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For better and for verse

art and culture Updated: Sep 13, 2009 01:18 IST
Naomi Canton
Naomi Canton
Hindustan Times
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Mumbai’s poets, never short on inspiration, now have a new motivation: the reinvention of the poetry reading. Poetry nights have now become hip; they’ve moved to slick new cafes and more glamorous settings, attracting audiences that can be quite different from the earnest, literary crowd that traditionally characterised a poetry reading.

Not all city poets approve, but many have welcomed the change.

Tarun Durga (29) does, certainly. Durga’s day job as creative head of an interactive solutions company has him devising creative communication strategies for various brands. By night, he’s a poet who enjoys performing his work for an audience. Durga, who’s been writing poetry since his school days, says, “Poetry is a chance to reveal your real thoughts.” After reciting a poem on love at the bi-weekly Monday Night Slam at Bandra’s Mumbai Times Café, Durga explains, “A lot of the ideas that are expressed in my poems are those that represent a differently creative part of me — they are more satirical and the only way I can express them is through poetry. Having an audience gives me the satisfaction that my thoughts are being heard and understood.”

He, like many Mumbai poets, says he writes his poems to be performed and enjoys watching and meeting other poets at the new ‘open mikes’ (live shows in which members of the audience perform at the microphone) across the city. He now plans to take theatre classes to improve his performance.

For Alpes Panchan (23), a trainee psychiatrist at Sion Hospital, poetry was something he restricted to messages on birthday presents. But he performed for the first time at the Monday Night Slam, with around 100 people sitting round the terrace, listening. “It’s an intelligent way to put your ideas forward,” he says, after reading a poem about a man who enjoyed the break when his girlfriend went away for two weeks.

Panchan usually writes in the night or early morning, between 2 am and 4 am. “If I get an idea when I’m out, say, in a restaurant, I just write it on a napkin,” he adds.

Alfred Lee’s work at his day job is similar in a sense to poetry, says the 26-year-old copywriter, who has to think up short, simple slogans to promote brands. In poetry, too, he expresses a lot without using too many words. “I think the simplicity of it is something I can bring to my work,” he says.

Says Lee of his fellow poets, “I think we are all curious. And thoughtful and emotionally sensitive. We wander off in our imagination. And we like words.” He adds, “I detest sms speak.” He supports the ‘open mikes’ because he wants to see poetry get more popular and have performances by international poets as well, he says.

But, points out journalist and poet Jerry Pinto (43), international poets have always been coming to the city. Pinto is a member of the Poetry Circle, which has been holding events for poets in Mumbai since the 1980s. “They’re not dry and staid affairs and we’ve had exciting international poets, like the poet laureate from Israel,” he says.

“People have been gathering to read poetry in Mumbai since the 1970s, when they met at Kamala Das’s apartment,” he reminisces; the late American expat and arts lover Janet Fine used to hold poetry slams and poet Arundhathi Subramaniam has been hosting poetry events and readings at the National Centre For Performing Arts for years, he adds.

“But I guess the so-called slams are a recent import, perhaps because there is a need to reinvent poetry and democratise it. I suppose the poems at these slam nights require immediacy and you have to be able to respond to them straight away. That’s not poetry, that’s song lyrics. That’s why I haven’t been to a slam,” he declares.

For many others, however, slamming is the new way to go.

This weekly column examines the diversity of urban communities.