Sitanshu Yashaschandra
(India, 1941)   
Sitanshu Yashaschandra

Sitanshu Yashaschandra is among contemporary Gujarati literature’s most eminent representatives. A poet, playwright, translator and academic, he has received several awards over the years from the Sahitya Akademi Award (1987) for his significant opus, Jatayu, to the Padma Shri (2006) from the Government of India. He has authored three books of poetry.

Yashaschandra has worked as Vice Chancellor (Saurashtra University), UGC Emeritus Professor and National Lecturer, as well as Chief Editor of the Encyclopedia of Indian Literature (Sahitya Akademi). His doctoral work at Indiana University, USA, was in comparative literature, and at the University of Bombay, in Indian and Western Poetics. He has also been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and a Ford West European Fellowship for research in Comparative Literature. He has taught, as Professor and Chair of Gujarati, at the M. S. University of Baroda, from 1972, and has been a visiting Professor at the Sorbonne University (Paris), the Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles), and Jadavpur University (Kolkata). His creative and critical theory work is mainly in Gujarati but has been widely translated into Hindi and other languages. He has translated several works of poetry, drama and criticism from English to Gujarati. Tokhaar, his adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s Equus was hailed as a landmark play in modern Gujarati theatre.

In an earlier essay written specially for the PIW, critic Abhay Sardesai described “the Gujarati literary scene in the ’60s and the ’70s’ as “a battleground of sorts, where, amongst others, two major influences could be found playing against each other.” On the one hand, a “value-based literature”, that prioritized Gandhian ethics, nationalistic fervour and literary realism endured. But, on the other hand, there was an emergent avant-garde, “an experimental and formalistically oriented literary culture . . ., which drew inspiration from European Modernism as well as from indigenous Indian literary traditions”. Sitanshu Yashaschandra belonged to this latter tribe that clearly regarded itself at the vanguard of a new exciting cutting-edge literature. The following decades saw his growth from a writer of promise to one of the most mature, versatile and committed practitioners of Gujarati literature.

The poems in this selection are from three collections that span four decades of literary practice: Odysseusnu-n Halesu (1974); Jatayu (1986); and Vakhar (forthcoming). Startling in its ceaseless, fluid imagism, this is poetry of expansive energy and depth. It reminds you yet again of the remarkable possibilities of metaphor: its ability to transform, to turn the quotidian into the fantastic, the fantastic into the true.

Home, for instance, is the place with a “red, sun-baked” roof, wooden doors and “a young custard-apple tree in its old courtyard”. But all is not as innocent as it looks. For despite the poet’s reiterations that home is not a fortress, the images of suspicion, hostility, resistance and fear, are recurrent. And so metaphor becomes the means to articulate a complex truth about belonging.

Magan’s Insolence is a wonderful parodic poem about another kind of “not belonging”. The oppressive politics of a literary subculture are scathingly satirized, as “crazy Magan” is “locked up in the House of Letters” for two simple, but terrifyingly subversive aspirations: to live and to love.

In an earlier interview with poet Manu Dash, Yashaschandra commented on the distinction between “writing poetry” and “being a poet”. In the process, he makes a vital distinction between a snug self-serving identity and a voluntary unbelonging.

“The language of poetry runs counter to the discourse of authority,” he says. “In this sense, to write a poem is different from, the opposite of, being Author, being Poet. In this sense, to write a poem is to be a rebel, to be an outcaste.”

And that’s as much of an aphoristic utterance about the whole business of belonging as one is likely to find.

© Arundhathi Subramaniam

Selected Bibliography

Odysseusnu-n Halesu, R R Sheth & Co., Mumbai and Ahmedabad, 1974.
Jatayu, R R Sheth & Co., Mumbai and Ahmedabad, 1986.
Vakhar, 2008, R R Sheth & Co., Mumbai and Ahmedabad (forthcoming)
Moe-n jo dado (Poems read on cassette),1978.

Aa Maanas Madraasi Laage Chhe
Kem Makanji, kyaa-n chaalyaa?
Ashvatthaamaa aaje pan jive chhe (ane hanaay chhe)
Vaisakhi Koyal
Lady Lalkuvarr
Jaagine Jou-n to (Musical verse play)

Theory of Literature, Literary Historiography and Criticism
Asyaa Sarga Vidhao, Dept. of Gujarati, Mumbai University, 2002
Ramaniyataano Vagvikalpa, R R Sheth & Co., Mumbai and Ahmedabad, 1979.

Muse India: In Conversation with Sitanshu Yashashchandra.
Kavitayan: Ocean, a poem by Sitanshu Yashashchandra.


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