Tag Archives: poetry

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! 


 

Odes to Bay Area Beauties

Any San Francisco, Bay Area resident can vouch for their fondness and love for living in this area. Being the Silicon Valley of the world and a Technology hub, it draws thousands to its fold every year. People flock to the area for the jobs but stay for the sheer number of outdoor options available within a short drive, offering a distinct lifestyle as compared to any other parts of the country. The miles of beaches by the Pacific Ocean are as easily accessible as the skiing haven of Tahoe. For anyone who loves wilderness and mountains, the allure of Yosemite is an easy draw. And if you are a wine lover, Napa and Sonoma are a must-visit destination.

I was similarly swayed by the pull of the region when I decided to immigrate from India, more than a decade back. Since then, I have spent a considerable amount of time in the Bay Area outdoors exploring its serene beaches, county parks, golf courses, biking trails, hiking trails, mountains, and wilderness within the area’s vicinity, a short drive away.

Over the years, I have been captivated by the abundance of natural beauty in the area and after every jaunt, I have come back rejuvenated. Sometimes, those feelings found utterances in a free verse or poetry – can you expect any better from a creative heart (figuratively speaking)? That said, you will find below a set of three poems inspired by my hikes to Monterey, Yosemite, and Lake Chabot.      

Before we move onto the poetry section, let’s remind ourselves that we are blessed to live in this region of nature’s bounty. The environmental issue of climate change is real and poses enormous threats to the health of the Bay Area and its ecology – perhaps the last year’s raging wildfires were a manifestation of this threat. Conserving and protecting the forests and their habitat is imperative for sustainable development and for the future writers/poets to emerge from this area in the footsteps of John Muir, Jack Kerouac, or Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  

***

Lake Chabot in Oakland, California.

Overlooking Lake Chabot 

The white velvet 

spread across the azure sky,

The gently undulating green slopes

Rolling hills and a deep blue oasis

flowing through the turquoise landscape.

 

The gentle breeze swaying my grown hair,

The feel of cool on my bare skin,

The panorama of the striking beauty

Soothing my tired eyes.

 

The climb across the overlook point,

And the gentle exertion of the legs, 

The calmness of the surroundings 

Radiating the stillness that calms the mind.

 

It’s in these Nature that,

the Zen of mind resides.

It’s in these outdoors that, 

the sense of well-being pervades.

***

Monterey Bay in Monterey, California.

At Monterey 

The setting sun casts

a golden streak

on the azure, transparent water.

The distant horizon

kisses the vast expanse of oceanic water.

 

The green vegetation doting the hillside,

swaying in the cool breeze

hustles sweet nothings in the ears.

The feel of the cool sand

beneath the feet 

pleases every pores.

 

The waves lapping against the shore

rising and falling in a crescendo,

beckons me to its lap.

I plunge forth at their invitation,

wading through knee-deep water.

 

The gentle frothy waves

rhythmically caressing my body

elevates my senses to paradise.

My mind in magical ecstasy;

experiences a cool tranquility.

The evening at Monterey

is a sheer delight.

***

Firefall in Yosemite Valley, California.

At Yosemite: a brush with life itself

Miles of verdant wilderness

The panorama of snow-capped hills

The majestic half-dome rising in splendor

Across the delightful Curry village.

Fluffy, velvety clouds

breezing across,

the cool zephyr

rustling through,

the humming alpine butterflies

wafting in thin air,

a herd of ‘mule deer’

galloping into the distant wood,

majestic waterfall in its vicinity

rushing through in all its grandeur,

the redolent ambience,

the unbridled silence

(except the ‘voices’ of nature)

nestling in the wilderness-

lentissimo drizzle

soaking me wet;

I stand alone

transfixed, mesmerised

experiencing

my inner self;

body in complete harmony

mind in immaculate peace,

spirit in blissful ecstasy;

Rejuvenated

I breathe again,

I can feel

the pulse of life

coursing through my veins.

After days of jejune existence,

I can sense again

the lightness of my being.


Lalit Kumar works in the Technology sector but retains an artist’s heart. He likes to read and write poetry, apart from indulging in outdoor activities & adventure sports. Recently, he started curating famous works of poetry (and occasionally his own).


 

In Solidarity Against AAPI Hate: Bay Area Poets Look Back at Tagore and Xu Zimo

(Featured Image: Rabindranath Tagore in China)

About a century ago, Rabindranath Tagore visited Shanghai where he was hosted by a young Chinese poet Xu Zimo, who had studied at Cambridge. Xu died young but changed poetry in China forever by liberating it from the formalism to introduce free form, and his work was influenced by Tagore.

Tagore wrote a poem called The Year 1400 (Bengali calendar – 1996 in Gregorian) addressing a reader a hundred years into the future. In it, he tells the future reader: “My spring birdsong and breeze fills me with song and I can’t send it forward but won’t you too sit by your open window and think of a poet who wrote this poem for you to share the youthful passion spring brings for all.”

Jing Jing, an immigrant from China, moved to the U.S. and taught herself English, to earn her young American daughter’s respect, and eventually become the current poet laureate of Cupertino (aka the place where Apple has built its spaceship HQ). She heard Tagore’s poem, The Year 1400, late on a Saturday night, when she visited our Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley readings last May. We happened to be celebrating Tagore’s birthday by inviting all our Bengali poets to read. One poet, Jayanta chose Tagore’s poem and its English translation by Ketki Kushari Dyson, from Oxford. It moved Jing Jing to goosebumps and tears.

As Jing Jing planned the Lunar New Year celebrations with poetry reading, she invited the grandson and great-granddaughter of Xu Zimo to read his work. Jing Jing remembered Tagore’s poem and wondered if our poets would be willing to read it at the celebration — to bring the old poets’ works together — like the friends who met in Shanghai a century ago.

I had no recollection of it and wondered who might have read it. Jing Jing had saved a screenshot so I knew it was Jayanta. When I reached out to him, he said “Anything Jyoti asks, I have to do.”

But as it turned out — there was a conflict in his schedule. He found the poem and its translation for us, even though he couldn’t read it. That is how I ended up reading Tagore’s poem and another of our poetry circle members, Debolina, read the original in Bengali.

130 people attended this online event. This is amazing for so many reasons. The China, India, US, and UK connections, the passion and love of poems and ode to spring, old friends connected through poetry, strangers making happenstance connections across the impossible distance and centuries, in springtime for celebrations with verse, and me getting caught up to enjoy it all, without leaving the comfort of my home.


Dr. Jyoti Bachani is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Innovation at Saint Mary’s College of California. She is a former Fulbright Senior Research Scholar, with degrees from London Business School, UK, Stanford, USA, and St. Stephen’s College, India. She translates Hindi poems and edited a poetry anthology called The Memory Book of the Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley.

This article was first published on American Kahani.

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.

Mountaineering With a Poetic Interlude

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

(Featured Image: Lalit Kumar skydiving)

I am fascinated with adventure sports and I happen to like poetry. While adventure sports push us out of our comfort zone to experience the euphoria that lies beyond fear, poetry helps us to explore the world in a more vivid way.

Adventure sports provide personal growth and renewal through physical energy.

Poetry is a mental work-out, rejuvenating the soul to provide an enhanced capacity to experience all the beauty in this world.    

The famous mountaineer, Edmund Hillary said, “It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”

This rings true. When exerting oneself for any endurance sports like mountaineering or long-distance running, the first battle one fights is in his or her own mind. Despite the pain or fatigue, if one decides to press on, the physical challenges of distances or mountains are not impossible to be conquered. I feel that mental courage and fortitude can be easily cultivated by reading and writing positive/affirmative poetry that gives wings to your dreams, power to your vision, and courage to your mission. 

Reading and writing poetry has provided me with numerous hours of pure joy and the right ambience for self-contemplation. A poem can capture the most complex emotions and distill them down to few words that are pleasing to the auditory senses, apart from being appealing to the ‘thinking’ brain. I have been scribbling verses in English from my high school days. After spending more than a decade in the Bay Area and outside India, I find myself equally drawn to the inexorable charm of my mother tongue, Hindi.

During this ‘lockdown’ period, I found myself gorging upon the books and the writings of Hindi stalwarts. In the process, stumbled upon the beauty of Urdu ghazals and sensibilities (‘janib’). I was drawn towards the natural imagery and auditory pleasure of Urdu words, especially when reading or hearing ghazal and shayari. It seems that the Urdu language is meant for writing and reciting poetry. As an Indian / South Asian immigrant, perhaps I have found my sanctuary in reading, writing, and hearing Hindi/Urdu poetry after losing touch for almost a decade. English comes naturally to me, but I realized that poetry in other Indian languages leaves an equally profound impression on my mind. And this feeling snowballed into a love…

In a moment of creative burst, I find myself unwittingly scribbling in Hindi, like:

आरज़ू थी, ज़िंदगानी रहे 

जीएं तो शौक से। 

ज़िंदादिली मिली , हम बदले

अब जीएं तो बेखौफ्फ़ से। 

       – ललित

(Translated in English)

I used to wish, to live a life of luxury

I met my passion and I changed, 

Now I wish to live a life of fearlessness.

Perhaps, it has a tinge of my new-found passion for adventure sports, who can tell!

This love for both poetry and adventure found its outlet in a creative verse that I penned a couple of months back, called, ‘The Second Mountain.’ We all want to be successful and happen to get into the career rat race with the hope of reaching some mythic destination and we start climbing that mountain – probably for most of us, our first mountain. But when we get there, we don’t find happiness and fulfillment to the extent that we dreamed about. So we look for the second mountain, which is symbolic of climbing the mountain of a ‘Cause’ that is larger than the self, the irony is that until we get to the top of the first mountain, we usually don’t realize that.

Metaphorically speaking, while climbing the mountain was a calling for my ‘adventure seeking’ soul, penning down this idea in relation to finding my ‘Cause’ was a calling for my ‘poetry loving’ soul.

Image taken by Lalit Kumar

The Second Mountain

Driven, ambitious and passionate

He had ascended the mountain peak

Striving relentlessly, with a singular obsession

To climb, to strive and to reach to the top.

 

The panorama was striking from his vantage point

He felt like the conqueror who defeated all

The wave of happiness swept like the breeze,

Invincible he felt, superior he thought in his mind.

 

As the breeze calmed down, he felt an eerie silence

Loneliness gnawed at his heart, the emptiness echoed in his viscera.

What was the point of it all? He thought to himself

His singular achievement meant so little to others.

 

Contemplating to himself, he narrowed his gaze

And saw the second mountain across the valley.

And lo and behold, it was teeming with people all around

He hurriedly climbed down and trekked across the valley.

 

As he approached nearer, he saw people helping each other ascend the mountain

Together they climbed and took the tumble together, negotiating the sharp bents on the way

He soon realized, it’s not what you achieve individually

But joy is in how you give away your energy in the pursuit of affecting a positive change.

 

Joy is in helping, in giving, in supporting

The Cause that deeply moves you

And making it larger than

Just your individual self.

 

So climb the first mountain, if you must

To check your fitness on the way …

But remember, it’s the second mountain

Where your impact will pave the others’ way.

The language of poetry can touch one’s soul and spark a sense of creativity. I advocate for everyone to read and write poetry. You are invited to join the group called Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley, which hosts a weekly poetry reading.


Lalit Kumar works in the Technology sector but retains an artist’s heart. He likes to read and write poetry, apart from indulging in adventure sports from time to time. Recently, he started curating famous works of poetry (and occasionally his own).

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. 

California Nani: A Video a Day Keeps The Doctors Away

In the pandemic of 2020, when the world went into lockdown, one Indian lady who is above 80 years of age, engaged herself in making videos on Indian culture, mythology, and literature from her apartment in San Francisco.

Her name is Mrs. Harsha Watts and she is my mother.

She learned how to record, upload and manage her YouTube channel “California Nani” on her own. Here, she has showcased about 500 videos made by her with more than twenty thousand viewers. My mother’s life holds a message that learning and following one’s passion can occur even after eighty years of age! Here are some excerpts from the life of California Nani, which is an inspiration to many. 

For a large part of her life, mom remained a reticent atheist. Yet back in India, she fulfilled her duties in organizing religious festivities for the family. Her greatest talent lay in cooking delicious meals. Without feeling exhausted, she managed all chores herself, after which, she would sit to knit sweaters for her loved ones! 

When I was growing up in India, I recall how mom would help all of us at home with our homework. She would help us understand meaning in literature, explain shlokas in Sanskrit, show us the tricks to memorize science and math. Several evenings, when the light would go off, mom would give a candle to us so that we may continue to finish our homework in a room full of darkness. 

Although mom couldn’t finish her own college, she aspired to see her children excel academically. She was the person who would attend the parent-teacher meetings at school in India. Now that everyone in the family is settled in the US, you might be thinking that my mother must be leading her retired life. 

Well, a few years back, my father had passed away. Mom began visiting temples each day. Soon after, she engaged herself in making jewelry and dresses for the deities. I was surprised to see this transformation in a nonbeliever. 

A few years back, she fell down, twice, when her feet got entangled in her saree causing multiple fractures on her knee and foot, and hands. Wearing a saree or keeping long hair wasn’t feasible anymore. Short hair and western attire brought another transformation in her leading to a miraculous phase. 

When mom turned eighty years of age, her granddaughter asked her, “what was life like in India in 1940, 1950, and 1960?” Mom began remembering her childhood during the partition in India, and beyond. We wanted to preserve the words of wisdom flowing out of her lips. With the help of her granddaughter, mom launched her own channel on youtube – CALIFORNIA NANI, in August 2019. Now she wakes up each morning with the goal of making one video each day. 

The beauty of this endeavor is the preservation of knowledge related to Indian culture and benefit to students of Indology.

More details at YouTube channel – California Nani! 


 Anu Sharma teaches, travels, writes, volunteers and lives in San Francisco, CA.

Poetry in Bharatanatyam: Vinitha Subramanian

Guru Smt. Vinitha Subramanian, the Director of Natyalaya School of Dance in Austin, has been teaching in the Central Texas area for over 35 years. She has scores of arangetrams to her credit and has staged several dance dramas and thematic presentations such as Jungle Book – Seonee, Ganga- A River’s story, Nouka Charitram, Navahavarna, Roopa Viroopa, Ek, and Agasthya, just to name a few. I interview Vinitha Subramanian, in what was a fabulous exploration into the connections between Indian poetry and classical dance.

UA: Bharatanatyam is performed to the accompaniment of poetry in Sanskrit and other South Indian languages. Can you trace the relationship between the two genres historically?

VS: Sanskrit was the preeminent literary language in India for many centuries. The poets and playwrights wrote in Sanskrit in the various courts of India’s rulers. In addition, poets also wrote in local languages: example Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Tamizh. There has been a profusion of composers in local languages in more recent times as the support for artists moved away from the Kingly courts. Tamizh poetry is very old, dating up to 4000 years.

UA: Who/What are these classical poetry forms that are foundational to the practice of Bharatanatyam?

VS: There are so many forms – starting from very old Tamil poetry which are over 3-4000 years old.

Sangam Literature and poetry: contains 2381 poems in Tamil composed by 473 poets, some 102 anonymous, of these Kapilar is the most prolific poet. These poems vary between 3 and 782 lines long. The bardic poetry of the Sangam era is largely about love (akam) and war (puram), with the exception of the shorter poems such as in paripaatal, which is more religious and praises VishnuShivaDurga and Murugan. The most acceptable time range for the Sangam literature is 100 BCE to 250 CE

The history of Tamil literature follows the history of Tamil Nadu, closely following the social, political and cultural trends of various periods. The early Sangam literature, dated before 300 BCE, contain anthologies of various poets dealing with many aspects of life, including love, war, social values and religion. This was followed by the early epics and moral literature, authored by HinduJain and Buddhist authors, lasting up to the 5th century CE. From the 6th to 12th century CE, the Tamil devotional poems written by Nayanmars (sages of Shaivism) and Alvars (sages of Vaishnavism), heralded the great Bhakti movement which later engulfed the entire Indian subcontinent. It is during this era that some of the grandest of Tamil literary classics like Kambaramayanam  (very famous poet Kamban) and Periya Puranam (lives of the 63 saiva saints complied by Sekkizhar)  were authored and many poets were patronized by the imperial Chola and Pandya empires. The later medieval period saw many assorted minor literary works and also contributions by a few Muslim and European authors. 

In modern Bharatanatyam, it is hard to use Sangam poetry (though we use some selected verses), as it is very hard to understand the ancient language.  

We do use Christian poems in Bharatanatyam – several poets in Kerala (including a priest) have written songs for Bharatanatyam.

Generally medieval Tamil and Sanskrit poetry is extensively used: Poets like Kalidasa and Adi Shankara from (1st– 2nd centuries), Andal  and Alwars (5th-10th century), Kannada Dasa poets like Purandaradasa (15-17 century), Annamayya and Telugu poets( 12th century- 20th century), Sanskrit poets like Jayadeva (12th century) Most modern Bharatanatyam songs are, however, derived from compositions of  relatively modern composers like the Carnatic Trinity (Tyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Sama Trinity) and the Tanjore Quartet (Chinnaswamy, Ponniah, Vadivelu and Sadanandam) considered the fathers of modern Bharatanatyam. Other popular modern composers include Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar, Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi, Papanasam Sivan, Poochi Sreenivasa Iyengar, Ravikiran. These poets composed in a variety of south Indian languages. With Bharatanatyam spilling beyond south India, poetry in many North Indian languages are also being used: Hindi (Tulsidas, Kabir), Marathi (Tukaram and other Abhang composers), Gujrati, Bengali (Rabindranath Tagore).

The Carnatic Trinity
The Carnatic Trinity: Sri Syama Sastri, Sri Thyagaraja, Sri Mudduswamy Dikshitar

UA: Mostly, what are the kinds of poetry and poetry forms used in poetry accompanying classical Bharatanatyam?

VS: Poetry had religious and devotional themes, and romantic-mystical poetry was prevalent as it was felt that people would comprehend the texts better. Independence-based themes, social reform-based poetry, religious tolerance and moral teachings emerged over time. Indian poetry is generally classified in accordance to the language in which it is written, or the region from which it hails. However, in general, Indian poetry is generally classified into the following types: epics, couplets (dohas), ghazals, bhajans, folk poetry and others.

UA: Indian music and dance is based on raga, bhava and tala. Please help us understand each of the terms with a special emphasis on tala.

VS: Bhava – Facial expressions that help in storytelling. Raga – Melody to which dance-song is set. Tala – The intrinsic beat of the poem as reflected in the music which is set to the measures defined in Carnatic music.

UA: What are the dominant stanzaic forms and meter used in the poetry?

VS: In terms of meter – 2 line poems (haiku like) called Dohas/Shairis are popular, such as those by Kabir. This is also found in Thirukkural, an anthology in Tamil by Tiruvalluvar. Examples of other meters used are Gayathri meter poems from the Vedic literature, the octet poems of Jayadeva and Adi Shankara, longer sonnets are very popular among older and modern poets and have all found a home in bharatanatyam.

Sanskrit prosody or Chandas (meter) is the study of poetic meters and verse in Sanskrit. This field of study was central to the composition of the Vedas. The Chandas, as developed by the Vedic schools, were organized around seven major meters, and each had its own rhythm, movements and aesthetics. Sanskrit meters include those based on a fixed number of syllables per verse, and those based on fixed number of morae per verses as expounded in Pingala’s Chandasutra. 

UA: Nattuvangam- it’s practice, definition and importance to classical dance?

VS: Nattuvangam (pertaining to dance) and Konnakol (pertaining to vocal- instrumental music)  is the practice of reciting rhythmic syllables that emulate the drumbeats  that allow the elaboration of the  inherent beat of the music in various permutations to display the dancers virtuosity in pure dance movements.

UA: The relationship between nattuvangam and beats in classical Telugu, Tamil and Sanskrit poetry?

VS: When a poem is set to music, its inherent meter (determined by the poet) is interpreted in the structure of the Carnatic music tala structure. This Tala is elaborated in the nattuvangam, providing opportunity to the dancer to explore various ways of presenting it. The basic tala measure is combined in various permutations and combinations to provide a rich diversity of pure dance movements and footwork. 

UA: What are some of the more modern poetic expressions to which you composed your own choreography successfully (that are not strictly laid out in meter, yet were transferred beautifully)?

VS: The rigidity is only in the time measure of each avartana of the tala (8 beats, 11 beats etc.) in which each line of the song /poem fits.  By calculating the number of beats in one avartana or combining the avartanas or splitting them we are able to derive infinite combinations of footwork arrangement. The same song with the same rhythm (drum) can be arranged very differently by different choreographers using the hand gestures (hastas and Nrtta hastas) and adavus (choreographed steps) to provide a refreshing look at the inherent meter of the poem every time. Hence every song can be renewed each time it is performed.  

We have set Bharatanatyam movements to songs from various faiths, composed in different languages, even English/western music or Tejano music. When there is no meter but just a song or chorus without beat, Bharatanatyam allows its expression in graceful twirls and striking poses. 


Usha Akella, Austin-based poet has authored eight books. She is the founder of the Matwaala collective and festival and co- host of www.the-pov.com, an interview site.

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.

Eat in Peace…or in Pieces?

Eat in Peace…or in Pieces?

Pass the butter, hand the bread

Don’t be dramatic — nobody is dead

Carve the turkey, open the booze

But switch the channel if it’s news.

 

Sprinkle the pepper, pour the sauce 

Dried by the smoke of a burning cross

Just because the flames have been smothered for years

Does not mean we don’t feel the soot in our tears

A man on a pedestal flaunts his crown

Reduces an empire to a ghost town.

We apparently love him — it’s been reported

A toast to that, before we get deported

Close the curtains, God, what a racket

That officer’s gun is not in his jacket.

Just another man screaming for his life

Grab the remote, mute his strife

 

 So what if that burger is dipped in car grease?

Can’t someone let us just eat in peace?

When it’ll be us, just like everyone said,

Someone else shall pass the butter, hand the bread

 

I know that it’s difficult, that this will be hard

When the cranberries are sour and the turkey is charred

But to untangle the noose from this country of rope

Change the menu, bring out the hope


Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin and the Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. When she’s not doodling or writing poetry, she is most likely untangling her earphones or looking for something that happens to be — much like herself — lost.

Originally Published on November 25, 2019.