A Poem at the Right Moment: Remembered Verses from Premodern South India

At the centre of every poetic tradition is the idea of poetry as a fundamentally oral art. From the earliest times, poems have been meant to be verbal – to be spoken aloud, recited or sung – and even today the way a poem sounds remains central to our appreciation of it*. Yet in the days when the written word was inaccessible to most people, poems were not just spoken aloud, they were memorised and remembered, and were passed on from person to person by oral means.

This is obviously true of much Indian poetry, where you have only to look to the long tradition of sher-o-shayari in Urdu, or to the poetry of the Bhakti and Sufi saints, to see the truth of this assertion. How many people who can quote Ghalib or Kabir have ever read or owned a book of poems by these poets**? And still their poetry survives. No, it does more than survive, it lives, it becomes part our everyday discourse, a cultural shorthand, a shared language. But the notion of poetry as something to be remembered and recited is all pervasive, stretching back to the age of the minstrels and the Welsh bards (for a discussion of which, see Robert Graves’ The White Goddess).
Yet there is more to this act of remembering than simply the substitution of human memory for paper. This is truly, in the words of my third grade teacher, learning ‘by heart’. In learning our favourite poems we make them part of ourselves, part of the way we witness and think about the world. The truly great poems aren’t simply the ones we like well enough to remember, the truly great poems are the ones we find ourselves quoting, the ones that, in Marianne Moore’s words, prove “useful”.
It is this sense of poetry as something spontaneous and intimate, a part of our lived experience, that underlies Rao and Shulman’s exquisite collection of poems from premodern South India: A Poem at the Right Moment (Oxford India Paperbacks, 1999). Their claim is that “a poem, or at least a good poem, exists in the memory or on the tongue of living connoisseurs”. To back this claim, or rather to amplify it, Rao and Shulman put together a collection of such remembered poems – they call them catus (or charming utterances) – from South India. They provide both the original verses transcribed into English script, as well as their own translations of the verse (the quality of which, I, being unversed in any of the languages they translate from, cannot speak to). In addition, they provide narratives and stories that go with the poem – providing important background that helps to appreciate the poem better.
There are many reasons why this is a fascinating collection. The first is the poems themselves. Rarely more than a page long, these catus have a haiku-like brilliance, the sense of something polished to delicate and precise perfection. This effect is made stronger by the use of traditional ‘codified’ symbols – coral for a woman’s lips, a lake for her brow, etc. – so reminiscent of Chinese and Japanese poetry. Yet for all that, these are, in many ways, surprisingly ‘modern’ poems, and cover a wide range of styles. Some are witty (“Siva sleeps on Mount Kailasa / The sun and the moon live in the sky. / Vishnu rests on a snake. / Anything to avoid bedbugs”), others profound (a verse addressing undeserving people in high office starts: “You’re a drop of water on a lotus leaf. / Poets compare you to a pearl, but that’s no reason to be proud. / You’re praised because of your position.”). Some deal in images (“That whiff of jasmine, that’s my daughter”) others in social critique (“Five, six, seven,/ eight, nine, / even ten per house / in every village: / poets are popping up everywhere.”) All in all, whatever your taste in poetry, there’s a good chance that you’ll find something to delight you here.
The second reason for reading this collection is the sense it conveys of poetry as a game, a battle of wits. A number of the poems here are set up as contests between poets (even though the contestants actually lived centuries apart) and there’s a general sense of poetry not as some high, obscure art, but as a sort of five finger exercise – a conjuring trick done not with mirrors but with words and images and ideas. This does not, in any way, lessen the poet’s achievement; rather, it emphasises the cleverness of the poet, his ability to manipulate and imagine, while making the poems more accessible to the reader. This is incredible poetry, but it is poetry spoken with a glint in the eye.
Finally, the collection also demonstrates how poetry can be a window into other cultures and times. For a collection of premodern poetry A Poem at the Right Moment is delightfully and shamelessly erotic – whores are everywhere, four letter words abound, and sex is explicit and joyful. But the poems also reflect on traditions of community and relationships, on the role of monarchs and patrons in supporting the arts, on the morality and ideology of the time, and the pressures of social change. To read these poems is to experience, in some way, a different world, and it’s fascinating to think that so much of that world can be captured in these short lines.
Rao and Shulman begin their collection with a poem that reads:

A poem remembered at the right moment,

However simple,

Glows with life.

As you read A Poem at the Right Moment, you realise that this claim of simplicity, like the poems it describes themselves, is fundamentally deceptive. These are not simple poems – they are products of sophisticated and exquisite artistry, whose very mastery lies in the seeming ease with which they marry image to intellect, beauty to wit. By the time you finish this book, you will want to remember every one of these poems, and will find yourself trying to imagine where you could use them. That, after all, is what they are for.
* An idea that lies at the heart of Poi-tre, where I also blog.

** Tabish Khair writes:

“I recall

The time I voiced a line from your dohas, Kabir,

Struggling to set it free from the prison of a book,

And heard my grandfather’s wordless cook

Casually complete your couplet.”

-‘The Other Half of Kabir’s Doha’ (from Where Parallel Lines Meet, Viking India, 2000)