If music be the food of love, as Shakespeare said, poetry is elixir for the soul. For many of us, the idea of a poem is bewildering and frightening. It draws from memory times when we had to sit in class, dreading that the teacher might call on us to give our interpretation of poems we really hadn’t had the life experience to even begin to understand. Ironically, those classes are one of the biggest reasons why we think of poetry as something for the indulgent, for those who have the time and the inclination to spend hours on sonnets, elegies and ballads. We were made to attempt to understand the depths of our hearts and souls before we had felt or seen enough to even hope to comprehend it.
So now, try to forget that vague trepidation that the idea of poetry evokes. Try to set aside the guilt that comes with indulging in something that we’ve come to perceive as a luxury of the privileged. We have poets we should be proud of for their talent, skill, and fearlessness in baring their souls so that ours could be enriched. Their words, in all the many languages we have, matter. They put to verse what we feel but can’t always find the words to express. They bare their souls so that we can smile, laugh, cry, think, and sometimes, just read those words and say, ‘Yes, this is what I want to say but didn’t know how.’
Bengali is one of the most musical of languages. It’s also known for its many works in prose and verse. Rabindranath Tagore might be the most famous of Bengali poets, but it would be a pity to not look beyond that very famous name. Joy Goswami is one such surprisingly powerful and evocative poet. If you still feel that poetry is an indulgence of the elite, you should know that Goswami dropped out of school in class 11. He wrote poetry for small publications for a while before he found acknowledgement and appreciation. His themes seem to dictate his style, making him an unpredictable poet.
Shankha Ghosh, another Bengali writer (though his hometown is now part of Bangladesh), is different. He’s known for his knowledge of prosody and analysis of rhyme, as well as his expertise on Rabindranath Tagore’s work. His poems often put to words the intensity of feelings that echo in all of us, from the ideas of loss and loneliness to the coldness of desire, but usually with a certain intellectual distance that makes your own emotions just a little easier to understand.
“From a faraway land I tremble/With the unbearable agony of desire/Bunched around your white stone of a face/thin wisps of hair tremble/in the dark wind/like so many fingers extended/in pain, in prayer.”
Tamil is one of the oldest classical languages in India. There is a vast amount of literature in Tamil, dating as far back as 300 BCE, and poetry in Tamil is lovely in thought and cadence. Chinnaswami Subramania Bharathi, more famously known as Mahakavi Bharathiyar, is one of the most renowned of Tamil poets. He was born in 1882 and died young at just 38, but even in that short life during which he was a social reformer and activist for Indian independence, he produced poetry that still lives on. Many of his poems deal with the themes of right and wrong, freedom, a fierce and burning pride in his country, and a staunch belief that his country and her people would live up to the vast potential he saw in them. He wrote about equality, a land of equal opportunity. While translation to English takes away the sheer loveliness of the words he used, the message is as relevant today as it ever was:
“There is no caste system/It is a sin to divide people on caste basis/The ones who are really of a superior class are the ones/excelling in being just, wise, educated and loving.”
Malayalam and Tamil are Dravidian languages that share enough roots that those who know one can usually stumble awkwardly through a small conversation in the other. Malayalam cannot claim a heritage as distinguished as Tamil, but it does claim a rich literary heritage. Akkitham Achuthan Namboothiri, who has won multiple awards for his works, is known to be one of the most influential modern poets of Kerala. “Irupatham Noottandinte Ithihasam”, an epic poem, is his most famous work. In it, he muses about heaven, hell, earth and man’s condition.
“Sad indeed is everyone/Living his life in slavery/The greatest too are not exempt/From the chains of Birth and Death.”
Punjabi is another language that lends itself to rhyme, rhythm and music. The lyrical language, with its idioms and picturesque sayings, is a wonderful tool for the poet, and nobody used them better than Waris Shah. He was knowledgeable about Sufism, which often influenced his work very deeply. He is most famous for “Heer Ranjha”, a love poem with evocative language and imagery, which also talks about the relationship between man and God within a context created by a tale of romantic love. Even today, you’ll find that quotes from Waris Shah will make their way into conversation if you go to his homeland.
In Telugu, we have a poet couple who accomplished great things in the literary world. Annamacharya and his wife Timmakka, who lived in the 1400s, composed many poems with their roots in the “Mahabharata”. Annamacharya was known for his musical keertanas that praised the deity Venkateshwara. He was so very good at it that he has come to be considered an avatar of Nandaka, the sword of Vishnu. Timmakka, his wife, is thought to be the first Telugu woman poet of fame and is known for “Subhadra Kalyanam”, a work with 1,170 poems about Arjuna and Subhadra’s marriage. The couple’s son and grandson were also famous poets and composers in their own rights. The family’s works have greatly influenced Carnatic music and are used even today in concerts.
Urdu is a language with many glorious poems and songs, partly because when Urdu was the most important language in the country, there were so many upheavals that poetry was necessary for expression and for comfort. Ghalib, considered the last truly great poet of the Mughal era, composed ghazals that are still relevant and thought-provoking, apart from being soul-stirringly beautiful. He was also quite the character who lived a fairly decadent and rakish life, a fact that he felt made him a better poet because he experienced the different sides of life. His life also had tragedies, like losing his children. While a translation cannot do justice, this is a small example of his work:
“The prison of life and the bondage of grief are one and the same/Before the onset of death, how can man expect to be free of grief?”
It’s not just our own languages that we have created profound poetry with; there are poets who have accomplished great things in English, as well. One of the most powerful among them is Kamala Das, whose open and powerful writing created quite the scandal, since she never shied away from exploring women’s power through sexuality. She explored new grounds by refusing to be bound by propriety or conventions of poetry, for which she was loudly chastised by a community that still believes in women’s voices being controlled. But she was nominated and shortlisted for a Nobel Prize once, so she must’ve got something right. – Sarah