The Rivered Earth
By Manju Kak
At first glance, a collection like this leaves me with a small feeling of dread. Not yet another attempt at `cultural crossings’, I think. But then it’s Vikram Seth! And this, a collection of libretti, the earlier being Arion and the Dolphin (1994) written for the English National Opera. So I plow through, albeit with trepidation only to be satisfied, nay drawn in, in fact compelled. For as always Seth is nimble. His language resonates with the lyrical music he hears. He is known to circle the air with rallying cries only to dive in and pick out that kernel of truth that propels all true artists to seek and to create.
This slim collection, of both translated and original verse, came about when three talented friends—a writer and two musicians– collaborated on a project `Confluences’ for the Salisbury and Chelsea festivals, spread over a period of four years (2006-2009). The resulting four libretti are indicative of a variety of ideas, geographies, forces that suggest the beauty of our shared planet, with its title The Rivered Earth, given by its music composer, Alan Roth.
A libretto, for the uninitiated, is the text used for an elaborate musical work such as an opera, masque, oratorio, cantata, or musical says Wikipedia. It also refers to the text of major liturgical works, such as mass, requiem, or the story line of a ballet. Seth’s pieces are accompanied by four pieces of calligraphy in Chinese, Hindi, English and Arabic, also by him.
The first verses belong to a beleaguered poet of the 7th century Chinese Tang dynasty era– Du Fu—translated as “ Songs in the Time of War”. Moving to a personal note in `Shared Ground’ Seth explores both his relationship with the house of the English 17th century poet, George Herbert of Salisbury, as well as the personal one he shared with Phillipe Honore, the violinist, while living there. In India, seven verses of the Rigveda and other sources were translated as `Traveler’ to reflect on man’s earthly journey from inception, birth, death and hereafter; these include verses from the Pali `Dharampada’, from the blind poet Surdas, Tamil 7th century Shilappadikaram and 4th century Tirukurral, timeless Rahim, the Bhagwad Gita, a Gandhian bhajan and so on. The last quartet is on the 7 elements– earth, wood, fire, metal, water, air, etc., followed by a short coda to ‘ the hermit on ice’.
The book is a slight but dense offering, which can be read in a couple of hours. Though Seth’s eye for translated verse is keen and some selections are extraordinarily evocative and taut, but not all are as inspired. The dialogues of the three protagonists are illuminating of the curious processes of the creative, vivid and meandering course taken before reaching fruition.
With a Preface on each section, the work spans the contemporary concerns of our world: while man hastens to destroy the planet as efficiently as he can, poets, artists, philosophers are responding with a call to return to the roots of humanism, and evaluate our reason for being. It is not accidental that the Buddhist way is repeatedly acclaimed through, congresses, writings, polemics, or movements.
However the Introduction is lengthy—growing at times tedious, and making the reader feel this is truly a book offered by a great author who is “ between books”. He must say all he has to, before new grass will grow, new stories will come.
But timed as it is—for the holiday—this could be a cherished gift for a loved one —to keep, and to find solace.