ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

“Bombay” in the Imagination of a Poet: The Artist as Witness, Art as Placemaking, in Arun Kolatkar’s ‘Kala Ghoda Poems’


Shenava Ajinkya - Shiv Nadar University, Sociology, New Delhi, India


08 – Imagining the city: Literary and religious practices of urbanity in early modern and modern South Asia


 A few days before his death, the Indian poet Arun Kolatkar published Kala Ghoda Poems (2004). Written decades before its publication, it became synonymous with a “Bombay” that brings together commerce, capital and community in complex ways. Kolatkar brings alive the cityscape with an orchestra of characters displaced by burgeoning material infrastructure.

The protagonists of this poetic narrative include a “pi-dog”, ragpickers, prostitutes, and drug peddlers. Rescuing urban actors from the clench of “precarity” (Muñoz,2017), Kolatkar is more than an observer who “derides the voyeurist comfort” of his class (Nerlekar,2004). Even in their “mock heroic” avatars, these people craft the city. The poet is a witness on the evolving periphery of a community he can never be part of. Sitting at a café overlooking the “traffic island” (Kolatkar,2004), he changes the city that he is witnessing.

From a position of peripherality (Lave and Wenger,1991), how does poetry become an act of place making? Through literary archaeology, using text and image, this paper studies urban community formation. The poet animates a shared space peopled by the desire of relationships, and aspiration for social mobility. Both the material reality of transaction, and affective intensity of compassion produce the sensorium of the community. His satire questions articulations of “marginalisation” and “urban poverty” (Appadurai,2001), reimagining narratives of (re)development, stability, flux, and flourishing.