19 February 2015

Poetry, love and revolutions

This is the twenty first in a series of articles on rebels and rebellion written for the FREE section of 'The Nation'. Scroll to the end for other articles in this series.  'FREE' is dedicated to youth and youthfulness.

One day someone asked himself, ‘do revolutions begin with poetry and that it ends with the abandonment of love?’  More than ten years later he asked himself another question: ‘do revolutions begin with love and end with the abandonment of poetry?’  Ten years later, he might ask himself a different kind of question: ‘Couldn’t the words love, revolution and poetry be switched around randomly and the resulting set of questions all sound sane and all answerable with “yes”?’ 

Even ‘no’ would be a legitimate answer to all the questions above.  One could insist that only poetry and love have little or nothing to do with revolutions.  It could also be argued that the dispassionate have little or no reason to make revolutions.  It could also be argued that poetry crafts passion in ways that stops a revolutionary from turning into a character who in action, tone of word and method resembles the enemy to the point that the entire exercise is made meaningless.  

Let’s just forget all these questions and think of literature and rebellion.  Throughout history and across continents the two have inspired each other.  Writers have turned people into rebels. Rebellion has inspired great literature. Think of your current revolutionary idol and the chances are that he or she was or is a voracious reader.  Extend the ‘indulgence’ to include other creative genres and you would find that revolutionaries tend to love music or art or theater or film. 

You could examine the flip side too.  Music is often an expression of objection to things as they are.  There’s rebel music and indeed in certain instances music is where rebellion takes root or the only residence of objection.  The same can be said of literature.  There’s a lot of political content in the works of poets such as Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, Allama Iqbal, Aimé Césaire, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Nazim Hikmet.  Their poetry conscientized readers.  Indeed literature in general persuade people to think, to think differently, to question and critique, and as such lay rebellious foundations within hearts and minds.  Shakespeare’s plays contain a lot of ‘tips’ let’s say for revolutionaries.  The Bible is read as a revolutionary treatise by some.  The art of Diego Rivera was irreverent and considered by some to be revolutionary. 

Revolutions create their own art and art in turn shapes rebellion.  A rebel, by definition resource-starved when compared with the endowment at the enemy’s disposal, would not spurn even the pennies he or she comes across.  Literature and art are not ‘bankable’ and are usually less marketable that the goodies made to blind or distract the potential objector.  A poor rebel might err by mistaking low assigned value for ‘unnecessary’ in the matter of rebellion. 

Here’s a ‘simple’ poem whose ‘price’ would be about Rs 10.  It was written by Ruwan Bandujeewa and is in his collection ‘මීළඟ මීවිත’ (‘Meelanga Meewitha’ or ‘The Next Wine’)


ඇළ හොඳින් හැඳ පැළඳ
ඇවිද යයි කුඹුරු මැද

වැව අරෙහෙ නිදි නැතිව
මේ ඇඳුම් මහපු බව
කිසිම වී කරලකට
ඇළ කියා නැත තවම

The Canal

Well dressed
the canal moves
‘tween the paddies

That day and night
the reservoir toils
these garments to stitch
not to a single ear of rice
has the canal whispered

Imagine someone who is conditioned to take the status quo as inevitable.  If he or she read this poem he or she might be persuaded to question the status quo, ask him/herself or someone else what processes generated the outcome that is now apparent.  He/she might then wonder whether he/she has been kept in the dark by the canal. 

Let’s forget all this.  Suppose it’s been a bad day.  Suppose you need to be picked up but there’s no one around to do so.  Suppose you’ve heard a love song (yes, not a revolutionary song) by the Eagles.  Suppose you remember this simple and quite ‘apolitical’ line: ‘When we are hungry, love will keep us alive’.  Maybe then you’ll return to the questions we began with.  Maybe you’ll look for a book of poems and not necessarily one that is ‘revolutionary’.  Who knows, maybe you’ll tell yourself, ‘I haven’t abandoned love and poetry hasn’t abandoned me – therefore the struggle still lives’.  Yes, you can interchange the words love, poetry and revolution.  In the very least, you will smile.  That’s enough ‘pick up’ on down days.