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Sunday, 24 April 2011





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The elegy and its many faces

Part 4

In the last three columns I discussed the nature of the elegy in Western cultures, some memorable English elegies and the growth of the tradition of elegy-making in the Anglo-American tradition of poetry.

Today I wish to focus attention on classical India - the aim of this chain of columns on the elegy is to index its many faces in diverse cultures. My discussion of Indian elegies is based purely on my reading and my preferences; others, I am sure, could focus on a different set of illustrative texts.

In discussing elegies in classical Indian literary traditions I wish to focus on the Sanskrit as well as the ancient Tamil tradition of poetry both of which, in their diverse ways, displayed a commanding richness and vibrancy.

In discussing the Sanskrit tradition, I wish to foreground the Mahabharata; in discussing classical Tamil literature I wish to call attention to the importance of poetry written during the Sangam period, notably, the ‘Purananaru’.

Let us begin with the Mahabharata; It is one of the two most important and consequential epics that have shaped Indian culture over the centuries, the other being the Ramayana. The Mahabharata is regarded as either the longest or the second longest epic in the world, depending on whom you speak to.

That it is one of the longest epics in the world was never in dispute. This epic consists of 74,000 verses and long prose passages. Eighteen books go to form this massive epic, and the total word count exceeds 1,8 million.

The family feud and the wars that ensue serve to illuminate the cherished Indian cultural values by which one should live. Hence the focus on purpose (artha), pleasure (kama), duty (dharma) and liberation (moksha).

The term Mahabharata can be loosely translated as the great narrative of the Bharata dynasty. Vyasa is generally considered to be the author of this work although some scholars maintain that it was more likely a product of collective authorship.

The epic touches on Hindu mythology, the world of gods and goddesses, philosophy and morality. It has exerted a profound influence on the growth of Indian arts and letters including cinema and television.

My focus of interest is not on the entire epic but its eleventh book. The Mahabharata consists of eighteen books (parvas), and the eleventh is called the women’s book of lament. It seems to me that in discussing the nature and significance of Sanskrit elegies these laments demand our sustained attention.

The basic situation is as follows. This book deals with the laments of the wives of the Kurus and Pandavas over the slain kith and kin. The aged monarch Dhritarashtra was overwhelmed with sorrow at the demolition of his sons. Sanjay admonished the king that grieving was futile and that the funeral rites be performed.

Dhritarashtra blames himself believing that it is his past misdeeds that have caught up with him. Vidura too sought to console the king by pointing out that death was inescapable and when the specified time arrives no one can challenge it. He also makes the point that there is no better pathway to heaven for a Kshtriya (warrior) than to die in battle.

Sanjay was insistent that the funeral rites of his sons and grandsons be performed without delay. Gandhari, and all the Bharata ladies along with Kunti were to accompany him to the stilled battlefield. A deafening wail emerged form every house in the city. Thousands of women .wailing and weeping, and lamenting the loss of life, accompanied them.

As Dhritarashtra proceeded about two miles, he was met by Aswatthaman, Kripa and Kritavarman; they were weak and dejected and told that they were the only survivors and everyone else in the Kuru army had perished. Gandhari was informed of the bravery of his fallen sons. they had indeed died a real Kshatriya death.

Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata and also a character in the narrative, granted spiritual vision to Gandhari with the result that she could observe the battlefield for several miles. There she could see her widowed daughters-in-law anxiously looking for the dead bodies of their husbands and sons.

As she witnessed Duryodhana and others stretched in the battlefield, she could not help lamenting. She began to accuse Krishna of causing the calamity and mot preventing the slaughter. the bodies of the killed princes were burnt on pyres with appropriate honours.; recitation of the Vedas and the wailings of the women accompanied the ritual.

This is the context in which the women lament for their loved ones, and these utterances take the form of powerful elegies.

These are some of the earliest elegies in classical Indian literature and they clearly demonstrate the deep cultural roots from which they grew. There are a number of features that distinguish the elegies contained in the Sthri Parva of the Mahabharata. The first is the highly dramatic nature of the reconfiguration of the events and ensuing emotions, going back and forth between the past and the present.

This technique reminds one of clever inter-cutting in cinema. The graphic imagery is both a reflector and promoter of the intensities of loss that are foundational for the laments. The poet is acutely aware of what the landscape is announcing.

The second is the interplay of the mundane and the transcendental. The elegies are framed in terms of a transcendental perspective and there is easy commerce between the earthly and divine. Third as I will illustrate presently, in some of the elegies there is a strong element of surprising eroticism which both reinforces and challenges the overriding grief that propels the elegies.

Women's lamentations

Let me cite a few instances of women’s lamentations from the Sthri Parva of the Mahabharata. (These translations are by K.M.Ganguli) ’All of them are worthy of sleeping on soft, and clean beds. But, alas, plunged into distress, they are sleeping on the bare ground. Bards reciting their praises used to delight them before at proper times. They are now listening to the fierce and inauspicious cries of jackals.

Those illustrious heroes formerly used to sleep on costly beds with their limbs smeared with sandal paste and powdered aloe, now sleep in the dust. These vultures and wolves and ravens have now become their ornaments. Repeatedly uttering inauspicious and fierce cries these creatures are now dragging their bodies….’

In descriptions such as these one observes the strong juxtaposition of images and contexts: the dead and living powerful and powerless, beauty and horror. Let us consider another representative elegy from the Sthri Parva of the Mahabharata.

‘Behold O Madhava, my century of sons incapable of fatigue (from exhaustion in the battlefield) have all been slain by Bhimasena with his mace in battle.

That which grieves me more today is that these my daughters-in-law of tender years, and with disheveled hair, are wandering in the field today. alas they who formerly walked only on the terraces of goodly mansions with feet adorned with ornaments are now in great affliction of heart obliged to touch with their feet of theirs the hard earth miry with blood. In sorrow they are walking like inebriated persons, driving away vultures and jackals and crows with difficulty.

Once gain we observe the penchant for contrast and juxtaposition. The following is another representative passage. ’’There,O Madhava, my son Vikarna applauded by the wise, lies on the bare ground, slain by Bhima and mangled horribly.

Deprived of life, O Madhava, Vikarna lies in the middle of (slain) elephants like the moon in the autumnal sky surrounded by blue clouds. His broad palms, cased in leather fence, and scarred by constant wielding of the bow, are pierced with difficulty by vultures desirous of feeding upon dead bodies…’

Here again the propensity to deploy graphic imagery, mostly visual, and enforce startling juxtapositions characterize the forward movement of the elegies.

At times, the poets puts in play tensions between situations and their emotional understanding by locutions given to contrariety as for example when the slain body lying on the ground is compared to an autumnal moon in the sky surrounded by dark clouds.

A remarkable feature, it seems to me, in some of the elegies contained in the Sthri Parva is the curious presence of a kind of eroticism in the midst of intense lamenting for the dead. This is evident in passages such as the following.

Conflict of emotions

Here the poet is describing the severed armed of a dead prince. ’Here is the arm which used to invade the girdle, grind the deep bosom and touch the navel and thighs, and the hip of fair women and loosen the tie of the drawer worn by them.’ This might appear to be incongruous and inexcusably inappropriate.

However, the poet instigates a conflict of emotions, contradictory flows of feeling, that by their very contestations serve to give greater complexity and density to the situation depicted. The world of startling disjunction captured through language seeks its own conjunction, its harmony, through that very language.

The elegies contained in the Sthri Parva of the Mahabharata, then, are some of the earliest of powerful death poems or elegies in ancient India. They display the depths of Indian culture from which they emerge and the unmistakable imprint of Indianness they carry with them.

These elegies had a profound impact of later Sanskrit poets; how the later poets fashioned their thoughts and emotions, deployed representational strategies and constructed tropes owe a great deal to the Mahabharata. These Elegies offer a sharp contrast to the English elegies that we discussed in the past two weeks.

Let us consider another set of ancient elegies, this time from South India. The elegies I have selected are Tamil death poems composed during the Sangam period ( 3nd century B.C – 3rd century A.D). When we talk of classical Indian poetry we very often confine our attention to Sanskrit poetry ignoring the fact that there was a substantial body of complex and powerful poetry produced in the Tamil tradition.

My focus of interest here is on the is a part of the Ettuthokai anthology composed during the Sangam period. Purananuru, as the title suggests, consists of 400 poems of varying length. They were composed by nearly 150 poets; however, one cannot vouch for the accuracy of this number as the same poet could have written under different names and also used pseudonyms.

This collection of poems sheds valuable light in the social, cultural, political situation in ancient south India. The pots whose works are included in this anthology consisted of men and women, kings and commoners.

The colophon at the end of each poem gives us a sense of the different authors. Many of the poems included in the Purananuru take the form of panegyrics and some of the elegies can best be understood as commemorative endeavors celebrating the dead.

Many of the poems that go to form this text can be described as spontaneous responses to actual historical moments and events; some scholars say that some of them were composed at the spur of the moment.

But this does not preclude the fact that some f the poems are philosophical in nature that foreground important issues of body and soul, death and rebirth, worldly existence and emancipation. Indeed these are themes that have stirred the deepest imagination of Indian philosophers throughout the ages.

As one reads the poems gathered in the Purananuru one realises that the poets represented subscribe to a notion of a god who is responsible for the creation, maintenance and destruction of the world.

Although a plurality of gods such as Siva, Tirumal, Muruga the direction of the generality of thought proceeds towards a supremacy of a single god, and that god is Siva. He is represented as the immutable and imperishable and who has overcome the limitations of space and time.

Playthings of destiny

One theme that dominates many of the poems collected in Purananuru including the elegies is that of destiny – how destiny inflects human existence. Some of the poets entertain the worrying notion whether hymn beings are mere playthings of destiny.

However, on closer reading it becomes evident that destiny is the effect of the cumulative power of past actions with all its redemptive force. what this means is that to lay the blame at the door of destiny is to opt for the easy way out.

This idea of destiny is not confined to the subject-matter, The style of presentation, the orchestration of the poems, the collision between ambivalences in the language and locutions deployed strengthen this conviction.

In order to understand not only the literary weave of the Purananuru but ancient Tamil poetic texts in general, one has to bear in mind two central concepts associated with Tamil poetics – ‘akam’ and ‘puram’.

They are modes of rhetorical classification. ‘Akam’ refers to the external while ‘puram’ refers to the external. ‘Akam’ poems are essentially love poems while ‘puram’ poems are basically poems dealing with wars and kings.

This division might imply a simplistic division; but in point of fact it is more complex than appears on the surface. The landscapes associated with ‘akam’ poetry – cultivated fields, wilderness, seaside, hillside, forests –connote certain emotions with specific modes.

Although ‘akam’ and ‘puram’ are useful as broad generalisations, in certain complex poems one finds a blending of the two. Certain poets specialised in one of the two forms; however, there are those who practised both forms. Purananuru essentially deals with ‘puram ‘– many of the poems contained in this anthology textualize wars and kings and chieftains.

This is a typical ‘puram’ poem; it is titled Not Rice Not War There are different translations of poems collected in the Purananuru some more literal than others; I have opted for the late A.K.Ramanujan’s translations because as he himself said he was more interested in capturing the inner form of the originals.

Ramanujan was an important English poet in his own right; I knew him well and he offered me some very useful suggestions when I was translating a selection of poems from the Theri Gatha, Let us consider a typical poem from the Purananuru titled, ‘Not Rice, Not Water.’

Not rice
Not water.
Only the king
Is the life-breath
Of a kingdom.

And it is the duty
Of a king
With his army of spears
To know
He’s the life
Of the wide, blossoming kingdom.

What I wish to focus on are some of the elegies represented in the Purananuru.(not all poems gathered in this volume are elegies.) The following is a typical composition that represents the essential features of this genre as ancient Tamil poets saw them.

The bright burning eye
Of black half-burned faggots,
Pieces picked as if by a gypsy
In a field fire

May it burn brighter
Till it burns down to a handful.
Or rise in flames
And each out to heaven.

The fame of our sun-like king
His white umbrella cool
As the moon

Will not blacken
Will not die.

Creative expressions

In this elegy, we observe how the poet has organised his thoughts and emotions around the trope of burning. He constructs a series of images that capture the power and glory of his protagonist; The abstract notion of glory finds creative expression in the various concrete images that move through this poem as indeed in many others collected in this anthology. And the elegy orders itself in response to the dictates of compactness. Let us consider another elegy from this text.

Let day, let night, come no more.
Let all my days come to nothing.

We have put peacock feathers
On his headstone
And poured bark-wine
In little bowls for him.

Will he accept them
Who didn’t accept a whole country
Of mountain peaks?

What is interesting about this elegy is the way in which a complex of emotions has been compressed into a tightly organised poem. This is, of course, partly due to the indubitable skill of Ramanujan as a translator. There is an almost a modernist ring to this elegy which was composed in South India some thousands of years ago which belies its distant origins. We need to be mindful of the solace that is achieved in, and unfolded through, the elegy. The following is another example of an elegy from the ‘Purananuru’.

The young will not wear it.
Bangled women will not pluck it.
Neither minstrel, nor his singing woman.
Will bend this stalk of jasmine
With the crook of a lute
To wear it in their hair.

Cattan of the big lance
Who mastered men
With his manhood,
Is gone.

Why do you bloom now
Jasmine, In this land of Ollai?

Here again we see the compression, the compactness, the suggestibility playing a crucial role in the dynamics of this elegy. The poet deploys the image of the jasmine to summarise the loss of a life that meant so much to so many.

On the basis of a comparative study of the elegies in the Sthri Parva in the Mahabharata and the elegies contained in the Tamil text the Purananuru that we have considered we can make the following observations.

Both sets of elegies articulate a language of loss; both begin with a sense of perplexity that comes as a disconcerting challenge to normal understanding. Both sets of poems seek a deeper truth beneath the overt misery and dislocations However, the two sets of elegies traverse two different paths towards their poetic destinations.

In the case of the Mahabharata elegies, there is a sense of expansiveness of meaning and heightened dramatic tone that invests them with a distinctive vibrancy. On the other hand, the elegies quoted from the Purananuru are concentrated and what is unsaid is as important as what is said. It is as if the language is gazing at itself as it unfolds.

These two sets of elegies present recognizably different verbal fabrics from those found in the classical English elegies and modern American elegies that I discussed earlier.

(To be continued)



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