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A Marathi power loom worker’s poems, written to the sound of machines, have been winning awards

Why does poverty enter my house, and not that pucca house there?” asked 60-year-old Mohammad Naikavadi. “Well, my next poem is on poverty, my close friend.”

A retired loom worker from Rendal, a village in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district, Naikavadi is a rural poet with six published books. He has written close to 3,000 poems about life in the countryside on themes such as poverty, plight of workers, humanity, people’s lives, art, environment, pollution and nationalism, among others.

His book Vedna (Anguish), a collection of 65 poems, was published in 2014 by Sanmitra Prakashan, Kolhapur, and won a Karvir Sahitya Parishad Award in 2016Naikavadi has also presented a few of his poems at Akhil Bharatiya Muslim Marathi Sahitya Sammelan, an annual conference on Marathi literature, in 2011 and, again, in 2016.

“I am a poor man,” he said. “I’ve bought this register recently in which I can write my poems properly. Earlier, I used to collect the advertisement pamphlets which came in newspapers and wrote on the blank side.”

Shyam Kurale, a litterateur from Kolhapur, reviewed three of Naikavadi’s books – AamraaiJach and Gavran – in 2007. In the Marathi daily Pudhari, Kurale wrote:

“The colours, appearance and smell of the trees grown in city gardens differ from the colours, appearance and smell of the trees growing naturally in jungles. The poems from Gavran, written by Naikavadi, bring the same natural feel. You will find a variety of poems like LavaniAbhang, poems on nature, love, social issues in [this] poetry collection. The subjects, context and expressions of the poems [in Jach] are the best compositions of the poet… Aamraai is the poet’s collection of nursery rhymes, with very good subjects regarding the emotions of children. The poet has written the songs for children considering the changing world, which makes them unique.”

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Book Review: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing, Ed. Andrew Schelling

Reviewed by Bhaswati Ghosh

Love and the Turning Seasons

Title: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing
Edited by Andrew Schelling
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: 294
Price: ₹399

 

I left shame behind,

took as an ornament
the mockery of local folk.
Unswerving, I lost my cleverness
in the bewilderment of ecstasy.

— Manikkavacakar (9thcentury), Tr. A.K. Ramanujan

 

In a lover’s enraptured world, love is the breeze that strips one, quite simply, of the garment of shame. In reading Love and the Turning Seasons, the newest offering from Aleph Classics, a series that aims to bring new translations of India’s literary heritage, the reader is swept in that denuding breeze. Edited by Andrew Schelling, the collection of poems bears the slightly beguiling subtitle, India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing. I say beguiling because it would seem like the poems could fall in either category – spiritual or erotic. In reality, as Manikkavacakar, the ninth-century Shiva devotee tells us, the line between the two states is as diaphanous as air itself. For, in the “bewilderment of ecstasy”, who is left to distinguish between the flesh and the spirit? This seamless merging of the body and the soul is at the heart of this anthology of bhakti poetry, translated by various poets and literary translators.

Love and the Turning Seasons alights upon the reader as a songbird to take her across time and space – from the sixth century (barring the Isa Upanishad) right up to the twentieth, on an anticlockwise path beginning in the south of India and ending in the east. Despite the multiplicity of expressions of the bhaktas or poet-minstrels, informed as they were by specific cultural and regional parlance, what unifies them is their rejection of societal norms in their unwavering quest for the divine. These were among the first true radicals in the Indian context, repudiating, with delightful contempt, tradition and convention. Gender-bending, caste-subverting, these individuals lived and (even) died on their own terms and sang of the divine with ariose abandonment. As Lal Ded, another Shiva devotee from Kashmir said,


Who instructed you, O Brahmin,
to cut this sheep’s throat—
to placate a lifeless stone?

— Lal Ded (early 1300s), Tr. Andrew Schelling

 

The Sanskrit word bhakti means devotion and has come to connote intense, even blind idolatry, and in these troublingly skewed times, bhakta (devotee) has become a bad word, an uncomplimentary term for blind followers of certain ideologies, political or otherwise. As the anthology affirms through its diverse voices, the bhakti poets were anything but blind in their devotion. They questioned, complained to and even castigated the deity who had their undivided attention. Mirabai, the 16th-century Rajput princess-queen who left her life of royal luxury for the “only man” she knew, the dark-complexioned Krishna, echoes the candid spiritual eroticism of 12th-century Mahādēviyakka from Karnataka, when she says,


Dark One,
how can I sleep?
Since you left my bed
the seconds drag past like epochs,
each moment
a new torrent of pain.

— Mirabai (16thcentury), Tr. Andrew Schelling

Nearly two hundred years since Mirabai, Ramprasad Sen takes issue with his mother deity, goddess Kali, in a manner of ninda-stuti, which, as the annotation following his section in the book, defines as “praise in the form of abusive reproach”. Ramprasad approaches Kali as an errant child who, despite all his wrongdoing, must be comforted by the Mother. He doesn’t stop there but goes on to remind the goddess that she must deliver him for the sake of her own reputation. For there could be many


Bad children, but who ever heard
Of a bad mother?

— Ramprasad Sen (18thcentury), Tr. Leonard Nathan and Clinton Seely

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When a language dies, something irreplaceable dies: Ganesh N. Devy

The scholar’s quest to document languages began as an intellectual one but went on to take a strong emotional turn

“I’m this angry person,” Ganesh N. Devy tells my photographer colleague, but his eyes are mild, and what might be a smile touches the corners of his lips. If the scholar is indeed ever upset about anything, it rarely shows. All through our conversation, on the lawns of a Goa conference centre where, the next day, he is to speak about murdered journalist Gauri Lankesh, his voice does not rise above a conversational tone, his expression stays genial.

I begin by asking the literary critic and linguist about his academic journey and his evolution into a public intellectual. Devy tells me he dropped out of his first attempt at college because “everything happened in English, and I did not understand all of it properly, I felt inadequate.” He had read in Marathi, but not in English, which he could write but hadn’t spoken. He moved to Goa and did manual work before giving higher education another shot.

There’s a little story about how he turned his weakness — the lack of familiarity with English — into a strength. (He has a B.A. in English literature, two M.A.s and a Ph.D., and was professor of English literature at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda.) As a 17-year-old, he chanced upon a book by Nobel prize-winning writer Pearl S. Buck — The Good Earth. “I found I could actually understand it fully. With the help of a dictionary, I read two or three other books. Then I decided I like literature, enjoy it. I found my natural inclination.” He then decided to read at least 200 to 300 pages every day. “Even if it took eight or 10 or 12 hours. Even on the day I got married, I read my quota. I continued without any exception for the next 25 years, till I was 42.” Then, he won a Sahitya Akademi Award, for After Amnesia, a book in English, “I said to myself, now I do not have to learn any more English. I decided not to read books at all.” He says he covered most of the literature worth reading in those 25 years, and now only reads challenging books: something disturbing or highly philosophical, some obscure book.

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