Sunday, June 03, 2012

On the poems of Joseph Furtado

One of the earliest, but least well-known, great Indian poets in English, Joseph Furtado (1872-1945) is now all but forgotten even in his native Goa. No edition of his poems is currently in print. This is a shame, because this self-professed “Goan fiddler”, who added cashew trees and tamarinds to the cornfields of English verse, could produce a beautifully weighted verbal music both melancholy and effervescent by turns. Furtado’s poetic subjects include landscape (“Land of palm and mango-tree/ Dear as life art thou to me.” he writes in one poem) and love, in which matter his speakers reveal a warmingly ecumenical taste (in one poem, the speaker professes a love for a mullah’s daughter; in another, he dreams of a lady who sits by his feet “And reads out stories/ Of Vedic glories”). 
But as poems like ‘The Secret’ reveal, the natural world was for Furtado heavy with human mysteries and silences; and his verse can be feminist, too, as when he sees women not just as objects of male desire but desiring subjects, in ‘The Neglected Wife’. Is the refrain of Furtado’s ‘Only Shy’ a pun on shayri, as Furtado suggests by his subtitle ‘An Urdu Song’? We shall never know for sure, but the best-known photograph of Furtado shows him late in life with a white beard even longer than Tagore’s—and as a creator of limpid verse effects he was in the same class. 
This month The Caravan publishes five poems by Furtado.

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