'WhatsApp testifies to ongoing poetic liveliness of bhasha'
In conversation with Renuka Narayanan for the Poetry with Prakriti festival.
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.
Bhasha poetry goes marrow-deep. The first poems we learn are usually in the mother tongues, which go straight to our heart and stay forever. In my case, the first verse I learned was in Tamil at age four, Thodudaya cheviyan by Sambandar.
So this 7th century poem is in my hard-wiring. Though English is my medium of expression, Tamil, the first language I heard, and Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi and Sanskrit, which I was fortunate to partially receive or sample through music, poetry and prayer, are my emotional foundation.
I think many of us have a visceral response to the regional languages. Even WhatsApp forwards testify to the ongoing poetic liveliness of bhashas. I see life and growth. I see 'bhasha hard-wiring' brilliantly expressed in English, as in Karthika Nair's 'Until the Lions' (women's voices from the Mahabharata).
Tell us a little about your plans for the Prakriti Festival. What can audiences expect, given your participation at the event?
I would like to share some poems on Cambodia, a country which churned up intense, complicated feelings of shame and delight. They took several years to process. Finally, to my surprise, I could express them only through poems. So I am an astonished poet.
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?
This is my first experience of their poetry festival, though I'm no stranger to Prakriti's eclectic six-city Park Festival for performing arts and their uplifting festival of sacred music by the Kaveri. I expect their poetry festival, too, will do very well, given their working philosophy of sincerely engaging with the public. It's a compliment worth having, to be invited to a Prakriti event.
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?
(Terrific and apt question!) Reciting poetry to an audience is very much a performing art. You may have produced coruscating words. But can you convey them effectively? Or are your verses better recited by another, or read from a book as a private exercise by the reader? As a reader/listener, I like both forms of engagement. I don't know how well or ill I'll sound, though, as a first-time poet.
Since we Indians come from a very strong oral tradition, there are poems which happen only when we experience their full aural resonance. Long, daunting lines of text spring gloriously alive when recited or sung, a shared entity for teller and listener.
I heard a poignant story about such sharing from the legendary actor Saumitra Chatterjee. One day in Kolkata, he attended the funeral of senior actress Molina Debi. That evening, he had to recite a long poem by Tagore at Rabindra Bhavan, "Pages and pages!" he said. Because his mind was disturbed, he suddenly dried up at one point. As the silence grew and grew, a voice from the audience gently cued him back and he was able to carry on. How lovely is that.
Another extraordinary instance, which I saw myself, was a poetry event in Delhi for Atal Behari Vajpayee's birthday (Christmas Day) when he was Prime Minister. Onstage with him were three former prime ministers - PV Narasimha Rao, VP Singh and IK Gujral. They were bitter political foes but came together for poetry! It was unique to India.
In Chennai, when J Jayalalithaa passed away, her political opponents composed a wonderful Tamil ode in her honour. These are instances of 'public performance' that affirm poetry as the cultural vehicle of the deep gesture.
Please 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?
Poetry as protest or impactful critical commentary is old in India. People of various persuasions regularly rewrote religion through poetry from as far back as the early first millennium. The Nayanmars and Alwars revolutionized Tamil literature and society through poetry.
Tagore was an effective all-round protest poet as was Subrahmanya Bharati. Avvaiyar and Karaikkal Ammaiyar in Tamil Nadu, Lal Ded in Kashmir, Meerabai in Rajasthan, Janabai at Pandharpur and Akka Mahadevi in Karnataka were in fact protest-poets, as was Tulsidas of Varanasi, whose life was threatened when he wrote the Ramcharitmanas in Avadhi.
Sometimes it's not about what you're saying but how you say it or who's saying it. The protest-poet list goes far and wide across communities after Independence.
Regarding activism through poetry, cause and craft are both important to stir people out of their existential fatigue, fear or indifference. Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh wrote thrilling poetry in their darkest hour, which inspired entire populations to revolt against the political tyranny of Delhi. But, they matched their fine words with exemplary lives and noble deeds.
Nobody would have listened to them had their lives not steadfastly upheld their words. We have incredible communication technology today but we also need genuine content from a genuine source. Would-be activist-poets need to be good poets and good people to effect real change. I don't see a short-cut there, even if someone's been translated into Icelandic.