- A View from North America:Mirabai, Lal Ded, and Jayadeva
The following is based on a talk I gave on January 19, 2007, at Delhi University. I've incorporated a few thoughts from fellow artists: filmmaker Kumar Shahani and raga singer Vidya Rao. The afternoon was organized by Ms. Ira Raja, and dedicated to the bhakti poetry of Mirabai (ca. 1498–1550). Translations of Mirabai are from my book For Love of the Dark One: Songs of Mirabai (Shambhala Publications, 1993; second edition, Hohm Press, 1998).
My work with the poetry of India has largely been through Sanskrit, a wideranging, elegant, and complicated language, connected long ago to Greek, Etruscan, and Old Irish. The Sanskrit word-hoard is a vast, archaic vocabulary, which anyone can access through a dictionary; it yields images from our nomadic past, compounded words of great subtlety, etymologies that transport you to far dimensions, and a seriously learned approach to wild nature and human nature. A trip to India in 1973 when I was a young man set me to the endless task of translation, and I have lived with Sanskrit's shapely old poems and its intimate vocabulary ever since. For ten or fifteen years I never gave a thought to working with India's medieval song traditions, which occur in languages related to Sanskrit but different enough to require a whole other set of skills.
In 1985 the United States government announced the year-long Festival of India. This was kicked off with an official series of events—culturally wide open, considering the temper of Washington, D.C., at the time, which was irrationally fearful of atheists, immigrants, communists, hippies, drug users, socialists, poor people, environmentalists, and artists. The festival began with a "street market" on the Mall. Musicians, jugglers, acrobats, camels, oxcarts, turban-wearing craftsmen, sari-clad dancers, even entire museum exhibits were brought from India. Musician Ravi Shankar gave the inaugural concert to an audience that included President Ronald Reagan, high-ranking senators, and lobbyists from inside what we call the Beltway. [End Page 53]
Back in Berkeley where I was living at the time, my friend Philip Barry, manager of Shambhala Bookshop on Telegraph Avenue, pulled me inside the shop and asked what I knew of Indian poetry. The noise about India—full of art, images, and ideas unfamiliar to most Americans—had provoked a little flurry of interest in poetry. Nobody knew the name of any Indian poet, however, except Kabir, whose reputation in North America was based on two books. The first was One Hundred Poems of Kabir, translated many decades earlier by Rabindranath Tagore and Evelyn Underhill. That book carries the lingering scent of Victorian parlors, and is based on a manuscript that had surfaced in Bengal but disappeared shortly afterwards. Most likely none of its poems was composed by Kabir. The other collection was Robert Bly's The Kabir Book. Bly had taken forty-four of Tagore's translations and reworked them into colloquial American stanzas. There was a third small collection, but almost nobody was paying attention to Ezra Pound's stately translations of a handful of Kabir poems, done with Bengali poet Kali Mohan Ghosh and published in Calcutta in 1913. Beyond those three collections there was nearly nothing else in print.
That August the raga singer Lakshmi Shankar gave a concert at St. John's Church in Berkeley, concluding with bandishes (compositions) by Kabir, Mirabai, and Surdas, and with one of Tagore's own Bengali songs. I walked around the jasmine-scented fog-cool evening streets of the East Bay for days, high from her performance, and the following week wrote an essay. What I wanted to come to terms with was this tradition, bhakti or devotional song, so little heard in North America, so full of instantly recognizable sanity. Without knowing much about the lyrics, but with my head full of music, I could instinctively see a precise tradition of oppositional poetry, close to such American styles as gospel, hobo songs, and the blues.
By oppositional poetry I mean songs or poems showing—advocating, pioneering—a way of life that runs counter to prevailing civic good...