kokborok, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Persian, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, and Páli. The long time range is equally impressive: the anthology covers a period of approximately 3000 years, ranging from the earliest records of the Vedas in Sanskrit to the most contemporary poetry in English, passing through a whole historical spectrum that includes broad demonstrations of the most diverse cultural and religious currents, including Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism and Christianity.
Poetry is, therefore, the privileged space of the literary encounter to which we are invited by the anthology. In his editorial note, Abhay K. points to two fundamental principles that guided his process of selection and organization: (i) the primacy of the poem over the poet; (ii) and the poem’s commitment to the Indian aesthetic doctrine of rasa. The two principles enunciated are eminently intertwined and have as their fundamental premise the idea that poetry constitutes a cognitive event, a critical inquiry into the nature of things and the subject. More specifically, the Indian context tends to emphasize poetry as a privileged locus of communion of all things, irreplaceable territory of an experience of awareness of the unity and universality of beings, of their love, harmony and interdependence. Cecília Meireles emphasizes this fundamental commitment: ‘[in India] Poetry is not a futile verse; it is an inner enlightenment, a kind of holiness and prophecy. The Poet’s word is not a superficial skill, dilettantism – but an example, a revelation, a teaching through sounds and rhythms… What a joy to breathe in a country where you still think that way! What a hope of life! What a renewal of faith in humanity!’[v]
The over-determination of the poem derives therefore fundamentally from its cognitive commitment. In other words, what guarantees the excellence of the poem is not the subjective intentionality of the poet, his biography or religion, but the trans-subjective, universal reality that constitutes the fated and ontological sense of it. As the Brazilian poet João Cabral de Melo Neto states: ‘[artistic work aims] to disconnect the poem from its creator, giving it an independent objective life, validity that to be perceived dispenses no reference after the person of its creator or circumstances of his creation.’[vi] In the Vedic tradition, the truth of the poetic discursiveness of the sacred text stems precisely from its trans-individual character (apauruṣeya), whether human or divine. As stated by J. N. Mohanty, the Vedic notion of apauruṣeya (literally, ‘non-authorship’) means, in my opinion, minimally: (…) the author’s intention is not relevant to the understanding of the text. The text is foundational and autonomous.[vii]
If the first principle affirms the primacy of the poem, the second explicates its own dimension of ontological cognoscibility. His secret lies in the doctrine of rasa, centred on the experiential limit of emotions as the teleology of poetic art. Rasa is a difficult word to translate into Western languages. It primarily points to a form of ‘tasting of the essence’, a savouring, a delight of the emotions in their essentiality as purely aesthetic pleasure[viii]. Secondly, it points to the artistic production that constitutes the condition of possibility and the immediate cause of this experience. Thus, the notion of rasa has two components, a subjective and an objective, the experience of the viewer/reader and the antecedent experience of the poet. The metaphor used to define rasa is that of the seed-tree-fruit sequence.[ix] The seed is the aesthetic experience of the artist/poet, the tree is the performance that embodies this original experience, and the fruit is the aesthetic experience of the viewer/reader.
According to the rasa principles enunciated in the aesthetics treaty Nāṭyaśāstra of Bharatamuni (approximately, 2nd century BC), the human condition is marked by emotional dispositions derived from karmic inheritances that are updated, in the presence of the poem’s stimuli, in eight variants of the aesthetic experience that corresponds to the many other predominant emotional factors: sṛṅgāra (eroticism, love); hāsya (humour); kāruṇya (compassion); raudra (fury); vīra (heroism); bhayānaka (terror); bībhatsa (horror); adbhuta (wondering). This implies that the aesthetic experience constituted an attitudinal reversal in relation to the daily experience of the emotions. In day-to-day worldliness, the karmic dispositions are actualized in the form of emotions that circumscribe, in an interested way, the objects of relation. They are emotions marked by the ego-centred interests of the subject that impel him to the action of acquisition or rejection of these same objects. Conversely, the aesthetic experience of rasa promotes depersonalization of subjective interests and allows a detachment of the freed emotions from egocentric imputations and the consequent revelation of the objects of relation in their real condition, i.e., as beings eternally and ontologically implied in the existence of the subject. In other words, the aesthetic experience of rasa constitutes a form of pedagogy of control of the emotions and an exercise of the pure contemplation of the beings, a contemplation free of subjectivist distortions that gives origin to the existential and communitarian disparities. With it, the experience of the Beautiful/Sublime, as participation in the ever-present universality of the Real, epilogue of the path called by Rabindranath Tagore the ‘religion of the poet’, an ‘aesthetic religion’ where men, gods and nature commune from the same platform of the Universal.[x]
There are abundant emblematic manifestations of the above mentioned principles in the poems that make up this anthology, expertly selected by Abhay K. I highlight some of these poems, considering their representativeness in the context of three major thematic categories: (i) philosophical-religious themes; (ii) themes related to love – human and divine; (iii) and social and gender issues —
(i) Philosophical-religious themes: The depersonalization or disembodiment of the poet as a condition for the emergence of the cognitive and universalizing excellence of the poem is well portrayed in the words of Shankar Ramani (Konkani): “He is a poet, solitary and lonely. / (…) / But if and when his window / turns into the blue sky / the birds from across the horizon / beckon him to the ethereal light”. The sense of language as the ontological meeting of the totality of the Real, gains, in the verses of Kedarnath Singh (Hindi), an eloquent expression. “O my mother tongue, / I return to you, / when my tongue feels stiff from / remaining silent / hurting my soul.” The vedāntino principle of the unity between ātman (subjectivity in general) and brahman (objectivity in general) and the correlative solidarity between all beings, is expressed in the vision that dominates the sacred texts of the Upaniṣads. These words are from Mahā Upaniṣad (Sanskrit): “This is mine, that is yours / narrow-minded people think that way / For the noble-hearted / the whole world is a family (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam)”.
(ii) Themes concerning love – divine or human: The devotional disposition of union with the personalized divine, symbol of the totality of the Real, is a recurring theme of the Sufi traditions of Islam and the bhakti tradition of Hinduism, predominantly associated with Krishna, avatāra of Vishnu. From the first tradition comes the poetry of Sachal Sarmast (Sindhi): “Friend, this is the only way / to learn the secret way: / Ignore the paths of others, / even the saints’ steep trails. / Don’t follow. / Don’t journey at all. / Rip the veil from your face.” And from the second tradition comes the passionate voice of the poet Mirabai (Rajasthani): “Like a bee trapped for life in closing of the sweet flower, Mira has offered herself to her Lord. / She says, the single Lotus will swallow you whole.” Erotic love, both in its everyday worldliness and in its symbolic dimension of divine love, is a recurring theme. In the classic of Jayadeva (Sanskrit) Gītāgovinda, Krishna’s love for Rādhā is described in shades of extreme sensuality: “Fixed in meditation / sleepless / he chants a sequence of mantras. / He has a burning desire – / to draw amrita / from your offered breasts.” Gagan Gill (Hindi), on the other hand, faithful to the poetry of deep love, shows the love bond as a journey between pleasure and suffering, life and death: “In making love she grieves / In her grief, she makes love. / (…) / Each time in her fear she holds him tightly to her/ Each time he slips out from her arms in her lovemaking in her grief .”
(iii) Social and gender issues: This category has poetry of great sensitivity to human suffering stemming from social injustices, whether ancient, modern, pre-colonial, colonial or post-colonial heritage. The sensitivity to social marginality and inequality – the hallmarks of modern India – is a recurring theme of the poet and social activist Dhumil (Hindi). His poignant poetry, where the bridle and the spurs are symbols of social oppression, acts like a punch in the stomachs of the affluent: “Ask not the blacksmith the taste of iron, ask the horse with a leash on his mouth.” The Dalit writer Chokhamela (Marathi) portrays, on the other hand, human resilience under conditions of systematic exploitation of discriminated groups such as the ‘untouchables’. “The bow is curved / not the arrow. / The river is bent / but not its water. / Chokha is twisted / not his faith.” Sensitivity to the feminine universe, its hardships and challenges to patriarchal moorings, is highlighted in the poetry of Kutti Revathi (Tamil) with her hymn to the woman’s breasts: “In times of penance / they struggle and struggle; / and in the impulse and attraction of lust / made the proud ascension of the music / remain erect.” Finally, there are voices of an open nationalism, of awakened and tolerant minds, as is the case with poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore (Bengali): “Where the mind is led by thee / towards ever widening thought and action / In this paradise of freedom, Father, let my country awake.”
As already mentioned, the anthology 100 Grandes Poemas da Índia is a Portuguese language version of the edition, originally published in English, titled 100 Great Indian Poems. It is important to note that the texts of the poems of the English edition were, in their entirety, translated directly from the originals — the 28 languages listed above —by the specialists in each of these languages. Abhay K. himself, as well as being the editor and author of one of the poems, is responsible for some of the English translations of the originals in Sanskrit, Pali and Hindi. Thus, as he argues in his interview (published in Cadernos, USP), using ‘English translations to translate them into Portuguese and other languages seems natural to me,’ though ‘an ideal situation would be one in which the version is not removed twice from the original. Therefore, I would like to encourage Brazilians to learn Indian languages.’ The translation work in Portuguese was carried out by a select group of 14 Brazilian translators with academic experience, poetic sensitivity and interest in Indian civilization.
In short, the present anthology 100 Grandes Poemas da Índia is a precious contribution for lovers of poetry and scholars of India and the East in general. It has expanded the pioneering efforts of dissemination of Indian literature in Brazil, which already includes, among others, the publication of an anthology of Poesia Hindi Contemporânea, which I had the opportunity to organize and translate[xi].
It is a fortunate circumstance that, in the personality of Abhay K., two fundamental requirements come together for the success of this initiative: on one hand, his status as a renowned poet, enthusiast of world literature, and editor and author of the anthology 100 Great Indian Poems and, on the other hand, his position as diplomat, who is responsible for disseminating culture and literature of India and, in the specific context of his mission in Brasilia, to promote intellectual dialogue between India and Brazil. And it is Abhay K.’s own poem, originally written in English, that bears witness to the wide range of dialogue that the anthology contemplates embryonically. The poem “Soul Song”, in its exaltation of the interdependence of the beings and the conscience as locus of this unit, maintains deep affinities with the poem of Cecília Meireles “4o Motivo da Rosa”. I reproduce below, for the reader’s appreciation and as a suggestion of dialogue, the two poems:
— Abhay K.
I was always here
as blowing wind
or falling leaves
as shining sun
or flowing streams
as chirping birds
or blooming buds
as blue sky
or empty space
I was never born
I didn’t die.
4o Motivo da Rosa [xii]
Don’t afflict yourself with the petal that flies:
Also to be is to stop being like that.
Roses will see, only shrouded ashes
dead, intact by your garden.
I leave aroma even in my thorns
from far, the wind will talk about me.
And by losing myself is that I will be remembered,
by deflowering me, is how I don’t end.
[i] “Oriente-Ocidente”. In Crônicas de Viagem-2. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1999, p. 40.
[ii] This is the case of the Anthology of Brazilian literature Tropical Rhymes, Topical Reasons: An Anthology of Modern Brazilian Literature, which I had the opportunity to organize and translate (New Delhi: National Book Trust, 2001) I could also mention the translations that was done by me, from the poetry of Cecília Meireles – Traveling and Meditating: Poems Written in India and Other Poems (New Delhi: Embassy of Brazil, 2003); and Carlos Drummond de Andrade (in Hindi and English) – Carlos Drummond de Andrade: Selected Poems (New Delhi: Embassy of Brazil, 2003).
[iii] See Loundo, Dilip. “A Presença do Pañcatantra nos Contos Populares do Brasil”. In Loundo, Dilip & Michel Misse (orgs.). Diálogos Tropicais. Brasil e Índia. Rio de Janeiro: UFRJ publishier, 2003, p. 159-178.
[iv] See Loundo, Dilip. “Cecília Meireles e a Índia: Viagem e Meditação Poética”. In Gouvêa, Leila. Ensaios sobre Cecília Meireles. São Paulo: Humanitas/FAPESP, 2007, p. 129-176.
[v] “Um dia em Calcutá”. In Crônicas de Viagem-2. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1990, p. 266.
[vi] “Poesia e composição: a Inspiração e o Trabalho de Arte”. In Melo Neto, João Cabral. Prosa. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1997, p. 60.
[vii] “Dharma, Imperatives, and Tradition: Toward an Indian Theory of Moral Action”. In Bilimoria, Purushottamam; Josepph Prabhu & Renuka Sharma (orgs.). Classical Traditions and Contemporary Challenges (vol.1). Hampshire (UK): Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007, p. 65.
[viii] The definition in the Nāṭyaśāstra is as follows: “rasa is all that involves delight / tasting” (rasyate [asvādyate] anena iti rasaḥ). (Bharatamuni, Nāṭyaśāstra, Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1996, VI.31-2).
[ix] Bharatamuni. Nāṭyaśāstra. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1996, VI.38
[xi] Poesia Hindi Contemporânea. Special edition of the magazine Poesia Sempre, organized and translated by Dilip Loundo. (N. 34, Ano 17, 2010). Also I would like to add the publication of a short anthology by the contemporary Indian poet Manglesh Dabral, entitled “Sete Poemas de Manglesh Dabral” (Brazilian Journal [ABL], Phase VIII, April-June 2014, Year III, No. 79)
[xii] In Mar Absoluto e Outros Poemas. Meireles, Cecília. Poesia Completa. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Aguilar, 1994, p.319.
Prof Dilip Loundo is Professor of the Department of Science of Religion of the UFJF and Coordinator of the Center for Studies in Religions and Philosophies of India of the Graduate Program in Religion Science of UFJF. Ph. D in Indian Philosophy from the University of Mumbai, Post-Doctor in Indian Philosophy from UFRJ, Master in Philosophy from UFRJ, Master in Sanskrit from the University of Mumbai and Bachelor of Social Sciences from UFRJ, he was a visiting professor (Shivdasani Fellow) of the Oxford Center for Hindu Studies of the University of Oxford (United Kingdom) and occupant of the Itamaraty Chair in Indo-Brazilian Studies (Leitorado) at the University of Goa, India.