Poetry in the city

(Published in Speaking Volumes, November 11, 2006)

“At the word of the heralds, all present settled down on folded knees and lowered their heads. The Emperor’s page took out Bahadur’s ghazal from a silk cloth, kissed it, touched it to his eyes and began reciting in a resonant melodious voice. The audience was too entranced to applaud. They swayed in rapture of delight at every couplet. Occasionally phrases like Subhan Allah! Subhan Allah! escaped from their lips. Otherwise the room remained silent, spellbound and completely lost in itself.”

This was Maghfoor’s account of one of the last mushairas held in Delhi during the reign of Bahadur Shah Zafar. He goes on to describe the wars between the great poets of the age until the first light of dawn brought the mushaira to a close.

The first poetry reading I witnessed in Delhi, almost a decade ago, was not like this at all. There were about five poets, all famous for something other than their poetry—one was a civil servant, one a dancer, one a philanthropist, and so on—and in the course of the next two, interminable hours, it became painfully apparent why they were not famous for their poems. As with the emperor’s audience, the room remained silent, but for markedly different reasons.

Over the next few years, it seemed that there were only a handful of real poets left in Ghalib and Zauq’s Delhi, though there were far too many who menaced the unwary with threats of poetry readings. Most readings were grim affairs, to be endured rather than enjoyed. A few stood out: Namdeo Dhasal, the Dalit poet, reading cynical lines about the drunk who called God on his phone, Keki Daruwalla, explaining the intricate history woven through his poems, Agha Shahid Ali, now dead, mesmerising an audience of a few friends with an impromptu recital of some of the poems from his Country Without A Post Office. Mushairas survived in small corners, though, even if their best practitioners relied heavily on the work of great poets of the past. It seemed that Ghalib had, indeed, left the building, and that we would never see his like again.

Perhaps we won’t, but something has been happening over the last few years. The writer and critic Amit Chaudhuri, no mean poet himself, flagged it when he mentioned that the most exciting work in Indian writing in English was being done by the poets. He also entertained an audience at last year’s Kitab festival hugely when he read his poem, ‘The Writers: on constantly mishearing “rioting” as “writing” on the BBC:

There has been writing for 10 days now

unabated. People are anxious, fed up.

There is writing in Paris, in disaffected suburbs,

but also in small towns, and old ones like Lyon.

The writers have been burning cars; they’ve thrown

homemade Molotov cocktails at policemen.

Contrary to initial reports, the writers belong to several communities: Algerian

and Caribbean, certainly, but also Romanian,

Polish, and even French.

If there’s a revolution in progress, it shows more in performance than in print. Publishers are still reluctant to publish poetry, which, according to popular wisdom, doesn’t sell. But poetry readings, of late, have been packed. A recent evening had poets Tracey Smith and Jeet Thayil, who are great performers as well as being incredibly good poets, reading to a hall so packed that the audience spilled out into the corridors. Quieter, more intimate readings at friendly spaces like Sarai, near Delhi University, or the Attic, in Connaught Place, have drawn audiences who linger afterwards for the discussion—unlike the classic book launch audience, who linger afterwards too, but for the free booze.

There are guest poets, like Rasta performance poet Benjamin Zephaniah, whose charged readings often have the audience beating time to his words. There are in-house performers like Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain, who have revived the art of dastangoi in places ranging from the steps of the Jama Masjid to the IIC auditorium. New poets jostle the older, more established names in Sudeep Sen’s Atlas, an occasional literary magazine that functions as a grab-bag of delights. There are even a few major anthologies of new poetry on the anvil.

It was only when a friend who doesn’t live in Delhi dropped by one evening that I realised how much things had changed. He asked what we had planned for his entertainment and almost passed out when someone said casually, “Oh, we’re taking you to a poetry reading.” The first two poets were indifferent, and it seemed that his worst fears would be realised. But the next, a young girl reading for the first time, was seriously good, and she was followed by a published poet who was even better. The audience was spellbound, but definitely not silent, calling out suggestions for poems, commenting freely and applauding with enthusiasm. Our friend stumbled out slightly dazed. “This,” he said finally, “is the most legal fun I’ve ever had at a literary evening.”





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