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Can you think of major experiences of your life and community, whether it is to celebrate birthdays or weddings, or to mourn a loss or even at the rituals around a funeral, without some music and song, be it folk traditions or prayer chants? Poetry is so seamlessly woven into our lives that we may turn to its wisdom by sheer instinct, to find what comforts and elevates.

The Indian epics of Mahabharata with the Gita, literally the song of the God, contained within it, and the Ramayana, or the more recent religious text from the five-hundred-year-old Sikh holy text, the Guru Granth Sahib, are all written in verse. These verses are memorized and still sung aloud or chanted privately, as they were before the written word was invented.

Poetry belongs in the community, especially now, as the world goes through these transformative times.

On June 30th, India Currents(IC) and Matwaala held a poetry reading event with five award-winning South Asian women poets addressing activism. Matwaala director and poet, Usha Akella, said that it’s time to bring poetry, a minority art amongst arts, out from the university halls and into the community.

Two of the poets read poems about the Nirbhaya incident of the brutal gang rape and subsequent death of Jyoti Singh, showcasing how poetry can be activism by bearing witness. Sophia Naz, a poet on the panel, described each poem to be an experiment and an act of activism. She sees the process of subjective meaning as a democratic act of a dialog between the poem and the reader. The activism is inherent in poems as the reader must engage to make sense of it, with the meaning changing with every reading. At the end of the 90 minutes, Srishti, IC moderator, said how she found the session cathartic and was glad that several poems gave expression to what she felt.

Poems read in community have a way of connecting us to our spirit and with each other.

This is the first in a series of articles for the new column – Poetry as Sanctuary. Poetry for the poetry lovers and the poetically curious in our community. The articles will be written by our diaspora poets who are from the FB group Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley. This group meets weekly, on Saturday nights at 8:30 pm, to read and listen to poems, in all languages, with impromptu translations. We have poets who read in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Telugu, Sindhi, Farsi, Spanish, German, Japanese, Korean, and other languages.

About a half a dozen years ago, Mahendra Kutare, started meetups and formed a group that now goes by the name Kaavya Connections. Many of us met at the monthly gathering in San Francisco that Mahendra hosts. Three years ago, we started meeting once a month in Mountain View and has morphed into a weekly group since the shelter-in-place started in March.

Weekly social distance poetry meetup.

Although the group is open to all, it is not an open mic, since we are not a performance space. Ours is an art practice space for poetry lovers who have a deep and old commitment to poems. Unlike some other poetry groups, we do not expect or provide a critique of poems. Our intention is to connect people through the love of poems, and we end up co-creating poetic conversations. It is an affirmative space by intention, following the Hindustani tehzeeb (protocol/tradition), where praise for the poets attending a mushaira or mehfil, poetry recitation event, is called, ‘daat dena’, where the listeners repeat words that the poet says or ask the poet to re-read some lines (mukarar), as a way to set the pace and punctuate the poems with generous praise, by saying ‘Wah! Wah!’ (great!) or ‘irshad’ (repeat please), depending on the response evoked by the poem being read.

We will be in touch with poems, and until then check out the recordings of the event.

I can recommend Sophia Naz’s the United States of Amnesia, where you might find yourself wanting to soak up phrases like “I know the smell of Genocide” or “I have fallen in your uncivil war of a thousand and one episodes. This beast you thought you tamed? He prowls the profiled night wearing a police uniform.”

Zilka Joseph’s poems on 25 responses to everyday racism, or the ghazal about Jyoti Singh, were immersive and evocative. She calmly stated the obvious, “Poets, words are witness, make darkness burn.” I was taken by her simplicity.

I heard poems about mothers who lost their sons and a reminder that George Floyd was a spark that ignited cataclysmic events brewing for hundreds of years – “take a breath brother because you are more than 400 years of hate and hurt”.

Usha Akella’s phrase, “Sanskrit mantras in my veins” or the poem Enough demanding “bring back our caged children to a field of sunflowers” kept me wanting more.

 “How much of knowing do we need before we say it.” –  I poignant end to a thought-provoking session. I knew I was ready for the next reading, as soon as this one ended.

Thank you, Srishti Prabha and Kanchan Naik for using the IC platform to elevate these minority voices that speak for the disenfranchised communities. I look forward to the next poetry reading.

 Dr. Jyoti Bachani is on a mission to humanize management using the arts, specifically poetry and improv, as a founding member of the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley, a co-founder of the US chapter of the International Humanistic Management Association and an associate professor of business at Saint Mary’s College of California.

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