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Arun Kolatkar and Literary Modernism in India: Moving Lines

Laetitia Zecchini

Bloomsbury India

Pages: 229 Rs. 499

In Kolatkar’s world, Meera is as ‘modern’ as Ginsberg

Laetitia Zecchini’s book on Arun Kolatkar, one of the major Indian poets of the last century, is an exceptional and eminently readable work of literary scholarship, writes Vineet Gill.

Vineet Gill  29th Nov 2014

Arun Kolatkar

rigins of modernism can't be traced back to some specific moment in history, and the movement can't indeed be attributed to any one continent or any one country. If Baudelaire, considered the father of European high modernism, hadn't read the works of the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, his impact on the world of letters would have been dampened beyond measure.

The bhakti poets of India, like Meerabai or Tukaram, with their rejection of the orthodoxy and their emphasis on the spoken rather than the written language, were therefore no less modern than Apollinaire or William Carlos Williams or Allen Ginsberg; and that's why we find shades of all these poets so congruously inhabiting Arun Kolatkar's poetry.

"I've achieved a likeness/ of everybody," writes Kolatkar in one of his several translations of Tukaram. In Arun Kolatkar and Literary Modernism in India, Laetitia Zecchini's remarkable book on one of India's best poets and his legacy, we are reminded of this modern impulse, embodied by Kolatkar, to reach out "across disciplines, genres, epochs and languages" and to poach "material from one territory to the other". It makes for fascinating reading simply to go through the list of authors Kolatkar read year after year. Zecchini's book is littered with names; Rimbaud, Beckett, Catullus, Belli, Tu Fu, Janabai, Gogol, Mardhekar and Mailer among countless others, to account for what she calls the poet's bibliomania. To list the books Kolatkar read in preparation for his Marathi epic Bhijki Vahi (sadly unavailable in English) would be, in Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's words, "to outline a course in world literature".

Kolatkar’s poetry shuns the bookish world of received ideas and stylistic flourishes. Zecchini writes that his poetic language “undertook a conscious journey towards anti-style colloquial simplicity”.

Yet Kolatkar's poetry shuns the bookish world of received ideas and stylistic flourishes. Zecchini writes that his poetic language "undertook a conscious journey towards anti-style colloquial simplicity". This of course is consistent with the modern preoccupation with the commonplace as opposed to the monumental or the world-historical. Kolatkar's Kala Ghoda Poems are filled with some of the most beautiful evocations of the ordinary — of marginal lives and discarded things on a Bombay street. A garbage trolley, for instance, is described as having "all the starkness/ and simplicity of a child's drawing/ done in black crayon."

Garbage is indeed an important theme for Kolatkar, as it was for many modern artists Marcel Duchamp onwards. Zecchini cites the example of the American sculptor John Chamberlain, two of whose "300-pound metal pieces were mistaken for junk and carted away as they sat outside a gallery warehouse in Chicago." But Kolatkar's attachment to rubbish seems more fundamental than this when we consider that he lived in, and was a product of, Bombay, a city built on land reclaimed from the sea, its appendages literally erected on piles of rubbish. As Kolatkar put it: "(...) the more you clean Bombay, / the more Bombay there is to clean."

he city, and the artistic subculture it fostered during the '60s and '70s, is also a subject of Arun Kolatkar and Literary Modernism in India. The book is concerned with the pre-Mumbai phase of the metropolis, when Bombay was emphatically Bombay and when its bohemian landmarks had not been replaced by insipid icons of globalisation (the Wayside Inn, Kolatkar's hangout for almost three decades, was shut down in 2002 to make space for a Chinese restaurant). This was the time of a flourishing culture of little magazines (both in English and Marathi), of the Progressive Writers' Association and the once-venerable Sir JJ School of Art, where Kolatkar (an acclaimed visual artist and advertising man) was himself enrolled, taking around eight years to complete his diploma.

Zecchini devotes two long chapters towards the end of her book on the politics of Kolatkar's poetry, equating the "aesthetics of the new" in post-independence India with the "politics of the new". She identifies Kolatkar's work not as overtly political but obliquely so. With its focus on the outsider and the marginal, according to her argument, Kolatkar's poetry disrupts the set hierarchies and social order of Indian society: "Kolatkar's poetry precisely lets those who are declared null and void, forgotten or unfit speak."

Kolatkar was a bilingual poet par excellence with two major bodies of work existing in two languages, something that doesn't have many precedents in world literature. And yet, he is a figure barely remembered in this country.

The fact that Zecchini's book is the first full-length work of scholarship on Kolatkar further confirms Mehrotra's dire pronouncement on Indian literary history, when he called it a "story of forgetfulness". In the preface to her book, Zecchini expresses disappointment at her lack of Marathi — a language in which Kolatkar published prolifically — but goes on to say that she did not let this impediment prevent her from writing about Kolatkar: "Since no book exists on the poet as yet, it seemed imperative to write one."

Zecchini is a researcher working with the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique or National Centre for Scientific Research) in Paris, and she brings to bear a scholar's thoroughness to her project, having closely reviewed Kolatkar's archived papers, including his unpublished manuscripts, drafts and diaries. Her careful analysis of Kolatkar's life and work, her deep understanding of the history of the arts, combined with the reminiscences of the other Bombay poets — including Mehrotra, Adil Jussawalla and Dilip Chitre — recorded here give this book its authoritative weight and make it much more valuable, and certainly more readable, than an academic monograph.

Oscar Wilde was an aesthete, believing as he did in the primacy of art over life. Although he tended to oversell his case, Wilde was a perceptive critic who once wrote memorably that there were no fogs before Dickens and no sunsets before Turner. This was a comment on how art expands our imagination and allows us to finally see what has always been right before our eyes. Many of Kolatkar's poems were written in the second person, directly addressing the reader, and the word "look" recurs throughout his work: "Look:/ The lady with a head of wirewool hair, /peppercorn eyes..." goes a fragment in Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda. We read this and realise that we had never seen this lady before, neither her hair and eyes, nor the beautiful wasteland — this city built on rubbish — that she walks over, for all of this never existed before Kolatkar wrote about it.

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