Prakriti Foundation's Poetry Slam brought to light new voices in Chennai

The rules are simple – there are none. Except you have only two minutes. And for that time, the stage is entirely yours, yours to sing about the birds, the bees, violins, abortions or the Vietnam War.

The Prakriti Foundation brought a Poetry Slam to India for the first time — an open stage where poets read their own works. Born in the underground clubs and alleys in the U.S., the slam became a movement that allowed people to find their own voices, to engage with issues they had earlier felt powerless about. “This is poetry as politics, poetry as revolution,” said Kamilah Forbes, one of the makers of “Brave New Voices”, a film based on the art form.

Five established poets set the tone, seasoning the evening at the Museum Theatre, with their own poems. Sharanya Manivannan was the first, the voice of a girl perplexed as to why the world wasn't blown away by her beauty everyday, demanding that “Mythology should make love to me, musical notes should make love to me, hell, strawberry jam should make love to me.” Then it was J. Vasanth Kumar's turn.

Now there was a strange hip-hop theme going on that we didn't quite catch. The M.C. Chris Allen was your average ‘homie', cap-turned-backwards-and-all, and there was a DJ console onstage. (playing, inexplicably, everything from remixed Hindi music to painful nineties pop)

For some, if it rhymed, it was a poem. (sky, high, fly. Sigh. Bye.) There were the expected odes to fathers, mothers, teachers, and of course, True Love (the capitalised kind); and the slightly more ambitious demands for World Peace.

But you couldn't ignore the anger — whether it was in Tamil, Urdu, Hindi or English — or the urgency in the voices; the questions, despair and fleetingly, the hope. It was heartening to see Farheen Banu, as she spoke of girls and women, with the enormous simplicity that lent it so much meaning, “har subah woh kuch bolna chahthi hain.” Elizabeth Rachel George surmised that the angels have stopped swooping down to help anyone, because there are too many who need saving now. K. Ramachandran's Tamil poem was splendidly evocative, while S.J. Menaka wondered, languidly, how to kill a poet.

Humorous poetry

Some pulled off humorous poetry well; there was Priya, standing at the Pearly Gates, insisting indignantly that she did not belong there, while angels tore their hair in frustration. Chitralekha wonders why she would want her baby niece to be the “Queen of Stars, because it's can't really be much fun to rule over a thermonuclear ball of fire.”

“Like all poems about loss,” said Deepika, smiling, “this makes me want to be with your ex and her ex and his ex and his ex and her ex…and six hundred others.” Sivakami Velliangari, an elderly woman, spoke about her bungling father, always messing up, but unwilling to admit it — simple and ‘masculine!'

Dominic Franks was the third of the featured poets, a dark, ominous voice proclaiming ‘God is dead, leave your homes and flee your beds; God has fled, if he is not dead.” Then, swiftly, he was the rogue with the witty, black prose, “I love little girls who love little boys enough to make their wildest dreams come true,” then a pause, and a smile, “I love little boys too.” Meena Kandaswamy and Rhumjhum Biswas were the others, the latter performing ‘Cleavage', as a heavily-accented 40-year-old government servant, staring lasciviously at a woman's breasts, all the while claiming to keep his “heritage”.

Some poems were kind to the Muse of poetry; some tripped her and kicked her in the ribs. Some of the poems were funny; some unintentionally so. If nothing else, the earnestness, the intensity in some of these poems, written, but never spoken, never shared before; if they found a stage that evening, it was well worth it. It is good to know that poetry, though slightly dusty from disuse, is alive and well in the city.

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