Voices in the dark: Meet the poets behind the lines on the street
Mera ek mahina Ramzan bhi hai / maine kiya toh Ganga snaan bhi hai / apne hi taur se jeeta hoon / daaru cigarette bhi peeta hoon… (I celebrate a month of Ramzan, bathe in the Ganga too, I live by my own rules, smoke and drink too) - Hussain Haidry
When Hussain Haidry wrote Hindustani Musalmaan in 2016, it was meant to bust preconceived notions and stereotypes about Muslims. He performed it at an open mic night in Mumbai, it was shared online and went viral.
But when he first recited it at a public protest in Mumbai last month, he says, he knew it was going to be different. “Its earlier purpose was to shatter the monolithic image of Muslims but at that venue it was meant to unite.”
Amid the voices of protest across the country after the Citizenship (Amendment) Act came into being last December, a generation of young spoken-word poets has emerged. Their lines are being quoted on placards, in tweets and memes online, and in conversation; their poetry is being performed by themselves and others. The most popular of these poems are Hum Kagaz Nahi Dikhayenge by Varun Grover, Tum Kaun Ho Be by screenwriter Puneet Sharma, Hindustani Musalmaan by Haidry and Sab Yaad Rakkhha Jayega by Amir Aziz.
For Aziz and Grover, the poems were a creative response to events as they unfolded — the anxiety over the phrasing of the Act, and the police violence involving students in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.
“The attack on the library at Jamia Milia was the trigger for me,” says Grover, 40. “A library is the most sacred place in any civilised society and students among the most vulnerable demographics. The poem was my way of saying I’m here, and our great country is worth fighting for.”
Yeh desh hi apna haasil hai / jahaan Ram Prasad Bhi Bismil hai / mitti ko kaise baantoge / sabka hi khoon toh shaamil hai (This nation is ours / A place where Ram Prasad is also Bismil / How will you divide this earth / when it holds the blood of every Indian) - Varun Grover
Grover posted Hum Kagaz Nahi Dikhayenge on Twitter with the message that anyone could use, adapt, sing, modify or quote it. “I don’t own it. It’s a collection of slogans meant to remind us of the love and diversity that make this country great,” he says.
Haidry, 34, says that as a performance poet he understands that a crowd as diverse as one attending a mass protest does not really connect with all kinds of writing. “So the amount of emotion in a poem has to be high. I would never read a heavy Urdu poem at a gathering like this. I’d imagine people wouldn’t be able to connect.”
Which is why he was pleasantly surprised when Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge became such an anthem. “I hope this leads to people reading other works by Faiz, and other progressive writers too,” Haidry says.
Tum kaala kamal likho / hum lal gulaab likhenge / Tum zameen pe zulm likkho / aasman pe inquilab likha jayega (You write about the dark lotus / we will write about the red rose / You inscribe oppression on the land / in the skies we will write revolution) - Amir Aziz
Sharma, 32, believes people connect better to poetry when its language and content feel contemporaneous. “I wrote the poem Tum Kaun Ho Be early last year, but when I read it out in Mumbai after the JNU incident where students were attacked by masked goons, it struck a chord,” he says.
So what is the role of poetry in a political movement? “I think all peaceful protest requires clear and non-confrontational engagement with the authorities, and poetry as well as other art forms perform that role,” says Grover. “But ultimately poetry is a harmless, unarmed, abstract thing… just a small voice from the back of a huge protest.”
The popularity of these poems has meant different things to the poets. Whereas Sharma now has a challenging time juggling protest appearance and his commitments as a screenwriter, Amir Aziz feels that now he can say a lot more through his poetry. “I now have people paying attention,” he says.
Grover feels that his lines going viral is superfluous. “To me, what matters is that protests have continued with so much energy all over India,” he says.