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Sachin Ketkar

Sachin Ketkar: Between ‘Swakiya’ and ‘Parkiya’

Suresh Joshi

Between ‘Swakiya’ and ‘Parkiya’: Modeling Literary Modernisms in Gujarati Poetry

In 1975, Suresh Joshi (1921-1986), the prolific writer who contributed the most in establishing modernism in Gujarati literature, published an anthology of modern world poetry in translation titled Parkiya or ‘the other man’s woman’. Parkiya was a culmination of two decades of work of translating and publishing modernist poetry into Gujarati. It includes poets like Baudelaire, St John Perse, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Pavo Havicco, Neruda, Pasternak, Jibananda Das, Bishnu Dey, Buddhadev Basu, Borges and many European, Chinese, and Indian poets. The book is dedicated to Professor Bhavanishankar Vyas from Karachi “who made him passionate about the other man’s woman ( parikya)” by opening the world of European classics to the young teacher from a small town called Valod in southern Gujarat who had come to work in the city. The distinction between Swakiya or one’s own woman and Parkiya is found in ‘Nayika Bheda’ of the Sanskrit kavya tradition, a tradition which is considered ‘Swakiya’. He also wrote critical articles on many of these poets which are collected in his book Kavyacharcha (1971). These translations and articles played a significant role in establishing the language of modernist poetry in Gujarati. Suresh Joshi, after being exposed to the world classics in the library in Karachi, is believed to have ‘tor[n] up the manuscripts’ of all that he had written till then (Cited by Birjepatil, 2001). He also disowned his first collection of poems titled Upajati (1955) in his 1961 collection Pratyancha. The story of modernism in India is the story of transgressing several linguistic, geographical, cultural and artistic boundaries and borders. It is also a story of crossing over of many boundaries within. It is also a story of translation.

The story of the rise of modernism in Gujarati resembles the rise of modernism in many other Indian languages. Suresh Joshi brought out an anthology of modernist poetry in 1971 titled Navonmesh in which he gave an account of the rise of modernism in Gujarati. He calls it both ‘navu prasthaan’ or the new departure and ‘kunthit saahas’ or the thwarted adventure. One of the reasons behind this new departure, Joshi notes, is the discontent with the poetry of the earlier generations which was largely the continuous repetition of ‘parroting of Gandhian sentimentalism’, ‘songs of pity for the exploited sections’, ‘social realism’, ‘elite, hypocritical and feminine expression of love’, ‘reflective essays in verse’, ‘romantic ebullience for nature’ and Gandhian humanism. Everything, Joshi notes, appeared insipid. Many discontent poetry lovers formed groups and started reading, discussing and translating continental modernist poetry in around 1956. This gave ‘a new direction to our taste of poetry’. Joshi also notes important social developments in this period. He says, “The Independence turned out to be perfidious, and when it was obligatory to prove ourselves and our mettle, we turned out to be inadequate…Before we could be strong enough to welcome the world, the world was at our doors….We experienced the destructive horrors of the wars and experienced the effects of dehumanisation. Our faith in democracy as a way out was shaken. The picture of man that emerged was that of the agonised, voiceless and defaced man who was lonely in spite of being in the crowd. The traditional values failed to live up to the ordeal of this situation, and the prescribed remedies based on these established values seemed like being prescribed without the diagnosis of the terrible disease of the generation. Hence pervasive disillusionment seemed like our greatest accomplishment. (1971: 7-9).” Suresh Joshi brought out two extremely influential periodicals named Manisha (1954-58) and Kshitij (1961-66) and in the words of Gujarati literary historian Dhirubhai Thakkar, ‘literally undertakes a modernist Jihad’ through these periodicals, especially Kshitij. He also carried informative critical pieces on visual arts and films in Kshitij (2006: 67). This story, of course, is an account given retrospectively, thus eliminating the role of chance and unpredictability in bringing about change in culture.

While modernity as a social and historical phenomenon in India has received significant attention from the various left-leaning postcolonial scholars like Sudipto Kaviraj, Arjun Appadurai and Partha Chatterjee, the category of ‘modernism’ as a literary movement/s has not received theoretical attention it deserves. There is a tendency to take ‘modernism’ for granted in the discussion of modernity in India. Very often, the major theorists of modernity and modernism across the world tend to collapse the distinction by reducing modernism, an artistic and cultural category, to modernity, a social and economic category as if the relationship between these two categories is causal, linear and deterministic. This tendency to conflate these two categories resembles the classical Marxist project of reducing ‘superstructure’ to ‘base’. Probably the absence of critical distinction has promoted the assumption that theorisation of modernism will be subsumed under the theorisation of modernity. While the relationship between the categories might be complex, the absence of this distinction would make us unable to distinguish between poetry of Narmad and Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, or Keshavsuta and Mardhekar and end up erasing the critical difference in their poetics and politics.

Hence, in order to theorise modernism in India, what is required is the acknowledgement of the fact that culture is far more heterogeneous, unevenly changing, and complex meaning-making (semiotic) phenomenon, than the base-superstructure model which reduces modernism to modernity would admit.

The view of culture as a complex and dynamic meta-semiotic system comprising of plural, unevenly changing, mutually interacting semiotic systems (languages) is found in theoretical writings of the Russian cultural theoretician Yuri M Lotman (1922-1993) and other scholars of the Moscow-Tartu school of semiotics. This approach is often called ‘semiotics of culture’ or ‘cultural semiotics.’ Among the whole range of theoretically exciting ideas in cultural semiotics, the paper utilises the notion of the semiosphere and the distinction between the gradual (linear and predictable) processes and the ‘explosive’ processes (unpredictable) of cultural change.

This approach goes beyond some of the limitations of Saussurean structuralist semiotics. The Saussurean approach was founded on the assumption that the only function of any semiotic system was to transfer the message adequately. This model, explicitly formulated by Jakobson (1960), became the basis of most of the later models of communication, which assumed that the addressor and the addressee share not just the same language, but also a completely identical code, a common linguistic experience, and identical cultural memory. The most desirable condition for the adequate transmission is the complete overlap of codes between senders and receivers of messages. Since this situation is virtually impossible, an intermediary is developed, which Lotman terms the "text-code." The text-code, of which the Bible is the most obvious example, serves an interpretive and prescriptive role in the transmission of texts (1994:1).

Besides, the very idea of code, he notes (2004), “carries with it the idea of an artificial, newly created structure, introduced by instantaneous agreement. A code does not imply history, that is, psychologically it orients us towards artificial language, which is also, in general, assumed to be an ideal model of language. “Language”, albeit unconsciously, awakes in us an image of the historical reach of existence. Language – is a code plus its history. (4)”. A minimally functioning semiotic structure consists of not one artificially isolated language or text in that language, but of a parallel pair of mutually untranslatable languages which are, however, connected by a 'pulley', which is translation (1990: 2).

In this bilingual model of semiotic communication, translation plays a decisive role in the generation of new information and meaning. In fact, Lotman goes on to define what is ‘new information and new text’ in terms of translation in a bilingual situation: “If the translation of text T1 from language L1 to language L2 leads to the appearance of text T2 in such a way that the operation of a reverse translation results in the input text T1 then we do not consider text T2 to be new in relation to text T1. (13-14)”. A new text or information, according to this view, is defined as that translated text which when retranslated into the matrix code or the language is not identical with the matrix text. He argues, ‘translation is a primary mechanism of consciousness. To express something in another language is the way of understanding it. (127)” and that “the elementary act of thinking is translation. (143).”

When the languages are highly dissimilar, for instance, one is a visual language and the other is a verbal or musical language, there is hardly any equivalence of similarity. In such cases, Lotman remarks, “‘illegitimate’, imprecise, but approximate translation is one of the most important features of any creative thinking. For these ‘illegitimate ‘associations provoke new semantic connections and give rise to texts that are in principle new ones.” Lotman building on the process of bilingualism and translation goes on to define ‘the semantic trope’ like the metaphor and metonymy, which constitute the essence of creative thinking and which are inherent to all creativity. He defines the semantic trope as “a pair of mutually non-juxtaposble signifying elements, between which, thanks to the context they share, a relationship of adequacy is established’ (38).” He points out that the principle of juxtaposition lies at the basis of various branches of the avant-garde, however, what is important, according to him, is that the meaning generating principle of the text as a whole lies in the juxtaposition of segments that are in principle not juxtaposable. Their mutual recoding creates a language capable of many readings, a fact which opens up unexpected reserves of meaning. (44).

As translation is a primary mechanism of generation of new meaning, it is hardly surprising that any period of heightened creative activity is closely connected with the activity of translating. In this context, Suresh Joshi’s Parkiya, mentioned before, or Dilip Chitre’s series of ‘Marathi Kavitela Saat Ched’ which introduced some of the most influential modernist poets to Gujarati and Marathi become particularly significant. In the cultural semiotics framework, these texts, which lack or partially have the language or codes of modernist idiom, become “text-codes” which play an interpretive and prescriptive role in the transmission of texts. In fact these translated texts themselves become ‘models’ for the later development of modernist poetry in the recipient language. Seeing such translations and text codes as ‘derivative’ and inauthentic is doing injustice to their creative and rejuvenating power.

Using Lotman’s model of communication to understand poetry and art can have radical implications for the study of literature and arts in the social and cultural contexts. According to the Saussure-Jakobson model of informational communication, language is seen as “as a machine for transmitting invariant messages, and poetic language is then regarded as a small and, generally speaking, abnormal corner of this system. According to this approach poetic language is seen merely as natural language with an overlay of supplementary restrictions and hence a significantly reduced informational capacity”. Whereas, according to Lotman’s model, “the creative function is a universal quality of language and poetic language is regarded as the most typical manifestation of language as such. From this point of view it is precisely the opposite semiotic models which then are regarded as a small corner of the linguistic space. (17).” It also becomes possible to view culture as a space made up of “the spectrum of texts” laid out on an axis, “one pole of which is formed by the artificial languages and the other by artistic ones.” Both these poles, Lotman warns, are ‘abstractions unrealisable in actual languages”. Modernist texts then would be those which are deliberately oriented towards the extreme of the pole of artistic languages.

Lotman argues that the Saussure-Jakobson model of semiotics is largely ‘atomistic’, that is it starts from a single, simple element – a sign or a single communicative act based on the Jakobson’s model. Such a model is a reductive one as it reduces the complexity of the object to be studied to a totality of simple. He points out, “A schema consisting of addresser, addressee and the channel linking them together is not yet a working system. For it to work it has to be 'immersed' in semiotic space. All participants in the communicative act must have some experience of communication, be familiar with semiosis. So, paradoxically, semiotic experience precedes the semiotic act (1990: 123).” The unit of semiosis, the smallest functioning mechanism is not the separate language but the whole semiotic space of the culture in question.

The Jakobsonian mono-semantic systems do not exist in isolation. They function only by being immersed in a specific semiotic continuum, which is filled with multi-variant semiotic models situated at a range of hierarchical levels. Such a continuum Lotman, by analogy with the concept of “biosphere” introduced by V I Vernadsky, calls the ‘semiosphere’ (1984: 206). Against the traditional reductive and atomistic model of semiotics, Lotman proposes a holistic and complex model. He says, “Just as, by sticking together individual steaks, we don’t obtain a calf, but by cutting up a calf, we may obtain steaks, — in summarising separate semiotic acts, we don’t obtain a semiotic universe. On the contrary, only the existence of such a universe — the semiosphere —makes the specific signatory act real (208).”

The semiosphere is that synchronic semiotic space which fills the borders of culture, without which separate semiotic systems cannot function or come into being. It is defined as, “the semiotic space necessary for the existence and functioning of languages, not the sum total of different languages; in a sense the semiosphere has a prior existence and is in constant interaction with languages. In this respect a language is a function, a cluster of semiotic spaces and their boundaries, which, however clearly defined these are in the language's grammatical self-description, in the reality of semiosis are eroded and full of transitional forms. Outside the semiosphere there can be neither communication, nor language (1990: 122-123).”

The other two chief attributes of the semiosphere are its internal heterogeneity and asymmetry. The languages which fill up the semiotic space are various (heterogeneous), and they relate to each other along the spectrum which runs from complete mutual translatability to just as complete mutual untranslatability ie they are asymmetrical. With the mechanism of translation as the primary mechanism of meaning-generation, the entire semiosphere is considered as generator of information (127). He notes, asymmetry is apparent in the relationship between the centre of the semiosphere and its periphery. At the centre of the semiosphere are formed the most developed and structurally organised languages, and in the first place the natural language of that culture. The semiosphere is crowded with partial languages, languages which can serve only certain cultural functions, as well as language-like, half-formed systems which can be bearers of semiosis if they are included in the semiotic context. Using this framework, we can visualise, ‘Gujarati’ or ‘Marathi’ semiosphere with the natural language of self-description at its core and multiplicity of complete and partial semiotic systems (languages) like clothing, recipes, political systems, caste system, visual languages of cinema, TV serials, commercial banners, architecture, literary and folk traditions of art and so on.

The semiosphere is always a dynamic system. “So across any synchronic section of the semiosphere different languages at different stage of development are in conflict, and some texts are immersed in languages not their own, while the codes to decipher them may be entirely absent. As an example of a single world looked at synchronically, imagine a museum hall where exhibits from different periods are on display, along with inscriptions in known and unknown languages, and instructions for decoding them; besides, there are the explanations composed by the museum staff, plans for tours and rules for the behaviour of the visitors. Imagine also in these hall tour-leaders and the visitors and imagine all this as a single mechanism (which in a certain sense it is). This is an image of the semiosphere” (127).

Another significant attribute of the semiosphere is the notion of the boundary. Every culture begins by dividing the world into 'its own' internal space, the world of ‘Swakiya’ and 'their' external space, the space of ‘Parkiya’. Paradoxically, the internal space of a semiosphere is at the same time unequal yet unified, asymmetrical yet uniform. Composed as it is of conflicting structures, it nonetheless is also marked by individuation. One of the primary mechanisms of semiotic individuation is the boundary. This space is 'ours', 'my own', it is 'cultured', 'safe', 'harmoniously organised', and so on. By contrast 'their space' is 'other', 'hostile', 'dangerous', 'chaotic'. (131).

The notion of boundary, in cultural semiotics, is an ambivalent one: it both separates and unites. It is always the boundary of something and so belongs to both frontier cultures, to both contiguous semiospheres. The boundary is bilingual and polylingual. The boundary is a mechanism for translating texts of an alien semiotics into 'our' language, it is the place where what is 'external' is transformed into what is internal', it is a filtering membrane which so transforms foreign texts that they become part of the semiosphere's internal semiotics while still retaining their own characteristics (136-137). The internal boundaries between multiple languages and the external boundaries between the semiosphere are semiotic hotspots, the translational sites for meaning generation.

In Culture and Explosion (2004), Lotman postulates that culture and semiotic systems change in two ways: they change gradually ie linearly and predictably or they change abruptly, non-linearly and unpredictably or in his terms ‘explosively’ (7). The relationship between the two processes is dialectical. He notes, “Culture, whilst it is a complex whole, is created from elements which develop at different rates, so that any one of its synchronic sections reveals the simultaneous presence of these different stages. Explosions in some layers may be combined with gradual development in others. This, however, does not preclude the interdependence of these layers. Thus, for example, dynamic processes in the sphere of language and politics or of morals and fashion demonstrate the different rates at which these processes move.” (12)

Lotman’s model of cultural change goes beyond simplistic, deterministic and reductive models. Lotman notes, “The future appears as the space of possible states. ...The present – this is the outbreak of the as yet space of meaning generation. It includes within itself the potential of all possible future paths of development. It is important to emphasise that the selection of any one of these is determined by neither the laws of causality nor those of probability: at the moment of explosion these mechanisms are wholly inactive. Future choice comes about by chance. Consequently, it possesses a very high level of informativity. The moment of choice and the cut-off point for potential paths of possibility and the moment whereby the laws of cause-effect once again come into play exist simultaneously.” The historical consciousness, however, retrospectively removes the role of unpredictability and chance. He points out, “In this way a radically transformative event occurs: that which occurred, as we have seen, by chance, now appears to be the only possibility. The element of unpredictability is substituted in the mind of the observer by an element of regularity. From this point of view, the choice was fictitious; in “objective” terms it was predetermined by the entire cause-effect motion of the preceding events” (14-15). Lotman notes, ‘the historian may be compared with the theatrical spectator who watches a play for the second time: on the one hand, he knows how it will end and there is nothing unpredictable about it for him” (126). Lotman’s interventions in the philosophy of history are critical even for a historian of literature. It is good to keep in mind that the account of the rise of modernism in Gujarati given by Suresh Joshi in the beginning of this paper is a retrospective and historical one which tries to eliminate the role of chance and unpredictability in the process of cultural change. In fact, Shirish Panchal (2004) in his brief biographical note on Suresh Joshi notes how Joshi purchased Franz Kafka’s ‘Great Wall of China’ from a footpath in Bombay and for Joshi, “nothing remained the same after that day” (16). One wonders what would have happened if he had discovered this works earlier or later or not at all.

Elif Batuman in the New York Times article “Kafka’s Last Trial’ (2010) tells us that during his lifetime, Franz Kafka burnt an estimated 90 percent of his work. After his death at age 41, in 1924, a letter was discovered in his desk in Prague, addressed to his friend Max Brod. “Dearest Max,” it began. “My last request: Everything I leave behind me . . . in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others), sketches and so on, to be burnt unread.” Less than two months later, Brod, disregarding Kafka’s request, signed an agreement to prepare a posthumous edition of Kafka’s unpublished novels. “The Trial” came out in 1925, followed by “The Castle” (1926) and “Amerika” (1927). In 1939, carrying a suitcase stuffed with Kafka’s papers, Brod set out for Palestine on the last train to leave Prague, five minutes before the Nazis closed the Czech border. For the historian of literature, we can only speculate what would have happened if Kafka had not burnt his works or Max Brod had not disregarded Kafka’s request or that the Nazis had arrived at Prague station before Brod fled for Palestine. We can also speculate on many such possibilities which were never realised.

Using this framework, if we think of modernism as an umbrella term for multiple Avant- Garde movements in arts which deliberately and programmatically intend to bring about ‘explosive’ process of generating radically new information and meanings in various semiotics systems ie the languages of painting or visual arts and fashion or the languages of literature or architecture, we can visualise how only these processes are found in only some languages while other languages like the language of caste, school pedagogy, or electoral politics change extremely slowly, in a gradual way.

The view of culture as a semiosphere complicates the idea of literary periodisation, which is important to understanding modernism as a period-related phenomenon. What Lotman says about Romanticism is applicable to modernism too: “we have also to take account of the fact that different languages circulate for different periods: fashion in clothes changes at a speed which cannot be compared with the rate of change of the literary language, and Romanticism in dance is not synchronised with Romanticism in architecture. So, while some parts of the semiosphere are still enjoying the poetics of Romanticism, others may have moved far on into post-Romanticism... This is why when we try to give a synthetic picture of Romanticism to include all forms of art (and perhaps also other areas of culture), chronology has to be sacrificed. What we have said is true also of the Baroque, of Classicism, and of many other 'isms' ” (1990:126).

Writing in 1974, Usnas, a well-known traditionalist Gujarati poet and critic notes, ‘Whatever is being written today may or may not be ‘modernist’. Sundaram, Umashankar, Rajendra Shah etc are not ‘modernist’; and Labhshankar Thakkar, Sitanshu Yashashchandra, Ravji, Manilal etc are ‘modernists’; which implies that the term ‘modernist’ does not indicate a historical or chronological period, it implies properties and characteristics, which means ‘ contemporary’ is distinct from ‘ modernist’; like Sundaram is our contemporary but not a ‘ modernist’ poet.’ The distinction made by Usnas between the modern and the modernist does not correspond to the distinction offered by EV Ramakrishnan (1995) between ‘high modernist’ and the ‘avant-garde’ either simply because poetry of the poets like Usnas, Sundaram or Umashankar Joshi is by no means comparable to what ‘ high modernism’ of Eliot, Pound or Stevens implied. EV Ramakrishanan’s notion of ‘avant-garde’ includes the subaltern discourses and the poetry of the marginalised sections of the society, something which would be classified as ‘postmodern’ in the Gujarati context which then would again leave out the poets like Sitanshu Mehta, Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh or Labhshankar Thakkar who neither belong to the Umashankar Joshi variety of poetry nor to the Dalit and the marginalised groups.

So what is it that makes avant-garde a modernist poem what it is? It will be useful in this place to juxtapose short ‘modern’ Gujarati poems by two well-known Gujarati poets Priyakant Maniyar (1927-1976), and Manilal Desai (1939-1966) and distinguish some critical features of Gujarati avant-garde modernism.1

I) On Beholding Falkland Road
Priyakant Maniyar

O how the fish floats in the sun!
As if some shooting star must have fallen here
The sea over here is watered by the sweetness of sugar
The showers of Vasant arrive in winter here!
Corpses of which love? Mysteries of which fear?
O Ananga! The Bodiless one, O God of Love
See, in what state is your Rati here!

II) Ahmedabad
Manilal Desai

Only in the eyes of the camels, you find compassion in Ahmedabad. Humans don’t have eyes at all. Walking on the hot tar roads, cataracts have covered their brains. I, too, live in Ahmedabad. I live in Ahmedabad too, and a translucent film has started to envelope me. The air conditioners of Niroz and Quality restaurants struggle to breathe in the Bhatiyar lane. The lane, however, casts shadows of the whores of Maninagar. The sands of Sabarmati have spread over every street of Ahmedabad, and the roads wait to be inundated by the frenzied floods. It wasn’t for fishing by the river, did Gandhi build Sabarmati Ashram, nor was it for dallying with the Ahmedabadi dames coming for a bath here. He, in fact, wanted to procure an auto-rickshaw for Ahmedshah, who happens to drive a cycle-rickshaw here. But Ahmedabad can’t think of anything other than spitting on the tracks of Balwantrai Mehta’s car or banging its head against Indulal Yagnik’s cap. Yesterday, the horses of Ahmedabad neighed in the tombs of Sarkhej- tomorrow, Adam will ask, ‘ What have you done with the feelings I gave you?’, and I will take hold of the finger of a shoe-polish boy from Lal Darwaja, who has agreed to polish shoes for a paisa, and flee Ahmedabad.

The speaker in the first poem talks about Falkland Road, the famous red-light area in Mumbai. Though the poem deals with a subject that is usually regarded as ‘a modernist’ one: on looking at the sex workers in a metropolis, it is based on the ‘ Swakiya’ model of classical Sanskrit erotic poetry and ancient Gujarati erotic poetry based on that model. The poem laments the decadence of the current situation of erotic love by evoking the classical clichés. The poem juxtaposes two semiotic systems to form its semantic trope: the language of Classical Sanskrit erotic poetry and the semiotic world of sex workers of Mumbai. However, there is hardly any transaction or translation between the two languages and the poem reduces the role of the other semiotic system to a bare minimum. Consequently there is very little generation of new meanings. The predominant language, the language of Classical Sanskrit poetry, pervades the poem and is unwilling either to enter the world of sex workers in the city or allow it to enter its own world, as if practising some sort of ‘semiotic untouchability’ about what is perceived as a ‘tabooed semiotics’ of the sex-workers in the city, the language of the other.

Maniyar’s poem, it seems, is oriented towards a monolingual model of semiosis where adequate transmission of an invariant meaning seems to be its goal. Though it is oriented towards the monolingual model of semiosis, it is not actually monolingual as it consists of multiple languages like Sanskrit, Gujarati and English (Falkland Road). However, there is no attempt to translate the marginal everyday languages into the predominant Sanskritised code thus transforming the dominant language of poetry.
In contrast, in terms of the genre, Manilal Desai’s prose poem translates the ‘Parkiya’ model of prose poetry from the French symbolists and surrealist tradition. However, it models itself on the language of everyday colloquial Gujarati and tries to model the everyday life in Ahmedabad. The semantic tropes in the poem are formed by juxtaposing and transgressing the boundaries of multiple non-translatable languages (like the languages of human beings and animals (which are more human in the speaker’s view as they have compassion), the world of the mythical and the contemporary (the sand filled lanes waiting for the final Floods, or Adam questioning the speaker), the language of history like Ahmedshah, Gandhi, Mehta and Yagnik and the language of cycle-rickshaw drivers, sex workers, women bathing on the river and the shoe polish boy, giving rise to what Lotman has termed as ‘illegitimate’ associations and creating “a language capable of many readings, a fact which opens up unexpected reserves of meaning.” So what is actually being modeled here in this poem is nothing less than ‘the semiosphere’ of Ahmedabad with all its semiotic heterogeneity. In contrast to the detached complaint about the decadent erotic life of the metropolis, we have an equivocal, polyphonic text embodying multiple languages: many of which are considered ‘unpoetic’, tabooed and ‘other’ by the norms of predominant model of poetry in Gujarati. The references or sex workers, and men (probably from the Ashram) who want to hit upon the women coming to bathe in the river, and the political statements about Gandhi desirous of giving an auto-rickshaw to Ahmedshah, the ex-ruler of Ahmedabad who is reduced to the status of cycle-rickshaw puller, or spitting of the tracks of the ex-Chief minister’s car, are unconceivable in Maniyar’s model of poetry. Lotman compares metaphor-clichés to those which are principally innovative and “which is treated by the carriers of traditional meaning as arbitrary and offensive to their feelings; this scandalizing metaphor is always the result of a creative act (2004:19).

Desai’s poem, in contrast to Maniyar’s poem, it seems, is oriented towards multilingual model of semiosis where the text is conceived as a mechanism for generation of new meanings. This deliberate modelling of the language of poetry on the everyday and the heterogeneous semiosphere in order to make the text generate new meanings, or in other words, this deliberate attempt to initiate ‘explosive’ process of change in poetic language, is critical to our understanding of modernism and the avant-garde. If culture is seen as a space made up of “the spectrum of texts” laid out on an axis, “one pole of which is formed by the artificial languages and the other by artistic ones,” texts such as Desai’s are deliberately oriented towards the extremes of artistic axis, and on the borders of the semiosphere. This often makes the modernist poem a willfully ‘obscure’ one.

While Desai’s text highlights the internal boundaries between the heterogeneous semiotic spaces, the text itself ‘adapts’ and translates the ‘Parkiya’ code of the French prose poetry via its English translation. It is situated on the frontier of both cultures, to both contiguous semiospheres. It is situated on the bilingual boundary which is a mechanism for translating texts of an alien semiotics into 'ours’ or ‘Swakiya’ language, transforming what is 'external' is into what is internal'. To see this phenomenon as ‘influence’ or ‘imitation’ or even to regard it as ‘derivative’ is to do injustice to its creative force. Besides, it is integral to all the cultures in the world. The boundary is a filtering membrane which so transforms foreign texts that they become part of the semiosphere's internal semiotics while still retaining their own characteristics. This positioning on the boundary makes such avant-garde texts peripheral to the semiosphere. However, the mechanism of self-description which is at the core of the core of the semiosphere, which in the case of literature, one of it is ‘literary criticism’, makes it possible for such fringe textual phenomenon gain respectability and even become a ‘text-code’. Suresh Joshi, who was a prolific literary critic, played a significant role, not just in translating the Parkiya texts but also generating what cultural semiotics terms as ‘self-descriptive metalanguage’ of criticism, transforming what is ‘external’ into internal.

Most of the theorisation of modernity does not take into account the fact that cultures are constituted of semiotically heterogeneous languages changing at varying rates and various ways at various points in time. They visualise modernity as a single monolithic and linear process of movement from tradition to modernity, moving from, in Raymond Williams’ terms, the ‘archaic’ to the ‘residual’ to the ‘emergent’ cultural forms and practices (1977). It would fail to explain why the semiotic systems of caste (is it residual or is it archaic?) would be as much functional and active as the languages of social media and the digital cultures. Revolutions or explosive changes do not happen in all languages and the entire culture simultaneously en bloc and en mass as the revolutionaries would like to believe. Hence if the agenda of the avant-garde was in Peter Burger’s words, “the attack on the institution of art and the revolutionising of life as a whole (2010: 696)”, there is little wonder on why it failed, for art is never autonomous – it is always contingent on other semiotic systems for its existence as Lotman points out, and cultural life as a totality can never be “made new”. Marcel Duchamp’s celebrated introduction of a porcelain urinal into the semiotic frame of art as Fountain (1917) is not actually a challenge to the autonomy of art (as no art is autonomous at any point in history) or even an attempt to scandalise or shock the bourgeois (as the bourgeois loves nothing better) but actually a semiotic trope, a metaphor, of juxtaposing two unjuxtaposable mutually untranslatable language (the established to evoke ‘illegitimate’ associations and newer interpretations and bring about the explosive processes of change in the language of art by introducing unpredictable elements. Hence, instead of lamenting its failure in its professed agenda as Burger and his followers do, it would be more useful to analyse what the avant-garde modernism actually accomplished and what its contribution is.

Modernism, an umbrella term for various avant-gardes, from this view, is the one which deliberately models the languages of art on the everyday semiotic heterogeneity of the contemporary semiosphere and deliberately introduces ‘explosive’ processes, the elements of chance and unpredictability, in the languages of art. Such texts are found on the semiotic hotspots, i.e. the bilingual boundaries and borders of cultures, the translational spaces, the spaces which belong neither to ‘Swakiya’ nor to the space of ‘Parkiya’, and yet paradoxically, belongs to both. This deliberate attempt in the mid nineteen fifties and the sixties programmatically opened up the language of poetry to overt heterogeneity of the Gujarati postmodernism which followed.

After 1975, poets from the Dalit, Adivasi and the small town backgrounds, feminists as well as the urban avant-garde postmodernists have been producing exciting and provocative poetry in the last couple of decades. Poets like Pravin Gadhvi, Babu Suthar, Nirav Patel, Vipasha, Kanji Patel, Manisha Joshi among many others, and the senior modernist poets like Labhshankar Thakar, Shitanshu Mehta, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh and Kamal Vora have produced stimulating work of great richness and density. Contemporary Gujarati poetry has moved away not only from this standard Gujarati language and the standard idiom of poetry, but also from the hegemonic self-representations of Gujarati culture and identity. Poets from multiple and peripheral social and cultural locations have articulated their lives and visions in their own dialects and registers. Hence, within Gujarati semiosphere, multiple and conflicting languages and idioms of poetry at various stages of development co-exist simultaneously. The ‘break-down of a single voice, a single unifying concern’, which according to K Satchidanandan (1998), characterises poetry of the post-Independence period in all languages, can be traced to this programmatic effort of modernism. This implies that the model of cultural semiotics can be fruitfully used as a comparative framework for Indian literatures. If the entire Indian culture is considered as a semiosphere, this approach would also account for why modernisms in various Indian languages followed different temporal trajectories of evolution.


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Burger, Peter. ‘Avant-Garde and Neo-Avant-Garde: An Attempt to Answer Certain Critics of Theory of the Avant-Garde’. New Literary History, 2010, 41: 695–715, Project Muse. Web
Dalal, Suresh and Jaya Mehta. Adhunik Gujarati Kavita: An Anthology of contemporary Gujarati poetry, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1992. Print
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1 Both the poems are taken from Adhunik Gujarati Kavita: An Anthology of contemporary Gujarati poetry compiled and edited by Suresh Dalal and Jaya Mehta (1992).The translations are mine.






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