Dr Nandini Sahu: “Mauritius has a signature culture of its own”

In conversation with Dr Nandini Sahu

Dr Nandini Sahu is a major voice in contemporary Indian English literature, widely published in India, USA, UK, Africa and Pakistan. She is a double gold medallist in English literature and also the award winner of All India Poetry Contest, the Shiksha Ratna Purashkar and Bouddha Creative Writers’ Award.

She is the author/editor of nine books. She is presently Associate Professor of English in Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), New Delhi.

Dr Sahu has designed academic programmes/courses on Folklore and Culture Studies, Children’s Literature and American Literature for IGNOU. Her areas of research interest cover Indian Literature, New Literatures, Folklore and Culture Studies, American Literature, Children’s Literature and Critical Theory.

Dr Sarita Boodhoo met Dr Sahu during her recent visit here to deliver the keynote address at a workshop organised by the MGI on “Folklore, Folk Culture & Oral Traditions’. She candidly chats about her poetic inspiration, her message to society and folklore studies…

My childhood continues to be with me

Nandini Sahu: I am reminded of my modest days spent in a tranquil pastoral village in Odisha, India. My parents were both teachers in local schools and we were a family of six daughters, being brought up in a disciplined life as would befit the hinterland of India in the 1970s and 80s. The love of books and a passion for reading enormously was always there, as early in my life as I can recall, in fact long spells of time I’d spend with Baba on Sundays, working at his school library in arranging and cataloguing books, and laying my hands on all sorts of books, from literature and science to homeopathy! I vividly recall how I’d look forward to this all through the week. I loved my studies, scored well every time and nurtured a nascent dream of becoming what I have really become today. In that sense, my childhood continues to be with me both in nostalgia and in reality!

My poetic inspirations

The writing of poetry has been to me both a sporadic and a spontaneous activity from very early on, in the sense that thinking, imagining, rehearsing and expressing poetic thoughts have always been with me, much before I consciously became a poet. Yet, the earliest reminiscences go back to when I was perhaps a small girl of six or seven and composed my first verse in Odia. Well, if I were to look back at compositions of such an early phase today, I’d perhaps blush at my own immature self, but then, for the record, that’s it! Poetry comes to me as an incessant mode of expression of the innate self – both its highs and lows. On careful introspection, I wouldn’t use that ‘either-or’ option between inspiration and influence. The inspiration, I’d say, emanates from the necessity or even the urge to express the innermost human mind, both as a self-contained vessel of thoughts and emotions, and as a self in communion with my milieu and my surroundings. And in this, I include all things and all objects material and non-material, animate and inanimate. Most of all, my inspiration comes from the transactions that keep on happening with people around me, the infinite vignettes of nature – both human and cosmic, and of course the different strands of thoughts and feelings that all these arouse in me. As for influence(s), well, my reading of both classical literature and the classics of literature as a student have shaped me in a big way . This is something that I realize as I look back at the years from my present vantage point; the understanding that generations of immortal literary thought, philosophy, myths and their representation – both in Eastern and Western studies — have made me whatever I am today. Nearer home, the direct influences have been of poets like Jayanta Mahapatra, Manoj Das, Bibhu Padhy and of course my erudite teacher and guide, the late Professor Niranjan Mohanty. Besides there are a galaxy of contemporary Indian English poets and writers, with whom there are often fruitful exchanges of thoughts and feelings.

A dialogue with the self

The poets/writers who have inspired me. Jayanta Mahapatra, Manoj Das, late Prof Niranjan Mohanty from Odisha have deeply influenced me. From the world literatures, I read Homer, Virgil, Dante — I am a classicist that way. Among the romantics and the moderns, I read Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Eliot, Emerson, Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, Anne Sexton, Leslie Marmon Silko, Kamala Das, Nissim Ezekiel, A K Ramanujan, R. Parthasarathy, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Carolyn Kizer and many more. A trip down memory lane from today’s vantage point tells me that the ‘inspiration’ has always been there, for I have to borrow an idea from Wordsworth which I have always felt truly and deeply. It is, as I said earlier, a kind of dialogue/monologue with the self that has resulted in my creative writing in general and poetry in particular.

Traces of Sita-ness in every woman

My fourth and latest volume, Sukamaa and Other Poems has been a long cherished work because it is, in a microcosm, a tribute to those influences that have helped me reach where I have today. It was a debt I was morally obligated to myself to discharge. Having done that, I am presently working on another dream project, which I very unassumingly call Sita: A Poem. My canvas here is the macrocosm of quintessential womanhood, which is a 21st century woman’s take on the predominantly masculine form of the Indian epic that has always been viewed in its umpteen variations from a patriarchal point of view.

The urge to have an alternative take on the story of the Ramayana from Sita’s angle has always haunted me since my childhood when grandma would read out ‘Sitama’s’ plea to Mother Earth to take her back into her fold, and thereby relieve her of a life burdened by assaults on her character, purity and chastity. I could never comprehend why ‘maryada purushottam’ Rama had to castigate his flesh and blood wife and yet make a phoney show of all’s well with the State by installing an effigy of pure gold that was to signify her chastity.

In mature years, Sita has come across to me not just as a woman but much more as a metaphor of resilient womanhood; I have come to identify traces of Sita-ness in every woman. How potent her power of non-violence could be! Even though she was the icon of rebellion, she had great patience. Her birth from the womb of Mother Earth stood for nature, vivacity and truth. Sita is the epitome of a virtuous woman in Indian cultural imagination and is my icon. I am privileged to be working on her, because I feel this is a debt I needed to discharge to myself and to womanhood at large.

Folk – part and parcel of our lives

My strong belief is folk is not something out there in a museum, it is a part and parcel of our lives, and thus fit enough to be our mainstream literature. The modern literary texts that have made explicit use of the folk traditions to make it available to the readers today are also treated on a par with the folk texts that have only the oral tradition, called the pure folk. The books examine the nature, concept and function of folk in modern Indian literature. These volumes are of immense value for the literature teachers, researchers, folklorists, anthropologists, and experts of social psychology marginal studies, dalit studies, developmental studies, culture critics, linguists and policy planners. In the same vein, I have designed courses for my own university and have also been on similar assignments abroad on folklore and culture studies. My ideas of folk are appreciated and accepted all over, because roots are ultimately important for all.

Mauritius – a treasure house of folklore

The courses that I have designed for MGI on folklore studies deal with folk theories in a global context and take up very interesting case studies from the Mauritian folk. Mauritius has a rich cultural heritage. It’s a treasure house of folklore and it has a signature culture of its own, which is a queer amalgamation of so many cultures brought forth by the settlers. In this course, we have made a humble attempt to introduce this rich cultural heritage of Mauritian folklore to the world. I am sure that through this course, MGI is serving the Mauritian society in a big way, exposing an unexplored traditional knowledge system to the world.

Dr Sarita Boodhoo is a writer and the Chairperson of the Bhojpuri Speaking Union of Mauritius


* Published in print edition on 25 October 2013

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