Carols of Agons and Angsts – Prathap Kamath’s Tableaux: Poems of Life and Creatures

By Dr. Sandhya Pai

Prathap Kamath. Tableaux: Poems of life and creatures., 2017.



“The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace / Something for the modern stage. . .” stated Ezra Pound categorically in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly about the direction poetry should take in the modern world.  Dr. Prathap Kamath’s second collection of poems Tableaux: Poems of life and creatures which has been published five years after his first collection Ekalavya: a book of poems (2012), captures the accelerated grimace of the present day quotidian realities by drawing our attention to a copulae of images and themes forming a staged tableau in a dense collage.  Reading Dr. Prathap Kamath’s poems, one recognizes a talent that is validly contemporaneous and justly polemic and yet retaining its universality and piquant popularity by not forfeiting fully “the obscure reveries of the inward gaze” for being just politically correct:  the reason why he is considered one of the promising young poets of India writing now in English.

If Ekalavya had hitched his wagon to the poetic skies, Tableaux helps him find a more solid terrain of rootedness and stability in the realm of poetry.  Subtitled ‘Poems of life and creatures’, the book containing 58 poems is divided into two parts titled Ex Nihilo and Anima, the first one dealing with the vignettes of contemporary world of agon and angst, polemics and poetics, while the latter explores the mysterious entelechies of the world of fauna.   Human life – its interiority and exteriority – and the world of animals, present the complementary duality of life.

Poetic creation is ever a wonder, its exact point of origin and the manner of its efflorescence baffling even the creator.  It seems to come ex nihilo, to the perplexed soul who suddenly sees himself a votary of words, pouring poetry from “a word-vessel”, emerging “a surfer on glassy seas bearing /a thousand suns in their bellies”.   There are several poems on the act of writing poetry in the collection, of being a poet, where he traces the trajectory from the genesis of a poem in a poet (‘The Lizard’) to his metamorphosis in the world of enticements and temptations (‘Tabloid becomes a Poet’) to his failings (‘Water’) and his savage attempts to scrounge for subject matter for poetry (‘Devil at Large’) and his insistence that poets remain on the solid ground of reality (‘Poets don’t allow poems to take an aeroplane’).  Even the dog is a poet, in his stillness, “musing only about barking, talking to the sea”.  Gone are the days when the poet remained “hidden in the light of thought, singing hymns unbidden”, of blithe, unseen skylarks, but now stands with his paws dug deep into the wet sand, carrying an ache for the vanished boats which have crept underneath his skin, even in his wakeless sleep.  Interestingly, the section begins and ends with poems on poets: the opening poem ‘Tabloid Becomes Poet’ setting the tone and the last poem ‘Poets don’t allow poems to take an aeroplane’ making a statement that poets “believe that poetry should stand firmly on firm ground”.

The poet may think that the poems come ex nihilo but there are several which are rooted in the contemporary Indian reality.  It seems as if mad India has hurt him into poetry.  The new India – of rape victims and rapists, beggars and waifs, squalor of suburbia, mindless accidents, and environmental issues: bursting dams, places denuded of trees in the name of development – sprawls monstrously cancerous in several poems.  “Visibility: an Indian Poem” showcases the three month old daughter of a seller of sea-shells on the beach, smiling toothlessly, throwing her limbs to the air. Her mother knows that “the future will hold brine in her cup” and covers her thighs and vagina with a rag.  The poet avers:  “For visibility is dangerous to them / Who are on the streets and behind / Doors on rusty hinges and shaky walls.” The short poem ‘Carpe Diem: very Indian’ reels in verbal montages of day-to-day tragedies which are fodder for the newspapers: endosulfan victims, children mauled by street-dogs, hanging of rape victims, farmers’ suicides.  The poet states: “It is cruel to flaunt your happiness, / in a world scrounging to hide its wounds”.  ‘Driven’ and ‘Of Chores and other Things’ distil the sorrow of rape victims. They project the calloused social mindset that accuses and alienates them, driving them to attempted suicide.  ‘The Tree’ that the poet has in mind is not the tree bearing trunk, bark, root, and other adjuncts, but one which is “a slogan that stood on railways to be”; which is “a question with an upright spine on highways to be”. . . thus the poet identifies the trees which have been destroyed in the name of mindless development.  Often the realities of the world around are presented vis à vis the workings of the inner mind, as in ‘Carpe Diem: very Indian’ and ‘Spiral Dance’ both calling to question, the workings of the conscience.  If the outer world of stark realities is portrayed graphically, the poems depicting a world within present a greater convoluted reality.  “On Dying” states that “I” shall regret only one thing, and goes on to unfurl a series of regrets.  But amidst these tragedies and regrets are some poems which demonstrate tenderness and nostalgia, respect and affection as in the poems courting Neruda-like titles, “To the very little one walking beside me on the beach road” and “I thank you for the five minutes.”

The second section Anima has several species meandering at will through its pages. Marked for its condensed presentation, the animal poems remind one of the Movement poets, but the poet stamps the members of his poetic ark with his specific touch, as in the case of the ‘Cuckoo’ which reads like a riddle. Paraded methodically in alphabetical order, the ant, the bull, the cat, the cockroach, the cow, the crow, the cuckoo, the dog (making a dual appearance), the duck, the elephant, the eagle, the fish, the kingfisher, the lizard, the snake, the spider, the termites and the tiger – critters ranging from the infinitesimal ants and termites to the gigantic pachyderm have something in them that fascinates the poet.  The bull, the poet’s own birth sign, shows the polar ways of his living: “The first with balls / And the second without it”.  The tiger is a museum animal, a comic figure denuded of its ferocity.  Prathap Kamath’s animal world throws open eschatological questions, ascend symbolic and mystical heights, becomes vehicle of satire and concern, and offers tough conundrums to crack.  In these poems, myths are created, preconceptions are dismantled, and realities are plumbed. The elephant is a majestic animal that provides tail hairs to ward off the evil eye; it is the caparisoned chariot to the ‘proxy’ gods; but its “majesty of black curvaceous geometry” gives way to the gruesome spectacle of festering wounds under the rusty chains – the quotidian reality is never far away from the allure of the animal, and it is this element of contemporary concerns that riddle his thoughts that makes his poems significant and haunting.  An observant eye which goes on to capture the haecceity of the animal is evident in the poem ‘The Kingfisher’, where “the still blue flame . . . burning on pink claws”, a “practitioner of Tao”, hooks “the fish with no bait other than / the speed of landing and nature”. At times the animal world forms a backdrop to the human world (“The Termites”) and vice versa (“The Cat”). The variety and condensation in Anima is Hopkinsian, the tone is Dickinsonian, and the metaphorical rendering of the animals often Hughes-like. The ultimate effect transcends the influences to create a uniquely ‘Prathapian’ feel, much rooted in the terra firma of commonplace Indian experiences.

Irony, satire, whimsy, nostalgia, tenderness, sorrow, melancholy, morbidity, humour, awe and appreciation parade in variation throughout the collection.  The language parades chic and debonair in a top hat in certain places, suddenly appearing desi in a rakish turban knotted round the head: “whoknowswhat” (‘Tabloid becomes Poet’), “vrooms the animal” (‘Vroom’), “Chi chi” “‘Her man is her god’ we all know” (‘Ceiling fans on long stalks’).  To convey the ‘unconveyable’ precise nuance or meaning, he plays with the language in mad abandon: “The tree is a was that has left its abode in the mind” (‘The Tree’) says the poet trying to convey the absence of the tree; similarly, he is envious of the spider’s “world wide web-ability” (‘The Spider’). Coined compounds such as “fang-titillating”, “boulder-shooting” (‘The Dam’), “mind-earth”, “mind-sky” (‘The Tree’), “rain-petal touch”, “my sky-face” “ensign-large fingers” (‘To the very little one. . . ‘), “gleeful walk-ons, dark thought-scowlers” (‘Bibliophilus’) create graphic pictures in the mind of the reader.  Clichés are kept in abeyance, and certain statements convey profound truths in the most novel manner as in, “You are a definite article / In my sentences of truth” (‘The Spider’).  Images litter the poems variously and abundantly, but leaving a modernist mark in his poems are medical images of diseases, medical procedures and human physiology, rendering a starkness and contemporaneity to his poems.

It rests upon the writer to make sense out of the world he inhabits.  As the bard of the times, he tries to make vineyards of the innumerable curses that this land is heir to. He has to find his idiom, image and language to convey this contemporary reality that eludes elucidation. But for those to whom poetic impulse is irrepressible, they will find a way to forge a poetic vehicle of their own.  And so like Jaroslav Seifert, our poet too cries, “Flare up, flame of words, /and soar, / even if my fingers get burned!” What Prathap Kamath says in his poem ‘That Dog is a Poet’, fits him to a tee: “He’s a poet out and out”.  For truly, Poetry becomes Prathap.






Are the days of toys and play over?

Childhood makes a toy of everything at hand. A child would enjoy shredding to pieces anything from currency notes to the qualifying certificates of her father. She may burn herself with a match-stick or wound herself with a knife, but beware, she is engaged in a major activity of her life, and with pleasure. To prevent graver casualties the adult-world gives children ‘toys.’


The toys that we have and those that we invent for ourselves as children characterize our social class. I was the son of middle-class government employees in the late 60’s. My parents were reluctant to buy me every toy that I fancied. Government was not a generous paymaster during those times. I had to be happy with a cheap, rocking horse or a rusty tricycle. I had a friend, a neighbour and son of a well-off business-man. The toys he happily shared with me were of the like of driveable motor-cars and drone helicopters, some of them “foreign-made.” But the best toys we had were those that we invented. Thus the rachis of a coconut-leaf became handy to us as a guitar or a cricket bat; we wove its long leaves into cricket balls. We imagined a cycle-tyre into a motor-bike and rolled it as we ran along honking in shrill tones.


Toys are an inseparable component of childhood, and they have evolved down the ages keeping in tow with the social peculiarities of times. Children of the early twentieth-century India might have played with wooden models of the objects of the adult world. They also had prototypes of present-day board games like ludo or carom. I had a heirloom in my house preserved from the childhood days of my grandmother – a two-part foldable, wooden contraption with equal number of pits on either side. They used it to play a game with scarlet-red coral-wood seeds. The modern days of industrialization brought toys to the markets. They came in immense variety and gendered forms like Barbie sets or Teddy bears for girls and Leo weapons for boys. Toys grew up with children; they changed from models to play-tools like building-blocks or cricket items for advanced childhood, and even adulthood. In any case, toys made us engage in play, the creative activity of imagination, body and socializing.


The digital age, despite its many boons, seems to have spelled doom to childhood. It has converted toys to gadgets of entertainment. Present-day kids have bid farewell to active play in favour of companionless pastimes with video games, hand-held brick games, or the ubiquitous, unisex, uni-age toy, the smart phone. From the creative play of their past generations, we’ve made them settle for solitary and sedentary engagements with electronic devices.


A time to die

You should die

when there is life

left in you –

life to climb a mountain

and wave at the skies.

When there is love

forming a pool around

in which you

are safe like

in mother’s womb,

that’s the time to die.

Not when the day’s

work is over

and the bones ache

to spread on a bed;

and the ones who loved

you have flown away

to their homes of rest

and your mind to love

has had its fill

so  it yearns to sleep in dreams,

that’s not the time to die.

But when the tree

of life is wooing the sun

to bud for the next season

and the bowl of love

is only half drunk

and the air kissing

you smells of unseen roses,

that’s the time to die.