The Venus Flytrap: Incarcerated Poets

Sometimes, copying American observances isn’t a bad thing (this is never going to be true for Thanksgiving, though). As National Poetry Month comes to a close in the USA – and everywhere online, especially thanks to the popular daily writing practice of NaPoWriMo – news of a young Somaliland poet who has been imprisoned is on my mind. Those defending Naima Abwaan Qorane, whose poetry is said to reference Somaliland’s former unity with Somalia, say that she has been suffering rape and murder threats in custody.

This isn’t the time to go reading Qorane’s poetry – frankly, it is the poet and not the poetry we should be concerned about. Hers is not a unique case. As PEN International, Amnesty International and other organisations track and try to make known to a wider audience, writers around the world have always been targeted by draconian measures when their work does not suit the agenda of those in power.

From a single PEN International press release alone, I know of Aron Atabek in Kazahstan, Amanuel Asrat in Eritrea (detained incommunicado for 16 years), Dareen Tatour in occupied Palestine and Liu Xia in China, whose Nobel prize-winner husband Liu Xiaobo died in police custody last year. Closer to home, Kovan finds himself arrested with alarming frequency for his protest songs. Does he get released? That’s not the point. The point is that we don’t even know the names of most languishing behind bars. Please note that I have only named poets here, and that too just a few. A comprehensive list of authors, journalists and other kinds of writers who are facing or have recently faced persecution for subversive or seditious work would be very long.

I remember someone naively, and with great entitlement, telling me not very long ago: “I totally love doing activism, but I just don’t think poetry should be political”. That person then went on to cite Subramania Bharati as a favourite (preceded by, “Oh cool, you have heard of him” – oh you young ‘uns, have a little grace!). The irony that Bharati had been a great dissident, also incarcerated, was perfectly lost on them.

There is nothing romantic about being a poet, or anyone, with radical ideas. There is nothing sexy about exile, arrest, imprisonment, ostracism, punishment, murder or any of the consequences that come with having radical ideas. But I see a false correlation between these things, and this is dangerous: it means we celebrate people after they have suffered, instead of raising the level of safety for everyone.

As readers, we owe it to our love of literature – whether in the form of pamphlets with a cause, hashtagged posts, printed books or protest songs – to keep ourselves informed about what is happening to those who produce it. And all readers are writers, even if only in their hearts. So as writers, our responsibility to stand up for one another – even for those names never heard of, writing in languages never translated – is even greater. A sense of community isn’t about liking one another’s posts on social media. It’s about this – holding a larger vision of interconnectedness that goes far beyond what words can do.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 26th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Tale Of Two Poets (aka A Little Aishwarya Rai Appreciation)

If Karan Johar was going for a parody effect with the character of the poet in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he failed. Essayed by Aishwarya Rai, Saba of the shayaris was surprisingly familiar, real and honest in a way that nothing else in that film was. In a club of her choosing, she grooves to a remix of an iconic ghazal before taking her date home; the next day she tells him not to mistake passion for familiarity. It’s not a line of defense, only of caution, because she proceeds to get to know him, and to invite him into her world of art and contemplation. She’s divorced – love suits her more than marriage did, although when her ex-husband sidles up to her at an art gallery in a moment of cinema coupling perfection, she still recognises him by aura, and smiles. And when she does fall for her current lover, and sees what is not to be, she tells him this too. All in (I’m inferring, because subtitles vazhga, I mean, zindabad) profound, lyrical Urdu.

It wasn’t the first time Aishwarya Rai had played a poet, though. In the grip of that particular melancholy that only a certain kind of cheesy-but-never-cringeworthy cinema can cure, I watched Kandukondein Kandukondein again after ages. And there, in just one scene, was Meenu sitting under a tree overlooking a river’s grassy banks – writing. So she didn’t just read widely, recite Bharati by heart, and manifest a man who knew his words almost (but not quite) as well. She wrote, too. At least until the #1 reason for the fatality of art/ambition among women happened: a deceptively suitable man. (Take it from me – the ones who love you but are too afraid to be with you are more common than linebreaks in verse).

But then again, she did ball up that paper she was writing on and throw it into the scenery before a pretty dubious song sequence.

Imagine if Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s Saba was Kandukondein Kandukondein’s Meenu grown up and grown away. That the longing in her, once a trickle she thought was as pretty as rain, had pooled: tidal, bottomless. So the naïve woman plunging into a temple tank in the village of Poonkudi and the wiser woman who walks cobblestoned roads a continent away, all the while diving into the well of her own emotions and memories, are not so different after all.

Meenu seems to stop writing, starting to sing professionally instead, encouraged by the good if slightly macho man she marries at the movie’s end. Saba, meanwhile, might be who Meenu may have become if her luck had veered just a little off the conventional trajectory. Still writing, still loving. Because she didn’t crush up the core of who she is and throw it into landscape or landfill. Because she kept claiming her words for herself, and not just the ones someone else placed in her mouth. Because, most of all, she’d touched the bottom of the pool she thought was made just to play in, and surfaced from it with knowledge of the deep that can only be learned – but never taught.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 15th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: Selected Poems by Subramania Bharati (trans. Usha Rajagopalan)

There must be poets all over the world whose work thrives only in their native tongues, the quality of whose writing we must take on the word of those who are proficient in those languages. The politics and reasons as to why some make it into the English language, arguably the one with the most far-reaching sphere of influence in the modern world, while other don’t are worth lengthy discussion. But the truly exasperating travesty is when a poet whose work has undeniable eminence is insulted not by being ignored, but worse, through poor translations.

Subramania Bharati, the 20th century’s preeminent Tamil writer, is one such poet. Born in 1882 and living only till the age of 38, he pioneered a renaissance in Tamil poetry and fought through his life against colonialism, caste and the oppression of women. To date, no significant English translation of his poetry has done justice to either his persona – romantic, radical, a genius who in the manner of the true artist engaged completely in his own context while being far ahead of it – or the writing itself. Usha Rajagopalan’s new collection of translations makes only slight inroads of improvement: while the book fortunately lacks the cringe-worthiness of prior efforts, Selected Poems, right from its very titling lacks inspiration and imagination – keywords that the very mention of Bharati ordinarily summons among those familiar with the poet.

These translations suffer most of all from a sense of restraint. Bharati was the quintessential fiery artist, prone to being overcome by fits of grandeur, tormented by personal demons, and always redeemed by a profound oneness with the world as a theatre of triumph. This is not mythologizing: all of these attributes are evident in his original writings. Line by line conversion, without fluidity, cannot achieve this effect. Selected Poems, while rarely clumsy, often lacks inventiveness. Words like “Alas!” are used; there is no attempt to contemporarise the sentiment. But the worst offense would be the reduction in “A Baby Fire” of the culminating line, “thath tharikitta thath tharikitta thith thom” – a stunning onomatopoeic flourish that captures both a spitting fire and a visceral rhythm also found in classical dance and music – to “Whoosh, crackle, snap, sizzle.” Elsewhere, these flourishes are retained in translation – an inconsistence that isn’t justified.

This happens not infrequently. In “Aspirations” (which also takes Bharati’s “Om Om Om Om!” and turns it into a decidedly meeker “Om… Om… Om… Om…”), the word “viduthalai”, which can be interpreted straightforwardly as “liberation”, is instead rendered as “unfettered” – imagery that sabotages the original’s spirit. In “In Search of Answers”, a modernist hymn in which he addresses the deity Sivashakti, he uses the demand “solladi”. The nuanced Tamil conversational suffix “di” indicates an entitlement complicit in the relationship with the female other being spoken to. It is an entitlement that is by turns intimate and insolent; Rajagopalan’s explanation of “solladi” as “pray tell me” is stripped entirely of these subtleties.

A handsome bilingual edition, this book would serve beginner and comparative purposes well, but for any reader seeking sheer beauty, it falls short. For the next translator, who picks up the torch from Rajagopalan, one suggests greater license with syntax, less liberal usage of exclamation points (which have fallen out of favour in the language of translation), an academically sound set of footnotes and a more variegated vocabulary.

A volume of selected writings cannot possibly include everything unless the writer in question is one of limited prolificacy. Still, that Bharati’s most iconic poem, “Suttum Vizhichudadar”, is not represented in this collection is baffling. Once again, the idea of a translator as an executor comes into play: to what extent are they obligated to the author’s estate, which includes facets of character and legacy, at large? Absences, sometimes more than inclusions, raise questions.

In this regard, the introductory note is expected to shed light. Rajagopalan’s is mild, almost taking for granted that the reader is familiar with the poet, and taking no pains to introduce him and the ethos of his work to a new audience. The poet who comes through in this introduction as well as in these poems is anachronistic rather than maverick, religious rather than spiritual, perhaps even over-rated – the antithesis of the reasons for which he is beloved to this day. Rajagopalan’s translations are cleaner, less bombastic, and generally better than what has been available in English of Subramania Bharati so far. But, unlike the poet, they are deeply inhibited. An inhibited Bharati, as anyone who has ever been moved by his originals on the page or in song knows, is no Bharati at all.

An edited version appeared in DNA.




Book Review: The Goddess And The Nation: Mapping Mother India by Sumathi Ramaswamy

The idea of nationhood (or, say, the idea of empire) is predated by a long, animistic history of the idea of the earth itself as a fertile, maternal source. The emblematic figures (Britannia, Mother Russia, Marianne among them), almost always associated with revolutionary or consolidating eras, that have been taken to represent these motherlands are in many ways developments from that fundamental impulse, even without religious connotations. In The Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother India, Sumathi Ramaswamy turns her attention to Bharat Mata. The book contains 150 fascinating images of and relating to this modern “goddess” – a pre-Independent Indian invention of significant historical interest.

Ramaswamy’s accompanying text, however, suffers from a number of failings, both in proposition and delivery. Overly verbose and almost tediously academic, the writing could have benefited a great deal from a sense of irreverence. Ramaswamy deeply dislikes the icon who is the subject of her work, mostly on account of Bharat Mata’s Hindu-hegemonic associations. To have expressed this dislike with more pluck and spark instead of thinly veiled contempt would have made for far more engaging reading.

It helps to begin by considering a brief history of the image: it originated in Bengal several decades before Independence, and the first of its most notable appearances was in a painting by Abanindranath Tagore (circa 1904) of an unadorned, sadhu-like woman. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s hymn Vande Mataram (“I worship the mother”) was brought into the nationalist movement by Rabindranath Tagore in 1896 (the writer otherwise opposed the concept of nation as woman/mother, as in his novel The Home and The World). The hymn became associated, at least per Ramaswamy’s narrative, with an increasingly militant, Durga-like representation of Bharat Mata. During the five decades or so of its greatest popularity, the new demigoddess could be seen draped in the tricolor, suckling the children of her nation, riding a lion, handing weapons to her favourite sons and so on – all while sitting on, standing in front of, or literally embodying the map of India.

The author makes one noteworthy contribution to the field of visual arts theory: the rather poetic term “barefoot cartography”, referring to “a set of demotic practices and techniques whose primary creative influence and aesthetic milieu is the art of the bazaar”, with the bazaar being taken to mean the kitsch style seen on calendars, hoardings, film posters and the like. The term is lovely, but its use in this book is largely condescending.

Ramaswamy approaches the artists and activists associated with these images through a strangely skewed prism. Decontextualized, everybody from the nameless painters of mass-produced prints to Amrita Sher-Gil, Subramania Bharati and Sister Nivedita are tarred with the suggestion (if not accusation) of being in support of sectarian Hindu nationalism. The book is rife with bizarre logic: for example, that Sister Nivedita loved and wished to distribute Abanindranath Tagore’s benign painting while also being a devotee of Kali is “inconsistent”, as though spiritual leanings and aesthetic ones are always aligned (and how colonialist/Orientalist is the idea of a bloodthirsty, one-dimensional Kali anyway?). That Amrita Sher-Gil, who was once moved to declare that “India belongs only to me”, painted her Mother India as a dark-skinned beggar “seems sacrilegious” to the author, because it is unlike the recognizable luminous, light-skinned deity-figure who more popularly bore that name. Sacrilegious to whom? The purveyors of the Bharat Mata image, who essentially fashioned a new object of veneration, may have expressed themselves in traditional idioms but didn’t see ingenuity as blasphemy.

Consider also two examples of how non-divine women in propagandist paintings are read. In the first, in reference to a photo of women during a street march in the 1930s, there is this line: “women have a special claim on (a sari-clad) Mother India by virtue of being (sari-clad) females themselves”. In the second, after some discussion about how the female soldiers of the Rani of Jhansi regiment wore standard uniforms and not saris, she writes that “the barefoot cartographer[‘s] own vision of love-service-sacrifice could seemingly only accommodate the male body as the armed defender or map and mother”. What did women wear if not saris at the time, and why reduce them to their sartoriality? And how does realistically portraying the Ranis as they were dressed reflect an andro-normative worldview; would it be preferred that they fight in saris, too? Such an incredible disregard for historical context is frustrating and baffling.

Ramaswamy gives herself away in a series of adjectives midway through the book: “Bharat Mata’s offensive, divisive and embarrassing anthropomorphic form”. It is the last of the descriptors that is most revealing. Bharat Mata’s contemporary co-opting into the right-wing visual vocabulary is certainly problematic. But from a historical perspective, it is necessary to bear in mind that we are all bound by the orthodoxies, conventions and lexis of our times. She may be read as a Hindu nationalist emblem today, but through its heyday the symbol was, though naïve, mainly and merely nationalist – an allegiance that was less unpopular (in fact, downright subversive) in colonial times than it is today.

Multidenominational manifestations of the image, which could have benefited from deeper study, receive only cursory mentions: for instance a march in Rajahmundry in 1927 in which students sang Vande Mataram while carrying banners that said “Allahu Akbar”, or an image in Subramania Bharati’s Intiya magazine which also carried the Bharat Mata image as well as the Muslim phrase. And some omissions are evident: such as how, oddly, Ramaswamy completely misses the Christ-reference in a 1931 illustration of a crucified man within the outline of India.

The book’s most interesting chapter focuses on the first temple to the symbol, inaugurated in Benares in October 1936 by Mahatma Gandhi. Strikingly, the temple contained no idol: Bharat Mata was the cartographic India itself, a sprawling relief map in marble. Offerings such as flowers were not permitted. In many ways, this can be read as the most inclusive evolution of the symbol: non-religious, privileging the scientific, without demographic markers or restrictions. Yet here again, Ramaswamy chides the “refusal – in fact failure – to create a set of secular rituals”. What are secular rituals? Why should any rituals be created at all? The author suggests that their creation would have saved the monument from its relative obscurity, but it helps to remember that the symbol of Bharat Mata herself is a sort of anachronism from a time when such a symbol had, and to some extent fulfilled, its purposes. Aside from M.F. Husain (whose attraction to geopoliticizing the female form in a way that is possibly Hindu Ramaswamy seems vaguely uncomfortable with), there hasn’t been a contemporary visual artist in decades who has worked notably with the image.

The Goddess and The Nation is a passionless study about a subject that arose out of the passionate struggle of multitudes, then fell into disrepute. The book closes with a mention of the “delicious subversion” of the barefoot cartographers – something which the author otherwise refutes throughout it. Such contradictions are rife, but one in particular stands out – Ramaswamy writes that barefoot cartographers demurred from portraying the violent deaths of female martyrs for the nation, but when the assassination of Indira Gandhi is rendered violently, “the limits of patriotism’s barefoot cartographic imagination have been reached [because of] the risk of pointing to the death of the very mother and map for which many of its martyrs have given up their lives.” Barefoot cartography, by its nature, is diverse and constantly evolving. The only limits to such an imagination are those imposed by predisposition and condescension.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

Mira Sundara Rajan: Moral Rights

Your new book, Moral Rights, deals with the issue of intellectual property in the digital domain, which is a new area of concern. Can you give us a brief introduction to moral rights and their doctrine?

Basically, moral rights protect an author’s non-commercial, personal and cultural rights. The expression comes from the French – droit moral – which means “personal rights” or “intellectual rights”, but doesn’t have the same connotation in English. Attribution and integrity are the two rights that are protected: attribution is the right to be named and identified as the author, and integrity is what protects the work from harm (for example, preventing a moustache being painted on the Mona Lisa!). The moral rights aspect of creative work in the technological context has not been addressed. Discussion of copyright issues, especially at the international level is focused on the economic rights and how much money an author can make from his or her work. My interest is in the cultural side of things, not the economic side. And I think it’s a serious concern in the Internet age. To give you an example, a person could find a poem online that is attributed to Subramania Bharati, He or she would suffer the harm of false knowledge; this would affect how someone understands his or her own culture.

You’ve explored moral rights in various global contexts in your book. Do you feel that the concept, or the understanding of it, varies based on the cultural and historical framework?

The short answer is: it does, yes. Each country has its own perspective on moral rights, depending not just on legal factors but also on cultural factors. The law is really an expression of the culture. I’ll give you two examples – in England, they have moral rights in the Copyright Act, but they are bit skeptical about authors’ personal interests, so they don’t really embrace the concept. And in contrast would be India, which has a very strong understanding of moral rights, and even more than the government, the courts really feel they have a mission to protect India’s culture.

But the protection of culture is also something that has been co-opted by religious fundamentalists, communalists, misogynists and the like. How do you see this in relation to moral rights?

Actually, moral rights are a very important way of fighting against that. The whole concept of moral rights is to protect the special relationship between an author and his or her work. So think of the implications for censorship for example – no one can interfere with that relationship if the moral right is upheld. For example, Anand Patwardhan sued because parts of his film had been reused by filmmakers who had misrepresented his secular perspective, and the Mumbai High Court upheld his right.

How are moral rights placed in relation to the Copyleft movement, and movements like Creative Commons?

The common wisdom is that moral rights and Copyleft/Creative Commons don’t get along. But if you look more closely, they actually do protect moral rights. My observation is that they are highly compatible. In the US, apart from one very conservative federal law that only covers visual arts, they have no legislative protection for moral rights. In this sense, the Creative Commons might be the only protection generally available there for moral rights because the Creative Commons system of licenses is based on attribution. The Creative Commons community is really interested in protecting the quality of the knowledge that is disseminated, protecting it from adulteration. But, these movements – Open Source, Copyleft, Creative Commons – the question of how authors are supposed to earn a living from their work, and I do criticize them for this in my book. In order to write the book, I had to take a year’s sabbatical, and I question whether any serious author could have done otherwise. There has to be a way to provide financial support for artists and writers.

What are your thoughts on censorship, which is also connected to creative rights and freedoms?

I think censorship is a very bad thing, to put it very simply, and I think moral rights are a very important legal mechanism to protect people from censorship. And remember you are protecting both the author and the reader, because censorship distorts the truth, it distorts what was created, and that is just as bad for the reader as for the writer.

Intellectual property law is only one aspect of your work – you’re also an acclaimed classical pianist. How does your academic research lend itself to your creative life, and vice versa?

They have quite a natural relationship. I got interested in this aspect of law because I am an artist. And the artistic community is interested in me because of my knowledge of IP rights. I think it’s much easier, or even necessary, to have an understanding of art in order to have an understanding of IP law. And that’s a deficiency a lot of IP lawyers have – they don’t understand the psychological impact of how an artist feels when something is done to his or her work.

I don’t mean to embarrass you, but do you feel genius can be inherited? You’re a great-granddaughter of Subramania Bharati, after all.

No, I don’t think so. I think genius is the most unexpected thing in the universe. It can come up anywhere, and that’s why it is wonderful. In the US there are a lot of parents who think they can educate their children to be geniuses from the age of 2! But the factors that make a person a genius are so complex – it has to do with historical circumstances, the environment and many other factors. I don’t want to discredit my great-grandfather for my own accomplishments, whatever they may be, because of the access to education I had because of him, and my family background. My mother was the first Bharati scholar, and my father was an English professor and Bharati devotee, so I had a parallel education in addition to school. The environment in which I grew up was completely shaped by Bharati’s writings and his ideas on education and the development of the human personality. But Bharati’s own example is a case in point of the unexpectedness of genius. Why would this man coming from Ettayapuram think that he could singlehandedly get rid of the British empire, which was then the most powerful entity on earth? And he did, in a sense.

You also write poetry, but have only published your academic work so far. Can you tell us more about your poetry, what inspires it, and why you haven’t yet shared it with the world as you have your compositions and legal research?

I write poetry and prose (short stories and non-fiction essays). I’ve been writing since I was about 7 years old and the prosaic answer to your question is that I just haven’t had the time to do anything with it because of my education and what followed. But I have plans. In terms of what it’s about, there are lots of different themes; I am interested in all aspects of human experience. Bharati is definitely an inspiration because his writing is very comprehensive and deals with aspects of life. His optimism as an artist and thinker is also unique, and a tremendous inspiration.. The classics are important to me – I’ve read a lot of French literature in the original, and because of my interest in Russia, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are also influences. Reading bad writing can be like eating junk food.!

Having grown up outside of India, in what ways – if any – do you remain connected to this cultural ethos?

It is important to me and my connection is really through Subramania Bharati. That’s everything.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Hindu.