TOWARDS A POETICS OF INVERSION
Let me breathe the smell of our
dead, let me contemplate
and repeat their living voice, let me learn
to live before I sink, deeper than the diver, into the
lofty depth of sleep
These lines by Leopold Sedor Senghor in his “Night of Sine”, probably written in the fifties, reflected the collective aspirations of the millions of coloured people of the time scattered in three continents to seek, assert, celebrate, renew and revitalise their racial identity through a poetry that was to be an unmediated expression of their inner life. Something like this began to happen to Indian poetry in the sixties and the seventies when the regional, the oral, the marginalised, the ridiculed and the comic started replacing the national, the written, the mainstream, the celebrated and the serious. This shift that was aesthetic as well as political led to the breakdown of the urban, solipsistic dark ‘high’ modernism in several Indian languages. At times, it coincided with the growth of the New Left with its radical poetic as in Telugu or Malayalam; at times it promoted a new folk spirituality as in Marathi and Gujarati and soon it was joined by new emancipatory streams like Dalit poetry and Feminist poetry, all of which together ushered in a new avant-gardist trend fired by intense social concern as well as an aesthetic revolt against the dominant modernist sensibility that was close to the hermetic. Chandrasekhara Kambar’s poetry pioneers and partakes in this major shift in contemporary poetic sensibility that may be called post-Modernist in a strictly chronological and a specifically Indian sense. His difference as a poet was suggested by his very early poems in Mugulu. This difference defines itself in his later collection, Heelatene Kela (1964), Takararinavaru (1970) Savirada Neralu (1979), Bellimeenu (1989) and Akkakku Hadugale (1994). His collected poems Evaregina Heelatena Kela (1994), show him as the creator of his own world of experiences and images that draw much from folklore and myth, a world uncharted by the Navodaya as well as the Navya movements in Kannada. Within this world peripheral to the mainstream modernism, Kambar creates an astonishing variety of forms, themes and concerns.
The poem “The Player King and the Clown” is paradigmatic to Kambar’s poetics of inversion. In the poem, the clown forgets his costume, his practised pranks and his identity. He makes his face unreadably ambiguous and walks and poses like the King before the audience. He ‘dresses the clowns’s words in the King’s costume, chews and crushes his syllables, keeps his voice at the base and speaks with all the arrogance of authority. The people accept his authority happily and bow and dance before him in elation. When the king peeps out of the side-wing, the clown points at him and asks the people to laugh at the buffoon. They obey him and laugh. When the clown leaves, the spectators stand up giving him the respect due to a monarch. As the king enters, they roar with laughter, hiss and clap their hands just as at the entry of the clown. The King tells the audience he is their ruler, but they shout back that he is a clown. The poet, the director of the play, steps in at this moment and appeals to the people to be serious; this was not the intended play. But the audience would have nothing of it; they call him a fool and silence him.
The metanarrative of the poem conceals at least four reversals: the clown turns into the king, the king becomes the clown, the spectators who were so far silent witnesses to the play, begin to intervene and decide who is who thus taking into their hands the reins of the whole play and the director of the play gets marginalised and silenced as the roles change and the spectators approve of it; This multi- layered articulation is full of radical implications. The clown is the ridiculed and the peripheral, wisdom and laughter enslaved by tyranny and pushed into the role of the entertaining jester in the court of power, the palace of politics. He represents the deprived sections of the people who are constantly fooled by authority: he is the peasant and the worker, the Dalit and the tribal, the minority and the woman: the real creators and sustainers of culture, the genuine heroes who seldom get the recognition due to them in intellectual discourses as well as the real discourse of life. The king continues to be king only so long as the people remain silent and refuse to take the initiative. Here the people identify themselves with the clown, making the king-maker, the director, the behind-the-scene master-manipulator of all political dramas, totally irrelevant. What happens in the poem at the political level is nothing short of a revolution that substitutes the king with the clown, the tyrant with the friend, authoritarianism with democracy. The semiosis of the poem is brought about more by gestures than by words: the clown has to unlearn his pranks, forget his costume and abandon his fool’s identity in order to become the king. His unflinching posture, his firm gait with hands folded at the back, his regal look, the arrogance in his words, the way he ‘chews and crushes’ his syllables and the base-tone saturated with authority are exactly what make him the king. It is a part he plays and the difference between the king and the clown consists purely in their costume, postures and gestures. The people also employ bowing, dancing, hissing, applause and laughter as the means to express their approval and disapproval of the roles and the players.
At a purely aesthetic level, the clown replacing the king betokens the comic replacing the serious: this replacement results from the perception that what was being paraded as serious was actually mock-serious and it is time we took the comic seriously as an ironic perception of life with its contradictions. Irony is perceived here not as a passing stylistic ornament, but as a central poetic strategy a way of looking at life and events. The seriousness of the unsmiling romantic and the morbid modernist becomes a source of laughter, thus turning the grave into the clownish Irony is a strategy for survival; comic is a way of life.
The silencing of the author amounts to the author’s death: once the readers take over, the author has no say in creation: the more democratic the literature becomes the less powerful the author: the end of authorial ideology along with the centrality given to the comic and the mock-heroic is let us remember, an important move of post-Modemist aesthetic. The post-Modem in our context is characterised by the blurring of the borders between ‘high’ art and ‘low’ art between the esoteric and the popular. It disbelieves the romantic: It also disbelieves the modem project of urbanisation and the consequent complexification of experience and expression. It speaks more about worlds than being and explores the boundaries of different worlds and their confrontation. It fights the standarisation natural to consumer societies and the universalisation of hegemonic values of life and art.
In the context of India, the clown in the poem also may be said to represent what is oral and folk, since the clown is also traditionally the simple rustic and the uncouth peasant looked down upon as an uncivilised jester by the urban elite. He represents the symbolic language of the non- literature parts of people and culture, of the backyard of civilisation. The king represents the written, the urban and the powerful. It may be said in other words that the king represents the Great Tradition, the royal road, the margi while the clown represent the Little Tradition, the byway, the desi. The Orientalists had privileged the Great tradition, the written, classical, Sanskrit tradition of India. To the, margi, written texts were hallowed; they would not understand that a culture like India’s has several forms of texts including performances and rituals. Looked at thus, the poem speaks of the rural taking over from the urban: ‘the villages surrounding the city’ if one wants a political metaphor. All these levels together may be considered to form the premises of the poetics of inversion/subversion that Kambar’s practice seems to imply. This practice of subversion has nothing Western about it: on the other hand it is a flowering of the Sramana tradition of Indian poetry that extends from Sanskrit poets like Yogeswara, Buddhist and Jain poets like Asvaghosha, Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Santideva, Vasubandhu, Ubbiri and Sumangalamata, Bhakti and Sufi poets from Basava, Mahadeviyakka, Allama, Dasimayya, Andal and Nammalvar to Kabir, Meera, Nanak, Tukaram, Namdev, Jnandev, Lal Ded, Baba Farid, Bulle Shah, Mir Dard, Shah Abdul Latif and Sultan Bahu to several progressive poets and contemporary Dalit, women and tribal poets.
This poetics that is central to the whole oeuvre of Chandrasekhara Kambar works in different ways. Look at ‘The Fiend of the Folktales’: This fiend used to be busy in the past in his fiend’s costume stealing the princess and fighting the hero. His name was ‘Roaring Laughter’: his tale had no beginning and no end. But now that the seven seas have dried up, the forests on seven hills have been felled, castles of mystery with their parrot-cages and plants of sweet berries have all vanished and tales are no more being told, the fiend has little to do except brushing his fang, bathing in the pond, adorning his horns with flowers and waiting for another uneventful day. He has now been exiled from our lives; we cannot make him laugh or even grin. The so- called civilized world, with its markets that barter souls and the processions of bulls and bears borders on his realm. The fiend was a way of life, he was infinitely human, teasing the princess, eating dirt with the hero, teaching us poetic justice and lying low until the tale was told again. Instead of this fiend now we have the robot that can jump to the skies and conduct starwars. The other day the Americans told a story in which there was a battle between the robot and the fiend. The fiend was beaten black and blue by the robot and he ran away for cover to the folktale. But the folk- the “civilized” people- dragged him out of the tale, framed him and kept him in a museum. He has stopped looking at the children and the robot as he feels that even children are the brood of the robot. ‘The Fiend of the Folktales’ is an allegoric metatale of tragic dimensions. The disappearance of the fiend from real life, his battle with the robot and disgraceful failure, his attempt to escape into a folktale only to be transformed into a museum piece, and the children, his one-time admirers, turning into robots together sum up the predicament of man in the context of modernisation and globalisation. It is not only an elegy for the vanishing indigenous cultures with their roots in oral and performative traditions, but an elegy for man steadily turning into a machine. The market that invades the fiend’s realm represent the forces of industrial capitalism and its greedy consumer culture that besiege our world of reality and also rob us off our dearest memories, dreams and fantasies. The loss of cultural memory and the loss of native imagination and the surrender of the unconscious to the glossy world of advertisement with its idolisation of untruth are the catastrophic extremes of the culture of the market with its standardising strategies and manufactured images. Culture industry does not ignore the folk and the indigenous; then, perhaps, they would have survived: instead it turns them into exportable ethnic commodities and art pieces, worthy of the walls of the drawing rooms of the rich and of the museums that celebrate death. While the friendly fiend of the folktale and along with him the whole of the fantastic and the carnivalesque natural to our culture is exiled into the museum, his place is taken over by the robot, the heartless machine man that cannot laugh but only obey his masters and fight. He wins the battle with the fiend by the sheer metallic force that the imperial capital has put into him: the badly bashed up fiend cannot escape into folktales for the green forests of oral narratives that surrounded and sheltered our lives have been felled by the new soulless mass culture exported from the United States, alongwith our real forests axed by the culture of careerism and profit. The robot, masterminded and remote-controlled by the forces of the new cultural colonialsim is the unconscientious monster, the Frankenstein, the Golem, the Spiderman and the Batman, determined to defeat everything that is dear to us, conquer our weltenschauungs, our visions and our desires, induce in. us civilizational amnesia, kill our mother tongues, silence our songs, transform our ways of life and though forcing us into unthinking imitation of the West: in short he symbolises the whole imperialist cultural agenda. Every single plastic toy soldier and toygun that enters our homes, every television commercial image that celebrates the multinational, is his secret agent being smuggled into our life and culture, designed to corrupt our children, the last hope of our civilisation. The fiend in the poem is at his most tragic when he refuses to look at the children, once his intimate friends and eager admirers, for they too, he feels, are the robot’s own brood. “The Fiend of the Folktales” suggestively sums up the cultural anxieties of a nation caught in the irreversible process of Westernisation under the grab of economic globalisation and cultural universalisation.
The rocks of Hampi in the poem of that title are an extension of the fiend of the folktales: they are frozen memories, amorphous archetypes of a lost world of primal experience, the thirst of the scorching sun: the buffaloes that cannot swim. the flames of Shiva’s third eye, tales waiting to bloom, Ahalya waiting for emancipation, yet unable to become the powerful phallus or even a limb of Shiva. The rocks want to converse with the world, to make friends with the mother and the baby, ignite memories thus anamnesing the world obvious of its past, or inspire revenge. They also symbolise the fantasy of untamed freedom: they are naked wild horses waiting to gallop away to the horizon. The inversion works here filling the non-living rocks with life, turning memories into dreams and making the silence speak. The rocks belong to the world of the fiend of the folktale and to that of myth and like the fiend framed and kept in a museum, the rocks are frozen dreams of liberation now under the tourist gaze.
The old man who keeps appearing in Kambar’s poems like “To the Dark God” and “That Old Man” seems a visitor from another world, a luminous world full of the radiance of ancients. In the former poem the man climbs down directly from the horizon with shadow-soft steps full of mother-like tenderness and with a mysterious look. He asks the poet to learn to use the light beyond for worldly business and put the heavy globe of the moon on his neck that grows heavier and heavier on his shoulders until it falls into the water as he shifts it from one shoulder to the other. The moon lies at the bottom of the water unable to swim waiting for a sky and stars and the poet waits for the light to illumine his way-a typical act of poetic inversion. The old man returns in the latter poem flashing his teeth and piercing the children with sharp looks that had the ‘light of other lands’. The Old man in both the poems appears to come from a long-lost world full of grace, bliss and wisdom all of which are lost to our age. He is memory incarnate and belongs to the realm of legends and proverbs. Interpreted metaphysically this radiant presence can also be the god of Basava and Kabir, the god of the weaver, the tailor, the potter, the bricklayer, the farmer and the pedlar, unrealised equality, bygone brotherhood. The God of Surdas appears however in another poem, “The Guest.” He comes, as a child with silver anklet, out of his shadows of forgetfulness, mischievous, playful, beautiful. Here the old man’s role is reversed: he is the one who waits for the divine guest. The child disappears in a flicker and the old man spends days and nights in the hope of his return turning his body into a wick and his eyes into a lamp. He was becoming a temple only to fmd himself dazed at the end not knowing who is the guest and who the host. He knows he is answering divinity’s call, but who is the divine answering? The reversal, at the end, of man and God is typical. The two worlds enter each other, the infinite contains the finite; yet the Master behind the master remains a mystery. This sense of mystery seems part of a poetics of inversion, as when a character declares independence from the playwright, climbs down the stage, sits by his creator, laughs when the audience is silent, claps where applause is uncalled for and behaves rudely (“The Character I Created”)
Water and mirror with their different forms of inversion of images become the manifestations of a poetics of inversion, respectively in “Two Trees” and “Mirror, O Mirror”. “The Two Trees” speak of a real tree and its image in the lake: as we climb up one, we climb down the other. Climbing up, one reaches heaven: those who drown in the lake reach the bottom. The real tree and its reflection no more merge into each other: one will have to reach the bottom of the lake to search for the vanished land. This epiphanic conclusion illuminates the whole poem: the trees appear as passages across time. Past and future spring from the same source; but we have lost the links that connect them. To re-establish their relations, we may have to seek and find our lost earth. The trees can also be seen to represent reality and imagination whose disconnection and the psychosis consequent to it have filled modern life with unease. The vanished land is where the fiend of the folktales lives and from where those luminous old men and the star-eyed divine baby come visiting us. In “Mirror, O, Mirror” the poet is again lost between the reality and the image wondering whether he is real or his mirror-image. Once the glass is broken they may melt and merge into each other; still the division will persist between memory and experience. This song from the play ‘Sirisampige’ ends wondering whether this conversation between the man and the shade is really a dialogue or a monologue.
This poetics can convert the eyes of a beloved woman into two deep ponds in a forest (“In Your Eyes”) “See how our worlds appear there turned upside down.” In this inverted world fisherman’s nets gather not the fish but the hearts of the drowned; a twirling fish in the pond can jolt the sun and make the sky collapse. But this hemisphere lives only so long as we keep our eyes open. One blink, and everything disappears; you may then open your eyes to a new world. Love here is a contract between illusion and reality, an agreement to believe the unbelievable. This contract crumbles in the poem “We have no Freedom” where the beloved loses all her memory and fails to recognise herself in the old photograph. The nymph of the past loses the fire of her frenzy and turns into a lifeless shadow. The loss of memory is perceived here as the absence of freedom. In this poetics gods are not always all powerful; they need man’s devotion and fear to keep themselves alive (“The Mandara Tree”). This is also a world of metamorphosing imagination where Shiva’s wound can become the earth (the same poem) or calling Shiva in true pain can bring forth a bird whose song gives leaves to the painted trees and turns everything green (“The Ballad of an Artist”) The poem “Water” conceives water as an alternative world where parallel lines meet and merge, where creepers blossom on the ruins. The world of water is free from arguments and murderous battles. It has another geometry; the centre is where we put our finger and the circumference is where we draw. It has many centres; its diameter is endless. The poet here creates a freer world that is multi- centred, infinite and polyphonic, a world free from the crippling geometry of power that rules man’s world. Water becomes the world as the world becomes water.
The transformation of the boy in “The Dark Lad” from a benign and invisible servant to a frightening and guilt inducing presence that unsettles the master is another metamorphosis that naturally grows out of a political poetic that transforms the silent into the subversive. A similar metamorphosis takes place when the poet turns the village pond into Ganga (“Mother Ganga”), the mother of myths and memories, the centre of beliefs, the space of rituals that extends into the four worlds, the divine force that can give children to the childless, turn copper into gold and make the untouchable woman see Jesus walking on water. Its bottom is full of pearls and precious stones: those who go there turn into gods; and the souls of those who die in it hang like bats from trees and join Gangamayi’s army to protect her treasures. The village pond in the poem is really the unconscious of rural India saturated with beliefs, legends, icons and images. To the same world belongs his grandfather, now a fat banyan tree full of birds. (“My Grandfather”). The peacock that Maadevi falls in love with is one of these birds: a bird from the beyond (“Peacock, Peacock”). A light remains even when a revolutionary like Mao dies like a flame and the poet’s folk imagination converts him into a yellow God, beckoning Kailasa to descend, Making a chariot of broken souls drawn by the horses of ten avatars (“Maotse Tung”). The boy who promises to bring unfading smiles from the land of the fairies and losing his way in the labyrinths of fantasy also seems to belong to the same world of impossible moons. (“He went Hunting for the Moon”). This poetics of inversion is at work also in poems like “Self- Portrait” where the poet instructs the painter to draw a cage with iron bars, wait for the bird to fly into it and then close it with a few quick black lines. The bird may even sing if green surrounds it and the painter manages to open its beak like a wound: ail this is to be set in Ayodhya: let us not miss the implication. The same imagination hears the dialogue of flowers and the silence of the roots (“Sound”) and waits for the light, the fruit of the sun-tree in vain (“The Sun Tree”). The poet’s hatred of the city is an extension of his idealisation of the village. He conceives the city as the market of souls, a hell where bricks grow into buildings that pierce the sky with a yellow grin. Kambar is a poet of binaries: country and city, ancient and modem Eastern and Western, folk and contemporary: he sees them as oppositional categories. His nostalgias are intense- his concerns simple yet passionate. Given a choice, he would dwell in the past with the fiend in the folktale. His central quest finds direct expression in the poem “Only Shiva Knows”:
Some one has plucked the flower
that blossomed in our dreams.
Where is the song
that drowned us in the green obsession?
The pond where our desires
went swimming has gone dry.
All our songs are buried
in the nether world.
Kambar’s whole oeuvre is an attempt to retrieve those buried songs from the dark nether world and restore them to the world of light and hope.
– K. Satchidanandan