VAK: Nuanced expressions of loss and longing at reading session

Opening session at Indias first poetry biennale feature five noted poets
reading from works in Odia, Assamese, Tamil, Manipuri and Kashmiri  

New Delhi, April 08: Crushing solitude, despair, loss, desire and longing for release from worries and cares informed readings by five poets across as many Indian languages at the opening session of the country’s first ever biennale of poetry, which got underway here on Friday.


In what was a preview of things to come at VAK: The Raza Biennale of Indian Poetry, renowned poets Haraprasad Das (Odia), Nilim Kumar (Assamese), Salma (Tamil), Ratan Thiyam (Manipuri) and Majrooh Rashid (Kashmiri) set the tone at the outset and revisited it often during an engrossing near two-hour recitation.


The three-day celebration of verse, which will see a further 40 invited poets read their works – spread across 15 languages – during 1o more sessions over the weekend, has been conceived and organised by the Raza Foundation – instituted by the late master artist Sayed Haider Raza and helmed by eminent Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi, the Managing Trustee.


The poets took the podium after inaugurating the Biennale and launching the poetry anthology Vak, which contains contributions by all 45 participating poets. The publication, edited by Vajpeyi and art writer Shruthi Issac, explores diverse social and political concerns of the country’s poets like freedom of expression, violence, language, love, exile, hope, nature and of the human condition.


Reading his Praying in Half-Light – a series of poems addressed to prominent deities in the Hindu pantheon, Haraprasad Das opened the session at Triveni Kala Sangam with evocative exhortations for favour and forgiveness. A capacity crowd listened as a principal idiom-maker of Indian New Poetry asked of Hanuman “a day of unheroic bravery… a diadem of non-duties worn for itself protected from the evil eyes of kings and contractors. He also read from works on temples in Bhubaneshwar and memories of Delhi.  


After rendering his poems in Odia and their English and Hindi translations in the allotted 15 minutes, the Moorti Devi award winner made way for Tamil poetess Salma. The intensely personal quality to her articulations of desire and sexuality as well as subjects often considered beneath literary consideration lost neither meaning or power in translation as Odia poet Saqti Mohanty read the English variants of a series of her poems on loveless marriage, repressed passions and the wordless ceding of hopes and dreams.


“Every day in the bedroom these are the first words to greet me: ‘So what is it, today?’…

Often, they are the last words, too… From a thousand shimmering stars pointing fingers accuse me of whoredom – once again – and counsels float into the trembling night,” she read, from the work titled The Contract.


In his work Just pause a little, Assamese litterateur Nilim Kumar explored regret for a life that sacrificed passion for practicality: “What you’re searching for, that pen… is it in your pocket with which you never write! Your bag is holding your hand to go grocery shopping… it’s talking with the vegetables and the dead fish”.


Moving between physical spaces and memoryscapes, both Ratan Thiyam and Majrooh Rashid expressed feelings of rootlessness, wistful yearning and homesick nostalgia in readings of works that recalled lost homes and subsumed histories.


Thiyam, one of India’s most influential and important theatre practitioners, brought both his unique interdisciplinary sensibility and stage presence to his reading of Ground without Surface. The poem, which reflects the predominance of Manipur as the physical and aesthetic foundation in his work, speaks to both ‘restive earth and bewildered soul’.


“It seems the moon's leaking like my thoughts… On a starless night… Don't know how long I shall live pretending I'm wise. Today, before God truly… History and time, I want to sacrifice both so that I can earn even if only a little virtue. The ear hears many moaning voices… It’s been long since the ground has been missing beneath my feet,” he read.


In A Dream, Rashid writes of a midnight reverie about a “snow covered village, and snow clad plane trees” that experiences a midsummer heat. A tenured professor of literary criticism and poetry at Kashmir University, he uses rich imagery to conjure and express longing for what once was and his pain at its loss.


In the poem, Rashid notes how “My heart aches as if stuck in a bush of brambles, A desert appears in my eyes, Yet a poppy sprouts from my throat.” as the narrator realises “it is my Zabarwan (the sub-mountain range that frames the Kashmir Valley) engrossed in the dream”.


Prior to the readings, noted Hindustani classical singer Bhuvanesh Komkali vocalised a set of Bhakti sonnets and compositions inspired by the unique stylings of his grandfather Pandit Kumar Gandharva and father Pandit Mukul Shivputra.


Among the notable poets participating in the Biennale are K. Satchidanandan (Malayalam), Sharmila Ray (English), Kanji Patel (Gujarati), H.S. Sivaprakash (Kannada), Mangalesh Dabral (Hindi), Pratim Baruah (Assamese), Arundhathi Subramaniam (English), and Subodh Sarkar (Bengali).


“It is hoped that the Biennale will bring forth the vibrant and furious creativity; the dynamic imagination; the plurality of visions, styles and idioms; the surprising resonances and disturbing memories; the darings and aesthetic risks; the merging of time with the timeless; the immediacy and urgency; the socio-cultural and political reach of contemporary poetry of India in its full range and complexity,” Vajpeyi said.




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