The Ginkgo’s Geniza: Arboreal tales of color, sex and resilience

This essay was published in ‘Science and Philosophy’ at Medium and that page can be accessed here:

Our neighborhood ginkgo is holding steadfast to autumnal bloom. Well, perhaps not ‘bloom’ —  not at least in the commonly accepted sense of the word —  but its leaves, every single one of them, are still clad in brilliant chrome-yellow and the vision is breathtaking. More so when silhouetted against an uninterrupted winter-blue sky. At this time of year (late November), most of its branched companions have donned and discarded their colored coats. But, this tree, insouciant to peer pressure, stands firm in sun-bedecked gold; a botanical candelabra aflame with a thousand shimmering lights. This is how it always is with this tree. Come rain or shine, its leaves brace together as one man. What they do, they do with unity.

Color and denudation

Autumn announces its arrival with shorter days and cooler temperatures and this is the cue for deciduous trees to begin stocking up for winter. In their turn, their own season-scouts cue us – as early as sweltering August! – to the impending end of summer. In my neck of the woods, that scout is the Dogwood. It signals the Sun’s angling away, from the gathering north wind, with a crestfallen droop of its leaf margins. 

There is where it all starts – in leaf margins. Seasons, in growth and death, lurk there. They periodically gather armies to march out from the pavilions in a triumph that is ever short-lived and soon collapses to retreat until another dawn; another year. The spectacle might be farcical if it was not, visually and philosophically, entrancing.

And in this fashion, Autumn too starts in the margins of the leaves. From where, with a faltering start as a barely discernible change in color, it soon hits stride in a determined centripetal march turning every leaf into a flag that heralds a showy allegiance. 

Trees now become beehives of activity. Over the next many weeks, chlorophyll in leaves is broken down into its constituent nutritive ingredients for safe storage, photosynthesis slows and the green disappears unmasking the yellow and red colors¹ of underlying leaf compounds. With chlorophyll gone, and their nutrients captured, leaves become functionless and useless. As the north wind starts to gather speed, the trees begin a methodical abscission and stoically allow their leaves to tumble to the ground. Changing color and shedding leaves, they hurry to stash for winter’s lean. The trees prepare to hibernate.

Ginkgos too display the self-same autumnal motions but at an uncommonly rapid pace that is unusual for trees. In mid-October, their green leaves turn gold in near-perfect unison. And, as if this grand showing of their seasonal debut was not enough, they dial up the drama with a stunning finale. Unlike the weeks-long gradual shedding of other trees, the ginkgo disrobes with impatience. It stages a synchronized leaf drop that happens in the span of hours; over a day or overnight.

In late November, often prompted by an abrupt downturn in temperature, and in the proverbial blink of an eye, they defrock their leaves and strip their branches to gild the ground. Watching ginkgo leaf-fall is like watching the slow unfurling of curtains at the end of a theatrical performance: curtains of invisible gossamer, loosely sewn with sequins, descend in a fluttering incandescence into a pool of gold. ‘As if in one consent’ the poet Howard Nemerov remarked, of this phenomenon, which has in recent years, earned the affectionate moniker of, ‘the great ginkgo dump’.


Dioecy and Sex

There is so much more that is unique and extraordinary to a ginkgo than just synchronized shedding. It is a member of a compact grove of extant trees that have a documented² co-existence with dinosaurs in the Jurassic age. It is an astonishing detail for which ginkgos are called ‘living fossils’. This tree has no known living relatives and so it occupies an entire taxonomic order, family, genus and species in splendid solitude. Ginkgo leaves have a unique fan shape that is not replicated elsewhere – like an open fan with a cherry-stalk handle; a shape that is called ‘flabellate’ in botany. More than forty flavonoids and a variety of terpenes have been isolated from its autumn leaves from which, a processed botanical extract is used as a therapeutic supplement for cognitive disorders and neural health³. 

With such a gallimaufry of botanical marvels, interest in this tree is pampered for choice. It is difficult to pick any one of her remarkable attributes to highlight but ‘her’ is perhaps a good place to start. A ginkgo is one amongst a small group of trees that separate into male and female. Male ginkgos have male cones which produce pollen and female trees have female cones to receive the pollen which is then fertilized inside the cone to a fleshy seed called the ‘ginkgo nut’. There is a very definite division of labor here, with the male ginkgo trees investing their energy in making pollen and the female trees channeling their own energies into the production of nuts. 

So how does the male pollen get to the female cone? With the help of pollinators. In the ginkgo’s case, common pollinators are the wind and small bees. In poetic fashion, the male tree requests the wind to carry his pollen to any female who is in the wind’s path. Well, even if not physically true, this is what happens in any case. The wind carries the pollen from the male to the waiting female cones and, if he does his job well, their reproduction is pronounced a success with the female happily birthing many hundred ginkgo nuts in autumn. 

This phenomenon of species separation into sexes is called ‘dioecy’ and such species are termed ‘dioecious’. From humans upward, the animal kingdom is replete with species that split into male and female. Fewer plants⁴ than animals display dioecy because plants are rooted and do not have the luxury (or pleasure) of meeting mates in person to work their charms. Some dioecious plants are sure to have graced kitchen spaces worldwide: date palms, papaya and spinach. Even the controversial marijuana is dioecious!

Intuitively, a physical separation into male and female does not appear to be a good survival or reproductive strategy, if your feet are rooted in the earth! If you can’t directly court a mate and need to enlist the aid of a third party pollinator, what happens if the pollinator is fickle or if something goes wrong with the process? Isn’t it then better to have both reproductive organs close together so you can pollinate your own self as a back-up? That is what many thousands of flowering plants have safely chosen. And yet, separate and dioecious ginkgo have a survival record of 200 million years and are clearly doing something right. Something that continues to elude our reasoned pragmatism.

If dioecy is rare in plants, what is common? The common is hermaphroditism, where both male and female reproductive organs coexist in the same flower. This feature is commonly illustrated with the hibiscus or the lily as textbook examples. There are also ‘monecious’ trees. They flower in one of three possible combinations wherein one tree can have: a) separate- male and female flowers b) separate- hermaphrodite and male flowers or c) separate- hermaphrodite and female flowers. Almost never does one tree – in the natural state – have all three separate flower types — hermaphrodite, male and female — because … well, what would be the point? 

These permutations and combinations can boggle the mind and weary the eye and so, let us nimbly step away from here to ask the very pertinent question: Why did dioecy evolve? When there are hermaphroditic states⁵ that allow the plant/tree a fail-safe shot at pollination; why did nature think dioecy was useful? In the words of the grand sire himself “There is much difficulty in understanding why hermaphroditic plants should ever have rendered dioecious. There would be no such conversion unless pollen was carried by insects or the wind regularly from individual to the other; for otherwise, every step towards dioeciousness would lead to sterility”⁶. 

Biology has a fundamental dictum: Cross pollination (crossing) produces more robust individuals with a significantly greater survival advantage than self pollination (selfing). Selfing, if it occurs, is almost always only as a fallback safety net. Plants actively choose crossing. The methods by which hermaphrodite flowers avoid self pollination is a fascinating subject that deserves far greater attention than this essay can provide and so, for now, let us continue on our road and save that for another day. 

A seminal paper by renowned biologist Professor KS Bawa⁷, on the evolution and frequency of dioecy in Plantae, flagged the underestimation of dioecy and reported a higher incidence in tropical and island forests. He went on to elaborate other reasons for the phenomenon: The common explanation of dioecy is that it is a fool-proof method to prevent selfing and assuredly gives rise to offspring with a reproductive advantage. But there is always the lurking danger of a disinterested pollinator or of process failure and these biological anxieties must be allayed. And so, male trees compensate by increasing their pollen production to many times more than the normal amount. The females, grateful to be free of the task of making pollen, invest their surplus energy into fleshy and nutritive fruit with which to attract animals who can carry and disperse the seeds farther. This is division of labor with a natural selection advantage and a natural impetus for dioecy. Lastly, plant reproduction is wholly dependent on pollinators. The type of pollinator closely influences the style and method of reproduction. To illustrate: a pollinator that operates in a restricted foraging space, limits the potential of pollination and dispersal. Dioecious plants hedge their bets with a pollinator that travels farther. The male takes a chance with the wind and accordingly, increases the volume of pollen; the females takes a chance with animals who can carry her fruit far and consequently, increases the attractiveness (nutrient and sugar content) of the nuts/fruit.

The beautiful corrugations of ginkgo bark

With close to 400,000 plant species on our planet, there isn’t one reproductive style that fits all tastes. Each species makes its own assessment for what is needed to succeed and effects that plan. At times, it gets a little more intricate. Within a species, an individual plant or tree could respond to an external circumstance or crisis with a display of behavior that is a variation from the expected. 

One of those displays is an inconstant sexual state. Confronted by a threat to reproduction, and with all else failing, a dioecious plant can switch its sexual state. With some species (Arum) this change does not require a threat and is a naturally periodic event⁷. With some others, it is dependent on the external environment and overt selection pressure. This ‘leaky dioecy’ — leaking from one sexual state to another —  is physically observable in ginkgos; in both male and female trees, but more commonly in the male⁸. Male ginkgos are known to sprout branches that have female cones and produce nuts. Whether due to environmental pressure, or some other reason, is still not clear. 


Culture: new and old

There might be a way to find out. The fleshy outer covering of the nut emits an odor that is terribly offensive to humans. This has earned the urbane and city-bred female ginkgo the unfortunate epithet, ‘stinky ginkgo’. In the middle of the last century, this side-effect was not well publicized and cities across the US, entranced by the ginkgo’s fall fashion, planted the trees widely on pavements and in parks. When the trees matured, the malodorous stench of ripe ‘stinky-ginkgo’ nuts posed a problem to noses that were unused to this smell and reeled unhappily under its potency. In due course, city denizens started to complain. No one wanted to chop down the beautiful trees, and after a good deal of deliberation, the solution adopted was for new plantings to be of male cultivars alone and for existing females to be sprayed with ‘sprout-nip’ – a growth regulator that would cause unripe seeds to fall. Cities have been doing this for at least a decade and all newly planted ginkgos are male cultivars. It remains to be seen if they switch sex, over time, to right the balance.

The sparsely populated bilobed leaf and the profuse straight-edge leaf. I picked them off the ground to highlight the difference

The extant species of ginkgo was named ‘Ginkgo biloba’ for the curious bilobed character of its leaves. However, not all leaves wear the cleft. It only graces the ones that spring out of the main-stem branches. The rest sprout in bunches like inflorescences from the short shoots of these stems. This is the natural leaf pattern of the tree. Yet, most city trees are sparsely populated with bilobed leaves. For a tree that bears its name, it is decidedly odd to have to rummage through the foliage for a bilobed leaf specimen.

My love for the ginkgo is some decades old. As with most others who feel the same, with me too, it was mesmerism at first sight. And it would have stayed that way with me, as an unschooled attraction, had it not been for a chance encounter with Goethe that happened a few years ago in the cavernous deep of a much-loved library. While reading Hafiz in an essay on Persian poetry and translation, I stumbled upon ‘West-Eastern Divan’ and Goethe’s stirring appeal to Marianne von Willemer through the ginkgo¹⁰ . Remarking on the bilobed leaf and seeing in it a metaphysical allusion to his own impossible love, he writes:

Is it one living being

That divides itself into itself

Are there two who have chosen each other

So that they are known as one?

‘Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Excerpt from poem ‘Ginkgo Biloba’ in West-Eastern Divan

A little more than two centuries later; this poem, in its turn, was the spur to Peter Crane’s resplendent hagiography of the ginkgo (see bibliography). Trees command the adulation of poets. Few become the subject of an entire book. Few more command the adulation of poets and inspire resilience in survival. Very few continue to be venerated and worshipped as God. 

In Hiroshima, they are called Hibakujumoku —the trees that survived the bomb¹¹. Six ginkgos were amongst them; four in temple grounds. All six Hibakus are still standing. Timeless and enduring. 

Rory McEwen ‘Ginkgo leaf East 61 Street New York ‘ Watercolor on vellum. Shirley Sherwood Collection Source: ‘Treasures of Botanical Art’. Shirley Sherwood and Martyn Rix 2019: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.


Peter Crane. (2013). Gingko: the tree that time forgot. Yale, CT: Yale University Press

End notes and references: 

  1. Common leaf pigments that are unmasked by the disintegration of chlorophyll are called Flavonoids (orange and yellows) and Anthocyanins (reds and pinks). We visualize colors in leaves and flowers not just due to the pigments but also due to plant optics — structural characteristics of leaves that cause light to reflect and refract in ways that allow us to perceive shades of color. Flavonoid compounds in the ginkgo have been explored for medicinal and anti-aging benefits
  2. The documentation exists in the form of fossil records. As astonishing leaf fossils that show the same characteristic leaf shape and venation. The oldest fossil was found in Ishpushta, Afghanistan (Ref: Crane, P. Ginkgo, p. 83). Cycads and conifers are other living fossils like the Ginkgo. And there is too another extraordinary tree (or is it a plant?) in Namibia, called welwitschia which requires a recitation all its own
  3. The extract is called EGb 761. It is made up of a combination of ginkgo flavonoids (22–25 percent) and terpenes (65–67 percent) (Ref: Crane, P. Ginkgo pp. 246–249). Its value in cognitive health is reinforced by a large meta-analysis that covered a thousand studies and by other reviews of RCTs conducted worldwide. (Ref: It is prescribed in the West as a natural supplement for memory for senescence and for the cognitively impaired. In the East, it is the nuts, not the leaves, that are used for their medicinal properties and for a wider variety of ailments that include respiratory and digestive complaints
  4. The number that is commonly quoted for the incidence of dioecy is 4–6% in angiosperms and 50% in gymnosperms. These figures have been effectively challenged as underestimates (Ref: Bawa, K. Evolution of dioecy in flowering plants Ann Rev. Ecol. Syst. Vol 11 (1980): pp. 16–21
  5. The vast majority of flowers are hermaphrodites. They possess both male and female reproductive organs. Naturally therefore, both self and cross pollination is possible in hermaphrodite flowers. Although it is important to remember that nature actively prefers crossing and goes out of the way to prevent selfing. Every flower has some mechanism – structural, biochemical and temporal – either singly or in combination that functions an interdiction for selfing. 
  6. Darwin, C. The different forms of flowers on plants of the same species (1877). London: John Murray. (Ref: Bawa, K. Evolution of dioecy in flowering plants Ann Rev. Ecol. Syst. Vol 11 (1980): p.16
  7. Bawa, K. Evolution of dioecy in flowering plants Ann Rev. Ecol. Syst. Vol 11 (1980): pp. 15–39
  8. This is called sequential dioecy or sequential hermaphroditism
  9. Crane, P. Ginkgo. pp. 53–65
  10. The poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the author of Faust, was also a poet and polymath; one of the greatest figures of the Romantic age. His poetry can be read at Poetry Foundation:
  11. The legacy of Hiroshima’s Hibaku trees:

[ All pictures in this essay are the author’s own except where specified. ]

This was one of a handful of leaves that were left on the bare branches of the female tree in my neighborhood a few days after she staged the dump. The city had cleaned the streets and I was foraging in the leaf-spill on the ground for a bilobed specimen. When I looked up, I saw this.

Indian Yellow: science unlocks the mystery of a fabled pigment

[This essay was also published on Medium where it was featured by editors as an ‘Editor’s Pick’ on the main page ]


Ragini Sohavi, wife of Raga Megh. Source Credit: Francesca Galloway

Seemingly, 2019 was the year museums in the US discovered the Ragamala paintings in their vaults. Across the country, from San Diego to DC, museums of art and Asian history held exhibitions to showcase this extraordinary genre of art that flourished, in India, between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries. Ragamala paintings are designed as miniatures and as illustrations of portfolios. They are often framed in the ambience of courtly gardens and employ gouache on paper to produce a luminescent and tapestried ornamentation of color.

The distinctive quality of this style is that each painting is an artistic interpretation of a poetic verse-couplet; which is itself written as a eulogy for music. There are many verses composed in this vein; mostly in Sanskrit, although Telugu is not uncommon. A Ragamala painting centers thematically on the imagery and metaphors of a specific verse-couplet. That verse is scribed in a panel on the top (the panel is missing in some paintings) and the art is positioned underneath. The painting is not a literal interpretation of the words. It instead attempts to do what music does — create a mood; preferably one that matches the music and it does this by deploying the imagination in form, circumstance and color. Each work is thus, a combined experience of three major art-forms — music, painting and poetry. The architecture of a Ragamala locates the inner spaces of life and living within the outdoors; in both a physical and a metaphysical sense. This conceptual arrangement allows the artist an explosive range of expression in structure, landscape, color and sentiment.

If one knows the music and can read the poetry; the melding of word, song and color provokes a synesthetic mesmerism. But that sort of knowledge is arduously cultivated by a few. Mindful of that, considerate curators strove to recreate the experience with lecture-demonstrations of music and poetry alongside the art on display. Even without these aids; the Ragamala paintings are visually hypnotizing in themselves for both the color of the pigments and the exquisite aesthete of their composition.

All colors of the Ragamala have natural origins and each is extracted and utilized for its striking allure. But of them all, there is one — a special stand out — that effortlessly snares the gaze. It seems to hold, in easy harmony, the yellow of turmeric, the gold of the Sun, the yellowish-orange of mangoes and the orangish-yellow of marigolds; swirling and blending their hues with the luminosity of a desert sunlight. For all its heady lure, this pigment has a simple name — ‘Indian yellow’.

In our current time, and like most naturally occurring pigments, Indian-yellow has been synthesized and its synthetic form is widely available. However, unlike them, its origin is shrouded in mystery. Worse, what little is known of its provenance is unverifiable, since it went out of production in the early decades of the twentieth century, with no documentation of its source and/or extraction process. Indian yellow simply vanished from sight. All that is left are a few remnant balls of pigment in museum collections and a story whose details are so fantastic, it has long been decried as a fabrication¹. Now, after decades of perplexity, the fog is finally clearing as advances in chemistry laboriously seal the gaps of history.



From the Forbes Collection at the Sackler museum, Harvard University; Cambridge, MA. Source Credit: The Paris Review



Ragini Madhumadhavi of Bhairav. The San Diego Museum of Art. Source Credit: Personal copy of “Music As Art’

The origin-story

Following the lead of Lavoisier and Boyle, the science of chemistry exploded, in the nineteenth century, with the discovery of more than fifty elements and the creation of the Periodic Table. In the heady spirit of the age, the compositional analysis of natural pigments was adopted early as a subject of research with the intent of creating long lasting synthetic versions. Until this time, dyes and pigments had only three known sources — plant, animal and mineral. The pioneering breakthrough of the structure of benzene (Kekule) and the parallel discovery of benzene, aniline and other aromatic hydrocarbons in coal tar (Hofmann), paved the road to unearthing the chemical formulae of natural pigments. Synthesis, in the lab, was merely a step away.

From coal tar, came the first synthetic. It dyed silk in a homogeneous, fade-resistant purple stain and was named ‘Mauvein’; its color, Mauve. The same source (coal tar) then produced aniline red and aniline blue in quick succession. The fourth in line and the first discovery of the principle compound of a natural pigment, was Alizarin. The pigment was Madder — the deep red of a plant root used, since ancient times, as a fabric and carpet dye. Madder’s Alizarin opened the doors to the analysis and subsequent synthesis of the pigments in roses, cotton, peonies, geraniums, snapdragons and a host of fruit and flower yielding plants and trees.

Evidently, the world of pigment-chemistry was closely tied to the world of naturalists. It is not surprising then, that JD Hooker — the celebrated botanist and plant cataloger — is central to the story of Indian-yellow. From its very inception, chemistry was a fiercely competitive science, with individuals and nations vying to exploit its immense commercial potential. Hooker had spent many years in India, painstakingly cataloging its plants into the voluminous ‘Flora Indica’, and was familiar with the lay of the land. In 1882, when he was the director of the Kew Gardens, he was approached by German scientists to assist in tracing the source of Indian yellow which was, until then, only known as a commodity that shipped from the markets of Calcutta to London. Curiously, the British (who were great chroniclers) had not published a record of India’s pigments; not even of its fabled yellow which was already much in use by their artists. The most celebrated of them was JW Turner, whose prolific use of Indian yellow came to it being called, Turner yellow; for a while.



Teignmouth; Joseph W. Turner, 1812. Oil on canvas. Source credit: Tate Gallery

Until the creation of synthetic dyes, there were few sources of yellow apart from Indian yellow. Orpiment and Realgar (mineral sources) contained arsenic and were toxic; Gamboge (plant source — resin of Garcinia) was toxic (if not equally) with an erratic supply and Persian yellow (plant source — sitgmata of saffron flowers) was a better green (in combination with other pigments) than yellow¹. Comparatively, Indian yellow was not toxic and produced a brilliantly luminescent, lasting color that made it the preferred yellow of many artists.

[Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Nights’ and Vermeer’s ‘Woman Holding a Balance’ are two works in which its use is documented.]



The Starry Night. Vincent van Gogh, 1889 MOMA, NYC. Source credit:


Woman Holding a Balance. Johannes Vermeer, 1664. National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian, DC.

Tracing the source of Indian yellow therefore became critical to its synthesis. Hooker dutifully corresponded with officials in Calcutta who then assigned the job to TN Mukherji, a cataloger of products for exhibitions. Mukherji traveled to the town of Munger in Bihar (Monghyr in British usage) and returned to file a report that he personally attested: the balls of yellow were the filtered residue of a prolonged boiling of cow-urine and sand. He added that this particular cow-urine had an unusual tint due to a modified bovine diet that was composed exclusively of fresh and dried mango leaves with a dash of turmeric. Indian yellow was thus deemed to be animal in origin (Hooker had suggested it was a plant pigment due to preliminary studies that hinted at an absence of nitrogen).

Mukherji added details on the physical condition of the cows. They were stunted in appearance, sickly and malnourished due to the force-feeding of bitter mango leaves and the denial of a normal bovine diet. This considerable torment was worsened by the added affliction of a severe form of urinary retention. The cows were unable to voluntarily pass urine and needed the assistance of human manual compression to void. This dietarily-induced ailment perversely suited the makers of Indian yellow, since they now had direct control over the output of the pigmented urine.

The distressing nature of these revelations did not go unnoticed. Soon after, the production of Indian yellow was banned by the British under the provisions of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act that was passed by the Government of India in 1890. (Note: given the climate and the history of the British in India, it is not implausible that there were commercial reasons behind the ban; however, such motives do not figure in the written record).

This then was determined to be the origin of Indian yellow which led to the abrupt closure of its production and commercial sale. But the story had an individual and uncorroborated record. That, along with its sudden disappearance, continued to intrigue art historians. The people who made Indian yellow faded into history along with the dye. A couple of generations later, there was no public memory left; either of them or of the trade. There was no way to confirm the story except through the back stories of its chemistry. And to do that, scientists started with the question: are Indian yellow’s compound pigments plant-based or animal-based?



Raja Mandhata; Raga Nimal. Source credit: The Freer Museum of Art at the Smithsonian

The Chemistry of Indian yellow

Mukherji shipped his report to Hooker along with a package. It contained: a ball of Indian yellow from the markets of Calcutta, a ball of Indian yellow from Munger (Monghyr), mineral yellow imported from London, a bottle of urine from a cow that was the pigment-source in Munger, an earthen pot used for boiling the mixture, a sack-like burlap which was used to filter the boiled solution and a clump of mango leaves². Upon receiving the package, Hooker sent a portion of the Monghyr ball to the German chemist who first requested the sample — Professor Graebe. Graebe conducted a detailed chemical analysis and determined the pigment to be a mixture of euxanthic acid (51%) and undescribed volatile substances (42%)³. He also noted that euxanthic acid — a combination of glucuronic acid and euxanthone — was always a salt (usually of magnesium). Euxanthic acid is rarely found in plants⁴ and so, the focus shifted to its components.

Glucuronic acid is what is called a sugar-acid. It is naturally present in all cells and is produced by the biochemical processing of glucose through oxidation. Its function is as an effective conjugator (binding substance) of toxins, drugs and intermediaries in metabolic reactions. A substance or compound that binds with glucuronic acid becomes a glucuronide which is water soluble and can be safely excreted from the body. So, euxanthic acid is the same as euxanthone glucuronide (euxanthone + glucuronic acid = euxanthic acid aka euxanthone glucuronide).

Glucuronic acid is present in both plants and animals and its presence, in the Monghyr ball, revealed little. On the other hand, both xanthone and euxanthone are biologically active compounds found naturally in many plant families⁵. One such plant is the Indian mango — Mangifera indica — whose leaves, fruit, bark and seed are all rich in xanthone and its derivatives. Here, at long last, was the connection to both mangoes (xanthones) and a possible animal source (glucuronide). Mukherji’s story appeared to be bona fide. The matter was laid to rest in an uneasy credulity and looked headed for an eternal repose. Thankfully, that was not to be.



Ragini Vasanti. From the royal house of Mandi, now housed at the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Source credit:

The Key was in the Kew

The chemical exploration of Indian yellow’s global excursions were painstakingly researched by two scientist conservationists — Ploeger and Shugar². Despite writing this paleo-history; they found themselves, at the end of the exercise, still lumped with the nagging company of an unanswered riddle — what happened to the rest of Mukherji’s package? With the shrewd reasoning that the discovery of the package would itself lend more heft to the tale, they set out on its trail, bolstered by the tantalizing prospect of new chemical discoveries and, perhaps even, a final closure.

Mukherji’s correspondence with Hooker was during the latter’s years as director of the Kew gardens. Unsurprisingly, the trail ended in the crypts of the Economy Botany Collection at Kew; where, sitting on a shelf, and waiting to be discovered, was an obscure and long forgotten package that arrived in 1883 from Calcutta, with labels and contents intact! Armed with the requisite permissions, and with three elsewhere-archived control samples of Indian-yellow, Plueger and Shugar set to work.



Source credit:

The seven contents of Mukherji’s package and the three acquired samples were each individually subject to a battery of analytic techniques that included induced-fluorescence, microscopy, spectroscopy and mass-spectrometry⁶. The results of this multianalytic examination were both banal and exhilarating. Expectedly; all the samples, the pot, and the cloth, contained euxanthic acid, glucuronic acid and their derivatives. But the samples also revealed the presence of a long-hidden and previously unexamined compound — hippuric acid. This finding was exhilarating not just for itself but for its implications in Indian yellow’s history.

Hippuric acid is a common ruminant metabolite, found in the urine of many bovines and ungulates. Additionally, its concentration in urine rises when animals are fed a diet rich in polyphenols. Mango leaves are very rich in polyphenols⁷. The end of the tunnel had been breached. Hippuric acid was the missing piece in the mystery of Indian yellow. It connected the disparate fragments of Mukherji’s story — the cows, mango leaves, bovine urine and the manufacturing process — into a composite whole. His report now had a sheen of authenticity and it was time for the yellow fog around Indian miniatures to slip out of the frame⁸.



Ragaputra Harsha, Kangra, Pahari. Source: personal copy of the book ‘Ragachitra’: Deccani Ragamala paintings’

The ends of the circle might have closed on the origins of Indian yellow but it was an invention, not a discovery and that leaves us with one curious and as yet unanswered detail: is this the first historical record of a manufactured pigment? Our fascination with color and pigments is as old as the trees. From ancient times, and across civilizations and cultures, we have harnessed the color of the natural world to enliven the bland monochrome of the human body with body art, seed jewelry, flowers and color dyes. For all these purposes, we mobilized pigments that were already naturally present in the colors of flowers, leaves, barks, roots and minerals; extracted and used them either as single color or as blended chemical recipes⁹ (Table 1). But Indian yellow is neither; it is a manufactured invention. How it was discovered boggles the mind; but it might be the first instance of human manufacturing of pigment.

I read Victoria Finlay’s excellent book on color — ‘Color: A Natural History of the Palette’ — some many years back; but with this new thought, I scoured her book again. In ten chapters, each dedicated to one color, she holds the reader captivated with stories of the myriad hues that populate our geography and vegetation; of the varied strivings of humans around the globe to extract the colors of the earth. Indian yellow does not escape her attention. (In the chapter titled ‘Yellow’, she records with great hilarity her failed mission of tracking Mukherji’s journey through Calcutta and Munger. Too much time had elapsed and she was unable to confirm the veracity of his report. I have appended a section of her account here).





Both pictures are pages from ‘Color’ by Victoria Finlay; pp 234–235 and describe her search for Indian yellow

Re-reading ‘Color’, I once more traveled the rainbow lore of red, ochre, brown, white, yellow, black, purple, orange and blue — all extracted pigments; alchemized even — but was unable to track another story like that of Indian yellow. There are records of animals being killed for pigment — cochineal red and Tyrean purple are two such — but Indian yellow uses the body of an animal, like a machine, to manufacture a pigment from a natural source. The animal is not killed but repurposed for human use. Whether this is the first or the only story of pigment manufacturing, before the era of synthetic production, I do not yet know. But it is likely that this extraordinary account of malefic ingenuity holds still more hidden intrigues.

It is no longer possible to look at the spellbinding yellow luminescence in a Vermeer, in Mughal miniatures or the Ragamalas, without a twinge of sadness for the gentle creatures that endured great suffering just so creatures of another species could construct beauty. A stoic might reconcile himself with the thought that the very act of creation is fraught with ruthlessness and suffering. But the creation in nature, and that some ascribe to God, is a consciously accepted struggle imbued with a biological purpose of feeding and survival. That struggle cannot account for the premeditated brutality that we inflict on our fellow creatures for no lofty goals with redeeming absolutions but for extraordinarily petty and perverse utilitarian ends. This mystery — that of the extremes of human nature — will forever be unsolvable; the extreme magnanimity and the extreme brutality that we are equally capable of. That sentiment is gloriously capped by Thomas Carlyle in ‘The French Revolution’; sections of which I learnt from my beloved father who is fond of quoting it, in chapter and verse, both for the genius of its language and for the cautionary tale it tells:

“There are depths in man that go the length of lowest hell as there are that reach highest Heaven; for are not both Heaven and Hell made out of him, made by him, everlasting miracle and mystery as he is”



Raga Megh; From the Claudio Moscatelli collection. Source credit:

Table 1: Pigments of the Ragamala



Pigment list compiled by the author. Pic credit: author’s own of an exhibit at the ‘Hidden Vaults’ 2019 exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art

References and bibliography

  1. Finlay, V. (2002). Colour (pp 239–240). Hodder and Stoughton
  2. R. Ploeger, A. Shugar, The story of Indian yellow — excreting a solution, Journal of Cultural Heritage (2016),
  3. Magnesium and Calcium (in almost equal proportions), Silica, Aluminium and water made up the rest. Ibid pp 9–10
  4. Naturally occurring forms of euxanthic acid are rare and then only in the plant family called the Gentians.
  5. Xanthone (a precursor compound of euxanthone) is prolific in plants and fungi. Euxanthone too has a wide distribution across plant families but is especially numerous in two families — Clusiaceae and Fabaceae.
  6. R.Ploeger, A. Shugar, G.D. Smith and V.J. Chen, Late 19th century accounts of Indian yellow: The analysis of samples from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Dyes and Pigments 160 (2019) 418–431
  7. Polyphenols are a naturally occurring (now also synthesized) class of plant compounds, structurally composed of multiple phenol rings, that have value as pigments and as nutriceutical antioxidants. Common polyphenols in mango leaves are: mangiferrin, anthocyanins, kaempferol and quercetin amongst others. If combined with curcumin, they turn a rich yellow color. This method of yellow pigment production is put to good use by Indonesia’s Batik industry.
  8. The coming together of ‘fog’ and ‘yellow’ in the same sentence immediately brought TS Eliot’s Prufrock to my mind and I could not resist the great man’s magnetic pull
  9. Blue is a good example of these recipes. Three geographically disparate civilizations invented, sui generis, different recipes for blue. Chinese Blue, Egyptian Blue and Mayan Blue are three versions of the color that existed in ancient times, not as natural pigments but as ingenious recipe-combinations of plant and mineral pigments. (Detailed in Table 1)

.    .    .

The Root of Sequestration: Travels with biology through literature to life

A flowering hybrid Magnolia in bloom outside my window; Spring 2020

You have heard it called ‘isolation’ and ‘quarantine’. ‘Reset’ and ‘lockdown’ even. All these words have different and nuanced meanings and yet, they are used interchangeably in our fervid times. There, however, is a more apposite word — sequester/ sequestration.

This word has a specificity of meaning and a sense of gravitas; characteristics that have led to its cooption in academia (medicine and law) and in government. Language moults with time and culture and so it might have fallen out of use; but it is unfortunate that this well-crafted word languishes in the shade when it rightfully should bask in the sun as the descriptor-term of our new surreality.

Sequestration’s acuteness of meaning derives from its lack of qualifiers. All three words – isolation, quarantine, sequestration – refer to distancing and seclusion. However, in the context of health, unlike isolation (which indicates the presence of disease) and quarantine (which indicates contact or exposure to disease), sequestration refers to the state of separation alone. It makes no reference to the presence/absence of disease or to its exposure. In a situation that calls for social distancing due to a community spread of infection — a spread that occurred despite the lack of definitive evidence of exposure or contact — ‘sequestration’ has the most pertinence.

World over (in some places imposed and enforced; in others, voluntarily embraced); we are in the middle of an unprecedented sequestration.


Sequester’s root is in the PIE ‘sekw’ and the Latin ‘sequi’. Sekw means ‘to follow’ and has sense-felicitous derivatives – a long list of words that includes: sequence, sequel, consequence, sect, obsequious, pursuit, second, society and segue amongst others.

On the face of it, sequester seems like a misfit in this list. How it came to belong to sekw is revealed by a little digging around the roots. The answer is found in its verb form and idiomatic use — ‘sequestered in the middle’ for something that is caught betwixt and between. This sense of the word derived from the old Latin sequestrare which was the term for intermediate or that which followed another.

Up until here, the sense of ‘to follow’ was preserved. But with use, and as has happened with innumerable words, its meaning underwent a slow metamorphosis. Over time, Sequestrare came to mean trustee (an intermediary holder of an instrument, property or money) and since a trustee is an executor, a custodian, someone who is isolated from ownership it also came to mean isolated, removed from, separated, etc., thus birthing the English ‘sequester’ and ‘sequestration’.

The road to separation began at follow.

Sequestration’s avatars

Traceried denudations of oaks eagerly await the warm weather; Spring 2020.


First year of med school is an explosive learning moment for language. I suspect it is the same with law school. New recruits are met at the door by the implacably formidable visage of ‘Human Anatomy’ – a subject whose every book has a couple of new words in every line. Anatomy’s words do not come to make friends. They come as an endurance test. As multi-syllabled words with tongue tripping Latin roots.

For a lover of language and etymology, it is paradise gained. For one less enthused, it takes some months of palate pounding repetition to melt its medieval hauteur. Happily, through this fiery rite of induction, complex Latin constructions become de rigeur usage, turning every novitiate into a seasoned pro by year two..

This is where I landed on ‘sequestration’ in medical school – in the first year of anatomy and under the subdivision of embryology (the study of the development of the embryo). In a not so happy coincidence for our times, the word was introduced in the context of the development of the lungs as Pulmonary Sequestration.

This happens to be a not insignificant embryological anomaly. A small portion of the lung detaches from its connection with the bronchi (tubular passages that transport air between the lungs and the nose) and has no longer any route for air to enter. This portion becomes unaerated and solid. Since this portion of the lung separates from the rest of the normally developing lung; it is called a sequestered lung or pulmonary sequestration (pulmo — Greek for lung).

This is a congenital developmental anomaly because it is present at birth. Medicine has two other kinds: pathological sequestration (related to disease; from pathos — Greek for disease) and iatrogenic sequestration (caused by a physician; from iatros — Greek for physician).

The disease Osteomyelitis (infection of the bones and marrow; from osteon — Greek for bone and myelo — Greek for marrow) is the textbook example of the process of pathological sequestration. An infection in bone, if left untreated, can get severe enough for a portion of the bone to succumb and die. This fragment of dead bone then separates away from the rest of the healthy bone and is called a Sequestrum, a diagnostic hallmark of infection in bone.

Iatrogenic sequestration is rare and is the result of an invasive medical procedure (surgery) which, unintentionally, becomes the route for external skin cells to travel into, and lodge inside, the body.


In law, sequester is commonly used in the context of a jury sequestration when a jury retreats into seclusion from society to arrive at a judgment that is free of the bias of media and public opinion. This move to sequester a jury is to ensure the impartiality of their decision.


Sequestration in government (largely confined to usage in the US) is a dreaded indicator of budget cuts with significant implications on economy and lifestyle.

Lastly, biological sequestration is a term that is finding purchase in discussions on climate change. It refers to the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by natural carbon sinks — trees, forests, soil, shrub-land and oceans.

Literature: A poet, a theologian and a physician with a banned book

Portrait of Sir Thomas Gray; source: Wikipedia

The poet: 

When I bumped into sequestration in anatomy; it was a happy re-acquaintance with an old friend after many years. I learnt the word ‘sequester’ from my beloved father, from a poem beloved to him — Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written In a Country Churchyard’.

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,

Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;

Along the cool sequester’d vale of life

They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

The word is ‘sequestered in the middle’ of this exquisitely lyrical poem as an adjective to describe the remote and circumscribed lives of impoverished peasants who, literally and figuratively, lived far from the ‘madding crowds’ of the cities.

Gray’s masterpiece — the Elegy — is, in many ways, the masterpiece of eighteenth-century English poetry. It is written in a rhythmic iambic metre and builds its emotional cadence with rhyme and tempo from the hauntingly vivid imagery of the opening stanzas to a masterful explication of the metaphysics of chance, ending in a glorious epitaph that is either perhaps his own or an allusion to an unsung poetic hero interred in a bleak churchyard.

It would be too much of a segue for me to dwell on the richness of Gray’s verse but it is for no ordinary reason that his poem, with its richness of thought and language is regarded as the literary benchmark that sparked the shift to Romanticism in English literature. Three centuries later, it continues to be read and venerated across English speaking lands.

The Elegy is pregnant with pensiveness. Gray’s tendency to melancholy has been described in literary critics as a ‘constitutional languor of temperament’. He himself called it ‘white melancholy’ and wrote of it as distinct from the ‘black’ form in a letter to a dear friend, Richard West:

“though it seldom laughs or dances nor ever amounts to what one calls Joy or Pleasure, yet is a good easy sort of a state … There is another sort, black indeed which I have now and then felt that has somewhat in it like Tertullian’s rule of faith, credo quia impossible est; for it believes, nay is sure, of everything that is unlikely, so it be but frightful; and, on the other hand, excludes and shuts its eyes to the most possible hopes and everything that is pleasurable; from this the Lord deliver us! For none but he and sunshiny weather can do it.”

My rumination on the word ‘sequester’ started with this letter. I came upon it in a book of literary correspondences and while reading Gray, was transported to the Elegy and to a link between his reference to Tertullian and a seventeenth century physician, Sir Thomas Browne.

The theologian:

Tertullian was a Christian theologian in the dark ages; one of the earliest to write in Latin signifying the Church’s definitive break with the intellectual and spiritual tradition of Greece. While much of his work continues to be relevant in theological circles, he remains remembered in the public domain for his dictum — Porsus credible est, quia ineptum est; certum est, quia impossibleIt is entirely credible because it is impossible; it is certain because it is impossible. For Tertullian, the dictum’s meaning (inspired by Aristotle) was rooted in man’s capacity for reason. He gave the logical and rational capabilities of human thought the benefit of the doubt.

The physician and his banned book:

Centuries later, his dictum was resurrected, and re-imagined by Thomas Browne, a seventeenth century polymath and medical doctor in his book Historia medici — (The Religion of a Physician). Like Tertullian before him, Browne was a man who could seamlessly blend reason and faith. His time witnessed the widening chasm in the Christian doctrine between Protestants and Catholics which was the frame of reference for his interpretation of Tertullian’s rescript.

He refashioned Tertullian to the context of his times to explain Catholicism’s belief in ritual and liturgy as: ‘the more incredible the dogma the stronger is the faith’. What shifted between the original phrasing and the new interpretation was the objective understanding of human nature. In Tertullian’s time, human nature/belief/behavior was credulous enough to shrink from the implausible. After the medieval ages, it swung to blind faith and doggedly asserted the primacy of faith over logic and reason. The skeptic in Browne cleverly reinterpreted Tertullian to reflect the new dogma.

Medicine today is much removed from faith but until a mere 1500 years, there was little difference between a man of faith and a man of medicine. Both were called in at dire times and both resorted to measures of alleviation that were different in approach but equal as acts of faith. Little science was behind any of the methods used by its earliest practitioners.

Thomas Browne stood against this tide. His standing in the intellectual firmament is borne out by his ratiocinating approach to both disease and faith in a time that ill supported it. Despite his many public iterations of sincere faith; Browne’s stance was deemed heretical by the Church and resulted in the banning of his book.

The two Thomases — Brown and Gray — represent the archetypal intellects of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were scholar-aesthetes who professed a non-judgmental faith and whose melancholic temperament was (unlike the Romantics) suffused with stoic acceptance; the kind eloquently described by Gray as ‘leucocholy’ (Aside: the word melancholy — a state of dark despair — is derived from the Greek ‘melan’– black and ‘chole’ — bile. Leucocholy is its antonym; from ‘leuco’ — Greek for white).

A phrase and a word – literary lenses for our time 

Interlacing branches of a blossoming cherry tree. Word roots are like this full of inter-weavings allowing felicitous crossings from meaning to meaning binding each to each in idiom, nuance, phrase, thought and language

We are now in the throes of an unexpected and fast moving pandemic which has catapulted us into uncertainty and upended our usual habituations. The experience is acute and mind-numbing.  It is a truism that past is prologue; but this moment’s sudden and surreal nature does not lend itself to useful contemplation. Instead, it leads me to the comforting familiarity of literature and language and does so, perhaps with the hope, that meaning or some sense of meaning would follow from there. They, in turn, led me to a word and a dictum; both of which seem to encapsulate this moment.

Centuries after Tertullian, Browne and Gray; the dictum credo quia impossible est is perhaps the best frame for the unreality of our sequestration. What was disregarded as impossible and unimaginable until a couple of weeks back, has been abruptly set aside in a matter of days to become credible, present and startlingly real.

While the phrase is a more material descriptor of our situation; the word – sequestration – has a deeper story to tell through its etymological root that manages to enmesh disparate contexts. Gray bisected the melancholic state and the root sekw seemingly diverged down two paths —on fork led to follow/couple; the other to separate/uncouple. Science, however, has little regard for the neat lucidity of these dichotomies. It muddles and muddies them with its revelations that: a) roots form reticular networks and rarely, if ever, split equally and, b) melancholy’s state is multifarious.

Melancholy nestles in the many crannies of our apportioned life in often irreconcilable compartments. In states we classify as – private, public, private-in-public and public-in-private. I suspect the ascendant degree of our social separation will not harm our inner lives a great deal, as we have become somewhat accustomed to fragmentation. The ease with which many have been able to switch to technological solutions for both work and social connectivity is a good indicator of the same.

But the roots have a little more to tell. It needed the mandate of a sequestration to clear the undergrowth around the root ‘sekw’ and see its intriguing insight: the paths to separate and follow are not divergent. They are reticulated with a common and deliberate purpose. For, if our sequestration is to quell this viral pandemic, we all – to a man – must submit to follow its rules. This philosophical understanding is embedded in hardy linguistic roots:

The road to separation begins and ends with follow.

.    .    .

The Bewildering World of Bats

[This essay was featured as a ‘featured top pick’ on Medium’s Science page in February 2020 ]

Chiropterophily. Source Credit: NWF

With bats, the ‘Umwelt’ is a good place to start. Introduced into ethology, in 1909, by the German Biologist, Jakob von Uexküll, it describes the sensory experience of the world that is unique to every species; animal perceptions of their environment that are vastly different from our own. Each species is imbued with its own distinctive sensory capabilities. They see, hear, taste and feel the world differently from humans. Consequently, their interpretation of the world and their engagement with it is also different. This sensory perception that is special and exclusive to each animal life-form is Umwelt.

Given our tendency to anthropomorphize the world and its creatures, such a word of distinction is both fitting and necessary. Implicit in the word – Umwelt – is the allusion to a level of consciousness that inserts itself above the subjective/ individual and under the umbrella of ‘species’ as a species consciousness.

This is a good place to start because bats differ from us in the two sensory systems that we use the most — vision and hearing. Common knowledge of bats is that they are nocturnal, they use sonar to hunt and navigate and are blind. While the first two are indisputable; the last is untrue. Bats do use ultrasound (high frequency sound that cannot be heard by the human ear) to communicate and for echolocation¹. That they are nocturnal flying mammals is equally well documented.

However, what is less appreciated is that bats, like birds and bees, have the capability of sight with a form of ultraviolet vision. This was first documented in nectar and insect eating bats that use ultraviolet markings on flowers as guides to zero in on their food source². There are many fruit species that have chiropterophillic flowers; bananas, mangoes and agave are some of them (‘Chiropteran’ — of or related to bats; from their ‘order’, chiroptera. Chiropterophillic — attracting bats).

                                                                    Nectar feeding bat. Source Credit:

The bat experiences its Umwelt with ultraviolet vision and ultrasound. Both are at the extremes of the visual and auditory spectra and are starkly different from our own rather restricted sensory capabilities. The world as seen and heard by a bat has little, if any, similarity with our own.

A chiropteran curiosity 

Bats are one of the earth’s more populous creatures (they comprise twenty percent of the mammalian population). Although there isn’t an estimated population number; there are, at a minimum, 1300 documented species of bats³ with a geographic distribution that spans the globe. Within the Class Mammalia, they are distinguished by two characteristics: they are the only mammals with an expansive migrating potential due to the capacity of flight and, they have longevity with a peculiar absence of morbidity or natural biological aging until the very end of life. The average lifespan of a bat is twenty years; some few species are known to live up to and beyond thirty years and there is one that lives up to forty even.

That last feature — the peculiar absence of morbidity — has come under the research spotlight, in recent years, due to the rising incidence of zoonoses⁴ (human infectious diseases that are acquired by transmission from an animal source). Sixty percent of all such recently emerged infections are zoonoses and almost all have been traced to bats as the source.

Bats are the reservoir hosts of a number of viruses and yet, apart from the rabies and the tacaribe viruses, there is, as yet, no other known virus that is fatal to them. Bats do not fall prey to infectious disease from any of the viruses that live in them; — rhabdoviruses, hantaviruses, paramyxoviruses, flaviviruses, bunyaviruses, filoviruses and others. But when any of these viruses exit bats and enter another species (this transmission event is called ‘spillover’ or ‘jump’) they cause serious disease with high fatality rates. Beyond these viruses that are related to known disease, they house many others that are unlinked to documented disease.

                                            Source credit: Science Direct

This chiropteran anomaly raises two obvious questions: 1) why are bats a natural reservoir of viruses and, 2) why do they not fall prey to disease despite the teeming presence of viruses in their body? Both questions have been the focus of intense study in recent years. Of course, the first might be logically answered by the second (they do not contract disease and therefore they become natural reservoirs) but the search for a biological explanation was elusive. Historically, bats have not been studied in detail unlike many other animals — that they are nocturnal and difficult to catch are a couple of reasons why — and our scientific knowledge is riddled with lacunae on the biology, ecology, phylogeny and ethology of these creatures. But that has changed. The old disinterest has been rapidly shed with the rising zoonotic challenge to public health systems across the world.

Batting away the bedeviling

Phylogenetic studies that probe the genetic relatedness of bats and viruses suggest a co-evolution is at play. Host-parasite (bat-virus) relationships are of many kinds; one of which is commensalism. Commensals are benign host microbes — the host neither benefits nor is harmed by them; the parasites, on the other hand, have the benefit of survival in a tolerant host environment. Such relationships are driven by mutual and reciprocal evolution with the host always two steps ahead in a move that ensures their combined survival.

The viral resistance of bats was initially ascribed to a potent antiviral defense. Contrary to popular misconception; bats (in a less traditional form of commensalism) mount a powerful antiviral immune response mediated by the antiviral, Interferon. To prevent being completely wiped out by the bat’s immune response, viruses have co-evolved by increasing the potency of their replication.

As a host response, bat antiviral defense is of a high grade and is always ahead of viral multiplicative power. In the normal course of events, such a potent antiviral defense should provoke an equally strong/ high-grade inflammatory response in the bat. The kind of extreme inflammation that this sort of defense provokes is itself capable of threatening survival. But, in bats, inflammation remains stoically unprovoked and this is the key to the riddle of chiropteran forbearance.

Inflammation is the body’s protective defense response that activates when the body is under assault of any kind; whether metabolic, mechanical or microbial. But it is protective only as long as it is in temporal balance. When the response is imbalanced, severe and exuberant or when it is low grade but over a long drawn out period of time, inflammation can become paradoxically harmful; even to the point of being fatal.

Bats providentially escape the consequences of inflammation due to the anomalous activation of an anti-inflammatory response that is coterminous with their antiviral defense. This is an innate physiological adaptation to cope with the metabolic stress of flight.

                         Source Credit: Virises 2019 11(2), 192

Flying is an intensely high metabolic activity; a consequence of which is the production of a vast number of toxic by-products called, free radicals. The resulting oxidative stress provokes a severe and systemic inflammatory response called the cytokine storm which then leads to cellular damage and death. To be capable of flying; a mammalian system must necessarily have adapted to mitigate the near-fatal effects of these compounds. Bats achieved this by suppressing inflammation. They evolved an anti-inflammatory response that prevents the release of powerful mediators of inflammation — the cytokines. Therefore, unlike the expected defense to a viral infection which is — antiviral/ pro-inflammatory; bats have a unique antiviral/ anti-inflammatory response. They, simultaneously, fight off the virus and prevent the damaging effects of inflammation. Suppression of inflammation is also responsible for the longevity and absence of senescence in bats.

The primary explanation for chiropteran viral resistance has thus slowly shifted from ‘potent antiviral defense’ (mediated through Interferon) to a stronger role for ‘anti-inflammatory disease tolerance’ that is, in turn, mediated through a vast expansion and expression of anti-inflammatory gene families⁵.

The viral version of events

While all this is going on with bats; there is a lot happening with their viruses too. Bats are hardly the sole reservoirs of viruses. Viruses can pick and choose reservoir hosts from a wide range of other creatures that include birds, primates, clove footed mammals (camels, goats) and rodents. A study of 300 disease systems⁶ (a disease system comprises pathogen, reservoir, target and geography) reports that rodents are the most common mammalian reservoir hosts for zoonotic pathogens (an infectious agent that causes disease is called a pathogen), while bats and primates host viruses with the most epidemic potential. It also confirmed viruses as the commonest zoonotic pathogen and that bats were over-represented for viral pathogen systems with humans as targets.

If little is/was known about bats; a little more is known about their viruses. Of all microbes, — (infectious agents with the potential to cause disease are called microbes; when they actually cause disease they are called pathogens. Every pathogen is a microbe; every microbe need not become a pathogen) — viruses cross (jump) the species barrier with relative ease. In just the past decade; four viruses — Handra, Nipah, Menengle and Lyssa — have jumped from Pteropid bats alone (Pteropus is a genus) and caused severe & fatal disease in both animals and humans.

A common classification of viruses is based on the nucleic acid in their core — DNA viruses and RNA viruses. All the viruses that have jumped from bats are RNA single stranded viruses⁷. RNA viruses thrive in the new host better than DNA viruses. They have innately higher mutation rates and so, adapt better to new environments.

Pic 1: Nipah Virus; Pic 2: Ebola Virus; Pic 3: Corona Virus. Source Credit: CDC


The extreme replication ability of chiropteran viruses, which co-evolved within bats, is a matter of indifference to the bat because it has a host-parasitic relationship akin to commensalism with them. But when such viruses jump from the bat to an intermediate host and from there to other end-targets; the result is disastrous. This ability to root and multiply, overwhelms unprepared immune systems of new hosts resulting in severe sickness and death.

Viruses cross the species barrier only upon contact. With bats; the opportunities for direct contact with humans are few and far between and transmission happens in two ways: 1. Direct — from direct contact with a bat either through a bite or through contact with its secretions. This is a relative rare route and was first documented in the rabies outbreak, of the early twentieth century, in cattle in Brazil where rabid bats became diurnal and were spotted biting cattle. A century later, another virus — a Henipavirus called Nipah — has been identified as the cause of outbreaks of human encephalitis in Malaysia, India and Bangladesh. In Malaysia, pigs are an intermediate host; but in South Asia, this virus transmits through direct contact. Not with the bat itself but with fruit-bat saliva and excretions in date palm sap. 2. Indirect — through an intermediate animal host which, in its turn, has contact with both bats and humans. Horses, pigs, civet cats, camels and gorillas have been implicated in Lassa fever, Nipah encephalitis, SARS, MERS and Ebola respectively.

A recent paper, published early this month in e-Life, tracks the impact of bat immunity on viral dynamics⁸. Using both in vitro experimentation and within-host modeling, it evidences the enhanced replication of viruses as a co-evolutionary tactic. It also establishes this as the reason for their devastating virulence and demonstrates the presence of an enhanced interferon-mediated immune response.

The spillover schema

‘Spillover’ is the term used to identify the specific event in which disease in a focal population has been transmitted from an animal reservoir source and depends upon it for its perpetuation. In other words, this is the event wherein a microbe in an animal source exits the animal, crosses the species barrier into another animal where it adopts a new avatar as a disease-causing pathogen.

For all the ease with which we commonly use the word; it is important to remember that spillovers are rare events and that the transition from microbe to pathogen is neither easy nor common. We live in a world that is teeming with microbes. Our own bodies are infested with them to the point where we now know that our bodies have actually been shaped and molded by them in what is called the microbiome. More than a third of human genes have their origin in bacteria⁹.

Microbes and pathogens are two ends of a continuum; inside every microbe is a potential pathogen and every pathogen is a microbe. Under certain circumstances, a commensal can turn pathogenic in its own host. A spillover event is however concerned with a microbe in one animal that crosses the species barrier and becomes pathogenic in another animal. That invariably happens because of the foreign, unrecognizable nature of the infecting organism which can be both directly toxic to the new host and can secondarily produce a strong defense response.

For zoonotic transmission to occur; a complex cocktail of circumstances needs to come together at the same time in what we might call a ‘Spillover Schema’. Since bats very rarely bite their targets; they must first shed the virus in question. Simultaneously, a susceptible intermediate host or target must be available close at hand. If this second animal is an intermediate host; the final human or animal target must then be in contact with this secondarily infected animal. Once seeded in a human, the virus must then set up an infection where it is expelled in body excretions in significant quantities in order for it to become a contagion. That is four steps in the schema already and four steps that must align simultaneously. Numbers are critical at every step — significant numbers of both the reservoir hosts, pathogens and targets are required to establish a sustainable contagion. This, as expected, requires highly fortuitous circumstances which is why spillover events are decidedly rare despite the many thousand trillion microbes that live with and around us.

A spillover event requires: the presence of density (of both the viral infecting agent and of overcrowding in the target population) and the absence of — a) distance (it thrives on intimate contact between virus and target), b) diversity (a diversity of susceptible species denies the virus the ease of locating and spreading in a captive host. This aspect played a major role in the potato blight which caused the Irish Famine and in the zoonoses of Lyme disease and West Nile virus disease) and, c) defense (weak or unprepared immune systems make for susceptible targets). Density needs the absence of distance and diversity for defense. That is, regions with high human population densities must defend themselves by maintaining an ecological barrier- distance from reservoir species and by preserving bio-diversity.

Ecology and conservation

Significant viral shedding in bats happens only when they are under stress. That stress could be an internal driver when the bat is combating illness or infection. More commonly, the stress factors are extraneous and related to human activity.

Although the last few instances of viral spillover have all involved bats as the source; it is not they that are to be blamed. Contrarily, it is unchecked human migration and expansion into bat territory that has created facilitatory circumstances for contact. In almost every zoonosis, regardless of the source, it is humans who have forced a point of contact either by causing the fragmentation of bat habitats by farming and urban expansion (windmills are a new challenge for bat conservation) or by hunting them for culinary or medicinal use. It is human predatory behavior that has, unknowingly or unthinkingly, caused the jump.

When under threat from an epidemic or pandemic, the almost knee jerk response to elimination of source raises important questions of conservation. Bats are critical hubs in ecosystems. They are both pollinators and predators. Their dwindling numbers disrupt both these crucial roles. Already bats are under threat because of take-over of their natural habitats and some of their species are listed as critically endangered.

Aside from human predation and in a reversal of circumstance that shatters, once more, our belief in our exceptionalism, humans have themselves served as an intermediate host for a chiropteran fungal disease — ‘white nose syndrome’ — that has afflicted North American landmass where the fungus, Psueduogymnoascus destructans has been ravaging sympatric bat populations for the past decade. Well known in Europe, it was alien to the North American geography until this century, and is now believed to have been transmitted to bats from an anthropogenic source. Humans transported the fungus on clothing, shoes and other fomites across the oceans from Europe to America and gifted it to bats across the pond.

Just like humans have cultivated-habitats that suit their purposes, just like we encounter the world through our own sensory experience; so too are the qualia-suited habitats of every other species. By our callous indifference to the environment of every species other than our own, we have put a great number of living creatures under stress from habitat takeover and pushed some of them to the brink of extinction. Whether through factory farms, wet markets or the outlawed hunting trade of wild animals, we have put ourselves in close contact with animals by illicit means that have now started to threaten our own health. Time and time again, in their every avatar, zoonoses reiterate the importance of respect for boundaries and urge us to rethink our eroded and deeply manipulative relationship with other animals.

The Umgebung

Biology’s discovery of echolocation first in bats and then in whales, led to Uexküll’s elaboration of the uniqueness of animal perception. It did not take long, from there, for philosophy to ponder the Umwelt. In 1974, one year after its description, Thomas Nagel authored a landmark essay in The Philosophical Review on the nature of consciousness titled, ‘What is it like to be a bat’¹⁰. He used the by then well documented uniqueness of chiropteran sensory perception to illustrate his argument that the subjective experience of consciousness eludes deterministic efforts. The unique and individual experience of human consciousness which varies not only from human to human but also between human and animal cannot be explained by psychophysical identification. The core argument of his essay was that the mind cannot be sited in brain matter nor can phenomenology in the physical.

“In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task.” Further down he says, “The fact that we cannot expect ever to accommodate in our language a detailed description of Martian or bat phenomenology should not lead us to dismiss as meaningless the claim that bats and Martians have experiences fully comparable in richness of detail to our own”.

The extra-ordinariness of the bat’s experience of the world captivated the attention of not just scientists and philosophers; but of poets too. And the poets had, as is their wont, a startling prescience. Here is how Emily Dickinson described the bat¹¹: “Elate philosopher! Deputed from what firmament/ Of what astute abode/ Empowered with what malevolence/ Auspiciously withheld”. The new appreciation that reality is a spectrum sparked a growing awareness of species-consciousness across science and the humanities. Long unregarded doors opened again to new frontiers of animal behavior and cognition.

Umwelt is where we started and Umgebung is a good place to close. It stands in opposition to the parochial and limited world that the Umwelt affords us through our own restricted sensory capabilities. The Umgebung, instead, is the great undiscovered reality of the vast spectrum of sound, smell, taste and vision that exists outside human confines. By appreciating its unfathomable scope of experience, we recognize our presence as one amongst many on this planet and the attendant need, therefore, to re-calibrate our relationships with the myriad forms of life. The Umgebung’s explosive expanse exists in our very own territorial world as a reminder that infinitude is not always extraterrestrial. It is that same infinitude on earth.

Bat in moon. Biko Takahashi; Color woodblock print on paper. Source Credit: Brooklyn Museum

.    .    .

References and footnotes:

1. Echolocation uses sound to create a visual representation of the environment making navigation easier under low vision or absent vision conditions. On the anatomy that produces echolocation in bats. Alain van Rickegham: ‘ How do bats echolocate and how are they adapted to this activity’ Scientific American, Dec 14 1998. Karl Gruber: ‘Humans have the ability to echolocate too and click-based echolocation has been used by the blind for navigation’: Phys Org April 3 2018.

2. B Muller at al: ‘More to Bats’ vision than meets the eye’ ScienceDaily, 29 July 2009

3. Taxonomy:

4. Zoonoses (Greek: zoon — animal; nosos — disease) are infections contracted by humans from organisms that have jumped from their animal hosts to humans. Sometimes the transmission is direct; often it is indirect where there is an intermediate animal that serves as the bridge between the source and the end-target. For example, in SARS — the infecting agent was a virus, the SARS coronavirus which jumped from bats (the natural source) to civet cats (the intermediate host) to humans (the end target). Intermediate hosts come into play since bats have little point of contact with humans unlike the intermediate host which has contact with both source and target.

5. SS Pavlovitch et al: ‘The Egyptian Rousette Genome reveals unexpected features of bat antiviral immunity’ Cell. Volume 173. Issue 5, P1098–1110. E19, May 17 2018

6. Plourde BT et al: ‘Are disease reservoirs special? Taxonomic and life history characteristics’ PLoS ONE 12(7): e0180716

7. The exception is the Hepadnavirus which is a DNA virus but uses an RNA intermediate for transcription

8. Brook CE et al: ‘Accelerated viral dynamics in bat cell lines, with implications for zoonotic emergence’ eLife 2020;9: e48401

9. Kat McGowan ‘Where animals come from’: Quanta Magazine 2014

10. Nagel Thomas “What is it like to be a bat”: The Philosophical Review, 1974

11. Emily Dickinson ‘The Bat’ Collected Poems, Digireads, Sept 2016


.    ,    ,

Afanasy Fet – the poet who straddled two centuries of verse


“I’ll go to meet them on the old

familiar road…I’ll gladly…wait for them till morning

watching the standing corn sway in the breeze

and one day’s death becomes another’s dawning.

So past and future in my own life meet;

and now the sweetness of the hour, so calm

and free, acts on me like a potent charm,

stilling regret for what’s behind

and doubt of what’s in store.”

.    .    .

My introduction to Fet was brief and unremarkable. I met him in an anthology of Russian poetry¹, marked some lines in the margins of his verse; and (most likely), hurried past him to more favored poets who were chronologically clustered in the remote sections of the book.

A couple of years later, this past month, I came upon him again. Our second meeting happened in an essay titled ‘The Meaning of Love’, written by the Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev². The essay was peppered with quotes from Fet’s poetry and his verse was arresting:

“And I know having gazed at the stars awhile;

That we looked at them as gods; you and I.”

Further down:

The sun’s afterglow is leaving the earth,

…. How imperceptibly the rays

Fade and die out at last!

With what languor do the trees bathe

Their luxurious crown in them!

And ever more mysterious and immeasurable

Does their shadow grow, grow like a dream;

How fine against the evening glow

Rises their light patter

As if sensing a double life

And doubly imbued with it,

They both feel their own earth

And reach for heaven”

I then learnt that he was greatly influenced by Schopenhauer and translated the philosopher copiously; that he and Tolstoy were close friends (Turgenev even) who bonded, amongst other things, over their admiration for Schopenhauer; that he was revered as a demi-God (in Pasternak’s words) by the Russian literati; that he was Mandelstam’s favorite poet and that Tchaikovsky, a close friend and great admirer, set many of his poems to song and thought of him as a ‘musical poet’, akin to Beethoven in temperament and genius.

All this came in the form of revelation. Popular anthologies of translated Russian verse do not talk of these intimacies of his life. They neither describe the unique space that Fet single-handedly created for Russian poetry at a time when it fell out of public favor; nor reveal that he became the masthead for twentieth century verse. Despite an anthology’s limitations, it is truly extraordinary that a man so feted and celebrated, by the greatest of Russian minds, should be so unknown outside his land. Obscure to the English-speaking world; Fet, with the double A’s in front of his name, is one of Russia’s great lyric poets. The history behind his name was the fuel for his creative urge. It shaped his destiny and became the spur of his ambitions.

Intrigued by my new learning, I scoured the library catalogs for books of his verse. Those too were hard to find. The search threw up just two titles; one of which — a critical review — was in the possession of a distant outpost of the local library. It took some days to transit the system; but at last, its arrival was announced in the ‘holds’ and that is where I met him for the third time — in a solemn hardcover bound in dark grey cloth, its spine printed with the words ‘The Imagination of Spring’ in etched, italicized gold.

Chagall resized

On the cover: ‘The Flute Player’ ~ Marc Chagall

This is not a book authored by Fet (to the best of my knowledge, none of his books have been translated into English). But it amply compensates by generously referencing his verse. Almost every page has ladder lines of his poetry in both the original Russian and in English translation.


‘The Imagination of Spring’ is an academic reading of Fet by the Russian scholar and critic, Richard Gustafson. Its prolegomenon immediately discloses reasons for his anonymity outside Russia — that his lyrical verse (extreme even by Russian standards) posed a great challenge with translation. While Fet’s verse might be especially unique for its rich lyrical quality, almost all Russian poetry, even through the twentieth century, continued to conform to traditional forms of metre and rhythm resulting in few and inadequate translations. This is unfortunate since the corpus of Russian poetry is immense and unexplored. The reasons for the Russian resoluteness with lyricism, in the face of the wholehearted embrace of verse libre by the rest of the world, is deeply rooted in history.

.    .    .

The history of Russian poetry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries:

Pushkin and the Golden age

[I have written on the subject of the evolution of Russian poetry elsewhere and will merely draw a gist here to unaddressed details.]

Following the Reformation and the Renaissance, England and Germany became the forerunners of literary movements which then quickly spread to France and post-Petrine Russia. Despite their secondary nature; the French and Russian experience with a violent dismantling of monarchy against the backdrop of tumultuous revolutions gave form to their literary movements as a response to sociopolitical change. This was more acute with Russia, where the upheaval wrought by the Bolshevik Revolution extended through most of the twentieth century and determined the character of its literary outpouring.

The Great Schism ensured Russia’s isolation from Europe through most of the second millennium. This barrier was breached by Peter the Great and the post-Petrine period of the eighteenth century witnessed the novelty of artistic and intellectual collaboration between Russia and Europe for the first time. The Western intellectual march through Romanticism, Realism, Symbolism, Futurism and Modernism all found and met their equivalents, mutatis mutandis, in Russia. Romanticism, the torchbearer of the tectonic change in poetics, found expression in Russia through Pushkin and his Pleiad. He established Russian literature’s universal credentials, flagged her as a tour de force and set the tone for the explosion of talent that was to come.

Pushkin on the Crimea by Aivazovsky

‘Pushkin on the Crimea’ ~ Ivan Aivazovsky, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

One of my beloved father’s good friends is a chronicler of Russian literature who has been much feted in Russia, through both the Soviet and the post-perestroika periods, for her scholarly work on Pushkin. For Russians, the grand-seigneur of their literature is Alexander Pushkin³. He reigns supreme there, towering above the elsewhere more well-read giants of Russian literature — Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Akhmatova, Sholokhov and many others more. The closest approximation we have to him, in India, is Tagore.

It is widely acknowledged that his literary endurance stems from his efforts with making the Russian language accessible to both readers and writers. He disassembled its formal constraints, colloquialized verse and facilitated its widespread adoption. At the same time, in the tradition of the Romantics, he liberated the subject matter of poetry. He expanded its scope — to all things, material and immaterial — and, in so doing, unlocked its potential as a medium for the expression of human sentiment and experience.

Pushkin’s benchmark status derives both from his prodigious and unparalleled talent with verse and from these innovations with prosody. But, alas! He died young (he was merely thirty-seven when he died in a duel that he instigated) and, after him, Russian history underwent a great many upheavals.


Poetry and literature were both subject to severe repressions in the Post-Pushkin era; first under the monarchy in the nineteenth century and then under Communism through the span of the twentieth century until Perestroika. The nature of the repressions under both regimes was differently experienced. The golden ages of both poetry and prose are located in the nineteenth century when Russia was ruled by the Romanovs. The restrictions on literary expression under the monarchy was a pale shadow of the horrors that writers and artists were subject to under Communist rule. A great many defected; many others were deported en masse and still many others were hauled away to the Gulag where they died or disappeared. The history of twentieth century literature is largely as response to this violent repression. All its forms — the compromised literature of the regime, the subversive response that providentially escaped or the reactionary émigré literature — emerged from under the cloud of Communism with little opportunity for escape into the realm of non-utilitarian art.

But this period stands out for the renascence of poetry after its decline in the golden age of prose that was the second half of the nineteenth century. Further, the revival was marked by a modernist movement which disavowed free verse and reverted to lyricism to keep traditional rhyme and metre intact. This reversal (the reinstatement of prosody and the oral tradition) was a conscious ‘subversive’ act of poets to escape the scrutiny of the commissars and to keep creative independence alive⁴.

Golden age poets

Krylov, Pushkin, Zhukovsky and Gnedich in “Summer Garden” ~ Grigory Chernetsov, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The poetry-prose carousel

Eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe witnessed a steady dismantling of the political order; alongside which, multiple avenues of literary expression opened that accelerated the shift from the centuries-old tradition of poetry to prose. Likewise, in the post-Pushkin period of the nineteenth century, Russia too experienced a shift to prose.

The nineteenth century landscape of literary Russia neatly bisects into the periods of Romanticism and Realism. In the first, the ‘extraordinary individual’ and mystical power of nature and the landscape were celebrated. In the second, the focus shifted onto the ‘ordinary individual’; to the daily tribulations of an ordinary human existence and its metaphysical conundrums. Utilitarian concerns give themselves more easily to exploration in prose and it is thus that this period (1840–1890) came to be the golden age of Russian literature. It showcased the masterpieces of the great Russian writers — Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekov and many others. Russia’s combined literary output in this period was unmatched by the rest of the world and, to this day, these classics occupy the acme of world literature. The shift to literature paralleled a succession in philosophical thought. The opening of the century showcased a post-Kantian shift towards biology (best expressed in the pantheistic naturophilosophe of Schelling and the poetry of Pushkin and Goethe) and in its closing years it ceded ground to the pessimism of Schopenhauer.

Unlike in Europe; the shift to literature in Russia was not permanent. The radicalism of the new literature was blamed for the civil unrest and anarchy that followed the Tsar’s assassination in 1881. Public mood switched to a longing for the sentimental comforts of poetry in the fin de siècle which then held sway as the dominant mode of literary expression through the twentieth century. The initial turn-of-the-century reversal of the Symbolists was nostalgic in intent. In the decades that followed the 1920s — through the periods of Modernism, the Soviet era and the Khrushchev Thaw — a second upsurge in poetic output was driven by necessity and was akin to an act of resistance.

.    .    .

Afanasy Afanasovich Fet

Historical Context

Russian epochs chart

Infographic ~ Author’s own

Although the age of Realism (also called ‘the marvelous age’) is celebrated for its contributions to the Russian novel and world literature, it also managed to give the world the genius of the Russian poet, Afanasy Fet. Writing in a time when poetry was in decline, he battled twin challenges of keeping critical interest in his art alive and resisting the dominance of ‘civic verse’.

Afanasy Fet was one of Russia’s greatest lyric poets and a colossus of late nineteenth century poetry. He is considered a master of the “lyrical miniature” — short poems of simple themes, with a sentimental context but an objective philosophy, whose words have a high degree of musicality due the meticulous attention to metre, form and rhythm. Lyrical verse is perhaps best described by the eighteenth-century German philosopher-poet, Friedrich Holderlin: “A lyrical poem is the continuous metaphor of feeling”. Fet straddled the period between Realism and Symbolism; the period book-ended by the philosophies of Schelling and Schopenhauer whose contradictory influences he blended into the voice of his own poetry. His poetry doesn’t fit neatly into any of the well described epochs of literary history and hews to a Frostian road.

The extreme musicality of his poems attracted the great Russian composers of the period — Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Rimsky Korsakov⁵— who set many of his rhymes to music. In English culture, verse with a demonstrable proximity to music is not critically celebrated. Whereas, in Russia, as in many other ancient world cultures, musicality enhances the intellectual caliber of a verse. Fet was particularly close to Tchaikovsky who called him “a poet-musician writing on subjects that are difficult to dovetail into words and language; but that find a more felicitous expression in music”⁶.

Unfortunately for him, despite the cognoscenti’s acknowledgment of his poetic genius, the mood of the moment tilted to prose and civic verse. The decade of the 1840s, when Fet burst on the literary scene, is called ‘The Extraordinary Decade’. In the eponymously titled chronicle of the period, the memoirist and flaneur, Pavel Annenkov opens with his acquaintance of Vissarion Belinksy whose persona then goes on to hold sway over the bulk of the book⁷. Belinsky was an extremely influential literary critic who had the power to make or break literary fortunes⁸. He spearheaded the avocation for radical socio-political change in Russia and decreed that literature must be written for a purpose — what he called a ‘civic’ purpose — a precondition that was amenable to the prose form.

Poetry, in turn, responded with a genre called ‘civic verse’. It bound itself to an agenda, to the purpose of sociopolitical realism and change. But, pre-determined conditions, direction and purpose are all antithetical to the very essence of poetic imagination and, consequently, poetry sank to its lowest ebb during this time. In this effort to gamely go along with the diktats of critics, Russian poets were out of step with Europe; which, at the same time, was experiencing the decadent revolt against Realism by the Parnassians⁹.

Few poets rebelled against Belinsky’s teleological imperative. Afanasy Fet was almost the sole mutineer. He rejected the new utilitarianism and, in the spirit of the Parnassians, continued to write poetry for the sake of art alone. This approach of art-for-art’s-sake, when civic verse was on the ascendant, sealed his fate. He languished in relative oblivion from the public eye for the greater part of his writing years.

It was only when disillusionment with Realism set in, that his fortunes turned with the post-1890 reversal to Idealism and the dawn of the silver age of poetry in the fin de siècle. This brief aesthetic age lasted a little more than a decade, and had two men as its prime influencers — the poet, Afanasy Fet and the philosopher, Vladimir Soloviev. Fet experienced a second coming and produced some of his best verse in this time. Soloviev’s impact, though profound, waned early; but Fet’s influence on Russian poetics continued well into the twentieth century. His remembered legacy is that he was the homegrown masthead of the great poets that followed him through the fin de siècle up until and through the Soviet era.

.    .    .


Afanasy Afanasevich Fet was born to German parents but was brought up in Russia from infancy after the marriage of his mother to a wealthy Russian nobleman, Afanasy Shenshin. This seemingly innocuous detail came to underscore his entire life. When he was still young, the Church decreed his birth illegitimate and stripped him of his inheritance and the right to his adopted father’s name. The humiliation of this public ejection from the nobility into the lowest ranks of Russian society and the forced reversal to his German birth name (Foeth) marked him for life. From thereon, the restitution of his status became a lifelong driver.

In those days, a commoner could enter the nobility by joining the army and attaining the rank of Major. With his goal clearly laid out, Fet set about enrolling in the army. Just when he achieved the requisite military stripes, he was thwarted once again by a change in the rules. And, if this disappointment was not crushing enough, he battled a more grave personal crisis; one from which he never quite recovered. He fell in love with the daughter of a learned man who was well revered but lacked natal nobility. In a momentary display of dishonorable character, Fet called off the relationship. Tragically, the young lady committed suicide¹⁰. This incident profoundly affected Fet who left the army and took to being a poet and landowner. He did marry a few years later but never had children and the major bulk of his poetry was written to the memory of, his once-betrothed, Maria Lazich.

.    .    .

Poesy and Poetics

Lyrical verse was Fet’s oeuvre. Deeply influenced by Schopenhauer’s theory of art as redemption; his was a poetry of escape from terrestrial suffering to a more perfect world. Poetry was not just the medium of escape; it was the escape itself. His philosophical belief did not let him rail against human fate or exhort to betterment. Rather, he stayed rooted in reconciliation with the malefic side of life. Instead of amelioration; he sought relief in escape, through the imagination of an unattainable but perfect, beauteous, blissful and eternal world. In his art, he found “the healing of the torment”.

“To one angered and callous of heart

Why then do you strum the lyre with a childish hand

As though it were the trumpet of revolt?

Why oppose Nature and fate?

These sounds bring down to earth

Not a passionate storm, not calls to battle

But the healing of torment.”

His ideological approach to art has two facets: One, it reflects the classic Schopenhauer pessimism. It also embodies his philosophy of art as escape. In what reads like an almost direct translation of the Upanishadic concept of ‘Sat-chit-ananda’, Schopenhauer says “art and the beautiful lead us out of the tedious world of endless desire into the will-less world of pure contemplation.” The second point of note is that this disengagement, with a lived reality, was in the fashion of the French Parnassians; even though there is no record of any connection between them and Fet and by all accounts Fet’s views appear to have formed sui generis.

The philosophy of ‘art-for-art’s sake’ separated the artist from the audience and elevated art (in all its forms — whether as literature, poetry or as painting) out of the realm of the public and general into a rarefied pedestal of the individual and particular. He expounds his belief in the unbridgeable divide between life and art in a poem titled, ‘Among the Stars’ in which he describes the stars of art as “caliphs” and “hieroglyphs of immovable dreams” and bids them speak thus:

“We are eternity, you are the moment….

That is why, when it is so difficult to breath,

It is joyful for you to raise your brow

From the face of the earth, where all is dark and bare,

To us, to our depths, where all is luxury and brightness”

Fet’s poetry is commonly described as ‘art-for-art’s-sake’ or as ‘pure poetry’. What is meant by pure is that it is disentangled from purpose or agenda. Its cause rests in, and of, itself alone. In Fet’s own words: “Pure art is free art; first of all, from any worldly aims, interest, desires, practical concerns or use, — free further from any pre-intentioned tendencies, from any previous preconceived or rational idea”.

The twentieth century dominance of confessional poetry has roots in the Romanticism of the nineteenth. When the Romantics expanded the scope and subject matter of poetry, they broke with the time-honored tradition of objectivity and encouraged the expression of personal experience. The solipsistic and lyrical ‘I’ entered verse and literature across Europe and Russia for the first time¹¹. True to the intensely personal nature of the word ‘I’, its usage in poetry varies from poet to poet. For some like Byron and Lermontov, its use is intensely personal and subjective. For Pushkin, its use is to separate the personal from the general and to adopt a detached position from both.

Fet’s use of the lyrical ‘I’ evolved through his verse. In his initial years, he used it descriptively — almost as self-discovery to merely convey the imagery of his experience but not elaborate on it; elaboration was the reader’s prerogative. In later years, he shifted his style by expanding on narration with thought-elaboration. For example, an idyllic landscape was no longer just described in an imaginative turn of word or phrase; what it made him feel and think was also detailed.

Fire and gardens are recurring motifs in his verse. He was haunted by the first as a constant reminder of his personal loss and returns to it again and again in his early phase of descriptive poetry. On the other hand, his use of gardens as metaphor alludes to the elusive and ethereal perfection he believed existed elsewhere. In a clutch of poems grouped under ‘poetry of the garden’ he uses the familiar themes of birds and flowers in the setting of a garden to elucidate the perfection of unrequited love — his conviction that its unsullied state, untainted by experience, elevates it to the promise of eternity¹². A point that he expands to great effect in a poem titled, ‘Alter ego’

“As the lily is reflected in the mountain stream,

You stood over my first song,

Was there a victory in that, and whose –

The stream over the flower, or the flower over the stream?”


We are together, we cannot be separated.

The grass which is on your grave in the distance,

Here in my heart becomes fresher the older it gets,

And I know, looking at times at the stars

That you and I looked at them like gods.

Loves its words, these words will not die.

There awaits us a particular judgment;

It will puck us out of the crowd immediately.

And we shall go together, we cannot be separated!”

In Christian Russia, Fet remained ambivalent about religion. While he publicly professed belief in the faith, his philosophical approach to beauty and nature suggests a Schelling-inspired pantheistic approach. This is better appreciated in his earlier poetry which has sometimes been called idyllic for its almost singular focus on landscape to make its case.

“The wave is bright — and scarcely breathing

It lies at the feet of the overhanging rock;

And, immersed in the moonlight

The earth is reflected in it

And the whole heavenly chorus begins to tremble.”

In his second coming (post the decade of the 70s), Fet distanced himself from ‘Pure’ poetry; turning instead to philosophical verse of abstract truths and what is called, the ‘verse of wit’. These poems reveal his shifting approach to perception in poetry — from description, he moves to elaboration and then to the expression of his own desire to understand his emotions. From the body of work he produced in this period; two poems stand out as strong representations of this shift — ‘Lying on my armchair’ and ‘On a Swing’. Both were written in 1890. Fet passed away in 1892 after a violent attempt to end his own life.

.    .    .

Aleksey Savrasov The rooks have come back

‘The Rooks have come back’ ~ Aleksey Savrasov, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

“Lying on my armchair, I look at the ceiling,

Where, in a challenge to my imagination,

The circle suspended above the steady burning lamp

Resolves its transparent shadow.

There is a trace of autumnal glow in that flickering:

It seems as though above the roof and the garden,

Unable to fly off and not having decided to perch,

Rooks are circling in a dark flock …

No, that’s not the sound of wings, that’s horses at the porch!

I hear trembling hands …

How cold is the pallor of a beautiful face!

How sad the whisper of parting!

I am silent, lost, looking from the darkening garden

Onto the distant road,-

And finding no haven, there is circling still

The disturbed flock of rooks.”

.    .    .


Sergey Vinogradov The Swing

‘The Swing’ ~ Serge Vinogradov; Russian Impressionist, 1910, private collection

 “And again in the half light of night

Between the tautly stretched ropes,

Together on that unsteady board

We stand and push each other,

And the more closely [we rise] to the tree tops,

And the more frightening it is to stand and hold on,

The more joyful it is to fly above the earth

And, alone, to draw near to the heavens,

True, it’s a game, and besides

It may turn out to be a lethal game,

But even to play with life together –

That is happiness, my beloved!”

.    .    .

Why does any of this matter? Poetry, literature or their histories — why do they matter? The equal parts agony and exhilaration that goes into writing a poem is followed by the excruciating struggle of finding someone to read, comprehend and publish it. Yet, this doesn’t seem to be a deterrent at all. Poetry thrives and by many reports, poetry submissions are at an all-time high.

Many writers have grappled with this question and countless essays and books are dedicated to its explication. One of the best known and most cited is, Shelley’s essay: ‘Defense of poetry’ which was written as a rebuttal to a pointedly satiric piece by Thomas Love Peacock. Calling poets as ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’, he weaves a myriad motivations for the existence of verse — beauty, reason, the limits of human imagination, the advance of civilization and more. It was well received and remains a classic to this day.

But while his argumentation won the battle; characteristic of the restless independence of poetry, it did not win the war. Countless such debates on the value and need for poetry have continued to rage in the centuries since. In ‘Poetry, Language, Thought’, Heidegger quotes from Friedrich Holderlin’s elegy, ‘Bread and Wine’ — “What are poets for in a destitute time” and then answers: “To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods”. Further down, he delves deep into a poem by Rilke from ‘Songs to Orpheus’ and interprets the lines as: “the ones who dare to venture into language — the province of Being — they are the sayers; they are the poets who are more venturesome who venture Being itself”. Although poetic, his response unwittingly elucidates the original question’s dilemma — that despite sincere attempt, it fails to bring forth a direct and uncomplicated answer.

I recently read the poet and critic David Orr’s humorous and thoughtful book on Poetry — ‘Beautiful and Pointless’ — which he closes with a chapter titled, ‘Why Bother?’. Orr concludes that poetry ties us to our language, our selves and society. But, a great number of people seem to get by without paying much heed to poems and the business of living is, as always, imperiously detached from these concerns. Poets do seem to be a miniscule group with a niche audience.

While this is true; it is only true if we try to fit poetry into a frame. If, on the other hand, what we understand by the term liberates to include everything from lullaby, to song, to ditty, limerick, rhymed verse, free verse, etc., almost everyone is a participant in its creation and transmission. And this, is why poetry matters.

In every culture, the origins of poetry are in song. In both, poem and song, rhyme and metre are the very backbone. And so; poetry, whether in private or in public gatherings (‘readings’), is often read out or sung aloud. In ancient times and civilizations, to be a singer of verse was an occupational tag — Rhapsode (Greece), Sūtaha (India), Rakugoka (Japan) — that committed these keepers of song to the memorization, public recitation and transmission of the words. Unfortunately, from the middle of the last century, and with the consuming advance of free verse, poetry readings in the English tradition have allowed the fine art of declaiming verse to wither into ‘self-deflation’. Mercifully, this trend has not taken root elsewhere. Poetry in other languages and cultures still holds on to the tradition of podium performance as either recitation in a raised and expressive voice or, as musical song. Bardic minstrels are to be found, in every town and city in India, to our present day.

The impact of rhyme and metre goes beyond a poem’s structural support. By rendering poetry easy to memorize, the rhythm of the words entrenches poetry within culture. Metrical prosody facilitates learning by rote. When such learning is transmitted orally across generations and people, it transforms poetry into culture. Poetry becomes a semiotic unit; it is both culture and a medium of culture. Through transmission, the methods of presentation of poetry also evolve with innovations of prosody and language which then become a marker of literary genius.

Apart from these aerial comprehensions; when experienced on a more personal level, and like for Fet, poetry is a metaphor of escape. When assailed by grief, loss and breakdown and in the absence of other crutches, it is the words — the words — that rescue us. In the few minutes it takes to read a few lines on a page; black and white characters manage to transform into the comfort of a spoken word, find their way into our associative memories, create new imagination, fill the spaces of the heart and engender a feeling of continuity. Somehow the words seem to know how to get under broken wings and coax them to fly again. It was Fet who prompted my deep engagement with Russian poetry. As I slowly sifted through his words, he once again connected me with a world more perfect than my own, with the possibilities of the human imagination, and with the comfort of hope.

.    .    .

 “I dreamed of a rocky shore,

The sea slept under the moon,

As an innocent child slumbers –

And, along it, gliding with you,

Into the transparent and wavy smoke

We walked along a path of diamonds.”

.    .    .

Bibliography and footnotes:

  1. The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry; edited by Robert Chandler. Penguin Classics Edition; 2015
  2. The Heart of Reality: Essays on beauty, love and ethics, Vladimir Sergeyevich Soloviev. Edited and translated by Vladimir Vozniuk. University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana; 2003
  3. This is how Maurice Baring, an authority on Russian literature, describes Pushkin: “he was fundamentally a classicist — a classicist as much in the common sense, realism and solidity of his conceptions and ideas as in the perspicuity and finish of his impeccable form. He strove with none, for none was worth his strife.” From, ‘An outline of Russian Literature, Maurice Baring. Read Books, 2009
  4. “Hands, matches, ashtrays”— In fear of being caught writing literature that could be termed incendiary by the government; poets used to write in small notes, exchange them by hand, memorize the lines and burn them. This poignant ritual was termed ‘hands, matches, ashtrays’ by the writer Chukosvskaya. Mendelstam would recite his poems to his wife when she visited him in the Gulag (from where he never returned) and it is her memorizing of them line by line, word for word that preserved them for posterity. Nina Gagen-Torn, a writer who was also imprisoned in the Gulag, would recite Mandelstam, Pushkin, Nekrasov to her cell-mates to keep spirits alive through the ancient tradition of recitation.
  5. This site has a collection of brief auditory introductions to some of these compositions:
  6. Tchaikovsky on Fet: “Fet reminds me of Beethoven, but never of Pushkin, Goethe, or Byron, or Musset. Like Beethoven he has been given the power to affect those strings of our soul which are inaccessible to artists, no matter how talented, who are limited to words. He is not simply a poet, but more of a poet-musician, since he avoids those themes which lend themselves easily to verbal expression.”
  7. ‘The Extraordinary Decade’ by Pavel Vasilevich Annenkov. Edited by AP Mendel and Translated by Irwin Titunik. Univ of Michigan Press, 1968
  8. DS Mirsky expressed the judgment of both Belinsky’s contemporaries and of later-day scholars when he described him as “the true father of the intelligentsia, the embodiment of what remained of its spirit for more than two generations — of social idealism, of the passion for improving the world, of the disrespect for all tradition and of highly strung, disinterested enthusiasm.”
  9. The Parnassians were a group of poets who rejected the emotional outpourings of Romanticism. They instead pursued objectivity with an insistence on aesthetic intellectualism. Theirs was an elitist movement that believed in art as the highest value; a value it held in and of itself. In pursuing this ideal — art for art’s sake — art disconnected from and withdrew from the public. Beauty was no longer the focus; objectivity and creativity took its place. The leading lights of the Parnassians were the French poets Mallarmé, Leconte de Lisle and Gautier. Their Russian equivalents were the poets Fet, Tyutchev and Blok.
  10. Most accounts claim she died by setting herself alight with a match on the bed while reading his letters. There is an alternate claim that it was an accident. Fet later recounted to a friend that her dying words were “It is not his fault; save the letters”
  11. ‘The Imagination of Spring’ Richard F Gustafson; Yale University Press, 1966
  12. This concept is a running motif in Indian religious and mythological philosophy. Love is split into Kama and Prema. Kama is terrestrial, requited and sated; while Prema is ethereal, not consummated and is unsullied by human ordinariness. Marriage is Kama while unconsummated love is Prema
  13. Art for this essay is sourced from: The Athenaeum. Wikimedia Commons and the Tretyakov Gallery


.    .    .    .    .    .    .

Russian Literary Epochs


Baptism of Jesus’ ~ Andrei Rublev; Annunciation Cathedral, Moscow

[This essay was translated into Tamil by the magazine Padhaakai and published by them in the January-February issue ]

Russian literature, as we know it, marked its dawn in the eighteenth century under the astral influence of two great men — Derzhavin and Karamazin. Derzhavin was Russia’s first national poet and Karamazin, was the country’s first historian, whose twelve-volume exposition of Russian history is, to this day, a resource of exacting scholarly erudition.

Prior to this, two epic poems dated to the twelfth century remain extant: The Chronicle of Kiev and, The Story of the Raid of Prince Igor. The last, especially, is a much-loved cultural influence and like most such world epics, it too has the strange mystique of being lost and re-discovered. Not once, but twice¹!

Why it took until the eighteenth century for Russian literature to take root and blossom has been a matter of intense scholarly engagement. Despite its geographical continuity with Europe, Russia was unaffected by the changes that swept through intellectual and literary Europe in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries; changes that came on the heels of the Reformation and the Renaissance. Historians attribute this to the barrier erected by the Great Schism which was to become the forerunner of the Iron Curtain.

But, for a few centuries, a grand cultural and intellectual integration of Europe and Russia did take place; one that has revived in recent times (albeit haltingly), with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instituted by Peter the Great, these collaborative exchanges were dutifully continued by his successors: The Empresses, Elizabeth and Catherine (Catherine the Great). During this heady period, many of the ideas of the Enlightenment were entertained by the Russian Court² with a monarchy that was attentive to the need for devolution of power and the dismantling of serfdom.

History has many a record of progressive propositions that were abruptly disrupted by the dispositions of circumstance. This time, it was the explosion of the French Revolution that slammed the brakes on what might have been a very different history of Russia. Instead, in the aftermath of the Revolutions, the monarchy sought to stabilize affairs by reverting to its entrenched and familiar practice of autocracy.

Catherine’s grandson, Tsar Alexander I, believed in a limited liberalism and was open to reform but a series of wars, assassination attempts and social unrest caused him to reverse his stance. It was under his grandson, Alexander III — called the ‘Tsar-Liberator’ — that serfs were finally emancipated, serfdom abolished, and the period (in the second half of the nineteenth century) when Russian literature blossomed to its full potential. He secured for literary expression its freedom and allowed it to flourish, unfettered, in his reign.

.    .    .

0 T

‘The Horsewoman’ ~ Karl Bryullov; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

From its radiant start in poetry with Derzhavin and Pushkin, Russian literature blazed an extraordinary trail, unparalleled elsewhere in the world, for the five decades that spanned the period from 1840 to 1890. World literature has no equal to the literary outpouring of this period that birthed the greatest works of Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Larmontov, Afanasy Fet, Blok and a great many others. But for Russian poetry, this was a period of a lull. It stepped back from the limelight and played second fiddle to prose. Happily, it didn’t take long for this interlude to give way to poetry’s glorious second coming in the twentieth century with an avalanche of verse from iconic poets, women and men, who found new ways of expression. Their words have become immortal classics and are translated into many languages around the world.

This extraordinary synchronic response of poetry and literature to the sociopolitical change over two centuries has been mapped into literary epochs based on the primary philosophical sentiment, in each time period, which found literary expression in verse.

  1. The Golden Age — 1800- 1835): This was the time of Pushkin and his Pleiad. It was an age influenced by the Enlightenment and combined the thought of Neoclassicism and Romanticism³.
  2. Age of Romanticism — (1835- 1845): The poetLermontov, whose approach to poetry is commonly called Byronic, was one of Russia’s greatest Romantic poets. His influence was great in this time.
  3. Age of Realism — (1840- 1890): This period marked the rise of the Russian novel. It was the age of Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

Ninth Wave Aivazovsky

‘Ninth Wave’ ~ Ivan Aivazovsky; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The poet of this age of poetry’s decline was Afanasy Fet. He disavowed the popular belief that art existed for a purpose and espoused, instead, the sentiment that art existed for the sake of art alone. All writers who were not Realists (who did not address social and political causes through their poetry) were condemned by powerful critics⁴ who decried poetry as a medium unfit for the expression of contemporary issues. Consequently, by 1860, there was a camp of ‘civic poets’ who wrote poetry with a purpose; an aim — an aim that was the cultivation of a social conscience. And so, while England, in the sixties and seventies of the nineteenth century, had great poets like Tennyson and Browning and France had Baudelaire and Verlaine; Russia, in her turn, had none⁵.


  1. The Silver Age and Symbolism — (1890- 1912) A series of reactionary movements and political assassinations caused by anarchists forced both royal and public engagement with progressive reform to thaw. The constant unrest shifted the general mood once again to nostalgia for a seemingly more-peaceful past and ‘art-for-art’s sake’ poetry regained its lost favor. Poets of this age resurrected Fet and Tyutchev and followed the metaphysical motivations of their poetics. The latter half of this period is usually referred to as the period of Symbolism. Ivan Bunin and Alexander Blok were the dominant voices of this time.

Both groups rejected civic verse and reverted to earlier role models for inspiration. Even if French poets Baudelaire and Verlaine remained a potent external influence, this new crop of poets equally relied on homespun experience. This proximal, inward and internal search determined the shape of Russian poetry for the rest of the century. Symbolists diverged from fin de siècle poets by showcasing a distinct theurgic element in their poetics and philosophical outlook. Their belief shifted from the Schellingian⁶ naturophilosophie adopted by Fet to a more directly religious God.

Symbolism was the forerunner of the twentieth century Russian verse that the world grew to venerate and love. It had, at its masthead, the guiding light of two men — one, a poet and the other, a philosopher: Afanasy Fet and Vladimir Soloviev. Their combined influence helped create a new form of verse that had its aesthetics shaped by Fet with the theological overlay of Soloviev.

Despite its reversal to an earlier form of poetry, Symbolism continued to uphold concerns with civic causes and played an integral role in the intellectual ferment of its time. But its structure and form were high-brow — elitist almost — and it soon collapsed into disfavor in the shadow of the Russian Revolution. The centuries old monarchy was dramatically dismantled and overthrown; the Tsar, Nicolas II — the last of the Romanovs — was compelled to abdicate and he, along with his family, was executed. No member of the monarchy survived and the dynasty met its end forever. This cataclysmic series of events set the stage for yet another reactionary literary response.

The Poet Reclining 1915 by Marc Chagall 1887-1985

‘The Poet Reclining’ ~ Marc Chagall; Tate Museum, London

  1. The Era of Modernism — (1912- 1925): Symbolism was now repudiated. Its rejection accreted under two groups who each mounted a separate intellectual response to the tumult of the time. A moderate group called the Acmeists held on to the poetics of Symbolism but distanced themselves from theurgic sentiment. Alongside them formed a more revolutionary group – the Futurists. Together, they are referred to as, Modernists⁷.

The genius that is modernist Russian poetry has four great poets at its pinnacle — somewhat too neatly slotted as two women and two men; two Acmeists and two Futurists. The Acmeists — Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam and the Futurists — Maria Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak. Two other poets — Mayakovsky and Gumilov were equally significant poets from this period; in fact, Mayakovsky is widely regarded as the poet of the Revolution.

The literary ventures of this group of poets were informed by varied ideological and philosophical approaches. Acmeists rejected the mystical facets of Symbolism alone. The Futurists were more radical. They rejected, in toto, its philosophical underpinnings, language and its ‘disconnect’ from the real world. For them, poetry was a medium that allowed both self-expression and a ventriloquizing voice for societal disaffections. An interesting side-note is that many painters (Cubists) who shared common beliefs on creativity and its purpose banded together with this group of poets and together came to be known as the Cubo-Futurists. Using words and drawing, they sought to express reality as experience — even distort language and formal shape — to provoke opinion and ideation through their art. The painters, Chagall, Kandinsky and Kamensky and the poets, Tsvetaeva and Pasternak, were prominent members of this group.

In the aftermath of the Revolution, the long existing ‘Union of Artists’ was sidelined as a Tsarist Institution. Most of the artists and writers in the Union were strongly opposed to the Revolution and its excesses. Cubo-Futurists were part of the avant-garde group of artists who supported the Bolsheviks and joined the government. They were given control of the Department of Fine Arts and, as the new commissars of art, they adopted the grand task of “constructing and organizing all art schools and the entire art life of the country”⁸. Despite their not insubstantial ideological divide, both Cubo-Futurists and Acmeists credited the inspirational influence of Afanasy Fet for the evolved sound of modern Russian prosody. For his steadfast stance against civic poetry and his insistence that poetry must be written for the sake of art alone — a stand that caused him great isolation and distress — Fet found a posthumous ratification in their veneration.


‘Stalin and Voroshilov at the Kremlin’ ~ Alexander Gerasimov; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

  1. The Soviet Period— (1925- 1955) The blossom of the Russian novel was like a centennial cactus flower — spectacular but short-lived — and literature began its decline under the authoritarian repressions of the new regime. The end of the civil war in Russia and the entrenching of Bolshevism in the 1920s caused a mass exodus of artists and writers to Europe. Some chose voluntarily to leave while others were actively deported by the government. Expectedly, it had its repercussions on literature and the outcome had contradictory responses within and without Russia’s geographical boundaries.

Poetry, the short story, novellas and drama took its place. Many prose writers took to becoming translators. In 1932, the Communist State decreed that Socialist Realism was to be the sole prescription for poetry. A second and third wave of emigration commenced and built up around the World War and Russian poets and litterateurs now split into ‘Soviet’ and ‘Émigré’ camps. The émigrés were mostly based in Paris and Berlin. With their numbers swelling with each wave of migration they grew to be a sizable number and established two critical reviews one in Paris and the other in Prague⁹.

The divide between the two groups was based on the support of the government. Emigres prided themselves in having stood up to the government; whilst Soviets saw themselves as patriotic and battling authoritarianism from within. The conflict is best capped in the words of one of the prominent Émigré writers, Aldanov: “Emigration is a great sin but enslavement is a much greater one”.

Prominent Émigré writers were Ivan Bunin (Nobel Laureate in 1933), Nabokov, Aldanov and the poetess Marina Tsvetaeva. The Soviets were led by Mayakovsky — the poet of the Revolution¹⁰ and by Sergey Yesenin. Both of them were individualists at heart yet believed in the Revolution in its early years. Yesenin was disillusioned quickly and revolted. His struggle with reconciling his beliefs with those of the revolution led to a dramatic end when he took his own life at the age of thirty. Mayakovsky who was critical of this act of fatalism; followed him a mere five years later.

Émigré literature despite its impoverished beginnings had the opportunity and the rigor to uphold its artistic and intellectual freedom. Soviet literature on the other hand, struggled with upholding the decree of Socialist Realism and was considered to have capitulated. Yet, despite its many faceted shackling, it had a clutch of famous writers in its stable too. Vera Panova, author of ‘Svidanie — The Meeting’ was amongst them, as was the most famous of them all — Mikhail Sholokhov, 1965 Nobel laureate and author of ‘And Quiet Flows the Don’.

  1. The Post-Stalin era or the Khrushchev Thaw — (1955- )Post-Stalin, the Khrushchev era saw a relative relaxation of control over literary expression in a new politics of de-Stalinization. A new and young generation of poets came to signify this Thaw (a word coined by Akhmatova) Younger poets have tried to bridge the gap between the Soviets and the Emigres who were futurists and Acmeists. The most prominent of them were Yevgeny Yevtushenkov, Voznesensky, Akhmadulina and Joseph Brodsky (1987 Nobel Laureate). Thaw poets took poetry back to the masses by public outreach — returning lyricism to verse, organizing public readings, self-publication and distribution of their work (samizdat) along with audio recordings of readings. Their unusual but successful methods earned them the moniker ‘Estrada poets’ — podium poets.

The poets of this group are loosely grouped as Official poets and Unofficial poets; the former had ties to the official culture and the government; whilst the latter were a more independent minded bunch composed of both Russian and émigré poets. Except for the famous names associated with this period; little is known of the rest of the poets from this period (sometimes referred to as the Bronze Age of Russian poetry). The stigma of affiliation with the Communist regime and the lack of a clear distinction between the two groups are commonly cited as reasons for this gap in knowledge. It was one of their own— Joseph Brodsky — who ensured that their contribution was unforgotten when he acknowledged them in his Nobel speech. Since then and post-perestroika, scholarly interest in this period has renewed.


‘The Bolshevik’ ~ Boris Kustodiev; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

This neat categorization of literary epochs are merely ex post facto lenses through which we attempt to understand the dramatic shifts in literary thought that happened through the East and West halves of Europe. Neither the movements nor the poets slotted under them, subscribed to these strict definitions. In reality, literary movements evolved, regressed into and borrowed a lot from one another. As did their poets. Despite that, the wide-angle view that facilitates such groupings is critical to our understanding of the extraordinary response of literary endeavor through each passing tumult of history, to reconcile the conflicting challenges of art and purpose, of realism and idealism and of objectivity and creativity.

.    .    .

My love of poetry was given to me by my father. When we were children, he would recite his favorite poems to us and hold us spellbound with his declamation and his patient and measured explanation of word and phrase. This practice continued as we grew older and we often joined in; but his deeply passionate reading rendered in a rich baritone with nuanced modulations of voice was mesmerizing and our voices fell away to listen; rapt and entranced. My earliest recollections of his recitations were poems that he had first learnt from his father — Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’ and Arnold’s ‘The Forsaken Merman’. It mattered little that it would take us many years to read, assimilate and memorize these poems. These were the poems he first learnt from his own father and were therefore the ones that he imparted as first and beloved tradition. The tradition of declamation succeeded in seeding his own love for words and language in our hearts and, having seeded it, he then assiduously helped us cultivate it; first as teacher, then as a beloved friend and comrade-in-arms. Literature and poetry became a refuge; a retreat into a space which abounded with the eternal companionship of his generous heart and his wide, unfettered mind.

This love for poetry, that he nurtured with foresight, helped keep me aloft through the harrowing experience of relentless loss that was the past decade. This past year, in an especially low moment, I chanced upon an old anthology of Russian poetry¹¹, and fell in love with Russia and its literature again. The book had a potted biography of each author with embedded snippets of their lives; of romance and political intrigue.

These small stories that seemed to hide grand tales were an invitation for a deep dive into the evolution of Russian poetry and literature. It is not common to find, in our collective civilizational stories, a record that so neatly maps political change with literary response, as is found in the Russia of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. The incentive and the impetus for this response, therefore, merits some attention.

From being a primordial method of communication, sound transits through many avatars, from the simple to the complex — from resonance, note, tune and rhythm; from a word, phrase, clause and sentence to the complexity of music and language — and from there, to the many layered facets of meaning. To an understanding that enfolds the higher cognitions of a word — its interpretation, deconstruction, distortion and meta-explication.

Of the literary arts, poetry alone melds the beauty of music to language by weaving rhyme and metre into and with the word strings. Poetry has the ability to describe human sentiment in tight constructions of language and metaphor. A phrase so structured can hold within it the vastness of human experience. This ability gives Poetry the power of alchemy — it causes ordinary and commonplace words to morph, like magic, into a new and profound awareness. Either as recited verse or as song, the seamless union of music and language endears it to the human heart. It is also the reason for its endurance as an art form — the ease of its oral transmission by memorization as poem or as song.

It is unsurprising therefore, that poetry makes the best case for the human spirit through every tumultuous life-change whether experienced personally or through the indirect impact of sociopolitical disruptions in society and nations. In this same fashion and as response to authoritarian excess, poetry became the lodestar of written and verbal expression in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Russia.

While there was a largely synchronous experience of these literary movements across Russia and Europe; their elaboration, mutatis mutandis, is unique to geographical and cultural circumstance. An extraordinary feature of twentieth century Russian verse is its resistance to the free-verse movement that overtook the rest of the world. Here too, the reasons remain political. The harsh intimidations and repressions felt by poets and writers after the revolution were of a degree experienced nowhere else in the world. Any written word that was not in concordance with the diktat of the regime would ensure for its author, an invitation to the Gulag. Many poets took their own lives or simply disappeared into oblivion in the Gulag to be never heard of again. To avoid this fate and as a method of keeping their artistic freedom alive, poets took the ‘subversive’ route of reciting and memorizing verse; not transcribing it. To facilitate the memorization of verse; they held on to traditional rhyme and metre and eschewed the free verse movement. “Hands, matches, ashtrays” was the name given to the ritual of writing in small notes, surreptitiously exchanging them by hand, then memorizing the words and burning the paper to ashes, by the writer Chukosvskaya. It is how this terrible period of history is remembered to this day.

Poets best mirror the vast disconnect between the reality of the ground and the accessible, yet seemingly unattainable, aspirations of people. By articulating the particularities of human experience in universal terms; Russian poetry allowed the word to transcend barriers of culture, geography and language. The genius of its expression is such that, even in translation, it has effortlessly found its place in the acme of world poetry in our time.

.    .    . 

Bibliography and footnotes:

  1. Recovery stories aid the cultural entrenchment of epics. The first time ‘The Raid of Prince Igor’ was lost and re-discovered was in the seventeenth century by Count Musin-Pushkin. A namesake of the famous author; Count Musin Pushkin was a renowned librarian, epistemologist and botanist. He chanced upon the manuscript in the collection of a fading noble family, procured it from them and oversaw its reprint. Unfortunately, it was burned down, along with all the other contents of the library, in the great fire of Moscow in 1812. Mercifully, another copy was discovered in the papers of Catherine I in 1864 and it is this version that exists today
  2. Voltaire and Diderot had an especially close relationship with Catherine the Great. Not much came of these exchanges due to the long shadow cast of the French Revolution. The Empress stressed in her letter exchanges with both philosophers, that while she was sympathetic to the need for reform of the serfdom, Russia’s realities entailed their introduction in a slow and contained fashion. Diderot’s visit to Russia and his efforts with the Empress and her Court is the subject of a book ‘Catherine and Diderot’, Robert Zaretsky, Harvard University Press.
  3. Neoclassicism is the movement in the arts and in philosophy that reverted to classical antiquity for inspiration and as ideal. It was followed by Romanticism which also harked back to the past but to a more recent one. The Romantics were inspired by the medieval ages. Their primary drivers were the mystique of the universe, nature and human emotion; in all of which, they saw a more perfect authenticity and one that was worthy of emulation
  4. The critic Vissarion Belinsky wielded an extraordinary authority over literary affairs in the Russia of the 1840s. His influence and its impact on Russian literature is chronicled in Pavel Annenkov’s biography, ‘The Extraordinary Decade’; University of Michigan Press Reprint, 2015
  5. ‘A History of Russian Poetry’ by Evelyn Bristol; Oxford University Press, 1991
  1. Schelling — one of the trio of philosophers who came to define post-Kantian German Idealism. The other two were Hegel and Fichte
  2. ‘The Silver Age’ by Sibelan Forrester and Martha Kelly; Academic Studies Press, 2015
  3. ‘Russian Cubo-futurism 1910–1930, a study in avant-gardism’ by Vahan D. Barooshian; De Gruyter Mouton, 1975
  4. ‘Contemporary Annals’ was published out of Paris and ‘The Will of Russia’ out of Prague
  5. “Enough of the petty truths/ Erase the past from your hearts/ The streets are our paint-brushes/ The squares are our palettes” ~ Vladimir Mayakovsky. Ibid 8. p.119. He later said that, in order to sing the Revolution, he had to stamp on the throat of his own song.
  6. ‘The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry’ edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk et al; Penguin, 2015
  7. Art in this essay is sourced mostly from the Tretyakov Gallery, Wikimedia Commons and Wikiart. I have tried to include art from great artists contemporaneous to each period in an effort to not only showcase their genius but to also cast light on the artistic perception and its visual representation in each epoch

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