Poetry: Ode to Verrier Elwin by Richard Rose


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Richard Rose is a British writer, university professor and researcher who has been working regularly with teachers and children in India for the past nineteen years. His work has appeared in academic journals, magazines and books in several countries. His play, written with James Vollmar, Letters to Lucia, which celebrates the life of James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia Anna Joyce, received its first performance by Triskellion Irish Theatre in 2018.

 

Ode to Verrier Elwin

(With thanks to Ramachandra Guha for “Savaging the Civilized”)

 by Richard Rose

 

Let me help you to see the world

first far away, then close to home.

Escape a while from your cosy hearth,

see, question, try to understand.

Difficult you say?

Then let me assist you with your interpretation.

 

The first rule is to open your eyes,

see what is before you and maintain your gaze.

Why have you never looked before?

Or perchance you did but then you turned away.

Perhaps you looked but failed to see.

This is not the world you know,

a landscape strange and unfamiliar,

a place where norms are not the ones you own.

Familiarity is challenged, security less sure.

 

So, let’s apply the first rule.

I’m asking you to look as you have never looked before.

See each pattern and every texture,

the intensity of colours and the turn in every shape

hewn by the craftsman’s hand.

See how utility is created with artifice,

a signature distinctive, individual.

 

The first rule provides a starting point.

Until this is learned the others cannot follow.

Learn not to turn your face away,

for the minute you do so

all hope of understanding passes away.

 

The second rule is to open your mind.

This more difficult than the first.

but this the rule that holds the key to unlock understanding.

I tell you, these people are just like you,

in many ways there are few differences.

You may have chosen to see them as other

because the second rule is one that you are yet to learn.

 

Yes, I know it to be easier to sit in ignorance.

You have lived these years without understanding, so why change?

Please stay with me I will help you further,

but only if you promise to work at this, the second rule.

Begin by trying to discard all that you define as true.

Recognise the limitations of your comprehension.

Do not interpret what you see from within your limited purview.

Discover that there are other ways to view the world

and learn that yours is not the only reality.

 

The third rule is that of acceptance.

When you name a people “different” please do so with respect.

If you must apply a label, try to find some empathy.

Gond, Baiga, Konyak, Muria,

Say these names gently, you know nothing of them.

Speak them often, but only as a way to learn.

Better still, listen to what they have to say.

Speak nothing yourself until you have heard,

and then only when you have applied rules one, two and three

 

You say all these rules, they are too hard to learn.

They are not your rules,

they exist in defiance of your civilising norm.

Ok then, let me guide you more slowly.

Grant to me an empty slate,

on this I will show why these rules matter.

There was a time when they also were not mine.

I too had to learn them, and I know it to be hard.

 

See here a tree filled with life,

so much nature captured in its richness.

Observe the birds, the flowers and the vine.

A Gond artist, name unknown.

Colourful you say, but little more than this?

Regard then the Madhubani walls,

see how they tell of three thousand years or more,

history though not written as you may have understood it.

Listen as the hakum calls his chant,

Mandri and kundir shape the beat as women sing

and men on stilts perform their dances.

Why now do you shake your head?

Can it be that such things fail to move you?

 

Perhaps then it is now time for rule four,

which states the need to recognise that all we hold is transitory.

Culture is that which remains when empires fade,

and all things that today we hold as civilised

will be disrupted by the passing of the generations.

In a thousand years will we still hear a Baiga Shaman’s chant?

Will the shapes and patterns of the Warli

adorn our fabrics and our walls?

And if so might they be more understood?

 

These are important questions,

you are right to ask them, right to doubt.

But let me turn your questions back to you.

In a thousand years will we still read Shakespeare?

Will Mozart and The Beatles still be played?

Will the novels of Tolstoy and Joyce,

the sculptures of Rodin and Michelangelo

and the ballets of Stravinsky still be known?

Of course, you say.

For these are the great creators of an age,

the touchstone of our civilisation.

 

I will not dispute the logic of your statement.

Indeed, this is a sentiment I am bound to share.

Your belief in the genius of these great artists is well justified.

It is to be hoped that their works will be honoured

for as long as these less celebrated,

which you see but do not yet understand

and never will until you apply rules one, two and three.

 

You say I savage the civilised,

But the boundaries of your civilisation are not mine.

 

 

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