Pras Prakashan edition of Kolatkar’s Marathi poems
Translation as Literary Activism: On Invisibility and Exposure, Arun Kolatkar and the Little Magazine ‘Conspiracy’
I would like to evoke the extraordinary work, life, and career of the bilingual English-Marathi poet Arun Kolatkar (1931-2004) and of his generation of poets, writers, publishers, and artists who started producing their work in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly in Bombay, and which I designate here as the little magazine ‘conspiracy’.1 This conspiracy raises important questions about the ways in which literature finds its readers and travels, is valuated, publicized, and mediated; on how writers themselves are perhaps the best literary activists of each other’s work; and on the contradictions in which many writers – especially postcolonial writers who are supposed to aim at breaking into ‘World Lit’ or at being ‘consecrated’ by the centre – find themselves. This discussion may also highlight a certain tension between the extreme visibility required of writers-performers and writers-as-communicators today, and the anonymity where poetry – perhaps more than the novel, which has become the marketable flagship genre of world literature – can sustain itself.
Kolatkar and the little magazine ‘conspiracy’ of which he was part reveal that chance encounters, a craft that is patiently honed, and resolutely anticommercial, underground creativity can still lie at the heart of literature and of its discovery and valuation. They also show that eccentricity or marginality is not just a predicament of literary production. These can become conditions of creativity, and even worldliness when minority is articulated ‘across and alongside communities of difference’, in acts of affiliation and activism that transcend boundaries of space, time, and language.2
Arun Kolatkar chose, in a sense, to remain a ‘missing person’, shunning publishers and publicity, disappearing completely behind – and in the interest of – the poems he wrote, to the point that the publication and thereby also the sale and appreciation of his work did not seem to be important to him.3 Like other poets of this generation, he was also an extraordinary translator, especially of the Marathi devotional bhakti repertoire, and of poet-composers such as Tukaram, Janabai, or Namdev, whom he said he found fantastic and wanted other people to know about. It is this connection between the desire to give voice to others or not dissociate one’s own words from the words of other writers, and the cultivation of a certain invisibility that I would like to explore here, bearing in mind that, as A.K. Ramanujan suggested, drawing on Bakhtin, ‘without the other, there is no language for the self’.4 Literary activism, and translation as literary activism, may be understood along these lines. That is also what prompted me to work on Kolatkar and translate him into French. It seemed imperative to make visible and audible this poetry, not as a specimen of a literature that was identifiably ‘Indian’, but simply as fantastic world poetry, far less spectacularly different than Indian literatures are often made out to be outside India: a voice of the other which is also a voice for the self.
Arun Kolatkar studied fine arts in Bombay, then turned unapologetically to commercial art to become an advertising legend. ‘I’m god’s gift to advertising’ is a line that appears in his mock-picaresque poem ‘today i feel i do not belong’. He worked as a graphic artist, visualizer, and art and creative director for different agencies, including MCM (Mass Communication and Marketing), the company that is said to have revolutionized Indian advertising during the 1960s. MCM was set up by Kersy Katrak, creative maverick, close friend, and fellow poet of Kolatkar, who is described by Katrak as ‘a one-man agency’ suffering from an ‘acute case of awarditis’. Kolatkar was obviously acutely aware of the importance of visuals and visibility, of profit-making and image-making, and of the whole business of selling and promoting goods, including books.
And yet, in spite of a long career in advertising, Kolatkar was exceptionally wary of public attention. In his unpublished papers, he expresses horror at having to stand up in a crowd or make speeches, and recalls the sleepless nights he spent trying to think of ways of getting out of the few public situations he found himself in, ‘with his speechlessness intact’. He shunned interviews, conferences, and festivals, and was invariably described as reclusive, secretive, or inscrutable by critics, journalists, and acquaintances. His absolute reluctance to stand in the spotlight was matched by a stubborn cultivation of the same elementary, and in part private, space. He hated travelling, lived the last thirty years of his life in a one-room apartment in Bombay without telephone or television, and most of the money he had earned from advertising or awards was spent on books. He was stubbornly pacing and probing the one same spot: his little corner of South Bombay around which his 2004 collection, Kala Ghoda Poems, revolves and where the Wayside Inn (a café he frequented most days of the week) was situated; the space of his poems and of the translations he wrote and re-wrote for years; and the space of friendship, with a tight circle of close friends, many of whom were instrumental in the writing and the publishing of his poetry.5
When Kolatkar died in 2004, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra called him India’s best-kept literary secret and its unseen genius. Kolatkar published little; until the last year of his life, most of his poems appeared in journals, short-lived little magazines in English and Marathi, and anthologies. His work has long been very difficult to find, and a lot of it remains in boxes. ‘A poet is under no obligation to stop writing just because he is buried,’ warns Kolatkar in a mischievous, Pessoa-like comment: ‘my best is yet to come / I’ve laid by enough supply of writing materials / in my burial chamber / to last me an eternity.’ In an unpublished version of the same text, which takes the form of a mock speech Kolatkar wrote, but never gave, for the Bank of India award he won in 1999, he adds ironically: ‘i still can’t get over the fact / that a bank is honouring a poet / this evening / aren’t they supposed to be irreconcilable opposites / if not traditional enemies.’6 If the poet acknowledged that he never sought a publisher or signed a publishing contract in his life, he also declined several offers from Oxford University Press and Penguin Books. But he was less averse to publishing per se than to publishing as business – that is, to mixing literature with uniform, undifferentiated mass-market considerations, and to confusing particular readers and familiar listeners with a mass audience.
If some collections did appear, it is largely thanks to his close friends, such as his publisher Ashok Shahane, who pioneered the little magazine movement in Marathi and started the small press Pras Prakashan to publish Kolatkar’s first Marathi collection Arun Kolatkarchya Kavita in 1977, but also Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Adil Jussawalla, who set up the independent publishing co-operative Clearing House with the poet Gieve Patel and Kolatkar. In 1976, Clearing House brought out Jejuri, Kolatkar’s first collection in English. ‘I waited twenty years to publish,’ Kolatkar once declared. ‘Without Clearing House, I could probably have waited for another ten or twenty years’.7 In fact, he did not publish another collection for almost thirty years, until the last year of his life, when his friends who knew that he was dying from cancer persuaded him to do so. Probably no other modern Indian writer has benefited from the activism of fellow writers who believed unconditionally in the value of his work and continue to make sure that it is read and travels.8
Yet Kolatkar’s apparent carelessness towards the publication of his poetry (some of his manuscripts were given away, lost, then rewritten), and seemingly total indifference to recognition, fame, or visibility is more ambivalent than may seem at first glance, and partly deceptive.
Again and again, in the few interviews he gave reluctantly during his lifetime, Kolatkar expressed his aversion to talking about himself or to discussing his work, suggesting that the only personal statement he knew how to make was to write a poem. As some of the following declarations reveal, there is something of Bartleby the scrivener in the poet. ‘I can leave a whole lot of questions about life in a sort of suspended animation’; ‘my specialty is not having opinions, to be vacuous, inane, opinion-free!’; ‘I don’t disagree or vehemently agree with personal reactions’; ‘Indecisiveness is my nature, lots of things I can’t make up my mind about, whether politics, economics or poetry’. Asked if he believed in God in the course of an interview, he gives a characteristic answer: ‘Oh, I cannot say. I leave the question alone. I don’t think I have to take a position about God one way or the other.’ And in his unpublished papers, he writes: ‘I’m sure there’s a place for / need of someone like me / in any forum seminar / that a vacancy exists / for someone who refuses to make a statement.’9
Kolatkar undoubtedly preferred the listener-observer position of withdrawal, the wayside and oblique angle, to the position of speaker who takes centre stage, imposes a point of view, or provides definite answers. This is also perceptible in his poetry. Kolatkar writes in an anti-spectacular, anti-style idiom that stretches poetry to the limit. He also writes anti-discursive poems that do not demonstrate anything, but constantly invite us to look or watch out for the seemingly worthless and unspectacular. Things or people are never labelled or defined once and for all. The poet gives them space and time to surface from the unknown. ‘I keep my ideas and attitudes in a limbo, in suspension, without firming them up, so that when I write, I feel free,’ he acknowledged in a 2004 interview with Gowri Ramnarayan. Poems seemed to require that kind of suspension, both to write and to receive. And I would suggest that at the root of Kolatkar’s ambivalence towards publication and publicity is his aversion to all the middlemen of literature, the professional publishers, critics, and academics. This may also explain why he was ferociously opposed to disclosing any kind of biographical details and never suffered notes or introductions for his collections. Nothing was to stand in the way of his poems, not even the poet. They had to speak for themselves.
And yet, in spite of his Salinger-like reputation for remaining in hiding (the expression was the poet Dilip Chitre’s), Kolatkar did not hide. Anyone who wanted to talk to him could come to the Wayside Inn café in Kala Ghoda. You could in fact consider that he remained exceptionally accessible and visible throughout his life. What’s more, Arun Kolatkar was certainly not careless about his poems. In fact, if he published so little, it’s also because his poems had a huge gestation period. The poet worked on them continuously, going back to each piece again and again, not satisfied until he had been able to ‘breathe life’ into them, and probably seldom satisfied. In an unpublished passage from his papers, Kolatkar reflects on the practice of writing and translating, suggesting that a poem may disintegrate or come apart in your hands as soon as you start translating it, leaving you with a corpse, a dead poem. ‘I like a poem / sturdy / that can take my full weight / give me / a poem i can stand on / a poem i can jump on’.10 The publications of the two small publishing collectives in which he was involved, Pras Prakashan and Clearing House, were designed by him and his friends with a stubborn attention to the minutest detail, from cover and paper to layout and typescript. Each book, especially those printed by Pras Prakashan, was worked out individually from the content itself and did not conform to standardized editorial or publishing constraints (the bindings were without titles, the text remained unjustified, the height and width of the page was calculated according to the number and length of the lines, etc.). Publishing was meant to be a craft and a collective experiment.
If the word ‘conspiracy’ to describe Kolatkar and friends seems appropriate, it’s because poets worked collectively to form underground and dissenting enterprises. After the great pitched battles of Romanticism, ‘poetry retreated underground: clandestine war, conspiracy in the catacombs’, wrote Octavio Paz.11 And in the short preface he wrote for an anthology of three poets published in 1978 by a small new publishing press modelled on Clearing House called Newground, Adil Jussawalla makes the following illuminating comments:
The poet is the most conspiratorial of artists. No other artist is privileged to enter another person’s mind so invisibly. Poems… do without publishers for years, as novels can’t… Spoken or read, they require merely our confidence to receive them… It is perhaps for this reason that neither readers of poetry nor poets are unduly discouraged when the expected intermediary between them fails to materialize. I mean the publisher. ‘Poetry doesn’t sell’… We have heard it before and are not impressed. We simply re-strengthen the traditional link between poet and reader and listener: the direct, the conspiratorial link… The extent to which they [the poets] have relied on themselves to find their readers has gone unremarked… My intention is really to show that the phenomenon of poets publishing themselves and other poets is not a secondary feature of Indian publishing, but the chief one. We are not and never have been the poor cousins of big publishers. We have been the only means by which poetry has been kept alive while the big publishers slept… Welcome to the conspiracy.12
Most of the poets who started writing during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s have spoken of their hostile anti-literary surroundings and of their fierce despair in a culture of shortages: shortage of critical space and recognition, shortage of critics, readers, and historians of literature, shortage of publishers and editors. ‘Nobody wants to see you’, a line initially taken from a song composed by Arun Kolatkar, was the name given by Adil Jussawalla and Eunice de Souza to a poetryreading they had organized at St. Xavier’s College in the early 1970s with Kolatkar, Gieve Patel, Dilip Chitre, and Kersy Katrak. This feeling of neglect was no doubt heightened by the fact that many of these poets wrote in English. In a 1972 article published in the student periodical The Campus Times, Adil Jussawalla talks about Indian writers in English as being the ‘living acid’ that can eat the ‘purdah’ of English away; but he also likens them to missing persons and invisible men.13 And when Arvind Krishna Mehrotra started writing poetry and editing little magazines in English from Allahabad and Bombay in the 1960s (damn you: a magazine of the arts, ezra: an imagist magazine, and fakir), ‘anything in the colonial language was a red rag to a bull’.14 It is crucial here to keep in mind that although English is commonly understood to be the language of prestige, privilege, or ‘World Lit’, it can also be considered to be the language of marginality and ‘outsidedness’ whose practitioners are constantly criticized in India for writing in an ‘inauthentic’ or alien tongue, for being illegitimate, un-Indian, if not anti-national.15 In 1977, the title ‘The Poet as an Outcast’ was given to an inter view with Adil Jussawalla on the subject of Clearing House. Forty years later, the metaphor has been updated, but the diagnosis remains the same, and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, with characteristic irony, talks about Indian poets in English as the ‘LGBT community of Indian Literature’.16
As Raymond Williams has shown in an altogether different context, modern writers who had broken from mainstream institutions and inherited communities to practise their art in the metropolis found the only community available to them was ‘a community of the medium, of their own practices’.17 That is precisely the community that poets of Kolatkar’s generation created and cultivated. Ignored by mainstream publishers and forced to practise their art in a hostile or indifferent environment, they depended only on themselves and on each other. As a long and frantic sequence from Kolatkar’s unpublished diary of the early 1960s reveals, the poet was acutely aware of the logic of competition, which is the logic of both the marketplace and advertising, but is also the logic which governs mainstream publishing:18 ‘COMPETITION BETWEEN two dogs for a bitch, / two dâdâs for the title … two artists for a commission, / two prostitutes for customers,… two contractors for a construction / … Two poets for an encore / Two taxi boys for the tip / Two undertakers for a corpse / Two inventors for a patent / Two doctors for a patient / … Two banks for more clients / Two ad agencies for an account … Two builders for a brick / two whores for a prick / two churches for a soul / two actors for a role / two climbers for a peak / two showmen for a freak.’ In contrast, the dedications of some of these collections demonstrate that poets conspicuously turned their back on the logic of competition (which condemned them to invisibility) to work and publish together.19
They created small presses and short-lived, often unpriced, cyclostyled or mimeographed little magazines where they cleared a space for themselves collectively. Putting their own resources, contacts or talents, and often their own personal money, into these publishing ventures, they became the editors, critics, anthologists, designers, and basically the promoters or activists of each other’s work. In her entry for an anthology of Indian women poets, Eunice de Souza reveals the extraordinary network of solidarities that made the publication of her first collection possible. The inherited – and hostile – community in which the poet was born (a community as filiation) is replaced by a close-knit conspiracy of poets (a community as affiliation).
Several poets co-operated in the publication of Fix, Eunice de Souza’s first book. Newground, the co-operative started by Melanie Silgardo, Raul d’ Gama Rose and Santan Rodrigues published it, Arun Kolatkar designed the cover, A. D. Hope and Adil Jussawalla provided the blurbs, and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Saleem Peeradina, Kersey Katrak and Jussawalla reviewed it. Several members of de Souza’s community saw Fix as a betrayal. Some of de Souza’s students told her that the book had been denounced from the pulpit at St Peter’s in Bandra. Adil Jussawalla assured her that if she continued the same way, she would be denounced at St Peter’s in Rome.20
By passing all middlemen and gatekeepers of literature, writers were also able to exert total control over the production of their books, and often worked with visual artists. The eight Clearing House collections, with their distinctly square format and extraordinary covers, all designed by Arun Kolatkar, bear witness to this impeccable design. If many little magazines of the period had a rough, handmade, sometimes handwritten and ‘DIY’ appearance, some of them are also real works of art, such as Vrishchik , a little magazine started from Baroda in 1969 by the two celebrated visual artists Gulammohammed Sheikh and Bhupen Khakhar, and in the pages of which poets such as Adil Jussawalla, Gieve Patel, Eunice de Souza, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, or Arun Kolatkar were published.
Little magazines abolished the frontiers between ‘high’ and ‘low’, art and non-art, art and the ‘street’, and they expressed the art of a subculture. Explicitly directed against dominant trends and institutions, they also fashioned what the art critic Geeta Kapur has called ‘signatures of dissent’.21 In that sense, these poets were not simply marginalized from the linguistic, cultural, and publishing mainstream. They also chose to write from the margin and from the ‘outside’, challenging the elitism, academism, and apathy of the art and literary worlds. ‘Who were we saying Damn you (or Fuck you) to? To the World at large, but perhaps more specifically, if unconsciously to the Angrezi Hatao Hindi Mob,’ writes Mehrotra.22 On the cover of damn you 5, the magazine is described as: ‘the only platform offered by a bitchedup society from where you can really howl.’ On another cover of damn you, the following words are scribbled: ‘despite discouragement, uneven sales, opposition, financial catastrophes, frond, etcetera, the ezra-fakir press continues & joins Vachel Lindsay in saying: if I cannot beat the system, I can die protesting.’ The cover of the first issue of Contra 66, an art magazine edited by artist J. Swaminathan from Delhi in 1966-67, boasted the following quotation: ‘art and liberty like the fire of Prometheus are things that one must steal, to be used against the established order,’ and the cover of its last issue quote the words of dissident Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin: ‘there can be no real literature only when it is created not by executives and reliable civil servants but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers and sceptics.’ This signature of defiant ‘outsidedness’ is, as I have shown elsewhere, a dominant feature of this literary conspiracy.23
Yet it is crucial to observe that the conspiracy was both created locally, through small publishing ventures in Bombay (but also Baroda, Delhi, Calcutta, Allahabad, and other Indian cities), and internationally, since many Indian poets felt they belonged to the international small press movement and to the counterculture of the times. If the little magazines served as forums or platforms for a lot of artists to clear a space for themselves and connect with each other across the regional and linguistic boundaries of India, they also served to stage, through the publication of letters, reviews, and translations, their affiliations across time and space, ‘East’ and ‘West’. Indian little magazines were exchanged with similar anti-establishment publications in the West, especially with American little magazines. New Directions and City Lights publications were widely read. In damn you 4, the readers are asked to ‘smuggle’ the journal into all the countries of the world! In the course of a personal conversation in Bombay, Ashok Shahane also remembered how the only available copy of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, which Sham Lal, the Times of India editor had in his possession, was circulated clandestinely among Bombay writers in the 1960s. In the pages of Vrishchik, damn you, ezra, Contra 66, Dionysus, Tornado, and the many little magazines in Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, and other regional languages, such as Aso and Shabda in Marathi with which Arun Kolatkar and Ashok Shahane were deeply involved, you find texts by Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, Apollinaire, Hans Arp, André Breton, Octavio Paz, Howard McCord, but also letters by American GIs protesting the war in Vietnam, or excerpts from letters written by Eric Oatman, the editor of Manhattan Review. The eccentricity of this little magazine Indian conspiracy was everything but provincial.24 Although most of these writers were anonymous and marginalized figures, and although many are still, to a large extent, part of what Margaret Cohen and Franco Moretti after her call ‘The Great Unread’, these poets were worldly from the very start.25 In fact, as I suggested at the beginning of this essay, their marginality also accounts for their creativity and their worldliness. It gave them the freedom to invent themselves, unburdened by many of the national conditionings and anxieties, to align themselves with other subcultures across the world and with each other. Homi Bhabha makes a similar kind of diagnosis in a conversation with Susan S. Bean about the art world in South Bombay during the 1960s and 1970s which he remembers as very small but also, precisely for that reason, as extraordinarily intense and interactive: ‘I have a pet theory that one reason for such intellectual freedom and energy is that there was no art market worth speaking of. Artists didn’t have to keep on claiming their authenticity, originality or marketability; they could explore what they wanted to explore.’26
As the cool and brash statements made by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra in the pages of his little magazines demonstrate, these poets also seemed absolutely confident on the value of their work: ‘You like it or lump it.’(ezra 1) This spirit lives on today in Ashok Shahane. During the course of a personal conversation in Bombay, he shared his experience in dealing with American universities, when he was asked to send several copies of Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems to the United States. Shahane was first made to fill out a ten- or fifteen-page contract. Never again, he said: ‘Americans have to qualify to read Kolatkar!’ – and it’s certainly not Kolatkar who needs to qualify to be read by Americans.
These poets seemed to be creating a world of their own, with their own standards and audience, however limited.27 They did not need the market or the public to know that their work was outstanding. If Kolatkar certainly bore a resemblance to the description that the New Directions founder James Laughlin drew of Pound: ‘He seemed quite content if something he had written and given to some obscure magazine reached the eyes and beans of twenty-seven readers, if they were the right readers,’ it’s also because he had all the recognition he really cared for.28 Literary value was bestowed to him by his close friends in Bombay, to whom he would often read out his poems, but also by a larger community and fraternity of deceased poets. The conspiracy extends beyond spatial and temporal boundaries. ‘Orpheus exploded and broke up the nationalities so wide that they now include all nations, the dead and the living’ is a line by Marina Tsvetaeva which Kolatkar quoted in the text ‘Making Love to a Poem’. And in a moving passage from his unpublished papers, Kolatkar writes: ‘All good poets when they die / go to heaven … and from wherever they are / it may be / they are watching over me / i feel they are right here now / listening to every word i say / i feel their collective presence in the air / … i write for their combined eye / for the collective ear / heine blake mandelstam appolinaire baudelaire vallejo catullus villon tufu kabir tukaram they’re all there.’
Translation became a way for Kolatkar and for poets of his generation, so many of whom are translators of precolonial and especially devotional traditions in the vernaculars, to recreate a collective . In fact, the little magazines of the 1960s and 1970s were, at the same time, publishing the most modernist and contemporary texts, and their translations of bhakti compositions. But many poets took as much time to publish their own collections of poems as they did to publish their translations in book form. A.K. Ramanujan began his translations of the Kannada vacanas in 1952 and published them in 1973 (Speaking of Shiva); Dilip Chitre started translating Tukaram in the 1960s and published Says Tuka in 1991; Mehrotra started his Kabir translations in the early 1970s and published them in 2011 (Songs of Kabir); Gieve Patel started translating the seventeenth-century Gujarati poet Akho in the late 1960s and his translations have yet to be published. That also means that their practice of writing their ‘own’ poems and of translating other poets’/ composers’ texts was absolutely simultaneous, that their words were enabled by the words of others, and that their poetry was, to a large extent, born in translation.
Translation also became a means to engage in a conversation with poets of the past, to make them present, and given the ‘culture of shortages’ diagnosed by so many Indian writers, to create literary value by placing their own poetry in a literary genealogy which Arvind Krishna Mehrotra likens to a ‘tapestry’ or an ‘anthill’.29 Through translation, poets choose their neighbours in the ‘heaven’ where all good poets go and select the members of their fraternity-conspiracy. Like the little magazines and small presses, translation is meant to forge affiliations and connections, to assert bonds of kinship, and to clear a space, however minor or marginal, for themselves and their predecessors – who are turned into contemporaries by the process of translation itself. Kolatkar, who read Tukaram, Namdeo, Dnyaneshwar, and Janabai constantly, also knew hundreds of abhangs (devotional songs) by heart, and would often say that he saw no point in publishing his own poetry if Tukaram’s remained unpublished. ‘To lose sight of another man’s work is to lose sight of one’s own,’ acknowledged Mehrotra.30
The only acceptable ‘middleman’, in a sense, becomes translation. But as the translating practice of some of these poets reveals, the distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other’ disintegrates. Kolatkar in particular kept confusing the words of others with his own, and claimed that he wanted ‘to create such confusion’ that nobody could be sure about what Tukaram wrote, and what he did (‘Making Love to a Poem’). He also mischievously inverses the habitual process of plagiarism, by taking up the challenge of passing off his own poems as Tukaram’s: ‘I’m not gonna pan off your poems as mine… I’ll try to pass off mine as yours.’ As a bilingual writer in English and in Marathi, Kolatkar often worked on the same poem in the two languages simultaneously. He also kept ‘translating’ himself from one language to the other, but revelled in covering his linguistic tracks and constantly blurred the line between what comes ‘first’ or ‘second’, between the ‘original’ text and its subsequent variations.
Bhakti poet-composers are reinterpreted as marginal and iconoclast figures, engaged in a countercultural movement of sorts. Bhakti seemed to appeal to the little magazine conspiracy because these poet-devotees addressed themselves directly to God and brushed aside all mediations and middlemen of the sacred (rituals, Brahmins, Scriptures, Sanskrit, etc.) and of their songs. Anyone can reach God, anyone can talk to him, anyone can become a poet, and any language is appropriate. Bhakti also represented the exteriorisation of a collective tradition. Images of bhakti are associated with acts of sharing, writes Christian Lee Novetzke, who suggests that bhakti can be translated as ‘commensality’.31 The signature line (‘Says Tuka,’ or ‘Kabir says’, for instance) that appears at the end of bhakti compositions that have been transmitted at different periods in time and by various disciples, served to federate a plurality of authors. These ‘signatures of dissent’ are also signatures of belonging. ‘Tuka’, in the contemporary translations of Indian poets, is both Tukaram and Kolatkar, and ‘Kabir’ is both Kabir and Mehrotra. Contemporary poets, using forms that precede their poetry, dissolve into the collective, and into a socio-textual community whose repertoire doesn’t belong to anybody and cannot be linked to a singular author or to an original Ur-text.
The anonymity cultivated by some Indian poets like Kolatkar may also be understood along those lines. ‘I feel that the less of my personality comes into the poem, the better. So in that sense, doesn’t one choose to be a missing person?… I am very attracted to the earlier concepts of the artist as craftsman in Hindu society … You’re anonymous and the work stays. And I really would be very happy if I saw someone reading a poem or reading it out loud in my presence, without knowing that I have written it,’ Adil Jussawalla acknowledged in an interview.32 Kolatkar also seemed to recognize himself in the figure of the craftsman and anonymous folk singer. He may even have had the secret dream of recycling his poems into common speech, like Tukaram, whose compositions have shaped Marathi language to the extent that some of his lines have been incorporated into everyday Marathi. The epigraph that opens his voluminous collection in Marathi, Bhijki Vahi (Mumbai: Pras Prakashan, 2003), reveals that Kolatkar might have aimed at such a dissolution, which is also an indication of dissemination: ‘Let the paper dissolve, words dissolve in water. Let water be drunk by the cows, then when you milk the cows, poetry will be in it.’
By making these devotional voices in Hindi, Marathi, and other vernaculars into contemporary voices, by renewing them through the English language, through the Zeitgeist of the 1960s, through folk music, and through European or American writers such as William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, or André Breton, these poets also show that the possibility to ‘resurrect’ may be one of the defining characteristics of a work of literature. ‘What distinguishes a literary work from a book that is merely entertaining or informative is the fact that the latter is meant literally to be consumed by its readers, whereas the former has the ability to come back to life. Poetry seeks not immortality but resurrection,’ wrote Octavio Paz.33 This is a wonderful definition of literature and of translation. More accurately still, it is a wonderful way to blur the line between both practices. Translation, which is potentially unlimited since literary texts can be translated over and over again, could be defined as the art of infinite variation, infinite resurrection, and infinite defamiliarisation. I would suggest that Kolatkar, who kept testing not only different patterns, voices, languages, angles of vision, but also different genres for everything he wrote, and whose poems had countless provisional variants, considered his poems like translations.34 Marina Tsvetaeva’s words, which Kolatkar copied in his diary, open on the following declaration: ‘To create a poem means to translate from the mother tongue into another language’ (‘Making Love to a Poem’). And in an unpublished passage from his diary Kolatkar cites Tess Gallagher: ‘poetry is the only second language I am ever likely to have.’
Poems can also be considered similar to translations because, like every literary text, they are transmutations and recreations of other poets’ words. The inhabitants of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s literary anthill ‘make occasional stealing raids on their close neighbours’.35 Namdeo transmuted in Tukaram is in turn recycled, defamiliarized, and reinvented by Kolatkar: ‘Tuka has left me everything / everything he ever wrote / is mine by right … / He certainly won’t complain / he dare not / I can trace the ownership of some of his stuff / to namdeo’ (‘Making Love to a Poem’). The myth of the creative genius working in isolation to author and inaugurate an original masterpiece falls apart. Translation and/or recycling is the norm, as Kolatkar’s poems, which are ‘stolen / salvaged / plundered from rubbish heap / junkyard / graveyard’ (‘Making Love to a Poem’), demonstrate.36 And as another wonderful passage from Kolatkar’s unpublished papers reveals, all literature originates in a great ‘food chain’ of reading-translatingrecycling-(re)writing: ‘i’m afraid i’ve been a glutton / consumed poets of europe living and dead… / only after they have first been eaten consumed / and regurgitated by translators / the flourishing tribe into English… / i’ve supplement my diet at various times with canned catullus / smoked baudelaire reconstituted villon / pickled appolinaire salted mashed mandelstam / and cured thomas transtromer…’
A.K. Ramanujan used to say, after Valery, that a poem is never finished, that it is only abandoned.37 To a certain extent, finishing a poem by committing it to print might have been understood by Kolatkar as putting it to death, at least provisionally, just like prizes and awards which he compares to ‘silver nails on the poet’s coffin’ (‘Making Love to a Poem’). Poems need to be sung, spoken, and shared by a little conspiracy of poets-readers-lovers. They also need to be retold and recast, renewed and resurrected, just like bhakti which relies on the ‘logic of performance, not permanence’.38 If Kolatkar seemed reluctant to publish or publicize his work, refused to draw attention to himself or to his poems, did not court publishers or readers, it is also because he knew that readers would come to him, that like Tukaram, Namdeo, or Kabir before him, he would eventually and/ or posthumously be ‘recycled’ and brought back to life. In an unpublished fragment from Kolatkar’s papers, the poet suggests that a poem is like a ‘message in a bottle’. The message is meant for anyone who may find it, on any shore, whatever the time it takes to reach its destination. The poem establishes a ‘strange kind of dialogue… where what you say may take a thousand years to reach me’. If a poem is like a message in a bottle, translation helps make possible this strange dialogue between poet and poet, or between poet and reader sometimes hundreds of kilometres, centuries and worlds apart. Poetry, its discovery and valuation then, relies on chance encounters, on the longue durée of genealogies, unpredictable connections and discoveries, exhumations, and resurrections.39
You can stumble upon a poem or a work of literature by chance, the same way that you fall in love. In my case, the impulse for translating Kolatkar was born from the conviction of having indeed stumbled upon a treasure of sorts, a ‘secret’ that had to be shared with as many people as possible. The discovery happened in 2004 at the Sahitya Akademi library in Delhi, as I was leafing through anthologies of modern Indian poetry. One day, I came across the poem ‘The Butterfly’ from Kolatkar’s first (and only, at the time) collection in English, Jejuri. Suddenly a voice sounded right, and it was speaking to me.
Adil Jussawalla recalls that when he was studying in Oxford he tried to convince a fellow undergraduate that there was more to Indian literature than Tagore. But he failed because as the undergraduate put it: ‘If there was much more, we’d have heard about it.’ What you see just doesn’t exist, adds Adil Jussawalla, commenting on this staggering blindness.40 Translating Kolatkar seemed the only way to ensure that this poet – and not only Rabindranath Tagore or Salman Rushdie, as extraordinary writers as they may be – would be seen by the French and register on the map of world literature.
If Kolatkar is still, to a certain extent, a marginal writer in India – at least that was the case at the time of his death in 2004 – he was totally unknown in France. That Gallimard, the most prestigious French publishing house, also notorious for stealing many of the national or international awards (from the Prix Goncourt or the Prix Médicis to the Nobel Prize), agreed to publish Kolatkar in a bilingual edition seemed like a miracle. With a print run of 5,000 copies and paperbacks at an average price of eight euros, these volumes are perhaps the only poetry books that sell relatively well in France. What’s more, the majority of the 250 published writers in the Gallimard poetry series are French or Francophone twentieth-century poets, and the few British or American titles represent canonical figures or fairly celebrated classics (Keats, Milton, Coleridge, Melville, Poe, Whitman, etc.).41 It also meant that Kolatkar’s work was almost overnight considered a masterpiece.42 There are today four titles of Indian poetry published in the Poésie/Gallimard series, and apart from Kolatkar, it is telling to note that they are all related to Tagore, with two collections (including André Gide’s translation of Gitanjali) by the Bengali poet, and a third collection of Kabir’s verse translated into French from Tagore’s own English recreations of Kabir.
It also seemed miraculous because as the number of Indian titles in the collection makes clear, the interest for Indian poetry in France is, to say the least, limited. Of course, Poésie/Gallimard is not the only Gallimard series in which Indian poets could be published. There is, for instance, a UNESCO/‘Connaissance de l’Orient’ series, with a specific Indian section, that includes the devotional compositions of Namdev and Tukaram, exquisitely rendered into French by Guy Deleury, whom Kolatkar greatly admired. What makes the publication of Kolatkar particularly significant, however, apart from the much-needed representation of a contemporary Indian voice is that he is not being published in a foreign, Oriental, postcolonial, or South Asian literature series, but as a poet among other poets.
And I imagine that Kolatkar would have liked that idea. For if the poetry and publishing collectives of this little magazine conspiracy represent a distrust of the marketability and publicity of literature and a form of secession from the mainstream, it’s also because the ‘clandestine war’ to which Octavio Paz was referring is waged against ideas of Indianness, of what ‘Indian literature’ is, of what an Indian writer should be, or of the compact national identity he may be committed to embrace, fashion, and promote. In fact, the reactions of Kolatkar’s first French readers corroborate that claim: Kolatkar did not correspond to what they had expected or fantasized Indian poetry to be.43
Many of these poets positioned themselves as defiant and triumphant ‘traitors’ to what the nativist Marathi novelist Bhalchandra Nemade has called a writer’s ‘filial relations’ (towards a national language, a national culture, or a national literature). Against filial and national assignations, they display their staunch integrity towards their artistic practices, towards their reinvented affiliations, towards the members of their transnational conspiracy, and towards an idea of literature as inexhaustible process of translation where questions of origin, authorship, and property seem irrelevant. Against Hindutva attempts at constructing standardized, intangible, and national narratives of tradition whose ultra-sensitive frontiers have to be guarded from multiple, corrupt, or ‘deviant’ (mis)readings, they also claim the right to recycle, estrange, and rediscover both their own texts and their past through other languages and literatures. As Dilip Chitre, who relates bhakti composers to Bible translators in medieval Europe who were burned for heresy, remarks, translation is a sacrilege of sorts because it is linked to the plurality of messages, texts, and contexts, to the plurality of interpreters and interpretations.44 This may help us to understand why writers as translators are increasingly targets of extreme violence in India today, and why writers as translators are, indeed, always activists. In the translating practice of so many of these poets, activism on behalf of literature and activism through literature become indistinguishable.
1. Here and in the following pages, I use the word ‘Bombay’ instead of Mumbai as the city was renamed in 1995 by the chauvinist Maharashtrian organisation, the Shiv Sena, since the little magazine ‘conspiracy’ which is the subject of this article coincides with the history of Bombay from the 1950s to the 1980s, and since the writers concerned still often intentionally retain the older name.
2. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge Classics, new edition, 2010), p. xxii.
3. Adil Jussawalla, Missing Person (Bombay: Clearing House, 1976).
4. A.K. Ramanujan, The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan, ed. Vinay Dharwadker (Delhi: OUP, 1999), p. 26.
5. This tight circle of friends belonged to different linguistic, professional, and social worlds, which Kolatkar straddled with ease. The Marathi bhajan subculture was one of these worlds, to which Balwant Bua, an illiterate singer in the varkari tradition of bhakti singers, belonged. Balwant Bua and Kolatkar had weekly talking-singing sessions from which emerged several published and unpublished works.
6. The published version of ‘Awards have many uses’ appears in the appendices of Kolatkar’s Collected Poems in English, ed. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2010), p. 343.
7. The Indian Literary Review, August 1978, p. 9.
8. Amit Chaudhuri introduced a re-issue of Jejuri in 2005 (NYRB Classics); Ashok Shahane brought out some of Kolatkar’s uncollected and unpublished texts in 2009 (The Boatride and Other Poems, Pras Prakashan) and keeps his Marathi and English collections in print in India; Arvind Krishna Mehrotra edited Kolatkar’s Collected Poems in English (Bloodaxe Books, 2010).
9. These diverse statements appeared in a 1978 issue of The Indian Literary Review, in an article from Free Press Indore on the Bhopal World Poetry Festival in 1989 for which the poet was interviewed, in a 2004 interview with Gowri Ramnarayan from The Hindu, and in an extensive and illuminating conversation with the poet Eunice de Souza. See: Eunice de Souza, Talking Poems: Conversations with Poets (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999). A lot of the material used for this essay and all the quotations from Kolatkar’s unpublished papers are taken from my book Arun Kolatkar and Literary Modernism in India: Moving Lines (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), which was published roughly at the time of the symposium on ‘literary activism’ in Calcutta.
10. A version of this text but without these particular lines is published under the title ‘Making Love to a Poem’ in Kolatkar, Collected Poems in English, pp. 345-355.
11. Octavio Paz, The Other Voice: Essays on Modern Poetry (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1992).
12. Three Poets, Melanie Silgardo, Raul d’Gama Rose, Santan Rodrigues (Bombay: Newground, 1978).
13. ‘Boys and Girls in Purdah’, The Campus Times, Issue 1, Bombay, 1972.
14. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, ‘The Closing of the Bhasha Mind’, Biblio: A Review of Books, May-June 2012, p. 27.
15. The nativist/nationalist bias against English in India is not the only bias against which Indian writers in English have to defend themselves. The romantic/ modernist prejudice that no work was possible in a borrowed voice was shared by many Indian writers but also by Allen Ginsberg who, when he met the Bombay poets in 1962, asked them why they didn’t write in their ‘own’ language (see my book on Kolatkar for more details on Ginsberg’s and Orlovsky’s stay in Bombay). But his declaration that Indian poets in English should go back to their language (‘if we were gangster poets, we’d shoot you!’) was made in response to the discovery of Nissim Ezekiel’s and R. Parthasarathy’s poetry (the fi rst Indian poets in English he met when he arrived in Bombay), which he considered too established and too British, ‘polite and genteel’, compared to the ‘starving poets in their mother tongue’, or to the Bengali Hungryalists he met later in Calcutta. But had he met Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Arun Kolatkar (he did meet Kolatkar in 1962, and both Kolatkar and Shahane were among the ‘starving poets’ with whom he roamed the streets of Bombay, but Kolatkar had only published a few poems in English by then), he might perhaps not have asked Indian poets why they did not write in their ‘own’ language.
16. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, ‘Toru Dutt and an Eurasian Poet’, in ed. Rosinka Chaudhuri, The Cambridge History of Indian Poetry in English, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
17. Raymond Williams, The Politics of Modernism (London/New York: Verso, 1989), p. 45.
18. Kiran Nagarkar, bilingual English-Marathi novelist and close friend of Kolatkar, with whom he worked at MCM and various other advertising agencies, remembers that MCM was notorious for breaking the rules: ‘We were brash and we were shameless, we pitched for everything in sight’ (‘Arun Kolatkar: Some Memories’, unpublished English version of an article initially published in Marathi).
19. Jayanta Mahapatra’s The False Start (Clearing House, 1980) is dedicated to Dilip Chitre. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Distance in Statute Miles (Clearing House, 1982) is dedicated to Adil Jussawalla, and his next collection of poems, Middle Earth (1984) to Adil Jussawalla and to Arun Kolatkar; Kolatkar’s last collections in English (Sarpa Satra and Kala Ghoda Poems, 2004) are also dedicated to Mehrotra and Jussawalla.
20. Nine Indian Women Poets, An Anthology, ed. Eunice de Souza (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997).
21. Geeta Kapur, ‘Signatures of Dissent’, Art India Magazine, Vol. 6, Issue 5, Mumbai, pp. 78-81.
22. Mehrotra, ‘The Closing of the Bhasha Mind’, Biblio, p. 27.
23. See ‘By Way of Conclusion: The Trope of Outsidedeness and the Poet as Stranger’ in Zecchini, Arun Kolatkar and Literary Modernism in India, pp. 196-206.
24. I use the word ‘provincial’ as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra does himself when he quotes Ezra Pound’s famous essay Provincialism the Enemy. Provincialism consists of: ‘a) an ignorance of the manners, customs and nature of people living outside one’s own village, parish or nation; b) A desire to coerce others into uniformity’, in Partial Recall, Essays on Literature and Literary History (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2012), p. 162.
25. Franco Moretti, ʻConjectures on World Literature’, New Left Review 1, January-February 2000, pp. 54-68.
26. In Susan S. Bean, Midnight to the Boom: Painting in India after Independence (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013), p. 24.
27. The money for the Clearing House books was raised by pre-publication off ers and by subscriptions at a discount. But the publishing co-operative never had more than 350 subscribers.
28. Quoted in Octavio Paz, The Other Voice, p. 124.
29. Mehrotra, Partial Recall, p. 152.
30. Mehrotra, Partial Recall, p. 157.
31. Christian Lee Novetzke, Religion and Public Memory: A Cultural History of Saint Namdev in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), p. 19.
32. ‘Before and After: An Interview with Adil Jussawalla’ (with Vivek Narayanan and Sharmishta Mohanty), Almost Island, Monsoon 2012, pp. 29-30.
33. Paz, The Other Voice, p. 95.
34. Jejuri, for instance, exists both in English and in Marathi, but Kolatkar considered his fi rst jottings as a script, there are musical partitions for some of the Jejuri poems, and the poet sung some of them on the guitar.
35. Mehrotra, Partial Recall, p. 153.
36. This is the case on a thematic level as well. Kala Ghoda Poems, for instance, is a collection fi lled with scrap, rubbish, and castaway objects which are transfi gured into art. Kolatkar celebrates the regenerating capacity of a reality that is never defi nitely devitalised but can ‘begin again’ and breed new, unpredictable results.
37. A.K. Ramanujan, Uncollected Poems and Prose, ed. Molly Daniels-Ramanujan and Keith Harrison (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 45.
38. Novetzke, Religion and Public Memory, p. 245.
39. For more on the random and paradoxical circumstances by which the past is recovered and renewed, see Amit Chaudhuri’s beautiful essay ‘Poles of Recovery’ in Clearing a Space (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2008), pp. 39-57.
40. Adil Jussawalla, Maps for A Mortal Moon, ed. Jerry Pinto (New Delhi: Aleph, 2014), p. 47.
41. The series was started in 1966 with Paul Eluard’s Capital of Pain. The title is still one of its bestsellers, along with Apollinaire’s Alcools, Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil, Rimbaud’s Poésies, and The Nature of Things by Francis Ponge.
42. If Kolatkar was published in France in a kind of vacuum, many reviews came out after the publication of the translation. And it was amazing to see the dissemination of the discourse on the poet, the ways in which words from the preface were reprinted and circulated, the agency of academics, publishers, and/ or translators in creating literary value and building a literary reputation. Kolatkar had become, provisionally at least, one of the best, if not the best, contemporary Indian poet.
43. A.K. Ramanujan reflects on a similar experience for his translations of classical Tamil Love Poems (The Interior Landscape). When he first published these poems, a lot of his friends thought that this could not be Indian poetry, because it looked so different from anything they had seen, was not flamboyant or hyperbolic.
44. Dilip Chitre, ‘Translation: Problems of a Paralysed Republic’, New Quest, No. 154, 2003, pp. 45-49.
Laetitia Zecchini is a research fellow at the CNRS in Paris and visiting scholar at Boston University. She writes on contemporary Indian poetry, on modernisms in India and the politics of literature.
This essay was originally presented at the inaugural symposium in Calcutta in December 2014. It was collected with other papers in a volume called Literary Activism: A Symposium, edited by Amit Chaudhuri and published in 2017 by Oxford University Press and Boiler House Press.