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The poem Self Portrait by AK Ramanujan depicts the struggle of modern man for identity. The modern world is that of materialism and capitalism. Hence in the quest of all the material things the man forgets to be himself.
Every individual in today’s world has put on his face another face. The poet who moved to the US is no different from the modern man. In fact, being brought up a capitalist society, the poet has also lost his identity and thus in this poem he tries to discover his original self, the one which he really is without materialism.
I think the poet is trying to belittle the Western Culture and rather prefers his own because the former is materialistic which makes the individual lose his identity while the culture of East to which he originally belongs leads one discover himself.
However, in the end, he attacks the patriarchal society of the East by describing that his identity was given by his father. The poem has one long stanza. It is a one-sentence poem with no rhyme scheme.
The poet says that he resembles everyone but has no identity of his own. Resemblance either refers to the trends which tend to make people look like each other or interest (in materialistic things).
And in being similar to each other, he has lost his own identity i.e. himself. The first line thus shows the poet in dilemma. He doesn’t know his identity and is lost among lakhs of others around him.
Next, he says that sometimes, while in shop-windows, he sees the portrait of a stranger in himself though he knows all the well-known laws of optics. ‘Shop’ in a simple sense refers to any ordinary shop but when we go deep find that it symbolises capitalism – spread by the USA.
‘Window’, I think symbolises the attitude, character or identity built by capital and material possessions. ‘Well-known laws of optics’ probably means that he knows well how to see. In this sense, the poet says that though he has a clear vision yet he fails to see himself in materialistic life. Rather there stands a stranger person which is not his original self.
Date unknown probably refers to the poet’s inability to find for how long he is not been able to discover his original self. The identity is signed in a corner by his father. Signed in a corner here means that he did not get an opportunity to have his own identity. Rather it was given by his father.
Thus, in the beginning, the poet seems to be dissatisfied with a capitalist society but in the end, he is also unhappy with the patriarchal society which is dominant in India. It is the patriarchal society which gives the identity to the children. Hence rather than having their original identities, the children are given identities by their parents.