Poetry written in the Indian version of the English language has little less than two centuries of history behind it. When Henry Derozio wrote his poems in this English, nearly 175 years ago in Kolkata and Bhagalpur-on-the-Ganga, he extolled the greatness of the ancient Indian civilization and its sorry plight in his own times, in the process, making history as the first nationalist poet of India. In his poem "To My Native Land", he wrote:
My country! In thy day of glory past
A beauteous halo circled round thy brow,
And worshipped as deity thou wast -
Where is that glory, where is that reverence now?
From this early specimen, one can readily form a definition for Indian literature in English, of which poetry is an important part: it reflects an Indian ethos, although written in the English language. Down the decades it has been variously called Anglo-Indian, Indo-Anglian and Indo-English, before settling down for the appellation, "Indian English", the latter having been fixed by the Sahitya Akademi, the National Academy of Letters of India, which has recognized English as one of the Indian languages, giving it the stamp of official approval. However, Indian English comes under the category of "Asian Literature in English" in the USA and other Western nations, and "Commonwealth Literature" in the UK and its dominions, and largely under the rubric of "colonial and post-colonial literature" in a loose definition, for those who follow the latest literary theories. These shifts give an indication of the ambiguity of its identity as Indian English passed through the stages of colonialism and Independence. Its final settling down, marks its somewhat stable status after Independence - proclaiming that it finally belongs to the Indian nation. Poets like Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Joseph Furtado, Armando Menezes, Tom Dutt, Romesh Chandra Dutt, Sri Aurobindo (Aurobindo Ghosh), Sarojini Naidu, her brother Hareendranath Chattopadhyaya, Manjeri S. Iswaran and other Indian English poets spanned the one hundred years from Derozio's untimely death at twenty-two in 1831, to the present. Rabindranath Tagore, though known for his poetry in Bengali, wrote poetry in English too, though only very few would look at him as an Indian English poet.
It is quite paradoxical that Indian English poetry took on a definite character of its own and flourished as part of what we now call Indian English literature only after the colonizers left the land. For that very reason, this poetry that gradually grew into a considerable body of work in the corpus of Indian literature had to interrogate its own existence and relevance in a foreign language to begin with. The strong stand taken in favour of English as an Indian language by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime Minister of India and the founder-president of the Sahitya Akademi, helped Indian poetry in English redefine itself and assume its role in the literature of the nation contributing significantly in nation-building.
Of the different ways of looking at literature and its categorization, the most significant is to follow literary trends. In the case of the Indian English poets discussed here, we begin with the early Modernist and Modernist trends, pass on to the "after-Modemism" (not "postmodernist" in the Western sense) phase, and then to the contemporary scene (of the last two decades, roughly).
Modem poetry can be viewed as defining the relationship of the self with the outside world, the material aspects having been subjugated to subjective memory. It is the inner world of the poet, the psychological, spiritual entity that matters; not the actual world outside. The poet can take off from even an insignificant sight, sound or smell, and create an imaginative space within his head, which he, almost whimsically, commits to paper. The latter phase of Modernism, on the other hand, began to dwell on the actual state of affairs outside; however, the approaches were almost similar. …