Topography and Poetry: A Study of Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri and Jaydeep Sarangi’s Jhargram Poems

Anisha Ghosh
Junior Research Fellow (State), Department of English, University of North Bengal

Abstract: Topography or landscape has been a major aspect of English poetry since 17th century. The genre called topographical poetry was established in 1642 with Denham’s “Cooper’s Hill”. Since then the whole corpus of English poetry has been overflowing with brilliant examples of landscape poetry right from Pope’s “Windsor Castle” to Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”. Indian Writing in English too abounds in several examples of topographical poetry – from Jayanta Mahapatra’s Orissa, to the pristine hills and rivers of Mamang Dai’s Arunachal Pradesh, diverse landscape of India has been featured in its poetry. However, readers will be thoroughly mistaken in believing landscape poetry to be merely picturesque portrayals of geographical reality. This paper attempts to study the works of two poets from two geographical extremes – Arun Kolatkar from western and Jaydeep Sarangi from eastern India – tracing their different attitudes and observation of the topography they set their poems in. The analysis is directed towards how topography or landscape is just the pretext for these poets to articulate different ideas and emotions – while Kolatkar takes up the postcolonial project of subcultural resistance in his Jejuri poems, Sarangi in his Jhargram poems reverts to nostalgia and connectedness to one’s roots.
Keywords: topography, culture, subculture, postcolonial, nostalgia, scepticism
The lover’s quarrel between poetry and philosophy is as ancient as the history of philosophy, or the history of poetry or of both. Plato in The Republic banished poets from his ideal commonwealth since according to him poetry was twice removed from reality. If poetry is an illusion, the poet, the illusionist is the greatest impostor whose influence is pernicious to the health of the ideal society. According to Plato philosophy and not poetry can be regarded as the ideal source of wisdom. Plato’s arguments against poetry have been subjected to centuries of critical enquiry and debates by poets and philosophers alike. Aristotle in his Poetics formulated a proper theory of poetry, the tragic art, and reworked the mimetic theory. Horace in his Ars Poetica defines poetry as an art form that imparts wisdom through delight, which is the best form of pedagogy. During the English Renaissance Sir Philip Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry (1595) drawing heavily on the classical thinkers like Horace and Aristotle takes the defence of poetry a step further and becomes the pioneer text of literary theory. Though initially written as a response to Stephen Gosson’s attack on the English stage in The School of Abuse, Sidney eventually takes up some serious allegations against poetry, makes his defence by showing how poetry combining the liveliness of history and the wisdom of philosophy stands out as a better medium of imparting knowledge than both. Sidney emphasizes poetry’s power to move people to virtuous action and takes the bull of Plato’s allegation of poets being liars by the horns by saying that poetry never makes false claims but only hypothetical or pseudo-statements.
The first generation of Indian poets in English tried to resolve this binary in their writings. Poets like Rabindra Nath Tagore, Toru Dutt, Sri Aurobindo found a meeting ground between Indian philosophy, mysticism, spirituality and poetry. However as Aravind Krishna Mehrotra in the introduction to his anthology of Indian English poetry writes,
Henry Derozio, Toru Dutt, Aurobindo Ghose, and Sarojini Naidu were courageous and perhaps charming men and women, but not those with whom you could today do business. The poets of the post-independence period had therefore to make their pacts elsewhere. Some were made in their own backyard (with Kapilar, Paranar, Basavanna, Allama Prabhu, Kabir,Tukaram, Nirala, Faiz) , and some overseas (with Browning, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Auden. Williams,Stevens, Lowell, Ginsberg). (Anthology 2)
Overcoming the linguistic challenge by developing what Mehrotra would call the continuous language or ‘ideolect’, such as Mahapatra’s English-Oriya or Kolatkar and Chitre’s English-Marathi or Ramanujan’s English-Kannada-Tamil, or Adil Jussawalla’s polyglot linguistic imagination (Anthology 6), the Indian English poet like an iconoclast has shattered the romantic notion that poetic expression is possible only in one’s mother tongue. Kamala Das’s outspoken protest against this romanticization of one’s native language as the most suitable medium of poetic expression in her most anthologized and frequently quoted poem “Introduction” deserves special mention here:
Don’t write in English, they said,
English is not your mother-tongue. . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone. It is half English, half
Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,
It is as human as I am human . . . (n.pag.)
When Das writes her language is half English, half Indian, she is not only making a postcolonial statement, but also emphasizing the importance of topography in shaping the Indian English poet’s idiolect. This paper attempts to look into how topography or landscape influences not only the Indian English poet’s linguistic but also his/her socio-cultural and political expression.
Landscape or topographical poetry, as a genre was established in the seventeenth century with John Denham’s “Cooper’s Hill” (1642). Dr. Johnson in his Lives of Poets mentions Denham as a practitioner of what he calls ‘local poetry’ of which “the fundamental subject is some particular landscape, to be poetically described, with the addition of such embellishments as may be supplied by historical retrospection, or incidental meditation” (qtd. in Banks 269).  Dr. Johnson’s views of historical retrospection to be an embellishment and meditation or introspection as merely incidental in topographical poetry does not hold good in the light of Denham’s poem and stands challenged in several other instances of landscape poetry in English literature as nature, description in a more generalized sense, serves only as the pretext to socio-political commentary and philosophical reflections. From the “auspicious heights” of Cooper’s Hill, overlooking the river Thames and the Windsor castle, and the city of London at a distance, the speaker ruminates on distant city and reflects on the political turmoil of seventeenth century England as his gaze turns to the Windsor castle. In the Romantic Period, Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” stands out as an example of landscape poetry as the poet’s imagination not only brings the river Wye and the Abbey alive, but also employs the landscape as a pretext to philosophical musings. The outside view stands out as Nature as a whole which is for Wordsworth, and all the Romantics for that matter, the greatest influence on their poetry. The visits to the Abbey in the past and in the now of the poem mark not only a difference in the poet’s attitude to nature, but also his growth as a poet. So the landscape in Wordsworth’s poem becomes more than just the description of external nature, rather his looking at the landscape is instrumental in shaping his poetic theory.  There are several other instances of landscape poetry in English literature such as Pope’s “Windsor Forest”, John Dyer’s “Grongar Hill”, Thomson’s “Seasons”, Matthew Arnold’s “The Scholar Gypsy” and “Dover Beach” to name few.
Landscape or topography has played a significant part in Indian English literature. Appropriating this genre from the English practitioners the Indian English writers of both prose as well as verse, manoeuvred it to their postcolonial purpose of articulation of their society, culture, critiquing as well as asserting it in a language which is modified to fit their own purposes. In fiction Indian writers have made brilliant use of topography to articulate socio-cultural reality and the crises of modern India. In Raja Rao’s Kanthapura the writer’s mythopoeic imagination transforms the fictional village into a background for discussing the Gandhian political wave of the 1930s. The locale ceases to be only an embellishment adding local flavour and colour to his writing, but through the narration of his ‘sthalapurana’, the legend of the land, Rao chronicles the social and political turmoil of contemporary India. R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi, a fictional any town of Tamil Nadu, coming to life through Narayan’s vivid portrayal of such landmarks as Albert Mission School and College, the river Sarayu, Jagan’s Sweet shop, the streets like Lawley extension and Kabir Street and a gradual narrative of the town growing and developing from his earliest work Swami and Friends in the 1930s to The Vendor of Sweets of the 1960s, is a microcosmic representation of postcolonial, post-Independence India caught up in a tussle between tradition and modernity. In poetry we have beautiful verses steeped in the lived day to day reality of the poets’ place of origin as can be seen in the poems of master poets like Jayanta Mahapatra and later poets like Mamang Dai. Mamang Dai’s poems through their pristine images of mountains and rivers try to shape a new cartography for Indian poetry. Writing Arunachal Pradesh into the topography of India through poetry is a way of combating cultural alienation and neglect which looms large in the works of several poets from the North East. This paper focuses on the work of two poets from two distinct geographical and cultural locations within India – Arun Kolatkar and Jaydeep Sarangi, thus bringing the West and East of Indian poetry together for the purpose of analyzing how differently topography is looked and treated by these two poets in their works.
Indian English poetry in particular, and Indian English literature, like all other postcolonial literatures in general, developed through the three phases – adopt, adapt and adept. In the beginnings during 1850-1900 it went through the adopt phase of imitation of the models of English Romanticism as can be seen in the works of Toru Dutt. In the second phase or adapt phase came the assimilation of western influences into the lived reality of colonial experience during 1900-1947.  During this period English models were adapted to Indian usage, as we see poets like Sri Aurobindo, Sarojini Naidu, Rabindranath Tagore negotiating influences of English Romanticism with Indian nationalism, mysticism and spirituality. Poetry in the post-independence phase became experimental, what K. Srinivasa Iyengar considers the ‘new poetry’, which was the outcome of a sensibility shaped by the political and economic uncertainties of the thirties. Iyengar calls these writers revaluating and re-thinking the incumbent literary models as ‘progressives’ or ‘proletarians’ writing the “literature of protest”: “there were poets who were disillusioned enough about everything to make them turn away from romance to satire, from idealism to cynicism. Even some of those that had begun as ‘traditionalists’ were soon infected by the new movement, and started writing in a new style” (Iyengar 643). Arun Kolatkar is a product of this literary current and as Rajiv S. Patke observes, is a true modernist of Indian English poetry “lean, dry and spare in outlook” (Concise History 287). An efficiently bilingual poet with a modernist outlook, Kolatkar’s Jejuri poems are not only a novel take on the traditional model of landscape poetry as discussed above, but also highly postcolonial as here he turns an English model into the artistic purpose of articulating the modernist Indian sensibility and the subversion of dominant normative culture by enacting a tour of the pilgrimage town in words.
Jejuri is a loose narrative sequence of poetic fragments depicting a trip to the pilgrimage shrine of Khandoba, situated in the rugged terrains in close proximity to Pune (Concise History 287). Traditional criticism has always seen Kolatkar’s take on the temple, its rituals and devotees as that of an urban elitist scoffing at the innocent subaltern steeped in its own system of beliefs and a way of life different from this Bombay bred observer. To some, it is a kind of indigenous orientalism which perpetuates the binary between urban and rural, mainstream and subaltern. However a closer reading of the poems reveals what Huzaifa Pandit would call a poetics of subcultural of resistance (Pandit 354), which in a way attempts to subvert the dominant normative brahminical parent culture of the nation. The speaker of the poems, the tourist is more of an observer and the central idea of this sequence of thirty one poems is all about how one looks at what is already sanctioned and approved as a cultural given. The tourist’s flaneur like dispassionate looking without really getting immersed or attached into the sight or even in the act of looking gives him a different kind of awareness of the surroundings than that of Wordsworth in “Tintern Abbey”. In the introduction to Kolatkar in his anthology, A. K. Mehrotra thus observes, “Jejuri's lines are acts of looking (the sun) at the physical world (the railway track). They name and observe, isolate and magnify, and by so doing radically transform – or in Rilke's phrase, ‘make glorious’ – everything they see” (Anthology 54).
In the first poem “The Bus”, as the pilgrim’s progress to the temple town begins, Kolatkar performs with words the act of looking which is to be repeated throughout the sequence, as
You look down the roaring road.
You search for signs of daybreak in
what little light ·spills out of the bus.

Your own divided face in a pair of glasses
on an old man's nose
is all the countryside you get to see. (Anthology 62)
The act of looking is limited by the illumination from within, the little light spilling out of the bus and what is seen is a reflection of the onlooker’s own image projected on the glasses of the other – the old man bearing caste mark. Here comes Kolatkar’s first blow on the brahminical representation of mainstream Indian (read Hindu) masses. When he writes “You seem to move continually forward/ towards a destination/ just beyond the caste mark between his eyebrows”, the tourist-speaker-onlooker makes his purpose of looking clear, it is to look beyond normativity. About his dry commentating poetic voice, mixed with humour, cynicism, irony and satire, R. Parthasarathy writes, “Kolatkar expresses what he sees with the eye of a competent reporter in a language that is colloquial and spare. The result is a poem of unexpected beauty and power” (Parthasarathy 40). Kolatkar’s tourist-onlooker sees ruins in the ruins of Jejuri, there is no attempt in his part to see god in every shrine – he is too detached to get into some soul searching spirituality. Unlike Wordsworth at the banks of Wye he fails to seek a divine presence in the stones of Jejuri, even for poetic inspiration. A part of him prefers to remain outside the temple and smoke as we find in the poem ‘Makarand’ (Parthasarathy 51), another part ventures into the “Heart of Ruin” (Anthology 63) where the god Maaruti doesn’t mind the building falling apart. Neither does the mongrel bitch with her pups care about the precariousness of the structure – as long as she is sheltered, she doesn’t mind the roof coming down. By juxtaposing an effigy with the mongrel family in the holy ruins, Kolatkar steals divinity out of god and places him in the realm of the immediate, the worldly. The temple then is reduced to but the house of god and nothing more: “no more a place of worship this place/ is nothing more than the house of god” (Anthology 63). Another instance of such juxtaposition can be found in “Manohar”(Anthology 66) where the distinction between temple and cowshed is lost on the visitor at first, the cow staring at his face exorcises him of the frenzy of his god quest. In Jejuri “scratch a rock/ and a legend springs” (Anthology 68), there is a very thin line between a god and a stone, just as there is one between faith and scepticism. In another poem “Chaitanya” Kolatkar makes this point with haiku like precision
sweet as grapes
are the stones of jejuri
said chaitanya

he popped a stone
in his mouth
and spat out gods (Anthology 66)
Contemporary Indian English poetry too abounds in numerous examples of topographical poetry. In his recent book of collected poems titled Faithfully, I Wait Dr. Jaydeep Sarangi, bilingual poet, translator, and editor from West Bengal reverts to landscape poetry as is obvious from the very subtitle of the book “Poems on rain, thunder and lightning at Jhargram and beyond”. The title sweeps the reader of his/her feet as a topographic reality “Jhargram” is juxtaposed with “beyond” which adds an abstract ring to it. There are several poems in this volume which not only portray Jhargram, a district in southern part of West Bengal known for its forests, ancient temples and royal palaces, but also are very much a harvest of their topography.  A tourist attraction and a place often in news for torrential rains and heavy thunderstorms, Jhargram is a perfect example of the fierce yet beautiful. The first poem in the collection “Love and Longing at Jhargram” (Faithfully 7) encapsulates nostalgia and a sense of rootedness to one’s originary community, its culture-scape and history which is central to Sarangi’s poetic philosophy. The epigraph where he quotes from U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan:Every successful individual knows that his or her achievement depends on a community of persons working together” (Faithfully 7) expresses the poet’s communitarian vision of life. The poet epigrammatically asserts that wherever one goes one can never drift away from one’s origins: “My laurels are made of forest leaves” (Faithfully 7). A similar emotion is invoked in the poem “For My ancestors” (Faithfully 15), a poem in which the poet like Wordsworth’s skylark.  Just like the bird soars high but always has his eyes fixed on the nest, so does the poet always come back to his roots, no matter how far he drifts from the home in spatial distance.
Throughout the collection there are several poems that take us back to the landscape of Jhargram through the poet’s imagination, his memories and his longing for his roots. In the poem “Mango Tree” (Faithfully 12) there is no elaborate description of a landscape, but a cluster of memories as sweet as the fruit of that tree invokes a landscape in our mind. The earliest teaching lessons that he took and the first flashes of creativity he experienced here make the reader assume that the mango tree is the same sapling which the poet planted in the first poem. Two other poems which require special attention are “Dulung” (Faithfully 22) and “Temple Kanakdurga” (Faithfully 32), the two landmarks already mentioned in “Love and Longing in Jhargram” which bring the topography of Jhargram to life. The temple, the forest landscape and the rivulet beside it all overwhelm the senses with nostalgia; the poem is more about the effect the temple and its surroundings have on the poet than about the temple itself. A recurrent metaphor in Sarangi’s poems is the river, and “Dulung” explains why. The river symbolizes a corridor between past and present; it also symbolizes the passage of time. River imagery serves the important purpose of forging connections. In the poem “Sailing through Ichamati” in the collection The Wall and Other Poems, the river Ichamati that separates India from Bangladesh has a cartographic significance of demarcating the topography of two separated nations, at the same time the river acts as a corridor to the past when there were o borders:
Ichamati is the corridor
Into things we can design.
We are twins.
Our veins have one blood
Even when we are separate souls on map. (Wall 13)
By forging such connections the river here challenges cartographic realities and re-arranges topography.
Topography or locale serves two different purposes in the poetry of these two poets. While for Kolatkar the temple town of Jejuri serves as a medium of articulating his scepticism and putting forth his subcultural resistance to the hegemonic mainstream brahminical culture of religiosity and holiness, for Sarangi, the landscape of Jhargram is an attempt to re-connect to his origins. Kolatkar looks at Jejuri rather dispassionately, his gaze constantly shifting. Sarangi on the other hand locates his self – personal and poetic – in Jhargram. His looking is a kind of turning the gaze inward, which leads to moments of nostalgia and contemplation. The physical landscape acts as a bridge between the present and the past of the poet, while Jejuri defies any sense of continuity or connectedness as it brings the very moment of looking, without transforming the surroundings or being transformed by it, to life.

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