In Conversation With HS Shivaprakash— Owshnik Ghosh

Apr 21, 2023 | Colloquy | 0 comments

HS Shivaprakash and Owshnik Ghosh (from left to right)


HS Shivaprakash is one of the leading Kannada poet and playwright. He was also a Professor of Art and Aesthetics at Jawharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.  He is the Director of the Cultural Centre at Berlin, known as the Tagore Centre, which is run by Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) . He has seven anthologies of poems, twelve plays, and several other books to his credit. His works have been widely translated in a number of Indian as well as international languages including English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Polish, Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu. His plays have been performed in Kannada, Hindi, Meitei, Rabha, Assamese, Bodo, Tamil and Malayalam. HS Shivaprakash is also a well-known authority on Vachana literature , Bhakti Movements of India, and Sufi and other mystic traditions.


Owshnik:  When did you start writing poems?

 SP: At the age of nine. I was born and brought up in an urban area. I saw peacock only in the pictures. One day some man brought a peacock to our area. It was a kind of begging, they do all kind of dance and all. So when I looked at the peacock, a poem came to me spontaneously. It was my first poem. After that my father a very bad poet, but a very good scholar changed everything when I showed him the poem, wrote another one and published it under my name. So I was very angry, I thought it killed my poem. After that I never claimed my father’s inheritance in any way. My mother was from Tamil Nadu. She used to tell me the stories of saint poets, Tamil epics and devotional songs in Tamil. So they kind of seeped into my unconscious and that’s what made me take on poetry.


Owshnik: And what made you write your first play?

SP: I started writing poetry around 1973. My first book came out around 1975. I thought in my time, poetry had become minority culture. It had no public reception like poets of the previous generations had. I thought it’s better to do poetry in theatre. So I started writing plays to try out my poetry on stage. And it worked. They got very good reception. And later I was doing both poetry and plays. So my poetry was dramatic initially and my theatrical language became more poetic. So there was a good exchange between the two genres. In fact traditionally we don’t have a concept of playwright in the past. Kalidasa was not called a playwright, he was a Kavi . Bhasa was a Kavi. It is only because of the colonial period we started bifurcating the poet and the playwright.


Owshnik: We had Kavya…

SP: Kavya ,  both are called Kavya. Even fiction Kadamvari is called Kavya. So Kavya verse, prose can be written in verse also, but because of the western influence, we thought that play writing is an independent genre and then we started saying that there were no play writing in India before the English men came and so on. So these Babulokes started constructing the pseudo modern cultures.


Owshnik: You’ve translated most of your poems into English. So what is your experience as a translator of your own creation?

SP: Initially I never translated my works, I wanted other people to do it. Poet Ravi Chandra translated my work, Lakshmi Chandrasekhar translated my two, three plays published by Seagull. My first book of play in translation was published by Seagull at Kolkata. But after ‘90s I started writing lots of plays and then I got to know writers from all over India through my participations in national poets’ meet and theatre festivals. I wanted to share my works with others, so when other translators were not available I started doing the translations myself. But later on the same works which I’ve translated were translated by others also. For example, the international award winning translator Kannada Maithreyi Kamoor , she is also a good English poet translated four of my plays, which got published from Sahitya Akademi. What I notice is, when I do the translation I keep close to the source text. Translators do take liberty. Sometimes the translators do better than me, sometimes not so good as me, but I think any good work needs to have more than one translation. For example, I’ve translated lots of my poems and two of my books in English, my former student, a great historian and poet himself Manu Devadevan had done a series of translation of my poetry and in some ways I think they are better than mine. So I think not one translation exhaust the possibilities in other languages of a poem in the source language, if the poem is good.


Owshnik: Many a times we see that poets who translate their own works end up in a new poem itself. What kind of difficulties do you face while translating?

SP: Yeah, this is what A.K Ramanujan told me. He was a good poet both in Kannada and English. When I met him I asked, why don’t you translate your Kannada poems into English? He said… I would start doing this and end up writing another poem, so I don’t do that. I translated couple of Ramanujan’s poems. Somebody else also did. But it’s not always the case. For example, the Marathi poet Arun Kolatkar and Dilip Chetry wrote both in Marathi and English. They were good translators of their poetry and other people’s poetry. And my friend, Malayalam poet K. Satchidanandan, he translates his own poetry quiet well. In my case, sometimes the same poem comes out in English, sometimes I feel like changing it. But I never change it, because there are two objectives of translation, one is to as translation theory people call it effective equivalence. The translated poem should create the same kind of impact as the source text. But if you look at the history of India, our regional languages were sustained by translations, particularly the epics. And the model of translations they followed is not what we follow now. It is a kind of bhavanubad . In fact there is not word for translation in premodern Indian history. The word, Anubad we have in our modern Indian languages or it’s counterpart, in Urdu it is called tarjama, in Tamil Moḻipeyarppu. So I believe that, there are whole range of translations, genres of translations. There are complete equivalence to the source text and different degrees of deviations from source text. So all these translations have their purpose and we should be respectful to them equally.


Owshnik: You have widely translated Bhakti poems and Bachanas. Why did you chose such genres?

SP:  It is not that I’ve only translated Bhakti poems and Bachanas. In Kannada, I brought out a whole book of translations of poets from different parts of the world. Because in my time, the kind of modernism that was prevalent was a very limited kind of modernism. We call it Anglo-American modernism. So our poets were not aware of the variety of modernism worldwide. For example, in Europe itself  there are two dominant kind of modernism, the formal modernism like Eliot, Pound etc. And what I call the political modernism of socialist poets like Mayakovsky, Vasko Popa and Alexander Blok in East Europe. Even in formal modernism, Anglo Saxon modernism had a different character. Tone and image patterns of those poems were different. For example, Spanish modernism is very imagistic. And so is Portuguese and French. Whereas English modernism is less imagistic. So I wanted to include different modernist paradigms in my language. I named it Marurūpisuvudu, in Kannada, it means reshaping. Bhakti poems I started translating Bhakti poems because I discovered that they’ve a lot of relevance today. Bhakti poetry is not all bhakti. There are a lot of social and political dimensions. Tagore once put, the unity of Indian culture consists not in the great Sanskrit or Vedic tradition but it’s in our bhakti, tribal and folk traditions. I could see Bhakti poets in my own language, they used the language much more powerfully than our contemporary poets. So I thought there is a lot to learn from them. I was born in a community which inherits the Bachana literature of Karnataka. So I was exposed to them right from my childhood. Later on I read Kabir , Tukaram , Ramprasad Sen   and others. AK Ramanujan had translated Tamil and Kannada Bhakti poetry. I discovered that the translation was good, but we needed another kind of translation because his translations were most often… it was interested in making it into good English, when lots of important significations of the source texts are lost. I also translated Tamil Bhakti poets into English and Kannada. And I wish I could do more and I’m encouraging other young people to do it.


Owshnik:  You had been the editor of Indian Literature. So as an editor what were the things you focused on?

SP: I’d a very good predecessor, Satchidanandan. He was the editor before me. Because he became the secretary of Sahitya Akademi the place fell vacant and I got selected. So Satchidanandan had focused on different prominent trends of Indian Literature like Dalit Literature, women’s Literature and so on. I started doing single language focused issues. Specially Assamese, Manipuri, Bhojpuri and so on. I tried to extend into Tribal languages and the non mainstream languages- Rajasthani, Garhwali, Bodo, Rabha, Konkani and so on. I was appreciated but also criticized by a lot of writers. They said, they are not good literature. I asked them, “how do you know what you are writing are the best?” There are other writing possibilities in India and we’ve to reflect all that. After I issued the issue of Garhwali literature, people from Garhwal discovered themselves and set up their own Garhwali Sahitya Parishad . So these things happened.


Owshnik: You are considered one of the pillars of the Modern plays in India. So when you started writing what was the scenario around you?

SP: See, Indian playwrights have become cliché. Among those so called glorified modernist playwrights of those days, if I consider somebody a very great playwright that is Vijay Tendulkar. See what happened was, these playwrights so called major playwrights, they were Euro centric modernism. And they had not learnt from the native theatrical traditions, which are very different, which are much more significant these days. For example, theatre is becoming more and more of a light and sound show. It’s becoming a part of cultural spectacles, extravaganza. So now because of the government patronage and multinational patronage theatre, it is becoming as expensive as cinema. One director spent four or five crores for a production. The moment we do that, innovation takes a back seat. I think in our age, though postmodernism is invading all areas of culture, creative expression is threatened even today. All great writers in our languages are writing with this kind of anxiety about the state of the form and conditions because somehow I think the values of globalization and post capitalism go against the grain of creative expression. I strongly believe that art value can’t be marketable. I’m not telling that don’t sell or buy your books or sell your painting or ticket of theatre productions. You can do that to keep this going, but the profit becomes the main motive. Like, it has become with the bollywood cinema. There is some basic compromise, artists have to make. So I wanted to retain that autonomy of artist’s imagination. I wanted to write that kind of plays which don’t require a huge budget because the more the production budget, it becomes the more you tend to go to government and MNCs these days. Just as our Bhakti poets rejected the court, not that they set a war against them, they stayed out of them. That’s how they could create new cultures, expressions. I mean it to do that in our own times.


Owshnik: You’ve been to Iowa University as an Honorary Fellow. How was that experience of meeting writers coming from different parts of the world?

SP: That was a wonderful exposure for me. There were two major moments of my creative evolution. One was my exposure to other fellow Indian poets, which happened in Bharat Bhawan. When Ashok Vajpeyi was there. He is a great cultural figure in India. Though a lot of people are his enemies but what he did, nobody had done. Politicians never interfered with Bharat Bhawan. He organised huge poetry festivals, lots of translation workshops. That was the time when I got to know many poets. I could meet and interact with so many poets like Nicanor Parra from Chile, Miroslav Holub from Czechoslovakia and other poets from Middle East, Hungary. They were great poets. That’s where I discovered the possibilities of non Euro-American modernism. When I went to Iowa there were ten writers. I had particularly close relation with a Polish critique. My world view opened. The kind of response I got from the readers was very encouraging to me. It gave me a new kind of confidence. So when people criticize me I don’t bother much, because I’ve a national and international readership even today. The third important thing was that, I wanted to get close to the non European writers. That came with my exposure to the African and Latin American writers. I was also invited many times in Latin American countries. I had no property, I used my hard earned money to buy the forbiddingly expensive tickets to Latin America. Because I wanted to discover the people there and have been to almost seven Latin American countries. So that was another kind of learning experience. I think a poet should discover more of his own region. He has to be local at the same time, he shouldn’t become parochial. This is a Tagore model. He’d Bengal at the back of his mind but he was always discovering new regions of the world. Who would go all the way to Argentina in those days? He discovers Japan! I had also been to Japan and it was a great exposure for me. I’ve been exposing myself and trying to be the citizen of the world and also a very local person.


Owshnik:  Spirituality is an essential part of your literary works. What is your view on it?

SP: I’m not writing spiritual poetry. I’m writing poetry. I’ve been interested in spirituality. But poetry is not a translation of a particular philosophy or a view point or your personal perspective. As a person you have your own choices in life. But I also believe in poetry, there has to be, in Sanskrit we call it Sadharanikarna, we can translate it as inter personalization. I don’t endorse with Kabir’s world views but I can connect with him. And something so strange is that, we connect more with our poets in past than of those in present. So why is that?, because poetry has this characteristic called Sadharanikarna.   But our modern writers have forgotten this because they don’t even try to connect to pre modern Indian Literature. The great heritage of our classical traditions something about Sanskrit tradition, there was equally great Tamil Sangam tradition. One of my students has discovered a new dramatic text from Manipur, the frame work of the text is very close to ancient Tamil poetics. So there are lot more to be discovered. So yeah,  I’ve been spiritual, but I don’t like religion. I’ve lots of spiritual experience, some of them flow into my poetry. But I don’t want to mix my poetry and my spirituality. And what I’d like to say is that, as I understand art, I think the aesthetic experience is also spiritual. Not the kind of literature the Modernist, Post Modernist etc, would use, up to the early 20th century writers like Tagore. His poetry is spiritual but not religious. Even when he didn’t wrote about spiritual subjects. Like Hindi poet Muktibodh was spiritual, though he was a Marxist. Great poets have integrated Marxism, it helped them to create a new kind of spirituality.


Owshnik: My last question, according to you what makes a literary piece an Indian literature?

SP: I don’t believe in nationalism in literature, I believe in what Tagore called World Literature, Goethe called Weltliteratur. But if you look at India itself the literatures of our main stream languages have some commonalities mythological, frameworks, metaphorical and so on. But when Dalit poetry came, not all of them are great poetry but some are. It created a new aesthetics. What we considered to be the Indian literature, it challenged that point. Women started writing about their menstruation. The expression of sexuality was very different. Now lots of Adibasi poetry is coming, which is again challenging the paradigm of Indian literature. I went to a place in Costa Rica I felt that I was not in America but in Jharkhand. So what is this? It is the literature produced in India, but it’s variety is inexhaustible. Well there are some commonalities, but we can’t reduce it to that. We should explore the intertextuality and inter contextuality. For example a lot of Pakistani poetry, Bangladeshi poetry. I don’t see fundamental difference between Bangla poetry written in Bangladesh or West Bengal, or Tamil poetry written in Malaysia. There are greater Tamil poets from Sri Lanka than in Tamil Nadu. I do think we should try to be free from these clichés.


Also, read On Translation and Culture— In Conversation with Damodar Mauzo , interviewed by Subhadrakalyan and published in The Antonym:

On Translation And Culture— In Conversation With Damodar Mauzo

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Owshnik Ghosh

Owshnik Ghosh

Owshnik Ghosh completed his masters in Comparative Indian Language and Literature from The University of Calcutta in 2022. He is engaged in a number of translation projects. He is a bilingual writer and his works are published regularly in literary journals. At present he is pursuing a course in ‘Translation in practice’ at Jadavpur University. His dream is to see a world without all kinds of boundaries and dedicates all his works to that dream.


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