Spotlight: Spoken Word Poetry In India

Dear God, my son has turned gay
And I know not what to do with him today
A tall lanky young man says these words to an audience splitting their sides laughing. With his long hair tied up into a tight pony and his t-shirt hanging loosely on his shoulders, the poet, who calls himself KC Vlaine, continues. But this time he is God.
Erm… Where exactly is the problem again?
Another huge roar of laughter. KC, whose t-shirt has the word ‘performer’ spelt out in three rows of three letters each, moves back to the right transforming into the distraught father.
But it is unnatural isn’t it?
Men and women have the parts that fit!
God butts in. He seems to disagree.
Listen close to these words from above
Everyone and everything was designed to love
The conversation goes on. The man pleads with God to help him find a way and God in turn makes him understand, with a generous dash of humour, why it is completely normal that the boy is gay. There is loud laughter, hoots and encouraging applause from the 15 odd listeners, at times even drowning out the poet’s voice. In the video of his performance posted on YouTube, you see that KC stops and waits patiently and sometimes tries in vain to raise his voice above all the appreciation. Finally, in his poem Talking To God, the father gives in.
KC Vlaine at a performance
KC Vlaine
***
It all started with a Facebook message in December 2013, calling Pune’s poets to perform at the city’s first poetry slam. A small reluctant group turned up at the frozen yoghurt joint Cocoberry, and in no time they were glad to have found each other. “We just loved each others poems and we were hugging like long lost siblings,” says Chandrakant Redican, 27, an active member of the group now called Pune Poetry Slam. The poem Talking To God won that very first slam and today the group hosts such competitions every 2-3 months. There is poetry, laughter, discussions and debates and the audience jointly decide on the winner. From their humble beginnings, PPS has now grown into a creative community that has been instrumental in making spoken word the cultural movement that it is today.
Chandrakant Redican
Chandrakant Redican
Spoken word is a performance art which stems from a marriage of wordplay and storytelling. Poets intertwine words with rhythm, sometime falling back on a close ally like rap or hip-hop, and pepper their poems with local slang to connect with the audience. Hugely popular in the west, the art form is catching up in our country, slowly but more than steadily, especially among youngsters. They flock into bookshops, cafes, restaurants and bars and are even willing to shell out a few bucks to watch their favourite poets or their peers perform.
Reading out or reciting poetry has been the norm since times immemorial, but spoken word is not the same. “Spoken word poems are written to be performed,” explains Shanthanu Anand, 22, final year law student and one of the co-founders of the PPS as well as the Bangalore-based Airplane Poetry Movement. “Thus, the difference from written word begins before the act of creating itself.” Agrees Aditi Angiras, 26, who founded the group Bring Back The Poets in Delhi: “There is a whole cultural and political dynamic the poem enacts through performance. The poet and her identity comes through in spoken word, not just her words.” Text is dead to him and now there is no going back to it, says KC, who adopted the pseudonym because he “wasn’t comfortable with all the unnecessary additional information like gender and religion” that his real name gave out. “It cannot convey an accent, a human voice or subtle modulations in tone. It comes alive only when performed.”
***
“It started with a sweater,” begins An Origin Story, written and performed by the now famous American duo Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye. If you are confused by the similar sounding surnames, fret not, as the poem goes on to explain just that. The 26-year-olds, they say, are not related by blood, marriage or in any other way. The coincidence doesn’t stop with the name. The poem playfully lists out the others–both of them were born to Japanese mothers and Jewish fathers and each has a sibling of the same age named after each other.
Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye performing in India Image via Google Images
Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye performing in India
Image via Google Images
For many young poets in India, like Nandini Varma and Ankita Shah, it all started with the same sweater. All thanks to Kay and Kaye, as they turned to spoken word poetry after watching the duo’s performance on YouTube. While Varma, 22, teamed up with Anand and started hosting slams, Shah found her ‘Kaye’ in collegemate Trupthi Shetty, with whom she started The Poetry Club in Mumbai. Unlike PPS, this is not meant to be a competition, but just a get together of poets who can practice their performances and get feedback on their work from like-minded others. The only rule to attend these gatherings is that you have to bring along your own poem, thus, making it a platform for mutual improvement. “Forever we were hearing stories from New York City and elsewhere to a point that we had gotten tired of it,” says Shetty. “We wanted to hear the voices and poems of our own city–Bombay–talking of things that mattered to us.” Shah and Shetty have been witnesses to many a shy poet turn into a spoken word veteran within the confines of their community. The group has now started doing shows and peforming for an audience.
***
Gone is the time when poetry was considered a pretentious and boring creative pursuit. The young Indian is irreverent, open, confident, independent, political and bold. And spoken wordseems to have hit all the right cords with them. Be it to put out their take on what is happening around them or to let out a secret about their love lives, they are taking to pen and paper to express in verse. Alok Vaid-Menon, a 23-year-old trans Indian American, who co-founded thespoken word duo DarkMatter in the US, calls the form three-dimensional. “It is politics, art, and emotions rolled into one,” says Vaid-Menon. “It is evocative and immediate. it hits you where it hurts best.”
Alok and Janani
Alok and Janani
DarkMatter, which recently expressed solidarity with the Queer Slam hosted by Bring Back The Poets in Delhi, has performed in colleges and universities across the globe. They incorporate music, mime, actions and a few moves to their poems. Balasubramanian feels thatspoken word gives a stage and platform to people who have never had their stories heard before. “It allows people who have never had the opportunity to be truly considered and people who have been forcibly silenced to speak our truths unapologetically,” says Balasubramanian. “Growing up as trans Indians we were told that we’re not supposed to exist. Art has provided us a space to re-inscribe ourselves in our culture and into our historical archive.”
For DarkMatter, it is a question of their gender and colour, but for someone like Redican, it was about confidence and focus. “It was after I got into spoken word that I started becoming more focussed in life,” says Redican, who is now teaching at Pune’s Ramakrishna More College. “Poetry set my life straight. I got a job, I started engaging in things that mattered to me, all through the confidence and discipline inculcated by spoken word.”
Angiras feels that the fact that most poems performed at slams here deal with “I” is the reason why it appeals to the young generation. There is no fear of being labelled or judged. It is also the “write how you talk” style of spoken word that makes it popular among those who have no idea of traditional poetry forms or haven’t read classical poetry. “It is colloquial, you can use slangs, you can invent words and come up with fresh metaphors,” she says. “Slams and groups are dedicated to the ideals of democracy, equality and diversity, thus inviting a shared sense of liberalism and tolerance. This I think works with the young crowd.”
***
There is a hole in his classroom blackboard/It teaches him math like no teacher ever could/He can now subtract empty chairs/from the souls he used to know/ Can they grow into flowers without any thorns/When the world around them scorns?
 
There is anger, passion, conviction and dread in 23-year-old Mayank Susngi’s eyes as he recites the poem For Children Of Gaza. From genocides to violence against women, menstruation to abortion, the list of things that anger young poets like Susngi is never ending. They use their words to effectively put their arguements across, like Redican’s Why I Follow Poonam Pandey on Twitter. Written in a humorous tone, the poem dissects the sexual restrictions that are imposed on the youth which in turn manifest itself first through voyerism and then through dangerous methods like eaveteasing and even rape.
Shantanu Anand and Nandini Verma (centre) during a spoken word workshop
Shantanu Anand and Nandini Verma (centre) during a spoken word workshop
Inspiration need not always stem from anger over such global and social issues. Personal successes and failures could also turn fodder for poetic pursuits. “My themes are almost always personal and either about romantic relationships or about philosophical issues,” says KC, whose poem Failure Of Expression, contemplates on the inability of very form of spokenword to express what he feels for the woman he loves. While Aashna Iyer dvelves into the love story between a Parle-G biscuit and adrak-wala chai in her poem Chai-Biskoot, Priyanka Menon hints about domestic violence and learning to trust again in The Scumbag Who Broke My Heart. Mahek Jangda performs a poem on inspiration itself, Riya Ghosh Ray on recovering from depression and Rudra Joshi reminisces of his fully grown beard he had to shave off on his mother’s insistence. “What we see around us in society is what inspires us,” Anand sums it up.
Apart from the right pauses and modulation, there is a lot that performance brings to the poem. Apurv Inamdar performs standing on one foot during his poem Balancing Act to signify the diplomatic way of living we are taught as children. Redican transforms into a eunuch while performing his poem Omnisexuals. Audience interaction is another important aspect of spokenword. While performing their poem There Are Divisions Everywhere at the Bangalore TEDx talk, Anand and Verma made different sections of the audience clap in response to basic questions like “How many here are from Bangalore?” and “How many here are Muslims?”. The audience thus unknowingly became a part of their performance and in a way justified their poem which said we create unnecessary divisions everywhere. “Slams are built on the principal that the poets and the audience are equals,” says Anand, of why the connect with the audience is of utmost importance. “Moreoever, slams are theatrical events, not just listening booths,” adds Angiras.
***
Thanks to the many creative spaces that have mushroomed across Indian cities like The Hive and House Of Wow in Mumbai, High Spirits  and Pagdandi Cafe in Pune and Fursat Se in Delhi among others, half the battle is won when it comes to performance spaces for spokenword enthusiasts. The real challenge now is how to get heard wider and how to actually make a difference to others with their poetry.
Verma of APM, with ample guidance and support from Bangalore-based creative Campus Diaries is currently working on Project Rubaroo. “The project establishes collaborations and conversations between the youth of India and its neighbours,” Mariam Paracha, founder ofSpoken Stage, the community from Pakistan which will be a part of the project, told THE WEEK on email. “It is an attempt at creating a collaborative spoken word piece, which is co-written by Indian and Pakistani writers and performers.” Paracha, 24, a design graduate who goes to different schools in her city to introduce students to the art of performance poetry, is the Malala figure of spoken word in Pakistan. “It is a passion project for me,” she says. “It is a beautiful way of connecting with people and learning from one another.”
Mariam Paracha with schoolchildren after a workshop
Mariam Paracha with schoolchildren after a workshop
Bring Back The Poets, too, have an international collaboration on the cards, with Kathmandu-based Word Warriors, Nepal’s first spoken word poetry group. The founding members of the group will be joining Angiras and co for a performance at the Cri de Femme International Poetry Festival to be held in March this year in the capital. Workshops and internships are also happening in different cities to introduce and train younger children in the art form.
***
It is a powerful medium, for sure, with many poets and even those in the audience saying thatspoken word changed their lives. While for the performer, it is the joy of being heard, appreciated and encouraged, for the listener it is about a sense of belonging, connecting with like-minded people and maybe even mustering up the courage to get on the stage and stand before the mic with your own poem.
The first time she heard well-known American spoken word activist Andrea Gibson’s poem on YouTube, Angiras couldn’t stop crying. “It moved so many things inside of me that I heard the same poem all night long just to figure out what it was exactly and I still couldn’t find it,” she says. “I think spoken word poetry helps you “find yourself”, it helps you figure “yourself” out.” The biggest lesson that spoken word has taught her, says Angiras, is “that no matter what they say – poetry still works!”
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