Indian English Poetry Analysis

The English Language in India

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Before Asian Indians could write poetry in English, two related conditions were necessary. First, the English language had to be sufficiently Indianized to be able to express the reality of the Indian situation; second, Indians had to be sufficiently Anglicized to use the English language to express themselves. The first of these two conditions, the Indianization of the English language, began much before the second, the Anglicization of Indians. Hence, though the first Indian poet to write in English was Henry Derozio, in the early nineteenth century, the Indianization of English had begun about three centuries earlier, in 1498, when Vasco da Gama, sailing from Lisbon, landed in Kerala. It was almost another century before the first Englishman came to India, but by the time Father Thomas Stephens arrived in Goa in 1579, a considerable body of Indo-Portuguese words were already being assimilated into English. Such lexical borrowing accelerated with the increasing British presence in India after 1599, when the East India Company was launched. For nearly 150 years after the charter of the East India Company, Englishmen in India wrote only travel books for the public and journals and letters in private. Nevertheless, by the end of the seventeenth century, a number of Indian words had been naturalized into English. The following is a selection from G. Subba Rao’s catalog in his book Indian Words in English (1969): Amuck, Arrack, Bazaar, Bandicoot, Brahmin, Bungalow, Calico, Cash, Cheroot, Chintz, Chit, Compound, Cooly, Dhobi, Divan, Dungaree, Fakir, Ghee, Guru, Gunny, Hakim, Hookah, Imam, Jaggery, Juggernaut, Maharaja, Mongoose, Nabob, Pariah, Pucka, Punch, Pundit, Shampoo, Shawl, Tank, Toddy, Yogi, Zamindar.

Because the functional and pragmatic context of the language changed in India, English began to adapt itself to its new environment. This nativization process continued as the use of English increased, as schools were established to...

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Other early poets

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Another family of the Dutt name brought out The Dutt Family Album in 1870, featuring about two hundred pieces by Govin Chunder Dutt (1828-1884), his two brothers, and a nephew. Earlier, the whole family had converted to Christianity and, in 1869, had left India to live in England and other parts of Europe. The volume sheds light on the literary atmosphere prevailing in the aristocratic Dutt family, which was to produce another generation of poets in Govin’s daughters Aru and Toru Dutt. Another notable poet of this time was Ram Sharma, born Nobo Kissen Ghose (1837-1918), who published three volumes of verse between 1873 and 1903. Sharma, who practiced yoga for several years, tried to bring an Indian religious dimension to Indian English poetry.

In this period, Indian English poetry moved out of Bengal for the first time with the publication of the Bombay poet B. M. Malabari’s Indian Muse in English Garb (1876). Soon Cowasji Nowrosi Versuvala’s Counting the Muse (1879) and A. M. Kunte’s The Risi (1879) were published in Bombay and Poona, respectively. Though still an upper-class hobby, Indian English poetry was slowly spreading to metropolitan centers outside Bengal.

The poetry of the first fifty years of Indian English poetry (1825-1875) is generally considered imitative and derivative by critics. Certainly, the poems from this period which are usually anthologized do not show signs of very great talent. A judgment on the quality of these poets, however, must not be passed hastily, because most of their books are out of print and hence not easily available for critical scrutiny.

Toru Dutt

There is almost complete critical consensus that the talent of Toru Dutt (1856-1877) was an original one among Indian English poets. Like Derozio, she died young, and like Emily Brontë, her life has been the object of as much interest as her poetry. Toru Dutt left for Europe with her family when she was thirteen and attended a French school in Nice with her elder sister, Aru. The Dutts then moved to Cambridge, England, where Toru participated in the intellectual life of the university. Though converted to Christianity and very Anglicized, the Dutts felt alienated in England, and they returned to Calcutta four years after they had left, when Toru was seventeen. In 1874, soon after their return, Aru died. Earlier, when Toru was nine, her elder brother Abju had died. One year after her sister’s death, Toru published A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (1875), which also featured eight pieces by Aru. These poems, “renderings” from the French, were enthusiastically received in India and England and soon went into three editions, the third published by Kegan Paul, London, with a foreword by Arthur Symons. In that same year, 1875, Toru took up the study of Sanskrit, and ten months later she was proficient enough in it to think of producing “A Sheaf” gleaned from Sanskrit fields. This volume was published in 1882, after her death, as Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan, with a foreword by Edmund Gosse. Meanwhile, she had written one French novel and left incomplete an English novel, both of which were published after her death. Weakened by tuberculosis, she died in 1877 at the age of twenty-one.

The most significant aspect of Dutt’s literary career was her return to her Indian heritage after her sojourn in the West. In Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan, she converted popular myths from the Rmyaṇa (c. 500 b.c.e.; The Ramayana, 1870-1874), the Mahbhrata (c. 400 b.c.e.-200 c.e.; The Mahabharata, 1834), and the Purṇas into English verse. In this, she pioneered a way for several later Indian English writers who had similar problems regarding their literary identity. Dutt’s English versions, except in a few instances, are without condescension to the original and without authorial intrusions. In addition to longer “ballads” and “legends” from Sanskrit mythology, Dutt wrote short lyrics, odes, and sonnets. The best of these, probably her best single poem, is “Our Casuarina Tree.” This poem, reminiscent in both form and content of Keats’s odes, is about the beautiful Casuarina tree in the poet’s garden at Baugmaree. The tree, by the end of the poem, becomes a symbol not only of the poet’s joyous childhood but also, through an extension in time and space, of the poet’s longing for permanence and eternity. The poem is a masterpiece of craftsmanship, a fine blending of thought, emotion, and form. Though her output as a poet was not particularly prolific, A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields and Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan show sufficient accomplishment to entitle Dutt to her place in the pantheon of Indian English poets.

Sri Aurobindo Ghose

Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950) probably has the best claim to be regarded as the greatest Indian English poet. In a poetic career of more than fifty-five years, his output and range were truly staggering. Sri Aurobindo wrote lyrics, sonnets, long narrative poems, poetic drama, and epics. He was fluent in a variety of conventional meters, such as iambic pentameter and hexameter, and he also experimented with quantitative meter and mantric poetry.

His reputation rests most securely on the posthumously published Savitri (1954), an epic of some twenty-four thousand lines. In Savitri, Sri Aurobindo used the story of Savitri’s conquest of death in The...

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Twentieth century: 1920’s-1950’s

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The period from the 1920’s to the 1950’s was marked by a great efflorescence of Indian English poetry. It produced literally scores of poets, each with several volumes of verse to his or her credit. For the first time, a large mass of Indian English poetry was created, no longer confined to the upper class. Unfortunately, though this period produced a large quantity of poetry, it has been neglected by critics, primarily because the modernist poets of the 1950’s were so united in their aversion to their predecessors.

Though this period produced a large quantity of poetry, it is the most neglected and underrated period in Indian English poetry. The chief reason for this is the severe reaction against this poetry by...

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A revolution in taste

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

During the 1950’s, the dominant tone in Indian English poetry shifted from Romanticism to irony. The revolution in taste did not occur overnight, but once established, its impact was swift and sweeping. What had been minority voices suddenly became the majority: A whole generation rejected its immediate past. This rejection is nicely voiced in Nissim Ezekiel’s first book, A Time to Change, and Other Poems (1951).

The new poets were a vocal group and did not hesitate to denigrate openly their predecessors. P. Lal, for example, attacked Sri Aurobindo at length, though Lal retracted his strictures a few years later; dividing readers into those who could appreciate Sri Aurobindo and those who could not, Lal...

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Indian women poets

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In the final years of colonial rule and even in the first decade after Independence, there were far fewer women poets in India than men. In the 1960’s, Kamala Das (1934-2009) established her reputation by writing striking, confessional poems exploring female sexuality and arguing for women’s sexual rights. However, it was not until the middle 1970’s that works by women poets began appearing in significant numbers. The Bird’s Bright Ring: A Long Poem, by Meena Alexander (born 1951), was published in 1976, and her collection Without Place, in 1978. In 1979, the Goan Eunice de Souza (born 1940) published her first volume, Fix. The telling portraits of de Souza’s fellow Catholics made this book not...

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Writers and the wider world

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

If Partition displaced some writers, many more left their native areas as international travel became less costly and as opportunities for them to study and to teach abroad multiplied. Since the new multiculturalism among Western readers was creating a rapidly expanding market for works by Indian writers, whether written in English or translated into English, it was only natural that those writers would go west to meet this new and highly appreciative public, some of them to visit or to stay for a time, some of them to remain permanently.

Agha Shahid Ali

These new developments made the old nationalistic objections to writing in English seem irrelevant; now the question was whether or not the writers...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Agrawal, K. A. Toru Dutt: The Pioneer Spirit of Indian English Poetry—A Critical Study. New Delhi: Atlantic, 2009. Analyzes the works of the Bengali woman who is often called the first Indian writer to produce English poetry of high quality. The writer concludes that Dutt not only is important historically, but also remains one of the finest Indo-Anglian poets.

De Souza, Eunice. Talking Poems: Conversations with Poets. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999. Interviews with ten important Indian poets, conducted by a writer and editor who is herself a major poet.

_______, ed. Early Indian Poetry in...

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