Poetry in India: Its Heritage and New Directions



PLAYS in India often seem to Westerners like pretty long-winded affairs. Well, as a matter of fact, they are. What many Westerners really can’t quite grasp, though, is that Indians like them that way — the longer the better. They want their money’s worth. If one of the characters on the stage interrupts the action of the drama for half an hour to deliver a recitative on a theme only problematically related to the action of the play, bravo! that is very fine. Brilliant improvisations are what excite an Indian audience most, and everybody goes home delighted with the night’s entertainment.

And when I say a night’s entertainment, I speak advisedly. In India the curtain goes up at ten o’clock in the evening and may not come down until eight hours later, if then. I remember one performance in which the great Indian baritone, Subbiah Bhagavathar, was appearing with an excellent supporting cast. Early in the piece he and the heroine of the drama (which was mostly sung) fell into an argument in impromptu verse. With tremendous virtuosity and brilliance the pair debated back and forth, composing as they went. New melodies were introduced with the orchestra cleverly accompanying. At last, when it was almost live o’clock in the morning, the frail woman was worn out, and she knelt before the gifted baritone and begged his forgiveness in a charming extempore song. The applause was more enthusiastic than it would have been if the billed play had been performed.

This incident illustrates an aspect of Indian poetry which should, I think, be emphasized above all others—namely, its folk quality. I don’t mean to say that Indian poetry is exclusively folk poetry, for by that term Westerners usually mean a kind of homely verse, mostly of unknown origin, which is handed along in a purely oral tradition from one generation to another. Indians have a pure folk literature too, of course — poems and tales that derive from the old epics and the shadowy consciousness of the past. But I am concerned here with India’s written, formal poetry, the works of her conscious artists. And the point I want to make is that, even during the periods when the art of writing has been governed by exceedingly formal, sometimes artificial concepts, there has been a high degree of popular participation in the art, even in the rural villages.

It has been said sometimes that Indians turn to poetry because they lack other popular forms of entertainment. This cannot possibly be true since India has the second largest cinema industry in the world, and besides, her festivals, her pageantry, her village folk dancing are second to those of no other country. I am sure the real reason is to be found simply in the Indian’s love of language. He is brought up in a country where he hears a dozen major languages and scores of dialects. He appreciates differences and similarities among them, and he is particularly sensitive to the good qualities and fine points of his own language. Then too, India has an extraordinary tradition of oral teaching. Many who cannot read will know thousands of lines of verse by heart, so much has the faculty of memory been developed through the generations. An Indian singer may have a repertory of hundreds of long and complicated songs stored in his head.

The Indian’s love of words is shown especially in his appreciation of extempore poetry. He believes that his poets should be able to compose on the spot, whenever an occasion arises, and in fact some of India’s poets, for example in the South country, are remembered just for this ability. Tirupati and Venkata, two of the most popular poets in the Telugu country before World War I, went from village to village and court to court giving impromptu performances which were greatly relished by their audiences.

Similarly, the institution of the mushaira, or gathering of poets, is one ot India’s liveliest expressions of love for poetry. A mushaira is a meeting of poets and listeners, perhaps in a hall or theatre but often in the open. One by one the poets rise to recite their newest verses. The audience applauds wildly if the verse is good, if there is a touch of wit or real beauty in the language, and the poet will be asked to repeat his best lines several times. The mushaira is primarily a North Indian custom — in the time before the British conquest mushairas were held at the Mogul emperor’s court and poets were limited to the ghazal, a verse form of Persian origin which used couplets in a very strict metrical scheme — but it also flourishes nowadays in other parts of India and the poets may read or recite their new work, whatever its form or language may be.

The poets of India have continued much longer than in most Western nations to be bards, men skilled in language who have made their living by traveling and presenting their wares directly to their audiences. Any analogy between East and West is open to a hundred confusions and misinterpretations, but I don’t think it is too much to say that something like the spirit of the troubadours has persisted in India almost to the present day.


THE modern period in Indian poetry, which may be said to have begun about one hundred years ago, witnessed first a phase of extreme Westernization, then one of slow recovery from it. The English language and its literature were introduced to India largely through the missionary schools. By 1850 many Indian poets were writing in English; others who wrote in their own languages were imitating English subjects and forms. Many translations of English poems into the vernacular languages appeared — Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village” and Gray’s “Elegy” and odes and lyrics from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. Vernacular poetry did not get the attention it deserved.

It must be said flatly that much of the English verse written by Indians during this period was very bad. Which is no more than one would expect. To most Indians, English was — and still is, even though it is widely used among educated people — a text-book language, learned with considerable pains. Consequently, English verse by the Indian poets of the nineteenth century was often awkward, artificial, or downright ungrammatical. Furthermore, the excesses of Victorian poetry in England awoke in Indian readers a very strong native feeling for the extravagant and the unreal. Enable to distinguish between the basically sound and the merely pretty in English verse, Indians imported a great fund of vague, sentimental, and facile Romanticism, which corresponded very closely with the old rose-and-nightingale tradition of the Lucknow and Delhi court poets. Indian poetry became sickeningly full of feet like lotuses, faces like the full moon, and chakora birds drinking in the moonlight.

But by 1890 Indian poetry had entered a new phase. More and more Indian poets gave up writing in English and turned back to their own languages. They were still inclined to write in the English manner and to use English themes. Even the unsuitable English forms were carried over; sonnets and blank-verse meditations were written in Urdu and Bengali. But because they were dealing with their own languages, the poets wrote better verse, and gradually they reverted to native subjects and traditions for their material. Love of the Indian landscape pervaded all the vernacular writing, and as the nationalist movement gained momentum, some Indian poets even began to incorporate political and social ideas in their work.

After World War I, a new influence on Indian poetry came from the West. The French symbolists, Wilfred Owen, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, were studied and imitated. Many very good translations were published, and Indian poets applied to their own languages the devices of association, symbol, and irregular meter which they learned from the new poets of the West.

But although, under this new influence, Indian poetry tended to become more complex and perhaps more “literary” in form, the poets did not make the mistake of abandoning their own languages or their own subjects. Those poets who maintained the best standards in their work and did not deviate from the high seriousness that is required of all real poets, achieved great popularity among the Indian people. There is not space here to mention many names; but such poets as Mohammed Iqbal and Rabindranath Tagore have acquired audiences far beyond their own languages and even beyond India. Iqbal, a Muslim, has been acclaimed a national hero in Pakistan.

Now that Indian independence has at last been accomplished, poets are turning with ever greater enthusiasm to the native and colorful life of India. There is every indication that India has a growing national literature which may equal any of the glorious periods of Indian art in the past.