Sudeep Sen / “The role of the artist is not to look away”

            1.

I paint flowers so they will not die.

— Frida Kahlo

I have always been deeply fascinated with the natural world and its phenomenon. I have vivid memories of devouring issues of the National Geographic magazine as a child, collecting their wonderfully detailed fold-out maps, watching Carl Sagan and David Attenborough’s documentaries on the cosmos, wildlife and our planet. I marvelled at how solar and lunar gravitational pulls choreograph the seasonal orchestra — how the wind’s slipstreams dance, the oceans churn, and earth’s tilted rotation creates the vicissitudes of tides.    

There was a point when geography was my favourite subject at school. For a while, I even wanted to become an oceanographer — so I could explore the earth’s deepest point in the Mariana Trench, and ride icebergs in the Arctic/Antarctic photographing the colour-blazed magnetic lights of Aurora Borealis/Australis.

As an avid reader, I have been tuned in to the global discussion on climate change — this man-made tragedy that threatens our planet in what has become the critical age of anthropocene. Still, I could not help feeling shaken to the core, when I chanced upon a news clip featuring the President of the island nation of Kiribati (in the central Pacific Ocean) informing the rest of the world that the first country to be submerged would be theirs — and that their people would be the first ‘climate refugees,’ in the not-so-distant future.

Stanford University climatologist, Stephen H. Schneider, has said that the small island nation of Kiribati is made up of 33 small atolls, none of which is more than 6.5 feet above the South Pacific, and it is only a matter of time before the rising sea submerges the entire country. “For Kiribati, the tipping point has already occurred,” Schneider told The Washington Post in January 29, 2006. “As far as they’re concerned, it’s tipped, but they have no economic clout in the world.”

            2.

Climate change poses a powerful challenge to what is perhaps the single most important political conception of the modern era: the idea of freedom, which is central not only to contemporary politics but also to the humanities, the arts and literature.

— Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable

It is ironic that the most powerful nations of our world are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases and contribute the maximum tonnage of carbon footprint. The Covid-19 pandemic is only the most recent in a series of epidemics that have ravaged the world (both human and animal) in recent decades. With the melting of polar ice caps and the rapid thaw of glacial sites— humanity faces, among other dangers — discharge of dangerous levels of methane & CO2 gases, and the activation of infectious life forms that were frozen for millennia. Add to this, rising sea levels, increased frequency of natural disasters, a growing tribe of self-serving Fascist leaders — and life as we know it seems to be imploding.

Katie Pavid writes on the Natural History Museum website, “The Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and modern humans have been around for a mere 200,000 years. Yet in that time we have fundamentally altered the physical, chemical and biological systems of the planet on which we and all other organisms depend. In the past 60 years in particular, these human impacts have unfolded at an unprecedented rate and scale. This period is sometimes

known as the ‘Great Acceleration’. Carbon dioxide emissions, global warming, ocean acidification, habitat destruction, extinction and wide scale natural resource extraction are all signs that we have significantly modified our planet.” Still, it seems clear, the world is not taking sufficient heed.

            3.

At what distance should I keep myself from others in order to build with them a sociability without alienation and a solitude without exile?

— Roland Barthes, How to Live Together

I spend most of my waking hours in the day (and night) in my book-lined study. The panoramic picture window across my desk is the lens through which I view the changing of seasons imprinted on the magnificent wide-topped neem tree. The bough’s intricate armature, the leaves’ serrated floret-pattern, the tree’s broccoli-shaped structure — all provide an exo-skeleton for my canvas — and the constantly-altering skyscape, provides a slideshow cyclorama.

I have been writing on climate related phenomenon for a long time. My poems frequently dwell on the theme of excess. Having lived in Delhi for most of my life and braved its predominantly hot weather for decades, I have often written on aspects of ‘heat’. Heat annoys, repels, inspires and exasperates:

                  Heat outside is like filigreed sand on my skin —

                  swift, sharp, pointed, deceptive, furnace hot.”

                                                (from ‘Heat Sand’)

In the early 2000s however, I lived in Bangladesh for some years. As a result of living for half a decade in the region of the ‘two Bengals’ — West Bengal in India and Bangladesh — I published a book titled Monsoon that was later republished as Rain.

It is bone-dry I pray for any moisture that might fall from the emaciated skies // There is a cloud, just a solitary cloud wafting perilously // But it is too far in the distance for any real hope for rain.

                                                (‘Drought, Cloud’, Rain)

The book reflected and meditated on the various moods and effects of rain — its passion and politics, its beauty and fury, its hope and hopelessness, its ability of “douse and arouse”. In some ways, it was a book on aspects of climate change — even though I confess that I did not overtly set out to do so, at least not consciously.

            4.

[The pandemic] has reinforced my understanding of the best parts of human nature, and the worst. The best is the selfless courage of so many on the front lines, and the brilliance of scientists trying to find the cure. The worst is the degeneration of parts of society into an aggressive, hostile, ignorant, bigoted rabble. I’ve always believed that both these elements exist. The pandemic shines a bright light both on nobility and on ugliness, the will to overcome adversity and a sort of Lord of the Flies barbarism. 

— Salman Rushdie, Interview magazine (June 1, 2020)

During the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown, things were changing so fast around us that it was viscerally affecting our society — the play of politics, the way people thought and reacted, the changing culture of ‘working from home’ for the privileged and lack of work for the dispossessed, the gruesome images of migrants walking hundreds of kilometres in the unforgiving weather riddled by hunger and pain, the quarantine, the virus — how can all these not affect you psychologically as well. To make matters worse, the pandemic was accompanied by floods, locust attack, earthquakes, and more.

So, when Raj Kamal Jha, the novelist, and editor of one of India’s leading newspapers, The Indian Express, asked me to contribute something on the pandemic for the editorial pages, I expect he was looking for a sensitive and incisive non-fiction piece from an artist’s point of view. I am pretty certain he did not expect my response in the form of poetry. In any case, I sent him the poem ‘Love in the Time of Corona’ — and I must say I was impressed that he chose to carry it in their weekend edition — “the first time that they had carried poetry” according to him. Thereafter, the poem took on a life of its own.

The former UK poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy selected it for a world project ‘Write Where We Are Now,’ currently hosted on the Manchester Metropolitan University’s website. Among others, Singing in Bad Times: A Global Anthology of Poetry Under Lockdown (Penguin Random House), The Calvert Journal (UK), ArtVirus (USA) and many others, carried the poem. In addition, a slew of translations appeared — in French, Spanish, Serbian, Persian, Urdu, Marathi, Bengali, and Hindi.

            5.

Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.
— Paul Klee

As a poet and literary writer, and as a person who works from home, ‘self-isolation’ is nothing new, abnormal or unusual. Over the last three decades, I have spent most of my working hours happily and voluntarily self-isolated and quarantined, cocooned in the world of ideas, surrounded by books and literary artifacts in my office-study.

In the early days of the pandemic, with the country under a ‘lockdown’ and no transportation allowed on the streets, with offices and industries shut—Delhi started showing signs of regeneration. It was extraordinary how quickly we saw signs of nature healing itself — clean air, blue skies during the day, starlit skies at night, the skyscapes during dawn and dusk everyday utterly spectacular, and the constant elation of silence. Outside my window, the sparrows, the bees and the butterflies were back — and for a while it felt like the Delhi of yesteryears, the one I had grown up in the 1970s & 80s.

In this period, I would spend two to three hours in the evening on my terrace — reading, walking, watching, calling out to neighbours, eavesdropping on birds, “listening to the stars”, and photographing skyscapes. I took to capturing the skies from exactly the same vantage point on my terrace day after day — and the selection of photographs in this book will give you an idea of the varied vivacity of the ever-changing canvas.

            6.

The role of the artist is not to look away.

— Akira Kurosawa

 

Nature has always inspired writers and artists. I have not been immune to this attraction either. However, I have noticed that with the passing of time, the celebration of nature in my poetry and prose has been tempered with warnings of what this irreversible change in climate means for the earth.

Amid all the clamour of public rhetoric and widespread distress, this book is a quiet artistic offering. It is a testament to our fervent times where a fascist political din overrides the silence of introspection, where the ravages of climate change scar humanity, where the cleaving schism between the rich and poor becomes ever-widening, where racism peaks at an all-time high, where toxicity amongst people proliferates, and fake news abounds.

In this book, you will experience the wider (and my personal) struggle with pollution and co-morbidities; the sharp rise and fall in atmospheric pressures, unusual heat spikes; unseasonal rain and hailstorm; invading oceans swallowing up coastlines around the world; floods; cyclones, devastation; illnesses — physical and psychological.

 

Even in the most spectacular sights, one sees the “terrible beauty” that is contained within. We know that the sunsets are more redolent due to pollution in the air — and that certain geological features are stunning because of the impurities they contain. In ‘Akrotiri’ on the volcanic Grecian island of Santorini, we see:

sand-soil compacted mineral / paintings — rainbow reserved normally for the skies.

Some pieces in the book refer only obliquely to these subjects, but I have included them since the references there are vital and important — they serve to underline and remind us of the constant, insidious, corrosion that is the accompanying chorus to life as we know it.

            Holocene’s carbon-footprint — its death text, unceasing.

            (from ‘Burning Ghats, Varanasi’)

Several literary techniques and forms have been used to show our world’s passage from utopia to dystopia — so you will see on display formal and free verse forms, prose poems, fragmented prose, flash and micro-fiction, and more.

“Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me,” Sigmund Freud had once remarked. Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolation while engaging with the most urgent topics that face humanity now — climate change and pandemic —is ultimately a prayer for positivity and hope. It is time again to slow down, to consume less, to love more selflessly and expansively.

                  Hope, heed, heal — our song, in present tense.

            (from ‘Love in the Time of Corona’)

— Sudeep Sen

                  New Delhi, India | June 21, 2020 | Summer Solstice

i.e. [that is]

i.e.

   because you hear —

the sound

of a lone rustling leaf —

you hear the sea.

i.e.

   because I consider

the sea silent —

you hear its silence

in my studio.

i.e

   & because of that —

the silence will not empty

the sea

of its leaves.

*

Disembodied

1.

My body carved from abandoned bricks of a ruined temple,

                                               from minaret-shards of an old mosque,

from slate-remnants of a medieval church apse,

            from soil tilled by my ancestors.

My bones don’t fit together correctly               as they should —

the searing ultra-violet light from Aurora Borealis

                                   patches and etch-corrects my orientation —

magnetic pulses prove potent.

My flesh sculpted from fruits of the tropics,

                                                           blood from coconut water,

skin coloured by brown bark of Indian teak.

My lungs fuelled by Delhi’s insidious toxic air

                                   echo asthmatic sounds, a new vinyl dub-remix.

Our universe — where radiation germinates from human follies,

                        where contamination persists from mistrust,

where pleasures of sex are merely a sport —

where everything is ambition,

everything is desire,                             everything is nothing.

                                   Nothing and everything.

2.

White light everywhere,

but no one can recognize its hue,

no one knows that there is colour in it —         all possible colours.

Body worshipped, not for its blessing,

                                   but its contour —

                                               artificial shape shaped by Nautilus.

Skin moistened by L’Oreal 

            and not by season’s first rains —

skeleton’s strength not shaped by earthquakes

                                               or slow-moulded by fearless forest-fires.

Ice-caps are rapidly melting — too fast to arrest glacial slide.

In the near future — there will be no water left

or too much water that is undrinkable,

                                               excess water that will drown us all.

Disembodied floats,                             afloat like Noah’s Ark —

no gps, no pole-star navigation,           no fossil fuel to burn away —

just maps with empty grids and names of places that might exist.

Already, there is too much traffic on the road —

unpeopled hollow metal-shells                         without brakes,

swerve about    directionless —            looking for an elusive compass.

*

       Global Warming

Stillness — over-heated air sucks out everything —     still

not                  strong enough to create           vacuum

            to attract rain-clouds

in this low pressure                                         of high heat.

            Leeward-windward —                        face-off in vain.

Rain where there never was,

                                               no rain where there was.

Climate patterns, total disarray —       defiantly altered

                        weather systems                topsy-turvy —

global warming’s                      man-made havoc.

Earthquakes — overground, underground,

undersea —

            destruction, death,       cyclone, flood,      

                                                           pestilence, pollution.

Stillness, ever stiller still —                              all still-born.

*

Rising Sea Levels

The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea.

— Wallace Stevens

Granite outcrop

   that once jutted out

of the ebullient sea —

fifty metres

   from the shore —

is seen no more.

The lighthouse —

   our beacon,

an adventure island.

We’d swim to its base —

   shells, mussels,

striated oval stones,

seagull eggs nested

   on slippery

kelp-laced rocks.

As children, reality —

   as adults,

a submerged memory.

*

Sudeep Sen’s [www.sudeepsen.org] prize-winning books include: Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins), 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). He has edited influential anthologies, including: The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (editor), World English Poetry, and Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi).  Blue Nude: Ekphrasis & New Poems (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, Poetry Review, Literary Review, Harvard Review, Hindu, Hindustan Times, Times of India, Indian Express, 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), Leela: An Erotic Play of Verse and Art (Collins), Indian Love Poems(Knopf/Random House/Everyman), Out of Bounds (Bloodaxe), Initiate: Oxford New Writing (Blackwell), and Name me a Word (Yale). He is the editorial director of AARK ARTS, editor of Atlas, and currently the inaugural artist-in-residence at the Museo Camera. Sen is the first Asian honoured to deliver the Derek Walcott Lecture and read at the Nobel Laureate Festival. The Government of India awarded him the senior fellowship for “outstanding persons in the field of culture/literature.”

*

extract from

Sudeep Sen, Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolation

Pippa Rann Books & Media (UK) in association with Penguin Random House (India)

Pages 176. Rs. 599 | ISBN 978-1-913738-38-9 [hardback] | 978-1-913738-36-5 [e-book] | 2021

Amazon: UK, USA & Worldwide: https://tinyurl.com/npmp9v5w |  Amazon India: https://tinyurl.com/3vzmz89u

One thought on “Sudeep Sen / “The role of the artist is not to look away”

  1. Creating poetry on this terrible beauty of climate change is thought provoking ,truly makes us humans rethink we are just a miniscule spec on this globe but have created havoc like the virus in this pandemic. An excellent work of art Sudeep keep it going

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