Poetry from the Ancient Orient.

Like a whiff of fresh air, the Indian heritage of poetry has me gasping and begging for more. My ignorance of classical Sanskrit poetry, owing mostly to my terrible understanding of the language and the paucity of good translated literature, has been slightly cured over the last few days. And this is my euphoric celebration! (a note on facebook and my blog -seriously!)
In the interest of brevity, I will keep my thoughts to a minimum. Generally Indian classical poetry has been criticized in the West for being over-ornate, even artificial, lacking in true feeling and as examples of wasted and perverted ingenuity. Although there is a grain of truth there, let me add a few contrary notes. Modern India has been deeply influenced by European aesthetic standards and judging our heritage to those unfamiliar paradigms is unfair. The poetry in India was written for performance at the court, for elite circles of litterati, all well versed in the canons of convention and highly appreciative of verbal ingenuity. It is naive to expect the natural mysticism of Wordsworth, or the rebellion against the social system which we see in Shelley. Well-integrated court performers will not generally have the spiritual anguish of Cowper or the social pessimism of T.S. Eliot. That said, the chief raw materials for Indian poetry are love, nature, morality and story-telling. The passionately physical love of the Indian poets is something strikingly different from anything in comparative ancient or even modern cultures.
And now, I feel I have already said too much. Let the poets reveal their mysteries! 

The first few lines are from the doyen of Indian poets – Kalidasa, and they should set the tone quite nicely : 

“where the wind from the Sipra river prolongs the shrill melodious cry of the cranes,
 fragrant at early dawn from the scent of the opening lotus,
 and, like a lover, with flattering requests,
 dispels the morning languor of women, and refreshes their limbs.

Your body will grow fat with the smoke of incense from open windows 
where women dress their hair.
You will be greeted by palace peacocks, dancing to welcome you,
their friend.
If your heart is weary from travel you may pass the night above mansions
fragrant with flowers,
whose pavements are marked with red dye from the feet of beautiful girls.”

Bhartrihari, in his erotic verses, often shows an undercurrent of dissatisfaction, as though trying to convince himself that love is not a futile waste of time after all. In the throes of his amours he feels the call of the religious life, and in one remarkable stanza he indulges in striking punning to this effect.
The obvious meaning of his lines is –

“Your hair well combed, your eyes reaching to your ears,
your mouth filled with ranks of teeth that are white by nature,
your breasts charmingly adorned with a necklace of pearls,
slim girl, your body, though at rest, disturbs me.”

But this might also be fancifully translated as –

“Your hair self-denying, your eyes understanding the whole of scripture
your mouth full of groups of naturally pure brahmans,
your breasts lovely from the presence of emancipated souls,
slim girl, your body, though free from passion, disturbs me.”  

The pun gives expression to the poet’s own divided mind. The following lines further elucidate the same conflict, where the forest denotes the life of a hermit   (this also curiously reminds me of a scene from the 1992 classic, Scent of a Woman, where Al Pacino famously instructs everyone on the only two syllables in the English language worth listening to — pussy!)

” What is the use of many idle speeches!
Only two things are worth a man’s attention –
the youth of full-breasted women, prone to fresh pleasures, 
and the forest. “

It seems that in the end he gives up the love of women for the love of God however — (sadly, no more erotic poetry)
“When I was ignorant in the dark night of passion
I thought the world completely made of women,
but now my eyes are cleansed with the salve of wisdom,
and my clear vision sees only God in everything. “

Amaru describes a poignant moment in a human relationship in a single verse where the reader is given only the climax of the story, the reconstruction of which is left to his imagination.

“I’ll see what comes of it” I thought, and hardened my heart against her.
“What, won’t the villain speak to me?” she thought, flying into a rage.
And there we stood, sedulously refusing to look one another in the face,
until at last I managed an unconvincing laugh, and her tears robbed me of my resolution.” 

Bilhana‘s “Fifty Stanzas of the Thief”, purporting to describe the secret love of young thief and a princess, are full of intense emotion recollected without tranquility. Each stanza begins with “even today” —

“Even today I can see her, her slender arms encircling my neck,
my breast held tight against hers,
her playful eyes half-closed in ecstasy,
her dear face drinking mine in a kiss.

Even today, if this evening
I might see my beloved, with eyes like those of a fawn,
with the bowls of her breasts the hue of milk,
I’d leave the joys of kingship and heaven and final bliss.” 


I shall end this eclectic and all-too-brief selection with these lines from Kalidasa which delight me the most, and I am not alone in sharing that feeling. Goethe agrees with me!  “Shakespeare of the East”, the appellation is well-earned!

Yaksa’s message to the cloud, about the constancy of love and the hope of reunion, in the famous Meghaduta (The Cloud Messenger)
 “
I see your body in the sinuous creeper, 
your gaze in the startled eyes of deer,
your cheek in the moon,
your hair in the plumage of peacocks,
and in the tiny ripples of the river I see your sidelong glances,
but alas, my dearest, 
Nowhere do I find your whole likeness!

I hope this was as much of an eye-opener for everyone as it was for me. There is so much poetry to be had, drunk in on lazy afternoons, so many sighs of joy and moments of utter heart-wrenching sadness – out there, in the past and hidden. We are missing out.
Well, no more.