In his poems, the sun enters bread as salt and a tiger tries to learn Hindi and starts crying when he finds himself unable to write ‘Ishwar’. It is this sense of personal magical realism that permeates and inspires Kedarnath Singh’s poetry. With his demise this year, the realm of Hindi poetry lost one of its major poets, one who was known and respected by all for his distinctive voice.
However, it should not be assumed that Kedarnath Singh was a surrealist or mystic poet. On the contrary, he was plain and simple, both in life and in poetry. His poetry is essentially that of a common man – speaking in his language and dealing with his world and worldview. It describes the dust of the road, the flame of the hearth, the aroma of food, the ringing of bells and the singing of the grass. A number of voices, sounds, flavours and footsteps contribute to the making of his poetry.
Kedarnath Singh’s demise signifies the end of an era. Kunwar Narayan and Chandrakant Devtale were two other renowned poets who left us last year. But the loss of Kedarnath may have in many ways created a greater void in the literary world. Having written poems for nearly 60 years, he qualified essentially as a poet with local sensibilities; but at the same time, he had a universal approach and appeal. We can infer this from his initial works, such as his translation of the French poet Paul Eluard’s famous poem Liberty.
In a way, he is a poet of love. However, we discover gradually that his poetic style is anything but flowery and that he instead develops a unique style that achieves poignancy through a stark simplicity. He understands the power of understatement. He produces a long ranging echo through the silences he creates between words. His first poetry collection, Abhi Bilkul Abhi, establishes him among the contemporary Hindi poets. It came out in 1960 when a number of major poets representing different genres of poetry were in the literary picture. Among them, Kedarnath created a new streak. His later collections – Zameen Pak Rahi Hai and Akaal Men Saras – for which he received the Sahitya Akademi award, established his identity as a ‘different’ poet.
Born in Chakiya, a village in Ballia district in Uttar Pradesh, Kedarnath Singh used to call himself a ‘Purabia’ man. However, as the word may indicate, it doesn’t quite refer to an oriental influence. His poetry is full of ‘Purabia’ experiences – its happiness, its pain, its displacement and its losses. Still, he creates his own Benaras – a very mundane and dusty city with a spirituality that can only be perceived.
He writes, “In this city, / dust rises slowly / people walk slowly / bells ring slowly / evenings descend slowly. / This slow motion, / the collective rhythm of the slow motion, / binds the entire city with a resoluteness / in a way that nothing falls down, / nothing trembles, / everything remains / where it was. / The Ganga remains still / and the boat is anchored right there, / the footwear of Tulsidas have been kept there / for centuries.”
In Hindi literature, there came a period when ideological wars were at a peak and critics were keen to dismiss those poets who were not writing along these ideological lines. Of course, there were exceptions and they were considerable in number. But among them also, Kedarnath Singh gained a different stature. His popularity as a poet kept on growing. He was counted among poets like Nagarjun, Trilochan, Kedarnath Agrawal, Shamsher Bahadur Singh and Kunwar Narayan.
Ideologically, he was a liberal democrat. Ordinariness was his value. In his poetry, he created his own republic – ready to accept the command of the grass. He wrote in his own style – “…in the republic of man / there should be a long and integrated debate / unless it happens / I announce / that in next election / I will vote for grass, / elected or not, / she has always been in the field / with the banner of a leaf.”
The language of this republic is Hindi and Bhojpuri. He wrote, “Hindi is my country / Bhojpuri is my home / I love both of them / And look at my problem, / I look for one in the other.”
Kedarnath was well-read and well-travelled and his global experiences reflect in his poems (one of his poetry collections is titled Tolstoy Aur Cycle). He enjoyed sharing anecdotes of poets such as Ernesto Cardenal and Rasul Gamzatov. He also had vivid memories of various Indian poets and writers who enriched his life. In his book Shrishti Par Pahra, it appears as though he is looking back at all these experiences and extending his initial poetic perceptions.
His stature as a poet sometimes makes us forget what an inspiring teacher he was and the rare kind of criticism he had to offer. He came to JNU sometime in the 1970s and remained in Delhi till his last breath. When we talk of the encouragement he provided to students and youngsters, we must also talk about a rather unnoticed contribution of his to Hindi poetry – he wrote prefaces and blurbs for poetry collections of many young poets. In spite of all this, he was extremely humble. With the rich legacy of poetry that he has left behind, he will remain a guiding beacon for generations to come.
Priyadarshan is a Hindi novelist, critic and journalist. He has published nine books, including two short story collections and one poetry collection. He has also translated a number of authors into Hindi, including Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy.