Poetry is not in a book, but in the reader’s mind - Lal Hegoda | Sunday Observer

Poetry is not in a book, but in the reader’s mind - Lal Hegoda

12 July, 2020
The most artistic photograph of  Dr. Sarachchandra taken by Lal Hegoda
The most artistic photograph of Dr. Sarachchandra taken by Lal Hegoda

Lal Hegoda, born in 1947 in Colombo, is a veteran poet and a photographer. His debut poetry book in Sinhala, Ma minisek oba gangak nisa (I am a man as you are a river) was published in 1994, which won the state literary award for the best poetry book. He has written six poetry books in Sinhala, most of which were highly acclaimed by the critics. After a lapse of seven years, he launched his new poetry book in Sinhala Komalani (කෝමළනි) recently, published by Vidarshana Publishers. The Sunday Observer met Lal Hegoda to discuss his new literary venture, art of poetry and his passion for photography.


Q. How did this book come about?

Veteran poet Lal Hegoda

A. I have been suffering from ill health for a long time. When I was seriously ill for the second time, I felt that I was going to die soon. At that time I hurriedly finished the incomplete poems that I wrote and printed them as a 12 page booklet, titled Ahambu Sithuwili (Random Thoughts), and distributed 100 copies of it among my friends. Reading this, Ariyawansha Ranaweera, a veteran Sinhala poet, asked me why I did it and Parakrama Kodithuwakku, another veteran Sinhala poet blamed me, saying you are a well-known poet and why did you make such a low work. I had no answer. However, after a year, I printed another booklet of poems, titled Ahambu Sithuwili Nowe (Not Random Thoughts) and distributed 100 copies of it among friends. Komalani, my new poetry book is a combination of earlier poems and new poems.

Q. The book is titled Komalani. Why?

A. I wrote the poem, Komalani, in memory of North Indian singer, Kaushiki Chakraborthi, and titled it Komalani, because I refer to a soft 'ni' note in the eastern music in that poem too. My wife, who is a fan of my books, appreciated it. The book consists of 38 poems, including Komalani.

Q. What is a poem?

A. A poem should give the reader an aesthetic feeling and should be concise. It should contain good language and wisdom too. There is a poem, titled Vedana Sadana Thena (The place that makes suffering)in this book as follows:

ඉන්ද්‍රජාලික මීදුම
එන්න දුම්බානා ගලින් බැස
වසා දමනුව මේ තොටුපළ

The poem is concise and gives the reader an aesthetic feeling. Interpretations of poetry are as interesting as the poetry itself. Rabindranath Tagore, the great Indian poet once said, "A Poetry wants to surpass its title. It’s a surpassing that cannot be said in words. " I said, "Poetry is not in the poetry book, but in the reader's mind." There is some relation between the two interpretations though I hadn't read Tagore's when I expressed my idea. I read his expression in the book, Jeewana Madirawa, the Sinhala translation of Tagore's The Nectar of Life published recently.

Q. Can readers have the same effects a poet intends in a poem?

His new poetry book Komalani

A. The final effect or meaning of a poem is widened by the poetic experiences of the reader. If a reader has wide experience and ability to appreciate aesthetics, he can have many meanings in a poem. The more the reader's sense of emotions and feelings are developed, the more he or she is able to visualise its forms. By infusing one's experience with that of the poems, the reader can generate greater insights. In turn, the spiritual value of the poem becomes heightened. The reader's language skills and the level of aesthetic appreciation will illuminate the poem. As a result, hundreds and thousands of poems will see the light.

Q. In the book, there are prose poems too?

A. Yes, you can have three, four pages long prose poetry in the book.

Q. How do you identify poem from prose?

A. When you read my prose poems, you will find a specific style. With that style, it is not difficult to identify the poetry in them. It is not the style, but the content that decides what poetry is. There is a prose poem, titled Sandya in the book. Veteran poet Ariyawansha Ranaweera says there are these types of poems in Western literature and that I wrote these poems with the light of it. It is wrong, because I never knew that there were these types of poems in the West.

Q. The poem Sandya is more like a short story than a poem?

A. Yes, that poem is on the boundary between poem and short story.

Q. How do you view Sinhala poetry? Are there talented young poets now?

A. Only one poet survives though hundred poets are born. This is always true.

Q. How do you start writing a poem? Or what is your art of poetry?

A. I don't know how they are written. But I'm afraid of writing poetry, because when I write poetry, I forget everything about my day-to-day life. This is sad, but I have no choice. There is a poem titled Nihandatawaye Handa (The Sound of the Silence) in the book. The idea for it came to me when I was in bed. I had to get up and go to the table to write it down. But I was not in a position to get up as I am a paralysed man. I asked my son to take me to the table. But he was late to reach me. I cried out aloud to take me there. Still he was late. Tears fell from my eyes, a tear for my poem. I have to cry for my poems.

Q. There was a tendency in recent times to write short poems. Most critics reject this?

A. We cannot accept one kind of poetry and reject others. All kinds of poetry are needed to develop poetry. One should have a good background of knowledge or intelligence to enjoy short poems.

Q. The ability to appreciate aesthetics is the main factor to judge poetry. Isn't it?

A. But the aesthetic valuation is based on knowledge or intelligence. According to Sanskrit pundits, art should begin with delight and end with wisdom. I do not agree with that, because wisdom is also a delightful thing. For instance, we know about the Buddha Gnana.

It is the most delightful thing in the universe. There are other things too, such as language skills and all of its techniques to enjoy poetry. Social experience is also paramount in that valuation.

Q. What are the qualifications needed to write poetry?

A. First, one should be a poetry reader, a passionate reader himself. The reader is the one who transforms into a poet or a writer. Even in photography, it is the fan who metamorphoses into a photographer.

Without passing the reader's state or fan's state, one cannot reach goals in art.

Q. How do you compare poetry with photography? Which is the more difficult?

A. Photography is more difficult, because a photographer has to go to the place where he has to take the photo. On the other hand, one can write a poem about a girl who was at the Nallur Kovil in Jaffna from his bed in his room. But a photographer has to go to the place in person. He has to obey technical issues too.

Q. You capture a photo frame in poetry as well as in photograph. Don't you?

A. Some people say there are poems in my photographs and photographs in my poems. I cannot comment about that, because I don't know about me.

Q. I once read an account of how you took a photograph of Dr.Ediriweera Sarachchandra. Could you elaborate the incident?

A. We had close contacts with each other and would meet often. One day, in the middle of a conversation, he said," Lal, we try to take a photograph on the stage when we produce a drama, but you have no drama in your photographs."

I had an answer, but I felt it would be disrespectful to say it. Dr. Sarachchandra had to deliver a speech in Matara and asked me to accompany him. I agreed and the following day when I visited him in Pitakotte, I saw an attractive scenery in his Meda Midula in the morning sunlight. I realised this is the setting to answer him. Another day, I asked him, "Sir, shall we take a photograph here?" He agreed.

The next Sunday when I went to his home with my heavy camera, tripod loads, it was late and the morning light was gone.

The next Sunday, I went early in the morning, but he was not ready for a photograph. When I reminded him of our task, he said, "Lal, you told me you would come today, but you didn't tell me that you would come to take photos.” Apparently, he was discouraged by my response.

I had to go back in disappointment. When I went to his home the next Sunday for the third time, to my surprise, he said, "Lal, you said you would come today, but I'm lazy now." Though I was irritated, I had no choice. Meanwhile, he asked his wife Lalitha to prepare breakfast for us.

When I was getting down the cement staircase he said, "Lal, come next week to take photographs." Eventually, photographs were taken. I had to go to Dr. Sarachchandra's for a whole month.

I set up the MedaMidula with a low chair and a desk and he sat down on the chair with a pen and a few sheets of paper.

I asked him to write something on the paper, and when he began writing, I took the pictures. He had written,"මේ ලාල් පින්තූරයක් ගන්න හදනවා. දැන් කීයක් ගත්තාද? ඒක එච්චර අමාරු වැඩක්ද! ඉවරයක් නෑනෙ මේ වැඩේ" ("Lal, is going to take a photograph. How many photos have been taken now? Is that so hard! Still it is not over.")

I took these photographs in colour slides, but at that time, colour slides were not processed in Sri Lanka and I had to send them to Singapore to process. When they came back, three months later Dr. Sarachchandra fell ill and passed away. I had no opportunity to show him the photographs and answer his question.

I was also unable to collect the paper on which he wrote when I took the photographs.