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Poetry loses a major presence

By Ranjit Hoskote

Arun Kolatkar sculpted poetry out of language with the chisels of surprise and epiphany.

THE SHOCK of discovering earlier this year that poet Arun Kolatkar, who passed away in Pune on Saturday, was suffering from cancer galvanised his friends into bringing out as many of his uncollected writings as they could, in a race against time. Through their labour of love, Mr. Kolatkar broke a publishing silence of nearly 30 years in July, when two of his books were launched to the applause of several hundred readers: Kala Ghoda Poems and Sarpa Satra.

With Mr. Kolatkar's passing, the Indian literary scene has lost a major presence. His is the third major loss that the subculture of Indian writing in English has suffered this year, after Nissim Ezekiel's death in January and Dom Moraes' in June. A bilingual writer, he will also be mourned by his readers in Marathi. Mr. Kolatkar's legendary reputation is built on Jejuri (1976), a memorable cycle of 31 poems woven around a temple-town in western Maharashtra. Although brought out by Clearing House, a poets' collective, and circulated among small circles of readers, Jejuri won the prestigious Commonwealth Poetry Prize and ran into three editions; it has also been translated into German.

Mr. Kolatkar published a similarly dazzling volume of his Marathi poems in 1976, titled Arun Kolatkarchya Kavita. This was followed, in recent years, by the collections Chirimiri, Bhijki Vahi and Droan.

With his leonine silver mane and brooding look, his apparently formidable grimness easily broken by a sudden grin, Mr. Kolatkar was one of those distinctive figures who bring a special flavour to the life of a metropolis. For several decades, he was invariably to be found, on Monday and Thursday afternoons, sipping his tea at a table that was virtually reserved for him at the Wayside Inn in Kala Ghoda, the heart of Bombay's colonial Fort quarter. Thus installed, he would look out of the French windows at the street-people gathered around the foot of the area's famed mahogany tree, or traversing its cobbled surfaces. He memorialised this experience in Kala Ghoda Poems, its cast including the idli-vendor, the blind man, the seller of rat-poison, and the lepers' tin-pan band.

Born in Kolhapur in 1932, Mr. Kolatkar worked in advertising for much of his life. Although he was trained at Mumbai's Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy School of Art, his imagination rebelled against institutions; he was nourished, rather, by his private engagements with literature, painting, design and society. He often viewed experience as if through a camera, rendering what he saw and felt as a sequence of stills or as deftly edited footage. His ability to inveigle a series of events into a pattern was impeccable; he enjoyed an enviable understanding of the image and its ability to unsettle the viewer or reader. The evidence of his poetry suggests that advertising may have enhanced his taste for the bizarre perspective and the oblique entry-point into situations. He had a magical gift for translating the familiar into the wonderful, by focussing on details or tweaking our programmed approaches to objects, people and relationships. In his poems, wry irony underpins the miracle of things seen and touched, people met and sized up.

Mr. Kolatkar had no patience with the solemn academics who attempted to constrain him within such simple-minded schema as `faith versus reason' or `tradition versus modernity', merely because the eponymous Jejuri of his first book is a temple-town dedicated to Khandoba, a manifestation of Shiva. The mass of academic writing on Mr. Kolatkar has substantially missed the point of his poetry; for, as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra writes, "The presiding deity of Jejuri is not Khandoba, but the human eye." Whether in Jejuri, Kala Ghoda Poems or Sarpa Satra, Mr. Kolatkar's poetry orchestrates a play of scales: the epic alternates with the intimate, the Self weaves through the Other. In Sarpa Satra, he assumed the alternately elegiac and excoriating voice of a private self beset by public terrors, tempted into cynicism but mandated to bear witness to history. Through the narrative of Janamejaya's snake sacrifice, held by the ruler to avenge his father's killing by a snake-king, Mr. Kolatkar addressed mythic themes that still resonate in India's public life — ecological devastation, the military occupation of farflung provinces, and the staging of pogroms.

As a bilingual writer operating from a postmodern position, Mr. Kolatkar eluded the vigilance squads of linguistic absolutism. Working between and across both his languages, he was pointedly demotic rather than classical in his emphasis; so that, while his English is often the American of the cowboy Western or the film noir, his Marathi is invariably veined with the `Bambaiyya Hindi' patois. Mr. Kolatkar treated literature, not as a language art, but as a plastic art; he sculpted poetry out of language with the chisels of surprise and epiphany.

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