meet the poet

Inspiring poet or scripted performer? Rupi Kaur refuses to be labeled as one or the other

At the Jaipur Literature Festival, Rupi Kaur won over the crowd but didn’t change the minds of her critics. The poet, however, is fine with that.

Towards the end of her 45 minute-long performance at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Rupi Kaur forgot the words to her poem Broken English, an impassioned tribute, set to music, paying homage to the immigrant experience of her parents. “Wow, that never happens,” she said, adding with a disarming shrug of her shoulders, “but it’s Jaipur, it’s fantastic over here and there’s a million people looking at me, so what the heck.” She needn’t even have asked for the round of applause that followed, it would have come automatically. The hundreds of people crowding the largest of several venues at the festival, were completely in the thrall of the 25-year-old poet.

The numbers

“That, yesterday, comes from a lot of experience,” Kaur said the next day while sitting down to talk about her poetry and popularity – it seems impossible to discuss one without the other. “I can tell you that when I first started this, for years, I would go on stage with my paper. I didn’t even memorise my stuff at that point. I would not look up, wouldn’t even talk. And then I would cover my face for years, I performed and before I was done, I would drop my papers and I would run off.”

Any mention of Kaur comes with the inevitable and frenzied listing of numbers – 2.5 million copies of her first book, Milk and Honey, sold worldwide, 2.2 million followers on Instagram, her second book, The Sun And Her Flowers debuting at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, the hundreds of people who throng her packed-to-capacity shows. The day after her performance, the poet was a oasis of calm within the flurry of people who surrounded her, scheduling interviews, planning her itinerary and putting the wheels into motion for the next leg of her months-long, first-ever India tour.

“You need balance, I do that by not having social media on my phone,” Kaur said. “It has been a great vehicle for my poetry to be brought to audiences but it has also affected me in negative ways. Just the way, it affects everybody else. As young people, we get too wrapped up it.” A lot of those young people seem to hang out in the comments section of Kaur’s Instagram posts, excitedly noting when they identify with her words and experiences or tagging friends who might. It is a form of instant relatability that has propelled Kaur to the level of stardom she currently enjoys.

Her poetry speaks openly about abuse, it extols young women not to be ashamed of their bodies, that they don’t owe sex to anybody, it signals the importance of mental health, tells people that they are worthy of life and joy, even if they are heartbroken at the moment. In that, her poems, in their bite-sized simplicity and occasionally confessional tone, hone in on that most basic human desire – to be seen, to be told you are not invisible and that you are not alone.

Jibes with the cheers

Why then, does Kaur garner vitriol and sneering jibes in as much measure as she does adulation? Charges of dumbing down poetry, generating consumer-driven content, usurping space meant for “real poets” and over simplifying a South Asian female identity are lobbed at the Punjabi-Candian poet with almost-predictable regularity. Some of the criticism is valid – Kaur’s poems can often lack complexity, conveying the very first germination of a thought instead of evolving it further. Some poems seem little more than a text message you might send a friend when you’re having a bad day.

How much does it really matter, though, especially when the condemnation comes from within the world of poetry and publishing? Is Kaur really destroying the sanctity of poetry, trampling over foot soldiers as they desperately scramble to guard the last bastion of literary ambition and merit? Hardly. Several publishers have noticed a slight increase in the demand for poetry and are hoping the success of Kaur and her social media-savvy contemporaries will only spur further interest in other offerings from the genre – a milk and honey-infused gateway drug. Others dismiss her for being so far removed from the world of traditional poetry that her contribution (or lack of it) to the space is an irrelevant conversation to have.

Kaur, for her part, seems to be unperturbed by the backlash. “I don’t engage when somebody says I am taking up too much space. I see the space as infinite. I think we have a scarcity complex at play where the industry, especially poetry, makes you feel it’s so small that not everybody can have success in it. But I will say...if there are many, many white male poets who can be successful, why can only one brown girl be successful? My job is to continue to do the work that I do and to also bring more people into that space,” she said.

The argument about precious space being monopolised does seem farcical in the context of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Snide remarks about Kaur’s presence as one of the headliners lose a lot of their heft at an event where the biggest crowds turned up to see actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui and comedian Mallika Dua.

While talking about the authors she’s reading – the poet has also been derided for not reading books – Kaur mentioned her love for Elena Ferrante and Junot Díaz and her respect for the work of Nizar Qabbani. She has invoked the Syrian poet in past interviews, holding up his bite-sized format as an example of how far back the style goes, a counter to charges of plagiarism. But it is her adoration for Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet that is the most telling.

“It’s one of those books where I feel like the world gave birth to him so he could give birth to that book. It’s so timeless and beautiful,” she said. The enduring success of The Prophet, published in 1923, continues to puzzle many literary critics who have regularly dismissed the poet-philosopher as “simplistic, naive and lacking in substance.”

Poet, pop star or both?

Apart from the question of complexity, a fundamental point of difference between critics’ derision of Kaur and the affection of her followers seems to lie in the pop star nature of her performances, replete with hordes of cheering crowds who seem to know all her poems like you would a favourite tune and a perfectly-turned out Kaur, decked in couture. During her performance in Jaipur, she was resplendent in pink, sporting immaculate soft curls as she effortlessly won over the audience with her likability, reflecting the vulnerability of her poems in her personality on stage. “My feminism is not about being perfect,” she said.

She expressed nervousness about being in front of such a large crowd, humility about her first performance in India and was visibly moved when a poem was met with particularly exuberant applause or when listeners recognised a particular verse. “I’m very proud of myself for overcoming so many of my fears and the crowd and audience being one of them,” she said the next day.

By the end of her session, the middle-aged man sitting next to me, who, at the start of her session, had turned to ask “Excuse me, who is she?” was enthusiastically snapping his fingers in appreciation with the rest of the audience, angrily gesticulating at anyone who was blocking his view by standing in the aisles. Sitting directly behind him, a teenager clutched a dog-eared copy of Milk and Honey, gasping when her favourite poem was performed onstage. “She’s so nice, this is unbelievable,” said 15-year-old Ankita after the performance. “I can’t believe she read out my favourite poem, it’s actually not one of her most popular ones. I write poetry on my Facebook page also but my profile is private.” Her impatient best friend tugged at her sleeve as she spoke, eager to get their copies signed before rushing home. They live in Jaipur but had no intention of attending any other session at the five day-long literature festival.

“You know, I’m able to talk to the crowd and audience now because I feel like we know each other, we’re connected though the poetry,” she said, reflecting on what’s changed in her attitude to performing. As is the case with most things born from social media, the line between sincerity and script in the Rupi Kaur phenomenon can sometimes be hard to divine. Some of us might never pick up a single book that she writes or look for the echo of our own life crises in the grid of her Instagram profile but for now, Kaur, and Ankita, probably couldn’t care less what we think.

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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.