Skip to content →

Smita Agarwal’s book on Indian Poetry in English

Indian Poetry in English: Revelations

(Marginalized: Indian Poetry in English, Edited Smita Agarwal, Published: Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2014 )

Review by Lakshmi Raj Sharma


It is a pity that some of the best scholarship on Indian Writing in English has never been quite equal in class to the Indian Writing in English itself. This is particularly true of the scholarship available on Indian English Poetry. It is therefore a matter to rejoice that there is a new anthology on Indian Poetry that fills a gap that has remained rather long. The critical pieces included in this anthology contain that balance which is necessary for seeing Indian English poetry as it actually is. This balance seems to result from the fact that virtually every contributor is an established author or critic and each has done genuine research before sitting down to write.  The anthology under focus is the book edited by Smita Agarwal, entitled,  Marginalized: Indian Poetry in English. This is no ordinary collection of critical essays; it is a volume that may remain at the top for decades unless it sets the trend for a similar thoroughness among future editors of critical anthologies that discuss Indian poetry in English. The reasons why this book is unlike other anthologies are the following:  First, it is a book which took six years of hard work. Secondly, Smita Agarwal is a gifted poet herself and one endowed with several talents other than poetry (she is an accomplished musician and actor) and her book can be considered a work of sound scholarship in combination with sound aesthetic sense. T. S. Eliot once said that the best critic of poetry is the poet. This seems an apt opinion when seen against the achievements of this book. The book is a labour of love. Thirdly, and most importantly, the choice of essays included is wisely made spanning across the subcontinent and further; what is left out is as significant as what is included. Editing is like creating a symphony. It can be even more difficult than authoring a book because the editor is working with a number of minds that are being brought together to complete a picture rather than a single artist sitting down to make a point.

I would recommend that anyone wanting to work on Indian poetry in English should begin by reading Smita Agarwal’s introduction to this anthology, “Introduction: Subaltern Discourse?” It will be difficult to find a better introduction on the subject. If there is something one can question about the introduction it is the author’s anxiety regarding why Indian fiction receives more attention than Indian poetry. To me the answer to this seems simple enough. Poetry is not everyone’s cup of tea and fiction is the form of literature that the world has woken up to in a bigger way. The author, however, gives us a different reason for the popularity of Indian fiction, one supplied by Ved Mehta, that Indian fiction, unlike poetry, has been able to bring about a change in the way that the world looks at India. Indian fiction has made it possible for people to see that India is not merely a land of snake charmers and rope climbers. I would add to this Bakhtin’s theory that the language of fiction contains dialogism because of which the reader gets a much clearer perception of the society it foregrounds. Besides, poetry lacks in this dimension and therefore does not provide the literary tourism which fiction does. Be that as it may, the introduction is as thorough as it can be. I am particularly fascinated by an observation that is made by the author about the nature of poetry, an observation which she can make only because she is a musician apart from being a poet:

Like all classical arts, poetry too expresses a moment of concentration. Once this moment of concentration is revealed to the reader, the poem brings an excitement, enjoyment, equilibrium and, perhaps, peace, and the same joy that the rasik [the enthralled listener] experiences when she hears the musician produce a pure note.(3)

Touching a pure note in poetry involves the concentration of music. At the level of concentration it is one with music. From the above it is easy to see that Smita Agarwal does not have the same views on the nature of poetry as certain poets of today do, poets who seem to have remained untouched by the force of music and who feel that real poetry begins with the modernist poet when poetry sheds its lust for rhythmic effect and becomes a different ball game altogether. Agarwal does not clearly limit poetry to consider one category of it, exclusively, either right or wrong.

The good thing about this introduction is that ends on a rather positive note regarding Indian poetry in English:

There is neither a dearth of talent nor a lack of opportunity that makes poetry in English in India take a back seat to the fiction in English. In the main, it seems, the preference of mainstream multinational publishing houses in India have changed because poetry is not commercially viable. (24)


Poets have rarely had it good; few poets have been known to be financially well off or read by the masses because publishers have been wary, or should I say suspicious, people. They think several times before publishing anything, verse or prose, that will be difficult to sell. It is magazines and journals that have helped poets to be known and it is for this reason that poets have had to be strategists to create platforms from which they could become visible and entice the odd publisher to take interest in their verse. The fiction writer has had to do the same with regard to his prose, unless he is notoriously well known.

The first critical piece in this anthology appropriately brings under focus Henry Derozio due to the historical significance of this poet. Sheshalata Reddy. Reddy makes the piece rather contemporary by introducing the questions of race and “Indianness” in relation to Derozio. The moment you try to locate an author like Derozio by pinpointing his culture and origins you are on the threshold of an East-West politics that the academic of today is drenched in. Reddy’s insight into this kind of academic polemic is evident from a passage such as the following:


Derozio places India within a linear history that is nevertheless decontextualized in so far as it refers not to the specific events that have supposedly led to India’s present state but instead to the general condition that characterizes it. The sentiments voiced by this poem draw from the common formulation in the nineteenth century that the glorious civilization of ancient India had, by contemporary times, fallen into a state of degradation and degeneration. India’s legendary status may have once been immortalized in song, but the current lack of such status has become the motivation for this particular song. Epic has become elegy. (29)

The contemporary, postcolonial approach continues through Reddy’s essay, showing Derozio a child of his times: “ ‘The Fakeer of Jungheera’ is an Orientalist romance both literally and generically.” (31) The inclusion of this piece seems to be on the ground that it has a clear framework through which it proceeds, making it meaningful in a contemporary way, rather than being just another essay on Derozio’s poetry. This piece is not merely an East-West response; it also shows Derozio following literary conventions of the period, for instance referring to himself in the third person or the young teacher-poet (he died at twenty-one) addressing his young students with “tenderness and narcissism.” (49) Reddy works out the romance contained in Derozio’s biography, making the piece a rather complete response to the poet.

The second essay in the anthology,  “The English Tagore Restoring a Legacy”, by Sonjoy Dutta-Roy, makes several significant points about Tagore as Dutta-Roy is a seasoned Tagore scholar. He is, like so many other contributors to the anthology, a poet as well. He begins by making a very significant point, namely, that “Tagore entered very late into the canons of Indian poetry in English.” (43) The tendency to keep Tagore out of the canon still persists and it is surprising that in spite of the adulation Tagore has received in Bengal as well as outside, this lacuna should have persisted.  Dutta-Roy speaks in the first person singular, in a voice of authority and confidence that is often missing in Indian English literary scholarship. Here are samples of this confidence:

The true legacy of the English Gitanjali for Indian poetry in English still needs to be evaluated. I feel Indian poetry in English would have been richer and vaster . . . if the Modernists driven-by-haste had only genuinely evaluated this legacy. I will try to reach into the depths of this legacy to analyse what lessons were lost to Modernist and postmodernist Poetry in English in India. . . .Indian Poetry in English, unfortunately, has always been seen as an offshoot of the history of English Poetry in the wider global context. (44)

As a result of this confidence Dutta-Roy is able to make a substantial case for a reinterpretation of the literary heritage of Indian English poetry, with Tagore as a part of it. This, I may add, is a singularly important function of the literary historian or critic with a historical sense.

Dutta-Roy shows how even G. N. Devy is guilty of having missed out on Tagore who indeed needs much attention considering that he was the only Indian poet to have received the highest honours that a poet could have received by getting the Nobel Prize. Dutta-Roy stands up against Devy for his limited understanding of the situation of Indian poetry in English. It is because of such daring points made by the contributors of this anthology that this book stands out in its genre. Unlike a great many books of Indian scholarship this book is not merely a work of scissors and paste; the anthology turns out to be a book of real substance.

Dutta-Roy’s essay does much for the English Gitanjali and for Indian poetry in English generally. It shows that far from being poetry with “the debilitating motif of alienation” Indian poetry has rich Gramin and Dalit roots and has in its background the deepest Upanishadic, Vaishnava and Buddhist traditions. All this is coupled with “a yearning that seeks to realize and blend the sensual, sexual and spiritual into a continuum.” (45) With the Gitanjali as his central text, Dutta-Roy shows how if a poet is true to his deepest roots and cultural moorings it becomes possible to “strike the chords of harmony across cultures” while maintaining one’s own originality. This essay reveals a rare thoroughness in showing how the Gitanjali in particular and Tagore in general have remained misunderstood and misinterpreted and how so many critics, including W. B. Yeats, have only added to the confusion. Anyone desirous of getting to know about Tagore should read this critical piece seriously.

If the Tagore essay shows how Tagore is misunderstood or represented with special reference to the Gitanjali, the essay on Sri Aurobindo, “Sri Aurobindo: A Critical Study” by Goutam Ghosal shows us how Sri Aurobindo has not been given justice by some critics. The significance of this piece lies in the fact that it divides the poet’s work both in temporal and spatial segments seeing the effect of the various places the poet lived in at various points of time. This essay follows a more conventional approach. It is definitely one of the best pieces on Aurobindo available for anyone who would like to know about the poet. It leaves out no aspect of his poetry, stressing on the poet’s development from his early neglected phase to the final one in which Savitri becomes possible. In between there is a straggling of the poet towards Shakespeare, Kalidas and Wordsworth. But in Savitri the poet’s final achievement comes to the fore. The inclusion of this piece enriches the anthology because Sri Aurobindo’s is no simple poetry and his forays into mantra and his newer ways of expressing himself are not easy to come to terms with and Ghousal has tried to simplify a difficult task. One can see how thoroughly Ghousal has read Aurobindo.

One of the most delightful and useful pieces of this anthology come from Neela Bhattacharya Saxena, a scholar who displays a marked kind of sanity in the way she treats of Sarojini Naidu in “Narojini Naidu – Nightingale of India”.  We are in need of this kind of responses to Indian poetry if we want to prevent the cut and dried, half emaciated, Modernist Indian scholar (sometimes practicing poet in addition) from trying to kill the reputation of a poet such as Naidu to keep his own scarecrow of an image alive. Says Neela Bhattacharya Saxena:

In the wake of Modernists styles and their heady excitement, Sarojini Naidu was dismissed by many as a sentimentalist and a mere imitator of Victorian ways, and not relevant to poetry. In addition, as my experience showed, very few younger people today even know about the poetry of her extraordinary life as a freedom fighter and a national leader. But the wheel of time moves and perspectives change. At this point of time, when critical modes have been enjoying their romance with postmodernism, postcolonialism, and a global feminism maturing further every day, we may look at her with fresh eyes to recognize the contribution this woman made to the development of Indian poetry in English and to the Indian freedom movement, as well as women’s rights. While some of the criticism of her verses may have been valid, to consign Naidu to the list of discarded poets is to ignore the achievements of a remarkable woman as pioneer. (76-77)

In a forthright manner the author is able to point out the blindness of an approach which would not see the historical position and the reason for Naidu to write the way she needed to write. She “spoke in a voice that belonged at once to an ancient land and to its new emergent identity.” (77)  If she did not write like Eliot or Ezra Pound she was doing what the Indian of that time ought to have done. She played her role in working hard to make Indian English a language of her own and one that the Indian writer would make his own after her.

Saxena’s essay is academically very sound and shows her outspokenness in supporting a poet who it has become fashionable to pull down. She shows an in-depth knowledge of new theories and adeptly reveals how these can be put to good use while the author under focus is not pushed into the margins as the theories are applied to her work. Saxena’s piece blends well with responses that come towards the end of this anthology, particularly Tabish Khair’s, to free Naidu from the clutches of a group of Indian scholars with obvious vested interests.

The piece on Nissim Ezekiel, “Recalling Nissim Ezekiel”, by Nilufer E. Bharucha, is written in a lighter vein as a reminiscence of the author’s meetings with the poet in the last phase of his life, a phase when he was suffering from Alzheimer’s. This piece is yet quite rewarding as it tells us how sharp Ezekiel’s mind was even in its damaged state. The essay divides the poems under study as poems of the mind and heart. Like other critics of Ezekiel, Bharucha dwells largely on the poet as modernist, with irony and self-mockery playing a major role in a majority of his poems.  Having dealt with the form and content of certain poems, she concludes by “focusing on Nissim the public figure, the political man and his penchant for fence-sitting”. (115)

One of the most interesting essays in the anthology, “Jayanta Mahapatra”, by Sachidananda Mohanty, again relies on his personal meetings and associations with the poet. Mohanty is able to demonstrate the power of biographical criticism (even though the piece is not entirely that) in times when there has been so much talk of the death of the author and trusting the tale rather than the teller. Pain, we are told has been Mahapatra’s lot from childhood. He quotes a passage which reveals that Mahapatra “did not share a close affinity with his mother”, a fact that seems to have affected his mind. There was loneliness in his life coupled with his experience of the pain he saw his cousin experience due to her drunken husband. Mohanty returns to the fact that Mahapatra missed the bond of love which could have given him solace. (119) We are told that Mahapatra found  comfort and refuge in “great literature”, particularly of the romantic kind. (119-120) Much importance is accorded to the poet’s grandfather’s diary:

For Mahapatra, the grandfather’s diary, “torn and moth-eaten” remained a prized possession. It was history, memory and communication all in one. As a “scroll of despair” it prompted him to write a poem, entitled “Grandfather”,  (121)


Mohanty’s essay is rather scholarly and shows research of the highest order. He goes to the extent of pointing out the Western journals that first published Mahapatra’s poems, some of these very prestigious ones published in America and England. I would give the editor of this anthology credit for including this piece because it provides a great resource for someone working on Mahapatra or simply for one who would like to know about the man and his poetry. The life of the poet seems to lead him on to a Modernist sensibility like the one we are told about in Bharucha’s piece on Ezekiel. Here is a typical passage of revealing biographical scholarship that one encounters in Mohanty’s essay:

As in the case of other Modernists, Mahapatra’s poetry is based on irony, detachment and a wry humour. His identity is a fractured one, rooted in his Hindu ancestry and inherited Christianity; the self, defined by doubt, dilemma and ambivalence. There is attraction to mainstream Hindu society and culture. At the same time, many of his poetic personae feel repelled by sectarian or creedal Hinduism. In particular, the underdog, the dispossessed, the infirm, the diseased that throng Hindu temples everywhere, produce in him a profound irony seen though a detached eye. (122)


Another very insightful essay, “A. K. Ramanujan’s Poetry” by Anjali Nerlekar comes after the one on Mahapatra. This piece has a psychological as well as biographical angle as it gives so much significance to the absent mother in Ramanujan’s poetry (written in America after he left her behind in India). She chooses to talk about the suitcase which Ramanujan carried to America, one that needed to be tied with a rope on one side to keep it from spilling out its contents. The suitcase could express the poet’s financial condition at that time but Nerlekar finds this suitcase suitable for a different purpose. She finds in it a metaphor for Ramanujan’s poetry: “Ramanujan’s poetry is somewhat like that: The lyric voice holds together a bunch of selves and experiences sourcing themselves to a disappearing mother . . .” (128) Much in the poet, according Nerlekar, results from a sense of failure:


A.K. Ramanujan’s poetry is one of self-proclaimed failures – of the failure to find the mother, the lover, the perfect translation, the past, the nation/home, the self. But it is also poetry of luminous success, of finding a home in language practices and in translation, of creating a resting place in them when none is available outside – of creating on the space of the page what is lost in the irretrievable past of his life. The theme of failure/success is inextricably connected with the complex imaging of his mother, who is present in her absence throughout Ramanujan’s poetry. By representing the voiceless in their myriad forms in Ramanujan’s life, the mother becomes the epitome of the subaltern – and, despite the persistent efforts of the poet in his work, neither Ramanujan nor the reader can hear this subaltern woman speak. This question of source and origin (and hence of parentage) haunt all these poetic concerns and animate the most seemingly unconnected images in his work. (128)


This scholar then finds four criteria with the help of which she studies Ramanujan’s poetry: biography, the role of English, regional languages in his English poetry, and the question of gender. This fourfold division is a fine measure adopted by Nerlekar to study the entire body of Ramanujan’s poetry. The reader of this anthology is likely to find this fourfold division extremely useful in analyzing this poet’s work.


The next critical essay of the anthology is a very extensive and well planned account of Arun Kolatkar’s writings. It is called, “Arun Kolatkar’s Historical Imagination” by Vinay Dharwadker. This piece is remarkable for the two levels at which it operates. On the one hand, in the first part, it is written in a style so simple that it lays bare the entire corpus of Kolatkar’s work rather transparently. In the second half of this essay, Dharwadker changes his approach making the piece highly scholarly, theoretically rich and useful for anyone wanting to know about this particular poet. This piece is rather long but I would like to quote a single paragraph from this essay to tempt readers to read the whole piece:

Kolatkar’s most important accomplishment, however, is his critique of the Mahābhārata itself, specifically in Jaratkaru’s monologue and in the overall design of Sarpa Satra. For a growing community of modern readers, the epic’s core problem is its amoral politics of power, domination, militarism, and force, especially its multiple justifications of killing and slaughter, which come to a head in the metaphysical and theological arguments of the Bhagavad-gītā, embedded inside it. Traditionalist readings – sanctioned by Hindu revivalism as well as Euro-American Orientalism in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth – have dominated the international reception of the Gītā in colonial and postcolonial times, sanitizing its message as a high point of poetic and philosophical speculation in ancient India. In a Modernist reading, however, Lord Krishna’s comprehensive deconstruction of the karmic logic of what we now label as “murder” – a move that rhetorically dismantles the attribution of agency and moral-ethical responsibility to a subject who takes a life – amounts to a monstrous “aestheticization of politics” comparable to that which Walter Benjamin, for instance, imputed to mid-twentieth-century Italian and German Fascism. But rather than assault the Mahābhārata’s metaphysics of violence at its canonical core in the Gītā, Kolatkar chooses to attack it on the flanks: he astutely picks a relatively obscure point of vulnerability in the Book of Astīka, and leaves us with an uncompromising rejection of the “epic foundations of Hindu culture” as constructed by sanctimonious, self-style traditionalists. (162-163)

Like most other pieces of this anthology this one also becomes one of the best introductions to the poet under focus. As I admire the scholarship and critical insights of Dharwadker in analyzing Kolatkar’s work I also commend Smita Agarwal in choosing this particular piece instead of another. I particularly like the information and approach to certain neglected features of Jejuri specially the scholar’s use of another work of the poet, Sarpa Satra, to bring out the meaning of this Jejuri.


Anisur Rahman’s “Contextualizing Kamala Das” is an attempt show how response to Kamala Das’s poetry has tended to remain of a stock nature and how this has essentialized virtually everything about her, her poetry and criticism on her. He therefore chooses to see her in a context, which by presumption is a new way of approaching her. The intricacy with which Rahman analyses the poet is extraordinary. The main arguments that constitute this piece are impressive indeed but what I liked even more is the information one receives in the footnotes that the scholar provides. He lays at the reader’s door a wealth of scholarship of a varied nature and shows the multitasking his mind is constantly involved in.

Seeing Kamala Das’s personal confessional poetry as much more than personal, touching the divine, Rahman comes up with some very interesting statements:

In poems of this category there is an imagined sexual intervention by gods that ultimately helps the devotee to acquire a kind of super-consciousness. In seeking physical union with the divine, the poet confesses the suffering experienced in separation and imagines the bliss that might come with union. As such, this kind of poetry becomes a mode of a very personal kind of confession to one who is unseen but can well be imagined. (185-186)


Rahman can make big claims with a straight face. For instance he can say that every expression is basically an act of confession (186) and therefore a variety of literary traditions border on the confessional (186) and that poetry is more confessional than fiction (186). One may not agree with everything that Rahman says but one is struck by the intensity with which his deeply felt and thought-out statements come together. Even though Rahman still works on some of the basic principles on which Kamala Das has been assessed, he is able to infuse a new life, as it were, by putting these principles in a context. Reading this essay one has the added advantage of not losing track of what others had said, before Rahman, yet always being conscious of how what they said had limitations.

A.J. Thomas’s essay is of a rather different nature. This delightful poet (Thomas is one of my favourites amongst the newer lot) has attempted to sketch a picture of five eminent poets – Moraes, Daruwalla, de Souza, Jussawalla and Patel and how Indian English poetry as a whole was shaped due to certain factors in which individuals like Nehru could to play a role. Thomas tells us that Indian English was written in the metropolitan cities and the “poetry of this period was largely individualistic, apolitical and almost private.” (201) Thomas does a relatively more difficult job than the other scholars of this anthology because he writes on five different poets in a single essay. Yet he is able to accomplish this very difficult task rather well and his essay is very helpful for an initiation into the work of the five that he talks about.


The essay by Tabish Khair, “Language in Indian Poetry in English”, is in a sense, one of the most sensitive pieces included in this anthology because it deals with the unusual and unique way in which language is employed in Indian English poetry. Khair is not merely a wonderful novelist, he is a perceptive critic as well because he can put his finger on an issue so pertinent to Indian English poetry, as the following:


This brings us to a matter central to Indian poetry in English, a matter that runs against its other transnational affinities. Indian poetry in English demands a special relationship between the written word and the spoken sound. That is so because: firstly, English in India is predominantly – but not only – a written and read language (like Sanskrit and Persian before it), English in India lives in a complex relationship with other Indian languages, none of which can be or have been reduced to or taken over by English to any significant extent. Unlike Caribbean creoles, for instance. (250)

Khair shows how Sarojini Naidu’s “Village Song”, a poem brilliantly analyzed by Khair, demonstrates these two points.  Khair, like Neela Bhattacharya Saxena, does not follow the old dying voice of Indian scholars who would consider Naidu not good enough because she does not write like some Indian poets, Ezekiel for instance, who try to echo Modernist voices. Khair’s analysis of Derozio’s “The Harp of India” is equally impressive, showing how much the poet depends on his own independent response to come to terms with poetry. He is original to the core. He can speak freely against someone like Salman Rushdie almost as though he were using Rushdie against Rushdie himself: “Yes, the Indian English writer has a voice that is as ‘distinctive as the American or the Caribbean’ writer, but this voice cannot be picked off the ‘streets’ of India because English is not spoken on the streets of India and turned, with minimal art, into a ‘literary language’.” (254) If Kolatkar and Ramanujan are more impressive Indian poets their poems “need to be read on the page before and as they are spoken aloud.” (254)


One of the reasons for the great success of this anthology is that it has some very experienced and creative contributors. The anthology picks up the class that these classy contributors possess. One of the reasons why the anthology will remain a favourite with researchers in this field is that they will need the exhaustive bibliography that is provided at the end of the book. But let us not forget that this anthology also has its weak points. The chief of these is one of omission. It should have had something on a poet as significant as Agha Shahid Ali, and at least a mention of Meena Alexander. Perhaps.








Latest posts by lrsharma (see all)

Published in Uncategorized


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *