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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2017



Poetry as a Social Act: A Study of O.P. Bhatnagar’s Poetry

Dr Praveen Kumar, GHSS Musasu, Pauri Garhwal

Literature is a human product and it must concentrate on man and derive its form, structure, syntax, logic and vision from him and for him alone. It is the most refined form of human awareness, resistance to and social protest against injustice to man, tyranny and cruelty perpetrated on man. It participates in social region in the way it does in religion, mysticism, philosophy and ethics. This applies to the poetry of O.P. Bhatnagar who has made a successful attempt in creating social awareness. He writes poetry of social protest and does not approve of an ivory-flower or drawing room approach to Indian life and its dilemmas. He strongly believes in the participation of poetry in social affairs.  His is not only a mirrored reflection of the time bound reactions to the contemporary problems rather it is marked for the underneath search of prosaic level of propaganda and endows it with true poetic work. He tries to penetrate into the reality of man whose existence is constantly oppressed by his experience of corruption, poverty, grief, weakness, ideal, philosophy, politics and all that are complementary or contradictory in his workaday milieu. He holds that the agreeable aspect of life and the disagreeable aspects of life are not irreconcilable, creative and destructive, but the part of a process of meaningful living, of recreating ourselves and our world by developing a more positive attitude and accepting even the most negative elements as part of life. He exploits the sterile past to highlight the present with his eyes fixed on meaningful, hopeful future. Within his poetic scheme, myths, legends, symbols and allusions, howsoever ironically, reinforcingly used, open up, far from mere crude actualities of life, new realms of being. The present paper aims at making an assessment of O.P. Bhatnagar’s poetry how his poetry is a socially significant act. The poems which the present study includes are  “Unkind” ,  “Average is Large”, “The New Scale”, “The Rituals”, “Getting to Live” and “Dying a Century” from his collection, Thought Poems and “Death by Law”,  “Pyramids”, “A. C. Trains”, “The Way to See a Thing”, and “Beggars Can Be Choosers”, from another collection of poems,  Angles of Retreat.

Let us begin with the poem “Unkind” which starts with a prescription of having love for the mankind, drawing a line of demarcation between good and evil: “what makes a man a man is love and what makes a snake a snake is poison”. He affirms that love is always constructive and soothing to the entire humanity; whereas the vices, representing snake, are deconstructive and poisonous to the society and human beings. He says:

We love not our kind
To the community of snake unbind
We are like deserts
Fallen out of creed
Unable to breed snakes
From our bonds unfreed. (Thought Poems 7)

Here Bhatnagar’s concern is the poor, downtrodden and the average. He clearly defines his love for this humanity:

Life is a large humanity
Averaged between the extra
And the ordinary-
Alexendra the great and the Navajos
The Savior and the Satan
The caveman and Einstein
The homeless and Neil Armstrong.  (Thought Poems 9)

He believes that genuine heroes of our country will emerge from this average, neglected mass. He has a heartfelt sympathy for the natural man and he pleads for them. “Let there be more elbow room/ For the average in life/ Monopolized by the heroes of a kind” (Thought Poems 9).

In “The New Scale”, the poet makes a comparison between the honest man and the corrupted one. As both have different views about life and its values. Firstly he talks about an honest and simple man who shuns the malpractices of bribery, corruption and so on. On the other hand a man of immoral character sees these malpractices of society through a different angle and for him, nothing is immoral or disgraceful.  

Bribery, corruption and forgery….
But the clever in it
A meaty situation see
Dispensing poison like a doctor
Normalizing a disturbed balance. (Thought Poems 15)

The poem is an ironical comment on new scale of values prevalent in the contemporary society. The meaning of terms, like goodness and evil, has lost their traditional perception. Through the image of a doctor using poison to cure, the poet suggests that the corrupt man makes use of corruption for his own good.

Bhatnagar tries to awaken the orthodox countrymen who are reluctant to get up and see the reality in “The Rituals”. He holds the orthodox countrymen are not aware of the consequences of their communal conflicts, riots, and chauvinism. Only performing the rituals for the sake of traditions or superstitions is nothing but thinking and doing good to mankind is real ‘ritual’ for God as well human beings. The poet comments satirically upon the tragic death of an eight year old boy who lights lamp and perfume-sticks to bring the God nearer to himself.  He narrates how during one of his prayers meant for the lord, the boy’s innocent clothing caught fire by the sacred lamp and how he collapsed within no time. Alas! There could be some God to rescue him from death by fire; the poet speaks with immediate and sharp bite.

During one of his innocent prayers
His clothes got all aglow with fire
In a holy contact with the lamp.
But with his lord unmoved by this purification
The tiny self lay in trance
Never to return to his temporal worship of God.  (Thought Poems 18)

In “Getting to Live”, the poet seems to be of the opinion that no system or ideology can offer justice to man. People’s lack of resistance and inaction permits systems ideologies to be oppressive or indifferent towards them. Much could still be achieved by personal determination and action. A village tuberculosis boy is much able to revive his confidence in life by a mere act of determination.

Happiness was no happen stance
Nor existence a condition
Of circumstances
But a willing creation
Of what one feels at glance
In a secret more metaphysical
Than ‘crime and punishment’
He willed more to achieve less
Than die more without less. (Thought Poems 28)

In the poem “Dying a Century”, the poet condemns dying in deprivation, fear or helplessness. He wants his people to have ample desires, hopes, drive, zest and resistance. People generally do not live life; only go through life; that is, without intensity a passage between breaths. Life is neither felt, contemplated or reflected upon. Habits consume all life. Instead of living, life abates, leaving towards the end a sense of loneliness and hollowness. People consume life and not create it; empty it, not fill it. Therefore, disillusionment, such a spec table, is defeating. His poetry is replete with such sentiments, especially the poem on death. A day’s intense living is more important than dragging a century. He says, ‘what use is dying a century/ when I have not lived a day?’ G.P. Baghmar comments on the poem, “The poem carries both pity and pathos of human situation, delivered with such poignant immediacy in sable ironical contrast of ‘a lifeless century to a living day, duration to a mere undergoing to intensity.” (Baghmar 76)

“Death by Law” is a satire on the legal system of India. Bhatnagar presents the legal machinery of India with graver hazards than the ones possible in natural calamities. The protagonist of the poem Anthony is ‘a twice blessed man’ as he could escape death ‘from a sinking ship’ and ‘from a house on fire’. Bhatnagar is a true humanist and feels agonized at inhuman practice of revivifying the ignoble practice of death by law. Bhatnagar questions the functionality of the provision of death by law and reveals his concern by juxtaposing the past with no such inhuman practice with the present enshrining it.

As there was no gallows
No execution in the state.
Panic seized the administration
And it sent a senior superintendent of jails
Touring the neighboring states

To learn fast the tricks of the hanging trade. (Angles of Retreat 14)

Bhatnagar makes use of the common place terms and employs them to represent the gravity of legal and administerial terminology for satirical purposes. The ‘old veteran’, ‘excavated to do the job’ further confirms the antiquity and quaintness of the practice of hanging a man till death. ‘a bottle of the whisky’ embodies the contrast of two distinct possibilities, it suggests the common place temptation of an individual belonging to the lower order of social strata and at the same time it also suggests the need to butcher the conscience with lingering humanistic preferences. The culmination of irony is seen in government’s efforts to ‘make hanging as flawless as death’. The function of satire earns its culmination in Anthony’s amusement ‘at this mocking ritual’. Anthony here becomes the mouth piece of the poet and ridicules the practice as ‘he asked if it wouldn’t be easy done by shooting him with a gun?’ The officer’s response to this question ratifies the objectives of irony, satire, and mockery: “The official begged pardon and said- / Law is not a murderer/ It has its own way of putting people to death.” (Angles of Retreat 15)

“Pyramids” successfully reflects the existentialistic preferences of O.P. Bhatnagar and reveals the reduction of human rays in to depersonalized units of materialistic inclination of the modern society that have hampered the social, cultural and moral values of man. Man, for his carnal temptation has stooped to the level of uncivilized himself. Pyramid is a symbol of lifeless survival of the dead, as it is mummified by the artificial ointment for their existence. Bhatnagar draws parallel between the mummified existences of inanimate bodies with the lifelessness of contemporary man. The contemporary man is living a life without conscience and values that define humanity and the materialistic achievements such as gold and comfort are the ointments responsible for their existence. B.P. Parashar’s remark also reflects the same phenomenon as he points out, ‘it is the death of conscience the poet finds manifests in the lust for gold’. (The Vision and The Voice I, 69) H.L. Agnihotri expressing similar ideas, comments: “The poet sadly observes that human beings have lost a sense of purpose and proportion in life. Their mad pursuits have taken away their basic human warmth and they are wretched victims of their yellow illusions.” (Baghmar 149) It is evident that such creatures can be described no better than pyramids:

Stoned in our lust for gold
We all are pyramids
Like unseemly boils risen
On the delicate flesh of sands.  (Angles of Retreat 16)

The poet pathetically observes the death of conscience and expresses it through the lust for gold which results in yellow fever and boils. The blurred vision of man is expressed through the image of owl which suggests the blurred vision and death. B.P. Parashar further observes that ‘the dazzle of the sun blinds the owl, so the glitter of gold be nights the greedy man’. He further elaborates the point: “As gold is deceptive, he fails to see clearly and neatly in the day and becomes an equivalent of all who has eyes but cannot see, who has mind but cannot distinguish between good and bad. Gold, valued so high in the market of man, is merely rock which issues from the womb of earth, and pieces of rock do not make a living man but a pyramid housing only the dead Pharaoh” (Baghmar 76).

“A. C. Trains” forcefully represents Bhatnagar’s rebellion. The idea is born out of Bhatnagar’s dream of a country which has no such evils as inequality, discrimination and disparity in social, cultural or economic scales. The protagonist in the poem is infuriated by A.C. trains as he sees them the ‘money green bodies’ and ‘porcelain glazed nabobs’. He is also outrageous to their ‘conscious indifference homing high in the cathedral cold’. “A.C Trains” boldly illustrates Bhatnagar’s rage on upper strata of the society, lacking a warm concern for the common man. It is evident in this poem that Bhatnagar stands for the common man and suffers for the poor; there is nothing superficial in his poetry. Narsingh Shrivastava in his assessment of the role of irony in this brief lyric observes; “The air-conditioned trains become a symbol of a detestable show of affluence, the hatred of which is heightened by the pleasant view of the fish floating in the glass-aquarium and ‘radiating irenic iridescence’” (Baghmar  65).

“The Way to See a Thing” depicts Bhatnagar’s concern for a small town like Amararvati which in undergoing the painful process of rapid urbanization. In this poem he satirizes the process of urbanization. The similes and metaphors employed in expressing the poet’s concern successfully elucidate the poet’s contempt for the evil of urbanization: “Old fords still frisk the town like country dogs / Cattle, fowls and donkeys Keep Company / with pedestrians on their market ways” (Angles of Retreat, 28). Bhatnagar is aggrieved at the loss of primitive values in the place he inhabits and hence perceives ‘only two delightful seasons mud and dust’. The poet’s vision is vision is intensified with grief as ‘the hot sun sucks trees of their shadows’ and ‘summer winds down all day-dreams’. It is because of this transformed vision the poet unifies his experiences in the town with that of Dante’s purgatorial hell. Bhatnagar says, “It gets muddy for sneezes / Turning the whole town into a mudatorio / Missed by Dante in his view of purgatorio” (Angles of Retreat 28).

Bhatnagar alludes the division of Germany for illustrating the mid-point of the process of urbanization which defines the culture of the city in the poem, when he says that ‘the men folk meet at a greeting distance like German divided by the Berlin wall.’ Bhatnagar also delineates the rapid commercialization of the towns which inflate the gap among individuals. The commercialization and the rapid decay of humanitarian values have almost completely alienated the individual from his surroundings.

As evening draws a curtain over the town.
We can see more-
Like homeward bound hay wagons.
Of their consummate command of despair and desperation.
(Angles of Retreat 30)

Bhatnagar in the concluding stanza confesses the lack of any self-indulgent asterism, yet he says that he has tried to discover truth and has exposed the transient romance of this rustic town with true transparency on which Bhatnagar’s concept vision rests. He writes:

The way to see a thing                   
It to make it view most seeing
And the more I see it
For intimacy refines perception. (Angles of Retreat 31)

The poem is a pronounce testimony of Bhatnagar’s vision which is realistic and enjoys ‘magnanimity of sharing others woes in endless helplessness of man’. Mohanty further suggests that ‘the intimacy’ inherent in the mode of his experience ‘gives poignancy and depth to his poetry’ (Baghmar 145).

“Beggars can Be Choosers” shows Bhatnagar’s consciousness of society and he appears as a social reformer in this poem. It is a survey of socio-economical circumstances of the country. He appears as at true democrat who wants to improve the socio-economic frame work of the frame work of the existing society. The title of the poem itself surprises the reader. It strikes us by its ironic reversal of the usual proverb. It is charged with cool biting irony. The poem advances on the impulses of irony, satire and gentle humour. He protagonist to the poem participates in the noble task of eradicating beggary.

I went with such a celluloid zeal
To Ralegaon camp in Parner
To join the wave of reform
To uproot the curse of beggary
From the crippled face of my country. (Angles of Retreat 42)

Bhatnagar observes almost every category of human sufferings in the group of beggars which includes the people of almost every age group. The playful irony employed by the poet makes us laugh as they are agitating against the order ‘all in an angry resentment of order releasing fluent curses of discontent.’ The poem marks the continuity of the playful irony depicts earlier, as the protagonist ‘tries to probe into their happiness’. Bhatnagar uses the terms like ‘a dignified decent job’ to consolidate the ironic effects in the expression. The ‘homelessness in their houses of their own’ and ‘the nakedness beyond nudity’re other instances of Bhatnagar’s use of irony with glistening humour. Bhatnagar also reveals the function of such enfeebled initiatives that result in no-fruit.

A puzzling quiet pervaded over the camp
And I persuaded myself to believe
That beggars were in their rest
And all was well with our reform. (Angles of Retreat 43)

It is evident that “Beggars Can Be Choosers” is one of the most effective poetic expression which denudes the worth and limitations of both the sections of Indian society. He, aims at the same time, also discusses the worthlessness of reformist initiatives sponsored by the government and other such institutions.

The recurring theme in the poetry of Bhatnagar is the social consciousness as seen and assessed by him. It is the society which bears the brunt of the misery of the individuals while the individual reels under the pain and suffering inflicted upon him by his compatriot. The poet is shocked to observe the present milieu with its multisided corruption that is flowing like blood in the veins of his country-men. But Indians cannot revolt against this corruption and other malpractices because they had been enslaved for centuries and they have lost their sensitiveness to respond against misdemeanors. Now suffering has become their lot and creed: “I cannot ask my conscience to revolt/ For suffering has become our creed/ Being fed up with the world around,” (Oneiric Visions 13).
To conclude, Bhatnagar does not aim at preaching or moralizing for he is not a reformist or propagandist. He only brings about a picture of modern Indian society without any prejudices and preferences.  His views on sex, insatiable thirst for peace and order and other social, cultural and moral concerns provide his poetry a new kind of protest. The poems exemplify Bhatnagar’s socio-political realism rooted in the life and vision of the poet. ‘Art’ says Bhatnagar ‘by its very nature is not isolative but associative’.  He feels that art is for the human being and it does not aim at hiding the realities, but expressing them. ‘the aesthetics of art cannot be different from aesthetics of society and its times’ (Baghmar 119) He again asserts that ‘creativity is an urge for self-expression for whatever is nobler, ethical and satisfying in life’ (Baghmar 44). So he lays emphasis on the moral, social, and political values. Thus poetry is not an expression of feelings but a reconstruction of them in an intelligent way.

Works Cited
Baghmar, G.P. The Vision and The Voice: Vol-II (ed.) Nagpur: Vishwa Bharti Prakashan, 1987. Print.

Bhatnagar O.P. “Politics as metaphors for Indian poetry in English” Rajasthan Journal of English Studies, 1982. Print.

______  Thought Poems Aligarh: Skylark Publications, 1976. . Print.

______  Feeling Fossils Dehradun: Paul Jacobson and Company, 1977. Print.

______  Angles of Retreat New Delhi: Samkaleen Prakashan, 1979. Print.

______  Shadow in Floodlights Aligarh : S.L. Publication, 1984. Print.

______  Audible Landscape Aligarh: S.L. Publication, 1984. Print.

______  Cooling Flames of Darkness Aligarh: S.L. Publication, 1984. Print.

______  Studies in Indian Poetry in English (Jaipur: Rachna Prakashan, 1984. Print.

______  Littcrit, Vol-7 no.1, June 1982. Print.