Did You Say Poetry Is a Bore?

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Maybe no more. It’s leaving its stuffy image behind as performance poets jump onto stage and get the crowd high on their rhythm

It’s a regular Saturday evening. The bar is bursting at the seams, beer flows endlessly and the revelry hits a new crescendo. Suddenly, order is called for, as the emcee announces the beginning of a poetry slam. Amidst loud cheers, the new-age bards appear on stage, one after the other. While some recite in be-bop style, others jam with jazz musicians to combine music with verse. Loud requests for encores, sometimes interspersed with boos and piercing screams of “get off stage”, come from the crowd. At the end of the evening, the audience decides the winner.

This is performance poetry, verse that’s not so much for reading to oneself in private, but acting out or voicing with zing. Poetry has been pulled right out of uptight closed door readings into the pulsating world of the free spirit. The idea is to make it more accessible and appealing to people who would otherwise never have bothered with the nuances of a haiku or sonnet. “It shouldn’t just feed the ear, but the eye as well,” says Amit Dahiya Badshah of Delhi Poetree Society. Impromptu improvisation and loads of attitude are what people are looking for.

Performance poetry first became popular in the 1980s, when clubs in Chicago began to organise sessions to renew public interest in poetry readings. Soon enough, poets like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac began to attract huge audiences for their performances. More than two decades later, performance poetry is making its presence felt in India, having first featured at the Kala Ghoda Festival in Mumbai in 2007.

Energetic, interactive and fun, poetry slams and open mike sessions (when anyone from the audience can come forward to perform) are now slowly become part of the cosmopolitan club culture, especially in Mumbai. As part of the slam, five to six judges are chosen from the audience. There are usually three rounds, during which performers compete for the top slot. Finally, two remain, after which the winner is declared.

Shivani Tibrewala, who has been organising slams under her banner, No License Yet, since 2007, prods participants—not just professional poets, but an eclectic mix of doctors, advertising executives, filmmakers and students—to rap, groove and go all out. “All sorts of poems get performed, from eccentric, psychotic, spiritual to anti-establishment. There is a lot of punch that is packed in these two to three minutes of performance,” says Shivani, herself a popular performer whose poetry picks up on themes that create an immediate resonance with the urban middle class. This is one of the pieces that she performed for the Open Mind Night organised at Zenzi in Mumbai last year:

…Even drunk drivers who kill can now get out on bail/ Watch the psychos massacre the tourists with a knife/ Then come home and sit watch weepy soaps with your wife/ Watch artists get beaten up for expressing the truth/ Go to parties and discuss the current state of the youth/ While they commit suicide and are beaten up by the cops/ For asking the country to close down degree shops/ If you’re from a scheduled caste relax get in line/ The quota system’ll allot you what’s rightfully mine…

Among other performers who’ve made a mark in the circuit are Taru Dalmia, the Suman Shridhar/Jeet Thayil duo and Monica Dogra. Taru, in particular, is known for his trademark reggae beats, which he picked up during his teenage years spent in Germany and the US. “When I was 15, I would hang out in parks and people would have what is called a cypher. People would stand in a circle and trade verses. They would talk about their lives or lives around them, accompanied by someone beat-boxing,” says Taru. This battle of lyrics drew him in like nothing before. The possibility of telling stories through rhyme and rhythm was simply irresistible. When he moved to India in 2000, he realised that performance poetry was the only creative outlet for his verses. It is his versatile verses that draw the audience to his performances. In one of them, he draws a similarity between State-sponsored and militant killings: In Kashmir nuff man dema dead and nobody remember/ In North East nuff man dema dead and nobody remember/ In Chhattisgarh nuff man dema dead and nobody remember/ Dem a kill people and call it encounter/ Nuff man wind up in the torture chamber.

And he writes, with equal effect, on the state of the economy: On these streets many people dead they drive with recklessness/ 8 per cent growth have some people flex with lexuses.