Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.5 - Kamala Das remembered


 Kamala Das

A session in honour of Kamala Das, who died last year, became an occasion for several poets to recount the influence she had on them.

Satchidanandan quoted this poem, which is her manifesto in An Introduction (from Summer in Calcutta, 1965):
I am Indian, very brown, born in
Malabar, I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one. Don't write in English, they said,
English is not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak.
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone...
She ends:
I have no joys that are not yours, no
Aches which are not yours. I too call myself I.

Arundhati Subramaniam, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, K. Satchidanandan and Anamika speak about poet Kamala Das

Satchidanandan recalled that he used to wait to read her Malayalam stories in the Mathrubhumi. Until the time of KD, Indian poetry in English was ornamental, said Satchi, naming Toru Dutt and Sarojini Naidu. 

 Poet Rukmini Bhaya Nair with KumKum and Talitha

Rukmini Bhaya Nair said it was in 1986 in a bookshop in Singapore she came across the poems of Kamala Das. Nair wrote a poem for her with these lines:
Sleek pigeon, cooing, from her Cuffe Parade
Heights, those afternoons the predators came,
Attracted by the pheromone scent of your poems.
..

Arundhati Subramaniam, poet, says Poetry has to be crafted, it doesn’t flow

Arundhati Subramaniam said she always feels the ache in KD's poems. There are startling images, luminous and radiant that set her off. Arundhati went on to recite Advice to a Four Year Old Girl on Her First Day of School, a rant about her own school days, when she was “simmering silently at the unreasonableness, the regimentation and straitjacketing that seem to be part of the institutional fabric of even the most enlightened schools.

Poet Anamika is serenaded by Welsh poet and singer Twm Morys

Anamika recited a poem of hers about Kamala Das. The burka-clad image of Kamala Das is etched in the Hindi poet’s mind. “Like most women, Kamala laughed her agonies away,” she added.

A session in honour of Kamala Das who died last year, became the occasion for several poets to recount the influence she had on them and what her traits were. They also recited their own poetry, which often had no hint of Kamala Das at all.

Satchidanandan quoted this poem, her manifesto in An Introduction (from Summer in Calcutta, 1965):
I am Indian, very brown, born in
Malabar, I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one. Don't write in English, they said,
English is not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak.
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone...
She ends:
I have no joys that are not yours, no
Aches which are not yours. I too call myself I.

You may read the whole poem at:

The desire, fulfillment, and sensuality in this famous poem, The Looking Glass, is striking:

Getting a man to love you is easy
Only be honest about your wants as
Woman. Stand nude before the glass with him
[...] Gift him all,
Gift him what makes you woman, the scent of
Long hair, the musk of sweat between the breasts,
The warm shock of menstrual blood, and all your
Endless female hungers. Oh yes, getting
A man to love you is easy, but living
Without him afterward may have to be
Faced...

Satchidanandan recalls that he used to wait to read her Malayalam stories in the Mathrubhumi. It always started with a strong image, like a poem. She along with M.T. Vasudevan Nair and T. Padmanabhan wove new stories concerned with the mind, our psychology, and how we look at the world. They brought in elements of poetry into their fiction.

Until the time of KD, Indian poetry in English was ornamental, said Satchidanandan, naming Toru Dutt and Sarojini Naidu. But this seems unfair to Toru Dutt who was quite modern compared to Sarojini Naidu, and spoke more plainly. It is certainly true as Satchi said, that feelings like a woman's desire, her body, and the various states of love uniquely come through her voice. He quoted from an obituary of his for Kamala Das:
This unique writer, though no Fernando Pessoa to write in four distinct names and styles, did have many voices all strung together by her disarming frankness that unwittingly shocked a conservative society so that they left the complacency of their staus-quoist beliefs to undertake painfully difficult inward journeys. In the end they would realise, even if vaguely like Eliot’s magi, that there was certainly a new birth, and a transformation of the order was afoot. Her many identities were in fruitful dialogue with one another and coalesced into one at the point of realisation: Amy, the beloved of the aristocratic Nalapatt family in South Malabar where she was born and the dearest and the most generous of friends to the small circle of intimate companions to whom she opened her heart completely; Kamala Das , the radical Indian poet writing in English who did not mind sacrificing the sterile aestheticism of older poetry for the freedom of the body and the mind and managed to ‘gatecrash into the precincts of others’ dreams’ (Anamalai Poems)
See:

Rukmini Bhaya Nair said it was in 1986 in a bookshop in Singapore she came across the poems of Kamala Das. Her next encounter was in Germaine Greer's book The Madwoman's Underclothes. Greer says: “In this world of sisterhood all deserve care.” KD was a woman's woman, said Nair. I recall seeing KD in a roomful of poets in Mumbai, sitting like a queen. When she read her poetry the atmosphere changed: there were forests in the room, snakes, the sea. Nair wrote her a poem with these lines:
Sleek pigeon, cooing, from her Cuffe Parade
Heights, those afternoons the predators came,
Attracted by the pheromone scent of your poems.
..
Your poems smelt like the sea at low-tide, like
Guano, the world after summer rain, shaming your
Loud Posters, the tantrum you set up carpeting
The tawdry salon floor, a smoke-edged forest fire.

KD seemed to think there was some truth in this characterisation, and it made her weep. Nair said KD is a major poet because she has the power to disturb. Which leads to the question: is poetry by its very nature meant to disturb?

Once when she was lecturing in N. Bengal University on gender and dissent, a blind man came and said he was KD's son. It was metaphorical; he was writing a book on her with the help of his wife.

For more on KD see:

Arundhati Subramaniam said she always feels the ache in KD's poems. There are startling images, luminous and radiant that set me off. She had an explosive way is using the first person singular.. The 'I' is a rich sumptuous I. Hers is the poetry of confession in large tracts, and also of construction. From her most recent book, her third, AS read this poem as a tribute to KD:
Confession
To take a homeopathic approach to the soul is to deal with
the darkness in ways that are in tune with the dark.
Thomas Moore
It’s taken time
to realise
no one survives.
Not even the ordinary.

Time to own up then
to blue throat
and gall bladder extraordinaire,

to rages pristine,
guilt unsmeared
by mediocrity,

separation traumas
subcontinental
and griefs that dare
to be primordial.

Time to iron out
a face corrugated
by perennial hope,

time to shrug off
the harlotry
and admit
there’s nothing hygienic
about this darkness –
no potted palms,
no elevator music.

I erupt from pillars,
half-lion half-woman.

The floor space index I demand
is nothing short
of epic.

I still wait sometimes
for a flicker of revelation
but for the most part
I’m unbribable.

When I open the coffee percolator
the roof flies off.

For more about AS at the hay festival see:

She went on to recite “Advice to a Four Year Old Girl on Her First Day of School,” a rant about her own school days, when she was “simmering silently at the unreasonableness, the regimentation and straitjacketing that seem to be part of the institutional fabric of even the most enlightened schools.“

Anamika recited a poem of hers about Kamala Das. The burka-clad image of Kamala Das is etched in the Hindi poet’s mind. “Like most women, Kamala laughed her agonies away,” she added.


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