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Live Update: A Brief Introduction to New Marathi Poetry



In which poet, editor and translator Sachin Ketkar discusses a contemporary Marathi poetry milieu in a state of creative ferment, and introduces his anthology of new Marathi poetry.

The overriding paradigm of Marathi poetry is, after all, a very old one: the hackneyed lyrical sentimentality that people still call poetry. The defiance of the popular notion of poetry is a thread connecting many young poets here (in this anthology) with the internationally renowned Marathi poets of the modernist generation that came to the forefront during the fifties and the sixties with the little magazine movement. The modernist generation had internationally reputed names like Arun Kolatkar, Dilip Chitre, and Namdeo Dhasal. An anthology of Marathi Poetry (1945-1965), edited by Dilip Chitre (1967), presented some of the most influential modernist poets of the first two decades of the post-independence era.

This dissident movement exposed the political underpinnings of a literary culture based on caste, class, gender, and regional location. Modernist Marathi poetry was politically defiant, experimental in its mode and often challenged sexual and cultural mores. It was also a part of the modernist movement across the world. The modernism that manifested practically in all the major literary languages was not merely a product of global influence. Internal social and cultural dynamics of the language played a vital role in shaping it. For instance, in Marathi, among other avant-garde and leftist movements, the postcolonial movement called nativism and the Dalit movement became very prominent.

Nativism opposed the twin postcolonial processes of westernization and Sanskritization and called upon people to locate their identity in the indigenous and local cultural traditions and memory. Consequently, assailing against the literary establishment as being urban, brahminical and westernized, it proposed an alternative aesthetics that was non-urban, non-brahminical and non-westernized. It sought continuity with pre-colonial cultural traditions like the bhakti movement and the much-disregarded oral literatures. However, nativism was not a homogeneous movement and it spoke in many voices.

The Dalit movement aggressively protested against the caste and exposed the literary culture of its casteist underpinnings. In spite of having some good writers, the feminist movement in Maharashtra was unfortunately never as vigorous as the two movements mentioned above. This is evidence of the deadening throttlehold of patriarchy even on the dissident movements.

Many of the poets presented here have a love-hate relationship with the modernist poets presented in the Chitre anthology. In their poems one can frequently hear the echoes of the precursor little magazine-wallahs. To use their favourite metaphor they have ‘digested’ their precursor’s works and are trying to find their individuality. At the same time, these poets, especially the younger ones, are the new ‘ephebes’ – to use Harold Bloom’s term – and the burden of their belatedness shows in their works. When the radical modernist movements or the little magazine movements passed on to less resourceful and less imaginative writers, they ended up becoming journalism, political rhetoric, documentary writing and gimmicky kitsch. The radical political ideologies of yesterday have today become new orthodoxies. The warriors against the prevalent dogmas of the past have ended up with respectability and with their own dogmas. How to avoid the older premodernist dogmas and the ‘post sixties’ modernist ones is a major challenge for most of the poets presented here. This two-fold challenge is characteristic especially of the generation of poets who came into their own in the nineties. This quest for an alternative to both the modernist and pre-modernist poetics can loosely be termed ‘post-modern’.

Chitre in the introduction to the anthology spoke of how the “breathless change” in the first half of twentieth century “shattered the gestalt” established by the immediate preceding generations, and how the modernism in Marathi as exemplified by B S Mardhekar, was “the most remarkable product of the cross-pollination” between the “deeper, larger native tradition and contemporary world culture.” Recent Marathi poetry is no different. However, the forces of cross-pollination are driven not merely by industrialization, but also by the revolution in information technology and international corporate mega-engines. The social and cultural changes in the last quarter of the previous century are no less breathless and many young poets have a feeling that the gestalt needs to be broken again.

The panorama of contemporary Marathi poetry indicates that the poets seem to fall into two broad clusters: one cluster of poets like Varjesh Solanki, Hemant Divate, two Nitin Kulkarnis, Mohan Borse, Sanjeev Khandekar and Manya Joshi is located in the urban and metropolitan centres. Many of these poets are not originally from the metropolis, but the life in metropolis is an important concern in their works. I would say that the metropolis is critically located in their work. The second cluster of poets is from non-metropolitan locations. These include poets like Devidas Chaudhri, Veerdhaval Parab, Pravin Bandekar, Santosh Pawar, Ramesh Ingle Uttradkar, and Bhujang Meshram. These two clusters are not so much indicative of geographical location as of literary sensibility. This opposition is problematic but is still useful as a point of entry into the contemporary Marathi poetry scenario. It indicates the fact that Marathi poetry today has a strong sense of location to it. It also indicates the variation and problematics of the relationship of sociological locations with poetry.

The poetry of the former cluster being an integral part of the urban metropolitan socio-cultural landscape exhibits a sharp sense of transfiguring urban social reality. Its language is hybrid and its poetic materials often are new to Marathi poetry. For instance, many of these poets use and abuse terms from the language of information technology, of computers, the internet for poetic purposes. The poems express a painful sense of vulnerability and suffocation caused by the dependency on the rapidly evolving technology and the anger directed towards use of the new gadgets as vulgar status symbols.

The theory of nativism has greatly influenced the latter group of poets. They provide an interesting contrast to the poets coming from the metropolitan cultural landscape. Their poetic language is less hybridized, and less convoluted. They show a greater awareness of belonging to the native Marathi cultural traditions and are more realistic in their depiction of their location. The InfoTech revolution has not made a significant impact on the poets from non-metropolitan locations. Yet there is every possibility that it may in the future. Though the ‘digital divide’ is exceedingly sharp, the speed of the transformation brought about by technology is immense.

Nonetheless, these poets share a great many things among themselves. These poets are willing to take risks and write serious poems without catering to popular taste. While there are ‘movements’ to popularize poetry by compromising with its creativity and the complexity, the poets given here absolutely refuse to play to the gallery. They are quite conscious of their place in the Marathi literary tradition. They are writing poems that offer a challenge to the reader. As people at large are unwilling to be sympathetic to their definition of poetry, they show an astonishing awareness of risks and the dangers of writing in the way they do in the context of Marathi poetry today.

These poets are also trying to deal with the pressures of a changed social reality. The ‘Post Emergency’ period, if we consider the declaration of an emergency as a landmark in the life of our nation, is marked by gradual disillusionment with ideals of social values of every type. A gigantic middle class has come up from all sections of the society. This exceptionally self-centred class can hardly see beyond its nose and as a result is responsible for the criminal neglect of the entire society. The growth of militancy, religious fundamentalism, and growing systematization of corruption has accompanied the increasing criminalization of the public sphere.

We, in our own way, have experienced the Tofflerian ‘Future shock’. The idea of a global village is already a cliché today. The rhetoric of globalization and privatization has accompanied the proliferation of cable television, brand-conscious lifestyles, Internet, computers, cellular phones, and other gizmos. Apart from their undeniable utility value, these things also have become some sort of vulgar status symbols of a newly engendered immense middle class and the base totems of the so-called Generation Next.

Again, as usual, the distribution of the gains of globalization and of these developments has been monstrously unequal. The disparity in the access to the advantages of information technology, so often called the ‘digital divide’, is severe. As usual, women, tribals, the people belonging to the lowermost rungs of the archaic and age-old atrocity called caste system, and the rural poor are at the receiving end of the colossal movements beyond their control or comprehension. Besides, after the adoption of the Mandal commission, the politics of caste has taken a different dimension. The parochial identities of caste, community, religion, language, and region have not only retained their pivotal significance in the ideological and political struggles of today but have grown alarmingly. Internationally too, world politics has undergone a consequential transformation with the end of the Cold war and the global magnification of a new dogma called ‘Market Forces’.

The portentous crisis that provided the backdrop to the modernist radicalism of the fifties and the sixties is far from over. The older set of problems has only been remixed. The problems have actually been exacerbated with the addition of a new assortment of serious problems, rather than a slow disappearance of the older afflictions. How to cope with this pressing social reality is a vital challenge before the poets today.

One can see that a wide range of stylistic and thematic concerns are displayed in new Marathi poetry. And one can obtain some inkling of the direction of the Marathi poetry of tomorrow from these poems.

Abridged and modified version of Introduction to Live Update, Poetrywala, Mumbai, 2005.

© Sachin Ketkar  
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