Tishani Doshi and Karthika Naïr discuss the legacy of mythology, the magic of transference and the differences and similitudes of dance and poetry.
So: Shall we begin? I wish we were sitting at a table together, preferably across a plate of samosas or dhoklas, but I am sequestered in my fishing village in Tamil Nadu, and you are in Paris?
Just today, I read this wonderful piece – ‘Dante’s Dogs’ by Alberto Manguel – and then I reread your Granta poem ‘Shunaka: Blood Count’ with its great invocation to ‘Sarama, divine / bitch, the dawn goddess / the fleet-one’, and it got me thinking (because you know I have a thing for dogs, bordering on obsession), how dogs are represented in our stories and myths and poems. And I wondered whether you wanted to start by talking about where the inspiration for your poem came from, and why Sarama?
I am not in Paris this time! So I cannot even go order a plate of idli-vada-sambar at Saravana Bhavan in honour of our virtual conversation! No, I am tucked away at the Villa Marguerite Yourcenar, on the Franco-Belgian border, an idyllic retreat for writers if there ever was one, but nary an idli nor a glass of buttermilk in sight.
Thank you for the link to Alberto Manguel’s piece – it is wonderful, with the allusions to dogs in Dante’s Tuscan lore, especially Saint Guinefort who stole my heart. And isn’t Lucy handsome?
Ah! Sarama. What a goddess, what a great non-human figure from the earlier canon of Indian myths!
To locate the poem in its larger context, I should mention ‘Shunaka: Blood Count’ is excerpted from Until the Lions, my retelling of the Mahabharata in multiple voices, an ongoing obsession. Several of those voices are minor characters, ones that get a passing mention in the epic or, funnily, act as vital catalysts and then vanish: soldiers and their lovers, unnamed handmaids, tribal queens, outcast warriors.
It struck me that both gods and men in the Mahabharata are quite callous to animals, time and again (that, often, has bloody consequences, but they never seem to learn). I wanted to include a non-human voice, one that would dispassionately witness and tally just how much damage men inflict on other species, on earth itself, for no real reason. Dogs play a crucial part at several junctures in the epic and I’ve been around dogs all my life, so . . .
There were three inspirations, two real and one literary. I modelled the protagonist – Shunaka – on my parents’ Indie dog, Shwan: diminutive, dignified and generally sceptical of most overtures of friendship from the human race. Shunaka’s unseen sister, the gullible Shyama whom she’s trying to dissuade from serving humans, was inspired by my parents’ very effusive Labrador. If Shwan were to speak, he would, I’ve always felt, take considerable pains to remind Shuni the Lab of the supremacy of canines when compared to humans, of their divine origins!
The invocation of Sarama: she seems to have enjoyed quite a significant place in rig-vedic legends. There are chapters where she is quite the heroine; she saved heaven’s cows, and, consequently, Indra’s reputation. Given the growing right-wing lunacy about bovines, I wanted to explore the role the much-derided dog had played in an earlier cosmogony.
But the direct literary ancestor of Shunaka is Ugh: Arun Kolatkar’s magnificent, laconic and debonair canine narrator, who opens The Kala Ghoda Poems. I’ve always been a huge admirer (and Sarpa Satra was one of the direct triggers for Until the Lions) – in fact, one of my greatest joys from Granta: 130 was the discovery that ‘Shunaka’ would be sharing space with Arun Kolatkar’s ‘Sticky Fingers’. I hope and hope he (and Ugh) would have approved of her.
And from Arun Kolatkar to you: or rather, from Ugh to animals – and more frequently, nature – as a refraction of desire in your work. I have been rereading Everything Begins Elsewhere, and I was intrigued by the quiet elegance, the precision with which you’ve captured cycles in a relationship: it seemed to me that if Countries of the Body explored the geography within, Everything Begins Elsewhere and some of the more recent poems are more interested in cartographing the voyages towards – and away from – another, and that the tools, the GIS, used are very often the elements. For instance, the opening poem in Everything – ‘Dog in the Valley’ with the striking:
I heard a dog
in the valley
puncturing the hills
with a sound
from a long
It was the sound
of a man and a woman
falling out of love,
the sound of a century
caught in the dark.
Or the tremendous ending of ‘Buffaloes’:
When I see buffaloes run
I think of love—how it is held
in the meaty, muscled pink
of the tongue; how quickly
it is beaten from us—
all that brute resolve
in the undergrowth.
And rain seems to have special significance: ‘Ode to Drowning’ (especially its third movement) and ‘After the Rains’, for instance, but also ‘Rain at Three’, the poem in Granta. I would love to know more about rain in your poetry, and the kinds of rain, its history, as it were.
K – The thought of rain feels so distant now. It has been months since we saw any. You’re right though, rain does appear a lot in my work, as do barking dogs! Part of my fascination with rain is that it’s the only season I know. I’ve spent very little time in places where there are more defined seasons, so I feel a bit of a tourist in spring or autumn or winter. I don’t know what happens in those seasons, and to place a poem in that context would be difficult. But rain, I know. Particularly the northeast monsoon we get here in Tamil Nadu, it’s the only separator between heat and more heat; it’s a period of flourishing, and things grow in this wet mud – including poems, I suppose.
I’ve been thinking about the inspirations for your Shunaka . . . it’s so powerful that you have the ability to link reality to literary and mythical ancestors. I love that you can take your parent’s dogs and connect them to Kolatkar’s Ugh and the Vedic Sarama. Do you feel part of a lineage that is particularly Indian, I wonder? I ask because I’m not sure I do.
Literary lineage perhaps – I think ‘Ode to Drowning’, particularly, but other poems in the last collection were certainly paying homage to the poet-saints Nammalvar and Basavanna. I carried around A.K. Ramanujan’s Hymns for the Drowning and Speaking of Siva with me for years . . . but I find it hard to make that leap toward myth – partly because of the aforementioned bovine-obsessed right-wingers and this argument of ownership (whose story is it to tell), but also because myth in India seems so alive, so present, it feels a dangerous arena to step into.
I recently published a novella, Fountainville, which was a retelling of one of the myths from the Mabinogion, and I was so apprehensive at the thought of tampering with other people’s stories at the start, but after a while it felt less complicated to me – to arrive as an outsider to these medieval Welsh myths, to appropriate and retell, because I had no direct relationship to them before.
I wonder did you have concerns when you started with Until the Lions?
I’m working on new poems now, different in musculature than Countries of the Body and Everything Begins . . . Countries was informed by my years as a dancer with Chandralekha, so it’s definitely the ‘geography within’, as you say, and with Everything there was a move outwards, a shift from what is grounded in the physical and sensual towards something less visceral, more to do with spirit. Now, I don’t know. Now I’m trying to hone irreverence.
Send me news from the villa!
I love the thought of the monsoon as a breeding ground for your poetry, with poems stirring in lush, drenched earth, redolent of petrichor. And speaking of rain, I am still slightly haunted by the parallels you draw in ‘Ode to Drowning’:
There are as many ways
as there are ways for rain
Warm rain. That has to be what I miss about South India while in Belgium – or anywhere in Flanders, where rain can arrive unheralded, ten times a day, summer, winter, spring or fall; where the rain that blurs sight, trickles down toes, and sneaks its way into voice and lung is invariably cold.
While on Flanders, life at the Villa these last days has been chock-full of activity, a lot of it outreach: I had readings / discussions with three classes of primary school students in a nearby town on Monday (all around The Honey Hunter, so the questions ranged from the reasons for the use of fuchsia pink on a demon-tiger’s tongue to the existence of six seasons in the Sundarbans); fellow writer Eva Almassy was at a distant high-school yesterday, where the students prepared a surprise staging of one of her novels; and tonight we all will have a session at the multimedia library in Lomme, where teenage readers – each assigned a book – will be quizzing us on our work. The Villa works very closely with the educational apparatus in the region, so the students see a lot of writers between February and November!
And it is raining again here. Jonquil shoots stipple the fields downhill. I think of rain and you, rain and you and Nammalvar and Basavanna and A.K. Ramanujan . . . the lineage we bear and create and discover.
Do I feel part of a lineage that is particularly Indian? That’s an endlessly intriguing question. Maybe it stems from having no background in literature, and uprootedness as a way of life since childhood, but I take after Kolatkar’s crow (though, alas, am nowhere near as balletic as he) and pick up things from all over, whether shards of mirrors and tangled bits of string or remnants of bone – lineages too, especially mythical – to build my nest.
In my earliest poems I drew extensively from Norse and Greek mythology, medieval European lore, pop culture . . . I think the notion of ownership never crossed my mind—maybe because the primary material I mined was performance, and it belonged clearly to someone else, so it all began with cross-arts appropriations. ‘Distant Music’ staged Ragnarök, or my version of Ragnarök, opening with an invocation to Odin. But it springboarded on composer Pierre Henry’s Objectif Terre, a monumental site-responsive concert-manifesto performed at the Grande Arche de la Défense. ‘Pillow Talk’ referenced Danse Macabre but instead of a scary, skeletal Grim Reaper, Death became a rather charming young man, smoking joint after joint. ‘Tempus Fugit’ tried to meld ‘The Red Shoes’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’.
And that has been the connective tissue through the years, the one ‘lineage’ that feels wholly mine, one that I don’t have to defend or find DNA for: dance. In fact, a lot of the initial poems (‘Zero Degrees: Between Boundaries’ and ‘Screenshots’, ‘Tempus Fugit’ and ‘Distant Music’) riffed on a performance to create another story or superimpose it with a myth that had no relation to the references of the original creators. Which was bloody cheek on my part (especially as I am not a performer), but most of them – even someone like Pierre Henry, who didn’t know me from Eve, as it were – were wonderfully responsive to my ekphrastic take on their works, generous in their encouragement. And with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan, the Zero Degrees poems I wrote actually catalysed our future collaborations. So, in a funny way, I may not even be writing if it weren’t for dance, and a dysfunctional body.
These days, I tend to draw from the movement structure of dance pieces rather than reimagining the choreographer’s story. Which can also be great fun, like with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s hypnotic Violin Fase, itself an answer to Steve Reich’s score. The structure is spellbinding, I just had to attempt to refract it in poetry: the whole pattern, its declension – repeat, develop, pivot, return, repeat, complete, retrace, reduce, complete – was irresistible. I’ve worked with it several times, but ‘Ya’aburnee’ was the first.
I’ve always felt dance and Chandralekha underpin much of your writing as well, in different ways. Sometimes in subterranean ways, but essential even when invisible, like musculature. Does the body channel or dictate those poems (I think of the exquisite ‘The Magic of the Foot’ in particular)? Or does the mind record while you are moving and transcribe, transmute it into poetry later? I’ve wondered what the process is when you are both performer and writer, instrument and observer, water and conduit.
You also danced almost solely with Chandralekha, if I understand right? I am fascinated by that focus, the dedication: in Western contemporary dance, almost the only parallel would be Pina Bausch’s dancers, some of whom spent an entire lifetime dancing with her. And, of course, like Chandralekha, Pina Bausch often created work with specific dancers in mind, it was generated for and with the dancer. In the contemporary dance world seldom do choreographers and dancers work together exclusively, both due to financial constraints (we don’t have the means to give permanent contracts to dancers) and artistic desires (from both sides). Does that belonging – as I call it – make up for un-belongings, or complement other belongings? Does it materialise in prose in quite the same way? I know that even when I work with other choreographers – whether as producer or as writer – Larbi has remained my artistic home, my prime meridian, for many years now. It makes me curious about other dyad equations, especially the choreographer and dancer.
To turn from belonging to that thorny question of ownership that we face a great deal, especially in India now, thanks to the rising tumult we referred to (achieving levels today that we’d have found implausible in a work of fiction, even in satire, just a few years ago). When I began working on the Mahabharata, I really didn’t think about it. Perhaps because the India I grew up in (so different from today’s India) was one where different belief systems, myths and lore rubbed shoulders and percolated (or stepped into, to retain the earlier analogy) each other’s space willy-nilly, the spiked-iron fences hadn’t been drawn up.
My real concerns when I began working on Until the Lions revolved around structure. I fretted about chronology. I was anxious about channelling the Mahabharata through eighteen sets of narrators without turning it into a kaleidoscope of voices. I wondered whether I should play with time and place . . . the increasing mayhem of bans, protests, egg-throwing, threats and offence hadn’t entered my consciousness then. The irony is that some of the most inventive and incisive responses to the Mahabharata (or other epics) – academic and imaginative – come from the 60s and 70s, many in regional languages. Isn’t it a tragedy that we are allowing irrationality, insularity and – indeed – this misplaced sense of ownership to engulf the magnificent spirit of enquiry that led to works like Irawati Karve’s Yuganta, Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjay, A.K. Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas and so many more gems? Coincidentally, there’s this piece on ownership by Wendy Doniger.
Do you think there’s some light ahead? I despair, more each day. It feels like the space for expression, interrogation and dissent grows narrower daily, mostly because of a ‘let’s not offend’ policy which is the prevalent stance taken. It seems easy to forget that offence is such a subjective notion that just a few centuries ago Galileo could be sentenced for heresy, all for advocating heliocentrism. Do you have an amulet of hope for me? Some way to keep the anger, the leap tide of helplessness at bay?
And just as hopelessness over the threat to and curtailment of freedom of expression was at a nadir (from death threats to Perumal Murugan to the scrapping of the word Bombay in the lyrics of a song to the new Censor Board’s list of barred words to the beef ban to to to . . . ), the Supreme Court seems to be providing some redress.
Onward and upward, as a childhood friend says.
Forgive the delay. There’s been a beach party, much tequila drinking and a wonky tummy to contend with in the interim. But you asked for light, and it looks like the Supreme Court has dished some out! Lots more tomorrow I promise. My head has Steve Reich on loop and I have much to say about it all.
And so – it took a few hours to buffer the YouTube video link you sent. Where I live, you have to position electronic devices in specific spots in order to catch the 3G signal, but it manages eventually. What an extraordinary piece – very much ‘Then, and then, and then . . . ’
I interviewed Héctor Abad some years ago and when I asked about the writers he returns to, he said, ‘It depends on the hour of the day, the season of the year, because in literature you have to be promiscuous, you don’t have to be faithful.’ And so I think you are right to take after the omnivorous crow – to line your nest with this and that, whatever sparkles and catches your eye and snags your heart.
I was reading your essay on ekphrastic poetry and was struck by the sense of urgency with which you meet both the poem and the subject of your ekphrastic poems: performance art. ‘A poem is a moment I meet on its arc, one that will not stop to model, nor brook being recalled at leisure.’ And this very ‘transference’– the act of belonging, ownership, transformation, is magic, chamathkar. How it happens between the dance and the poem, dancer and poet, movement and words—
You ask whether I record while moving, and transcribe it into poetry later . . . And I’m not sure I can answer that in any truthful way as the act of poetry is still so mysterious to me. The urgency you speak of arrives only when the poem is being written, but who knows how long it’s been hiding in the reeds? But dance is always immediate. In that ‘fleeting moment’ there is such completeness. I have never felt it as a poet, and that is why I’m doubly grateful to dance, for having experienced the loneliness and the terror of the empty stage, but also to have had that live connection.
The worlds blur, of course. There is seepage. But I cannot say which has had the stronger hold, which is responding to which. In your villanelle ‘Tempus Fugit’ you write, ‘I think I would like to die watching you dance.’ Funny, it’s exactly what I felt when I first heard the music of the Gundecha Brothers, who have accompanied our dance performances with live music since 2001. I told them that I’d like to die listening to them sing. Chandralekha used to call them her ‘princes’.
I want to say one thing about the temporariness of dance. It’s true, of course, especially the failing body, God! But my experience has been different. I danced solely with Chandralekha, and I only ever worked on a single piece – Sharira. So, for fourteen years I have been immersed in a single work. Much has changed over time. Chandra died in 2006, but we still continue to perform the piece. And every time we perform it, there is this bringing to life, not just of her vision and choreography, but of a separate entity, almost. And so as a group, our decision has been that as long as we are able we’ll continue to perform it. I can’t imagine any other relationship or conversation as this is the one that has dominated my life, but it feels far more permanent to me than my life as a writer, which has always been fraught with so many uncertainties.
‘Leave the body on the border / of reality . . . ’ you write. I think it’s what we’re trying to achieve, whether we are the dancer or the one watching the dance, the writer or the one reading the poem.
Villa life sounds very convivial. I will be on the road in Vietnam for a few weeks, so I fear our conversation will have to trail off soon. But I leave you with a mini-Reich homage in the meanwhile.
Thank you for the mini-Reich homage! I really enjoyed watching the choreography accelerated and doubled, almost, by the visual effects.
‘But dance is always immediate.’ Your words transfixed me. They resound with a truth I’ve always felt in my bones, sometimes with gratitude and wonder, sometimes with envy, and articulated clumsily once when an interviewer asked me about the differences and similitudes in dance and poetry. Dance, I’ve always suspected, is imbibed differently than poetry – even by the viewer, who experiences something so entire, a physical transfusion as it were, that the whole body is the recipient not just the eyes. How much more intense and magnified it must be for the performer! (Though I wouldn’t want to generalise too much either, having seen performances so brain-deadening and exasperating that the body does react, but in far more disagreeable ways than I could describe in polite company!)
For me, dance has been calligraphy on water, the cat’s paw ripple that vanishes even as it is created, but one that marks the landscape in that act of evanescence. (Merce Cunningham, with a miniaturist’s gift for precision, once said that we should go see dance as we see a dear one whose time is near: because no two performances will ever be identical.) Maybe that’s why I write so much around it – for an eff of the ineffable, as Salman Rushdie wrote in The Ground Beneath Her Feet. So it is immensely reaffirming to read of dance as a resurrection, as you have experienced it these last fourteen years: as a ritual of revival, of reunion; indeed, as permanence itself. Sharira is such an extraordinary piece: I remember the awe, the sense of suspended time that enveloped me the first time I saw it. It was at the Southbank Centre during the 2010 edition of the Alchemy Festival (which is also where we met – as part of the reading Jeet had curated around his Bloodaxe anthology of Anglophone Indian poets). It seems to exist in cosmic time, a cosmic time not contingent on external divinities or some omniscient force but located firmly within the body. Which, I suppose, may rejoin the philosophic matrix Chandralekha sought to create through the performance? I saw Shaji John and you as elemental beings that contain the universe within yourselves. You exude, both of you, what I call ‘an intimate distancing’, a mesmeric quality, and few pieces embody it as powerfully as Sharira. What better portal to that cosmic time than dhrupad, and the Gundecha Brothers! Her princes . . . yes, I can see why she would call them that. They are royalty of the truest kind.
And what better way to pause our conversation than with the memory of this entity – I borrow your word – that transcends definitions of time and the body, twin and dear adversaries we cannot escape.
The Villa is swathed in fog; I can barely see the trees just beyond my window. These are the last days of the residency and I return home for a bit: Paris, the Met Dept. promises, will be sunnier – if far more polluted – by the time I am back. Satyavati – whose voice runs as a skein through Until the Lions – clamours for attention, and I’ll need to finish that before dance reclaims me. Bon vent, as the French say, for Vietnam. And I hope the next time we will resume at a table together, with victuals to garnish the conversation.
Much love, and a basketful of spring,