Ramu Ramanathan on reinventing the tradition of lok shahiri
An interaction with the poet Ramu Ramanathan, leading up to the festival Poetry with Prakriti 2017, set to be held from December 3-17, across multiple venues in Chennai.
Give us your overview of how you see the space for poetry changing and evolving in India - specifically, for regional language poetry alongside writing in English.
During an interaction with school students during a workshop, I was asked, is poetry dead? I am amused when I hear something like that. Since poetry is everywhere. In the mainstream spaces like ditties, political slogans, ad jingles, army anthems, rap songs.
Yesterday, on 24 November, I was part of a program which doffed its hat to Vinda (the Jnanpith award winner) at the Asiatic Society. It was a memorable evening. Those 90 minutes helped me realise just how special Vinda was. This year is the 100th anniversary of Vinda and there have been so many programs in his honour. Some of these events in Mumbai are attended by five hundred or thousand people who know and have memorised his poems.
It is quite stirring when you attend a program when a chorus of voice in the auditorium recites Vinda's Dhondya Nhavi along with the actor on stage.
Tell us a little about your plans at the Prakriti Festival. What can audiences expect, given your participation at the event?
I have written one tiny book of poems - My Encounters with a Peacock - published by an Assomiya poet and short story writer Dibyajyoti Sarma's publishing house, I write imprint. ... And so, I am very honoured to share the space with two literary legends: Alan Sealy and Jayant Mahapatra. I will share a bit of what I have written. But more importantly I hope to listen to the two of them.
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?
I am a theatrewallah, and I have seen the growth of Prakriti in its theatre avatar. I think, what Ranvir Shah, Meera Krishnan and the team have achieved over the past decade is very commendable. It requires stamina and patience and lots of resources.
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?
I have seen / heard the lok shahirs (singer-poets) of Maharashtra belting out protest songs. The form is very simple, a duff and some basic chorus; and a few words. The aim is to reach out to 5,000 to 50,000 people at one go with a powada or a bharood.
That's how I heard of a farmer suicide in Vidharbha. Even today the stories of father and son committing hanging themselves from a tree because of a debt of Rs 60,000/-; or a young girl who swallows pesticide because she doesn't have the money for a monthly ST bus pass that will take her to the university town - are carried to us by these lok shahirs.
At the other end of the spectrum is Denzil Smith jamming with a jazz blues musician and reciting Dom Moraes' or Jeet Thayil's poems. Or a special mehfil in Bhendi Bazaar in honour of Khushro, Ghalib and Mir.
Everything is fair.
Tell us a little about how poetry is gaining significance as a form of protest, in the present day. How can activism through poetry be more effective?
A few months ago, I attended the Vidrohi Sahitya Samelan at Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar in Ghatkopar East. It is sandwiched between Godrej's Vikhroli campus to the north, the gentrified community in Ghatkopar West and the freeway and SCLR, the basti remains neglected.
When I reached the venue, there was a recital of Vivek More's poem Vitambana. For the past few years, More's work in the bastis and community centres has been about re-telling the stories and annihilating caste. His words provide a voice to the youth.
There were others. Poets Mayank Saxena (in Hindi) and Shilpa Sawant speak of the political paralysis. They join the dots. It is Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar, two decades ago. It is Alwar and Dadri and Khandawali now. How no one is addressing the real concerns of the Dalits and minorities in this nation. Nitin Chandanshive (the dangalkar kavi) picks up from where the protest movements have left off. His angry poem concludes about how his illiterate mother prefers only one book: The Constitution of India to the other Holy Books.
Dalit rights remain a burning issue. There were many groups from all over Maharashtra including Amalner, Aurangabad and Chandwad. Some groups like Kabir Kala Manch in Pune were born in the post-Godhra era, others post-Khairlanji. What is interesting is how the Ambedkari Jalsa subsumes and overtakes folk as a genre for promoting social awareness. Bombay Lokal from Nallasopra (like their counterparts from Dharavi) highlights the emergence of hip-hop and beat to provide a voice for disenfranchised youth.
It was a fitting tribute to the memory of Vilas Ghogre, who re-invented lok shahiri in the tradition of Amar Sheikh and Annabhau Sathe, and adapted it into cutting-edge protest politics.
This is the tradition of the shahirs. When Nishant Shaikh and Shahira Kesarbai Jainoo Shaikh receive the Lokshahir Vilas Ghogre Smriti Puruskar from Shantanu Kamble, they speak of the contribution of the shahirs: Gavankar, Annabhau Sathe and Amar Sheikh in the fifties. These shahirs would meet every evening. IPTA members like Ali Sardar Jaffri and Kaifi Azmi would be present. A lot of new poetry and music emerged out of this movement. Kesarbai refers to Narayan Surve being the first workers poet, and how his poems were memorised by lakhs of Mumbaikars in open maidans. Then she sings Dongari Shet Maza Ga. Kabir Kala Manch and the other groups join in a rousing chorus.
The point I am trying to make is, that week in July, I attended seven Shahiri Yalgaars and Ambedkari Jalsas in Mumbai. The only thing is, most of it is below the mainstream surveillance.
Anand Thakore, Ramu Ramanathan & Renuka Narayanan will perform a reading at the Wandering Artist, Chennai, on Tuesday December 12, 7 pm.