Shika Malaviya, Ellen Kombiyil and Minal Hajratwala of The ‘Great’ Indian Poetry Collective talk about how they came together and what their plans are

The Kaapi House in Cholamandalam Artists’ Village opened its doors with a poetry session by The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective from Bangalore for Poetry With Prakriti.

The Kaapi House at Vishwanadhan’s Cottage is tucked away in a lane behind the Cholamandalam Gallery in a quaint setting amidst trees. Artist couple Vishwanadhan and Nadine set it up for the community to engage in discussions and performances. Three poets of the Collective read in an inaugural event.

Shika Malaviya introduced with a tongue-in-cheek laugh, “We are The ‘Great’ Indian Poetry Collective.” The group radiates positivity, hope and cheerful ambitions; the “great” is not to bugle fame but for the gigantic task they have taken on — to mentor poets, provide sustainability for older poets and establish poetry. Mustering support for each other, their spirit of camaraderie endears them to us.

Among the three, Ellen Kombiyil was the first to land on Indian shores — 11 years ago. Ellen has been writing since she was eight. Her recent work revolving around astrophysics is fresh with discovery as in her ‘neo takes the red pill of negative infinity’. Minal Hajratwala straddles a purgative, visceral and vibrant prose with sophistication, as in her poem on Buddha, reflecting on one of her meditation retreats, “gnats buzzing above the great awakening, as relations often do in the most inconvenient of ways”. Shika embellishes a relationship with her dadi in one poem, “brown and doughy, smelling vaguely of coconut oil”.

Excerpts from a conversation with Ellen and Shika.

How did you all get together?

Shika: I met Ellen at a creative workshop in Bangalore. There are few serious poets practising in Bangalore, so I was very excited to find her. We hit it off instantaneously. Then, I met Minal on a panel and we found we had a lot in common. I brought us together.

Ellen: Yes, she was the instigator!

Shika: Of course, I had heard of Minal before, from her well-received book Leaving India and as an activist for queer rights. Plus, we are both from California.

What did you all discover in common?

Shika: We are all really passionate about poetry and interested in exploring it as a powerful message. We wanted to start a dialogue, grow the community, make it into something bigger. We had this synergy, together, even though we are all very different as writers.

What made you venture on a Collective and what is it all about?

Ellen: The Collective is all about collaborative process. It is based it on a mentorship model. Every writer needs an outside eye. We make sure that everything is done well, including the order of poems so the result is cohesive. I was the primary editor for Shika’s book and I went through every poem line by line, in a very meticulous way.

Shika: The mentorship is designed; so for each book, one person is the main editor. The biggest complaint for most writers is that they don’t find editors. Now, we don’t have to look outside! Our strengths in layout, design and editing complement each other.

Ellen: We will choose manuscripts and invite writers into the collective. Every recipient will go on to mentor others. You have an enviable panel of advisors.

Shika: We put together a list of people we really wanted on our panel. To our delight, they all accepted the invitation!

Ellen: These are all people we really respect and they bring a legitimacy and seriousness to our efforts. It felt good to have their support. Our idea is not just to publish books, but for poetry to take root in India. Together we have something substantial.

You recently released the Collective’s first book.

Shika: My Geography Of Tongues launched in Bangalore recently is about living in three different continents — the U.K. my birthplace, the U.S. where I grew up, and India, where my heart is! All of us are constantly changing identities — mother, daughter, poet, sister, teacher… I consider myself a morpher traversing geographies and changing. My poems reflect the cultural exploration and assimilation from that intersection — the meaning of home, family and finding roots.

What are your ‘greater’ aims for the Collective?

How do we encourage good poetry? We hear young people say, ‘We like to write poetry. We don’t like to read poetry!’ Writing tends to be based on Western poems but really, we must learn from our own stories. We want to create an archive of modern poetry since 1947, revive regional poetry — bring as much back into print. Few know of Indian poets beyond Rabindranath Tagore. We have to respect our legacy, where we have come from and what has already been done. Along the way, we hope many others will contribute to make this happen.

(For details, visit www.GreatIndianPoetryCollective.org)