Poetry gets its say

The performance poets who are making powerful statements


Harnidh Kaur collaborates with artists on Instagram
Harnidh Kaur collaborates with artists on Instagram

Over the past few years, the staccato of performance poetry from colleges and neighbourhood parks across the country has been reaching a crescendo. If poetry comes with the baggage of being inaccessible to many, several others also stay away from a monotonous reading of it (unless actor Benedict Cumberbatch is involved, of course). Fiery young performance poets from India’s metropolitan cities and university towns are, however, holding their own.

Their metaphors punch you in the gut, their sentences are conversational, and the performances take impromptu detours to keep you riveted. This growing talent led to the hosting of India’s first collegiate competition, the National Youth Poetry Slam (NYPS), in Bengaluru over 17-18 September.

Performance poetry finds its influence in the Beat poetry of the 1940s—Allen Ginsberg’s Howl And Other Poems is a classic example—with Ginsberg and his peers, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, taking a stance against literary traditions, canon and conformity. In India, the recent surge in performance poets can be gauged from the fact that even actor Kalki Koechlin has become more vocal with her poetry. While she was present at the NYPS as a non-competitive performer and a member of the jury, at a Young Ficci Ladies Organization event in Delhi a week earlier, on 12 September, she had performed her 2014 piece, Yet Another Rant. A powerful punch in the face of patriarchy, it talks to “dear powerful men” who want to make their women feel like princesses, “...give her a special day/International Women’s Day./You want to carry her so she can’t walk,/Hold her, so she can’t be free.../ But NO!/ No. That’s not how works equality.”

The contestants at the NYPS, largely from Delhi and Bengaluru, also included teams from Jadavpur University in Kolkata, Mehr Chand Mahajan DAV College for Women, Chandigarh, the Manipal Institute of Technology, and the VIT University, Vellore. The NYPS winners get a ticket to the big league: the US-based College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (Cupsi) in March-April, which is organized by the Association of College Unions International. It is considered the biggest collegiate slam competition in the world.

The St Stephen’s College team rehearsing at the recent poetry slam in Bengaluru.
The St Stephen’s College team rehearsing at the recent poetry slam in Bengaluru.

The confidence and talent of many young poets has been honed by performances at cafés, bars and book stores that host such events—from the Kunzum Travel Cafe, Oxford Bookstore and The Hosteller in Delhi to Atta Galatta, The Bookworm and Urban Solace-Café for the Soul in Bengaluru. Delhi alone is home to several student-heavy slam groups, like Slam Out Loud, Free the Verse, Poets’ Collective and Slip of Tongue. One Sunday in June, the Poets’ Collective even took performance poetry to Gurgaon’s Rapid Metro service; they had a live audience of about 70 on the ride.

Still, it is the Internet that is credited with playing a major role in promoting the performance poetry scene. Take the NYPS, which was launched by the Airplane Poetry Movement (APM), a Bengaluru-based community initiative that aims to put the spoken word in the spotlight. The APM, in turn, was started in 2013 by Nandini Verma and Shantanu Anand, then students of Pune’s ILS Law College, and gets its name from Anis Mojgani’s poem, For Those Who Can Ride In An Airplane For The First Time. Names like Mojgani or Andrea Gibson would be familiar to those who have used the blogging platform Tumblr over the past five years.

YouTube too is responsible for the cross-border fan following of young slam poets like the US-based Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye. Having grown up on a steady diet of such spoken word artists, the APM team had released an extensively shared online video appealing to Kay, the 28-year-old co-director of Project V.O.I.C.E (a group for educational empowerment through the spoken word), to come to their event. “It still hasn’t sunk in that she’s come. It’s impossible to actually measure the influence she’s had on spoken word poets across the country. She has inspired so many different poets, it’s remarkable,” says Anand.

This is noticeable even in the styles of several NYPS performers. Shirin Choudhary, a third-year undergraduate student of English literature at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, who was part of a three-member team with Angaha Gopal and Samuel Davidson at the NYPS, started writing when she was about 14 years old. “Back when I started writing, I always used rhyme schemes, eventually trying free verse too. But then I discovered Tumblr, and it showed me how people have very prominent and distinct styles. But with slam pieces I think there seems to be one dominant style that you find all around,” she says.

Social media is another instrument used widely to popularize this form. In a recent Facebook-promoted video, the UNHCR’s goodwill ambassador, actor Cate Blanchett, along with others from the film and writing fields, like Keira Knightley, Stanley Tucci, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kit Harington and Neil Gaiman, performed a goose pimples-inducing version of Jenifer Toksvig’s rhythmic poem, What They Took With Them, to urge people to sign the #WithRefugees petition.

Mumbai-based Harnidh Kaur, a student of public policy at St Xavier’s College, uses her Instagram account to collaborate with other poets and artists. Her debut poetry collection, The Inability Of Words, has been published by Writers Workshop. In April, Kaur capitalized on an online hashtag-driven writing movement, #NaPoWriMo, using it with screenshots of her poetry. This also resulted in many inspired cross-genre collaborations, for instance, with Priyanka Paul, a teenage artist from Mumbai whose illustration of Kaur’s poem, Pantheon, resulted in a spin-off series called Goddesses. Many others like Radhika Sivsankar too took to illustrating works from the poet’s Instagram.

Radhika Sivsankar’s illustration of Kaur’s poem, ‘Seven things no one told you about sitting by the sea’
Radhika Sivsankar’s illustration of Kaur’s poem, ‘Seven things no one told you about sitting by the sea’

Most of Kaur’s poetry is inspired by current events (“No inspiration? Read the newspaper!” she says), even though she started at age 13 with rhymes on love. Inspired by the performance of Indian women athletes at the recent Rio Olympics, she wrote of women breaking free of their shackles: Today,/somewhere in India, hidden/under veils of fortune and fate, a/little girl will wake up to a newer day.

By her own admission, she discovered contemporary Indian poetry very late. “I love Akhil Katyal’s poem I Want To 377 You So Bad. I started following Indian poets once I realized that many of them are very active and responsive online. I tracked Katyal down on Facebook after reading 377. He was very approachable and even gave me feedback on my work. It was with exposure to such poets that I realized that my poetry could be really rooted into my current context,” Kaur says.

While English is the dominant language in the slam circuit, the NYPS had a half-hour showcase for Hindi slam poetry, and a 15-minute one for Kannada too. But making space for regional poetry in this multimedia age is Pune poet Shivam Sharma’s The Mansarovar Project on YouTube. The effort is named after Premchand’s short story collection. “I used to write both in Hindi and English, but I found that I think in Hindi. Spoken word, which sees a majority of English works, has made its space in India. It’s now time for poetry in our other languages to find their stage too,” Sharma says. He released his first video in early September with the poem Tu Kavita Ho Jaana, inspired by Hindi poet Uday Prakash’s Kuchh Ban Jaate Hain. His next poem production will be Aakhri Mulaqat by Jan Nisar Akhtar. Through submissions and requests, Sharma will curate and populate the YouTube channel.

“This project will never go mainstream though,” he says. “It’s not going to get a million views—that’ll more likely remain a song from a bhai (Salman Khan) movie.”

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The winning poem

Delhi University’s Gargi College won this year’s NYPS. They will now go on to represent India at the forthcoming Cupsi in Chicago. The three-member team of Diksha Bijlani, Cheryl Mukherjee and Shubra Awasthy had performed What do you know anyway?

Bijlani tells Mint Lounge that she’s passionate about using the spoken word to effect social change.

The poem performed at the NYPS deals with extremism in human rights movements, and the lack of choice in social movements. Why is only a working woman seen as a feminist? Why does asexuality find no representation in the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) movement?

An excerpt from What do you know anyway?

Honey, today at work they called me a strong,

Independent woman, and told me i’m a disgrace for

Choosing to marry so young in the same breath

Their women empowerment comes with terms and conditions apply:

“Termination clause: Membership to women’s movement may be suspended or terminated in the event of consensual marriage at or before the age of dismantling patriarchy, dissolution of gender roles and legalization of marital rape.”

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