Updated: February 5, 2012 20:13 IST

Promise of treasures

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The Rivered Earth by Vikram Seth.
Special Arrangement
The Rivered Earth by Vikram Seth.

The Rivered Earth is a text that resonates both in the musical as well as in the literary sense.

“Seth wrote and Roth set” — Vikram Seth's pun on the collaborative project that is The Rivered Earth — can never quite sum it up. It is hard to imagine what it must have meant for a literary artist like Vikram Seth to write with the consciousness that his words would soon be translated into music, composed and sung in some of England's most beautiful cathedrals; hard despite the lengthy general introduction and the conversations between Seth, composer Alec Roth and violinist Philippe Honorè. For what exactly is the relationship between poetry and song, between librettist, composer and musician? What does it mean to travel that circle? A libretto comes to life in some kind of liminal space.

The Rivered Earth is a collection of four libretti written between 2006 and 2009 and performed during those years at different festivals. For the first three libretti, Seth draws upon the Chinese, the European and the Indian civilisations. The last is a libretto on the elements in nature. It is not always that the libretto is written in close collaboration with the composer.

In this case though, not only has the librettist created the text with the composer in mind (and often within sight); the composer too has composed with the violinist in mind. A libretto therefore is quite a different kettle of fish from a poem on the page; it is realised fully only in its performance.

As Seth says in his introduction, “words are all very well, but the success of a musical work lies in its music”. So while the librettist writes with an awareness of the musical future of the piece, the composer works with an awareness of its acoustic, visual and dramatic possibilities.

The texts are interleaved and each bears the imprint of another's vision. This inevitably introduces its own complications. Seth tells us that version one of his poem, “Fire”, was rejected by Alec Roth as something that wouldn't work in performance. This led, of course, to the writing of the rather magical version two.

Special in many ways

The Rivered Earth is special in other ways as well. The venue where much of the work was created, for one thing: the Old Rectory in Bemerton, Salisbury, where the 17th century poet, musician and priest lived and died. “Host”, which is part of the libretto “Shared Ground”, speaks movingly of Seth's own relationship with Herbert and his house, the house that he eventually ended up buying: “How could I know/Its stones, its trees, its air,/The stream, the small church, the dark rain would say:/'You've come; you've seen; now stay'.” But Herbert is not an overpowering influence. He is a gentle host who “stands just out of mind and sight” that our poet “may sit and write.”

In his conversation with Seth, Roth too speaks of the effect that the Old Rectory and Herbert's poetry have had on him: “…as a teenager, when I had singing lessons, I sang some of Vaughan Williams's settings of Herbert, ‘Five Mystical Songs', and I learned quite a lot from that about setting English texts to music. So for me, there was a particular atmosphere to the place where he'd lived.”

Brilliant introduction

The Rivered Earth is one of those books where the introduction outdoes in length the work itself. And yet what in other books would have been an annoyance isn't so in this case.

Seth's brilliant and insightful general introduction to the work is of great value in itself, for it attempts to do that difficult thing: reflect on the creative process, which, in this case, is a three way affair connecting words to composition to music.

The book can be a bit of a reviewer's nightmare precisely because of the interleaved nature of the texts, their existence in another dimension as music and the lack of access, barring one YouTube video, to anything other than the words on the page.

As poems, the ones in “Shared Ground” perhaps work best. They are quintessential Seth made richer by the fact they are directly inspired by George Herbert and pay tribute to him both in their content as well as in their form. Entirely mono-syllabic, in keeping, Seth says, with Herbert's spirit of simplicity, the poems are playful (invoking the shape of an hourglass in “Oak” and chasing after the word “bright” in “Flash”) even as they skim the surface and plunge swiftly into what lies beneath. In their diction and their hold over rhythm, they work well as poems.

For the poems in the first, the Chinese section, “Songs in Time of War”, Seth has used his translations of the eighth century Chinese poet Du Fu. Since one has already seen these translations in Three Chinese Poets — Seth's other collection — this section is a bit of a disappointment. But the poems, it appears, have been re-ordered and patterned to a narrative. Deeply poignant and brimming with quiet feeling, the poems remain special and Du Fu speaks to us from across the centuries.

Powerful yet light

For the poems in the third section, “The Traveller”, Seth has used the Rig Veda as a structural base and dwelt on the stages of life through which human being travels. Ambitious in its scope, this section weaves together texts from traditions as diverse as Pali, medieval Hindi and Tamil, exploiting the resonance of Kannagi's anger and anguish expressed in her question “is there a god?” for musical effect.

Seth's own verses nest boldly amidst the literary and philosophical wealth of the Dhammapada, the Rig Veda and the Silappadikaram, making The Rivered Earth a text that resonates both in the musical as well as in the literary sense. This is equally true of course of the preceding sections and of the final one on the elements for they too pay tribute to other writers and thinkers. The sense of continuum is powerful and could be potentially overpowering and yet The Rivered Earth manages to retain a lightness. In the last section, “Seven Elements”, the poet segues into the spirit of “Fire”: Fa-yaah/O fayah- fayah- fayaaah/Dizayaah/Hot hot hot…”.

With charming candour and lack of self-consciousness, Seth uses every trick in the book to woo us; from translation to calligraphy to references to open tributes to other literary traditions. The Rivered Earth is the sort of text that glimmers with the lovely promise of treasures yet to be fathomed.

The Rivered Earth; Vikram Seth, Hamish Hamilton, Rs. 399.

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