haiku triptych


  • lines of poems
  • scratched out, erased to ink in —
  • new shapes — art revealed


  • gouache shade’s matt-blur —
  • an outline of the psyche —
  • subtle peek into soul’s eye


  • rabindra sangeet’s
  • nasal baritone — honey-
  • tinged, monotonic

— Sudeep Sen

My emotional and aural response to Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry was slow in coming — especially his own English translations of the 1913 Nobel prize-winning Gitanjali/Song Offerings — in spite of being buoyed by a glowing introduction by W. B. Yeats, a poet whose pitch-perfect and sometimes sardonic English poetry I quietly admired. Tagore’s nectar-dripping ‘o’er-floweth-the-cup’ nasal-lyrical style, seemed incongruous and anachronistic and uncool (albeit perhaps misplaced), especially growing up in the cosmopolitan 1970s and 80s.

Intellectually however, I was always keenly engaged with Tagore’s wider art — in particular his wide-ranging master-skills in the fine arts, theatre, dance-drama, and short fiction. I was specifically attracted to his ‘erasures’, the wonderful way he made unique artworks out of erasing and inking-out sections and elements from his poems’ working-drafts as part of his overall editing and image-making process. It is said that “Tagore — who likely exhibited protanopia (colour blindness), or partial lack of (red-green, in Tagore’s case) colour discernment — painted in a style characterised by peculiarities in aesthetics and colouring schemes”. His sketches, pen & inks, oils, watercolours, and gouaches of a certain period — and even more significantly, works by Tagore’s other relatives such as Girindranath, Gaganendranath and Abanindranath — deeply interested and inspired me.

Of course, Rabindranath’s songs and dance-dramas were omnipresent during the yearly Durga Puja cultural programmes and other festivals in my city and elsewhere. Actually, a certain kind of Bengali does not need any excuse or occasion to stage Tagore’s works — and I was surrounded by many of them. And surrounded by a lot of Tagore paraphernalia too — beautiful editions of Rabindra Rachanabali and Gitabitan on my parents’ bookshelves, his official sage-like sepia-photograph modestly-framed in wood, his artworks and reproductions on their walls, and stacks and stacks of Rabindra Sangeet EPs, LPs, and audio cassettes by some of the finest exponents of this field. But my prized possession always remains the original ‘erasure’ tear-sheet from one of his workbooks, framed within double-glass panels on my library wall. My mother, in her younger days, was an active dancer-actress in many Tagore productions. As children, we learnt many of his Bengali verses by heart for recitation competitions.

One of Tagore’s ‘Erasures’

So growing up in a Bengali family in metropolitan Delhi in the leafy neighbourhood of Chittaranjan Park’s probashi-Bangla diasporic topography, one could not possibly avoid Tagore. He was everywhere — his music; his poetry; local shops and houses bearing his stamp, symbol, nomenclature and even his name; his sculptures emblazoned in the form of bronze busts; his demi-god-like status; and more. As a child, I had the task of fetching milk from Mother Dairy every evening. And as I walked past the houses in my neighbourhood carrying my large aluminium pail almost grazing the tarmac, sonorous sounds of children practising Rabindra Sangeet and their footsteps learning Tagore’s folk-dance were audible. At the time of course I didn’t think much of all that beyond the fact that they were part of an everyday ritual. Of those days, I have sometimes provocatively and irreverently said, Tagore was pouring out of every orifice. This was often not appreciated by hardcore Bengalis who, perhaps missing the irony, sought to misguidedly reprimand me. All this was in my childhood, young adulthood, and possibly a little beyond that. At that age, I suppose as a fashionable act of adolescent rebellion, I perhaps even shunned Tagore. But what is obvious, especially now as a practising poet/literary editor/critic/translator, how much Bengali culture — and by its curious extension, also Tagore — subtly influenced me through the process of cultural osmosis in the received environment in which I was growing up in.

This is not to say that the other languages, literatures, political ideas and philosophies weren’t discussed in my home and amongst my grandparents, parents, friends, and their circles. They variously infected and informed me as well — and I am grateful for that. Also, I grew up with three mother-tongues — Bangla, Hindi and English — like many other Indians of my generation who are at least trilingual or more. So my loyalties were not necessarily monolithically fixed to the idea of Bengaliness, albeit a very important and significant strand in my tissue-system.

I was always a devout admirer of Jibanananda Das and Kazi Nazrul Islam’s poetry over and above Tagore’s; and admitting that was almost sacrilegious. I found their precise tactility, un-Victorian-Augustan phrase-making, use of contemporary idiom, the power of their oral structure, and in general, the best aspects of Modernism, much more appealing at the time. But equally, I also loved and worshipped Milton and Shakespeare, Pushkin and Tolstoy, Ghalib and Faiz, Neruda and Paz, VerlaineBaudelaireRimbaud-Celan. In fact, when I think of the past, the list seems precociously expansive though delightfully centrifugal.


To reiterate, Tagore as a cerebral idea and its efferent discourse was always present in the milieu in which I spent my boyhood days — so he must have at least partially influenced me, whether or not I consciously acknowledged or rejected it at that time or even later. Furthermore, my five years living and writing in Bangladesh, in the late 1990s to mid-2000s, significantly enhanced my latent appreciation for Rabindranath. There I encountered Tagore as an everyday cultural idea, a living metaphor — unpretentious, earthy, and accessible.

It was such a pleasure to wake up in Dhaka and spend the entire day not having to utter a single word of English or Hindi, and only be immersed in the linguistic cadence and rhythms of Bangla. English as a tongue — except for the limited rarefied upper class — was almost entirely irrelevant and redundant, and thankfully so. In Bangladesh, I found renewed admiration and love for Tagore’s music and poetry, largely through hearing his songs sung and his poetry recited by highly-skilled and established singers and actors. Tagore’s discourse was aplenty too, as were those of other writers and artists of the two Bengals and beyond.

While in Dhaka, I translated three full-length books of selected poems by three Bangladeshi poets, wrote and choreographed a large-format literary coffee-table book titled Postcards from Bangladesh, edited The British Council Book of Emerging English Poets from Bangladesh, co-founded/co-edited Six Seasons Review, wrote several critical introductions and blurbs for books by local authors, and the Bengali editions of my own books — Rain/Barsha, and A Blank Letter/Ekti Khali Chithi were also published there.

I closely worked with Bengali poets, writers, academic, singers, artists, actors and lovers of Bengali culture, including of course Tagore’s. So my mature engagement with the Bengali language, literature and culture, including my new-found appreciation for Rabindranath was carried back to my home city of Delhi — completing a lovely unexpected arc. This osmotic presence of Tagore as the intimate ‘other’ — quite unbeknown to me — took root in its translucent avatar, widening the tonal registers of my poetic scales. In the slow-churning growth in my own artistic practice from analogue to digital, from vinyl to CD, from mono to stereo to 5.1 and 7.1, I am quite sure upon reflection that Tagore played his subtle part, sonically and textually.

To further illustrate the context of my early upbringing, background, and where Tagore — then and now — fits in my life as a writer and an artist, let me quote part of the introduction from my fledgeling book of poems, Leaning Against the Lamp-Post, that was first published as a limited edition in 1983 in New Delhi, and then later in 1996 in the USA by Triad/University of South Carolina:

“The poems in [the] collection Leaning Against the Lamp-Post, were all written between 1980 and 1985, while I was still in high school and subsequently an undergraduate in New Delhi. In 1983, relying on my incipient enthusiasm, I summoned up all my courage, typed out about fifty poems from a much larger batch I had written up until then, and with the aid of a modest donation from my grandfather, took it to a local printer. They were cyclostyled through one of those now-extinct, messy, gargantuan machines (photocopying was still quite expensive then) and hand-sewn at a bindery by an old man who until then had only bound thousands of legal manuals and commercial reports with ubiquitous red cloth or leather spines and with the titles stamped in gold. This was however the first time he had bound a collection of poetry, and he did it with genuine interest and with the care of a fine craftsman. He was a poet himself, and wrote and recited in Urdu. He also knew Bengali (my ‘official’ mother tongue) fluently, having spent his early life in what is now known as Bangladesh. Perhaps it was propitious that my early poems were blessed by the tactile touch of a true poet. It would only be fair to say of my grandfather that his patronage made him my first publisher. And as it turns out, this limited hand-assembled first edition of poems was to be my first ‘unofficial’ book of verse.

I was always convinced that writing poetry was extremely difficult (even though I thoroughly enjoyed reading it), and was best left to the masters themselves. Then one day in 1980 (I was in Class 10 at the time), daydreaming through a boring lesson in school, I penned, quite unknowingly, in perfect rhyme and metre, my first poem. Then followed those first few years when I wrote sheaves and sheaves of, what sometimes seem embarrassingly callow, and sometimes naive poems. But then, looking back I feel that there was a sense of innocence, idealism, seriousness, and honesty about them.

I grew up in a liberal and educated family with a lot of poetry and music around me. Art, literature, philosophy, and the world of ideas in particular, had always been a part of my upbringing. I learnt that our forefathers belonged to the aristocracy and could be traced back to the enlightened Raja Raj Ballabh Rai, famous in the margins of Indian history during the times of Sirajudaullah, the Nawab of Bengal in the late eighteenth century. As a child, my mother and grandmother would recite children’s verse and sing songs for me. I realise now that much of my interest in form, structure, sound pattern and rhyme scheme comes from hearing aloud the incantatory music of their prayers and songs, which I had obviously internalised over the years.

My parents and grandparents introduced me to the world of poetry. They would recite the great Bengali poets: Rabindranath Tagore, Jibanananda Das, and Kazi Nazrul Islam; also Shakespeare, Milton, the Romantics and the Victorians. I came to learn many of them by heart. In school and college, I explored Hindi and Urdu poetry, discovered the Russians, Latin Americans, as well as Japanese and Chinese verse. Some of my favourite poets included Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Irina Ratushinskaya, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Basho, Li Bai, and many more. My mesho [uncle] — through the now out-of-print precious Penguin Modern European Poets volumes edited by Al Alvares — opened to me a wondrous window, a hitherto unsighted world of modern European poets: Vasko Popa, Guillaume Apollinaire, Eugenio Montale, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Rainer Maria Rilke, Johannes Bobrowski, Horst Bienek, and so many others. Also the Metaphysical Poets and the French Symbolists, in particular Donne, Baudelaire, Mallarme, and Verlaine, fascinated me. Of course, growing up in the seventies, one could not miss Ezra Pound and T S Eliot. The congregation grew and grew, and through quiet osmosis, I was seduced into the world of sound, rhythm, word-patterns, ideas, syllabics, music, and language itself ….”

The direct influence of Tagore on my own work — however oblique and subtle — can be best seen in my two books Rain and Postcards from Bangladesh. Rain is landscaped in the two Bengals — West Bengal and Bangladesh — contains an evocative series of prose poems structured in three mock-sonnet sections, The First Octet, The Second Octet and The Only Sestet. Setting up the tone in the prologue that acts as an alaap [introduction], the volume importantly opens with a quote from Tagore:

  • In the lap of the storm clouds — the rain comes —
  • Its hair loosened, its sari borders flying!

Postcards from Bangladesh by virtue of its content contains many resonances of Rabindranath — among others, a piece on Tagore’s house Shilaidaha Kuthibari in Kushtia on the banks of the River Gorai. Here, he stayed many days at a time composing poetry and songs and writing his novel, Gora.

In my multi-media piece, Wo|Man: Desire, Divinity, Denouement, that blends poetry, prose, drama, dance and live music, Rabindra Sangeet has been used in the live stage production versions, sung variously by Vidya Rao, Jayati Ghosh and Averee Chaurey, as part of the India International Centre Festival of the Arts, and at The Attic in New Delhi.

More recently, I was commissioned to write specific poems, new English poetry in Tagore’s own voice for his marvellous Bhanushinger Padavali dance-drama stage production. The Kolkata and New Delhi productions were directed by the leading exponent, danseuse Padmashree Bharati Shivaji, Vijayalakshmi, and their repertory dancers of The Centre for Mohiniyattam. Here are the production-specific Tagore poems that I wrote:

after Bhanushiger Padavali


  1. Sudder Street, Kolkata
  • Now back from England —
  • lonely, and feeling low.
  • What a time it was, there —
  • grey and damp
  • and drenched
  • like slow-burning grief.
  • My studies left incomplete—
  • a Law degree unearned.
  • What a waste, what a waste —
  • what would people say?
  1. Jyotindranath Tagore & Kamdambini Devi
  • So what a joy it was
  • to move in with you both —
  • under your care, love and grace.
  • What happiness you gave me —
  • something you didn’t even know
  • yourselves.
  • My happiest days were here —
  • with you both.
  • But there was sadness as well —
  • sadness at seeing
  • notun bouthan pine
  • for her husband, my brother —
  • her endless wait for him
  • to return home from work.
  • During monsoon days,
  • dark and clouded —
  • empty and bereft
  • at Jyotida’s absence,
  • my notun bouthan
  • plunged in sorrow.
  • What could I do for her?
  • How could I appease her?
  • She, like Radha,
  • waited endlessly for Krishna —
  • notun bouthan and Jyotida —
  • the fair maiden and the dark god,
  • entwined
  • in life’s happy sadness.


  • Oh such beautiful strains of Bhara Badar
  • Bouthan’s dirge — melancholic, depressed,
  • she loved listening to my lyrics,
  • the ones I wrote, composed, and sung for her.
  • But the moment she heard dada’s footsteps —
  • her face lit up like a young glow-worm,
  • her gloom erased by his arrival.
  • Just like Radha would smile,
  • asking her sakhis to dress her up, adorn her,
  • anticipating, preparing, to finally meet her lover.


  • I still remember Sajani Sajani
  • After very very long, Jyotida is back home.
  • He waits for bouthan to arrive, to join him.
  • What would he be thinking, wanting, desiring?
  • Was it about her graceful gait,
  • her raven-black braided hair,
  • or her elegant beauty?
  • Or was it Mohini — the enchantress.
  • A dream to dance to.
  • Was it not like Abhisarika Radha
  • on her way to see her lover.
  • How happy I feel to see my dada with bouthan —
  • how joyous, and how deeply blessed.


About twenty years ago, prompted by the fact that I was introducing my son Aria to the poetries and music of different cultures including Bengali, I realised that the children’s verse written by Tagore — as available in limited English translation — appeared stilted, staccato and academic. Also, the quirky-fun-witty aspects of the Tagore poems as those that appear in Khapcharra/Out of Sync were not adequately explored in those limited translations. It is first the joyful abandon and immediate emotional connect that has always attracted me to the best of poetry. It is much later after several readings of a poem that I tend to savour the poem’s subtle content, context, cadence, and craft. I found the former mostly missing in the available translations of Tagore’s children and humorous poetry that I had laid my hands upon until then.

So with the assistance of my baba [father], I started translating Rabindranath’s wonderfully illustrated volume of nonsense verse, Khapcharra. The Visva-Bharati Santiniketan hardback edition which I still possess, with its jute-coloured cover-weave, is priceless. Surprisingly, this book has not yet been fully translated — considering Tagore tends to be among the first Indian writers on the list of publishers’ translation series or academics’ priorities in the field of Translation Studies (vis-a-vis Indian literature of course). Hopefully, my now ailing father and I will be able to complete the translation of this entire book for publication in the near future.

Translating the complex rhythms and clever rhymes of the Khapcharra poems have been a particular challenge. In some cases, when I transposed the Bengali rhymes onto English, they tended to hit a flawed tonal register and sounded awkward in modern English diction. When I left out the rhymes altogether, then of course one missed out on the wicked-atonal-musicality and wit, at least to a certain extent. At the end however, I decided to dispense with the end-rhymes but kept the internal rhythms alive and reasonably true. This is because I wanted Tagore’s original Bengali poems in my translated versions to read as competent English poems, reflecting the sine-graph of the contemporary English-language idiom. I definitely did not want them to stutter and languish under the cast of a post-Victorian-Augustan shadow and its inherent dated inflections.

Here are four examples that appear in my book of translations titled Aria (India: Yeti Books, 2009 / UK: Mulfran Press, 2011). They also appear in The Essential Tagore, edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty, published in the USA by Harvard University Press in 2011. The Indian edition published by Visva-Bharati, appeared in 2012. However, the page numbers mentioned after each poem refer to the recent Harvard edition:


  • Bird-seller says, “This is a black-coloured chanda.”
  • Panulal Haldar says, “I’m not blind —
  • It is definitely a crow — no God’s name on his beak.”
  • Bird-seller says, “Words haven’t yet blossomed —
  • So how can it utter ‘father’ ‘uncle’ in the invocation?” [page 743]


  • In Kanchrapara
  • there was a prince
  • [wrote but] no reply
  • from the princess.
  • With all the stamp expenses
  • will you sell off your kingdom?
  • Angry, disgusted
  • he shouts: “Dut-toor”
  • shoving the postman
  • onto a bulldog’s face. [page 743]


  • Two ears pierced
  • by crab’s claws.
  • Groom says: “Move them slowly,
  • the two ears.”
  • Bride sees in the mirror —
  • in Japan, in China —
  • thousands living
  • in fisher-folks colony.
  • Nowhere has it happened — in the ears,
  • such a big mishap. [page 744]


  • In school, yawns
  • Motilal Nandi —
  • says, lesson doesn’t progress
  • in spite of concentration.
  • Finally one day on a horse-cart he goes —
  • tearing page by page, dispersing them in the Ganga.
  • Word-compounds move
  • float away like words-conjoined.
  • To proceed further with lessons —
  • these are his tactics. [page 744]
  • [NOTE: All four poems were originally taken from the Visva-Bharati 1937 edition of Tagore’s nonsense verse, Khapcharra (Out of Sync). They are all untitled, so I have used the first line of each poem as their symbolic title. ‘In School, Yawns’ appears on page 4, ‘In Kanchrapara’ on page 5, ‘Two Ears Pierced’ on page 10, and, ‘Bird-seller says, “This is a black-coloured chanda.” ’ on page 11.]

These translations that were initially and largely meant for my son Aria and his friends — but to my pleasant surprise and pleasure, they found a much larger appreciative resonance with other fellow poets, writers, translators, lay readers, and even strict Tagore scholars.

Ultimately, unplanned and unintended acts of love and passion such as these come about as a disguised blessing — and that for me is the heart and essence of the joys of poetry, literature, art and music. Rabindranath Tagore, the polymath, sporting a wryly-elegant askance smile, would have done so, hopefully in agreement.


Barker, Wendy & Tagore, Saranindranath: Rabindranath Tagore: Final Poems (USA: George Braziller, 2001)

Bhatnagar, R. K. & Mukhopadhyay, Amit: Drawings & Paintings of Rabindranath Tagore (India: Lalit Kala Akademi, 1987)

Bose, Aurobindo: Later Poems of Rabindranath Tagore (UK: Peter Owen, 1974 / India: Rupa, 2002)

Chakravarty, Radha & Alam, Fakrul (editors): The Essential Tagore (USA: Harvard University Press, 2011 / India: Visva-Bharati, 2012)
Chakravarty, Radha: Gora (Penguin Classics, 2009)
—– : Shesher Kobita: Farewell Song (India: Srishti, 2005)
—– : Choker Bali (India: Srishti, 2004)

Chaudhuri, Sukanta: Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Writings for Children (OUP, 2002)
—– : Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Writings on Literature and Language (OUP, 2001)
—– : Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories (OUP, 2000)

Dutta, Krishna & Robinson, Andrew: Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology (UK: Picador, 1997)
—– : Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Letters (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
—– : Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man (UK: Bloomsbury, 1995)

Dyson, Ketaki Kushari: I Won’t Let You Go: Selected Poems (UK: Bloodaxe, 1991 / India: UBSPD, 1992)

Furrell, James W.: The Tagore Family: A Memoir (India: Rupa, 2004)

Ghose, Sisirkumar: Tagore for You (India: Visva Bharati, 1966/1984)

Haq, Kaiser, Quartet (UK: Heinemann, 1993)

Kripalini, Krishna: Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography (UK: Oxford University Press, 1962 / India: Visva Bharati, 1980)

Mazumdar, Dipak: A Poet’s Death: Late Poems of Rabindranath Tagore (India: Rupa, 2004)

Radice, William: Rabindranath Tagore: The Post Office & Card Country (India: Visva Bharati, 2008)
—– : Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories (Penguin Modern Classics, 1991)
—– : Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems (Penguin Modern Classics, 1985)

Rahman, Muhammad Anisur: Songs of Tagore (Dhaka: Pathak Shamabesh, 1999)

Rushd, Abu: Selected Songs of Rabindranath Tagore (Dhaka: Rabindra Charcha Kendra, 1992)

Sen, Sudeep: Aria: Translations (India: Yeti Books, 2009 / UK: Mulfran Press, 2011)
—– : The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry [editor] (HarperCollins, 2011)
—– : Atlas (UK/India), Six Season’s Review (Bangladesh) & World Literature Today (USA), ‘Tagore Poems’ (2005-2010)

Som, Reba: Rabindranath Tagore: The Singer and His Song (Viking Penguin, 2009)

Tagore, Rabindranath: Gitanjali: Song Offerings [introduction by W B Yeats] (UK: Macmillan, 1913)
—– : Rabindra Rachanabali (India: Visva Bharati)
—– : Gitabitan (India: Visva Bharati)

Thompson, Edward: Rabindranath Tagore (UK: The Augustan Books of Modern Poetry / Ernest Benn Ltd, 1925)

Winter, Joe: Rabindranath Tagore: Gitanjali (UK: Anvil / India: Writers Workshop, 2000)

NOTE: Earlier versions of his essay originally appeared in the Seminar magazine (No 623 / July 2011) special issue on ‘The Nation and its Poet: A Symposium on Rabindranath Tagore 1861-1941 | Life, Language, Legacy’, guest edited by Ananya Vajpeyi; and in the American Book Review (Vol 36, No 6 / Sept-Oct 2015), guest-edited by Saikat Mazumdar. Some of my individual translations of the Tagore poems in this essay have earlier appeared in Aria (India: Yeti Books, 2009 / UK: Mulfran Press, 2011), The Essential Tagore, edited by Fakrul Alam & Radha Chakravarty (USA: Harvard University Press, 2011 / India: Visva-Bharati Santiniketan, 2012). A Bengali translation of this essay is forthcoming in the Kolkata magazine, https://daakbangla.com/ | Copyright © Sudeep Sen, 2011, 2015, 2022.

SUDEEP SEN [www.sudeepsen.org] is widely recognised as a major new generation voice in world literature and “one of the finest younger English-language poets in the international literary scene” (BBC Radio). He is “fascinated not just by language but the possibilities of language” (Scotland on Sunday). At the 2004 Struga Poetry Festival (Macedonia), he received the ‘Pleiades’ honour for having made “a significant contribution to contemporary world poetry”. His prize-winning books include: Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins), Distracted Geographies, Rain, Aria (A K Ramanujan Translation Award), Fractals: New & Selected Poems|Translations 1980-2015 (London Magazine Editions), EroText (Vintage: Penguin Random House), Kaifi Azmi: Poems | Nazms (Bloomsbury), and Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolation (Pippa Rann UK). He has edited important anthologies: The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry, World English Poetry, Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi), The Best Asian Poetry 2021-22 (Kitaab, Singapore), and Converse: Contemporay English Poetry by Indians (Pippa Rann UK). Blue Nude (Jorge Zalamea International Poetry Prize) and The Whispering Anklets are forthcoming. Sen’s works have been translated into over 25 languages. His words have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, Newsweek, Guardian, Observer, Independent, Telegraph, Financial Times, Herald, Literary Review, Harvard Review, Hindu, Hindustan Times, Outlook, India Today, and broadcast on BBC, PBS, CNN IBN, NDTV, AIR & Doordarshan. Sen’s newer work appears in New Writing 15 (Granta), Language for a New Century (Norton), Love Poems (Knopf/Everyman), Out of Bounds (Bloodaxe), Initiate: Oxford New Writing (Blackwell), and Name me a Word (Yale). He is the editorial director of AARK ARTS and the editor of Atlas. The Government of India’s Ministry of Culture has awarded him the senior fellowship for “outstanding persons in the field of culture/literature”. Sen is the first Asian honoured to read his poetry and deliver the Derek Walcott Lecture at the Nobel Laureate Festival.


Wake up, women of India!

You need to become more self-reliant.

by Tasneem Sheikh

Wake up! Wake up! I hear my aunt wake my sisters, cousins and me early in the morning. We were teenage girls on a vacation, staying at a distant relative’s house. The host thought it was a great time to throw a huge lunch party for relatives, while taking advantage of our unpaid labor – the labour of us teenage girls.

This was a small town in Southern India and I did not even hear about this party until the day before it was due to take place. Unwillingly, we did what we were ordered to do. After an hour, I was hungry and there was no sight of breakfast. Another hour passed by and we girls got a small snack, which we gulped down quickly. Then we went back to cleaning the vegetables and rice.

I am sure none of the girls enjoyed this chore, not even one little bit. But did we have a choice? The answer is, no. I cannot speak for others, but I definitely do know what the consequences would have been for me if I had declined to follow orders and to refuse to perform that stressful task. My parents would have yelled at me, comparing me unfavourably to other more obedient girls, telling me that I should be like them. This was the early 1990s. In India, women and girls are expected to just obey orders without question.

Women and children are only allowed to eat after the men have had their fill.

Lunch was served around 1 pm, but none of the women, including the girls who had worked nonstop on almost an empty stomach, were allowed to touch the food. This is because men get to eat first. Women and children are only allowed to eat after the men have had their fill. After serving the men, the women still had to clear away the dishes, wash them, until, finally, they could serve themselves food – at around 3pm. This is not just true for one lunch party. This routine is the same for almost every lunch or dinner party hosted inside homes or in wedding halls.

This is just a small sample of how girls are tamed. They are taught to be submissive and obey orders by their parents, grandparents, relatives, distant relatives – by anyone who is older, for that matter. Asking “Why” is a taboo and can only get the woman into more trouble. By the time these girls become adults, they are well trained to obey their husbands and in-laws. I cannot even get started about the chaos of living in an oppressive extended family, the torture, the degradation and the whole shebang.

Indian Women, painting by Tasneem Sheikh

In the past two decades, Indian parents have increasingly realized the importance of their daughters’ higher education. This is a good sign, however the achievement of finishing school and getting a degree or a postgraduate degree is futile if girls are not made aware of their self-worth and if they are still expected to be submissive; submissive to parents, husbands, in-laws, and society in general. Living in a democratic country is not enough if there is no democracy for women and girls at home.

Living in a democratic country is not enough if there is no democracy for women and girls at home.

A young Chartered Accountant, Divya was tortured for years by her in-laws because she could not meet the in-laws’ ever-increasing dowry demands. Her parents reluctantly complied with all demands and assumed that, and I quote,

“I thought, slowly, everything will be fine.”

A young Chartered Accountant, Divya, was tortured for years by her in-laws who could not meet their ever increasing dowry demands. Her parents reluctantly fulfilled all demands and assumed, I quote:

“I thought, slowly, everything will be fine”.

Divya is the face of many Indian women who are probably undergoing something much worse as you read this article. I choose Divya’s example as it amazes me that she belongs to the same state, Tamil Nadu, as the successful personalities like Google CEO Sundar Pichai, former Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi and honorable late Abdul Kalaam, former president of India.

In an era where humans are planning trips to Mars, femicide and infanticide is still prevalent in India. As I write, dating is still thoroughly frowned. Pre-natal sex determination is illegal in India because otherwise too few girls would be born and there would be a severe gender imbalance. Very little has been done to improve the plight of girls and women in India.

Strong Woman, painting by Tasneem Sheikh

To make matters worse, the entertainment industry has been telecasting soap operas based on cliched mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationships. These soaps help entrench the oppressive traditional extended family system where the mother-in-law plans, plots and manipulates her daughter-in-law.

These brain-numbing shows caricature women as catty and spiteful, and not only do they promote hatred of women, but they also train the people – glued to the television, – in new tactics to bring more drama and negativity into their extended family domain. To sponsor soap operas like this, most of the advertisers show women in submissive roles.

In 2018, All Out, a mosquito repellent brand, launched an advertisement that received 6.4 million views. This advertisement boasted of “supporting” mothers who were tough on their children. The advertisement encouraged the idea that daughters-in-laws should wait on men and older women and serve dinner to family members. The implication is also that daughters-in-law should accept ridicule from husbands and mothers-in-law. The daughter-in-law is always shown to be someone who never stands up for herself. She doesn’t utter a single word in the course of the whole advertisement.

In an era where humans are planning trips to Mars, femicide and infanticide is still prevalent in India.

The irony is that a significant percentage of Indians relish and savor such poisonous dramas. How can one expect a child to respect and love their mother when the social environment teaches that child precisely the opposite of respect?

The venom of the patriarchy has penetrated so deep into the Indian system at all levels that it is impossible for people to think things through clearly and articulate properly what feminism entails. Misogynistic nitwits join the “stand up for tough mothers” brigade. These are people who ignore the toxic, patriarchal environment infested with woman haters and bullies.

On the bright side, in India, we do have some men now who have rejected the patriarchal norms and support women’s social, political, economic and personal growth, regardless of what their parents and their culture teaches them.

My mentor, Dr. Sanjay Saxena, didn’t simply support his wife, he also helped her on every step of her personal and professional journey. Today his wife, Professor Purnima Awasthi, is a well-acclaimed researcher in one of India’s leading universities. India needs more men who see their partners as equals and as not submissive robots. On the other hand, India needs more financially independent women, too.

India needs more financially independent women, too.

Here is my advice to all girls and women who are struggling to survive and live a better life. Not all of us have received the support we need from our parents or our immediate environment. However, it is never too late to choose our friends and partners wisely. Let us treasure the people who make an effort to be in our life, who love and respect us for being ourselves, as women. At the same time, let us not think twice about distancing ourselves from those who are disrespectful to us, to girls and women.

If we get rid of the oppression of women and girls it, becomes easier for women and girls to laser focus on their goals. My mentor taught me,

“People will come and go, even I won’t be with you forever, and the only thing that will remain with you are your goals and accomplishments, so Invest In yourself as a woman.”

This is the most important lesson I learned in life as a woman and a human being: one must be self-reliant to escape the expectations, controls and punishments of the toxic patriarchy that currently dominates in India. Women in India have to become more self reliant.

I hope that all women WAKE UP to the possibility of changing the world and creating a better and happier life.

Tasneem Sheikh

Tasneem Sheikh is a university lecturer and a passionate advocate of the empowerment of girls and young women. She is a self-taught painter. After a long gap of 15 years, Tasneem has found herself painting again and there is no stopping her now.

Beyond Religion: Imaging a New Humanity by Valson Thampu

Reviewed by Peter Cowlam

You might posit, from an Hegelian perspective, and given the long-term goals of history, that reformations of one kind or another cannot be avoided. There can be no refining process otherwise. If the long-term goal of human history is spiritual as much as material, then an intractable problem occurs in the latter part of that equation. Humanity goes wrong, with its warring kings and its disputes over territory, and the tribal conflicts for supremacy over competitors and control of natural resources. A prophet arrives, in the guise of the human, and lives a human life, but it is written later must have been divine. In a very short span of worldly time that prophet has gathered followers, has ministered to those who will hear, and as part of the mission has delivered instruction as to the founding of a church, and has chosen disciples to begin that work of construction. The prophet returns to whatever divine realm is co-extensive with our earthly reality, and it is a mere band of humans left to carry on with the mission, and from it form a religion. If the religion survives, it becomes an institution, because that is the way we humans organise things.

The problem as Valson Thampu sees it is that we have found no way of practising religion other than through such institutions, whose presence is necessarily material – buildings, monuments, temples – and whose perpetuation is a hierarchy of those who are learned in the religion and officiate over its ordinances – bishops, priests and other clergy – or those who deliver the teaching, the evangelists and preachers. It might well be that in the beginning the laity is unlettered, and so must take on trust what is purveyed through official or sacred scripture. The prophet said this. The prophet said that.

That arrangement probably works well at the outset, but over time – long tracts of Hegelian historical time – what the philosophy envisages doesn’t quite come about, and the human soul isn’t perfected. We have not shaken off those warring kings and their disputes over territory, and now it’s a world of multiple religions or a single religion in its many denominations, all acting their parts in the political domain. As with any earthly power, all such factions vie with each other for possession and direction of the human spirit. To the medieval mind and the upholders of the one true faith (whatever that faith might be) war is justified as the duty to rid the earth of its infidels, and in so doing make of the earth’s environs a freehold fit for the God who is worshipped.

There are of course rebels, and dissenters, the more so the firmer is entrenched the politicisation of the religious institution. The sixteenth-century Reformation saw Martin Luther condemn the Catholic priesthood, which did not allow the individual unmediated exchange with God, but stood between those two parties and determined what their relationship would be. Thomas Müntzer (c1489–1525) was a leading German activist during the Reformation, whose oratory was fiery and prophetic. In 1524–25 he took part in the abortive Peasants’ Revolt in Thuringia, and is now seen as a major force in the religious and social history of modern Europe. In the twentieth century Marxists came to characterise him as an early agitator in the struggle against feudalism and for a classless society. Valson Thampu calls for a similar reformation, conducted in both the material and spiritual realms. It is his contention that the human soul is perfectible, but that there is no religion and no political initiative on earth that will facilitate the adherent, acolyte or believer in attaining to that state. He points to the paradox of God in the twenty-first century, still said to be omnipresent, but in the way religion is practised is reduced to a supernatural being confined to the temple, church or mosque. The counter-argument has a different view of the concrete embodiment of our religions—

The temple, church or mosque ‘can serve as meeting places for people, but not presume to be exclusive habitats of God.’ 

The point being that if the priesthood really wished to teach us about God, that teaching would centre on a supra-parental being present in our lives everywhere and at all times. Faith has been tested and has failed if that is not the belief. Nor does the priesthood do much to demonstrate that its religion is the true religion (and not just a chant). As Thampu tells us—

‘We believe in only two possibilities: either all religions are one or none is true’ and so underlines the emotionally arrived at notion that the ‘“Priesthood,” [according to] Arthur Schopenhauer, “is born in hypocrisy.”’

We see already that Thampu’s argument is more with the priesthood, less with the religion. Religion he would like to see practised without priestly intervention, whose claims to truth are easily brushed aside (and it doesn’t necessarily take the Scottish Enlightenment to tell us so)—

‘David Hume has argued that each religion is a proof of the falsity of the other, because if each of them claims to be the true religion, then all the others must be false.’

If no religion is true, then there is no god at the apex of each religion, and if that is too harsh a reality for those inclined to believe, then faith promotes itself as faith in itself, not in God. That is a state of affairs that reduces the priesthood to the status of carpet-baggers, no better than commercial hucksters disinclined to offer any valuable contribution to the life of the polis—

‘Avoidance of physical work, as Thorstein Veblen points out, is the insignia of the priestly class. He observes that priestly vestments are designed with a view to excluding manual work: “the end of vicarious consumption is to enhance, not the fullness of life of the consumer, but the pecuniary repute of the master for whose behoof the consumption takes place. Therefore, priestly class vestments are notoriously expensive, ornate, and inconvenient…”,’ with leisure a necessary ornament of priestly identity.

You see how we’ve been duped. This is faith as masquerade. It isn’t faith with reason, or a reason to believe. Nor is it a reason for Thampu to advocate that we don’t believe, when above all he wants to see in his fellow-human beings full scope for spiritual development. According to Marc D. Guerra (see his essay Christians as Political Animals), and his words quoted in Jon Elsby’s Seeing is Believing

‘…because human reason will inevitably be brought into collision with the objective reality of its own limits, hubristic claims of the absolute self-sufficiency of human reason and its adequacy to the task of establishing and grasping the truth in all its fullness, will be disappointed, and will therefore either have to be abandoned or will lead ineluctably to a universal skepticism, nihilism, and irrationalism.’

While we do not want blind faith in a career-driven, money-oriented priesthood, we should not embrace scepticism, nihilism and irrationalism either. Thampu’s remedy for all these ills dispenses with the priesthood altogether, with the individual communing with God in a both private and communitarian way. Private because one’s innermost experience is personal and largely unshared with others. Communitarian because faith in a God cannot be relativistic, where the kind of god I have created for myself suits my purposes just as much as the one you have chosen suits yours, the religion relegated from something shared, social and conducive to human flourishing, to no more than a lifestyle choice, apt to change anyway once we get bored with the wallpaper. As Thampu says—

‘The very first thing that we need to do is to wish passionately to be free and at peace with oneself. The second is to be willing to do whatever we can to achieve that end. The third is to acknowledge that the means for our liberation and inner coherence are at our disposal. The fourth is to realize that it is futile to wait to be liberated by some agency external to us, when everything required for us to liberate ourselves is ready to hand. We must resolve to be liberated, no matter what the cost; get up from where we are, and walk!’

And so Thampu picks up where Müntzer left off.

Valson Thampu, for over three decades, has been a voice of reason on issues of national importance in India, covering education, politics, religion and culture. Prize-winning translations from Malayalam are among his fourteen other books. Commencing his life of public service as a member of the faculty in St Stephen’s College, Delhi, he served as Principal from 2008–16. During this time, his interests grew, blossomed and covered the Indian sub-continent, a process of growth in which he followed in the footsteps of illustrious predecessor C. F. Andrews, who was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi and Gurudev Tagore. Beyond Religion: Imaging a New Humanity is published by Pippa Rann Books and Media.

Salt Desert Media Group Ltd (SDMG), UK, was established in 2019, and currently publishes under the imprints Pippa Rann Books and Media (PRBM) and Global Resilience Publishing (GRP). Pippa Rann Books and Media publishes books about India and the Indian diaspora, for everyone who has an interest in the sub-continent, its peoples and cultures. At a time of political challenge, Pippa Rann Books aims to nurture the values of democracy, liberty, equality and fraternity that inspired the founders of the modern state of India. Titles on the Global Resilience Publishing (GRP) list explore how global challenges can be addressed and resolved with an inter-disciplinary and transnational approach. The imprint focuses on subjects such as climate change, the global financial system, multilateral and corporate governance, etc. In addition to its own publications, Salt Desert Media provides distribution services in English-speaking territories for several authors and publishers.

Photo-essay: Holi, Holi, Holi

Celebrations in the streets of Dharavi, Mumbai

By Andy Hall

The principle practice in street photography, and why I love it, is the immersive experience. That’s the only way you’re going to snatch those serendipitous, split-second moments you long for, as you wade through the river of human activity around you; all the time not asking, not showing, just shooting.

But I got more than I bargained for when I took the opportunity to jump on a plane and go and photograph Holi festival in the tight streets and alleyways of Dharavi, the biggest informal urban settlement in Asia. Not least because immersion, quite literally,  is the name of the game, as you get mobbed by everybody around you in what has to be the one of the most colourful, messy, anarchic, good-natured festivals going.

I’m quick to whip out my camera from underneath my armpit then, and just as quickly I curl my torso protectively over it as I walk on.

Also, I am obviously not from India, let alone Dharavi, and that means I’m not going to be that anonymous person I am when I’m using my trusty little Leica in most European and American cities. And until I’m covered in a cocktail of water and coloured powder, I am not going to blend in with the locals. Which means another hazard I’m not used to in this particular street photography venture – trying not to get my expensive little camera ruined as, invariably, I get mobbed by random groups of passers-by. I’m quick to whip out my camera from underneath my armpit then, and just as quickly, I curl my torso protectively over it as I walk on.

By now, I have abandoned the plastic bag the camera body was inside as it only complicates things. I have to be quick. There are alleyways where I am on the look out to sprint through , knowing I will be drenched from above; then,

of course, in such a densely packed place full of blind corners and doors that might open onto you at any moment, I have to keep my eyes peeled for an “ambush”, as well meaning smiling residents, noting an outsider, cover your face and hair with coloured powder which you obligingly accept. Then come the little platoons of teenagers and men with water pistols, ready to turn that powder into colourful mud that smears all over as the hugs and mayhem continue.

All the while, you’re furiously checking to see if your camera (with one fixed lens – far too dangerous for your equipment for you to switch lenses) still works. The only time you get to shoot for a few minutes without being love bombed, is when you get to a little clearing or “square” of sorts in between the alleyways, where loud music is playing and the dancing is in full swing. 

Our guide leads us out into the main roads that join up with Mumbai proper; and it’s over as soon as it’s begun – my brother and I laugh at how ridiculous we look, and its back to the hotel for several showers to try and get the stuff off.

It doesn’t prove that successful. My Brother Chris is a pilot for Virgin Atlantic who flew us to Mumbai and sorted out our foray into Dharavi. He now cuts a dash walking in full uniform onto the plane and into the cockpit with green sideburns and his neck, jutting out from his collar has a purple hue. We head back to London.

Selfie: Chris Hall, Captain / Andy Hall, Photographer

Andy Hall is based in London and has been a freelance photographer since 1989. His work has taken him on a wide range of commissioned news for numerous publications around the world. Andy is contracted to the Observer and the Guardian, but he has also published many times in The Times magazine, The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, The Independent, the Independent on Sunday and the New York Times Magazine. He has also been commissioned by Red Bulletin Magazine, Newsweek, GQ Magazine and Der Speigel Magazine.

Andy’s commercial clients include Transport for London, and he has also worked as a stills photographer for Film Four, and Channel Four. Throughout his career, Andy has gone on assignments for aid agencies and NGO’s including Oxfam, Save the Children and Action Aid. Andy also works on a regular basis with UNHCR. His portraits of film directors and celebrities have been shown in numerous Getty-sponsored exhibitions around the world.

Andy has collaborated in book projects ranging from “Montreal – Eye on the metropolis”(2000), to the British press photography anthology – “Eyewitness; five thousand days”(2004), “Muhammad Ali – the glory years” (2002), as well as the book project “UK at home”(2008). His commissioned work on the ongoing hunger crisis in sub-saharan Africa was screened at visa pour L’image, Perpignan in 2012.

Andy is also an established street photographer, having had his work published in specialist magazines such as PDN (Photo District News) and Eyeshot magazine. He is also one of the winners of the PDN sponsored “Best of Street Photography 2016”, and has given talks on his work in the Street London Festival in 2017 and on Radio London in 2018. He runs street photography workshops and judges street photography competitions on the “Photocrowd” photography website. Andy was recently awarded series finalist in the Brussels Street Photography Festival 2019.

Andy Hall can be contacted via his website at:


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