If one had to speak of the poetry culture in the early 2000s, it would be safe to say that it wasn’t as thriving as it is today. Despite the presence of renowned mainstream publishing houses, like Jaico, Westland, Harper Collins, Rupa and Hatchett, there was a distinct unwillingness to experiment with fresh talent. The certainty which came with the work of established poets, and their skill in attracting an audience and creating a market for their work, always led to literary firms welcoming them with open arms. Thus, established poets like Jerry Pinto, Nissim Ezekiel, Arun Kolatkar and Ranjit Hoskote easily found their work in publications, whereas newer poets had to struggle to get a break.
Today, poetry is broadening our horizons and leading to us being more accepting of new ideas and forms, whereas in the past, the academic exposure of the audience was limited, and they sometimes failed to connect with the ideologies behind the messages that poetry carried with it. Huge strides have been made in the field of education, leading to a greater understanding and in-depth knowledge of a variety of issues – some of them discomfiting – and the world is witnessing great changes, with more to come. Poets are increasing in number, and are relentlessly making their voices heard, through instant-reach platforms like Instagram and YouTube.
The defining year for modern poetry was probably 2014. Rupi Kaur’s book, Milk and Honey, was a bestseller, but she first caught the world’s attention on Instagram, where she began publishing her work. International poets like Sarah Kay, Christopher Pointdexter and Atticus were making waves too; Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye’s ‘An origin story’ hit over two million views on YouTube. Social media was proving to be the wonder drug that poetry needed. From written or page poetry, which was once the only medium of expression, the brilliant use of social media gave rise to Slam Poetry, which created an unimaginable buzz among audiences. The term was first introduced in 1984 by the American poet Marc Smith; it is a competition, where poets of all ages recite poetry on a mic in front of randomly selected judges.
In the course of five years, the Indian publishing industry has welcomed several independent houses, ready to provide opportunities to fresh talent. ‘Open-Mic’ events have become an important part of the lives of slam poets, and in schools and colleges, poetry slams rank as among the most popular choices during competitions. With the surge in popularity of rap and hip-hop, poetry has extended its reach to regional languages, where experimentation in performance poetry has produced amazing results. From Hussain Haidry – echoing the sentiments of an average Indian Muslim with ‘Hindustani-Musalman’ – to Priya Malik, scoring an all-rounder in ‘Dear Mr Player’, modern Indian poetry has come a long way in a very short while.
With the open-mic culture gaining traction today, it has eased the tension that poets might have had once, in search of a viable platform, followed by the struggle they might have endured to get their work read by literary editors. Reciting their work to a live audience gives them the opportunity to receive instant feedback and criticism, as also inspiring the audience members themselves to write poetry. Before the development of the phenomenon of spoken poetry, according to performance poet Hussain Haidry – who got involved with open-mic events by the end of 2009 – open-mics used to be organized once a month, by one organizer only. Today, the scene is much more vibrant. With numerous clubs providing platforms – More than Mics, The Habitat, The Cuckoo Club, Tuning Forks and True Tramm Trunk and others – a new generation of wordsmiths have been born, which is bound to multiply as the scene develops.
“All the millennials and Gen Z need is a microphone to express themselves, as all are on the hunt to connect with the raw and real. The currency of millennials is authenticity and honesty, and slam poetry is all that. It is the uncomfortable truth, which one can’t Photoshop,” says Roshan Abbas, the radio jockey and actor and co-founder of Kommune, a performing arts hub. It was started in 2015 by Abbas, along with actor-VJ-TV anchor Gaurav Kapoor and independent musician Ankur Tiwari, in a bungalow in Mumbai’s Versova area. Expressing gratification over the work of the artists who have helped build the scene, which has contributed in the establishment of Spoken Fest (in 2018), a popular performance festival, Abbas underlined, “What makes us stand apart is we don’t just focus on online content. We also do shows across the country. When we hit 1 lakh subscribers on YouTube and Facebook, it was then that we decided to build the holy grail of spoken word in India.” Today, Kommune has access to over 300 poets across ten cities and has given audiences a taste of the button poets (committed to the development of an effective production system) in India.
Correcting me when I use the term slam poetry often, Aarsh Mehta, poetry curator of The Habitat, previously known as the Tuning Fork, says, “There is nothing like slam poets. Delivering performance on the stage is spoken word poetry. Hence, the poets should be addressed as either performance or spoken word poets”. Mehta and Balraj Singh Ghai (owner of The Habitat) assigned Monday as the open-mic day for poetry, on the advice of Tejas Coulagi, a slam poet popularly known as TJ. He introduced Ghai to the first poetry slam, which was held at Bombay Electric Project in 2011, and was hosted by RJ Rohini Ramanathan. They said, “When we curated our first week, we expressed our desire to host slam poetry nights. So, TJ suggested that he would perform spoken word poetry at Prithvi Theatre, and request a few of the poets to accompany him. And that’s how we started our first Monday, where our audience consisted of seven poets, with notable names like Hussain Haidry, Mohammed Sadriwala and Nandana Mahanand being a part of the picture.”
Speaking on the method used for selecting poems, they stressed on the importance of clear thoughts, presence of hard-hitting points and the sort of expressions used for conveying the point. “Apart from grammar, we also look at the way it’s conveyed. There have been cases where the grammar has been average, the performance was unconvincing, but the concept was hard-hitting. So, we ask the poet to modify the piece, and also offer our help sometimes. Then, we start the process of uploading on our YouTube channel.”
Every slam poet, who started from an offline platform and graduated online, can’t stop ranting about the advantages they have received from their former medium. Award-winning actress Kalki Koechlin, who writes slam poetry for the YouTube fashion channel Blush, rejoiced over the professional treatment Kommune and Airplane Poetry Movement gave her. She said, “I love watching Kommune pieces because they are recorded so well and it’s great to see them popping up on my feed. Some of these will be future history records, which will be referred to when studying our society.” As the comments continue to pour in, the ‘HindustaniMusalman’ poet, Hussain Haidry, too can’t thank Kommune enough. He said, “I feel grateful to Kommune, for they were the first to produce videos for spoken word in a dedicated platform. As far as I can recollect, it was only after the release of Hindustani-Musalman that other channels started coming up.” Similarly, the founder of Unerase Poetry, Simar Singh, speaks of the career boost he received due to The Habitat. He said, “Tuning Fork was one of the main reasons why Unerase Poetry exists. Since the poetry curators had faith in my idea, they gave me space for free, in the initial period. They gave us the production for free and provided all kinds of support, and that’s how we all grew together.” Specifying the lack of good venues as a major issue today, he said, “I know this issue will be addressed, for poetic clubs are the lifeline every slam poet thrives on.”
When Shantanu Anand, slam poet and founder of Airplane Poetry Movement (co-founded in 2013 with poet and educator Nandini Varma) was named on the list of Forbes’ 30 this year and was questioned on the difficulty he would have faced in the absence of social media, he stressed on the pros the medium possessed in reaching out to the audience, which the previous generation did not benefit from. Citing the example of Shakespeare, who could have created a revolution with this potent medium, he praised the veteran poet’s wicked sense of humour and the ability to write sharp, incisive lines, which would have made him a modern-day superstar. Anand said, “YouTube is the best platform, but with Instagram coming up with IGTV, they have a real chance to compete with the former and become the Numero Uno medium to reach the audience.”
When ‘Printing Machine’, ‘Yet another Rant’, and ‘Noise’, penned by Kalki Koechlin, highlighted the role of today’s media, feminism, and the perceived notions of the world, the powerful online medium created a sensation. Throwing light on the advantages she acquired through the platform, she said, “Social media, especially YouTube, helped me address a larger audience, where my thought-provoking poetry found a platform, much before big poetry festivals and Kommune came into the picture. When people connected to my poetic verses, I thought ‘phew, I’m not crazy, there’s more of us out there’.
“Having written poetry all her life, having been inspired by the French poet Jacques Prevert and American rapper Saul Williams, Koechlin came up with her first piece, ‘We’, which she recited at an ink fest. Describing her association with Blush, Koechlin, who has never shied away from expressing her views, said, “I had written Printing Machine for the author Gayathri Jayaraman’s book, which never materialized. But, when I got to meet Akanksha from Blush, my journey towards being a spoken poet began.” She got 1.8 million views for The Printing Machine, 774,827 for The Noise, and 34,989 for Yet another Rant.
‘Hindustani Musalman’ that stirred emotions within every Indian Muslim, where the poets and audience could relate with one another, before the acclaimed poem created a revolution, Hussain Haidry had already written lyrics for acclaimed Bollywood movies like Gurgaon, Qarib Qarib Single, where, Mukkabaaz entertained the audience, much after Hindustani Musalman viral. And here, Haidry too couldn’t stop appreciating the wonders of YouTube. He said, “YouTube helped me gain recognition both professionally and personally, which led to a connection with like-minded people. The best part is, it has helped in aiding how the person who has written it would read it aloud.” Haidry, who left his job in a healthcare company as the head of finance to become a full-time lyricist and screenwriter, gave his views on the poetry culture that survived through magazines, books and Kavi Sammelans in the early 2000s, where some poets enjoyed fame and an audience. “Social media has definitely democratized the process and made the reach faster. But, somewhere, it hasn’t educated the audience and has taken them away from books and traditional poetry, which would have given them the ability to discern the wheat from the chaff in a better way.”
When actor Arunoday Singh, whose Instagram handle is @sufisoul, began posting his rhythmic verses that highlighted the desires of the soul and stressed on life and failure, the passion he harbours for Instagram could very much be envisaged when he said, “I am a big fan of Instagram. I love it and I am only on that platform, and not on any other social media site.” On being asked why, he said that it helped him gain immense popularity and followers, who genuinely appreciated his work. He also said, “The kind of poems that I write, I don’t have to tweet or review, and get into unnecessary arguments with people. In the case of another popular medium, Facebook, I felt it made one more interested in other’s people’s lives. Instagram has helped me keep the world at an arm’s length.” He reveals that the ‘Sufism’ within himself was unleashed in the form of poems when he first came to Mumbai, despite having been a poet since childhood. “Instagram is very simple. Whether you are working or jogging, the ‘plus’ tab makes it easier to post and upload videos. Indeed, it has eased even the problem poets might have faced while waiting for publishing deals. One can remain tension free when it comes to money, and rejoice over displaying your work on this unique medium.”
Simar Singh, who has been writing poetry since the age of 9, was busy preparing for his Grade 11 exams when the thought of coming up with a platform that celebrated spoken word poetry came to his mind. Deriving inspiration from the American slam poet, Neil Hilborn, and having gotten into spoken poetry by 2016, when he performed for the first time at Tuning Fork, the idea to pick the best poets and make them perform gave birth to Unerase Poetry. It was after two months of intense conceptualization that the poetic platform became a reality. Speaking on the importance that social media has played in his life, the 17-year old slam poet said, “For me, the main idea is to put my content on social media and make my work heard among the masses. The advantage of catering to a larger audience has boosted the credibility of Unerase.”
The platform, which is responsible for giving space to spoken poets like Aranya Johar, who came out with ‘A Brown Girl’s Guide to Gender’ (1.9 million views on YouTube) has permitted several other artists, notably actor Kunal Kapoor, to deal with the issue of sex trafficking. Highlighting the fact that in the early years, poetry was never considered a business and the only way it found its importance celebrated was in the form of lyrics, Singh stresses on social media for the role it played in making poetry more democratic. He says YouTube is the most powerful medium, despite having an active Facebook page, much before Unerase came into the picture, and a large Instagram following. “Instagram has helped me express my views and opinions and has given a unique touch to my poetry. Apart from that, it has allowed me to blossom, with the feedback, comments and praises I have received whenever I’ve shared my work. A world devoid of Instagram can’t even find itself in the realms of my dreams.”
Today, the acceptability of controversial topics is far wider than it has ever been. With acclaimed performance poets like Diksha Bijlani discussing the societal structures she feels trapped in, and Megha Rao exploring the real definition of love in today’s era, new age poetry is giving a voice to the voiceless. Speaking about the power of subjectivity that today’s spoken poetry carries, the Dear Mr Player poetess says, “The pen is always mightier than a sword. Words, which are filled with elements of power, do possess the capability to bring about a change in the world.” Having received a lot of congratulatory messages on how her performance poetry has made an impact, she says “These messages make me feel, ‘Yes, we are winning the fight for a positive change. ”
Hussain Haidry too says, “Poetry was heavily subjective in the past too, where Sylvia Plath wrote on mental health, and so did Amrita Pritam and Urdu poet Sara Shagufta, who are now seen more as confessional poets. Today, what contrasts is the change in the medium and form, which is good.” Koechlin declares, “We are in an era of self-preservation, because of the habits and regrets of capitalism, resources running out and the ideologies running our countries. Our poems are about us because we are our greatest danger. Who knows, in the future, maybe we will be employed by robots to write their love poems.” Expressing courage, honesty, connectivity and relatability in spoken word poetry is an art. Originality, dedication and perseverance are needed to produce an excellent piece, and today, the quality of performance poetry finds itself measured by these yardsticks. The round of applause one hears from the audience, which either leaves them deeply moved, or sends them into a zone of neutrality, ultimately determines its worth. TV actress and slam poetess Priya Malik says, “There are times where some poets click with the online demographic better than others, but that doesn’t mean it is always directly proportional to their talent.” Speaking about the necessary ingredients required for today’s performance poetry, the co-founder of Kommune said, “Slam poetry requires dedication and perseverance, and that is where I find that most people have one or two great pieces. But consistency is crucial, and what is needed comes from cultivating a habit of practising regularly.”
The popularity of spoken word poets hasn’t been lost on those creating new platforms for artists. Samir Bangara (former MD of Disney UTV) is the managing director of Qyuki, a digital media/social media platform founded by AR Rahman, director Shekhar Kapur and himself. Qyuki’s aim is to invest in digital content creators, and poets are high on the list. Bangara says, “Of late, we have been engaging with a lot of talent, across multiple genres. The growth of spoken word poetry on the digital platform is terrific. A lot of people try and engage in what is trending, but we try and track who is working, and we started seeing artistes like Aranya Johar, and offline platforms like Spill Poetry, Social House, Unerase Poetry etc. All of these artists began to show interesting and healthy signs in terms of engagement and growth, predominantly on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and other mediums. As I said since we focus on ‘Who is working?’, we saw these artists and hence, incorporated them on board. So, if the question is why is this coming and where is it coming from, I would draw the analogy to 20-25 years ago on television, where, most of the popular shows would be on Doordarshan. There would be a big show, and people would be coming and reciting poetry. I think it is a Kavi Sammelan. You might argue that some of the content on YouTube is only designed for the younger generation, but spoken word, for example, you can even have a 45-year old enjoy it, because of the beauty of the format. You will also have a young person take an interest because it is today dabbled in by the youth, so, therefore, there is a connect. Hence, the topics that are discussed are very much connected with the younger generation, whether it is women empowerment, or about the youth speaking on major social issues.”
Award-winning Bollywood lyricist Swanand Kirkire feels that everyone has derived their own method of experimentation. He says, “Today, the poetic scene has developed a lot. The feelings which people carry within themselves are being heard on a larger scale, be it in the form of rap, or hip-hop, which is now adding beauty to poetry. Like how spoken poets are gaining recognition for their unique experimentation, so are the rappers of Dharavi, who have been instrumental in bringing a change in the perception of India.” He adds, “Though every person is talented and has the zeal to make their voice heard, there are some who purely do it to polish their social media presence, and to increase the number of likes. They are termed as bad poets. However, there are others whose very sentiment is felt in every line, which carries the power to create a revolution. They are the ones we should look out for.” In 2018, when Kareena Kapoor Khan, at the launch of her radio show ‘What Women Want’ recited her feminist slam poetry (which she had written herself), highlighting the societal pressures a modern woman faces, the question that arose was ‘Can anybody and everybody be a poet?’ Does a poet actually reside within everyone? This question, which was confusing in the past (when exposure was limited and relatability was dismal) has been answered today in a fairly concrete manner. Kirkire, who is also a playback singer, says “Everybody can be a poet, and everybody should be a poet. There are people who pile up their emotions within them, and when they express that, it takes the form of poetry, which is either interpreted as anger or happiness or something similar. It is a matter of pride that performance poetry has succeeded in instilling poetic interest on a larger scale, and I hope it continues to produce talents and create a change in this chaotic world.”