Fancy giving somebody 2 lakh because you like their poetry? That’s exactly what happened this year at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Arundhathi Subramaniam received the inaugural Khushwant Singh Memorial Prize for Poetry for her collection, When God Is A Traveller. The annual prize will be sponsored by marketing professional Suhel Seth.

“If Suhel Seth is giving away money for a poetry prize, then we’ve entered the mainstream," says New Delhi-based poet-novelist-guitarist Jeet Thayil, only half-jokingly—he was on the jury.

Poetry has a rich tradition in India. It was instrumental in earning the country its first (and only) Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded to Rabindranath Tagore in 1913 for his collection Gitanjali. Old Delhi’s Urdu-speaking dwellers spice up their daily conversations with couplets of 19th century poet Mirza Ghalib and 18th century poet Mir Taqi Mir. The Sufi poems of Bulleh Shah are sung across the Punjab countryside. Indian poetry in English, which began in the 1820s, has produced its own share of canonical poets.

Even so, Indian writing in English has mainly meant prose. That seems to be changing. “You’d be surprised at the number of people reading poetry nowadays," says Seth. “Once we announced the award, we were flooded with applications, which show that more and more of us are dabbling in verse." The award presented at Jaipur, he indicated, was a first of its kind. “While there are enough annual awards for fiction and non-fiction, there was none for poetry."

Arguably some of the best poetry so far goes back to the 1970s. But though today’s poetry hasn’t yet found its way into the best-seller lists, excitement is mounting. It’s almost as if an underground club of poets, publishers, critics and readers has joined forces, defying the scepticism of some publishers. The poetically inclined have responded by turning out in droves.

Indian poetry in English is no longer the solitary art of crafting verses that few will read.

Sharmistha Mohanty. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
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