For K Satchidanandan, poetry was not a choice. After working on his first two poems—the first a meditation on mutability, and the second, a narrative on a bullock cart driver he knew—he tried writing stories. “I found I could not do detailed descriptions. They were all short, never more than a page,” Satchidanandan said. When the stories were published, his readers thought they read like poems. “Then,” he continued, “I knew I was born to write only poetry and never again attempted fiction.”
Born in 1946, Satchidanandan has been writing poetry in Malayalam for 50 years now. Critics have hailed him as one of the pioneers of modern poetry in Malayalam, particularly because he continues to experiment with form and language and renews himself constantly. “Poetry alone gives me that rare joy of imagination and language that I do not find while writing anything else,” he said. The translations of Satchidanandan’s poetry in most Indian languages and several world-languages have earned him admirers from across the globe.
He has also been vocal on social issues both within and outside the literary community. In October 2015, Satchidanandan, a former secretary of the Sahitya Akademi and a winner of several Sahitya Akademi awards, renounced his membership of all its committees. The poet said that the Akademi had “failed in its duty to stand with writers and uphold freedom of expression.” Satchidanandan was one of two people to withdraw from the recent Jaipur Literary Festival at South Bank in London. Though he withdrew due to an illness, he supported a coinciding call issued to boycott the event since Vedanta—a controversial British mining company whose operations in Zambia, South Africa and India have been widely criticised as being highly unsafe for the residents and the environment—was one of the fest’s main sponsors.
As a child, Satchidanandan read the sixteenth century devotional poet and linguist Thunjath Ezhuthachan’s retelling of the Ramayana in Malayalam. He was especially moved by ‘Sundarakandam,’ a canto on Hanuman’s search for the kidnapped Sita, and ‘Yudhakanda,’ the canto on the war between Rama and Ravana. Following this, he started reading Vayalar Ramavarma, ONV Kurup and P Bhaskaran—prominent leftist poets writing in Malayalam in the sixties—as well as some of the writer NV Krishna Warrier’s political poetry. Satchidanandan’s own poetics was never affiliated to these prototypes. His own more sophisticated political poetry, along with that of Malayalam modernist masters such as Ayyappa Panicker, was still to come. His ideas on political poetry were informed by poets such as Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon and Edasseri Govindan Nair, who he found were “subtle and complex,” and through reading African poetry in college. Internationally renowned poets such as Pablo Neruda came much later. Satchidanandan read “horrible and wrong” Malayalam translations of Neruda that made him think that the latter was “just another propagandist writer from Latin America.” “Only much later, when I read his poetry in English, did I realise he was a cosmic poet—of love, nature, life and politics,” he said.
Over the mid to late 1960s, as a postgraduate student of English literature at the Maharaja’s College in Cochin, Satchidanandan was exposed to the English Romantics and Victorians. He took modern British poetry especially seriously—Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, WH Auden, Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice. Around this time, affordable editions of the Penguin Modern Poets and the Penguin European Poets series began to appear in bookshops in Cochin. These brought Satchidanandan closer to major contemporary Europeans such as the Czech poets Vladimir Holan and Miroslav Holub, the Greek poet and Nobel laureate Giorgos Seferis, the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, and the Hungarian poet Sandor Weorer. He began to explore poets such as Charles Baudelaire, Stephane Mallarme, and Rainer Maria Rilke. During this time, he was also reading contemporary Malayalam poetry and any other Indian poetry he could lay his hands on.