"The verb ‘to be’ remains unsolved by both science or philosophy": Pranav Sharma

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"The verb ‘to be’ remains unsolved by both science or philosophy": Pranav Sharma

An interview with poet and astrophysicist Pranav Sharma.

Pranav Sharma is a renowned science communicator and has curated India's first private space museum at BM Birla Science Centre, Hyderabad. The Karmaveer Fellowship awardee has also co-authored an astronomy graduate textbook being published by the Institute of Physics, London. He has established Winter School on Astronomy with Prof. Shantanu Basu of Western University, Canada. What makes the astrophysicist unique is the fact that he also a poet. In an exclusive interview with Poornima Laxmeshwar, Bengaluru Review’s Editor, Pranav discusses how poetry and astronomy share similar roots and vision.

Poornima Laxmeshwar (PL): Take us to the roots and tell us how poetry came into picture in your life and has it influenced your perspective?

Pranav Sharma (PS): I believe that there’s something seductive about the aesthetic experience of poetry. The movement of form and meaning around perception and understanding gives us an image of perfection as a metaphor of sensuous cognition we call beauty. I believe it came to me out of its aesthetic necessity. L’art pour l’art I think is the reason why poetry has stayed this long in my life.

Plurisignification in life and the books I read as a teenager led me towards poetry. I was a heart patient in a cardiologist’s conference, which of course I realized much later. I have always maintained that great poetry like great art has dreadful manners. It devastates you. Poetry is a syllogism that acts on an agent of deconstructing linguistic identity and Eliot’s ‘dissociation of sensibility’ of the work which gives the reader an ephemeral experience for the recurrence of which he longs and never gets. That’s how I got addicted.

Poetry has a transcendental influence on a reader. It eases you and makes you realize that you can go beyond all restrains of free creativity, logical reason, conventions, and moral norms. The notion of ‘personal’ or ‘private’ symbolism opens up to a surrealistic realm. You start using allegory to translate abstract notions into an elegant language, picturesque in nature and musical in form. It creates translucence among arbitrary notions while it enunciates a harmony of separate notes didactically. It started as an obligation, a natural impulse to call others while being called oneself.

PL: Also, how did you arrive at the concept of mixing poetry and astronomy? Was there a specific intention when you started and has it changed over time?

PS: I have observed that both poetry and astronomy have cognitive rhetoric. We live by a narrative experience, narrative images spaced out in an organized manner as we decipher (slowly) a bigger narrative or theory. Astronomy evolves as a figurative form of creativity, a departure from the norm. Every astronomer can produce a meaningful and elegant formalism (which may not have a precedent in the physical framework or experience), something new to him, and interestingly competent astronomers understand the formalism immediately without any discomfort, given that it’s new to them as well. I found this as a transformational-generative poetic experience in astronomy as a function of thought and language. I believe poets will agree that human ideas are only departures in interpretation and linguistic expression although the basis of thought is similar in context and circumstances.

In a decent intellectual life, your freedom becomes caprice. You dissolve the construct; compartmentalization of disciplines ceases to exist for you. You practice a certain form of apostasy of hegemonic illusory objectivity which solicits you, and you start musing motifs with vague identities. The universe becomes your playing field. The confluence that we speak of here is a natural state of being for me, astronomy and poetry came to me in unison. There was never a conscious effort to arrange a marriage of convenience.

Astronomy as a discipline can fool you into believing that the universe is a polite place. Astronomical may images appear delightfully soothing and charming, but actually, they are brutal. Astronomical facts are merciless, they brawl with your equanimity and rejig your sense of ‘the real’. These are poetic manners, aren’t they?

I sighed and found what I sought. I think there’s some charm in arriving early. It gives you time for perfection. Notions evolve, it’s in their nature. Stagnation makes the thinker victim of his own mind. I am no exception and like all notions this has also evolved over the years. I was looking for astronomical references in poetry when I started and I found some fascinating things. New South Wales physicist J W V Storey published a paper as a 38 stanza poem in The Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of Australia in 1984. The paper was titled ‘The Detection of Shocked CO Emission from G333.6-0.2’. There are available precedents to this such as Maxwell’s poem on dynamics, Hamilton, and Feynman’s poetry. However, the aforementioned paper brought poetic expression of scientific data and theory in wonted academic scholarship. It was an unusual achievement. Poets like Miroslav Holub and Andrei Voznesensky have used metaphors rooted in science and constructed a captivating discourse that dictates a delicate apprehension of thought. It’s interesting to keep in mind that Goethe was a physicist.

Over the years I have discovered that astronomical research and poetic work necessitates one to contemplate the notion of self-identity on one hand. On the other is an existential question that the work and its author have assumed identities which are exemplified by their actions as its facticity evolves over time.

PL: I see that there are a lot of Urdu poets whom you quote. Give us one poem that has made a home in you.

PS: I studied in Army School and I must admit that it was somewhat colonial in its conduct, at least during my time. After I finished High School, I realized that literary experience of the Indian subcontinent is different from the literary experience we had as students. We often quoted Urdu poets but we never realized that we were alien to its poetic tradition.

The upside of being raised colonial [chuckle] is that I was able to understand and enjoy Urdu poetry and language with all its aristocratic values. It is interesting to see that a major work in Urdu leans towards a medieval spirit and has strong oral tradition which I believe is a characteristic of most of Indian literature.

I believe that a poem rests in your skin, when your body feels it; it becomes your spinal response involuntary by nature. Arriving at a poem is a journey. One needs to arrive at an outlook first. Faiz Ahmed Faiz in an interview in 1972 said, “One’s outlook is formed basically by the urge for freedom…” Freedom is one notion to ponder; the other is the literariness of a poem that is what makes it a literary work.

I arrived at the poet first. Faiz Ahmed Faiz writes in a humanist style and form that inspires his readership, he actively participates in the ‘re-telling’ of the stories, people and times of this part of the world while maintaining the status of a global citizen. Faiz wrote during times of unrest in Indian and Pakistan from the 1940s to the early 1980s. His poetic oeuvre is an embodiment of classicist Urdu literary discourse and his unorthodox departures from it. He never fought an emotion. He wrote what he felt. Faiz, to me, was the last humanist of the twentieth century who embraced everything that is human.

Faiz in a preface to his second collection of poetry Dast-e Saba (The Wind’s caress) said: “It is incumbent upon the artist to not only observe but also to struggle. To observe the restless drops (of life) in his surroundings is dependent upon his vision, to show them to others, upon his artistic abilities and to enter into them; to change the flow (of life) is dependent on the depth of his desire and the passion in his blood”. He invites you to rethink, from within the absurd and decadent present, the narrative of expression that underlies the notion of artistic representation.

I was in Delhi to meet Prof. Yash Pal. He was telling me about his interactions with Habib Tanveer and nostalgically he started humming ‘gulon me rang bhare’. I was intrigued by his love for this ghazal. I had read Faiz sporadically till then. I took a DTC bus to Daryaganj to search for his book. Faiz came to me in his collected poems ‘Saare Sukhan Hamare’. It was 2011 perhaps, maybe 2010.

Since then Faiz has travelled with me everywhere. Every bus, train or flight I took, every city , every country I travelled. He had rested upon my chest in hospitals, survived with me in accidents, smiled at award ceremonies, amused when I waltzed alone a night before the formal launch of the Space Museum. His words have now become my words, his vision my outlook.

Paas Raho by Faiz has held my hand when everyone I knew was occupied or was distant. He made me realize that it’s human to feel vulnerable, to long for someone or something, to seek, to fail, to fall. He made me learn that sometime the only thing you can do is be where you are.

PL: What do you think defines good poetry or is there anything at all called ‘good poetry’?

PS: Khalil Gibran wrote:

But if in your fear you would seek only
love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover
your nakedness and pass out of love’s
Into the seasonless world where you
shall laugh, but not all of your laughter,
and weep, but not all of your tears.

If you replace love with poetry, the definition of lightning kindled ‘good poetry’ emerges. I have previously observed that poetry has dreadful manners. My experience of good poetry tells me that it is an ensemble of tautening of thoughts, numbness of being, and a state which makes you hear the stirring of your heart. It makes everything that we are accustomed muffled for an instant, the way sadness passes in a jiffy. Rilke writes, “One might easily suppose that nothing had happened, but we have altered the way a house alters when a guest enters it”. It makes us quieter, more open to observe the true nature of things around us and our being.

Post-war world has seen several evolutions in poetry. Subalterns started speaking. Phonetics of the post-colonial world, their suprasegmental features of language transformed and generated new forms, new narratives. I understand some, not all of them, maybe not entirely. I do not have leaning towards theatrics of performance of poetry. I believe a poem is independent of the poet and its theatrics. Indeed, it does add to an overall experience of it but it also reduces the dignity of a poem to an entertaining act. In my opinion it disturbs a poem’s deep structure.

Good poetry has an objective existence. Mediocrity tries to cover it under the veil of subjectivity, all poetry is good poetry: they say. That is the argument of a second-rater. There is good poetry and there is bad poetry. We live in a world of contradictions, duality. Of course there are a lot of ambiguous spheres but those spheres cannot be misused to console mediocrity. It must not be confused with the notion of superiority and inferiority based on cognitive endowment. My argument is independent of it. I have strong opinions, don’t I? [chuckle]. It’s only decent to have some opinions I suppose.

PL: There are scores of poems written on stars and moons by poets around the world. Do you think poets and astronomers can go well and have a conversation?

PS: There is no road that leads to the right direction. Bertrand Russell suggests, “…you should read simultaneously Dante’s Divine Comedy and Hubble on the Realm of the Nebulae – in each case with active imagination and with full receptiveness to the cosmos that they portray.”

It would not be fair to say that poets are unsympathetic to science and modern technology, they may appear so but I don’t think it is true. The world has evolved; it is an era of global localization. Interdisciplinary apathy has no place in it. However, I understand that there is a debate about science’s ability to uncover the full truth about the universe. The question here is whether we can handle the full truth in its blunt form. Each thinks of the other as Julian Benda thought of an intellectual whose kingdom is not of this world.

I blame the romantics for this dissension. Thomas Love Peacock wrote a provocative essay in 1820. He argued that poetry flourished in the early stages of human civilization when people were passionate and superstitious. As the civilizations evolved, people tend to lose their taste for poesy and embrace a more prosaic view. This was the debate that science could replace poetry as the center of our cultural identity. The notion is distasteful.

Let’s talk about Rembrandt's Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer (1653). Aristotle was a natural philosopher; I call him the first physicist. You observe that he is wearing a glittering gold chain from which the medallion image of Aristotle’s patron, Alexander the Great hangs. Simon Schama called it a token of honour and an imprisoning rope of obligation. Upon close examination, one realizes that Aristotle has an expression of wistful ambiguity. I believe his conflict is represented by him placing his finger on the chain while he touches the bust of Homer. Homer’s legend is that he was forced into beggary; his sin, his epic poem’s appeal to sensations through unceremonious, undiplomatic directness.

This wistful ambiguous expression is on both ends. The poet and the astronomer have been looking at (in their curated boundaries) the grass on the other side but none has shown a clean pair of heels for reality. The physical notion of the ‘real’ has been amusing both poets and astronomers alike. Their approach, quite different. Albert Einstein was delivering a talk on his theory of relativity in Paris in 1922 when he encountered Henri Bergson in an unplanned debate. The philosopher and the physicist brought the notion of chrono-geo-determinism open to debate. This debate helped us understand the notion of time.

Heidegger has argued that the problem of ‘being’, the verb ‘to be’ remains unsolved by science or philosophy. He has argued that if we rush to make science the adjudicator of all questions, it means that we are neglecting the question of ‘being’. I believe Heidegger’s argument can be addressed by bringing poets and astronomers closer. While we address the question of the ‘universe’, we must also expound upon the question of ‘being’ as functionary philosophers.

PL: One poetry collection that you think is underrated and must be read by everyone.

PS: I have read numerous anthologies and individual poetic works. It is hard for me to choose one among them. If I were to suggest, given my limited understanding of suggesting poems or their understanding per se, I would recommend that Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry should be read by people who have a taste for good poetry.

PL: Whom are you currently reading?

PS: I am reading the Syrian poet Adonis lately. He has a riveting desire for renewal. If you look at his oeuvre, you would realize that he reinvents himself with every poem and observes an unmatched sense of liberation, from norms, tones, prosodic aspects, and his subjects. One thing that I admire about Adonis is that he is skeptical about all forms of enthusiasm and waits for verifiability of ideas. There are instances where he gets ambiguous but his genius is that he still oozes clarity. He finds himself aloof to Nietzsche’s argument: “Every deep thinker is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood.” He assumes that the reader is able to understand the written word and hence never compromises his art in order to be understood or misunderstood [chuckle].

Poem by Pranav:

Voice from Dehra
On her nose pin
Is a waning phase of the Moon
Split equally
Between motion and darkness

In her hand is a book,
"A cubic chunk of smoking conscience." (Boris Pasternak mutters)
And the folds in these pages,
Hold a stare, hurled somewhere outward:
As if autumn's salt spray
Walks out, with miscarriages of time
To glimpse our soul
A teal scarf wrapped around her neck
Is a shaking laughter
And in it, the winter hides as the cloth betrays her incandescent skin.

Movement of her hands
Hold spectacles
Black, thick and gold-rimmed
Hanging helplessly
Like Ballerina, with her toe stifling a sot
Dipped in van Gogh's Souvenir de Mauve
Gulping down the color
And ascending to the throne of
Anton Mauve's Bleekveldje
And weave a quilt for the starry night.

As stars rise in Doon sky
And wilderness howls incessantly,
Canis Minor, the small dog
Weighed down by the noise
Shelters in her shadow
As if she was Ursa Major
The greater she-bear
Protecting her child, Ursa Minor
From Leo in the starry night
The Winter Circle swirls
To claim her enchanting eyes,
Devoid of all cosmic agony
Troubling hazy aqua of light
As the fall and open and fall again.

Dehra's noon is nostalgia,
Caught in a shadow between the rains
As if "doorknobs and doorbells were touched before."
And Szymborska sand 'Possibilities' as a lullaby,
She said, "Every beginning is a sequel after-all."
Amused by Camus's Absurd
On a radio
I hear moments of memory,
Sending signals
Of inarticulate things
Of her body's crumpled coat
Of life as a ship or mist
Wandering without a harbor

Teal scarf quivers again;
As hazy Sun yawns at her
And takes her fruit-basket home,
To color the sky
Yet again, another morning.


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