Interview With H.S. Shivaprakash


by Jessica Sequeira

H.S. Shivaprakash (Hulkuntemath Shivamurthy Sastri Shivaprakash) is a poet, playwright and translator who writes in the Kannada language.

Shivaprakash was born in 1954 in Bangalore, India. Currently he is a professor at the School of Art and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, and previously he was director at the Tagore Centre in Berlin, run by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. He has published more than seven books of poems, 12 works of theatre, an essay collection and a spiritual autobiography, along with dozens of translations. He is an authority on vachana literature, the Bhakti movements of India, and Sufi and other mystical traditions. His works have been translated into English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Polish, Hindi, Marathi and Telugu, as well as performed in Kannada, Hindi, Meitei, Rabha, Assamese, Bodo, Tamil and Malayalam. He has been awarded four Karnataka Sahitya Akademi prizes, and he is an honorary fellow at the University of Iowa.

This October he will participate in the Santiago International Poetry Festival in Chile. In preparation for his visit and intrigued by his wide-ranging work, I asked him a few questions. The interview took place over email. 

What interests you about Latin American literature? Are you currently looking to translate authors from Spanish?

Both India and our kinspeople in Latin America have been descendants of great ancient civilisations. Both of our peoples became victims of the crushing impact of colonialisms that looted and brutalised our people. Before we could get over the death blows, we fell prey to the machinations of neocolonialism. In spite of these enormous disadvantages and challenges, we are trying to reinvent our collective identities in the age of globalisation. The challenge before us is to fit into the the rest of the world in a noncolonial fashion without renouncing our great imperishable heritages.

Who are your favourite authors from Latin America? from India?

Latin America is a huge continent. Though the languages spoken are many, the cultural diversities are immense. My ignorance of Spanish and Portuguese, the two major languages of the region, places another limitation on me. Still I read a lot of Latin American writers in English translation.

My favourites are César Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Ernesto Cardenal, Nicanor Parra, Borges, Oswald de Andrade, Gonzalo Rojas, Cecília Meireles and Octavio Paz. These are the names that come to my mind when I think of Latin American writing.

India is a multilingual country with 22 officially recognised languages, each of which has a uniquely rich literature. I read and understand some five Indian literatures. I have to read the rest in English or Hindi translations. You can understand my difficulty in singling out the best writers in India. Plus most of these languages have a literary history of over a millennium and a half years.

I would like to name only a few irresistible ones:

Vyasa, Valmiki, Kālidāsa, Bhavabhuti, Jayadeva (Sanskrit); Pampa, Basavanna, Akka, Allama, Kumara Vyasa, Shishunala Sharif (Kannada, my language); Kaundi Adigal, Appar, Nammazhvar, Bharathiar (Tamil); Jnaneshwar, Tukaram (Marathi); Amīr Khusrau, Kabir, Mirabai, Tulsidas, Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir (Urdu/Hindi); and Bulleh Shah, Baba Farid (Punjabi). These writers from different periods of a one million year long history can stand comparison with any of the best in the world. I have avoided the names of moderns because there are too many and they would easily fill two full pages.

The south of India, especially the Karnataka region, is very rich in mythological and literary history. Do you see any similarities between South Indian literature and the literature of South America?

Yes and no. Most of our rich ancient literatures are still preserved. Our mythology survives and inspires contemporary art practices. For example, our ancient epics Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata still inform our works in contemporary times. This is thanks to a seamless tradition of preservation and dissemination of ancient texts through the ages. I assume that Latin American civilisations had a very great literary tradition in precolonial times. But most of it was lost because of the absence of orthography in Latin America. Those precolonial oral texts and the values they represent are in need of reconstruction.

You are a very prolific translator. How do you choose what authors to translate? Do you come across authors by chance, or do you look for writers with a certain style or ideology?

Translation for me is as much the result of a lonely impulse of delight as the writing of a poem. When something I read makes me feel ‘I wish I could have written this, this is what I should be writing’, that feeling compels me to translate the text. I am of course interested in cultural particularisms. But I believe in one of the cardinal principles of Indian aesthetics: saadharaneekarana (universalisation). Great poetry is universal. That is what inspires translations across cultures. We always want to become each other, as in a love relationship or a mystical relationship between (wo)man and God(dess). I have translated poets from different Indian languages, and also from European, Asian, African and Latin American sources. An ancient Tamil poet declared one thousand years ago: ‘All places are mine, all people are my own.’

You are the translator of a well-known anthology for Penguin India, I Keep Vigil of Rudra: the Vachanas. How did you become interested in the vachanas and bhakti literature of South India?

I hate institutional religions. But I am profoundly interested in spirituality, which is not institutional but individual and subjective. It is the inner dimension of history, like poetry. The world without poetry in general and mystical poetry in particular is as lifeless as breath without the body.

In the book you mentioned, I have translated a small batch of poetry by a group of artisan saints from the 12th century who express a profound down-to-earth spirituality, aspiring to freedom in the world and out of the world. It can stand comparison with the greatest of the world’s spiritual poets like St John of the Cross, Rumi or Issa.

Bhakti cultures of medieval India inspired many of the literatures in India during the middle ages, more than our classical traditions. They are the links between ancient and modern times. We cannot ignore them as dark ages. All ages are steps towards enlightenment.

You have also translated a number of works for theatre, by Indian authors as well as Shakespeare. What draws you to this kind of literature?

Both ancient Indian and Hellenic poetics recognised drama as a form of poetry. For me too, drama is poetry enacted. After printing grew common, poetry became alienated from performance, just as action became divorced from belief. Our task is to unite them. This is my job as a poet. This is why I write and translate plays—poems for performance.

Several of your works and translations reflect on spirituality. What do you see as the relationship between your spiritual and literary practice?

Spirituality is the art of the sacred. Art, to my mind, is the search for what is sacred to me. In Indian tradition, spirituality and art are designated by the same word—pratibha, or imagination. What the Cosmic self imagines and manifests with its unlimited powers of will, knowledge and action, the poet also imagines and manifests with his limited powers. For me, spirituality is an extension of poetry.

In addition to your literary production, you have been very engaged in improving the cultural relationship between India and other parts of the world like Latin America, for example through your work at the Tagore Centre in Berlin. What do you see as your main cultural objectives in linking these regions?

As the African poet Aime Césaire said, ‘For civilisations, exchange is oxygen.’ But colonial history replaced this exchange with unequal exchange. We now need to restore equal exchange between cultures and literatures. I see translation as an extension of this engagement.

What writing and translation projects are you currently working on?

I want to do more and more translations of Latin American poetry into Kannada. I want to bring out an exhaustive anthology of Latin American poets. I also want to produce translations from individual countries like Chile, Argentina and Peru, which I find fascinating. This project needs the support of concerned embassies and governments.

Where can readers outside of India find your work? Are there any translations into Spanish?

A slim volume of my poems translated by a Costa Rican poet friend, Zingonia Zingone, has been published in El Salvador. A Mexican anthology of world poetry included some of my poems. Another dear poet friend, Ricardo Rubio, has translated and published my long poem about the sacred city of Caral, in a web journal. I am waiting to see if someone will take an interest in translating a body of my writings in Latin America.