A Mandala of Words

Cultural Realities in the Poems of Ashok Vajpeyi

by Renata Czekalska (Author)
Monographs 251 Pages


This book is a hermeneutic analysis of the main poetic spaces in the work of Ashok Vajpeyi, a poet and a critic recognized among the eminent contemporary Hindi writers. The four parts of the book are devoted to major anthropological questions, instrumental for the poet who – while searching for the principle of unity with the world – causes language to become an extension of existence. The author shows how, by combining both the Indian and Western cultural traditions, Vajpeyi locates his poetry «between civilizations», where it remains a self-contained projection of discourse taking the form of original and engaging patterns of poetic communication. The book portrays a significant case of the cultural encounter of East and West in the modern globalized world.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • A Note on Transliteration and Abbreviations
  • Introduction: Patterns of Poetic Communication
  • Part I. Internal Geography of the Poems
  • I.1. Polyphonic structures
  • I.2. Polyphony of an individual poem
  • I.3. Polyphony of one theme
  • I.4. Polyphony of the entire structure of all the texts
  • I.5. A place among civilisations
  • I.6. The Indian continuum
  • I.7. European coincidences
  • I.8. Models of artistry
  • Part II. Identity of the Empirical Subject
  • II.1. An individual poem as the area of observation
  • II.2. A miniature poem for a single metaphor
  • II.3. A poem as an evocation of the ‘self’
  • II.4. The three-fold role of home
  • II.5. Shapes of the nearby landscape
  • II.6. Emblems of presence and consciousness
  • II.7. The universe as the voice of poetry
  • II.8. The metaphor of knocking
  • II.9. The symbolism of hands
  • II.10. The question of time
  • II.11. The sphere of social sensitivity
  • Part III. A Cosmogonical Form of Love
  • III.1. Categories of nudity
  • III.2. The meticulous grammar of love
  • III.3. The love poems of Ashok Vajpeyi and the Indian literary tradition. Prolegomena
  • III.4. A historical outline with commentaries
  • III.5. The dancer
  • III.6. Diptych of long poems
  • III.7. Names of love
  • III.8. Names of absence
  • Part IV. The Real and the Mythicised Function of Word
  • IV.1. Language as home
  • IV.2. Word as the carrier of meaning
  • IV.3. Word as the epistemological sense
  • IV.4. The discourse of existence and the semantic fields of words
  • IV.5. Word as the axiological sense
  • IV.6. The uniting Time of Raza
  • IV.7. The universe in the rhythms of words
  • IV.8. The instrumentality of word
  • IV.9. Metathesis
  • Conclusion: A Mandala of Words
  • Quoted Sources
  • Index of Original Titles of the Quoted Poems
  • Appendix: Ashok Vajpeyi’s Abbreviated Biodata

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A Note on Transliteration and Abbreviations

The standard method of transliterating Devanāgarī script was adopted in the text for all Hindi and Sanskrit terms and titles of works. Names of writers and artists, places as well as terms and titles well accommodated in English have been anglicised, giving preference to the spelling already in use.

The titles of Ashok Vajpeyi’s fifteen original poetry collections were abbreviated as follows:

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Introduction: Patterns of Poetic Communication

…the limits of my language mean the limits of my world

Ludwig Wittgenstein

This book is dedicated to the poetic oeuvre of a contemporary Hindi writer, Ashok Vajpeyi1. Its main aim is to analyse the creative approach as well as the artistic issues present in his poetry which – from a historical perspective – could be understood as the artistic development of a trend of modern Hindi lyrics, originating from the avant-garde movements of Chāyāvād and Naī Kavitā.2 Looked upon from the perspective of its artistic merit, A. Vajpeyi’s poetry is independent, whereas considered from the viewpoint of its contents, it encompasses major and universal existential themes of modern man, in both civilisational and social contexts. These themes, while carefully analysed, arrange themselves into original and engaging patterns of poetic communication thus creating a discernible mandala of words.

The main body of this study comprises analyses of both the key issues of Vajpeyi’s poetry as well as of the network of its internal sub-structures of suggested meanings, connotations, associations etc. The research was based on over one thousand poems (out of which almost three hundred are directly referred to in the text), collected in fifteen volumes published over the period of fifty years, from 1966 to 2016. Its results are presented in four parts, dedicated to such topics as: the internal geography of the poems, identity of the empirical subject, cosmogonical form of love, and the real as well as the mythicised function of word. Each part contains detailed analyses of poems selected on the basis of their representativeness for the discussed subject, and each is divided into chapters which provide exemplifications for the general theme.

The first part of the book, dedicated to the internal geography of A. Vajpeyi’s poetic territory, comprises meditations which take the form of poems composed of numerous elements of the outside world, transformed and arranged as ← 9 | 10 → topographic landmarks of intellectual (or inner) artistic landscapes. It includes analyses of both the vast spectrum of the poet’s intellectual interests encompassing civilisations of the Indian Subcontinent and Europe, as well as the manner in which they are expressed in the texts. In this part, I also briefly describe the references to Indian literary tradition and influences of twentieth-century European poetry, especially Anglo-Saxon. The second part contains an analysis of the poet’s cultural, or spiritual, identity which may be interpreted from the texts. This identity can be understood as an intricate system made up of the following components: the motif of genetic ancestors or traditional extended family, motifs of spiritual heritage traceable both in reference to individual epochs of the cultural past and to specific artists, aesthetics of the landscape, Indian symbolism, resonances of religious and philosophical works, and also the issues of death and reincarnation. The theme of love, discussed in part three, in the poetry of A. Vajpeyi, seems to be unusually intricate and ambiguous. Such complexity results not only from the poet’s understanding of the aesthetics and ethics of nudity and his comprehension of the idea of truth in the context of love but also from the manner in which the relations between love, cosmogony and infinity are depicted in the poems. Part four is devoted to analysing the function of word – which holds a particularly prominent role in Vajpeyi’s poetic oeuvre – understood both as a tool of artistic expression and material for philosophical meditations. The communicative function of word fulfils the role of a craftsman’s tool but, in fact, it also is an autonomous mental presence with qualities allowing it to connect contradictory elements of the poet’s inner world with the world of other beings. Overall, the theme of word is a theme in itself, a meta-theme, which embraces all semantic and extra-semantic senses of the discussed poetry.

The basic research approach of this study results from my strong conviction that contemporary Indian poetry can (and perhaps in some cases also should) be interpreted according to criteria of Western literary theory. The main reason for making this assumption is that until the second decade of the 21st century, Indian literary criticism has not been able to formulate such a methodology of literary research which would allow for precise as well as thorough interpretation of contemporary poetic texts, especially those that contain both European and Indian influences. In the case of A. Vajpeyi’s lyrical output, I had to consider the fact that his immanent poetics is rooted in Indian spirituality and in pan-Indian as well as universal issues. However, the techné, the use of free verse, belongs directly to the group of features practised by modern European poets. Therefore, the hermeneutic method – which includes a vast scope of methodological ← 10 | 11 → possibilities, such as criss-cross analyses, interpretations or digressions – proved to be most effective for this work.

All the discussed poetic themes and references are illustrated by examples provided in English translation in the main text and also supported by transliterated original versions given in the footnotes. Since I strived to limit my own darings to translate from one foreign language to another and yet attempted to make the discussed poems accessible also for the readers who do not have recourse to the language of the original, whenever possible, I used the existing published translations (with credits given in individual footnotes). To avoid over-cluttering the text with detailed information, the original titles of poems which appear in brackets were not translated. Their English renderings can be found in the index of original titles. For similar reasons, the titles of original collections were abbreviated. Their full versions, also with English translation, are provided in the list of abbreviations.

This book is an English version of the monograph originally published in Polish (2009), under the title of Traktat o sztuce celebracji czyli główne struktury tematyczne w liryce Aśoka Wadźpeji. Analizy. (Treatise on the art of celebration, or the main thematic structures in the poetry of Ashok Vajpeyi. Analyses). However, while translating the text into English seven years later, with the benefit of hindsight, I of course re-edited the original material, revised it slightly, and supplemented it with up-to-date references. For the courage to undertake this task, I am exceptionally grateful to my Friends whom I thank wholeheartedly for not letting me lose hope in the most trying moments of my life. Nevertheless, I am also indebted to Others who, by trying to make me lose all hope, made me proceed with renewed firmness and determination.

1 Ashok Vajpeyi (b. 1941) is a Hindi poet, critic, translator, editor. He authored 15 collections of poetry and many books of literary and art criticism in Hindi and English. He is also editor of several prestigious journals and a promoter of young, talented poets, critics and artists. For his detailed bio-data, see: Annex.

2 More on both the literary currents, see: Part I.2.

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Part I. Internal Geography of the Poems

The poetic geography of Ashok Vajpeyi’s works consists of two constituent layers of connotations, one diachronic and one synchronic. Both of them pervade each other in the poems, in their themes and structure, in this way co-creating a common space of meaning which consists of both the artistic and intellectual values.

The verbal tissue of any meaningful structure is naturally and inevitably chronological. But a poet, as the master of language, may exceed the linearity of chronology through a combination of words, without breaking the course of phrases, without distorting images. Thus, most of the poems of Ashok Vajpeyi are constructed in such a way that within the grammatical order of words there are places where – in addition to the basic information concerning a given text – the author includes references to extra-textual facts which remain beyond the reach of words which create a poem. These are the places where the synchrony co-creates both the value and the meaning (or meanings) of a poem.

The most straightforward form of manifestation of synchronicity in Vajpeyi’s poems is the polysemy of words, already noticeable in the early period of his creative work (the years 1959–1986), for example: “glow of the eyes” [ākho kī camak] (from the poem Vasant ke lie ek kāmnā ŚABSH), “the sun of anticipation” [uttejnā kī dhūp], “a star of the heart” [hday kā tārā] (from the poem Khul gayā hai dvār ek ŚABSH), “concise infinity” [sakipt anant], “the effort of words” [śabdo kā avasād] (from the poem Prārthnā aur cīkh ke bīc, ŚABSH), “voice pierces through the entire space” [sabko cīrtī huī atī hai āvāz] (Pratīkā, EPAM), “a sun of the centuries” [śatābdiyo kā dhūp] (Caān kā ek citrit ākāś, EPAM). The multitude of polysemic words increases with Vajpeyi’s evolution as a writer. The poems of the later period (starting from approximately 1990) can be seen as a culmination of this process, for they are mostly laconic, based on one metaphor, or aphoristic – expressed in the form of a paradox. The frequency of occurrence of polysemic structures clearly shows two distinct features of Vajpeyi’s poetics: (a) propensity to create the sound effects through collisions of words with opposite meanings, (b) typological specificity of imagination, based on prioritizing movements of spaces placed within a polysemic whole. It is easy to observe that such a practice of entangling words in contexts not only emphasises their ambiguity but also increases their capacity to create metaphors.

The instances of deeper synchronicity in the poetry of A. Vajpeyi occur mainly when the surface and the deep structures of language intersect. One example is the closing statement of the poem Pitā ke jūte (“Father’s shoes”, EPAM) in which ← 13 | 14 → two separate objects (the feet and the shoes), placed together, form a functional whole, some kind of a non-material unity which is not a consequence of trivial anthropomorphisation, but is endowed with the sense of empathy by the poet’s imagination.

When looked upon in detail, at the deep structure level, the two verses reveal some formal components in which three statements: (1) of what the shoes dream, (2) the fact that they dream, (3) the fact they know how they are perceived by the tiny feet – can be seen as a prime example of how, in Vajpeyi’s poetics, the deep structure functions in single sentences. However, at the same time, these verses suggest a broad area of philosophical reflection. They are an example of the complex relationships between poetry and philosophy as well as of the possibility of using the communicational qualities of language to depict empathy extended also to non-human beings. In India this is a broad spectrum of philosophical thought summarised in the Upanishadic statements, like “aham brahma asmi” or “tat tvam asi”4. In Europe, on the other hand, there is a tradition of thought beginning with Democritus’s materialism, followed by the ontological doctrine of reism (or concretism)5, up to Heidegger’s interpretation of logos presented in his Being and Time. The entanglement of these two verses in philosophical concepts of two civilisations creates a set of associations which are seemingly distant from the issue of the father’s shoes but which originate from the existence of the shoes, understood as objects. ← 14 | 15 →

The links between the linear and the synchronic texts appear in a slightly different manner when the arrangement of words into verses is synesthetic throughout the entire poem. This is to say that the poem is of a dual nature, being simultaneously on the deep structure and the surface structure levels, with references to meanings which remain outside the text, in a contextual reality, remaining within the textual space. There are numerous poems of this kind in A. Vajpeyi’s lyrical output and, in the complete corpus of his texts, these are the ones which contain the main artistic quality of his poetry. From the point of view of Western literary studies the single fact that the contextual reality here is the Indian tradition determines neither the artistic value of the poems nor their originality. The originality of Vajpeyi’s poetry results from a fusion of the Indian tradition and the analytic character of contemporary poems which ought to be exegetical rather than descriptive. The poem entitled Vr̥k (“Tree,” EPAM) seems a perfect illustration of this phenomenon:

Biographical notes

Renata Czekalska (Author)

Renata Czekalska is Associate Professor at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków (Poland). Her research interests are South Asian culture, contemporary literature, theory and practice of translation, intercultural communication.


Title: A Mandala of Words