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Wednesday, April 29, 1998

Lust for life

Aishwarya Mavinkurve  
My vocation is life.'' This statement perhaps best defines the man behind it - Dilip Chitre. Sahitya Akademi award-winning poet and translator, award-winning film maker, abstract expressionist painter, sometime ad man and teacher. For Chitre, it has been a life in search of creative expression.

The son of parents with literary inclination (his father edits Abhiruchi, a Marathi literary review), Chitre's interest in books and writing was natural. He remembers writing to be his earliest passion - since the age of 14, actually. ``Marathi readers have seen my name in print for so long now, I am sure they assume I am either some venerable old man or perhaps even dead,'' he chuckles.

``Early in my life I decided that I wanted to become a writer, and that my main form of writing would be poetry. But it is well known that poets don't make a living out of poetry and language skills were all that I had to trade in the world.'' It was this conviction that led Chitre to take up a succession of jobs which employed his language skills. As a journalist first in a Marathi tabloid and later with the Free Press Journal, then as an English teacher in Ethiopia for three years and later a successful copywriter with a firm in Mumbai. ``I realised that I was not expressing for myself but for someone else. I could make a lot of money but I wanted to write to keep my identity as a writer alive,'' he emphasises.

His advertising stint, where he made a number of advertising films, helped him explore yet another aspect of creative experience - film-making. ``There are a lot of things cinema can do that no other art form can. I would visit studios and film labs and observe directors and technicians working on films. Soon I got a few opportunities to make documentaries and made about half a dozen of them in the early 70s,'' he remembers. This exposure led him to make a feature film Godam, at the age of 47. This maiden effort won critical acclaim and the Jury's Special Prize at the Festival des trois continents, in Nantes, France. His film connection also includes writing the screenplay of the Govind Nihalani film, Vijeta, a poem that figures in the film Ardh Satya, which gave the film its title, and writing the lyrics of all the songs that feature in the Jayu and Nachiket Patwardhan film, Anantayatra.

Despite the many creative fields Chitre has dabbled in, it is poetry that he finds closest to his heart. ``The creative process is a complex phenomenon. Every poem I write is due to a different kind of provocation. Personal experiences, intense emotional episodes, people I meet, landscapes I pass through. Poetry is a telegram, compressing those emotions, leaving out the unnecessary details, a kind of implosion,'' he says.

Chitre's travels both in the country and abroad have also been reflected in his writing. A stint at the University of Iowa, USA, where he was invited for the prestigious Writer's Programme in 1975, and another such project along with poets U R Ananthamurthy and short story writer Nirmal Verma, which took him to Europe in 1980, earned Chitre new experiences and friends the world over. ``My US experience finds place in my books Kavitenantarchya Kavita published in 1980, and in a section called Barfache Divas in my book Ekun Kavita which followed soon after. My experiences in Ethiopia became an autobiographical travelogue that I called Sheeba Ranichya Shodhat.'' His poems in English - Travelling In A Cage - were also born of his experiences abroad.

Chitre straddles the two worlds of English and Marathi with relative ease. A facility born perhaps out of translating stalwarts of the Bhakti movement Dnyaneshwar and Tukaram since the age of 16.

``As a student of English literature, if I did not understand what they had written, I would try and translate it into English. It was like re-performing an experiment and seeing if the results were right,'' he remembers. It fostered his belief that ``you are not born in a country but in a language and you keep getting reborn in different languages.''His tryst with serious translation of the saint poets began when, in 1977, he met the poet A K Ramanujam, and read out a few of his translations. ``He reacted favourably and insisted that I publish my work, although I was uncertain. Besides I also realised that literature of the West had so overwhelmed us that we seemed to think that literature was invented there and that we are practitioners of a European art.

"This isn't true. We had begun to define ourselves in terms of others. The West was ignorant of our languages, they thought Marathi was a dialect of Hindi. This about a language that is among the 20 most spoken languages in the world and has a literature that has existed continuously for 700 years. I took this as a passport to the literary world. I had to show them who my Shakespeare, my Racine, my Dostoevsky were,'' he says.

What followed were a translation of Dnyaneshwar's manifesto of Bhakti philosophy Anubhavamrit as the `Immortal experience of being.' Chitre finds no rational strategy to translation. For him, it is a labour of love. ``In translating Dnyaneshwar, the difficulties I encounter are conceptual and philosophic. The poet in Tukaram, 120 of whose abhangs I have translated but published only a fourth of them, is very forceful and easily translates into any language,'' he says. It was for his translation of Tukaram, called `Says Tuka', that Chitre won the Sahitya Akademi award. By a happy coincidence, he also won the same award for the anthology of his poems in Marathi, Ekun Kavita (Vol. 1), the same year and remains the only literary figure to have done so.

Chitre has also translated contemporary Marathi poets into English. ``I think I was the first to introduce Dalit poetry to India and to the world when I translated and wrote some articles in 1972,'' he says. Along with German litterateur Sontheimer, he collaborated on the English translation of a work called Khandobachi Pade. Today, Chitre's own work, including a compilation of his novellas called Chaturang, has been translated into German.

As the first recipient of the Indira Gandhi Memorial Fellowship, given by the Indira Gandhi Centre of Arts, Chitre is now working on a commentary on Dnyaneshwar's Anubhavamrit called Inner Resonances of Anubhavamrit in English and Anubhavamritache Antardhvani in Marathi. He also plans on compiling an anthology of warkari poetry called the Poets of Vithoba.

In his spare time, he turns to painting, a hobby that goes back to his early days when he would roam the city of nocturnal Mumbai, capturing its various moods with charcoal drawings. He remembers an exciting time at Iowa when he, along with two other poet painters, ``invented an art form - the triple tryptych.'' ``We painted on the same canvas and as all of us had different styles of painting, what emerged was a series of jugalbandi - surrealist, naturalist and abstract expressionist paintings!'' he smiles.With such versatile interests, is it any wonder that the man behind them all is a class apart?

Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.



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