20 October 2015

When text plays with the visual: Review of කුරුළු කවි (‘Bird Song’ but perhaps ‘Kurulu’s Verses’) by Kurulu Niskalanka

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words.  The flip is also true.  A single word can a thousand images conjure.  That’s what good writing is all about, especially poetry.  Not all pictures have 1000-word equivalents of course and not all words generate a 1000 images.  But some words do.  For example, love.  There are others: child, childhood, fear, sorrow, absence, yesterday, tomorrow etc.  

A good painting tells us many stories without a single word.  Similarly there’s writing that paint landscapes, feelings and histories among other things.  The two are sometimes merged and sometimes inspire one another.  Poetry after all was inspired by the Sigiriya frescoes and copy is enhanced by image in advertising.  

Now, the technological advancement and cheap internet access, we see a increased merging of word and image with photographs (for example) inspiring poetry and vice versa, with an execution that is made of a blending of the two.  Whereas in an earlier period there would be illustrations decorating texts, both poetry and prose, now a certain complementarity is sought.  We see this in poetry blogs all the time, but this year the mixed-media idea spilled over into print in two collections of poetry in Sinhala, Manjula Wediwardena’s පිටුවහල් පිටු (Exiled Pages) and Kurulu Niskalanka’s කුරුළු කවි (literally ‘Bird Song’ but perhaps ‘Kurulu’s Verses’).  They followed a brave effort in this format by Kumari Kumaragamage (නැසූ කන්වලට or ‘For ears that have not heard’).  

All three are excellently designed books where photograph and verse are both enhanced by the design.  Photoshop and Illustrator yield new dimensions obviously.  These publications are refreshing because a certain monotony has descended on this ‘photo-poetry’ if you will, with both image and text suffering from careless thrusting of one into the other.  And, in a world that has little patience where visual bombardment has dulled the compulsion to read and read carefully and deep, it makes good business sense, as the poet Saumya Sandaruwan Liyanage noted at the launch of Kurulu’s book.  

At the outset, let me state that these are all interesting products and of poetic quality that warrant comment.  At the same time it cannot be said that they outshine the visual-less efforts of other poets who, without image, still paint for the reader physical as well as philosophical landscapes.  One thing is clear, though: this could be where poetry is heading given market realities. 

The design element dominates or rather is made to dominate all else.  Makes sense because it is the eye that is most easily captured.  From the elegant cover with a title that also names author, through a creative and delightful dedication which allowed all friends and admirers to be part of the exercise, to the choice of image and its placement, Kurulu has produced something that will no doubt bring a lot of people to poetry and poets.  That has to be applauded. 

Kurulu perhaps due to his vocational predilections, advertising, knows how to turn a phrase.  He knows brevity.  And he knows the visual.  That’s apparent in the collection.  He is best when he is brief, no pun intended.  

දුකට හේතුව,
දුක නැති කිරීමේ මාර්ගය,
නුඹම වූ විට,
-- දුකින් මිදීම --
ඉතා දුෂ්කරය…

The cause of sorrow,
The pathway to eliminate sorrow,
for me
this is you,
— escaping sorrow —
is extremely difficult.

This comes with the image of a single Araliya flower, white with yellow streaks.  Drawing as it does from Buddhist philosophy, marrying as it does Buddhist cultural practice, speaking as it does to the entrapment that is love (“A cure did I find for sorrow, in a sorrow without a cure” — Ghalib), the words and the image complement each other.  And yet, even without image the lines work (without line, however, the flower could be read in many different ways).  

Another example demonstrates some of the redundancy one finds in the collection.

ඔයා එනකොට 
'කොළ' පාට පත්තු 
කරන හිටපු හිතේ  
ඔයා ආවම 
'රතු පාට' පත්තු කලේ 
වෙන කාටවත් 
යන්න එන්න බැරි වෙන්න...
ඒත්  දැන්..
ඔයා ගියාම...
'කහ' පාට විතරක් 
නිවි නිවී පත්තු වෙනව
එක එකාට ඕන විදියට 
ඇවිල්ල යන්න

When you arrived
the ‘green’ of my mind
turned ‘red’
so no one else
could now come and go
but now that you are gone
there’s only ‘amber’
for anyone to come
and go
as they will.

The poem is accompanied by a photograph of a traffic light.  The first thing that comes to mind is not the traffic light but the question ‘why a traffic light?’ when it is a metaphor that is so beautifully embedded in the poem.  

Here’s another one like that:


හඳට Full Day! 
අපිට  Holiday!

[for the moon, a full day/for us a holiday]

Pithy.  The image of the full moon, beautiful though it is, is unnecessary.  The same could be said of his play with the suits of a deck of cards, unfortunately untranslatable for the twists of meaning in their Sinhala versions.  

ඔයාට අනුව 
විරහව තුනී කරන 
හොඳම මග 
මට අනුව...
ඔයාගේ කඳුළු 
දැන් වේලිලා...
එත් මගේ කවි…!

Nothing diminishes sorrow
like a tear
you say…
I say
Your tears 
now are dry
my poetry…!

This too does not need image, it is vivid enough.  And powerful.

The poet knows words.  He is sensitive.  He is excellent in description and in delving into the human condition.  He comes up with nuances that prompt meditation.  Sometimes he gets carried away, it seems, with the narration and becomes a slave of his chosen format, both poetic and visual.  For example, in the ‘casting’ of ‘you’ and ‘I’ as flower and rock respectively in a theatrical metaphor Kurulu offers a beautiful rendering of the perennial theme of unrequited love, but lyrical though he is, there is little poetic value apart from structure obtained by the ‘Enter’ key.  

However, one detects a certain easy rhythm which Kurulu might consider drawing from more extensively in his future poetic endeavors.  

පොඩි එකා ඇකයේ තියන් සිතුවම් එකින් එක ගොඩ ගසා 
හිතට නැගෙනා කඳුළු තම කුස ගින්නේ පදමට ගෙන අනා 
හීන කලවම් කරපු සිත්තම් පෙලින් පෙළ එක එක තබා 
කලා බවනෙක ඉදිරිපිට හිඳ හෙලයි සුසුමන් සිත්තරා 
කලාතුරකින් ලඟින් යන එන පෙම්වතෙක් පෙම්වති නිසා 
මිල ගණන් අසමින් සිනාසෙයි පෙම්වතිය සනසම් කියා 
ඉදිරි පිට ඇති ජෝන් සිල්වගෙ නිහඬ ගල් පිළිමය විනා 
සිහින හඳුනන කිසිවෙකුත් නැත නිතර මෙතනින් යන එනා    

The beat resembles those verses in the Guttila Kaavya that describe the effect of the music on the audience.  The lyricism is particularly strong here.  The story is of the nameless artists who ‘set up shop’ near the Vihara Maha Devi Park and notes their trials and aspirations. Poignant are the last two lines: 

‘No one recognize dreams among those who come and go
no one apart from the silent statue of John Silva’

Overall, Kurulu Niskalanka demonstrates a rare sensitivity to the social, cultural, political and even philosophical world around him.  The human condition prompts him to write in particular ways.  He delves deep and with a lot of ease offers us whatever he has excavated.  The images do not distract as some images in photo-poetry does, but neither do they always offer an ‘enhanced’ reading experience.  

Perhaps I am harsh right now simply because I am in the middle of reading Mahinda Prasad Masimbula’s new novel ‘Manikkaavatha’.  No images. Just words.  But how wonderfully visual!  Kurulu Niskalanka has a way with words.  He may think that they read better when they come with pictures and he may be right — his readers will judge — but most of these poems do not need such visual props for they are visual enough.  Poetry, after all is about economy and suggestion and not about reiteration.  He has consciously used the word ‘කවි’ (verse) in the title.  That must mean something.  In any event, he, along with Manjula and Kumari, has invited discussion on this format.  It should be interesting.



The Modern Patriot said...

I know Kurulu for more than 4 years. I'm reading him for more than 4 years. I have felt him very much sometimes...But not to the extend that i felt him today, after reading this article.

Thanks Malinda...