[Issue 5 / May 2013]

The Kural And The Art of Poetry by Manjul Bajaj

The kural is a couplet most famously deployed in the Thirukural, a classic of ancient Tamil literature. The book comprises of 1330 kurals written by Valluvar in the 1st century BC which together form a discourse on the art of living divided into three sections tackling Dharma (duty), Artha (wealth) and Kama (desire). It is so minimalistic a form that it makes the haiku seem long winded and superfluously wordy in comparison. Quite simply a kural is a poem like this

Four words written above

And three beneath

The notion of a poetic form that demands only seven words is an intriguing one and begs the following question – what do we call a poem and what distinguishes it from prose? When should a particular construct of seven words not be called a sentence and be deemed a poem instead?Another question comes quick on its heels. Does the form have to remain frozen in time, the subject of ponderous translations and commentaries?  Surely if it was equal to a discourse on 1st century BC cogitations on duty and desire, it should be able to lend itself to more modern day ruminations on life?

Still it is not without trepidation that I decide to embark on a journey to explore the kural format directly in English. There is a pesky little voice inside my head squeaking-squawking Tamil terima? Tamil terima? No, I don’t. I have no Tamil, but plenty of poetry so you go heckle someone else while I do this, I tell it firmly and get back to the starting point of the exploration – When should a particular construct of seven words not be called a sentence and be deemed a poem instead?There are rules of grammar the pesky little voice pipes up again. I have to tell it to shut up again – Tamil grammar rules belong to Tamil. We’re doing this in English, ergo no grammar rules. So to get back to the question –When should a particular construct of seven words not be called a sentence and be deemed a poem instead?

Images. That was the first word that flashed across the mind screen by way of an answer. Poems are rich in images, so I decide to play around with images. The second clue came quickly after, from the structure of the kuralitself—four words and then three—it seemed to beg for some sort of juxtaposition, of contrasting images, or an image counterpoised against a thought or feeling. So here are the first three attempts:

green branches of trees

slicing the sky

****

laden lashes, eyelids tremble

then cleansing rain

****

steaming rice, aroma rises

whiffs of home

****

and then because I can’t resist the urge I juxtapose two languages – a have only a teaspoon of Tamil but it’s just right for dishing out what I have in mind

white idlis steaming hot

podirombhakaaram

a loose translation would go like this:

white  idlis steaming hot

red hot chutney

When you have only seven words to work with you have to cut to the chase very quickly – the more universal the image the better it will work, I decide. That is why perhaps haikus with nature themes ring home so clearly. So I decide to do a few explorations along that path:

mud splotches my windshield

it’s April rain

****

mosquitoes in my ear

hum summer’s here

****

new leaves unfurl tender

emissaries of spring

Then I decide to explore urban landscapes a bit, quest for a few abiding images therein or moments of connect-disconnect

eyes vacant, car idling

light turns green

****

life in the fast-lane

driving me insane

****

luxury flats, crore each

pigeon shits freely

****

Other topics with a universal resonance I figure would be nationalist sentiment, or babies or food and cooking, so next I take a stab at each of those:

saffron, green, white, colours

of our pride

*****

bath time for baby

splash, gurgle, coo

*****

tadka from her dal

splutters his face

This last I like very much – it is multi-layered, open to interpretations, it raises a few questions in its wake. So I decided to move along that trail… get cryptic and explore emotional terrain simultaneously. The results are not bad:

broke the mirror today

searching for myself

*****

Rumi among the roses

Laughing at thorns

*****

a sorry means nothing

unless it’s meant

*****

once upon a time

stories began differently

And then of course there is that mother of all poetic themes to delve into – love. And loss. Funny how the two words go together – they at least are faithful to each other.

your dreams of me

haunt my sleep

*****

my heart weeps for

what never was

*****

boulevard of broken dreams

one way street

*****

It’s been a rich harvest for one afternoon but I’m not done yet. Poetry for me has often been a succinct way of making a comment on society or espousing a cause. I decide to try a few of those before calling it a day.

for every girl unborn

a son unwed

*****

monuments smelling of urine

our proud history

As I get ready to sign off I think how poetry means different things to different people. For some it lies in the rhyme and rhythm, for others in the undulations of sound, or in the richness of imagery or in the convulsions of feelings it stirs. Each to his own. To me poetry is primarily about telling the truth, and about seeking insights into life, grabbing a familiar truth at an altogether different angle and saying it so sharply that it startles or hurts or brings out a shout of laughter or a smile of recognition.  The kural, I conclude, in only seven words, has the power to do all that and more. So sparse is its structure that it puts you in a zen state of being even before you begin – there simply is so no space here for untruths.

*

Manjul Bajaj grew up in Lucknow. She studied Economics at Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi, and did her post graduation from the Institute of Rural Management at Anand. She has worked as a consultant in the field of rural development and the environment. She now lives in Gurgaon with her husband, two sons and a dog. She is the author of  ‘Come, Before Evening Falls’ and ‘Another Man’s Wife’.

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Manjul Bajaj grew up in Lucknow. She studied Economics at Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi, and did her post graduation from the Institute of Rural Management at Anand. She has worked as a consultant in the field of rural development and the environment. She now lives in Gurgaon with her husband, two sons and a dog. She is the author of  ‘Come, Before Evening Falls’ and ‘Another Man’s Wife’.

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