Chandrakant Devtale (November 6, 1936 – August 14, 2017) belongs to the great humanist tradition of Hindi poetry which begins with Kabir and Malik Muhamm-ed Jayasi and comes down to us in modern masters like Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’, Makhanlal Chaturvedi, Mahadevi, Subha-drakumari Chauhan, Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh, Shamsher Bahadur Singh, Nagarjun, Trichochan, Bhavani Prasad Mishra and Raghuvir Sahay.
He was born neither with a silver spoon in his mouth nor a golden quill between his fingers. His family, comprising largely small farmers and rural revenue servants, belonged to the small tribal railroad-village of Jaulkhera in the then Central Provinces district of Betul, almost the heart of Gondwana. Oral folklore, basic Hindu mythology and home-spun philosophy were their only literature. Whatever creative inspiration the boy Chandrakant got was from his mother, his primary school teachers, his village friends and the poor, though extremely lively and colourful, Gond families.
It was his father’s decision to migrate to the princely state of Indore for a better life for his family that had a decisive and everlasting imprint on the school-going Chandrakant. Though he never forgot his deep Gondwana roots, the big, opulent, feudal city of Indore, the urbs prima of the rich Malwa region, was also the cultural and academic capital of central-western India. It was not only life-transforming but also intellectually nurturing and stimulating. There were prestigious schools, colleges, libraries, newspapers, magazines, booksellers and even publishers. There was also Gandhian and leftist political awakening and activity. Indore was a city of traders, capitalists and cotton mills with thousands of workers.Already before 1947, the boy Chandrakant gradually blossomed into a bright student, voracious reader of periodicals and Hindi, Marathi and foreign poetry and, at night, a sticker of subversive posters.
After August 15, 1947 and the annexation of all feudal states and dethroning of their princely potentates, Indore also became a ‘’normal’’ Indian territory but not before the young Chandrakant had witnesses the threefold political change – from feudal to British to the swadeshi-nationalist. This experience made his socio-political awareness sharper. When the dawn of national freedom came, followed by the permanent scorching noon of poverty, hunger, exploitation, corruption, inequality, violence, crime, rape, murder, religious and caste-hatred, brutalisation of women and children, Chandrakant discovered his terrifying muse.
The titles of the collections of his poems how his angst and anger: “Haddiyon men Chhipa Jwar” (The Fever Hidden in Bones), “Deewaron Par Khoon Se” (On Walls with Blood), “Bhookhand Tap Raha Hai” (The Earth Heats Up), “Kabadbaggha Hans Rahaa Hai” (Hear the Hyena Laughing), “Aag Har Cheez Men Bataee Gaee Thee” (Fire Was Said to Dwell in Everything ), “Roshni Ke Maidan Ki Taraf” (Towards the Flatland of Light), “Patthar Phek Raha Hoon” (I Pelt Stones), “Khud Par Nigrani Ka Waqt” (Time to Keep an Eye on Myself).
In one of his last, unpublished poems, he says: “Before me lie blots of tears/Like the dry leaves of the neem tree/Pieces of wounds/Creating a deception of marigold flowers/And yes, under the shade of the flutter of birds/On all this,drips my sight/Like dew-drops/Seventy years ago, in my childhood/My mother gave me the knife she found in a field/It still lies on the table in front of me/And from the treasure-trove of memories inside me/whenever I hone something on my tongue/The knife and the tongue both get sharper/And glittering as well/And with this also/Soil-field-crop/The fragrance of life in my village and the trees/Of course the gentle admonitions of mother too.”
Arguably, Chandrakant is the most political poet in Hindi after Raghuvir Sahay, often surpassing his senior in rage and commitment. He is more in line with Muktibodh, never mincing his words nor hiding his revolutionary agenda and intentions. At no time was he a party member nor a theoretician but till his dying day he never swerved an inch from basic Marxist path. What is amazing is that his poetry never degenerates into slogan-mongering or cheap, sentimental infantile leftism. Like Nirala, Nagarjun and Muktibodh, his grip on the life of the common Indian man was near-complete. There are very few poets in Hindi left now who know not only the urban and the rural but the tribal populace as well. Some of his most moving poems are on tribal children and women.
Chandrakant Devtale did not have respect for nationalistic and patriotic anniversaries. He hated parades and flag-hoistings and anthems and choruses. He was a sworn enemy of fascism in all its guises and avatars. He always wrote poems or articles against the Hindutvavadi scourge
What makes him almost a complete poet is his ‘personal’ and family poems. He has written some of the most touching poems on conjugal love which sometimes border on the confessional. Daughters are one of his recurring subjects and themes and some of them have the power to make a sensitive reader cry. Similarly his poems on the mother remain unparalleled. The father also figures prominently in some of them.
He could also be called a poet of love for he has written some of the most intimate poems on man-woman relationship in Hindi. They could even be called ‘erotic’ but for the fact that Chandrakant never flaunts carnality or sexuality. There is no exploitation of the female body in his poetry. Though the woman is present in all her aspects and dimensions in the poems, they are either exhibitionist nor voyeuristic. He never writes poems to titillate or arouse. In fact, all women in Chandrakant are basically one woman - almost the Primal Woman, nearly the Mother Goddess of all ancient civisations. His poem “Vah Aurat” (That Woman) is a masterpiece on the theme and a veritable classic.
It is not much known that Chandrakant was also a journalist and his free-wheeling socio-political-poetic column in a Hindi daily was very popular with even the lay readers and did a lot to introduce modern poetry and ideas into thousands of households. Elements from the BJP, the RSS and the VHP posed a real threat to him in Madhya Pradesh. He was an extremely successful and popular university-level class-room teacher notorious for his Socratic rebellious, iconoclastic literary, academic and political ideas. Though he had a doctorate in Hindi, he never flaunted it in his creative or critical writing as most of hindiwalas do.
Though he was well-known to practitioners and lovers of poetry all over India and has been translated into many Indian and foreign languages, he has a place in the Marathi literary milieu and Maharashtra itself which even the great Muktibodh cannot claim. His poetry and persona strike a unique chord in the Marathi mind and soul. Though his spoken and written Marathi left much to be desired, his nearly-native empathy with the larger Marathi culture endeared him to the Marathi manoos. Among his friends could be counted such Marathi stalwarts as Dilip Chitre, Chandrakant Patil, Nishikant Thakar, Namdev Dhasal, Mallika Amar Sheikh, Anuradha Patil and several other well-known younger authors. Devtale had translated Dilip Chitre and several other Marathi poets into Hindi and during his last years, he was obsessed with the great saint-poet Tukaram whose selected abhangs he translated into Hindi for Sahitya Akademi.
Chandrakant Devtale did not have respect for nationalistic and patriotic anniversaries. He hated parades and flag-hoistings and anthems and choruses. He was a sworn enemy of fascism in all its guises and avatars. He always wrote poems or articles against the Hindutvavadi scourge. He delivered speeches at schools and colleges and in the public about the impending Nazi danger. His presence in the coming months would have been morale-boosting for the national progressive initiative. Last year, he chose to die on August 14, perhaps to avoid hearing the hypocritical hitlerite homilies from the Red Fort. But we have his indestructible poems which would never fail to serve as a weapon against the political evil that menaces us.