Spoken-word or ‘slam’ poetry, as it’s better known, is a performance art. Poetry has always existed in two worlds, written and performed. Spoken-word poetry can be a recital or just a rant. But the concept of writing a piece of poetry solely for performance, and of spontaneously responding in verse, isn’t exactly a novelty to most Indians.
“The urban slam that you’re looking at is so much tamer compared to the poetry in qawwali,” says Manisha Lakhe, co-founder of Caferati, a writer’s forum in Mumbai. “But it’s a good thing and we’re getting there.” Adds Harsh Shah, who performs poetry at Habitat, Mumbai, “We are in a very experimental stage where we can try a lot of stuff because it is the beginning,”
Social media caught on to the possibilities of the genre after Aranya Johar’s ‘A brown girl’s guide to gender’ came out. The sensation it created allowed a number of other unrecognised poets like Yahya Bootwala to become internet stars overnight.
But using poetry to debate social issues hasn’t gone down well with everyone. “People use metaphors and dramatic gestures to enliven their poems. But that kills the grammar and the essence of poetry,” complains Nishant Upadhayay, a poet from Bhopal.
“If slam has become popular, it’s because some poets express themselves better than others,” says Lakhe. “But I see hollowness in ‘social cause’ poetry. It’s silly to rant against capitalism and then go order coffee at Starbucks. There’s a lots of chaff when it comes to slam poetry written for a cause. I’m cynical about poetry written for clicks.”
Says Anish Vyvhare, owner of Poetry College in Mumbai, “People speak on topics they have no idea about. They speak about depression and mental illness and advocate on issues they have zero knowledge about.”
Harsh Mehta, a poet who also performs at Habitat, thinks the criticism is misplaced. He says there are several poets who have gained recognition for the quality of their work, and not because they espouse social concerns.
Spoken poetry maybe in its infancy but it’s already attracting some commercial interest. “The community is growing in terms of the number of shows, poets are trying to create their own fan base. We are still building an audience that will pay and watch a show where only two or three poets are performing,” says Mehta.
“In Mumbai, more and more people are paying for poetry, anywhere between Rs.100 to 500 a show,” says Lakhe. “Yes, venues that are free draw more crowds, but people understand when a nominal charge is demanded. For good poetry, people are willing to pay and there are little offshoots, like story-telling and the like which draw in crowds as well. Many small poetry groups charge simply because venues are not free, and there’s only so much goodwill you can bank on,”
Vyavhare thinks it bizarre that poets want to be paid by people to watch them. “No one asked me to do poetry for them, I do it for myself. For me to go and ask the world to pay me for it is ridiculous,” he says.
Whatever the criticism, there’s no denying there’s a growing audience for poetry reading and that should be music to the ear of every lover of the written word. If the argumentative Indian chooses to use poetry to debate the issues of the day, so be it. At the least, it’s an improvement over the vacuous nonsense that parades as political discourse today.