Nissim Ezekiels poetry a reassessment, S Pandya Ketan

Tags: Indian English poetry, Kamala Das, Ezekiel, published, Gauri Deshpande, Indian writing in English, anthologies, Ramanujan, R. Parthasarathy, Writers Workshop, India, Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel, poets, Indian Poetry, P. Lal, English poets, poets and writers, Bruce King, OUP, anthology, Mehrotra, Indian English poets, Daruwalla, Parthasarathys anthology, Peeradinas anthology, establishing, Shiv Kumar, Indian Poets, professor of Botany, London, University of Bombay, Bene Israel, Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, Pritish Nandy, Keki Daruwalla, Gieve Patels, famous poets, Gieve Patel, K. Raghavendra Rao
Content: EXORDIUM Nissim Ezekiel, the foremost poet of the post-independence Indian English Poetry, was born on 16th December, 1924 in Mumbai (then Bombay) to Bene Israel parents. His father was a professor of Botany and his mother was the principal of her own school. Ezekiel was brought up in a secular environment with his parents being educators. The family was descendent of the oil pressers community that fled from Galilee, northern Israel, in 150 BC and shipwrecked off the coast of Konkan. The settlers flourished and spread to surrounding villages thanks to ever welcoming tolerant Hindu majority culture and never felt anti-Semitism. Ezekiel himself, though from minority Jewish community, grew up as an Indian due to this cultural absorption and rational secular upbringing. The majority Hindu culture has been a loving host for Jews and that has almost never caused any sense of alienation among the Jews in India.The Jewish historian Raphael Meyer has rightly noted in his online article: Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Indian Jewish experience is the complete absence of discrimination by a host majority. The secret of India's tolerance is the Hindu belief which confers legitimacy on a wide diversity of cultural and religious groups even as it forbids movement from one group to another.(the-south-asian.com) This is an important factor for understanding Ezekiels personality and world view. One does not find an acute sense of alienation resulting from discrimination by the host culture.This sense of security and warm hearted welcome meted out to them has given them a sense of home in India. Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, the Honorary Secretary of the Judah Hyam Synagogue, New Delhi, says, ,,Israel is in my heart but India is in my blood (dawn.com). Ezekiels poetry reveals this sense of belonging very emphatically. 1
Ezekiel liked reading modern English poets even when he was a school boy. He preferred T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound and Rainer Maria Rilke to the romantic poets. He got MA in English Literature from the University of Bombay in 1947 with a first class and got a scholarship. He taught English at Khalsa College, Mumbai for some time.He then had a brief stint with the radical politics before going to London in 1948 to study philosophy. He stayed there for three and a half year. His ticket to London was sponsored by a friend. He had to work his way back from London as a deck scrubber in a steamer carrying arms and ammunition to Indochina. Around 1950, C. R. Mandy, editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, had started encouraging and publishing Indian English poetry. Budding poets like B. Rajan, Nissim Ezekiel, P. Lal, Srinivas Rayaprol, Kersey Katrak, Dom Moraes, R. Bartholomew, and Kamala Das found a platform to publish their early works. It also helped in creating a readership and a taste for Indian English poetry. Ezekiel's stay in London exposed him to theatre and visual arts though his preoccupation with poetry continued. He writes in Background Casually: ,,Philosophy, / Poverty and Poetry, three / Companions shared my basement room.(CP179). This period of three and half years shaped Ezekiels view of India and home. He returned to India in 1952 and his first volume of poems, A Time to Change, was published by Fortune Press, London the same year. He also married Daisy Jacob this year. In the succeeding year, his second book of poems, Sixty Poems was published. On his return he took on as editor of journals and newspapers and giving talks on radio. C. R. Mandy hired him as an Assistant Editor of its poetry page and his mandate was to advise the emerging poets. He edited Quest from August 1955 to July 1957 and continued his association with it as literary advisor, Imprint from 1961 to 2
1970 which he co-founded, Poetry India from January 1966 to June 1967. He edited the poetry page of The Illustrated Weekly of India from 1969 to 1973, and The Indian PEN from June 1973 onwards. In addition to this he was regular on talk shows of All India Radio giving talks on art and culture. He was also art critic of The Times of India from 1964 to 1966. His third volume of poetry, The Third, was published in 1958. Professionally he worked as professor of English in Mithibai College, Mumbai and as visiting professor to many Indian and foreign universities such as Leeds University and Chicago. This phase of his life and his preoccupation with the editing and commenting on the current poetry is important not just for his poetic career but also for the general poetry scene in the country because with this assignments in his hand he had the authority and the power to influence the contemporary poets and poetry. This explains Ezekiel's tremendous influence on the Indian English poetry after independence. Due to his role as editor, Ezekiel formed the taste of poets and readers. Another significant development was recognition of English as one of the national languages by Sahitya Akademi, Indias apex body of literature. Its official journal Indian Literature started including Indian English poetry in its publication. This step opened up additional resources also as now Indian English poets became eligible for grants and awards from Akademi. In the meantime, Ezekiel's fourth volume of poetry, The Unfinished Man, was published in 1960. Ezekiel's second and third volumes of poetry were published privately. That shows that there was a dearth of publishers for even established poets like Ezekiel who had a considerable clout by that time. Lack of publishers and visibility always affects the quality of literature in the sense that there is no positive impetus for the poets and writers to write. Seeing ones poem in a book or journal is in itself a boost for the poets. Moreover, adequate 3
publishing opportunity helps in creating a quality environment for poetry. When there is publication, poets read each other, judge each other and thus gradually a process of canonization starts. Standards get established and role models are available to emulate. Better publication opportunity and spread and circulation are integral to an environment conducive for poetry. The poets were aware about the lack of publishers and consequently realised the need for a publication house. P. Lal started Writers Workshop in Calcutta along with a group of writers and poets. It started publishing books in 1959. Most of the early volumes published by Writers Workshop were of writers close to P. Lal and were from Calcutta. Though Ezekiel was given a place of prominence in Writers Workshop and his fourth volume of poetry, The Unfinished Man, was published by Writers Workshop in 1960. The foundation of Writers Workshop was a huge initiative for Indian English poetry and for a decade or so since its inception Writers Workshop published some of the finest Indian English poetry. P. Lal thus contributed immensely to the development of Indian English poetry during the late fifties and sixties. This period also saw the beginning of the anthologies. In 1958 A. V. Rajeswara Rau edited Modern Indian Poetry which had most poems translated from other Indian languages but it also included Dom Moraes, P. Lal, K. Raghavendra Rao and Rayaprol. In 1959 P. Lal and K. Raghavendra Rao edited another anthology, Modern Anglo-Indian poetry. This collection of poems also had a manifesto for the poets. Pritish Nandy says about the manifesto: It was this declaration of warthat set the mood for the conflict with the mentors and the critics. It was an interstring document, hortatory, too smartby-half, aggressive, and full of illogic. But it raised some moot points and was, in a sense, the starting point for the poetry of the sixties. (11) 4
The ,,principles of language, method and intentions to be adhered to by the poets were as follow: 1. Language should be vital. It should reflect the current speech patterns. So it should not be completely cut off from the living language. As P. Lal has asserted that the idiom may be modern or ancient but it should not be ,,a total travesty of the current pattern of speech (12). The manifesto says that expressions like ,,the sunlight sweet (12), ,,deep booming voice (12), and ,,fragrant flowers upon the distant lea (12) are ridiculous. 2. Poetry should deal in concrete terms with conrete experience. ,,That expereince may be intelllectual or emotional or historical-tragical-pastoral-comical, but it must be precise, and lucidly and tangibly expressed (12). 3. Poetry must be free from propaganda. The poet must be honest and faithful to poetry and ,,shall not write odes in honour of the army chief or sonnets to the Prime Minister. Nor shall we receive Akademi prizes (12). 4. The fourth principle encourages discipline and expermentation and warns againstexcessive obscurity and eccentricity for the sake of eccenricity. 5. The fifth one condemns imitation. 6. The manifesto proclaims that the phase of romanticism ended with Sarojini Naidu and recommends realistic poetry. ,,Now, waking up, we must more and more aim at a realistic poetry reflecting poetically and pleasingly the din and hubbub, the confusion and indecission, the flashes of beauty and goodness of our age, and leave he fireflies to dance through the neem (13). 7. The manifesto pleads the benevolent philanthropes to be generous so that poets can pursue their vocation full time and dont have to write advertisement jingles in praise of toothpaste or soaps. 5
8. The last prescription is to emphasise the need for the private voice and recommends the lyric form because it ,,makes direct appeal to that personality of man which is distinct, curious, unique and idealistic (13). Poetry must apppeal to this distinct personality and must not resort to cater to the mass approval and hysteria. The ambitious manifesto declared with much enthusiasm speaks for the trend one was to expect during the next decade or so. However, Writers Workshop lost its idealism and after a decade or so of quality publication started publishing anything and everything. Though its contribution cannot be undermined because it provided valuable publishing opportunities for poets some of whom later became big names of Indian English poetry. Writers Workshop filled a lacuna in Indian English poetry by providing publication support for quite a long time till other professional publishers started taking Indian English poetry seriously. It was during early sixties that Indian English poetry started getting attention in the west and started appearing in the anthologies and journals. Dom Moraes appears in Penguin Modern Poetry and Margaret ODonnells anthology, Anthology of Commonwealth Verse, the first of the several western anthologies in which the new Indian poets appear, included Ezekiel, Kamala Das, Lal, and others. This was the beginning of acceptance of Indian English poetry in the international poetry scene. Many new journals also start appearing in the sphere of Indian English poetry. These include the Literary Half Yearly, the Imprint, The Century, Dionysus, a stencilled magazine, Damn You: A Magazine of the Arts, etc. Indian English poets also start appearing in many American journals and magazines. In 1964, K. R. S. Iyengars critical work Indian Writing in English was published by Asia Publishing House, Bombay. 6
Sixties was a happening decade for Indian English poetry. Many first volumes of now famous poets appeared during the decade. Dom Moraes John Nobody appeared in 1965. Also Ezekiel's fifth volume of poetry, The Exact Name, was published by Writers Workshop. Kamala Das first volume of poetry, Summer in Calcutta was also published in 1965, and her second book, The Descendants, appeared in the same year. A.K. Ramanujans The Striders was published in 1966; Gieve Patels, Poems appeared in the same year. The Exact Name was reviewed in The Literary Criterion, (Winter 1966) and in The Indian PEN (May 1966). One finds a visible vibrancy in Indian English poetry with poets regularly publishing in one anothers journals and in International Journals and anthologies. The field has expanded now. Anyone can now count quite a number of important poets publishing regularly apart from the non-serious poets and occasional versifiers. The significant names include Ezekiel, Ramanujan, Kamala Das, P. Lal, Parthasarathy, Mehrotra, Chitre, Kolatkar, Nandy, Gieve Patel, Jussawalla, Keki Daruwalla, Katrak, Peeradina, Eunice de Souza, Gauri Deshpande, Rayaprol, Shiv K Kumar, Mahapatra, etc. For Ezekiel the decade was important. He was now an established poet and had a place of importance in the field of Indian English poetry. He had two tenures as visiting professors during sixties: at Leeds university in 1964 and Chicago university in 1967. It was during his trip to America in 1967 that he experienced LSD. Though he stopped taking it after 1972, the experience had a lasting effect on him and changed him substantially. He dropped his atheism after the LSD experience and the rational Ezekiel had a jolting experience. Another important development was poets writing prefaces or forwards to each others works and reviewing their poetry. Ezekiel and Parthasarathy praised Ramanujan as the best poet among the contemporary poets writing in English. 7
Another important development by the second half of the sixth decade was growing interest in and recognition of commonwealth literature in general including Indian writing in English among the international literary and academic circles. In addition to anthologies, there were organizations, conferences and university courses on commonwealth literatures. There was increase in the places of publication for and awareness about Indian poets. P.L. Brent edited Young Commonwealth Poets in 1965. Howard Seargent edited Commonwealth Poets of Today in 1967 and New Voices of the Commonwealth (1968) and Pergamon Poets 9: Poetry from India (1970). Daisy Alden edited Poems from India (1969) there was a special issue on Indian literature of Books Abroad (1969). By the early seventies, commercial publishers start showing interest in Indian English poetry. Kamala Das The Old Play house and Other Poems was published by Orient Longman in 1973. Oxford published The Poetry of Pritish Nandy in 1973. Tata McGraw Hill published Shiv Kumars Cobwebs in the Sunin 1974. Oxford and IBH published anthology Indian Poetry in English in 1972 which was edited by Pritish Nandy and Sterling Publications published Indian Poetry in English Today in 1973. Another anthology, edited by Gauri Deshpande ,An Anthology of Indo-English Poetry was published by Hind Pocketbooks in 1974. One more significant anthology was Adil Jussawalla's New Writing in India which was published by Penguin, 1974. Ezekiel had become a presiding deity in the field of Indian English poetry and intellectual-cultural sphere during the sixties and seventies. He was writing Book Reviews, prefaces, editorials, essays, and columns in newspapers and journals. He was an essential inclusion in all the poetry anthologies and journals. His poems were now a part of university and school curriculum. He was giving lectures and talks, attending seminars and conferences in India and abroad. Between the years of 1968 to 1996, 8
Ezekiel gave as many as 29 interviews, which were got published in various books, journals, and newspapers. He was the mentor of Indian English poetry now. The budding poets looked up to him for guidance and approval. Every significant poet of the time gravitated towards him. By mid seventies, Indian writing in English started getting critical attention also. Arnold-Heinemann (India) published Indian Writers Series in which critical monographs on such poets like Ezekiel, Kamala Das, and Nandy were published under the general editorship of C. D. Narasimhaiah. The Journal of South Asian Literature published a special issue on Ezekiel in 1976. In the same year, Oxford Poetry in India Series was started in which Ezekiel, Parthasarathy, Daruwalla, Shiv Kumar and Ramanujan were published. In seventies the third generation of poets appear which include Melanie Silgardo, Manohar Shetty, Dhiren Bhagat, Darius Cooper, Rajiv Rao, Rafique Baghadadi, and Aroop Mitra, Santan Roderigues etc. Most of these poets were students of Ezekiel at university and mentored by Ezekiel. In 1976, Ezekiel's Hymns in Darkness was published by Oxford University Press. By the end of the seventies and early eighties there is an increasing number of poetry and other literary journals, e.g., The Book Review, The Indian Book Chronicle, Commonwealth Quarterly, Poetry, Spark, Art and poetry today, Lyric, Cygnus, Ekestasis, Orbit, Tenor, Mahapatra's Chandrabhaga, Ezekiel's New Quest and Suresh Kohlis The Indian Literary Review. R. Parthasarathy edited an anthology titled Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets, which also included Kamala Das, Mehrotra, Kolatkar, Patel, and Mahapatra. The earlier anthology by V. K. Gokak, The Golden Treasury of Indo-Anglian Poetry, published in 1970, was less careful in selection. Saleem Peeradinas Contemporary Indian English Poetry, published in 1970 was a 9
better anthology. Parthasarathys anthology was a beginning in establishing canons of Indian English poetry. Canonization is a process of formation of taste. It is a gradual process in which the poets and writers write in a certain way which is judged by critics and passed on to general public. In this chain of creation and response, an important link is publication. Poets are usually familiar with each others work through manuscripts and through published work in literary journals. But it reaches larger audience when it is published in book form either as individual volumes or in the form of anthologies. So publishers and editors play a significant role in establishing canons. In the case of Indian English poetry, commercial publishers started taking interest in publishing Indian English poetry in the seventies. Earlier most poets published their own volumes which had very limited circulation. Other important factors in establishing canons and gaining recognition are critical reviews, poetry prizes, republication in anthologies and course books. Equally important is recognition abroad in the form of publication by foreign publishers. Bruce King observes: Oxford University Press, England, originally published Ramajunans two books of poems and Mahapatras work began to be more visible after the University of Georgia Press brought out his Rain of Rites, while the London Magazine edition of G. S. Sharat Chandras April in Nanjangud contributed to a feeling that he was being neglected in Indian anthologies. (61) Three anthologies have been significantly influential and have contributed immensely in establishing standards in Indian English poetry and in according recognition. Peeradinas anthology, Contemporary Indian English Poetry: An Assessment and Selection (1972) originally published as 74th issue of Quest, included Ramanujan, Ezekiel, P. Lal, Mehrotra, Jussawalla, Katrak, Kolatkar, Patel, Parthasarathy, Daruwalla, Kamala Das, Mamta Kalia, and Gauri Deshpande, and Peeradina. There is 10
a brief critical prefatory introduction before each poet. Though P. Lal is included in the anthology, introduction to his work is highly critical. Another important anthology that helped in establishing reputation was Jussawallas New Writing in India (1974) published by Penguin. As the anthology was not exclusively for Indian English poetry, he could not devote much space to Indian English poetry. He apologized for certain omissions and omitted those who were already known abroad like Ramanujan and Moraes. The poets included in this anthology are Patel, Mehrotra, Kamala Das, Kolatkar, Dilip Chitre and L. P. Bantleman. The last two poets were not in Peeradinas anthology. The most influential anthology has been Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets edited by R. Parthasarathy. It was published by OUP. The book has sold well and has run into several reprints also. The expected inclusions were Ramanujan, Ezekiel, Patel, Kolatkar, Mehrotra, Daruwalla, Kamala Das, and Parthasarathy. The two poets who were not in Peeradinas anthology and Jussawallas anthology but found a place in Parthasarathys anthology were Mahapatra and Shiv Kumar. Keki Daruwallas anthology, Two Decades of Indian Poetry: 1960-1980, is a significant milestone in the process of canonization. The poets included in this anthology are Ramanujan, Ezekiel, Kamala Das, Shiv Kumar, Mahapatra, Daruwalla, Patel, Kolatkar, Mehrotra, Jussawalla, Sharat Chandra, Katrak, Deshpande, Peeradina, Eunice de Souza, DilipChitre and DebaPatnaik. In addition to these seventeen poets, Parthasarathy was to be included but he did not reply to letters from the editor. Ezekiel's last volume of poetry, Letter-Day Psalms, was published in 1982. This was followed by his Collected Poems 1952-1988, in 1989. He won Sahitya Akademi award in 1983. He was conferred Padma Shri in 1988, Indias national civilian award by the government of India. It appears that Ezekiel's most creative phase had ended. He started feeling left out in the post modernist movement that was 11
spreading over literary scene in India. His biographer Raj Rao says, ,,Postmodernism came with its own baggage, with a different set of imperatives as it were, and Nissims aesthetics were clearly unequipped to deal with this. (314) Ezekiel was declared a patient of Alzheimer in 1998 but the disease must have started showing its effects on him in the early nineties. Ezekiel did not publish any volume of poetry after his Collected Poems which appeared in 1988. The muse of poetry was more or less silent in him for the last decade or so of his life. But before he became silent, Ezekiel had lived a full and creatively satisfactory life. He was instrumental in shaping the course of Indian English poetry and had successfully established Indian English poetry as a serious and significant tributary of Indian literature. It is in the backdrop of this exordium that a humble attempt to evaluate Ezekiel is intended. His achievements are concurrent with the achievements of the Indian English poetry. However, Ezekiel was very clear about the achievements of Indian English poetry in general because in an interview with Suresh Kohli, he emphatically said that, ,,There are no major poets in post-independent India writing in English or in any of the Indian languages. (7) Ezekiel was a mentor for most of the post-independence Indian English poets but when Suresh Kohli remarked that ,,almost all the so-called major poets have passed through your hands(7), he replied with his characteristic humility that it is not fair to the poets ,,to say that they have "passed through" my hands (7). REFERENCE Ezekiel, Nissim. Collected Poems: 1952-1988. New Delhi: OUP, 1992. _____ . Selected Prose. New Delhi: OUP, 1992. King, Bruce. Modern Indian Poetry in English: Revised Edition. New Delhi: OUP, 2001. 12
Kohli, Suresh. A search for limits, An Interview with Nissim Ezekiel. Mahfil, Vol. 8, No. 4, ENGLISH POETRY FROM INDIA (Winter 1972), pp. 7-10. Lal, P. and K. Raghavendra, ed. Modern Anglo-Indian poetry.Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1959. Nandy, Pritish, ed. Indian Poetry in English Today. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1981. Rao, R. Raj. Nissim Ezekiel: The Authorized Biography. New Delhi: Viking-Penguin, 2000. Raphael Meyer about the Indian Jewish experience. Ezekiel Isaac Malekar writes about Indian Jewish experience. 13
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