Indian Poetry-”The elements of composition” by A.K.Ramanujan

Composed as I am, like others,
of elements on certain well-known lists,
father’s seed and mother’s egg

gathering earth, air, fire, mostly
water, into a mulberry mass,
moulding calcium,

carbon, even gold, magnesium and such,
into a chattering self tangled
in love and work,

scary dreams, capable of eyes that can see,
only by moving constantly,
the constancy of things

like Stonehenge or cherry trees;

add uncle’s eleven fingers
making shadow-plays of rajas
and cats, hissing,

becoming fingers again, the look
of panic on sister’s face
an hour before

her wedding, a dated newspaper map,
of a place one has never seen, maybe
no longer there

after the riots, downtown Nairobi,
that a friend carried in his passport
as others would

a woman’s picture in their wallets;

add the lepers of Madurai,
male, female, married,
with children,

lion faces, crabs for claws,
clotted on their shadows
under the stone-eyed

goddesses of dance, mere pillars,
moving as nothing on earth
can move —

I pass through them
as they pass through me
taking and leaving

affections, seeds, skeletons,

millennia of fossil records
of insects that do not last
a day,

body-prints of mayflies,
a legend half-heard
in a train

of the half-man searching
for an ever-fleeing
other half

through Muharram tigers,
hyacinths in crocodile waters,
and the sweet

twisted lives of epileptic saints,

and even as I add
I lose, decompose,
into my elements

into other names and forms,
past, and passing, tenses
without time,

caterpillar on a leaf, eating,
being eaten.

I like this poem a lot. Composed as I am like others of elements on certain well known lists is a pretty way of beginning the poem. The poem is about the elements of composition and talks about the Hindu ideas of the five elements (pancha bhuta),the earth, the fire , the wind, the water and the sky ,which is one such list , the other list being the 100-odd elements that the chemistry books talk about. The poem begins with talking about composition and ends with decomposition (the caterpillars, eating and being eaten) .All the elements like gold, magnesium, calcium etc. are gathered into a chattering self, tangled in love and work.

“Capable of eyes that can see,
only by moving constantly,
the constancy of things”

A beautiful thought. The eyes can see, only by moving them constantly, the constancy of things, like the Stonehenge or the cherry tree. The physical eyes can see the beauty of nature or a great work of art only by moving them constantly. One should watch things which are in a continuous state of flux over a period of time to grasp the inherent beauty of nature and a great work of art.


”add uncle’s eleven fingers
making shadow-plays of rajas
and cats, hissing,

becoming fingers again”

A lovely reminiscence of the poet about his uncle’s dexterity in shadow-play using his eleven fingers to create fascinating images of kings ,cats etc and sounds like hissing and the transformation of the shadows to fingers again !

His sister’s fear of an impending tragedy just before her wedding :

“ the look
of panic on sister’s face
an hour before

her wedding, a dated newspaper map,
of a place one has never seen, maybe
no longer there”

The horrific existence of the mutilated lepers of Madurai against the exquisitely ornate stone sculptures of goddesses of dance in the majestic Meenakshi temple:

“add the lepers of Madurai,
male, female, married,
with children,

lion faces, crabs for claws,
clotted on their shadows
under the stone-eyed

goddesses of dance, mere pillars,
moving as nothing on earth
can move —“

All these are the very elements of which he and they are composed . They pass through him as he passes through them :

“I pass through them
as they pass through me
taking and leaving

affections, seeds, skeletons,

millennia of fossil records
of insects that do not last
a day,

body-prints of mayflies,
a legend half-heard
in a train”

The whole poem is about what we are composed of , the different forms in which the elements combine , the impact of time on the composition ,the process of the decomposition (the Madurai lepers) and finally death and destruction (eating and being eaten).

A fascinating poem.

5 thoughts on “Indian Poetry-”The elements of composition” by A.K.Ramanujan

  1. This blog rocks! I gotta say, that I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks,

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