Analysis of Poem "The Felling of the Banyan Tree" by Dilip Chitre
Dilip Chitre and The Felling of the Banyan Tree
The Felling of the Banyan Tree focuses on a particular time in a family's history when a drastic decision has to be made by the father. This decision involves the demolition of houses on a hill and the cutting down of a huge tree which has stood for centuries in the same spot.
It is an autobiographical poem, being Dilip Chitre's exploration of a time when he was uprooted from Baroda to the city of what was then called Bombay, modern day Mombai.
So the banyan tree is a metaphor for his life, for the family's upheaval.
- And the man responsible for the move is none other than the father, representing all that is masculine, dominant, forward looking and destructive. Contrast this with the traditional knowledge of the grandmother, representing all that is feminine - the past, nurturing, religious and conservative.
- This patriarchal versus matriarchal theme is central to the poem, the speaker appearing to favour the latter but is helpless to stop the inevitable momentum of progress, as applied by the father.
Dilip Chitre, a respected and versatile artist and film-maker, is known as one of India's most popular modern poets and writes in both English and Marathi. His work is featured in most serious Indian anthologies.
'I regard my poetry as essentially autobiographical and historical. It describes my engagement with persons and places, the progression of time, death, and loss, memory and perhaps a hope of liberation to which I cling.'
The Felling of the Banyan Tree was first published in his book Traveling In A Cage, 1980 and has since become a poem for study in many Indian schools and colleges.
The Felling of the Banyan Tree
My father told the tenants to leave
Who lived on the houses surrounding our house on the hill
One by one the structures were demolished
Only our own house remained and the trees
Trees are sacred my grandmother used to say
Felling them is a crime but he massacred them all
The sheoga, the oudumber, the neem were all cut down
But the huge banyan tree stood like a problem
Whose roots lay deeper than all our lives
My father ordered it to be removed
The banyan tree was three times as tall as our house
Its trunk had a circumference of fifty feet
Its scraggy aerial roots fell to the ground
From thirty feet or more so first they cut the branches
Sawing them off for seven days and the heap was huge
Insects and birds began to leave the tree
And then they came to its massive trunk
Fifty men with axes chopped and chopped
The great tree revealed its rings of two hundred years
We watched in terror and fascination this slaughter
As a raw mythology revealed to us its age
Soon afterwards we left Baroda, for Bombay
Where there are no trees except the one
Which grows and seethes in one’s dreams, its aerial roots
Looking for the ground to strike.
Analysis of The Felling of the Banyan Tree
The Felling of the Banyan Tree explores a special time in the life of a sensitive speaker, when family roots were torn out, when the old way of life had to give way to the new.
From the first line the reader is informed that this decision was taken by the patriarch, the father, and the energy which directly affects things is therefore is masculine.
There is no reason given for such drastic action, no specific economical or logical details offered as to why this clearance of houses and land should occur.
In opposition to this masculine approach - antithetical - is that of the feminine, represented in the family by the grandmother, a spokesperson for nature, for the sacred aura attached to the remaining trees.
She introduces a religious element, based on tradition, which tells that to harm a tree is an actual crime. The speaker focuses on the names of the trees that are, in rather violent language, 'massacred' by the father.
And in the shape of the banyan there is the symbol of family itself, the great rooted tree representing centuries of living, of connection between earth and heaven.
It too is cut down. The second stanza gives the reader all the details...how long, how much, how many. A whole ecosystem is gradually brought down, extinguished perhaps.
The imagery is clear. The great banyan, helpless to resist, is hacked at by dozens of men. It's like something out of a battle or war...in fact, this felling does seem to foretell the coming environmental struggles that are still ongoing globally, but especially in countries like India, so used to wilderness but now having to cope with industry, new economics and expanding populations.
The speaker has two emotions - terror and fascination. The former based on sadness and fear for the future, the latter on the awesome sight of a massive tree come crashing to the ground, revealing its rings and ancient history.
The family move to the city and the speaker now is hard hit it seems, for the only trees available are those in the subconscious. But this tree is angry (seethes), perhaps because of the way the move has happened. And there's no telling if the roots will find what they need: nourishment from the earth.
Further Analysis of The Felling of the Banyan Tree
The Felling of the Banyan Tree is a free verse poem of 3 stanzas, with 25 lines in total. There is no set rhyme scheme and the metre (meter in American English) varies somewhat, bringing different rhythms to each line.
The central theme is uprootedness, the idea of leaving a family home. The secondary theme is that of ecosystems and their destruction, specifically that of felling trees for profit, in the name of progress.
In the poem the two are inextricably linked - the speaker moving home coincides with the tree being cut down. The two are fused together.
The style is conversational, as if the speaker is relaying the tale of the banyan tree to a family member, or a friend. It is like a short story being told. Overall the tone is matter of fact tinged with slight sadness and even anger at the thought of the tree being cut down, effectively killed.
Note the use of words that reinforce the idea of a masculine versus feminine theme, of destruction versus conservation:
The banyan tree is a metaphor for the speaker's family history.
In the Hindu religion the banyan tree (batbriksha) is a symbol of the Triumvirate of Lord Vishnu (the bark), Brahma (the roots) and Lord Shiva (the branches). It brings life and fertility.
This deeper religious significance adds another layer of meaning to the poem.
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