Event Preview: Anjali Nerlekar on Modern Indian Poetry and its Renewals

11 February 2019

This Thursday, Carleton welcomes Professor Anjali Nerlekar to speak on Modern Indian poetry. Professor Nerlekar teaches classes on South Asian and Caribbean literature, postcolonial studies, and translation studies at Rutgers University. The Miscellany had the privilege of interviewing her ahead of her visit, with questions contributed by students in Professor Arnab Chakladar’s Contemporary Indian Fiction class.

Read on to hear Professor Nerlekar’s responses, and join us on Thursday to continue the conversation! Her talk is at 5 pm on February 14 in Leighton 304.

How vibrant is the Indian poetry scene these days, in English and in other languages?

It is a bustling scene in Indian literature in India these days, with so many literary festivals taking place and so many new venues where writers can showcase their work. Poetry as a genre has become more visible in the past few years. Especially regarding the post-1960 generation of poets (the period about which I write in my first book, Bombay Modern, Arun Kolatkar and Bilingual Literary Culture), one sees several of them publishing their collected works after a hiatus of several decades.

In the West, Indian literature is represented far more by prose than by poetry or drama and most American readers likely have no sense of Indian poetry. What is a good way for readers to address this situation?

Poetry in general is a genre that is under-represented in the academic courses overall, don’t you think? But particularly, in the case of postcolonial literature, the genre of fiction dominates the imaginary to the exclusion of other writing for historical reasons.

As a reader, if one digs deep into the social, historical and cultural contexts of any writing, fiction or otherwise, especially in the post-independence world of India where painters wrote poetry and fiction, poets were artists, and where the connections across genres and media were so permeable and fluid, it is easy to bump into the poets and their works while studying the literary history of a place or a region in India. That’s one way of doing it, I guess. For instance, in the Bombay Poets’ archive at Cornell University, you will find letters archived by the poet Adil Jussawalla that reveal exchanges with Salman Rushdie and V. S. Naipaul as well as connections to modern Indian painters.

The poets were at the heart of the project of writing the new nation and the new modern moment in India and they were intimately involved in the boundary-breaking practices one sees in so many art forms and genres of writing in this period.

Finding these poets’ works is not very difficult either—there are many good anthologies of modern Indian poetry now, and in the past few years, some of the canonical poets of this generation have published collections of their poetry and of their literary essays as well. One should make sure though that one looks for poetry in translation as well as poetry written in English.

Colonialism has deeply impacted Indian culture and, thus, the literature produced within it following the end of British colonization in India. Is this marked in Indian poetry as much as it is in fiction? Do you think contemporary Indian writers should be seeking to evade or subvert that influence?

Colonialism is impossible to deny or evade in the reading of much of Indian writing in general. The very presence of the English language is evidence of that, among other things. And in some of the poetry of major poets like Arun Kolatkar or Adil Jussawalla, you get overt references to the colonial past as well. But I feel that the colonial/postcolonial category is too narrow to fit the larger concerns of the poetry of the post-independence period. There are different and far more productive frameworks to apply to this poetry and even more so in the poetry written in regional languages. Adopting multiple and differing perspectives on this poetry, angles that are hewn to more immediate and local concerns, has proven to be more productive in my reading of this poetry.

The representation of multilingual realities is a major challenge for Indian novelists in English and other languages To what extent is this an issue in Indian poetry as well?

In my book, I suggest a multilingual and materialist framework of reading for modern Indian poetry because there is an entire generation of poets in post-independence India who translated vigorously across languages and several who wrote in multiple languages simultaneously. As the poet and translator A. K. Ramanujan famously said,

After the nineteenth century, no significant Indian writer lacks any of the three traditions: the regional mother-tongue, the pan-Indian (Sanskritic, and in the case of Urdu and Kashmiri, the Perseo-Arabic as well), and the western (mostly English). Thus, Indian modernity is a response not only to contemporary events but to at least three pasts. Poetic, not necessarily scholarly, assimilation of all these three resources in various individual ways seems indispensable.

Such multilingualism is a challenge for the reader of Indian poetry rather than the writers themselves—there needs to be a multilingual reader and scholar who is able to acknowledge the multiple linguistic elements that go into the making of a single text.

At Carleton, Prof. Arnab Chakladar’s courses on Indian writing are exemplary in introducing this multilingual context to students through the translated texts on his syllabus.

A recurring theme in several of the texts we have read this term in Arnab’s class on contemporary Indian fiction has been the (under)representation of women in contemporary Indian fiction, as well as the tension between traditional female roles and women’s rights. How do these questions play out in contemporary Indian poetry? 

In the post-1960 world that I chart in my own book on Bombay poetry, I also mention this very issue, where it was still a man’s world as far as the front end of writing was concerned. Women were working in various roles in publishing and editing spheres—look at the enormous influence that the anthropologist and writer, Durga Bhagwat wielded in Marathi circles on the poets of her day. But in terms of getting their work published, there are the rare examples of the radical Eunice De Souza or Kamala Das, who cleared a space for their voices in a man’s world. Otherwise, in the first generation of post-independence writing  it was still the world of the male poet’s voice, and it is only in the later decades that we see more of the women’s writing emerge. It is a very different scene today, with many prominent women writers and poets visible at the center of the multilingual literary world.