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Raza Foundation, Delhi, launches India’s first poetry biennale

With more than 40 poets speaking in 15 Indian languages, this literary festival will represent India’s cultural diversity

entertainment Updated: Apr 08, 2017 07:55 IST
Manik Sharma
Manik Sharma
Hindustan Times
Poetry biennale,Raza Foundation,Delhi poetry meet
Some of the poets participating in the Poetry Biennale in Delhi(Photo: Raj K Raj / HT)

T. S. Eliot in his rather little-known essay, Dante (1929), wrote ‘It is a test that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’. While Eliot’s own poems may not have always passed the test, he did -- before everyone else -- see the future of poetry as being something of a merging of cultures and even language. The Raza Foundation, in an attempt, to facilitate the seamless interlocking of these poetic landscapes within India, is organising VAK (meaning speech in Sanskrit), the first ever Biennale of Indian Poetry. And true to its ambition, it intends to bring together on a single platform, through 15 languages, a number of poets, who will read, share, discuss and debate.

Poetry readings and literary festivals have been around for ages. But they have almost always been driven by themes restricted by language (English and Hindi mostly) rather than driven by its role in creating literature of value. India’s first-ever poetry biennale may finally address the issue.

For your reading pleasure -

Poet Salma has published two volumes of poetry – “One evening and another evening and green angel” - and a novel - The Hour Past Midnight- a short story collection. (HT Photo)
Subodh Sarkar is a noted Bengali poet, editor, essayist and translator. He teaches English at City College, Calcutta University. (HT Photo )

“Poetry and poetry festivals evolve,” says Keki N Daruwalla, who will be reading from his English poems at the Biennale. “Poetry differs, changes from era to era. So do festivals. I am not a regular at Meets. This one has a unique touch about it, in that quite a few languages are represented and yet it is not like the usual dull Sahitya Akademi affair which sometimes puts you to sleep.” Of late, a number of events, political or otherwise, have snowballed intro controversies, to which Daruwalla believes the poet should be immune. “I would not say it is overtly or even covertly political. Can’t you have a topic like ‘Poetry and Conscience?” If even that is considered ‘political’ then there is something wrong in the country,” he says.

The politics of art

As far as the political contexts go, writer and academic Ananya Vajpeyi, who will be part of panel to discuss ‘Poetry as Freedom’, was recently a firsthand witness of how these contexts can be blown out of proportion. Ananya was a panellist the day tensions at Ramjas College erupted. Vajpeyi who was to speak on a panel related to ‘Cultures of Protest’ saw the seminar be interrupted and eventually cancelled after student members of the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) raised slogans against the participation of JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) student Umar Khalid, who was due at the event. “Even considering the political provocations of the time, I don’t think we have to stop. I continue to work, write and say what I want to. And poetry is, perhaps, one of the most open spaces where anything and everything can be discussed,” she says.

Has poetry’s accessibility been hurt by the way academia lays claim to it first? Ananya believes it is not the case, and a Poetry Biennale of this nature is part of the proof. “I don’t think poetry is in any way limited to academia. I’m thoroughly convinced of its power, its openness and its ability to keep our conscience. Poetry is conscience. Because all it needs is language, and all of us have that,” she says.

Assamese poet Nilim Kumare (HT Photo )
Poet Udayan Vajpeyi has published numerous books such as Sudeshna (a short story collection) and Abhed Aakash (a book of conversation with filmmaker Mani Kaul). (HT Photo)

Among the languages represented at the Biennale, there will be poets who will recite translations from Manipuri, Oriya, Malyalam, Tamil and a number of other regional languages. Translations, and the translator, therefore are a crucial part of the machine. “Here in Manipur, we have a rich tradition of poetry, of epic poems as long as the more popular Hindi epics. But we face a shortage of translators. Only a handful exist. A platform like this Biennale could raise the issue of shrinking spaces in the field of translation for smaller languages,” says Sarat Chandra Thiyam, a Manipuri poet, who will be reading on the last day of the event.

About translations

Talking about big and small languages, one need not go beyond the existential crisis faced by both Hindi and Urdu, once the two pillars on which Indian literature stood. While Hindi retains its presence in popular culture in terms of songs and popular poetry, in terms of the reader it has curiously come to depend on translations as well. “It is simply a case of commercialising the thought and depth that Hindi once possessed,” says Mangalesh Dabral, revered Hindi poet. “What you see now in advertisements, in songs or in popular culture, is a version of Hindi, diluted to entertain. Poetry, thankfully, has kept its identity, its purity through the years.” Urdu, on the other hand has survived largely due to the patronage and toil of those who have put their efforts to preserving it.

A matter of identity

The history of language has never been free of politics. The way Hindi and Urdu have been forced into a political divorce is case in evidence. “It is sad. In a country which thrives on being multi-lingual, two languages, so rich and native to the country, have been forced to occupy opposing narratives,” says Dabral. “A few decades back, in our time, being multilingual meant knowing at least four or five languages. Knowing both Hindi and Urdu was considered essential. A few of my friends told me they were surprised at the fact that I did not know Urdu – even though I tried learning.”

Despite the fact that India, whether it is through its most essential texts like the Bhagvad Gita, or the song and music that perpetrates our popular culture, has never really lived outside of poetry, it still, somehow struggles to engage its modern poets from within. India’ first Poetry Biennale perhaps, is a step, on way to atoning for the ignorance.


What: The Raza Biennale of Indian poetry 2017. More than 40 poets to participate.

When: April 7-9, 10 am-5pm

Where: Triveni Kala Sangam, 205 Tansen Marg. Nearest metro station: Mandi House

First Published: Apr 07, 2017 20:39 IST