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

Love and the Turning Seasons

Jayadeva

The twelfth-century Gīta-govinda of Jayadeva has a reputation as the last great poem in the Sanskrit language. It holds two other distinctions. First, it appears to be the first full account in poetry of Radha as Krishna’s favorite among the gopis or cowgirls of Vrindavana. Secondly, it seems to be the first historical instance of poetry written with specified ragas or musical modes assigned to its lyrics. The poem-cycle occurs in twelve cantos with twenty-four songs distributed among them, about 280 stanzas in total. It presents the love affair of Krishna and Radha as an acutely human love affair, from initial “secret desires” and urgent lovemaking to separation — nights of betrayal, mistrust, longing, feverish anguish, strange Imaginings — and finally to a consummation as spiritual as it is carnal. Jayadeva’s birthplace is uncertain — some think Orissa, some Mithila, some Bengal. Accounts make it clear he had carefully trained himself as a poet in the Sanskrit tradition, learnéd and in command of classical metrics, when he took a vow to wander as a homeless mendicant, to sleep no more than one night under any tree. On this endless pilgrimage he passed through the coastal city of Puri in Orissa State, one of India’s cardinal pilgrim destinations and home to the huge Jagannath Temple. There in Puri, the chief priest and administrator of the Jagannath Temple had a vision. In it Krishna told him that Jayadeva should marry his daughter Padmāvatī, a dancer dedicated to the temple, settle down, and compose a devotional poem of unprecedented beauty to Krishna. The result was the Gīta-govinda. At one point while composing his poem, overwhelmed that he had to write words that belonged to Krishna, Jayadeva, unable to continue, put down his stylus and went to the river to bathe. When he returned he asked for his meal. Padmāvatī exclaimed that she had already fed him. Confused, Jayadeva looked at his manuscript; the words he had felt unable to compose sat inked onto the palm-leaf page. Krishna had visited in Jayadeva’s absence and taken a hand in his own poem—then, mischievously disguised as the poet, stayed on to eat Jayadeva’s lunch. Meeting Padmāvatī wakened in Jayadeva the bedrock emotion, the rasa, of love. What had been distant accounts of spiritual grace, a familiar theme for poetry, or even a set of metaphysical abstractions, came alive in his own body: the merging of spiritual and erotic ecstasy. Under Padmāvatī’s hands Jayadeva learnt that the old tales, the yogic teachings, and the cycles of loss and longing were no far-off vision. They are tasted through one’s senses. You could say that all the metaphysics and yoga practices of India—heady, magnificent, intricate, contradictory—return in the end to a single imperative: love. I think it the genius of Radha-Krishna poetry to take the hair-splitting metaphysics of India, lift them from our easily bewildered minds, and relocate them in the glands of the human body. Krishna devotees say that in our current dark era, the Kali Yuga, not everyone can practice meditation; few can wrap their minds around subtle doctrine or follow the eight stages of yoga. Everyone can taste the desolations and ecstasies of love, though; this is where one finds Krishna. Some centuries after Jayadeva’s death, the Jagannatha Temple instituted the Gīta-govinda as its sole liturgy, with Padmāvatī’s dances performed in the sanctuary. All day and into the evening loudspeakers mounted on poles around the temple send the poem in loud song across courtyard and roof top, out to the cashew groves and semi-arid scrublands threaded by jackal and cobras.

Reviewed by Namrata Pathak

Sanskarnaama

Title: Sanskarnama
Author: Nabina Das
Publisher: I write imprint (2017)
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Of Dough, Clay and a Nation: Brewing up a Rebellion in Nabina Das’s Sanskarnama

If you have to fold
to fit in
it ain’t right

—“Shape”
By Yrsa Daley-Ward

These words, minimal, adroitly sculpted and bare, tell us about women and shapes – how women are aligned to shapes and how these shapes strikingly constrain them. Like Yrsa Daley-Ward, if a woman has an affinity towards what is ‘shapeless’ or nebulous, Nabina Das’s Sanskarnama, Poetry for Our Times, tolls similar bells. The alliance is quite daring, even bursting at the seams, though Das’s is a loud clarion call that is difficult to miss, and more so she is not always looking at the imbroglio by installing a framework of gender to flatten everything. There are vivid convergences between Das and Daley-Ward that teased me in many ways. But Das’s Sanskarnama holds me captive as it seeks to answer the number of questions it raises, a charming peculiarity that leads to the installation of more than one worldview, the onset of intriguing possibilities. The text provides you an exposition, you trace a line of thought only to realise later that you are standing at crossroads, a mesh of thoughts, rather, coagulation. Das gives you the freedom to take any route you want, to chalk out your own road map. You are that traveller-flaneur who sucks in the cityscape wholeheartedly. You let your hair loose and dance in the streets, your heels digging deep, marking your share of fragile secrets as you slip in and out of your incarnate ‘shape’.  All the while the poet takes sideways glances at you, lest you stop dabbling in the dirt, slush, mud, clay, and earth, lest you undo the primordial instincts in you, lest you cease to ‘unmake’ yourself; overall, you emerge and dissolve, and how badly you pine for this dissolution.

The burning hope in Das to configure ‘free spaces’ in a country that has otherwise gone to the ‘gau rakshaks’, the saffron-clad yogis, the conserver of our rigid ‘sanskar’ makes her test her limits to such an extent that the poet raises her fangs, spits venom, and this she does even at the risk of being branded anti-national.

Reviewed by Bhaswati Ghosh

Wayfaring

 

Title: Wayfaring
Author: Tikuli
Publisher: Leaky Book (2017)
Pages: 136

Tikuli knows her mountains well. Not only their physical scale and magnitude, but also the silence and solitude they subsume. Like mountains, she knows how to stand tall amid loneliness and rocky treacherousness. And like them, she has harnessed this solitude to distill it into something beauteous.

If solitude is nature’s essential condition, loneliness, its second cousin, is a function of being human. As Wayfaring shows, we don’t always choose loneliness; sometimes it chooses us. When it does, it’s seldom romantic and more like one’s own shadow, impossible to disown. This is Tikuli’s relationship with the pain of loneliness. Her words bear scarring anguish, and yet instead of exhausting the spirit, they nourish it. Such is the luminescence of her expressions; they betray a heart that’s gone through fire to turn into gold.


I listen to the silence of the trees
as the leaves spiral down and dance
to imaginary music along the pathway,
they cling to my worn sneakers,
my gaze follows two pairs of wings
chasing each other in the clear, blue sky [Trail]

Where she diverges from the mountains is in her movement, voluntary or not. She and her poems drift through different terrains as the section names evince: Trains, Exile poems, Remembrance, Travel, Mosaic, Acrostics, Delhi poems. The “Train” poems set the tone of this roving spirit with quickening grace. Between the span of two poems, Mist and City Metro, the scene changes from rhododendron-flanked valleys to a shopping bag laden cityscape. Even in the movement, there is a steadiness that comes with a contemplative eye, one that pauses long enough at the view out of a train window before letting it escape. The poet’s attention is equally unwavering inside the train. The Local Train is a photographic example of this and places the reader inside the packed coach of a train in motion. In Rain, a short poem, train and rain magically become one.