Counter-cultural tradition: An attempt to discover patterns, paradigms and dissent in Indian poetry

iiasMost of the top state-supported academic institutes of India, the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS), Shimla, proposes to hold an international seminar on an interesting subject “Poetry as Counter-culture: An Unbroken Tradition.” To be held from May 16 to May 18, it has circulated a concept note, based on which papers will be presented at the seminar. Text:

Indian poetry, like Indian philosophy, has a long tradition of creative dissent as it has always been alert to its surroundings and has worked like a counter-culture against diverse forms of cultural hegemony. This tradition begins with folk and tribal poetry where the people speak about their different origins, subvert status-quo myths and raise their voices against the masters who deny them their rights. We also have folk and tribal epics that are parallel to the mainstream epics, at times taking themes from Ramayana and Mahabharata and giving them new, often subaltern, interpretations or celebrating folk heroes.

Sanskrit poetry too had writers who did not necessarily follow the mainstream norms and practices like Yogeshwara or Shoodraka. The Buddhist and Jain poetry as also the Sangam poetry and the Tamil epics Manimekalai and Silappadikaram interrogated the status quo in diverse ways. The Bhakti and Sufi poetry ( from Tirumular, Basaveshwara,  Akka Mahadevi , Andal etc in the South to  Kabir , Meerabai,Surdas, Tukaram, Namdev , Chaitanya,  Lal Ded, Bulle Shah, Shah Abdul Latif and several others in the North) often consisted of  a critique of the existing religious  and social practices including the varna/jati  system and patriarchy.

Most of these poets rejected sectarian interpretations of religion, problematized priesthood and questioned the basis of caste hierarchies, many were against rituals and superstitions associated with religion, and most privileged the oral over the written and spoke/wrote in the languages of the people, instead of Sanskrit, which by that time had become the language of an elite minority, and created new symbolic languages to express their novel perceptions. These movements may be said to have laid the secure foundations of later poetic practices in India since they interrogated hierarchies, were secular-spiritual and foregrounded the egalitarian ideal.

These ideas had also inspired the anti-colonial and reformist trends that emerged during the freedom struggle as represented by Subramania Bharati, Veereshalingam Pantalu, Rabindranath Tagore, Nazrul Islam, Kumaran Ashan, Vallathol Narayana Menon, Sumitrananan Pant, Maithilisharan Gupta, Subhadrakumari Chauhan and several others. They squarely criticized the caste system, feudal exploitation, patriarchy and superstition.

The Progressive Movement inspired both by Gandhi and Marx, was a continuation of the earlier reformist poetry but with a greater radical zeal and was particularly strong in languages like Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Kashmiri, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam and gave rise to several voices that questioned the  rising capitalist exploitation along with the old feudal one as also the  various kinds of discrimination based on caste, race , class and gender.

The progressive modernists radically changed the idiom of poetry as can be seen in  the works of GN Mukthibodh,  Ali Sardar Jafri, Dhoomil, Vijaydev Narayan Sahi, Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena, Rajesh Joshi, Kunwar Narain, Kedarnath Singh, Manglesh Dabral , Joy Goswami, Pash, Surjit Pathar,  Attoor Ravivarma, KG Shankara Pillai and several others.

The emergence of strong feminist, nativist, dalit and tribal trends in poetry with scores of poets challenging diverse hegemonies, asserting their identity and innovating the poetic language by infusing it with local idioms and slangs, along with the poetry of the religious and sexual minorities and poetry that takes up the issues of environment and peace, has revitalized counter-cultural  tradition in Indian poetry.

The three-day seminar proposed to be held on 16-18 May 2016 will look at this counter-cultural tradition in its totality as also examine specific trends, authors and texts in an attempt to discover the patterns, paradigms and poetics  of the practice  of dissent in Indian poetry from the beginning to the present day.



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