For Vinda Karandikar, poetry was a serious game. He played it earnestly and fought his battles, resulting in a rich tapestry of colours, sounds, feelings and ideas. A tribute to the poet who passed away last month at the age of 92…

It is a supreme irony that Govind Vinayak (Vinda) Karandikar, prolific poet, eminent critic, sophisticated thinker and creative translator, won the Jnanpeeth Award for Ashtadarshane (Eight Philosophies), a collection that came 20 years after he had announced his retirement.

He had intended Virupika (Distortions) to be his last collection. “I believe I have done what little I could in the field of poetry”, he wrote in the preface. His admirers grieved but hailed it as a rare and brave decision for an artist to take. Yet, to their joy (mixed with some dismay), he came right back with Ashtadarshane. He called these eight poems explicating the philosophies of Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bergson and Charvak, an old man's game. The outcome of the game won him the country's most prestigious award.

Word games

In a sense, the entire body of Vinda Karandikar's work may be seen as a grand and serious game. He played with metres, words, forms, ideas. The result was a poetry rich in colour, sound, smell, feel, thought and emotion. In one of his poems, he pleads ardently for words to express the myriad shades of human life he sees around him — grey words, black words, happy, tasty, pregnant words. Words alone can marry abstract thought to concrete utterance to bring forth a sacred union.

Sensuous touch

Vinda was a sensuous man. He believed in touch as the ultimate means of communion between man and man, man and nature. He asserted that the fullness of a flower's fragrance filled him only when he had touched its petals. To stroke a child from little hand to soft cheek was to experience “anand”.

He dismissed the possibility of ordinary mortals attaining the highest bliss which we call paramananda. But there was a deeply satisfying joy that men could experience if they became one with the human world.

He was a Marxist, a non-believer. Speaking humorously about a poem in which he looks forward to the next birth to win his lady love, he explains that he wrote the poem when he was still a Hindu. It was a comforting thing to be able believe in rebirth in those days when college classes consisted, most unfairly, of 145 boys to five girls!

Many of Karandikar's earliest poems were written for and about the working class. The title of his first collection, Svedganga (Sacred River of Sweat) itself reflects this preoccupation. The anger of these early poems turned mellow later, but was still capable of flaring up on occasion. There is deep disgust at the self-centredness of the middle-class in lines like, “True, I am a winner, don't you see it?/ I have avoided battles, to avoid defeat”; and deep despair in lines like, “You cannot avoid this road/ These hungry, naked, shivering souls/ Don't look at them/ Sew up your eyes/ Forget they are there/ Repress your sob/ Heart and mind, turn to stone!”

Fun for children

It is amazing but true that Vinda Karandikar, who has given the Marathi language some of its most memorable lines, has also left for children from four to 14 poems to love and cherish. No other writer of his stature has gifted so much poetic fun to the young. “The chair said to the stool/ ‘When will you learn to walk?'/ Said the stool, ‘Exactly when,/ You learn to clap for a lark'!/ Hearing this the fan laughed loud /And minus legs, ran round and round.”

Karandikar lived his beliefs. On the one hand he vowed never to give away a poem free. Poetry had to be respected. It was for the principle, not for the money. Indeed money per se had never mattered to him. He had been imprisoned during the freedom struggle. When friends urged him to apply for the grant that the State gives to freedom fighters, he refused. “Why do I need a grant when I have a job?” He also gave away all the money he won in awards to charities while he himself lived a frugal life.

He was fortunate to have married a woman like Suma, who had the education and the sensitivity to be a true partner to him. She financed his first collection of poems from her savings as a teacher. He loved carpentry and built her a shrine for her gods though he was himself an unbeliever.

Vinda and Suma, both are gone, she a few years before him. He was prepared for this to happen. “It is but a short walk now,” he wrote. “An easy slope to the end/ You first or I first makes no difference/We will soon meet again.”