Poetry with Prakriti 2017: Ashwani Kumar on activism
How do you see the space for poetry changing and evolving in India - specifically, for regional language poetry alongside writing in English?
Poetry has been flourishing in India especially in Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, and Marathi largely due to the coming of age of dalit and feminist poets and writers. Experimenting with new forms of syntactical moments, tonalities and unusual imagery, regional language poets are writing with great insight, wit and irony about the lives of ordinary people and quotidian injustices.
‘Dissension’ rather than ‘consensus’ has become the presiding deity in the regional language poetry. No wonder, poets in regional languages are ‘barking like a dog’ at the bloodied – sunrise in frighteningly visceral verses. This has also deeply influenced the texture of Indian English poetry making it more local, more vernacular, more rooted into regional cultural traditions and aesthetics.
Though the footprints of urban middle-class aesthetics are still very visible, the contemporary English poetry is no longer the ‘poetry of the landless minority’. New Indian English poetry has now become ventriloquising gurgling voice of ‘many selves’. It is now like the mythical puranic river ‘Shubhsrava” - a young river in the abode of ancients. Given this resurgence and resonance of poetry, it is tragic that mainstream publishing houses (Indian and multinational) continue to ignore poetry in favour of commercially successful pulp-lit or chic-lit.
Tell us a little about your plans at the Prakriti Festival. What can audiences expect, given your participation at the event?
Following the 17th Century French poet and critic Nicolas Boileau’s dictum, ‘my verse, good or bad, always says something’, the audience may expect in my reading ‘something’ - like ‘reaching out into the 10,000 contradictions’ as Namdeo Dhasal said.
I am planning to read select poems from my anthology, My Grandfather’s Imaginary Typewriter, and then will present new poems from the latest anthology, Banaras and the Other, first of a trilogy on religious cities in India. Based on the imaginary retelling of Major James Rennell (the first Surveyor-General of Bengal), the lead poem in the anthology is a cartographic poem, mapping rising cases of intolerance, xenophobia and Islamophobia.
So purists and orthodox may not like but the audience will surely enjoy a rebel ‘ascetic who wears matted hair / which has acquired the color of thillai leaves / with frequent wash/in the waterfalls’ (Maarpitthiyar). Since the function of imaginary in poetry is real, I am trying to bring a more real, more inclusive, transcultural version of ‘Banaras’ to Chennai!
How would you like to see the Prakriti Festival holding its own alongside various other new events and biennales dedicated to poetry, across the country?
Fortunately, Prakriti Festival has resisted the temptation to become a celluloid experience or simulacra of spectacle, confined to elite literati and glitterati. Its attempt to revive the tradition of bringing itinerant poets and bards to the doorsteps of people is a novelty. Imagine the joy of taking poetry to colleges, schools and public cafes.
As it makes no distinction between celebrity and non-celebrity poets, it has genuinely emerged as a powerful platform of established, emerging and young poets from various Indian languages - a true Sangam or gathering of diverse forms of Indian poetry. I only hope it also travels to other cities and villages of India as a caravan or jatra too.
Would you consider poetry readings to be rather similar to performance art pieces? How does the performative aspect of a public reading change things in terms of engaging listeners, and disseminating and offering poetry?
The popularity of performative poetry in the digital age of liquid modernity does not surprise; poems have always been shouted, sung and read. In India, poetry has always been a performative embrace and the folk theatre has flourished on performance of sacred and secular spoken-word since ages.
In ‘vacanas’ - free-verse lyrics - of Bhakati saints in Kannada, poets are considered singing, itinerant mendicant (jangama) who challenged traditions, and also entertained audience in the villages. As the legends say, Lord Siva also read a poem in front of all Sangam poets in Madurai to teach a lesson to Nakkirar, the composer of ‘Tirumurugartruppadai’.
Though the theatrical, rhetorical performance poetry is most welcome, but poetry is also deeply meditative and liberatory experience. Performative poetry/slam poetry needs to guard itself against the excesses of spoken-word as it can easily degenerate into authoritarian populism and enflame hatred and violence. Thus, there is a need to rescue performance poetry from the clutches of largely upper caste neo-middle class literati and pill-popping existentialism of new-age millennials.
How is poetry gaining significance as a form of protest, in the present day? How can activism through poetry be more effective?
Poetry is neither dull-drab prosody nor programming of words. Poetry is a political language, a counter -culture with rancid smell of our true humanity. Without politics, there is no poetry, for 'lions are made of sheep,' as French poet Paul Valery said. And ‘sheep are made of lions, too as AK Ramanujan wryly asserted. For me, poetry is always an exercise in unannounced satyagraha or civil disobedience; it is an exceptional moment of uprising against the ‘power of anyone’.
The protest-poets have always gone beyond the binary of ‘Akam’ and ‘Puram’. In fact, poetry in Indian languages has always resisted the phenomena of return of primordial patriarchs leading irrational and uncontrollable blood-thirsty mobs in their pursuits of power. Its heartening to note that Indian English poetry has also increasingly become more inclined towards protest-poetry.
For instance, Adil Jussawalla’s recently published Gulestan is profoundly disquieting rage against religious hatred. In short, writing and reading poetry itself is activism giving birth to radical possibilities of protest and resistance.