To most people Gieve Patel is synonymous with the poem On Killing a Tree. “It is the one poem that people remember,” he admits with a sudden smile. “Whenever I travel abroad, people I don’t know at all come up to me and tell me that they had studied it in school.”
The poem deals with an incident that happened when he was in the first year of medical school in Mumbai many years ago. An old peepul tree had sheltered a host of creatures, both wild and tame, under its branches. One day, when he came to school, he found that it had been chopped down. Dr Patel described it in the course of a reading last week at The School KFI, run by the Krishnamurti Foundation India in Chennai.
Gieve Patel with students in Chennai
“The poem just came out without much effort. Most of it just fell into place naturally. And though it’s about the beautiful tree that I missed seeing in its usual place, in some ways the poem suggests, I think, that a tree is not very different from a human life.”
As a practising doctor, images of the human body are never far from his compendium, whether in paintings or poetry. And it’s typical of a Gieve Patel poem that he should see the bark of the tree as “leprous”. It’s as if there’s an equal amount of delight and revulsion with the physical aspects of the world around him.
We are in the auditorium of the KFI school, as it is known in Chennai, during the first session of a two-week festival of poetry organized by the Prakriti Foundation. The foundation claims it is the first poetry festival of its kind in Chennai. It is a first in many ways—there are poets from all over the country and the group includes an older generation of poets such as Patel as well as relatively newer and younger voices such as Anjum Hassan, Arundhati Subramaniam and Vivek Narayanan.
Though the main language appears to be English, there are poems in Tamil, Kannada and other regional languages too, and in various forms and manners of presentation. The venues range from Cafe Coffee Day outlets to Fabindia stores to local schools and colleges.
Of course, Tamil poets and Telugu associations hold poetry festivals all the time, so it might not be such an innovation. Quite by chance, actors Tom Alter and Juhi Babbar are doing a more formal recitation of Ghalib’s poetry at the Taj Coromandel during the opening week. It’s quite a contrast how different the ideas of how poetry should be received and performed can be.
The Urdu-Persian mode of courtly poetry suggests the humming of honeybees in an orchard filled with fruit trees in an eternal springtime of the spirit. It is unabashedly romantic. Tamil poets declaim their verses like the waves crashing on the sands. They sound like politicians, or maybe it’s the politicians who imitate them. The new ‘English types’ reflect the din and roar of traffic during peak hour, the clink of coffee spoons or, asT.S. Eliot might have recommended, measuring life out in self-enhancing drops of artificial sweeteners.
In the midst of this din, Dr Patel’s voice preserves a rare sense of rightness. Or an assurance that writing poetry is or should be a form of artistic expression that has to be nurtured both by the people engaged in the activity and by those who perform the equally important task of listening to it. He not only reads from his own earlier book of poems, but from an anthology that he has edited and compiled out of a unique association that he has had with the students of the school started by J. Krishnamurti at Rishi Valley, near thetown of Madanapalle in Andhra Pradesh.
It is a well-produced volume of poetry by the children with whom he has worked over the last 10 years during trips made every year in January. These are enhanced by paintings and drawings that the poems inspired in some of Dr Patel’s own circle of friends, that include the artists Nilima Sheikh, Anju Dodiya, Sunil Patwardhan and Atul Dodiya.
As he describes in the introduction to the book: “Rishi Valley School is a four-hour drive from Bangalore. It nestles in the shadow of a valley that suffers from being in the rain shadow of hills around it, with the result that in the earlier part of it existence the school was lodged in an impressive but arid setting. Planting of trees started in the 1930s, soon after the inauguration of the school itself. The result of this visionary activity is a transformed environment. The hills and the valley are full of trees, there are water bodies with birds and tiny animals wherever the rain gods have been reasonably generous, species of birds that had never been seen in the valley before have started to make it their home and the valley has been declared a bird sanctuary.”
The continuity of Dr Patel’s visits allowed him to watch the children grow with the sessions. He first introduced them to some of the poets whose work he admired. He gave them a few basic rules—no clichés, no imitations, no references to daffodils, fairies, witches or goblins. Eventually, he suggested that the students read out their poems at the school assembly. “It was an uphill task nevertheless,” he says. “The average well-educated Indian student does not know how to speak at a public platform. The mercurial charming chatter with implosions of words and running together of text is a pleasure to hear on the games field or at picnics, but not elsewhere. In addition, the students at this stage of the workshop saw the reading as something painful to be quickly got over with. The idea was to rush through the poem and then run away.”
Gradually, however, the poets became as accomplished at reading their poems out aloud as at putting them on paper.
“What is a poem?” asked one of the children at the reading. “Is it meant to be read silently, or spoken out aloud?” In answering them, Dr Patel was both teacher as well as fellow poet. “Well, it’s not prose. Poetry has a rhythm. Prose also has a rhythm, but it is different from that of poetry. Poetry catches a fleeting moment.”
Through the open window, a pale yellow butterfly shimmers into the hall for an instant, suggesting just how fleeting that moment might be. As he continues, he suggests that some poems are meant to be read in silence, so that one can go back to it again to reap its essence, but others are best heard out loud.
“You may not be able to get its full meaning, maybe you will just get 50% of it, but there’s a special pleasure in just listening to the sound of it,” he says.
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