A tribute to modern Indian poets who were agents of social transformation
“Many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills”
– Shakespeare (Hamlet)
Shirin Laturkar, a 13-year-old girl from Bengaluru who writes brilliant poems, recently told me that a pen is mightier than a sword and is easier to find. The Greek poet Euripides used to say, “The tongue is mightier than the blade.” Modern history of the world is filled with poets who stood against oppression and used their pen as a mighty weapon. Neruda, Brecht, Whitman, Lorca, Hikmet, Darwish to name a few.
India too has a long history of poets who have risen up against social and political oppression and have brought in change at the grass-root level. Poets including Bhartruhari, Kabir, Meerabai, Tulsidas, Tukaram, and Thiruvalluvar belong to this long lineage who used their quills to question the established dogmas of their times.
Even in the modern era, the Indian subcontinent has produced poets who stood up to their beliefs and wrote for peace, change, rights, and revolution. Some of these poets even lived by what they preached and have become legends. We present to you some modern Indian poets who belong to this category. This list, in no way is complete, but we hope it starts a meaningful dialogue among our readers on how art and society can impact each other.
Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899–1976)
Nazrul was a Bengali poet, writer, musician, and revolutionary, whose impassioned activism for political and social justice earned him the title of Bidrohi Kobi (The Rebel Poet) in Bengal. A harsh critic of the British imperialism and growing religious intolerance during his time, Nazrul was opposed to the rigid orthodoxy in the name of religion and politics. An active agitator against the British rule, he was a part of the socialist political movement of Bengal and was committed to the service of the peasant masses. Nazrul served as the editor of the weekly Langal (Plough), and bi-weekly Dhumketu (meteor), both sociopolitical and literary magazines dedicated to empower the masses.Nazrul met a young Hindu woman, Pramila Devi, with whom he fell in love and married, receiving harsh criticism from both the Hindi and Muslim community. In retaliation to this, Nazrul continued attacking social and religious dogmas and intolerance. He became extremely popular among his young readers. In one of his most popular poems Bidrohi (The Rebel), where the protagonist’s impact is fierce and ruthless even as his spirit is deep, he writes –
I am the burning volcano in the bosom of the earth,
I am the wildfire of the woods,
I am Hell’s mad terrific sea of wrath!
I ride on the wings of lightning with joy and profundity,
I scatter misery and fear all around,
I bring earthquakes on this world!
I am the rebel eternal,
I raise my head beyond this world,
High, ever erect and alone!
Nazrul’s health began to decline in the 1940’s which forced him to live in isolation and discontinue his literary activities. It is alleged that he was slow poisoned by the British government which was afraid of the power of his writings. Even after India won political independence, Nazrul remained an almost forgotten literary figure, living in extreme poverty. Post Bangladesh liberation, he was invited to Dhaka by the newly formed Government of Bangladesh, where he was declared the national poet of Bangladesh. He died four years later in 1976.
Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911–1984)
Faiz is considered one of the greatest Urdu poets. He was a left-wing intellectual and a revolutionary poet. A notable member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, he was nominated four times for the Nobel Prize for literature. Forever opposed to India’s partition, he considered himself a world citizen and was one of the founders of the Communist Party of Pakistan, which was formed in 1947.His opposition to religious and military fundamentalism in Pakistan is well known. In 1977, General Zia-Ul-Haq seized power in Pakistan through a coup where he disposed Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Ruling under martial law, Zia tried to transform Pakistan into an increasingly religious conservative and repressive Islamic state. Faiz wrote numerous poems and organised mass protests opposing Zia’s regime and policies. One of his most famous poems against Zia’s regime is Hum Dekhenge –
When the heavy mountains of injustice
Will blow away like cotton-wool
Beneath the feet of us oppressed
Like a heartbeat this land will beat
And above the heads of the people-of-power
When lightning cracks and crackles
We will see!
In 1985, a year after Faiz passed away, as part of Zia’s programme of forced Islamicization, the sari, part of the traditional attire for women on the subcontinent was banned. Opposed to this, Iqbal Bano, the famous Pakistani singer, sang his poem Hum Dekhenge to an audience of 50,000 people in the Lahore stadium wearing a black sari. Such was the mass uproar and dissatisfaction against Zia-Ul-Haq’s policies in Pakistan due to the intellectual uproar, that in the 18th Amendment of the Constitution of Pakistan, General Zia’s name was permanently deleted from the Constitution of Pakistan.
U. R. Ananthamurthy (1932–2014)
Ananthamurthy was a Kannada writer and critic, and is considered as one of the pioneers of the Navya movement. He questioned many deeply-held beliefs in India and is considered way ahead of his time. He remained a fervent critic of Hinduism and nationalistic political parties in India, claiming identity should not intervene with human progress. In one of his poems ‘Who are you?’ questioning the idea of identity and the division it creates, he wrote –In London, if asked, “Who are you?”
“I am Indian,” as if to say.
I’m not a Paki.
In Delhi, I’m a Kannadiga
In Bangalore, a Malnadi
In Shimoga, I’m from Tirthalli
In Tirthalli, born in Melige
In Melige, there is no need to ask
I am this caste, this man’s son
That I am all of the above, effortlessly
is what I believe, excuse me
My grandmother died, like her grandmother
only after drinking Ganga water from the jug in god’s room
Ganga still remains
in the same greening copper jug
Grandmother didn’t have to give her address like I have to
Nor did Yajnavalkya
To all those ancient sages, salutations.
In 1965, Ananthamurthy wrote the controversial novel ‘Samskara,’ meaning rituals, where he questioned Brahminism, its superstitions and hypocrisies. The novel was turned into a film which was considered path-breaking in ushering the parallel cinema movement in Kannada and won the national film award in 1970. His other novels including Baraa, Avaste, Mouni, and Diksha were also made into films, which won critical acclaim.
Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan (1935–2008)
Kadammanitta holds profound influence on contemporary Malayalam literature. He played a vital role in reviving interest in poetry by holding thousands of recital sessions in every nook and corner of Kerala in the 1970s and 80s. His work has been widely appreciated for its force, energy and folk touch and gave a mass appeal and popularity making poetry enjoyable even to common man. Here’s an excerpt from one of his poems, translated by Pramod Sankaran –Tell this to the kids:
don’t forget the ritual,
feed my dead face with rice grains.
Bawl along with the sister-in-law,
there’s nothing to lose.
Wear the garb of propriety
till the pyre is dead, it’s alright.
Kadammanitta’s childhood experiences, especially the Padayani songs and Kerala folklore, imparted strong influence in his literary work. His close association with literary and cultural luminaries, including M. Govindan, Ayyappa Paniker, Kavalam Narayana Panicker and K. V. Thampi, helped him give a popular image to Malayalam poetry recital. He also edited a poetry journal Kerala Kavitha which attempted to take poetry from the academic cloisters to the realms of everyday life.
Daya Pawar (1935–1996)
Daya Pawar or Dagdu Maruti Pawar was a Marathi author and poet known for his contributions to Dalit literature that dealt with the atrocities experienced by the Dalits or untouchables under the Hindu caste system. He was known for his deeply intellectual and reflective poetry, understanding of world literature and philosophy, as well as his connect with the grass-root reality. He actively participated in the social, cultural, and literary movements on the national level, but due to oppressive circumstances, suffered mentally and physically. In one of his popular poems, he writes of his suffering –I have seen this tree tremble in pain
Albeit the tree has deep roots like the Bodhi tree
The Bodhi tree at least bore flowers
This tree though is withered in all seasons
Pain trying to burst through its very pore
Leaves withered like those of a leper’s fingers
What is this disease? Crutches hung on every branch
Death does not befall and so bearing the pains of death
I have seen this tree tremble in pain
He gained fame for his autobiographical 1978 novel Baluta written as a story by Dagdu Pawar being told to the more literate Daya Pawar, with both being personas of the author. As Dagdu recounts his harsh experiences hard realities, we can’t help but delve into the simple, straightforward and to-the-point portrayal narrative and the transparent realistic illustration of the ethos around him. This book created a new genre in Indian literature. One of Hindi’s most popular Dalit writers Om Prakash Valmiki, follows Daya Pawar’s autobiographical style in his famous work Joothan, reflecting on the caste-based atrocities he had to face as a child and as an adult.
Poets have, through history, been dreamers of a better world, a world free of petty divisive differences, where equality, justice, humanity, and peace are the supreme virtues. The list of poets presented above is by no means exhaustive. Even today, there are a huge number of poets, both in India and outside, actively writing, organising, and working for a better tomorrow. They have always been subjected to violence from the regressive sections of the society in which they lived in and tried to transform. With growing intolerance in our own society, now is probably a good time to ponder on the ideas and beliefs these great poets lived and sacrificed their lives for.
Note: Special thanks to Prashant Sankaran, a brilliant writer and poet, for helping with the research on the above poets. He was also my co-host in the global conference on poetry as agent of social transformation – 100 Thousand Poets for Change, Bangalore chapter.