Subverting the Myth in Arun Kolatkar’s Sarpa Satra

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Subverting the Myth in Arun Kolatkar’s Sarpa Satra

by – PULKITA ANAND, Banasthali Vidyapith, Tonk, Rajasthan

Published in March-April 2018 Issue, Ashvamegh




The paper highlights the concern of the downtrodden more in the form of sharpening their consciousness against the rottenness of the society. The paper examines the complex use of poetry, identity, myth, and history as a subaltern method of resistance. It throws light on the subaltern elements in Arun Kolatkar’s Sarpa Satra. Subaltern consciousness is more or less similar to that of a portrayal of Dalitism in literature. Subalternity as a condition becomes an umbrella concept which gained momentum in the twentieth century ever since Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak published her famous treatise Can the Subaltern Speak?. The poems included in the Sarpsatra of Kolatkar are a poignant satire on the hypocrisy of the system and society that perpetually uses coercive methods to suppress the rebellious voices of the subaltern.

Keywords: Sarpa Satra, oppressor, resistance, subaltern.


Only those pieces of literature, which are concerned with all aspects of human life and the universe in its entirety, can give us a complete notion of being human. Literature always anticipates life, says Oscar Wilde, ‘It does not copy it but mould it to its purpose’.  In the words of Simone de Beauvoir, “Literature should deal with the most singular experience to communicate the universal dimensions of the human condition.” Human feelings, ideas, passion, experience, joys, sorrows, aspirations, frustration and the struggle in life form the core of all art and more particularly of literary art. An artist succeeds not by resisting or avoiding life but by giving into it. The artist expresses reality by identifying himself with the genius of the nature he contemplated, and at the same time by ordering and recomposing these essential elements he makes them in their turn expressive of his own mind. India is a land of varieties and vitality and unity in diversity is driving force of our country.  But there have also been disparities and discriminations in society.  Subaltern studies help to understand the history of the struggle of the suppressed and subjugated. Subalternity has many layers of existence.  In the Indian context, India herself remained a subaltern nation crushed by the colonial rule.  Gramsci was credited with expounding a new dimension by introducing the term ‘sublatern’. The subaltern classes refer fundamentally in Gramsci’s words to any individual considered to be on the lowest strata of the social ladder, suffering under the hegemonic domination of a ruling elite class that denies them the basic rights of participation in the making of local history and culture as active individuals of the same nation.  He inculcated the method of persuasion to attain social justice.  In post-colonial theory, the word ‘subaltern’ is used to refer to a member of any group that faces oppression due to caste or gender or race. Spivak clearly points out that subalterns cannot speak and even if they speak it cannot be or will not be heard in the upper strata.  Spivak warns in advance from such a position of accepting the condition of a permanent subordination. She affirms that the task of an intellectual is to pave way for the subaltern groups and let them freely speak for themselves.

Coming to Indian scene Iyengar says “Indian writing in English is but one of the voices in which India speaks” (Quoted in Riemenschneider 172).  Modern Indian poets have one way or the other contributed to the cause of voicing for the voiceless.  In this context, the voiceless may be a member of a suppressed group such as economically poor, socially deprived, discriminated by the gender-bias and son on. Of all the modern Indian poets Kolatkar is the most obsessed with the topic of social discrimination. Kolatkar (1932-2004), a bilingual poet wrote seamlessly both in Marathi and English with equal proficiency. He is a graphic artist who won Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1977 for his long poems Jejuri published in 1976. Before his untimely death, he wrote two further books in English viz., Kala Ghoda Poems and Sarpa Satra. Kolatkar was not a prolific writer; he has written scanty poems but with these small productions he has carved a niche for himself in the Indian English poetic milieu.

Sarpa Satra is a long narrative poem based on the Mahabharata in which Janmajaya, the great-grandson of Arjuna, son of Parikshita avenges his father’s death by Takshakha. In the Sarpa Satra Kolatkar is reinventing the myth of ‘sarpa satra’ in the modern context.  His poems sweepingly cover aeons of time as they deal not only with the myth of Sarpa Satra which has remained a source of abiding inspiration for postcolonial poets but also with elements of modern history such as the atrocities of Khandav Van, in the Mahabharata. What emerges in the process is a parallel history of India, marked by entrenched caste, class and gender hierarchies which have shaped thousands of years of casteist subjugation against which Sarpa Satra vehemently reacts. The aftermath of Khandava forest destruction by Arjuna and Krishna which Jaratkaru describes as:

And it was these together

that did this thing

-burnt down the khandava forest.

And when they were done,

no one green leaf ,

not a single blade of grass

                  was left behind.

Just miles of ash that kept smouldering

for months afterwards. (CPE 195)

These lines describe the massive destruction that results from vengeance. The poet, with a compassionate poetic heart, recreates the scene of the mass destruction and the use of appropriate imagery gives intensity, vigour and immediacy of appeal and freshness.  Here Kolatkar employs the Sarpsatra myth of the Mahabharata in order to resist oppression meted out to the voiceless creatures and does it from the perspective of the subaltern suppression by the higher echelon in the social hierarchy.  This he writes from a sense of the need for peaceful co-existence in Nature in which man boasts to be the greatest of creations, but is out to annihilate his co-inhabitants on the earth.  The employment of myth by Kolatkar subverts the convention of national identities, providing an alternative to the myth that was thought to be rigid and definitive. It is the past that is being appropriated by the oppressor and used to perpetuate their oppressive identity and division, which Kolatkar attempts to deconstruct. The subaltern perspective provided by Kolatkar is not only rooted in resistance but can also be understood as an alternative form of history. Said writes that resistance in literature, “far from being merely a reaction to imperialism, is an alternative way of conceiving human history.”(216)

It is evident that Kolatkar has subverted the myth of ‘Sarpa Satra’ in the modern context. He is trying to find out the aporia, the gap, the absence and disorder in the contemporary human world. In Jaratkaru’s world, there are references to ‘secret police’, ‘a question of national importance’, ‘blank cheque’, ‘an extremist’, ‘terrorist’, ‘event managers’, and so forth. It seems reflexive to bring the mythological past to the present. On the surface, Sarpa Satra seems to be a simple poem; but thematically, it follows very esoteric patterns. It depicts a human world seen through the eyes of one serpent. On delving deep into the poem, it refers to mass destruction, rage, vengeance, and violence that have been taking place in the human world since time immemorial.  In the present context, Jaratkaru, Takshaka and the serpent race represent the oppressed class and Janamejaya, Arjuna and Krishna represent the oppressor’s class. The colonizers always considered the natives as deficient in knowledge and intellect. If seen from Jaratkaru’s point of view, this is as good as an extinction of the race. On another level, the sufferers in Sarpa Satra may be visualized as Jews, the Afghans, the Japnese, the Iranians, the Iraqis, the Vietnamese, the Koreans and the several others who have been proved scapegoats and fell prey to the political ambitions of the West in the last century which also continues even in the present.  Reading of Sarpa Satra in the post – 9/11 and the 7/7 scenarios become more significant when the minorities, rather the Asians, in Europe and America are looked down with suspicion. A. K. Mehrotra aptly observes, “Based in the frame story of the Mahabharata, Sarpa Satra is also a contemporary tale of revenge and retribution, mass murder and genocide, and one person’s attempt to break the cycle” (31). Sarpa Satra is an allegory of extremism, a poem that deals with the theme of hatred.  The poem ends without a full stop.  It suggests that the celebration of unending hatred continues and it will be on and on.  In this way, Kolatkar has tried to bring the glorified myth of the past before our very eyes exposing the hidden agenda of the oppressor that enlarges our perspective of understanding the strategy of the oppressor who has historically been trying to suppress the resisting voices of the oppressed.





Dieter Riemenschneider.“Marginalizing the Centre-Centering the Periphery: The Reception of Indian Literature in English”, Indian Literary Criticism in English. ed. P.K.Rajan, New Delhi: Rawat Publication, 2004, Print.

Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Ed. and trans. by Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, London: Elec Book,1999, Print.

Kolatkar, Arun. Arun Kolatkar, Collected Poems in English. Mehrotra AK (ed), London: Bloodaxe Books, 2010. Print.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds.). Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press, pp. 271-313.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography.” In Subaltern Studies IV: Writings on South Asian History and Society, ed. Ranjit Guha. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

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