New Delhi

25 October 2005

This Ancient Lyre: Selected Poems, O.N.V. Kurup, edited by A.J. Thomas

FOR a poet of ONV’s stature, immensely popular and widely acknowledged, This Ancient Lyre itself is a belated publication. But, the dexterity with which it is brought out, edited by A.J. Thomas and published by the Sahitya Akademi, compensates for the lateness. And the poet is fortunate in that the translators are genuinely talented, some among them, like R. Viswanathan, who didn’t live to see this book, T. R. Joy, and Lekshmy Rajeev themselves being poets.

The rhythm of words

The title itself manifests what kind of a poet O.N.V. Kurup is. He belongs to a tradition where poetry is synonymous with music and rhythm, and the poets are endowed with a mission: “build a bridge that would link this shore of pain, strife and thralldom to that of freedom”. Diligently chosen from almost all his collections, this volume contains the best of ONV, whose career spans six decades of contemporary Malayalam poetry.

The poems are arranged in five parts based on themes and styles, viz, “Heart-String”, “A Requiem and A Hymn”, “Hark! The World”, “Hues and Whispers” and “Mythos”. But in the case of poetry that relates to social dynamics, of which U.R. Anantha Murthy and A.J. Thomas speak with characteristic enthusiasm in the introduction and the editor’s note respectively, the chronology of poems is equally significant to discern the poet’s ideological as well as aesthetic evolution.

Common features

The poets of the progressive generation in Malayalam, to which ONV at the beginning belonged along with P. Bhaskaran and the late Vayalar Ramavarma, who together are known as the “great communist trio”, have many things in common: the lyrical simplicity, traditionally acquired knowledge about the classics, youthful passion for egalitarianism and a deep disillusionment with it later on, fabulously successful career as film lyricists, and, finally, the contradiction in being politically progressive and, at the same time, conventional in poetic sensibility.

But, ONV didn’t stop there. The last vestiges of the sanguine period, mixing up with visceral indignation against exploitation of all sorts, continued to engage him, arousing memories (“Passion that came to woo/ this virgin earth! How could you/ take Indra’s gorgeous bow/ and shatter it so!”); questions (“would our bones too turn into/ stones such as these/ that’d dumbly narrate these lines to/ another cosmonaut who may one day perchance land here?”); evocation (“come, armed with chisel and hammer/ come, mighty forces of Shiva and Shakti/ dance on these stones!”); and hope (“Melting down the lean summers/ of history/ we shall make our own sun rise/ in the east”).

He deserves our admiration for the gravity of the issues addressed in the poems such as “A Requiem to Mother Earth” and “A Hymn to the Sun” and the apocalyptic views on man and nature in them, and for the formal accomplishment in verse narratives like “Mrugaya: The Royal Hunt” and “Ujjayini”. But, the lyric is his forte. Specifically, his uncanny gift to draw out the hidden music in words without distorting meaning.

Music as ideology

But, this music is not just mellifluous and tuneful. Rather, it develops into a sort of ideology where a song turns into “a lit lamp leading in the search to discover the lost humanity” and “comes along as a companion, a sibling, a shadow”. All the same, the refined tenor of this music that often goes urbanely light brings into question its folk attributes.

If translatability, as Walter Benjamin says in The Task of Translators, is a specific quality inherent in the original, the poems in This Ancient Lyre testify to it in O.N.V. Kurup’s poetry. Nevertheless, when the poet avers that “it is not a sin to write poetry accompanied by shruti and laya” (did anyone say so?), they bring to mind a fundamental reservation Tagore had about translating poetry, which he expressed in a letter to Ezra Pound as a follow-up to sending some of his translations: “When the meaning and music of the original haunts you, it is difficult for you to know how much has been realised in the translation”.