A dive into poetic ecstasy

I always thought that I would come to Bhakti poetry later in life. It took me a while to realize that every doha (couple) from Kabir Das that was in my school textbook initiated me into a poetic and spiritual movement that dates back to the sixth century.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I understood how groundbreaking, profound and ecstatic the movement was. Bhakti poetry started in South India and then spread across the subcontinent. It wasn’t just the saints who sang about their relationship with the divine. They were often people who perhaps did not have access to the divine. Most importantly, they were women.

Wild women. Women who wrote with flair, passion and exuberance. To assume that this is merely a poetic move would be a disservice. This is both a cultural and literary movement, encompassing religion, language, social conscience and philosophy. In her foreword, poet Arundhathi Subramaniam says: “Welcome to Wild Women – women whose language is poetry (and how could it be otherwise?).”

This “baggy” anthology, to use Ms. Subramanian’s words again, runs to almost 400 pages. It is divided into three parts. Part one contains mystics, seekers and devotees. Two is Women as protagonists, and Three features Goddesses. Commenting on the selections, Arundhathi Subramaniam says that the poems are intended to provide a taste of a poet’s work, in the hope that this will encourage the reader to investigate the poet and his work more deeply.

The way in which the devotee linguistically deals with the divine, in its many forms and mores, appeals to me most about the anthology. The book contains brilliant translations of poets like Mani Rao, Dibyajyoti Sarma, K Srilata, Smita Dalvi, Anupama Raju and Mustansir Dalvi, to name a few.

In AK Ramanujan’s translation of Akka Mahadevi’s work we read: “Better than meeting each other/and mating all the time/is the pleasure of mating once/after being far apart. When he’s gone/I can’t wait/to catch a glimpse of Him. Friend, when will I have it/both ways, be with Him/but not with Him, my lord white as jasmine?

It seems that this question is answered in Molige Mahadevi’s poem. The 12th century poet and her husband gave up a life of privilege in Kashmir and moved to Karnataka. Chubby Mahadevi is one of the 33 women associated with the Sharana movement in the state. In one of her poems she asks: “O self-existent sacred form/ at the base of my palm/ why does not your light/ reveal the path to my eyes? Is it my slowness? Or is it your innate nature? Is it your mischief that is playing tricks on you? Is it because you are not in me? Is the divorce simply because/I am not as virtuous as you? O beloved of my lord,/the twice pristine Mallikarjuna,/become one with me.’ (Translated by Ahalya Ballal.)

In the second part, in which women play the leading role, we meet male poets who “invoke female characters or channel the female voice to express their desire to experience the condition of femininity.” The women we meet in the works of Jayadeva and Nammalvar, Bulleh Shah and Amir Khusrau, are anything but patient, long-suffering victims, languishing as they mourn their fate. Their desk is such an attractive feature of this section.

In the last part of the anthology we meet the goddesses. We read the Devi Mahatmyam, written between the 4th and 6th centuries, and considered one of the earliest texts devoted to the sacred feminine. In the unique Buddhist text, Chandamaharoshana Tantra, the goddess speaks and demands worship. “Women are the Buddha,/Women are the Sangha,” she declares with certainty. From the Khasi Mei Hukum or Earth Mother to the Parashakti of Subramania Bharati, this section is full of divine feminine power.

Wild Women is erudite, eloquent, mystical and beautifully memorable – a treat for the explorer, the learner and the expert.

Wereld in Verse is a monthly column about the best of new (and old) poetry.

(The author is a poet, teacher, voice actor and speaker. She has published two books of poetry. Send your thoughts to her at [email protected])

Published June 15, 2024, 7:21 PM IST