Roundabout: Women’s resounding words in a man’s world
It may still be a man’s world, but it is women’s words that are travelling with grace and strength in poetry being penned across languages
A niche poetry symposium being held at the mini auditorium in Tagore Theatre this week during the art and literature festival SODEFA (Society for Development of Films and Arts) has set the mind wandering about p0etry penned in the city over half a century.
Poetry was very much a part of extended family gatherings. Of course, it was not poetry penned by them, but by well-known poets of Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi. These favourite verses were preserved in memory and celebrated in collective gatherings. My mother was particularly fond of reciting couplets of Ghalib after picnics on the Sukhna Lake lawns or a hillock near the old Mansa Devi Temple. We kids would, of course, be running around or collecting wildflowers but the words travelled to our little ears and somehow became part of our little heads.
One of my older sisters was very fond of reciting a long poem by the poet Gopaldas Neeraj: “Karvan guzar gaya ghubaar dekhte rahe. My younger chacha (uncle) was known for singing verses of the Ramayana and bhajans, but he would relent to sing a ghazal or two at these outings. Poetry was very much a part of life with couplets quoted to suit the occasion and my older chacha as he aged would often describe the passing away of youth with a line of poetry: ‘Woh din hava huye jab pasina ghulab tha’ (Gone are the days like wind when even the sweat was fragrant like roses).
One of my earliest memories is going to Nehru Park in Sector 22 with my family for a late-night winter mushaira. The year was probably 1959 and still alive in the memory of the old city folks because that was the first symposium in the city graced by the legendary Shiv Kumar Batalvi in the prime of his youth. I remember the elders in ecstasy as young Shiv in a kurta-pyjama and a shawl thrown over his shoulder enthralled them. That was Shiv’s first date with the City Beautiful and was to last till the near end.
Poets and the city
Sitting through the evening of poetry at Tagore Theatre the mind wandered through the ’70s, a decade full of poetry, passion and poetical symposiums. Shiv was gone by the time I entered the newspaper world in the mid-70s, but his memories were still as alive as his poetry. A pillar in the Sector 22 market was named the Poet’s Corner where he would gather with his writer friends to recite his fresh verses. Kumar Vikal, the Hindi poet who towered over the Panjab University Campus with fans aplenty, often joked that he was shaer-e-azam. Urdu poet Prem Warbartani, living with his family in an annex in Sector 8, was ailing but his film songs and ghazals were all around. There was the intellectual Amarjit Chandan, the romantic Amitoj, the satirist Bhushan Dhyanpuri, the tipsy Joga Singh, and many others.
What was lacking was this kind of a collective presence of women poets, in spite of Amrita Pritam having broken the glass ceiling. Manjit Tiwana was the only exception at poetic gatherings when she travelled from her hometown Patiala to mark her presence with soulful poems: “Kurhi si kach di, Te munda harh-maas da’ (The girl was all glass and the boy flesh and blood). I recall that I had gone to report a mushaira at the English Auditorium organised by the late professor Vishwanath Tewari. Those days I scribbled short poems in English and was petrified when my name was announced until our friend, the late Gurcharan Singh Channi gallantly escorted me to the dais to the annoyance of Vikal who thought me to be his protege to be protected from all young men!
Women to the fore
What cheered the heart at the recent poetry symposium was the fact that what started as a trickle is now a tide. Women poets far outnumbered the male poets and were there not just as showpieces in pretty saris but as women of substance with words and thoughts woven into poems. These are strong voices that have enriched the literary scene, which is always at its happiest when the male and female sensibilities unite to give a complete view of life.
Leading these women of words was the most endearing presence of senior poet Gurdeep Gul, whom many of us recall as Mrs Dheer, our cherished professor of psychology at the city’s Government College for Girls in Sector 11. Gurdeep writes across three languages: Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi. Still pretty and petite as in our college days, she says
“I loved Urdu so much that I learned the language so that I should be able to express myself in it”. And, she does so with utmost grace.
Then there was the veteran Punjabi poet Manjit Indira who has written many books and has received an equal number of awards for reciting her poems and singing her songs. The charming poet Seema Gupta was the mistress of the ceremony. The cherry on the cake was artiste Sunanini Sharma, granddaughter of the great singer Surinder Kaur, who presided with aplomb and had the last word in a very beautifully framed speech that was inspiring to say the least.
Yes, girls, we have indeed come a long way!