India’s first poetry biennale shows that such events need to be held more often

Held in Delhi, ‘vak’ was a rare opportunity to listen to poets from all corners of the country.

At the recently-concluded first Biennale of Indian Poetry, vak, organised by Raza Foundation at Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi, the English-language poet Arundhathi Subramaniam read out in her inimitable, enchanting manner her poem, I Speak for Those with Orange Lunch Boxes. It was addressed to those schoolchildren – nondescript, minor, and overlooked – whom the confident, strident, and popular can’t quite remember in later life.

Vak seemed to have brought together all the children of that class from primary school, now adults, from different parts of India, who looked at one another in wonder at their own ignorance and at the richness of multilingual Indian poetry that each of them had grown up with and honed so skillfully so as to never forget, unlike those children.

With poetry readings by 45 poets from 15 Indian languages, and three panel discussions involving public intellectuals and poets – on poetry as memory, as freedom, and as conscience – vak was truly an inter-regional, pan-Indian, national dialogue that is often missing these days in our lives. Relying largely on translations into either Hindi or English, the conversations flowed through verse and prose as the place, purpose, and meaning of poetry in contemporary India was discovered and articulated.

The noted Malayalam poet, critic and translator, K Satchidanandan, not only read his poetry, but also spoke on one of the panels to articulate the conditions required for poetry. Certain freedoms, he said, are essential. He began with the poem Prayer by the Mexican-American poet Francisco X. Alarcón:

“I want a god
as my accomplice 

a jobless god
a striking god
a hungry god
a fugitive god
an exiled god
an enraged god

I want a 
more godlike

The poet’s freedom

The first freedom for the poet, Satchidanandan said, is to be to be able to choose the god after their heart. Or perhaps to question and belittle him too, as the young Urdu poet from Lucknow, Abhishekh Shukla did to loud and warm applause:

“main apne aap se bilkul bhi mutmaeen nahin hun
ye kyaa banaaya hai tumne mujhe dobaara banaao”

“I am not satisfied at all with myself,
How have you made me? Do it again!”

The freedom to disturb and agitate, and affect emotions and sentiments, is one of the most important rights of the poet too, added Satchidanandan. The poet must be allowed to imagine as and what they want, to relate to the world as they choose, respond to it as they wish, and finally to use language as they desire, so as to bring forth the invisible.

All the poets at the event exercised many of these freedoms in their readings – which is rare and difficult these days. Could they have read their poems at any corner of any street of India if they so chose? At least, at the Raza Biennale at Triveni, these freedoms were available, and for this we should be thankful to the organisers. It was free to attend, and easily accessible in the relative security of Lutyen’s Delhi. The young Hindi poet, Sudhansu Firdaus exercised his freedom to call out the tyrant:

wo pehle chuuhaa thaa
phir bilaar huaa
phir dekhte dekhte sher ban gayaa
Khabar yahii hai ki woh shehad chaatte chaatte
Khuun chaaTne lagaa hai
arey bhaaii jaago
tumhaare hi vardaan se
yah huaa hai”

“The tyrant
He was a rat at first
Then became a tomcat
Then, gradually, a lion.
The report is that from licking honey
He has now moved to blood.
Wake up now, my friend, for it is with your gift
That this has happened.”

Photo credit: Maaz Bin Bilal.
Photo credit: Maaz Bin Bilal.

Some chose to exercise their rights to their languages in electing not to read out the translation of their work at all, or to read translations in either Hindi or English. There seemed to be a general assumption that everyone knew both Hindi and English – writers and members of the audience who had travelled from the southern, northern, or eastern states. So, Madan Veera, reading his poems only in the original Punjabi, was urged to read at least one poem in Hindi by the audience, in which he chose to respond to the development in our times by contrasting village footpaths to six-lane highways, urging our economists to explain the disparity.

But it was also for these poets of Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu that the audience was at its liveliest and most responsive, with the “wah wah” and “kya baat” compliments, sniggers, and guffaws flowing naturally. Not for them the rapt but bored silences. It was heartening to see that whatever restrictions we may now operate under, the North Indian audience retains its penchant for its shayari, and relishes it with some civilised, verbal boisterousness.

Listening to poems in their original, often unfamiliar, languages provided an insight into the poetic tonality of each as an entirely aural experience. If an angry Marathi poet spoke with a loud staccato, the Odia poet almost purred with her lyrical love poetry. Another poet’s Manipuri cascaded with a watery ease. Still, most relied on some translation to showcase the different terrains of meanings traversed, beyond the pleasing sounds.

There was another objection to translations here that I heard over tea. One of the English poets lamented the quality of the English translations, going so far as to say how embarrassing it would be when the biennale engages with Asian and world poetry in its future installations. Indeed some things were lost in translation, such as when the Tamil poet, Manushya Puthiran, lamenting the place of Tamil and traditions in his poetry, made a direct political appeal for the cause of Tamil farmers protesting at Jantar Mantar for 25 days, which was read out as 25 years. Still, these were largely minor faux pas, in the face of so much that was gained in translation. It is tempting here to quote from the translation of Subodh Sarkar’s Bengali verse that he read at the event:

“I am not a bastard, my father was not a bastard
But my English is.
I shout four-letter word in bastard English
Give me my quota to eat, drink and dance.

In my bastard English I proclaimed
If democracy is good,
Why there is no drinking water for the poor
Who voted you to power?”

Photo credit: Maaz Bin Bilal.
Photo credit: Maaz Bin Bilal.

The poet’s perspective

Our languages and their poets came across as confidently aware of themselves. Their verse works as repositories of memories and concerns that are at once individual, regional, Indian, and global. It was as if each poet opened the lunch box of their schooldays and exposed a variety of food for thought, when all recipes are available online but local diets are being presented.

The Malayali poet PP Ramachandran read English translations that began with the classroom where a language teacher taught gender. This is when he became aware of “he, she, and it”:

“Those that do not have it, are it…

Then what about me?
Even though I had it, I became it.
I shaved my moustache,
Put red lipstick on my lips…”

Ramchandran’s poetry spoke for those with paint on their face, the rainbow in their stride. He was one among the many who refused to be easily disciplined by society as it spoke for the ignored few among billions of subjectivities.

This impulse was captured well by the educationist Krishna Kumar, who had earlier spoken eloquently in Hindi on the nature of poetry during the discussion on poetry as freedom. Kumar said he could never write poetry even if he tried, for fundamentally it requires an indiscipline of which he is incapable. Kumar also averred elegantly: “Kavita jivan ke ruupoN ki asankhyataa ka abhaas karaati hai (poetry makes one aware of the innumerable facets of life).”

Vinod Kumare, the Marathi poet, spoke of the Adivasi. In one of the quirkiest poems read over the three days, he described a Whatsapp conversation between two matriarchal, tribal women from mythology, Hidimba and Shurpanakha, dreading the arrival of Ram in their forest. In a longer poem, Kumare made a more directly scathing attack on the advances against tribal freedoms:

“Humanism has nothing to do with the forest.

The system has painted a canvas of destruction,
drawn boundary lines…

They have once again written Mein Kampf!
Repeating the history from earlier.”

In contrast, another Marathi poet, Prafull Shiledar, chose irony to satirise popular capitulation and complicity. In My Tiger and I, he claims that when he first got a tiger he was feared and spurned by all. Now he has manicured and prized open its jaws and everybody admires him and his tiger: “There is high praise for us specially from the sheep and goats.”

The maverick Hindi poet Mangalesh Dabral lamented in his poem Shabdaarth (Word-Meaning):

“Kuchh hi shabd hain jinke arth bache reh gaye hain
bhay ab aur bhi bhay hai, aatank aur bhi zyada aatank”

“Few words retain their meanings now
Fear is scarier, terror evermore terrifying.”

The poet’s conscience

Kumar had also argued in his speech that the poet’s very (undisciplined) being is a sign of society’s freedom. Dabral, with such characteristic indiscipline, cannily asked the concluding poetry panel on poetry as conscience when, if ever, they thought Hindi poetry would, for its own good, move away from the state and its patronage. Vak, of course, worked well as a space for creative expression away from the state and its academies.

The concluding panel discussion on poetry as conscience again brought up this fundamental freedom of indiscipline that works as morality or conscience keeper in different ways. The philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo spoke of the close alliance between ethics and poetry. Udayan Vajpayee quoted from Iris Murdoch to speak of poetry as a disinterested and selfless search for truth, and from the Vedas to contrast politics that wants to generalise conscience or morality with poetry that retains vivek or the distinction between right and wrong through its individualised sense of beauty.

The Urdu scholar Shamim Hanfi agreed that poetry in itself cannot change the world, but asserted that it can create the realisation of the need to change the world – that what is happening is not right. In the first panel discussion on poetry as memory, Shiv Viswanathan had invoked Theodor Adorno, who had averred how there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. The poets of the day seemed to assert the need to create poetry out of impossibility, and thereby redeem freedom from its receding spaces.

Photo credit: Maaz Bin Bilal.
Photo credit: Maaz Bin Bilal.

In the panel discussion on poetry as conscience, Ashish Nandy made a characteristically zany statement, where he emphasised that the conscience is ingrained in the biological self, and that poetry works as a primal discipline as it comes from the subconscious. In an unruly primeval manner, poetry for Nandi automatically works with a conscience, contrary to the Western tradition with its basis in theoretical physics and even our own traditions based on grammar as its foundational logic. Our bhakti and Sufi poets, who forever questioned, are prime examples.

It is with this conscience, these freedoms, and the refusal to be disciplined unwantedly that the poetic voice remains important. The Kannada poet Tarini Shubhadayini articulates the fundamentals of myth as she sees and smells them:

“The stench of fish, you know,
Gave rise to the Mahabharata
The stench of deer’s meat
Delivered the Ramayana”

— Translated by Shiva Prakash

In times when our dietary preferences seem to be under the scanner, it is crucial to hear such lines that evoke the myth as it is for the poet refusing to toe the line. Vajpayi, our great and effervescent Hindi poet, and curator of the event, closed it using a notion each from the young poets of the last session – Lubna Irfan (English), Mridul Haloi (Assamese), and Sudhansu Firdaus (Hindi) respectively: the poet should be fire, “sab kushal ho” or may all be well; and that there should be “shaaleen auddhattya” or civilised critique and restlessness.

“The dialogue will continue till the poets are alive, but the question is: how do we keep the poet alive?” asked Krishna Kumar. Vak has come as a wonderful step in that direction. The Raza Foundation deserves kudos for this seminal forum for poets from across the country to interact, bringing languages and ideas together, remembering much that is forgotten today, and trying to pin a name on that elusive child with the orange lunch box and to speak for her.

The Raza Foundation must also be thanked for their warm hospitality. They have produced a beautiful volume, a must-keep for bibliophiles, with poetry from each of the 45 poets, interspersed with prints of the works of SH Raza who was a poetry lover himself. They also served fish to all poets and their listeners for lunch.

Photo credit: Maaz Bin Bilal.
Photo credit: Maaz Bin Bilal.

Maaz Bin Bilal is assistant professor in English at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities at OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat. He is also a poet and a translator.

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