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Vikram Seth talks about his latest book

books Updated: Dec 16, 2011 20:02 IST

Indrajit Hazra, Hindustan Times
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Midway into the conversation, I suddenly get the distinct feeling that I’m not listening to Vikram Seth, the celebrated writer of fat and slim books, but to a master craftsman who takes joy in making pianos. However, instead of treble bridges, soundboards, agraffes and hitch pins, he is talking about tercets, rhyme-words, trochaics and libretti.

“Writing for music is a different beast from writing about music,” says the author of works that include the 1999 novel, An Equal Music, and the 1994 Arion and The Dolphin, which was commissioned by the English National Opera and put to music by English composer Alec Roth.

“Schubert set some very pedestrian German poetry to music to tremendous effect. And yet, there are songs in which he has set [Heinrich] Heine’s poetry to rather indifferent music,” says Seth. “Take the works of Tagore. A poem like ‘Alo amar, alo ogo’ (‘Light, oh my light’) can hardly be imagined without thinking of it as a song.”

So what is The Rivered Earth? Set to music by Roth (“Let me leave a hostage to fortune and state that Alec Roth’s works — and not just these but others — are among the finest ever created by an English composer,” Seth writes in the introduction) with the text provided by Seth, The Rivered Earth is a collaboration between a writer, a composer and a violinist, Philippe Honoré (who, incidentally, is Seth’s former partner). As according to the author’s own (terrible!) pun, this work can be described as “Seth wrote and Roth set”.

But as an object, this slim volume is a collection of four libretti — essentially texts used in a musical work — written (along with transcreated passages) over four years. These poems capture the Individual and his relationship with Nature, straddling across images and experiences from three civilisations: Chinese, European and Indian. And yet the inspiration is localised: the house and the surroundings where 17th century English poet George Herbert lived and worked and died in Salisbury, south England, which is, 400 years later, Seth’s home.

In the first text, ‘Songs In Time of War’, Seth works on the sixth century poetry of Du Fu (Seth had translated his poems in the 1992 collection Three Chinese Poets). “The state lies ruined; hills and streams survive./ Spring in the city; grass and leaves now thrive./ Moved by the times the flowers shed their dew./ The birds seem startled; they hate parting too.” This could be a post-apocalyptic scene painted on porcelain.

In ‘Shared Ground’, Seth is inspired by the poetry of George Herbert. “Though I am neither Christian nor particularly religious, he has remained among my favourite poets.” That is evident even before one enters the text as the section opens with Seth’s calligraphy (“Last night a storm raged round the bare oak tree…”) done in the manner of Herbert’s ‘pattern poems’.

From the plains of Salisbury, the reader is taken to Indian surroundings in ‘The Traveller’. Seth dips into classical texts including the Rig Veda, the Dhammapada and the Gita. Less incantatory but as poetic are the lines he uses written originally by 18th century Bengali poet-composer Ramprasad: “To come into this world: a hopeless call,/ The hope of hope, that’s all.”

In the final section, ‘Seven Elements’, Seth the librettist is inspired by a poet: Vikram Seth. “The effect of writing these seven poems about the elements was immediate and long-lasting. I began to see the world in sevens... For some reason, the hotel in which we were housed in Milan [where the poems were first recited] had seven square black bottles of shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, hand cream, etc., with the labels Ira, Invidia, Superbia, and so on. This fed into my obsession, and I tried to connect the elements to the deadly sins. Of course, this sort of thing can drive you mad,” Seth writes in the book.

But what intrigued me most was the fourth poem, ‘Fire’. “I’m burning so hot/ I’m baking a pot / O hot hot hot as dizayaah/ Fa-yaah! Fa-yaah!” I try to be as polite as possible and ask him what what was all that ‘funk’ about? “I first wrote ‘Fire’ and Alec said it wasn’t working. He told me to go home and have a drink. I did and, yes, funky is actually how Alec’s music is for Fa-yaah!” says Seth with a laugh.

Does being a poet, with works such as The Golden Gate and Beastly Tales under his belt, help being a librettist? Seth turns the question around and goes into the heart of the matter. “The libretto holds a cumulative force. Its function is totally different from a poem. It can contain much more but will still have to be carried by the music.” So, it’s essentially a sonic novel. He approves of that description.

I remind him that he’s a fine singer himself. I have heard him sing a snatch of a raga, and he has been heard to break into Schubert’s Lieder (songs) with a little help from friends. He whinny-chuckles: “Well, I consider myself to be just a good singer. But that’s about it.” And when does one hear the whole of The Rivered Earth, that is re-attached to the music? “Songs in Time of War has already been out on CD for a while. Shared Ground has just been released. I hope the others follow too,” he says.

As I wish him luck and tell him that I hope to hear The Rivered Earth now that I’ve done with reading it, I remember that the word ‘libretto’ is derived from the word ‘libro’, Italian for book. Or is it the other way round?