There is a village called Heggodu in central Karnataka, and a miraculous place called Ninasam there. I don’t want to get into why it’s miraculous but if you read the news story I’ve linked to, you’ll understand. Anyway, that’s where I was in the first part of this month.
Ninasam’s annual shibeera (camp) brings together academics, activists, actors, dancers, directors, enthusiasts, journalists, performers, photographers, poets, readers, singers, smokers, writers and watchers for a week of cultural adda. This time, there were two plays by the Ninasam repertory group — Kuvempu’s Shudra Tapaswi and Shakespeare’s Othello. There was Carnatic music by TM Krishna (sublime!). There were lectures by Sundar Sarrukai, Rajni Bakshi, Shiv Vishwanathan and N. Manu Chakravarthy. There were poetry, fiction and play readings in Kannada, Marathi and English. There was other stuff but I don’t want to bore you with lists. What I’m saying is there was lots of gorgeousity.
I did a reading of my work. I was more nervous about this than I am about most readings. Firstly, it was the post-lunch session. Yes, bring on the sympathy. Secondly, there were many Bhasha writers/readers at this gathering. I was expecting questions about mother tongue, cultural roots, the whole continuum of belonging and unbelonging about which I feel tormented sometimes and terribly bored at other times.
It was wonderful. Yes, there were some expected questions. But there were also some unexpected ones, especially later, and some wonderful responses from people I respect a great deal. But most interesting was this encounter with a Kannada poet —-
Our first meeting was after dinner the night before my reading. We were standing outside the canteen, near the washbasins. It was cold and rainy. Water dripping into my ears, muddy feet, poetry talk.
‘People who write in English can’t be authentic because they don’t think in English,’ he said.
‘I think in English.’
‘Yes, but you can’t feel in English.’ He drawled out the feel, like feeel. He looked at me compassionately because I am handicapped in this way.
‘Erm, yeah, I need a smoke.’
It took me a day before I could pass him without wanting to make faces. (Reader, I did not actually make faces. It might have seemed immature.)
After my reading, he waylaid me on two separate occasions, told me what he found problematic about my work–and some of it was exactly what has been appreciated in other places. It’s always freeing, even if unsettling, to encounter totally different poetics. It forces you to pick and choose elements from different cultures, to continually think about what would work best for a particular poem instead of following the easy formulae of rules. For example, I’ve been thinking about the whole ‘show, don’t tell’ principle quite a bit and his aesthetic preferences for exploratory statements as opposed to ‘photography’ made me think about this some more.
With all the intense communicating and socialising and sharing, I started feeling breathless every once in a while. There is a small tailoring workshop on the grounds, a room with some women on sewing machines, a bench outside and in front, a grove stretching out. I sometimes went and sat there, under the trees, to think or write. I exchanged smiles with the women but somehow, felt reluctant to break the silent companionship in which we sat — them inside, me outside — working at something. It seemed important to let that place be just for ‘doing’, and not for talking.
Here are some lovely pictures of the festival by Prateek Mukund. Oh, and anyone can attend the annual shibeera. You just need to write to Ninasam around the time it happens.
After the intensity of Ninasam, there was the intensity of illness. I was sick for about three weeks. The upside is that antibiotics affect the poetry well, mostly because I get so drugged that I can’t see straight. This, I find, is an useful state for poetry. As are hangovers.
It makes me think of this interview with Iain McGilchrist, a writer and psychologist who has written a “a fascinating analysis of, and a clear warning about, our increasingly divided brains (Poetryfoundation.org).” From the interview:
The right hemisphere is not just better at understanding metaphor in the strictest sense, but at making unusual connections, and therefore at any non-literal use of language. I don’t think we need to get hung up on that: metonymy is also going to be a right-hemisphere function—indeed my thesis is that poetry is nothing if not a recruitment of the right hemisphere.
I’m interested in this because I feel like I get through life as two different people (left-person and right-person) — one who is obsessed with process, systems, lists and order and the other who shirks all of these alarmingly. The first fills in excel sheets with plans, routines, menus worked out for the entire month. The other refuses to even look at the excel sheet on certain days. It’s not hard to predict which would be better at poetry. The trick is getting the right one to come out at the right time. It’s not nice when I’m at a social event and find myself drifting blankly while someone speaks to me, or open my mouth to say something and realise I’m speaking strange. And on that note, read what George Szirtes says on conversation.
Also interesting is what McGilchrist says about the logic, order and patterning required in poetry. Rhyme, rhythm, metre.
And I could not agree less that having a clear metrical pattern and rhyme scheme is limiting, or tends to suggest the left hemisphere’s attitude to language. They are the condition of all music and dance, the right hemisphere’s domain, and when we decide to dispense with them, we take a knowing risk.
I’ve been making a(nother) attempt to learn Kannada. I decided I had gone about it all wrong in the past — all those conversational classes which told me how to buy vegetables at the market just bored me to death. I realised the only way I can get interested in a language is through its writing. So I’ve learned the script. I can now read signage of all sorts and spend a lot of time reading out shop signs to A.
More ambitiously, I’m also trying to read Girish Karnad’s ‘Yayati’. Since I can spend a total of one hour a week or something on this, I’ll probably be done with it by next year. But hey, remember the tortoise?
In the spirit of slow but sure, I love this site called Padakali which gives you one new word every day.