Books

Arun Kolatkar, Little Magazines and the Bombay Bohemians

Anjali Nerlekar’s Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and Bilingual Literary Culture is rich with depictions of the Bombay literary scene of the post-1960s period.

A flyer for the publication of books by Clearing House that published contemporary poetry. Credit: Anjali Nerlekar

Is postcolonialism passé? We had the language-culture-identity wars when the first generation post-independence writers in English were castigated for choosing the coloniser’s tongue over bhashas and labelled as un-Indian, elitist and alienated from the mainstream of ‘real’ Indian life. Then suddenly everything was postcolonial angst with its underlying whine of victimhood couched in terms like ‘mimicry’ and ‘hybridity’. Meanwhile the West turned to the discourse of globalisation, discontents and all.

However, a new critical stance seems to be emerging. The idea of the modern is back, no longer as an exclusive Anglo-European-American project, but as geo-modernisms. Amit Chaudhari’s Clearing a Space: Reflections on India, Literature and Culture (2008) challenges the monopoly of the West on the ideals of the Enlightenment by tracing Indian modernity back to the late 18th century. Laetitia Zecchini’s Arun Kolatkar and Literary Modernism in India: Moving Lines (2014) “aims at widening geographical horizons, at moving temporal and spatial lines of accepted cartographies and genealogies of modernism and at dislodging the postcolonial canon.” And now a new book by Anjali Nerlekar, Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and Bilingual Literary Culture explores the making of a vibrant version of modernity in Bombay.

Nerlekar identifies various contexts to study Arun Kolatkar, one of the most versatile and talented creative minds of modern India. An award-winning graphic designer, a writer at home in Marathi, English, Bambaiya Hindi and ‘Americanese’, inspired in equal measure by European literary traditions as well as avant-garde poetry, Beat writing, American pop and folk culture, and bhakti poetry, a song-writer following his passion for the pakhawaj and for jazz, especially the blues, as well as the music of Bob Dylan, a key figure in the irreverent and anti-establishment little magazine movement – Kolatkar was the quintessential Bombay Bohemian. However, “reading Kolatkar means reading his contemporaries, too, and, equally important, reading the new ways of circulation, publication and dissemination that became semantically embedded in the poetic structures of these writers.” Hence the first half of the book dwells at some length on the Bombay poetry scene in the sathottari (post 60s) period.

In fact, modernism had entered Indian writing much earlier: in the 1940s B.S. Mardhekar had already paid homage to T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and begun writing modernist poems in Marathi, leading Philip Engblom to argue that “a Modernist ‘dislocation’ affected Marathi poetry considerably earlier than Indian English poetry.” Nerlekar glosses over this historical detail and advances instead the concept of sathottari as central to a discussion of modernism in the Indian context: “The sathottari period (approximately 1955-1980) has been traditionally framed as a transnational whirlwind of influences and borrowings, with English, American, European, and Latin American movements taking centre stage and where these transnational influences are framed as the muses for Indian regional and English writing.” It suggests “a certain rebellious worldview held by the writers at the time” but “even as it makes global connections to other world literary movements of protest, the idea of the ‘sathottari period’ locates the literary readings in a specific local context of Bombay.” Thus she seeks “to expand the scope of its application from a narrower avant-gardism in Marathi to a broader network of experimentations and rebellions that connect the multilingual literature and art of resistance emerging in Bombay with each other and to the world outside Bombay.”

Nerlekar is strongest in her detailed picture of the Bombay literary scene at this time and of the coterie that included Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawala, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Dilip Chitre, Ashok Shahane, Kiran Nagarkar and Bhalchandra Nemade. Her chronicling of the intellectual life of the city and especially of the gatherings at cafes and kattas is a nostalgia trip for readers of a certain vintage. One of the most interesting sections of the book dwells on the emergence of ‘little magazines’, a movement identified with the birth of literary modernism around the world and regarded as “a meeting place of like-minded writers.” The Bombay magazines in Marathi and English, with names like Aso, Poetry India,and Kavi, featured bold new irreverent voices, leading Lawrence Bantleman to remark, “If damn you and ezra do not come to produce some of the ‘best’ of Indian writing in English, it will not be for lack of effort.” Equally, the magazines were instrumental in forging new aesthetics as they experimented with different shapes, sizes, formats, layouts and typographies while defying the imperatives of commercial publishing. One of these “unperiodicals” Atta asserted, “We will publish this whenever we damn well please.” For Nerlekar, these little magazines are “a literary stoop” for the sathottari writers where the format, emphasising as it does “the irregularity and the spontaneity of the publishing act,” is analogous to “the material practice of meeting at a café for a spontaneous exchange of ideas.”

The author also documents the transition from little magazines to the establishment of small presses that encouraged many aspiring writers to publish and reach a wider audience. Perhaps the most influential of these was Kolatkar’s Clearing House which introduced a new style with square pages like those of City Lights publications, uncluttered minimalist layouts that emphasized the use of white space, and distinctive covers designed by Kolatkar himself. Other short-lived publishing ventures were Ashok Shahane’s Pras Prakashan and Newground, started by Santan Rodrigues, Melanie Silgardo and Raul da Gama Rose (in recent times, Hemant and Smruti Divate have fortituously revived this spirit with Poetrywala).

The second half of Bombay Modern moves away from a largely factual to a more subjective approach while examining Kolatkar as a product of bilingual literary culture. Using extensive research, Nerlekar establishes his links with various traditions in Marathi ranging from Tukaram to Dalit writing. At times when the bilingualism borders on bifurcation, she is less than convincing. Kolatkar himself resisted categorisation and compartmentalisation: “Since poetry is what I do with language and I know two languages, I wrote in two languages. If I knew three languages, I would have written in three.” In a discussion with Eunice De Souza, he declared, “I want to reclaim everything I consider my tradition. I’m particularly interested in history of all kinds, the beginning of man, archeology, histories of everything from religion, to objects, bread-making, paper, clothes, people, the evolution of man’s knowledge of things, ideas about the world or his own body, the history of man’s trying to make sense of the world and his place in it which may take me to Sumerian writing.” Nerlekar does, however, acknowledge this fascination with origins and traditions in her discussion of Bhijaka Vahi to argue that the incantatory closing poem, where he pleads for a deluge to wash away all the dirt and create a new world, blends the visions of bhakti and Beat poetry.

Jejuri is a prime example of the complex issues of bilingualism. When Nerlekar places poems from the original English alongside their counterpart from the Marathi version published in 2011, she discovers very different meanings, as each is drawing on different cultural as well as linguistic traditions and nuances. The whole exercise only serves to validate Kolatkar’s own words: “Whenever I have written a version in both languages, I like to think of them as two original poems in two different languages rather than one a translation of the other.”

Kolatkar was a dynamic writer who, as Amit Chaudhari puts it, “was writing extraordinary Marathi poems, about the extremities of urban and psychological experience, which seem to be the product of a social outcast who’s been dabbling in mind-altering drugs” while simultaneously creating eclectic and exciting work in English. Sadly, Nerlekar doesn’t quite bring alive his eccentric genius and seems at times to struggle with her own scholarship: the concept of sathottari is a trifle overused, while there could also have been greater cohesion between the different sections of the book. Bombay Modern certainly captures the ethos of those bohemian times, and is rich in its well-chosen excerpts from Kolatkar’s writing, especially the large body of unpublished work, in insights from his contemporaries, and in numerous and sometimes rare illustrations and facsimiles. If only the sheer weight of the information didn’t muffle the fiercely individualistic voice of the poet.

Shefali Balsari-Shah was associate professor and head, Department of English, St. Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Mumbai. Currently she is director, Somaiya Centre for Lifelong Learning.