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WORLD POETRY DAY

Spoken verse

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on March 19, 2019 Published on March 15, 2019

Fill the gap: Spoken-word poetry is used as an alternative teaching method by the Delhi-based Slam Out Loud initiative

Slam poets are taking poetry out of classrooms, mushairas and libraries, and using it to register protest as well as to teach and learn

For once, Bombay paused. On that day at Marine Drive, poet-activist Sabika Abbas Naqvi had something to say about the sari she was wearing.

Tumhe lagaa meri sari woh thos pehnawa hai

Jise pehenkar hum tip tip baraste paani me sexy naach dikhaayenge...

Tumhe lagaa meri sari meri sanskari hone ki marksheet hai... nahi...

(You thought my sari is that attire I wear in your wet fantasy, you thought my sari is a measure of my chastity…)

No, the poet continued: My sari is that canvas you call the sky; that land on which you walk; that wave on which you love. My sari is the noose that ends fascism.

Not only did her audience stop and listen, they applauded loudly after she finished.

Naqvi belongs to a growing community of spoken-word poets who are taking poetry outside of classrooms, mushairas and libraries and into public spaces. Besides capturing the imagination of the young, spoken word or performance poetry is emerging as the voice of activism too.

The art form borrows equally from theatre and the written word tradition, and involves music, storytelling, voice inflection and dance. Its competitive format is known as ‘slam poetry’, and is often about social justice. Aditi Angiras, who has been helming the movement in India since its inception almost eight years ago, says it was a natural progression for the underground hip-hop culture, of which she was a part.

“It began in 2012. We had organised the first Delhi Poetry Slam at Siri Fort Auditorium,” she says. Since then, Pune, Bengaluru and Mumbai have become the hubs of slam poetry. But the Delhi Poetry slam was such a success that it grew into an underground scene with cafes such as Fursat Se in Shahpur Jat providing anchors for poetry sessions, says Angiras. “Even at the first event, there were many African-American performers. Incredibly, it also became a space for the LGBTQIA community, so much so that it is strongly associated with the queer movement in India,” she adds.

Shine on: Divya Dureja co-founded Performers’ Consortium, an independent performance artists’ collective

 

Groups such as Performers' Consortium, Airplane Poetry Movement, National Youth Poetry Slam and Bring Back the Poets now foster a culture of slam poetry in the country. Lately, the genre has been introduced as an extracurricular activity in select schools and as a competitive event during college fests.

Divya Dureja, poet, queer activist, psychologist and DJ, says she encountered slam poetry online through the American group Button Poetry Movement, which has influenced slam poets in India. As someone who began writing poetry as a child, and took part in plays and debates in school, she was hooked to the format.

“My first performance at an open mic went down very well and ended up being a stand-out show,” she says. Having performed at the New York Poetry Festival as well as festivals in Italy, Nepal and elsewhere in the US, Dureja believes performance is key to spoken poetry.

In her 90-minute poetry performance called the ‘Divya Dureja Project’, she performed with ballerinas and hip-hop dancers, among others. “Live art spaces are closing down at an alarming rate, and we often face bias from venues. People think poetry belongs in the gardens... And then they experience slam poetry, and realise how much they like it,” says Dureja.

Bengaluru-based Bharath Savithri Divakar uses slam poetry to speak about mental health and gender issues.

“I’ve always had trouble fitting in, and this is a space that lets me express how narrowly defined social boundaries are, and the struggles of people like me,” Divakar says .

Jigyasa, a former Teach For India fellow, uses the medium to enhance learning. Her initiative, Slam Out Loud, a non-profit that works with students of Delhi government schools as well as those in smaller private schools, uses spoken poetry as a learning device by conducting regular workshops on them.

“I used it in my class as an alternative teaching method and realised the magic that happened — how it transformed children. Some of them have taken up spoken word poetry full-time. Kids from high-end schools have access to art, but those from poorer backgrounds receive little to no exposure. While art broadens their imagination, and inspires them to aspire for a world bigger than, say, a blue-collar job, it is treated like a luxury in the big schools.” Her students now participate in slam poetry competitions across India and internationally.

What do children like to write about? “Children often borrow from their immediate context. A lot of kids at a workshop in Sikkim wrote about love, happiness, and excitement. Some write about domestic violence, as they see it happening at home; their experiences are very real,” she says.

Jigyasa also curated a workshop for Kashmiri children. “At a high-end school in Kashmir, I asked children to write about the emotions they felt, and a lot of them wrote about the things the kids in Delhi do, such as love and friendship. But I did the same at a school in a conflict region in Kashmir, and the emotions were of anger, frustration and sadness,” she notes.

Angiras believes that spoken poetry lends itself to political and revolutionary verses. “Spoken poetry and its competitive format — poetry slams — have found a connection with the youth. Children find it more accessible than page poetry,” she adds.

Shreyasi, a student pursuing her Master’s degree in Delhi, is also a part-time slam poet. After taking part in world slam poetry events, she is contemplating a career as a poet and writer. “Every slam poet I know also has another vocation. Can’t people be poets and sustain themselves?” she asks.

Published on March 15, 2019
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