Bilingual Poetic Voice:
An Interview with Mahendra Bhatnagar
Dr. Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal
Mahendra Bhatnagar is one of the significant post-independence voices in Hindi and Indian English Poetry. Rooted deep into the Indian soil, his poems reflect not only the moods of a poet but of a complex age. He was Professor and Head, Department of Hindi, Jiwaji University, Gwalior. This senior Professor of Hindi has ten volumes of poems in English besides several collections in Hindi. His works have been translated into a number of Indian and foreign languages. This bilingual poet, scholar and critic talks to Dr. Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal about various issues of literary creativity.
NKA : What are the major themes of your poetry?
MB : I am writing poetry since Nov. 1941, in Hindi. Work on English versions began in 1952-53. That time, English versions were published in HINDI REVIEW, a prestigious English magazine of Nagri PracharSabha (Varanasi, U.P.). It was edited by Professor Ram Avadh Dwivedy, formerly Professor and Head, English Department, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi (U.P)
As far as major themes (topics / subjects) of my poetry are concerned, they can be easily seen or understood by reading my poetry collections.
From the very dawn of my poetry writing, I am writing on social, economic, national, political and cultural aspects. Of course, I am also writing from the beginning of my poetic career on nature, love, optimism (tendency to look upon the bright side of things), life’s drawbacks, disappointments, deceits, despair, pains, sufferings, shallowness of people etc.
Span of my poetry is divided into two parts. A—Period before independence (about six years). B— Post-independence period.
I am not attached to any political dogma or any political party; though there are very clear tones in my poetry as far as the left thinking is concerned. I believe not only in Gautam Buddha’s philosophy but also in the views, thoughts and reasoning of Karl Marx and Gandhi. I am of the opinion that free thinking is absolutely necessary for every intellectual, and genuine writer and poet.
NKA: You have written poetry both in Hindi and English languages. Out of the two, which one is closer to your heart?
MB: It’s obvious that writing poetry in Hindi — my mother tongue — is closer to my heart. Though, I wrote several short poems originally in English, my poetic works are translated into English either by me or by reputed Indian English poets and professors in colleges / universities.
NKA: Did you feel comfortable in creating poems in English? My personal belief is that poetry is a spontaneous activity, which can not easily come out in an alien language. So, your English poetry may not be directly from the heart. What do you say?
MB: Expression of the heart and mind is more natural in one’s mother-tongue. There is not much need of efforts in it. Expression in mother-tongue is an inherent element. That’s why writing poetry in mother-tongue is also easier.
As everyone is not a master of English or of any other language other than one’s mother-tongue, it is absolutely necessary to understand and grasp the peculiar specialties of that language. Otherwise, writing poetry will prove totally un-poetic. Language accomplishment is possible only if you are familiar to that language. As, I never went to England nor remained in touch with English speaking society; hence my expression in English will only be bookish. Of course, I learned English. I read several poems in English. The medium of my higher education was English. English language and literature remained compulsory subjects up to graduation level for me. I have no hesitation to say that I want to see my existence in the history of Indian English Poetry. I am happy to see that through English I got global wide readership. Internet too is a powerful medium of spreading my poetry.
The second part of your question is rather related to the definition of poetry. It is an established fact that poetry is a spontaneous activity. This fact can’t be denied. But, this is true only in writing lyrical poetry. Descriptive poetry requires time and patience. That is a more conscious effort. Poetry is not a meaningless utterance of a crazy or a sentimental man. There should be nothing mystical in poetry. Emotions and thoughts are indispensable elements of poetry. Poetry comes from the heart under the strict censorship of the mind. Poetry writing is not a society-aloof affair. In all forms of art communicability is essential; language may be alien or home.
NKA : Some of your poems are translated too. What, in your view, are the essential qualities of an excellent literary translation? Do you find these traits in your translated work?
MB : Not some, most of my poems are translated into English. Nine volumes of my poetry are already published. They are :
 Forty Poems of Mahendra Bhatnagar
 After The Forty Poems
 Dr. Mahendra Bhatnagar’s Poetry
 Exuberance and other poems
 Death Perception : Life Perception
 Passion and Compassion
 Poems : For A Better World
 A Handful Of Light
Two more volumes are forthcoming.
Translating poetry is really a difficult task. Translators must have good command over both the languages; only then perfect translation work is possible. But, this does not always happen. Translators should be faithful in translating poetry. Nothing new (may be better) should be added. On the other hand simply literal translations are not considered as good translations. Inherent ideas of the poet must get place in translations. In my opinion this is the basic condition of a good translation.
As far as translations of my poems are concerned I am satisfied. I myself took great pains in putting appropriate words in translated versions of my poems. I consulted several dictionaries, including bi-lingual. I really feel proud and I am really very happy to register that my talented translator-friends are very competent, worthy, decent, and of very high caliber. A few of them are poets of international repute. It’s really very astonishing that I got their sincere cooperation. It’s nothing; except my good luck!
NKA : What is the source of poetry in you? It is said that poetry emerges out of intense emotional experience of the poet. I suppose, it must also be the case with you. Your comments, please.
MB : Yes, the source of creating poetry lies in ‘intense emotional experiences.’ This is the first and most essential element of poetry. ‘Thought’ comes next. Other elements are imagination and, language and style.
I am of the opinion that without noble and high thoughts, poetry remains a thing of luxurious merriment only. We call a poet a ‘RISHI’ (a sage). He is a torch-bearer of the society too. He is not a jocular / jester. Nor does he represent only the vulgar appeals of licentious persons. Such things are not synonyms of ‘emotion’. Please note.
NKA : Your collection Poems : For A Better World is written with a zeal to reform the world. The satirical tone is prevalent throughout. For instance, in ‘Invoking Modern Man’, you say:
Again and again
Our God incites us
To kill other’s God!
Is not the reformist zeal a sort of burden on the principle of pure poetry? Poetry should be read for sheer aesthetic pleasure. The moralist’s purpose should be minimized in it. Didacticism in art sometimes stifles the aesthetic value of it. What do you say about this dichotomy of two ideals — ‘art for art’s sake’ and social documentation in art? How should we describe Mahendra Bhatnagar’s poetry? Is he a creative poet of complete enjoyment or a poet with a mission? Please tell something.
MB: ‘Art for art’s sake’ or social documentation in art — both factors are often discussed in poetics. There is nothing new in it. We cannot undermine the importance of aesthetic values in poetry. But as I have already expressed only enjoyment should not be the aim of writing poetry. The poet must be realistic and visionary. I agree didactism minimizes the influence of art and poetry. Thus the poet must be cautious in expressing his mission; otherwise peoples’ hearts will not stir. We cannot favour negligence towards artistic approach in poetry; though it is fundamental to see what the inner contents of your poetry are. Thoughts of the poet must be healthy. Literature is created for the welfare of the society. Man and society are in central pivot. At times poetry becomes the dutiful weapon of social revolutions. Poetry has many shades. One-sided version is not justified. Mainly utility should be the criterion of poetry. You cannot boycott expressions of nature’s beauty and love. It has its own utility. It softens the heart and makes the man more humane. Tender feelings are also a part of life. How can we ignore them?
NKA : What are the formative influence on you?
MB : You mean, influences in giving shape to poetry. A far as the structural construction of poetry is concerned I do not do much labour. I wrote metrical compositions in the beginning of my poetic career. Afterwards I inclined towards blank-verse or free-verse. I feel comfortable in writing free-verse; but not without metre and rhymes. Of course, there is no regular metre and rhyme. Hindi poet Nirala wrote such free-verse. But, framework of my poetry is rather new and original. Most of my poems give glimpse of free-verse; but actually they are metrical under discipline. There are internal rhymes also in my poems; though not regular. I wrote very few prosaic poems. Poems written in prose style are often not impressive. A sort of tone or tune may be there. In fact I write poetry in my own style. I tried my level best to create poems having modernistic expression.
NKA : As a Senior Professor of Literature, what do you think are the reasons for the diminishing of the interest of the youth in literature? The young men and women hardly care for literary icons. The really meritorious students do not go for higher studies in the fields of Literatures. They opt for the careers in Engineering Science. What factors are responsible for this apathetic attitude towards literature? What are the possible remedies for this tangling problem?
MB : I think, the main and the foremost reason of the diminishing choice of the youth for literature is purely and clearly economic. One has to earn money for himself and for his family. Everyone wants to live safe. Everyone wants to live a smooth and easy going life. Everyone wants to enjoy all the boons of the present scientific and technical progress. That’s why young people are also running to get more and more monetary gains. Literature doesn’t provide such gains to a large majority of people.
As far as the diminishing interest in literature is concerned there are other factors too. Obsolete literature has no charm in it; however rich that may be. The age has changed. Scientific achievements have changed totally our thinking. Today’s youth is more realistic. Only that literature will become popular which possesses the realities of the time. God-centered devotional literature has lost its relevance. Though we are secular and modern yet in Hindi literature you will find a major thrust on old-fashioned devotional utterances. In the curricula of schools and colleges there is no agreement with the times; students are rather compelled to read the literature, concerned only with Ram-Sita & Radha-Krishna. We must search human values in current literary arena of our times. That will surely create interest in the readers.
Secondly, literary works must be simple and clear. Communicability should be the primary condition of literary writings. Unfortunately, today’s literature is not fulfilling this urge. Most of the present literature is difficult to understand. Complicated expressions are often overlooked. We want to read that literature which is healthy in thoughts, lucid in expression and bright with artistic skills.
NKA : Who are the other contemporary bilingual authors and poets writing in Hindi and English languages? What should be done to promote bilingual writings in India? Are there certain associations for this purpose?
MB : I am not much aware of other bilingual poets and authors. Bilingual poetry is very useful; especially with English as one of the languages. I write poetry in Hindi and English. Hindi versions of my poetry are read throughout India. Most of my Hindi poems are translated into English and are available in nine volumes. These English translations help the non-Hindi speaking readers very much. They easily grasp the contents of the poems more correctly. With the help of these English translations my poems got translated into other Indian languages, viz Tamil, Telugu, Kannad, Malyalam, Banglaa, Manipuri etc.
Mrs. Purnima Ray (mother-tongue Banglaa) translated my poems very successfully in French with the help of these bilingual poems. Mrs. Purnima Ray taught French at Burdwan University, Burdwan, West Bengal, India. Her French translations are published in book-form — A Modern Indian Poet : Dr. Mahendra Bhatnagar : Un Poèt Indien Et Moderne, with English versions. This bilingual collection (English & French) got global publicity. Mr. Seifi Hino, a well known Japanese poet, translated my poems into Japanese, with the help of the above mentioned English-French bilingual collection; as he knows French also. Japanese versions are published in GENDAISHI KENKYU (International bilingual — French & Japanese — Magazine / Published from Yamagata — shi / Japan)
Publishers also publish such bilingual collections easily; due to their quick sale in a wider area of the country and abroad.
NKA : What are the major issues / themes before the contemporary creative writers in India?
MB : Msajor issues / themes before the contemporary writers in India today are not new. They are almost same as were in a few last decades. I think, secularism should be given top priority. Writers must attack by their writings on the communal forces.
Other issues too are clear viz. corruption in politicians, officers and contractors, bribery, social crimes, terrorism, cruelty and murder, robbery, rape and oppression of women, increasing alcoholism, immorality of the police, poverty, unemployment, burden of taxes, business of educational institutions, adulteration, religious wild excitements, bad character of doctors and advocates, expansion of capitalism, irresponsible media and so on.
NKA : One great problem, involved in creative writing, is that publishers do not easily come forward in publishing the books of new authors. In most of the cases, the authors are charged money for the publications of their books. How can this problem be solved? Can e-publishing be an alternative? Are there certain problems in the publication on Internet too? I think the people do not take the Internet publications much seriously. They just go cursorily over the whole text. Moreover, very few people are armed with the facility of Internet. So, what is the way out. Your views about all this.
MB: Now-a-days everything is commercialized. Publishers publish only those books which are easily salable. Poetry books are not much popular amongst readers, because most of the poets are writing highly difficult poetry. The problem of communication is foremost in the field of poetry writing today. Fake and incompetent poets are seen in abundance. They are writing a lot of trash poetry. In the name of blank verse or free verse poets are writing poetry in prosaic form. Such poetry doesn’t appeal the common man.
It’s true now-a-days genuine poets also are facing difficulties in publishing their works. On Internet too we see a lot of raw and rubbish poetic matter. Of course, we find standard matter in e-magazines and in blogs of reputed poets. The popularity of internet is increasing in the educated class of society. No doubt, Internet is a satisfactory channel for the poets to display their works.
NKA : You are associated with a number of literary figures and organizations. Will you mention some, whose cooperation has assisted you in moulding / shaping of your literary sensibility?
MB : Oh, I am not much associated with literary figures and associations. My movements are limited. I am afraid of travel, mostly alone. That’s why I am not able to take part in outside symposiums, lectures, meetings etc. I do not attend Kavi-sammelans (poets’ meet). I even do not go to conduct viva-voce tests of research scholars or attend meetings of several academic, literary and audition (AIR) committees, though universities are ready to give expenses of air-journey or hired taxi for this purpose.
I am connected with a few literary personalities only through correspondence or through internet. I am not associated to any group of writers. I was never supported by any ‘Mahant’ (eminent chief of literature). That is why, I suffered a lot. My writings didn’t come in limelight; as it should be. I have carved out a niche for myself in the field of literature through my own efforts. People know me only through my writings.
The interviewer Dr.Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal is Senior Lecturer in English at Feroze Gandhi College, Rae Bareli, (U.P.), India. His interviews with a number of contemporary literary figures, as well as his research papers, book reviews, articles and poems have appeared in publications, including The Vedic Path, Quest, Confluence, Pegasus, IJOWLAC, The Journal, Promise, The Raven Chronicles, Yellow Bat Review, Carved in Sand, Turning the Tide, Blue Collar Review, Bridge-in-Making, Hyphen and South Asian Review.