Arundhathi Subramaniam – “I am aware now of how to turn rage into celebration” - Hindustan Times
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Arundhathi Subramaniam – “I am aware now of how to turn rage into celebration”

Jun 19, 2024 07:01 PM IST

The author of 11 books of poetry and prose talks about her latest work, Wild Women: Seekers, Protagonists and Goddesses in Sacred Indian Poetry and about winning the Mahakavi Kanhaiyalal Sethia Poetry Award

The introduction to your new book Wild Women left me gobsmacked: “A poem is a pellet of verbal energy. It is language compressed under conditions of such heat and pressure that its chemistry is altered. It can singe. It can detonate. It can combust.” What did it take to come to this realization and find the language to express it?

Poet Arundhathi Subramaniam (Penguin Random House India)
Poet Arundhathi Subramaniam (Penguin Random House India)

 Spending a long time around language has definitely helped. My long years of poetic apprenticeship in my twenties were primarily about discovering language as a chemical. I learnt how its behaviour changes when you apply heat, pressure, shift its domain, or simply allow it to cook in its own juices. But later, as a spiritual path unfolded, I also spent time with silence. And I guess that helped me understand something more about poetry as the distillation of sound and pause. That also turned me into a better listener. And that is essentially how I view myself. But that doesn’t make too much sense on a bio, so one resorts to more pragmatic epithets like poet and writer instead!

What makes the wilderness an attractive space, literally and metaphorically, for the seeker and the poet in you?

 I’ve been always haunted by the notion of home. That preoccupation haunts all art, of course. But my haunting became something more than mild creative discontent. I recognized it as a kind of existential fever. Nothing original about that either. Seekers everywhere have been fuelled by it. But when it seizes you, it can feel distinctly uncomfortable. It can even derail your life. 

Any journey of self-reclamation involves a period of what feels like exile – a time when nothing seems to make sense, when everything falls apart. Gradually, you begin to see exile as part of the journey of homecoming. You begin to realise that what feels like the dangerous summons of the wild is actually the tug of your own heart. All those cliches start making sense: you were so close to home and never knew it. But it takes time to see it that way.  

You write, “I have long been uncomfortable with the assumptions of gender neutrality on spiritual journeys.” Where have you encountered these assumptions? Why do they exist?

They exist across several traditions, I believe. And not without reason. The destination is presumably the same for all. But the journey varies. And how could it not in a world where genders are socialised so very differently? The idea of “surrender”, in particular, which is enjoined by so many traditions, can be problematic, especially for women, who are often being asked to surrender a self they have never been encouraged to value. It took me time to see bhakti not as submission, but as an act of self-retrieval, a fierce commitment to an inner quest. This explosive radical potential was always there. But it has been defanged and prettified into ornamental yearning. Not surprising, I guess, because the spiritual appetite can be disruptive and socially inconvenient. 

492pp, ₹799; Penguin
492pp, ₹799; Penguin

The book grew out of a festival of music and poetry that you curated for the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai. Could you tell us a bit about the festival, and how it led to the book?

As I worked on my previous anthology of Bhakti poetry, Eating God (2016), I found my curiosity piqued by women’s voices in Indian sacred poetry. My fascination with the notion of the goddess, or the Sacred Feminine, was also deepening.  So the seeds for this anthology were being sown on many levels. And then came the idea to create this music and women’s sacred poetry festival. 

My stalwart friend at the NCPA, Suvarna Rao, was, as always, gracious and gave me full freedom to design it the way I desired. That’s when I found a structure suggesting itself with a certain happy inevitability. I realised that while women mystics had to be centre-stage, there were other interesting voices that demanded inclusion: male mystics who adopted the female voice, for instance (like Annamacharya, Nammalvar, Shah Abdul Latif, among so many others); as well as the voices of goddess poets. And so, I grew interested not just in canonical texts like the Saundarya Lahari and Devi Mahatmyam that many of us are somewhat aware of, but poems around tribal goddesses and contemporary feminist poems on Kali, among others. 

A performance is experiential. The best poems are as well. And as a writer and curator, I think that has always been my primary aim: how does one make a journey of understanding experiential rather than merely cerebral? How does one make the intangible tangible? I wanted to somehow smuggle the crackle and aliveness of the festival – from the performance (by Sanjukta Wagh and Shruthi Vishwanath) on the Marathi woman mystic, Muktabai to the joyous celebration of folk goddess Yellamma (by musician Shilpa Mudbi) – onto the printed page. It’s hard, of course. The printed word can never quite carry the voltage of performance. But I wanted some of that imprint on these pages.

What was the thought process behind the three sections that the book is split into?

 The first section is the dominant section of the book. But there is such interesting poetry by male poets who speak of, and sometimes as female protagonists. The female voice seems to allow male poets a certain sensuality, playfulness, a joyous in-betweenness. And that timbre is what makes our sacred poetry so rich. It allows us to step out of rigid identities, whether of gender, caste or creed, and step into blurry places where definitions begin to melt away. Also, while many women mystics address a male god, it was interesting to see what happens to poetry when a female divinity is addressed. Here the woman is not seeker, but sought. That’s how the goddess poems came into the picture. And hence the three sections. Each section introduces us to wild women of a different kind, each compelling, I believe, in her own way.

Coming to your own poetry, you received the Mahakavi Kanhaiyalal Sethia Poetry Award at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival. How did that feel?

 An award in memory of a significant Indian poet matters a great deal. I’m articularly honoured that it is an award in memory of a poet who wrote in Hindi. Language politics being what they are, the literary world is often divided into small linguistic cubby-holes. In my years as the editor of the India domain of the Poetry International Web, I tried, in my own way, to address that kind of insularity by exploring the work of poets in diverse Indian languages. I’m happy that the domain grew into a small and important archive of modern Indian poetry in its own right, presenting around 114 poets and 19 languages.

Language politics may vex politicians, but poets have always had the ability to recognize each other as members of the same tribe. And so, awards in the memory of poets anywhere have always been precious. Receiving an award in memory of the Italian poet, Piero Bigongiari, was important to me. Being shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize was also memorable and personally significant. But because this land and its cultural and spiritual inheritance has been so formative, so deeply defining, this award is meaningful in a very singular way.

Looking back at the body of work that you have produced as a poet, how do you assess your own evolution in terms of content and form?

 I think some of the older preoccupations remain – places, relationships, cultural politics, gender, love, death, the sacred. But how I write about them has changed. I’ve often said that my poems breathe differently today, because I breathe differently too. That makes for more blank spaces on a page. The way I approach line lengths is also probably more aligned to breath and tone than before. Consequently, the poems smell different too, I think.

An academic from Chandigarh asked me recently whether the rage of my earlier work had given way to more “spiritual” preoccupations. I said, not in the least. The rage is very much there! But perhaps I am more aware now of how to turn my rage into celebration. This interests me more today: how to alchemize a rant into an anthem. 

The crucial thing is never to lose intensity. A lukewarm poem is a contradiction in terms. A poem can be meditative and intensely alive at the same time. This combination interests me increasingly, too.

Who are some of the peers and mentors that you have leaned on while developing your poetic voice and craft? 

Nissim Ezekiel was undeniably a mentor. He offered the kind of unsentimental sanctuary that I valued immensely. Later, I grew to value the friendship of others, from Gieve Patel and Adil Jussawalla to Imtiaz Dharker and Keki Daruwalla. My peers include all my contemporaries at the Poetry Circle, which was an important crucible for me in my twenties. Long-lasting friendships were forged here. Knowing that contemporaries like Ranjit Hoskote and Jerry Pinto are busy somewhere, thinking long and hard about language in their writing, whether prose or poetry, makes me feel less alone even today. 

Later, when my life changed direction, however, I found a somewhat different satsangh. I mean the Bhakti poets, whom I had always known, but never really heard. I told Krishna Ramanujan (son of AK Ramanujan), recently that his father’s translations of Nammalvar rescued me at a certain time in my life. That is the power of poetry. You find your mentors in the unlikeliest places, often long dead and gone. The mystic poets in the Bhakti, Zen and Sufi traditions have been the precursors I was thirsting for, without quite knowing it. When I rediscovered them, they felt like the elders of the tribe I’d always been looking for. They felt like family.

You name singer Bombay Jayashri, author Lata Mani and painter Arpana Caur in the acknowledgements section of Wild Women. How have they enriched your life and work?

 I have always been nourished by other artists, and my women artist friends are special to me. Alarmel Valli, the bharata natyam dancer, is someone I hold very dear, and we have collaborated more than once. Her combination of talent, integrity and humility is exceptional. Bombay Jayashri is another a special mix of musical brilliance and soul. Valli, Jayashri and I met around the time I began this anthology. I talked to them about some of these crazy, feisty women I was beginning to discover, and we grew excited about the idea of a joint performance that integrated poetry, dance and music. Much has happened in our lives since. But that promise still hovers somewhere out there in the ether, waiting to be fulfilled. 

Arpana Caur is a painter with a remarkable ability to distill complex concepts into images that are intensely spare and archetypal. I’ve used one of these compelling images for my book, Women Who Wear Only Themselves, because it seemed tailormade for it. I also own a couple of yogini sketches that she very generously gifted me. 

And finally, Lata Mani remains an important presence in my life. Our conversations began in earnest around 15 years ago, and have deepened since. The quiet grace with which she walks her path as a contemplative and writer remains a source of consolation and inspiration.

Your earliest poetry collections were published by independent publishers. Your recent books are with big publishing houses. What insights have you gathered about the economics of poetry publishing?

 My first two books were published by Allied Publishers. It was truly an act of compassion on their part, because they are essentially textbook publishers, and poetry was never going to bring in the shekels. My poet-friend, Prabhanjan Mishra, recommended my work to them, and they trusted him enough to agree. 

Later, after a festival reading that I did in the UK (on a tour organized by the Poetry Society in 2006), Neil Astley, the editor of Bloodaxe Books, came up to me and offered to publish my new book. I remember being incredulous, because I knew Bloodaxe as one of the finest international poetry publishers. The fact that it happened organically, without any hustling, helped me trust the journey. 

And that’s how it’s been for the work in India, too. The advantage of a mainstream publisher, like Penguin or HarperCollins, in terms of distribution and general professionalism, is undeniable. At the same time, a sensitive and astute editorial gaze remains very important to me. I have followed editors across publishing houses simply because I trust them. Ravi Singh has been a wonderful publisher of my prose, from my biography of Sadhguru (when Ravi Singh was Head of Penguin) to my recent book, Women Who Wear Only Themselves (Speaking Tiger). VK Karthika has been a pleasure to work with on my poetry collections, which is why I moved with her from HarperCollins to Westland Amazon. Rahul Soni is a treasure in poetry publishing too, though we’ve never worked on a book together. 

After decades of being based in India, you now live between the United States and India. How is this transition showing up in your writing?

 I have no idea yet. So far, my time in New York is my quiet time. It’s my time to write, read, walk, think. It’s my writing retreat, as it were. And of course, how can one complain about the cultural life in New York? It’s intense, heady, cosmopolitan; the range of possibilities on offer is amazing. But having moved to the US at a much later stage in my life, I’m very aware that my spiritual and cultural moorings remain deeply Indian. 

How do you place yourself in the tug of war between the religious and the secular without getting stuck in either label?

The spiritual journey is an inner journey, not an outer one. It is the journey of the seeker, not the sentry. Since my interest is not in sentries, my focus is resolutely elsewhere. I’ve always been interested in those who want personal answers to existential questions, not those who settle for second-hand scriptural pieties or political slogans. The women in this anthology excite me because I see them as those who aspire to become conduits of the sacred, not custodians of it.

At the same time, we live in a land with such incredibly diverse living wisdom traditions. Without standardizing that diversity, without belittling any other culture, I think pride in this unique spiritual ethos is valid. But how do you reclaim spine, without resorting to chest-thumping or grovelling? This is the challenge before us. Personally, I believe our sacred poetry offers us many inspirational pointers on a possible way ahead.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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