In the end, the first session at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival was all about the voices. Lyricist and poet Gulzar’s familiar baritone – gentle, gravelly – and American poet Anne Waldman’s powerful, breathless recitation of her verse.
It was a morning of poetry for the eager audience at Diggi Palace’s front lawns. Voicing his thoughts, Gulzar told the audience that he often asked himself the question, “If I didn’t write, would it make a difference to the world?”
He explained his creative process as water coming to a boil: the ubaal, or boiling over, is what drives him to put pen to paper; the bhaap, or steam, is his writing, his poetry.
This metaphor of boiling over, of feelings which can no longer be contained, extended to the poem he chose to read out:
Ubalti handiyan itni sari
Sab hi ne zindagi chulhe pe rakhi hai
Na galti hai, na pakti hai
Though this isn’t Gulzar’s first time at the festival, the veteran poet said he wasn’t too comfortable being tagged the guest of honour. “I always panic when I am asked to sit at one of those high chairs where your feet do not touch the ground,” he said, as the audience laughed. “It is important to have your feet on the ground.”
Anne Waldman, author of more than 40 collections of poetry, swept in like a gust of fresh breeze. Immediately referring to Donald Trump’s “horrible inauguration”, she gave “a shout out to my sisters, children, all women marching towards Washington.”
Waldman’s performance was anything but traditional: emphatic, energetic, her deep voice rose to a crescendo as she belted out her verse.
“Literature should help wake up the world to itself,” she said. It’s an idea that is often brought up at the JLF, indeed, one that is often the rationale behind the mammoth literary event.
This year is the festival’s tenth anniversary, and Gulzar suggested that the organisers focus on one Indian language every year. Talking about his work on translating almost 250 Indian authors from over 32 languages, he said: “Some of the most dynamic contemporary poetry is emerging from the northeast and deserves recognition.”
Gulzar and Waldman – poets separated by countries, cultures and style – both emphasised that poets need to be connected to society. For Gulzar, this manifests itself in the idea that a poet must adhere to society’s ‘collective conscience’. “If you don’t get your feet dirty, the ink of your pen can dry up,” he said.
For Waldman, this ‘connection’ translates into direct action, not surprising for someone who has been vocal about feminist and environmental issues. Quoting Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, she said:
“Well, while I’m here I’ll do the work — and what’s the work? To ease the pain of living. Everything else, drunken dumbshow.”
Click here for our full coverage of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2017.
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