Udaya Narayana Singh (born 1951) is a reputed poet, playwright and essayist in Maithili and Bengali. He has published four collections of poems and eleven plays in Maithili, as well as six books of literary essays and two volumes of poetry in Bengali, besides translating several books. He holds a doctoral degree in Linguistics from the University of Delhi and is currently the Director of the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore.
Singh grew up in a multilingual household: his mother was a speaker of Bengali; his father a speaker and author-editor of Maithili; and both taught Hindi literature at the university. The medium of instruction in his school was Bengali and in university, English. The result: a rich polyglottal experience that was to have an enduring impact on the way Singh was to approach his engagement with literature.
Singh is aware of the vibrant literary tradition in Maithili to which he is heir (he writes in his recent book of the rich reserves of lyric poetry by great poets of the past, such as Vidyapati, Lochandas and Chanda Jha). But he is also acutely aware of the fact that the language has occupied a marginal position. As he says, “The language has been suppressed (unlike the other literary giants like Bangla, Marathi or Tamil etc) for two centuries, and it has been a long struggle for the literary community to achieve the recognition that is its due (it got into the Sahitya Akademi in 1964 and into the 8th Schedule in 2003).”
Singh published his first book in Maithili in 1966 when he was just fifteen. His second followed in 1971. He believes that his extensive travels and his multilingualism — his deep involvement with Bengali literature, as well as his essays in Hindi and English — have enriched the texture and widened the ambit of his Maithili poetry in various ways.
The poems in this edition are from his recent book, Second Person Singular (Katha, 2006), which features English translations of his Maithili poetry. The work has been translated by the poet in collaboration with Rizio Yohannan Raj (poet, fiction writer and translator).
The preoccupation with language and love – themes that emerged as early as his second book – is clearly in evidence in these seven poems. The work takes us into the shadowy terrain of uncertainty and possible menace, the fluctuating lexicon of human intimacy. This realm of unpredictable equations – with poem and paramour – is described in haunting ways: “irregular/ colourless/ threadbare/ patch-worked; subtle,/ ambivalent,/ full of cuss words,/ erotic”, and yet again, “gentle, sweet, toxic, precarious”. Anything can happen here in this penumbral, predatory, shape-shifting jungle of sensuous syntax: you could be taken captive, ensnared in “stories/ riddles/ rumours”, worse still, turned into poetry!
What you find here is not the grammarian’s love of correctness, but the poet’s affirmation of the anarchic aliveness of language and human interaction – the typo, the spelling error, the idiosyncrasy, the singularity of the beloved.
And for the lunatic, the lover/linguist, poet, of course, the quest for the new, the unnamed and the unnameable, remains a perennial one:
I speak with restraint;
Even when I do,
I do not use the past tense,
I move to an unknown future.
I think very little now;
even when I do
I think in figures of speech.
My philosophy aspires for a feeling
neither stated nor translated as yet.
Also on this Site:
The Poetics of Othering: Interview with Udaya Narayana Singh by Rizio Raj Yohannan
Kavayo Vadanti, Mithila Darshan, Calcutta, 1966
Amrtasya Putraah, Lok Sahitya Parishad, Calcutta, 1971
Anuttaran, Mithila Darshan, Calcutta, 1981
Madhyampurush Ekvachan, Vani Prakashan, New Delhi, 2005
Ashru o Parihaas, Pritoniya, Kolkata, 1997
Anukriti, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 1999
Kham-kheyali,Ebang Mushayera, Kolkata, 2003
Second Person Singular [Madhyampurush Ekvachan translated from Maithili] with Rizio Yohanan Raj, Katha, New Delhi, 2006
Muse India: Editorial on modern Maithili writing
Muse India: Udaya Narayana Singh on 'Crises of Maithili Literatteurs'.
Geocities: Bio-notes on Maithili poets.
Central Institute of Indian Languages: Comprehensive bio-data on Udaya Narayana Singh.