Biography of Arun Kolatkar
Arun Balkrishna Kolatkar (Marathi: अरुण बालकृष्ण कोलटकर) was a poet from Maharashtra, India. Writing in both Marathi and English, his poems found humor in many everyday matters. His poetry had an influence on modern Marathi poets. His first book of English poetry, Jejuri, is a collection 31 poems pertaining to a visit of his to a religious place with the same name Jejuri in Maharashtra; the book won Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 1977. His Marathi verse collection Bhijki Vahi won a Sahitya Akademi Award in 2005. His Collected Poems in English, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, was published in Britain by Bloodaxe Books in 2010.
Trained as an artist from the J. J. School of Art, he was also a noted graphics designer, with many awards for his work.
Kolatkar was born in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, where his father Tatya Kolatkar was an officer in the Education department. He lived in a traditional patriarchal Hindu extended family, along with his uncle's family. He has described their nine-room house as
"a house of cards. Five in a row on the ground, topped by three on the first, and one on the second floor."
The floors had to be
"plastered with cowdung every week".
He attended Rajaram High School in Kolhapur, where Marathi was the medium of instruction. After graduation in 1949, much against his father's wishes, he joined the J J School of art, where his childhood friend Baburao Sadwelkar was enrolled.
His college years saw a "mysterious phase of drifting and formal as well as spiritual education", and he graduated in 1957.
In 1953, he married Darshan Chhabda (sister of well-known painter Bal Chhabda). The marriage was opposed by both families, partly because Kolatkar was yet to sell any of his paintings.
His early years in Mumbai were poor but eventful, especially his life as an upcoming artist, in the Rampart Row neighborhood, where the Artists' Aid Fund Centre was located. Around this time, he also translated Tukaram into English. This period of struggle and transition has been captured in his Marathi poem ‘The Turnaround’:
"Bombay made me a beggar.
Kalyan gave me a lump of jaggery to suck.
In a small village that had a waterfall
but no name
my blanket found a buyer
and I feasted on plain ordinary water.
I arrived in Nasik with
peepul leaves between my teeth.
There I sold my Tukaram
to buy some bread and mince." (translation by Kolatkar)
After many years of struggle, he started work as an art director and graphic designer in several advertising agencies like Lintas. By mid-60s he was established as a graphic artist, and joined Mass Communication and Marketing, an eclectic group of creatives headed by the legendary advertiser Kersy Katrak. It was Katrak, himself a poet, who pushed Kolatkar into bringing out Jejuri. Kolatkar was, in advertising jargon, a ‘visualizer’; and soon became one of Mumbai’s most successful art directors. He won the prestigious CAG award for advertising six times, and was admitted to the CAG Hall of Fame.
By 1966, his marriage with Darshan was in trouble, and Kolatkar developed a drinking problem. This went down after the marriage was dissolved by mutual agreement and he married his second wife, Soonu.
Marathi Poetry and Iinfluence
His ‘Marathi’ poems of the 50s and 60s are written "in the Bombay argot of the migrant working classes and the underworld, part Hindi, part Marathi, which the Hindi film industry would make proper use of only decades later". For instance, consider the following, which intersperses Hindi dialect into the Marathi:
"मै भाभीको बोला "main bhAbhiiko bolA
क्या भाईसाबके ड्यूटीपे मै आ जाऊ ? kya bhAisAbke dyuTipe main A jAu?
भड़क गयी साली bhaRak gayi sAli
रहमान बोला गोली चलाऊँगा rahmAn bolA goli chalAungA
मै बोला एक रंडीके वास्ते? mai bolA ek raNDike wAste?
चलाव गोली गांडू" chalao goli gaNDu"
To match this in his English translation, he sometimes adopts "a cowboy variety":
"allow me beautiful
i said to my sister in law
to step in my brother's booties
you had it coming said rehman
a gun in his hand
shoot me punk
kill your brother i said
for a bloody cunt" (Three cups of Tea)
In Marathi, his poetry is the quintessence of the modernist as manifested in the 'little magazine movement' in the 1950s and 60s. His early Marathi poetry was radically experimental and displayed the influences of European avant-garde trends like surrealism, expressionism and Beat generation poetry. These poems are oblique, whimsical and at the same time dark, sinister, and exceedingly funny. Some of these characteristics can be seen in Jejuri and Kala Ghoda Poems in English, but his early Marathi poems are far more radical, dark and humorous than his English poems. His early Marathi poetry is far more audacious and takes greater liberties with language. However, in his later Marathi poetry, the poetic language is more accessible and less radical compared to earlier works. His later works Chirimiri, Bhijki Vahi and Droan are less introverted and less nightmarish. They show a greater social awareness and his satire becomes more direct. Bilingual poet and anthologist Vilas Sarang assigns great importance to Kolatkar's contribution to Marathi poetry, pointing to Chirimiri in particular as "a work that must give inspiration and direction to all future Marathi poets".
He won the Kusumagraj Puraskar given by the Marathwada Sahitya Parishad in 1991 and Bahinabai Puraskar given by Bahinabai Prathistan in 1995.
Kolatkar was among a group of post-independence bilingual poets who fused the diction of their mother tongues along with international styles to break new ground in their poetic traditions; others in this group included Gopalakrishna Adiga (Kannada), Raghuvir Sahay (Hindi), Dilip Chitre (also Marathi), Sunil Gangopadhyay, Malay Roy Choudhury (Bengali), etc.
Marathi devotional poetry and popular theater (tamasha) had early influences on Kolatkar. American beat poetry, especially of William Carlos Williams had later influences on him. Along with friends like Dilip Chitre, he was caught up in the modern shift in Marathi poetry which was pioneered by B. S. Mardhekar.
When asked by an interviewer who his favorite poets and writers were, he set out a large multilingual list. While the answer is part rebuff, the list is indicative of the wide, fragmented sources he may have mined, and is worth quoting in full.
Kolatkar was hesitant about bringing out his English verse, but his very first book, Jejuri, had a wide impact among fellow poets and littérateurs like Nissim Ezekiel and Salman Rushdie. Brought out from a small press, it was reprinted twice in quick succession, and Pritish Nandy was quick to anthologize him in the cult collection, Strangertime.For some years, some of his poems were also included in school texts.
The poem sequence deals with a visit to Jejuri, a pilgrimage site for the local Maharashtrian deity Khandoba (a local deity, also an incarnation of Shiva). In a conversation with poet Eunice de Souza, Kolatkar says he discovered Jejuri in ‘a book on temples and legends of Maharashtra… there was a chapter on Jejuri in it. It seemed an interesting place’. Along with his brother and a friend, he visited Jejuri in 1963, and appears to have composed some poems shortly thereafter. A version of the poem A low temple was published soon in a little magazine called Dionysius, but both the original manuscript and this magazine were lost. Subsequently, the poems were recreated in the 1970s, and were published in a literary quarterly in 1974, and the book came out in 1976.
The poems evoke a series of images to highlight the ambiguities in modern-day life. Although situated in a religious setting, they are not religious; in 1978, an interviewer asked him if he believed in God, and Kolatkar said: ‘I leave the question alone. I don’t think I have to take a position about God one way or the other.’
Before Jejuri, Kolatkar had also published other poem sequences, including the boatride, which appeared in his the little magazine, damn you: a magazine of the arts in 1968, and was anthologized twice. A few of his early poems in English also appeared in Dilip Chitre's Anthology of Marathi poetry 1945-1965 (1967).
Interestingly, though some of these poems claim to be 'English version by poet', "their Marathi originals were never committed to paper." (this is also true of some other bilingual poets like Vilas Sarang.
A reclusive figure all his life, he lived without a telephone,and was hesitant about bringing out his work. It was only after he was diagnosed with cancer that two volumes were brought out by friends – the English poetry volumes Kala Ghoda Poems and Sarpasatra (2004).
Sarpa Satra is an 'English version' of a poem with a similar name in Bhijki Vahi. It is a typical Kolatkar narrative poem like Droan, mixing myth, allegory, and contemporary history. Although Kolatkar was never known as a social commentator, his narrative poems tend to offer a whimsical tilted commentary on social mores. Many poems in Bhijki Vahi refer to contemporary history. However, these are not politicians' comments but a poet's, and he avoids the typical Dalit -Leftist-Feminist rhetoric.
While Jejuri was about the agonized relationship of a modern sensitive individual with the indigenous culture, the Kala Ghoda poems are about the dark underside of Mumbai’s underbelly. The bewilderingly heterogeneous megapolis is envisioned in various oblique and whimsical perspectives of an underdog. Like Jejuri, Kala Ghoda is also 'a place poem' exploring the myth, history, geography, and ethos of the place in a typical Kolatkaresque style. While Jejuri, a very popular place for pilgrimage to a pastoral god, could never become Kolatkar’s home, Kala Ghoda is about exploring the baffling complexities of the great metropolis.
While Jejuri can be considered as an example of searching for a belonging, which happens to be the major fixation of the previous generation of Indian poets in English, Kala Ghoda poems do not betray any anxieties and agonies of 'belonging'. With Kala Ghoda Poems, Indian poetry in English seems to have grown up, shedding adolescent `identity crises’ and goose pimples. The remarkable maturity of poetic vision embodied in the Kala Ghoda Poems makes it something of a milestone in Indian poetry in English.
After his death, a new edition of the hard to obtain Jejuri was published in the New York Review Books Classics series with an introduction by Amit Chaudhuri (2006). Near his death, he had also requested Arvind Krishna Mehrotra to edit some of his uncollected poems. These poems were published as The Boatride and Other Poems by Pras Prakashan in 2008. His Collected Poems in English, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, was published in Britain by Bloodaxe Books in 2010.
He was survived by his wife Soonu Kolatkar.
Arun Kolatkar's Works:
Marathi Poetry Collections
Arun Kolatkarcha Kavita (1977), Chirimiri (2004), Bhijki Vahi (2004) (Sahitya Akademi award, 2004), Droan (2004).
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Arun Kolatkar Poems
An Old Woman
An old woman grabs hold of your sleeve and tags along
The tarpaulin flaps are buttoned down on the windows of the state transport bus. all the way up to jejuri.
What is god and what is stone the dividing line if it exists
There is no story behind it. It is split like a second. It hinges around itself.
A herd of legends on a hill slope looked up from its grazing when chaitanya came in sight
Sweet as grapes are the stone of jejuri said chaitanya.
Are you looking for a god? I know a good one. His name is Yeshwant Rao and he's one of the best.
A Low Temple
A low temple keeps its gods in the dark. You lend a matchbox to the priest. One by one the gods come to light.
Heart Of Ruin
The roof comes down on Maruti's head. Nobody seems to mind.
The spirit of the place lives inside the mangy body of the station dog
This is the time of day I like best, and this the hour when I can call this city my own;
The Horseshoe Shrine
That nick in the rock is really a kick in the side of the hill. It's where a hoof struck
A Game Of Tigers And Sheep
Who has the tigers and who the sheep never seems to make any difference. The result is always the same: She wins,
The Tea Stall
The young novice at the tea stall has taken a vow of silence
A checkerboard pattern
some old men must have drawn
with a piece of chalk
on the back of the twenty foot
smudges under the bare feet
and gets fainter all the time as
the children run.