KOCHI: He doesn’t believe in sacrosanct truths, sees poetry as a form of dissent and is quite outspoken when it comes to pluralistic ethos. Ashok Vajpeyi thinks we are going through dark and scary times, a world functioning by the laws of exclusion, a tyrannical system that keeps creating outsiders and underdogs. One of the towering figures in Indian cultural scene, he says poetry is very precariously placed between confirming and questioning. “Art transforms into dissent in certain social, cultural and spiritual circumstances,” says the poet, critic and cultural activist.
For him dissent is not a simple term, rather a process by which a long-believed hypothesis is questioned. “Truth is commonly considered as something absolute, perfect and without inner contradictions. It’s very perfectly constituted but literature doesn’t believe in such certitudes. Mahabharata, where the dharma yuddha is fought and won in vain can be viewed as a dissent from the Ramayan view of the same. In that sense dissent is rooted in the very essence of literature,” he says.
He thinks the task of a poet is to identify the plurality of truth and ascertain its existence. “Bharatrihari has written a Neeti Shatak, Shringar Shatak and Vairagya Shatak and you find all three – life, passion and renunciation - are part of the same poet,” he says. He wants the poet to reject the commonly held view of truth and go for a more chaotic, realistic perspective. “And when you do that you realise that duality of truth is now under serious threat. It’s getting undermined in the public discourse,” he adds.
He doesn’t essentially consider poetry as a means to open a political and civic discourse. “But there are times when it assumes that role and perhaps ours is such times. When so many lies are being perpetuated in a massive way and all means of public discourse are intercepted, you need a counter discourse. These is where poetry or in that sense all arts assume another role,” he says.
He was branded as a ‘manufacturer of intolerance’ two years back when he, along with a handful of fellow artists, kick-started a nation-wide campaign against intolerance. “When we returned our awards we were ridiculed by the spokespersons of the party in power. Today, in the newspaper, you read the Delhi High Court commenting that this growing intolerance should be stopped. And of course there are umpteen instances that indicate blatant intolerance,” he says.
Vajpeyi has just published a 550-page anthology called ‘India Dissents’ tracing the existence of plurality and dissent in India from Rigveda to the Buddhist, Jain, Mughal, colonial and contemporary times. “It shows how dissent has permeated our tradition and is not a western, modern import. Poets can remind the crowds that ours has been a culture that allowed debate, dissent, disagreement and accommodation,” he says.
He says it’s equally alarming to watch the way new ‘others’ are created on a daily basis, destroying empathy in a methodical and shocking manner. “Margio Vargas Llosa Lossa in his famous Nobel lecture said that one of the jobs of literature is to demolish the dichotomy of ‘us and them’. This ‘othering’ is not possible in literature. Here we have a unified identity, we stand together as humanity,” he says.
He finds a clear-cut propaganda in this meticulous manufacturing of ‘others’ and insists it has nothing to do with Indian culture of the norms of Hinduism. “The process of acknowledgment and accommodation has been going on for centuries. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Parsis – they came to India. If Hinduism could answer all those anxieties why was there Buddhism, Jainism or Sikhism? They are all distinct streams born out of the dissent towards Hinduism.” He says there is certain innate flexibility in Hinduism, a tradition of affirmation and dispute, confirmation and dissent. “So to say that you are building this intolerance in the name of Hinduism is totally ridiculous,” he adds.
As a prominent presence in cultural and literary spheres over the last few decades, he says the upcoming writers have more opportunities and forums now – more fellowships, more awards, more publishers. “When we were young it was really difficult breaking onto the literary scene. Getting yourself visible involved a struggle – a process that both humbles you and trains you to meet the vast adversities in store,” he says. He remembers the time when Bharat Bhavan was established in in the 80s as a possible alternative to national academies. “Though the institute has now lost its luster,it used to be a great platform for artists. During those days I was the one who persuaded and funded Kavalam to come out with his first full-length Sanskrit production,” he says.
A poet coming from the bureaucratic circuit, Vajpeyi says he doesn’t find the roles conflicting. He thinks all you need is to be intelligent enough to embody your dissent without causing offense. “It doesn’t mean you have to be a total iconoclast. My being a bureaucrat brought me in touch with the very raw reality. On the other hand, being a poet brought in some sensitivity and some concern for human suffering in the administrator I was. I don’t know whether it’s the reality, but in my most arrogant moments I think this did happen,” he laughs.
As a prominent presence in cultural and literary spheres over the last few decades, Ashok Vajpeyi says the upcoming writers have more opportunities and forums now – more fellowships, more awards, more publishers. “When we were young it was really difficult breaking onto the literary scene. Getting yourself visible involved a struggle – a process that both humbles you and trains you to meet the vast adversities in store,” he says
A poet coming from the bureaucratic circuit, Vajpeyi says he doesn’t find the roles conflicting. He thinks all you need is to be intelligent enough to embody your dissent without causing offense