Untrendy Topics: Modern Hindi Poetry

I've been doing some research on Indian writers from the 1930s-1960s for a long-term scholarly project, and in the process I've been learning about a few lesser-known Hindi and Urdu writers. In Hindi in particular, I've been interested in the "New Poetry" (Nayi Kavita) Movement, with a small group of experimental writers adapting the western, free verse style to Hindi.

For a little background on Hindi literature in the 20th century, you might start with Wikipedia; it's not bad. The New Poetry movement came out of a general flowering of Hindi poetry from the early 20th century, a style of poetry known as Chhayavad (Shadowism). Mahadevi Verma is one of the best known writers in this style; another notable figure is Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan's father (and actually quite a good poet).

For me, the Chhayavad poetry sounds a little too pretty ("precious," as they say in Creative Writing class), though I must admit that part of the problem is that I simply don't have the Hindi vocabulary to be able to keep up with the language the Chhayavad poets tend to use. I prefer what came after, especially the New Poetry movement. The "New Poetry" style roughly resembles the modernism of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Hilda Doolittle in English literature. The language is stripped down and conversational, rather than lyrical. Some poets, like Kedarnath Singh, focus intently on conveying, with a kind of crystalline minimalism, pure images. Others are somewhat more conventional.

Below, I'll give some examples of a few favorite poems from the "New Poetry" movement, with several poems in both Hindi (Devanagri) and English.

My source today is mainly Lucy Rosenstein's "New Poetry in Hindi", which is available on Amazon for interested readers; Rosenstein prints both the Hindi originals as well as her translations.

In her introduction, Rosenstein describes how modern poetry in Hindi emerged after 1900, with Mahavirprasad Dwiwedi's promotion of poetry in Khari Boli Hindi (earlier, poetry had mainly been written in Braj Bhasha). There was an early spurt of nationalist poetry, but, partially under the influence of English Romantic poetry (Wordsworth and Shelley), a movement calling itself "Chhayavad" emerged in the 1920s. Here is an example of a few lines in the Chhayavad style, from Sumitranandan Pant's Almore ka vasant (Almora Spring):

Vidrum ou, markat kee chhaya,
Sone chaandee ka sooryatap;
Him parisal kee reshmee vaayu,
Shat ratnachhay kharg chitrit nabh!

Coral and emerald shade
sun's heat first gold then silver;
snow mountain scent on silken breezes,
a hundred jeweled brids painting the sky
(Translated David Rubin)

It may be that my own limited Hindi renders poems like this somewhat inaccessible, at least in the original. More generally, operating from the translation, I put poems like this under "sounds pretty, but..." (That's my personal taste. I have friends who love writers like Pant and Mahadevi.)

After the Chhayavad movement, the dominant stream in Hindi poetry seemed to split into two in the 1930s, with Progressives in one camp (Pragativad), and Experimentalists in the other (Prayogvad).

Progressive Poetry was part of a major movement in Indian literature that began in the 1930s. This movement is usually called the Progressive Writers Movement, and it had major literary communities in fiction, drama, as well as poetry; it also had offshoots in many different South Asian languages (earlier I have written about some Urdu writers loosely affiliated with the Progressive Writers, Sa'adat Hasan Manto, and Ismat Chughtai). As the name indicates, this was writing largely motivated by a desire to make a political intervention. A fair amount of the writing was anti-colonial, and much of it was oriented to social and economic reforms within Indian society.

Just after the Progressive trend in poetry began in the 1930s, a much smaller group of Hindi writers initiated a new, experimentalist style. Much of this writing avoided big political themes in favor of more abstract meditations. (Importantly, many of the writers in this movement overlapped with the Progressive Writers, and some were card-carrying political activists (i.e., communists). They simply didn't bring themes from the political world into their writing.

Initially the movement was spearheaded by Agyeya (also sometimes spelled Ajneya in English; his real name was Sacchidananda Hirananda Vatsayan), beginning with an anthology called Tar Saptak, in 1943.

Agyeya (whose pen-name literally means "Unknowable") is a really interesting character. He was educated at home initially, as his father didn't believe in formal schooling, though he did go on to get a Bachelors of Science at a British college. He also started an M.A. in English, but didn't finish, after he got involved in the independence movement. According to Rosenstein, Agyeya spent three years in jail (1931-1934), which proved decisive in terms of his development as a poet. He was a mass of contradictions - widely recognized as an activist and political leader, Agyeya was also deeply solitary in some ways. Raised as a traditional Brahmin, he also exemplified modernism in his intellectual and literary output.

Here is an example of Agyeya's poetry, in the Experimental ("New Poetry") style:


चुप-चाप चुप चाप
झरने का स्वर
हम में भर जाय

चुप-चाप चुप-चाप
शरद की चांदनी
झील की लहरों पर तीर आय,

चुप-चाप चुप-चाप
जीवन का रहस्य
जो कहा न जाय, हमारी
ठहरी आँखों में गहराय,

चुप-चाप चुप-चाप
हम पुलकित विराट में दुबे
पर विराट हम में मिल जाय --

चुप चाप चुप च [??] प


May the murmur of water falling
Fill us,

May the autumn moon
Float on the ripples of the lake,

May life's unspoken mystery
Deepen in our still eyes,

May we, ecstatic, be immersed in the expanse
Yet find it in ourselves

Quiet ... ly ...
(translated by Lucy Rosenstein)

Another favorite New Poetry writer is Raghuvir Sahay, who came of age a generation after Agyeya.

Here is an example of a Raghuvir Sahay poem I really like:

आज फिर

आज फिर शुरू हुआ जीवन.
आज मैंने यिक छोटी-सी सरल-सी कविता पढी.
आज मैंने सूरज को डूबता देर तक देखा.
आज मैंने शीतल जल से जी भर स्नान किया.
आज यिक छोटी-सी बच्ची आयी, किलक मेरे कन्धे चढी.
आज मैंने आदि से अन्त तक यिक पूरा गान किया.

Today Anew

Today life started anew.
Today I read a short, simple poem.
Today I watched the sun set for a long time.
Today I bathed to my heart's content in cool water.
Today a little girl came and shouting with delight climbed onto my shoulders.
Today I sang a whole song, from beginning to end.
Life started anew today.
(Translated Lucy Rosenstein)

Another poem in Rosenstein's collection that clicked with me is by Shakunt Mathur, one of the leading female lights of the Experimental/New Poetry movement.

Here is one of Shakunt Mathur'spoems:

तुम सुन्दर हो, घर सुन्दर हो

जब में थका हुआ घर आओं, तुम सुन्दर हो घर सुन्दर हो
चाहे दिन भर बहे पसीने
कितने भी हो कपडे सीने
बच्चा भी रोता हो गीला
आलू भे हो आधा छीला

जब में थका हुआ घर आओं, तुम सुन्दर हो घर सुन्दर हो
सब तूफान रुके हो घर के
मुझको देखो आँखों भर के
न जुड़े मेंइ फूल सजाई
न तितली से वासन, न नखरे

जब में थका हुआ घर आओं, तुम सुन्दर हो घर सुन्दर हो
अधलेटी हो तुम सोफे पर
फारिं मैगजीन पढ़ती हो
शीशे सा घर साफ पड़ा हो
आहत पर छोंकी पड़ती हो

तुम कविता तुम लिखो सलौनी, में काफी हूँ, तुम प्रियतर हो
जब में थका हुआ घर आओं, तुम सुन्दर हो घर सुन्दर हो

You should be beautiful, the house should be beautiful
When I return home tired you should be beautiful, the house should be beautiful
Even if all day sweat poured
However many clothes you sewed
Even if the child doesn't yield
And the potato is half-unpeeled
When I return home tired you should be beautiful, the house should be beautiful
All storms in the house should be stilled
You should look at me with eyes filled
Without flowers in your hair,
Showy clothes, flirtatious air

When I return home tired you should be beautiful, the house should be beautiful
Reclining on the sofa,
You should be reading a foreign journal
The house should shine like crystal
My steps' sound should startle you

Don't write poetry, beauty, I am enough, you are loved
When I return home tired you should be beautiful, the house should be beautiful.
(Translated Lucy Rosenstein)

Clearly a feminist sensibility! Incidentally, in Hindi some of the lines rhyme, which Rosenstein reproduces in her translation. The language is simple but elegant and the picture she's painting seems true - and this combination is what I like most about the "New Poetry."

Finally, here is Vinay Dharwadker's translation of Kedarnath Singh's "On Reading a Love Poem". This poem isn't included in Rosenstein's volume, though several other wonderful Kedarnath Singh poems are in her collection.

Kedarnath Singh (b. 1934): ON READING A LOVE POEM

When I'd read that long love poem
I closed the book and asked --
Where are the ducks?

I was surprised that they were nowhere
even far into the distance

It was in the third line of the poem
or perhaps the fifth
that I first felt
there might be ducks here somewhere

I'd heard the flap flap of their wings
but that may have been my illusion

I don't know for how long
that woman
had been standing in the twelfth line
waiting for a bus

The poem was completely silent
about where she wanted to go
only a little sunshine
sifted from the seventeenth floor
was falling on her shoulders

The woman was happy
at least there was nothing in her face to suggest
that by the time she reached the twenty-first line
she'd disappear completely
like every other woman

There were sakhu trees
standing where the next line began
the trees were spreading
a strange dread through the poem

Every line that came next
was a deep disturbing fear and doubt
about every subsequent line

If only I'd remembered--
it was in the nineteenth line
that the woman was slicing potatoes

She was slicing
large round brown potatoes
inside the poem
and the poem was becoming
more and more silent
more solid

I think it was the smell
of freshly chopped vegetables
that kept the woman alive
for the next several lines

By the time I got to the twenty-second line
I felt that the poem was changing its location
like a speeding bullet
the poem had whizzed over the woman's shoulder
towards the sakhu trees

There were no lines after that
there were no more words in the poem
there was only the woman
there were only
her shoulders her back
her voice--
there was only the woman
standing whole outside the poem now
and breaking it to pieces

(translated by Vinay Dharwadker) [SOURCE]
I hope you enjoyed at least some of those poems.