K. Satchidanandan (Satchi) is a poet of national and international repute writing in Malayalam. He was Professor of English at Christ College, University of Calicut, Kerala, editor of Indian Literature, the journal of the Sahitya Akademi (The National Academy of Letters) and later its Chief Executive. He has 21 collections of poetry in Malayalam, 16 collections of world poetry in translation and 23 collections of critical essays and interviews besides three collections of essays in English and several works in Malayalam, English and Hindi. I heard him read at the Delhi International Literary Festival in December 2008 and in April 2009 at Kellogg College, Oxford and was astonished by the luminosity, depth and humanity of his poetry, an example of which is shown below. Satchi took time out from his busy week to talk to me about Indian poetry, translation and the kind of verse that is spoken by parrots.
by K. Satchidanandan, translated from the Malayalam by the poetThe mad have no caste
nor religion. They transcend
gender, live outside
ideologies. We do not deserve
Their language is not of dreams
but of another reality. Their love
is moonlight. It overflows
on the full moon day.
Looking up they see
gods we have never heard of. They are
shaking their wings when
we fancy they are
shrugging their shoulders. They hold
even flies have souls
and the green god of grasshoppers
leaps up on thin legs.
At times they see trees bleed, hear
lions roaring from the streets. At times
they watch Heaven gleaming
in a kitten’s eyes, just as
we do. But they alone can hear
ants sing in a chorus.
While patting the air
they are taming a cyclone
over the Mediterranean. With
their heavy tread, they stop
a volcano from erupting.
They have another measure
of time. Our century is
their second. Twenty seconds,
and they reach Christ; six more,
they are with the Buddha.
In a single day, they reach
the big bang at the beginning.
They go on walking restless for
their earth is boiling still.
The mad are not
mad like us.
You have had 27 collections of poems in 17 languages, a tremendous achievement for any poet. Who would you say have been your main influences?
I have learnt a lot from my predecessors in Malayalam like Kumaran Asan, Vailoppilly and Idassery and, of course, poets from outside like Rilke, Lorca, Neruda, Cesar Vallejo and Paul Celan too have taught their lessons.
You translate your own poetry, and that of others, into English. Have you translated poetry from English into Malayalam? Which English poets translate well and which not so well?
I have translated mostly European poets into Malayalam through English, but have done some poems by W. B. Yeats (e.g. “Easter 1916”), Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden and others. The most exciting was the translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I translated all the sonnets for the Complete Works of Shakespeare in Malayalam. It was difficult to contain the meaning in 14 lines, I had to use 16 lines in most cases. I did them in a metre close to prose called keka in Malayalam where each line has 14 letters.
Would you say Indian poetry is reaching a wider, world audience today?
Yes, but in a very small way. Older poets like Kabir or Ghalib or Tagore may be known, but not many poets of today. This is especially true of poets writing in the languages. The non-availability of translations may be one reason for this ignorance. There are anthologies in English, the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets being the latest, but most of them feature only poets writing in English. ICCR has published an anthology of Indian language poetry in four volumes and I have edited one – Signatures – for the National Book Trust. Much more needs to be done to promote Indian poetry across the world.
Any new Indian poets or trends we should be watching out for?
Women poets are doing well in India, and there are poets who experiment with form. Among the younger crop in English, I particularly like Jeet Thayil, Vivek Narayanan, Arundhati Subramaniam, Anjum Hasan, Mamang Dai, Sridala Swamy and Priya Sarukkai Chabria. My language, Malayalam, has a good crop of young poets too.
Most Western poets and critics know about the ghazal tradition but can you tell me a little bit about some other Indian/ Malayalam forms, for example kathakali and kilipaattu?
Kathakali is a classical form of dance performance based on a verse text calledattakkatha whose narrative content often comes from the mahakavyas (epics) or the puranas (mythological narratives) and whose characters generally include gods, demons, warriors, devotees, hermits, princes and princesses. It has fixed costumes based on the inborn nature of the character. The actors do not speak, but only enact the verses sung from behind with traditional accompaniments like the long drum and gong. It mostly follows the acting manual of Bharata, that is, natyasastra, though there are elements that can be traced to the folk tradition. Most of the plays end in a murder or a marriage.
Kilipaattu is a form invented by Thunchathu Ramanujan Ezhuthacchan, the writer of Adhyatma Ramayana in Malayalam. Kili means a lark and pattu means song. Here a bird, a parrot traditionally, is asked to tell a story, and the narration is done by the bird instead of the poet. There are many conjectures as to why Ezhuthacchan asked the bird to tell Rama’s story, one of them being that the poet belonged to a lower caste (he was a Soodra) who was not supposed to write on gods and learn the vedas, so he resorted to this technique of indirect narration. Some view it just as a poetic strategy. And some identify the bird with Suka, a wise hermit. Later Ezhuthacchan rewrote two more epics in this form, Mahabharata and Bhagavata.
Do you think these two forms translate well into English?
Translating them would be a big challenge as they are meant to be sung/chanted. I have translated parts of Adhyatma Ramayana for a Sahitya Akademi project. I could carry over the content, but the rhythms were mostly lost. The best of attakkathas in my language—Nalacharitam by Unnayi Variyar—has also been translated into English, but it cannot be sung .
In an interview for World Literature Today in 2007 the Nigerian poet Niyi Osundare says of translations from his native Yoruba, “Without a doubt the most difficult aspect to translate is the music… the ideophonic system.” Do you agree with this?
Yes, I do. As I said in the case of attakkatha and kilipaattu, the verbal music is the first casualty and then the syntactical order. But I do not believe in the theory of the impossibility of translation—these are difficulties, but then there are gains too—the poems get reborn in another language with another syntax and rhythm.
You mentioned Ezhuthacchan in connection with caste—in 20th Century Literatures of India, ed. Nalini Natarajan, 1996, there is a discussion of the work of Puran Singh, a Punjabi poet who “broke barriers and chose free verse… following the style of Walt Whitman.” One of his themes was “a passionate preaching of the importance of the common man.” Could you say a little about poetry in India now—is it reaching the “common” man and woman? Is it exploring new subjects, themes, forms and registers?
In medieval times—which in India was not a dark age, but one of illumination—poets like Kabir, Surdas, Meerabai, Tukaram, Basava, Akka Mahadevi, Andal, Namdev, Jnandev took poetry to the people. It was metaphysical poetry at its best. Perhaps, once again, poetry is being given back to the people today by Dalit and tribal poets. Forgotten forms are being revived and dialects are replacing standardised language.
British poets such as Daljit Nagra are gaining popular and critical acclaim with a form of poetry which uses Punjabi English or “Punglish” and echoes actual and linguistic Punjabi characteristics. How relevant is poetry of the diaspora for an Indian readership? Is it of general interest? Will it last?
I personally like Daljit’s poetry, especially for its humour, the new language and his rap singing. But there are very few diasporic poets who are trying something like that. There are fine poets of course, like Sujata Bhatt, Meena Alexander, Tabish Khair and others, not forgetting those who are no more like A. K. Ramanujan and G. S. Saratchandra. Of them the younger ones like Mani Rao and Mukta Sambrani are trying new forms. The contribution of the poets of the diaspora to Indian poetry in English is undeniable. I am not sure they are all consciously diasporic in their poetry although some do treat Indian themes with nostalgic distance or feel they are in a “third space” to use Homi Bhabha’s expression.
Finally, Satchi, if you could only take one book of poetry to a desert island, which would it be?
The Mahabharata. If it is to be in English, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.
Thank you Satchi.