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Introduction to English Indian Poetry

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Hello friends, welcome to the 11

th week of our course on Indian Poetry in English. This is a
introductory lecture on Indian Poetry in English. First, we will examine the features of Indian
Poetry in English, move on to a historical perspective from Colonial Period to Nationalist Period,
then Post-Independent Period. When we come here, we will look at the pioneers who laid the
foundation for Indian Poetry in English.
We will see the problems of audience, publishers and then some solutions through anthologies.
There after we will see individual poets who have contributed significantly to this field. And
then, we will see some of the changes that have occurred in the field today. And lastly, we will
read two poems as samples for Indian Poetry in English.

(Refer Slide Time: 1:13)

What are the features of Indian Poetry in English? We have listed some of them here. The basic
problem with Indian Poetry in English is a use of language. Can we use a language f or creative
purposes in India? This was a serious problem discussed for three to four decades. If we use
English as a source of creative language, then do we imitate others from our own country or from
other countries, or do we write our own original poetry? That is a next question.
Then, we start writing poetry then what is the form, what is the tradition that we belong to?
There is always a search for this; form and tradition. Then we are not living in an island
separately from the world, so we are influenced by what is happening elsewhere in the world,
particularly in the English-speaking world, that is modernism and postmodernism influenced
Indian Poetry in English in different ways.
Then, what are the themes that are dealt with in this Indian Poetry? We have the theme of the self
and also the society, with a sense of belonging and also with a sense of alienation. And the
second theme sense of alienation is much stronger in this poetry, other themes include death,
disease, poverty, apathy, violence and marginality. We also have the questions of women and
environment and justice in a number of poems largely by women.
Then, common to all poets are the socio-political issues affecting individuals and society at large.
Most of these poets have attempted to understand creativity in a different language. And some of

them tried their hands in translations and also transcreations for appropriating whatever tradition,
whatever experience they had in the new language, that is, English language.
(Refer Slide Time: 3:10)

Let us start with the Colonial Period. Indian Poetry in English is actually a post-colonial
language, but it has a colonial legacy. It started with the Poet’s Corner page of Hickey’s Bengal
Gazette published in 1780. This Gazette included writings in English by both the British and
Indians on various themes relating to England and India.
We have some well-known Indian poets from Henry Derozio, who contributed a poem called
“To India, My Native Land” in 1828. He died unfortunately at the age of 22. Then we have
Michael Madhusudan Dutt, who has a poem called “The Captive Lady” published in 1849, he
too died at the age of 49. He started writing in English but he did not get encouragement from
English people or English magazines like Blackwood Magazine.
Then he started writing in Bengali and became a pioneer in Bengali literature. Then we have
Kasiprasad Ghosh, who is known for an elegy “To a Dead Crow” and then we have one of the
most beautiful writers of this period Toru Dutt, who also died at a young age of 21. She is known
for certain descriptive and mythical poems, two of the famous ones are here; “Our Casuarina
Tree” and “Savitri.”

(Refer Slide Time: 4:38)

When we come to the Nationalist Period, we can see that the fervor of freedom was very
dominant. Poets writing during this independent movement discussed the spirit of India to break
away from the clutches of the British, they often invoked the spiritual Indian tradition. Then we
have some of the poets here.
Sarojini Naidu is known for her descriptive poems on the land, the people and their aspirations
for freedom. Her first collection of poems is called “The Golden Threshold.” It has a well-known
poem called “Coromandel Fishers,” it is read by children in schools even today. Then we have
the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, he was often romantic, mystical and he also wrote
nationalistic poems. One of the well-known examples is Gitanjali which brought him the Nobel
prize in 1913.
Then we have Fredoon Kabraji, known for “A Minor Georgian’s Swan Song” published in 1944.
And another well-known poet of this period is Aurobindo Ghose, he was a polyglot. He wrote in
many languages and in English he wrote plays, prose pieces and epic poems like Savitri which
has about twenty-four thousand lines.

(Refer Slide Time: 5:57)

These colonial poems were evaluated and re-evaluated several times. We have one statement
from A K Mehrotra which was re-evaluated by himself a little later. Let us see what A K
Mehrotra stated in 1992, “Henry Derozio, Toru Dutt, Aurobindo Ghose and Sarojini Naidu were
courageous and perhaps charming men and women, but not those with whom you could do
But in 2016, the same A K Mehrotra said, “What follows is an atonement for what is said
above.” The same quotation that we have above this. Then what followed after this is this, “What
followed was this chapter on “Toru Dutt: A Eurasian Poet” for a collection of essays on ‘A
History of Indian Poetry in English’ published in 2016 and edited by Rosinka Chaudhuri.
He changed his opinion on all these writers and then we have to understand the problems in
evaluations and re-evaluations. Critical positions change drastically in one’s own lif etime as it
has happened in the case of A K Mehrotra. Biases can blind us to the true worth of anything,
including poetry. The most important point that we have to remember is, what we can and need
to learn from poetry is an expansive and inclusive vision.

(Refer Slide Time: 7:27)

Let us come to Post-Independent Period now. This is actually a continuation of the English
Romantic and Victorian traditions. In this period poets attempted to assimilate the modernist
tendencies. Poets from a variety of backgrounds joined the fray from journalism, advertising,
medicine, bureaucracy and academics and what not.
The last one that is the academics, they formed a large chunk of poets writing in English. Some
poets like Ezekiel and Dom Moraes used English as their sole language of expression because
they had no other option. Some others like Arun Kolatkar and Dilip Chitre were bilinguals, they
were writing in English and also Marathi.
Some other poets like P Lal, A K Mehrotra and Mahapatra were translators and also creators in
English. And lastly, we have Parthasarathy and Ramanujan, who had ambivalent attitudes to
English but then compensated for it by their translation from their native languages. They
translated their literature and also they translated the critical creative processes, principles f rom
their native traditions to the English in which they wrote their own poems.

(Refer Slide Time: 8:47)

Now we have the foundations. Indian poets used English to discover their own new self. This is a
driving force for many poets. Many did not doubt their own mastery of English at all. Their
exposure to English education gave them all support. They were enthused to write poems in
English. English was considered a link language, a window to the world and an instrument of
modernity in India. When English has such benefits, who would miss it?
Poets also looked at alternative models in American poetry, not necessarily in English poetry.
One of the major problems for English poetry in India is rhythm. This was recognized by Keki N
Daruwalla long back in 1918. However, all kinds of poets have written poems in English,
whether they wrote in the English rhythm or not. That was immaterial for them.
We have the major pioneer, the founder of this movement, new movement in writing in English
Nissim Ezekiel. He was born in 1924 and died in 2004. He took the bold step to write and
publish poems in English. In has published a number of poems. Here we have listed some of
them: A Time to Change, The Unfinished Man, The Exact Name, Hymns in Darkness and
Latter-Day Psalms. Other poets like Moraes, Kamala Das, Kolatkar, A K Mehrotra, Jussawalla,
A K Ramanujan and R Parthasarathy, all contributed to poetry in English in India.

(Refer Slide Time: 10:32)

The major problem facing these poets is the audience and also publishers. Who will read the
poems in Indian English? And the next question is who will publish the poetry volumes in
English? Initially, newspapers and magazines, especially The Illustrated Weekly of India in
Bombay supported poets, in fact they paid for the poems of these poets, that is a rare chance
today. It is very difficult to publish poems on one’s own, forget about the kind of money that we
can earn from publishing poems.
Ezekiel and Moraes published their first volumes from London because they had the opportunity
of going abroad, staying there, studying there, living there for some time, having contacts with
English poets and publishers, they could publish in England. Then we have P Lal, who set up his
own writers’ workshop in 1958 and started publishing poets from 1959. He said he did not have
a publisher to publish his own volumes, then he thought of publishing his own book by his own
publication house. That is how he started and then he helped other poets till his death. Even
today this house is publishing poems by Indian poets.
Smaller and self-supporting publishing houses sprung up in Bombay. Particularly, we have three
examples: Clearing House, Newfound and Praxis. Commercial publishers like Oxford University
Press, Arnold Heinemann, Viking, Rupa and Disha came into the scene one after another. But
then the effective promotion happened through several influential anthologies.

(Refer Slide Time: 12:19)

Let us see some of their famous anthologies we have had in our country and there are a number
of them, we have listed just a few. Way back in 1969, P Lal published this anthology ‘Modern
Indian Poetry in English: An Anthology and Credo.’ Then in 1972, Pritish Nandy published,
‘Indian Poetry in English.’ Then in 1972, we have ‘Contemporary Indian Poetry in English: An
Assessment and Selection’ by Saleem Peeradina.
Then we come to 1976 to see the most influential anthology of Indian Poetry in English , that is
‘Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets’ edited by R Parthasarathy. Then in 1980, we have ‘Two
Decades of Indian Poetry’ edited by Keki N Daruwalla. Then in 1992, we have another
influential anthology edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, that is called ‘The Oxford Anthology
of Twelve Modern Indian Poets.’
Then, another new ground was broken in 1997 when Eugene de Souza published ‘Nine Indian
Women Poets.’ Then in 2008, in this century, 21st century we have many volumes, many
anthologies, this is the one we have mentioned here, ‘Reasons for Belonging: Fourteen
Contemporary Indian Poets’ edited by Ranjit Hoskote, we have many other volumes as we said.

(Refer Slide Time: 13:53)

We have very interesting phenomenon that we have to look into this Indian Poetry in English is
the aspiration and the kind of capacity the poets had. Almost all English educated youth aspired

to become Yeats, Eliot, Pound in English and achieve popularity like them in the English-
speaking world. We have two examples: one is Girish Karnad and another is the f amous critic

Homi Bhabha.
Girish Karnad said in one of his interviews, “I wanted to be a poet, the greatest ambition in my
life, at the age of 22 I realized I would not become a poet, but only be a playwright, then I almost
wept.” And that too the playwright in Kannada, not his mother tongue that is Konkani, Kannada
was his second language, he became a playwright.
Then when we come to Homi Bhabha, the post-colonial critic, he has also said something like
this, “I was absolutely convinced in those days, when he was in Bombay, that my great gif t was
to be a poet, it was my all-embracing, all absorbing passion. Fortunately, these two gentlemen
did not pursue the muse of poetry. They pursued different activities, one in drama and another in
criticism, post-colonial criticism. The number of those who realized their limitations is less than
those who plunged into poetic frenzy. This field, Indian Poetry in English is flooded with a lots
of volumes but only very few are considered to be really good poets.

(Refer Slide Time: 15:30)

Now let us see some of the poets. We have a group of poets called Parsi poets, Bombay poets.
We have Adil Jussawalla born in 1940, he was a Parsi and a poet, he was an artist as well. He
was versatile post-modernist poet of self and identity. He used his western experience with a n
Indian ethos. He has many volumes; we have listed just two: Land’s End published in 1962 and
Missing Person published in 1976. He is still alive today and he continues to think about and
discuss poetry.
Gieve Patel is another Parsi poet, who is a doctor as well, he was also a painter. He dealt with the
rootlessness of city life with compassion, he has some volumes, we have listed two here: How
Do You Withstand, Body? and the second volume we have listed here is Mirrored, Mirroring
published in 1991. He has also written plays.
Then we have Keki N Daruwalla, born in 1937, still writing poems and criticism about poetry,
reviews, giving his views on poetry. He was a Parsi, but then he was a police officer and he also
wrote poems. He had a chance to observe life very closely, he was an observer of violence,
death, disease, and misery in our society. He examined contemporary life through Robert
Browning’s dramatic monologues. We have some volumes here: Crossing of Rivers, The Keeper
of the Dead, and The Map-Maker. For ‘The Keeper of the Dead,’ he was recognized with a
Sahitya Academi Award.

(Refer Slide Time: 17:24)

Then we have two other poets closely associated with each other having South Indian
background, moving to USA, settling down there, that is A K Ramanujan and R Parthasarathy.
Ramanujan was born in 1929 and died in 1993. He had a distinguished career as a linguist, a
translator and a bilingual poet. He wrote in English and he also wrote in Kannada. And he
translated from Kannada and also Tamil literature.
He was concerned with family nostalgia, and he treated his experiences and themes ironically in
almost all of his poems. Three volumes we have listed here: The Striders, Relations and Second
Sight. Today we talk about environment so seriously, way back in 1976, Ramanujan could think
about environment very seriously. I happened to read this volume long back, I remember my
writing on the Second Sight, the insight in Second Sight.
Then we have R Parthasarathy, who was born in 1934, who is a poet and editor and a translator.
He felt guilty about whoring after English gods, that is he felt unhappy that he left his mother
tongue, he abandoned his mother tongue and pursued English. Parthasarathy dealt with the
themes of Exile, Trial and Homecoming in his collection Rough Passage published in 1976,
revised and published again in 1980. Both A K Ramanujan and R Parthasarathy, explored
innovative ways of using English to deal with their experiences of in poetry.

(Refer Slide Time: 19:03)

Then we have Mehrotra and Mahapatra. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra was born in 1947. He was a
rigorously modernist poet and editor and an anthologist, and also a publisher. He is considered to
be a stylist, a surrealist and a minimalist. He was an active member of the Bombay group of
poets. He published several volumes, we have listed three here: Nine Enclosures, Distance Statue
Miles and The Transparency Places published in 1998. He is also known as an anthologist which
we refer to earlier in our discussion on ‘Anthologists in India.’
Then we have Jayanta Mahapatra, born in 1928. He is one of the most prolific poets we have in
our country, he dealt often with the silence and sufferings of people. He was influenced by
European and Latin American poets, not more by British poets. He widely published his poems
in international magazines, very often in American magazines. He published several volumes,
we have listed some here: Close the Sky, Ten by Ten in 1971, A Rain of Rites in 1976 and then
two long poems: Relationship and Temple. For Relationship he was awarded the first ever
Sahitya Academi Award for poet in English in India.

(Refer Slide Time: 20:29)

We come to the most brilliant woman of Indian poet in English, Kamala Das. Post-Independent
women poets share certain common features among them. They deal with intimate feelings,
personal observations, quest for a space within their family, within their self and within the
society. Kamala Das is a bilingual poet, born in 1934 and died in 2009. She is known for her
unsparing honesty about being a married and unloved woman in search of love throughout her
She used spontaneous and startling images and presented her frustrated and flamboyant selves in
various volumes. Some we have listed here: Summer in Calcutta, The Descendants, The Old
Playhouse and Other Poems. She is known for her poem called, “An Introduction.” She
introduces herself; she wants to be what she is; she does not want to be bothered about what
others say.

(Refer Slide Time: 21:31)

Then we have a group of three women poets associated with this Bombay group. Gauri
Deshpande, born in 1942 and died in 2003 was a bilingual poet. She was a professor at the
University of Pune and she has published a volume called Beyond the Slaughterhouse, but very
difficult to get more information about her poems or poetry.
Then we have another poet Charmayne D’Souza, she is a Goan Catholic poet and she has
published a volume called A Spelling Guide to Woman and in this volume, she demystifies the
hypocritical relations in marriage. She also prefers the crucified image of Christ to Mary
Magdalene. And that means she takes a feminist stand in her volume.
Then we have Eugene de Souza, she was born in 1940 and died in 2017. Again, she is Goan
Catholic poet, we have listed Fix and Women in Dutch Painting. She is the one to edit the f irst
anthology of women’s poet in India, in this volume ‘Nine Indian Women Poets.’ She has
subversive and ironic attitude in her poetry, one of the examples is “de Souza Prabhu.”

(Refer Slide Time: 22:47)

Let us see Imtiaz Dharker and Melanie Silgardo in this discussion now. Imtiaz Dharker was born
in 1954 in Pakistan, then she migrated to England. And she started moving between countries,
particularly England and India. She married an Indian and lived in Bombay for some time.
Associated with this Illustrated Weekly of India;she was the poetry editor for Illustrated Weekly
of India.
Now she is settled in Britain and she has won the Prestigious Award ‘The Queen’s Medal’ for
her poetry in 2015. Her burden is not belonging anywhere, that is the fuel for her poetry. She has
said, ‘Once “a foreigner” is always a foreigner,’ and also, she considers herself a “lost property.”
She has two volumes here: Purdha and Postcards for God among many other volumes.
Then let us see Melanie Silgardo, born in 1956. Her poems are noted for violence, sexual abuse
and a disturbed mind. We have listed two volumes here: Three Poets and Skies of Design.
Silgardo betrayed a modernist influence in her poem “Doris,” which is like Eliot’s “Gerontion”
in theme and outlook. She also founded the publishing collective called “Newfound” in Bombay.

(Refer Slide Time: 24:14)

Now we come to Meena Alexander and Sujata Bhatt. Meena Alexander was born in 1951 and
died in 2018, she was a professor of English and she lived in India, Sudan, UK, US and she has
such a wide variety of experiences. Not surprisingly she is known for her “poetics of
dislocation.” We have two volumes listed here: Illiterate Heart and Atmospheric Embroidery.
Her poetry is “The movement towards self-definition.”
We have next Sujata Bhatt, born in 1956, she is a poet of languages, in the sense, she deals with
the problem of language in her poems. And she concentrates more on the power of language on
human beings. Moving from place to place and language to language, she has believed, to quote,
“Each language offers a different perspective on life, a different way of organizing life.”
She is a speaker of seven languages and she has found her home in words, of course in her
mother tongue at times in her other tongue as well. She has three volumes, we have listed here :
Brunziem, Monkey Shadows and The Stinking Rose. We have other volumes, but we have not
listed them here.

(Refer Slide Time: 25:37)

Keki N Daruwalla observed a sea change in his recent article on Indian poetry. With the newer
poets we have many changes as they do not have to justify their choice of medium as the early
poets did. These young poets received recognition for their poetry abroad. Pulitzer Prize for
Vijay Seshadhri in 2014 in the US. Queen’s Poetry Medal for Imtiaz Dharker in 2015 in UK.
These new poets experiment with language, themes, techniques freely and adopt a postmodern
ironic outlook on life. We have diasporic poets like Agha Shahid Ali, Meena Alexander and
Sujata Bhatt, which we discussed earlier and also Vikram Seth. We have some new poets in
Arundathi Subramaniam, Sridala Swami, Jeet Thayil and Ranjit Hoskote. Then we have some
talented poets as well in C P Surendran, Anand Thakore, Menka Shivdasani and Sampurna

(Refer Slide Time: 26:43)

We have two poems, just for reading. The first poem is by Sridala Swami on “Chimera,” just an
extract from this poem:

“The door creaks
in the wind. the curtains billow.
the whole room is alive. don’t awake
because the door has begun a chant
that is faint but audible; a murmur,
an incantation, an appeasement
to what is alive but not yet risen.

Then we have another poem by Dhanavel that is me. I wrote a number of poems, published three
volumes. I thought this is an opportunity for me to share just one piece of my poem with you all,
this is called ‘The River:’

“The river has no driver
but it reaches the sea.
My car has all care

but it often breaks
down on the road.”

Life is full of challenges; nature has no challenges. We create challenges for ourselves and we
have to face the challenges of life.If we care to learn from the river, we can sail smoothly.
(Refer Slide Time: 27:49)

To give a summary of our discussion on Indian Poetry in English, we have discussed the features
of Indian Poetry in English, the colonial and nationalist periods, and then the post-independent
period where we saw how the foundations were laid by pioneers like Nissim Ezekiel and Dom
Moraes. We discussed the problems of audience and publishers, and how these problems were
solved by anthologists.
And also, we looked at one of the basic problems in English, everybody wants to write poetry
like me too and then see how this can be materialized. If we realize our limitations, then there
will not be many problems. If we have any editors, friends who can support us to work on, see
the whole idea of writing great poetries, all about the collaboration between people, the great
example is Eliot and Pound.
If there were no Ezra Pound, there would not have been such a poet called Eliot, with the poem
that we discussed “The Wasteland.” So, it is all about kind of collaboration which does not really
work out so well in our context. We looked at individual poets like The Bombay poets, or the

South Indian poets or women poets who contributed to Indian Poetry in English. We also saw the
sea change in Indian Poetry with new poets who have lot of opportunities abroad and in India as
well. We read two poems, just two small samples we read to understand what kind of poetry we
are going to deal with.
(Refer Slide Time: 29:26)

We have some references, hope you will be able to see all of them, these are easily available.
Enjoy, thank you.