More verb than noun, more seeker than spokesperson: Arundhathi Subramaniam


The best part about her territory of metaphors is that there are hidden corners of the heart, spaces where you are allowed to be vulnerable. There lie yearnings at their most profound. One is always allowed to enter newer lands, and there is an assurance that no doors will be closed behind.

As one of India’s most important poets, Arundhathi Subramaniam, who has to her credit four poetry collections including ‘Love Without a Story’, ‘When God Is a Traveller’, ‘Where I Live: New & Selected Poems’, ‘Where I Live’ and ‘On Cleaning Bookshelves’, besides prose titles like ‘The Book of Buddha’ and ‘Sadhguru: More Than A Life’ is busy writing some more poems and exploring her deepening preoccupation with the female voice and presence in the Indian mystic poetry nowadays, she says, “The initial weeks of the lockdown were difficult. There was much atmospheric unease. I did work feverishly for a while. But gradually, things grew calmer. There is now a certain quiet. It feels like this is the time to trust the pause, to see where it leads me, not be in a hurry to lead it. Some writing’s been happening. I published a few poems, including two in a newspaper. But I’m not pushing the pace.”

Arundhathi, who was drawn towards Bhakti poetry when her own spiritual journey took on a certain urgency recalls that the poets of that movement took her breath away with their irreverence, their hoarse longing and full-throated vulnerability. “I simply loved the gumption with which they addressed their gods — complaining to them, quarreling with them, making love to them, threatening to devour and even demolish them! It made for poetry rich in texture and surprise. I had grown up reading many of these poets. But I had not quite realized the unconventionality and fearlessness of their work. This is not the poetry of law-abiding worshippers, but of crazy, ecstatic improvisational artists who change the rules of the game.”

For this poet, it is important to read them for multiple reasons including the fact that they are not ‘professional’ poets, but amateurs, who come from varied caste, class, gender, language and sectarian backgrounds, reminding us of the plural and inclusive aspects of our spiritual ancestry, she says, “They demand a direct unmediated relationship with god. They see God as a birthright, not as big-shot, remote and unattainable. This means they give us poems that shake up hierarchies — including the one between the human and the divine. Yes, they are not always politically correct, but whenever the experiential overtakes the theological, their authenticity takes one’s breath away.”

Recipient of the International Piero Bigongiari Prize (Italy), Charles Wallace and Homi Bhabha Fellowships, the poet, who has been writing since childhood was also the curator for classical dance at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai. Writing extensively on the art form, she insists that it has been a major source of creative stimulation in her life. “I often think of poetry as language aching to leap off a page, and that’s exactly how I see dance: As the human body poised to take flight. And yet, both forms are deeply aligned with gravity too. They’re both sensual, capable of making the most abstract ideas seem thingy. It is that creative tension between the terrestrial and aerial that excites me. When I write a poem, I realise I look for its ‘spine’ — yet another metaphor I draw from dance and yoga.”

Optimistic about the state of poetry in contemporary India, Arundhathi, who was part of Bhav Sambad, a webinar literary talk show launched by Kalinga Literary Festival recently, feels that literature festivals have played a big role in bolstering the visibility of poets and social media has been instrumental in empowering many young voices. “Spoken word poetry has grown in popularity. Many mainstream publishing houses now have a regular poetry agenda, and we’ve seen the upsurge of small, tenacious publishers like Poetrywala and Copper Coin. At the same time, it’s important not to lose sight of the importance of cooking poetry over a slow fire. Poetry is for me a ‘dum-pukht’ utterance. It takes rigour, craft, hard work, time. Long hours of gestation, of revision, are important — and this investment of time is not just manual labor; it is a pleasure.”

As the conversation veers towards prose replacing poetry for many as they grow older, she feels that sometimes we grow jaded, getting brainwashed by a cultural climate that decrees poetry as an adolescent form, and prose, adult stuff. “We get disheartened by unimaginative teachers who talk about the ‘message’ of poetry and overlook its sensuality altogether. And of course, we also realize that poetry simply doesn’t pay the bills,” she smiles.

Talking about her experience with prose, when she wrote ‘Sadhguru: More Than A Life’, which took more than four years, the poet says that it was a roller-coaster ride, with many exhilarating moments and crises of faith. “Sadhguru was a fascinating subject — unpredictable, blazingly alive, deeply compassionate. But it took me time to find a tone for the book — one that combined wonder with an inquiry, the view of the ‘Bhakta’ and the skeptic, as it were. I didn’t want it to be a hagiography. And I didn’t want it to be a journalistic expos� either. That tone was arrived at with difficulty. But the journey was worth it. And yes, although poetry is my first love, I do write prose. I’ve written a Penguin book on the Buddha (in 2005). And I’ve edited anthologies — ‘Eating God’, ‘Pilgrim’s India’, for instance — where I’ve written long introductions and essays. I am thinking of a book of essays around contemporary women on the spiritual path.”

Stressing that her spiritual journey is about becoming a less divided person — more fluid, more open to uncertainty, she elaborates, “Earlier, I lived with many rigid inner divisions I was not even fully aware of — between head and heart, flesh and spirit, secular and sacred. It now feels like some inner walls have dissolved. That meant coming out of the closet, as it were, and accepting that I wasn’t just body or spirit, but both. I think there’s more room for dialogue, for humor, a greater willingness to admit that I’m confused or bewildered when I am. There’s more of me participating in my life than before.”

In these highly polarised times, when writing about Indian religious traditions and heritage can mean getting ‘branded’, the poet feels that many of us are trying to navigate our way through a world of growing dogmatism and jingoism. “My way is to be true, as far as possible, to the way I see myself — more verb than noun, more seeker than a spokesperson. I’m a traveler, not someone who’s arrived. And I write to share my wonder, my excitement about something, and to deepen my own understanding of it.”

Stressing that there is much to celebrate about our spiritual and cultural inheritance, she adds, “There’s a fair amount to critique as well. But my critique stems from passionate curiosity, involvement, from sometimes exasperated affection. That’s what the Bhakti poets remind us of as well: they rage at their gods, they swear at them, but they never stop loving them. Their rage stems from love, not ridicule. Their dissent is never disloyalty. I find that inspiring. I can be fiercely critical of my legacy because it matters to me. But I also love it too much to be contemptuous. Let me say that right now, there’s more gratitude than attitude in my life! And I like it that way.”