Thursday, January 12, 2006


Burning ground

When I first found the poems of Anuradha Mahapatra around ten years ago, I was amazed. They were unlike anything I had read before. Mahapatra, a poet of contemporary India, grew up in working class family in a small village in Bengal and later moved to Kalkata (Calcutta), studied Bengali literature at Calcutta University, and in the years since has worked at various editorial jobs, done freelance writing, has worked for the Uprooted Toilers' Rights Association, and has taught the children of pavement dwellers. She also has published several collections of poems since the early 1980's.

The excerpts quoted here, and the biographical information, are taken from Another Spring, Darkness, a selection of Mahapatra's poems translated into English by Carolyne Wright with Paramita Banerjee and Jyotirmoy Datta (Calyx Books, 1996).

Anuradha Mahapatra's poems speak with an openness and a relentless concentration on telling the truth of her experience, an intensity that seems to ignite flames. From the poem "Primeval":

In the cold throat rises the ferry boatman's song;
two flowers the color of lovers
rise glistening beside the lion gate;
two raw untempered drops of fire
dripping on the cold grass
and over the moonful lion gate break waves
of long-beloved Madhukan the temple singer's hymns of praise.
The moon breaks over the lion gate,
the moon breaks over the stone shape,
and the cold moon like a luna-hooded shape
swallows the horizon and the ferry boatman's song!
Mahapatra's poems flow with sensual detail, drawing the reader in to physical experience; she reminds me of the 20th century Japanese poet Yosano Akiko in this respect. These lines from Mahapatra's poem "Mother of the Bud":

The monsoon's drowning crystal bowl of a moon rises
from the underworld river,
moonlight's milky tides float in the full breasts.
Folding her knees, her hands unclean from mourning
trembling in moonlight, the mother of the bud
opens the shivering flower.
The poetry of India is huge and as vastly varied as the life and culture of India itself. The gathered energies of multiple traditions -- literary, cultural, philosophical, religious, political -- work through Mahapatra's poems. In the poem "Girl Before Her Marriage," according to an endnote in the Another Spring, Darkness, the "bath of blood" is an ironic reference to the practice of a woman on the day before her wedding bathing in colored -- usually red -- water, in which her husband-to-be has also bathed, which is felt to be symbolic of the mingling of their bodies and fate.

Under the karam-tree, the girl about to be married
sits alone after her bath of blood.
Within her breast and outstretched arms: vegetation, sea, cave-art,
the swaha-mantra chanted at the ceremony's end.
Not art but suicide, a profound offering as if to a cobra.
Someone brings water in spellbound hands, the Meghamallar raga
plays on all the strings of the body.
Even though the sky's so near
an auspicious planet dies.
The girl is drawn to the evil hour's
lonely seasonal dark storm.
The literature of India is multiple literatures in many languages, extending back centuries and, in some cases, millennia. The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry edited by A. K. Ramanujan and Vinay Dharwadker (Oxford University Press, 1990) provides at least an introductory glimpse at the tapestry. Other compiliations and translations by Ramanujan are worth seeking out as well. Andrew Schelling has edited and translated two anthologies of poetry of classical India, Dropping the Bow (Broken Moon Press, 1991) and The Cane Groves of Narmada River (City Lights Books, 1998); his translations are quite readable, and both anthologies include highly useful bibliographies of classical poetry of India in English translation.

Another Spring, Darkness includes an introduction with biographical information about Mahapatra and broad historical background, and endnotes that I found invaluable in shedding light on the frequent offhand references in the poems to cultural, religious and historical details of India.

Whether writing about moonlight, or song, or a wedding ceremony, or the lives of workers who tend to the cremation of bodies, or a women forced by poverty into prostitution when their husbands die, Anuradha Mahapatra communicates an abundant humanity that will not be extinguished.
From the poem "Tambura":

[...]Behind the deep yellow flowers
you can still hear Malati Ghoshal's song, even more like
sloping yellow flowers. If fallen bloody hair
descends from the sky today
and comes to a halt on the breasts, there's no salvation
for this flower without a sun, nor
for these jackals in a trance, the trees,
the tambura of the woman's heart.
When I first read Another Spring, Darkness ten years ago, I commented to a number of friends that it was one of the best books of poems I'd read in years; and it still is. The poetry of Anuradha Mahapatra is essential in understanding the psyche and the living body of the modern world.

I went to order this right after I read your review and there is nothing available! Her books are out of print? That really blows.
Lyle, I need you to post more often! Her poetry is beautiful, thanks for bringing her to light.
Jenni, I sent you an email about this, but for anyone else reading this, you might try ordering the book through the publisher, here.

Michelle, I can only say thanks, I also wish I could find the time and energy to post more often. As someone once said, it's not easy to make something where before there was nothing. ;~)

Thanks for continuing to come here and read and comment.
I'm always so pleased when I check and find a post by you. You find such wonderful poets. I love this line, among so many others..

In the cold throat rises the ferry boatman's song;
two flowers the color of lovers
rise glistening beside the lion gate;

Also, thanks for that link. I'm going to save it to order when my book allowance next allows.
I checked since they have an astounding selection of used books at a fraction of the cost. Found this one and ordered it at this Amazon page
Pris, thanks for your comments and for posting the link.
Ack, thanks to Lyle for a review that made me feel truly understood which has been so rare... and I'm sorry about the glitch with orders. The distributor dropped the ball with amazon but the book is still very available and then go to the store section...
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