At the Chandigarh Literature Festival last November, one of the participating poets, Ashok Vajpeyi, spent a large part of his session reading his poetry, both in the original Hindi and in English translation. This upended the normal format of literary festival panel discussions, but the audience couldn’t get enough of it. They applauded as he read, continued to request for more, and in no uncertain words told him that they preferred to hear his verses in Hindi.
Vajpeyi, as executive trustee of the Raza Foundation, started by the artist S.H. Raza, who died last year, has set up a formal platform this weekend in New Delhi for 45 poets writing in 15 Indian languages to do the same. As part of VAK: The Raza Biennale of Indian Poetry, the poets get 15 minutes each to read their work in the original language as well as a translation in either English or Hindi. Over the three days of the biennale, which started Friday, discussions are meant to be limited to three sessions critical to the political and literary climate today: Poetry as Memory; Poetry as Freedom; and Poetry as Conscience.
VAK has invited poets such as Kutti Revathi and Salma, who have often riled the conservative literary establishment in Tamil Nadu with their patriarchy-resisting poetry, Malayalam poets K. Satchidanandan and Anitha Thampi, Assamese poet Nilim Kumar, whose verses show deep sympathy for the marginalized, and other poets across languages and regions who have lately been speaking of a threat to India’s plurality. “I am sure the kind of India that will emerge from their poetry will be different from that imposed on us by this political establishment,” says Vajpeyi. There are readings in Kashmiri by Majrooh Rashid, in Manipuri by Ratan Thiyam and Dilip Mayengbam, in Gujarati by Kanji Patel and in English by Arundhathi Subramaniam.
In this triptych of poetry biennales, the second edition, in 2019, will focus on Asian poetry, and the third, coinciding with Raza’s birth centenary in 2021, will explore world poetry.
One of Raza’s abiding interests was poetry, especially in Hindi—this, Vajpeyi points out, may have been the reason for their life-long friendship. The artist, who dwelt on the spiritual in his works, would frequently jot down verses that moved him in his diary, and some—from sources as diverse as the Vedas, Upanishads, verses of Kabir, Mirza Ghalib, Mahadevi Varma, G.M. Muktibodh and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, for instance—would eventually make their way into his canvases as well.
“He would say that poetry is an art in the contemporary prosaic world which is neither economically viable nor popular in the sense that fiction or non-fiction is, and we must do something about it,” says Vajpeyi. The mandate of the Raza Foundation, an art and cultural organization, then, is to promote the visual arts, poetry, music and dance—in that order.
In Pune, last weekend, the foundation held a day-long reading of Bhakti poetry in English translation by Ranjit Hoskote and Arundhathi Subramaniam, and it has previously organized events to celebrate the poetry of Muktibodh and Shamsher Bahadur Singh. In that sense, VAK is much larger in scale and ambition.
Exclusive poetry festivals are in themselves rare, and dwindling public interest in poetry elevates the importance of this event. Vajpeyi points out that there are only a few languages, like Malayalam, Manipuri, Bengali and Urdu, in which poetry still matters. “In Hindi especially, the divorce between popular and significant poetry is very deep,” he adds.
VAK hopes to close that gap.
VAK: The Raza Biennale Of Indian Poetry is on till 9 April at Triveni Kala Sangam, 205, Tansen Marg, Mandi House, New Delhi. For more details, visit www.therazafoundation.org