Poetry at Sangam




Being initiated to Rajasekhara’s, ‘Kavyamimamsa’ (“Investigation of Poetics,” 9 CE), a translation by Dr. Sadhana Parashar, from the perspective of a poet is a revelation of sorts. Not only because as someone who writes poetry, it is fascinating for me to try and understand how poetry was visualized and understood as a discipline, but also because it gives a unique view of Indian literature and its growth through the years in which it has evolved, diversified and taken on an understanding of its own. Various chapters in the book describe the daily routine of the poet, the systematic rigor that goes into the making of a poet and the discipline that is to be inculcated in their lifestyle, amongst other things. While in some ways, such discipline and self regulation in poetry and its writers may be scoffed at in today’s world of free verse, the book remains a fascinating insight into the ancient Indian growth of poetry while also offering a glimpse into the acceptance of Indian women in literature.

The writer states that, in the first prahar (quarter) of the day, the poet should study all forms of knowledge; the second prahar should be devoted to poetic composition; the third to “stimulating talk” and “questions, answers, and counter-questions”. He goes on to write that the whole household is to be arranged in such a way as to assist him in the composition of poetry. Among the servants, the male speak Apabhramsa, the female Magadhi. The women of the harem (As a nagaraka, the poet can afford more than one wife) speak Prakrit and Sanskrit and his friends Sanskrit.

The book also suggests that a poet is supposed to have the following- a strong constitution (sasthya), a good memory(smritidardhya) and the ability to not be disappointed soon(anirveda). The amount of detailing described in the book, in the making of a poet is astonishing. Descriptions of how a poet should trim their nails and clean the mouth with betel leaf, show the apparent connection that establishes a clear relation with cleanliness and the affect it has on the poet, his mind and his poetry.

The necessity of discipline in the writing of poetry is further highlighted in chapters where he stresses that the day and the night must be divided into four parts (yama’s) to which are assigned specific duties. These duties include activities like paying homage to Saraswati( Hindu goddess of learning) in the first half, making love to one’s wife in the first part of the night or having one’s work examined in the fourth yama.

In several other chapters he goes on to describe how, the only hope for poetry lies with the ‘King-poet’, which is why it is the kings responsibility to organize poetry competitions so that the poets can do better for themselves in an atmosphere conducive to poetry. Later, in what appears to be a contradiction of sorts, the text also stresses on the fact that the writing of poetry is an exercise the poet should undertake, primarily for oneself and not for an audience.

Amongst many such fascinating examples of how poetry should be conducted and written, the book astonishingly also acknowledges the place of women in literature, this perhaps is with due regards to the love of literature that his wife harbours. He says, “Women can be as good poets as men. Poetic power is born of samskara (memory traces, impressions). These impressions are a part of the inner soul. Thus there need be no discrimination between men and women. There are any number of princesses, daughters of ministers and performing artistes who are endowed with ability born of knowledge of the shastras and with the ability to compose poetry.” Rajasekara talks about samadhi (in the sense of concentration) as being essential to poetic production, but says nothing about affect or the emotional results of such production. In parts the book leaves one wondering about the alignment of religion and its various prescriptions, in the writing of poetry, as such a secular tone is perhaps wanting?

It is perhaps inevitable that much of such ancient poetry in the mechanism of being written or as a part of their milieu, might have acquired a religious bent of mind or at the least an inclination that indicates the influence of religion in poetry. A comparison that even Tagore could not be spared from, in his collection of poems in Gitanjali. The poems from Gitanjali were not only labeled as ‘Religious poetry’ by critics, but what contributed to this image was Yeats’s comment in the introduction that said that there is an ‘other-worldly feel to it’. A description, such as this can only be attributed to a person who has transcended the physical realms to explore what lies beyond. Tagore’s argument in this direction is perhaps true for many other poets with a similar bent of mind, when he specifies ‘every poem comes as a blessing granted after numerous prayers, that have been offered at the altar of a supreme power, and as such religious connotations if any, are entirely incidental and not purposeful.’ As such Tagore’s Gitanjali is evidently a prayer, in that it is a poet’s prayer manifesting itself in that harmony which only a poet can understand. So when he writes,

Pluck this little flower and take it, delay not!
I fear lest it droop and drop into the dust.
It may not find a place in thy garland, but
Honour it with a touch of pain from thy hand
And pluck it. I fear lest the day end before I am aware,
And the time of offering go by.
Though its colour be not deep and
Its smell be faint, use this flower in thy service
And pluck it while there is time.
(Poem 6, Gitanjali)

One cannot but wonder whether his worship is more a recognition of the fragility and purity of the flower rather than its reaching the feet of the lord, as an ultimate homage. And then the discourse on whether a poem is a culmination of a prayer or pathos has been much debated upon, and Adikavi(First poet), Valmiki reflects the very same thought process in his belief that when the heart of the poet is filled with pathos, it results in beautiful poetry.

The lack of religious overtones in Indian classic poetry is as such, not only different but in many ways modern and universal in context. It is this universality that makes these poems timeless in their appeal, the message simple and a language clearly understood by many. And even though religion played a rather important role in the era in which such poetry was written, not all Indian poetry has religious overtones or even undertones and some are predominantly pronounced in their secular texture. As a result, often this makes the reader drown in the effervescence of a typical locale that becomes the highlight of the poem.

As a lineage one might trace secular poetry in India, from the time of Valmiki and find more of the same in the realms of the Sanskrit and Prakrit poetry that came later. Though mostly lost in time, some of the treasures from poems in Prakrit(mostly from the second century CE) are available to us through a compiled anthology titled, Gathasaptasati by Satavahana king, Hala. A reading of the same in a recent translation by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra( The Absent Traveller- Prakrit Love Poetry from the Gathasaptasati of Satavahana Hala) brings forth a delightful range of extremely beautiful, secular and simple poems that have not only miraculously survived the years, but remain relevant till date in context and poetic lyricism. Primarily a feminine voice, the poems are subtle and yet manage to leave a fresh imprint on anyone willing to discern secular poetry from a particular religious time frame in history.

O village headman’s
Son, we grow thin
Without you.
(Poem 30)


He left today, and today
His wakeful mistresses are abroad:
The banks of the Godavari
Are yellow with Turmeric today
(Poem 58)

In the same context, a reading of John Brough’s Poems from the Sanskrit (Penguin, 1968), leaves us equally mesmerized at the universality of language and distinctly secular features. In these poems written through the 4th to the 10th centuries, one traces the distinct lack of religious believes. Perhaps, because most them did not subscribe to an orthodox Hindu thought process and were instead influenced largely by other emerging trends. Unlike the Prakrit poems however, here one finds a distinct male voice, writing on themes such as anti-clerics, women, sexuality and love.

So, friar, I see you have a taste for meat.’
‘Not that it’s any good without some wine.’
‘You like wine too, then?’ ‘Better when I dine
With pretty harlots.’ …
(Sudraka p.79)

Or poems that openly talk about sexuality and ridicule religion-

In this vain fleeting universe, a man
Of wisdom has two courses: first, he can
Direct his time to pray, to save his soul,
And wallow in religion’s nectar-bowl;
But, if he cannot, it is surely best
To touch and hold a lovely woman’s breast
And to caress her warm round hips and thighs,
And to possess that which between them lies”
(Bhartṛhari p.113)

Traversing through these years of startling secular belief in times particularly known for their aggressive religiousness, one comes across a cluster of the most delightful Tamil classical poetry, standing as if in sheer defiance of time in their inherent lyricism and stoic beauty. We speak of course about the voice that makes up Cankam poetry, (pronounced as Sangam). The word cankam means academy or fraternity and is borrowed from a Buddhist or Jain vocabulary; these poems are true gems of classic Tamil literature. The poems speak of people and their daily lives, love and longing, war, infidelity, desire, anxiety, etc. And yet, while the language is universal, even beyond an era, it remains deeply rooted in the local topography. And it is this sense of deep rootedness with nature and the simple truths of life that give it an enduring quality. The imagery that these verses exude is deeply ingrained in the flavor of the land as opposed to a poet’s personal thought process. So while religion, Gods, sages and kings might form a base here, it is the description of local flowers, waterfalls, mountains, forests and animals which are entwined in such an intrinsic manner that they elevate the very premise that such poetry stands on. As an end note to his afterword in the Interior LandscapesLove Poems From A Classical Tamil Anthology, Ramanujan remarks tongue firmly in cheek, ‘These poems are not just the earliest evidence of Tamil genius. The Tamils, in their 2,000 years of literary effort, wrote nothing better.’

What she said

Only the thief was there, no one else.
And if he should lie, what can I do?
There was only
A thin-legged heron standing
On legs yellow as millet stems
And looking
For lampreys
In the running water
When he took me.
(Kapilar, Karuntokai 25)


What She Said

Bigger than earth, certainly,
higher than the sky,
more unfathomable than the waters
is this love for this man
of the mountain slopes
where bees make rich honey
from the flowers of the kuriñci
that has such black stalks.
(Tevakulattar, Kur 3)

Rabindranath Tagore had once called poetry as ‘the song of the heart’. In its expression of feelings and issues that touch people on an everyday basis, those that are base and elementary to every age, poetry such as these remain not only seemingly effortless, but truly a song of the heart. In its very nature, such poetry is secular and pagan in its emotional connect. One transcends generations, even millenniums and yet the luster of such poetry remains intact.

In the test of a time, the universality of a poet and their work has always stood out by the beauty of the language that they speak, as well as the ability to express with simplicity ( or profundity) that which prose perhaps cannot. And there a poet is born. In this context it would not be incorrect to summarize that Indian poetry and its poets have not only come a long way, but in fact their poems have shown the way. Brough, speaking of the Sanskrit poems in his book, reiterates the same, when he says, ‘Indeed, there are some aspects of love-making quite frequent in Sanskrit poetry, of which, I suspect, it would be difficult to find even a hint among the love-poems of Europe.’

No discussion on the secular nature of poetry or the patterns of writing through the ages, can be concluded without questions that deeply reflect on why one writes poetry, or maybe how one should write it and why? And while Kavyamimamsa might remain as a gentle reminder to all practitioners of free verse, how discipline and focus effect poets, one comes back again to reflect on the deeper questions that govern all poets and poetry lovers through different ages.

In these questions and in seeking their answers, it is but natural perhaps to be reminded of what Charles Bukowski says to writers, applicable more so to poets-

So you want to be a writer

If it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
forget about it.

if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.

don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.
and there never was.


- Kavyamimamsa of Rajasekhara a translation by Dr. Sadhana Parashar

- The Oxford India- Ramanujan

- Gitanjali

- Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way

- The Heron and the Lamprey

- Book review: The Absent Traveller, translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

- Paṇḍitarāja Jagannātha, the Renowned Sanskrit Poet of Medieval India

- Poems from the Sanskrit