The poet, writer and social commitment

writer pen

Charles Dickens,  the celebrated 19th century  novelist,  earned  good money  through  public reading of his works in  England and the wipe  out  his father’s   and his own debt. His parents and younger brothers had been carted off to debtors’ jail. Only 12-year-old Charles stayed behind, working in a blacking factory to pay their bills. Those long miserable months,an obsever  has  said, “made him a passionate advocate of the poor and defenseless. As he told friends, the tale of Scrooge’s journey to redemption took shape during his nightly walks through London. It was his custom to walk 15, maybe 20 miles.

One  recalled this  in view of some  critical comments directed at  popular  Marathi poet  Ashok Naigaonkar whose 75th birthday was celebrated at a large gathering  in Mumbai on December 29.   Some  people  are not too pleased that he attracts crowds of thousands of people  with his satire and wit and he nets a good income.  A section of  elite poetry circles has a lot of talent but  some of the writing is obscure and  lacks popular support.

Arun  Kolatkar, poet, got a lot of international renown but not much  popular  response in India. He was a big name in both English  and Marathi poetry  but was a recluse, never sought publicity, made no compromises, lived in  small house in Worli. His memory was  recalled at the release of the fourth edition of his  poetry collection a week earlier.

Coming back to Dickens,  the debt  prison laws  against the poor were very harsh in England. They had to remain in    prison  until they paid all the debts. How appropriate it would be to apply such   law in India against wealthy wilful defaultes  who have duped the country of lakhs of crores of rupees and whose debts have been written off  by the government. The sad treatment of the poor in England  turned into   Dickens into a major critic  of the system and reformer.

Ashok Naigaonkar  has  directed his satire at vested interests. In one    poem  he refers to Mahatma Gandhi remarking  in heaven that now he is spinning in three shifts as there is a big demand for cloth for coffins,  a reference to  deaths  due to atrocities.  In another a politician   is  asked by his doctor what is wrong with him and he says all  the time he wants to join the BJP, a reference to the  exodus to that party from  leaders of  the Congress and Nationalist congress parties.

In  another poem he says he government is building   latrines for people , but does not care for their subsistence.

Naigaonkar grew up in the Brahmin dominated holy town of Wai  in Maharashtra but was influenced by the teaching of  secular  scholar Laxmanshastri Joshi and leaders of the non Brahmin movement. In  Joshi’s  research institution Pradnya Pathshala and  other organisations he avidly read a lot of books  and periodicals not easily  available even in big cities.

He and other poets like Arun Mhatre, Ashok Bagwe, Satish Kalsekar and Mahesh Keluskar entertained and enlightened large gatherings in all parts of Maharashtra with the initiative of   Ramdas Phutane, producer of the  acclaimed Marathi film Samnaa featuring   Shreeram Lagoo  and  Nilu Phule.

Coming back to Kolatkar now.

Dissident poet  Allen Ginsberg’s poem “September on Jessore Road”  is about millions of refugees fleeing   in the wake of  the then East Pakistan   army atrocities. It  first appeared in Mumbai, published by Ashok Shahane. When the Bangladesh War began in 1971 and Ginsberg wrote the poem, Shahane printed and distributed copies of it and gave the proceeds to Bangladesh aid committee set up in Bombay.

 Shahane is a major phenomenon in cultural life in Maharashtra and is also  well known in West Bengal because of his  many translations into Marathi from Bangla.

By the 1960s, a portal had been established between the Bombay and Beat poets. Arun Kolatkar translated Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” into Marathi for Ashok Shahane’s magazine, Aso. Kolatkar’s Bhijaki Vahi reads as a poetic philippic that draws from Ginsberg, as scholar Nerlekar points out.

Noted all this in the context of the release of the fourth edition of  Kolatkar’s  well known   poetry collection  Bhijki Wahi on  December 21  at Keshav Gore Smarak in Goregaon in Mumbai.

It is published by Pras run by Shahane. He is also a well recognised figure as a writer, publisher, printer. He is a frail man but but  huge talent, now 88,  with  valuable support from his wife Rekha.

She exudes much energy despite her  very long battle  with cancer and keeps  pursuing many interests including butterflies and plants.

The edition  was released by  Bhalchandra Nemade, Jnanpith award winner, who has collaborated  with Shahane and Kolatkar.

Apart from also publishing Orlovsky in English, Shahane also wrote a poem for the magazine Timba, which mocked overzealous religious personalities by comparing the Beats and Hollywood: “the world is a dream / the Shankaracharya has said / as Allen reported / Arjun was the last man / and maybe also Burt Lancaster.’” Ginsberg acknowledged Ashok Shahane in The Fall of America, published by City Lights .

Shahane also  formed friendships with some of the prominent young Bengali poets of the time including Shakti Chattopadhyay and Sunil Gangopadhyay. Ginsberg had several political connections in India; most notably Pupul Jayakar who helped him extend his stay in India when the  authorities wanted to  expel him

Speaking Tiger Asia  has brought out  an edition of Anjali Nerlekar’s Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and bilingual literary culture . In the long term it will prove to be a seminal book for its analysis of not only Kolatkar’s contribution to modern Indian literature but also for its context of Indian publishing. Marathi publishing has been a vibrant space for a long time. In fact Bombay Modern discusses at length about the importance of little magazines and their critical influence upon writers by providing a new space for literary writing. Significantly Anjali Narlekar points out:

The writers and editors of little magazines in Marathi and English not only moved in a shared cultural and literary space but were aware of the work done ni the other Indian literatures by the little magazines. One way to examine these interlinks is to look at the network of pathways at the core of regional, national, and international influences. 

Thanks are due to  Sunil Tambe, Saranya Subramanian,  Jaya Bhattacharjee ,Anjali Nerelekar for some of the references here.

One also needs to note  Zecchini, Laetitia’s  Arun Kolatkar and Literary Modernism in India : Moving Lines, Bloomsbury Publishing.

Ashok  Rajwade, literature lover and analyst of Latin American politics, feels that Kolatkar hailed from Kolhapur and the people there should  acknowledge him  better.

I first met Ashok Shahane  more than forty years ago at a press conference organised by Indian National Theatre for launch of is production of Ibsen’s  play Enemy of the People  translated into Marathi as Kondi by Shahane. It was directed by veteran Sombhu Mitra who was present  at the venue, West End hotel at Marine Lines.

It  was  perhaps the only theatre group to afford  the fairly  posh hotel as it was run mainly by Damu Jhaveri, a theatre lover and director of  Camphor and Allied  company.

Later I met  Shahane several times in Asiatic society library, mainly during his conversations with  Durga bai Bhagwat, Raghu Dandavate, writer and brother of the former railway minister and socialist  Madhu.

The programme was compered by  senior journalist and  writer Ambarish Mishra  with a good deal of humour and knowledge.

Rekha Shahne did well to recall the book’s printer Sujit Patwardhan, prominent environmentalist and founder of  Pune based Parisar and  public transport campaigner who passed away a few weeks ago.  Amod Bhoite of   Patwardhan’s  printing press Mudra recalled his long association with Sujit.

Vidydhar Date is a senior journalist, culture critic and author of a book on public transport


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