On a Tuesday evening in September last year, when 10-year-old Shourya Reddy and 12-year-old Shashank Reddy accidentally walked into a room full of poetry enthusiasts at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, little did they know how close they were to discovering the real passion of their lives.
Twelve months and 40 “Poetry Nites” later, both brothers from the Sanskriti school are about to become published authors— their poetry collections go to the press next month. According to Shashank, who has penned more than 40 poems already, what excites him most is to “pick up any two verses from poems that other poets read out, and build those into a full four- stanza poem.”
Around 40 to 50 people gather at the poetry reading sessions of Delhi Poetree, a movement that began in October 2005 to revive contemporary poetry in the Capital. It has slowly, but surely, come a long way since its first reading with a dismal attendance of just four people. “It all started with the unhappy realization that poetry in India was confined to a select audience with literary heritage. We wanted poetry to be a part of the daily lives of ordinary people,” says poet Amit Dahiyabadshah, a US-returned poet who founded Delhi Poetree.
Dahiyabadshah acknowledges that roping in sponsors for an initiative such as this is not an easy task—it will take more time and struggle. The beginnings were small and simple: “Since poetry has traditionally been read in coffee houses the world over, we too started with weekly sessions at one of New Delhi’s Café Coffee Day outlets, and the only choice they offered us was to do it on a lean day such as Tuesday so that it did not affect their regular business. However, in only a few weeks, they were doing almost as much business on Tuesdays as on other weekdays, thanks to poetry lovers,” he smiles, recounting the early days of Delhi Poetree.
From finding full-house audiences to selling dozens of copies of their published works, Delhi Poetree has helped a number of poets discover a market. The organization has showcased the works of 69 poets so far—including many from countries such as Australia, the US, the UK, Spain and the Caribbean. Established poets usually get an hour to recite their favourite verses and present signed copies of their books to the audience before the stage is opened to other experienced and amateur poets. In all, Delhi Poetree aims to identify and feature 100 contemporary poets from the city of New Delhi. Only last month, it achieved its 50-poet milestone, and chief minister Sheila Dikshit personally sat through each reading and honoured the poets as “living treasures” of the city.
Meanwhile, the objective of reaching out to every nook and corner of New Delhi seems to be taking shape real fast. The American Centre in Connaught Place, the resto-bar Geoffrey’s in Gurgaon, and a music academy in the heart of New Delhi recently signed up to be new venues for poetry reading. And this is just the beginning: “We plan to tie up with 8-10 venues covering all parts of New Delhi, which would then offer 30 poetry readings a month, making sure that there is at least one reading happening every night in some part of the city,” says Dahiyabadshah. “By early 2008, once we achieve this target, we hope to have a monthly turnout of close to 1,200 poetry fans every month, assuming a daily turnout of 40. Even if we were to discount the repeat audience, there would still be about 400 new faces getting exposed to poetry every month.” Artist Jaya Dixit Peralta lauds the 30-readings-a-month goal as she explains how poets have always been sidelined by every art promotion agency in the state. “Music, dance, and fine arts have been given their rightful appreciation, but the same is due for the world of poetry,” she says.
Shalini Virmani, a Gurgaon- based poetry enthusiast who counsels teenagers on stress management, cannot contain her excitement about discovering Delhi Poetree a few weeks ago. “Having moved to Gurgaon after 13 years in culture-soaked Chennai, I was frantically on the lookout for a forum to interact with poets and writers until I found Delhi Poetree,” she says. Virmani is only one of the many regulars at Delhi Poetree readings besides 10-year-old Shourya Reddy and 85-year-old Khorshed Ezekiel, sister-in-law of one of India’s finest poets, the late Nissim Ezekiel. All it takes to remind them is an SMS mentioning the featured poet of the evening.
While the idea of poetry readings is possibly as old as the art of poetry itself, what distinguishes Delhi Poetree is the inclination and aggression to involve the ordinary individual. In fact, it may come as a surprise that similar initiatives, which were started as early as half a century ago, are active even today. In the early 1950s, a select group of about 12 renowned poets decided to host weekly poetry discussions at the Indian Coffee House near Connaught Circus in New Delhi, a tradition that continues till today. However, these efforts have been only partly successful in engaging the common folk since participation in these forums has been confined to literary circles. Rakshat Puri, one of India’s finest English poets, explains this phenomenon: “Indian poets have temperamentally never been very aggressive with awareness- generation and marketing of their efforts to mainstream poetry. Although anyone who is interested in poetry was welcome to attend the sessions at the Indian Coffee House, no extra effort was usually made to generate awareness about this event. We are now witnessing a change in that direction.”
Delhi Poetree has taken a huge step in the right direction. But, Dilliwalas, do not forget what French moralist Joseph Joubert once said, “You will not find poetry anywhere unless you bring some of it with you.”
Mayank Singhal is a poetry enthusiast and works with an international strategy consulting firm.Write to firstname.lastname@example.org