Use of images and symbols in the poetry of Kamala Das
By M.P. Singh
Image in poetry is the making of a picture in terms of words. It is a device for making the experience of life vivid and life like. Poets deficient in this art of image making fail in their vocation. It exploits different sensory perceptions and pin down his experiences with precision and thereby evokes a living and pulsating picture of life.
A.N. Dwivedi says: “Imagery serves twin-purposes together-that of ‘ornamentation’ and that of arousing ‘aesthetic pleasure’ in the reader” (2000:65). The process of ‘image-making’ involves the skilful use of metaphors, similes,contrasts, and may be equated to ‘picture- making’ or ‘concretization of emotions’. Symbol is the use of an object for signifying something that is beyond the literal denotation of the object.
It is a potent tool arising out of the vibrant imaginative perception of reality. A work of art without proper symbolism is as worthless as a flower without fragrance. However rich and profound a thought may
be it has a very little significance in the realm of art and literature unless it is woven into the fabric of images and symbols. History is replete with instances that most of the poets thrived and rose to eminence with the help of putting thoughts into the pattern of images and symbols.
T.E. Hulme (1883-1917) was the chief protagonist of the imagist movement in England. Reacting sharply against theloose and facile texture of the Georgian poetry, Hulme advocated the importance of “hard, dry image” in poetry. He emphasised that poetry should restrict itself to the world perceived by senses and to the presentation of its theme in detail and precise in significance. Other pioneers of this movement were Ezra pound, James Joyce and C. Day Lewis. Ezra pound says “ An image is one which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time’(Pound 1915:349) C. Day Lewis remarks: “An epithet, a metaphor, a simile may create an image or an image may be presented to us in phrase or passage on the face of it purely descriptive, but conveying to our imagination something more than the accurate reflection of an external reality.” (Lewis 1955 :04)
Kamala Das was influenced by these writers and while she was composing her own poetry, she resorted to the imagist and symbolistic techniques in order to render it impressive, precise and compact. Kamala Das’s diction is marked by simplicity and clarity. It is the language of her emotions and she speaks to her readers as one human being to another. In this lies her originality and her distinction.
There are no abstractions, no complexities and no intricate, tortuous constructions. Her images are drawn from the familiar and the common place, are symbolic and thus they increase the expressive range of her
language. The sun and heat, house and window, cremation and burning, objects of nature, human anatomy, sleep, sea, the mythic grandmother and krishana constitute her whole range of imagery. One of the dominant images in Mrs. Das’s poetry is that of ‘the human body’. While male body is a source of corruption and exploitation the female body is a storehouse of beauty and chastity misused to the maximum. The poetess in her poem “The Freaks” presents is subtle analysis of the male physiology :
He talks, turning a sun-stained
cheek to me, his mouth, a dark
cavern where Stalactites of
Uneven teeth gleam, his right
hand on my knee......
...... can’t this man with
nimble fingure- tips unleash
nothing more alive than he
skin’s lazy hungers ? (Das 1965 :10)
The male anatomy furnishes her with images of horror and ugliness. It is represented as repulsive and destructive. A lover is generally attractive and pleasant to the beloved, but here he is replusive to the woman. His cheeks are sun-stained and so brownish in colour, and to her, his mouth seems to be ugly and horrible like a’dark cavern’. His teeth are uneven and they seem to her to be like the white, calciferous growth which often forms on the roofs of caves. Images of ugliness here focus on her
attitude of rejection and negation. It is symbolic of her revolt against male ego and the male-dominated world. It is obvious that her relationship with her husband is a forced one; there is no love lost between the two and the woman is there only because as a wife she must submit herself to the lust of her husband. Through images of repulsion and horror she brings out the emotional emptiness and sterility
of her married life and the intensity of her misery as a wife who had to submit to her husband whom she found repulsive, and with whom she had no emotional contact at all. She is conscious of the beauty and
glory of the human anatomy and is attracted by it, but its raging lustfulness disguests her and hence the use of images like these cited above. She is also consious of disease and decay to which the human
flesh is heir to, and this awareness also colours her imagery. She says in the following lines of the poem “The Looking Glass” :
Notice the perfection
of his limbs, his eyes reddening under
shower, the shy walk across the bathroom floor,
dropping towels, and the jerky way he
uninates, All the fond details that make
Him male and your only man. Gift him all,
Gift him what makes you woman, the scent of
Long hair, the musk of sweat between the breasts,
The warm shock of menstrual blood, and all your
endless female hungers. (Das 1967 :25)
The images concretize her fond awareness of the intimate human details. They express adequately her abiding love for the human body as also her aversion to it. Indeed, images are her themes as well as the modes of expression. They dramatise her passion and impart certain depth and resonance to her feelings.
Another recurrent image is that of the sun and the heat it generates. It is used most frequently as a symbol of lust & corruption. ‘In The Dance of the Eunuchs’ and ‘Summer in Calcutta’ and in a host
of other poems the sum with its scorching heat is an agent of pain, suffering & lustfulness. “The Dance of the Eunuchs “ is powerful and bold and displays an admirable sense of proportion in the use of imagery
and metaphor. It displays a very skilled use of imagery and symbolism.
The poetess is eminently successful in creating the impression of summer heat. The poem consists a number of excellent images. The poetess sympathises with the eunuchs who neither constitute the male
nor the female genre and suffer a peculiar irony of fate :
It was hot, so hot, before the eunuchs came
To dance, wide skirts going round and round, cymbals
Richly clashing, & anklets jingling, jingling,
Jingling, ....... Beneath the fiery gulmohar, with
Long braids flying, dark eyes flashing, they danced and
They danced, oh ! they danced till they bled. (Das 1965:10)
The funeral imagery in the poem is symbolic of the inner vacuity and sterility of the eunuchs as well as of their decrepit bodies. The poetess uses the funeral imagery with a view to portraying the decrepit figure of
the eunuchs :
They were thin in limbs and dry ; like half burnt logs from
Funeral pyres, a drought & a rottenness
were in each of them. (Das 1973 : 01)
The image creates the visual impression of the eunuchs who survive and suffer endlessly like “ half-burnt logs from funeral pyres”. Unable to find fulfilment as a woman or to give satisfaction as one, the poetess
sees in the eunuchs ‘ writhing in vacant ecstary’ a devastating image of her own sterility.
In the poem “In love” the drama of sterile love which brings no emotional fulfilment is enacted against the background of scorching heat of the summer scene, a symbol of the poet’s own scorching frustration as a woman. The title is ironic because poetess is not at all in love, but disgusted with the man who had her body. A sense of revulsion takes possession of the poetess and this is expressed through the use of powerful imagery. She compares the mouth of her lover to the sun which brings, in turn, both the heat and loss of love :
Of what does the burning mouth
of sun, burning in today’s
Sky, remind me ........ oh, yes, his
Mouth, and ........ his limbs like pale and
Carnivorous plants reaching
out for me, and the sad lie
of my unending lust. (Das 1973 :1)
We find a network of evocative and concrete imagery in the poem “The Old play- house “ The title of the poem is a metaphor. The poetess compares herself to an old play house with its all the lights put out. Light here is symbol of hope and poetic illumination of the poetess and lights put out symbolises her lost imagination and aspiration for flying high in the literary sky. She is no longer an imaginative person able to unrevel a new world with the help of her poetic imigination. She was completly in the grip of her husband. This captivity has been infered through the opening line of the poem:
You planned to tame a swallow, to hold her(Das 1973:1)
The swallow symbolises freedom and a carefree life and taming of swallow suggests the loss of freedom or captivity. The poetess is now a captive in the hands of her husband. The obsession of suppression
and despair has further been strengthened in the following lines of the poem
No more singing, no more dance, my mind is an old
Playhouse with all its lights put out. (I bid)
We find the plight of the poetess who bewails that her egocentric and male chauvinist husband has virtually reduced her full blooded and aspiring self to a mere entertaining toy. Her turning into dwarf is also symbolical. She cannot stand before the ego of her husband who always imposes his undue commands on her and she has to obey without any question. Memory of her sweet past has undergone a complete transformation which has well been symbolised through the falling leaves and burning of dry dead leaves. The nature imagery- the summer of your love, the ruder breeze, burning leaves reinforces her suffering and suffocation is aptly symbolised through the word ‘Smoke’ The urban imagery-artificial lights, air-conditioner & cut flowers in the vase point out the unnatural state of her sapless life.
The sea-image recurs most frequently and acquires symbolic siginificance. The sea for her is a place of retreat both from the ravages of the boastful male and the scorching sun. The desire to merge with the great blue sea is also symbolic of her desire for union with the right man through whom she can achieve emotional fulfilment. In “The Invitation”, the poetess ultimately decides to merge with the sea. The sea here symbolises a place of retreat from barren lustful relationship as well as the cosmic home, the eternity, the basic principle of life and regeneration. The poem begins with the powerful image of a male
fist ‘clenching and unclenching’ in her head which conveys the intensity of the headaches she gets as a result of meaningless sexual encounters. The opening lines express poet’s distaste for the kind of life she has been leading as well as her frustration consequent upon her failure to find that emotional fulfilment for which her soul hungered.
Another recurrent image in Kamala’s poetry is that of the window. It recurs in a number of poems. It is a place to view & review the past as well as the present. Often it is used as a link between the past and the present. The poetess in her poem ‘My Grandmother’s House’ says :
How often I think of going
There, to peer through blind eyes of window or
just listen to the frozen air, or in wild despair, pick an
Darkness to bring it here to lie
Behind my bedroom’s door like a brooding
‘The window image’, underlines here, with sufficient emphasis, the languishing desire of the poetess for a sentient peep into her past and resurrect her dreams and desires. With the dereliction of the old house the windows have become blind. Only the heat of reunion wth the house will melt the ice & its windows will again be restored to old life.
Kamala Das makes frequent use of the Radha-Krishna and Mirabai legends to provide a mythic frame-work to extra-marital sex in her poetry. Krishna is the mythical lover, and Radha and Mirabai are the eternal seekers for their object of love, Krishna. These mythical personages are re-currently used as symbols to sanctify the quest of Kamala’s women persona for emotional fulfilment outside marriage.
They also bear testimony to her ‘Indianness” which is also borne out by her use of typically Indian flora and fauna, scenes & sights, for her purposes.
In conclusion, we may affirm that Kamala Das’s wide ranging application of images & symbols in her poetry is impeccable. Her images are functional rather than decorative. They are quite striking and arresting and are used with dexterity and aptness. She is not always in the knack of image-making and creating symbols and she resorts to this device when it becomes necessary.
Dwivedi, A. N., 2000. Kamla Das and Her Poetry, New Delhi: Atlantic, p.65
Pound, Ezra. 1915. “Affirmations”, The New Age, p.349
Lewis, C. Day,1955, The Poetic Image, Univ. Press, Cambridge, p.04
Das, Kamala.1965. “The Freaks”, Summer in Calcutta, New Delhi: Everest Press.
Das, Kamala.1967 “The Looking Glass”, The Descendants, Calcutta: Writers Workshop, p.25
Das, Kamala.1965 “The Dance of the Eunuchs”, Summer in Calcutta, New Delhi: Everest Press, p.09
Das, Kamala.1965. “In Love” Summer in Calcutta. New Delhi: Everest Press, p.14
Das, Kamala. 1973. “The Old Playhouse”, The Old Playhouse and other poems Madras:Orient Long Man Ltd., p.01
Das Kamala. 1956. “My Grandmother’s House.” Summer in Calcutta, New Delhi: Everest press, p.15.
(Source: Journal of Literature, Culture and Media Studies (JLCMS); Vol.-II 4 July-Dec. [Winter] 2010)