sunday sounds

The conscience keepers: Poetry of Sahitya Akademi protesters

Poetry at its best does not always require translation as this sampling from some of those who returned their awards recently shows.

In the past few weeks India has been hit by a tsunami.  Not one raging sea waters, this tsunami has been made up of something much more intangible and rare: truth. As writer after writer gave back their awards in protest of the perceived failure of government to fulfil some its most basic duties – the defence of vulnerable citizens, moral leadership, delivery of justice – the world was offered a stunning example of what honour and integrity (abstract concepts most of the time) look like in real life.

To an "outsider" this wave of protest has been an extraordinary thing to observe. It is not everyday that we get to witness such a clear and consistent exercise of citizenship (another hard to grasp concept) in action.In any country.

One of the features of a tsunami is its unexpected and rapid arrival. And the pace with which poets, critics, novelists and historians have returned their prizes and opted for personal integrity over tarnished public glory has been impressive.

As the list of protesters grew longer, I became curious about the actual work of these men and women. Some I knew of but most were new names to me. What was their poetry all about? Were they radical revolutionaries? Had their writings always been marked by protest and dissent?  In the process of researching this week’s offering, I was delighted by what I discovered.

These artists are in love with words, pure and simple. And the beauty and encouragement which comes about when words are put together, spoken and sung.  Where I understood the words, I didn’t hear any messages that were overtly political but rather the themes were human and universal. Where I didn’t understand the language, I was mesmerised by the music-like cadences, alliteration and inherent beauty of the sound of each stanza and word. Poetry at its best does not always require translation.

Here, for your enjoyment, are a few samples of the poetry of some of India’s unexpected cadre of Sahitya Akademi protesters.

Ashok Vajpeyi
Darwaza (Hindi)



A former Chairman of Lalit Kala Akademi, senior bureaucrat and arts administrator, Ashok Vaypeyi reads from his poetry collection, Kahin Nahin Wahin for which he received the Sahitya Akademi award in 1994.  In the introduction to this poem, Darwaza (Door) Vajpeyi refers to some of the purposes of doors as being "open to truth which sometimes remain closed and which often we are not even aware of". Poetry, according to Vajpeyi, is a kind of door calling out to be opened.

Mandakranta Sen
Ghor (Bengali)



Sen is a prolific writer (19 volumes of poetry, two novels and more) whose intimate, bold and sometimes sensual writing has set the standard for contemporary Bengali poetry. The angst of the feminine experience is a recurring theme in her work. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Young Writers Award in 2004.

Surjit Patar
Shairi recitation (Punjabi)



A Sahitya Akademi award winner in 1993, Surjit Patar has also headed the Punjabi branch of the Akademi.  A senior artist who in addition to composing his own verse is an active translator of foreign and non-Punjabi Indian literature, Patar enjoys a huge popular following among Punjabi speakers.  In this wonderful recitation he sings several of his poems evoking the Sikh tradition of shabd kirtan. His poetry is filled with deeply felt references to nature and the ancient land of his native Punjab.

Manglesh Dabral
Bachi Hui Jagahen (Hindi) 




Hailing from Tehri Gahrwal’s mountains, Manglesh Dabral’s Hindi poetry has been widely translated into most Indian languages as well as several foreign languages. Like most of his peers, he has served in editorial positions in literary magazines as well as a journalist.  In this poem he speaks of loss, remembrance, fading faculties and the essential rituals of daily life. Dabral was awarded the Akademi’s prize in 2000 for his collection Ham Jo Dekhte Hain.

K Satchidanandan
The Mad (English)



Writing in Malayalam and English K Satchidanandan’s contributon to Indian arts and literature is huge. Until 2006 he served as the Secretary of Sahitya Akademi and has represented his country and peers in dozens of international forums and events around the world.  In addition to his writing, Satchidanandan has contributed to the cause of higher education in India serving both as professor and technocrat in various institutions.  He has long been a champion of secularism and anti-caste discrimation and in this poem speaks compassionately (even enviously) of those "mad" who we the "sane", so often dismiss and ignore.

Aravind Malagatti
Selected poems (Kannada)



Perhaps it could be claimed that Dr Aravind Malagatti, a Dalit poet and activist, is the most "revolutionary" of the poets in this selection.  Certainly, for Malagatti poetry and literature are not a discipline, an art or a passion that can be separated from the political realities of an oppressed people.  His active public life has included him being recognized and honoured by the Karnataka Sahitya Akademi for his "total contribution" to literature in that language. Like all the others featured here, he has returned his award.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.