Sukrita Paul talks about translating human experience into words and pictures
In two new books, published as a pair by Author Press, Sukrita plays with colours and words to present little slices of life, complete with a palpable ambiguity that allows for multiple layers, facets and interpretations. A poet and a painter, as well as a literary critic, teacher and translator, Sukrita puts together her own paintings and poems in Untitled but collaborates with Sonnet Mondal in Ink and Line, where her paintings and sketches stand side by side with Mondal’s words, adding yet another layer to the book.
Excerpts from an interview:
It’s interesting to work with creative ideas, and use two completely different mediums of expression.
Since I have been thinking about the creative process, I can reflect upon it and it’s not a planned thing. I have often thought that I oscillate between the two mediums, and often when I want to paint, I end up writing a poem, if for no other reason, then just because it is easier to sit at a desk and write words, rather than set up an easel, etc. But the medium depends on the nature of the idea. I would say the experience more than subject decides how best to express it. Some experiences are more visual to me, and I want to write about it but they don’t come out as words. For instance, the very first painting in ‘Ink and Line’, the face of a sage is something I had wanted to write about but when I sat down to write, I thought I was trying to interpret and make meaning out of the experience when the expression lay in the sage’s face, his eyes, not expressed in words. So I cancelled it, and decided that it’s not happening, but much later, two years later, somehow I was haunted by just the face, I didn’t want any other layer around it, just the face, so that was the makin of the painting.
While ‘Untitled’ brings together paintings and poems by you, ‘Ink and Line’ is a collaboration with Sonnet Mondal, who writes poems inspired by your paintings. Could you talk about putting the two together, and synergy of words and pictures which comes together in the books?
It wasn’t really a deliberate collaboration. My paintings had been done over time. I had not met Sonnet. He saw a painting or two of mine on the net, and then asked me if I could send him a couple of my paintings. He was feeling inspired. I sent them. It wasn’t a question of my acceptance, it is a question of independent expression, and a painting can become a take off point. He wrote two poems. Then he asked for more, and I sent those. This went on for 3 months I think. And then I got an email from him where he said he had done around 20-25 poems and thought it could become a book. He asked if he had my permission and if we could publish this as a book together, with the paintings on one side and the poems on the other. And I said why not. I also asked to read through the poems before. I went through the poems and saw that some paintings were obviously being interpreted and perceived differently from how I had seen them. Then I told myself that’s fine, this is how it has spoken to the other person. And that’s why in the note in the book I say that if you see the poem and painting together they might be complimentary, but they also stand alone. What I like is that Sonnet has retained ambiguity to a great extent. Before the book, we had no discussion or deliberation at all and I’m glad that we did not negotiate meaning. That way, the experiential quality of the paintings was retained in Sonnet’s mind. All art takes its own form and the interpretation can be quite different from the original, becoming another original by itself.
Being a critic and a teacher yourself, how do those roles feature in your creative processes?
If I negotiate and try to find definite meaning in a poem, it ceases to be one. So I don’t want to do that. I realise there is a danger of that and clop off that part in my mind. When I’m teaching I’m not a writer. When I’m painting, I know the medium is going to dictate something different from the medium of words. Of course, somewhere, the overlapping happens.
While the mediums are different, the idea of creatively engaging with the world and experiences springs from a single source within you.
It’s the sensibility at the core that awakens to some issues. For instance if there is a highly political subject, I don’t engage with it at same level as I do with say the twinkle of an eye of an urchin on the road. This to me is a different king of expression, and it transforms itself within my own consciousness. Sometimes when it’s an image or an idea, I retain it, jot it down in a few lines, and then guard it very much, as though it was a seed. Sometimes it germinates in years, sometimes that very night. If someone else looked at it they’d think its nonsense. But for me, it takes me back to the moment. And I need to retain freshness of that moment. If I can’t, it means that the writing or painting becomes studied and deliberate. And interestingly, sometimes, the idea becomes something else than what it was. I let it happen. I don’t quarrel with it. If I do quarrel, I stop working at it. Creative expression cannot be predetermined. You have to let the seed grow and it might turn out to be a wild berry, a nettle, a delicious apple.
So deeply involved in the creative process and its freedom, how do you negotiate with translations?
When I’m translating in particular, I want to be faithful, but that idea is a misnomer. Faithful to what? If you start looking at staying faithful to the letter, to the words, then there is an issue. If faithful to the spirit, then there is an element of how you receive and perceive the text. I think that you have to own the experience. Once I feel I have, then I start translating. I know I have freedom of expression, but I keep going back and cross checking too, because I like to be as close to the writer’s work as I can. The struggle comes with the language, particularly while translating from Indian language to English. There is a wide cultural gap between the two languages and then you have to see how to find the right expression. This expression may not be all that right, but sometimes it becomes even more beautiful. I look at what fits best, sometimes it’s a little awkward, but that’s okay. We need to open the field a little more and accept different Englishes (sic).
Coming back to poetry, do you see this literary form suffering today?
As you know I’m also a teacher, and I’ve notice lot of young people are writing poetry today. It’s the readership that is an issue; people don’t go out of way to buy poetry. But it’s always been like that. It has stayed much more in the oral tradition, and even today many people attend poetry readings. I think more and more people, because they are writing poetry, are also curious about it. But then there are publishers who talk about how poetry doesn’t sell. I wish something could be done about that. There should be quality publications in poetry, and one just hopes that there will be more publishers with a discerning eye. We also need a review culture, where there is sifting. There are also not adequate journals publishing poetry today. If there were, people wouldn’t want to start with publishing books of poetry instead. I remember sending poems to journals like Illustrated Weekly of India, Indian and Foreign Review, and so many more. Today, there is very little space for poetry in journals, and now people write poetry and very quickly want a book out. That’s now how poetry works. You have to grow and make your space and then someday maybe have a collection as a book.