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Thoughts from the India Wales Writers Chain in Kerala

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Laura Chamberlain Laura Chamberlain | 12:39 UK time, Monday, 21 November 2011

The British Council's India Wales Writers Chain is a project that marks and celebrates a growing relationship between Indian and Welsh literature.

In the latest stage of the project, Welsh poets Siân Melangell Dafydd, Robert Minhinnick, Twm Morys and Eurig Salisbury have recently travelled to Kerala in India to collaborate with Indian poets K Satchidanandan, Anamika, Sampurna Chattarji and Anitha Thampi.

Malayalam poet, translator and critic K Satchidanandan. Photo: India Wales Writers Chain

Malayalam poet, translator and critic K Satchidanandan. Photo: India Wales Writers Chain

This visit gave the poets the chance to work together in pairs and and groups to develop creative translations of each other's original poems, as well gaining a better understanding of each other's cultural roots and inspiration. It follows on from summer workshops and performances that took place in Wales in June earlier this year.

We've been sent some beautifully lyrical musings on the collaborative event in India from poets Twm Morys and Sampurna Chattarji, which give an insight into the work that took place in

Nikki Morgan, a representative from Wales Arts International who accompanied the Welsh writers over to India, also penned a few paragraphs for us to set the scene.

Nikki Morgan

We're staying on a cliff top overlooking the Arabian Sea. This is the perfect setting for a meeting of different words and worlds - of Wales and of India through the languages of Malayalam, Bengali, Hindi and Welsh, and of imaginary worlds and the worlds of the everyday.

Sometimes we must move away from our own lives to bring them back into sharp focus. Exchanges of recipes, songs, philosophies and words. Many, many words. Old words. Newly created words. Words for trees and fruit and birds. Words for chillis and potatoes and sweets. Words that have many meanings. Words that have one specific meaning. Words that need no translation.

The poets spend the days offering insights into the roots and context of their work. They talk of literary and folk traditions, metres and rhythms and the social, political and linguistic landscapes. They work on translations of each other's poems, creating new work that can stand on in its own.

At night, the connections are woven through talk of young children and elderly parents, of horoscopes and chapels and a shared love of food. The translations are enriched for these connections; poems become stories that are now 'twice told'.

Hindi poet Anamika

Hindi poet Anamika. Photo: India Wales Writers Chain

Sampurna Chattarji

We are sitting on the rocks by a river. Twm is speaking about himself, his life, how he came to poetry, talking about listening to the clack of keys on his father's typewriter as he lay on a sunny wall as a young lad.

The group of writers near the river. Photo: India Wales Writers Chain

The group of writers near the river. Photo: India Wales Writers Chain

And suddenly, behind him a sharp wind begins to blow, leaves fall from the trees around us, onto the rocks, into the river, there is a quickening of the hot heavy air, a storm is coming, any minute it might rain, a nervous energy fills the air, and then it passes, quiets down, and the river returns to its quiet murmur, and Twm is still speaking.

Like sharp unpredictable flurries of wind and leaf, revelations arise amidst us. Satchida talks about madness. "She was not consistently lunatic," he says about an aunt. "My English version of your poem may be an abomination," says Robert to Satchida, in his trademark self-deprecatory manner. Those two words - abomination, preposterous. The wonderful sonorous way they roll off the tongue.

"You cannot fall ill in your mother tongue," says Siân, who has given me the tremendous gift of translating my long poem 'Five Different Words for Love', the poem I share at each translation workshop, hoping someone will attempt it.

We talk endlessly about the sections, she is fierce and questing, and she writes in the margins the English words for the Bengali I have used in the poem. Bondhu/Friend, Bhai/Brother, Bhalobasha/Love, Bhogoban/God, Bhoboghurey/Vagabond.

"Are you familiar with Hiawatha?" asks Twm. I am, and he is not surprised. Longfellow composed it in a folk metre that the Welsh use, but Twm has no evidence that Longfellow ever visited Wales.

"Metres flew away like Siberian cranes," says Anamika about Hindi poetry, "and then like the migratory bird, they came back." Birds fly in and out of the poems, the spaces we inhabit, what is the Welsh word for sea eagle, it's white, Robert says, there is an old Welsh word for it that no one remembers. Is the white bird that stands daintily by the sea an egret, I ask Satchida. Yes, he says.

I learn the word the Kani tribals use for kitten. 'Poocha' I repeat after the sweet 19-year old who is about to be married. We smile at each other, it is all the vocabulary we need.

"Who is the Elephant Man?" asks Eurig, pointing at the immense stone statue reclining on the grass. I laugh, and say, "It's Ganesh," and tell him one of the stories of how he came to be the elephant-headed god, my favourite.

"The bearhug between the cosmic and the commonplace," says Anamika. Yes, I say, silently, yes, yes, yes.

A statue of the Hindu god Ganesh

A statue of the Hindu god Ganesh. Photo: India Wales Writers Chain

Twm Morys

Twm Morys, Robert Minhinnick and K Satchidanandan. Photo: India Wales Writers Chain

Twm Morys, Robert Minhinnick and K Satchidanandan. Photo: India Wales Writers Chain

My mind sometimes wanders, out of hours, to things seemingly not entirely relevant; the fact, for instance, that there is no Malayalam word for 'squid'.

Also that that the Communist authorities of Kerala discouraged the workers in the fields from singing their folk songs. (There is a song for every activity on the land).

The reason for this was that, singing, they worked too quickly, so there was no enough work left to go around. But I have run into a young poet who knows a lot of these songs. He promise to sing some into my microphone for my documentary.

This all fascinates me, because the songs exactly correspond to our Hen Benllion, the folk-verses of the common people of Wales, long, long ago, and I realise this is all relevant.

India Wales Writers Chain 2010-2012 has been developed by British Council and Wales Arts International, in partnership with Wales Literature Exchange, and is supported by Welsh Government, Hay Festivals and Literature Across Frontiers Wales.


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