Interview by Dr. Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal
Mahendra Bhatnagar is one of the significant post-independence voices
in Hindi and Indian English Poetry. Rooted deep into the Indian soil,
his poems reflect not only the moods of a poet but of a complex age.
He was Professor and Head, Department of Hindi, Jiwaji University, Gwalior.
This senior Professor of Hindi has ten volumes of poems in English besides
several collections in Hindi. His works have been translated into a
number of Indian and foreign languages. This bilingual poet, scholar
and critic talks to Dr. Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal about various issues
of literary creativity.
What are the major themes of your poetry?
I have been writing poetry since November 1941, in Hindi. Work on English
versions began in 1952-53. At that time, English versions were published
in Hindi Review, a prestigious English magazine of Nagri PracharSabha
(Varanasi, U.P.). It was edited by Professor Ram Avadh Dwivedy, formerly
Professor and Head, English Department, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi
As far as major themes (topics/subjects) of my poetry are concerned,
they can be easily seen or understood by reading my poetry collections.
From the very dawn of my poetry writing, I am writing on social, economic,
national, political and cultural aspects. Of course, I am also writing
from the beginning of my poetic career on nature, love, optimism (tendency
to look upon the bright side of things), life's drawbacks, disappointments,
deceits, despair, pains, sufferings, shallowness of people etc.
The span of my poetry is divided into two parts: A Period before
independence (about six years); B Post-independence period.
I am not attached to any political dogma or any political party; though there are very clear tones in my poetry as far as the left thinking is concerned. I believe not only in Gautam Buddha's philosophy but also in the views, thoughts and reasoning of Karl Marx and Gandhi. I am of the opinion that free thinking is absolutely necessary for every intellectual, and genuine writer and poet.
You have written poetry both in Hindi and English languages. Out
of the two, which one is closer to your heart?
It's obvious that writing poetry in Hindi my mother tongue is closer to my heart. Though, I wrote several short poems originally in English, my poetic works are translated into English either by me or by reputed Indian English poets and professors in colleges/universities.
Did you feel comfortable creating poems in English? My personal
belief is that poetry is a spontaneous activity, which can not easily
come out in an alien language. So, your English poetry may not be directly
from the heart. What do you say?
Expression of the heart and mind is more natural in one's mother tongue.
There is not much need of effort in it. Expression in the mother-tongue
is an inherent element. That's why writing poetry in the mother-tongue
is also easier.
As everyone is not a master of English or of any other language other
than one's mother tongue, it is absolutely necessary to understand and
grasp the peculiar specialties of that language. Otherwise, writing
poetry will prove totally un-poetic. Language accomplishment is possible
only if you are familiar to that language. As I never went to England
nor remained in touch with English-speaking society; hence my expression
in English will only be bookish. Of course, I learned English. I read
several poems in English. The medium of my higher education was English.
English language and literature remained compulsory subjects up to graduation
level for me. I have no hesitation to say that I want to see my existence
in the history of Indian English poetry. I am happy to see that, through
English, I got global readership. Internet, too, is a powerful medium
of spreading my poetry.
The second part of your question is rather related to the definition of poetry. It is an established fact that poetry is a spontaneous activity. This fact can't be denied. But this is true only in writing lyrical poetry. Descriptive poetry requires time and patience. That is a more conscious effort. Poetry is not a meaningless utterance of a crazy or a sentimental man. There should be nothing mystical in poetry. Emotions and thoughts are indispensable elements of poetry. Poetry comes from the heart under the strict censorship of the mind. Poetry writing is not a society-aloof affair. In all forms of art, communicability is essential; language may be alien or home.
Some of your poems are translated, too. What, in your view, are
the essential qualities of an excellent literary translation? Do you
find these traits in your translated work?
Not some, most of my poems are translated into English. Nine volumes of my poetry are already published. They are :
 Forty Poems of Mahendra Bhatnagar
Two more volumes are forthcoming.
Translating poetry is really a difficult task. Translators must have
good command over both the languages; only then perfect translation
work is possible. But, this does not always happen. Translators should
be faithful in translating poetry. Nothing new (maybe better) should
be added. On the other hand, simply literal translations are not considered
as good translations. Inherent ideas of the poet must get place in translations.
In my opinion, this is the basic condition of a good translation.
As far as translations of my poems are concerned, I am satisfied. I myself took great pains in putting appropriate words in translated versions of my poems. I consulted several dictionaries, including bilingual. I really feel proud, and I am really very happy to note that my talented translator-friends are very competent, worthy, decent, and of very high caliber. A few of them are poets of international repute. It's really very astonishing that I got their sincere cooperation. It's nothing; except my good luck!
What is the source of poetry in you? It is said that poetry emerges
out of intense emotional experience of the poet. I suppose it must also
be the case with you. Your comments, please.
Yes, the source of creating poetry lies in "intense emotional
experiences." This is the first and most essential element of poetry.
"Thought" comes next. Other elements are imagination, and
language and style.
I am of the opinion that without noble and high thoughts, poetry remains a thing of luxurious merriment only. We call a poet a "RISHI" (a sage). He is a torch-bearer of the society, too. He is not a jocular/jester. Nor does he represent only the vulgar appeals of licentious persons. Such things are not synonyms of "emotion." Please note.
Your collection Poems: For A Better World is written with
a zeal to reform the world. The satirical tone is prevalent throughout.
For instance, in "Invoking Modern Man," you say:
Again and again
Is not the reformist zeal a sort of burden on the principle of pure
poetry? Poetry should be read for sheer aesthetic pleasure. The moralist's
purpose should be minimized in it. Didacticism in art sometimes stifles
the aesthetic value of it. What do you say about this dichotomy of two
ideals - "art for art's sake" and social documentation in
art? How should we describe Mahendra Bhatnagar's poetry? Is he a creative
poet of complete enjoyment or a poet with a mission? Please comment.
"Art for art's sake" or social documentation in art both factors are often discussed in poetics. There is nothing new in it. We cannot undermine the importance of aesthetic values in poetry. But as I have already expressed only enjoyment should not be the aim of writing poetry. The poet must be realistic and visionary. I agree didactism minimizes the influence of art and poetry. Thus the poet must be cautious in expressing his mission; otherwise peoples' hearts will not stir. We cannot favour negligence towards artistic approach in poetry; though it is fundamental to see what the inner contents of your poetry are. Thoughts of the poet must be healthy.
Literature is created for the welfare of the society. Man and society
are in central pivot. At times poetry becomes the dutiful weapon of
social revolutions. Poetry has many shades. One-sided version is not
justified. Mainly utility should be the criterion of poetry. You cannot
boycott expressions of nature's beauty and love. It has its own utility.
It softens the heart and makes the man more humane. Tender feelings
are also a part of life. How can we ignore them?