PLANET INDIA – INTERVIEWS BY ANDREA PAGNES
Abha Iyengar – Poetry and the Power of Commitment
Originally published in STORIE Cultural Magazine, 2012
The interview was realised during VestAndPage's artist-in-residence at Sarai-CSDS in Delhi, India, in April 2011/October 2012.
Abha Iyengar is an Indian writer, poet and scriptwriter. She is the author of The Gourd Seller and Other Stories (Kitaab, 2015), a Kota Press Poetry Anthology contest winner, a member of The Poetry Society of India and "Riyaz" Writer's Group at The British Council, New Delhi. Her work has appeared in several anthologies, magazines and literary journals. She is an author and editor, holds creative writing workshops, does spoken word performances, street photography, cyber art and poem-films.
Andrea Pagnes: Abha, Anaïs Nin said that: "The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say." You have used this quote as overture for your essay "A Woman's Cry: A Need to Write," first published in 2001. Hence, the core for a woman writer…
Abha Iyengar: The first responsibility of the writer is to acknowledge the self and the need to write. It took me a long time to do this. Within me there was always a desire to express myself through words and be recognised for it, but I ignored this feeling. I had filed it away in my subconscious while I pursued more socially acceptable degrees like Economics and Business Management. But truth will out, and I have finally acknowledged myself as a writer.
A writer writes the sum total of her experiences, readings, interactions, feelings, ideas, and thoughts. She writes because she feels a need to express herself and communicate with others. I often have to go deep within myself to write. At times, I do not like what I see, and feel scared. Take for example:
I am sometimes bowed down / by my long hair, / and my bosom. / My tits and tresses torment me. / Maybe if I / Cut them off / I could stand up straight / and tell the world: / Look at me / I am a human being / Just like you. / Not just a woman.
A writer may write on mundane issues, or on those that make her blood boil. I have written on health, study tips, and also on the injustices against the poor and against women. The issues are varied. For example, in a segment of one of my poems published in Femina, a woman's magazine, I emphasise the need to recognise the plight of the poor and homeless:
Torn Jeans / Worn for days / Lice-infested / Crawly place. / I didn't choose / to be like this, / who would? / I feel like the proverbial fish- / Out of water. / Out of water, / Out of food, / Out of hearth, home, / and brood.
The basic point here is that you may not be living it, but if you feel it you can express it. Hopefully, through the writing, you make the reader feel it too.
The writings may be of course also humorous, cynical, satirical, soothing, or moving. Consider this Haiku of mine:
Smooth as a Raven's wing / your hair falls, / hides your face, / Leaving me enveloped in darkness.
Or this one:
One day to live, / Fragile, the flower, / yet blossoms with delight.
The words evoke different thoughts and emotions. Even so, they emote what the writer considers right, truthful, and pertinent. She has to write what she believes in. That is the responsibility of the writer to her self.
A writer may write for many reasons. She may write to educate others and share her knowledge on a particular subject. She may write to inform people about the wrongs in society, and to bring about social change; perhaps to enlighten others, and help them find peace and spiritual well being. The writings could explore human relationships, or the state of the human mind, or the quality of life. Anything and everything could be the inspiring force.
Writing often acts as a catharsis for the writer. Spontaneous and heartfelt, it is expressed as an emotional release: a need to write. Here is an example:
A WOMAN'S CRY
And then one day, we tried to change things,
Make them better for ourselves
Now we are single and alone
We've paid a heavy price for our freedom.
Slavery is hard to bear, so is freedom,
One finds you in chains,
The other delivers you to the world.
One makes you bear the onslaught of one on one,
The other makes you pit yourself against many
That's why so many surrender
Even after the battle is won.
Don't give up, fight hard,
It may destroy you,
But you are making the world a saner place
For the daughters that follow.
On the other hand, the writing may be well-researched and compiled through long drawn out and painstaking effort. According to Sable Jak, we cannot assume that "writers ARE their work."
This is without doubt. A writer is not all that she writes. She may write on new and unfamiliar topics, but ones that are well-researched. Whatever she writes and does; what must be remembered is that facts cannot be skimmed over or brushed aside. When I was writing the article on "Population" for the book Science, Technology and Development I had to spend several months just reading books and articles on the subject, studying data and ideas. Then the facts had to be sorted out and compiled to be presented in a coherent way. It required time and effort; since it was a subject I had not done in-depth study on earlier.
The writer could write in any form – poems, creative non-fiction, fiction, short stories, and personal essays, and on anything under the sun. She could write on current issues confronting the world – Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan, the changing world scenario – and generate feelings of hate or tolerance, love or revulsion, anger or anguish.
Norman Cousins stated that "the writer, perhaps more than any of his fellow artists, has access to the human subconscious. His words sink deep, shaping dreams, easing the pain of loneliness, nourishing great anticipations, sharpening the instinct for justice, and imparting respect for the fragility of life. These functions are essential for human evolution. Without them, civilisation becomes brittle and breaks easily." (from The Writer's Book of Days).
The word has great power. Words can make you smile, laugh, or cry. Consider this excerpt from my article on what men want:
"What do men want?" I asked my 15-year-old nephew, and he replied promptly, without batting an eye --"5'-8", with good North Zones and South Zones.
Was he voicing every man's fantasy? Every man, old or young, rich or poor, wants to possess the "piece de resistance," epitomised by the wine drinking, cigarette smoking, cleavage showing baby doll in the movies, who hangs on to his arm, flutters her false eyelashes and calls him "darling"!
This paragraph should make you react in some way: smile, a frown, raised eyebrows-something! Therein lies the power.
Writing has the power to change the thinking and the course of civilisation.
Women such as Germaine Greer changed international thinking through their radical writing. Her writing in 1970, "The Female Eunuch" mobilised the women's movement. She told women "Freedom is fragile and must be protected. To sacrifice it, even a temporary measure, is to betray it." Her writing empowered women to fight for their rights.
With her words, a writer tells the world many things. Therefore, it becomes incumbent upon her to realise the power she wields.
"The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on." (Quoting the Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam, a poet who lived in the XI century). It leaves its imprint not only on paper, but also on the mind of the reader. As she draws the reader into her world, opens new doors, shows a different perspective, and reveals vignettes of life, perhaps hitherto unknown or disregarded, she must do so without misusing the power vested in her. That is the writer's responsibility to society.
AP: I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. "Being willing is not enough; we must do." This sentence of Leonardo da Vinci that you take in a highest consideration: it perfectly portrays you, as a social activist who works against all forms of aggression and injustice, and believes in freedom and diversity of expression. It is like a call for an entire community if you make it yours. In your career you have also presented papers on unplanned urbanisation in Berlin (1991) and represented India in Paris (2005), speaking on the impact of World Trade Organization's negotiations on small farmers in India. How do you see your country today – the menace of new social conflicts for the uncontrolled economical growth that seems to privilege only the higher castes, while the lower seems to be condemned to the same secular chronic poverty and confined forever in their bastis and slums?
AI: To get out of the morass of obscurity and non-existence, education is the only answer. This is especially required for women, and this is my strong belief. But not only women, men require education as well, to get rid of the frustrations of not having knowledge and means to move upwards. It is a known fact of course that whatever provisions the government makes for the underprivileged get siphoned off by the middle men, those with political and social clout, and nothing reaches those for whom it was initially intended. So corruption has to go. For this, people with ethics and compassion are required. In other words, the younger generation, with ideas for sharing their knowledge and time, need to enter politics and the corridors of power. But we are talking ideals here. In real life, it is so much tougher to do all this and so many people with ideals fall by the roadside when the bigger muscles show off their clout. Yet, the idea is not to give up but keep making the required dents so that finally the existing structure gives way to a new one. Of course, new thinking and vision is required, and that can only be brought about by injecting the commitment of the young into solving the problems of population, unemployment, lack of facilities and rabid corruption. And we need education, for education is the way out of poverty and oblivion.
Coming to the issue of caste, the privileges no longer belong to the higher castes, because the lower castes have reservations made in their favour. In fact, this kind of counter-favouritism has resulted in many people getting into positions for which they are not qualified, and this creates problems of its own. I have come across professors of history who know nothing of history and students who get seats in good institutes because they belong to the lower caste, but they are not so deserving of this, and hence take the place of someone else that, because he was of the general caste category, did not get the seat. Such reservations are dangerous, for now every caste, even the Jats (this has been in the news recently), who are not of the lower caste, are squatting on rail tracks and disrupting movement of trains in the North, agitating to belong to the reserved (Other Backward Classes) category. Very soon, there will be only a majority of reserved seats and hardly any general seats and then a classification of this reserved category will begin. Who is the lowest of the low, caste wise, seems to be having a greater value attached to it today because of this game of reservations. The intention behind making reservations is good, but the results have proved disastrous because everyone wants to be of a ‘reserved’ category to get the benefits provided, and misuse the privileges. At the same time, if you are born to a higher caste, you automatically get respect, which is weird, for where have you earned this respect? But you lose out on the privileges, even if you have worked hard to get them. For example, medical seats in prestigious colleges are often denied to deserving students of a general category because a percentage of the seats are "reserved". So caste dynamics are strange and have created their own topsy-turvy scenario.
In all this, the basic problems are not addressed. We could talk endlessly on this, but there is no one set and correct answer. However, the only answer for me has always been education of all, right down to the grass-roots level, and this means cutting across such swathes of the in-between. We have village schools where there are no blackboards, the teachers never come, I am sure you have heard all this. Commitment is needed for bringing change, and a strong back. Something like your performance on the winter night in Sattal, bearing the onslaught of the wind and the cold but carrying on despite the hardships. That is commitment, and that is what is needed. Only the young can give it.
When I speak to people, I am sometimes against a dead-end. People have set views on so many things, it is a conditioning of the brain done so that individuals conform to society, and accept everything as given and change as being not worthy of effort. To fight an existing system requires one to be constantly in a state of agitation. It is a tough call.
I can only use my words and speak, individually and otherwise. The state of the world can be disheartening, but we have to work to preserve its beauty and the beauty of the human being as well. This beauty is the soul. The soul is what is dead of many, because money is the only thing, which talks to people today. Definitely, money matters, but today it has become the god of all gods. This god tries to push all other considerations out of the way. It creates a person, who wants the Midas touch, but then everything turns to gold and he is left with nothing to eat but gold coins. The businessman, who only thinks of make his money grow, will eventually also starve. Therefore, the farmer has to be respected and given his due. The farmer will not commit suicide (like they do in large numbers in rural India) if he has food and money and a life to call his own.
AP: On your poem "It's Quite Alright to be called a Self-Centred Bitch":
A woman should speak her mind. / Then do what it takes for her self / to grow, glow, show. / No need to be kind to others. / Let them go. / Be kind and gentle to herself. / Before herself, nothing else. / No one else.
You have written "It's Quite Alright" on December 24, 2007. In these few verses you enucleate all the struggle of contemporary Indian women, which – perhaps still too silently, or better, decently – fight for their rights, to set themselves free from the chains of an obsolete masculine way of thinking. Can you objectively analyse the actual condition of women in India, and tell me frankly your position on that matter –what do you think is needed for radical change?
AI: The condition of women in India and in many parts of the world, if I think about it, it makes me want to cry in despair or hit out at something, those are the instinctive reactions. Women are oppressed; there are no two ways about it. If we are talking of women having made great strides, women in good positions, etc., which percentage of women are we talking about? Many women, who work outside homes and earn money, have it snatched out of their hands by their husbands. Or they give up working and become unpaid slaves in their own homes. And what they contribute in building a home and family is not considered of any value. There is a term bandied about which I loathe, it is called being "just a housewife". A housewife is many persons, has great and grave responsibilities but is not considered worthy because she does not earn money through this. Husbands have been known to tell wives that they are being provided for and taken care of, and that in return they just sit at home and do nothing. If housewives do nothing, then why are they there?
I believe women have to wrest their life and their independence. They should not give up their jobs, they need to understand that husbands are human beings and not gods, they need to assert themselves, get education, speak up, learn how to defend themselves and think of themselves as human beings, not chattel or beasts of burden. Very often, a woman who tries to be all these things is called "masculine". We have to get rid of such terms. Men have sufferings of a similar kind, they have to subdue their feminine emotional self and be "macho" or aggressive at all times. In our world today, such definitions have to go.
A survey conducted several years ago by a major Indian magazine on women and their situation had made me sit up, totally aghast at some of the responses. One of the village women from North India said that it was her husband’s god- given right to beat her up, and she accepted it without demur. This is not her mind speaking, but her mind’s ‘conditioning’ by her family and by society. That is why the song goes, "Teach your children well…" Teach them to value themselves.
Overall, women get the short end of the stick in all things. They are told to fend for themselves, bring the bacon home, and offered little or no support in housekeeping chores or in financial terms. Granted, women are extremely capable, but they should realise this fact themselves, that indeed they are. That is where the failure has taken place, because women do not value themselves. So a change in their thinking is essential. If women are considered bitches because they start asserting themselves, let that be so. If women pay attention to everything the world calls them, they will be nothing, they may as well hide themselves in a corner and die. Education and economic independence and assertiveness, this is what is called for. And we need men who value women and support them, respect them and acknowledge that they have a brain, that women are not sex objects. Men have to bring a major change in their thinking; they have to begin using their brains and begin to respect women.
AP: You said: "In unseen corridors I travel blind but belong. These are my poems. They hold the headiness of romance, the sensuality of desire, the heartache of loss and the vulnerability of being human." This is true when you look for lyricism in the same words you use and choose, but sometimes it seems to me that there is a part of you that wishes to tell also of a carnal anger, although expressed with a sober elegance.
AI: Carnal anger, I appreciate this term. Yes, I think you are very right, I could not have said it better. It has to be there, because the world is unfair in its treatment of women and sex. Older men have young women hanging on to their arms (look at Hugh Hefner or Nicolas Sarkozy) but the relationship of a woman like Demi Moore who has a young man as her husband becomes a subject of much speculation. This is unfair.
Women are very greatly repressed. I know of women who have not had sex with their husbands after their children have been born! Many of them do not give any value to sexuality, and if they do, they have learnt to cover it with all kinds of veils. A woman cannot think sex, it is sinful for her to do so, that is what conventional education and society would like to have everyone believe. So yes, carnal anger could be part of the motif, for women are being denied a very basic part of being human.
I can give you examples of what creates the need for protest:
"In April 2007, a group of men pulled seventeen-year-old Du’a Khalil Aswad into a mob. They proceeded to stone and beat her to death, a supposed "honour" killing for allegedly falling in love with a man of a different faith. Several camera phones recorded the entire incident from the front row, and videos later surfaced online."
The anthology Nothing But Red was conceived as a way to raise awareness of issues like this. I have contributed to this anthology, adding my voice to the collective protest.
Or consider something like female genital mutilation and/or infibulation. It goes against the human rights of girls, of women, and a large part of the argument for it being practiced lies in depriving women of sexual pleasure or orgasm. The very idea sends a shudder up my spine. How many lives are affected by practices like these, one cannot even begin to imagine the degree of physical pain and psychological trauma.
A couple of days ago, I read in the newspapers of the rape of a 77-year-old lady in New Delhi by a rickshaw puller. The lady was reported missing by the family but the police did nothing much and she was found after two hours instead of earlier because of the apathy of the police.
So rage is there. Against repression, indifference, cruelty, the lack of human consideration. Since women are the sufferers more often than not, the rage becomes more pronounced in favour of their voice being heard.
Women have to speak and speak every which way against what is unfair to them as human beings. It does not mean that I am not proud to be a woman; I love being a woman and all that is feminine. Yet, I also believe that this does not require me to be a "yes" woman, take injustice and reprimands heaped on me, or be treated like an animal, or be denied health or respect or access to education or fresh air, even.
AP: Some critics have written that your poems remind of ancient rites with startling modern imageries entrenched deep in them, like gems; that among the free verse and the rubajat (a form of Persian poetry), you move with the grace of a shaman. Some others, that they are well conceived, well crafted and emotionally charge in the tradition of Kamala Das: honest, forthright, and unambiguous in their expression of sadness, solitude, and hopes. What is indeed your idea of poetry?
AI: My idea of poetry is saying what is true and springs from my heart. My poetry is the poetry of all people.
I am very influenced by Sufi poetry, which is again, the telling of the truth of the heart. I am a romantic at heart, and Sufi poetry (Rumi, Khusro) is filled with romance and love. It sees no barriers of any kind and believes in being "fanaa" or being annihilated by love. The loved one and the lover are one, and there lies all bliss. Poetry is the greatest humanising force.
Poetry touches you quick, enters you quick, and leaves a lasting impression. You come to it again and again to savour it anew... that is the poetry you love. That is what poetry is, my idea of poetry.
"Poetry is perhaps what teaches us to nurture the charming illusion: how to be reborn out of ourselves over and over again and use words to construct a better world, a fictitious world, that enables us to sign a pact for a permanent and comprehensive peace…with life." (Mahmoud Darwish).
AP: Among the poets and writers that inspired you as a reader, you mentioned T.S. Eliot, Maya Angelou, Kaifi Azmi and Saahir Ludhianvi. In which measure have they influenced you and your way of writing?
AI: Of all the poets I read as a child, and because of a convent education I was exposed first to poets writing in English, I remember being hugely impressed by Eliot and his The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window panes... I felt a sudden connect. His poetry denoted certain melancholia, and his writing was city based. I was thirteen then, and I could really picture this whole scene. It could be that I also read a lot of Sherlock Holmes and the English cityscape had a kind of familiarity to it. The smog and fog of London, though quite different from the atmosphere of an Indian city, did have the same sense of dejection and also romance. The American poet, Robert Frost, also influenced me with something there is that doesn’t love a wall in those days. So yes, I would say that what is given to us in the formative years will stay with us for a long while.
Maya Angelou is all about being a woman with pride and assertiveness. Her frankness hit me in my face. Here was a woman who could write, Does my sexiness upset you/ does it come as a surprise/ that I dance like I’ve diamonds/ at the meeting of my thighs? She is full of poetic joy. The Indian poet, Kamala Das, whom I admire for revolutionising the voice of the Indian woman poet, is also very forthright, but there is a suffering inherent to her writings.
I find my need for justice and freedom to be present in the social structure is reflected in the writings of Kaifi Azmi and Faiz Ahmed Faiz and maybe that is why I appreciate their words so much. Sahir Ludhianvi was a revolutionary poet too; his, it was a poetry of protest against traditions, religion, the social order, the fakery of the world. He was a romantic poet, a loner and lover whose dreams of love were never fulfilled. Poets always need a greater gratification of the senses. This need is partially fed through their writings, because by baring their souls they reach out to the world and the world reaches out to them. Of course, if they find a resonance.
AP: Poetry, essays, fiction and non-fiction stories, social activism, street photos, movie and cyber art activities. Do you explore different expressive possibilities and different media because you feel to be animated by an inexhaustible creativity, or for a precise urgency/necessity to tell to a wider public not just your ideas, feelings, opinions, but make them aware of the actual configuration of things?
AI: There is never enough, I always feel I have so much to do. Creation of any form excites me, it fills me with passion. I went recently to Pushkar Lake and the lake was so calm, serene and beautiful. I could understand the god of creation, Brahma, residing in such a lake. Creativity is life, and it is an expression of humanity, it is the true freedom. When one is creative and in the flow, nothing else matters, it is a different space. That kind of bliss has to be experienced. And creativity resides in all of us. It is like Brahma in us – we are creators of our worlds, our beings, and ourselves.
I think my creative spirit stems from a desire to always explore and experiment, and get charmed by every aspect of life. There is a word in Hindi, kautuhal, which means to possess a sense of wonder. This is what children have, and I think I have this. My father had it too; he could get excited about a new way to sharpen a pencil!
Yes, there is an urgency to define my own meanings and then share them with the world. Everything is in context, for my world and experiences are uniquely mine, yet, the universality of being human is the same all over the world. That is why my work is published everywhere, it is not contained in one geographical area. Writing and all other venues of expression have liberated me in my thinking and attitude and I want everyone to experience the beauty of creative spirit, whether it is through art, writing, performance, film or any other medium. I find that things usually work for me because I give my total commitment to whatever I do.
I go to a space with an element of uncertainty, of course, it is only human, but I also embrace it full on. I have made myself unlearn my inhibitions and open up. But because basically I am an introspective person, I do withdraw often. And I think withdrawal is needed, for if you have noise around you all the time, then where will you make your own music? For that you need space and time. So both are important to me, the engagement with the world, and spending time within myself.
Primarily, I am a poet at heart. Then the extensions happen. Writer, spoken word, filmmaker, digital artist, these are extensions. Like Kali Ma, the many handed goddess. At [the festival, ed.] Carneval of e-Creativity 2011, one of the participants surprised me by saying, "You know why you are here? You are here because you are meant to reach out and tell people that such things are possible... that new ways of expression are possible in art and poetry."
Considering the actual configuration of the things… There is only one life, so exist or embrace. As a writer you begin to understand the fragility of the moment, the impermanence of love, the certitude of death... I am sure my writings reflect this.
AP: You hold writing workshops on creativity and poetry writing for all ages. The workshops cover topics such as overcoming mind blocks, finding stories, the importance of language, beginner mistakes, finding markets, coping with rejection, and steps towards improvement. Can you tell me more about the methods you adopt in your teaching? And how do your students respond, what do they actually write? I believe these workshops give evidence to what people think on many topics, their life situation, and their approach to the society, their most intimate beliefs, also.
AI: When I hold my creative workshops, I am amazed at the responses. You are right, the writings and the discussions reflect the spaces and backgrounds of the people. A simple image will give rise to different stories. That is because we respond to everything according to where we come from. The image is the same but our responses are what make the difference. The tone, texture, language, setting and maturity of each student’s work are different.
I move my students through a fairly structured programme, which deals with issues such as emotional unblocking and the craft of writing. Each creative presentation has a certain form and structure with which we have to work. Language and writing skills are important. I don’t keep things too methodical, though. Fluidity is an essential part of facilitating any workshop and I always keep a feel on the pulse of the students.
I teach the importance of expression, the correct use of language, and the need for editing one’s work, the wonder of the keyboard and the flat screen. I teach that all this is fine, but nothing will replace the feel of the wet grass between tightly clutched toes, or the fragrance of another skin against your own, or the sting of a wasp. To write, you have to experience life.
Feedback on my classes has been positive and tremendously uplifting of my spirits. I find my interactions with my students very rejuvenating.
AP: In My Song (a fiction story) you write: "I am writing. So I ignore the dust gathering on all the printouts piling up on the desk on the side. These printouts are the reference points for my book, which I have been planning to write. The dust is gathering on most things but my mind is as fresh as a shampooed hair." Actually, what is it that pushes you to write in first place? Do you have a particular method, or habits/rituals that you follow, even ordinary ones?
AI: There is only the passion to write. My life is in my writing now so much that I attend to everything and all the while I know that I will be pulled back to the laptop. As for the writing, it depends. I am in the middle of an unfinished novel that is going at its own pace. I have some projects that I am working on. I contribute to various magazines and anthologies and journals, as you know, and my writing is varied. Then there is my poetry, which just arrives for me out of the blue and I have to write it, or it flies away and leaves me feeling like a lost lover. A story comes into my head and then I have to formulate it into words. I have my blogs and my Hindi poems. I am also compiling my micro-fiction, so that is another piece of work that needs to be attended to. And then the conferences that keep popping up, and the retreats and the writing workshops. I also find that I spend a lot of time daydreaming, thinking upon an idea, which I want to write on.
So usually there is always something to be done.
I write either straight on getting up, or at night. The day is full of distractions. If I have a project on, I will work on it all the time, my brain will work on it. Even while I am reading, cooking, travelling, my subconscious will be looking for answers, and they come from the most unexpected places. My thoughts are usually on overdrive.
The only rule I lay down for myself is to write a minimum of 500-1000 words a day. It could be anything at all, maybe just a record of an outing I have taken, which may not finally be, published anywhere, but it is "writing". Sometimes I can sit and write 4000 words at a go… not a problem if I want to express something fast before I lose the feel for it. Writing needs both passion and determination. Hard work will come from passion, if you do not care enough, you will be lazy. That is the fact. So if you want to write, you have to write. It is like if you want to have a bath, you have to have the bath. Wanting is not enough: you have to do! "Being willing is not enough; we must do." This quote of Leonardo da Vinci is important for anything to be achieved.
AP: Today poetry seems only something to be addressed to the so-called intellectual elites. How do you see the future for it, I mean if it is still useful as tool of communication to express concepts and emotions in contemporary societies are overwhelmed by consumerist images and overwhelmed by digital data and superficial information? Can you tell me also a bit more about the contemporary poetry situation in India?
AI: Poetry is actually what belongs to everyone. It is a way of communicating to another’s heart like nothing else can. Surdas, Kabir, Baba Farid, Meera – they knew it; they touched everyone with their poems on life and love and god. Through their poems they could teach people the importance of accepting everyone as human, not consider caste and religion to matter, or the temple as the only place of worship (the Bhakti movement in India). Their poetry was simple and that is why people can hum their words even today.
People today are scared of poetry, saying they don’t understand it. How can you not understand the heart and what it says? It is a fear; they don’t want to be touched. So I try to slowly change that, in those I come in contact with and in my students. People also think poetry is a waste of time. But those who turn to poetry realise that this is not so. Loving what is a true expression of the soul is not a waste of time.
The contemporary poetry situation in India is looking up just like everything to do with writing is. Books are being bought and writers and publishers have got on to the bandwagon in a big way. Yet, compared to fiction, poetry’s market is still pretty niche, it has its few select lovers.
It is coming out of the shadows now, especially in cosmopolitan cities, where it is getting nudged to the forefront. For example, I was Featured Poet at Poetry with Prakriti in December 2010. Ranvir Shah of Prakriti Foundation at Chennai is doing a lot to give Indian poetry and poets a platform for their voice. The Sangam Writers' Residency, where I spent a very rewarding time as a writing fellow in 2009-2010, offers several fellowships, one of which is an annual fellowship to a poet/writer in Tamil. Caferati is a writers' group that encourages poetry readings, writings, and workshops in Mumbai, Delhi and other cities. Several venues in Delhi are opening their doors to poetry readings, e.g. the India International Centre, Habitat, The Attic, and some restaurants in Khan Market. Spoken word performances are taking place at various venues today, something that never happened even five years ago. I have performed at the Mocha Bar in New Delhi to a young and appreciative crowd. People are attending readings, performances, workshops and literary festivals and getting familiar with poetry. Translations of regional poetry writings are also taking place. I have contributed to magazines like Muse India and Kritya that encourage poetic expression. So things are looking up and there is renewed interest in poetry.
Poetry books need to be placed at the forefront at bookstores and given more mileage. Publishers need to market poetry collections with greater fervour. Though a poet will write poetry, whatever the times, encouragement goes a long way in keeping the flame alive. I am especially impressed by the work of the Prakriti Foundation in this respect for the kind of financial support and encouragement it gives to several and all types of poets. Much more of this is needed and I hope to see it happening.
AP: In Empty Nest Syndrome (a non fiction story) you say: "I promised myself a different type of warmth – I would love myself and attend to my needs so that I found fulfilment within – long after my hair had gone completely grey. The hair would not shine with artificial color but my eyes would shine with a sense of Self." It sounds like an advice to primarily look for a peace inside us, instead of claiming for a perfect outside to fulfil our egoistic pretensions.
AI: Our eyes reflect who we are. We may cover ourselves up with anything. A pauper dressed like a king will give himself away because of the hunger in his eyes when he looks at food. A king dressed as a pauper will give himself away because his eyes will hunger for attention and adulation. So whatever we are, it shows. Outward presentations only work for a while, who we are will eventually surface.
In our attempts to move on in the world, we forget to take care of ourselves. We have to learn to nurture our inner Self. Because eventually that is what defines us, that is all we have.
Continue reading the interviews by Andrea Pagnes of the same series: