Sunday, 29 July 2012


The July 2012 issue of Asymptote, the literary journal, carries my translations of Provencal poet Roselyn Sibille's work, all from her forthcoming collection Shadow-World. As usual, the editorial team of Asymptote have done an impressive job of presenting the work: along with the translations, readers can access the original poems in French, and also listen to Roselyne reading these poems in her soft, thoughtful voice. It is quite a privilege to be included in an issue that contains really extraordinary poetry from the world over, from Korean to Farsi to Armenian and Danish!

Asymptote July 2012 issue: Shadow-World

As I mention in the translator's note accompanying our work in Asymptote, in  Shadow-World, we enter a place of transience and metamorphosis where earth and water are made up of strokes and colours that are outlined, erased and then given new life in other forms.

It is a world where the shadow is three-dimensional, elemental and — most importantly — a bearer of tales; tales that we could build to our hearts' desire from the shards of images that these poems reflect.

These poems, to me, seem as fragile and oneiric as age-old calligraphy, the quest for the perfect curve: they reclaim words to reflect the tumbling and vaulting of the soul.

Roselyne Sibille's world blithely demands both precision and creativity from a translator. Transposing her metaphors and visuals, though — or perhaps, rightly, since — shadowy, from one imaginary world to another is an adventure that is often very challenging, but also deeply satisfying when both she and I feel that we have found or built portholes between these worlds.

Thursday, 31 May 2012


Today is a very special anniversary. And there are people out there who made it possible. People who made such a difference, and so casually, almost unthinkingly - though what they did, and achieved, was the very opposite of thoughtlessness. Some kinds of generosity are formidable in their absoluteness. I wrote this poem for another set of people, just as precious, but it holds good for the ones I am thinking of today - for very different reasons. All that might be just a bit too elliptical but I don't think I have the words for clarity right now.


It takes little to change
a life.
In the whisper of a breath,
in the echo of a smile;
tectonic plates, ocean currents,
cosmic forces that could
drive our destinies,
swing, bow and let through,
newness, transformation.
A spring of fresh clear water,
or a lee of verdant growth.
Maybe even a landmass, a continent.
Or disappearance: of arid wastelands,
swamps of dismay, even over-run
thickets of uncertainty?

They call it a catalyst.
A nimble spirit they seek everywhere,
in alchemy not the least.

And how would you greet that unsettling
tremor, the slight trigger etching out
glistening - unknown, unknowable, scary
but so desired -  fresh lines on the palms
of fate's domineering hand ?

Would it vanish in fear
if I turned around, and hailed
it with two puny words;
tried to convey all the beauty,
the glory, the pain of new-
found quests, of goals
emboldened, paths chosen
(not sprung, nor borne) with just
thank you?

Should I watch it cross these
thresholds with muted tread
from the curves of eyes,
and assume sightlessness
so it continues the spell?

Or polish the floor with rose-petals,
leave bowls of silent,
fragrant saffron – reward
and tempt at once in the hope
of regular returns?

Often though, I only learn
of a visit from damp footprints
outside my door, and a stir
in the air, spring unplanned
and unplugged.

Karthika Naïr, 01/01/2008

* Catalysts was first published in Bearings (HarperCollins India, 2009)

Friday, 18 May 2012

What ehr should art do?

It happened five years ago. We were given the task of founding a department of programming/performing arts at the Cité nationale de l'histoire de l'immigration (CNHI) in Paris, France's latest national museum, one devoted to the history of immigration in France. There was a good amount of debate - from the scientific committee, from the historians who had devised the project, from the civil society bodies whose untiring campaign had led to the birth of the museum, from funding institutions (the Ministries of Culture, Education and Social Cohesion, notably) - on the exact role of art, especially performing art (felt to be something of a loose cannon), in such a museum. 

Museum International, a journal run by UNESCO, invited each of the different departments of the CNHI to write about their activities and goals in a special issue dedicated to emerging museums. Patrice Martinet, artistic director, asked me to write on behalf of our department, and this is the introduction I handed in. The piece went on to record the thoughts of two of the artists we had invited to make new work, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and playwright/theatre director Mohamed Rouabhi.

There is a lot of talk right now about what art should or should not do; about what its ambit is and what its code of conduct should be, as though it were a young, fractious student. I wanted to remind myself of what we had wanted to nurture in that fledgling museum, what we had spent our days and nights defending during two years.

"The Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration does not exist.

What does exist, actually, is scores of Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration.

Like the elephant in the Panchatantra, which was identified by four blind men as rope, pillar, fan and snake respectively, this project impels myriad visions. There are at least as many as the people involved in its creation, directly or indirectly, and – after its opening in April 2007 – more likely to come from the general public, the media, the powers-that-be … the list will be endless; as will the definitions, the expectations and probably the criticism. Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by this institution is to subsume these multiple particles, all the while allowing them to thrive, and emerge as a cogent structure whose bedrock is its very plurality.

In the pages that follow, one gets glimpses, to take an analogy from another field, of what the light reflected from one face of this highly refractive chunk of hard, crystallized carbon could give – when cut and polished. Because that is the process it has to undergo: a diamond left to itself is just a shapeless abrasive lump.

Remember, this is just one facet of a whole. One vision. Of what the credo of an arts & programming wing should be in a cultural complex that is all at once a national museum, a research & academic hub, a vanguard for civil sector and citizen advocacy organisations, a publishing unit – all firmly focused on the issue of immigration.

But it appears that before defining content or aim, we need to rationalise the very existence of an artistic wing within a museum specialising in the history of immigration. For although museological policies over the last two decades have evolved to encompass artistic activity in a great number of historical and civilizational museums, and although the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration – whose name itself denotes its composite nature – has more than one activity, the presence of art in the realm of immigration is still less than self-evident.

To circumscribe the role or import of art within an issue-based paradigm seemed rather parochial to us. Hence, we extend the question to defending its existence per se, as also its “functionality”.

Art exists in its own right, on its own terms. Without the necessity to justify itself, or the additional onus of purpose. Yet, throughout time, we find that it has questioned mankind, consistently jolted it into making new discoveries, unsettled societal preconceptions, ripped apart status quo and given us other ways to view the world. It unearths fragments of the past; hurls shards of an often painful present straight into our faces; and sometimes it offers terrifying or tantalising oracles of the future. It is, perhaps, above all, a reminder that nothing is sacrosanct: certainly not the sacred monster, art, itself.

That is why what we are attempting to build here is, first and foremost, an arena of free artistic expression. Where artistes can deliver their thoughts – unfettered, “unguided”; through the creative language of their choice; in the manner that seems most befitting to them – cerebral, visceral or soulful – on the countless concerns surrounding immigration; ones that are just as inextricably bound to this issue as ligaments to a bone: boundaries, belonging, uprootedness, integration, exclusion, alterity, home, identity….

An arena that will not claim to enforce one worldview. Nor presume to provide solutions. But which will try to raise questions. Innumerable questions, queries, critiques from all fronts, on all things – including the same artistic expressions that set the stage for these questions.

An arena where dissent and debate will be recognized as contributors in their own right to constructive co-existence.

A place we will visit not to learn about the Other and his strangeness, but to recognize how “other” we ourselves are, how we are all composed of Others.

It will be a nimble tightrope act in a world that is becoming increasingly intolerant of contention. To tread the fine line between criticism and censure, between dissent and divisiveness. To provide a platform for opinion that is not necessarily our own, and to voice both our disagreement with the given view and defend the right to state both.

But the idea here, at this moment, is not to perorate about what we wish or intend. If we are committed to our aim, then the first act is to step aside, and hand over this space to those whose creative ethos will contour our activity. The stage is theirs, even while it is a work in progress. If they continue to step under our spotlights, and fuel the crucible with their questions and their aspirations, the lights will keep burning in this theatre."

- Karthika Naïr
excerpts from A Crucible for Questions, first published in Museum International, N° 59 (May 2007).

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Desh-edly delighted

There will be time, there will be time. For words and more words again. For the moment, though, a link is worth a thousand words:

Yes, Desh won the 2012 Laurence Olivier Award for the Best New Dance Production. Congratulations, Akram: for choreography, courage and commitment! Congratulations, team Desh! And a huge thank you to Bangladesh for being the alpha and omega of this transformative, memorable journey.

That's Akram Khan before the awards ceremony:

And a third link to the recording of a post-show session at the Concertgebouw in Brügge where Guy Cools - with his usual gentle insight - asked us some very interesting questions about how it all came together:

Monday, 26 March 2012

In Memoriam

I. Relics
You didn’t leave much behind when you slipped
silent through some unseen crevice in time.

The scent of a name swiftly rent by tearful
chords (shreds hung in the air, just out of reach).

Biannual torrents of dayspring rites
when payasam and prayer flash-flooded
the neighbourhood – baffling me for nine years …

Shadows from laughing eyes I had found
frozen on cellulose strips ( and long thought
were mine) crypted within the covers of
velveteen books on a high, unfriendly shelf.

A three-line memorial in a pale blue file:
life and love scaled to disease, diagnosis,
death with date and description, nothing
more – aseptic headstone raised for a ghost
star who didn’t leave much behind.

Other remains crowded out yours by and by.

Wordless fury at survival kept under cobalt
paternal lock, bluebeard’s chamber that opened
only to one knock;
glaciers of growing
loss left as moraines on a mother’s face;
debris from the link between you and me –
neatly piled beside the same crevice I lose
my way back to, over and over, with no effort at all.

You didn’t leave much behind, but nothingness
can expand into a red giant with grief at its core.

II. Resurrection
I tried remaking you with swatches of stolen
memory, seaming a harlequin next-of-kin.

First raided the maternal troves: traced
shapes out of mother’s soundlessness; snipped
yarn from her three chirpy younger sisters.

I didn’t spare granny either, sifting her
cataractal mind for traces of your smile.

(kept clear off the men folk though: they stood
guard night and day over theirs, buried ten-foot
deep in child and prowler-proof vaults.)

You stayed sketchy, all dots, shades and split
helixes – a silhouette behind a shattered
pane, touching which made thoughts bleed.

So the thieving spread wider and wilder.
I sought your colours, contours all over:

A head among tousled monsoon clouds
your gaze on the burnished afternoon earth
the voice in local summer tides.

The name, the name grew everywhere:
in myths and magazines, or family
trees, fiction, television – any one I chose
could wipe out another possible you.

You walked with me, travelling through
childhood, teenage, voting-right-hood …
I changed templates, crafted new ones through the ride.
Till the time it felt too much like work,
too much a snail within a turtle’s shuck.

Unravelled you on land’s edge, then watched
my patchwork sibling return to the clouds,
the sun, the sea – and someone’s memory.

Karthika Naïr, 10/02/2008

Because sometimes I can forget, though not what lies just ahead. And today is a time to remember.

In Memoriam was first published in Bearings, HarperCollins India, 2009.

Sunday, 11 March 2012


It is a myth. Of course, it is. Everything dies. Why we are dying as we speak. Or write. Or read. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise, should it? To learn that icons that one has grown up hearing, reading, watching, have died (the French euphemism disappeared seems so apt, less brutal but more final) should not be such a shock.

But it is, and when it is news one gathers, in the midst of the mad hurly-burly of daily existence, it seems a bigger one. Here we are, racing like motorcycle riders in the Ring of Death sequence that was de rigueur in most Indian circuses in the 80s, and there comes the reminder that there is deep chasm under the ring, and that we are falling through all the time.

I learnt of the death of composer Ravi Shankar Sharma – popularly known as Ravi, and in Kerala, as Bombay Ravi – while in a hotel somewhere not too far from the Arctic Circle, perched beside a window, laptop inclined at a crazy angle in an attempt to log on to a Wifi network playing hide-and-seek. I read it not in a newspaper obit (those came much later) but on a friend’s Facebook post – a friend who also had heard the news “in another bench, in another airport, in another town”. Ravi died on March 7, 2012 at the age of 86, after a career spanning fifty years: the first three decades in the Hindi film industry where he composed some truly remarkable soundtracks – Dilli ka Thug, Chaudhvin kaChand, China Town, Gharana, Waqt, Nikaah are just a few from a long list – but remained underrated, undeservedly slightly obscured, in the shadow of other greats of the golden era, Khayyam, Shankar-Jaikishen, O.P. Nayyar, S.D. Burman… oh, there was truly a pantheon of music-makers then; and, as the eighties proved somewhat of a long winter for melody in Bombay with the rise of the action era, he moved to Malayalam cinema where each of the dozen or so films he composed music for was crowned with critical and public acclaim: Panchagni, Vaishali, Oru VadakkanVeeragatha, Nakhakshyathgal, Sargam, to mention the earliest ones.

Most of us did not even realise that that the man who had composed the exuberant Aemeri Zohra Jabeen was the one who had written the complex and beauteous score of Sargam, rooted in Carnatic music. When I did, it was not so much because of my interest in composers as in lyricists, and one lyricist/poet in particular: Sahir Ludhianvi. Sahir Ludhianvi, the socialist, the atheist, the cynic, the eternal bachelor, the uncompromising, the “arrogant” — the last being an epithet he won for insisting that lyricists be credited by All India Radio alongside singers and composers, and, not insignificantly, that he be paid a rupee more than Lata Mangeshkar. Sahir Ludhianvi, whose pen could sear conscience and celluloid with a Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai (Pyaasa, 1957) and, in the same film, deliver the rollicking Sar jo terachakraye along with a Jaane kya tunekahin radiating sensuousness. Sahir Ludhianvi, whose words and images grabbed my pre-adolescent imagination with both hands and never really let go. Sahir Ludhianvi, whose 91st birth anniversary fell on March 8, 2012 — a day after Ravi’s demise.

I grew up on one’s words (and continue to do so, I think) and the other’s music. While Sahir’s influence on my writing and my imaginaire (a near-untranslatable word the French have for something like a creative ethos) is incalculable, I would never have first heard his words if it hadn’t been for composers like Ravi and his contemporaries: this was the music that my parents and uncles and aunts and elder cousins listened to, this was the music that seeped into my bloodstream.

This post is dedicated to the lyricist and the composer, and to their collaboration, often alchemical. It is a random selection of their songs, chosen for either the lyrics or the music or – often – both.  I have included a couple of translations, but they are rough, hurried ones, and do not do any justice to the penmanship of Sahir. And because I have focussed primarily on the songs as poems set to music, I have not been attentive enough to filmed song sequences themselves, often lyrical in their own right.

If heaven exists, it is a lucky place to host both of them. As for us, we are left with their work, which is how we knew them in the first place. And, as choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui says, at the end of centuries, at the end of civilisation, art – not tyranny, not oppression, not the various daily cruelties we inflict on each other – is what best survives the march of time. Is umeed pe duniya qayam hai.

1. Waqt (1965): In a soundtrack bursting at the seams with melodious songs, Aage bhi jaane na tu stands out. Today, more than ever, perhaps because Time is very much on my mind:

Anjaane saayon ka, raahon mein deera hai
Andekhi baahon ne hum sab ko ghera hai
Ye pal ujala hai, baki andhera hai
Ye pal gavana na, ye pal hii tera hai

Unknown shadows corral the paths.
Unseen arms cordon us all.
This moment is radiant; the rest is darkness.
Don’t squander this moment: this alone is yours.

Oh, and the orchestration – even to a philistine like me – stands out. I love the way it begins, the soft tinkling behind the dialogues opening a path to Asha Bhonsle’s voice, the instruments woven dexterously to place the spotlight to her tessitura. As Dusted Off says in her wonderful tribute to/obit on Ravi, “the quintessential crooner song.”

2. Gumraah (1963): This one, more for the startling beauty of the lyrics, that inarticulate thought which must occur to so many of us at the end of a relationship given full, forceful, eloquent expression by Sahir, with the music allowing the lyrics to rise to the fore. One of Ravi’s strengths that, it occurred to me often: he could allow the words to breathe, and that he didn’t at all grudge them their power, their pre-eminence when required. A feat he was to repeat time and again in Malayalam cinema.

And another song from the same film, to contrast moods words and composition: here, there is the conviction of requited desire, illicit as it may be, the words are few and the refrain is underscored by music in majestic command. The melody magnifies both nature in all its splendour and the ache of love, the restrained fervour to meet the beloved.

3. Dhund (1973):  I know, there is no respect for chronology on this post! Here is one of Sahir's portentous, philosophical pieces. I saw this film as a child, and I remember little more than a general air of impending doom, a very scary Danny Denzongpa (who could deliver quiet menace like few others — he had no need for wigs and prosthetics to convey evil) and a constantly sari-clad (unusual an occurrence), petrified but beautiful Zeenat Aman. And a title song that snagged in some corner of the mind:

4. Ek Mahal Ho Sapnon Ka (1975): This, I believe, was Sahir’s and Ravi’s last collaboration together. Again, a film, I saw as a child, but one I had found a little too relentlessly weepy. Sacrifice, unless by Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities (the book, not the film) has never appealed much to me. But there were some pleasant songs, and this one remained with me. The cynicism is vintage Sahir. And it is nice to see Sharmila Tagore without too much of a bouffant.

Neelam ho raha tha kisi naaznin ka pyar
Keemat nahin chookayi gayee, ek gareeb se
Dekha hai zindagi ko kuch itna kareeb se
Chehre tamaam lagne lage hain ajeeb se

Up there for bidding was a coquette’s love,
The price too steep for a pauper to pay.
So intimately have I seen life,
Each face now tends to look strange.

Another song (with three versions, and in three voices and moods!) that used to be quite popular from Ek Mahal … is Dil mein kisike pyar ka.

Chockfull of 1970s fashion statements, more bouffant but also a couplet like

Woh nakshe kya hua jo mitaye se mit gaya
Who dard kya hua jo davayi se dab gaya

and a brooding, handsome Dharmendra to counter the sartorial effects.

5. Aaj aur Kal (1963): their first collaboration, I think, is this film by Devandra Goel. It is a veritable bouquet of lovely numbers. If I had to pick a favourite, I'd be torn between a lovely but despondent Nanda’s serenade to death – which taught me so much: Sahir, unknown to them, was a big help to my English teachers; the rhetoric devices that we learnt of in school came to brilliant life in his verses

– and this paean to the landscape and to life:

Death’s embrace would pale in attractiveness before that. And before a young Sunil Dutt.

6. Humraaz (1967): When I look at their work, I think, hmmm, they did have a huge crush on nature, didn't they? Especially when I listen to some of the songs of Humraaz where the real object of devotion would appear to be not the stone-faced heroine but the blueness of the skies, the vastness of the mountains.... the composition, just as the lyrics, conjures up the grandeur, the lushness of the world around:

7. Aadmi aur Insaan (1969): And switching over to a much zingier melody and sentiments ... The more popular number from Aadmi aur Insaan is the superbly vivacious Zindagi ittafaq hai but I love the way this particular melody sways and shimmies, just like Mumtaz on whom it is picturised. And the opening is just irresistible: Itni jaldi na karo, raat ka dil tootega. What a charming ruse to hold on to someone: don't leave in such haste, or night's heart will break! Night breaking her heart seemed the ultimate in pathetic fallacy.  What did I say about a user’s manual of literary devices, language no bar!

8. Kaajal (1965): Over to full intoxication in Kaajal. Chhoo lene do nazuk honton ko is the immediately identifiable song but Meena Kumari at her lachrymose best exasperated the life out of me even at the age of twelve (though the pater gazed at her in something close to adoration, and my mother still cites her as the finest tragedienne ever), so I ended up with a faiblesse for this one, the undertones are rather moving and, as ever with Sahir, self-aware, deprecating of the world’s moral code:

Duniya ki nigahon main bhala kya hain bura kya
Ye bojh agar dil se utar jaye to achha

9. Do Kaliyan (1968): Another film full of pleasant songs. Tumhari nazar kyon khafa ho gayi (in two versions: happy and sad), Sajna o sajna, the ever-popular Bachheman ke sache (which, again, I suspected was an idealised vision of childhood: neither I nor the children around me were anywhere close to altruistic!) and Murga murgi, surprisingly mature for a children’s song. But, it is Sahir, so there had to be some socialism and secularism woven in everywhere, even in the Comic Side Plot-song. So, in the midst of all the high-decibel theatrics of Do Kaliyan, there is a latter-day cousin of Sar jot era takraye, though nowhere as blithe.

The dance producer in me cannot help but be diverted by the flash of interesting – and rather contemporary – choreography at 02.50:

10. Aankhen (1968): And still faithful to my completely jumbled chronology, I end with a song from the fun-tastic, gadget-astic Aankhen, which thrilled a 11-year-old me to bits when I saw it in an Indian Army cinema hall (they did a great job of recycling old films!): radio transmitters in shoes! Cameras in glasses! Chinese and Egyptians who speak Hindi! Jeevan and Lalita Pawar as Enemies of the State! Complete face grafts about thirty years before Face/Off! And More General Amazement in every frame!

It is difficult to choose though, between the poignancy and tender reproach of Gairon pe karam, apnon pe situm, where music and lyrics are in terrific alliance

Gairon ke thhirakhte shaane par
Ye haath gawara kaise karen
Har baat gawara hai lekin
Ye baat gawara kaise karen
Ye baat gawara kaise karen

Tujhko teri bedardi ki kasam
Ae jane-wafa, ye zulm na kar

Hum bhi tere manzoor-e-nazar
Ji chaahe tu ab ikraar na kar
Sau tir chala seene main magar
Begaanon se milkar vaar na kar
Begaanon se milkar vaar na kar

Bemauth kahin marjaaye na hum
Ae jane-wafa, ye zulm na kar

and the madcap abandon of Milti hai zindagi main mohabbat kabhi kabhi,  where words and music act in counterpoint to create a mood that is teasing, buoyant and yet a little wistful. And unusually for that era, we see a heroine persistently pursuing the object of her affection (across continents too, it would transpire):

Milti hai zindagi main mohabbat kabhi kabhi
Hoti hai dilbaron ki inayat kabhi kabhi
Sharma ke muh na mod nazar ke sawal par
Laati hai aise mod pe kismat kabhi kabhi

The sequence is so gobsmackingly over-the-top that I cannot resist it. Mala Sinha's attires make me wish there was some special punishment for bad wardrobe design but thankfully she remains perky despite those pedal pushers (which could have easily cut off the blood supply to her toes). Besides, there is a dishy Dharmendra again (over-sized trenchcoat and mandatory fedora notwithstanding) to appreciate, though he rocks eveningwear to much greater satisfaction in the above-mentioned Aadmi aur Insaan.

PS: My apologies for the change in text between this morning and now. A technical glitch caused the entire post to vanish, and it had to be rewritten in large part.