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Review: The Rivered Earth

A book of poems as much as a vast score-sheet on the workings of an artistic mind

books Updated: Dec 16, 2011 19:56 IST

The Rivered Earth

Vikram Seth

Hamish Hamilton

Rs 399 pp 120

‘The hermit sits upon the ice./ The bluish light burns all around, / Immune to flame and sacrifice,/ To breath and death and scent and sound.’ Whether it is the English countryside where an oak in the “water-meadow” is surrounded by a pool, or verse-fragments from the chant-inflected Dhammapada, or Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita: (“I am the spark that brings life to all living things”), or the ‘Seven Elements’ creolised in ‘Fire’ (“O fayah — fayah —fayaaah/ Dizayaah / Hot hot hot”) and its tongue-tipped energy… Vikram Seth’s The Rivered Earth reveals the inner workings of an intimate artist. Private-public worlds intermingle, interweave and unravel in the most appealing way. Beyond India, England and China, it is a book about friendship, love, loss, drama, history, geography, literature, and the musical collaboration with composer Alec Roth and violinist Philippe Honoré.

To fully reap the fruits of Seth’s The Rivered Earth, it is helpful if one is familiar with the arc of his artistic history. Each of Seth’s books employs various genres: ‘pure’ poetry, children’s verse, narrative novel, novel-in-verse, travel writing, memoir, libretto and translations. This apart from the fact that he was allegedly planning to write his economics thesis in alexandrines.

The Rivered Earth hums with introverted echoes of The Humble Administrator’s Garden, From Heaven Lake, Three Chinese Poets, An Equal Music, and his other works. A wide spectrum of experience and literary influences sing through his translations and original work.

This slim book consists of four libretti composed to accompany music by Roth, together with accounts of the pleasure and pain of collaborative art; and written with the deliberate consciousness that the “writing had to be sung”. The four sections titled ‘Songs in Time of War’, ‘Shared Ground’, ‘The Traveller’ and ‘Seven Elements’, take us from Chinese and Indian poetry to the beauty and serenity of the Salisbury house where English poet and priest George Herbert lived and died.

Also contained are exquisite pieces of calligraphy by Seth — Chinese characters; cursive Roman handwriting of ‘Oak’ that reflects the shape of Herbert’s ‘Easter-Wings’; a Surdas poem hand-scripted in Brajbhasha; and a roundel in Arabic.

The book displays the prismatic Seth in monochrome, sepia and full colour — as an interviewer, travel writer, essayist, theorist, poet, translator, artist, thinker, and more. It is the way the content is executed — without the stultified academic tonality that mars forewords — that makes it so appealing. Introductions and notes take the form of creative non-fiction and prose meditations with insights on background and context, plus delightful trivia adding to its rich texture. The book is as much a book of poems as it is a vast score-sheet, one reminiscent of miniature paintings — full of motet, suite, partita, sonata, bariolage and coda. The Rivered Earth is a subtle-scented bouquet from a master craftsman, a true polymath.

Sudeep Sen is the editor of the forthcoming The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry By Indians