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Art has a significant role in mobilising resistance, says Sri Lankan Tamil poet Cheran

Talking to celebrated Sri Lankan Tamil poet Cheran, you feel as if he has never shouted in his life. He often fumbles and words come out of him in a designed disorder. But his poetry screams and is filled with gore and grief.

A wretched loneliness that is as bewitching as it is baffling rules his poetry: “Loneliness and solitude pop up in my poetry as a background and as an underlying theme in the context of love, relationships and breakups,” he tells me, as we settle down for a chat in a Kozhikode hotel. He was in town to attend the Kerala Literature Festival that was held in January this year.

Cheran lives in exile in Canada. Born in 1960 in Alaveddy, near Jaffna in Sri Lanka, he graduated from Jaffna University with a degree in Biological Sciences. His grooming years paralleled Sri Lanka’s long-drawn ethnic conflict and civil unrest, which birthed the LTTE. Cheran witnessed the burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981, in which over 95,000 books were destroyed.

Early poet

His first book, Irandaam Suriya Uthayam (The Second Sunrise), came out the following year, in 1982. As the anti-Tamil pogrom raged across Sri Lanka, killing thousands, Cheran published Yaman (God of Death) in 1984 and Kanal Vari (Songs of the Sea Shore) in 1989. With the war entering its second phase in the 90s, Cheran wrote Elumbukoodugalin Oorvalam (The Procession of the Skeletons) in 1990 and Erinthu Kondirukkum Neram (In the time of Burning) in 1993.

Cheran wrote verse from as early an age as 10 — chiefly because his father, ‘Mahakavi’ T. Rudramoorthy, was a well-known poet. “I was exposed to social realities at a very young age, which influenced my poetry. But I consider myself a poet first,” says Cheran.

Bearing witness

“When I was 12 years old, the government implemented a new Constitution and changed the name of the country from Ceylon to Sri Lanka without taking into account the opposition by the Tamil parties or the Tamil people.” The new Constitution completely marginalised the Tamils while enshrining the domination of the Sinhala Buddhists.

On May 22 of that year (1972), the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka saw huge protests in which people took down the national flag, shut down schools and burnt copies of the Constitution. “That was the year I became politically active under the guidance of my seniors and friends,” says Cheran.

His poetry chronicles what has been happening to his community since the 1970s, all the way until May 2009, when the Sri Lankan civil war ended with the assassination of the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. “I wasn’t planning to be a witness or a narrator, but that’s how it happened. The situation was intense. My reflections were sharp and dark.”

Deep connect

Even though his father is considered an iconoclast when it comes to modern Tamil poetry, Cheran points out that ‘Mahakavi’ was writing within the confines of the traditional Tamil poetic metre, the Yappu. “But he made it simple, beautiful and accessible.”

Cheran’s generation discarded Yappu and experimented with different forms and syntax. “In my case, I maintain a certain tone, rhythm and sound, unlike many contemporary poets who use prose to communicate the meaning.” But that wasn’t easy. The difficulty here is that Tamil has a long and rich tradition of poetry. So if one wants to be different, one cannot use the same images, words or context.

The harrowing experience of war and genocide changed everything for Sri Lankan Tamils, giving them “excruciating pain and a new set of images... This experience is one of the things that has given Tamil poetry all over the world — it is global poetry now — a particular spirit, power and a very unique articulation,” he says.

Writing to the heart

But can poetry change the world? “I don’t believe poetry can make a revolution; I don’t have that kind of illusion. But I do believe that art has a significant and nuanced role in mobilising resistance in countries where oppression exists. Poetry may not bring about radical change but can appeal to the finer elements of the heart to make things change slowly,” Cheran says.

When poetry is performed, it raises awareness. “I have witnessed over time how powerful the change is.” Cheran and his fellow poets organised performances all over Sri Lanka in the years of the ethnic conflict. They performed more than 60 times between 1985 and 1986, taking poetry to villages, city schools, and squares.

Just by reciting poetry, without any accompaniment, they were able to connect with the masses. “I am convinced of the power of poetry. We can reach thousands of people, and connect with them in a very deep, emotional and intimate way. That’s why I am not giving up,” he says.

Cheran counts poets from his father’s generation as his early influences — Tamil poets like Shanmugam Sivalingam.

“Later, I started reading international poetry and was fascinated by the likes of Anna Akhmatova, Pablo Neruda, Balachandran Chullikkadu and K. Satchidanandan.” He says travelling made a big difference, as he came into contact with great writers and interacted with them. That has taken him to new worlds, helping him look at poetry as the “language of the world and as a language of your own choosing”.

He uses that language to talk about the wounded collective psyche of Sri Lankan Tamils. “Ours is not war poetry. We are writing the genocide,” says Cheran, adding “Because I know there is no closure, there is no justice for my community.”

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 10:54:33 AM |

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