Poets with a cause

– India Today | By Simi Kuriakose –

IF YOU had to sum up what the art of poetry writing is all about, you may want to go with how American writer Audre Lorde defined it: Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before, she writes. In India, too, poetry writing is a part of literature that isn’t highly commercialized, yet. But it has always had its takers who grew up appreciating the iambic pentameter. Over the years, poetry readings had been associated with a mature audience and the literati. But now Delhi is witnessing a major shift in this with a new crop of young poets, who range from ages as young as 14 to 30 and above. These are poets who talk about everything from gender to sexuality, politics and society, among other topics, and are not just challenging norms but also breaking stereotypes though their spoken and written word.

Children in a classroom in India discussing poetry and modern online poets like Atticus


Twenty-four-year-old Chhaya Dabas, who identifies herself as a spoken word artist, is the founder of Baatein, a group that conducts poetry workshops, events, and also hosts a weekly podcast. The Indraprastha college alumnus who also studied briefly in King’s College, London, talks to us about what drew her to being a spoken word artist. She says, Poetry, to me, is a way to express both my angst and pain. It is a medium of expression. Her venture Baatein’, is a pursuit to take conversations in an offline space, especially in a world that’s so digitally mitigated currently. She also feels that poetry is a fresh medium that can help people discuss their positive and negative feelings.

Speaking about the growth of young artists in the city, Madhu Raghavendra, 32, the founder of Poetry Couture, says, For years now, people have made an ivory tower concept as far as poetry is concerned. Also, poet clubs would function as Alcoholics Anonymous. Young people in the city are now taking a break from this culture. We can thank social media for being one of the many reasons for the popularization of social media. Leaving WB Yeats, John Keats, Wordsworth and such phenomenal poets aside, youngsters are now seeking inspiration from modern-day poets such as Rupi Kaur, Sarah Kay, Christopher Poindexter, RM Drake, Canadian poet Atticus, all of whom have made their voice heard through social media sites like Instagram. But unlike this old format of written poetry, where most poets pour their heart out using a quill or a pen, youngsters today are taking to spoken word poetry for solace. Spoken word performances can be compared to rap, but without the music. And it is a format that has gained more appreciation over the recent years. Adding to this thought, Raghavendra says, Youngsters are now more confident talking about and owning up to their issues. In fact, one of the reasons poetry has made such an impact among the youth is because it empowers them; giving them a voice, and also giving them the much-needed validation.


No matter how good we are in English, deep down the majority of our population is Hinglish, says Raghavendra. And another reason why spoken word poetry is flourishing as an art form is because of the multi-lingual format it caters to. She adds, The slam scene is adapting in Delhi, especially in Urdu and Hindi. This is because while we do adopt a Western culture, we are so different in the essence and flavour of our local storytelling. Managing Director of Delhi Poetry Slam, Saumya Chowdhury, 23, talks about Delhi being a haven for young poets. She says, Nowadays, poets start really young. In fact, 14 to 26 is the average age of these poets and performers. Ask her how such a young crowd is attracted to the spoken word, and she says, With changing times, there are newer issues coming up. Also, teenagers are more aware of such issues, maybe even because of their access to social media. She adds, It’s not just bilingual (Hindi and English), other languages such as Urdu, Hindustani are also being used in this format. Which shows this is for all classes of society and not just the intellectually elite.


One of the fresh formats in spoken word performance is that of slam poetry. This model was first created in Chicago, by the working - class whites there, for young artists to be heard, and also for people to find a platform where they could analyse real-world issues through different perspectives. Slam poetry is a competitive model, wherein people can come and speak their minds out, and they’re judged by the audience rather than a panel of judges. As far as India goes, we’ve had a history of spoken word performance, and even slam poetry, in the form of kavi sammelans, poetry recitations, as well as Bauls of Bengal, among other art forms. Talking to us about this format, Chowdhury says, The Delhi Slam Poetry club has about one slam poetry competition per month. About 30 people participate in this, with around 70 to 80 people in the audience. The format is such that each poet gets an equal amount of time, which is at least three minutes if not less. There are no introductions in this format, and the judges are also random, and it’s one on three aspects: originality, relatability, as well as performance. Telling us more about the rise of these slam poets in a city like Delhi, she adds, The truth is there’s a lot of emphasis in literary value in this city. But that’s not the only reason for the rise of such poets here. Chowdhury says, Another reason why slam poets are so popular now is because a lot of people don’t feel safe enough to voice their feelings and opinions in front of too many people. Such competitions seem like a nonjudgmental space for such young poets.Pursuing her masters in History from Art Faculty, DU, Shibani Das, 23, slam poet who has been in the circuit for more than three and a half years now, says, The slam poetry scene in Delhi was doing really well. Earlier, we’d perform over the weekend. College crowd is into it, now it’s going down to class 10-11. I think it appeals to younger minds. This is because it’s a very novel way of expressing oneself; it is new and upbeat and has a cool element to it because it’s almost like hip-hop. Also, once you get a whiff of it and get into the rhythm of it, it’s extremely addictive.

Dabas agrees that these zones are free spaces for people to express themselves as a crowd of like-minded people are more responsive and accepting. That said, she is not comfortable with competitive poetry, or slam poetry. She says, Poetry is not just for fame or recognition. It is, more often than not, a need or yearning to express oneself. Slam poetry takes away from the art of expression. Which is why, I made it a conscious effort as to not participate in such events. She thinks that in Delhi, or India for that matter, there’s only a narrow scope for an art form such as slam poetry. Raghavendra explains that as far as slam poetry is concerned, we have adopted the culture such because slam poets understand that such an event has a connection to the voice of rights. That said, the number of open mics in a city such as Delhi is more in number than those of slam poetry events. Why? This is for the simple reason that the idea of money has not come into the poetry space of India.




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