“Whether it had to transpire in the future or not. It had to materialize. With their injuries, and my chest. Persistent, and restless. There was exhaustion in being human. That is, the pursuit of being human was fatiguing again.”
– Vyomesh Shukla, Kaajal Lagana Bhoolna (Rajkamal, 2020)
In the early hours of the evening, the clanking of steel in Lohatia, the older part of Varanasi known for its steel and iron industry where Vyomesh Shukla lives, is consistent in the background. A couple of mice scurry along the wet borders of a stone lane. It’s like any lane in Varanasi: Dirty at first look, but intriguing in the second. A streak of light trickles in from a studio-like arrangement at the end of the dingy path, where a man is conversing on the cellphone. The intimidating idea of Vyomesh Shukla, one of the most respected poets in modern Hindi literature known for unapologetic and irreverent critical thinking, is in stark contrast with his self. It might seem almost rehearsed: while his genuinely warm smile from him, and immediate kind words from him, greet the onlooker, his scanning eyes from him sift, and scrutinize through the spectacles.
This man is not simply a poet or just a literary critic. He is also the moving spirit behind the revival of neoclassical Hindi theatre. At the same time, he is one of the most prominent, and respected cultural organizers in Varanasi, known and valued by performers. We begin from the beginning. Shukla’s journey as a translator started in 2005 when he would read “the cheapest, and crudest quality of pages found in the most sombre journals of contemporary Hindi literature,” he says, with a twinkle in his eyes. “Journals like Tanav were the windows opened by modern Hindi poets, before the advent of digitization, to peek into world poetry. Special editions of one hundred poets compiled by Vanshi Maheshwari introduced almost three generations of Hindi poets to world literature, from Nâzım Hikmet to Dunya Mikhail,” says Shukla. Along with illustrious Baghdadi poet Mikhail’s words, and many others’, his verses from him have been etched on the Dawn Chorus sculpture at the Rail Park in Philadelphia, chronicled for posterity. He remains the only poet from the Indian subcontinent to have that distinction. The paver stone engravings in thirteen languages are part of the public artwork commissioned by the City of Philadelphia’s Percent for Art Program of the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. He shares the extraordinary honor with Nobel laureates like Seamus Heaney, Octavio Paz, and with formidable giants of literary modernism, Gertrude Stein and Anna Akhmatova.
That is not all. For someone who has translated the likes of intellectual titans like Raymond Williams, Harold Pinter, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Edward Said, Terry Eagleton, and Eliot Weinberger, an academic disposition would seem only natural. It does not work like that for Shukla. He has run away from two of the most prestigious universities in India on more than one occasion. why?
Just because he could.
And would that not have infuriated his formidable mother, the cultural colossus beats Dr. Shakuntala Shukla? “She never complained about anything other than reading me maniacally. I cannot say if she was disappointed. She knew I loved her a bit too much for my own good de ella, and she could not stay away from her physically. All my life has been spent dreading her death, and preparing for it, ”he says.
At the dawn of this millennium, he forayed into business, taught in his mother’s school, doing a little bit of this and a little of that every now and then. No matter what he did, limiting himself to one sphere was never a choice. With such a creative temperament, it makes complete sense as to why he was mentored by literary icons like Vishnu Khare, Viren Dangwal, and Manglesh Dabral. Or cultural critic Ashok Vajpeyi, who now heads The Raza Foundation, where Shukla was once a fellow for his literary criticism of him. Though he has locked heads with each of these juggernauts, his legendary humility and gentility have never left the threshold.
There is also an element of selfishness in what he translates, which he admits to, like a mischievous child taking a favorite aunt into confidence: “When I read Roland Barthes, I could not bring myself to translate him. It was beyond alluring. As much as I loved what he wrote, it was my love that barred me from allowing anyone else to read him more than I would.”
Of all the things, Shukla borrows heavily from his heroes, and each object of beauty he lays his eyes on: from Walter Benjamin, Thomas Stearns Eliot, Ramchandra Shukla, Susan Sontag, and Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh. Without a shred of shame, and a grin spreading from ear to ear, he labels himself as a love-child of Muktibodh. Just like all poets of his generation of him, and the generation before: “His idea of internalization is a curse we all carry in our minds to channel an internalized world. In everything I do, I seek a chaotic order. Just like nature.” Harmony, then, is also the essence of everything he undertakes.
The emergence of his poetry in 2009 has also been captained differently than others. It was not a means to justify one’s expression, for there were many avenues that he had crafted for himself: “I reached a sphere between the restlessness, and imprudence of not being able to engage in literary criticism. In realizing the misery of not penning evolutionary prose that could be situated somewhere between opinions, and imagination, I found the basis of writing poetry.” As he stares into a void, his eyes from him betray slight rays of realization that can only come with many years of engagement in literature. “As soon as one carves poetry, the quest to write differently than others is the only pursuit. Though it may appear to be conceited, the control of emotions in language is paramount to me, and also my strength. My despair would reach out only through concrete words, or not at all,” he claims, balling his fists. It is true. His poetry of him is not marred by emotional excesses that might appear vain circumstantially. There is a balance in it. A symmetry, and a consonance that is achieved only by staying true to the grammar of aesthetics. His stagecraft runs parallel to his poetry in that order. Almost like a painting, where incalculable thought has been slow to details that seem evident, but are actually essential. The reach of his poetry by him is directed at what he calls an “immense minority” that takes in his literary exploits just as seriously as his dramatics, and literary criticism.
His initial poems are laced with politics, and its consequent anger: Anger against fascism, and the electoral system of politics. However, it soon dawned on him how feebly they would answer the questions of human existence. “I understood that political art cannot be sustained for long and it would eventually be exhausted. There was no control in the theater of life that is politics. So, I had to innovate.” So, I did. His poems by him reinvented themselves and started establishing a third-person narrative of the self. Mirroring the similar, and another. In the chaos of his beloved city, and with the choices he had, he traced an order. “My experiences of existence were bordering on madness so I desperately needed to find a methodical order, like the one I have observed in nature.”
Though he pursued the traditional forms of theater very early in life as Rama in the five-centuries-old Mauni Baba Ramlila, he was drawn to the poly-vocalic elements and the sheer orchestra of poetry. He reinvents William Shakespeare with his experiments in Raghuveer Sahay’s Hindi translation of Macbeth. He draws upon the polyphony of Jaishankar Prasad’s Kamayani, among limitless innovations in other forms of theatre. When he borrows from various folk, and semi-classical dance forms of India, he integrates them into dramatic spectacles that celebrate human experience at its best.
This is the point where we arrive at one of his most glorious attempts at art. A celestial marriage of Hindustani classical music, traditional Indian theatre, and classical Hindi poetry: His celebrated staging of Suryakant Tripathi Nirala’s 1936 epic Ram ki Shakti Pooja. To call that effort merely a spectacle is to undermine it maliciously. It is an experience of a lifetime, emotionally invigorating, and a talisman for trying times. Irrespective of belief and inclinations.
So, there are still avenues to create art forms that allow suggestive perspectives of art for heart’s sake. The journey from reality to idea need not necessarily be cathartic. The beautification of violence in theatre, and literature, though insensitive at times, can allow hopes to seep in. The pluralistic element of life cannot always be lost. Shukla is single-handedly crusading to reclaim Nagari Pracharini Sabha’s glory, when a better part of Hindi intelligentsia has left its disheartening cause. (Sabha was founded in 1893 at the Queen’s College, Varanasi, for the promotion of the Devanagari script over the more common Kaithi script). As long as acolytes of culture remain on the ground selflessly, the landscape of spectacle shall prevail. “Why do you listen so intently? Why do you listen with your eyes? reads a poem in the collection. In Shukla’s works, we have the answer.
(Chandrali Mukherjee is pursuing a doctorate in Mass Communication and Journalism from Banaras Hindu University. Views expressed are personal and may not necessarily reflect the views of Outlook Magazine)