lack of an audience for poetry? part 2

i'd said in this post:
when i was younger, i'd often walk long distances on not-so-walkable city streets to a library or an auditorium where a kavi sammelanam was being held or a book of poetry was being released. at these sammelans, as at those mushairas telecast on etv, one might get to hear only a line or two of impressive verse. most of the poetry could be on well-trodden themes, not very smartly expressed, cliche-ridden. which means you go there expecting nothing more those one or two good lines. and nursing the hope that there'd be more than one or two.
it's my view that it's culture, or community, that drags you there, in the first place. and language, or words, that hold you.

if there is an audience for telugu or urdu poetry, why isn't there an audience for english poetry? the problem isn't the lack of an audience for Indian poetry or the lack of an audience for poetry in India: some mushairas fill stadiums, and some 15th century telugu poets can draw one lakh people on a day. what does indian english poetry lack or miss? is it community (or culture) or words or both? for the moment, i'd like to move onto other related issues. smoke screen says in one of her very perceptive comments here:
...I think that for poetry to strike a chord, it has to be in a language which has a social life.
english in india doesn't have a social life? i know smokescreen uses the phrase in a cultural sense, of life outside work, but we also know that knowledge of english does seem to affect the material well-being of individuals in indian society. or, at least, it does seem to put those who know the language in the best jobs, for instance. marx says: 'life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life'. he means material life, of course. material life influences culture. but the increased usage of english in work, or production, doesn't seem to have produced a culture that matches this expansion. like an audience for indian english poetry, for instance. if marx is right, why hasn't this happened?

some dalit bahujan intellectuals like kancha ilaiah and chandrabhan prasad suggest that the lower castes should drop, or reject, regional or vernacular languages (i don't like both labels) and embrace english, totally. because those languages carry the the caste virus, or culture. while english is the language of progress, egalitarianism and reason. the assumption being that english doesn't carry the seed of racism, genocide, colonialism, class and exploitation.

the primary reason for both those intellectuals promoting english in this time in indian history is that english is the language of the community of the successful middle class white collar worker, those with the best jobs, in this country right now. these intellectuals are exhorting the young among the lower castes to join this community of the successful. chandrabhan prasad has clearly spelled out that most of those who now belong to this community are from the upper castes of india. emulate their example.

it's a theory with a wide appeal, and its logic seems impeccable on the surface. but i ask myself: are those in the best jobs there because, primarily, they speak english or are they there because of other reasons? both of the dalit bahujan thinkers seem to contradict both dr.ambedkar and marx, in my view. if adoption of a certain language could change the material conditions of the lower castes, then caste doesn't really have any role to play in who gets the best jobs, or in determining their material conditions. and if material conditions determine your culture, or language, and not vice versa, then what's the point of adopting a new language (which doesn't even seem to have a strong culture)?


anu said...

Nice post, Kuffir,

i live in what one might call -an all white university town, with poetic traditions of the high on weed hippies to nobel laureates giving poetry readings with wine and cheese parties, neither draws an audience let alone crowds, at least nothing like Mushiaras. Sometimes it is downright sad, it is their language and their culture, they prefer to write and read verse in solitude it appears. Almost everyone here is a poet of sorts, in any book sale the crowds haunt the poetry sections and the best books are sold from there first.

Not at all sure if we have to draw inferences to the language issues with dalits, all the protest and resistance is happening in the vernacular, we are yet to access or assimilate them, there is no question of dumping that for English, that would actually make a yawning hole in the resistance story.

As a means for better jobs, open question, many Chinese working on cutting edge research, do it without stringing together a sentence in english towards a social life in my part of the world. It is a crazy world :)

SS said...

Really liked this post.

I have always found this a curious paradox: while English is viewed as a colonial legacy by some Indian intellectuals, Dalit leaders have promoted it as an emancipatory tool. And for some others English represents voluntary exile (from their own languages and literatures.) We decry and promote colonial paradigms at once, don't we?

PSB said...

I love urdu poetry, and i have gr8 collections..
Same is not with hindi poetry.. and i could hardly read english poetry..if i find it somewhere..just skip it over..
Poetry is not just about the words.. its about how u say it and wether it touches ur heart.. or not..

Regarding english as a language for the progress for dalits is very much justified in indian context ..

The experience of japanese/chinese/french/german is different..can't compare the same with india
Because in india, we are hypocrites.Language has been used as a tool of socio-economic seggregation of the masses, to keep them away fro knowledge/learning..
In the past it was sanskrit vs vernacular language, now its english vs reginal languages..
Why is it that all the institutes of higher leaning, technology/management(IITs IIMs) are completely english medium and on other hand u force/expect them to study hindi/bengali/telugu.. medium.. aren't u keeping them away from IIT's/IIM's

De-facto Official language of india in terms of business/research/technology is english.. aren't u keeping them away from this..

discussion over langauge is good from litetature/history perspective, But when it comes to career.. dalits should say goodbye to regional languages..
and thats what kancha/CBP are saying..

kuffir said...


sorry about responding late. and welcome to this blog :)

'Why is it that all the institutes of higher leaning, technology/management(IITs IIMs) are completely english medium and on other hand u force/expect them to study hindi/bengali/telugu.. medium.. aren't u keeping them away from IIT's/IIM's..'

i think you're drawing wrong conclusions from my post - my aim in this series of posts, is to examine why and how language is used by the ruling classes i)as a tool of segregation and ii) and as a means of patronage.

in my view, it's irrelevant whether india adopted english or german or sanskrit or mandarin after 1947- all the ruling classes wanted to ensure was to make the best education and jobs available only to a select few, and foster a feeling of inadequacy among the rest. they seemed to have succeeded consistently until now.

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