Writing Matters: In conversation with H.S. Shiva Prakash

By Dr Kamalakar Bhat

H.S. Shiva Prakash

O my Kannada words
You became my companions
In far-off Peru
Thanks for keeping me company
From day dreams amidst clouds
To the heights of Machu Picchu
Where eagles circle
And from there
To the cities of the ocean-goddess
And of a god with thunder’s name
With bricks and stones stained with blood
And from there
To the depths of Caral the mother city
And you, voices from the Machu Picchu poem
By my elder brother Pablo
Beloved hearts of my dear readers
That befriended me on my lonely journey;
The fruit of our journey
Was not sand, stone or ancient Peru’s mother city
But these few proverbs I stole from primordial dreams:
Peace is inevitable; not war
Dying is inevitable; not killing
Worship is inevitable; not sacrifice
Mating is inevitable; not longing
Trade is inevitable; not cheating
Enchanting flowers, the dreams of rocks;
Beauteous forms, the dreams of deserts;
Exquisite cities, the dreams of void;
The joy of all, the longing of the soul
Write these down in the slips of paper
Of our dying worlds,
Tie them to the claws of dream doves,
Let them go flying
Into all times
Into all spaces
Into all worlds

— From “Heights of Machu Picchu, Depths of Caral” by H. S. Shiva Prakash

Poet, playwright and translator, H S Shiva Prakash (born 1954) is among the foremost living writers of India. He began as a poet and playwright writing in Kannada and eventually became a bilingual poet and a translator across multiple languages. He teaches English at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and has served as the Director of the Cultural Centre at Berlin, known as the Tagore Centre.

He has nine collections of poems, fifteen plays, and several other books to his credit in Kannada. He has also published a collection of poems in English and many of his plays are available in English translation. His works have been widely translated into French, Italian, Turkish, Spanish, German, Polish, Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu. His plays have been performed in Kannada, Hindi, Meitei, Rabha, Assamese, Bodo, Tamil and Malayalam. Shiva Prakash has also translated the Kannada vachana literature into English. His interests include Bhakti movements of India, and Sufi and other mystic traditions. He has to his credit many ‘best book’ prizes for his books of poems, plays and translations accorded to him by Sahitya Academy, Delhi, Sangeet Natak Academi, Delhi and Karnataka Sahitya Academy. He is also the recipient of many awards including the Rajyotsava Award given by the Karnataka government and the Kusumagraja Award given by YCMOU, Nashik. While he has been invited to read his poems or present talks in various countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and America, he was also invited to the International Writing Program in School of Letters, University of Iowa.

Shiva Prakash began his writing career when ‘navya’, the modernist literary movement was dominant in Kannada. No doubt influenced by some of the major modernist Kannada writers, when he began writing, Shiva Prakash, wrote out of the many memories housed in him through the years of his growing up. In so doing, in his initial output, he marked a distinct poetic manner – both in form and content – from the one that was then popular. By the time his second collection was published, this difference began to be celebrated by his readers.

Kamalakar Bhat: Your poems forsake the path of obscurity that much of the navya Kannada poetry had chosen though you began writing during the period. Was reaching out to the reader important to you? 

Shiva Prakash: When I first started writing, I thought that my business is to write without bothering about reach and accessibility. Because I was influenced by modernist poetics and thought that one writes for a discerning individual. That was my belief at that time. Later, I discovered that when I read my poems in person, well-read people expressed admiration but the common people were not feeling good.  Then I said no, I must write for these people, not for the scholars and critics. I decided I should make the simple style my model.

Looking at the whole tradition of Kannada poetry and what kind of relationship exists between the poet and the audience, I discovered that in the best of Kannada poetry, even in classical Kannada poetry, the most memorable lines are very simple and they are immediately communicable. Whether it is Pampa, Ranna, Raghavanka, Kumaravyasa, all are very simple.

See, once a poet establishes a kind of rapport with the audience, people remember him.
Because poetry is not a communication of meaning. It may be the discovery of meaning for the critic and the scholar, but for people poetry creates an impact. And nobody reads poetry for accessing meaning. I think I endorse the classical notion that poetry is about impact, not communication.

Apparently, Shiva Prakash never intended to be a writer.

I wanted to become a vet or an agricultural scientist or a world famous wrestler. I have invested more time in my teaching job and in pursuit of other interests: I have spent years in chasing saints, tantrics, astrologers to understand the non-rational dimension of experience; I dedicated an equal amount of energy to my social commitments in Communist Party, Dalit organizations and more recently in the social movements in the Himalayas and North East. So my writing has come out of me in spite of myself.

From his very first book of poems in Kannada, Shiva Prakash turned to new contents and styles. His narrative and lyric poems, with their evocative rhythm, fresh imagery and a new poetic idiom, thematized marginalized aspects of Kannada as well as South Asian culture and provided them a powerful socio-political articulation.

Kamalakar: You have a strong base in the diverse poetic traditions of Kannada; yet your poetry has also digested elements of poetic traditions from around India and the world. How do you view such negotiations?

Shiva Prakash: I derived my love for pre-modern Kannada literature from my home. My father had a rich library of books and palm leaf manuscripts of ancient medieval works. Later I developed a taste for English literature. After I started my teaching and writing poetry I realized that I should get out of my only English and only Kannada mindset. That was a time when I started poring over translations of poetry and drama from languages other than Kannada and English. Ideally I should have learnt languages. I wish I could master atleast one Semitic language, one American Indian language, one African language, one Slavic language, one Sino-Burmese language. I also wish I had greater familiarity with Sanskrit and Ancient Tamil. Another language that I would have loved to learn is Greek. However that could not happen in my stormy life full of upheavals.

In Other Words is Shiva Prakash’s collection of poems in English published by the Mumbai publisher Poetrywala. It is a collection that introduced to us the bilingual poet in him.

Kamalakar Bhat: Though you have been an English lecturer like many other important Kannada writers, you turned to bilingual writing rather late. What has this experience of turning bilingual meant to you?

Shiva Prakash: When I became an English teacher I had no intention of becoming a writer in English. Further, inspite of my considerable love of English poetry, I was struggling to rid my very Kannada poems of English influences. Later I got interested in translating Kannada literature into English. I realized that English of my translated text was a kind of Kanglish and hardly ever ‘English’ English. In the meantime the role of English became more prominent in my life particularly after 1997 when I left Bangalore for Delhi. As the editor of Indian Literature, I was dealing with English translations of Indian writings. Destiny also took me to far-off shores where I had to communicate with the milieu via English. After all this, I sometimes found myself writing directly in English. I do not know whether I write like Indian English poets, some of who, like A.K. Ramanujan or Meena Kandasami, have forged their own English poetic idiom. This at times surpasses ‘English’ English poets. I am not gifted like those superb English poets; however, some readers from abroad responded favourably to my English poems. That boosted my morale. What I am trying to do in English is to create a certain kind of mirror image of Kannada poetic idiom. If you can call this bilingualism, then yes, I have become a bilingual poet. I have also attempted a handful of poems in Sanskrit. I wish I could write directly in many more languages.

Shiva Prakash has won accolades for his compositions in the two genres he has specially preferred: poetry and drama. However, throughout the period he has been a writer, it is narrative prose that has been a more popular genre. Yet he doesn’t seem to have been persuaded enough by the intimations of popularity to turn to writing stories or novels.

Kamalakar: Although you have written in prose both in Kannada and English, you have not used prose for your creative expression. Any conscious reasons for not writing stories and novels?

Shiva Prakash: Originally my intention was to become a great fiction writer. I devoured works of fiction in my school days. I had a particular passion for the historical fiction. I then started writing short stories. However, I never succeeded in writing prose narratives. Moreover, a fiction writer needs to be very good in detailing. That was never my forté. So I concentrated on poetry and drama. Because I never write for popularity, I was never tempted to write fiction.

Shiva Prakash’s poetry has a very wide range – from petite to cosmic themes; from local motifs to international ones; from personal to perennial questions. As in his poetry, so in his plays he ranges from plots with typically Karnataka roots such as Manteswami to ones that are international as in Shakespeare’s Dreamship. His narrative poems have drawn on legends from Bhakti, Sufi, Natha, Buddhist, folk and a host of other traditions across Kannada, Tamil, Hindi, Kashmiri, Bengali, and Marathi cultures. There are poems centred on the 12th century saint poets and their lives, as also on Tukaram, Gorakshanath, Emperor Ashok, Kovalan/Kannagi, Ambapali, Punjab, Konark, Kashmir, Tehri and Avalokiteshvara. And there are ones about cultures beyond the shores – Europe, Africa, South America with poems on figures such as Caliban, Shams Tabrez, Rikyū, Democritus, Rumi, Cuba, Baghdad, Machu Pichu, Rock Garden of Kyoto, Thonis-Heracleios, and Havana among many others. From intensely personal to fiercely political themes, from historical to fantasy materials, from spiritual to romantic motifs, Shiva Prakash has written about a wide variety of subjects.

Kamalakar Bhat: You have written in diverse forms on a rich variety of subjects. What goes into the making of such diversity?

Shiva Prakash: The wide range that you see in my poetry was never intended. But I have always felt that poetry has to negotiate between the immediate and the ephemeral on the one hand, and the perennial- ‘more distant than the stars and nearer than the eye’. The same principle informs my plays. I write poetic plays, not realistic plays. But let me tell you that I am not a nativist or local culturist. All regional cultures have been exposed to far off cultures since the dawn of history. This process has become more pronounced in the last two centuries. Shakespeare lived during the Elizabethan period. The prosperity of Elizabethan England was due to the loot of colonies. In a very regional folk epic like Manteswamy Kavya, there are clear references to European capitalism. My works are interested in the meeting point of the nearest and the farthest.

Shiva Prakash’s works have asserted the importance of being in harmony with the long unbroken traditions of literary cultures. He has poems composed in the manner of Gazals, Vacahnas, medieval moralist compositions known as ‘tatvapada’, songs, sonnets, monologues and narrative poems. Yet, his poems have an intensely contemporary tone in them. A twenty first century reader well versed in international poetry will find in Shiva Prakash a poet who yokes the different worlds together.

Kamalakar Bhat: No doubt you have been an ambassador of Indian literature in your many international sojourns. What can your experiences in these countries tell us about the place, function, popularity of literature in those societies as against ours?

Shiva Prakash: Rembrandt, I am told, refused to go abroad. ‘What is the point in travelling all over the world only to realize that the sun rises in the East?’ Not being a genius like Rembrandt, I had to discover the same only after a lot of travel around the globe. I have discovered, rather rediscovered the old cliché. Despite differences in particulars, things and people are the same everywhere. Living traditions can be long but they are never unbroken. Octavio Paz defines tradition as ‘continuities with ruptures’.

Shiva Prakash is also an accomplished translator who has translated from many languages to Kannada as also from Kannada and Tamil to English. His translations of 12th century Kannada vachanas into English have been published by Penguin Classics under the title I Keep the Vigil of Rudra.

Kamalakar Bhat: What is your approach to choices in translations?

Shiva Prakash: After I read Ramanujan’s translations of Kannada vachanas into English, like most people in my generation, I became deeply impressed. I thought that was the test of good translation. However, when I started reading the source text translated by Ramanujan, my opinion changed. A lot of culture specific nuances had been butchered with Ramanujan’s brilliant English translations. I wanted to try another kind of translation tilted more towards the source language than towards the target language. Instead of accommodating the source text into the accepted conventions of the target language, I wanted to force the idiom of the target language into sound-look of the source language. At the same time, I want the translated text to be fairly intelligible to the target readers. This approach informs my exercises in translations. Somewhere my interest in translation dovetails with my love of medieval literature. Before we became Anglicized, those voices were talking not only to their immediate audiences but to the whole world. How we communicate in unique ways to the world at large is something a good translation has to live out.

Shiva Prakash deploys diverse mythological and historical agents from a very wide spectrum of cultures and traditions – both Indian and non-Indian. More importantly, among the non-Indian, he does not restrict himself to the European cultures. Even within the Kannada traditions, he references many non-dominant traditions; but these explorations of the past ultimately are in the service of examining the present and reconstituting something for the present.

Kamalakar Bhat: So how do you negotiate the past and present and how do you view traditions?

Shiva Prakash: Because of my firm belief in negotiating the nearest and the farthest, I sometimes start searching for new ways of expressing the immediate. The immediate components of poetry like love, hatred, disgust, etc., are the same everywhere. But how precisely these basic emotions find expression in art is the point where you have freedom to find a new poetic idiom. Whether that idiom comes from dominant or subordinate cultural backgrounds is not very important. However I tend more towards the subordinate. Being neglected, the subordinate cultures can be the mines of refreshingly new symbols and metaphors still unused.

Shiva Prakash has been an academic apart from being an artist and a highly respected scholar in the field of medieval Indian literatures, comparative literature, Bhakti and Shaivite movements, and Indian theatre traditions. His academic works seem to deviate from the prevalent academic culture in India. For one, he seems to bring to academic writings an artist’s perspective and, even more importantly, an artist’s methodology. As an academic, he has made scholarship available to the non-Kannada, non-Indian readers about South Indian and especially medieval literary traditions.

Kamalakar Bhat: Do you consider yourself as a scholar?

Shiva Prakash: T.S. Eliot called himself a carpenter poet and his criticism, workshop criticism. I feel the same way about my scholarship. If I can make pretence to any scholarship it is not the regular academic kind of scholarship. But, to make sense at least to myself of the areas I am keen on I need to understand it critically also. It is in this context I produce scholarship of sorts. When this kind of scholarship makes sense to very different kinds of people I consider myself fortunate.




Kamalakar Bhat was born in Sirsi, Karnataka and had his education in Sirsi, Mysore and Pune. He is presently an Associate Professor at the Postgraduate Department of English of Ahmednagar College, Ahmednagar in Maharashtra, India. He is a bilingual writer and a translator between Kannada, English and Marathi. His publications include three collections of poems in Kannada, the first Churuparu Reshime appeared in 2006 and won the PUTINA Award for Best Book. The second, Mugiyada Madhyahna appeared in 2010. His third collection of poems Jagada Jate Matu Kate was published in 2017. He has translated to English the poetry of several contemporary Kannada poets including S. Manjunath, Jayant Kaikini, Abdul Rashid, N. K. Hanumantayya, K. Sharifa, Mogalli Ganesh, and H. S. Anupama. He has also translated the poetry of the iconic Marathi Dalit poet Namdev Dhasal and published a reader on him in Kannada. He has translated a few prose works of K. P. Purnachandra Tejaswi and Ashok Hegde. He has edited the Kannada section of the online multilingual literary magazine indiaree.com.

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