Tag Archives: #desipoet

Author, Lakshmi Rao with her tanpura(Image by Jigna Desai)

The Enduring Poetry of the Gwalior Gayaki

Poetry As Sanctuary – A column where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.

“Geetam Vaadyam Tatha Nrityam, Trayam Sangeeta Mucchyate.”

This quote from the ancient Sangeet Ratnakar by Pandit Sharangdev, defines ‘sangeeta’, or ‘collective music’, as singing, instrumental music, and dance. De rigeur for many Indian children, I have fond memories of training in Bharatanatyam and Carnatic vocal music myself. While my exposure to playing instruments was limited, I spent time listening to soulful Hindi film songs and singing in the school choir.

 I also ventured outside ‘sangeeta’. Over the summer holidays, I lost myself in brooding Dutch skies and the idyllic English countryside, while painstakingly recreating the paintings of the Old Masters on my own. My unexpected partner in artistic ventures was my mother. I still remember her reciting “For whom the bell tolls”, during our weekly Sunday oil-bath ritual. The oil was smelly and the bathroom floor was cold, but John Donne lit up my seven-year-old imagination. 

“No man is an island,

Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thine own

Or of thine friend’s were.

Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.”

Captivated by words, endless hours were spent in bookstores and libraries, train compartments, and dull classes secretly devouring Dickens and Austen and later, Sheldon and Nabokov. Fascinated by these cerebral and rather mysterious personalities, I wondered: was writing art? If a picture paints a thousand words, are words then less, or more? And do they not have a place in “sangeeta”?

Time passed and I “grew up”; focusing my energies on studying and working, traveling extensively while juggling the demands of career and family. In 2009, I decided to take a much-needed break when we moved to Mumbai and rekindled my interest in the arts, this time through Hindustani classical music. I found a compelling and motivated teacher in Vidushi Neela Bhagwat, the doyenne of the ancient Gwalior parampara. Neelaji, as she is affectionately known, traces her lineage through her guru, Sharathchandra Arolkar, to Krishnarao Shankar Pandit and in turn to Haddu and Hassu Khan. Of course, the millennia-old river that Indian music is, there have been many others that gently fed the rivulets and streams. I feel incredibly lucky to be connected to this lineage of artists, spanning space and time.

Gwalior Fort (Image by Pavel Suprun and under Creative Commons License)
Gwalior Fort (Image by Pavel Suprun and under Creative Commons License)

Famous for its “ashtanga gayaki” (or eight-fold ways of voice projection), the distinctive Gwalior aesthetic relies on the composition as the portal into the raaga. The gayaki employs  a number of musical forms to render emotion: “khatka”, “meend”, “gamak”,”aalaap”, “behlava”, “taan”, “kampan” and “murki”. The richly detailed, complex compositions typically contain many of these forms, both conveying the essence of the raaga and the unmistakable singing style. Gwalior singers typically favor the “siddha” raagas (principal raagas). Yet, what drew me most was the focus on the “bol” or words of the bandish, and the interplay of these words with the “layakari”, or play of rhythm. While many gharanas emphasize similar musical forms, the Gwalior gayaki melds them with the “bol” – and “bol aalaap” is a hallmark of this tradition. 

In my quest to convey the beauty of these verses, I stumbled upon an entire world of poetry and lyricism. One of my favorite bandishes, set to raaga Vrindavani Sarang:

“Bore jina Allah ko yoon na jaaniye. Karna tha so kar chuka, aur ji chaaha so kara.

Adarang sanchi kahat, as kaaman ko, rahim reejha reejha layi, kahu ki as kaaman kara, so hi det rab”. 

Translated:

“Oh simpleton, do your duty and once done with it, do what you desire.

Adarang says truly Allah will satisfy your sincere wishes.” 

Written by Adarang who was a poet in the Delhi court of Mughal Emperor Mohammed Shah Rangile (1702-1748), the soaring notes pay tribute to the Creator. Singing the composition day after day, I noticed how my mood gradually grew more positive – and I realized the power of poetry. Poets weave magic, and “geetham” would be closer to “vaadyam” without their precious words.

Another evocative piece set to raaga Bageshri, about the plight of a lovelorn woman pining for an indifferent partner and confiding in her friend strikes a different chord. The second stanza, especially, conjures vivid imagery:

“Kaun gat bhaili, mori sajani, yeri mayi, piya na pooche ek baat;

Ek ban dhoondhoon, sakala ban ban, gayi daar daar, karahi paat paat”

Translated:

“Where has he gone, dear friend, my love did not take leave of me;

I am searching for him in the forest, through all the woods, branches, leaves.”

I joined the “Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley” circle in 2019, hoping to better understand poetic sentiments and bring more feeling into my singing. Surrounded by verse in languages ranging from Pali to Portuguese, and meeting online as a getaway from Covid-imposed isolation, I eventually summoned the courage to write, too. Here’s a bandish on my travels, to meet my teacher:

“Badhi kathinayi saha guru dwaar aayi,

Ghar baal chhod kar, gyan pane mayi.

Guru haske kahe, jaanat nahin baawri,

Main antar mein rahoon, tu kahaan jayi”

Translated:

“Braving great troubles, I came to my guru’s door,

Leaving my family, in order to gain knowledge,

The guru laughed, asked if I didn’t know,

That the guru resides inside, where are you headed?”

Listening to poetry has unexpectedly grown into a much-anticipated weekly ritual. I’m delighted in my discovery of an art form within an art form, expanding my horizons and making friends along the way. Many of the members in our circle share common interests and creative collaborations bubble up quite often. I look forward to the ventures and adventures that beckon in 2021!


Lakshmi Rao is a senior disciple of Vidushi Neela Bhagwat, training in the vocal style of the Gwalior parampara. She calls the Bay Area home, and remains ever curious about the world that was, that is and that will be! 


 

Bards Of the Same Feature Recite Together

(Featured Image: Bay Area Poetess, Saswati Das)

Poetry As Sanctuary – A column where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.

Poetry as I can relate to it is my first love and my last love. It was my grandfather who first introduced me to the world of poetry through Tagore’s poems. As a child, the rhythmic words of the poetry and its melody used to give me immense happiness. I used to get lost in the vivid descriptions of village life, the beauty of nature, the lush green forest, and the chirping birds and animals that inhabit them. My grandfather died at the age of seven. That was the time I had first faced death and that too of a person closest to my heart. Since then, I have been expressing my feelings through the world of poetry.

From my childhood, as I entered my teenage years, I started experiencing life with new passions and renewed vigor. On one hand, as the arrow of cupid struck me, I started writing romantic verses, while on the other hand, being a radical at heart, I started revolting against anything that binds us. I started questioning anything that we are bound to abide by and protesting even the silliest of things that maintain the status quo. I was in the process of discovering myself through life and poetry. During that time, revolutionary poets like Kaji Nazrul Islam, Paul Robeson, and Subhadra Kumari Chauhan began to inspire me and I started writing poetry in both English and Hindi languages, to bring social change and uphold social justice. Often, I used to mix romance and revolution in a single poem to decorate the message I wanted to convey.

You do not exist

From the date I knew myself

You had been near me;

Sheltering me from rain drops

Picking the flowers of glee.

 

Through the dark clouds in the sky

You showed me the horizon;

Breaking the bounds of joy and moan

You took me to my mission.

 

Across the distance of the vast space

Thou peace touches mine,

Thou sunshine remains untarnished

Through rusting affect of time.

 

You decorate my night with glowing stars

Soothe my soul like the sea;

It wets my eyes with drops of pearl

How much you love me!

 

A sound in my yard woke me up

I found myself alone;

Like the spring days you were there;

And now you are gone.

Thy shadow mingled in the dawn

With the dizzy morning mist;

Oh friend, you are a world to me,

You do not exist!

When I came to the Bay Area, I started missing the poetry, music, and arts of India that is so deeply rooted in me. I started searching for poetry group of Indian languages on the internet and finally found the “Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley”, a close-knit meetup group where the poets and the poetry lovers not only shares and rejoices poems of Indian and Asian languages like Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, and Bengali, but also the languages of the Western world such Spanish and English.

My knowledge and love for poetry increased by many folds after joining this poetry group. With the onset of the pandemic, we started meeting virtually every Saturday and we look forward to it throughout the week. Our group recently published a multi-lingual book of anthology captioned “A Memory Book of Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley” which contains an excellent collection of poems of some of the remarkable poets I met through the poetry group. I wish that “Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley ” keeps flourishing and inspiring the poets in us and as always keeps fueling the candle of creativity in our minds for long days to come.


Saswati Das, an engineer by profession and a poetess by heart, lives in Milpitas, California, and writes poems and fiction in both English and Hindi. She had published a poetry book in English captioned “Fragrant Flute of Fire”, which speaks of the cooling breeze and the scorching heat of human life. Recently, some of her Hindi poems have also been by Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley in the anthology captioned ‘A Memory Book of Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley’.

Bay Area Poet Relives Oral Traditions

Divine Blossoms is the kind of book I might have never discovered if I was not the founder and host of a poetry group called the Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley. I am so glad that I agreed to review it and have had it on my bedside table for easy access for the past several weeks.

The poet, Anuradha Gajaraj-Lopez brings wholesomeness to the ordinary life as a householder. As a former journalist, she has a facility with words, using them to reach everyone, regardless of where they might come from. The 134-page book is more than a poetry book. It offers poems that are also prayer, a wide range of ways of worship, and several ancient stories from epics of Hindu mythology, as spiritual fables with lessons for young and old. These are all wrapped and delivered as short poems, with the cadence and essence of a bhajan, a devotional song, in simple English, that makes it accessible to everyone.

The book has two parts: the first called Murmurs from Beyond and the second called Whispers from India. The poems in the first part deal with faith in God and the metaphor of divine love. The latter part has poems in six sessions, on topics of devotees, folklore, epics of Ramayan and Mahabharta, gods Shiva and Krishna, Christ and Yogananda, women in India, and on death. The poems are rich in detail with the pathos of lived life in human form combined with a yearning for the inspiration from the deep faith in the divine, through the references that evoke not just the main characters that are highlighted in the index, but also the poetic traditions, with Kabir, Ramakrishna, Chaitnya Prabhu and others who were seekers in the same vein.  

Anuradha invites the reader into her world with an authentic and heartfelt outpouring of the essence of all that she cherishes. The Indian mythological stories have a living oral tradition such that retelling these timeless stories allows for making them relevant in contemporary times. Anuradha’s rendering does that. If you are not familiar with Hindu mythology, she helpfully provides a short introduction before the poem, to make the story be set in the context, and for them to be rendered in a poetic form. The poems are crystalized into the essence of the story, almost like a bhajan, an Indian devotional poetic form.

I will not be surprised if someone reading them decided to set them to music and create a musical or chant form for these in the future. As many of the stories were familiar to me, parts of the book took me on a journey to my childhood when I had first heard these. The poems leave a fragrance, and it makes sense that she called the book Divine Blossoms. While the poems are light reading, they offer comfort, surprise, hope, and the adventure of a story. The moral lessons are conveyed gently like what the poet believes, and not a lecture on morality. Her voice brings the easy access of an Amar Chitra Katha comic book version along with the message with the clarity of her spiritual guru, Yogananda. The deep convictions of the poet are what make this poetry transparent and luminescent. These are conveyed in an easy manner that makes it clear that the poet practices these effortlessly and speaks her mind genuinely, wearing her faith as easily as a well-loved garment, and releasing the poems with trust that they will find their own readers. 

The book is self-published and shows care in how symbols and images have been added to enhance the presentation. It will feel different from a professionally edited book since it has its own unique layout. This makes me wish that it will inspire others who are carrying their poems and stories within them to also be willing to create their own books. The creativity and fire of the work are best experienced, rather than described by me, so I have selected one of my favorite poems, reproduced with her permission.    

The Stone on the Temple Floor

It is so unfair

I am trodden on by hundreds

Who rush by without a thoughtless care

To seek a glimpse of your form

And yet,

I was hewn on the same old rock as thee

 

Here I lie on the temple floor

While you are daily worship

With honey, milk, curd and

Precious gems galore!

 

“Ha” laughed the divine statue

Standing erect and tall

And gently said,

“Brother, don’t you remember at all?”

 

The days when we lay on

The stone mason’s yard

With hardly a few blows you were

All set, and proudly carted afar

While, I cried each time,

The choice and hammer

Moved relentlessly on

On every inch of this form

You now see and envy from afar

 

And so, the Divine sculptor

Deals the hardest blows on those

He holds very close

Not to be discarded on an old temple floor

But to merge with Him and

Reach the coveted destiny that is His alone!


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.

Love. Come. Go Away.

Love

come, go away

like curtains you fall back and forward in the golden hour 

of the darker lights

hidden, open, quiet

breathe, you’re loud, soft to touch

hold me against your skin if only our eyes linger

blue, your footsteps reside and awake like waves between our limbs your heart- pink, and red lips in purple

hue

you, look at me like I look at you and bend, straighten

curve, fall back, dance to the soundless music and the play of our fingers, foggy and green when we overlap— stop

breathe

I count your moles on the hazel lenses I call my own, you—

do you feel the cracks? 

crevices in my skin pour into your heart walls that are grey, bleed out the dark and dusk draws out our light

you and me and our thorns white under the moonlight you, you

“let’s swim?” 

in the craters of this space lets enclose ourselves in the little cage and again— hidden, naked, brown

reflections spoke honesty and you were so profound, a dip on one side of your cheek calling out the smile on my face— dimples, how quaint in this quiet forest where leaves are singing and we remain still, restless

move, my head on your neck and you move again with our hand on each waist

sway, to the soundless music that plays from the red of our pain

love, into the night and the pinkish golden haze

fall into water and stay dry, breathe with me, let our eyes linger, stay, 

Stay.


Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and is an aspiring creative writer who loathes speaking in the third person. 

IC Live: A Vibrant Community of Desi Poets

IC held its third Desi Poetry Reading, in collaboration with Matwaala, on December 3, 2020, which was moderated by Srishti Prabha and Kanchan Naik. The topic was certainly timely – Uncertainty and Change.

After a quick introduction by Pramila Venkatewaran, the co-founder of Matwaala, the Desi Poetry Reading was kicked off by a prolific and accomplished high school poet.

Sara Garg started the evening with a reading of an experiential poem called 2020, that captured the universal feeling of waiting, waiting for the count to go to zero. Another tender poem was about the mini sparks of light that are the front-line workers who face darkness, terror, and monsters while just having each other while they cope with uncertainty. Blood Questions was hard-hitting, speaking dramatically about BLM and our common humanity as it took on the voice of blood as it poured out of the chest of a Black young man as he is killed by blue and brass. In Sunset Sunrise, she gives eloquent voice to the uncertainty we live with during the pandemic, finally admitting she cannot see if the sun is rising or setting, whether hope is ascendent or not. In an answer to a question, Sara attributed her sense of rhythm to the early influence of Usha Akella (co-founder of Matwaala) when she was in 4th grade, as she learned to write a poem about a banana. This was a story of affection that Sara shared with the listeners, a sweet moment of connection, one that most of us can engage with, and that lifted the weight of uncertainty to one of positive change.

R. Cheran, a poet and professor, writes creatively in Tamil. He shared four parts of a powerful translated piece called On the Street, Anytime. His poem had vivid images, of jackfruits, leaves, and bodies run over by tanks on the street, blood seeping into paddy fields, and leaves being the only witnesses to bodies getting together anytime. Repetitions of Anytime, built into a crescendo as he conjured images of extreme contrast – blood, sperm, and poems written on colored pieces of paper, on the street, anytime. He sets the stage in memories of experiencing and witnessing slices of the genocide in Sri Lanka. The poet shifts to potholes in snowy weather, covered in ice, that refill with the blood of 2 boys who could be his sons, shot by the white policeman. Black brave boys whose blood fills the pothole, not once, but twice. In the final fourth part of the poem, Cheran speaks of poverty of the soul, of being left by a lover, one who takes almost everything away with her, but the poem refuses to go with her, the one whose first line is, On the Street, Anytime.

R. Cheran shared another short poem that was equally evocative of remembered trauma as he sketched out the scene of Indian soldiers, a woman held down, a child thrown into a well, and the well that is now without a voice to even say Aiyyo. Cheran’s poems are certainly not “easy listening” but instead pull the listener into a well of traumatic memories and images, the work of a master story-teller, craftsman, and poet. In response to a question by Srishti Prabha about how he balances violence and beauty, Cheran said that the genocide he witnessed and survived cannot be written in words or taught through a lens of sociology or anthropology, that he has portrayed but the tip of an iceberg and such horror can only be begun to be experienced through an art form such as poetry.

I have to take a break in writing this now, and walk around, as I try to shake off and metabolize the intensity of revisiting and closely listening to this part of the reading.

Kalpna Singh-Chitnis, a poet, writer, and film-maker, continued the evening. In a poem about the pandemic, one of the stark images she drew was of the Faceless One stealing all the faces that have disappeared behind masks, likening it to Kabuki dancers magically stealing faces and tucking them away in their kimonos. In a hard-hitting poem titled E.R., she speaks of holding the ground like a tree in a storm, not collapsing or vomiting, but holding in her internal injuries, and dying inside without being noticed. In The Salt of a Woman, anger and outrage jump off the words, her story older than civilization, questioned, blamed, conquered, gifted, dismissed, shamed. In IF, she writes of the only power a survivor of sexual assault may have, in telling others what not to do if she is killed, do not hang the perpetrators, she says – they will be born again and do it again. Hopelessness permeates the poem but ends with dignity. Tell your sons about me, she asks of women, preach me as a sermon, she asks of the preachers, write me as an epic, she asks of the writer.

I believe the BLM movement’s rise in the summer of 2020, empowered many of us in the desi community to finally speak openly of our own experiences of racial discrimination in the United States. Microaggressions are carried in the body, held on to for years, taken out every now and then, and re-examined through various lenses such as – why did the teacher not speak up, why did I not speak up, as if it would have been easy, as if it would have found validation at the time. I think many will identify with the process, the self-doubt, the worry of being heard, being believed, and the fear of having our experiences being discounted

Singh-Chitnis bravely shares a poem 25 years in the making and birthing. In this final poem, Kalpna addresses these excoriations – I am sitting there like the stump of a tree, still sitting there like the stump of a tree, still sitting there in that classroom. The lectures begin and end, she says, but the question remains. She is still waiting for the professor to speak up for her – she was voiceless and powerless at the time.

As these wounds get more light and air, as more people hear our experiences, as more speak up, as more poetry and art is used to communicate, the more hope there can be. I fully understand how it took 25 years to write that poem.

Indran Amirthanayagam, an author and poet read from his recently published book, Uncivil War, continuing the theme of trauma, displacement, war, and unbelonging. In Fire Department asks displaced refugee peoples from all over the world – Where is your Village Burning even if your home is not in the list. Ready to Move was a poignant ode to those who are witnesses to the only truth worth repeating – ready to move with a toothbrush, a fresh set of clothes. In Father, Indran eloquently mourns his father, moving from speaking of personal loss (watching geese honking on their way to the other side of the sky, poems to survive the fires, he has left us his name we wear it today) to the theme of universal experiences of the death of a father. Indran moved on to poems of upliftment as he hoped that the world would be inspired by the outcome of the American elections, in spite of something rotten in America, life pressed out of George Floyd, there is still hope he said – ordinary decent Joe has my vote – ending by saying he is an American optimist, and that the next war needs to be one that can unite humanity – saving our planet.

Varsha Saraiya-Shah continued the evening with a reading of I Speak from Towers of Silence in which she likens 6 feet of social distancing as a coffin length apart, observing that babies pop out like flowers, and being moved in different ways by the reality of bodies piling up in refrigerated trucks in New York. In Neither Hope nor Miracle, she speaks of science being necessary, that it needs to be unfenced with countless windows, that climate will throw earthly tantrums, warning, exhorting, and pleading with people to heed science. In When the Wind Blows, Varsha goes back to music, drawing inspiration from Miles Davis, saying, listen to what you can leave out. In Headlines, she playfully alludes to hair at different life stages, bound, unbound, and finally to a time to reshape the wildness even if Broadway will be closed till June 2021.

Saleem Peeradina’s poems submitted for this event were read by Pramila Venkateswararan. In The Body in Question Saleem Peeradina examines the world through striking images of different bodies and their symbolizing the various states of humanity, power and inhumanity –the bud of infancy to maternal bloom, migrating bodies washed ashore, body behind bars in solitary, body in whose soil is grown cotton, cane or tobacco, bodies from which coal is mined, in genocide, counted in numbers. In Song of the Makeover, he embodies the split he experiences as someone who never fits in where he is, always travelling, seeking himself or what appears to be himself through vivid phrases like full circle renewing the past, most at ease in a state of passage, two tongues, over there another face goes by my name, and, whose shadow doubles behind me.

In The View from 70, Saleem Peeradina draws playful and delightful images for us of interlopers who take over our bodies and are finally successful. The interloper enters stealthily with unmarked baggage, practice(s) hit and run arts, is the seducer who played for years on the swings slides and seesaws of my heart, a seventh sense, even with a no-vacancy sign. Finally, he concedes that it is best to befriend them, learn about them and co-exist until they (armed and dangerous) eventually win.

I am so glad I made the time for this new (to me) listening experience. It opened my eyes to a whole new vibrant community of poets and lovers of poetry, as well as those who enjoy hearing about the desi experience that we bring to the world of poetry. It seemed generally agreed upon that there has been more poetry written and made available to people all over the world, and that more people turned to poetry during the pandemic. Whether people had more time, needed poetry to make sense of the world, or whether technology brought poetry to more people, the increased interest has been one of the more welcome outcomes of the pandemic.

Desi Poets

Here are all these people

 

Who look like me Sound like me

And they read, and they love

Carry their hearts outside

Like me

speak the same languages

 

Languages

Of love and poetry

Of loss and separation

Of longing and dreams

Old homes and new

Old words renewed

 

Speak the language

Of Jack fruit, mango piquant as

Cilantro and green Chilis

Chai and samosas, sweet as

Jasmine with Thulasi leaves

 

Dusty tropical heat

Musty corner memories

Uncles, aunts, cousins

Clammy hands of first loves

Awkward fumbling kisses

 

Drenching thunderous monsoons

Umbrellas collapse in submission

 

Veins singing 

Gathering with hope

Hearts together 

rising in affection

 

Speaking old tongues in these newer lands

Using our Indlish to praise, protest, love

Finding connection in skin, language, country

 

Are these new cousins I see here?

Watch the Desi Poetry reading below!


Kalpana Asok is the author of ‘Whose Baby Is It, Anyway? Inside the Indian Heart’ and ‘Everyday Flowers’.

Reena Kapoor’s Poetry Is a Nostalgia Trip Of Places Untraveled

What makes you a poet?

Reena Kapoor’s debut book of poetry, Arrivals & Departures: Journeys in Poems makes this question even more relevant. Consider poetry a result of meditation, of thoughts, ideas, and memories that collect in the mind through observation. Reena grew up crisscrossing India as her father was a doctor in the Indian army. Her educational path is, like her poetry, quite diverse. She earned an undergraduate degree in Engineering from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, a Master’s from Northwestern University, and works as a software product leader in Silicon Valley. Kapoor’s debut poetry collection is thematically divided into sections interspersed with photographs she took. These images seamlessly connect her poetic utterance with passionate understanding. Recently I caught up with Reena Kapoor, a Bay Area resident, over email to pick her brains about her beautiful bouquet of poems and pictures. 

IC: Arrivals & Departures is your debut poetry collection. What role did nostalgia play in putting this book together if any and how?

I am an immigrant and a traveler.  And grew up as such – my father was a doctor in the Indian army and I grew up living all over India. In fact, I attended about 8 schools through high school, and call myself a “musafir” which is the Hindi/Urdu word for a traveler. Nostalgia plays a big role in my written word both due to my life circumstances and I guess to some extent life stage. Something about middle age and you start to see your life as it has been and how it’s brought you where you are. So looking back becomes much more natural vs. being younger where a solitary focus on the future is more apt and natural. My poems also express a “nostalgia” of sorts for what I don’t actually remember, ironically e.g., “koel” talks about the songbird that reminds me of childhood but the home is my parents’ current home which I did not grow up in but it still feels like mine…

IC: My reading of your collection introduced me to multiple themes, and a speaker addressing different voices. Can you talk about the various themes there are in your work, and how they interact with each other? 

The themes in my work are multiple but they tie back to me, my life experiences and my take on life, and how to live a good one. A lot of what I say has to do with how I grew up, (what it was and I guess to some extent IS like) being a girl/ woman in India and then my own very personal attachments to people and interests and objects that hold enduring meaning for me.

IC: I quite like the interdisciplinary play of images and words, where sometimes the image is a poetic utterance itself. What was your process like in putting this unique book together? What do you want your audience to take away from it? 

This is perhaps the hardest question for me – one that I get a lot of but one that I am pretty much at a loss to answer i.e., the “how” of writing my poems. The pen moves and I follow. I am led by an inner voice that I can’t turn away. When it arrives, I am compelled by words that spill out. I may polish or refine those words later but the initial and main body of the work almost creates itself. I guess it’s probably a given that I can’t “teach” poetry because the “how” of it is so elusive to me. 

These poems have been “coming” to me for over a decade now and I finally found the quiet space to listen and put them down. But it was really my husband who pushed me to publish my work. I was plagued by the usual self-doubt that I guess many writers face – and I still do – as to who would be interested in my words or my ordinary life? The fact that even a few of my friends and loved ones have found some resonance in my poems has been one of my most precious gifts.

IC: You are not just a poet. With degrees from IIT, Northwestern, a keen interest in photography, theatre, and performance as well, did these other aspects of your creativity influence your writing, and if yes how did that come about? 

Becoming an engineer was a practical and financial choice. I liked Math and Physics. And I came from a middle-class family in India where my parents emphasized the importance of being financially independent — especially for women. In those days in India, you could choose to be a doctor, or an engineer or a loser. So I ended up in IIT. I was always active in theatre and continued this pursuit through college and my early working years in the US. Photography came to me later with the iPhone 3…and the iPhone has continued to be my camera of choice. And Poetry came about the same time that I started capturing photos. I guess some latent creative impulses were clamoring for expression all along but I could only hear them once I felt a little more “settled”, a little more free, and in some ways liberated from my own expectations of “success”. It’s been a wonderful path and I am still loving every minute of it. My very first play “Art of the Possible” was played online recently and I am actively writing more theatre and literary pieces that will hopefully be produced soon. 

IC: Every day before I sit to write, I like to read something that I love, irrespective of the genre. What inspires you to write? 

The human condition. Nothing more or less. Why are we this way and what moves us and why? Finding happiness and meaning in the smallest of things is all there really is — yet it is also the human condition to chase so much else for naught; so much prestige, empty adulation, status, endless wealth yet most of which often leaves the traveler feeling alone and empty. Yet the chase becomes a life. Why? Eternal questions and I am not sure I will ever have answers. But the pursuit of such questions moves me and such learning is what I seek.


Dr. Manisha Sharma is a poet, fiction writer, and yoga teacher passionate about social issues in India. Her work is longlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, a finalist for the 2020 Cream City Review Fiction Contest, a semifinalist for the 2019 American Short(er) Fiction Contest. Her publications are in The Madison Review, The Common, Puerto Del Sol, The Bombay Review, and more. Currently, she is a lecturer in English and Yoga at two community colleges in Virginia and Ohio. 

Making Space For the Unknown: Desi Poetry Reading

Join India Currents and Matwaala, once again, in our Desi Poetry Reading Series. This time we bring you six poets addressing the ever-present uncertainty and change. The South Asian diaspora is perpetually evolving, breaking new boundaries and forging new connections in every sphere. India Currents presents its third Desi Poetry Reading to discuss how South Asian communities interacting with a year of inconsistencies, trauma, growth, and change.

To join the FREE poetry reading on Thursday, December 3, 2020 at 6pm PST and 9 pm EST, register here:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/desi-poetry-reading-uncertainty-and-change-tickets-130829912791

Or check to find our Facebook Live Stream at the time of the event here:

https://www.facebook.com/IndiaCurrents/videos

This poetry reading will feature notable writers from various pockets of the South Asian community, including Indran Amirthanayagam, Varsha Saraiya-Shah, Kalpna Singh-Chitnis, R. Cheran, Saleem Peeradina, and youth poet, Sara Garg. India Currents staff, Srishti Prabha and Kanchan Naik will moderate the event, facilitating questions from the audience on Zoom or Facebook Live.

This is effort is in collaboration with Matwaala, a South-Asian poetry collaborative designed to provide immigrant and POC writers with a literary platform. In their own words, Matwaala represents “voices that dare to say the unsaid and hear the unheard…voices that break down barriers…voices that dare to be South Asian, American, and simply human.” Since their formation, they have hosted a number of poetry festivals and writing workshops. Most notably, they recently spearheaded Smithsonian’s Beyond Bollywood Project, where they created a Poetry Wall in honor of South Asian writers at the Irving Museum and Archives.

We hope to see you there!


Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

At 52 Hz, My Throat is Parched

The 2020 US elections were not just about differing political views. People’s lives were impacted on the basis of their skin color, their gender, their sexuality, or their religion.

It bred uncertainty and fear in people who had been targeted for years.

Human beings should be respected for just that, being human. There is no other clause or addition to that. 

Here is a poem dedicated to those that felt weak. Rather than offer a solution of light in the darkness, I offer a hand to hold in it. 

Oil painting by Swati Ramaswamy (crashed waves/clouds dissolving) 
Oil painting by Author, Swati Ramaswamy (crashed waves/clouds dissolving)

6th November 10:11 pm

I felt it in waves, that dissolve in the sand

Blue and red neon signs holding each hand

“Am I human enough?” 

My skin dipped chocolate and my heart of rainbows

I can’t seem to hide, in the hours that count down— 

I can’t seem to stop.

Maybe if my eyes could close, maybe if my mind switched off—

Maybe if red and blue-dyed into a plethora of purple, 

losing in color and gaining the “other”.

 

“In a world with its eyes closed, a person with their’s open

Isn’t it strange how now they are made blind?” 

Is that victory? 

Effortless rounds that never escape a cycle,

Drugged on more and living less.

If it never starts, it never ends.

People become collateral, waves become loose sand.

A gripping fist, shows an empty hand. 

My throat is parched, lungs need a break—

But I haven’t slept yet:

 

Waking up in this state. 

7th November 5:50 am


Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and is an aspiring creative writer who loathes speaking in the third person. 

Our Land Remains Green in Our Souls

Poetry as Sanctuary – A column where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.

Like everyone else who loves poetry, I too see it as an art. An art of saying everything without saying much. A means of conveying the felt, without needing to justify the said. A formation of words which read like a garland, or convey the fragrance of a delicate rose, or sometimes the anguish of the pain caused by its thorns.

 But I am no poet, for I lack that art.  

 I seek a voice

which is free

from the burdens

of the identity

of the face,

 

a voice 

that can reach you deep,

irrespective of the distances

we seem to have created

based on 

unfounded

ungrounded

unwarranted

egoistical states,

 

hear me 

from where I hide,

and you’ll see me 

with a knowing clarity

far beyond

the simplistic visions,

mechanically reflected

by your 

curious eyes.

For me, my writings remain a liberating one-way communication.  A release, a vent, an outpouring emanating from the palette of emotions that simmer within. Sometimes for identifiable reasons, and often, just out of a longing for an elusive, imagined, or wishful state of being. 

Sunrise image, taken by the Author.

Divinity enters life
in many ways,

 

not all can be seen
or held in tangible forms,

 

to feel the invisible deeply
is often an insane job,

 

and I’ve never felt any remorse
for letting my sanity go.

Words help me find myself and sometimes lead me to discover and identify parts of others which over the years have become an intrinsic part of me. Till it lasts it is a fun game of hide-n-seek, in which thankfully, there are never any losers. 

A fellow blogger friend invited me to join a poetry group, the Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley, which instead of their routine physical meet-ups had started connecting virtually due to the COVID restrictions. And I found myself virtually amongst a group of strangers,  strangers who slowly began to seem more my own than them that I often see around. 

Was I diaspora where I sat, or were they it? Them who carry their roots with them even when far away from a land which still remains green in their souls. 

It is a thought which renders me somewhat eligible to be a valid part of this group, for in those hours once a week that we meet online, I too am ‘diaspora’ connecting with my own. 

Personally, this space has been a journey of discovering my words in my own voice (a first for me). Listening to the many other voices which can write, recite, and even sing poetry in different languages. A sharing of worded sentiments emanating from different cultures, regions, poets, writers, and time periods. An interaction which invariably touches and tingles various chords of emotions within. I remain grateful to each one of them for this very unique experience and for giving me an opportunity to share some of my own.

Gentle souls,
past
their own
painful
transformations,

 

flit around
like angelic
butterflies,
uplifting
falling spirits,

 

by their
thoughtful,
cheerful
presences
alone,

 

and in those
moments
of soulful
gratitude
within,

 

I bridge
the distance,
between
earth
and sky.


Vidur Sahdev is a 50-year-old guy who lives in Delhi, India, and writes on his blog titled VerseInEmotion. In its essence, his blog is a collection of some thoughts, some words, some memories, some moments, some dreams, some fiction… inspired by the elements of nature, the people who came and those that went away, some remembered, none forgotten, a few bits of his journey over the lived years. The rest ‘about him’ keeps changing faster than he has ever been able to pen it down.

Unconventional

Unconventional

disquieting dreams,

and marooned behind inadequate screens

await former days

and absent glitching in say.

eyes stained: debilitated red

with dilly- dally chained to bed. 

and what to find?

obliterated time!

how can one comprehend?

when inhibited voices send.

this institution is rapid pace 

we aren’t tying lace

but how can they care about dreams…

After all, vision is by screen.

*****


Rashmika Manu is a 10th grader attending High School. She enjoys using poetry as a form of expression. She is passionate about travel and hopes to fight poverty when she is older. 

Rhyme and Reason

Poetry as Sanctuary – A column where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.

A lizard in a blizzard

Got a snowflake in his gizzard

And nothing else much happened, I’m afraid.

But lizard rhymed with blizzard

And blizzard rhymed with gizzard

And that, my dear, is why most poems are made.[1]

When I was young, I used to get a kick out of seeing words rhyme. Reading Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, I would enunciate the rhyming bits out loud for fun. Later in high school, I marveled at Shakespeare and his dexterous lines which stoked the imagination and inspired lofty notions.

Not marble nor the gilded monuments

Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme[2]

Poetry, in contrast to everyday speech, has an eye for beauty. She has a penchant for the pretty phrase, a fancy for things well said. With her, language is revered and words are caressed and carefully ensconced in a metrical mold which lends rhythm and musicality. 

While I was in college, I listened to a recitation of a narrative poem my grandfather had written in Kannada (my mother tongue). The tune was captivating, the story was beautiful, and it made an unforgettable impression. Never before had I experienced (or given much heed to) sound and sense so intimately connected in my mother tongue. As Alexander Pope describes poetry: 

‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,

The sound must seem an echo to the sense[3] 

Poet, Navaneet Galagali

Thereafter I began to realize – like the proverbial frog in the well – that other languages contained profound treasures of literature and poetry that my anglophone worldview wasn’t privy to. Unable to resist the siren call, I set out to learn my mother tongue.

A few years down the rabbit hole, I acquired Kannada and Sanskrit and delved into the literature with zest. When I moved to the bay area, I was fortunate to come across a poetry meetup group where I met some birds of the same feather. We started meeting weekly to partake in virtual poetry gatherings using the Facebook group Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley, where I found encouragement and an outlet to share the poems and translations that follow.

The best romance poems employ a subtle art of suggestion; without being coarse, they indicate rather than explicate. In this Sanskrit verse from the 7th century, we see a poet’s tasteful portrayal of conjugal matters:

(The sweet-talk of newlyweds)

दम्पत्योर्निशि जल्पतोर्गृहशुकेनाकर्णितं यद्वचः तत्प्रातर्गुरुसंनिधौ निगदतस्तस्यातिमात्रं वधूः । 

कर्णालम्बितपद्मरागशकलं विन्यस्य चञ्चूपुटे व्रीडार्ता प्रकरोति दाडिमफलव्याजेन वाग्बन्धनम् ||[4] 

As the newlywed couple whispered through the night, their pet parrot overheard the words exchanged. The following morning, in the presence of elders, it began repeating what it had learned. Hearing this, the wife was mortified and she grabbed her ruby earring (which resembled a pomegranate seed) and thrust it into the parrot’s beak to silence it.

Here’s another verse in Sanskrit which makes a delightfully wry observation:

(A courtesan and her lipstick)

उपभुक्तखदिरवीटकजनिताधररागभङ्गभयात्।

पितरि मृतेऽपि हि वेश्या रोदिति हा तात तातेति॥[5]

A red color is left lingering on her lips from chewing betel leaves. When her father dies, that courtesan, not wanting to smear the red from her lips, cries “Taata, taata!” instead of “Pita, pita!” (both words mean father). i.e., Even while mourning the death of her father, she is mindful of her lipstick.

Brevity is the soul of wit” runs the common adage. Taking it to heart, this nifty triplet in Kannada claims to encapsulate all love stories:

(A summary of all love stories)

ನಾನು ಅವಳನ್ನು ನೋಡಿದೆ

ಅವಳು ನೋಡಿ ನಕ್ಕಳು

ನಮಗೀಗ ಎರಡು ಮಕ್ಕಳು[6]

 

I looked at her,

She smiled at me.

Now we have two kids. 

Poetry – and by extension, Art – seeks to elevate the connoisseur from the clutches of the mundane. In the process, ordinary emotions are rarefied and become things of beauty. Love, compassion, anger, sorrow, or any of the palate of emotions when expressed through the medium of art achieve a sublime dimension and unequivocally yield aesthetic joy. The joy of course, is an end in itself and needs no further recourse.


Navaneet Galagali is a software engineer in the California bay area who slyly siphons away time for his excursions with literature and music. His present obsessions include Sanskrit and Kannada literature. He is also learning Hindustani classical vocal music and Tabla.

A Teen’s Writing Contest is a Much Needed Distraction

NYC, New York – I saw how devastating COVID-19 was for so many people in NYC, particularly teenagers who had to adapt their lifestyles. From switching to remote learning to finding ways to stay active and engaged, there have been a lot of changes.  The one thing in common for many of the city’s teens was that boredom set in.  With all conversations and all the news focusing on the coronavirus, many people were also feeling depressed. Vishnu decided to take action and find a way to help other high schoolers cope – through creative writing.  

I decided to organize the Scribe Writing Contest, in the midst of COVID-19, to help provide a pleasant distraction from the current state of events and encourage teens to use their imaginations.  It did not hurt that prizes were also awarded to the winners.

Nobody could have expected or prepared for the devastating effects that the coronavirus would bring this year. Many of us have been isolated at home. Schools went remote. A lot of stores and businesses are closed. Aside from the security concerns caused by this illness, a lot of teens are just bored.  Creative writing provides an avenue for people to express their thoughts and their creativity and a space to imagine something different into being.

The Scribe Writing Contest is a free, online high school creative writing contest open to students all over the world. Students were given a 48-hour window in which to start their essay and had to submit either a poem or short story, within two hours, in response to specific prompts that were given immediately prior to beginning the contest.

For the poetry submissions, entrants were asked to: 

  1. Write a poem that evokes a sense of longing, whatever that might mean to you. 
  2. Write a poem that uses all the following words: “whisper,” “moonlight,” and “tomorrow.” 
  3. Write a poem that centers around nature and the natural world. 

For the Fiction portion of the contest, participants were given the following prompts:

  1. Write a story about two or more people whose pasts are connected. 
  2. Tell the story of a scar – physical or emotional. 
  3.  Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time begins with the line: “For a long time, I went to bed early.” Write a story starting with that line. 

I personally reached out to distinguished English and creative writing professors from across the country and selected seven of them to serve as judges for the contest. In addition, six nonprofit literary publishing companies, whose titles have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, sponsored the contest with cash prizes and books for the winners.  They awarded $2,750 in cash prizes to three winners in the Poetry and Fiction Essays.

Creative writing offers many benefits that are often overlooked and undervalued.  They include confidence building, stimulating the imagination, artistic self-expression, thought clarification, empathy and communication skills, a better understanding of the mechanics of reading and writing, and improved mental, emotional, and physical health. Studies have shown that creative writing alleviates stress levels, and can ward off severe illnesses, among other things.

The contest received an overwhelming response, with almost 900 submissions from teens in 17 countries, spanning six continents.

The winners of the contest were: 

Poetry Winners:

First place: Isabelle Lu, South Side High School (Rockville Centre, NY); Second place: Janet Li, Columbus Academy (Columbus, OH); Third place: Anne Kwok, Milton Academy (Milton, MA)

Fiction Winners:

First place: Frances McKittrick, Saint Ann’s School (Brooklyn, NY); Second place: Alexis Kihm, “I AM” School (Mount Shasta, CA); Third place: Asa Khalid, Berkeley Carroll School (Brooklyn, NY)

The participants expressed their appreciation for providing a brief distraction from some of the stress they had been dealing with in their day-to-day lives, and in a changing environment, due to COVID-19.  There will be another contest next May to provide a creative outlet for more teens.

Creative writing has such an extraordinary capacity to uplift and inspire. If the Scribe Writing Contest enabled students to realize that capacity, even for a moment, then in my eyes it was all worthwhile.


Vishnu Bharathram is a passionate writer and a senior at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx.