Roundabout: Poetics of protest - then and now

Let no one mock the mad man, the lover or the poet for it is such passion that is woven into words to make a change for the better
Poetry and paintings are born of the same seed of creativity: A painting by Chandigarh artist Madan Lal. (Photo: Madan Lal)
Poetry and paintings are born of the same seed of creativity: A painting by Chandigarh artist Madan Lal. (Photo: Madan Lal)
Published on Feb 27, 2021 11:20 PM IST
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ByNirupama Dutt

A poem from the north-east defines the very spirit and soul of ‘poetry as protest’ as we see it unfold over thousands of years in the Indian subcontinent, which has a long history of difference and dissent. A glimpse of the poem before one goes to the poet: Do not ask me how I have been/ After all I am not alone/ For, even after the last supper/ I have’nt bid adieu/ Nor could I take my leave/ I haven’t laughed since Auschwitz/ Nor cried either...

These lines by Assam’s most cherished living poet Nilmony Phukan in one fine sweep, using minimal words, takes the reader through a vast canvas of collective experience from the crucifixion of Christ and the tyranny of the notorious Auschwitz concentration camps of Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II where millions met their end.

This poem is a window, through which one looks at the long history of protest poetry in the Indian sub-continent in varied tones and tenors to define aesthetics of a culture that has always looked up at the rebels, the poets and the lovers as prophets of the humankind.

Rhythms of resistance

Poetry has always provided rhythms of resistance all over the world and more so in the ancient civilisation of the Indian subcontinent, which has seen thousands of years of poetic resistance, which travels through literature in myriad languages as well as the robust oral culture.

This poetic practice begins with the ancient era, moves through the medieval times and is prominently present even now when the popular perception of the poet as a hero is considered lost. The subcontinent, with its plural tradition and sensibilities, has never shied away from differences and arguments. Examples of poetic dissent are to be found in Vedic hymns and verses of the early classical poets and in the Bhakti cult with Kabir and Guru Nanak becoming voices of new thought.

Voices of women too have been prominent in different ages from Akka Mahadevi to Lal Ded and Mirabai. Sufi Islam as it evolved in India and the rest of South India saw great Sufi poets such as Amir Khusro, Dara Shikoh, Sheikh Farid and Bulleh Shah. Songs and poems of protest were a celebratory part of the freedom struggle in India. Today, poetry has accompanied all people’s movements, be it poets calling for a more humane order, words uttered against war or women claiming half the sky.

Liberating power of words

Recent times have seen words exercising their power to liberate and take people away from fear to freedom of expression. Once again, the verses of radical poets of the 20th century such as Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Sahir Ludhianvi and their ilk were evoked. At times it led to many muddles such as the half-baked interpretation of the classic poet Faiz as was the case with his poem ‘Hum Dekhenge’.

Those not well-versed with poetry raised alarm when students recited the famous poem in IIT Kanpur, taking it to be anti-Hindu and communal whereas it was a protest poem written many decades ago against the dictatorial regime in Pakistan.

In these times, we have also seen young poets rising from among engineers and technocrats. Pertinent were the poems of Hussain Haidry who took upon himself to give a brilliant description of the Hindustani Muslim. And of course, Aamir Aziz who came out with a heartfelt poem after the crushing of the protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act at Shaheen Bagh.

An English translation of Aziz’s poem Sab Yaad Rakha Jayega was recited by none other than Pink Floyd’s co-founder and guitarist Roger Waters making international news with the young poet’s powerful words: You write jokes in courts/ We will write justice on the walls.

So, let no one mock the mad man, the lover or the poet for it is such passion that is woven into words to make a change for the better. Poetry is certainly not a leisure nor a luxury but a medium for resisting oppression and injustice.

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