“Inside of me, a cemetery sleeps every night/ if you were to open up the front of me/you’d see graves of losses/ neatly arranged rectangles of rest/ but who’s to say the corpses stay/ exactly where I buried them?”
The poet Preeti Vangani delivers her lines unflinchingly to a spellbound audience. A collective gasp is released into the air, followed by a wave of clicking fingers and knowing nods. A palpable sense of recognition washes through the room, as we all realize we have felt exactly the same way, but have never been able to articulate it as well as Vangani has just done.
The occasion is the June edition of Words Tell Stories, a monthly Bombay-based poetry night, held in a moodily-lit pub. It is just one of the many poetry open mikes which has sprung up in the city, and gained rapid traction over the past two years. Cities like Delhi and Bangalore have seen a similar increase in poetry events. Until recently, poetry enjoyed a rather specialised position in the arts, often regarded as a rather smug, intellectual art form that didn’t allow many into its elitist club. So why the meteoric rise in street level poetry events in India?
Perhaps the first thing to note is that this is a movement driven by the millennials: the generation born between 1982 and 2002. They are articulate, well-educated and have a lot to say for themselves: you need only glance at the plethora of online blogs and Facebook timelines cataloging their life events, political views and feelings to see that. Spoken word gives them a much more a structured outlet for their expression that social media: as an art form, it is an incredibly vibrant way to communicate ideas.
Arguably, the rise of spoken word nights is an extension of the human desire to interact and tell stories, in real time, as an antidote to the virtual interaction of social media. “Spoken word has always been a mainstay of community gatherings,” says Anish Vyavahare, a Bombay-based poet who runs his own open mike night, Poetry Tuesdays. Add to that the age-old thrill of performing in front of a crowd and listening to live art, and it is easy to see why performance poetry has quickly gained a stronghold in the urban arts scene: “There have been times people come up to me with interpretations of a poem I feel has nothing to do with what I just did and it’s amazing,” says Bombay-based poet Jitesh Jaggi. “It’s like you’re a performer and an audience at the same time… How cool is that?”
The role of social media in spreading the spoken word scene cannot be ignored. Facebook is the way most people get to know about open mike nights, and videos and photos are almost always shared online and commented on straight after the event, further galvanizing the sense of community. This has had a democratising effect for poets, who used to have to rely on a publishing deal to see their work circulated. These days, anyone can publish a video of themselves on Youtube and a combination of talent and clever marketing can make it go viral, or at least guarantee it will be watched a fair amount.
On the flip side, it has been observed that many gigs take place in expensive cafes or pubs, which only a small elite can afford and feel comfortable in. “I want to see more open sky slams,” declaires Swastika Jajoo, a Delhi-based poet. Yet within these small spaces, there is often an extremely open and intimate atmosphere. Rochelle D’silva set up a poetry night Words Tell Stories to create an open space where people could broach subjects they might not know how to address in ordinary conversation. “I started performing for personal reasons, which gave me huge confidence. It was cathartic, in a way.” But her intention is also to go beyond the individual. “If I write about losing someone, and it helps someone grieve, that’s huge.”
The immediacy and intimacy of poetry open mikes also make them the perfect place for airing and discussing social and political issues. Jajoo observes, “Issues like sexual abuse and homosexuality have often been addressed by slam poets. Although love poetry forms the bulk!”
It is perhaps India’s colleges that are cultivating the most exciting poetry scenes, which generally represent a wider socio-economic background than urban events. The first National Youth Poetry Slam for college students is taking place in Bangalore in September this year. The buzz around this event is already palpable, with an online video released, inviting one of America’s biggest performance poets, Sarah Kay, to judge. The Indian spoken word scene is set to only grow and grow.
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