Bombay Modern

By Anjali Nerlekar

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Arun Kolatkar was born on November 1, 1931, in Kolhapur, a large heartland city of the state of Maharashtra. There was English and Western art in his world through his father’s influence and exposure to Indian art through the company he kept as a young adolescent in Kolhapur, and the young Arun Kolatkar grew up in a multilingual context. After finishing high school in 1947, Kolatkar moved to Bombay to join the J. J. School of Arts, Bombay’s premier college for the study of art, but did not complete his coursework there (without attending class, he completed his final year of study on his own in 1957 and finished at the top of the class anyway). These were also the years when he met and befriended the young writers in Marathi literature, namely Dilip Chitre, Ashok Shahane, and Bhalchandra Nemade. Nemade was taking graduate classes in Bombay and would often meet up with Kolatkar and Shahane at the Asiatic restaurant and discuss their common interest in Tukaram, among other things. These were financially tough times as Kolatkar moved from one job to another, but they were happy years, according to his friends, especially since he married Darshan Chhabda, the sister of the famous painter Bal Chhabda.1

They wed in 1954, but the fourteen years of their marriage were marked by poverty and later to a two-year bout of heavy drinking on Kolatkar’s part before they divorced in 1969. This period was also one of the most formative periods of his life, during which Kolatkar wrote many Marathi poems (that were later collected in Arun Kolatkarchya Kavita in 1977). Ashok Kelkar, a close friend, recalled how Kolatkar used to write to him from time to time and include poems in his letters; Kelkar saved them and later, when Arun Kolatkarchya Kavita was being published, the letters came in handy as drafts of some poems for which the originals were missing. Kolatkar initially published a few poems in larger periodicals (six poems in Satyakatha in 1955 and one, “Ghoda,” in 1956; he also published in English in Ezekiel’s Quest in 1955). However, with the start of Shabda in 1955 and later through his association with Shahane, Nemade, and Mehrotra, Kolatkar resolutely avoided big publications and presses and dedicated his efforts to the small publishing world.

Not only did Kolatkar make the acquaintance of Shahane and Nemade; he also met Ginsberg and Orlovsky in 1962; traveled to Jejuri, the temple town in Maharashtra, with the poet Manohar Oak and his brother, Makarand; finished writing the first version of Jejuri (which was lost by the editors of Dionysus in 1966); and participated closely in the little magazine world in English and Marathi, along with Shahane,
Mehrotra, and many others.

The 1960s and 1970s were rocky years in professional terms. Kolatkar joined several advertising firms as a graphic artist; he later teamed up for almost two decades, on and off, with Kiran Nagarkar, and individually and together they won six CAG awards for their advertising campaigns, the highest honor in the industry. The advertising world also brought him into contact with the fiery and unpredictable K. T. Royan, printer and biker, who had a creative yet devil-may-care attitude toward the world, and many of his lifelong friends (Vrindavan Dandavate, Dilip Bhende, and Ratan Sohoni) were from this industry. This was the time when he met Mehrotra, Jussawalla, and Gieve Patel. Equally important, he started taking pakhawaj lessons from Arjun Shejwal and through him met the irascible, funny, irreverent Balwant Bua, who became the subject of multiple writing projects for Kolatkar. In Kolatkar’s unpublished manuscripts, which include a play, a musical score, bilingual drafts of poems, and prose, there are two large narratives, one on Royan and the other on Balwant Bua. The latter is the more finished work and Kolatkar even wrote a book proposal for it to be submitted to Penguin in 1986. Royan and Balwant Bua, in their lives as close friends of Kolatkar and as subjects of Kolatkar’s writing, represent the two sides of Kolatkar’s art and world: Royan, the Malayali Christian printer who might as well have been a “gunslinger in a Wild West film stepping into a saloon,” refracts Kolatkar’s interest in American film and arts; and Balwant Bua, “the pimp of the god Vitthal,” as Kolatkar describes him in Marathi,2 who connected Kolatkar to bhakti literature and music through his passionate bhajan sessions, reveals Kolatkar’s intense relations with Marathi bhakti literature and art forms.3

The late 1960s, the period during which Kolatkar and his first wife separated, was clearly a difficult time, as it also coincides with his heavy drinking phase; the “drinking songs” are from these years of turmoil. In a folder titled “Loose Ends: Late fifties/early sixties,” there are fragments where Kolatkar’s writing reflects the troubled times:

you never know it then yes I guess I guess but you don’t realize it then do you
you only realize it later you realize it long after it has happened

long after you’ve parted separated gloomily you look at the books in the shelf
you tell yourself she will be back

And in a small, pink notebook titled “early sixties,” Kolatkar titled an incomplete draft “House Collapse,” which has the following lines:

the moment for

the house of man
is now, to drop
on the hands
and the knees
of a self
made debris.

And then Kolatkar married Soonoo Katrak in 1969 and completely gave up the smoking and drinking of his previous years.

Also during this period, Kolatkar’s interest in American jazz and blues peaked, and in 1973 he made some recordings of his own songs for Avinash Gupte to take to London to sell. Kolatkar’s passion for the blues and for Bob Dylan can be seen in the many songs he wrote4 and in poems like “Kay danger wara sutlay” (“What a ‘danger’ wind is blowing”), which is clearly a take on Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The project of selling his songs did not succeed, and Kolatkar never went back to this ambition again. But his interest in music continued—he had weekly bhajan singing sessions with Balwant Bua, and he learned to play the pakhawaj from Arjun Shejwal. He also took several trips abroad for various Festival of India events: he traveled to England, Yugoslavia, Germany, France, the United States, and Sweden between 1978 and 1987.

The 1970s were an important decade in Kolatkar’s life, as this is when he joined the Clearing House Collective, started by Adil Jussawalla, along with Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Gieve Patel. Besides having Jejuri published by Clearing House, Kolatkar designed all the covers for the books they published and engaged with other writers (Eunice de Souza and Kiran Nagarkar) who were publishing in small presses by designing covers for them.
Even before Kolatkar had published any books of poems, he was already known within artistic and literary circles. Nagarkar notes that when he met Kolatkar in 1968, “he was already something of a mythical figure.”5 One of the important elements in the making of that myth was the grand opposition of immense poetic and artistic talent combined with a reputation for reclusive behavior (or, in Dilip Chitre’s words, “he was a no-comment person. He lived a no-comment life”).6 Kolatkar won several awards for his writing, starting with the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1977 for his English Jejuri; the H. S. Gokhale award for Arun Kolatkarchya Kavita; the Kusumagraj award in 1994; the Bahinabai Chaudhuri Kavya Puraskar in 1995; the Bank of India excellence award in 1999; and the Keshavrao Kothavale Paritoshik for Bhijaki Vahi in 2004. But he always remained wary of accepting awards as one can see in his somewhat reluctant interview with Sunil Karnik in 1977:

[Karnik]: You have won the national award from the “Commercial Artists Guild” many times. And now you have won the Commonwealth award for poetry. Do you finally feel that you have achieved all that you had set out to do so?

[Kolatkar]: I accept awards as an occupational hazard. There is very little relation between these awards and whatever I have wanted for myself. I certainly do not want to stake down my tent on this plateau.7

Kolatkar also wrote about this discomfort and the lifelong dread of being canonized in his song “Been Working on this Statue”:

been working on this statue for close to forty years
it’s going from bad to worse and now I’m close to tears
. . .
i’ll find a rope and tie the damn thing to the top of my jalopy
i’ll go for a drive to the pier I’ll drive right on into the sea
yeah we’ll go for a ride the two of us just me and him
we’ll find out what’s what and who’s who for one of us can swim8

Kolatkar did not want to become cast into bronze with public recognition because, as he says, in “awards have many uses” (an unpublished draft he wrote in 2004 that was included in Boatride posthumously): “awards are also like silver nails in the poet’s coffin” but that his “best was yet to come.”9 He was absolutely right in expressing that sentiment as there are many boxes full of unpublished material in Ashok Shahane’s possession that reveal many more aspects of Kolatkar’s writing than what is apparent in his published work.
After a gap in publishing of twenty-six years, Kolatkar published Bhijaki Vahi and Chirimiri in 2003. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer in March 2004 and, after attending the publication event for his books in Bombay (for Kala Ghoda Poems, Sarpa Satra, and Dron), Kolatkar passed away in Pune on September 25, 2004.


Let the cat of the visual purr and lick
The milk of your sight.
—Arun Kolatkar, Kolatkar Papers

Bhijaki Vahi (The Soaked Notebook) was the biggest poetic project in Marathi that Kolatkar published during his lifetime (and it also secured the Sahitya Akademi award posthumously for the poet in 2005). Even more than his other books of poems, Bhijaki Vahi is one of the notable achievements of Kolatkar’s writing career because it binds together some of the persistent concerns of the poet over the six decades of his writing career.10 In the book, there are nineteen poetic sequences, each named after one woman, hailing from India and from all over the world, appearing in mythology, religion, and modern-day history, who restate and rehistoricize world politics and local stories with women’s perspectives that have been frequently overlooked. They are Helen, Isis, Hypatia, Cassandra, Laila, and Rabia, from the mythological and real worlds of Greece and the Middle East, Mutayakka from the bhakti traditions of South India, Hadamma from Native American tales, the three Marys from the Bible, Apala (from the Sanskrit Rig Veda), Kim (the young “napalm” girl fleeing the Vietnam War in Nick Ut’s famous photograph), Dora Maar (Picasso’s girlfriend, well known in the Euro-American world), Susan Sontag (American activist, writer, best known for her work that theorized photography and trauma), Nadezhda Mandelstam (the wife of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam), Maimun (a young Muslim girl from Haryana, India, who was killed in 1997 for marrying someone outside the community), Kannagi (from ancient Tamil narratives who is lamenting her husband’s death), and Rajani (the poet’s sister who lost her son in an airplane disaster).11 We hear the bemoaning of Isis for Osiris and of her heroic yet futile attempt to resurrect his dead body; of Hypatia’s murder for her “prideful” attempt to master mathematics and philosophy, both considered to be the bastions of male privilege in ancient Greece; and of Laila’s uncharacteristic rejection of her soppy but famous lover, Majnun. Each poetic sequence contains several poems that examine and extend the account from different perspectives. Some poems show the woman’s voice intermingled with the poet’s own, others present the woman as the addressee, and yet others reveal the men as the narrators of the named woman’s world.12 There is a sense of a novelistic expanse in these poems, despite the genre constraints,13 because of the heteroglossic presentation of women’s stories where the world around each character gets enough material imaging as the lives themselves. All the stories reveal women who fight for their lives, and for a voice, but in the end get beaten down by the patriarchal world.14

Collecting the stories of women around the world and across the ages seems like a recipe for the worst kind of superficial cosmopolitanism that characterizes much popular fiction today, but Kolatkar finds a way to ground the diversity of the world in enduring local contexts. Instead of the local being served on a platter of exotic otherness to the rest of the world, the world itself comes knocking at the doors of Marathi literature. Kolatkar demonstrates the gap between the representation and the real, and between the closure of a book and the openness of a little magazine through the narration of women’s disparate stories. In the end this leads him to a spectacular rejection of the “visual honey” and the empty words of representation in a Beat poetry–influenced as well as bhakti literature–infused denunciation of self and world:

let all this dirt be washed away
from your eyes
keeping only the limpid tear
only one left
in the end
preserved in your eyes

that tear will help
in creating
a new world
mother-soul of the universe15

Thus ends the last poem in the book. The front cover has a stylized Egyptian image of a weeping eye while the title of the book and the epigraph on the back cover allude to the writings (from seventeenth-century Maharashtra) of the bhakti poet Tukaram. Bhijaki Vahi takes a radically different poetic route from the previous works of Kolatkar: it is not in the same ironic or sarcastic mode as Kala Ghoda Poems, for instance, nor does it reveal the same level of detachment of observation as Jejuri. The book shows a stark emotional and involved poetics; the poet has an overt stake in this project, and the ultimate cry of despair (that is a prayer for an apocalyptic end to the world as it is now) runs very close to a deep personalization of the poetic project. It also marks the ability of the poet to re-create himself anew so late in his career.16
But, in some ways, Bhijaki Vahi is not an easy book to read. It is based on three concurrent pathways of thought (the materialism of the world, patriarchal structures of society, and meditations on time, past and present), and they can all be brought together by uncovering the philosophy of the little magazine that runs beneath the surface of this book. The ephemeral and relatively disjointed structure of the little magazine clashes with the monumental, Grecian urn-like nature of the book. This confusion becomes part of the topos of the text because the multiple thematic strands get entangled in this disjuncture at the heart of the textual structure.


1. See Zecchini, Arun Kolatkar, for a complete biography of the poet and for details about the relationship between Darshan Chhabda and Arun Kolatkar.
2. In the Balwant Bua proposal, Kolatkar describes the life and stories of the hardnosed, eternally positive Balwant Bua, who took a bunch of prostitutes to the pilgrimage site of Pandharpur temple where the god Vitthal resides : “He [Balwant Bua] talks about the whorehouses of Bombay, about the people who frequented them, their peculiarities, and the perversions they practiced; about the prostitutes themselves—not the ritzy kind, but their humbler sisters—and how he came to be soothsayer, entertainer, bhajansinger, treasurer, bridge partner, attarwalla, spiritual guide, client and close friend, all rolled into one, to a whole lot of them. How he went to Alandi with some of them, and was thrown out of a dharmashala by the scandalized trustees; and how he went on a pilgrimage to Pandharpur with a flock of them, and what fun they had there.”
3. “You could have mistaken him for a hick; but he was city-born, city-bred, and street-smart; and he was an instant hit with me, became my favourite bhajansinger, the moment he started singing, accompanying himself brilliantly on a pair of cymbals” (Balwant Bua book proposal).
4. See Boatride, 131–56.
5. Kiran Nagarkar, “Arun Kolatkar: Some Memories” (Unpublished manuscript).
6. Adil Jussawalla mentioned this about the Q&A after the posthumous screening of the documentary on Kolatkar (on January 23, 2005, at the Kala Ghoda festival in Bombay) when someone asked Chitre what Kolatkar’s reaction had been to this film.
In his unpublished drafts in the folder titled “Loose Ends: Late fifties/early sixties” (Kolatkar Papers), Kolatkar muses on this reticent behavior in his writing: “I write because I cannot talk / get tonguetied,” and he goes on to thematize it in different ways:
my tongue is swollen
when I choked on my tongue

speech has ceased

It’s Rushdie’s paap.”
7. Rucha (1977): 95. The translation is mine.
8. Boatride, 143.
9. Ibid., 219.
10. There has not yet been a full-length study of Bhijaki Vahi in English, although there have been analyses of Sarpa Satra, a breakaway section from Bhijaki Vahi that was published as a separate book in English in 2004. There are several scholars who refer to Bhijaki Vahi briefly (in English, Dharwadker, Mehrotra, Patke, Zecchini, and a few others), but none performs a close reading of the book.
11. The continuities between the different books of poems and across different languages (Marathi and English) can be seen by the presence of a parallel list of women near the end of Kala Ghoda Poems. There, in the poem “Man of the Year,” Kolatkar lists another diverse series of women: “Malati, Niloufer, Anjali, Shanta / Alpana, Kalpana, Shirin, Zarine, Sylvia, Maria / Harlene, Yasmine, Nina, Kamala, Mona, Lopa” (157). This modern-day list of women complements the women in Bhijaki Vahi, most of whom are from older narratives and events.
12. In his essay “Death of a Poet,” Arvind Krishna Mehrotra states that Kolatkar wanted to write many more such poetic sets on different legendary women but that “he has not been able to find a way into the story, by which he meant a new perspective on it that would make it different from a retelling. He faced a similar problem with Hypatia of Alexandria, which he solved by making St. Cyril, who is thought to have had a hand in her murder, the poem’s speaker” (Partial Recall, 102).
13. Shahane states that reading Adil Jussawalla’s copy of The Satanic Verses (which was banned in India) is what triggered this wide-ranging poetic travel across the religions of the world.
14. Kolatkar’s vast library of books is now located at the Bhandarkar Oriental Institute in Pune, and it reveals the voracious reading habits of the poet, who consulted a long list of instructions on how to make papyrus/paper in Egypt in addition to analyses of Egyptian culture and history when writing the poems on Egyptian characters in Bhijaki Vahi. The collection also includes a large number of books on the history of Islam in India and in the world, with particular texts from Indian Islamic culture and literature; a great number of books on the women named in Bhijaki Vahi (Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hypatia, and Helen, among others); and a long list of books about women in history and the labels attached to them. Here is a sampling of books from that section: Whores in History, Nickie Roberts; The Clever Adulteress, Stories of Jain Literature, ed. Phyllis Granoff; Witchcraze, Anne Llewellyn Barstow; History’s Mistresses, Paula Weidegger; Salem Witchcraft, Charles Upham; A Handbook on Witches, Gillian Tindall. There is also a selection of books on violence and riots in post-independence India and around the world, with books on the Babri Masjid riots in Bombay and war in the Balkans.
15. Kolatkar, Bhijaki Vahi, 393.
16. The newspaper clippings in Kolatkar’s papers about the Idris/Maimun episode in the 1990s and the fact that he wrote the opening poem, “tipa” (tears), in the early 2000s show that the book was a compilation of years of work and thinking, and individual poetic sequences were written over the course of two decades.

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