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Vers libre

Kamala Das forged a new language for Indian poetry — intimate and subversive

Written by Sagnik Dutta |
June 5, 2009 12:44:56 am

“The language I speak Becomes mine,its distortions,its queernesses All mine,mine alone.” — An Introduction,Kamala Das

The quest for an authentic mode of expression marks much of Indian English writing in post-Independence India. The Keatsian sensuousness of Toru Dutt’s nostalgic poetry,the rhythmical regularity of Derozio’s sonnets and the romanticism of Sarojini Naidu’s verse were increasingly felt to be inadequate for a nuanced representation of an individual in a changing socio-political landscape. The 1950-60s were therefore an era of innovative experimentation in Indian English poetry.

Composed during a period of social unrest in large parts of the country,Kamala Das’s poetry combines the desire to escape from the claustrophobia of conventional social norms and disregard of the considerations of aestheticism in poetry. Her first book of verse titled Summer in Calcutta was published in 1965,the period of the language riots over the imposition of Hindi as the official language in the southern states. While the establishment was actively enforcing a policy of cultural imperialism by imposing a certain language as a component of official culture,the poet was forging an idiosyncratic poetic idiom that voiced intense personal feelings of love,longing and betrayal in dramatic terms. The deliberate use of free verse and occasionally jarring,staccato rhythms devoid of any sense of harmony characterise much of her poetry.

The confession of intimate personal experiences and the emphasis on sexuality as a vital aspect of life in her poetry has invited comparisons with Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich. However,Kamala Das’ poetry also bears out her complex negotiation with tradition and her relation to colonial rhetoric and the 18th century rationalist discourse on the socially acceptable roles of men and women. Kamala Das’s poetry seems to actively challenge this passive position designated to women. The uninhibited expression of the needs of the body essentially positions the female as an active entity in love-making.

“Of what does the burning mouth Of sun,burning in today’s Sky remind me…. oh,yes,his Mouth,And the sad lie Of my unending lust.” (In Love) The treatment of lovemaking as a biological,and to an extent,mechanical process reveals a modern disenchantment with notions of romantic love. Das often sees through the façade of warm conjugality to discover a life of frustration: “Ask me why his hand sways like a hooded snake Before it clasps my pubis. Ask me why like A great tree,felled,he slumps against my breasts,And sleeps” (The Stone Age)

Yet the break with tradition is never complete,as notions of Western individualism constantly come into conflict with traditional conceptions of relationships. This is evident in the occasional use of traditional metaphors in describing the man-woman relationship and the awareness of the temporality of physical love. In the poem In Love,she speaks of the “skin-communicated thing” which she “dare not” call love. In An Introduction,she uses the archetypal image of the union between the rivers and the sea to describe the ultimate union with her lover,“In him…the hungry haste Of rivers,in me….the oceans’ tireless Waiting” The challenge to Western sexual stereotypes also comes from the recurring figure of the betrayed woman seeking gratification through love outside the bounds of matrimony. Interestingly,the popularisation of the concept of companionate marriage constituted the colonial enterprise of ‘civilising’ the native subject.

Companionship outside the institution of marriage is epitomised in Hindu mythology by the archetypal figure of Krishna and his lover Radha. In The Maggots,Radha fails to respond to her husband’s kisses after returning from a meeting with Krishna .

The poetry of Kamala Das resonates with a strident spirit of affirmation that characterises much of post-Independence Indian English writing. Yet the inherent contradictions and paradoxes that are a component of Indian cultural identity surface constantly,to dispell the illusion of any grand narrative.

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