C.Subramanya Bharati (1822-1921) was the trailblazer of modern poetry in Tamil. Like Rabindranath Tagore, Subramanya Bharati was strongly influenced by Walt Whitman. More than in any other Indian language the burden of tradition in Tamil is onerous. The transition from prosody to free verse was not smooth. For the Tamils have been writing everything from ‘songs of love and war,’ grammatical treatises and medical manuals in verse. Subramanya Bharati reflected the ethos of the pre-independence era in Tamil. But his innovative spirit made him search for newer forms in poetry. Subramanya Bharati’s efforts did not amount an all-out revolution since he continued to write in prosody and never forgot to set them to classical carnatic music. It is hard to imagine a personality like Bharati today. Only he could blend the worship of Shakti with the vision of the Russian Revolution. Thankfully he set the women’s liberation going, though today a few may nit-pick his thoughts about women’s lib. With Whitman’s free verse Bharati blended the powerful cadences of Vedic hymns. Aside from these his other sources of inspiration were Shelly and the Japanese haiku poets. With Bharati seeds of Tamil free verse were sown, though he apologetically referred to them as “prose poems.”
His cosmopolitan outlook stands in stark contrast to the parochial stance of his disciple Bharati Dasan, who didn’t continue Bharati’s efforts in liberating poetry from verse. In the hands of Bharati Dasan creation shrank to the constricting mould of habit. If Bharati was a ‘national consciousness’ Bharati Dasan was a ‘regional identity.’ Bharati Dasan’s disciples and imitators hampered the growth of modern Tamil poetry for quite some years.They forgot to realize that tradition is constantly being modified by both past and future as has been pointed out by T.S.Eliot. I.A.Richard’s observations reinforce this point further:
“(Poetry) must correspond to needs, impulses, attitudes, which do not arise in the same fashion for poets in the past . . . .Our attitudes to man, to nature, and to the universe change with every generation and have changed with unusual violence in recent years. We cannot leave these changes out of account in judging modern poetry. When attitudes are changing . . . poetry cannot remain stationary.”1
In a milieu that was hostile to the development of free verse the contributions of little magazines have been of supreme importance. Without any hesitation one can say that the growth of modern Tamil poetry goes hand in hand with the growth of little magazines. C.S.Chellappa (1912-1998)’s journal Ehzuthu strongly influenced the modern literature of Tamil. Along with Pichamurthi other poets like .S.Venugopalan, Nakulan, Pasuvaiah (Sundara Ramasamy), S.Vaitheeswaran, C.Mani and Dharmu Sivaramu made considerable contributions to new poetry. Chellappa brought out the first modern poetry anthology called ‘Pudhkkuralgal’ (The New Voices) as a publication from Ezhuthu.
Bharati pioneered the cause of modern Tamil poetry. But Pichamurthy (1900-1976) is considered the father of new poetry. Between 1934 and 1976 all that Pichamurthy wrote helped to pave the way for new poetry. Though controversies and polemics against ‘new poetry’ [puthu kavithai] were on the rise he steered clear of them.
Poets who followed Pichamurthi were called as Ezhuthu poets. This banner is very significant since these poets got their identity via the little magazine in which they published. The inspiration for Pichamurthi was Bharati. Though Pichamurthi cannot be called a disciple he is the legitimate successor to Bharati. Among the poets of Ezhuthu Nakulan’s poetry shows the momentary hesitation between thought and language. He is an existentialist who wrote cryptic and minimalist poems.
After Ezhuthu ceased its publication the cause of new poetry was taken up by the little magazine Nadai. C.Mani who happened to be its editor, Gnanakoothan, S.Vaidheeswaran continued to write in Nadai. When Nadai became defunct it was followed by KaChaTaThaPaRa , a little magazine which devoted itself to poetry and the arts.
The poets of Ezhuthu and KaChaTaThaPaRa had a self-enclosed poetic vision verging on solipsism. This ‘vedantic vision’ was not shared by the poets who were just emerging. A reaction to this kind of poetry came in the form of another little magazine called Vanambadi from the Marxist front. The magazine was for poetry but the contributors were academics and pundits. They were politically left and their mentor was Bharati Dasan. Poets of Vanambadi were committed to the leftist ideology but obviously lacked the commitment to poetry. Vanambadi became a movement encouraging a proliferation of little magazines of poetry. No one can deny that Vanambadi democratized poetry in Tamil which was hitherto in the hands of the elite. The Vanambadi group is equally responsible for making poetry dilute and plebeian. Their poetry was burdened with sanskritized diction and if Bharati Dasan had been alive he would definitely have arraigned them for such indulgence. Because Dasan nursed a populist nostalgia for a purer Tamil. The majority of poets under Vanambadi banner (very prominent are Erode Thamizhanban and Sirpi Balasubramanian – both Tamil academics) persisted in using the traditional prosody right till the end of the 80s. They could not face the challenges of modernity and ‘verse libre’ still eluded them. More comfortable with traditional forms their content was hopelessly antiquated. One exception was Abdul Rahman who tried his hand in various modes including surrealism.
Though pundits and academics cried hoarse against new poetry the majority in the end silently switched loyalties. From the 90s onwards the usage has changed from ‘new poetry’ to ‘modern poetry’. It cannot be interchanged with ‘modernist’ since there are a few who continue to write realist and naturalist narrations.
Pundits and enemies of new poetry had to stop their campaign since poets like C.Mani, Gnanakoothan, Dharmu Sivaramu were well-versed in traditional prosody. C.Mani, a professor of English, wrote a manual on the grammar of writing traditional Tamil verse. Today, viewed from a modernist perspective, if there is a tinge of quaintness in C.Mani’s poems that is due to his adherence to rhythm. Any discerning reader of Gnanakoothan’s poems will not miss the metre. Though Gnanakoothan retained the cadence and metre his modern outlook is dominant. He is known for his social satire and parody of Dravidian movements, Gnanakoothan can be credited with the pioneering poems he wrote in the surrealist mode. A short, stinging satirical poem goes like this:
For me too,
Tamil is the very
I wont breathe it down
(Translated by M.S.Ramaswami)
Dharmu Sivaramu (1939-1997) also known as Pramil (he kept changing his pseudonym almost every week) began writing in prosody. Sivaramu is remembered for his masterly use of imagery and he still remains the best imagist poet. Two of his oft quoted poems in support of imagism are ‘Meteor’ and ‘Dawn.’ Tamil poetry adapted itself to cerebral content with Sivaramu’s poem entitled E=Mc2. His poems are dense and reveal a violent yoking of heterogeneous ideas. Dharmu Sivaramu is a 70s’ poet and his truculence exhausted his poetic genius.
The contribution of Zha is significant as Ezhuthu. It’s editor Atmanam though a committed leftist never wrote hollow rhetorical verses like that of Vanambadi. If Ezhuthu created considerable talents in poetry in the 60s Zha almost achieved it to an equal degree in the 80s. Today Atmanam is a cult figure both for the Marxist poets and for those younger writers who are not ideologically committed. His mental illness and his untimely death by suicide have canonized him. Atmanam was a multi-faceted personality who was involved in poetry, poetic theory, Marxism, painting and music. He was a discerning and compassionate reader of both committed andavant-garde poetry.
The 80s saw the emergence of poets like Kalapriya, Vikramadityan and Devadevan, Pooma Eswaramoorthy and Devathachan. Kalapriya’s is a rural voice but his portrayals were shockingly fresh. His imagery was surreal, sadistic and to a large degree violent. He never hesitated in using colloquial language in his poems. Though addicted to depicting rural folk in their elements he made abortive attempts to escape from this habit by writing plain poetry.
If Tamil prose is already prosaic what should a poet do to raise it to the level of poetry? In the 80s writing plain poetry remained the conscious goal of many poets including Vikramadityan. The imagery was fresh and Kalapriya’s poetry was cherished for its characters like village lunatics, rural nomads unemployed youth. But poetry for Vikramdityan was plain not in the sense of ‘anti-poetry’ but just plain. The least consequential of everyday life and passing thoughts on personal experience formed the main stay of Vikramdityan’s poetry. He appended reflective or generalizing comment giving contrived ends to poems. Devadevan is perhaps the most prolific among the poets in Tamil. He wrote nature poems of the animistic kind.
Devathachan’s poetry is modernist in many aspects. Sudden and unexpected imagery and a surrealistic vision fused to a traditional perspective of life make his poetry very complex. Like Kalapriya he dots his poems with colloquial language but the use is measured. His output is sparse but qualitatively high when compared to his prolific contemporaries like Devadevan and Vikramadityan. Though he started writing in the late 70s he cannot be termed as a ‘period poet’ since his outlook emerges as new as any new comer to poetry in the new millennium. Devathachan’s poetry occasionally verges on the metaphysical but uses a homely diction. Though clubbed with Devathachan, Anand’s poetry takes the reader to a different realm of experience more aligned to the ‘time’s arrow’ and a personal world linking a cosmic vision.
Pazhamalai began his poetic career in the late 80s since it took time for him to wean himself away from prosody. He is an avowed leftist but is responsible in writing one collection of remarkable prose poetry (Janangalin Kathai). He is an orthodox and unflagging realist reveling in the creation of ‘human portraits’ through prose poems. His lean prose could not sustain him for the rest of his poetic career.
90s can be called the decade of women’s poetry. Krishangini and Vathsala, though comparatively old, published their books in the 90s. The feminist banner waving group which maintains a rigid and separatist line entered the scene only in the 90s: Malathy Maitry, Salma, Sugirtha Rani, Kutty Revathi. Vathsala is a feminist poet in her content and expression and not in attitude. But a section of the younger women are keen on labels and compartmentalization. While others like Kanimozhi, Uma Maheswari, A.Vennila Thamizhachchi, Madhumitha do not associate with the feminist group.
The younger generation of male writers is not as acerbic as their female counter-parts. Some of them write good poetry though one cannot find a parodist or an imagist or a committed Marxist among them. This is very obvious when 90s’ poems are compared to those published in 70s and 80s.
Promising among them are poets like Amalan Stanley, Amirtha Raj, Yuma Vasuki, Sukumaran, Ra.Srinivasan. Sharp images and incisive lines make poems of Yuma Vasuki a pleasure to read. Though Sukumaran’s early poetry was characteristically imagistic he now writes plain poetry. Makaranthan and Sathyan can be rightly called 80s’ poets. But Sathyan has completely stopped writing poetry. This has happened to a few male poets who have stopped abruptly after their first collections. Joseph D.Samy and Malai Samy are other examples. Poets like Kuvalai Kannan publish their first book and wait a long while to publish their second.
Comparative new comers like Sri Nesan, Kandarathithan, Kari Kalan, Rani Thilak, Devendhira Poopathi and Pazhanivel have published promising first collections.
The poem is a passage or a vehicle or a means to relate the private world to the public. The attempt to relate the individual consciousness to a social and political context is missing in the 90s poetry. Among the contemporary male poets there are those with something to say and a lot of others who simply enjoy making poems. Poets like Ramesh-Prem, Sankara Ramasubramanian, Laxmi Manivannan, Yavanika Sriram belong the latter group. Dreams, memories, anecdotes, grotesquery are the themes that these poets revel in. Nihilism, blackness and perversity dominate their narration. They follow a negative aesthetic and the poems read like worked-up diary prose.
Before concluding I would like to record my observation that the tradition that still continues in Tamil is the one started by Ezhuthu poets.
1. I.A.Richards: “A Background to Contemporary Poetry.” Twentieth Century Poetry. Ed. Graham Martin and P.N.Furbank, The Open University Press,1975,
*. Modern Tamil Poetry, Tr.M.S.Ramaswami, Writer’s Workshop, Calcutta, 1988.