ANNE BLACKBURN: Good afternoon. My name is Anne Blackburn. I'm director of the Cornell South Asia Program. And it's always a great pleasure to welcome you to the Tagore lecture. And I'm happy to welcome you to the A.D. White House this afternoon. It's one of our favorite spaces on campus, somehow elegant, but still cozy, which is sometimes difficult to achieve.
It takes many hands to arrange an event like this. And we're grateful to many who have helped us, including the past administrative staff of the South Asia program, Bill Phelan and Durga Bor, who did a lot of work early on to get our arrangements under way. And then more recently, we have our New South Asian Program Manager Daniel Bass, whom you'll have a chance to meet later at the reception, and Bari Doeffinger, who is offering us some temporary assistance from the Einaudi Center.
They've done a lot of work these last few weeks to draw this event together. And we're grateful to them. We also have had good help today from Jonathan, Yating, and also from Lucy, who are pitching in with their usual good grace. And Jonathan, in particular, is a familiar face to many of us around international studies events on campus. And we're really grateful to have him here.
In the late 1990s, Cornell Professor Emeritus of Operations and Industrial Research, Narahari Umanath Prabhu, and his wife, Mrs. Suman Prabhu, initiated a wonderful gift to Cornell University, establishing the Rabindranath Tagore Endowment in Modern Indian Literature. The Rabindranath Tagore Endowment was created by Professor and Mrs. Prabhu in order to honor Rabindranath Tagore, a celebrated literatus and musician and, as I think all of you know, one of the great luminaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In addition with their endowment, Professor and Mrs. Prabhu sought to, quote, "project a strongly positive image of South Asian literature," unquote. Professor and Mrs. Prabhu have a great passion for literature and music. Their living room is always full of books and journals. They have strong and creative views on many matters literary. And many from Ithaca and beyond can attest, their home has long been a haven for [INAUDIBLE].
It is always a distinctive pleasure to be in their company and to share the adventure of the Tagore Lectureship with them. The poetry of Rabindranath Tagore was among Professor Prabhu's formative influences. Those verses, as I know from conversations with him over the years, helped to generate an abiding fascination with and an emotional taste for a number of poetic forms. And it is thus a special pleasure for all of us to welcome a poet of Ranjit Hoskote's distinction today as the 2016 Tagore lecturer.
Professor Prabhu will offer his closing remarks and a vote of thanks, following Ranjit Hoskote's lecture readings and the Q&A. Now, I invite my dear colleague, Professor Iftikhar Dadi, recent Interim Director of the Cornell South Asia program, to introduce Ranjit Hoskote and his work to us. And I join Iftikhar in welcoming Ranjit very, very warmly to Ithaca and to Cornell, where he has already begun to brighten our world with charm and grace. Iftikhar--
IFTIKHAR DADI: I know that Professor and Mrs. Prabhu are deeply pleased to make possible today's Tagore lecturer, Ranjit Hoskote, who joins an impressive list of previous Tagore lecturers, including Kiran Nagarkar, Christi Merrell, Tahmima Anam, Amit Chaudhuri, and Mohammed Haneef. So it's a great pleasure that I introduce Ranjit Hoskote to you today.
Born in Bombay in 1969, Hoskote is a poet, cultural theorist, and curator, and the author of 30 books. His remarkable achievements and recognitions are too numerous for me to do justice to in this brief introduction. And here, I just offer but a small glimpse of his life and work.
Hoskote is a leading poet of his generation from South Asia. Writing in English, he has published five collections of his own work, among them the title Vanishing Acts, New and Selected Poems from 1985 to 2005, which was published in 2006; and Central Time, which is the most recent publication from 2014. Which is this one.
His poems have been published in numerous anthologies, leading literary journals, and translated into German. Hoskote is also editor and translator of the works of other poets whose lives and works span a generous breadth of poetic registers. From the Kashmiri mystic poet Lal Ded, who lived seven centuries ago; to the major Bombay poets of his generation, senior to him; as well as his contemporaries of his generation and those who are in the process of emerging.
So he really has a very generous and broad vision of poetry. Ranjit Hoskote grew up in Bombay in a family environment whose linguistic registers included a number of languages, including Konkani, Kannada, Tamil, Varhadii, Kashmiri, and Sanskrit, apart from English and Hindi. In an insightful article on him, which was published last year in the online magazine Scroll.in, Sumana Roy has noted the importance of this legacy of-- and I quote-- "polyglossia, both linguistic and cultural, one inherited from his family, the other coming to him from Bombay's peculiarly rich environment," end quote.
Roy further notes that-- and I quote-- "Hoskote is perhaps the only one of this generation of poets who has written diligently and astutely about poets he considers owing intellectual debts to. In his essays on Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla, and Dom Moraes, whose poems he edited and collected or the painstaking labor of collecting and interpreting Lalla's work, we see a man who is acutely aware of where his shadow falls and where the light is," end quote.
Ranjit Hoskote studied at Elphinstone College, Bombay, where he pursues politics, sociology, and economics and also earned an MA in literature and anesthetics. He has noted that the physical location of the college was equally informative for him and for Nancy at the time. And I quote from him, "The Jehangir Art Gallery was just across the road, as was Max Mueller Bhavan, and the Center for Education and Documentation, a broadly left liberal library and research center. And for Nancy and me, these became integral components of our growing up," end quote.
Of his most recent collection, Central Time, his contemporary poet, Sudeep Sen has observed-- and I quote, "Hoskote acts as a sutradhar in his poems, a storyteller weaving in characters and landscapes as varied and resonant as Ovid, Ghalib, Bihzad, Fujihata and places like Srinagar, Goa, Indore, Bombay, and Berlin, Utrecht, and Kabul," end quote.
Sen also nicely point out that-- and I quote, "Hoskote's engagement with the Fine Arts is supremely evident here. There are direct and indirect allusions to poets, painters, and paintings washed with vital parenthetical details and hues contained in its palette. So you will find eulogies to Dom Moraes, Adul Jussawalla, and Charles Simic; references to the painters Bhupen Khakhar, Atul Dodiya, J.M.W. Turner, and many more," end quote.
These names and locations are indications of Hoskote's varied cosmopolitan interests, which include writers, poets, and artists in India, South Asia, and the world. In his generous embrace of the world of poetry and the visual arts, of his time and of the times past, Hoskote, for me, embodies very well the spirit of Rabindranath Tagore, for which this distinguished lecture series is named.
Sudeep Sen also alerts us to the care with which Hoskote presents the work included in Central Time, noting that he-- and I quote, "bridges an astute curatorial eye, even in the way the volume is constructed, its placement and architecture, the way the book is balanced in five sections, each with its own circulatory and respiratory system. Sensuousness abounds, as does tactility and texture," end quote.
Another volume that I would like to mention was based on 20 years of research and translation work by Ranjit Hoskote, which is the translation of the poems of Lal Ded in the volume, I, Lalla, the Poems of Lal Ded, which is this volume, which I consider to be a major milestone in our understanding of a medieval South Asian poet.
A most remarkable woman who appears to have lived some 700 years ago-- and by denouncing social expectations and adopting Shaivite ascetic practices, Lalla's poems or utterances have shaped Kashmiri literature over the course of centuries that have followed. Rejecting the pursuit of archival purity, Hoskote, in his extended critical introduction, develops methodologies for understanding Lalla's poetic corpus, as shaped by those communities who came after her and who were inspired by her utterances.
Of this world, which encompasses Kashmiri Shaivite practices, Tantrism, and the universe of Sufism, the scholar Prashan [INAUDIBLE] notes, and I quote, "one of the stakes of Hoskote's accomplishment is to review the interpretive inclusiveness of the preceding 700 years, during which the Lal Ded corpus came to be consolidated," end quote. This is all the more important to stress at this present moment, when Kashmir remains marked, yet again, by violence, divisiveness, and exclusivist claims. Limited copies of both books, Central Time and I, Lalla, are available for purchase after the lecture.
Now, Hoskote has received many recognitions and has been a fellow at numerous writing programs. These include the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, a writer-in-residence at the Villa of Waldberta in Munich, and the Polish Institute, Berlin. He is the recipient of numerous awards for literature, which include the Sanskriti Award, the S.H. Raza Award for Literature, the Sahitya Akademi National Academy of Letters Golden Jubilee Award for Literature, the Sahitya Akademi Award for Translation, and the Muse India Award for Translation.
Now, as if this was not enough, Hoskote is equally accomplished in the domain of visual arts as curator and cultural theorist. Since 1993, Hoskote has curated or co-curated no less than 30 exhibitions of contemporary art. He was curator of India's first standalone national pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011 and most recently, with Nancy Adajania, curated a remarkable exhibition which covers 150 years of art by Parsi artists within the narrative of Indian modernism.
This exhibition, No Parsi is an Island, was shown at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bombay in 2013 and 2014 and in Delhi in 2016. Ranjit Hoskote has authored numerous artist's monographs. And his essays on art and culture have appeared widely in anthologies and exhibition catalogs. He's the co-author of two artists books, one with the artist Atul Dodiya, Pale Ancestors, which is this book, which combines the poetry of Ranjit with the images by the artist; and another with the artist Sakti Burman.
And he has written a number of critical and curatorial essays and was most recently a co-editor of the volume Future Publics, a Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, which was published in 2015 and whose essays some of my students are reading in class this semester. Ranjit Hoskote serves on the international advisory boards of numerous prominent international organizations. Most recently, in 2015, he served on the jury of the 56th Venice Biennale, the most prestigious event in the calendar of international contemporary art.
Finally, we are fortunate that Nancy Adajania has accompanied Ranjit during this Cornell visit. Nancy is as accomplished as Ranjit for her work as a writer, curator, and cultural theorist. And indeed, the two of them collaborate, as well as pursue their own independent projects. Nancy's recent book on the artist Navjot has just been released, a very important volume on the study of a very remarkable artist.
While Nancy and Ranjit generously made time to meet with some art history graduate students yesterday evening over dinner, we at Cornell very much wish and hope that Nancy and Ranjit will come to Cornell again, so that we can engage with their work in the visual arts and cultural theory more fully. Today, Ranjit Hoskote honors us with his presentation of the South Asia Program's Annual Tagore Lecture. Please join me in welcoming him.
ANNE BLACKBURN: Your triage is on the way.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: What's that?
ANNE BLACKBURN: Your triage is on the way.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Oh right, fabulous. Iftikhar-- and thank you so much for your very warm and generous words of welcome. And it's really a very special pleasure to be here at Cornell. And thank you all for making the time to be here this afternoon. I'd also like to thank Daniel Bass, Bari Doeffinger, Bill Phelan, and all the other colleagues at the South Asia Program for having invited me. And I'd like to thank, very particularly, Professor and Mrs. Prabhu, the donors who have made this endowment possible.
And I'm very struck and very aware of the privilege of delivering a lecture that is named for Rabindranath Tagore, because there is a way in which cultural icons get fetishized and taken out of the current of debate and discussion. And this may well have happened with Tagore to a certain extent. He is seen as the national poet. There is the sage-like persona, the flowing beard, the oriental image of the wise man, and all of this.
But for me, what I would cherish Tagore for is really the incredible self-destructive energy that he brought to everything he did. He was, as you all know, a polymath. He was, in many ways, an autodidact, an artist whose work spanned various arts. He was a poet, a novelist, a musician, a cultural organizer, a founder of educational institutions, like Shantiniketan.
And he was someone who began as a proponent of a certain kind of militant nationalism in 1905, but turned eventually into one of the most reflective, thoughtful, and vigorous critics of nationalism, thinking particularly here of his 1916 lectures of nationalism. He somewhat ill-advisedly decided to explain to the Indians, the Chinese, and the Japanese at that peculiar time that nationalism was not a good thing.
So his ideas were not well-received at the time. But they remain extremely important to all those of us who feel that the nation-state can come across as an oppressive entity. And those of us who are alert to its pathologies and who are not pleased with ideas of conscriptive citizenship and control, to all those of us who think in this way, Tagore's lectures on nationalism would remain a very vital point of reference.
So as I embark on this journey of sharing with you some of my concerns with the contemporary poetic utterance in India and its context, its cultural and political circumstances, I'd like to see Tagore, certainly, as one of the inspiring figures, the presences, that I would invoke. In India, as many of you know, we have this custom of making an invocation before embarking on something, typically to a deity of one kind or another.
But I'm going to invoke three figures. Tagore, I've already invoked. But I'm also going to invoke Ghalib, who was a major Urdu poet who lived in the 19th century. And I'm going to invoke Lal Ded, who Iftikhar spoke about. And I'm going to do this because they strike me as being presences who, so to speak, walk with us today.
In a conversation a little earlier this afternoon, Professor Prabhu was talking of presences that walk with us. And to me, these are presences who walk with me certainly. And to offer you a brief roadmap of what I hope to do, I'm going to address-- this is going to be a presentation in five parts. I'm going to look at the question of the dear old phantom tradition. I'm going to look at questions of language, as material, as limit, as possibility.
I'm also going to look at two key words, if you will, elements in my toolkit which I find very important, the notions of confluence and of anomnesia. And I'll unpack these as I go along. Then, I'm going to dwell a little bit on the notion of visuality. I know Iftikhar has been a little concerned that this is going to be my poetic avatar with the visual arts left out. But I'm going to try and bring in the visual arts and talk a little about that.
And I'll conclude by reflecting a little bit on the admittedly vexed notion of the cosmopolitan. And I'm going to see if poetry of a certain kind might be a route to opening that question up a little bit. So Tagore, Ghalib, Lal Ded-- I would see these figures variously as autodidacts, as survivors. And I'm going to really plunge right away into reading from-- yes-- Vanishing Acts. I'm going to read a poem that's really about Ghalib.
I'm assuming that some of you are familiar with this figure. But just to summarize very briefly. Ghalib died in 1869. And he was really the contemporary of Baudelaire and of Walt Whitman, which is not something that strikes many Indians, as it happens. Because to us, Urdu poetry is something that belongs in some timeless-- neither past nor present. It's really something you associate with a certain kind of historical film. It's somehow taken out of time for obscure reasons.
And we lose sight of the currency, the energy, the vitality of the Urdu poets, particularly of the late Mughal period. And to me, in any case, they're figures like Ghalib, [INAUDIBLE]-- are people at the threshold of the modern. Which is why I sometimes like to startle people in India by pointing out that Ghalib lived in the same period as Whitman and Baudelaire.
And this is someone who found himself in the middle of a major crisis, which is the uprising of 1857 against the British colonial regime and its brutal suppression. And he was, at various points, on the wrong side of this turbulence. So to me, he's someone who lives on for us, for poets who find themselves in difficult political moments. So this is called "Ghalib in the Winter of the Great Revolt, Delhi, 1857."
"The emperor's murdered grandsons hang from the Gate of Beasts, like hushed bells. And rifles drill the sentenced air. My neighbor, the flautist, slit his veins last night, burning his prayer book before he died, true to a god of subtle tones, wasted on the death.
Ghalib writes to a friend. All around us, the Furies ride their burning horses. It's as though Timur had broken Delhi's walls again, his cinder street soldiers heaping pyramids of sculls in the streets. An abacus for orphans to compute the profits of betrayal, the penalties of defeat.
Cannon, the only thunder, writes Ghalib, and no rain. Gunners waving St. George's flag have driven the nobles from their charred mansions, tethered the peasants to the surly river. The coppersmith, tapping at a dead branch, fills the vacant sky with the privacy of his grief.
The friend, with a spy at his shoulder, writes back, when did you become a poet of adjectives roosting in the rafters of a broken house? Ghalib, the owl must hide in the tamarind for now. But the genies of havoc will go on furlough soon. You say your inkwell is empty. But your dry quill still claws at the fibers of the heart.
A pharmacist made drug himself with lyric, Ghalib replies. And a tiger may vanish in the rain forest of his hunters' dreams. But the dry quill is a reproach. And this raw winter could be the living tomb of my song. Send paper, friend. These are the last pages of my journal I'm writing on."
And I'm going to read three of Lalla's works, assuming I can find the book. I'm going to borrow your copy. Now, Lalla, or Lal Ded, remains a presence for me. And I'm going to try to unpack, as I go along, the circumstances and context-- it's a bit of an onion-peeling exercise. Because the invitation to speak about one's own practice is wonderful. It's very tempting. But to me, this makes sense to the extent that practice, response to larger urgencies, larger questions, and can be mapped by reference to other kinds of urgencies that fellow writers and different kinds have faced.
So for me, Lalla is important, because it's not just one person that we're speaking of here. There was indeed a historical person who lived in the 14th century. And we have her oral compositions. But in the centuries that have followed, there's been an untold number of anonymous contributors who've added to the signature, so to speak. So what we inherit today is the legacy of these various assemblies across the valley of Kashmir and cutting across gender, caste, religion, regional location.
So for me, it's that contributory lineage, as I see it, that really makes for the strength, the robustness, of this tradition. And yet, there is a very distinct persona, the autodidact, the survivor, who comes across. And these vakhs, as they're known, are four-line poems. I see them as utterances. And here goes.
"What the books taught me, I've practiced. What they didn't teach me, I've taught myself. I've gone into the forest and wrestled with the lion. I didn't get this far by teaching one thing and doing another."
"Don't think I did all this to get famous. I never cared for the good things of life. I always ate sensibly. I knew hunger well, and sorrow, and God."
And this is the third of the vakhs I'll read today. "I didn't believe in it for a moment. But I gulped down the whine of my own voice. And then, I wrestled with the darkness inside me, knocked it down, clawed at it, ripped it to shreds."
And I'm going to pass now to this question of a relationship to tradition, having sketched out now, in a certain way, what I regard as that is a tradition one makes for oneself. One of the key problems I think that all poets face is this question of, where does one situate oneself?
And to those of us who still think of T.S. Eliot and his still seminal essay, I think, "The Tradition and the Individual Talent," there is clearly the sense that tradition is something one crafts for oneself, in terms of the affinities that one finds, one discovers, one crafts. And you produce this ancestry for yourself of references and points of inspiration that are meaningful to your own work.
But in societies like-- then, I begin to feel like this is going to be a country report. But it's not. But in societies like the societies of South Asia, there are also other conceptions of tradition that are operative. And these can come across under the sign of oppressiveness, of conscription. And to poets of my generation particularly, this is something that had to be dealt with. Because traditions came to us in some form as ready-mades.
There was a notion that there was-- I mean, there are different names for this. The "indic," which is a term that I'm very skeptical of. I seem to have lost Jonah and the Whale. But it'll come back I'm sure.
So as I was saying, it's these monolithic notions of tradition that I find unhelpful and unproductive. And to me, it's much more meaningful to see tradition as a palimpsest, as something that is a plurality of legacies. So I often think that what we inherit from what we inherit is not really a past but multiple pasts. And it's that conception of inheritance of legacy that I find meaningful, that one can craft this for oneself.
And in responding to it, I've tended to reach for metaphors that, for what it's worth, tend to get drawn from music. For me, it's music as metaphor as model that naturally appeals, which is where the title of this presentation is drawn, from the notion of the soloist performing with an orchestra of events. So I'm going to briefly sketch the different moments of this engagement with music.
A piece of music that I think is part of our cultural baggage, really, for everyone-- and this also reflects the fact that I tend to be concerned with, on the one hand, Western classical music, also with the tradition of Hindustani classical music, and then, with the music of Steve Reich, who I think was actually a student here at Cornell many moons ago. Steve Reich or Jan Garbarek-- so there are these different engagements with music that enter and form what I do.
So there is a moment in how the poet or a poet or this poet constructs his relationship to tradition or to a larger group that, to me, tends to get embodied in the form of the concerto. And old-fashioned as this seems, I cherish that form. And to me, it's really, again, something that we all recognize. It's Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 61.
It has exhilarations and excitements that, however many times you've heard this piece of music, it still draws you in. And it seems to me to speak to a certain moment. Admittedly, we see this critically now. As I said, we ought to see all our various pasts in a critical spirit.
But I'd like to hold on to something within that moment of romanticism that dramatize the relationship between the individual attempting a certain process of growth and a larger group. So it's that relationship between the solo violin and the orchestra, which goes through moments of dialogue, of contest, of divergence, of communion. And that, to me, remains-- at least in an operational sort of way-- a way in which I would sometimes think of how we operate as poets.
But equally, I would place beside that a term that comes from the legacy of Hindustani classical music, which is the gharana. Part of what I'm going to do also is to share with you key words that have been important to me as markers of practice. The word "gharana" might loosely be translated as "family" or as "lineage," with all of the slightly mafia-like associations that these terms have.
Because gharanas in Hindustani classical music hold their secrets to their heart. And they make sharp distinctions-- or are believed to make sharp distinctions between those who belong within and those who do not belong. So the [HINDI], which are the-- what is a good translation of [HINDI]?
SPEAKER 1: A composition.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: A composition indeed. Thank you. So these compositions are held tightly for instance, are ways of dealing with musical problems, particular forms of exposition that you might recognize. But when you look at the history of the gharana-- and I'm thinking particularly of the work of the musician and scholar Aneesh Pradhan here-- you find that the gharana is, in its own way, an outcome of certain processes of modernity.
And it's more osmotic and more porous than you might imagine. And if you have gharanas in adjacency, there is a certain degree of sharing, of stealing, of making one's own-- of experimentation. So I'm tempted to gloss the notion of the gharana as being a wager on an experimental continuity. And I like to hold on to that seemingly paradoxical idea of a continuity that's experimental, that disrupts itself and proceeds through these gestures.
And so, the concerto, the gharana, these are models for me of how different moments of poetic practice might operate. And my third key word here in this section would be the "ensemble." And I'm thinking here of not a very classical way of doing things. But I'm thinking really of a piece of music that has haunted me for years and years, ever since I first heard it, which is Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians.
It's a composition he developed in the early 1970s, '74 to '76. And I return to it as a model of practice, because it demonstrates how one can weave a continuum that is constantly reorganizing itself by reference to very strongly bodily processes. And those of you know the piece will know that it operates in cycles of pulses, which refer to breath and how long can you hold a breath? How long will this pulse last?
It's precisely the kind of very bodied, very practical question that you ask as a poet. And this is what informs the work you do. And that model comes to this piece from what the voice of the clarinet can do. And then, on the other hand, there's the entire cycle of-- actually, it's a reference to Indonesian music. It's the gamelan. It's the xylophone, the marimba, and the metallophone that form a whole series of cascade-like sequences.
And I marvel at that piece. And I sometimes think that this is what I would like to aspire to-- do as a poet. So for me, these are interesting ways of thinking about the tradition, ways that keep the tradition in play, in flux, in critical scrutiny, and make it available, not as a fetish or as a fossil, but as some kind of renewable resource.
Whilst all the time being aware, of course, that a concerto, for instance, could lead you to the romantic cult of the genius. It could trap you in an avant garde notion of constantly being adversarial. But those are the caveats. They follow. I think there's still value to the models in themselves.
And so, through these reflections on how one might reorganize the tradition, I'm going to read a set of four poems. Then, I'm going to illustrate what I've said. Because what I'm trying to do here is to offer a certain kind of framing. And then, the poems, hopefully, will do their own thing. So this one's called "The Poet's Life."
And I have to say, I haven't done this very many times. But I've been a little anxious about switching from discursive mode to reading poems and back. But I do hope you'll indulge me in that this will, in some way, work. "The Poet's Life"--
"He married birdsong. He sailed to the black island. He survived gunshots. He wore a sweatshirt under his linen jacket. He talked to parrots in Greek. He excavated lighthouses by night. He asked to be paid in paper money. He counted up the day's syllables before dinner.
He wished the balloons hovering above the docks were Chinese lanterns. He called out to the spirits of drowned sailors. He walked down to the see with the town's fishermen. He painted their gray nets and grainy gold on the beach. He picked up ridged violet shells and blew wet sand from them.
He avoided striped red and white blinds on summer mornings. He avoided the roasted facades of brick buildings on summer afternoons. He noticed the oranges in the fruit stalls were shrinking. He remembered in detail the railroad town where he was born.
He collected the rust and shadows that gather on aging metal surfaces. He licked his stamps himself, the envelopes addressed in green ink. He glued the spout back on the broken chocolate teapot. He opened the door to the deck and prayed the tree would burst with apples again."
And then, I'm going to read two poems that refer, in a more direct way, to this idea of engaging with a literary or even, if you will, a religious tradition, certainly a tradition of texts and narratives. And it's been one of my obsessions, really, the problem, if you will, of being exposed to an epic tradition, in its many diverse ways.
And at this point, I have to say how pleased I am to have Krishna Ramanujan here with us. His father, the extraordinary poet and anthropologist and scholar of folklore, A.K. Ramanujan was a figure who is very, very important to many people in my generation. And one of the things Ramanujan did, of course, was to point out there was not one but, potentially, hundreds of Ramayanas, depending on your regional or local point of reference.
So for me, it's been an interest to see what one can do with a vast and proliferating universe of the epic and how one might bring that into the admittedly microcosmic frame and scale of the lyric of the fragment of the episode. So I'm going to read two poems that make some reference to this interest. This one's called, "To the Sanskrit Poets."
"Leave something behind, a trace of cloud on a plate, a pair of white birds shot by a hunter, an emerald brooch that a shrub snatched from a princess in flight, or the archer's last prayer, spoken minutes before his brother's arrow found his throat. Leave us these threads to unravel. Embroider secret messages inked in white on white beneath the unsettled weeks of postcards and air letters that jam the mailbox while we're away. Leave us the jigsaws of previous lives."
And this one's called, "After the Story." "To the Sanskrit Poets" of course refers to-- it has elements from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and so forth. And the challenge, if you will, was to see how much of this could be compressed and set out, like a kind of time release. This is another kind of experiment. This is called "After the Story," and comes from my very mixed feelings about the Ramayana, an epic that some of you might well be familiar with.
It's never been my favorite epic, partly because I don't identify with the protagonist in any way. Ram, the king, is supposed to be an icon of righteousness but behaves disgracefully, to his wife at any rate. Which is not a very happy thing, I'm sure you'd all agree. And how does one embrace such an icon? What might the meanings of righteousness be?
And how does the narrative-- at least the Valmiki version of the Ramayana, how does the story loop back on itself and begin to tell itself from within. It's an amazing experiment in the meta-narrative. And I've always responded to it at that level. As literary production, it certainly means something. So this is what I'm trying to engage with here.
And this poem is definitely informed by a beautiful book called Lost Loves, by the Sanskritist and translator of the Ramayana, Arshia Sattar. And Arshia's writing is something I return to often when I think about the epics. So this is "After the Story." And there's a kind of refrain which really refers to Valmiki, the author of the epic. And his name, as some of you know, refers to the time he spent meditating within an ant hill.
"From the ant hill came the voice, two white birds perched on a branch, one killed by a hunters arrow. The first poem written in its blood. The morning sage's sudden curse falls on the hunter's ear as verse.
From the ant hill came the voice, prisoner on the island of his suspicions, alone under his white silk canopy. He murmurs the chants that his aging priests heap on the fire sacrifice. Then, from nowhere, two boys' voices, high flutes above the drone, dropped masks, startled faces, the boys sing.
From the ant hill came the voice of the golden deer in the forest, the princess carried off by the demon chief, the war, the siege, the giant red monkey cartwheeling across the sky and burning the island fortress. When the war ends, the prince fixes his wife's 14-year wait with a cold stare and an ordeal by fire. The fire plays honest witness.
From the ant hill came the voice. But the prince cannot bridge a distance greater than the stormy sea. Doubt, again, for him. Again, exile for her. Love twisted and beaten on a washerman's stone. At last, she will have had enough of his tests. She will ask the fallowed earth to swallow her. He stands up shaking, his eyes opened wide, as his children sing to the king his own story."
And I'll follow that with a poem that's called "The Orientalist." Because I'm also always aware of how so many of these narratives come to us. As I was saying, since one is to consider all the pasts, there are certain pasts that are-- all of these pasts appear in their own different languages with their own different ideological preoccupations. We all know this in the professional work we do as people concerned with culture.
But if you are an inheritor, what then is the responsibility of the inheritor? --is something that I often think about. And well, enough said. "The Orientalist," thinking here of people like William Jones for instance. "The Orientalist."
"He went back to drafting policies of state, but never forgot the courtesan in the Sanskrit play. She wrote him letters on pages folded in triangles, like beetle leaves, but did not wait for the beloved in spring. Creepers soothed her. Her lamplit hours passed among the scented shadows of lovers."
And with that, I'm going to move on to this consideration of language. Some of it, Iftikhar, you spoke of when you introduced me. And I've always been aware that, as an anglophone writer in India, the anglophone writer in India usually gets more than her or his fair share of criticism. There's been, for the longest time, what you might only call a certain nationalist critique of, why do you choose this particular language to write in?
And sometimes, you have to say that you don't really choose the language. The language chooses you. Or that your particular historical circumstances might articulate themselves as a language which then chooses you. But I want to place that this has been the polemical position that many of us have taken. In my own case, it just so happens that I belong to a family that moved into the anglophone ambit rather early, as early as the 1790s.
This has to do with a historical transition in Mysore, from Tipu Sultan, who some people remember as the Tiger of Mysore, to the ascendancy of the British. So there's a way in which this particular itinerary becomes meaningful for me, as a language that is given. But it is not to the exclusion of many, many other languages that, as a diasporic group, the community that I belong to have spoken in different contexts.
So for me, it's that ability to be multilingual that-- I'm not going to say multilingual. I've, in recent times, actually been thinking of how it's being inter-lingual that really is, for me at least, a major criterion of why I write as I do. Because it's important to me that I can draw on these different linguistic legacies. I wish I actually knew all of those languages that my family has spoken or different parts of my family have spoken.
But even if I don't do so myself, I'm aware that these are resources that I can respond to in a certain way. And they also are-- I mean, they're a survival technique. They're also a feature of practice. And in a way, they are, to me, also, if you will, a guarantee of a certain kind of political stance.
Because we're living in a time, particularly in South Asia-- those of you who work with South Asia know that we are going through a particularly difficult moment right now, where in India, but also, unfortunately, in all the countries of South Asia, this kind of hyper-nationalism that is now dominant tends to want to conscript individuals into these larger, abstract, and nonetheless dangerous conceptions of religious identity, ethnic identity, linguistic identity.
Which is why I always think that it's amazing that language, which should have been the ground for exploration and redemption, tends, in India, to be divisive and depleting. And the decision made very long ago by the Republic of India to divide the country into linguistic states, has always seemed to me to be a pernicious doctrine, partly because I have this multilingual background.
But it's always seemed to me that your need to choose-- I mean, why does it have to be based on an either/orism? It makes no sense. In recent weeks, for instance, we've seen in the South how there's been an amazingly-- it's actually terrifying, the kind of violence, in the name of language politics, that we've witnessed between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
And when you look back at the histories of these states, you realize that these are states that actually have been connected by all kinds of circulations, of people, of goods, of ideas, of religious thought, of various kinds of secular exchange. And something as artificial as a linguistic divide has produced these alarming results.
So to me, translation or the possibility of polyglossia are not only features of literary practice, but they also are markers of a certain kind of politics of resistance to me. And I have to say, also, that my generation of poets in India was, I would actually say, blessed to have as points of reference poets like A.K. Ramanujan, who I referred to. But also Dilip Chitre, Arun Kolatkar, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, people who've turned to, particularly, the texts of the Middle Ages, medieval Bhakti texts, the texts of saint poets who were opposed to all forms of dogma.
So that kind of resource and the fact that these poets were incredibly active when I was growing up and that one could refer to their work, that remains for me a perennial moment of inspiration. And I tend to go back to that. And some of-- in fact, the 20 years that I spent translating Lal Ded have their origins in partly excavating a Kashmiri past, which is my ethnic past. But also, it had to do with carrying forward what I saw people like Ramanujan and Chitre and Kolatkar and Mehrotra to be doing.
And I would also place-- and translation, for me, is not only, of course, the act of transfiguring texts from one language into another. It also is the ability to negotiate, to build bridges, across potentially disparate cultures. How do you find equivalence? How do you craft equivalence? So translation then becomes not only a practice in itself, but it also becomes second nature in a certain way.
It becomes part of how you hear and overhear, how you trespass, how you craft zones of belonging where there were none previously. And to me, these are reflexes that come out of the practice of translation. And again, once you've developed these reflexes, you tend to look far more critically at identitarian politics.
You tend to be much more wary of notions of one race, one ethnicity, one language. And you also tend to stand apart, if you will, but to serve in a certain way. And this is where I sometimes think about what public role might the poet have? And I think many of us, as poets, have not painted ourselves, but talked ourselves into a corner, where we believe that there is no real public role to be played.
I think there is still, in some micro-political way, a role to be played by the poet who draws attention to these things. So you can refer to repressed contents through translation, through the medium of this kind of disclosure. And also, you can push language-- which, of course, is a perennial concern with poets.
You can push language to its limits, point out that language is not necessarily and not always the guarantee of stability. You can, in some texts, destabilize what language seems to offer you by way of a normality. So I'm going to now read some poems which refer to these particular concerns. And I'm going to start with one called "Annotation to the Ustad's Treasury of Verses."
I also like, often, to dismantle and remake the form of a poem, so that it feels more like an entry in a catalog or an entry in a dictionary or a catalog note or a piece of annotation in an archive. And this, for me, is a way of entering the world of Urdu and Persian poetry. It's a way of entering something that has fascinated me forever. Safarvi and Mughal and Rajput miniature painting-- and, yet, to see if there's an affinity, in terms of a restlessness of spirit, a melancholia, with the kinds of poets and artists one meets in those words. "Annotation to the Ustad's Treasury of Verses."
"No poems, really, from the Ustad's middle period, just a few notations he'd left to brew. Her ivory comb, a strand of wool torn free by a trailing fingernail, redder than any gulmoher. Jade bowl, standing on a smoke-blackened shelf. In the window, the river's spilt silver. A tortoise-shell cat playing on the doorstep. And cancelled in a rage of strokes, the grey-eyed sitarist, drowning out of earshot.
Just this broken song, suggesting he had chosen to tarnish his rhymes with a warmer breath than the court would permit. He sings of his draggled woolen coat, his winter spent in a potter's kiln, roofed in color by fickle skies, the river a shriveled skin of ice. The wild cat his one companion, the drum and blast of rain, his only music. He's begun already to hear the perfect cadence beaten on the heart's broken anvil."
Oh, and this one's called "Fugue," where I'm doing the opposite of trying to memorialize or recover a particular moment. Where I'm actually wondering if it's possible to turn language against itself and de-link it from what we expect of it. And the title, for me, referred both to the music of counterpoint and the possibility that one can use a phrase to bridge one's way through a composition. But also in the psychoanalytic sense of a fugue is a rupture, a moment that's gapped out of your consciousness and memory. "Fugue."
"Roots. Routes. Coracle. Oracle. A dry pasture. Goats. Oatmeal. Bridge. Or ridge? Or turnip? Urn. Lip. Loose. Use? Marvelous, isn't it? The way words unravel? Tin Man and Lion Man?
Airstrip. Straight. Lateen sail. Dhow! Skein from skein, thread unknotting from thread. Fissile articles. Missiles. Parts of speech, neem leaves in an jar in the kitchen.
Or vinegar? What am I smelling between each syllable? Parsley? Thyme? Simon and Garfunkel? Olive oil. Foil for the oven. Cinnamon. Carrots fingers around a candle. Candelabra! The skeins keep branching, raveling, unraveling.
Same thing isn't it, drawing further and further from what I meant? Gap. Auto correct. Alter Control Delete. Table of contents. Right click. Wiped clean. Tabula rasa. You were saying?"
How are we doing on time? Yep. And I'm going to read two more poems to address this question of language and its various avatars. Yeah, one more. This one's called, "At the Belvedere." And again, it sometimes struck me that there are ways in which-- and this speaks to the trope of the anthropocene that I'd sort of mentioned when we first corresponded.
How does one communicate with other species? How does one understand the plurality of languages that species obviously use in some way? Or are we the only sovereign linguistic subject? So this question of how sovereign the human subject might be-- something that has troubled me in recent times. So this one's called, "At the Belvedere," which actually is a pub in Liverpool, which is where this poem's set.
"The seaweed farmer from last evening swung into the Belvedere again tonight, this time asking for a Liverpool gin. Citrus, not watermelon, he specified. As he pulled the moonless key to the alphabet lock from his frayed trench pocket, the Hurricane lamps loud behind his glasses.
He dropped the key and a sand-crusted trowel on the bar. His fingers had gutted out. Let's call it quits, shall we, mate? He nudged me. I give up. I don't know what to call it, this muling, this barking, this mad, overhead, wind-wack cackle of the gulls."
I'm just wondering if we can have that image back on.
SPEAKER 1: I think we can. And so [INAUDIBLE].
RANJIT HOSKOTE: And I'm going to tell you why I need that image up there.
IFTIKHAR DADI: It's coming.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Great, meanwhile I can-- I'm going to talk now a little bit about more recent work, which is-- oh, thanks. Gonna bring Jonah back.
SPEAKER 2: It's unplugged.
SPEAKER 3: It's unplugged.
SPEAKER 4: You can plug in in the wall.
SPEAKER 3: --at the wall.
ANNE BLACKBURN: Set it so that it won't go off after X number of minutes.
SPEAKER 5: I'll try to adjust the setting.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: OK.
ANNE BLACKBURN: That will be great.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Oh, good.
So I'm going to dwell now on these two key words that I mentioned briefly a little earlier-- confluence and anomnesia. I'm going to try and say a little bit about why each of these have a kind of talismanic value for me now. Perhaps, I should wait for Jonah to come back.
ANNE BLACKBURN: Talismanic value.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: What's that?
ANNE BLACKBURN: Talismanic value. All right.
SPEAKER 5: I think that should stay.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Yeah? OK.
Fabulous, thank you.
What's that? Oh no, this is great. Thank you so much for returning Jonah from the depths of this machine. Precisely because I have a hybrid practice and I tend to be-- my energies tend to be distributed over poetry, curatorial practice, cultural theory, art criticism, and all of this, I've sometimes tended-- inadvisedly, I think-- to try and separate them in a certain way.
Because it seems to me that-- or, it seemed to me-- that each of these disciplines needed its own very specific attention. And of course, each has its own vocabulary. But these barriers have collapsed for me more recently. And I'm actually quite happy that this has happened. So one of these formally-separated disciplines which have come together have to deal with an ongoing interest in cultural confluence, which was partly embodied in a book that I did with the German novelist Ilija Trojanow, a book that was called [GERMAN] and was then published in English as Confluences, where we addressed what seemed to us to be a major cultural predicament.
Which is the fact that, because certain kinds of cultural realities are normalized for us and we are conditioned to believe in their essential truth, we get committed to the idea that these cultural identities or religious systems are somehow unique. And we, to that extent-- or many of us-- seem unwilling to see that actually these are the results of circulations of different kinds.
And we just had a very interesting conversation around the table where Daniel, actually, was saying that, when he teaches Zoroastrianism, is comes as a bit of a shock to people who've grown up in the Abrahamic religions. It comes as a shock to them to see that many, many Abrahamic motifs actually have their origins in the Zoroastrian religious imagination, the one god, heaven and hell, the afterlife, the judgment, the Savior. All of these motifs, actually, come back from remote Iran, which is just one example.
But what Trojanow and I were exploring in Confluences was the vast and wide circulations that actually make nonsense of the idea that there are self-enclosed cultural blocks that are forever condemned to collision. It began, for us, in the early 2000s, when we did a series of articles to take on the widespread idea that was becoming a public dogma, the idea that there is such a thing as the clash of civilizations, that civilizations are self-enclosed.
And we wanted to draw attention to the umbilical connections in our early essays between Europe and what is broadly called the Islamic world, the House of Islam. So we were looking at how narratives, images, scientific ideas, philosophical concepts, were constantly in circulation from what is Iraq today-- what is just about Iraq today-- and North Africa and Turkey and Iran and how these bodies of knowledge circulated into Europe and, then, became part of a more mainstream sort of discourse there.
And that is why I actually have this image up here. This comes from early 14th century Iran. It's an image of Jonah and the Whale. And it comes from a book called The Compendium of All Things. It was--
SPEAKER 6: Excuse me. Should we not say Persia, rather than Iran?
RANJIT HOSKOTE: I'm following [INAUDIBLE] practice here and saying Iran rather than Persia. But I'm happy to call it Persia. It's--
SPEAKER 6: Ancient Persia is way different from today's Iran.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: That is true. But I think, for me, Persia-- it's a beautiful word. I valorize it in a certain way, certain kinds of writing. But it seems to me to come from a certain colonial usage. So Iran seems to me to speak of another way of conceiving of this region.
But what interests me here-- he's vanished again! Jonah is--
SPEAKER 3: Oh, there he is.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: He's back. Try to touch it.
SPEAKER 7: You have to keep touching it. That's how--
SPEAKER 3: On and off.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: To refresh. That's a great idea. This compendium, the compendium from which this image comes was assembled by an editor called Rashid al-Din Hamadani, for a patron called Arghun Khan. The interesting thing is that Rashic al-Din Hamadani was a Jew. And Arghun Khan, who was a descendant of Genghis Khan, was a Christian.
So this image speaks to me of the very complex and intricate shifts of what you might want to call identity-- but I think one might think of it more productively as position or location-- that have taken place in the course of this history. And this might be just a single image that one pulls out of a hat. But it represents, it embodies, these very, very diverse and dissimilar cultural energies that came together over a long period from the 8th to the 16th centuries across a swathe, the geographical swathe from Spain to Indonesia.
And again, as someone concerned with these things, this resonates very, very strongly for me, in terms of disclosing how narratives travel, the avatars that they assume, and how one can recognize and re-recognize them in different ways. And also because, again, it becomes a political tool to take on dogmas about essentialist identity, dogmas about a particular territorially bounded nationalist history.
And particularly when we look at South Asia with this kind of optic, we see that it has always been a region marked by migration, not by stasis. And it's that migratory impulse, that circulation of very dissimilar things, the encounters among people and ideas that had not formerly had much contact-- it's these points of friction that become moments that might be cherished for me. And in recent times, I've been-- as you say, one must refresh this.
Go back! In recent times, I've been thinking very much, for instance, of the Indian Ocean as a theater of circulations of this kind. Because, for what it's worth-- I know it's a knee-jerk reflex in postcolonial societies to blame the colonial encounter for practically everything that's gone wrong. But in this case, I think it's verifiably true that the advent of Portuguese military power in the Indian Ocean cut many of us, particularly on the Western coast of India, cut us off from the larger circulations with the Arab world, with East Africa, with Southeast Asia.
These routes, these pilgrimage routes, these trade routes, these routes along which ideas passed, these have been somehow cut away. And we've, to that extent, been alienated from some of these pasts that I think would enrich our cultural subjectivity. So I've tried to address that through discursive, through prose writings, through books like Confluences, but also more recently through a cycle of poems which I actually call the Jonah Whale Cycle.
And I fuse the notion of Jonah and the whale because, it seems to me, that the idea of Jonah being swallowed by the whale and, then, being returned to land-- it's extremely potent. But the moment that I would hold on to there is the very peculiar fusion, if you will, of Jonah and the whale, the individual and the system, the vehicle of augury and the indecisive individual-- to me, it seems that the fusion of the intersection of these two is what defines, in many ways, the human predicament.
And I'm pinning that, in some of these poems, to something that's captivated me in the last few years, which is the accounts of the subaltern figures who crisscrossed the oceans in the colonial period. And I'm thinking particularly of people who were sailors, who were navvies, who were laborers, who were-- people who were part of this maritime oceanic world.
And if we look at their experiences, we would actually move away from many of our conceptions about nations and states, which are built on land, which are bounded by territorial notions. What happens when you look at currents? When you look at shoals? At reefs? At the compass? That way of looking at the world radically de-stabilizes how you conceive of location, belonging, territory, and all of this.
And it's also, for me, been a way of opening up my own language. How might I open up the body of my poem to Lashkari, which is the very mixed sailors' argot that developed in these contexts. And those of you who've read Amitav Ghosh' amazing trilogy will have had some acquaintance with that language. And I find it intriguing.
Because also, the etymology of some of these Lashkari words takes you back to coastal communities, to the experience of weather. And you suddenly realize that these very strange-sounding exotic words have a kind of familiarity to you. I suddenly realized, while reading a Ghosh and while reading the amazing blog that he's also been working on in the process of writing his novels-- I realized that some of these words are the names of Koli communities who live not far from where I live, in the city of Bombay.
And that these words have gone into the literature of the sea in a certain way. They've been fossilized there. But they're still alive and well in actual everyday life. So I'm going to read a few poems that come from The Jonah Whale Cycle.
ANNE BLACKBURN: Here, I'll do [INAUDIBLE].
RANJIT HOSKOTE: OK, this one's called "Ocean." "My name is Ocean. I shall not be contained. My tides spell starting gun and finish line. Afterwards, only shells and scattered roofs will remind you I was there. My combers wash away the roots of trees, towns, the shaken heart. But mortals, there's hope. My breakers hurl"--
SPEAKER 8: [INAUDIBLE]
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Yeah, we'll come to the Kolis in two minutes, literally. "My combers wash away the roots of trees, towns, the shaken heart. But mortals, there's hope. My breakers hurl seeds back at your shores. After the flood, the chroniclers will write in Konkani, Sabir, Imarol, [INAUDIBLE].
After the flood, the beach exploded with giant peacock trees in whose branches, on windy days, you could hear the surge and swell of ocean summoning whales; whalers who chased blood wakes; red-haired women who fought pirates; sleepless harpooners who sailed from fjordlands to where volcanoes splintered the sleeping ice; furies who choked pearl divers, drove catamarans aground; voyageurs who fell into the sea and grew wings.
Ocean reciting from his depths every drifting epic of pursuit, every song of shipwreck, every trace of raft and sail and trailing anchor, flotsam, jetsam, buckram, velum. He could remember."
SPEAKER 6: Is it [INAUDIBLE]?
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Oh, I wish it was. But there will be reference to-- you'll recognize the names when I read that particular poem. This is another of the Jonah Whale poems. It's called "Ahab." n And I have to say that Ilija Trojanow, the novelist and dear friend that I mentioned earlier with whom I wrote Confluences-- I remember, at one point, I made the mistake of telling him that I had spent two years researching a poem.
And he sort of fell about and laughed and said, research for a poem? Who researches a poem? So I had to explain to him that it wasn't only novelists and anthropologists and others. But the humble poet manages a bit of research too.
So some of the research for this has, in fact, meant things as diverse as looking up the dictionary of Lashkari, for instance, reading Ghosh, looking at Maritime records, journals, and also and looking at and thinking about certain paintings of Turner's. You mentioned Turner earlier, Iftikhar. --terrifying but highly critical paintings where Turner takes a good hard look at the slave trade.
And there's a particularly terrifying painting called Slavers. It's a painting that's haunted me for a long, long time. And I've been working on that as well. But this one is called "Ahab."
"Captain of castaways, the pilot calls out. And his curse carries across docks, derricks, open factories, a typhoon in the hoarse latitudes. He's hurled his ship after the whale that swallowed him and spat him out. The monster is the only system he's known. At the bridge, he's drenched in the dark, locked on target, silent, furrowed, sat, turned to stone.
Across steep tides, through walls of water, his life has always been pursuit. As the ship splinters on the reef, the rigging becomes his noose. Brine blistering his throat, he thinks, if only I'd harpooned this monster on a page."
Oh, and this one is called "Lascar." I don't know if this is a familiar word at all.
That must be some kind of alarm telling me that it's time I-- I have to ask you to excuse me.
"Lascar," which some of you might recognize this rather old-fashioned sort of term. It referred to what were then called East Indian sailors, essentially, sailors from India. And there's--
SPEAKER 6: Plus soldiers in the Indian army.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Also lascar. That comes up in the poem. And there's some passages in the first sort of strofe of this poem, which I really taken from a Sherlock Holmes story. It's called, "The Man with the Twisted Lip." And I have a kind of weakness for a certain kind of utterly colonial Victorian fiction.
And I find it quite entertaining. And always, growing up, reading some of these things, it was intriguing how one might enjoy it in a certain literary way, while always being painfully aware that my people and my kind of people were not cast in a flattering light exactly in these narratives. So how might one turn such texts against themselves? Is that possible?
These are questions that also exercise me.
"Lascar. Bombay, Liverpool, London, 1889. The lascar was always sallow. It didn't help that his name anagrammed rascal. He carried a whiff of scurvy, a hint of rats in the hold, hulls batted by typhoons. He was never far from dirty work.
Here's what the detective said. There's a trap door at the back of that opium den near the wharf, which could tell strange tales of what passes through it on moonless nights. Here is what the good wife said. At the foot of the stairs, I met this lascar who thrust me back and, aided by a Dane, pushed me out into the street.
Meanwhile, her husband-- only one man, knew my secret. He was the keeper of a low den in which I used to lodge, a lascar, well paid by me for his rooms. My secret was safe with him. Neither detective nor wife nor husband knew the bleached village on the Konkan Coast or had seen the forced parades at tropical noon, the forts locked in rising silt, the standing crops burned.
History gave you one name. Fear gave you and your cousins others. To novelists, savage. To pamphleteers, cannibal. To scholars, anthropophage. To your captains, seacunny, tindal, serang, topaz. Or most of the time, while swapping on board, you coco-faced rascal.
You call yourself names in the three tongues you speak in your sleep. Lashkar, Army, Sepoy, Forge. They crowd us into the damp shallow cradle they call the [INAUDIBLE], [INAUDIBLE], silly name. [NON-ENGLISH] we call it. [NON-ENGLISH], the hood, the wide, fan-spread hood of this coiled sea-cobra we are sailing."
I'm going to move on now to visuality, which I promised Iftikhar. But I'm going to do this as swiftly as I can, because we're over time.
ANNE BLACKBURN: We are at your pleasure. It's our pleasure.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: At my mercy, you almost said.
ANNE BLACKBURN: We're at Jonah's mercy.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: We're at Jonah's mercy, quite right. Now, for me, the visual arts, for obvious reasons, they're a source of constant engagement and reflection. But in recent times particularly, I've tried to align my interests in a certain kind of avant garde in the visual arts with my own poetics. And that's led to a certain number of poems. I'm going to read one of that particular kind.
Because it struck me that, for a number of years, I was sort of committed to the speaking voice, to a certain classicism of poetic form. And yet, in the visual arts, what I most responded to was the ever-renewable, the perennial experiments of the dadaists, for instance, [INAUDIBLE], the pushing of language to its extremity, the objet trouve.
These were things that I continued to be excited by when I looked at visuality. And how might that come into the poems? But also, as I said a little earlier, I had this long-term interest in the narrative forms, the devices that actually animate and make real the paintings of the Safavid period or the Mughal miniatures, the Rajput miniatures.
How might one get that kind of synoptic perspective, for instance, into a poem? How might one develop that particular sensibility, elaborate that in a certain way, and make it meaningful within the horizon of contemporary experience? And an image that has haunted me for the longest time here has to do with how certain forms of art can tell us what to do with breakage and rupture.
And it's this Japanese art that some of you might be familiar with, kintsugi, which remains, for me, a very potent image. It takes the form of putting a broken porcelain object together. But instead of hiding where it's broken, the cracks are actually emphasized and dramatized in gold. It's a form of joinery.
To me, that's actually of a very particular image of what some of us try to do with the poem. You deal with all that all which is fragmented, which has been broken. And you put it together. But you indicate how it's come together. And that, for me, is something that the sociologist Richard Sennett glosses beautifully when he talks of the work of the artisan.
He says that what inspires the artisan, what inspires art, is the embrace of the incomplete. And for me, kintsugi kind of refers to that. So under that sign, I'm going to read two poems that have something to do with looking closely at art. The first one is called Behzad South and is, of course, a way of thinking about the Safavid, the Persian painter. And the other one's called-- well, I'll tell you what it's called in a moment.
"Behzad" first. And this is an elusive animal, the prose poem. I am personally not really persuaded that terms like that are meaningful. But I like to look at moments where cadence and musicality dissolve these otherwise rather sharp metrical distinctions that we make between a text that might be a poem and another kind of text that might be prose.
What was I reading recently? Barthes! Roland Barthes actually, I think, says somewhere that there is, in fact, no such thing as prose. There is only poetry that operates at different kinds of speed. So this is called "Behzad Closes His Eyes."
"He sits in the center of the carpet of silence, the last of all the carpets he will sit on, and calls out to the trees by their special names. Cedar was always good to him, wrapping its fragrance around his books. Cypress offered him the shelter of love. Pine shielded him from angry princes and jealous slaves. Poplar kisses his windows. Willow sweeps his river clean. Every autumn, Chenar has covered his garden with leaves like hands aflame.
These he has trusted. But today, they are quiet, respectful, distant. And his colors-- he has fought them through the long dream of his life, powdered them in the mortar of his heart, glued them with anger. They have stung his sleeves and bitten his gold leaf borders. He has dragged them across marbled pages with his brush, forcing them into images.
God made man from clots of blood. A painter makes saints from broken coral, grinds emperors from lapis. While other men sleep, he barters queens for turquoise. Spies bring him crushed cinnabar to finish his tented cities. Traders find him leopards and peacocks to draw.
No cabinet is safe from his fingers. He will claw through the flasks and retorts of friends, looking for the lost elixir. Who called him an idol collector of travelers' tales? He listens. He knows every shade will open in its own time, tell its story in the fall of stained syllables.
But Behzad does not listen to his colors for many years. He has forgotten the boy who beat off the swans and read the deepest pages of water. He has forgotten the young man who slashed through afternoon sawdust shrubs and the green silk pavilions of evening. The wolves howling in his blood.
Too soon, he came down from the mountains and chained himself to the forced march. An album for the king's uncle, a portrait for a merchant, love spells for a princess, the chamberlain's prayer book. To the beat of the sun's hooves, he herded his colors through the gates of floating palaces and honeycombed bazaars. Splashed them on stairways left unfinished when the barbarians attacked. Steps locked between Earth and heaven.
Hurrying north after that retreat, he dripped his colors and sketches that soldiers threw into winter fires, watching them shrivel into veils of ash. On this last carpet, he does not whip them with strokes of ink or trap them in porcelain cages. He knows the black angel is coming for him in a rain of sand. Gardens and houses crumbling in its eyes.
Nothing stands between Behzad and the angel except his colors. He draws his shawl around his shoulders. Once again, the song of an open wound. He chants their names. [FARSI] Dragon's blood blesses his page."
Those are all, if you will, Persian or Farsi words for different kinds of red. And the second poem that that comes from my engagement with the visual I'm going to read today is called "Philip Guston, in Pretty Much his own Words, a Triptych." And it's a largely found poem.
Because I was really looking at-- Guston, as a painter, has fascinated me for a very, very long time through all of his phases, the early highly critical work in which he evokes the terror of the Ku Klux Klan; the later-- the great abstract phrase; and then, the final return to self-portraiture. And he evidently talked and wrote voluminously. And so, I've been reading him.
So this poem is really a set of lightly edited extracts from Guston's own lectures and writings and so forth. It's in three small parts. The first one's called "Lecture." The second's called "Studio Visit." The third is called "Loft." So it's three venues of the life and sociality of the artist. So "Philip Guston, in Pretty Much his own Words."
1. Lecture. "The hell with art, I said, and went through the mirror. You couldn't catch me for two years. The pall that drew the first line, that's what I was after. Somewhere in Egypt or Ur, the Ur line might have sprung some magic group of a bison or deer. For here, for now, you may want to take up these charred bones and follow.
So what else is there to work with? Black. You can take it out with white. Then, you splash the mud over there. The window falls. You can strap a wristwatch on that guy who's got a little blood in his sleeve already. So much you want to do with pencil and eraser. Because you want to be spent, to finish and sleep well, maybe even go to a movie.
But finishing is death. Which reminds me, am I being paid for my silence? I should remember that. Because everything I say is a concert.
2. Studio Visit. A book can become a tablet, can become a stone. This lime skin is the binder. But you want the name and the thing. And you want the movement. This is about painting a book in the dark, to read when you walk blind into a curtained room. Grab that paw and feel its pulpiness. It's not just a noun, not just recognition.
It's a lamp. It's a clock. Not just one brick on top of another. The process is a trial and plenty of error. A ball and splinters of grainy wood lined up on a table and then some. And then some more. When I get to the red head of that thing at the end of the line, it's going to feel like a trunk. And I'm going to want to pull it out, pull it longer and longer.
That's when they'll come and look at me in my cage, where I'm sitting and carving a flecked rectangle of sky to look like a book. All the anthropologists will be talking about this gorilla in a cage. And this gorilla in a cage won't get a chance to say anything.
3. Loft. Something gripped and bit at the canvas. Did I really believe it? Not, did I like it. This paint didn't really feel like paint. It spoke to me. I spoke to it. Was it true or not under the dirty sky lights? Taking no chances, I painted the whole loft. Easels, broken chairs, electrical wire hanging down, all the way down to my hand below, painting it.
I had a hard time sleeping that night. It briefed me on looking, reported it's word, this chair, this torn cloth. Oh yeah, my broken mirror in dirty greys, fleshy pinks, ochres. That painting was as good as a Matisse. When I woke up, I destroyed it."
And that brings me to the conclusion, which is where I want to just maybe try and bring these reflections and readings down to something like a sense of what it is that the poet perhaps tries to do, beyond the production of poetic objects and the exploration of form, many, many things that are, of course, oriented inwardly towards yourself and, if you will, studio practice.
I would like to think-- and this is an ambitious kind of claim-- but I would like to think that poetry is, in many ways, a wager on a certain kind of cosmopolitanism. It's a project in the cosmopolitan. And I use the term "cosmopolitan" not in the sense of an attitude that is merely open to all kinds of experiences for their own sake.
But I think that I would stress the politics. I would stress the latter part of the term, not so much the cosmos, which one takes of course as a given in this discussion, but what is implied by a politics of embracing the world? And to me, it's something that I go to through a wonderful essay that some of you might be familiar with.
It's by Martha Nussbaum, "Kant and Stoic Cosmopolitanism." It's an essay from the late '90s. But she talks about how individuals frame their lives in two communities, their birth community and what she calls the community of human argument and aspiration. And it's in that kind of framework that I will place the work that poetry might well do.
And I will end, really, by leaving you with two models that have resonated for me in dealing with this question of how one might, as a poet, deal with the world. The first one comes to us from the stoics. And the stoics, particularly Zeno, spoke of a process that he called archaeosis, which is usually rendered as "affinity."
But if you look at the etymology, it's an awkward translation, But it suggests and en-homing, a way of making oneself at home, producing a sense of home. And Zeno and Heracles, as you know, had this concentric model of the world. It began with the self, the family, the home, the city, the region, and then the world. But at each point, as one engaged with these circles, one dissolved distance into proximity.
But we know, of course, that this involves challenges. It involves disruptions. It involves self-critique. And to me, it's that kind of model of being that really describes what we might well do as poets. How does one constantly take on these challenges of belonging in the strange? In the unfamiliar? In the potentially hostile?
How does one try and develop relationships of trust and collaboration, as we too are trying to do, I think, in this very room? To me, this is an embodiment of that kind of en-homing that I'm speaking of. And the other model of how to belong comes to me from another tradition that, for a long time, I was a fellow traveler of, which is Buddhism.
And I've been captivated by the model of the Brahmaviharas, with which many of you are indeed familiar. It comes from a 5th century text, the Visuddhimagga, The Path of Purification. And it suggests that-- the word Brahmavihara really means-- it's translated in different ways-- the immeasurable, the abode of divinity. To me, those translations fall short of what it means as an ethical practice.
One extends oneself through maitri, which is a certain sort of loving kindness; karuna, which is compassion; mudita, which is taking joy in the joy of others; and upeksa, which is to give up an emotional investment in outcomes. To summarize brutally, a long and well-annotated tradition. But that's the other model that has constantly resonated for me, once again, when one refers to this question of how a poet might be in the world.
What is the utterance called a poem trying to do? What sort of bridges is it trying to build? So those are the thoughts that I leave you with. Because I somehow tend to think that there might well be an ethical dimension. I've spoken, of course, of the aesthetic questions and questions of poetics. I've dwelt on how the practice of poetry has a political dimension in a certain way.
I also wonder if we might explore the ethical dimension of making poems and sharing them and what this activity might mean, from the point of view of the ethical subject. Thank you very much for your attention.
ANNE BLACKBURN: You've brought us a wonderful afternoon, truly, Ranjit. Would you be willing to take a few questions and--
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Sure, absolutely.
ANNE BLACKBURN: --comments from the floor?
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Yeah, happy to.
PROF. UMA PRABHU: For questions and comments.
ANNE BLACKBURN: And if [INAUDIBLE].
PROF. UMA PRABHU: Yeah.
ANNE BLACKBURN: OK.
PROF. UMA PRABHU: I may not be [INAUDIBLE] ask him questions or--
RANJIT HOSKOTE: OK.
PROF. UMA PRABHU: But [INAUDIBLE]. Some meant for you.
ANNE BLACKBURN: Do you want to run your own Q&A or--
PROF. UMA PRABHU: I'm--
RANJIT HOSKOTE: What's that?
ANNE BLACKBURN: You want to just recognize your own questions or--
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Oh, could you, my friend?
PROF. UMA PRABHU: I have a question.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Yes.
PROF. UMA PRABHU: And you don't need to answer that if you don't want to. But I always wondered what goes through the poet's mind? What is it that he spends time really-- is it his [INAUDIBLE]? Compared with love? What is it?
RANJIT HOSKOTE: I think one way of answering that question might be to recalibrate how we see poets. Because I think there is, partly due to a certain sort of education or conditioning or traditions that we come from, we tend to see the poet as almost a secular prophet, if you will, or a visionary. For me, it works much better to see the poet as a kind of artisan, as a crafts person, someone who is working with his or her hands really.
And from that perspective, to me, it's not always certain that the poet knows what will be communicated. The act of making the poem is making explicit, even to oneself, a set of questions.
PROF. UMA PRABHU: It comes out in [INAUDIBLE]?
RANJIT HOSKOTE: No, no, no. I wish.
I think it much more often comes across through a poem I didn't read where I speak of the stutterance. To me, the stutterance is a trope for how one works with language and how one gets it to fit what one is thinking, whilst also reaching out to what seems to be external but, in profound ways, defines one's own being.
PROF. UMA PRABHU: I can't imagine the poet sitting there and talking the world. What life-- person in a sense. Even if we're doing well, or at least concerned about the world. Have you come across that experience?
RANJIT HOSKOTE: I think all poets are concerned with the world, of course they are. Yeah, because where you're concerned only with your own interiority, that is an unproductive sort of narcissism. It doesn't really--
PROF. UMA PRABHU: That goes [SINGING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE] What is the next one?
ANNE BLACKBURN: We make--
PROF. UMA PRABHU: We [INAUDIBLE].
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Absolutely.
PROF. UMA PRABHU: Yeah--
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Or that usually misquoted-- well, anyway, Shelley. But we'll talk about that later.
PROF. UMA PRABHU: Sure.
ANNE BLACKBURN: I think we have some other--
PROF. UMA PRABHU: But the--
ANNE BLACKBURN: --as well.
PROF. UMA PRABHU: [INAUDIBLE] Taking, understand, appreciating each in his own way. What moves me does not move everyone.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Mm, Indeed.
PROF. UMA PRABHU: You talked about [INAUDIBLE].
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Mm, just about five chapters of it.
PROF. UMA PRABHU: What do you think of Kabir?
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Kabir?
PROF. UMA PRABHU: Yeah.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Uh--
ANNE BLACKBURN: Professor Uma, let's take a couple of other questions also.
PROF. UMA PRABHU: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Of course, don't worry about--
ANNE BLACKBURN: Then we'll have--
RANJIT HOSKOTE: But we will come back to Kabir at some point.
ANNE BLACKBURN: --something of a wider discussion.
PROF. UMA PRABHU: Yeah, well, sure.
ANNE BLACKBURN: OK. So have we left some other questions that we might join together here? Questions or comments from the floor? Here, I have stopped Professor Uma, knowing that you were breathtaking and--
KEN: I wanted to, well, first of all, thank you very, very much for-- it's hard to even think of a single question, yes. But I particularly would like to hear a little more about your inter-linguality.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Inter-linguality, OK.
KEN: That struck me as something particularly-- one story that I like to tell about my own family is a very, sadly, American story. But two younger brothers on a beach in California. These boys were, at that time, 9 and 10.
And another family was on their blanket on the beach, speaking another language. And the two boys asked their father to call the police. Because they must be crazy, because they couldn't understand them. But the mono-linguality of an immigrant nation--
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Mm-hm, indeed. Yeah.
KEN: You're speaking-- I deeply appreciated that you are speaking of this multi-linguality and the inter-linguality that it produces as, really, a tragedy. How do we go from these profoundly multi-lingual nations, like India, like immigrant America, to valuing the monolingual state?
ANNE BLACKBURN: Really good question today, thank you. Can we take one more?
RANJIT HOSKOTE: But yeah, I could-- are we gathering questions? Or--
ANNE BLACKBURN: Will take one question and then--
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Sure.
ANNE BLACKBURN: --you respond as you wish.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Sure.
SPEAKER 9: My question is about process. So I was thinking about how poets have epiphainc moments. And they also have times when they hit a plateau. So I was wondering if you think there are ways of avoiding the plateau stage completely.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: Oh, sure.
ANNE BLACKBURN: And so however you'd like to work with--
RANJIT HOSKOTE: OK.
ANNE BLACKBURN: --these last--
RANJIT HOSKOTE: All right. It's kind of a linkage between these two questions. Let me begin with the question of the inter-lingual.
KEN: Lingual question.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: There's no recipe, unfortunately. I don't think that it could officially turn into a strategy. You might want people to learn many languages. And yet, this may give you a whole range of accomplished individuals. But how does that articulate itself as a kind of literary text? How does it articulate itself as a way of being with others? I'm not sure there's any single--
Speaking of India, for instance, we are very multilingual. Many of us actually speak four languages in the course of our everyday life. But this does not mean that we are not motivated by ideological phantoms. We may speak four languages and, yet, want to go out and kill someone who speaks a language that is not "our own."
I think these distinctions between altos and xenos and para, what seems to be yours and aligned with you and what is alien, these are not going to vanish in haste. So that's a huge problem. That remains a problem. Can one use language or multilinguality or inter-linguality as a way of complicating the situation? I think there, I would think that there is a possibility. If you remain aware of yourself as being, in fact, multiple.
There's a term that De Luce writes about this extensively. But I would like to see it as a trope that we could do use more generally. The notion of the dividual self-- I find that actually much more useful than-- I'm not going to be melodramatic about this. But the notion of the sovereign individual is something that emerges from an enlightenment discourse about subjectivity and progress and all of this, which forms the substratum of how we are today.
There is a way in which that wager on the individual has actually trapped us into this notion of autonomy and self-assertion, to the extent that we-- I mean, I think you could pin a whole range of problems to this, from what we're doing with the ecology to what we're doing in the theaters of race, gender, ethnicity, religion.
So much of this emerges from a notion of needing to assert one's individuality. But if you accept yourself as a dividual self then, to that extent, you live with your diverse contents. And you're, to that extent, less inclined to see something as an alien. Because there's a spectrum, a continuum that links you to the xenos or the para or the other-- a sort of long answer to a very crisp and precise question. I hope this helps.
And about the plateau-- I think that in the life of the writer, you know that you're going to hit a plateau at some point. There might be moments of drought or blockage. Drought is not a very good thing to invoke in Ithaca at this moment. I'm aware of that. But what do you do in that case?
To this, I have a very-- I mean, my answers will not be philosophical. The response is going to be much more pragmatic. I think we need to work laterally and around the problem. So for me, translation has always been not only a thing important in itself, a real feature of my own literary practice, but it's also something that works at moments of silence or a plateau or where you feel you're repeating yourself or that you're just plain stuck, if there's so-called writer's block.
You kind of imagine yourself into the skin of someone else, to another kind of imagination and imaginary. And I find that translation, devoting yourself maybe to the selection of someone else's poems-- there are ways in which I think stepping out of yourself as a writerly persona and taking on these other kinds of releasement of the self-- I tend to think that some of them might be actually quite helpful.
I don't know if that answers your question. But yeah. And these things have a way of looping back into your practice. You are transformed by these things. These are not just strategy. They're not things you do to save yourself from writer's block. And they come back.
And again, I would think about these 20 years that I spent-- not continuously, but 20 years of working on Lal Ded. I think I was actually quite transformed as a poet, as someone who thought about religion and how one might distinguish between a spiritual impulse or a mystical impulse and organized political religiosity, of which I've always been very skeptical.
So there are ways in which certain kinds of translation might open up horizons for you.
ANNE BLACKBURN: No questions or comments? We may want to-- what is it-- collar you at the reception and ask you something.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: All right.
ANNE BLACKBURN: Yes, but we thank you very much for such a rich set of contributions. And I'll hand the floor now to Professor Uma to offer our closing remarks.
PROF. UMA PRABHU: Thank you.
ANNE BLACKBURN: And then, we'll have a chance for some casual conversation in the reception area. Please do stay. Eat and drink with us. And continue the conversation. Professor Uma.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: And thank you very much indeed.
PROF. UMA PRABHU: [INAUDIBLE] my life to demand the audience of other kinds of poems. But poems go with the music, in my opinion. You don't decide poems, just this lyric quality. Anyway, in America during the '60s, this is a social unrest. And a lot of music generated then the-- (SINGING) there is a season, turn, turn, turn. There's a time to be born and a time to die.
(NORMAL VOICE) And so on. And it goes back to the book of Ecclesiastes, during King Solomon. So this, Pete Seeger sang it. I have a CD with Pete Seeger singing it. So let me-- poetry, Bhakti poetry, worshipping God, devotional poetry. And there are many other poetries and so on.
But anyway, let me-- this is the eighth in the series on modern literature. [INAUDIBLE]. For the first time we have a poet, Ranjit Hoskote. And I'm very happy we have him here. Thank you and for earning this.
Indian poetry goes back to several centuries. Bhagavad Gita, with Lord Krishna giving advice a warrior, Arjuna, about war and peace, the eternal problem of life. Now, Tagore-- Tagore wrote-- why is this series named after Tagore? I'm now saying this.
Tagore wrote novels, short stories, plays, et cetera. I like his short stories better than his novels, stories such as [INAUDIBLE], about a deaf-mute girl. "Dena Paona," about a dowry. "Postmaster" and "Kabuliwala."
Long ago, there started a movement called-- I can't read my own handwriting.
--progressively [INAUDIBLE]. [HINDI] I'm a creature of life. Namely, stop talking about the high and the mighty, the kings and queens. Talk about ordinary people, those who cannot talk about themselves. Tagore foresaw this happening, as his short stories demonstrated.
To begin with, I read the English translation of Tagore poems. We are at times very prosaic. Poetry and prosaic. A copy from The Modern Review, written by [INAUDIBLE] goes back, all the way back.
Then, when LPs, audio tapes, and CDs appeared, I enjoyed the music that accompanied the poems. Tagore's music is unusual. Hear his own [BENGHALI] tunes. And rabindrasangit is a genre by itself.
Let me pay a tribute to my wife, Sumi. She learned to read and write Benghali, wrote to Vishwabharthi to get a copy of [INAUDIBLE]. So when we play rabindrasangit, I understand and enjoy Tagore's highly Sanskritized music.
There is a pain in his music, because of some family problems he had, Dr. Mukherjee from Syracuse explained to me. Sometimes, I'm moved to tears. This is all I have to say. Thank you for coming.
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The eminent Indian poet, curator and cultural critic, Ranjit Hoskote, delivered the annual Tagore Lecture in Modern Indian Literature on September 23, 2016. Hoskote is the author of five collections of poetry, as well as I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded, based on 20 years of translation and research on 14th-century Kashmiri poet Lal Ded.
The Tagore Lecture Series is made possible by a gift from Cornell Professor Emeritus Narahari Umanath Prabhu and Mrs. Sumi Prabhu to honor Rabindranath Tagore, a celebrated writer and musician, and one of the great luminaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.