A colossus passes on

To many of us, K.D. Sethna was the foremost mystic poet of our generation, next only to Sri Aurobindo. He has left behind nearly a thousand splendid poems and several volumes of prose.

August 06, 2011 06:56 pm | Updated 06:56 pm IST

Amal-kiran with Harindranath Chattopadhyay.

Amal-kiran with Harindranath Chattopadhyay.

Future will decide whether Amal-kiran (K.D. Sethna) who died completing 106 years of age was the last of a great tradition or the forerunner of a future poetry.

“I have nothing to declare except my genius,” said Oscar Wilde on his arrival at the New York Customs House in 1882. Amal-kiran (K.D. Sethna) could have made the same statement, but for his modesty, had his identity been demanded at any literary event, for he had no award or decoration to declare.

Probably it is an irony as well a glory that a man who, along with Harindranath Chattopadhyay, Nirodbaran and Dilip Kumar Roy had the rare privilege of blossoming as a poet under inspiration and guidance directly from Sri Aurobindo, one who as a historian produced highly original works of research, The Harappan Culture and the Rig Veda and The Problem of Aryan Origin , one who as a critic shed new light on Shakespeare's mysterious Dark Lady, who engaged Einstein in a discussion on Relativity and the poet Kathleen Raine on mystic poetry, should be primarily referred to in some of the obituaries as the oldest living poet in the world to have passed away, while running 107, on June 29.


Kekoo D. Sethna was born in an aristocratic Parsi family of Mumbai on November 25, 1904. Educated at St. Xavier's College, he, according to his earliest editor, Prof. V.N. Bhushan (1945), “took both the Selby scholarship for logic and the Hughling Prize for English, a combination not achieved by anyone else yet. Passing the B.A. examination of the Bombay University with honours in philosophy, he again put up a performance not paralleled so far – namely, that he, a philosophy student, won the much-coveted Ellis Prize for English. And before he left college he made his literary debut with a bunch of poems marked by a piercing psychical and intellectual passion. Published about the same time his volume of critical essays entitled Parnassians (1923) elicited from H.G. Wells the prophetic remark, ‘This young man will go far'. And he has gone far — farther than the celebrated English writer could have meant or expected. He has gone far on the path of spiritual quest — with vision in his eyes and song on his lips.”

Song on his lips indeed. He has left nearly a thousand splendid poems behind, apart from several volumes of prose.

Is chance a pseudonym of God which He uses when He does not wish to put down His signature? It seems so in Sethna's case. As he unwrapped a pair of newly bought shoes, the piece of newspaper wrapping his newly bought shoes carried an article on Sri Aurobindo. He read it and that changed the course of his life. Instead of appearing for his Master's, he came over to Pondicherry in 1930. Rechristened Amal-kiran (Clear Ray) by Sri Aurobindo, he lived in the Ashram, with one break, till his end, editing the Ashram's monthly journal Mother India , and taking classes at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education.

Sri Aurobindo, in the process of writing his poetic magnum opus, Savitri , would send cantos of his epic and answer his queries on the mystic significance of allusions and symbols used in the poem. Amal-kiran's correspondence with the Master is an indispensable help for readers in general and scholars doing research on Sri Aurobindo's works in particular.

A polymath of the first order, the originality of his outlook — often an uncanny insight — was manifest in his evaluation of any subject, literary, historical or even scientific. He interpreted Blake's Tyger as an allusion for Christ. No wonder that his thesis should surprise many and disturb the noted authority on Blake, the poet Kathleen Raine (1908 – 2003). The exchange of arguments between the two, compiled in a volume — is an exemplary document in creative criticism and dignified humility — concluding with Raine's statement, “I concede you the victory”.

Raine became an ardent lover of Amal-kiran's poetry. Praising lines from one of his poems, The Errant Life , she wrote to him (31-12-1993), that she wished she had written them! The lines are:

Speak to me heart to heart words intimate

And all thy formless glory turn to love

And mould Thy love into a human face.

She wrote further, “A life of aspiration to the divine vision cannot but bring its reward, not in the poems only, but in other ways — all ways — and setting your heart and mind on ‘whatsoever things are lovely' (in St. Paul's words) you must have experienced many times a great joy…Those friends who share that ‘divine vision' or seek it are very precious, in this dark world…”

Polio had badly affected one of his legs when he was a child. Treatment in Britain and elsewhere did not secure for him the freedom to move without a stick — before a fall in 1991 confined him to a wheelchair. But as his friend for more than 60 years, the doctor-turned poet and yet another centenarian in the Ashram, Nirodbaran wrote, “He had no regrets. Rather, he considers this God's blessing to him, for it has enabled him to plunge into the oceans of the mind, and thus acquire a vast body of knowledge at an early age — so much so that Sri Aurobindo jokingly remarked: ‘He has learnt too much. He must start unlearning now.' ” What is remarkable, whoever came in contact with him went back imbibing a ray of his ever-shining wit and humour.

According to many he was the foremost mystic poet of our generation, next only to Sri Aurobindo. Future will say whether he was the last of a great tradition or the forerunner of “those who shall be the creators of the poetry of the future”, as Sri Aurobindo anticipates in his Future Poetry .

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