Monthly Archives: June 2010

Review: A.R. Venkatachalapathy’s Love Stands Alone

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Love Stands Alone, M.L. Thangappa’s marvellous collection of translations of 2000-year old Tamil poetry, is a striking addition to the volumes of academic and creative work that the ancient anthologies have inspired. It is supported by a long introduction by its editor A.R.Venkatachalapathy (who also translated a smaller number of its poems) which contextualizes the work both for an audience that might be new to Sangam poetry and to those who may approach this text as a palimpsest.

The notion of poetry as palimpsest is important here: firstly, all translations of canonical literature necessarily build on earlier scholarship. In this obvious regard, Venkatachalapathy’s introduction is illuminating, concisely explaining the prosody and traditions of the texts, providing historical perspective on the 20th century renaissance of Sangam poetry and locating this set of translations within this milieu.

Secondly, there is something about the particular cosmos of Sangam poetry that also has this palimpsest effect – taken in small doses, a piece may have its own glitter, but set among many gems, the effect is overwhelming. The ethos that is evoked, certain common motifs (such as the loosening bangles of pining women, or the likening of beautiful teeth to jasmine buds) and the nature-centrism of the work all contribute to a mindblowing majesty, as poem accrues upon poem, creating something far greater than the sum of its parts.

Sangam poetry falls into two categories: akam and puram – essentially, within and without. The first deals mostly with the interior landscape of romance in its many facets, while the second revolves around king and country. The book excels particularly when it comes to the puram poems – the latter segment carries the full force and beauty that has kept these poems as relevant today as they were at the time of their writing. Considering that the majority of these poems are description-based, praising and detailing the various attributes of royalty, the translator and editor have been especially masterful in avoiding the natural tendency for such grandiose verse to become overwrought. Take for example Purananuru 8, in which the poet addresses the sun and speaks of his king: “How can you compare with him,/ fast-moving orb of heaven?/ Your realm is limited./ You back away when the moon comes up./ Your hide behind the hills./ And for all your glory/ spread across the sky,/ you can only hold sway/ during the day”.

This is not to say there are not fits and starts. In the akam poems of private longing, from time to time there is a detectable hesitance, perhaps best explained as an absence of the erotic undertone. Compare for instance two renderings of Kuruntokai 131. Here is Venkatachalapathy’s:

A great distance separates me

from the village of my girl,

with large lovable eyes,

and shoulders

shaped like the swaying bamboo.


My heart is desperate

like a peasant

with a single plough

and a field

just wet enough.


O what can I do!

And here is A.K. Ramanujan’s:

Her arms have the beauty

of a gently moving bamboo.

Her eyes are full of peace.

She is faraway,

her place is not easy to reach.



My heart is frantic

with haste,

a plowman with a single ox

on land all wet

and ready for seed.

Ironically, the first stanza of Venkatachalapathy’s translation is the lovelier of the two – but the erotic urgency and imagery of Ramanujan’s second stanza instantly elevates it. This element is lacking throughout the akam section of Love Stands Alone. The voices in which the Sangam bards wrote these poems are passionate, pained (and mostly women’s) voices – and while dismay at a husband’s infidelity, pining for a distant lover, and jealousy toward concubines and co-lovers are all wonderfully evoked, desire is an aspect which seems to have been underplayed. Kuruntokai 185, for example, is titled insipidly by its first line, “Your sweetheart’s forehead”, instead of focusing on the poem’s closing image, “Why don’t you tell this/ to my lover from the mountains/ where the kanthal stalks/ with bright red blossoms/ beaten up by rain/ lie battered and wan on a rock/ like a cobra with his shrunken hood/ lying limp/ and bring home to him/ the run-down state of my body?”. The cobra’s head is a traditional motif for the female genitals, and this image beautifully evokes her sexual longing and frustration – but not to a reader who has no prior knowledge of the metaphor, or in this case, a reason to contemplate it.

All this said, however, there was a point while reading Love Stands Alone, somewhere near the closing of the akam section, when the profound internal logic – and magic – of the work intoxicated me so much that I read it through to its last page and found myself utterly wordless. Gone were the comparisons to other translators, the notes taken during the reading, the critic’s distance: in that light-bleached moment of afterglow, none of them had prepared me to begin commenting on this book.

The book ends on a particularly radiant note, which almost anticipates the impact of Sangam poetry on the whole. “If you weigh/ worldly life/ against the life of the spirit,/ it is not worth a single seed of mustard”, reads part of Purananuru 358. Life is impermanent, most art sinks without a trace, even the true names of these bards are lost, but something elemental endures in this literature. Only that which is timeless remains. What Thangappa, one of many torchbearers, passes down in Love Stands Alone is a triumph.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.

The Venus Flytrap: Is There A Holy Text As Hardcore As The Kavasam?

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After a lapse of a few years, I began to listen to the Kantha Shashti Kavasam again. The hymn has sentimental value to me – in the past, it gave me a sense of connection to my childhood and ancestral ties and generally operated in the role of a mnemonic. In the unholy ennui of the present, however, my rediscovery of it brought out a whole different kind of awe: the schmaltz of my memories and the high-pitched vocals are the only delicate things about it. The Kavasam isn’t just beautiful; it’s badass.

If you’re not familiar with the text (there are some terrific English translations online), the Kavasam (meaning “armour”) is a long invocation to Muruga, beloved deity of the Tamils and crown prince of the Saivite cosmos. Composed in the 19th century by Devaraya Swamigal, it’s a lyrically magnificent work. It begins, naturally, with praise and welcoming, and then, once the little lord is nicely flattered, begins to get quite specific in its demands.

Up until about midway through the hymn, the devotee puts forth requests for protection, mostly in the form of a list of the various body parts long enough to sound like a recitation from an anatomy textbook. Having ensured that the pretty prince with the pretty vel has been appointed to look over everything from each of the thirty-two teeth to the colon, things start to get very lively.

Now, up until this point, things are still pretty standard, as far as devotionals go. Then out pop the monsters. Great tail-shaking devils are named and dismissed, as are fire-eating ghouls, baby-devourers, night-roaming spirits, folk entities special enough to have names of their own – all of whom henceforth must run away as if struck by thunder upon hearing no, not our little lord’s name – but the singing supplicant’s! After this comes the litany of voodoo tricks – of which the supplicant has a suspiciously impressive knowledge of. The hymn ends with more medical grievances and praise to the deity, but not before its most spectacular segment: in which Muruga is asked to tie up the devotee’s enemies, roll them up, stomp stomp stomp on them, break break break their bones, pierce pierce pierce their bodies and set them on fire.

Basically, if you want proof of the inherent badassness of the Tamil people, look no further than the Kantha Shasthi Kavasam.

Is there a holy text as hardcore as the Kavasam? Maybe some old Hebrew stuff – but then, the god of the Old Testament is generally seen as curmudgeonly and cantankerous. Unlike the adorable little Muruga, sweet-smiling with bells around his ankles and flowers behind his ears… who will eviscerate your enemies.

There are lots of things from my Tamil heritage that I’m grateful for. Most importantly among them: Sangam poetry, curvy hips and a high tolerance for libations. The drama, intrigue, sabotage and high stakes apparently also come with the genes, if the texts and arts of this culture are anything to go by, but then so does the little avenging god, resplendent, ecstatic – completely aware of the devious nature of his chosen people, and just as prepared to bestow the grace of his bling in your moment of need. Bring it on mofo, my lord has a vel and I’ll have you know that it is bejeweled, baby.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

NXG on Mozhiudal

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There’s a nice write-up in NXG, The Hindu today about last weekend’s queer poetry reading. You can read it here.

I like how the writer begins the article by noting how the reading seemed to be a safe space – the same thought occurred to me while I was there, and in the days since I have also pondered over whether to write about it too. It was more than just the fact that I know the organizers and the Pride movement in Chennai well — the vast majority of the audience were new faces. Still, there was a good underlying energy, a welcoming one, that I rarely sense at readings here.

Perhaps I should explain my context. Somewhere early in my publishing career, I got stuck with the tag of being a writer of “erotic” poetry, a label I view with discomfort. Now, I have nothing against erotica. I love it. I have nothing against sex either. What I do have a problem with is reductionism. Erotica by its nature is intended to titillate. My work, by and large, isn’t. Anyone with a little sensitivity who looks over my body of supposedly erotic work should see neuroses, longing, loss. If they see  a horny woman poking at her keyboard with sticky fingers, that’s their own oversight. A woman can be horny, complicated, desireless, wounded, surrendering, conquering in different lights.  So can a man. If you choose only to see her in one light, then you’re missing out on a whole lot.

What this has come to mean is that I have become defensive (as you may have gathered from the paragraph above, even). In India, or at least in Chennai, I limit what I share at readings. Look, I don’t mean to come off like a snob, but we’re an awfully perverted bunch, don’t you think? So, so as to avoid various unpleasantries, I limit what I share. It frustrates me. I like to have fun at readings. I like to feel free, to play with the audience, to laugh. I like, above all, to be honest.

In this sense, Mozhiudal was one of the safest spaces I’ve read at in Chennai. To me, the very notion of a queer reading is based on the acceptance that sexuality is complex and varied, and is vital to our experience of the world – exactly the sort of basis that removes all need for apologies and excuses. Remember this: sexuality as opposed to sex alone. I opened with what I think of as my lightest piece,  and without question the most beloved among my fans, “Poem”, and moved on to more risque work, pieces like “Possession” and “Holding The Man”. Reading the last one in particular, I was struck by how its motifs of arrest and secrecy were, perhaps, rather reminiscent of the queer experience, even though the people in my poem are a heterosexual couple. And also my explicitly queer work – “Hibiscus”, “Linea Negra” – and then looping back to my other much-misconstrued crowd-pleaser, “How To Eat A Wolf”. Not once did I feel like I had gone too far, or become too vulnerable. The last poem I shared, in two voices with Aniruddhan Vasudevan, was my translation of Subramanya Bharati’s “Suttum Vizhi”. How was this a queer work, or a sexual one? Maybe because Bharati would certainly have been no homophobe; in death he certainly has lent his voice to the Pride movement. Maybe because from the tongue and pen of another woman, my transcreated lines – “woman precious as the eye, my love fills me with turbulence” – turn vaguely subversive. Or maybe because this is what it comes down to in the end — love, loss and longing. The human heart. The body and its blood.

The Venus Flytrap: In Song And In Silence

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I recently enjoyed the chance to perform alongside the Australian writer and cellist Kevin Gillam, who interweaves his poetry with the magnificent timbres of the instrument. Far from the city which I soften daily with Bach’s suites, I made two discoveries: firstly, the music evoked no Pavlovian responses in me, no memory of that which needs softening. And, these celebrated ouvertures may have been written by the other Bach – his wife.

Gillam spoke of research by the conductor Martin Jarvis that proposed that Anna Magdalena Bach had composed the suites; their pacing and sensibilities differ significantly from Bach’s larger body of work. This stayed with me. The unaccompanied cello suites accompany me everywhere, and now this thought did too. History remembers us as it will. We cannot influence its remembering. Our work is not to contrive the echoes we leave, but to live life’s opus with operatic feeling. It matters not whether we survive in song or in silence, but only that we deliver our clearest cadence.

I had been introduced to the baroque suites by a musicologist I had befriended while travelling in the Thanjavur district. A year later, I returned to that part of the country, and again, what I took back with me resonated for a long time afterward.

Pilgrims to a music festival, we had travelled out to the village of Thirupughazhur for a meal and to see a certain house, an excursion within a longer one, and after an extraordinary banana leaf lunch – the best vegetarian South Indian meal of my life – were on the backyard portico, napping or talking in the somnolence of the first few weeks of real heat since the rains had ended. A temple tank faced us, the view tainted only by the telephone towers in the near distance. Thirupughazhur literally translates to “town of the praise-song”; it is sacred to the legends of the poet-mystics Appar and Sundarar (not all poets are mystics, but I think all mystics are poets, even the ones who do not speak).

Among our party was the Indologist David Shulman, who spoke of the Tantric concept of the vibrating universe. As in string theory, the world is always singing. God, perhaps, is eternally humming. In stages, this supreme vibration becomes audible. From an intensity impossible for us to hear, it devolves into speech, noise, melody. The urmani is the moment of epiphany: the moment when silence turns to sound.

By April, months later, the rains still had not returned. I soften the city with cello suites, I wrote. A few days after I sent it to him, another friend – yet another soul who blesses the orchestra of my life – told me he had set the poem with this line in it to music. I was surprised; much as I have an interest in multidisciplinary art, my writing, like a cello suite, is almost always imagined unaccompanied. I listened to a rough cut of the piece, and in the silence after the song’s ending, I thought of the urmani. I thought of when it might have been when, reading the page, the words became infused with sonority. In my friend’s head, a harmony had formed. In mine, it had happened backwards. The world is always singing. I am always only trying to write down its songs.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Mozhiudal: Queer Poetry Reading

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Pride month is well underway, and you can see a full list of events happening in Chennai through June here.

Among them is “Mozhiudal”, a poetry reading and open mic at Madras Terrace House on June 12, featuring Salma and myself. All are welcome – you can share either your original poetry, or poetry that you love which fits the theme. More about “Mozhiudal”  is on the flyer below (click to enlarge).