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To The Painter Swaminathan

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Richard Gott, GuardianEven though the Mexican born Octavio Paz Lozano (1914-1998) is celebrated as an anthropologist, essayist, professor, critic, and translator, but it is as a poet he enjoys a worldwide reputation and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990 for his impassioned writing with wide horizons, characterised by sensuous intelligence and humanistic integrity. Paz published scores of works during his lifetime and his poetry was translated into English by the likes of Samuel Beckett, Charles Tomlinson, Elizabeth Bishop and Muriel Rukeyser. His earlier poetry clearly shows his Marxist and Surrealistic leanings and the profound influence of Hinduism and Buddhism on him. His later poetry reflected his passions such as modern painting and his ideas on love and eroticism.

Most prominent of his works are available in English by the translation of the distinguished translator Eliot Weinberger, who is the editor of The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz 1957-87. Octavio Paz has served as the Mexican Ambassador to India and he deeply immersed himself in the country and could escape the tourist image despite the cultural and linguistic barriers. His explorations to our country are visible in some of the very titles of his poems: Madurai, Vrindaban, The day in Udaipur, Sunday in Elephanta Caves, the trilogy on Himachal Pradesh. In Light of India is Paz’s most personal work of prose to date and in its Acknowledgments, he states that “this is not a systematic study, but a more or less ordered gathering of the reflections, impressions, and objections that India provoked in me”. In it he mentions about his close friend J.Swaminathan whom he met during his second stay in India and he describes him as “a painter and poet, he was a spirit who united an originality of vision with an intellectual rigor”.

The poem To the Painter Swaminathan is Octavio Paz’s dedication to Jagadish Swaminathan, whom he describes as an iconoclast and India has been an overwhelming presence in his creative life and it’s quite evident in the poem. Paz retained admirable balance and equilibrium in his approach to ‘the immense reality of India “and avoided both extremes of aversion and admiration and this particular quality marks him out of the multitude of writers who portray a biased perspective of India and her people. Paz’s poems are full of language that sings and that nudges perception out of its daily rounds. In the poem To the Painter Swaminathan, Paz skilfully makes use of various hues and shades to present a picture of immense passion that stirs the mind of the reader with its intimate connection with our culture, civilization, philosophy, art, and ethos. The poet is witness to the creative frenzy of the painter at work trying to gauge his colors and impart a new lease of life to the canvas using just rag and knife and an array of colors. Paz takes the empty canvas as a challenge as the void is to be filled meaningfully or else the vocation turns fruitless. Seeing the canvas the narrator is reminded of the matador’s moment of truth when he comes face to face with the raging bull. The narrator describes the colors in such detail that they come to life while reading the poem-the blue flame of cobalt’, ‘burnt amber greens fresh from the sea’, ‘the Mexican red’ that gradually transforms into the ‘black’ of Kali’s lips.

Kali is the Indian goddess known for her fiercUuUeness and she is artistic and looks at life abstractly. Kali in Indian Mythology is known as the Goddess for beauty and power and the art of pushing someone out of their boundary line in order for them to grow. The right usage of colors in a balanced proportion would bring out the genius in the painter leaving the spectators amazed. Kali might be timid at the first meeting while hiding the wild goddess inside of her, just like foreigners perception of India as a country of poverty-stricken people that changes gradually when they come across India’s rich cultural and spiritual heritage and diversity that houses people of all faiths. While the connotation of Mexican red suggests the Aztec sacrifices for the Sun God and she is transformed into the black-bodied kali.

Kali is the feminine form of Kala which is time, this image shows Indian philosophy’s deep influence on him. His sympathetic heart enabled him to understand the vast reality of India and enabled to live and feel in India as a desi. The poem, in essence, talks about the universal presence of Mother goddess, for Paz Kali is no different from the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, the patron goddess, and protectress of Mexico. But the Virgin of Guadalupe is herself in turn identified with the pre-Hispanic Aztec goddess Tonantzin. He emphasizes the universal primordial force that is respected using different names worldwide pointing out that all human beings are same despite the cultural and linguistic barriers.

All these goddesses are the manifestations of shakthi, of good and bad, creation and sacrifice. Paz paints an image of pristine purity that relies on aesthetic than religious harmony. The poem is both an enigma and an answer in itself: The canvas a body Dressed in its own naked enigma.“India did not enter me through my head but through my eyes, ears and other senses”, these words are proof enough for the profound influence India had on Octavio Paz. He wrote poems that evoke no exotic orientalism and such instances of a foreign country influencing a master artist are rare in world literature. It will not be an exaggeration to state that India had an influence on him equal to that of Mexico.

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