It is always a difficult task to appraise a poet almost 100 years after she has stopped writing. Especially if she enjoyed some popular success and was a larger-than-life public figure. Trying to sum up Sarojini Naidu is an interesting challenge today since we are not only trying to place her among the rank of Indian poets writing in English in the 20th century, we are also attempting to situate the contemporary criticism in India and the West at that time. Poetics and poetry too underwent the modernist revolution of Eliot and Pound with ā€˜the shot of the third line of Prufrock heard around the globeā€™ while she was beginning to write and getting recognized in the 1920s. And the huge gap between our sensibility now and what it was then is glaringly obvious. 

Although much of that vaunted modernist revolution in poetry has passed, we are now seeing new lines of development and thought in the post-modernist world with its experimentations in myth and form, in Deconstruction, Structuralism and Post-Structuralism, and even attempts at writing meta-fiction in poetry. English has become as much a natural language of expression for Indian writers and poets, and they are facile with it as with any other national language. Indian writing in English has acquired confidence and is well-respected internationally, but more so in prose and our English poetry has yet to mature fully. The influence of Eliot and Pound has waned in literary criticism and critics like Harold Bloom have not only summarily rejected it but called it extremely pernicious and flawed. 

How shall we attempt to critique her art and craft now? Her authenticity of voice? Her inspiration and poetic achievement if any? To place her in the canon of Indian English poetry giving her a proper estimate and valuation while allowing a fair-minded review of her verse with an objective yet sympathetic eye? To attempt to judge without theory or didacticism or with the prejudice of an ear accustomed to different rhythms and metrical phrase? And eventually, to see if we can learn something from her, even from such distance, if there is a criticism possible that approaches her as the ā€˜isolated continuumā€™ of her times. And perhaps even learn about the criticism at that time that might have encouraged her or thwarted her?

To me, judging a poet almost a century later requires the critic to do intense research, requiring an understanding of the technical, popular and contemporary value of the work, while attempting to discard perhaps all the accretions of time and eventually approach him or her as poetry qua poetry. As a work of art and nothing else, and as Allen Tate has pointed out, to study the wedding of the idea with the material medium. This is a considerable task especially after the oppressive milieu she suffered from at the hands of Indian critics while being discarded by contemporary criticism and fellow poets to such extent that collections of her work are not even easily available.

Makarand Paranjape, poet, scholar, researcher, teacher, has performed a stellar service in compiling her selected poetry and prose, with detailed commentary about her challenges, needs, roles and burdens as one of the early Indian poets in English, strutting the ramp for a western audience and the literati. The publication by Rupa is extensively researched and curated, with a comprehensive introduction of her over and has now seemingly been made readily available.

Fortunately, thanks to our modern tendency to reject everyone who might be a little different than our own poetics, especially in contemporary Indian criticism and alochana, I had never read her before. And this allowed me to give my unbiased opinions without a personal agenda, to the extent that it might be considered worthwhile to do so. Having only heard of her in negative undertones by poets such as Nissim Ezekiel and his ilk, I could now start afresh rejecting both the appraisals: a wide-eyed uncritical praise for her personality and contribution to the national struggle for independence as the Bharat Kokila and the equally uncritical damnation by modern criticism.

Reading her without any other prejudices, one immediately notices a gift for the lyric in her poetry. There is a mastery of form and rhythm though in her limited sound-schemes. Her famous verse experiment about the palanquin bearers is a charming attempt to create anapaestic and dactylic rhythms that reflects the physical movement of the bearers:

Lightly, O lightly, we bear her along,

She sways like a flower in the wind of our song;

She skims like a bird on the foam of a stream

She floats like a laugh from the lips of a dream.

Gaily, O gaily we glide and we sing,

We bear her along like a pearl on a string.

Even though it evinces no depth of emotion or feeling for them, it seems to be a significant technical accomplishment, which must never be underrated. Without innovations, modern poetry would be very poor indeed; even with Eliot and Pound we see constant experimentation and many failures, and yet, some of them open up new possibilities in versification.

Thus, the modern tendency to reject her metrical experiments has no value and seems puerile and mean. The second aspect that stands out immediately is her Indianness. Her images, themes, motifs, colors, metaphors, experiences are entirely Indian. The criticism one may apply is that there is an almost Brahminical distance from her subjects, a kind of dilettantish descriptiveness, without identifying with the dancers, or sati, or old singers that she sings about. This seems to annoy the modern Indian critic, first due to the classicism and traditionalism that she tried to observe, and second, the detachment from subject matter makes the poetic experience airy and fleeting. There may be some truth to the critique that she wrote verse and not poetry. But that can be said even about TS Eliot himself and so many other modern poets.

The third important aspect to her poetry is her idealism, the Hindu Muslim Unity that stands shattered today, and seems too naĆÆve and simplistic even in those times. It seems to clog her poetry at times even though she seems sincere about bringing in Arabic and Persian sounds in her prosody. 

What redeems her poetry though is that there is no falsetto in her note. It is not superficial; there seems to be a genuine interest in the subject matter, an attempt to honestly depict their condition although a deeper identification, an inspired winging of the rhythm has not happened, that would carry us on its melody and the native experience.

A narrow talent and capability served in a faithful manner is my impression of Sarojini Naidu. She is rooted in her ethos, mannered and sensitive though with a narrow range of interests, formal and classical. But there is a spiritual aspiration lurking underneath, it seems, whether it is for Krishna or the Buddha on a Lotus. Even in her attempts to express something authentic and spiritual, she remains structured, unexpressive of the deeper and authentic feeling, restrained though graceful and feminine.

The obstruction in natural expression, it seems to me, came due to the superficial and practical philosophy of life that was often taken as profound by national leaders at that time, especially by MK Gokhale and MK Gandhi, with their slipshod world-view, at once generous and rigid, eclectic and pragmatic. Thus, Sarojini remained an esthete who was unable to bring out the psychic note in her lyrical attempts; the transmutation of language and its alchemy are missing in the final analysis.

Sarojini is not a colossal failure nor was she the greatest achievement of Indian poetry in the 20th century. To say either of the two would be too unfair to her. She is a cautionary tale for the poet who wants to sing the Indian story, but is held to shackles by expectation from the white sahibs on the one side, and the derision and lack of understanding by the brown newly-minted sahibs on the other.

Sarojini remains curious, likable but does not make us ā€˜wonder-wounded hearersā€™ if we may use Shakespeareā€™s phrase. The inevitability of the musical phrase is missing and the ā€˜meter-making argumentā€™ that Emerson insisted on is substituted by meter-making propitiations of the critic. This is a challenge for the Indian poet writing in English even to this day. Whom to cater to but oneself in this tweezer grip of prejudice from the West and the Indian critical mind, which has been mediocre at best in the last 5 or 6 decades? To find the right poise, to create a space away from the post-colonial mindset, and yet, away from the Eliotic and Poundian oppression, what is sometimes called ā€˜the great western butterslideā€™. To be who you are is what distinguishes the true poet from the rest. Sarojini did not fail in authenticity but in creating a language of metamorphosis, of transformative experience.

She could not create the word-magic of a Shelly or a Swinburne, although, I believe, she tried; she was too strait-jacketed to try out the modernist idiom. Nor was she able to create an intense fusion of feeling and expression; something remains stillborn, a partial articulation, as it were, without the complete esthetic splendor of victory that we see with a Hart Crane or a Robert Frost.

Yet, her achievements are not to be minimized and are there for all to see: to attempt to write in such a difficult environment, to be able to find an Indian idiom and adhere to it with a wide and nuanced expressiveness, is admirable and an accomplishment. It still gives her poems their freshness and sense of youth and dreaminess. The soul of India that she tried to find would have needed a far deeper treatment and personal evolution which a person in her circumstances might not be expected to articulate. 

For depicting the spiritual truth of India is not an easy matter. Even a Yeats like occult description requires a mastery of the craft that is seen once in a century perhaps. But, I believe, she created a space for the Indian writer and artist of the future to be proudly Indian in depicting our own experience.  

As I look at her rhymes they do not usually surprise. Her occasional attempts at blank verse break no ground. Yet, is she capable to writing lines such as these about a woman in the pardah:

Her life is a revolving dream

Of languid and sequestered ease;

Her girdles and her fillets gleam

Like changing fires on sunset seas;

Her raiment is like morning mist,

Shot opal, gold and amethyst.

Or this sonnet called ā€˜Love and Deathā€™, effectively executing the full movement of Petrarchan sound-scheme:

I dreamed my love had set thy spirit free,

Enfranchised thee from Fateā€™s oā€™ermastering power,

And girt thy being with a scatheless dower

Of rich and joyous immortality;

Of Love, I dreamed my soul had ransomed thee,

In thy lone, dread, incalculable hour

From those pale hands at which all mortals cower,

And conquered Death by Love, like Savitri.

When I awoke, alas, my love was vain

Eā€™en to annul one throe of destined pain,

Or by one heart-beat to prolong thy breath;

O Love, alas, that love could not assuage

The burden of thy human heritage,

Or save thee from the swift decrees of Death. 

If she had written more in this vein, especially the last two lines, she might have justifiably taken a much higher place in the canon of Indian English poetry. In the Western tradition of 600 years of English poetry, perhaps Sarojini would not have not been easily noticed; but in the Indian setting, she is a forerunner and a pioneer of the kind of poetry the Indian subcontinent innovate in, being modern yet ancient, being rooted and yet being able to freely experiment. The Indian poet and critic has yet not recovered fully from her predicament fully. Perhaps prose has to a much larger extent but the liberation of the Indo-English poet and critic may not happen unless the critic is able to accept the accomplishments of our past in the subcontinent.

To that extent, I believe Sarojini Naidu should be read by any serious student of Indian English poetry; I do feel that in some ways she gives one insight of the possibilities of our motifs and themes in future can be. And perhaps to free us up also from our own post-post-colonial mindset, one that thinks it is free, yet looks up to the neocolonialism of Eliot and Pound as its salvation. Finding that creative space is still the journey of Indian poetry in English, one that I am quite certain will be rapidly navigated and conquered in the coming times.Ā  For all that she is eminently worth preserving and perhaps will be for a long time to come.

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