Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Indian English Poetry

Indian English Literature is an endeavour of showcasing the rare gems of Indian writing in English. From native explosion, Indian English has become a new from of Indian culture, and voice in which Indian speaks out to the outside world. Poets, novelists, essayists, dramatists have been making significant contributions to world literature. In the post Independence era, and the past few years have seen a massive flourishing of Indian English writing in the form of poetry and prose.

The British who came to India in the 17th Century brought their culture and religion. These two social forces are so influential that their impacts are still found in Indian literature. We still come across many pinches of foreign test in our Indian Literature. As a result, most of our earlier writers tried their hands in the manipulation of English as a medium of expressions and many were successful and have got good reputation till today.

One of the prominent personality Vilas Sarang comments that the Pre-Independence writings were very limited in production because the Indian English poets were too derivative and tried to be “English” poets instead of letting the Englishness or the Indianness to take care of it. The problem faced by Indian English poet in the early stage was the process of publication of their work. His works published by different publishers; hardly one poet can publish one or two volume consecutively.
Since Independence, the poets freed themselves from the clutches of Englishness and started writing in a very Indian manner, which gives high impetus on Indian Literature. Indian English poetry has marked a very promising bright future in the field of literature.

Indianness of Indian English Poetry


Indian English poetry is very different from its western counter part in the theme, language, style of writing, imagery etc. Every writer has source of inspiration of influence. It is this source that makes Indian English Poetry ‘Indian’. Indian writers are very much influenced by the Indian culture and customs, traditions etc. The writer also writes for Indian audience, so it has to have an Indian appeal, which is likable to all people. The writers also write for non-Indian audiences, and to them the feature of Indianness makes it exotic and gives a deep feeling and experience of real India.

Indian poetry in English is said to have begun with Henry Louis Vivian Derzio who was not only poet but also a teacher of poetry. He was an Indian in the sense because his mother was an Indian, his father was a Portuguese. He inherited a great love for India from his mother, and from his father a strong prejudice against Hindus and Hinduism. His writings were criticized for being too western and Christian in outlook to think and write as an Indian, yet his writing has stirred many English-educated to write poetry. His poem such as the ‘harp of India’ shows his interests for India.

Indianness is an element of the poem, which shows India through its language, imagery, sensibility or anything, which makes the Indian as ‘Indian’. Indianness in a poem is something that is not really definable yet remains a very remarkable character in Indian poems. Indianness can be defined in terms of what and how Indians are and what makes them what they are.


It is easy to say that being Indian poets, our poets create Indianness in their poetry. However, it is not easy to define Indianness clearly. Yet, the simple meaning can be sated as follows.

Simply speaking, Indianness is the quality, which must be present in the great works of all Indian writers. Prof. David McCutchion defines “Indianness” as “life-attitudes” and “modes of perception”. Prof. V.K. Gokak Defines Indianness as “ a composite awareness in the matter of race, milieu, language and religion”. Similarly, according to Paul Vergese, “ Indianness is nothing but depiction of Indian culture. Thus, Indianness is the sum total of cultural patterns of India, deep rooted in ideas and ideas which form the minds of India”

Qualities of Indianness in Indian English Poetry

Indian Poets writing in English around fifties have produced a fairly voluminous body of verse that is often deeply rooted in the traditional Indian sensibility and is yet strikingly modern in expression. The question of Indianness is not merely a question of the material of poetry, or even sensibility, it is tied up with the factor called the audience. Indian English poets write for Indian audience, but they also write quite inevitably, for non-Indian, western audience. Thus, consciously or unconsciously they cannot help using their Indianness at least some of the time, in some way, to a greater or lesser extent. This had become a way of identifying oneself for the early Indian English poets, even the best modern Indian English poets continue to exploit ‘Indianness’, but in a more subtle and sophisticated manner.

Every human being is influenced by the environment, culture and tradition of his time and place. Just as western poets show their culture Indian English poets also show the same characteristic. Indian English poets such as A.K Ramanujan depict the Hindu tradition of Cremation and the process of throwing the ashes in the river in ‘ The Obituary’

“Being the burning type,
he burned properly
at the cremation”.

It is easier for a writer to write about what he sees and hears. Like William Wordsworth who wrote about the ‘daffodils’ after he saw thousands of daffodils in a valley, he is inspired to write a poem by what he saw. Likewise Kamala Das saw wrote ‘the dance of the eunuchs’ when she saw them dancing on the streets of Calcutta. Wordsworth had stated, “ Poetry is a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, recollected in tranquility”. For an Indian English poet living in India what else would touch the emotion other than India and the things happening in and around it? Therefore, Indianness can be found in their poems by default.

The best that a poet can hope to do is try to be as natural and honest as possible, and to concentrate upon the poetical enrichment of material, and not to be content with the decorative use of Indian imagery. More important than the level of material, the imagery, the detail, is the level of sensibility. An Indian English poet expressing an Indian sensibility will speak more authentically and achieve greater depth and possibly greatness, than by assuming cosmopolitan stance.

Now that the Indian English poet is writing in a foreign language, which was adopted and used by Indians in a very small percentage, mostly for formal, official or professional purpose, and it is not really a language of the streets. It has been observed that Indians tends to use English that are outdated and wooden. Due to this the poets also have to write in a language, which the reader will understand and will feel to be real. This makes it interesting for the non-Indian reader because it gives the Indian experience more vividly and makes it exotic. Poems such as “ The Railway Clerk’ by Nissim Ezekiel makes intensive use of English as it is used by Indians. The suffix,’-ing’ is used in a wrong manner unnecessarily; this is very typical for Indian users of English. And the sentence constructions are not up to the standard use of language but the way Indians use. It is not that the poet is not able to write in good English but to show how Indians use English and the poet used it as a vehicle for humor and satire. Yet through the language we can find the Indianness of the poem. Indians writing their poems in such a language maybe attributed to the fact that most ‘educated Indians’ are ‘Bilingual’ or ‘Multilingual’ and they hear a lot of language, other than English around them, as there are many different other languages in India. There are many prominent Indian English writer who also write in their own language. A.K Ramanujan has published two collections of verse in Kanada and translated some from Kanada to ancient Tamil. Kamala Das has written prose in Malayalam. In any case the poet’s other language will surely affect to the greater or lesser extent the way he or she writes. And the use of Indian words in their poems is also prominent due to ‘Bilingualism’. And all this attributes contribute towards the Indianness of English.

Indian poet cannot help but to exploit Indianness in their poems. Indian English poets increasingly feel the need to evolve an Indian Idiom, and not stick to British rule of correctness. The poet may like to write about the superstitions of crows or those details about the cow but in the readers mind he may do it for exotic appeal to non-Indian readers, even though the poet may be able to justify his Indian material for poetic reason. The validity of Indian English poetry depends on the creation of a new idiom- Indian English Idiom which is distinct from the idioms of the writers all over the world who write in English. There is a demand as it were in the past for the creation of an Indian English idiom to give authenticity and identity to post nineteen-sixty Indian poetry in English. It is a fact that recent poets like Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, Shiv K. Kumar Daruwalla and a few others have succeeded to some extent in creating a new Idiom for Indian English. For example, Ezekiel uses a number of Indian words like “guru, goonda, burkha, chapatti, pan” etc. These obviously make it more Indian in sensibility.

Somehow a reader is always able to find what the Indian poet writes as ‘Indian’ because the Indian poets are tuned to be Indian consciously or unconsciously. Any other Indian poets in their own language are free from this entrapment. This is due to the fact that an Indian poet writing in English will be compared to its western counterpart and therefore its differences are noted. An Indian writer cannot escape being Indian in His writing because he is an Indian.

Indianness can also have positive effect for a writer. An Indian reader would prefer to read a poem that they can relate to, while at the same time, the same poem will be read by a western reader, will have the Indian effect and exoticness of the eastern world. A reader will be able to identify the poem as a work of an Indian.

Indianness can also have a negative effect. Readers from the west maybe confused with the Indian usage of English. It is to be noted that Indian English have not achieve a status of its own yet. C.B Cox notes that “ We now accept that American English has a character of its own,’ and that is the result of “ a tradition of great American literature. Indian English has yet to achieve this status…this creation of living language, a truly Indian English, is the task of the novelist and the poet”.

Indian poets have a certain disadvantages when writing in English, but poets always have ways of coping with handicaps, and sometime talents performs brilliantly with one hand tied at the back. And Indian poets are still able to perform brilliantly in spite of many handicaps.

Indianness: Illustrations from the Prominent Poets:

1) Jayanta Mahapatra:

All the prescribed poems of Jayanta Mahapatra deal with the Orian Landscape and possess Indian sensibility. In “Dawn at Puri”, Mahapatra underlines the importance of Puri and what it means to the Hindus. Women wish to die at Puri to attain salvation.
Mahapatra writes:

“ her last wish to be cremated here
twisting uncertainly like light
on the shifting sands”

The other points like the worshipping of the widows and their rites, crow’s cawing and the skull indicating poverty of India etc.bear Indianness

The poem “Exile” also presents about an Indian man. The village near the sun burnt hills, dead bodies burning on pyres, the protagonist’s ailing parents, the long-haired priest, the logic of good and evil etc. depict Orian and Indian life. The key lines that reveal Indianness are the following:

“Where a country’s ghost
Pull my eyes towards birth
It is an obscure relative I’ve never seen”.

The Lines express the protagonist’s or the poet’s hope for renaissance or renewal of past glory of India.

Thus Jayanta Mahapatra’s landscape theme includes all Indian spirit or sensibility and search for roots themes.

2) A.K. Ramanujan:

Prominent poet A.K.Ramanujan’s poetry also bears the note of Indianness. Indian sensibility can be called one of the themes of his poetry. The Indian sensibility of Ramanujan is sharpened by his Western education and environment. Ramanujan portrays the Indian scene from across the Atlantic with complete artistic detachment and irony.

In his Poem “ A River” – he talks about a river. A river is Indian in theme and location. The place is Madhurai and particularly Vaikai River. The description of the Vaikai reminds us any Indian river. The straw and women’s hair clogging the Watergates, the stones like buffaloes and crocodiles etc are Indian images. The names of the cows taken away by the flood, Gopi and Brinda are typically Indian. The Tamil poet belongs to India. And the Poet’s style bears Indian sensibility.

“Obituary” another poem by Ramanujan is also entirely Indian in every sense. The very idea of legacy is Indian. The things left by dead father are essentially Indian. The English used by the poet is also typically Indian.

3) Nissim Ezekiel:

The notable poet Nissim Ezekiel too brings out the quality of Indianness in many of his poems. In his poem “ The Railway Clerk”, the poet brings out the terms of relationships between the railway clerk and his wife. The poet writes the words of the clerk as follows. The clerk says,

“ My wife is always asking for more money.
Money, money, where to get money?”

This kind of expression and relationships are only possible in India, Thus it shows the Indian situation very clearly and bears the quality of Indianness.


Indianness is as inherent and integral to the poet’s true core as the peels of onion. It finds an authentic expression on the levels of both experience and idiom. Beliefs attitudes, thought processes, perception of the past and the present colour, the poet’s experience while images, allusions, myths, ritualistic patterns and similar other devices forms the texture of the idiom. On both these levels reader is aware of a typical, identifiable Indianness, which affords certain joy of recognition to the native readers and opens the cave of Ali Baba to the foreign reader.

It is not important for us to judge the work of an Indian English poet as ‘Indian’, but to find out if the poem is good or not. Indianness is just one of the characteristics of Indian English poems. If the poet is able to write in a good Indian sensibility, it is still a good poem. The language or the subject of Indian poem brings out the experience of Indian to non-Indian audience. As an Indian, the poet cannot hope to escape from Indianness, even though the Indianness in the poem maybe very subtle.

Indianness by itself cannot become a criterion or guarantee of aesthetic value. But the poet by being himself, contribute to the definition of Indianness, for Indianness is what Indians are.


a) K.S. Ramamurti, TWENTY-FIVE INDIAN POETS, Macmillian, 1995.

b) Vilas Sarang, INDIAN ENGLISH POETRY since 1950: an anthology, 1995

c) Dr.Shirish Chindale, Dr. Ashok Thorat : Approved Voices

d) King, Bruce P (2001). Modern Indian Poetry in English (Revised Edition), Oxford University press, New Delhi

e) Adil Jussawalla, Indian English Poetry, Published by Orient Longman Limited.

f) Other Source: WWW. GOOGLE.COM

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