Arun Kolatkar was born in 1931 in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, India. He grew up in a traditional patriarchal Hindu extended family, describing their crowded home as 'a house of cards…the rooms had mudfloors which had to be plastered with cowdung every week to keep them in good repair'. He was educated at Rajaram High School in Kolhapur, where lessons were taught in Marathi, and at the J.J. School of Art in Bombay, also attending art schools in Kolhapur and Pune, graduating in 1957. He spent several years trying to make a living before turning to work as an art director and graphic designer for several advertising agencies in Bombay, achieving great success in this field.
He wrote prolifically, in both Marathi and English, publishing in magazines and anthologies from 1955, but did not bring out a book of poems before Jejuri (1976), which won him the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and was later published in the US in the NYRB Classics series (2005). His third Marathi publication, Bhijki Vahi, won a Sahitya Akademi Award in 2004.
A reclusive figure all his life, he lived without a telephone, and was hesitant about publishing his work. It was only after he was diagnosed with cancer that two further volumes of his poetry in English were brought out by friends, Kala Ghoda Poems and Sarpa Satra in 2004. He died not long afterwards. A further posthumous selection, The Boatride and Other Poems (2008), edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, contained his previous uncollected English poems as well as translations of his Marathi poems; among the book's surprises were his translations of bhakti poetry, song lyrics, and a long love poem, the only one he wrote, cleverly disguised as light verse. His Collected Poems in English (Bloodaxe Books, 2010), edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, brings together work from all those volumes.