Othello in Kathakali

Diana Bridge brings out the essence of her experience of the sights, sounds and smells of India in her poetry, reports B.N. Goswamy

Detail from a cloth painting. Andhra Pradesh, 17th century. Collection: Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, Hyderabad.
Detail from a cloth painting. Andhra Pradesh, 17th century. Collection: Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, Hyderabad.

It is not easy for any of us to imagine how exactly does a foreigner see the things that we see. I recall walking on the pavement along the Janpath shops in Delhi – years ago – together with a friend who was here from abroad: her first visit to India. It was not easy going: crowds jostling, salespersons thrusting wares under our noses, the level of noise rising by the minute, mounting fear that one might lose one’s shopping bag or, worse, one’s purse, any moment. I was beginning to feel quite uneasy, and turned to my friend, mumbling something akin to an apology at what I was taking her through.

Firmly, however, she turned to look at me in turn, saying how much she loved what she was seeing. "You have no idea how exciting it is for me. This is like a grand, unending spectacle". She was obviously referring to sadhus in jeans, elephants moving with stately gait on highways, dish-antennae being transported in cycle-rickshaws, kids in tattered clothes hawking the latest issues of Vogue. I was taken aback a bit. But then the impress that India leaves on others’ minds, I saw, could be very varied. The sights, the sounds, all those customs and usages, the relationships that we take for granted, can be seen with different eyes, and read so differently.

Diana Bridge, the distinguished New Zealand poet, is an old friend of India, and has not only spent years here when her husband, Nicholas, was his country’s High Commissioner to our land: she keeps coming back. And she keeps writing, with images of Indian life, little fleeting snapshots sometimes, appearing in her work with remarkable regularity. This, because, as she says of India in a filigreed little poem: you swim together/in dim paint above my head `85 When we met recently again – she was here, along with Nicholas, to take part in a poetry reading event in Delhi – she handed me another of her fragile little volume of poems: Red Leaves.

And there it was in this book again, a whole section on India with the title that I am using for this piece. Everything interests her: from Mughal architecture and Hindu sculpture to south Indian dance. But in her writing there is also the recognition that a foreigner’s take on things is at best partial and fragmentary, as she says in one of her notes to the poems. "In each, immediacy of engagement and the desire for interaction are uppermost. And each acknowledges that, for the outsider in India, there can be no half-way step between eating a chilli, raw and green, and not eating a chilli."

When you read her, it might look at first as if Diana has cast her glances only fleetingly upon things around her, for there are little slivers of colour and tone that dance across her pages. But then one realises that she has seen the whole with great care, and chooses, thoughtfully and with great sensitivity, to pick only on a little fragment, as if on some piece of a shattered mirror that lies on the ground in front of her. Consider this little poem titled Cloth Painting. Rolled out in the artists’s yard, she says, where life is ritual or/spread-eagled under museum glass:/ the god – as boy, as man,/ protector, lover, thief./ In each stopped scene/ the slippery icon wears your face/ as though – like him –/ you were repeatable.

The lines, occasioned by a kalamkari piece, or a Nathdwara picchhwai perhaps, are replete with nuanced references. Nothing is stated explicitly, but the reader, at least the Indian reader, would recognise at once who the god in this poem or painting is, what view of time is taken here, what role does ritual play in the life and work of a craftsman. Again, when she writes – after having been startled by a performance, one can be sure – about Othello in Kathakali, she takes you right into the heart of the strange if stirring spectacle with the very opening lines: Othello’s eyes flame on/ a melon seed. Someone/ has provided stiff skirts/ and a repertoire of gestures, even as he is watching her/making love to the top half/ of a continent. Her strip of neck/twists in his fingers. The "melon seed", we understand, is what Kathakali performers traditionally put in their eyes to redden them, but the way she brings it in at the beginning, with stunning staccato effect, almost prepares us for the end of the poem where his goat throat is gushing blood/ into our upturned mouths.

This is the way Diana Bridge proceeds, now speaking of the everyday drift of her sari, now of a hill-top palace with a view flung down like a prayer rug. In her verses, buffaloes sink to their knees, coat-hanger shoulders collapsing , and widows sit propped like withered birch/ in stairways of a Benares house. There is a sense of disquiet that one picks up at times, but let me end with a little, utterly beguiling poem of hers, titled "Imperial", evidently recalling the sight of birds on a Lutyens roof.

The peacock stands in profile on the tiled/ slope of the roof. Three quills quiver / in his crown. Behind his back/ the empire relaxes and/ foxtrots with its flagpole./ His hen’s aspiring neck slants into other windows./ Unstoppable in her blue throat/ the mew of her desire./ Small birds may to and fro/ among tame shades of green./ Theirs is the kingdom.

You can almost see it all.