I think I was born with words
Between my legs
This prophecy of blood
Red, hot, thick
Markers of my unworthiness
But I still talk to my mother
In unmediated line breaks and silences
Because I wasn’t taught to string these words
Between my legs
Within the contours of feminism.
In the wasteland surrounding a container depot in Tughlakabad in south Delhi, these words sounded distinctly alien. Shirin Choudhary, a 19-year-old student of English literature, stepped up on a makeshift stage in the clearing and recited her spoken-word poem on living as a feminist before a smattering of audience members. It was the first time her performance was being filmed, and her anxiety was apparent. As the audience responded with an unreserved applause, that unease faded away. Even if temporarily.
Choudhary’s event was part of a fortnight-long street art festival WIP in February. There were many comedy, music and theatre performances during those 15 days but it was the spoken word performances on the weekends that stole the show.
“I have always been a pen and paper poet,” said Choudhary, “but ever since I got introduced to spoken word poetry I feel that it’s a much stronger way of communicating my thoughts.”
Spoken word is the catchall for any kind of poetry that is read aloud, such as poetry slams and traditional poetry readings. The art, focusing on word play and intonation, has been around forever. But it has lately been resurging in India, with a fresh breed of young poets including Choudhary embracing it for its force and energy. Spoken word, they say, takes the message deep into the consciousness of the audience. Or, as Choudhary puts it, it is an effective way to speak to people about seemingly indigestible ideas such as feminism.
“I do know that feminism or feminist poetry isn’t received so well by people,” she explained. “But if I wrap it up in a spoken word poem, it evokes emotions from the listeners and they are more likely to agree or engage with me than just brushing it aside.”
Indeed, many poets are adopting spoken word to start conversations that were earlier considered taboo. No subject is too controversial for them, no theme too trivial. There are no holy cows. This is how it works: pubs or cafes select 10 to 12 poets on the basis of their submissions to perform pieces lasting two to five minutes. In the end the audience judges the winner.
In Delhi, it is not uncommon for cafes in tony Hauz Khas Village alone to host two or more spoken word events over a weekend. Then there are inter-college slam poetry contests in Delhi University. Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore too witness spoken word events frequently.
Shantanu Anand of Airplane Poetry Movement, an organisation which has been at the forefront of pushing slam poetry through contests and open-mics since 2013, asserts that spoken word has democratised poetry. Today anyone can pick up a pen and become a poet. This freedom is why social issues that were once taboo are being articulated freely and frequently.
“Everyone has an opinion,” said Anand. “Spoken word gives them a way to share that opinion which is not just a Facebook status or an essay.”
The democratisation is apparent on the two-year-old YouTube channel of Airplane Poetry Movement. It has over 100 performances, on subjects as diverse as cheese, Maya Angelou, funerals, cats, love, trees, Gaza, George Carlin. One of the more popular poems to come out of the collective is titled Of Marriageable Age. Performed over a year ago by Priyam Redican, an aspiring novelist in Pune, it deals with the pressures of having an arranged marriage once you reach the so-called “marriageable age”. It has, thus far, achieved over 1.67 lakh views.
Anand says that his organisation is trying to create “an ecosystem of poets”. There’s no professional spoken word poet in India who doesn’t need a side job to support herself. And so, he says, “we want to build an infrastructure where poets not only get discovered but they can become professionals as well.”
Airplane Poetry Movement has conducted more than 25 workshops over the past three years. It has a thriving community of performers and volunteers who assist with events in Delhi, Bangalore and other cities besides a host of online activities.
Diksha Bijlani, a 19-year-old student from Delhi who has won awards for her spoken word poetry, says she started off as an audience member who thought of spoken word as a “herculean art form”. But she slowly warmed up to it – one performance at a time.
Bijlani now writes on social and personal issues and has even started her ow collective, called Slip of Tongue, with some friends and fellow poets.
“[I write] not what the politicians talk about, but anything that pragmatically affects us in our lives,” she said. “I am currently working on a poem about the futility of corporate jobs and the importance of a meaning-driven life.”
Her recent work includes a poem about the fickleness of relationships formed on the dating app Tinder and the struggles of ambitious women – a piece against “pseudo-feminism”.
How does spoken word sway listeners? Bijlani says it comes down to the vibrancy of the language – she could either “tell you to release the men up the north border, behind bars of held-guilty rifles and ambiguous bonds moulded in reverse clockwork, by brethren who did not believe in giving men the power to persecute the hands that snatched their daughter from her virginity” or she could simply call for “removing AFSPA from Kashmir.”
Disrupting common order
Divya Dureja, co-founder of Performance Consortium, a group which performed at the street art festival in Delhi in February, has been a spoken word poet for the past three years and often writes about the political tumult in the country. She burst into one of her verses when asked about her first spoken word poem – a piece on Delhi and its caste and class divides.
At modern galleries in Hauz Khas galis
Fire leaping, fire loving, narrow galis
No sanctions, no police
Get hit on by supporters of moral police
Between morning chai and espresso double
“The government is suppressing our voices and spoken word is proving to be a good medium for many poets to express themselves,” Dureja said. “I started performing at university protests and marches so the conversation is already out in the open. Spoken word simply adds to the dialogue.”
Spilling out of bars and cafes
Dureja says her collective will tie up with municipal schools in Delhi to introduce children to spoken word poetry and train some of them into becoming professional poets. The intervention is necessary, she says, because the spaces for spoken word in Delhi’s are still exclusive.
“At an open-mic, people are supposed to pay a fee to be able to recite their poetry,” she said. “Also, not every section of society visits bars and cafes on weekends looking for entertainment so they never get introduced to the art form. We have to take it to them and hence we want to groom poets who are still in school.”
Dureja is critical about the culture of open mics-workshops-performances – it limits the potential of spoken word poetry, she says. The art form has given birth to templates and formats, which end up killing creativity of the performers.
“Some people are using the format of an essay where there’s a beginning, a body of the poem which is evocative but they end their poems with a conclusion that doesn’t sit well with an audience,” she said. “Also, the same crowd is going to the same venues and reciting similar stuff which is getting tiresome as well as a little exclusive. What about a school student who is interested in the form but can’t get out at 8 pm to perform at a cafe?”
Delhi Poetry Slam, a collective that organises poetry slams across India and trains budding poets through weekly workshops, is among the pioneers of the new spoken word poetry wave. Freddie Storm, its creative director, says most participants are school students. “There’s a lot of interest among school students in learning the art form. We have 50 seats in each training batch and they’re almost always full. The idea is to introduce students to the stage and having them take the mic and discover their own form.”
Storm’s organisation hosts six shows every year that amalgamate poetry, music, theatre and comedy. International artists show up regularly to perform and train students for these shows. “The community is really enthusiastic and hence the poetry is spilling out on the streets too. In Harlem, people were performing on bylanes and bus stops and speaking about state oppression and racism.”
This seems to be happening in India too – even if slowly and in a more refracted manner. As Shantanu Anand of Airplane Poetry Movement put it, the poets have taken the mic into their hands. “Everyone is a poet now and the exclusivity is crumbling. Two people and a poem are all one needs to have their own poetry slam anytime and anywhere.”