Roundabout: Love beneath the gentle shade of the chameli

Hindustan Times, Chandigarh | ByNirupama Dutt
Nov 22, 2020 12:25 AM IST

Poet and anthologist Abhay K celebrates love with the unmistakable touch of the subcontinent in a new anthology of great Indian poems

Turning the 225 pages of the mint-fresh anthology of Great Indian Love Poems, I wonder where I should begin. The enticing flowery jacket of this collection described as a ‘ratnakosha’ has many delights to offer from ancient times to the present. Flipping the pages back and forth, my eyes suddenly stop at a poem, titled The Saviours, and heart and memory fill with soft fragrance.

Poet and anthologist Abhay K.(Sourced)
Poet and anthologist Abhay K.(Sourced)

Exquisitely translated from Urdu into English by Pritish Nandy, it is the eternal romantic poem by the people’s poet Makhdoom Mohiuddin (1908-1969), a Marxist activist rebelling against the nizam of the erstwhile state of Hyderabad. Yes, the same poet whom late Irfaan Khan played with elan, I recall, while reading this translation by Nandy a long time ago probably in The Illustrated Weekly of India. But right now the original lyrics fill the senses: Ik chameli ke mandve tale. Maikade se zara door uss modh par, Do badan pyar ki aag mein jal gaye, Ik chameli ke mandve tale (Under the gentle shade of the chameli, at the crossing just beyond the tavern, the two of them, they were consumed by the fire of love).

And so in the trance of the four-letter word one moves from one verse to the other put together with care by Abhay K (40). He has already brought out eight volumes of verse, a memoir and had earlier edited an anthology of Great Indian Poems, gleaned from different languages, once again by Bloomsbury. Talking about the recent labour of love, he says: “What makes Indian love poems different and unique from love poems written in other countries and civilisations? Blurring of boundaries of devotional and sensual love is one of the key dimensions of Indian love poetry where divine love transcends sensual love”. Elaborating on this thought, he quotes a verse by Akka Mahadevi, the 12th century poet of Kannada, who expresses love thus: “I am on fire with heartfelt desires, Lord cut through the greed in my heart, show your way out, Lord, white as jasmine”.

Indian love poetry is indeed scented with chameli, motia, gulab and many other flowers, seasons, plants and pigments, mountains and rivers, the moon and the stars, winds and rain, thus making it a very part of nature and creation from where it stems. Interestingly, the poems written in Sanskrit outnumber the poems written in all the other languages of the subcontinent. And erotica and love are at their best is to be found in the Sanskrit poems. Kalidasa of the Meghdoot fame is one of the greatest apostles of love that ranges from the physical to the spiritual and Abhay translates his few delicious lines, thus: Craving sweet nectar, you kissed a freshly bloomed mango bud once, could you forget her bee, burying yourself in a lotus?

The book cover of the Great Indian Love Poems. (Sourced)
The book cover of the Great Indian Love Poems. (Sourced)

The range of this anthology covers many centuries, many languages, many poets: all strung together in the beads of love. Many cherished poems spring out like flowers from the pages as sweet remembrance or a tug at the heart, be it Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam’s final love poem to her lover Imroz: I will meet you yet again.

One of Kamla Das’s creations too finds its place in the anthology, in which she describes love as a losing battle: How can my love hold him when the other, Flaunts a gaudy lust and its lioness, To his beast? Men are worthless, to trap them, Use the cheapest bait of all but never Love, which in a woman must mean tears, And a silence in the blood.

A large number of poems by contemporary poets are included in the volume and many of them for very good reading, more so in times when love is often lost in the hubbub of much else. The well-known poets in this section include Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Ranjit Hoskote, AJ Thomas, Sudeep Sen, Nabina Das, Mamang Dai, Rochelle Potkar and Arundhathi Subramniam, of course, who says in her delightful poem Shorthand: The body speaks shorthand, coded yet blazingly simple, To hold each other all night, is all we want, and still we sit apart, tell stories, not trusting the only art, that matters right now — stenography.

In shorthand: Here is a book which one would like to linger over slowly taking one poem at a time and savour the different textures, words and thoughts that lead to the many-splendoured thing called love. Of course, the summing up is done by the ghazal of the inimitable Mirza Ghalib, Hazaron khwaishein aisi: Thousands of desires, each one could have emptied my breath, So many of my wishes came through but in the end, so few!

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