|Readers may have noticed that interest in
poetry is no longer a prerequisite for being a member of the elite. Things
were different in earlier times. All emperors of the Indian peoples from
the Mauryans to the Mughals were interested in poetry. Many, themselves
wrote verse and all were munificent patrons of poets. While India was
second to none in its love and appreciation of poetry the interest was a
worldwide phenomenon. Robert Oppenheimer, a German scientist spontaneously
standing upright and reciting Sanskrit verse at the spectacle created by
the explosion of the first ever nuclear device is part of the myth and
legend of modern history.
The twelve Indo-Pakistani devices exploded at Pokhran and at Changai
Hills, Baluchistan did not, however occasion any such response. Alas!
Social scientists should investigate why the great joy of poetry in its
aspects of memorising, retention and retailing by recitation has been
allowed to fall into disuse. Particularly in India and Pakistan where the
status of poetry was, perhaps, higher than anywhere else in the world.
Epic poetry is the common heritage of mankind. There is the epic of
Gilgamesh and there are the Odyssey and the Iliad. The Greek myths are
part of the world heritage Nordic Europeans appropriated in their quest
for an ancestry of quality. This helps make characters like Agamemnon,
Paris, Helen and Achilles familiar figures for the children and adults of
the educated elite. The great rivals of the Greeks were the Persians. They
produced, long after the Graeco Persian Wars were over and Iran/Persia had
been overrun by Bedouin Arabs, a great poet called Firdausi. He gave the
world Padishahnameh or The Story of Kings and Emperors. This
grand, sonorous and gripping poem was part of the common Irano-Indian
heritage until the 19th century was well into its middle age. Perhaps the
Iranian Embassy should arrange recitals and explanations of the Padishahnameh
to revive Indian interest. In the National Museum of Delhi there is a
"copy" scribed for the library of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
A Padishahnameh was as essential for a library of yore as a sofa
set is today for establishing cultural status. Every notable used to
acquire one copy or more to equip his collection whether by purchase or
loot or the simpler expedient of having it made by a good calligraphist.
This will once more make Rustam and Sohrab Muneezeh and Afrasiyab into
household names, enrich life and enhance its quality. Perhaps it can be
asserted that although the love of poetry was common to all mankind until
the industrialisation of the world took people far away from poetry, India
was a special case.
The Indian passion for poetry went farther than that of the Greek and
the Persians. The great epics of India, the Ramayana and th Mahabharata
elevated to the status of sacred texts. While the Sanskri (Valmiki)
Ramayana was perhap the first to achieve this dignity. Kamban in Tamil and
Krittibas in Bengali along with Tulasidasa it Hindi shared the glory in
The legend of the birth of poetry in India is one of great beauty and
really great sorrow. An excellent rendering is provided in English by
Lakshmi Lal's retelling of Valmiki's Ramayana published by Orient
Longman's. The sage (Maharishi) Valmiki was sitting in contemplation under
a tree deep in the woods near his hermitage savouring the sights, sounds
and smells created around him by the trees, the flowers, the animals and
the birds. Sundenly the idyll was shattered. An act of gross brutality and
thoughtless violence was committed. A hunter of birds (Nishaada) attacked
mating pair of krauncha birds. The arrow he let fly transfixed the
male of the pair killing it on the spot. The female was devastated and her
agonised cries rent the air cause deep distress to all within earshot.
The mutual love of the krauncha birds is legend. For the krauncha
is loyal unto death. The female was condemned to solitary existence until
it died. The sage Valmiki, stirred to the depths of his being a new,
hitherto unknown form of expression. It was verse, and as it arose from
sorrow, he named it "Shloka."
The first ever verse, the great creation of Valmiki is part of the
heritage. We reproduce it in Roman and provide a translation as rendered
by the scholar Lakshmi Lal:
Maa Nishaada Pratishtthaana Twagama
, Yat Krauncha Mithhunaa Deykumyaayee Kaamamaoaditu Shaashwatee Sumaa.
(O hunter, may you never find rest or shelter for the sin of killing
this bird who was in the throes of unfulfilled desire.)
The emotions filling up the heart of the sage did not stop at verse but
developed into the cascade which took form and shape as the great epic,
the Ramayana. The characters delineated, Rama, Sita, Ravana, Bali,
Sugreeva, Hanumana, Bharata and a host of others were so powerful that
they became living, moving, palpable figures for hundreds of millions of
people in India and abroad. Professed iconoclasts like the Muslims and the
mirror image of the Wahabis, the Hindus of the Arya Samaj who abhor,
deride and condemn idol worship as a malpractice, a degeneration and an
abomination could not but be beguiled and bemused by the magic of the
Ramayana. Nizamuddin of Thanesar, (Sthhaneshwar) of the 16th Century wrote
a verse about Sita which places her in a class by herself for modesty and
chastity. He says that even her clothes could not see her body just as the
body cannot "see" the soul! Mir Taqi "Mir" in the 18th
century says "The demon Ravana was destroyed by the fires of love
although he had his abode in Lanka a city he located in the middle of the
waters of the sea."
The Arya Samajis are in the fore-front of the movement to build a temple
for the Lord Rama in Ayodhya on the site where the Babari Masjid stood for
They thought nothing of pulling, down a monument built for worshipping
Allah, a God without form. Thus, they will be instrumental in installing a
form or idol in a place where the Nirankara was worshipped ealier! This
may be "realpolitik" for the power hungry devotees and of the
Lord Rama in iconic form can claim a victory, albeit a pyrrhic one.
Perhaps the most poignant verse from the story of Rama is by the 20th
century master Raghupati Sahay "Firaq" Gorakhpuri. It has a
touch of the magic for which the patron saint of his city, Baba Gorakhnath,
We give the Urdu in Roman and an English translation.
Hur fusaanaayey ulfat, daasataaney tunhaaee,
Qais-o-koahkun tunahaa, Raam-o-Laxman tunhaa!
(Every tale of love is about the sufferings of loneliness and the state
of being solitary. This is equally applicable whether we talk of the Arab
prince Qais who became mad because of his unrequited love for Laila and
came to be called "Mujnoon" or the afflicted one; or the Persian
hero Farhad who single-handed drove a wedge into the solid rock of the
Beysutoon Mountain to bring a canal with water into the city of the
Emperor Khusro only to turn the chisel on himself when cheated of the
promised prize, Shireen; or the Lord Rama and Lakshmana who were kept
apart from their love by the call of duty to a higher cause.)
Readers may like to ponder the fact that despite masses of really great
poetry available to each of the languages printed in our currency notes
there are not a great number of connoisseurs, aficionados or "Rasikas."
(Sukhanfaham in Urdu.)
No takers for poetry. Gone out of fashion like sleeping under the open
sky in summer. Making Shikanjabeen with limes and Tthundaaee
by grinding almonds with aromatics on a queen. Perhaps social scientists
will study the problem and let us know why. Why such a vital and enabling
enriching and vital tradition has died out?
Maybe the answer lies in the monoculture in fashion, the cult of
"market forces." The only motive is financial profit and all
other profits whether of the mind, the heart or the soul are out.
Once the "Market economy" takes over everything that is not a
"Product" and hence can be packaged, distributed, advertised and
sold for profit is out of the reckoning.
This whole poetry business provides for the acolyte having access to a
private world wherein the self starts a process which induces thrills and
ecstasy without any help from the market.
This autonomous world is akin to the world of Sufism and Vedanta where
the preceptor bestows a "Sukhun" or a "Mantra" a magic
and mysterious vocable of power upon the chosen disciple. The repetition
of the vocable is mechanical to begin with and, if luck favours and the
Guru or Pir is gracious it becomes automatic and autonomous, the sound
goes on pulsating in the mind and the heart, the soul and the spirit and
its echoes and reverberations cleanse illuminate and elevate the whole
being to help it find merger with the infinite.
The prevalent monoculture of the Market forces" driven profit for
money only motivated West have no use or time for all this
They are apt to dismiss it as "effete" and
"decadent." Unfortunately the totalitarian fascists who ruled
the USSR until recently, the ones that rule China today and the RSS who
rule India along with Wahabis form common cause with the USA's
"market driven" forces on the uselessness of poetry. It must now
be confessed that distrust of poetry is not new for the West and goes back
at least to the Greek philosopher, Plato. He was wary of poets and did not
want their presence in his ideal city.
He suggested that when it was reported that a poet had arrived at the
city gates the philosopher kings should betake themselves there with two
garlands. One garland to greet and welcome and the second to bid farewell
and Godspeed. This was to make quite sure that poets did not enter and
pollute the atmosphere with their subversive ideas.
In a famous meeting between the poet Faiz Ahmad "Faiz" and
General Zia, Chief Martial Law Administrator and longest surviving ruler
of Pakistan the poet informed him that verse is free to come and go
without being come and go without being obstructed by artifical barries.
Poets can be kept out but not their creations.
Faiz did not foresee that when interest in poetry wanes and dwindles
there is nothing to receive the messages and respond to the stimuli.
Poetry becomes ineffectual and society inert.