Modern Marathi Poetry:

A Remarkable Decade


(The Rajaram College, Kolhapur)

Modern Marathi poetry is essentially lyrical. It is influenced by English lyrical poetry of the Romantic Period. It began some fifty years ago with the loose but graceful rendering of some English lyrics into Marathi verse by Vishnu Moreshwar Mahajani of Akola in Berar. Modern Marathi poetry written on the Sanskrit classical models is of even earlier origin. It has not yet gone out of vogue and its great representative today is Sadhudas (b. 1884) of Sangli who in his ‘Ranavihar,’ ‘Vanavihar’ and ‘Grihavihar’ has attempted to narrate on a grand scale the ancient story of the Ramayana. Tilak, Keshavasut, Madhavanuj, Chandrasekhar, Vinayak, Bee, Tambe and Dutta are all representatives of the new lyrical school. They were born between the years 1865-1875. Of these only three, Chandrasekhar (b. 1871), Bee (b. 1872) and Tambe (b. 1874) are still living. Dutta the youngest of them was the first to pass away. He died of plague at Baroda in 1899, prematurely but not before he had produced a few priceless gems. Keshavasut, whose poetry is characterized by a strong rugged individuality, was carried off by plague in 1905; and four years later passed away Vinayak whose narrative ballads have not yet been surpassed. The rest lived on to see the rise and fall of another great wave of poetry. Tilak wrote more feelingly than others. He had embraced Christianity and naturally the orthodox were prejudiced against him. But lovers of poetry loved him none the less; and in devotional poetry his Abhanganjaii places him in the honoured line of Namadeva and Tukarama.

Sumant (b. 1881), Sadhudas (b. 1884), Govindagraj (b. 1885), Tekade (b. 1887), Tiwari (b. 1887) and Balakavi Thombare (b. 1891) were the poets who now began to attract the small poetry-reading public. From amongst these Govindagraj, Rendalkar and Balakavi were the leading poets of the 2nd decade of the present century. They were more gifted, more assertive and more combative than their predecessors; and they were greatly instrumental in making modern Marathi poetry popular with the rising generation of the student world. Govindagraj soon gave up writing poetry and took to writing plays in which field his brilliance was crowned with unparalleled success. Again, it was the youngest, Balakavi, who was the first to pass away. He was accidentally run over by a train in 1918. In 1919 passed away the great Govindagraja and also Tilak, and in 1920 the virgorous and prolific Rendalkara was gathered to the majority.

It was in this decade that the fashion of giving public recitals from one's poems was started. Song-form in Marathi goes as far back as Dnyaneshwar and that kind of literature is pretty copious. But songs were never looked upon as literary till modern Marathi poets raised them to that status by deliberately choosing the musical metres to express their lyrical thought. Some of these song-forms had been popularized on the stage by Anna Kirloskar. In 1915, Sumant of Kolhapur, who was then still in the stage of feeble imitation, gave public recitals from his poems at Baroda, Indore and other places. Then came Tekade of Nagpur with his rich voice, simple tunes and popular national sentiment to charm large audiences, and wherever he went, he made the general public, literate and illiterate, take a lively interest in his recitations. His song ‘Mine is this Land of Ind’ though it contains little intrinsic poetry is known wherever Marathi is spoken. To this period belongs the poetical output of Madkholkar and Madhava Katadare and that singularly remarkable poem, "Out of the Jaws of Death", by Shridhar Ranade who has since then almost ceased to write.

In 1920 was published the first volume of Tambe's poetry. He is Vinayaka's junior by two years and was born a year before Dutta. He hails from Central India and belongs to what is known as the Greater Maharashtra. For years he had been composing lyrics. They were known to his few friends and admirers; but he was not at all anxious to see them published. At last, in 1920, Prof. V. G. Mydev of the Indian Women's University collected the stray lyrics, published them in book form and commenced to give them publicity by reciting them before students of Poona Colleges. What with the exquisite lyricism in Tambe's poetry and what with the reciter's sweet voice and expressive, almost theatrical gestures–the recitations were a grand success. Tambe's haunting song ‘fix not on me those forceful eyes of thine’ was soon on the lips of all lovers of poetry.

Just about that time was formed at Poona the ‘Maharashtra Sharada Mandir’–an association primarily of poets; but people like Prof. Vamana Malhara Joshi and Prof. Datto Vamana Potadar who do not write verse and are yet interested in Marathi poetry, could and did join it. Its members used to meet on Sundays to read, to hear, to discuss and to enjoy modern poetry. Ananta-tanay, Shridhar Ranade, Girish and Adnyatavasi were among its moving spirits. The last named published in 1923, under the auspices of the Mandal, ‘Maharashtra Sharada’–an anthology of modern Marathi poetry, and Girisha published in the same year similarly his ‘Unfortunate Kamala’ a popular long poem describing the sufferings of a Hindu child-widow. It was at meetings of this association that those who afterwards formed themselves into the ‘Ravikiran Mandal’ came to know each other.

Then in 1921 came the 10th Literary Conference held at Baroda under the presidentship of Mr. N. C. Kelkar. Sumant, Tekade, Yashavant, Shridhar Ranade and Madhav Julian were present at the Conference. Madhav Julian was then but little known as a poet; and far from reciting his lyrics in the open Conference as other poets did, he made his debut with a paper on phonetics of Marathi and the reform of Nagari Script. At this Literary Conference, there took place a sort of an unpremeditated competition among the three poets Tekade, Sumant and Yashavant. Yashavant's ‘Bridge of Bodies’ carried the day. The untaught taste of the audience, which was by no means uneducated however, gave him the place of honour. Tekade just kept his ground; but Sumant, who had specialized in song-writing, could not however come up to them in recitation. Yashavant's ‘Mother’, inspired by the bitter thought that his mother was not then living to rejoice in the son's triumph and to give him her blessings, was composed in that mood of exaltation; and when it was soon after published in the ‘Maharashtra Sahitya’ it made a tremendous appeal to the public and marked him out as the rising star of the new decade. The burst of popularity with which it was received can be compared only to that with which Balakavi's ‘Dawn’ and ‘the Flower-Queen’ and Govindagraja's ‘the Rosy Riddle’ and ‘the Royal Swan’ were welcomed ten years before. Even Tambe was temporarily thrust into the background.

About the same time that Yashavant and Girish were coming to the forefront, Madhav Julian's verses began to appear in ‘Narayana’ and in ‘Maharashtra Sahitya’. He had not studied Marathi, he had been born and educated at Baroda, that is, outside Maharashtra proper, his environments had not been Maharashtrian. But Marathi was his mother-tongue, and though he could write but with difficulty he had decided to express himself through no other language. And this was an advantage to him. He was not tied down to any tradition. He became and has been ever since an experimentalist. He had been composing verses since 1911; but for nearly 9 years he fought shy of publishing them. Perhaps he was a bit reserved and proud. It was only at the instance of Madkholkar, who had arrested public attention more by his prose essays on modern Marathi poets than by his poems and who at this time was connected with ‘Navayug’, that Madhava Julian sent some of his poems for publication in it. His very name is suggestive of his eccentricity, of his strong love of Hinduism coupled with a strange fascination for Western civilization. He struck people with his innovations and eccentricities, attracted a few by the sincerity, frankness and independence evident in his verses, but repelled many on account of his rugged uneven style in which words of Persian origin often went hand in hand with pure Sanskrit words. He espoused the cause of the sonnet–called ‘Sunita’ in Marathi, and in his ghazals introduced Persian metres into Marathi. But he has less of passion and of fancy than Yashavant, he is wanting in the homely simple melody of Girish. He has none of the sublimity of Tambe.

From among the members of the ‘Sharada Mandir,’ Shridhar Ranade, Madkholkar, Yashavant, Girish, Madhav Julian and D. L. Gokhale, attracted by common ideas regarding social and literary freedom, gradually came into closer relations with one another. They met almost daily informally and on Sundays formally, if not always to discuss literature, at least to share the delights of "the cup that cheers but not inebriates." There was then no idea of forming themselves into a society, far less a co-operative publishing society. Yashavant and Girish had already started a publishing house called ‘Vina-Mandal’; and their first publication the ‘Vina-Zankar’ which contained their lyrical poems had already made them very popular with students. Now was come the age of lyrics which are born of a strong inner impulse, which combine beauty of form with intensity of feeling, and which, however rich in fancy and imagination, are frank and fearless expressions of self. There was no attempt here to make love-lyrics respectable by giving them the garb of mysticism which consequently becomes a mere trick–a kind of self-deception. Mr. R. L. Rau does not at all exaggerate when he tells us that soirees soon became the order of the day and that no club or association was worth its name if it had not invited to its gathering Yashavant or Girish.

These ‘Sun-tea’ friends met mostly at Shridhar Ranade's house. Mrs. Monorama Ranade, herself a poetess of tender and deep feeling, whom they familiarly called ‘Jiji’ was no less attentive to their culinary requirements than to their poetical effusions and heated debates. She made an ideal hostess, silent, sympathetic, unobtrusive and unexacting. About the middle of 1923, it became clear that Shridhar Ranade might, after taking his M.Sc. degree, leave Poona to take up some job elsewhere; and it was decided that a pamphlet of barely 32 pages containing contributions from all the members of the ‘goodly fellowship’ should be published as a souvenir of the never-to-be-forgotten few days spent in each other's company. Love poems were mostly chosen just to spite the aged literary puritans, and as the word ‘Sun-tea’ had a foreign un-national flavour about it the fellowship was called the ‘Ravi-kiran Mandal’ just to commemorate the Sunday dear to all.

This small unpretentious pamphlet named ‘Kiran’ evoked from Balakrishna Anant Bhide, a celebrafed critic and poet, the highest praise for its poetic qualities and the bitterest denunciation for its supposed immoral tendencies. The book sold like hot cakes. The notoriety which the audacious circle enjoyed, spurred them on to prepare and publish a valuable book containing essays on a few poets and some aspects of poetry. This they followed up with ‘Usha’–a fresh collection of poems not wholly of love. The Mandal became a new force in literature within six months of the publication of ‘Kiran.’

During these three or four eventful years, those poets whose poems had been appearing in the foremost popular monthly–the ‘Manoranjan’ and who therefore thought themselves to be in the front rank, were gradually receding into the background. One of them, Keshavakumar, an exceedingly clever man, hit upon the idea of punishing these audacious upstarts of the ‘Ravikiran Mandal’ by holding them up to ridicule. He found himself in his element and began his masterly parodies. The book ‘Zenduchin Phulen’ was published in 1924. It was a very remarkable book. Yashavant, Girish and Madhav Julian, all victims of its satire, were too generous to miss the general laugh, and laughed with a rare good humour at their own caricatures. They were as alive to the manifold beauties of the book as to the malice under-lying it; but they freely admitted that Keshavakumar had opened up a new field for literary activity, and that in that field he reigned supreme.

But Keshavakumar could not kill the ‘Ravikiran Mandal.’ The Mandal was such a pronounced success that other ‘Mandals’ grew up like mushrooms and flooded the market with pamphlets full of feeble imitative lyrics. About July 1924, Viththal Ghate, son of the poet Dutta, was elected member of the Mandal; and he and Madhav Julian, who had been old friends, published a small volume of their poems called ‘Madhu-Madhava.’ In 1926 was published Madhav Julian's ‘Viraha-tarang’ a long poem dealing with a love-romance of college life. It was this poem that made his reputation as a poet. It took no time to become a favourite with the young who were carried away by its deep passion, no less than they were fascinated by its sensuous beauty.

In 1927 was published the 2nd volume of Tambe's poetry–a veritable mine of gold. Most of these lyrics are simply matchless. They are of enduring interest. The poet had been confined to bed with a serious illness, and these utterances inspired by the gleam that was dimly visible through the shadow of death, are as sublime as they are pathetic. They are richer in colour, imagery and intensity than the songs of Sumant's ‘Bhavaninada,’ which were published in the pagoo of ‘Kavya-Ratnavali’ a little earlier. As the recitations have turned people away from active reading to passive listening, these two books unfortunately, in the absence of a champion reciter, have not yet received their due; while Tiwari's spirited but prosaic ‘War-songs’ have run through three or four editions!

Madhav Julian's ‘Sudharak’ was published in 1928. It is a strange mixture of romance and satire, original in conception and execution but very annoying and bewildering to hide-bound critics. The same year saw the publication of the ‘Mango-grove’ of Girish. It is a love-story of village-life. Early in 1929 came ‘Yashodhan’–a comprehensive collection of Yashavant's lyrics. That the edition was exhausted within nine months bears ample testimony to Yashavant's great popularity. In the same year, was published the Marathi version of ‘Umar Khayyam’ from the original Persian. In 1930, Girish published a comprehensive collection of his stray lyrics in ‘Kanchanaganga.’

I should not fail to mention here the name of a young poet, Nishigandh, whose ‘Moonlight Song’ and ‘Night Song’ are most delicately touched with love and despair. He is a rising man, and his work on Poetics and Rhetoric–the ‘New Kavya Prakasha’–is very highly spoken of by learned men. He is undoubtedly one of our new hopes.

This decade has seen the rise of two other new poets. Yadav Mukund Pathak's ‘Shashimohan’ is full of youthful promise. Berar is astir with new hopes. Some of Mydev's homely tuneful child-songs are marvellous. They have a haunting beauty all their own. His recitals are very effective. Today he carries the palm as decisively as Yashavant carried it ten years ago. But the taste of the listening crowd, valuable no doubt so far as it is untaught, is not always an infallible test of poetic greatness. With hope we do look forward to the new decade for some star of the first magnitude to rise; but there is no doubt that the past decade was remarkable for wealth and variety of poetic creation.