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Hall of Portraits: Indian English Poetry in Historical Perspective

Reviewed item: 

Rosinka Chaudhuri (ed.) 2016.
A History of Indian Poetry in English
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
ISBN 9781107078949

The field of Indian poetry in English has recently been attracting a lot of attention from scholars and anthologists. If we look just at the titles which have appeared after 2000, there are several books with some great and detailed writing on individual contributions to the larger body that can be addressed as history of Indian poetry in English. In such environment, Rosinka Chaudhuri took a big task upon herself as an editor of a book whose title promises a deeper insight into the musings and workings of individuals in order to get a clearer picture of the whole. In other words, the title promises to reader a view of history of poetry written in English in India.

It comes with no surprise then that the book such as this starts with the 19th century. As expected it dwells on authors such as Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, Toru and Aru Dutt, and rounds up the century with Rabindranath Tagore’s contribution. The best element, however, in the analysis of the 19th century material are the papers that open up ‘off center’ topics and discuss the minuscule literary endeavors of women poets and poetry that found its way in newspapers. Such beginning made an impression that the book will not be yet another hall of portraits of greats in the Indian hall of English but rather give a reader some more details to fill in the missing pieces in the mosaic.

Building a house of portraits
Yet, the reader’s expectations are not to be fulfilled in their entirety until the end of this attempt of historical overview. There is no doubt that the historical enterprise such as this one absolutely needs to acknowledge and discuss the pillars of Indian poetry in English. However, one keeps wondering paper after paper if the pillars could have been presented in a more complex manner that would also include the walls of the house, the cement and the bricks. In the book dedicated to history of a single genre, one would expect analysis to take a larger bite than just portraits hung on imaginary walls. Thus a reader interested not just in learning new details about Ezekiel’s or Kolatkar’s work, might put the book down not knowing in the end the relations between the authors in India and outside of India, whether they are Indian or not or if there are any differences between younger and older poets and their take up same topics in their poems. A book should always raise new topics and questions, but I am wondering if some of those that I have now should have been and could have been answered with a little bit different construction plan. For example, though Tagore is an important figure in Indian cultural milieu and his translation of own work should be addressed as an interesting topic, I am not really sure why an entire paper was dedicated in the history to it but not to a single name between Tagore’s Gitanjali (also Song Offerings) in 1913 and section dedicated to poets from 1950 to 2000. The similar hole in the wall exists for the period after 2000, as only two papers try to introduce a new generation of poets. The titles of both papers indicate, however, that the question of English language and identity in Indian context is still a thriving debate topic, which then could have been discussed perhaps in entire section that would cover two centuries.

There are, of course new things that a reader will learn. One of the sections that I had enjoyed reading analyzes the publishing scene in India. Yet it also misses some smaller details as it remains unclear what happened to the publishing scene after the 1970’s, particularly because the scene was not in Bombay and Calcutta. It is also not clear how  big publishing houses such as Oxford University Press have become interested in poetry that was at first published by writers organizations and small magazines. The new publishing media such as online Indian and foreign periodicals and other websites that publish Indian poetry in English are not addressed at all. It is a pity that more is not said about publishing in the 19th century or in the first half of the 20th century, particularly in the periodicals to establish a clear line of changes throughout those two centuries or so.

Missing the history part
As much as the editor’s and contributors’ efforts are to be applauded for production of this big volume, perhaps it is time for a different perspective at Indian poetry in English. After number of titles that represent with a reason the great portraits, it would be great to have the opportunity to read about the history of the genre as such in which the aspects of the genre would be in the focus rather than the portraits on their own. In such a book it would be a pleasure to learn about each of the topics that the book proposes as relevant, as indeed, each of them has a potential to grow a book on its own whether it is just the question of periodicals, verse structure or language as such, or any other that the editor of such future endeavor would wish to choose. Unlike many other literature in India, one written in English is spread across the subcontinent and it is perhaps much more difficult to establish particularities of it, but, that is why discussing history takes time. I am already looking forward to such book in future.

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