Of poetry, politics and physicality: Poet Ravi Shanker speaks

Ravi Shanker
Ravi Shanker's pseudonym, Ra Sh, sums up the playfulness with which he approaches words.

Ravi Shanker N, a former central government official living in Kerala's Palakkad, considers himself a Facebook poet, even though he has made a space of his own in contemporary Indian poetry in English. Though he was actively involved in literary and theatre projects for a long time, he believes that he would never have written poems had it not been for his love and FB. His pseudonym, Ra Sh, sums up the playfulness with which he approaches words. However, his poetry is full of very intense portrayal of politics as well physicality. He says that 'nudity is a political statement'. He is also convinced that 'a poet is a perpetual rebel'. Ravi Shanker speaks to Onmanorama about his evolution as a poet, his convictions about his art and much more in this interview in the wake of the release of his new anthology which he has co-authored with Ritamvara Bhattacharya.

Q: A few years ago, a poet named Ra Sh appeared on Facebook out of blue. Where were you till then? If I'm right, you had been a columnist, translator and a theatre artist in your pre-Facebook ashram.

A: It is true that the name Ra Sh did not exist prior to 2011. I had no need of a pseuodonym as I was not an author till then.

My tryst with literature starts, perhaps, with a story I sent for an all Kerala short story competition by some youth organisation back in 1975. It won the first prize. I was in college then. Later, I moved to Delhi with a job in the Central govt. I met many well known writers in Malayalam in Delhi at that time and even read some stories in the Kerala Club which had a weekly literature event.

Ritamvara Bhattacharya and Ravi Shanker

I had begun to translate books as varied as ‘ India, in World Sports’ for Publication Division and ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ by Paulo Friere for Pusthaka Prasaadhaka Sangham, Pandalam. Meanwhile, I got into theatre, an interest I carried from college days. First one was Madhu master’s ‘Padayani’ made popular by Janakeeya samskaarika vedi in Kerala. Then, I joined the play ‘Mother’ by Brecht in Kerala Club, directed by Anuradha Kapur and Maya Rao. I acted, wrote and composed songs and even sang them for the play. I, then, became active in their Hindi street theatre ‘Theatre Union.’ It was a real opening to me as they were all accomplished people in their own fields. For example, Anu retired as Director of NSD. Vinod Dua, then a minor TV executive in Doordarshan, rose to become the celebrity media person he is now.In fact, I was brought into the group to replace Vinod as the main singer. I was soon singing nautangi songs for the play ‘Ala Afsar.’

As part of the street theatre group, we performed in many places in Delhi and also in Mumbai, Baroda and Ahmedabad. Our plays were on topical subjects like Sati (Roop Kanwar incident), Multinational Pharmaceuticals (Marz se Munafa), Women rights ( Pardom ka Parcham), Communal hatred ( Toba Tek Singh) etc. The last one is based on a story by Sadat Hasan Manto by the same name. Ketan Mehta made a film of it later.

I was also involved in Malayalam theatre parallely. Under the banner of Jana Chetana, we did two plays by Badal Sircar (translated by me) and also ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’ by Dario Fo ( again translated by me). This play was published as a book by Niyogam Books in Kerala.

When I was in Bangalore for a year, I wrote a play ‘Mrithabharatham’ for Nattrangu, Cherpu, Trissur, directed by Late Shri KK Rajan. It had stalwarts like Ramachandran Mokeri, Sasidharan Naduvil, Sam Pattamkari, CS Chandrika etc working in it. Its English version is being published this year from Delhi as ‘Blind Men Write.’

Later, after I came back to Kerala in my forties, I was involved in theatre in a production by Kerala Sangeetha Natak Akademi of a multi-lingual play (Malayalam, English, Spanish) ‘Echoes of Comala’, based on Mexican writer Juan Rulfo’s celebrated novel ‘Pedro Paramo.’ It was directed by Elias Cohen from Chile and had some Chilean actors apart from me, Late KK Rajan and Martin ( now celebrated as Oorali.)

All these theatre and other political activities took up much time and I came to not believe in personal literature. My talents were being used up entirely for collective activities. Hence I never wrote stories or poems after initial efforts.

Q:What triggered your new-found interest in poetry?

Ans: In the later part of my forties I had fallen ill for some time as a result of excessive drinking and was recovering from it when two life-changing events happened – I fell in love and Facebook appeared. She is a poet who used to post poems on FB. I felt that her poems needed to be edited well as she never bothered about it. I undertook the job of editing them. There were many poems as love triggered them. I attended poetry festivals where she was invited as a poet and I was a spectator. After a year, what triggered her triggered me too and I began to write and post poems on FB. My first poems were, naturally, exclusively about love. Slowly, I progressed to exploring new themes and I could establish a language of my own. Meena Kandasamy, the celebrated writer, was instrumental in bringing me on a national platform for the first time by getting two of my poems published in the special poetry edition of the now defunct Kindle Magazine from Kolkata. I was thrilled when my poems appeared on print alongside thespians like K. Satchidanandan.

Then, five poets of Kerala, who wrote in English, joined together to bring out an anthology titled ‘A Strange place other than earlobes’, viz Jeena Mary Chacko, Binu Karunakaran, Sreelatha, Bini BS and myself. I had 15 poems in it.

Soon, I had enough poems for a solo manuscript and sent it to Poetrywala, Mumbai, and waited for almost a year before Hemant Divate, publisher of Poetrywala, decided to publish it. Friend Bhaskaran Bara did the cover. Thus, ‘Architecture of Flesh’ came out in 2015, a month before I turned 60. The book is dedicated to that girl I mentioned. Also to many of my friends who left this world without knowing me as a poet.

Meena Kandasamy wrote about this book:” Ra Sh distances the body, makes it a myth of its own and inhabits that space to write into the flesh. His poems read like textual equivalent of tattoos and body piercings.”

The book had a second edition with a new cover by Bhaskaran Bara in three years which is rarity for Indian English poetry books.

Q: Will you be provoked if one says there's an excess of physicality or sex in your poems? Why is the writer in you so obsessed with body?

Why would I be provoked by an honest statement? Yes, the accusation stands. I consider all my poems (even love poems) as resistance poems. I have written resistance poems against Fascism and the State. But, this is different. Only by denuding many elements of society can one bring out a cleaner environment. It is not just denuding the Emperor, but the whole value systems attached to it.

Frankly, I am a fan and proponent of nudity. Not only of nude photos and painting but I, myself, have tried to be nude wherever the circumstances permitted. I have experimented with nudity like sitting nude among a group of clothed card players. I have walked about nude in Sairandhri, Silent Valley; among a group of clothed walkers. I have modelled in the nude for a painter. I like Protima Bedi for streaking in Juhu beach. Nudity has something to do with baring one’s soul. Nudity is a political statement. The same applies to a lover. A clothed lover is an absurdity. In my poems all lovers are nude and I go into extreme close ups of their anatomy. I break down the moral values imposed on me in this way. I try to break the walls of morality in every way possible. Thus, I transport love from its spiritual connotations to the body fluids of lovers. I try to break all things ornamental in love and lead the reader straight to what is real, from words to the basic senses. For example, smell is a sense that man has not conquered fully. Animals use scents and calls to locate their mates. I use scent extensively in my poems, and touch and taste.

In a sense, I am releasing the body from the spirit, not vice versa. My love poems are not at all romantic, hence. They are raw, visceral and non-human. My collection ‘Kintsugi by Hadni’, published by RLFPA Editions, is entirely made up of such poems. Meena Kandasamy says about the book, “Ra Sh does not write for the feeble romantics, his poems romp around giving us all rude shocks. He dissects love, he denudes the sacrosanct.”

Q: Your poems are about politics as much as they are about other themes. Several of them are responses to or commentaries on contemporary incidents. Why is it so?

A: My poems are not oriented towards any political party or political ideology. I believe that poets should be free of all this and that on every crossroad he should find himself alone as a rebel. His basic interest is in the entire mankind and to that extent he should be up to date in reading the ramifications of many political decisions and administrative manouvres. In that sense, a poet is, by nature, anti State. He is a perpetual rebel. His political stand is this rebellion against all and sundry.

I have written many such poems in all my collections. Architecture of Flesh has many poems against Fascism, Casteism and anti-minority stands. There is a poem that attacks the Chinese brand of Communism vehemently. This I continued to do and when a sufficient number of poems had been written, I decided to publish a collection exclusively devoted to politics. This came out as ‘The Bullet Train and other loaded poems.’ Published by Hawakal, Kolkota, its cover was designed by my friend and famous photographer Abul Kalam Azad. It is dedicated to Rohit Vemula. It is a totally anti Hindutva book. Prof. K. Satchidanandan wrote about it: “ If poetry’s primary task is to speak truth to power unmasking the horrid and the dark buried alike by the jingoist media and obscene sycophancy, these poems precisely accomplish that by the tactical deployment of black humour, stabbing sarcasm and mischievous wordplay. They expose the pornography of majoritarian authoritarianism.”

Its range can be gauged from the fact that it has three poems on the Kashmir issue, two against demonetization, several against the killing of muslims and dalits, some about the mistreatment of women. ‘The Bullet Train’ is a poem that juxtaposes the bullet that killed Gowri Lankesh with the proposed Bullet Train project. ‘The Strange death of an outcast’ is about the institutional muder of Rohit Vemula. ‘Snow Girls’ is about the confrontation between stone-pelting school girls and the army units in Kashmir, ‘Mr.Buff and Ms Drug’ is a poem on the taking over of Adivasi lands by Vedanta for bauxite mining. But, none of these poems are slogan poems. I never write slogan poems which many consider as political, but I feel that the politics is not in the slogan but in the poem.

Q: Tell us something about your new book, “In the mirror, our graves: a chapbook”, you have co-authored with Ritamvara Bhattacharya.

I had known Ritamvara for many years since she was a school student. I could observe the originality of her poems even then. Now, she is a young woman, ten years older. It was she who suggested to me in Nov last about some book we could do together. I was a bit startled as I was not at all from her age group, in fact, too ‘ancient’ for her. We discussed for some and I suggested it be on the theme of love and separation. She was all for it. From the beginning, we agreed that the book will be a small one with ten poems each. In fact, a chapbook. Thus she began writing a poem to me and I wrote a response poem and this pattern went on for about twenty days. The manuscript was ready. We did a novel thing. We did not put our names under each individual poem, so the reader wouldn’t know who wrote which, thus breaking the barriers of style, gender and generation. We also decided to break the barrier of time by setting the poems under randomly chosen years in three centuries. Thus, the poems are titled by years.

The design of the book is very important for a chapbook. Me and my friend Devanarayana Prasad tried many typewriter fonts till we settled on two. Through my Tibetan freedom fighter friend Tenzin Tsundue, I found a printer in Dharamshala, HP, who could print the book the way we wanted. Thus we have used newsprint for printing the pages and a handmade hard paper for the cover. The book is hand stitched. Ritamvara is herself an artist and she drew many covers till we settled on one.

We are happy that the book came out exactly as we wanted. People have been happy with it as most of them had never seen such a book before. Sonia Nair, Editor of Samyukthapoetry, wrote: “This chapbook is beautifully, imaginatively produced...the pages lighter than air...ephemeral really...possibly...thus conveying even in its physicality, the delicate veins of love.”

But, the greatest words of appreciation came from Jayanta Mahapatra, doyen of Indian English poetry, who wrote a handwritten note to me: “(This) little lovely book is aesthetically, sensuously sound. … If Ritamvara and (Ra Sh) could recite these poems for me, I could hear the hidden orchestras both in Ritamvara’s soul and (Ra Sh)’s.”

The copies (including free copies) have been exhausted in less than three months which is rarety again, I suppose. We are producing a second edition.

Q: Where do you identify yourself in the larger spectrum of Indian literature in English?

A: I come from a suburban township in Kerala, but most of the Indian poets who write in English reside in the metropolises and cities and abroad. I am not educated in English literature or creative writing. Most of the poets come with foreign degrees in Fine Arts or at least creative writing. The creamy layer of the Indian English poets comes from these backgrounds and I am aware of this limitation. They make networks that are hard to break. There are other networks involving women poetry and feminism, Dalit poetry, poetry of the sub altern or the marginalized. Not belonging to any of these groups makes things difficult for a poet like me. Nevertheless, I am glad that I have been gaining visibility over the last six years and my poems wriggle their way into many prominent anthologies.

I have what most others lack, a strong touch with the vernacular literature. It doesn’t mean that I think in Malayalam and write in English. My stint at street theatre has taught me how to handle different languages effectively and how to mingle with different cultures. And, my political activities have helped me in identifying and writing about many ailments that affect the country and the world. Overtly anti State poems are not to the taste of the elites. They experiment more with form.

I am happy that a few poems have been translated to French, Norweigian, German and Italian and some Indian languages.

I translate extensively from English to Malayalam and from Malayalam and Tamil to English. I translated Bhaskaran’s book on CK Janu as ‘Mother Forest’ way back in 2002, published by Women Unlimited. This book has been the subject of numerous studies on translation in India and abroad. My translation of stories by the Tamil Dalit writer Bama first appeared in 2004 and has now come out with additional stories as ‘The Ichi Tree monkey’ published by Speaking Tiger. Along with Abhirami Sriram, I translated a collection of Dalit short stories in Malayalam by the title ‘Don’t want caste’ which was published by Navayana. Navayana published a collection of Sri Lankan Tamil poems by the title ‘Waking is another dream’ translated by Meena Kandasamy and myself. But, the landmark book I produced was translating 101 contemporary poems from Malayalam into English by the title ‘How to translate an Earthworm’, published by Dhauli books.

I make it a point to translate and regularly publish poems by young and relatively unknown poets of Kerala in online journals. Some of them have trickled into world renowned journals on translation like the Asymptote journal, Modern Poetry in Translation etc.

Q: Tell us about your writing process and upcoming works, please.

I consider myself an FB poet. If not for my love and FB, I would never have written poems. I don’t put much effort into these poems. I don’t go through any angst. And, I don’t wait for inspiration to strike me. A word, a scent, a touch or a visual is enough to trigger a poem. Of course, like sperms, most of the poems get lost because they could not be recorded on time. Sometimes, the memo app in the smartphone becomes useful.

Ravi Shanker with Leena Manimekalai (L)

I have a collection of poems ready to be sent to a publisher. It’s titled ‘Buddha and Biriyani.’ I am also thinking of more collaborative work with friends. But, the immediate thing I am involved in is an anthology of Malayalam poems written by women in the last century till the present. An editorial board consisting of Prof.K.Satchidanandan, G Usha Kumari, Arathy Ashok and myself is doing it.

The English version of my play ‘Mrithabharatham’ retitled ‘Blind men write’ is coming out by September, published by Rubric Publishing, Delhi.

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