Conversation with Dr. Rati Saxena

“I am not a consciously spiritual person, neither in life nor in art”, says Dr. Rati Saxena. Yet a deep sense of spirituality pervades her poetry and reflects in her dedication to the art and the tireless work that she continues to undertake towards the cause of art, only for art’s sake. “To write a poem / you have to / walk on fire”, she says in one of her poems, implying that the very act of writing a poem is like meditation, a spiritual practice.

We are sitting in the study of her Trivandrum home on a quiet Sunday evening. Books and poetry journals from around the world fill the shelves lining the walls. Switching on her computer, Dr. Saxena shows me the latest issue of the online poetry magazine Kritya, her naturally quiet voice turning high in enthusiasm as she talks about the forthcoming Kritya festival of poetry.

Born in Rajasthan, India in 1954, Dr. Rati Saxena is an eminent Hindi poet, translator and Sanskrit scholar. She has more than fourteen books of poetry and translations to her credit, as well as several articles on Vedic studies and Indology. Her poems have been translated into several languages and published around the world. She has received a number of awards including the Kendra Sahitya Academy Award for Translation in 2000 and the Indira Gandhi National Culture and Arts Fellowship.

Dr. Saxena is perhaps best known as the founder, editor and visionary behind the poetry journal Kritya that showcases some of the finest poetry from around the world on the internet. What started as one woman’s vision for a monthly bilingual poetry journal in English and Hindi has grown quietly over seven years into a formidable chain linking several poets writing in various languages from across India and the world.

The Poet as Creator, Philosopher and Storyteller

Dr Saxena’s research on the Atharva Veda from the perspective of folk culture analysing the Vedic hymns by reading them as folk poems led her to interpret the art of poetry through her philosophical background. “Poetry is not just words. There is something which gives life to poetry, something more than words. Vedic philosophy equates the Kavi (Poet) to Brahma. Thus the Kavi could be the creator of this universe”, she says in one of her editorials in Kritya.

Many of her poems raise key existential questions on the concept of time and the meaning of truth. Several references to Vedic terms and ideas can be found in her poems, about which the late poet Dr. Ayyappa Panicker commented that ‘the charm and spell of the suktas of the fourth Veda may be heard or overheard in these poems too, especially those about the earth-coloured trees, which constitute the upward thrust of an otherwise flat earth.’ There are philosophical implications in many of her poems, such as the dream of the sea which transcends everything including water, the need for the moon to wax and wane, for waves to have crests and troughs to express the nature of beauty, etc. Did she choose poetry as a medium to express her reflections on philosophy? I am curious.

“I do not consciously use poetry as a vehicle to express philosophical ideas,” says Dr. Saxena. “I see myself more as a storyteller. There were these stories that lay within me about my perceptions of life, art and the world. I had always wanted to write them down. I started writing seriously only after I was well into my forties. When I started writing, I found that my stories came out in the form of verse. Writing fiction is easier as one can lie while writing fiction, but to write poetry one should have the courage to speak the truth of the heart. I did not choose to become a poet, rather the form chose me.”

On Words and Language
The meaning of home and language is explored time and again in her poems, in one of which she says that ‘she has many tongues, but amidst a number of tongues, there is none that she calls her own’.

It is not only translation that changes the flavour of a poem. A poem written in the same language may be interpreted differently by a reader, says Dr. Saxena. “I wrote the words of the letters / on black papers / using black ink /will my beloved be able to read them / in red; I wrote in the languages of love / Sanskrit the only one I know / but what do I know not / will he read my letters in love”, she reflects. The objective of a poem is then, to communicate from one mind to another, beyond the boundaries of language.

Many of her poems invoke vivid images from nature. Her poems on the sea bring forth strong and sensual images such as the rock on the sea which takes a life of its own, a tree growing old, a jungle of words and ‘The Aesthetics of the Spider’ in which she says that ‘Every net of a spider / Is a complete poem.’ Poems such as these and her mystic poem on the union of purush and prakrithi in ‘Among the earth-coloured trees’ seem to convey that words and all other human means of expression are inadequate to describe the perfection that is found in nature.

Feminist Overtones

Some of her most acclaimed poems have feminist overtones such as “The Serpent quailing woman body”, “The girl fighting with the bloody points” and “I, In Udaipur” in which she talks about the fourth, unwanted daughter of a middle class family being born, not amidst drumbeats and applause but in a shadow of silence. Like Gillian Clarke in ‘Notes from a far-off country’, she celebrates domesticity in the poem ‘Washing Clothes’ in which the housewife finds poetry in the mundane act of washing clothes. Turning this stereotype around in the poem ‘Time Near to me’, she portrays an empowering image of a woman who chooses to neglect the household chores in favour of writing, as time ‘wanders around her like a tame dog’. I ask if feminism is an important theme to her.

“I am not a conscious feminist either, I believe in humanism and the empowerment of women. But having experienced the pain that comes as part of playing the many roles of an Indian woman, I cannot help the feminist overtones that creep into my work”

Not all her poems are reflective or dark. Some of them have an element of humour such as ‘the hymn of the slippers’, in which she says, ‘My journey is about to start and I am in search of slippers / My flight is ready; I am in search of slippers…/ Slippers are my Mantra, slippers are my Dharma / Are they missing, or am I? / O Indra, Varun, Agni Dev! / All directions! / Earth and Sky! / I am searching for the slippers / Loosing my self”

“I love being funny”, she says, eyes twinkling. “I love to laugh and make people laugh. But my sense of humour has not reflected much in my poems, most of which deal with pain and suffering and how to overcome them.”

Kritya – Speaking the language of Poetry
Dr. Saxena has been running the online poetry magazine Kritya with great success for the past seven years. Kritya publishes contemporary Indian and world poetry, poetry in regional Indian languages in translation and also selections from classical poets. Kritya has brought together a number of poets from around the world and has brought out special editions such as the ones devoted to Polish and Italian poetry. Serious poets from around the world gravitate to Kritya. They write in different languages but understand each other very well as they all speak the same language of poetry.

The Kritya international poetry festivals conducted in a different part of the country each year are intimate, enriching events where the focus remains firmly on poetry – poetry in theatre, poetry in photography, musical poetry, performance poetry, poetry in dance, poetry in motion, poetry in translation and of course, the old fashioned poetry readings which invoke the serious Kavi Sammelans of yore. There are no distractions of any kind.

“Conducting an international poetry festival requires tremendous effort and resources. It is like getting a daughter married”, smiles Dr. Saxena. “Unlike many other literary festivals that are heavily sponsored by corporates and have a commercial angle to them, we can only afford bare minimum facilities to our visiting poets and the audience. But the ones who come are focused towards poetry, they come out of love for poetry and that is what makes the festival a success. Many young poets have used the platform of Kritya to promote themselves and their work. They have now moved on to bigger literary festivals where they get more exposure and fame. Good for them” she says philosophically.

“Somehow I find that the right people to conduct the festival join me in time every year. Things always fall into place at the last minute. Kritya has a life of its own. I feel that I am just a tool in the hands of the spirit of the muse that runs the entire show.”