Vak is worship: Indian writing at the country’s first poetry biennale
In the spirit of biennials and festivals of arts and culture, there’s now a festival dedicated to poetry.
This weekend, the Raza Foundation, set up by the late artist Sayed Haider Raza, will host 45 poets in the capital city, bringing together their writing in 15 Indian languages, for the country’s first biennale of poetry.
Named VAK: The Raza Biennale of Indian Poetry, the festival is being spearheaded by Hindi poet and former bureaucrat Ashok Vajpeyi. “‘Vak’ is a Sanskrit word denoting speech,” he explains, in an email exchange. “In many Indian traditions, ‘vak’ has been given a central place.”
While a similar festival was held in 2013, the hosts hope to keep up their ambitious scope with the new biennale. “The next two editions will be held in 2019, themed on Asian Poetry, and in 2021, themed on World Poetry,” says Vajpeyi.
Rhyme and reason
A third of the Raza Foundation’s trustees happen to be poets. And they’re all devoted to promoting
visual arts, music, dance, theatre, poetry and ideas, affirms Vajpeyi. “The foundation organises readings and conversations, publishes the journal Samas, devoted to literature, ideas and civilisation, and also publishes poets from other languages translated in Hindi, in the Raza Pustakmala.”
The intention is to showcase “the magic of poetry, not just in Hindi English and Urdu, but also in the languages of Kashmiri, Assamese, and Manipuri,” says Vajpeyi.
“Through the poetry, we will feel, see and hear an India that is on the move, which is changing and inventing new (mediums for) imagination, which is accommodative and inclusive, which lives and celebrates plurality. An India that is plural and, by the same token, timeless and enduring,” he says.
For the festival’s inaugural edition, the hosts are bringing in both well-known and up-and-coming poets, he informs. And each poet will get 15 minutes for reading their selected poetry, including translations in Hindi and English.
Softening of stanzas
On the sidelines, discussions will expectedly focus on the aspect of poetry for protest and activism. “Whether it gets recognised or not, poetry has been a form of resistance, protest, and of speaking truth to power,” notes Vajpeyi, adding, “We wish to bring this to the notice of those who would care to listen.”
Beside readings, the festival will host three panel discussions with writers and intellectuals on the subjects ‘Poetry as Freedom’, ‘Poetry as Memory’ and ‘Poetry as Conscience’. Keki Daruwala, Sitanshu Yashas-chandra, Shiv Visvanathan, Udayan Vajpeyi, Ashis Nandy, Ramin Jahanbegloo, Shamim Hanfi, Ananya Vajpeyi, Krishna Kumar, Apoorv-anand, and K Satchidanandan are expected to be on these panels.
While the invited poets who will take the stage include Sharmila Ray (English), Kanji Patel (Gujarati), Kutti Revathi (Tamil) and Ratan Thiyam (Manipuri). Vajpeyi and art writer Shruthi Issac will also release a book of poems by the participating poets.
Number of the beats
The festival’s organisers assert that the biennale is being funded by the artist Raza’s personal resources, and no state or corporate assistance is being sought. “We are entirely funded by the late Sayed Haider Raza,” clarifies Vajpeyi.
Raza, a widely acknowledged master of modern Indian art, was deeply interested in poetry. He even revived conventions of miniature art, inscribing his canvases with lines of poetry picked from the mythological texts of the Vedas and the Upanishads, and from Sanskrit, Hindi and Urdu poetry by Kabir, Tulsidas, Surdas, Ghalib, Mahadevi, Agyeya, Muktibodh and Faiz.
In his diary, Raza would note down lines of poetry that he liked in Hindi, English, Sanskrit, and French. The diary, which ran into several volumes, was named Dhai Akhar (literally, ‘Two and A Half Letters’), referencing a couplet by Kabir about the lesson of love.
The predominance of classical texts will not overshadow contemporary works, reassures Vajpeyi. “Poetry today is very vibrant, radical in vision and structure, innovative in form and imagination — very plural,“ he says. “The lyric impulse survives, as also the rhythms — only, they are taking new shapes.”
Ultimately, the biennale hopes to affirm “the vibrancy and vitality of contemporary poetic imagination, as it manifests through different generations of poets,” enthuses Vajpeyi.
VAK: The Raza Biennale of Indian Poetry, Apr 7-9. At Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi. Follow
@TheRazaBiennale on Facebook. Details: therazafoundation.org
— Team Indulge