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Volume 1 | Issue 3 | October 2006 | 

Indian Poetry in English –                                
a British Indian overview

Usha Kishore

Indian Poetry in English – a British Indian overview

Indian Prose in English has always enjoyed Western attention.  Writers like R.K.Narayan, Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand and lately, Salman Rushdie, Arundathi Roy and of course Nobel Laureate, V.S.Naipaul have all been fashionable in the West, at some point or another. However, it is disappointing to see that Western attention directed towards Indian Poetry in English has been minimal. Indian Poetry in English is nearly 200 years old.  It began with Henry Derozio in the first half of the nineteenth century. Preceding Derozio, the British servicemen in India are said to have laid the foundation stones for this genre.  Today, Indian Poetry in English has been exported back to the West, in the form of Indian poets living in the West.

Although a nominal amount of Indian Poetry in English is being taught at School and University levels in the West, the critical possibilities of this much mis-interpreted genre have not been fully exploited, here. An average western reader would unite Indian Poetry in English under a single umbrella. The heterogeneity of Indian Poetry in English is completely overlooked. The genre embodies, inter alia, a variety of styles, symbols, folklore, myths and themes and unfolds a sequence of cultural, linguistic, political, regional and etymological differences.

To understand and appreciate this genre, a brief history needs to be traced and the pioneering poets like Rabindranath Tagore and Sarojini Naidu re-read in the light of post-colonialism. Following this, the work of later poets and Indian poets settled in the West should also be considered. Tagore and Naidu lived and wrote during the transition of the colonial era to the post-colonial.  Both these poets were part of the Indian resistance against the British Raj and their poetry can be seen as a milestone in the evolution of Indian Poetry in English. Their work defines the relationship between history and culture, by exposing the conflicts and contradictions of the East and the West in the colonial era and by providing insights into the dynamic syntheses that resolve these conflicts.

            Rabindranath Tagore, (1861 – 1941), in spite of his Nobel Prize for Gitanjali in 1913 has long been forgotten.  He still lives in the English translations of other writers, while his own English translations from Bengali lie forgotten. Although Tagore primarily wrote in Bengali, he proceeded to translate his work into English (the Nobel Prize was awarded to the English version of Gitanjali) and later wrote in English. The poetry of Tagore reflects a kaleidoscope of cultures. The Indian marga (classical) and desi (folk) traditions rub shoulders with Western literary doctrines. Tagore’s poetry incorporates Sufi mysticism, Hindu philosophy, Indian myth and folklore and Western literature and philosophy.

Gitanjali epitomises all things Tagorean.  It synthesises the diverse elements in Sufism and Hindu philosophy into a multicultural whole:

 …thou who art the King of kings hast

decked thyself in beauty to captivate my heart. And

for this thy love loses itself in the love of thy lover, and

there art thou seen in the perfect union of two.

 Tagore's mysticism and the contemplation of the nature of God, the unification  of the personal and cosmic aspects of Divine Nature are all a result  of Islam-Hindu synthesis.  Tagore’s projection of Mother Nature and the female force can be interpreted as the poet’s championship of women and his desire for equality and justice for women, as echoed in the words of Chitra:

No goddess to be worshipped, nor yet an object of common pity to be brushed aside like a moth with indifference 2

Tagore's poetry may be innately Indian but it has a universal appeal and his concerns range from women's and children's rights to individual liberty and internationalism, especially in poems like "Africa":

            The savage greed of the civilised stripped naked its unashamed


            You wept and your cry was smothered,

               your forest trails became muddy with tears and blood,

      while the nailed boots of the robbers

         left their indelible prints

             along the history of your indignity. 3

Here Tagore has questioned the Western ideas of democracy and freedom in the light of imperialism. Tagore's poetry could be re-examined in a contemporary pacifist and human rights' context as he has addressed these factors in his poetry.

            Sarojini Naidu (1879 – 1949) is another of India’s pioneering poets in English. Sarojini Naidu was one of the first poets who explored the Indian sensibility within the framework of traditional Western poetic forms.

If you call me, I will come

            Swifter than desire

Swifter than the lightning's feet

            Shod with plumes of fire.

Life's dark tides may roll between,

            Or Death's deep chasms divide-4

Her poetry has certainly paved the way for the subsequent multicultural inter-weaving, which is a trend seen even in contemporary Indian poets. Like that of Tagore, Sarojini's poetry too has elements of Sufism, Bhakti5 philosophy, Christianity and Metaphysical Poetry. Sarojini exemplifies the exotic India as opposed to the poverty-ridden, black hole portrayed in the Western media. Her Snake Charmers, Bangle Sellers, Fisherfolk, the Weavers and Palanquin Bearers are not the remnants of Kipling's India; but in fact, reflect an India of hard working people, who blend their simple lives into the colour, culture and traditions of the land. The "exotic" lies not in their attire or surroundings, but in their thoughts.  For instance, the "Indian Weavers"6 weave the robes of a new-born child at the break of the day and in the moonlight chill " a dead man's funeral shroud". In this poem, the rites of passage are brought out along with the participatory elements.  Sarojini's characters live in a real world but look at life in the light of Indian philosophy as illustrated by the poem "Coromandel Fishers":

He who holds the storm by the hair,

Will hide in his breast, our lives. 7

The fishermen's braving of the elements and their faith in God is brilliantly portrayed here.

            Poems like "Purdah Nashin" and "Suttee" speak of Sarojini's longing for the emancipation of women:

Her days are guarded and secure

Behind her carven lattices…

Who shall prevent the subtle years

Or shield a woman's eyes from tears? 8

Sarojini Naidu has made Indian womanhood explicit through her poems. Her  patriotism and her incitement of fellow Indians towards freedom in poems like "Awake" and "To India":

Waken, our mother! Thy children implore thee…

Are we not thine, O belov'd, to inherit

The manifold pride and power of thy spirit? 9

confirms the fact that one cannot designate Sarojini Naidu to the post of the sub-altern as she was actively involved in the Independence Movement and was a feminist, in  a traditional way.  For some reason, Sarojini has been dismissed as excessively sentimental and simplistic.  Her poetry has come under a barrage of criticism for  lack of sophistication and analysis.  Her work with language seems to be ignored, as does her mysticism:

 Life is a Prism of My Light

And Death the shadow of My face. 10

            Later poets like Nissim Ezekiel (1924 - 2004) and Kamala Das (1934- ) depict the change in the trends of Indian Poetry in English. The poetry of Ezekiel reflects the contemporary Indian metropolis.  His Very Indian Poems in English see the creative use of English, away from a totally Western perspective:

            “What you think of prospects of world peace?

             Pakistan behaving like this,

            China behaving like that,

            It is making me very sad, I am telling you.”11

It is English, modified and adapted to suit the Indian sensibility, generating an Indian-English idiom, which could be identified as the post-colonial inter-language. Ezekiel's religion, his English education and his native city of Bombay are all portrayed effectively in his poetry. One of his well known poems, The Night of the Scorpion explores Indian superstition, at work in the poet’s middle-class, educated Jewish background: 

            I remember the night my mother

            Was stung by a scorpion…

            …The peasants came like swarms of flies

            and buzzed the Name of God a hundred times

            to paralyse the Evil One….12

His poems show a cultural dichotomy of Judaic culture and Hindu Bombay. His modern India is a mosaic of the Indian metropolis, with its colonial vestiges and the peripheral rural India, with its traditional Indian values. He also shows alienation as a member of a minority community in a predominantly Hindu India.  His poetry displays a highly private sensibility in relation to the social and ethical changes in Post-Independent India.  Ezekiel is an example of a ‘post-colonial hybrid’ integrating diverse cultures and their dimensions into his poetry.

Kamala Das’s work challenges all Western interpretations of the Eastern Woman. Her highly subjective and confessional poetry explores male-female relationship in the context of sexual colonisation of women in their native matriarchal Keralite 13 society.  Her treatment of the love theme is a psychological catharsis:

                        ….Can this man with

                        nimble fingertips unleash nothing more

                        alive than the skin’s lazy hungers…

                        … it is only to save my face

                        I flaunt at times, a grand flamboyant lust…14

Her poetry can be taken as an example of Indian feminist thought, its effects and interpretations. Kamala Das’s themes of extra marital relationships and her intense and explicit sexual connotations set the trend for magic realism in Indian Poetry in English:

            I met a man, loved him. Call

            Him not by any name, he is every man

            Who wants a woman, just I am every

Woman who seeks love.  In him…the hungry haste

Of rivers, in me …the ocean's tireless


 Her poetry challenges the stereotyping of Indian women and the power imbalance between the sexes. She shows a restlessness with the fetters of femininity and rejects the traditional female image, while defying the overwhelming Indian male ego:

            Be a wife, they said.  Be embroiderer, be cook,

            Be a quarreller with servants.  Fit in. Oh,


 Kamala Das’s poetry, like Arundathi Roy’s God of Small Things, echoes the need for change in the traditional Indian outlook of women and for breaking the Western mould of “the long-suffering other".

            Over the years, Indian Poetry in English has migrated to the West. Indian poets, living abroad work on a wide range of themes like alienation, marginalisation and displacement. In the UK, the contemporary Indian poetic diaspora consists of a number of well-established figures. Debjani Chatterjee (1952 -) is one of them. Her repertoire of themes range from gender issues, multiculturalism and  nostalgia to the very act of an Indian writing in English There is a distinct Indianness in her tone, combined with a Western perspective of the world.  In "I was that Woman", Debjani creates a gender identity for the subaltern, which seems to be continuously questioned by the East and the West:

I was that woman who roused a nation

And was burnt so many times at so many stakes.

I was the woman at whom the Vedas, the Avesta,

The Bible and the Koran were flung;

Their God was the bogeyman

Who kindly sent male prophets

To keep me humble in my place. 17

The theme of writing in an alien tongue is marvellously illustrated in "Learning The Imperialist's Language":

Because you were the enemy’s,

you had to be grappled with

and ruthlessly mastered.

Encountering you was all

the delight of illicit romance…

You have schooled me

in strategies to disarm,

as you have fooled me

into owning at last,

that in possessing you,

I become the one-time enemy. 18

Shanta Acharya is another British Indian poet, who is widely published in Britain and abroad. She draws heavily from the Upanishads and other Hindu Literature and transfers the mysticism into her personal world. In The Night of Shiva, Shanta explores her Indianness in the backdrop of British culture:

                        Drum in one hand, trishul in the other,

                        your rhythmic dance would be quite an ethnic

performance par excellence in public

with Parvathi break-dancing down Trafalgar square…19

Here, Shantha has imported her Hindu Gods into Trafalgar Square and has alluded to the immigration of the Hindu culture into Britain. Hers is a highly subjective voice that comes to terms with her Indianness and at the same time reflects on the day-to-day reality of the Western world. This balancing act between the East and the West brings the occasional irony into her work:

            …If our gods can eat and sleep,

            steal buttermilk, make love, fall ill…

            what's so surprising about drinking some milk?

            …When a community unites in  a willing suspension of disbelief,

            experts agree it is acknowledging a deeper human need…20

British Indian poets, like other poets living in the West, occupy a unique position. Their poetry is a dynamic synthesis of their Indian regionalities and their synchronous British situations. They are not only “born into two cultures”, but they also live in a space, between the multicultural present and the colonial past. We are brought into the crossroads of text, context and language - a text, which is written by an Indian living abroad; a context, which is bi-cultural and bi-lingual, in its own sense and a language that accommodates both the West and the East.

Indian Poetry in English reflects many aspects of avant-garde culture viz: Liberalism, Feminism and Ethnicity: Liberalism  - This can be interpreted in many ways:

·        Liberalism -  Indian poets chose to liberate themselves from their mother tongue and write in English, which they call their first language. In a sense, Indian Poetry in English is responsible for the “liberation of the English language”21.  The English language has been modified and adapted to suit the Indian sensibility.  Indian Poetry in English is yet another an example of the "englishes" described by Ascroft, Griffiths and Tiffin.22

·        Feminism – The feministic  angle of Indian Poetry in English would de-stabilise the stereotype of the Indian woman in the West.  It would also come as a cultural shock to those who question the very existence of a gender identity in Indian Writing in English.  Feminism can be traced back to the origins of Indian Writing. Tagore’s projection of Mother Nature and the female force can be interpreted as Eco-feminism. Sarojini Naidu makes the Indian Woman ‘heard’ and Kamala Das ponders about the sexual identity of the Indian Woman, while Debjani Chatterjee carves an identity for the subaltern.

·        Ethnicity – Indian Poetry in English cannot be dismissed under a brand name. Indian Poetry in English reflects regional variations such as language, ethnicity and culture. It should also be noted that Indian English poets belong to different races, cultures and traditions.

Looking at the multicultural angle of Indian Poetry in English, one can clearly spot the difference in Western multiculturalism and Indian multiculturalism. In the West, multiculturalism is a recent phenomenon, while in India it is an accepted way of life. Western multiculturalism portrays resistance against cultural hegemony, search for identity and struggle for the recognition of difference. In India, the phenomenon is more assimilatory, than subversive.  In spite of the cultural, religious, social and geographical differences, there seems to be an integration, a Unity in Diversity. The Indian identity can be called confluent.  This confluent identity is aware of the differences and at the same time, maintains its own integrity. This identity negotiates a space for itself in the multicultural congregation that is India. This aspect is evident in not only Indian Poetry in English but also in other genres of Indian English Writing.  As the confluent Indian identity migrates West, the trends range from assimilatory to reactionary, perhaps in response to the trends in Western multiculturalism which incorporates different ethnic identities, from many parts of the World and as a result face resistance from the host communities.

The representation of female Indian literary figures, in the West, has been minimal. Western feminists have the tendency to look at Third world women as a “cultural and ideological composite other”23.  This homogenous mis-representation has overlooked important issues such as differences in race, culture and class.  This stereotype of Indian women/Third world women paints the picture of a voiceless, helpless, species of the female variety, continually subjected to marginalisation and oppression.  Even though the works of Spivak and others have given voice to the sub-altern, there does not seem to be a cohesive understanding about Indian Women poets in the western academia. 

Indian Poetry in English has travelled a long way, across time and space. It is the literature of renascence- "a literary aesthetic and reality based on the emergence of a third world personality from the privations of history24 ".   It carries transhistorical and transcultural significance as it defines the Colonial and Post-colonial eras of Literature. Indian Poetry in English encompasses various post-colonial issues, such as history, language, culture, displacement and de-colonisation. The current debates surrounding heterogeneity, feminism, race, nationalism/post-nationalism and multiculturalism are all very much a part of this genre. Even the pioneering poets bring these debates to light. Certainly it is time to uncover Indian Poetry in English in the light of post-colonialism.

End Notes

1.      Tagore.R ; Gitanjali Macmillan India Ltd; 1913.  Verse LVI.  p.37

2.      Tagore.R; Chitra Macmillan; London; 1914. p.57.

3.      Tagore.R: "To Africa2; The Spectator; 7 May 1937; Kalyan Kundu, Sakti Bhattacharya & Kalyan Sircar (Ed.) Imagining Tagore: Rabindranath and the British Press  (1912 -1941); Shitya Samsad; Calcutta; 2000. p.545.

4.      Naidu.S; "If You Call Me"; V.K.Gokak (Ed.) The Golden Treasury of Indo-Anglian Poetry; Sahitya Akademi; New Delhi; 1992. p.p. 152-153.

5.      Bhakti - Literally meaning devotion.  The Bhakti age is considered the golden era in Indian Literature.  It spans the geographical regions of India and dates between AD 1100 -1600.

6.      Naidu S; "Indian Weavers"; qtd.  K.R.S.Iyengar; Indian Writing in English; Sterling Publishers Private Limited; 1984.p.212.

7.      Naidu.S; "Coromandel Fishers"; in Sceptred Flute; Dodd, Mead and Company; N.Y. p. p.6-7.

8.      Naidu.S; "Pardah Nashin; V.K.Gokak (Ed.) The Golden Treasury of Indo-Anglian Poetry; Sahitya Akademi; New Delhi; 1992. p.p. 149 -150.

9.      Naidu.S; "Awake!"; V.K.Gokak (Ed.) The Golden Treasury of Indo-Anglian Poetry; Sahitya Akademi; New Delhi; 1992. p.151.

10.  Naidu.S; "The Soul's Prayer"; V.K.Gokak (Ed.) The Golden Treasury of Indo-Anglian Poetry; Sahitya Akademi; New Delhi; 1992. p.154.

11.  Ezekiel.N; "Very Indian Poems in English’" in Nissim Ezekiel, Collected poems 1952-1988 (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1989), p. 238.

12.  Ezekiel.N; "Night of the Scorpion", in Nissim Ezekiel, Collected poems 1952-1988 (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1989), p. 130.

13.  Keralite  - native of Kerala in South India.

14.  Das.K; "The Freaks" in The Best of Kamala Das (Bodhi Publishing House, Kozhikode, Kerala, 1991), p.42.

15.  Das.K; "Introduction"; V.K.Gokak (Ed.) The Golden Treasury of Indo-Anglian Poetry; Sahitya Akademi; New Delhi; 1992. p.p.272 -273.

16.  Gokak.V.K. (Ed.) The Golden Treasury of Indo-Anglian Poetry; Sahitya Akademi; New Delhi; 1992. p.

17.  Chatterjee.D;  I Was That Woman; Hippopotamus Press; UK; 1989.

18.  "Learning the Imperialist Language". c. Debjani Chatterjee.

19.  Acharya.S; "The Night of Shiva"; Debjani Chatterjee (ed)  The Redbeck Anthology of British South Asian Poetry; The Redbeck Press; March; 2000.

20.  "Of Magic and Men" c. Shanta Acharya.

21.  Devy G.N,  In Another Tongue (Macmillan India Ltd. Madras, 1995), p.p. 107-116.

22.  Ashcroft.B, Griffiths.G & Tiffin.H: The Empire Writes Back; Routledge; London; 1998.p.p. 38 -59.

23.  Chandra Talpade Mohanty, ‘Under Western Eyes – Feminist Scholarship and Discourses’ in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (eds), The post-colonial studies reader (Routledge, London; 1995), p.259.

24.  Michael Dash - Marvellous Realism: The Way out of Négritude in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (Ed) The Post-Colonial Studies Reader; Routledge; London; 1995. p. 200.

Born and brought up in Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala), Usha Kishore now lives on the Isle of Man, UK, where she lectures in English at the Isle of Man College. Usha is a research scholar with The Open University, UK. Her poetry and critical articles have appeared in international magazines and online. Read Usha's poems in Second issue of thanal online









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