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Thursday, May 18, 2017

From Naidu to Neruda, poetry stands tall in the annals of literature, but has suffered an unfortunate decline in readership. Jagruti Verma & Rhea Dhanbhoora take a look at whether social media and spoken word poetry is helping to bring it back in the spotlight

Poetry doesn’t seem as important now as it once used to, but before you discard it as an insignificant art form better suited to bards and minstrels from a pre-internet era, stop to consider its journey through history. It predates literacy, making it one of the most important records of historical and cultural accounts, giving us some of our only insights into the world as it stood before the written word.

From epics like the Mahabharata in India, Shahnameh in Persia and Illiad in Greece, to the more modern war poetry of Owen and Tagore, it’s helped unite the world, stand up for your country and often, if we look to the Romantics, given us poetry for every emotion and season. While music and melody, a close relative to rhythm and metre, have stood the test of time, poetry seems to be reserved for dust speckled shelves. As reading for pleasure becomes less common (yes, we’ll let you blame your hectic schedule!), you will usually only find literature students or the occasional lyricist interested in verse.

While Mumbai has artists, poets and writers who have enjoyed much success with audiences in the past, social media, facts and figures have pushed them to the brink of oblivion. But, artists are used to adapting to time and circumstance, and we’ve got a new wave of poetry taking over, with social media poets and, even going back to the origins of poetry as an oral art form, with spoken word poetry. Of course, there’s always the danger, as we’ve seen with other forms of art, that quality will drop as everyone takes a crack at the deceptively simple activity. But, some may say bad poetry is better than no poetry at all. Whether you agree or not, these changes are helping put the spotlight back on literature, and we couldn’t be happier!

Going viral
Being introduced as a poet who got thousands of hits on a poem works in two ways, according to Sudeep Pagedar, the poet of Privileges of a Penis, which recently went viral. “It’s good because people are eager to listen and bad because expectations are now higher. A few years ago, we saw stand up comedians recording videos and uploading things online — it helped them get an audience. This is pretty much the same with spoken word at the moment, and it is definitely a positive thing.” What’s even better in his opinion is that the form is not limited to major metropolitan cities like Mumbai, but is also spreading the word in cities like Indore and Lucknow.

A platform for change
Poetry has often been written and read for pleasure, but it has also been a tool to address issues and bring in societal changes. Aranya Johar is using that to her advantage as she becomes the face of feminism in poetry with her piece, A Brown Girl’s Guide to Gender. She thinks that viral videos help artists get the respect and attention they need to continue with their art. “It definitely has a positive impact,” she tells us. And, though her social anxiety often gets in the way at events, the supportive nature helps. She tells us about her poetry platform, More than Mics, saying, “As part of the collective, we try to gather an array of people between 12 to 50-years-old. The best part is the poets love the platform as it’s challenging and encouraging at the same time. It’s a powerful tool, where “Even strangers start hugging one another,” she recalls, during a poetry recitation about the death of a father.

A couple of months ago, Harshit Anurag, a student at NIFT, Kharghar, began to post poetry videos on YouTube. Today, he finds himself torn between completing his assignments, and organising poetry and open mic events for inkStation, an open mic platform in Navi Mumbai. “I was astonished to find that we didn’t have any platform in Navi Mumbai and so I made it happen. When we first started contacting the cafes in Kharghar, we were turned down multiple times, until Da Capo showed some confidence,” he says, adding that the risk paid off, as in just the second edition their numbers doubled! Amruta Shroff, his classmate and organising partner, tells us, “We have had about nine open mic events and it has helped us form a small community of poetry lovers in the city.”

To understand how spoken word has taken over older forms of poetry and what new poets feel about the change, we spoke to two young poetry enthusiasts, Abhishek Choudhary and Prateek Singh.

It’s important to learn from the past
Abhishek explains, “Poetry is often a means of reflection of society as it stands, and also gives it a solution.” While he believes that it shouldn’t just, “put across a picture that causes an itch in your eye.” We’re not sure it should be that black and white — we still love reading poetry for pleasure! However, we do think that what he’s talking about has a special place in the catalogue of literature. As he puts it, “Poetry should make people think without putting them off.” He also tells us that this quality used to be the essence of the work of poets such as Kabir and budding poets should try to learn from it. “There are two parallel literary streams that exist in the city, one that deals with poetry gatherings in a style of the old and the other that deals with spoken word,” he adds.

Is it really in the spotlight?
We’re more aware of poetry, but to Prateek, that doesn’t mean there’s as much of a spotlight on it as there should be. In fact, as he says, spoken word has been around for a while, thriving in a close-knit community that has existed for decades. “It’s the people who are well versed in English that are helping new forms take centerstage, which is a good thing,” he says. And, if you were wondering about quality and validity, he’s in the same boat. “If you don’t wish to develop an interest in language, its literature or linguistics, I’m not sure how much a viral video can help to understand the art. However it’s a good way to bring topics and forms to the masses,” he concludes.

Both of them however, agree that there should be a bridge between old and new schools of poetry so communities can co-exist rather than replace one with the other as that would just result in the decay of an art form. We wholeheartedly agree there!

We also spoke to Ramya Pandyan, popularly known as Idea Smith, in order to understand the effects of a poem when it goes viral. She says, “I think the viral nature of a poem gets people’s attention and has a snowball effect. People become curious and want more on the topic if they find the piece interesting. Also, since these poets are regular people and the pieces are shot at accessible places, people choose the events over films. The affordability helps.” However, Ramya also thinks that the current comparisons between these events and traditional poetry is unfair, to poets and readers alike, especially because performed poetry is different from written poetry. “A closer comparison would be with stand-up comedy or music. It’s just wonderful to see a more accessible form of literature, storytelling and performance come out into the world,” she concludes. We couldn’t have put it any better!


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