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THE INWARD EYE - Only Kabir's name can stand for India's vast poetic traditions

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By Ananya Vajpeyi The author is Assistant Professor of History, University of Massachusetts, Boston
  • Published 27.06.11

I grew up in Delhi in the 1980s, before economic liberalization and the rise of the Hindu Right. In my parents’ small household, poetry filled our lives: my father, Kailash Vajpeyi, wrote it, both he and my mother taught in literature departments at the university, books overran the house, and writers and artists were daily visitors. The practice of reciting poetry in public gatherings, the kavi sammelan, was still very much alive. My mother and I often accompanied my father to these well-attended events, where his baritone voice and striking looks as much as his always surprising verse made him a star among his peers. Besides writing, his constant preoccupation, and his somewhat reluctant participation in academia, he also had a busy parallel career in radio and television. He would recite poems and interview fellow poets on All India Radio and on Doordarshan: people, perfect strangers, would invariably recognize him by his face, voice or words.

Consequently, I can claim to know Kabir and Meera from the time I learned my father’s language, Hindi. Long afternoons, I recall, while my mother was away teaching her classes and my father and I were home after school, he would play LP records and later audio cassettes of M.S. Subbulakshmi and Kumar Gandharva, music which at the time, I belatedly realize, must have been fairly new. I knew their repertoires by heart, simply because they were played in the house or sung later by my father, in his soaring, melodious and untrained voice. Many times when the music was on he appeared to be taking a nap, but neither the songs nor my childish play seemed to disturb him. Now I think that as he lay there, still and with his eyes closed, the ambient sounds of Kumar, of Kabir and of me, his only child, constituted for him a kind of perfect repose, a charging of his creative batteries. As he got older, critics wrote of his poems that they had in them the cadences of the bhakti poets, the edge of Kabir, Sufi motifs, the obsession with mortality and transcendence that is the hallmark of Indian metaphysical traditions.

During my long childhood with my parents, in the haven of poetry they had somehow managed to construct in the middle of a busy and burgeoning city, I had heard also of one Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, a maverick poet who lived in Allahabad and wrote in English. I knew of Allahabad because that was the place associated with Harivansh Rai Bachchan, the older Hindi poet who had first helped my father to find his feet in Delhi in the early 1960s, and who, together with his wife Teji, had acted in loco parentis for my Brahmin father at his — at the time rather controversial — wedding to my Sikh mother. Sepia photos show my gangly father, all bushy brows and pencil-thin suit, with eyes like razor blades, sitting awkwardly wearing a sehra, a turban decorated with flowers, flanked on either side by the senior Bachchans, waiting to be married. My mother — large-eyed, silken-haired, shy — is so young she seems now like a child-bride, though she had her first job as a college lecturer. Allahabad was written into the founding myth of my parents’ matrimony. Like Lucknow, it is also a city in Uttar Pradesh that is overrun by my paternal relatives, denizens of Kannauj, they claim, for centuries, ensconced in this heartland of Hindustan with their characteristic mix of high erudition, genteel poverty, political perspicacity, crackling diction, and scorn for one and all.

When I met Mehrotra then, for the first time in 2010 at the Jaipur Literary Festival, I felt as though I was meeting an old friend of my parents. His beautiful memoir-essay, “Partial Recall” (1994), filled out mid-century Allahabad, a city I have yet to visit, to the utmost satisfaction of one’s literary imagination, describing his closest friends of early youth, Alok and Amit Rai, grandsons of none other than Premchand, the giant of modern Hindi letters. As I read Mehrotra’s new translation of Kabir’s poems — Songs of Kabir — prefaced by Wendy Doniger (one of my teachers at the University of Chicago), I feel an intimacy with this work at every level — with the poet, his translator, the scholar introducing the volume, and most importantly, the poetry that I have known all my life, as words or music, and as my father’s legacy.

Kabir for me conjures up the great multilingual chain of India’s poets, from Valmiki to Kalidasa to Tagore. He transports me to Banaras, a city of Sanskrit seminaries that has throughout the ages both drawn and persecuted the most talented Brahmins, from Tulsidas to Hazariprasad Dwivedi to Pankaj Mishra. He takes me into the fascinating vernacular domains of singers like Prahlad Tipanya, whose ceaseless journeys are so marvellously documented by the filmmaker, Shabnam Virmani. He opens the door to the complex anthropological worlds of Banaras, meticulously detailed by Nita Kumar, Philip Lutgendorf and Jonathan Parry, among others, and to its literary and intellectual history, as reconstructed by Namvar Singh, Purushottam Aggarwal, Vasudha Dalmia and Sheldon Pollock. The subtle, truant poetry of Kabir continually energizes Hindustani vocal music — from Bhimsen Joshi, to Kumar Gandharva, to Chhannulal Mishra, to Madhup Mudgal.

Before cable TV changed the game, my father made a couple of long TV documentaries about Kabir’s life, legend and oeuvre. His own poetry in the past two decades has moved ever closer to the brevity and unexpectedness, the incandescent insight of Kabir: what Kabir’s followers have always known as the “Wound of the Word”. Like Kabir, his poems resist translation. Even Tagore’s attempt, One Hundred Poems of Kabir (1914), a poet’s effort, just like Mehrotra’s own, found Kabir recalcitrant. (Linda Hess’s labour of love, The Bijak of Kabir, 1983, goes further than Tagore.) Kabir’s images, and the language in which they were made, were so mutually constitutive as to be inseparable. My father, evidently, hears his distant poetic ancestor with a mysterious clarity: a testament to the modernity of Kabir, to his being, always, contemporary. My father has not translated Kabir in a strict sense, but the sturdy, clean lines carry him across, a boat to ford a river in flood.

As Mehrotra’s powerful poems — more renditions than translations — remind us, Kabir is beyond traditions, histories, ethnographies and interpretations. He was everything that no so-called “classical” lineage would accept: an outcaste, a working weaver, a Muslim — and yet if one name can stand in for India’s vast poetic tradition today, it is Kabir. His capacity to startle and awaken his reader is undiminished after almost 600 years and an intractable proliferation of poems bearing his signature that can be found in dozens of India’s languages, dialects and regional worlds. Four decades of reflecting on and playing with Kabir’s language, Mehrotra admits, have gone into this slim little book, replete with epiphanies, reversals and metaphors that can only come, to poet and translator alike, from that silent sky between words where meaning resides.

Kabir’s poems, audaciously looking Time in the eye, intolerant of hypocrisy, outwitting any attempt at political appropriation, for me are a time-machine back to my childhood, when, holding my father’s hand, humming along with his eclectic songs, I thoughtlessly played with the silver coin, whose one face is poetry and the other, truth. Mehrotra does not merely translate Kabir into English: like countless nameless poets over the ages, he remakes Kabir into a contemporary, someone who is always near, unafraid of “Deathville”, inhabitant of “Fearlessburg”, laughing at us.

I beat on your door/ Out of fear./

I wasn’t yet born,/ I was in the womb,/ When a great sadness/ Came over me.

It hasn’t left me since./ It’s with me now/ When I’m old and infirm/ And time shakes me by the hair.

Time strikes the drum.

I’ve nowhere to turn,/ Says Kabir, let me in.

(Songs of Kabir, p. 65)