KG Sankara Pillai | Photo: Mathrubhumi
'No news from Bengal, Only from Bengal nothing is coming, nothing at all, nothing' - reads the lines of 'Bengal', penned in 1972 by KG Sankara Pillai, one of the most outstanding poets in Malayalam.
As the 800-word poem, which tells the story of a tumultuous Bengal in the 70s, enters its 50th year of publication, KGS, in an exclusive interview with Mathrubhumi English, opens up about his experiences that resulted in the creation, which became a milestone in Malayalam's modernist poetry.
Q. Can you trace the path that inspired you to write the poem 'Bengal' ?
'Bengal' was the result of the experiences gained through a three-tier sector comprising our language, country and the world. It poured out amid a growing, violent socio-political and cultural scenario that prevailed across the world, coupled with the fascist trends, which were on the rise in India.
The poem grew out of the fear that the political system in Kerala was getting engulfed in romanticism and losing its values. Later, on closer understanding, I realised that it was all a result of middle class selfishness, hunger for power and dictatorship. During those years, several edgy, violent views, opposing and objecting each and everything, were rampant in the society.
Although I never supported their destructive philosophies, I did feel inclined towards their strong dissent against the centralised power system. Nevertheless, Malayalam poetry, at the time, remained quite ignorant of the current happenings and that triggered my efforts to write the poem.
Q. How do you analyse the Bengal of the 1970s in comparison with the one of the 2000s? Are they entirely different?
In the 1970s, there existed two Bengals - one, which represented the government and stood for industrialization, another led by peasants, who carried out massive protests in the state, including the one which erupted in Naxalbari. We all stood with the latter albeit we were not members of the Marxist-Leninist (ML) party.
Whereas, today's Bengal has almost turned into an apolitical state. The state, as we know, holds huge historic and cultural significance and is known for upholding secular and reformist values. However, lately, a new power system, which is distancing the state from its historic heritage, is in power and is trying to bring in corrections.
Q. From 'Mahabharata' to 'Waste Land', 'Bengal' includes several references from various works. Can you shed some light on those links?
'Bengal' keeps a critical link with modernism and embraces some of the strongest creative possibilities and innovations in the process. At the same time, it disagrees with the modernist ideology in its own way. The poem includes references from popular works including TS Eliot's 'Waste Land', Charles Dickens' 'Oliver Twist' among others. The reference to Eliot's 'cruellest month' (Waste Land, 1922) invokes two different meanings namely, the one suffered by the people and the other feared by the dictator.
The poem is penned as a conversation between the blind king Dritarashtra and his advisor Sanjaya, taking hints from the Udyoga Parva in Mahabharata. While Dritarashtra suffers from physical blindness in the epic, 'Bengal' portrays him as a person facing spiritual, cultural and moral blindness, rooted in selfishness and desire for dictatorship.
Sanjayan, who remains silent throughout the poem, is the representative of modern-day media that lack courage to tell the truth.
Q. Malayalam poetry has undergone several changes over the decades. Do you find them to be positive in nature?
Malayalam poetry was the torch bearer of various single issue movements in the 1970s, which later evolved into a rebellious polyphony. It continued in the later years of 1980s and 1990s and we were able to witness a good period of poetry.
However, after 1999, poems in the language began to be confined within an individual's personal issues, resulting in poems lacking core and depth. In addition, the absence of social movements and protests also led to the change.
Yet, today, there are numerous strong poems coming in, not only in Malayalam, but also in all major languages across the country. Of this, a majority of the leading ones are written by women and dalit poets or those who actively support the communities and their causes.
Such poems are multifaceted works that cover themes underlining anti-caste, anti-fascist, anti-communal elements, thereby maintaining the heritage of the 1970s' poetry.
Q. What is the one piece of advice you wish to give to the emerging poets of the time?
Among contemporary poets, there is an unhealthy tendency to go behind truths which have already been discovered and mechanically reproduce works. They may not be doing it intentionally, but their uncorrected consciousness makes them do so. In my opinion, poets should refrain from imitating themselves and others.
Still, there is a silent yet strong women, dalit presence in the world of poetry, which is indeed the effect of political advancement in the country. However, a lot of them are left unnoticed owing to drop in literary criticisms.
Literary and poetic review is almost dead now. If that had not been the case, then many of these poets would have been recognized and appreciated better. Every poet is a movement in themselves.
(KG Sankara Pillai is the recipient of numerous honours including the prestigious Gangadhar Meher National Award for Poetry 2021, instituted by Sambalpur University in Odisha)