Read the first part of the interview here.

Questions about form. You use many different poetic traditions here. The canzone, for example, for Kunti’s voice – was that the most complicated form you have dealt with? (As an outsider, it seems like complicated mathematics to me when I read about the structure! I don’t know how easy or difficult it is to actually employ it.) And any particular reason why it goes with this character?
The book is in nineteen voices, and form can be a handy tool to transform tone and cadence, and consequently, tenor; and I needed to persuasively inhabit several voices in rapid succession. I do believe, firmly, that content defines form, so the forms were chosen based on the emotional/narrative trajectory of the voice in question, and how the given form could carry that voice. A sestina does not convey the same mood or personality as a haiku, or a sonnet. I’ve used forms from all over, so there isn’t much geographic fidelity – there are pankti and padam, rub’ai and pantoum, acrostics and villanelle and triolet, haibun and tanka, concrete poems and some others.

For instance, with Amba/Shikhandi – where there is occupation of two bodies, two voices, by one soul – I’ve alternated between forms (within the same poem) to suggest the shifts from past to present, from one incarnation to another. Shikhandi speaks only in si harfi, a form used in Sufi and Punjabi mystic poetry to convey piety, developed in the same sequence as the alphabet. But Shikhandi’s devotion is to his purpose, not to any god, and his sections of the poem unfold as a war manual: there is merely deliberate, unflinching action here, no thought nor doubt. Amba while recalling her past begins and ends in Petrarchan sonnets whereas in the middle section, the trauma of abduction is relived first through blank verse, then it veers into free verse, broken, repeated lines with no punctuation, no pauses before swerving back into a calmer space.

While for Vrishali (Karna’s wife), I employed rimas dissolutas, quite an obscure French form built in sestets that rhyme not within each stanza but across them (abcdef abcdef). It seemed apt for the endless spiral of her grief, which grows through the length of each sestet, then returns to the same starting point. As if grief renders her thought trapped in a circle, although it is gaining momentum, deepening as she speaks until her chosen end. I wanted it to resemble a solenoid, a tightly wound coil, that my engineer friends kept referencing when we were young.

You asked about the canzone. Someone, perhaps Jeet Thayil or George Szirtes, called it a sestina on Speed. In fact, doesn’t Jeet Thayil have a character in Narcopolis declare that every poet should write at least one canzone in his/her lifetime? It’s a bloody high-wire act, sustained across 65 lines, clamouring for both extreme precision and acrobatics. Because once you begin working on one, there is an insane adrenaline rush. There is so little space for free movement if you don’t use the set end-words to direct thought – it feels like highly calibrated choreography. So, 5 stanzas of 12 lines and a envoi of 5 lines, with only 5 end words allowed across those 65 lines, words that repeat in a strict, unchangeable order:


To me, the canzone seemed best equipped to reflect the obsessions around which Kunti’s life revolves, five words on which every thought is hinged. It hints at her resolve, her ruthlessness, her momentum, if you will.

One poem has as its epigraph a verse from the Gulzar-penned lyric “Naam Ada Likhna” (from the film Yahaan), and after providing your translation of the lyrics, you then use the glosa form for your own poem (where the lines of an existing text – in this case, the Gulzar song – are incorporated as the 10th line of each successive stanza in your own poem, often with delicate shifts in meaning). You do something similar with Niranjan Iyer’s “Ek Ghadi” song from the film D-Day. I find it fascinating, this juxtaposition of poetic forms that many people would consider “elitist” with popular songs from Hindi cinema. What have your major influences been as a reader, writer and consumer of culture?
I am the proverbial magpie, or like the crow in Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems: I pick up threads and twigs, strands of silver and fallen hair, beads and mothballs indiscriminately to line my poetic nests. Some influences endure; others shift and sink and rise. A lot of them come from performance art, especially dance. So, it’s a higgledy-piggledy list, here are just a few:

Terry Pratchett, oh for so much! For the endless inventiveness, for making fantasy/ science fiction so hugely entertaining and so mordantly, precisely satiric: about politics, about society, racism and sexism and corporate greed and and and. For his depiction of Death, close at hand…

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, for what dance critic Sanjoy Roy calls her “exacting pursuit of compositional principles.” Structurally, I keep referencing one of her earliest works (Fase): Constancy VI in Until the Lions draws from its compositional framework.

Rachid Ouramdane and Gregory Maqoma, both choreographers I admire for their fearlessness and skill in making the political intensely personal, essential, and therefore universal. They remind me that political engagement in art – often a bad word – need not be boring or obvious, that it can transcend pamphleteering and didacticism. That it can refract deep and complex realities stunningly, imaginatively.

Marilyn Hacker for her deep interest in form, for her effortless, innovative use of traditional forms of poetry – from all over the world – and her abiding engagement to this flawed world we live in, especially the corners that are so easy to forget. David Shulman for his work on medieval South Indian poetry, for his scholarship into – and efforts to sustain – endangered theatre forms like Koodiyattom, and again, his peaceful activism for Palestine, his resistance to the Israeli Occupation.

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie – their work from the 1980s, really – who made stand-up comedy so topical, so utterly irreverent. Hrishikesh Mukherjee too – whom we have discussed so often – for a gentler brand of humour, for opening my eyes to the inner lives of marginal characters, when I was seven or so.

Sahir Ludhianvi and Gulzar – two poet-lyricists whose work was my introduction to the might, the wingspan, the omnipresence of poetry, and their readiness to break all the idiotic perceptions of demotic or elitist art. I mean, they could gracefully spring from an addictive nonsense rhyme to a haunting anthem in the space of the same film. They drew poetry out of a school syllabus and into the head, the blood. And Kunchan Nambiar, the Malayalam poet, did the same, with the sheer musicality, the rhythm in his writing.

Patrice Chéreau, for many reasons, mostly for his ability to spin magic, his pursuit of truth, through theatre and cinema. I abide by his belief that theatre – but also art in general – can, unapologetically, enchant. Enchantment need not mean escape from brutality or depth, quite the contrary: it can be bloody and iridescent, strange and real, all at once. Also, he had an exceptional talent for highlighting the body – whether the sexual or solitary body (Intimacy), the body as a ‘meditation on mortality’ (His Brother) or as a mirror to the elements (I Am the Wind) – and for making it the locus of his work. There were times when I literally could not move, after watching his work. The body throbbed too much.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, with whom I worked for nine years: more as a beautiful reaffirmation, reassurance in a world where high-art and low-art tend to be separated behind spiked iron fences. Larbi, more than almost any other artist I see – except Salman Rushdie, perhaps – is genuinely indifferent to divides and definitions about art. He traverses modern and traditional, dives into medieval music and Cirque du Soleil, manga and conceptual art, Bollywood and opera; works with disabled actors, ballerinas and street dancers, Benedict Cumberbatch and warrior monks from the Shaolin Temple, without hierarchy, a rare and wonderful trait. There’s some form of alchemy at work when he is at his most inspired and focussed.

The choreographer and dancer Akram Khan – with whom you have worked closely in your other avatar as a dance producer/curator – has a production of Until the Lions out soon, centred on your “Amba” poem. Tell us something about that, and the part you played in it. And related to this: while reading the poems I often felt like I had to read them out loud to really feel their full power; it wasn’t enough to encounter them on the page. Even when read out, some of the more intense voices feel like they have to be performed, dramatically, for full effect. Is that how you would intend some of them to be read? And any plans for further productions that would help achieve this?
That's a really perceptive reading of those poems: yes, a lot of them are very performative, and draw from dance or theatre environments (Constancy VI which I'd mentioned; the entire Amba/Shikhandi poem which is in two parallel voices interwoven; Sauvali; and it transpires the Mohini Jeremiad has an ostinato-like structure – to mention a few).

Just around the time I'd begun, Leesa Gazi, the wonderful Bangladeshi-British actress – with whom I had worked earlier expressed interest in having some of the voices staged (she was, in particular, curious about Draupadi). Unfortunately, the theatre director whom she approached was more interested in Abhimanyu and the angle of young martyrdom – which is a stirring prospect, just not one I was absorbed by. So we never moved further on that but now that the book is ready, I will send Leesa the rest of the voices (though Draupadi does not form one of them...)

And an actress friend from the oldest theatre in France is also very keen on staged readings, and she has put together a proposal to her management. I’d be delighted if that happens because her portrayal of Antigone two years ago was hugely inspirational while writing Until the Lions, and it will be rewarding to see her take on some of these characters.

As for Akram Khan, funnily enough, each time I have worked with him, it has been as a writer, never as a dance producer. First, I co-wrote DESH, his 2011 piece, then I scripted its adaptation into a show for young audiences this year, Chotto Desh.

With Until the Lions, I had shown Akram Khan Company’s producer, Farooq Chaudhry – someone whose opinion I value much – the initial poems in early 2013, and he was convinced Akram should read them, that it might be challenging to do something with them. And when Akram heard Amba’s story, he chose to stage it.

Typically, a dance staging – in the UK, unlike in Europe which has a rich practice of tanztheater where theatre and dance meld quite naturally – tends to be a totally distinct beast from its "literary" source: text is primarily used as raw material, as ossature over which the tissues, blood and skin of movement, music, sets are laid. I don’t expect to see any text in an oral form unless it is strictly functional, thankfully.

Specifically, for AKC’s production, I wrote detailed "chapters" detailing the action and atmosphere in those sequences (self-contained ones, so they need not follow a linear narrative), then equally detailed character sketches, so that they could feed into the movement and the dramaturgy. I also culled certain portions of the Amba and Mohini poems that might be useful as a refrain, or as part of the soundtrack.

Since then, I’ve attended rehearsals from time to time, where I am probably a giant thorn in the dramaturge’s skin. You know, it must be terrible for dramaturges to have to deal with a living, breathing (worse, speaking!) writer! I mean, there's the poor dramaturge, used to being the compass for the process, when wham! someone pops up like a jack in the box, reminding him or her of intent and character arcs and emotional impetus and plot axes; questioning structure and the random use of lines. What a nightmare. Dead writers are so much more malleable! For a serene creative process, I'd recommend Shakespeare and Yeats and other buried brethren.

Read the first part of the interview here.