June 28th, 1998
Akhilesh Mithal

The Decline of Poetry


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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 due course.

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 400 years.

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, was famous.

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 "mumbo-jumbo."

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.


Akhilesh Mithal, 1991-1999. All rights reserved.
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